Martijn Doolaard is a photographer, filmmaker and travel writer from the Netherlands. In October 2021 he began working on restoring two primitive stone shepherd’s cabins in the western Italian Alps. I first discovered his work in a composition video, excerpts taken from the past year of weekly videos, giving a retrospective on the first year of his renovations.
The video was unlike anything I had seen before. There is the obvious part that the scene is the Alps, an unusual thing in itself. But I clicked on the video expecting a “How-I-Did-It” break-down, and instead found myself watching something that was crafted like a cinematographic work of art, carefully edited, thoughtfully constructed, and paired with a very pleasing musical score.
I found myself both captivated and bemused. On a technical level the video showcased (among other things) what can be done with a drone. The pan and travel shots are absolutely breath-taking as they capture the stone cabins in their Alpine setting. I was deeply appreciative of the environment and how it was showcased. On the other hand, I was bemused by the clear (but quiet) playing to certain tropes. There is a deliberate and careful presentation of his life, and the unfolding events, in a certain light. He presents himself, and the project, as fantasy fulfillment–if your fantasy is living a quiet life up in the mountains. I enjoy it, but at the same time the crafting is so obvious it is almost a little distracting. Real life is more dirty, and I know it.
But what keeps bringing me back is the scenic shots of the Alps. Every time I see them, I am reminded that I am a mountain man. Watching the mountains makes me feel peaceful, free, thoughtful. That is where I would want to live.
From the perspective of evaluating the videos, they are not very practical. I am more accustomed to watching “How-I-Did-It” vidoes which are condensed to efficiently capture the bare process of doing something. By contrast, Martijn Doolaard releases a video a week, each capturing the essence of that week. The word to describe the videos would be languid and pastoral. Things happen, parts of the project are completed, but it happens over a large stretch of time. You don’t watch any individual video to have a packaged completion of a project, but a slice of life. So in any individual video (which can run well over half an hour) you see a little bit of work completed, but a lot of life and scenic shots. It is the complete antithesis of watching something on double speed so you can get the information out faster from the bunny-talking hosts. They are videos watched not so much to learn something (though you can learn a bit) but rather to put up your feet and unwind at the end of the day, and immerse yourself in imagining a life up on the Alps.
Where did this maiden voyage begin? One delay after another had pushed the project back. It went from spring to summer, then summer to autumn, and autumn had aged to winter’s edge. Only now was I finally making time for it. I would mow the field with the bush hog. But in a sense this year was not the beginning of the journey. That started decades ago.
I have a long and storied history with this field. We first moved into the house, with the field stretching out behind and back up the hill, as I was turning eight. The entire property was a little over fourteen acres, the field portion an estimated five acres. To the critical eye it is a miserable little thing; in the drier portion of the year it appears as an undulating slice of hardpan clay, in the wetter months it is riven by flowing springs that seep and rush down the hill. It exists as if configured to frustrate anyone who would think to put it to good use.
In spite of the obvious exasperations I am a little fond of the place. My childhood is in the dirt. I remember attempting to cut paths through the brush with my jack knife, and pulling our red Radio Flyer wagon up the hill, and the winters of sled rides. The view from up on the hill feels serene and anchoring as I can stare out across the valley. From certain positions no other house is visible so I can imagine my own home below exists alone in the wilderness . I can imagine myself free from the clamor of life. So the patch of land may have little to recommend it as a field for practical use, but I can’t shake my attachment.
In the first years after we moved my dad–caught in a fit of ambition and optimism–mowed the entire field over the course of a summer using a push mower. I admire the insane determination of the undertaking. The things that could be accomplished in life if we all brought to bear a grit sufficient to mow a five acre scrub lot with a push mower. The strategic wisdom of that can be argued, the grit required is undisputable.
Still, the project pretty well killed the little push mower, and it was hard on Dad. He did not repeat the endeavor. As the years passed the brush began to reassert itself. During my mid-teens my mom bought a powerful self-propelled walk-behind brush mower and I followed in my father’s footsteps, reconquering the field from the brush. Not the legendary project of my father, but still a bit of work. It took more than ten hours to complete the mowing–not a one day project, but not an entire summer slog either.
For a number of years the field was mowed and regained something of the glory it must have had in the former days when the countryside was farmed and cattle grazed the hillsides of our little valley. There are pictures somewhere of the field in green grass, spring and summer flower bursting over the landscape in bright profusion. It could be that, and more. Then I left, and later, the family left.
Five years passed as the house sat uninhabited and the land lay untouched. The brush returned like a wild horde bent on conquest. The homestead stood vacant half a decade, but it was ten years since I had lived there when I returned with my new bride to resurrect the ruins. I was a few years shy of how old my father was when he first moved in. Time gets away, and here I was again, many years later and not so very long.
I mowed the field once again with the borrowed brush mower, battling scrub and trees that towered well over my head, reclaiming land that had come to the edge of turning toward a forest. But I couldn’t keep it up. I had a growing family, a house I was trying to bring back from the grave, and far more projects than I had time. The first five years saw me make a second abortive attempt to mow the field, an ambition which died when the onset of winter and a bad muscle sprain in my back took me out of the fight. I was heading through my late thirties and was not the man I had been–either in the place of life or the boundless vigor of youth.
• • •
My failure was sobering, and a lesson that if I wanted any hope of getting some control over the land before my boys reached maturity I would have to take a different approach other than simple throwing my body at the war in the few spare days I could find in any given year. Thus I stumbled onto the plan of buying a tractor. The hope was to have a means of mowing the field which did not require as much from me in physical labor or time commitment. It felt like a huge gamble.
