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

 

 

My Nemesis

My nemesis is always near, aware of my weaknesses

I am sleepless and lonely; he comes with such cunning it seems he was in the room before me

D399981D-A4FB-4F50-A571-5E0CA6A5E688-718-000000BAA56AC705At first he is the flicker at the edge of my vision, then surrounding me like a prize fighter

Fleeing is not the answer;  he rides my shadow, amused by my haste, as if it gives him credibility

He mocks me if I hide, aggressively exploiting my self-pity with hypnotic voices in my head

I am most most vulnerable to his persuasion when mind and body feel neglected, starved, resentful, exhausted

I slip into his deceptively powerful arms until it’s too late; my lungs feel a reflux burn and my lips go numb with panic

He whispers in my ear words that stir an evolutionary urge

Fight! Conquer Me!

But I have been trained, disciplined to persevere

I surrender.

My nemesis sighs, releases his grip and is gone

 

 

 

You returned to me on a sunless morning

Man with unbrella on rail track in the rainy weatherRain, my old friend, it is good to see you again
We meet at the back door and sit in easy silence
You tell tales of our times together
Your snare drum brush on my tent
In a forest with no sky where Ents drank from ancient waters
The times we got drunk together
Me on my whiskey, you on white lightning
You were a ferocious drunk, people hid from your purple face
You ripped the sky until my hair stood on end
In my long lonely days, you stayed for months
Like sad country music you let me know
The darkness was authentic, and shared
Remember when you surprised me after my last college exam
We danced in a burst of relief and I impersonated Gene Kelly
It was a comfort to know you were here when I awoke this morning
There is a patch of blue to the north
I resent the sun.

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.

 

Code Blue: There but for the grace of ‘Someone’ go I

I woke yesterday morning to ice on my windshield. I instantly thought of the Code Blue.

That is the alert called by Sonoma County when nighttime temperatures drop to dangerous levels for the homeless population. Our volunteers at Catholic Charities were manning warming stations throughout a stressful night for people living on the streets.

AKBA177962_AA4E_41DA_B8AD_A6C470862909I am grateful this Thanksgiving to work with folks who welcome people experiencing homelessness with a tremendous but matter-of-fact generosity. They offer a reprieve from fear, a look in the eyes that conveys respect, inquisitiveness that says each person is interesting and unique.

They help them find homes and employment, help their kids get into schools. They help write resumes and coach them in interviewing skills, even provide nice clothes for job interviews. They feed them and provide beds.

They set aside parking lots where families who live in their cars can feel safe at night.

Some of the people who come to Catholic Charities have criminal records.

So do I.

Some of them suffer from mental illnesses.

So do I.

Some of them are addicts.

So am I.

Some of them are unemployed.

I’ve been there.

Many of them are fleeing domestic violence.

You and I know someone who has, too. I promise.

An exhaustive 2011 government study found that nearly one in five women reported they had been raped or experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four said they had been beaten. One in six said they have been stalked.

If you are reading this, you know an addict or alcoholic. You know someone who is mentally ill. You know an unemployed person.

The face of homelessness may not be so different from you or your neighbors. Imagine losing three months salary, losing your insurance, going off your anti-depressants, your Lasix, your Lipitor, your benzodiazepines.  Imagine missing one rent payment?

On this day when we are supposed to celebrate gratitude, be glad for those people you know. They have you. Be glad for yourself. Be thankful for support. Be thankful for a family, for friends. For ties that bind and break falls. For patient people who will not betray your trust and will tolerate you at your worst. Be grateful that you have not fallen so far that you have destroyed all of those ties.

One of the first questions asked when a family enters our shelter is what support system they have. A majority of them have no one. The sound of those words in the air is so icy it burns my eyes.

No one.

There is a sign hanging in an 12-step meeting I attend that says “Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness.”

Isolation can be fatal.

After two weeks in jail following a DUI, I was a shaking, terrified mess. All I thought I had going for me was a sobriety chip in my pocket. I walked out of the Buchanan Country Jail into my brother’s embrace. In the car I wondered what I would have done  if he hadn’t been there. The answer was as clear as the fresh air through the open window. I would have broken my probation and walked into a bar.

Someone or No one.

That is a life and death difference.

I don’t like the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It seems to say that God chose me over someone else. It’s more accurate to say, “There but for the grace of my brother go I.” “There but for the grace of a loving wife and beautiful children go I.”

