Escape to ‘The Third Coast’

“The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” ~Kate Chopin, “The Awakening.”

I could live there, on ‘the third coast,’ if I had a million bucks!

The property prices are pumped and primed for real estate investors and the chosen few, from what I understand. That ain’t us. Then again, there’s always ‘the beach bum’ option. Hey, I was raised by Depression Era parents. I know how to make my underpants into rags and a turkey leg into soup for 10!

But instead, I’m another escapee rolling down the well-worn Interstate to Port Aransas, Texas, on Mustang Island, affectionately called Port ‘A,’ for a dip in a dreamy rest-bit from the maddening realities of our busy urban lives.

Five grand can get you a guarantee of family time, fun in the sun, wading and diving through the white-capped waves, and the novelty of island life, if just for a week. It was worth every penny.

IMG_5434With a rented resort house for 12, decorated in monochromatic hues of sea green, ocean blue, sand, white, and weathered with a bit of salty wind; we were in Heaven. Fresh white linens, coral and shell table accents, fragrant lotions at every basin, and an inviting living space…spacious and filled with natural light…graced our lazy day-to-day.

A private pool? Of course. Peaceful swim time and playful grandkids floating on noodles and diving for colorful rings; we had the luxury of both. Cha-ching!

A golf-cart ride through town…on to the beach with the other beach buggies, Coppertone wafting through the gulf breeze, pelican and seagulls riding the air stream above, bold-colored kites whippin’ in the wind, the smell of grilling southern spices and beach fires by night encircled by warmed summer smiles laced our laziness with adventure.IMG_0005

Rows of Creamsicle-colored cottages calmed our screen-stressed eyes, picket fences with crooked gates led up sandy paths of wild roses and sea grass to sleepy porches, a wicker chair, and an easy read in the soft afternoon.

Salty air and sandy flip flops; a sun-kissed glow and flowing clothes reminded me that I’m not just an aging work horse, but a woman…soft, free, sensuous and wise…beneath my wide-brimmed hat.

Beachy boutiques, artist’s pottery, sea glass, mermaid watercolors, and sizzling bar & grill restaurants…shrimp, flounder, fried-fish sandwiches…invited the tourist in all of us.

The trusty Coast Guard station flashed me back to my northern coastal life. It was familiar, the fishing boats and massive freighters passing through Aransas Pass into Corpus Christi Ship Channel. Their lights, horns, bells, in natural agreement with the coastal geography whispered of the 18-mile barrier Mustang Island and Port A’s rich history, of Harbor Island’s seaport industry exporting cotton, the fishing industry, the cottage life, and the smart move to tourism that saved their economy. I could see it’s ghosts, the nomadic Karankawa tribe gathering oysters and spear fishing, the Civil War soldiers entrenched in violent battles, the hardy, daring people who fought, struggled, and settled the island now buried there along with pirate treasures and fish bones.

The lights of the harbor, sail boats in the bay, bent-legged, rutty-old fishermen on the seawall throwing out their nets; the town lives on.

IMG_5526Alone…buoyant, light, held freely in the amniotic fluid of the crystal clear pool where I floated on my back in the late afternoon into the water-muffled evening; my view: the clean lines of our yellow house, stark blue sky, bright white trim and picket fences subtly strung with starfish. An occasional seagull flapping by and palm tree leaves that swayed in and out of my view accepted all my physical and mental stress and carried it away on the cool, nightly sea breeze. Beautiful, nurturing emptiness was its returning gift.

IMG_2854As one of my granddaughters said as she 81650splashed and glided, “This is the most beautiful yellow house I’ve ever seen! I’m having the best vacation ever.”

Tarpon’s Bar & Grill, Victoria’s On the Bay, Fin’s Restaurant & Grill, The Phoenix Restaurant and bar, and Coffee Waves; the flavors of the island served by easy-going, laid back islanders. Can’t go wrong.

Ghost crabs clicking across the path, dolphins almost within reach, and blue heron like city officials standing around the marshes, seagulls hovering, and sea shells in our hands added to our discoveries.

Tanned, weathered beach people, artsy-fartsy folks, young and old, bikini babes, neon-suited toddlers, glistening-muscled boys, your classic ‘Jimmy Buffet’ old men, tourists and locals…mingled into one big happy family.

IMG_2791Plunging into the foaming waves and running out getting toasty in the warmth of the sun; a cold beer, skin sizzling and heads shaded under canopies, a packed cooler, beach chair dozing and the long walk up from the beach left footprints on our days.

Even the merchants seem to be having fun ‘Flamingo Flocking’ each other! For $25 paid to the local 8th grade class for a school trip; the students would plant dozen of pink plastic flamingoes outside a business. Potters on Cotter had been ‘flocked’ the morning we were visiting and the artist said the business owners in town were having a ball flocking each other. In the meantime, the 8th graders were filling their fund-raising coffer.  Seriously, what a great idea!

