Epiphany: Stand-Ins for Innocence

IMG_8752Every Christmas these little guys and their compadres make the trek downstairs and settle in under the black Labrador retriever angel-topped tree to observe our comings and goings, to be among us for awhile,  and to serve as stand-ins for the innocence in the world that is so often wounded, unprotected, and has such a soft, small voice.

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Oh sure. On a conscious level I understand they are only bits of fabric and fluff. But just try to handle one of them roughly, or to  keep from smiling when you hold the stuffed bear with his beer gut wearing a “Hug Freely” t-shirt. Can’t do it. They call forth tenderness.

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And every year I wonder, “Oh little guys, where will we gather next year? Will it be here in this edenic wood?  Or will we be portable, off on some exploratory archipelago-hopping adventure?

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Keep your Snoopy-in-the-sky heart sunshades on, sweetness. Dishes, tables, beds, desks, lamps and chairs may go into cold storage, but not you, not your friends.

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You will travel with us wherever we go; reminders of home’s core, children we love (of all ages, for are we not all children?), the evergreen innocence of love,  and our own inner child which must be protected so we can continue to grow.

Dedicated to my beloved sister, Flo, on her birthday. She inspires me with her dedication to her family and her art, her gift for loving, and her wisdom. She is ageless.

Nettie’s Patterns

Self portrait 9-20-2013 trying to figure out how the webcam on Buck’s laptop works. What does she see in there?

A memory shard poked me today. Something I had forgotten. My late mother, Nettie Moore Phillips Jones, was a fine seamstress before the accursed spiderwebs set up housekeeping in her mind. She had an artist’s eye for pattern, a sculptor’s appreciation for the feel of various fabrics. She could take a Simplicity, McCall’s or Butterick pattern, unfold its tissue-thin paper, and know just what to do to turn it into a pretty dress.

1-scan0037-1My child’s eyes saw her pleasure in the project, from an idea in her mind and the study of patterns that would accomplish her goal, to the excitement of going to a fabric store to select her materials. I remember the raw smell of dyes in the rows upon rows of heavy bolts of brocade, cotton prints, Peau de Soie, eyelet. She pored over a city of buttons, yards of colorful rickrack, acres of bright thread.

When Mother began a new sewing project,  she took on an air both serious and deeply joyful that I cannot recall sensing from her in any other setting. It strikes me hard this morning to realize this was a playing out of her artistic dreams and longings in the only way available to her.

Early onset organic brain syndromes produced seizures, dementia and personality changes that took away her ability to sew. Our Mother was gone long before her death in 1989 at age 73.

I recognize that deeply joyous, intense state of mind in myself when I’m “in the zone” with writing, when I feel a feather of an idea and proceed to write an entire bird on the page. Some days it’s a scrawny chicken-like bird, ugly and ill-tempered. Some nights it is dressed in peacock feathers and breaks your heart with the song of a lone mockingbird on a fence post.  But whatever it is, however it looks or sounds, it is my joy.

I hear the same ripple in the voice of my artist sister, speaking of her work, and in the voice of my birder/photographer/writer brother as he anticipates his next adventure in the natural world, and in the low voice of my younger brother whose near-death experience with bladder cancer brought him a poet’s love and a survivor’s need for daily sunrise walks on the river and bays where he lives. Our older sister found creative expression later in life through singing in her church choir, but a traumatic brain injury two years ago was an avalanche and whatever might have been on the other side is now a slow scraping process to a new path, like building a highway with a metal spoon.

The house is quiet this morning. I’ve been working upstairs at my desk since 6:30, rewriting the synopsis for my novel-in-progress. The original synopsis was written ages ago. Strangely, it was an encouraging project, because I realize I’ve come a good distance down the road, and there is much more “there” there now than before. The characters and I are soul mates, and I hope to bring them through their travails as tenderly as a mother would shepherd her flock through a treacherous midnight wood. It has become a labor of love, not a notch on the belt.

The room has darkened while I write. It is truly darkness at noon. I am surrounded by three windows and a set of sliding glass doors that look out over the forest. The giant old Longleaf pines sway. A moaning wind slips in through an opening in one of the double-hung wood windows near my desk. Thunder rumbles grow louder and a jagged streak of lightning tells me the generator may be called to duty soon. Just now, a heavy curtain of rain falls, quickly making a waterfall from the second story roof onto the concrete below.

And you know what? It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

It Was a Moment

1-Buck and BethThere were a lot of wonderful bonuses when Elaine and Neal came to visit us a few weeks ago. Their warmth, sense of humor, commitment to family, and generosity of spirit spring immediately to mind.

