After the Emptiness

dashboard

Picnic of the Dead

I probably never cried so much as all of August, my own birthday month. As if the world had gone and left me which it had. I couldn’t write. I did lose weight. The mountains and the sky were beautiful when I walked. I didn’t go out anywhere except a couple times to buy more groceries. I lived online and studied NFTs, drank apple cider vinegar in water, let the sleeping and the the rising have their way with me. Every now and then I felt all right. All was still, no obvious emergency. Like I was standing by the blackboard and the room was quiet and the chalk was in my hand.

Well before I found myself alone, what passed for Taos social life had atrophied as thoughts turned mostly inward. Getting ready, I suppose. The pandemic locked the door, but neither of us was lonely. After Kathy died and the immediate turmoil dissipated, the truth of where and what I was sank in. I’d simply never been like this. For most of my adult life, I also must have never known what “isolated” really meant. The tasks I faced seemed insurmountable (and still do). There was no one to share my deepest feelings with, and did I even want to? All there was to talk about was “it.” Hard enough with my own siblings, and the in-laws had their shields up like I raised when Teresa died.1 I felt like I was dissolving into nothing. I tried to narrate a video clip and couldn’t even talk. It sounded like I was drunk.

By Labor Day weekend I was scary. Grim and bitter at the world. Angry at my fate, pissed I hadn’t sold the NFTs, furious at anti-vaxxers, jealous of any happy people young enough to feel immortal. A writhing ball of pain-snakes. Over the hill without a roadmap. Deeply, truly lost. I felt so bad I worried I would die, as if the angels on the other side might just give up and reel me in. Long-married surviving spouses often check out early. The very kind person who told me that suggested I get a dog to keep me company because our hearts get used to sensing other heartbeats nearby. “A little one,” he said, “because they’re easier to care for.” Even my poor crazy mother had a damn chihuahua and a couple cats, and she lived longer than anyone expected. On a human level this made sense to me. I could see having a dog again but preferred a German shepherd, and I wasn’t ready anyway.

Then out of the blue, I remembered picnics. Oh. Most Memorial Days and Labor Days, that’s exactly what we used to do. Over a stretch of years in Maryland, we often motored up the Chester River in the old crabbing skiff a friend had given me2 and cooked hot dogs on a sandy beach. Here in Taos we’d find a picnic table in the canyon by the Rio Grande or go way up in the mountains to Agua Piedra if it wasn’t going to be too cold. The latter plan appealed to me as I lay awake in bed early Sunday afternoon. Too depressed to sleep, I’d stayed up late the night before but there was lots of time. I was so damn mad, I’d do the thing for Kathy if not for myself.

At least the route was gorgeous, I knew that. From here to the pass on U.S. Hill meant climbing almost 2,000 feet through forested steep canyons, then dropping down into another one to climb some more. There was a river, the Rio Pueblo,3 the size of what Montana people call a creek, but it was cold and clear and maybe that would help me. There wasn’t really a “picnic area,” more like an open mountain meadow with a couple widely-separated tables—if unoccupied, all very private. The spot I had in mind was also the last place I remember eating out-of-doors with Kathy. She loved it there and I was still a wreck and there was danger in the air. Switchbacks, bears, and broken guardrails. Maybe this was it.

Still angry but determined, I packed a lunch and hit the road. Thank God I’m a car guy and like driving. The 2007 Pontiac Vibe has brand new tires I bought for my upcoming trip to Iowa to bury Kathy’s ashes. One of the best cars we ever owned, the re-bodied Toyota Matrix is a joy to drive with the 5-speed manual, even in the mountains. I can keep the revs up in the torque and power ranges so you’d never know there’s only the Corolla engine. I run full synthetic oil and average 35 miles per gallon. The fat steering wheel is easy to grip, the seat is firm and all-day comfortable, the transmission’s smooth, it handles better than anything this plebeian has any right to do. Driving with new tires is like jogging with new running gear. I especially like the dashboard [above], a critical selling point for me because you’re looking at it all the time. Here’s a picture from a few years back. Her car, actually. (I had to change the registration to my name.)
c

Unless you’ve been there, you’d be surprised how much deep grieving pulls you down. For the first time in weeks I felt a little life because the driving smoothed me out and I’d finally busted loose to do a thing I wanted. It felt like I was on a mission, too.

