When you’ve adopted a sick, starving little cat that shows up at your door, you expect a period of adjustment. He doesn’t know kindness, doesn’t know toys, doesn’t know anything but primal self-protection. Hunger is a substitute for trust, his only permission of proximity.  Slowly, slowly, he learns the comforts of companionship, even though he flees the approach—the possibility—of everyone else. 

Then, if you’re lucky, comes a distinctive moment. You cross over from being a warm lap to something more. You become a being that is loved.

So it was with Feets. From the skinny, bronchial, eye-infected critter that showed up at my door, he became Tom Drooley, the little guy that purrs with such loud abandon that he drools on your hand. The buddy who would only be touched when distracted by food now looks to you with clear, pure love.

The difference is not imaginary. It’s a palpable change in nature, in character. It’s the moment that permits you to recognize it, if you’re willing.

And strangely enough, it’s the same with your dear ones, your humans.

You have been friends for years. Or years and years. Or even months and months. You have seen the regular revelations of wonder in their hearts. You have seen the reaching out of their souls in surprising new ways. As your own constant search for self opens new doors of awareness, so does your knowledge of them, of the wonder of them, of the endless ability to affirm and surprise and offer you parts of themselves that you have not, in months or years of familiarity and closeness, seen before.

It’s a gift you have to be willing to receive; to change enough, surrender guardedness enough, be un-strong enough to recognize. You get to be loved as you yourself have loved. If you’re lucky. If you’re open to it. If you’re willing. 

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In the midst of the current kerfuffle about short-term rentals down here, the disruption to this place of peace by forces of greed, comes an odd—and surprisingly emotional—moment of wonder.

I was doing a quick phone check in with folks, reminding them of the importance of attending next week’s meeting, the urgency of using their presence to counter the moneyed interests that will undoubtedly be out en force. One of the folks I called is a scion of the family whose name is etched into this place. 

The place where I live is named after his dad.

We didn’t talk for long. We’ve never been chatty neighbors. But he knew my folks. Brought them up unbidden. Knew this house and when they’d acquired it, back when the road out front was paved with nothing but dirt. 

Those few fond words left me in tears. Happy tears, not sad. The knowledge that those two wonderful Biederstadt people are still alive in the memories of other people besides me. The bond that we have, fixed in this place where our parents, his and mine, still live. The reason we persist. The reason we believe.

We honor this place, not for gain but for love. For the treasure of continuity. For the knowledge of the trees planted, the kindnesses shown, the neighbors we could—and can—rely on. A few wonderful words can bring that knowledge to life…in a way that a ghost town of short-term rentals, created by investors with no roots in this soil, never can. 

I’ve rarely used this page for anything beyond celebrations of my beloved river or meditations on creativity. 

This will be an exception.

This house was the culmination of my parents’ dream. They put their labor into getting it; put their love into it. My dad’s deathbed was in this living room, in view of the river he loved. I bought the house from my mom so she could continue to live here. After her death, I spent every weekend, every holiday, every available minute here. I contribute daily to the local business community. I’ve made improvements. I pay taxes. I am a neighbor, a member of a community.

Now a number of non-resident investors, realtors, and a (very) few locals are trying to push through their will to offer properties along the river to short-term renters. They don’t live here; many of them own multiple properties, often hidden behind LLC entities, and most of them rarely spend a day here. (My newest neighbors, for example, purchased the property with the intention “in part” to rent it to weekenders; thus far, their VRBO renters have spent more time here than they have.)

These investors have organized; they’ve created a FB “friends of Norfork” group that touts the “benefits” of STRs to the community. They lie, mislead with industry-published articles, speak in unsubstantiated absolutes about nationwide “truths”, and block participation by those who don’t agree with them. They talk about their rights as owners, while at the same time disregarding ours as residents. They have sued our little town–and lost. When they pressed the issue only months ago, they were told that residents don’t want STRs. They are renting anyway, in open defiance of the local rules, counting on–as my neighbors told me–inconsistent enforcement. 

