Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

I hate shopping, except for tires and mortgage

I hate buying new shoes.

My feet slip comfortably into the indentations they’ve formed in my old shoes like a nice hug. My old shoes form comfortably to my feet. Unfortunately, they also form to the ground and the ground and my toes are starting to kiss when I’m not looking.

My old shoes are comfortable, but the leather is so worn they won’t hold a shine anymore. The seams are popping, the heels are peeling and the soles have holes.

But I hate to buy new shoes because I never know about the fit. They’re stiff, but will they loosen eventually and conform to my feet? Although they’re the right size by the chart, they feel tight. Will they loosen up or do I need to go up a size?

I don’t like to buy new shirts, either. I can’t just get a “medium” because the sleeves are too short. I can get fitted shirts with a sleeve length that works, but I don’t wear “dress” shirts much anymore.

I hate to grocery shop because I don’t know where anything is. I could spend two hours in the grocery picking up half a basket full of food I need – and filling the rest with food that triggers my visual and olfactory nerves.

My wife is so efficient with her list she could make the same trip, minus the bad things I tend to toss into the cart, in 15 minutes.

The simple truth is I hate shopping period. I don’t want the fridge to empty, or my underwear to get holes in them. I don’t want to stand in front of the Red Box and try to pick out a movie that will satisfy everyone.

I don’t want to have to pick out the roses for Valentine’s Day.

But there are two things I don’t mind paying for: my mortgage, and tires.

There is something satisfying about providing my family’s cave of safety, the abode alamode, the harbor of peace and haven of labor. In many modes and varieties, it’s where we raised the kids, where we come home each night.

I help in an overflow homeless shelter and the women who sleep there wake in the morning not always certain where they’re going to spend that night…or if they’re going to have a safe, dry, warm place to lay their heads.

My home anchors me in the world. I have a place, an address. I belong. When the snow falls outside, I can watch it through the window while sipping hot chocolate. I don’t have to wade through it to find a spot under a bridge, over a grate or in a doorway for shelter.

When the kids come to see us, when the grandkids come to Nana and Papa’s house…this is where they come. When they think of us, their visual is this house, these bricks, the backyard where we throw the ball, the garden boxes at the side, the deck where Papa grills the burgers. I keep my bike in the garage here.

I slide under the covers in a bed in this place, and God willing, I’ll do the same thing tomorrow and every tomorrow I have.

This is my home and I’m glad to pay the mortgage on it.

Tires aren’t quite so romantic, but I get a warm glow when I think of how they keep me from danger. Think of it. You’re racing 70-80 miles an hour down a highway littered with debris and broken asphalt, massive trucks close enough to touch, crazy drivers weaving in an out, curves that test your grip, wet weather, even snow. What is the thin black line keeping you from careening into a ditch, wrapping yourself around a tree or flipping end over end like a stunt car driver in a Marvel flick?

Your tires.

Years ago we made an extended trip from Nashville, to Wisconsin to drop the kids off and on to Pennsylvania for a meeting. Hours on the road, high speeds, mountains and summer heat.

I pulled the car into the driveway, glad to be safely home. Unloading it, I looked at the tires…so bald the steel belts were showing. That morning I drove the car 70 miles an hour down the interstate. That afternoon I was afraid to drive it 25 miles an hour to the tire store.

Ever since that day, I’ve been very conscious of my tires, maybe even replacing them sooner than required. But the peace of mind knowing they can roll over a stone in the road, or a piece of glass or handle a rain slick curve is worth the nominal price.

Someone told me once don’t be afraid to spend money for a good bed and a good pair of shoes because you spend your whole life in one or the other.

I’m saying don’t feel bad about your house payment or rent, and keeping good “shoes” on your car. They’re good investments.

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.