Two Years On the Road

So here we are at the two year mark….

Where are you going?
Where are you going?
Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold
And needs warmth
Where are you going?

I packed this difficult week pretty full, partly by coincidence, partly by intention. Last Saturday I danced the Cider Days tour with the team, and managed to walk away with a sore arm from all the stick clashing. Last Sunday I decided to sign up to sing at Yule with the choir I can’t quite seem to quit even though practices are two hours west of my new place. One more month of Sunday evenings blocked out, but this really probably is the last of it. Thursday the youngest daughter and I went to a Bruins game, and Friday I came west for Tea, then stayed overnight to attend a wedding.

It was a wedding between a member of my team and the Wake Robin women, the second one of those we had this year. Both teams danced at that earlier wedding in June, and the Robins danced again yesterday. There was in fact a lot of dancing, and so much music that at one point I had to choose between being three different places. The bride is the daughter of one of the leaders of the contra dance revival in New England, and he called most of the contra dances. It was one hell of a party.

But that’s not why I was really happy to attend that wedding on the eve of the unhappy anniversary. Heidi and Jerry both lost a spouse to cancer, and that shared bond connected us in ways that surprised me.  No matter how different the rest of your life may be, a loss like that cuts so deeply to the core that all the surface choices we make about how we live our lives just don’t matter at all. We don’t talk all that often, but when we do, we can say more in one sentence than I can in an hour with most of my friends, even the closest ones. And I really hope it stays that way, because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, ever.

It was a very informal, non-traditional ceremony, officiated by a friend. Before they exchanged the vows, she talked about the different paths they had taken to get to where they were, their parallel paths and how they came together.  Afterwards I thought about this journey of my own.

Far beyond where the horizon lies
Where the horizon lies
And the land sinks into mellow blueness
Oh please, take me with you

Thirty-two years ago I was taken by surprise by a girl with incredible stories about a life lived in a hurry against a background of seemingly endless unfair challenges. She was a story that had to be told, and I wanted to hear it all. For thirty years we walked together, and I tried to shield her from all that as much as I could. Two years ago the thing I feared all along came to pass and we were parted far too soon.

Her stories are mine to tell now, and I do often. We added a bunch together along the way, but somehow they seem more hers than mine.

Let me skip the road with you
I can dare myself
I can dare myself
I’ll put a pebble in my shoe
And watch me walk (watch me walk)
I can walk and walk!
(I can walk!)

When I proposed to Barbara I asked her to skip the road with me, a somewhat out of context reference to the song “By My Side” from Godspell. I named this journal An Unwelcome Journey, but really this isn’t a new journey, it is just an unwelcome parting from the travelling companion I chose, and who chose me. We had our own paths, and chose to walk together as long as we could.

I shall call the pebble Dare
I shall call the pebble Dare
We will talk, we will talk together
We will talk (chorus) about walking

Several months ago as I was packing up the house I ran across a twelfth-century book titled “The Art of Courtly Love” by Andreas Capellanus, which includes his “Rules of Courtly Love”, which among other things prescribes a two year mourning period for a surviving lover.  I actually started writing something about that at the time, but scrapped it. By then I had learned not to try to make plans or schedules for myself. Two years is a completely arbitrary milestone.  This trip reveals itself to you as you go along, and plans keep getting rendered moot. Directions to point the way may be useful, as long as you are willing to change direction later. But schedules, those are meaningless.

Dare shall be carried
And when we both have had enough
I will take him from my shoe, singing:
“Meet your new road!”

What matters is the journey itself, and the company you find along the way.

Congratulations Jerry and Heidi, may your road together be long and happy. You both deserve it. It has been a joy seeing you two come together.

As for me, I’m lacing up my boots and walking on, wondering what I might find around the next bend.

 

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The Dream

IMG__3955The East Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) has a new King and Queen today. Yesterday I joined my old choir as we sang in the Last Court of  King Brennan and Queen Caoilfhionn,and later provided a little music to entertain the populace as King Edward and Queen Thyra sat in State. For me it was a last minute thing, as I had left the choir when I moved east, but they were short a tenor and asked if I could join them for this event (with only two weeks notice!). At first I wondered if the whole thing was going to be a train wreck, but on Friday night’s rehearsal it all pulled together just as it had for years.

