Buckshot Lee Moore Fairbanks c.2000-2014

“We don’t know very much about him. He doesn’t seem to be into anything like toys or fetch or what have you. But he likes treats. As you can tell.”

Indeed I could. The tennis ball the shelter volunteer had thrown across the play area rested untouched in the close grass. The big white bird dog I was considering adopting on a temporary, let’s-see-if-I-like-him basis had watched her throw it only because of the sudden movement. He cared about the unlimited possibilities locked within that tennis ball the way I cared about Keurig revolutionizing coffee, which is to say, not at all.

But the treat jar.

That was a different story.

The dog, I guessed, was about 70 pounds, white with a brown mask across his face and mismatched floppy hound dog ears, one solid brown and the other white with brown spots. He was big like I like them, but I had come for a brindled boxer mix. When I was told my pick was “kind of a handful,” I asked what they had in the way of a submissive good companion, someone who didn’t need a lot of attention or exercise.

“I am looking for a glorified stuffed animal,” I said.

I was still in shock from walking out on my yellow Lab, Ginger, 18 months earlier, when I left my first marriage. Her middle name was Fireball, and that damn dog lived up to every letter and then some. I loved her, we were inseparable, and I was the only one she would listen to when she chose to listen, which was only when she was being told to do something she wanted to do anyway. I drank a lot to not think about leaving her behind, she would have a great life with my ex-husband and his family and they loved her, but in her heart and mine we belonged together. I was her person. I never told her I was leaving. I just left and never saw her again. Then I got sober, spent a year without a dog, and didn’t admit it until several years later, but I was standing at this no-kill animal rescue partly because I was a dog person in search of a dog but mostly because I needed to make amends to Ginger. Every promise I failed her I would make up this time around.

“We call him Buck,” the volunteer said. This previously uninterested in everything dog wiggled in the sit position impatiently, eyes darting hopefully between the lid of the treat jar and her. The second the lid made its clinking scrape of release, revealing the hodgepodge of donated goodies inside, ol’Buck couldn’t stand it anymore, sprang to attention, and began stomping in circles, pushing into her legs, stomping in circles, nosing the jar, sitting, standing, holding out one paw, and eventually sitting for a split second so he could snarf the treat from her hand and peer hopefully at the still-open treat jar. “Okay, one more,” she said. Snarf. “Okay, one last one.” Snarf. “This really is the last one.” Snarf. He had this great clown-face smile, this “oh, goody!” look for the treats, the only time I saw anything that resembled a personality.

“He would eat the whole jar,” she said. She laughed and tried to pet him, but he didn’t get that any more than he got the tennis ball thing, so he sat patiently by the treats until he realized it really was over. His face closed up again, and he trotted off to sniff the grass.

“We have to warn you,” she said. “He has been adopted out once but was brought back. He isn’t house broken.”

Oh. This dog was probably seven or eight years old and not housebroken. He’d been at the rescue a little over 18 months and didn’t seem like kind of dog I was looking for. God, I prayed on my to the shelter, just the right one. Not what I think I want, but the right one. I’d learned this handy prayer in recovery soon after I discovered how poorly motivated my decision making skills had grown after ten years of drinking every day. For some people, getting a dog is a simple matter of choice. In this moment of my life, I thought that’s what I was doing, making a simple choice.  I had to start practicing love and commitment, but there was an angry part of me super unwilling to love another animal like I had loved Ginger. I had a plan: I would care for this dog, but I wasn’t going to let him in.

“I can house break him,” I said. “But I need a week. If he hasn’t caught on, I’m bringing him back.”

I wrote TRIAL RUN on the top of the adoption contract. I’d never had what I call a “dead dog” before; dogs that have no life in their eyes, dogs who you can tell have their spirits boxed up somewhere and there’s never been a person to love them and open that up. And I’d never housebroken a dog before either, but I felt like, how hard could it be?

Really and truly, when I left the animal rescue in my pickup truck with a big, white, country ass birddog in the back, I believed I would return him if he didn’t housebreak.  I didn’t realize, until he died, that his adoption was no simple matter of choice. That choice was a complicated one, a psychological, emotional and spiritual matter of wanting to recreate my entire notion of family relationships. I was a wrecked human being when I brought that dog into my life, starting to rebuild. Somehow I needed to prove I was not a piece of shit, that I could stand up for something.

So, yes, it was a mutual rescue.

*

“Look,” I said to his face, which was sticking through the small window between the cab of my truck and the camper shell. “I can’t call you Buck. It’s vulgar. But you’re old, and you know that name, so I’m not going to make this too difficult on you.”

I’d already picked out Roy Lee for the wild brindle boxer, and I didn’t want to let that go. It was a good name. At that time, in a voluntary celibacy that would, a year later, become quite involuntary, I was obsessed, pitifully, with Jeff Buckley, the dead 90s heartthrob singer/guitarist/prophet, who was my stand-in lover while I was working on myself. The dog looked like a Buckshot, so I could combine Buckshot with Lee, call him Buck Lee, and no one would know I secretly named my dog after the dead musician who owned the teenaged infatuation factory called my mind.

But, Buck Lee didn’t look right when I wrote his name on paperwork, and “Bucklee” posed an affront to my sensibilities. So, Buckley it was. Buckshot Lee Moore.

He stank like a bus station and peed on the corner of the stove. I gave him a bath. When I jumped off the deck into my above ground pool, he followed, unaware that the water kept going down, so when I opened my eyes underwater he was staring right back at me, bug-eyed as a monkey.

I fell so in love with him then, down down down my heart went so deep into his eyes that two days later I told my mom I’d rather kill a man than take Buckshot Lee back to that shelter.

A few days later, during some trust-time sitting on the edge of my bed as I was familiarizing him with the concept of sleeping 1) inside 2) on furniture 3) with me, he peered into the bathroom. He saw, in the large mirror over the sink, himself, and mistook it for another dog. Eyes wide, he threw back his head and ripped this glorious, spine-tingling, hilarious woooooooooo wooooooooo woooooo. The offending dog didn’t leave. Buckley glanced at me, confused, and I said “that’s you in the mirror, buddy. And me. That’s us.”

We sat awkwardly for a minute.

“You’re not a birddog at all,” I finally mentioned. “You’re a coonhound.”

semi-clown face

Hierarchy of Beings: God, then Dogs.

It took me longer than a week to house train him. But he did take to peeing on the commode instead of the stove, which I thought proved how smart he was and how much he wanted to do the right thing. He was all set until I put up a real Christmas tree in the living room that December, which he mistook, rightfully so, as his personal bathroom. When Buckley was uncomfortable, he peed in the house, mine or yours, wherever he was. He had such a sweet, sad, lovable coonhound face, most people found his anxiety-pee charming. So, they forgave him with lots of kisses and treats, which I always considered his ultimate coup d’etat.

*

Buckley grew up in Brunswick County, North Carolina, to a family who abandoned him, at five or six years old, at the kill shelter when they left town. There were pellets in his chest from being shot, his tail was broken at the top as if someone had slammed it in a door, and, inside his right back leg, the hair grew every which-a-way over old scar tissue from being dragged down a road. He also had about 20 seeds of birdshot above his spine, which Andy and our Tampa vet discovered in X-Rays of his kidneys.

I don’t know any more about his background than that. But that was enough to explain his terror at loud noises, especially anything that sounded like a gun, and his eagerness to hide in the bathtub or shower during a thunderstorm. He would hide in the shower even if I was taking a shower, and once he climbed into the bath with me during a particularly thunderous summer storm in Fort Myers. He curled up between my legs at his end of the tub and rested his chin on the side, submerged up to his collar, as if he were doing nothing more than chilling on the couch. “Dude, seriously?” I said. He flashed me a look, the kind where his eyebrows see-sawed up and down as if to say, “Yeah, what? Why not?” and took a deep breath, sending a soft ripple in the bathwater.

Buckley lived with a (mostly) quiet fear of abandonment for the rest of his days, up until his last, when he was satisfied, finally, that I had made good on my promise never to leave him. I don’t know why, given his background, he kept his gentle nature. Buckley loved kids, there must have been some in that first family, and his face was the kind of face that stopped people at the dog beach, on walks, at the vet so they could remark about his face: “what a sweet face! what a sweet boy! look at that face!”

“He’s so swheeeeuuuuuuut,” the southern girls said.

“That’s a good lookin’ dog!” country boys said.

People usually wanted to love up on him, but Buckley wasn’t like that. He loved me, and, in time, took in Andy and they loved each other, but Buckley’s contribution to any occasion was mostly the great gravity of his gentle spirit. It did not take much love before Buckley came around to being a dog with a person. He woke up to it quickly, after a few weeks of sleeping in a bed and going on walks and being only mildly in trouble for doing things like eating whole bunches of bananas off the kitchen counter.

But he was always, as Andy noted, “deficient in his dog skills.” His reactions to many situations were un-pack-like, un-dog-like, so much so I took to explaining his behaviors to people by describing Buckley as somewhere on the autism spectrum. It was not a joke. He sometimes answered to our calls by running, with great determination, in the other direction, and he had absolutely no understanding of stepping around people. If he got in the bed with you, he would find his spot only after jumping on your legs and walking on your arms and nuts or full bladder. He stood on people’s toes for no apparent reason. He groaned peacefully when you rubbed his ears at night, like purring. I could pretend he was a motorcycle by gently twisting his right ear like a handle accelerator, and he’d respond rrrRRRRR rrrrRRRRR.

