Tag Archives: death

Life Lists: Birds & Fears I have Met

Those are just some of my new life-list birding additions. You may not recognize the last bird on the list. He’s a subspecies of the Common Peckerwood. He’s loud, crude, and mean just like the Common but with a more lilting song.

“I don’t care how young they is, them sorry-ass young’uns never do nothin’. If they won’t get off their asses ‘n help, do dishes er sumpin, I ain’t never bringin’ ‘em agee-in.”

I am still in this valley of a thousand birds and bullfrogs and butterflies and the barest of breezes.

And no internet.

Now and then I eke out a message to my daughter or brother. Now and then some spam text trickles in.

It rained off and on yesterday, light rain mostly. But the length of the river/lake took rain and it is slowly rising, looking to be about 3-4” higher than when I arrived. I missed the flood from last week that muddied everything. I’m in one of the lower spots but there is no heavy, flooding rain predicted before I leave.

All this mud and shade and still air is fertile earth for the birds and their prey.

The ubiquitous and vocal song sparrows, while rather plain, are true to their name, filling the valley with varied and beautiful songs. They, like so many other songbirds, thrushes, blackbirds, and woodpeckers, are here for the bugs.

Song Sparrow

I’m not generally bothered by bugs. I am fond of spiders, love snakes, (I’m told there were four copperheads in the bathhouse rafters last week), and have a healthy respect for other wild animals.

So when the host mentioned potato bugs in the bathhouse, I thought of this critter — one of a few insects so named.

She meant tree roaches—apparently of a species with which I am unfamiliar but that has as much gall to crawl and fly directly at its victims as do the big, ugly bast***s on the Gulf Coast. They aren’t much smaller, either. (Shudder)

I despise roaches. I have an irrational fear of them, actually. I can hold beetles, snakes, spiders, and dead things of all kinds. Don’t make me go near a roach.

I only despise the Common Peckerwood. Nothing irrational there. They’re just annoying.

Still, I want to be as far from both as possible. Trapped in a shower stall in the campground, ladies shower with a tree roach ignoring my commands to “stay on your side, you ugly bast***!” was tremor inducing.

The grumpy Kentucky Mountain Peckerwood—actually kind of entertaining after the initial, oh my gosh, hush!

These are the things that make the days memorable as I make this journey. Some of the parks run together and I can’t recall which name went with which beautiful lake or river. Human and critter interaction is what makes these places real and not simply postcard memory.

I will never return to this valley after Tuesday. It has been a difficult stay and I have four nights yet. My anxiety has reached a high I never experienced in life except in the last several months of my marriage. I am NOT a mountain girl.

I have never suffered claustrophobia. I live in a tiny, fiberglass bubble on wheels and it doesn’t faze me.

These mountains, though—they are leafy, bird-filled prison walls. I have begun to have deep, irrational, absurd fears of a kind that have no basis in reality. Is it possible that the rain will come down so hard that all the roads out will wash out and I will be stuck here for weeks while they make repairs? There is that minute possibility. Is it possible my truck will breakdown and I will be stuck here for days awaiting help to get it repaired? There is that slightly less than minute possibility. Is it possible that by the time I escape this internet wasteland, all my loved ones will be gone from this world and I will be utterly alone forever? Highly unlikely. Is it possible I will suffer a sudden fatal something or another and die here inside Blanche only to be discovered late Tuesday when the host notices the flies and Sammy’s howls to go potty. Highly unlikely.

But these are the kinds of dark thoughts engendered in the throes of anxiety attacks and their related irrational fears.

These irrational fears make “potato bugs” and peckerwoods harder to tolerate. They make mountains taller, darker, closer, and more far-reaching than they are in reality.

I will eventually drive out of mountains and into gentler hills again. Wide open skies of sunrises and sunsets will embrace me in a soft and distant way. My brother laughs and says, “just in time for tornadoes.”

And maybe some Mississippi peckerwoods.

Ah well. Here’s video of a White-breasted Nuthatch. Enjoy.

Ether Or: Dark to Light Ruminating

Once more in electronic darkness and I am thinking of capricious time. How quickly the last six months have passed and how little I have accomplished. How slowly these seven days to come will pass as I contend with a silent ether and my loud and persistent demons.

The drive into this valley (oh, had I known, I would never have come here) was frustrating and hard on Blanche, Betty, me, and Sam. Signal loss resulting in wrong turns. Cars behind me too impatient to allow me to get a map and sort out my route. Dead ends with difficult turn-arounds and deep mud. (Yay for 4-wheel drive!) I will escape into town mid-week to get my bearings, but I dread it. The road is treacherous even with a small truck.

And now I know why the spaces were readily available on such short notice. There is only one other trailer here plus the host. My assigned site was flooded, so the host said I could have one of several others.

