Sixty – More Than a Number

I caught up with Bob Armantrout outside Playa Mexico the day before his sixtieth birthday He’d driven to the coastal town of Emerald Isle with his wife to celebrate at the beach. He didn’t have to point out that this is the absolutely best time of year to be dipping in the Atlantic.

I asked the soon-to-be sexagenarian if he had some words of wisdom to share with the younger generation. Sure, he said, and this is what he told me:

1. Life is too short to use crappy soap or bad toilet paper.
2. Being nice to people is easier than the alternative.
3. Keep the tools of your trade sharp.
4. Stay abreast of industry news.
5. Be a good team mate.
6. Don’t get addicted to nicotine.
7. Keep your things in order so your kids don’t have to do it for you.
8. Incrementalism works. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed by some task; do a little bit along the road so you don’t have to do something Herculean. Take it in small bites.

Enough said. And with that, we walked into the Playa and ordered up some big plates of food. And tequila…


Although it starts soggy, by mid-afternoon the day turns bright and crisp. The kind of day you can pick out individual leaves on the willow oak across the street. Hurricane Florence was already inhaling humidity from 600 miles away.

I take advantage of the pre-storm calm, washing and hanging the bed sheets and shower curtain. If Florence stays her course, we’ll get our moisture back with interest in feet, not inches, and her throaty winds will test trees and roofs. We could be without electricity for up to a week. So I vacuum, bake, and launder everything I can think of, including the shower curtain and the shear white curtains over the kitchen sink.

Earlier this week I hauled our recycling and trash to town and searched for a gas station that wasn’t already out of fuel. There are six filling stations in town, and only one did not have bags over the pump handles. I changed my mind about fueling up in town when I saw the line of anxious motorists bleeding out into the courthouse circle.

I ran into a lot of people I knew at the grocery store. Nearly everyone had a few moments to exchange hugs and chat about the coming storm. The atmosphere was celebratory with a tinge of urgency. It felt a lot like the hours before a Super Bowl. I bought tomatoes and lettuce because Bob and I are in the middle of an epic BLT jag and helped myself to a bag of kettle chips.

Among strangers there was an edgy undercurrent. The gas station line was spooky, reminiscent of fuel shortage altercations of the 70’s and I’d had an unsavory interaction at the trash collection center. A friend pulled up to the trash hopper and she and I were getting caught up as the guy in the truck behind her walked by with his trash bags. He barked at us – something about holding up the line.

We continued talking as my friend emptied her car, and he came by with another round of bags and a menacing look. This time he loudly pointed out that there was a whole parking lot right over there if we wanted to chit chat. The attendants were shaking their heads, and they told me this wasn’t the first time that man had behaved uncharitably. “He’s a preacher, you know,” one of them confided. I’m pretty sure a lot of people around here carry hand guns.

Nineteen years ago Bob and I lived on Guam, thirteen degrees north of the equator, where hurricanes are known as typhoons. We lived in an air conditioned cinder block apartment, a chilled box as long as the electricity is on, but a suffocating hell when it fails.

During one of many short power outages, our neighbor confided that he liked typhoon season because the power stayed off for a long time. He chuckled at our surprise and explained how people gather at the old style houses, the ones that look like screen porches on stilts. Everyone pulls food from their deep freezer and takes it over to grill under the shade of the house and they drink and eat and party until the power comes back on. “It’s like the old days,” he says.

Bob and I have had a good time battening down the hatches. We’ve mined our deep freezer for casseroles and replaced them with buckets of water which have frozen into ice blocks. We have a gas range for cooking hamburgers and warming up soup, but when the power is out our oven won’t light. So we dine on Eggplant Parmesan and Macaroni and Cheez confident those ice blocks will hold food for a couple days, maybe three.

We filled two 5-gallon buckets with water for cooking and drinking because when the electric goes out, so does our well pump. We can flush with water from the big blue rain barrel. I drove Christine to the front yard where she is less likely to get smashed by a falling tree, and Bob is considering using a tie down on the back porch roof.

Home from my hurricane preparedness shopping trip, I begin receiving calls, texts, and emails from family and friends near and far. They send good wishes, tips, and invites should the shit really hit the fan. The next day Florence appears to be backing off, but I’m still savoring the sense of camaraderie, hoping under my breath she really does force us to hunker down amid friends. Thank you Florence for giving us a taste of the old days, and fingers crossed we don’t lose an automobile or a roof.


