Looking into the eyes of courage: A life-changing reunion

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An intimate moment between Trish and Hakan, who traveled from Sweden

It’s not very compelling to read that I was indifferent about going somewhere.

My journalism professors would call this a “bad lead.” No hook to draw the reader in. “Indifferent” isn’t exactly a power word, more of a lame adjective where a good verb would coax the reader along.

But it fits. I’ve been a flimsy cliche. I recently agreed to go to a reunion but with the qualifier that “I’m not really a reunion sort of guy.” Like those people who boast that they don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” do I somehow think this makes me superior?

What it makes me is insufferable. And full of shit. Some friends from an adventure more than three decades ago showed me that.

I am a member of Up With People Cast C ’86 and we aren’t an indifferent group. One of our own is enduring a decade of suffering that should break the spirit. Instead, she has transformed it into spirited poetry, a lyrical lesson in whole-heartedness. Trish Wilson-Geyling and her family lost their youngest member, 8-year-old Rudy, in July 2017. He died suddenly from a congenital heart syndrome. Before he was born doctors said Rudy would not survive without utmost medical intervention. In a blog called “Rudy’s Beat” Trish chronicled the joy and exhaustion, beauty and terror, adventure and mystery of her family’s short time with the buoyant little boy who possessed the same bottomless supply of smiles as his mother.

 

 

The words of Trish and her husband Rolf invited us in as they savored every moment, every smile, every tear, every overwhelming fear. They asked for our prayers when holding on to hope demanded more hands. Trish’s writing expressed the heaviness of fragile hope, but it never outweighed mindfulness, faith and gratitude. Upon Rudy’s death Trish wrote, “The doctors would have counted it a victory to have him home for six weeks. We had him home for eight years.”

Two months after Rudy’s death, before they had time to unpack their grief, life ambushed the family again. Trish was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive and incurable attack on the body commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I gasped “Jesus!” when I heard. It was up to him if he took it as a prayer or a reprimand. What more could one family endure?

Although leveled by the news, Trish kept writing Rudy’s Beat, digging deep to balance twice the grief with her singular presence in the moment. As always, her posts were packed with photos of a family clearly in love with one another.

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Trish and her son Max

Updates on her treatment were stirred in with tales of daily life, celebrations, kids starting school and memories of Rudy. And gratitude, always gratitude. As the ALS progressed, word spread across social media. It was time for a reunion. More than fifty of us would meet in Santa Barbara for “TrishFest!” The rest of our cast would show up on FaceTime and cell phone speakers. Our mission was to be there for Trish, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that it was Trish who ended up being there for us.

I mistook cynicism for wisdom, or for keeping it real, when it was simply a disguise for insecurities. My take-it-or-leave-it coolness about attending the reunion was camouflage for the self-centered silliness of the 19-year-old in 1986. A reunion is a good place if you’re not careful to compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.

However, I forgot a few things. My fellow cast members are among the kindest people I know, and it was ridiculous to think my dark thoughts would not be extinguished by the brightest smile in our cast, still at full power and untouched by illness.8C178468-E589-4FB2-98E6-722EE99F5FEA

When we returned from our year with Up With People we learned that our experience was inexplicable. Even those closest to us stared blankly, like we were telling them about a dream we had the night before. We were a 100 kids between 18 and 25 from more than 30 nations and states, who traveled the world performing music and dancing for crowds, even though many of us weren’t that talented at either. However, some were so gifted they made the rest of us better. We were our own roadies, merchandisers and PR. We lived with families in each town we visited, even if we didn’t speak the same language. All of this was a wedge. It opened our way into communities for the real work. Cast members served at schools and nursing homes and homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We visited prisoners and addicts, and felt the grace of people who were ill, stigmatized, disabled and dying.

One of our greatest accomplishments was showing people everywhere we went that a bunch of kids from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, saturated in hormones and without the benefit of fully connected frontal cortexes, could get along and do some good.

Mostly, we learned to show up.

It is not hyperbole to say that TrishFest was life-changing.

My oldest daughter Annie came with us to the reunion and her sister Emily surprised us, showing up from Missouri. They finally experienced the rowdy hospitality of Cast C. Emily hung out with the cast drummer for whom she was named, and Annie mingled like she had traveled with us.

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Emily and Emily

After so much time apart our cast hugged like linebackers. Happy anxiety charged the air with impatient affection. The laughter was pyrotechnic. Trish entered in her wheelchair with a smile that I could swear made the lights flicker, and turned a rented house into a sanctuary where we could be both riotous and reflective. She liberated us to unleash the power of our vulnerability, to carve away all the emotional callouses of middle age.

Quiet conversations in corners, home-cooked food prepared by our children, raucous tequila shots on the patio, jam sessions with Trish and Rolf’s astounding children. Stories that justified gray hair, wrinkles and wisdom. One friend recalled that there were a few times on tour that he wanted to kick my ass; I grinned and nodded. “I remember, and you should have done it.”

We went to church with Trish and longed to have her faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were a cast known in our day as trouble-makers. Sometimes it seemed like the rules were a disobedience to-do list. What we were doing was too important to be taken seriously. Last week we were almost as unrefined, crowded into a house, as we were long ago, cramped on a bus.

We surrounded Trish with stories, songs, photographs and prayers. We looked into the eyes of courage and felt braver for it.

Trish wrote that she wished Rudy didn’t have to live with such frailty and lamented that he left them so soon. She wished she didn’t have ALS and that her family didn’t have to walk through it with her. Her family has a deep capacity to love, she said, but of course that comes with a deep capacity to feel pain. It comforts her, though, that life has become “second nature” to them because of what they have come through. They have gained a certain “expertise.” She calls it “Rudy’s legacy.”

