Sunday, January 26, 2014

Untangling Peacocks

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edward Staunton, returning one summer’s eve to the Soldiers Home that Lincoln used as a sanctuary from the quagmire of Washington’s summer heat and the strains of waging a war, to find the peacocks that lived on the grounds of the Soldiers Home, trapped in the trees. In an attempt to domesticate the birds, strings had been attached to wooden blocks and tied to the their legs. This, however, did not stop them from flying into the trees and becoming entangled. Lincoln and Staunton worked together untangling the strings that trapped the poor birds. I’ve long thought this was a great metaphor for Lincoln’s work of untangling the complicated threads of a country divided against itself and weaving them into a tapestry of a reunited nation.

And now I find myself faced with the task of untangling my own peacocks and weaving the threads of truths and lies into the tapestry of family stories.  Lately, I’ve been hearing new stories and discovering lies that I had long held as truths. What to do when your foundation starts crumbling, when all along your perspective has been like looking through a fun house mirror?  Distorted.  Looking back at you with crazy eyes and gaping mouths that said how could you not see what was really happening?

So many tangled threads require lots of patience, letting go of that which no longer works for us. Acceptance of sitting with the unknowable.  How do I fill in the gaps?  Some family members squawk like Lincoln’s peacocks as I tug at the strings of lies and misrembered stories as I try to tease out the basics of our lives as a fractured family. Many of us tried to stay afloat in the alcoholic soup that our parents cooked up for daily consumption.  Some of us drowned in it.  Never made it out. Others of us learned my negative example and got way the hell away from all the chaos. We were survivors. Anxious to start our own family stories, hopefully, with happier endings, as we built up and out on our shaky foundations.  The universe brought me this now to untangle the threads of disjointed stories and weave them into our family tapestry.  It may not be pretty, but it will be authentic.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, January 20, 2014

What Does the Snow Bird Say?

What Does the Snow Bird Say?

In our working days my husband and I often daydreamed about that mythical
 time in the future, when we would be retired. Our time our own, and we would have the luxury of using it how we pleased.  High on the list of, “someday I want to’s” was the wish to go someplace warm during the long cold Midwest winters. The warm place envisioned in our fog-shrouded future was usually Florida, for obvious reasons.  A few years back we achieved the retirement portion of our earlier musings and this winter we planned to achieve the “going someplace warm” part.

Consulting maps and our budget we ended up renting a condo on Okaloosa Island in Florida. Okaloosa is a small strip of land just off of the coast of Fort Walton Beach, in the Gulf of Mexico. We became part of the flock of Snowbirds making their way to Florida.  

We left right after Thanksgiving, full of turkey and excitement, ready for our new adventure.  The drive to Okaloosa, Florida from Mooresville, Indiana, with stops, takes about fourteen hours. Here is the thing about a drive of that length. It really is too far to drive in one day but the nearness of your destination after driving for nine or ten hours, compels you to finish the journey.  So we made the decision to “drive straight through,” which is a euphemism for “why didn’t we just stop like we had planned.”  Road weary and stiff jointed we arrived in Okaloosa in time to dine on the first raw oysters of our stay.

The next few days were a flurry of flying feathers as we fluffed out nest.  We added our own homey touches; warm throws, an ivy plant, rugs for the bathroom and our favorite coffee mugs. We filled the cute little pantry in the kitchen with our “stuff” until it became a miniature version of our larders at home.

I can confirm that time does move faster here. December and now January have melted away in the warm sun. I think it might have something to do with the ocean breezes and radiant sunsets…..or a slipstream or something.  I am not a scientist so can only speculate on this phenomenon.

Our view is spectacular, and by spectacular I mean it is a sparkling quicksilver of emerald greens and turquoise blues. The endless waves roll in and touch the beach like snowflakes, each unique. Some are coy, barely advancing while others surge out to snag an unsuspecting walker. The emotional ocean shifts from sulky teen to vivacious Broadway actress and just to make sure we understand it’s range, it whips itself into the high drama of rage.

Armadas of dolphins swim by, mimicking the rise and fall of carousel horses as they dive in and out of the water.  Like fish detecting divining rods, squadrons of pelicans patrol the shore. Dropping from the sky in awkward kamikaze dives, to scoop up their prey.  The gulls seek their fortune among the sparse beach goers. Filling the air with outraged screeches as they battle for the offered scraps.  

Our Snowbird stomping grounds became, Okaloosa Island, Fort Walton Beach and Destin. We discovered that the Publix grocery store make incredibly delicious Italian subs, that the best place to get raw oysters is the dilapidated looking Boathouse in Destin. To get eyeball-meltingly hot Thai food, delivered right to your door, call Thaiger the Thai restaurant in Fort Walton. The fishmonger with the best, freshest shrimp and fish is Sexton’s in Destin. Here we discovered the scrumptious Royal Reds, a deep-water shrimp with such sweet tender meat that we likened it to lobster. 

We ate raw oysters by the dozen. Dabbing fiery horseradish and spicy cocktail sauce on the glistening   mollusk, we lifted them from their crusty shells with tiny forks.  Then slurping the briny wet perfection into our mouths we pondered, who was the first brave soul to decide these gray blobby morsels might be good to eat.

