… to take a walk on a hot soggy spring Saturday afternoon.
A day with my three brothers, while enjoyable and fulfilling, has led me into rumination about family dynamics. Parents, for example.
In her older years my mother said to me, “We tried to do our best.” My father, often unable to find words, said much the same thing.
We five children, especially in our teens and young adulthood, may have snickered upon hearing those words. Snickered or grimaced, but none of us had the gumption to explore with our parents the wherewithall of their parenting.
I know now that they were obedient to the authorities over them: (1) the Bible, (2) the church, (3) the nation, and (4) community mores. Never did they doubt those authorities.
They lived according to personal ideals: (1) work hard, (2) treat the neighbors and even the tramps well, (3) “Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay,” (4) be clean in thought, in word, in body.
What they understood about the family systems and thought handed down to them, I do not know. I am aware, however, that Mother was her father’s favored and that Daddy was his father’s unfavored. I know they were instinctively farmers and marketers, simple people who didn’t go to school beyond grade 8, generally suspicious of wealthy and highly educated people, strong believers that the earth is six thousand years old, and altogether removed from blasphemy.
I did not know and could not know their confidence level in raising their first children. Were they ecstatic when their first child was born? Were they a tad fearful as they cared for us? Did they live in anxiety lest any of their children would die? What kind of disciplinarians were they in those early years? Why did they treat the fifth child differently from the first? How did they want to parent differently from what they experienced as children?
Without too much effort (which I have not deliberately made in my adult life), I might have recognized the pressures they lived under. Conforming to the church, getting a job (Daddy began as “hired help”), paying bills, bearing the taunting of relatives for not raising tobacco, suffering crop loss, hearing their children’s complaints.
Much easier for me is remembering what I thought they did wrong, which at this moment I feel no need to rehearse. In some of those crisis moments, they were being consistent. In some cases they were caught in the blindness of their own humanity. But never intentionally mean.
Mother’s words were profound. “We tried to do our best.” I believe her.
Nonetheless there is a seeming unrelentlessness for children to hold their parents to an impossible standard, a standard informed by revised world views, updated data, situation ethics, changed social habits and evolving social institutions. That is, we judge them by a measuring device not available to them.
Furthermore, where they goofed, their errors may be said to come from the dark side of their virtues which we might not be able to fully appreciate.
Moving on, then, to our own parenting. Alas, we are surprised that our children can recite their own complaints about their parents. Those grievances, sometimes annoyances, are deeply felt, legitimate and consequential. All I can say is “We tried to do our best.”
Now we see our children in parental roles. I admire them. I encourage them. And I hope they develop the grace to bear the words later on from their children about their own occasional failures.
This rumination prompts me to revise my thoughts and my words about my parents.
Robert M. Pirsig’s The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance left a lasting impression on me. I’ve turned to his masterful yet humble use of Zen on numerous occasions, such as red lights when I think there is reason to hurry.
But more significant is the change in my weeding. On the farm we raised potatoes, up to a hundred acres of potatoes. Many a summer day we walked the low rows, cutting down or cutting out thistles. When we got to the end of one row, we saw the hundreds of additional thistled rows. As I recall, there was no delight to be found in that weeding.
Today I’m a different kind of weeder. Like Pirsig who gave his full attention to one minute part of the motorcycle — a chain for example — an attention claiming his eyes and ears and sense of touch, so I approach weeding. I focus on the immediate area, let’s say the four square feet where i am working, not the huge lawn and garden to be weeded. I focus on the immediate territory — the soil, the insects, an occasional snake, the chickweed, the red roots, the wild garlic, the run-away mint. That’s where I work, doing it as well as I can. When finished I admire the spot and then move on.
This very day I pulled weeds around trees at Winter Wood. Here is a huge walnut with its feet in chickweed.
I rather enjoyed pulling the chickweed, although I was disappointed in not seeing any snakes which had many holes under the weeds. I don’t know how long it took me — I wasn’t watching the clock. The camera showed the tree after the weeding.
The camera, by the way, said “Oops. The tricycle turned into a bush!”
While weeding — just at a pace appropriate for thinking — I thought. One thing I thought: to a farmer who wants only turnips, the calla lilly is a weed.
After five hours of weeding I barrowed the remains to the burn pile …
and returned home to a shower. I’d not be unhappy if I had to weed again tomorrow.
Increasingly I have problems with our lawn. I’m not talking about dandelions or crabgrass or chickweed. I’m talking about the lawn — the plot of soil sown with a mixture of fescues, Kentucky Bluegrass, rye grass and miscellaneous other grasses including the terrible zoysia grass.
