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all but the cats write here ... to remember, to share, to mumble, to shout ... follow along by RSS or email if you like.

Filtering by Category: PEOPLE

Housekeeping

bethany

I’ve never been the most consistent housekeeper, but you all pretty much know that by now. I do make lists often though, so will attempt to briefly update you on what we’ve been up to since the last post about the Land Ho! Art Sale in June.

The Sale is over!

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The Land Ho! sale ran for two weeks, and we sold a nice amount of work! Enough to get a good nest egg going for our Land Fund, even after paying off all of the costs of scans and canvas and paint and shipping supplies. It was a lot of work to get everything ordered, packaged, and shipped, but it felt good to wrap up that whole effort and call it finished. Big thanks to everyone who ordered something, or sent in a donation, it was mightily appreciated!

Finishing up at Keren and Bobby’s …

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After hogging Keren and Bobby’s basement and driveway and back yard for months on end, with all the forging and art making and sprawling that we seem to do, it was time to move on. We had to finish up some work first though that we’d started before the Art Sale became a thing, so we focused on the renovations in the basement that had been started before it was turned into a temporary studio and shipping center. Lots of trim and painting and flooring and sanding and door hanging before we had to call it quits because Michael had a Sol LeWitt job coming up in Cambridge Massachusetts … but first we had to get the trailer to Chicago so the boys and I could help out at my folks while he worked at Harvard.

Getting Out …

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Getting out of any long-term stay is hard, and leaving after 6 months is even more difficult. There was a torn awning to remove and dispose of (sadly), many tools to sort and stow, and a seemingly endless list of things to pack and dispose of and tend to. We badly wanted a few days to ourselves before landing in Chicago, but it seemed like the window was getting so small that we might not have more than a night or two on the road. We had to be there by Friday August 10th at the latest. On August 3rd, we got a call that my Dad had something that appeared at first to be a heart attack, and he was in the hospital. We prayed, packed faster, and managed to get on the road on the 6th. After a few hours of heading over the mountains, we knew that Matilda’s transmission wasn’t just sending out warning signals, it was in its death throes.

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After stopping for a night with Caleb and boys (pure bliss!) we tried to limp North but had to admit that we weren’t going to make it. We were forced into a …

Mini Transmission Vacation!

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It was now Tuesday August 7th and we were in Wilkesboro NC with just 4 days until Michael had to hop on Amtrak in downtown Chicago. It was now looking like Dad had open heart surgery looming in the next week or so as he had some afib and a faulty valve, and they were busy giving him tests to rule out possible complications. We had to find someone who could get and replace the transmission in a 1995 F250 in 2-3 days. We asked God to point us in the right direction, limped into a big truck body shop, got a recommendation for a transmission place in the next town that said they might be able to help, and landed in a VFW campsite nearby.

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After chatting with a friendly veteran, befriending the camp host’s 4 crazy dogs, and getting the camper set up, we took off to see if these folks could indeed help us. Matilda’s 20’ of red and white loveliness looked like the runt of the litter when parked among the rest of the trucks in Gear Jammer Transmission’s crowded lot. The mechanics came on out, crawled under Matilda and poked around, and made a few phone calls. After being assured they could get a new one and put it in in the next 48 hours, we hitched a ride back to our campground with the friendly owner.

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Before collapsing for the night, we took the transmission guy’s recommendation of a hole-in-the-wall BBQ place a short walk from our campsite, devoured a quiet and delicious meal together, and mused on the way in which we were getting my strongly desired “few nights to ourselves” before landing in Chicago. It was hard to fully relax with the worries about Dad and his pending surgery, which ended up suddenly scheduled for Friday the 10th, but it was still lovely to be on our own and puttering for a couple of nights. We got a purring Matilda back late on Thursday, and prepped for an early Friday morning start.

Dad’s Surgery

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Friday was our drive to Chicago day, and Dad’s surgery. I’d talked to him a couple times by phone, and knew he had no fears at all. We trusted that all was in God’s hands, and got on the road. He was scheduled for a valve replacement, a double bypass, and an ablation. He ended up with a quadruple bypass, a new valve to replace what they discovered was an abnormal 2-flap one, and a maze procedure. By the time we arrived in their driveway just before midnight, he was out of anesthesia and back in one piece in the ICU.

Michael and Harvard

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Saturday morning we took stock of the state of things at the house where my brother Stephen and his wife Rene and son Paul were caring for Mom, briefly visited Dad in the hospital, and then Michael packed up in time for me to take him to the train heading downtown, where he’d hop on Amtrak to go East. I must have messed up my Metra schedule while reading it on my phone in the truck the day before, because the train he was to catch only ran on weekdays, and at the last minute I had to hightail it into Chicago to drop him directly at the station. The prospect of Michael being gone for 5 weeks while I was helping with Mom and Dad and the household, while also parenting and homeschooling, loomed large, and I tried to get my head around how to handle it all as I drove back to the house.

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Michael dove deep in Cambridge where he was helping re-install a huge Sol LeWitt wall drawing in a museum on Harvard’s campus. A 5-story atrium with tight spaces and convoluted scaffolding and minimal AC was more challenging than some jobs, and between Harvard’s work rules and delays from the construction crew working in the same space, the job stretched to 7 weeks. Getting him back at the end of that time was pretty delightful.

The Scene at 4N405

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Since we arrived on August 10th, much has changed. Dad was in the hospital for another two weeks after we got here, and was more than ready to come home when they pulled the final drainage tube out. Mom took a pretty steep dive downwards after he went into the hospital, missing the connection of being with him daily, and having seen what happened to him when he passed out while at the park. Their bond is a huge part of what keeps her going, and without seeing him or being able to be with him at all, she lost a lot of ground and basically stopped being able to walk.

