Wild and Precious

B and I are at Navarre Beach in Florida with his family for a week, taking the closest thing we’ve had to an actual, full-fledged vacation in nearly four years. I did work, but it’s been more relaxing than anything else, more listening to the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the kids running around laughing and eating seafood than looking at my phone. We also went to an alligator farm and we all got to hold a very, very small alligator, which felt surprisingly pleasant. His squirmy and resigned sort of demeanor reminded me, oddly, of our dog.

One of the books I brought with me is Mary Oliver’s “Felicity,” her apparently long-held, secret stash of something nearly like love poems. She’s maybe most famous presently for the line regarding the grasshopper, asking, “What are you going to do / with your one wild and precious life?” but I found another one last summer that I got stuck on, that reminded me of the beach, and those few months when B and I were hurtling towards each other with all the inevitability of gravity, and that echoes now with this summer barely past, that seemed so weirdly endless:

What This Is Not

This is not just surprise and pleasure.
This is not just beauty sometimes
too hot to touch.
This is not a blessing with a beginning
and an end.
This is not just a wild summer.
This is not conditional.

Re-reading it sitting by the water the other day, I flipped to the back cover for the first time; I’d only recently found out anything about Oliver personally and wanted to know more. The author’s bio wasn’t much, but it mentioned that she was from Ohio and – upon the writing of “Felicity” – resides in Florida. That would be an awesome coincidence, if I still believed in those.

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What We Lost in the Fire

I’m in New York City, staying on the couch in my old apartment on the first leg of a long road trip that will take me up through New England and back down home.

The dishes aren’t mine, but they’re where I left them; the kitchen is arranged the way I like it, with the coffee mugs on the bottom shelf, where I can always reach. The spices in the cabinet actually are mine, as is the reminder pad I left on the fridge. The walls are the gray color Stipps and I picked out together partially because the name reminded us of an inside joke; B came over and helped us paint them one long day, then stayed and watched basketball on the furniture that was all pushed into the middle of the room. The front entrance wall is still a bright statement turquoise.

Time – flat, circle, we’re trapped in it – won’t work for me in a linear way today; it stops and starts and overlaps and doubles back on itself. I’m thirty years old and crashing on my friend’s couch, but I’m also twenty-seven, standing in this apartment when it was empty and huge, all but mauling the broker in an attempt to make it ours, ours, ours. I’m three days past my twenty-eighth birthday, lying on the futon, too heartbroken to cry or make a sound. I’m sitting in the living room surrounded by friends and family for Rosh Hashanah; I’m standing over Remy in the kitchen with Stipps, learning to make a perfect old-fashioned; I’m breaking down in tears, telling Stipps I can’t stay here anymore, it’s time to go.

The futon is gone. In it’s place is a beautiful and incredibly comfortable sectional, which I coveted so deeply it certainly influenced my own first-couch purchase a year later. What was my room, cramped and crowded with almost everything I owned, is now Emily’s, done in neutral colors, gorgeous and light, a rom-com character’s perfect NYC dream. I had the biggest closet of anyone I knew; Em bought two more stand-alone armoires that dwarf it. I don’t live here anymore; I will never live here again; I will always live here, on a loop. The ghost of me is everywhere I’ve been, and I’m the only one it haunts.

I told my mother my twenties were for having adventures, and my thirties were for figuring out how to pay for them while I build a whole life. I meant financially – non-profit employment made those adventures scrappy, to put it politely – but it’s more than that, and I know it now. Little pieces of my life are everywhere, and I can’t walk away from them; they will always call me back. I know what I gained when I moved this time. It’s easy to assess when I’m sitting out on my porch in the warm Kentucky sun, sipping iced coffee. But I spent my twenties avoiding acknowledging what I lost, too. A short bus ride to South Station; several close communities that are now the diaspora; an idea of what kind of adult I was going to be. Those things and more I can’t name yet are gone, and I’m not getting them back. As much as what I’ve gained should be cherished and celebrated, what I lost can’t be forgotten and buried. It all wants to be felt, and New York City is not a place that will allow you to pretend not to feel things. After all, you’re not a real New Yorker until you’ve cried on the subway.

The Church Across From The Rite-Aid

My friend’s mother passed away. She was adored by all who knew her in a way that is rare and precious, and I liked her very much. More than that, I have loved her son for fifteen years, so I did a stupid, too-long drive up to New Hampshire over a weekend to attend services. My parents came up as well, my father demonstrating the esteem he held the woman in by taking a Saturday off from work, something I can recall him doing less than a handful of times in twenty years.

“It’s at the church across from the Rite-Aid, right?” I said as we grabbed our keys.

“Yes,” said mom. The last time I had been there was for this same friend’s wedding, perhaps five years ago. “What’s it called? Do you know the name of it?”

I shrugged and and seeing it she said with me in unison, “The church across from the Rite-Aid.”

“Right,” she nodded, and we left.

