An American flag strains against its moorings outside our second floor window facing the Atlantic. We made our way here down Ocean Boulevard past beach clubs landscaped in cypress and roses, silent miniature golf creatures, gaudy life-sized plastic Arabian horses, and cartoonish restaurant signs with names like Awful Arthur’s, Tortuga’s Lie, and Hurricane Mo’s, all bright against a grey sky. I bought blueberries and cherries at one of the farm stands, knowing full well they weren’t locally grown. Our vacation ends here at Cypress House in Kill Devil Hills, a pit stop before pressing inland to our little corner of the world.
Four hours of driving gave us time to replay the vignettes from our visit. The reunion had gone well, thirty of us representing four generations ranging in age from infant to ninety. We managed to get a photo of the nuclear family, all eight of us in one room for the first time in since the eighties. John set up his tripod to frame the shot while Joe went to fetch Dad from Mom’s room down the hall.
We were all crossing our fingers that he would come. Mom stressed the importance of everyone being in place when Dad arrived, to keep him from balking and/or bolting. It felt a lot like dealing with a wild animal or a skittish colt. We arranged ourselves and waited, hoping he’d forgotten he’d said he wasn’t coming to the reunion. Johnny stood behind the couch with Bob, and Mike, leaving a space for Joe. Jim sat next to Mom with a space for Dad. Brandon stood behind the camera.
In came the lone wolf with a bad case of bed head, his handler close behind and took his seat. I reached over and tried to smooth down his hair but it was stiff with natural oils. Dad gave his head an ineffective swipe. He likes to tell us he has a full head of hair because he only washes it once a week. Brandon snapped the shutter.
After a delicious potluck lunch we took turns sharing thoughts from our year. Joe invented the round robin a few years ago and it has become the highlight of our gathering, at least for me. Not everyone feels comfortable talking about themselves but that’s never been a problem for me and Bob. I read an excerpt from my mother’s memoirs and briefly explained that I looked older now because a) I am and b) I’ve been touched by death and makeup seems disingenuous. When it was Bob’s turn he told the story of how we were drawn to Pittsboro by Lyle and Tami, came to collaborate with them, about Zafer’s tragic death About how our community sprang into action to plan a monster service and build the Farewell Trail for a home burial in the woods. And that’s where we’ll be buried too.
There were many other wonderful moments from our short week away such as the discovery that Mom and I wear the same exact watch, Deb’s apple cobbler, Darla walking in with a three-pound tub of chocolate ice cream, standing behind the counter with Michael, packing dozens of ice cream cones. A casual meal at the hotel Friday night with John, Joe and Jim, riding shotgun with Bobby up highway 81, blowing up balloons with Penny, Jim and Lou in the church hall before a reception to honor Joe’s twenty-five years in the priesthood, and a nice chat with Maggie and Brian during the reception.
On Sunday Joe, Jim and I picked up Chinese food and drove to Charity’s. Levi invited us to see the bike trail he made and off we scampered, running through honeysuckle-scented woods, crossing streams over pallets and planks, steering clear of poison ivy. John and Darla arrived with Mom and she started giving rides to the smaller children on her walker. I got the feeling this is routine when Mom visits her great grands. Darla and I tackled the weeds in the front yard while John cleaned up. Joe and Jim played out back with the kids. Golden moments, all.
On Tuesday we found ourselves outside Washington DC at Ned’s, enjoying his inimitable banter. He and I took a long, wet walk to the Great Falls of the Potomac chewing on every aspect of our lives along the way. That evening we met Frankie and Jessica for an elaborate Thai dinner in the city, heard all about their year in France and test drove their latest creation, a super relaxing and fun card game.
It was smart of Bob to spend one night at the shore before diving back into our other tribe. We lay on the bed and laughed at a TV movie, the Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp as Tonto with a dead crow flopping on his head. I ate cherries until my stomach began to churn, flipping stems and pits into the waste basket. We slept, fitful but well enough.
After breakfast we walked across the street and down the beach. The sun had come out. Pelicans floated passed in groups of five, six or eight. I took off my shoes, shrieking when the cold, white foam shot up my legs. Then I cried. I was home!
