This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.
For me, planning my day is never the problem. I get up every morning determined to change the world – but only after I’ve had my coffee and listened to the news.
For the past two weeks, the top story has been Russia’s looming threat to invade the Ukraine, adding “the possibility of World War III” to the mountain of anxieties I already have. With the pandemic, the climate crisis, gun violence, greed, racism, and more, it’s a Mount Everest of despair. It feels so impossible to change anything, let alone have any influence at all, that I swing the opposite direction, figuring if we’re all gonna die, I might as well have “one hell of a good time.” And so, I help myself to the second slice of chocolate pie. I take the spontaneous trip to Cancun. I buy the $25 bottle of Cabernet instead of the $6 one and drink a glass too many. But all that’s done is pack on nine extra pounds and deplete my bank account.
Indulgence is not the answer.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling of futility to change the world. But I also know there are optimists among us who can inspire us to keep trying. Jane Goodall is one of them.
After hearing about her latest book, “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” I ran out to buy it. Given that Jane Goodall is a naturalist, I was surprised to find it in the self-help section of the bookstore. But help is what I needed to ward off heart palpitations and further weight gain.
The book is coauthored by Douglas Abrams, who, in a series of interviews with Jane, presses the 87-year-old to answer the question: How can you still be hopeful when everything seems so dire?
She lists four reasons:
• the amazing human intellect
• the resilience of nature
• the power of young people
• the indomitable human spirit
We may have created the problems, but she believes with our intellect, we are smart enough to solve them. And that with our instinct for survival, our human spirit will drive us to not give up, even when there’s a chance we won’t succeed. Jane acknowledges that things are indeed dire, but she insists we can turn things around if we get together and act now. Every small action helps. Each of us must do our bit.
“Hope is contagious,” she says. “Your actions inspire others.”
This snowball effect makes sense, but where do we start? “It’s in nature where we can find the answers and the hope,” she explains.
The only time Jane has lost hope was when her husband died, but turning to nature helped restore it, claiming, “It was the forest that helped me most of all.” The natural world is also where she feels most connected with a Great Spiritual Power. She says it’s that power that gives her the courage and strength to keep going, to keep sharing her message and continue fighting for justice, environmental and otherwise.
I was surprised to learn that the grief we feel over climate crisis has a name – eco-grief. Jane suggests that our survival depends on confronting that grief and getting over our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We can find healing in nature, she reminds us, as well as wisdom, cautioning that when we lose the connection with the natural world, we lose our wisdom.
“The Book of Hope” is packed with many more of Jane’s insights and is absolutely worth reading. Equally inspiring, listen to Jane’s interview, titled “What it Means to Be Human,” on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.
This past weekend, I channeled my inner Jane Goodall, and went for a hike with three girlfriends. While walking through the forest and fields, we determined that in addition to picking up empty beer cans and other litter, which we do on all our hikes, we could plant more trees to replace the ones a local farmer recently cut down. These are the small but impactful actions we can take that add up to bigger change.
Energized by the sun, the wind in our faces, and the beauty of the landscape, we walked four miles, talking and laughing the whole way. Between the camaraderie of friends and the immersion in nature, our spirits were restored. And as a bonus, the exercise was a step toward dropping those extra nine pounds. In the words of E.B. White, our hike was “a hell of a good time.” And, best of all, it left me feeling hopeful.
It’s my baptismal font, my hole in the ground that gets me a few feet closer to the earth’s core. It’s in these waters, the color of meat broth, where I immerse myself to calm my anxieties, soothe my aches—of the heart and otherwise—and to make me feel closer to nature, which to me is the same thing as god. No matter that these waters are filled with blue gills and bass, their silver bodies shimmering below the surface as they swim, their scales scraping my skin, their sharp little teeth nibbling on my legs, stomach, and buttocks that make me cry out in surprise. They are harmless, really. They’re not piranhas. And if not for the fish, algae would cover the pond in wall-to-wall green carpet.
Frogs line the perimeter, hidden in the willows, burrowed in the mud, sheltered by the fortress of tall grass bending in the wind. They croak their guttural chirps in unison, until some disturbance – like a ripple in the water made by my hand as I swim – makes them to go silent in an instant, as if the multitude of them were a singular voice.
The pond’s original purpose was not to be my private swimming hole, but for erosion control. A bulldozer dug out a ditch, the displaced earth was used to build up a berm to keep Iowa’s valuable black soil from traveling downhill into the growing gully below, and in turn an aquatic catch basin was created.
With no other options—given the six other ponds on the thousand-acre farm have resident snakes and snapping turtles and occasional algae blooms—I’ve claimed this pond, the newest of them, as my sacred space. But only after making an agreement with the frogs and fish to share it, respecting our coexistence in the ecosystem.
It’s the church I go to meditate, where I can sit in solitary silence on the end of the dock the farmer built for me, and put my face toward the sun, and talk to whatever higher power exists “up there” as the wind swirling around my body reminds me of my physical being.
It’s the chapel/the funeral home/the psych ward I ran to when my dog died, sprinting from the house and taking a shortcut across the field, flinging myself fully clothed into the cooling pool, not to drown myself, but to douse the searing pain of grief that coursed through me like fire. I stayed in the water for an hour that day, clinging to a rubber innertube as my body heaved with sobs, though it was the pond itself that was the life preserver.
Sometimes the pond is a place to spend time with friends, to have intimate conversations with the farmer, to drink cocktails as the sun sets. Sometimes the pond is simply a place to swim, to float, to drift, to dream, to just be.
* * * * *
You are the one who shoveled the snow from my sidewalk before I even got up in the mornings. You towed my car out of the mud, tilled my garden every spring, peeled apples for my pie stand, and loaned me an orange cap after I almost got shot by a hunter. You defended me at the city council meeting yelling BULLSHIT! when our mean neighbors lied about my dogs trespassing on their property. You are the one I ran to when I discovered that six-foot-long snake in my bathroom. I can still hear you in there, one end of your hoe banging against the floor with the other end hitting the window, cussing out that snake as it fought you, while I held my breath on the other side of the door.
We never thought you’d live to see old age, but like with everything you did, you exceeded our expectations. Here’s to feeling the wind in your face on the other side.
Love,Beth, Doug, and Mali
*You might also like to read Jack’s post from 2017 on life at Camp Doug*
|Luke Perry, aka Dylan McKay, in 1990|
When I heard Luke Perry had had a stroke, I expected him to live. That’s because a friend of mine recently had a stroke, his second one, at age 56 and he is recovering. My friend, like Luke, is fit and determined. He’s doing the rehab and regaining use of his left side. So after Luke’s stroke I figured he too would recover. A few days later, when I learned that he had passed away, my nonchalant “he’ll be fine” changed to “WTF?!” He was only 52.
I met Luke Perry—aka Dylan McKay—back in 1990, when I was a publicist for “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I worked for the venerable PR agency Rogers and Cowan in its television division. They hired me to help with the launch of Aaron Spelling’s new production (and Darren Star’s first series) despite the fact I didn’t watch TV, let alone own one.
My job was to get attention for the new show to increase its viewership by pitching story ideas around the show and its actors. This was before social media. Hell, it was before email. I had to call or fax—remember landlines and fax machines?—editors of publications like TV Guide and Tiger Beat, and talent bookers for shows like “Entertainment Tonight.” I had to write press releases and mail them—in envelopes, with stamps—a phenomenon now referred to as “snail mail.” Getting coverage was no easy task because even though it was Aaron Spelling’s baby, “ 90210” was brand new and the editors and talent bookers didn’t want to give it column space or run segments until they were sure the show would still be on the air after a few episodes.
|They were so young then!|
I managed to book a few interviews. I got one for Tory Spelling who was still too young to have a driver’s license. I had to pick her up at her family’s mansion and drive her to the meeting with the reporter. I got one for Jennie Garth and Shannon Doherty, to model second-hand clothes on ABC’s “The Home Show.” That one was a stretch but it’s the only show that said yes. And I booked one for Luke. I don’t remember who it was with, but I do know it was before he became the poster child for Teen Beat, a publication that at time was still reluctant to do anything.
