I could provide a blow-by-blow of the past three weeks. The list of “dids” would be long, and while I could characterize each as necessary, important, delightful, or exhausting, in the end it would still be … a list. Each of us could do that and perhaps feel a momentary, enhanced sense of significance on earth. But doing that could be yawn-inducing, and could seem small in the face of recent world events.
Suffice it to say that, in the span of three weeks I have not been still, and my responsibilities and entanglements–things I can or have to do something about–have loomed large in my perception. My spouse-hood took me to Portland. My moonlight work and citizenship took me to Washington. My day job, parenthood, and home-ownership all took me to Birmingham. On the last account, a team of wife, daughter, son, in-laws, friends, hired help, and I emptied a house and sent its contents to points north and east. All of this involved a tremendous amount of reading, writing, face-to-face conversation in groups and one-on-one, listening and watching, advising, engineering, texting, emailing, deciding, handling, lifting, falling, hugging, crying, and driving. And, oh yes, sleeping and eating. At the time, some parts of all this activity seemed a distraction from the main thing, but now more than a week past a 1,200 mile drive in a U-Haul truck and the necessary unloading, I recognize it was all the main thing and begin to feel an inkling of stillness.
A few days ago a sense of peace overcame me as I prepared dinner. I
opened a paper grocery sack and took out three pears. Four days earlier, my mother had given us this bag, a half-peck of fruit she had picked up under the pear tree. True to her description, the hardy Kieffers had not yet spoiled. Spotted and bruised from their fall, they were nevertheless still sound. I peeled, cut out the bruises, and cooked the three with a piece of chicken and some herbs. It was quick, satisfying, and one of the more intimate moments of the past few days.
Among the items that survived packing, loading, driving, unloading, and unpacking was a green porcelain teapot my brother and sister-in-law gave us years ago with a stash of tea to brew in it. I boiled some water and poured it over bags of leaves in the pot. If it is possible, the heat, savor, caffeine, and (added) sugar provided an even greatest sense of comfort, beyond the fruit.
For years I have carried a small spiral-bound notebook, and its presence on my person was essential during the past many days. It has been chocked with sometimes-illegible notes and to-do lists indiscriminately mingling the mundane—“buy tape”—with the weighty—“sell house.” The current notebook’s pages have grown black, green, and blue with items inked in and then struck off. Many remain as I struggle with the cancer of procrastination.
During the move my front pockets bulged with extra sets of keys—a rental pickup, the U-Haul—and my back pockets with a screwdriver and adjustable wrenches. Some things required disassembly for moving. One tool, nestled on top a bed of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters in my left-hand pocket, and underneath the keys remained with me throughout, an Uncle Henry pocket knife. Besides cutting rope and opening boxes during unpacking, it reminded me of my roots in a time and place where it was once commonplace to carry such a thing all the time, even to school.
The many documents surrounding house-selling ride well on a flash drive, easier to manage than armloads of manila folders. I am old enough to marvel at how electrostatic charges and magnetostatic domains replace molecules of ink deposited on paper. To better keep up with the gadget, I hung it from a lanyard I got at a conference. The sentiment on the ribbon, “Always Learning” keeps me mindful that all of the “ings” of the past three weeks were at least opportunities to learn.
Among the items lying about the apartment is a copy of a book the folks at AMS gave me, a welcome-aboard gift. Unlike the other items in my still life, it has not been traveling lately, but instead it has been like a house-sitter in my absence, and before that a taciturn companion who talks now and then about inexpressibly large numbers. In Really Big Numbers, Richard Evan Schwartz has created an image- and idea-rich book that can fire the imagination of someone of any age and bring them to the edge of their current grasp of what a number is. At once rooted with my instincts and experience, it is also emblematic of the future inquiring minds that my work helps to support.
So, there sit pears, teapot, notepad, knife, and book, little details on a tapestry of my time. Random things, their quiet speaks of deliberateness. “Random” and “deliberate” apply to acts in the wider world as well, and my peaceful scene will not let me forget that either.