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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Why I Need Poetry

Summer rains come every day in southwest Florida.  The low-lying area of my back yard transformed into a tiny wetlands about two months ago.  This morning, as I sit here and wonder what strange message has compelled me to this blog, a snowy egret blew down and is now stomping along, pecking at the smorgasbord of bugs and tadpoles and very likely small fish making a temporary home next to my equally tiny 6-member palm hammock.

Andy and I have been talking about change.

We have been talking about loving Florida.

We have been planning a marriage, not a wedding, and that is an important distinction.

We have been dealing with manifestations of my alcoholism, a disease hardly anyone understands, and Andy has been learning that alcoholism has as much to do with alcohol as bi-polar has to do with being happy/sad or OCD has to do with a need for tidiness.   I have been learning to surrender.  Again.  More.

We are teaching each other to practice unconditional love.  This is good business.  It is true.

These times are intense.

These times are vital.

*

When I was still in Wilmington, teaching, struggling with debt and the daily re-training of an unmedicated mind, drowning in relationships that were more like botched rescue missions, I read a lot.  I read about animals.  I read about quantum physics and how they are similar in principle to Eastern spiritual philosophies.  I was compelled to this information.  How could I have known then–three, four, five years ago–that I was being prepared for my life now?  I wish I knew how many documentaries I watched about alligators.

Then, when I was having a bout of difficulties walking, as I was, through the darkness of my fake self, I packed snacks and drove myself on an adventure to Orton Plantation, an old rice plantation south of Wilmington that was full of live oaks dripping Spanish moss.  Famous North Carolinian James Sprunt acquired the property after an exciting history of swapped ownerships, and he and his wife built a small church on a slight hill overlooking the gardens, and I would go there and pray, then walk the garden trails along the Brunswick River looking for alligators.

One afternoon, while standing on a wooden antebellum platform over the wetlands, I spotted a wild alligator swimming along the surface of the water.  It did not see me.  This was the first time in my life I saw a wild alligator swim, and I gasped, for no other reason than I felt my soul fly out to it with an ownership of recognition that I never felt in conferences, barrooms, family reunions, staff meetings, or sexual intercourse.  I knew that creature.  The powerful thing in me understood that animal, that movement, that moment.  And it also understood that alligator didn’t give a shit about me, and that felt exactly right.

Drive into Orton.  photo stolen from internet.

Drive into Orton. photo stolen from internet.

Unknown

Inside of the Orton church .  this photo also stolen.

The incident took place in perhaps four seconds, the alligator disappeared, and I thought no more about it until a few months later, when a friend of mine introduced me to a shaman named Leotha who took me into a meditation where I surprised myself by returning to that alligator moment in my mind.  Only this time I followed the alligator under the water, and we disappeared.

I wasn’t afraid.  I was just connected to it, and that was that.

*

When I talk about God, I’m talking about the ways in which the mystery interacts with me through mediums I get.  I understand alligators.

I understand books. Music. Dance. Poetry. Swamps.

I understand Andy Fairbanks.

In these ways, I receive truth.  Because I am dense matter, sometimes truth resonates merely as a sensation, a feeling, like the one I had with the alligator.  As my intimacy with God expands, sometimes truth arrives as instruction.  Predictably, I have been known to take liberties with the instructions and negotiate, refuse, or demonstrate what I believe to be superior instructions.  These liberties result in disillusion, and not the fun kind where I get the delightful epiphany at the end; these liberties end in therapy or shower crying or tattered relationships.  This is just the way it is.   I get confused.  Totally normal.

In the changes Andy and I have been discussing, I’ve explained to him that my last six years of truth instructions have resulted in my complete lack of interest in success or achievements.  These past two years, in solitude in the ways that matter, something has been happening to me, and I’ve watched, almost as an observer, as my overachieving, perfectionist, appear-put-together-to-the-world-at-all-costs-because-their-approval-is-necessary ways withered on the vine like nasty fruit.

