Faith, hope, and Phoebes

It’s little more than a cluster of mud, moss, and twigs, but to me, it is cause for joy, and not a little excitement.

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This year’s Phoebe outside my office window.

An Eastern Phoebe nest has been affixed to the stone on the front of our house under a soffit for several years now, serving as a marker of spring when it is visited by the brown-and-white flycatchers and refurbished for a new brood.

This year, the first Phoebe arrived the week before last and since has been insistently calling “FEE-bee! FEE-bee!” in the morning, afternoon, and evening, sometimes stopping outside my office window to bob his tail and announce his presence. One morning last week, another flash of brown revealed he has a mate and that she is shoring up the remains of the old nest. We can already see the evidence of this in the fresh mud, moss, and bits of vine she has applied as she ferries material from the pond and the garden to the nest.

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Nest-refurbishing in progress.

Our hope, of course, is that these industrious little birds who have worked their way into our hearts will succeed in raising a family like those we have seen in past years — though not the last two. The year before last, we suspect that a predator bird ravaged the nest and sent the Phoebes fleeing. Later, they began building new nests in two alternate locations, finishing one that still sits atop a post on our wood-storage unit, but despite some nest-sitting, no little Phoebes ever emerged from it.

Last year, the Phoebes again abandoned the nest on the house, this time early in the breeding season after a Brown-headed Cowbird had been seen nearby. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave them to raise their young to the detriment of the host bird’s own offspring. Although we saw the Phoebes occasionally later in the season, there was no sign that they had established another home nearby.

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Time to fledge. Phoebe chicks getting too big for the nest in June, 2012.

After several consecutive years of watching these delightful birds raise their families, we had almost come to expect that we would spend our summer evenings on the front porch watching the adults swoop down in the garden to catch insects and fly them back to the waiting mouths of their chicks. While working outside and passing by the site, we also had become accustomed to the sight of little heads popping up and their bodies growing to the point that they were practically spilling out of the nest as the day of departure approached. One year, after the chicks fledged, and thanks to my husband’s keen eye, we even were able to spy the entire family in the woods through our binoculars and spotting scope.

Although the Phoebe is not a “pretty bird” like the Northern Flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers who frequent our woods or the colorful warblers who pass through during the spring migration, its dogged, no-nonsense habits have endeared it to us. And for the privilege of being in its company, we are more than happy to provide it with an environment abounding in the insects that comprise its diet

In her enchanting book, Letters from Eden, Julie Zickefoose, who is so fond of this bird that she named her daughter Phoebe, writes that to her, the Phoebe “embodies bird spirit” in its constant motion and charm. I heartily concur and would add that underneath the Phoebe’s unadorned appearance seems to beat the heart of an indefatigable warrior with perseverance in its veins.  For that, we love these birds in the same way we love people who have little in the way of looks or sparkle to offer the world, but whose virtue most likely is keeping everything around us intact.

In this, they remind us of faith that is unseen yet is the assurance of things hoped for. So it is that each spring, the Phoebe beckons us to believe in possibilities and to watch for their fulfillment.

The best of the birds:  A post about spring birds is a great opportunity to include a plug for the Biggest Week in American Birding, which takes place May 8-17 in northwest Ohio. If you can get to this area, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” next month, you will not only see some amazing birds showing off their spring colors, but you will meet some wonderful people. 

 

 

Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

Lessons in solitude from Jane Austen

. . . It required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” — From Persuasion by Jane Austen.

One of the things I have noticed and come to appreciate about some of Jane Austen’s best-known characters is their habit of taking time alone to think about things. After unsettling encounters with other people, intriguing letters, and jarring experiences, they recognize the need for personal space to sort out their feelings and thoughts.P1010295

Some of them never discuss these matters with another soul – especially when bound by a promise of confidence – but in the course of “solitude and reflection” they review the details and determine how they will respond, what they will convey to others by their behavior, and the significance of what has been said or done.

While re-reading a few of my favorite Austen novels this winter, it has struck me that this practice might be useful in a world that urges us to tell all – and to do so now. What if, instead of rushing to the phone or computer to announce anything and everything, we applied a bit of solitude and reflection to the matters at hand?

