Monthly Archives: November 2022

Thankful-Fors

The tiny plaque came from Suanne Atwood Schlotman. 

The folks gathered at last evening’s bonfire do not want their pictures drifting around the internet.  I have had this admonishment from others, and I try to honor such requests.  So I can’t show a panorama of the Thanksgiving lunch in our meadow or the circle around the firepit.  I leave that to your imagination.

Today my lungs protest the hour that I spent inhaling the smoke drifting skyward from the crackling flames.  I left before seven, knowing that the short sojourn would itself be enough to trigger a long-avoided asthma attack.  My eyes itch and my chest shudders. But I know these brief discomforts will pass, while the warm glow which I carried back to my house will linger.  I consider that I made a fair bargain.

Those neighbors will scatter to other corners today.  Some have families to whom they journey for the weekend, while others recede to their cozy abodes with partners, pets, or projects.  My list of tasks glares at me from the table, with three days in which to strike each job as I complete it.  Yesterday’s wind scattered the pleasant hours.  What lingers will not be as pleasant.

I do not join these parties with ease.  Decades of reinforcement left its mark; I assume no one wants to spend time with someone of my ilk.  I’m not pretty enough, not rich enough, not pleasant enough, not thin enough, not tall enough, not of the right political bent or religious inclination.  A tattoo of my failings stamped on my forehead broadcasts the shortcomings vetted by everyone who slammed the door in my face on their way to better offerings.  My stomach clenches as I prepare the dish of food that I fully expect to come home uneaten, and the wine that I don’t anticipate others will enjoy.  

But I went anyway.  I sat at a picnic table in the afternoon sun and chatted with people who know little about my life and have opinions regarding my character founded largely on first impressions.  I smile.  I laugh at their jokes and even  venture one or two of my own.  I answer a few direct questions, stretching for the precarious balance between honesty and unwelcome disclosure.  I bear in mind my son’s reaction when I asked him if a particular blog entry seemed too self-centered.  Mother, he sighed.  It’s a blog post.  You’re sending personal information to people who didn’t ask for it at a time when they don’t anticipate receiving it and won’t know what to do with it.  It’s self-centered by definition.

I bore his pronouncement in mind as I sat in the straight-backed chair that the neighbor behind whose house we picnicked last night kindly provided for me.  Someone asked me a question about my health and I started to give the whole story. My words faltered with the flicker that crossed her face.  I let my voice trail away.  The conversation turned to something more pleasant and I found myself finishing the sentence in my head.  Later, someone else asked about my book.  I tried to describe the blog from which its entries derived.  The blank look confirmed the failure of my effort.  Then I described this blog, which immediately resonated with everyone in earshot.  We talked about actions and accountability.  I described the unfortunate string of personal challenges which nearly cratered this endeavor and made a self-deprecating but truthful observation about why my quest continues unfulfilled.  They commiserated.

The conversation flowed to other subjects.  I felt as though I had made the most meaningful contribution possible, tacitly inviting everyone to share in my journey to joy.

When I got home, I made my evening tea and browsed through the day’s accumulation of unimportant email.  A few texts had arrived unnoticed while I sat in the company of my neighbors. I cheerfully responded.  The host at my holiday AirBnB had sent a message about check-in that eased my worries regarding access.   I sent a note of appreciation and confirmed the reservation.  Then I contemplated whether I needed more food as I browsed through social media.  Still later, I reflected on past Thanksgiving Days:  Rowdy times in my family of birth; pleasant evenings at my little household in Kansas City which sometimes saw 22 around the table for eight; and quirkier times , such as the Thanksgiving spent in a cabin in the Arkansas mountains, my first husband and I huddled around a wood-burning stove while a Cornish hen simmered in a cast-iron pot.  

My favorite seasonal ritual has to be hearing voices around the table reciting that for which they feel most thankful.  Yesterday’s lot said a quick collective prayer to the sky, to the meadow, to the trees, and to the happy coincidence of our communion.  I silently added my own “thankful-for”:  Of the many blessings for which I am humbly grateful, chief among them stands life — nothing less, nothing more.  I’m thankful for my continued existence because (to quote Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley) where there is life, there is room for improvement.

It’s the twenty-fifth day of the one-hundred and seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

 

Three Friends

I do not believe this story has ever been told.  Trigger warning:  This piece contains an account of suicidal ideation.

