IMMIGRANT EYES 4.27.21
We took our place in line. Between fish sticks and frozen burritos, Eggos and Lean Cuisines.
The Wal-Mart pharmacy had set up a station for administering the Covid vaccine, over in the frozen foods section. There was a check-in desk and a few cardboard partitions – attempting to give a sense of privacy for the actual jab.
After almost twenty years here, Nomad can still look at the US through immigrant eyes. “This is a beautiful thing about this country,” he said. “When there’s a will to do something, America can ‘get her done.’ We’re here in a grocery aisle, about to receive a vaccine for a global pandemic. It’s impressive.”
He went on to note that many countries wouldn’t be able to work this quickly, this efficiently. Too much corruption; too much disorganization. “This country can MOVE when it needs to,” he said. “I mean, just look at World War II, the men went to war and the women went to work. The US produced more aircraft than all the other allies combined. Then you had the rationing on food and gas and other supplies – and the victory gardens. Really, this country is amazing!”
Nomad reads a lot of history books, and I sometimes roll my eyes when he launches into lecture mode. But in this case it was pretty healing to take a moment to view things from his perspective. It’s so easy right now for me to focus on how divided we are, and how far we have yet to go on so many issues.
But there’s still a lot we can do. We have an astonishing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, and work together to help each other. All over the nation, convention centers and sports arenas are being converted into mass vaccination spots. Community leaders are actively reaching out to folks who are fearful or unsure. We want to help each other. We want to heal each other. It feels important to acknowledge that.
Back in the frozen foods aisle, the nurse was friendly and quick. We waited our 15 minutes and managed to escape without purchasing any popsicles or ice cream bars. We did fall prey, however, to one celebratory box of frozen pizza — veggie supreme with rising crust. Let’s just call it one more thing that makes this country awesome!
TRASH TUNNEL vs. STUBBORN OPTIMISM 8.26.20
Beer bottles, soda cans, chips bags, candy bar wrappers, ketchup and mustard packets, too many napkins to count. Also empty packs of cigarettes, sometimes a discarded mask, and even the occasional diaper. Remnants of the cheap booze, junk food and other items purchased by the patrons of the discount-gas-convenience-mart on the corner of Granada and Gallatin Ave.
Thrown onto the street. Every. Single. Day.
Nomad and I take long morning walks, and our route includes a stretch on Granada. Earlier this week, we started to get really down about all the trash we were always walking by. It was depressing to see, and it also felt bad to keep walking by it, doing nothing. So we had this idea: we would come back with a few small trash bags and pick up the trash on Granada.
That’s what we did this morning. I’d honestly been looking forward to it. Exciting! We were going to do something to “help our neighborhood!” We were going to set a good example, “be the change” we wished to see in the world, etc. etc.
Maybe that was my trouble. Maybe I was building it up too much in my own head, expecting to feel good and perhaps even giving myself a premature self-righteous pat on the back? Pride goeth before a fall, and all that?
Because friends, all it did was bum me out. HARD! We brought two plastic bags. They were full before we’d even collected a fraction of that trash. And here’s the kicker, it’s one thing to walk by and see trash out of the corner of your eye. It’s quite another to go looking for it and actually lay your hands on it. Once we started working, we became aware that there was exponentially more trash than we’d first realized. I walked over to a collection of what I thought was two empty beer bottles, and discovered there were actually six empties, plus a Wild Turkey bottle, plus a few smooshed Coke cans, plus napkins and various wrappers from all kinds of candy bars. My bag was full in minutes, and visually we hadn’t even made a DENT in the trash.
It brought me no joy. It brought me no sense of accomplishment. It felt like an exercise in utter futility. It felt like we were two grains of sand trying to hold back an ocean of junk food trash.
My mind wasn’t helping. “You know there’ll just be more trash tomorrow — more trash in an hour!” “What a waste of time.” “Humans are a wretched, wretched species and the only way to save the planet is if we all just die.”
Yes, my thoughts really did get that dark.
I’d crash landed in a place of hopelessness. The only thing I could think to do was walk a different route…
I came back to a conversation Nomad and I had the other day — about climate change, the virus, family dysfunction, social justice in America, the future of humanity, you know, “everything.” We noted how the first inklings of awareness about any issue are often unbearably painful. To heal from any form of suffering, you first need to acknowledge and bring awareness to that suffering. Like remembering a long-suppressed childhood trauma, or coming to grips with the role our species is playing in degrading the environment. Pain is the doorway. Pain is the tunnel we all have to walk through.