I am no more interested in my name or making something of myself than that alligator. It is odd, unfamiliar, discordant with my previous social messages.

The phrase now you can be of real use has passed my mind more than once.

I am here because, in no small ways, I followed the alligator.

And disappeared.

Nature reflects myself to me

Nature reflects myself to me

*

Come unto me.

There was a woman who was afraid about making a major life change.   She was talking to me about what she heard in her prayer.  That’s all she got.  Nothing specific.  No concrete left turn/right turn/straight after the McDonald’s.

I was in Naples for this, maybe Labor Day Weekend of ’11.  I couldn’t decide if I should move to Florida or stay in Wilmington.  I hadn’t told anyone I was considering a move to Florida, only that Michael and I had gotten back together and he’d moved to Naples.  I was visiting.

Neat, I thought.  She’s so lucky!

No. I heard.  What?

“I clearly heard, ‘come unto me,'” the woman repeated.

The message is for you.  Holy shit, I thought.

That’s how I ended up taking the path to the Everglades, the greatest wetlands in the world, infested with alligators.  In the Everglades, I found my soul.  I saw it.  From the Ten Thousand Islands observation tower.

view from upper deck of ten thousand islands lookout tower

view from upper deck of ten thousand islands lookout tower

And then I went all the way in.

*

When I look into Andy’s eyes, I see the light of God.

Very clearly.

I think most people do.

But I am not sure I would have recognized it before.  Before, I think I would have mistaken it for kindness.

*

A few weeks ago, I found myself in my public library clutching a stack of books to my chest.  Garrison Keillor, Sandra Cisneros, W.S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Michael Palmer.  All poetry collections.

I was thirsty and starving.  Too much politics.  Too much dissatisfaction, grumbling, finger-pointing, smug self-satisfaction, too much facebook.  I haven’t read poetry collections since 2010, when I was escaping to Orton Plantation and spending my nights making up poems for my Notes in fb.  When I tore into Cisneros’s book, Loose Woman, it healed me.  It fed me.

I write and read because those were my first two tools for coping with the world.  Later, I got drunk.  Then there were three.

Poetry ends my thirst.  I get it.

I have written many times in this blog that, before I set foot in the Glades, I thought it was a poem God wrote.  I was right.

*

I have Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery on my lanai coffee table as I type this.  This blog has consumed my whole morning, and most of the afternoon.

I asked Andy to pick a number between 1-337, the number of pages in Elizabeth’s collection.  He picked 33 1/2, which happens to be the exact age I was when I got sober, but he didn’t know that, and we both laughed when I opened the book to a poem she wrote called “Florida.”

I am sad about closing this chapter, in which I learned about trusting my intuition, finding true love, communicating with animals, detonating the traps of co-dependency, stopping being a selfish dumbass, and following my heart despite what other people think about it.  It’s been my favorite one so far, but I know that, poetically speaking, my life is over.

*

Yet truthfully, it is just beginning.

co-authors in wild surrender

co-authors in wild surrender

*

night, night beloveds.  I leave you with the last five lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Florida.”

After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.

The alligator, who has five distinct calls:

friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–

whimpers and speaks in the throat

of the Indian Princess.

peace.

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Rufus Ray’s First Blog Post: study of x

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rufus copilotrufus cabinet

Editor’s Note:  Rufus Ray Moore’s original unsolicited guest blog this week did not include photographs.  Those were chosen as the result of editorial decisions to put the writer’s work into context.

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Andy Fairbanks at the Ecotone of Love

Week before last, Gizmo, the African Grey Parrot at the airboat place, escaped her birdcage.  She could fly, though not very well, but eventually she made it outside.  Unfortunately, she made it outside in the animal park.  And from there, into the pit of 80 alligators, all hungry, and one of them pregnant (or, “gravid” for my pedantic science friends) and ornery enough to eat car tires.

The end.