The day Rufus became my second family member. This picture pretty much sums up their personalities.

The day Rufus became our third family member. This picture pretty much sums up their personalities and our relationships.

“Buckley,” I would say, “it’s time for an injustice!”

An injustice could be anything dogs don’t like to do: get ears cleaned, take a pill, have toenails clipped. But after every injustice, we’d give Buckley a treat, and so this great mystery of a dog got to the point where he looked forward to injustices and never suffered one without his proper reward. At the end of his life, he, too, defined what constituted an injustice, adding his monthly stints with Frontline and Heartgaard. “Was that an injustice?” I’d say, throwing the empty flea vial in the trash. He’d charge up his clown-face grin, stamp and wag and run to the bag of Beggin Strips, beaming at his fortitude in the face of such hardships as getting medicated.

Then he’d lay on the couch and sleep, sending out his soft ripple, waking up if I walked through the room to make sure I wasn’t going to leave.

*

Andy and I discovered, when Buckley left us last Monday morning, that so much of the sweetness of the FRF emanated from the dog. Our family balanced as mathematically as planets: Me, Buckley, Rufus, Andy, Clementine, in the order the family appeared in my life. Buckley carried a lot of weight. What started that hot September afternoon in 2008 at Southport Oak Island Animal Rescue ended in Tampa, Florida, November 10, 2014, in the corner of our yard, a wild Florida subtropical paradise created by Andy’s grandparents some 60 years ago.

Buckley's Corner behind us.

Buckley’s Corner behind us.

Buckley had stopped eating except, of course, treats. Sunday night he started showing signs of kidney failure, followed by a grand mal seizure, Andy and I doing the best we could in this terrible moment. Buckley let us know, in his unceremonious way, he didn’t want us around for the end of it. We let him out in the yard, and he found a quiet corner next to the fence, hidden and protected under a canopy of oaks and a tall thicket. In the morning, we found him barely alive, and called his vet to help him. Andy cut a path through the overgrowth for the vet and the technician. They arrived, Buckley died. When he went, he went peacefully, and, poetically, within a thicket of wild ginger.

*

The path to Buckley’s Corner starts in front of my office window, where I write. I can only see the path, not where it leads. When Buckley died, I had the strange sense of plummeting out of orbit. As I told a good friend, I was prepared to walk with him to death, but I was not prepared to have to live with him gone.

In the time of our great love affair, Buckley brought me to the understanding of many aspects of love, including the profit of a gentle nature, the appreciation of treats and the rewards of faithfulness.

Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

He showed me I was not a piece of shit, but rather a powerful person for whom Love makes a tender life possible. Buckley was, as you’ve figured out, just the right one.

*

I will be howling in the wild ginger for this dog’s spirit for a long time.

night night beloveds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuba: The Study of the House

“We simply must start with the Universe first.” —R. Buckminster Fuller

Eco, from the Greek oikos, or “house/dwelling”, and -logia, meaning “the study of.”

I.  Flashpoint

Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, fall 1995:

I’ve taken a half hit of ecstasy with my friend Maria and we’ve been rolling, adrift, through our college campus. We’re seniors, honors graduates, wandering in the night, searching for something we can’t find. My mind needs something in the place my high seeks. My heart leads, but there’s no satisfaction in the streets and the old familiar buildings. I say I need a diet Mountain Dew, and when we come out of the convenient store we take a left on Franklin Street, the main drag full of Saturday night people and bars and traffic. Way down the street we hear drums, a deep bumping and slapping of hands and skins, that unmistakeable dropped down thump of the djembe pumping through the air, and when it finally makes its connection to the ear in my heart, I am as bound to it as a root.

We follow; two dirty hippie boys, about the same age as Maria and me, emerge at the source of the sound, sitting on the ledge of the old used bookstore, the drums between their thighs. They don’t say anything to us, they keep playing, and I make eye contact with the boy on the djembe. His head is back, his smile as wide as it can go, his eyes sparkle at me because drummers know when the dancers arrive; after all, they have been calling to us. My own smile feels as if it splits my face in half, and I close my eyes and drop into time with these two strange boys. I know my hips move first but then something changes. The drum is already inside me; I’m not dancing to the rhythm. I’m not keeping step. Something else is occurring, and I can feel the beats of the drum clamoring up through my feet and legs and torso and into my mind like the drum is clawing its way out of my body. The impulse of the tone, the relentless boomboom pop pop boomboom pop pop fills my brain until I’m forced to stop fighting the rhythm to think about what is happening. When I surrender, I have this enormous sense of falling upwards, like a balloon let go, and I don’t feel like I have a body at all. I’m a beating beating mass of breath. My blood is made of djembe and my corpuscles hold all the information of the universe which they are willing to divulge in the deluge of these pounding sounds like waves like radio static like honeybees like river rapids on a rock face like the sound of my lips on the skin of my beloved. The secrets of my corpuscles gather me up into the great gulf stream of the Mystery.

I can’t hear anymore. I only feel, and I can’t distinguish between the frequency of the drum rhythms and the sensation of the march of living blood. Everything becomes one giant pulse, one silent surge that I am riding but also a part of, like one molecule of water in an ocean wave. My body dances to these drums on Franklin Street, but I am being carried into the Source, and I leave my body in the care of the drums, safely attached to earth by two hippie boys and one fresh, cold diet Mountain Dew. I am the molecule. I am also the wave.

I arrive in the Tower of Babel. I see the honeycombs of rooms, I hear the one true language, and I see us all when we were one people. Then I see us fall apart, I am told why, and I watch the generations spill into the desert like fire ants from an upturned mound. I am held. I am told things. I experience, for the first time in my life, pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, untainted joy. When the drums stop, the wave crashes to shore. I am absorbed by sand, returned to the earth.

I open my eyes and find myself back in front of the used bookstore. I did not know such an experience was possible for me, much less on the sidewalk of busy street in a college town during prime time Saturday night. We hug the drummers, we give them all the money in our pockets. I have the distinct never-the-same-again sensation of someone walking away from a conversion experience. Maria and I walk back to our house with our arms around each other, giddy.

“I talked to God,” I say.

She nods. She smiles at me, a wild, wise, conspiratorial smile shared between  women who dance to the old, sacred language. Maria already knew about drums.

II.  The Study In Context: Florida and Cuba–This Part Isn’t About Miami

The Spanish took Cuba from indigenous people, mostly Taino and Ciboney, in the identical unethical, disturbing, nonsensical but well-rationalized theory of superiority employed by all the other European imperial colonialists who were rampaging through the Caribbean and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Spanish ripped 600,000 people from Africa and displaced them to Cuba as slave labor for tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane fields, thus an incredible collision of cultures began in the early 1500s that would–despite revolutions, despite political ideologies, despite the Cold War, despite The Embargo, despite racial stereotypes–create a rich and powerful culture fueled by a distinctive, otherworldly connection to music and dance.

I was headed to Cuba to study the otherworldly connection, but I could not ignore the deep bell in me clanging on about the relationship between Tampa and Cuba, which is mainly recognized as a socio-economic-political one, if–under the brighter and more recent historical lights of Miami–it is recognized at all.

The truth is that there was a Little Havana in Tampa first. In the 1800s. I’m serious. And purists–rightly so–will already have their hackles raised that I said “Tampa” and not “Ybor City,” but I did so only because I desperately, yet with poor motivations, want the glory of some of this history for my own address, even at the expense of being historically and ethically inaccurate.

But I owned up to it, so let’s continue.

I can no more ignore the importance of the Cuban people in making Tampa what it is today than I can ignore the influence of Spain in Cuba. Long–way long–before Fidel and Che would make their indelible marks on American history books, unrest and revolution were afoot on the tiny island to unhook the bothersome tick of Spanish imperialism on the Cuban people. We’re talking the late 1700s and early-mid 1800s.

The United States had just plucked out its bothersome tick of English colonial rule, and we really loved Cuba then and got lots of sugar as an import–a relationship that would have ironic consequences on the Everglades in the 20th century, and I may or may not get to that in this blog; after all, I’m not writing a book here, people, (and I claimed this part wasn’t about Miami)–so America wasn’t crazy about Spanish control of Cuba, either. We thought we could do a much better job of controlling Cuba, so much so that we made a decent offer to buy the island off the over-extended superpower of Spain, but they refused, and later we ended up in what is erroneously referred to as the Spanish-American War but is actually the War for Cuban Independence, or, at the least, the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as is explained by the placard at the memorial battleground at San Juan Hill, Santiago, Cuba, the last conflict of the war:

Photo taken at San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba, July 2014, by me.

Photo taken at San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba, July 2014, by me.

 

The trenches dug by American soldiers who fought for Cuba's independence remain preserved at San Juan Hill.

The trenches dug by American soldiers who fought for Cuba’s independence remain preserved at San Juan Hill.

At this point, global demand for Cuban cigars was in an expanding, insatiable bubble, and the patrones de tabaqueros, mostly Spanish-born elite, had built the cigar business in Cuba into a lucrative, multi-million dollar a year industry. Not bad money for 1869, only four years after the end of our Civil War and the year Wyoming shocked the world by giving women the right to vote.