When Austen’s characters do that, they benefit in bounds. In Pride and Prejudice, no one was closer to Elizabeth Bennet than her beloved sister, Jane. But though she wishes Jane were with her, she is alone when she receives Mr. Darcy’s letter after refusing his offer of marriage. Left to read and ponder his words on her own, Elizabeth realizes that she was wrong in her prejudice against the man she rejected. She may have reached the same conclusion in an email exchange or conversation with Jane, but the point is that something happened in her silent reflection. Without another’s voice or opinion to soothe or advise, she came face-to-face with herself.

Reflection like that takes time – time that stretches out on long walks or in extended periods of sitting without a phone to tap or earbuds to adjust. It is found in the “be still” admonition of the Bible that ends with “and know that I am God,” suggesting there is something or Someone we cannot know unless and until we are still and removed from human interaction.

With so many ready ways to contact others in our technologically rich society, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to reach for a communications device when we are upset, troubled, or confused. And even if we pause to reflect alone, we may grow impatienIMG_1702t and feel like we are wasting time when an answer, resolution, or insight doesn’t emerge as quickly as we would like.

Sometimes, we have to trust in the process to do its work, and provide us with healing, clarity, or just a time of rest that gives us the strength to carry on.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret Hale sits “long hours upon the beach” after a series of traumas that include the loss of a dear friend and both her parents. Those who pass by wonder what she finds to look at and her family worries about her silence at dinner. Yet, Gaskell tells us, her time by the sea helped her see things in perspective. “She was soothed without knowing how or why.”

When we pause to sit, whether before an altar or by the water, or take a long walk without the filter of another’s thoughts, things have a way of putting themselves right, if only we can be still enough to wait.

‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.

Sweet sounds of the harvest

The chill of the approaching winter has begun to move in, but the harvesting of the farm fields around us still goes on, as it does every fall. Even with snow flurries in the forecast and the TV meteorologists telling us we are having December weather in November, the hum of farm machinery traversing the surrounding fields is in the air.

For me, it is one of the sweetest sounds of the season. That might seem odd coming from someone who writes about and values quiet, but during the harvest, a churning combine is less a noise that intrudes on the peace of our rural setting and more a sound that evokes pleasant associations.P1000738

When the soybean crop – or wheat or corn – is taken off our little plot of land, not only do we happily anticipate the possibility of extra income, but we are reminded of even greater gifts: the land that connects us to family and the big-hearted people who work it for us.

Since moving 10 years ago onto acreage that has been in my husband’s family for a few generations, we often have recalled with appreciation those who lived here before we did without the conveniences we enjoy. We also have known – in bounds – the generosity of our farmer neighbors.P1000744 Besides planting and harvesting our field in spring and fall, they have moved snow for us in the winter and helped us fell dead trees during other seasons. In the summer and beyond, their garden has provided us with everything from beets to zucchini, not to mention the jams and other canned goods that come from their kitchen. Even when we try to reciprocate with a bottle of wine or a box of pears, it’s impossible to return home without a jar of preserves or a head of cabbage.

During our sojourn here, we also have looked to these neighbors for advice about water management, septic systems, wells, and weather – especially snowstorms. They still laugh with us over the night we thought we were keeping up with a significant storm by plowing continuously, a strategy that created barriers of snow on either side of our lane and got us stuck twice. When they heard our midnight tale of woe the next morning and headed over with bigger equipment to knock down the snow walls, all they said was “You should have called!”

Since then, we have had many other opportunities to stand in awe of what they do and the ease with they seem to handle rural life. For them, it’s all in a day’s work, but for us, it’s an art – and something to be admired.

As I snapped photos of their combine making its way through the field a few weeks ago, I was captivated by the sight of the hulking machine stirring up dustP1000734 as it cut, winnowed, and collected the beans. It struck me that, even in the age of mechanization, farming still has a certain romance about it. Our neighbors may not take to the fields singing songs while they work, as portrayed in the idealized rural TV series, Lark Rise to Candleford, but they face the same elements their forebears did, knowing that at the end of the day, they are at the mercy of weather and wind, and whatever price the market will bear.

