–Kind words counter the world’s cruelties.–
Quiet is a rare luxury at our house. If not the cows or dogs or pumps, I can usually count on my children to fill my quiet moments. But not all noise is unpleasant.
One day Hyrum (2) said sternly to his big brother Brian (14), “Brian, don’t keel anyone. OK? Because it’s dangerous.”
He was dead serious, as if in grown-up conversation. It was apparent that the word kill had only a vague meaning to him. It didn’t equate to the loss of life, but related more closely to roughhousing or child’s play, as in “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” A short time later I heard a brief but violent interaction between Hyrum and Caleb (5):
Hyrum: “I keeled you!”
Caleb: “No you didn’t. I killed you.”
Hyrum: “No! I keeled you first!”
I chimed in at that point: “It seems that you are both dead, so be quiet!”
* * *
Home life is hectic for a mother at home with a house full of children that she feeds, bathes, clothes, plays with, reads to, listens to, cries with, nurtures, educates, and puts to work. At times when I call from work Angie steps into the pantry or coat closet to find a moment to speak freely and without interruption. I have found her writing while sitting on the floor in our closet, or reading a book while sitting on a lowered toilet seat lid, to find some personal quiet space. I wonder if, when the children are grown and gone, the house will seem too quiet. But this is what our house has often sounded like at night:
“Can’t you read a little longer to us, Daddy?”
“No. It’s time for each of you to wash your dinner dishes and get ready for bed.”
“But it’s her dish night!”
“Just wash them! I was washing your dishes until midnight last night.”
“But I’m still hungry!”
“And your clothes don’t belong in a heap at the bottom of the stairs—put them away.”
“But tomorrow’s cleaning day—can’t I put them away then?”
“No. Put them away now. And if you don’t do your homework you can’t go to the dance!”
“Dad! He called me a jerk!”
“When can we go to the movies?”
“Dad! She won’t let me in the bathroom!”
“I need new shoes.”
“I know you can brush your teeth yourself, but when you’re done, I’m going to brush them again anyway!”
“There’s no more bandaids, and my blister hurts.”
“It’s 10:30—no more talking! And I mean it!”
“You heard Dad: BE QUIET!”
“Turn your lamp off, stupid! Dad, make him turn off his lamp!”
“Dad! He called me stupid!”
“You shut up!”
“Both of you shut up!” . . .
. . . “Sing me a song, please, Daddy.”
Somehow, each day ends with hugs and I-love-yous, but I am left feeling fatigued and empty. Visiting with my father on a Sunday afternoon, he smiled and observed with wry satisfaction, “Isn’t life wonderful!”
* * *
Angie and I occasionally find the space to walk together. I invited her one evening to join me on a Rabbit Lane walk.
“Caleb,” I ventured to the three-year-old, “Mommy and Daddy are going out for a little while. Do you mind?”
He responded matter-of-factly, “I don’t mind. I don’t have a mind. It disappeared.”
* * *
As I leave the house and turn down Church Road, the dogs bark and begin to howl as they perceive that I am not taking them with me on my Rabbit Lane adventure. Teancum, the enormous yellow Labrador, howls so loudly and forlornly, as if being left behind is his life’s great disappointment. He is no less disappointed for his third-of-an-acre dog run. The whole town must hear him and grumble or chuckle at the sound.
I have often taken Teancum walking with me on Rabbit Lane. His huge paws, fully the size of my hands, dig in and pull his bulk against the leash with such force that I, at over 200 pounds, can barely hold on. He gasps inside his collar, not appearing to apprehend that he is strangling himself. All of my effort during my walks with him is focused on not falling over. Tiring of the walk, he pulls harder as we near home. A walk with Teancum is simply not enjoyable.
Teancum again begins a howling lamentation, seeming to me worse than a pack of wolves at midnight, as I pass his expansive pen and turn my back to him, rounding the corner onto Church Road.
“Not today, Tank!” I shout over my shoulder.