To my great relief, the road was almost empty. (New Mexico, duh.) The air felt ten degrees cooler at 8,000 feet and probably was. It’s always greener in the mountains and that soothed me. There was no one else at Agua Piedra (“water with rocks in it”), not a soul. The rio was loud, a few cars came by every five minutes or so, the wind blew like it always does up high. “Our table” was still there, all nice and clean without a speck of trash. I felt a little shaky as I spread the tablecloth we always used but I was starving. That focuses the mind. I sat down facing the water and gratefully ate everything I’d brought. All alone, remember, just like weeks and months already back in town. The solitude in such a place was even deeper and a little spooky. Just me, the water, grasses waving in the breeze, the tall, tall pines and spruces, but I felt the tension building as I polished off my Voodoo Ranger and decided it was time.

As soon as I stood up to zip the cooler, there it came, a staggering jolt of pain and grief. This was her place too, but where the hell was Katie Jane? I wailed and blew my nose. A path beside the stream led off into the trees. We’d been there, right. I walked it with the memory of her striding out in front of me and cried the whole damn way. It can’t can’t be true, I thought the way one does, and yet it was. The emptiness was cosmic. She’s dead you fool and isn’t here! Of course I knew she wouldn’t be. That’s not the point.

I packed things up and put them in the car and stood there listening. For a moment I thought there was something of her spirit in the daisies blowing in the wind and picked a few, but I could hardly bear the sadness. It wasn’t just her, either. What if every blossom, every blade of grass, was waving for a different soul? By then the air was roaring like a billion angels blasting off. You can hear it in the video below:

The thing is, see, it’s not just that she’s gone but that we shared a life for over 40 years. I won’t live long enough to ever have it be like that again. The end of her is like the end of me. The me that was, at least. What happens now?

I miss her so damn much. It hurts and makes me want to join her right away, but that is not the plan she gifted me, and I am not supposed to suffer any more any more than what it takes to understand. You know what else? Sometimes I worry that she’ll get impatient and won’t be there when I die. Go ahead and laugh. You probably need to. That’s the thing that gets me, though, I swear to God. It would be just like her and it’s happened plenty times before!

Whew. I made it back.

Be well.

Homing in

If you see sweet Kathy
bring her home to me
if she feels like waitin’
best let her be
does she know I’m comin’
will she wait for me
do we live forever
is it meant to be

Something prompted me to make this video last week. The soundtrack is an instrumental version of a song I wrote a while back played on my resophonic bouzouki, making me a lucky man right there and fixing the length of the clip. All I have is the one verse but you can feel where the words go. The scene is a hiking trail at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico. This might be November, 2005, after Kathy had been living in Dubuque a while to help take care of Fielda* and had just come home for good. I flew up to Iowa and drove us back to Taos in her father’s old Dodge after the moving van left. That was one of the best trips of my life. Back together with no interruptions, at last. We were so happy.

Immediately after we rolled into Taos, we took off for Ghost Ranch and ZoukFest, a Celtic music festival organized by friends of mine in Taos. I’d designed the website and took my pay in free accommodations for the week. As I told someone the other day, I have so many photos of Kathy like this one because she always walked faster than I did and still does. She also liked to hold her arms out like that on hilltops, her way of merging with the universe, I figured. Like a dancer.

One of her old friends from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa sent me a card with a long handwritten note inside. The sentiments and card were beautiful. I read the words and fell apart again—one of these days that won’t happen all the time, but we ain’t there yet—the gist of it was that she’d been thinking a lot about Kathy lately though they hadn’t communicated in over 50 years, went online for clues, and found the obituary! I’ve had several letters from people like that. Without exception the writers emphasize what an extraordinary person Kathy was, how talented, loving, and vivacious, and how shocked they are to learn that she has died. My initial reaction is usually to stagger around the house howling and wailing and blowing my nose. Everyone knew what I had.