Down at the bend, in the bubble and beyond, hundreds turned a corner amid a pivotal scramble. I now refer to events as BZ (before Zafer) or AZ. Before Z, Arlo had a brother, Tami and Lyle a thriving firstborn son. After Z we have yet to see.
There are endless slices of this bittersweet pie. One hefty wedge is tart with pain and loss. The news from Tami’s father, Ed was unfathomable. “OD’d?” I said into the phone, “As in Dead?!” I ran next door and took hold of Haruka and Jason’s hands, then up the hill and across the dam to Tami and Lyle’s. The story came into focus. An officer knocked on their door at midnight. Luke heard a howl rip through the woods. It was accidental, recreational.
Another piece is sweet with the power of community. We put our shoulders to a wheel that rolled forward until it stopped at a clay grave in the woods. Time sharpened to a point and we focused all our energies on that point. A hundred hands reached out with food, lodging, transportation, music and offers of “anything at all.” An avalanche of goodwill that Angelina remarked “speaks to the beauty of our village.” Many hovered, hugged and fielded information. I became a dispatch operator, juggling calls, texts, emails and facebook offers. We used a nine-tab spreadsheet to stay on track.
The challenges of a DIY burial lent additional flavor to the pie. We’d been planning a neighborhood cemetery for some time – nobody thought our first service would be for a nineteen-year-old.
Lyle walked down his driveway with his brother Glen and marked out a trail with Bob and Joe. Trip brought his bobcat and got to work. David hauled a load of pine straw and Joe installed stone pillars on each end. Bob dubbed it the Farewell Trail after tying a strand of prayer flags between two pines. Chris arrived in his wheelchair for a look. Barring another unforeseen death, his grave will be next. Arlo and Uncle Michael used the Monarch to dig the hole. Joe, Leavitt and others finished the grave by hand. We spread the pine needles to cover the bobcat scars, making it look like any other dappled path through the woods.
I pictured myself at rest beneath the trees along the Farewell Trail and tasted peace, unexpected and nourishing. I haven’t thought much about my own burial, just as I don’t think about the hotel bed when planning a vacation. Yet, no matter how excited I am to be somewhere new, I prefer to first check into the hotel, put down my bags and glance at the bed. My adventures taste sweeter once I know where I’m going to sleep.
We had the service at The Plant and people poured in. Cars were parked on both sides of the road all the way to highway 64 three quarters of a mile away, filling the Credit Union and Allstate parking lots. Two hundred were seated with twice as many standing.
After eulogies and music Zafer took his last ride in the Pup, the little red pickup Arlo inherited when Z left for his first year at the University of Colorado. Arlo took the wheel, his big brother behind him in a pristine pine casket with a big Z on the lid.
The burial was intimate, touching, heart breaking and real. No Astroturf. Just a pile of yellow clay and some borrowed shovels. Tami sat on the edge of the hole, throwing in handfuls until Joe gently took her arm. Men, women and children took turns until the job was finished, a mound of earth atop Zafer’s casket.
The next day I didn’t put on makeup before going out. It was over. I didn’t have to be anyone but myself now. Shelley and I went for our Sunday morning walk. I swung by The Plant to find everything had been picked up and put away. I considered touching up my eyes before giving Audrey a ride to the airport but decided to plunge forward au naturale.
The next day I hesitated in front of my mirror before heading off to work. After all that had happened, eyeliner and mascara seemed disingenuous. It’s time I started looking my age, I thought, trying to picture Jane Goodall drawing on eyeliner.
I’m different now, touched by death but unafraid. What a nice way to step into the After Z, as my unenhanced self. This is my tribute, my testament. When you see me for what I am, know that I’ve been touched by Zafer.
Regardless of how we feel about it, technology is barreling towards us. The future promises more artificial intelligence with computers that can do everything but pick your nose. The latest invention is a car that accelerates, steers and brakes without human intervention. When I heard about this I nearly dropped my wine glass.
I wondered why anyone would need a car like that. Heck, half the fun of driving is making all those last-minute decisions. I enjoy using my senses and reflexes to motor around town and am of the minority who know how to drive a manual transmission. Downshifting is fun! I particularly like that horseshoe motion I make before taking a corner, a flourish of my wrist that pulls Christine, my 1995 Ford Escort into second from fourth.