Being with Trish broke us open and renewed us. Her presence in our lives, even from great distances, is a gentle challenge to stay broken. Remain vulnerable. Don’t let the protective callouses grow back. Don’t allow fear to rule us.

Our “official” reunion is in two years. As she left, Trish beamed through exhaustion, and said “maybe I’ll be there to see you.”

I plan on showing up.

Check out Rudy’s Beat: https://rudysbeat.com/

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It’s called ‘marching in the streets’ for a reason

Orderly protest is an oxymoron.

I attended the real Pro-Life march in Petaluma Saturday, a protest against racism and child abuse, against Fascism and gleeful cruelty.

The people there,  from wide-eyed children to fierce elders who I suspect weren’t at their first rodeo, showed up to express outrage on behalf of people they don’t know. For these people, families ripped apart by Republican-sanctioned ICE is a wound that could prove fatal to our democracy. The truest test of character is how you treat the stranger, how generous you are in easing the suffering of others, even to the detriment of your own creature comforts and interests.  This was a march of character.

But something gnawed at me. The whole thing was just too damn polite.

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The Children’s March in 1963 Birmingham

From the start, planners herded marchers into a sanctioned space. Anyone who drifted into the adjacent parking lot of the NAPA Auto Parts store were gently reprimanded while NAPA employees ventured out to take mealy mouthed pot shots at protesters. Once the march began, chants arose to abolish ICE, free children from cages and unite families. But the loudest, most jarring voice, was a an organizer on a bullhorn exhorting  marchers to move off the street, to process in an orderly fashion on sidewalks. For our safety. But I learned the real reason from the bullhorn wielder who warned that if I didn’t leave the street “they” will shut us down.

I replied incredulously, “That’s the best thing that ould happen.”

A protest is an act of civil disobedience. Disobeying civil authority is kind of the point. So is interrupting the status quo. Holding up traffic, annoying business owners, disrupting commerce, going to jail and pissing off a lot of people are steps toward progress.

Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC)  strived to be “shut down,” the more brutally the better.

Civil Rights activists meticulously planned to make sure they disrupted entire communities. They plunged into Woolworth for sit-ins that drew sputtering retribution. They so enraged whites with their Freedom Rides that their buses were firebombed.

Martin Luther King’s gentle saintly image is a bald deception. He was not polite. His non-violence was a weapon not pacifism. Weeks before his death, in a high school gymnasium in Detroit, King refused to condemn rioting, acknowledging that rebellion is sometimes necessary.

“Rioting is the language of the unheard,” he said. “[America] has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

King roared about the complacency of black pastors  not about black people blocking traffic.

Marchers wrote wills before leaving for a protest. They were subversives challenging dangerous people and they never knew if they were coming back. The aim of the Civil Rights movement was to fill jails, and respond non-violently to the brutality of police and locals.

King and other Civil Rights leaders chose Selma because Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clarke promised violence. Like Bull Connors before him, Clarke played into King’s hands. Bloody Sunday, the vicious attack on protesters by Clarke’s thugs, was one of the most polarizing moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Rep. John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull at Selma, said this weekend, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week , a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

A Republican strategist said that protests today are less civil than in King’s times or during the Vietnam War. I’m afraid he has been reading alternative history. Protests today are too civil.

The protesters who rose up and stopped a war in Vietnam, were not polite. They burned draft cards and swarmed into public places relishing in the discomfort they caused polite society, who saw them as unwashed radicals who hated America. Their relentlessness intrusion into the daily life of Americans, their utter disregard for civility, forced our government to end the war.

LGBTQ activists didn’t gain rights through courtesy. They rioted at Stonewall and they gave homophobes the heebie-jeebies with their brazen, beautiful, sexually liberated Pride parades. They raged when the country disregarded the AIDS crisis and raged again each time one of their friends or family members were beaten or killed in alleys or on frozen fence lines. I’m Here and I’m Queer was not an expression chosen for its diplomacy.

A legitimate question is whether we  protest so politely and orderly because we are afraid. Afraid of making a scene, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of where our own anger can drag us. These are truly legitimate fears. The challenge is to explore whether what is happening is worth the risk.

In Spring 1963, Martin Luther King’s movement in Birmingham, Ala., was floundering. The numbers for his mass meetings were dwindling and local blacks were turning against him. He didn’t have enough protesters to continue filling the jails and movement leaders were trying to plan a dignified exit from the city. However, the eccentric preacher James Bevel was devising a radical plan. Send in the children.

At King’s meetings, children outnumbered adults and they were demanding to do what their parents wouldn’t. King said no. The Birmingham jail was no place for children.

When the doors of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened at midday May 2, a line of 50 teenagers emerged two-abreast, singing. Police hauled them to jail. A second line of children emerged followed by many more. Children as young as 6 years old stood their ground until they were arrested. Confused police called in school buses to haul the children away and chased stray lines that slipped past them and headed for downtown business establishments. That day a thousand children marched into the jails. Black parents in the nearby park were dismayed to see their disobedient offspring going to jail, but some gave way.

One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, “Sing, children, sing!”

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The Children’s March of 1963

The next day Bull Connor instructed his officers to subdue and intimidate protesters instead of arresting them.  When more than a thousand new children turned out in disciplined, non-violent lines–unintimidated– Connor erupted. Police dogs tore into the lines of children and fire hoses knocked them along the pavement like tumbleweeds. The principal of the black high school locked the doors preserve order, but students trampled chain-link fences to join the protest.

Photos of the violence appeared on front pages across the country, opening the nation’s eyes to the crisis.

