Facing our (Aging) Face

Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone.
Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting a selfie of an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone. Taken Sunday, August 17, 2014.

I know a real estate broker who continues to use a photo in her newspaper ads that was taken thirty years ago.  It might work if she never met her prospects. Makes it much harder to establish trust. We wear the years in different ways. I see something in my eyes, a weight, a fatigue,  that wasn’t in earlier photos. It’s subtle, perhaps invisible to the casual observer, but hard for me to look at because I know from whence it came.

Questions for the Winter Sky

DSCN1654
Winter sky late February, 2014 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida

The photo above is a good reminder never to leave the house for a walk without the old point and shoot camera in my hand. It was Monday, February 24. Buck and I started our walk later than usual. After our second or third house-to-gate lap, we rounded the driveway in front of the house to circle back to the gate a third of a mile away when I looked up and saw this amazing sky. The clouds looked like they were quilted from softest down. The opening, like an upside down inactive volcano, was rimmed in sun-gold.

Our hearts were heavy that day, because we had learned Sunday that a dear old friend was near death. After returning from our walk, an email from his daughter told us TC had died Sunday, only an hour after we had talked with his wife, B.

A brilliant, wise, and kind man, TC was an engineer with a stellar career until retiring in 2000. Disaster struck eleven years ago, when he was diagnosed with an unusually cruel disease known as Semantic Dementia. Imagine an intellectually gifted person, one who managed a major industrial plant and thousands of employees, a person who founded a scholarship program at his beloved alma mater which continues to educate new engineers every year, a person who — along with his devoted wife of 55 years — created a youth program at their church decades ago which continues to thrive long after their relocation from Pensacola to other cities and ultimately to Birmingham; a father of two accomplished adults and grandfather of five. A person who loved to read.

Now imagine that person, or yourself, with four objects on a table: a pen, a pair of scissors, a table knife, a flashlight. Someone asks you to pick up the scissors. You pick up the pen. Frontal lobe deterioration is rapid, irreversible. For the last five years of his life our loquacious friend didn’t say a single word.

Some days I wonder whether we might be more content not to have so much information at our fingertips. In the past few weeks, I’ve learned far more than I am comfortable knowing about conditions that can affect the lives and quality of life of human beings: Guillain-Barre Syndrome, from which our friend Harold is slowly recovering (he proudly took eight steps on a walker yesterday); and Semantic Dementia, which took our friend TC’s mind and eventually his life.

I look at the photo of the sky and wonder at it’s ability to comfort my ruffled spirit. I have so many questions.

Ambush

Sweet Old Con
Westmark’s No-Cut Contract January 22, 1988 – April 19, 2003

Sweet old Con. My big-headed puppy. She was the daughter of Buck and my first Lab together, the queen-like Amanda Blackvelvet. After Contract’s death in 2003 at fifteen, irreplaceable Maggie, (Maggie the Wonder Dog), joined us and shared adventures until her difficult struggle with hip dysplasia and arthritis of the spine ended in November of 2011. Trolling my computer hard drive looking for a photo having absolutely nothing to do with dogs becomes a pop-up arcade. Memories ambush my heart. Most of what I know of dignity, loyalty, and grace, I learned from them.

Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master’s chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth, and gnaw it still. — Henry David Thoreau

The Trouble with Trouble

1-The trouble with trouble.

Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

The Trouble With Trouble

1-The trouble with trouble.

Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

Pulling a Published Post Is Like Unringing A Bell

SUBSCRIBERS TO THIS BLOG RECENTLY FOUND THEMSELVES on the Avenue of the Busted Link, a dead-end cul de sac, and for that I apologize. Let me tell you what happened.

Last Wednesday at twilight, I had been working at my desk and was just about to head to the kitchen to start supper preparations when my fingers went all Ouija Board on me and typed a name in Google that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. The name was that of my first husband. What happened next stunned me. I went to the bedroom, where Buck was doing free-weight bicep curls. I tried to speak, but nothing would come out. He looked at me first with curiosity, then concern. I held up my right hand, palm out, my “give me a minute” signal.

I realized I was about to cry, but managed to blurt out, “It’s Ralph. He died last Sunday. Pancreatic cancer.”

Buck put down the weights, reached me in one step, and wrapped me up in his arms. “Oh, babe, I’m so sorry.”

