What I did on my summer vacation

morning in the desert

Last September, I had the good fortune to have the best office in the world: the Alvord Desert.[1. Over on our blog, you can see “One Last Jaunt through Oregon,” a travelogue of our awesome September trip. My office in each of the places we went was wonderful.] Each morning, I got up, made a cup of coffee, and set out my desk and chair with a stack of proofs. There, with an expansive view of the desert playa and Steens Mountain, I worked on a book, the result of an unexpected project that had come together earlier in the year.

The book was not mine, but that of a friend. And, as I worked on the project through the fall and winter, I realized that this was not a one-off event, but possibly the beginning of a new chapter in my life. To that end, I have created a publishing company, Red Notebook Press, and am about to publish its first book.

That book, Aging: An Apprenticeship, is, at its simplest, an anthology of thoughtful, touching, and sometimes funny essays on life as we get older, written by many well-known—and should-be-well-known—authors. Compiled and edited by my friend Nan Narboe, it is a unique book, an important one, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Here’s our short description of the book from the book’s website:

“Nan Narboe’s thoughtfully selected essays offer an intimate and lyrical account of aging through the decades. Authors Judy Blume, Andrew McCarthy, Gloria Steinem and others draw from their own experiences, describing a specific decade’s losses and gains to form a complex and unflinching portrait of the years from nearing fifty to ninety and beyond.”

Aging is now complete, and will be published on April 4. There were a few hiccups along the way (the biggest being the nightmare that is building an ebook), but I can tell you that nothing beat the joy at seeing the first copies in Nan’s hands, or finally getting the book visible on Amazon.

I have been in publishing my entire life, but it has been in the world of periodicals. And, while I have never tried to create a book, book publishing is something I’ve had in the back of my mind for years. In fact, part of the happenstance that led me to this project was that I was already knee-deep in research on another potential book publishing project when I ran into Nan. I had done enough investigation about print-on-demand services, creating ebooks, and marketing channels that I knew I could help Nan with two things: guide her book to completion, and create a printed book that looked professionally done. I can honestly say that I have done just that.

As I noted a year ago, 2016 was a year to explore my new world with Susan, and to determine the path forward for my life. I expected to read and write quite a bit, possibly with an eye towards beginning a book of my own, but in the end, I did very little writing. When Nan and I spoke about publishing her book in June, I was in a place of deep dissatisfaction, mostly about my lack of writing, but also because I felt that I had not gotten any sense of where I was headed. I was enjoying our travels, but I felt more like a tourist than someone searching for a new purpose.

Aging was the perfect antidote. In the process of ramping up production on the book, I remembered how much fun it is to manage a big project, work with good people, play with page layout, edit and proof (yes![2. One of the true joys of the project was getting to use the Chicago Manual of Style once again — their website is amazing, and well worth the subscription, if you’re an editor.]), and produce something of true worth.

About Red Notebook

I called my imprint Red Notebook Press for a very specific reason, one that is dear to me. I’m not ready to say much more than this: the red notebook was one of the last gifts to me from Lee. It was an amazing document that has changed the way I think about death and how we prepare for it. I will write about it one day, possibly even as a book, but when I thought about the types of books I would like to publish, Red Notebook Press was the only name I ever considered using.

I’ve been asked by more than a few friends about what I hope to publish at Red Notebook. I’m not particularly interested in publishing fiction, poetry or general-purpose nonfiction. I would like to help authors publish thoughtful, literate texts about living well, especially as we get older; explorations of how we choose to die, and how we can help people die on their own terms; and how to live within the world of grief, with peace and grace. Right now, I don’t have any concrete plans, but I think of one of Susan’s great sayings: “Don’t get attached to outcomes; just remain open to the possibilities.” For me, Aging is a perfect example of that philosophy. I am hopeful that, if there are to be other books, they will unfold as they need to happen.

