To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Stilll Working, After All These Years

In the beginning, I learned to call it ‘helping.’ Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.

Eventually, I discovered that trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees; set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. 

Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.

Over time, I learned another word for helping: ‘work.’ People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to differentiate among its varieties: homework and handwork, busywork and piecework. I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and people who worried over lack of work.

Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.

Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land: forces happy to sunder work from pleasure and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.

Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In fact, the exhibit was strongly historical in nature, and far from dismissive.

“The Way We Worked,” adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives, or emphasized particular industries. But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present.

The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street,  opened February 2, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker, along with a running slideshow of more than 400 additional photos he captured during 2012. Describing the scope of the project, Parker said:
Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories — mining, agriculture, black populations — ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers, and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors, and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.

When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things had changed.

Occasionally, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.

Photographs shared along the way always were interesting, and often compelling. Of equal interest were Tom’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges, and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages, or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.

Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure.
After delving into Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years… I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”

The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed. There was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work:

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence, or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole: similar to writer’s block, but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, “When I can think straight.” But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve, in a local bar, there still was work to be done before his deadline was met. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done. Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool: capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story.

Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”

For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.

Comments always are welcome.

Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
 

Comments always are welcome.

A Perfect Storm

Dislodged by autumn’s rising winds, acorns have begun bouncing and tumbling across the landscape, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of firecrackers.

If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and the oaks release their seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the sound amplifies and becomes deafening. A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.

I experienced my first acorn storm in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak. The swell of redbuds in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the Virginia creeper climbing toward autumn’s true red: all delight the eyes, but the oak can surprise the ears.

I first heard of ‘acorn storms’ on a hill country porch. We’d been rocking and rail-sitting, drinking sweet tea and watching the deer, when someone mentioned the acorn crop. Stories began to flow about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales grew more extravagant, I began to laugh. “You might as well be talking snow,” I said. “When you call it the Great Acorn Storm of ’78, you sound like a bunch of Yankees sitting around the woodstove, recalling a particularly memorable blizzard.”

In truth, acorn storms remain as unpredictable as blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the acorns’ great, clacking fall sounds the dinner bell for a multitude of woodland creatures.

My own first experience came just after midnight in a cabin outside Kerrville. A single acorn falling on the tin roof from the oak overhanging the cabin sounded like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that separated the seed from its tree set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows, but as the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the moving shadows settled back into darkness, and the night grew still.

Convinced at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back myself and began drifting into sleep. Then, another acorn fell and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling into the valley, branches bent and bowed as a torrent of acorns fell, filling the night with strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I told friends later, a perfect storm.

Apart from their ability to compel the attention of inexperienced city folk, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a variety of rakish caps. Smooth, small acorns from live oaks differ considerably from those of the Bur oak, a tree whose large acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap.

Regardless of size, all acorns are a critical part of the food chain. Squirrels and deer dote on them, as do mice, rabbits, foxes, and raccoons. A variety of birds also enjoy them: not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egrets.

The crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of different species. Bur oak production peaks every five to seven years, while live oaks produce extraordinary numbers of acorns every four to ten years. During so-called ‘mast years,’ walking beneath the trees can be like walking on ball bearings.

Publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in yearly acorn production. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced. ‘Speculative conclusions’ is a polite term for folk wisdom which believes in the predictive power of acorns. My own grandparents were certain an abundance of acorns signals a harsh winter to come, and a friend who grew up in Nebraska shared this bit of weather wisdom from the plains:  Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl.

Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce a bumper crop of acorns, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, or freezing temperatures.

On the other hand, many believe that diseased or drought-stricken oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the species’ survival. During the worst of our Texas droughts, someone always suggests that a bumper crop of acorns is a last gasp from water-deprived trees.

Arborists seem divided, but there is something both poignant and hopeful in the thought of thirsty, over-heated oaks setting their sights on survival by creating, nurturing, and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns. Potential trees, tiny bits of green-yet-to-be, the acorns cover the ground: huddled beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.

As it turns out, acorns also function as a handy metaphor for certain seasonal realities.

When my mail carrier mutters about the burden of delivering catalogs in the weeks before Christmas, I sympathize. I expect to receive a few old favorites — LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods — and a few still arrive to remind me of years when I sought special gifts — Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But somewhat oddly, this year’s catalogs are filling up the mailbox on a nearly daily basis. Most are from companies I’ve never heard of and with whom I’ve never placed an order: companies with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious coincidence, Lumber Liquidators.

As the mail carrier handed me the latest batch of glossy enticements, she caught my expression and said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed, it is. So many catalogs make me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles to simple trash, they seem an unintended sign of retail desperation.

In a diseased and drought-stricken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country could be mistaken for slightly desperate oaks, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.

As small businesses and restaurants close in my neighborhood; as cities board up against violence and looting, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning to circulate. An owner sells a boat here; a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership. A neighbor decides against lighted outdoor decorations for Christmas.  A single mother’s job is eliminated; a family reduces their income in order to homeschool a child. In the silence, each fact drops with a sharp, disconcerting sound; we look up, startled and anxious, wondering about its source and trying to interpret its meaning.