He was meeting the journalist at the Hollywood Athletic Club, then a hip cafe and pool hall, and I was to accompany him—as if he needed a chaperone. As if the reporter were going to ask something so out of line I would be needed to run interference. But Luke had no scandals or skeletons. So all I did was sit there and listen, worrying the entire time about who was going to pick up the check. I wasn’t fully trained in publicity etiquette or PR budgets so when the bill was placed on the table I dared to ask Luke, “When your publicist from the network goes on interviews with you, who pays?” He replied, “Janine is pretty quick with the plastic.” I cannot count the times I’ve thought of that over the years in the face of a dining dilemma, and I have Luke to thank for the frequent use of my credit card.
I often hung around on the set, hoping to find some anecdote I could use for a story pitch—though it was also a ruse to get out of my windowless office. One day the cast was shooting a scene in the Peach Pit and the director had them repeat the scene eight times. I thought the first one was good enough, so was the second. By the third, I had the lines memorized and began to question what I perceived as a waste of both time and film. By the fourth, I would have stormed off the set in exasperation. I dare say Shannen would have too. But not Luke. He remained cool and calm, warm and friendly. In real life, he wasn’t a rich and troubled rebel; he was from the Midwest. He was humble and hardworking. He had done construction jobs before his big break and understood that if the show got canceled he might have to again.
|“BH, 90210’s” Peach Pit was modeled after one of my favorite places
to eat pie, The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles.
A year later, he told “Entertainment Tonight,” “We start slapping each other when anyone gets too big headed. We made a promise going into this, ‘Look guys, no one expects we’re going to do anything beyond these 13 episodes, but if by chance we surprise the world and put out a quality program that people want to keep watching, let’s remember how we got there and what makes the show so good.’ The show is good…because it’s an ensemble piece. Everybody works and everybody brings something to it.”
Forget his good looks; Luke’s modesty is what made him so attractive.
“Call us back when the ratings go up,” the editors and talent bookers had said.
The ratings did go up. And up. And up. But I left my job before the show became the sensation it went on to be.
The work of whoever became the publicist after me would end up being more reactive than proactive. Instead of begging the media for even just a mention, they would be turning down requests for cover shoots and guest appearances. Which probably only made the job harder.
Once I no longer worked on it, I never watched the show, even though it aired for an impressive 10 seasons. It set a new record as Aaron Spelling’s longest running series, surpassing his eighties hit, “Dynasty.”
I may act like I don’t care about the show, but I’ve always taken note whenever the “90210” cast appeared in the media. Like when Tori Spelling, all grown up, graced the cover of People magazine each time she married, divorced, or gave birth. Or when Shannen Doherty displayed herself on the pages of Playboy. When Jason Priestley grabbed headlines for crashing a racecar at 180 mph. And when Brian Austin Green, who was a pipsqueak of a kid when I met him, dominated the tabloids when he married that stunning thing of beauty, Megan Fox. When Luke Perry’s role as Archie’s dad in “Riverdale” was announced, it caught my attention mostly as I had read the comic books as a kid, but also—as with any “90210” news—I felt the remaining threads of a connection to the actors’ lives. After all, I had in my own small, short-lived way as a publicist, helped launch these youngsters into stardom, at least by making the initial introductions to the press.
The news of Luke’s death worked its way into my subconscious as I had a dream about him the night after he died. I was at his wake. Luke was sitting off to the side, looking relaxed and dapper in a suit and tie. I went over to talk to him, not sure if he would remember me. He said he did, and invited me to sit down at his table. I wanted to ask him for his parents’ address so that I could send them a condolence card, but I didn’t have the heart to be a buzzkill and tell him that his funeral was the next day.
|Fox Television/Courtesy of Getty Images|
I like to think that Luke really is sitting at that table, as relaxed and well mannered as ever. That maybe he’s still alive in a parallel universe, while being remembered and celebrated in this one as if he were still here. And he should be celebrated. He was one of the good guys. And god knows, we could sure use more like him.
The reprise of “Beverly Hills, 90210” was just announced, ironically on the same day as Luke’s death. As sure as the world keeps turning, the show will go on, but this time without Luke as Dylan McKay and without me as its publicist. They would never hire me back anyway, as three decades on I still don’t own a TV.
|Mr. Friendly, Mamacita & Chaps asking, “Yo! Where’s our breakfast?”|
Three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I went out to the barn, as I do every morning, to feed the goats. The three of them—Mamacita, Mr. Friendly and Chaps—are normally waiting at the gate, having already been staring at the house with anticipation upon waking, as if they could will me to come out sooner with their breakfast.
When the two males, Mr. Friendly and Chaps, see me coming they rear up on their hind legs and head butt each other, slamming their horns so hard the smacking sound echoes off the barn. I first thought this was an act of aggression, but after observing it repeatedly, always in this context of me bearing breakfast bowls of grain, I realized it was the goat version of a high five.
But on this particular morning—Sunday, November 11—there was only one goat waiting at the gate.
Our goats are old. They were already at least 12 when we adopted them from an elderly couple in Selma, Iowa, the tiny village just down the road from Eldon. I had fallen in love with the goats during the four years I lived in the American Gothic House; I would bring them carrots while out on my road bike rides, I would feed them through the chain-link fence, and we developed a bond. They got to know me over time, always running to greet me when I pulled up on my bicycle. Given they were already at the top end of their lifespan when we adopted them, and we’ve had them for three years, they are now well into a very advanced age. Camp Doug is their retirement home, and as with any senior citizens, I know I need to be prepared for their departure.
Prepared? When you love someone—whether man or animal—who is ever prepared for a goodbye that is so final?
We lost one of the four goats a year and a half ago, in April of 2017. After spending a month at my dad’s bedside in California, caring for him through his aggressive cancer and doing the unthinkable: saying goodbye to him, I returned home only to find myself right back in hospice.
Cinnamon, our tan-colored fainting goat, had stopped eating while I was away. So for two weeks following my return, I alternated between sitting with her in the barn and driving to the vet with her stool samples or to get medicine, desperate for a cure to whatever was ailing her.
The vet prescribed a homemade “goat drench,” a concoction of corn oil, molasses and Gatorade, which I was to squirt into her mouth with a turkey baster. I squirted. She pursed her lips tight and jerked her head away. I pushed the baster into her mouth again. “Come on, beautiful. You have to eat something.” The sight of the drench running out of the side of her mouth, leaving a sticky trail of brown and sugary oil on her beautiful fluffy coat, was as upsetting to me as her failing health. I went back to the vet again and again, pleading for something, anything to help.
Finally, the vet held my shoulders and stared straight into my eyes. “She’s 15,” the vet said.
“But…” I started to say.
The vet interrupted me, repeating more sternly, “She’s 15.”
And then one morning, after Doug left to do his farm chores, he came back inside to find me. “She’s gone,” he said tenderly. I went outside to find her in the far corner of the barn, the life drained from her body after her drawn-out struggle. We buried her on the west side of the farmhouse, between the garden and the soybean field. Doug shoveled out the grave and I bought flowers to put on top. When we had pushed the last of the black soil over her, Doug went back to work and I went on antidepressants.
My dad died in March. Cinnamon died in April. And in June of that same year, 2017, Jack, my dog and surviving member of “Team Terrier,” developed both diabetes and congestive heart failure. He has nearly died at least four times during the past 18 months. Miraculously, after thousands of dollars in vet bills and countless tears, he is still alive—14 and ½ years old, blind, his strong spirit still intact. Every morning when I wake up, I hold my breath as I check to see that he is still breathing. When I see his chest rise and fall, I exhale with relief.
|Jack is blind, but he still likes to go for walks —
even when I have to carry him in the backpack.
It’s the same with the goats. Every morning when I go out to feed them, I scan the goat pen to make sure the three of them are accounted for.
