The leaves are almost gone. They were stunning this year, but just as they reached their carnival peak, I went to the desert and when I returned the wind had blown most of them into rust colored piles on the ground and now I press what is left of the blazing color, that last week was pressed against the sky, under my boots with a crunch. Another year of life, pressed under the boot heel, compost maybe for next year’s flowers? Beauty dulled, wasted, soul filling color faded to veins and dust.
The world in which I find myself does not allow for the sad, the broken, the used up. The cold, stark world of decaying leaves and bone cleansing winds drives us in, not inside ourselves to see the same, but into our houses filled with artificial warmth and Christmas colors. We will go back when the world hides its nakedness under a new coat of leaves, when it once again covers itself with the chaos of green buds and bright flowers. Or we might venture out if we find it bundled under a blanket of snow. Anything to cover the sad, structural features of the stripped landscape. But this year, for some reason the warmth seems artificial and small. The cold and decay seep under the door and put out their long misty fingers in search of something. I seal the doors and windows. The color is gone…time for hibernation. I come from a background which does not tolerate despair. If the lights of Christmas and Easter are not enough to illuminate the darkness, whose fault can it be but mine? Signs of decomposition are ignored and hidden. When the winter comes we go inside. The darkness of the soul and mind are papered over with a false sense of faith, a list of magical incantations meant to keep the darkness at bay. And yet….
It’s possible that if I write in letters small enough and slanted enough that I will feel comfortable letting the words slip softly, sneakingly, out of my head and onto the paper…quiet, quiet little words falling onto the paper with a whisper from the rough end of my old and spitting pen. Words of winter, better left unsaid, perhaps. The thoughts they represent are as veined and old as the leaves which have inspired them. How did I skip the bold stage of autumn where the leaves die fiercely in brilliant pools of golden yellow light, or in a fury of blazing red fire, clinging urgently to the trees in the face of the winter? I have come back to a time when winter is already ascendant. From carnival to funeral in the space of a week.
The young can only give a vague and half-hearted assent to the idea that age is like autumn and autumn is like age. The autumn clings to the fertility of the earlier year, if only by creating a colorful tribute to it because it realizes that it is dying. But I am beginning to understand it. The time comes when even the healthy must understand that time is not infinite, possibilities begin to cancel each other out. The boundaries of the trap become visible and there is one way out and only a limited time for defiance and brilliance. The winter comes when all of the choices and possibilities and chaos of the earlier year harden into reality. The cloak is snatched away, the ornamentation is removed. The truth of winter is unsoftened, drab and gray.
This year the winter is moving already. Sometimes it waits...it lingers on the outskirts of autumn politely and even lets summer have a moment or two to play again. This year, winter seems insistent, pressing. But this year, I want to go into the winter, to see what it wants to say, to defy it like the blazing leaves. The bare branches against the gray sky, the wind that cleans off the last of the detritus, the brown sleeping grass. I have sneaking moments when I have a mad desire to feel the wind in my face or the snow on my cheeks. I want to feel the dead ground, brown and hard, under my feet. I want to see the structure…the underneath. I want to see what is left when everything dies. I want to feel my bones ache with the cold in the dark night filled with the tiny glittering icy pinpricks of stars and then be drawn into the poor yellow lamplight of my house or the still defiant, but small hot red fire in the stove. I want the cup of tea to warm me. First I will have to be cold. And the tulips, and the lilacs need the cold too, I remember, and although I don’t quite believe in it in the dead of winter, maybe there will be spring. And if I let the winter teach me something, maybe I will understand the chicks, and the flowers, and the Easter better. Maybe if I feel the winter this time, if I let it cut through me and clean my bones and watch it eat the leaves and grass I will be able to feel it breaking up, to feel the subtle signs of its subjugation again in the spring.
Our hen Ligeia disappeared about a month ago. She was the mother of the formerly eulogized Buttercup. I looked around for her a bit...or for the pile of feathers that would be all that was left of her....and nothing. Sadly, I was not surprised.
It turns out I did not look hard enough. She was hiding in the back of the old chicken tractor that I don't use anymore hatching off some more chicks. As expected the chicks are fluffy and cute and honestly down right silly. There's a reason they are at the bottom of the food chain.
I always feel a little cheated though by the whole happy new life hatching scene because every time we have lovely cute little baby chickens to assure us that life goes on, there are always a few eggs that don't hatch and a few chicks that just don't make it. So death goes on too, side by side with life. Nobody puts that in the Easter pictures. It's upsetting and gross.
Plus, I have to fight with Ligeia to put the chicks somewhere safe...so instead of feeling all fuzzy and warm inside, I always spend the first day feeling vaguely sad and pretty scratched up. Then there's digging around in the pantry to see if I have any organic oats or something to feed them while I run out to Tractor Supply (where I realize I have not brushed my hair. Quit looking at me like that you crazy old farmers! At least I have hair!)
So day 1 of chicken hatching....not so warm and fuzzy. By tomorrow though...those chickens are so cute and so fuzzy and so delightfully silly that I will probably be back in Easter picture mode.