November 2014.  My life had shattered ten months earlier, and then the shards had slowly disintegrated.  My husband had left me.  My favorite curmudgeon had just died after an agonizing five months of lung cancer.  I could see everything to which I had clung vanishing into an abyss from which I knew I could never retrieve the remnants of a life that I never believed I deserved.

My days became a desperate regimen.  A handful of hours spent at work before surrendering to grief.  A trip to some coffee shop, where I would cry into my mug and the servers would pretend not to see me.  Sometimes they brought over refills or broken cookies from the counter display, which they would gently set next to my laptop.  A few would pat my shoulder before fleeing back to their stations.  Often, I would go to the public library and scrounge for books that I had not yet read into which I could escape during sleepless nights of anguish.

On one such evening, I decided that life held too much pain for me to continue living.  This marked my lowest hour.  As the survivor of a brother’s suicide, I had once vowed that I would never put my son or my remaining sibligns through the agony of regret that inevitably follows the irreversible act.  But on this night, with cold rain falling on my mother-in-law’s Prius which my husband had given me after his father’s death, I surrendered to my  despair.  

Here’s the thing:  Whether you believe in God, divine intervention, or the irony of the Universe’s control over you, sometimes you have to admit that life takes hold of your best and your worst intentions and shakes them like a rag doll.  Perhaps my favorite curmudgeon’s spirit still lingered on this earth.  But what happened next set a chain of events in motion that indisputably resulted in my continued existence.

I wept.  I sobbed.  And in a moment of rage, I pounded on the steering wheel.  I’m not certain, but I think my slammed fist pressed the button which connected the car’s computer to my cell phone.  The device redialed the last number, which happened to be Paula Kenyon-Vogt.  Unknowing, I cried into the emptiness, giving voice to my decision to drive that Prius into a bridge and put myself out of the misery which gripped me.

A few minutes later, knuckles wrapped on the glass of the driver’s window.  I froze.  I slowly turned, then lowered the glass.  Sheldon Vogt, Paula’s husband, stood in the darkness, sleet, and wind.  We stared at each other.  He spoke:  Paula says you can’t kill yourself and I should take you to dinner.

It seems that In my frenzy, I had lamented the irony of sitting in front of the public library trying to figure out a way to commit suicide.  Called by my phone without my realization, Paula heard my plans.  She had disconnected the call and summoned Sheldon to find me.  My guardian angel apparently needed assistance from one in human form.

Eight years have passed since Sheldon and I sat over a salad that I barely touched and did not taste.  He listened to my wretched lament, interjected a few calm reflections, and stayed with me until he made certain that I had abandoned my intentions.  Then he followed me to my house, got me inside, and gave me a hug from himself and Paula, who was on duty at her job but had been the sure instrument of my immediate salvation.

Two days ago, Paula and Sheldon drove from San Francisco to the California Delta to have dinner with me.  I had seen them earlier this year at my book release, but the knowledge that they took one evening of their five-day California vacation to see me speaks both to their virtue and the strength of our friendship.  Over dinner in Isleton, we brought each other current on our lives and those of our children and, in their case, the grandson who has always lived with them whose birth I well remember and whose smile shines from his grandparents’ faces.  A few hours later, they headed back to their hotel on the Bay.   I went home to my tiny house, the table of which Sheldon built and the stairs of which he designed. 

Their presence lingers here and will sustain me for a long time.  I know a lot of good people in the state to which I have moved.  But nothing says “home” quite like three friends who have been through thick-and-thin. sharing dinner and laughter on a November evening in the calm of their middle age.

It’s the nineteenth day of the one-hundred and seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Me, Paula, and Sheldon, outside of Manny’s Barzzeria in Isleton, California.

To see a new video of #MyTinyHouse and see the table that Sheldon made and the stairs which he designed, click HERE.

In which I briefly wonder where I belong

Years ago, after two years of living in a small town in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, I told myself that never again would I live in the country.  Though my first house sat at the base of the Boston Mountains in Winslow, just south of Fayetteville, I clawed my way back to a concrete world. Eventually, I brought my small son home to Kansas City, where I could feel the burn of exhaust in my lungs and idle over an Americano in a different coffee shop every weekend if I chose.

