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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In some ways it has not been an auspicious start to the knew year. I am excited about how the change in my work situation will allow me to have more time at home, and more time for writing. That is really big, and good, thing. But I have had a bit of a bad run of it.

The old year closed out with my desktop computer dying. This computer has all my writing. Then at the beginning of this week I damaged my car. Finally, on Wednesday night I almost broke my thumb. If bad things really do come in threes then we are all set. But if this is the start of a longer streak, I better go back to bed and not get up until spring.

What I am happy to report is that all three of these incidents can be concluded with the phrase, “It could have been worse.” The computer died because the SSD hard driver controller failed. That was the drive with the OS installed, but all of my writing archives were on the other hard drive. I lost whatever was dumped on the desktop (and I have a bad habit of dumping stuff on the desktop) but at the end of the day that is a minor loss. I have a new hard drive installed and today I will finish installing the software. It could have been worse.

The car damage particularly irked me because it was unequivocally an act of stupidity on my part. In the great December snow storm a kind neighbor plowed a large portion of the driveway with their tractor. In the process they pushed a log off at an angle beside the top of the driveway. It has since remained embedded in the snow bank. When I pulled into the driveway I realized I had parked too close and the pointed end of the log was pressing against the side of the car. “Need to check that before I pull out tomorrow,” I thought to myself. Then I went inside and forgot about it.

The next morning I was in a hurry leaving for work. I hopped into the car, put it into reverse and–craaack!–started tearing of the plastic front of my bumper. The pointed end of the log had caught the corner of the bumper and had inexorably started to peel the plastic sheathing off the car as I backed up. In the morning dark I feared I had done serious damage to the bumper, perhaps necessitating a complete replacement of the bumper. When I was able to inspect it later after work I realized that probably replacing the popped plastic rivets would be a sufficient repair. In the end my thoughtlessness cost me sixty dollars and change, hundreds of dollars less than I was anticipating. Talk about a sense of relief.

I felt like that was enough for one week, but then Wednesday night I almost broke my thumb. I was folding up a big collapsible aluminum ladder, and a chunk of snow was jammed between the bottom rung which prevented the ladder from sliding down the last section. So I kicked the chunk of snow out and did not think about where my thumb was positioned as it grasped the ladder. The snow went out and the ladder swiftly slid down crushing my thumb with finality.

The pain was something like slamming your hand in a car door. Even before I became a nurse and was schooled in the different words for pain I already knew there were distinctly different kinds of pain. There is the sharp clear pain of a slicing knife. There is the stabbing throb of a headache, the burn of heat, the pulse of infection, the clench of intestines, and so many others. Each distinct in its own way, some more tolerable than others. Blunt force trauma–like slamming your hand in a car door or crushing said hand in a collapsible ladder–is a pain all its own. I don’t consider it the worst kind of pain, but it is a pain with a very loud roar, a sudden explosion like a bomb going off in your body.

I dropped the ladder as I started to double over and the ladder fell on the new van which by some miracle did not get damaged by the impact of the ladder. My thought in the moment was, “I broke it” meaning my thumb, not the van. The pain was like a tidal wave, a flood that I tried to contain by clenching the thumb as hard as I could with my good hand. In that moment I felt like I never wanted to move that thumb ever again for the rest of my life. In the moment it felt like I couldn’t, and yet was afraid that it would and that the movement would increase my pain to unimagined levels. I felt like I wanted to take flight from my own body, burst away to escape the pain. Instead I walked around groaning through clenched teeth until the pain subsided to a current which could be contained by my own body.

With time I was able to let go of my thumb and take a look at it. Nothing was torn off, bleeding, or standing out a strange angles. Even more promising, nothing had yet ballooned up to grotesque proportions or changed to any alarming colors. At this point it seemed promising that no horrific damage had happened–though in a strange contradictory sort of way my thumb both hurt and had a distinct numbness along one side which indicated which thumb nerve had been colossally smashed by the ladder. With ice and some tentative movement I determined the impacted joint had no debilitating injury. I had escaped relatively intact.

Afterward, I noticed that once the pain leaves the mind feels amazingly clear.

The damage report the next day was not much changed. The crush affected muscles across the back of my hand and up to my elbow but the swelling remained very localized and only the mobility of the one thumb joint was impaired. There was pain on palpation only in one spot and also with certain movement of the thumb. At this point I feel fairly confident that I will be back to normal within a week.