So the other day, I was in my car for an hour long drive, and I started skimming through radio stations. I should never do this. First of all, if I hear a song I do like, the radio immediately develops static and I just get annoyed. Secondly, if I hear something irritating, I can't just change the station like a normal person would. No...I listen to every train wreck of a program that I hear and argue with the radio. It has the advantage of keeping me awake, I suppose.
Today, I would like to discuss just such a train wreck. I was listening to a Christian book club review of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. You may here point out to me that since this is the religion that I claim to follow, I should be happy to hear such a thing. That is the very thing you should enjoy, you might be saying to yourself. You would be wrong and I will be happy to explain why. You may also say to yourself....what a silly thing to care about. What difference can it possibly make how someone reads a story? Well, I would like to take little time today discuss why I think reading and understanding stories is important and how I think it has to be done if we would like to be good human beings who understand and get along with others. And not only that, it is important to how we see and understand ourselves.
First of all, let's think about why stories are important. Why does a story matter, and I mean either a "true" story of someone's life or a fictional story? Stories matter because stories are how humans experience sequential time. They matter because the content that we choose to remember and reinforce and the context with which we surround those sequential facts makes us who we are, whether we are experiencing the present or re-experiencing that content and context through memory. What happens to you and how you interpret it are the basis of your experience of yourself and others as human beings. Stories make us people. They can explain why we are Christian people, or Agnostic people, or Hindu people. Stories make us seem like nice people or evil people or funny people or sad people. A story can explain why one person might become a clown and another person becomes an accountant. And the delightful humanizing factor of storytelling and narrative is that it can contain many of these things at once. People can be all of these things in the same story if only it is long enough. (You should hear my stories about clown school someday. Actually, I made those up, but even that says something about me...don't you think?)
Read the life of Martin Luther for instance. He was a Catholic and then a Protestant. He wanted freedom and condoned oppression. Here was a man by turns brave, and insolent, and crazy, and good, and mean---like most of us only probably a little bit more of all of those things. And furthermore, take note of the context of his life. There are some things that Martin Luther said that might very well land you in jail or a psychiatric hospital if you said them now--or at least make others give you a wide berth at cocktail parties. (This is not to excuse him for being dreadful sometimes....please note...but placing him in the context of 16th Century Germany tends to make him more understandable. His actions have some sort of rational and emotional basis, which they would not have in a different context.) Stories like his are important because the series of intersecting facts and events that shape us make us understandable and human to others and to ourselves.
So first of all, stories are important. Stories are foundational to all self-knowledge and relationships. If stories are so important, then it follows that it is important how we read them.
And now we come to the book club discussion in question. Give me a moment to shake my head in mild horror...wait a minute...I have to perform a quick face palm...and now we are ready to go on.
The book that our church ladies were reviewing was The Great Gatsby. If you haven't read it - what the heck is wrong with you? Go read it. It's the Great American Novel. It's a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a self-made man named Gatsby who has a deep and misplaced love for Daisy Buchanan, a super rich woman married to a super rich man both of whom come from super rich families, sort of American aristocracy. Gatsby has had to make his living by working very hard, albeit on things that are not necessarily legal, and he does it all to win Daisy's love.
Daisy and Tom Buchanan have so much money that they don't appear to ever even think about it, other than how to spend it, and they lead aimless and dissolute lives. The whole story is narrated by a guy from the Midwest named Nick, a distant cousin of Daisy's; Nick is not fabulously wealthy, he comes from upper middle class people who understand hard work and business. While Nick is involved with Gatsby and Tom and Daisy, he has a sort mild flirtation or affair with a woman named Jordan, another one of the dissolute rich. Tom is dating a poor woman named Myrtle on the side whose husband, George Wilson, runs a gas station in a desolate area called the Valley of Ashes. The Valley of Ashes is home to the very poor who crawl around in a cloud of ash, inhuman and obscured from the sight of the rich.
This book has spawned endless other books that discuss all of the many and various understandings you can have based on the story contained within its pages. It is about the ephemeral nature of the good time twenties and the idea that the jazz age could go on forever. It's about the reckless way that the the ultra rich treat everyone else and the consequences of their inability to see people lower on the social scale (or often even each other) as fully human. It's about misdirecting your love and passions to objects unworthy of them. It's about understanding that your past can neither be revisited nor totally left behind. It's about what happens when you use other people as means to your own ends. It's about the difference between the poor and the rich and the middle class. It's about accidentally becoming entangled in the misdirected passions of others. And that...that is the tip of the iceberg with this story guys.
For such a short book, it has an amazing depth and a beautiful circular structure. Fitzgerald's use of Nick as a narrator who participates in the story, but functions much more as an observer, is beautifully thought out. Nick is sort of a moral center (not a morally ideal character, but one through whom the reader can have an outsider's understanding of the other characters' values and philosophies.) Whew! It's quite a book.