This story reminds me of relationships.  Specifically, mine.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Escapes and Lands in the Gator Pit was the working title of my memoirs before this tragedy befell Gizmo; now the title seems insensitive.  It was between that and It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, which I feel like equally applies to Gizmo’s decision-making skills.

For those of you following along with this blog, I bet you noticed that I got real quiet on the subject of relationships after Meditation on Death and Dying, and that was mostly because I’d jumped out of my cage with Michael and into the exact same gator pit where Gizmo met the Angel with Eighty Teeth, only I did it with an alligator wrangler in a romantic sideshow act that I thought was real, and my hope died.  I was both liberated and embarrassed, as these things go, and my final thoughts on the matter, I imagine, were the same as Gizmo’s:  “well, shit.”

So, I entered the tomb to wait for the green light on my resurrection.  Although, I prefer to think in terms of chrysalis/transformation/new life.  Either way, there I was.

For what I am doing in this photograph, please reference both possible memoir titles.

For what I am doing in this photograph, please reference both possible memoir titles.

In the last paragraph of that blog, Meditation on Death and Dying, I mention a party where I met a man who went to college with a guy named David Lee Roth.  Not Van Halen-Panama-high kicking-leggings David Lee Roth–David Lee Roth just happens to be this guy’s name, and he makes outstanding coconut candies in Hawaii.  The blog was supposed to be a funny re-telling of that tale, and to share with you the fact that you can order this candy online and it is delicious.  And it’s made by a guy named David Lee Roth.  All things I want you to have in your lives, beloveds.  But that’s not how the blog turned out because that’s not how I was feeling.  I wrote what I was feeling, I told you the truth, and then I went in the tomb-crysalis and shut the hell up.  Until now.

In environmental science, an ecotone is a transition between biomes.  It is a space where two different ecosystems meet and integrate, become a unique liminal condition of both environments.  A middle space, if you will, a shared space.  In an ecotone, two natures merge into each other, creating a new ecosystem that is separate from them, yet of them. It’s a beautiful thing, and often disorienting.

This party is where I met Andy Fairbanks, who was the host and man of honor, the man who went to college with David Lee Roth and was soon, then, on his way to Hawaii to meet up with David and coconut (yes, it’s a verb) and who, also, was sinking into a chrysalis tomb of his own.  That was October 13, 2012.  We liked each other instantly, but it was an uneventful party, Andy left shortly after, and we did not speak again — only traded a few emails and facebook posts — until March when, after a grueling winter for both of us, we emerged.

Andy and I reconnected at a meet-and-greet organized by Cristina for Florida 500 when Justin Riney stopped over in Fort Myers Beach on his epic year-long SUP paddle through the waterways of Florida to raise awareness for the beauty and importance of water systems to the state.  There is a moment, I’d heard tell, when you know.   I had this moment with Andy at this gathering, when he pulled out of the conversation he was in to greet me, and our eyes met.  I can’t tell you that it was earth-shattering or monumental or Biblical or anything epic or superlative.  It was not.  It was a calm and soft click somewhere in the back of my heart, like a key in a tumbler lock, and that was all.  It was not some sweeping sense of romance; it was a gentle knowing that, if we were willing and agreed to it, perhaps we could build a life together that would last, a life we would both understand and love because maybe we could understand and love each other.

I thought I’d shared it with Michael, and before that with Bill, and Mark and Lenny prior, and they were all important relationships for me, and I loved them all.  But in hindsight, I’d made up the signs, because the ego wants what it wants and I don’t fault mine for that, but I couldn’t be tricked anymore.  I was done.  That’s what you learn in the chrysalis tomb when you’re unsure about why you’re even alive in the first place, and Love has left you there to think about what you’ve done, and you do, and it hurts when you realize there’s nothing left except to give up the idea that things should turn out the way you want.  Not just pretend to give up.  But really lay your fucking burden down and cry when you have to bury it even though you’ve realized by then it was killing you.  Then you see the sun, and that’s the cue that it’s time to rise and shine.