On Friday, I posted a blog post about it. Here is an excerpt:

We met when I was a freshman at the University of Florida; he was a graduate assistant teaching a course. We married in 1971; divorced in 1983. We broke each other on the rocks of delayed adolescence.

I found the blessing of lasting love. Now I know he did, too.

A good man. Rest in peace, and comfort to your loving wife and treasured life companion.

Without thinking, I included a link to Ralph’s obituary. Sometime later, maybe on Saturday morning, I Googled his name again, perhaps hoping to find a new, happier set of facts. What I found was not only the obit notice and newspaper articles praising his work over the years, but a link to this blog. For some dumb reason known only to my subconscious, I had included a YouTube video of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock” in the post. Its themes of isolation and emotional detachment may have resonated with the young people we were as we tried to figure out how to grow up, but not with our fully evolved selves. Seeing it, I realized instantly that it could cause confusion or pain to others who know and care for Ralph, especially his loving wife. It was massively inappropriate for me, a former spouse from more than thirty years ago, to pop up with a link to my blog, of all things.

So I removed the post. Unfortunately, on Google the link still exists, even though it is a link to nowhere. I have filled out a request with Google’s web link removal tool to have it removed ASAP. I sincerely apologize to one and all.

Swamp Jessamine spotted on overcast day on February 24, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve in Escambia County, Florida. Buck and I walked the woods between rain showers. We almost missed this bright flower. It was twined on an iron-like vine more than 25 feet up a pine tree.
Swamp Jessamine spotted on overcast day on February 24, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve in Escambia County, Florida. Buck and I walked the woods between rain showers. We almost missed this bright flower. It burst forth from an iron-like vine twined more than 25 feet up a pine tree.

Buck and I took a long walk in the pine woods yesterday. We noticed growth tips on all the Longleafs, young and old. It is no longer possible to distinguish pines planted a decade ago from the continually regenerating volunteer trees. We celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary last Sunday, February 17, the same day my first husband ended his time on this earth. Buck’s first wife passed away in August of 2005. It’s not the same as being orphaned as an adult. We have both experienced that, and it is, of course, a completely different sort of connection. But it is impossible to read about Ralph and not reflect upon our lives together with equal measures of sadness, regret, and the relief of knowing we parted friends and both found the loves of our lives.

Rest In Peace, Ralph

My hands on the keyboard tonight were Ouija Board operatives. They typed a name I had not thought of in years, much less Googled. I was thinking of Scotland. How did my fingers know to reach back to a former life? How was their mark so devastatingly true?

We met when I was a freshman at the University of Florida; he was a graduate assistant teaching a course. We married in 1971; divorced in 1981. We broke each other on the rocks of delayed adolescence.

I found the blessing of lasting love. Now I know he did, too.

A good man. Rest in peace, Ralph Glatfelter, and comfort to your loving wife and treasured life companion.

Beautiful Decay

A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Don’t laugh (or cry, please) when I say that the most miraculous thing I have ever seen is a baby’s solemn eye, so new to the world and ready to put on a cloak of assumed merriment to help us all believe the illusion; and the softest thing I have ever felt was the skin of Buck’s mother’s hands, which I held those fourteen afternoons in June when we scattered runes, interpreted dreams, and added columns hoping to believe in the plus side, while she slept and I rocked in the cornflower blue chair.

Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Layers of decaying leaves in the stream bed show like shells through the clear shallow water until they dissolve back into the fecund muck; twisted vines and sun-starved branches throw shadow pictures on the surface. Its feet in the water, a Florida anise tree every spring sheds scarlet fringes like ribbons. I follow them on the pulse of the lively spring, all the way into the dark heart of the eternal swamp.

Florida Anise Tree Bloom

A Good Start on the Reading Year: Antifragile, You Are Not A Gadget, & More

good light comfy chair-2The tiny Boston Bull Terrier doorstop is a reminder of my late mother-in-law, Lois. She looked more  — much more — like a young Susan Sarandon than a terrier, but she loved her little Boston Bulls, the whole series of them. I believe there was Happy I, Happy II, and Happy III. By the time she and I met, in 1982, it was the era of Happy III, and he was old, fat, and deformed with skin growths. I can’t explain why, but I always pictured Happy III smoking a big cigar, á la Sir Winston Churchill.

