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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A letter to my daughters — and my sons — about sexual assault

My beloved,

You are precious to me. My girls, you are vulnerable souls and fierce warriors. My boys, you are strong and protective, loyal and kind.

You are not however perfect. I would never place that burden on you. You are afraid, sometimes too concerned with the opinions of others, and you are prideful— you want to think you are unbreakable and invulnerable, that you got this life thing down.

photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

photo by Chip Smodevilla/Getty Images

These imperfections are part of what I love about you, but they are also dangerous vulnerabilities.

Men and women you know, friends, family members, have in the past two weeks cheered a national shaming of rape survivors. They shame for the same reason rapists rape, because they believe it gives them power.

They have blamed rape victims for the way they dress, for being drunk, for “putting themselves in a situation” to be raped. These people have even said they deserved it. I can’t convey to you how evil this is.

There is no “situation you put yourself in” that will ever make it ok for you to be harmed.

God, I hope you never have or ever will be sexually assaulted.

My daughters, I have given you practical advice. Don’t set your drink down. Be aware of your surroundings, never be alone with someone you don’t know and trust. Be alert to men plying you with alcohol and to their motives.

I have not suggest where to go if you need help, or stressed enough that you can trust my unconditional love, that there are people everywhere who will not judge you, or that you never have to be ashamed. You are beautiful spirits, the lights of my life. My hope is that you find people who light your life in the same way. It’s a father’s job to show his daughters what they deserve from a partner. I hope I have shown that you deserve respect, tenderness, love and safety.

My sons, I’m not sure I told you the most important thing.

Dont rape!

I don’t believe you would ever do anything so horrendous, but as I see people whom I thought I knew and loved joining the frenzy against survivors, I realize this is a more complicated command than you might think.

You may find yourself in a situation where a drunk girl seems compliant, it may even be your girlfriend—or wife—and suddenly what was black and white becomes gray. Or you may need to stand up and refuse to be a passive if unwilling accomplice to others.

You may have heard the expression, “No means no” as a standard for consent.

I call you to more.

“Yes means yes!”

That must be your code. An absolute, clear and uncoerced “Yes!”

But here is where it gets even trickier. You cannot stand by and watch other men do anything beneath your own code. Don’t turn your back on a woman in danger. Don’t let the repugnant stories and jokes about women go unchallenged, or tolerate the shaming  by shameless people.

It is often harder to stand up to your friends—and family— than your enemies.

But you must. Losing a friend or angering a family member is a small sacrifice for demanding respect for someone who could be your sister, your mother or step-mother, a cousin, friend or the love of your life. I have not been a perfect father. I have put you in harms away. I have been selfish. And most of your life I have not demonstrated the warmth and intimacy a man should show a woman. I have been given a second chance with your stepmother and I hope you are paying attention.

560DDB79-C7CC-4F33-B240-EDAFC2F7743FAround 35 years ago I was at a lake outside Maryville, Mo., I was 17, drunk, and staring in disbelief as a group of Northwest Missouri State University students tried to coerce an extremely inebriated girl into a “train,” a word that is supposed to make gang rape sound like it isn’t gang rape. I recall waiting for the right moment to step in and say stop, but the girl wasn’t giving in and I was scared. I like to believe I would have done the right thing.  But it was a long time ago. I’m not sure.

Make no mistake, if I did not ultimately  step in and stop them, I would have been party to rape.  The responsibility for that would not go away because “it was a long time ago” as we constantly hear from rape apologists. It would be a permanent blight on my character.

I was rescued from potential cowardice by a young lady, the girl’s friend, who waded into the pack of drooling men, and yelled, “Leave her the fuck alone!”

She gently spoke to her friend, helped her off the ground and took her away.

The circle of  men, and I use that only in the biological sense, flung up their arms and stomped away like petulant boys.

My dear sons, don’t lose your moral compass in  a moment that could devastate a woman’s life and define yours. Train each day by choosing to respect every woman you encounter. Make amends when you falter.

