Raw, adjective: 4. painfully open, as a sore or wound


"How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it."
~ Edward Abbey


tapas ~ Heat; intensity of discipline; concentrated discipline; austerity; penance; energy; to heat up. From the verb root “tap,” meaning to burn.


It is summer 1998, and we are building a house.

It is June in central Florida, the hottest summer here in a hundred years, and we are spending 12 hours a day in the sun laying concrete, hoisting roof trusses, and nailing two-by-fours.

No, we are not crazy.

*

“I went to Florida because I wished to live deliberately…”

Come again? “Live deliberately?” In Florida?? Commercialized land of oversized Mouse ears, mecca of thousands of hedonistic college kids let loose for spring break, perennial hotspot for suburban “adult communities” featuring endless bingo and shuffleboard, where old people go to die? Not exactly Thoreau’s idyllic Walden Pond, a modern-day Eden untouched by the Fall, “obtained [by] a patent of Heaven” and the “distiller of celestial dews.” Closest thing to fucking celestial dews in Florida is probably Shamu’s diving pool at Seaworld – certainly not what my man HDT had in mind when he shipped off to his experiment in simple living in the wilds of 19th-century Massachusetts. What kind of deliberate living could possibly be had in the strip-malled, subdivided “wilds” of central Florida?

More than I ever could have imagined.

*

Late May, 1998

After a laid-back flight from Baltimore courtesy of Southwest Airlines (“Haylloo, and waylcome to Southwayst Ayrlahnes! Will thayt be paynuts or praytzhuls tuhday?”), I step off the plane in Jacksonville, FL. I am 19 years old and have just finished my first year of college, a dreamy period spent choreographing The Who’s “Tommy” and singing Sondheim and wearing hippie thrift store clothes and old skirts with unraveling elastic waistbands and reading Thoreau and Marx and Woolf and criticizing the Patriarchy and covering up my mirrors. Having endured Florida wildlife horror stories from my overzealous native seatmate for the better part of 3 hours, I welcome the chance to stretch my legs and get a much-needed respite from the Discovery Channel chatter. I soon spot my father and older sister, Bekka, waiting by the gate, and gladly fall into stride with them toward the parking lot after collecting my luggage and whisking through the drab brown airport. As we pull out of the garage I get my first whiff of the heavy Florida air and dense humidity that’s responsible for making the state the center of citrus production and an annual site of pilgrimage for retired Northern snowbirds. Heading south from Jacksonville along pine-lined highways, the air carrying the scent of the sun-baked earth from earlier that day, I get my first hint of what an adventure we are in for.

Plans for the summer of 1998 had been long in the making. As the culmination of years of preparation, my family and I were finally beginning the first in a series of exciting steps toward an eventual home in the magnolia-strewn, Spanish moss-draped Deep South. The goings-on of that summer had their roots in my father’s escapades as a Navy sailor in the late 1960s when, stationed in central Florida, he made fast friends with a middle-aged couple, Emil and Alice Babka, who lived in Ocala, a middling horse-ranching town about an hour north of Orlando. With Ocala quickly becoming a hotspot for retirement developments, the Babkas bought up several lots in a southeastern suburb called Silver Springs Shores. Some 30 years later, the Shores had become a sprawling neighborhood of Spanish-style stucco houses dotted with palm trees and connected by an endless network of similarly-named streets, circles and terraces. Her husband gone, the now-elderly Alice was anxious to sell some of the undeveloped land in her possession. My father, still recovering from too many subzero Great Plains winters and never having forgotten the warmth and allure of the subtropical Florida weather of his Navy days, made a move to buy one of Alice’s lots.

After several years spent devouring house plans – scrapping the idea of a geodesic dome house for a more energy-efficient, streamlined ranch model – all that remained to be done was the actual construction. My father had deliberately chosen a simple design, something that would fit his plan to eventually spend retirement summers in Nebraska and winters in Florida. Even though retirement was a good 15 years away, he was careful to plan around common elderly concerns, eliminating stairs and making the floor plan as accessible as might someday be necessary. The need for simplicity had a greater underlying reason, though, for not only would we be designing the blueprints ourselves, but we’d also decided to construct the house – foundation to roof – on our own.

My pastor father, schooled in the dense theology of Martin Luther and expert on the spiritual and intellectual aspects of life, was equally well-grounded in the more base world of shopcraft. The second son in a German Nebraska farm family of six, Dad grew up butchering chickens, building cabinets in the winter off-season with my grandfather, and driving a tractor by the time he was eight. He was the best mechanic I’ve ever had, and the only gardener I’ve ever known who could manage to grow sunflowers, sweet corn, pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, and enough zucchini to feed a small circus on a small lot in the city. As one former protegee said, my father was a kind of prairie “MacGyver.” He’d finished off the basements of three of our former homes, built sheds, garages, treehouses and the like. If anyone could build a house by himself, it was my Pops.

So with Dad at the helm, my mother and each of us four children would do our best to provide the rest of the requisite physical labor. Bekka and I would move to Ocala with Dad during our summer college breaks and his 3-month sabbatical, and my mother, Mariah and Mikah would rotate between holding down the fort in Nebraska and helping out in Florida. We were quite the rag-tag little team, naïve as hell, cautious, but willing.

So, it was with great anticipation that Dad, Bek and I drove away from the Jacksonville airport that late May. They had arrived in Florida a week earlier, having driven the vans full of tools and makeshift furniture down from Nebraska. After finding a temporary condo a few convenient blocks from the lot (where we would stay for “the first month” until the house was framed and livable), they went to work securing building permits and ordering initial supplies. From the foundation to the shingles, we were determined to do this on our own, and we itched to begin.