I kept my eye out for used tractors for sale along the side of the road, and late last autumn finally nabbed a workhorse older than myself. It wasn’t a beauty, but hopefully it was a solid thing. I brought along a man far more tractor savvy than myself, who thought it a decent investment and a fair price.
It was too late in the year to learn tractoring (a verb of young boys) so the machine went into storage on the concrete slab, a promise to look at through the long months of snow. When spring came I bought a 6 foot brush hog deck, then I called up another friend, a former farmer, and had him over to teach me the basics of tractor driving. I was all set to go.
And then life happened. Spring is always bursting with more projects than can be accomplished, and I had to do triage on my ambitions. Mowing the field did not rate as critical as getting the garden in, and house work done, so the tractor sat idle for the rest of the spring. And the summer. And then also autumn. This brought me to the beginning of December and I knew if I didn’t get the field cleared before the snow settled in then spring again would be too wet and busy to mow, and I risked repeating the whole process of delay and ultimate failure. The trees and brush were already quite high and I was–on top of everything else–starting to get nervous about whether I would be able to brush hog at all if I let things get much further out of control.
Finally a weekend came up where I was able to prioritize the field. The weather was less than ideal, wet and cool, but it was this or nothing.
I was dreading it. My last use of the tractor had been in the spring, and that was no more than an initial introduction. I felt slightly sketchy on whether I would remember all the important points. On top of that, I had visions of the tractor not even starting after sitting untouched for months. I wanted to get the field mowed, but the nightmare outcome was wasting the weekend in frustrated futility.
This fear didn’t become a reality, but it did presage some of the weekend. The tractor started great–after I figured out the choke lever worked in reverse of what I thought I remembered. My trouble with the bush hog was not so quickly resolved. I needed to figure out the existence of the PTO clutch, and after that I had to learn how to slowly (not quickly) engage the PTO clutch.
I must pause here and reflect that the day reminded me how much I am not someone who readily learns by reading a manual. For me, a manual is a good place to underline a few pertinent facts to which I may need to refresh myself, which I already know. I do not grasp new facts well from a manual. It feels a bit akin to trying to parse a language I have only begun to comprehend. If I am learning something new, my brain soaks up a visual demonstration with audio instruction, and physically doing. It was a bit of an odd experience trying to understand my tractor from its manual. I can read books of abstract thought and argument and unravel the threads in my mind. But give me a book about how a physical piece of machinery works and it feels like I am trying to look at something with my eyes closed. I felt a strange and frustrated urge well up inside me as I tried to parse the manual: Couldn’t the stupid book just show me what it was talking about? If I had found a video online the learning gap would have been quickly bridged. As it was, I had to fumblingly try to cross the void between the tractor in front of me and the written words that felt dangerously close to gibberish to my mis-wired brain.
All of that is a prelude to telling you that I think the total number of shear pins I broke was five, but one pin I broke after I figured out how to get everything working. So say it was four pins I broke just figuring out how to start the brush hog. At about $4 per pin, that was a $16 lesson in how to start a brush hog correctly. In the big picture this is not a bad price for learning, but it is also indicative of the level of my ignorance and inability to properly digest the manual. A farmer would have been appalled at the spectacle. I tried to keep a good perspective–in the end, I did figure it out.
After I cleared the initial hurdle, things went better. The tractor had plenty of power and easily traversed the brush lot, driving over anything in the way. However, after having snapped four shear pins before I even got started, I was leery about how much heavy brush the hog could swallow in one pass without the strain snapping more shear pins. So I usually did a half pass each time around the field, and kept the tractor in the lowest gear. This had the added benefit of not tearing up the field as much, with the ground being wet and muddy.
Once I got over the stress of figuring out the entire process, I settled into the routine of looping around the field. After a few passes I shut off the brush hog and let both boys have a turn driving the tractor. Then it was back to conquering the brush. There was a certain surreal, dream-like, quality to the work. The field is so anchored in the years of my past that the process of mowing felt like a trek through my life. Here is where the boy cut a path in the brush for his Radio Flyer wagon. Here the teenager mowed the field with a walk-behind brush mower, carefully avoiding the wild blueberries. Allowing each of my boys a turn to drive the tractor was a vivid reminder of how exceedingly cool I would have thought it if we had a tractor when I was growing up. On such intersections of past and present it is almost as if there is a conversation across time. “Yep,” I say to my child self. “You have a tractor. You have finally arrived.” And the child in me, still living there after all those years, feels like a great and awesome dream has at last been accomplished, even while simultaneously the adult of the present dreads this tractor as being a potential nightmare of repairs and trouble. There is a mild sensation of splitting in half as the two experiences of self seem to exist simultaneously.
The weather was miserable and many people would have called off the project. But I was determined (or desperate) to get the mowing completed. It was damp, and shortly after I started mowing it began to rain–not heavily, but enough to make everything even more wet than it had been. The storm broke, giving way to ragged clouds and blue sky. Then the wind picked up, blasting me with chilly gusts as I sat exposed on the tractor.
I was enjoying myself, a fact a bit difficult to explain because the weather was so disagreeable. If I wasn’t getting wet, my hat was trying to blow away and grit was being thrown in my face. But I felt alive. As I drove around the field I could see the house below, warm and snug with the lights on in the fading afternoon and the wind whipping the chimney smoke this way and that. With the leaves long fallen from the trees and the world sodden, the hillsides were turned to a monochrome of grays and browns. There was a mournful, and almost terrible beauty to it all, where death and life had their interplay.