IMG__3991Before she stepped down Caoilfhionn took her final liberty to address the populace. She spoke of the Queen’s duty to inspire the populace, but how she found her inspiration from watching the service of others, the love so many had for this organization built around the ideal of chivalry from a time long past. She thanked them all for being the Dream.

The Dream. That’s what SCAdians call it. It’s that ideal of chivalry that never was fully realized, that never can be full realized. What started out as a bunch of people at a theme party has grown into something quite extraordinary. For forty-nine years people have put in countless hours and unbelievable energy into building a community around those ideals. They come to practice armored combat, or archery, or create amazing period garb and art, or cook wonderful feasts, or provide music, but they do it all in service of The Dream. We spent over a decade in that community before life pulled us in other directions, but in that time we made some of the closest friends we ever had, and in the last two years they were part of the core of people who kept me from sinking under the weight of it all. One of them introduced me into another community built around crazy ideals, those Morris dancers I have written about.

Communities. There are lots of examples in the animal world of communities that support each other, from ant colonies to wolf packs to whale pods. People build communities around family blood lines and geography too, but we do more than than that. As we learn more and more about how advanced some animals are, how they are capable of things that we never realized, one thing still separates us from the rest:

IMG__3994We are the ones who build communities around ideas. We build them around shared interests, but the most important ones are built around ideals about how to make the world a better place.  Those communities call us to be more than we think we can be, to take batter care of each other and the world around us. Those are the places you can come home to, places where you can heal, and in time give back to those who gave when you couldn’t.

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Mountain Summers

IMG_1964One of Barbara’s favorite books was “Mountain Summers”. It is a collection of first hand stories of women who hiked in the White Mountains in the nineteenth century. She re-read it often, and was in the midst of a reading at the end. Those women were her heroines, hiking rough back-country in long skirts, never letting their expected place get in the way of where they wanted to be.

I played hooky from cleaning up the condo today and finally made it back up to the White Mountains myself. I hadn’t been in over two years; the last time we went was a day trip in May 2012, before everything fell apart. We were scouting sites for a camping weekend later that year that never happened.

My daughter and I had planned to go last summer for a camping trip, but her campaign work kept her tied up past the end of the season. We are planning on going up camping for a weekend or two next month, and maybe a whole week once her current assignment ends. But today we decided not to wait any longer and get up there, even if only for half a day. I am really glad we did.

For quite a while I have had this recurrent thought train of “I want to go home now”, followed by “You can’t go home, you have to build a new one.” While that is somewhat true, it isn’t the whole story. Getting back to Dolly Copp just for a walk around the campground made me realize that the magic in that place hadn’t been lost in her passing, instead, it had been crystallized by it.

EOS_Aug2009 005Almost every summer for twenty years we managed to make it up there for at least a week or two. She loved the place, and passed that along to our kids, and to me as well. For that week or two, we got rid of all the distractions and just spent concentrated time together as a family. I never got tired of the sight of Mount Madison in the morning, or the Imp Face in the afternoons, and the incredible view of the Milky Way far away from any light pollution. And the stories of her time up there as a kid, the same ones over and over.  She was only ten when her mother died, so there really weren’t that many years for her to go on, but she remembered everything.  When our nephew uploaded a batch of old family photos to Facebook last winter, I was able to tag her and comment, since I already recognized the stories behind so many of those pictures I had never seen before.

Today when I was walking around the campground with my daughter, I recognized myself doing the same thing she always did, as each spot triggered memories of those times together; more years than she had with her mother, but still far too few.

I was a little worried about what returning to that place might do to me, but now I know. This is the place I can return to.  This is the home I was looking for.

Cities change, they evolve with time and commerce. Buildings come and go, people move in and out, are born and die at a dizzying pace. We are transient creatures. The mountains aren’t like that. They defy our timescale completely. They witness our comings and goings, and the mountains remember. And when we go back there, they remind us of who we are.

