I went a little crazy at the beginning of this year (so what’s different about 2019?) and signed up for two art jounal/mixed media year-long experiences: one is the gifted, irrepressible and kind artist and teacher Tamara Laporte’sLifebook 2019, and the other is the equally gifted and welcoming artist and teacher Kasia Avery’sWanderlust 2019. Both are phenomenal. They have gathered a remarkable array of teachers for these journeys.
I’ve also joined the Bancroft Collective, a brave and talented group of creative folk who, in the words of founder Georgina McClure (a nom de plume of creative guru Heather Blakey) “have taken up residence in Bancroft Manor because they are passionate about the power of the expressive arts to heal”. At Bancroft Manor, Georgina leads an online Writing for Wellness course.
Am I waaay behind? Absolutely. Am I happier, more creative, learning like I never thought I could at my (ahem) somewhat advanced age, and writing more as I stretch old muscles and find new ones? YES! Oh, yes.
I dreamed last night of my long-dead father. One of those rare dreams I’ve learned to call a major gift.
Standing on a sidewalk at a busy intersection, I was waiting for a car or a bus or a taxi or something to take me somewhere. It was crowded. Lots of people. Many of them seemed to know me. They waved and shouted friendly greetings.
I remember adjusting the shoulder strap of my heavy bag that was filled with notebooks and sketch pads, craning my neck to look for my ride, when someone called out: “Wait! Don’t go yet. Your Daddy is coming to see you!”
My head snapped up and sure enough, a man who could not be anyone but W. T. Jones was striding through the crowded sidewalk, pulling off leather work gloves as he walked. His crack-the-dark-world-open brilliant smile went all the way to those flashing bright eyes that never left my face.
Before there was time to think or react or, thank God, wake up, I was wrapped up in those dear arms. “Baby girl!” he crooned, nearly waltzing me around, his joy my sunbeam path.
I awoke then and nearly sprang out of bed with energy and a smile, still feeling that loving affirmation from my sweet, long-missed Daddy.
In the dream, Daddy was slightly heavier than I remembered, still sun-browned with crinkles around his eyes and a light sheen of sweat as though he had just come off the construction site of one of his subdivisions in central Florida, circa 1964, the year his heart suddenly stopped.
Tough blow for a thirteen-year-old to lose her dad. My older brother was sixteen; our younger brother only nine. Mother was fragile and unbalanced. Tough all the way around. The lodge pole of our family structure was jerked away and the roof quickly fell in.
For weeks, now, I haven’t been sleeping well enough to dream, much less to remember a dream. Several hours have elapsed since the dream. I’ve walked to the gate with Lou, fed her breakfast, and brewed coffee.
Cutting strawberries and oranges for Sunday breakfast a few minutes ago, I laughed to realize I was whistling Daddy’s favorite song.
Brilliant yellow slime mold on a fallen log. Photo-bombed by Lou. Maybe she was interested because the common name of Physarum polycephalum is “Dog Vomit Slime Mold.” Find a fascinating article on it by Eve Broughton of Northern California’s Lost Coast Interpretative Association here.
Time is strange. I walk, trudge, even run a bit when the path is briefly level. Has it been hours or years since I was at Longleaf? Was I ever there at all? Will I ever return to Buck and Lou-Lou and all the sweet familiarity of home?
Mountains rise around me. The path grows rocky and narrow. The air is thin and I am grateful for the bottle of water in my pack. Fog rolls in and I remember a time lost in frightening sea fog in a small boat in the Gulf of Mexico. I think of Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi and the tiny boat so filled with life — terrifying and wondrous.
But I am not in a boat and so far as I can tell, I am alone on this fog-shrouded, rocky path.
What’s that? It sounds like squeaky hinges, then a bang. Metal on metal. It grows louder. The path widens and the fog begins to dissipate. I see the source of the sound now. It is a huge solid wood gate swinging on iron hinges. I see a key still in the lock. It looks just like the one in my pocket. Someone else is here!
I turn back to look at the path. It has disappeared. Rather than being alarmed, I feel light, curious, and eager even though the old mansion beyond the gate looks as though it has been abandoned for decades. I see vines draped over the stacked round stones several stories high.
I step through the gate and laugh out loud. The mansion and grounds have transformed. Instead of old vines draped over broken walls, I smell dusky climbing roses and the heady sweet scent of gardenias. Italian cedars line a circular cobblestone drive, and in the middle of it a fountain splashes.
Over the huge open double ebony front doors are the letters: BANCROFT.
