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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Monster who steals souls

basquiat 01Volunteers at sunrise lifted by the gift of giving

Laughter and stories of meaningful moments

Suddenly hushed by a lonely announcement

The Monster left a corpse in Starbucks

Another in the street near trash bins

Another and another and another emptied and discarded

The Monster came from the East, stalking the forgotten

As silent as a sleepless night

The volunteers recognize one they know among the lost

Whisked away in the brief release of freedom

Her jail cell held the monster at bay, but he waited

Patiently. Doing push-ups in the parking lot

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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

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.

 

 

 

A young man of joy: Every bit his father’s son

10847786_10202447971635249_8284351797113282319_nIt’s been a day since my cousin Brian found his son Jacob unresponsive on a bathroom floor.  I feel bleary, heavy, trying to grasp such sudden and gaping loss. My imagination won’t leave me alone, circling the way it happened.

Brian and I grew up together and I don’t remember ever seeing him sad. His laugh bounced around and exploded like a sneeze. I remember once Brian was helping me move and he peppered my brother and me with dirty jokes in the cab of the Ryder truck. Brian’s jokes were terrible, but  his giddy laugh incapacitated us. To say it was infectious is like saying a tornado is breezy.  I couldn’t see the road and my stomach cramped. More than once I slowed down, considered pulling to the shoulder until I could sit up and see straight.

This weekend, at the moment of Brian’s greatest heartbreak, I imagine my cousin’s capacity for joy in all-consuming contrast, turned upon himself in bottomless sorrow and roaring despair.

10556354_10154943450570722_6181797544446628608_nJacob was his father’s son. Almost every testimony on social media recalls his infectious laugh and irreverent humor, his knack for sensing when people needed kindness, a talent for making everyone around him feel good, all gifts of his nursing parents.

My experiences with Jacob were originally on the soccer field, where he and my son, the other Jacob Madden, formed an aggressive and intimidating defense at LeBlond High School. Due to his physical play, I recall Jacob among the league leaders in Yellow Card warnings, each of which he accepted with a smirk. Jacob played with a grinning  recklessness and devil-may-care style that was true to his personality. Jacob and I shared some of the same struggles over the years. I kept tabs from a distance, pulling for him and quietly celebrating his successes. Like others with these struggles, he was filled with passions and a desire to take care of others. He likely surprised those around him with sudden expressions of concern or encouragement.

Jacob was his father’s son.

Brian has always felt deeply, laughed with all his heart, and carried an infectious joy to those around him.  I hear over and over with pride that he is among the best nurses, filled with compassion and tenderness — and always laughter.  I remember in a junior varsity basketball game, Brian’s coach assigned him to guard me. As I brought the ball up court I heard the familiar giggle. I fell apart laughing. My coach yanked me and yelled, “What the hell’s your problem!” All I could say was, “That’s my cousin.”

Now, in his own words, Brian’s heart is broken. All the glory of his infectious laugh and famed compassion is now sorrow so deep that one wonders if he can stand and hold the pieces of his heart together.

It is time for Brian — and for that matter Julie, Jacob’s mother, his sister Nicole, his grandmother Connie, and his Aunts Linda, Beth, Debra, and Michelle– to recognize that suffering is every bit as infectious as laughter. As hard as I laughed in the cab of that truck that day, or on that basketball court, that’s exactly how hard I hurt for my cousin. As incapacitated as Brian’s laugh left me, so it is with his grief. The reach of Brian’s heart was just the beginning.

Jacob was his father’s son.

Ladies and gentlemen, the amazing and still undefeated Edna Schafer

“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. 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.”
Khalil Gibran

Edna Schafer didn’t so much battle cancer. She proved that love and joy outshine it.

My Aunt Edna, who died last week, had known much pain and grief in her 76 years of life. The mother of seven  children, she and husband, Bob, a rough-talking farmer, earned reverence in the eyes of their family and neighbors for their hard work, integrity and kindness.   As years passed respect has only grown for a family and its country matriarch who have endured unimaginable grief with grace and acceptance.

