Domino Tree

My son’s tenth birthday is this coming Sunday, so tidying up the place has been at the top of my recent to-do list. As usual, we expect a fairly large group for his party and need to find places for everyone to park; too many branches had fallen over the winter for me to clean up alone so I began looking for help. While it wasn’t necessarily on the party list – I had also wanted to take down a couple of trees while I was at it (they were rather lanky white pines that had grown quite tall over the past ten years obscuring my view of the hills beyond). Last Saturday I received a visit from one of the guys I’d called. He gave me an enticingly good price and told me he could even start right now. He must have smelled my eagerness to get going. But I checked myself so as not to make a hasty decision, went inside and called my mom for her opinion before I gave him an answer, and, after a moment going over the pros and cons, I ended up hiring him to go ahead and git er done. It was a fine, breezy and sunny day. A good day for outdoor work. Or, maybe not.

We did a walk through of the woods on the hill first, and I showed him the trees I’d marked earlier with spray paint. I showed him the power line too. He began to cable up the tree in order to help guide its fall. I’d seen this procedure before, and when he cautioned Elihu and me – who were standing well above the tree on the hill – to move still further back, the intended direction of the tree’s fall was clear. It took a few cuts on either side to get the tree moving. At first it seemed fine, the tree began to lean… but a sudden gust of wind moved the tops of the forest – and with it this enormous white pine too – and in an instant the falling tree changed its course… and fell east instead of west. I’d been recording it, and could hardly believe what I was seeing. Instinctively I aimed the camera up the power line in time to catch the snapping of the transformer’s pole at the far end of the hill. I could hardly believe what was happening. It was exactly the one outcome that should never, ever happen. A supreme three stooges moment. But what made it worse was that the young man showed no remorse. No surprise, no emotion, no nothing. I searched his face for something. He gave me a half smile and told me in his good ol’ boy accent that nothin like that had ever happened to him before. “Well,” I answered him, “now it has“. All my experience as a sailor and no bells went off at the wind that day? Ich. My bad indeed. I guess I was just deferring to this man’s expertise. He cuts trees, not me. Should know what he’s doing. Kinda like being in the passenger seat; you pay much less attention to the directions because someone else is on it. Sigh.

Within minutes, neighbors from up the road had converged on the winding road at the bottom of the hill. Power was out. Cable was out. No phone, no nothing. And it was all because I wanted my view of Vermont. Sheesh. All my fault. I slunk up the hill and found my cell phone to call the electric company. Took almost half an hour to get my way through the stupid system to even make the report. It didn’t look good. No idea when a team could make it out. No idea at all. Might be all weekend even. If ever I felt bad, it was then. Until I realized I had out of town guests coming that very evening. Then I felt even worse.

I offered my guests the situation and they weren’t deterred. Instead, my guest offered to bring along some supper – and in the spirit of going with the moment and accepting what is rather than wishing for what can no longer be, I cancelled my already once-cancelled plans to go out for a drink with the girls, and instead I went to the corner store and bought a bottle of wine. ‘Screw it,’ I thought – a night without power is not a big deal. (Good thing it wasn’t too terribly cold out.) For a short while it’ll be an adventure. ¬†Guilt nipped at my consciousness as I wondered how my neighbors down the road were faring, yet I set my intention to move into our weekend in a positive spirit of adventure. (I since learned many of my neighbors have generators – the only real inconvenience for them was not having cable or internet. With ubiquitous smart phones and such, not really a big deal.) When our guests arrived we got settled in and found ourselves enjoying a lovely night of Chinese take out, conversation, music and play. My guest’s ten year old daughter Evalin had brought us a gift of her homemade candle sticks – and we used them to light the living room as she and Elihu played with hex bugs on the floor and her father, Matthew and I sat playing the piano. Since he has more knowledge of Irish and trad music than me, I asked him to help identify the more important tunes to learn in my Irish fake book. It may not have been his intention, but that small act was a wonderful gift unto itself. When we retired, Elihu and I shared a bed for warmth and read our book by candlelight. It was a lovely night. And truthfully, if I’d gone out for a drink with the gals it might easily fallen into that vast, anonymous collective of ‘past nights out’. Instead, this night of candles and company created a memory that all four of us will keep for years. One that will make for a nice little story one day…