At first, it was intimidating. The tools in my ignorant young hands felt alien, and swinging a hammer wore raw calluses on my palms, leaving my weak upper arms with a permanent dull ache. I felt funny hitting the soft 2 x 4 boards; my nervous fingers skittered away from the nails as I tried to pound, sending them slinging into the air dangerously close to my irritated older sister’s eyes. The whole thing felt at once surreal and extraordinary: working in the sun from its steady early glare through the noonday’s beating and into the late afternoon’s searing brightness, standing there on the concrete foundation under the whisper of crackling, rustling pines and Florida evergreens, the sandy dirt filling our shoes, the grime accumulating on our elbows, knees, ankles, faces, our foreheads glistening with sweat beads from the 100 degree temperatures, high humidity and the hottest summer in Florida’s recorded history.

There was my classy sister, always dressed fashionably from head to toe, never a hair out of place, makeup always perfect, silently dripping in the sun as her unaccustomed hand moved from fear to confidence in swinging a hammer, as she sucked up her discomfort and pointedly moved on to the next task, squinting in the bright light; there was my stalwart, easy-going father, grinning in the subtropical Florida glow that he so loved, working his 52-year-old bones like they weren’t a day over 21, and never compaining, soaking up the sun on his blistered back and hitching up his sagging work cut-offs as he moved on to the next project, whistling here and there, waving at elderly “looky-loos” passing by slowly in their big Cadillacs, stopping to guzzle water from the spring-fed well in what would become our backyard, coming to our rescue when Bek and I had misaligned yet another stud or bent another nail irredeemably, never chiding us or criticizing, only offering suggestions for “next time” or chuckling about how much we’d improve by the end of the summer. He was in his element. He loved the sweat, and the heat, and the bugs, and the mid-afternoon downpours.

We’d sing together a cappella, the old boombox not providing much beyond white noise, falling back on favorite Nat King Cole tunes or classic Rodgers and Hammerstein standbys, wailing them at the tops of our lungs in the still Florida twilight (and no doubt frightening the neighbors, or if nothing else providing more fodder for their belief in Northerners’ fundamental, conspicuous lack of grace).

*

Looking back now with my yogi eyes, of course, I see so many rich yogic themes threaded through that summer’s building asana: the meditation of being present there in that sweaty, heavy-breathing stillness; the parallels to tapas, the burning and the heat and the unbearable austerities of my six-year Bikram practice, the discipline inherent in learning to be still in the midst of great pain and literal burning, the pranayama breath control and the patience learned from sitting with such bodily ache, the challenge of new asanas and new flows, the vinyasa of swinging hammers and bending knees and squatting calves while shingling a new roof; the lifting and pulling and straining and pushing that was a yoga practice of its own kind, though we certainly didn’t know it at the time. It was a summer of tapas, a summer of burning, a summer of purifying, cleansing, sweating out impurities, churning out toxins, and all in the searing light of a midday Florida sun, as opposed to the 105-degree artificial heat of the Bikram studio that has been my refuge and inspiration these last six years, or the softer-but-still-intense 86-degree heat of the vinyasa studio swollen with late-afternoon light as the San Francisco sun shines in over the interstate.

*

The days followed one after another, much the same. We framed the outer walls, hoisted them, and soon had a rough shell of a house, some slightly warped windows, and a helluva lot of sunburned skin. We fought with the enormous cathedral-ceilinged scissors trusses, running and pushing and squeezing and cursing each of the 25 beasts, until finally one evening we had an open roof. Next came the plywood facing, the “walls” of our home, translating to: Yours Truly armed with an air-powered nail gun, on loan from friendly Hank from the local supply store, a machine with surely more kick-back than a real weapon, leaving me more positive than ever about my antipathy for war, as I felt myself transplanted back to Normandy wearing dusty battle fatigues as I conquered the evil fire ants attacking my unfortressed legs [come on, give me a break already; I had hours to entertain myself here!]. Slowly we progressed, working every day as the heat wave pressed on, as the insect life multiplied, as our muscles slowly, ever so slowly, lost their soreness, as our skin turned a deep cancerous Hawaiian-Tropic-lady maple color, as the devastating forest fires in Florida’s national forests crept ever closer to our haven in Ocala. I was brown as a berry, reveling in the sunshine and the sweat, shuttling back and forth between the construction site and my job lifeguarding at a nearby pool, heading out in the early 7 o’clock sunshine to walk the quiet palm-lined streets to work, and spending the remainder of my time hammering, painting, drilling, hoisting, sweating, at the lot. Other than supervising the elderly water aerobics contingent in their morning routines and teaching a few kids’ lessons, I wasn’t doing much besides chasing away the odd snake or alligator that emerged from the skanky pond behind the pool. Still, it was always kind of magical to head home at the end of a long day and find a window or a door where there had been nothing the morning before.

It wasn’t always idyllic. Some days were hellish. We spent one early August day entirely on the roof, shingling in 105 degree heat under a blazingly hot sun so intense that the adhesive strips on the shingles stuck immediately to our skins and the roof before we could even tack them in. The shingles left little rocks embedded in our knees, our palms, our elbows, our asses, and turned our clothing black with tar. I thought that day would never end. I wound my long hair into tight braids around my head, caked on the sunblock every morning, and strapped on my smelly baby-powder-filled sneakers every morning. My muscles ached like a bitch, my skin grew crispy and red, and Bekka nearly killed me for shooting her with countless renegade nails from that damn machine nail gun that I’d proudly claimed as my own. My 12-year-old brother Mikah came south to help during the month of July. He was convinced he’d been taken for a wage slave laborer, minus the wages. For a young kid enamored with computer games and electronic basketball, “slaving” in the Florida heat was beyond hell. He whined like it was the end of the world. We all did our share of snapping at each other, trading barbs or grumbling frustrated complaints under our breath in annoyance exacerbated by the heat. We’d finish too exhausted to talk, arriving home at the make-shift condo and crashing on the air mattresses or borrowed chairs. Some days it took all I had not to drop my hammer and collapse on the cool shaded cement. Some days I did.

*

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Boy, do I wish now looking back that I’d known all the yogic philosophy I do now. The breathing, the stillness, the learning to be silent and sit with pain and difficulty; they all would’ve served me so well in the midst of so much burning heat and challenge and strife. I look back on my father in those harder moments, his patience and his good humor, his never-ending trust that we’d learn in time, that our asanas would develop, and I realize what an unintended yoga practice he embodied, though he wouldn’t have claimed it, to be sure; his was a model of a yogi’s calm, steady patience that I still seek to emulate in my own practice today. His sensibility, his clear-headedness, his simplicity, his ability to be completely immersed in the present tense, his lack of drama, his wild, radical santosha; it was all yoga. His learning to be still, to turn off the mind and be present in the movement; his sparse, humble, plainsong style; his offering of it all away, without expectation for the fruits of his labors; Ishvara Pranidhana, indeed. He was so very certain of his dharma, such a model in knowing what he was meant to do in his limited time here. I pray that might one day all be mine, that same wordless certainty, that same fearless trust.

*

I suppose the moral of the story is that we finished. In the end, it was just my father and me, as everyone else had returned to Nebraska for the start of the school year. The house wasn’t inhabitable by the time the lease on our condo ran out, so for a good while Dad and I lived in a shell of a house, without electricity or light; no interior walls, no plumbing, just he and I and the fire-ants and the crickets making our way through the last dog days of summer and the final few weeks of his sabbatical from the Lutheran Center. It was base, Thoreauvian, amazing. We spent long days stapling, hammering, singing and (finally) sleeping. One day I stapled insulation for 8 straight hours, rubbing blisters on my palms from the stapler and blasting through endless rolls of frothy yellow insulation, while Dad worked to finish the ceilings 12 feet above me. We sang Gershwin and Sondheim, punching down the insulation to the beat of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina (in spite of the fact that Dad probably couldn’t tell Andrew Lloyd Webber from Frank Lloyd Wright), forgot to eat, and collapsed into our makeshift cots, thoroughly spent, only to slap mosquitoes all night, waking the next morning covered with soft pink bumps.

By day, I took cold showers in my grubs with the hose from the well in the backyard, feeling entirely like some modern incarnation of my childhood heroine Laura Ingalls Wilder, as the hose’s cascading stream splattered red clay dirt all over me and pine needles sifted down onto my head. I shivered as I bound my long hair up into tight braids, wrapping them around my head like prairie women of old. We filled a basin of fresh water for necessities and kept it inside the house, rigging up a gingerly clothesline between two backyard trees to air out our grimy work clothes. At night, I crept out to the temporary outhouse to pee by the weak flame of a disposable cigarette lighter. I smelled like gasoline and grass and sweat and oranges and varnish. I didn’t cross a mirror for days on end. It was pretty fucking great.

I’d like to say, per romantic literary convention, that I had never felt more beautiful in my life. But that, dear reader, would be a lie.

In reality, I felt rank, slimy, bitten-up, itchy, disgusting. I smelled like a horse and my clothes were holey from being washed-out from the sweat. But in the midst of the dirt and the grime, I also felt somehow more real, more authentic, than I had ever felt. And that in itself was a strange kind of grace, a quiet acceptance of being right there in my body as it was, smells and bites and soreness and all, that was new to me, an unspoken something between my father and me at the very base of which had something to do with just being alive there together in those most humble of circumstances.

September came, and with it the time to return to our respective campuses, Dad’s in Nebraska and mine in Delaware. We tidied things, hurriedly planting a few hardy shrubs in the front yard, leaving promises to return soon to finish all the waiting projects. We left a simple house, complete with plumbing and electricity and walls and kitchen cabinets, strung together by heat and frustration and patience and missed staples. My body was a mélange of scars and aches and bruises and unfamiliar new muscles. I had learned to swing a hammer, and Dad had learned to put up with show-tunes. We were a team, he and I, low-maintenance and grimy and sweaty and lived-in. He’d lost his little belly in all those days of crouching on the roof and shoveling the sandy soil. I’d gained a new sense of myself. No longer was I the dorky college freshman from the sticks, my forearms bruised from running repeatedly into the poles rimming the walkways on campus when I read as I walked. I was fucking MacGyver-ette, I could do anything, wield a nail gun with the best of them, and I had the battle wounds to show it. And Dad had a house, and a sunburned brow, and a newly power-tool-adept daughter to show for it, too.

*

Those three months will probably be the closest I’ll ever come to “living deliberately,” to recreating, reliving, making my own, Thoreau’s experiment in simplicity on Walden Pond. Something in my life that summer draws me close to Thoreau (and his fellow simple-living literary buddies like Edward Abbey and Ralph Waldo Emerson), makes me feel what they felt, see what they saw, in a way which I’ll perhaps never be wholly able to pinpoint. Stepping out into the wilderness – a place of pure detachment, a glorious opportunity for sheer anonymity, a new adventure, completely separate, removed from my own. Claiming the physical, reclaiming the primal lovely early ancient spirit of myself, of being, of doing, of feeling, of “living deep,” “sucking the marrow out of life.” Wrapping abstract thought – immense historical personal spiritual connection – around the ultimate concrete commonplace real experience: how very transcendental. I’ll never forget the chill, the sensation, the glory of feeling myself do the very same things that my father, my grandmother, her mother, her mother’s father, that they all did; feeling them, their experiences, their lives, their blood, in me, as I came together with my 20th century family to create, to build, to permit, to allow for our existence, in much the same way that he, she, they built the old white farmhouse that my grandfather was born in and my father was raised in, the early shacks that my strong brave precious pioneer ancestors built together of sod taken from the rolling Nebraska prairies, the beat of my heart and the sinew in my muscles matching that of the men and women building houses, building lives in Germany centuries ago, that the end result of all that living, all that life, might be me.

Here, this, is what Nature is, this is what it means, what one does, to resacrilize the land, to perceive the Holy, the glorious, the fantastic real, in the bits, the toils, the smallness, the silent greatness of everyday life. Nature is this perpetuation, this consciousness, that what I am is what was and what is and what is to come, all bundled into one moving vehicle, one bit of substance, one mind, one soul, with the ability, the gift, to perceive glory, to perceive beauty, to perceive the Sacred, the sublime, in the heat of an afternoon spent on a roof slinging nails and singing Gershwin show-tunes, in the early morning solitary walk to work past sleeping houses and silent dogs to the accompanying melody of clicking sprinklers. Nature – living deep in Nature – is glorying in the scars that cover my feet and my ankles, remnants of fire ant bites and dropped hammers and misbehaving nails and dog bites and scratches from prickly undergrowth. Living deep is seeing all that, knowing all that , as a physical vehicle, a form of access, to the wonders of sensuality in nature, to the presence of the divine in every small, silent twitch, each quick soft deft movement, every reality, every existence. It’s coming home each evening feeling entirely physically spent, feeling fulfilled in only the way pure exhaustion can fulfill, and waking the next morning feeling every choice, every action, every moment of the previous day resonating in my body every time I move a muscle. It’s realizing that all I am, all I do, all I will be, is a product of my spirit, of the conscious choice I make to see the beauty and the history and the grotesque sublime in every aspect of my life, in the hammering and the pain and the adrenaline and the evening wind whistling in my ears, nipping at the sweaty tendrils escaping from the long braided ropes twisted around my head, just as the same wind, equally rife with the presence of the divine, whispered in my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s braids when they were young women of 19 building new homes on the frontiers of their lives. The settings may change – Florida, Nebraska, Germany, San Francisco – but the frontier is still, is always, the same. It’s the “fronting” of our hearts, of our constitutions, the setting forth against what at first seems unknown and frightening and powerful and overwhelming but which is later revealed, which later reveals itself, as the re-churning, the re-making, the over-and-over-again presence-spirit-nature-grace of the Sacred. It’s the knowing that all we are – all we were – all we will be – is wrapped up in the wind that whispers and the sun that bakes and the rain that douses, to which we will all someday return.

The most alive is the wildest. We are wild when we let ourselves slip into wildness, when we allow acceptance of the frightening and beautiful and divine reality of being. When we let go. When we strip ourselves bare; when we strip ourselves to what we think is bare, is our barest, only to find endless layers beneath, endless story perpetuating itself, endless being inside ourselves.

*

"Life is hard? True -- but let's love it anyhow,
though it breaks every bone in our bodies."

~ Edward Abbey


My father died five years ago this month, his body riddled with a cancer that had no doubt already begun to develop that summer of ’98 spent building the house. He was diagnosed in October 2002; I flew back from the hippie commune in southern Spain where I was living and spent the ensuing nine months there in Nebraska while he underwent chemo, radiation and drastic surgery, and the doctors sang hollow songs of remission, but the cancer in his esophagus was already much too far gone to be cured. I moved to San Francisco in 2003 and watched his steady eventual decline from afar, traveling with him one last time to the Florida house in July of 2004.

*

It is the Fourth of July, 2004. Less than a year left to live.

Dad has gone through chemo, and radiation, and surgery. They took out his stomach, stretched it up to create a new esophagus. They didn’t think he’d make it. He went into remission; they told him he was “cancer-free.” I moved to San Francisco to start my life there and begin my grad work in Berkeley. Dad lived somewhat normally, albeit much more slowly than usual, for a few sun-kissed months. By December 2003, the pain in his back had returned, and the ever-increasing meds failed to do the trick. In spite of the regular check-ins with his oncologist, the cancer had grown. The pain in his back was a tumor, and it had spread to his lymph nodes.

By May 2004, unbeknownst to us, the doctors at Mayo Clinic told him he had six months to live. He decided to do the chemo and the radiation anyway.

He was so frustratingly hopeful.

So, Dad is dying, and it is summertime, and I am taking him to the Florida house for the Fourth of July.

I pick him up at the airport in Tampa. I have flown in from San Francisco, he from Omaha. He refuses to sit in a wheelchair, even though he is so exhausted from walking that I fear he will faint. He is tiny, a shell of his former 6’ self. He carries his meds in a little refrigerated lunchbox carry-on. He refuses to wear the Michael Jackson facemask that my mother has bought for him, in spite of his perilously low white blood cell count.

I pick up the rental car and we head out of the airport. He is far too weak to drive by this point. The heat on the pavement at the rental car agency sizzles like bacon in a frying pan.

In Dad’s heaven, there will be tropical heat.

I see him swell with pride on driving up to the house. He is so happy to be back here, his baby, his pet project, visions of the long years stretching ahead full of putzing and gutters and palm trees. I see his eyes calculating all the shingles that need to be re-nailed, the gutters that need to be re-hoisted, the siding that needs to be wiped down. He is making a mental checklist of all the projects he wants to take care of while he is there.

He will not be strong enough to leave the house.

My heart shatters.

I am the parent now. I dole out the meds per his doctor’s careful instructions. I urge him to eat, I tuck him in at night, I help him in the shower, I hold my breath when I can’t see his chest moving up and down as he dozes in front of the television.

Will he choose to die here in this house of his own making?

The walls echo with the haunting sounds of hammers and pinging nails and Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. I can smell the sawdust and the sweat, recall the life swirling grotesquely around us in this moment that now only feels like so much postponed death.

