Line-dried Sheets and Other Unlikely Paths to Enlightenment

The heat pump hums inside our back door. It is 37° on our back porch this morning, and I’ve decided to sit in the corner of our bedroom instead. I settle into a comfy green and red plaid armchair, a chair I am proud to say came from a thrift store.

On most mornings, I write in my royal blue Challenge Manuscript Book, number five in a series of six. I filled the first one with stories of daily life in Belize in 1997, writing with the help of a kerosene lamp. Some mornings I download flotsam, dream captures, and mental purges to a small paperback notebook that I bought for a dollar.

Caught between thoughts, my pen in mid-air, I look around the room. Although our mattress and underwear are new, very little else in our bedroom is. The bed tables, dressers, even the towering corn plant are opportunistic finds or rescues. A worn Nepalese carpet lies at the foot of our bed, a gift from Bob’s high school friend, Fran Yarbro. I try in vain to picture the silk threads when they were new. I get down on my knees and count five saber-wielding huntsmen leaning forward on their rearing steeds, nine scrambling forest creatures, and one open-mouthed tiger.

Bob and I walk pad across this carpet many times each day without giving much thought to Fran. Sitting here I take the opportunity to picture them, she and her husband Sergei, sitting across the table from us, wine glasses in hand, animated, so obviously in love. It wasn’t long after that day that they perished on the slopes of Mt. Everest doing what they loved most.

I can almost remember helping Bob assemble our bookshelf many years ago. We bought most of the Kurt Vonnegut novels new, but they are well worn now from repeated readings. Ditto for Daniel Quinn. The other books are thrift store finds and gifts. There is a copy of Dead Eye Dick, signed by the author that Nick Meyers gave us before he died. A few books away from it is a 1956 printing of Rob Roy that Bob’s mother was reading when he was born and which inspired his name. And we have a 1951 copy of Marguerite Henry’s Album of Horses, my name penciled on the flyleaf in loopy grade school sprawl.

Our sheets, line-dried in yesterday’s perfect sun, were also previously owned. I stalk the sheet rack at Pittsboro’s PTA Thrift Store for 100% cotton, Pima or Egyptian. When I discover one with the right degree of softness, I drape it over my arm and walk to the counter and, gushing with pride, and invite the clerk to run her hand over the sturdy fabric.

When I learned that my brother John, and his wife, Darla, were coming to visit, I stripped the guest room bed and hung everything in the sun. And then I made a loaf of bread, the dough so irresistibly plump I could not stop kneading. I harvested okra, figs, cherry tomatoes, squash, and peppers, thinking with each pluck how wonderful it would be to have my family here. About the walks we would take, and about how, together, we would roast chestnuts and make them into soup with sherry, onions, and squash.

Later, after putting the bed back together, I entered the guest room to place a few pieces of dark chocolate on a scuffed night table and noticed how the whole room smelled of crisp fall sunlight and golden breezes.

Darla, John, Bob and Camille atop Jordan Lake Dam – October 14, 2019

I don’t think you have to sit still underneath a fig tree for forty-nine days to reach nirvana. I also don’t think you can buy it. Enlightenment, for me at least, is about manifesting my values, and I am fortunate that I can do that. My nirvana is time to think my thoughts, family visits, home-grown food, thrift store scores, heirlooms, treasured books, and line-dried sheets.

Here it Comes

Hillsborough Klan Rally – August 24, 2019

I’m sipping coffee on the back porch, listening to the crickets and the frogs. Their pitch is slurred, slowed by a drop in temperature and punctuated with crow calls. Our crepe myrtles shed golden droplets, like lazy shooting stars, always just outside my field of vision. I stare at one leaf, twirling madly on its tether, daring it to drop while I watch. I want them to stop before it gets too messy.

After breakfast, I open my laptop and read the headlines. The Democrats have finally initiated impeachment hearings. There’s been another shooting. A sixteen-year-old girl has sailed from Sweden to address the United Nations in New York. “How dare you!” she says, eyes blazing. Revolution, fires, famine, and floods — the world is spinning out of control.

Later, on my way home from town, I notice two trucks on the lawn across the street from Horton Middle School. A long, shiny pole lies in the brittle grass, and a Confederate Battle Flag spills carelessly over a tailgate. Inside the school, black, white, and brown kids tap their knees against their desks, waiting for the bell to ring. We know some of those kids. Their parents are not happy about the message being sent by the flag across the street.

The school is named after George Moses Horton, a slave owned by William Horton. Back then, people named their slaves after themselves. George Moses taught himself to read. He became a free man after the Confederates lost the Civil War and was the first black poet published in the southern United States.