It could have been a lot worse. My brother-in-law had his thumb sliced off in a folding chair when he was a little boy. A former neighbor crushed her thumb in a hydraulic wood splitter. The both managed to keep (or reattach) their thumbs but with much more blood, gore, swelling, and pain. I can’t say my experience made the same level. But I did feel like I couldn’t catch a break this week.

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As I sit down to write at the kitchen table I look out the window and see the boys adventuring in the snow. They love exploring the wide world of our country property, playing in whatever way their imagination takes them. Tadhg stops now and lays down in the snow to make a snow angel.

So often Tadhg takes Peregrine on long meandering walks around the property, exploring or re-visiting familiar haunts. Tadhg is two and Pip is one, but Tadhg is much more able to do the walking. Still, Pip tromps along after him with all the determination a one-year-old can muster. It is hard with the snow and Pip often slips and falls. Right now they are two little shapes in snow gear off in the distance at the edge of the field, where the old garden used to be. It is a drizzly, windy, morning and strangely warm for the second day of a new year.

Now the boys have decided they want to come inside. I help them strip out of their winter clothes in the kitchen by the wood stove. As Tadhg pulls off his snow pants he glances up, savoring that fresh warmth of coming inside from a blustery day and says, “I love our nice warm house.” He has many of the faults common to a two-year-old, but he is an example to me of how it is good to live in the moment with gratefulness and awareness of the present.

The dawn of January is the time when plans are made for the coming year, where hope and expectation give rise to words and resolution. We welcomed our third child into the world on December 22nd, a snuggly little girl, so our household enters the new year with three children under the age of three. In this place of life a sober resolution would be, “Survive the year ahead.” The reality of caring for three little ones does not leave room for grand ambitions, much less little plans or even keeping the house clean.

There is something to be said for entering the year without expectation, opening hands to receive whatever may come and learning to see and live the life that has been given in this present moment. To live well with little ones is a great accomplishment and worthy goal. But there is also something to be said for the days of small things, the little time carved out for the steady perseverance of intention toward something more than another day survived. Beyond living well with my family in thought and deed, my hope for the new year is writing. No goal of books completed, or anything so grand. Such things are dreams, beyond the scope of life in this present season. Just the intention to write a little each week is a reach enough.

In the course of writing this I rescued Pip out of the snow, helped set up a toy road system on the kitchen floor, mediated fights, changed a diaper, and watched boys fly their own imagined paper airplanes around the kitchen.

If I manage a bit of writing each week this year, I will have done well.

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My current job consists in spending forty minutes to an hour interviewing individuals in the over sixty-five age group. There is a huge variety among the people I see—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and those not. The single consistency is that they are all older, though even this is not the consistent it might initially seem. There is a great deal of difference between sixty-six and eighty-six, or even ninety-six. Then you discover not even every sixty-six is the same. We can’t project life.

This job gives me much to reflect on. I speak with people in the last act of their lives. The choices they have made, the things they have done, and the things that have happened to them, have all brought them to the day where we meet. That life shapes the person I meet. A rough life leaves a broken body behind. A smoking drunkard can’t escape the ravages of his choices. Those are hard truths, but the easiest to understand. They have the logic of gravity, but not everything in age is a litany of such expected repercussions. An accident can leave a person debilitated, all the best choices of life undone by the mistakes of another person careening toward you in a car. Sometimes life robs you of the good results from good choices. Sometimes the last act of life brings more questions than answers. Life isn’t fair Mom told us, and so did the philosophers. That admonishment bring no comfort when it is you who must live with the pain and loss.

The litany of interviews every day drives home the point: we can’t stop aging or escape frailty. Most of us can’t escape our bad choices. Worse is the reality that life isn’t fair. Perhaps you make all the best choices in the world and bad genetics or the bad choices of someone else haunts your health, leaving you a broken shell. We can’t control the course of life and sometimes that is the bitterest thing. Life gives you a hand of cards, maybe a pretty bad hand, and what are you going to do with it?

Old age takes so many different shapes. I have met people spry in their nineties, and people debilitated in their sixties, and there is no promise which each of us will be. Even more, I think about how we hide from that truth, how deep the self-denial runs. In health, in youth, there is a pride in life, an unwillingness to admit our lot; our helplessness before the advance of time and what it brings. Unspoken but always present is the presumption, the mantra: Things will be different for me.

