The art of noticing

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of–something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Do you suppose, that part of the constant delight of Heaven, will be the ability to be truly thankful for every thing, no matter how minuscule? Even in this life there are an enormous number of very pleasant things that happen to us throughout the day, that we accept as being nothing out of the common way, and thus do not regard: not realizing that the very fact of their being so ‘common’ is in itself a blessing of the very highest magnitude!

Meredith Allady, Letters to Julia

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

One of the most amusing things about our eight-year-old daughter is the extent to which she is a covert collector. She is the sort of kid that will make you regret not checking pockets before throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine. You never know what’s going to be in there, and sometimes it’s not inanimate.

As I wrote last year in Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South, our daughter spends substantially all of her free time outside. (I try to as well, but kids have more free time.) Even though we bought her a giant bearded dragon, she catches lizards and other reptiles on a daily basis. I have to remind her to turn them loose at night. On hikes, she is the first to spot armadillos from the slightest tickle of movement in the ferns or owls by the near-silent swoosh of their wings.

She commits entire volumes of nature guides to memory and can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about snakes in particular. She can tell you how fast a mamba can slither and that coral snakes and cobras are biologically related.

She’ll spend an hour sitting in the grass watching a golden orb spider build a web. Regular animal visitors have names, like Acorn, the squirrel, or Othello, the enormous black racer snake who lives in my garden. And no matter how much I scold her, she is always barefoot and usually muddy. Many days, I feel like I have given birth to Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing.

The real problem is that, for each of her adventures, she wants to bring home some sort of souvenir. Oftentimes, many souvenirs. Feathers, sea shells, pine cones, rocks, leaves from bizarre plants (to identify later in said nature guides), a spectacularly thick square of moss that just felt so delicious underfoot. One time she even brought home the complete skull of some poor animal, probably discarded from some bird of prey, which is now sitting on top of the piano. She also brought me a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest (named Maximilian).

I take walks to think through things. She takes walks to look around. She notices more out of the corner of her little eye than I see in an entire trip.

Collecting has been a habit from when she was very tiny. I almost think it is an innate trait in some people. I have it too, except for me it is books and art. As a preschooler, I bought her a beautiful pink music box that plays Für Elise (as that is her name, it was supposed to be a personal gift). I stuffed it with plastic children’s jewelry for her to dress up like a little lady. Yeah, that never happened. When I was cleaning her room later, I discovered she had chucked the jewelry and filled the music box up with the bright blue shells of robin’s eggs. That’s closer to her idea of treasure.

A lot of people complain about being forced to spend a great deal of time around little kids during this pandemic, but I genuinely love it. I have received so many messages from friends this week asking me how it is that I manage to homeschool full-time while getting anything else done, how it doesn’t drive me completely mad. I think I would have to say that the key to enjoying being around kids is to approach their antics with a sort of radical openness rather than scorn.

One of the best parts of parenthood is being able to see the world through the eyes of a child again. You start to notice things in your environment you stopped noticing a long time ago. Your native curiosity resurfaces. I have learned so much simply by pausing what I am doing and Googling whatever random question our daughter has about why something works the way it does. I realize that for many other parents the thousand inane questions children ask are annoying. But magic happens when you stop being arbitrarily perturbed and start trying to answer them. When you start treating curiosity as if it is something important and worthy of becoming a daily priority. That’s one of the big things you need to do to model being a lifelong learner for a child.

But it’s a posture that will enrich your own life too.

I have a habit of walking outside late at night to let the dog out and listen to the ocean. Sometimes this is an almost religious experience, like when the full Moon or a storm out at sea brings loud, violent waves to the shore and floods the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s like listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with an unrelenting cascade of percussion amplified by the cool night air.

My favorite thing these days is to look for the animals that have taken to sleeping on our front porch. There’s this bird who likes to tuck up into the corner of one of the pillars every night. She showed up one evening after a line of violent thunderstorms passed through the area, and now I guess our porch is her home. I put out a birdhouse that a previous avian tenant used to build a nest in last year (the nest is still in the birdhouse, in fact). Perhaps the new bird will find it comfortable.