My mother traces her heritage to an Englishman named Barnabas Horton, who arrived on the shores of Long Island in 1640. I wonder if William was also related to Barnabas.

I learn that there is a second flag, and, a couple of days later, I drive beneath it. It flicks a shadow across the hood of my car. In August, my next door neighbor witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally in Hillsborough, thirty-five miles away. Turns out they were armed, too. Here it comes, I think.

Hillsborough, NC – August, 2019

A bronze confederate soldier still stands twenty-seven feet high atop a granite pedestal in front of the Chatham County Courthouse in the middle of town. But not for long. The County Commissioners voted last spring to remove it by November. Since then, the monument has become a focal point for conflict. It stands stiff-boned, surrounded by crowd control barriers. The inscription reads: “To the Confederate Soldiers of Chatham County — Our Confederate Heroes.”

Pittsboro, population 4,000, is small enough that we smile and hold the doors open for each other at the Post Office. We still take our feet off the accelerator to let side street traffic fold into line at rush hour while the courthouse tower clock chimes the time.

Turns out the flag erectors, the guys with the giant poles and crumpled flags aren’t from around here and that they plan on cementing in more flag poles around the county. They are with an outfit called Virginia Flaggers.

After the first two flags went up, there was a small protest/anti-protest demonstration at the courthouse. The police arrested three protesters. One video shows two officers leading a shambling, bearded man through the sparse crowd. I almost felt sorry for the guy.

History is not written by the losers, and the losers never forget. I understand how it might feel to grow up here on land my granddaddy farmed. To witness the onslaught, a wave of northerners, siphoning land, and sucking away my sense of dignity, in a world gone to shit. And how it might feel to watch a handful of liberal county commissioners remove a tribute to my ancestors that has been standing for over 100 years. I get it. I’d be upset, too.

Or, maybe I’d be ready to move on. Maybe, even if I was born and raised Southern, I might not align myself with rebel forces, six generations back, fighting to secede just as I don’t align myself with my German ancestors, three generations back, who wiped out six million Jews.

I go to dinner with a friend who is not sure what’s going to happen next. Yes, she is an American citizen, but she doesn’t look like the white people putting up these flags, and she knows that makes her a target. A few tables over, we hear the high notes of outrage coming from a similar conversation. Two men I know reasonably well, both have been to our house, are trying to decide what to do. They don’t want to stir things up any further but feel they can’t take this latest assault lying down.

Zoom out. The tweeter in residence is not handling impeachment proceedings gracefully. As part of one weekend twitter binge, he tweeted, “a warning from a pastor about ‘a Civil War like fracture in this Nation’ should he be removed from office.” Those of us who aren’t looking for another Civil War were not amused.

At this point, I don’t care if the statue stays or goes. I drive past the flags on my way to and fro without glancing up. I long for harmony. I’m sick of polarization. How do we give the old guard a sense of dignity without making the rest of us feel unwelcome, or worse, threatened?

I want to think this tension is new, but it isn’t — it’s just come to our town where I can’t ignore it. We had trouble like this in the ’60s and ’70s: assassinations, cops shooting kids, hippies against rednecks, peaceniks against patriots. Things were quiet for a time, and then the school shooting at Columbine sparked a dribble, and then a flood of gun violence.

I want to blame the high chair king and his incendiary tweets. I find it ridiculously sad that we aren’t even fighting over food. It seems a meaningless tussle when the victims appear well-nourished. But their discontent is palpable, an undercurrent of hopelessness strong enough to pull shooters into the abyss.

I think of the one-legged woman begging for cash the other day, stopping me as I made my way across the grocery store parking lot. How her partner leaned forward, nodding as she told her story, and how both of them relaxed after I sighed and reached for my wallet. I think of the millions of ruined soldiers and mental health refugees sleeping in doorway nests and culvert boxes and wonder how many of them sleep in our town.

I don’t think we are beyond fixing, nor do I believe we need an outside war to bring us together. I want what I’ve always wanted, what everyone ultimately wants: a sense of belonging, peace, and unity.

Leaves continue falling, green fading to yellow, and all turning brown over time. It’s been hot. Torpid. Frisky mornings slowing to long, motionless afternoons. The voices in the woods pulse, “We . . we . . we . . we . . we . .”

Two Days in September

On September 11, I logged into Facebook and found myself scrolling past a minefield of 9/11-themed posts. I bristled each time I saw “never forget,” that war cry without an exit plan. I hated that this national tragedy had come to be an excuse for revenge, and was frightened by how nationalism has hijacked patriotism.