So what did our lunchtime book review club crew discover in this gem of an American tragedy? They discover that Daisy is shallow and she commits adultery and therefore...ugh...Daisy is bad. Don't be like Daisy. Nick knows that Tom, and then Daisy and Gatsby, are committing adultery, but doesn't tell them to stop and therefore Nick is bad. Don't be like Nick. He is shallow and immoral. They also determine that Tom, who simply uses people and then discards them, breaking the arm of one chambermaid that he is dating and the nose of his mistress, is no worse than Gatsby whose whole life revolves around loving Daisy and trying to make her love him, misplaced as that love might be. Why? Because they both commit adultery. They are frustrated that George Wilson does not appear to have a church when he is asked about it. This, they determine is the reason he shoots Gatsby and then himself. They are upset that God seems to be Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Book. The long and the short of the book review seemed to be that this book is full of people who are breaking moral rules about going to church and committing adultery.
However, they do recommend that you allow your children to read it because all of the people who break moral rules in this story end up either unhappy or dead, thus at least coming to somewhat just ends. They feel that your children should see and understand that people who go to wild parties and commit adultery and who don't have a church to attend are going to end up unhappy or dead. In the long run, this means that the book does have some redeeming value.
During this book club discussion, not one word was ever mentioned about the difference between the rich and the poor. Not one word was mentioned about the great spiritual impoverishment of "the American dream," a dream that seems to be as much about acquiring wealth and power as anything else, a theme upon which Fitzgerald so poignantly dwells in this story, which would seem to be right up their alley, theologically speaking. None of the great depths of the human soul that are so magnified in this book can even be seen by these ladies. Why not?
Because these ladies cannot listen to other people. They cannot hear Gatsby's need and his misplaced hope. They cannot understand Myrtle's inability to live a life of dust and dryness. They cannot understand that Daisy and Tom have deeper problems than simply looking for love outside of marriage.
You do not have to condone anything that these characters did to understand them, to listen to them, to let them tell their stories. And this skill is important in life as well. If one of your friends is troubled do you simply give her a list of two rules, shake your head and walk away? Or can you listen to the story? Can you look at your own story and see your own flaws, flaws more likely than not unshaken and undeterred by the fact that you don't go to wild parties or commit adultery (or maybe you do...I can't know)? Can you see that the tragedy goes deeper than your small box framed with things you are probably not tempted to do? Can you understand that even if you lived within the framework of a few rules regarding your own personal virtue that you could still commit unspeakable sin? Can you understand that under different circumstances your own rules might be much harder to keep, that what looks like terrible failure from the outside might be the result of a valiant struggle inside? If you can't listen to anyone else's story then your answer to all of these questions will have to be no. And if you can't listen to people, you cannot love them, you cannot help them....you cannot even properly judge them.
As a literature teacher, I think I would have those ladies tear up their drafts and try again.
Perhaps you are wondering what it is like to be me? How glamorous it must be to sit around in the early morning and write a blog and some really weird stories that no one wants to even pay you for or possibly even read. Well...you are in luck because today I am going to let you know what a typical day in the world of Julie is like. I am sure you will come away thinking....I should write a blog myself or some silly stories or....not.
5:55 AM: I am awake. The alarm is set for 6:15. Why am I not asleep? I want to be asleep. I should be asleep. I close my eyes. I am not asleep. I open my eyes. I am tired. Who gets up at this unearthly hour? Why am I here? What is the answer to life the universe and everything? Why does it have anything to do with getting up before 6 AM? I hear the dog at the door. She somehow knows I am awake. If I don't get up now she will go and poop on the porch. I get up.
6:00 AM: I pick up my cat, Brutus, who needs to chew on my fuzzy house coat for approximately 3 minutes or all will not be well with the universe. I carry him to the food dish and feed all three cats.
6:15 AM: First attempt to wake up my fourteen year old daughter, Essie. I am pleasant. I turn on the light and tell her in a cheerful voice that it is time to get up. She pulls the blanket up over her head. I pull the blanket down so that I can see one glaring eye. "Get in the shower," I say loudly.
6:25 AM: I have started some bacon. I walk to the end of the stairs. I hear...nothing. I walk up the stairs. Essie is still in bed. I am no longer polite or cheerful. I bellow, "Get up and get in the shower...you are going to be late." I hear a shuffling noise and some banging around as I turn to walk back down the stairs.
6:29 AM: I realize that I have not given the cats their canned food. Brutus has also realized this. He is standing on the table howling, even though he is not supposed to be in the house. I take him down and split a can of some disgusting smelling tuna and egg between the cats. I bring up the remainder for the dogs. They are now unable to eat their morning food unless some small amount of canned cat food has been sprinkled on it.
6:32 AM: I get a bacon splatter on my arm. It hurts. I feel vaguely awake.
6:40 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready.
6:43 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready.
6:45 AM: I tell Essie that breakfast is ready. She says SHE KNOWS.
6:47 AM: Essie stumbles into the kitchen like the undead and eats half a piece of bacon and three tablespoons of oatmeal. I tell her to dry her hair and brush her teeth and find some shoes. SHE KNOWS.