There were a few head honchos of the cigar industry, but none as important to our tale as Vincente Martinez Ybor. Suspected (correctly) of being a Cuban sympathizer, he fled to Key West, which, only 90 miles north of Havana, was more or less “in the neighborhood.” The location was wonderful for re-creating his cigar dynasty, but not so wonderful because laborers could go home whenever they wanted to, and one never knew if they would return.

At the suggestion of some fellow patrones de tabaqueros, Martinez Ybor and his business partner checked out a Florida outpost called Tampa–access to rail and water and not such easy access back to Cuba. They liked what they saw, bought a tract of land two miles north, and, in 1885, began to build what would become a magical, multi-cultural hotbed of anarchists, proletariats, turn-of-the-century One Percenters, and the community equivalent of a family-sized canister of mixed fruits and nuts featuring Anglos, Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Afro-Cubans.

Delicious, unpredictable, and a satisfying mix of flavors, Ybor City grew into a thriving cultural and economic center, all of it–and I mean ALL OF IT–supported by the cigar-making industry founded by Martinez Ybor. Cubans flocked to Ybor City to work in the factories, as did Afro-Cubans, who comprised 13% of the Cuban population.* “Native” Tampans (white folk) enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom and the entrenched old-blood families saw the rapid evolution of two-horse Tampa into a legitimate 20th century city.

Okay, so all that started in 1885. We have Ybor City, which, truly, I can get on my bike right now and ride to the last remaining shells of the brick cigar factories of the era I’m telling you about. Tampa/Ybor City and Cuba are blood sisters, inextricably linked. So much so that in the 19th century, Cubans considered Ybor City part of their own country*.

Fast forward ten years: 1895. The War for Cuban Independence is about to start. It’s led by a charismatic artist, philosopher, revolutionary, and political visionary named Jose Marti. Four years earlier, in 1891, he needed to rally Cuban support on this side, so where does he go? Yes, Tampa. Yes, Ybor City. Our Cuban community here supported that revolution, Marti’s Revolution (forgive me, Antonio Maceo, I know not what I do), financially, with media, and with the kind of focused commitment to la patria the Cubans can especially, and impressively, muster.

Given Cuba’s history, and the significance of Jose Marti in their national identity, and in honor of the better will that used to sing between America and Cuba and poured with great gusto from Ybor City, I can’t overstate the importance of Jose Marti’s presence and influence in Ybor City as a tangible link that still exists for me, as a Tampan who journeyed to Cuba.

In Santiago, I made a special pilgrimage to Marti’s grave, a memorial paid for by the Cuban people, but it wasn’t until I came back to Tampa that I found out he stayed here, that he came to his people here for help in liberating Cuba from Spanish control.

Jose Marti's memorial, his remains lay in state, where a volunteer honor guard changes watch every half hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Jose Marti’s memorial. His remains lay in state, where a volunteer honor guard changes watch every half hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

marti's memorial

The memorial represents Marti, surrounded by the 14 provinces of Cuba, positioned so that the sun always shines on Marti’s remains.

I feel, very strongly, the roots of family, still, that exist between Cuba and Tampa and Ybor City.

This is what I will tell you after spending time at Marti’s grave in Santiago and after sitting on the Malecon in Havana on the morning of July 13, 2014, and sitting on the balustrade at Bayshore Boulevard, modeled after it, in Tampa that same night: the places haven’t forgotten they belong to each other.

Malecon, the balustrade in Havana, Cuba. The last morning in Cuba. July 13, 2014.

Malecon, the balustrade in Havana, Cuba. The last morning in Cuba with our offering to Yemaya. July 13, 2014.

TB bay shore blvd w buckley

Bayshore Boulevard balustrade, modeled after Havana’s Malecon. Las Hermanas Siempre.

 

III. I Get to Cuba by Way of Ritmo and a Research Visa; It Does Not Go as Expected.

In Cuba, there is no escape from the ritmo. Music starts as soon as people awaken: radios, televisions, car stereos, all playing salsa and son and rumba and reggaeton. Polyrhythms punctuated by horns and held together by the clip-clop of claves while multiple voices weave textures of harmonies about “Coo-ba!”, sometimes in lugubrious waves of sorrow, sometimes in workout-levels of shouting.

The persistence of the music calls the spirit into the streets, into the plazas, and folks’s energy is rubbing up against me constantly and men, Jesus, the men with their engorged energy of machismo and music and rum are always trying to penetrate my protective barrier, my polite force-field, and run their energy throughout me. The men here love to dance, they are decisively good at it, and they know it. I am not good enough to dance salsa, rumba. I am willful and have a natural disinclination to follow, and I gave up being charmed by men with booze on their breath a long time ago. I do not fit in well in Cuba, at least in these situations, and I am usually asked to dance only once.

“Feel it,” my dance partner says to me, giving my hand a shake, like he’s trying to wake me up or discipline a lap dog. “Feel it.”

Ritmo is everything in Cuba. No one hides inside a facebook app on a smart phone because they don’t have apps or facebook or smart phones. People interact, they exchange vibes in a constant barter of conversation and feeling. There is a traffic of energy. I feel the come-and-go of human electricity here the way I feel the come-and-go of subway trains standing on the platform of the Metro.  I don’t see throngs of people insulated by earbuds because it’s almost impossible to get mp3 players and ipods.

In Santiago and later, in Havana, the absence of the noise of signage and billboards and sales pieces and screen culture makes it so the acoustics of Cuban life, the ritmo of the people, of the place, is so immediate and un-tune-out-able that I find myself buzzing with consciousness awareness. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s a ride not like the contrived danger of a roller coaster, but like a bareback canter on a horse I just met. I have the sensation of trying to hold on to what is happening in that moment. I am focused and aware, sharply so. Some of this sensation is, of course, traveling as a woman in a third world country, but most of it is being a dancer in a country re-built on its own music and dance of the people.

My mind is in hyperdrive, and I can feel it starting to fall apart, being rearranged by beats. I recall the same phenomenon happening in Brazil: the drums breaking me down and rebuilding me in their image. As the days go by, I will notice deficiencies in my ability to concentrate, down to the point where I can’t remember any Spanish words in the phrase, “and you?”.

I find HBO in English with Spanish subtitles and watch the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I watch part of an episode of True Blood not because I’m interested in the show but because they have Southern accents, and I need a little rhythm that is familiar before I wake up to salsa music blasting from the radio in the hotel kitchen and jump on the horse for another day.

I can’t explain why–because this didn’t happen in Brazil–but in Cuba, I keep finding myself outside the drums. This is a sad, frustrating place to be as a dancer, much like having to visit the love of your life in prison and talk on the plastic phone while looking at each other through plexiglass. I am a dancer who likes to have the drums in my body. I like the rhythm inside of me, and there is a noticeable difference between dancing to drums and dancing with them. There is another level of noticeable difference between dancing with them and dancing in them.

Musicians in our Havana dance class

Musicians in our Havana dance class

I can’t get in the drums because I’m too worried about what I look like. I care too much about being a beginner, a new student. I want to make a sensation here because I have been dancing a long time; I need The Cubans and The Californians to validate me, and these desires of my will do nothing more than force me to practice acceptance, surrender, humility. And sometimes, I really don’t like that.

What I’m learning through this infernal internal dialogue is that life is between El Ritmo and me now. In the final analysis, so it says on the wall of Mother Teresa’s house, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them, anyway. Ugh. I keep dancing. I keep surrendering my will for perfection and compliments. I keep haranguing myself for being off-rhythm, out of step, stumbling. I surrender again, I laugh at myself. Finally, on Thursday, during a Shango class where the drums knit riddles beyond my comprehension, I quit, walk to the bench upon which sit three bata players, and I squeeze between two of them, my back to the drums. I close my eyes, shut up, and listen.

I experience no transport to the Mystery. I do not arrive at the Tower of Babel. I sit on a bench in Cuba, in a dance space the size of a warehouse between two drummers. Their beats bounce off me like hail, there’s no connection between these Cuban men and me, the line is dead. But whatever barriers in me exist are absorbing the shock of impact, and I know enough about rhythm and willingness and the body to know that on my cellular level, the drums alter my mind in a quiet quantum download that will, eventually, express in my body as a new language of movement.

There is no shock-and-awe moment. There is only the tedious business of training. I am still. I am letting the rhythm do its thing inside of me.

IV: Spiritual Ecology, the Role of the Dancer in Community, and GODS OF FLORIDA 

Right before I left for Cuba, I encountered the field of study and inquiry called spiritual ecology, which “acknowledges the critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics at the root of environmental degradation.” Relying on critical work in the disciplines of science and academia, religion and spirituality, and ecological sustainability, the people working within this field hope to create a more meaningful dialogue about the spiritual roots of our constant need to destroy our own house and what we can do to begin to understand our simple and sacred cause-and-effect relationship to the air, water, light, land and living connection to this place where we spend our earthly toil.

In the early days of human society, in our ancestral background, the dancer’s responsibility was to be the intermediary between the spirit world and the people, carrying messages back and forth in ceremony. I see no difference in the role of the dancer today, though the look of our ceremonies and the bonds of our social relationships are quite different, at least in the United States. Dance has the power to restore the lost connections (if you will, the weak signals) of our community with our living environment.

And I will tell you this: it is no joke to call down the gods in drums and then begin to dance.