The evening of the Fourth comes, and he is too fragile to go outside. We sit in the house, Dad dozing in the recliner, me curled up on the sofa, and listen to the shells exploding overhead. I open the front window so that he can see the bursts coming up over the pine trees. He can’t really see anything. He pretends, for my sake. I don’t care about the fireworks. Fuck the fucking Fourth of July patriotic bullshit. I am here with my father, in this house of our own making, celebrating Independence Day together, at a time when he can no longer take a shower by himself.

We watch an old Jeremiah Johnson video with the once-dreamy Robert Redford. We listen to bad talk radio. We watch The Sound of Music on TV. Julie Andrews skips down the streets of Salzburg swinging her guitar.

And it is enough.

*

"Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break....I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun."

~ Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

It is late March 2010, and my father is five years gone, and the house we built together 12 years ago has been sold. My mother was tired of maintaining an empty house 1,500 miles away, and per Dad’s deathbed request to try to keep the house in the family, Bekka and I have spent the last nine months trying to find a way to buy it from her. We’re going to take on the mortgage, maybe find a property manager, rent it out, keep it in the family. But Real Life has complicated things, and financial surprises and sky-high urban rents and unreasonable distances have made our initial purchasing plan difficult, and my tattered copy of “Flowering Plants and Trees for Florida Climates” that I’d so lovingly marked with plans for crepe myrtles and peach trees and Japanese magnolias has fallen dusty on a pile of unread magazines. And now some mysterious person will take over, sleep in what was my bedroom, fill its silences with her own songs.

My mother put the house on the market last winter, and given the pathetic status of the housing market in Florida, we figured we could buy some time. Shockingly, the house sold three weeks ago; it closes April 6th, and the new owners will take over all of the contents of the house: its furniture, my father’s tools in the garage, my trunks and notebooks and theater costumes from former lives in Delaware and Europe that I’d stashed there between travels and moves, planning to ship them west to San Francisco some day.

So Bekka and I have frantically booked a quick final trip to say goodbye to the house and to our father; I need to salvage what I can of my things and, more importantly, sing a few last elegies in that echoing cathedral-ceilinged Great Room under the roof trusses that we hoisted ourselves.

It is an emotional landmine. I fly out Sunday evening and the tears start early, in the cab on the way to the airport. I speak briefly with my sister, who is meeting me at the airport; she has flown in already and will be waiting in Orlando when I arrive. The cabbie hears my conversation and, in his broken English, wants details. An explanation ensues. I am flying to Florida to say goodbye to my dead father and the home we built together 12 years ago.

I am literally unplugged. It feels strange, flighty, ungrounded. In the rush to leave for the airport, I’ve left my Mac power cord on my bed, amidst upturned piles of writing and dresses and yoga pants. My ancient Mac battery lasts five minutes, max. It’s de-energized, power-sapped, battery-drained, out of juice, running on empty.

Just like me.

The wounds reopen, these five years later. Five years ago this week we flew back to Nebraska to say goodbye, summoned by the word that the end was near, and my father told us on his deathbed as we sat flanking him there in the living room around his hospice bed that the one thing he wanted us to do was hold on to that Florida house.

That humble, plain, simple, sweet, beloved, hand-made, hand-fashioned home.

We have failed him.

*

I am crying on the plane.
I am somewhere over Utah, and I am crying on the plane.
I have been crying a lot lately. I am getting good at living with puffy eyes. I didn’t bother to wear any mascara on leaving the house. I know it would just run off in time.

I escape to the lavatory, unable to stymie the tears any longer, and the shoulders that have carried the burden of this sorrow collapse in a long-awaited shudder. I have managed, through the happy coincidence of a crazy-busy spring and a concertedly conscious effort at self-preservation, to avoid the reality of any of this, and here, somewhere over Oklahoma by now, it hits.

So I weep. Shoulders shaking there in that tiny lavatory, paper tissues crumpled in my hands.

I am sorry.
I’m so sorry.
I’m so sorry that you are gone and that your vitality wasn’t enough to protect you and that we kids majored in things we love that don’t pay enough to take on an extra mortgage on top of obscene urban rents; I am sorry that life is so complicatedly rich and heart-breaking and real; I am sorry that you have to know we let you down.

I am sorry that this is the last time.

The shift begins.
Because it all passes.

*

All the neighbors have died. Don and Doris are gone, both to cancer. Joe Alphonso is gone, a gun to his own head. (The world was too much to bear; the loss, the vast failure, the disappointment, the loneliness.) Alice Babka and her cluttered house, and cats, and the scent of death that haunted her even when alive, gone. Mark Prigge is gone, too, for all I know, and his wife, Betty, no doubt.

It is all so very fleeting.

The reality of impermanence rushes home to me once again; the wabi-sabi nature of reality, the beauty of all that is impermanent, imperfect, incomplete. This house was perpetually incomplete. May we always be incomplete, the Taoists pray.

We never know when we will go. My father was already dying in that house, even as he planned our future there. We are dying now, as we plan our lives, our 5-year plans, our 401Ks. Who’s to say that retirement will even come? This is why we must, must endeavor to live only and ever in the present moment, never delaying pleasure or adventure for the unforeseen future, because that future might never come. And then what have we done with all these delayed presents? Thank god my father took pleasure in the process, in the sweat and the pain and the stop-and-go nature of the whole thing. Because that was all the joy he was due to get out of it.

We made a grasping attempt at permanence. My little brother and I put our hand prints in the wet concrete of the back porch, and now for perpetuity our 12- and 19-year-old hands will stay there, dated 6/17/98 in my father's angular scrawl, an attempt at eternity in this most fleeting of worlds.

But beyond that, we cannot cling. We must let ourselves let go.

