Permanent ink

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Fractions have always frightened me a bit. They’re so cold and emotionless – I just don’t trust them.

I can probably trace this irrational fear back to my high school algebra teacher – Miss Sullivan. She must have been around 87 when I took her MANDATORY class. She was 4’ll” in sensible pumps, a wiry whirling dervish of a woman and I have no doubt that she could have easily kicked the football coach’s ass if she needed to. And she was the most intimidating person I had ever met at the fragile age of 14.

She had no patience for students who were not proficient in the way of polynomials and she could hunt us down like a shark in bloody waters. I still take considerable pride in the fact that I never cried in her class. Lord knows, I wanted to. And for the record, unlike baseball, there is crying in algebra.

This is a rambling way of saying that I’ve been thinking about fractions a lot lately. Today marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death – a heady milestone for sure. 15 years is a very long time and maybe it was The Ghost of Algebra Teacher Past who made me realize that I have now lived over a ¼ of my life without my mother. Damn. And I thought fractions were emotionless.

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Frances Elizabeth Garbee. My mother as a child.

These deathiversaries have always been important to me and I try to observe the big ones in meaningful ways. On the 10th anniversary of Mom’s death, I hosted a high tea at a beautiful hotel for several women who had become mother figures in my life. It was an elegant late afternoon affair – an event my mother would have loved – especially since we transitioned from tea to champagne as evening came.

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December 7, 2012. High tea at the O’Henry Hotel.

I shared remembrances of my mother and a few folks read poems as we sat on plump loveseats.  The hotel was decorated for Christmas and we were bathed in the warm holiday lights. It was the perfect celebration that I had envisioned.

A lot has happened in the five years since that evening. I married my dear wife – whose middle name just happens to be the same as my mother’s first name – Frances. A divine coincidence that has pleased me enormously. They have much in common besides a name. My mother was always a lady – graceful and gracious – as is my wife. Although, my wife is much more even-tempered which also pleases me enormously. I’m certain they would have enjoyed sipping champagne with one another.

And there have been some big transitions. I moved 30 miles down I-40 to a new city and I lost a job I dearly loved and along with it some friends that I thought were, well, friends. And I found a new spiritual home – just when I needed it most after the desolation of the 2016 election.

Oh, and I rode on a boat up the Grand Canal in Venice. It is a good thing in life to be dazzled occasionally.

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I lament the sights and sites my mother didn’t live to see.

There were highs and lows and all the everyday stuff in between that make up a life. And I missed my parents every single day but I finally learned to co-exist peacefully with grief. It wasn’t an Oprah “a-ha” moment where everything suddenly crystalized. No, it was more like blowing out a candle at the end of the evening. A gentle rush of breath and then the hushed still of the night. I finally stopped wrestling with grief and then it seemed to not be that interested in me. Grief is fickle like that.

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Both of my parents died in 2002. This is my favorite photograph of them taken in the early 1960’s.  They look like the movie stars they were to me.

But I still wanted to do something special to mark this milestone. I thought about another gathering of my “mom” figures – there are some new ones in the circle as others have drifted for reasons known and unknown. But I just wasn’t feeling it – besides, this year felt more like tequila than tea.

So the next logical way to celebrate my mother was to get a tattoo. WTF? I thought that might get your attention. When the idea came to me, I smiled my cheeks off. And then one word came to mind – disdain. That’s how my mother would have felt about a tattoo – any tattoo. But she always supported me in whatever path – misguided or not – that I took, so I think she would feign disdain but secretly like my new tattoo.

Yes, I really got a tattoo to honor my mother. And I love it. And I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. It is a glorious gift to myself.

My mother was a true daughter of the South in all the best ways – well mannered and charming. She could be yelling at me or one of my siblings like a banshee one moment and then answer the phone with a voice so warm it would melt butter. She taught me how to set a formal table, write a timely and engaging thank you note, and never to chew gum in public.

She was also a steel magnolia. A few hours before she died from cancer – a brutal one but I suppose they all are – her oncologist came to her bedside to pay his respects. He looked at her unconscious body and then turned to me and my brother and sister, shook his head reverently and said, “Your mother was tough as nails.”

That was nothing, of course, that I didn’t already know. She was grace under pressure and I can only hope I have a thimble of that fortitude.

So, I knew my tattoo had to be a magnolia blossom. That was Mom’s favorite flower and she would often decorate with them – layers and layers of magnolia leaves at Christmas. When she died, a family friend painted an exquisite watercolor for us – “In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – and we used the image on thank you cards.