Over the past few weeks, I have been wrapping up this project. Nan has a good publicist and we’re hopeful that we’ll get a review or two from press outlets to help get the word out.[3. Not to get all marketing on y’all, but anything you can do to help put the book out there would be appreciated. I truly believe this is an important book, but it is also one of hundreds of thousands of books published in the U.S. each year, and it is easy for it to get lost. If you have any ideas, get in touch with me at rlepage(at)me.com.] In the meantime, I am preparing to head back out on the road for the foreseeable future; our house is packed up and in storage, and we’re readying our new trailer for four to six months through the Southwest and beyond. While I’m out, I’ll be working on books for that other project I referred to above. Again, I’m being a bit vague about this for various reasons, but I have created a second imprint for a different topic, and hope to have news about that later this year.[4.I should also have an online presence for Red Notebook Press in the next month or so, at rednotebook.press.]

So, that’s what I did during my summer (and fall and winter) vacation. I’m extremely proud of what Nan has created, as much as I am at being able to help her realize her vision, and I look forward to the things that this year will bring.

Peace.

grace and kindness

beamFor the past few weeks, I have been unbelievably happy.

I went through a particularly bad stretch of sadness and grief in late August, which lingered into early September. But on a pretty autumn day mid-month, a switch literally went off in my head, and I was happy. It was so sudden, so swift and so powerful that I literally remember thinking, “This is what it must feel like to be bipolar.”

What has been unexpected is that it has largely remained that way ever since that day.

I have been reluctant to share this widely because it is a feeling that seems so much at odds with that of a “man who has just lost his Beloved,” as one dear friend so kindly put it to me. A few other close friends have noticed and been drawn into my upbeat little world; to them it is good to see me so buoyant after years and months of hardship, sorrow and loss. But it still seemed wrong to me, and I struggled to understand why I would feel such joy with so little guilt.

After a great deal of thought and consideration, I have come to embrace this special state of grace. For that’s what it is, and I am entirely at peace with it.

My wife is gone. There is nothing in this world that will bring her back to me, and no amount of magical thinking will change this.

For the two months immediately following Lee’s death, I felt as though I were living on a plain outside the entrance to a long tunnel. That place was cold, wet and lonely, and, although I knew that there was no hope of Lee ever returning home, I was compelled to grieve for her in that place. It was the last bit of duty I truly owed to Lee, and the sadness and despair that hung over me was as necessary to me as gravity.

Then came the happiness. And with the happiness came a surge of confidence that was both invigorating and terrifying. I resisted these emotions at first, but in the end, I took my hands off the wheel and let them drive. In truth, I was exhausted from eight years of cancer, pain and caretaking, and tired of the grief that had been building up like plaque on my soul.

And so, I turned back on the road home again, away from the place of my mourning. It was a comfort unlike any I had felt in ages.

I truly enjoyed the initial stages of this sustained energy, but I was also disturbed by it. It occupied my mind for quite a while, without any resolution. But, in the middle of an email conversation with a friend, she made me realize that what I was feeling was honest, and it was based entirely on love.

Pondering her words, I came to understand that I have carefully been placed on the road that I should be traveling.

I refused to characterize it as such while living amidst it, but Lee and I walked together through hell, knowing all the while how our story would end. For more than three years, we counted out time, embracing tiny moments of love and tenderness amidst a river of sorrow and pain. And while it is easy for me to look at our last years together solely as the two of us trying to provide comfort and care to each other on the slow glide path to death, I now know that we were also preparing me for life. But I truly was so focused on helping Lee live in our diminishing world that I wasn’t paying attention to her kindnesses.

She and I spoke quite frequently about my life ‘after.’ I resisted as much as I could, but Lee persisted. We ended up joking about it: after Lee died, Famous Beautiful Actress would magically find and fall in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Then FBA got married, and that was that; I don’t want to break up a home.) I now look back on many of our conversations, and I have a much richer sense of how much Lee wanted me to know that it was ok to be happy, to fall in love again, and to move on. It was a gift that I did not fully discover until after she departed, and it is the foundation of the grace that is woven so tightly into my life at this moment.

This perspective also helps me understand why I don’t need to worry about joy and guilt: it means nothing to the presence of Lee in my heart, which will always reside in a safe place. If anything, the honesty with which we both dealt with our love and her death tightens the bond that keeps those walls strong.