The orphan, resting comfortably in Shelley’s lap.

When Shelley returned home after two weeks away, she was confronted by a loud and needy cat. Lucy let her know, in strident tones, how much she had missed her and how devastatingly hungry she had been. She went on and on about it, while Shelley busied herself with unpacking and reacquainting herself with her very own kitchen, sofa, and bed. Just when she thought she would settle down for real, the neighbor called to say they had an emergency and could Shelley help.

It turned out a very young kitten, black and white just like Lucy, had wandered onto their doorstep. Highly allergic, they could not let it in their house and the poor thing appeared way too young to be outside fending for itself amongst the hawks and possums, and well, maybe Shelley could take it in. Shelley sighed, unable to think clearly amid the sharp mewling of the lost little waif, and took charge.

As far as Lucy was concerned, inviting this flea-bitten critter into her environs was an absolute no go. Insult to injury. And so Shelley set up a kitten holding pen in one of her outbuildings, out of earshot, and wandered back into the house hoping for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, Amy and I met at Shelley’s house at 7:30 for our first Tuesday walk in weeks, excited to see our friend and hear all about her trip. We all had plenty of new news to report, so it wasn’t until about three miles in that Shelley got around to telling us about her little problem.

Amy thought about it for a minute and ventured that maybe this wayward critter would make a good birthday present for her mom. Shelley’s face brightened. Meanwhile, I was flooded with the memory of a similar situation involving a frightened motherless kitten.

Pink water in the sink – Camille bathing Lefty on Maui in 2001

Kihei, Maui May, 2001
We stared, unbelieving, at the tiny blur of a kitten running towards us, scraggly little tail pointed straight up, kicking up puffs of dust on the hot Maui side street. She cried as loud as she could with her small sharp voice, and ran until she reached Shaun’s legs. Hooking her needle-thin claws into his skin, she continued upwards towards his friendly face. Shaun reached down and disconnected her from a thigh, and Bob and I leaned in for a closer look.

Her right eye was swollen shut, and her head dwarfed the attached bag of bones. We looked at Shaun, stunned and on his way to helplessly smitten. He had recently lost his cat and vowed not to take in another animal, something we had sworn not to do some five years earlier. Knowing we had a better chance of keeping that promise, we volunteered to take the kitten and find it a home. Relieved, Shaun fixed us up with a litter box and bowls and we stopped at the grocery store for canned cat food on the way back upcountry.

It was obvious she was going to lose that eye, so we named her Lefty. I bathed her in the sink, watched the water turn pink, then took her to a spot in our sunny garden wrapped in a towel, and with a fine-toothed comb combed out the fleas. It took three baths before the water ran clear, and the pile of fleas on our lawn probably weighed more than Lefty did. We fed her and watched her sleep.

We built a cardboard castle in the kitchen to contain her. Leftie was the first one up in the morning and let us know she was lonely with her shrill little voice. She liked to climb up our legs and curl up on Bob’s chest when he napped.

Lefty and Bob

Lefty napping with Bob, Maui 2001

Lefty was soon sturdy enough for a trip to the vet’s where we arranged for them to remove her ruined eye, de-worm, vaccinate and whatever else she needed, and find her a home. They didn’t think prospective parents would appreciate our sense of humor, so they renamed her Lucky. As in “lucky she ran into you,” they explained. As we left the clinic, we were relieved, but sad. We knew we had done the right thing for all concerned. But it had been nice sharing our little home with this tiny animal and we knew we would probably never see her again.

A month or so later, we received a card in the mail from Lucky’s new owners. In it, they thanked us for rescuing her and making it possible for them to adopt her. They wrote that she was a perky little thing and was adapting spectacularly to her new life. I read the note twice and had to put it down when my vision got bleary.

Back to Moncure, North Carolina August 2018
Shelley, Amy, and I finished our five mile walk, ending up where we began, as always, at Shelley’s house. “Would you like to see the kitten?” she asked. Amy got her phone from the car so she could send some pictures to her sister, and we trotted to the shed behind Shelley. We heard the little fella about fifty feet out, chirping like a demented bird with every bit of his lungs. Shelley picked him up and passed him around. The poor thing had the same needle-sharp claws I remember from Lucky, the same matted coat and emaciated body.

