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.

Selling Bill Buckley’s Boat

 

Ship-shape at the end of the day ~ Port O’Connor, Texas

More than a home, far more than a means of transportation, the cruising sailboat combines art and engineering, design and construction, ages-old tradition and modern efficiency, all in the service of joining sailors to the sea. Spend enough time with a boat, and you’ll soon gain the sense that, although she may not be human, she most certainly is alive.

For years that liveliness has characterized the relationships I’ve had with boats in my care. Moving about on their decks as easily as I navigate within my own home, I talk to them, occasionally curse them, and eventually come to cherish them.

Given time, I also learn their foibles and their faults. I know which toe rail wasn’t caulked properly during construction. I can point out the soft spot in the decking that indicates water damage, or the creased stainless steel railing that suggests someone arrived at the dock under less than perfect control.

Certainly damage to fiberglass, varnish, or sails keeps a lot of us in business, but every time one of my boats is damaged, it stings just a little. After Hurricane Ike, the sting was nearly unbearable.

Family Time had been lifted up by the storm surge and taken to the grass.

Tranquility crossed a parking lot, then came to rest against a palm tree.

Dockmates Coral Caye and Muriel June survived hours of hitting against one another, with significant, albeit repairable, damage. Legacy, badly bruised, didn’t require a trip to the boatyard, but Gemini had gelcoat issues, and required weeks in the yard to dry out.

Treena simply disappeared, and never was found. Though not precisely lost at sea, she most assuredly had been struck by the hand of the sea.

Of course there are other ways to lose a boat, and over the course of years I’ve seen them all. Poor navigation brings an encounter with the rocks; poor maintenance results in a trip to the bottom. From time to time, customers load their boats onto trucks and take them overland, to other ports of call.

Oddly, of all the ways to lose a boat, selling seems especially painful. When the decision to sell comes as a result of ill-health, changed financial circumstances, or the increasing limitations of age, ambivalence usually makes the process both long and difficult, no matter how small the boat or how prominent the sailor.

I still remember the day I learned Bill Buckley would sell his boat.

For years I’d been dipping intoThe National Review, the journal of conservative thought William F. Buckley, Jr. founded in 1955, and watching his appearances on television’s Firing Line. Throughout those years, Buckley’s lectures, columns, and books made him ubiquitous; whether you agreed with him or not, he couldn’t be avoided.

In the course of being exposed to his opinions, I developed one of my own. Buckley, I decided, was both insufferable and brilliant. Acerbic and bold in his writing, a polemicist at heart and not much given to the sort of subtleties designed to deflect criticism, he wrote like a painter wielding a palette knife: laying on vocabulary, subjunctive clauses, and parenthetical phrases until his meaning began to sink beneath layers of language. Often, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept reading and listening.

His distinctive enthusiasms and joie de vivre certainly helped to increase interest in politics and campaigns, drawing in people who might otherwise have remained disengaged. During his 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York City, someone asked Buckley what he would do if he won the election. True to form, he dead-panned, “Demand a recount.”

But Buckley was more than a political iconoclast and sharp-witted pundit. A dependable friend known for unfailing graciousness and wide-ranging interests outside the political world, he was equally well-known as a sailor and lover of the sea.

Like critics in the political realm, sailors often regarded him with disdain. His was the world of yachting, with all the class distinctions that yachting implies, but it was part of the package you had to accept — or at least tolerate — if you were interested in Buckley as sailor.

His first boat was the result of a deal struck between father and son after Buckley’s father decided, in 1938, that he and his two sisters should be schooled in England for a year. Given the strength of Bill’s opposition, his father finally resorted to a little bribery, promising his son that he could have a sailboat when he returned to the States.

As Buckley tells the story, he named that first boat Sweet Isolation as a tribute to his father’s political leanings at the time. It was a 17′ Barracuda class sailboat, and Buckley raced it with all the passion of a Whitbread competitor. Years later, he caught sight of a 1930’s America’s Cup J-Boat, and the slide down the slippery slope began.

