A Day So Bright

It wasn’t a “day as usual”. It was a “day like no other”: fresh and new, evolving and inclusive, as every blessed day could be, given permission to flex and flow in the presence of souls open to connecting and taking away something familiar, yet fresh. Today was a day of being reminded everyone has stories, while being awakened to sources of creative energy, tapped into by common curiosities and a shared knowing.

I was reminded of sons, living thousands of miles away, whose latest collection of original songs went to press and social media as “So Bright for So Long”. Today was evidence enough for me to understand we are “star seeds” waking from slumber, regaining a sense of belonging in a vaster Universe, each with unique gifts to offer each other and the world. There was a new harmony bubbling to the surface, paying no attention to fear or apprehensions about its validity or worth. It was Authentic to a tee.

Day So Bright

A day when darkness had to flee

Beauty and kindness for all to see

Learning again to make work, play

Joyful to answer spontaneous ways

Receive in return a smile or nod

Hear others hum or singing along

To oldies but goodies, forever in time

Bringing back memories of yours and mine.

A day so light, all walked away

One step closer to a common array.

A day so bright, perhaps it will shine

Into tomorrows, just waiting to find.

Open Letter to a Soul Sister

Feb. 17, 2020

Pam,

I wish I could have been at your Celebration of Life gathering in person, but my recent relocation back to Kentucky, starting a new job, and trying to complete interior painting in an old house so I can finally unpack and be “at home” again has taken a concerted focus of my intentions and time.  Time—something I’ve lost track of when not obligated to a work schedule.  I’ve been indulging in silence and simplicity of walks with my dogs, finding contentment in prayer, enveloped by music and song, envisioning a new reality I’m trying to co-create.  It feels both selfish and essential to a core, lately.  Time is such a relative thing, and age seems to yield to a quickening of spirit.

          One early morning, late in January as I was sleeping, I heard three trains in passing.  The first barely whispered its “whoosh”, the second blew its horn two short blasts, and the third breathed three long, enduring breaths before it faded somewhere in the distance.  (Train whistles have always signaled to me signs of relief and indicated major shifts of paradigms.) A few days later I woke at 3am and couldn’t sleep; the first thing I saw on my phone was Dwight’s posting that you were entering palliative care for pain management.  I was thankful you were allowing yourself some form of comfort to transition through your process, and I cried a little, but was able to go back to sleep after writing down memories of how your life had touched and indelibly impressed mine.

          From the first time I met you and Drue at Dulaney High School, as part of the gymnastics team, there was something grounded and inspirational about you.  Earthy, caring, earnest, but also with a sense of humor, you seemed to strive for a different kind of standard, based on character and how others were treated with fairness.  Then there were bicycle rides along Dulaney Valley Road and through the Loch Raven Reservoir corridor’s winding roads .  I loved the downhills especially— and to think we didn’t wear helmets or have fancy lights or reflective clothing as we free-wheeled with the wind in our hair, as it made our cheeks red!

          I watched and considered, as you and Drue ventured overseas on mission trips and to travel in Europe.  Once I visited Gordon Conwell while you were at Seminary, and though I was curious and searching for my own spiritual truths, I marveled that you seemed to press through when it all seemed so very serious and cumbersome to reach a goal you’d set for yourself.  Later when you traveled to India to teach I felt blessed to receive a letter and photos, occasionally, sharing some of your experiences there.

A part of me wanted to be like you, but for some reason I was finding my own expressions of faith in different ways, through movement, writing, and song.  Years later, on a visit to Maryland when you were visiting Drue, I would learn we all had “secretly” visited All Saints Convent in Catonsville, marveling at the card shop where artwork and calligraphy adorned cards we’d lovingly collected to bless others.

          Thank you for the invitations and provisions you extended to me so I could share my love of “embodied prayer” with other women during retreats.  Thank you for making time and space for me to stop and visit on more than one occasion when I was traveling cross country and pushed pause in Oklahoma.  There was always a surprise awaiting:  visiting a woman author, Susan Blake; visiting church members in their homes for Bible studies or to visit as they recovered from sickness or injury;  impromptu meals you always made feel like exclusive “dining in”; ;and not least of all the time Dwight said, “Please take Pam with you to Colorado….she needs a break from not working!”  Wow, now that was a crazy impromptu trip with two black lab mixed dogs, who loved every minute of it too, from Denver to Boulder to Estes Park, traveling through bear country with fresh Cherry Pies in the car!  I still remember seeing the look on your face when we saw a herd of Moose trekking through town near the Stanley Hotel, and another trotting down the sidewalk of a boutique shopping area where we were walking later in the day. “Yep, they were here before us, so might as well let em go by!’, was your attitude.   It was pretty humbling too, when we entered cougar territory on a trail we thought was a well-marked way, only to find the sign had been put at the wrong trailhead, so we decided to road-walk back to where we hoped to find your burgundy Highlander!  (Your sister Jackie, and brother Doug deserve all the praise for letting us crash in their digs for more than one night, as we tried to decide how to live without a hard and fast agenda for a few days!)  I remember watching you hike a trail passing groves of golden leaf Aspen, and looking at 14’ers from Vista Points off the road, and thinking:  This is where Pam’s belongs…in Nature among all its splendor.

          Then there was a more recent visit, when you invited me to join you and Dwight for dinner with a young Chinese couple working at the gym. Of course you were teaching the young woman and new wife more than English.  You were being an example of a caring individual who leaped over and beyond language and cultural barriers to endear her to you as a friend and confidant

Pam, you’ve never ceased to amaze and challenge me to think about being deliberate in thought and practical in application of  a personal faith, sometimes plagued by honest questions and doubts.  I’m reminded of a Carrie Newcomer song from her recent album “Point of Arrival” : 

“I’m learn’in to sit with not know’in, when I don’t see where it’s go’in;  I’ll cool my heels and start slow’in;  learn’in to sit with not know’in….”   (Carrie Newcomer song lyric)

There is also:  “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;  but then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 

(I. Corinthians 13:12)

Forever, for you, there has been a delight in learning and knowing and becoming as one born of a seed that remains authentic and unique, however you’ve grown.  I feel privileged to know we are somehow part of a kindred “tribe”, and I’m grateful to call you “Friend” and “Sister” in that Spiritual family.  Thank you for being an example of grace and dignity and unconditional love in a world that needs more ambassadors like you!

April 30, 2022

Post-script :  Little did we know that a month later in Mid-March 2020 our lives would change with the announcement of a world-wide Pandemic. A beast named “Covid” shut down our best laid plans, and your Memorial would be postponed twice because of it, until the spring of 2022. As I was driving to Boothbay Harbor, Maine —a place I know you would have loved— to live and work for a season, I found a quiet place to watch your Memorial at 1st Presbyterian in Norman, OK virtually.  No one was there with me but my faithful dog, Tilley, who heard me crying as I stroked her soft black fur and hugged her aging frame.  Your friends and family represented your life beautifully—but then, you had a birds-eye view.

Soul Sister Memorial

      Pam and her twin sister, Drue, were both gymnasts on our High School team.  There was something different about them in a good way.  Competition wasn’t their primary focus.  Being friendly and showing others kindness was what drew and ingratiated me to them. They were authentic, approachable, thoughtful, and positive in their life outlook. 

            During the time we all lived in Maryland, there were long cycling rides along Dulaney Valley Rd. and around Loch Raven Reservoir, concerts at Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore where Pam and Dwight married, and I had the privilege of dancing in their celebration of union to Amy Grant’s “Doubly Good to You” —a song chosen by Pam.