Renewed by the children, adults returned to the protest lines. Protesters swamped the jail and downtown streets. By Monday May 6 more than 2,500 adults and children filled the jails, and four times that number showed up to King’s mass meeting that night. From that moment King threw caution to the wind. He took more risks, he became more radical.

There are startling similarities between the Southern whites of that time and today’s Republicans. They hate to be called racist, but they hate minorities even more–or at best have no problem with racists.

The difference is in what people will do to resist them.

I heard a flutter of that old spirit today. An elderly woman told her friend, “I don’t want to die before I go to jail.”

She won’t get there without stepping off the sidewalk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unicorn

DEEE644A-6CA8-42B1-94DD-2E31322DC148The unicorn, sparkling eye and serene smile

Chin uplifted with unicorn confidence

Unafraid of being different

Comfortable in unicorn skin, a palomino of hearts

A punk-rock mane, unique even for a unicorn

And flawless horn, singular, clean and straight

”I love yuo Dan,” writes a little girl I’ve never met

With unicorn boldness, and unicorn spelling

Beneath her work of unicorn perfection

Yet another miracle, on the morning I celebrate

The day I became a unicorn

Maybe we don’t have a gun problem

It’s a social problem not a gun problem.

For sake of argument let’s accept this as fact.p407329091-5

So, how have the people who make this argument — and the people who voted them into office — decided to “solve” our social problem? Let’s take a look:

  • Deprive healthcare — including mental health and addiction services—to millions of Americans — elderly, working poor, college students, children;
  • Demonize African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ and people living in poverty and homelessness with the ease that Ronald Reagan condemned the USSR;
  • Spread terror and bottomless grief in the streets, with tacit permission for  unchecked violence against minorities by poorly trained and over-weaponized police officers
  • Cut education funding except for the most privileged students, emptying the financial aid till for graduate students, and mocking intellectuals with the dog whistle “elite.”
  • Steal the spirit of children by measuring elementary school success on lazy, racially and economically biased testing and shrugging as all but the highest scorers fall through chasms, not cracks. Then blaming it all on teachers, gleefully slashing away at their dignity, resources and economic security;
  • Smugly foment desolation and despair by cowardly terrorizing undocumented human beings, breaking up families, and turning a back to any and all suffering;
  • Demolish the social safety net of our society to build a multi-billion-dollar vanity wall, shovel money to obscenely wealthy people who hoard like addicts down to their last benzos, and kneel in blood before an engorged NRA;
  • Flippantly compromise national security by encouraging and participating in attacks on our democracy, mounting a frontal assault on the credibility of law enforcement, and taunting the unbalanced leader of a hostile nuclear power;
  • Publicly glorify sexual assault, domestic violence and pedophilia like it’s a challenge on a game show, running candidates for national office and placing people in the highest levels of government who are a daily insult and trauma to survivors;
  • Take out their sexual inadequacies and tortured hang-ups on women by chipping away at their health care decisions, access to contraception, and freedom to work in a safe environment for a fair and equal wage;
  • Rig elections with gerrymandering, eliminating voter rights earned through heroic non-violence, and throwing up endless roadblocks for poor and minority voters;
  • Bulldoze natural treasures, the arts and anything else that offers moments of beauty, insight and contemplation in the midst of their culture of fear and chaos;
  • Numb a nation to truth and poison it with cynicism, through an infinity of tweets and reports from their “State-Run-Network” that fattens the basest instincts of a cult-like following;
  • Sow mistrust in a free media — the non-negotiable principle of the Founding Fathers, more  important than guns at the conception of any revolution against tyranny;
  • Claim fiscal conservatism while joyfully casting a trillion dollars into the deficit in a single year;
  • Raise aloft White Supremacists as paragons of character, while condemning peaceful protests behind a veneer of parody patriotism, and the laughably disingenuous euphemism “All Lives Matter”;
  • Undercut science, which holds answers to great medical breakthroughs and any hope of a last-ditch rescue from our centuries-long homo-sapien suicide by climate change;
  • Throw exorbitant parties and golf trips, (public embezzlement of taxpayer money) while ignoring the dead and suffering from hurricanes, wildfires — and yes, gun massacres.

All of this “healing” comes with the tag line “… in Jesus’ name.”

They are right. We don’t have a gun problem. It’s a Republican problem. It’s a conservative problem. It’s a problem of apathy and willful ignorance. It’s a Trump problem.

We have a social disease.

It requires aggressive treatment: Marching, picketing, screaming I’m mad as hell, making reasonable arguments with a calm invincibility to inevitable teeth-gnashing attacks, running for office, halting all infighting, forming a wave that no sane person would surf  or stand before, holding our politicians’ faces to the fire, being kind to one another;

And voting.

By any means necessary.

 

The fortitude of a forgiving child

My daughter’s birthday sneaked up on me like a sun shower

The joy of wishing her a happy day was IMG_0203mussed by my momentary forgetfulness

But even if she knew the truth she would laugh it off in goofy style

That’s OK, you’re an old man, she’d snort, you’d forget your own birthday

Our children forgive us, I remind myself, once again wiping regret from the rear-view mirror

They root for us to do better, even when we cause their greatest pain

You have to work with malevolence to replace partly sunny with partly cloudy

They squeeze us tight when the rest of the world turns its back

And love us when we don’t love ourselves

They blink away tears and wait for our light to shine on them again

Rumbling down the Hot Wheels Highway

The rumble up through the seat loosens my bones and I am a child again

The curvy, sun-glistened highway, a strip of orange Hot Wheels track

I sit high in the cab like a boy in his father’s lap, unable to reach the pedals

It is impossible to say the word “truck” and remain an adult

Alone, driving through a landscape of steep hills, vineyards and draws

I imagine I created it all to fit around my winding highway

Truck. I say it again aloud, enjoying the way it feels in my throat

I have no choice but to drive slow, at risk of shifting the load

There is something comforting in that, my normally lead foot is meditating

At the end of my drive, a mother-in-law will boss me as I unload

I downshift

Slower

Mysteries

I am grateful for forgiving children

That the hangover this morning was allergies

My son called me a hero today

Though I was the source of his greatest pain

Those who love me say congratulations

But pride in myself is misplaced, even dangerous

Today I am a miracle, a mystery beyond

Intelligence, will power, character or discipline

It is best not to ask too many questions

 

 

GO, EMILY, GO!