That tunnel is long. That tunnel is dark. Today I took my first steps into this particular tunnel (the Granada-street-trash-tunnel — small potatoes compared to many things!) and basically just wanted to give up and turn around. “Walk a different route.”
I guess that’s what this is. In order to “fix” the trash problem on our morning walk, we have to get up close and personal with that trash. We have to acknowledge just how much of it there is. We have to understand and accept that there will be more tomorrow, and in fact we may never live to see a morning walk free of beer bottles and candy wrappers. Somehow, Nomad and I have to find a way to tolerate all this misery and keep coming back every morning with more bags. We have to find the hope at the end of the pain tunnel.
Here’s where a more ambitions writer would make an analogy to larger issues: social justice, climate change. “It’s gonna be painful,” she’d write. “It may get worse before it gets better.”
I’ll spare you the hyperbole and tired rhetoric. If I could, I’d spare us all that trip through the pain tunnel. Let’s skip it, and just beam ourselves to the other side, where hope reigns eternal, all is well on planet Earth, and Granada street is trash-free.
Meanwhile, here in reality, I’ve got dozens of plastic bags and a husband who has ridiculous amounts of stubborn optimism. These things alone won’t save the world, but they may be enough to get me a few steps further into this tunnel. I’ll let you know when I start to see light at the end …
BEIGE COUCH GUYS 1.19.18
I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I still remember that apartment. Neutrals and whites, no artwork, no knick-knacks. Furniture that was new but not nice, like something recently purchased from a discount furniture store.
I was in my very early twenties, and this guy was a vague friend of a friend. He had offered to host me and my girlfriend Amy as we were traveling through his town. It was late and Amy had gone to bed right away, but I had stayed up to talk to our host for a bit. To be nice. To be polite.
We were sitting side-by-side on his beige couch when he leaned over to kiss me. Make no mistake, I was NOT into this guy. Not even a little bit. But I didn’t shove him away. I probably “kind of” kissed him back. A lukewarm return. To be nice. To be polite. And more, to obey a genetically programmed impulse – “don’t anger the male.”
This is something many women have done at one time or another. Given in to unwanted advances. Sometimes because we don’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. More often because we don’t want to anger the male.
This goes deep. As if it’s in our DNA. An evolutionary survival strategy. Give in, give in, give him what he wants. Smile and be nice and maybe you won’t get beaten or killed.
It’s easier to identify the real predators. Criminals. Monsters. But what about this guy with the beige couch? Before ultimately backing off, his advances became so aggressive that I remember wondering if Amy would hear me if I screamed.
But could it be that he was just confused? Maybe he interpreted me staying up to chat as sexual interest? When he kissed me and didn’t get slapped in the face and shoved away, maybe that strengthened his misinterpretation? Maybe he was basically a decent guy who was really, really bad at reading social cues?
Yesterday as I read Grace’s account of her interaction with Aziz Ansari, so much of what she described sounded painfully familiar. The non-verbal cues. Trying to angle her body away. Saying “let’s chill.” Someone reading that account may wonder why she didn’t just firmly tell him no.
But I know why. Because I’ve been there. When a man starts to make a woman uncomfortable, that “don’t anger the male” impulse kicks in. Many men would be shocked and saddened to learn how often women are afraid of them. And how often that fear manifests itself as acquiescence. That girl at the bar, the one who “kind of” smiled back at you. She may not be interested in you. She may just be trying to not piss you off. So that you don’t get angry. And attack her in the parking lot.
#MeToo and #TimesUp are creating much-needed seismic shifts in our society. Predators, abusers and men who were waaay out of line are being called out. Women are finding their power, and some men are finally FINALLY facing consequences for horrid behavior.
But it’s tougher to navigate with these beige couch guys. Guys who are “mostly okay,” but awkward, and horrible at reading social cues. Not monsters, not rapists. But men who sometimes make women VERY uncomfortable.
I hear people passing judgment on Grace. I hear some ready to condemn Aziz. I hope we can all move forward in a healthy way. And I also hope we can start having this dialogue and raising new levels of consciousness. I hope that young girls growing up today feel safe and empowered enough to speak up when they’re not comfortable. I hope the age-old “don’t anger the male” impulse starts to quiet down. And I hope that men can increase their awareness. Slow down. Back off. Get better at reading social cues. And if you’re really, really not sure, just let the woman take the lead. Trust me, sometimes we like that.