I’ve seen people with 420 friends on Facebook decry “their” money going to lazy people who don’t want to work for a living.  Drug addicts. Welfare queens.  Drains on society. These are tough times for everyone and I chalk those statements up to fear and the spread of misleading information. There is a misconception that people are gaming the system or that less-deserving people are receiving homeless benefits at the expense of veterans.  It’s not either or. In fact, Congress recently voted down a benefits package for homeless veterans because there is a surplus  of benefits from last year. They will look at it again on the next budget.

Veterans

The people living this dangerous life are in it together. The veterans, much like when they were serving active duty, do not concern themselves with the politics of their situation. They are surviving– head injuries, PTSD, poverty and loneliness.

In fact, there has been great progress on this front.

Since a 2009 Obama Administration initiative to end veteran homelessness, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by more than 33 percent. The state of Virginia announced last week that it is the first state to meet the federal definition of effectively ending homelessness among veterans.

Tax dollars well spent

Research shows that for chronically homeless individuals, stable housing is essential to recovery. The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is permanent housing coupled with supportive services that provide for rent subsidies,  rehabilitation, therapy, and improved health.

These services are cost-effective. Chronically homeless individuals living in permanent housing are far less likely to draw on expensive public services. They are also less likely to end up in homeless shelters, emergency rooms, or jails, none of which are effective  interventions for chronic homelessness. The costs to local, state and federal agencies is reduced.

A public program in Seattle found that it saved nearly $30,000 per tenant per year in publicly-funded services, all while achieving improved self-reliance and health for their clients.

Targeted prevention policies are equally important, connecting with people who are  at risk of becoming homeless, such those exiting prisons or psychiatric facilities, before they have the chance to become homeless.

Chronic homelessness

People who are chronically  homeless are often the public face of homelessness. It is a common misconception that this group represents the majority of the homeless population. Rather, they account for less than 15 percent of the entire population on a given day.

Fortunately, there has been significant progress to address chronic homelessness in the last decade. The number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has declined by 21 percent since 2010.

Families

A substantial number of people experiencing homelessness are in families.

  • In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
  • Of that number, 216,197 are people in families,  about 37 percent of the homeless population, and
  • 362,163 are individuals.
  • About 9 percent of homeless people– 49,933 — are veterans.

Homeless families are similar to other poor families. They typically become homeless because of an unforeseen event– a medical emergency, a car accident, a death in the family — that prevents them from being able to hold on to housing.

Most homeless families are able to bounce back  quickly, with relatively little public assistance. Usually, homeless families require rent assistance, housing placement services, job assistance, and other short-term, one-time services before returning to independence and stability.

It is estimated that there are approximately half a million unaccompanied youth in the U.S. They often become homeless due to family conflict, including divorce, neglect, or abuse. Most experience short-term homelessness, before returning to friends or family.

They provide special challenges because they are often not eligible for services used for homelessness intervention. For example, they cannot sign a lease.

There has been a rising focus on LGBT youth experiencing homelessness who have specific needs and are at heightened risk of harm compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

Fleeing violence

Domestic violence is prevalent among women experiencing homelessness. One study in Massachusetts found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives, 63 percent had been victims of violence by an intimate partner, and 32 percent had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner.

A strong investment in affordable housing is crucial to this population, so that the family or woman is able to leave the shelter system as quickly as possible without returning to the abuser.

Health

Poor health is a major cause of homelessness, and homelessness creates new health problems and exacerbates existing ones. Living on the street or in crowded homeless shelters is  stressful and made worse by being exposed to communicable disease, violence, malnutrition, and harmful weather exposure.

Common health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma become worse because there is no safe place to store medications or syringes properly. Maintaining a healthy diet is difficult. Behavioral health issues often develop or are made worse. Injuries do not heal properly because bathing, keeping bandages clean, and getting proper rest and recuperation isn’t possible. Minor issues such as cuts or common colds easily develop into large problems such as infections or pneumonia.

High stress, unhealthy and dangerous environments, and an inability to eat properly  worsen overall health and result in visits to emergency rooms and hospitals. Thus, it is not surprising that those experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than their housed counterparts, and experience an average life expectancy as low as 41 years.

Currently there is talk in Santa Rosa, Calif., about how to provide hospice services to people on the street who are dying. The problem: hospice comes to homes.