A couple of times, Pam invited me to introduce “Dance Worship” to women at retreats, hosted by the church she helped pastor.  We shared a deep understanding of the scripture: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)

Over four decades of friendship, Pam was a soul-sister and blessing from a Creator we couldn’t deny.  No matter how many miles or life experiences seperated us, there was a recognition of something core to who we were and wanted to become in this life that sealed our friendship like a signet ring’s impression. Pam chose a more traditional Segway into ministry, while I’d chosen the life of being a full-time Mom, serving in supportive roles.  Pam composed sermons based on life and challenges of conscience within the context of Christianity.  I wrote about whatever inspired and moved me, along a path of trial and error.  We’d exchange writings, and comment on each other’s thought processes, after careful considerations.  (Of course, Dwight was in the editorial mix too, by the time they’d moved to Oklahoma!)  Both were trusted commentators and loving critics!

I’d like to share a few pictures from the archives of an impromptu Sept. 2015 adventure at a pivotal time in both of our lives.  I’d been “making it up one day at a time”, after some major life setbacks prompted the first of several cross-country drives; and in the aftermath of Pam’s life-mission suddenly being called into question by external voices, our paths crossing that fall was no mistake. 

I remember Dwight whispering to me: “Take our SUV and GO somewhere on a hike with her for a few days, please!”  I still can’t get Pam’s comment and question at that juncture out of my mind: “You’re so free-spirited!  How do you do it? It’s been a while since I’ve been this spontaneous!” It was a healing journey for us both.

         I’d travel through Norman again, after Pam’s diagnosis. She was matter-of-fact about her prospects, masterfully blending the art of living with what some have no time or forethought to prepare.  Like many others who loved Pam, I followed her posts on Caring Bridges and yielded to her call toward more deliberate living.  Few people have influenced my life in unseen ways like Pam.  Her life was her testament.

Karen Weber

4/24/22

 Pam,

Whatever balcony you’re watching from….an open door has called me north for a season.   I can hear your voice saying: “Go! Enjoy! Be a Light!”  I know, you know our life’s missions aren’t always understood or appreciated by others.  Thanks for staying in the cheering section, as others are also celebrating your enduring legacy!

 Monarch Moments

            The last Sunday in February had been an emotional roller-coaster.  Disclosures on the domestic front had led to unanticipated challenges, and news on the international stage of Russian aggressions on Ukrainians added to a deepening sense of loss. Increased helicopter and fighter jet activity originating at the military base, near my Mom’s house in Florida, was unsettling in the southeastern coastal city where I was already weary of being.  Sound sleep was a deprivation point beginning to effect waking hours of trying to do much of anything beyond the basics.

            It was a gift when an unfinished dream found me close-eyed in bed the next morning, not wanting to wake up because it held an elusive promise I wanted to follow to its conclusion.  I’d turned over and face-planted in a pillow to deny the intrusive sunlight piercing through the east window’s vertical blinds. A soft knock at the bedroom door made me wonder if a family member was needing assistance, but my Mother in the adjacent room could be heard snoring in my now half-awake state. Who else might it be?  I wasn’t even curious enough to get up and see, except a soft, wet nose touched my arm draped over a pillow at the edge of the bed.   I knew my patient dog was needing to go out.  She’d always been the dependable comfort and loyal companion I needed in life, so I stretched and rolled to a sit.  Although I couldn’t smell the coffee as the timer started brewing a small pot, I walked to the back door and opened the screen to a new day.  Tilley, my fur baby, always followed me out, so it was a soft greeting when a lone Monarch rested only steps away on the warming patio.  Its wings were half folded, and it seemed unalarmed as I stepped closer, kneeling down to see if it was hurt.  It’s small feet stayed sturdy on the cement, but its dull colored wings seemed weak as a gentle breeze blew and tipped it sideways.  Putting my hand out, it didn’t respond to my offer for a safe transport to a nearby flowerpot with bright red geraniums in bloom.  Eventually it lifted off the ground briefly to reposition itself closer to the pool’s edge where sunlight glinted off the water’s surface in prismatic ripples.  I waited for it to land before stepping closer, once again, to kneel down and offer the smallest finger of my hand with palm down, so it would understand I was offering safety, not entrapment.  One fragile black leg at a time, it positioned its two front legs on my skin.  I spoke to it, “Thank you for coming.  Take what you need. I mean no harm.” (Of course, this was before any neighbors might have been out and heard me; but honestly, I wouldn’t have cared if someone had. This was between me and the Monarch.)  As I slowly lifted my hand from the ground, she seemed to push off my finger and take flight, circling away then back around directly in front of my face, before continuing her arc over to a chartreuse colored perennial in a nearby flowerbed.  Hardened and jagged edges inside me from the previous days’ disappointments somehow softened.

            In many cultures, Monarchs symbolize transformation and rebirth, or foretell of upcoming changes and new directions in life.  These magical butterflies were forever etched in my memory during the years I had a small farm in Kentucky, where an Over-cup White Oak tree hosted them on their migratory path between North American and Mexico.  It had taken my breath away when hundreds of them had swirled up and out of its sixty-foot canopy in a brilliant flourish to disperse out and over wildflowers gracing a virgin hay field at the time.  In the fall, they had returned to hang in clusters along a thick tree line on one side of the farm, appearing to be leaves letting go of branches to grace the air as they floated to the earth below. It had saddened me when their numbers drastically diminished with the introduction of weed-killers sprayed by local farmer to prepare for and maintain crops of GMO soybeans and corn.  It was a sacred moment when a lone Monarch appeared at a beloved dog’ gravesite the day she was buried, followed by the appearance of two Monarchs a few years later when another beloved dog was laid to rest beside her.  The Monarch had come again, more recently to the same site beneath the Great White Oak, the day I set the memorial stone for our panda–faced lab, and his littermate and I shared our grief under the sheltering tree.

            Then there was the Monarch butterfly license plate I had for years in Kentucky, supporting the Nature Conservatory, and how disappointed I was when the Department of Motor vehicles required me to turn in the tag for a newer option, because inmates at prisons needed the job of making new ones. When I’d relocated to Florida, I had chosen a horse-themed plate, because I’d given up two beloved horses in Kentucky, and the Monarch plates in Florida represented Hospice Care.  (Although I appreciate people who assist the dying in their transitions from this life to whatever is beyond, it was never something I aspired to participate in.)

            Even on cross country drives, Monarch butterflies had appeared at times I felt the deepest sadness (observing wildfires or the aftermath of their destruction), or the greatest of inspiration (when landscapes expanded or energy shifts could be felt). They had appeared, then disappeared it seemed into thin air. So anytime I see a Monarch, especially one that almost brushes by my face and doesn’t just disappear, I am even more awake and somehow feel safe.

            Imagine the encouragement felt a few days ago when a landscape specialist convinced my Mom to have full-sun butterfly plants transplanted from a shady corner to a full sun part of her yard. Then a garden banner with Monarchs appeared in her mailbox as a thank you for contributing to the Wildlife Defense Fund.

Serendipity, synchronicity, whatever you want to call them, “Monarch Moments” are smiles from the Universe, reminding us a caring Creator is ever near.

Today a Monarch

Today a Monarch came to call

Greeting the new day

It paused and slowly opened wings

Dew-damp in the morning’s rays.

She climbed up on my finger to pause

Then up and took her ease

Brushing by my waking face

Then away on gentle breeze.

 Karen Weber (2/28/22)

Keeping Time

Mornings had been starting slowly. Too slowly. Once again, circumstances beyond my control had abruptly crushed hopes of launching to relocate where a new place to live and work held promise for moving beyond what I perceived as a stagnate-pond.  The cycle of dreaming, planning, and venturing something new, followed by Tsunami-like smack-downs over the past two years, had become exhausting. It seemed that time was marching on and my attempts to get in-step with something “core” to my abilities and values had been exercises in futility.  Redeeming time on some imagined clock had been my intention, but the idea of “The Best is Yet to Come” had now been challenged one too many times. Hope was becoming a distant concept, not something rooted in a future reality, as it had before.

