Monday, September 08, 2014

Sunday's LFH--Welcoming the Inefficient

Letter from Harrisburg

The inefficient can have a precious purpose in our busy lives

We are a family who values efficiency. My husband said not long ago that doing many things at once, such as working, eating, listening and planning, gives him a great sense of accomplishment.
A son designs and builds compact furniture for his apartment and figures out how to get the most calories and nutrition possible into a single shake.
A daughter prides herself on being minimalist and packing everything for a three-week trip into a single small backpack.
I like to have Sunday dinner in the oven when I leave for church, and I love to see everyone briskly slotting into their roles when we get home. This one sets the table, that one slices bread, another dishes up the corn and adds a pat of butter, and in a few minutes we find our places around a lovely table and fragrant meal.
One starts to think of efficiency as a virtue and a value. Everyone ought to be like this, really, and wouldn’t it be nice if the rest of the world operated like we do?
We don’t think this consciously, of course.
Significantly, we are almost all adults and all in good health.
So, every now and then, one of the most inefficient folks in the world is sent into our lives, just long enough to upset our smooth routines and jostle our smug suppositions.
Because no one is as utterly inefficient as babies and the elderly.
When our son Matt was home for a visit, we invited his old friend Justin over for Sunday dinner, along with Justin’s wife, Esta.
Only a few weeks before, Esta had given birth to a lively little red-haired boy named Merek, who fought his entrance into the world in the most difficult way he could manage and who didn’t settle into life outside with any readiness either.
Just as the pot roast was placed on the table and the water was poured in the glasses, Merek insisted on eating. Esta took him to the bedroom.
The rest of us waited.
You’d think a mom of six wouldn’t forget, but I had, and suddenly it all came back: the overwhelming demands of a newborn; the way they take over your life, your plans, your schedule; the long, exhausting process of learning to sense their needs and form a routine of eating and sleeping; the way everything pauses and everyone waits until the baby finishes eating and — maybe — goes to sleep.
Later, after we ate the no-longer-very-hot pot roast, I took little Merek, his newborn warmth molding into my hands, and I held him against me and gently bounced until he went to sleep.
How quickly one forgets the astonishing preciousness and helplessness of a tiny baby; how good it is for productive adults to be reminded.
My 97-year-old dad has been with us all summer.
Like every Oregon family, we have our traditions and a well-defined description of what “going to the coast” involves. Walking on the beach — that’s the most important. Hiking up Mary’s Peak on the way out or driving south for a hike up Cape Perpetua. Maybe walking across the Newport bridge.
Despite Dad’s excellent health, I knew we couldn’t be that ambitious when my daughters, Emily and Jenny, and I took him to the coast one Saturday. But still, we could do a little walking on the beach, and then he and I could sit on lawn chairs and watch the waves while the girls went on a walk. Then we could have a picnic lunch on the beach as well.
Trying to be prepared and capable, I checked the Newport weather online: 66 degrees and mostly sunny. Not perfect, but a nice break from the hot Willamette Valley weather.
It would be fun.
We parked at Nye Beach, got out, and were immediately blasted with what felt like a gale off the North Sea.
Emily shrieked and hopped back into the car. I helped Dad into my husband’s winter coat and lamented that I hadn’t brought a stocking cap for his ears.
He said he’d be fine.
A huge gray bank of fog sat ominously on the ocean, close in, obscuring all but the nearest waves. The sun made a timid attempt at shining, but the fog bank obscured most of that too.
Slowly, haltingly, we shuffled toward the water. Dad’s cane pushed down into the loose, dry sand. He lurched unsteadily. I shivered in the wind and kept an arm out to assist him.
Eventually Emily joined us, wrapped in a picnic blanket.
Dad stood and looked at the water for a few minutes and then we shuffled back. The black shoes stepped carefully in the sand, step by step, and finally we settled back into the warmth of the car.
With all my preparation, why hadn’t I realized how much walking we do at the coast, and how weary Dad would get?
No doubt this has happened thousands of times, Oregonians proudly taking out-of-state visitors to our beautiful coast, finding the weather intolerable, and escaping to the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which is warm, dry, interesting, and free.
And which requires more walking. Such a long distance from the parking lot to the door — somehow I’d never noticed that before.
Thankfully Dad is still an avid reader and learner, so he found the displays fascinating — albatross routes and whale migration and tsunami zones.
We were able to sit and rest while we watched an instructive film about dolphins.
Now — lunch. I remembered a sheltered spot on the beach, near the south jetty. I drove as close as I could and we again lumbered slowly along, burdened with camp chairs and blankets and food.
We soon gave up on reaching our destination and found a somewhat sheltered dip in the sand dunes instead. We set Dad in a chair, laid out a blanket, and discovered that a quart jar of iced tea had broken and spilled over everything in the cooler.
A second jar had survived, so I salvaged what I could and handed Dad a plate of food and a small cup of tea. He led us in prayer and seemed surprisingly grateful for the day.
A few minutes later, across the blanket from me, Dad’s chair gave way in the deep sand and began to topple sideways. It was like watching something in slow motion as he gently laid over and Emily frantically tried to stop him.
It all happened so slowly that he didn’t spill a drop of tea, and all the food stayed on his plate. We hauled him upright again, and then all of us, including Dad, laughed until we were almost in tears.
A slow and bitterly cold walk brought us back to the car. Dad was exhausted.
Disappointed, we saw that the only sensible option was to give up on our plans and ideas for a perfect day at the coast and go home.
Dad had a wonderful attitude about it all, with no complaints or hints that we should have been more accommodating of his limitations.
And that evening, around our picnic table on the porch, he suddenly told a story.
The dolphins in the movie had reminded him of this, he said. Back in the late 1940s, he and a few other Amish guys got passage on a freighter to Brazil, and then they took a riverboat to Paraguay to help settle Mennonite refugees from Russia.
But first they were on the freighter for a month as it made its way south. Sometimes he and his friends would stand at the rail on the front of the ship, and a bunch of dolphins would come by and swim alongside.
He and the other men would stand there for a long time — hours, he implied — and watch the dolphins play with each other and leap out of the water, down below at the prow of the boat.
We were astonished, imagining it.
This is why it’s worthwhile to slow down our busy lives and alter them for the inefficient: because sometimes a little child will snuggle on your chest and close his delicate red-blond eyelashes down onto perfect pink cheeks and make you forget everything else in the world.
And sometimes at the end of a disastrous and disappointing day, your children will be silent around the table as they stand on a long-ago ship with their grandpa, watching dolphins leap high in a sunny and faraway sea.


