Dream Life


Taos driveway drainage management

For the last two decades of her life, every time I visited my mother, she’d shove a book at me called “How We Die.” Helen loved discussing her demise. I never could figure out why, except as a way of making me feel sorry for her. That wasn’t it, though. She was really trying to kill me. Quite unconsciously, of course, but it was cold and terrifying every time. She wanted me to read the signs of physical decay inside myself. Can you imagine?

I had a wondrous dream the other night in blazing technicolor, sharp as any movie. I was at our old home in the country back in Maryland, the one my wife and I bought back in ’89, but it was different: much larger, tall, and beautiful, more formal, “higher rent.” The floors were covered with dark red tiles, almost maroon, thick glazed ceramic tiles four inches on a side, with deep-cut beveled edges. (Rolling a vacuum over them would have been quite noisy.) The color of congealed blood, it occurs to me. There were two female (anima) figures inside the house, women who were old friends from the area. One I witnessed puttering happily through a window and I think we waved, the other I hugged tearfully on the back steps, saying, “So much water under the bridge…” Her dress matched the color of the tiles. She hugged me back but cooly, looking off into the distance.

The yard outside was striking. Beautiful green grass that stretched forever like a park, with immense, impossibly tall deciduous trees. They all had straight, clean trunks (no branches) that reached up to crowns of bright green leaves against a clear blue sky. The trees were absolutely stunning.

As I walked around the house, it changed—white siding with no windows—and I came across two very different trees. Both of them were low and old and heavy, leaning partly over the lower portion of the house, with gnarly twisted trunks and hardly any leaves. The bark was peeling like a sycamore. The first one was severely tilted but supported by a sturdy, hollow steel pole like a flagpole that tapered toward the top. The heavy bottom end was anchored in concrete in the grass, and the pole—more like a pipe, really, about 12 inches in diameter and painted silver—extended upward at a 45° angle to meet the trunk. An expensive, professional job, I thought. The undertaking of a government, perhaps.

The second tree was lower and more fragile. High up on this windowless side of the house, a heavy branch had almost punched a big hole in the siding from swinging in the wind. I could see the indentation, round and deep. That one needed cutting, I decided, or the next big storm would punch the hole completely through.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, but it isn’t hard.

In grossly simple and symbolic terms, the house is me, my body. The anima figures are my creative side, my muses. (Having two of them is somewhat odd and needs reflection.) The otherworldly tall straight trees are my true self, and I’ve seen them before in dreams. The older, gnarly trees against the windowless (unconscious) siding are my parents. The tree supported by a silver pole would be my Air Force father, the one that’s almost knocked a hole into my head is Helen [koff], and now I know why I started this thing off with her!

Fence Music

horses, fences, and mountains

Very close by

The cat is still dying. Monday can’t come soon enough except I hope it never gets here. Callie the Wonder Cat was almost chipper for a few days but now seems to be slipping away, no purring at all. When she lies down, it looks like a cat rag attached to a head. She’s unsteady and stumbles. The yowls have turned into piteous moans. For most of the weekend, she hasn’t eaten a thing. I’ve stopped forcing pills down her throat because I can’t bear it. Whether it’s kidneys or cancer or being 17 years old, from all appearances she’s just shutting down. There isn’t anything we can do except get her to the vet and send her to heaven. It’s all right, though it isn’t. She’s the most physically communicative cat I ever saw. She used to reach out with her paw and touch us gently on the face to wake us up in the morning to pet her and feed her. Not now, obviously.

The thing is, today I felt like the cat. Hell, I was the cat, like my life was all over, we’d never escape, never clean up the dust or buy new clothes or get the hell out of Taos. Like being in jail, all broken by fate. Reading the news didn’t help. We tried to take a nap in the quiet afternoon, but the cat had other ideas. Every time she made a sound, my wife threw off the blanket and went off to see. After an hour of that, I got up and staggered outside to chop wood in the snow.

It was 27°F with no wind in full sun. At 7,000 feet, that means it felt warm. Bringing in firewood is something you simply must do, like taking sick pets to the vet, washing your plate, or paying the bills, but it felt like the end of the road. I wanted to load up my rifle and kill the whole world. Like I said, it was warmish and golden and pretty much quiet, save for Romero’s damn Doberman two houses over. Every time the maul fell, he barked like an idiot. (Always chained up, who can blame him.) But I got the job done. After carrying the last chunks of pitchwood inside, I came back to clean up the wood chips and weight down the tarp. The sun was still shining but soon would be down.

I stood there in brainlock, unable to move. Lord, get me out of this place—is this really my life? Then I realized it was, surely nobody else’s. Even more crazy, how I felt made no difference. The sun would still set. The light on the mountains would still be the same. The magpies would still gather in the tall cottonwood by the acequia before flying off to their roosts in the canyon. There would still be ice under my feet, and the fucking dog would still bark. Even worse, I’d still need the wood!