I took one of the cards I had saved into Newport Tattoo when I was in California recently visiting my sister. I showed it to Kareem, a tattoo artist and the shop owner, and he gave me his thoughts on the size and positioning and I made an appointment for a few days later.

If you ever want to feel older and squarer than you are – go to a tattoo shop. It’s a little hard on your ego but everyone treated me very kindly considering I was the oldest one in the shop by at least 20 years. Okay, 25.

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Newport Tattoo, Newport Beach, CA. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone.

I really didn’t have any second thoughts about my plan, but I did get a little anxious as the day of inking arrived. I have three small tattoos – all black – and they didn’t take long to complete. I was nervous about my two-hour multi-colored tour with Kareem. And when you’re getting a tattoo in honor of a steel magnolia you better not be a wimp about it.

You might be wondering about now, “Why a tattoo?” I don’t know if it will make sense to you but for me a tattoo is like a short story – a visual manifestation of a personal narrative. A tattoo is an intimate expression that becomes a constant companion along the journey.

My tattoo is on my inner forearm. I almost always wear long sleeves, except for t-shirts in the summer or at the gym, so my tattoo is truly for me. Full disclosure: Dear wife wasn’t thrilled about it but she is a lot like my mom when it comes to supporting my sometimes quirky ideas.

There’s also something about the cultural aspect of tattoos that I find fascinating. There are some studies that suggest that in ancient times tattoos were used as part of a healing or strengthening ritual. I know that my tattoos feel like talismans to me – touchstones of calm and peace. I certainly don’t need permanent ink to feel close to my mother – I feel her presence daily – but my tattoo is a tangible reminder of her elegance and strength.

I suppose there’s something adventurous and bold about a tattoo that speaks to me, too. It’s like literally wearing your alter ego on your sleeve. In my real life, I am pressed to perfection – my creases have creases thanks to my dry cleaner. I have played by the rules most of my life and I think the events of the past couple of years have made me rethink the wisdom of that approach. Getting a tattoo feels liberating to me.

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My mom and me.

My mom was a rule follower, too – that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She died at 70, which has always felt like a huge rip-off to me. There were so many things she never got to do – like watch her grandchildren grow up or see Paris. “Life isn’t fair” she would often say to me when I was a sullen teenager complaining about being told no when I wanted to do something ALL my friends were doing.

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Words to live by.

Turns out, she was right. Life isn’t fair, but it does hold a lot of wonderful surprises in between some staggering disappointments and maybe my magnolia tattoo is a moderately bold reminder that one can be a lady but still break a few rules along the way. Maybe I just want my mom’s blessing to be a bit of a badass and take more chances.

I think daughters never get over wanting their mother’s approval. I recently saw a YouTube video of Anna Wintour interviewing Meryl Streep and at the end of their conversation, Wintour hands Streep the current issue of Vogue that features the most decorated actress in the history of forever on its cover. Streep gushes as she views her glamorous  photograph and then shakes her head a little wistfully, sighs, and almost whispers, “I wish my mother were alive to see it.” And in that moment, Meryl Streep looks like a little girl.

I know that girl.

The longing for my mother’s presence is a steady undertow that rarely ebbs even after 15 years, but today I’ll celebrate the beauty and richness of her life instead of dwelling on those pesky fractions. Sure, I suppose they’re useful, but I bet even Miss Sullivan knew that fractions make lousy tattoos.

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“In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – tattoo by Kareem Masarani.

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Ink imitates art.

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SoCal state of mind

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Palm tree perfection.

I am having an affair. It has been going on for a while now. Rudy Giuliani says it’s okay because everybody does it but don’t worry – my dear wife is well aware of my transgressions. The object of my affections is long and tan and young and lovely. She is the state of California.

Our relationship began years ago – in the early 90’s when I made my first trip to the Golden State on business. I landed in San Diego and saw palm trees. California palm trees. I was smitten. It was all so exotic to a girl who had grown up in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

To me, Southern California is the cool kids with the cutest clothes – the ones you hope invite you to their party. SoCal knows it’s cool, too, but it’s very laid back about it all. It’s paradise with a youthful attitude and a side of caramelized brussels sprouts. And not everyone looks the same. It’s alive with energy and bursting with diversity and I absolutely love it.

And California is just too cool to care that folks on the east coast run that “left coast” moniker into the ground. Whatever, dudes.

My sister bears some of the blame for my SoCal lust. She married into California in 1993 – she met her husband when they were both working at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. He lived in a condo in Del Mar, a small beach city in San Diego County – a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And by overlooking, I mean dangling. It is a breathtakingly dramatic view.

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THE view. Del Mar, CA.