Taking walks with my dog, cycling a few miles alone a few days a week, and losing myself in the construction of crafts with brightly-colored bargain-fabrics had become ways of coping.  I’d tried to avoid the garage where my Mom’s overflow of keepsakes and clutter were stored, but on one trip out to do laundry, I looked up to a high shelf where two boxes I’d labeled the previous fall called out to me:  “Please rescue us from this oppressively humid perch!”  Inside the boxes were two cuckoo clocks inherited from my Dad’s parents, who’d come from Germany just before Hitler provoked a previous world war.  One had hung in their bedroom and the other in their dining room.  My memories favored the smaller brown one that had once provided entertainment before and after special family gatherings.   As children, we’d come to rely on our Opa to wind the clock and set its hands, prompting miniature figures to spin on a circular pedestal as they waltzed to traditional tunes.  Then the Cuckoo bird would appear from behind closed doors, and “Cuckoo” as many times as the hour ordered .

  Since I had just completed my income tax return and knew a refund was due, I decided at that moment to take one of the two clocks to a repair shop my brother had told me about months before. I had no idea how much it would cost, but I took a chance it would be a good investment. Without asking for permission, needing a break from the house and care of my Mother, I carried one box to my truck and set it on the back seat.  After breakfast, I set my phone GPS to the shop address and made my excuses to leave for a couple of hours, without saying where I was going. Taking the initiative to do something without an explanation or in defense of my chosen direction, helped set into motion a feeling of freedom from time constraints and the suffocating expectations of others, who would want to know “how, when, why, and for how long?”  It was a temporary relief from the boredom inherent in sameness, and predictability, day in and day out. I was “taking space”, as my sister called it, apart from hearing about pain and the inevitable consequences of advancing age and debilitating “accidents”. 

Taking advantage of the Bluetooth connection in my truck, I found my favorite singer-songwriter’s stream and sang along with her, as much as my post-Covid breathe capacity allowed for the thirty-minute drive to my destination.  On arrival, I parked next to the sign “Keeping Time”, providing a little shade from the Florida sun.  I gathered up the box from the back seat and considered how singing made me feel better.  Pausing outside the shop’s front door to take in its Western European ambience, the outdoor display of a mechanical toy and a needlepoint sign in the front window made me imagine my German grandparents nodding their heads in silent approval.  Beyond the glass, scores of novelty clocks stood shoulder-to-shoulder as a community of time-keepers on the floor, joined by wall clocks covering ever vertical surface in sight.  Entering the shop became a surround-sound experience, as muffled voices of another customer and the shop-keeper seemed to lay a sound-track on top of the tick-tocks and chimes providing the rhythm and percussion baseline. Everything there was in-sync, even the moment the attendant called me up to the counter, asking about the contents of the box with the sketch of an Emu for some Australian liquor label on the outside.

Explaining the origins of the clock and asking how soon it might be repaired, the six-month turn- around time made me hesitate.  Then I saw his hand-written estimate on the tag meant to accompany the clock parts we’d just unwrapped.  The amount was half of what I’d imagined and decided to spend on repairs, as I’d pulled into the parking lot.  I knew then I ‘d return to the garage and retrieve the second box with the other clock to be added to the repair request.  Time wasn’t the issue.  Time had become relative.  It was a sign both clocks could be repaired, simultaneously, for some yet to be determined occasion in the future.  On time.

Divine meetings have a way of quickening the spirit.  Not only did I sing on the return trip, still under the radar of a napping Mother, but a song my maternal grandfather taught me as a child came to mind.  So, when I re-entered the shop as the only customer before closing, I asked the manager if I could sing him a little song about a Grandfather clock I’d been taught as a child.  Since we were in the good company of many now standing silent, he nodded with a curious twinkle in his eye.  Without performance fear, I sang a cappella from the heart.

It was a song written around 1875 by American songwriter, Henry Work, after a stay at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire, England.  He had been told a story by the new establishment owner about an old floor clock in the lobby that had stopped keeping time when the elder of two brothers, who’d lived there years before, died at the age of 90.   The popularity of the song Work was inspired to write and release back in America gave the common statuesque time pieces a new status and appeal as “Grandfather Clocks”.  (Of course, as a young student, I’d had no knowledge of the songs history, other than it being one of many taught to me by a music-loving grandparent.)

My Grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf

So it stood ninety years on the floor

It was taller by half than the old man himself

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born

And was always his treasure and pride

But it stopped, short never to go again

When the old man died

Ninety years without slumbering

Tick-tock, tick tock

His life seconds numbering

Tick-tock, tick tock

It stopped short, never to go again

When the old man died

The surprise lifting me out of the doldrums for the rest of the day came when the shop keeper smiled, nodded his head, then without missing a beat continued: “Now, I have a story for you!”  With a note of serendipitous excitement in his voice, he told me about buying an old Victrola record player at a flea market, years ago, while his buddy hunted down a box of dusty 45’s they’d add to their cache for the day.  Only later had he dusted off the record closest to the top of the pile to set it in motion atop the hand-cranked music-maker.  “My Grandfather’s Clock” was the song on that disc, he mused, “except your voice isn’t raspy like the singer’s voice etched in those grooves. I like your version better!”  Both of us paused and inhaled deeply, before he spontaneous maneuvered from behind the counter to embrace me in a friendly European-style hug of recognition and appreciation!   I could handle going back to my Mother’s house, now. I suspected, too, he was encouraged to face his own father’s upcoming heart surgery with a little more assurance that the Universe delights in meeting us at unspoken places of vulnerability.

I trust my Grandfather’s clocks will be ready to awe and inspire a new generation when they resume keeping time and chime in again. And hopefully, the charm and mystery of Divine interventions will help us recognize we are not keeping time alone.

The days of our years are threescore and ten,

And if by reason of strength fourscore…

So, teach us to number our days

That we may gain hearts of wisdom.

(Psalm 90:10,12)

For Love of a “Little Bit”

            “Little Bit”—- the name emphasized his determination to live beyond the “Little” part to become simply the “Bit” like a period at the end of an abbreviation, giving status to something common, but with enough staying power to warrant distinction.  He was here “on a mission”, as all of our beloved pets have been, in retrospect.  Little Bit grew up on a farm and earned his “Bit” badge traveling miles of Kentucky backroads and trails with his closest friend and caretaker, Steve Barbour, for over a decade.  He became one of the infamous friends-to-hikers along the Sheltowee Trace trail, riding long hours in shuttle vans and lounging by campfires when his bad paw couldn’t carry him the miles other dogs navigated with their companions. 

It became enough for him to survey campsights, wade in creeks, or submerge his compact black-lab body into easily accessed mud holes.  He wore a long lead and harness most days, because he secretly aspired to achieve sled dog status, while the Retriever in him preferred to bolt ahead of anyone starting out or appearing at a trail-head where he waited for their arrival. Hiker Challenge Shuttle rides afforded him greater mobility and a sense of adventure beyond a fenced yard or the isolation of a house without his human counterpart.  His friendly greetings at campsites, his “lean-to” body hugs, and portable heater qualities on cold winter nights made him a utilitarian fixture at hiking events.  He hid his shortcomings with an air of dignity. 

            Little Bit was a rescue in the noblest sense of the word, spared an abusive upbringing.  His initial assignment was to become a pet for the children of a large Amish family home-steading in northeastern Kentucky. His fate was to become something much more entertaining and therapeutic for those observing his playful antics and lavish affection, once he felt comfortable in a setting. This is the story of his rescue and a redeemed life among those who love a “lost life found” story:

As neighbors helping neighbors, we’d agreed to feed and water work horses and a new puppy of an Amish family traveling by horse and buggy out of town a few days.  We already had a reputation as animal lovers, since taking in three black lab mixed dogs, and rehoming others dropped on our property. We were a shoe-in couple, who’d do what was needed to protect the vulnerable and prevent coyotes from making unattended animals their next dinner.

