Happy Birthday Poppa – last day to write #2

There was a time in my life when my passion was irrepressible. I called it a gift of the spirit – enthusiasm. ENW calls it Promoter tendencies. I call it passion. Enthusiasm is something from God they say. They say it is the movement of the spirit of god in us and that rings so true to me today. If there is any life force worth tapping into it is that one. It makes us look crazed and crazy but happy as well and I need to stop worrying and wondering about what other people think of my devotion to feeling, powerful feeling. I need to commit to my own sense of destiny and desire. I need to get my life on, yo.

My life has been so on hold, waiting for the child to grow, to become independent, waiting for mom to leave us, waiting for the chance, the crack with light penetrating, the opening of the door. Where is my opening door? I am making doors open all the time with work and play, but they are not liberating me, yet. They aren’t freeing me. I feel powerful anxieties course through my veins and across my skin. Panicked, I write. Panicked, I sleep. Panicked I pick up my case and head out the door to go to work – work that is too much, that is too many, that leaves me with too many unfinished tasks on account of my lack of enthusiasm for completing them.

It is work that slows us down. The process of creating, becoming, owning, executing – it is all more arduous than I expected, even after so many decades of experience I find myself trying to find the shortcut, the high road. I hear that actors describe their jobs as “easy” and I’m looking for, waiting for the right combination of attraction and action that will coalesce into a ball of work that feels easy and delightful, satisfying without overwhelming. I wonder if it is my approach to work, my tendencies to make things complicated that is thwarting me right now. I wonder if I am my own worst enemy. I wonder if I have simply made too many blind choices and poor decisions to get to the goal I seek.

Staying up so late talking, sitting on the floor and sharing like school girls. The time I spent with friends in Italy was rejuvenating in a remarkable way. I’ve not felt so energized in ages, which is vague – truly as thrilled at the opportunity of the days I couldn’t sleep – this is different from fear. This is different from duty. This is different from responding with wakefulness to deadlines and obligations. This is inspiration. This is anticipation. This feels like real living. Where will I find that love and passion for a day in my ordinary life? Can I create a life that feels so adventurous without having to be on foreign soil? Can I? And if I can, will I? I doubt myself. I got here for a reason. I got here out of fear and simple pride. I got here because I wanted to command respect, I wanted to be above reproach, I gave up my spiritual nature to foster a core of mastery and emulated my dad – my charming, commanding, self-assured father. He found glee. He found joy. He found it in his students, on the sea and in his daughters.

Dad would do a two-step, kick up his heels, snap his fingers, jump a Toyota commercial leap of joy, and grin like a kid when he was pleased. His happy response was infectious and utterly void of all the reserve and restraint he normally showed. He was mischievous – he liked a good cordial, a sweet snack, a small excursion to normally forbidden sites. He could surprise us, always with his youthful-isms. And the older he got the more he did.

I always admired him and competed with my sister for his attention and approval. She was his focus, his connection – I was a strange anomaly that mom enjoyed. He thought I was crazy. Aha. Perhaps that’s where all this is coming from. Aha. It was not peers I was trying to please or impress, it was dad. Epiphanies, my god. All this work I’ve done to be stately, to be “classy” as one dear friend described me, to be reserved and do important work. It’s all for you poppa. It’s all been about you and for you because you are my Big Fish (as Leah says), you have been the nuclear fission in my soul – anything it takes to be the apple of your eye – and you took me and laughed and played and had no idea the impact you were making.

Who was I before I was me-in-response-to you? I was aimless I suppose. I was drifting. I was kinesthetically inclined. But I was not a boy. I wonder how you would have raised me had I been a male. I wonder what sports you would have drafted me into and what pride you would have shown. I wonder if I would have more than one memory of you at one of my many sport competitions, more than one memory of you at a concert (you too were an athlete and musician), But probably not. You were living your dream, your joy, your passions. We were tangential to your life and living. At least for a while.

When I drove you to the hospital – following mom in the medivac, flying down I-5, you in tears and falling apart – I found myself slammed into the core of your existence – unwillingly from your side, but thrillingly from mine. To count to you, to be your rock, to be your savior, what a coups. It tickles me even now. To be able to show you the depth of my love and commitment to you, to actually be able to make a difference in your well-being, wow! What a gift. And for the few years after you gave us a chance to keep being that for you, and it was good.

This is my last day to write. And if I never wrote another word I would consider this a good ending.

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My Last Day to Write – Day #1

My last day to write – Day Number 1
I want to know what I will feel when I am writing in a more productive way. I want to know what it is like to have so much feeling that my writing carries me away. I want to recover the sensitivity to human condition that I once had – the passion the tears the pain the wonder the awe – all of those things that I find so very difficult to come by these days, at my age. I would like to know how I came to be this way, how I grew to be such a docile human, so disengaged, so calmly quiet.

It’s funny to me that this quietness is part of what has drawn some of my best most passionate friends to me. So I must value that and consider it and figure out where it lies for me. Have fun, he says. Feel desperate, he says. Imagine this was your last day to write. If this was my last day to write what would I choose to say?

I would say this is a beautiful world and that people are unaware of the places that beauty surrounds us in the everyday. In the color of a remnant of paint, in the way that pebbles are arranged on the sidewalk, in the feel of the wind blowing, in the magical warmth of our dreadful and terrifying sun – that great ball of constantly fueled nuclear fire that I imagine would roar if sound could be heard in the vacuum of space. There is nothing unworthy of consideration in the pilgrimage, in any moment, in any minute, in any place, there is a beauty, either visual, spiritual, emotional or physical – kinesthetic beauty – my favorite kind – the kind that moves bodies, the kind that exhales a breath, the kind that can dance and swim and sing.

