The Middle Distance 1.30.15: That Beckoning Horizon — A Fond Farewell to The Middle Distance

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After more than 200 episodes and nearly five years, Kathryn Eastburn has decided to retire The Middle Distance. It has been a pleasure to work with Kathryn, and we wish her all the best in her future endeavors, whatever they may be. If you've enjoyed reading/hearing her column over the years, we hope you'll  join us in thanking her in the comment section below. 

Credit Sean Cayton

Greetings from the upper Gulf coast of Texas in January, where global warming has gifted us with three nearly 80-degree days in a row. Tourists have come flying to Galveston Island like shore birds, inhabiting the seawall and the beaches, some dipping toes into the still frigid water, but most just craning their necks across the sparkling blue sea toward the southern horizon.

Yesterday the dog and I walked out on west beach near sunset and watched gulls and pelicans huddle together on the pilings of what once was a beachfront house, now blackened ruins about 100 yards off shore. From a distance we saw what looked like a very swift dog rushing across the beach from the dunes to the shore, then wading in to about knee height. My dog’s ears perked up, until both of us realized we were seeing not a dog but a bird, a Great Blue heron, its stick legs firmly planted in the gentle surf. As we passed, it lifted its heavy wings and swooped over to the bird platform to take its place among the others. It landed in a graceful billow, its head sticking far up above the others, and turned its gaze toward that same horizon.

That beckoning horizon pretty much defines life on this barrier island, a 32-mile long sandbar less than three miles across at its widest point. A full-fledged city with a grand and bloody history occupies these salt flats, living and dying, prospering and failing by the whims of the weather and the fortune the sea delivers.

I come here every year in January to see my family, clear my head and gear up for the year. And every year that horizon looks different. When I first came here nearly 40 years ago, it looked like a gateway to the rest of the world. Now it’s an orientation point, a distant line that reminds me exactly where I am on this fragile, enduring earth.

This year I’m at the beginning of something new, though I don’t quite know what it is yet. I do know, however, that the chronicling of my middle years, this column, has come to a happy and satisfying end.

In 2010, when KRCC’s Noel Black was getting his daily web feature, The Big Something, off the ground, he offered me a job that’s a writer’s dream: to write and record a personal essay once a week on the subject of my choice. Thus, the Middle Distance was born. Since then I’ve written about wars and elections, books and movies, gardening and singing. I wrote about the passing of seasons and the mystery of time and the ways we love and hurt one another. But mostly, I wrote about loss and change — the inevitable coming of age that follows the deaths, natural and unnatural, of those we love. I lived through a harrowing mid-life crisis on the page, online and on the air.

You listened kindly and without judgment, extending the most intimate act of friendship.

My big old Galveston dog, Ollie, has turned into an old man since The Middle Distance first began. His handsome face is turning white and he’s had two ACL surgeries on his back legs. Yesterday he sunned on the porch while I weeded and mulched and planted snapdragons in the flowerbeds. I chopped back the Knockout roses mercilessly and hauled bags of debris into the back alley, then Ollie and I got in the car and headed to the beach.  A rollerblader in a muscle shirt skated recklessly down the middle turn-lane of Seawall Boulevard between crawling lanes of opposing traffic. Ollie stuck his graying snout out the car window and sniffed the salt air. 

The island looks good this year but it’s important to remember that it is a dynamic living thing, constantly shifting and changing, vulnerable to forces natural and unnatural. I shift into high gear when we reach the west end of the seawall and continue curving southward past cow pastures and new subdivisions, beer joints and RV parks, tide pools and rookeries. We turn onto the stretch my brother-in-law named Prozac Beach for all the calm relief it has given our family over our last decade of mental anguish. Today it is empty except for one silver-haired couple in loose clothes, strolling arm in arm. 

I try to imagine what I might write in my last column. Then, in the middle distance, a heron guides my vision across the water to where it meets the sky, the horizon, and I know there is nothing to say but thank you and goodbye.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Groundand Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West