Friday, June 20, 2008

Takin' What They're Givin'...

Whoa, over a month since the last post. Yikes. Rest assured, I'm not lazin' away in the hammock. Okay, maybe a little bit. Here's the deal: Three features, two essays, three photo packages, daily photo requests, etc. Biz-E! The "E" is for enigma, as in, it's a mystery how I'm able to make a living doing this---but so far so good. Anyway, here's a fresh essay regarding the topic of work and balance (more like lack of) that's running right now in Northern Home & Cottage, a sister publication of Traverse Magazine. Now, back to work! For me at least...

I saw what was going to happen the moment the angular split of white birch launched from my hand, a chalky flap of bark following like a contrail. The birch bomb smacked the dog's speckled rump, exploding in an impossibly sharp "yiiipe" that pierced the stifling afternoon heat.

Gus, one of our emotionally fragile and frenetic border collie mutts, bolted from the woodshed and dove under the trailer where I was standing. I’d been moving the woodpile in a work-induced trance of pick-up-wood, toss-wood. He’d been sneaking bits of bark to neurotically gnaw, and got caught in the friendly fire.

"What did you do to the dog," demanded my wife, Kristen, poking her head out from inside the shed where she'd been stacking the wood I was tossing.

Things hadn't been going well that day, and it apparently wasn't going to get better. Maybe it was the still air, thick as bathwater. Or maybe it was because from the moment we saw bare ground in late April, she and I had been raking, wrenching, digging and painting our old farmstead back into shape. Over winter we'd happily filled page after page of a legal pad with projects we fully believed would be accomplished this summer.

Here’s the thing: we like work. Or, perhaps it’s not that we like it, but we know it, understand it and draw animal comfort from it, like Gus gnawing piles of bark into splinters. A friend has diagnosed us with “pointy butt syndrome,” the inability to sit still. But everyone has their limits, and now in mid-July and only about ten items into our list, we could already taste murder in the back of our throats.

She scrambled over the pile and out of the shed, sleeves rolled. Her forearms were bruised and cut, it was 90 degrees and humid, she had sawdust in places I’m not supposed to write about...and now I was beating her dog. There was going to be a reckoning. A wood-chopping woman from the U.P. was about to remind me of all the things I already knew about myself, but tried to forget in between moments like this. This was going to involve genetics, and nicknames and intimacies I definitely won't write about. This was going to hurt.

But then she stopped. She was looking over my shoulder, where the south side of the white farmhouse rippled in the heat.

"Look at that," she said, pointing. "There, on the clothesline."

It was a female ruby-throated hummingbird, sitting like a plump long-beaked Buddha, perfectly still on the clothesline in the middle of the yard. We'd seen several hummingbirds since spring, fighting around the feeder or buried eyes-deep in the pink sweet-pea blossoms climbing up the pumphouse. They are pure energy, feathered electrons zipping through flower gardens from Panama to Canada and back within the year. Still, here she is just sitting, an emerald splash of Zen on our clothesline in the mid-summer heat.

If a walnut-sized bird that's going to cross the Gulf of Mexico in the next few months can take a break, well, maybe we can too. It's not like we hadn't earned it. Already this year we'd hand dug a trench 20 feet long for a new water line. We'd painted the house and outbuildings. We'd hacked, burned and hauled away the collapsed barn and tackled dozens of necessary projects we’d already forgotten. For months we'd been throwing ourselves at the all-consuming, bent-back-and-bleeding-fingers work that doesn't hurt until you stop at dusk.

The ability to work blindly is our inheritance, perhaps the only we'll see. It's how our people kept their heads above water, mostly, even while it planted them in the soil before their time. It's how a girl becomes the first in her family to go to college, works two jobs and doesn't stop until they tell her there aren't any degrees left to obtain. It's how we were able to buy this place, but it's not why we bought it. We bought it for the shot gun blasts of chaotic flowers in the yard and the two fat maples where the hammock ought to go, but hasn't yet. We repotted our lives to this place because there are spots like the clothesline, where, if your feet are small enough and you have a belly full of nectar, you can relax—when you make the time.

We sat down in the wide woodshed door, and leaned back against the sun-bleached hardwood splits to watch the hummingbird for what seemed like an eternity. It would blink, cock its head a bit, but otherwise was still. Humless. But I felt this whole green-and-blue globe purring along beneath us, with a couple of people, dogs and a weird little bird perfectly still at the axis.

Eventually Gus nudged me, a wet nose saying all was forgiven--if he could have another stick from the shed. The bird was gone. I started to get up, but Kristen put her gloved hand on my knee. We lingered a while longer, rolling our eyes and shrugging over it all. Sometimes not working, takes more effort than the jobs that need doing. It's one thing to pile wood or dig a trench, but another to bury your instincts.

No comments:

Post a Comment