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Her care needs increased a lot as a result, and she currently needs 2 or 3 people’s help on a daily basis. They decided to move into the in-law apartment at my brother’s new home, which includes a flat floor plan and wider doorways, and plans are in motion to add a kitchenette and laundry to accommodate their needs. In the meantime, we have added a Hoyer lift, a wheelchair, and a ramp down the front steps to the household. Dad has gained strength steadily, and recovery is going well enough that he’s back to work and up to long walks and carrying boxes to the car. Those boxes would be the result of the sorting of his vast book collection down to one bookcase’s worth to take along to the new place.

 A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

We’re currently taking care of Mom with a lot of help from my sister Martha, working on sorting and emptying the house of a lifetime of accumulation (it is minimal by most standards!), and preparing to fix the house up for sale once they move. There’s a lot to do, and we’re here as long as we’re needed.

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The land we had our eye on is still available, but we’re not focused on it at the moment. We’ve tried to just do what’s in front of us for years now, and the current situation is no different. There are needs, there is work that we know in our hearts is ours to do, and we’re in it with everything we’ve got.

Onward …

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Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 2

michael

Part One is pretty much required reading before you start this one. 

 

We arrived 20 minutes ahead of Kenny and Cynthia the next day. We had the plats by email. The power-line was part of the 15 acres. The ravine was part of the 31. The plot appeared to go to the peak. I ran to see if there was water in the ravine. None, but my guess was the stream went underground further back. I ran halfway to the peak. An old road bed cut the length of the land with trees about 9 inches in diameter springing out of it. Kenny and Cynthia were arriving. I ran back down the hill. The boys had been instructed 'No sword battles while we talk with the realtors' – which is how most of their time had been spent the last two days.

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Kenny and Cynthia were warm and friendly as we had expected and full of stories about the county, the people, the laws, and the way of life. We had enthralling conversation meandering the land for two hours. Age limitations kept us from going to the peak or down the ravine. Finally Kenny asked if we wanted to look at the 15 acre plot. We shook our heads, “No.” Both thinking 'not unless we can go the full perimeter.'
“Well, I have another plot I think you guys would like. It's about ten minutes away. D'ya wanna see it?”
“Sure! Let's go!” We got in Matilda and shut the doors.

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“I assume you said yes to be nice,” Bethany said, “and that we're coming back here to go to that peak.”
“Exactly!” I smiled.
“I like it three times as much as yesterday!” she glowed.
“Yesssss!” I said through my smile.
“But there's no stream!” Fynn piped from the back.
“I think there might be if we follow that ravine.”

Kenny's “ten minutes” was a 45 minute tour of the back roads to Rogersville. We didn't mind. It was a gorgeous drive. After one pit-stop at a waterfall Cynthia thought the kids might like, we arrived at a wide open field sloping down to a rushing stream. Kenny's little car turned off into the field and putted up a small rise. I followed suit thinking 'We had a pretty heavy thundershower last night.' Sure enough, Matilda's 6500 lbs sunk right in, slithering to a standstill halfway up the rise. After Kenny called a friend to come tow us out, he showed us the land. It had a very nice stream. There was not much else to say about it.

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Then he took us up the road and showed us an old country store from the early 1900's that he and Cynthia bought and restored. The back seed room had been made into an apartment with floor to ceiling poplar. The main store area looked original, straight out of the soots, with an operational pot bellied stove between two long wide sales counters and antiques lining the shelves. The floor was rugged, untouched, mottled with tar from years of sprinkling kerosene to keep down the dust. It was stunning.

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By the time we got towed out it was too late to return to Clinch mountain. That evening, Fynn took apart an old remote control airplane, attached the propellers and receiver to a raft made of plastic bottles and steered it on the river from the dock. It worked better than the plane ever had. As we sat by the river, Bethany waxed on the property “It'd be a perfect place to make a pullout with coffee for people traveling Rt. 66.”

I laughed. “Yeah! I can just see us entertaining the Hell's Angels!”

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We were back on Clinch Mountain the next day after lunch. We parked under the power-line and hiked up the mountain clutching our treasure map plats. Halfway up we found traces of two more cabins where the old road was. We were on the 15 acre plot, and it was lovely with great rocks jutting out of the hillside. We crested the ridge and took in a fantastic view. I reasoned that the back line of the property connected three peaks. The smallest in the 15 acres. We followed the ridge up into the 31 acres. At the middle peak we were greeted by some monster trees 24 inches in diameter. Everyone had a different idea of what could be built on this level area with a view in all directions. A studio. A meditation chamber. A forge. A tree-house. With every step we were falling more in love.

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Between this peak and the next was the ravine, a long, steep way down. I picked my way down as straight a line as possible, while the boys sword fought all over the hillside and Bethany chose a gentler path to meet me at the bottom. And there it was. WATER! There was a hundred yards of stream gurgling before vanishing underground. We stared, enraptured. “This could just be run off from the rain.” Douglas pragmatized.

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“It might not even be on the property.” Bethany allowed.

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“Well,” I reasoned, “if I came down from There, and That peak is There...” I walked 10 paces to where the stream emerged, “The property line should be about... What's that?” I was pointing at a hole in the ground ringed with stone, a few dead logs fallen across. We gathered around. It was a well of sorts, built down three feet into the ground out of mountain rocks covered in moss, the stream bubbling away at the bottom. It looked ancient. Mystic. What must have been a tin cover lay rusted nearly to nothing at the side. “I don't think it's run off.” I said quietly, feeling like we'd just found gold.

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The property went up to the next peak then cut parallel with the ravine to 66. It was the steepest bit of land and covered with the only underbrush we'd seen so far. We chose to follow the stream-bed till we found the old road, taking it back toward the 15 acre plot.

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I walked close to Bethany, no longer focused on the forest but on the feeling of certainty the enchanting stone well had produced. I looked sidelong at her. “This is it, isn't it?”