 In the beginning, the small black “Puppy Mill” lab was named “Lucky”.  A hand-tooled name engraved on a small leather collar suggested he’d have a bright future.  The challenge to that future became evident the first morning I went up to feed and water our neighbors’ animals.  The small collar was cinched too tight and the shortness of the baling string used to tie him to a barn post left him in the summer sun with food bits scattered in a broken straw bale, next to a turned over water bowl.  He was whimpering and anxious to see someone coming to relieve his distress.  Finding a rusty pocketknife on a ledge nearby, I cut the line and picked him up to comfort the compact wriggling pup.  Holding him close with one arm, I went about scooping grain into buckets for the stalled horses standing on piles of manure, and filling slimy water buckets with fresh water from a worn hose connected to a hand-pump.  I had never seen animals kept in such deplorable conditions. It was then I decided to take the small black-lab puppy home for the duration of the family’s absence.

All adopted or fostered dogs on our farm had baths first, followed by fluffy towel massages, ear cleanings, and a good meal, before being given a fresh old blanket for sleeping on in the laundry room with a back door convenient for potty training.  Our other three dogs—Lucy, Willey and Tilley—warmed to him easily.  Let’s just say there were a lot of affection hounds vying for attention from that day forward, and it was a joy to accommodate them as we went about our daily routines on the farm. Cuteness and entertainment value had their perks.

The following days passed quickly, and one morning before we expected the Amish family to return, there was an urgent knock at a side door where all guests knew to enter.  It was three of the Amish children asking if I’d seen their puppy “Lucky”, who’d been left on a nylon string in the sun without shelter when they’d left town. Scooping him up from a spot in the laundry room behind a baby gate, I held him gently but took advantage of a teachable moment while I had their attention.  After giving them instructions about caring for a puppy so it could be their friend for a long time, I handed them back their prize with a slightly loosened collar and new leash.  We were hopeful “Lucky” would have a better life from that day on.

Our hope though was short lived when the same Amish children came running down the street and up our driveway the next morning with news of their Dad’s threat to shoot Lucky because he would become a big dog and eat more than the smaller lap dog they’d brought home from their visit to another Amish family.  It was such a foreign concept to me, I had a hard time responding until I saw the youngest boy silent and tearful behind his older brother.  (I didn’t say so to the children in front of me, but I already had a low opinion of their Father, who was a philanderer with too many people coming up to our small farm store asking where he was with the custom saddles they’d paid for but never received. Nor did I care for the way he treated his buggy horses, or other horses brought to him for training or shoeing. He was seldom at home, and largely ignored his wife and nine children when they appeared together in public.)

A suggestion was made that I avoid more drama, but this was a matter I couldn’t let go.  I told the young ones who’d come for intervention help. I’d walk back up the hill with them to reason with their Dad concerning Lucky. And I did, fueled by more adrenaline than a double shot of espresso could have produced.  Arriving at their house on the hill, I saw his wife standing in the kitchen doorway with her other younger children huddled around her long blue dress, and I asked to speak with her husband.  (Amish women do not typically confront men, but I was not raised to bow to gender hierarchies.)  She nodded that he was in his leather shop, so I called his full name three times until he appeared in the shop door opening.  “Is it true you threatened to shoot Lucky because he’s a puppy who’ll grow up to be bigger than the new little dog you brought back from your trip?” I asked. “What’s it to you?!” he chided. My response was unapologetic and firm: “A man who pleases God has respect for his animals. I don’t think you are pleasing anybody but yourself!  Lucky is a sweet puppy and your children want to keep him.  What’s your problem?!”

The sorry excuse for a husband and father, much less a responsible animal owner responded: “If you’re so good, why don’t YOU take him, since you seem to know better.  Take the dog and get off my property.”   Without hesitating, I lifted Lucky from the ground and told the horrified children they could come and see the trembling black puppy anytime they were allowed to come.  Before turning to walk back down the hill to my own farm, I looked the diminutive Amish man in the eye and said, “I ought to report you for animal abuse for the way you treat dogs and horses. They deserve better, and so does your family.”  (It was later suggested I was lucky he didn’t shoot me.  I responded, “It’s lucky for HIM I grabbed a leash and not my rifle before going up there! People who abuse animals should be put behind bars or somehow prevented from spreading their own misery!”  Until I could settle down, Steve reached for the young dog and held him close while I tried to channel the adrenaline of anger into starting a bath for our new pack member, before making dinner for us all.

Let’s just say “Lucky” was well named, until he outgrew his collar.  Because we always said he’d be with us just a “little bit”, as we grew fonder of him, he became “Little Bit”.  A few weeks later, while he was on a lead line out in the grass, playing with the other dogs, one of his front paws got caught in a line and damaged ligaments in a front foot.  From that day on, all the care we gave never seemed to heal it completely, and we knew it would be even harder to place him in another home.  He had already become part of a four-pack  running the fields with his playmates, and he did everything water-loving dogs will do on a hot day.  One afternoon I was going out to turn off water filling a large trough for the horse heading to get a drink, when a black head popped up from the center of the 3 ft. deep trough and clamored out over the hard rubber edge, startling the horse. As a result, Little Bit finally got his own Rubbermaid trough, closer to the ground for his own personal soaking pleasure.  The mare appreciated her  cleaner drinking water, and we appreciated not having to dump and refill the larger tub.  Despite his disability, Little Bit was an explorer and taught the others about gleaning bits of grain dropped on the ground as their equine friend ate her meals.  Fresh hay was for picking up and playing keep away like a stick or soccer ball left out in the grass for team sports.

One thing was sure: Little Bit was all Lab and all boy, and one who loved water anywhere.  His large paws splashed through creeks, launched him into a swimming pool to chase an old ball while visiting family in Florida, and routed out voles trying to scurry away into snow banks. At a campground where hikers had to cross over a stream on an unsecured log, Little Bit enthusiastically swam out to greet them and hoisted his front legs over the log, making it roll and dump off a new hiker into the chilly waters.  The husband of a seasoned hiker, David Hunt never complained, and acquired a trail name, “Smokin Boots”, as his socks and shoes dried out suspended over a campfire that night.  (As dog lovers themselves, Tali and David have adopted several dogs and brought them on hikes since then.  They never complained but hopefully, in retrospect, a smile comes to mind remembering that evening’s initiation as hikers of the Sheltowee Trace.)

“Little Bit” described the short length of time you were expected to stay; but we’re thankful you were with us a “Bit” longer.  You didn’t complain even when your body became less responsive to your adventurous spirit.  Your longer naps and wandering attention let the one who loved and knew you best, know you were ready for the last bridge.  You were a strong boy to the end, it’s been told.  Now it’s time to become one with the trails and woodlands of Kentucky that were your playground.  (We imagine you and Willey are recounting your great adventures just over the next hill, out of view, a few miles ahead of us.)

Safe in a new home

Body hugger

Ice Cream Dreams

Vole Hunting
Gleaning Grain
Keep Away
The Bit Tub
Sheet Shade
Field Friends
Yogurt Clean Up
Pack Guard
Sausage Biscuits?!
Little Bit on The Sheltowee Trace in Kentucky
Where did Wilson go?
Found YOU!
“Trail Brothers” on the Sheltowee (Willey & Bit)
The Bit Wallow
The of Bit on the Farm waiting for dinner
Always Loved and Remembered: Willey & Little Bit
(alongside Steve Barbour, Executive Director The Sheltowee Trace Asso.)

Willey

            We were on a “sweep” to help conclude the 2010 census.  I’d volunteered to drive in the absence of a substitute teaching job, as Steve navigated our course along backroads of Elliot County, Kentucky.  Up one hill thought to be a destination, a pad-locked metal gate appeared at the end of a long gravel drive to an unseen residence. Turning around, we slowly descended the crushed rock passage, approaching a sturdy log cabin we’d passed on the ascent, except now a platoon of dogs had suddenly emerged from the woods, closing in on our vehicle.  As every size, breed, and age of dog clamored around the car with a cacophony of excited barks and woofs, I brought the SUV to a stop.  A tall, bearded man had come out of the cabin and was heading to the front passenger’s side where Steve had been ordering documents and maps for the day’s agenda.  The first thing I noticed was the old man’s T- shirt featuring an AT Hiking logo on the front.  A feeling of relief and calm came over me when I sensed he’d be amicable with Steve, who was a passionate advocate of trail-preservation in Kentucky. Coincidentally, we’d hiked several hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail together, before settling back in his home state.  As the dogs’ initial alarm turned friendlier, I shut off the idling engine, waiting for the lanky homesteader to assure us it was safe to get out of our vehicle.

