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Following a wandering mind

Bill Meredith

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --- I took the one less travelled by…." ~Robert Frost, "The Road Less Taken."
"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." ~ attributed to John Ray (1670), who probably paraphrased it from Bernard of Clairveaux (1150), who probably swiped it from Virgil’s Aeneid (29 BC).

(11/3) I taught an assortment of biology courses for 41 years, and I got in the habit of working on a rigorous schedule. Each day was an orderly sequence of lectures, labs, committee meetings and conferences with students, with reading, grading and preparation squeezed into any gaps. But suddenly, in May of 1998, that all ended. I retired, and Order was replaced with Chaos. It was stressful for a while, but at some point I came across this quotation by Christopher Morley:

"Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity."

I found that appealing, especially the part about doing something silly; so I adopted it as a new scheduling paradigm for my retirement.

My wife’s adjustment to retirement was more seamless, but I have noticed in recent years that she is of a more nervous disposition than she used to be. When we got married, she never seemed to worry about anything; she slept like the proverbial log, assuming that sleeping logs roll around a lot. But over the last few years she has got into the habit of worrying about whether the bathroom is still there, and she gets up in the middle of the night to check on it… sometimes more than once. I have tried to take the logical approach that if the bathroom was actually gone, we couldn’t do anything about it until morning, so I never get up. But it is starting to make me wonder if other things might have happened and I missed them.

I’m pretty sure I would notice it if the bathroom disappeared, for that would not be an ordinary event. But I do miss things that are ordinary, just because I forget to look for them. For example, I have four small friends who enjoy being amazed, and I meant to get up early on September 22 and mark the direction of the sunrise on the sidewalk with chalk, so we could measure it with a compass. It should have been due east that day, and then if we had measured it a month later it should have been several degrees further south; and we could have talked about it and maybe figured out why. But I forgot to get up that morning, so I missed it. Of course, we could do that exercise any time and find the sun rising in a different place a month later; but the ideal teaching moment would have been to start on one of the cardinal points of the compass. It’s not too big a deal; I’m pretty sure there will be another equinox next March… if I don’t forget again.

Forgetting is a problem when you get to a certain age. My daily schedule this summer was to get up early when it was cool and work outside until I got hot and sweaty. The intention was to pick some tomatoes and cucumbers, pull a few weeds, and cut the grass or plant a flower or two for a while; and any time I got tired I could sit down in a lawn chair and sip some coffee while I watched things grow. It was a good intention in theory, but in practice it ended up like the paving stones in a certain well-known road where we would prefer not to go. What actually happened was that I would either doze off to sleep, or my mind would wander off to some less-travelled road.

For example, a week or so ago while dozing in the lawn chair near the plum tree that supports our bird feeder, I noticed that leaves were beginning to fall. It has been a dry season, and the leaves dried up early; and they fluttered aimlessly on the way down. About that time, a chickadee flew into the top of the tree. It looked around to make sure no predators were watching, and then it dropped downward to the feeder, fluttering in a pattern just like the falling leaves. In a few minutes another chickadee arrived the same way… into the treetop, make sure the coast is clear, and flutter down to the feeder. In the next five minutes the scene was repeated as more chickadees came, and more leaves dropped. Hardly thinking about it, I took out the notebook from my shirt pocket and wrote the following lines:

Chickadees are much like leaves:

They flutter when they drop from trees.

But leaves aren’t like chickadees when they drop;

When they reach the feeder, they don’t stop.

That kind of doggerel won’t allow me to compete with Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but my wife says it does meet Christopher Morley’s standard for silliness. I felt good about it for the rest of the day.

My mind also seems to enjoy wandering off in pursuit of squirrels. Several of them successfully raised families this summer in the Great Forest behind our house, and the young ones quickly learned the way to reach the feeder without the risk of traveling on the ground. Each morning they leave their various nests and follow the trail which leads by leaping from one tree to the next to the big silver maple by the woodpile, then down the grapevine to the apple tree, then to the redbud, and onto the roof of the house. Over the roof they come, and leap into the plum tree where the feeder is. I watched them early in the summer before they were fully grown; they were clumsy at first, but quickly learned where the feeder with the sunflower seeds hangs, and now they have mastered the technique of hanging from their hind paws while they use their front ones for stealing seeds. They are now molting into their darker winter coats, and a few of them are already starting to compete for dominance in their society. There is a good crop of nuts this year, and they seem to realize that the soft soil of flowerbeds is easer to dig in than the hard-packed soil of the lawn. One of them takes that idea to the extreme; it insists on burying nuts in the flower pot that holds my wife’s basil plant, cheerfully digging clear to the bottom of the pot and spilling potting soil all over the sidewalk. The other squirrels tell me his idea for hiding food is too silly to copy; but if he makes it through the winter, he may start a new craze for herb-flavored acorns among his friends next year. I hope I will still be here to see.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith