Zen. Broken Sink Drain. A Meaningful Life.

back porch view

I’m lying on the couch reading Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem when my daughter calls from the kitchen, ‘Mom, you’re not going to like this!’

The sink drain has split apart again and gray water floods the kitchen floor. For a moment, I think, whatever, and then ask her to get an old towel.

I have now repaired this drain three times, each time in nothing but sheer annoyance and impatience.

The problem, naturally, has something to do with PVC and epoxy, but more to do with me. My ex-husband put in this drain, in his trademark cob-job way, fitting together scraps of plastic pipe. I’m irritated at my own ineptness, my unwillingness to devote real time to YouTubing a solution, the scantness of my nonworking hours.

I’d rather paint a wall than repair a drain.

After we mop up the water and pile the unwashed dishes on the sink drainboard, we put on our boots and take a walk in the falling snow. It’s the first snowfall of the year. Snow is our old friend, falling silently, sparkling in house and streetlights. This first bit will melt today and return again soon.

Sunday morning. Put the house in order. Take the broken pieces to the hardware store. Ask for advice.

True recovery is a profoundly ethical journey, finding meaning and dignity through solidarity and restitution. Without that, there may be a cessation of drinking or substance use, but there is no real recovery.”

— Sigrid Lausing

Promises.

A thunderstorm rumbles in early Saturday morning, in that darkest spot before dawn. We’re nearly at the solstice, and the days are long and lovely, full of just the right amount of warmth. Our Vermont world is in bloom.

The rain this morning is welcome. When the downpour passes, I lie in bed beside the open window, listening to the pattering of a gentle rainfall on the leaves of the mock orange below my window. In bloom now, its flowers are white as snow.

In my memory runs a few lines from an Eric Clapton song. The day before, I had driven to St. Johnsbury, a road I had often driven when I was first married. As I crested a mountain, VPR cut out, and that song came over my radio, scratchy. Long ago, we had a second-hand turntable, and a few cast-off records, and that album we played over and over.

The thing is, I didn’t like the album much at all, but I gradually came to like it, maybe simply through habit. That one sweet song had always been my favorite. Now, over the radio, my past returned, fuzzy and unclear, but never forgotten.

A year ago, George Floyd had recently been murdered, his death replayed endlessly around the planet. Riots erupted around the country. Now, under a different administration, Juneteenth is honored.

So much. All that great wash of the past — from immense societal waves to the tiny trickles of our own lives — pushes us along. And yet, sweet rain on this quiet morning. Even the hungry cats press their whiskers against the screen, welcoming in the morning.

Chaos, Roses, Life.

Friday morning, I’m washing the breakfast dishes when warm liquid runs over my bare toes. For the briefest moment, I think I’m standing in the edge of a warm ocean, and then I realize my kitchen sink drain has broken apart. Gallons of dishwater flow over the floor. 

I’ve cobbled the drain together before, but this time, I’ll actually need to fix it.

My daughter picks up a worried cat and assures him that, indeed, the drain will be fixed.

Midday, when I’ve finished work at my desk, I drive to the hardware store with a section of PVC. I’ve forgotten a mask; those cloths are at home, drying on the clothesline. I sigh, irritated. I have a six other things I want to do, besides drive around. 

But the thing is, I see a huge sign outside the store: masks are no longer required for the fully vaccinated. For the first time in however long, I walk into a store without a mask.

This has been a week of chaos. We all have these days or weeks, or maybe even decades. Who doesn’t? We’re humans, who live in a material world that’s constantly shifting (even if only incrementally) from well-put-together to chaos. The flip side, I suppose, is that sometimes we manage to arrange chaos back to order.

As in my kitchen sink: after dinner, I wash the dishes, and no flood alarms the cats.

By evening, I haven’t bought to tickets from Vermont to New Mexico to visit my parents, as I’m unable to surmount the chaos of the airline world. I haven’t eradicated my fears about my 16-year-old, driving around, heading into the adult world in what’s practically a heartbeat. The woodchucks are still doggedly determined to rise up around my gardening realm.

From the tangle of rosebushes someone planted long ago, I clip a single blossom. A thorn pricks my thumb, and a thin line of blood wells up. I touch the blossom to my blood and wipe my thumb clean.

Twilight Walk

On these warm spring evenings, my daughters and I often walk through the town forest and circle around back to town along Bridgeman Hill Road. The woods are the solace of living in town, sprinkled now with spring beauties and red trilliums and gold trout lilies.

At the high school, we watch a young teen drive a pickup around the parking lot with his father, the truck lurching into gear as the teen finds that sweet spot between clutch and gas. As the dusk drifts down, watching this kid seems almost wildly hopeful as he turns and loops back again around that long parking lot.

This whole walk I’d been trailing my daughters, listening to the evening birdsong in the treetops, for some reason remembering the man who coached basketball for many years at the high school. He’d dug a basement for my former husband and me, many years, when we bought that first eight acres. I’d run into him a few years ago when we were both pumping gas. As the world goes in little towns, we’d each heard small strands of gossip about each other, and we caught up about what we were each doing for work.

Then I turned the key to my car and asked if he would listen to a grinding sound in my car’s engine.

Water pump, he said, and then asked if I needed help fixing it.

I thanked him and said no, I was fine. He went into his day, and I into mine. On my way to work that morning, the water pump failed.

The teen turns on the headlights. Back at my car, my daughter gets in the driver’s seat, ready to drive — not home, but somewhere, anywhere.

I make her wait, though; I don’t get in the car. I stand there for a moment longer, the night sprinkling down, the peepers singing, and that boy making a long slow turn in the parking lot. Around us, the ineffable mystery of the world widens around those two spots of light.

Falling Ice

In the night, ice slides off our back roof and breaks our porch railing. I discover this in the morning while I’m carrying out the stove ashes, cautiously looking for one of the neighborhood skunks.

The broken railing doesn’t even register as an annoyance. While I’m making coffee, I think this over. Just a few years ago, I would have brooded on the broken wood, resentful of the expense of money and time to repair this piece of our house. Now, I think merely, That can be repaired.

There’s a lesson here, I think, on this mundane Thursday morning. Of all the broken things in my life — inevitably, in all our lives — a snapped piece of wood hardly matters. For years, I saw the accumulation of disrepair, from a loose coat peg to a leaking roof, as sure evidence that my family life was unfolding. A year into the pandemic, a broken railing is evidence of warming nights. Repair, and move on.

From Leland Kinsey’s poem “Winter Stay in a Peat Bog”

Stories

My favorite opening line from a Ray Carver short story reads, “I’ve seen some things.” Winter weary, in mid-February: I’ve heard some things.

A colleague shares a nearly-unbelievable story of her marriage breakup, and I think, madness, madness. The story is so unreal, it’s plausible to me. Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Every morning, every evening, the light lingers just a little longer, reminds us that spring is buried deep but not impossibly buried, that forwards is always the thrust of life.  Smartphones and the internet notwithstanding, the human story in many ways repeats its endless variations of the same simple story, over and over. We’re sentient beings on a changing planet. Snow trickles into tulips. Spring light inevitably emerges.

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