I’m also out of porter. Probably, given my mood, that’s a good thing.

On my drive here, through Appalachian towns and highway construction, I was optimistic. The hills seemed manageable, then I turned toward this place about twenty miles out and my heart sank. Yes, another deep river valley, threatening rock falls on either side of the road, and shadows, shadows, shadows.

The gate attendant, a young mother, and her waif-like daughters are light — bright in their shining honey manes. The littles are energy and cheer as they pedal their bikes in circles and esses.

I think again of time.

Of a tiny, thin, tow-headed, green-eyed girl, all legs and arms and sunshine, grown now to honey-haired beauty; those eyes like a wild cat’s, large, intense, and mesmerizing. She is a mother herself now, and it is difficult at times for me not to cling to the little girl I remember. I still have dreams of her — small, vulnerable, and sometimes challenging, but always full of love. She is still bright, as if she carries her own light source in her chest. I’ve known few people like her in this world: my mother, my sister-in-law, a friend I lost in the divorce.

Sunshine.

And I think of how she and these little ones on their bikes, thus far, have the luxury of time while other children have not.

How time and cruelty take parents, lovers, friends, and children from us.

I am certain, most days, that I have time. That I will find my way before the geographical journey is done and “stay put” somewhere that makes me feel I am at home. That I will find my way on the emotional journey and stay put in a life that makes me feel whole again.

Other days, I wonder if I will simply wander until I can’t anymore.

Damn these mountains and the pits of despair they inflict on me.

Damn my memory.

Damn time.

Intermission

Last night, as I lay in bed, having driven a single-car road into these shadows, I had an intense, brief pain in my head. I’ve had them for years and am told they are akin to migraine or cluster headache but likely brought on by stress.

For a moment I considered it could be something more ominous and the sudden image of a quick and unexpected death here actually frightened me.

I discounted sheer self-preservation. I thought of people I love and miss so much when I am disconnected. I thought of how much those connections mean to me, even those that are merely electronic. What struck me, selfishly enough, was not how they will feel if I pass now (I can always minimize that in my depression), but how I will miss out on time with them. How I will miss out on a chance to get where I truly want to be.

It’s easy for me to think I am too old to ever be anywhere or anything, to feel productive and safe in a country of such division, to ever have a loving relationship again, etc.

I’ve been conditioned for forty years and two husbands to believe I am unlovable. One told me no one would ever love me like he did. (Well, thank the Universe for that!) The other, through implication not words, told me no one would ever really love me at all. I was just an object to “all men except him.” The Wrong Man, though caring and gentle and a good listener, rarely spoke of the non-corporeal things about me that he liked, and certainly never claimed love for me.

Going down that line of reasoning is what gets me into the wrong headspace. It makes it too easy to believe there are no men out there that would find me a good match. I’ve developed an almost pathological hatred for the institution of marriage (for me) and the smallest whiff of possessiveness or jealousy. That doesn’t fit well with my demographic (Xoomer/Boomer). I am quickly losing my appeal to the Xillenials and that’s probably for the best. 😄

So when night fell and I was alone and had gotten through my nightly cry, and had the realization that my life was, in fact, finite without my intervention, I “came to” for a moment.

In an odd way, it was a relief to be scared of my own mortality again. As anxious as those moments were, they were useful. I still feel like little more than an object. I still have little hope for anything resembling partnership. I’m still dismayed by American exceptionalism. However, I do want to see my loved ones again. I do want to try to make something of these last, potential years.

I don’t know what the next seven days will bring. Weather permitting, I’ll escape into a satellite-lit land for a small period of time to make further reservations and check on the signal at the upcoming reservations. To reach out and let my loved ones know I’m safe.

I may have to alter my path. I have let import things slide as I puttered through Appalachia, certain life was of little value.

It’s time to come out of the shadows.

Beauty in the shadow & light: Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla)

Craving: Reassembling in Fog

Bear with me. It has been a rough couple of weeks but there is light at the end of this blogging tunnel.

April 2022. South Carolina.

The sky poured onto the forest last night.

Now, in the midday slivers of sun, the duff warms and its sweet musk rises to mingle with the tang of pine & hickory perfume.

The scents smother my thoughts. Dog bounces and tugs happily at my side and I wonder how can his nose, so much more sensitive than mine, not be overwhelmed by this fog of tree.

My head is full—of memory, rage, exhaustion, anxiety, of a lingering love I just can’t kill—yet all this swims in the fog of tree and I can only walk and react to Dog’s alerts, lunges, and pauses.

The fog never lifts as the day wears on. As evening comes, dampness coating Blanche’s innards and exterior, I stare at my phone to try to find words, to try to string ideas and emotions together to form not just coherent work, but a plan.