7:00 AM: I take a break from reading emails and drinking coffee to yell up the stairs,"You have twenty minutes. Are you ready?" She has twenty-five or thirty minutes. Better that she doesn't know that. The sounds of I'M GETTING READY! rolls down the stairs. This means she has been sitting around petting her cat and contemplating her navel. She will now begin getting ready.
7:29 AM: We are on our way to school. I realize I have not let the chickens out. They will have to wait. Essie hands me some papers to sign. I remind her that I am driving. I sign them at the stop light.
7:48 AM: I drop Essie at school. A skinny kid dressed in baggy, superlong shorts that make his legs look like they belong to some sort of large prehistoric bird runs in front of my car as I am trying to leave. I would think that I am invisible to him but he turns to glare at me after I slam on the brakes to keep from hitting him.
7:57 AM: I am tempted to run through a drive-through and buy a diet coke on my way back home. I really need the caffeine. But it's probably really bad for me. I am too tired to listen to my own very persuasive arguments against buying the coke. I get it.
8:05 AM: I am in front of the computer. It's time to start writing.
8:06 AM: I am on the way to the chicken house. I have to let out the chickens.
8:10 AM: I am still trying to convince Lady Gwen to leave the chicken coop and walk across the yard with me. She is concerned that I have already let the rooster out. The rooster is angry because I have not let him out. I finally scoot Lady Gwen out of her own personal chicken house and let the other chickens out.
8:15 AM: I am in front of the computer. It's time to start writing.
8:16 AM: I am looking at FARK.
8:20 AM: I am looking at FaceBook. I am hoping you people have done something interesting so that I can continue to procrastinate for a few more minutes.
8:25 AM: Nope. Apparently you people have lives and you cannot spend all your time on FaceBook.
8:26 AM: I remember that I have not checked out Slactivist's website since yesterday morning. I get on Slacktivist. Goody! He has a big list of links. Hmmm...the first one looks interesting. The second one too. The third one...meh. I should skip the ones that don't look interesting since I need to start writing. There are seven. I read them all.
9:05 AM: I am reading the comments on the link page.
9:10 AM: I realize that I am not writing yet.
9:20 AM: I have my blog page pulled up and I am ready to start. I have to go to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom.
9:25 AM: I realize I left some laundry sitting in the washer last night. I go downstairs and put it in the dryer. I realize that I don't have any clean socks or underwear and load the washer too.
9:35 AM: I am back at my computer. It's time to start writing.
9:40 AM: I am not sure what to write. I had some good ideas for a story but I maybe should write a blog post...it's been a week. Actually, I should really write down the ideas for the story before I forget them. I will do that first.
9:45 AM: I am trying to remember my ideas for the story. Wait! I knew this was going to happen. I wrote them down.
9:50 AM: I am looking for my gold notebook. Found it!
9:52 AM: I realize that I wrote down my ideas in the black notebook. Why do I have two notebooks?
9:58 AM: I am cleaning up my office in an attempt to find my black notebook.
10:15 AM: I remember that my black notebook is in the car. Oh well...the office is a little cleaner.
10:30 AM: I am writing down my ideas for the story. Now that I have written them down...I don't like them. This is insane.
10:35 AM: I go out to see what Brutus is crying about. I suddenly realize that I can fix the story. I rush back to the computer to write down the new and better ideas. I trip over the dog.
10:36 AM: I sit down and write out a few ideas for the story. This might work.
10:45 AM: I am a little stuck. I unload a few dishes from the dishwasher and put them up while I am thinking.
10:46 AM: I realize the dishes were still dirty. I try to remember which ones I just put up and put them back in the dishwasher. I finish loading the dishwasher and run it.
11:00 AM: I am writing.
11:30 AM: I am hungry.
11:35 AM: I realize that I have not been to get groceries this week when I look in the refrigerator.
11:36 AM: I contemplate showering. I reject the idea in favor of lunch and just brush my hair and find some shoes. Makeup? No.
11:45 AM: I am at the Mexican restaurant.
12:30 PM: I am driving home and I realize that I am out of dog food.
12:40 PM: Tractor Supply
1:00 PM: I am back in front of the computer. I check out FB. I start writing.
1:45 PM: I have to do some more laundry, walk the dogs and get a package ready to mail before I can pick up Essie. Writing time is over for the day.
And that my dear readers is the story of how this blog gets written.
So yesterday morning, I buried a small chicken. The night before, it was squeezed to death by a six foot rat snake as it was going into its house to roost for the night. It was a little black hen with a gold neck that was almost pullet sized. I had actually been worried about not putting the babies back in the chicken yard and clipping their wings to keep them safe. Ha! I suppose the joke was on me because the monster that murdered her was not the fox in woods or the hawk in the trees, it was a monster that hid in her little house. (Try telling a chicken that the monsters under the bed aren't real.)