What to do with all these feelings on my last day to write? What to do with the lust and power of them. What to do with the passion that thrives and makes me feel alive – it doesn’t just pulse through my veins, it tingles on my skin and vibrates every pore and cell – that, THAT is what my goal may be. In that I can find god and awe. In that I can experience fully what it means for me to be human.

Who are the people who lived their lives so passionately? The ones who did seemed tortured and certainly as a young woman I was tortured by my emotions, but I knew so little then, it was easy to misjudge the implications of all that I was seeing. It was easy to spin it into self hate or fear. Fear I suppose is the flipside of joy – joy makes us boundless and invincible beings, fear makes us miniscule and weak.

But fear is a potent emotion as well. What is it about people we admire and see as not being fearful? There are two types – those who pretend and those who are truly unfettered by the sense of vulnerability. It is the latter that is astonishing when you see it, but even that is born of experience and recognition, perspective and wisdom. It is interesting to me that I see many examples of these in our visual portrayals of humans – movies and TV shows abound with them, but I’m trying to think of even one that I’ve actually seen in real life and I don’t believe they are there. However we aspire to it, which is why we make so much of those characters. We make much of cunning as well and conniving and cruelty. Those are abhorrent but also potent people – the cruel ones, the ones who would torture, imprison, trick and fool the others. We are drawn to them for their own type of beauty – an archetypal beauty – a transcendence of normality, an extremism that suits us because we can recognize it.

Who ever wrote a story about a dull young man? Well, there’s Fat Charlie Nancy in the Neil Gaiman book I’m reading right now. He’s dull and young and male. But I can feel his transformation coming. His character is pathetic. In him, Gaiman has described everything that disgusts us about ourselves – incompetency, timidity, a lack of awareness, whining proclivities. He misses details, he lacks caring, he is lukewarm even about his fiancée. He is slow to think and to act. Yet the novel is built around his character in contrast with that of his brother Spider, who is quick and daring and exciting and lively and lustful and powerful and ready for everything, taking control and taking advantage of his ability to control – and there is the moral flaw –and that moral flaw makes it okay to love him and want to be him and yet hate him for how he hurts people, the vulnerable and ordinary, like Fat Charlie and me.

I think Joel knows how easy it is to fall into a lack of passion. He doesn’t talk about it but he talks about the inverse quite a lot. He talks about bringing as much feeling as we can to the work, of filling a cup with our emotions and then pouring it with tremendous care out onto the page without losing a drop. I am pouring but I cannot yet define the edges of my cup, it does not fall in a way that suggests it has mass – gravity cannot affect it. Instead it turns to mist, streams out sideways, pools and drips and puddles in places that I never intended. Intention must be more deliberate. Intention must bring the writing to bear on the page. Intention is the control of enthusiasm. I am an enthused writer, but my intention is yet vague and undefined, my cup may runneth over, but it is a poorly formed cup, like the clay project o sixth grade with no glaze, and no level bottom so it tips when it sits. It is an ashtray. It is always an ashtray.

Epiphany of Art

We are trying to diagnose the source of my persistent yet intermittent weariness. Burrell says it’s on account of all the hours I put in all those years, as if there’s a kind of global meter of your life and you have to log a certain number of Zs to balance it all out. As if the body is its own metronome and there must be the same number of clicks to the left as to the right or we all lose time. As if the body knows better than I do what my limits are. As if my body is separate from me.

I sit at my desk, feeling and not wanting to feel. I feel as if I am numb – is numb a feeling? Isn’t numb the absence of feeling? What a conundrum to feel numb.
Perhaps numbness is a recognition of the potential for feeling, but a decided lack thereof.

Feelings that I expect to have are excitement, ambition, fear (that one stays close and is always within arms reach), but mostly what I feel is dull, tired, bored and useless. I am not very good at what I do anymore. I don’t care to try to be good at it. I’m dissatisfied with my audiences who don’t get it, don’t appreciate it, or just look at it with appreciation and then dismiss it as not relevant to the work they are doing, the work o living their lives.

All of society seems such a puzzle to me. It’s bizarre the way we’ve gone from survival to meaning. WE have developed means to assure we have safety, secure food, warmth and dryness and what is left? Not much, so we invent ideas about how to best spend our time. Serving others. Creating art. Digging in the yard and pulling weeds to make others envious. Why do I have a vegetable garden? To impress others. Untrue it’s that I love having food outside my back door, but I will use the garden as leverage to impress people. I am dissatisfied, always with all things. This is the way of my middle life.

Being young I was dissatisfied as well, but I thought I could change the world back then. I could set it right and bring people around to my line of thinking. I was a smart cookie after all and when I worked it people would listen to me. Run for office? I don’t think so. Middle age is a period in which we recalibrate our expectations of the world and figure out how it is we will make do with our dissatisfaction. How am I going to live my life if not to make the world a better place? It’s all so temporary. It’s all so temporal – ha! Indeed. We are stuck with the constancy of change and that is all.

If things will always change, then what is the role of the optimistic activist? It is all so fragile. If Bernie is elected, will anything last? It will be the beginning of something, but what would it take to dismantle it all again? Nothing is permanent, even the solar system, the galaxy; the universe is zooming away from all things stable. It will all be nothing someday – cold, dead and infinitely expanded and who will care? It’s like my garden. I can get it together and make it right, but it will vanish in time and then so what?