We have a plot between the street and sidewalk, a plot immediately in front of the house, a plot between our property and Shirley’s and a plot out back. I suppose it totals 750 square feet. Each year I try to reduce the size by 20 to 40 square feet.
The problem isn’t the mowing. I have a muscle-driven American reel mower, somewhat like the ones we had back in the 40s. To mow the lawn is not an unpleasant chore. It takes me maybe 20 minutes.
The problem is two-fold: cost and environment. The cost has to do with seeds, weed killer, fertilizer and water. I once heard that we Americans spend more on our lawns than Africa does on its total agricultural enterprise.
The environmental issue is presented convincingly in the May issue of National Geographic. Dan Charles, NPR reporter on food and nature (and native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) authors a world-wide study of fertilizer with a focus on nitrogen. He reports on China, Africa and of course the United States. “Once spread on fields, nitrogen compounds cascade through the environment, altering our world, often in unwelcome ways. Some of the nitrogen washes directly from fields into streams or escapes into the air. Some is eaten, in the form of grain, by either humans or farm animals, but is then released back into the environment as sewage or manure from the world’s growing number of pig and chicken farms.”
His article sends me over the edge. I intend to find ways to stop using bought nitrogen, although I will likely spread blood meal around particular plants. I want to increase our harvest of compost which is nitrogen rich. And I shall continue to reduce the size of our lawn until I can cut it with a hand scissors.
Viewing the Hubble Space Telescope story — both the launching of the huge telescope in 1990 and the photos of space it has sent back since then — at the Indiana State Museum’s I-MAX theater was, for me, a time of spiritual awe. Yesterday with Sirvan.
The facts of distance and numbers crush my brain. The Milky Way, the galaxy that “contains” our solar system is 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter. This galaxy is populated by 200–400 billion stars and at least as many planets. Hubble’s view of outer space now prompts astronomers to estimate that there are 100 billion galaxies.
Oh, and then there might be parallel universes.
Added to this incalculable size, the universe features incredible sights beyond our ability to imagine. You have probably seen some of these photos, but I shall re-print several stars and galaxies which I can’t name.
Stunned by this immensity and beauty, we return to see our marble, our gorgeous planet earth of which we are stewards for a few short years.
“Then sings my soul… .”
I can remember only some of the lines.
“M is for the million things she gave me,
O is for the … she’s growing old
T is for the tears she shed to save me
H is for her heart so pure and bold
Put them all together they spell Mother –
the name that means so much to me.”
Instead of a million, I’ll list several things Mother gave me.
2. Knowing as a young child she was the most beautiful person in the world
3. A warm lap mornings on the kitchen stove door
4. Tears, upon seeing the German prisoners
5. A love of school
6. Kindness to road walkers
7. Baked beans
8. Enjoyment of people
9. Disposition to be a teacher
10.Ability to laugh at herself
I promised Sirvan I’d take him to a ball game inasmuch as he is unfamiliar with the sport (father is Kurd, mother is Turkish, he lives in Germany).
As we arrived in Indy, “the rains came down, of yes the rains came down …”
I parked the Civic in the mall underground (fearful of another hail storm), then we walked until we had to take cover by buildings.
We eventually got to Victory Field where we checked in via soggy home-printed tickets. I was pleased to show Sirvan a large tarp and to explain in as much detail as minutes afforded about the heating plant in the background.
Rowdie tried hard to please. Even Sirvan was delighted by Rowdie’s signature on his outfielder’s glove (not brought from Germany).
Finally the rain stopped, the groundskeepers came out and the small crowd cheered as though a home run had been hit.
But I admit, I thought all of my pre-game explanations and descriptions to Sirvan were for naught. You might play football and soccer on such a night, but baseball?
Sure enough, they limed the lines, the pitchers warmed up (“in the bullpen” I explained to Sirvan), the umpires emerged, five young women sang the national anthem — “PLAY Ball!”
We sat behind the catcher — see the net — but Sirvan hoped a ball would arc over the net. No luck. Shortly after this sharp hit to right I told Sirvan than before long we all would stand and sing. He looked at me as though my cold feet had numbed my brain. Surely enough, at the middle of the seventh inning, we all sang “Take me out to the ball game.” Sirvan was ready for that altar call.
An exciting ninth inning (the Indians won) had us hooping and hollaring. Then Sirvan was surprised once again when the field was cleared and we were entertained by fireworks.
Sirvan summarized the evening. ”Oh my god. It was awesome.”
Our newspaper, once a regional leader, is rather thin these days. Advertisers have moved to the Sunday paper and other media. Thus The Indy Star concentrates on its priorities.