What they don’t say is how their taxes are not used for the improvements they claim, or about how those so-called gains are counterbalanced by the increased costs of regulations enforcement and compliance. They don’t say how, in virtually everywhere STRs have taken hold, property prices have gone up, removing affordable housing from the market and excluding non-moneyed interests from the ability to buy. They don’t talk about the impact on community and lack of accountability (ever tried to lodge a complaint with VRBO?)  They don’t talk about the increase of traffic or the loss of quiet that attracted so many of us to this place.

We are a community, not a commodity. And what is for them a matter of dollar signs is for us lost nights of sleep and constant aggravation. When we are a ghost town of STRs, when we have no more neighbors to turn to, they will be sitting on their decks miles and sometimes states away, counting their profits and planning their next conquests. But for us, these are not investments, they are our lives.

Happens every year. Never fails to amaze. 

Spring.

Hillsides like clouds of green mist. Smells that promise their richest potential but have yet to reveal it. The drunken joy of extra oxygen in the air. New colors, new songs in the feathered creatures. Flowers in trees, a snowstorm of warm blossoms. Newborn clematis. Purple chive blossoms challenging me to look or to cut and eat. Violets half hidden in unexpected places. Lilacs whose blooms dare me to wait just a few days longer.

Spring.

I talk to leaves. I admit it. I visit every fresh-leafed tree and bush—many of which I planted with my own hands—and touch the sweet, soft extensions. One gets to enjoy that tender wonder for only a short time each year. Miss that short-lived beauty and it’s gone until next year.

So, do I talk to it, plant by plant? Of course I do.

I don’t own all I see. Not the hills. Not the river (right now, brown and peevish from the rains). Not the vista near to far. Not the grass that my neighbor so kindly mows for me. What I have planted belongs to Nature as much as it does to me. But for these few, dear weeks, what I see is personal. Intimate. The breeze sounds different against the fresh, sweet leaves than it will in the months to come. The perfume changes with the moisture of the air and the angle of the sunlight. The touch on bright green growth on finger or cheek will be different tomorrow than it is today; different in the afternoon than in morning. 

She talks to leaves. Because she can.

 “Shut up and look.” A dad’s admonition to noisy kids in the back seat on a long road trip. Said with love. With me always. This was the dad who fought wildfires in Montana. The guy who would tape cookies to a camera on camping trips so raccoon raiders could take their pictures. The guy who would put bread and maple syrup on a cut log at the edge of the campsite so we could watch in silence to see what creatures would come visit.

There were two seating routines in their house here in Arkansas, the house in which I live. Morning and afternoon, we sat in the chairs that faced the river, out back, east and south. In the evening, a migration to the front, to watch the sun go down over the pasture and the hills beyond. Conversation, sometimes. Other times, most times, not. Not necessary. The sun, the trees, the birds, the river, said most everything we needed to say.

These are habits that remain with me, to this day. A remembering of what is past? Or the continuing habit of like spirits? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to matter. Those vistas, those rhythms, speak to me still. There is quiet here in the not-silence. There is peace that rises from the ground. I did not bring them. I didn’t impose them. They root me to the place. They remind me of the four words at the soul of me. 

For the place, for the words that bear me up, in this fairy-cloud evening, I thank the man who gave them to me.

My folks never had much. I don’t think my dad ever broke $30K a year. I was the kid you hear about who can’t pay their lunch card for the week; the kid that a particularly sadistic teacher would humiliate loudly and often. My dad took early retirement from SW Bell, though times would be tight. He and my mom bought a mobile home park here in Arkansas. Sweated over it. Groomed it like a garden. And hated it, babysitting a bunch of people who didn’t want to care for themselves.

I have a photo of the first time they saw this house. My dad was standing on a gravel bank, looking downriver at the limestone bluffs like a man viewing the Promised Land. In many ways, he was.

The first time I got to see the house, we had driven across country from a visit to my sister in Baltimore. My dad wanted me to see the place in daylight; pouted when mom and I, weary, didn’t want to drive a third day. As we rounded the corner onto Push Mountain Road near sunset, the view stopped the breath: hills wreathed in mist against an pink and orange sky. One of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. A portent. A welcome.

This house was Native American land, once. It carries a peace that grows out of the ground. My father died here, in his hospital bed in the living room, in view of the river he so loved but lacked, in his last days, the energy to turn his head to see.