Of course things will be different for me. I catch myself presuming the idea, and it frightens me how much I see that presumption in my life. A few people I meet have aged comfortably (or something close to it) into their latter years. Time have been kind to them. I ask “Any pain in the last month?” and the answer is no. But for most of the people I meet, that is not their story. And it’s not my story. I am not past forty and I have pain. The painless advance into old age won’t be my story.

And yet, the idea still persists, so powerful because it is so presumed as to be nearly unrecognized as a presumption or anything less than an unassailable truth. Unlike everyone else, I won’t age. I will keep feeling just as I do today for years and years to come. So the thought goes and so subtle the thought that it permeates the view of life like a charmer’s whisper. When I shake off the stupor and look around I am startled by how much that good health is presumed. I have it, and I can’t think that I will lose it. Loss isn’t the imagined narrative. Today I can go where I want and do what I will and it feels like that is my right. I eat decent and exercise regularly, so good health is mine to keep.

But what if it is not? I think of what Jesus said to Peter, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” We don’t all have a prophetic word on our end as a martyr, but in a way those words for Peter are prophetic for all of us who reach the frailty of old age.

Everything runs out. The body wears and breaks. Sickness comes. Some losses are sudden, like robberies, others are like a fire slowly dying. Ultimately they are losses which can’t be stopped. Though I acknowledge this as an abstraction, I find myself in everyday life living in thought and feeling as if—unlike the people I talk with every day—my health will not fail. I won’t be like them. Because I feel fine, I feel great, and that won’t change. I kneel with no problem, without even thinking about it. Why would that change? The man twice my age watches with envy, the kneeling I easily do a thing he cannot even imagine doing. And yet when he was my age he also felt, and thought, as I did.

My daily conversations give me a strange feeling, hard to describe, but perhaps expressed as feeling suspended from time, looking down and dimly seeing the picture from both ends of life—young, full of vigor, and then broken and spent. It is hard to hold both realities as true—to be this healthy and strong and to surely, someday (and not so long now) to then be that feeble frailty. I spoke with a man over 80 years who recounted how he had built two homes and fixed the one he currently lived in, and how now he could do nothing. That could easily be me, but do I think of it as I renovate my house? Not so much as perhaps I should.

It isn’t just personal health, it is the wholeness of life, and loss. I talk with people who are widowed, sometimes for years, sometimes just recently. A spouse who has been part of life for fifty years is gone, and the survivor must struggle to carry on alone. Or the loss is a child, gone to cancer or suicide. We never want to bury a spouse, we never think that we will bury a child. Tragedy and loss, and all of it something the person didn’t think would be them, didn’t expect they would be facing when the looked forward twenty years ago.

Here I am with a young wife and two little boys and I meet these people on the other end of the story and it is hard to admit that all of our stories go down those paths of sorrow in one fashion or another. There is loss in every life. None of us lives forever. But I have these conversations and realize that mostly I don’t think about this. Do I really live as one rightly should in face of this truth of life?

The reality, and the danger of forgetting, is captured in the last chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Time unravels us. Everything runs out in the end. Lean limbs once full of vigor shrivel with atrophy or swell with edema. Once strong shoulders stoop, vertebrae compress, hands gnarl. What once worked so well that it went without thought or consideration now becomes a struggle, then impossible. I cannot kneel, I cannot put on my socks, I cannot go to the mailbox. The litany grows and we never though it would be us. And it gets worse. The lungs wheeze. The heart fails, becoming a fluttering fickle thing. We are not what we once were and what we are becoming frightens us—our body now a faithless friend, untrustworthy and ready to betray us in the moment we most fear.

At the beginning of this year I caught the flu. I was out of commission for about a week which is really not so very long. Three days with fever, maybe about another three days with a wracking cough. I lost six pounds in as many days. A rough patch, but I bounced back. Still, it was enough to remind me of my mortality, of how thin the thread of good health is, and how easily it snaps. A man twice my age would have found recovery much more tenuous. A sickness with more punch and my recovery this year could have been in doubt.