My dear daughters, surround yourselves with friends like that young lady at the lake—both male and female—who won’t hesitate like I did to wade in and protect you.

Please pay attention right now to what is happening in our country. Women, rape survivors, with the same decency and resilience I see in you, are rising up, casting off shame for the armor of purpose, righteousness, and power. Become swept up in this wave.

People who ignore and scoff at them,  who don’t listen and believe them, people who shame them,  do so at their peril.

I love you.

Dad

RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE

https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline

The hotline offers:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

Also visit the Website of Planned Parenthood

https://www.plannedparenthood.org

My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Anne Lomott: What to make of God

Let’s settle this God thing once and for all.lamott_rect-620x412

God, or no God?

Who on earth knows?

Any proof, either way?

None, except for Bach, foxes, forgiveness, elephants, bulbs and my dog Lily, may she rest in peace. Also, the fact that someone like me could have 28 years without alcohol or the non-habit-forming marijuana I smoked on a daily basis for 15 years. Also, ripe peaches, books, and Mr. Rogers.

There is Infinite good and beauty and heroism and artistic genius everywhere we look. Is this proof of God?

No, because there is also infinite evil and madness. I am not going to name names.

What do we even mean when we use the word “God?”

For the sake of argument, let’s say we mean a Higher Power–a power greater than our thinky thoughts, good ideas, grudges, positions and opinions: a divine Mind, a benevolent intelligence of some sort, some kind of bankable Love energy. Something that hears us and cares, when we cry out in our pain and mortification. I also like the Deteriorata’s definition of God as the Cosmic Muffin.

But what if the most illustrious atheists and agnostics hear that we actually believe this?

It’s none of your business what they think. To plagiarize from my book, it is like worrying about some guy wandering around the Mojave in a wet suit, reciting the poetry of Edgar A. Guest. People get to think and believe what they think and believe. You will never change them, or they us. Surrender: lay your weapons down. Let me make you a nice cup of tea.

What if they say you are ignorant, and a danger, in public?

It would have nothing to do with you. Maybe they are having trouble at work, or a spastic colon.

So do you actually believe that the soul is eternal? That death is just the end of dying, not of life?

Yes. Also, that there is a dessert section in heaven, and that it in fact makes up most of heaven, except for the ponds, and gift shop.

But we still die, correct?

Of course, and the question we ask ourselves, is, How do we live in the face of that? How alive are we willing to be? Why do we keep hitting the snooze button? What will it take for us to stop squandering our time?

Well? What’s the answer? What does it take to get serious about this life we’ve been given, even if we don’t know if God gave it to us, or chance?

Usually either a terminal illness or a DUI.

Is it legal to believe in evolution and all aspects of modern physics, yet also believe in a personal god, a Beloved, a sacred dimension to our lives?

Yes, in some states.

I shared this without consent of Ms. Lomotte, but she’s a really cool woman so I hope she won’t mind. And it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Old country roads are magic to me

I walked 14 miles of silent back road Sunday

I didn’t intend to walk that far but the horizon kept whispering, further

I’ve always been drawn to country roads

As a teenagers, we drove the graveled web that stitched together farmhouses sprinkled over hollers, hills and river bottoms where I grew up

Either in my best friend’s Old’s 88 or my totaled out Buick with a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t laugh, Mister, your daughter might be in here.”046f6434d5883fff01f30e8fad5dc98d

Rickety plank bridges from times when pickups were slower and smaller

We ran them big and fast with a thunk that probably should have scared us, but we had no regard for safety, dry rot, or poor aim

At each crossroad, for fun we flipped a coin, leaving it to heads, the devil and lukewarm beer how lost we could get

So many corn, soybean and hay fields they came to be something I barely noticed but would later miss

My friends argued over whether John Deere or International made a better tractor; some outlier always made a case for Case

As a town kid I had no opinion other than that I liked the color red

In later years, in more pensive moments, I headed back home

Turned off the blacktop, appreciating nostalgic detail

Cicadas screeching, heat heavy like damp cheese cloth and manic June bugs bouncing around off their meds

I turned off the headlights, drove by moonlight, glancing at the cooler of beer in the back seat

Gravel popped under my tires as I rolled to a stop. The night was silent as a falling star.

