Sunday, June 3, 2018

Farewell Diana, Goddess of the Moon

The new moon, the almanac will tell you, is a time for planting. In our family circle this means literally planting the nasturtium seeds, gently filed and soaked to help germination, during the first new moon of late winter, when danger of freezing has passed. It means figuratively planting the seeds of our hopes and dreams and all new beginnings we hold in our hearts. It is a profound kind of prayer, sometimes shared, sometimes offered up in solitude. At the full moon, we hope these will come to fruition. The full moon in May of 2018 has also been called a flower moon, and  "a time for letting go" by those who know far more of these things than I do. But those of us who loved her can attest that this was the full moon, this aptly named Flower Moon, which marked our time for letting go of Diana Smith. It marked a time for Diana to step into its light and the light of the universe for eternity.

Diana touched many, many lives and there will be many stories told about the ways in which she did and the differences she made. Her family has shared, and doubtless will continue to share their own stories and memories. I expect her many friends will do the same. For my part Diana did not only touch my life. Looking backward, Diana changed my life. 

The long-form blog has given way to shorter formats, or become a platform for voices of more public interest than this one, voices that talk of politics and current events with courage and cowardice, with beauty and ugliness. But this seems the best place for me to share my heart on the topic of a woman whose friendship I'll honor for the rest of my life. Come and walk along a bit with me, and remember.

Arguably, The Booksmith was one of the best-entrepreneurial gifts given to the St. Augustine that existed before the internet, mobile phones, far too many people and far too much Disneyland. (There is also the Flagler College Bookstore, with its own interesting tale I hope someone will tell, but another time.) 

Though it began life on St. George Street (another story for another day, my dears) The Booksmith soon moved to the space we all remember, right across from the Plaza. Its nearest neighbors were the common corner it shared with The Trade Winds Tropical Lounge, and, punctuating the other end of the block, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. The front door was a very heavy bronze surety against intruders, beautifully worked, which was opened at 10:00 every morning. The glass swinging door inside that opened to the desk, and a familiar scent of paper and ink, dust and magic, and most days, to Diana's smiling welcome.

My life has been blessed by the presence of many astonishing, varied, smart, talented, funny, sacred, profane, gifted women, almost all sisters in one way or another. If I had a superpower, it might be the ability to cross their paths, or find them or have them bestowed on me. Only as a very small child had I one "best friend"; before I was a teenager the notion of friendship evolved to be one of circles. The earliest such circle began with my friend O'Hare, whose notion of friendship was similarly becoming one of a circle of sisters, of which she was a center until her death at 45. This circle of sisters O'Hare has loosely held together even during the years of her absence. 

The notion of an organic circle of sisters came naturally to me, but I think it was harder for Diana. After we had been friends for some years, I referred to her as a "sister of my heart". Startled, she said, "Do you really mean that?" Of course I did, and while the time we spent together in person changed over the years as our circumstances did (children, aging parents, retirement, travel, jobs, and so on) she remained a sister of my heart.

Diana was very close to me when I became pregnant.  Even though my husband and I had married, at least partially, out of my conventional desire to be married before having children, I was deeply frightened at the prospect of a baby once pregnancy made having one a virtual certainty. I told Diana I thought I might have made an awful mistake; I wasn't ready; WE weren't ready; what on earth had I been thinking?, and lots more in that vein. Diana, always sensible, said, "If you wait for the right time, it will never come. There's never a perfect time to do anything, especially have a baby. It will all work out, you'll see; everything will take care of itself." And as I shall say often in this post, Diana was right. 