~*~

My aunt could see the Manhattan death plumes from New Jersey that day in 2001. She stared out her window through the trees, pacing, and taking short sips of air. She thought about her sons at work in the city, willing her beige wall phone to ring, longing to hear, “Mom? We’re both okay.”

She paced with a legion of other families while mayhem reigned at ground zero: rescue teams beyond exhaustion, stunned survivors, agitated newscasters. So many choking on the news, unable to swallow, only the dead at rest.

Bob’s co-worker at the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission called before dawn; her voice pitched half an octave high. “Turn on your TV!” I climbed out of bed and was walking the floor in our little stick house, eyes squinting. What? Of course, we didn’t have a television. We had shed the TV on our way to Belize five years earlier.

We packed a light bag and drove down the volcano, hoping the inter-island puddle jumpers planned on flying anyway so that Bob could attend a native plant conference on Molokai. I brought my fencing tool, thinking that if we found ourselves in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, I might want to cut through some barbed wire.

“Even if we had a TV,” Bob said, “I don’t think I would have turned it on.” I agreed. Neither of us cared to have another catastrophe etched into our retinas. We already had unshakable images of the exploding Challenger and John F. Kennedy’s last moments.

The airports, all the airports, were closed and the skies were blessedly silent for days. Not even the volcano tour helicopters broke the calm. My father told me later on the phone, “I held my breath for a couple of days, hoping they’d do the right thing.”

A sense of peace becalmed the Pacific, petty squabbles abandoned, stranded tourists embraced. We felt lucky to be alive, all of us grieving for the people digging through the rubble 4,900 miles east. For two days, the entire nation was grounded and unified.

And then the skies roared back to life.

A year later Congress gave the president authorization to use military force against Iraq and within five months peace was destroyed by the ink of an angry pen. Our disappointment was so profound that we quit our jobs and moved to a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua, a place without an airstrip, roads, motorized vehicles, or even a proper dock. We met the big cargo ship at the reef when it arrived with diesel fuel, and watched the crew pitch 55-gallon drums overboard for us to lash to our boat. I remember hearing the drone of a propeller plane only once and rushing out from under the coconut palms to stare.

We lived in Nicaragua just long enough to notice a cultural shift upon re-entry. The first time a grocery store clerk said, “Have a safe day,” instead of “Have a great day,” I thought I’d misheard. The second time I chuckled, wondering, Safe from what? I began rolling my eyes at every well-meaning, “Be safe!” “Stay safe!” “Drive safe!” and “Safe travels!” I wasn’t a fan of this new fear-based vocabulary.

Then I started seeing “Never Forget” bumper stickers. More salt in the wound. For all of us who had fervently hoped for peace, “Never forget,” sounded exactly like, “Never forgive.” I began to lose heart. The United States had hijacked an unforgettable tragedy and was using it as an excuse to perpetuate death and destruction.

Had my cousins died that day, I would mourn them as I grieved for all the other lives. And I would resent, even more, the overlay of nationalism and military might that seeks to blur our grief into hate and revenge. What could have been a pulling together became an excuse to kill. Two thousand nine hundred ninety-six souls sacrificed so we could take more lives. Their heartbeats immortalized in the beat of our war drums.

Waiting for the Rain

The air is soft and sweet, ringing with what all my life I thought were insects, but which Bob tells me after consulting the internets, are invisible frogs. I sit in my rocker on the back porch Astroturf, the wooden seat softened by a paisley thrift store cushion, bare feet resting on another cheap chair, waiting.

Although the sky is white, the lawn, the crepe myrtles, and the roses are tinged yellow. I don’t know where Dorian is on the map this morning because I have not yet turned on my laptop. My browser can wait until I’ve had my fill of cocoa. I absorb the morning, with my journal, my reading glasses, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac beside me.

~*~

We lost our wifi for a few days at the end of July. I had been working at the kitchen sink with half an eye on the rain sheeting off the roof when lightning struck outside the window. I jumped back at the same moment a loud pop on the other side of the room propelled Bob from his desk. He’d seen smoke above our Wi-Fi hookup, and our internet was out. I watched him loosen the backplate on our dead modem. Tiny bits of porcelain fell out, and there was a charred scar beside a shattered capacitor.

