“Patsy” and “Doc” will have to wait. Luckily, I wrote down enough of the dreams when I first staggered out of bed yesterday morning to fix the memory in place. Buck and I spent most of yesterday preparing for and briefing some of our local officials on our property rights issue coming before the planning board February 4th. Today is for reading the fine print on some ancient scrolls (old meeting transcripts) and a luncheon of the Pensacola High School class of 1955, Buck’s graduating class and a group of folks I have come to love. I’m always the “babe” in the room because of my relative youth (only 68), but they seem to like me okay anyway. We meet at a little local Italian restaurant called Franco’s. They make a mean minestrone soup. Hang in there, Patsy and Doc. I’ll tell your story soon.
At last. It happened last night the way it used to, way back when I was writing every day. I dreamed words, sentences, amazing images — a world. I’ve been sleeping too shallowly recently to dream at all. I’m still reeling. Still in the dream. Dreams, really. There were three, but I was only able to stagger out of bed and write and notes for two. The other, the first, is dim, fading. I doubt I can recover it. Of the two I remember, the first is “Patsy;” the second is “Doc.” I’ll post them later.
By the way, I attribute the restarting of dreams with the restarting of a daily writing practice. The words were so dry at first, like unused paint in a long-neglected tube. But they are beginning to feel a little more fluid, beginning to come from a deeper place. And now, dreams. A good and encouraging sign.
“Don’t touch me!” She sounded angry.
Caroline looked up, surprised to hear any conversation at all from the couple on the sofa, much less this. But all she saw was the same thing she had seen for the last hour. A middle-aged, long-married couple sitting a few inches from each other, both hunched over their smart phones, thumbs furiously working the keys.
The man’s dad, Caroline’s husband, looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. She could tell he found it both annoying and amusing that his son had flown across the county to see him, yet spent the precious sliver of time thus.
Caroline learned later they were continuing an argument begun who knows when. Hours? Days? Weeks? Decades? Turns out they were sitting right beside each other, texting all the while. Her angry outburst was almost certainly unintentional, but it spoke volumes.
They agreed to break for lunch on the patio. Poolside. A sweet breeze swayed the tops of tall old pines ringing the back yard. But their phones, weapon of choice, remained near their itchy fingers.
Caroline tried to steer the conversation, akin to herding sullen cats, to something fun, some topic at least lighter than a brick. Going anywhere interesting? Thought about where you want to live after retirement? How are the kids? (Always a danger warning zone, but she was desperate.) Ah, this one: tell me about your color scheme for the new house you just bought.
Caroline knew, though. The walls were the color of tears.
Robin checked out of her room at the Hotel Provincial early to drive back home to Pensacola. It was an easy three and a half hours with no commitments waiting, but she was more than ready to go. She and Harry had been coming to this quirky, elegant small New Orleans hotel just at the edge of the French Quarter for romantic getaways for decades. Their last visit, however, had been a surprise treat for their granddaughter’s senior high school spring break.
The room had an old-fashioned wing chair just like the one Robin sat in one year when Harry took her picture before they happily drifted over to the now-defunct, over the top restaurant Stella. It was her favorite photograph of herself, a prized memory. Somehow the slinky black dress and animal print scarf just worked with her cropped black hair and the chunky tumbler of single-malt scotch in her right hand, eyes bright with love for the photographer.
Robin slung the strap of her overnight bag over one shoulder, car keys in hand, opened the door, then turned to look at the room one more time, wanting to burn every detail of it into her memory. She didn’t expect to return here again.
Coffee and cinnamon smells wafting into the parking lot from the hotel kitchen slowed her determined trudge to the car. “What’s another few minutes?” she thought. “Nobody’s waiting for me at home.” God, it hurt to say that. She and Harry had talked about cremation, but when the time came, she just couldn’t do it and went the full memorial service at the old church Episcopal church downtown where they had been arms-length members forever. She sighed and went into the small lobby area where a continental breakfast was laid out on a starched white tablecloth. This was a quickie for travelers ready to hit the road, so while there were beignets and cinnamon rolls on a round silver tray, local bean purveyor Community Coffee’s paper cups were stacked beside the coffee maker, ready to go.
Robin filled her cup with the pungent black chicory-laced brew, wrapped a cinnamon roll in a paper napkin and went to the desk to check out. “Why don’t y’all take a few minutes and enjoy the courtyard before you hit the road? Mama always told me eatin’ and drivin’ ain’t good for the digestion.” The smiling clerk spread her fingers toward the open door leading to the courtyard, nodding her head in encouragement.