Emily’s most memorable soccer goal didn’t even count.

A referee’s whistle had shrieked play dead. But Emily saw an opening. She swiped the ball from a startled first-grader, bit her tongue, and dashed away. As she shepherded the ball 1909537_1067852741867_5373733_ntoward mid-field I stood from my lawn chair and laughed, “Emily, go back, go back.”

What Emily heard: “GO, EMILY, GO!”

She raced by, oblivious to me and chuckling spectators.  What the hell, I thought. I yelled, “GO, EMILY, GO!” Two other parents joined in.

Emily mistook–or imagined– laughter for cheers. There was nothing but open field before her. She stopped about six-feet from the goal, giggled at the ball like a cartoon villain, and kicked it into a dusty net. Alone, an over-sized T-shirt hanging like a nightgown to her shin guards, Emily poked her fists in the air, hopped in a circle, and grinned at the sideline.

At the far end the field a 14-year old referee and a group of puzzled 6-year-olds stared at the odd little girl, wondering if she would bring the ball back.

***

My daughter graduates from high school today.

She leaves Bishop Leblond High School earning a 3.87 grade point average in her final semester. During her time there she was a star athlete in three sports — basketball, soccer and volleyball. She was active in campus ministry and student government. She soaked up her time in school.

That’s the Emily who will be honored. But she is more than that. And for me, for a parent, this day is more than that.

Late at night my daughter calls me without hope that things will get better. She weeps that she is too exhausted to go on.  She is intimidated by exams. School doesn’t come easy to her and she wonders if the effort is worth it.  She won’t admit it but she worries too much about what people think.  She sometimes loses herself in resentments, and falls into gossip.

Emily may dive for loose balls, suffer turf burn and  endure elbows to the face, but afterward she is a hypochondriac who worries over every bruise and discoloration on her body.

I treasure this Emily, who is afraid, overwhelmed and at times self-centered. The Emily who wants to give up fills my heart.

Because she never does.

***

If I’m honest, this day isn’t only a celebration. It’s a day singed with fear. It’s a self-centered fear. A fear that I won’t be around to comfort her, to provide guidance in this next stage of her life.

But Emily has already helped me cool that flame.

***

Resilience is the word that comes to mind.

I’ve heard that a lot, usually when my children have gone through something difficult, especially when it’s something I’ve put them through. People will say, It will be OK, kids are resilient.

Perhaps no one has taught me more about resilience than that girl in the graduation cap.

What does a dad say in the gaping silence after his daughter’s final high school basketball game?

“We lost by three points,” she sobbed.

Being a father seems to be a series of these silent moments. I usually fill them with too many words. It has taken me a while to learn that with Emily all I really need to do is listen and remind her that it will get better.

The morning after that last game, I called Emily, ready to comfort her more, offer more advice. She had bounced out of bed already gushing about soccer season.

The junk food run with friends Tyler and Jaclyn probably did more good than my advice.

***

Of course, Emily will have her heart broken by more difficult events than a basketball game. She already has. Her parents’ divorce. Her dad moving out of state. I still haven’t recovered from that one. But she has. So has our relationship.

It was much simpler when resilience meant this long-ago conversation:

  • Who won, Dad?
  • Did you have fun?
  • Yes.
  • Then you did.
  • OK, I’m gonna go get a snack.

***

As a parent, I must resist the temptation to, well, parent.

I can’t fix the the damage that comes her way. The most dangerous ground to tread is trying to fix the damage I’ve inflicted. Emily lets me know every day that we are good.

Emily is the compassionate, resilient person she is in part because of the struggles she 11695772_10205372836265692_3783235018256364375_novercomes, not despite them. She has an openness to people who live their lives different from her and she has held on to her principles in the face of criticism because she’s seen those around her struggle.

I do, however wonder at her response to betrayal, defeat. Suffering can often chip away at the light inside us and leave cynicism, resentment, mistrust. It has been my singular pleasure to see her always come through, different somehow,  but not hardened, always whole.

 

I love watching my daughter play sports. That will always be our closest bond.

Watching her prowl the passing lanes for steals on a basketball court is like watching a fox 1909537_1067852381858_5127982_nhunting rabbits. Watching her mastery of volleyball is like meeting an alien being with knowledge beyond me. And Emily on a soccer field is a display of uninhibited joy.

It is made all the sweeter because I have been there when it wasn’t beautiful. That’s what a dad gets to do.

I am shaking my head at that grade point average.

All the sweeter because I know that somewhere inside she’s fighting against a voice telling her she’s not smart.

Over the years I’ve told my overextended daughter to cut back, to drop a sport, to quit a team, to quit a job (you can work the rest of your life). I’ve lectured rest, rest, rest.

She says, OK, Dad.

Then she points out a new bruise on her knee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s reminder to dance

Yesterday I wished my cousin Brian happy birthday on Facebook.

On his page I saw a photo of a younger Brian, but the photo was too natural, not like the posed senior picture’s of the 1980s. It was Brian’s son Jacob. I sagged at my computer. Father and son shared a birthday.  Jacob leaned easily against a brick wall, tattered jeans and flip flops. He didn’t appear to have a care in the world

The tears surprised me.