“Life is suffering” — The First Noble Truth, The Buddha

I doubt that Aunt Edna ever read the teachings of the Buddha, but she instinctively understood this truth. The Buddha wanted his followers to understand that the moment is all we have. To worry about future suffering or past regrets was of no use. Edna knew suffering, but she seemed to know that it was out of her control. As Catholic writer Henry Nouwen wrote: “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

10616522_559580804168395_7308452202808705634_nWhen cancer was discovered in Edna ‘s bladder four years ago, few doubted that this indestructible woman would beat it. A year later doctors removed her kidney. Posts on a Facebook page called “Edna’s Posse” remained as optimistic as  ever. In the middle of chemotherapy treatments Edna suffered a heart attack. She joked about her bad luck and was always the first one to laugh.

She never wavered from hospitality. Edna nurtured her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She seemed ageless as doctors injected needles of chemotherapy and constantly checked her blood. When she underwent triple bypass surgery she found it more ironic than crushing. Even in the hardest of times guests to her house were offered cookies, ice cream or a big spread of home cooking.

A favorite memory of nieces and nephews was wrapping up in blankets and sleeping bags for overnights on the living room floor of the big old farmhouse straight out of rural mythology. If we weren’t all old now we’d still be camping out at Edna’s.

One of the first times I ever got drunk, my cousins brought me back to pass out on the Schafer fold-out couch. I feared disapproval the next day at lunch, but only got the infectious  laugh from my aunt. She ribbed me later at family reunions for refusing her fresh strawberries that day as I struggled through a strawberry schnapps hangover.

The Schafer family’s suffering was like a chapter from the Book of Job. When doctors discovered a tumor on the trachea of Bob and Edna’s youngest daughter Anita, a kindergartener at the time, she was given 6 to 9 months to live. She lived eight years symptom free.  In 1981, Anita would be unexpectedly diagnosed with brain tumors.  She would spend much of the next year and a half in hospitals as doctors tried to save her. The countryside wept with the Schafers when Anita died two days before her 14th birthday.

A few years  later, the family suddenly lost Bob in the fall to a blood clot following back surgery. He was a strapping 58.  A community again grieved with a devastated family as they gathered to help the Schafer’s bring in the crops. Only a year later doctors discovered that Edna’s oldest son, Mike, had a brain tumor. Despite aggressive treatment, he died a year and a half later at age 33, leaving behind a wife and young daughter

Author Anthon St. Maarten wrote: “If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day.”

945916_10151565539863801_1084158088_n

The Schafer family gathered around their mom, front and center.

There were whispers that this family seemed cursed when in fact they were blessed. Rather than break apart in the shadow of grief, they gathered around their mother and thrived. Laughter was a constant in a family of good humor. Affection was sown in a family that knew great loss. My brother and I often noted that the Schafers always had the  best turnout at family reunions.

Rather than feeling forsaken, Edna never missed Sunday Mass. She not only refused to judge, but loved those who chose another path, including those in her family.  She seemed puzzled by anger or people who held grudges. She knew that sudden loss and sudden joy could come upon us at any moment. When my aunt died I remembered the words of Khalil Gibran: “Some of you say ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Of course there were lines of sorrow in Aunt Edna’s face. But they were inseparable from the lines of laughter.

Eventually the cancer spread to Edna’s liver, lymph nodes and abdominal wall. Weakened in the last year of life, she still traveled with her daughter Lori to Maine. Then in August she made the long journey to Idaho to see her granddaughter  married.

“I think that’s what she was living for,” her daughter Sharon said. “At the wedding dance we kept asking if she was tired, if she wanted to go home, but she stayed until the last dog was dead.”

Two weeks later, doctors said they had exhausted all treatment options. Edna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, we gotta do what we gotta do.”

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Edna returned home. Hospice came to keep her comfortable in her final days. But I believe a life well lived was her greatest comfort.