Anyway, it was a sad moment in the ongoing soap opera of the Carpenter Chickens. And the funny part, the part that makes me wonder about my sanity, is that it was so sad. After all, chickens are at the bottom end of the food chain. You would have to be a worm or a bug to get any lower. I have lost a number of chickens. There were Angelo's first two wives, Dottie and Millie. Millie went first...food for a hawk. Dottie was next done in by a racoon (who didn't even bother to eat her - at which I took a deep offense). There was Lady Gwen's sister who didn't even last long enough to get a name. And last year, there was a chick who just didn't make it after hatching. There was Sylvia, carried off by a fox in broad daylight and then the two hens Maria and Sophia, also known as the lost tribe of chickens for their wandering ways, and Roderick, Angelo's son, all of whom appear to have been eaten by our red-tailed hawks.
So this spring, when Ligeia hatched off five babies, I decided not to name them. I might as well name the worms I thought. I will see which ones live and which ones don't and name them later, I decided. After all, why should I get attached to an animal that I might eat under different circumstances. It doesn't really make sense. I was very stern with myself...there are plenty of bad things that happen in this world; there are people without enough to eat; people who live in war zones; people who lose the people they love every day. No more of this, I said to myself. "Self," I said very sternly, "This is ridiculous. What would a real farmer think. These are chickens and they do not require mourning."
But yesterday, when I went out to bury her, I kind of remembered her wandering around under the cedar tree with the light on her gold neck feathers. And I kind of thought about how she would turn her head sideways to see if I was going to give her any cat food. And how she was the calmest of the chicks and the fluffiest when she was first hatched and how I accidentally dropped her when I tried to put her into the special small cage I had for Ligeia and her brood when they were little. And even though she was a chicken and I felt that somehow it might be an affront to people who had "real" problems and "real" sadness, big people problems to be upset or sorrowful or angry about, I was sad anyway. And to be totally honest, and under no circumstances should you repeat this to a farmer, I might have even cried a little.
So I buried her under my biggest butterfly bush and I named her Buttercup. And if you ever come here, I can probably show you the place where I have put her under two of the most ornamental logs I could find.
I'm probably just crazy enough to do this again with more chicks next year. If anything happens to them? I'll still be sad. But they will already have names.
This is a picture taken from my front porch. My roses are in full bloom. I have a lot of them. Thirty-one rose bushes I think. I have a vegetable garden and chickens and two dogs and three cats. I have lilies and lemon balm and bee balm and cat mint and lavender and rosemary and peach trees. There are birds in the trees and a ground hog that may be living under our storage shed. There are rabbits that run like madmen across our driveway every time we drive the car up or down it. (I don't know exactly why they have a rule about waiting to cross the road until they see a car. They should rethink it.) I have squirrels quarreling in the trees that hang off my deck. I like living things. I like to be surrounded by things that grow and run and make noise and bother me. (Thus the family. Just kidding family!).
I live here on these eight acres because when we moved out of a subdivision I thought it might be nice to live somewhere green and private and idyllic where I could indulge my passion for growing flowering plants and have somewhere to put all the five dollar roses I find at the end of the season that look at me with their sad little leaves and smile shyly and BEG me to take them home. They do. I am very kind hearted. So when we found this place, totally ringed by trees, sitting on the side of the hill with its barn and woodshop, with wood smoke puffing gently from the chimney on a bitter cold day in January, it seemed like a haven from chaos (and neighbors if I'm being totally honest) and good place to accommodate a lot of five dollar roses and we bought it.
And I do love it, but...I have to say that living in the country ringed by trees and roses doesn't always have the totally idyllic quality that one might hope. In fact, living things display an immense and assertive tendency towards anarchy. There are always weeds in the garden and they are evergreen. (When I write my gardening book it's going to be titled All My Weeds Are Evergreen.) The strawberries have already been swallowed by weeds. They came before I expected them and I had to put them out before the bed was quite ready. Sorry strawberries! The raspberries might have been swallowed if they were of a gentler nature but the raspberries are the Northmen of the Vegetable Garden and I have to take my clippers and beat them back to prevent them from extracting tribute from the beans. I pity the weeds that are contending with them now. An old potato appeared seemingly overnight and is now preventing me from using the compost heap. (Okay...I don't turn the compost heap often enough. I have a life! I'll turn it again after I get the potatoes out.) The rose that I first planted next to the birdbath pictured above turned out to be about eight feet tall after two seasons. I moved it and replaced it and it is now consuming the porch in a manner reminiscent of the briar in Sleeping Beauty. Locust trees, the thorny little brutes, are coming up all over the place and I can't pull them without heavy gloves. They are tough as goblins and they multiply like rabbits.
I sometimes feel like having a garden is simply a protracted and losing battle against nature. It's me against the ravenous and rapidly advancing jungle. Okay me and the deer and the ground hogs. I would be happier for the help if they would eat jungle first, flowers, vegetables and fruit second. (Except for the mighty raspberries. They can hold their own.)
