Crossroads

©Jeff Horner

I am connected to a large number of people who are faced with a certain amount of change in their lives right now, most of it unlooked-for, most of it unwelcome. A few people have lost a parent recently, one has lost a home, another has lost a good friend. A huge number of people have just this morning lost their careers, cut out like somebody else’s cancer in a vast corporate firing. What do you say in these instances? What, for all the world, do you do?

The older we get, the more these treacherous transitions become familiar, but they never become easy. Many of us remember when we’d never been to a funeral before, never known or loved anyone who had died, never lost a pet, let alone a job. Nothing we’ve ever heard in our youth can prepare us for any of those events when they actually, finally happen to us. The years of our youth crawl by with exquisite, almost unendurable slowness, and then at some certain, precise moment when we are so not paying attention, we accidentally bump the Fast lever and everything rushes past in a barely-intelligible blur, spotted and dotted with aching loss in addition to the joys we’ve come to know, suffused with an adrenal exhilaration that takes us by surprise, makes us half-wonder when we’ll get accustomed to it, half-wonder if maybe panic is the appropriate long-term reaction after all.  All of the truisms we’d heard in our lives — each and every one of them — comes true, fully illustrated, in our own lives. If we only knew then what we know now.

When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and when finally it became plain that there was no escape for her, and so none for us, I reflected on this a little. We’ve all heard of people, every year of our lives, who lose a loved one. Usually they’re older than us; usually the person they lost was even older. I remember thinking that never, not even once, did I ever feel insensitive or uncaring towards those people when I heard the news. It must have been awful, unimaginable. But it was just that: Unimaginable. I had no frame of reference for such loss, and so while I could sympathize, I couldn’t empathize. Suddenly, then, I was a grown man facing the illness and death of my own mother, with nothing to do but be present, be aware, and be loving. I saw her in the hospital a few days before she died, and as I flew back home I remember thinking: People have gone through this since the invention of people. Somehow they’ve always gotten through this, so somehow I will, too. It’s just that I haven’t the slightest clue as to how I’ll go about that. Once, I bought a book having something to do with coping with a dying parent. It sat unread long after Mom died, and eventually I threw it away. Before something like that happens, no one can tell you what to expect. After, no one needs to.

These are the searing experiences, the formative ones, the ones that shape our lives just as the births, the adolescences, the First Times, the moves away from home, the weddings, the careers did. These, though, involve pain, sometimes tragedy, and aching, unyielding loss. These are the ones we always knew were coming, but still feel as if they got here too fast, caught us unprepared, made us realize that we didn’t really think they’d happen to us, and that we’d do almost anything — no, literally anything — to back time up and keep them from happening this time.

People who haven’t gone through a firing, either as an individual or as part of a mass “effort,” can scarcely imagine what a cutting blow that can be. Especially here in America, where our identities are so tied up with what we do for a living, the panic, stress, sense of failure and ultimate sense of loss, definitely on par with the loss of a person, require (and should be given) all of the time to grieve — actually grieve — that’s required. Especially when these losses are a result of something out of our control, like a corporation’s poor performance, for example, as opposed to our own performance, that directionless sense of anger and depression can’t help but redirect themselves back onto us, so adding shame to the shit salad we’ve already just been served. It’s a loss no less debilitating than a death itself.

But what do we learn, eventually, after having the carpet yanked so painfully out from under us? The truisms click into clarity there, too, and thankfully so: We’re never given anything we can’t handle, yatta yatta. When one door closes, yatta yatta. Mom used to love “God fits the burden to the back.” These and others all may be treacly, but they’re no less true. When have we ever taken a leap of faith and regretted it? When that leap is replaced with a shove, the end result is no less compelling. Think of what we can do, now that we’re faced with a chance to change. Think of who we can even be, now that the rules have all changed. When offered a choice between staying where we’re comfortable or stepping out into the unknown, I daresay a great majority of us would choose Comfy (I used to be one of them). But when we’re not given the choice, when Comfy is taken away and we’re left with Whatever Comes Next, what are we going to do? First, I hope, we’ll realize that we’ve gotten this far in our lives, sometimes by our wits alone, and at the end of the day we’ve been okay. It was hard, it was scary, it sucked, it wasn’t fair, but we were okay. We didn’t die. So we’ll be okay this time, too. It will probably take a while, and it will suck not one iota less, but we’ll get there, and we’ll be okay. For those of you going through this now, I hope you’ll allow yourself to know this: You’ve surmounted every transition in your life up to this point. You had to have, or you wouldn’t be here now! So, somehow, and someday, probably sooner rather than later, you’ll surmount this one.