I am writing myself into a very depressing corner.

So what. That is the question. The biggest question. The So What. If I imagine myself a deer it helps me a bit. They are one of the few forms of wildlife I can observe easily on a fairly consistent basis as they crowd through my yard, leap the ditch and disappear into the wood across the street. They hang. They just hang with each other. Not too close, but they are rarely alone (except those nutty bucks).

They travel in what I presume to be small family groups as usually you see an older and one or more younger looking creatures. They eat, look around, start, sleep. They are capable of learning as I’ve seen them defeat my fence with deft hooves, cutting through my wimpy twine that for a time, fooled them in to thinking the fence was high and impenetrable – a visual trick. I wonder if they have a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as they step through to the previously denied nibbles of my pea shoots, my carrots’ tops and my spinach greens.

I imagine they feel pleasure – at resting in the sun, at running, at finding a particularly interesting nibble to consume. At seeing a familiar face in the woods. I imagine they spend most of their time driven by their bodies’ sensations – hunger, discomfort, tiredness, satiation, sex. We are divorced for the most part from our bodies’ sensations. We are driven by externalities – have tos and need tos and want tos, as in I have to get up, I need to go to the bank, I want to ski. We are stimulated all around by suggestions of how to spend our time and live our lives. Go to school. Make a buck. Eat at Denny’s. Buy those shoes.

Art seems to be an exception. In art we generate our own meaning and dig into what we want and need and we listen to and feel prompted by our inner selves. We create without purpose or pretense (we hope). We generate our own reality in art. It is transportive. Why would I spend my time doing anything but art? Why would I live my life trying to create social and political change, when it will never last? If I’m going to LIVE, I should be living MY life in such a way that I have the experience I want. It will live and die with me, just as all dad did lived and died with him.

Well there you have it. Now it’s off to bed for me. I wish. Maybe a nibble on my way out of the house, and a glance at my beautiful child’s face before I go.

All of Life is a Circus

I have started to wonder recently if I am feeling depressed. It is easy to blame all things mundane or middle aged ness – on menopause, hormones or just the ordinary effects of incremental life experience – those diminishing returns of getting older and doing it still. It is as if we start our lives with the foot to the gas and we cannot move fast enough, we cannot fill our brains quickly enough, we cannot love or hate or cry or scream or dance for joy often enough or intensely enough. There is something about that younger state that begs us to test our limits to push it to the maximum to feel our selves expand and know how much further beyond our own boundaries we can exude our energies, as if we are small exploding suns, over and over and over again. It feels enormously good, even when it’s terrible, because it feels like something. It feels like our humanity in its full expression of itself.

But when we learn we grow and we test and experience the repercussions of all those intensive outbursts we come back sometimes damaged and injured. Sometimes as we coddle ourselves and lick our wounds we wonder about the wisdom of those outbursts and slowly we begin to tame ourselves. Like lions in the three-ring circus, we learn that we can yell and paw and even stand up mightily on our hind legs to show all who are looking how important we are how big our voices how daunting and terrifying we can be, but sometimes there is a sharp and biting whip snap that stings and cuts us when we do. Sometimes we are led back to the cage too soon and left in isolation to ponder the wisdom of our outbursts.

Hence the constant damping down of our emotional energies. At one time I could focus them, I could take all that power and funnel it through the small hole, those rare opportunities where it was acceptable or fruitful to express all the anguish and elation, the heart-felt passion of my experience and the beliefs I carry with them. But sometimes when I do, the audience does not come back for another performance. Sometimes I end up in isolation with my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it feels fruitless to even bother to show up emotionally – the crowd is not into it. They just want to sit in silence and watch the lions meander amongst themselves, licking their paws, or laying down to sleep. “No performance please, it’s too much for us to bear. Good lions. Good, peaceful lions.”

I think that’s why the internet is so nutty these days. People are using it as their own circus – the crowd is always there! But will they applaud? Will they click on the little thumbs up sign to show me they care? To validate my ideas and my existence? What if they don’t? What if they unfriend me, or block my posts from their feeds because they disagree with me so passionately or find my own passions annoying. I am reminded of Michael Rudolph – a peer of mine who was extraordinarily expressive on the internet. He was a performing artist – a swing dancer, a mime, a teacher, a coach, a theater guy. You know the type? Kind and beautiful – everyone wanted to be seen by him. Funny and cool, so at ease with himself, so certain of his own voice, his own personhood. He was grounded in the experience of living LARGE and when he got cancer, he did it in a big way.

I was looking for him today on Facebook. I wanted to find that lovely little needlepoint profile picture he’d put up. The one with the dainty pink roses and green vines around the bold words, in all capital letters that read “Fuck Cancer.” I wanted to share it with my friend David, who survived a three year ordeal of bone marrow transplants and brutal chemotherapy – treatment that transformed him into an unrecognizable, hollow-eyed, skeleton of himself until he was pronounce clear and began to regain all the weight he’d lost, regain his vision of a future he could live into again instead of the day to day wondering if the end was indeed right around that next corner.  He has lived lustily since then – relishing every moment on the ski slopes and posting videos on Facebook, delighting in the sight of his granddaughter’s play, in her voice, treasuring his wife’s company and commitment to their 30-year marriage, posting pictures of his stocking feet posted up on the ottoman in front of the fire. All this was good, since yesterday he was diagnosed with the recurrence of his fate. I don’t know how he can face all that foreboding grief again. It’s so unfair. Fuck You, Cancer. Fuck the people who haven’t figured it out yet. Fuck the people who are treating it and making us miserable in the treatment. Fuck the government for not funding more and better research and accelerating true answers to the problem it is, solutions to anguish it fosters. It’s so unfair.