I know what you’re thinking but she really did marry for love – not real estate. And she still has the husband – and the condo. He’s retired now and she’s working in Newport Beach so they see each other on weekends. It works for them. Some of my married friends think it’s the perfect scenario.

My sister picked me up at the airport that first visit and I can still remember my head spinning as we drove to Del Mar – the terra-cotta colored mountains in the distance and all those fabulous palm trees. And then she turned onto a steep hill leading straight down to the Pacific Ocean. I felt like we were driving into the ocean.

We had lunch on the patio of an oceanfront (understatement) restaurant. We shared a split of champagne and I was baptized in a mist of bubbles and ocean spray. It was love at first sight. I saved the cork from that bottle for years – somehow even then I knew I needed a talisman for that place and that feeling.

And then we went to her condo. On a clear day you can see, well, not forever, but Catalina for sure. I felt like I was in an episode of Santa Barbara, one of my favorite soap operas back in the day. The sun was shining, as it almost always is, but the air was light and cool. Del Mar had me at cool.

Del Mar will always have me for another reason, too. This is where we scattered my mother’s ashes a year after her death. Mom made Karen Walker from Will & Grace look outdoorsy. She just didn’t really see a compelling reason to be outside unless you were at an outdoor mall. But she loved everything about Del Mar – the climate, the flowers and best of all to her – the absence of any bugs. She always immensely enjoyed her visits to see my sister and her husband and I like to think she’s at peace in that beautiful spot.

I am in many ways my mother’s daughter and I have spent most of my adult life in a climate conundrum, too. You see, I love the ocean but I hate the heat and humidity of summer. In Southern California I have found the best of both worlds – with valet parking.

Last month, I spent two magical weeks with my sister in Newport Beach and since I’ve been home I’ve been suffering from SoCal Syndrome – a condition characterized by a general malaise and a craving for Cioppino and avocado toast. The only thing that seems to help curb the symptoms is a triple, venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato and some reruns of The O.C..

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It’s almost a straight shot from WS to NB.

This has led me to try to trace the roots of my obsession with a place 2,452 miles away from where I live. We have to go back – like the way, way back of my childhood. I can remember being mesmerized by the I Love Lucy episodes when the Ricardos and the Mertzes drove cross-country to California when Ricky got a part in a movie. There’s a great episode where Lucy spots William Holden at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and, of course, hijinks ensue.(I’ve waited a long time to use that delightful phrase.)

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Lucy loved SoCal, too.

Even in black and white, Southern California looked so glamorous to me and some of that was probably the Hollywood connection. My mother was a practical and frugal woman but she indulged in a few guilty pleasures – like magazines. She subscribed to most of the mom magazines of her generation –  Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal (yes, that’s the Can This Marriage Be Saved? one) but she also got two magazines that I became obsessed with – Modern Screen and Photoplay. Okay kids, gather around the campfire and I’ll tell you about the olden days before People and InStyle.

Modern Screen and Photoplay were fan magazines that featured photographs and interviews with movie stars. Both publications reached their heydays in the 1950’s but were still in circulation until the late 70’s. I could hardly contain myself when they arrived in the mail and I would steal away into my bedroom to pore over the photos of stars in their Malibu homes. Again, it all seemed so intoxicating to a dour teenager with acne and split-ends for days.

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Must see TV.

And I’ve always been drawn to all the TV shows set in Southern California – even if I had aged out of the target audience – Beverly Hills, 90210 (Kelly Taylor was my fav) and Melrose Place (mad crush on Jane Mancini) and then finally, The L Word, a show about my people – impossibly rich, beautiful and thin lesbians who never seem to work and have time to meet for coffee three times a day at The Planet. I loved the scenery – in all manner of ways.

Okay, I know life is not a TV show unless you are a Kardashian or a certain presidential candidate and that the air is always cooler somewhere else. The truth is, I probably couldn’t live in SoCal fulltime for the same reason my sister is always whining about – it’s too damn sunny. My sister, in addition to being a radiation therapist, is also an esthetician and the sun has always been, in her mind, The Evil Empire. She spends more on skin care in a year than I do on wine. That’s a lot of moisturizer, my friends. But she has radiant flawless skin to show for it.

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My sister wearing SPF 1000. She prefers to come out at night.

That said, she struggles mightily with shielding her undamaged skin from the constant beat down of the California sun. If you happened to run into her on the beach, you might think she was Amish or maybe a beekeeper.  That girl covers up.

Mornings are usually pretty safe in Newport Beach because there is often a marine layer that takes a few hours to burn off before the sun is on high. But my sister longs for a rainy day – even just an overcast one – and I understand. She misses the seasons and I know I would, too. Okay, not summer but most certainly fall and spring.

