Okay, so I realized a few days ago that, as of December 20th, I’m exactly two-thirds of the way to being a hundred years old. Wow. Not that I’m concerned about it. I’ve always said – you can ask any of my longtime friends – that I plan to peak at eighty, coming, as I do, from a line of long-livers (no puns, please), so it never made sense to me to set my trajectory, as so many others apparently do, to begin arcing downward at fifty or sixty. After all, who wants to diminish for decades? And, I’ve always been an advocate of shooting for the moon, which might, at least, get you into orbit.
Of course, I never imagined, in anticipating my future, that Richard and I would be subjected to such a comeuppance as occurred last June, when our beach house burned and took with it so much of my life’s focus and activity.
“Seek beauty, goodness and truth” is the Second Commandment of George, and as most of you already know, if this blog is my stab at sharing whatever grains of truth I’ve been able to fit into my tiny thimble, Cedar House and its grounds had become both my canvas for spreading beauty, as I tended the colorful gardens that have given back so much of the content here, and my laboratory for discovering goodness, as I sought to perfect all the recipes that made up another big fraction of the posts you have read here. Whoosh. Poof. Up in smoke. Gone. And the walls came a tumb-a-ling down.
“Whoa, Nellie!” as Keith Jackson used to say.
It was roar upon roar upon roar as I stood there in a gale force wind with the roiling, storm-tossed surf behind me and the raging fire in front, lapping and snapping and thrusting up pyrotechnics to rival any along Dante’s downward trek, and, fully-consumed in my own way by the otherworldly sight, I knew I was watching a life-changing moment; that there would be grieving to be done; that I could not possibly even begin to get my simply-human mind around such a massive event as the one occurring right before my eyes. “Even if my angels have lived for a million years,” I said to someone nearby, “they have never seen a fire like this.”
First it was just the house next door, the middle one of three along Ocean Walk between Cedar and Pine. (Fire Island Pines properties are all arranged along elevated wooden walks; there are neither streets nor cars.) And, while the wind was blowing fiercely off the ocean, it was angled favorably away from our house, so for a few minutes I thought we might have a chance, but a white-hot, fully-consumed, wind-fueled, two-story cedar house just 20 feet away from ours proved impossible to resist, and before much longer, not only our house, but then another and another were taken, until finally four large cedar houses were joined in one great conflagration seen over twenty miles away.
An indelible experience, I can fast-forward it all in my mind and watch as more than one-hundred firepersons arrive in twos and threes over the next hour; hear the rhythm of the news helicopters circling above; relive the kindness of strangers and neighbors and friends in their volunteer fire helmets, as, lit by the golden glow, they hug and cry and offer help; marvel as our 93-year-0ld neighbor Bill spends all night watering the front of his house with a garden hose. It was a three-hour symphony of explosions, crashes, sirens and splashes until finally, traumatized and spent, housemates Daniel, William, Tom and I took refuge at The Madison guest house next to the harbor, where I climbed into a cloud of crisp white sheets, turned on the early-early edition of The CBS Morning News, and there it was again: our house on fire.
I imagine pretty much every one of you of a certain age has had moments when your life was turned upside-down. Sometimes, it’s the death of a loved-one, for others, it might be a natural disaster, a broken marriage, a shattered dream. Well, for Richard and me, on that night, it was a fire.
There have been other times when my life turned upside down and “recalculating route” was the order of the day. It happened when Mama died too young of cancer in my twenty-forth year. It happened again, twelve years later, when my business partner of five years hanged herself one sunny Tuesday morning. It happened slowly but no less surely as I lost fifty-two friends to AIDS and the entire social network I had anticipated would travel alongside me for life was eviscerated – a Picket’s Charge in ultra-slow motion, and it even happened to our whole country on the morning of 9/11. So I have learned, over time, how to deal. I have also learned that to do so – to truly masticate and digest fully the whole meaning of an upending event – takes time, sometimes even a lifetime. What does it mean? What are the silver linings? How can I carom off this edge to rise to an even better place than before? All of these questions take time to answer.
So, while you might say that I have been silent for so long in this space because so much of my creative means went up in smoke, the larger part, I can testify, is because it has taken all this time just to get my head around my new coordinates. Looking back, it is no wonder that an acute bout of vertigo – the only one I’ve ever had – came upon me without warning about 10 days after the fire, and then left just as mysteriously as it had appeared after a few days of bed rest and a few pills from the Pines Care Center. I’ve said ever since that it was my angels slowing me down, but truly, given the upended world that I was newly inhabiting, vertigo was surely the logical consequence.
But that was then, and in a flash, it seems, fully six months have flown by and here we are at the beginning of a new year that can only be a great improvement on the last – in so very many ways – so I am very pleased to see it arrive. And further, to finally get going on all my creative work that has lain frustratingly fallow and truly needs doing. It is not lost on me that in devoting so much space to the gardens and recipes in these last few years that I have neglected other writing projects that deserve my attention, and hopefully yours, if one can say that.