I looped around the field and remembered the past, and felt life batter at me. With each pass on the field old sights greeted me, conjuring again what had been. There were the old blueberry bushes, planted when I was so young. There are the oaks along the edge of the forest larger than they had been, and I remember when we set up a long bench under one of them, rolling a log down from the top of the property. There on the north edge of the field is the poplar grove, the stream wandering its way through, down the side of the property. I remember what was of my childhood, what is, and what can be for my children. In the wild weather of the day I feel both the promise and the hardness of life and the things that pass away.
The sun is gone, and the wind is growing colder. I finish the major portion of the field, and save strawberry hill in the lower west corner another day, and fresh daylight. I park the tractor and walk down to the house, feeling a bit stiff from the chill. There is a warm fire waiting, a family that is growing, and supper to be made.
Summer made its move to autumn, and autumn quickly gives way to winter. The harvest has been gathered from the garden, the once lush plot now humps of raw dirt and tangled dying weeds. The winter wood is cut and stacked. The trees have dropped their leaves, baring gray trunks like the walls of a cold cage. Everything waits for the heavy snow.
Time always moves swiftly, but when children are bursting through the house I feel time differently. Looking at my children, I feel the blur of life with an acuteness that leaves an ache. But looking as if through their eyes, I feel a surpassing delight in the momentary thrills of small things which are glorious. I remember, and as if in a faint echo, I feel the world anew.
As summer gives way to the holiday season that stretches from autumn to winter’s edge, it is one long succession of either delightful expectation or savoring experience. Sitting down with my boys to a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast, they dig in with gusto and as I enjoy my own food I hear a running commentary of “Hm! This is good.”
And, “Yum, this is very good! Good stuff.”
Followed by, “I like Thanksgiving so much.”
Somehow, the little heads poking over the table offering this analysis only makes my own appreciation more sharpened. I feel how good it all is through the perspective of someone who has only been around for a very few years. This is all still fresh and immediate, not dulled by the repetition and ennui of age.
Thanksgiving is followed by the day for tree hunting. We have a tree farm at the end of our street which makes this process very straightforward. In my childhood it was a huge field which I helped a local farmer hay. I remember the late evening sun sinking low, the golden summer beams angling across the valley as we hurried to get the hay in before the evening dew settled. It was a beautiful field above the local hamlet, and there is a bucolic view of the valley and the church steeple from the top of the field. The view is still the same twenty years later, but the field has become a forest of trees, reminding me of the years gone, and my age.
The boys march up the hill. Some of my siblings are along for the event and having company makes everything more exciting for the little ones. One of my younger brothers is along with his wife, just married this summer. He is sixteen years younger than I, but nobody stays young, and this is another reminder of how far from my youth we are. It seems normal, and it also feels strange. Life is like that.
The weather is superb, warm and still. The tree farm is well kept so we never have any trouble finding a good tree. My wife is always almost disappointed by this fact, because in her youth it was a long travail in the places they searched. Tradition is tradition–but sometimes it is good to change. With a passel of children four and under a long travail would not turn out well, and we all know it. So we pick a tree after a short hunt and start the trek back down the hill.
I think my oldest might have been waiting for this moment the entire trip. The hill is long, grassy, and open. The perfect place for running. At four years old his body has just entered the time when muscles and mind have blossomed into a glorious synergy which will propel him through the years until age begins to catch him. But for now, jumping is no longer toppling and running is no longer toddling. He feels the life roaring in his veins. There is the beginnings of a real grace, an athleticism of power which hints at the man he will become. And so, before we can even tell him that it is not quite time to go down the hill, he is off running. Running with all his might, running with the glory of life, running down the hill, legs pumping, hair flying as if to outrun time. Down the hill he goes, getting smaller and smaller. It is a beautiful delight to watch, the sum of life and fatherhood, and poignant with a hidden heartache. Not long now. Run boy, run.
Once we are back at the house it is the time for trimming the tree and decorating. And home made hot chocolate, rich and smooth. I have heard by report that this stage can be an exceptionally fractious occasion of differing opinions and competing ideas, and perhaps that will be the picture in ten years when there are more people of age to have opinions. But for now it is mostly my wife making the decisions with the boisterous tumult of wrestling and shrieking in the background until the hot chocolate is ready and that begins to settle things down a bit. Still they are little boys with uncles around so settled is only relative.
The day continues to warm, the sun bright in a clear sky which justifies the superlative of glorious, and I hang the lights on the porch. In the bustle of the afternoon I feel the rhythms of our own marking of the season, a thing which helps slow and anchor the days. The delight of children can help bring me back to the present when plans and fretting can so easily carry me off to other times and places. The field needs to be mowed and I don’t know if the tractor will give me trouble, and I am already pondering what I will do for maple tapping come February. But right now it is preparation for Christmas, right now we are here. And at the end of the day my oldest sighs and says, “I wish we could sleep by the Christmas tree.”
No, you can’t, but we will decorate your room.
Right now we are here, in the ebb and flow of days, the putting up and taking down. The hardness of life is real and never far away. But sometimes in these days, in days like this, I can see as if from the corner of the eye, in the flash of a moment, and feel right there the goodness which is present, the peace which is there for the having, real and hiding behind it all.
And in the morning the children come down and muse (as they will again and again), “I wish it was Christmas already.”
Soon enough. Do not hurry. It will be, soon enough.
Wood day comes around once a year. It is a day of controlled chaos, which produces–almost as Rumpelstiltskin–the material needed to heat our home for another year. The logs are dropped off earlier in the year by a logging truck–literally taken with a claw and stacked in a pile in the back yard. There they sit like an intimidating mountain and wait until wood day.
