Every couple I know has one partner who is designated as the detail manager. The filer of taxes. The dispenser of the dog’s monthly flea and heartworm medications. The one who renews the car registrations, finds the mustard in the fridge, and plans the vacations.
Last summer, my beloved and I realized that we had not taken a vacation in five years. Who needs a vacation when you start each morning sipping coffee in an overstuffed chair while the sun peeks over the Blue Ridge and the sky leaks light in brilliant pastels? Who needs a vacation when you can walk out of your back gate and hike for miles in the solitude and unspoiled beauty of the Pisgah National Forest? Who needs a vacation when the canoe racks wait on the top of the car and the serene and sinuous French Broad River flows by, only five minutes away?
We certainly didn’t need a vacation but, certain in our belief that a change of scenery might be beneficial, we decided to head north. I would drive from Asheville to Philadelphia, stopping in DC for a day or two to see old friends. Then Paul would fly to Philly, we’d spend a few days with our son and daughter-in-law, and proceed, joined by them, to Maine, where the cooler weather and the ocean views always enchanted us. It sounded like a good plan.
The day after our general planning discussion, Paul announced that our vacation was all organized. Change of plan: I would not drive to Philadelphia, but fly there, along with him. Never mind. Airlines booked, rental car arranged, accommodations reserved. Even the canoe trip down the Delaware River Gap had been sorted out. I was impressed, curious and slightly nervous. My “control issues” are a source of good-natured teasing and self-deprecation, but also an occasional annoyance in the life we share. I excel when somebody wants to find their birth certificate or wonders if we need more gin. My confidence and comfort falters when life throws uncertainty into the mix and I have to improvise. Traveling with a disability poses unpleasant challenges and leaving things to chance fills me with a low level of anxiety. Was I really so bossy that Paul felt that he had to get ahead of the planning process and assert himself? Aside from the fact that I’d rather spend two days alone in my car, listening to a good audio book than fly for two hours, it sounded like a feasible plan. I thanked him for taking care of things and privately warned myself to be appreciative, pleasant, and flexible with any uncertainties that might occur.
It was a sweltering one hundred degrees outside on the early October day we drove to Charlotte Airport, but our flight was easy and we were happy to see our son’s lanky figure and beard-shrouded grin awaiting us in the arrival area at Philadelphia. We planned to spend Thursday relaxing while Sean and Kristen went to work. On Friday, we would set out for the Poconos and take a detour to visit my grandparents’ graves. Sean and Kristen would work a half day, and meet us at the hotel in the Poconos. We all looked forward to the canoe trip on Saturday.
My DNA is rooted in the perplexing contrast of natural beauty and manmade squalor that defines the Northern Appalachians. My people lived and died in the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The mountains and forests are defaced and scarred by the residual damage of the coal industry. Scenic rivers are fed by streams that carry toxins from industrial waste dumps. The zephyrs blow in particulates from the mountains of slag, covering everything from porch swings to laundry on the clothesline with a greasy, gritty coating of coal dust. Storefronts on the old main streets are a hodgepodge of vaping emporiums, resale shops with bald, one-armed mannequins, and faded “For Rent” signs.
But the mountains and lakes and streams endure, and there are pockets of beauty reserved for tourists who can afford ski weekends and summer holidays in cozy lodges with fine dining and modern amenities. I was eager to settle in for a few days of fun with the kids. As I fiddled with the GPS on my phone, I asked Paul the name of our resort.
“The Pocono Chateau,” he answered. I smiled and looked over at him.
“No, really…what’s the name?”
He looked puzzled. “That IS the name.”
My jaw dropped, along with my stomach. Paul looked over and saw my expression. He looked confused. My mind drifted back to copies of Cosmo® magazine from the 1970s and the resort ads buried in the back next to ads for sex toys and cheap lingerie. Full page, glossy ads of places with names like Pocono Chateau. “Adult Only” resorts where you could spend your honeymoon in a room with an elevated bathtub shaped like a giant champagne coupe. I reminded myself of my resolution to be cheerful and supportive of his plans.