First and foremost, of course, is my series of “Gone Too Soon” profiles to reanimate, as best I can, those 52 friends who died of AIDS in the 80s and 90s [For an overview of this series I posted last spring: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/a-word-if-you-will-about-my-gone-too-soon-profiles/]. When the fire struck, I had already done much research on the next few people on the list with the result that there are many family and friends across the country who are looking forward to reading about their loved-ones, and I will be posting them as soon as I am able. That said, having completed the first few, I have learned they take time to do fully, but they are my first priority for this space, and you may anticipate seeing several in the coming weeks that were already well along before the fire intervened.
Secondly, I really need to post the continuation of A Boy’s Tale, my historical-fiction account of the ministry of Christ as witnessed by John Mark, the 14-year-old water-boy of the Apostles. However, since it has been two years since I posted Part I (the first eleven chapters) and many of you may not have seen or read it, I’m going to begin again, and post those first chapters here, a chapter at a time, and then follow on with the remainder of the book as best I can.
In addition to these two priorities, my list is long of creative projects that are either already in process, already completed and never published, or are simply still figments of my imagination. I also hope to season the larger projects with occasional poems, short essays, and anecdotes, as they appear in the timeline of my life.
But first, as I begin every year, will be my fifth annual posting of the three foundational essays that, taken together, represent my little thimbleful of truths that have congealed, over time, out of my daily prayers: “The Family of God,” “The Flow of God” and “The Love of God”. If you’ve already read them, you are welcome to skip over them since they remain much the same from year to year. If you haven’t, I hope you will. “For Truth is Truth. By God, it is.”
What, alas, you will not be seeing here anytime soon are the Cedar House gardens and recipes. There is appropriate progress in cleaning the lot where the house used to stand, and there are drawings afoot for a new one that will have echoes of the one we lost (but with a few new wrinkles that we hope will make it even more inviting and comfortable than ever) but it will take some time, and while there is still a garden in there somewhere under the ashes, there will be more trauma for the plant life as construction moves forward in the days ahead. I can only pray that the roots of my hostas, hydrangeas, day lilies and roses will hang on till we get to the other side. Whatever happens, their re-emergence once re-ensconced behind a deer fence, will be all the more joyful for their having survived.
That said, some of you may have seen my Facebook post about the dense day lily root balls that I discovered among the ashes and hoped to resurrect. This proved more than possible, and they, along with the “homeless hydrangeas” spent the summer in ‘temporary housing’ on the deck of the replacement house we rented after the fire so that all our housemates would have a beach home for the rest of the season. Though I added a few things for color, every one of the 25 pots shown in the photos below (from our temporary deck; I couldn’t resist posting just a few 2017 garden photos, even if abridged) has at least
one plant rescued from our gardens, and they have all now been transferred again to the yard of a neighbor to safely overwinter behind a deer fence.
The Best of the Summer’s Replacement Deck
Though the house we rented came with a great supply of empty, enormous pots to work with, not only all the plants to be rescued, but all the soil, as well, had to come from our yard, about a block away, so I must have made at least 20 wagon trips just for the dirt. (And, of course, once the season was done, it all – plants and dirt – had to be removed.) Nevertheless, the work paid off as the deck was transformed in the doing for the three months we were there.
And so, for now…
Earlier, I mentioned my daily prayers, and the three essays that I will be reposting for the fifth year in the coming days, but this is not to suggest that these supplications between my Maker and I have become formulaic. Indeed, as they reflect our living, growing friendship/partnership, they likewise evolve and continually perfect themselves. And, so it is that lately, as I have been confronting, dealing with, and overcoming as best I can the trauma of these last few months, I have found myself, when I ask for God’s help in following the path He has set before me, hearing the words in that still, small voice: “See it. Know it. Do it.”
And, as it has been my experience that those prayerful words/phrases/lines that repeat themselves over and over in my mind are generally the most important ones, I have taken these to heart in the sense that it is time to get on with all these projects; to truly deliver on whatever God-given potential I may have. After all, I only have 13 more years till I get to 80.
Dear friends, I am so very grateful for your time, attention and love, for they are these honors from you that make the doing sweet. “Gifts are love made real,” I say in one of my poems, and, if one can say this without sounding completely pompous, these writings are my gifts to you.
And, so on with it. Please forgive the very long time it has taken me to get this out. For all the five years this blog has run, I have felt it important to err on the side of quality, which is to say that I have resisted posting too many entries out of a concern that I might overtax you, my readers, and also to maintain a level of writing that takes time to do. Well, if I’m to catch up with all I’ve missed in the last few months, I feel like I’m going to have to post considerably more frequently than before, so I hope you don’t get worn out. Again, Thank you all for your patience during these trying months, and for your never-fading support and lovingkindness. With life upturned, your gifts of the spirit have been even more precious than usual.
© 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.