Michael Rudolph lived his cancer online like nothing I’ve seen before. Even though I hadn’t seen him for 30 years, I felt so deeply and intimately connected to him and his experience because of his boldness in sharing his feeling and thoughts. Before it began, he would post rants about social injustice, about the idiocy of government, and about the rampant joy of his simple existence, his little apartment, his favorite dance partners. After it began he continued to champion his causes, but also to paint pictures of the despair he was feeling and the hardship of his treatment. Ultimately his friends took over his posts and emails and would let us know – Michael smiled today. Michael stood today. Michael cried.

He went home from the hospital one day and we friends were elated – “Michael’s home!” we all thought. “He’s been discharged!” we celebrated. “Now he can truly begin to heal,” we believed. But it was a misread. His friends let us know that a day or two before they called in Hospice to help him he put on his bathrobe and walked down the sidewalk in Minneapolis where he lived and into his favorite coffee shop.  It was a ritual he clearly loved, and it was a bookend to his life. It was as if he was saying, “Fuck Cancer. Life is for enjoyment. I’m going for a walk.” They posted pictures of him, emaciated and nearly vacant in his ragged blue bathrobe. I could see the resignation in his face. He had already moved on, but he was declarative in his actions. Nothing could hold him down.

It would be so sweet to be Michael. It would be sweeter to have lived hard and loud and dealt the blow of a snipped short existence than to plod along with these fucking weights I feel on my chest, holding down my heart, the weights on my shoulders making every step an effort, the heaviness in my head making every thought and idea that arises into a question, “Is it worth it? How much will it cost me to express this? Will any one listen or care? Do I even care? Should I?” That’s my freedom here on the page. That’s the opportunity I have to discover. There’s no feedback here, no lion tamer outside my own mind, and I can put that guy away with a single roar and swipe of my massive paw. Without even extending a claw I can cut him down and shut him up. Then I’ll walk away and find my savannah, chase a gazelle and relish the adventure of being alive in the written word, in the expression of my mind.

 

Sometimes I Remember My Dreams

The child jumped from the ledge beside the stair. I had thought the young man facing him would catch him, or stop him; I thought he was the child’s father or caregiver. Clearly he thought I was the child’s mother or caregiver – either me or my friend Melissa. The hallway was empty except for the four of us, the vinyl flooring a grey blue; it looked like a place intended for children – a school perhaps, or a children’s medical facility. The rooms lining the hallway had large windows opening into it, but I could see no one and nothing inside them.

It happened fast. Fast enough that I had no time to speak, to arrest the boy, to check him or check in with the young man. He did not really look like he would jump. It was only a two-foot fall if that; three steps down, but for some reason the steps were only on one side of the hall, and the drop had no railing to suggest danger, to stop someone from walking or tripping or falling. He was only about two and a half feet tall himself, 18 months old, perhaps. A practiced walker, but not a practiced jumper.

I had expected a grin. I had expected his eyes to go wide. I had expected him to look around to see who was watching him in his daring feat. He had done none of that. He barely bent his knees in his long-sleeved navy jumpsuit. He barely leapt. It was more of a scoot off the top of the wall.

His whole body hit the floor at once, face down arms bent at the elbow as if to help brace or catch him in this free-falling push up, but they did not stall him at all, as if when they hit the floor they were no more than ribbons flying. He made almost no sound when he landed. I heard the slightest of thumps, but not nearly what I’d thought it would sound like. As if the floor was made of cushions instead of cold hard tile.

The young man looked at me as if expecting a reaction and I did the same to him. Why didn’t he stop him? I thought. Why didn’t I? In that moment I realized no one was here for the boy. Somehow he’d left his grown up and here he was injured and unmoving on the floor. I rushed forward and sunk down to my knees and elbows beside him, leaning my face close to his. He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t moving, he wasn’t bleeding. I was expecting his mother to come ‘round the corner and wail at us angrily for allowing it, but she didn’t come. I spoke to him gently and raised his left shoulder. Under it was the remains of his arm, fractured bones exposed and crumbled on the floor, brown and brittle like baked chicken bones.  There was no blood, but it must have been a compound fracture. Otherwise why would the bones be there.

“Oh no,” said Melissa. “Call 9-1-1” I said. But what would we tell them? Who would authorize his care? There was no one there who knew him and no one to speak for him. He turned his head toward me and I expected wailing and cries, but his face was calm, his eyes closed as if resting, though his brow furrowed as if with a serious thought or discomfort. I turned his body toward me and let his  head rest on my arm to keep his weight off his other shoulder. The 9-1-1 operator was asking questions. “How tall is he?” Melissa asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “She wants us to stand him up and measure,” said Melissa of the 9-1-1 operator.

It didn’t seem wise, or necessary, but I gently lifted the boy to a standing position, holding him up from his armpits. He was limp and would not stand on his own. The young man guesstimated his height. I laid down carefully, bringing him gently with me and let his head rest again on my arm. As I lay there facing him I wondered again at his mother or father, at his aloneness, at his vulnerability, at his placidness.

 

November 18, 2011

The things I remember when I think about my dad and remember his passing are his tears. My dad cried two times that I remember. Two times that I know of anyway. I can name the date for one of them. June 3rd 2009. It’s the day my mom suffered her stroke. He was in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, the beige carpet keeping him company as he paged through a magazine or rifled through items on his iPhone, or perhaps made list. The cold counter of the reception area faced him and the others who waited. Mom was getting her final check up from the doctor. After weeks of disability and problems from a nearly catastrophic illness, she was just starting to recover — just beginning to feel safe. He described it to me, how she walked toward him, how she smiled and said, “All set,” and then how her face went blank and her knees gave out, and she sunk to the floor in front of him, staring.