“What?” he asked. I have never perfected the art of the poker face. “It got great reviews…and it isn’t cheap!”
“I’ll bet it isn’t,” I muttered, sotto voce, as we turned onto the property. As we proceeded down the drive a long grassy strip of grass offered the first glimpse of the delights of the Pocono Chateau—a Frisbee golf course. Each target marker exhibited a different romantic icon—a heart, a cupid, a wedding ring—all displayed in peeling, faded paint on balsawood cutouts. They all seemed to have leaned awkwardly into the passage of time, lending a forlorn air of dashed hopes to the landscape. Paul made a small choking sound. I kept my mouth shut and stared ahead.
The main lodge was a three-story white stucco building with brownish-green water stains etching a trail down the side. A large red heart sculpture hung from the portico over the main entrance. The first thing that we saw in the lobby was a ten-foot-high champagne glass filled with styrofoam packing peanuts. I told Paul I was going to find the restroom while he checked in.
I located the ladies room, next to a gift shop specializing in bathrobes, mylar balloons and contraception. None of the bathroom stalls had functioning locks, and the soap dispensers had all run dry. I returned to the lobby, with a brief detour to check out the display of photography that adorned the walls—photos of dogs dressed in doggie wedding attire. Pomeranians and poodles in bridal veils and teeny tuxedos. I reminded myself of my resolution and went to find Paul. He was waiting for me at the main reception desk with a look of panic and desperation on his face. Sometimes, after over forty years, I can actually read his mind. I could hear the silent pleading: “Please don’t yell at me. Please don’t yell at me.” I smiled and the clerk explained our room options. We could have a queen-sized square bed, but the room was located over the bar. As there were several wedding parties there that weekend, the live band would be playing late.
“How late?” I asked. “They usually stop by two,“ he answered. He explained that he had a much quieter room in a cabin where Sean and Kristen could be lodged next door, as long as we didn’t mind a round bed. I chose the cabin with the round bed.
We returned to the car, passing a group of drunken groomsmen drinking beer out of a cooler in the bed of a pickup. One of them leaned over and vomited on the parking lot pavement. I didn’t say a word.
The cabin was set on the edge of a large pond. A gazebo for wedding ceremonies was located across the water. I smiled, remembering the privilege and joy of officiating at so many weddings over the years. Paul unlocked the door, and I asked if he was going to carry me over the threshold. The first thing we noticed was the smell of damp and mildew. The carpet was a cheap blend of what seemed to be rayon and astroturf. Maybe the dead cockroach in front of the electric fireplace had set out for a nice stroll and died of disappointment.
The bed was indeed, round and the “headboard” was made of small panes of mirrored glass. Round bulbs, reminiscent of a theatrical makeup mirror, surrounded the large round mirror that was mounted on the ceiling over the bed. There was no nightstand or ledge for an older lady to put her vacation reading, eyeglasses, and nighttime beverage.
Everything was decorated in a garish shade of pink—a blend of the colors of a Band-aid and Pepto Bismol™. The toilet was behind a closed door but the centerpiece of the bedroom was a jumbo-sized, heart-shaped hot tub. Pink, of course. The tub was brightly lit and surrounded by mirrors – around the sides and, echoing the lighting above the bed, on the ceiling.
My beloved has seen the changes in my body over forty-four years. He has witnessed the slow transformation of pregnancies, weight fluctuations, surgeries, and my fondness for baking. I don’t strut around naked like I used to before children, but neither have I grown coy. Still, the idea of taking a bath in the bedroom seemed slightly vulgar, and I was glad that I had showered before we set off from Sean and Kristen’s house.
Paul sat on the bed, looking dejected. He began to explain again about the rave reviews, and the expensive price tag. I kissed the top of his head and said, “We are here to have a good time. I promise that you will hear no whining or complaints from me.” Then I added, “But I will reserve the right to tease you about this for the rest of your life.”
Just then, there was a knock on the door and Sean and Kristen stepped in, trying not to laugh. Sean saw the cockroach and said, “Your pet is dead.” Paul began to apologize but they cut him off. “Let’s find somewhere to eat,” Sean suggested. “But not here.”