*

I sit on the roof and soak up the great sunyata, the vast rich empty void that is the night sky, knowing, knowing that I am not this house; I am not this heat; I am not these scarred ankles; I am not this sorrow; I am not this ache of knowing I have let down my poor dead father, who placed so much trust in our ability to hold on to his baby in the years to come.

Neti-neti; not this, not that.


And sitting there drowning in that vast sunyata sky, it is all stars, it is all pine, the air is rich with lush green forest and hope and new growth and creeping Spanish moss. And I lean over and try to pick up a few of the piles of pine needles that have fallen on the roof, threatening it with their heavy wetness; I gather them in my arms, clear the sap, but the needles keep falling, falling, and we keep going, going, and at some point you realize those needles will continue to collect on that precipice whether you are there to gather them or not.

*

The spirit has left this house long before. When my father died, its joie de vivre died, too. We tried to sustain it, the sibs gathered there once a year to wash, repair it, tried to be his hands in his stead. We did not have the financial wherewithal to sustain it from our respective homes 3,000 and 1,500 miles away. But the house was never really lived-in since he died, and we all can only ever hope to be lived-in, right? Our bodies deserve this. Our hearts do, too.

Nebraska license plates clutter the garage. My father’s tools are frozen there in a bizarro shellacked time capsule, scattered, jumbled, as though he’ll walk in any minute and pick one up to be used. There are old unwashed toolbelts, still crusty with 12-year-old sweat. The fuse box screams out notes in his dead handwriting. My own 19-year-old handwriting admonishes guests on little note cards scattered around the house to “Be patient if the janky toilet takes a little time to flush. Have faith! It will work.”

I find an old tattered copy of O Pioneers! on the bookshelf in what was once my room. I remember reading it one winter break when I was there putzing around with Dad. It feels appropriate, this Willa Cather, whose heroine Alexandra Bergson was so very tied to the land, who made her life and love in the plowing of the rugged Nebraska prairie, a woman so fueled by the land and its spirit that to be removed from it would mean her death. I realize how much the notion of homesteading, of the frontier, of barn-raising, of making a life out of dirt and sky, runs through my blood; we were so very informed by that growing up on the prairie, that scrappy pioneer heritage being such a part of the air and our lineage there, descending from two generations of immigrant farm families.

(And what does it really look like to build a home, anyway? Isn’t a home more about the people who fill it than the place or its poshness? Could this sleepy little town in the middle of horse country, in the butt of the Deep South, with its scary conservative racist homophobic politics, in redneck territory, covered with Spanish moss and magnolia trees, ever have felt like home to us, anyway?)

I fight to let go of regrets. Regrets about being so crabby, so moody, about being an angry 19-year-old know-it-all brat, about wishing I’d had the patience and perspective then that I do now. And yet, I swim in gratitude, for the precious memory of those months – years – with my father and sister.

You sit in the midst of so much material memory, and learn to let those things and people and memories and former selves go. We are always in a process of unfolding, of shedding old skins. I shed a lot of skin that first summer building the house: skinned knees, shingle-tarred ass, scraped elbows, peeling sunburn. I’ve always said that if (when) I get melanoma, I’ll look back to that summer of ’98 swinging a hammer in the 100 degree midday sunshine and lifeguarding over bovine elderly snowbirds as the catalyst. And it will be what it is. No regrets.

*

“Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week I nailed up several new plant hooks in my flat here in SF. I thought of that summer in Florida with Dad when I so confidently knew exactly how to swing that hammer. The experience will always be present with me. I carry those months with me everywhere, stored in my bones, packed away in my cellular memory, in the fire-ant scars on my ankles and the sun-damaged wrinkles on my face.

We stretched ourselves that summer. We opened up. We defied the assumption that two 19- and 20-year-old chicks couldn’t build a house and raise trusses with the best of ‘em.

The last time I spoke with my father before he died, I’d just installed a new toilet seat in my flat in SF. I was very proud of myself, and I know he would’ve been proud, too, if he’d been lucid enough sans the morphine to really be present in our conversation.

I knew how to install that toilet seat because I’d done it several times in building the house. I can shingle your house tomorrow or raise a roof, if need be. I’ll happily varnish your sideboards, too, provided you let me sing the “Damn Yankees” soundtrack while I do it.

*

I drop Bek off at the airport Monday night and fill up the gas tank for the 90-minute drive home. I load up on M & Ms and gas station crappuccino and head for the Florida turnpike, sailing northward at 80 mph while the stars hang low and the cool night wind blasts through the open windows, tangling my hair. I crank up the Sick Puppies and Alice In Chains and rock my head back and forth and wipe my dripping nose with the back of my sleeve, and the banging reverberation almost hides my wails.

And I say to myself, out loud, to the silence and the empty passenger seat and to those goddamned low-hanging stars: This is what it feels like to be alive.

*

It is my last day in the house.

The sun streaming in the front window wakes me. I brew a bottomless pot of coffee and walk around in gritty sneakers and filthy face and greasy hair, unshowered, for old times’ sake.

I go for an early run, one last traipse of Bahia Circle, jaunting out past the old Silver Springs Shores Community Center pool where I lifeguarded back in the day. There’s a new pool now, but the same old yellowed patio furniture, and a new bevy of bovine bathing beauties barking out their water aerobics counts. The tennis courts are gone, decayed. There’s a new park, with swings, for children.

I come home and throw open all the windows and stretch one last time on that tired beige carpet and contemplate drinking that ancient beer that’s been in the kitchen cabinet for 10 years now. I practice my chants for the yoga training this weekend. Rusty’s chants. I wail to Shiva the Destroyer and bellow to Kali the Fierce, that I might be as fierce and wild as she in the midst of so much sorrow, and I sing to Durga, filling that resonant cathedral ceiling that has held my voice in so many melodies over the years, adding these newest, final chants to its cache. And just like that first summer, at the end, it is just me, Dad and the music, alone, filling the empty house with lifted voices, broken bodies, and hope for the future.