“She didn’t know me, she didn’t even know me,” he said, as we sped toward Seattle in my car. She’d been airlifted to Harrison Hospital. Harrison is the one where all the catastrophes go; in a five car pile-up, three people were taken to Harrison in critical condition, in a drug overdose the victim was taken to Harrison, in the neighborhood fire fight, the wounded gunmen were taken to Harrison. It’s the emergency hospital for the emergency hospitals. It’s the “Oh fuck, they’re going to Harrison,” hospital. It’s the life or death place.

He had thought to drive himself, but he was wildly distressed and unaware of it. We’d seen her in the ER, unable to speak, her bright eyes casting about trying to make sense of her experience. We’d showed her love, talking kindly and reassuringly to her. She looked curious, questioning. When she was wheeled off to the CT scan Dad virtually held his breath the entire time she was gone. He worried his hat in his hands. He bit and licked his lips. He blinked and blinked and blinked.

I finally convinced him that he was emotionally compromised, that the thought of him driving himself to Seattle was not wise, that there was no reason for me not to take the wheel and take him. It was not nothing we were going for: it was my mother, it was his partner, it was her. We all needed and loved and worried for her. We all needed to go.

We had been on the interstate only briefly when he started to cry, to cry uncontrollably and to cry out his concern, his fear, his anger, his impotence to help her. All I could think as he crumbled beside me, was how grateful I was that he was not at the wheel, trying to manage his emotions as he negotiated 60 mph traffic, full of Canadians. I was proud. I was grateful. I was there for him. I was his rock. I was his steel worked beams, riveted and immovable. I was his safety net. He could cry.

It was thirty years prior when I’d also seen him cry (the irony of it is not lost on me today). It was college. Thanksgiving, I think. I remember it was cold and he and mom were visiting and we were fighting. We were all fighting about something, something had come up at dinner and I was being a pain in the ass and arguing with my sister about it. He got up from the table and said, “Hey let’s get some ice cream,” because ice cream solves everything in my world and he knew it. We went together, just he and I, leaving my mom and sister to clean up the dishes. We drove to the Albertsons parking lot and he turned off the car but did not open the door. It was dark and cold. We were in our winter coats, he with a hat. The mood was serious. That silence that parents can visit on their kids was thick in the air, that feeling before a great proclamation is made.

He didn’t know, he said, what his father had thought about life after death, and he choked, and his voice caught and my pulse quickened and my eyes grew wide. I watched my dad, my full-of-charm, full-of-class, put-together, know-it-all dad – I watched him absolutely fall apart and lose himself in his grief. “I wish I’d had a chance to talk to him about it,” he said.  My dad reached up to his head and pulled off his hat, unconsciously. He must have felt hot, but I could see he was totally unaware of himself. He rolled the wool knit in his fingers as he sniffed and tried to talk. I shifted away, pushing my back up against the car door like a cat trying to get away from a fright. It was the strangest thing I’d ever experienced: my dad, not being like my dad.

He died like my dad. He left fast – so fast that even the Hospice nurses were surprised. He was decisive. Nothing hindered him. We stayed with him, sang to him, and off he went as quickly and certainly as he possibly could. It was good – his injuries from his fall would have left him unable to speak, eat or care for himself. It would not have been a life, and he would have been burdened by the fact of his living.

So when I think of when he went, when I’m reminded of his absence, I think of him carrying me. I think of a night, when I was still five. My sister and I were in our dresses and tights and Mary Janes and wool coats. We were driving home from a party, and I had laid my head against the car door in the back seat and pretended to fall asleep. I knew that if I feigned slumber, that I would be coddled and carried and comforted all the way to my bed. I did not want to walk. I did not want to wake. I wanted to be the princess who was carried.

He came around to the door and did not try very hard to wake me, though I’m sure he knew of my fraud. Instead he lifted me, high as his six-foot two-inch stature would do, one arm under my back, the other under my legs, and he held me close and I rested my head on his big chest. I felt his weight shift under his gait, heard the gravel crunch. And then I truly went to sleep.

Acquiescence and Society in an Election Year

He grasps my hand, but I know he doesn’t see me. It is inconsequential who I am – I have no standing in his life. I am a bystander, a volunteer, and he needed my help. “Just press hard on his hand so he knows you’re there,” says my helpful advisor. The man whose hand I hold, whose name nobody there knows, writhes and kicks and grasps at his side with his free hand, reaching across his body and tucking his hand beneath his belt near where his appendix might be. There was no blood, but I knew he’d been fatally wounded. He doesn’t moan, rather he almost barks, mouth ajar, “Ah! Ah! Ah!” he says and shakes and shudders violently. The man who is advising me gets onto his knees in the gravel and dirt and holds the man’s shoulders so he won’t beat himself up too badly. He is dying quickly. He seems oblivious, so I watch.

His hair is long and shot through with grey as is his full beard, but I can see that the face underneath is not that old – maybe 40 or 45. He looks like he’s been living a rough life, protesting the wrongs of society, following the politicians he objects to most and standing his ground against their ideas. His jean jacket is day-faded but not badly worn, and it is clean. He is not stranded, he has a home somewhere, that is clear. His jeans are also faded but intact. His shoes are missing – probably flung off his feet after he was hit. He’d been wearing them sockless, so I can see his feet kick and his toes curl. I notice his toenails – why do I notice his toenails? They are clean. Not recently cut but not long; healthy looking feet.