It takes a little longer than three days.

So, when I saw what I saw when I looked in Andy’s eyes, it startled me, and I grew quite nervous.  Because, what?   I couldn’t trust myself given my history, so I kept it from you, beloveds, and my family, waiting to see what would happen.  Andy invited me to visit him in Tampa, I did, and he informed me straight away he “was not husband material” to dispel any notions I may have had of roping him into a boring monogamous prison sentence, and so that answered my questions.  Andy had spent most of his adult life bashing the institution of marriage and the inequality in marriage rights, as he is somewhat the space where Woody Guthrie meets Rage Against the Machine, and most people who know him have enjoyed his political and moral philosophizing on the subject. “It’s crap,” Cris told me later.  “He’s a romantic.”

First weekend in Tampa.

First weekend in Tampa.

I returned to Fort Myers, happy I didn’t tell you about any of it, and set myself to the Glades, to my work, and Andy and I were going to be good friends and make out from time to time, and I was good with all that.

Except that I had been right about what I had seen in his eyes.  Then, I just didn’t know that he was struggling with his own history, and I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that I may have scared the shit out of him, too.  Fortunately, we’re both compelled by curiosity, and we inched closer together still, magnetized by this strange connection, until he made an impulsive decision to visit me in Fort Myers.  I dig impulsivity, especially when fueled by love, and after two days, it was glaringly obvious that we belonged together.  I hadn’t felt what I felt with Andy since I had childhood best friends.  It was a welcome return of a lost remembering, and when he left for New York a few days later to stay with his brother for several days, we didn’t own up to it yet, but somewhere tacitly agreed, okay, it’s you.

I have no idea how long he was in New York.  If felt like a month.  We talked and wrote to each other.  He read every single one of these blogs.  I told no one what was happening because I assumed there was no one left to trust me when I said I had met the love of my life.  The whole turn of events felt like a giant gift, and not in a goofy way, but in a now let’s see what you’re going to do with this, given everything you’ve seen.  And I remembered what I was taught to do with Love: receive it and spend it lavishly.

Dali Museum

Dali Museum.  Love as a reflection of love.

When Andy returned from New York, he drove to my house and scooped me up in his arms.  “I love you,” he said.  “And I want to marry you.”   Of course.  By then it seemed the most natural progression, the exact right mixture of who we are meeting in this new space.  It was beautiful, and disorienting.  “Okay,” I said.

On June 26th, when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and now all our friends have the federal right to marry, Andy bought rainbow Sharpies, a bottle of sparkling grape juice, and blackberries, got on one knee, and asked me if I would marry him.

I said yes.

With trembling hands, we drew rainbow rings on our fingers and filled up our cups and drank it all, puffing on a hand-rolled cigar.  On October 5th, Cristina is going to marry us in a family ceremony on a friend’s sailboat out in the Gulf of Mexico.  Then we’re jumping overboard.  Seems only fitting for two people who never thought they’d take the plunge–in my case, take the plunge again.  It will be almost exactly one year from the day we met.

Literally five minutes after I said yes.

Literally five minutes after I said yes.

The celebration

The celebration

 

Love is Love

Love is Love

I’m sharing this love story with you because many of you felt like Andy came out of nowhere, and there was a reason for that, and although I don’t owe you any explanations, I do feel like it is polite to give you the backstory because I do love you, and I want you involved in my life.

I’m also letting you know that at the end of September, I’ll be moving to Tampa so Andy and I can start our life together there.  He has already launched our company, Good Company Tampa Bay, so if you’re ever in the area, look us up and come spend some time with us out in nature or helping you do whatever you need to do.  I’ll finish the play there and also the novel, and I will certainly keep up this blog while we’re having our new adventures.

We really do believe in the power of love, especially when it starts in the heart as a very small notion of a glimmer of hope of possibility.

night night beloveds.  To Love.