Meanwhile my circle grew, thanks to the Booksmith and to Diana's mild but always-honest influence. Along came Su Landry, whose voice was also always honest, lightened with humor, and spiritually confident, perhaps in part from her work with hospice, but certainly from an internal wellspring that was purely Su. Marilyn Bailey, who conspired with Diana to deliver to us a set of Desert Rose Franciscan-ware, estate-sale bought and at that time far beyond my means. Marilyn would later tie to a different part of the circle through her affectionate maternal relationship with my friend Miss Inga. Lauren, who worked for another unique local business called Old Favorites, with which The Booksmith maintained a friendly cross-referential connection - those who searched for books often also searched for music. I would see Lauren riding uptown to Old Favorites with her young son on her bike, his curls blowing in the wind behind her own. Connie, who would write several books following her brilliant debut, Sugar Cage, and would tell me that I had, myself, The Power of the Word, and would change me in ways I could never have foreseen. And Katie, deeply beloved sister of my heart whose life would entwine with mine, whose family would be connected to my own, in a roses-and-English-ivy way, never to be disentangled. (If you haven't been called out, my sisters, forgive me the lapse; I love you no less.)

There were men in the circle, too, albeit with a different, more distant sort of membership, but how could I mention this topic without thinking of Ernie Mickler, whose White Trash Cooking would preserve Palm Valley in my mind before its identity was subsumed forever by local development? ("Dear Angie, I know you are pure White Trash and proud! Love, Ernie".) And perhaps most memorable of all, though I knew him through my family and in other settings than the Booksmith, Gamble Rogers. I will always see him, coming in that swinging door, turning his whole body to the right to make eye contact (fused discs in his neck preventing him from turning just his head) and saying in his Southern-gentlemanly way, "Aaa-ngie", by way of gallant acknowledgement. There was even the exquisitely polite, and by this time, exquisitely fragile, Norton Baskin, who had married Marjorie Rawlings at the St. Johns County Courthouse (today the Casa Monica hotel) and was still interested in current fiction. Irene Allemano, one of the most elegant, graceful women I have known about whom I've written in this blog, brought her artistry and fascinating family into my life through the Booksmith.

But most of all, it was Diana. She taught, by example, straightforward direction, and intuition, how to hand-sell books, an art you will not find in chain bookstores, but to which you may be treated in the great independents that still exist (Chamblin's Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida. E Shaver Books in Savannah. Powell's, in Portland, can fill in the blanks for yourself, especially if you live in a college town or a big market like New York). She taught this art so well that people would go into the Booksmith with any one of a million tales of woe like this one: "I was in the middle of it. I can't remember the title. No, can't tell you who wrote it. It was purple. What? Oh, it was about a sort of crazy guy who lived in New Orleans with his mother...", and have in hand before the tale of woe was complete, a copy of John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Happy customers. 

Diana was a designer by nature, I think now, though I didn't see it so clearly back then, and she was a master of a taxonomy that might have started out in her head, but which we all learned. She was the daughter of an architect, and her mother, Hortense (called Hortie by all), whom I knew for a few years before her death, had been her husband's partner in business, in which he designed the houses, and she designed the interiors. You could see this heritage in the store, though. Books were shelved and arranged in what Diana described as a complicated puzzle, each shown to best advantage, each placed in the match-made company of books that belonged together. There were rough "sections" of the store, labeled things like "Travel" and (our favorite) "Self Help". In the latter, you would not find "The 12-Volt Bible" or "Spiritual Midwifery", although the store was never without a copy of either.

According to Hortie, who told me many tales the veracity of which Diana might have questioned, young American Jewish women of German extraction (and perhaps of a certain class, though I didn't ask) were often sent to Germany  in search of suitable husbands. This was true for Hortie, whose father was a doctor in Harlem, which was a relatively rural part of New York at the turn of the 20th century. Hortie was consequently sent to Germany, met and married the father of her two daughters (one of whom would arrive much later), and joined him in his business. He designed many a house, and this is when she began to serve as the interior designer. Their elder daughter Eleanor was born there. Along with this small daughter, the Wormanns departed Germany in 1933, taking with them few belongings and almost no money, before the ports were closed by Hitler so that Jews could no longer leave the country. They settled in New York, and some 20 years after Eleanor's birth, welcomed Diana. Educated in a Steiner school, Diana developed strong artistic sensibilities, including an intriguing handwriting, which would serve the Booksmith well. Following her retirement, she would find additional artistic outlets, but before she retired she and her husband built a beautiful house on the marsh in St. Augustine. These stories, their details and beauties, leave with those to whom they belong for the real telling. There are so many of them. Most of them aren't mine, or aren't wholly mine. I share them only to remind you, my dears, of the magic of the Booksmith, though some of you surely know this magic better than I do.