I could live like this forever…float, tool around in a golf cart, get my island coffee, and wear nothing by a bathing suit, big hat, and loose-fitting shawls….and never miss my house, all my dusty ‘stuff,’ the chaos of pets, cars, traffic, and, well, just the caged, motionless chaos.

Calmed tempers, lazy days, coloring, board games, naps; our coastal vacation was reminiscent of those ‘up north’ days in my northern youth of cabins, lakes and rivers, and quieted paths. Some days I never even turned on my phone, and my laptop was never opened; we all just ‘talked’ and rediscovered each other.

It shouldn’t take five grand to do that.

Even the long lines of traffic leaving the island and boarding the ferry didn’t dampen my island spirit. I was amazed to see so many cars, for most of our days were quiet and unfettered by crowds with limited wait time for tables; people were there, but busy with their own alone time and family gatherings, under their own canopies and porch lights.

IMG_2786Locals and tourists alike were easy-going, music kept in their own ear-shot, exchanging neighborly pleasantries; civil and polite. I think there’s magic in the water.

The coastal sun, salt and sea, and ‘change’ from the monotony of our daily pressures seemed to bring out the best in folks. I’m sure more than a few of us think about chucking it all just to live the island life, as a tired but jovial waitress at an open-air bar and grill shared. She moved from Austin and was living in little fixer-upper, working double shifts just to make it there. She said she couldn’t even afford to buy the coconut cream pie she was serving us, but she wouldn’t change a thing for she loved her life on Port ‘A’ so much. Imagine. We bought her a piece of pie. She cried with gratitude.

It was just that kind of place, you know, like towns one sees in Hallmark movies but one thinks doesn’t really exist.

IMG_5514Many Texans know about ‘Port A’ and have traditionally rented beach houses, RV’ed their way down, camped on the beach, and have histories in that endearing get-away resort town. Even my own kids have vacationed there, gotten engaged amid the sand castles at sunset, have their favorite hang-outs, and can hobnob with the locals.

Where have we been?

I think the days of living by our mantra ‘pay now, play later’ have finally shifted. It’s time to play now as much as we can, even if we don’t have bronzed beach bodies and a cooler full of Lone Star beer! As they say, it’s never too late to live the life you were meant to live. Senior living on ‘the third coast’ might just be our paradise.

Port Aransas filled my senses and won my weary heart. She’s good for my skin, my spirit and my soul. The piggy bank for our next ‘week at the beach’ is starting to fill again. After needing to pull on a sweatshirt in the middle of a Texas summer night because the breeze coming off the coast was as cool as a Michigan morning, my 20-some years of southern summers suddenly looked promising!

We may be past the energy and dedication of a fixer-upper, and nowhere near financing a beach house of our own, but…I’ll be there again on her beaches as the calendar pages are torn away, embraced by her waves, and lost in the ‘the voice of the sea that speaks to the soul’ on some little porch with a sandy path to her salty shore.

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The Surprising Civility of Civic Duty

Like many people who get a jury summons, I cringed and pissed and moaned upon its arrival. What a way to end my summer. Ugh! God knows how long I could be tied up doing my civic duty! After another postponement, I got a firm warning that if I rescheduled one more time, I’d get a bench warrant for my arrest. Really? Now I’m a criminal?

Practicing avoidance, I checked on the validity of that threat, and it seemed pretty legit. There was plenty of evidence of hefty fines and warrant round-ups; they’ve even arrested people at their work place. Yeah, I didn’t need that. There was no getting out of this one.

In Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is the largest city, registered voters are summoned every three years to make the traffic-laden crawl ‘downtown’ on demand, where they sit in a room with another 200 people of all walks of life, and wait and wait to be called upon. Sometimes one waits all day. Sometimes you’re called up on ‘a panel,’ only to be returned to ‘the holding room’ if the parties at war decide to settle. There’s a lot of waiting.

In the past, this has not been a good experience. With the exception of a little casual socializing with the other ‘inmates,’ one sits, reads, scrolls through their phone, walks up and down the halls of justice, and visits the bathroom often, as in my case.

But today, there was a different feel in the air right from the beginning. I think it was something akin to ‘kindness and civility’ that permeated the scene, maybe even something else like, dare I say it, ‘fun,’ which began as I was leaving the third floor of the parking ramp in route to the court house.

A young fresh-faced woman, new to San Antonio from Houston, walked beside me on our way out of the parking garage. Sharply dressed, polite; she had a radiance that was hard to miss. She asked the usual questions that many of us ask when we first try to navigate toward this lawful drudgery. “Do you know where we go into the building?’ she inquired. “There aren’t any instructions as to what to do when we get in there.“ I gave her a quick run-down based on what I had experienced as the ‘walk/don’t walk’ sign audibly counted down “5,4,3,2,1…begin walking, walk, walk, walk,” until we were safely across South Flores Street which was already steaming up in the south Texas heat and humidity, the bus fumes hanging in the air like a cloud of doom. Her companionship brightened the dark journey.

