Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cruising Town and the Cosmos

Since moving to Oxford in July, the girls have newly found the bed of the pick-up truck I have had for 12 years. When the speed limit is 25 (and you have checked with local law enforcement to make sure they are permitted to travel in the back of the truck) and the sun is shining, the bed of a pick up can feel a lot like a horse-drawn carriage. Cruising to the beach at the Strand, or to the park, or for ice cream at the Scottish Highland Creamery warrants Will Smith's "Summertime" for a soundtrack.

We've taken to different means and times for cruising the town. Longboarding to and from work has put a perma-grin on my face. Thirty years ago I rode my first skateboard down these same streets as a vagrant youth, now I wave and talk to folks skating to work. The symmetry is not lost on me.

Another new habit, rekindling an old wonder, is night walks, fully staring at the star-filled sky.

Life over the past year-plus has taken some unexpected turns. New houses, new jobs, new life in so many ways, but still connected to all that has come before and all that is still to come. Ava's return home from a month in the hospital; her return to school and seeing friends and family; life getting into a familiar, but new fall rhythm. When I walk under the sky, pondering constellations and the cosmos, the vast scale of it all and wondering how all the dots connect--what, if anything, my walk to the market for lunch has to do with the broader order of the Universe--it makes my mind both spin and sit still. So I've called in the experts, picking up Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," of which Neil deGrasse Tyson has done a documentary reboot; cultivating gratitude while walking, running, skateboarding, sitting, or going to church.

It's all a cosmic puzzle I doubt I will ever be able to put together. And I'm okay with that. Here's why...

I got off work on Wednesday and went for a run. At different points along the way, I stopped and took in the sunset, both visually and breathing it in. Taking pictures to remember it. Each scene was stretches of river and horizon I have seen countless thousands of times. But not once did any of those previous times look exactly like it did that evening, on that run. Maybe that is because those exact colors, and those exact scenes had never been assembled quite like they were just then. I think that is true. But equally true is that my eyes see differently now than they ever have before.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Community and KRS-One

Sometimes it happens that your world gets upside-downed. On Aug. 6, at about 9pm, I got a call from Anna and Ava's mom as she was riding in an ambulance. She and the girls were visiting her family in Butler, Pa. As they arrived, Ava had a seizure. She has had small seizures, or something akin to them (syncope), but this was different. She wasn't coming around. They inserted a breathing tube and were going to helicopter her to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. I threw clothes in a bag and started driving. That was two weeks ago tonight.

Since then Ava has seen her share of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, neurologists, infectious disease doctors, nurses, technicians, you name it. I didn't start writing this as a medical update, family and friends have been getting those on Facebook, but the Cliff's Notes version: Ava has Epstein-Barre Virus (EBV) encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which caused her seizure and subsequent seizures while in the hospital. It could be the effects of EBV alone, or it could be EBV on top of a chronic condition for seizures. After getting doses of Keppra and phenobarbital (anti-convulsive meds) dialed in, and allowing time for her body to deal with EBV and the brain swelling, Ava has been making solid progress and yesterday was moved to Children's Home, the rehab arm of Children's, to focus on physical therapy, occupational therapy, and rebuilding her speech and cognitive skills. It is sobering to see what a trip of the brain can cause, but incredibly encouraging to see Ava coming back into her own. It just takes time.

I am writing this morning for the things that have happened while we've been here. The things that make "community" even more of a favorite word for me than it has ever been. I made a couple phone calls and sent a few texts to family, work, close friends to let them know what happened and that I was going to Pittsburgh. The response from work, the Oxford Community Center (OCC), was go, be with Ava and my family, get her better, then worry about work. More on that in a minute.

As word of what happened started to spread, there were concerned calls, texts, e-mails, so I took to Facebook as a blanket means of keeping people updated. What I sometimes forget, and don't think I was really thinking about, is the real people behind the profile pics and status updates. And I wasn't prepared for, or expecting, the way people would respond, reach out, follow along, pray, and cheer for Ava. I have been emotionally overwhelmed and buoyed in amazing ways.