“Yeah!” she whispered, just as sure. Our lids welled with tears. Tears of certainty. Tears of admitting it. Tears of hope breaking the seal. We walked, fingers entwined, another 30 steps. “Let's tell the boys.” I said.

The boys were of course on board. We formed a circle of four on some stones and in formal tones asked God for this land we couldn't afford for our own. The boys once more warred with their swords on the road. We followed it back, crossing the power-line into the 15 acre plot to a junk heap at the foot of the smallest peak. It began to rain softly. Happy, we made our way down to 66 and Matilda.

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We shut the doors and sat awhile. Having settled on this land in our minds, the pressure to start creating had already doubled. Over 10 years ago in Brooklyn, swamped in debt, we cut up all our credit cards with scissors, resolving never to go into debt again, never to purchase anything we didn't have the money for. We've stuck with that and been much lighter for it. But now this immense desire was threatening to shred our resolve. “But even if we tried to take out a loan,” Bethany was saying, “Our lack of ANY credit history and having no steady income would make it impossible.” I turned on the wipers and put it in gear.

“There has GOT to be a way.” I said, pulling out.

We stopped in Sneedville for groceries. Bethany went in the store and I called Kenny. “We want it.” I said, “but we want to pay cash. I don't want to take out a loan. I have an avenue I want to pursue.” Thinking of something like Kickstarter.
“Well, Ah haven't asked, but I bet these guys would be willing to do Owner Financing if you could put 25% down,” he said helpfully, making my no-loan-walls bulge like soup in a paper-bag.
“Thanks,” I said “I'll consider that.”

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At the campsite that night it hit me. One of the biggest lessons we've learned at the end of our rope on this journey has been – DO WHAT IS IN FRONT OF YOU. Before having my heart pounced on by this land, I was on my way to Knoxville to make art to raise money. Nothing had changed. Nothing other than the incentive becoming a tangible piece of perfect land that might be snatched up at any moment. So I'm putting down this pencil and picking up a paintbrush. My theme will be taken from the 60,000 photos of our journey. It is time to paint wind! You may expect a billowing sale shortly. And if this land slips through our fingers... so be it. We will still be free, still taking the next step onward, but we'll likely need new latches on our lid, and a deck-swab to mop our tears.

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A final note before I paint – After getting back to Knoxville we looked up Kenny's online listing and found the plot we had explored was only HALF the 31 acres. That would be equal parts Icing and Cake.

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Trying to Keep a Lid On It / Part 1

michael

This is a two-part series, and both parts include an audio version of Michael reading it ... in case you'd rather just listen! 

 

Yeah. We've been hunting for land. Scouring websites, deciphering contour maps, printing out plats, and zooming in on satellite imagery. This began in earnest around the New Year. A month ago we left Keren + Bobby's driveway in Knoxville, where we'd roosted since December 9th, and parked at a small campground in the foothills of the Smokies, near Greenville, TN. This would be our base camp.

After two excursions to see plots we'd found online, we came to some conclusions. Firstly, property in our current budget was: A. landlocked and only accessible by helicopter or walking through Posted No Trespassing signs; B. so steep you expected a princess on top to throw golden apples to anyone who could climb that high; or C. ugly and flat as opossum roadkill, skinny as the blighted mange.

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We secondly concluded our favorite part and best avenue by far was talking to the denizens. The people we'd met were open, honest and friendly. Happy to elaborate on who owned what and how many tractors were traded to make the purchase. All without squinted suspicion (my mustache makes a good barometer of judgmental character.) Our third conclusion was we might as well relax and just look for neighborhoods and hollers that appealed to us. It was no good vexing our souls, drooling over property beyond our means. If God was going to lead us to some land like we'd asked, He was going to do it in His own sweet time. And anyway, He'd probably be interested in seeing what we liked.

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So we began exploring every mountain road in the Greenville area, with a much easier agenda of finding enjoyment unhampered by expectation. It was beautiful. The shapes of the Smokies sang to us. The mossy streams danced and burbled beside us down winding roads. Ancient, sagging barns waved their cockeyed doors and blooming pear trees traced the hills like lollipops.

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On days it rained we distracted ourselves by organizing and pruning the 60,000 photos taken over the last three years, talking about the changes our life has taken and will take, and getting the taxes done. (I think that's the first time we haven't filed late since we were married.)

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Being patient isn't easy. For over a year an immense pressure has been building to settle down and start creating something we won't have to walk away from. A physical place to plant the dream and see what grows.

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After three weeks and four days there were no more roads to explore within striking distance. It was time to move on. The plan was to explore at least one more area on our way back to Knoxville, where I would immerse myself in creating a body of artwork to sell to raise money for something more than the back nine of a junkyard by a power plant. Sounds crazy, by hey, it's how we paid for the camper. We battened down, hitched up, and piled in the truck. Matilda purred. This has been the heart of the trip to me. This point. All in the truck. Asking the question. “Well … where to now?” Bethany has the map in her lap and there's a sense we might just go ANYWHERE.

“What about these mountains?” She's pointing to some smaller ranges we had previously discarded, but now we had sense that beauty was not contingent on size.
“It'd be a shame not to at least drive through them” I mused. Her finger went to a dot.
“Wasn't there an abandoned school listed near Sneedville?”
“SNEEDville!” I bellowed, loving it's Seussian sound. “Let's Go!” and off we went with the boys and I chanting “Sneedville, Sneedville, Sneeeedville!” to the rolling of Bethany's eyes.