Amy snapped a couple of pictures and left, and although I was tempted to stick around and give the tiny tyke a bath, I drove off to run some errands. A few hours later, Shelley let me know that Amy had returned with a cat carrier. A minute later, Amy told me she’d brought the cat home, dunked him, fed him, and he was sleeping on her lap. Her daughter was smitten and they were tossing around names. Later her mother got to meet the little guy and got him over to the vet who de-wormed him saying that the rescue couldn’t have waited much longer or the worms would have finished him off.

This may sound like a little story, but it felt like a big one to me. First off, every neighborhood needs a Shelley, a “fixer” – someone they can call when they run into a problem. Second, there is the serendipity of this rescue. The neighbors find a cat, Shelley shoulders the burden, Amy takes him off her hands, and her mother is happy. Finally, there’s this: while our weekly walks may seem like non-essential self-indulgence, it’s not. Getting together with friends on a regular basis creates a synergy that strengthens neighborhoods. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not enough. We need real face time, with real people, to solve little problems, and make real things happen.

At Some Point

I’ve been doing more reading than writing lately. Novels, magazines, nonfiction: the usual. I usually steer away from poetry, having lost my appetite for this abstract literary form shortly after high school.

Poetry usually leaves me hungrier than when I began. I need complete thoughts. My brain is not wired to appreciate unfinished sentences. Poems are as frustrating to me as someone who leaves you dangling in conversation. “I thought I’d go grocery shopping but the cat wanted out, so.” Or, “I ran into so-and-so today and…(segue to a text on their phone)” “What?” “What?!” “So, what?” I want to say.

But, after reading The Complete Short Stories of Truman Capote, I could plainly see the poetry in his prose and it occurred to me for the hundredth time that good writing often either comes from or resembles poetry. Consider the following Capote gems:

Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs. – from House of Flowers

The coach was a relic with a decaying interior of ancient red-plush seats, bald in spots, and peeling iodine-colored woodwork. – from A Tree of Night

It was a furnished room in the East Sixties between Second and Third Avenues. Large enough for a daybed and a splintery old bureau with a mirror like a cataracted eye, it had one window, which looked out on a vast vacant lot (you could hear the tough afternoon voices of desperate running boys) and in the distance, like an exclamation point for the skyline, there was the black smokestack of a factory. – from Master Misery

If only I could write like this! I have a few friends, poets who write beautiful prose, Jenn and Mary, to name two. Time to bite the bullet, I thought. Time to give poetry another chance. I asked Mary where I should begin and she suggested I begin by reading (rather than trying to write) poetry. Good poetry. And she lent me her collection of poems that caught her ear for one reason or another. Among them I found examples of stellar writing like this:

Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.

With heavy brains balanced on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming,
from the violent birth of the universe.
Ellen Bass

And this:

This is a place where lakes are brimmed glasses all
sitting on the same water table, where one hillcrest
has first cousins and second and third, where filled silos
stand like shiny blue Indian totems of fertility and future.
Mary Barnard

Inspired, I wrote the following, not realizing it was a poem until the words were splayed across my screen:


At some point, you stop trying to keep up with technology.
At some point, maybe, you stop trying to curb your appetite.
You stop trying to zip your lip.
You stop trying to give up coffee, or wine, or cigarettes.
At some point, you stop caring what the neighbors think.
At some point, you stop caring for your body as if it were a finely-tuned machine.
You stop flossing, exercising, and getting outside every day.
At some point you stop looking for the good in others.
And for the good in yourself.
At some point you get lazy and you stop trying.
Maybe never. Maybe tomorrow.

At some point, I might add, I will appreciate poetry. Maybe today.

Dueling Adages

Depending on the situation I’ll either say, “Opposites attract!”, or “Like attracts like!” as if that explains everything. And actually, these two statements cover just about any kind of relationship. From good friends who see eye-to-eye, to December/May romances. But when it occurred to me that these two adages are mutually exclusive, I set out to reconcile the discrepancy.

