Sunday, May 25, 2008
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
A friend listened to me recently about my new living circumstances, how hard it is to sit with the quiet at night, my children enjoying a movie and popcorn in their home across town. The sound of the stillness creeps in like a truck in the distance until it roars with thoughts of regret and uncertainty. The urge is overwhelming to find distraction, go out into the world to sing and dance at the first party I can find.
Heartfelt compassion poured out of her in response, words of advice, comfort and wisdom that ignited knowledge just beneath the surface of my own heart. An inner voice has been whispering to me without articulation each night as I have stood still with my feelings of loneliness and discomfort, near Depression.
Then she laughed.
“I don’t know where this comes from” she said, “But someone who was really close to you wants you to know.”
Several years ago, this woman suffered the impossible loss of her only child. In addition to bearing her grief, she has become a beacon to others about how to move forward with pain. In no extraordinary or “Twilight Zone” way, she simply knows her daughter’s spirit is present, vital and very much alive. And talking to her, it is very easy to believe it too.
Be patient, she said. Trust that this is a time to quietly know yourself. Feel your pain and discomfort, be tender and caring to yourself. The lessons will have to be learned, and distractions only put them off. Listen to your own voice, learn and love who you really are. Move through this time with clarity, sit with patience, like a warrior.
“So this is not me talking,” she said with a smile, “Is there anybody you know who could be wanting you to hear this?”
Already, I had been thinking of my Uncle Bill, a mischievous man absolutely full of the joy in life, who died several years ago at 74, on his motorcycle returning from his beloved softball games. Often, we are compared by many who have known us, and confused by my mother in her dreamlike state. Each of us with hearts of gold, arms embracing, willing to give all we have, each of us has been humbled by some inherent flaw to under-achieve.
Bill’s route, when depression took hold, was to find his cave in Florida, far from family. Unreachable, he checked in occasionally with my mother by pay phone. It took a long time for his daughters to find him again emotionally. Earning a small living as an umpire, he had his room, his motorcycle, and, as we discovered upon his death, he had accumulated a wealth of family and friends who loved him.
The spirits of several men come to mind at certain times. On the edge of a steep and challenging ski slope, too tired, I think, to make it safely down, I draw upon the lessons of my friend Milt who patiently taught a petrified 12 year old that you could ski hard and fast at any age. Only 8 when he died, I play golf with my grandfather beside me on every swing because that is what we did together; that, and a roadside burger and milkshake are the best signs that all is well in my world.
Death takes people away from us in one way and gives them back in another. You do not have to see the spirit on this woman’s shoulder to know her daughter is there. She is just so brilliant, confident and peaceful that the question evaporates.
Then suddenly, after writing all this, I realize, her daughter and my uncle died within weeks of each other. From each of our shoulders, they must be having a good old laugh.
Life goes on.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
On the coast of Oregon, ninety miles away from the eruption, it was a day to commemorate. 28 years later, I honor it still.
My first time to the mountain was nine months before any hint of volcanic activity, a spontaneous jaunt on a beautiful June morning. Setting foot on the overlook, the highest point of the road, on the side that later was blasted across fifty square miles, my then wife immediately urged a quick departure. Her tone left no room for discussion. “Something feels really weird here.”
Below the mountain, we rested at Spirit Lake, spending the night at Harry Truman’s Lodge. His only guests that night, he drank his rum, told his stories to us, and wriggled his player piano. From our cabin in the middle of the night, kids sleeping soundly, I was in awe of the moon sparkle across the lake to the limitless majestic trees, the most beautiful place in all the world.
Excitement, wonder, anticipation, and awe were just some of the emotions rising with the increased reports of an awakening volcano. People set up tents on the perimeter in hopes of a good show.
All accounts tell of the surprise and incredulity when Mt St Helen’s finally blew. There were quick deaths and terrifying escapes. The tales and pictures fill many books, sold at tourist stands in the reborn area.
I had Back East friends visiting that weekend. After the first news bulletin, with little knowledge of the enormity of the event, we went for a walk on the high bluffs of the coast to enjoy incredible vistas of the vast ocean.
Living there for several years, I had learned, like shooting stars, with patience, you could see whale spouts and flukes just about any day of the year, easily a burst of them in the seasons of migration. Several times a year, with luck, you can actually see one breach, mammoth bodies out, up, and over with a crash of water back into the sea.
On the day of St Helen’s eruption, we watched for hours as groups of five whales leaped and danced, splashed over, and were followed by more, then again more. From above, we witnessed a pod of 150 grays, 30 to 60 feet long, black shadows effortlessly erupting. The shudder of the volcano reached the seas, and the whales romped in echo.
