Songs of Creation

The neighbors’ tiny dog has been making his anguish audible all morning. He’s just a few ounces of fluff, thus his human providers compensated for his size by naming him “Bear.” His vocal extremities do give him a large presence.

I went to the keyboard to determine his pitch and range. He starts on a high D, more than two octaves above middle C, and slides chromatically in a downward glissando, landing on G. The glissando is repeated rhythmically, followed by a beat or two of rest. Occasionally, for variety, he soars upward to a trill on high-high G. Very occasionally, the Bear decides to be a dog after all, and gives out a few yips, a lyric soprano version of a bigger dog’s bark.

I suspect Bear is exercising his vocal cords because he’s been left alone, and he doesn’t like it. Then, as I listen more deeply, I hear not just a lonely dog. I hear him singing in unison with all Creation. I hear the deep songs of sorrow from the endangered orcas’ calls, the distant yodel of migrating cranes, the angry screech of eagles, the caustic commentary of crows, the sassy yap of coyote, the howling wolf.

Ah, yes. Wolves. Sad news this week from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The agency had to cancel a series of fourteen statewide meetings about wolf management because officials feared violence. Not from the wolves, mind you, but from both wolf-partisans and wolf-haters. Threats on Facebook were emanating from both sides.

Instead of meetings, the wildlife agency invites the public to respond to an online survey. That’s not good. If we humans cannot come together face-to-face, listen and learn from each other, agree to disagree in pursuit of solutions, we’re doomed. In my worst nightmares, that’s how I see climate change progressing: instead of humanity joining in harmony to rescue this extraordinary planet, we’ll engage in tribal fights, clinging to our delusional beliefs about what we own and/or have a right to.

Sunday, Sept. 1, is the Global Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. It’s the first day of the Season of Creation, observed worldwide by both Catholics and Protestants, ending Oct. 4 on St. Francis of Assisi Day. Christians are asked to pray and celebrate with Creation, focus on the story of Earth, and commit to a ministry of healing Earth. I particularly like this prayer from Australia:

God, our Creator, help us to love
all creatures as kin,
all animals as partners on Earth,
all birds as messengers of praise,
all minute beings as expressions of your mysterious design
and all frogs as voices of hope. 
Amen.

While I was writing, my neighbors apparently returned home. Bear has been silent. I don’t often find frogs on the riverbank, but maybe in this moment of silence I’ll be able to hear the frog’s voice of hope. Just a mere peep, but worth listening for.

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Photo by pexels.com

The Very Least We Owe

“The medium is the message.” That was the late Marshall McLuhan’s theory—a big deal when I was studying communications in the 1960s. I thought then that I understood what he was suggesting, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until the past couple of weeks.

McLuhan argued that technological innovations disrupt and shape society. Prime example: the printing press that led to the Reformation. Would McLuhan ever have a field day studying social media!

I’m not a frequent flyer on Facebook. Yet even from my remote corner of the world I’m aware that a vast number of people view it as their primary news source, that information is manipulated, data are breached, and a five billion dollar fine is chump change for Mark Zuckerberg. It all seemed so remote until it hit home.

I’d written what I thought was a mild but straight-forward endorsement of a school board candidate, sent it to the newspaper as a letter to the editor, and posted it on Facebook. Not one person has commented on the letter in the newspaper. The Facebook post generated a flurry of responses, both thumbs up and heated criticism, including a debate over whether Facebook is an appropriate place for campaign dialogue.

Appropriate or not, Facebook is the place where people show up. It’s doggone hard to get a crowd at informational meetings or voters’ forums.

Ordinarily, school board races are ho-hum; we feel fortunate if we get a single, viable candidate for each slot. The excitement over this one stems from a twice-failed bond issue for a proposed new middle school. The district tried holding open houses to explain the need. People turned out by the handful. The majority of voters approved the proposal, 1,306 to1,132, but that failed to meet the state-mandated sixty percent approval. It appears our small community is just as polarized as the rest of the nation.

How do we get back to agreeing with each other for the greater good? Social media?