Nothing coalesces.

For some reason, (the smells and tall trees, perhaps) an image from a nightmare I had years ago comes to mind as fitting of my thoughts: I was a solitary traveler walking an abandoned railroad and came upon a massive pile of rotting, human body parts leftover from some apocalyptic event.

(Yes, I have horrendous nightmares sometimes)

To be fair, it is apt; my plan for the future, my concept of where my work is going, my thoughts on how to recover from my past and move on, my ability to partner ever again, all look like random, damaged, mismatched, and hideous pieces of dead beings.

I struggle to assemble something human from the pieces, something recognizable as complete and functional.

The pieces simply don’t fit.

Sitting at my tiny dinette, I turn on my Bluetooth speaker and look through my music library on my phone. Times like this, I seek something that hits the core of my current mood and existence. I launch K. D. Lang’s “Constant Craving,” her silken voice flowing around me like dozens of warm rivulets.

When I heard the song decades ago, I didn’t examine the lyrics but assumed it was a love song. Now, of course, I know better and appreciate it even more than I did in its early days.

Several people (all women) have called me brave of late. Some, I feel sure, have sat back and thought me quite the opposite as they watch and wait (seemingly indefinitely) for me to succeed or fail.

I feel neither brave nor afraid. I feel disconnected; as far from my future and any certainty as that character in my nightmare who stumbled upon the mountain of human offal and stood in disbelief.

In my dream, I merely walked on, trying to shake off the horror of what I’d witnessed.

For now, I can only sit still and examine these pieces again and again. Hope that something knits them together.

I’ve found no answers in this particular rumination.

I wrote. That’s all I can do sometimes. One word followed by another, like footsteps on a journey.

I suppose, in that, I’ve assembled at least some small figure from the pile of parts.

It’s something.

Going where? The Stagnation of Predictability

21 March, 2022

Two years ago today, I was moving into a new house and putting many of my belongings into an off-island storage space. Two years ago today, I stomped rage into every step I took up and down the stairs of my former home and my new home. Two years ago, for the first time in months, I breathed in a truly deep and relaxing breath after I shut the door behind me that night and sat in bed letting the silence and isolation flood the room completely.

I spent a lot of nights in that little house on Thunder Road, feeling that same level of peace. I spent a lot of nights there staring at the ceiling and worrying.

I’ve said it here; I get anxious being in one place too long these days.

I leave this place tomorrow and move east. I had intended to be in the new spot about a month. I erred and didn’t get my reservations soon enough and can’t be there for more than a few days. I’ll go north for a while instead and that may upset some plans for others. I’m not happy with myself for the error.

I wonder, however, if I didn’t sabotage myself subconsciously. I wonder if I didn’t know my dawdling would put me in this situation to a degree (though perhaps not this badly). The original plan to stay a month was weighing on me the more I thought about it. It felt as stifling as that house I had shared with my ex-husband. I could see myself stuck. When you say you’re going to rent a space for a month, you pay for a month. You stay. A month in one spot makes me just a little nuts. I’m finding two weeks in most of these places to be pushing my limits. I’ve been in this current park since March 10th (eleven days) and I’m getting antsy and uncomfortable. I don’t know how to fully convey the feeling. It is a bit like being at a party to which you weren’t invited; it’s pleasant but you know you don’t belong. That feeling has nothing to do with the people around me; I’ve experienced this same sensation in a nearly deserted park.

A lake in central Georgia

I was speaking to a friend about relationships and loneliness and he said, “You’ll find someone whenever you stay put for a while.” (paraphrasing because—beer) I didn’t argue. I didn’t agree. The discussion moved on to other things.

However—

I wanted to say, “Well, that is exactly why I don’t want to stay put.”

I wanted to say, “My heart is tangled up right now. I don’t need to incorporate more threads.”

I wanted to say, “I want to come home.”

I am growing homesick, but I know it is not because I actually miss my house or the beach or the birds or the people I barely knew.

I am growing homesick because home was predictable.

Home was always going to be the ex down the street and occasional run-ins with his family. It was always going to be worthwhile but low-paying work that didn’t demand much of me mentally but often much of me physically and sometimes emotionally. It was always going to be that one guy who floated in and out of my life like a Portuguese Man-of-War. It was always going to be pretending to be nice to the ex when the grands came to visit even though every interaction was distressful for both of us. It was always going to be me giving time to the rescues (that I adored) and getting nothing in return except more wear and tear on my truck and loss of funds.

It was always going to be.

It was always going to be really good seafood and beautiful sunrises and gorgeous storms and mesmerizing foghorns and pelicans in huge squadrons flying up and down the beach ahead of a front.

