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Painted ponies go up and down

A friend of ours, Rachel Dowell, died last weekend after a long and dignified battle with cancer. Rachel was able to hold on long enough to witness an important life event, and then Cancer won out.

Friends, relatives, even pets who depart leave not only ghostly trails of their presence in our lives, faint footprints left in photographs and Facebook postings, but at least for me, also generate crucial moments of reflection and inventory.

Sandy will officiate at Rachel’s memorial service, and I’ll be there too; I can hear my cousin Craig at my uncle Bob’s service saying, “These are the good times.” Of all the honors we have in life, being part of the communal experience of mourning is one of the most significant and memorable.

It was easy enough to hit the Undo button for ALA Annual, transferring my registration to a friend who needed one, canceling the hotel, deferring road trips, excusing myself from meetings. I fly Southwest so much on business that the ticket will be used by October if not earlier. I’ll be at ALA in Seattle next January. Of all my ALA happenings, I miss breakfast with Steven Kerchoff and the road trip with Skip Auld the most, but I’ve asked Skip to be my Friday date for Midwinter — and the libraries we would be visiting will be there all year round — and I’ll have breakfast with Steven in Chicago next summer.

But I had another moment of clarity, the sort of epiphany where I wake up with a fully-formed realization hovering in front of me like a dragonfly, and when I shared it with Sandy we were in agreement. Not a big or momentous deal, but just that I’m dialing back the New Zealand trip to be a pleasant professional activity of not longer than a week, just me solo flying to NZ, doing my conference thang, seeing a couple of libraries, a couple of extra days in Wellington.

Meanwhile, Sandy and I will take trips this year and next that are on our “bucket lists,” from a train trip in Canada at leaf-peeping time — something Sandy has talked about for as long as I’ve known her — to my humble but real hankering for a return trip to Cambria and Hearst Castle. We are mutually agreed on visiting a growing list of friends and relatives we haven’t seen enough in the decade, visits we can’t do once people leave this earth. Plus I need more writing time, just for myself, and I would like a few more San Francisco “staycation” days.

Don’t get me wrong,  I’m excited about the New Zealand trip (especially the librarians, the libraries, and the beer), but I had been spinning it out into a family vacation neither of us had prioritized, when as a librarian and minister we do have to pick and choose our grand adventures. And in the end taking one week in September is about as much as I feel comfortable doing that time of year. I am (to echo a post I’ll write about in the future) The Man, and as The Man, have responsibilities.

Do I have advice for you? As it happens, yes. Have that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding, and do it now, before things get set in concrete.

I blogged in 2008 about dropping out of a PhD program. There’s another part to that story, which is that the morning after my arrival, I woke up with the unshakeable conviction I should immediately turn around and go home–not one of those brief moments of insecurity common to many endeavors, but a flashlight-bright understanding of my circumstances, like those brides who, standing at the altar, pick up their skirts and flee.

I cried on the phone; I felt it in my heart, even though I could barely explain my anxiety. (There were “circumstances,” not worth reciting here, but some of my concern turned out to be unnervingly premonitory.) But I stayed, out of pride and obligation,  not wanting to disappoint anyone, too embarrassed to insist on coming home, despite an unshakable and growing sense of alienation all that autumn, fine and grey as book dust, that left me increasingly adrift and confused, particularly as family illness, the death of a beloved pet, and my exhausting living situation tapped my reserves. At Christmas, prompted by a priest who knew us well, I admitted I wanted to come home for good, and Sandy admitted she wanted me there.

In any event, it took a family crisis to spur us to be truly honest with one another, and 17 years later, we found ourselves in the same position, though with far less momentous decisions to be made. It’s to our credit we try so hard to please one another. But I am glad for that major corrective vision this week that allowed us to again be honest. Quite truthfully, when I look back on this year, I suspect it will not be New Zealand I remember first, however wonderful that will be, but a community clubhouse in northern New Jersey, on a lake where we once lived, among people we will never have quite enough time with in our lives.

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  1. Julie wrote:

    Thank you for this entry in your always wonderful blog. I find that the ability to be more honest about what I want even if it means not being a “good girl” and doing what others want or expect is one of the advantages of getting older. The best of everything to you and Sandy.

    Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Bobbi wrote:

    Karen I am so sorry for your loss.

    It sounds like you have your priorities straight. I will miss you in Anaheim with the certainty that you are where you should be.

    Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Pressing the nonexistent “like” button on Bobbi and Julie’s comments!

    Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Lisa wrote:

    How eerie it is that your situation parallel-echoed mine these last few months right down to the wake-up call, and although my resolutions (the Munkifesto) aren’t as well-fleshed out as yours (yet) as my (beloved)spouse is still wandering in the land of “Why do you need to write more when you already post so much on Facebook?” the writing so to speak is on the wall. There are things that belong to the here and now which must be heeded before they pass on and are then with us always if only as a memory and regret. Thank you for articulating that so well and for confirming what I have been stumbling towards.

    Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Marie wrote:

    Thank you for this post. It propels me to try harder to see my family this end of June. I am sorry for your loss.

    Monday, June 18, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  6. Margaret Conroy wrote:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Karen. I feel compelled to say thank you as well for your reflective post. I suspect you have more supportive followers “out there” than you’ll ever know!

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Heather Lianza Pres. wrote:

    What an inspiration you are (I’ve been texting my mum tonight after not doing enough of that). I send my sympathies on your’s and Sandy’s loss but have to admit to being pleased that you are still able to join us in New Zealand in our spring. May the coming weeks bring you some peace.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink
  8. Hi Heather, I mean this when I say I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I admit to being excited on two fronts: meeting librarians (and drinking NZ beer); and our Christmas holiday visiting loved ones. I feel all the time forward this year is about being with the people I care about: friends, librarians, relatives.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  9. Eric Hellman wrote:

    I got my haircut this past saturday in preparation for ALA. My barber has been on dialysis the past 2 years, and can only work one or two mornings per week. He’s been a bit weaker each time I see him, but now the trim comes with a hug. His discipline cherishes the people he encounters in the course of his profession and the chance to serve them.

    It made me think about the people I see over and over again at meetings like ALA, and to think about how important they’ve become to me. About how we have to approach everything we do with consideration and love and making sure we make the most of our every opportunity.

    We’ll miss you in Anaheim, but please bring us all with you for Rachel and for NZ.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Cath Sheard wrote:

    I don’t know you personally but am grateful you felt able to make some big decisions for yourself and Sandy. Following your heart and making those that matter most really *be* at the centre is not always easy.
    I had a head-on car accident with a drunk driver last week, and got off very lightly. But it has made me think about how I use my time, and what I value most.
    Enjoy your newly honed focus.

    Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 4:28 am | Permalink
  11. Cath, what a chilling but clarifying experience that must have been. I blogged about a less serious (but still frightening) car incident and its impact on my focus about two years ago:

    Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  12. Cath Sheard wrote:

    Crikey just read your pink mattress post – thank goodness you were paying true attention. May we never drive tired…

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 1:19 am | Permalink

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  1. Resetting priorities « Opinions from an OPL on Friday, June 29, 2012 at 1:14 am

    [...] party weekend in the country to celebrate a much loved aunt’s 60th birthday, I bring you a link to a wonderful post by the wonderful & thoughtful K.G. Schneider over at Free Range Librarian, about resetting [...]

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