It was a moment of real cowardice.
Twelve years ago. We’d just moved to Nashville and I was a songwriter very gung-ho about getting a publishing deal, or a staff writing position – getting a “cut” and changing the trajectory of my career. To that end I scheduled meetings with publishers in town, one with a string of recent number-ones.
I was nervous, but trying to appear cool — showing him I belonged with the other hit writers on his payroll. I wanted him to like me. I wanted this to work.
Early in the meeting he shocked me by asking what church I went to. I hesitated, wanting desperately to fit in. “I was raised Episcopal,” I finally said, “but I don’t really go anymore.” This was true, but I purposely downplayed my dissolution with religion, making it seem more like laziness instead of the seismic shift it actually was.
But remember, this was 2004. Maybe you heard about the Anglican church considering a split over the idea of gay clergy. In 2004, that debate was raging inside Episcopal churches.
To my horror, the publisher thought that was why I had a problem with the church. “Yeah,” he nodded sympathetically. “My daughter and son-in-law quit going to their church too because they hired a homosexual minister.”
I paused. Just a beat.
Thoughts flashed through my mind at light speed. Mostly “Aaaaaaarrgh,” with a bit of “Is this really happening?” and “I so wanted this to work.” But the truth shone down like a ray of sunlight dimming so many flickering candles: “NO. I CANNOT let this man think this is what I meant.”
I took a breath and opened my mouth to disagree. Then his phone rang. He took the call and chatted for a few minutes, and when he hung up we just moved on.
I didn’t get that job, or any staff writing position. My musical life has taken a different direction and I’m grateful for that.
But I am still haunted by my cowardice of twelve years ago. I have many beloved friends and family members who are gay, and I am still deeply ashamed that I failed to immediately stand up and defend them against the bigotry and bias of Music Row.
Which brings me to today. A recent piece in Salon said “Conservatives delight in warring against liberals. Liberals will always want to make peace.” That sentiment hit home with me. How many times had I stayed silent during uncomfortable discussions, all for the sake of “peace”?
It’s not working. I feel many of us are now seeing there can be no peace while certain groups within our society remain marginalized.
I am not a brave person. I abhor confrontation. I’m timid and fearful in uncomfortable situations. But to quote a post from Pantsuit Nation, we need to “lean in to the discomfort.” Trump’s campaign was founded on scapegoating, marginalizing and vilifying different segments of our population. Sadly, there are plenty of Americans willing to go along with those misguided, non-values. But THERE ARE MORE OF US WHO ARE NOT.
I fear some of us (myself included!) have been too silent, preferring peace over potentially “upsetting” conversations. I fear this aggressive minority identifying with xenophobia, racism and bigotry now thinks they are the voice of our nation.
They are not.
We have to let them know, they are not.
“I don’t agree.” It might be enough just to say those words, simply and civilly. Silence implies consent, and you can see where that’s gotten us. History peers over our shoulders, reminding us how much worse it could become.
I deeply regret that I haven’t always stood up for what I believed. From here on out, I vow to do better — for the sake of this nation that I so dearly love, and for ALL the people who live here.
LIKE SO MANY WOMEN 10.12.16
I remember the first boy who grabbed my crotch. It was in Mrs. Rose’s 7th grade art class. I was standing, waiting to show her my painting. This boy was behind me, and he darted his hand between my legs. He was quick, but he went deep, touching my genital area over the crotch my jeans.
It was a real violation.
I was twelve.
I was livid. I shoved him. Hard! I wasn’t thinking about what would happen, if I would get in trouble. I was blinded by rage.
He staggered backwards a few steps, then tripped over a stack of magazines. He couldn’t regain his balance and fell all the way down, on his ass, into a box of colored chalk.
I was shocked. He was shocked. And he might have gotten the message, because he never touched me again.
I’ve been thinking about that boy recently. And reading posts by my amazing and brave female friends who have been on the receiving end of so many unwanted advances, cat calls, gropings, ass-grabbings and worse. There’s been so much written about this lately because appallingly — horrifyingly – NAUSEATINGLY — one of our presidential candidates thinks it’s okay and “normal” to treat women like this.
It. Is. Not.
Not when you’re twelve. Not when you’re seventy — no matter how rich you are!