Predictable is safe. Predictable is calming. Predictable makes other decisions easier. Predictable was all I’d known for twenty-nine years.

Predictable allows (even encourages) you to give up on your careers (yes, both) and then regret it the rest of your life because you have lost your skills. Predictable makes you bend to another’s will instead of standing up for yourself and saying, “I deserve the respect of personal autonomy!” Predictable leaves you in a marriage at least eight years longer than you should have stayed. Predictable keeps you in family dynamics that hurt.

Perhaps I am scared of lighting in any one spot for all of these reasons. Perhaps I fear that I will once again have my autonomy subsumed by the comfort of predictability. Even my friend floats in and out on his own whims such that I can’t assign much predictability to him and that feels oddly safe to me.

When I was married, I knew I’d be married until my death. I knew I’d die at a fairly ripe age and probably some time after my spouse. I knew I’d die in or about the home we shared. I knew all this because that is what the predictable day-to-day existence made me believe. Nothing ever changes when the person you are with and the person you have become both conspire to keep things predictable indefinitely.

I feel, every day, the unpredictability of my life now. I awaken not knowing if I will find the strength to go on, if I will find work that allows me to stay with Sam who is getting more and more dependent on me, if I will just have to run out of my savings and be done, if I will choose to shorten my stay in my current spot or lose the money and just pick up and go boondocking, if I will have a car wreck on the highway, if Blanche will have a blowout, if I will get COVID-19 and become too sick to travel and have to talk my hosts into some kind of act of kindness, if a tornado will blow through and upend all of us, or if I will simply have a stroke or myocardial infarct and die quietly inside Blanche to be found when my campsite is supposed to be taken by someone else. None of this is known.

I could be bothered by that and, in my former marriage, no doubt I would have been. I was taught to be bothered by such.

But predictable literally almost killed me in October of 2019. If unpredictable kills me by virtue of accident or ill health, then at least it did so while I was doing something with my life rather than sitting in a house waiting to die. I cannot imagine ever going back to predictable. I cannot imagine, ever again, being someone’s belonging that waits to be put in storage.

Abandoning Attachment: Ghost Trees and the Unattainable.

I have tried repeatedly to capture the unique texture, dimension, and outright ghostliness of the cypresses here in Louisiana. I’m sure a better photographer could come closer to doing so. Perhaps a video in the golden hour would be more effective. Perhaps a special lens would do them justice. I wasn’t prepared creatively or technically for the almost otherworldly nature of these trees: especially those hanging skirts several feet above the earth, no water hugging their roots.

Is there anything more beautiful than the unattainable? The sunset no cameras can capture. The mountain dimensions no words can accurately express. The softness and deceptive strength of an infant’s hands. The love we are certain will set us free.

All these fleeting moments and things that are beautiful by their very impermanent nature, we desperately want to cling to as if they are the mountains themselves.

Sunsets fade in seconds, not minutes. My camera can prove that. Mountains erode, though not so much in our lifetime, certainly in our mind’s eye after we drive away. Our little ones grow up (in a perfect world) to become better adults than we are (if we do it right). And love? Love, even if real, can be chipped away at by harsh words and actions or is simply, achingly lost to time.

Louisiana Cypress Trees at Golden Hour

I believe there are people I will always love, despite not being loved by them as I love them. In time, might they have freed me? Let me be me and still swing joyously in their orbit? Certainly, they made no rules and pushed no boundaries.

How long does that last? How long before the love I feel now would wither in the day-to-day grind of stress and expectations.

I see some in my circle of family and friends who seem to balance the conflict with the respect and I see autonomy given easily between them. But, life is ephemeral and I see the grief of the lost as well. Loss of a spouse to illness or accident brings an entirely different sort of spiritual effacement.

This soulmate concept, this “love will set me free” sentiment – why do we clamor for it so feverishly only to be beaten down again and again?

I have set in my head that, at this age, it is easier to live in the pain of a love I can’t have than to ever explore or wait for a love that will only be taken from me again. Easier to recall his voice and mossy eyes and smile and miss those things rather than to look forward to being “set free” by someone who will only chain me again with one sort of demand or another.

Easier for me to take photos of sunsets and trees and mountains.

I realized in typing those last words that when I told him I was going on the road not because of him but for myriad other reasons, I inadvertently lied. However, it’s not so simple as, “I’m running away from this because it’s too painful.”

It comes down to this; on the road, I can’t stand still. I can’t form strong attachments because each exchange is fleeting. That is what I want. Being alone is necessary for me to heal after the demises of a twenty-nine year marriage and a brief romance.

When I drive away from here, I’ll feel, as I do each time I move on, a slight misgiving as if I’m forgetting something. I’ll check and double check all the connections, scan the site for belongings, and search my pockets for bits and pieces. And, I’ll feel that smallest of tugs to go back to Texas, to what-ifs.