It seemed rude to turn down such a nice invitation. “What’s another ten minutes?” Robin found a table and sat, eyes angled down at the table, sighing. She felt so tired. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute.
Robin’s eyes popped open. Did someone shake her? Had she fallen asleep? Was someone staring at her?
“No, cher, ain’t nobody starin’ at you.” Robin looked around. The voice was a deep baritone. But the courtyard was empty. She looked around for the first time, taking in the frilly pink bougainvilleas, lush banana plants and elephant ears, and the stone face of a lion.
The lion. He was definitely looking at her, a slightly grumpy gaze on his marble face. Water streamed in an arc from his mouth to a blue-green pool. For the first time, she noticed bougainvillea petals floating in the pool and couldn’t help but think how they were beautiful on the tree and beautiful floating, fallen, in the water.
Robin suddenly felt hungry, really hungry, for the first time since Harry died three months earlier. She ate half the cinnamon roll in one huge gulp and washed it down with the now lukewarm coffee. Its bitter taste mingled with the too sweet of the iced bun into perfection in her mouth.
Robin still felt someone’s eyes on her. “It’s just me, darlin’, we’re all friends here.” The voice was silky, neither young nor old, male or female. It sounded happy, though. She turned and saw a cherub. Was it made of wood? It looked warm and shiny, like carved and shellacked butterscotch.
“Huh,” Robin murmured. The drive home didn’t feel so urgent after all. She returned to the lobby for another cinnamon roll and some hot coffee, sat back down between the lion and the cherub, took out her notebook and pen and began to write.
Write about ashes.
Buck and I have attended the funerals of too many people we loved: both of our parents, his adult son (my stepson, the gray sheep), beloved aunts and uncles, and too many friends to count, not to mention the joy of loving and heartbreak of losing our Labrador retriever companions over the past forty years.
Ashes are what’s left when everything else is gone. And even they blow off into the wind, float for awhile on the sea, or are buried in the garden. Buck’s first wife’s sister scattered her husband’s ashes under azalea bushes in their front yard. Her next husband reportedly admired the robustly blooming hedge.
I never smoked, so ashtrays don’t enter my thoughts when I consider ashes. Bonfires, either. No. It’s all about death and how very little is left. What a small pile we make.
Ash Wednesday services in my Episcopalian tradition admonish congregants to remember that we are mortal, that our lives are short. As the ashes are smeared onto my forehead, the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer is satisfyingly grim. My favorite Ash Wednesday service was at the grand old church downtown during a crashing thunder and lightning storm, a perfect prop for the event.
Old-style funerals like I grew up with, viewing the body, “he’s in a happier place,” all that, are sufficiently macabre that both Buck and I eschew attending unless we absolutely must. And the new fashions which feature a large multimedia production complete with music are equally repulsive. Cremation is our stop-gap plan, although we both prefer to simply live forever.
I think when I I die I would be grateful if some kind soul would place me to be left undisturbed in a blooming pitcher plant flat like the one we have on our hundred acre wood at Longleaf and let me be a perpetual meal for the carnivorous flowers, to bloom and bloom again.
Things that enter by way of silence.
There is the quiet surprise of a puff of warm breath on my knee. I look to see Lou, the little Chocolate Lab, her luminous brown eyes rolled up to my face, clearly asking if I will take a break from my desk to get her purple plastic KONG football and throw it for her, one of our morning rituals. Lou is a dog of many rituals: sitting on my feet while I brush my teeth, walking to the gate each morning, breakfast, playing a short game of heal-sit-catch the thrown football-return and repeat, waiting for me to finish my near-daily bowl of raw oats, chia seeds, cinnamon, walnuts, berries, ground flax and organic unsweetened soy milk so she can lick the bowl – knowing I always leave at least one blueberry in the bottom of the bowl with a slick of milk, greet Buck when he emerges from our bedroom, sleep, eat lunch (very important), sleep some more and wait for supper.
Lou enters my study quietly, but if I don’t acquiesce soon enough, the soft breath will be replaced by a more insistent paw on my thigh. If that doesn’t do it, she starts talking to me in a bossy, whiny way, all the while walking backwards. By this time, I’m completely distracted and laughing, and we go play football. Resistance is futile.
Germs and bacteria, too, enter a cut or wound silently, stealthy invaders who need to be stopped before they are over the wall.