10672376_10202013823346420_4446256785970219818_n

Edna shares a laugh with her grandsons, Garrett (left) and Ethan.

“I think Mom knew she was going to die from the beginning, but she was protecting us,” Sharon said.

People were always drawn to Edna. Not for great words or great deeds, but rather for simple acts of kindness and her ability to find joy through trials that many feared would break them. She knitted scarfs, and eagerly gave them to her grandchildren or any children who came to visit. Every time  I talked with her, the first thing she said was, “Come see me.” On one of my  visits back to Missouri Edna opened her house to my children and me to spend a weekend together. She immediately became Aunt Edna to them as well.

In her final hours people filed through her house to say their goodbyes and more goodbyes were said in a crowded church at her funeral.

On the day of Edna’s funeral I saw a passage from The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg, that caught in my chest:

“There are random moments – tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms – when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead.”

Edna grieved deeply. Then scattered joy like seeds on rich soil.

She  taught those who knew her that life is suffering. But we are meant for joy.

It is our choice.

Conversations with Joe: The silence between the words

The silence might be awkward with anyone else.

My wife walks in the room and sees me holding a phone and not saying much.

She smiles and whispers,”Joe?” I nod with a grin.

Not a lot has happened since my mild-mannered 17-year-old son called yesterday, but he calls anyway. Sometimes he updates me on his beloved Barcelona soccer team and it’s star Lionel Messi. I even got a call  once to let me know that Messi’s wife had a baby. Joe  was already scheming for a  way that Barcelona could someday sign this golden child.

Joe always tell me the details of his own soccer games. We share his dreams of a future college career. Often Joe calls to let me know about a band he has discovered. We have similar taste in music. “You need to listen to them,” he says of his latest  discovery. “I will,” I reply. “No, right now!” he insists. I drag out my laptop and1186115_10201050169201717_948214773_n find a sample while he is anxiously asking my opinion. Then we sit in silence. I think we could drive all the way across the country to the sounds of  Nirvana, the Dirty Heads, Bob Marley and Tom Petty. Between each piece of news, Joe and I  often  sit in silence, waiting for inspiration to revive our conversation. I love the conversation, but I am equally comforted by the long silences. Since I moved the Bay Area two years ago, Joe has called me almost every day. Our sporadic conversations have the feel of a front porch in the evening. Even when we have nothing much to say, no one is of a mind to rush off.

I wistfully remember long drives when Joe was younger. Tuned into the local classic rock station, Joe would quiz me on the names of each band that came over the airwaves. I got most of them right and my young son looked at me like I was some sort of musical sorcerer. Before long, Joe was as adept as me, quickly barking Jimi Hendrix to the opening moan of All Along the Watchtower, and beating me to the punch when the tribal drums of Sympathy for the Devil bounced around the front seat.

I knew I had brainwashed Joe when we were returning from Kansas City one night. Joe’s twin sister Annie in the front seat, Joe and his little sister Emily in the back. The girls were arguing for a silly station that today is probably playing One Direction and Miley Cyrus.

I was battling to keep tuned in to the Friday night double play of Led Zeppelin.

From the back seat I heard Joe say seriously, “They just don’t understand our music do they, Dad.”

“No they don’t, Joe,” I replied with a hidden smile.

I tease Joe that Messi’s no big deal (full disclosure: Messi  is amazing) and remind him with a grin that, frankly I don’t give a damn about watching European soccer any more than I want to watch Gone With the Wind with my wife. Joe  ignores me and tells me that Barcelona has signed another forward to go with Messi and rising star Neymar. No one will be able to stop them, not even Real Madrid. Joe really hates Madrid. Joe is part Irish, part German and part soccer hooligan.

I tease my wife JJ that Joe only calls to talk to her. It goes something like this. Joe says hello and makes some small talk with me for about five minutes. Then he asks, “Where’s JJ?” I say she’s in the kitchen, do you want to talk to her? Joe brightens and says yes. Then they talk for a half hour. I’m not the only Madden charmed by JJ.