Megan Phelps-Roper is a former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, known for its hate speech. In a TED talk, she asks and answers the question, “If you’re raised to hate, can you reverse it?” Her inspiration for leaving the church, a courageous act that made her a pariah to her family, came from conversations on Twitter. Not the medium I’d expect for theological conversion.

Essayist Jia Tolentino is quoted in the New York Times arguing that posting on Facebook or Twitter “makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard.”

Social psychologist Robb Willer says we can bridge the political divide by listening to and understanding the values that are most important to the other side. He says liberals are most likely to value equality and fairness while conservatives place their highest value on loyalty and patriotism. Well, shoot. I can embrace all those values. Can’t you?

“Empathy and respect,” are the bridge, says Willer. “If you think about it, it’s the very least we owe our fellow citizens.”

His solution is doable, if not always easy. And, no. There’s no app for that. There’s only the willing heart.

Good Samaritans

Ah, sabbath rest! Yesterday’s peaceful morning enhanced my enjoyment of wildlife along the river. Until the wildlife got, well, wild.

Breathing the cool morning air, I smiled as the Duck Family paddled by—the ducklings by now as large as their parents. The Quail Family enjoyed a leisurely brunch on my patio. Mom, dad, and a dozen-or-so little ones picked their way through the buffet of seeds that the wind had blown in. Hummingbirds sipped from the trumpet vine along with bees and butterflies. Filled with contentment, I headed inside to dress for church.

Before long I heard voices—human voices—bellowing at full volume. What on earth? I stepped back outside to see a large man in the middle of the river, caught in the current. The Okanogan has been dubbed a not-quite-white-water river. It appears languid, but has a persistent current that every once in a while will catch a swimmer unaware, pulling them under for the full count. This fellow wasn’t really swimming, but appeared to be tall enough to bob his way downstream, bouncing his feet off the bottom to keep his head above water.

People on the river bank were screaming instructions on how to get out of the current, which he seemed intent on ignoring. As he approached my location, I was wondering if I should add my voice. Suddenly there was a loud splash just a few feet from me. A man had dived from the bank, life jacket on his back, and was swimming toward the victim with strokes so powerful Michael Phelps would’ve taken notice. Later I learned he was a volunteer fireman, trained in water rescues. He just happened to be at my neighbor’s house. It took him only seconds to close in on the victim.

What are the odds? What beautiful synchronicity, that someone so capable would be in the right place at the right time! Makes you believe in angels, doesn’t it? Except. The “victim” didn’t want any help.

“F___ OFF!” he yelled at his would-be rescuer.

“HE’S A FIREMAN! LET HIM HELP YOU!” my neighbor called, over and over. The “victim” was having none of it, even threatening to hurt the fireman. The fireman floated alongside him for about a half-mile, perhaps trying to reason with him. Finally, the fireman gave up and swam over to the bank. I watched the bobbing head continue downstream until I couldn’t see him any longer.

The rest of the story, which I learned from unofficial sources, was that the guy had shoplifted at Wal-Mart and tried to elude pursuers by jumping off the high bridge upstream. To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, that jump alone should’ve killed him. Police finally fished him out of the river—alive—about a mile downstream.

I went off to church, where the Gospel reading for the day was the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lots of Good Samaritans in our world, but not everyone wants to be saved.

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The bridge: not a good jumping-off place

Is It Actuarily Or Actually? England 2019–Part Final

The day after I flew back from England, I met with my financial advisor. He informed me that actuarily I should plan to live to age ninety-three. I’m having a hard enough time wrapping my head around the fact that I turned seventy-five last month. I couldn’t imagine being ninety-plus until I remembered the reason I went to England in the first place. It was to celebrate my friend Jan’s ninetieth birthday.

Jan makes ninety look like an enticing adventure. She and I have been friends for fifty years, meeting when we both lived on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. She moved to England about the same time I moved to the Okanogan in eastern Washington. We’ve managed, from time to time, to arrange joint birthday celebrations—revolving around mine in May or hers in June. A few years back, she suggested to me that when we reached the ages of seventy-five and ninety respectively, it would be reason enough for me to fly to England. It was.