So how did Diana Smith change my life? She either taught wholesale, or strongly underscored, these lessons.

*Stay married. It takes patience, and love and a willingness to give more than your fair share of 100% some of the time. Sometimes you give 120%, when your partner isn't able to meet you. But more often, you give and take: you give more when you're stronger and flip the equation when your partner does. But don't give up, because it WILL be worth it. As we approach the celebration of 30 years married this year, I will think of Diana more than I can say.
*Don't peg your children. Don't say, This is the smart one, this one is the artist, this one is the athlete. You can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let them be what they will. And in these past years, Diana's own children have proven this wisdom.
*You have the gift of the Word. While this message would come to me from others (Connie, Katie and perhaps affecting the future most directly, Lauren) Diana was the one who made me believe it. She was the one who removed the doubt in my heart, and helped me embrace this as part of my forward path. 

Thank you, my friend, and sister of my heart. The words of the Nunc Dimittis you might laugh at, sensibly secular as you were. I will miss you, however rarely we might have seen each other, for your constancy and unsentimental, always reliable affection, for the rest of my life. 

Nunc dimittis (from the Latin)
Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace according to thy Word,
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Carl Hiaassen and Diana; mid 1980s
Angie and Hortie, baby shower, late 1989
Quick glimpse of Diana in the foreground at Mac's baptism. Background left: John Winsor; background right: Fr. Tom Walsh

(C) Angela Christensen  Please note: This edition is is published without benefit of its usual proofreader and editor, Dylan Christensen. All errors, factual and typographical, are my own. Omissions are also my own, mostly in consideration of space.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Starlight, Star Bright 2: another writer's view

It's a terrible image, a photo of a the program for his funeral, taken by my plain old iPhone 4. The photo quality doesn't matter. The simple honest face, the smile of a person almost incapable of assuming anything other than positive intent: this is what I wanted to share with you. This is the face of kindness, the face of guilelessness, the face of someone who almost certainly saw you in your best light, all the time, even when you didn't, or couldn't. Perhaps he wasn't able to see himself the way he saw the rest of us. Perhaps we did not try quite hard enough to reflect him while he was with us. Perhaps it would have made no difference in the end. But certainly there is a lesson, in the words of its author, "a lesson/about how we spend our time".

The name at the top, poorly captured, is "Phillip Wayne Powell".

Grateful thanks to Amakeda Ponds for permission to reprint.

A friend told me,
yup, heard the news today.
If only I could take it back,
here's what I'd say,
never sweat the small stuff,
it's all small stuff anyway.

Just one longer conversation,
just a bit more than, "hey",
just a few comforting words
may have changed your fate.

We may never know the reason
or understand why,
but know this is a lesson
about how we spend our time.

Someone once told me,
be mindful how you deal with others
you never know what they are going through.
So fitting now
when thinking of you.

I hope this is a lesson
to everyone you knew
The thought that just a few more comforting words could've saved you.
There's a lesson in your struggle,
though some will never learn,
there's power
in the spoken word.

May you rest in peace.

--Amakeda Ponds, (c)2015
from an original Facebook post by the same author
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Starlight, star bright

The Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. A quiet, steady, constant star by which we steered; a star without whose presence we are quite lost.

Wayne Powell was far more than met the eye. To the eye, in fact, he looked like just any average guy. The statistics, on the face of it, would have born that out. He was 47, married, with four kids, a hard worker, kinda paunchy and slightly balding. He went to church. He loved to fish and hunt and go to his kids' soccer games. But look at him more closely, my heroes. Look more closely with me.