The next morning Matt asked if I’d seen the trucks last night. I hadn’t, and I was rather taken aback to learn that at midnight there had been a crew at the pole. And now another team was already back at work. I was overcome with gratitude for these strangers. Most folks might bitch and moan about the electric company, I know. Red tape, bureaucracy, inflated costs and such. Bottom line, that stuff didn’t matter right now. These folks were here to help me. I realize one could say they were just doing their job, but nonetheless it was a job of service. They were taking care of me, they were making things better. Would I appear an emotional softie to say that I was even touched by this? Ok, so I’ve since learned that there was rather a bit too much gear and manpower used for the fix – and that the system was sometimes abused when within the jurisdiction of overtime – but regardless, people had come to our assistance. People I didn’t even know had come to help. After our guests got on their way I went out to get donuts for the team. I hung around to watch the crew move the huge trucks into place, dig the hole and get the new pole set. (Elihu has never been much about trucks or gear, so he chose instead to run around in the sunshine with his chickens.)

As I watched the guys working I couldn’t help but wonder. Who among them had taken one overtime shift too many? Whose wife had finally had it today with all the absent weekends and had made up her mind to leave? Who was able to make the final truck payment on account of this windfall? (Windfall, indeed!) Who was missing his kid’s game – or birthday even? I chatted with the woman of the group whose teenage granddaughter was sleeping in at home while her horses had broken out of the field and were running wild. It seemed to me she might have preferred to be at home tending to her own little emergencies than here dealing with mine. So many potential consequences, all from one decision, one tree, one shift in the breeze…

I joined Elihu outside for the better part of the day as I raked and did the best I could to finish the cleanup. We ended up having the loveliest day we’d had in a long time. We walked across the field and visited our neighbors who just had their third daughter only a few days before. Happily for them, all three children and mommy were napping so we had a nice visit with daddy Zac. Among the many piles of building materials and auto parts on his property (Zac has great talent and actually uses what he has – these are not idle collections) he picked out two seemingly average-looking rocks and then cracked them open up to expose their glasslike interiors of quartz crystal. He told us that they glowed from within when rubbed against each other in the dark. I was surprised that I hadn’t learned this little trick at some point in my life (and even more surprised later that evening to try it and indeed find an orange glow coming to life inside the rock!) As we made our way back across the field at the end of the afternoon the trucks were just leaving. The semi honked a goodbye for Elihu and he was thrilled. Our day had been full of sunshine, friendly conversation and hours of free, unscheduled time.

While we found our power on again, neither the water pump nor the furnace would go on. I flipped breakers but there was no change. So across the field we went again to ask for help. Zac was back on dad duty, so we went to his dad’s just next door. Phil was out too, so we stopped in on Chad and Casey who live in the little house at the edge of the field. Chad was out, but she’d send him over when he got home. So Elihu and I returned home to wait. Before long Chad, Casey and their three young kids and Phil too were all arriving at once to help. The house was a blur of activity as the problems were assessed and kids played. Pump had just lost its prime. Good thing to know. Furnace just needed thermostats to be turned up first – duh. Mighta got that one. But that I didn’t – and that there were people who cared enough to help me understand what the problem was (and not make me feel like an idiot for missing it) once again moved my heart. People had come to help – for absolutely nothing in return. Sure, you could say it’s what neighbors do, but still… I was humbled.

I can’t remember feeling so well taken care of. If ever I should feel -as I have for so much of these past few years – that I am one person alone and must do it all on my own – the changing of a breeze and the felling of a tree have served to remind me that I’m not alone. That ultimately we’re all connected to each other; and that not a one of us can survive alone – nor are we supposed to. As the four wheelers motored off across the yard and Phil drove out of sight I had a dim memory of something John Muir had said once about the connectedness of everything. What was that quote again? I went to the computer (which was now working again, thanks to another team of cable folks that had been at it the past two hours) and I searched. Yes, here it is: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. Alright, so he might have had a much larger, more Godly scheme in mind when he said this, but it still seems to fit. Our lives are intertwined in ways we don’t always see. One simple action may have so many consequences. Good and bad. I’m still not convinced that this accident was for the best – but many good things did come of it; glowing rocks, the company of friends on a candlelit evening and a sunny afternoon plus many more tiny adventures that have continued to pop up in the wake of this one fallen tree. But for me the most important consequence of this first domino down is that I have been reminded once again that people are sometimes very good at taking care of each other.