Kindness has truly been the sustenance of the grieving process for me. It has nourished and warmed me, regardless of where I lived in relation to the tides. Close friends have provided so much love that I struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all. I have had people previously unknown open their hearts and give up a little part of their life to help me carry on. There are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in decades who have reached out with simple and profound messages of love, hope and care. My families, dealing with their own crushing losses, have still taken the time to keep me in their thoughts. I will never adequately be able to thank everyone who has reached out to me, but do want them to know that they have all contributed to this place that I’m at in this world right now.

Since the arrival of joy, the sadness has poked back at me at times, but I am much better at recognizing the movements of the tides. My newly resurgent confidence lets me rise defiantly above the water and send an empty boat back out to sea. And each time this happens, I let a little bit more of Lee go, which she — and I, despite my reluctance — recognized long ago as something that had to happen for me to be able to move on in the world without her. It is a kindness that I can only repay by continuing to move along this new road with integrity and love.

Thanks.

29

remains-of-the-day-1

Twenty-nine years ago today, Lee and I were married.

I remember waking up at that morning about 5, in a panic. Lee was sleeping soundly, so I got on my motorcycle and took a long, bracing ride to see if I could calm myself down. It helped only a little. The entire day, I could barely take a sip of water, let alone eat. But, since we were putting the wedding on by ourselves, there were lots of things to do, and being busy helped.

The nerves were just that: nerves, and nothing more, but I couldn’t explain them. I had no doubts whatsoever about marrying Lee; of that I was sure.

Looking back on it through the lens of twenty-nine years, I now know that something in me realized that this was the biggest thing I would ever do in my life. I was taking a leap into a world that I had no idea existed only a year before, and it scared me. Lee told me later that it scared her as well, but the fact that we–she and I–were doing it together calmed her.

It wasn’t until about an hour before the ceremony that the butterflies disappeared. I went in to give Lee one last kiss as she dressed. I walked in her room, and there she was, standing serene, confident and stunningly beautiful. And, with a short, “I love you” kiss–the kind that many couples share a few times a day without ever really thinking about it–all the nervous energy that had tangled itself up inside me just washed away.

Lee always radiated that power and that confidence, and that’s one of the things that I will miss most about her. A month and a half after her death, I’m only just learning how to try to pull that strength out of me to push me on through each minute of every day.

Grief turns out to be surprisingly tidal. It has an ebb and flow that that moves outside the normal cadences of life, making it hard to grab on to a consistent spot in time that you can reliably claim for rest. I have been reflecting hard upon this over the past few weeks, and have come to accept this. If grief truly nestled within the contours of my daily life, I think it would dig a pit of despair inside me.

However, the thing that has surprised me most in this short time is discovering how much Lee is part of me. I feel as though that many of the things that make me the person I am today are a direct line from that beautiful, strong and loving woman to whom I married 29 years ago. I just never really noticed this before she left, because her physical presence was so great in our daily lives.

And right now, when that presence has been replaced by an unbelievably deep silence that shadows me daily, there are times when I am able to draw on the essence of her that has burrowed inside me. I use it as a protected piece of shoreline that remains safely above the tides of grief, but still lets me view the majesty that was our relationship.

Knowing how much Lee loved the ocean, I think she would approve of that metaphor.

I wish I had a better image to share than the one above, but this is the best I can do for now; it’s how I feel. But I’ll also leave with my favorite photo of Lee, taken right around the time I went to give her that kiss on our wedding day (her sister Anne is on the right). She was so happy, excited, and ready to go on an adventure into that unknown new world with me. And an adventure is exactly what we got.

lee-wedding-pre

[Click the image to see it bigger. Image of Lee © Phil Dorion.]

life, photographed

wall-of-photos

We inhabit a life that dwells near the marshes of mortality, but we rarely have to wander into the darkness of the fens. Sadly, this past week, I had to cross one such bridge, with the passing of a friend. Dede was a beautiful, witty, smart and sassy woman, and while I honestly can’t say I knew her well, she somehow knew me, and I truly loved sitting and chatting with her. She always made me smile.

dede-1965Like many of us, Dede moved over the hills of joy and across the occasional plains of sorrow. She lived a big life, without bitterness or regret, and with more grace and selflessness than one would believe possible. It was a life worth living, a goal to which I aspire.

