The first time I came back here after two months away, I felt kind of embarrassed, the way a person who’s been away that long might feel as he pulls up into his driveway, sees how long his grass has gotten, and knows his neighbors hate him for it.
Since it’s been a while, I’m going to come at you stream-of-consciousness like Stephen Elliott, founding editor of the literary Web site The Rumpus.net, in his “overly personal emails” he calls The Daily Rumpus.
Time to air out the place and tend to the yard.
First, let me say that I was relieved to discover that it’s only been two-ish months since I last published something here. It felt a lot longer than that.
I have excuses: teaching three classes and taking on a huge freelance writing assignment. Between that and performing in several shows, I worked twelve hours every day for seven weeks straight.
One of the classes I taught was new: public speaking. Anyone who has prepped a course for the very first time knows how much work it is. The textbook was about the only thing I read this summer. Although I did also manage to read this wonderful and heartbreaking story: “Shatter My Heart” by Lisa Wells, which Mr. Elliott linked to in one of his emails.
I’ve taught public speaking elsewhere, and one of the things I love about the course is how well students get to know each other throughout the semester by way of everything they reveal in their speeches. How well I get to know them, too.
One of their assignments was a demonstration. One student, an avid gardener, showed us how to start string bean plants. She gave us facts such as two seeds yields one cup of beans, and that if you stake them, the plants will grow right up them like vines.
After she potted two seeds, she gave them to me and told me to keep them in a sunny window. In its early stages, the plant grew rapidly. I would go to school in the morning and when I returned in the afternoon, it would be two inches taller. I am not kidding.
Watching this plant grow has made me miss having a garden. It reminds me of the time my brother, fresh out of Ohio State twenty years ago with horticulture and landscape architecture degrees, landscaped the backyard of my first home. The plants he chose took turns blooming all spring and summer long. We had a small vegetable garden with rich, black-brown soil thanks to humus from our compost heap. White-throated sparrows rested in the viburnum hedge for two weeks each spring on their way to Hudson Bay. They had just one song, which they sang incessantly; its sound made me happy and sad at the same time. I set my micro-cassette recorder in the dining room window and let it roll all day long; I still have the tape.
My bean plant has graduated to a big clay pot; there are several string beans dangling from it; so far I have cut off six. We have a pretty courtyard out back but I didn’t feel right about putting the pot back there. The last time I did that was with the hens-and-chicks from my grandmother’s yard in Pittsburgh, which I had moved to Cleveland and then to Wisconsin. They had been with me for fifteen years, and soon after I moved to downtown Milwaukee and put them in the courtyard, they were gone. The squirrels had eaten them all.
Last Saturday morning I picked up a book for pleasure for the first time in two months and turned to where I had marked Jill Ker Conway’s “Points of Departure,” an essay in the book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser. Two months ago I had read all but the last two-and-a-half pages of Ker Conway’s essay; I finished it that morning; her brilliance shines through on those last two-and-a-half pages as brightly as it does on the previous fourteen.
I had taken this book with me on trips to Oklahoma City and Seattle, two of the cities I was sent to interview people for the freelance writing assignment. The only time I pulled it out was to show a paragraph from Ker Conway’s essay to a woman I sat next to on the plane from Minneapolis to Seattle. We talked nonstop the entire flight, exchanged business cards, and are now in touch via social media.
These trips, including one to Asheville, North Carolina, were unusual in that on every flight I was seated next to lovely people like Jenny. There was the engineer from Phoenix to Milwaukee. John, the clergyman and counselor from the Asheville area; talking to him was like talking to Greg. The gentleman whose 1,000-page history book tested the boundaries of the seatback pocket. The two young people I was sandwiched between on a crowded flight from Detroit to Milwaukee at the end of a very long day; she and I talked about cameras and photography; he and I worked a New York Times crossword puzzle on his iPad.
The only exception was the young mother traveling with a toddler who sat directly behind us on the flight from Seattle to Phoenix. Every time her child screamed, she screamed louder for him to be quiet. This happened several times during the flight. Maybe she was nervous about flying or being cramped in a small place with her baby, or both.
But even at that, the thing I always remember first about that flight was seeing Mount Rainier, pine trees, snow-capped mountains, a volcano, the Columbia River, the desert, the Grand Canyon, and the iron-ore mountains of Arizona all in one day. I would’ve seen the Aurora Borealis too, but was seated on the wrong side of the plane.
It was my third time in Asheville, second time in Oklahoma City. Cleveland girl Pat drove down from Tulsa, where she lives now, and took me out to dinner. It was my first time ever in Washington State. I could live in Seattle without giving it another second’s thought. The only way I would move away from a large body of water would be to live in or near mountains. Seattle has both. Perfection.
I went to Seattle to interview a young woman with lymphoma. She wasn’t feeling well, but she still wanted to do the interview, so I went to the hospital to talk to her. The only parts of the recorded interview you can hear well are when she wasn’t using an oxygen mask. When I left her room, I burst into tears.
A week later, on July 5th, I texted her with a follow-up question.
“Happy Fourth of July,” I added.
Within minutes her husband texted me back to tell me that she had died. On the Fourth of July.
School ended last week. Tuesday night I had a late-night saxophone lesson. Wednesday our band rehearsed. We had two shows, Thursday night and yesterday. Our urban neighborhood is really quiet today, unusual on a beautiful day. One week ago today and one block from our home, a young woman who had just gotten engaged two days before crossed the street and was hit by a man in an SUV who then took off.
She died that night. The driver was in custody a few days later.
My cat is sleeping next to me as I write. I’m also looking through pictures of the air and water show I took two weeks ago. This morning I harvested two more beans and discovered two more of the pale white and lilac flowers that I know now will turn into beans. Yesterday I had a very civil conversation – and some fun, I have to say – with someone who pissed me off pretty badly a few months ago.
It feels like the old days. I’m glad they’re back.
UPDATE: The person I’d had a civil conversation with pissed me off badly again a few months later. The relationship is over.