Wayne and I and many of our colleagues attended a regular meeting at which we discussed our work and because we work for a big company these meetings would often feature arcane acronyms, often so arcane that people had an idea what they meant, but no clear recollection of what they actually stood for. One of these was ORC. Every time it came up in a meeting, I made one of several silly jokes taken from Peter Jackson's movie version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and every time I made one, Wayne and I would laugh. Somehow or another, I began to tease him about actually being an orc, and because he was incredibly good-natured and humble, he would laugh with me. One day I got an email from Wayne which contained a typo, a missing word that changed the meaning of the email, and his intention. There were a million people on it, so I emailed just Wayne and said something like, Hey, you might want to correct that...I know it's just a typo but it might cause confusion. He responded with an email that said, more or less, "Typing is difficult when you have the short, chubby fingers of an orc. If I had the long, slender fingers of an Elf, I would make less typos..." and thanked me for calling out the mistake.

But it was such a fortuitous mistake. It gave rise to an ongoing, conversational joke that leavened many of our days at the office. Our Resident Expert on All Things Elvish and the rest of the gang conspired to give him a hobbit name, and an Elvish name, and finally we gave him his own, Powgolas. Various parts of the real estate around us will always carry a hint of the Shire, and his own desk will always be right in the middle of Rivendell for me, despite the email joke created by our Resident Expert, below. Laughter was one of the things Powgolas made very easy for us all, as diverse and different as we are. 

“The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.” -Gothmog

But we knew he was no orc. He sent me a note once after we'd "promoted" him to Elf-hood. It said, "You are an Elf, too. But almost, a Wizard." He thought I was more than I am. He made me better than I was.

More than kindness, there was a deep abiding loyalty and truest love in him. His wife, rather famously, is a wonderful baker, so admired for her cakes that they sell at fundraising events for astonishing sums. Birthdays at the office are most commonly celebrated with grocery store bakery cakes. These could not, out of loyalty to his beloved wife, be eaten by Wayne, though his figure (like my own) betrayed how much he loved cake. She was the light of his life, and I know this as well as any of my colleagues, though I never met her. He didn't say much about her at the office, but he had only to mention her name and you knew that she was his completion, in a more profound sense than the trite "my other half" sometimes used to try and capture that feeling. His children lit him from inside just as much as that beloved wife, and much of what he did was centered on them. We knew their names, how things were going in school, who was having surgery, who had a tournament on the weekend. He wasn't a guy who bragged about his kids. He lived and breathed and shared about them because they were his life and breath. You only had to stop by his desk and see the range of pictures to know the source of that inner light. We saw those faces every day, through his affectionate eyes. And we knew Wayne to be the truest of friends, the guy who really cared whether his absence might make more work for you, who genuinely sought opinions and expertise of others, who found the gentlest ways of broaching difficult or uncomfortable conversations. 

Wayne and I shared a love of the outdoors. He loved to hunt and fish. Some of his fish stories established laughter that went on for weeks, as in the time he entered a charity fishing tournament, caught a big black drum that he thought would win the tournament, and then DID win the tournament...because there were no other entrants. Some guys would have been annoyed or been ruffled around about the ego. Not Wayne. He laughed and laughed, mostly because he'd almost - but not quite - taken himself too seriously. He loved to hunt in a Wildlife Management Area which is under the care of the Research Reserve at which I'm an active volunteer. At first he was, I think, careful about letting me know he was a hunter, perhaps uncertain whether I would understand or even be offended. Once he knew I'd grown up with the traditions of hundreds of years of local northeast Florida families, where venison is welcome at the table, he would tell me hunting stories. Most these were typically self-effacing and involved him standing in muddy semi-darkness, being attacked by mosquitos. But there was always a laugh and sometimes a wonder: something spotted in the wild, a moment of perfect stillness, some treasure or other that not everyone might understand. Here again, he might have talked of religion, but he never did. He just modeled it with kindness in every single exchange. One of my dear colleagues said to me recently, "I actually sometimes think to myself, before I say something possibly ill-advised, WWWPD?" And he meant no disrespect to people for whom the basis of that phrase means something different. He meant that you could always use Wayne as a yardstick - a guy who seemed so average - you could use him as a yardstick to figure out what was the balanced thing, what was the ethical thing, what was the RIGHT thing to do. I knew just what he meant.