This year, I got an even closer look at the harvest than my camera would provide when I was invited aboard the combine for a few passes up and down the field. In the interim, I learned what combines were like when our neighbor was a boy and how when he drove his first one as an adolescent, it was not in an enclosed cab with a radio, but on a tractor exposed to the open air. As I watched the beans he had cut spilling out of a chute P1000763and into the truck that was standing by for a trip to the grain elevator, I sensed the satisfaction he and his son, who now runs the family farming enterprise, must glean from their work.

By the time I disembarked, I had added another dimension to my own connection to the land and gained a renewed appreciation for the people to whom it is both home and livelihood. Because of them and this place, the sounds of the harvest always will be sweet.

Unexpected delights

Just as I had resigned myself to the approach of cold weather by deciding to savor and store up some of summer’s gifts, late fall has brought its own unexpected delights.

Although many people where I live claim autumn as their favorite season because of the rich colors of leaves before they fall from the trees, the crispneIMG_1621ss of the air, and seasonal traditions like pumpkin-carving, it was not these that captured my attention as October unfolded.

Rather, it was a mini-resurgence of summer that displayed itself in a Monarch Butterfly feasting on the clover in our field, an Eastern Phoebe and other migrants stopping by on the way South, and the garden popping with scattered patches of color. Even in late October, I found a few stray Black-eyed Susans, Purple Coneflowers, and Phlox in bloom. Elsewhere, tall spikes of annual Salvia had reseeded themselves from last year’s plantings, taking over where the Daylilies had finished their show.

My response to all this has been a surge of gratitude for these unanticipated gifts, the delight of discovering them, the pure joy they have brought, the brief delay in the onset of winter they represent, and for a few more glimpses of beauty to recall as shortened days and lengthened nights descend upon us.

Amid this has come another unexpected October delight – the arrival at my door of the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. I had read a library copy of this book several years ago and when it appeared again as a birthday gift from my goddaughter, I instantly knew the timing was perfect.

Of course, I could have said, “Oh no, I’ve read this already.” But I would have missed the delight – and gratitude – that came from realizing I loved the idea of having my own copy and that it might just be time to shore up my “attitude of gratitude” by re-reading it. Plus, there was a bonus: The book was accompanied by the One Thousand Gifts Devotional, IMG_1611Voskamp’s companion book of reflections.

A writer friend first introduced me to One Thousand Gifts, which describes how Voskamp forged a “lifestyle of radical gratitude” out of the pain of her family’s loss. Having read and reviewed the book, she suggested our book group read it. Even before we began reading, one of our members had prepared the ground by telling us how she was praying in a new way – by naming 50 and then 100 things for which she was grateful each day. Voskamp’s approach was similar in that she decided to accept a friend’s challenge to create a list of “one thousand gifts.” The list became an antidote to the sorrow that encumbered her and had cast a pall over her family after her little sister was killed in an accident. Ultimately, she discovered that being thankful changed her.

The act of naming what she calls “grace moments,” Voskamp writes, took her beyond the “shopping list variety of prayer” and into the love that was shown her by the Giver of all gifts. In “eucharisteo,” Greek for thanksgiving, she began to be fed and filled and sustained.

So in the midst of this October P1000595of unexpected delights, I am looking toward winter knowing I have a good start on stocking up on the same kind of “food.”  Just like the little chipmunk I captured with my camera a few days ago stuffing his cheeks in preparation for the season of cold and snow, I’m on the look-out for other staples to add to my winter pantry: bits of beauty, joys sprinkled among the sadness of our world, signs of hope, and gratitude for it all.

As Voskamp says so well in her book: “We take the moments as bread and give thanks and the thanks itself becomes bread. The thanks itself nourishes.”

Quieting the noise of news

“… the newspapers fetches you the troubles of everybody all over the world, and keeps you downhearted and dismal most all the time, and it’s such a heavy load for a person.”