Dede was also the mother of Meara, a dear, dear, friend, so her death was doubly hard. Lee and I went over mid-week to visit, and we descended upon chaos, as their lively neighborhood had turned into a village focused on helping one of their own. Shortly before we arrived, a longtime friend of Meara’s had just completed one of the most important tasks for the memorial: the gathering of the photographs. And so we sat in a small circle for almost an hour, passing around photos of Dede, her family and friends, photos that included not only weddings and parties, but also the mundane–and no less important–touchpoints of everyday living. For that short time, we were laughing, listening, loving and learning a bit more about this beautiful woman. It was a wondrous island in the midst of a sea of sorrow, part of a soothing ritual that has taken place repeatedly through the years as a loved one has passed.

I’ve mentioned before how much I love the print[1. Missing Photography, July 11, 2011], and this is one of the reasons why. Holding that Polaroid from August 1965, of Dede, hose in hand, with the can of Budweiser off in the corner, I really don’t need to know the story, or think about why this photo was taken, probably forgotten, and now found again. I’m sure Dede could have told me, but it doesn’t matter. And, witnessing the tenderness in a kiss between mother and daughter, long before I knew either of them, made me feel as though I were actually present at that moment. That stack of photographs passed around on a warm afternoon made Dede live and let us all hold her close for a moment, and it made me honored to be even a small part of the lives of my friends.

mearas-wedding-smallI’m told quite frequently that a good photograph must tell a story. There are times when I resist that notion, but I do realize that it is true. You don’t have to know the story, but you do have to know there was a story. Some stories are silent, while others are long, funny pieces that demand explanation. And while a stack of photos won’t replace a life, it does complement it, enrich it, and preserve it.

One of the reasons why I felt such a connection to Dede was because of a photograph. Long ago, I had taken a group of pictures of Meara and her husband Philip at a horse show. Dede saw them, and asked if I would make a print of one of them for her. It was rare in the years since that she didn’t mention to me how much she still loved looking at it. The story in that one is as simple, I think, and as beautiful as any I’ve ever taken. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have had that shared story between us.

philip meara 5

268 miles and the ‘revisit’ tag

mt-adamsGot out on an all-day ride on the motorcycle for the first time in a long while yesterday, and ended up completing a very satisfying 268 miles through Southern Washington.[1. If you want to see (most) of the actual route I took, here’s a KMZ track file, which you can download and open in Google Earth.] Over the past couple of years, as I’ve been discovering the Columbia, I’ve also discovered much of the beauty that is in the corridor centered around the three Cascade volcanoes in Washington: Adams, St. Helens and Rainier (all the shots here with a mountain are of Mount Adams; click any image below to see it larger).

mt-adams-2

[where was this?]

I wanted to explore, but since I was alone, I had one main rule: no gravel.[2. If you look at the track in Google Earth, you’ll see one spot where I went north, stopped and turned around. You’ll also notice that I ended up riding within a hair’s breath of the final part of my ride. Next time, I’ll push on through the gravel.] I love riding on forest roads, but last year I got into a scary situation on the bike in one of the many “middles of nowhere” in Washington, and I really didn’t want to get back into that spot. Nothing kicks you out of a nice ride than that little bit of fear that you’re going down with a 550-pound machine you won’t be able to pick back up.[3. Ben has one of those Spot Locator beacons, which is sort of a motorcyclists’/hikers’ version of the “Help me. I’ve fallen down!” things they advertise on late night TV and in Reader’s Digest.]

I had the saddlebags loaded with my camera gear, but since I’d be riding during the middle of the day, I knew there wouldn’t be much in the way of photo ops. But, unlike years past, where I’d never pull the camera out, I’m now taking reference shots in places I think would be good candidates at times of striking light and weather, and geotagging the images with my trusty GPS logger [4. I use the Wintec G-Rays 2, but there are a lot of them that do the trick.] and Houdah Software’s excellent HoudahGeo app (Mac-only, sorry to say), which marries the GPS data from my trip to the shots taken along the way. And when I go through my photos at the end of the day, I tag those images taken in interesting places that I’d like to go back to with a ‘revisit’ tag.