Neal took this candid shot of Buck and me on the Sunday morning when they were packed up and ready to drive back to their home in Gainesville. Our granddaughter, (and Elaine’s great-niece), April, a star keeper for the Lady Tigers soccer team at Pensacola High, in her senior year, had joined us for a late breakfast.

I love this picture. We’re not all gussied up for the camera. I had just walked up behind Buck while he sat on a kitchen bar stool and draped around him. Camera in hand, Neal said “Don’t move.” I guess he saw what I see: two folks, not young, just about to celebrate their 29th anniversary, and more in love than ever.

It was a moment, and I’m grateful to Neal for capturing it.

A Good Start on the Reading Year: Antifragile, You Are Not A Gadget, & More

good light comfy chair-2The tiny Boston Bull Terrier doorstop is a reminder of my late mother-in-law, Lois. She looked more  — much more — like a young Susan Sarandon than a terrier, but she loved her little Boston Bulls, the whole series of them. I believe there was Happy I, Happy II, and Happy III. By the time she and I met, in 1982, it was the era of Happy III, and he was old, fat, and deformed with skin growths. I can’t explain why, but I always pictured Happy III smoking a big cigar, á la Sir Winston Churchill.

The spraddle-legged sheep in the chair is a totem that keeps the soul of my late stepson, Darryl, ever-present in my memory. At the tender age of 45, Darryl died on a beautiful October day in 2005 from a massive heart attack. He was sitting in a chair, on a concrete patio, all by himself. He ate lunch, smoked a cigarette, and fell forward onto the concrete, finished. Buck and I had seen him that morning. He and I shared a pot of coffee. My last words to Darryl were: “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to say that.

Anyway. Darryl, the tow-headed, wayfaring boy, used to laugh in that self-deprecating way of his, and tell me that he was the black sheep of the family. My standard riposte was, “Oh, no, you’re not the black sheep — maybe a little gray — but not black.” And so, when I saw this stuffed, gray sheep, he became “The Gray Sheep,” and a totem for our desperado too soon gone.

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I moved furniture around in my study yesterday so that I would have a cozy spot near the fireplace with a good reading light.

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There’s even a chair for a guest to pull up and warm their feet, too. (See my old red slippers?)

If you look at my Goodreads “currently reading” shelf on the sidebar, you’ll discern what I’m thinking about here at the start of 2013 rather quickly. There’s You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier,  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas G. Carr, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand,  (the “Black Swan theory” guy).

Pull up and chair and let’s talk.

Not Quite Out of the Woods

Flying free in the woods is much more felicitous than being shrink-wrapped in the supermarket.

FUNNY HOW WE SPEAK OF SOMEONE being “out of the woods” as a sign that they are out of danger from a health crisis and yet when I see the wild turkeys so at ease in the woods on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I consider my own ease there as well, it is clear that for the turkey to be shrink-wrapped in a supermarket refrigerated case or me sky-dropped into a concrete canyon, to be “out of the woods” would be lethal for the turkeys and uncomfortable for me.

Thank you for the comfort of your words and prayers for my sister. She has just been moved down a notch from intensive care. There has been brain surgery to relieve pressure from swelling in the unforgiving skull.  There have been seizures. One day we conversed on the phone and the next she could not speak at all, and all the faces she beheld were as if they were strangers rather than her own good sons. During the past sixty hours, her ability to speak, to read, to think and to remember her loved ones and friends, has returned. The joy I felt upon hearing her slightly creaky voice, sometimes reaching for a word or phrase, is quite indescribable.

Buck and I talked once about creating video conversational interviews of one another to preserve the essence of light in the eye, timbre of the voice, body language and the je ne sais quoi that makes us us. We really need to do this for each other, against the day.

We walked the woods today. It was warm in the sunshine and a tad chilly in the shade, the sky electric blue. I hope you enjoy this little slideshow of our walk.

When a Sister Falls

THE SPACE BETWEEN MY LEFT EYEBROW AND HAIRLINE HAS GROWN TENDER  from the absent-minded circles I’ve been drawing on it for days now. I can’t stop replaying the awful image of my oldest sister falling onto the concrete floor of her son’s garage. Sometimes the fall is slow, like time-lapsed photography. It seems almost gentle, her left hand reaching for the ground at the last moment, her left hip and knee absorbing what they can. Other times, the fall happens fast, like a movie, and all I see is the point of impact, her left forehead. And I hear the sound usually described as a “sickening thud.”