No joke at all.

This excites me.

So, I traveled to Cuba to study the sacred Afro-Cuban orisha dances of Lucumi. Like the Afro-Brazilian devotees of candomble, Afro-Cubans had to syncretize their African deities with Catholic saints. I did not know I needed this Afro-Cuban movement to complete GODS OF FLORIDA until my friend Cynthia emailed me to ask if I was interested in traveling with them for a Cuban dance immersion. Oh, I thought, this is the next piece. Divine timing.  So, I threw in my lot with a group of dancers from California and tagged along to Cuba as a researcher. Unlike with the Brazil trip, where I went because of a deep, intuitive nudging but was without any intention other than to discover what the nudging was all about (and did I ever), this trip to Cuba signified a conscious effort on my part to study and work with Afro-Cuban orisha dance and rhythm because I am, in no small effort, choreographing one giant love poem to the holy wilds of Florida.

As I’ve written about many times before, my temple is the wild. When I traveled to Brazil in 2012 and Linda Yudin and Co. exposed me to the Orixas for the first time, dance and nature met the drums, coalescing these previous separate parts of me into one language. Finally, through the study of orixa (in Cuba: orisha) dance and song, I was able to start to speak of the sacred things that came to me when I was in the ocean, woods, swamps, and, now, on the blackwater rivers and especially when I enter our springs. If I can show you in dance what I feel and make you feel it, too, then I have honored God. I have honored you.

 

 

 

 

There is no separation between nature, humankind, and The Spirit. None.

I can not be any clearer on this point.

How we treat nature, the other creations who live with us on Earth, and each other is our treatment of God. If we disregard water flow, if we exploit our resources, if we tear up our wetlands and our forests and each other’s bodies, if we pollute our air and our water, if we house animals in cages to make money, if we factory farm them, all we do, over and over, is akin to destroying our own house–but not before ensuring all our loved ones are inside it.

But, habits are hard to break. Andy and I still eat meat from the grocery store, even though I know the animal suffered ill treatment before I ate it, and now I’m eating that animal’s suffering. I remain entrenched with most everyone else at the But Bacon Tastes Good phase, though I’m reconsidering how I obtain my food. Most of the time I prefer not to dwell on what I know about the meat industry in our country and our profligate holocaust therein. I go with what is convenient, and I willingly put growth hormones and traumatized meat in my body, like most Americans. However, there isn’t a meal anymore where I don’t connect to the flesh on my plate. That used to be alive, and it’s life now supports mine. There is a sacred honor in that relationship. There is no honor in waste. There is no honor in killing for killing or killing for property, or killing for possession of resources. There is no honor in bragging over the taking of a life, whether that life belonged to a fish or a convict, a lion. A spider. A cypress tree.

There is no separation.

There is nothing outside of El Ritmo, the great rhythm, that creates and contains us all. In dance, in music, in drums: all connect in this material plane, the scientific here, the spiritual Here, and we can all talk to each other.

We reunite in the one language.

This is what I learned in Cuba.

***

night, night beloveds. You know it is my intention to share these dances with you, to make more in the community where you live and in the wild places where you feel what I’m talking about here. Send me a message if you’re interested. I’ll also write more stories of the Cuba travels later, and introduce you to many of the intriguing personalities I encountered along the way.

peace.

_____________________________________________

*Many thanks to Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta’s book The Immigrant World of Ybor City for helping me understand the immigrant context and history of Cuba and Ybor/Tampa. And thanks to Andy for recommending it to me. BTW, Gary Mormino is to Florida what the Oracle of Delphi was to ancient Greece. Please read his historical works.

*Thank you also to my mother-in-law Linda, who went to Cuba the year before I did, and loaned me her copy of Julia E. Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, which I also referenced for this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Seven Years Later, I Stand Before a Vasectomy, Full of Gratitude and On My Way to Cuba

I have more curiosity than I have sense. That being said, I had the privilege and honor of witnessing my husband’s vasectomy several weeks ago as I took what I hope to be my only chance to see a vas deferens in the flesh. While in the surgical theater, which was only an exam room because that’s how we roll in outpatient surgery in America these days, I became very grateful to my years of training in dissociation and denial while I was an active alcoholic.

I’ve retained my ability to remember how to withstand a situation by being physically present yet totally not there, which is helpful when one’s curiosity about surgery and the human body needs to supersede one’s emotional attachment to the body on the table. In this way, I learned that, while Dr. Dora’s description of the vas deferens (or, “The Vaz,” as it’s known in the business) was helpful, The Vaz is not so much like “spaghetti” as it is like a rubber band fashioned from a Thai rice noodle.

Good descriptions, like good surgery, require precision.

However, after the Thai noodle simile gelled, I did get a might woozy and thus ended my scrutiny of the procedure. We passed the rest of the time listening to Dr. Dora regale us with a fine but unprecedented tale of a colleague in Arizona who discovered, upon entering a routine proctology exam with a middle aged businessman, a shocking fetishist tattoo.

A good time was had by all.

At this point, I must mention that my husband knows how to fold a fitted sheet properly and without assistance. And he will let another man take a scalpel to his testicles for the greater good of the FRF. So, I married the baddest motherfucker on earth outside of Jane Goodall. Plus he knows how to make a balsamic reduction and tie a complicated series of safety knots, and I’m pretty sure he could do both at the same time, but now I’m just bragging.

I’m telling you all of this because I have some gratitude for the experience of life today.

This is what I do on May 20th. Every year since 2007.  I reflect on gratitude, and I think about how things were for me on the night of May 19th, seven years ago.

If you had told me then that one day I would be free and at peace, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me then that I was ungrateful, I wouldn’t have believe that either. In fact, I would have been outraged. If you had told me that eventually I would marry the right man for me, and I would stand by and chit chat with the urologist and my beloved during his minor surgery…

Well, I may have been able to concede that as a possibility.

Andy said the procedure was no sweat, and his cool certainly left quite the impression.

Andy said the procedure was no sweat, and his cool certainly left quite the impression.

*

The last time I remember life making sense, I was 18. And even then life didn’t make much sense, but at least I had a plan that I was 100% sure was going to work out well. I did not want to be a wife, nor mother. I was going to be a writer, and not just any old writer, but a famous one, an important one, one like the writers I read whose descriptions were so precise I could glimpse, for one piercing flash, order in the universe. Truth and beauty made me feel alive. Plus, I suffered from delusions of grandeur and the subconscious fear that if I didn’t make my mark as a writer then I meant, in existential terms, nothing. I didn’t understand that at 18 years old; I only wanted to make other people feel what good writing made me feel. And I didn’t know how else to live up to the greatness I felt in myself that must surely indicate my place in written history.

Stories, like alcohol, had the dual benefits of shielding me from the unpleasant anxiety of living while introducing me to truth. I couldn’t stand the experience of having a body that had to interact with other people’s thoughts and feelings. Books were a great escape, and I preferred the feeling of living in my imagination to my experience in reality. Reality mostly felt like wearing a sandpaper sweater to a picnic. Whereas, my imagination felt like an all-day free pass to my favorite theme park. Alcohol was especially helpful here, and it eventually overrode the power of books as the fuel needed to enter my imagination and stay there. And then alcohol and my mind turned my imagination into a theme park of horrors, and I was stuck there, pretending to be normal and largely succeeding except for public conflicts with fidelity, until I was planning the other way out. I was stuck in that grotesque illusion fueled by alcohol all the way to May 19, 2007.

Yet, on the morning of May 20th, 2007, my first day without alcohol in about ten years, my entire life changed, and so was set in motion the chain of events that would reform my thinking and offer me the chance to find out who I really am. I took the chance. The price was that I had to learn to live in reality as myself, a concept that required an unwavering commitment to a conscious spiritual journey. I could no longer treat the mortal disquietude of my mind with alcohol. I could no longer present myself to the world as the character I had created.

Getting sober, then, begged the question: who the fuck was I?

*

So it began: This really trippy second half of my life; the conscious spiritual journey in which I would learn the definition of love from a tiger; I would reclaim my true self in Bahia, Brazil via the Everglades; and I would discover the critical importance of sacrificing my will to honesty and compassion—not that I have learned to sacrifice my will consistently; I have only discovered that it is critically important to live my life by honesty and compassion instead of by getting what I think I need to have in order to be what I think I need to be. I have a truly great life today with a normal amount of disappointment and an abnormal amount of adventure, so it’s on the balance, and, most days, so am I.

Sam the tiger teaches me about love.

Sam the tiger teaches me about love.

All of this internal awareness unfolded in good order, I suppose, because I was going to meet Andy, and I would need to know—without doubt—who I was and where I stood on issues of true love, honesty, and compassion. My position on these issues gets tested. Sometimes I do alright in these tests, most of the time I discover where my faith is the weakest. Or: my fear the strongest, depending on your perspective.

I have quit believing that my plans are 100% sure to work out well. In fact, most of the time I am without a plan. Instead, I tend to show up to things that show up in my life, like this upcoming trip to Cuba in two weeks to study sacred and popular dance, which I will tell you about later.

And, I have found that it is possible to function well in the third dimension while not placing my faith in it.

I am grateful I got sober through spirituality. It was a gateway, and I’m glad I took my opportunity to go through even though I didn’t know how it would be possible to enjoy life at all without being able to get wasted.