When we walked in the door with dozens of other summoned folks, one of the officers yelled, “Okay, who smells like cotton candy?’ I knew it was me. I get that all the time. I cautiously waved my hand. My purse lit-up, literally, through the x-ray machine at the same time that the metal detector alarmed with bells and whistles when I stood under its arch. ‘Come over here, Cotton Candy.” Ugh! “I have a metal rod in my arm from a horseback riding accident,” I explained as my limbs were being wanded. The two middle-aged officers in starched uniforms, armed and intimidating, seemed to have a kind of good cop, bad cop comedy routine going. Maybe it was tipsy Tuesday, or something, but they were so unusually fun-loving I was waiting for one of them to offer me a drink. The scent detecting officer ran my purse through the x-ray machine again and yelled, “What is THAT?’ his voice booming down the corridor. “A banana?” I replied, thinking, “Good God, what did he think it was?” turning as pink as my newly appointed nickname. “Great! Now I’m going to be arrested for the fruit in my bag?” Officer Bald and Bold, jokingly offered me my purse (and banana) back while asking me the name of my perfume.

By this time, I was on to the sass, and replied, “Well, officer, I can’t tell you. My scent is a secret.” He giggled, yes giggled, then sternly looked into my eyes and asked, rather nicely, “Can you tell me your secret?” Yeeeaah, so I told him, fearing shackles and a single phone call. He graciously smiled and sent me on my way. Nothing like a little flirting at 7:45 in the morning to rev-up an old gal’s engine! Meanwhile, the sweet young girl from the parking garage was just steps ahead of me and the first person we joined in the line was a young man who, with a few facial differences, was the spittin’ image of my 20 year-old son. He had the same easy-going, social skills and even the way he smiled and moved his hands when he talked kind of put me in a state of affectionate shock. I had to fight my maternal urge to hug him. Before we knew it, a rich conversation evolved about what to expect inside and what we’ve experience before, dotted with laughter, and laced with personal information about ourselves; the three of us were like best buddies even before the jury room doors opened.

In all-day situations like this, it’s nice to connect with people, unless you are one of those totally anti-social, angry people who are eternally pissed off. And there were a few of those as expected, as well as the drooling sleepers, who remarkably slumber sitting up-right and don’t stir unless their name is called.

I’ve always loved ‘school.’ Even in college, in those big auditorium lecture halls, I loved the feel of filing in and settling into my chair ready to be instructed and inspired. As so it was, the filing in, the handout of rules and procedures, the gift of the special ‘jury pin’ that one must wear at all times, and surprisingly, the humor of which all of this was delivered.

Seriously? When did all these civil servants get a sense of humor? From the initial over-seeing Judge who swore us in to the minor characters who read off the lists of names and validated our parking passes, everyone was so cordial and light-hearted it threw me for a loop! I was waiting for someone to start passing out the appetizers and Jell-O shots, it was so weirdly festive.

In time, it got quiet and subdued, seats emptied; people found their corners and did their own thing during the long wait. My son’s doppelganger ended up in another row, though I could hear his familiar voice above the hum of others as he chatted with some other appreciative mother yearning for her son. The happy young lady from Houston and I engaged in conversation about her military days in Ohio at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of which I knew something about since I’d spent a little time with my sister, also a veteran, in Yellow Springs at her little hippie farmhouse 40 years ago. “Oh, Yellow Springs is still very much a little hippie town,” this 30 something-year-old confirmed. “It was always fun to visit that town,” she mused with a far-away smile lost in some bittersweet memory. Hmmmm….she has stories, I observed. She pretty much had me when she referred to her classic, button-up sweater as a ‘cardigan.’ Like finding a shining penny deep in a pocket of dull coins, it’s so refreshing to be around other people who use appropriate ‘vocabulary.’

From FFA stories, (she was raised by a single mother in rural Missouri), to travel, to the best school districts in San Antonio, up until the moment I was called to serve on a panel; we talked away like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years! It was so charming and completely unexpected.

I was the first person called, number #1, and was the lead in a 60 person panel up the stairs to circuit court 226. It was only 9:00 AM, and most of us in that first group of 60 were thrilled that we were called so early! We knew the panel would get whittled down to maybe 12 jurors, so the odds were that we’d be done before noon! We were light-hearted and curious about what kinds of questions would be asked of us, not at all a tone of resignation or frustration among the lot of us!