Jacob died a little over a year ago after a struggle with substance abuse.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know Jacob as well as I would have liked.  We talked when I ran into him at the grocery store where he worked and we occasionally joked around during the time he played soccer with my son.12631559_1224193100928116_8414144582599671273_n

He never knew about my strongest bond with him, a longing from afar to reach out and help, to let him know I had been there. I fantasized that he might see it in my eyes, or feel it in my passing presence.

I wear a red band on my wrist with Jacob’s name on it. It’s also inscribed with the words, “Forever laughing,” a reminder of a young man who glowed with humor and irreverence.

Tugging at the band, I realized the sudden tears were for loneliness.

Jacob was alone when he died. His father was alone when he found him. Loneliness can swallow entire families.

I remember the depths when no one could reach me. I was alone in a room full of people who loved me. No matter how many reached out to me, it didn’t matter until I decided it was time to reach back. No one could have lifted me up until I was ready to be lifted. Then there is the loneliness of the ones who strain and long and ache to help, and are filled with fear and regret and helplessness. 

That is the great terror of parenting. My kids are grown and I can try to teach all the lessons I have learned from horrible decisions. They have witnessed some of my worst. But they must make their own way and their own mistakes. They must solicit my advice before they will receive it.

No matter how much we love others, they must want help. That can be a paralyzing proposition. Our peace depends on staying in the moment, doing the next right thing, neither regretting the past nor agonizing over the future.

The red band reminds me of acceptance.

Khalil Gibran wrote: “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

From what I have heard and witnessed, Jacob lived his life with a reckless charm that drew people to him. I’m sure only those dearest to him knew his fears.

I try not to let fear govern my days and I often fail.

I must find a way to live like my cousin Brian who, even in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy a parent can endure, still smiles and bursts forth with a laugh that must ring truer than any to grace the ears of God.

There is an afterlife, right here and now. Our loved ones walk among us in the stories we tell.  Jacob’s friends are still posting photos and jokes Jacob would find hilarious, and stories of his exploits still make the rounds. No doubt he still breathes life into water skiing trips, holiday dinners, and family milestones.

The red band reminds me of joy.

I remember as a child, I used to find comfort at funerals. Even though it was a time of haunting sadness, there was something sheltering about the way my expansive family set everything aside to turn its sympathies inward, like a huge canvas tent in a purple storm. It is good to know we are not alone when we are lonely. Even if no one can truly reach the depths of our pain, it is good to know that so many want to suffer with us. Priests called it the Paschal Mystery. The Buddhists simply say “Life is suffering.” God didn’t want us to suffer, but he showed us that we could find some semblance of meaning in it. We can stay in the moment and hold those we lost close. Someday, someone will ask us for help, and instinctively we will be ready because we have suffered, because  we have lost, because we have mourned.

We will be ready because we have been there before them.

The red band reminds me of compassion.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

Like so many people, I long to reach out and ease my cousin’s pain. I am content to know that he is sheltered by a great tent. I hope that he finds strength in family and friends. I hope he remembers that many people want to help carry his burden even when they cannot possibly understand the depth and breadth of it. And I know that he will repair his injuries by caring for others.

The red band reminds me of healing.

Jacob was a special young man and one doesn’t ever recover from losing someone of his character. But imagine how Jacob would laugh to see his dad dance.

 

Code Blue: There but for the grace of ‘Someone’ go I

I woke yesterday morning to ice on my windshield. I instantly thought of the Code Blue.

That is the alert called by Sonoma County when nighttime temperatures drop to dangerous levels for the homeless population. Our volunteers at Catholic Charities were manning warming stations throughout a stressful night for people living on the streets.

AKBA177962_AA4E_41DA_B8AD_A6C470862909I am grateful this Thanksgiving to work with folks who welcome people experiencing homelessness with a tremendous but matter-of-fact generosity. They offer a reprieve from fear, a look in the eyes that conveys respect, inquisitiveness that says each person is interesting and unique.

They help them find homes and employment, help their kids get into schools. They help write resumes and coach them in interviewing skills, even provide nice clothes for job interviews. They feed them and provide beds.

They set aside parking lots where families who live in their cars can feel safe at night.

Some of the people who come to Catholic Charities have criminal records.

So do I.

Some of them suffer from mental illnesses.

So do I.

Some of them are addicts.

So am I.

Some of them are unemployed.

I’ve been there.

Many of them are fleeing domestic violence.

You and I know someone who has, too. I promise.

An exhaustive 2011 government study found that nearly one in five women reported they had been raped or experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four said they had been beaten. One in six said they have been stalked.

If you are reading this, you know an addict or alcoholic. You know someone who is mentally ill. You know an unemployed person.

The face of homelessness may not be so different from you or your neighbors. Imagine losing three months salary, losing your insurance, going off your anti-depressants, your Lasix, your Lipitor, your benzodiazepines.  Imagine missing one rent payment?

On this day when we are supposed to celebrate gratitude, be glad for those people you know. They have you. Be glad for yourself. Be thankful for support. Be thankful for a family, for friends. For ties that bind and break falls. For patient people who will not betray your trust and will tolerate you at your worst. Be grateful that you have not fallen so far that you have destroyed all of those ties.

One of the first questions asked when a family enters our shelter is what support system they have. A majority of them have no one. The sound of those words in the air is so icy it burns my eyes.

No one.

There is a sign hanging in an 12-step meeting I attend that says “Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness.”

Isolation can be fatal.