We can debate fiscal matters or gun safety or federal control vs. states’ rights till our faces turn red… or blue. It will still never be okay to treat women like this.
Several years ago I was in a bar in Eugene, Oregon. I had just gotten off stage and was talking to another musician and friend of mine, the fabulous bluesman, Mr. Walker T. Ryan. Some dweeb passed behind me and grabbed my ass. I turned in surprise, but my days of pushing guys down were over. The cool thing was, Walker went after this guy! He grabbed his arm and pulled him back and yelled in his face. “Did you just grab her ass?!? You can’t treat women like that!!!” He was my champion, and he managed to extract a mumbled apology out of the lame-o before releasing his arm.
Perhaps the time has come for us all to be our own champions? To channel our inner Walker T. Ryan? Women, all women, I think we have to speak up. I fear confrontation, and this terrifies me. But I’m more terrified about what will happen if we don’t speak up. This man cannot become the leader of our beautiful country!
And men. Good men, strong men, men that I KNOW and LOVE. I am personally begging you — for your mothers, for your wives, for your sisters, and especially for your daughters AND sons — let the world know that Americans will not stand for disrespecting women. We must not elect a leader who assaults, degrades and objectifies women – including his own daughter!
Many issues can be debated from both sides. This one cannot. This one transcends normal political differences. We have to respect one another. Otherwise all else is meaningless, and we all lose.
IN THE WAKE OF THE ORLANDO ATTACK 6.14.16
In my early 20’s, I had a friend who was questioning whether she was an alcoholic. Her mother was an alcoholic, and my friend was starting to feel like a lot of “stupid things” were happening in her own life, perhaps due to her drinking.
We had a heart-to-heart one morning, and I suggested that she try to stop drinking for a while. First, to see if she could. And second, to see if the stupid things stopped happening.
“I can’t stop drinking,” she said. “If I stop drinking, then I’m admitting I have a problem.”
In other words, according to my friend’s logic, she needed to KEEP DRINKING in order to prove that she didn’t have a drinking problem.
Today, a Tennessee lawmaker announced that he would give away two AR-15s — the same style of gun used in the recent Orlando attack. He said he was doing this as a promotion to prove that “guns weren’t the problem.”
In other words, according to this politician’s logic, we need to KEEP USING GUNS in order to prove that we don’t have a gun problem.
You can see why I was reminded of my friend.
Some people are able to drink alcohol responsibly without problems. Some people are not.
We accept this fact and have age restrictions and drunk driving laws to try and keep citizens safe.
Some people are responsible, law-abiding gun owners. Some people are not.
Can’t we also accept this as a fact and try to have tighter restrictions in place?
People hear the words “gun control” and fear that Barack Obama will come into their homes and take away their hunting rifles. But restrictions and regulations don’t have to equal “no guns.” The President’s car analogy from the town hall meeting a few weeks ago is perfect. Before we can drive a car, we have to pass a test and get a license. While driving, we have to obey the speed limit and wear our seat belts. We agree to do these things because we understand they keep us safer. No one thinks that a stop sign means the government is trying to take our cars away.
People are dying. Students are dying. Children are dying. And to prove that guns aren’t the problem, folks are clamoring for more guns. This is a flawed logic, propagated by the groups that PROFIT FINANCIALLY from gun sales. Can’t we move away from the visceral, polarizing rhetoric, and just look sensibly, together as a nation, at a public safety issue?
I’m happy to report that my friend is doing great. She’s married now and has two beautiful kids. She did stop drinking. That was the correct choice for her.
There has to be a correct choice for us. One where responsible gun owners are allowed to keep their property. And one where our brothers and sisters and friends and children won’t get massacred at a school, or a movie theater, or a night club.
I’m so grateful you are safe. I hope that no one you know personally has been a victim of gun violence. And I hope that we can each take a deep breath, and let go of our fear and anger, and work together to make this country a safer place for each and every one of our citizens.
(President Obama’s town hall response on gun control. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6imFvSua3Kg )
FIRST IT WAS FUNNY … 4.25.16
First it was funny.
Then it was concerning.
We’ve moved through “disturbing” and “shocking” and arrived here. Terrifying. Horrifying. Heart-breaking.
I cannot guess what lies in store for us, for the next few months or perhaps even the next few years.