*

In my later-in-life years and after seven years of sobriety, I’ve come to realize that many non-alcoholic people don’t relate to this notion of being a body averse to having to interact with other people’s thoughts and feelings (while all alcoholics I’ve met do). Although, I have met many people with depression who get it completely yet they don’t turn into insatiable, unfathomable versions of themselves when alcohol enters their systems. I find it interesting when people wonder, usually without irony, why so many writers are alcoholic.

Mostly because we know we are somehow trapped in the third dimension against our will, and writing and drugs are the only available ways into the other place until we die or realize our art allows the other place into this one; then we have a chance at being free from what, in the vulgar, is termed “our demons.” We have a strange relationship to Love and power because of the constant surging demands of creative release, and many of us misinterpret our divine energy to compulsively create as our superiority or our righteous dissatisfaction or our precious uniqueness. The tension within is wacky, but it can be lovingly resolved.

However, the ideas of “this place”/the construct of reality as created by man and “that place”/sacred space which are, in truth, aspects of the same reality, are hard concepts to explain, especially to people who have set beliefs about alcoholism and writers and artists and dimensions and whatnot. What do you do when you’re confined to this place but know that you belong in that place? And what if you know, in your heart, that that place is the real place and this place is not, but you can’t find anyone anywhere who understands your pain or can explain to you that 1) you are right and 2) there is a way to turn this place into that place, but it takes time and it is not an easy undertaking. That is the spiritual path.

When a high profile one of us dies—take Philip Seymour Hoffman for example—and leaves behind partners and children, I often read social media pronouncements of how could s/he do that to her/his kids? This concept is even harder to explain than the congenital internal separation alcoholics feel as a general rule, especially when a large part of the population (even some active alcoholics) continue to harbor the underlying belief that alcoholics can control their drinking and behaviors if only they tried harder, or only if they “really” cared about someone. But, that’s not how it works. For the alcoholic mind, alcohol is the answer; so, why would I give it up? If you don’t have an alcoholic mind, you don’t understand that logic. The person appears to like being a dangerous, pathetic shithead; otherwise, why would she or he keep doing it?

The more erroneous notion, culturally, is that stopping is the hard part and the easy part is staying sober once we’ve “kicked the habit.” Some non-alcoholic folks can’t understand why someone who stopped drinking would start again, especially knowing the consequences, because non-alcoholics have no way to comprehend the chaos, often subtle, of the alcoholic mind, nor do they comprehend its ability to make a superior argument for why we need the relief brought to the alcoholic mind by alcohol. It is not logical; yet, to the alcoholic, it makes perfect sense.

Movies about alcoholics and alcoholism leave out the beauty of entering a sober life. There’s the long, drawn-out descent, the necessary turning point, and then FADE TO BLACK/CUT TO: PERSON, NOW SOBER, CLEAR-EYED AND SIMILING, SITS IN AN AA MEETING/MAKES AMENDS/WALKS INTO THE SUNSET blah blah blah.

While all of these person-triumphs-over-addiction instances do reflect that sobriety is possible and preferable, at least for an alcoholic, movies skip over the process. The audience gets to go home feeling hopeful about the protagonist, which is basic writing etiquette: leave the audience feeling hopeful.

Sobriety is hopeful. Totally hopeful. But, First Year Sober would make an excellent film, or even First 90 Days. Or, Days One Through Fifteen. Fortunately, I don’t remember much of my first year of sobriety except that I bought a house which was a terrible decision although I got valuable lessons in releasing financial fears and unwanted practice in mortgage litigation.

Live and learn.

The miracle of sobriety is watching the change happen in a human being. I’ve seen a lot of miracles in my life, yet I have never witnessed anything as moving and powerful as watching a person dying of alcoholism crawl into the world of the living and then walk on her own two feet into her own spiritual dominion, knowing what she had to sacrifice to get there. It is worth all the confusions and heartbreaks of life to have the chance to witness just one person come out of the nightmare and learn to be happy and at peace. I wouldn’t have even known such miracles were possible, and happening right here right now as this place and that place collide, if I’d never been dying of alcoholism myself.

So I am grateful to have alcoholism for that reason although there are many times when it is awkward to be outside of the prevailing culture of creating social intimacy through shared intoxication. But it is only awkward; it’s not worth my life to join a party.

*
Alcoholics have an unnatural, overriding attraction to booze. We are programmed to drink despite the consequences. Most alcoholics are really fun, compelling people who have an uncanny ability to make life more exciting, so some of us don’t have significant consequences for a long time because we are charming our way out of them. For others of us, we make the lives of people around us a living nightmare. Most of us do a bit of both.

We don’t want to be this way any more than you want us to be this way. There is no logic or sanity in the disease, and when we’re in it, we cannot choose you over it. We cannot choose love over alcohol even if we want to; and, what’s worse, we subconsciously sense this dilemma, and we don’t want it to be true, so we do all sorts of awful, crazy things trying to make different choices and be different. It is a terrifying state of existence, and we often say fuck it and give in to the disease in the end because it is easier than fighting. We drown right in front of you. Most of us die from this disease, from the suicidal alcoholic mind or the health and safety complications that are logical results of being drunk all the time. Most of us leave behind very hurt partners and children and parents who do not understand how lost we were when we were being dangerous, pathetic shitheads.

I am grateful to understand that alcoholism lives in me forever. I’m grateful that in the morning I won’t be facing consequences I vaguely remember causing. I am grateful that, in the last seven years, I have been dangerous, pathetic, and a shithead, but not all at once and never with the nozzle from a box of Franzia Mountain Chablis in my mouth.

*

Sometimes I wonder if “alcoholism” got rebranded to “Bill Wilson’s Disease” or “Spiritual Torment Disorder,” a la PTSD or Alzheimer’s, and people understood that the symptoms include the illogical craving for alcohol and socially unacceptable behavior, if somehow that would end the debate over what alcoholism is and help create a culture of understanding that something more pernicious is at work in us than an inability to control our drinking. It frustrates me to know that there are those of us out there still hiding because they’re afraid to say they’ve got alcoholism.

You know, when I knew I had to get help to quit drinking, I didn’t know anything about alcoholism except that having it somehow signified my epic failure at adulthood, made me a sad reflection on an otherwise proper upbringing. That’s just how alcoholism was presented to me, how I understood it—as a personal weakness that deserved judgment. But, if I’d been diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s or some other progressive illness, I imagine my reaction and the reaction of my friends and family would have been a hell of a lot different. But because it was alcoholism—and there are some people who love me very much who still can’t say the word out loud—I walked into the world of recovery more or less alone, which worked out splendidly for me in the end, but if there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know how to walk into that world alone: I will walk with you.

Back to the morning of May 20th, 2007: I thought I’d gotten addicted to booze but whatever was going on in my heart and mind that made me wish I was dead so I didn’t have to deal with the painful, unrelenting sensation of being the one person at the spring picnic in a sandpaper sweater was a separate issue. If I wagered, I’d put my money on lifelong anxiety and depression, some of it a result of environment, some of it not; but, by now I’ve come to understand these twins as symptoms of the alcoholic mind; which, by my guesstimation as I have put forth in this blog, is a suicidal mind programmed to treat itself with alcohol.

If I understand my condition—and the condition of “the alcoholic” as opposed to someone who temporarily drinks too much to handle stress or someone who is a “problem drinker” which I understand as someone who has the physical dependency but not the warped ego with a death wish—then I understand that I am congenitally unequipped to handle reality as it appears to me. However, I have a complimentary personality equipped to present well; in fact, I can present as damn near perfect. Temporarily. Alcoholics are convincing actors. We’re great mimics. This quality, combined with our charm and cleverness and general savoir faire, confounds people who love us. They don’t understand that we are “playing along;” hell, I’m convinced that most of the time we don’t understand we’re playing along until we do or say something to sabotage whatever it is (family, business, relationship, job, event, etc etc) that we were playing along at. As I’ve noted, the disease of alcoholism is not interested in “real.”

Today I am grateful I can be in this place and that place and not need the other way out. I am grateful for standing in the backyard and feeling connected to my backyard and not like some prisoner trapped in a relationship, in a town, in a job, in a set of responsibilities I didn’t ask for, in a bad outfit, in a college I didn’t want to go to, in a trajectory of almost-but-not-quite fulfilled dreams, in a role I assumed would make other people happy.

I am grateful that I have become very, very real. I am grateful that I can walk with other alcoholics. I am supremely grateful for the alcoholics who helped me crawl back into the world of the living, and those who stood there clapping as I stumbled into my own spiritual dominion. I am grateful they didn’t judge my emotions. I am grateful that, in my fears, they didn’t find their own shame. Or, if they did, I’m grateful they kept it to themselves.

Grateful for Leafy Sea Dragons

Grateful for Leafy Sea Dragons

*

I write about alcoholism and having alcoholism mostly out of a personal need; I put my experiences and ideas into words in order to organize what was a very chaotic state of existence, and my mind can still turn on me though I accept it for what it is today, and it’s quite manageable. Recovering from an entire adulthood spent in the stages of this disease has been rigorous with emotional and psychological aftermath, all of which was a necessary part of the grieving and healing process—for which I am grateful today.

I still don’t fully understand this disease, but I do understand that I have a need to know what I think about it. I need to know what I think about living with this disease when I was drinking and now when I am not.

