Wild morning glories in the Florida panhandle fierce wet August heat remind me of the ubiquitous kudzu in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Kudzu covers it all: from tumble-down shacks to car bodies left in a field. It makes pretty green hillocks and columns that last until the first freeze. When the little chocolate Lab and I walked to the gate yesterday morning about seven, before the withering sun caused the flowers to twist up and hide as best they could, these lush morning glories were on full display, nearly hiding the ugly chain link fence surrounding the county’s stormwater drainage structure at the edge of our property.
Pull back the camera to see the whole picture and perception of the scene goes tilt. I shot the picture below about a month ago — you can see the morning glory vine had just begun to climb the fence. Purpose was to send it to a guy I know at the county road department to see if they would come out and clean up the end of summer mess their drainage structure had turned into. They weed-eatered the overgrowth and mowed, but the large white boulders initially installed to slow and channel water off our twisty, sad road have been gradually stolen by dirt road sports. Only a few remain.
During those years of immersion into what I began to think of as a writing life, I was interested in everything and wrote every day — blog posts, essays, and flash fiction. I took on-line writing classes, submitted my work to a variety of small publications and got enough acceptances and encouragement to make me feel thrilled that I had at last found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Then, in the summer of 2013, my husband, Buck, noticed a pea-sized lump on the side of his neck. It felt soft and moved around under my touch. Over the next several weeks it didn’t seem to grow, but it didn’t go away.
In an unrelated visit to Buck’s dermatologist, Buck asked Kevin to take a look at the lump. “Huh,” he said. “How long has that been there?”
“I think I first noticed it a couple of months ago.”
“Have you had a cold or anything? Been sick?”
“Hmm, well, we generally expect lymph node swelling to resolve within about three weeks. You ought to have your regular doc check it out.”
“Okay, will do.”
I was in the room. When Kevin said, “Don’t wait,” I felt something slip in my comfortable world. It wasn’t what he said so much as the way he said it. He put space before the sentence, brought his face closer to Buck’s, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
The men continued their otherwise routine exam. I pulled out my cell phone and made an appointment with our local internist for the next day, August 8th.
We saw the young doctor, who felt the lump and reassured us that it didn’t feel like anything worrisome and would probably resolve in a few more weeks. Nonetheless, he scheduled Buck for a cervical lymph node CT scan on August 14 and referred him to a local general surgeon for possible biopsy.
At our September 3rd visit, the surgeon said, “Good news, I believe you have a reactive lymph node — no need for a biopsy or other measures. Watch it and call me if there are any changes or if you have concerns.”
So that’s what we did. But the weeks rolled by, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s came and went. We made another appointment with the surgeon and saw him January 8, 2014. He remained sanguine about the lump, said that cancerous lumps are usually fixed and hard, but this one was a “roly poly rascal.” I guess Buck and I just kind of sat there looking at him, so he rambled a bit about statistics, how he felt sure that there was less than a ten percent likelihood that this was anything to be concerned about. When we didn’t exactly jump for joy over that speculation, he suggested we give it a little more time and then if it hadn’t resolved, he would schedule another ultrasound. We agreed, and left.
It seemed to us the lump was getting a little bigger. In fact, maybe now there were two. March 3 I called the surgeon’s office to ask them to schedule another ultrasound. It was done on March 11. Two days later I called the doc’s office to get the results, but had to leave a voice message. After growing frustrated with no returned calls, Buck and I went to the doc’s office and asked for a copy of the ultrasound. Reading it on our way back to the car, I felt a rift in my life open.
“Findings: Ultrasound is performed of the left posterior neck. Patient has palpable abnormality and multiple nodules are present. These may represent lymph nodes, but they lack the normal fatty hilum. One of the largest lymph nodes has a longitudinal dimension of 2.2 cm and a short axis of 0.7 cm and 1.3 cm.”