In the following week, amazing stories and pictures were revealed of harrowing accounts and desperate maneuvers to survive the devastation. Glued to the television, we witnessed whole houses float down the river and splinter to pieces hitting a steel bridge. A couple in a tent awoke to find themselves spared and their friends crushed by trees. A family raced 80 miles an hour on dirt roads outrunning the cloud, and still taking pictures out the window, documenting. A news reporter struggled for three days barefoot in soot, filming himself preparing to perish. Harry Truman was never found.
A smaller eruption a week later, made Portland look like a nuclear wasteland of grey, dry rain, only the fewest and bravest of people scurrying with masks on their faces. The ash reached the coast. Rumors abounded that Mt Hood and others were showing seismic activity. It would seem we were in for a life regularly interrupted by eruptions. People talked of moving to safer ground.
But like all major events in our lives, things settled back into our normal patterns. For a year or two, “little” puffs were acknowledgements, reminders of an old friend. At work, I might be gazing out to the unending blue sky of the East, bend down to drive nails, and stretching up again, see that same sky filled with the plume. Rounding corners on the highway towards Portland, I always looked for the glimpses of the mountain.
Life goes on. The tremors subsided, went through a flurry several years ago that raised the level of attention, even as I now live 3000 miles away. The area apparently is revitalized with life, a veritable science lab of education and reaffirmation of the Earth’s ability to heal.
Life goes on.
Monday, May 12, 2008
I was asked the other day why I am not cooking meals at my little place. My mind roved over the images of a kitchen full of construction junk, and smiled inwardly: so easy to understand; so difficult to explain.
Dust is on everything. Boxes clutter the corners. Something has to be moved to get to anything else. The intention was to keep possessions and furniture out until floors were sanded at least, but the clutter has arrived.
No shelf has been designated for bills in or payments out, so piles have grown haphazardly and I fear some are currently forgotten, lost or late. The laundry is now a project to be hauled up the street, endured and waited out, so it is not done, another pile in another corner.
Shelves quickly are built to get the books on display, lending a semblance of comfort. My Dad’s unframed paintings are thumbtacked on the walls, covering the bare surfaces. Carpets are thrown down and quickly covered with paths of sawdust and chips. There is no place to eat a meal--the one table being covered with computer, mat knife, hand cream, papers, and paper plates—much less cook one.
For several weeks, I have been looking at the pile of recycled oak ready for installation, and known that before that could happen, I needed to solve the two major dips in the subfloor. Brief explorations have revealed that this will be an ugly, dirty, hand-scratchingly terrible job to replace hard-to-reach rot. No clean and simple task, so the project, the Entire Project, stands on hold.
Instead, I have eaten out, gone to movies, played soccer, diverted my attention from this renovation which would lead me to feeling more settled in my new place.
Avoidance and procrastination seem to be constant challenges in my life. Necessary tasks to a better future also seem to create discomfort and are easy to set aside, even at the expense of setting “Life” aside. Unwilling to face the obstacle, I can easily find distractions. More “pressing” demands offer the perfect excuses.
There have been times this repair could have been made. I stared at the spot, contemplating solutions. I have devised a plan and brought my tools inside, ready to attack, but still have not begun, the ugliness, the dirty reality of the task too daunting. My kitchen has remained an unusable mess.
Could there be some deeper issue at stake? Is this avoidance of a dirty job really about not accepting the changes, the Reason I am here? Perhaps if this space becomes “finished” and livable, I will have to repair the rest of my life, examine the looming future, and actually move through the open door mysteriously just before me.
But, of course, there is a new door at every moment, a juncture with every footstep, even when no step is taken. This future arrives whether I sit in idle contemplation or recreate my surroundings into some place inviting, beautiful and comfortable. The power lies within me.
So when the time is right, with crowbars and saws, I rip more holes in the floor, install new straight wood where the old had rotted and sagged. Even with a mask, I am gagged by the odor and dust. My hands bleed, my fingers claw at every last piece I can reach, scratched by bent, rusty nails. Still more dust settles on my scattered belongings, but at last, I can continue to install the oak.
Life is at hand: soon, I will be cooking at Home.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening for at least 10 years, from the thaw in early April to first snow in December, there has been a pick-up game of soccer down by the Lake.
Sneakers or shirts mark the goals and a shot has to be below the knees to count, but no one keeps score anyway. The boundaries are as wide as the ball is kicked and the field dips and rolls dangerously, not at all a good field for sports, but always available for our purposes.