My first thought was about Bob and how we are both old hippies who share the same cultural background and values. In the early stages of my relationship with Bob my mother gave me this advice: “The most important thing is that you share the same values.” My enduring friendships are also based on common values. My friend Pam and I call each other two peas in a pod, Haruka and I both believe in supporting our husbands with clean laundry and cooked meals, and Shelley and I keep the same kind of welcoming, high-and-tidy home. This all makes sense and explains “Like attracts like”.

On the other hand, I also like to hang out with people who are not like me. They give my life a little extra zip with their spontaneous, fun-loving chaos. And to be fair, Bob and I are not so, so alike. He tends towards hedonism while I cultivate an air of self-denial. I speak mostly in the declarative, and Bob is an accomplished questioner. And you only have to look at our desks to see one other telling difference. But these are traits, not values. And therein lies the difference. When two people have different traits, they balance each other out and this is just as important as seeing the world through similar lenses.

I believe that opposites attract on a primal and more physical level. Back in our tribal era, humans were compelled to expand their gene pool by selecting mates from other tribes. Otherwise we would be an inbred mess, easy victims for a bacteria or virus targeting our particular gene sequencing. So, when puberty began tugging at our hormones we often wandered outside our familiar circles. We set our sights on people who didn’t look or act like us and threw in with them. In this way we created diversity and ensured the success of our species.

Well, that about wraps it up. We have to think enough alike to get along, and act and look different enough to mix things up. And so, both adages, “Like Attracts Like,” and “Opposites Attract” are true and not at all mutually exclusive.

Straying From My Lane

I’m going off the road, I think, my heart pitching to the beat of a noise I can’t identify. “Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock”, so loud it drowns out all rational thought. “Do you hear this?” I shout into my phone, shoving it towards the window. “Yes, I hear it,” Bob answers, “Calm down so I can ask you a few questions.” I fill my lungs and the call is dropped.

The morning had started out normal, except that I’d noticed the rear tire on the passenger side was squishy. I aired it up on the way to work and saw it was down to sixteen pounds.

Bob and I are in transition again. We made a big decision one day last month and that night we slept like babies for the first time in a while. “We get to have another adventure!” I said the next morning. Bob grinned sleepily. “And this time, we don’t have to move!” A nation of two.

No lane traffic in Kumasi, Ghana

Transitions suck. I have trouble letting go. My tendency to overdo kicks in big time, and I cannot keep my nose out of other people’s business. Witnessing my struggle, Bob sends me an article.

I glance at the title and recall a conversation with Amy and Shelley. We take long, early-morning walks and talk about everything. We three are what you call “pleasers,” anxious to be of use, quick to over-commit, and liable at a moment’s notice to get all tangled up in someone else’s problem. Enabler’s Anonymous, we jokingly call our weekly outings.

Last week, Amy brought up the very same article. Staying in Your Own Lane is about accountability and Paris’s no lane traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe. Okay, I think, reading the article. Advice from the cosmic sphere.

Now here I was, hands tight on the steering wheel, trying to stay in my lane as if my life depended on it. The Gum Springs Road has soft shoulders, steep drop offs, elevation changes, and a lot of curves. The car begins to wobble and I fear I won’t make it all the way to Performance Automotive. I notice a sheriff’s car parked at the Robeson Creek boat ramp and consider pulling over. I have never felt more like a damsel in distress than right now. But I keep creeping along, unwilling to admit my absolute loss of control to a stranger.

When I see the cell service bars return, I call Bob. “I’ll meet you at Johnny Burke.” I make it to our rendezvous destination and leap from the car.

My heart surges when I see the zebra-striped hood of Bob’s Mercedes wagon. He slides behind the wheel of the wounded car and takes off, faster than I think prudent. The problem is immediately obvious. The right rear wheel is flopping like a flounder. Gesturing wildly, I run toward the car. Bob gets out, crouches down, sees a big screw stuck in the tire, and then we gape at the two remaining lug nuts. He fishes the jack and lug wrench from the trunk while I stand by, useless and shivering in the suffocating heat.

We drop the car at the shop and Bob takes me home to bake cookies. Because we drive old cars, we are prone to making unscheduled drops. Years ago I started baking cookies to show my gratitude. When the problem is small, a loose gas cap triggering the check engine light or a flapping wheel well liner, they often say, “No charge Mrs. Armantrout.” “Are you sure?” “You just keep baking us cookies.”