Three decades later, I’ve landed in another rural setting, with clean sweet air and coyotes crossing the levee roads as I travel home many evenings.  From time to time, I have to go to the city for medical appointments.  I shake my head and remind myself how much I loved that life, before fleeing eastward to the quiet of the Delta.  I take refuge in my little house on the banks of the San Joaquin.  The traffic jams out here consist of the occasional flock of sheep or a raised drawbridge.  As long as I time my commute to avoid the speeding tourists, I meet no greater challenge than the heavy trucks which take a detour through the backroads now and then.

But I admit that I feel smaller here.  I stop to gaze at a hawk and wonder just what kind of wingspan it has.   The bird seems huge.  I pull the focus on my cell phone and find its piercing gaze.  If I sat for a few more minutes, It would arch its body and beat the azure air with those powerful appendages.  I drive away before its survival instincts compel that flight.  I remind myself that no creature in a noisy vehicle disturbed my morning reflection.  Why should I be any more privileged, even for the pleasure of watching that majestic being ride the wind.

In the quiet of evening, I reflect on what I miss about the life that I left.  Friends, certainly; live music; art galleries.   Book stores.   Choices.     I look at my photographs of this morning’s hawk, and scroll through a few pages of Pacific sunset snapshots taken on a roadside layby in the Headlands.  I shake my head.  I am not of this splendid, untamed world, it’s true; but I can stand a few more moments in its glory.

It’s the tenth day of the one-hundred and seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

There are three images in this gallery.  Sometimes they take a bit long to load.

Season’s end

Someone asked me today if I shouldn’t consider moving back to Missouri.  I shook my head.  I don’t yearn for the cold, or the ice, or the daunting prospect of finding someone to come and fix the broken bits of the old house through which the cold fingers of winter creep after sunset.  Truth told:  I miss my friends, but I wouldn’t enjoy the political climate, the prospect of rebuilding the shambles of my life which had fallen into ruins in the years before I fled, or the brutal winter weather .  Now I live in a warmer climate with fewer ghosts and only the occasional, astonishing glaze of morning frost.

Still I mark the season’s change with all those comforting rituals that we build for ourselves.  I pull the bag of woolen clothing from beneath the bed.  The zipper catches and I ease its teeth around a bit of yarn that caught last springtime and left a tiny gap over the summer.  I shake my head and hope that moths have not slipped through the small passage and nestled in among my favorite sweaters and scarves.  

The woolen hats spill from the compressed depths of the storage sack.  I gently gather them and stand on the little bench that my father made me to arrange them on the hat rack from which I have already removed my summer headgear.   The heavy scarves slip into rings which dangle along the side of the front door.  A few of the jackets don’t fit me this year. I lay them aside; I’m sure to know someone who will want them.  Dresses make their way into the small cupboard.  Summer garments fall onto the floor, and eventually, find themselves stowed away in the plastic holder and pushed under the bed, where they will sleep until spring.

In the little sitting room, I unplug the fans and ease them onto the floor.  The windows have been open since May but now I close them against the sharp air.  We will soon see rain, and strong winds, and what passes for cold here.  I will have need of the shawls that I fold into a basket and the long-sleeved blouses which I ease over hangers.  I shake out my comforter and draw a woolen afghan over the bed.  

This week marks end of the fifth year since my house arrived here; in another month, my own arrival has its anniversary.  I stood outside today wondering if I need to have my home re-leveled or the tires filled.  The windows could stand a good cleaning.  Cobwebs cling to the roofline.  I can’t recall when I last replaced the water filter.  With the time change, I will check the batteries in the smoke alarm and the gauge on the fire extinguisher.  

The geese have already started to arrive, along with the Sandhill cranes, and the flocks of starlings which  gather on the long, sagging wires. Winter has come to the Delta.  I close the door against the chill when night falls.  In the morning, I watch the majestic formations rise from the fields and make their way to the marshes east of here where they will feed throughout the day.  Autumn yields to its colder cousin.  I cannot say that I do not feel another year older, and even more decrepit.  Certainly, the fullness of time presses itself against my eyelids when I lay my weary body down to sleep.  But I have survived another year of my tiny life.  That has to count for something.

It’s the fifth day of the one-hundred and seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The Boxer, by Paul SimonPerformed by Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, Madison Square Garden, 2009