Backing off the road, snug against a farmer’s gate cinched shut with rusty wire

The smell of rain in the air, the most beautiful scent in the world

Slipping in the Patsy Cline CD that I’d saved for this moment

Patsy’s song make me long to feel everything, love, loss, the heat of a sweltering honky tonk, loneliness in the middle of the night

Patsy and Hank Williams and scratchy old songs are what truly make country roads magic to me

I imagine people listening to them on dates when those old records were new

When pickups were slower and old bridges were sturdy

When they poured beer from buckets

And country roads were just called roads

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

The Poverty of Paul Ryan

Does Paul Ryan weep
Has he ever been brought to tears by poetry
Or felt his soul lifted by music
That wasn’t played in a weight roomRyan-Looks-Down-on-Trump-SAUL-LOEB-AFPGetty-Images-640x480
Has Paul Ryan every belly-laughed
When the joke was about him
Has Paul Ryan ever grieved for someone
Who he didn’t know
For someone in a distant land
Or a distant tax bracket
Has Paul Ryan felt doubt
Or remorse, guilt or despair
Has Paul Ryan ever prayed for wisdom
Or changed his mind
Has Paul Ryan ever surrendered
And felt the freedom of acceptance
Has Paul Ryan ever suffered with another person
Felt pain as keen as his own
Has he ever made amends
Has Paul Ryan ever sat alone in a room–in silence
And listened for the voice of God
Has Paul Ryan ever wondered if winning
Is worth his soul

 

 

 

An open letter to my friends who support Trump: Don’t be sure you know my mind

I don’t believe you are a bigot.

We have been friends for too long. If you think that I suddenly have condensed you — our history, our experiences, the memories we have made, the struggles we have overcome together–to a crude stereotype, than you never really knew me.

But you voted for a bigot. And that scares me.

You say you are insulted by my words. You are angered that I don’t accept the election and move on. You call me a sore loser. Most disturbing, you say I am personally attacking you. fear-615989_640-1When I post articles from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post recounting a tidal wave of hate and violence unleashed since long before the election– in the name of the man you voted for–I am sharing facts. Facts that are terrifying. When I join the cacophony decrying Trump for appointing  people  with direct ties to white nationalists to his cabinet it should be predictable to anyone who knows me. We have been friends for a long time. Politics, religion, guns; they didn’t tear us apart. But was I ever quiet about any of those issues?

Are you really surprised that I am screaming into all four winds about what is happening now?

What are you for?

I don’t believe you are a bigot. But you must take ownership for one.

Throughout this election I have not heard you say one word of criticism against your candidate’s bigotry. When he called Mexicans rapist — silence. When he called prisoners of war, veterans you claim to revere, losers for getting captured– silence. When he called for a registry for Muslims — silence. When he declared that he will turn back the hard-won rights of my LGBTQ friends — silence. When he called women, like my wife and daughters, pigs, or bragged about grabbing their genitals.

Silence.

What are you for, what do you favor? You are against Hilary, immigrants, Muslims, Obamacare, ISIS… You want change, but that isn’t very specific. I haven’t heard a specific policy–a policy with detail. A wall, deporting 11 million people, bringing back jobs, putting Hillary in jail. Those are slogans not policies. Don’t be offended. Most Americans prefer to be against things. It makes for better rallies and Facebook comments sections.

For the past eight years I have heard terrible things said about President Obama, who I voted for. I considered it rude and disrespectful for Republicans to heckle him during a State of the Union Address. I thought it was ridiculous to say he wasn’t a legitimate president, especially after winning reelection. I have seen you post images of him on toilet paper and in borderline racist images. But never did I take it as a personal insult. My feelings weren’t hurt. The president’s a big boy. He can handle himself, and he has. So your posts and comments didn’t damage our friendship.