The light inside is filtered. I don’t see another person, but I hear low laughter and conversation. I start to move in that direction, but the fragrant, yeasty aroma of baking bread draws me toward what must be the kitchen. I am suddenly famished.
Following my nose, I start across a wide hallway, but am stopped in my tracks by the faint tinkling sound of a piano. Is it coming from outside? I follow my ears this time, out the tall French doors , past a lovely gazebo, the strangely familiar music growing louder with each step.
How curious! The source of the music is a small structure built to look like a Grandmother clock. It sits just at the edge of a small lake, barely more than a pond. The music stops. Is someone inside? I walk around the structure, but cannot find a door anywhere.
There is a discreet name plate beside the clock face: GRACE ANN RINGER. Grace! What is she doing here? Grace is the main character in the novel I have been writing and putting away, writing and putting away, for at least five years.
II knock timidly on the clock, but don’t hear a sound. That’s when I notice the small red box at my feet. I am startled. It looks just like my red box of dreams.
I kneel down and open the fragile hasp.
It’s an old clock key. I like puzzles, and this one is pretty cool indeed. Within minutes I find the small winding hole, insert the key and start turning it. A trapezoid-shaped door silently opened and I stepped inside.
And a piano that looks like one where I spent many happy hours years ago.
And a screened porch actually hovering over the little lake. How had I missed that when I was looking for the door? I see Grace’s bright green running shoes on the porch, but no sign of her.
Now, I’m really hungry and eager to meet the others who have found their way here. But first, I really must play the piano for a few minutes.
It’s been a long time since I took a trip anywhere. A long time even since I walked the Longleaf forest, except for daily treks from home to the gate a third of a mile down a canopied gravel drive.
The grainy video from 2013 reminds me how timid I have become.
Something draws my eye to the bookshelf where I have a small collection of stones, rocks, moss and other items that please me. What is that? A key? I have never seen it before.
I pick it up and see there is a tag attached. The letters are faded. Is that a “B”? B A ? C ? ? F T. I can’t quite make it out. Wonderful old key, though. I like the feel of it in my hand. Returning to my desk, I slip it into the pocket of the comfortable old olive green skirt I wear around the house.
It’s still early morning here. My dog, Lou-Lou Belle, pushes her nose insistently into my hand. “One more sentence, girl. Then we’ll go for our walk.” She sighs and lays down, face between her paws.
The words won’t come. Now I’m the one sighing. “Okay. ” Lou jumps up at my voice. “Let’s go.”
Something about the morning sun’s rays penetrating the dark woods makes me alert.
The surprising appearance of light snow is my first clue that this will be no ordinary walk in the woods. Lou whines and turns back toward the house.
“Okay, girl. Let’s get you back to the house. I’ll come back for you after I check out what’s going on.” I open the door and she runs straight back to the bedroom where Buck is still sleeping. I grab a thermos of coffee and my backpack and head out.
The woods are familiar at first, but soon the terrain changes. The path narrows and the calves of my legs complain as flatland gives way to rolling country and then a steep incline. Clearly, I am not at Longleaf Preserve in the panhandle of northwest Florida anymore.
The flash of snow I saw earlier that told me this was no ordinary journey, returns, and with it a wind that gets up under my hair and whispers in my ear.
The last time I left on a long trip, a trip for nothing but play, a family member back at home died. My husband was with me. We screamed and cried in disbelief, then turned around in Atlanta and drove back home to an inescapable new reality. My 45-year-old stepson had a fatal heart attack. Our trip, of course, had nothing to do with it. And yet, for years we could not bring ourselves to buy airplane tickets or pack up the car for a road trip. And when we finally did travel out West to hike the magnificent parks of Utah, we looked over our shoulder for something following.
A few years later, my husband grew ill with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell. Treatment was difficult, but effective. Five years on, he remains in complete remission, fit and strong. But now 81, his age has become the “something following” and we spend nearly all our time together.
I think about all of this when I stop to stand on a large flat rock, drink the rest of my coffee, and wonder whether I should turn back. I think about the brief, sweet time I called myself “writer.” How barely a day went by that I didn’t submit a story or essay to some publication somewhere. How since my stepson’s death and my husband’s cancer, the sluice-way of creative juices has slowed to a trickle from a rusty, stubborn tap.
My right hand thoughtlessly goes into my skirt pocket, as it often does, a habit with no purpose. My fingers close around something strong, slender, metal — the key!
I leave my thermos on the rock, strap on the backpack and continue up the path, head down and into the wind.