There is also a pair of lizards that have taken to returning every night to sleep on this one rogue branch of the mandevilla I have climbing a trellis around the porch entrance. They’ve been showing up for over a month now. I had no idea that reptiles could be so loyal. The branch looks ridiculous sticking out from the rest of the plant, but I don’t want to slip it back into the trellis because then where would the lizards sleep? (They are kind of difficult to get a picture of at night.)

Much like how Saint John Henry Newman praised knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I think you need prolonged exposure to the ways of a child to value observation for observation’s sake. Adults are in such a hurry all the time, with their minds not present all the time. A kid will train you how to sit down and wait for something small but interesting to happen.

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

The Duke of Glenn’s Creek

It has now been two years since we first moved to Florida. It was a bittersweet move, considering that my giant, 200-pound English Mastiff, Duke of Glenn’s Creek (Duke) passed away in the hours right after we closed on our new beach house. He had been eleven-and-a-half years old – according to the vet, the oldest Mastiff he had ever met – and his stomach spontaneously flipped. It was one of the saddest days of my life.

Duke was not just a dog. He was an institution. He was the size of a cow, and you could not walk him down the street without attracting a crowd. I can still remember the day we drove him home from a breeder in Indiana, and I would carry him around and listen to the sweet puppy sounds he would make in my ear. In many ways, he was my first baby. I miss him so much, every single day.

Amongst dogs are listeners and singers.
My big dog sang with me so purely,
puckering her ruffled lips into an O,
beginning with small, swallowing sounds
like Coltrane musing, then rising to power
and resonance, gulping air to continue—
her passion and sense of flawless form—
singing not with me, but for the art of dogs.
We joined in many fine songs—”Stardust,”
“Naima,” “The Trout,” “My Rosary,” “Perdido.”
She was a great master and died young,
leaving me with unrelieved grief,
her talents known to only a few.

Now I have a small dog who does not sing,
but listens with discernment, requiring
skill and spirit in my falsetto voice.
I sing her name and words of love
andante, con brio, vivace, adagio.
Sometimes she is so moved she turns
to place a paw across her snout,
closes her eyes, sighing like a girl
I held and danced with years ago.

But I am a pretender to dog music.
The true strains rise only from
the rich, red chambers of a canine heart,
these melodies best when the moon is up,
listeners and singers together or
apart, beyond friendship and anger,
far from any human imposter—
ballads of long nights lifting
to starlight, songs of bones, turds,
conquests, hunts, smells, rankings,
things settled long before our birth.

“Dog Music,” Paul Zimmer

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.

“Poem,” Langston Hughes

Eight-year-old word play

Elise: Mommy! I saw an ominous car in our neighborhood!

Me: Ominous in what respect? You think the people looked suspicious?

Elise: No, the car was driving and it did not have a person behind the wheel. It stopped in front of Linda’s house and then it kept going and there was NO ONE INSIDE.

Me: Oh, you mean an autonomous car. Ominous means scary or threatening. An autonomous car drives itself. Autonomous is from a Greek word, meaning something that has its own laws. [Homeschool moms can’t help themselves.]

Elise: I’m pretty sure it was both autonomous and ominous.

Perhaps letting an 8-year-old be a cricket farmer was a bad idea

As I explained in an earlier post, my husband got tired of driving to PetCo to get crickets for Elise’s very hungry bearded dragon every other day. So he bought 500 crickets online and put them in a previously unused terrarium in our daughter’s room. And they have been making their sweet, sweet music all night long for about a week. I have not gotten much sleep lately for so many reasons.

It couldn’t get much worse than this, I thought. But like everything in the world these days, it can get much, much worse.

All of the crickets that have not been devoured by the lizard (just under 400, in my estimation) have now escaped and are running loose around the house that the government says we cannot leave.

Interestingly, some of them are starting to make their way back to the cardboard delivery box they came in. I am not sure if that’s because the insects have a memory and think there will be delicious cricket food or whatever they were sent here with in there. Or if being placed next to a terrarium with a giant lizard, with a front-row seat to the daily cricket holocaust, is wearing them down and they want to go home.