But on that Sunday, three weeks ago, only Mr. Friendly was at the gate.
Occasionally the others hang out in the barn until breakfast is ready, but they always come running at the clanking metal sound of the gate opening. That Sunday, no one came running.
I pushed past Mr. Friendly, who is a big, white, lovable lug, and walked further into the pen where I saw Chaps, who looks like a miniature wildebeest. He was lingering in the doorway of the barn. But I didn’t see Mamacita.
Mamacita, who is a pygmy goat, is Chaps’ mom. She’s a feisty little thing with one horn (the other broke off years ago) who Doug so accurately describes as Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She may be the smallest of the herd but she’s in charge. She’s the adventurous one who leads the others to the far reaches of the yard, discovering the parts meant to be off limits, like the garden when everything is ripe or the hay barn when the door has been left open. If there is a feast to be had, she is the one who will find it.
She is also the one who pushes through the gate if I leave any bit of space to squeeze through. Lately I had been encouraging her to escape so I could feed her outside the pen, allowing her the extra time she needed to eat so the boys didn’t steal her food. She could go back into the pen when she was done eating by pushing the gate in, but the boys could not push it out. She didn’t always go back in though. She would take advantage of her freedom and graze in the yard while the boys watched with envy from behind the fence. I had been allowing this, giving her special privileges, though I give the boys equal time to roam freely too—much to Doug’s disapproval. But Doug knows how much I love the goats, and he loves me, so without saying anything he simply puts up fences around the mock orange bushes, flower beds and other areas he doesn’t want them devouring.
With Mr. Friendly and Chaps accounted for, I went looking for Mamacita. “Maybe she’s just around the corner, warming up in the sun,” I thought, hopefully. But she wasn’t, so my next option was the barn.
The barn is cavernous and dark inside. I walked in, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and headed toward the back. And then I saw her, Mamacita, lying on her side in the straw.
Was she was sick? Was she going to be okay?
As I got closer, I felt the energy shift around me, the molecules of air rearranging themselves. I was filled with a simultaneous sense of dread and hope and knowing—that moment of teetering on the precipice right before falling, that last precious nanosecond of time before discovering that life as you have known it has just permanently, irreversibly changed.
She was dead.
I knelt down in the straw to feel her body, rubbing my hands on her white and brown hair, long and coarse. Given she was cold to the touch, she must have died during the night.
The guilt came hard and fast. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough to keep her warm?” I asked myself. Iowa has had an early winter. It had snowed two days earlier and temperatures plummeted to a record cold of nine degrees. Nine degrees! In early-November! “Should I have gotten her a coat?”
Doug came out to the barn and held me in his arms as I sobbed on his shoulder. In his soothing way, he said, “Bea, she just ran out of gas. She didn’t suffer. Her heart probably just stopped. What a peaceful way to go.” Then he left me to sit with her a while longer while he got his shovel and went to dig her grave next to Cinnamon’s.
|Our funeral for Mamacita|
We held a little graveside service, lighting a candle, reading poems to her from John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us” and sprinkled baby carrots into the pit. We said our thank yous and our final goodbyes to her, then Doug picked up his shovel, while I picked up a handful of dirt to toss into the grave in the symbolic way they do at human burials. But I didn’t stop there. I dropped to my knees and started pushing the icy soil on top of her, at first gently, then shoving it in faster with my bare hands, until she was completely covered.
We worked in silence as the dirt piled up into a mound, the physical effort and connection to the earth serving as therapy for my sadness. Yet my tears—and my remorse—continued. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough? Did I not keep her warm enough?” I asked myself again and again. “Could I have prevented this? Surely there is something I could have done.”
“She was 15!” the vet’s voice from a year and a half earlier bellowed in my head. “15!”
In reality, she was older than that, maybe closer to 16 or 17, living well beyond a pygmy goat’s 10- to 12-year average life expectancy.
For as much as I want to keep my animals alive forever, there comes a day—not just for the animals but for all of us—when our bodies expire, when no amount of medicine or molasses-based goat drench can keep us going.
“It’s sad,” my mom said when I told her about Mamacita’s passing, “but you have prolonged all of their lives by taking them in and providing such a good life at Camp Doug.”
Her words provided some consolation, but they didn’t erase the added heartache of watching our two surviving goats grieve. Yes, goats grieve. For about three days, Chaps stood off on his own, his head pushed up against the barn as if he didn’t want anyone to see him cry, while Mr. Friendly paced around the pen, the barn and the pasture, as if looking for Mamacita, determined to find her, willing her to return. But she would not be back. At least not in the same form.
|Tiger, our barn cat who hangs out with the goats,
consoled Chaps after Mamacita died.
It was a beautiful thing to see animals
showing compassion for one another.
“Every day is a bonus” is an expression we utter daily in our house full of elderly animals. Doug’s dog Mali, an athletic but incontinent spaniel/beagle mix, is 14, maybe older. His cats, Tiger and Maybelline, while still strong and healthy, are at least 15.
Every day Doug reminds me to stop worrying so much, to stop anticipating the losses, and start seeing the days as half full.
|Chaps in his new coat|
“Every day is a bonus, Bea,” Doug reminds me.
Every day I have been spending a lot of extra time in the goat pen with Chaps and Friendly. I have been bringing them warm water with molasses, and increased their feed. I have been petting and petting and petting them, like some massage therapist for goats. And I bought a new sewing machine to make coats for them out of fleece blankets and an old nylon tarp. (Making the coats was so easy I wished I had made them three years ago.)
Every day I give Jack his insulin shots, his heart pills, his liver pills, his skin pills. I kiss him every time I walk past him, snuggle with him and tell him how much I love him.
Every day I brace myself, holding my own breath until I’ve made sure everyone is still breathing—the dogs, the cats, the goats, and yes, Doug (who is 63). And every day I say my prayers of gratitude as I confirm each one is still with us.
All I want to do is keep everyone alive. Given that I do not possess the power to do so, all I can do is shower them with love for as long as they are still here—and, sadly, grieve them when they are gone. I have lived through too many losses already, and the cumulative grief chips away at my enthusiasm for life. But as Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And I cannot and will not stop loving. Fully. Deeply. Courageously.
|Mamacita. Forever loved.|
Thank you, Mamacita, for your sweetness, your feistiness, your girl power, for the four years I visited you in Selma, and for the three happy years we had together at Camp Doug. You are so very missed, and forever very loved.
My friend Ann is dying. She had breast cancer about 10 years ago but it came back. In her spine. Containable but not curable, the drugs held it back for about a year or two. I hadn’t talked to her for a while and last fall I had a very strong sense that I needed to get in touch—and not just by email. Something told me I needed to pick up the phone and call her. She was happy to hear from me, but had some not so happy news: The cancer was growing.
In early December, I started getting emails from Ann’s brother. I was on a mailing list, one I’m sure is a very big list because of the number of Ann’s friends. In the past several months the chemo was affecting Ann’s nerves to the point she could no longer use her hands or feet. She couldn’t write or walk. But there was the possibility, the hope, that the neuropathy could depart in the same quick way it began.
The updates kept coming.
Ann is being moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center for physical therapy.
Ann is making progress and determined to get home.
Ann is going home, but will need 24-hour care. A nurse will be there during the day but we’ll have friends stay with her overnight, so let me know if you would like to come for a few days or a week.
I volunteered to spend a week with her in March. (She lives in San Francisco.) Given her loving friends I’m sure she has enough caregiving volunteers to get her through the next five years. But I will not be going to San Francisco to help because Ann won’t make it five years, or even five months.
I woke up to an email update from her brother.
Ann received news yesterday that her battle with cancer is quickly coming to an end. Ann has in mind to say her goodbyes in the coming days and weeks. Then it seems she will be ready to depart on her next adventure. She seems to have no regrets and accepts that this is her time. She has great care and love of those around her. And wishes you and us all great happiness, love and peace.