Bob ordered a replacement modem and rigged up a hot spot from his phone so that I could get online. He’d be flying to Houston in the morning, and I’d be disconnected until UPS delivered the new modem, stuck alone in the house with my flip phone and magazines. I assured him I’d be fine. I don’t need my browser, I told him with a cocky smirk. I have a rich and satisfying life outside The New York Times, The Atlantic, Gmail, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

I used the hot spot to look at my calendar, and the weather, and sent emails saying I could only be reached by phone for the next three days. I was tempted to say that I’d be technologically marooned because our modem got hit by lightning, that Bob was going away for nine days with his smartphone, that the new modem wouldn’t reach our front porch until Friday, and that there was a chance I won’t be savvy enough to hook it up without Bob’s big brain to guide me. I was tempted to type all of this and more, as if they were my last words. To type while the typing was good, before my screen faded to black.

The next morning, I watched Bob drive off the in the dark and went back inside the house. I connected to the Mobile Web on my phone and found that I could access a handful of CNN headlines but nothing more. I tried to write but was distracted by the day yawning ahead. Finally, I grabbed my wallet and the mail and got into the car, switching on NPR before backing out of the garage. In town, I sat in front of the post office listening to the 6:00 news. I drove to the grocery store and sat in their lot, listening to more stories.

Back home, I worked in the yard like I do most days. I tidied the house and worked in the kitchen, pining for my podcasts, wishing I had a radio. I read The Sun magazine and Aldo’s essays and made phone calls. “You don’t have a radio?” said one friend after another. By the second day, I didn’t miss my browser. I spent more time on the phone and reading. Bob and I talked a lot, probably more than we do when he’s home, both distracted by our screens.

~*~

It was a proud moment for me when I succeeded in hooking up the new modem. I clicked on the Google Chrome icon, my excitement mounting along with something else. I stared at my inbox, at close to a hundred new emails, and took a moment before diving into the deep waters of undigested newsletters, notifications, and personal correspondence.

Thirty minutes later, I had opened tabs for news stories I wanted to pursue and social media I needed to check before responding to friends. Now I was clicking through Facebook notifications, determined to reach ground zero, the flood of emails barely addressed. My chest tightened, and I recognized the feeling. It was fear, plain and simple. The fear that I would never reach the surface, never get a handle on things; that I wasn’t up to the task, that I was going to be left behind, and ultimately, find out that I didn’t belong and was condemned to a solitary, disconnected life. Primal fear began in my stomach and worked its way up through my chest until I was choking on it. I was drowning; sipping off a fire hose. I closed my laptop and went outside.

The next day, I bought a used clock radio for $2.00.

~*~

Just writing about my offline/online experience this morning, sitting on the back porch, waiting for the rain, has made my chest tighten again. I’m retired, I tell myself; any pressure to keep up is pressure of my own making. None of this is real: the notifications, the op-eds, the trending videos, and the “like” hearts. What’s real is the soul-baring dispatches from friends, which in the absence of email could be answered on paper or with a call.

It hasn’t started raining yet, but the traffic has risen from a dribble to a steady flow. I’m about to start a load of laundry, reheat some leftovers, and type this essay. I remind myself that when I open Chrome, I only need answers to three questions and that, if I wanted to, I could listen for those answers on the radio:

  • Is what’s-his-name still in the White House?
  • Are we still at war?
  • When will the rain begin?

Being Amy

Bob lifts Amy over his head and places her atop Jesse’s plush, winter coat. He makes sure she has one foot on either side of his spine before stepping away. She runs her baby-sized hands over the soft brown hair and leans in to breathe his smell as her dad hoists her older sister, Emily, up behind her.

Emily was four and Amy two when we began spending afternoons at the barn. Molly would enter the picture a year later. Their mother dressed Em and Ames like twins in unimaginably cute outfits, especially during the holidays. Bob would spread a quilt on the lawn outside the arena fence. “Don’t leave the blanket,” he’d say, and they never did. They sat and watched as we warmed up the horse, cantering along the rail, several feet away.

Before I knew it, I had fallen in love with their tiny voices and their sincere interest in everything. I loved the way they held their hands still for each stroke of the brush when I painted their little nails. They were water babies, so we took them to an outdoor pool in the summer, giving them rides on our backs, pretending to be large water mammals, which, of course, we were. Em and Ames seemed always to move in tandem, so close I never thought about one without picturing the other.

Being the oldest child myself, I assumed that Emily was in charge. Tapped into the rhythms of the natural world, Amy often danced to the beat of a different drummer while Emily seemed more in tune with our adult, and more conventional, world. Bob remembers stepping into their room one morning, wondering what was holding Amy up as the rest of us prepared to load ourselves into the car. He found Amy sitting on the floor, moving her hand in cryptic patterns to catch the sunlight on her skin.

A more complex picture came into focus as the girls grew. Although she was happy to give the steering wheel to her sister, I noticed that it was Amy who often charted their adventures. And when Molly joined us and began to vie with Emily for Amy’s attention, Amy became both the coveted prize and the peacemaker.