Out in the cold

The first words that come to mind to describe the experience of homelessness are not lazy or weak, but rather, frightening, exhausting, overwhelming, lonely, deadly.

I have hit the bottom of addiction, stared into the abyss of a full-blown bi-polar break, heard the click of handcuffs and the clang of a jail cell door. They were all frightening. One difference, I didn’t go through any of these experiences without a home to return to.

I didn’t go through any of them with No One. That would have taken another level of courage.

I have never had to hide my children from the threat of violence.

I have never sat on a bucket all night in a grocery store parking lot to watch over my  family sleeping in a car.

I have never truly feared a weather report.

Last night when I picked up the laptop to begin writing this, I threw on an extra sweatshirt because I get cold easy. I didn’t turn up the thermostat because our bill was too high last month.

This morning, as the sun relieves another Code Blue,  I am grateful that I am able to write that sentence.

 

 

The Poetry of Damaged Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about poetry.

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

Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.

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

So will the trees.

 

 

 

 

Love is thicker than blood

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

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

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

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

My greatest joy is making Jeryl smile.

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

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

The Hole

Man falls into a hole.

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

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

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

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

The friend jumps into the hole.

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

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

 Author unknown

Now and at the hour of our death

This is a work of fiction.

He returns from the daydream, and is lost in the chant of Morning Prayer. Pressing his finger to the page he finds his place in the text. Awkwardly he edges back into the singing, drawing cringes from the monks standing next to him. He is tone deaf and his voice buzzes and bobs like a discombobulated June bug as his brother monks lift their rich, well-rehearsed voices on a ribbon of prayer to the ceiling of the basilica. Undeterred, Brother Lucius singsimagesBKZGVSUA with enthusiasm that would make St. Benedict proud. But he thinks with a hidden grin that his voice might cause the 1,500 year-old saint to rise and appear in the Church, bewildered at what had woken him so rudely from his slumber.

Brother Lucius shifts from cheek to cheek on the seat of the oak choir stall and tugs at his habit, snug over his plump belly. The black garment is not his preferred monastic garb. Underneath, he is wearing the true vestments of his calling, a T-shirt, denim overalls, and work boots. The other monks have come to accept the pungent smell emanating from Lucius, a familiar perfume of dried sweat, grease, motor oil and dust. His face smudged black, callused hands permanently stained. Crescent moons of dirt under fingernails from digging and scraping in gardens and orchards.

During the sign of peace, the one moment of intimacy in the monks’ Liturgy of the Hours, Brother Lucius forgoes the traditional embrace, perhaps to spare his confreres contact with his perpetually soiled habit, or maybe out of simple mischief. Instead, he sticks out one finger. Amused the monks return the gesture in E.T. fashion. Morning Prayer ends, the monks file out of the church. Brother Lucius sheds the habit. This morning, he pulled on an unblemished white T-shirt he bought at Wal-Mart and a stiff new Pioneer feed cap, as if he would be going somewhere special. He cinches the straps on his overalls and heads to the courtyard, still and silent within the high ramparts of the monastery like the mustering ground of a fort. It used to be crossed by two cobblestone sidewalks that met in the middle at a large Terra cotta fountain. The grass was mowed and a garden of flowers and manicured shrubs were tended by a large contingent of novices.

Vocations have dwindled at the Abbey in the past forty years and time has not been good to the courtyard. The fountain and sidewalks crumbled and eventually were carted away. Their pieces were hauled by wheelbarrows to the borders of gardens throughout the Abbey grounds or crushed into gravel for the road pinched between rows of live oaks to the ruins of the Abbey’s ancient dairy operation.

The shrubs in the courtyard died and were uprooted with chains. The hands of novices these days are soft from studying theology and cleaning bathrooms.  Now the courtyard is all Brother Lucius’s. He has answered the call by raising roses, rhododendrons, miniature pine trees and cherry blossoms. He nurtures a magnolia tree, and cares for bursting prisms of perennials. This morning his entire focus is on a small pine at the fringe of the yard. He waters it furiously, hoping to save it from rust corroding it’s branches. He quietly prays that it isn’t bark beetles.