Perhaps the most touching phone  calls are the briefest. Joe has absolutely nothing to say. We fumble around a bit, trying to strike up a conversation then Joe ends it. “I’ve got to go now.” Joe is not one to share emotions. When I tell him I love him, I get an uncomfortable mumble back. I take these calls as Joe’s “I love you.”

I feel like my son is reaching out to make sure I’m still there and to let me know he is too. He is telling me he is thinking about me and missing me and he wants me to know.

After seven years in their employ St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., let me go without explanation and little severance. I was a couple of months from having no place to live.  I finally made the decision to move from Missouri to the Bay Area to live with my wife after two years of marriage 2,000 miles apart. My heart broke into pieces when I told my children and they asked why I had to go. I could offer no sufficient answer to ease their pain or my own. Annie moved with me, but Jacob stayed behind to finish his senior year at LeBlond High. He would lead his soccer team to perhaps the greatest season in school history, placing fourth at state. He now is a starting defender for Johnson County Community College. Joe and Emily also stayed behind. Joe would earn academic honors and soccer accolades as well. He played along with his brother on the final four state team and was  part of the school’s District Champion basketball team last year. Emily involved in student government and campus ministry and went on to post-season honors in three sports, including All-state this season after scoring 34 goals for Leblond’s soccer team.

I had coached my children through their childhood, took them camping and never missed their games and school and church activities. Now I was missing entire seasons.

Sometimes the loss overwhelms me and I can only go off alone and weep.

But my children take care of me.

My strapping son Jacob, the enforcer, the toughest and most fearless  soccer player I have ever seen, is blessed with a gentle heart. He pledges his love and gratitude to me over Twitter. Emily, my little sweetheart, calls me to report on her victories and losses and never forgets to say, I love you. Annie the fiercest and most irreverent of my children argues and battles with me in our small house and then suddenly charms me with her often bizarre sense of humor.

Singer John Hiatt wrote, “It’s the twilight that captures the sorrow of time, in between the life and the lived…”

Near sundown sunny California fades into a mist as fog hushes in from the nearby ocean. A chill is in the air as I stand on our front porch gazing at the hills in the distance that hold on to the last of the sunshine.

Melancholy captures me somewhere between gratitude and regret. I am grateful for the way my children have come through hardships and broken promises with forgiveness, unity and humor. I am grateful for the good and loyal friends that surround them. I am grateful that the trust and love between my children and me remains.

But I can’t help but feel sorrow over the pain I’ve caused. My drinking throughout their childhoods, divorce, and the feelings of abandonment.

Night is falling and cold forces me back inside. The house is as dark. But then the glow of a ringing cell phone brightens the room. I know before answering.

Joe is calling before he goes to bed.

All you need is family — no matter who they are

By Annie Madden

Family: one word, two syllables, five letters, and infinite meaning. Family is the best and worst part of my life.

I have learned that family can reach beyond blood relations. Some of the most important people in my life, people that I call family, do not share the same genes as me. My family definitely bothers me at times, however, they are also the most inspiring and trustworthy people in my life. I realized the importance of my family the day my parents got a divorce. A short time later I decided to pack up and move to California with my dad.

The day I learned my parents were getting a divorce I felt as if my world was crumbling to pieces. I believed our family was going to fall apart and things would never be normal again. However, I could not have been more wrong. My parents’ divorce was one of the best things that could have happened to my family. My relationship with my dad and siblings flourished in a truly positive way. Although, my relationship with my mother deteriorated. My mother is selfish and treated me in a way that I knew had to end. When I made any contact with her I would  always feel angry, sad, guilty, ungrateful, and was always looking for revenge. My dad and I knew that the relationship between my mom and I was becoming toxic. He did everything in his power as my dad to help me become a better person and get rid of all the anger I had bottled up. Therefore, I am very grateful for his presence and guidance in my life.