After two weeks in jail following a DUI, I was a shaking, terrified mess. All I thought I had going for me was a sobriety chip in my pocket. I walked out of the Buchanan Country Jail into my brother’s embrace. In the car I wondered what I would have done  if he hadn’t been there. The answer was as clear as the fresh air through the open window. I would have broken my probation and walked into a bar.

Someone or No one.

That is a life and death difference.

I don’t like the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It seems to say that God chose me over someone else. It’s more accurate to say, “There but for the grace of my brother go I.” “There but for the grace of a loving wife and beautiful children go I.”

I’ve seen people with 420 friends on Facebook decry “their” money going to lazy people who don’t want to work for a living.  Drug addicts. Welfare queens.  Drains on society. These are tough times for everyone and I chalk those statements up to fear and the spread of misleading information. There is a misconception that people are gaming the system or that less-deserving people are receiving homeless benefits at the expense of veterans.  It’s not either or. In fact, Congress recently voted down a benefits package for homeless veterans because there is a surplus  of benefits from last year. They will look at it again on the next budget.

Veterans

The people living this dangerous life are in it together. The veterans, much like when they were serving active duty, do not concern themselves with the politics of their situation. They are surviving– head injuries, PTSD, poverty and loneliness.

In fact, there has been great progress on this front.

Since a 2009 Obama Administration initiative to end veteran homelessness, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by more than 33 percent. The state of Virginia announced last week that it is the first state to meet the federal definition of effectively ending homelessness among veterans.

Tax dollars well spent

Research shows that for chronically homeless individuals, stable housing is essential to recovery. The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is permanent housing coupled with supportive services that provide for rent subsidies,  rehabilitation, therapy, and improved health.

These services are cost-effective. Chronically homeless individuals living in permanent housing are far less likely to draw on expensive public services. They are also less likely to end up in homeless shelters, emergency rooms, or jails, none of which are effective  interventions for chronic homelessness. The costs to local, state and federal agencies is reduced.

A public program in Seattle found that it saved nearly $30,000 per tenant per year in publicly-funded services, all while achieving improved self-reliance and health for their clients.

Targeted prevention policies are equally important, connecting with people who are  at risk of becoming homeless, such those exiting prisons or psychiatric facilities, before they have the chance to become homeless.

Chronic homelessness

People who are chronically  homeless are often the public face of homelessness. It is a common misconception that this group represents the majority of the homeless population. Rather, they account for less than 15 percent of the entire population on a given day.

Fortunately, there has been significant progress to address chronic homelessness in the last decade. The number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has declined by 21 percent since 2010.

Families

A substantial number of people experiencing homelessness are in families.

  • In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
  • Of that number, 216,197 are people in families,  about 37 percent of the homeless population, and
  • 362,163 are individuals.
  • About 9 percent of homeless people– 49,933 — are veterans.

Homeless families are similar to other poor families. They typically become homeless because of an unforeseen event– a medical emergency, a car accident, a death in the family — that prevents them from being able to hold on to housing.

Most homeless families are able to bounce back  quickly, with relatively little public assistance. Usually, homeless families require rent assistance, housing placement services, job assistance, and other short-term, one-time services before returning to independence and stability.

It is estimated that there are approximately half a million unaccompanied youth in the U.S. They often become homeless due to family conflict, including divorce, neglect, or abuse. Most experience short-term homelessness, before returning to friends or family.

They provide special challenges because they are often not eligible for services used for homelessness intervention. For example, they cannot sign a lease.

There has been a rising focus on LGBT youth experiencing homelessness who have specific needs and are at heightened risk of harm compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

Fleeing violence

Domestic violence is prevalent among women experiencing homelessness. One study in Massachusetts found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives, 63 percent had been victims of violence by an intimate partner, and 32 percent had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner.

A strong investment in affordable housing is crucial to this population, so that the family or woman is able to leave the shelter system as quickly as possible without returning to the abuser.

Health

Poor health is a major cause of homelessness, and homelessness creates new health problems and exacerbates existing ones. Living on the street or in crowded homeless shelters is  stressful and made worse by being exposed to communicable disease, violence, malnutrition, and harmful weather exposure.

Common health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma become worse because there is no safe place to store medications or syringes properly. Maintaining a healthy diet is difficult. Behavioral health issues often develop or are made worse. Injuries do not heal properly because bathing, keeping bandages clean, and getting proper rest and recuperation isn’t possible. Minor issues such as cuts or common colds easily develop into large problems such as infections or pneumonia.

High stress, unhealthy and dangerous environments, and an inability to eat properly  worsen overall health and result in visits to emergency rooms and hospitals. Thus, it is not surprising that those experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than their housed counterparts, and experience an average life expectancy as low as 41 years.

Currently there is talk in Santa Rosa, Calif., about how to provide hospice services to people on the street who are dying. The problem: hospice comes to homes.

Out in the cold

The first words that come to mind to describe the experience of homelessness are not lazy or weak, but rather, frightening, exhausting, overwhelming, lonely, deadly.

I have hit the bottom of addiction, stared into the abyss of a full-blown bi-polar break, heard the click of handcuffs and the clang of a jail cell door. They were all frightening. One difference, I didn’t go through any of these experiences without a home to return to.

I didn’t go through any of them with No One. That would have taken another level of courage.

I have never had to hide my children from the threat of violence.

I have never sat on a bucket all night in a grocery store parking lot to watch over my  family sleeping in a car.

I have never truly feared a weather report.

Last night when I picked up the laptop to begin writing this, I threw on an extra sweatshirt because I get cold easy. I didn’t turn up the thermostat because our bill was too high last month.

This morning, as the sun relieves another Code Blue,  I am grateful that I am able to write that sentence.

 

 

For a moment her universe is aligned

Her concerns are those of any mother. As a single parent she is both mom and dad to her teenage son. She tries a little too hard to be the good mom, but there is nothing contrived about the way she looks at him. He is the center of her universe.

32903a9a98473841d90c6140d829b59eThey are going out to eat, a weekly tradition she insists upon. “This way, I hope he’ll at least talk to me once a week,” she says with a nervous laugh, tinged with guilt.

I smile at her devotion. She introduces me to her son. He is named after a Hall-of-Fame shortstop I grew up cheering for. I laugh, and say, cool name. “Oh, yeah,” she says, “I’m a huge baseball fan!” Suddenly, the ball cap she wears everywhere makes sense.

“This is the guy I told you about,” she tells her son.

Without looking up, he says, “You didn’t tell me about him.” Her eyes dart back and forth, she smiles at me.

“Yes I did,” she insists patiently. “You might want to play basketball with him or just hang out together instead of hanging out with me all the time.” She’s eager for a male influence in his life.

“No you didn’t,” he grunts. He’s no different from my son. One of the favored pastimes of teenage boys is trying to make adults look foolish. She and I make eye contact. I wink.
A quick change of strategy. She points at the deck of cards in his hands and brags, “He’s a magician!”

I ask him what his specialty is. Despite himself, he warms to the conversation. Mom knows what she’s doing. He looks me in the eyes and tells me card tricks are what he does best but he’s branching out. We talk for a while as Mom stands by beaming, thrilled to see him opening up. This could bode well for dinner conversation.

After a quick chat, I tell him it was very nice to meet him and we walk out of the lobby of the shelter. Behind us, the volunteer answers the phone, “Catholic Charities.”

Mom and son walk away toward the restaurants of downtown Santa Rosa. He’s still talking about his cards. A hush of cool on the breeze promises the evening will be forgiving.

She looks back once more and waves, then looks at her son, secretly thrilled that she insisted on their evening together. Standing in the lengthening shadows I notice that her nervousness is gone. She is comfortable and confident.

In this moment there is no worry, no fear. They are at home. Not homeless.

Love is thicker than blood

Editor’s Note: I’ve started a new job at a family homeless shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif., so I haven’t posted in awhile. But this week, I’m proud to post a blog from a guest writer, my daughter, Annie Madden, on a related topic: authentic family.

Family is not always blood. Sometimes the most important person can be someone who happens to walk into your life at the right time. They can be friends, step-family or even a pet. There are endless ways to describe this six letter word that blood relatives IMG_3291sometimes take for granted. A true family member is someone you can be depend on during the highest and lowest times of life. They love unconditionally and pass no judgement. Their presence is a source of joy and an effortless example of humility to the people they love. These are the attributes of my step-mother, JJ Madden.

I may not call her mom, but JJ, or Jeryl as I call her to her chagrin,  is the most passionate and loving mother to enter my life. When she married my father it was not always rainbows and butterflies. The divorce was fresh and she was lucky to get a hello from me. JJ respected my pain and never pressed. However, as time passed, my relationship with my biological mother crumbled at my fingertips, and JJ was there to pick up the pieces. I do not remember exactly when the epiphany happened, when I  decided to love this blonde, strong-spoken woman, but I will always be grateful that I did.  She  is in my life now and it feels perfect.

She loves cats, surfing, Johnny Was clothing, my father, my siblings, her children, her home, Volkswagen buses, cooking, lying in bed with Netflix, and saving the ocean. Those are only a few things, yet as I name them I realize we have a great deal in common. Although, our main similarity is that we both think I am hilarious.

My greatest joy is making Jeryl smile.

JJ is my family, forever. She is my mom. She is my best friend. She is my rock to lean on. I don’t think I would be the person I am without her. She has taught me to humble myself, to share my feelings, and to be passionate about everything I do. She has shown me that I am beautiful just as I am, and that I can make magic happen. I have only known JJ for five years, but sometimes I wish I had known her when I was a small child. Or I wish I had warmed to her sooner and not been so stand-offish when she married my dad. But JJ tells me not to waste time on such thoughts.

We weren’t ready, she tells me. We came together right on time.

My ‘identical’ twins

When my twins Joe and Annie were younger, people would ask if they were identical. I responded, incredulously, “No, one of them has a penis.”

Annie was wrestled into the world. Stuck midway through a cesarean section, she breathed enough fluid into her lungs to be whisked away to intensive care. Joe stayed behind until the drama had passed and entered without incident. His cries were immediate and perfunctory. Down the hall, Annie, jerked away from the syringe in her throat, and screamed like a heavy metal singer, furious that she didn’t know obscenities yet.

Their personalities somehow took root in that sterile maternity ward.1472032_954293744585379_9042237155128976525_n Annie and Joe are 18. In the past few weeks they graduated from separate high schools in Missouri and California. I don’t get asked if they’re identical much anymore.

Imperturbable and private, Joe is quietly devoted to what is important to him — whether it be his dreams or the people he cares about. His wit is so dry one can miss it if not paying attention. He once woke me with an early morning phone call to tell me, “Bon Jovi has a new album out,” knowing I despise Bon Jovi.

Few have ever plumbed the emotions beneath Joe’s protective shell. He has mastered the sideways, one-armed hug and the barely perceptible response to “I love you.” He holds his tongue, but Joe does not suffer fools easily and he finds them in the majority.  He is tireless in his efforts to improve as an athlete. Always the first to practice and the last to leave, he rises at dawn to lift weights, and races the sunset to get in a few more lonely minutes on the soccer field. Joe is famished for books and eager to explore whatever he can touch, taste, smell, hear, see or breathe. Secretly subversive, he once answered “Jesus” to every question on a religion test because he had been told that Jesus is the answer. His senior class voted him “Most Friendly.” Joe’s loyalty is a river that flows with friends made in elementary school. He is polite to everyone and authority figures call him an impressive young man.

10953185_998949013453185_4412459498509844893_nAnnie, my ivory-skinned, blonde-haired daughter, bursts into a room and bellows, “I am a strong, independent black woman!” Where her brother finds conflict impractical, Annie seeks it out as a matter of principal. She throws punches at all injustice — real or perceived — from “You messed with my friend!” down to “You ate the last avocado!” Politeness is reserved only for those who deserve it. If Annie likes you, she is in love and will battle for you as fiercely as a honey badger. If she doesn’t, her shoulder is as cold as sleet on a lonely highway. Unlike her brother, Annie thinks books are boring and snarls, “I don’t have an imagination.” But she is wrong. Her humor is that of an improv comedian, and her photography of friends, beach and sun is touching. Annie is angry, sad and joyous, and she doesn’t wrap it inside. Like good rock and roll, it is tantalizingly near to spinning out of control. As for those authority figures that gush over her brother, some admire her fire and humor but many don’t like her bad attitude. Annie’s response: It’s not a bad attitude, it’s my personality.

Raising twins is an adventure, but not in the cliché way: chasing toddlers, changing two sets of diapers, quieting two voices of colic, disciplining two kids.

It has been an adventure of discovery and respect and understanding. Parents, especially fathers who don’t have the bond of motherhood, must pay attention, learn explicitly who their children are. A counselor friend once told me that we must give as much attention to detail when we are praising our children as we do when we are disciplining them. I shouldn’t stop at telling  my daughter she drew a pretty picture of a horse. I should tell her exactly why. I like the the purple mane, and  her choice of a polka dot tail is dead on. I’m sure her senior art teacher was very impressed.

I have two middle kids, the stereotypical lost children. Joe was always too easy. He seldom drew attention to himself.  I call it “flying under the radar.” In a family of four kids born in a period of three and a half years, he was often lost in the chaos. Annie, well, she was the chaos. She demanded to be the center of attention, and her anger could be exhausting.

When their mom and I let our children down, first me, hitting bottom with alcoholism, then two years later when we11080870_805448552837677_3560485897729465283_o filed for divorce, the twins updated their personalities, same software, improved virus protection. Annie’s anger scattered like a hair-trigger shotgun, indiscriminate and unpredictable. She found the obscenities she sought in the maternity ward. Joe grew quieter and smiled cautiously. As far as he was concerned, nothing had happened worth talking about.

My twins have taught me that raising children requires the attention to detail of a dermatologist. Each personality is blessed and cursed by nuances and blemishes that it is my occupation to notice. I stumbled and misread Annie and Joe, but eventually learned patience and faith.

I repeated to myself time and again in the jet wash of Annie’s anger and disquieting still of Joe’s withdrawal that my children loved me no matter what. Annie refused to come to my house and there were times when she would rage for entire days. As difficult as it was when custody was being squabbled about, I never pushed her to come see me. I knew she had a right to be angry. To this day Annie has a temper, and the secret to our relationship is knowing not to draw my line in the sand too soon, but not to wait too long. It is precarious business.

Joe’s protective shell was perhaps more confusing. Early on I tried coax him to talk only to be met by a stiff arm that Marshawn Lynch would envy. Joe stared at me, smiled tightly, stared at me some more, then said, “No.”

Three years ago, I was suddenly let go from my job at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., without explanation. Without references or much severance, I scrambled and failed to find a job. I moved to to California to be with my wife after two years of long-distance marriage. Annie came with me, plopping down in a large new high school. She has thrived as a California girl. Our relationship, though still volatile at times, has blossomed in this adventure. Joe calls me almost every day to talk, or sometimes we simply sit in silence on the phone, finding comfort in one another’s presence. Once in a while he calls to update me on Bon Jovi. He will move here next month to attend Santa Rosa Junior College with his sister, where he will play soccer.

There is paradox in Annie and Joe. They often come to the same place in life, but they take very different roads. Neither takes the experiences of life lightly. Joe was in the car with me on the day I was arrested for the DUI that led me to embrace sobriety. He was 11. In his stoic way he learned from the terrifying moment. He asked questions, he learned about drug and alcohol abuse. I tell my children that fear of following my path is not a good enough reason to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Their decisions should be for more proactive and positive reasons. Joe listened. He decided to take care of his body. He chose to abstain in order to pursue a soccer career, to be a good student.  As a result, this year his high school named him a “Drug Free Superstar.” Annie? Well, she will never eat pot brownies again.

In the end, Annie and Joe are not exactly opposites. They share some of the most important traits. Their affection for one another is high on that list.

Annie loves her brother for his unspoken loyalty to her. She admires his calm demeanor and quiet charisma. The way he finds the path of least resistance puzzles her, but would be a restful choice if she could sustain it. She bristles at the suggestion that she envies his single minded commitment to his goals. His ability to stand back and wait for life to come to him is admirable. But Joe’s cool waters are too still for her. Annie needs flotsam and jetsam, something to crash into. When there is stillness the scent of spray must hang in the air, letting her know that another wave is looming.

Joe loves that his sister still calls him Jofes, the name she used when they were toddlers. He finds joy in Annie’s showmanship, the way she walks through the world humming at its beauty and yelling at it’s ugly. There is a thrill in the way she speaks her mind.  But Joe wouldn’t know where to begin emulating her. He doesn’t find her very practical, and there is discomfort with the emotions that leap from Annie like a California wildfire. Joe is dry but not combustible.  Annie is exciting, but Joe doesn’t want to be that exciting.

Despite living 2,000 miles apart, Joe and Annie have never lost their connection.

I have never stopped paying attention.