I sing to that ceiling meant for singing, eyes closed, smile wide. And it is enough.

I dry my tears, tie back my hair, throw on my booty shorts. I head into the garage, pick up the gas can where I left it half-full last summer, rev up the lawn mower engine one last time, fighting, always resisting, that one – and I head out front to mow, one last time. Because the morning air is fresh and pine-drenched and the breeze is still and the grass grows whether we cheer it on or not. And there is still time for one more rendition of “Oklahoma!” drowned out by the rev of that lone scrappy engine.

I clip bits of Spanish moss and pine leaves to send to my siblings who couldn’t be here with me on this last day, so that they might always have a piece of this precious land of ours.

I clean, lovingly.

I remember X-Files and smelly sneakers and chocolate ice cream eaten out of the gallon tub and the Ocala Public Library and my still-overdue books. I remember drinking wine with my sisters and talking about dudes. I remember driving through the Ocala National Forest on my way to Daytona Beach and looking for armadillos. I remember flying into MCO, I remember taking the Greyhound down I-95, I remember driving down the 15-hours from Delaware in an old white K-car Reliant with burgundy velour interiors.

We didn’t realize at the time how remarkable building that house together was. We just thought it was what you did. Looking back, I see what a renegade thing it was, an outlaw kind of thing to do. I loved that about it: its scrappy, self-sufficient pioneering spirit. Dad always had that frontier itch, that restlessness; my own wanderlust comes from that, I know, that craving for a good road trip, the need for endless new horizons, the suffocation when I can’t get a dose of wild wind in my hair every few hours.

I pack up the mustard seeds and the cinnamon and the nutmeg and the marjoram and the toothpicks, a measuring cup, four corn cob holders for imagined future barbecues that are not to be. I wrap coffee filters and silverware, a flashlight, a scrub brush, old Chopin records, all to be shipped and used in my home in San Francisco.

We go on.
Things go on.
In small ways.

I throw out receipts for living room sofas and crepe myrtle trees, and devour an old can of Taco Bell refried beans that expired 8 years ago. I find a mask in the cabinet, a surgical mask for when Dad’s immune system was dangerously weak, a mask that he was too proud to wear in the airport, in spite of the threat.

I remember lying in bed across the house listening to his ragged breath as he slept in the recliner in the living room, afraid he’d die there, then, knowing the end was near. The seizures always threatened; the radiation hiccups never abated.

The rose petal Gel de Ducha Rosa that I brought from Malaga when I fled Spain on Dad’s terminal diagnosis is still in the shower, ¾ empty. I wash my hair with it that last day. It still smells of roses, and fear, and wistfulness.

I sing full-voice for the first time in years. I’ve grown accustomed to my flat in the City, where you forget what it’s like to not worry about walking lightly so as not to anger the people living below, or that the headboard’s banging the wall too loudly or consistently, or that it’s safe to leave the screen door open while you go for an hour’s run. For old times’ sake, I make sure to walk around filthy and naked, wearing last night’s eye make-up, blinds open, shamelessly, just to go out on the right scandalous note.

There’s an old ribbon-printer next to the dial-up modem in the master bedroom. I find 10-year-old print-outs of old emails from people I no longer remember. Revisiting old selves, I realize, we are none of these and all these, at once. Reborn anew, every day, pranava, Om. This collection of cells that I haul around now clings to nothing of the same one I bore 12 years ago. And yet, and yet – our experiences lodge themselves in our bones.

Mariah is lush with pregnancy; the first Meyer grandchild will be born in early June, should she arrive on time. She will not know the Florida house that my father built with her in mind. We will bring it to her in our memories. This is how it works; generations pass things on. I’ll pass this on to my children should I have them someday, or my goddaughters, if nothing else. I will tell them about building and breaking and aching and learning. I will teach them how to swing a hammer. And it’ll be my father in me, teaching. He lives on in my theology, in my populist sensibility, in the way I earn a living even now with my hands, and in the patience I have finally, finally, finally come to understand.

I sing Candide, Bernstein’s good ol’ “Make Our Garden Grow,” at the top of my lungs, and it’s awful and wonderful at once, and I realize my pipes need some tuning-up, but still, there’s truth:
Let dreamers dream what worlds they please,
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good;
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow,
And make our garden grow.
We are all damaged. We are all broken. I see people’s scars in yoga class and love them, love them for making them human, real, who they are, for giving them depth and breadth and texture and humanity and stories and spirit. Yoga reminds us to be gentle with our broken selves, ever breaking, ever evolving. For the breaking gives us a capacity for compassion that we know not ourselves capable of being. This death, this dying, this shattering has changed the way I see the world, to be sure.

We work with our hands. We create something where there was nothing. A labor of love. “Sensuous labor,” indeed. And yet, we do not work; it is the divine working through us; we are merely vessels in this passion play.

It is Holy Week, after all, the liturgical Passion play, Semana Santa, my father’s favorite season of the church year. I flew in on Palm Sunday. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday will feel different this year. This is not a coincidence.

I take a black and red Sharpie and secretly scrawl graffiti all over the baseboards and the cement foundation in the garage, the master bedroom, the 2 x 4s hidden where no one will ever see them. LM Loved This, I write. Painted there for perpetuity. May he haunt the shit out of this old place.

I sing the house a final benediction. Shiva Sambo, Govinda Nayarana, I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry, Spirit of Gentleness. A suitable melding of old and new, Christian and Hindu. I run the dishwasher, close the blinds, pull the door shut.

