Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Every community has "characters".  Stuart was one of ours.  His skin was red and weathered like leather, from years of working on the rooftops of the neighborhood.  He was disinclined to wear shirts in the heat of the day, which led to many disagreements with the afternoon staff at the Bakery.  Sometimes he would clamber out of his peach colored pickup and drape a t-shirt around his neck like a cowl, a one finger salute to the "no shirt, no service" rule we tried to stick to as a reputable establishment.  His cutoff shorts were sometimes so miniscule that they were more revealing than the average human would have been comfortable with.  Not Stuart.  He was comfortable.  Always smoking, he would lay his half finished American Spirit down on the brick of the sidewalk outside, and often leave it there when he left the shop - hands full of coffee for himself and sometimes his crew.  Stuart was in Recovery, and sometimes when Tyler and I were wrestling with our Saturday morning hangovers he would comment sympathetically on the bitter pleasures of drink.  Nobody ever begrudged him his cigarettes, because we all knew he'd given up far worse demons.  

A few weeks ago I ran into Stuart at the Giant Eagle, as I often did.  We chatted in the checkout line about the aches and pains of manual labor, he told me about his health problems, I complained about my wrists and elbows.  He was sympathetic. I didn't know it would be the last time I would have a real conversation with him - how could I know?  I remember his ropy arms in that t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his beak of a nose that reminded me of the crying Indian in those commercials from the seventies.  How he called me "girl" and "honey" and always gave me a smile even when I could tell he was pissed off about something or other.  He was short, and wiry, and had an air of determination about him that I have noticed in many of the laborers that come into the Bakery on their way to to their workdays.  

When I came in to work this morning - late - the first thing Danny said to me after "good morning" was, "Did you hear that Stuart died?" And I said no, and he told me what he knew - that Stuart didn't show up for work on Monday and one of his crew went to his home and found him dead in his kitchen.  It was so shocking, so unexpected, so sad - it left me feeling hollow and listless.  

When Johnny Cash died, I heard it on the radio.  I was working on the poolish, kneeling over those buckets of flour, yeast, and water, blending them the way I do every day, with my hands.  I cried, like I had lost my Grandfather all over again.  I sobbed over those starters, stopping every so often to wipe my eyes on my sleeve, sobbing again, stirring still.  Today I couldn't cry, I think the meds I am on keep me from crying real salt tears, but I did the same thing.  When I think of Stuart, I think of WORK with a capital W, I think of long days climbing ladders in the sun, of swinging a hammer or pulling a hook billed knife through tar paper, through shingles.  I think of him yelling at his workmen, I think of him bringing them coffee.  I remember the sidelong smiles he gave me when I came out into the front of the shop carrying trays of scones, of the kind words that were never demeaning and always bolstering - he recognised that I worked hard, I labored, just like he did -  to bring worthwhile things into the world.      

My compatriots at the bakery are waiting to hear about funeral arrangements for Stuart.  I hear his daughter is coming in from out of town - I didn't know he had a daughter, I didn't even know his last name till today.  And though I hate funerals in general, I will go to his funeral, if just to tell his daughter how awesome her father was, just to be a body in the room remembering this guy who touched my life in a small way almost every day.  

Rest in Peace Stuart Cobb.  You were a real character.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reflections on Mary Oliver's "The Journey"

In his book, Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Roger Housden examines this poem, the way it speaks to us and wakens within us the desire to live more authentically.   He reveals the massive change that took place in his life (ending a relationship and moving from England to California) and how it changed him.  I too, experienced a moment where everything inside me shifted - several moments, actually - over the course of this past summer.  It is almost impossible to explain that kind of epiphany, but Oliver does it so well in this poem. 

My marriage was a fairy tale to everyone, including me!  Which made it so hard to walk away from.  All the voices coming at me, directly and indirectly "Don't do anything rash," and "is she off her meds?" and "what a shame."  I could have tried harder, I know this, as I tried and tried for years and years to justify, to reconcile these warring thoughts that had been raging quietly within me for all that time.  There was a moment, in the middle of the night, during one of the extremely rare conversations that passed for an argument, when everything crystallized in my head, and I knew what I had to do.  And it was hard, and sharp and painful, but liberating too.  In my quest to hold everything together, to live up to that fairy tale standard that Husband and I had set so long ago - we ourselves barely more than children - I had forgotten how to live authentically.  All the self help books tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first, and I had forgotten this rule in the tumult of life.  That fresh air, when I finally breathed it in, was strange and wonderful.

Over the course of 20 years, Husband and I learned how to walk on eggshells, our lives were a minefield of eggshells.  Every conversation that might have become a disagreement turned into a piece of ground that could not be tread upon.  We spent so much time avoiding conflict, watching our feet, that we never looked where we were going.  When I looked up, finally, I didn't like where I was.  And I don't think he liked where he was either, but that's not really for me to say.  The lies you tell yourself start to look like truths after a while, I think. 
Now I am doing the only thing I can do, which is save my own life from regret, to examine myself not in the hazy pink glow of some fractured fairy tale, but in the light of the sun.  Maybe some people could have done that and stayed married, but I am not one of those people.  It reminds me of a novel by Anne Tyler I read, a long time ago, called Back When We Were Grownups

Oliver's poem suggests "the birth of a new self, one not conditioned by the past." according to Housden.  I am finding it difficult to free myself from the conditioning of the past.  I see behaviors in myself, protective, evasive, self sacrificing - I am aware of them now, in my interactions with others, in ways I didn't notice before.  They are getting easier to spot, but changing them is going to be a long process.  The whole process of finding myself, that's what I'm doing here, in my life and on this blog.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Journey

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I've been in the new apartment for almost a month now.  The details of this great change are difficult and personal, and it's all too complicated to share with anyone right now.  Suffice to say that Edgehill House isn't my home anymore, and I'm trying to build something different, something that better serves the person I am now.  
Please join me here, in my Sanctuary, as I explore this next chapter of my life.