Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ring Out!

In Memoriam
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, 
The flying cloud, the frosty light: 
The year is dying in the night; 
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die. 

Ring out the old, ring in the new, 
Ring, happy bells, across the snow: 
The year is going, let him go; 
Ring out the false, ring in the true. 

Ring out the grief that saps the mind 
For those that here we see no more; 
Ring out the feud of rich and poor, 
Ring in redress to all mankind. 

 Ring out a slowly dying cause, 
And ancient forms of party strife; 
Ring in the nobler modes of life, 
With sweeter manners, purer laws. 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin, 
The faithless coldness of the times; 
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes 
But ring the fuller minstrel in. 

 Ring out false pride in place and blood, 
The civic slander and the spite; 
Ring in the love of truth and right, 
Ring in the common love of good. 

Ring out old shapes of foul disease; 
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; 
Ring out the thousand wars of old, 
Ring in the thousand years of peace. 

Ring in the valiant man and free, 
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land, 
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Star Fork

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this, but it bears repeating: I am a child of the working class. My family didn’t live in abject poverty, but we lived right next door. When I was very young, my father worked as a construction laborer, hustling from one project to the next. When a project was complete, the paychecks stopped until he hustled up another job.  My mother worked outside the home, still atypical in the 1960s, not because she was a feminist but because we needed the money.  Over the years, my dad climbed the ladder from laborer to supervisor to project manager. He traded in his hard hat and pickup truck for a sharp suit and a company car. My mom worked at a drug store lunch counter while taking night courses at the community college until she landed her first office job.

California was a foreign country to the Okies and Arkies escaping the poverty-stricken south. Like other refugees before and since, my parents were aspirational dreamers who reserved their biggest dreams for their children There’s a cliché that newly arrived immigrants work in manual labor so their kids can go to college and become professionals and their grandchildren can become artists and philosophers.  My family tried compress that progression into two generations with mixed success. As a teenager I was certain I was going to be find fame and fortune as an actor and musician, but I was disabused of that notion pretty quickly.  I credit my early entry into parenthood for a much-needed reality check.  When you come from the working class, there’s no safety net. Your parents cannot bail you out when you fail. Artists must fail repeatedly, it's an integral part of the artistic process, but failure was a luxury I could not afford. I needed a regular paycheck, health insurance, some semblance of stability for my daughters. So, I found work in arts administration. At times, it's hard to be near the art but not of the art, but  I’m not complaining. I've had the luxury of working in close proximity to the art I love while reaping the benefits of a standard schedule, regular paycheck and health insurance.  It may not have been the “best” of both worlds, but it was both worlds and that’s a blessing.

My brother Bryan never made the transition from wannabe artist to family-wage career.  He didn’t have both worlds, he had neither. Is that why he committed suicide a year ago today?

In the years leading up to her death, my mother and I spoke frequently about Bryan. It was my privilege and honor to provide her with a place to offload some of the pain he caused. She told me about his scenes, his rages, his constant need for financial support. He was intensely volatile, physically aggressive, combative, manipulative, paranoid, defensive. He picked fights with my father that devolved into physical shoving matches. He constantly fought with his wife and, when she would kick him out of their house, he would drive to my parents’ house and scream at her on their phone. He was in constant conflict with his family, his community, the police. He was even involved in some kind of incident on the day my mother died. The only reason I know this is because he babbled something about it as we sat by her deathbed. The details were garbled and he never referred to it again after she died, so the whole story is lost, but it doesn't matter. The plain fact is, he caused my mother years of stress, breaking her heart over and over again until she died of an aneurysm.  

I never spoke a word of blame to him, but I admit, there was blame in my heart. 