When Bob and I moved to Virginia, we talked their mother into taking the girls out of Colorado for the summer. While Bob was at work, we four girls went about the business of homemaking together: shopping, cooking, cleaning, tending the horses, and keeping the yard mowed and pretty.

One day, as we were returning from the grocery store in our hot, husky-voiced hay truck, we found ourselves pulled over at the curb. Amy sat on the bench seat between Em and Molly, all three of them looking straight ahead through the bug-smeared truck windshield, their hair sticking to their necks. I waited behind the steering wheel, and all knew what I was waiting for because we had been here before. I wanted to hear that the kids are done bickering and carrying on, so that I could resume our drive home through the Williamsburg traffic, undistracted.

Amy must have felt her sisters eyeballing her from the corners of their eyes. For one thing, they didn’t want the ice cream to melt. No one did. And she knows that as per usual we are all depending on her to break the silence. So Amy sighed and said, “I want to be good.” Without hesitation, Emily, and then Molly repeated the magic phrase. Before the words were out of their mouths, I pushed the blinker arm down and turned the key in the ignition. I eased into the lane and air began to circulate, mercifully, through the truck cab windows.

Twenty-three years later, Amy is celebrating her thirtieth birthday in Oregon with her mother, her sisters, and her nephew, come from Colorado. Bob was lucky enough to spend a pre-birthday weekend with Amy, Jasper, and Osha the dog last month. He skyped me in from Cheshire that weekend to take me on a tour of Amy’s shrunken ecological footprint. He showed me the creek, the vegetable garden, and the box truck home she shares with Jasper and Osha. We stopped to say good morning to some of their friends that live on the same acreage.

Amy has done a great job of releasing her inner artist without upsetting the balance of nature. She takes cast-off garments made from cotton, silk, and wool and dyes them with black walnut, imprinting them with leaves and other plants. She calls her art: “Scavenge Magic,” and it is indeed a form of spell work in which she dyes clothing the color of the soil, by boiling them in a blackish liquid. She says she is infusing them with “some level of planetary grief.”

It’s a milestone, turning thirty, and we watch Amy reach it with disbelief and pride. Amy has not lost her ability to abandon herself to the beauty of the natural world, and yet she has found a way to survive within our monetary culture. She is an inspiration, a true believer who walks the talk without depriving herself of what matters: quality of life, and the time to enjoy it.

Five Reasons It Hurt Even Worse To Say Goodbye This Time

The Airport

The moment our eyes meet, she breaks gait and leaps ahead of her husband. In seconds my arms are wrapped around her slim shoulders, and the airport buzz disappears, like the hum of the frog orchestra had evaporated a couple of years ago the last time we crept up on the lotus pond behind their house next door. All is silent except for the whoosh of air from our lungs as we fold into a tight embrace. We separate for an arm’s-length look, and “Whoosh,” pull each other in again.

Eventually, the rest of the world begins singing again. Haruka and I blink at the blur of strangers, searching for Jason and Bob, wiping at our eyes with the backs of our hands. Bob and I both find it hard to believe that our friends are genuinely here after being gone for two and a half years, after selling their farm and traveling through Central America, North Africa, Europe, and Asia, before settling down in Japan.

The Cornbread Story

One by one, we tell our stories about Jason in honor of his recent fiftieth birthday, working our way around the long, potluck table as we eat chocolate beet cake with Ben and Jerry’s Phish ice cream. Bob has saved his story for last and I, next-to-last, am going to tell the cornbread story. “We were at Shakori,” I begin, and then looking down the table, I see Kersten and decide to tell a different Shakori story.

“We were all under the, er, influence, and Jason and Haruka said they were going over to the food court for something to eat.” I was hungry but said I couldn’t go with them. “Why not?” Jason asked.

“Because I just can’t be Camille right now.”

“You don’t have to be Camille.” He said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “You can be her twin sister. What do you want your name to be?”

“Sophie.”

Haruka is already laughing as the three of us leave our Meadow Grove headquarters. We walk up the hill to the muddy main path and across the narrow wooden bridge, and right away we run into Kersten and Gillian. “Camille!” they say as Jason steps between us.

“This isn’t Camille. This is Camille’s twin sister, Sophie.”

At this point in my story, Kersten can no longer contain herself. “I remember!” she says, “And I was ticked, thinking ‘Why are they trying to fool us? This is clearly Camille, and they are obviously buzzed. Why would they try to hide it?’”

Jason chimes in with, “And then Haruka starts laughing.” Now everyone at the table is roaring, and those who were there are adding bits and pieces. Bob waits for the excitement to die down and launches into the cornbread story.