But the war of the vegetation doesn't have the emotional impact of the crazed and vicious animal kingdom that surrounds me. Right now, lying dead in the drive is an eight inch rat snake, probably a victim to my cat. He is covered in flies. A pair of birds has built a nest in the summer wreath that my Aunt Susie made for the porch. This is fine for them and the babies until the babies decide to fly. They will have to make it past the occasional cat, and the, thankfully, more occasional snake. (There was a rather large one waiting for me at the front door last year.) There are, of course, foxes. One of them stole a hen in broad daylight a couple of weeks ago. (Lunch is acquired by the bold I guess.) We have a pair of red tailed hawks that nest in a tree that overlooks the chicken yard. Good luck baby birds! You're going to need it.
Raising chickens has been quite a lesson in who is at the bottom of the food chain. Chickens. They might as well wander around with signs on their necks that say "Eat Me." Free range does not come without a price let me tell you. In fact, I feel that I should get some sort of commendation from some wildlife federation for feeding the wildlife. We have very healthy and well-fed wildlife around this place.
So what is the point of all of this? I guess that life here does not exactly match the storybook illustration of it that I had in my head. But as I note this life and death struggle that takes place in my green and violent garden, I also note that being surrounded by death and struggle does not diminish my love for this place or my life in it. In some weird way, the thorns and the snakes, (remember one of my fears is grabbing a copperhead with a handful of weeds) actually enhance the garden and enchant it. This is not a pciture post card or some overly self-satisfied FaceBook post proposing a preposterously static understanding of human happiness. This is an adventure story with villains and heroes, treasures and dragons. Sometimes somebody gets eaten by the dragon or the story gets a little dull, I guess.
But the possibility of failure makes the success even sweeter. When I see that baby bird fly awkwardly to the branch of the redbud across the yard, I let out my breath and feel a sense of satisfaction. There's one. When I get a tomato, firm on the outside, sweet and juicy on the inside, from the poor leaning tomato bush that got trampled by the deer on their way to the beans, I love it even more. (And I will love it even more when I can put up a fence and eat some of the beans too.) When I sit on the porch drinking my morning coffee and looking at the roses that have somehow miraculously made it through this year without being chewed up by insects, I give them a loud "Hurrah!. (When no one else is around, of course) When I hold my fluffy heathen cat on my lap and try to prevent him from drinking my coffee (he must never be caffeinated...that would be a horror story not an adventure story), I acknowledge that while he may eat an occasional bird or rat snake, he also eats the voles before they can topple my roses. Being a warrior is not always good for one's ethics I suppose. Will this adventure story have a happy ending? If it has a happy ending just for today I will be satisfied. I guess the thing about an adventure is you don't know how it will turn out until it's done and it's got it's ups and downs in the meantime.
As George MacDonald says (I think he might have stolen this from Julian of Norwich?) "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Sometimes I can believe that in the garden. We'll see.
Thank Heaven! The Crisis--- The danger is past, And the lingering illness Is over at last--- And the Fever called "Living" Is conquered at last.
After my last post about fear, I happened to look around my office and realize that I have a shrine to Edgar Allan Poe right behind me. Above me there is a gargoyle that my husband made in pottery class and there are various ravens and gargoyles all around the office. I find them amusing in a way. But I do wonder about the fascination that people have with frightening stories (or horror films...not me...I hate to be startled). It seems that fear is a gripping and tantalizing thing to contemplate. Am I facing my fears when I read Poe? Am I wallowing in them? I don't know. But I love the little guy and feel kind of sorry for him too. I put in a quote above that I think might sum up the way he felt toward the end. I think it's a fairly late poem and it's called "For Annie." You should read it. Also, read Ligeia. I think it's probably his best story.
Since I am talking about fear I thought I might start with a list of things that scare me. Two things before the list gets started. First, I am not the most fearful person in the universe. That trophy goes to a guy named Tyler that I met in an education class. As a "Getting to Know You" exercise we had to list things that we were afraid of within a three minute period. I cannot top Tyler. He had a great run and didn't even have to THINK about things he was afraid of...and it was everything too...from wearing the wrong clothes to having a satellite fall on his head to crossing the street. He actually made me feel brave. Second, my fears are not ever present. I am thinking about them NOW as an exercise. I am not pathologically afraid all the time. After dark or when I have PMS...okay I might be a little over the top then.
Here it is! Julie's Litany of Fears!
1. I am afraid that we will lose our income or that our retirement savings will go up in a puff of unregulated smoke.
2. I am afraid that I would not have the necessary skills required to survive as a homeless person if the above happens.
3. I am afraid that some crazy person will shoot or blow up my kids. (Or me or my husband...but only secondarily)
4. I am a little afraid to cross the street...I was hit by a car crossing the street with my friend Joey when I was 4 on a quest for bottle caps from the neighbor kids across the street.
5. I am afraid that antibiotics will quit working and I will die of a sinus infection. (Or a bad cold, or a cut finger, or...)
6. I am afraid that I will be weeding my garden and get a copper head bite (and I heard somewhere that there are anti-venom shortages).