Some levity – we seem to be cricket farmers

I told everyone about how our daughter lost her bearded dragon last year. We ended up getting her a new, much younger dragon after that, which we named Henry Flagler.

We picked Henry out of all the dragons for sale because he was running around with a raspberry mustache. And, boy, does Henry love to eat berries. In fact, he loves to eat pretty much anything. We found a berry-flavored salad dressing for him, and he can really put the salad away now. Have you ever shopped for salad dressing for a lizard?

But nothing compares to watching Henry hunt crickets. The last bearded dragon was very lazy (except when he decided to run off into the jungle one day). We’d put crickets in his terrarium and they’d crawl all over him. Occasionally he would eat one, but they weren’t a big deal to him.

Henry is athletic. You put crickets in his terrarium and he lifts himself up and chases them everywhere. Sometimes he eats several in one bite. Because of that he’s growing freakishly fast. At some point, Henry is going to be bigger than our house cat.

My husband eventually got tired of running up to PetCo every couple of days to get crickets for the lizard. And when your lizard puts away half the crickets in Florida that starts to get a little expensive. Enter the Internet.

Yesterday, in the midst of all this chaos, we received a package on our doorstep. It was a deceptively quiet package, considering my husband somehow thought it was a good idea to order 500 CRICKETS online.

“What were you thinking?” I wailed.

“For five dollars more, I could have bought a thousand,” he replies.

Do you know how LOUD 500 crickets are at night? Deafening! And the jungle outside is already loud with barred owls that sound like screeching monkeys and bull frogs. (You can’t complain about the bull frogs though, because like Henry, they eat all the insects.)

Apparently, the secret to keeping crickets alive is cardboard. I don’t know if they eat it or what. But at least all our Amazon packaging now has a purpose beyond the recycling bin.

I am most afraid of how quickly they are going to multiply.

Monty Don’s shows are the most family-positive things on television

I have written before about how much I adore Monty Don, also known as “Britain’s favorite gardener.” I have watched so many of his series, and I am alternating between two recently: Big Dreams, Small Spaces and Paradise Gardens (about gardens in the Islamic world).

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that his show Big Dreams, Small Spaces is the most family-positive, marriage-positive, and community-positive show available now.

Consider these scenarios:

  • A married couple went to Norway on their honeymoon. They want to construct a garden that reminds them of Norway, because a shared aesthetic is something critical to who they are as a couple.
  • New parents are adjusting to life with a child that was born with Down Syndrome. They want to transform their entire backyard into a “sensory garden” that will provide a safe area for their toddler to learn to process data. They want soft plants, squishy fruits, a fountain to splash in, wood chips, and grasses that sway in the breeze for him to run his fingers through.
  • A woman who moved to England from Zimbabwe has decided to convert the front yard of her row house into a community vegetable garden. She doesn’t know any of her neighbors, and really most of her neighbors do not know each other. So she puts several raised beds in her garden, fences for growing peas and other climbing plants, and puts out a sign telling her neighbors that their dinners are on her. Neighbors start materializing out of nowhere to help her build it. Now she has friends.
  • A woman lost her sister in a horrific train accident and feels like she gardened through her acute grief. She has come to think of her garden as the living memory of her sister, and wants to make it into something extravagantly beautiful. She brings her mother, also adjusting to outliving a child, into the project. It’s a way the two of them preserve the idea of a family without an essential component. It’s also a way they restore fun and whimsy into their dark worlds.
  • A man’s wife is obsessed with beekeeping and he agrees to be along for the ride. They invest family funds into purchasing an allotment for her bees and transform a patch of wilderness into a place that bees can thrive. It’s totally crazy, but it’s his gift to her.

Where else do you see anything like this these days?