After I finally managed to debark from the train at Great Malvern, I was happy to settle into Jan’s tiny Chevy. I knew from past experience that we’d be traveling England’s rural roadways at a good clip. Jan, wearing tight leather driving gloves, adroitly manages clutch and gearshift as she maneuvers twists and turns among the hedgerows. She says she always wanted to compete in the Grand Prix as a grandmother. Walking is a challenge for her; she uses a cane to steady her balance. But get her behind the wheel, and she combines the reaction speed of a teen-ager with the maturity of ninety.

We toured the countryside as we celebrated throughout the week—high tea at an elegant hotel, family time with her granddaughter and daughter-in-law in homey pubs, and a culminating event involving nineteen of us in a hotel private dining room.

“Tell me about the women who will be there,” I suggested to Jan earlier in the week. One by one she briefed me about her friends so that when we finally gathered, I could fully appreciate this wondrous roomful of women. Each was accomplished in her own way, representing the arts, education, spirituality, environmentalism, family nurturing, and global efforts toward world peace and justice. One woman, buxomly built, simply dressed, told of a global conference she’d just attended in Italy. Despite the world’s dismaying problems, there are people finding a way forward, she promised, offering her bywords: “Stubborn optimism.”

At Jan’s request we totaled up our ages: some thirteen hundred years of combined experience and wisdom. You could almost feel the walls of that dining room vibrate with the intensity of women who’d grown into their power. We sat at three tables in a triangular arrangement, so that everyone could see and talk with everyone else. Three birthday cakes held thirty candles each. Jan ended the celebration by reading from the finale of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” My favorite lines are:

“We shall not cease from exploration
“And the end of all our exploring
“Will be to arrive where we started
“And know the place for the first time.”

When I returned home, a birthday card from Jan awaited me.

“You will always be any age you wish,” she’d written. So much for actuaries.

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Still wheeling at ninety. Remember, it’s England. The driver’s on the right.

Tour De Force–England 2019 Part Five

You sit down to dinner on a Sunday evening with twenty-or-so strangers. A week later—after sharing meals, dramas, comedies, discussions and surprises—you say goodbye to these new friends, and you feel sad.

“Sounds like summer camp!” my step-daughter, Kerrie, exclaimed. She’d just picked me up from the airport shuttle, and I was describing my day. It began with poignant farewells in London, followed by a ten-hour flight to Sea-Tac. I too had thought of the summer camp analogy, but I don’t remember any of the kids at camp being as scintillating as the members of my Road Scholar London theater tour. At that introductory dinner, one of the men was telling me about the Florida retirement community where he lives.

“Is it a diversified population?” I asked.

“About as diversified as the people in this room,” he smiled.

I looked around. We were all white, over fifty, seemingly middle class (or upper-middle), more women than men, from all across the United States plus one Canadian. Pretty much who you’d expect to turn out for a gig like this: intellectually curious with the financial resources to feed that curiosity. In other words, privileged. We were reminded of that privilege all week by the homeless who slept on the sidewalk outside our hotel.

This was my first tour experience. Most of our group were Road Scholar veterans with tales of adventures world-wide. Novice that I was, I knew no tour is any better than the person who leads it. Our leader, Dave, was a master of logistics. He adeptly adjusted to the unexpected—which occurred frequently. He was perpetually good-humored in that understated, British-sort-of-way. He got vexed only when hired coach drivers were late or lost or both. Even then, Dave would comment in wry fashion, “They always say they’re ten minutes away. Doesn’t mean anything.”

One of the tour veterans told me that groups either bond or they don’t. I don’t know that our group bonded as a whole, yet there was one individual, Terry, who wove us together in a silent web of caring. I suspect she didn’t know she was doing it.

Terry’s mobility is seriously challenged by the unfortunate combination of an automobile accident and cancer treatments. She depends on a walker but can go short distances with only a cane. When I met her Sunday night I couldn’t imagine how she would manage getting on and off buses, in and out of theaters. She did it all unselfconsciously, with a lovely smile. There was almost always someone from the group at her side to assist—never an assigned role but something that came naturally on a casual, rotating basis.

When we took our two-and-a-half-mile walking trip through London, I was amazed that Terry opted to go along. She gamely navigated cobblestones and curbs, happily snapping photos along the way. When I returned home, I emailed her asking permission to use her photo. That’s when I learned that she’s a respected academician who studies organizational development, specializing in “performances of all kinds.”