The little bushes that I’d hurriedly planted that first August have overtaken the front walk. They’ve needed to be trimmed back for several years now. They’re fighters. They’ll keep growing. Lotuses will bloom in the mud of that swampy Florida back-country.

*

I take one last practice in the backyard as the midday sun reaches its apex.

I am craving the sweat, the release, the burning, the clearing out, the void, the emptying, the bodily purge and the concomitant mental-emotional-spiritual purge that the yoga promises.

Underneath a cloudless cerulean sky, Eddie Vedder sings “Hard Sun” and I sweat and heave and breathe and sigh there under that big hard sun in honor of all the other times I bitched and sweated and heaved and burned under that same unchanging big hard sun.

I meld my Bikram and my vinyasa series, alternating Bikram’s 26 postures with Chaturangas and Pigeon Flows, Reverse Warriors opening my heart to the sky and Ustrasanas offering it all up, up and away, out, gone. The Chaturangas on cement hurt, compressing my wrists; the wide stance of Warrior 2 burns the soles of my feet past my mat; the cement rips the top of my back foot in Hanumanasana; the sharp unforgiving severity of the concrete compresses the entire length of my arm from wrist to shoulder in Vasisthasana. Kapotasana proves harder than usual, in spite of my warm and loose back. This is not surprising, given the circumstances.

But I stay.
And I stay.
And I stay.

And it passes.

As all things do.

I earn one last sunburn for old times’ sake, no sunscreen, of course, to pack up and carry with me the next day on the plane home to California, along with the random salvaged gadgets and mementos and Star Trek videos from the cabinets, cementing the inevitable melanoma that surely started that summer of lifeguarding and shingling and hammering.

I take a long final savasana as the Vedder fades into silence. Lying there, palms up, newts at eye level, I slip into that little death, that minor-key corpse pose, and feel a taste of the death and decay filling the air around me, the passing of an era, a time, an ancestry, former lives lost to money and time and impatience and distance and illness and regret. I open my palms and offer it all away, dedicating this last practice to my father, to memory, to unfulfilled intentions.

And I flip to my belly and turn to rest on my cheek and there is the heat rising from the rugged black concrete, ever rising, and I feel it searing into the tops of my feet, the grit of the cement grinding into that soft skin of mine, scarred, faded over time; and I stay, I feel the burning, I breathe it in, take it into my body, feel it become a part of me, branding that oh-so-permanent concrete into my skin forever, and feel it close, feel it dear, know that its pain and its burn and its abrasive grip have given me such great gifts that I know not how to even speak them, other than to inhale and exhale and sigh it away and feel the burn deepen and the tension soften and the sorrow and the clinging lift, leaving just an empty vessel, a collection of skin and bones and scars, and so I stay, and the ants scurry at eye level, busy, busy, always so busy, and I smell the green apple-rose scent of yesterday’s shampoo in my sweaty hair, and feel the heat of the cement burning through that old Pound Puppy beach towel-turned-yoga-mat, and I stay, and it burns me right through to the other side.

I close my eyes in savasana and listen to the birds sing and the crickets chirping and the roar of distant airplanes overhead and the rustle of the pine leaves in the slight breeze.

I curl up on my right side and rest my head on my arm like a pillow in that so-familiar reclining fetal position, and I offer it all up to the new owners, the bodies and breaths and burning to come. May our pain in the building and the breaking and the loss somehow, some way, lessen theirs, simply by being what we were, are, here, now, enough.

May their backyard Natarajasana never be quite as good as mine.

And may children’s voices fill the ceiling of this beloved home in the way those of my father’s imagined grandchildren never will.

Comments

Joseph said…
That was so beautiful. You brought me to tears. Mikah obviously loves that house too and I am so glad you and your sister got to say goodbye. I hope you know you inspire me.
Alicia said…
What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I know he would recognize you are all doing you best. The memories you made together will last longer than any house. You know above all THAT is what he cared about. The house was merely the physical outcome of the love, committment, and willingness to put the family before self that your parents value so much. It will manifest itself in new ways now. The hugs to the nieces and nephews that will come, the sacrifice of time to help out that stressed sibling, or the comfort they can rely on from family when no one else understands. You of all people understand the metamorphosis of humanity. Just remember that he's still with you watching these new moments, just as proud as ever.
andrea said…
thank you rachel for sharing this tender story. you are a brilliant writer and have touched my heart with your memories and recollections about your father. i just fell in love with you a little bit more.
you are paradise
my sweet bird
love, andrea
Pastor Scott said…
It's Good Friday. I'm home, all my girls are sleeping, and I'm here reading and grieving. Missing your Dad, hell, missing all six of you, really. Speaking of showtunes, it seems "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" would be appropriate, right?

Ah, Death. Fuck you. God wins in the end.
John said…
I hugged my kids...
Once gay marriage becomes legal, and the world ends as it obviously has in Canada and Western Europe, and we decide to let people marry their dog, chair, etc. You and that nail-gun need to get hitched. Match Made In Heaven.

P.S. Bekka and I recall my amount of work as a little more than one month of whining. And I am pretty sure it was you, me, and Dad that put up most of those trusses.
hecollins said…
thanks rach for sharing this....i cried from begining to end. you are beautiful as is this life...we are here we are now
Anonymous said…
What Scott said. Love your dad. It grieves me that I never got to talk with him about my circumstances at the time. But what's left is eternity...and he's already there.
-Christina (Schur) Miller
Nusrat Borsha said…
Thanks for sharing your emotions. Many churches need church mortgage resourcement to construct a church, to shift or to expand area. But who's reliable and compatible for that, is the query.
Nusrat Borsha said…
I really respect you, dad. My dad wished to build a church on our land. To fulfil his wish, I may need church loans resourcement but I'll must do it.

Popular Posts