My wife was awake, lying down, when I came back in the house. She could tell I had words and motioned for me to sit on the bed. I told her I’d decided to live, there was money all over the ground, and I’d just rake it up. She smiled like an angel. We knew what we’d do in the morning and cried for a bit. Later, after supper, she told me she loved me and wrote in her journal, while I watched “El Camino” on Netflix and loved it, resenting salvation but too tired to fight.

Prism of the Past

farr family portrait

Only Joyce and I are still alive

Every year about this time my wife gets weepy over “family,” those distant ones in Iowa (now Minnesota), Georgia, or wherever. Location doesn’t matter except that we aren’t there and weren’t expected anyway, distance being what it is. She remembers Thanksgivings in Ottumwa, Des Moines, or Muscatine with piles of food, the special china, journeys, relatives, and shelter from the storm. I remember murky gatherings like the one above at Granny’s house in Maryland, which may have been Thanksgiving or another time, before my father hauled us off to Germany for four long years.

The only people sort of smiling in that photo are my cousin Joyce and me and Aunt Mary the nurse (!), gazing down at Bill—she didn’t marry until age 56 and could safely dote on other people’s kids. Just look at that ensemble. I wonder where Teresa is? She would have been just three, too young to take the picture, or maybe that’s why I’m amused. Granddad lost his other leg a few months later, by the way. Aunt Mary was there that Christmas, as were we, when he opened his present from her and a pair of hand-knit socks fell out. She’d forgotten about the amputations, a perfect plot twist for the Farrs.

Season of Perpetual Fire

open wood stove

Ashley only, all the way

Say it isn’t so, except it is. At least the good thing about burning piñon, a variety of wood I never even heard about before moving to northern New Mexico, is that it’s so dense, a hefty log laid inside the venerable Ashley hippie hero wood stove from the ’60s will leave a hot pile of coals aglow till morning. Whereupon you load more piñon inside and lo, it starts up again all by itself. Sometimes a single match can help accelerate the process if it’s smoking, but be careful. Then all you do is shut the door, wait until the pipe starts “cricking,” and attempt to stop the runaway volcano in its tracks by closing down the draft. If you’re lucky, it just sits there incandescing for a couple of hours and no one burns the house down. If you’re not, extraordinary measures may be called for which I won’t discuss, except to say that every year some poor Texan up in Angel Fire thinks he knows the ropes and blows the stove to kingdom come. Living on the frontier is not for amateurs or people who skipped physics.

Oh, yes. You also have to climb up on the roof and knock the soot down from the chimney with a long stick or a length of chain you twirl around, maybe once a week or two, or else you’ll learn how chimney fires work. This procedure is best initiated before you see the stovepipe bleeding smoke inside the house, because you might not wake up in the morning. Just as well, I guess, because a cord of piñon costs so much.

But damn, it does burn great.

Callie Watch

Callie the Wonder Cat

Oh the stories we will tell

We almost put her down on Friday. That was really hard. The vet had to give us the proverbial “minute to yourselves” three times before we said we’d take her home for the weekend to say goodbye and bring her in on Monday. I just couldn’t face deciding then and there and driving back with an empty carrier. (Don’t do this to me now, it’s just too much.) The thing is, she’s 17 years old. Since the doc knocked out her kidney infection six weeks ago with antibiotics, she recovered nicely for a while and then resumed her downward spiral, losing half the weight you see above. I can’t even brush her now because the metal comb hits all the bones.

When we called on Friday morning for the appointment, she hadn’t eaten anything for two whole days. Friday evening we came home with kitty steroid tablets and an appetite stimulant you smear inside her ear, this by way of informally testing whether she’s presenting renal failure or the something-something cancer thing the doctor mentioned—if she eats at all, it’s likely not her kidneys—and to give her a little boost to see how she responds. As it happens, I misread the directions and gave her a double dose of appetite stimulant! Ninety minutes later she was ravenous. It was like a miracle. She acted five years younger, time stood still, and everybody had a good night’s sleep. On Saturday she slowed down a bit, then didn’t eat a thing all day until just a few minutes ago.

So today was difficult again. You look at her and know she won’t recover much, though my sense is that if she eats and doesn’t look so ready for the grave—if she’s happy—then of course she gets to hang around. We know it’s almost time to let her go, but I’m glad we didn’t give the go-ahead on Friday afternoon. I’ll call the vet tomorrow and see what’s what. My inclination is to finish out the meds if she’s still eating, so maybe just a little while. I keep thinking she’ll go outside and meet the Coyote of Transformation, but all she does is eat grass, come back inside, and barf. She helps me pick which piece of wood to use to start a fire in the wood stove, did you know?

Poor baby. [sigh] Damn cat is gonna make me howl.


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