Here’s what Angelo and I do most evenings around 6 pm: we pour ourselves a cocktail, put a tray of peanuts-in-the-shell at the edge of the porch and sit back and watch the squirrels and chipmunks haul away as many treats as they can stuff in their little cheeks. Birds, too. We have a bird feeder for the birds, but some of the hardier ones swoop down and grab a peanut and fly back up into the azalea bush just beyond the porch. Of course, the blue jays get bossy and squawk their way into the picture, grab a peanut and run. A couple of cardinal couples hang around the feeder—it seems their home is in the quince up near the road—and when they visit, the other birds give them space. They’re like royalty. And every once in a while, a hummingbird will check out the small dish of nectar I put inside an open lantern. As it hovers over the dish, its wings create a rush of wind that makes the columbine leaves below rustle. When the peanuts are gone, we head back inside to start dinner for my dad and tend to the evening activities.
We started this practice as a way to reconnect at the end of the day. Although we are most often home together anyway, the responsibilities and chores of managing care for Dad, following up on what’s happening with work, the virus, our family, and venturing into the outside world can fracture us just a little bit. Stress works its way into once-normal activities, like grocery shopping. Or Dad was having a bad day; or I was. So, we decided to carve out 30 minutes or so to just regroup. Since it was summer, sitting out on the porch was the natural thing to do. And we don’t exclude Dad—we extend our happy hour to him once we headed back inside to start dinner. We just needed this time alone; a no-stress interlude to catch up with one another.
I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gone all Snow White here; the pandemic brought us difficulties and challenges, too. A program we have run for twelve years through a grant from the state is ending in less than two months. Angelo’s practice has changed in both positive and negative ways; since we have to give up our office space (because of the grant program) Angelo has continued to see his clients through a telehealth platform which both he and they seem to like and he can do it from home.
My own work has suffered in part due to the pandemic; without aides coming in to help care for my dad, I am not able to devote time and energy to finishing any of my writing projects. Quite frankly, even getting this column in on deadline has been a struggle!
Even with the challenges, it has become clear to us that it is our attitude as much as anything else that will help us survive. Sure, we have the squirrels and the chipmunks to entertain us during our nightly cocktail hour, but what if we weren’t able to enjoy such a gift? What if, instead of delighting at the acrobatics of the chipmunks scaling the bird feeder or the artistry of the hummingbirds dancing around their nectar, we simply ignored it. Didn’t notice it. Couldn’t see it.
In my childhood home, taped on the inside of one of the kitchen cabinets near the stove, was a small rectangle of paper cut from a magazine. A poem I glanced at when I needed a glass or a plate. My mom must have put it there—helpful reminders for the more challenging days of parenting. I don’t recall her pointing it out to us, but it was an ever-present message which I still remember today:
“Children Learn What They Live”
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte
I think about this now, during the days of pandemic, quarantine, and all the daily changes to life as we know it. I think of it as children go back to school amid fears of “catching the virus” and how important it is for their parents to model a positive attitude for them, even as they themselves have fears. I think of it for myself, when I feel like I can’t do one more day of caretaking and want to get back to my “real” life—our real life—Angelo’s and mine—but realize that my dad needs to be cared for without negativity or blame.
We all learn what we live. What we are living right now isn’t what anyone expected or possibly even imagined what our course ahead would look like. We are living in a time that feels very negative and scary—and it is. But it is still the life we have, the world we live in. Parts of it are going on as before—and maybe the slowing down of our “real” life has allowed us to notice what the rest of the world is up to. Even the skies may be clearing. We have entered into relationship with our environment in a way that would not have happened without a pandemic. In times BC (Before Coronavirus) we often sat on the porch with beverages, filled the bird feeder, invited some company and enjoyed a summer evening. Now, our company is of the four-footed or winged kind. Deepening our connection with the natural world feels like it is grounding us to where we actually live.