“Impressions: Numerous nodules in the left neck, likely to be lymph nodes, but all lacking normal fatty hilum. Recommend CT soft tissue of the neck with IV contrast.”
The surgeon was on vacation in Hawaii. We saw him next on April 23. He began to sing the same lullaby until Buck asked him about the lymph nodes missing part of their structure. He jumped up to go look at the ultrasound (which it was nakedly obvious he had not seen). He frowned now and declared maybe it would be wise to schedule a biopsy and see what’s going on.
Uh, yeah. So we scheduled it, but then decided we would rather have it done at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville where we’d been going for close to twenty years for our annual physicals as part of their executive health program.
And then we were off to the races. By the first week in June, Buck was in chemo , eventually followed by a 15 day course of radiation for a rare type of lymphoma called Mantle Cell. It was months before I realized I wasn’t writing anymore.
The sensational news is that it actually was caught much earlier than usual, at an early B category, and had not spread to his bone marrow. The best news of all is that he remains in complete remission more than five years post-treatment. We continue to trek over to Mayo every six months for PET/CT scans to be sure if it comes back they are ON it to knock it back.
Buck turns 82 in about three weeks. This is sobering for us both. And his recent so-called “minor surgery” for hernia repair in late September had complications that haven’t completely resolved yet. It’s led us to conclude that the idea we’ve toyed with to sell Longleaf (our home and 90 acres) and move to Jacksonville near Mayo is an idea whose time has come.
I’ll try to tell the story of our “Great Upheaval” which I’m halfway laughing about as I type. That sounds suitably medieval! Actually, we’re up for the challenge. I told Buck earlier this week that my “word” for 2020 is READY. He smiled as though I might have gone slightly daft, then decided to play along. “Mine,” he said, “is MOVE!”
This was the short version of a long story. What I really want to say is this: I don’t know if I can write again. But I am humbly here and am going to just show up as often as I can and try my best.
It started roughly two months ago when I felt strong stirrings to pull my unfinished novel manuscript out from under a bed in the guest room upstairs where I had stashed it in a clear plastic box, remove the wide clear tape, take a deep breath, and — with a trembly feeling somewhere in my chest region — grasped the 35,000 word first 13 chapters in my hands, and felt a hot surge of YES shoot straight to my brain stem.
My primary characters have grown with their time spent in a box under the bed. I wanted to get to know them better before before leaping into some thousand word a day regimen. I had already given each of them a music playlist, but that turned out not to wear well or say enough about Grace, Jack, Claire, Rory, Bo or the others.
It occurred to me that each of them needed their own notebook, complete with photos of my ideas of what each looks like, along with other images, words and phrases that fit their personal histories, belief systems, needs and goals.
So that got me going. Soon, I had old blank journals and marble composition books stuffed with all sorts of things I had cut out of magazines laying around the house. My husband, always trusting my process, didn’t bat an eye when I brought magazines and sharp little scissors to bed and cut like a woman possessed for several weeks while he calmly read through several books.
In reaching for some sort of organizing principle for these notebooks, I discovered an enormous internet subculture of folks who make art journals, smash journals, and junk journals. What? This was completely new to me. I have never kept a scrapbook, am not “crafty,” and am an incompetent doodler, with great respect for folks with a talent for art. Shoot, I’ve never even made a lumpy clay coffee mug. Would have felt silly trying.
Anyway. Something in these Pinterest boards, blogs, websites, and YouTube videos got to me, and I began sticking bits of Washi tape (a new discovery) to my characters’ notebooks and adding glued on words and other stuff that seemed like “them.”
Here are several examples of those rough, but exciting, beginnings:
I’ve learned so much. Main thing is that this process of gathering clippings, photos, and various ephemera that speak to me about a particular character is useful and fun. It’s made me go deeper and get to know them in ways that purely linear words on paper had not so far accomplished.