On Monday, I was cleaning out some papers in the office. I found a nomination that had been written for Wayne and had come across my desk before I knew him but when I was serving as a champion on our team for Recognition. The nomination was two pages long, an accounting of what made Wayne so special to his team, why he was so valued. At the time, I'd had about 30 such nominations to read and rank, and I had put his nomination at the top of the list, because it made such an impression on me. It had been written in 2008. I took it over to his desk. He happened to be working from home, so I left it there for him to find. He will not find it now.

But he can see it, from his dwelling in the great wondrous universe. He made us better than we were without him. He will continue to make us better, because we are not the same as we were before he touched our lives. We will continue to be better than we were, in his memory: so say we all. You have, perhaps, your own Wayne Powells; indeed, I hope and pray that you do. These gentle marvels who light our way in dark places without our even knowing it, these guides we do not miss until they go ahead of us; I hope you have been blessed with someone like Wayne.

Look up at the sky tonight, my heroes, and think of this great-hearted, humble man, who made people different and BETTER through his simple and genuine presence in their lives. Know that this was a man who did not need to be told or taught to assume the most positive intent from everyone he met, for he was molded in that fashion. Perhaps the Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. But last night, the wondrous universe welcomed that star to the Heavens, there to shimmer down on us, his inner beauty wholly and finally visible. Look up at the sky. There is our star.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

World without end. Amen. Amen.

A consecrated priest cannot be unmade. This is my profoundly untutored understanding of Roman Catholic canon law. It may be wrong. But when I was a cantor at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, I would sometimes lead congregations in song in this response: "You are a priest forever/In the line of Melchizedech". There are so many objections one can make: How can this be, given revelations of abuse and horror these past few years? How can this be, given women are excluded? How can this be, how can this be? But as spring rises amongst us with tender fig leaves and wild violets blooming and the Lenten season provides time for reflection and contemplation, it is resonant with me. And it has nothing to do with priests. It has everything to do with consecration.

My Dear Old Person and I were talking about our treasured beach walks not long ago. He said something along the lines of, I need to start to focus on photography on the beach; I won't always be able to swing a metal detector. And it's true. As much as he loves looking for lost or forgotten treasures he knows he'll have to use a different toolkit in the next few years. He is not the invincible man I married so long ago. We often talk about how things have changed in the course of his chronic illness, how frustrating it is for him to be unable to do things he took for granted just a few years ago.

Did you know him then? Do you remember when there was nothing he could not fix? Whether it was a motor vehicle of any kind or a light fixture or an irrigation system or a computer, he could fix it. Friends used to joke-but-not-joke that he could lay hands on anything mechanical and from its state of refusal or injury or wounded-ness he could call it back amongst the living. Did you know him then? Because it was true. It wasn't smoke and mirrors. At his core was a diagnostic ability sometimes found and revered in medicine, an almost mystical ability to dial in on underlying causes and invisible connections between systems that cause stutters or even abject failure. His mind made synaptic leaps and so-true connections that other minds - really smart ones - weren't able to make. Even for a mechanical and mathematical underachiever like me it was easy to see. And it's still there, of course. It's hidden behind some medical and chemical dysfunction which are normal parts of his prognosis. It's just harder to see, harder to trust. Unless maybe...did you know him then? He was the one who, back in the mid-90s, thought it would be a good idea to spend nearly $2500 on a PC with a hard drive barely sufficient to host today's operating systems. He was the one who took it apart. He added hard drive space, added RAM, added video cards...belief in the future that ultimately positioned me for a career of surprise and delight. Did you know him then? If not you might have to stretch to see all that today. And sometimes he will say, This isn't fair to you. You should find a person who...But I can still see him. I knew him them. I know him now. And he is consecrated to me, as I am to him.

