Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Walden in Ithaca

Contentment is a quiet, perhaps mute emotion—we often don’t realize how contented we are until something takes away our source of contentment—one of those “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” things. Or maybe it’s just that contentment is a Le Conte’s Sparrow emotion—calling too softly for us to hear unless we’re paying attention.

This Saturday morning after I watered my houseplants, smiling at the abundance of streptocarpus and African violet blossoms that bring so much vivid color to my apartment, I took Photon for a walk in the rising sunshine. Most of the ice along the marshy stream down Ellis Hollow Road had melted. Red-winged Blackbird epaulets glowed like burning embers in the sun. A Carolina Wren sang his jubilant song and a Hooded Merganser drake displayed to his mate, that funky black and white crest going up and down.

When we got back to the apartment, I gave Photon her Saturday morning chew bone and made a cup of coffee for myself. My cat Kasey joined us as we sat at my balcony window, watching a crowd of redpolls and goldfinches pigging out and chickadees and titmice flitting in one by one. And suddenly a wave of contentment rushed over me—no little Le Conte’s Sparrow whispering from a hidden tuft of grasses, but a big honkin’ Trumpeter Swan right in my face. I was filled with that same deep joy that I’ve felt on a few occasions—when I looked into Russ’s eyes while we said our wedding vows, when I first held my newborns in the hospital, when I stood at the Fort Kearney bridge in Nebraska witnessing the spring Sandhill Crane spectacle for the first time, the moment I first enticed a Black-capped Chickadee to alight on my hand, when I walked into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as the brand-new science editor on January 7th. These heady rushes of contentment all came after eager anticipation, and although I can conjure up memories of joyful moments, it’s hard to drum up genuine contentment once it’s dissipated.

But lately I’m finding it easier to feel deep contentment. I miss Russ and Tommy and my Peabody Street chickadees and all my Duluth friends, but it turns out I’m finding solitude as comfortable and joyful as Thoreau did. It’s enlightening to live alone, making day-to-day decisions that don’t affect anyone else. I wake up at 5 and move about without fear of waking anyone else up. When the television only goes on when I turn it on, I don’t miss it at all. I keep my thermostat set to 50 degrees at night, 58 in the day, without making anyone else uncomfortable. I’m plenty warm at night—the sheets feel cold when I first climb into bed, but Photon snuggles on one side and Kasey on the other and soon it’s toasty under my blankets and quilt—and the growing warmth fills me with contentment. To stay comfortable in the daytime, I put on CuddleDuds longjohns—the very act of putting them on and feeling their silky warmth fills me with contentment. I turn off my hot water heater just before taking a shower and don’t turn it on again until a couple of hours before the next shower—if I have a load of dishes to wash, I do that on the same tank. Saving energy this way feels good.

Of course, my flowers need more warmth than 58 degrees, and sometimes so do I. The warmest room in my apartment is the upstairs south-facing bedroom. The plant lights keep it warmer, and the brightness from the big window and the plant lights make this room my favorite—the one I use as my home office. I keep the other lights off when I’m in this room, and even at night I don’t need more light than the wide-spectrum fluorescent bulbs give off. Even in the dead of winter, they keep my spirits high. It’s much cheaper to keep one room lighted with fluorescents and at 64 or 65 degrees than to light and heat a whole apartment, and it’s just as comfortable when you spend most of your time in that one room.

To me, the very essence of immorality is to turn a blind eye to the difficulties facing other human beings or the critical dangers facing whole populations of some animals and plants. But I have more of myself to give to the causes I believe in when my life is filled with contented moments. I don’t know why suddenly at the age of 56 I’m being given so many moments of sublime contentment, but I’ll take them as they come. Unlike Thoreau, I’m not truly alone—I have my dog and my cat after all. But like me, he had the Walden birds to keep him company. I’ve found my personal Walden, and who could ask for more?

Facing dining area from staircase. The moose picture, a gift from Russ, came from the Sivertson Gallery in Duluth. The abstract picture over the dining room table was one in my house in Northlake when I was a little girl. I put together the dining room table and chairs and the little cart table next to the door--they and the rugs came from Target. If you look very carefully to the right of my jacket, you might see the scarf that Lisa Johnson gave me a few years ago.
More Target furniture--I built the two chairs but the afghans, Roman shades, ottoman, and side tables were already put-together. Russ and I bought the owl lamp when we were in college. The steeple clock you can barely see over the fireplace was a gift from Russ back in 1970--the ticking used to drive my dear college roommate Bosco nuts. The Audubon prints are from old calendars that some wonderful radio listeners gave me back in the 90s. The beautiful blue circular afghan was knitted by Billie Anderson--she gave that to me quite a few years ago now. I don't usually keep it on the floor, but am doing what I can to make the room warmer. The coyote in front of the fireplace came from Taos, NM--I bought that when I was there with my SIL Jeannie. The picture directly over the fireplace is of five White-throated Sparrows, and was a gift from my children from the Sivertson Gallery this Christmas. I'm especially fond of it because white-throats are nicknamed the "Peabody birds" and there are five of them--just like my own dear Peabody Gang.
Russ gave me this Snoopy on the first anniversary of our first date--so Snoopy is almost 39 years old! Joey painted the bright red painting. I put together the shelves (another Target special) and hung the lights.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker flying over the stove is Jimmy--I got him in Brinkley, AR, when Paula Lozano and I spent January, 2006, searching for a real IBWO. The canisters, towels, potholder, and teakettle came from Target. The piggy cookie jar came from my Grandma. In the bathroom you can just barely see a poster from the movie Hairspray--that was a gift from Jeanie and Mike this year.
From this angle you can see the lovely print Russ gave me for Christmas a few years ago, and the anniversary clock he gave me for Christmas in 1971.The Saucy Walker doll on the chair is identical to one my Grandma gave me when I was a baby--she was my most treasured possession until her leg broke and she got thrown in the garbage. I was SO lucky to find this one (not a genuine Saucy Walker, but the exact kind I had) on eBay. I bought the TV at Best Buy with gift money from my sister Mary and my practically a real sister Jeannie and Mike. The watercolor next to the window was painted by an art student at the Treehaven Elderhostel back in the 90s.This is my bedroom. That's a Sleep Number bed--well, the mattress--on the floor. Photon prefers a #40, but I'm more a #35. The mother and child print came from the Chicago art museum back in the late 60s--I have the same print, better framed, in Duluth. Kasey LOVES playing in those cubes--she was especially adorable when I was putting them together (another Target special).This is the only south-facing window without any kind of awning blocking the light. I love this room!The other side of the room. I put together this shelf set and fluorescent light fixtures, which all came from Lowe's. Most of the plants came from The Violet Barn. Here are a few of Rob's African violets and streptocarpus plants:

(Other photos here.)