 

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A Year and Change

IMG__0994Another May Eve and May Day have come and gone. Last May dawned clear and bright as I joined my team for the first time. This May Day didn’t so much dawn as it did lighten the rain clouds slightly. The team gathered in the rain and danced in the Summer anyway. After a short stand at the home of one of our Four Foremen of the Apocalypse, we walked up the road to the town common to join the other teams that gather there each year. Oh, did I mention we took the Easy Up canopy with us? Accordions don’t do well in the rain. Actually we took the canopy over us, and a few of us danced our way up onto the rainy common sheltered under a moving tent. Because we could.

Last year I needed that May Day sunrise to lift my spirits and believe that I would eventually get through my long hard winter. This year I actually didn’t mind the rain that much at all. It never got fully horizontal, after all, although it did seem to intensify every time our team took our turn at that stand on the common. We mocked the sky and kept dancing wearing our normal spring kit, with our jackets left under that canopy. Rain jackets are definitely NOT part of kit.

IMG__1062After our stand on the common, we headed down to the University to have breakfast, and dance a few stands at gardens on the campus. The rain actually let up a bit by mid-morning, and the permaculture provided a fitting if soggy site. This was our second year dancing there, and it’s becoming a fixture of the May Day tour.

IMG__1112As last year, we headed down to a local charter school to do a stand for the elementary students in their gym, where the weather would not be an issue in any case.  The kids were fantastic this year, probably the most enthusiastic the team could remember. It didn’t hurt to have some kids from the school on the youth team with us, or for that matter, the utterly fantastic team of teenagers along as well.

IMG__1146We ended the tour as we always do, dancing a short stand for the lunch group at the local senior center. The senior lunches are held in the same room the team uses for practice every week.  We had a fun stand with one of the women’s teams that frequently tours with us. Once again, Barbara’s friend from the knitting group was there. This time she was looking for me, and I for her. After the stand we met and this time, instead of having a cry together we just caught up, as I let her know how my girls and I were doing.

Just as I left the room it suddenly dawned on me that for the last year and some change, I had been practicing in the same place she spent all her Fridays, helping the seniors run their knitting circle, and hearing all their stories from their lives, stories from all over the world, because it was a really interesting and diverse group of women. The fact that it was the same place had never occurred to me in all that time. I laughed out loud at my own cluelessness. For a moment I thought that for the last year I had been dancing for her, but really that’s not true. I did this for me, to force myself to keep moving when I really didn’t want to, to avoid getting stuck in my hole.

A year ago I needed that sun, because I needed to feel warmth from something. I needed a perfect spring weekend, I needed all that sun to thaw my frozen numb psyche out. I thawed, and got past numbness. For a long time after that mostly what I felt was pain, but at least I could feel something, and that was a start. Over the last year I learned to dance with that pain, to explore it, to bear it.

One for grief, one for growth. That’s what I have been telling myself over the last few months, as I looked at the cleanup behind me, and the work left to do to put my life back together. Well, growth is messy. It requires water, and fertilizer, and it’s often muddy. Let it rain this May Day, and as often as it needs to in this year of growth.

This afternoon, after we had lunch together, after all the dancing and singing was done, we left the pub into a bright sunny afternoon. “We did it!” we laughed, “we danced the sun back out.”

Yes, I believe we did. Thank you, Juggler Meadow Morris Men, Wake Robin, Hart’s Brook, and ASY, and Concentus and the Third Saturday Gang, too.

It’s good to be on the other side.

 

 

 

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How You Dance With It

We danced the last stand of the 2013 season yesterday the the New England Folk Festival. Why the last stand of 2013 you ask? Because Cotswold Morris is a May thing, and it isn’t May yet, of course. My brother , coming from his theater background, suggested we should have called it a “preview performance”. Perhaps that would be more fitting, given the train wreck that was “John Peel”. We never got it that bad at practice, and I suspect I was in the middle of the breakdown. The team recovered nicely though, and I even managed to not badly screw up Banbury Bill while dancing the first corner. After examining photos of the day, however, I am convinced that I both need to pay more attention to my knees during Queen’s Delight and lose at least twenty pounds.