Tom Sawyer Abroad

Having worked in the news business, I rarely get my fill of knowing what’s happening in the world, but there are times when it indeed can be “a heavy load.”

These days, I seem to hear more frequently that people are feeling weighed down by the news. Given the content of reports about terrorism and killer viruses, that’s not surprising, but I think it also has to do with the pervasiveness of news in our culture. No longer do we find out what’s happening from a daily newspaper dropped on our doorstep or through a single evening television newscast. Now, thanks to 24-hour cable news and the Internet, we have little time to digest anything we hear and see. A multiplicity of voices constantly beckons, teases, and even demands: “Wait till you hear“ and “You’ve got to see this.”P1000484

Response to this glut of information and imagery seems to take two forms: We can’t get enough or we can’t take it. Some love being continually connected to TV news or the Internet, often to the distress of those who live with them. Others take the opposite view, receiving only a minimum of news, if any, and staying focused on the immediacy of their own lives, either because they have enough bad stuff to deal with on a personal level, or because they want nothing to interfere with their state of blissful oblivion.

Given my own appetite for news and tendency to vacillate between extremes, I’d like to propose a middle ground in hopes of encouraging people to be aware of what’s going on while still maintaining some semblance of peace. After all, it’s true that we can handle only so much, but we also have a responsibility to know what is happening in our world and to respond as we are able.

To stay informed without losing our peace of mind, it’s good to be aware of how news is packaged today and why even a steady diet of it is not only unsettling, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee an accurate or complete view of what’s going on in the world.

First, news is not only omnipresent, but highly visual and presented in a way that bombards us with images, trivia, and sound that often take precedence over substantive content. Before you turn on the TV or look at your computer, remember that you are about to enter a highly stimulating zone in which a discordant multitude of rapidly moving pictures and noise will be competing for your attention. On TV, images will be jousting with voices, music, and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen. On the web, advertisements will pop up in the middle of news stories, forcing you to decide whether you want to shoe shop, keep reading about the Ebola crisis, check out the links in the text, or go to a related story. All this is hardly calming.

News is also coming to us from sources other than news organizations as Twitter, Facebook, and email have become vehicles for sharing news and rumors of the latest political scandal, environmental threat, or constitutional crisis. Most of us could spend hours reading what comes from these alternative sources, especially if we belong to interest groups and have friends who post stories on social media or send them to their email contacts.

So before jumping into the roiling sea of news and information, we need to brace ourselves and think about why we’re going in. Is it stimulation we seek or do we know where we’re going and what we hope to find?

Ask yourself what you really need to know about the place you live and the issues and people you care about and where you can best get that information. Find a few sources you trust and stick to those. If you lean toward a particular point of view, add a source representing the opposition to your mix, for the sake of balance, keeping in mind that no presentation of news is going to be completely objective.

Then, consider before clicking if what you are about to read or view is something you’ve defined as a priority in your life or if you’re about to waste your time on gossip or frivolity.

Remember, too, that even when reading about priority topics, there is a risk of over-consuming. Recently, I was caught up in an email exchange with friends who shared my concern about an international news story. We busily forwarded links to each other as we speculated as to what it all meant. By the end of the day, I was weary, as was one of my friends, who wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting burned out about this whole thing. I could spend entire days reading and reading all the current news about what’s going on, but I am limiting myself. I find that it does me no good, and often makes me restless and anxious. It’s like the nightly news. Some info is important to know in regard to what is going on, but the rest just gets rehashed.”

When something big is happening, many of us have a tendency to watch and read nonstop. At some point, though, as my friend said, we are hearing little that is new and only recycled opinion and fact. That’s the time to take a break.

As for when to consume news, each person has to find his or her own schedule and establish some limits. At our house, we watch a local TV newscast in the morning long enough to get the weather, knowing that the news content is likely to be short and shallow on substance and long and deep on anchor chatter and the latest from the sports and entertainment worlds. Apart from one cable TV news show we watch weekly, we have pretty much abandoned all but occasional TV news programming and instead read news sites online along with two national newspapers that come to our house. We also try to leave the Internet at least two hours before bedtime.