The spraddle-legged sheep in the chair is a totem that keeps the soul of my late stepson, Darryl, ever-present in my memory. At the tender age of 45, Darryl died on a beautiful October day in 2005 from a massive heart attack. He was sitting in a chair, on a concrete patio, all by himself. He ate lunch, smoked a cigarette, and fell forward onto the concrete, finished. Buck and I had seen him that morning. He and I shared a pot of coffee. My last words to Darryl were: “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to say that.

Anyway. Darryl, the tow-headed, wayfaring boy, used to laugh in that self-deprecating way of his, and tell me that he was the black sheep of the family. My standard riposte was, “Oh, no, you’re not the black sheep — maybe a little gray — but not black.” And so, when I saw this stuffed, gray sheep, he became “The Gray Sheep,” and a totem for our desperado too soon gone.

good light comfy chair 1

I moved furniture around in my study yesterday so that I would have a cozy spot near the fireplace with a good reading light.

good light comfy chair 3

There’s even a chair for a guest to pull up and warm their feet, too. (See my old red slippers?)

If you look at my Goodreads “currently reading” shelf on the sidebar, you’ll discern what I’m thinking about here at the start of 2013 rather quickly. There’s You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier,  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas G. Carr, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand,  (the “Black Swan theory” guy).

Pull up and chair and let’s talk.

By Grace and Grit: living and dying, loving and writing

I write by grace and grit. I write for the love of ideas. I write for the surprise of a sentence. I write with the belief of alchemists. I write knowing I will always fail. I write knowing words always fall short. I write knowing I can be killed by my own words, stabbed by syntax, crucified by understanding, and misunderstanding. I write past the embarrassment of exposure. I trust nothing especially myself and slide head first into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation and threaten to push the delete button on my way down, or madly erase each line, pick up the paper and rip it into shreds — and then I realise it doesn’t matter, words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.

(excerpted with thanks for every word she writes from the much-quoted “Why I Write” essay by Terry Tempest Williams, published in the anthology, Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard)

This has been a week of death and near-misses in my tiny speck of the planet. It began on Wednesday. Telephones ringing at 6:20 a.m. are seldom a good sign. I still had a toothbrush clamped between my teeth and was struggling to put on jogging shoes for the one-two-three punch of a treadmill session followed by a walk to the gate followed by a swim that has become my self-prescribed physical therapy for arthritis regimen.

I didn’t recognize the area code and was prepared to sharp-tongue the caller. “Hello? It’s early here,” I said.

“I’m sorry, it’s J.” This was no stranger, and I recognized the tear-clotted voice.

“Why are you crying? What’s happened?” I took the toothbrush out of my mouth and put it down on top of a stack of rough draft pages.

“It’s my brother —  A. He hanged himself in his girlfriend’s apartment. She found him at 4 a.m. this morning.” And then she wailed.

I can’t and won’t write anything more about this private tragedy. J. and her late brother are the adult grandchildren of a dear old friend of ours who died in 2007, leaving to Buck the care of his affairs.

Early Thursday morning, I left the bedroom and stopped off in my study to turn on the computer, then headed straight for the kitchen to fire up the coffee maker. I had just cleared the carpeted living room and stepped with bare feet onto the large cool tiles of the kitchen, when I heard a loud thud that I knew had to be a bird hitting a glass door in the living room. I feel sick when any bird flies into those doors. I hear that particular sound three or four times a year. Sometimes the victim lives to fly again, sometimes not. I expected a dove or maybe a cardinal, but when I saw that it was a red-cockaded woodpecker on the concrete patio, I felt dizzy, ill. The black head and beautiful zebra-striped back were unmistakable. I went back into the kitchen and stood for a minute, wondering what to do. If it were dead, another minute wouldn’t matter. If it were only stunned, I might frighten it even more by opening a door.

I stepped back into the living room with a full heart, knowing the bird would be still be there. And she was. But this time, her head was up, the black cap spiky like a punk hair style, and then, by God, she flew. No hesitation, just up and out of there. I jumped and whooped and laughed out loud, with a big “Thank you!” to God, the Universe, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Nature.

One was a person; one is a bird. I had no control over either event, but life is life. And it sure was sweet to watch that stunned bird fly away to live another day.

Note:  I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a few weeks. The writing is going well, though.  Buck and I are trying to meet some goals before our trip to Maine in September.  I hope you’re all having a good summer, and look forward to visiting and catching up with you soon. Much love, Beth.