  1. Thank you for sharing. Your writing has an amazing ability to touch a place in my heart. Thank you again. Blessings!

  2. Lovely, as usual. I so enjoy your blog!

  3. As a mother of 5 young, often inefficient, children, I needed this. Yes, its worthwhile to slow down and I so often forget it!

  4. I always enjoy your Sunday columns (and blog posts)--and this one was no exception. I was alone at home at the moment of reading it--laughing aloud when your dad's chair slowly tipped and all without spilling a drop. Thank you for the reminder of what's important and for the chuckle.
    Sue R.

  5. I'm glad you all waited to eat until Esta could join you. How very classy. That must have meant a lot to her. So often new moms are sidelined with the needs of their babies while the "party" goes on without them. But not at your house! Your family has managed to keep its priorities straight even if efficiency itself has to be sidelined!

    I love the way you contrasted these stories about the very young and the very old to illustrate your point about the rewards of slowing down and deferring to others even when doing so is neither efficient nor convenient. Thank you for making me think and for prompting me to evaluate my own priorities amid the detours and interruptions of life.

    Finally, the phrase "precious purpose" as used in your first sentence is a very powerful introduction. After I read your post I found myself pondering that phrase and how perfect it is in the context of what you shared! The family stories themselves were enjoyable to read; but you linked them together with an added underlying, invisible "precious purpose" which clearly made a point and gave additional meaning to your writing. Very well done, Dorcas.

  6. As always, I loved this blog. I wish every adult who no longer has or never had small children could read this. So often, I feel guilty over "ruining" things for people, especially when they imply that if THEY were the parents, then THEIR children wouldn't do whatever mine are doing.

  7. I liked this a lot! I can relate, since my baby was born in February. In a way, being a mom has helped me enjoy life more because I have to live moment by moment instead of constantly rushing through the current project! Or maybe I should say I have to live from interruption to interruption. :) In any case, it's sort of liberating to slow down and focus on the small moments. I just have to switch my brain constantly between rush mode and smell-the-roses mode. :)

    This was a beautiful post, and I had tears in my eyes when I read the ending- which, by the way, dovetailed together very neatly and satisfyingly!

  8. When my elderly parents come for a visit I allow 20 minutes just to get them from the house and into the car if we are going somewhere. It is pretty much the same when my daughter and her 2 yr old and 3 month old come over for the day. It does make me appreciate how easy my day to day life is here in our empty nest.

    I loved the story of your Dad and the chair toppling over because the same happened to an elderly aunt who put a chair at the edge of the surf at the beach. She had little experience with the surf being an inlander and had no idea that the sand would wash out from under the legs. Over she went in her dress and it took several to get her up again. She was a good sport about it though!

  9. You are not exaggerating the chill and the wind of even a summer day on the Oregon coast. It is beautiful in its own unique way, though. Thanks for sharing! I enjoy your writings.

  10. Wow, this made me cry! So beautiful :)

  11. I started life in the midwest, then moved to Corvallis where our biggest thrill was to get to go to the beach ANYTIME we wanted. Now I am inland again in Idaho, and miss the beach ( and the berries) of Oregon. We also would go to the Marine Science Center if the weather was bad...but it was the tiny one! I haven't been to the new one yet. Nye beach is our favorite, and we go to the Chowder Bowl there. I love your column, as it lets me visit home for a few minutes!