            As we emerged from the protection of the car, the man who looked like Rip-Van Winkle stepping out of a storybook began talking trails and hiking with Steve, as predicted. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by curious dogs, including several puppies, totaling several dozen by wagging tail-count.  One little guy had a head too big for his body, and paws suggesting his Dachshund-length would have a sturdy foundation as he grew.  Another looked like it was part wolf, and yet another appeared to be a back-country boutique varietal not yet in the books. As the conversation turned to the reason for our visit, the hermetic man told us all the dogs were strays, except for the black lab on his cabin porch, who’d had the unplanned litter of pups. He’d been trying to keep them all fed on his monthly stipends as a retired Vietnam War Vet.  A neighbor had just helped him give all the puppies their first round of shots, but he was concerned about how he would manage finding them all homes before winter.  Somehow, he quickly caught on to the fact we were dog-lovers, and he didn’t hesitate to suggest we “take a few home”.

Out of the six pups, four males looked like black labs, but the other two were unique. The only female from the litter was a little black furball that could have been mistaken for a bear cub with soft eyes, and her probable half-brother was a male with black and white panda-bear markings framing insecure eyes.  Both approached timidly but sat firmly on my feet, looking up as if to say, “please choose us”. That’s all it took for me to ask Steve: “Can we take two?”   I wanted to be sure the female didn’t end up like her Mom, impregnated by more than one Father, knowing female dogs in heat are open for two weeks; and the little guy beside his half-sister, melting my defenses with his innocent eyes, wouldn’t get eaten by coyotes.  ( A 14 year-old Golden Retriever back on the farm, who’d been a wonderful family dog for my children, was fading; and another black lab given to us as payment for a store credit owed was showing signs of bad hips at a young age.  Neither of them could be expected to hike far. We loved them both, but knew they were destined to be our beloved stay-at-home farm dogs.)  As expected, there was no hesitation from the executive director when he saw the hopeful pair.   

“Willey and Tilley” got their names that day, as we drove away with the rescued pups in our laps. Census paperwork got reassigned to the back seat of the Honda Tribute, as our priorities realigned. “Willey” was short for William the Conqueror (Steve’s honorable-mention for Patton’s dog, a bull terrier who accompanied the famous General everywhere), and “Tilley” was the namesake for my Australian hiking hat that could float on water.  So began the Adventures of Willey & Tilley, whose stories would span more than a decade.

As litter-mates, Willey and Tilley were seldom apart.  They seemed joined at the hip, in tune with each other and respectful of compatible contributions to their life-long partnership.  They ran fields on the farm, hunted for voles, sniffed every scent in whatever environment they found themselves, kept company with a rescued horse or two on the farm, and hiked side-by-side behind Steve or me along the Sheltowee Trace.  Willey was the alarm-sounding Watchman alpha, and Tilley was the silent but empathetic Ambassador of peace, after friends had been sorted from enemies. They shared adventures through every season, across much of Kentucky, then coast-to-coast crossing the nation several times with me (Karen) as their long-distance driver and story-collector.   Never-the-less, Kentucky was always Home, and they knew it.  Every time they rode across the state-line they smelled it, reveled in the grass of it, eagerly waited to visit friends and familiar stomping grounds, somehow trusting their final resting place would be among Kentucky wildflowers close to The Great White Oak still standing as the center-piece of a small farm in the northeastern part of the state.  A “Heart Home”, if there ever was one. 

During formative years on the farm, as The Sheltowee Trace Association was being envisioned and established, their adventures included “Little Bit”, who was the fun-loving clown and sturdy huggable of an entertaining “4-Pack” consisting of Willey (the Alpha), Little Bit, Tilley, and Lucy.   “Bit” held out a month longer than Willey this year, preceded by “Lucy” the lop-eared lab and “Sandy” their Golden-Retriever mentor for a year.  It’s heart-warming to note, every time one of these beloved members of our farm family was released back to the earth, a Monarch butterfly appeared at the gravesite, before flying up and out over the field shouldering the Great White Oak.  On Lucy’s last night, the Big Dipper in the Constellation seemed to be pouring-out, over its canopy; the next day, two Monarchs rose together from the side-by-side burial sites for Sandy and Lucy. Then, in October of this year, a lone Monarch appeared under the oak’s canopy on the beautiful fall day Willey joined them.

An inoperable tumor on Willey’s left rear leg had begun to weep the week before, and there were signs it had metastasized, adversely effecting his everyday bodily functions. He was in pain despite medication to help him sleep through a night without whimpering. A week before his final day, Tilley, began sleeping on the opposite side of the bed from where she and Willey usually laid hip-to-hip or back-to-back on the floor. She’d let him stretch out over both their beds, while she slept on the un-padded floor, further away from him and closer to me.

 I had moved back to Kentucky with Willey and Tilley to work at a job I loved, but in part because I’d sensed a few months earlier, while traveling with Willey and Tilley, his time was approaching.  I wanted him to be in the first and last place he’d known as home, and I wanted the other person who’d loved him dearly to have a chance to say goodbye.  Knowing the time to release him was getting closer, we visited favorite places when I was off work like The Kentucky Horse Park for short walks around the grounds and naps in the shade, our old farm in northeastern Kentucky with its open fields to survey the landscape and roll a few more times in its freshly cut hay fields.  We even made a special trip to savor Red State Bar-b-que brisket at a picnic table under an overarching willow.  I’d chosen to return to a familiar vet in Flemingsburg for our final visit, because of the compassion and care they’d provided for all of our dogs and horses over the years.  Through a flood of tears, I held Willey to the end, thanking him for his service as our faithful companion, assuring him it wouldn’t be long before his pain was over. He was gifted dignity in passing that afternoon.  

On the tearful drive back to the farm to lay him to rest, “Scars in Heaven” a song by Casting Crowns came on the radio.  Old neighbors appeared, offering to assist and consoled us as we drove over the freshly cut field back to the stately oak tree. The Great White Oak was waiting to receive him beside Lucy and Sandy’s plots. Tilley stayed in the pick-up truck and watched from the open door.  She had been here before with me, only this time she wanted to stay in her “safe space” where Willey’s scent still lingered. Before sunset, we set a memorial stone and planted flowers in the freshly patted soil.

 It was a long drive back to the place where we’d have to make it through the night without Willey, as the sun started setting on raw emotions and a new reality.  In the sky directly above and in front of us, as Tilley jumped from the back seat once shared with Willey to the shot-gun position beside me, a brilliant vertical strip of a rainbow—a “Sundog”– appeared.  It caught my breath.  Wiping away tears, I pulled off the road onto a sturdy shoulder, rolling down the window to take a picture of the unmistakable sign.

The next morning, walking Tilley before work, she was sniffing every tree where the three of us had walked just the day before, picking up her brother’s scent, lingering a while at each place.  I looked up to take in the crisp fall air, hoping to feel revived, and in the sky above the tree-lined street, a heart-shaped cloud with yet another “Sundog” at its center briefly appeared.  And shortly thereafter, a new neighbor who’d met Willey and heard about his passing approached with a small brown jar holding sprigs of baby’s breath, along with a poem on a card entitled “The Rainbow Bridge”.  The Universe was gifting us reassurances of Willey’s destination to an eternal home.

More often now, I think about how our pets become so much more than our companions.  They teach us to care for lives beyond ourselves, about unconditional love, leaving us with rich memories and stories to share.  They help us feel safe through every emotional passage, improving our quality of life in unseen ways.  When they’re no longer with us, we understand they’ve helped us become better equipped to understand and offer compassion to others navigating landscapes of the soul.