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We took the scenic route. The closer we got to Sneedville the prettier it became. Pioneer-looking log cabins were frequent. Rock-jagged green hills strewn with cattle. A proliferation of ancient barns staggered the hills, in every stage of collapse, as if this was where old barns came to die. We got on Route 66 and were delighted to discover we were heading over Clinch mountain. Near the start of our journey three years ago, our bedtime-story had been a Louis L'Amour book about the pioneering Sacketts who had settled Clinch Mountain. Now we would see it! Nearing the crest we saw a For Sale sign and slowed down.

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“That looks level enough to build on!” Bethany said, amazed.
“And it's South-facing!” I added, wishing Tennessee roads had more than one inch of berm so I could stop.
“Oh, here's a power line,” we both said as we approached a great swath cut up the mountain.
“Yeah, but look at the view!” I breathed, looking down to the valley.
“Here's another For Sale sign,” Bethany pointed. “It's a different realtor.” The land behind that sign was equally promising.
“We have to come back here without the camper” I said, not running off the road.
“Let's find a campsite” she said as we crossed from Hawkins into Hancock County. Cell service was spotty descending Clinch, but we were only 12 miles from Sneedville.

In those 12 miles of gorgeous winding road we noticed something: every car we passed, every person in their yard, on their porch, in their doorway – EVERYone waved. Now I grew up on a dirt road in PA where five out of 10 people waved, and two of them might wave to total strangers but I had never seen this. Big waves. Smiling waves. “Hi! How y'all doin! Ah still got mah hand in the air” kind of waves. I was driving along stunned happy.
“You missed it!” Bethany chortled as a pickup passed, “That guy just waved.”

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Once we hit Sneedville the waving stopped. We found a pullout at a crossroads and began Googling campgrounds. Nothing. There were no campgrounds in Hancock county. The closest one was 30 miles north in Pennington, Virginia. Bethany called and got a precise-sounding man who said he had room, but neither of us wanted to go that far away from Clinch Mountain. A sign in front of us read 'Kyle's Ford Trading Post – 10 miles.' “I bet they'd know a place to camp” I said.

We passed about six people in those 10 miles. One of them didn't wave but he was facing away from us putting what looked like an air conditioner in his trunk. The folks at the Trading Post didn't know of any camping. “Summertime you could go down on the Clinch River but that's been a soggy mess since the flood a few weeks back. Hang on, here comes Betty. She'd know, she's the Vet.” Betty came in and put a bag of something heavy on the back counter.
“No.” She shook her head when asked. “Not in Hancock County.” We drove on.

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It was about 4 pm. We were just deciding to catch Route 70 a mile ahead and take it to Pennington when we passed an abandoned school. “Whoaaah! Look at that!” we all gasped. It was vandalized, but pretty alluring. More so than the one we'd seen online.

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“We could stay in the school yard,” I suggested as we came to a T in the road. I pulled off into the gravel at the stop sign trying to judge if I had room to turn around. “Worst they could do is kick us out!” Bethany was half-convinced, still looking at Route 70 on her map. A pickup truck pulled up beside, its passenger window going down. I rolled down mine.

“You folks need help? Whatcha lookin for?” A face about my age was beaming hopefully.
“We're lookin' for a place to camp!” I shouted back. That was all he needed. He was out his door like a shot and around to my window.
“Camping you say? Hmmmmm … Ah can't think of a place – ”
“What about that abandoned school back there?” I interjected. “Is that owned by somebody?”
“That's owned by the County. Yeah! You could stay there! But wait a minute ...” My willingness to stay anywhere had got his mind rolling. “There's the boat launch! That's public access land. Right down over here, by the river. Ahm sure your camper'd fit there!”
“Sounds great!"
“C'mon. Ah'll show you the way!”

He hopped in his truck pleased as punch to be helping someone, and was a quarter mile up the road waiting for me by the time I got pulled around the corner. It was a perfect, well-graveled spot by the river. I got his name. Tommy Belcher. We shook hands and he popped back in his truck and zipped over the hill.

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The boys unhitched and stabilized the camper. The cats were let out to roam the fields of dried sunflowers. Bethany and I got out the chairs and watched the Clinch River calmly saunter through the velvet sunset at Kyle's Ford. “Soo...” I said, trying not to sound too excited. “I guess we'll go look at that land in the mornin'?” Bethany remained deadpan, staring at the river.
“Yuup” she drawled. We looked at each other, eyebrows raised a few moments, then burst out laughing.
“Thank God for Tommy!” I shouted. Bethany was wiping tears from her eyes.
“I did NOT want to go to Pennington,” she giggled.

 

Next morning we charted a course that would take 70 over Clinch mountain to Poor Valley Rd heading West along the South face for 10 miles to 66 where we'd again cross Clinch and find that property. We packed chicken salad, snacks, water, and hiking boots and off we went. As 70 crossed Clinch we saw a For Sale sign and stopped to take a look. The area was very pretty. Not as nice as our destination, but worth a gander. There was a gate with a grassy road going up the mountain, but the sign didn't say how many acres. Seeing no neighbors I could ask, I gave the number a call. Cynthia answered. It was 287 acres. I told her that was way too many. I was looking in the realm of 15- 20. She said her husband Kenny ran a different real-estate business that sold land, she mainly sold houses, but she'd let him know. He was out listing some property right now an– The phone cut out. I was relieved. I hadn't wanted to tangle with agents yet, and was kicking myself for going that far. We drove on.

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Poor Valley Road was a disappointment. The houses were too close together and no roads left the valley to climb the South face of Clinch. None that is, till we got to the end and saw a gated road with 109 acres for sale. We went and asked the lady who'd waved from a trailer we'd passed if it'd be all right to walk up that road. “People do it all the tahm,” she said. Then she told us her family history. Bethany and I left the kids reading books in the truck and climbed the wide, steep road till the view and the hike became so breathtaking there was no need to go to the top. The road alone was probably triple what we could afford. Back at the truck, I found Cynthia had left a message about the land her husband just listed, and it was off New Life road, 10 miles from us. We looked at the map. New Life road was less than a mile away across Rt 66.