 

 

 

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Mother

Rehearsing for "Mother"

Rehearsing for “Mother.”  photo courtesy of Rick Cruz

Entering the Grandmother Cypress

Entering the Grandmother Cypress.  photo courtesy of Rick Cruz

People say you can't crawl back inside, but.  You can.

People say you can’t crawl back inside, but. You can.   photo courtesy of Rick Cruz

Tropical Storm Chantal broke up over the Caribbean a few days ago.  What’s left of her now sweeps above southwest Florida in a lugubrious costume of gray silks and cymbals, Lady Macbeth of community theater.

Nonetheless, she has grounded me from my morning plans.  My friend and collaborator Rick Cruz and I scheduled a morning kayak expedition to Mound Key Archeological State Park, an ancient Calusa Indian sacred shell mound commandeered by Spanish Jesuits in 1566.  The Jesuits did not fare well under the Calusa’s understandably disagreeable response.  Then pirates used it.  Eventually, the state of Florida acquired all but 9 acres that belonged to the McGee family who may be ready to sell finally (negotiations ceased around 2009 when the family wanted $15 mil and the state showed up with $500K).  In 1982, somehow dudes showed up on a bulldozer and plowed through 32 acres of it looking for buried treasure.  I did mention it’s an island, right?

This combo of events is all very typical for Florida history.  I should point out the McGees started running Spanish goats on it in 2009, won an agricultural tax property exemption, and I had hoped the goats had gone feral and gang-like, but they’re fenced in and still respectable and more popular for visitors to Mound Key than the 2,500 year-old-pre-European artifacts.  Such is life.

So, Chantal has me at my computer, staring out of my office window at the gray skies and subtropical rain, and I realize I am thinking about mothers.  This is partly because the Zimmerman verdict came in, so I think about Trayvon Martin’s mother.  I think about George Zimmerman’s mother.  I think about the fact that justice is represented as about the only woman who naturally would not have any children; she is no mother.   Justice cares about the human condition, she does not care about being right or wrong, and yet society perpetuates the belief in the blackness and whiteness of issues.  This I consider as I contemplate the weather, the moods of Mother Earth, this Chantal, this untrained performance of an unskilled actress who is no less provocative in her own way.

I think about my own mother who does not want me to write about her anymore because her feelings get hurt, so I don’t.  Even though our relationship is funny, and painful, and convoluted, beautiful, inextricable from the meaning of life–all the great things to write about.  It is symphonic, but I have promised to silence the instruments because in all the ways I did not want to believe, she is me.

I have a dear friend who still writes letters because it mitigates her shame at paper hoarding.  A few years ago, her father died suddenly, and my friend has been walking that walk out of darkness with her mother, as daughters do.  “This summer,” my friend wrote, “I feel compelled to accomplish much.  Maybe it’s the improvement in my mother’s state of mind, finally.  I didn’t realize how much my feelings and energy were tied to her own.”

The last line struck me, so distilled as it is a comprehensive understanding of the incomprehensible mother-daughter relationship:  So comprehensive an understanding it is of the human relationship, of our relationship to nature.  I contemplate my own awarenesses and wonder:  who does realize how much our own feelings and energies are tied to each other, to our water, to the land?  To the energies of sun, quark, word?

And yet, there is the illusion that all is separate.  That you and I are not one.

Out, out, damned spot.

Rick and I met at Seafood Depot in Everglades City, both of us as tour guides for the Everglades.  He took me on a swamp walk in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve last winter, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Around here, he’s well known as a “baller” in the realm of orchid hunting and nature photography, and his reputation drew the attention of Tampa journalist Jeff Klinkenberg, who profiled Rick for the paper and later included Rick in the book Alligators in B-flat.  Cuban-born but raised in Allapattah (“alligator”), a neighborhood outside of Miami, Rick ended up in the Everglades through a series of relationships that landed him in a three-year fellowship with famed Everglades photographer/epic eco-hero Clyde Butcher.  One day, maybe Rick will let me tell you about what it was like at Clyde’s, what Mother Nature does in the dark in the Glades.  There’s a reason man used his big brain to build weapons since we didn’t get any of those naturally.  But, I digress.  Rick is a good guy, has a gentle spirit, and is indefatigable about shooting nature photography.