I want other people to see alcoholism and addiction are symptoms of a human condition, that they are not merely physical dependencies. I was physically dependent on Diet Coke and Camel menthol lights. I am currently physically dependent on sugar. None of these dependencies turned me into what I become when I drank alcohol, and kicking Diet Coke (which I got back on) and cigarettes (which I did not) did not require an ensuing psychic change so that I would not kill myself or emotionally or physically damage people in relationships with me.

Not even close.

So, I am grateful for the compulsion to write, for the human tradition of storytelling. I am grateful for what Andre Dubus III calls “the power of art:” the ability to connect one human heart to another, not sentimentally or with ulterior motives, but because we are not separated from ourselves and from all that is sacred, and we need simple reminders, even if they arrive in the midst of surgery while one’s adored husband is, quite literally, exposing his vulnerable insides.

*

In two weeks, I leave for Cuba on another dance immersion trip, very similar to the one I did in Brazil two years ago, and this time I am going with the specific intention of bringing back that sacred dance for Tampa Bay. I haven’t always been grateful for my experiences and opportunities in life because my fears made humility impossible. I learned that hard truth about myself on the spiritual path, and it is this road that led me to Cuba and to the mystery of dance, to its sacred language. What I can tell you is that I want to spend every minute in Cuba in humility and gratitude so I can learn and learn as much as I can without fear and without reservations—much in the same way that I want to love Andy although I fall short most of the time, and I will fall short in Cuba, too.

Night night beloveds. You also have my gratitude for continuing to read and walk with me. I apprectiate your company these last ten months of contemplative blogs as I get my mind right about what these experiences and revelations have meant to me. And I especially am grateful to those of you who have reached out to me in private messages about your own struggles and evolutions and growing relationships with whatever you find sacred inside yourself and within our beautiful planet.

I think I’m going to lay off writing about alcoholism for awhile as this blog seems to recognize some peace I needed to make with it, but I want you to continue to talk to me about it if you want to or need to. Like I said, I’ll walk with you.

Andy and I have some fun adventures up ahead and are heading to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas next week before I land in Cuba. I want to get back to more nature and travel writing, and I also want to tell you about the funny experiences Andy and I just had in Colorado. Remind me to tell you about Ms. Eloise and The Weed Store in case I forget.

peace

 

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Twelve Years a Slave (Or, Easter in the FRF)

Andy and I watched 12 Years a Slave the other night. Easter night. During the scene in which the drunken Christian plantation owner whips a stripped Patsy, the object of his obsessions, until blood and skin spray from her back, I thought how could any Christian look at slavery and not see the persecution of Christ. Even back then, on some subconscious level? 

If Jesus was the living God, and Jesus said “God is Love” and “I am the Truth,” then is this not, on its abstract and spiritual level, the destruction of Love and Truth? And is that not the opposite of justice?

Where is justice in the willful harm, physical or mental or emotional, of one human to another? And where do I fall in all this?

The movie, as you probably know, was inspired by the horrifying life events of Solomon Northup, an accomplished violinist and free black man with a wife and children living in New York. In 1841, he agreed to travel to DC with two white men to provide music for their traveling circus act. It was a trap. They drugged him and sold him into slavery, where he remained to witness and suffer unspeakable mental and physical tortures for the next 12 years.

 

Inside cover of Northup's memoir that later became the film.

Inside cover of Northup’s memoir that later became the film.

*

Slavery is a long period of American history difficult for me to reconcile for many reasons, mostly because I am Southern, raised in the Christian tradition and white-ish, thereby the inheritor of slavery’s resounding psychic wound and prejudices. I have heard the counterarguments: that was so long ago, people need to let it go; I didn’t do anything like that to anybody; black people have the same opportunities as I do. But, I am not disconnected from my social history to the extent that I can treat it like a simple story that has no effect on my experience. I have traveled to many places in the South, and the old towns reek with strange energies: Richmond, Wilmington, Jackson, Savannah, New Orleans.

When I contemplate slavery or when I see images of it, it resounds within me, as the scene of Patsy’s excoriation, as if I am somehow still involved in it. I can’t explain this feeling; I haven’t a clue why my reaction is the way it is. Perhaps it is only my natural horror at witnessing cruelty. I have always despised bully tactics.

That the legion inhumanities of slavery were supported by illogical, racist, and ungodly arguments taken out of context from the Old Testament troubles me even further, especially since the living ideologues in present day America have successfully created “Christianity” as the political party of the Religious Right. To the best of my understanding, this party upholds the opposite of Jesus’s teachings of compassion, loving kindness, and communion with the Living God as acts of humility and easing the suffering of others. May I venture to acknowledge these unbending political ideas, especially when people are calling them truth or, even worse, “God’s Word,” to inform the government are against Jesus’s teachings. Or, if you will, anti-Christ. Twisting Jesus’s teachings to make hurting others morally right, particularly when Christians are willfully blind to their own unethical choices, deeply depresses me about the manifestations of human fear. Trust me, Christians, I have examined the log in my own eye, and I hate to admit what that process has done has made me more compassionate although I still react to injustice and dogma first with fear and a desire to retaliate.  I’m not perfect.

To be sure, this same point of view extends to other religions, not just Christianity, or any dogma that advertently or ignorantly seeks to dominate others with their system of beliefs. I say “ignorantly” because I’ve spent a great deal of my life watching people and groups of people try to control others with rules and regulations that are “good for them.” It, too, is a trap to sell people into slavery. I’ve done it myself in my family relationships and also in social groups I’ve been in, all on small levels but tangible enough for me to understand how ruthless it would get if pressed outward to counties or countries or, as we’ve all seen throughout history, ethnicities and women. Or, for that matter, our planet and its other living beings.

My first 40 years on Earth have been dedicated to gathering information about life here, about myself, and about human history. In processing this information and after a rather unexpected need to examine my own suffering, I can not ethically come out on any side other than peace and the understanding that we’re all one.  In the final analysis, I came out on the side of Love and Truth, despite my propensities for dishonesty and manipulation, and I’ve found these to be quite challenging principles to practice in the modern world and in my relationships with other people.

We’re all aspects of God, even when, complicit in our human circumstances, we have become sick enough to believe we are justified in controlling another human being’s life for our own glory.

*

On Easter morning, Andy and I read a short contemplation on compassion by Thich Nhat Hahn in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ. The ensuing discussion was partly intellectual and partly self-reflective, and, like everything spiritual, compassion is much easier to wax opinionated about than it is to practice. For me, I am much better at seeing where you obviously need to practice a little more compassion than where I need to apply some brotherly or sisterly love.

Andy is a great mirror for me in this way as I can spot instantly where he is fucking up spiritually, and that is my exact indicator of what I need to be working on. I need less enemies in America and its history. My problem with slavery is I have no compassion for the sick thinking and deranged circumstances that made it possible. I need more understanding of love and truth as it applies to things and people I despise. When we look deeply, Thich says, “our anger transforms itself into the energy of compassion. …This is the true teaching of Jesus.”  Happy Easter, from the Buddhist.

When I am in compassion, I am outside of the power differential. I’m not condoning injustice or indifferent to suffering, but I am finding another path: I see truth, and I experience love. What confounds me is that even as I know this, sometimes the rush of being right, of feeling the power of my opinions, is too seductive, although I find myself less and less titillated by conversations of intelligent complaints.

night night beloveds.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Circumstances Leading to Our Amputation

the old running leg

the old running leg

Life is funny.

This is what I’m thinking as I’m watching the Asian toddler scoot around the room on her knees because half her left leg is gone.

Not funny ha-ha, but funny unexpected. Funny perfect because I gave up trying to make things like I thought they should be, and I wound up here.

A young black-and-white Australian shepherd fixates on the pink fabric frisbee on the floor as the Asian girl zips past on her kneecaps. His only disturbance is her ignoring his deep psychological need for her to throw the toy.

Her sister, maybe four or five years old, wears a prosthetic right leg designed to look exactly like a girl’s leg, flesh-toned to match her skin color, and it’s so realistic I don’t realize it’s fake until she runs over to where I’m sitting to wonder who wants to play Barbies?

In the middle of the room, a woman of 60-ish works her hands along a waist-high set of chrome parallel bars, testing out a new C-leg, while another woman, about that same age with a similar leg affixed to her right thigh, sits on the edge of her seat several feet away, watching the progress with rapt attention.

Black ergonomic plastic chairs line either side of the giant open room, and there is a demo skeleton in the center relaxing next to an HD flat screen television, where I just watched a segment of Dancing with the Stars featuring a pretty double amputee named Amy in a contemporary duet performing on a set of glossy black prosthetic legs with modified prosthetic swimming feet to enable her to dance on her toes. The guy who owns this place designed her legs. His name is Stan.

Later, we will all eat cheesecake, and I will see my first anti-gravity treadmill.

Of course, I’m in Orlando.

*

I got here because I applied for a job teaching ecology to fifth graders but ended up getting hired to write a book with the founder of the school.  “Here” is an orthotic and prosthetic clinic tucked on a side street in Orlando, several miles from the glut of theme parks selling fantasy to Americans and international tourists. The juxtaposition of sitting in a room full of amputees only miles from Disneyworld and the like fills me with an unexplained and maybe unjustifiable sense of irony. The reality of the human experience has never been as visually represented to me as it is by looking at people who are missing body parts.