Insight can come from the strangest corners. When I was getting quotes for the move a couple of months ago, I ended up having a discussion with the owner of the moving company. Movers often deal with people at emotionally intense periods of their lives, either for good or for bad reasons. Certainly the move into that house was one of the better events in our life together, and moving out alone was one of my low points. He talked about having met with someone who had suffered a loss, and again later after she had time to recover, and remarking to that she looked much better. Her reply was interesting enough to him that he remembered it and repeated it to me:  “The grief is always there, it’s just how you dance with it.” He had no idea I had taken up the Morris to keep me moving during my crazy year. (It’s kind of disturbing re-reading that post from last spring and seeing how much that metaphor of rebuilding a wreck ended up playing out literally before I could leave the house behind.)

It’s how you dance with it… That thought came back to me yesterday when I had trouble recognizing a dancer in familiar kit from another team from across the room. I finally realized the problem was that I was looking at a face that was smiling, and was in fact used to smiling. The last time I saw her, the better part of a year ago, she still had that survivor’s face, the one that can’t hold a smile for very long, the same one I saw in the mirror so many times.

She’s learning her dance, I thought.

So many of us are learning our dances, and we all find our own way to do it. We don’t get to call the music in this life, but we get to call the dance. The music is going to play no matter what we do, so we might as well dance. So what if it’s in a minor key? It’s still music, and it’s the only music we’ve got. The music of life goes on, and it calls us to respond. It calls us to carry our grief back into life and move with it.

We can dance alone with our grief, or find another partner and dance a pas de trois, or maybe we find a team. We can dance to a boxman, a fiddler, or a tin whistle, 80’s rock, or big band. We can dance with bells and hankies, or garlands, or barefoot.  Maybe at first we can only just shuffle along. Whatever we do, the more we dance, the better we get at it.

Spring is here, and I’ve got the physical wreckage behind me. I’m finding my feet, I’m finding my own smile again. There is a lot to celebrate, even if I will always have grief in my life. That is still a big change from last year, where I was struggling to find space for life in my grief.

Thursday, at sunrise the music comes around for another turn. I’ll be there, with my team, with bells on.

“….This time!”

 

 

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The Last 500 Days

I have had this mental image building ever since I found that card in the basement, linking me back to the very beginning of our time together as I cleaned up the last debris of that time. It came into focus last week, once again in a song. This one is from “The Last Five Years”, an off-Broadway musical from 2002. Jason Robert Brown wrote the music and lyrics, basing it on the rise and fall of a relationship.

Brown chose an interesting device to tell the story: The couple go through the events in opposite chronological orders: The opening number is Catherine singing a song titled “Still Hurting” about the end of the relationship, which is followed by Jamie singing a song about the “Shiksa Goddess” he just met. The focus continues switching between the couple as she goes backwards and he forwards until they meet in the middle of the show for “The Next Ten  Minutes”, where they are briefly in sync and exchange marriage vows. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, because we already know the marriage is doomed from Catherine’s arc to get there.

The piece ends with Cathy singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” a beautiful number that captures the breathless anticipation after that first date where you feel something big is about to happen. Jamie joins in from the end of the timeline with “I Could Never Rescue You”, as he packs up the apartment and moves out.

The circumstances are not at all the same, a breakup of a five year relationship has very little in common with a death after thirty years together, but there is something resonant in the images of him looking back from the end, juxtaposed with her looking forward from the beginning, especially with me finding that first card on the last day at the house.

There I was at the end of it all, looking all the way back to her at the beginning, seeing her anticipate all our tomorrows…

So goodbye until tomorrow!
Goodbye until my feet touch the floor
And I will be waiting
I will be waiting!
Goodbye until tomorrow
Goodbye until the rest of my life
And I have been waiting
I have been waiting for you
Waiting for you
Waiting for you

I had been waiting for her too. That card brought back the memory of a date that lasted until 3am on a work night when I had a 45 minute drive back to my apartment and a staff presentation on my project to deliver the next day. I thought I was going to be a zombie, but amazingly, everybody told me it was a great presentation. I had found my muse.