From delivery of the logs (big truck! Claw arm!) to the frenzy of log bucking and splitting, the whole process is a dream come true for my little boys. It is a process all about tools, equipment, and strength–a triumvirate they aim to posses in ever greater measure, every year. My oldest, Tadhg, is four, but he was anticipating wood day well in advance. On his own initiative he started cleaning off the floor of the wood shed, shoveling and sweeping away debris and woods scraps. He was exceedingly proud of himself, and terribly cute in the earnestness of his work.
The wood day this year arrived cool and damp, low gray clouds hinting at a threat of rain. The first of the help arrived earlier than expected which made the start even more confused and disorganized than it otherwise would have been. But soon enough we had three chainsaws up and running, and even more splitting mauls in action. All together, this meant there was a lot of noise, a lot of action, and a lot of wood chunks flying about.
The boys were in the thick of it. Much to their dismay they are not big enough (or strong enough) to use a splitting maul. However, Tadhg does have the strength to maneuver an undersized wheelbarrow. Whenever he could, he made it his job to transport wood in the wheelbarrow. The adults graciously allowed him, even though they could have loaded up the wheelbarrow with more. Tadhg clearly felt very important.
Both of the boys were a real help. Even at four and three they are strong enough to pick up wood chunks and they put their heart into it. They were determined to be hard workers. I was impressed by them, and proud of them. Pip took some breaks in the course of the day, but Tadhg, (though he started to flag as the day lengthened) stayed outside for the entire project. For a boy of four years, six hours requires some endurance.
Late in the wood splitting, a gas powered pneumatic splitter was also put into action. I knew this would be a fascination for the boys because you use a lever to make the splitting wedge move up and down. As just about anyone knows, little boys (and some very big boys) think that levers which move things are really cool. So I gave permission that under supervision they were allowed to operate the lever. They only just had enough strength to move the lever position from forward to reverse, but they helped.
The rain fell heavy last night, a sudden storm which ambushed the valley with all its violence. I was up before dawn, walking in the dark and fog, feeding the chickens. Mist drifted across the beam of my head lamp, reducing the world to the space in front of me, wrapping the yard in mystery. Then from the corner of my vision I saw the moon, first a flash of light, low against the horizon. I turned to look.
I caught the moon in the moment of its exit, framed against the tree decked hill. Two trees stood in stark black relief against the pale orb, a pine and leafless skeleton. In an image it captured night ending. Hill and forest before the white light, the wild open world untroubled by the dawning concerns of a new day soon coming. The night and the wild were out there, away from it all.
I wanted to pause time, stop the picture, think and savor. But time does not stop. I moved for a different angle. The moon sets with surprising swiftness. By the time I came round the house only a sliver of the moon remained above the horizon, then it was gone.
Night goes and day comes. The first part of my journey to work takes me over a ribboning wave of hills before I reach the river valley which will take me the rest of the way. I crest one of the hills through the rock divide and dawn opens before me in a crest of successive hills. The new birthed sun peaks from behind a cloud in its golden effulgence. It is the inverse of what I saw less than two hours ago, and yet the same. A world wild and beautiful and not subject to man’s laws or his small ideas. They are hints of a better life.
Then I reach the river valley, and a short time later almost hit a deer loitering in the middle of the road. A few miles further and I almost hit a turkey. The sublime and the absurd in one morning
When weather permits on work days I take a walk at lunchtime. It is always a peculiar mental transition. I walk down the many-door hall and out the sally-port to a parking lot perched on the brow of a hill. If I went left it would be down hill to civilization. But I turn right, where pavement becomes the gravel of a seasonal road dismissively called a “dead end” by a sign at the bottom of the hill. But it’s not a dead end. It goes somewhere, and connects to other roads, if you are willing to risk the dangers of deep pot-holes. Life is like that.
The transition from the locked up walls of modern life to a dirt track through the woods is a mental jolt, in a pleasant but almost disorienting sort of way. How can these two things be so close together? The breath can go out, the shoulders relax, and my mind turns to more pleasant and thoughtful things.
This week Monday was a day with weather at the pinnacle of Autumn’s best. The sun shone warm, and the world waited with a quiet congeniality. As I walked up the gravel path, my mind wandered.
How often do I stop and consider what is being whispered in my mind’s ear? Hurry, hurry. All so much hurry. So rarely do I stop to feel the sunshine, to see the leaves blow and the color move.
How often do I stop the hurry to take a slow walk? Stop to feel the rock and dirt beneath my feet, and hear the crow call in the tree? The world move in the rustle of small creatures in the brush. The leaves pile on the side of the road, a multitude of yellow, red, and brown. They wait for no one, and everyone.
Today I saw the Amish loggers in the woods. There is a strange tension in their person. Each worker had a pair of horses hooked to a two wheeled metal hauling cart. The carts are so rudimentary the wheels are bare metal, no tires. They are dressed in their basic Amish garb, and each man touts around a roaring chainsaw. Seeing the combination leads to pondering.
The tension in the Amish attempt to straddle the world divide in their chainsaw and horses is interesting as a metaphor for how I look for some balance in life. There are some things in modern technology which are exceedingly useful, and improve life greatly. There are other things where I think wisdom might be (in the metaphor) to opt out of the hurry of motor vehicles for a slower life of riding a horse. So what is the equivalent of a motor vehicle and a horse in this metaphor? I am not entirely sure what it means for me, but I am convinced it is worth thinking about.
As I walked along I could hear one of the Amish men singing to his horse.
“Aaaah–iiieeeee–ooooouuu” The long call was tonal a chant, like a singer in the great cathedral of the words. Then the spell alters as the man descends into cheerful whistling. Then he picks up the singing again. “Lllaaa–eeeee—iiooo.” The call echoed through the trees like a voice from ancient times. It made me think about life lived away from the hurry of modern sensibility.