We found a good steakhouse a few miles down the road and enjoyed fine food and wine delivered haltingly but in good order by Mildred, who informed us that she had been working there since 1957. After dinner, we returned to our cabins and I settled awkwardly into the round bed while Paul and the kids went to see the “Comedy Show” at the Pocono Chateau Stage. Sean, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the history of comedy, and who had studied and worked as a sketch comedian in New York City for a while, described it to me the next morning. Over a plate of scrapple, hash browns and eggs at the local diner, he told of his own embarrassment at watching a comedian fail to get any laughs, grow angry and begin to insult the audience, hurling invectives at the resort guests as they fled the room.
That day was the consolation prize for the seedy accommodations. The heat had dissipated overnight and it was the first cool day of autumn. The sun sparkled on the water of the Delaware River Gap and the current offered some help as we paddled ten miles downstream. The reeds drifted lazily in the current and a variety of aquatic life swam about in the clear water. Dragonflies hovered like iridescent river guides. Aside from a few comments exchanged between our two canoes, there was no need to talk. We paddled, and floated, and soaked in the beauty around and beneath us. The bathtub in the bedroom and the astroturf on the floor seemed very far away.
We returned to our rooms late that afternoon and, after a day on the river, I needed a bath. While Paul and the kids went looking for the Pocono Chateau gym, I filled the tub and disrobed. I slipped into the tepid water and leaned backwards.
There I was, in my uncovered, unadorned state, staring back at myself from the ceiling. It was like the disturbing scene in a modern thriller where Granny’s naked corpse is depicted floating, bloated and serene, in the koi pond. I sat up quickly and found that the configuration of mirrors surrounding the tub created the disorienting effect of being surrounded by pale, flabby naked old women…so many of them, cascading one behind another toward eternity. It was very close to my idea of hell.
I bathed and dressed quickly and settled into the one chair in the room where I could not see myself in a mirror. There are times in life when you find yourself out of place, somewhere you clearly don’t belong. The Pocono Chateau was built to cater to young lovers who find mirrors and champagne Jacuzzis® the height of romance. People whose weaknesses for Dunkin Donuts® or Pabst Blue Ribbon® did not yet show on their bodies.
But there are also times in life when you can float downriver in the easy companionship of those you love. The days when you see your child, grown, successful, and happy, sharing easy laughter with his wife of ten years. Days when the mountains remind you of strength, resilience, and that beauty is sometimes found in the crags and broken places. Days when the oppressive heat breaks and the freshness of change blows in with a promise.
Paul came in from the gym, where the broken treadmill and tipping exercise bike had reduced all three of them to uncontrollable laughter. He bent over and plucked the dead cockroach from the carpet.
“It has been a really nice day,” I said as he flushed the roach down the toilet. Some things you can control.
Every spring, when the daffodils, snowdrops and redbuds assert themselves against the rocky soil that clings to this ancient chain of mountains, and the grays and browns of naked limbs and muck are punctuated by the vivacious colors of spring, I pull out my worn copy of Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. I open to the bookmark, which coincidentally bears the logo of the Read it Again Sam bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I purchased this annotated copy many years ago. And I read it again.
By “It” I don’t mean the entire book, although it is always a delight to do so. “It” for me is the passage where Grahame describes Mole’s first springtime foray out of his hole. It is, to my mind, the loveliest, most apt description of spring in the English language, as Mole falls into a state of delight when catching his first glimpse of a spring-swollen river.
“All was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustles and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted, as one trots, when very small, at the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” (Kenneth Grahame, The Annotated Wind in the Willows. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. Pg.6)
As a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program, it is my frequent joy and delight to hear phrases, dialogue, sentences, or even whole passages that make me say, “I wish I had written that,” at the same time rejoicing that a friend and colleague has offered that particular configuration of words to the world. This immersion in the world of words gives me a wide-eyed and wondrous peek into the first trickles from the source-spring of imagination and sound and language that dare to hope that they will become, at last, a part of the sea of story and song.