In 1954 he became the owner of The Panic, a Dutch-built steel cutter. After nature did her worst to that boat, he moved on to a Sparkman and Stevens Nevins 40 named Suzy Wong. Suzy eventually gave way to Cyrano, a beautiful but extraordinarily large schooner which cost so much to maintain — even by Buckley’s standards — that he came, as all sailors do, to his final boat: the Patito The Spanish diminuitive for duck, Patito happened to be the pet name Buckley and his wife used with one another.

s/v Patito ~ AFP photo, Martin Bernetti

Eventually, the day came to release even Patito.  One circumstance led to another until, as Buckley put it, “the joys of ownership  began to be overcome by the pains of possession.”  In an essay about the decision-making process published inThe Atlantic, he added, “When such things happen,  one can either putter on – or quit.”  His decision was to quit, but, being William F. Buckley, Jr., that was not quite the end of the story. 

With Buckley, no opinion came without added reflection, and his reflection on the decision to sell Patito was especially poignant:

So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito, and forfeit all that, is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

Eleven years ago, that “step yet ahead” was taken, and decades after I first read Buckley’s words, his voice was silenced. When death comes to a person long admired but never personally known, an individual whose presence loomed large for decades while shaping the lives of innumerable strangers, the experience of grief can be as surprising as it is real.

Combing through the columns and op-ed pieces written after Buckley’s death, reading and listening to the stories and memories shared by those who knew him best, I came across Peggy Noonan’s contribution in the Wall Street Journal, striking in its simplicity and continued relevance:

With the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man.  With Bill’s passing,  we are losing his kind — people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full, and so inspiring.

Perhaps inevitably, Buckley died at his desk, still working vocabulary, phrases, and clauses into his unmistakable prose, even as he contemplated the nature of the path he was traveling.

Thinking about Buckley and Patito, I realize there will come a time in my own life when the boats must be let go: when for one reason or another it will be time to stop puttering, and move on.  When that time comes, and the decision to “forfeit all that” brings to mind an inevitable future, I suspect Bill Buckley also will come to mind: a memorable model for considering all such next steps with courage and grace.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers.

Unfortunately, and despite our relatively spacious back yard, the typical poles and wires of the first clothesline I remember couldn’t hold more than a small load of laundry because of natural constraints.

To the east, three cherry trees clustered around my sandbox, close enough to drop their harvest into our hands in the heavy summer heat and low enough for even my most timid friend to climb into their branches. North of the cherries, a cluster of crabapple trees edged up to the sidewalk; to the south, rhubarb and asparagus patches fanned out across the yard.

Even toward the west, there was little room for clothesline expansion. The flower beds edging the sidewalk along the side of the house were inviolable. Filled with forsythia and pussy willow in spring, overflowing with summer hollyhocks and zinnias, they weren’t about to be moved. A long, grassy swath running between the cherries and the hollyhocks might have worked, but we needed it for croquet in the summer and snow forts in winter.  

For a year or two, my parents discussed solutions to the problem. It would have been reasonable to expand the clothesline by placing one pole at the very edge of the sidewalk, but my mother refused. She didn’t fear theft, but hanging laundry nearly in the face of passers-by clearly violated one of those unwritten rules governing life in the nineteen-fifties: “Thou shalt not display thy undergarments in public — even on a clothesline.”

Eventually, my father discovered that an ingenious person had invented a four-sided, rotating clothesline. Always eager to embrace new technologies, he purchased one  — after convincing my mother it not only would save space, but would be labor-saving as well. If we weren’t inclined to drag heavy baskets filled with sheets, bluejeans, and towels around the clothesline’s perimeter, we could spin the line and continue pinning clothes without leaving our chosen spot.

In time, those rotating clotheslines began to appear in other backyards, and rules for using them — unwritten and unspoken — developed among the neighborhood women. The longer, outside lines were for sheets, doubled and hung with extra pins in the middle to keep them secure. The next, shorter lines were reserved for towels, blouses, shorts, and shirts: hung close but not taut, with each pin holding the edge of two items.