I first learned of Ann’s fall the night it happened, October 19, from her youngest son. She was in neurological intensive care with a brain bleed, but conscious and lucid. The family tom-toms spread the news, and we all communicated in various ways. The neurosurgeon on scene in that central Florida hospital told Ann and her sons that if the bleeding continued over the next several hours, a craniotomy might be necessary to relieve pressure from brain swelling. If the bleeding stopped and the hematoma stabilized, then a period of watchful waiting would begin, after which it might be necessary to drill burr holes to remove the hematoma.

“A burr hole  for subdural hematoma is performed to remove a hemorrhage (blood clot) from around the surface of the brain.  The location of the blood clot is beneath the firm covering of the brain known as the dura mater, and is therefore called subdural hematoma.  Generally, when a blood clot is moderately old (at least two to three weeks), it may  be drained through a small hole in the skull, and a large craniotomy flap (opening in the skull) might be avoided. 

The patient will be taken to the operating room and put to sleep under general anesthesia.  The head will be partially shaved, to expose the area of operation.  The head may simply rest on towels, or it may be placed in three fixation points (Mayfield head pins).    The area where surgery is to be performed is then “prepped and draped” using an antibiotic solution.  Next, the surgeon will make an incision, and reflect the scalp over the area of the hematoma.  Then, an air powered drill is used to make a hole in the skull.  The dura mater (tough covering of the brain) is then opened.  The hematoma (blood clot) is now seen, and the surgeon will irrigate some of it out, and may pass a drain around the brain to provide post-operative drainage.  The surgeon will then close the scalp.”

Reference from Neurosurgery, P.A., Houston, Texas 

I was amazed to be able to speak with Ann on the phone that night, and incredibly relieved to hear her scratchy voice telling me, “I don’t know what happened. I didn’t trip over anything. I guess I just got tangled up in my own feet.”

Late that night, the good word came that the pool of blood had stopped moving. No middle of the night surgery.

After several stable days in intensive care, she was moved to a regular room, and then to a rehabilitation center to wait until the brain healed without surgery, or it was deemed safe to drill the burr holes to relieve pressure and remove the hematoma. Management of such an injury would be complicated with any patient, but a 75-year-old, diabetic woman with a bad heart propped up with two stents is especially delicate. Blood thinners attenuate brain bleeds.

All the while, Ann’s headache remained severe and steady, but her mental status had been clear. Until yesterday. Following a physical therapy session, she returned to her room, went to sleep, attempted to answer a phone call from one of her sons, and couldn’t find words. I think the medical term for this loss of language is aphasia. It resolved quickly, but she was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, where a scan revealed a small trickle of new bleeding.

Ann’s a feisty redhead, a widow now for several years. We shook our collective heads and said, “You go, girl,” when she climbed risers to sing with her church choir the day after having a heart stent put in several months ago. Even now, her main interest is getting back home to her own cooking, her granddaughter, and her church buddies — who are burning up the phone lines and the road checking up on Sister Ann. The docs kept her busy yesterday with an EEG, EKG, another CT scan and a panoply of other tests. Even in her pain, the retired registered nurse in her keeps an eagle eye on her meds, looks at the scans and her own chart. I imagine there are some lively bedside debates when opinions diverge.

Fingers crossed, sister. You’ve still got a lot of risers to climb and hymns to sing.

Happy Birthday Flo & Charlie

It was a running gag. My older sister, Flo, would come in from a date to the room we shared for a time at our parents’ home.

She never turned on a light, and would say in a loud whisper, “Are you awake?”

“No.” That was my answer before I started giggling. And then we would talk for a little while. Flo protected and fought for me in ways I never knew.

Sisters: Flo (19) and Beth (9) in May, 1960

I loved Flo then, even before I knew much about love. I was awed by her glamour and warrior spirit. We still have a decade between us, but the distance has closed. We have become grown women who know how to give and receive love, who have lives filled with reality rather than mere potential, who have learned to be comfortable in our own skins. We share our creative urges in lively email exchanges between Gulf coast Florida and Arizona desert. She is an ever-blooming artist, whose latest project is a steam-punk mask crafted with nuts, bolts, washers and screws. I am eager to see it.

Flo is a beautiful woman with a generous, loving spirit and hard-won wisdom. Like me, she has been lucky in love. Her Charlie is a diamond among men.

Flo’s birthday is today; Charlie’s is tomorrow.

