Very early, I drove Elizabeth to the bus stop. Much easier to do the 7-mile trip to the bus than the 2-hour drive to SFO. She’ll be gone for eight days, visiting her special stones in France, while I’m surviving here.
It’s always strange. Long ago we realized that we spend so much time in each other’s hip pockets that it’s good to take some time alone. Mostly, that’s a single day, but sometimes it’s more extended. As we get longer in the tooth it’s more difficult—I spent a week walking London in the wrong shoes and still show bruised toes—but until we’re stretched out dead, we’ll persist.
Providing for absence, it’s much more than just the feeding schedule for cats. This time, it’s brought home to me just how ignorant I am of basic things. The cats and the garden, of course, but much more. How to replenish the pump if the water fails; how to turn off the power if there’s a surge; how to operate Messenger for voice-to-voice; how to tend my various wounds and disabilities; etc. etc. etc.
My long-ago Ph.D. (near mythical by now) didn’t really prepare me for practical matters. I know I’m not entirely in the clouds—doing yardwork and dish-washing and layouts and writing and whatever’s needful in the day—but I’m so dependent on this woman, not only to haul my ashes but to tend my fires.
The things I took pride in—acting, directing, design, playwriting, puppet sculpting—and the things I had to do to support these—writing grants and news releases, designing promo, sorting bulk mail—are things of the past. They’ve left memories, but they’ve also left piles of paper, computer files, and eighteen bins of puppets for our kids to dispose of when we croak. They’re valued parts of a goddamned interesting life, but they’re no longer marks of achievement.
I tend to disparage myself, but that’s a pose. I blame my mother for an overinflated sense of my self-value. From the earliest I can remember, I’ve held two attitudes: first, that I’m vastly superior to the bulk of humanity (an attitude that has the saving grace of holding myself to a much higher standard); secondly, that no one will recognize it. That still holds.
It’s a challenge, but those times apart are treasured. Perhaps mostly because they force the question, a hard one to answer, “Who am I now?”
And age has its rewards, even apart from 60+ years with this woman. You realize how few artists are truly immortal, and your work is likely superior to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, though not to Dickens. You take pride in your children. You find love in your mate. You last as long as you can, and you’re finally grateful for all the help that you get.
My first solo trip to Europe was 1998, to visit our daughter Johanna. She had just relocated to Italy, having had time to compare her life-experience during her college year in Firenze and what she was discovering back home after graduation. Beginning with that trip, I went every year for more than twenty years, sometimes with CB, sometimes solo, stopping only with the onset of Covid. Early on, I made a soul-connection with the prehistoric standing stones of Carnac, in Brittany, and I am about to reconnect.
Much earlier, during a family trip, we had all visited Carnac and I was fascinated with the difference between that site and Stonehenge: I could walk right up to a stone and embrace it. It was a different concept. Not a circle, it was a set of parallel lines that stretched for kilometers. That embrace engraved itself deeply, and in the trips since 1998 I kept edging closer and closer to visiting Carnac again.
I had three years of near misses. My return trip was always booked from Amsterdam, and the complicated train connections from Paris to Auray to Carnac and back to Amsterdam always left me with a connection I couldn’t make, but I kept getting closer. When I finally made it with a night to spend in the town of Carnac, I discovered that Carnac’s white-sand beaches enrapture the French vacationers, and I almost had to sleep on the street. Then I discovered the hostel on Belle Isle, a short ferry ride out to sea. It was a lovely clean affordable refuge, and on Sept 19 I will be breathing a sigh of relief to be making up my bunk bed there again after four years’ absence.
I can’t explain the soul-connection. I usually tell people, “Something in the earth there knows me.” Early on, I found an overgrown narrow path between a horse pasture and a hayfield. The fragrant flowering hedgerow had attracted a dense cloud of bees, but I took a deep breath and walked through them unharmed. When I came to a tiny grassy space, I sat down there to eat the sandwich I’d brought. In the quiet, two baby field-mice toddled out from a bush and settled down near me. I gave them breadcrunbs, and they snarfed them up. Then the young farmer who owned the land came down the little path, found me, and I explained in broken French why I was there. He welcomed me, and invited me to pet his very young new foal. He had his just-walking baby son with him, and I realized that this year’s connection was about the threads of new life. It went on from there.
In the years to come, I realized that I was feeling something inexplicable from the depths of the earth there, and I wondered if it was my imagination. One year I took my dowsing rods along. When I held them loosely in my hands and then stepped into the lines of stones, the rods almost ripped themselves out of my grasp. Yes, there is something there.
So I will have five quiet days there, three on Belle Isle, and two more at the narrow neck of the peninsula of Quiberon, where it is a short local bus trip to Carnac. I will visit the ancient cross where I have surreptitiously buried life-tokens for me and the three other strongest actresses I know—we will all be hanging out there together in the afterward, if anyone wants to find us.
I will have five days to ground, center, and reconnect. One of those days is the Autumn Equinox, smack in the center of the stay. I will savor the final steps to the summit, and the beginning of the descent.
Recently, there was a long debate in a writers’ group on Facebook about “forgiveness.” One contingent felt that forgiveness wasn’t possible unless the sinner acknowledged his sin. Others felt—and I tended to agree—that forgiveness was more a clearing-away of attachment, that holding adamantly onto it was, in a quote from Anne Lamott, like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
I avoided taking sides. I was startled—well, no, I kinda expected it—that a writers’ group would be debating a word that no one ever defined: what was the sin, how dire was it, what was the relationship to the supposed sinner? Was this a major crime, or was it an accidental toe-step? Was it a stranger or your beloved? Did repentance demand a casual “I’m sorry” or the refund of a thousand bucks?
