The Comfort of Being Known

I look at the photo I impulsively snapped yesterday of this tender man so essential and dear to me and know that the expression on his face and in his eyes is for me and me alone in the world; that it wells up in him from our more than thirty years together as lovers, dreamers, builders, and best friends who each bring unique gifts to the table of our long marriage. No one has known me, or ever will, like Buck. And we will never have enough time to get it all said. But we try, oh how we try, and therein is great joy.

We wonder about the whether and whither of life after death. Do we want to go if we are not together? Will the wisdom gained in loving be used in some ineffable stream of human consciousness? Will we say goodbye or merely farewell? Will death be silent or a crush of voices from the past or something else entirely beyond our imagination? What holy man can tell us? Perhaps a young one, with the certitude of youth.  I only know the journey together is sweet like ripe berries, deeply nuanced, rich, satisfying, and draws out the best within me. I have been showered with a sky full of lucky stars. My heart feasts on gratitude daily, and its storehouse is full for the duration.

There is an oasis in downtown Pensacola that had gotten lost in the slipstream of our memory. We rediscovered it yesterday, when Buck said, “Let’s go see what’s happening at Seville Quarter. Maybe they’ll feed us lunch.”  Apple Annie’s Courtyard at Seville Quarter was dappled in sunshine and shade on this cool, crisp day. Our server, Anne, let us select just the table we wanted and then tossed a snowy white tablecloth in the air like a master pizza chef so that it came down lightly on the round cast iron and glass table.

Buck ordered a cup of house-made seafood gumbo and the salad bar (laden with lovely artichoke hearts, pickled okra, cherry peppers, and other delights). I ordered a bowl of gumbo with a smidgeon of rice . It came in a traditional shallow, wide, white bowl and was accompanied by sliced French bread.  It was the best of New Orleans’ French Quarter, right here in our own little town.  Anne, a warm and gracious person, hugged us on our way out and wished us a Happy Thanksgiving. We’ll be seeing her again next week for a repeat of that seafood gumbo and the ambiance of the courtyard.

Wherever you are, whether or not Thanksgiving is a part of your cultural tradition, I know that every day with a grateful heart is happier than any day without one. As to what comes next, I can’t believe that this is all there is, even though on a personal level it’s surely enough. I believe at the very least that our small flickers of energy will pool with others for a brighter light.  I’ll eat a bite of Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce today and wish you the very best of all this astonishing life has to offer and teach.

 

Dragon Update

Okay, so my keyboard gets a little sticky, who really cares? Bailey’s Farmer’s Market is next door to Sacred Heart Rehab Center where I am spending an hour twice a week to get my shoulder ready for next year’s baseball season (ha). I could eat this breakfast every day for the rest of my life. It’s nonfat Fage Greek Yogurt (soft and almost fluffy), Bare Naked Vanilla Almond Granola, walnuts, and cinnamon topped with berries and peaches.

Back when I agreed to type and edit Buck’s manuscript for him, I didn’t know he planned on writing Gone with the Wind reduxYesterday morning at physical therapy when I mumbled something about typing 10,000 words on Sunday, Don the PT guru said, “I thought you were using Dragon.” Duh. Well, I had planned to, but it just seemed like too much sugar for a dime, and I was continuing to do it the same old manual way.

Yesterday, though, when Buck cheerfully delivered two more full legal pads to my desk, just as I had come to the awful realization that one of my own characters has to die, I rapped my knuckles on my hard head, and decided to give it another try.

Here’s the answer:  I talked through an entire legal pad in about one-fourth the time it would have taken me to type. Was it perfect? No, but close. Really close. It only took a few minutes to go back through and clean it up.  I was so excited I called Buck in to see the magic for himself. He was astonished. After listening to me reading his words and watching them appear on the screen with paragraphs in perfect order, he finally said. “Maybe I could learn how to do that.”

Oh, he fell into my clever trap big-time. I smiled sweetly and said, “And for your second book, my love, you will.”

I know you’re probably thinking, “Why doesn’t Buck type his own damn manuscript?”  Simple, practical answer to that one. Buck can perform many feats of derring do and has, all his life, including being a marksman and athlete. But he was born with a congenital amputation of most of the left hand which makes rapid typing a challenge. As a working journalist years ago, he could hunt and peck with the best of them on an old Royal typewriter, but just as he does all sorts of things for me every day, as in any great partnership, this is one good turn I can do for him.

 

Selective Permeability and the Long-Running Love Affair

Buck emerges from the bedroom and wanders into my study for our morning hug. “How’s it goin’ baby doll?” His greeting is a deep baritone growly purr. I put my coffee cup down and rise for a full body hug. “Great,” I chirp. “I’ve been thinking about cells and selective permeability.” Buck pulls back and gives me one of those “It’s way too early in the morning for this” looks. Then he grins, ruffles the top of my bed-head hair, and wanders off into the kitchen in search of his dubious morning drink of choice, Wyler’s Light Cool Raspberry. Mine is Komodo Dragon dark fresh-ground coffee, black. Pretty hilarious, when you think about it.

