It’s 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. Five minutes ago, I put on a headset to corral the exuberant strains of Antonín Dvořák string quartets into my ears while I write. My day began with a sunrise walk in the Gulf coast Florida pine woods near Pensacola. It’s a different world from the powdered sugar beaches some twenty-five miles south of where I sit. And a cultural universe away from the live music, theater, galleries, and clever restaurants sprouting up all over the downtown corridor. Buck and I aren’t completely off the grid, although you would have a hard time convincing friends and family of that. But everyone who comes through the old farm gate seems to like the Hardy Boys secret tree-house club feeling of closing the gate behind them and leaving the world as they know it for a few hours.
Buck’s ears work best in an atmosphere of quiet and minimal distraction, at least when a visit with conversation is in the offing. I don’t notice it anymore, or if I do, it’s part of the lovely spell here, a time out of time feeling. Maybe it’s like cooking with a light hand when it comes to salt. It may be clear to guests, but has been part of our routine for so long it’s part of the ground of our being. Besides, in our noise-polluted world, isn’t it a relief to find an island of quiet?
Earlier this year, maybe last year, too, Buck and I began what we called a “period of discernment” about whether we want to stay here and “age in place,” or to move to a more urban scene, one with a nice climate, outdoor restaurants, places to walk, access to good medical care in the event it’s needed, some place with a high “walkable” score. And a smaller house. We began to wonder if a change of scene would stimulate creativity, especially now that we’re both writing fiction; whether we might find it helpful to get ourselves out of the woods and among people more often to study their faces, body language and conversations. Whether it might surprise us and be fun.
I began to meditate upon whether it was enough to have access to “the world” via high-speed internet and occasional travel, whether walking the same paths in the same woods day after day and year after year could weave its own unique creative longevity that held value beyond interactions with peripatetic waves of people in cities, towns and planned communities.
We thought of favorite haunts we have visited over the years, from Western North Carolina and the coast of Maine, to the marvelous California coast, even southwest and central Florida. We talked about how it might be enjoyable to live in a community where you either walk, bike, or drive an electric golf cart to the book store and grocery. And so, off we went in search of what are called +55 Active Retirement Communities. There’s a ton of them in Florida. Most are easy to reject out of hand. The most impressive one had stunning landscaping, fitness centers on every corner, shopping, medical facilities of all sorts, and nice people, but it was, um, I’m reaching for just the right word here. Is it “odd?” “Suffocating?” I haven’t processed all of our visits completely yet. One place we visited, not too far from Jacksonville, we planned to stay four nights. We left after two and drove straight home without stopping, and locked the gate behind us.
We learned that Florida developers are indeed still selling alligator-infested swampland to Yankees (and everybody else). In one development, you could buy a small interior lot for $5,000, while just across the street, a lot that backed up to a
swamp, a slough, a preserve, sold for $180,000. Same size lot, by the way. The driver is whether a lot for sale is “waterfront” or “water view” vs. “interior.” The nature and quality of the water is where things get a little fuzzy. One realtor chuckled uncomfortably when I enthused about how great it was that every “waterfront” lot came with its own mud hole, alligator and community of water moccasins.
We’ve lived this rather extraordinary, solitary life out of sight of another house for so long, doing just what we please, that we’re unwilling to make trade-offs for convenience or even entertainment that we perceive would constrict our freedom and force us into social interactions that would lay claim to precious time. As age encroaches, our thinking on this may be forced to evolve, but we’re not there yet. As we walk and talk here at home, Buck reflects that he has had many wonderful friends over his lifetime, but most of them are now dead. He doesn’t believe he has enough years left to form new deep friendships, and would rather not go there. I’ve always been a loner (of the non-psychopathic variety), except for the instant and bone-deep bond I formed with Buck well over thirty years ago, so I’m good with our Edenic lives, too. We still have several treasured friends who use Pensacola as home base when they’re not living on their boats or in their land yacht RVs, and close and precious family ties. The circle of writing friends I’ve developed over the last decade is every bit as important to my sense of contentment as is walking the woods — and can be nurtured no matter where I live. That’s one of the good things about the Internet. But Buck’s parents, grandparents, a son, and a former wife are all buried in Pensacola, as are our beloved dogs. Yes, we understand they are not “here.” And yet. There is something that pulls us to stay, something that has more to do with the living, with family, and with the look of a big-eyed fawn, the music of the bold spring, and the feel of connection when a hawk flies low and waggles its wings. Leaving the woods for some shiny place elsewhere feels like it might be an unmooring we would regret, one that couldn’t easily be put back together.