I’d gone to London to watch performances on stage. Turned out, the most meaningful performances were of the everyday sort, presented by people I got to know in just one week and will, sad to say, never see again.

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Terry: An indomitable spirit that captivates

London Then and Now–England 2019 Part Four

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Big Ben under wraps

Recommended reading for travelers to London is Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography.” My Kindle reader tells me I’m only 15 percent of the way through the book, but that’s okay. In a week’s time I probably experienced less than 1.5 percent of this enigmatic, energetic city.

Even though I’ve read only as far as the 1500s, it’s enough. In London, the more things change, the more they stay the same. By 1580, the city was growing so fast and had become so overcrowded that Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation that more or less demanded, “Stop!” It didn’t work, nor have any of her successors managed to stem the tide.

Ackroyd writes: “The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled.” Consequently, the most stunning aspect of the London skyline in 2019 is the vast number of construction cranes at work. Even Big Ben, also known as Elizabeth’s Tower, is hidden behind scaffolding for a refurbishment that is, of course, taking longer and costing more than expected. Although I walked right past Big Ben, I can’t claim to have seen it.

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Sign at construction site: What language is that anyway?

In addition to sky-high construction, the city is working on infrastructure repair. On the sidewalk directly in front of my hotel was a pit revealing aged pipes. Similar pits appeared at intervals up and down the street, each surrounded by steel fencing to keep pedestrians from falling in.

In what seemed a random pattern, traffic lanes were blocked off for street repair. The result was congestion that would stupefy even the most intrepid Seattle driver. Once again, nothing new.

“The state of traffic … was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation,” writes Ackroyd. John Stow, born in 1525 and a chronicler of his times, complained: “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth …”

Modern London pedestrians tend to throw caution to the winds, frequently ignoring traffic lights and crosswalks. One afternoon I happened on the scene of an accident. A bus had hit a jaywalking pedestrian. I have no idea how badly the pedestrian was hurt, but seeing the cracked windshield on the bus was chilling.

The good news is that there’s no gridlock because there’s no grid. The meandering streets and byways were never systematically laid out. They were created to make connections and serve purposes that no longer exist. In Ackroyd’s words, it’s a “bewildering network.”

Our hotel provided free maps, and I’m a pretty good map reader, but this one confounded me.

“[T]he mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable,” warns Ackroyd.

Nonetheless, when our group took a two-and-half-mile walking tour (much better than being stalled in traffic on a bus), one of the women was determined to mark the route on her map. All along the way—Trafalgar Square, China Town, Big Ben, Parliament, the Thames—she concentrated on her map. At one point she walked up beside me and asked, “What was going on at that gate back there? Why did everyone stop?”

“No. 10 Downing Street,” I answered.

She wheeled around and flew back to the gate for a look, her map still in hand.

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The “dig” in front of my hotel
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View from my hotel room

The Play’s The Thing–England 2019 Part Three

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At Shakespeare’s Globe Theater the cheap seats aren’t seats at all but standing room in the “pit,” directly in front of the stage

When you take a seat on a plane, train, or bus, you expect to travel a set number of miles in a specific amount of time. When you take a seat in a theater for a live stage performance, you can anticipate an infinite journey across time and space.

I signed up for a week-long, Road Scholar tour featuring London theater. I knew I’d see six plays in as many days but I didn’t know which ones. Formerly known as Elder Hostel, Road Scholar specializes in educational travel for seniors. The tour included lectures and other adventures during the day and a play each evening. It was a satisfying mix: some Shakespeare, some contemporary, some comedy, and plenty of soul-searing drama.

Live theater is all about being “in the moment.” Many, if not all of the plays spoke to what’s going on in our world today: especially politics and the #MeToo movement. The week began with “Bitter Wheat,” billed as a farce but in reality a disturbing commentary on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The main attraction was the chance to see the brilliant actor, John Malkovich, live on stage. The play was still in previews, and as we watched, David Mamet—its celebrated author—stood directly behind us, more or less breathing down our necks. Many in our group who disliked the play were joined by newspaper reviewers a few days later, after it officially opened. Some of the reviews were more scathingly clever (like this one) than the play itself.