*

I’m here with Dana, who is the founder of the science school who asked me if I would help her write her life story. Dana dreams, then she sets goals, then she finds ways to achieve those goals. Dana is an AK, an above-the-knee amputee, thanks to a decade-long battle with desmoid cancer (a rare cancer of connective tissue), and she is a local hero because the humanitarian education work she does to increase science literacy for this part of Florida. She has even had a day named after her.

She and I are cut of the same cloth, personality and outlook-wise, separated in age by only a few months, so we had an instant friendship. Since our first conversation, we’ve balanced our relationship somewhere between collaborators, sisters, philosophers, and girl friends, and it’s one of those situations that feels a lot like fate.

It’s last Tuesday, and Dana and I are in her orthotics clinic for adjustments to her C-leg, or “computer leg.” Dana wants to train for a marathon. Which means that Dana is going to run a marathon. Her cancer is back, though, and it’s causing swelling in her stump, so we’re here to get a new liner and socket. We’re also asking Stan about a new running leg, and I am learning all kinds of fascinating things about the world of orthotics and prosthetics, and Stan is famous in this field, which is why Amy from Dancing with the Stars came to him specifically to invent her a pair of camera-friendly dancing legs.

Like me, Stan is still 100% biological, and he runs this company with his dad, who is in his 70s and spooling a fishing reel in the back workshop, where I am delighted to discover bins of fake feet, sorted according to size, and the machines used to fabricate custom liners, sockets, and silicone. The workshop smells like epoxy and power tools. It’s sole purpose is to make prosthetic legs perfectly suited for the specific human. It’s one of the coolest production set-ups I’ve ever seen.

We talk about AKs and BKs (below-the-knee), and the two Australian shepherds belong to Stan and hang out at the clinic all day. Dogs are welcome to come to the clinic with their people, so the day is filled with children and dogs and people making riveting remarks like “what kind of knee do you have?” and “I’ve been an amputee 40 years. My first leg was wood and I had to ask them to carve me an ankle and toes in the foot.”

There is a sense of community here and not one of disabled or handicapped people. Dana relaxes here, an amputee among amputees. The stress of life leaves her face and she smiles to see the 60ish year old woman leave the comfort of the chrome parallel bars and walk around the room on her own, steady on her leg.

*

Today is the mother of the Asian girls’ birthday, and the clinic’s liaison, a flirty, handsome BK who looks like he played rugby in college, arrives with a bag from cheesecake factory.

“Motorcycle,” Dana says. I’ve learned that the circumstances leading up to the amputations are usually summed up in a word. Cancer. Lawnmower. Polio. Meningitis. 

I wonder what that would extend to for the rest of us? Lover. Alcoholism. Divorce. Depression.

Nobody gets out of this ride intact. For some of us, we’re forced to leave behind our homes. We lose parts of our minds, we sacrifice pieces of our dreams, we cut off whole sections of our belief systems, we lose lovers and family members, our egos–if we’re lucky–take massive, crippling blows. We lose parts of ourselves. That is life.

I am in awe of those of us who must experience it literally, in front of everyone, as they adjust to their different selves. I’m 100% biological still, the minority in this clinic, and the fellowship that exists here reminds me a lot of being around a bunch of recovering alcoholics, like me, all of us, too, finding comfort in each other’s shared experience of fear and loss, then the shared condition of recovery and adjustment. In this clinic, I’m reminded of why I love life so much, why I love people. I love people who have taken major hits and losses and find ways to triumph in the unnoticed wash of daily living. I love their stories and their implements, their tools, and their courageous trudge through pain in all its destructive, instructive force. I really like people who don’t pretend life is pretty and clean.

I really like people who are honest about the parts they lost. I like people who want to heal. And I especially like people who emerge in their new shape still looking for beauty–people who laugh, people who still believe in the magic of the mystery of life. Dana is like this, full of pain and hope and cynicism and wonder.

We suit up Dana for the anti-gravity treadmill. She zips herself into it so the lower part can fill with air like a transparent inflatable. She can’t fall. I am eating cheesecake and fumbling with the GoPro. We’re documenting this because it’s important, and it’s fun, and it’s the kind of thing you do when you love someone and you’re writing a book about their real business of living.

It’s not every day that you get to be there to witness someone learning to run again.

*

night night beloveds. To when you let yourself learn to run again.

 

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Girl with a Hoop

A lot of the time, it’s a brutal business to heal the dogs of internal conflicts you didn’t even know you had. On top of that, some of the dogs have run off with pieces of you, and you can’t live right until you find them, so you go off searching.

And then there you are, in Florida.  Miraculously, pieces return, almost as if they didn’t run off at all, but merely left you for awhile, as they must, in their strange orbit of the soul.

*

In 1885, French painter Auguste Renoir created a portrait in a new style, one he called aigre, or “sour,” after abandoning Impressionism and taking up with Renaissance art.  The painting, Girl with a Hoop, would live in art history, at least as the National Gallery of Art defines it, as exemplary of Renoir’s search to create something more permanent, more concrete, than the blurred illusory qualities of Impressionism.  The painting was a commission of a nine-year-old girl named Marie.

Girl with a Hoop

Girl with a Hoop

*

I must have seen this painting somewhere, and its sister Impressionist work, Girl with a Watering Can. But I have no memory of when I saw these paintings for the first time, no recollection of any remarkable experience with either one. So I will tell you something very strange: when I was 36 years old, in 2010, I was working with a healer doing something called “heart therapy,” and she was taking me into a visualization to meet my inner child.  I was in a desperate amount of pain then, rent by the first genuine attempts to learn who I really am, and it was a pain that would continue in me, to varying degrees, until I ran out of gas with the alligator wrangler I wrote about in this blog.

Thus far, 2010 has been the roughest year, trying as I was to beg for some language so I could understand the internal stripping away of the stories I made up about myself to have an identity in the world.  I was starting to face my inner conflicts, just at the point where I could speak enough truth to myself about the way I felt inside to honor the dogs that fought there. Otherwise, I never would have agreed to inner child work, which, at that time, deeply offended the character of the intellectual whose mask, to quote Orwell, my face had grown to fit.

I found Renoir’s two girls in my mind, blended into one 7-year-old child, cowering behind the dresser in the girlhood bedroom I grew up in on Westminster Drive in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I didn’t identify the amalgam right off; I only registered that this child was from some painting I had seen somewhere. Yet, she appeared to me vividly in the visualization, her face as the Girl with a Hoop but in the dress of the Watering Can girl, with blonde hair and a red bow. It was as if my mind had photographed these paintings and animated this part of me, this little girl who learned to survive living with me by hiding between the furniture and the wall.

But, I collected her as the healer instructed, and I thought that was that.  I was wrong.  For the next four years, while I paid attention to other things, the girl with the hoop was making clanging, desperate demands for my attention.  And when she didn’t get mine, she would settle for someone else’s.

A Girl with a Watering Can

A Girl with a Watering Can

*

On the last day of the year, 2013, Michael‘s latest ex-girlfriend contacted me on facebook.

She had been reading this blog. Her name was Jenny.

*

There is no life for me except a mystic’s life. There is no life but God. When I agreed that God could have my life, when I made the big surrender so that I would not die drunk somewhere far from people who loved me, I found extraordinary things happening. I found myself taking a lot of sour with the sweet.  I had to because love is like that, the way it won’t let me be fake, not real love, not the kind that comes from the other place and through me and into another person’s heart and they feel it and it feels hot and true like the right medicine.  I receive this love all the time now, too, from all sorts of people, some of them strangers, some of them reading this blog, Andy, and I am more okay not understanding what is going to happen in life anymore because somewhere in the swamp, when God asked me to come there to meet Her, to meet Him, the dogs stopped fighting.  Though I’d forgotten about this girl with the hoop.

Then came the message from Jenny.

*

Jenny was a mess, torn up after a year of tangling with a crazy-maker in a pattern of behaviors and reactions I knew all too well.  This blog had helped her, she said, because I’d written about him.  I was too curious to not meet her, so on a respite to the Everglades last month, I asked her to meet me for coffee, and she agreed.

We met at the Dunkin Donuts on the Tamiami Trail at the intersection in Naples where I used to turn into the Glades for my tours.  I spotted her immediately:  brunette, kind eyes, big smile, studiously poring through her calendar. She looked a lot like me.  What can I say? She felt familiar.

We sat across from each other for two hours, swapping stories, connecting, laughing, sharing a few moments of frightened tears at memories we’d kept to ourselves out of shame or bewilderment. There were goose bumps as we rehashed the highlights, let me tell you. We sat in that gaudy corporate donut shop and administered the medicine to each other.  I told her Michael had been a great teacher for me, and I do wish him well.  I wish him peace.

“Why would I have let this all happen?” she asked me.

“I can tell you why I did,” I said.

I loved him because I had some bad ideas to work out, ideas about men and emotional needs and relationships that I picked up as a child.  I loved him because the girl with the hoop told me to, though that’s not how I phrased it to Jenny. Hell, that’s not even how I understood it when I was talking to Jenny.  The best I could do then was “I’ve got fucked up issues about men and taking care of them because how I was raised, so, you know, that’s what I talk with my therapist about.” Dogs leave with pieces of you. These pieces return in the face of a woman who loved a man you loved once when you didn’t know how to take care of a very, very important part of yourself.