Myself, I’ve only held two grudges. One was a guy who hurt a friend of mine, the other was someone who cost me money. I rarely think of either, and we’ve not had contact for decades. On the other hand, I’ve accused myself of many things, none of which can be forgiven to the persons involved. In either case, as sinner or sinned, I understand the character and the reasons for the sin. At least that’s what this writer does.
But I had the privilege, even in high school, of reading several books on general semantics. The basic message: the word is not the thing. What does the sign concretely refer to? Are you talking about the same thing? “Love” can refer to a locust invasion of things: ardent lust, obsessive focus, murderous possessiveness, or Heinlein’s beautiful, demanding definition: a state where the happiness of the beloved is essential to your own. A vast range, meaningful to the individuals involved, but every color of the rainbow.
The same range of meanings form prickly skins on other abstractions: wealth, happiness, patriotism, faith.
Fine to argue about what’s best, but absurd to carry forth the quarrel without knowing you’re speaking of different things. When the talk veers into “You should do it like this,” beware. In the writers’ group, such questions may beg for an answer, e.g. “Is a story in first person better than in third?” I can offer my own experience, but it’s usually in the form of “Depends on the story” or “Try it both ways.” Or “Is ‘Bold Killers’ a good title? Title for what?
Too many people are primed to honk when I slow down to make a turn. Or they may just honk to be heard.
When Conrad and I came to California in 1963, the first time I put my bare feet on the ground I knew, like an electric shock up my spine, “This is my home.” We were there for three years, and then it took thirty-three more to come back—to come back home.
A thing that captivated me immediately was that my skin could be open to embrace. The air, the sun, the rain, the wind, anything it had to offer was something I could get close to. Coming from a childhood in north-west Indiana did not prepare me for this kind of bliss. My childhood pagan-self immediately said Wahoo! and hugged the earth skin to skin.
In 2000 we moved permanently to Sonoma County, and soon thereafter I started constructing raised beds for vegetable gardening. Our area has one population above-ground that tries to neutralize the other population below-ground: gophers. It’s an arduous task to put gopher wire down below ground level to protect the new growing area above, but we did it, and for years our effort bore wondrous fruit.
Things change. Gopher wire is not immortal, and replacing it is a Herculean task. I was stubborn and did this replacement for a number of years, but one of the things that changes is physical stamina. I am not now the person who dug out the entire underside of the house when we first moved in and discovered that we had a problem. I am definitely not the person who put in daily shifts at the bottom of a six-foot shaft to employ a 50-foot snake to clear the leach-field pipes. I find that now aspiration and ability do not always mesh.
So now, the sad state of my garden hurts. For two years, the normal spring has gone awry. Early abnormal heat in February kicks buds into action that have no pollinators yet awake. Sudden bursts of leaves are then greeted with abnormal killing frosts. Plants do their best to adjust and then are greeted with long spans of killing heat and absolute drought. My tomato plants that in previous years were heavy with red fruit are hung with a few small grass-green burps.
I have used my gardening as a potent fertilizer for my spirit. The imprinting memory of union with the earth in 1963 is still there. But today, I have to revise my day to do any earth-work in the early morning, and I need to schedule more hours to carry water. The plants are feeling it, too, and at the end of August I am seeing the first green tomatoes, whereas my old July job was to keep up with the blizzard of heavy red fruit.
My old earth-lover has changed her tune. I can’t reverse this. I am working to accept and adjust and embrace what is now her pattern. But I’ve gotta say, I miss what I had.
What’s the point? I’ve asked myself that all my life and never come up with an answer—except maybe “That’s what I do.”
Right now, we’re preparing TAPDANCER for publication. No deadline: the world isn’t waiting with bated breath. It’s gone through the usual procedure—69 submissions to agents, 23 to small publishers, all rejections—and now self-publication, with modest sales likely. It involves endless hours of layout on Indesign, hours of designing the covers, and now an oral reading to catch any typos or spasms of literary diarrhea. I read, my co-writer and editor Elizabeth follows a printout.
It’s a great pleasure. I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, certainly the funniest and friendliest, and it deserves to have a life. Beyond its long life.
It began with a tearful dream. A friend and long-time colleague was convicted of defacing a billboard that bore an obnoxious political slogan and was sentenced to death by lethal injection. In the dream I watched him die.
As happens often, in outlining it as a play, it changes texture: don’t ask. We had an offer. A theatre in Seattle (we were in Lancaster, PA, at the time) offered to host us for a week’s run of a show we were touring, and at the same time give us the daytime use of their ensemble actors to work on something new. This became TAPDANCER.
We’d improvise all day with them, transcribing and writing all night. In a week we had a play. Their work was wonderful, marred only by the fact that when we gave it a reading, most of the cast hated it: too namby-pamby on the political implications, we gathered.
At the time, we were negotiating moving from our Lancaster theatre to a rehearsal studio—that’s another story—and weren’t certain how to stage TAPDANCER. At last we opted to stage it in a different facility in Lancaster and a very small stage in Philly. It was a hit, not overwhelmingly so, but a hit. Later, we did an audio version, and it was staged by another theatre. I did the draft of a novel, redrafted it, and let it lie fallow. I also attempted a screenplay, which mostly encouraged its gradual drift into the surreal.
It was only with the advent of Covid and strictures on our touring that the move to prose fiction was furthered. It lay there beckoning. Three drafts more, and it seemed ready.
It’s taking its time. I have about a dozen or more short stories I’m working on, and Elizabeth’s pushing forward on the second volume of her memoir. The calendar shows us we’re respectively 81 and 83, not the point where literary careers blossom suddenly. But plays, novels, short stories are like children. Even if the world doesn’t care—it has its own problems—you have a responsibility,. You nurture your stories as you’ve nurtured your children. That’s what you do.