Finished with watering, he returns to Common Room in the monastery for a cup of coffee. Anxious to get back to where God always awaits him, he rushes into the hallway leading toward the back porch. He hurries down the dark hallway and startles and elderly man emerging from an adjoining passage. Lucius greets the man but realizes something isn’t right. No one but monks are allowed in the cloister. The man doesn’t respond, but lifts something from his side. Lucius isn’t sure what strikes first, the electric jolt inside his ribcage or the ringing in his skull.  A muffled explosion echoes off the polished walls. He sags to the floor and looks at his outstretched hand. The tips of two fingers are missing. The man steps closer, his eye’s are pewter, holding no light. Lucius now recognizes the black of the rifle.  He pleads, No, don’t. Lucius feels bad for the man. He knows something terrible is happening. No, don’t, he says again, this time a whisper.

Brother Lucius is standing on the back porch of the monastery. A June breeze is carrying the faint aroma of manure from a pig farm on the ridge two miles to the north. He casually lifts the feed cap off his head and adjusts it like all farmers do, and wanders south past the Guesthouse. There is no one about, only a cardinal chiding him from a linden tree and silent robins divining for worms. It’s unusual for the Abbey grounds to be so empty on a warm spring day and he feels lonesome. Near the parking lot, he passes a white statue of Mary, brilliant in the morning sun. The Holy Mother holds her arms out, beckoning him to a maternal embrace. He thinks cheerfully of the rosaries he makes for the Abbey gift shop. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…” he says. The loneliness lifts.

Entering the walnut grove he is among friends. The old monk planted these trees as saplings four decades before. Now they provide shade to pilgrims who come to the middle of nowhere to find peace at his Abbey. He lovingly opened the path he is walking on now, not paved or graveled, but carpeted in soft grass. It moves unobtrusively, like an ocean jet stream through tallgrass and timber floor, to the spongy edges of moss-covered wetland. The trail climbs across sun-bathed ridges and through the apple orchard where Jesus could easily have led his Apostles.  One of the red-cheeked novices who helped build the trail is now in his 40s and gray around the temples. He runs the guesthouse, inscribed at the entrance with the words of St. Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Brother Lucius practices Benedictine hospitality by taking local farm children on hayrides in autumn and by baiting hooks for Catholic school students from the city who come to the Abbey to fish for bluegill and crappie.

Lucius enters a small stand of timber and is blinded by shadows.  He blinks his eyes in the muggy darkness and steps around muddy grass where a small stream trickles across the trail and pools in the cottonwoods. The glade is haunted by a dilapidated shack, not much bigger than a child’s playhouse. A shoddy Cross of St. Benedict hangs on the front door, faded to strained pink by years of weather. A small sagging porch hangs on for dear life. Spiders and centipedes have taken up residence. The Abbey hermitage hasn’t known human habitation for two decades. Father Placid, a delightfully odd monk, last lived there for a two year period. He slept on a cot, raising his food in a small garden that has since melted back into the forest floor. Brother Lucius occasionally visited Father Placid in the cool of the evening. He usually found the monk sitting on the porch with a childlike smile on his face, tapping his toe to music only he could hear. Father Placid was considered strange by many of the younger monks, who didn’t approve of the old monk’s use of marijuana, but Brother Lucius liked his strange confere, though they had little in common. The priest deemed himself a mystic, a spiritual descendent of the Desert Fathers, whose writings he had taught in the seminary. He studied Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, and he read Greek, Latin and Hebrew like a New York Times Best Sellers.  Placid was fascinated by extra-terrestrial life and loved the alien conspiracies bandied about on 2 a.m. radio talk shows, which he listened to on a transistor radio (his only concession to technology). Brother Lucius chuckles quietly at the thought of his friend, now in his 80s, tottering on a cane still spinning wild theories.

The trail leaving the timber climbs steeply into the Midwest sun. Brother Lucius is again blinded. He sympathizes with guests who often retreat from the humid ascent to the shade of the grove or the air-conditioned guest house. Lucius wipes a work-coarsened hand across his glistening brow and bends to massage his arthritic knee. His own Mount of Olives awaits. The ridge, baked dry by hostile summers, is balding at the top like Brother Lucius, combed over by bluestems, fescue and Indian grass.

He breathes deeply as he enters the apple orchard at the end of his climb, enjoying the familiar sticky sweet smell in the air. June drop, the trees discarding the apples left after harvest. He drags his feet between the trees,  kicking up rotting apples in the grass until he swears he can taste the pungent fruit on his tongue.