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You’ve got to enjoy the fog while you can.

I talked to her last night and she was lamenting about how all the grocery stores near her are teeming with pumpkins and gourds and the likes in an attempt to at least give an appearance of fall. cali-fall

The last morning of my latest visit, I got up early and drove down to Newport Beach Pier. I bought a coffee and walked out far enough to have a great view of the surfers. In my next life, I will surf. I can’t imagine that rush – of riding a wave on a sparkly SoCal morning. It was cool to see so many young women among all the dudes – and very cool to see a lot of not so young dudes out there, too.

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Best board meeting ever.

My dear wife has joked lately to friends that she fears I might leave her for California. She doesn’t have to worry about that – unless I hit that Mega Million Jackpot. Just kidding. I adore my wife but she has lived her entire life in North Carolina and is not a big fan of change. We’ll have to figure it out if we’re ever fortunate enough to retire.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep watching those KAYAK price alerts and hoping that objects in the mirror really are closer than they appear.

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I’ll be seeing you…

 

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My mistress.

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California dreaming for now.

 

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My sentiments exactly.

Permanent ink

August 26, 2016

I am writing this somewhere over Colorado. The Flight Tracker screen shows that we will arrive at John Wayne Airport in 2 hr. 06 min. I can’t wait to see my sister who will pick me and my wife and my best friend from college up for a long weekend in Newport Beach – her home since January.

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Birthday party of four. (Photos by Addison Ore)

My calendar tells me that in 72 hours I will arrive at 60. I thought I was okay about it. Okay as in not freaked out or depressed but in the days leading up to the Big Six-Oh, I have found myself tearing up easily. Not necessarily sad, just emotionally tender.

I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot, so maybe that has something do with it. My father died at 79 and my mother died at 70. I’m really not being morbid, but I’ve always had it in my head that I, too, would die at 70. It’s probably the writer in me – what a gut wrenching story that would make, right? I think 70 used to seem so very far away but now that it’s on my radar, I am thinking that I really don’t want to write that story.

The absence of my parents has been a strong presence in my life for the past 14 years. It’s a bit like the undertow of the ocean. Sometimes I’m barely aware of it, other times I’m almost pulled under by it.

I suppose it’s rather cliché to ponder one’s own mortality at 60, but that is where I find myself in Seat 12E today. Lately, I’ve been looking at my life like one of those stupid slideshows that Facebook creates (why?) from time to time. I see quick images from my past – my high school graduation, a family vacation in Sandbridge, my first (really dumpy) apartment in Annandale, VA. I see joyous things – the births of my niece and nephew – and hard things – the breakup of my longtime relationship. And I see my failures much more clearly than my triumphs.

I also hear random memories – the sound of people playing touch football outside my apartment window on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon while I float in and out of a nap resting by my partner. I can hear the distant humming of a small plane in flight. I am probably 23 or so. I can smell that day – burning leaves in the distance. I can taste that day – a honey crisp apple.

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Memories of my moment.

I thought about that day the first time I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. There is a passage in that brilliant novel that always stands me still. Clarissa, one of the central characters, is preparing for a dinner party in honor of her dearest friend and former lover Richard, who is dying from AIDS. She recalls a day almost 30 year ago when she and Richard were together.

I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more… never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.” the-hours-book

That afternoon was my moment.

I’ve been blessed with an abundance of moments since then but that was the crystalline pure singular moment before I knew of death and grief and my own failings.

I just finished watching Everything is Copy in flight, a documentary about the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, written and directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein. It reveals a total woman – good, bad and wickedly funny. The title comes from something Ephron’s mother, a Hollywood screenwriter, always said to her kids growing up – “Everything is copy,” – meaning that everything that happens to you is fair game to write about.

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The late great Nora Ephron.

Ironically, the one thing that Ephron, who died in 2012, never wrote about was her illness – a serious blood disease that was diagnosed in 2006 and later developed into leukemia. Many of her closest friends were shocked to learn that she had been sick for so long. Ephron had spent her career writing about her life – her parents, her divorces and even her breasts.

In the documentary, her son reflects on why his mother didn’t share something so essential.

I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that not everything is copy – that the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away – the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything as copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist. 

I am fascinated that one of the most prolific and successful memoirists of our time was able to conceal such an intimate part of her life until her death. Ephron was oh so very clever, though, and in some ways wrote her own eulogy at the end of her final novel I Remember Nothing, published two years before her death, which included a list of What I Won’t Miss and What I Will Miss.