To those of you who’ve lost a parent, a sibling, a friend, “this too shall pass” always fits in situations like this, because it’s true, even if it makes you want to hit things with a hammer. The most meaningful thing I ever heard tell, though, which I learned so, so well after the fact, was this: It’s true … the love doesn’t die. The memories can’t be taken away. All that was meaningful and important and loving about that person, and all of their love for you, is now safely installed into your own heart, where they never can be hurt, and never can be taken away.

I wish you all peace now. Remember the truisms because, I’ll be darned, they’re true. Talk to people. Get out and see people. Get some exercise. Write a little, if that helps. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who’ll give you all the time and space you need to cry, to mourn, to think and wonder and heal. It’s near springtime. When you’re ready, go out and smell the flowers.

Jeffiquette

garlic

A Lot Of Garlic

 

When cooking with garlic, cook with a lot of garlic.

When cooking for guests, cook with a lot of garlic. After they’ve arrived, say “hope you like a lot of garlic!”

If they do, then you have succeeded. If they do not, then you have succeeded!

Do I Miss It?

©Jeff Horner

©Jeff Horner

Heading around to end of what constitutes winter here in Atlanta, I’d be a fool if I didn’t feel some small amount of relish at seeing what the temperatures have been doing in the upper Midwest this winter, as with all winters there. By local standards, the winter of 2014 has been mild, with temperatures stuck well below zero only a few days at a time, instead of full weeks. Snowfall has been steady, but there have been years there where it snows before Thanksgiving, stays through the beauty of Christmas, and then lingers to show its cold, dead colors well into April. That’s roughly half a year of aching, relentless bundling against the cold.

Here, we had one brief snowfall, less than an inch on the ground, yet enough to send the city and surrounding counties into predictable frenzy. Otherwise, all winter long it’s dipped into the thirties, risen close to seventy, and here at the end of February it’s already showing signs of knocking it off and going away. Any Midwesterner that tells you that isn’t their idea of a perfect winter is lying.

“You’ll get yours!” the folks away up north will tell me. “Just wait until July! You’ll be miserable!” they say. But I’ve always loved to bake in the heat, to surrender to the humidity and just be. Winter is a time when things either go dormant or die outright, call it sleep or coma or what you will. Summer, though, is when the very Earth we live on comes back to life! Throw those windows WIDE open, and let as much of that sweet summertime stink in as the room will take. Smell the soil! Smell the greenery! Hear the birds and the people out there! Those that sequester themselves deep in the artificial Arctic and complain away the summer of life; those that appear to come alive during the season of dark and death, well, I’m not one of them.

“You’ll miss the snow!” people will say — in fact they started saying it as soon as I made it known I was moving to Atlanta. Have I missed it? No. Might I miss it, next winter or some winter hence? Maybe. Probably, at some point.

No, I don’t miss the Grudging Frozen Miserable, but there is one thing I do miss, about winter. About the depths of the coldest, darkest, almost extraterrestrial night that a Wisconsin or Minnesota winter can bring:


A time comes during any winter when the simple term “Cabin Fever” doesn’t even come close. By then, it’s been months of suiting up even before taking the garbage out. Of adopting a rigid and inefficient gait just to keep from slipping on the ice, which eventually is everywhere. Of coats and hats smelling like they could use a good airing out, with no outside air in which to air them. Of feeling like it’s dark all the time, and that when the sun shines it’s a glare.

At that same time, sometimes the night temperatures will sink down well below zero, and the wind chill (first one to say “Real Feel” gets a pie in the face, I mean it) hits something lunar, like -30 or -50 or something immediately lethal like that. When that happens, the air is far too cold to hold any moisture at all, and the stars shine, truly, like diamonds. The space around them is so black, and their points of light are so sharp, and so multi-colored, that they appear as something which most definitely should have some sort of sound; something tiny and musical, mystical and magic.