I heard a Republican political analyst speaking yesterday. He said T. has awakened “demons from the underbelly of America.” He is a magnet for everyone’s anger and hatred. He has supporters from various races and religions. Some former Democrats have switched parties in order to vote for him. I and many people I know have a lot of trouble understanding how this can even be possible. How can this be happening in our beautiful country? How can there be this much anger and hatred in the hearts of our fellow citizens?
But anger and hatred are variations of fear. Violence is an expression of fear.
Violence is occurring more often at these rallies. And as difficult as this will probably be for all of us, I think we’ve got to start doing something.
I don’t have answers. But here’s what I do know: You cannot fight anger with anger. You can’t fight hatred with hatred. And you certainly can’t fight violence with violence. We cannot outdo this man in nastiness or vulgarity. These are his tools, and if we try to use them, he will always win.
I’ve read dozens of angry rants from my politically progressive friends. And then scrolled through the equally angry responses. Cyber fighting, in the form of Facebook comments.
I don’t think it’s helping.
The T. supporters are afraid. Afraid of losing their country. Afraid of not being able to earn a living. Afraid of people that are different from them, with customs and languages they don’t understand. They sound angry and hateful, but really they are afraid.
We have got to find a way to reach out to them with love and compassion. Tho’ that sounds as impossible to me as it does to you.
I heard the T. supporter who punched a protester at a rally threaten to kill that protester if he sees him again. “He deserved it,” the supporter said, “he was acting un-American.” Even this man’s voice over the radio was nasty and filled with hate. I can’t imagine reaching out to him with love.
But we must.
It’s the only way.
I don’t know how to do this. But I’ll confess something. Lately, for the first time in more than 20 years, I’ve begun to pray. To God.
I’m not even certain I believe in God-capital-G, and I’ve certainly left behind the male-gendered, Santa-Claus-in-the-sky of my childhood. But if we’re going to navigate this, we may need a little help. I know I do.
The prayer goes like this: Dear God / Great Spirit / Divine Universe / Collective Consciousness (I try not to get hung up on who or what exactly I’m addressing). Please let my heart be filled with peace and love. Please help my neighbors’ hearts to be filled with peace and love. Please help us all find love and compassion for one another. Let us feel safe, let us understand there is no need for fear. Let us turn away from anger and aggression, and let us understand that all our differences will only be resolved through love and compassion. Amen.
This is my prayer. For myself, for you, for all of humankind. If we remove enough of the details, there’s not much difference between extreme angry nationalism and the fundamentals of Isis-style terrorism. Both say “we are under threat from an enemy that is different from us.”
But there is no enemy. There is only ourselves. And we are all the same – genetically, all humans are 99.9% the same!! We can all feel fear. But we can also all feel love. This is the direction in which we now need to turn.
You are safe. You are loved. Pass it on!
KICKBALL — A REMEMBRANCE 12.13.15
“Pick sides for kickball.”
Four words that filled me with dread.
It didn’t have to be kickball. Any team sport involving a ball would do.
I had lived in this small Wisconsin town for two years and I was still the “new kid.” I had come from Phoenix, Arizona, where my P.E. classes consisted of ballet and yoga – we had spent one entire month learning to dance something the teacher had called “the Hustle.” Then, in the middle of 3rd grade, my family air-lifted me out of that sunny, new age school and dropped me into Cleveland Elementary, where the kids had been playing games like kickball, baseball and – most shocking of all – dodgeball(!) since kindergarten.
I don’t know if words can really convey the amount of horror I felt upon learning that there was actually a school-sanctioned sport that involved children trying to hit each other with a ball as hard as they could. But that’s a story for another time.
This was kickball.
This isn’t an “I was always chosen last” lament. I mean, I WAS always chosen last. But I didn’t care about that. What I dreaded more than the picking sides part was the actual playing part — the part where I was supposed to catch or throw or “do something!” with this object chaotically hurtling through space right at me. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even bring myself to try. I was frozen with fear and confusion every time. And when I would fail, my classmates would layer such insults upon me. Never before in my young life had anyone called me “idiot.” And the names got worse than that.
I can laugh about this now, but I’ll confess that I still have something approaching a phobia of team sports and anything involving a ball. Again, probably a story for another time.
On this day, something miraculous happened. Matt Hartmann said something nice about me.
Don’t get me wrong. I was not a social pariah in Wisconsin. Outside of P.E. class I did just fine. I had friends, and we would laugh, and make jokes and be silly together. But I had come to accept that even my classroom friends would hurl insults at me on the gym floor. When the occasion demanded it.
