My father always finished reading the books he started, even the truly execrable. He was an English teacher, so there was more honesty than stubbornness about it: asked about a book, he wanted to give a full account. But he was also a lover of literature and a writer of talent. His short stories are clever, if sometimes self-indulgent, listing toward good food and drink, as he did, and beautiful women, like the imaginings of a sea captain too far from port, too long. He believed he owed a debt to the writer. It takes courage to create; he was honoring that courage. But he didn’t encumber me at birth with those principles.
I cut and run. Life’s too short, so I’ll put down the book if it bores me, if the sails are slack and we’re only drifting, if the trip has become irredeemably unpleasant, or another course promises more. We had our similarities, my father and I — a tendency to be sullen when offended, chest heavy, inclined to foppish hand gestures when dismissing ideas, with too much of what he would have called Anglo-Saxon bloody-mindedness. Burn the boats and butcher the cattle! That’ll show ’em. But he also had a lingering fear of snakes and knives (a classmate had once stabbed him in the hand). He distrusted squirrels. I have none of that. Even my bloody-mindedness is tempered by my mother’s Celtic pragmatism: we might need the boats and the cattle. Let’s just write a humiliating book-length poem about the enemy and call it a day.
Back to books, then. My time at Red Cedar is unfinished, and I have put it down. The blog will continue, but in another place. It has to do with age, the end of this chapter. Just before my sixtieth birthday I was retired from my job, and now the house is too big. It was an amicable, mutual separation from work — a relocation offer I could easily refuse — but one that didn’t obscure the fact that I was old and expensive in a field that attracts youth, designers eager to prove themselves for a pittance, as I had been, starting out.
Our culture, by which I mostly mean North American culture, has an uneasy relationship with age, and it may be the last regiment of discrimination to fall, after race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Elders are late to the barricades, if they get there at all, not given to much protest, and so, easier to deny. We don’t hide away seniors in assisted living homes, we insist — despite the overwhelming preference for growing old at home — they’re better cared for there. We don’t fire employees too long with the company, they just don’t make sense to the bottom line in an agile economy of modular parts. No one picks up the banner of senior rights, at least not in enough numbers, so it may continue to be a blind spot in American culture. The idea of honoring elders sounds quaint and Old World, kept warm only by traditions in which long-nurtured wisdom still polishes well, in vinyl or herbalism or fine furniture.
But seniors are also their own worst enemies in this, for all the right reasons. They’ve learned to cut their losses. The years teach you as much: bitterness and bad memory make for a long chain, heavier than the one dragged by Marley’s ghost. So, move on. We take our sun dials to heart. There was one in a garden when I was a boy, greened copper on a plinth. The motto around it read, Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.
At this hinge of life, between a 9-to-5 career and the other side, between the frame and the door, if you like, we open the door and walk through. Sometimes — most times — that means saying goodbye to people and places we have loved. The flip side of loss is new experience. Dwell on the one half and you have always lost; live in the other, and there is the excitement of new sheets in a strange bed, a grail and ewer on the night stand, unplowed fields in the window, the latch on the broad-swinging gate. Different animals, new terrain.
Winter makes it easier. I cherish fall but loathe mid-winter. Have written about it often, in fact. The Steller’s Jays and the Downy Woodpeckers are still here, but most other animals have gone; a fox or mountain lion passes through at night, but the deer have moved into the valley, with the wild turkeys on Bingham Hill. Can’t blame them. The grass is dormant. Life collects in the roots. We know how vital and necessary that retreat is — it just leaves us poor above, aerial primates who depend on sight and smell. It becomes a time of faith instead.
Modern-day Druids organize their lives around something called the eight-fold cycle of the year. The genius of the eight-fold year — the four solar observances of the solstices and equinox with four cross-quarter festivals not tied to the sun — is that it offers caution or optimism at any time, regardless of favorite seasons. In summer, we keep an eye on the harvest: every bushel is bundled with lack; the tongue tastes strawberries, but the mind sees them gone, too. In winter, it seems impossible the shrubs will ever recover color, but we know better. Green leaf, ripe fruit, are in all the death.
That’s the general way of things, at least. On Red Cedar, for the first time in recent memory, some evergreens are struggling. A few won’t see the spring. A black pine is yellowing just in the last few weeks. A ponderosa pine down the road is snapped in two by January winds. Another, at the end of the drive, is clearly stressed. Perhaps it was months of wildfire smoke together with drought, and they became susceptible to damage or disease. As the country also does, with hundreds of thousands now dead, we cut our personal losses, the indignities of our own lives, while we honor others, raise them up in the light of memory. I’ll remember the yellow warbler on the window, the hummingbird Lili caught, the fawn, and the fledging wren left in the nest, the Washington Hawthorn plowed in when it didn’t take. Gone back to feed new roots. It’s winter, after all.