Lest you think I am homer, I saw the guy I voted for with clear eyes. I criticized President Obama for his lack of transparency and the way he neutered the White House press corps. I believe Obamacare was a flawed program that needed to be reformed. I sometimes criticized his use of drones and his failures in negotiating with the obstructionist Republicans at the beginning of his administration. I think his administration’s failure to prosecute a single executive responsible for the crash of the economy was very disappointing. I didn’t like Hilary’s insistence on no-fly zones in Syria. She’s too much of a hawk for me. Though the emails were overblown, she could have handled the issue much less clumsily from the beginning. And I think she took the working class for granted.

It is personal

Will you call out Trump’s hate-mongering, or am I wrong about your true heart.

I am giving you the benefit of doubt. I don’t believe you think I should have been punished when Obamacare literally saved my wife and I from homelessness. And you aren’t the person at a gas station who called my friend a Mexican bitch and told her to get the fuck out of the country. You are probably horrified by that. You probably feel compassion for the children I know who are terrified that their parents are going to be taken away in the night. You would probably ache for the the man I met living in his car with a family of six. He faces the heartbreaking dilemma every morning at 3:00 of kicking his wife and kids out of the car so he can drive to work to support them. I imagine you care about these people.

Or maybe not.

The man you voted for doesn’t. Please speak out. Say you disagree with him.

I’m not optimistic. All evidence says we’re in a time when winning trumps compassion, decency, even ones own best interest.

Maybe we’ll never agree on guns, on women’s rights, that most people experiencing homelessness and poverty are working hard to improve their lives. Maybe we’ll never agree that work is a privilege or that healthcare is a right. Maybe we’ll never agree that government programs are helping people everywhere from the mentally ill and addicted to poor families to farmers. But if you win, that’s too sweet for you to critize the Uber wealthy and corporations, whose “welfare”has drained the blood of the middle class. But for me to have any hope, I have to believe that my friends and I agree on human decency.

When you attack who I vote for, when you call Hilary a criminal or a bitch. When you call Obama a Kenyan, the worst president ever, or when you can’t talk about minority’s without a hint of racial stereotype hanging in the air, I do not take it as a personal insult—even I feel I need a shower.

Do not expect me to stop attacking this man you have put in office. If you cannot separate yourself from the man, than I am worried about you.

It breaks my heart, but I’m worried about us.

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.

 

Tidings of Acceptance and Peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. He made his point while keeping long friendships with his Christian opponents. Granted, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no Menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it–no matter how much whiskey I drank– we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember. Our parents talked a lot about times gone by.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. We didn’t care much about what our parents did when they were young either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

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.

 

 

The Poetry of Damaged Wood

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”Chinese Proverb

When I lived in the Seattle suburbs it seemed that every wind brought a power outage. Young, fresh, evergreens toppled like stemware at a toddler’s birthday party.

Spoiled by soft living in saturated soil, the roots never reached deep enough to hold their ground.

6c5e5f09a999e8010bd1679d751970b7Replanted in clear-cuts, the emerald trees glowed in the dawn’s light off my back deck. They were certainly beautiful and they drove up property values, but there was something lacking –untested– in these feathery trees adorning housing developments.

The towering Douglas fir I saw on a hike high in the Cascades lacked their symmetrical grace.  It was bony and naked from where the shadows began up in the canopy down to where I stood on a cushion of dry needles. Its was pocked by beetles and blackened by memories of forest fires. Leaning eerily into the steep slope of the mountain, most of its branches jutted off to one side. It and sister trees grew out of a long, narrow ridge, the earthen remains of an ancient sequoia corpse, a “nurse log,” returning it’s nutrients to the next generation.

The suburban trees were likewise more sleek than the massive tulip poplar that stoically haunted my front yard in Missouri. A dark wound gaping from the massive trunk oozed bees. Late at night I imagined it home to demons.  One jagged branch careened over the neighbor’s house like an unfinished freeway off-ramp. Leprous bark crumbled in chunks.  It was a rough tree that had lived through rough times — tornadoes, droughts, ice storms, lightning strikes.

No one writes poetry about pretty suburban trees. Naked Douglas firs, scarred by forest fires, living off death, and homely tulip poplars possessed by demons, those are more romantic.

Today my wife and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, the wood anniversary. We live high on a hill where the wind always blows. There is nothing smooth or lush about either of us. Rather than topple, we lean into the wind – or more often into each other.

JJ is strong because she has been abused, scarred, burned – by relationships, circumstances, tragedy. Her face is creased by wind and sun and sorrow. Her eyes sparkle with a joy that only someone who has experienced despair can know.

JJ and I both are among the 51 percent of Americans whose first marriage ended in divorce.

We both came out of that experience damaged,  dried up, our trust eaten away. We lost friends. I lost family. Some might say we nearly lost everything.

I’m not sure if it matters which tree  is JJ and which tree I am. I’m from the Midwest so I guess I’ll be the Tulip Poplar, the battered tree with the bark falling off. I’m bi-polar so a few bees buzzing around inside is an apt metaphor. Wind and ice and drought and lightning out of nowhere have made me patient.  I know soft rain and warmth outnumber storms. Children eventually gather around, and one day the exact right person comes along to see beauty.

JJ is lovely like the fir high up on the mountain, straining for light. She is damaged by memories, secretly alone at times even in a crowd. She leans into life, sheltering everyone around her. Haunted as she is by it, she still finds nourishment and transformation in tragedy.

There are many discussion about the state of marriage in our country. The statistic above is quoted often. Social change is blamed for stealing the institution’s sanctity.

Today, none of that matters to me. Not today. Today  is about wood. It’s about miles of roots that hold true when wind and rain and lightning blast from all sides, roots that find sustenance and water when there’s none to be found. And bark toughened by time, elements and those who would do harm. And heart, soft but enduring.

It’s about broken branches and nakedness and dark places inside.

It’s about poetry.

Our marriage is not easy. Finances, unemployment, addiction, sickness, fear.

Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.

The problems have always been there. They will be tomorrow.

So will the trees.

 

 

 

 

The Hole

Man falls into a hole.

The walls are too steep, smooth and high to climb out. imagesH1HEWJDT

Soon a priest comes along and the man yells for help. The priest scribbles a prayer on a scrap of paper and drops it into the hole and goes on his way.

The next person to come along is a doctor. The man hollers from the darkness, “Can you please help me?” The physician writes a prescription and drops it in.

The next person to pass by the hole is the man’s friend. The sun is setting and the man is anxious. He cries for help.

The friend jumps into the hole.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” the man asks. “NOW WE’RE BOTH DOWN HERE!”

“Yes,” said his friend, “but I’ve been here before and I know the way out.”

 Author unknown

Surrender is my superpower

There’s a certain surrender to a criminal background check. Even if I know they won’t find any sexual offenses or violent crimes, I hold my breath when the woman takes my fingerprints. I guess that feeling will never go away.images (1).jpgsurr

The woman smiles and says, “That’s it.” I joke about the high-tech way they do it now days,  like a mini-copy machine. No ink to wipe off my finger tips. I smile slightly as I reach my car. It’s nice to go free this time, clean fingers and a clean conscience.

The late great comedian George Carlin said, “I get a nice safe feeling when I see a police car and I realize I’m not driving around with a trunk full of cocaine.” 

That’s sort of the way I feel these days. When I see a police car, I enjoy the way my heartbeat remains steady.  The DUI is too old to be a concern on background checks. No beer cans to hold below the line of sight, no bottles under my seat.

Six and a half years ago, I really had no choice but to surrender. The highway patrolmen, his face about three inches from mine, demanded, “How much have you had to drink, Sir!” I think he already knew the answer well enough for his purposes. When you’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup, you really don’t know how  to answer that one. I replied, “I don’t know.”

A few weeks later a group of people listened as I said those words in a different context.

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

It would take a while longer, but they nodded and smiled when I admitted “I don’t seem to know anything.”

I grew up in a culture of self-control. When I failed, I was told to work harder. My teachers, at every parent-teacher conference,  said I simply needed to apply myself. I tried and too often failed to “win” the pretty girl. My church told me to suppress my urges. I used to wonder if my good deeds would outweigh the impure thoughts and “self-abuse” when it came to the question of hell. When I developed “nervous tics” in junior high (not until my 30’s would I learn it was Tourette’s), a neurologist told me I was high-strung. Mind over matter. I could will myself to stop.

Surrender, quitting, giving in, was a sign of weakness.

I am not complaining. My childhood was like most. However, there are times in life when self-control, will power, hard work or mind over matter are not the answer.

For me it was drinking. I worked hard, didn’t show up late at the office. I didn’t even get hangovers. I told family and friends I could control it. I think people who are not alcoholics have a superpower. They might as well be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. They don’t have to say, “I can control it” anymore than they would insist that they can control themselves at a water fountain.

I could drink in moderation. Of course my idea of that was four drinks a night. I would stop at four each night until one night I didn’t.  I plowed on through to eight, or nine or maybe even 12. I gave it up for periods to show others that I could. Once I gave it up for Lent. It was pretty easy. But on Easter I embarrassed myself. I had willpower. Actually most alcoholics do. Problem was, for the stretches that I wasn’t drinking, all I could think about was that I wasn’t drinking.

I wrestled with this cunning, baffling chemical like Jacob and the angel. It’s been said that alcoholism is a low-level search for God. I believe that. Once in a while I would find that perfect buzz for a few precarious moments.  There was a longing in my drinking that felt sacred and traditional.

“If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction,” said author Ann Marlowe, “I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time…addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to users.”

Toward the end of my drinking, I feared I might have ruined a good thing. But I refused to give up. I knew when the time came I would be able to stop.

I grew up understanding surrender as weakness, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. However, nowhere in the dictionary definition is weakness mentioned.

Merriam-Webster: “to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed.”

Jonathan Franzen said, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”

The second definition: “to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.” Alcoholism is a lonely condition. For that matter many of life’s travails are. Rugged individualism is overrated.

An Alcoholic is often described as a person with a huge ego and a tiny self-esteem. The ego said I have this under control. The self esteem said I can’t go on without it. Surrender said, I’m defeated, please help.

Surrender is a great relief in a world that demands that we hold onto life tightly with both hands. Surrender gives us permission to let go. It says we don’t always have to win. Today I can surrender the last word in an argument. Surrender allows me to slow down and let the aggressive driver have his waysurrender on the road. Surrender gives me patience. Surrender provides the humility to make amends. Surrender is the wisdom to go through grief rather than around it. Surrender is falling in love.

Perhaps its greatest gift is the ability to acknowledge fears and failure without dwelling on them.

It’s OK to look at the past, but it’s not polite to stare.

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

Walt Whitman rejoices at the scientific spirit, “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

My background check hasn’t come back yet. There will be a six-year-old DUI on there which could cost me the job.

But on the bright side, I don’t have any cocaine in my trunk.

Insomnia: madness in the night

images.jpginI tell my daughter that nothing good happens after 2 a.m. But honestly that has more to do with drunk driving, pissing on dumpsters and predatory men. When I apply it to myself it is a manic insomnia that drags me to the cliffs of  Dante’s Inferno.

Brilliant ideas that inspire me at 3 a.m. would abruptly end a job interview the next morning. Escorting me out of his office, the interviewer, holding his breath, might roll his eyes and sarcastically mouth the word “Wow” to a nearby co-worker.

Has anyone else awakened suddenly from a deep sleep feeling suicidal, only to have the darkest of thoughts pass in moments? What the hell was that, I wonder.