My parents fought throughout their divorce and that lasted about two years then my dad suddenly lost his job. That was when Dad and I made the difficult decision to move to California to live with my stepmom and her family. Leaving behind my three siblings was painful. The day I walked off the plane I gained a whole new appreciation for family. My stepmom’s family welcomed my dad and me with open arms. Family is made up of the people who encourage me, accept me, and in the end make me most happy. The friends that I made in my new town are also another example of family. They have been there for me since the first day of soccer tryouts, when I walked onto the field alone and scared. I love my siblings and miss them everyday, but I have also learned that family goes beyond blood. In fact, in my experience sometimes blood relatives may be the first people to turn their backs on you when times get tough.

1462996_10202725185915558_302048845_nBefore I moved to California I experienced the two hardest years of my life. I went from losing half of my family to gaining another family. They have taught me that generosity and love are given without strings attached. Currently, I still have to deal with mom issues, however, the two people that have stuck by my side every step of the way are my dad and my stepmom, who I now consider to be my new mom. I still argue with my dad and stepmom just like any teenage girl would do. In addition, I argue with my siblings, but I know they love me and I hope they feel my love from 2,000 miles away.

I have learned many valuable life lessons from my family. My dad and stepmom are great role models to everyone around them and they convey this by example. By going through emotionally tough times and making mistakes I consider myself to be wiser, less judgemental, more caring. I am happy.  Family: it’s only one little word that means so much to me. I would have never guessed purchasing a one way flight to the Golden State  would open my eyes the wonder of what family really means.

Mining for Lithium in the Red River Valley

There’s something lonely about tail lights. They pass in the night without even the blink promising they might turn off and wait.

I pull onto Highway 101 in San Rafael, California, and ease into a river of red. The music on the radio is gentle country, but
I’m headed north to become a Nirvana song.

rainy-tail-lights-at-night-400x265The traffic is dispassionate and sluggish like my emotions. I slow down and gaze ahead at a valley of commuters, trying to imagine the car lights as festive. They are people who care nothing for my pharmaceutical pilgrimage. I have to be at the Rohnert Park Costco by 7 p.m. to fill a prescription of Lithium.

As I drive I worry. There are so many side effects I can’t keep them straight in my head. And there’s Kurt Cobain’s ghost sitting in the back seat. But I’m turning my will over to what monks call obedience. My doctor and my wife and friends say I should give it a try. I’m taking it on faith.

As they said when I got sober, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

At a 12-step meeting a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the terrors of my bipolar break and how Alcoholics Anonymous had helped me prepare for it. I knew I couldn’t handle life alone. I knew my life was unmanageable. I had learned the Promises: “We will know new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

These did not seem extravagant, but they did seem hazy.

Following the meeting, two kind women approached me and thanked me for revealing my struggle. They, too, were bipolar. The rooms of AA are full of our types.

I remember a day at the beach when my break was at its worst. I felt the need to alter my mind. It didn’t need to be alcohol. I felt like anything: codeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, weed, meth would have made the slightest crack in in the fear clamping my soul. It would have been like that first crack of light that buried coal miners see. From there all it would take would be a few more cracks.

Fortunatelly, I waited for a medically approved cracks.

Now, I push through Novato traffic, where it routinely bogs own just after dark.  I am nervous, tired and sad. I still haven’t been handling work situations and conflicts as I used to before my Christmas crash. My doctor says I’m getting better, but there’s still something behind my eyes, a look of fear that something is waiting to take me again.

Lithium is a the standard med for treating what has been happening to me my entire adult life. The side effects sound like one of those TV commercials for erectile dysfunction medication, where the guy reads so fast you can’t possibly hear them all.  None of them are worse than the panic and nightmares and that feeling of permanent startle.

When I told my daughter I was bipolar she cried. “It’s a lot to take in,” she said.

“I’ve  always been bipolar,” I said. “They just gave it a name this time and they can better treat it.” Then I went into the bedroom and held my head in my hands. I try to protect my children from this but they deserve honesty.

