ashes

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.

Dreaming a New Mountain Dream

Tom and I both woke up this morning with the conviction that we’ll be returning to our beloved western North Carolina mountains. That’s why I changed the name of this blog from Kicked By a Mule to Writing to the Sunrise.  While we did indeed feel “kicked by a mule”  after getting a mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis and going through all the changes the past two months have wrought, optimism is deeply rooted in both our natures. Plus, with an indolent and localized strain of MCL, caught early, and one of the best medical teams in the world at Mayo Clinic Florida, there’s ample justification for optimism. So we’ve begun to dream again. And if history is any guide, when the Harpers start to dream, the earth moves. I should probably start stockpiling packing boxes!

Our home near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.
Our home, (designed by Tom), near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.

We spent all day yesterday surfing real estate for sale in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Arden, and Fletcher. All we have to do now is finish two more cycles of R-Benda and roughly a month of external radiation. If the docs are right, and Tom continues to do well, we could be back on the ridge tops by late spring of 2015.

We were only weeks away from putting “the mansion” — our fond name for our home here near Pensacola, Florida — on the market when Tom was diagnosed, so the house is polished and ready for listing whenever we are in a position to pull the trigger. Right now, however, the “biosphere” — one of the nicknames given to the mansion by the grand-kids — is a place of clean, quiet serenity in the middle of a hundred acres of pine woods, where whitetail deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to heal and dream a new dream?

Respite

We sent a postcard to ourselves today, a reminder of secret afternoons spent in cool, dark caves. Curved into a comma, I lie on top of our blue Oxford pinstripe sheets, heart beating in rhythm to Tom’s beside me. The feather pillow dressed in softest butter yellow rises and falls over his chest, where he has enfolded it for warmth. One degree too cool and the air-conditioner is nothing if not efficient. I touch a freckle on Tom’s arm and covet the thick fringe of dark eyelashes that tremble with each inhalation and exhalation. I watch his lean left cheek, the one I can see, as it blows out with each breath. Not a snore, but a musical rumble, a ripple of life.

Solo, Solo

 

“Solo. Solo,” the women called in subdued, but urgent tones.

“Well, okay,” the old man said, rounding a time-softened gray fedora in his thin, elegant fingers. “I don’t know how it got to be five years from now.”  He sat on a low ottoman in the parlor room of the small community library, surrounded by four calm-faced women of indeterminate ages. A single ray of sunlight cut through the morning shadows and fell onto his scarred arm.

It was a dream. I stumbled out of bed shortly after six to my study, found a mechanical pencil stuck in an antique heavy glass “flower frog” and began to scrawl on a legal pad. Didn’t even turn on a lamp. You know how it is with dreams. Even the most vivid ones. If you can write down a scrap of it, or in a pinch say it out loud, you stand a chance of capturing an exotic bug in a bottle.

Tom came in, found me in the darkened study, standing up, scribbling furiously.  I wondered what he was doing there. This is not a man who has ever voluntarily gotten out of bed before the chickens. He moved on toward the kitchen and returned balancing half a slice of bread on a short glass of skim milk. He eyed me curiously. I mumbled something, held up my left hand in an inarticulate “wait” signal, but continued to write.

“I’m going back to bed,” he said, and was gone. Nausea, I thought. It’s still hanging on from last week’s chemo, and he’s trying to smooth it down with milk and bread and put together enough sleep from the fragmented night. Between my restless dreams and his discomfort, a solid six or seven hours of sleep is rare as precious myrrh.

 

Freight Train

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.

My Own Personal Time Capsule

It’s my stored-in-the-Cloud hard drive. I stick stuff in there from year to year and, like some favorite pair of old jeans, or the perfect black t-shirt you’ve packed away, you forget where it is, and eventually you forget about it altogether. Until, like ebony and ivory dominoes zig-zagged on a hard tile floor, you go looking for one little thing, and a line dance begins with a clatter and continues until all the rectangular pieces have hit the floor and confetti falls from the ceiling.

Yesterday, it was old photos. Today, it was the flash videos I made mostly in 2009 with my tiny cheap wonderful Flip Video Mino (sadly discontinued shortly after Cisco bought Pure Digital in 2011). I thought these little film snippets had been lost to my impulsive tendency to eat my children, but I should have known my hard drive, the Cloud, and the Internet itself are like a landfill or layers in the geologic time table, our individual thoughts encased in amber.

Some of the old videos were embedded into posts; others are like the one below — there’s no evidence I can find it was ever posted, but maybe it was. Things were pretty chaotic in 2008 and 2009, what with the collapse of financial markets knocking us and many others out of our Masters of the Universe role-play game.