Those of us who are enchanted by words, and are compelled to tell stories, find the magic everywhere. In the particular words that tickle our eardrums. In the alchemy of sound and meaning that catches our attention so that we want to wave a book in our hands and shout, “Listen to this!” To the adventurers who dare to turn grammatical convention on its head, and the courageous ones who tell the truth and pay the price of revelation.
Sixty years ago, I snuggled in my footed jammies on my mama’s lap, my thumb plugged securely into my mouth. I heard about a silly bear named Pooh, and an ecstatic Mole trotting alongside a river. I listened to the words of authors who could thrill me with imagery, and the simpler fare of authors who made stories accessible to children who were learning to make sense of letters on the page. I grew to read stories of children whose sisters tattled, whose dog died, whose parents curtailed their aspirations. Alarms rang in my head whenever I read or heard unfamiliar words and I sought answers from parents and teachers. I can’t begin to describe my joy when my eighth birthday surprise was a huge dictionary, which I studied for fun.
Onomatopoeia. Tintinnabulation. Whimsy. Effervescence. I began to write, often with words and phrases too big for my britches. I played with words like a painter plays with her palette—searching for the word that would convey not only what I wanted to say, but how I wanted to say it. Ethereal. Nincompoop. Skivviness. Serendipity.
As time passed, I taught my own children and grandchildren how to read. I love sharing my old favorites with them. How can you not fall in love with words once you have read Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, moving onto Tolkien’s world of fantastical adventure? Words carry us along, from the delights of childhood toward the more mature narratives of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany”? Words transport me—from river bank, to dust bowl, to stone quarry. Words introduced me to the kinds of people I was unlikely to meet in person—people from long ago or far away. And words taught me that there were people who only seemed to be different but shared my deepest, darkest secrets and yearnings. Words were a continual reminder that I was not alone. I spent almost twenty years tutoring in adult and early childhood literacy programs. I witnessed the life-changing expansion of life’s horizons as new readers replaced shame with belonging and integration in their churches as they joined their fellow congregants in opening their Bibles, as they read to their children, and as their economic opportunities advanced. A student who had signed adoption papers she could not read forty years earlier learned to use the power of words and the internet, to reach out and find a daughter she had never stopped loving.
Seminary not only brought an expansion to my word collection – defenestration, mendicant, homoousias…it also expanded my exposure to word roots in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Immersion in spiritual disciplines revealed new depths to familiar words like grace, light, hope and even Word. As I began to preach, I felt the weight and responsibility of words—an awareness of the power to comfort, persuade, encourage, inspire, challenge balanced with the darker opportunities to shame, extort, marginalize, denigrate, and hurt. Sticks and stones may break your bones…but words can break your heart.
Since retirement, I have had the opportunity to play with words for the sheer joy of it. After several decades crammed with professional and academic reading, I now have enough free time to dive deep into the work of fiction writers whose words transport me from the ordinary to the unfamiliar, and of poets whose words make my heart break and my soul dance. Perhaps the greatest gift has been the friendship and camaraderie I have found among my writing classmates and teachers—fellow word lovers, imaginers, truth-tellers, and encouragers. Even on those evenings when the day has drained me long before I set out for class, I find that a few hours in the company of such companions—sharing, listening, reflecting, debating, celebrating—is always restorative and life-giving. No matter how weary I am when I arrive, I always go home with fresh inspiration, admiration, and a few more additions to my list of Things to Read.
My religious tradition teaches that the divine creative impulse was unleashed through a word and that the first privilege afforded to humanity was the responsibility to name things. The Greek philosophers left their mark on early Christian theology by reinforcing the divine presence as Logos. Word. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1). The day may come when my cherished wordplay becomes a game of hide-and-seek, when the words I want to use become tangled in synapses that no longer conform to my will. When that happens, I pray I have the grace to let go of what was only mine to enjoy and share, and that I can float along like Kenneth Grahame’s spring river carrying my own story toward its home in the heart of the insatiable sea.