And yet, there are compelling arguments for autonomous cars. Commuting is monotonous, cell phones are distracting and people make bad decisions. 94% of the annual 33,000 traffic fatalities in the US are due to human error. Drivers lose their tempers in traffic and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars may be the solution.
Folks who have driven autonomously view the traffic pattern on a screen and can see their car in relationship to the others on the road. While the other cars weave in and out of traffic and bobble around in their lanes, their car hugs the middle and doesn’t make erratic moves. “The biggest source of angst comes, not from any technology, but from the other people on the road whose non-computer-assisted imperfections are all the more visible when you are being chauffeured by a supercomputer.” -Joe Harpaz, Forbes. Trials show the human drivers at fault when an autonomous car has a fender bender.
To help me understand the allure of computer assist, I went on a virtual test drive with Alex:
Like Alex, I find the technology both unsettling and reassuring. Still, I have no desire to replace Christine with a self-driving car. I like being in the driver seat with full control over her behavior. It’ll be up to me, not my car whether to pause and let someone back out of the slant parking on our main street. It’ll be my eyes, not computerized sensors that determine whether to stop for the people hovering a few feet back from the cross walk zone.
And yet driverless cars may be inevitable. A lot of resources are going into their development with the hope that consumers can hop on board within the next five to fifteen years. By the time I turn 100, autonomous vehicles may be the primary mode of transportation. By then I might be tempted if I thought I could afford one.
Maybe its sour grapes, but I don’t think we need yet another buffer between us and our surroundings. I sense another shred of humanity will shrivel after computer assisted cars become commonplace. Everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just broken glass in your carpet.
There are moments in every day that take my breath away. That choice bite of sandwich from the middle might get chewed and swallowed like all the others if I don’t take a moment to savor the feel of it on my tongue, the way it fills my mouth. An odd blend of pleasure and longing surges over me when I realize THIS bite is the best. None that follow will please me quite like this one, stellar bite.
I’ve experienced countless once-in-a lifetime moments and I regret those I missed. A certain tune will bring back the dance I shared with Nana in her living room forty years ago. A glimpse of Bob’s profile makes me blush with the memory of our first kiss. The taste of our sweetest memories linger, often for a lifetime.
I regret the birthday party I attended but essentially missed, because I was shrouded in a sullen, pubescent haze. I regret not going to Saturday Night Live after-show cast parties in 1977. Our family is in show business and my Aunt Kathy tried to get me to go several times. But I was a waitress and earned half my weekly pay in tips on Saturday nights, so I always turned her down.
Last weekend Bob and I were invited to a Blessingway for our neighbor, Chris and his family. It would be a gathering of close family friends, a wake for a man still living. We accepted without hesitation. Our friend will not wander this earth much longer and we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to walk by his side.
Twenty of us gathered in a remote location as storm clouds gathered. Chris’s wife, Alisa and our hosts Megan and Tim were bustling around, preparing for the ceremony. Megan was barefoot and soon we were, too. Tim helped Chris’s son bring up some fire wood. Chris and I leaned against the warm hood of a car. A rainbow sketched across the eastern horizon.
When all had arrived, we entered the Peace Chamber, a round building with a domed ceiling. Chairs circled a table with photographs from Chris’s life. The family seated themselves opposite the door. Megan proposed we each read a verse from a Native American prayer. We took turns expressing thankfulness for the trees, animals, birds and the four winds. Each verse ended with, “Now our minds are one.”
Many of us had prepared something to say and some would read letters from family who couldn’t be there. We spoke as we were moved to do so. Brooksie went first, singing a song that moved me to tears. For an hour we expressed our love for Chris and his family, molten feelings welding our hearts together. The sun went down outside the door.
Everyone dies but we don’t think about it much until it comes close. Both Bob and Tami thanked Alisa and Chris for bringing an awareness of death to our community. Our friendships are stronger now because we work as one to support our sweet neighbors in their time of crisis.
There are countless moments when the clouds shift, lighting up my world. If I don’t pay attention, they slip right by unnoticed. Chris’ Blessingway was an unforgettable occasion I’m glad I didn’t miss. Joy is made of savored moments. Remember to choose wisely, slow down and taste the best parts.
One hundred times the speed of sound, 75,000 miles per hour is inconceivably fast. It’s more than twice the 36,373 mph of Nasa’s New Horizons as it hurtles towards Pluto. But I’m not writing about speed, I’m writing about dollars.
At $156 million a year, David Zaslav earns ten thousand times more per hour than ten million American workers working for the Federal minimum wage of $7.25. I can’t get my head around that figure so I took it down a notch. At forty hours a week, he’s pulling in $75,000 an hour. Whoa!
Okay, say he works eighty hours a week. That’s still $37,500 an hour, enough for me to pay off my mortgage in two hours. Enough to give everyone dear to me half a million dollars with one month’s pay.
According to the New York Post, “Cable network operator Discovery had the biggest pay gap. Its CEO, David Zaslav, was the highest-paid among S&P 500 companies last year, at $156 million. That was 1,951 times the amount paid to Discovery’s median worker.”
Things sure have changed since the sixties when the highest CEO salaries were only twenty times the average working wage. I can’t say as I like the direction they’re going. Sky high, as it were. Rocketing out of orbit. No one can be worth this kind of money, especially when fourteen out of every one hundred Americans are stuck below poverty level.
About that minimum wage, there’s been some progress. This year 29 States have adopted higher minimums, several reaching $10.50, with D.C. poised to bump their $10.50 to $11.50 mid-year. Yay!
So there you have it, a little bit of good news to sweeten a bitter pill. Income inequality continues to reach new heights in this country. Those clinging to the hope that the United States is still a democracy rather than an oligarchy aren’t paying attention. Something’s gotta give.
As per usual in an election year, the media has gone ape shit and common folk are clawing out each other’s throats, splitting hairs on issues that only marginally affect them. Case in point, a friend writes an innocuous post for the Daily Kos and is vigorously attacked in the comments by people she never met. The vitriol and small-minded insults prompt her to remove the post. Her fingertips are singed, her appetite for speaking truth dampened. Bystanders feel their faith in humanity shaken.
It’s always been this way. Since homo erectus lit his first fire and sapiens saw her first glimmer of cognizant thought there has been an us and a them. Beware of them, we automatically think, they are not of our tribe/family/gene pool. They are foreigners.
As we progressed intellectually, humans often went so far as to say the “others” weren’t even human. The San people or Bushmen of South Africa were missing links according to Dutch settlers who authorized their extermination in the late 1700’s. Closer to home, Native Americans were deemed savages, and imported black Africans considered livestock.
It’s a matter of survival, actually. Wariness exists in all life forms. As surely as zebras instinctively shake off anything that lands on its back, we distrust those who are not our own. But, even zebras can rise above their distrustful instincts to be ridden without fear of injury. Likewise, sentient humans are capable of trusting strangers.
Our natural distrust plays nicely into the hands of conquerors. Indigenous populations were easily destroyed by small numbers of soldiers. Had the tribes joined forces, they would have easily fought off the intruders. Today we have enormous empires ruled by a handful of powerful corporations and we, the people are still powerless to join forces. Rather than fight the conquerors, we scrabble over insignificant issues. We are easily divided and so have fallen prey to a small group.
I’d love to see a return to small, self-sufficient communities, but fear it won’t happen until we’ve burned every drop of cheap oil and have no choice. In a perfect world, we shrink from empire to tribe and rise above distrust of others, never again to be factionalized by the elite.
It is time to jettison dichotomous thinking, the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ of multi-national greed, predatory corporate practices, and partisan politics, and heighten our interconnectedness by designing economic systems, institutions, and businesses with a triple bottom line. – Dennis Kucinich
Our neighbors got to prove their mettle and thus, the truth of the phrase “it takes a village” during a snow storm this weekend. The epic first blizzard of 2016, Snowzilla buried the east coast from Virginia to New York City, dumping two to three feet of snow, shutting down schools, airports and Broadway.
In our rural North Carolina community everything ground to a halt with a sleet storm followed by snow, icing over our driveways and roads. Fortunately, we did not lose power as did 120,000 Carolinians east of us. But we were faced with a challenge. Our good neighbors who were on holiday without their children suddenly found themselves unable to fly home as planned. Although they had a solid child care plan in place, their stay was now extended by three days. The delay might have ruined their trip were it not for the robust network of friends who volunteered to pitch in.
Tami called a meeting at her kitchen table and we put together a schedule. Brooksie, a lovely woman from another neighborhood had stayed with the kids the night of the storm and would continue sleeping at their house until the ice began to melt. After she was able to drive out, others would stay at the house or bring the children to their homes. Some of us showed up for the breakfast shift and others to make dinner. None of us could get our cars out so we walked back and forth, carrying food and crayons.
The kids adapted as if this were nothing out of the ordinary. They easily accepted their new extended family and went along with the program as if this were the status quo. Indeed, humans are likely hard-wired for nurturing by many rather than two. Years ago, when Bob split from the mother of his children, she wisely observed that the girls were faced with an addition problem rather than a subtraction problem. They now had two mothers and two fathers, she said.
Another benefit of these unexpected circumstances was that we got to hang out with each other. I spent one memorable afternoon with Brooksie, a former acquaintance who now feels like a friend. Lyle and Tami called a potluck and we had an evening of hot chocolate, conversation and crokinole. Time slowed down and despite the cold we were driven outside and into each other’s homes. Zoila and I made the rounds to Hope’s, to Brooksie and the kids, and to Tami and Lyle’s holding umbrellas against the sleet. Hope set them up at her kitchen table with markers and a roll of paper so they could make a welcome home banner while we “mothers” enjoyed a good chat. It turned out the storm and delayed return of our friends were a great excuse to spend time with each other.
It’s times like these, when our cars are frozen to the earth and we mine our cupboards for crackers and beans that we return to our rightful pace. The gift of a common, meaningful goal gave our stride purpose and blushed our cheeks with pride of accomplishment. Eventually, the snow melted and the parents flew home, but we are all better off for the experience, happy to know what we are made of and what we can do together.
Dressed in earth colors and shades of purple, nearly forty people met at The Plant on Sunday to discuss death. Death Cafe is yet another cutting-edge Abundance NC event, the folks who brought Pecha Kucha to Pittsboro. The concept sprouted in London five and a half years ago and is quickly spreading across Europe, North America and Australia. The objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Our hosts baked dozens of cupcakes and set up a coffee bar with locally roasted coffee from Plant neighbor Aromatic Roasting Company. Many guests brought plates of home-made confections. There were party lights and the hum of expectant energy. Settled in with coffee and cake, we began introducing ourselves.
Heartfelt and articulate, we heard from hospice professionals, women who had lost their husbands, men who had lost a child and people who hadn’t lost anyone yet but knew their time would inevitably arrive. Some spoke of good good-byes, others of natural burials, the world of the unseen, being awakened to death and unrequited grief. We talked about how common it was to care for the sick and dying at home a couple generations ago. How it was when family witnessed the transition and prepared the deceased for burial, often laying them to rest on family land.
With seventy-five million baby boomers aged fifty-two to seventy, the time is ripe for a new awareness. Many question the necessity of $7,000 to $10,000 funerals involving iron-clad coffins, embalming, and concrete liners. Biodegradable coffins and home burials are becoming common with the help of a blossoming natural death industry.
After two hours of listening and sharing, I left feeling less daunted by my aging parent’s eventual passing and more prepared to put my own affairs in order. And perhaps Bob and I will find a nice tree to settle under when our time on earth is up.
Nana wasn’t lazy, I tell myself as I lurch from task to task, slogging my way through an endless to do list. Nana wasn’t lazy, but I just have to get outside for a walk. As soon as the woods closed in around me, my vision began to blur. Dang, here I was feeling sorry for myself again.
In theory, Christmas marks the season of peace and joy, but in practice we tend to set high bars for ourselves. I know I’m not the only one trying to pack too much into the last week of the year. I feel ensnared by commitments, tangled in party preparations.
I call upon Nana’s ear. She will listen to my woes without laughing and have something wise to say. Deeper into the woods I plunge, Nana at my side. Not all of my day is work, I begin, but I feel as if it is. This walk in the woods with you isn’t work, this is play. I enjoyed thirty minutes on facebook this morning and an hour corresponding with my email buddies. That wasn’t work, either.
And then it hits me. Nana wasn’t always on her feet, working. Nana napped in her chair by the phone in the afternoons and never missed “All in the Family” and “What’s My Line” on TV. When I shared her home we’d sit at the dining room table after dinner with a bottle of plum wine, relaxing and talking about anything that came to mind. Turns out, Nana was not the workaholic I’ve come to measure myself against.
I decide to explore the next level. What’s really troubling me is a task I wasn’t able to master. It had seemed like an easy problem but the solution eluded me. And then this morning Bob made a few transactions solving the problem I’d spent six hours trying to get my head around. His MBA and business career came to his aid in a way my horse, restaurant and clerical experience didn’t.
Some things are not possible. I couldn’t arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger and win, for example. Nor could I swim the English Channel. I don’t have the mind for tax law but I’m smart enough to know when to say, “I can’t do this.” Not, “I don’t want to,” or “I’m too lazy to learn how to,” but “I can’t.”
Best not to attempt those things that are beyond you. You make your choices and live them without guilt. And then you sit in your favorite chair and relax.
I hear a lot of people say “I hate email!” “I get way too many emails!” or “Text me, it’ll just get lost in my email.” I completely understand because email can be overwhelming until you tame the beast.
It’s a great tool which helps me get things done quickly at work, organize my social life, and have long, meaningful conversations with my far-away friends. But, like any tool, it can easily lose it’s edge if neglected. A few minutes of maintenance once a day will help keep your email volume manageable.
I’ll mention here that I’ve routed my other four email addresses to one account. Here’s what I see when I check my email:
The panel on the left shows my folders. There are 8 unread emails in my Inbox, 7 in Drafts, 9 in Spam and so on. Over time, I’ve set up filters to send work emails to the Altadore folder, skipping the Inbox but keeping them marked as unread. This way I can see at a glance if I have any new work emails. I’ve done the same thing with other aspects of my life. As you can see, Friends is a separate category. I get to decide if I’m working or playing by choosing which folder to dive into.
My Inbox is on the right with all 8 unread emails and one already read. The first thing I do is clean that out. The only emails that should be showing up in my inbox are those which haven’t been routed to one of my folders. These are usually newsletters and notifications. I’ll scan them, deleting anything I’m not interested in and if I have time, I’ll deal with the emails that require action. My goal is an empty Inbox.
In terms of maintenance, if I want to stop getting emails from HARO, for example, I’ll click on the email and unsubscribe. If I can’t unsubscribe, I mark it as spam. Or I’ll take a moment to create a filter which sends everything from that address or with that subject directly to the trash. If I’ve gotten an email that I belongs in a folder, I take a moment to create a filter and re-direct future emails. Email from Bilbo Baggins will never again show up in your Inbox if they belong in your Friends folder.
Next, I go to the Spam folder just to make sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be:
On this day I found an email from the chatlist that didn’t belong in spam so I checked it and clicked on the “Not spam” button. Then I deleted the rest, leaving an empty Spam folder.
Finally, I check the folders with new emails, read and archive anything not requiring action and leave everything that’s pending behind. When I’m finished with a folder, it looks something like this:
The red stars mean I need to take action and the orange stars mean I need to take action after receiving a response. No star means it’s in the works but still on my radar.
Housekeeping complete, I can settle in to write and answer emails. Or do something away from my desk, secure in the knowledge that I’m on top of things. If you think this method might work for you, I’ll happily help you set it up. No one should be burdened with email clutter and life’s too short to wade through junk mail.
Bob and Camille live in rural North Carolina where they enthusiastically support the real heroes of the world, organic farmers, renewable fuel makers and other tireless proponents of the grassroots resilience movement.
They met in 1990 and soon recognized each other as soul mates, joined forces, got married, wrote a mission statement and jumped off the corporate treadmill. They have lived in Colorado, Virginia, Belize, China, Guam, Oahu, Maui, Nicaragua, Texas and Ghana.
The more of the world Bob and Camille see, the more fervently they wish for world peace.
The photo above was taken in Africa, not North Carolina.