At Publix this afternoon I saw a well-dressed boy of about twelve holding the hand of an equally well-dressed man as they approached the deli counter. The boy spoke to everyone, his open, handsome face lit with a bright smile. His message was the same: Happy New Year! Some people responded. Some did not. They could tell something was a bit off about the boy. But the Dad was gentle with him and courteous to the other shoppers. I stood a few feet away, wondering why all the green cabbages were gone and pondering a change in menu plan, when I looked up and saw the boy. Before he had a chance to speak, I waved and said, “Happy New Year!” His face broke open into one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. He gave me a classic beauty pageant wave and said, “Yes! Happy New Year!”
His dad looked at me, his open, intelligent face serious, pained. “Thank you for that,” he said quietly.
I moved along to another aisle, thinking of the ease and comfort of my own life and how little I truly know about how other people live. Their struggles. Their silent heroism.
I guess I could say that a degree of additional understanding entered my heart by way of the father’s restraint and gentleness with his beautiful, damaged chld.
The two small wounds on my right arm are itching like crazy and are redder and more puffy than I would like. I guess I am fretting because of our experience two Decembers ago when Buck’s hand was punctured by the broken off branch of a small fallen tree and he wound up in the hospital for three days with a serious blood infection. Just like that, on a crisp winter afternoon walk in our own woods.
That boy and his Dad broke my heart a little.
I first wrote these words in 2009, when a troubled person very close to me learned he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. But sometimes the will to live surprises even the suicidal and this person lives on today to greet the sunrise each morning by walking to the the river that has sustained his spirit for so many years.
It was January of 2009 when a brief true story I wrote, Tenderness, was published in Brevity: A Concise Journal of Literary Nonfiction. For roughly five happy years, I viewed myself as a writer. Not one who writes. An honest-to-God writer.
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.
A couple of generous art souls are encouraging me with bite-sized art challenges and short courses, which I find suits my creativity-seeking starts and stops method perfectly.
One such individual is Kasia Avery, a kind and marvelous teacher whose Everything Art website offers classes which vary in length from a few days to an entire year. She offered a free art-journal style Advent Calendar short course last year that was one of my best on-line experiences ever. Kasia’s firm but gentle coaxing was effective. I wound up with a bundle of new skills and a small journal that re-inspires me every time I pull it from the shelf. In January, I enrolled in Wanderlust 2019, a year-long class featuring not only herself but a panoply of gifted artist-teachers. In only a few weeks, I was completely overwhelmed and hopeless behind. (That said, once enrolled, participants have continuing access to the classes and all-important videos, so I have a treasure-trove yet to explore.)
A few days ago, Kasia started a 15-day course called Day by Day Art Journaling. I signed up and am enjoying it immensely. These short time periods work well with my Restless Head Syndrome!
Another fun, massively creative teacher is Marieke Blokland, whose Bloknotes Art School, “raw and quirky,” is so clever and feeds my love of the abstract. Marieke recently offered a 5-day art challenge. It was a blast and oh by the way, an amazing learning experience.
I took an old blank 5×7 mixed media journal and covered the front with a card stock copy of some ancient Japanese wave art downloaded from the Internet Archives, then decorated it. Actually, I’m pretty sure I went at least three steps beyond where I should have stopped.
I’m adding in whatever suits my fancy, along with the exercises from Marieke’s art challenge and Kasia’s Day by Day prompts.
No better way for a writer to quiet that still, small, destructive, voice of her internal editor than to get a little dirty playing with paints. It’s helping me learn what I really think.
So yes, “ripe yellow” really is Moleskine’s descriptor for the color of this 2020 daily diary/planner. Quite a departure from my usual choice of matte black.
Last year I started sticking pieces of torn paper, fabric, corrugated cardboard, all sorts of things into my daily planner, dabbing it with watercolor, stamped color using a cork, whatever’s at hand. Strange, but it makes writing come more easily and (I’ll say it) — adds to my happiness quotient. I guess because it’s play. Makes that invaluable child’s mind more accessible to my stodgy, duty-bound adult self.
This post is taking forever because I’m continually distracted thinking about and looking up colors that interest me to focus on as a backdrop for 2020. So I just ordered a few watercolors: Daniel Smith’s Pyrrol Scarlet and Indigo and Holbein’s Olive Green. I already have various yellow tones that will go with these, including raw sienna and ochre. I’m looking for a Mediterranean vibe, and may need to bring in a sea blue, but will play as I go and see.
I’m certainly no artist, but playing with these beautiful colors somehow draws the words out of me, and that’s the idea. They’re a great tool for the subconscious.