Elizabeth Cunningham

Author of The Maeve Chronicles

The sun has moved far enough to the north that early light now finds the far end of the pond. In early Fall, I’d left this spot for warm sunny places closer to the house and gardens. Now the first Spring flowers are gone, and the weeds are asserting themselves, as is the lawn, still mangy-looking from being replanted after the septic system was moved. It is hard not to look at the yard as I imagine guests might see it now that we are entering the busy season. As I do my standing meditation, I keep stopping to pull weeds. And if I manage to keep my body still, my mind is worse, writing do-to lists and shopping lists and wondering if the stink the squirrels left over in the attic over the gathering rooms will ever air out.

I haven’t yet learned how to manage living where I work—a beautiful, overgrown, under-endowed, falling-down place where my tasks include housekeeping, yard work, hospitality, program direction and facilitation in addition to my chosen professions of writing and counseling. At best, I am able to approach High Valley as a Zen Koan. Much better than thinking of it as a business with potential (how I am coming to loathe the word “potential”), a legacy I must save, or a burden I must bear. At worst, I just keep working compulsively till I drop—which I did the other day. I can’t quite bring myself to have a complete nervous breakdown, but my body will periodically arrange for me to be so sick I have to spend a day in bed.

The day I return to the wilder edge for my sunrise practice, I feel a huge sense of release. There is nothing here that needs my attention. There is everything here that rewards my attention. Here I am just another living thing, a transitory living thing. (How I am coming to love the word “transitory.”) Instead of composing to-do lists in my mind, I find myself pondering—an appropriate thing to do next to a pond.

Today I ponder succession, understanding at a new level how obsessed rulers, institutional leaders, family farmers, business tycoons or anyone with a corporate enterprise must be. Who will keep the empire, the church, the farm, the firm going? My husband and I are perhaps not very successful successors to my mother in-law’s small, vast realm. She had her own vision and vocation. But she did not concern herself with succession and left us with some very dicey situations to sort out (not something I can write about). For many years while she was still here, I kept her not-for-profit going with an eclectic Center that evolved its own rituals and culture. But I never made any move to institutionalize what we do here. I never so much as formed a committee. The Center at High Valley, which has hosted many beautiful, meaningful moments and events, is by its nature transitory. I don’t, in any sense, know what (or who) will succeed.

When I am at the wilder edge, I feel more at peace with my lack of success and succession. The natural world has its own succession. As a species, we have interfered with that order yet we are still borne along by forces beyond our control. As a transitory being I find that thought oddly soothing, a bit like a day of enforced bed rest.

Do you see yourself as being and/or having a successor? What is your definition of success? I welcome your ponderings. I also appreciate suggestions of topics for Maeve to address. Her turn next.

Since it is poem-in-a-pocket day, I will close with a couple of tanka (5-7-5-7-7)

buildings falling down
too many people, too few
gardens overgrown
a land vessel going down
us, hapless crew, sinking too

there are these moments
sunlight on worn hardwood floor
they could be enough
bloodroot blooming amidst stone
heron unfolding blue wings

4 Responses

  1. Yes, thoughts are hard to corral, when all your tasks–chosen or not–surround you.

    As for succession: I rather like the poem Ozymandius, King of Kings, in which a traveler encounters a shattered monument to this self-styled King of Kings: the inscription states,

    "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  2. I am daughter who has been named successor to the family business… should the printed word still be a viable way to hold a (tiny) empire a quarter century from now. As I watch my father hold that idea with waning pride and with waxing trepidation (oh how promises of legacies tend to hold the living by the throat!), I cannot intervene. In my experience, to be a named successor is to suffer from afar and ever fear the results of interference. And so I wait, tend to my own work, raise the granddaughter (the third generation!), offer to cook dinner, and, at all costs, avoid asking about business!

  3. I don't think I really want a successor.
    I was and am the keeper of keys for my family…
    and have come to realize that no one really wants to hold that physical memory any more than they want to carry the cellular memory.
    I would rather go back into the Universe and be the winking star in the night sky…