Afterward, I finished my walk through the trees and returned to the glowing screen of my computer. The Amish are out there, and I am in here hurrying at my computer. Maybe some day I will learn better what it means to not hurry.
The weather is cooling and the leaves are turning. The first frost has not come yet, but it is coming. Soon now. The shift from summer chores to autumn chores has occurred. There is the sense of preparing for winter’s impending arrival.
I will readily tell people I like autumn. It is what comes after that I have a problem with. Winter is a slog against depression. The long nights and bitter cold don’t help. If one could physically walk toward death, winter would be the weather that takes you there. That’s a perspective which explains to you the forboding which hangs over my enjoyment of autumn.
Still, I do enjoy autumn. I enjoy the feel of the air, the cooler weather, the rhythm of life. It is the time when the regrets of spring and summer can be laid to rest. Put to bed or buried, waiting their resurrection. The things not done now most certainly won’t be done this year. So I clear the table. Or surrender the to-do list. Maybe next year. Maybe next time. And so I let go, and there is a certain release in that. Freedom to imagine that next year will be better. Next year will be different, even when it is not.
There is also a satisfaction in the harvest. For all that was not done, something was done and there is some return on that. I haven’t treated the grape vines as I should, but there were the grapes and now there is the canned grape juice waiting for us, courtesy my wife’s hard work. I didn’t prune the apple trees this year, and that was a bitter pill to swallow this spring, and still the trees were kind enough to give a bountiful harvest. The apples may not have been as large or beautiful as if I had tended the trees. But still there was more than we knew what to do with.
The year, and the plants, can be kinder to us than we are to ourselves. I find that kindness cheers me.
The garden is a wreck, I fell behind on the weeding. The onion crop was a failure, but my first garlic harvest was a great success. The bunches now hang in the kitchen tied up neatly by the woman of the house, a promise of more next year. The beans were a success and we have more than we need. The basil still waits but the harvest is greater than we’ll ever use. The garden was not tended as it ought. But it was kind to us, too.
Last weekend I dug the potatoes with the boys. I find it a particularly enjoyable harvest because unlike most other harvests, this is one of mystery and discovery. You don’t know how many potatoes you will have until you start turning over the mounds. Each mound is a surprise of bounty. The boys love it too as we worked late together into the dark.
“We’re hard work’n men, aren’t we, Dad?”
While they got their late dinner I laid the potatoes on the porch to dry. This weekend it was the autumn chore of cleaning the potatoes of the last vestiges of dry dirt and bagging them for winter storage. It is an unassuming task, but with its own simple rhythm and pleasure. With brush in one hand the potato is rolled around for each side to be cleaned, then added to the bag. And so it goes again. Brush, brush.
The chicken yard is mowed for what I hope is the last time this year. There is so much to be cleaned up, and I know I won’t get to it all. But I tell myself that what isn’t done now can be done in spring. It makes me feel better. There is time.
I tell myself that every year.
The day is ended with a campfire, at the request of the eldest. We eat cheap hot dogs on sandwich bread finished off with smores. There is no place to go and nothing to do. At least nothing that clamors. We sit and we be still and we feel the sun go down and watch the first stars come out. The chill is good, unless you are my wife. Then it is freezing. Eldest sings us a song made up on the spot, his face reflecting firelight in the dark, his finger sticky with marshmallows.
If little boys didn’t need to go to bed I could sit out there a long time, staring at the fire before and the fire above which twinkles in its points of light. It is a night for thinking, and feeling, in that cool autumn turning.
Sometimes you can feel life, like it is pressed against your skin.
For some people, their lives turn out as they want. For some people, their lives follow a path they expect. I am not sure what percentage of people exist in that place. I feel like it is not many. Maybe in the ancient days your father was a farmer, you wanted to be a farmer, and you ended up as a farmer. Maybe back then there was more steadiness and less expectation, and thus less disappointment. At least in some times and places. We won’t discuss those sold into slavery or slaughtered by some ravaging horde of invaders. No question they didn’t get what they wanted.
Slaughtering hordes and slavery aside, I am not saying it is a bad thing that so many lives do not turn out as people want or expect. Not all wants and expectations are good. It is not hard for me to see the truth in the idea that far more often than not it is a better thing for our lives to not go as we want or expect. But living in that place is more unsettling than if life goes as I plan. It is more confusing, more mysterious.
Some turns in life are more unexpected and mysterious than others. I never expected to be a caregiver, never dreamed of it. However, this turn that my life took–while not planned or expected–is not mysterious when seen in reflection. I can see how my temperament, qualities, and values could naturally bring me into that role. So while I did not expect this turn in life, on reflection it does not confound me.
In all of life the unexpected happens, sometimes in profound ways and at other times in insignificant ways. Becoming a caregiver at the age of 24 was the first large unexpected turn, when my life first felt like it had gone off the rails in a major way. When I took that path my life went into completely uncharted territory. I was so far out from what I had expected, wanted, or planned that I had no plans going forward. Since then, life has only gone further into the brush of the unexpected and unexplainable.
My brief and only slightly illustrious career as a writer and speaker was also not anticipated in the manner it came. It had been a lifelong dream of mine to be a writer, but not the kind of writing I ended up pursuing, nor the manner in which I pursued it. My dream had been to be a successful fiction writer who was able to sit up in his office and avoid the world and complications of life while quietly churning out novel after novel which some major publishing company peddled to the world with great success. The vision most assuredly wasn’t being a writer about caregiving, along with traveling and public speaking.