Brother Lucius looks down from the hillside on the Abbey lake where he goes alone when the darkness takes him. The doctors finally came up with a name for it. They told him he was bipolar. But he prefers what he had suspected for many years before the diagnosis. That he is so bound to nature, to the land and to the seasons, that the great joy he feels in the outdoors has come with a price. In the winter when cold and dark take the land, he knows he is closer to death. In the spring, nature is struggling to be reborn, mothers are giving birth and babies are fighting against their own birth. The shoots on trees are straining toward the sun. Growth is painful. Brother Lucius suffers with this knowledge. In summer when the world lazily marks time Lucius loses himself in long sweaty days, satisfied with the exhaustion from manual labor.  It is the only time of year that he sleeps soundly. When crisp fall evenings slice away the cottony heat and the land swells with abundance, melancholy settles on Lucius. He is spotted in the lengthening shadows of the woods, or trudging the lakeside in his Carhart jacket. He drifts silently away from the community, like the leaves falling from his precious trees.

A streak of lightning dissects the horizon. Emotions swells in his chest as they always do when tortured weather is about. He walks to the water, slides his hands comfortably into the bib of his overalls and gazes at the purple storm groaning toward him.

Lucius, or William as he was called as a child, is standing in the rain staring at the sky above his family’s farm outside Wichita, Kansas. A faint bark cuts through the hiss of the downpour. He swivels quickly and sees his father’s silhouette through the rain, near the storm cellar. William moves toward him and makes out his father frantically waving him toward door to safety. The obedient boy runs through the mud to where his father his holding the unwieldy door open. William drops into the cellar foxhole, his father ducks quickly behind him. Immediately, as if giving chase, what sounds like an assault of baseballs crashes into the cellar door. The hail stops so suddenly William’s ears lurch. William waits, his body like one tense muscle. He looks around at his mother, his younger brother and his father. Only his father, who looks no different than if he’s come in from another day milking cows, is breathing.  The silence is broken by a distant voice outside. His mother’s eyes widen, she squeezes William’s brother to her side. William’s father calmly walks to the top of the cellar, pries the door open and peers out. He turns and says, You boys don’t go near this door, and slips away. William notices a strange green stillness through the slamming door.

The wait for his father seems like hours . Without preamble, the storm erupts again. Terror rises like vinegar in the boy’s throat. The door to the cellar bounces like a bed in a horror movie. But more terrifying is the roar of a freight train above his head. Just like they had described it in school. Even though he has lived his whole life in “Tornado Alley” he has never been close to one. Now a twister is trying to rip his family from a root cellar. And his father is gone. He rushes past his mother to the top of the stairs o open the door, but something (a demon?) is pushing against him. He digs in against the top step and presses both shoulders against the door, head bowed beneath the weight. He thrusts upward, leaping out of the earth. The door breaks free for a moment. He peers for a moment out into an abyss of purple and black, tangling and boiling like evil. A crash of lightning splinters, clean and malicious, and he tumbles down the stairs.

An explosion ruptures the darkness.

Brother Lucius lies on the floor of the monastery. The thunder of the second shot surrounds him. His ears scream. He is sucking rapid gulps of oxygen but he can’t swallow fast enough. The old man stands over him,  rifle barrel cutting into his sternum. For a moment Lucius sees regret in the weary eyes, but then nothing. The man lifts the barrel from Lucius’s chest, struggles to gather it, then cradles it to his bosom. He turns away  and limps down the hallway. A cough, deep and ragged, bubbles to Lucius’s lips, and blood splatters onto his new white T-shirt.

Little orange secrets

Alan opens his eyes to the floral print of  the comforter covering his head, reminding him of childhood and bunk-bed tents.  His breath, hot and sour, fills the small space. He tugs the covers from his face. The sudden cold will stay all day. She is gone. Fear slithers around his ribs and constricts his breath. She’s only at work, he reminds himself. The Voice says, she’s working while you lie here. Alan presses his hand against the tightness in his chest and rolls out of bed. He psychosisphotoplants his feet on the floor. They’re prickly as blood returns. He slows his breathing, stands and walks to the dresser where she set out his pill bottles like little orange secrets. He picks up a full bottle of Klonopin and shakes it. Untouched Prozac rests by the Lithium he has ignored for over a month. His sudden anger at her surprises him. He opens his underwear drawer and sweeps the bottles in with his arm. With evidence of his frailty out of sight, his temper melts into sorrow.