When the news is disturbing, instead of dwelling on it or fleeing, it can help to take some action. Call a legislator, write a letter to the editor, post a civil comment on a website, donate to a charitable cause, or find a way to share what you deem important with others, perhaps allaying fears and correcting misinformation. People of faith also can pray. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was very much in tune with the news of his day, wrote in his journal in 1960, “It is simply a time that I must pray intently for the needs of the whole world and not be concerned with other, seemingly ‘more effective’ forms of action. For me, prayer comes first, the other forms of action follow, if they have their place. And they no doubt do to some extent.”*

*From A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals

Savoring summer’s gifts

“I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” – from Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

As summer begins to fade, a plaintive refrain of regret can be heard in places where the season of sun and fun never seems long enough. “It’s gone so fast,” we say. “Can you believe summer is almost over?”IMG_1550

The season we love to anticipate does fly by for those of us who live in northern climates and only get a few months of warmth each year. Once we shed our winter layers for shorts, tees, and flip-flops, it is easy to settle in and forget that fall and winter eventually will return. Then somewhere around July 4, we start saying, “Summer is half over. Where did it go?”

Although I am sensing with everyone else the passing of this season of ease, I am greeting this juncture with less regret, thanks to a teacher friend who introduced me to Frederick the field mouse in the children’s story cited above.

Instead of gathering “corn and nuts and wheat and straw” like the other mice, Frederick sits and collects “sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” He stares at a meadow, storing up the colors of flowers, wheat, and leaves. And when he seems to be half asleep and dreaming, he explains, “Oh no, I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many and we’ll run out of things to say.”

The story ends happily when Frederick comes to the rescue just as his family of mice is out of food and stories. He is ready with his rays of sun and colors that everyone can see “as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds,” and finally, uses his storehouse of words to create an entertaining poem, delighting his fellow mice, who applaud him and proclaim him a poet.

My friend, who would read Frederick to her second-graders, first shared this story with me some years ago during our annual late-summer “beach day.” As we sat on the sand, she suggested that, like Frederick, we could store up sunshine, warm breezes, and a blue sky reflected in the waters of the lake before she would be consigned to a classroom for another school year. It was always a delicious day, one that seemed to prepare us for the onslaught of the winter we knew would follow even the most beautiful fall.

So now, insteIMG_1504ad of gathering regret at the end of each summer, I try to follow Frederick’s lead by savoring and stashing away the best of the season. This year, that has meant spending many an evening on the front porch listening to the birds as they settle in for the night, and then casting my eyes skyward to watch the bats flying sorties at dusk. It has meant taking time to look over my less-than-perfect garden and appreciate its gifts: the Purple Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans that were and are so stunning this year, the bunches of elderberries on branches that grew from what was a small plant just a few years ago, and the new foliage and blooms that emerged from the bottoms of the dead frames of two beloved bushes I had thought were forever lost.

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I have paused to fix in my memory the sun rising over a bean field as I take my morning walk and the swaths of swamp rose mallows lining the causeway at a nearby wildlife area. I have smiled when startled by the Northern Cardinal’s early-morning wake-up call while it is still dark and been soothed by the whistle of the Eastern Wood-Peewee off in the woods. I have tucked away the treasure of wren chatter and peeping hummingbirds, of Eastern Screech-Owls calling back and forth at nightfall and dawn, of a Great Crested Flycatcher visiting my garden, of a newly fledged Red-Headed Woodpecker at the suet feeder with its parent, and of a splendid Cooper’s Hawk on the edge of our garden pond.

If you have slipped into a kind of sadness at the passing of summer, it’s not too late to do as Frederick did. Soak up some sun, and look, listen, and savor the treasures of this season. They will warm, feed, and delight you – and perhaps those around you – as the days grow shorter. Not only that, but they will drive out regret and remind you that summer is indeed endless when you store up and recall its beauty.