And so the grief begins.
Ann is just three years older than me. She has been a mentor, a role model, a big sister, a grief counselor after Marcus died, and a true and loving friend.
Like me, she lost someone she loved who died suddenly and unexpectedly, so she already knew the ropes of this kind of grief. (The cliché is intentional; her love was a rock climber.) She was there for me—to listen, to coach, to refill my wine glass, to just be. She was there for me a few years later when Daisy was killed by a coyote. Ann, a dog lover herself, was once again a step ahead of me as she had lost her dog Shayla (an Airedale terrier) not long before Daisy died.
Ann’s dog, Shayla, was one of the most remarkable dogs I’ve ever met. I tell the story of her often, how, when Ann worked from home, Shayla would come to Ann’s desk to remind her to get off the phone and take her for a walk. After a few minutes, if Ann was still talking, Shayla would go get her leash and present it to Ann, standing there with it dangling from her mouth which, with her tall size, was level with the desktop. And when that still didn’t work, she would go get Ann’s fleece jacket off the hook by the door and drop it onto Ann’s lap, signaling that, “Excuse me, you really need to hang up now. It’s time to go out.” If that cuteness couldn’t make you end a call, no matter how important the business discussion, nothing could!
|Ann and Shayla|
Shayla was only 7 when she died. She got sick and Ann did everything she could to keep her dog healthy, happy, alive. She even stayed with Shayla at the animal hospital, because she believed—she knew—her presence would help the dog recover. And, with Ann’s affection, Shayla did recover (from an illness of leptospirosis.) Shayla’s recovery, which even her vet attributed to Ann’s love, was so remarkable that a magazine did a story featuring Ann on how spending time at the vet with your sick pet helps it heal.
I have followed Ann’s example of animal bedside care—many times now—whenever Jack is at the vet for his various health issues. (I did with Daisy, too.) Each time I sit on the cold cement floor of the vet’s office, gently stroking my dog’s fur for hours, I always think of Ann and Shayla and it keeps me going.
Ann talked with a pet psychic after Shayla died and the psychic told her Shayla was doing okay. When Daisy died, Ann gifted me a session with the psychic who told me Daisy was doing okay. (When your heart is THAT broken, any little bit of reassurance or affirmation is helpful.) It is one of the most heartfelt gifts I have ever received.
Lately I have been experiencing a period of turmoil—depression and despair over a combination of things: the current battlefield of politics, climate change, gun violence in schools and, more personally, what it means to be 55 and all the upheaval that goes with it: menopause; muffin top; loss of libido, bone density, and muscle tone; the seemingly limited future of my career; how to manage my finances; how to balance the solitude of the farm with my need for city; and the sobering reality that I now qualify for senior housing. But all of my worries seem so trivial now, my whiny first-world problems thrust into perspective by the news that Ann, who is just 60, is preparing to take leave.
Now I am asking:
What really matters?
What do we leave behind?
What are we most proud of?
What did we accomplish?
Ann hasn’t squandered away her time in the existential wasteland of turmoil and despair. She has been too busy, spending her life helping others as well as the environment. She has been:
- Advocating for women in the outdoor industry
- Serving on boards of environmental non-profits
- Mentoring teams of young people to help them grow in their careers
- Overseeing a foundation’s endowment allocating grants to wilderness conservation and outdoor education
- Building public speaking careers for adventurers, enabling them to share their risk management lessons learned from Mt. Everest, El Capitan, Antarctica and beyond
- Building an outdoor clothing brand into an internationally recognized and highly respected name
- Organizing a film festival featuring the feats of extreme athletes who have triumphed over tragedy
- And, in her earlier career, producing music events
She has traveled the world, spending a lot of time in the mountains—in the Himalayas, in Yosemite, in Muir Woods.
She has nurtured friendships that span the globe, often hosting those friends in her home, their sleeping bags and backpacks turning her living room—an otherwise cozy and elegant sanctuary filled with Buddhist art and Tibetan prayer flags—into a climbers’ base camp. I have been one of those lucky friends, sleeping bag in tow, treated to her home cooked meals (my favorite being grilled tilapia with sautéed mushrooms and puréed cauliflower, and a bottle of Malbec) and waking up on her couch to a view of the Redwood forest, talking with Ann for hours over coffee.
And yet, when the time comes—and, sadly, it is coming too soon—what will Ann be remembered for most? Not for her grilled tilapia and comfy couch. Not for her career and for her many, many accomplishments. Not even for her recent, wholly deserved Outdoor Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. All of that is impressive and important, yes. But what she will be remembered for most is her kindness. Her generosity. Her humility. Her love. Her spirit, a spirit so bright and beautiful its light will keep shining long after her physical form can no longer contain it.
May we all be so lucky to be remembered that way.
May Ann’s legacy serve as a guide for those of us still here, and for others yet to come. May we model her values and her examples of honesty and integrity, to make the world a better place for as long as we are here.
We will miss you, Ann, but know you will be there with all of that kindness, generosity, humility, and love when we see you on the other side. And we will all get there eventually. Thank you for being in my life and for all the goodness you have contributed—to me and to so many others. Wishing you peace on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to meeting up with you in the next one.
With all my love and deepest gratitude,
There is ALWAYS hope, Bea.
He wrote this—with the word always in all caps—above a newspaper article he had circled in black ink.
He left the paper on the kitchen table knowing I would be down for my morning coffee well after he had left the house to feed hay to his cows, check on the pigs, and attend to his other daily chores.
I always like it when I see his circles of ink on the page. I like the anticipation of discovering what specific nugget of news he wants me to see—something about a new business in the next town, a profile on someone who is using their skills to help those less fortunate, a well-written obituary of someone who led an extraordinary life. I like that he is loyal to the newspaper, having it delivered, still reading it in print instead of online, even though the paper arrives a day late. I like that he is a thinking man, a feeling man, a caring man. He doesn’t outwardly express himself—stoicism is bred into his German genes—but this sharing of newspaper articles tells me he is thinking of me, that he cares for me, that he wants to help me even though he doesn’t know how.
The article he circled this time was in the opinion section, his favorite part of the paper, which he always reads first, before the front page, before the commodity trading prices and weather, before the sports scores. The article was about South and North Korea uniting for the Winter Olympics in Seoul, a rare olive branch extended after 50 years of fighting and a war that cleaved a manmade fault line between two halves of a whole peninsula. After all this time—and all the recent escalating threats of nuclear action—a previously unimaginable union is taking place with both sides walking and competing together under one flag. Even if just for the 16 days of this one event, it signals the possibility of peace, a sign of hope.
There is ALWAYS hope, Bea.
He alone knows the depths of my sadness, the full picture of who I am and how much I struggle to stay balanced, to stay happy, to stay alive. The fun-loving girl in overalls and braids who basks in the country life of apple pies and goats and dog walks through green pastures—this is my curated life in colorful pictures on Facebook, the carefully edited version, the one that gives people a one-sided impression. The wrong impression. Fake news. Yes, I do smile and laugh and make people happy with my homemade pies, but many of my days—too many lately—are filled with despair, weighed down by a lead blanket of Weltschmerz (the German word for internalizing all the pain of the world.) Espresso and my dog’s insulin schedule are my only motivation to get out of bed in the morning, because I wake up tired after sleepless nights, my eyes wide open in the darkness as I pass the hours searching for answers, for meaning, for purpose, for hope. For solutions for how I can save the world.
He is the sole witness to both sides of my Yin and Yang, a black and white circle of life that has become lopsided and leaning too much on the black. He sees my grief—the cumulating losses of my husband, my dad, and even one of my goats—still as raw and festering as an infected stab wound. He listens as I unleash my rage over the state of the world, wailing about the injustices, the unending human rights violations, the suppression of women, the righteousness of the ultra-religious. He remains patient and quiet as I carry on, ranting about the increase of gun violence, the divisiveness of politics, the demolition of our democratic society, the proliferation of hate speech, the dismantling of health care, education and immigration, and the utter lack of respect for the environment and its finite resources. My list of wrongs I want to right is so very long. He leans against the counter, or the wall, or his pillow, biting the inside of his lip, as I cry and tell him yet again how I have lost my faith in humanity, how my heart—already so badly broken—cannot take anymore of this assault and battery. He is at a loss for words, or maybe he has nothing to say. He doesn’t know how to fix this. To fix me.