2. Editorials and columns and letters
3. Police blotter and court news
4. “Newswatch” — investigative reporting
So I was delighted by today’s paper featuring the peregrine falcons that have nested in our tall buildings downtown.
DDT almost drove the peregrine falcons over yonder. According to Ryan Sabalow only 324 pairs of birds lived in the U.S. in 1972. Today the falcons are thriving, having moved from cliffs to tall buildings.
I’d like to see a falcon plummet at nearly 200 mph to attack its prey.
Indianapolis loves its falcons. The Indianapolis Star blog features a live camera on the nests. The blog received 7.1 million hits last year.
Yes, the local newspaper should make nature, natural resources, flora and fauna a priority.
Indianapolis is a thriving city, beautiful and motivated and accomplished. Thus we grieve our gun violence. Federal agents have had to be called to help reduce the homicides and aggravated assault cases which are increasing sharply.
More than half of the homicides occur within five zip codes. 46218 is just north of us, We drive through 46210 when we go downtown. In other words, we are close.
This morning in Starbucks I was tempted to open a conversation with an officer about gun violence, then decided to keep my thoughts and questions to myself. What do I propose to help ameliorate this ugly situation?
I came up suggestions, each of them potentially helpful, but each of them most difficult to realize.
1. A strong mother
2. A father who is present
3. Supportive siblings
4. Grandparents who care
5. A closely knit immediate community
6. A strong community organization
7. Financial security
8. Local parks and recreation facilities
9. Police protection
10. A fair court system
11. Pre-school for all children
12. Better schools
13. Smarter and better prepared teachers
15. Access to social agencies and medical facilities
16. Guided interaction with nature, flora and fauna
17. A positive social unconscious ( zeitgeist)
18. Sensible gun controls
19. Moral instruction
20. Self motivation
The fire is burning nicely in the cauldron on the deck. Rain is not likely for the next three hours, so perhaps you will join me for the evening.
We enjoy a beer, cheese and Lancaster pretzels. The conversation meanders comfortably — hummingbirds, FedEx planes, the rapidly growing grass in this wet spring, oak leaf hydrangeas, Lowe’s water gauges and the Pacers versus the Knicks.
Then at a pause you say, “Dan, I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.” While I would not have anticipated that sentence, I could well suppose that our friendship and this setting would not only allow but also suggest such sharing.
“Dan, I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.”
Good conversation is a give and take, back and forth. Person A and Person B in co-orientation, that is, with a degree of attraction to each other, perhaps very strong, perhaps weak. Nonetheless enough magnetism to propel a conversation.
The conversation between Person A and Person B is about xs. The hummingbirds, for example. Or the FedEx planes overhead. Each is an x that Person A and Person B are directed to in this conversation.
The x has unexpectedly turned personal, pertaining to emotions, troubled emotions apparently. A somewhat depression.
Come to think of it, Person A was rather courageous to direct Person B’s attention to this X. We don’t often say to another person, even a confidant, “I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.” Nor do we say things about our low bank account, or the less than satisfactory job evaluation report, or our malfunctioning bladder.
Thus I am called to attention. Person A confides in me. What shall I say in return?
In real conversation we don’t have the privilege of extended time to think through each contribution to a conversation. Often we say things that later we regret. If we had had more time, surely we would have done better.
But here by our fire in this hypothetical conversation, I do have time to think about my response. What comes first to my mind is what I hope I would not say.
I hope I would not say “Ah, get over it.”
I hope I would not say “I’ve been depressed during some parts of my life” and then go on to tell the specifics of anxiety attacks and counseling and medications, etc.
I hope I would not say “I’ll tell you five sure things that will help you get over your depression.”
I hope I would not say “What counselor are you seeing?”
I hope I would not begin to play the role of counselor.
I hope I would not change the subject.
I hope I would not allow the sentence to change my esteem for my friend.
Rather, I hope I would note that the conversation has taken a shift, a turn in the road, or, in the communication model introduced earlier, a leaving of rather small xs to a larger X. I hope I would attend to that X even as I give attention to my friend.
So often in our conversations, we provide a quick “authoritative” answer, or we refuse to engage, or we pass off the declaration as of no consequence. Sometimes Person B responds so inappropriately that Person A decides to change the subject.
You know what I think I would say? “Tell me about it.” And I would then become an engaged and empathetic listener. Perhaps I’d restate something he is saying, just so he could hear it and perhaps add to it or amend it. Perhaps I’d nod my head, give some audible sounds, place a question on my face. Perhaps I’d ask a question, only to help him work through his thoughts and feelings.
So very often Person A will come to a decision about his next step, not from a verdict handed from Person B, but from his own clearer understanding of his depression.
Conclusion: they also serve who only sit and listen.