“I remember when Jason came up to me at Shakori and asked if I wanted to taste the saltiest cornbread ever, and I said, ‘No thanks, dude.’” “No, really,” Jason said, “You’ve got to try this. It’s the saltiest cornbread I’ve ever tasted.” None of us took the bait, and we wandered on, Jason carrying the cornbread in front like a sacrament. Moments later, a guy walked up to us and said, “I am sooo thirsty! Do you have any water?”

“No,” Jason said, “But would you like to try the saltiest cornbread ever?” And, incredibly, the guy reached out and popped a piece into his mouth.

Edamame

The four of us sit around the dining room table, squeezing buttery beans from a mound of salted pods. Bob and I had worked hard to bunny-proof our edamame patch after losing most of it to those pesky rabbits. “I feel like I’m back in my Nana’s house,” I say, and everyone nods happily, fully aware of what a happy place what is for me. “Only now I am the Nana,” I say, my mouth full of edamame. We eat until we cannot suffer another pod, and shell the rest.

Shishitos

Haruka bends at the waist like the dancer she is and peers up through a pepper plant. “Here’s a fat one,” she says, reaching in to pluck it with surgical precision. We circle around and around the three plants, throwing each pepper into a bowl with a satisfying “thwump.” When we think we’ve picked the last pickable pepper, we see one we’ve missed.

I toss the shishitos with toasted sesame oil and put them into our new air fryer. After they begin to brown, I finish them with tamari. They are exactly the way I remember my first taste, the first time Jason and Haruka served us beer-peppers so many years ago. Lyle calls them “Peppers Camille,” but I tell him that they are “Peppers Jason.

The Kubota

Bob takes the three of us for a tour of what used to be The Plant. We arrive at the Chatham Beverage District at the end of Lorax Lane to ogle two and a half years of development. Jason and Haruka are particularly interested in the farm, so we walk down to the Secret Garden, and on up to the packing shed. As we turn the corner, Jason spots an old friend and walks over to put his hand reverently on a giant, orange fender. “The Kubota!” he says, and strokes the hard steel. “I sure covered a lot of ground together with this tractor.” He lingers, wistfully, his mind turning over the fertile soil­—nine years of farm memories.

The Test of Time – 25 Years

I can still recall the vision, Bob’s dream of 25 years ago. It was golden hour, and we were loping side by side across a field of grass so tall that the bottom of our stirrups brushed against the seed heads. A gentle New Zealand breeze kissed the prairie, sculpting a sea of undulating waves. “Let’s set our grappling hooks to that open plain,” he said, and I nodded, my heart full of love for this man who had promised to share his life with me.

Our first marriages hadn’t worked for either of us, but now, putting hope over experience, we were keen to give it a second chance. Our families struggled to understand. One brother spoke the words everyone else was thinking. “I hope your love will stand the test of time.” Another brother warned that if we went through with the wedding, we would become the objects of pity and disgust.

I won’t lie and say it was easy. At 40, I was carrying a significant load of baggage. There were legal and financial swamps to navigate, patterns to unravel, and encumbrances to shed. We loved each other fiercely, of that there was no doubt, and so we soldiered on. Our many friends embraced us and provided wholehearted support. In the evenings and weekends, we saddled our horses for brain-cleansing rides, ambling down hard-packed county roads to the sound of meadow larks, poking around the flood plain stirring up magpies, and flushing long-tailed pheasants with gallops along the edges of winter wheat fields.

We had been feeling stuck when Bob awoke from his inflorescent dream. We felt as if we were in a dark forest, thwarted by obstacles, bumping into one tree after another, having to back up and go around, all the while striving towards elusive patches of sunlight. We held onto the golden meadow image and kept inching forward.

A wise friend told me that when we join hands in a relationship, we begin walking down a road together and that although that road is often smooth and wide, it sometimes narrows into a cold, rocky place without a trace of a trail. “The important thing is to hang on. Find your way together. Don’t let go.”

Twenty-five years later, I look over my shoulder at miles and miles of open plain, that tangled wood so far in the distance, I wonder if it ever even existed. Open grassland, moonscape, narrow trail, and wide-open road; we have galloped and trudged over every kind of landscape, hand-in-hand, determined to stand the test of time. The life we’ve built, the goodwill we have garnered, the warm and constant flame of love we’ve nourished—all are proof of love manifested and a life well shared.

First Love

My first love arrived on all fours one winter day in 1965. I was standing in line, shivering with grades K through 8 outside St. Mary’s on City Island. I stared at the wooden doors with my fingers tucked into my armpits, willing the nuns to emerge and usher us in when a disturbance made me turn my head.