And then I come downstairs for coffee and see the newspaper splayed open on the table, his pen lying next to it, the familiar scribble of his handwriting.
There is ALWAYS hope, Bea.
I saved the newspaper page. I’ve been carrying it with me for a week. I pull it out of my notebook several times a day and read his sentence, spelled out in his scratchy handwriting, even though I no longer have to read it as the sentence is ingrained in my head. I hear it, the words repeating so often they’ve become the refrain of my personal anthem. And still, each time the sentence forms— punctuated at the end with his nickname for me—my throat tightens. My heart seizes up so hard I feel a rush of hot blood. And my eyes fill up so quickly with tears that I can’t hold them back, the drops leaving water stains on my notebook.
There is ALWAYS hope, Bea.
I am in Mexico this week for a writers’ retreat. I brought the article with me, folded neatly and tucked into my carry-on. I came with two goals: finish my American Gothic House memoir and get a break from the deep freeze of Iowa’s winter (and not necessarily in that order!) I have added one more thing to that list: find hope.
How does one find hope? How can I restore my faith in a humanity that keeps letting me down with its inability—its outright refusal—to get along? Is hope something you can hunt for? Something you can see? Is it tangible? And if you find it, how do you make it last?
My first day here I was walking on the beach, my bare feet splashing through the waves, the sun de-icing my body. I looked up from the sand toward the palm trees and houses and saw a boulder painted with graffiti. The art wasn’t that big, maybe not even noticeable to others, yet my eyes were drawn straight to it. On the rock was a white background with a child’s face outlined in black. Next to the child, painted in red ink, was one word: Hope.
There is ALWAYS hope, Bea.
It had to be a message, a sign.
I didn’t start actively looking for signs of hope. The first days I was still consumed with the stresses of my life back home, of all that I had abandoned in the name of self-care, still carrying the excess baggage of guilt over leaving Doug to take on my responsibilities—of giving Jack his medicine and hauling warm water to the goats. But with each day I spend in Mexico, thoughts of home—along with my Doomsday Clock-watching worries—slough off like the layers of my dry skin, making room for me to take in my new surroundings. With each day my observations of the life around me become more vivid, more frequent, more obvious—observations I’ve begun translating with the same hunger I hunt for words in my Spanish dictionary.
What I am observing, experiencing, finding is esperanza. Hope.
Hope is the gruff fruit vendor who made me wait while he rigged up his grandson’s fishing pole, tying a plastic bag on the end of it and putting a piece of pineapple inside as bait, and the four-year-old, so adorable with his freckles, curly hair and round cheeks, saying, “Gracias, Abuelito.” And how the other customers cheered on the child’s efforts to catch something, his arm—still chubby with baby fat—not yet strong enough to cast the line. And how the grandfather prepared the coconut meat for me after I drank the water from the shell, taking pride in serving it the local way, with salt and pepper, lime, and chili sauce. And how he smiled so warmly when I said, “Gracias, Abuelito.”
Hope is hiking on the trail through the jungle to get to the quieter beach and just as you’re wondering if it’s safe to do this alone, and realizing you haven’t told anyone where you’re going, a Mexican man jogs up the path, dripping with sweat from his workout, and as he passes you he pauses for a second, hands you a tiny sea shell, and says, “For you,” and then keeps going.
Hope is walking to the local espresso bar in the mornings, passing the kids on their way to school, so young and innocent—and sleepy—at 7:30am, dressed in clean clothes, hauling backpacks full of schoolbooks. And reading the outer wall of their school that spans a full block, covered in a hand-painted mural with messages of tolerance, cooperation, honesty, solidarity, and yes, hope. And the satisfaction of understanding enough Spanish to know that “En esta escuela trabajamos con amor” means “In this school we work with love.”
Hope is eavesdropping on a conversation where a gray-haired expat in an embroidered Mexican dress relays her wisdom to a friend about the value of making decisions with her heart and not her head. (I wanted to butt in and tell her she should run for congress!)
Hope is the regular exchange of smiles and greetings of “Buenos dias” when passing strangers on the streets, whether their skin is brown, white, leathery, or sunburned.
Hope is the bougainvillea blooming with vitality in shades of magenta and orange and purple. It’s the breakfast of fresh papaya picked right off the tree. The morning swim in the sea. The baptism of diving under the waves and tasting the salt on your lips.
Hope is the sun coming up again and again and again, bringing with it the promise that there is still goodness in this world.
Hope is taking a much-needed break from home knowing there is a thinking, feeling, caring man waiting for me back on the farm. And though I love his ink-circled articles and his notes that go with them, I have found that hope is a lot easier to have when you limit your intake of news.
|My dad and me. Photo taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2017|
Two months ago I lost the person I loved most in the world. I lost my dad. He died on March 9, 2017 at 6:30 AM, of metastasized melanoma.
The spot on his head first appeared in 2015, a raised and rough growth, a pebble of a thing that took up residence on the otherwise smooth and shiny surface of his skull. He had it removed in July of that year (while I was traveling around the world) and when they didn’t get clean margins they removed more from this delicate, non-elastic region, borrowing skin from his thigh to patch the missing piece of scalp. He had been so pleased with the plastic surgeon’s reconstruction that he called him “an artist” and wrote him a thank you note. The scar was barely visible.
|Last family photo, taken February 25, 2017|
Life went on. For the next year and a half he read books—spy thrillers mostly—washed his car, played Solitaire, went on daily lunch outings with my mom to El Pollo Loco where they shared their favorite taco salad, attended U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary meetings, and drank his daily martini at 5:00. But behind the scenes, lurking under the skin’s surface, the cancer was spreading. Like a nest of newborn snakes, it ventured forth, slithering into his lymph nodes, his prostate, throughout his entire skeletal system. It went into his lungs, creating such a deep and growing colony of tumors that he was coughing up globs of blood.
On a mid-January morning this year, when I was visiting for my mom’s 80th birthday, when I watched him cough into a tissue, leaving a dribble of bright red blood on his chin, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. We wouldn’t know the full diagnosis until after his PET scan a month later. But I knew, in the way a twin can sense their sibling a thousand miles away is in trouble, that his life as we knew it was over. That the cancer would take him. And, by the looks of the blood clots, soon.
No one coughs up that much blood and lives.
After my mom’s birthday, after the Women’s March in Washington, and after a few weeks back in Iowa where I was getting updates from my sister as the oncologist appointments got underway, I flew back to California. I could have saved $150 if I bought a ticket for three days later. My instinct told me every day counted—or maybe it was the news from the oncologist who said there was “no treatment for this” and “We will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible”—so I booked the earlier, more expensive flight. Paying that extra money was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I packed a mammoth suitcase thinking I might be there for more than a month. I was prepared to stay six, whatever it took, however long I was needed. I know now I could have just packed a carry-on.
And so, I was there.
I was there in Redondo Beach in my parents’ apartment, the sliding glass doors letting in the ocean breeze, the sun’s blinding late afternoon glare reflecting off the dark blue sea, the surfers catching the last waves before sunset.
I was there because my latest book proposal— about how to stay optimistic in this political era—was turned down. I was so damn lucky for the rejection. With a looming book deadline I would not have been able to spend those three and a half weeks of February into March with the father I loved. The last three and a half weeks of life of the man whose seed created me. The dimming, dwindling last days of the man who loved martinis, hot fudge sundaes and banana cream pie. The man who loved me. Who understood me like no one else. Who could solve every problem I ever had with his laughter. Even if I had gotten the book deal, I would have been there. I would have walked away from the offer. Family—my dad—came first.