After learning a few extremely basic techniques and buying a few supplies (acrylic paint, water colors, gesso, modeling paste, distress inks and a stamp pad), I decided to add a journal for myself that deals with the creative process of writing generally, whether fiction, memoir, or other creative nonfiction. I’ve found it incredibly absorbing, fun, and, well, illuminating.
I’ve been unsettled about what to call these notebooks, especially my own. I believe Art Journal is a title for artists. I have close friends who are what I think of as “real” artists. They are gifted in drawing people, landscapes, cities — you name it. They do original work on canvasses and in their sketch books. To me, it’s a high form of creative work and to compare what I’m doing with that would be like calling derivative fan stories original fiction.
And yet. What I’m doing has value to me and there must be a phrase to describe it. There is! I found it this morning: visual journaling — also called creative journaling. Now I’m comfortable and can go forth with this medium as an incredibly useful creative adjunct to writing.
Here is an excellent YouTube discussion of art journals vs. visual/creative journals:
When you or the person you love most in the world pulls a bad diagnosis out of life’s jar of gumballs, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the silty, swirling slew of internet assertions, listservs, support groups, tiny print scientific papers and raw emotion engendered by the hard kernel of fear that pulls you down, down, down into the brackish dark water.
I was so there last week. Tom and I had recently returned from yet another trip to Jacksonville for his second chemo cycle. The nausea and fatigue were hanging on longer than they did after the first treatment. For the first time in our thirty-plus year marriage, I began to feel the small pond of our fourteen-year age difference widening into a gulf. It was a terrible feeling.
The afternoon’s prototypical panhandle Florida late July flash thunderstorms and thick air matched the brewing storm I could feel behind my eyes as I drove to the post office and the grocery store. My throat felt lumpy like I was about to cry or scream. Hoping for distraction, I turned on the car radio. Rather than mere distraction, I found inspiration from the gifted host of the co-produced NPR TED Radio Hour, Guy Raz. The topic for his show that day was an exploration “of the minds and bodies of champions who achieve extraordinary feats.”
In the segment I listened to, he interviewed swimming champion Diana Nyad, who at age 64 became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. She attempted the swim four times unsuccessfully over a period of 35 years. It almost cost Nyad her life. But in September of 2013,the year in which her self-described mantra was “find a way,” Diana Nyad succeeded. Her spirit and physical prowess are phenomenal.
The TED Radio Hour interview changed my personal channel altogether and I had an epiphany that I needed to stock my emotional quiver with inspirational arrows. And that I needed to get back on track with my creative projects, to write my way through this storm. I’m grateful to my trusty old car radio, and to Guy Raz and Diana Nyad for guiding me with the touchstones of their words all the way from the bottom of the river back up into the fresh air and light. Because of them and the serendipity of the moment, I figured out how I could write about Tom and my experience with MCL. Because of them, I’m writing again and there’s hardly a better feeling in the world.
So now, to keep that inspirational thang going, I’ve started looking at more TED talks, listening to magnificent music, writing and playing my big old rafter-rattling piano again.
Here’s Diana Nyad’s TED Talk: “Never, Ever Give Up.” Enjoy.
Tired and nervous as a cat, I am sitting in Room 138 of the Courtyard Marriott adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Tom is in the shower, preparing for a routine EKG at 11:50, then an appointment with head and neck surgeon and otolaryngologist, Dr. John D. Casler at 1:15, then a 3 p.m. with a nurse practitioner to go over labs and clear him for general anesthesia tomorrow morning for Dr. Casler to remove the enlarged lymph nodes from the left side of Tom’s neck.
11:45 now, and we’re in the Davis Building. Tom has gone in for the EKG, which we are well-accustomed to, since we both get one every year as part of our physicals.
It’s been so many months since I kept a regular journal the very act of putting ink onto paper feels strange, revolutionary.
I’m so anxious about Tom’s health I can barely focus my eyes. He would say I am hollering before we’ve been hit and of course he is right about that. Nonetheless, I feel half-paralyzed, jerky, spastic. Much too distracted to read a book.
