when a foreword is the last word

My father passed away last week and I’m struggling with finding the right words for his obituary. The Foreword I wrote for Grateful Ned, his 2018 autobiography, is a far less morbid way to memorialize his life.

For me, his soul will always reside in the present tense.

My father is an explorer. For much of his life, he explored the secrets of the sea, as described in the first book he wrote, fittingly titled Exploring the Ocean Depths. His adventurous career in oceanography took our family from Boston to the gulf shores of Texas; then Miami, San Diego and finally, a return to the Maine island where he and my mother had first met.

I grew up on that island, attended the tiny three-room schoolhouse, joined the Campfire Girls and romped through the five acres of woods that was our backyard. Together, my father and I built a treehouse in the apple orchard behind the house.

We were the odd family from “away:” two intellectuals and their only child. My mother, a talented graphic artist, freelanced from home and my father, a marine scientist, had previously worked with Jacques Cousteau and traveled the globe. My parents divorced when I was eleven and I began a twenty-five-year spiral into alcoholism–a life of half measures and wanderlust, unfulfilled careers and relationships. Sobriety has brought me on a long journey of self-exploration, much like the soul quest my father has written about in this memoir.

Childhood memories were hazy and entire decades blurred, so I asked my father to help me piece things together, to tell me his story. We decided it would be a team writing project. I bought us each a workbook on writing a family history, complete with prompts, exercises and sample timelines. We planned writing workshops during our upcoming vacation to Alaska to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday.

But like most things, my father chose to do it his way and the memoir workbook grew dusty on the shelf. “I decided to start on my own,” he writes. “I chose to tell my tale on the ubiquitous yellow legal pad.” Dozens of legal pads later, he painstakingly transcribed his near-illegible penmanship, writing what would become his third book.

His life is an endless adventure from the depths of the sea to the vast world beyond. He’s explored the nation, piloting our family across the country in our 1957 Mercedes Benz, and he’s seen the world through the lens of the windshield of a Greyhound bus. He’s traveled on ships and trains and airplanes to Europe and Scotland, South Africa and South America, Mexico and most recently, on the Trans-Canadian railway through each of that country’s provinces.

Yet, as I read his story, I find that in his perpetual pursuit to live a unique life, we are one. Similar passions flow through our veins like the blood that links us as father and daughter. We share a desire for travel and road trips. A mutual delight in telling stories. A passion for writing. An insatiable thirst for reading. The conscious choice to take the road less traveled.

And even now, well into his eighties and living contentedly on an island off the coast of Maine, through its brutal nine-month winters and long summer days filled with sailing and ice cream sundaes, my father continues to explore. As he delves further into his past, he enters a new world of self-discovery, sharing it with us through the portal of this book. Today, his business cards brand him “EXPLORER.” His sight may grow dim, and his energy level wane, but my father will never stop exploring.

And for this, I am grateful.

No Doubt

writing off disbelief

Creatively speaking, it’s been a good year so far. Daily writing with London Writers Salon, a global writing community. Master’s Writing Workshop, University of Arizona. Joined Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Made art, some good, some bad, for the 100 Day Creative Challenge. Wrote a few poems.  Launched the micro mashup, a weekly microburst of literary art. Interviewed authors. Published a few stories. Tweeted a novella.

But when I applied to a 5-Day Writing Residency and wasn’t accepted, the familiar chords of self-doubt clanged around my brain: I suck as a writer. Who am I kidding? I’m a charlatan, a poseur. My writing career is over.

And then it wasn’t.

After a while, the chorus changes. It always does, if you listen long enough. Now the refrain that plays is “writing equals butt in chair,” so I walk to the kitchen writing nook and sit in the red chair at my little desk. Gradually, the muse appears, a faded polaroid of my mom in her art studio. The black dog settles on his rug. The lighthouse in the painting above guides me toward pen and page. Just when I believe I have nothing left to say, it turns out I do, in fact, have words that need to be heard, so I sing them. This is how it happens with writing.

And in those murky moments when I’m panicked over deadlines and paralyzed with inadequacy and questioning my ability to juggle writing with everything else in my life—multiple households, travel, petsitting, finances, caregiving, death—and all of this feels as if I’m channeling my mother’s own self-doubt and disbelief in herself as an artist, a writer, a mother, all I can say is it’s just part of the process. Of being human: daughter, mother, wife. Of being a writer: artist, wordsmith, creator.

Evolve or Disappear

from the archives: an evolution of gratitude

“Greatful” List, age 7. My mother was a fan of lists and taught me to be grateful at an early age. Spelling skills came later. Here’s one she framed: dogs and cats and family and friends. It still hangs in the living room of my childhood home.

Medium: Pencil on a sheet torn from her sketchpad.

Gratitude Journal, age 35. After two decades of a hard-driving life, when the only thing in my life remotely related to gratitude was a Grateful Dead show, I finally stopped running away from myself. A page from Year One:

Dear Universe:
Thank you for keeping me sober, one day at a time.
Yours truly,

Medium: Leatherbound journal, purple gel pen.

Gratitude Blog Posts, age 50. So, this happened: I quit the insurance career I never planned on to take care of my mother and somehow became what I always wanted to be: a writer. I started this flash blog to sort things out. Dementia. Family. Caregiving. Recovery. Dogs and cats. Running. Depression. Writing. From the depths of despair, writing brought a sliver of hope. And yeah, I wrote a few posts about gratitude.

Medium: keyboard and website. Cyberspace.

Gratitude DadTexts, Pandemic edition. Shortly before the pandemic, my father moved from his beloved old island cottage to an assisted living community. Before he’d had time to make friends, the place went on lockdown. Lonely and a little sad, he was stuck in a tiny apartment with his aging cat, Gilbert. Like my mother had done all those years ago, I revived the Grateful List and every day for three months we exchanged lists via text.

Medium: iPhone.

100 Days of Gratitude Sketches, 2022. Last month, I stumbled onto Suleika Jaouad’s 100-Day Project, with the simple guidelines to “create one beautiful thing each day.” Daily now, I leave the comfort of my word world to orbit a new galaxy of art: a tiny sketch of one thing I’m grateful for each day. The artwork isn’t pretty and clearly, I did not inherit my mother’s artistic talents, but the challenge is unexpectedly exhilarating.

Medium: sketchbook, colored pencils and markers.

My gratitude journey goes on and on, it never stops. My seven-year-old self knew it all along.

amazon packages, paint tube, a bird’s egg and the lifeguard hat: these are a few of my favorite things