This tree has lost its gravitas.
It leans over the road
crooked spine, stiffened joints, balding in autumn,
hornets in its hollowed belly.
It eyes the power line nervously.
This tree leans over the road.
Its roots are willing but its trunk is weak.
The ground beneath has its own problems.
Once in a while, to entertain friends,
I spin up a story to see where it ends.
While I might mess with facts, I can say with conviction
That sometimes the truth is much stranger than fiction.
Of last night, for instance, I give this depiction:
Some nights before Christmas, while home at Four Oaks,
The wind is a-howling, the fire pit smokes.
The Baileys is waiting for coffee to brew.
In a Dutch oven bubbles a savory stew.
I’m humming and poking at embers and ash,
When from deep in the forest I hear a great crash!
Into the darkness I peer warily.
Into the shadows that stretch scarily.
I wish for bright light but the fire burns low.
I stray timidly from its comforting glow.
I zip up my coat; I flip up my hood.
I must fetch a few logs from the edge of the wood.
It’s 20 long paces to get to the stacks.
I take a deep breath. I take up the axe.
If something is out there to give me a fright,
It will see what I’m made of! I’ll put up a fight!
Into the shadows I step quietly,
With my axe at my side, and what do I see?
But a monstrous Thing half obscured by a tree!
With one eye that glows red and looks straight at me!
What should I do? Should I strike? Should I run?
Should I offer it stew? Would it eat a bun?
As I ponder these questions imagine my shock
When the Thing heaves a sigh and commences to talk.
In a whisper it says, “You’re too tall for an elf.”
It takes me a bit to recover myself.
For it’s plain to see as the strange Thing draws near:
It’s no monster at all! It’s Rudolph the Reindeer!
I notice he’s staring rather intently
At the axe in my hand, so I set it down gently.
As a smile spreads over his sweet furry face,
I ask, “How in the world did you come to this place?”
He says, “I was out flying and chasing my nose,
When sleep overtook me and caused me to doze.
I awoke to discover I’d lost altitude!
I’m sorry to startle, didn’t mean to intrude.
If you’ll just point me North, I’ll be on my way,
And the children will have presents come Christmas Day.”
“I know where to direct you,” I say. “See that star?
Follow it North. It will take you far.
But before we bid each other adieu,
Tell me—are you hungry? Would you like some stew?”
His nose flames bright red; his agitation grows great
At the sight of the boiling pot on the grate.
And I realize then that the Thing I’d held grim
Had been more scared of me than I’d been of him.
I laugh loud as Santa: “Ho ho! Ho ho ho!
I see there is something that you need to know.
You’ve clearly mistaken me for a barbarian.
That’s not venison stew. I’m a vegetarian.”
Spring is finally here. It’s too warm and sunny to be indoors in the waning hours of this mid-April day, so I shut down the computer, tug on a pair of worn blue yard gloves and a Tilley hat. I bought the hat for my nomad year, but I wear it now as a homebody. Now that the neurosurgeon has taken me off the leash, I am finally free again to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. But it turns out that I don't want to wander; what I want is to root myself more deeply at home and live a bigger life here.
I head outside and position my rusted green wheelbarrow at the edge of my front garden and survey the neglect, then take up the rake and start scraping at the thick layer of dried oak leaves tucked around the azaleas. Easter has come and gone, and my garden is coming alive. The periwinkle is in full bloom, the bright green leaves with their small lavender faces rising above the rotting ground cover. I think I’ve never seen a more resilient little plant. I think if there is a living thing more optimistic than periwinkle, maybe it’s a woman with a rake in her hands, feeling cheered by the sharp metallic ache two inches above her right ear, taking it as a sign that the nerves are regenerating around the titanium plate in her head.
My neurosurgeon has recommended six weeks of radiation, five days a week, to prevent a recurrence of the tumor, an aggressive Grade 2 meningioma. I agreed to start the radiation in early June after my next visit with my clients in Canada. On realizing I’d be grounded for at least six weeks, I had one thought: Now would be a good time to get those chickens I've been promising my granddaughters.
When I am finally back in my own small house, surrounded by four oaks that have seen the Civil War, I wake to the resonant call of a mourning dove. I look outside my bedroom window and wonder, what’s next? I am grateful to return to ordinary days, but I’m altered. Finding work to replace the projects I’d had to give up, paying the medical bills, taking care of the house and my little patch of land—these are small matters. Mortality is no longer an abstract thought, but I place that thought aside, knowing it will come up again. As Anne Lamott says, peace of mind is an inside job. I’m the only one who can acquire it for myself. I find it as Death’s newest apprentice.
In February, when I am finally cleared to drive again, I act on an uncharacteristic impulse to take an improv class. I resume work on the children’s picture books I’d begun a few months earlier. My client in Canada calls with an offer of work; I accept with gratitude and plan a trip for late March.
I visit my son and daughter-in-law and walk with their two eldest daughters to the park. I tell them I am thinking about getting chickens in the spring—how would they like to pick out their own chicks? It turns out they would like that very much. They immediately start thinking about names.
Theirs is a loud, lively household with crayon on the walls and Cheerios in the couch cushions. If Sean is sitting on those cushions, he’s apt to have three-year-old Virginia perched on his shoulders, five-year-old Eleanor snuggled by his side, and one-year-old Caroline on his lap. It amuses me to watch this man’s man raising three daughters, “feral princesses,” as Christina, my daughter-in-law, calls them. When I thank them for taking such great care of me when I was in the hospital, Sean draws a shape on the table with his index finger. “There’s a little circle and you’re in it.” That is all he says. It’s enough. It’s everything.
My dear friends Deb and Denise braved a wicked winter storm to fly from New Brunswick, Canada, to spend a few days with me two weeks after my brain surgery. They brought wonderful coffee and other gifts from Acadie. They cooked gorgeous, healthful food and took me on outings (since I wasn't yet cleared to drive). They even tried to repair my dishwasher. In spite of a call to Deb's husband, Phil, the attempt was unsuccessful--but O! the entertainment value!
I’ve moved 22 times since leaving my parents’ home at the age of 19. More than one friend has remarked on my restlessness, but I never thought of it that way. It just took me a long time to find a place that felt like home. But I’m here now, in a tiny jewel box of a renovated farmhouse called Four Oaks, freezing my ass off on the front porch so I can look at the outlines of the Blue Ridge Mountains while I write about moving to the country.
I might be the most unlikely person to move to the country. Of my 22 homes, 21 were in suburbs or towns or—most recently—in the heart of Washington, D.C. I like knowing people are within screaming distance if something goes horribly wrong. I’ve stopped at enough tiny towns off the interstates in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to know that some country people can be scary as shit. I’m terrified of mountain lions, which, in case you don’t know, are freakin’ everywhere, people. And I am afraid of the dark.
But I’d had enough of living in the city and I couldn’t face another suburb. Then one Sunday afternoon, heading to an open house suggested by my real estate agent, I drove down a gravel road thinking yeah right, and happened upon Four Oaks. Walked through the front door and felt it as viscerally as I’d ever felt anything: this place was home, and I had to have it.
A month later, Four Oaks was mine: the hundred year-old heart pine floors, the big front porch with the tongue-in-groove ceiling, the metal roof, the tight trim work, the finishes that make the home’s modern comforts feel rustic and authentic. Also mine: the scary cellar, the itty-bitty closets, a half acre of dust where a lawn needed to be, and a plethora of snakes, spiders and stink bugs. Shrieks in the dark I can’t identify—maybe a birdlike thing, maybe a catlike thing. Maybe a ghost. Who knows?
Who cares? Not me. I’m cozy here. Neighbors go by on horses, on bikes, and in cars; they stop and introduce themselves and welcome me to the neighborhood. I go to the spaghetti dinner hosted by the local volunteer fire department. One morning, as I stepped onto my front porch with my first cup of coffee, I found four fat turkeys in my yard. “They were on your porch earlier,” my neighbor called to me across the gravel road.
The other day, her youngest daughter, 10 year-old McKenzie, saw me out on the porch and came over for a talk. She asked my permission to ride her bike on my long driveway. She told me about a scary movie she’d seen. She said her favorite subject in school was geography, because it was interesting to learn about people in different lands. “People have different minds inside their heads,” she informed me.
After 22 moves, I guess I must like geography the best, too. And I’m learning that sometimes a different mind finds its way inside the same old head you’ve always had. Who knew?
In place of that old restlessness, I’m content here at Four Oaks. That might seem bland to you, but it’s a thrill to me. Because I think this might be how it feels when you’ve finally found your way home.