We hugged goodbye as friends, making plans to go camping together one day.  I asked her if I could write about us.  She said yes as long as I promised not to make her look too crazy.  But of course not–I already told you she looked like me.

*

Driving back from the Glades, ruminating on the wild significance of having coffee with Michael’s new ex, I finally noticed a particular phrase kept flashing through my mind along to the radio beats. The girl with the hoop.  The girl with the hoop.

That’s a Degas painting, I thought. A few days later, in a lull at work, I Googled “the girl with the hoop.”

It wasn’t Degas.  It was Renoir.  And there I was, face to face with my inner child.

*

The painting itself I find curious.  The girl, not even in middle school, bears the ennui of someone who has already identified the astounding ridiculousness of the world. She bears the expression of a young woman. Her left foot pins the hoop from moving although her left hand, the giving hand, lightly but already holds the hoop in place.  The stick for driving the hoop she holds confidently in her right hand, the hand meant to receive, but her grip is loose, musical. She is rosy-cheeked and cock-hipped, frozen in this moment of having total control on the wheel, the circle, the infinite. The medicine wheel. The circle of dreams. She is a sassy little miss priss spinning the momentum of life, stopping it at will, oscillating between playing a common egalitarian game and reminding me of atoms, of earth, of life, spinning, spinning, spinning.

In Native American beliefs, the Sacred Hoop unites all communities. It represents a time of healing, of coming together.  And here is the girl with the hoop, balancing it all.

Girl_with_a_Hoop

*

The root of my conflicts is self-centered fear.  This is what the girl with the hoop finally taught me. You are afraid for yourself, so you do things you don’t like to keep yourself from being afraid. You can’t protect me until you know it is me you are protecting. 

She’s right. She is a child, and she picked Michael to protect her.  How would she know better?  How could I have done right by her without acknowledging she is the child I bear, that she is the seed of the wise woman, that she is the part of me–the only part of me–who needs to be able to trust me.

And I don’t know how else she would have found her way home without all these pieces returning, over the years, in the recursive journey of hoops.

night night beloveds.  To your inner child, your hoop-bearer, your little beloved inside.

peace.

renoir63

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And You Will Answer to Your New Name

Andy and I got married a week ago:  October 5, 2013, almost one year after the day we met.  The ceremony was concise and meaningful, and despite our pre-wedding walk around the neighborhood rehearsing our vows so that we might stand a chance of not losing it during the real thing, the longest part of the ceremony was me trying to pull it together to get past the first word of my vows, which was “Andy.”

You may have heard that we got married in a tiny family ceremony on our friends’ sailboat a few dozen feet off the shores of Lover’s Key State Park.  The ceremony ended with Andy and me holding hands and leaping from the starboard side into the Gulf of Mexico, followed by my brothers, Andy’s brother, my sister-in-law, and our dear friend and officiant: none other than Cristina, my compatriot in Skunk Ape tracking, the person who brought Andy and me together, and my former boss now current sister friend, who is without a doubt the hottest and most generous officiant in all of south Florida.  Her husband Mike jumped overboard, too, followed by our captain friends Gale and Maureen who own the sailboat, while our mothers cried on deck and Andy’s father cheered us on.

I got married in the dress I bought for the candomble ceremony in Brazil, and I wore my Orixas beads as well as a sacred set of beads handmade for me by a spiritualist in Wilmington, another dear friend Jill Lahnstein, who also handmade a blessed necklace for Andy crafted from a mysterious dagger-shaped slice of obsidian he found among the keepsakes in his grandfather’s library.  Andy got married in old board shorts and an off-white button down shirt we found in a second-hand store.  We made our wedding cake ourselves, which was a straight Southern pistachio cake baked from a box white cake mix, pistachio Jell-O pudding, 7-up, coconut oil, and eggs.   My friend Melina Reed, a metalsmith in North Carolina, designed and hammered out our silver wedding rings, which have each other’s named stamped inside.

We jumped in with our vows tucked in our clothes, our hands tight together, fully conscious of baptizing ourselves into this new world.  We were fully conscious of this new world not because Andy and I have some kind of special love or magic bond.  We knew this because, three weeks prior, we laid in the bed next to each other, looked each other in the eye, and admitted the terrifying truth:  I have very serious doubts that I can do this.

By “this,” we meant “it.”  The marriage.  The relationship.  The consistent compromise and communication, the vulnerability, the unflinching emotional honesty, the laying down of pride, the owning up to our own bullshit maneuvers, the steady march into the unknown world of working. it. out.

So, this blog is about surrender.

Free Republic of Fairbanks est. 2013

Free Republic of Fairbanks
est. 2013

wedding beads

Post immersion. Wedding beads were a gift from Jill Lahnstein, “Bead Mother,” Wilmington, NC

Anchored.

Anchored.

*

Andy and I hit a rocky patch at the end of July when I almost relapsed drinking and he was unaware of a creeping bout of depression that would culminate in the conversation on the bed.  We’d subjected the other to the dark parts of ourselves without apologies.  We’d engaged badly, we’d brought up old hurts, we’d projected the worst on the future and on the other, we’d wallowed in insecurities, mixed up in that twisted business of trying to will the other into a state of submission to Not Disappoint Our Expectations.  And we did all this with great intentions. We did all this still deeply and madly in love with each other.  We did all this because, in the final analysis, Andy and I had to let go of our old ideas about what our lives were going to be like, or what our lives *should* be like now that we had finally been saved by the loves of our lives.

It was a crucible for the relationship.  We hadn’t been saved, of course, merely presented with an opportunity to practice unconditional love.  What a double cross, universe.

Naturally, we got sideways of each other in this brief period, and, boy, then did we ever have to put up or shut up about whether or not we were committed–about whether or not we had it in us to walk the walk of the talk that had so intoxicated the both of us.

This negotiation was difficult.  And awkward.

It was sobering.  It was liberating.

Somewhere in this time period we also had a long and painfully awkward conversation about the definition of unconditional love, and my God did we get many, many opportunities to practice emotional honesty.  It is hardcore and raw to look Love in the eye and know in our heart of hearts that whether or not we get to keep it depends on our willingness to be honest.  Then there’s the part about listening to each other.  Then accepting the truth.  Then making the necessary changes without judgment or resentment.

But we did it.  This is how we started our path to peace.  This is surrender.

It is not the same as submission, which leads, sooner or later, to abject misery.

Andy and I figured out quickly that we had no interest in setting up a battle of wills; we are both too argumentative, too headstrong, too intellectually prideful.  We both prefer flight to fight, and for the only time in our love lives we did not want either option.  We wanted to stay.  We wanted to figure out how we needed to change.

All this we learned during the graphic but instructive dissection of the anatomy of our relationship.  We took the parts we found that we couldn’t identify to Andy’s therapist, who was a great help.  He gave us a lot of perspective.

“The world is a fucked up, messy place.  That’s what you’re dealing with.  The reality that definitions of certain words like ‘freedom,’ and ‘compromise’ and ‘integrity’ have to change.  It’s chaos,” he told us.  “Shit.”

We thanked him and left his office alright with the world.  He was right. We could do this.

We walked to a pizza place in downtown St. Pete right before the bottom dropped out in a late afternoon thunderstorm.   When it subsided, we went to the grocery store and bought all the ingredients for pistachio cake.

We went home and made a practice wedding cake.

We frosted it–like we were told–with Dream Whip.

It turned out too stiff.

When we made the cake again for the wedding, we switched to Cool Whip, which went on smoother but didn’t taste as good.

The point is, nobody cared.

At the dinner, our families kept saying, “I’ve never seen you happier.”

*

I didn’t change my name the first time I got married.  Both my sisters-in-law and several friends remarked about how proud or surprised they were at me taking Andy’s last name, depending on the person’s relationship to me.  I didn’t take Lenny’s last name for several reasons, the main one being that his last name was so ultra boring and plain that I couldn’t abide turning into someone so…unoriginal.

And, I think the patriarchy is a racket run by self-congratulatory scumbags and reprobates.  I’m no one’s property, you social overseers.

Then there’s the ugly truth that I wasn’t anywhere near being emotionally or spiritually or physically ready to be in a marriage, and so I could always live in the unaltered universe of Me.

But that was a long time ago and I’ve changed so much, we all have, jesus, and I have really been surprised by the amount of people commenting on me changing my name, and that’s all about surrender, too.

The patriarchy is still a system of slavery with intricate etiquette.  But I’m no stalwart feminist here.  Andy has a terribly cool last name, one that suits me perfectly, and I am beyond ready to be in a partnership, a family, unified, total solidarity.  I’ll surrender.  No problem there.

When I emerged from the Gulf holding hands with Andy, I became this new thing, this new person, this woman called Marlowe Moore Fairbanks.  I don’t know her, as I am, with Andy, in the process of being created.  This, too, is surrender.  Andy and I talk of these principles of our life and lives often; we’re solidifying our practices, our disciplines.

We were goofing around one day and christened our union as a country, the Free Republic of Fairbanks.  In one of our cigar-smoking and cranberry-juice drinking brainstorms, we concocted a national flag, which is pink and brown with a white stripe ascending the bias.

“For surrender,” Andy said.

I nodded.

For surrender.

night night beloveds.  Yours truly, Marlowe Moore Fairbanks.

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