Consecration cannot be unmade. The promise cannot be unmade. In some cases the consecration cannot be made "officially" - I think about gay friends who are not free to consecrate their commitments publicly. Still, people bravely make these promises and they are as sacred as any promise consecrated in any church or mosque or synagogue. Consecration, by my definition, doesn't mean some specific imprimatur of this or that religion. It is a sacrament, which we must each define by our own lights.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't very good reasons for humans to end relationships, to move forward as is right for each of us. I do not presume to judge what's right for anyone, for we must all make our own lives and our own joy. We must all make things right for ourselves, our hearts, our beloved ones - none can judge. But consecration is for always. You can pull up the plants but you cannot unplant the seeds. They will give rise to plants you may or may not choose to harvest and this is as it should be for each of us. For me and my Dear Old Person, I am thankful to the notion of consecration: as constant as a garden. It turns with the rhythm of the planets, and brings forth its own rewards.

May the blessings of wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and love be upon us all.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Go in Peace

When they are grown, when all those moments you meant to remember and cherish for all time are in the past and their edges are softening, you and I can see our children: enormous and tiny. They are at once too big and too small, as though we've turned the telescope of time backward. And sometimes they are perfectly captured, frozen snapshots of memories, as lustrous and perfect as the tiniest insects preserved in amber. We see them sleeping in bed alongside us, in their white cribs, in those superhero toddler beds we put together when the crib was outgrown. We walk with them, carrying them like precious gems, balancing them on jutted-out hips, small fingers caught in our own, arms draped around their narrow shoulders, and when they tower over us, with our arms snaked around their waists. We see an endless series of discrete moments in like progressions marking the unique growth and shaping of each child, unique and unrepeatable. A shadow of grief may touch us when we put to bed in the evening one small, busy person only to be greeted in the morning by a wholly new small person, subtly but surely changed; such is the nature of growth. Such is the lot of parents, whose universal reality is that we must always, always let go. When they sleep in their own beds, we let them go. When they stop nursing in favor of food, we let them go. When we drop our fingers to rejoice in their first tottery steps, we let them go. When we take them to the door of their first school and watch them go inside, we let them go. In a million ways and with an equally endless combination of emotions, we let them go.

This weekend was one of particularly stunning spring weather in northeastern Florida, those last few days of mid-70s temps with warm Atlantic water, streaks of high bright clouds and almost no humidity; the days we welcome with open windows and billowing curtains. We walked a long way on a falling-tide beach, kept company by more people than usual for the time of year, likely sharing a recovery from the lingering winter, their faces upturned like sunflowers. Kids slid along the surf on skim boards and rolled in on boogie boards. I could see porpoises beyond the sandbar, and I thought of whales moving through the warm water to cooler environs and sea turtles, readying themselves to follow their inborn compasses to lay eggs on these beaches.

One of my sons sent a message. Had I heard about the tragic death of one of the kids he'd spent years with in Little League? I had not. Memories. Snapshots. The face of this kid - and the face of his dad, who coached and umpired - called those captured moments to mind. All the years our boys played baseball, before they went off to high school and all its attractions and distractions, we spent countless hours with other families with whom we had varying degrees of connection. There were hours of practices, games, tournaments, matter how poetic or prosaic it might have been, no matter how personally connected we felt or didn't feel, we spent a LOT of time together. And now this athletic, smart-alecky, funny, competitive, challenging and interesting kid was gone, the victim of a tragic accident.

As I walked, I heard a kid shout behind me, "Dad! Hey! Dad! Can you help with this?" Behind me were two kids, presumably brother and sister, working on some kind of sand sculpture or game. The parents were comfortably perched in chairs under an expansive umbrella. They glanced at each other, smiling, and waved the kids off: You're fine; go ahead; we're comfortable. I very nearly turned back to look at the dad, to say, Go. Go and go and go every time one of them calls for you. You will never know - none of us will ever know - what time is allotted to us, to them, to this existence on this Earth, in this life. Go! Their childhood may be all you're thinking of, but the letting go may be SO MUCH more permanent than you expect...Go! These are not the same boys, but they are the faces of children who remind me that there is no time but now. We see them backward; we imagine them forward. But there is no real time but now.