Willey & Little Bit, we’re thankful you were a part of our earthly journeys. You’re just further along the trail now. We know you’ll be at the final trailhead with warm greetings, along with all the other adventure loving dogs whose company you’re keeping. Until we finally finish the course, too, keep those invisible tails wagging. Some days it’s what keeps us putting one foot in front of the other.

Young Pup in Training to Hike on the Sheltowee Trace in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone Forest
Big enough to pack
Willey’s Final Resting Place under The Great White Oak in Kentucky.
Tilley & Willey with Karen on an Oregon Trail (Spring 2021)
A final farewell and assurance

The Whimsical Wayfarer

First, I want to give credit to a daughter-in-law whose “rough draft” for a logo I requested to promote a new venture is featured above.  Lindsay is among the creative-minded young adults whose talents are gaining a long overdue audience.  Doodling from her pen and brush create the magical spark from which story-lines flow.  Soft-featured creatures and landscapes invite the viewer to step into landscapes of a kind and nurturing  environment where all creatures embody a place and purpose on a planet we share.  As a sketch artist, seen on her Facebook page “A Touch of Whimsy/Artist” by Lindsay Jo Wentz, her black on white drawings demonstrate an even greater attention to detail.

I hope she’ll forgive me if the following “interpretation” of the portal drawing shown here is something other than what she had in mind.  From my perspective it’s a timely illustration of  redirecting focus away from a darkness trying to lure us back into sullen caves of isolation.

What I see:

We all need places to emerge from deep woods and hide-aways that became familiar when the threat of harm forced us inward to “social distance”. Those cloistered places, became places deemed “safe” where benevolent creatures became our companions and helped assure us we weren’t alone.  We learned what it felt like to be dependent, again, drawing on something deep within us, and on each other, in new ways.

Now, as we come upon openings to horizons illuminated by a light we’d almost forgotten, new pathways are appearing, offering ways out of stagnation and a depressive darkness.  At these portals a choice is being offered:  Stay in the familiar that once felt ‘safe’; or risk venturing out into the light, as unseen guides accompany us forward. Beyond what we might have been taught and learned in the past, old formulas and solutions are being exposed for their exclusivity and obsolescence. As ways out and beyond and back into community are sought, innovators and visionaries are responding.

‘The Whimsical Wayfarer’  was envisioned months ago, as a way to move beyond isolation and stagnation, when a virus shut down business-as-usual and social interactions taken for granted.  It is being launched as a cottage-industry offering hand-crafted, re-usable masks, travel-totes, and “functional-art” for coming and going with a little less care. The quality products are made to last, encouraging adventurers to step out beyond previous comfort zones, and contribute to a world in the midst of transformation. 

As we redefine how best to live, move, and have our beings within cooperative communities, let’s remember the playful spontaneity and inquisitive nature attributed to children. Turn rules into tools for colorful affirmations of becoming what we were meant to be.  

                                —–The Whimsical Wayfarer —–     8/17/2020

 

 

Detours, Doubts, & Do-Overs

Funny how life corrects our courses and perspectives, re-calibrating our best intentions and prompting the re-imagination of ways to go forward.  When we’re going through transitions, it’s not always pleasant, and, more often than not, it involves discomfort, contorting, and even writhing to shake off a kind of dead snake’s skin, outgrown and no longer the protection it once convinced us to sit trustingly within.

Detours become the re-routes needed to loosen our grip on worn out assumptions that straight and narrow paths are always the more protected way.   Sometimes the past is best left in the rear view mirror with less reflection, if we’re intent on moving forward.  Doubts creep in as we realize the former ways no longer serve present challenges, until we become trusting of something deep within us saying “this is the way, walk in it”, as new trail-markers are recognized and risked.  The courage to venture “do-overs” is then born when a healthy desperation shakes off everything trying to cling and restrain us from moving out of spaces and relationships saturated in dark and stagnant energies.  Those with a drive to survive, become like fish propelling themselves through still bodies of water, instinctively moving to oxygenate their gills, until flowing streams and rivers open into larger, less polluted reservoirs.  At least, this is one visual I hope will flush out the bitterness of injustices and move us beyond thwarted plans, too many have experienced in recent months.

Preparing for a hurricane can produce similar dynamics.  Unless you choose to hunker down and ride out the storm in a place you think is “safe”, there is a shaking and questioning that causes a quick reassessment and distilling down about what’s most vital to carry away, before a major event does the reality check for you.  There is always the angst of one in a household wanting to stay, and another feeling an urgency to leave.  So it was with my Mom and I, as Isaias headed towards Florida’s east coast in early August.  Veteran storm-residents of the appendage state, casually dangling its vulnerable “swing-state” arm between the Atlantic and Gulf, seemed resolute to stay with hatches battened down.  Residing just two blocks off the ocean front, I had no such assurance, since two previous hurricanes had produced mandatory evacuations of the barrier island, accessed by three wind-vulnerable causeways.  Extensive power outages were nothing unusual, but in the easy-bake-oven of a Florida summer, I had no desire to endure another such possible outcome deprived of air-conditioning.  I too claim the right to live and breathe, as a female carrying a unique blend of DNA —as do we all,  by the way.  (Between 8 am and 8 pm, most days in July and August of 2020, it’s been hard to catch a breath outside; not to mention the congestive effects of recycled air in temperature-controlled dwellings.)  It’s enough to make a person long for cooler climates a few hundred miles north where fresh air invigorates body and soul.

Upon waking from a disturbed sleep ahead of the dawn, a few hours before Isaias was forecast to come knocking, an unidentified object had slammed against the hurricane shuttered bedroom window, followed by a heavy tree branch crashing near the house and a vehicle in the driveway, crushing potted plants on a patio table.  Suddenly the “let’s sleep on it” suggestion of the night before offered by my Mom, became a consensus of opinions in favor of  leaving. So, we finished packing supplies for a few days, as advised by local officials, until Isaias’ slow moving eye and far-reaching rain and wind bans had time to flail its turbulent arms further up the eastern seaboard.  Despite a neighbors’ sideways glances and disdainful smirks, and a brother’s text suggesting we’d be more comfortable just staying put, their opinions didn’t carry much weight at this point.  Our safety and the nerve-wracking effects of lightning and thunder on three dogs, and a strong aversion to seeing a replay of downed power lines across the backyard, added to a resolve to leave without delay.

I am not a native Floridian, and I have no aspirations to be a resident any longer than necessary in the current global pandemic and resulting economic crisis. It’s “mucked up” in more ways than one—no disrespect to friends or family who choose to call it Home.  I’ve just tasted and seen too many other places that resonate more with personal values and a preferred lifestyle.  I’ve consistently NOT been a fan of flat-lands with high water tables, Disney fantasies, opulent cruise ships, drunken beach parties, high-maintenance Palm trees, skin cancer, and reptiles that scurry out of every crack , crevice and retention pond trying to reclaim territory.  Tropical storms, hurricanes, and the encroachment of residential and commercial development on faulty foundations has only added to an aversion for east coast living in recent years.  No apologies, only sympathy for those duped by Florida’s promises and allures promulgated by marketing.  Florida’s political “leadership” is a whole other ball of wax I’d rather disengage from than try to strong arm.  (I vote, but honestly don’t have much expectation the system will change as the result of an electoral process being undermined from within our own government, and the probable interference of foreign governments in recent American elections.)

But, let’s return focus to The Great Hurricane Preparedness Adventure….

Our destination was a place only identified on a map as outside the original projection of Isaias’ reach— Madison, Florida between Live Oak and Tallahassee.  It wasn’t research that landed us there, but a local Days Inn that seemed affordable online, if our stay needed to be extended, and where accommodating three dogs wasn’t supposed to be a problem.  As soon as we turned onto the first of two interstates heading north, bands of torrential rains alternated with sections of sun and clear skies, tagging us all the way to the westerly turn off at Interstate 10 heading west.  A short pass through The Villages, a planned retirement community, at my Mom’s request, added an hour to our travel time. The numerous golf carts with clear-vinyl wind and rain shields were amusing, as well as the noticeably senior demographic surveying each other as they skirted even through the rain. Exceptions were the fewer-in-number service providers, whose youthful appearance and presence were surely unsuspecting targets for aging energy vampires. (Interesting to note The Villages have one of the highest STD and COVID positivity rates in the state of Florida.) I was thankful to only be passing through on a rainy day, discouraging any further engagement.