Politics can unite and divide. Both the U.S. and England are experiencing a profoundly divisive political era, which, playwrights would remind us, is nothing new. More than a century ago Henrik Ibsen wrote “Rosmersholm,” a dark drama enmeshed in political differences, with suicide and incest added for flavor. During England’s Thatcher era (when Conservative Margaret Thatcher became England’s first woman prime minister), Caryl Churchill wrote “Top Girls,” an examination of the severe cost to women who aspire to power—and not just political power. Our seats in those theaters were comfortable enough, but the message? Not so much.

Sometimes the setting itself—even the audience—can have as much a role in the play as leading characters. The Old Globe is a modern recreation of Shakespeare’s theater, allowing us to experience the bawdy hilarity of his era while watching “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Action was not confined to the stage, but spread into the “pit,” where the rabble of Shakespeare’s day would’ve been standing. And drinking. And brawling.

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County Hall council chambers: somber setting for a murder mystery

Agatha Christie’s venerable mystery, “Witness for the Prosecution,” was performed in the opulent council chambers of County Hall, once the seat of local government. The play—a murder trial— is lightweight entertainment, but the setting gave it the somber depth a murder trial deserves.

My favorite—the show I want all the world to see—was “Come From Away,” a musical about, of all things, 9/11. After the attack, thirty-eight planes were ordered to land in the small Canadian town of Gander. The tightly choreographed musical is based on the true experiences of those small-town citizens and the seven thousand stranded visitors they hosted. It sugar-coats nothing but depicts the full spectrum of human behavior, from prejudice to compassion, from hostility to charity.

Six evenings. Six plays. Sunday I would board the plane taking me from London to Seattle, a journey of mere miles.

 

All Aboard? Not Quite–England 2019 Part Two

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View from the front seat

“These trains get funnier looking all the time,” the bus driver mused for the benefit of his passengers. I’d planned on boarding a train that morning, heading to London after a wondrous if rainy week in the Cotswolds.

Did Great Malvern Station have it in for me, I wondered. Earlier in the week I couldn’t get off the train there, and now I couldn’t get on. Instead, a line-up of motor coaches awaited at the station. The Great Western Railway was taking advantage of a Sunday morning lull to do track repair. I’d be riding a bus as far as Evesham, where I’d transfer to the train.

I settled in a front seat to take advantage of the panoramic view through the windshield. That put me in conversational proximity with the driver, who was genial in a John Cleese sort of way.  At each stop he’d cheerfully welcome passengers aboard, then as the bus started rolling again, he’d get on the intercom: “Captain speaking. Seatbelts are provided for your safety, not comfort. If you choose not to use one and are caught, the fine is a hundred quid.”

His driving style was skilled yet casual. He needed only his right hand to guide the massive coach around even the sharpest corners while his left tapped the steering wheel, matching the rhythms of music playing softly on his radio.

When he learned I was from the United States, he said, “I guess this is the question all Americans get asked—is Trump good or bad?”

“Is Brexit good or bad?” I responded. I’d meant the question rhetorically but he replied, “I guess they are pretty much the same,” and launched into his assessment of Brexit.

“It’s stupid,” he began, declaring it wouldn’t help anyone. No one was willing to listen to people who knew anything, he continued. The problem, he declared, is that “this generation” (his own, presumably) has never had to suffer.

“You mean like the World War II generation did?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he answered.

Later, on my fifth day in London, I gave up hoping that the bronchial cough I’d been fighting for two weeks was going to cure itself.  I was in a National Health Service waiting room, where twenty or so people sat quietly, like me, waiting to see a physician. In front of us was a giant TV screen, showing a news broadcast with volume off. Dialogue captions crawled across the screen. As I watched, the announcers were revealing the three finalists in the race for prime minister.

Somehow I’d managed to visit England at a time of political vortex, arriving the week following President Trump’s visit and amidst the chaos of an election. Or seeming chaos. The consensus seems to be that Boris Johnson has a lock on the prime minister’s spot. I looked around the room to measure reactions to the latest news, and there were none. Most people were either consulting their phones or staring into blank space.