I did not turn back. I walked forward, thinking about Brandon Young Bush, thinking about how he touched my life. Thinking about how his dad touched my life, thinking how they both challenged me to be better, stronger and maybe even a little smarter. Thinking: All we do is let them go. Thinking, Go in peace, Brandon Young Bush. Go in peace, and may peace find and comfort the hearts of those who loved you so much that you will be with them always. Shifting, ephemeral, timeless as the ocean; present and yet gone, for they have Let You Go, sorely though it has broken their hearts. So go in peace, young friend, to love and serve the Lord as an angel in the firmament of the Heavens.

Brandon Young Bush


Requiescat in pace

Note: This post is written without the editorial skills of Dylan Christensen; any and all errors are my own. Photo credit (c)Rodney Christensen

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The people we know, the people we don't know, and how we cross that divide today

Today someone asked me, "So do you think you'll post to your blog again?" in the nicest possible way, and I thought about how not writing it kills some teensy part of me, and how writing it takes time and care and the willingness to look at a screen for more hours than I do on a regular work day, and here I am. Having weighed those two considerations against one another, factored in another Rather Important Something I wanted to do today, I find I have Done Math. And as frightening as that news is to serious mathematicians everywhere, the resulting equation has led me to this result. I am writing a post this evening. It's also only fair to mention, for a couple of reasons, that I'm reading P. G. Wodehouse. Reasons: he's funny in all the best ways; he reflects all the ways in which it has been possible to cross the social divide expressed in my title, and - most importantly - he was so good at his business that no one ever minded if he told the same story more than once.

The long-form blog you're now enjoying was abandoned by me a couple of years ago, in favor of one or two of its snappier cousins of the micro-blog form, including the ubiquitous Facebook, the more elusive but fascinating Instagram and the lurid, not-for-the-fainthearted Twitter. There's more reliance on images to convey ideas and less room for blather. Twitter being the Land of the Free Celebrity and the Home of the Brave Troll and Heckler, Instagram offered a certain promise. Not so much of your mother's high school NHS pals; not so many inappropriately public celebrity battles between family members. I liked Instagram. There was a developing community of common interests, some banding of citizen photographers with similar subject matter, and some figuring out of how to make, or more often, supplement, a living by leveraging those micro-connections. Doubtless there are trolls, but it's been quiet on that front for me so far. I connected with people who liked books, with people who took gorgeous shots of their gardens, or their backdrops while on their morning runs in Sydney or on the Isle of Man, or of moths or old houses. I found people who were Boxer fosters. I was found by people who live near an altogether different Ponte Vedra than the one in northern Florida. There are old friends, and local folks I've never met but with whom I share an acquaintance or two. There are people whose interests skim close to my own, and include the preservation of a nearly-lost Florida. Which is where it got interesting today.

On a yearlong challenge to visit all the state parks in Florida and having driven from Tampa (roughly) through the terrifying roadways of Orlando, stood atop the northernmost beach access walkover at the GTM Research Reserve with my dear old person and me this afternoon. They had thoughtful questions. They took notes. They cared about things like North Atlantic right whales and sea turtle nesting and kayaking and water levels and salinity. They had quite a lovely dog, who is not a Boxer, but is a rescue with a great deal of dignity, and a new appreciation for stairs. They plan to spend another day or so, exploring the #gtmreserve and visiting some of the state parks in northeastern Florida. Just yesterday we thought they were People We Didn't Know. Today, they're People We Know, and people we want to know even better. And just as I was thanking my lucky micro-blogging stars for the connection, I happened to read the blog roll of @ThatFloridaLifePress. It features @BlessOurHearts. I can only hope that my taletelling is sufficient unto the day, and that my generous readers, like those of the sainted P.G. Wodehouse, will hardly mind at all the telling of the same fine story, many times more than once.

Note: This post appears without the editorial oversight of Dylan Christensen, whose presence is sorely missed by this blog.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The stuff we're born with, and (maybe) the stuff we're not

Lately I've been thinking about What We Come With: What qualities, what personality traits, are pre-loaded for us before we're aware? Before we're born? Before, even, the joining of our parents' genetic codes begin to describe us? What defines me as a lodestone for some people? What makes other people into celestial bodies around which I am compelled to orbit? Fair warning: it's a very me-me-me blog post; this is your chance to get out quickly.

