Sunday, March 25, 2012

Raking the Ashes for Nails

The line went something like this: "Remember when we raked the ashes to find nails?"

I read that line maybe 45 years ago in a Reader's Digest article about a young couple building their first home with love, ingenuity, and very little money in post-war America. It has stuck with me all these years. In recent days, that line about raking the ashes has been knocking at my mind's door.

It took me a long time originally to figure out that line in context. Why were they raking the ashes for nails? Were they using a lawn rake? Who put the nails in the ashes to begin with? Why didn't they just go buy more nails? It was a long time before I realized the couple was so strapped for cash that, as they built a fire with scrap lumber each night, they realized they could procure a few more nails the next morning if they were careful.

As I got older (I was 10 when I read this article, as I explain in the footnote below), I replaced my image of the bamboo lawn rake with one of a sand rake. Much later, I realized they were probably combing through the ashes with their fingers. I eventually came to understand it was not mere frugality that drove them to this measure, but also a hearty dose of desperation.

Raking the ashes to find nails.

Sometimes we have to rake through our personal ashes for those nails: to rebuild a relationship, to find the courage to make a fresh start, to build a bridge to the next phase of life. Lately, I have been raking through my own long-cold ashes of the past, hoping, praying for just one nail.

Remember when we raked the ashes to find nails?

I still am.

Okay, a lighthearted note on why I know I was about 10 when I first read this article. This particular article, about the young couple in Vermont building their first home, stuck with me for a long time in part because it was the first time I had come across the World War II slogan "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." I was so taken with that slogan that I tucked it (and the story) away in long-term memory. The memory of this article was so powerful that when I was a student at Ohio State briefly in the mid-1970s, I spent an hour in the magazine archives searching through the bound copies of Reader's Digest to find the original article. (I know what you are thinking and yes, I am the queen of the geeks.) I concentrated on the volumes for 1966 and 1967. The article indeed ran during those years; I found it, photocopied it, and may still have the photocopy around somewhere. In case you are wondering, the couple survived the hard winter, the house got built, and life was good. For many years, though, I was seized with a desire to move to a mountaintop in Vermont and build a house by hand in the late fall with winter breathing down my neck. I'm over that now.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Rereading a collection of essays by Reeve Lindbergh, I came across this quote by theologian Donald Nicholl: "Hurry is a form of violence exercised upon time."

I liked that quote. I liked it so much that I stopped reading and wrote it down right then.

Hurrying to capture it, as it were.

In the fall months before I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late 2004, I would get to a point every evening where I would be so cold and worn down that I would fall asleep in the very hot bath I had drawn to warm my chilled and aching body.

That memory is particularly strong these days because lately I have been getting to a point every evening where all I crave is heat and relief for my chilled and aching body. If I am not careful, I doze off sitting on the sofa, clutching a warm corn bag. When I fall into bed at night, it is with gratitude that I do not have to try to be capable of one more act, one more thought.

This winter I have dealt with a multitude of annoying medical matters, most of which turned out to be nothing, but all of which turned out to be inconvenient and tiring while they were occurring. A few, the cholesterol issue in particular, have lingered on into spring. I see both my personal physician, the amazing Pat, and my oncologist, the equally incredible Tim, in April. To the former, I will say "we need to come up with a new approach to the cholesterol." To the latter, I will say "I sure as heck hope the symptoms I am experiencing are related to the statin I am now taking and not to the myeloma."

I think (hope) it is, but I do not yet know. I may be whistling in the dark. Again.

All of this medical stuff, minor as it may be, has sharpened my awareness of time. Again. Time, time, time. How much time has passed already? Lots. How much more time is left? Don't know.

A blogger who writes about his myeloma for The Myeloma Beacon recently wrote about the effects of living with this disease for six years: "Multiple myeloma takes its toll.  A physician once told me that between the disease itself and the treatments, it wears you down.  I am certainly not what I was six years ago."

I know of what he writes. Myeloma, even when it is quiet (like mine has blessedly been), messes with your mind. It messes with your sense of time. 

Myeloma, including the reality of it one day reemerging, makes me want to hurry. Maybe that is in part because I don't know what I have left in terms of time but more likely it is because I know - for real, for sure - that time is finite and limited.  

And then I bump up against Nicholl's words: "Hurry is a form of violence exercised upon time."