Nighttime is the strangest of contradictions. There really is no time like it for listening to Patsy Cline music, preferably in a car sitting alone on a gravel road, her voice pulling emotion from deep in your bones.  Braving mosquitoes while lying in a pasture and watching a meteor shower may be one of the most beautiful experiences to be had.

Yet, as  D.D. Barant wrote, it is also a time for a bad case of the 3:00 am guilts –“you know, when you lie in bed awake and replay all those things you didn’t do right? Because, as we all know, nothing solves insomnia like a nice warm glass of regret, depression and self-loathing.”

Author Karen Russell notes that “It is a special kind of homelessness to be evicted from your dreams.”

And there is nothing quite so terror-inducing as the loss of sleep, says author Charlie Huston. “It creates phantoms and doubts, causes one to questions one’s own abilities and judgement, and, over time, dismantles, from within, the body.”

Cathie Linz, in her book Bad Girls Don’t, says when she can’t sleep she counts the buckles on her straightjacket.

For me, when I have toiled in a hated job, or gone for stretches of unemployment, insomnia was a welcome torture. Sleep was a time warp transporting me in a snap to an unwelcome morning. A sleepless night stretched the time until an ugly dawn when I commenced a stumbling cycle of exhaustion and bleariness.

Paradoxically, nighttime also offers brief moments, when some of my best ideas come to me. Alas, in my drowsiness, they are often forgotten by morning. It has been said that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Heyde came to Robert Louis Stevens in the depth of night. He scribbled the idea on a notepad at his bedside.

We are not insomniacs,  Leslie Dean Brown encourages, just nighttime philosophers.

 Whether philosophical, a font of good ideas or a setting for lilting country music, nighttime is not a good time to be awake. It is literally a path to madness. As a bipolar person, deep, long sleep is best way to prevent an episode of madness. Chronic insomnia causes depression, affects memory,  leads to weight gain, impairs judgment (especially about the need for sleep), raises blood pressure, causes cardiovascular disease, and even ages skin.

The most common solution is medical attention. Sleep clinics and psychiatric help can search for the cause and sometimes find answers. Meditation, more exercise and even sex can improve sleep. I don’t know who came up with idea of counting sheep, but those fucking things drive me crazy and the last thing I need in the middle of the night is math. Warm milk is kind of gross.  And they’re proving the whole tryptophan Insomnia_by_svghnsydn(turkey) thing is a myth. Don’t get me started on alcohol. I tried that one for years. I even won a writing award by writing an article after coming home from a bar in the middle of the night drunk and then editing it the next morning sober (the sober editing was KEY). But as a sleep aid you will fall asleep quickly and wake up later unrefreshed. And sleep doctors told me that I wasn’t getting the deep REM sleep I needed with recreational drugs and alcohol.

If one needs any more incentive, I’m sure I’m not the only one who typically wakes up at 3 a.m. Some believe this harkens back to our ancient ancestors who had to wake up early to avoid predators. I call shenanigans on this. I prefer the occult version. Tradition says that Jesus died at 3 p.m, so in mockery of his death, evil spirits are most active and more violent at 3 a.m. It is also supposed that 3 a.m. is the time that God is furthest from our realm. I can’t speak for my fellow insomniacs, but this is a time that I’m trying to find a way to sleep through. There are other demons in those wee hours. On TV I have watched Psycho IV (three sequels too many). I’ve seen an infomercial talk show with porn actors, hosted by Ron Jeremy. And I’ve kicked back on my couch groovin’ to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits. Pass the Trazodone, please.

What madness are these sleepless nights?

Even the words we use to describe the darkness bid a question, says award-winning author Margaret Atwood: “Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool Blanket.”

My wife always drifts off to sleep quickly. I wait a while holding her hand, and then slip out of  bed and walk to the living room with a blanket to protect me from the night’s chill.

Demons are waiting in the shadows.

Tidings of acceptance and peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. Agreed,  atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it, no matter how much whiskey I drank, we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. When we were young, we didn’t care what our parents did either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.