Strange as it sounds, I really was thinking about cells and their amazing capacity for selective permeability.  Remember the “cells are the building blocks of life” lecture from — what was it — elementary school? Long time ago, anyway. In a feat of massive oversimplification, let’s just say that a healthy cell can exercise an amazing amount of control over what it allows in and what it forces out. This is how a cell maintains its internal equilibrium.

I  observe the four-foot wingspan of our magnificent resident red-tail hawk as it darkens the grass in the back yard when he dives from his perch on the peak of our second story roof. The small warm-blooded creature on the ground under the oak tree was not thinking of selective permeability.

In a thirty year marriage, either the individual fortifications were built a long time ago, or the partners have effectively become a permanent zona pellucida. It is wondrously too late for Buck and me. We made a conscious decision after we met that either all the walls were coming down or it wasn’t worth doing. I think it was easier for him. My walls were high, intricately crafted and assembled with Gorilla Glue-laced cement. My organism made the choice to let one other human being all the way in, a decision which made the difference between the authentic life I have lived these past three decades and an alternative life I would rather not consider.

I’ve begun to think of us lately as one giant cell, constantly slamming down the castle door, raising the drawbridge, locking the floodgates, piling up the sandbags, and throwing accumulated flotsam and jetsam out the window so we have time to work on achieving our newest dreams. Even so, we are occasionally swamped by everything out there.

Our internal equilibrium is a joyful zone of light. Whatever comes next, never ever any regrets on this long-running merger of the heart.

Romancing the Road Trip

 On the road again, goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again. And I just can’t wait to get on the road again.  Willie Nelson, from On the Road Again

Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of Dodge, skedaddle, vamoose and let the Devil take the hindmost. Other times there’s something way across country that you have a burning desire to see and experience. Sometimes the muse is bored and needs stimulation. And sometimes the spaces all over the house the beloved old dog occupied get too damn empty to bear. When Buck and I hit the road a few weeks ago, it was a big, messy gumbo pot sloshing over the sides with all of these reasons and more.

I woke up this morning smelling fried chicken. Only memory, but a potent thread in the cotton quilt of childhood family road trips. Those trips were “back home” to see the folks on the farm. Daddy’s people were in Dixonville, Alabama, a spot between the small towns of Brewton, Alabama and Jay, Florida . Mother’s clan plowed and preached from Newton, Mississippi and its environs, from Meridian to Kosciusko, Hattiesburg, and all sorts of burgs in between, including Morton, Pelahatchie, Brandon, Pearl and Barefoot Springs.

Those childhood road trips were a pilgrimage from the city, either Miami or Tampa, back to the farm; a touchstone. The night before these long car rides, Mother fried great batches of chicken, deviled dozens of eggs, baked biscuits and cornbread, and brewed sweet “is there any other kind” tea. She packed her ever-present can of Lysol for her “you kids stay in the car” motel inspections. And we headed out.

For children, it’s all about the destination. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? But for those of us who have more summer days behind us than we have ahead, the in-the-moment, make-it-last-as-long-as-it-can journey is the prize.

Heading out is the celebratory opening salvo for any road trip. Whatever happens next cannot be predicted, and that is part of the shivery, little-kid excitement of the adventure.

That day came for us on a pretty morning in late April: too early to worry about a hurricane hitting while we were gone, and early enough to miss caravans of families traveling with kids on summer vacation. The car was filled with liquid black gold, rain-washed and ready to load. Despite vows that we would not, we loaded it with too much; everything but the African Violet in the kitchen, it seemed.

We turned off the water, checked the thermostat, made sure all doors were locked, and then stood silently in separate rooms of the house mentally going over the details, pondering what we might be leaving undone, pondering our ambitious agenda, pondering. One more self-appraising glance in the foyer mirror and I was out the door, into the unknown. Of course, it’s all unknown, but travel tends to focus the mind.

My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.

Carolina

It’s late on a Tuesday night and I have one ear bud snaked up from under the covers and stuck in my left ear. That way I can listen to music but still hear Buck in case he murmurs to me from sleep. I’m listening to Carole King and James Taylor from their “Live at the Troubadour”album. They are singing “Carolina In My Mind.”

Sunrise from the house we built near Asheville, North Carolina in 1997 and sold in 2004 to return to Pensacola full-time.

I’ve been going back to Carolina in my mind, too, and in early June, the fantasy will be realized yet again. Buck and I have rented the same good-feeling cottage in Maggie Valley that we rented last August. It has one of the world’s great, welcoming front porches overlooking the little valley, and from sunrise until the lights come up in the iconic mountain town, it’s a place for breathing deep, sharing, and reflection.

