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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My wife is 53 and I like it — bad spelling and all

My wife looked forlorn when she said, “I’m going to be 53…”

I’m glad my wife is 53 today. If she were 40 or 30 or 20, she wouldn’t be with me and I wouldn’t be with her. I wouldn’t know the joy I felt when she first noticed me (I’d been trying to get her attention for a while). There are a few other reasons why I prefer a 53-year-old J.J.10624940_10202503353164951_4538244234849287657_n

  1. Her name is actually J.J. Leibrock Madden. Call me selfish or sexist but that’s way better than any name she’s ever had.
  2. The night eight years ago when I realized I was in love with her, I hung up the phone, walked into the kitchen and my knees buckled. I sagged into a chair and whispered, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.”
  3. One time, as we waited for a table in a restaurant, an elderly woman approached and said, “Excuse me. I couldn’t help noticing how in love you two are. You’ve made my day.”
  4. I get crazy insecure. I think about all the things other men have given her, the places they’ve taken her, that I couldn’t begin to give her. It’s not an attractive trait, but there is something strangely exciting about it. I’ve never cared enough before to make myself miserable like this.
  5. She chose me not them, my friend Carol always reminded me. I will never be her first love, but I get to be her last.
  6. I don’t think I have single attractive feature. Crooked face, decidedly unmuscled body, bird legs, skinny arms, other personal deficiencies I’d rather not talk about.  But she finds something! Which means she also doesn’t give up on a difficult task.
  7. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. I could stop with that, but my children would say, “Jeez, Dad, you can’t come up more.”
  8. She loves my children. When they call they’d rather talk to “mom” not me.
  9. She votes – always.
  10. She doesn’t vote Republican
  11. She makes decisions that are against her interests, because other people’s are more important (Guess I could have just said, “See #10).
  12. She was high school valedictorian but never taunts me when I do really stupid shit.
  13. She has wrinkles from all the sun and wind and worries and smiles.
  14. She hates mean people.
  15. She’s figuring out that “Fuck ‘em,” is always the right answer when dealing with mean people.
  16. She doesn’t get too upset when I give her unsolicited advice about saying “Fuck ‘em!”
  17. She say “Fuck ‘em!” when she encounters Trump supporters (I guess I could have just said see #15)
  18. She is a FANTASTIC liar. “You’re not gaining weight Danny, You’re really smart, Danny, That joke was funny, Danny, You’re a good singer, Danny…”
  19. She smells really good.
  20. She doesn’t think I smell bad.
  21. She’s a feminist.
  22. She’s a bad speller when she’s mad or horny.
  23. She’s a bad speller a lot. That’s all I’m saying.
  24. She doesn’t freak out when I freak out.
  25. She finds my keys so I stop freaking out.
  26. She has a 7-year chip and her sponsor had to tell her to stop taking so many service commitments. Leave some for someone else.
  27. She has cool tattoos.
  28. She gets excited about fruit.
  29. She’s cooks like an artist.
  30. Sometimes she gets sad and has to stay in bed all day.
  31. She laughs a lot.
  32. She buys me all the hummus, avocados and chocolate I can eat.
  33. She is the mysterious, tan, blonde California girl I fantasized about in junior high.
  34. She doesn’t get mad at me unless I am a complete dick. Which is never. Haha! Just kidding.
  35. She likes the TV show Supernatural
  36. She lets me have a crush on singer Brandi Carlile, even though she has a better chance with Brandi Carlile than I. She thinks my crush on Larry Bird is a bit much.
  37. She doesn’t always agree with me (that would be boring).
  38. She wakes up pretty, no need for makeup. And, thank god, no need for hairspray.
  39. Her hair is beautiful and I find it on my clothes when I’m at work.
  40. She’s way too hard on herself but she gets better each day.
  41. She’s way to easy on me but she gets better each day.
  42. She hurts when other people hurt.
  43. She loves Draymond Green.
  44. She promises she won’t leave me if President Obama appears and asks her to run away with him. See #18.
  45. She thinks George Carlin was a genius.
  46. She loves British TV and speaks in a terrible British accent that sounds like someone just back from the dentist.
  47. She loves to swear. She is proficient in “all the words you can’t say on TV.”
  48. She growls when I tell her surfing isn’t a sport. She’ll think it’s funny that I just pissed off every surfer who reads this.
  49. She is a hard worker (which makes us a perfect match, because I’m lazy)
  50. She gets exasperated when I turn on REO Speedwagon music (because I know it exasperates her.)
  51. She always says exasperate when she means exacerbate.
  52. She flips me off when I correct her grammar.
  53. She has shown me that second chances are always possible, and that in love moments are more important than years.

Happy 53rd birthday, JJ!

 

The Poetry of Damaged Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about poetry.

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

Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.

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

So will the trees.

 

 

 

 

Love is thicker than blood

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

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

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

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

My greatest joy is making Jeryl smile.

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

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

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.

All you need is family — no matter who they are

By Annie Madden

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

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

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

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

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

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