People are coming and going so quickly in my own life right now. My father, from whom I've been quietly distant for long years, is facing the very serious illness of his wife. My Dear Old Person just suffered the loss of a nephew who, through an odd happenstance of timing, was more a brother than a dweller in the next generation. Other losses have already been touched upon in this forum. My mother's sister, whose kindness to me was profound, died just months ago; again, because of gentle estrangement, I didn't know about it. And some amazing re-connections have offered themselves to me in recent months, wrapped in grief and happy memory in almost equal measure, as though there were some great balancing scale by which the taking and the giving were>
Thoughts of my father are stepping stones to memories of my mother. Those overlaid recollections take me to music, straight as angels. My mother had known my father for some time before she married him, apparently on the rebound from a teenage romance. If she fell in love with him, according to her sister, it was during the singing of music in the church choir; it was in the blending of her unaffected alto with his sweet light baritone. It may not have been romantic love that saw them married, the sister of my mother said to me. It might have been the romance of music, the power of blended voices, that connected them and brief time, produced me. If I did not know the power of the romance of music as well as I do, I might not believe it. But I do. I do, because I can't remember a time at which I couldn't hear harmony in my head. I don't remember not knowing how to hear a third or a fourth above or below a melody line, though I had no words for any of those things. Since before I can remember, I've sung in configurations of voices in which I was always an alto. Was I born, thanks to my mother's warm alto or my father's sweet baritone, to have this voice? Was I born to wrap a melody in harmonies in my heart, whether or not anyone else could hear it? Did it come from them? Did it come from some ancestral power or benediction? It seems a silly cliche to ask whether the power of music might have some from my Scotch-Irish ancestors. And yet...consider my cousin Susan, whose mother is my father's sister. Susan is a Dade on her mother's side of the family, as I am on my father's side. And as I am an Irish McCaffrey on my mother' side, so is Susan an Irish McConnell. I was eleven years old when my mother died. Before then, my mother exposed me to classical music, to bluegrass, to country, but most of all, to the American folk music of her time, with its blood relationship to the broadside ballads of England and Ireland laid bare. I took in the interpretations of Joan Baez before I could read. What did Susan hear? And what does it mean?

I asked my older son whether he could recall a time when, as a child, he could not hear harmony in his head.He said, more or less, "It's funny you ask that. Someone asked me about it recently, and I was surprised to realize that it's not possible for everyone else to filter out other parts. I can hear the melody, or the melody and one part, or all the parts...I can filter them out as I want. And I'd never realized that not everyone can do that."

Yeah, me neither.

But as our venerated teacher of music and musical director used to tell all of us who came through her choir always reminded us, there was learning, too. There was practice. There was the plain fact that when we were paid to spend an hour or so singing at a wedding or a funeral, we weren't being paid for that hour. We were paid for every practice, every lesson, every rehearsal, every moment spent singing the difficult sections in our heads; in fact, we were paid for every time we dreamt about the intricacies of a triplet or the defiant near-impossibilty of the 16-notes so beloved of Handel. So what did we bring to her, as students? And what did we take away from her? It's a tiny example, I know, but what do we bring into this world that is wholly our own, undiluted or enhanced by experience?

Since I like to share some food before sleeping I'll leave you with a reference to the image I posted last night to Istagram and Facebook, unless you can see this one. As a July Fourth finish, I made the James Beard cream biscuits of which we've often spoken here, recounted affectionately in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham. This time they had fresh blueberries tucked inside. These were topped with a mixture of mashed sweetened strawberries and plain strawberries and blueberries, finished with gently sweetened fresh whipped cream. The cream biscuit recipe is simple and beautiful, and nothing's better in all the summer than fresh berries. So. If you need to know how to make the biscuits let me know. Or just ease back into your chair, think interesting thoughts, read something wonderful and bask in the opportunity summer offers us all to macerate our ideas together before we dream about the stuff we might be born with, once and always our own, and the stuff we might re-imagine, making richer with experience: the stuff that must inevitably define us?