Of course the smallest lines, the ones hidden away near the center pole, held the ‘unmentionables.’ Once the sheets or towels had been hung, shy young helpers could stand inside their cotton fort, sheltered from embarassment as they pinned up mama’s bras and daddy’s boxer shorts in blissful isolation.

As a child, I delighted in hanging summer laundry. The rough, woody dryness of clothespins in my mouth and the fragrance of sweet clover crushed beneath the basket were pleasing, and the freshening breezes, stirring and snapping towels before building afternoon storms, added a bit of excitement. When mothers chirped from back doors and windows, “Get the clothes! There’s rain coming!” small armies of youngsters obeyed, pulling piles of fragrance from the lines, burying their faces in freshness and warmth as they raced toward the safety of the house.

In winter, it was different. In winter, snow replaced clover, and icy winds blew gentler breezes to the south. In winter, lines criss-crossed the dimly lit basement in disorderly webs, and laundry was left to dry as it would.

The drying process was encouraged by heat from the coal-burning furnace, but, deprived of sunlight and eddies of wind, the clothes hung limp and motionless, waiting for evaporation to do its work. In the end, they emerged from the process stiff and board-like: dry, but with no hint of  fragrance; no freshness; no overtones of clover, lilac, or rain to stir the senses.

Sent to the basement to hang a basket of clothes in that strange, half-darkened world, I often chose to swing on the little board hung from the rafters, roller-skate around the furnace, or sit on the bottom step with a book. Occasionally, my mother checked on my progress. “Are the clothes hung yet?” “In a minute,” I’d murmur, overcome by a combination of ennui, resentment, and denial. Hanging clothes that way – alone, in the half-dark, with no freshening breezes or companion birds — seemed a perfect waste of life. If I wait long enough, I thought, someone else will hang the laundry.

Today, in the midst of a world that sometimes appears as dank and constricted as our winter basement, I remember those feelings. Like overflowing baskets of laundry waiting to be hung, the challenges surrounding us require attention; they demand energy and time; and they can’t be put off forever.

Confronted by these seemingly endless piles of tumbled-up life, more than a few among us seem willing to live as petulant children: unhappy with responsibility, and more than ready to leave the sodden laundry of their lives for others to deal with. 

But as childhood chores give way to adult responsibilities, both the freedom and the necessity of choice become clear. In the absence of light, will we find ways to work in darkness? Will we pin our hopes on sturdy lines of truth, or settle for threads of falsehood? Are we courageous enough to accept scrutiny? Or will we huddle within a self-constructed fortress that obscures our true convictions? The quality of our lives depends upon the answers to such questions

In 1950, a year in which I only was beginning to help my mother at the clothesline, William Faulkner offered his own answer in a speech accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature. Although his words might seem to be directed primarily to writers, they apply to us all; somewhat ironically, they could apply even to the Nobel Committee itself, which cancelled this year’s prize due to scandal.

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about: worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

 Today, there’s not a clothespin in my house. Local homeowners’ associations have banned clotheslines, and the fragrance of sun-dried laundry is only a memory. But if customs change, the “old verities and truths of the heart” remain. We’d do well to attend to them.

Comments always are welcome.

No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties skulking along the edge of consciousness. and with every horror movie that refuses to die — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

While more sensitive little ones delight in dressing up as princesses or pirates, blood is dripping and body parts are piling up for the vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar dismemberments. From neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone  is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.  Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes Halloween our perfect holiday. All those sugar highs are lagniappe.
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Daring to Make Our Own Groceries

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman who holds a chicken in her lap.  She watches me as I move between stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to imagine I know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, no doubt happy for a moment’s rest.  Surprised by her inactivity and suddenly wary, the dog presses protectively against her, but they’ve spent his lifetime together and her hand is enough to calm his fears.

Around her portrait, bits and scraps of ephemera hint at the realities of her life.  A letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, provides elegance to a simple invoice. The invoice is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri,  Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes.  The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad ordered to pay. Continue reading