The off-ramp to the Days Inn of Madison was unflattering.  Potholes, abandoned storefronts and un-kept grounds surrounding the few struggling local businesses and the motel were uninspiring, but we had arrived.  Time for a taste of rural Florida, living on the fringes with those entrenched in a depressive basic survival mode.  Check-in was uneventful, and there was evidence someone had read the reservation note requesting a first floor room.   For the next half an hour, we unloaded coolers, food sacks, overnight bags, and dogs on leashes not sure this was the kind of adventure they’d anticipated.  Turning on the AC in the room yielded one setting —High— and without a sheer curtain, the heavy vinyl-backed upholstery on a wand with one end in a dark corner anchored firmly in place, gave one option for creating privacy, even for a late afternoon nap.  During the unpacking phase, a pickup displaying a “Wide Load” escort banner parked uncomfortably close to my newer vehicle, and two disgruntled workers began carrying on a dialogue filled with expletives and more information than I cared to know about their work and personal lives.  Despite earbuds with relaxation music playing from my phone, there was little chance of resting to recharge, after a fitful night of disturbed sleep on the coast and the long drive to this less than savory place.  Mom didn’t seem to be bothered, because of her limited hearing, and she rested comfortably for an hour or more on her bed, farthest from the window and door.  When she woke up, we decided to get in the car and explore the roads and town, away from the motel, hoping the two men would exhaust their rambling need to spit and fume outside our door.

Driving down long country roads with trees dripping Spanish moss was some comfort. Eventually, finding the center of town where we got out and walked dogs on paved pathways, away from sticky burrs that had caught in their paws on the motel grounds, offered a little more relief.  One of the first things I noticed was a lone Confederate statue, still standing in the wake of others nationwide being taken off their pedestals in recent weeks. (Mom’s research, later, found that Florida is one of several southern state where it’s illegal to remove them.)  Of even greater interest were three other monuments along the park’s sidewalks, including a memorial to a Civil Rights activist of color, a commemorative statue of “The Four Freedoms” promoted by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and a Veterans’ memorial stone acknowledging local men who’d died in historic wars.  We both decided before sunset, Madison was a town we’d like to revisit in the daylight.

Returning to the motel proved disappointing, as the men who’d been standing outside the door to their room beside ours, seemed to have a lot more venting on their minds.  I could feel their stares as I parked with a space left between our vehicles, and we re-entered the room where my Mom and I had been assigned, without engaging.  Shortly thereafter, I ventured a trip to the front office to report the noise disturbance.  A soft eyed, corpulent front desk attendant promised she would “have a talk with those boys—-you’d think they’d have been taught better.”  Apparently she thought it was enough to placate me with another revelation:  “They’re due to check out tomorrow, so after that it shouldn’t be a problem”.  Great I thought. What about sleep after we’d traveled and paid to get some rest on this particular night?

(In the online review and subsequent email I received from the manager, following our early check out the next day, I suggested it would have been better business to move us to another room away from the “good ole boys”, who seemed to have no conscience or consideration for other guests.)  Apparently my former experience as a front desk agent for a Marriott hadn’t taught me how to deal effectively with management in our present situation. I concluded, sometimes it’s better to turn and walk away from ignorance than pick a fight you’re not going to win.

Morning and repacking the car brought some hope of redeeming time.  After finding the coffee maker in the room unsanitary, scores of cigarette butts strewn on the empty parking space between the now vacated “Wide Load” driver’s space and my newer car, and a freshly keyed scrape above a car door lock, the drive-thru at a local McDonalds became a preferred destination. I usually try to avoid McDonalds, except when buying chicken nuggets or ice cream cones for the dogs, but this morning it was the most convenient drive thru in town.  (If we had stopped at a gas station’s affiliate eateries nearby, and I’d seen the guys I suspected of keying my car, there’s no telling what I might have said or done.  A decision was made to leave them to Karma and the universe’s wisdom.)  Mom holding a bag of hot sausage-egg muffins, and a large cup of fresh coffee secured in a cup holder, helped me hold it together, as we headed back towards Madison for a leisurely morning.

Turning into a lake area with a road around its perimeter, we drove slowly past cyclists on the bike path, watched a mother with young children supervise play in their front yard, and elderly residents sit on porches surveying their visual fortune. Playground and exercise stations along the shorelines were eerily abandoned, presumably over concerns about a virus given a lot of press in recent months.  After circling the lake, we found a parking space under large Live Oaks with profusions of Spanish moss cascading down from their ancient limbs. When I stopped to take pictures Mom questioned why I was getting out.  “You travel with me, I stop a lot to take pictures and make notes”.  No compromise or challenge on that front.

Finding a picnic table, we pulled into a wide space, adjacent to some Old-Timers in small pick-up trucks.  They had positioned themselves within earshot of each other and didn’t let our presence interrupt their visiting through opened windows at a distance.  Dragonflies darted and swooped over cat-tails and thick vegetation along the banks of the lake in front of us. I looked for a place to tie the dogs where sand-ants hadn’t already established their mounds among sparse and shallowly rooted native grasses and weeds.  It wasn’t heaven, but it’d have to do.

This place became a cross roads where I made a conscious choice to see through the eyes of a writer, and let this detour be an opportunity to report on something, even if it wasn’t all “pretty”.  One survival tactic.  Food in the belly and caffeine as a mental fog-lifter another, as the temperature and humidity rose and began infiltrating even the shaded picnic area.  God help those who live in the south, especially in the summer.  It seemed the term “lazy” should be replaced by the kinder description of “conservatively moving” in places where sweat results from the simple act of breathing.

Madison.  Interesting town where the demographics are a noticeable combination of black and white, and opposing political factions, seeming to co-exist without incident—-at least to the casual observer passing through.  Half of the downtown store fronts were vacant and begging for attention, while unoccupied habitations languished in apathetic appeal, wondering if they would be found worthy of resuscitation, before crumbling into archeological digs for future generations to excavate and archive.  A few “essential service providers” like gas stations, pharmacy chains, law enforcement, fire station attendants, and government offices remained open, but had skeleton crews keeping them operational.

We were making our way back to the town center where a large gazebo offered “the privilege of being used” if a patron called a certain number to reserve the space.  The dogs needed to walk, before the heat climbed even more and the sidewalks became melting points for their paws.  A young black woman sat on a corner with her breakfast in a bag from the same fast food place where we’d bought ours, steadfastly holding a political candidate’s sign at a central crossroads in town.  She had cleverly positioned herself next to the “Four Freedoms” monument.  I wondered if the law enforcement car parked across the street, presumably from the “Four Freedoms Police Department” located a few blocks away, posed any anxiety to her sitting there alone.  When I offered a bottle of iced water from the cooler in my car, she looked at me curiously and declined, but engaged briefly in conversation when I told her I was a travel-writer making an impromptu stop in Madison.  I also wondered if an older woman sitting on a house porch around the corner, holding the same sign with grandchildren busying themselves around her, might be a relative.  Two strong and determined women of color, peacefully promoting their beliefs in something they hoped might make a difference in their community—-voting. I was beginning to see the crack in the facade.

Taking a few more pictures, while Mom and the dogs waited in the air-conditioned car, I tried to envision an investor who might see this small town as a jewel in need of someone to believe in its potential.  I wondered what kind of person might choose to invest their time, finances, and networking capabilities in a place like this to infuse it with enough courage to enter a new era.  Climbing back into my refrigerated cocoon on wheels, we drove around and down streets with old mansions shouldering wrapped porches, some meticulously kept, and others silently weeping in states of abandonment.  Three of the well-maintained ones, located side by side, featured a visual political-sandwich with Biden in Democratic blue secured to tall pine trees like thick slices of meat and cheese dangling between two angry-red Trump supporter’s slabs of plastic “bread”.  It was amusing to see one of those slabs of white bread in the ground beside a large white “House for Sale” shingle.  (Can’t fault them for wanting to cut and run, as some would prefer to do when the pressure of staying in a particular place gets too unbearable or risky.)