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I had just put Matilda in gear, when my sister Keren called. She had been expecting us to land back in Knoxville on the morrow and wondered if we could delay our return by 2 or 3 days – she and Bobby had some things they wanted to finish up. “Sure!” we said looking at each other, thinking of our riverside paradise. Off we went to New Life.

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We found some signs for a 25 acre farm in the valley that held little to no appeal. Relieved, we started up the mountain on 66 to our destination. It was right there where we left it. A small road we hadn't noticed on our first pass through cut up the hill about 30 feet. It had a chain across that left just enough room to back Matilda off the road. We donned our gear and tumbled out. My phone rang. “Oh.” I said, “It's Cynthia. I'll answer it and tell her we saw that farm and aren't interested.”

“No,” Cynthia said when I told her, “it's not a farm. The property's all forested, and it's not on New Life Road. Here, talk to Kenny.” She handed him the phone. Kenny talked a blue streak describing where it was until finally I said, “Well, that's exactly where I'm standing! That's the property I'm looking at right now!” We talked a good 25 minutes.

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Turns out the driveway had been put in the day before by the owner who runs a construction business. The plot was 31 acres for $55,000. The neighboring plot for sale by a different realtor was 15 acres for $30,000. The remains of a cabin could be found 150' in. When Kenny was Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry for Tennessee he had the boat launch installed where our camper was parked. Yes, he knew Tommy Belcher. Junior and Senior. Tommy Sr. was 70 just like Kenny. No, they couldn't email the plats till they got back home in two to three hours. Yes, they'd be willing to meet up the next day to show it to us.

I got off the phone a little dazed. We couldn't afford this! Not even the 15 acre plot. Why was I setting up a meeting with a realtor?!

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As we tramped the gentle slopes of perfectly sized building stones and tall straight timbers, I tried to explain to Bethany what went through my mind talking to Kenny. “If Keren hadn't called in the one spot we had cell service in the valley and asked us to stay longer, and if Tommy hadn't stopped and showed us that perfect camping spot by the river, and if Kenny hadn't known Tommy or been so congenial, plus he knows forestry and building codes for the county, and if everyone in the county hadn't waved at us... we did say it's about the people, right?”

“I know.” Bethany whispered; a spark of hope dancing in her eye like a moth on fire.

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We found the flattened cabin. A Coke can in the rubble looked from about 1970. The trees seemed not to have been lumbered for as long. The slope got steeper approaching the peak but not so steep it couldn't be built on. We didn't walk to the peak. We didn't walk to the ravine that might have a stream. We didn't know the boundaries and we didn't want to get our hopes squashed. The boys were breaking down with hunger so we drove back to the river to have supper with songbirds and peepers. We agreed the land was twice as good as we expected.

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... the story continues in Part 2

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Walking with Mom

bethany

She sits at the kitchen table, clasping a pile of colored pencils in her left hand. She puts them down on the table, rolls them out into a neat line, looks at them for a moment, and picks them all up again. She may do it twice, or 60 times. She may stop and pick out a red one, drawing on whatever is in front of her, be it a card or book or coloring book or scrap of paper. Sometimes words, sometimes decorations, often lines or checkmarks adding emphasis to some portion of it. The longer she spends, the more layered it gets. Boxed, crossed out, repeated, and eventually large chunks are colored in solidly. Pick it up, put it down, be occupied … sometimes precise, sometimes idle … repeat.

 

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I've spent the last few days in a very deep funk. Depression perhaps, but a weird one that I've not experienced before. Nearly blank inside, unable to put any words or depth into what I'm feeling, just full and empty both. Stuffed-full-to-bursting heart, empty head.

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I'm trying to tease threads out of the jumble, so I can start unraveling some of the feelings I didn't have time to process over the summer. The summer we just spent parked in my parents' driveway while I helped out with my Mom's care, and the household in general. I'm not sure yet what it's done to me internally, but I'm going to explore a wee bit. I know I've learned a tremendous amount, and some of it is things I never wanted to learn, but apparently needed to.

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Caregiving is all-consuming, relentless, and requires infinite patience. It's cruel, beautiful, heartbreaking, rewarding, and ugly. It takes humor, honesty, and endless creativity. It takes hunting … endless looking and watching ... to find the clues that are hidden in demeanor and eyes and body language (and the very few words), to discern what's going on in Mom's head and heart. What's revealed for a moment, and hidden for the next week. What's felt, but not expressed. What's fought, feared, accepted, or enjoyed.



She's sitting in the car in the driveway, having just come back from a walk at the park. Caroline* took her out today, and I'm still in the camper working on cleaning up in the bedroom. I can tell from the sounds outside my window that it's not a hop-out-on-her-own day, and I keep one ear open while continuing my task. I don't want to interfere, and the more people involved the more confusing it gets. After several minutes it sounds like she hasn't budged yet though, so I go out and ask if I can help? I try some of the same things Caroline's likely already tried … repositioning feet, telling her where to put her hands, trying a variety of phrases for “please stand up”, before stooping a bit and looking her in the eyes … “Can you please stand up, Mom?” She looks up at me, defeatedly, “No, I can't”. A first. Tears lurking, we each take a side and gently help her out of the car.

 

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I love that I can still make her laugh … laugh more than I ever remember her laughing, just by choosing the right combination of slightly unusual words or using a touch of wry humor. I hate that she can't respond in kind. I love that she can laugh till she cries, if the joke is good enough. I love the look of wide-eyed-almost-scandalized delight she has in some things, though it's painful too. Where was that delight hiding for most of her life?