Zen Limbo

Sort of on hold. Sort of. I realize no one’s stopping me from ‘doing my thing’, yet as host to two guests in my home it’s just not the same as truly being alone alone. And while I realize that in short order I will be enjoying an empty house, I am finding this final stretch of their visit something of a personal challenge. I have so much work to do, and it won’t get done until their visit is over. So for now, I wait.

We’ve finished our supper, and now I read to little Lilas on the couch as her mother visits in the kitchen with a friend. I realize I’m feeling some anxiety. There’s tension in my body. I do a check to see where it’s hiding; it’s something I’ve begun doing the past couple of years. It’s surprising how often we’ll walk around with a part of our body tenser than it needs to be. And you often don’t even know it unless you look for it. Throughout the day I’ll do a little inventory of my body. Check to see that I’m not tight through the shoulders for no good reason. Check to see if my brow might be unintentionally furrowed. When I find the tension I let it go, relaxing my body to its natural resting state. I do my check, and find my shoulders pulled together a bit. I let them out. Better. But still. Not quite at peace. I tell myself to get on with it. I love reading to children, and I enjoy doing it now, once I’ve scolded myself to get back to the business at hand. For the duration of the book I’m content, the child beside me is too, and all is well. But we finish the book, and a vague nagging feeling sets in. I want to be alone.

I really do enjoy having the energy of others present in the house. It’s nice to have a little one here too. And it’s nice to know there’s other business going on while I’m quietly reading on the couch by myself. It feels different from being the only human in the place. There really is something different between knowing there are people present – even if I can’t see them behind a closed door – and knowing that I’m alone in the house. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and as I sit comfortable on my couch, book on my lap, looking out my big picture window at the full moon outside, I ponder why this is so. Now mom and child are in their room. I look at the closed bedroom door. I can’t even hear anything. So how is it different? I don’t know. It just is. I imagine to myself that there’s no one in Elihu’s room, and immediately it feels emptier. Interesting. But for now, there are two people there, and somehow, even if it may only be in my imaginings, I can feel their presence. While it gives the place a homey sort of energy, and while right now we are all cozy here in our little house on this fine summer night, I have a hard time staying in the perfection of the moment. I crave an empty house.

I pull myself back. I tell myself to enjoy it for what it is. Enjoy having people here because in all likelihood I’ll be feeling quite alone one week from today. I know all this, so I’m able to relax. I find a bit more tension hiding in my shoulders and then let it ease out. Ok. This is a good moment. And it’s nice to have a full house. Ok. I’m present. I’m here, now, and it feels good. There, that’s better.

Or is it? I wonder… does my experience of the ‘now’ lose its zen-like integrity if it’s motivated by my desire for future ‘nows’?? Ironically, it’s those far-off nows that keep me motivated to stay present. I realize I’m a sofa-sitting Buddhist at best. My present nows do their best to sustain me, while my future nows beckon me forward…

End of the Beginning

Although Elihu still answers “No” when asked if he might wish one day to return to New York City, my suspicion is that the seed has been planted and germinates already. It took me a 24 hour cycle to truly ‘get it’ again myself. Just now I parked my car safely in a garage (as on Friday it seems there’s no street parking to be had), and I enjoyed a moment alone in the eye of it all. A corner joint, an outside table, a coffee, a high-cholesterol breakfast sandwich and one, just one, bummed cigarette. Alone and not alone. As we’d gone to bed long after 2 am last night I know Elihu sleeps soundly a block away at our friends’ place. Finally, I am without camera, without destination, my only objective to take it all in one last time.

Private viewing of the bird house at the Bronx Zoo, feeding pigeons from the hand in Washington Square Park, front row seats at the Blue Note last night as Paquito’s guest, rooftop drum playing and merrymaking at night’s end with every tiny space in between peppered with the kinds of magic it would take chapters to convey – yesterday was a perfect New York City day.

There’s never enough time. But for now, I’m sated. And reminded, once again, that yes, there is still a big and bold world beyond our little homestead. Here’s to our safe homecoming. And here’s to many more bright and beautiful voyages beyond our driveway’s end…