Flooding from the hurricanes hitting the Southeast and forest fires devouring the West call to mind the ten plagues of the book of Exodus and the seven plagues of the book of Revelation. Those natural disasters, piling on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest, and political wrangling seem unimaginable. But, it is all real.
The fires are horrendous. As of mid-September, the fires in California had burned 3.7 million acres, the largest wildfire season in California history. Oregon had one of its most devastating burning seasons on record, with several towns destroyed. In Washington, there were more individual fires than in any other recorded year.
The consequences for thousands of people were catastrophic. For many of us, though, the experience became days and days of smoke-filled skies with air quality ranging from very unhealthy to hazardous. For those with breathing issues, the days were difficult. For most it was an annoyance.
For me, the smoky days were the last straw, the end of my rope, the straw that broke the camel’s back—in other words, I didn’t cope very well.
I had developed a rhythm to my days that suited me. I’d spend the morning on our deck, often in my hammock. Mid-afternoon, I’d drive five minutes to Zuanich Park for my pattern of walk, read awhile, then the second half of my walk. I loved the routine and cherished the time in the out-of-doors. The only negative was knowing my outdoor enjoyment would end as the rainy, dark days of fall and winter returned. Then, the smoke made me scurrying inside prematurely.
I don’t much approve of wallowing, especially when I’m the one doing it. Within days I was tired of my sorry-for-myself self. Luckily, I remembered a quotation from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and it was what I needed.
I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It’s easy to be Frodo, trying to wish away the reality that has kidnapped our lives. When we are wise, we become Gandalf, acknowledging the universal truth that the only thing we can decide is how we are going to handle this time given us.
Linda and I realized early on in the pandemic that we needed to make good decisions about using the time given us. We decided to go looking for joy each day. We started by looking for joy while walking the eight or so blocks surrounding our home. It’s astonishing what is around for us to see when we are paying attention. The VFW Hall is just a half-block away from our driveway, but we had never noticed the small, red-metal depository outside its door—a used flag drop-off. The houses on the eastside of the street sit high above the sidewalk with long, steep stairs to their front doors. Walking by, we spotted one particular set of old stone steps, covered with moss and hemmed in with thick shrubbery. Those treacherous steps seemed an entrance to a gothic mystery.
We came across chalk art on the sidewalks, boxes of free giveaways, one including a frying pan and a collection of board games. Our neighborhood isn’t a place of formal gardens. Most of the flowers spotted were strays, tucked into a rock retaining wall, or poking out of a crack in the curb. Each was a treat. But, one day we came across an actual garden that had just been planted. It was a small strip of flowers behind a garage in our alley, a jewel that few would see, it felt like a gift meant for us.
People-watching can be an especially joyful way to pay attention. One day, sitting on my favorite bench at Zuanich Park, three spottings filled me with happiness
A couple and their elderly, white, leashed terrier were the first to walk by. Despite all the humans’ tugging, pulling, and cajoling, doggie was determined to meet me. He and I spent a minute or so in mutual admiration, with me petting/scratching and him wiggling/wagging.
A little girl, maybe four at the most, zoomed by on the tiniest scooter I’ve seen. She was a delight in contrasts. She wore a frilly party dress and clutched a naked baby doll in one hand. She was also sporting a helmet and traveling really fast. The mother and I made eye contact and I said,” She’s a marvel!” The mom, with a shrug and grin, agreed.
Four men of “a certain age” passed by my bench twice, walking and talking. I admired their commitment to physical fitness. Later on, as I was driving out of the park, I noticed the four of them sitting outside at the Web Locker Restaurant, eating burgers and drinking beer. I admired their commitment to fun dining.
There’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary about these sightings of alley gardens, chalk art, and friendly dogs. That’s the beauty of it. I was determined to find bits of happiness, and I did.
Poet Mary Oliver said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She instructed us to live our lives in this way: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”
In this deeply troubling time, we all have to decide how we are going to handle this time given us. The advice is good—pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.
Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear where you have found joy.