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Watching her be stripped, slowly, of all the skills and abilities that she's gained since she was born … it's gut wrenching. But also strangely gorgeous. Losing the things that have defined her; service, usefulness, caregiving, card-writing, hospitality, organizing … the ability to control her body, her words, her reactions … it has left very little visible, except her spirit. A spirit that's clearer, simpler, and lovelier than I've ever seen it. Unadorned with expectations, assumptions, guilt, or duty. It's just her. My Mom. In a body that's betraying her and a mind that continues to confound her.

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She seems to have accepted what's happening to her, so long as Dad is at her side (or coming home soon). She rests in him, and trusts him implicitly. There are glimpses though, many little ones, that show she is not (and does not feel) defined by her Alzheimers. She often knows and sees far more than she can express, if you watch her eyes and her reactions to conversations. She clearly ignores comments that sound demeaning or patronizing, and laughs immediately and appropriately when something is funny. She looks for things to laugh at too … it's her default way of looking for connection when she wants words but doesn't have them. A shared laugh means shared hearts.

 

We're in the living room long after supper, Mom and Dad and Michael and I, and it's nearing bedtime for Mom. I'd had the radio on for her sake earlier, and the classical music had switched over to Folk Night or some such thing. Odd little bits of song floated into the conversation, were mused over a bit as to their appeal and meaning, and then dropped again. Mom watched and listened from the couch, tracking every word out of Dad in his chair across the room, sharing amused looks with Michael and I, and taking obvious pleasure in it all. Dad eventually made a comment about it being time to head off to bed, and then launched into a medley/riff on the songs that had been talked about, personalizing it towards Mom and bedtime. Mom's amusement turned to delight, echoed heartily by the rest of us. Out of character, and an entirely perfect way to end the day.

 

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I spent the summer looking for the positives, to keep my heart from entirely breaking. Looking at how the dynamic between her and Dad has totally switched, and how I joy at seeing her at rest in a way she's never been. A more visible tenderness, a slowness, a sweetness of time spent together. It may be very very quiet in that living room when they're alone, but the love that's been put in for the last 53 years makes a mighty fine marinade in which to sit side-by-side. Also seeing, and marveling, at the acceptance that marks my Dad's approach to the entire journey. One day at a time. Planning but not fretting. Taking it from God, and keeping an eye on the big picture while still living moment to moment. Not lashing out at what he's lost and what's being taken away, but enjoying what can be enjoyed, and bearing what's been given him to bear. Knowing that it's costing him in terms of his own health, but not even considering that relevant.

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Those are the pretty threads. The gold in the pile of Other Stuff. Things like the grief I can't access right now that says I want to TALK to my Mom. Have her reach out with words, tell me what's in her heart, and how she feels. Tell me things I never asked when I could ask … didn't take the time or the care to ask, and now I can't. Ask her why she made the choices she did, and see if my guesses are right. Ask her what she regrets, misses, feels, wants. Aching regrets for things she never got to do, and never will now. Things she accepted, but never wanted. Seeing the beauty of her without guilt and duty and burdened about with much serving … and wishing it didn't have to be at the cost of everything else. Wishing she could have tasted it long ago. The refreshingness of being cared for, of being free of burdens and expectations sometimes. I see what she's reduced to, and I DO see the beauty of it, but it makes my heart ache abominably. I want more barefoot and bare-headed days for her, and I guess in a way she's getting them now. Hardly a care in the world, but oh … at what a cost!

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There were great weeks, and scary weeks. Days she could walk a mile and not be winded or tired, and days she forgot how to walk at all. Or couldn't remember how to tell her muscles to behave so she could stand up. Days she laughed like crazy, days she slept much of it away. Days she came out to the kitchen to help when she heard dishes rattling and chopped veggies like she used to (always snitching a few!), and the day she went catatonic at the dinner table. The May days she could almost play Boggle though she mostly copied my words, and then the June she felt intimidated by the concept of it. By August I finally acknowledged it wasn't going to happen again, and put it away.

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It's a winding down, a slow shaving, a hah-it's-back! but no-that-was-just-a-momentary-blip kind of slide into fewer and fewer things that she can do. Watching the skills fade into that part of her brain that she can't access, and knowing that it might reappear for a bit, but isn't likely to last for long. A reduction, an essence, a distillation … a stilling.

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I miss her cards (and I know I'm not the only one). Her desk just off the kitchen still has her monthly-card-holder notebook that she used for years on it, fat with all the cards-to-be-sent tucked into its pockets. The calendar that hangs behind it still has mountains of birthdays and anniversaries listed on it, and the roll of stamps is still plump. She hasn't touched it in years I don't think. She does still enjoy getting cards though, and hasn't quite lost her ability to read cursive, so if you're at all inclined to reach out, now would be the time. She has baskets of them in the living room, and pores over them often. Photos too. She still knows some faces, and can dredge up some surprising names too if you happen to catch the right moment to ask.

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I don't regret one moment of this summer, despite feeling it to be incredibly difficult. The hardness was balanced with a richness that I can't measure. To sit of an evening while listening to stories and family history from Dad, taking walks together, playing eye-games with Mom, tending to her needs, coloring together. Sitting side-by-side. Appreciating, soaking up perspectives and wisdom and a sense of how it feels to look at life from closer to the other end of the spectrum. A sharpening in my heart of what really matters, and what doesn't. An example of acceptance on such a profound level that I'm still grasping it. Peace that truly passes understanding.

How could I not find it all beautiful, while bursting into tears with an ache that comes from my very bones?

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I've finally finished running around gathering the detritus scattered around the house and the camper, and everything is stowed. Michael and the boys have hitched. It's time to go. Very clearly time to go, despite the wrenchingness of it all. It just is. Mom is sitting on the front porch in her chair, watching the hubbub and scurrying as it eddies into a slow swirl of goodbyes and hugs. I go up and crouch next to her chair, resting my head on her knee. I've done this hundreds of times before, but it's been 35 years since I last took the opportunity. It was Grambie's lap in my teens and twenties and thirties. I look up at her and tell her how much I'm going to miss her, and she repeats it back to me, twice. I rest my head again, pain mingled with peace making it hard to breathe. This is exactly how it should be. She is my Mom.

