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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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