Three of my biggest terrors growing up were traveling, crowds, and speaking in public. So it is one of the greatest jokes in my life that my biggest dream ended up merged with three of my nightmares. Part of the mystery here is that by the time I reached this place in life the terror had faded and the fear was mostly gone. The stuttering boy became a public speaker and it felt rather natural in the moment, if unexplainable.
After that season had ended, I found that its coming and going was part of the mystery.
Then there is my current career in the medical field–which is probably the most reasonable and understandable part of my life in the view of an outsider, and yet is the most confounding to me. I have never, ever, wanted to be a nurse. People talk about having a “calling,” but this might be better called a “dragging” where I was dragged kicking and screaming down this path. I have written previously about how my father’s job was a misery to him. Well, everything I knew or imagined about the medical field told me it was a good way to end up in exactly the miserable kind of job my father had. So often nursing is a grueling and high stress work environment. Every time I took a step down this nursing path it felt a bit like embracing that kind of doomed future.
Which, over the course of the years, is what has brought me to where I am now. This place which in one telling is a nightmare, and in another a dream. How to explain it? How am I here?
As best I am aware, where I work now is one of only two facilities like it in the entire state. It is a secure facility. That sounds a bit bland. What I mean is, security has to let you through the sally port. That sounds a bit technical. Do you know how in movies and shows where someone is going to a jail and they are “buzzed” in? It is one of those classic tropes that you don’t forget once you have witnessed it, even if only in entertainment. The character is let through the first door only to find himself in a smaller room with a second door that has a light by it. A “buzzzz” sounds with an ominous echo, and the second door is unlocked so the hero can venture into the dangerous world beyond.
Except, now that is literally my work day every week. I didn’t see that coming.
No, I don’t work in a jail. That would be too normal. It is someplace else.
Before I could come work at this job I had to go through a training course on self-defense and how to appropriately perform “take-downs” as it is euphemistically called. We were trained in a six-staff take down. Or maybe it was five. Because, you know, the person being taken down can sometimes be big, and wild.
Before I enter the sally port each day I am given my on-site keys. With the special set of keys is a fob, the button of which I am to press if anything goes terribly wrong. Help should come running if I press the button. It is my own personal panic button. Everyone on site has one. Everyone entering the facility is scanned by a metal detector. We cannot take anything metal into the site, and nothing glass, on the chance they might get turned into weapons by those on the inside. Also, no personal phones. Working on site entitles me to a hazard pay bonus on my paycheck for the risk of the job.
On average once or twice each day the overhead intercom crackles to life with the terse message: “Attention all staff! Attention all staff!” and then security calls out the location where some staff member has pressed their panic button. It is the call for the elite staff from all over the facility to run to the place of danger and intervene. From my office in the administrative building I can look out the window and see the people running across the courtyard. And they do run. I’ve heard the stories about staff hit with tables and choked out. If you press the panic button you want the staff running when they come to rescue you.
I manage the medical office so my contact with all this turmoil is limited, in the most immediate sense. I am the office LPN. The RNs are the ones who take the medical bag and go to the site of an emergency. If someone needs an injection to calm the situation, the RNs will give that. My job is to schedule medical appointments and help with the onsite clinics, yearly physicals, EKGs. Things like that. So I am not in the midst of the day-to-day scuffle. But I do see the people running in the courtyard, and when I am walking the halls of the administration building taking supplies to the medical clinic or dropping off garbage I do hear the calls for help over the intercom. And I hear the stories swirling around the office as the RNs come and go.
Not long ago the work week started with a staff member coming to the nursing office with a bite on her arm. The teeth had gone through her sweater and left deeply emblazoned purple bite marks on her forearm. That was Monday.
Tuesday I heard about a staff member who was punched in the face.
Wednesday I was in the office when one of the RNs took a call from a staff therapist who was inquiring about an individual who had a lot of falls logged on his record. “Oh, he doesn’t have a falling problem,” the RN said. “He just likes to stand naked in his room and rush out at staff when they walk past. He runs out so fast that he falls down.”
Thursday I heard about an individual who had inserted a piece of his shoe rubber up his penis. Yeah, I never thought I would write that phrase.
Such was one week in my life. And so it goes, in ebbs and flows.
I share this to give a sense of my perspective. If I had been told this picture of a job I would have looked on it in horror. This is not the place I would ever work, I would have told you. And, here I am. How did I arrive here? I could recount every individual step of the way, and yet I can’t explain it.
It is true I could not tolerate any other role in the facility where I work other than the position I currently have. I live and walk on a knife edge between the job that I hold doing a great good in my life, and the many jobs around me which would be a horror for me. How did I come here?
This is the mystery of life. I don’t fully understand where I’ve come from–and completely comprehending how I came to where I am is beyond me. I have no idea where I am going. This all reminds me that life is best lived in the humility of receiving the unexplainable and being grateful for the mystery that is. I live in the present trying to let go of what I thought I needed and accepting what it turns out I really did need. I live each day not knowing what this reality is working in my life. As counter intuitive as that so often feels to me, I believe this is a good place to live.
Do I think about life? Do I have values and intentions? If I have thought, and if I have values and intentions, do they end up manifesting in real life, in everyday life? It is easy, so easy, just to be carried along.
When I was growing up I didn’t really think about home or the life I had. It just was. The goodness of it either was not recognized by the child I was, or it just was presumed as the way things are. As an adult now I know the home I had growing up didn’t “just happen.” It was the result of thoughts and values and decisions by my parents. The home I husband and father will also be the product of thoughts, values, and decisions–or the lack thereof. Even if I were to take the path of apathy, or simple conformity to the average stream of culture around me, that would still reflect a value, a decision. But there are better ones.
