Things

There’s this teapot. Pale turquoise and old. It used to sit on a little table behind my grandmother’s chair. Whenever we visited Aunty, as we called her, it was a backdrop to her rocking and telling stories. When she was headed toward her end days she gave things away. She asked me what I wanted and I told her the teapot. Not because it was worth money but because when I see it, I see her there, in that chair.

So where is the teapot now? Safely kept in a high cupboard. My husband has a habit of breaking things. I’ve learned over the years that things actually mean nothing. They’re just objects. Their value comes from the stories and memories, which can’t be broken or lost. So I don’t get too attached to things anymore. And if there is something I’m attached to, it gets placed in an out-of-the-way spot. Of course I recognize the teapot has no value in that cupboard. I rarely remember I have it. Someday my son will wonder why I kept that old thing I never used.

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The delicate, almost translucent, tea cup on the right is even older, belonging to my great-grandfather. The pitcher was also Aunty’s and she always used it for orange juice. And thats granulated honey in the microwave.

Occasionally I come across this popular writer’s prompt: ‘what do you carry?’. Of course there are so many interpretations of this question, from the emotional burdens we carry, to our secrets, to our things and how they reflect on our life. What do you carry?

I spent most of July traveling in Scotland and Denmark. The first time I went to Scotland, in 1979, I had a small backpack that carried all I needed for six weeks. This time I had a large rolling bag to check in and a smaller bag for under the airline seat.

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Very old things, ivory and bone and amber, in Rosenborg Slot (castle) in Denmark, built in the 1600s.

I packed way too many things. Partly because I googled Scotland weather and read it was raining, rather than contacting friends to find out they were having record-breaking heat. The woman I traveled with packed even more, and then bought luggage to hold all the things she bought. She traveled with six pairs of shoes and four different jackets, all the same style, but different colors. I don’t even own six pairs of shoes.

In airports and train stations and buses, I saw the things we feel we need to carry. So much paraphernalia. So much stuff. Especially on the planes. I feared we would never get off the ground. It was rare to find someone traveling light, and typically when I did, it was a young person with a backpack.

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Things the Vikings carried 1200 years ago, now in the Viking museum in Aarhus, Denmark.

Why do we need so many things? Is it a sign of our culture, a sign of affluence? Would any of those things we feel the need to travel with help us if the plane crashed on a deserted island? Would six pairs of shoes keep you alive? Then why do we need them?

It’s not just traveling overseas that I see this. Every Friday when I leave work I see the same thing on the highway. People headed east for the weekend, hauling huge trailers, driving giant bus-like motor-homes that in turn tow boats and smaller cars, or more trailers. All of it full of the things they can’t go a weekend without.

Things make life easier but they also weigh us down, physically and emotionally. I came home from this trip promising myself I’m going to get rid of stuff.

Except the teapot.

Curmudgeons and Sheep

While traveling recently in Scotland, we were invited to a sheep farm to watch how sheepdogs work. I’ve seen sheepdog trials many times and have also watched a friend’s dogs work. I’m always amazed at the intelligence of the dogs and the bond they have with their shepherd.

This visit sounded interesting though. Our guide told us to not get upset by the shepherd, a man named Neil. He has won many titles and awards, and his dogs have won even more. People come to him to have their dogs trained, or to purchase dogs from him. But we were told to not get upset if he came across as abrupt or curt. He showed people how dogs work sheep on a regular basis but it was clear that humoring the public was not part of his agreement. He didn’t like people much, we were told. He preferred dogs over humans.

Hmmm…sounds like someone I live with. My kind of non-people people. I liked him before we even got there.

When we arrived he was out in a pasture, holding a young dog, with several around him poised for action, knowing what was coming. The sheep were also poised in a flock, knowing what was coming. Our arrival was slowed slightly by my not paying attention (too busy watching the dogs and thinking of my favorite border collie, Jax) and tumbling to the ground in a grand entrance. But once we were gathered, Neil sent out the dogs.

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He explained each whistled command as the dogs worked, herding sheep out into the pasture, bringing them around, and singling one to return to Neil. The young dog he’d been holding was let loose to work. The pup was rough around the edges but very game.

I sidled closer to Neil.

I asked politely if I could ask him a question.