I am determined to not be dragged through this morning’s walk. But I began to feel sorry for him as he howls mournfully, even though he lacks nothing but loving attention, and go back to clip on his leash to take him with me down Rabbit Lane. Lacey is no less desperate in her supplications, and I relent. No sooner do we embark than the two dogs begin to pull and tug at me in conflicting directions. I find myself exerting all my strength to keep my direction, even at times to stay on my feet, tripping over twisted leashes. Teancum pulls like an angry ox while Lacey stops determinedly to sniff at a marked power pole. All hope I have of a peaceful walk has quickly vanished, sacrificed to the dogs.
The situation strikes me as a comical microcosm of life. How often we are pulled in opposing directions, delayed, dragged along, distracted, twisted up in life’s leashes, only to finish the day utterly exhausted for our efforts. Most days! I have not learned to find peace amidst life’s pullings and tuggings. But I have learned that peace can be purposefully pursued, and that we will not always find peace despite our best intentions and efforts. I have learned that we should probably not expect our life’s comings and goings to be serene and restful. And I have learned that we sometimes need to leave the dogs at home.
A particular neighbor dog, a German Shepherd, displays a twisted pavlovian response to my daily appearance, like some dogs do with uniformed mail carriers. The brute barks and growls menacingly at me, like a hungry wolf, lifting its lips to bare yellow, saliva-dripping teeth and splotchy pink gums. It harasses me mercilessly from behind the fence. Thank the Lord for that fence. Attempting to soothe it, I speak to it calmly, although inside I am cursing its very existence. I know better than to throw rocks or make aggressive moves. As I approached its yard with dread one day, it looked at me with a kindly tilt of the head and trotted along beside me for the length of the fence with nary a bark. That dog never barked at me again. The dog’s epiphany, however, did not change my opinion of dogs that delight in molesting walkers, joggers, and bicyclists.
I came home from my walk one evening to see Caleb (18 months) pretending to be a puppy playing fetch, crawling around the kitchen floor with a stick in his mouth. As I came through the door, he looked up at me hopefully, then brought me the wet stick and laid it at my feet.
* * *
Parents and religious instructors taught me well not to swear or curse or use profane language, especially language that degrades women. I remember the first time I uttered a frustrated DAMN! at the age of 12, while failing at some outside chore. I craned my neck toward the heavens, eyes squinting at the sun, expecting a bolt of hot lightning to flash down and extinguish my sorry life. Of course, no lightning came; neither was I consumed by an earthquake, or by fire, or by whirlwind. In fact, I received no rebuke of any kind, earthly or divine. The Universe had allowed me to live another day.
Through successive experimentation, I found that a good swear word seemed to fit many situations like no other word could. It even felt good to swear at the stupidities and annoyances of life. I also learned, upon close observation of my emotional states, that angry cursing and swearing always brings immediate and subtle, but noticeable, negative feelings.
I believe that, while swearing can give the appearance of providing momentary release, it brings no long-term relief to the underlying emotions that give way to the swearing in the first place. Instead, cursing tends toward an addictive cycle of tension building and emotional explosions rather than healthy tension management and the difficult but possible process of learning to be stronger than our impulses.
Still, while I believe this principal to be true, a good “oh hell!” once in awhile still seems to hit the spot.
The wood burning stove inset into our faux river-rock wall is the one upgrade we allowed ourselves in the house. I grew up with fires in the open fireplace of my home on Schindler Court, and wanted the flickering light, comforting warmth, and crackle of wood fires in the home in which I raised my family. Winter fires, however, require Summer wood cutting and splitting. The more wood I cut in Summer, the longer we would have fires during cold Winter evenings.
At times splitting wood tries my patience, especially when, try as I might, the work-a-day stresses build up inside. While I have always left my work at the office, I have never learned to leave my work stress at the office. With some taps of the blunt end of the maul, I set the wedge into a particularly knotty piece of elm. Taking aim and swinging with all my strength, I brought the steel maul down to meet the steel wedge. But I didn’t hear the ring of metal on metal. Instead, I extended my reach too far and missed. The wood handle crashed down onto the iron wedge, and the steel head snapped off, struck my booted foot, and bounced away. My hands stung painfully at the jarring vibrations that shot up the broken handle.
“You stupid goddam piece of shit!” I shouted, enraged, unable to contain my internal tensions any longer.
I put the finishing touches on my fit by kicking over the log and throwing the broken handle across the garden into the neighbor’s grassy field.
What I didn’t know was that my children, admiring their lumberjack father, had been watching from the porch. Turning toward the house, my eyes met theirs, and I saw looks of shock on their faces. Seeing their stupefied innocence, I slumped my shoulders and bowed my head in shame at my mistakes, at my lack of self-control, at my anger.
“I’m sorry kids,” I offered repentantly. “I’m not a very good example.”
After a stunned moment, the children rushed toward me and all embraced me at once. I knew then that they loved me anyway, and that they felt sorrow for my frustrations, for my penitent self-loathing, and for my bruised foot.
“Did you hurt your foot, Dad?” Brian (12) asked.
In pain, I stared silently toward the mountains, then began to chuckle with the ridiculousness of it all.
“Hurts like he. . .ck!” I said, laughing.
The children all began to laugh and hugged me again, this time with relief.
Picking up the decapitated maul head, I commented, “Looks to me like it’s time for a break!”
We all laughed harder. Limping, I led them into the house to stir up some cooling lemonade.
The family is fortunate that Mother possesses more equanimity than Father. One day two children were screaming at each other while pulling at a gallon-size box of fish crackers. The box ripped open suddenly, and little golden fish flew everywhere. The two fighting children fell away from their positions, mashing the crackers into cheddar-cheesy crumbs. Suddenly frightened, they looked toward their mother and saw the brewing storm. But Angie found the strength within herself not to be angry or to break down in tears, but to laugh, to help the children change from anger and fear to laughter, and then to cheerfully enlist their help to clean up the mess.
Fifteen years later, the old, dying Cottonwoods were coming down to make way for development. I asked if I could harvest the wood, inasmuch as the trees otherwise would be hauled to the dump. With a borrowed 20-inch chainsaw, freshly sharpened and oiled, I cut into the 24-inch diameter trunk, first with upward-angled cuts, which I met with slightly higher straight cuts from the opposite side of the trunk. These several cuts were calculated to make the tree fall away from our neighbor’s house. That’s what the saw owner’s manual said would happen. But the tree was so big, and my cuts were so numerous and so imprecise, that when I barely managed to pull out the binding blade, the tree merely sat down on its trunk, under its own enormous weight. While I had cut the trunk clean through, the final shape of my many cuts resembled a bowl more than anything else, and in its bowl the tree sat. Fortunately, the typical Erda winds were silent. Suddenly terrified that the slightest breeze might topple the tree in the wrong direction, the direction of our neighbor’s half-a-million-dollar house, I ordered the children away, grabbed two iron wedges and a sledge hammer, and began banging the wedge blades into my chainsaw cuts with strikes of the sledge. After several desperate minutes attempting to insert the wedges into the cuts, I felt greatly relieved and rewarded to hear a faint creek of the tree as it began to lean in the correct direction. With several more swings of the hammer, the giant tree finally fell with a loud groan and then a huge shattering crash upon the ground. The tree from which a Bald Eagle had once stared down at me was now flat, and would now warm my house for several winters. From its clay-encrusted roots, my sons harvested beautiful burled wood, which, when cleaned, stained, and varnished, made gorgeous living room lamps, similar to the lamp my father made from the five-foot twisted pine root he carried off a Utah County mountain in 1959 and that now sits in my bedroom.
* * *
Like an electron in chaotic orbit around its nucleus, a single fly had followed me the entire length of my walk on Rabbit Lane—both directions. It landed on my ears and on my nose and in the stubble of my thinning hair. No amount of swatting or frantic arm waving would convince it to leave me be.
“Dumb ass fly!” I finally hissed, responding to the rising temperature of my temper.
The fly didn’t leave. My cursing had no effect upon the fly. None. I chided myself in rebound to my curse: I am cursing at a fly! The fly is not stupid. Nor is its rear end. If I had the persistence of that fly . . .