The next day I return to the shop with a heaping plate of peanut butter chocolate chips. The owner smiles and asks, “How’s Christine?” “Oh, she’s enjoying retirement under a tarp in the back yard,” I say of our 1994 Ford Escort. We named her that after finding the lights on several times like the car in Steven King’s novel, Christine. “You have names for all of your cars, don’t you?” Pleased that he knows this I answer, “Yep, Oliver is the olive green Outback, and the white Mercedes is Blanche, an aging southern white lady who sometimes depends on the kindness of strangers.

And so I get back on the horse. I climb into Oliver and nose my way out of the crowded lot. I have heard the message loud and clear. Play your own part, don’t over reach, stay in your lane, and always check your lug nuts.

Faces I Remember

I was talking with my brother, Michael, after dinner last night and he conjured up an old face from way back when. He’d been visiting with our father, and Dad mentioned his long time friend. “Peter someone,” Michael said, and I grasped at his last name until it came to me. It was Curran. Peter Curran.

Even so, the minute Michael mentioned the man, Pete Curran’s face popped into my mind. They were in the war together, Michael informed me, which made sense because it seems that face has been part of my memory bank forever. Searching for my earliest memory associated with Peter’s face, I settled on an enormous house on the hill outside of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. We moved from that house when I was three years old.

Peter Curran was “a professor of mathematics at Fordham for nearly five decades”, according to his obituary in Fordham News. We moved from the Eastern Seaboard when I was sixteen, and I am pretty sure I have not seen him since. Yet, his face is still easily retrieved from my memory vaults.

Our ability to remember faces is astonishing, especially these days when no one can remember a phone number, or what they just finished reading on their Facebook news feed. I search my brain for the right word when I speak, and carry a notebook to record all the little things I think of during the day. One minute it’s in my brain, and the next it has evaporated.

I was sweeping the pine bark off the sidewalk at work this morning, chasing an errant thought, and a different thought popped into my head. Maybe we have trouble remembering things as we age because there are so many faces stored in our brains. Back in college anthropology class, I learned about Koko, a gorilla with an impressive vocabulary of 2,000 words. One piece of Koko’s story stood out. At 2,000 words, she was still able to pick up new words, but for every new word learned, she forgot an old one.

It is common knowledge that although our world is very different from the world of our cave people ancestors, humans have not evolved much physiologically. Our knees, unused to jogging and other extreme sports, break down with alarming frequency. We still crave sugar, salt, and fat. And we probably only have room in our brains for a couple hundred faces. Problem is, we meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, all of whose feature our eyes expertly scan and sock away for future retrieval. Survival depends on knowing the difference between strangers and our tribe.

Dad’s old army buddy died last April, a few days after my father’s 92nd birthday. I may have trouble remembering Peter Curran’s name, or much about the year I lived in Norvelt, or even what I had for dinner last night, but his face, a face I have not seen for close to fifty years lives on in my mind’s eye. I am certain both my father and I will be able to call up this face, and many others until we draw our last breath.


“It’s not them, it’s us,” Bob said, stepping from the shower on October 20, 2004. “We need to leave.” We had been living on Maui for four years. George W. Bush was up for reelection. 9/11 had happened, the administration had cooked up the whole “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco, and Bush had ordered the bombing of Iraq.

The recycling advocates we had thrown in with weren’t all that they seemed. In a telling moment, one of them scoffed at our frugal idealism, saying, “What we do here has no effect on the people of the third world.” The turning point came when some of our colleagues showed open support for four more years. Sadly, we began to see that they were not in the minority. The war monger actually had a chance of winning!

After Bob stepped from the shower, we thumbed through our latest copy of The Caretaker Gazette, and targeted a job on a tiny Caribbean island. We were packed and gone in two months. So, when people ask, “Why would you move from Maui?!” we inhale and say, “We left for political reasons.”

A couple of nights ago I dreamed I was dying. The sensation was not unpleasant and it came in stages. It felt like letting go. Kind of like when you sink into a tub of warm water. I could feel my life force evaporating, and things that had once seemed important were disappearing from my mental lists. I recall standing on a platform looking out over the landscape, big sky all around, and feeling my molecules dissipate.

When I told Bob about my dream he said, “You were disassociating.”