It is on the rare times these things spring on me that I feel most acutely how much I take my good health for granted. I go where I want, I lift what I will, I do without thought of not being able, because of course I am able. Then I am sick to the point of sleeplessness, loss of appetite, dizziness, and weakness. Harbingers of old age, the ghost which looks at me and says “Soon. Not yet, but soon.” And then I feel my health returning, for now. For this time.

The shattered pitcher at the spring, the broken wheel at the well. How do we live in light of the reality that everything runs out? It is hard to live in the midst of the losses that comes with old age, but it is also a battle to truly live as someone who acknowledges that those things will come and lives today facing that future reality. Self-deception is so easy, the pride of life comes so comfortably. You think you recognize the reality of life, and then face surprise and betrayal on the day when what is common to all finally catches you and the life you used to have is now gone forever, taken by time and never to return. Then you find you weren’t ready and you don’t know how to live.

Humility helps. From what I have seen, it is the greatest tonic to help with aging. When a person turns away from the pride of life and puts no trust in their own strength, and does not hope in their ability to do or accomplish, then the loss of those things is not so great a blow. When we see ourselves for what we truly are, and find hope in something greater then the self-deception of eternal youth, then we are prepared to face the future.

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Unseasonably warm air, and a need to get my wife ice cream, blew me into the gas station. I was standing tiredly at the checkout while the cashier rang up my purchase. “Where do I stick this–oh, here,” I said a bit foolish, staring at the card reader right in front of me. I inserted my credit card. “Long day,” I said by way of excuse.

“Yeah,” said the younger cashier to my left. “I’m leaving work early today.”

“Well I work in health care,” I said. “With all of the corona-virus it’s been more than the usual.”

The two cashier’s made sounds of fake alarm and stepped back, one covering her face with her shirt.

“I remember that,” said the older lady, a rangy woman in her fifties or perhaps early sixties. “That’s why I got out of the nursing home. I worked there and I was sick all the time. I was forty years old then, and I was sick three months, throwing up all the time.”

I gave a vague expression, half thinking of explaining that it was administrative headaches associated with the corona-virus, not issues of getting sick, which had made my day weary. But the lady continued without any input from me.

“I went to the doctor and told him I had the flu. He tested me and said, ‘Lady, you don’t have the flu.’ I told him, ‘Yes, I do. I’ve been sick a long time.’ He said to me, ‘You don’t have the flu, you’re pregnant.’ I said to him, ‘Doctor, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m forty years old. I’m not pregnant.’ ‘Don’t argue with me,’ he said. ‘I’m telling you that you’re pregnant.’ I went home and I was so mad. I was furious.”

I looked at her, a little uncertain, and picked up my purchase. “So…were you pregnant?”

“Yeah. I was so furious.”

People sometimes share the strangest things.

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The early morning fire burns hot and low against the March dampness. The grubby black stove radiates its assurance. The wind rustles against the walls, the first drops patter window and roof. The fern on the table begs for water, and I give it mercy. Tomorrow it will need it again. The plants on the sink window sill bring a smile to my eye, the work of my wife in all their green profusion.

~~~~~~

The rain comes stronger on the drive to work, the drops splatter and run across the windshield. Geese traverse the river in flight, two pairs as I cross the rusting bridge. They slid low, searching for home. From the hill I see a flock drawing a ragged black line. They seem to sing of spring, the hill below lifting ragged hands to clap with the song.

~~~~~~

My oldest loves his toy guitar. He was being cranky and was required to spend some time in his crib but after a good cry and then a few songs and a back rub he agrees to behave better. He takes his guitar and his new Richard Scarry book downstairs, clutching them tight as he rides in my arms. Then he grins though his teary eyes while I sing various nursery songs and his plays with good imitation and great gusto on his guitar. Life is better. We go outside.

~~~~~~

The evening darkens, the rain continues fitfully. I rake the yard with my boy, the wetness soaking jackets and pants. He helps carry the bucket, in his hand and mine, and he wants to dump it. Then we walk back and he carries the bucket in one hand and holds mine in the other. While I rake more he holds up his dirty hands to the sky waiting for the rain to wash them clean.

~~~~~~

At bedtime I read him a chapter from the Bible and he doesn’t really pay attention. There are no pictures and the drama rarely has words to make stories he understands. But he thought the name “Jesse” was worth of vigorously repeating until I acknowledge that he had indeed said the name very well. After the reading finished he tried to earnestly pay attention as I talked to him about the chapter and how Saul’s disobedience was punished by God, and how when God punished Saul it made Saul very sad and David came and played music for him and he wasn’t so sad anymore. This he understood.