I’ll wish I’d somehow captured those damn trees. They’ll be there when I come back through, but they’ll never be quite real to me as long as I can’t record them accurately.

Like Louisiana cypresses, love also will never be quite real to me.

Cypress Roots in Sepia

Boondocking in Texas: The Davis Mountains & Accepting Fate

Most trees in the Davis Mountains are stunted —low to the ground as if cowering from the sunlight. Mesquite, evergreen sumac, cholla, and pinyon juniper — all scattered yet multitudinous. I can imagine their careful root systems through the hard sandy soil, inching through time until they run into their neighbors’ roots, whereupon these thirsty tentacles shrink back in deference but—only so far.

There are exceptions, oak, madrone, ponderosa pine have all found footholds in this ancient, weather beaten, volcanic landscape.

Most of these plants keep some kind of winter foliage as if survival here means never giving the parched land (approx. 16.5” precipitation annually) a chance to get the upper hand.

It’s here I have found myself in utter darkness on a January night, curled up inside Blanche, truly “boondocking” for the first time. I have heard one vehicle pass us since we parked six hours prior. It’s 11 pm and in the dark with my propane heater cycling, Sammy snoring, no Internet, not even a signal to inform loved ones that I am safe and comfortable, I have finally reached emotional equilibrium.

My phone informs me it is “wind down” time and for a split second, I think that means the wind is down so I can relax. Of course, that’s a long “i” and it is telling me I need to prepare to sleep if I want to awaken at 6:00 bright and alert.

The wind is blessedly calm here in this canyon. Because it is winter, there’s simply no sound at all. No crickets or katydids. No amorous coyotes. We passed javelina and deer on the way into the canyon but they have surely bedded down against the cold night as well. I have no idea how cold this night will be. I don’t retain information like that anymore. I looked at numerous forecasts for several towns. It’s either in the 30s or freezing. Boondocking below freezing isn’t ideal. I need to run the heater even if I don’t want to use too much propane. I know my other tank is full but I also know if I have to get to it, I will be fighting with it in the cold in complete darkness. There are no street lights here and there is no moon. The stars are brilliant but the cold keeps me at bay.

This was my plan: boondocking, that is. The isolation of the spot? Not so much. I couldn’t tell much on the app about the location. I got a late start so going farther to see if a better rest stop lay ahead is unrealistic. We arrived here moments before the southwestern sky turned deep orange and crimson and I settled for Blanche on a nose-down slope and no other humans for miles.

I didn’t cry.

It was a close call though. When I realized the cell signal I had just moments before I rolled around the bend and downhill was now nonexistent, my gut began to lurch. I worried I was going to revisit the unpleasant chicken sandwich I had half consumed back in Van Horn.

We are naturally and necessarily afraid of the dark. It’s not a silly childhood fear although many a modern-day, light-at-your-fingertips parent chastises their child as such. Fear of the dark is hard-wired in us. We have to learn to not be afraid of it through parental reassurance and other social conditioning. A healthy respect for the danger of it remains within as we walk dark streets and dark woods and venture into dark houses and basements. It is utterly rational to be afraid or anxious of these unlit places.

So when I accepted our fate at this “Depression era rest area” in blooming nowhere, it was still light out and I was fine. Not happy. Not comfortable. Not scared.

When night fell early as it does in winter, and I had only my most basic resources (but thank the universe for this new phone with its excellent battery) THAT is when I became unsettled. That is when my reptilian brain reminded me that humans get eaten by bears and gored by angry javelina moms and what if someone said this was a safe overnight parking place on the app just so unsuspecting nitwits like me would park and be vulnerable without her cell reception?

The perfectly rational fear of the dark became irrational.

I crawled under the covers with dog, got the urge to snack to ease my discomfort, and began to think of other options. I could pack Sammy and me back in the truck, throw the chocks back in Blanche and lift the tongue jack and head back out. Go back toward I-10 and hope I found something before dawn. Or head on to Fort Davis and look for a better spot there or even see if they had available spots at the pricey RV place in town.

Or just stay. My maps didn’t work without a signal so I couldn’t be sure what I was heading into either way nor how long it would take.

I stayed.

I sat in the dark, missing humans, well, a human. I wanted to text anyone really, or call some presence out there in the ether for reassurance that if worst came to worst, they’d come get me and take care of me. But I hadn’t even been specific with my brother about where I was going to stay the night so all he knew was that I was heading for the Fort Davis, TX or Marfa, TX.

Then the oddest thought struck me and it will sound negative or even cruel but isn’t meant to be: My biggest fear in this moment is, have I put myself in danger?

