Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sky: Learn, Teach, Let Go


How did I learn to build things?

That’s almost as perplexing as my current recurring question as to how am I forgetting so much so fast about how to build things?

So much to learn, so many skilled people to learn from.

So many traditions. So much accumulated knowledge of how to create the warmth and security of shelter.

Living for years on a Vermont dairy farm provided countless opportunities for traditional as well as more free-flowing repairs and creations.

Materials were plentiful, what with deconstructing a 100-cow barn and building a new efficient barn/greenhouse.

Word spread of our unusual farm, and numerous eclectic visitors arrived and shared skills ideas and energy.

I was fortunate to spread my tiny wings in this fecund atmosphere. The heavy work was done by draft horses. Hay was mown with a John Deere #2 mower, then an ancient McCormack. We tapped over 1000 trees and gathered the sap with the same team.

Much of the antique machinery broke down on a regular basis, and required delicate and timely repair... sometimes with heavy hammers. Other times, with custom-made metal pieces. I learned how to weld.

The baby chicks that had had hatched in spring needed better shelter. I learned to frame and build a roof.

The waterline from the spring froze in January, and I got pretty good with a propane torch and PVC pipe.

I discovered that I had a hunger for learning new things, especially useful things, like figuring out if a heifer might be in heat.

As life moved along with its inevitable changes, my interests shifted too, but I remained grateful for my country skills and common sense. True, now that I am no longer a dairy farmer, the ability to spot that heifer in heat is no longer so crucial, but I'm glad I learned. If, nothing else, during the 66 years leading up to my diagnosis of probable early stage Alzheimer’s, I know I learned how to learn. I never lost my curiosity about human beings and this wide tiny world we all inhabit.


Went hiking yesterday with daughter, Dana. We visited a place way back in the Green Mountains where I had never been before.

This place has the unlikely name of Nebraska Notch. To get there, you turn off the main road to Stowe, then keep turning onto smaller and smaller roads until you are on a one-lane track, the only way up (or back down!) for vehicles. This road comes to an end at a very large snow pile and a very small parking area. Dana and I get out of the car, but are unable to see any, even remote, resemblance to the Great Prairie. What we find instead is mind-altering. Our minuscule parking area is on the shore of a good-sized lake, which is the headquarters of the Mt. Mansfield Trout Club. This jewel of a lake is surrounded by scarily rugged mountains that tower several thousand feet above. I’m more interested in the tamer trails that circle the lake. I casually mention to Dana, “You know, if I were here on my own, I’d do some estimating of a turn-around time based on conditions so we don’t get caught by darkness, or worse.”

“Oh, man,” I splutter. "I left my light at home anyway!”

"And, while you were mansplaining the importance of our turn-around time, I just did the calculation,” Dana grins. “I suggest we re-evaluate in half an hour or when we get to the turn off to Taylor Lodge, whichever comes first. This fresh snow won’t get any easier as we climb, right?”

“Where did you learn all this woods common sense. girl?”

Hmmm, mmmmmmm, I wonder…..

Let Go

“OK, Sky-Pie. This one’s yours!” yells Sayer, my 26-year-old son. Sayer is a man of many skills, and I’m about to see some more in action.

Our family has taken on another project, this time a major renovation of a run-down duplex in the college town of Burlington, VT. The two units are connected by an outdoor stairway and two porches, all of which need rebuilding.

We have an ambitious plan and a good crew. Sayer is the leader for this part of the job with on-site consultation from a professional carpenter/friend. Two more family members are available with wrecking bars and power nailers to remove the old construction and frame up the new. My job is to float as necessary and help as needed.

After a brief planning meeting, the muscle power was turned loose, and the old porches and stairs quickly vanished into the dumpster. Sayer was busy with the painstaking task of laying out the notches to support the new framing. When he was ready with the first one he shouted my name and hefted the beam my way like it was a piece of kindling.

“What am supposed to do with that?” I ask him.

“Just cut the lines for the notches and we’ll put it in. The saw’s right there! Simple!”

It should have been simple. His lines were clear and sharp. Sayer had obviously used a good pencil and a steady hand. But was it accurate? It didn’t seem to take him any time at all. I didn’t want to waste time and materials, cutting to a wrong measurement. But I didn’t want to publicly doubt Sayer either.

I wandered back to the cutting area and looked at the notches again….then back at the sawhorses…

It’s still difficult to explain what I saw, but it was unlike any other carpentry experience I’d had. As I mentioned, the lines looked perfect. But I had no idea what to do with them, except that I was supposed to cut them somehow. I was sure that any cut I made would be wrong. I handed the saw back to Sayer who made the first of many careful cuts by following his lines. His result was gorgeous -- and perfect.

I have become familiar with the feeling of helplessly standing in front of a carefully marked piece of wood.

It’s a dementia thing: imagining the worst outcome while hoping for the best. Trying to keep the inner train on the rails. In the meantime, DON’T CUT THAT WOOD!!

Over the two-and-a-half years since this event, I have learned that I can no longer do carpentry work. I no longer have any idea what's the right thing to do even with all the wheels and gears in my brain spinning like mad. So now, I have to keep remembering that the best way I can “help” is to let go and back away. Despite all my years of learning, and all my years of sharing that learning with my children, I am both sad -- and relieved -- to let go and turn it all over to them.

What's next?


  1. I'm glad to learn that you feel both sad AND relieved to step back. My first thought was "how sad!" based on what you had written above about all you learned and knew. With my (relatively) able brain, I'm thinking "this must be so hard for you to let go of..." But your brain is YOURS, and when you say it's a relief, I believe you.

    Keep on truckin'!

    Your companion on the path'

  2. Sky, these are good rules for parenting in any situation! Thanks for this piece.