When I look back now I know that growing up I really valued the amount of time my parents were present in my life. In no small part because of that, I put a high value on being present in my family’s life now as a husband and father. For the same reason I encourage my wife Debbie to pursue her desire to be very present in our children’s lives. Both of my parents did incalculable good by modeling life, and speaking into the life of this fragile little boy called Rundy. I would be a horrible wreck of a person if I had been cast on the shores of life and told to figure out my way alone. I have no illusions about being one of those hardy souls whose toughness allows them to make their way alone from a young age. Any strength in me took much time and nurturing to grow.
So Debbie and I try to be intentional in the choices we make about our children. I had a strong desire to work from home in the idea that I would then have great latitude and freedom in how I used my time, and would be able to be more present in the lives of my family. That hasn’t worked out, so instead my wish has been to have a job which allows me the greatest amount of time at home. I don’t have ultimate control over this, so it was more a prayer with the intention to make certain kinds of choices if the opportunity arose.
There are two ways to measure time: quantity and quality. In relating to a job, the quantity of time at home is the sheer number of hours not on the time clock. Quality has to do with whether the stress of work impacts the hours not at work. My Dad had a job which allowed him more time home than a lot of fathers now get in modern America. However, the job was exceedingly unpleasant for Dad so it was a constant misery which hung over him and deeply, profoundly, impacted his life in thoughts, attitudes, and physical health.
One of the scary things about being an adult was the imagined reality that having a job meant being in a situation just like Dad. Even once I was old enough to realize that not all jobs had such a profound negative impact on life, I still had the dreadful feeling that I was doomed to the same path of misery because like father like son….or at least just because.
In better moments of thinking I realized that while it is true I don’t have the power to avoid all misery in life (or even guarantee myself not to have a miserable job), my duty is to make the best choice with the options I have and accept my portion of misery (small or great) with as much good grace as I am able. This thinking about what my goal is, and what kind of choices I should make to direct myself toward those goals, has deeply impacted my life path.
There is the old adage, “Time is money,” but in this math equation the opposite is also true, “Money is time.” So there are the two questions, “How is money well spent to save time?” And, “How is time well spent instead of money?”
I grew up very poor by American standards. For all of my life, even through my young adulthood, I effectively had no money. Thus I had to think about how I would spend my time wisely, but there was not much thought about how I might gain, or spend, my money wisely in the pursuit of time. Money was not in the picture.
Now I am in the place of life where I am spending large amounts of my time on money. So the questions of efficiency and trade-offs in the time-money exchange have become very relevant. I spent a good chunk of money on a riding lawn mower to save myself time. That was an easy decision.
A lot of other decisions are more abstracted than buying a lawn mower and less easy to know that a right decision has been made. But it is good to ask, “What valuation of things is compelling the way I am thinking and the decisions that I am making?” When there is insufficient money for the basic necessities of food, clothing, and a roof over the head there is a compelling push to spend time on money. But within American society at large there is a huge presumed valuation that more money is clearly a good use of time. This creates a societal push toward the accumulation of money far beyond what is needed for true basic necessities. Is that time well spent?
How we each answer the multitude of questions tied up therein are more complex then the above statement might seem. I don’t mean to imply it is all simple; rather to illustrate that the societal pull would have us not ask questions which might undermine the very norms (wealth accumulation, status) upon which that society is built. I encourage you to think outside the box, whatever conclusions you ultimately reach.
I have chosen a job position with a low paying title in a place with very little opportunity for advancement. This sounds bad by American metrics. But it is a position where quantity and quality of time available to pursue the things that I value would be hard–if not impossible–to match in any other position or place. That is a huge statement for me. The value of the time at home I get in my current workplace would be incredibly hard to match by money in any other position. So in my valuation, it is a job that makes me richer than many other jobs.
But this is a valuation judgment. Right now I bring in enough money that our household income registers above the poverty line, but depending on how the rest of my career shakes out that may be a close thing. Perhaps I could end up on the south side of the poverty line instead of the north. This doesn’t concern me, but I mention it to recognize that my choices have not provided a huge margin of money. Instead, I have gone for the margin of time. For good or ill, my valuations and decisions will have a great impact on my children–even as my parents have had on me. It is a sobering thing to think about.
This leads to the next question. How do we use our margins–those remaining bits of time or money which are left after the job is done, or the bills are paid? I think I first read about the idea of “margins of time” online in a short essay a few years ago. The idea was that as in the ancient Mosaic law the Israelites were instructed not to harvest to the very edges of their fields, but to leave a bit around the edges for the poor in their community. The reuse of the idea is that we should not pack every minute of our time but to leave margins in our lives and days to be taken up by unplanned things, much as the margins of a field haverst were left for the unplanned good of the community poor.
I agree with the underlying sentiment in that construction–the idea that American society as a whole stuffs their days too full with extracurricular activities and after-work plans, leaving no time left to just be, just think, just breathe, and be there for other people–to see them, know them, experience life with them. But seeing the flaw in the rushing course of society is one thing–intentionally walking down a different path is harder.
What does having margins in time look like? I wrestle with that. I feel like I am failing at the ideal even as I see the world around me failing. Be that as it may, one example of making (or leaving) margin in time which I have written about elsewhere is creating space for a deliberate bedtime routine with the children. So that is something. That is not a bad start. But what would it look like to carry that kind of intention into the days I have away from work? I wish I could give myself an answer to that question.
I believe it does start with valuing things rightly, truly thinking, and then making decisions with intention. If I do none of those things, I surely will never reach any kind of good answer. But if I do walk down that path of valuing, thinking, and acting with different goals than society gives as default, I think the results will be both quiet and yet profoundly radical in its difference from the path which society at large is hurtling helter-skelter down. It can be scary and difficult in turns to walk this far off the beaten path. But I believe it is worth it.