I don’t know what was different this day. This was the end of 5th grade, so we were all a bit older – only a year away from middle school. Maybe that was it.
“Let Mare pitch,” Matt said. “She’s the best pitcher we’ve got.”
I blinked. Was I a good pitcher? I had no idea. And if I had no idea, how could Matt possibly know??
I stood silent, trying to process this new turn of events. If this had been another kid, I might have suspected a trick – a trap! But Matt was one of my closer friends. I knew him well enough to know he would not go out of his way to put me down.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me. If I was pitching – a careful controlled rolling of the ball – then I would be saved from the horror of the outfield, the ball coming at me with frightening speed. If I was pitching, I could pretty much do my one job and then stand quietly and let the game proceed without me having to do much else.
It was a genius plan! Matt was a genius!! He had actually thought of a way to protect me from kickball, without any of the other kids even suspecting a thing! His cleverness would spare me from many insults, and save us both from the teasing that would have otherwise followed — me for sucking, him for shielding me. His strategy was brilliant in its simplicity, elegant in its casual execution. Matt was a perfect genius!
I wish I could tell you I pitched a good game. I wish I could tell you our team won. In truth, I don’t remember a thing about the actual playing of that game.
Here’s what I do remember: I realized that day I had a real friend. Not just someone to joke and be silly with, but someone who understood my fears and weaknesses. Someone who would figure out a way to try and help me through challenging times. Someone who was truly looking out for me.
My family would leave that summer for Texas. But Matt and I stayed close through letters. I returned to Wisconsin a handful of times over the next decade, and Matt was always one of the friends I saw.
Eventually we fell out of touch. I can’t say I knew him well recently, or that I knew much about his life for the past decade or more.
But I can say that he was my friend. One of the first real friends I ever had. He was smart. He had a good heart. That’s the truth.
When I remember Matt now, I won’t dwell on darkness and demons. We all have them; we all struggle sometimes. But that’s not who we are.
When I remember Matt I will think of his kindness and intelligence, his wry wit and great sense of humor, his sweet protective nature and his tenderness. I will think of his laugh, and that Wisconsin accent I used to tease him about — “oh-a, the snow-a.” I will think of sunshine and fresh air, open meadows and tall pines, blue skies and the cool, clear water of northern lakes…
And yes … inevitably … I will think of kickball.
UPON LEARNING OF A FRIEND’S SUICIDE 12.7.15
How could you not know how loved you were?
How could you not feel how valuable you were?
The last time I saw you, there was so much more to say. How could I have known it would be “the last time”?
If I could have one more conversation, here’s what I would say:
First of all: Please don’t kill yourself. Please, please don’t. You have no idea how many people care about you – how many people will agonize, wondering if they could have done more somehow. If they could have been the one to save you…
That’s the first thing I would say.
Thank you for being such a good friend to me for so many years. Such a great pen pal! I remember impatiently awaiting your letters – hourly trips to the mailbox when I was expecting one. You were such a good writer! And a good listener, through letters. I felt like you really understood me. I was more honest with you than with anyone else in my life at that time. I remember writing to you through my parents’ divorce, through my running away from home. You were the only person who knew where I was! You were the only one I wrote to from Mexico and Belize! That meant something to me then. It means even more to me now.
Also, I’m sorry.
Sorry that when we saw each other again in college, things got all tied up and confused with that lame, hooking-up energy that permeates everyone’s early 20’s. We were friends, we should not have crossed that line. I’m so sorry things got weird, and that we never got to talk about it.
“Thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Two ubiquitous sentiments. But more than that, I’m thinking that things could have been better — that things were about to get better. My husband loves fishing. You guys could have bonded over that the next time we visited. We could have re-joined each others’ community and become close again.
All things that “could have been.”
People talk about illness and imbalance, and I feel out of my depth. I don’t know much about the specific chemicals in the brain and how they are supposed to work. I don’t know when depression moves from a way that you feel to a thing that you are.
But I do know darkness.
I’ve felt suicidal at times — more often than I’d like to admit. I know the despair and hopelessness that can invade your soul. Feeling like everything is an utter waste of time, and nothing will ever be good again. I’m so sad to know that you felt this way too.
No one talks about this. Not in any kind of real way. Not on Facebook. Here, we curate the highlights of our lives. Plenty of celebrations and champagne, party pics and fun gatherings. From the outside, it looks like this is all that ever happens to other people. All the time fun. Always somewhere else.