This trip will mark a return to serious hiking. I lost my nerve for it when I took a bad fall in the Shining Rock wilderness near Cold Mountain in the Smokies on July 4, 2001. In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I had barely put on my well-worn Timberland boots. They were heavy, but the steel shank protected my ankles many times, the deep lug soles broke a lot of slides and falls, and the Gore Tex kept my feet warm and dry.

So, when Buck and I both bought new hikers and put down a deposit on the Maggie Valley rental, we knew the time had come to return to the ridgetops. We’ve been breaking them in around here: his are very flash Nike trail runners with electric blue laces; mine are Soloman light-weight ankle boots, Gore Tex but amazingly light — best of all, on sale. We’ve developed a pretty good routine: 40 minutes at 10 elevation on our old side-by-side treadmills, then an hour or so cross-country in the woods.

I look forward to retracing our steps up from Alum Cave to the stunning peak of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountain Park. I will dance there and run, singing, all the way back down the mountain. The evening after that hike will be sweet. We will sit in rocking chairs on the porch, toast our day, eat take-out lasagna from Frankie’s, watching a long sunset and all the twinkly lights illuminating the valley.

Everyday Life

A professional photographer with a high quality camera and lens and the knowledge to use it would have a field day around here. These hens were moving from the oak tree out back to one on the side of the house when Buck and I saw them. I decided to try the video cam function on his little Nikon to see if it was possible to capture the alpha gobbler all fanned out, keeping the younger one away from his hens. The window screen is a major impediment. Nonetheless, I love this grainy little video, more for what it captures of the tenderness inherent in the conversation and manner of the humans than what it shows of the turkeys. Doesn’t Buck sound just the way you thought he would?

Pensacola Beach: falling in love all over again

“Saddle up, Twitchy Baby. Let’s go for a drive.” My arms were full of warm towels from the dryer, my head full of mental furniture moving, busy work. I started to make a face at Buck, but then he dropped the other shoe.  “Let’s take a picnic lunch over to the beach.” Oh, that man. He knows me so well.

The beach is where we first took long walks together, talking through our lives and our dreams and daring to conceive an entwined future more than 30 years ago.

I dropped the towels on the bed and was ready in a flash. We made sandwiches from tender leftover Chinese 5-Spice roast pork tenderloin and brought along a plastic zip bag of organic granola with dried cranberries and almonds.

Imprints of bare feet, jogging shoes, and big birds mingled with drying seaweed and pieces of large sand dollars. We saw a young mom and dad swinging their toddlers around in the pristine air. We heard their laughter, floating bells.

I had forgotten the power of water to soften, open and cleanse.

Walking on this nearly deserted beach, the tidal pull stimulated, clarified and calmed my noisy mind.

There is an attitude of acceptance at the beach, probably because each new tide washes in with the life that, even with shed feathers and drying jellyfish, organizes itself into a tableau that becomes an artful homily.

The look of love is unmistakable. How did I get so lucky?

I am squinting into the bright sunlight. There’s a large bird feather stuck in the waistband of my jeans.

What will the next leg of our adventure be?

Bring it on!

Tender Bites for my Love on his Birthday

Sauteed these babies in Irish butter, with garlic and shallots, deglazed with white wine, sprinkled with chopped Italian parsley and basil, and tossed with Alma’s organic angel hair pasta. Pretty good supper for the birthday boy a few days ago. If I had known  74 year olds could be such  sexy hunks, I would have been propositioning them 40 years ago when I was footloose and hanging out with roués and cads in their mere twenties.

Burn Rate

Now that Buck has returned to writing his novel in earnest, he is burning through legal pads at an astonishing rate. I convert his bold black strokes to type, with headers, footers, time stamps and recoverable, editable chapters.

Stacks bloom on a dining room table. I’ve developed an easy-to-see visual cue to tell at a glance which are Buck’s and which are mine. I discovered that with Word 2010 I can select all sorts of ways for page numbers to appear, and so for my own drafts, I am using a pale blue triangle with a reverse type white numeral inside it at the bottom right-hand corner of each page.

Who gets to live like this, I wonder? How did we get so lucky?

I am living in at least four worlds these days: one is Buck’s fictional midtown Manhattan in the late 1930s; another is the memory lane of a long-running love affair; another a fictional world where it seems there is always another shoe to drop, where a character’s own smart phone becomes a tool of her worst enemy; and not to forget the lovely “real world,” where Buck wanders into my study and says, “Let’s take a shower and go down to the water for lunch. We need some crab cakes.”

Like yesterday. We did that yesterday. We sat at a corner table in the bar. Rick the bartender doesn’t mind if you only drink iced tea there. He has the gift of making everyone feel like he has felt their absence keenly and is so glad to see them again. Besides, the bar has the best view of the bay if it’s too cool to sit outside. Buck and I sat, savored a cup of gumbo and crab cakes. The gumbo surprised with several tiny, succulent bay scallops hidden in the roux. After Rick serves lunch, he goes away. He knows that lovers like to be left alone. They have so much to say to each other; there will never be enough time to say it all.