In Washington, of course, things are neither so grim nor so fraught with anxiety for the senators, staff, lobbyists, and representatives who make it their business to shape the life of a nation. In cities and states, murmured platitudes and demands for obedience apply to the many, but not to the few. As autumn deepens, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they somehow manage to live in their usual ways.

It may be that the sturdiness of their office walls and the splendor of their chambers shield them from the sounds we hear. But autumn has come to America, and the acorns are falling. We can only hope that some will take root, and flourish.

 

Comments always are welcome.

This Hour, and That One

Sunset on the prairie

After lying dormant for months, the familiar complaint rises again, grumbling across the land as the days shorten and nights grow cold. Repetitive and predictable as the season, the end of daylight saving time and the need to reset clocks surprises some, but irritates others: primarily those who care not a whit which official time prevails, but wish for an end to the continual changing of clocks.

Most consider ‘falling back’ or ‘springing forward’ nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Over the years, the practice has been justified as a means of saving energy, protecting school children, and ending our nation-wide vitamin D deficiency, but definitive answers to those and other questions are no more possible than enlightening people who truly believe that we’re going to lose an hour of daylight when the clocks are changed.

Since I work by the sun and not by the clock, the lack of answers doesn’t bother me. Like my grandparents, I work from ‘kin to cain’t’ — from the hour the first bird takes flight into the dawn until the last light fades against the hills. Gauging the hour by the slant of the sun, I pace myself accordingly.

Still, living in the midst of a clock and calendar world, I need to take that world’s realities into account, including this weekend’s transition to ‘standard’ time.

At every time change, I remember a friend who took the mandate to change her clocks at a specified time so literally she would set an alarm. If the authorities said it should be done at 2 a.m., then 2 a.m. it would be. She had no desire to miss meeting her civic obligation.

She did it that way for years, and for years I gave her a hard time about it. She wouldn’t be swayed; she truly believed that, if only everyone in the country would set their clocks in the middle of the night as the experts advise, the world would be a better place.

In all the time I knew her, I never dared confess my approach to the end of daylight saving time. Not only do I avoid changing clocks in the middle of the night, I don’t bother resetting them before I go to bed, and I don’t adjust them while making coffee in the morning.

Instead, I consider the hour we ‘gain’ as we ‘fall back’ to be a gift from a minor god: a little chunk of time left lying at the edge of my life, waiting to be disposed of as I please.

Every autumn, I save my hour of reclaimed time until I need it, or find a frivolous use for it. While others busy themselves resetting clocks, I watch from the sidelines with a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge of the secret hour tucked into my pocket. Eventually I make use of that hour, but only then do I reset my clocks, putting myself more or less back in synch with the rest of the world.

Sunrise on Matagorda Island

Years ago, when different work meant different expectations, it wasn’t so easy; I had to make an effort to be on the same schedule as co-workers. Even now, there are practical limits to how long I can keep my extra hour; it isn’t feasible to keep it for Christmas shopping in December, or an especially pleasant February afternoon when a trip to the prairie becomes nearly irresistible.

Still, the ability to choose a use for that extra hour can become a delightful exercise.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent an afternoon doing paperwork, or laundry. At five o’clock, you decide you’ve had enough. You pull out your extra hour, declare it four o’clock, and sit back to relax with a book.

If you’d prefer a leisurely, late-afternoon walk, it’s just as simple. Tuck your extra hour into your bag and set off at a brisk clip until you feel yourself tiring. Then, take out your hour and slow down, secure in the knowlege that you’ll arrive home for supper with time to spare.

Over the years, I’ve used my extra hour to repot African violets, read The New Yorker, watch the sunset, and brush the cat. I’ve spent it talking with a friend, and browsing a bookstore. Once, I took a nap. I’ve used the time early, and I’ve used the time late. What never varies is using it with full awareness that it is my hour to do with as I please. If I choose to save it until Monday morning and dedicate it to an extra cup of coffee or sweeping the patio, so be it.

It’s a game, of course: this pretending that I have a time-treasure hidden away in my pocket like a shiny new dime. But it’s a game that provides multiple pleasures, and having the time tucked away is only the beginning. Deciding how that hour will be spent is the point. As Annie Dillard reminds us in her book, The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Each year, in the deciding and in the spending, I re-learn Dillard’s lesson: what is true for an hour is true for a day, and as those days add up, they become the sum and substance of our lives.

On any given morning, the time spread out before me as I rise looms larger than any play-hour, but it’s no less my time, and my responsibility to determine how it will be spent. Decisions already made — to be employed, to seek education, to raise children, to work within the community — necessarily predetermine much of our day’s course, but bits and pieces of time  remain ours alone: hours waiting to be used for creation, renewal, reflection, and relationship.

Despite our plaintive cry — I wish I had more time! — we have all the time there is. “There is no shortage of good days,” Dillard continues. “It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample, and its passage sweet.”

Sunset on the bayou

As we move from equinox to solstice, leaving the summer’s light and moving again into the darkness of the year’s bleak end, it can be easy to believe that the days themselves are shrinking: that our hours have shriveled, our minutes crumbled. But time is ample, enduring in daylight or dark; pouring into our lives from eternity’s store; waiting to be disposed of as we will.

Of course, time’s flow can be neither stopped nor reversed. In the words of Tennessee Williams:

[Time] is slipping away while I write this, and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss — unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Comments always are welcome.