Maybe if we could talk about how we ALL feel the darkness sometimes (don’t we?), then it wouldn’t be so lonely and terrifying when those feelings come to us? Is that true? Knowing that sometimes wanting to give up is a part of being human?
Would that have helped?
I don’t know, my friend. I wish I could have given you a big hug and told you how precious you are. More than “thank you” or “sorry,” that’s what I would say. You are precious! You are the only one of you that there is, or was, or ever will be! Isn’t that incredible?!? You are the only one who has your unique combination of traits and experiences. You are a sacred, living piece of the divine universe, expressing itself in human form. Isn’t that amazing?!
And now, you’re in some other form.
Can you hear me? Are you still “you” for a bit longer? Or have you already become sunshine and stardust?
I’ll look for you. I’ll listen for signs. If you want to say goodbye.
It’s also okay if you just want to go.
But know that you go with the love of everyone whose life you touched. And that there are many, many, MANY of us who will miss you terribly!
My dear, sweet friend.
KERRVILLE!! (HONORED, GRATEFUL, STILL IN SHOCK) 4.14.15
Nomad cooked a wonderful dinner last night. A Turkish recipe he calls “variety dish” — eggplant, tomato, pepper, onion and garlic all sautéed together. It’s delicious and I love it.
As we were eating, my phone in the kitchen went “ding.” We heard it, but didn’t move. A few minutes later, another ding. Then another, and another. By the time the meal was over I had five text messages and several emails and all saying “Kerrville!!” “Congrats!!”
I couldn’t believe it — my first thought was honestly that everyone was mistaken. I saw the email from the Kerrville Folk Festival announcing the finalists in this year’s New Folk Songwriting Contest. My heart was racing as I opened it and saw that yes indeed, my name was on that list.
It felt good… Great… Validating! But even as we were celebrating in the kitchen amongst the dirty dishes, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’d opened just such an email, only to find my name was not on that list. And I thought of all the other songwriters – many of whom are dear friends of mine – who would not see their names this year.
I first applied to the Kerrville New Folk contest fifteen years ago. I sent my entry on a cassette tape! Since then I’ve applied at least a half dozen times – maybe more. Every time so full of hope, and every time ending the same.
So yes, of course I’m happy. Giddy even. I’m very much looking forward to being there and performing what I consider to be two of my best songs. A lot of my friends are also finalists and I can’t wait for us all to hang out together and cheer each other on.
But I also want to honor everyone who applied and did not get in. This year or any year. I know soooo well that feeling of not seeing your name on the list, whether it’s for Kerrville or any other competition. I know the bitter taste of disappointment, frustration and jealousy. I know, in the face of rejection after rejection, how incredibly tempting it is to just give up.
I don’t know if I’ll wind up “winning” Kerrville this year. But I honestly feel like our true triumph as artists is not about winning competitions. It’s about creating art. And finding the will after YEARS of rejection to write one more song, create one more painting, or sculpture, or novel, or poem, or symphony. To continue honoring your life’s muse, in whatever form she speaks to you.
That is our purpose. That is our success. That is how we can live our truth and find our joy.
Everything else is just the cherry on top of the sundae… Or the garlic in the variety dish!
A CLOUD, A SWORD AND A COMPROMISE 1.8.15
Nomad and I fought yesterday. Not unusual for a married couple, but what caught my attention was that it was an “East versus West” fight – the kind we used to have early in our marriage, the kind we haven’t had in years.
I am American, born in Chicago and raised all over the country. Nomad was born and mostly raised in Turkey. We are neither one members of any organized religion, but there’s no denying that the US is culturally Judeo-Christian, while Turkey is 99% a Muslim country. Our “east vs. west” perspectives have led to many conflicts, especially early on in our relationship. But we’ve mostly worked through it. And that’s why yesterday took me by surprise.
We were scrolling through the cartoons drawn in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. We were on the same page about the horrific event: shocked, saddened, supporting free speech. We scrolled past the cartoon of a small attacker with many giant pens pointing at him. “Good,” said Nomad. We scrolled past the cartoon of the attackers shooting at the Charlie office, with a few bullets sailing through the office and hitting a Mosque behind it. “Great,” said Nomad. We scrolled past the cartoon of Mohammad sitting up in the clouds. A hand with a bloodied sword rises into the clouds and a voice says “We have avenged you, no one will dare to cartoon you again.” A shocked Mohammad looks down and says “These people are $#%@ insane.” “Really great,” said Nomad.