I worked a very short day today, finishing off my 24 hour week before 10:00 a.m., before breezing out of the county building and walking home. I conscientiously walked slowly, not hurrying, not rushing. We are in the midst of a warm, early spring and today is more of the same. The air was gentle and every bird on the block was joining in the morning chorus. Crocuses, snowdrops, and daffodils are in bloom everywhere. Forsythia is budding. I walked slowly enough to see a sprinkle of white violets in the yard down the street.

I walked slowly enough to loosen my grip on time and linger in the moment.

Time takes enough of a pummeling from me as it is.  It is time to give time (and me) a break.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Restoration Project

From the blog "pineapple pieces"
Last week was Concert Week, leading up to the BIG concert on Sunday. And it was a BIG concert: a world premiere, a second successful collaboration with the Adler Planetarium, a full stage, a sold out concert hall, and brilliant, exciting music. Afterwards, we hosted a reception for Jaime, Jose Francisco from the Adler, and other friends.

There was food and drink and conversation. There was a lemon tart for Joe and an apple pie, wrapped carefully in foil, for Jaime to carry back home. There was the satisfaction of feeding others and the quiet task of cleaning up after the last guest sailed out the door.

Monday following the concert felt hollowed out from the noise and the laughter and the music and the excitement and the crowds. Warren commented that we both needed an evening off. He had pushed long and hard on this concert project. I had my own full slate of tasks, some of them intertwined with his.

We were both tired, tired, tired.

There were leftovers in the refrigerator. Warren had shifted the percussion room around for the party and could now reach the fireplace. He built a fire - our first of the season - while I pulled together plates of food. And then we spent the entire evening camped out in front of the fire.

An evening of reading. of fire, of dessert, of quiet. An evening of restoration. I was cold, exhausted, loved, and cared for, all at the same time.

Warren read. I read. Occasionally I would look up from my book and stare into the flames. We both munched on almond biscotti.

As the fire died down, I moved closer and closer to the hearth. By evening's end, I had my feet on the hearth, close to the fire. I poked the embers and watched small flames flare up, then subside. Finally there was only one cold blue flame deep in the heart of an ember, struggling before finally dying out.

It had been a successful week, a brilliant concert, and a happy celebration of food and friends afterwards. It had filled me up and drained me at the same time.

Monday night held the crackle of the fire, and the hush of turned pages. There was quiet and renewal. There was companionship and understanding.

And there was love.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Nature of Light

(c) Patrick Smith, for The Nature Conservancy

It being March 1, I flipped over calendar pages today to the fresh month. This photo stopped me in my tracks.

Photoshopped? Color enhanced? Real? The photographer's notes say he captured the day's dying light in the wet lava sand of a Hawaiian island.

Maybe what he really captured was a glimpse of the infinite.

My formal science instruction stopped with "Rocks and Stars" at Chicago many decades ago. So I am not one to dissect or speculate on the scientific nature of light. The closest I can come to that is to quote Jennifer Tipton, stage lighting expert and MacArthur genius: Light is the measure of the universe. It comes together for one instant--instant after instant.

We are coming back into the days of light here. The equinox is only 19 days away. Back in deep December, the morning sun turned away from its slow path south and started edging its way north again. As of yesterday, it was almost to the gap between the north side of our backyard neighbor's house and their garage. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written about our fascination with light, particularly when it comes to spiritual belief: At the darkest time of the year, the tiniest bit of light reminds us that we are all literally whistling in the dark and hoping, by these rituals of miracles of candlelight and bulbs on evergreens, we remember the divine presence. 

Maybe all I am doing in whistling in the dark. Who ever really knows? I have been reading works about death by individuals who were dying as they wrote. (I don't mean dying in the sense of being aware that all of us are mortal. I mean dying as in these authors were in the end stages of terminal cancer.) They write a lot about making peace with death. They also capture (heartrendingly so in some cases) the author's awareness and sense of the dying light of one's own life. 

Out of their writings, out of my other readings, out of my own inborn sense of light, I often turn to the words of Thomas Merton: Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.

The divine was shining on that beach. It was shining in the stars overhead two nights ago when I stepped outside. It is shining at the smallest moments through the smallest cracks.

I just need to look.

Linking up with Michelle at Graceful: