The Middle Distance

Last week, amidst the long parade of trick-or-treaters and Halloween festivities, I consciously tried to invoke my beloved departed. Some friends and I even staged a Dumb Feast, the Celtic ritual of Samhain in which guests partake of a silent meal with an empty place set at the head of the table for the spirits of the dead. That night I was able for the first time to close my eyes and summon a vision of those I love who have died — my son, my nephew, my sister, my former spouse — and picture them well beyond suffering, released.

Eldonna Edwards, better known as Ellie, is a lively platinum blonde with streaks of pink dyed into her hair. Ellie radiates that other-worldly southern California vibe of feel-good health, laid-back lifestyle and liberal politics. She is a massage therapist with a functioning claw-foot bathtub in her back yard. Married and divorced several times, her kids all grown up, she has reached a point in life where she’s happy just living with herself.

Sharpen your pencils, charge up your computers and clear off your desk: November is National Novel Writing Month. Otherwise known to eager scribes across America as NaNoWriMo, a clever web-based arts nonprofit enterprise operating on the belief that within everyone lies at least one great story waiting to be written. And in typical American fashion, why not bang it out in a month? The web site (nanowrimo.org) offers word count gauges, opportunities to compare notes with other writers racing toward the finish line, and plenty of inspiration like this observation by author Neil Gaiman:

It has to be a cold day. Preferably the first really cold day of the season, when the wind has swept down from the north and left the yellow leaves dangling, threatening to fall all at once; when the still-green summer grass stands stiff and frosted. A gray mid-October day when staying at home is in order.

A few years back my friends started becoming grandparents. It was fun to watch from a distance, but it was not something I longed to be. It felt as though my youngest kids had just flown the nest and honestly, the last thing I could imagine enjoying was the care and feeding of a newborn or chasing a toddler around. I was ready for some middle-aged autonomy.

Walking the dog yesterday morning, I started calculating the For Sale signs in the neighborhood. They were not the fancy fixed-uppers with new granite counters placed on the market at the height of the season to snatch the highest prices. They were sturdy old survivors in this turn-of-the-last-century neighborhood, well kept and solemn in the flurry of this brilliant early autumn morning.

Yesterday, the air was so clear you could see the Wet Mountains and the Spanish Peaks from Colorado Springs. Not a distant blur, but a sharp blue line in a stark blue sky. I took the dogs to the park in the afternoon, and as we rounded a turn in the path of Monument Valley Park, where those huge, ragged old cottonwoods stand, a gust of wind rushed through and sent a spray of leaves falling. I froze in my tracks and the dogs froze, standing witness to something glorious we hadn’t experienced in a year, the chilling rush of pending autumn.

A friend sent me a link to a beautiful video recently, illustrating the cosmic level at which we are all connected, atoms derived from vast explosions of stars. We are stardust, basically, just like Joni Mitchell said. Watching the video and listening to the brilliant astrophysicist narrating it, I felt at once connected and disconnected, amazed and confused. Astrophysics discussions send me right into a mental black hole of incomprehension. But call it God and I can begin to crawl out of my hole, see the light and begin to feel those atoms buzzing within and around me.

The Middle Distance 9/13/13: "Safe"

Sep 13, 2013

Be safe. Be smart and safe, I told my kids when they were teenagers, headed out for a night roaming the town in another teenage driver’s car. Be safe, when they were going camping with friends, or touring the country with a band. I still tell them now, all of them adults. Be safe.

As I was driving across South Park this week, the massive open plain settled between mountain ranges in south central Colorado, a hot air balloon lifted off and climbed upward in a diagonal line between earth and sky. From the road I zoomed down at 65 miles per hour, it looked as though the massive rainbow-striped balloon was very near the peaks looming behind it. But the closer I got, I could see that the pilot had launched from the center of a huge pasture, well away from the threatening rock walls.

I have a friend in New Mexico who used to rope off the entire month of September and keep it for nothing but hiking in the mountains, hunting grouse and fishing for trout in the Rio Grande. He was and still is a hard-working writer who chose this vacation month for its natural splendor — changing seasons, cooler temperatures, the river running low and clear. He was religious about his Septembers, about not letting worldly concerns keep him from his earthly communion.

Ted Eastburn

Summer of 1971. Our hip-hugger bell-bottom jeans are worn thin in the seat and we like to wear them with flimsy halter tops. It’s possible we are emulating the hippies in San Francisco we’ve seen on the news since hippie sightings are still rare here in Memphis, Tennessee. We will be high school seniors in the fall and this, we faintly realize, is our last summer of real freedom.

Several lifetimes ago, when I was the mother of three young boys, I understood the concept of escapist reading in the summertime. Grabbing reading moments between afternoon trips to the pool and T-ball games, I required something lightweight and entertaining, easy to read in small bites. And since I wouldn’t remember what I read anyway, mainstream chick lit, good or bad, usually fit the bill.

The clock is ticking and it’s making me uneasy. I’ve got those back-to-school, back-to-work, back-to-reality, check it off the to-do list, end-of-summer blues.

This year I decided the summer would be mine to do as little as possible in. I would recharge, replenish, rejuvenate. No road trips to places I hadn’t been before or to visit family. This would be the first summer in memory when I just stayed home and received whatever the day delivered.

Out here in the middle distance, the light is sometimes so harsh and bright that we want to draw the shades and just rest in cool darkness. The impulse to retreat has never been stronger than in these years approaching old age.

At home I am safe, is my mantra. At home I know who I am.

The older I get, the smaller my memories. I don’t mean that I remember less, necessarily, but that I remember differently. Instead of entire seasons or full days or complete events, I remember specific sensory experiences tied to concrete objects — the smell of fresh, unused construction paper on the first day of school; the hard waxed surface of a black speckled linoleum floor; the weight of the hard plastic telephone receiver in my six-year-old hand.

This was a great week for porch sitting. In the afternoon, massive moisture-laden clouds billowed above the 14-thousand foot tall mountain and churned into dark thunderheads. The sky began to vibrate and rattle and belch and finally, fat raindrops pounded the street and sidewalk and filled the gutters and poured from the downspouts.

The Middle Distance 6.28.13: Hey Yawwwwwl!

Jul 1, 2013

The Middle Distance 6.28.13: Hey Yawwwwwwl!

A friend asked me yesterday what’s been in the news. She had not been paying attention. Let’s see, I said. More killing in Syria, more guns flowing in so even more will be killed. Edward Snowden is holed up somewhere in Moscow while the U.S. and Russia argue about extradition. Mmmmm … The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act and Prop 8 and gay marriage.

As Memorial Day approaches, far too many American families are not thinking about what they’ll cook on the grill, but how they will remember their military dead, particularly the growing number who died at their own hands, of suicide. I am the mother of one of those soldiers.

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