As I’ve said many times, from the first moment I was alone with Kathy, all I ever wanted was to just be in her presence. That first time she had me over for dinner at her place, I sat in the kitchen at that L.L. Bean folding camp table she used because her first husband got away with all the furniture when they divorced. (She ended up with nothing but her grand piano—the fastest way out.) Have you ever seen one of those? Yellow it was, made of Masonite with metal trim, wobbly and cramped with little benches on two sides like a picnic table. Heavy, too, and pinched your fingers when you set it up. Anyway, there I was in that kitchen while she cooked, nowhere to sit but at the little yellow table, and that was it. I was done. Not that I realized at the time, but life as I’d known it was over… In many ways I’d be a rough ride for her, but from that moment on it was Kathy and John forever. She was light-years ahead of me.

There’s a clean direct arc from that night to the moment she died. Alone together and private at both ends. I see it now. It happened. We did it. And now there’s just me, all alone and stupid. She used to say, “How old are you, John?” and then let me have it—I was such a piece of work. Her cocktail hour toast was always, “To us!” I’d say, “You and me, babe,” and now she’s gone. The plan’s all used up. I should be dead except there are no boundaries now.

Over the last month I’ve found more evidence of just how ill she was, how lost and broken she’d become. Signs from going through her private notes (the things she tried to write were worst), memories I’d pushed away that floated back to haunt me. The thing is though, it wasn’t her. The way she came apart at the end had nothing to do with all our years together. I carried both these truths at once. My private mandate was to cause no stress. Impossible, but I surrendered. Months of covid isolation had already reinforced a life of us against the world and made it easier. We drifted into an ever more intimate state of magical reality, loving and affectionate as always. I felt the walls dissolving. As long as I had no will there was no panic, even when she had her stroke. That was her Plan A, of course. The blood clot they discovered was Plan B.

I know everything about this. Let’s be clear on that. What you do is love and manage until the Mystery explodes. Otherwise you put your faith in advertising, live in fear, and pay to give away your dreams. She was never going to do that. The way this came about was pure desire in a doe’s heart by a mountain stream a thousand years ago. The sun is coming up. I hear the water. She does too and bends to drink. Get real.

Over and over I watch the video. I love the strange seared colors of November in New Mexico, the sound of my bouzouki. I wait because I know what’s coming. As soon as I see her on the hill, my spirit leaps. My chest swells. Oh babe I am so lucky and so proud. I love you so damn much. I know exactly where this fades to white. It cuts me every time, so many feelings all at once. Push and pull, the love and wanting. A giant flash and then she’s off!

My sweet Kathy had to go. I was the perfect one to hurt.


Post haircut portrait, Jan. 7, 2006

* My mother-in-law. I never heard her raise her voice in anger. Her maiden name was Loving. Fielda Loving. I mean, come on.

Islands and Floods

baby picture

My time in the sea

[Originally published 8-2-2021 here.]

The picture of Kathy as a little blonde girl comes from her studio. She kept it in a shrine-like setting like I have it now, on an old handmade table with a postcard of a naked young woman in a rustic French farmhouse. Bending over a sink, bare feet on the floor. We loved the image. A well-known one, I think, the dream of a feeling we had in a couple places we lived. I always knew Kathy was my own French farm girl, my English rose, cowgirl of the western plains. She touched all the bases. A creature of love, lit up from within. A butterfly.

Morning light shines through the back door above. I’ll never cut weeds or grass out there again. Haven’t once this season and I still get to the clothesline. The dead landlord’s poor hose sheds its skin like a snake from lying so long in the sun. I carried bucket after bucket to the tulips in the little garden ringed with stones but nothing bloomed this year.