The earnest way he looks at me sometimes in these moments touches me deeply. There is so much he cannot even now begin to understand, and often he slips into boredom and inattention. But in moments when I address him he understands it is important to me and that is so very important to him. In snatching moments he musters himself to pay attention as best he can, with all his might focusing wide eyes at Daddy. Still he grasps so little for all his trying, and yet he does grasp disobedience. He has learned something important, and for tonight that is enough.

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The terror of many is the fear of forgetting. They lurch through the middle years of life anticipating some future sentence of dementia. The irony of life is that we all forget so much all the time that what is left to be forgotten in dementia is dwarfed by comparison.

How many days of your childhood have you forgotten? How many events of your teen years? What we recall at this moment of life are but a few smattering moments from the scantiest collection of days. In my case a lot of memories seem to be weird unimportant things which struck me odd, meaningful, or somehow lodge in my mind. Not the important things. But of all the things you do remember how many of these things are mis-remembered? You think you know your life, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you would be surprised if you saw it all play before your eyes at death, a story new to even you in the re-interpreted place of our own minds. Dementia is the unmasked face of our entire lives, forgetting, confused, wandering.

I suppose some sense of this is part of my attraction to writing. Words on paper capture things for remembrance once forgotten. Through the trick of words the past can speak to the future, and I can make myself not forgotten to myself. At least, it feels a little that way. If one thing we fear is being forgotten by others, how much more the fear of forgetting ourselves? I fear that if I don’t write what I have learned, and thought, and experienced that it will all wash away into my past without leaving any final imprint. It will be as if it had not been. In my mind I know it isn’t true–the majority of people don’t write at all and they are no less people for it. But the feeling lingers.

An extra barb is added to this prick now that I have my own children and now their pasts quickly melt away into my shifting memory. My oldest has passed eighteen months. How much do I really still remember of those earliest days? Yes, I do remember snippets of days, events from the hospital, little flashes from the early days home. I remember hard sleepless nights, and a blur of many things. But the nuance of life, the minute details of that little boy’s unfolding, blossoming personality? Not really.

The little bits I remember are almost painful in their reminder of how much I have forgotten. One clear memory is how our son never needed to be taught how to climb off a bed or couch. Soon as he could locomote, he turned himself around and shoved himself feet-first off the side of our bed. The world waited below and he wanted to explore. The moment was remarkable in the combined reality of him being safety conscious enough at such an early age to intuit the right way to exit the bed, and at the same time completely oblivious to the reality that the drop was still considerably more than his short frame.

That early moment encapsulates so much of our boy’s life, his personality. He understands physical things with a surprising intuition, and he has a boundless curiosity. Another early memory is in his first winter before he could walk he started crawling across the snow of the yard, heading toward he didn’t know what except that off somewhere a dog was barking and he wanted to find it.

The feet-first incident also holds the incipient reality that our eldest is not truly a risk-taker. He thirsts to know, and loves to explore, and is quite ignorant of many dangers. But where he perceives dangers he seeks to avoid it–even if his conception of danger and risk management still only rises to the level of leaping feet-first off a cliff because head first is dangerous. He loved the idea of dogs until he realized they were agents beyond his control and perhaps hostile to his interests. We won’t even go into his dawning conception of worms. So he will love life and exploring and be terrified in equal and complicated measures.

Such is the prick, the sharp knowing that as I have my children I also in some sense lose them each day. I am trying to learn peace in the not writing, in being demented even now. My days are so full of the living with my wife and sons that I’m lucky to have a few stolen moments to write. A few words to capture one memory of a hundred I remember of the million I have forgotten. I try to remind myself that if something was well lived it does not lose its value even if I can no longer recall it to mind. If I am in my fifties with five kids growing fast and I can remember only a few things from each of their first years of life that loss will not lessen the good if I have loved them well.

My little boy loves to run and jump and climb and spin around. I see the body in motion, time spinning out through fingers and toes, moments tumbling past in flailing limbs. He likes to run for me so I can see how well he does. “Wow!” I say. “You are so fast!” And he runs again, life rushing onward.

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