My parents' deaths are still etched in my soul like a scar, the most painfully traumatic events of my life. In the midst of this suffering, my mentally ill brother plunged a knife into the wound and kept twisting, indulging in rages, tantrums, public scenes. I don’t know why. There is no answer, other than he was mentally ill, a fact made all too obvious by his suicide. I repeatedly urged him to seek treatment, but I couldn’t help him and I wouldn't allow him drag me down like he did my parents. I had to save myself.  I do not feel guilty for cutting Bryan out of my life; I did what I had to do for my own emotional health. But, I wish it could have been different. I wish we could have found our way to forgiveness and reconciliation.

When I was a child, we had no “family silver” or anything like it. Our kitchen drawer was full of mismatched metal flatware, including two forks with stylized starbursts on the handle, known as the “star forks.”  When I would set the table, I would very consciously give myself one of the star forks and Bryan the other. My brother Greg was the oldest son and closest to me in age; he was my serious rival for family supremacy. Bryan was never a threat; he was my baby brother and I doted on him.  We all doted on him. He was charming, funny, smart, cherished. He never had to prove himself to our father the way Greg and I did. He could be his smart-ass, shit-bird self and make everyone in the family laugh. 

And so it was, until it wasn't any more. 

What happened?  I’ll never know. All I know is, one year ago today, Bryan's mental illness reached its apogee and he took his own life. I pray he found peace .  May this pain mark the starting point in a journey towards forgiveness: forgiveness for him, forgiveness for myself.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold Snap, Hard Freeze

-14° campers.  Yes, minus fourteen degrees, 14 below zero. That's what the thermometer outside the kitchen window said on Sunday morning. It was undoubtedly the coldest temperature we have ever experienced in the Colestin since we bought our place in 1995. Sequoia and I were reminiscing today about the two years we lived in Bend Oregon where 20 below is not unusual, but here on the west side of the Cascades, subzero temps are not the norm. Monday was slightly warmer, a balmy zero at dawn, but it was down in the low teens again by sunset. Sequoia got a blazing fire going in the hot tub and I scurried up steps in my robe and rubber clogs, breathing clouds of steam. The trick is to kick one shoe off, put that foot in the tub, pull the robe up around my ass while straddling, kick the other shoe off, put my second foot into the tub and then pull the robe off over my head while simultaneously lowering myself into the hot water.  It takes balance to make that transition from one foot in the tub to two feet in the tub, and it takes concentration not to drop my robe in the water, but anything worth having is worth working for, right?  The hot tub was 108° which, in most cases, melts the flesh right off my bones. But I was already up on the deck with one foot in the tub and my ass hanging, out; what was I going to do, back out?  Stepping out of the bitter cold into the blazing hot was a new kind of tingle, I'll say that.  After about 5-6 minutes, the heat became unbearable and I stood up.  The cold felt delicious for the first 30 seconds or so; after that it was back into the water. I bobbed up and down like a cork for about 20 minutes and then dunked one more time to get myself good and hot for the walk back down the stairs.  When I got to the house, I realized that the damp at the nape of my neck was frozen; I had ice in my hair. 

Of course the pipes froze at the Oak Street house.  For the last six weeks, Sequoia and I have been working on that house as hard as we've worked on anything in years. Think sore muscles and torn up hands. We managed to finish the rental unit by December 1, just in time for our lovely new tenant Alissa to move in.  Our side of the house is still a construction zone mess, not at all set up for sleeping, so we've been driving back and forth to the Colestin during the ice storm.  I stayed out in the Colestin all weekend, hunkered down and warm; it was bliss. Then Alissa called on Sunday to say that the pipes in the rental unit had frozen. It took some doing, but Sequoia got everything flowing again. My hero.  Welcome to the life of a landlord.

Even though this transition has been harder, longer and more expensive than we had hoped, I am convinced that buying this house in Ashland was the right choice.  It is time to change my life, campers.  I love my life in the Colestin, but I've got another 10 years in the working world, one way or another. I can't face driving over that pass for another 10 years.  I'm dense, but even I can see the handwriting on that wall.  

The phrase "hard freeze" very accurately sums up the last week.  It has been a hard, frozen week in more ways than one. Breathe deep the frosty air and move forward, campers. Move forward.