A mid-sized mutt was making his way up and down the lines, greeting and sniffing, accepting pats on his head, and eluding full-body grabs. When he got to where I stood, he pointed his black-tipped ears towards my face, stopped, and sat down. I looked into the luminous eyes framed in soft fawn and felt a tug on my 8-year-old heart.

The dog followed me into school but was quickly escorted back outside, so I figured that was that. But, hours later, when the final bell rang, I saw that he had made a little nest between the boxwood and the brick wall of our school. I bent down and ran my fingers through his thick coat, and he nosed me in return. And then he followed me home, but of course, he couldn’t come in the house. I didn’t even think to ask.

After dinner, it began to snow. Mom was sitting on the couch, reading to my brothers and me. We crowded around her looking at pictures of the protagonist, a long-haired Dachshund named Wiener when someone knocked at our front door. Mom opened the door, and the woman on our step launched an attack. Snow flew as she berated my mother for leaving her dog outside on a night like this.

Johnny, Bobby, and I sat on the couch, open-mouthed. This was even better than the storybook that had captured our attention moments before. “What dog?” my mother stammered, “We don’t have a dog!” The woman stepped aside to reveal the chocolate-colored stray, plastered in wet fur and shivering.

Mom brought him into the house, the woman went away, I told my schoolyard story, and we regarded our first family pet. We toweled him off, each of us drowning in his gaze. Mom rummaged through the leftovers. She held out a piece of meat, and he gently took it from her hand. “What shall we name him?” someone asked. “Wiener!” one of the boys howled, and we all laughed.

My parents tried to find Wiener’s owner, but after a few weeks concluded he did not belong to our island community. They speculated that he had tried to follow his owner to work. Perhaps he had seen his human get on a bus, and maybe one day he had gotten loose and darted through the open doors of a bus headed for City Island.

Wiener ended up in New Jersey with my Nana where he roamed free with the rest of her dogs. He always greeted us with solemn consideration and a gentlemanly waving of his feathery tail. In the summer we kids spent long weekends at Nana’s, playing in her thick lawn, and racing up the hill through birch and laurel to explore the sandpits. Wiener lived a long life, pampered in ways I have never since seen anyone spoil their animals: with coffee and cream in the morning, liver and bacon for breakfast, calamine lotion on their pink tick-bit bellies, spoons of Pepto-Bismol when required, and ice cubes in their drinking water.

Of those many years with my first pet, one memory stands out. It was hot, and everything was green. Nana and I had been to the dairy, the one with the doe-eyed Jersey cow, and bought fresh cream and butter and a carton of raspberries. Wiener and I were playing outside when Nana called from the kitchen door. She handed me a bowl of raspberries and cream, which I took to a bench beneath a mammoth oak. Wiener sat in front of me, and we took turns. A spoonful of cream with a fat, red berry for him, then one for me, then one for him, our eyes locked, cicadas ticking in the woods, leaves rustling overhead.

I cannot for the life of me find a photograph of Wiener, and I won’t tell you how much time I spent looking. We all loved that dog, even my father, the man behind the camera, who recorded so much of our young lives. I decide that I’m done looking and that it’s better this way. This way there is no danger I’ll overwrite my precious memories with a picture of a nondescript dog. No image can capture the significance of those brown canine eyes.

Sidelined

On a typical spring morning in glorious retiree-land, I woke, got caffeinated, wrote a little something, and worked up a sweat in our gardens. I came into the house, showered, and washed my hair. Remembering Bob had said earlier he might have to drive into town today, I pulled on a denim shift: going-to-town clothes. And sure enough, when I went into our other bathroom to brush my hair, I found him shaving. “Mind if I go along?” I asked. “Of course not, love.”

I look forward to these shared trips to town. We save gas and electrons and enjoy our windshield time: undistracted conversation, heightened by the sense that we are moving in the same direction. As is our custom, Bob drops me at the Food Lion on his way to pick up mail at The Plant on the east side of town. Sometimes Bob finishes his business before I finish mine, but on this day I was done first.

I sent Bob a text, pocketed my phone, and sat down to wait on a wooden bench inside the store. Ordinarily, I would stand on the sidewalk, but today I had bought frozen peas, and it was already in the mid-80s. So I sat facing the glass wall between me and the parking lot, frozen in time, a victim of circumstances, deliciously sidelined from responsibility, with nothing better to do than watch life parade past.

I felt a swoosh of air each time the automatic doors opened, and with it, an undulating human vibe that wafted off the river of Pittsboro peeps. I imagined I was people-watching in an airport. I pictured myself as a wide-eyed infant, observing life from the inactivity of a bassinet.