The church across from the Rite-Aid is a quintessential small, small-town, little white church. Country songs are written about little white churches but across Louisville all I have seen are bricks and the SouthEast Christian mega church, which is infamously huge, big enough to qualify as a stadium. This little church has a steeple that is one of the last remaining artifacts from the original settlement of the town of Newport, NH, most of which was wiped out in a flood in the 1800s. Brian snuck me up there to see the bell when we were teenagers, and then sang to me as we sat in a pew high in the balcony, so that the sound echoed all through the chamber.

We were twenty minutes early for the services and the church was full. I sat in the back against the wall and my parents went upstairs.

Picture the churches you have seen in movies. Picture a church from a movie about pilgrims or puritans; one room, with an aisle down the center leading to the altar, and to the right and left of that aisle, hard wooden pews all along. A balcony runs above, looking down on it. Once, the wealthiest people in Newport had those seats to themselves, reserved to keep them away from the masses, on an overlook befitting their stature, where they could watch and pass judgment over the comings and goings. Those balconies would have been sweltering. To this day, like much of small-town New England, the church has no air conditioning. Behind the front room where services are held is another, larger, emptier room meant to be filled with people and food, off of which is a small kitchen to aid in this endeavor. The big room in the back has high ceilings and long, high windows, and aside from a small room here and there, added at odd and confusing angles, that is the entirety of The Church Across From The Rite-Aid.

The services were lovely. They should have been; Karen designed them herself, leaving a binder of instructions that included the hymns to be sung and the prayers to be said. People told stories about the endless kind things Karen had done, the sweet and thoughtful gifts she had made and given them. One of the two Reverends who presided over the service held up his tie. “I didn’t know there was a Clergy tartan,” he said, “but Karen did, and she felt I should have a tie of clergy tartan. Along with a hat and a scarf.” There are so few people in this world like that, so thoughtful, so relentlessly devoted to love.

After the service her three sons and husband welcomed a receiving line that stretched for more than an hour and the big room in the back was so full people spilled out the side door and onto the sidewalk for the cooler air. Five tables sagged under the weight of all the food and coffee and tea people had brought or made that day in the tiny kitchen to show their regard. For every one person who said something about Karen that day, twenty more brought something to share or did something to make it easier without saying a word. New Englanders are known for our little white churches and straight narrow wooden pews and lack of air conditioning, but let it never be said we are known for saying a thing when doing it would work just as well. There are plenty of ways to say I love you, and more of them don’t offend our cold and stand-offish tendencies than do.

They Came From The Skies, and We Said Nothing.

Since moving out to the middle, I travel two routes with fair regularity to see my family. The long trip takes me to New Hampshire, some nine hundred miles. The short trip takes me to Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

I call friends during the first hour or so of the drive and leave a message. “Hello, I am in the car all day, give me a call, we will catch up, bonjour.” When she called back, my friend Erica asked where I was driving. “Virginia,” I told her. “Isn’t that a little far?” she asked reasonably.

When I moved to Kentucky, my aunt in VA gave me a key to the house. I would be “so close,” it just made sense for me to be able to let myself in any time I pleased. That’s what distance means to my family. Excuse the pun, but it’s all relative.

The drive to Virginia is an improvement over the drive to New Hampshire. First, it is much shorter. Second, at no point does it take me through Ohio. Third, it’s quite lovely. Mist hovering silently over green mountains, bucolic farmhouse scenes with lakes, and sometimes cows. But like every trip through this part of the country, it’s the signs that tell you everything. Not so much as a mile marker through West Virginia, but hit the state that borders our nation’s capitol, and you see this everywhere:

speed limit enforced 1

I’ll take it over Ohio’s hellfire-and-brimstone proclamations any day of the week and twice on Sunday, but it makes a girl in a sportscar nervous, and no mistake.

American Hauntings, Part 1

I’m in New Hampshire with my family for a long weekend. My aunt and mother just showed me an email on my aunt’s iPhone. It says, “No Subject,” and “Sender Unknown.” The date sent is 12/31/69. “Isn’t that weird?” my mother exclaimed. We went to look at it again and it is, of course, gone. Now we’re all wracking our brains trying to figure out what the hell happened on New Year’s Eve, 1969, and why someone is waving at us from all the way back there and then just to say hi.

Literally, A Sign.

I drove to Chicago to visit a friend yesterday. There’s very little between cities in the Midwest, so every road – the one and only road that leads in and out of each city in either direction – has specific landmarks, known to all who travel it. I made this drive once before, and in the between time, someone has added a road-side attraction.

“Did you see the giant new billboard?” I asked Rei. “It says ‘God Is Real’ on your way into Illinois…”

“And ‘Hell Is Real’ on your way out,” she nodded. I was a little insulted on behalf of the residents of my new state until Rei pointed out the obvious: the sign doesn’t read “Hell Is Real” on the road into Kentucky. The sign reads “Hell Is Real” on the road into Indiana.