Teams are darks and lights, and if it gets unbalanced, a few of us have learned to bring an extra shirt to switch sides. Players range in age from 60’s to 6 with the majority being 30’s and 40’s. We urge caution when it gets rough and hold back from the collisions you might see in a college game. If the ball gets by me, I know better than to chase hard after it.
Still, this is some serious soccer. A small city that was 99% white when this game started, Burlington has benefited from a refugee population and the new world economy. Latinos, Bosnians, Africans, and Arabs play with passion, fuming in their languages. We Vermonters can hold our own, though. There is no break in the action for 2 to 3 hours as people drop in and out, according to their schedules. It is clearly about the love of the game.
My son watched the first few times I played. Then invited in, he waited cautiously off to one side, dribbling a few kicks when the ball came to him as the guys playfully jostled and challenged the 6 year old boy. Gradually, he has moved towards the center of the action, scoring against serious challenges, sticking solidly on defense, and biking to the park on his own if I am running late.
Injured seriously in college play, then moving to a little town on the Oregon Coast, I thought my soccer days were long over. We get old, don’t we? Have families, have to protect our bodies? We should not be kicking in a young man’s game. But play I do: full sprints (10 yards!), solid headers (off the bounce!), long kicks (for the first few minutes!), and dancing out of crowds (sometimes with the ball, usually not!).
I have learned to play defense because I just cannot run like I used to. Let them come to me, I say! With age and experience comes patience. I find just staring at the ball, no matter how much the South American moves it left, right, and all around, I can sometimes reach my foot in there and snap it away. I rarely run with it. For me, it is all about redistribution. To be still playing and learning at 54 is a wonderful surprise, and I suppose if a heart attack did happen, I could not pass any more peacefully.
But the very best is to be doing this with my son. Sometimes we are side by side on defense, covering for each other, communicating with body, words and grunts. He is behind me if the guy gets past, and a thrill to watch “sticking” it away from somebody inches in front of me.
Last night, we played against each other. He scored a hat trick (but who’s counting?!!), shoved the ball right through my legs twice, and gloated for those successes. I got it away from him several times, considered now a victory compared to candy from a baby. The standout moments were stride for stride, arms shoving, feet entangled, laughter all around us.
(Pictures would be a part of this if I could stop playing long enough to take any)
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Today is my birthday.
The Tarot card is the Four of Swords, another pulled at random and right on the mark.
“Fours relate to stabilization; for the unhappy swords this translates as rest or even just retreat. The image shows not Death, but withdrawal. People sometimes respond to difficulties by isolating themselves, literally hiding in their houses, or simply flattening their emotional reactions to hide inside themselves.”
What began as a project for a friend—a simple replacement of bath and kitchen floors—has become my resting place, my cave. This tiny 2 bedroom apartment at the bottome of a rickety 3 unit building was tired, ugly, cramped; in as much need of repair as I. We have united, and the place looks all the better for it.
So many years of stress has taken its toll, and I finally find myself no longer able to swim against the current, but have let go and am floating…
To live here, I must have a decent, larger, cleaner bathroom, so I have gutted and replaced everything, much to the astonishment and delight of my good friend, the Landlord. We found a good deal on recycled oak flooring, so I am installing and finishing it room by room. The deck outside which was literally falling away has been propped up and at least looks straighter and more inviting. The view out the window on the side of a small city is all woods down to a river boiling with melted snow, the rush of cars behind me barely heard.
Possession with spirit comes upon building shelves and bringing to light books long stored in boxes lugged from home to home. To have them on display, seeing their titles is like reading them all over again. My guitar sits within easy reach. At a job, I noticed an old carpet tossed aside and the owner happy to give it a new home. At the grocery store, my son rounds the corner with lovely bowls, laughing that we can’t be eating cereal bowls forever in plastic.
“Withdrawal…can lead to healing, if the purpose is not to hide, but to recoup strength.”
Naturally, there are as many stories to tell about my choice of cave as people who know me to tell it. While they are all valid in their own respect, I can only write about mine. It is not about the pain I have suffered or the hurt I have caused. I have spent a long long time struggling with that. Also, it is very private, and I can at least be respectful and loving, honoring others by silence.
This is a story about recovery, about becoming the man I want to be, about creating the space that invites transformation, about not taking, but giving and receiving. I take to heart that this is Midlife, that time remains—though evermore precious—in abundance, to be utilized, not wasted.
The Tarot interpretation also alludes to the Fischer King and to the true myth of Sleeping Beauty, how both were revived by the energy of others. “Withdrawal, even for the purpose of recovery, can shut a person off from the world, creating a kind of spell only outside energy can break.”
So I look to all of you, my friends, new and old.
Today is my Birthday!