My mom sold the house to me. She acknowledged something we’d never spoken about, something I didn’t think she ever knew: what a hard time I’s always had dealing with life. How wide open I’d always been; how challenged. Of everyone, she told a friend who confided her words to me, I was the one of her three children who needed this place, who truly appreciated it, who would care for it.

I’ve always tried to honor this sacred trust. I came here every weekend for eight years when I was within driving distance. I visited as often as I could when I was in Denver. Now, in retirement, I’m doing all the things the house deserves, things that I never had time to do—renovating, improving, clearing; removing the flotsam of years of stuffed closets and musty drawers, cleaning the cobwebs of “stuff”, purifying the place down to where the spirits live.

I hope mom and dad approve of the changes I’m making. I’d like to think they do. Perhaps that’s the gift behind the gift…a way of honoring that I can do without discussion or debate. Changes made with respect and love, and a daily thanks for the scared trust.

 

 

Be stillness, says the little tile on my wall. In retirement, I am remembering how stillness is made.

After so many years sealed inside the apartment, the office, the subway, the restaurant, I discover again the ancient familiarity of the soft, green morning. The breath of warm air on skin. The scents of this place, unlike other scents, other places. The smallness of we, the infinite connectedness.

These are the joys of looking at the same location for 30-plus years, and now, at last, for all the minutes in a day. There is an infinite changeability here. When new leaves fall before their time, when the sky goes milky or the river richens to emerald green. To that before-dawn moment when the night creatures all fall silent at once. Or when eagles call from beyond the road or a screech owl speaks in the late hour. To the stars that tell us how our small planet moves. To the fox or possum or armadillo that shows itself rarely, but beautifully. To unfamiliar butterflies that seem as large as pterodactyls. To the mystery sundown that dyes everything pink.

My days are mine. My schedule is mine. Nature and I sit and smile at one another. Just sensing, seeing, is wonderfully enough, and nothing is everything. I drift. I float. Occasionally, I act. The silence is not bigger than I am. In the privilege that is the house that belonged to my parents, stillness takes me to the ancient skin touched by breezes past, the eyes given the same greens, for the nose the delights of the same smells…the things we remember that are built into us. The something we remember before we were us.

Not a new revelation. Not a great one. Not an original insight. But an elemental truth in an unexpected moment. The grand, gentle, beautiful awareness of what I am grateful for. It’s a thing we all might find in an evening realizing what we are grateful for; the things that we find courage in this small moment to take into our hands.

I have spent my life trying to realize the connections I felt. To justify a too-small existence, diminished by a social structure I didn’t understand and was ill-equipped to accommodate. Otherness–outsiderness–has always been the definition of who I am in a world in which acceptance is the expected norm, I have lived in a miasma of confusion and resentment. People’s motives, their selfishness, their self-involvement, their isolation from the surrounding world of perceptions, reactions, needs, sensitivities has been an unending chafing on my heart. I am not an innocent. But the understanding of others’ truths has been a source of endless pain. Too often in my life, I have accepted definitions of me that weren’t me, seeing the possibilities of them.

In all of that–in the bubble of me-ness in which I exist, I find the wonder of it all. Today was such a day. Errands in the sunshine on a chilly day, in the little car I love. The smallish gifts I gave myself for my birthday ( a fountain pen; a bottle of 20 year-old port; a pot of miniature daffodils; the elemental good quality food that is central to my life; a bar of French Verbena soap). Firm resolve in response to the frank talk with a supervisor that has gnawed on me, one that will never bring men satisfaction in a world in which she has created an unassailable, self-defined kingdom where the truths she creates are utterly her own.The mastery of an elusive cocktail that is still a wonder to me. The lovely curled-up-on-the-couch nap with a spooning cat. A wonderful gift of birthday flowers from a dear friend. The receipt of a card that made me cry. The prospect of visiting Findhorn with a friend…or living for a month or two in the UK. The knowledge that a few extraordinary friends are better than a truckload of acquaintance “friends”. Today I am lucky. Tomorrow I may be low and angry. But the gratitude is closer to me. Simpler. More wonderful.

I am lucky. The residual strengths are things I can share, can pay forward. All things aren’t as I would have them. But sometimes, “is” is enough.

 

 

As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.

And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.

There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.

Crap.

Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?

If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.

We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.

Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.

For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.

So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.

Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.

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