But all her tomorrows are all our yesterdays to me now. I have spent over a year of yesterdays alone looking back at her already. I started out thinking I could somehow package all I knew of her, all those bits and pieces, that ability we had to finish each others’ sentences, into some kind of lingering presence of her in my mind, a continuing version of her voice providing a running commentary on my life. After a while it became apparent that was a misguided idea. All the conversations are one sided monologues, just wishing she was still around to hear me.

But I could never rescue you
No matter how I tried
All I could do was love you hard
And let you go.

So here I am at the letting go part, the hardest part of all. I sold the house, I spent the last year trying to build a bridge to something next. A whole lot of people helped to get me across that chasm. Now I have to step off and find a life on this side.

No matter how I tried
All I could do was love you
God, I loved you so

So that’s how our story ends. For months I have been trying to figure out how to close this epilogue, but in the end it wrote itself.

Her 51st birthday is a week away on May Eve. On May Day at sunrise I start the second year with my team. Last year I danced with grief, in my year of fallow fields, but the Morris is fundamentally about Spring and the return of growth.

One for grief, one for growth. It took a lot longer and was a lot harder than I anticipated, but last year I cleared away the rubble. This year I plant, and look forward to see what grows.

Just close the gate
I’ll stand and wait
Jamie…

We didn’t want to end that first date, stretching it until 3am, but eventually we had to say it…. and now, after the last 500 days, even though she never said it, I know I have to…

BOTH
Goodbye 

 

 

 

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The Final Gift

TheLoadOutIt’s finally done.  I packed up the last straggling stuff heading for the condo into a truck and left Cherry Lane for the last time at 11pm on a Sunday. The sale closed last week. The weekend before we had a crew of four movers and two trucks pack up everything meant to go east and deliver it to the new place.  They were spectacular in dealing with the absolute chaos as I was nowhere near ready for them. When they were done there was a small mountain left over to clean out, donate, give away, and recycle.

TheLastSunriseMy oldest did a great job of finding people to take away useful items that were just of no use to me anymore. I never could have pulled the move off, or indeed have made it through the last year without help from a small army of people who showed up when I needed them, everybody picking up a piece that was falling to the floor literally or figuratively as I tried to cope with the mountain in front of me.

LastWidowsWalkI had planned to write a piece or two about leaving Amherst, as my focus shifted from the past thirty years to the years ahead , but reality intruded on my trite little plans and threw me a curveball I never expected. That last Sunday night, as I swept up a pile from the floor in the basement, I noticed something a little off among the detritus. It was a green card. At first I thought it was some instruction card for a long discarded piece of technology or some such thing, but then I realized it was a greeting card.

It wasn’t just any card, either. It was the very first one she gave me, over thirty years ago. She bought it before our first real date, and sent it out with a post-script right after. I had spent a year combing through that house collecting all the little significant things, felt pretty sure I had found them all, and then this turns up. On the last night in the house we built, the one we shared half our lives together, on the brink of moving on to my life after, I got a message back from the very beginning of us. You simply cannot make stuff like this up.

On the front of the card are a set of images of a couple dancing around and around on a hill top and wearing it away to nothing. Odd for a first card, but perfect for the last. The comments inside were cute and sincere and snarky all at once. It was full of the suggestion that something big was about to happen.

The first summer that came after that card was a time where we both felt like we were being taken by something much bigger and more powerful than either of us, a thing that took all our rational plans and brushed them aside as insignificant. It felt like magic, and neither of us believed in that sort of stuff. She was a magician’s assistant, she knew all about illusion, I was an engineer, trained to follow evidence. Over the years, that sense of magic faded as we built our lives together, but we still knew we had been forged together, that what we had was special, even if we ourselves weren’t always so special.

“…sometimes the best outcome is being able to see that there are things in life which are neither understandable or acceptable – and in understanding, and accepting that, real peace can come.”

  -Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Life is Goodbye/Life is Hello

I will probably never understand what bound us, and I don’t think I can ever accept the way her last few years played out. But there, on the last day, the magic came back to make one last appearance. She never said goodbye, the last thing she said to me was “Hello, Love”. And her last gift to me was to bring back her first.

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