As with most celebrities, I find Monty Don’s politics tedious and, frankly, dishonest. If he supported the types of people he claims to like, he would not be making the kinds of shows that he is. (His liberal friends think the parents should have aborted the baby with Down Syndrome, after all. In Europe, they congratulate themselves on having nearly “eliminated” the condition through abortion, an attitude Hitler could respect.) In fact, I feel this way about a lot of lefty friends and relatives these days: You want to be attached to a label that aggressively no longer describes you, but you want the sense of family and community that only a conservative, communitarian lifestyle can provide. If you feel depressed about that disconnect, consider the power of defining your identity correctly and changing the absurd way you choose to label yourself. The problem is not the world you live in.

This is not the first time this sort of thing has played out on television recently either. Consider the Gilmore Girls, a very pro-family, pro-life show about a single mother who raises a daughter well against the odds. Then the writers went off a psychological cliff over politics, creating a sequel where the daughter becomes your typical bratty, directionless millennial with Planned Parenthood posters on her dorm room wall, who is screwing a man that’s engaged to someone else. Seriously, why do this to yourself? It’s like Freud trying to explain how nightmares are actually a form of wish-fulfillment.

Alas, Monty Don is making such shows, and you should watch them.

There is nothing more persuasive than a good example

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!

One of the things I find fascinating about the digital era is that people do not even attempt to be persuasive anymore. I see this particularly in friends and relatives that have different political beliefs. They don’t interact with people they disagree with as if they wanted to persuade them to believe something else. They don’t try to make an intelligent, factual case or even an emotional appeal. They’ve all become trolls, trying to dig under someone’s skin with remarks they fully understand to be offensive or irritating. In fact, that pretty much sums the matter up: Many people want to be irritating these days, not persuasive. They want to “score” points on some fantasy abacus. Why?

And that carries over into all facets of living. I’d say this is a lesson learned from participating in social media, but I’ve noticed that even habitual “lurkers” – people who do not write stuff on social media platforms, but merely consume what other people have written – act just as much like trolls in real life as the most aggressively online personalities. Like I said, it’s fascinating.

It’s a difficult aspect of living to explain to children, however, especially if you want to raise children who are optimistic about the future, who have good values, and so forth. They’ve known nothing except a digital existence, but they are innately confused by the misery it entails because it’s an artificial and unnatural misery.

I brushed off my responsibilities this afternoon and worked in the garden. Our daughter, who has recently wrapped up third grade homeschooling, was riding her new bicycle around in the neighborhood. It was a beautiful day and everyone was doing something that made them happy.

Apparently, when I went inside for a spell, something bizarre happened.

She was riding her bicycle – a mountain bike with gears and hand brakes, gadgets that are still unfamiliar to her – down the sidewalk when she heard our neighbors’ garage door open. She thought they were backing out their car, which we had previously warned her about. “Not everyone looks for a little kid on a bike when they are backing out,” we said, “so be sure not to be behind them when this happens.” Sensing imminent danger, she crashed her bicycle into the neighbors’ grass instead of riding behind their garage. (Obviously, we need to work on that.)

These folks were not backing out their car, however. They were walking out to do whatever in their yard. They saw her with her bicycle in their yard and started chewing her out for messing with their lawn. She tried to explain her logic, but they were having none of it. She returned home upset and devastated thinking she had done something wrong.

As our neighbors are an elderly couple, I listened to her story with a suppressed chuckle, wondering how I was going to explain the “get off my lawn” phenomenon to an eight-year-old who tends to think her grandparents hung the Moon. But I remembered that the man who lives in that house hates my guts. He is on the board of directors of our entirely too legalistic homeowners’ association. These are people who think they should be able to regulate every new flower pot someone puts in their front (or back!) yard. And I am the person who calls them “yard fascists” to the other neighbors and plants whatever I want. Boy, he must have felt great bullying a kid because the mother would tell him what to bite because flowers.

We absorbed the story, and I told her the same thing I always say when someone (adult or child or myself) complains about being bullied: “The best revenge is to be unlike the person who did you harm.” That’s not my wisdom, of course, it belongs to the Roman philosopher and general Marcus Aurelius. But I say it so often that I practically own it. Other people are jerks, but the best way to get back at them is to be known for being good – to be known for being above them, morally and personality-wise. Like the HOA guy is known for being a bureaucratic jerk, and I am known for constructing gardens that make people smile. Is the revenge that that gets under his skin, or that my gardens make me happy despite him?