In July, the girls and I moved into a new house in my hometown of Oxford, Md. We've been busy and hadn't been able to finish moving furniture. While I've been in Pittsburgh, members of the Oxford Volunteer Fire Department helped my mom and cousin finish moving us in. Family, neighbors and the Oxford Police Department have been checking in on the house and making sure all is well.

Folks who follow along here know that in March I started work as Executive Director of OCC. I've never felt more at home, more supported, more inspired or motivated to work somewhere. It has felt like exactly where I am supposed to be, professionally and personally. Both Anna and Ava have quickly become a part of the place, and with living just down the street from OCC, they can ride their bikes there.

While I have been in Pittsburgh with Ava, OCC's Board of Trustees and volunteers have made sure I have peace of mind to be here, and to know that all is taken care of at work. This week, there are shifts of volunteers covering the public office hours. I can't even begin to express what all that means or how grateful I am.

For the previous five years, I worked in, and commuted to, Washington, D.C. I made more money, but had less of a life, and certainly not a life where work, family, and play were integrated in any real sense. During the past two weeks, I have had KRS-One's voice in my head (as one does):

It's not about a salary, it's all about reality...

For the past two weeks, my reality has been around Pittsburgh, Munhall, Children's Hospital. It's been being where I need to be, when I need to be there. It's been tears, trials, triumphs, and trying to piece a new reality together, to return to life on the Eastern Shore, knowing what we are coming out of, and being thankful for what we have.

The newest part of our community includes the amazing people at Children's Hospital. The nurses, technicians and doctors who both girls look for--who have taken to Ava, and check in on her; who call her "girlfriend," and high five her; who laugh with us and are helping bring her back around; medical professionals who treat Ava like an amazing person, not just a patient; who are working at every level to get her ready to go home.

It's funny to me, how connected the words/concepts "reality" and "community" can be. Through this whole process, I have yet to feel alone, and there are so many people to thank for that. My reality is informed by, shaped by, inspired by, the community (communities) I am a part of.

When I get home, I look forward to sitting on my front steps with a beer in the evening, laughing at the girls running around the yard. I look forward to runs and bike rides around Oxford and knowing the folks I see on the way. I look forward to getting back to work, and helping define, and inspire, what community means to others. I know what it means to me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Alarm Clocks, Bob Marley, and Dandelion Wine

Alarm clocks have a pretty straightforward job: to wake us up. I'm not saying it is an easy job, just that it is well defined. The actual waking up part requires something from us.

For a stretch I was an always early morning runner. My record in idiocy was meeting a friend at 3:30am to go run 20 miles before work. I still run mostly mornings, and I am still a morning person, but when the alarm clock goes off that early, we look at each other, the clock and I, and nod, or chuckle, and go back to bed.

It's funny, people's alarm clocks can be very different. You might be tuned to the sunrise, it might be beans grinding in a coffee pot, it could be a wet dog nose and wagging tail in your face. We've all got different ways to wake up.

But the kind of alarm clock in my mind this morning is not the kind that wakes us up in the morning. It's the kind that wakes us up in life. Where we find ourselves looking around, rubbing the sleep out of our eyes (lives), and wondering, hey, how the fu** did I get here?

And those kind of alarm clocks, the life alarm clocks, they take a response on our part as well. Just because they go off, doesn't mean we wake up. Life alarm clocks. Could be a religious awakening. Could be a failed marriage or relationship. Could be the death of someone we love. Could be the loss of a job, or a move to somewhere new. The birth of a child. Life alarm clocks come in all shapes, sizes, and times.

Life alarm clocks, if we hear them, and we act, can remind us we are alive. And to live. If you need a way to remember it, I'd go with a Bob Marley mantra. Bob won't steer you wrong.

I'm in the middle of reading Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine," which was described to me by a well-read friend as the ultimate summer book. She is not wrong in her declaration. It's the most dense, beautiful, coming of age in a small town, learning to be alive book I've come across. I've been a Bradbury fan since "Fahrenheit 451," but haven't gone back and read more of him. And I own "Dandelion Wine." So I started following the life and times of Douglas Spaulding, who is a semi-veiled version of Bradbury. Very early on in the book he has an epiphany. Outside, picking grapes and wrestling with his brother, it hits him. He opens an eye:

And everything, absolutely everything was there.
The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.
And he knew what it was that had leaped upon him to stay and would not run away now.
I'm alive, he thought.