Rather than answer that directly, I answered with a hypothetical. So what if this is my last night on this earth?

So what?

Disregarding for a moment that the loss would hurt others, it ultimately means nothing to me. I will simply be gone. I have done, in the last few months, things I never expected to do when I was still married: Published poetry online & in print, had a lover, fallen in love, lived alone in a house, lived alone in a camper, traveled across Texas alone pulling said camper, made my own repairs to said camper, and finally, boondocked in the middle of an ancient cluster of hills and mountains near the U.S.-Mexico border with just the dog, a propane heater, and some nice memories.

There was a time when I would tell you that though I didn’t fear my death, I did care that I hadn’t done the things I wanted to do in my life and I regretted that. I didn’t care about my life, nonetheless. Recently, that’s been turning around and I care about my life in that I want to make the most of these last years, however many there are of them. I would tell you now that I don’t fear my death AND I don’t feel I must accomplish anything in particular before I die. Would I like to do so? Sure. I simply no longer have that fear of a wasted life. I don’t expect to ever love again. I don’t expect to ever be particularly useful to society or produce anything of value. I am useful to my family and that’s enough.

In the morning I will drive away from this secluded little spot, assuming the chaotic universe allows. I had considered doubling back to I-10; go the safe route and make my journey back to Dallas and my grandbabies less exciting but safer.

I think, if my phone tells me I have the fuel, I will go to Fort Davis instead. Take the long way home as I had intended when I packed my truck last night when I had street lights and electricity that gave me courage. When cottonwood and elm were bright and airy and reaching tall into the winter sky because they had the Rio Grande seep feeding their roots.

Tomorrow I’ll put faith in the crouching trees and dark, narrow rivers of blacktop, set my phone to “shuffle” and sing my way east.

https://vm.tiktok.com/TTPdMSAhvn/

Afscheidswals

Excerpt from a work-in-progress on this National Mutt day for my most beautiful mutt.

April 2019

I hear, tonight, no distant thud-drone of a beach goer’s car stereo.

No shore break. No train.

Seagulls sleep silent in the spring cool.

Your breathing, ended forever, opens a gulf of aching peace.

I want my disturbed sleep back—my dreams punctuated with mumbling monsters that sounded oddly like wet, canine snores. I miss 4 a.m. earthquakes as you threw yourself against the bed to wake me for urgent backyard trips. I want to trip over the dark hulk of you lying curled on the floor next to my bed, your musk gathering on my heaped winter clothes.

It’s a fact that only you can truly fill this dearth of dog. Your grumbling groans. Your dreamy sighs. Your shifts and turns and the tick shish tick shish of claws on tired old limbs as you shuffled to your bowl in the early morning dark for a sloppy drink from crockery.

It’s a fact that though there will be another furred friend, loved, adored even—you are a piece of my soul like no other. There is no Big-Dog shaped peg left in this universe. You were the one and only. I waltz over a shadow in the dark—your pillow, so dense with you—and moments later return and spin, sink into my covers, embrace the silence—and sleep.

Art & Grief: Finding the Perfection in the Imperfect

biscornu1_2

What is that odd-looking, white object in the picture? What does it have to do with grief or art? What have grief and art to do with each other and why am I writing (struggling to write) this at this moment?

That object is a biscornu which, if I recall correctly, is French for “quirky.” These objects at this size are mostly used as pin cushions and the one in my photo is indeed a pincushion made using traditional Norwegian Hardanger embroidery techniques (as opposed to modern techniques).

As to what it has to do with art and grief:

A few months ago, I struggled with my writing process and wrote about it here. You can see in some truly helpful comments that it was suggested that I exercise my creative mind through other art forms. I thought this an excellent idea although I am the furthest thing from creative in any other way other than writing. I can’t draw a straight line, I failed miserably at the various doodle crafts, and I have long since given away my sculpting supplies because I would have to invest in learning how to do it rather than winging it. I do, however, love to do Hardanger embroidery. I thought I could perhaps design my own.

I can’t. So, I gave up.

2018 waned and my writing continued to stutter like a lawn mower in overgrown St. Augustine. The holidays arrived along with the U.S. government furlough including much time for my husband and I to spend together. I decided to try “new to me” traditional Hardanger as a creative endeavor and to make a Christmas gift for someone, the above biscornu.

Through all of this, the Big Blind Dog was lumbering through his days and nights, taking his medications dutifully, eating heartily, begging for scraps always, peeing the Niagara (diuretics), and growing that snore-and-sniffle inducing lump on his cheek without complaint. He and I sat on our couch together, tv on and spewing the horrors of Investigation Discovery or tv off and only the Gulf waves in our heads. Occasionally my husband left his cave, poured a soda, gave the old gray snoot a pat and a biscuit, gave me a kiss, and wandered back into his hideaway.