By the time I filmed this bit, which I called “Walking Meditation,” the ship was right-side up again, we had modified our investing strategy, and have slept soundly at night ever since.

Could Any Writer Refuse This Offer?

Note: This is fiction/fantasy based on a writer’s prompt. Mention of the 20 year old granddaughter (whom I love more than life) was not an actual incident that happened that fictional morning, but only a stream-of-conscious thought about how much I would miss loving “distractions” such as visits or text messages or calls from her if I were on an ivory tower retreat for a year to write . . .

The security alarm was still set when I got out of bed. I disarmed it when I went to make coffee before walking into my study. Clearly, no one had been in the house. It must be from Buck! Our 30th anniversary is coming in a few weeks. We’ve talked about planning a small trip somewhere. Maybe this was related.

I reached eagerly for the envelope. It was sealed with wax in such a deep red color it was almost black. That took me aback. I opened my desk drawer and slit the envelope carefully with an old pewter letter opener given to me by my first mother-in-law. As I slid the thick card out, my nose twitched. What is that smell? Not perfume, exactly. Incense? Sweet, with a base note of . . . something. Decay, like the basement in an old building? How weird.

I looked at the card. Here is what it said:

Your desire to complete your novel and write essays has come to the attention of a benefactor who wishes to sponsor you for one year dedicated to writing. You may write whatever you like during this time. The benefactor will not only provide financial support during this time, but also meal and laundry service, plus distraction management.

This is the opportunity of a lifetime for a writer, as you surely recognize. One year under these conditions virtually guarantees you will achieve your goals. Thus, the small caveat that by accepting this generous offer you agree at the end of the term of one year, to never, ever write a single word again in your entire lifetime no matter how long you may live should not trouble you. Please make sure to read the fine print from the benefactor’s legal department before you accept so you will have full understanding of the consequences should you breach the agreement.

Please R.S.V.P. soonest. This is a once in a lifetime invitation.

Sincerely yours,
The Benefactor’s Factotum

Damn. I mean day-umm. I put the card down and jogged to the kitchen for coffee. I stood for a few minutes to watch out the window as a doe and her spotted fawn grazed under the big live oak near a tall magnolia tree, grabbed up one of my notebooks and wrote a couple of sentences about the fawn’s ballerina elegance and the doe’s tenderness.

Stunned by the bizarre note, I almost didn’t hear my cell phone ring. It was my twenty-year-old step-granddaughter, calling to share a cartoon from the New Yorker with me before she went to class at our local university (it was the cartoon where the robots become self-aware and all they want to do is write novels). We had a good laugh, hung up, and I scribbled a paragraph about our conversation in my morning writing journal.

By this time, I’d had a chance to think about how the “life interruptus” problem I sometimes bitch about is what informs and enlivens my efforts to write. The meaning derived through daily interaction with my darling husband, nature, family, and even my old chocolate lab, Maggie (whose memory still takes up  a lot of space in my heart and head), is the soul-stuff that made me passionate to write in the first place.

My heart rate back to its usual medium-slow, steady beat, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I returned to my study to respond to the note. I wrote on the bottom.

“Please thank the benefactor for this invitation, but I must refuse. The price is too high.”

No sooner had I put down the card than it popped into a small flame, and in seconds nothing was left but a teaspoon of ashes.

I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera,  spiral notebook and pen, and headed out for a walk in the woods, content in the knowledge that I would be writing every day for the rest of my life.

My Usual Writing Space

The three-inch-long smooth, dolphin-shaped basalt stone I picked up on Back Beach in Bernard, Maine a few years ago sits as a paperweight on the open page of a pocket-size Moleskine 2014 hard cover diary in Antwerp blue that was a gift from a friend. Just to the right is the screen of my big old HP desktop computer. While I boot up, my eyes go to a strip of paper with a typewritten quote taped to the top of the screen’s plastic border: “To write well, you must be able to hold your finger in the fire.” Dylan Landis (author of “Normal People Don’t Live Like This.”)

I taste the memory of yesterday’s hibachi coals in the scalding black Komodo Dragon coffee, but smell hints of spiced Chai from the dregs of a mug still sitting on my desk from yesterday afternoon. A stack of old New Yorker and Poet and Writer magazines supports a messy pile of the first 112 pages of my novel in progress. The last sentence so far, “Claire tied a piece of surgical rubber around her upper arm, and picked up the syringe,” stares me in the face. An M. Hohner Blues Harp sits in its case beside the stack of magazines and papers.