And so, we’ve come to a decision, at least in a loose, general sense. It is this: we’ll sell this wonderful, way too big house sometime in the next year or so, and then build what we’re calling a tree-house deeper in our own hundred-acre wood. The house we’re in now is set in an open area, a clearing. The site we’re looking at is closer to the natural spring, and the small house we would design and build there will slip right in to hide among the big hardwoods and pines. The lawn will be the leaves which have been softly layering for centuries. We’ll make a path to the spring and build a tiny sitting deck overhanging it, a place for talk, writing, coffee or cocktails. Or simply listening to the music of the stream. Not a bad way to melt back into the earth when that time comes.
Broddick, Isle of Arran, Scotland
The eight of us, two women and six men, stood in a circle holding hands in the small living room of a rented villa on the grounds of a hydrangea-draped old hotel. It was the embers end of a lively night of story telling, guitar playing, singing and laughter for two Americans far from home, a life-battered Englishman, and five Highlanders.
When Farquhar Ross began to sing the once-banned Oh Flower of Scotland in a pure contralto voice, the whiskey went out of everyone, and the room turned into a centuries-old meeting of patriots with their blood up, a sacred space.
WEDNESDAY afternoon, Buck and I hit the interstate exit that said “To Home,” and stopped by our local Publix to re-provision before heading to the woods following a short road trip. Buck laid out strawberries, blueberries, Greek yogurt, two cobs of sweet corn, a tomato and other treats on the conveyor belt. I stood still, ears cocked one aisle over, where a young cashier with black curly hair was singing Gaelic folk tunes in an exquisite tenor while he chatted with a customer. Before leaving, I learned his name is Seamus. He’s a college student from Ireland, studying at the University of West Florida.
Buck noticed I was humming and smiling as we carried our purchases across the steamy parking lot to the car. I told him what I heard. Our thoughts immediately went to that night on the Isle of Arran.
“I wish we could experience that all over again,” I said.
“Me, too,” Buck said, “but we can’t recreate those one-of-a-kind events. We just have to savor the memories and make new ones.”
There is a white turtledove at the feeders this morning. Its ethereal look is striking among the ubiquitous dun-colored mourning doves. Looks like Pope Francis amid the throngs of people in Rio de Janeiro. Cardinals and titmice flap and hiss, making the feeders sway like cars at the top of a ski lift. Contentious birds, squabbling in the midst of a 24-hour all they can eat buffet.
I drink coffee, listen to the drone of a low-flying airplane, the song of red wing blackbirds just beyond the clearing, and the industrious drill of woodpeckers. I consider how the oak tree that serves as a landing pad for birds on their approach to the feeders has recovered so entirely from its near destruction by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 its disfigurement is now only a cellular memory concealed within the permanent memoir of its rings.
Buck and I have nearly completed our period of discernment. We have visited other places to consider whether, as we age, they might offer some greater measure of independent sustainability for the long haul for two independent cusses accustomed to plenty of space and total privacy.
We have seen some very green grass indeed. But we are home now, immersed in our own “wee bit hill and glen.” We have put the suitcases away on a high shelf.
And we have formulated a plan.
I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
I’ve been thinking about death lately.
Oops. Sorry. That wasn’t a very nice way to begin.
I’ve been married a long time and I’m crazy about my husband and I can see that we’re getting old and I don’t want become a widow and I sure as heck don’t want to die.
That doesn’t sound so good, either. Maybe I should start over.
When you’re a young person just starting out, you don’t think about the “whole life, too” nature of marriage. You know about that “’til death do us part” business, but it’s not real. If you marry in your twenties, you’re still immortal. Looking back over the years, I see now that “whole life, too” is not marriage as a parallel track where you have a roommate with whom you have lots of fun sex, possibly children, and dinner most nights , but a cellular merger of wills and wishes; where compromises and ceding of time do not take away, but rather heap up so that in the “give a little, get a little” exchange, you become more of who you are, not less. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me, although I have my doubts as to whether that’s what generally happens. I’ve seen too many long-run marriages that wind up as a clawing away, a tearing down of each other, a desiccation.
I’m a writer married to another writer. We were many other things before we became writers. At the ages of 75 and 62, we are both hard at work on our first novels, and we feel the stench of time’s hot breath down our necks. Buck was once a working journalist; I’ve had several creative nonfiction stories published here and there.
I should be working on my manuscript this afternoon instead of starting up yet another blog.
But, like I said, I’ve been thinking about death.
A friend sent me a link to singer Ingrid Michaelson’s cover of the 1961 Elvis Presley classic, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The video looks like a young bride-to-be’s fantasy. But knowing my friend, a sixty-something retired partner in an accounting firm she co-founded, a budding artist, and married for 40+ years to man roughly 12 years her senior, I looked for something in her missive beyond a bride’s rosy lens.
It was there, all right, and it hit me squarely between the eyes.
“Take my hand, take my whole life, too.”
Layers of meaning only discernible by the long-married, such as my friend, such as myself, also a sixty-something year old married for 30 years to a man I adore who is 14 years my senior. Can we ever see our end in our beginning?