I was there, sitting by his side every one of those remaining days, every morning stretched out on my mom’s side of the king size bed, careful not to get my dirty feet on the bedspread, playing Clair de Lune for him—his signature piece he played so well on the piano—on my iPhone from YouTube, drinking my café lattes and listening to him breathe—or struggle to breathe. I repositioned his oxygen nosepiece, making sure the prongs stayed in his nostrils, and watched his chest closely, making sure it was still moving up and down. Making sure he was still with us. I listened to the rhythm—four or five breaths, then a pause. The pauses were so long I found myself holding my breath along with him each time he stopped. When he coughed, as he inevitably did from the growing number of nodules that choked his lungs, he woke himself up and began breathing again. And I, too, would begin breathing again, not realizing I had stopped.
I was there to rub lotion on his bald head, now dotted with moles and rough spots and scars. I was there to massage his feet, to give him some semblance of comfort, the way the hospice pamphlet suggested. I was there to hold his hands, studying his age spots and fingernails, memorizing the heft of each digit, including the digitus medius manus, as he taught us the Latin term for “the middle finger”—as in giving it. They were strong yet gentle hands that had healed so many people. As a dentist, a holistic one who truly cared about his patients overall well being, he helped improve not only their smiles (and in turn their confidence) but also their health. He understood how every part of the body is connected to another, that through orthodontics (without pulling teeth unnecessarily, mind you) the curvature of the mouth’s palate would change and, thus, this would change—improve—the structure of the cervical column and that would affect the entire spine for the better. His hands had practiced therapeutic massage and cranial osteopathy. His hands had played Clair de Lune just a week earlier, shocking us all when we thought he lacked the strength to get out of bed, let alone sit at the piano to serenade us with classical music.
The dying process is like that. Death can come slowly, gradually, and just when you think the final hour has arrived life can burst forth again in unexpected, fleeting fragments. These energy bursts, confusing as they may be, give bystanding loved ones a tidal wave of hope that perhaps, hey, wait, he’s not as sick as we thought. Maybe he is not going to die after all. And then, no, the terminal, evil, motherfucker of an illness sends him back to bed, weaker than ever, and you call the hospice nurse to increase the morphine.
I was there to make him his favorite dessert, banana cream pie, the pie that prompted my dad to propose to my mom when she made one for him six months after they started dating. I made the pie just the way he liked it, with a graham cracker crust, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding, and meringue topping. I made three banana cream pies in three and a half weeks, wondering, worrying, if each pie would be his last.
I was there to spoon feed him bites of the pie when this once robust man no longer had the strength to lift even a small fork, cutting the sliced bananas into miniature sizes he could swallow. With his appetite diminishing by the day, we had to ask him what, if anything, he was hungry for. His big blue eyes would brighten and he would say with a smile, drawing out the syllables, “Piiiiiie.”
The day before he was moved to the hospice house—euphemistically and somewhat disturbingly called a “transition center”—he couldn’t finish the tiny sliver of banana cream pie I had served him on a cocktail plate. The plate was part of a collection of four, each decorated with a different martini-themed design. Martini glass-emblazoned items could be found in every corner of the apartment—a cutting board, cloth napkins, coasters, a decorative plaque that read “Martini Bar,” a flag that had hung on his old sailboat but now waved on the balcony to signal when it was Happy Hour. Anything with a martini glass on it was an obvious gift for the “man who had everything”—as long as said martini glass contained three olives.
I left the martini plate, with the remaining piece of pie and the teaspoon still on it, in the refrigerator, in case he would want to eat more later.
There was no later.
|Tom Howard’s last banana cream
pie, his favorite.
When I came back to my parents’ apartment from the hospice house (er, transition fucking center) the morning of March 9—after he was gone, after our family had gathered around his hospital bed with his body still slightly warm, after saying our final goodbyes before he was placed in the lime green body bag (so thoughtlessly, so visibly the only item in the clear plastic bag marked “Patient’s Personal Items” even though he was wearing a grey Washington State University t-shirt when he arrived), before he was sent over to the crematorium—I went to get something out of the refrigerator. I was looking for milk or cheese or juice or something, who knows. I was so numb I can’t remember. When I opened the fridge door the remains of his last slice of pie stared back at me. The bananas had turned brown, the crust soggy, the meringue sagging and weeping. The martini design on the plate, which had previously looked so cute now seemed offensive as the day’s approaching Happy Hour would be anything but happy.
I was there, sleepless the entire week after he died, in my bed that looked out over the King Harbor marina. I stuck earbuds in my ears and listened to Clair de Lune, the extended play version, over and over. Gone was the humming, hissing and pumping sound of his oxygen machine. Gone was the moaning and crying sound of his pain from down the hall. Gone was the beloved man whose spirit had been so big and so vibrant. To fill all that empty space I played the music at full volume for hours while the moon rose—and then set—and the rest of Redondo Beach slumbered.
I was there to clean out his closet with my brother, even when it felt way too soon, helping to load the SUV with my dad’s sport coats, sweaters, t-shirts and trousers, ties and belts, and a surprisingly extensive collection of size 12 shoes, including several pair leather loafers tucked so far back in the closet they were covered in a layer of light green mold, such is the humidity living by the ocean.
I was there to write the obituary and place it in the Ottumwa Courier and the Quad City Times for $156 each, editing down the word count to save money from the original $300 quote each. I didn’t know obits were so expensive. And I didn’t know I would find myself arguing with the editor over AP Style Guidelines—over the correct placement of commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—after she changed my format, which I had spent hours so carefully crafting.
I was there to design the memorial card, collecting photos from my four other siblings, sorting through 81 years’ worth of memories and culling them into the mere four photos the online template would allow. I was there to buy stamps and place them on the pile of 150 cards so that when my mother felt well enough to create a mailing list and address the envelopes it would be one less thing for her to do.
I was there. And now I’m not. And he’s not. He has “transitioned.” To where—well, isn’t that is the ultimate nagging billion-dollar existential question? To a “better” place? God, I hate it when people say that. At least he’s in a place—or space—free from pain.
It was so good yet so hard to be there. It made my heart physically hurt listening to him cry out during the night, in distress from the cancer that terrorized his bones, cancer that caused unimaginable pain, cancer that according to the PET scan—which he never read because he was determined that he wasn’t that sick, that he was going to get better—had deteriorated his left ribs, clavicle, and humerus (the shoulder head, a term I had to look up among many other body parts listed in the report.) No one, especially not my dad, should suffer like that. Ever.
It was so fortunate to be there. I will forever be grateful for that time—those last three and a half weeks—I had with him. Even when it meant cleaning the commode, wiping the urine off his private parts, holding him up in the shower. Even when all that tore at my heart so badly and squeezed my chest so tight I laid on the guest bed thinking that I was the one who was going to die. (I found out later, after my doctor sent me to a cardiologist, that I was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real thing, caused by trauma and stress.)
I am thankful I could be there to give back to him, to have had even the smallest chance to repay him for all that he gave me, the many, many gifts that have made my life so rich—a healthy childhood, a college education, trips abroad to give me a bigger world view, a feisty and generous spirit, and above all, a mandate to be positive, to see the good in people, and to be of service to others.
He was there to bring me into this world. I was there to help him out of it.
He said just three days before he died, “Words matter.” I write these words for him. I write these words so I don’t lose him.
But I haven’t lost him. He is always with me. His spirit lives through me. I carry on his values. I carry his DNA. And for as long as I live I will continue to carry on his love of nature and cocktail hour and banana cream pie. He had a good, long life, sticking around longer than many humans do—longer than my husband who died at 43.
When Marcus died I was annoyed when my dad said, “We all have to die sometime, Boo.” But he is right—was right. We are all like a juicy novel with a beginning, middle and end. Our lives unfold like turning pages of a book, each varying in length. We are just passing through, each of us contributing our own chapter to the bigger story, and as such our purpose should be to live—and die—as gracefully (and painlessly) as possible, striving for a happy, morally sound ending.
