Last year, a few months into the pandemic when the weather became reasonable, I headed outside to attack my yard. In a good way. My house is on a double lot, about a quarter of an acre. When my family was living here, we could divide the chores. The kids mowed the lawn, much to their vociferous dismay. Michael was in charge of the fence and cleaning the gutters in addition to tending to his massive vegetable and herb garden. Oh, the joys of fresh tomato sauce, salsa and pesto. I’m way too lazy to do all that. I immersed myself in beautifying the planet, hurling flowers, shrubs and trees into the ground as fast as I could. Decades passed. The kids grew up and moved out. Michael took over the mowing. I started wood chipping the garden in an effort to control weeds. The hours the two of us spent outside were our happy times. There’s a lot of magic living inside your own creation with your art and life partner. When I realized Michael was in the last phase of his cancer, while he slept, I tore out to the back yard and covered his beloved and massive vegetable garden with black plastic topped with wood chips. I left his perennial herbs alone and also the raspberries, but I knew I could never manage the rest of that space as he had. I planned a pollinator’s garden. Part of the work was therapeutic. Part of it was just me. Physical labor suits me. No matter what the situation in my life, I tend to crank myself up and hurl myself into a manual task. My brain, always running on high voltage, needs the balance that heavy sweating and sore muscles provide.
During my life, I’ve had a lot of descriptors tossed at me. Single-minded. Relentless. Fierce. Dogged. Unstoppable. Most recently, my son called me hard core. I’d just hauled twenty-plus 2 cubic feet bags of mulch out of my car, through the garage and into my garden in an effort to practice effective weed control. I was always cranking away outside and inside too, for that matter. Looking back, I was doing this kind of stuff as soon as I was old enough to assert myself independently. Once, back in 1967, with my two older siblings out of our apartment, and my mom and younger sister away on a trip, I remodeled my shared bedroom, even yanking down curtains and soaking them in Rit dye. I was always doing something.
For the most part, operating at an intense level is still okay with me. I’ve thought hard about how I got started on this road and truly can’t identify a beginning to my behavior. I am certain that I am only hyper-driven when the goal is one I’ve chosen. As a student I was pretty blasé about anything that didn’t interest me. But independent of requirements I was driven to devour topics of my choosing. I know a lot about seemingly unrelated random subjects. I’m not sorry that I’ve had a somewhat atypical trajectory that didn’t lead to a life path that appeared more likely for me before my academic underachievement became obvious. I am pausing, though, right before my 70th birthday, to consider whether this high voltage pace is how I want to be operating on the shorter end of my life.
I keep giving myself assignments. I have a clipboard loaded with chores, some of which are necessary and many of which aren’t. My phone’s Notes are chock full, over a thousand sitting in there, waiting to be printed or deleted. Hundreds of them are letters to Michael, some longer than others, some funny, some pathetic. Reminders of what to look into further are squeezed between lists that range from how many artists I’ve discovered in the past few years, to my rankings of things like my ten guitarists, to my life’s peak sexual experiences, to the best concerts I’ve attended in my life. Just exactly why it’s necessary for me to record all this disparate stuff is a mystery to me. My frantic attempt to codify my existence before I die? To leave a history for my family so they know more layers of the person they believe me to be? Will they care about any of my record keeping? Who knows? I think my garden book, which has a record of when I planted a flower, a tree or a shrub, how long it lived,or is still living, is kind of a cool thing, but why the compulsion? I don’t have a family bible in which all the births and deaths are recorded. Is this stuff my version of those historical treasures? Beats me.
My DVR is getting loaded with movies I haven’t watched in years. I’m in a quandary about whether to watch old ones that I remember liking or only new ones before I run out of time. I feel the same way about television shows. Old or new? I try compromising with myself about swapping watch days between series I used to love and new shows. Books are in this too. I want to go back and read favorites one more time but what about this stack of new ones? These are my “golden years.” I’m racing from thing to thing, acting as if any of these choices are supposed to be seriously significant. I really don’t think they are but my habits are really wired deeply into my psyche. In the end, is any of this stuff really important?
During these past long pandemic months, I’ve been discovering that I’m cutting away the activities and the people which have turned out to be more of a drain on my energy than a positive factor in my life. I’m less tolerant and patient than I once was, which probably isn’t saying much. When I was living in a regular dynamic with my family and all that comes with those commitments, I stifled more of my natural socially-averse impulses for the benefit of other people. Left to my own devices now, I’m not willing to do that any more. I’ve found that besides missing Michael’s company, I’ve been surprisingly well-equipped to deal with isolation. Because of my high energy levels, both mental and physical, I stay pretty busy. And based on the many deaths I’ve endured, I believe that most of us don’t wind up with much company anyway at the end of life. Giving my time to less than satisfying relationships is no longer something that seems worth my time. The same is true for participating in activities that don’t really light my internal fire. I find that the most essential interests I have revolve around the natural world. I’ve thrown myself into building an environment that services a broad number of species. At a time when our planet is laboring under neglect and outright abuse, that’s important to me. But I want to be more successful at balancing that work, with slowing down and quietly observing what’s happening around me. I’m trying to practice being hard core about experiencing what I’ve created in a more laid-back way, rather than an overtly aggressive one. I want to spend more time just being present in my space instead of constantly affecting it.
I have gorgeous plants blooming all around me. I’ve created habitat for birds, which will soon be followed by butterflies, bees and moths, to name a few insects for whom I’ve provided a bounteous landscape. But mostly, I’m racing around, snapping photos of everything, rather than letting myself just observe and soak in the world I’ve designed. The only times I let myself do that, just sit, is on the train trips I’ve taken to national parks where staring at what’s around me feels like my job. I’m also good for awhile near bodies of water which are not easily accessible in my part of the world. And I do love clouds. But I need to slow myself down right where I am every day. I got a weekend away recently where I was able to get those more relaxed feels than I do at home. On the second night I was utterly exhausted from the slowness of my day.
Spring bird migration was stunning in my yard this year. I want to spend more time just looking at all these fascinating avians and their interesting behaviors, rather than just taking their pictures. I want to simply experience all this life without compulsively turning it into work or a project. The observation brings a kind of peace and stillness that I need, rather than just being hyperintense all the time. I understand that Michael always provided that calming respite for me. I’m trying to find a way to give it to myself. Obviously I’ve benefited substantially from my intensity. But the fact is I need more balance and therein lies the conundrum.
So I’m practicing. The other day I just sat in a chair and looked around. I wandered the yard for a bit to see how all my plants, old and new were getting along. I took a photograph of a shasta daisy which for some reason, I’ve never been successful at growing. I got a close-up which I thought looked beautiful.
A short while later, I ambled around again and to my amazement, the daisy had fully opened and turned itself to face the sun. I’ve seen time-lapse videos of flowers and plants moving all the time but it was only a matter of minutes before this had happened. Imagine if I’d just sat next to it, watching that flower for those minutes. How meditative and slow that might have been.
I watched a house wren gathering materials for nesting in one of the four boxes I have specifically for them. Last year all the boxes were occupied. What happened to my residents? Were the more rare species who showed up this year too much competition for the tinier wrens? I don’t get to know. I guess that intellectual curiosity has a life of its own even as I try to slow things down, at least some of the time. Life is full of contradictions. Some people go blithely along, never noticing theirs. I’m not that lucky. So I’ll continue to wrest the best of both worlds, before my executive mental functions begin to recede with age. I’m going to try hanging on to that power with as much relentless energy as I can muster. There’s an equilibrium out there somewhere. I’m on the hunt for it.