Up north in Pennsylvania, my parents are disassociating. This year my father wasn’t up to joining our annual family get together, and we weren’t sure my mother would feel up to it, either. At 86 and 92, their energy has dwindled to a low flame. Although my mother is still engaged with family, she is largely preoccupied by her schedule at the nursing home. When I call her on the phone she only has a few minutes because she is eating breakfast, or about to be weighed, changed, or put to bed.

When Bob and I were in town, I joined my brothers John and Joe for a short drive to one of their beloved mountains. We picked up three sandwiches and parked near a fire tower. Joe went to the top, leaping like a goat, while John and I laid out a picnic on the wooden platform. We ate amid the sounds of the woods, letting our thoughts drift into the trees.

After lunch, I climbed the tower, peering down from each landing, mostly as an excuse to pause and gather my strength. It reassured me to see my brothers down below, but I had mixed feelings about seeing them growing smaller and more distant.

Back home, Bob and I settle into our routine. We putter around the yard, mowing and weeding, growing food, cooking, and eating. We don’t have as much energy as we did when we first got here ten years ago. Back then we were in the thick of things, hosting potluck every Thursday, playing crokinole, and collaborating with our friends.

The neighborhood has changed. A few young families with children moved in. Haruka and Jason closed down their farm and went traveling. Bob started buying produce from the farmers market. Our next door neighbors walled off their borders, disappointed when their low ball offer on the farm was rejected. For a time there was a school and a healing center. Potlucks became sporadic and spontaneous.

I have changed. I don’t work as hard as I used to. I spend more time in our hammock, and not as so much in other people’s living rooms. It came to me while I was washing dishes the other day, that I am more of an observer than a player now. I walked off the playing field and climbed up into the bleachers. When I tell Bob my thought, he says, “That’s fine with me,” and we both smile.

Swinging With My Eyes Closed – family without expectations

Before I go to bed, I like to climb into our back porch hammock and listen to the day shut down. The sounds yoyo around my head while I swing, curved like a banana, eyes closed. Robins tweeting their single-note sign off, the buzz of hummingbird wars, the last big trucks of the day looming, then receding off to another town, and a mocking bird blee blooping to beat the band. Life happens whether we are watching or not.

The hammock slows as the crickets and cicadas take over, and my thoughts turn inward. A week ago, I was four hundred miles north sitting on a porch swing with my sister-in-law Darla, putting the final touches on plans for our family reunion. She had already done most of her cooking and had a big bin of picnic supplies sitting near the door, Bob was on pizza and ice, I had rented a pavilion in the park, and my brother John,had reserved the community room at my mother’s nursing home in case she wasn’t feeling well enough for an outing.

We had everything “well in hand”, a phrase fitting for Amish country with its horse carts and plow horse teams. Swinging there on the porch, the various elements of the event felt like a frisky team of horses. The people coming from far away, my frail mother, the nursing home staff, the ten grandkids, mics and amps for music, the lawn games, and ice; we hoped all would fall into place when the time came.

I sighed as we got up from the swing, prompting Darla to say, “No expectations!” And we made a pact. I told her how Bob often says, “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” If you set your sights low, he explains, you will never be disappointed. Planning helps, too.

The next day Bob and I, John, Darla, and my brothers Joe, Mike, and James split into teams. My brother James and I would greet incoming visitors at my mother’s nursing home an hour before the reunion. Bob and Darla were in charge of setting up the pavilion. Brothers John, Michael, and Joe, Mom’s handlers, would get her from her room to the community room, and (fingers crossed – no expectations!) out to the park and back.

Brother Bob was the first of those driving in for the day to arrive, followed by cousins Grace and Brian and his wife, Maggie. Everything played out as easily as water flows downhill, each drop sparkling clear and perfect. Mom was able to make it to the park, its picnic tables laden with salads, fruits, casseroles, pizza, dips, and desserts. There were thirty-two of us, four generations, gathered to celebrate the miracle of family a few weeks shy of her eighty-sixth birthday. A niece most of us had not met made for a pleasant addition. Her young daughter was instantly absorbed by the girl gaggle. Darla watched in wonder, noting, “She and Lydia both laugh with their eyes!”

After we ate, brothers Michael and John and John’s son Brandon plugged in an amp for live entertainment. My mother has always been gifted, and although she chose parenthood over a career in music, she filled her days with song. Mom harmonized to the radio, sang in the kitchen, crooned us to sleep, and continued singing to us over the phone after we fledged.

