Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Cellular Memory

You can stop me in my tracks with a program or story about ancient Rome. My stomach flutters when I look at photos of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and imagine the people who filled them, 2000 years ago. Gazing at lustrous marble statues of curly-haired emperors,  elaborate friezes of grappling soldiers, I feel almost holy, as if I’m approaching important truths, closing in on a memory.

The cells in our bodies have age-old intelligence. Consider migration, the way in which a creature knows, from birth, precisely where to head. This innate intelligence works in the background, constantly informing us, keeping us alive. If a pathogen from the past resurfaces, our bodies know how to handle it. We are now learning that this cellular memory is also evident in organ transplant patients, particularly heart recipients, who will sometimes assume the habits, behaviors and preferences of their donors. Every breath we take and every bite we swallow is composed of atoms that have been here since the earth began. Perhaps we are stirred by the places and cultures we were once a part of. If you love the violin, your forebear might have played the lute.

So, along with my blue eyes and cautious ways, there’s a reasonable chance I was born with this tenderness toward ancient Rome. I once wrote a story about Pompeii and became lost in the research; for weeks I could think of little else, and even my dreams were filled with fire and pumice.

I have spent some time thinking about the Coliseum and what went on inside those massive walls. Commissioned by Emperor Vespesian in 72 AD, the project was completed eight years later. With a population of nearly one million, Rome was becoming unmanageable and agitation was on the rise. Vespesian hoped to quell the anger and gain popularity by staging deadly combats between gladiators, as well as animals fights—over nine thousand animals were killed in the inaugural games. If a gladiatorial struggle did not end in death, the presiding emperor would decide the fate of the fallen: thumb’s up or thumb’s down. Sitting in rows according to their social status, 55,000 Romans cursed and cheered as they watched the slaughter below. When the crowd grew more restive, the games grew more bizarre, but as the empire neared its end, nothing could appease the frenzied masses.

While there are many reasons for the fall of the Roman empire, the problems began with the politics. The Senate, designed to govern fairly and wisely, became riddled with corruption. Consuls and officials offered positions to those who could pay for them. Bribes were accepted in exchange for favors. Unscrupulous emperors took control, while merciless minions carried out their atrocities. At last, there was nothing for the masses to do but form coalitions against their own government and eventually overpower it.

Aside from a vile few, people today would not tolerate the butchery that went on in the Coliseum, but we do have our own ignoble forms of entertainment on the small screen. Buckwild. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Amish Mafia. Bridalplasty. If we can’t watch people kill themselves, we can at least see them at their lowest. Some say that reality shows, having gotten so bad, are on the wane. If so, we are one step closer to freedom.

Before the Roman coalitions became a real threat to the government, before they began to take back their own lost power, there must have been ancient Occupy movements, small groups of loosely organized plebeians desperate to be heard.

We know that history repeats itself. To see that nothing is too big to fail, all we need to do is look back. The change that must happen is already upon us. In my cells I can feel it coming.