I inherited the desk from my husband, who brought it home when he retired 17 years ago. It’s a big hunk of ugly: L-shaped, with skinny tubular aluminum-looking legs, sliding black panels over maple drawers, and a surface big as a door that we covered with matte black laminate. Books are scattered around to the left of the omputer: “The Language of Fiction: a writer’s stylebook” by Brian Shawver, “3 a.m. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley, Jeff Vandermeer’s   “Wonderbook”; “The Art of Time in Memoir” by Sven Birkerts, Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”  Scraps of half-written paper everywhere. Stacks of old notebooks on the steel blue carpet.

Birds fly by the window in a downward trajectory toward the nearly empty, raccoon-raided feeder below. Shadows on the tree trunks outside my second story window slip down and puddle on the ground, melting away in the bright sun. I hear the drone of small planes, the icemaker dropping cubes, water running through pipes that tells me Buck is up, and the dull, rhythmic popping sounds of a pistol-shooting neighbor half a mile away.

I Tell Myself Stories

The online class I’m taking through Creative Nonfiction calls on participants to write a minimum 300 word piece each day (Monday – Friday) and a 1,000-word piece that can be separate and new or culled and compiled from the week’s work.  It’s a 10-week course: 2 down, 8 to go. Worth it, in case you’re interested.  Excellent instructor and the finest group of writer-classmates I’ve run into yet in an online course.  Lots of feedback and discussion. It’s called “Bootcamp for Writers.” Here’s a piece I submitted today. The prompt was: “Why I Write.”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ”

~ Joan Didion, The White Album

I know everything about my own narrative until I know nothing. I can answer all the questions anyone might ask until I can’t answer any of them.

Before seven this morning, I could tell you with certainty, verve and passion, why I write. By ten, I don’t have a clue.  By Noon, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

It was the photographs that did it. And the old letters. The newspaper stories didn’t help, either. By one o’clock I was a teary mess, and it took two hours of walking alone in the woods with the sun on my back and a northeast wind in my face to regain some semblance of equilibrium and perspective.

I was mostly looking at pictures of dead people. Oh, they were alive and seemingly immortal when the camera caught the moment. The baby, James Clyde Pelfrey, wore a lacy white christening dress and shoes that looked like brown combat boots. He was born in 1908 and died in a house fire on Pensacola Beach in 1974. His wife, Anne, my husband’s aunt, survived. Their new candy apple red Cadillac melted in the garage. The only intact papers that weren’t burned up were a Western Union Telegram notifying Anne and Clyde of Buck’s birth on December 11, 1937 and a stunning love letter sent from Clyde to Anne while he was serving overseas during World War II.

The last photos of me with my mother, from 1989, catch me off-guard. I look like I am posing with my arm around a total stranger, smiling an insincere smile as though everything is fine and dandy. Mother, who hated to be touched even before Alzheimer’s, draws away, her pinched face showing she wants to get away from this pushy person.

Almost done. And almost undone. The last photo is an arty black and white of my three step-children when they were toddlers.  Two boys and a girl. I didn’t meet them until they were 18, 21 and 22, more than 32 years ago. The middle child’s white blond hair, bright eyes, and smile full of a little boy’s mischief, takes my breath. Who could ever have put a finger on this angel and said: Darryl will die of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 45 and his death will nearly kill his dad?

Some of the photos don’t cut me. They are several generations removed. My husband’s people. Ones I never met. I interleave their stiff dressed-up black and white photos with acid-free tissue paper, put the lid on the box and stagger down the stairs, feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck.

Maybe I write out of fear, out of a belief that a fit brain that can juggle, retrieve and play with words cannot succumb to a nightmare organic brain disease that destroys memory and personality. Maybe I write so I can go back to last week or last year or ten years ago and recognize the writer as myself — the same “me” I see in the mirror every day. Maybe I write to add my voice to the infinite line of pilgrims scrawling on the cave wall “We were here.”

Maybe I tell myself stories in order to live.

January 3, 2014

28 degrees and clear.

I awoke and slipped out of bed, mouth achy and stiff with the canker sore on the inner skin of my mouth up against my lower teeth, right in front, and the threat of another one blooming on the tip of my tongue. Saw lots of tiny striped birds, a male cardinal, and a large fluffed-out white dove on the ground by the feeder. That’s when I remembered dreaming about huge fluffy blackbirds that wanted to show Buck and me to their babies as though we were strange and benign as cows.