Alan shuffles to the window and parts the blinds. He is surrounded. The nearby ocean has kicked up a fog like Dust Bowl topsoil. At the edge of his vision, he wonders if he’s seeing Susan’s long blonde hair as she walks away into the fog. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes and stares again; nothing is there. The lovely hills and valleys that curve like her body are flattened by impenetrable white. The restful bench under the large oak across the field is hidden behind swirling mists.

In the kitchen he opens the fridge, stares, and swipes a Diet Coke. Breakfast. The Aspartame, one more thing to worry over.

Falling on the couch, he knows he should look for a job, but the Voice tells him, what’s the point? It’s been a year, it reminds him. Something will come up, Alan answers without conviction. Susan works overtime every day and comes home and takes care of him. She has since the breakdown last Christmas. She soothes his guilt. She holds his face in her hands and says don’t worry about anything but getting well. But the Voice wonders what she’s really thinking. The Voice is cruel about the men who came before. They had taken her around the world, to Paris, Africa, Cabo. They had fucked her in exotic places. They had money. They could take care of her. What can you do, the Voice asks with a sneer. Alan buries his head in his hands. He paces around the house, trying to escape the Voice. He runs back to the dark bedroom, slams the door and freezes, listens. Light the color of a tarnished coin waits patiently at the window. He spots himself in the mirror above her vanity. Gray stubble too heavy for his drooping face. Puffed, purple crescents under his eyes like a boxer the day after a fight. He hasn’t showered since Tuesday. What will the Voice say? He slumps in the corner behind the bed. His eyes dart around the ceiling looking for composure.

Alan comes to with an apneaic gag. He’s not sure how long he’s been asleep. He tries to get up but the pain in his back, knees and ribs is too much. He sags back to the floor. He grabs the bed and the nightstand and forces himself through the talons of pain. A framed photograph of Susan and him teeters on the nightstand. He reaches to steady it, but too late. It falls face down.

He lurches down the hall to the kitchen. A note from her on the table asks him to put the garbage cans out. His exhaustion borders on dread. But the fear of disappointing her overcomes his fatigue. He retrieves his favorite sweatshirt from the living room floor and musters the energy to go outside. He trips over a basket in the shadows of the laundry room and is startled by a rhythmic clicking from the back yard. Eventually he opens the door enough to see the clothes line rattling against the house. Relieved, he stumbles blindly into the fog. Finding the garbage cans he tries to wheel them out of the garage. He stumbles and drops the larger can, spilling rancid garbage across the concrete. He looks around to see if anyone is watching, even though he knows no one is there. Except for the Voice. Alan does his best to ignore the laughter and scrapes up most of the trash and wipes his hands in the wet grass.

Towing the cans behind him down the wandering lane he descends beneath the fog. The Voice is gone. The smell of wild grass and pine trees draws the anxiety from his chest like poison. Wild turkeys along his path watch his progress. A playful calico teases him and then slips like smoke through a blackberry patch. At the busy highway he wrestles the cans into place.

As he climbs back to the house, his wind defeats him. Out of breath, he recalls when he could take this hill at a dead sprint. He tries to run, but only lasts a few strides. The Voice returns to taunt him. You’re a piece of shit. What does she see in you? You’re out of your league. She said I’m the love of her life, Alan responds. The fog starts to wrap around him like gauze. The turkeys have gone. The calico, oblivious, is hunting mice in the neighbor’s hayfield.

He arrives at the front porch in the mist and reaches with his toe to find the steps. The Voice laughs and says, Watch out, that first step’s a bitch.  Alan, knocking droplets of fog from his hair, opens the front door and hopes to find refuge. The Voice follows. He can’t remember when the Voice wasn’t with him. He loathes it, but in a nauseating way he is drawn to it. The Voice is persuasive. It makes sense.  Soon the ocean will roll the fog back into its bosom. He hopes, as he has so many times before, that it will take the Voice with it and drown it deep in its gray waters.

I’m not going anywhere, the Voice whispers. There is no hope. Alan enters the bedroom and draws a heart in the heavy layer of dust on Susan’s vanity.  He sits on the bed and prays for silence.

He walks to his dresser, opens the top drawer, and stares down at the orange bottles. He hears the Voice coming from every room of the house. He picks up a bottle and unscrews the cap.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive or dead is purely coincidental.

Surrender is my superpower

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

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

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

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

Insomnia: madness in the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What madness are these sleepless nights?

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

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

Demons are waiting in the shadows.

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.”

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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.