I stitched.

I stitched and the dog snored and life was sweet and warm. I finished the biscornu and in all those stitches and waves and snoring came words for the page and these pleasant, if bittersweet, blog entries here and here. Writing was a thing again.

Then I looked at the biscornu and really saw it. I’d failed. While it was pretty, it was wrong. Something I’d planned from the beginning that could not be undone was a major flaw within it. Others couldn’t really see the flaw but I knew it was there. It ate at me.

Finally, rather than wrap it with other Christmas gifts, I decided I would keep it. Better to make a better gift for that person later—something not so obviously flawed, even if only to my eyes. I left it on my desk with a mix of sadness and disgust.

We packed up and went to see family out of town and had a perfectly nice visit.

And on the morning we were to return home, we awoke in our usual hotel room and our beautiful, sweet, old Big Dog with his one great flaw, his useless eyes, had left us.

Somewhere in his dreams, he decided he’d had enough of being lifted and guided and medicated and diapered. Somewhere in his sleep he’d decided those last pets from family, the last sniffs of our granddog, the last bites of Woody’s barbeque beef, and his favorite dog biscuits were a good note to end on.

So it goes.

Twelve and a half of his thirteen years.

And a five-hour drive of tears and emptiness and silence.

And furtive momentary pats to the still form in the back seat as if he would miraculously come back to us.

When we arrived home that evening and I walked into our office, there was the biscornu, that silly, imperfect thing, and I realized why the Universe had me keep it. Nothing at all to do with its imperfection—an imperfection I no longer see—and everything to do with the fact that it is a symbol of those long luxurious days next to him, his paws pressed against me. Of those last few days when he’d taken to lying with his head on my leg as he had when he was younger, as if he was trying to tell me goodbye. I wondered then, but had chosen not to be certain.

I am grateful for that time.

I am grateful for that quirky object I kept that had a major flaw, like the flaw of the Big Dog’s blindness. Flaws that are visible but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Now, the biscornu is perfect in that it reminds me of him. He was perfect in his love.

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Our Beautiful Yao Ming. Big Dog. Boo Boo. Young and happy.

Remembering Dad

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Dad at Lemon Reservoir circa 1982.

My dad, my favorite amateur (as in, non-professional) grammarian, died last week at the age of eighty-six. Dad could, in one breath, chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition and quote Winston Churchill’s famous comment on pedantry. From my father, I learned both the love of language and the frustration of perfectionism.

 

As a child, I imagined myself to be more like my father than like my mother. After all, I had his big, dark eyes, his patrician nose, and sturdy, rectangular German face. I saw him as analytical, brilliant, and in his silence which I reflected much of the time, distant. He was affectionate and protective with me, but he was a man in his own head more often than not, a trait he passed on to his children.

Although Dad was always in thought, that didn’t prevent him from holding me next to him while he watched the BBC or Cronkite then later carrying me to my room and tucking me into bed. He was no “sit down to a play tea party” dad, nor did I want that, as I was the child that stayed in my room and listened to my 45s and read books or played alone most happily.

In my teens, this kind of arms-length parenting continued but I never felt unloved. I admired him and wanted all the more to be like him. I was going to be a scientist like him (with writing on the side). I was going to do it all right. I was going to make him proud of me.

You can see where that’s going, right?

I got pregnant (magic!) at eighteen and Dad and Momma were none too happy, but they gritted their teeth and we all got through it. On the other side of the turmoil was an amazing little girl with whom he immediately fell in love. (Look dad! No preposition.)

The shift in him, from man in his head to the man interacting with the world was subtle but visible. After my first husband and daughter and I moved home for a short time to get on our feet, Dad and Momma developed a strong bond with their first granddaughter and Dad softened. On one occasion, my older brother dropped by for a visit. Dad stood up, strode to my brother, greeted and hugged him for the first time in possibly years. My brother and mother stood with mouths agape.

Later, when I remarried, he not only accepted but loved and respected my second husband. In the long run, he respected my late-gained degree and would ask me biology and medical questions.

Another expansion of his awareness occurred years later, when my niece’s son was born and survived a harrowing birth. I spoke to him not long after. With a trembling voice, this longtime avowed agnostic told me, “someone or something kept [his great grandson] with us.”

Daddy spent sixty-four years with his one great love. After Momma died, he shuffled around the nursing home where the two of them had shared a room for some time. He died a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Momma’s death.