You can read both lists here but it is the list of things she will miss that made me tear up on my flight. It’s just a short inventory but it is so lyrically beautiful in its simplicity. It includes, of course, her husband and her sons but also butter and Paris. It includes taking a bath and one for the table. And pie.

Her list made me think of my own list. I’m not copying but I’m down with Paris and pie, too. And scrawling my list on my ever handy writing pad was a timely exercise in gratitude.

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Musings from 40,000 feet.

What I Will Miss

Joy

My sister

Rain

Thunderstorms

Kittens

The gloaming

Wine

Looking at the wine list

Pouring my wife another glass of wine

Dolphins

Lightning bugs

Frank Sinatra

Newsprint on my fingers from the Sunday NY Times

Independent films in tiny theaters

Communion

Pens

Pencils

Paper

Postcards

The sound of a foghorn

The sound of good friends laughing at the dinner table

The sound of crunching leaves on a fall walk

College football

Holy Week

Palm trees

Watching my wife cut up vegetables

Pizza

Sushi

Kathy Ausen’s chocolate chip cookies

Speaking bad Italian in Italy

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Postscript: I made it to Newport Beach and I made it to 60. So far, so good. I’ve blown out a lot of candles on a lot of birthday desserts lately and my wish has been consistent. In fact, my wish has become my mantra for this next chapter of my life. It’s short and it’s sweet and I want to keep it in front of me every day along the way. So I gave myself a little birthday present – a tattoo – as a reminder.

Nora Ephron’s mother was right – everything is copy. And I don’t want to miss a moment.

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What could go wrong?

 

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Sparkly wishes, sparkly days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of beaches

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I’m spending some time with my sister this week in Newport Beach. I booked this trip a day before I was fired in January and I suppose that is fortunate for my sister because otherwise, I may have left my return trip open-ended.

The world just feels so much bigger here – in all manner of ways. I guess the Pacific Ocean has something to do with it. Cue the ocean if you really want some good reflection time.

I find myself thinking less and less of my old life, the one where I was responsible for 17 staff and several hundred clients. I certainly think about many of my beloved colleagues and I’m so grateful that I had a chance to properly mark our time together at a gathering a few weeks ago.

It was a chilly night but we sat outside in a circle around a tall heat lamp in a makeshift cabana. We laughed a lot and we cried a little and we held each other in embraces free of any self-consciousness, the ones where  you don’t worry if it’s too long are too tight. It was a remarkably intimate evening and I’m certain that we all savored every minute of it. We know what we shared was special – almost sacred in some ways – and that can never be taken away.

Today, I am more angry than sad. I know that I was treated unfairly and ungraciously. I also know that life is rarely fair and the deaths of two friends in January certainly gave me some sobering perspective on the magnitude of my loss.

I find myself looking forward and while that can be a little scary, it is also terribly exciting. I feel lighter these days, more present.

Yesterday on the beach, metaphors were practically bopping me in the head like a cartoon character.

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I get it!

I took a long walk and stopped to watch the waves crashing against the jagged jetty – that’s how I felt for several weeks earlier this year – battered. And later in the day, I saw three children frolicking in the water – the frigid water. They were so impossibly brave – standing there to face the oncoming waves and they squealed with delight as they got smacked back on their heels.

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Enough of that.

I want to be brave like them. I want to not be afraid. I want to delight in the unknowing.

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I wish this photo had a soundtrack.

Late in the day, my sister and I walked to a perfect perch to view the sunset – the magnificent California sunset. It was brilliant and so quickly vanished. And then there was that exquisite time of every day – the gloaming. The sun is gone but it is not quite yet dark and there is a peace in the air that is almost palpable. My dear friend, Sarah, shared a wonderful song with me by Over the Rhine about this magical time, “Favorite Time of Light.” It goes like this:

It’s our favorite time of light
Just before the day kisses the night
You see the redwing blackbirds fly
The sun’s a big ol’ lazy eye
When they lay me down at last
And this life is finally past
Just remember me this way
And don’t forget to say
It’s our favorite
Our favorite time of light

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The gloaming.

I’ve been reading on the beach, too, and yesterday I finished The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zig-Zag Life by Natalie Goldberg. She has long been one of my favorite authors and I’m fairly certain she wrote this latest book just for me. Of course, that’s what all the truly great writers do – make that connection that the reader so desperately longs for.

Goldberg writes, “The Great Spring includes the Great Failure, the thorough-going reduction to nothing, to loss, disappointment, shame, betrayal. If we can stand sill and attentive in our lives and not run away, even right in the middle of the ruins, we will find fertile ground.”

I’ll be home soon. I have some planting to do.

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That’s me, looking forward.