Polar meltdown: A startling view from the paranoid side

Last night I dreamed that small children were plummeting from the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to catch them but they were just beyond reach.

Ripped awake, I began sobbing quietly.

Something menacing followed me out of the dream and beckoned me to return and jump, join the broken little bodies in the black water. I wanted to go.

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The moonlit room at 3am was colorless. Terrors swarmed into my mind, and poisoned my lungs.  I clawed at the stabbing pain in my chest that had been there all week — the feeling of being stuck in a constant startle.

Only the faint warmth of my wife sleeping beside me reminded me that a deception might be at hand. Another sob escaped my lips. Exhaustion dragged me back to sleep.

This morning I am still clenched with fear– fighting an eternal panic attack. I  can’t place the day or time, can’t find my phone or keys. I try to construct my day but it’s like doing algebra in a tornado. I try deep breathing but I can’t stop gulping oxygen. I try to stay in the moment but I either sprint past it in a panic to wrestle made-up demons, or lose track of it staring at old ones.

I try to gather up runaway problems like spilled marbles. Attempts to make me see logic or find Jesus anger me.

I call in sick to work, but I do not rest.  I dive down rabbit holes of fear. Will I be able to work again? I tell my wife she should find a man who can take care of her, who is strong and attentive, someone who can stop cying.

She is abruptly in front of me, clasping my face in both hands, staring into my eyes. She gently growls, “I’m not going anywhere!” She promises me this will get better, it will end.  I nod, but I don’t believe her.

“Are you suicidal?” My doctor asks. I’ve seen that fear in my wife’s eyes. I tell him it’s tempting. Life has no texture, no color, no joy.

One person who had been through this describes it well: “Even at my best life feels a little rickety, like I’m here but not quite here, like I’m just a stand-in for my real self, like someone could just reach over and pinch me and I’d deflate. I thought I was feeling better, but I don’t know anymore.”

I’m on the phone with a counselor. She says this is like an asthma attack. It comes on for no reason but it does end. A friend, who has suffered mightily from bipolar disorder, compares it to diabetes. I just need the right treatment and long-term management and I won’t ever have to suffer like this again.

I wish I could believe them. What else are the going to say.

I am afraid I have lost the best of me. I don’t think it will be back. What piece of me will fall away next.

Writer Amy Reed described her bout with bipolar disorder this way: “I feel like I’m a snow globe and someone shook me up and now every little piece of me is falling back randomly and nothing is ending up where it used to be.”

This happened before; seven years ago. Before that was 2003, following an encounter with violence that stole away two friends. When I think of those times, my heart pounds and my hands shake. I want to go to sleep and never wake up. I came away from those encounters feeling like I had lost something of myself, like life had worn me down. This time I have a clearer diagnosis, a better support system. I am sober. But I can’t help fear that I will still emerge—if I emerge—even weaker, more afraid, more exhausted.  The people around me talk of asthma attacks, diabetes. I think of a knee injury. After three, can I ever run the same again.

There have been moments in the past week when I have laughed, engaged in lucid conversation. At those times I doubt this whole things is real. I wonder if it is all something I have created to avoid responsibilities. Im lazy and disorganized. Am I running from the world? But like the ocean’s tide the darkness surges back. I think of my little girl, a sophomore in high school, playing basketball 2,000 miles away in Missouri, or I see the date on a calendar when my son who is visiting will leave, and I fall apart, sobbing with despair.

I have a cup of anxieties that is normally about half-full. Through the past five years, during alcoholic recovery,  a nasty divorce, a year of unemployment, a difficult move across country away from my children, it has stayed pretty steady– no unexpected spills. Now, suddenly, it is filled to the brim. The slightest upset– real or imagined– a minor work concern, a lost set of keys, an unexpected envelope in the mail, and the cup overflows spilling composure to the floor.

My wife tells me to be patient, so do doctors and counselors. But I don’t trust them. I wonder if there is something they aren’t telling me. My bosses at work say take my time, get well. But how long will they put up with this? I used to be a patient person. I sat quietly in traffic and weathered disputes calmly. When I made mistakes, I usually made amends and let what was out of my control happen in its time.

But this kind of fear is not a patient place to be.

I started a new medication this morning. So far I haven’t seen much difference. My wife embraces me and reminds me again to remain patient.

Tonight I hope to sleep better.

Without the nightmares.

Whatever is following me out of those dreams is wearing down my resistance.