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.