There are life alarm clocks going off everyday for us. If we listen. And we wake up. And live.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Vacation is a state of mind

There are cobwebs on my ceiling corners. Don't judge me; they were here when I got here, the result of a house sitting empty for a stretch. I'm getting to them as the girls and I are getting moved in, but I'm not saying you won't find some in six months.

I'm not a slob--I keep a house picked up, dishes washed, laundry put away, beds made, bathrooms clean, grass cut, bird feeders filled. But if I get a call from a friend I don't see often, who is in town and wants to go stand-up paddleboarding on a Saturday morning before I leave for vacation, those boxes can sit. I'll get to them. But that glassy paddle on Town Creek and the Tred Avon River, at that moment, with those peeps, wouldn't have happened again just that way.

Since I was little, my family has taken a summer trip to Ocean City, Md. My parents, my sister and I, my aunt, uncle and cousin. Over the years that trip has expanded, adding my girls, my sister's husband and their three kids. It's a trip that the kids look forward to like Christmas. The week is packed with more bodysurfing, sandcastle building, Ultimate Frisbee and wiffleball on the beach, miniature golf playing, amusement park riding, Candy Kitchen fudge eating, and happy hours on the back deck, than one could rightly hope to fit in. It's not exotic, not the islands, not even the Outer Banks. And Ocean City is loud, over-developed, and neon-signed, but I wouldn't trade that annual trip and that time with family.

Repetition and tradition are funny things. They invoke nostalgia and novelty at the same time. They create experiences you look forward to, recognize, but also have never been through before: a night-time walk on the beach with my daughters, who choreograph a television commercial amidst belly laughs; the girls digging up sand crabs for their cousin (my niece); seeing the difference in how they behave in the ocean as they get bigger, stronger, and more coordinated. Family traditions allow you to pay more attention to each other than to being in a new place.

Coming home yesterday, I started the beach sand removal process (laundry), and getting the girls unpacked from vacation. There were no groceries in the house, so Anna and I went up to the Oxford Market for sandwiches. Walking up the sidewalk, there was an extended family sitting on the porch and playing in the front yard, pretty much how we rolled at the beach. And that is the subtle reminder that, hey, the place I call home is a place where people go to vacation.

That is something I have never taken for granted. I am obtuse, stubborn, frequently wrong, you name it, but I have always felt blessed to grow up and live on the Eastern Shore. Last night I rode my bike around town and stopped at a dock bar for a beer and caught up with friends. This morning I went for a run around and through town. My head is on a swivel; no matter how many times I walk, run, or bike these streets, I am frequently struck by how cool some sight, some moment is. I guess vacation is a state of mind.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Returns and Beginnings

This may well be the summer of the bike. Tuesday night, the girls and I rode four miles around Oxford. They had no idea how far they'd been, just that they were exploring main roads and back alleys and learning the town. They've been to Oxford plenty, but they've just begun calling it home. It makes a difference when you get to know a place on foot and by bike and know your house is there.

[Note: I can only tell a story from my perspective; Easton is also the girls' half-the-time home, and they love it there, but I'll stick with new beginnings and such]

I love going down a side street, the girls following close, not knowing where they are going, only to watch recognition click in... "the church!!" and they have connected the grid. They ride by the field above and see grass and trees in front of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. When I ride by the same field, I see the church lot where we played football after school, where the trees were the sidelines and end zone and it wasn't unheard of to get tackled into one.

There are the parts of town that don't seem to change. And then there is the new. I spend most of my time in the new house in the sun room where those west-facing windows are. From there, or the balcony above, the sun sets over the boat yard next door. I'm getting my bearings with what birds frequent the yard (mostly Cardinals, Blue Jays, Grackles and Chickadees), mulching gardens, cutting grass, which is a welcome return.

Moving is barely ordered chaos. Once your stuff is put mostly where you want it and you are relocated, things still don't feel settled. It's establishing a rhythm. I've walked or ridden my bike to work everyday since living here. I smile the whole way there and back in the evening. I've run and paddled and biked as workouts on some mornings. I've taken an outing or bike ride each evening, to stretch my legs and mind. There has blissfully been no television hooked up yet, though I do miss having the Washington Nationals playing in the background.