I see that I am in no-way prepared for our “real” aging, possible illnesses and eventual death. Not his. Not my own. And it’s coming one-eyed and fast, like a freight train out of a tunnel.
Well, it was a long time ago. I was engaging in all sorts of activities on the life-change scale that can make a person anxious. I separated from my husband, the one I had told five years earlier I wanted a divorce, but as things do, they rocked along for a while. Then almost at once as though a fairy godmother had granted me three wishes, I met the love of my life whom I had been so lonely for and didn’t know how to find him, I had an idea for a business, and I moved to Pensacola Beach.
I guess the rest is history on a small, but lovely, scale. I divorced, remarried (30 years ago now), created and eventually sold the business, Aladdin Communications, to some sweet guys from New York City. One day, when Aladdin was still in its infancy and I was living in, and running the business out of, a house on stilts on the beach, the prestigious magazine, Florida Trend, came to call. It was a little bitty piece, but startling to this small-town girl.
The writer and photographer came to call toward the end of 2003. By the time it appeared, in March of 1984, I had been properly divorced for 10 months and Buck and I had eloped to Ozark, Alabama and been married in the Dale County Courthouse on February 17, 2004. Big doins’ in those times. Big doins’.
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.
My 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.
It’s a quirky, wonderful world when my second husband’s late first wife’s sister and her husband will be our house guests for three days next week, culminating in a big family hoe-down on Saturday night with in-laws, ex-laws and kids of all ages, and we’re all happy as cinch bugs about it. Can’t wait, in fact.
And it’s a wonderful world when a 19 year old granddaughter comes for lunch during an infrequent day off from both university and work and stays all afternoon, the three of us decamped from lunch in the bar (Diet Ginger Ale, mind you), to the foyer, where we wind up talking so long we variously drop into a nearby chair, lounge on a step, or sit cross-legged on the floor (me). It was a “just because” time. Just because there’s so much to talk about, so much life — past, present, and future — and because there’s so much connection and love.
I stumbled onto your site from Richard Gilbert’s Narrative. At first I thought, oh boy, here comes another homey diary, an adult, country version of show-and-tell.
I replied to the visitor who left this comment sometime last year that his first instinct about my blog was right: it is at heart a “homey diary, an adult, country version of show-and-tell.” He had been relieved to find a reasonably well-crafted turn of phrase somewhere in that particular post, something he found free of low-brow sentimentalism.
I’m smiling about that this morning as I empty the dishwasher, spray cleaner to sit for a while in the oven, contemplate going upstairs to begin preparing a guest room for our visitors who will arrive on Thursday, jot notes about the menu for next Saturday night’s family supper, and look up hours for the University of West Florida library so I can run out there, take an elevator to the third floor (fiction), and fill up my canvas bag with some of the books on the mental list I carry around in my head.
I’m smiling about that as my sleepy husband comes into the study for a warm morning neck nuzzle, and we mosey (the only word for it) to the kitchen, arms entwined, to share a bit of breakfast. He is weary with effort, but purring with a lovely growly intensity as he moves to his writing space, where he is into the final scene of the first draft of his book. I try not to disturb him when “the fever” as I call it is on him; when the blue pen is spilling ink like a cut femoral artery; when he turns pale and his hair is on fire.
And I’m loving the sweet air in this space where some of the most authentic humans on the planet come to say their piece and share their world in all its exhilaration, loss, playfulness, discovery, ennui, courage, inventiveness, fear, poetry, falling down and getting up again, adventure, art of the written word, love, creativity, passion, lazy bones, knowledge, and wonder. People like Wally, Elizabeth, Richard, Dick, Jeanne (Gullible), Kathleen, Deanna, Denny, Verna, Patsy, Gale, Jane, Flo, Stephanie, Loretta, Susan, Charlotte, David, Kate, Mira, Meg, Dave, Rick, and others.