My dad also said, in one of his ever-surprising nuggets of wisdom doled out over the years, “When I die don’t mourn for me. Just go out and have a hot fudge sundae.” Another thing he would say, especially during times I was down, was, “Onward and forward.” I have never been as down as I am now.
So in the spirit of my dad, the Great John Thomas Howard, I am going onward and forward—straight to Dairy Queen.
|I love you, Dad. And I miss you.|
During my recent weeklong Taos Writers Retreat I skipped the scheduled morning dance sessions. Free-form dancing in a group is waaaay too far out of my comfort zone, even though Jen insisted everyone keeps their eyes closed so no one is watching you. Instead, I walked a few blocks from the Mabel Dodge Luhan House to a local coffee house.
Possessing an instinctive homing device for caffeine, I found my way there by taking a trail that led off the property, slipped through an opening in the bushes that led to Kit Carson Park, and cut a diagonal line across the park toward the center of town. I passed the Taos Little League field, the graveyard where Mabel Dodge and Kit Carson rest in peace, and popped out the other side onto Paseo Del Pueblo Norte. I hung a left on the main drag, passed a restaurant and a few art galleries before finding my destination recommended by one of the staff at the inn: World Cup.
World Cup is a tiny espresso bar, one of the smallest spaces in which I’ve ever had a latte. About the size of a bedroom, it feels as cozy as one too. There’s a cash register, an industrial size espresso machine, and along two walls runs a counter with metal bar stools underneath. The place is so small, so intimate you automatically become part of any conversation.
Every day I saw the same people, the “regulars,” people who lived in Taos.
There was Jack, the barista. Reserved and intelligent looking, his clean cut-ness offset by his hint of a beard, he always dressed neatly in a collared shirt, vest, and bandana tied around his neck. I wondered if he was a folk musician by night.
There was Simon, the English mystery novelist who looked more like a rancher. He was tall with blazing blue eyes, and his booming voice with the British accent dominated the coffee house whenever he spoke.
There was Pat, the ex-hippie from Haight-Ashbury, a short, kind-eyed man who wore Hawaiian shirts and a baseball cap that hid his grey hair. When he smiled it showed the hint of gold rimming his teeth.
There was Marianna, another barista, with dark hair and bangs and an ever-present warm smile made brighter by her signature swath of power-red lipstick.
There was Lloyd, slightly soft and rumpled, always sitting at the bar, always ready to join in the conversation. He was a dead ringer for Norm from “Cheers.”
There was the man (whose name I never learned) who looked like an aging rock star turned mountain man, his hair long and shaggy, his jeans faded, his boots worn, his icy blue eyes weary.
And every single morning there was Joseph and Augustine, two men from the Red Willow tribe. Weathered and bronzed, with high cheek bones and black hair in long braids tied back into ponytails, they walked the three miles daily from the Taos Pueblo, where their tribe has dwelled for over 1000 years, to get coffee and wait for their ride from Joseph’s brother, Blue, to whatever work site they were headed to that day.
|Joseph (left) and Augustine (right) making a point not to smile for the camera|
It wasn’t just people who were regulars, but also their dogs. Pat with his ultra-shy black lab-mix puppy named Digger, whom he was attempting to socialize. Steve with a different dog each day (he had five), including a red chow, a black chow, and a brindled Mastiff-mix. A lab here, a scruffy white terrier there, a cattle dog, a Golden retriever, the dogs nearly outnumbered the customers. Because World Cup was so small, the combination of dogs and coffee patrons made for the Taos equivalent of an L.A. traffic jam. Without the road rage.
Often the conversations revolved around the dogs. Many of the dogs’ owners had made it their mission to rescue animals abandoned at the animal shelter, or capture feral dogs found on construction sites, and rehabilitate them until they could be adopted.
This was a reminder: There is still goodness in this world.
I heard one woman say she was on her way to a daylong chainsaw carving class. I heard a man say he was applying for a visa to move to Australia. I heard someone say he just signed a lease for the art gallery he had been working so hard to open. I heard another one say his New York agent had just given him feedback on his screenplay. I heard a four-year-old girl insist to her mother that she wanted the chocolate croissant not the plain one she was already eating.
This was a reminder too: There is still so much to strive for, so many dreams to pursue. (And a reminder that when in doubt, always go for the chocolate one.)
Given my affinity for café culture (especially the dog-friendly kind), my curiosity about people, and my chatty personality, I was more than happy to insert myself in these conversations. (And pet every dog that came through the door.) I was eager to be part of the group, not only because of my outgoing nature, but because I live a little too isolated for my disposition on a farm, 25 miles from the nearest espresso bar. I was starving for conversation, for community. Forget free-form dance; this was a week I could take advantage of being a 10-minute walk from the crossroads of an eclectic bunch of townspeople. And drink really good coffee.
On my second morning at World Cup, I was pulled into a dialog with Augustine and Joseph, the two Native Americans. Augustine asked me where I was from.
“Iowa,” I told him.
In reply he asked me, “Do you know Jim Leahy?”
Outwardly my face showed that I was trying to determine if, in fact, I did know a Jim Leahy. Inside, though, I was laughing at the notion that out of an entire state, nearly 500 miles wide, I would know this one person.
But then Augustine added, “He founded Overland Sheepskin Company.” He spoke so shyly, so quietly, I had to lean in to hear him. The background noise of the bean grinder and milk steamer and other customers ordering coffee made it even harder to hear. I got so close I could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. “I worked for him for 13 years,” he continued.
My eyes shot open at the recognition. “Oh my god, yes. I mean, I know his wife, Jennifer. She runs Blue Fish Clothing. They live in Fairfield. I spend a lot of time there.”
This is why I love life. These seemingly random connections are what I live for. Stumbling upon common links always tells me I am exactly where I need to be at exactly that moment. The world is a lot smaller and a lot more connected that we realize. With this realization comes a feeling of wellbeing. We are not as lost or as disconnected as we think.
As if reading my thoughts, Joseph chimed in. “Small world,” he said, flashing a grin at me, unselfconscious that his two front teeth were missing. Teeth or not, he was handsome, with his chiseled features, crisply dressed in his jeans and cowboy boots, and athletically fit. “We live up at the Pueblo. Have you been there?”
“No,” I said. “I just got here. I’m in Taos for a week, for a writers retreat. It’s a group of 23 women trying to get past their writers block. Coming here for coffee is my secret little morning ritual.”
“Come to the Pueblo. I’ll be your tour guide, “Joseph said. “There’s an adobe structure that’s an original five-story building. We grew up there.”
I looked into his eyes, brown and slightly slanted. What I saw in his eyes was a deep, bubbling hot spring of American history so dark and tragic I felt like I was going to drown. My heart splintered a little more at that moment, the broken pieces shattering into even smaller pieces—as if after all my recent grief I could afford any more cardiac damage. Talking with these Native American men stirred up something far down and unknowable inside me. I don’t believe in past lives, and I absolutely cannot comprehend the quantum physics of gravity, space and time, where life might exist simultaneously in different dimensions, but damn if I didn’t feel like there was something more going on between the three of us. Was this force of energy and this intensity of eye contact—also with Augustine, his brown irises surrounded by more red than white—because we were connected on a different plane? Or was it my nostalgia for simpler, more environmentally sensitive times? Times before smart phones and paved roads. Before combustion engines and Dakota Access Pipelines. Before the White Man obliterated the peoples who lived in harmony with nature, those who understood and respected the balance of ecology.
Who knew that a 7:30AM stop at the local coffee house would evoke such profound thoughts?
I had to remind myself to breathe. After a pause to shake off the mind-bending sensation, I answered him. “I would love a tour. How about Saturday afternoon, right after my workshop ends?”