Oxford and the new house are full of familiar things. Personal and family artifacts, artwork, books, furniture; aspects and trappings of home. The move has been a return and a new beginning. I walked around the block last week, telling stories and sharing memories of what things looked like growing up, and who lived where. I dig telling stories, But I like just as much making new stories, ones that the girls and I will tell for years to come.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Proper Summer

I spent my summers outside; in or on the water, on a bike or a skateboard, or blazing trails and building forts in a marsh. They were proper summers. They are still some of my favorite memories. My best summer days now closely resemble those days of being off from school and having the childhood ease of the season.

My soul frequently bottle rockets with happiness watching the girls spend similar summer days. They've got familiar settings: Oxford, the park, the beach at the Strand, the ferry dock, the yacht club, swimming in pools; Ocean City and Assateague, body surfing the waves, people watching on the boardwalk, the rides at Jolly Roger. They've got the open schedule and lack of alarm clocks, stretching their arms in the morning and contemplating what to do, or what not to do.

Summer is on its own timetable. It has its own agenda. We do well when we don't try to overschedule.

The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised.
No one has made it sit down to breakfast.
It's the first one up, the first one out.
- Robert Hass

Summer is a pause. For the girls, it's the end of a school year, but not the beginning of a new one. It's something in between. Eventually we lose that. A proper summer is as free from schedules and clocks as Jim Harrison strives for:

I hope to define my life, whatever is left, by migrations, south and north with the birds and far from the metallic fever of clocks, the self starting at the clock saying, "I must do this." I can't tell the time on the tongue of the river in the cool morning air, the smell of the ferment of greenery, the dust off the canyon's rock walls, the swallows swooping above the scent of raw water.

I like summer as a clean slate for the girls. The freedom of summer vanishes soon enough. Don't rush it. Breathe in the honeysuckle, the salt air, the Old Bay. Float, swim, paddle. Make your own way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Memory Spirals and the Heart

Dr. Seuss's "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," is on the wall of the doctor's office. Ava is 10. But my memory spirals back to when she was a baby. She might have had a heart murmur, but we needed more tests. We were sitting in a heart specialist's in Annapolis. I was reading to her, a book off the shelf in the waiting room. "One Fish, Two Fish." Ten years later, sitting in the doctor's office with Ava, I in both places. Wrapped in a memory spiral.

Over the past year, I have driven or run by this lane almost everyday. Didn't give it much thought. Until a few weeks ago, on a run, I remembered standing on the lane, outside a Ford Fiesta, listening to Led Zeppelin IV all the way through for the first time. I was 15. I came to Zeppelin via Black Sabbath, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden, leading to Bad Brains, the Clash and Metallica. Zeppelin wasn't heavy enough. Until I sat and listened to IV, "Black Dog," "When the Levee Breaks," "Misty Mountain Hop." Running past, my memory spiraled; I heard Zeppelin over the Damian Marley that was in my headphones.

Cormac McCarthy wrote that, "Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real." Brick columns and Dr. Seuss drawings can leave mental scars, that bring our personal past spiraling back.

The thing about memory though, is that it can fade or change over time. How much does it connect or correspond to our actual past?

"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen-bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper... It's the exact same thing. Important memories, not-so-important memories, totally useless memories: there's no distinction--they're all just fuel." - Haruki Murakami

I have a hard time with that one. Not all memories are created equally. Some memories make us more who we are than others memories. Remembering the first time my 13-year-old daughter looked in the direction of my voice as a baby is more a part of me than where I first heard Zeppelin IV. I recall one far more than the other. These two memories reside in different parts of me: one stamped somewhere on the brain, the other imprinted deeply on my soul.

Memory distorts. The details we retain are ours and they are subjective, the parts that are important to us. Tennessee Williams knows why:

The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.

Truth matters to me. I hang my hat on facts. The philosopher in me climbs toward objectivity. But at the end of the day, I don't mind the notion that memory lives closer to the heart. Cue the Rush song. A life lived closer to the heart is a life lived.