“You’re calm,” says my adviser, and I nod. I have seen a passing before and I marvel at it. Death isn’t frightening to the one not dying, especially in this instance, where his absence will leave no vacuum in my life. The last time, it was a relief of a burden. If my father had lived he would have suffered in life, unable to speak, or eat, or move on his own. He passed away willingly and decisively. I had the sense that this man was deciding to go as well. The weapons used by the political warriors left undeniable damage behind, disrupting the structure of the organs in an invisible moment, making them unable to function. There was no remedy. This was a war-machine weapon brought home to use on the populace. The man’s body struggled, but his face was placid, his spirit resigned to leaving.

The candidate who had just been by had left so many dead. The shadows of their colorful shoes and clothes somehow were imprinted in the grass even though their bodies were gone. Six I’d counted. They’d been standing there, then they were down, and others were dying now. I had been watching from behind the knoll. Protesters were clearly delineated from bystanders with their multi-colored shoes and clothing, the rest of us in grey and carefully shielded from any poorly aimed weapons. I wondered now, as I looked at the calm volunteers, at the quiet cleaning up, how many, if any of them remembered when this kind of thing didn’t happen, when politicking was mostly on TV and in the media, when the greatest risk protesters might run was to be dragged off to jail for a day or more, and they had to have made a mess of things to warrant that.

Today, killing detractors was a foregone conclusion – part and parcel of the race, the game they were playing for power. Protesting was seen as a personal choice, weighed with the risks in mind. The protesters were idealists, many of them, and unrealistic. They were like the young men who went to war, back when war was how we settled things. They believed they would fight, but not be killed. My nephew had explained to me how the first death of someone from their company was a sobering blow. These folks though, they didn’t train together or fight together. The penalty for organizing was too severe to allow for it. They weren’t disbanded or imprisoned for organizing , they were deported – banished! It astonished me that things had gone so far – that practicing the right of free speech could lead to loss of country in a land that valued free speech. What happened to that maxim? It was free speech for some. Free speech for the politicos, while everyone else had to remain silent. Because we elected them they were touted as speaking for our interests. But we could not describe to them our interests. Instead we chose whoever was least offensive.

As I squeeze his hand, which he surprisingly never pulls away, I wonder what my dying man’s face looks like without the beard. They would shave him for the viewing and then his youth would be revealed. What would his mother see on his face when she saw his remains for the last time? Would she still see the young child she cooed to and cuddled? Would she be able to remember his boyhood and his innocent glee? Would she remember his face as adulthood bloomed across it, his eyes set in a more knowing, less wondering gaze? His eyes open wide and his chest heaves. Fear breathes across his countenance, and then his whole body relaxes. His hand lets go of mine, and he dies.

The sweepers come to pick him up then. My adviser and another passer-by help lift the man’s corpse onto a metal tray that is slid into the back of the van with the others; all the bodies stacked there on trays like slabs of meat in a refrigerator.  There is no first aid, no ambulance, no rushing these to the hospital. No public or private resources are spared to save a protester. It is a committed existence, which is likely why so few ever stand up to those in power. Did they inspire others? They did. They gave voice to the thoughts in our heads. They reminded us that we were not alone in our thinking that things should be better. They said “You Are Wrong,” to the politicians and we thought “It is true.” But they died, and we lived, and the politicking went on.

On Why I Can’t Fly

Patty worried the tissue in her hands. The airport was not quite quiet and not quite bustling.  A few other prospective passengers sat here and there among the black, sling-backed rows of seats, half facing the hallway, others facing the floor to ceiling windows looking out to the tarmac, which was slick and black from the light drizzle that was falling. A slouched teen in a denim jacket gazed placidly at his phone, black wires dangling from his earbuds. He sighed. She tried sighing, but it felt more like gasping. She couldn’t relax, couldn’t breathe beyond her upper ribs cage. She knew where she was heading, so she reached into her small carry on and pulled out the prescription bottle that was tucked in its own special pocket along the inside of the bag. A pocket with a zipper on it, to be sure the bottle didn’t fall out. She removed the lid and tipped a few of the small round pills into her hand, replacing all but one by picking them up with the lip of the bottle. Settling the recapped bottle back in its pocket, she looked around for a nearby drinking fountain, picked up her carry-on bags and stepped purposefully across the concourse.

There’d been worse. Far worse. The time in her life when she couldn’t fly without someone to grasp, someone to console her, someone to recognize her mortal fear. Ben never dismissed it. Instead he brought his beautiful empathy to the clamoring she felt inside. Yes we might die. Yes, it might be terrible. But we’re here together and so we’ll be okay. He was the same way with their kids. When they cried he never shushed them. Instead he’d rock and hold and kiss them and say sympathetically “Yes, it’s terrible. Oh, it’s just terrible.” It seemed to calm them faster than any other words.

Now she travelled alone. Her work had cast her into a role that forced her onto planes dozens of times a year. Exposure therapy would suggest that all those successful landings would lead to a diffusion of the fear and anxiety, but it didn’t. She was still triggered by each of the elements. Getting her boarding pass. Packing her bags. Putting those little bottles of lotions and soaps into her makeup kit. Each action feeling final and ominous. She’d shake her head to dismiss the thought that she was preparing for the end, packing up her life. What would they find in the wreckage on the ground? What would identify her remains to her family? The wedding ring? The crowns on her molars? The scarf she chose for the outfit she wore? These are the things she thought about as she packed and dressed for each trip.