My main concern now—would there were but one—is the fate of her Kawai RX-3 Professional Grand. I built a special page to advertise and sell it after waiting until I knew she’d approve. The clincher was that even if I had somewhere to put it, the piano is wasted on me. The way she loved and cherished it, the Kawai deserves someone who can give it real life again. Instruments owned by gifted musicians have a magical quality. Their spirit fuses with it, establishes a bond. The piano is lonely now, just like I am. Last week in a frenzy I bought classified ads, but who picks up a paper to find grand pianos? Then I got clever, looked up piano tuners to email, and something wonderful clicked. Maybe it was my web page or the obituary or the piano put out a signal. But that very same morning I had a reply from a top technician and tuner in Santa Fe with impeccable credentials who offered me a complimentary tuning…

I broke down at my desk and cried.

It wasn’t the money but the gesture. Like he was doing it for her. If she’d died back in Maryland, there’d have been so many old friends and colleagues to celebrate her life. Not so in Taos. I’ve felt badly about this as the time has dragged on. My sister and my brother visited, I’ve read tons of condolences from relatives, friends, and strangers, but in the physical, day-to-day sense there’s been only me—writing the obituary, seeing to the cremation, ordering a gravestone on the internet to have installed in Iowa, composing the inscription, corresponding, on and on and on. I’d been growing a shield against isolation and guilt and just never realized. The angel guy tuner in Santa Fe broke through. The piano is the keystone, see?

Once it’s sold, I’ll dismantle the studio and kill the rent. There’s almost as much furniture and Kathy collectibles in there as where I’m sitting. Even a second piano, her original upright, that I could switch out for the old loveseat as long as I’m here. That I would keep. I had lessons as a boy, my hands know the chords, I can sort of read music and might play again. She’d like that it stayed in the family.

The storage unit stuffed to the ceiling is a whole different thing. Tools, art, antiques, furniture, keepsakes. My grandmother’s china. My mother’s ashes, forgodssakes. I won’t give up the tall maple desk or the marble-topped vitrine or the paintings, so I’ll still need a house. Not this one, though. Whether I stay in Taos or not, I won’t live where we shared a life when she died. People do, obviously. But it’s never been ours and it’s crumbling, a charming old trap haunted by demons. For all that’s positive, we dreamed for years about getting the hell out and how good it would feel. I’ve been writing about this forever. Its not the last stop. She never wanted it to be and look what happened. I owe this to her. My time’s not up, she had to go. I have to stay in this body, but I can go anywhere, do anything. And I will.

Feet on the sand in the shallows. It has been a refuge. When the wind blew outside and the snow piled up high, we never did hear it. Solid old walls, except where they’re not.

You may think you’ve heard all this before—the dumb shit, my feelings, what happened to her. If so, I’m sorry. I need to experience every last particle. Repetition with new shade is vital. The bits come together in new ways and shock me. Keep going, maybe you’ll see.

A Twitter buddy recently thought I looked better:

“First time I’ve seen ‘acceptance’ on your face since this chapter began. Finally listening to what she’s been telling you eh?”

I thanked him for the quotation marks. (He’s been there himself.) She has been talking to me, like in that dream. The symbology is stunning. Read it again or I’ll just explain:

We’re following Kathy. I’m just a passenger in a beat-up white van. The driver is a tall female figure in a white shirt and jeans wearing a cowboy hat. She resembles a woman we both know from Maryland. Not “her,” but almost. Non-threatening, but in control. White shirt, white van. An angel is driving me. We get to a crappy old town full of rascals on top of a mountain. The van’s parked at the edge of a cliff. Dangerous, temporary. The driver heads off in search of Kathy. I try to see to the van and some fools make it burn up and vanish. One-time use only! I go back to the cliff and look down. There’s a beautiful vast park that looks like New Mexico, with thousands of people oh so far away, tiny like ants and hiking the trails. What a wonderful scene. That’s where my driver is looking for Kathy. All of a sudden I “see” them. My God, it’s my honey! We wave to each other. “John! John!” Kathy cries out. Even at that distance, it’s her, loud and clear. I’m overcome with joy. But how to get down there? Can she get to where I am? How long will that take?

And then I wake up. Aaaaghh. Oh no. What hell is this?

Several days later, the rest fell into place. Wherever she is, she’s doing just fine. If you need it spelled out, the angel showed me that Kathy’s in “heaven” as plain as can be. I can’t go with her, the van is burned up and my driver is gone. This is the lesson to hold in my heart. She knows that I’m here and she loves me. I’m crying just writing this down.