Pockets of peace

Like finding the perfect home, the quest for quiet would seem to be about location. But in our noise-driven world, the peace we try to carve out of the chaos around us often is disturbed by all manner of sound. IMG_1454

Neighborhoods touted by realtors as “quiet” can easily erupt into auditory mayhem, especially on weekends when power tools and lawn equipment emerge from garages. Or, when a new family arrives on the block with two barking dogs and installs an outdoor sound system.  Even rural dwellers learn that not all people move out of the city for the same reason when they discover their neighbor’s idea of country living is having a place to race ATVs, or a winter night’s stillness is broken by the whine of snowmobiles.

So what to do if you are a quiet-seeker dwelling among people who are fond of two-cycle engines and loud music?

Having lived in urban and small-town neighborhoods as well as the country, my husband and I have found that talking with persistent noisemakers does not typically bring about a lasting peace.  First of all, one person’s noise is another’s delightful distraction or good clean fun. For example, a family member who lives near an airport and railroad tracks tells us he loves hearing large planes fly over his house and the rumble of a train in the not-so-far distance.

Because those who create what seems like excessive noise to some of us do not often take kindly to suggestions that they lower the volume, lovers of quiet sometimes have no choice but to leave a noisy place, either permanently, which is not always practical, or temporarily.

Although I live in what, for the moment at least, is a mostly peaceful setting, I’ve always had quiet escapes. When I was a suburban dweller, my favorite getaway spots inIMG_1353cluded a park with wooded trails, one of which had a stand of pines with an inviting opening that seemed to breathe calm. Another of my escapes was cycling out to an area where I could sit on the sand and listen to the water lapping against the shore. When I worked in a windowless cubicle in a newspaper office, I would sometimes use my breaks to take walks or sit by a fountain in a downtown park. In less pleasant weather, the public library was a ready refuge. Even now, if I am in the midst of a busy schedule of errands and appointments, stopping at an art gallery, a museum, or  a bookstore offers some respite from the rush.

These pockets of peace, I have found, make it possible to endure the noise, whether it’s in a neighborhood, a work environment, or my own mind. If I can slip into one for 15 minutes or an hour, I can return to the madness refreshed and renewed.

This is obviously an imperfect solution, especially for those of us who have created some quiet space in our homes and feel as if we are being driven from it by others’ predilection for noise. Gail, a reader of my recent post on “Engaging Silence” said after long, stressful days at work, she craves the quiet of home and yard, listening to water from a fountain and bird song. Sometimes, however,  she can’t even hear those sounds because of “everything from blowers to mowers to motorcycles and blaring music.”

In such cases, when you can’t flee, I’d like to think it’s possible to minimize the audio-annoyances around us by cultivating and calling upon some interior peace. The friend who serves as a guide for this blog did this recently when, as she said, she was “anticipating noise” from new neighbors who moved in and parked several vehicles in their driveway. As she thought about what this might mean, she was able to make peace with the prospect of more noise, much as she does when the neighbor children and their friends play all summer long in the common space outside her sun porches.

I saw evidence of this a few weeks ago when I noticed two nuns from a local monastery at one of those enormous warehouse stores that specialize in bulk everything. Unlike the other shoppers I encountered that day, these two had an air of serenity as they pushed their cart through the cavernous, sometimes overwhelming store.  They were identifiable by their religious garb, but almost more by the gentleness that they exuded. I felt more calm and able to deal with the dizzying display of merchandise just by having encountered them.IMG_1350

Although their days are filled with many of the mundane tasks the rest of us perform — preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning, gardening, and in this case, shopping – they do most of their work in silence, interspersing it with periods of prayer.

We can draw something from their way of life, I think, without moving to the cloister. The women I met that day were not rattled, rushed, or rude when I approached them to ask if they were indeed from the nearby monastery. They were welcoming, open, and unhurried, as if we had met in the cloister.

In her memoir, Redeemed, writer Heather King says, “I am pretty sure that if everyone did a few simple things – observed an hour of silence, prayed for an hour, looked, really looked, for an hour each day – the world would be transformed.”

We can’t all be contemplative nuns, but we can do some of what they do by taking an hour a day to be quiet and to look, really look, and — just maybe — be transformed and bring the quiet we cherish to our noisy world.