7. I am afraid for my younger daughter to start driving. (She's a lot like me).
8. I am afraid that my older daughter will get into an accident driving. (It would probably not be her fault...she's a good driver)
9. I am sometimes afraid to drive because I am a little absent minded.
10. I am afraid that the dog can open our doors and jump on the fed-ex carrier. (They are shaped in a sort of s curve and not rounded. So I always lock them.)
11. I am afraid Fed ex will sue us if the above happens.
12. I am afraid that I will offend someone by saying something thoughtless.
13. I am afraid that my younger daughter will develop a severe allergy to insect stings (she swells up really badly already with a sting.)
14. I am afraid that I will lose some of my friends to illness and age.
15. I am afraid that I will lose myself to illness and age.
16. I am afraid that our country will get involved in another war.
17. I am afraid that we have some people in our country who may want to start some sort of civil war.
I8. Sometimes at night, I am afraid of irrational things...like ghosts, or monsters or other creatures or entities unidentified by modern science. (I can't be the only one...I mean, c'mon at night? Out by yourself? Really? Didn't you hear that funny sound behind you? You've never heard that before right? It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up didn't it?)
19. I am afraid that I'm a failure and I'm too old to do anything about it. (3 years from 50...I know that could offend some people....it kind of offends me but I'm just being honest.)
20. I am afraid of sounding stupid. ( Not really being stupid...just sounding stupid. Now that I just typed that I am afraid I'm shallow.)
Okay....that's enough. It is actually scary how quickly I came up with that list. I could go on, I suppose but I don't really want to. I try not to be afraid of things all the time and that list is probably not helping. But I want to know what it means to the way I conduct my life to have these things bubbling up under the surface. I have been thinking a lot about fear lately. Fear of other people and their ideas seems to be rampant in our society. Yoda could have been talking about us when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Because I think many of the decisions we make as a society right now are based in fear. And who knows how much my own decisions are driven by it. I would like to think I could live my life with less fear. Would I be better off? Would we all be better off if more of us fought off the fear that helps us make our decisions?
The first thought that crosses my mind as a practicing Christian is that I am supposedly the follower of a man who was homeless for the last few years of his life. He depended on his friends to feed him and give him shelter. He didn't have a retirement plan. He said what he wanted in spite of the fact that it was obvious that it made powerful people want to kill him. And, of course, they did. That is a life without fear, or at least a life fully lived in spite of fear; What about Socrates? What about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Those are lives without fear. It gives a person pause for thought. I am not any more eager than the rich young ruler to follow down that path because I like having a place to live and I love eating. And I also don't want to be killed. I don't even like to be ridiculed. It hurts my feelings.
Maybe fear has some use in keeping us safe and well fed. But is it worth it? Can you balance fear with courage? Is it ever okay to base a decision on fear. (There's no use saying you shouldn't feel fear. Everyone does sometimes.) Is it okay to be afraid if you are afraid for other people? Is fear okay if it leads to certain kinds of results but not others? Can you be afraid and make good decisions? What kind of fear, if any, helps us individually or as societies? Can a person help being afraid during difficult circumstances? Is is just a personality trait? I don't know. But I have a strange sinking suspicion that basing all your decisions on fear and self preservation is not the best way to live your life...even if the consequences are unpleasant.
Every day, I choose to get up and take my child to school; I drive her there and pick her up. I buy food at the grocery store. I garden; I have seen multiple snakes; I know that there are poisonous snakes in my area. I know people who have been bitten by them. I know people who have had car accidents; I know that there are dangers in schools. I know that sometimes food is contaminated. If I really thought about all of these things all the time, I wouldn't want to go anywhere or do anything. Life is fragile. As more and more of my former high school class mates become ill or die (we're just in our late forties people!), I am forced to confront this fact more often. But to live my daily life, I push that aspect of life out of my head most of the time. I can't spend all my mental energy thinking about the bad things that could happen. And to be mentally healthy, I probably shouldn't. We have to focus on the positive aspects of life.
But for each of us, somewhere deep inside (closer to the surface if you have children) there is that niggling knowledge, Life is fragile. It could end any time. Even if we remain healthy, other bad things could happen. I know people who have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost their marriages. But I really would rather not think that those bad things could happen to me. I would like to think that my story has a happy ending. (How? There's only one door out, I know...still modern people are good at shoving all that aside)
The me I wish I was believes that the best way to handle all of these fears and possibilities is to acknowledge them and to love every minute I have with my family, every flower on every tree, the impossibly short existence of every butterfly until it flutters from flower to ground, the wet nose of the dog on the back of my neck. On my better days I would like to be like Maude from Harold and Maude (and no not the part where she commits suicide...I'm only 46 anyway): I would like to simply be alive while I am alive and let the rest go. But the me that actually knows what I should do isn't always the me that's in charge.