Rick shooting in Picayune State Forest, as seen from inside the Grandmother Cypress

Rick shooting in Picayune State Forest for our collaboration, a dance/film titled “Mother,” as seen from inside the Grandmother Cypress

“I want to show you something one day,” he says to me, “a tree.  I think you might understand it.”

I’d been telling him about Brazil, what had happened to me down there when they told me about Nana, the oldest of the gods, the Spirit of the Swamp.  I didn’t know it, but I’d been really struggling with this idea of Mother, of Woman, and if there’s any place on earth where the fierce stink of fertility and force of creation meet in a sacred space that’s not afraid to slap you sideways for gettin’ mouthy, it’s a swamp.  I’d been looking for what folks meant by “Divine Feminine,” and when Rick and I walked into the Picayune and I laid eyes on the tree–an 800 year old hollow cypress protected in her swamp dome–I knew I was meeting Nana, that the Divine Feminine was reclaiming me.  I climbed in, took off all my clothes, and I sat in her, dark as she was, quiet.   It smelled like earth and age and old paper.

How much my feelings and energy were tied to her own.  How much.

Rick is one of the precious men who “gets” the Divine Feminine–he is all man, but his heart is owned by Mother Woman, and he knows it.  He left me in the tree, naked, because he knew what was happening to me, and I wondered about my mother then, what she would think if she ever knew I was out in the woods with a man she didn’t know, in the middle of nowhere, sitting in a rotting tree without any clothes on.   How much my feelings and energy are tied to her own.

How much.

So it made sense that when I wanted to create a dance/film collaboration about the swamp, about Nana, about Mother Woman, Wild Woman, Divine Feminine, I asked Rick to film it, I would dance, at the tree.  I do not know if you will understand, beloveds, when I tell you she explains to me what mother means, and who Mother is, in the grand scheme of things.  She told me to better love my mother because that woman’s heart broke for me and so did her body, and then it rebuilt itself around me, ain’t nobody understand that like a woman does.  And I said okay because there is no separation and I know I don’t really understand but I try.

And sometimes I have to get naked in swamps and old trees so I can better understand what my mother is trying to explain to me, so my body responds to the rain, the history of a shell mound, to a day spent under the impress of Chantal’s last lines as she strides across the moor.

night night beloveds.

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Why I Love Fourth of July

If you’re a full-blown alcoholic, the two best days of the year are Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day.  Super Bowl Sunday is a close second–nachos/half-time show–but a massive beer holiday before a Monday is a terrible combination when you’re someone who doesn’t know you can’t stop drinking once you start.  Just a relevant point in case anyone wants to consider Super Bowl Saturday.

Since I got sober, I haven’t celebrated any of these holidays except once I had three people over for hot dogs and a pool party when I lived in Wilmington.  That was July 4, 2008.  The best Fourth of July I ever had was ten years earlier, in Washington, DC, with my best friends Salem, Martha, and Danny.  I was 25 years old and liked to wake up and drink Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle before figuring out where to have breakfast. That seemed like the right way to acknowledge our formative separation from England. I was so poor I only had one article of clothing in each category, so I put on my one miniskirt and my one V-neck t-shirt, and then we watched This is Spinal Tap over and over until it started to get late enough to head to a rooftop party.  It was there that Martha and I realized all the cops would be at the National Mall, and I forget the details, but somehow I ended up with fists-full of lit fireworks climbing over the rooftop railing and singing “God Bless America” while the apartment social committee called security.  Then we were running out of the building with some of the husbands/fathers chasing us because at some point we did $500 worth of damage to the roof.  We found a cab to take us to a party in Bethesda where we set fire to a life-sized cardboard replica of Hilary Rodham Clinton and where Salem and I may or may not have started making out while wrestling in front of the burning Hilary, which I wouldn’t have noticed except that my ex-boyfriend happened to be hosting the party and there was an argument while we stood in a ditch and all I could think of as a response to the situation was, “Dude, it’s fourth of July and we’re not even dating anymore?”