It was about the time the kids get out of school, and the parking lot was humming like a beehive. I saw a woman hop up on the back of on her cart with a child on either side, crouched and clinging, the three of them open-mouthed and hair flying, coasting down into the parking lot, catching some free breeze. A rush of love and wistfulness took me by surprise. I felt simultaneously voyeuristic and connected.

A woman sat down next to me and plunged a plastic fork into a carton of deli macaroni and cheese. I nodded and smiled, striving for friendly, but not obtrusive. I moved over a smidge, an accommodating gesture that I hoped didn’t look like recoil, trying to remember the last time I’d shared a seat with a stranger. My stomach rumbled.

The parade continued, some people nodding, some saying, “How you doin’?” Some pausing to chat with the macaroni lady. A woman entered the store with a little girl, her kinky hair in three pompoms that made her look like Minnie Mouse with a bun. A man walked past us carrying a twelve pack of canned beer, and I remember seeing him enter the store. Eventually, the Minnie Mouse girl and her mother walked past us again, too, the little girl walking on the balls of her feet, all the way on out to the parking lot and to their car. “She is sooo cute!” I said, “She’s walking on her toes!” “Like a ballerina!” said the woman, and we both laughed.

A wave of emotion rose as I thought: these are my people, Pittsboro people, simple folks not looking for trouble or to wrong anyone; just trying to get along, and get home and make dinner or whatever. All about to spin off into separate realities, but here in this very moment, here and now with me sitting and watching, while the woman next to me greets them from behind her carton of carbs.

Ever since that day, when I go to town with Bob I find myself hoping I’ll have to wait on that bench again. I wonder if I have the discipline to spend ten minutes sitting idle for no reason. One of these days, I’m going to find out. I’ll drive myself to town, park the car, and sit down on that bench for a spell.

Stopover

“Nostalgia is a funny thing,” I said, looking at the flowers I’d forgotten to give to my friend, Ann, “Kind of like these limp roses.” We were standing on a weathered pier, looking out at the grey water of York River, trying to conjure up a connection with this place we had so often visited when we lived in Virginia. “You mean a loose amalgamation of something we once found meaningful?” Bob said. “Exactly.” And with that, we left Croaker Landing.

A few hours later, Val came to rest in a Hampton Inn parking lot. We unloaded our bags, the cooler, and my Ghanaian hospitality basket, hungry enough to make dinner plans at a Mexican restaurant a couple of miles up the road. “I’ll walk,” I said, eager to shake off the drive.

I started off down the main drag, but cut across a crunchy bean field to avoid the traffic. The sideways heat baked the bare asphalt and fried roadside weeds of Main Street. With few exceptions (there are kids goofing off in one of the playgrounds) Exmore, Virginia appeared abandoned, with more than its share of vacant real estate. Typical of small towns across Corporate America, the highway box stores thrive at the expense of the original town center.

I clipped on past consignment shops, churches, sunburned weeds pushing up through empty asphalt parking lots, a hot playground hopping with kids, and I stopped to stare at a pale green Statue of Liberty made of cement. It took a minute before I gave up trying to figure out why someone thought this was a good idea. I got a whiff of something goaty and traced it to the Smith and Scott Funeral Home. I didn’t even want to guess what that was about. Maybe I was just tired, but late Sunday afternoon Exmore seemed knackered and sad.

As I was about to write off this town, I reached the shade of some giant oaks outside a doctor’s office. A little further, gnarled crepe myrtles branched above the sidewalk. I could hear the highway ahead, and Bob drove by with a cheerful wave in our blue Chevy Volt. Moments later we were seated at a two-top in El Maguey Mexican Restaurant, looking forward to some good old beans and rice.

The next morning the sun rises over Exmore through air thick from an overnight rain, an orange ball that sends a blurry streak across the scum pond below our hotel window. We’ve got plenty of time before another five and a half hours of driving, so I head out for a repeat of yesterday’s walk.

At 7:30 on a Monday, Exmore is already shaking off sleep and getting to its feet. Whether from the energy of a new work week or my good night’s sleep, the town seems alive and upbeat. Even the chickweed-chocked landscaping pots, and the rats in the culvert strike me as fun and wholesome in a Disneyesque kind of way. Men peddling bicycles with cargo crates greet me with a respectful, “Morning, Ma’am.” Black-headed gulls pull fat worms from waterlogged turf while the robins sing from the crepe myrtle branches.

“Huh,” I think, wondering if this really is the same town. Perception is a funny thing. We get to decide whether a place is knackered or quaint.