saying goodbye

Today we will road trip across a chunk of Texas to a little place called Bracketville. From from we’ll take side roads and some single track dirt road to a rocky, dry, desert ranch owned by some of our cousins. Slashed through by a river that always runs cold, the sun-blasted rocky desert landscape is harsh and unwelcoming. Dozens of years ago, scrappy goats disappeared into outcroppings of rocks scattered high on the property. They were found happily resting under a scraggy tree and just inside a human-size geode the tree roots clung to- a blister of crystals, pocket of cool. Bones from people walking up from Mexico, through a desert that draws every ounce of water from your body, prove not all are as fortunate as those scrappy goats. Other walkers have found the small house on the property, with its box of old shoes, socks, water, and pop-top cans of food put out to help the migrants and dissuade desperate break-ins driven by a human desire to survive. It’s a beautiful and raw place that strips its visitors of any pretense. The perfect reflection for the men who own it and their sister we are going there to say good-bye to.

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I learned she was gone by a 7am text from my mother, “Got call from her godmother, Jenner was hit by at car at 3am. Died instantly.” 

In death, it seems, we always find something good to say about those who have passed even if they were someone who always got under your skin or may have been just plain mean. With her, it’s the opposite. I can’t find anything negative to say- unless being too selfless is a bad trait. Now she is gone, suddenly, completely voided from the life she were leading with her usual sass and fullness. We always promised to spend more time together, but there was never enough. When we did get together it seemed we were forever setting up boots for her to sale or making food for people to share.

Her life was filled with complicated relationships and circumstances. It was loud and big and there were always so many people that I couldn’t keep track. As I watched from the shadows, her life made me smile, made me want to be bigger than myself. When I learned of her death the world stood still and then continued to roll. It’s been almost a month. We weren’t that close, so the grief is not the constant you live next to when someone very close dies, but it hits in strange ways.

There’s picture of us as kids that hangs on my kitchen wall. It’s faded with age. Taken in 1982, we are all so young and free of thoughts greater than when can we be back in the pool. We are wearing swimsuits- baggy from a season of use. Her mom is looking glamorous with blonde hair messily piled atop her head, oversized glasses reflecting the photographer, an arm draped around her strong, tan body- already a great swimmer at 12. I am a mess, sitting half-off my mom’s lap with my sister in front of me. We both have home haircuts and look like ragamuffins. My mom looks happy as she leans in toward her mom. Our grandmother is at the end of this pile of family looking very proud. No one knew what was coming for any of us. Things weren’t easy, but they were simple and that made life sweet.

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I get off the phone with my aunt. We’ve finalized our plans for getting to her memorial service. We’ve decided to stay at a place not too far from her brothers’ ranch. Her ashes will be spread on the bank of that cold river that somehow never runs dry under the hot desert sun. I created my calendar request to take the Friday off before the memorial, but couldn’t click the Create Event button. Tears began streaming down my face. A simple calendar update brought the reality home.

She is gone.

mug stability- a metaphor

I have a big, blue, flat bottomed mug emblazoned with a tie wearing flamingo. “Awkward as flock,” reads the multi-colored text around the flamingo. My daughter bought it for me. I felt seen.

It’s a bit wider at the base than top so won’t tip over no matter how awkwardly I sit it down. Even when I balance it amongst the shambles of sheets, to drink coffee from, while I write in bed, I can trust it to be stable. I have another, similarly solid mug. It was made by a friend of a friend whose name I’ve forgotten, but every time I see the mug’s Cookie Monster eyes and rough blue finish I am returned to the day we met. Both of these mugs are, frankly, quite ugly. But they are solid and stable and recently got me to thinking about the realities of shiny versus stable.

Stability and strength is rarely shiny. Stability is not sexy on the surface- it is not a pretty package with an easy answer. It is gained through hardships and buckling down. It arrives at the end of mistakes and scars taken by embracing the shiny- believing there can be an easy road in life. Shiny is fleeting and fragile. True power is in the faded and worn that can only be arrived at after a long road. Stability and strength- that power that can’t be tipped over- is beautiful because of what it has lost which is actually everything gained.

Minimalist Travel With Joan Didion

I love to travel. Everything about travel makes me happy, even airports (TSA not so much) aren’t so bad because they all hold the job of presenting the first look at their town. While it is rarely a glorious presentation, rather the rough around the edges in fact, as if to say, “This is a little of us, but it’s the airport so we’re kinda the dogs who’ve been kicked away, but loyal to you when you arrive because that’s all we know how to do.” Austin, Texas has musicians playing in the airport. JFK just never seems to ends and is a poster cacophony to the joys of The Empire State. Charlotte, North Carolina has her high back chairs inviting you to sit a bit through a layover. Portland, Oregon still keeps a bit of old carpet, but all the new is reaching out to welcome you.

Then there is the actual travel of travel. I love getting a seat toward the back of the plane- but not over the wing- so I can watch the ground crew prep our metal bird for the stretch across the sky. I’ve always loved it, but after spending time as ground crew in the Navy, it brings a whole new joy and connection. I know the feel of the metal under gloves as panels are opened and closed. The fuel nozzle being locked into place. The static through headphones during the simple exchange between ground crew and pilot to check the flaps, slats, rudder and other essentials. Then the greatest part happens. The place is pushed away from the terminal and begins to taxi. Soon, it will be taking off, there is the thundering rolls of wheels speeding against tarmac until enough air pressure builds that the split second explodes and the plane slips its surly bonds of gravity. That is pure joy.