 

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* Her regular caregiver

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Hello, America

bethany

I woke up yesterday with a bunch of thoughts gelled in my brain, and while I went about my morning routine I was writing furiously in my head. Words, at last! Then, the road called … the six-mile dirt road that follows the turns of the San Francisco River flowing past our campsite, and off we went.

We wandered past a few homes down next to the river bed, marveled at canyons and cliffs to our right, explored a couple long-abandoned stone huts and walls, tried to figure out the pattern of smashed parts and glass from a nearly-pancaked blue Beretta at the base of a stony track, and hunted for big-horn sheep. Got a glimpse of the top of the mine beyond the far side of the river too. Delightful, hot, bizarre in places, and very remote feeling.

The river flooded badly in '83, demolishing much of the town of Clifton below us, and actually is the reason there's a cheap town-run RV park at the north end of the valley (our current resting spot). The USAC of Engineers won't allow homes at the north end anymore, due to flood fears. The rest of the town is protected with giant floodgates.

Our next stop was to go see the mine a bit better … the Morenci Copper/Molybdenum Mine that's run by Freeport McMoRan and is the largest copper mine in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. When we headed to this RV park, by the way, we knew NOTHING about Clifton/Morenci. A look at the map showing a nearby Plant City made us assume there might be industry in the vicinity.

The terraced cliffs of the mine were apparent when we pulled in last week, and we'd gotten some amazing stories the day before from an old mine-employed chemist about the history of the place, but hadn't really seen it for ourselves. We headed up Hwy 191, aiming for the spot on the little cartoonized local map that said Mine Overlook.

The map didn't indicate how far the overlook was, or that we'd have to drive underneath the giant conveyor belt system that takes the mined chunks and gradually crushes them down into pieces that can be suspended in a concentrate solution. From there they use electrowinning to make big sheets of 99.9% pure copper. This particular mine produced 902 million pounds of copper in 2015. It's big. Mind-bogglingly huge.

Hard to comprehend, even while driving past enormous sheds, pits that make huge mine trucks look like tiny Tonka toys, and terraced literal mountains of crushed stone that we realized have been built one truck-load at a time. We watched the trucks inch their way up the zig-zagged grade, back up and dump over the side to the terrace below, and then zip their way back down the road for another load. It was like watching something out of Star Wars … a planet being terraformed.

 That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

It's come a very long way from the first wagon-loads of copper being pulled to Kansas City for shipping east, back in 1865 when the mine started. Hillsides of black slag speak to the old ways of smelting and refining, and the barely visible corner of the old concrete-block high school that's peeking out of the side of a growing terraced mountain helps give some idea of how much change they've done to the landscape since 1985, when the school was abandoned and they moved into a new building in town.

We've seen the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Morenci Mine all in the last 3 months. Three things that make you feel tiny, take your breath away, and are hard to wrap your mind around.

They have a way of putting things in perspective. Long-term perspective. Life and cycles and death and time and the smidgen bit of it we get to spend on earth, and what really matters to me.

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Almost all the traveling I did as a child was either driving in a car to visit people we knew, tenting for a week near a lake somewhere, or flying to South or Central America and visiting people dad knew or had corresponded with. Poor people for the most part, living in small towns or remote villages only reachable by perching in the back of an open truck. Some were in cities, like San Salvador or Lima Peru, but we still usually stayed with friends in apartments or in a cheap local hotel.

 Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

I grew up thinking that Disney and Resorts and fancy hotels and big museums were for the folks who weren't lucky enough to go to a “real” destination where everything was upside down and backwards and dirty and sometimes scary … except the people. Ahh, the people. The warm, lovely, generous, curious, kind, simply-living folks who opened their homes and hearts and scarce pantries to us. I knew my friends didn't take vacations like that, but I didn't know anything else. I was a little spoiled.

This trip is no different, other than the fact that it's within the boundaries of my home country, the USA. It's a bit of all of it actually … camping by remote streams, visiting people we know, and some we don't. Seeking out the human interaction, the stories, the history, the wants and needs and desires and perspectives of a huge variety of people. Finding the similarities, musing on the differences. Looking for reasons for the differences, when they're hard to understand. Reveling in the connections, the humanity, the deliciousness and terror of what it means to get another day and choose how to use it.

The number of ways of living that we've seen in the last two years is astounding. Chemists who spent their life analyzing every 10th foot of a 1000' core sample and dodging the union strikers, pragmatic Navajo boiler-makers who still teach their daughters to kill and skin wild animals for food, Old Orabai Hopi mesa-dwellers whose homes perch on the remains of the previous thousand years of homes on that tiny little mesa, and trailer park dwellers who cling to that El Dorado that “rides like a living room” as their last ticket to freedom because if they get their night-seizures checked out they might lose their license.

 Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

House painters with unimaginable personal losses, kayak-tour snook fishermen with lime green trucks and big hats and dreams to match, struggling marriages with new babies in arms, broken families that still smile and march forward, crazy-in-love spry senior citizens, private pilots, commercial pilots, broken down bus-dwellers, friendly Harley sightseers, retired museum docents that still have the joie-de-vivre of a 6-year-old perfectly intact, and countless people who just want to help.

They'll give you food, give you a new lift jack for your trailer, give you a diamond knife sharpener for your knife-obsessed child, give you bags of groceries, give you work, give you meals, give you love, give you opportunities to love, give you their deepest heartache, give you stories, give you trust, give you keys, give you respect, give you a chance, give you a fat envelope, give you an ear, give you a set of tires, give you their heart.

