Last night I got the kids in bed and went outside to watch the bats.
Our old farmhouse has an attic -- an apparently insecure attic -- with gaps between the rafters and tiny spots where bats can slip in and find a place to sleep. During the day, you would never know they were there, but once the sun is gone from the sky, the bats go to work.
As dusk settles in and the sky turns pinky, then midnight blue, one little black form after another appears on the edge of the roofline. They hover there for a moment and then drop and rise up, winged black silhouettes against the gray sky. Some of them hang there longer and wait for something -- a sign, a sound, a specific level of darkness? -- before they take fluttering flight.
Watching the bats has become a beloved ritual this summer. For about ten years, our bat population had thinned. I'm glad they're back after their hiatus and I'm glad the colony seems to be healthy but most of all I love the way watching them forces me to stop for a moment every day and think about work and rest.
My other ritual this summer has been moving our sheep from a lower pasture back to one nearer to our house. Normally we would leave them in a lower pasture for a week or two before shifting them but we have four new lambs this year and there have been coyotes hanging around lately and . . . well, my husband kids me about it, but . . . I worry.
So each evening, once the sun has dropped below the horizon, I walk down to the lower pasture with a handful or two of grain and walk the sheep back up to their barn.
The sheep can hear me coming and they wait anxiously by the fence, ready for the ritual. For them, the routine is meaningful because it always ends in a little taste of grain.
I let them see it in my hand and then I open the gate and they rush out.
They follow me -- mostly -- back up the road, with only a few short stops to inspect the plant life along the way. Sometimes we have to get behind them and herd them back to the road. We don't have a sheepdog right now so I or one of my kids have to be the sheepdog. The light is golden and rich and hazy this time of day; the stalks of grass have auras around them. The sheep appear airbrushed, their fleeces a blur of white or black.
They've done their job -- munching grass -- all day and now it's time for the ritual walk and then rest. As I close the barn door behind them, I often look up and see that the bats are going to work, lining up on the edge of the roof to take flight.
I've been thinking a lot lately about ritual and work. I'm trying to finish up a book project and whenever I have a looming deadline and need more structure than I can find during the day, I put in place an early morning writing ritual. Yesterday, I pledged to myself that I will get up at 5 a.m. every morning until the book is done.
I've always loved early morning writing. Four a.m. Five a.m. That's my time, when everything is silent and dark and the world (or at least my little slice of it) hasn't started moving yet, hasn't become animated with news and disputes and the necessity of conversation and reply.
I find that ideas flow more freely during those transitional hours. There are no distractions, no demands on me other than the writing. I wrote my first book in early mornings, before my day job, two or three hours at a stretch in the dark, and when I need to get something done I fall back on that old, imprinted routine.
This morning I slipped out of bed at 5 a.m., leaving my sleeping family to their dreams. The smell of coffee filled the cool kitchen and I took my cup out to the porch. As I came out into the new morning, I could see a few black spots in the sky. They came closer, fluttering more slowly, aiming for the roofline and then disappearing.
The bats were done with their night's labor. All through the dark hours they had wheeled and swooped, catching mosquitoes and moths.
Now it was my turn. I sat down and got to work.