For the rest of the week I continued my daily jaunts to the coffee house. One morning I met a woman while cutting across the park. She was older, with hair dyed scarlet red, taking her morning power walk. I walked next to her, asking her for directions which led to asking her about her life. In clipped British English she said she spends half the year in Taos and the other half—the winter—in San Miguel de Allende. Like Augustine asking me if I knew his friend in Iowa, I asked her if she knew my friend Angela in Mexico. “She’s a writer,” I said. “She’s also British.”
And then, in the way I answered Augustine, this woman stopped walking and turned to look at me. “Yes. I think I do know her. I’m sure I’ve heard her name. Yes, I’m certain I’ve met her.”
Once again, right place, right time. The world is so bloody small, people are so connected to each other—connected to me—it feels like I do belong in it after all.
On the last night of the writers’ workshop, our group of 23 formed a circle. Each woman took a turn professing what she got out of the week. In my allotted one minute, I said, “I got exactly what I needed: a sense of community, a sense of belonging. But not just from all of you.” Then I revealed where I had been disappearing to each morning. “I got a bonus community by going to the espresso bar, where I made friends with the locals.” The entire circle nodded in approval, and with, I dare say, a hint of admiration.
At the designated time on Saturday, I met Joseph at the Pueblo. As promised, he gave me a tour of his primary community. (World Cup, like it did for me, clearly served as his “bonus community.”) He explained how these earthy red adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years, making this place the longest continually inhabited community in the U.S. These mud and straw structures, still standing so solidly, were built between the years 1000 and 1050 AD. Its buildings are so impressive in how they’ve withstood the test of time (and weather and myriad attacks) that the Pueblo is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. “It’s not a reservation,” he said, “because we have never left. Reservations are places tribes were moved to.”
I nodded, acknowledging this important distinction.
He pointed out the kivas, underground caves marked by a bundle of tall poles protruding above, where the men (no women allowed!) partake in rituals, initiations, and learn the unwritten wisdom and teachings of the tribe shared orally. “I’ve spent 40 days and 40 nights inside the kiva,” he said. Joseph is 55 and is an elder serving on the Tribal Council. “I’m young for an elder. They are normally in their 80s. But as they die off I continue to move up, taking their place.”
His revelation that he was an elder didn’t surprise me, given how articulate and knowledgeable he was. Maybe there was something about his elder wisdom that had moved me so much the day I met him. Maybe he was channeling the Great Spirit.
We walked along the front side of the largest structure, passing vendors selling carvings, beads, drums and art, and I spotted—what the…?!—a pie shop. “We have to go in,” I insisted. “I have to try the pie.”
Joseph knew the baker, the grandson of Crucita, the woman who opened the bakery almost 100 years ago. The two immediately started chatting in their native Tiwa language.
The Pueblo is off the grid—there are no power lines, no running water. They collect their water by dipping buckets into the river that runs through the middle of the village. The lights are run by propane, and the ovens—adobe beehive-shaped things called “hornos”— are fueled by wood fire.
|Try running a pie stand baking in this|
For a moment I imagined what it would have been like to run the Pitchfork Pie Stand using only an horno. I bristled at the thought.
I bought a slice of blueberry pie, a flat triangle that resembled a quesadilla, and shared it with Joseph. It was too sweet, and the filling was probably canned, but who cares? I was eating pie at the Pueblo. Pie made in the oldest inhabited structure in the land. Pie made by a Red Willow man.
Pie notwithstanding, after such a long and sad period, life was looking up.
I stayed in Taos a few extra days, renting a ridiculously cute one-room log cabin I found on Airbnb. It was too far to walk to World Cup, but that didn’t stop me from driving the five miles there to get my latte. But two days in a row I arrived too late to see my regular crowd. Determined to see my “friends” one last time, I gave Augustine a call in advance (Joseph doesn’t have a phone) to make sure the guys would be there on my final morning. I set my alarm for 6:30AM to be there by 7.
When I arrived at World Cup, they were there, along with a few other regulars who trickled in and out. I said hi to my Red Willow friends but told them I wanted to get my coffee before chatting. I went up to the counter and the barista, Marianna, said, “Large latte, three shots?” I nodded and smiled. You know you’ve become a local when they know your drink order. I reached for my wallet and she added, “The guys already paid for it. It’s on them.”
My hands reached for my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes. “I wasn’t expecting that,” I said to Marianna, still holding my chest. I didn’t need to say anything as my reaction already told her. “It’s my last day here,” I said, wiping my wet cheeks. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Taos is a great place to live,” Marianna said. “There’s community here.”
Community. Yes. That is exactly what I kept experiencing during the 10 days I had been in town. I wanted more of this—needed more. I longed to stay. I had even looked on Craigslist for short-term sublets. But as the owner of my rented cabin said when I asked if I could book it for an entire month, maybe two, “You have people who love you waiting for you back home.” He couldn’t have known this, yet he was right. It wasn’t just people waiting (Doug) but dogs and cats and goats too.
I finally composed myself enough to return to Augustine and Joseph, and Blue. “Oh, you guys, thank you so much. I am so touched. But I’m the one who should be treating you to coffee.” They shrugged off my thanks, as if they were embarrassed by my gushing gratitude.
They couldn’t possibly have known—and I wasn’t about to tell them—just how down I had been before I came to Taos, how much I was grieving not just my dad and my goat, but the whole state of the world. Likewise, they couldn’t possibly know just how much their kindness had restored my faith in humanity. (Though I must add, taking a 10-day break from the news and social media also helped.)
Overcome by shyness all around, we sat on barstools, not really sure what to talk about, not sure how to say goodbye. Other regulars showed up, filling up the space between our awkward small talk. Pat with his dog Digger. Steve with yet another dog. And the guy opening the art gallery with his cattle dog. I bent down to pet each of the animals.
“We have to go to work,” Augustine finally said. “I have something for you.” He handed me a small bundle, a zip-lock bag wrapped in paper towel. “Don’t open it until you get home,” he said.
“You mean when I get back to Iowa, or do you just mean don’t open it until later?”
“You can open it after I leave,” he said.
Once I was in the car, I unwrapped his gift. I assumed it was one of his rock carvings he had shown me photos of—bears on all fours. “I like doing the detail,” he said as I studied his pictures, faded and dog-eared. But it was not a stone carving. It was a necklace made of chunky turquoise beads. I immediately fastened it around my neck and held the beads in my fist as I drove down highway 68.
As much as it made my heart ache to leave Taos, I reminded myself that life is about moving forward. Unless you know how to move in a space-time continuum, forward is the only direction we can go.
Eventually I pointed my car East, toward my life back in Iowa, toward my goal of finishing my next book, toward my pathetic little $39 Mr. Coffee Espresso Maker and my community of farm animals.
|Back in Iowa, this is what community looks like.|
I had a long talk with Doug on Saturday, while we were out canoeing on Big Cedar Creek. Immersed in nature is an ideal setting to discuss important issues. I told him about my desire to remain in Taos, to rent a place there, about my morning coffee house routine, and how I felt like I really belonged there.
“I need to live in a place that smells of sagebrush,” I said.
He understood. “You can go back, Bea. If that’s what it takes for you to write, you should go.”
His support came from a place of such unconditional love I realized the Taos cabin owner was right. This is home. The people here do love me—Doug loves me. And I can—and I will—readjust to a place that smells of fresh-cut hay instead of sage.
Instead of returning to Taos, I rearranged one of the rooms in our farmhouse and turned it into my own office. No more desk in the bedroom.
The first thing I did after setting up my desk was to create a shrine to my time in Taos—my journal filled with inspiration and motivation from the workshop, the “Write True” charm from Jen reminding me to write my heart out honestly, the postcard of Georgia O’Keeffe on the back of a motorcycle (she too was smitten with Taos, so much so she left NYC and moved there permanently), a sprig of New Mexico sage, and last but not least Augustine’s turquoise beads.
I have claimed a room of my own where I will write— with courage and confidence—my next book, my blog posts, magazine articles, and thank you letters to certain Red Willow Indians.
Thank god I skipped those dance sessions.