I also use my iPhone’s camera and Instagram to help with this[5. Except for the GPS logging thing. Instagram tags the photo with the location where it uploaded the file, not where it took the photo, which is a problem when you’re in a place with no cellular service. (fixed) But I save the original photo on the phone, which saves the real location, and HoudahGeo lets me copy and paste the GPS coordinates.] I get some fun photos, and I don’t have to go to the trouble of taking off all my gear, digging out the camera, mounting a lens[6. Don’t ask. Since I bought the grip for my camera, I now have twice the battery life. Great for the whole time-lapse thing, but now I can’t fit the camera and a lens in my bag. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. ;)], and taking a picture of something that I know really won’t want to do much more with in the end.

power-lines-2

[where was this?]

Of course, I do stop, break out the tripod and lenses, and try to capture something worthwhile. Take the image at the very top of this page. I took about 20 shots of various compositions, with different lenses and aperture settings, mumbling the whole time that I wouldn’t really get a great shot. But I knew I could get a good one, and the “working” part of being a photographer is still important; you have to shoot if you want to get better.[1. Years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine, who had been a National Geographic photographer. I told him how inspirational he had been to me, and how I longed to get to the point where I could literally ‘point and shoot’ to get that great image. He laughed and said that I would have been shocked at the sheer volumes of film that they took on an average shoot; most were miles away from being magazine-quality shots.] It’s not perfect, but I came close to what I saw in my head, despite the bright light of the day (Using a polarizer helped too.)[1. And, had I not stopped, I wouldn’t have had the lovely conversation with the man who farmed that land. It opened with, “You know when you want to take that picture? Dawn. I wake up every morning and marvel at how beautiful that mountain is.”]

The shot below was similar. I found this lovely plain[1. Part of the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge] late in the day, at a point when I knew I was quickly headed to that “I’ve ridden too much and need to stop” place. I found a turnout, and spent a good 35-40 minutes trying to get a decent shot.

tree-with-adams

[where was this?]

The light was better, since it was later in the day, but I couldn’t get the angle that I knew the shot needed. To be honest, this photo isn’t even halfway decent, but it’s been tagged with ‘revisit,’ and I like the fact that it’s on an ever-growing list of places to get back to. I’m not going to find those roads that fall in love with if I don’t try to drive 268 miles in a day, and I’m not going to grow as a photographer without actually shooting, no matter whether I think the light is right or not.

missing photography

liz-wyoming

I haven’t felt much like a photographer lately–for various reasons, and despite my best intentions–but I have been looking at a lot of other folks’ work. That’s been good. I love to look at photographs; I have lots of lovely books and places to go on the web, and there are many wonderful artists out there, both famous and obscure.[1. Like Vivian Maier, who I think will be famous, if posthumously. I look at her work, especially her portraits, and find myself wondering what she was like, as a photographer. Did she talk about her work with friends over drinks? Or was she just obsessed, driven only to click, develop, print and stack?]

But, I do need to get out of this rut I’m in, and I’ve decided that what I really need to do is some printing. I love to print.[2. In case you were wondering, old friends, Printerville is back up and running. You can find out about it all in this post. Yay!] One of the things that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that, if I’m feeling at a dead-end behind the camera, I should turn to the print.[3. My good friend Duncan tells me this.] The magic of the print was how I got started down this road in the first place, and there are times when it’s good to go back to the beginning.

As a result, l’ve been going through a bunch of my work from the past six to nine months, with an eye towards creating some long-overdue prints that need to go on walls and into the post. This has naturally led me through images from the cross-country trip Liza and I took in early June. For me, though, this simple photo of my daughter, charged up to shoot with her 4×5 camera, and taken quickly with my iPhone on a cold and windy peak on the back side of the middle of Wyoming, will be the image of that trip. It’s not much, but I see a moment that has since become a touchstone for that short but lovely week (head colds and all). Looking at it reminds me why I can get so charged up about taking a photo, and why it’s such an emotional connection for me.

It also reminds me that I miss America, but that’s another story.