I’m smiling at the picture of your young selves. I say to the picture, “You were cute, then, but you are magnificent now.”  Happy Birthday, Flo and Charlie.

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Christmas outfits for Chance, almost 11 months old.

Nothing like buying adorable clothes for an 11-month-old baby girl and her 4 year old sister to shape up a person’s attitude.

Yesterday was tough. I finally went back to Spanish Trail Veterinary Hospital to pick up Maggie’s ashes. I put it on my “to do” list to try to fool myself into making it emotion-neutral: 1. Spanish Trail 2. Christmas shopping 3. Publix grocery. Of course, the two days I spent before the “errand” preparing a small book for the hospital staff of funny/sweet Maggie stories and photos of Maggie mountain hiking with us, walking the woods, helping to host a dinner party, and playing around the pool didn’t exactly set the stage for an emotion-neutral errand to pick up the small, tasteful container in a very nice burlap and evergreen shopping bag containing the eternally condensed version of the Ambassadog of Goodwill.

All the kids at Spanish Trail converged on me with hugs. I call them kids. They’re 20-35 years old, probably. Terrific kids. We cried and we laughed. We celebrated Maggie. They had only known Maggie at the end of her life, when she was sick and in pain most of the time. It was important to me that they know this last part was not all of her life; that she was some kind of magnificent dog with a big, active life and a vibrant personality; a champion and the best friend two human beings could ever have.

Stuffed animals come out of hibernation every year.

It rained yesterday. We had a tornado warning until 5 p.m. I needed windshield wipers for my eyes while I tried to focus on shopping for the little girls, my great-grandchildren. Here I am, a 60-year-old woman with no children who hates shopping (and doesn’t know much about it), driving around with blurry eyes in a high wind and heavy rain, on a shopping expedition for children’s’ clothes. I think I would rather be on a quest for the Holy Grail. It would be easier.

Wrapped (or at least bagged) gifts for Jorja, the 4-year-old.

It was wonderful to get back home, damp and windblown, but safe. Buck arrived a few minutes after I did. He and his son Richard had shared lunch and a good, long visit. Richard lives in D.C. now and is thriving in his career and loving the urban life. Rides his bicycle everywhere. He’ll be over Christmas Eve, along with the rest of the gang, for our traditional lasagna supper.

The brass quail and their rosy crystal egg stay for a while each Christmas in a golden nest.

This morning the kitchen is bright and bubbling and so am I. Onions and garlic were chopped and sautéed in olive oil first thing. My fingers smell of them when I drink my first mug of coffee. And then, one by one, ingredients are added to the cauldron to make the lasagna meat sauce. My breakfast was a pink grapefruit and a couple of spoons full of the sauce. The sauce will stay in the refrigerator overnight and then warm up for assembly with the pasta and cheese layers tomorrow.

The rain has cleared out and taken with it the oppressive humidity. I even wore a light jacket over my gym shorts down to the gate this morning. I’ve communicated with my brothers and sisters, each of whom I deeply love. I think we’re all really just beginning to know how to love each other. Younger brother Steve is out of the hospital again and back home, hopefully facing a hospital-free new year and strength to work in his garden. Tomorrow night with Buck and my step-kids, grands and great-grands from 11-months to 53 years will be joyful, loving chaos. Lasagna, red wine, chocolate, singing and hugs. Lots of hugs. I found this marvelous quote at a lovely Scottish Episcopal blog, love blooms bright.

This is the irrational season  when love blooms bright and wild.  Had Mary been full of reason  there’d have been no room for the child.

— Madeline L’Engle

Merry Christmas all y’all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy new year full of grand adventures. I am listening to the classic Christmas channel on Pandora while I write. All of a sudden, Christmas has come into my heart, and it feels like miracles are possible.

A Simple Walk to the Gate

Mid-December here in the Florida panhandle  has been typical. Temps have ranged from right at freezing all the way into the mid-seventies. There has been some sunshine, but the predominate weather theme has been murky, with thick gray fog lingering past noon like the smoldering remains of a woods fire.

It’s a time when old trees slip the bonds of their worn-out bark, the lithe new being inside escaping through the fog into some sunlit place in the slipstream of time.

A time when leaves, a magnolia seed pod and a stick become art to my hungry eye, arranged as if only for my solitary pleasure.

The blanket of emerald moss evokes the roof of a crofter’s cottage in the Highlands. Oh, to be there, deep in heather, reclining by a blue loch.

But the bright holly says, “Stay. There are children about who might miss you on Christmas Eve.”