What if no one cares?

Mind The Gap–England 2019 Part One

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After forty-five minutes on the airport shuttle, ten hours in the air, forty-five minutes in a bus followed by two-and-a-half hours on the train, I’d finally reached my destination: Great Malvern, Herefordshire County, England. Waiting for me was my long-time friend, Jan, who is celebrating her ninetieth birthday.  As the train slowed, I donned my backpack, slung my laptop bag over my shoulder, and wheeled my suitcase to the end of the car, where I waited for the exit door to open.

It didn’t.

“How do you get the door to open?” I called back to the nearly empty car. A young woman who’d been sitting across from me quickly rose from her seat and ran to the door. By the time she reached me, the train had begun rolling again. She whipped out her phone to consult the train schedule.

“The next stop is Colwall. You can get off there and wait for the next northbound train back to Great Malvern. They won’t charge you,” she assured me. The train pulled up to Colwall, which  offered nothing more than a small shelter, like you find at city bus stops. There was no one around.

“Will you be alright?” she asked with concern. I assured her I would be. I was not at all sure as I stepped into the rainy, English countryside. An electronic sign promised the northbound train would arrive in thirty-five minutes. Before long, a weathered, older-looking man showed up.

“This [bleeping] weather, you can’t do [bleep]!” he exclaimed. He continued to complain about the “[bleeping] rain.”

“Where I live, we welcome the rain,” I said brightly.

“Where’sat?” he asked.

“Western United States,” I answered.

“Oh, well,” he shrugged dismissively.

He’d recently retired from farming, I learned: “Seventy years old, and I decided fifty-three years o’ it was enough,” he said. He was headed south to Hereford for the afternoon, he said. Might as well, because in “this [bleeping] weather, you can’t do [bleep]!” he repeated.

The train to Hereford arrived.

“Nice to meetcha,” he grumbled in farewell.

It was my first conversation with a Brit since landing in England hours earlier. I missed the customs officer from my last trip who asked me why I didn’t visit more often. Going through customs is all automated now. You slide your passport through a scanner that simultaneously takes your photo. Ticket sellers at the bus and train stations don’t have time or inclination to chat amidst the throng of passengers. I would’ve struck up a conversation with the young woman on the train, but she’d been concentrating on her phone the entire time.

Finally I boarded the northbound train and planted myself next to the door. Back at Great Malvern, I pushed the exit button with fierce determination.

“MIND THE GAP,” the traveler is consistently warned. This time the door opened and I stepped across the “gap,” a space of thin air between the train and concrete landing. Minding the gap, I’d arrived at last at my destination.

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Covered Piles of Stuff: My Stuff & Stories May 31

fullsizeoutput_1fdbI could go on, but mercifully I will not. For the past month, during which I celebrated my seventy-fifth birthday, I’ve posted daily blog entries about stuff I’ve acquired through these seven-and-a-half decades. This Google satellite photo illustrates comedian George Carlin’s famous observation: “A house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

The cover on my pile of stuff is in the center of the photo. On the right is my former home, which allowed for a much larger pile of stuff. On the left is a rental home, where new folks are just now moving in with their pile of stuff.

The stuff I wrote about didn’t include essentials, such as stove, refrigerator, bed, couch. The stuff I featured had to have a story. My reasoning is that we don’t hang onto cherished stuff for practical reasons but for reasons of the heart.

I’m afraid I didn’t make that entirely clear, because a couple of readers suggested that I simply take photos of the stuff, give the stuff away, and enjoy the photos, which require less space. I already have way too many photos stashed away as it is. More important, to badly paraphrase an adage attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. A photo is not the same as touching, looking directly at, being surrounded by, and appreciating the mysterious ways atoms come together to create the stuff that we love. I relish the physical presence of my storied stuff in my space, even if it does create clutter.

As I sorted through the stuff, I discovered a few items to give away. Their stories had faded or weren’t so great to begin with. That does NOT mean I’ve created shelf space for more stuff. If you’d like to binge-read the entire series, you can find it on my website archive. I deeply appreciate all who have followed the series, and I’ve enjoyed your comments.