"Fourth of July" by cartoonist Kevin Thomas Ward.

“Fourth of July” by cartoonist Kevin Thomas Ward.

Then we went back to mine and Danny’s apartment pool for midnight skinny dipping, which would have been fine except Danny and I started doing cannonballs from the lifeguard stand and security came once again and we all fled, clothes bundled in our arms, to our upstairs apartment.  I ended the night in my favorite way: drunk, naked, wet, and laughing with just enough guilt from the rooftop damage and hurt feelings so that I couldn’t completely enjoy it.   Ah, to be young and American.

Now, I’m pushing 40, and I woke up this morning and drank straight from my facebook newsfeed, which was full of wishes for a Happy July Fourth and the accompanying admonishments to be grateful for my freedom and independence and shout-outs to the soldiers (sidenote:  humbly, I note 4th of July isn’t Veteran’s Day, the same way “Raindrops on Roses” is not a Christmas song simply because it references brown paper packages tied up with string.)

Now I’m older.  And everything is different.

I’ve been through divorce, recovery, estrangement and reconciliation in my own family, spiritual death and rebirth–both unspeakably painful; loss, bankruptcy, various unpleasant consequences from relationships with the real estate market, cell phone/cable companies, health care conglomerates, and the publishing industry.  I’ve taught returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq, and I’ve seen what’s in their eyes, and if you’ve ever seen it, you sure as hell would try every means necessary before sending boys to war.

I’m really past the point of being sold on myths and advertisements, not because I’m jaded and cynical, but because I’m grown and I’ve studied history.

I see America as our giant family with a dark and disturbed past, a violent nature, but an indomitable spirit that really does want to be good and free; we’re just no good at accepting the truth about ourselves, which, by now, is that we’ve grown too lazy and selfish to be great and we’ve given our “hands-off” government way too much control of our private lives because we’re afraid of being attacked or of having our shit taken.

But, like the woman who thinks she has a good man because he doesn’t beat her, or the brainwashed children of abusive parents who would rather live in denial than face the pain of the truth, so we, as Americans, continue to think about our conditions here.  We live in an amazing, gorgeous country, and my experience with every day Americans is that we do want to help each other on an individual basis.  We’re good people.  We’re willing to meet each other half way.  But we have these pesky ideologies that get in the way of moving us productively forward as a society, and we’re forgetting how to think for ourselves, and pushing these American myths ain’t helpful for us anymore, beloveds, and I want to talk about it.  I understand that we live in a complicated society with an impressively fucked up history, and I wish we could embrace that more in our celebration of this great nation.

One of the main reasons I love America so much and being an American has nothing to do with freedom and independence, which you guys know we don’t actually have, not in the way Thomas Jefferson, el slave owner, had wanted–check your state legislation, news about the NSA, your taxes, various “service” fees, the equality in your fellow Americans’ human rights, your access to affordable health care, America’s debt record to both China and Saudi Arabia, so on and so forth.   I am proud that America still hasn’t fallen to martial law, tribal warfare, or communist dictatorships, and as yet holds (relatively fast) against religious rule.  However, our apathy and burning desire to morally regulate people other than ourselves is of some concern.

