Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Sunshine of Community

"Why is it so much easier to clean someone else's house than your own?" My friend, Susan, asked me this when I ran into her in the store after picking up Ellis from track practice. I had just told her that my friend, Barb, had come to help me clean the house. Birdland will have guests this weekend from far-flung places. While I’m very excited to see my friends, I also appreciate the added bonus of being forced to put the house into some kind of order. In fact, having Barb come over got me to organize a list and prioritize tasks—something I most likely wouldn’t have done if I were trying to clean house all by myself. Working together is always more fun than working alone, and since I feel a responsibility to appreciate the other person’s gift of time and presence, I am more likely to finish a task, less likely to simply move piles around or use creative drapery to hide them. (Of course, there is a place for creative draping, but it is only a short term fix. I eventually have to pay the bills in that pile, so I’d better not lose sight of them.)

I decided to begin with the entrance to the house, and after spiffing up the stairs and boot rack, I moved on to the kitchen. (Birdland parties usually center around the kitchen.) By the time Barb had arrived I had helpfully pulled every stitch of anything out of the pantry closet and spread it around the kitchen floor. This wasn’t exactly on my list, but it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. Now, on my own, I would have likely become distracted by hunting for chocolate in that pantry, but Barb’s arrival got me to focus, and we reorganized the recycling and put the closet back together. We then turned to the list, which began with a vision walk (I led her through the house and we envisioned how it would look when the guests arrived.) The list also included breaks for tea, visiting, and lunch. At the end of a couple of hours, I could almost imagine welcoming friends into my home.

I think the answer to Susan’s question, is that the work isn’t necessarily easier, but it’s much more fun. Sometimes we need to work in solitude, but sometimes camaraderie can energize and focus us, so that we forget we are working, and suddenly the task is finished.

Birdland is mostly overcast as I wait for my guests, and the pending visit makes it hard to concentrate on the work I’m supposed to be doing. I find I’m afflicted with writer’s block even as my deadline for this letter looms. When that happens, I find it best to step away from the computer. In town, I run into my friend, Nancy. When I tell her about my blocked letter, she gets a serious look on her face.

“Well,” she says, “here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about. It’s winter, so the chickens aren’t laying any eggs, and it’s grey, so we have to make our own sunshine.” She’s right, of course. At the moment, my chicken coop is sadly barren—not so much for the winter, (hens will lay in winter with artificial lights) but because I have only one, lonely rooster in the coop. This year has been extra hard on my flock, and I’m looking forward to starting again in the spring with day old chicks. She’s right again about the sunshine. I think about the ways sunshine has come into my life in the past few weeks. Rescues from friends and strangers (recurring trouble with a dead battery in my car), emails and letters from “friends I didn’t know I had” (as Millie Otto says in her column My Amish Home), an impromptu girls’ night with Becky and Kelly. We shared food and drink, troubles and laughter, and it felt quite a bit sunnier at the end of their visit.

Each of these rays of sunshine has one thing in common: Community. It reminds me of Marlo Thomas’ rap, “Housework” as sung by Carol Channing: “If you want all the days of your lives/To seem sunny as summer weather,/Make sure, when there's housework to do,/That you do it together!"

Share in Beauty; Nurture Peace; Blessed Be.

Path to Optimism

In Birdland, snow sifts silently out of a wool-colored sky. At the horizon, the sky is bright and only the bare shrubs at the edge of the corn mark where the white field meets white sky. The snow mutes and layers the picture outside my window, steeling color from the covered landscape, so that I have to squint to see the green in the cedar tree and boxwood. I guess it is the same picture I have seen hundreds of times, on any winter morning when the wind is low and the sky is overflowing with snow. I've probably used similar words to describe the same picture in these letters, but most things are cyclical like that.

My semester has begun its own cycle, and my life takes the oblong shape of trips to town, back and forth, back and forth. First the drive in, on sometimes treacherous roads, then the walk to campus. When I can remember, or spare the time, I try to keep to my dear friend, Michael's "five miles under" policy. I've read that at 60 mph, your gas consumption increases dramatically, so I save gas. Michael came up with all kinds of benefits of driving more slowly: "You can listen to the radio longer." But for me, a big one is safety. How old was I before I figured out that the faster I drive, the more likely I am to slide off the road into a ditch? I’m embarrassed to say. Yesterday I passed a black, Chevy pick-up that had spun out off the road with such force it climbed the embankment, coming to rest next to some barbed wire, bounding a field of corn stubble. I drove on slowly, thinking of sailors passing a shipwreck and taking heed of the dangers below the surface. In town I park my car a mile from campus to get a brisk walk in, and avoid the traffic and congested parking. My route takes me close to the new Boneyard Reservoir down a winding path with sand-colored stones and water features. Now it’s mostly still and icy, but in the spring it will be lively and lush. I walk through the park and down to the Green Street Walkway, a winding sidewalk away from the traffic between two busy streets.

The footpath is lined with park benches and small trees. My walk is sadly marred by trash, a littering of plastic drink cups, beer bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags, a tan sock, the detritus of life in a disposable and careless society. Stones that form a semicircle at the intersections have been kicked in. A few of the little trees lining the walk are snapped off at the trunk. I am amazed at how much work it must have taken to snap a trunk two inches in diameter. Was it a community effort?

Last fall I came upon one of the generous cement planters and the sweet potato vines and coleus had been uprooted and tossed to the sidewalk. I brought the wilting plants back to my office and put them in water, where they took root. Don’t get me wrong; campus is full of rubbish and senseless vandalism, but I see plenty to give me hope, too in the thoughtful projects of my students. Every semester various groups come up with new ways to recycle, save energy, enrich their community. On my way back to my car I stop for a moment at the reservoir and think about some wise words from a woman in the neighborhood. The News Gazette recently reported that Anna Urquhart, who lives nearby said, “It really is going to bring out a change because when you look at something like that you know the

re is something better. You don’t feel so down and out and want to give up. This can brighten your life and make you feel better that they’re doing something in our community.” Her words fill me with pride that my hometown has merged beauty and utility, as if someone out there understands how nurturing a community spiritually can foster a spirit of cooperation. Anna’s words remind me that we all have to be responsible for this walkway. We pay taxes that help build and maintain it, but we can also care for this public space in smaller ways. Picking up a plastic bottle or can to recycle is a small act that can have rippling effects that enhance the entire neighborhood.

With the new semester, my week takes on a new rhythm, a new dance step: City, Country, City, Country, City, Country, Country, City. Already I’m looking forward to my next walk down the Boneyard Path.

Nurture Beauty; Foster Peace; Blessed Be.