Stepping out of the shuttle onto the sidewalk of the terminal made her feel like she was standing at the gates of hell. Not hell, Mordor, and willingly walking in to what could be her demise. The doors would open and she would lower her head against the fiery blast. Death is coming, the gust from the air handling units would say. Please do not leave vehicles unattended. We need to move these souls along as quickly as possible. She suspected even the ticket agents knew, “Oh, this is the woman who is on her last flight.” She would look intently into their eyes as they issued her boarding pass, searching for signs of prescience, of a deeper knowledge, “Yes, this is the flight that will go down,” she imagined them thinking as they handed back her ID. And they’d give her a sadly compassionate smile as they said, “Thanks for flying with us.”

“Now boarding, flight number 4 to Regan International Airport.” Back at the gate, the announcer had a soothing voice.  Deep breaths. The Valium was working; she could now feel her belly relax as she inhaled, preparing for the inevitable, resigning herself to walk to the gate, hand over her boarding pass, and walk down the gangway into the plane that would be her metal coffin. “I could die. I could die. I could die. I could die.” It was the mantra in her mind as she tucked her carry on into the overhead compartment. She thought of her children as she searched for her seat, of missing their graduations, their weddings, Christmases and birthdays. Grandchildren. Buckling her seat belt, she thought of her husband, grief stricken and alone. What would he look for to fill the vacuum her absence would leave? What kind of woman would he choose to date? Would he remarry? Of her single friends, who would console him? Who would make a move on him, seeing the opportunity of being his companion, unlocked like a level in an arcade game? Who was the new woman who would sleep with him, in her bed, under the comforter that she had bought for them years ago and shared with him every night? She looked out the window at the grey sky and wet tarmac and thought of her mother. It’s not fair for her to lose a child. What grief could be worse? Tears stung her eyes. She stifled a sob.

When the plane reached altitude she reclined her seat and watched the stewards attentively, anticipating the drink cart’s arrival. Even though it was 10 a.m., she’d have her gin and tonic. She’d need it soon enough. At this altitude would she even be able to breathe when the fuselage split apart? How cold was it at 30,000 feet? How quickly would she become unconscious? With that long of a free fall, is there a chance she might regain consciousness before she hit the ground? What would it feel like to fall that far, burning plane parts cascading around her? Terrifying? Blissful? Would she see the other passengers? Would there be any sense of connectedness in them? Could she fall to her death and actually enjoy the sensation of falling? She’d never had the courage for skydiving. That would be her chance, to see the earth from high above for a brief moment. She would send out love to her children, love to her husband, love to her mom. She would let them know how much she would miss them in those seconds before her body and soul split apart. Kaboom. Annihilation. The end. No more.

The drink cart was miles away. She grabbed her eye shade and pulled them on, leaned her head to the window and resigned herself to sleep.

Mothers fix the pain, but who will fix the mothers?

“Some things can’t be fixed, they must be carried,” Julie said, sighing heavily into the room. Her face was the picture of despondence. Her shoulders slumped as she sat on the couch. Her mother, Jessica, was looking distractedly past her to the kitchen, where food was waiting to be prepared and dishes to be washed. The cat was not that special, thought the Jessica. She was ugly to start, had a howling meow that was never pleasant and wouldn’t cuddle on the lap of a single member of the family. The fact that she’d been struck by a car just past the end of the driveway didn’t engender any sympathy. Good riddance. At least it was fast and final. No vet bills. Just a quick cremation and that was it.

Julie’s grief was inauthentic, as far as Jessica was concerned. At 12 years old, she was experimenting with drama and moodiness, but she wasn’t yet overcome by her adolescence the way her friends were, so she had to manufacture the emotional turmoil that she didn’t really feel. Her life was simple, uncomplicated. The cat a pet for less than three months, found as a stray and taken in without proper family discussion, Jessica had acquiesced to Julie’s plea to keep the cat simply to end the conversation.  Her book club was waiting.

She felt the same pull now. How to end it, this encounter, this performance her daughter was giving? When would the curtain call come? How long did she have to endure witnessing her uncomfortable play at real grief? “I’m sure you’ll carry it well,” said Jessica, getting up to pat her on the shoulder. Julie’s eyes darted left and right, focused vaguely on the floor, panicked. “I wish I could cry,” she said. “Why don’t I cry?” This was not the segue Jessica was looking for. She turned from the kitchen and sat down next to her daughter, also sighing, but Julie took her exasperation as sympathy. “You’re a strong girl, Julie. I’m sure you’ll be all right.”

The grief was overwhelming to Cindy. This wasn’t the first, but the second time in a year she’d been admitted back into the hospital for complications from her accident. She’d been feeling light headed, woozy even, for a couple of days. The doctors said she was bleeding from the sutures they’d made when they pieced her back together again like Humpty Dumpty. The tissue was still weak, apparently, still prone to tearing, even though she’d been out of the vice that was her body cast for months and months. Active and strong, she’d overcome more than 100 fractures, including some bones in her back, damage to her spleen and muscle tissue everywhere had been bruised and broken. No paralysis, no loss of limb, just a million minor rearrangements that her body had to adapt to as it reassembled itself into a whole organism again.