And so I worry about things. And worry and fear lead to a lack of compassion and open the door for superstition to start creeping in. I look at other people's misfortunes and instead of simply feeling compassion for them, I begin to quietly wonder how I can prevent such a thing from happening to me. How can I make sure that I don't get into a traffic accident; how can I make sure my child is safe at school; how can I make sure that I don't have medical bills that bankrupt me; how can I make sure that I have enough money to prevent going into foreclosure if I lose my job? What is the harm in asking these questions in the face of a tragedy? On one level, nothing at all. If there are numerous traffic accidents in my town at a certain intersection then I will be careful there. I might also demand that the city planners rethink the intersection. If there is a school shooting tragedy, there is no reason that we can't all try to figure out what went wrong and try to prevent it from happening again.
However, there are two problems with such questions and both of them are caused by fear. The first problem is that we can take the focus off the person experiencing the misfortune and turn it to ourselves. If my friend's child has an accident shortly after learning to drive, it's no longer helping her or her child if I begin to worry about how I am going to prevent my own child from having an accident. Was her child driving at night? Did she have enough training? Was her mother too permissive? None of these thoughts leaves the focus on the victim.
Now we begin to move into problem number two. Not only have I taken the focus off my friend, I am beginning to judge her. I want to find fault with her somehow because it is reassuring to me. She bought her daughter a sports car. It was too fast and too powerful. Of course, a teenager will drive too fast in a sports car. Or maybe her daughter turned into oncoming traffic. She wasn't paying attention. Maybe she was texting and driving. Maybe she was fooling with the radio. I really want to know that someone is to blame because then I can relax about my own child. My child will pay attention; she won't text; I can't afford to buy her a sports car. There is a subtle shift caused by the fear. I am actually shutting down my empathy because I don't to acknowledge that something like this could happen to me. I need to find some way to reassure myself that this act is not random; that this terrible thing cannot happen to me. I need someone to blame or at least to reassure myself that I have the skills or the money or some other factor that will let me know that I don't have to worry about this. I cannot fully empathize because fully empathy would require me to feel that such a thing could happen to me.
And at some point Fear hardens into Superstition. It becomes necessary to sacrifice compassion to assuage our fears. In our need to convince ourselves of our continuing good fortune we have to blame the victim. We have to reassure ourselves that this unpleasant circumstance will not happen to us because we are more virtuous, or smarter, or work harder, or are better parents. To return to the example of Claudius Pulcher, we need to believe that the unlucky have offended the gods and that their misfortune is the proof.
I think this is a problem not simply on the personal level but also on the level of society as well. More later.
So the last post consisted of a rather strange train of thought in which I conjectured that Claudius Pulcher the Beautiful would never have experienced such serious consequences for sacrilege if his battle had been won. From there, I switched lines and took the rails on a rather twisted and sinuous path to end up in that little village where Justice and the Fates are discovered having a passionate and illicit affair. Okay I don't know how I got there either, but the point seems to have been that we tend to judge people on the life circumstances in which they find themselves, some of which are not the products of individual choice or merit, but simply the result of the the Fates randomly throwing monkey wrenches at us. Our whole system of being and thought seems to be infected with this sort of innate need to blame people for their own circumstances...but only if those circumstances are unpleasant. So no more questioning how we got here....let's think about it.
Before we come round to figuring out what's wrong with us, let's think about what happened to Claudius in a bit more depth because I think it illustrate very well how superstitious people are about bad luck and poor circumstances. The Roman Senate punished Claudius for what I take to essentially be sacrilege...on the surface. He sinned against the gods. But if Claudius had won that battle? If no one was trying to throw the blame for the failure onto anyone else? If Rome had defeated Carthage in battle that day would anyone even have noticed that some innocent chickens drowned? I don't know and this is all speculation, but I don't think so. Cast yourself back to that time period. If Rome had defeated Carthage I can only imagine that the Romans would be filled with a great sense of joy and relief, a feeling that the gods were smiling upon them. In that atmosphere is is hard to imagine the priests bringing charges against Claudius or the Senate hearing them. To take the general who had defeated Rome's greatest enemy to task for losing some poultry would have been unthinkable (I think).
It was the outcome of the battle that doomed Claudius not the sacrilege. Interestingly, it does not appear that Claudius went to trial for using poor battle tactics, or for being a coward, or not following orders from the senate (except insofar as they might prefer he listen to the priests.) He barely escaped execution for ticking off the gods. How did the senate know he had ticked off the gods? Because he lost the battle. Had he won I have little doubt that this would have proved to the people of that the gods were not bothered about the chickens and that they weren't ticked off at all. Claudius' fate did not depend on following protocol...it did not depend on a list of rules that he break or keep. It did not depend at all on the fact that he broke the law...it depended on the outcome of breaking the law. Is that justice?
I don't think that's justice at all. I would not censure Claudius for what he did (other than on behalf of the chickens). So shouldn't I just be glad that we live in a place and time where Superstition and the Fates are kept out of our courts and out of our social systems...a time and place in which we don't have to worry about being judged by our circumstances or by the strange religious convictions of others?
That's not where we live. And I would like to think about how these old false gods keep creeping into our thinking and, in fact, our whole society. I don't think we are a lot less pagan than the Romans in some ways.