This ain’t about me, but…

This isn’t about me, but…

I know good cops. Every police officer I know has always been decent, polite and considerate toward me, even heroic. But this is not about my anecdotal experience.

As a white man, I was born standing on third base. Black people I know don’t have the same experience with law enforcement as me. Not even close.

They tell me that when they are pulled over, they are nervous, even afraid. They don’t have drugs or alcohol or weapons in their cars, but they sure feel like it. When I get pulled over I’m either going to get a ticket or not. That’s it.

Two years ago I was pulled over by two CHP officers at 2am on suspicion of DUI. They said I was weaving. One asked me if I had anything to drink. I quipped, “Yes, 10 years ago.” He asked for my license. I didn’t have it with me. He asked, if I was messing with my phone. I quipped again, “No one I would talk to is awake at this time.” I offered to do a breathalyzer. Then he let me go. No ticket. Just be safe and make sure I carry my license next time.

I count six examples of white privilege in that paragraph.

It would take balls like a brass monkey to try to impress upon a black person that all the cops I know “are good.”

My greatest fear in a traffic stop is how I’m going to afford the $250 fine. Black people don’t know what the hell is going to happen. They sure aren’t going to be a smartass like me.

Everything they’ve seen says potential danger. If an officer treats them badly, or god forbid kills them, the cop will be shrugged off as a “bad apple” (by the way, the entire expression is “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel”)

In an interview, San Antonio Spurs Coach Greg Popovich said, “It’s like we born with innate white supremacy, because we’re white.”

I am part of the problem, because I benefit from racism. It’s not enough that I am not racist. I have to be anti-racist. My words are tears in the rain. They don’t mean two spits without action— and humility. I am not special because I am ally to black and brown people. I am privileged enough that it is a luxury.

I am not concerned that police or their enablers might not like what I say. Every significant change for the good in my life began with a person calling me on my bullshit. I got angry and defensive, I wallowed in self pity and blamed every one else. Then I surrendered — and grew the fuck up.

I won’t dive into the violent feature of protests, other than to ask, what did I expect? I watched for nine minutes as a smirking, nonchalant police officer and his “brothers” lynched a man over $20. Was I arrogant enough to expect, or worse demand, a wave of kumbaya? Did I expect the police to suddenly change or instead unleash even more brutality? That would have been embarrassingly naive.

The sad reality is that part of the reason the protests feel different this time—bigger—is that people who look like me are in the streets. White people are also getting run over and stomped by police, white people are being tear gassed, white people are being clubbed and shot with rubber bullets. So NOW it matters. If it were only black people protesting we would already be on to the next news cycle.

My wife once told me never apologize with a but: I’m sorry but…” The but erases everything that came before. Some people in my family and longtime friends have a “but” speech impediment. It’s terrible what happened to George Floyd, BUT what did he do to cause it? BUT most police are good. BUT he resisted ( he didn’t). BUT what about the rioters?

I won’t even try to argue with these people. Its how they hide their sins.

I love them, BUT…

Maybe we don’t have a gun problem

It’s a social problem not a gun problem.

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

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

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

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

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

We have a social disease.

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

And voting.

By any means necessary.

 

Anne Lomott: What to make of God

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

God, or no God?

Who on earth knows?

Any proof, either way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we still die, correct?

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

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

Usually either a terminal illness or a DUI.

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

Yes, in some states.

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

Old country roads are magic to me

I walked 14 miles of silent back road Sunday

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

I’ve always been drawn to country roads

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

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

Rickety plank bridges from times when pickups were slower and smaller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turned off the blacktop, appreciating nostalgic detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When pickups were slower and old bridges were sturdy

When they poured beer from buckets

And country roads were just called roads

The Poverty of Paul Ryan

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

 

 

 

Maybe dynamite is a good idea

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Midnight and Hunter is wearing sunglasses

Leaning against his forty-foot red Cadillac convertible

He shoots imaginary jack rabbits in the silver desert

Cactus Ed checks the radio

A road trip without music is intolerableEdward-Abbey-Still-Frame

He tosses a crushed beer can to the side of the road

Only forty-eight more of those until next water

Ed measures miles by beers and litters highways freely

It’s not nature’s highway after all, it’s man’s

Goddamn jackrabbits! Hunter throws his gun in the back seat

Cranks the radio knob hard to the right

A bursts of organ chords level out his mescaline jitters. The Tambourine Man strips menace from the air

A trunk full of Budweiser, cocaine, Wild Turkey, and ammunition

Cactus Ed, loading one last box, jokes about dynamite

An arrest warrant for Ed, the billboard pyromaniac, bulldozer saboteur

Hunter says the Hell’s Angels are On his trail

Maybe the dynamite is a good idea

Ed squeezes in, I’m crushed between the anarchist and the GonzoDwight_conver

 

 

 

 

A whiff of beer and weed, sweat and gunpowder, sagebrush and dust from the darkness

Cadillac piston’s scream alive, Dylan sings wearily

Hunter scoffs at the the Texaco across the road

We have fuel, he grins, cigarette smoke slithering

With the right music, blasting loud enough

Over woof of wind

Scream of mescaline,

Buzz of whiskey

And thunder of gunfire

(Goddamn jackrabbits!)

With the right music, we can drive 50 miles after the needle hits empty

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.

The Hole

Man falls into a hole.

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

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

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

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

The friend jumps into the hole.

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

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

 Author unknown

Surrender is my superpower

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

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

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

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

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.

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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.