Wouldn’t you? Maybe not quite acceptance, but it gives me a foothold.

Before Kathy died, when I still thought she’d be coming home after her stroke as a person and not in a box, my job was to get the house ready. Who knew what she’d be able to do and what not? She’d had a serious blow. Would I have to feed her, would there be diapers, did she need a cane? How long would that last? Should I buy a seat for the shower, a mattress protector? Could she still play the piano? Oh Lord—if not, that alone would have killed her. I knew little of this since I hadn’t been able to visit for three whole long weeks due to COVID restrictions. Not even once.

To make everything “easy,” my thought was to go through her clothes, cosmetics, and reading material. Put outfits together and ready to grab, have things that she needed all in one place. At this point I had no idea how her cognition and coordination were faring—not well at all, as I later found out—and had to make do. To start with, I emptied some drawers and the cedar chest. Dangerous business for sure, but I had to do something. (This was actually the day before I’d be bringing her home, tra-la-la.) Meanwhile, I thought I needed some items from Walmart—to show you how crazy I was, one thing was lampshades—and while I was pushing that greasy damn cart down the aisle came a phone call from the rehab center with her nurse freaking out, telling me she was “declining…”

(What happened next is available here.)

The point is, a ton of her clothes were all over the floor. I spent the next 35 hours awake with my sweetheart as her life ebbed away, and the clothes are still there. So shoot me already, who cares. Call it grieving or illness or avoiding exploding my own goddamn heart. What I have done since is consolidate, straighten, and make things look neater, but the piles are still engines of terror. Why put things back in drawers, though? I’m afraid to open most of them anyway. A lot of her stuff is high-end and gorgeous. There’s a consignment shop ready to see what I have. Just one stupid example, right, but facing the fact she’s not coming back ever is the hardest damn thing in the whole fucking world.

It’s getting better now, little by little. I start off happy most days. The future is open. There’s a taste of the way things were when I was alone, young, and hungry. Then I remember I’m old—that I had this with beautiful Kathy—and she’s gone, and I’m dead. Every day another resurrection. I roll back the stone. She whispers sometimes. My new job is listen, make art, and survive.

“John! John!” (Dream)

clouds

Every word is true

My wife who died three months ago was driving a new small silver car. I may have been there with her first and gotten out, but she was by herself at this point. I was following behind, riding in an older white Econoline van driven by a woman I’d had eyes on long ago around the time I met my honey. In the dream she was tall and wore a cowboy hat, straining the association, but let’s say it was the lady I remembered—friends with both of us in real life to this day, in fact. (Dreams can be like that, spirits wearing skins of people in our heads.) The three of us were on the road, more or less together, heading to the same place. I can’t say why Kathy was in the other car alone, but I did start worrying she’d forgotten we were back there. A rising tide of anxiety arose and I spoke up.

“When it’s convenient and there’s a place to stop, why don’t you pull up behind Kathy so I can ride with her?”

I guess that meant we’d both stop, obviously. How and why I didn’t know. The silver car and the big white van took the next turn together, curving off the main road. And then as often happens in the dream world, everything was different.


Wherever we were, Kathy had gotten there first. I didn’t see her or the car but I was certain. We’d just pulled into a crowded gravel parking lot on top of a mountain, adjacent to a sterile, shabby little town. Wooden buildings, rusty metal roofs, a few brick structures. No trees, nothing beautiful. My driver lady had parked so close to the sloping edge of a cliff that I was worried. I got out first and looked around. It was scary just to stand there, and I feared I’d tumble into space. I reached up to the window and touched her arm, thanking her for helping out. She never said a word and disappeared.

There were people milling all around. The Ford was really much too close to the edge. A couple of losers I didn’t trust got in the van to move it. They parked it in a nearby alley but somehow left it on its side, leaning against the brick wall of a building. I made them go back to set it on its wheels the way it should be, but it fell over upside down and immediately caught on fire! The whole thing burned up in an instant, leaving only a smoking shell. I worried that our friend would be upset when she returned and wondered if she had insurance. After that I wandered back to the cliffside at the edge of the gravel parking lot to clear my head.