That car had come out of nowhere and broadsided their sedan. The whole family was in it, but she took the brunt of the force, the front quarter of the car caving in before it rolled over and over and over again. Noah was least injured, thank god, seated in the back of the car and half asleep when it struck. When he’d seen her after, trussed up and bandaged, arms and legs dangling from straps, her head in a metal band with screws holding her head rigidly still, the band attached to a kind of cruel corset, also made of metal to hold everything carefully aligned, to let her banged up body heal, he looked stricken with fear. He was in a cast of his own and a less severe suit of armor to let his whiplash injured neck subside. That was the hardest part – seeing him sober in the face of her vulnerability. Moms aren’t supposed to leave us. They aren’t supposed to hurt – they fix our hurts, he’d thought. And she saw it on his face.

Jessica gave her daughter a stinging little pinch on the thigh, startling her out of her reverie. She looked alarmed at her mother, who was pursing her lips and looking at her coldly. “I’m sorry dear, I’ve got to get the dishes done,” she said, rising again but this time without a hint of hesitation – she was not staying for an encore. At the sink, she turned on the water and let it run, waiting for the hot water to arrive before she’d fill the sink. Looking out the window while she waited, she pieced together the menu she was planning for dinner, some potatoes, mashed, she thought, some beef that could be roasted in the oven, and Julie’s nemesis, Brussels sprouts, steamed and tossed with salt and butter. “They’re good for you,” Jessica mouthed, shaking her head at the imagined resistance playing out in her head. “You should eat them.”

The water was scalding hot now and she plugged the drain, letting it fill and adding dish soap to the bath. When it was full she plunged in her hands, holding them there in the steaming water, taking them out only when the pain had reached all through her fingers, her palms, not just the skin stinging but the ache of all her nerves chiming in. It felt exhilarating and dangerous. Her face broke into a grin as she pulled them out, pink and raging.

It Was Supposed to Be Fun: School and Being Parents

Here is my impression: When I was a little girl, everyone knew what was happening in the grade schools. Parents – well, Moms in particular – had the time and took the time to gossip about each other, their children and the teachers and principal. Even the school nurse got some time on the list of quibbles and praises as the moms chatted, handsets tucked under their chins as the phone cord stretched from the wall to where they mixed batter for cookies or made themselves a sandwich for their lunches. The Moms – their hair was quaffed (having spent all night in rollers and then stiffening the result with a good dose of Final Net). That phone cord could almost get stretched straight some days, and then twist and wind around itself in knots until someone held the handset upside down and let it spin to unwind, the dial tone humming and then barking, giving one a sense of urgency about getting it back into its cradle.

None of these things exist anymore; what phone is left in a cradle? It’s a charging station. What cord could there be in our wireless, cordless, battery powered lives? We don’t stretch anything anymore – we don’t struggle to communicate while being productive. We talk on Bluetooth while we drive and simply walk down the hall when the laundry calls, not stopping to think of any limits to our ability to confide, confer and express. And we’re all running out the door at any minute, to the office, to the gym, to the doctor, to the store – no one is even home most days, all day long.

So when it came time to take my kid to school, I had certain expectations. I expected to see the other parents in the room or on the playground. I expected to connect with them immediately and start in on our shared experience of parenting. But to start with, I didn’t take my kid to school, my husband was the one on tap for that. And when I did take him or pick him up, the parents were in and out, or if they hung around, they were carefully scrutinizing the environment, their child, the other children, suspicious of some kind of failure happening, ever vigilant in case there was some signal that their child needed to be defended; mother bears, all of us, with vicious dispositions.

The Montessori was no better as a place to connect – they didn’t even allow us out of our cars. “It’s for the good of the children,” they said. They knew better, they said. Who could fault them? When the parents, focused intently on their children’s emotions and attitudes could be so easily played, could be cried or cajoled into staying too long, or taking their children home rather than endure the tears and tantrums of separation. Parents can be such suckers. And all the kids know it.

Public grade school was nothing short of confusing. Attempting to “give kids a sense of responsibility” they would rely on seven and eight year olds to deliver key communications about the PTA, about classroom field trips, picture day, calendar changes and more. I will never forget arriving at school and finding it vacant of kids, only to be told in the main office that the calendar had been changed; it was now a teacher workday (go figure, how I’d missed that memo). Then there was the time we didn’t get home for the first day of school after winter break. Who starts school on the Monday after New Years? All the kids were wondering where Peter was. I felt humiliated and foolish. What kind of mother doesn’t know when school starts?

That “Trust The Kids” with adults’ information needs continued in middle and high school. And so we parents, disenfranchised of any connectivity or responsibility, were turned away at the door. We were left to our cars, to our cell phones, to our work and home tasks only. And when we asked our kids about school, all we heard was “fine.” When we asked what happened in classes, we got glares, blank stares or the ever evocative “nothing.”

I had hoped that my child’s involvement in the high school marching band would help to change my experience of school-as-a-parent. Football games when I was growing up were the true rallying point for the community. Back then, all there was to do on a Saturday night was to see a movie (one movie showing at one time at the one theater), go out to dinner, or watch programming on one of the four TV channels (Saturday night never provided stellar options).  A single school play, concert or football game could literally double the opportunities for entertainment in our hometown. Everybody went. Ok, not everybody. But when our parents were in the stands and we were traipsing in little cliques around the high school track, watching each other more than the game, there was a sense of belonging, of being a part of something, of connecting to all the people we knew, whether we cared for them or not.

We tried, truly. But it seemed like too little too late. The few parents who had made their way through, who had tolerated the rebuffs better than I and found companions to keep them connected to the community, had well-established identities and histories with one another. We were the anomalies. Interlopers. Late-comers. The party was past its peak. We’d missed the boat and were left standing, wearing our mascot-inspired hoodies and our good intentions, right there on the dock.