I’m watching reports from my home state, North Carolina, as the new legislature continues to pass laws in regards to no marriage for gays (Amendment One) and women’s reproductive rights (the recent anti-abortion bill).  The call for a legal state religion came up this year, and my guess is that it wasn’t Buddhism.   But, one of the main reasons I love America is because we ARE this giant, dysfunctional family seemingly in the gothic denoument of its own story.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  All the empires fall.  That’s life.  Might as well eat a hot dog and post pictures of it on facebook.  The sun won’t set on McDonald’s long after the American people realize they gave away their democracy, so there’s that.  I am just beyond ready for average Americans to come together work out some moderate solutions. I don’t care that we have different perspectives, but I do care when we have no respect for each other.  Our biggest freedom is our freedom of mind, and we’re giving it up voluntarily because it takes self-discipline.  That much I witnessed first hand from 11 years in education.

I’m so fortunate to have a wide net of friends–my gun-toting, Nazi-flag waving, frog-gigging Everglades rednecks to my overtly fabulous gay couples raising kids in places that don’t want to kill them.  No one loves the government’s police tactics or the shenanigans of our media-attention-grabbing elected officials, not my black middle-class friends or my boho artist compatriots in Wilmington.  Everybody I know recognizes our political theater is like the World Wrestling Federation of international governance.

Once, I had a Canadian couple on my Everglades tour during the last Presidential election, and they mentioned the Canadian guilty pleasure of watching American politics on TV because it was so highly entertaining.  “We don’t understand what you get so worked up about.  In Canada, gays can marry, you can get an abortion, we have socialized health care, we don’t have a problem with gun violence.  Our politicians would never consider those campaign issues.  Those are personal choices.  That’s not the job of government.”  True.  We still have a lot to learn.  I think it’s okay for us to finally admit we don’t really know what we’re doing over here, that the Republic of the United States of America was a grand social experiment that we have quite naturally, understandably, and royally fucked up in a lot of ways.

I happen to be the type of American who loves talking about our dirty history, who doesn’t mind acknowledging that the more recent scramble to fight for “family values” needs a national conversation pointing out that it’s only a campaign for “a false family image.”  America is a good show, there’s no doubt about that, and I think fireworks are a wonderful metaphor for our history and present circumstances.

In the Everglades, the only Native Americans who never signed a peace accord with the United States government fought for that freedom in three separate wars in that dense and alligator-infested jungle swamp.  The Seminoles, the ones who didn’t get pushed to Oklahoma, still live there, so just about every day of my life I have to think about how America was really made, about the truth of how we got the ground under our feet.  So, it’s hard for me to commit to a burger and a sparkler anymore, even though I thank God we’re the kind of place whose arms reached out for Albert Einstein and Anne Sullivan’s parents and the hundreds of refugees from Bosnia and Sudan and Haiti.   I’m proud to know that I can start a business here tomorrow but pissed off that I have to pay a nondescript government agency to file my annual report.  I am like hell yes, world, when I look at our developments in science and technology but like fuck you, greedy corporate douchebags with your highly-paid lobbyists, when I see that technology assembled in China and my college graduates can’t find any jobs in their own city.

But the main reason I love America is not because of the myths or because of the dirty, dysfunctional history.  What I love are the every day people.  The people like my former student Arnold, who I will write about shortly, who came back from two tours in Iraq, got his degree, and started a non-profit to support veterans with mental health issues–all before turning 30.  Or my grandfather, who quit school in 8th grade to start working and had the freedom to build a small empire that supports most of his descendants today.  Or Pearl Fryar, a black man in South Carolina who taught himself how to make topiaries because his white neighbors said colored people didn’t know how to keep up their yards.

I love Fourth of July because I’m reminded of how I used to get drunk all the time, especially when I didn’t want to, but at least there were two days of the year when normal people were going to act like me.  Today I’m not going to get drunk because of two American men in Ohio who figured out how to stay sober, they taught others, who taught others, and they wrote a book about it so anyone in the world could escape the horrors of alcoholism.  And in 2007, one of those people who was taught how to stay sober, taught me.  And all of us were fucked up, but we did something good, anyway, to help people who wanted to have better lives.   To me, that’s the true spirit of American independence.

Happy Fourth, beloveds.  May your celebrations end happily or, at the very least, with you naked and wet and laughing.

peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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