Bedtime routines are important in our house. I mean, bedtime routines for our children. I wish I could say I also have awesome bedtime routines for myself, and I get a great amount of sleep and have a wonderful life–or something close to that. The reality is that I crash in bed when I can finally make it there. But because bedtime routines are important I try to make sure the children have a good one, even if I can’t manage the same for myself.
The reality of life right now is that any day I am at work is a day when the kids scarcely see their daddy. I leave for work shortly after they have awakened (or shortly before they do on a rare day) and then I get home in time for supper (or shortly before on a good day). At their current age it is just about time to get ready for bed when supper is over. This can make interaction with the kids on a work day feel like “Good morning, and good night” with life absent in between.
I could say that the days I am off from work will have to suffice for time with the children. But I concluded that such a decision wouldn’t line up with the kind of life I wanted to have with my family. So we have set up a bedtime routine which makes life a little more than “Good morning and good night.” I really enjoy this time with the kids, but it does come with a cost. I have effectively no time at all to do anything that I want for myself on work days during the week, and at bedtime I have to rise to the occasion of interacting with the kids in a healthy way when I am feeling so tired I would really rather not put up with anything or anybody. That is some honesty, but with the hardness admitted I still I have no doubts that it is worth it. And I am thankful.
The routine starts with teeth brushing and using the toilet, though we are trying with the new year to work in a habit of leading the kids through the process of cleaning up the house before teeth brushing. This is the step which could take something akin to a million years of the boys were left to their own devices.
Once the bathroom routine is finished it is time to pick out the books to read and get pajamas on. After everybody is all ready for bed we can start the story reading. In theory there is one story for Tadhg to pick and one story for Pip to pick. In practice Pip is not yet of age to enjoy having an actual story read to him so for right now usually Tadhg picks one and I pick another and maybe Pip listens a bit.
Both boys get some snuggle time with Mommy. Pip gets his while I read to Tadhg, and Tadhg gets his time with Mommy when I am singing to Pip. Both boys get approximately three songs each from me. Pip goes down first and then I finish up with Tadhg.
Besides the two stories picked out, I also read a passage from the Bible to them and have a short discussion before we move on to prayers. It is not a time of extensive deep interaction with the kids, but it is a time when we are all being still and they know they have our undivided attention. It is also a short bit of each day where I have an opportunity to share what is most important to me in life, and for them to share what is going on inside their heads.
It is a delight to me to hear what is going on inside Tadhg’s head when we talk, and he constantly impresses me with how his thought process is developing. I sometimes want to have a little journal of his utterances so that in later years I can remember how his mind first began to unfurl.
One recent night when I asked him what he wanted to pray to God about he said, “I want to pray about dying.” He is not yet quite three years old but death has entered his consciousness as not a good thing. So we talked a bit about God and dying and Jesus and then we prayed. Except, as a perfectionist Tadhg still feels he is not able to do the praying thing good enough so in the end he says what he wants to pray about but then always tells me that I should do the praying.
I was a child wracked by fears. They were fears calmed only in part by my parents, but however insufficient they were to dispel the terrors I saw in a wild and uncontrolled world their words and presence were about the only anchor I knew. So it was really important to me to have parents who heard and spoke into my fears, even if they were powerless to defeat them. I know I can’t make Tadhg’s fear of dying go away, or any other fear for that matter. He knows I can kill coyotes and bears and probably just about any other creature in his opinion, but there are plenty of times I might not be around when the beasts come. So even his perception of my might in this arena is only a partial comfort. And then there is the rest of the world.
He is just a little boy, but he has a smart little boy’s keen grasp on the limits of his father. He is not entirely sure that I always drive at an appropriate speed, and he is not entirely comfortable with my use of power tools, for just two examples. So he grasps without it being explained that I do not have the greater power of keeping life from death. He already knows I am insufficient, and he is only three. But I told him that nobody in the whole world will die until God is ready for them to die. I told him in simpler words that life is not chaos and we are not forgotten by the one who holds our life in his hands no matter how fearful or confusing life might feel.
Later in the week he mused to his mommy that we were not dead today because God did not want us to die.
We read books. All kinds of books. Books about Pony Pony Huckabuck and the year of popcorn. We read every book by Virginia Lee Burton that we can find, and study them with the utmost seriousness. We read a lot of books by Bill Peet. We read Trouble for Trumpets more times than I would care for so late at night (and in it learn about periscopes and submarines and all sorts of other things–some real and some fantastical). And in the Bible we read about the kings of Israel and wars and Jesus and dying. There is a lot of dying in the Bible if you ever stop to consider it. And after we are done with all the reading and praying and singing, the last is a kiss good night. For now I leave the Christmas lights on which are strung up around the room and I tell Tadhg I will come back later to switch them off.
When I come back later they are sprawled in their beds in a tangle of blankets and stuffed animals. They sleep with the rest of children, the envy of all adults. The bedtime routine can feel exhausting sometimes, but it is sweet also. I am an anchor to them, and give the end of their day a security and surety that I know few have.
But also there is a hint of melancholy in my thoughts. I know how fast time goes. The days die, time passes. Little boys do not stay little so very long. Soon enough their nights will be their own as they start the process of spinning out of my orbit. Soon enough, all that we will have will be the memories.
We are all afraid of losing things. Little boys are afraid and daddies, too. We all need to remember that nothing is lost in the hand of the One who holds all things–not mommies and daddies, or little boys who grow up. And bedtime routines are good for as long as they last.