The only ones of you I know “in person” are Wally and Flo, because they’re my brother and sister, and Patsy, Gale, and Jane are local friends. But if any of us saw each other in an airport or hiking in a forest, we would meet, talk, probably hug, and we might say, “I’d know you anywhere.” And I would say the same. There would be no daylight between the person we know on the page and the person before us, because each of us is genuine, honest (sometimes painfully so), and congruent. (Not to mention complex — oh hell, yes. That’s a major part of the delight of our interactions.)
In the closing months of 2012, I went through a periodic time of “discernment.” That’s one of those words my fellow Episcopalians may smile over. “Period of discernment” is a phrase sometimes used to give folks cover when they are asked to do something they don’t want to do, or are going a different way, as in, “I’m not ready to commit right now. I’m in a period of discernment.” I felt overexposed on the ‘net. Always using my real name, for heaven’s sake.
And so, I pulled back: deleted my Facebook account along with the timeline — the whole shebang. Deleted and erased profiles from any and all online writer groups whose door I had ever darkened — legit places, but more vanity than value. Began to think more intentionally about the “live” relationships in my life, their care and nurturing. I deleted my Goodreads account and instantly regretted that move. It’s reinstated now, but my earlier book lists (that I would like to be able to peruse again) are dead, killed by my own impulsive hand.
The books I’m reading about the internet and hive mind stuff, have more to do with authenticity and how to separate the wheat from the chaff than whether being electronically connected is positive or negative. In my own life, the connectivity and reach is not only positive, it’s joyful and an incredible tool, a huge amendment to my quality of life.
I’ve returned to Facebook, but only as a sharing with family and a very few close friends; only people I know in “RL” (Real Life). We share photos, cartoons, music, books, videos and other cool stuff, kudos when someone gets a promotion, or graduates from school, or when the family soccer keeper star, Ariel, gets written up in the local paper for saving the day for her team. Like that. Warm fuzzies. Keeps us all in the loop.
In my end of the year thinking about thinking, I found a few nuggets to keep: I finally learned to love Google Reader, and follow your blogs and other feeds of interest to me there, such as Open Culture and Smithsonian Magazine’s Food and Think blog. I also finally learned how to fully utilize EverNote, and now it’s my favorite place to put all my stuff and be able to go back and retrieve it seamlessly.
So here we are. We use our own names, we’re authentic, we work hard, love without stinting, play hard, learn like crazy, and never get old even when we do.
Buck would be the first to say, “Okay, then, let’s get after it.”
Stand back. It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve got a great big knife. That can only mean one thing: it’s time to fix huge vats of Hoppin’ John and smoky collard greens. I’m slicing and dicing like a woman possessed, my chopping board wiggled out in a space midst the debris of last night’s pizza party frenzy.
Soon as I bash out these words and hit “publish,” I’ll go back to the kitchen to take a pair of scissors to those thick collard leaves and wrestle them into a kettle of already simmering “pot liquor” base of onions, garlic, smoked turkey leg, chicken broth and an innocuous-looking Habañero pepper.
The Hoppin’ John is gorgeous with fat black-eyed peas, fresh thyme sprigs, bay leaves, onion, celery, garlic, the mate to the smoked turkey drumstick that went into the collard stock, and a pretty yellow habañero that I couldn’t resist adding.
This is “Seat of the Pants Blogging.” It’s the kind I used to do when I was a beginning blogger and didn’t know any better, the kind that’s fun to do and maybe fun to read. It isn’t crafted. It’s slung out there, scattered like unmeasured ground pepper.
God help me, I love it.
Hope all ya’ll are having a crazy wonderful day, too.
p.s. In case anyone goes looking, I’ve taken almost all the 9-plus years of blog archives, wrapped them in tissue paper, and put them away in my toolbox to mine for words, ideas, themes and characters in fiction and memoir projects this year.
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.