Someone wheeled Mom over to the microphone and she began to sing in her soft, clear voice with Brandon on guitar, Michael on Ukulele, and John on vocals and harmonica. They had been practicing since Michael drove in from Colorado. When they picked up “Over the Rainbow,” I began to cry, and seeing my gentle niece, Charity, mother of six, I knew where to go for comfort. She hooked an arm around me and held me close. “I get a lot of practice at this,” she whispered.

After a few songs, we plunged into the Round Robin. I love this family tradition of speaking in turn about our past year, and telling the group what we are looking forward to in the future. In random order, (each speaker picks their successor), we heard from Mom on down to Levi, the oldest of her great grands, one after another pouring out their hearts. The themes this year were “transition” and “acceptance”.

A couple of the boys had been after Bob to start up a game of kickball and after a couple of “We’ll see’s,” it was time. “Will you announce it?” “Yes.” Do you need a mic?” “No,” and with his stage voice, Bob made a call for players. I soon found myself on the lawn, trying to remember the rules of a game I hadn’t played in fifty years, if ever. Three generations, spanning sixty years in age, from little Alex to me. As if this day couldn’t get any better, I thought, fumbling for a catch and laughing. We are never going to have this reunion indoors again.

Back in the hammock, I open my eyes. The sky is a dusty salmon and the dark woods are pricked with fire flies. I cannot believe how rich my life has become. A life rich in family and good health, spilling over with time, and absolutely devoid of expectations.

A Little Better – The Power of Incrementalism

An ambitious load

“That looks a little better,” I think, nudging a weed-laden wheelbarrow south towards the brush pile. It’s turned hot, and my ponytail is stuck to the back of my neck. My friends are staying cool inside their offices, and I remind myself I planned on leaving work a couple of hours ago. Fifty feet down Lorax Lane, I stop at another garden and step out from between the worn wooden handles. Might as well pretty this bed up, too. Only a handful of weeds.

A wheelbarrow a day keeps the weeds at bay, that’s my motto. I pluck out everything that doesn’t belong: henbit, chickweed, vetch, and sedge. Despite the sweat bee pestering my left ear, I am sure I’ve got the best job on this sixteen acre eco-industrial/beverage-district business park.

As property manager of The Plant, I pull weeds, and cultivate relationships by chatting people up: curious strangers, co-workers, tenants, their employees and customers, contractors, and volunteers. We talk about everything, from shallow to deep, and over the years I’ve taken note of conversational trends. For a while it was the lingering “so..” at the end of an explanatory clause. Then the word “goddess” began cropping up. And lately, ADD and OCD.

I’ve heard so many people refer to “their ADD” I wonder if Attention Deficit Disorder hasn’t become a national badge of courage. I can’t tell if they are bragging or complaining, if they are proud of their ability to multi-task, or if they are looking for an excuse for lack of follow-through. Either way, I can relate because I’m easily sidetracked, too. Others label themselves OCD, and a few have implied they think I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They have a point. I do indulge my need to get things done just so.

Home grown roses

At home, I keep the same steady, yet fragmented pace. I’ll start to sweep the porch, then notice a weed, which reminds me to harvest some lettuce, and then to check the sourdough rising on the kitchen counter.

Bob and I are hard-wired incrementalists. We believe in the power of the small job. Because we find big jobs arduous and taxing, we prefer to tackle things before they balloon out of control. I’d rather haul the recycling in my car once a week than wait a couple of months and have to borrow a truck. Bob plants his garden one or two flats at a time, not all twenty at once.

While some glory in the occasional Herculean effort, I celebrate multiple daily victories as I chew through my list of small tasks. One bed mulched. Line-dried sheets. Tomorrow’s casserole assembled today. It makes me feel put together, in control, on top of things, and provided for. All tasks add to our quality of life: good home grown food, fresh flowers, and uncluttered horizontal space.

Despite prevailing evidence, I am neither OCD nor ADD. My pursuit of order is not a disorder; it is the essence of the good life. Seeing things that need fixed and fixing them right now is not a deficiency – it’s the opposite of procrastination. Losing myself in the minutia of everyday life is my path to nirvana. At the end of each day I sink into my heavenly bed, satisfied I’ve made a lot of things a little better.