These humans have been rich, poor, left-leaning, right-leaning, lying down, marching, black, brown, white, hispanic, church-goers, sun-worshippers, Christ-followers, full-hearted, bodies failing, full of optimism, full of fear, satisfied and steady, seeking and restless, building their walls, sharpening their swords. These people have been my fellow Americans, my brethren, my tribe, my loves. My chances to grow. My opportunities to understand. My shoulders to lean on. My voices to learn. My lives to touch. My people.

Hello, America

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The Boyds

fynn

After Aran and Lexie's wedding, the Boyds said we could park at their house.  When we got there, we parked in the cul-de-sac and got unhitched. We went inside and met Bordeax the dog, and talked. 

Two or three days later, Stan offered to take us water skiing. So we went.  

We had to pull the boat out of storage so we took off the tarp and towed it to the launch. We launched and Lois was there but she had some appointment so she could only be there for part of the time. So we went on the Delta.  At first it was slow because there was a lot of parked boats. 

When we got out of the slow zone we went for awhile.  Then Stan showed us how to ski and did a test run. 

Douglas went next, he got up for about one second. 

After Douglas went, we took Lois back and dropped her off.  Then we went back out. I went next but the skis didn't fit so I kneeboarded.  I lasted for about a minute. 

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I think Mom went next. I don't think she could get up so she kneeboarded.  My dad got up for about 3 minutes ...

... then I went again on the kneeboard.  I was able to stay up for about 5 minutes, until there was some sort of waterfall and it made waves and I was getting pulled into it. 

We went around a bit and looked at some houses, and started to go back. When we got back we went and towed the boat back and put the tarp back on and went back to their house.  

The next day we went to Aran and Lexie's.  When we got there we talked awhile until me and Douglas went to the park across the street. After we came back we went to sleep on the floor.  The next morning we got up.  Aran went to work and we all walked to the park.  Me and Douglas played awhile while the grownups talked.  When we got to the apartment it was time to go. 

We got back to Stan's house.  He offered to take us flying that day.  We went to the airport and Stan drove us there.  We had to wait for the plane.  Stan checked the plane. 

Everything was good.  So we waited for the runway to be clear and Stan put it into full throttle and we took off. 

We flew for awhile until we got out of range of the airport and Stan said I could fly the plane and showed me how the controls worked. 

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After that we flew over the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Not long after that we started heading back. Stan did a partial dive but we couldn't do the death drop of zero gravity because my mom got sick.  

The next morning we left. 

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Westward Ho! / The Wedding Weekend

bethany

Saturday August 27 ... The Pre-Party

The bliss of Saturday morning's hot shower cannot be underestimated. Boondocking doesn't generally allow for showering, mostly because we don't travel with enough water in the tanks for it as every gallon adds almost 8 lbs to our total weight. So despite the fact that we were in a drought-stricken state, I allowed myself to stand there as long as I wanted, and it was a delight.

A quick morning trip to the thrift store (I was having serious doubts about the wisdom of platform heels) netted Michael a new tie, and I settled into the feeling that wobbly or not, I'd be wearing the shoes I already had. I've never been a heel-lover, and teetering just isn't my thing.

We took off for Golden Gate Park, where the pre-party was to be held … and as we approached the Golden Gate bridge it finally hit me that we were about to see Aran and Lexie for the first time in several years! The grin started spreading :). A last minute change in parking plans got us a lovely free street spot right in the park, and we walked over to the meadow and dove in for bear hugs.

 Lexie and Aran, summer of 2008

Lexie and Aran, summer of 2008

We met Aran and Lexie back in 2008, when Michael moved to MASS MoCA for 6 months to help install a huge retrospective of Sol LeWitt's work. The boys and I stayed in the city, but went up for two months in the summer, and got to know a lot of the crew Michael had been telling me about … including these two lovelies. We stayed in as close touch as we could, but once they moved to CA, it got a bit harder to get together. This was the first time we'd seen them in at least 4 years.

 Lexie and her Mom

Lexie and her Mom

As at any wedding … it's a relief when you know more than just the bride and groom, and we happily found a few familiar faces, as well as some lovely new ones. There were some lawn games, a food truck that came just for the occasion, and lots of fun and conversation. A great way to set the stage for the next day, taking some of the awkwardness out of meeting so many people for the first time. Maybe that's just me?

I have a lot less tolerance for new social situations than I used to, meaning I find big groups harder to deal with as I get older. My claustrophobia in packed crowds is far worse than it used to be … I could never do the Taste of Chicago on July 4th again, at least as it used to be done, with millions packed along the shore and no place to go. Makes me shiver to remember it! But I also find that I have to do a bit more mental prep for going into new situations than I used to. I don't like it, but it's where I'm at. I think a lot of the redefining of my identity in the last 10 years has added some new insecurities, but taken away a lot of others. It's different terrain now.

We helped clean up and then made our exit, comparing Golden Gate Park to Central Park as we made our way back to the truck. It was delightfully wild, and much less manicured than most of Central Park … a very welcome change.

We made our way back home over the procession of bridges that had gotten us there, gawked at San Quentin in the deepening gloom, and called it a day.

The Wedding / Sunday August 28

We went, we watched, we talked, we loved, we hugged, we took lots of crazy photo booth shots, we devoured, we listened, we met cool people, we toasted, we laughed, we danced, we dragged ourselves home, we slept.

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I'll let the photos tell the wedding story here, but add in that getting to be almost 6' tall for a day was really really fun. I'd do it again in a heartbeat! I didn't take my camera for once … it just felt like too much, so all these pics are from Michael's phone.

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lots more pics here

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5 / DAY 6 / DAY 7 / DAY 8 / DAY 9 / DAY 10 / DAY 11 / DAY 12

one more wrap-up post to come tomorrow ...

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