Though nicely kept on the outside, church buildings throughout Madison, representing several traditional denominations, seemed to be museum relics with diminished function. (In all fairness, this was a Monday.)  Sparsely occupied parking lots seemed a fitting symbol for the effects of a worldwide pandemic that’s prompted even more questioning about belief systems and doctrinal interpretations within Christianity, not to mention considerations about how unaplogetic political affiliations by particular evangelicals has deepened divisions though its script claims to be “One Body”.  It was especially sad to see a building across from a Baptist church with a “Youth Center” sign looking more like a local jailhouse with wide black iron bars covering its windows and doors, contrasted by a beige stucco exterior.  What were they thinking?  Obviously, it’s not a sanctuary for progressive architects or visionaries.

A couple of days later, two PBS documentaries on the Women’s’ Suffragette movement and a piece about the history of north central Florida, clarified the significant of what we were observing.  On the surface, Madison seemed like a community where race and disparate political affiliations co-existed peaceably, but I was beginning to wonder if most people there were just too hot and bothered on multiple levels to spend energy and time creating more discord.  Maybe it wasn’t apathy being perceived, but the byproduct of a weariness that paralyzes and leaves one in a state of stagnation, even depression.  In this environment, every small effort, like sitting alone on a corner with a campaign sign, could be counted as a carefully presented act of courage, if only by one– or two, by way of education and generational persuasion that the status quo need not be the future.  When trying to effect change, too many obstacles or resistance to change, can be deplete motivations. But history has shown, just One is enough to stir the pot and get a new recipe for sustenance off the shelf.

Before leaving town and heading back to the coast, following reports of Isaias’ diverted focus, we stopped at a CVS for rest room privileges behind a locked door requiring permission from a masked and gloved attendant to access.  Talking briefly with a senior woman at the check-out counter, when asked if she was a resident and why she’d chosen Madison over her hometown in Ohio, a story line “too close to home” followed:  Divorce, to be near aging parents (now passed), and to provide a safe place for her school aged son— 20 years ago—and because at the time it seemed like a good idea.  Now she is alone, her parents gone, and her son moved away, and she’s just too tired to make another life change.  (All I could think at this point was how this was my own greatest fear—of being too tired or unwilling to make the effort to change or try something new. I understood.  I respected her choice, but silently I prayed:  God, don’t let me settle for this kind of resigned outcome. Keep pressing outward!)

It was a long drive, but clearer sailing back to the east coast a day ahead of schedule provided a short-lived relief.   A couple of neighbors who’d chosen to sit and wait for the storm that never arrived, shot a few more visual arrows and smirks at the unfeeling armor I’d put up to deflect their assessments of me as a “softy”  for choosing to avoid a perceived danger.   Let’s just say I haven’t unpacked much since returning to Mom’s house.  I’m still considering how a detour taken, added to doubts about why I’m still here, and clarified the need to advance another “Do-Over” that’s taking too long to bake in an oven known as The Sunshine State—-with an “active hurricane season” initiated.

Someone with an uncomplimentary tone in his voice recently commented to me:

“You’ll never settle down—-you’ve always got your eyes on the horizon!” 

My response:

“Better to have your eyes on the horizon than down in a ditch somewhere!

‘Settling for whatever’ is no longer a part of my vocabulary.

 

Detours may lead to doubts, but Do-Overs remain an option.

 

Tacking with the Wind

An artist friend recently said: “when the conditions change, reset your sails, not your destination” (RC) in a philosophical attempt at responding to the dream-quashing effects of a global Pandemic parading like a diva on a media-blitzkrieg stage.  Days later, after making difficult decisions to scrub the launch of a best laid plan that had taken months to prepare, a loop from an archived memory bank replayed in my storm-battered mind, featuring my younger brother on a family vacation in western Maryland determined to windsurf around a blustery lake.  He was a young and fit gymnastics coach at the time, so his best efforts at muscling into a tack and sail allowed him to head into the wind and still determine his course forward.  I remember being in awe of his skills, since I’d tried and failed to simply keep the board upright with my feet firmly planted for about three seconds before capsizing.  Guess that makes me a better fair-weather soloist than course-corrector for the collective.

I’m working on letting go and not looking back, but when too many heart-felt dreams get dashed it takes a while to come up from sputtering to catch a life-giving breath and walk away without blaming the Universe for some dirty slam-dunk warfare tactic.  Watching a documentary last night on WWII and how an admired world leader discontinued sending children off to “safer shores” of the US, after a German submarine targeted and sank a ship filled with children, made me even more aware that good intentions don’t always lead to happier endings once envisioned.

This morning, after several nights of interrupted sleep with more questions than answers washing onto a virtual shoreline littered with broken shells, I woke hoping to find something salvageable, among the flotsam of yet another dashed vision.  A storehouse of fabric and thread, along with donated supplies lay on a table next to a portable sewing machine I had once considered non-essentials.  Now they were in line to be re-purposed as virus-transmission-deterring masks, since the powers that be had advised (even legislated) demonstrating our status as Patriots and Global Citizens by covering up and silencing what makes us unique—“freedom of (unmuffled) speech” —with an unspoken caveat to “think before you speak” and “filter what you eat” to improve chances of survival.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being creative and making things with my own hands, whether its functional art, growing plants, or food to eat, but my thoughts are also tempted to sway towards “don’t get me started on a fashion statement that causes judgement and further divisions within communities where the truest forms of Trust (Truth or Dare) are found at the grass roots level”. It’s where lies and deceptions are found out and confronted.  By the way, my chosen “fire arms” for countering are words for now, though a “conceal and carry” permit remains active in the wake of a fellow Realtor losing her life while showing a house a few years ago.  In recent years I’ve come to understand forgiveness, grace, and even renewed love offered to past offenders works a much better magic than seeking vengeance—a responsibility belonging to One wiser and better at dispensing consequences than myself—but, again, don’t threaten me or test my best intentions to defend the ones I care about— barrels set on a decline can still roll.

One lesson I’ve recently accepted is that sometimes we choose to fully invest ourselves and available resources, but then walk away when it becomes too painful to sustain a relationship or a venture.  The miracle of healing comes when unforseen turns of the wheel reveal a stronger force than our logical minds can wrap around, connecting us in spirit, somehow against all odds.  We are bought full circle back around to the foundation of a greater Love humans cannot bottle like a new prescription.  I choose that life to one filled with fear and regrets.  For whatever the reasons, I choose to  embrace fully the people and places that make my heart know it’s “Home”, feeling no further need to explain what I cannot.  “Home is where the heart is” could be in many geographical locations in my experience.

So, before redirecting my course with lookouts to the Port and Starboard (a good wine label idea for anyone bottling “essential beverages”), I’ll share a few photos of a recent ghosted past, just so you can be assured I had a plan and it seemed to be a good and honorable one.  Like many of you out there scratching your heads trying to creatively re-imagine all the people in the world living through this debacle of modern science, ill-prepared “healthcare”, and disjoint political leadership, I am not at all sure of the remedy.  Stay awake, stay positive, and find small blessings in each moment is my personal ascription.  Be careful about looking to the stars for guidance, if you’re tacking with the wind, because there are a lot of man-made satellites and stations in the heavens now, whose lights confuse the former reliability of the Constellations for guidance.  As Edward R. Murrow once signed off his CBS News show during the McCarthy Era witch-hunts to “root out Communists in America”, we could all use a little more “Good Night and Good Luck” as we read Goodnight Moon by Maragret Wise to our children, trying to keep our house-boats steady.