One gravelly voiced, wrinkled gal, a retired construction worker, loudly proclaimed, after the bailiff told us that we had to move in and out of the courtroom as ‘one’ during HIS comedy routine, that us women over 50 would need to use the restroom more than others, “So be prepared, y’all, to ‘move as one’ if one of us has to go!” sending a ripple of laughter down the line of stern business men, disheveled college students, heavy-ankled grandmas, and sleep deprived young mothers.

Before we even had the chance to take our jovial selves into the courtroom, we were informed that the plaintiffs had settled out-of-court, and we all had to return to the main jury room and wait to be called again. Yet, we all kind of jokingly filed back down the stairs to ‘the basement…dungeon…troll room’ full of other ‘waitees’ until lunch.

Though my gracious friend and I kept trying to give each other space, we just naturally gravitated towards each other, and we ended up having lunch at the same table in the court house café. And that is where something remarkable happened. Two virtual strangers, 25 years apart in age, one white, one African American, one on the brink of her new career adventure in San Antonio, and one almost done with her career, babies grown and gone, got to talking like women with no racial, economic, or generational differences. Women talk deep, you know, if all the stars are aligned and there is an openness felt between them. It’s one of the strengths of womankind to naturally reach out to each other, in spite of the entire back-stabbing, competitive, tit’n ass propaganda splashed all over our social media pages. Women are social glue, natural networkers and communicators, intuitive and sensitive to unspoken messages. I speak from years of experience among women, with a certain amount of higher education on the subject. This may not be everyone’s truth, but it’s mine.

Together we shared our thoughts about today’s political scene, racism, abortion, moral compasses, the father role, the Confederate Flag removal, and gay marriage among other intense subjects with ease and conversational fluidity. It was interesting to hear her perspective of being one of only two black students in a K-12 school in rural America, the other student being her sister. Her views on the removal of the Confederate Flag were different than mine, me being an advocate for history, good or bad, and acutely against revisionists. Yet, she was so articulate about her thoughts on the subject that I began to understand her point of view. She in turned asked me about the feminist movement, of which I was very involved during the 70s and 80s. There was a kind of bridging of the generational gap when I explained what it was like to be a girl athlete BEFORE the passage of Title Nine. Being a student of Women’s History in college, I shared my knowledge of the beginnings of Planned Parenthood, the social depravities that motivated the leaders of that social reform, and how the right-to-choose verses the right-to-life movement evolved from the turn of the 20th century to its present day controversy standing. Though we came from different perspectives on some issues, there was an atmosphere of respect and civility between the two of us. We laughingly agreed that we were gray-shaded people in a black and white world, and no one was listening to the wisdom of the middle. In so many ways I felt like this day that I had initially dreaded was turning into a blessing, just because I had met this astute and refined young woman and shared a meal with her.

Heads tilted toward each other, our words carefully spoken and hushed among the other jurors lunching; we were suddenly summoned back to the courtroom in mid-sentence. For a second there, both of us looked terribly disappointed. We had had our own civics lesson right there over ham and cheese sandwiches, and there was so much more to discuss. We were so engaged in meaningful conversation that it seemed a shame to have to end it so abruptly.

My original 60 person panel was called up again, lined-up in the hall and graciously let go; my day was done. And though I felt some relief that there would be no more waiting, I felt a little sad to leave. My beautiful young friend came out of the jury room and connected with me one more time before I left. We exchanged numbers and embraced like mother and daughter, teacher and student, sisters, friends. As I was leaving, I looked back at her standing in the hall in her bright yellow cardigan and trim, finely-cut floral dress. So prim and proper she was, this soldier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now had a career as a medical records administrator and still hopeful about meeting the man of her dreams. She was everything we ‘early feminists’ wanted for our daughters: confident, self-sufficient, accomplished and still very much a poised and attractive woman. I felt a satisfying form of confirmation for everything my generation of women, and women before me, had fought for. Her bright smile and wave sent me off with a feeling like maybe this is what all of this ‘duty’ is about: connecting with other humans, strangers corralled in a room together, like an experiment in tolerance and humanity, as we do our part to keep the American judicial system in working order.

Certainly, connecting is NOT the goal of jury duty. I would wager that most people come and go out of the situation with little if any redeeming value from their experience. But today, from the humorous officers just trying to make the 8 AM reluctant participants feel a little more comfortable, to the other jurors who seemed to be of the attitude that, well, ‘attitude is everything, let’s make it a good one;’ my civic duty was a bit of a joy! Unexpected connections, shared conversation, and three more years before I’m summoned again certainly off-set the $3.99 protein drink at the counter and agony of driving into the city chaos. It was all worth it! And, I got a little mutual flirting in with the cops, who reminded me that I smell sweet! Ha!

Some personal growth, an unexpected encounter, and a boost in confidence…all in the line of duty! And with the exception of my banana scare, I wasn’t arrested.

Photo from the 1960 film “La Verite,” courtesy of deeperintomovies. net

How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’


She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.