What Brings Us Back?
In uncertain times, finding your way home means paying close attention to small clues.
- By: Martha White
I know a man who built a tower when he couldn’t write, then wrote about it. His teenaged daughter, not knowing what to do for a summer, moved into the tower and found a job, gardening.
Another woman, trying to figure out the lure of small towns, came to see the tower that overlooked her hometown. She remembered the teenagers she had grown up with, joking, “I’m going to blow this pop stand.”
Many of them did, as she had — only to return.
What brings us back?
For me, it was the smell of cedar trees in my old backyard and the remembrance of sunsets over a river. For the tower builder, it was the sight of the ocean glimpsed from his roof. When I climbed to see his view, we discovered that bees had taken over the top floor of the tower. Pop the hatch and emerge onto the third floor roof and bees greeted you, first with that fly-by bump of warning, then more forcefully swarming, and if you still didn’t take their point, by stinging. Bees know what to do with themselves. They are the original suicide bombers, but they are clear about it — offering their bumped warning, first: “This is my air space.”
What is it that makes us lose our way? The 9-11 suicide bombers in New York stopped many of us in our tracks almost a decade ago. Take that much hatred amassed in one spot, publicize it repeatedly, and it is bound to have an impact. Grief was one reaction, but there were many others: rage, fear, apathy, patriotism, anti-patriotism, nausea, despair, repositioning, reevaluation.
Since then, many of us have built our own towers in one form or another. Some are as simple as sitting down more often to family dinners, others are as futile as plastic and duct tape in the basement, or as complicated as rededicating our lives to something more meaningful. What do you do when you don’t know what to do with yourself?
Repairing stone walls works for me until my back or hands give out, or the weather turns bitter. It’s so physical, so solid and basic, and when walls are crumbling around the world, stone walls in a New England landscape will last. Walk the woods, and you see them stretching for acres, coming to intersections, opening in gateways.
Leaves fall, decade after decade, but the walls remain. Trees crash down and rot away, leaving the walls intact. Moss and lichen grow on the rocks and streams wind their way through, but the walls remain, marking our boundaries, neighbor to neighbor.
Keeping chickens is a gesture toward an uncertain future. Not everyone appreciates poultry as a symbol of renewal, but a small flock is a gesture of hope. Call them hens on the homefront or a charm of chickens; if you brood on hens you learn to appreciate small miracles.
Children already know these things. Before our youngest son was much taller than our Rhode Island Reds, he understood their habits. When our toddler and the hens squared off, face to face, he discovered that if he confronted the hens, head-on, they would squat and freeze in quiet desperation. His response was to hug them, their legs dangling around his chubby knees. In his diaper, he looked like a small Sumo wrestler, going into squat position with a feathered opponent. The lesson was simple: confront your fear and hug it — hello, hen!
Inside the coop, he gathered eggs and carried one in each hand; no gathering basket would do. Almost daily, an egg or two would be sacrificed on the steps, accompanied by his astonished, “Uh, oh!”
Around the same time, he had the habit of repeating, “I never saw anything like that!” So the UPS truck might go by on its daily rounds, and he would insist, “I never saw a truck like that!” Likewise, with each consistently-sized, plain brown egg that he plucked, he would exclaim, “I never saw an egg like that!” Who could disagree?
The smell of cedar, a memory of a sunset, the wonder of an egg, the wisdom of children, the solidity of a stone wall, or the towers we build; these are the things that bring us back, the things that ground us in an uncertain world. What do you do when you don’t know what to do with yourself?
- By: Martha White