In planning for a trip, there’s a great deal of not planning that makes travel so necessary for my well being. A place is chosen or assigned and I explore it a little bit online, but ultimately I like to go in not knowing a whole lot of the present day. I’ll research history and perhaps some regional politics, but I seek the visceral surprise of the real place presented to fresh senses. I need to explore and uncover without a filter of google search or expectations. I want to find out where conversations will take me and how people will answer questions about how to see their city. What will jump out and what will fade away?

The one thing I used to hate about travel: packing. I am a minimalist, so packing should have been easy, but it was always stressful. I wanted to take as little as possible, yet be prepared for any opportunity that might cross my path. Then, a few years ago I discovered Joan Didion’s essays- yes, I was late to the game. In the volume White Album she wrote about how she traveled- more precisely how she packed- during her busiest years as a journalist in the 70s. Amongst the pages of this amazing tribute to the culture and societal upheaval of those changing times, she included her packing list. If you haven’t read it, I implore you to go and find this book- enjoy it. Savor it. See these United States of those years through her eyes. So much is different, yet so much remains the same. But in between all those important stories, consider taking a cue from her packing list. Her additional commentary is fantastic, but here’s the basic list:

To Pack and Wear:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown
robe
slippers
cigarettes
bourbon

Bag with:

shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap
razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

To Carry:

mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads
pens
files
house key

slow roads

I want to drive through the small Texas towns, stopping to capture all the shuttered railroad stops and drugstores. Finding grand old homes on dust burnt corners- walking the abandoned grounds to capture images of slender, wavy glass holding shadows of a long ago occupant. I want to capture beds of iris, once common, but now with roots so thick they are called heritage- their flowers no longer bloom, but given proper space would again shout with color. There will be ancient oaks groaning against the earth and finding support from abandoned metal roofs. White, maroon and pink crepe myrtles reaching raggedly toward the sun that beats their edges to a crisp, whilst flowers within the canopy still mist the memories held within the abandoned and shuttered past.

desert color

Flowers in a desert are not seen for years-
their exaggerated colors a faded memory.

In the wake of a raging storm-
flowers burst forth to fill a void
forgotten until it was full again.

choking

words sit in my mouth-
too many pieces of gum chewed til the flavor is nearly gone.
I can’t swallow the spit or blow a bubble- there has become too much to say.
the gum just sits.
words choking me- demanding to be set free.
in my mouth I feel I can not take anything back in, but will puke the emotion.
a geyser of bile that will no longer and never more be contained.

so so so many years that I could not speak my mind for every reason that was not mine but to keep another happy.
what would people think?
who would I make mad?
what if my words led to me losing my job?
don’t embarrass your child with so much emotion.
don’t make me look bad by telling your story.

and so the words and the stories and the song lust of my survival stayed in my brain-
my heart became heavy with confusion-
why would I no longer release its song?

but now, now the words are allowed to be free and the song bird’s cage is not just opened, but redefined as a home with windows swung wide and doors freed of their hinges.

1/13/2020

travel

I write a lengthy list of locations I want to travel to, but know they are only ports of call for purpose of identifying starting points of adventure and introspection. The particular places I truly want to see are the trails and coasts and perfect gems hidden below the sea-

The parrot fish nursery stumbled across when you decide to investigate coral columns on the edge of a hidden cove under the broad sky of a falling afternoon.

Moments never to be found in guidebooks, but that happen by reaching past your comfort and opening yourself to experience. The places people don’t go because it’s an extra day of travel or the campgrounds don’t have a website. Even with IGTV and YouTube tourist celebrities cracking the world open for all who are too timid to leap without someone else’s lead, I believe there are still places left untouched and those are the places for me.

I don’t want to share the names, but will tell the stories that require people of proper mind- should they want to find where I have been- to follow clues I leave. Roads less traveled do not always start from a divergence in a wood, but they do often lead to a quiet place and time to simply be. That experience- to simply be- is what truly makes the difference.

The world no longer feels still underfoot, but an ever undulating place of space and time with limits leveled only by our insecurities and fears. Reach out and find the places the quiet people know.

nature wins

I’ve seen some great videos of penguins being allowed to roam an aquarium that is shuttered because of COVID-19. Those penguins have gotten a taste of freedom. They won’t forget.

Elephants who broke free during China’s lockdown, found napping in a tea garden drunk on corn wine.

Dolphins visiting people on a dock in southern Italy and swans return to the canals of Venice.

Orangoutangs seen washing their hands, as it goes, they are outrageously good at washing their hands.

People have been forced to slow down and the natural world can breathe free in our pause. With that, we are witnessing the world that sits in the shadow of our world.

the time you don’t have

What can you do in the time that you say you don’t have?
What can you write?
What can you draw?
Where can you walk?
Who can you reach out to?
With all the time we spend scrolling our thumbs …
What could we be learning?
What could we be making?

What, simply, could we be asking of ourselves that instead we do not
even know we are seeking through all the places we won’t
remember each time we draw our finger across the screen?

Next time, next time you think, “I should go for a walk …” or “I should write something” or “I should ask invite so and so tho dinner,” don’t say, “But …” Don’t make an excuse, instead, open the door and move … pick up a pen and write … reach out to your friend and plan. Maybe it’s only 10 minutes or a wisp of the need to see someone, but it’s the onlies and just a bits that add up to the all.

This is your life, don’t stash yourself waiting for something better to show up because you are what you got.