Sometimes — definitely not always — I would take advantage of that magic and actually head out into it. When cars labor to start and unexposed extremities freeze and fall off, I would layer up in t-shirt, flannel shirt, sweater, and heavy winter coat. Sweatpants under oversized jeans, thermal socks in thermal boots, a scarf, a hat, mittens over Thinsulate® gloves, until I found it to be a mild effort even to bend my arms or move my legs. I’d pour steaming herbal tea into a travel cup, and then I’d travel. The upper Midwest being largely flat, I would aim for a county or state park somewhere sheltered by trees or bluffs, twenty or so miles out of the city, leaving the freeway, then the state road, then the county road, then the dirt roads behind. I’d slowly roll to a crunching stop in the snow, pull on the hat and gloves, double-wrap the scarf, shut off the car, and get out. Immediately: Magic.

The quiet of any windless night after zooming in a car can be stunning, no matter when. Without summer’s crickets, or birdsong, or low-grass scurrying, or children shouting from their yards miles away or even heavy traffic whispering along a freeway somewhere, the quiet on a night such as this is, at first, absolute. I just stand, feeling the blood move through my entire body, testing the cold with my nose and face, ready to retreat but thrilled to be out in the fresh air. Of course it’s cold — eventually it’ll feel deadly cold — but for now it’s fine, and the change is exhilarating. I walk out ahead on the road, packed smooth with snow, listening to my feet crunch. I stop again, my body heat doing its job inside all the layers, and I look up; just rotate my head back and stare straight up at the stars. This world, this nighttime of stars and quiet, was such an easy luxury just a few months ago, but now it’s as if I’ve stepped out onto the surface of another planet. As I watch, I see satellites glide across the sky. More often than not I see a small meteorite, sometimes a big one, again seeming for all the world as if there should be an accompanying noise: A hiss, a scratch, but nothing. As the silence settles around me, I start to pick up on small sounds. A branch ticking against a pole a few yards away, the air barely stirring. A small animal gets used to whatever I am and continues the foraging beneath the snow I interrupted when I showed up. A single bird, so out of place in the scene, calls once. A dog barks, in this thin air probably five miles away. I walk back and lean against the car, fascinated by how not-cold I am, and the thoughts just come. Memories, dreams, ambitions, my place in the world, my place in the Universe. After all these months of furnacing and blanketing and hurrying, I’m outside, and the juxtaposition is luxurious. I’ve broken the rules and survived. I’ve stepped out of time and I’m experiencing the frigid night all alone, and it welcomes me.

Eventually, the novelty wears off, the cold begins to seep in and really make itself known, and I realize I’d better step back into line and go back to the inside world where everyone else is stranded. I get back in the car, pull off the hat and gloves and pilot my little bubble home again. I only ever did this once or twice each winter when it got really bad, but I always — fully always — was changed by it. I’d stepped out of my world for a moment, and was rewarded with a peace of mind and calmness of thought that had long been absent.

Do I miss winter? No, I don’t. As I write, the temperature here is a above normal near seventy, the birds are singing and the breeze smells sweet. In Wisconsin, the temperature is a little below normal at minus one, and virtually no one is enjoying the breeze, not even the birds. Here, tonight it might dip down into the thirties. There, it’s forecast to hit minus seventeen. It’s not just that I’m going to like it here, it’s that I already do.

Age before beauty

Look at these beauties in Annie’s photo. It’s been said that a photographer has three quarters of their work done for them when photographing something beautiful, be it a person or a sunrise. I tend to agree.

But there’s nothing wrong with that. Shooting and viewing an image of a lithe young thing is thrilling, inspiring, joyful. We see youth, we see perfection, we see sex come alive, and as we get older we see those things through different eyes, made so by our evolving perspective.

Photographing something or someone worn and aged can be a vastly different experience, as the photographer and as the viewer. Shooting an ancient wooden gate, for example, brought down to its most elemental self through decades of sun and wind and rain, can be spellbinding. So much texture, such detail, something different to be seen with each viewing.

Not to carelessly conflate this beautiful couple with an old gate; shooting older people is equally fascinating, for sometimes similar reasons. Look at the lines, the texture, the years of smiles and tears made manifest on the faces, all long gone away but at the same time vitally present on the very faces before us. Beauty can come in so many different ways, be it young or old, each with their callings, each potentially lacking something the other effortlessly possesses.

©Annie Leibovitz

 

With that, then, have a look at this wonderful portrait of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and have a read about the classic movie they made together a half-century ago. I’ve always had a thing for each of them — go figure — and they each look as stunning in their eighties as they did as exquisite young people.

For Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music Was Never “So Long, Farewell”

 Vanity Fair, March 2015