Giving children room to wonder

“She tried very hard to teach her grandchildren how to extract the last drop of beauty out of all the small things of life, words and scents and sounds. Many little joys, weighed against the few heavy griefs of existence, could give some sort of balance to the scales and preserve the sanity of life.”

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

A writer friend who has four children – and one on the way – tells me she has been busy this summer – but not noisily so. “I’m busy,” she wrote, “trying to keep up with the daylight and plant all my plants and let the kids enjoy the summer.” Her busyness, she realized, has been steady and quiet, taking her often outside, where she has heard the songs of the Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow Warbler and savored summer-scented breezes, filling her with gratitude for where she lives.

SpringPeeper

Spring Peeper perched on the finger of the photographer’s hand. Photo by Francis.

I had asked her back when I was writing about being quiet at home whether she could share some thoughts about living quietly with children. Is such a thing possible in a society where children are kept busy and engaged with sound, devices, and activities so that summer becomes a frantic schedule of athletic events, camps, sports clinics, and lessons?

As I read my friend’s responses, it struck me that her family’s life has taken the shape it has not only because she and her husband sought and found a home where they can observe and be a part of the natural world, but because they have chosen to live in ways that defy our noisy, driven culture.

This didn’t start when they moved to a rural setting. Even when they lived in a city neighborhood, they had followed the advice of a contemplative nun to look for a house with a peaceful backyard. The one they found with a natural fence of pine shrubs and trees in a neighborhood with tall trees allowed their children to explore and establish early on a habit of discovering the outdoors.

Rose

A rose from the family’s garden. Photo by Francis.

Today, each of these children has his or her favorite thing to do outside. One especially enjoys birds, another walking the dog, and still another climbing trees. “All love to observe nature,” their mother says, “whether an iridescent beetle crawling across the driveway or finding horsehair worms (that I never even knew existed) in our yard, or seeing the amazingly beautiful small parts of a flower.” And they know the location of every bird’s nest within 200 feet of their house.

Key to their enjoyment of the outdoors, the peace of their home, and their development as individuals is a measured use of technology. This family watches a favorite college football team’s televised games, occasional videos, and sometimes nature programs, but for the most part, being outside, reading a book, or playing a musical instrument is encouraged over staring into an electronic screen.

When her children were younger, my friend confesses to being tempted to buy a “false peace” with too much TV. “‘Barney’ and ‘Thomas’ were much easier than listening to kids whine about something or grouch at each other. But what I noticed is that TV just made it worse later. It put off dealing with the problems. Now, we have many days where I want to throw them all outside to eat berries and roots – where I feel like a failure as a mom. But they are each discovering their own shortcomings, they know that they have to work at them, and they have, I think, a more honest view of themselves.” Better, she says, to help them work now on their issues – be it a tendency to be bossy and judgmental, not following through on tasks, or antagonizing siblings – instead of masking them with an electronic distraction and delaying their discovery until they are adults in the midst of difficult relationships.

By being given plenty of unstructured time, the oldest boy in this family has discovered and developed an interest in art and photography, as evidenced by his photos in this post. Likewise, his younger brother has found he is good at music and writing, especially poetry. The others are still exploring, even as they begin to show the first signs of a possible aptitude or interest.

In choosing to raise her family this way, my friend was helped by the example of a mother who would stop her weeding to show her children a bird stealing yarn out of the garden to put in its nest. “She would find frog eggs in the pond and have us watch them develop. She would catch flies and put them into spider webs so we could see how they wrapped them up in their thread. She loved to discover with us.“

DragonflyEasternPondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly. Photo by Francis.

It also helps that her husband joins her in keeping Sunday as a family day, going on hikes with the kids, and planning adventures for them in their kayaks and canoes. He even wants to build a zipline on their property.

My friend once heard a philosophy teacher say, “Why have our children stopped asking questions? Is it because they are so busy that they have no time to be still and look at the clouds and wonder?”

By choosing quiet over noise, and providing time to be outside and marvel at what is there to see, my friend and her husband are fostering wonder and discovery, helping their children learn about the world around them as well as the one within.