But it did little to assuage her concerns. She was not so much concerned about that particular household as confused as to why any adults would want to be superfluously mean to a child.

Oddly, that whole conversation seemed to fit a theme in my world. On a daily basis, it seems, I hear from several friends who are legitimately concerned about the culture wars and the fate of American society. The toxicity of ordinary discourse. The increasingly bizarre moral purity tests inflicted on both adults and children in public institutions. Most of them are watching the Democratic presidential primary unfold and simply remarking about the things they hear. They worry about politicians who are in love with the practice of abortion, who even support abortion to the moment a child is born. They worry about socialism. They worry about the greed and corruption of “establishment” parasites. They see the world crumbling around them, a country that has turned its back on God and good values. They wish they could take their child to see a movie that does not depict Judeo-Christian virtues with contempt. And I get it. I feel these things too.

It’s funny, but I hear that voice in our daughter too. Why would her neighbor, someone who lives one door down, want to be cruel to her? Her parents tell her about being a good person and a good citizen – are these truths absent to other people? She had just fallen down, and they didn’t even ask her if she was all right. Instead they started chewing her out about grass, as if the grass were some advanced life form that had been irreparably injured. Her own mother is obsessed with plants, but not that obsessed with plants. What the heck is wrong with them that they behave this way?

It’s a good question too – why does someone want to spend their golden years on this planet making their neighbors miserable? Who moves to a beach town in Florida just to join the HOA? Alas.

There are a lot of people who live completely and utterly in the absence of persuasive concepts, or what a philosopher might call “values.” You aren’t going to troll them out of that situation. You aren’t going to emote them out of that position either, by telling them fairy tales or sentimental stories. You aren’t going to shame or bully them into believing something they don’t already believe.

Your only hope of bringing a resolution is to be a relentlessly, unapologetically good person. To make them look at your goodness and flourishing and think, “I don’t want to be like this anymore. That’s a better way to live.”

A friend of mine likes to say “God wastes nothing” when bad things happen. The implication there is that, even in the darkest periods, there is some good to come out of things. That may even be divine intent. It’s a difficult thing to believe when bad things are happening to you, but it’s true. People are more receptive to change when they hit rock bottom in bad habits. The person who is talking gleefully about aborting babies at 39 weeks may be 24 hours away from having the Holy Spirit come down upon them like a category 5 hurricane. You never know. It’s out of your hands anyway.

But wasting nothing is an example that we should emulate in our own lives too. It is really the only way to deal with negative events.

My husband and I have a ritual of practicing a random act of kindness whenever we have a bad day. We’ll go out to eat and leave the server a $50 tip, for example. We were doing this even when we were young and it hurt us financially. The other day, I was hacking away at weeds in the garden trying to get some anxiety out of my system and another neighbor came to talk to me. She’s always talking about how she admires my gardens, so I handed her a few bags of iris bulbs and taught her where and how to plant them in her own yard. Now, she can’t see me without talking about how she loves going outside and seeing her iris beds that are now in full bloom. Being nice when the world treats you like crap really does make a difference, and not only in media res.

But beyond that, it brings credibility. No one cares what a jerk has to say about anything, and it is remarkably easy to be a jerk (especially when you think you are the hero of your own story on social media). You can spew all the cable news talking points on someone you want… If they don’t agree with you, the best you have going for you is that they might still continue talking to you after you shut up. But if you tell someone you think something is wrong and the only thing they know about you is that you are a good person in word and deed, you are suddenly a force for change in someone’s heart of hearts. They will want to know why you believe what you believe.

Christians talk a lot about the power of testimony, but it’s a frequently misunderstood concept. Testimony is not simply about storytelling. It’s about experience – and more importantly, shared experience (in a human and transcendent sense). It’s about truths that can be known because they are common. There’s a reason testimony is persuasive when self-righteous bloviating and attacks are not.

Make a beautiful contribution and make it so often that it’s ordinary.