All this time I hadn’t noticed what was down below, and it was stunning.

I saw a vast rolling green and brown expanse very much like New Mexico, with spaces in between the trees, a wondrous park-like plain with thousands of people walking around all over, so tiny from the great height I was on they looked like ants. But where they were was so alluring. They may have hiked from where I was to get there. I also realized Kathy was down there, too, and that my driver had gone off to find her.

And then the most wonderful thing occurred.

I looked down at something like a visitor center or entrance far below, where the crowd was thickest. Suddenly I sensed our friend and Kathy had found each other, and then I saw them! So far away, so small, but we were waving, and I heard Kathy call out:

“John! John!”

I can’t tell you how that felt. It was her, all right. Anyone would need all day to climb back up, though. Could they really do it?

And then I woke up…

I can still see the beautiful landscape far below with all the people. Her voice is ringing in my ears, but I don’t know what to do.

“John! John!”

Oh honey! Oh baby. Oh my baby doll.

“Old Taos” Aftershock

peyote

Not in Kansas or the suburbs anymore

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked our artist neighbor 20 years ago. There were about a dozen flower pots arranged beside the window, each with several plants like this. (They’re not usually so photogenic. I edited out the little scrappy bits.)

“Yep,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Mind if I take a few pictures?”

“Nope.”

The seedbed of my counterculture in a time warp. What a hoot. I’d never seen peyote “in the wild.” In Austin in the old days, you could buy it by the pound in gunny sacks from certain folks and that was legal. No one in their right minds ate the goddamn things, you processed it for mescaline. Not that I knew how. An art major friend of mine had a friend who did and in my circle it was plentiful.

We were lucky to get to Taos in ‘99 before they Aspenized it. You could still find a decent place to rent if you had three jobs. I had a session with a rain forest shaman who spoke no English and blew smoke into my hair, then freaked out when he found an evil spell my mother left. There were artists making do with shops and studios in old adobe buildings, wide-eyed hippie couples with their kids and gardens. It was like new things could happen while the history still breathed. Not so much now. If it weren’t for mountains and the Great Wide Open I’d have fled some time ago. My wife was ready long before I was, but we both came to love the richness and compassion of the local culture. (Moving to where Anglos were a minority was so fucking brilliant.) Now that Kathy’s dead and gone—which I still can’t believe—I have no idea what comes next. The memories confuse me. My heart breaks every day. I could leave or stay, but Lord this land is thrilling. The ancients have their tentacles in everything, of course, so watch out.

Change is in the air for me and maybe thee, but hasn’t hit yet. (Listen…)


Looking SE from Taos Plateau west of the Rio Grande

Meanwhile back in Ranchos 20 years ago, the actual owner of the property next door with three hand-built structures and no toilets, partner of the man who grew peyote by the window, was a lady who had once been Krishnamurti’s girlfriend and lived with him in India for a time. She also owned several acres in a gorgeous canyon near a quiet little hot spring. In the years that I’ve been living here, the two of them built several plywood “houses” there beside a huge-ass pond created from a dammed-up acequia in a setting no one would believe. The gentleman—an excellent artist, by the way—had other interests, too. He once uncovered an ancient native burial site while digging for a water line or something and found a shaman’s skull he realized was his own from another lifetime… and with that, he put it back! I loved the guy for this and also for the fact he’d grown up in L.A. with a film editor father who was friends with “Moe” from the Three Stooges. In other stages of his life he’d lived next door to Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder on a commune in the mountains, been a fisherman in Alaska, and smuggled hashish from Asia Minor to Amsterdam by car, which might account for the assault rifle hanging from the rafters I saw when we were there for dinner once.

We all used to be good friends. The background for the falling out is here, written in a state of stress I no longer recognize. Drowned out by the thunder of my recent loss, perhaps. So much of what I used to dread is gone or turned transparent. It’s like I’m more prepared to die myself, but who knows how I’ll act if doing something counts.

I honestly didn’t know what happened to these folks (at first). Not sure I really needed to. The two of them moved out to their idyllic refuge in the canyon and may have rented out the property next door. It was all so hard to tell. Different people came and went. I suspected evil doings as was my wont, and the artist gent still showed up to get their mail. I met him at the mailbox once and probed a bit. It turned out they’d kept their old addresses because everything they’d built up in the canyon was off the books to get around the tax man and the building codes. The new residence didn’t officially exist, in other words. I wondered how he handled things like internet and oxygen delivery. That was the other new thing, the little tube inside the nose. I felt sorry for him since he used to be so active. He still smoked dope, though just a little bit—I knew this from a visit—and I wondered later if he’d ever had a joint blow up on him.

A year or two went by. The people situation next door settled down, and I realized I hadn’t seen him or the lady at the mailbox for a long time. More months passed and then came COVID. That had to have been freaky for someone with a lung disorder in the first place. I wondered if the two of them had moved to Mexico or died and took to reading the obituaries in the paper, even researched backwards to when I thought I’d last encountered him, but nothing, not a trace. I could have asked, of course, but this is Taos. Best to let things be because you might learn way too much. Peyote on the porch, a rifle in the kitchen, hundred dollar bills from out of nowhere. We were quarantining anyway, so that worked out. Stay alive and deal with life and wait.


Likely unfathomable but pleasant ancient video hint interlude below. Enjoy!


So now we’re in the present. Breathe deeply of the cool, clean air.

One of the fellows I often see next door is at least part Native with a braided pigtail hanging down his back. I’ve met him before and know his name but little else except he’s old friends with the owners (?), and I always thought he was a sculptor for some reason. Getting on but not as old as I am. He either has a studio behind the fence or does odd jobs there. For the longest time, we’ve only exchanged waves and nods. I’d call him serious, calm, and self-contained. He keeps his truck all clean and shiny, especially the alloy wheels, and leaves the push-out windows open like I do.

A couple days ago I saw him as I headed out to walk. He was stripped to the waist with a bandanna around his head, whaling away with a post hole digger near the driveway. It was one of those times you find yourself so close you have to stop, and we stood across the ten foot distance like you do to signal that you’re on a mission but you’ll talk. (Also, COVID.) The first thing he said after I hollered “Hey, how are you?” was:

“Good, and how is your wife?”

I paused. Something in me knew that this would happen the next time we spoke and I’d rehearsed it in my mind. Not that the words themselves were difficult, but could I say them out loud to someone who didn’t know yet?

“She died…”

“Aww, no! I’m so sorry, man…”

“On April 5th. She had a stroke a month before.“

And all the rest came tumbling out. I told him about the second time they took her to the ED, where the doctors told me she was done for but she lasted 35 more hours, how the hospital gave us a private room and let us be together while she died, how intimate and powerful it was. He listened carefully, nodded, and then spoke a little of his own life. He told me how he’d been there when his father died, and how another relative had Alzheimer’s and he helped with that. We talked about the mystery of death, meditation, and the holy nature of the mundane. “I’m actually having fun here standing outside in the sun, digging this hole!” I knew exactly what he meant. Not bad for two old guys with long hair standing in the road. And then he said, gesturing to the south in the direction of a certain canyon:

“I went up to [so-and-so’s] to help ‘em out. Got [the lady!] ready, wrapped her in a sheet, and took her up to Lama.* Dug a hole and laid her in it…”

Our long-lost neighbors! No word about my artist friend, though. Maybe he’s already joined the angels or gone straight to hell.** I could have asked again, of course, but I just nodded, stunned, pretending I was in the know. The two of them were members of the temple. Of course you’d put her in the ground at Lama and never need to tell.

Wrapped up in a sheet and buried in the dirt.

Kathy would go bonkers learning this and have me pour tequila shots! How I wish she could have heard him. Then again, I bet she knows.


30+ years ago at Big Bend (Texas)

* The Lama Foundation in the mountains north of Taos. (Lama, NM of course.)
** Not stopping at the mailbox, anyway.

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