We made gumbo for our Christmas dinner and ate it watching the orange sunset from the balcony. On New Years Eve we shared shrimp bisque and surf and turf with family from home. Bringing in the New Year twice, once with Ryan Seacrest on Dick Clark's, Rocking Eve and again an hour later when the giant Pelican dropped in Pensacola.

Our time in Okaloosa will be over soon and we will be heading back to Indiana. Probably driving “straight through”, anxious to get back home to our family and friends. The thing that I take with me from my time as a Snowbird is this; being a Snowbird is more than an extended vacation. It is an immersion into a different life, a time out of time, a delicious space to do something or to do nothing.

For us it was an ending of an old year and a beginning of a new year in a place that offered nothing but beauty, warmth and gentle breezes.

Diana, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, January 6, 2014

First World/Third World Beginnings

We’ve traveled from Indiana to Belize to meet up with our oldest daughter, who has been on a kind of post-college walk-about in Central America for the past 4 months. 

This cross-cultural opportunity is sorely limited given our four-day stay. Frustrating—yet moving toward acceptance, we've known in advance the rush that will be this breeze-by trip.  I feel the tug of the unfamiliar and a keen awareness of our white American privilege as we move through Belize City’s narrow pot-holed streets. It’s a roiling chaos of old taxi vans, golf carts, bicycles, walking people, locals, tourists, backpackers. There are street dogs, and decaying dirty-white, pink, green, and aquamarine colonial buildings –all mixed up with leaning shacks, garbage heaps, lines strung with drying laundry. The whole busy scene infused with the scent of frying chicken, fish, diesel fumes, and coconut scented sun screen.  Languages: English, Creole, Spanish, holler and chatter all around.

Honestly, with all these new stimuli swirling around us, and noting the pungent life-force of this other world, I am more than anything else in the simple joy and ache of reuniting as a family. Our oldest waits for us with her backpack and ukulele leaning up against a cafĂ© table near the water taxi that will take us to a gleaming beach resort.  She runs with outstretched arms to embrace her father, sister, and me. She is tanned, clear-eyed, full of stories and quite fully grounded and confident in her experience of living the moment and working her way around Guatemala, Honduras, and after this break with us, the rest of Central America.  

We enter a kind of dream of palm trees, iguanas, white sand, and the industry of service to our every need.  This is provided by men and women who leave their homes along the pot -holed streets each morning before the sun rises, to run our water taxis, make our breakfasts, pour our Belikin beers, and ask again and again, “You doing well Mam? Can I get you anything?”   

My daughters, husband and I accept these attentions awkwardly, being the Midwesterners we are and more accustomed to self-serve vacations, and I speak for myself alone here when I say I’m never fully able to embrace the illusion of this extravagance as I watch a brown skinned man whose name I never learn, rake up the daily detritus of plastic bottles, sandals, and many wheelbarrows full of trash that wash up every morning on our white Belizean beach.

We hang out and mostly listen, mesmerized and sometimes drop-jawed as our daughters talk about their recent adventures. Our younger daughter spent time this fall interning at a couple of southwest side Chicago schools and has recently had her own walk beyond the veil of her sheltered upbringing.  They’ve become independent young women.  They understand things about third worlds we still do not.   We are following them now, hanging on their words and experiences in states of vicarious thrill and awe.  How did they become so fearless?  How did we let them go?

We snorkel a reef, paddle around in an ocean kayak, and enjoy the warm wind blowing our hair back in  wordless rides across the shimmering water from one site to another. We laugh and drink beer together.  Together again, but in a brand new way.

Time comes when we all must part ways. Our oldest by chicken bus and water ferry south, to Guatemala and the hostel she’ll be working at for a couple of weeks. My husband, younger daughter and I by taxi and plane back to the snowy states and the beginning of another year of school and work in the American Midwest.

I think of my 23 year old daughter waiting alone on a dock for Mimo, the ferryman between Punta Gorda, Belize and Livingston, Guatemala.  She’s told us he captains an uncertain boat, and describes the comedy of his banging, thrashing, waving and cursing over his puttering engine and his less-then punctual schedule day to day.

I think of the sun going down and worry about her waiting in the dark as if she were a young child.   For a moment, I must again let go of my desperate, weeping urge to accompany her across the dark water.  Time has long passed since I’ve been able to see her safely to the other shore.    And yet the primal urge to be in the boat with her—to keep us all together never leaves me. 

Looking down through the clouds from the airplane, I sift through a mix of feeling as we leave the balmy, complicated cocktail umbrella land of tourists and the hard working poor.   We flew here didn’t we? Intangible things make the world go round, keep the human race alive and more boats afloat than foundering.   These invisible things guide each of us in mysterious ways on our respective paths through life.    I must trust the wind under these wings, the skill of the pilot, the functioning power of these engines.  I will trust that we’ll all land safely and surely be together again soon.  

So begins another year.

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse
Photo Credit: Kristin Noelle Hubbard