Faith Gong: Geese-eye view

My daughters began digging the hole on the first weekend of October. 

The large window over our kitchen sink is my window on the world — or the world of our backyard, at least. It was from this vantage point that I spotted three of my daughters hard at work with shovels on a Friday afternoon, clustered around a growing pile of dirt right in the middle of the yard.

“What are you doing?” I called out the back door.

“We’re digging a hole!” they shouted back.

“Couldn’t you have picked a less central place to dig it?” I asked.

“Daddy said it was okay!”

And that was that.

The hole was my 9-year-old daughter’s idea, but nobody is quite sure why they decided to dig it. They deny being inspired by anything that they read, saw, or heard. All it took, apparently, was one sister saying, “Hey guys, let’s dig a hole!”

They continued work on the hole for the better part of Saturday. A friend came over that afternoon for an outdoor playdate; I’d tipped off her mother about the hole so she brought her own shovel and pitched in. By weekend’s end, the hole was roughly 3 feet deep, with a 4-foot diameter. It was also vaguely heart-shaped, although my daughters claim that the shape “just happened.” When asked what they planned to do with the hole, they said they would lower a stuffed animal into it and take it out again.

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll fill the hole back in.”

My husband and I were unable to come up with a practical use for the massive hole in our backyard: We had no trees that needed transplanting, and we already have a firepit a couple of yards from the hole. 

“In retrospect,” I said to my husband, “I wish you’d directed them to a better location.”

He shrugged. “At least it’s keeping them busy.”

From where I sit, squarely in the midst of midlife, there are large chunks of my past that seem to make about as much sense as my daughters digging a huge hole in our backyard. I can’t imagine ever reaching a point at which I’ll be able to join Frank Sinatra in belting out: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” 

A few?!? My college education was wasted on a girl who went to college because that’s what you were supposed to do; forget about having any coherent course of study or career path. Not surprisingly, my career path was a haphazard ramble through teaching, freelance photography, and nonprofit management, with a couple of stints in graduate school thrown in for good measure. By the time I landed on the things that make my heart sing — raising a homestead full of home educated children while writing on the side — I was well into my 30s. And those are just the regrets I’m choosing to tell you about. 

Looking back, I can only shake my head and wonder: What if I hadn’t wasted so much precious time? What if I’d put my energy into the right things earlier? 

My daughters spent a weekend worth of time and energy digging a hole with no purpose; I spent decades. 

The very weekend that my daughters were digging their hole in the ground, the Canada geese were in full migration. Our house sits directly under a goose superhighway, so every year at this time we see — and hear — honking Vs of geese flying south from their northern summer habitats. Still, this year’s migration stood out: It was as if every Canada goose north of Vermont had received a memo that Saturday morning that said, “FLY.” All day long, enormous Vs of dozens of geese flew over our house; you could hear the honking throughout town. 

Once the weather begins to turn cold, once the goslings are able to fly and the adults are through their flightless summer molting season, many geese that make summer homes in the northernmost latitudes leave for warmer climates. They return to the exact same overwintering locations every year, following the same route of stop-off resting points. Canada geese can fly between 40-70 mph at altitudes of 2,000-8,000 feet, and are capable of traveling up to 1,500 miles in a single day. They fly in a V-formation with each goose flying a bit higher than the bird in front of it, presumably because this allows the lead goose to break the headwind so the others can “draft.” The geese shift positions throughout the flight in order to take turns breaking the wind. 

Unlike my daughters’ hole or my past, the Canada geese migration seems logical, linear, and coherent: It makes sense. 

As logical and linear as it appears, migratory navigation is steeped in mystery. Nobody is quite certain how Canada geese navigate the same route between their summer and winter homes year after year. Some think that the geese have an olfactory map that enables them to “smell” their way, while others believe that geese steer according to the Earth’s magnetic field. 

This much is certain: Canada geese navigate the world differently than humans. 

I wonder how my daughters’ hole looked to the geese thousands of feet above ground. A small and temporary thing, surrounded by shifting earth and changing seasons? But geese navigate the world differently: Perhaps the geese don’t view my daughters’ efforts as a waste of time, or just something to keep them busy; maybe they see muscles strengthening, cooperation being practiced, discipline developing, and imagination at play. Looked at from this angle, that hole might be a training ground for the rest of their lives.

And perhaps a geese-eye view of my own life would bring meaning to what appears incoherent. Those years in college taught me how to read voraciously, write skillfully, and think critically. My early teaching career gave me confidence years later when I began educating our children at home. The seemingly random venture into photography was really an attempt at breaking out of the mold of safety and stability to do something creative and beautiful — which is the way I still try to live. And my years as a nonprofit manager sprung from a conviction that caring for our communities and for nature is worthy work; beliefs that continue to inform my choices. 

I suspect that all of our lives — even all of history — make more sense from a geese-eye view. The difference is that geese know their final destination, while we can’t see ours from down on the ground. But like the geese we are traveling from one promising-looking resting place to the next, until at last we come home. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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