Over the years, I have evolved to be more like my mother in many ways, both emotionally and physically: more chatty, more approachable, more padded around the middle. Yet I carry much of my father’s skepticism and contrariness with me. Over the years, Dad had evolved in many ways but toward the end he retreated, understandably, back into his own head where, I imagine, he and his wife were whole and happy again. When I spoke to him last he said, uncharacteristically for that curmudgeonly old grammarian, “I love love you completely.” I knew what he was telling me. That he was probably saying goodbye for the last time. I just thought he was mistaken.

I love love you completely, Dad. I will miss you always.

Emergency Salads, Tornadoes, and Permanent Cow Fixtures

As I drove to the store on December 30th, a woman in a fancy pickup (oxymoron on wheels) rode my bumper despite the fact that I was exceeding the speed limit by several mph. She passed me as soon as she saw the smallest gap, got one car ahead, and pulled into the same parking lot I pulled into seconds later. I daydreamed of asking her, as she picked through the produce section, if she had an emergency salad to get to. In my part of the world, however, such smart alek words can get you shot. I don’t say that lightly.

I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to rush anywhere the rest of the day. I’ve never believed that there was any place I needed to go that was worth risking my life or someone else’s though I get impatient, too. The passage of time has weighed on me lately, but time on my mind doesn’t mean time to kill or be killed.

It’s true, the way we mark time is largely a human construct: days, weeks, hours, minutes. But months, seasons, lifetimes: Nature has foisted those on us. Since my mother’s death, the passage of days has been, well, a daily thought. An internal battle, even. It began during our time together in a tiny nursing home room those few days before she died.

We had some sweet, gentle moments: laughter, bad puns, a lot of hand holding. I’ve always been amazed by my mother’s hands. No matter the weather, the wrinkles, the dish loads, her hands were like the finest, lightest silk. Now they are ash and it is hard for me to grasp that. I sigh—she would have chuckled at that unintended pun. It’s what we do as a family: make bad jokes. It’s part of what makes us such a close family.

There were moments during which I allowed myself unpleasant thoughts. Cynical, I suppose. “Is this all there is? What did she get for all she did for us?” thoughts. Of course, that’s the angry view, the grieving view of the end. I had been grieving for much longer than the many months Momma had been suffering from dementia and a bad fall. I’d been grieving since she left Texas some seventeen years prior. I knew there was much more—more joy, adventure, choice—to her life than I was allowing. But in grief, those things look small while the hurts loom like dragons and disease. Thankfully, those thoughts were brief and mostly I reveled in my precious time with her.

I admit I’ve nursed those hurts all year. A digit change won’t fix that but perhaps Christmas Eve at Munger Place Church  and time with my daughter and her family has planted a seed.

I struggle with faith daily. Again, I don’t say that lightly. Each prayer, even “grace” before a meal, is an argument with this “creator” some people call God. At the same time, I can’t free myself form my belief that some sort of divinity has had major influences on my life that coincidence can’t explain.

Christmas Eve service at Munger was, no surprise, beautiful. Kate Miner’s love for her God poured out of her with each performance and I used up all my tissues dabbing my eyes. I know I seek that moment when in “O Holy Night” I will “fall on [my] knees, o hear the angels’ voices” and it was at this point in the service that I felt a weight lifted from me after almost a year of anger. Not because a divine presence came upon me. Not because I was suddenly healed. There was nothing magical there (except Kate’s voice). Instead, I realized I cannot stand up and be who and what I need to be without first kneeling and being humble to what I have been given. I must work with what the universe/life/God gives me rather than argue with those gifts, even when those gifts seem like curses.

What cemented this feeling was the remainder of the visit with my daughter and her family. After the service, we drove around to look at Christmas lights in the more affluent Dallas neighborhoods. In front of one house was a life-size, longhorn steer sculpture decked with holiday finery. Someone said, “I wonder where they store that in the off season.” My daughter said, “I think that’s a permanent cow fixture.”

It struck me as funny. Okay, adorable. At 32 years old, she’s still adorable. She’s always been beautiful and gentle like her grandmother. Time with her is so precious and like the rest of her family, she has the sharp and dark humor that binds us. I love every minute with her.

Two days later, December 26th, a horrific storm system struck the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We huddled in my daughter’s house where we lost power and listened to the tornado siren. Two major tornadoes struck and lives were lost while we had only some wind and scary lightning. Eventually, the power came back on, our adrenaline tapered, sadness set in, and we went to bed.

On the 28th, my husband and I returned to the bayou and a couple of days later, my daughter sent me a picture of the steer.

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I thought it rather sad—frippery and wealth completely unscathed while there was so much destruction in a small town of apartments, trailers, and tract homes not too many miles away. The events of this Christmas came as yet another reminder of the very lack of permanence, the randomness, the brevity, fragility, humor, unfairness, beauty, and preciousness of life.

Fall on your knees.

Here’s a link if you feel inclined to help the folks in North Texas: How to help.