Written by: Debra Kurtz
Date: August 21, 2015
I live in a modest neighborhood; there are six children who live next door to me in one house with both of their parents. They have a small yard with a homemade jungle gym and a narrow strip of grass; the rest of their back yard is gravel and the front yard is a beautiful, productive garden.
I, on the other hand, have a large yard covered with green grass with lots of space to play. There are three sheds to navigate; a fire ring for cook-outs; a compost pile that needs fed, turned and sifted on a regular basis. There are rope ladders along with trees to climb, swings attached to their branches. There is a sand box that doubles as a beach on a hot day; plenty of room to run and play ball or croquet; and numerous places to use for an evening game of hide and seek. The best part? That is the swinging gate between the yards that affords access to all! Oh, we have done our due diligence and agreed to limited liability in case of an accident, but for the most part, the children have free access to the yard and accidents have been minimal and minor.
In turn, I have plenty of help pulling weeds in my own garden and flower beds, transplanting shrubs and, in winter, shoveling snow. On a rainy day, the children like to help inside my house by running my vacuum cleaner or dusting the pictures on the piano; sometimes we work a jigsaw puzzle. They respect my time and understand when I tell them I am ready for a nap or some quiet time and they leave without arguing.
As we have worked together over the past three years, many questions have arisen. I answer them to the best of my knowledge and sometimes we look up odd bugs in an old Audubon Society bug book I bought for my son when he was eight, or we actually Google some tidbit of which I am unsure. (Or I assign the ‘looking up’ to them to bring back the answer the next day). The real test has been the ‘other stuff’ that comes up: how to nurse a stubbed toe, when to leave the bees alone with the flowers, what value the spiders are in the carport and why the birds nest inside the largest shrub in the yard. Maybe its how to start a fire in the fire ring or what happens as our food waste turns to compost? There is the secret of how to quietly step away when the mourning doves feel threatened by our presence or the question of why the moon always rises in the east. ‘How did you get so wise?’ they ask often, unashamed of their own ignorance and in awe of my wisdom. ‘When DID I get so wise?’ I ask myself in the quiet moments of my evenings.
Wisdom at its worst is lessons learned through trials and tribulations, hopefully to not be repeated as one moves through the remainder of one’s life. Wisdom at its best is lessons learned and remembered through others’ trials and tribulations, escaping the worst of bad situations. ‘It’s easier to get older than it is to get wiser’ the worn plaque on my desk often reminds me. I have definitely gotten older but that hasn’t seemed easy. Have I really gotten wiser without ‘working’ at it?
Spending time with my neighbor kids (their parents are immigrants from Russia and Ukraine), evokes memories of my own childhood. My neighbor lady used to hook rugs on her front porch, a craft my grandfather tried to keep alive in his old town far away from where I grew up. My neighbor turned 100 years old the year I turned 12, also the year my grandfather died. It was 1963 and I had just learned about the Civil War and the Industrial Age at the turn of the century and then World Wars I and II. Regardless, I marveled at the fact that my neighbor lady was born during the Civil War, which in my history book was a million years hence, not a mere 100. She knew so much about so much and she had lived history! I marveled at her wisdom and I loved sitting on the porch swing with her just listening to her stories and watching her work. Do I seem that old to my neighbor children as they marvel at my wisdom? I don’t know why I am surprised when my neighbor kids come over to just ‘watch me work’ and then begin to help with whatever I am doing, all the while asking me questions. Sometimes the questions are just about ‘how is my day.’ Sometimes we just sit on the porch swing and listen to the sounds of nature.
I have thought often of all the book learning we have had access to in our lifetimes; our heads are full of knowledge, but at what point do we really become wise? Wise to me is an assimilation of practices that are not necessarily events that take effort; wisdom is living the events of our daily lives, those that involve assimilating the world around us.
Spending time never evokes the same emotion for me as spending money; spending time is different than wasting time; spending time is different than using time. Spending time is a concerted effort to be present in the presence of something or someone right in front of you; it is a matter of perspective with the audience. It is, in fact, the act of spending time that makes us wise. It is the reward of my summer and the beauty of living in my neighborhood.