His eyebrows shot up.

I asked him how he knew a pup would be a good working dog.

It was like he was suddenly illuminated in the brightest of lights. He told me all about blood lines and parentage.

I then asked if there was a dog that had been the best to work with. And we were off on a long, wonderful story about a ‘soft’ dog. He sang the praises of this dog, who had lived to be quite elderly. Soft with lambs and puppies and children but spot-on dedicated and focused when working.

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See the focus of the dog by the wagon? She’s poised with a low horizon to not scare sheep, waiting for the whistle.

Others sidled closer.

I then asked about the worst, or hardest dog. Again the stories poured forth of a young dog brought to him for training, whose confidence was destroyed before he arrived. The poor dog tried and failed repeatedly, with extreme lack of self-confidence. Neil said he refused to continue training because he couldn’t stand seeing the dog’s heart broken every time he came in from the pasture after failing yet again. The dog became a family pet instead.

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Two young ones more interested in playing with wool than playing with sheep.

After the stories, Neil abruptly left. Our guide said she was shocked at how talkative he’d been, and suggested we head back. But here he came around the corner of an outbuilding. And lined up in his arms was a row of tiny, ten-week-old puppies. Coming right up to me, he handed me squeaking and grunting fat puppies, talking about their blood lines and telling stories about their parents.

When we left, I thought about the contrast between what we had been warned to expect and what we’d found. And it was obvious what made the difference. Who wouldn’t light up when someone asked questions about the things they are passionate about, and love deeply? I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I think others would have asked similar questions if they hadn’t been intimidated by the guide’s warnings.

Me? I simply wanted to hear the stories.

And what wonderful stories they were.

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It Was an Accident!

A friend recently fell off a ladder while attempting to trim a tree with a chainsaw on a pole. She ended up with a hairline fracture of her leg. She hobbled around a bit and then tried to make the fracture a full-on break by slipping in cat vomit.

While she had my sympathy initially, when it got to the cat vomit part all she got was laughter.

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Another friend trying not to faint after trying to break her hand

Then I thought about all the stupid things we do as our instinct screams ‘you idiot!’. When you know better, but go forth anyway in the hopes of conquering in spite of your common sense.

Like the time my husband climbed a ladder to rescue his kitten while wearing only a bathrobe and a slippery pair of wet Crocs. Both survived.

Or the time my mother dislocated her shoulder chasing a rooster. She fell over the cage. The rooster escaped.

During my years on a fire department I saw many, many accidents. After a while you realize that pretty much everything in life is just one big accident after another. Think about it. Car accidents. House fires caused by faulty wiring or a tea kettle left simmering too long. Mistakes at work. Taking the wrong turn and getting lost.

The girl whose dog knocked her down inside an old growth tree stump where she was stuck, feet sticking out, until we showed up.

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What could go wrong? Well, actually, nothing. He’s pretty safe.

I wonder how many times my parents fell for the line, ‘but it was an accident!’.

Followed by ‘I didn’t mean it!’.

Followed by ‘it was her fault!’.

And then followed with, most commonly, spankings.

My first trip to the hospital: learning how to ride a bike without training wheels and thinking the bike would magically stop if I pulled up to a curb. After all, that’s what cars did.

Beth, me, Arthur Lake Serene

Nothing was ever the fault of these two siblings, not even this hike that scared my husband so bad

There was the time I swallowed a ring and was scared I’d get in trouble so I didn’t say anything. For days I could feel it in there every time I swallowed. Eventually, I assume, it…passed on.

Of course not all accidents result in bad things. I met some wonderful friends because I didn’t understand the distance between two points while wandering in northern Scotland.

Every day tiny decisions are made that take us through life in ways we never foresee. Where would I be right this moment if I’d been running late this morning, or early? Would I then have been in the car accident instead of driving by? Millions of tiny decisions all throughout the day impact us and most of the time we aren’t even aware of them.

If you think about this too much you’ll never get out of bed. So instead I’m going to remind my sister of the time she brilliantly thought she could swing out on a rope tied to a tree growing out of a steep hillside, and land without breaking any bones.

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Broke her ankle

We’ll ignore the part where the siblings who shall remain nameless told her ‘you go first and test it’.

Followed by ‘but it was an accident!’.