The weeks continue to yield more and more to mild temperatures, making it clearer that Fall is coming. During my early morning 5am shifts at the radio station, I broke out a full long sleeve flannel shirts, and they felt completely comfortable. The feeling of flannel on skin is one of my favorite ways to usher in cooler weather. Feeling that soft, thick fabric surrounding you is like being cared for.
These past few weeks have been hectic for me. I’ve taken on a lot of projects and find myself constantly feeling the need to work on something to stay above water. It makes it hard to turn your brain off even in the times you try to relax. I’ve noticed this is taking a toll on my ability to keep everything straight. I screwed up several appointments this week, thinking they were on complete different days or double booking appointments in places an hour away from each other. I know when this starts happening, I’m doing a little more than I should to really be present in my skin and enjoy life. I can normally keep my entire week’s schedule straight in my head. When I start forgetting, it’s time to slow down.
This was much easier when I worked at camp and had miles and miles of forest outside my door. I would go for walks all alone with no tasks or people for miles. The hills and ridges shielded me, for a time, from all these responsibilities we tie ourselves to and think are so crucial to life. It’s in the woods like this that I first really noticed the Barred Owls hooting from trees nearby. Nature books often say their hoot sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?,” but I think it sounds much more like, “Whoooooo whooo whoo whoooooo-aaarrr.” One day, I tried to communicate with them, and this began my self-lessons on talking to owls. I developed a pretty convincing hoot, where I could call them to me sometimes even if I hadn’t heard them before. I learned some of their other sounds like, “whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo, hoo hooooooo-arrrr, ” or when it gets really crazy and they say something like, “whhaaaa, whaaaa, whguuaaa, whaa whooooooo-arrlll.” It often took lots of patience, sitting still, calling over and over, looking up at the sky to try to see them. They make no noise when they fly, so you have to be vigilant. If you are lucky enough at night, you’ll see a silhouette that looks a lot like the bat signal crossing the moon-lit sky into a tree. Then you’ll hear that call. I always feel so cleaned out and refreshed after encounters like that. I feel so much more alive.
My great uncle Ronnie died at the beginning of the week from a rare disease that came very quickly and unexpectedly. I can probably count on my hands the memories I have of Ronnie, because he usually lived far away from where we lived. He put himself through college after growing up poor in the country, outside of Paris, Tennessee with my great-grandparents. I remember him being very scientific, and he seemed like he could be a bit of a know-it-all, but always a good-natured, kind of know-it-all. I really didn’t feel much of a connection to Ronnie until earlier this year when I met my mom at my great-grandparent’s house to clean out the attic of the old home. Ronnie, Curtis (my other great uncle), and Linnie (my great aunt) were there. I sat next to Ronnie at dinner, and as we talked about travel and history, I realized we had a whole lot of common interests. Ronnie loved to travel, went to lots of cool places. I felt like I could pick his brain and talk about a lot of things I usually keep to myself because I don’t want to bore the people around me with this stuff that’s only interesting to me. I began to feel like Ronnie and I in some ways occupied similar spots in our family. I had gone away to school too and fallen in love with travel. I have this intense passion to learn as much as I can about things that interest me, and I’ve made a life of that pursuit. I worry a lot about whether that makes me come off as pretentious by people around me who don’t care as much about these things and might feel like I think I’m better when I share about them. I wonder if Ronnie felt that way too, and worked hard to find a way to share this passionate knowledge without making people feel excluded.
On Monday morning, I took my 6:30am break to look of the 8th floor balcony at the sun rising in the East. It was one of those sun rises that you see on the wall across from the window before you even make it there. The wall is pink and red, purple and orange, and you know the sunrise is going to be even more colorful. The sky had this perfect mix of clouds and space to bend the sunlight into so many beautiful colors. I stilled myself and took it in, trying to see as much of it as I could before the sun rose high enough for the colors to disappear into a more normal blue, white, and gray. I thought about how this is a sunrise Ronnie will not see, how he won’t see any more of these sunrises the way I see them. Then I thought of all the sunrises he saw before I was born and how with every person on Earth we come into contact with, there are only some moments we share and others we must have for our own. I thought, though, how those moments we share together inform the ones alone, how the thoughts we have alone often give us the words we use in our times with other people. This life is so mysterious to me in these times, watching such explainable beauty, thinking about everything that is being shared right then–where it’s all going to.
The last time I saw Ronnie, was during a family reunion last July. I could only be there for part of one day, and I wanted to show the extended family my land. Much of the family loaded into vehicles and pulled into the rocky drive that overlooks several valleys and ridges. I am in love with that land, and I love for people to see it. At that point, Ronnie was beginning to experience trouble, he was extremely forgetful, very fatigued, overly emotional–all the early symptoms of the disease that would soon take his life. For that day, though, he seemed much more himself. It was a very hot day, and to walk very far on the land right now, you must scale down a very steep, rocky drop-off. I didn’t expect anyone to go down, because that meant they’d have to climb back up. But, everyone made their way down, picking blackberries, pointing out trees, and watching the kids chases frogs and bugs. I remember Ronnie telling me how beautiful the land was. I told him I was really proud of it and he said, “oh, you should be.” I told him how I planned to build a trail wrapping around the first hill and then even more trails going all over the land for people to explore. He put his hand on my shoulder and very knowingly said, “and you will,” as if he could see ahead to what would happen with this place–like he knew me well enough to know I could follow through on something I only dream of right now.
Just over two months later, I found myself one of the six carrying Ronnie’s casket to sit him down next to my great-grandparents, whose caskets I also carried when they died. At the cemetery in Springville, I spent a lot of time looking at this place of final rest, at Ma and Pa’s tombstone. Next to them are their parents, Charles and Fanny, who were born in the 1800s and died just before my mother was born. I have so many questions for these souls, and these questions shape the way I live my life so powerfully. But, then, I have all these questions for the people still above ground too, and I don’t know if I’ll get any more answers from them than what I get from the ones below the ground. Because, I’m not sure these questions have answers that I can understand. But, there is still something in the asking, something in the quiet silence when you see the wind blow the branches over your head and you wonder if something or someone is talking to you–and whether they are or not, you hear something, and it is as real to you as the voice of your fallen friends and family.
One morning this week, as I made my walk to the radio station before dawn, I started my ipod to listen to one of my many nerdy podcasts. I was just out of my yard when I heard a loud noise, like one of the stray cats who terrorize Shylock and Moises on the porch. I stopped my ipod and looked around for the cat and saw nothing. Then, I heard, “Whooooo whooo whoo whooooooo-aaarrrrlll,” coming from the tree above my head. I knew that I would be a few minutes late for work, but knew that I needed to stay for just a little while.