Traffic slows to a crawl through Petaluma and the two lanes in the final stretch to Rohnert Park. I will pick up more Klonipin for the anxiety and Clonidine for the tics from Tourette’s I’ve had since Junior High. I chuckle at all the drugs that have replaced booze.

When I pick up the meds, the paranoia flickers. I expect the pharmacist handing me all the medication to glance at a nearby security officer. We’ve got a live one here. Instead, she smiles, asks if I have a Costco card and rings up my order. She pleasantly says, You have a nice evening.”

I pull out of the Costco parking lot to more lonesome tail lights. The only meeting I’ve been to  in a week has been to see my psychiatrist.

I have a bag full of pills and a pit in my stomach. I open the bag and look at the bottles.

I think I’ll wait until morning to explore the promise of Lithium.

Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real

I don’t know why I went to the meeting.

After a two-hour drive in traffic to reach the Costco pharmacy in time to buy anxiety medication, I meandered back through more traffic and arrived at the Church five minutes late. I felt a chill dark and cold like the winter night. I vowed to sit in the back and not participate. Like a kid whose parents made him attend Mass. “I ain’t singin’ and I ain’t listenin’ to no pastor!”

Bbx45RRIYAA5kUKI tugged my stocking cap down over my eyebrows and punched my fists into my pockets. Leaned back in the church pew and closed my eyes painfully. Luckily I was late enough I had missed the reading of “How it Works.” The first person started to share: Something about being grateful for this program and about how good it was to have this meeting to come to. I wasn’t really listening.

I looked at the time on my phone. Fifty more minutes. Fuck, what was I doing here!

More sharing. One guy had lost someone close to him and proceeded to relapse. He was back– starting over. I think he said he had 10 days sober.  I sat up and golf-clapped for him. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes again. The guy sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. I was putting off an uncomfortable vibe.

I was better than I had been a few days earlier. The terrors of the bipolar episode weren’t paralyzing me anymore, but that didn’t mean the fear was gone. All the character had drained from me. I had become the center of my own universe and it was a universe without texture or excitement or tenderness.

I sat fidgeting as voices droned on about gratitude, acceptance and promise.

I couldn’t hear the voices over the question in my head, “Why in the hell am I here?

For some reason a memory bubbled up through the poisonous thoughts in my head. It was from the last months of my drinking. It took a lot to get me drunk back then and it really wasn’t much fun anymore. I walked into a liquor store near Atchison, Kan., and stood, staring at the shelves. Nothing looked good. But I stared and stared. For a half an hour I stared at beer and whiskey and rum and tequila. I stared until I finally bought a cheap bottle of rum.

I drank that bottle on the way home to my family.

To my surprise, I raised my hand and spoke. “I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic.”

”High Dan!” the room responded. I felt irritated.

“No offense,” I admitted, “but I haven’t really been listening to you all tonight.”

I briefly mentioned that my holidays had been kind of crappy and that I didn’t really want to be here.

I told the story of long ago standing in the liquor store trying to decide what to buy.

Whether I wanted to or not, drinking had become a habit, I said.

I think that’s why I ended up at the meeting. Habit.

I remember a lot of 12-Step meetings where my heart was lifted, or I felt embraced by fellowship, or where answers to my problems mysteriously arrived just when I needed them.

This time, not so much.

Someone once told me that sober stands for “Son of a Bitch Everthing’s Real”

I laughed lamely, “I guess it’s better to be at a meeting in a shitty mood than to not be here at all. I hope by the time I leave I’m grateful for coming.”

As I slinked toward the door,  a tall man with silver hair approached and said, “Well, Dan, quite a share!”

I grunted.

He said, “So you had a bad Christmas?”

I knew he was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t having it.

“How long you been sober?” he asked. I told him and he looked surprised by how long. He asked me if I’d done the steps,

“Yeah,” I said, anxiously turning toward the door.

I shook his hand, said thank you, and walked to my car.

Some will tell you that you never feel worse after a meeting than you did before.

On that night, I would have disagreed.

But I did drink a Dr. Pepper on the way home to my family.