Then we get to the one–drawn not by a professional cartoonist—that has Mohammad himself brandishing a sword and saying “Stop calling my followers violent or they will kill you.”
Nomad shook his head in disgust. “See, it’s stuff like this that makes these guys act! They think, ‘I’ll hit them before they hit us.’”
I was confused. At first I didn’t understand. “Because they drew Mohammad?” I ask. “The other one depicted Mohammad too, and you liked it. Besides,” I add, “there’s no way that murdering 12 people is an appropriate response to any kind of cartoon, no matter how offensive.”
“Of course not,” said Nomad, “but a lot of Westerners lump all of Islam together as violent jihadists without ever looking at how things got this way.”
And the argument was off and running.
The difference between the two Mohammad cartoons is nuanced, but it is there. The Mohammad in the clouds is shocked by the violence. The Mohammad with the sword is threatening violence. My VERY LIMITED understanding of Islam tells me that most Muslims would be offended by both cartoons since it is against their religious beliefs to have any kind of depiction of the prophet, no matter what he’s saying or doing. But Nomad asserts that many modern, educated Muslims would be able to see the different viewpoints and be less offended by the Mohammad-in-the-clouds than the sword-wielding Mohammad.
The cartoons were really just our jumping off point. The meat of the argument came in Nomad’s assertion that many in the West tend to look at Muslims as violent, backwards, or even medieval without admitting that US and European policies have been and continue to be a big part of the problem. “Some Western nation has been messing with that part of the world for over a hundred years!” he exclaimed in frustration. “Even today, where do you think all the weapons come from?” Words like “Lockheed Martin,” “kalashnikov” and “Dick Cheney” were used.
“You can’t excuse murderous behavior” I shot back. “People need to take responsibility for their own actions and not always blame others for the shape they’re in.” I told him it was so “typically Turkish” to condemn the West, and cited how many Turks refer to the EU as the “Christian Club” and claim they would never get in simply because they’re a Muslim nation, instead of actually looking at Turkey’s own human rights policies, corruption levels and financial stability. Words like “conspiracy theory” and “victim mentality” were used.
It got ugly.
And it was surprising because we both thought we had left this “East vs. West” struggle behind us.
Until yesterday, our struggle had been mostly parental in nature.
Nomad’s parents did not want him to marry me, and they had dozens of imagined reasons why I was not a good enough person to become their daughter-in-law. They refused to meet me time and time again during our courtship and engagement, and by the time I did meet them — the day before our wedding — I would describe my attitude as “coolly polite” and mostly detached. My lack of warmth gave rise to new resentments on their part (Hadn’t they finally given in? Hadn’t they traveled all this way?) and so the perceived offenses continued for the better part of a decade.
For many years I wanted Nomad to “take a stand” against his parents, and demand that they accept me on my terms or that he stop seeing them.
He wanted me to kowtow and pander to them, indulge their demands and generally be a respectful Turkish daughter-in-law.
I’ve seen his parents twice since our wedding ten years ago, and both visits were far from successful. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow and go straight to the “solution” as we found it.
It’s true that the Western mind wants the son to take a stand with his wife, against his parents. All my friends confirm this.
But it’s equally true that the Eastern mind needs to honor the parents as the elder generation. An Eastern-minded wife would understand this and humor the aging parents – no matter how they treat her.
Nomad was as incapable of aggressively offending his parents as I was of dutifully submitting to them.
So we found a third way.
A road less traveled by.
Essentially, Nomad goes every year to see his parents and I stay home.
He sees them. He respects them. He makes no demands upon them.
I do not see them, but nor do I try and stop him from going … anymore! I’ve had to learn to accept that he needs these yearly visits to honor them and feel okay about himself and his life choices.
All our friends, Western and Eastern, think this is a ludicrous solution. Americans and Europeans will say something like: “So he goes to see them every year even though they’ve been so horrible to you?!?” They don’t know how I can stand it. Turks will say something like: “So your stubborn wife never even sees your parents?!?” They don’t know how he can stand it.
It’s not ideal. Nomad and I both are only 60% happy on this issue. Our marriage report card gives us a D- on the subject of in-laws.
But an A+ on compromise.
We managed to find a blend of East and West that we both can live with.
In the post-fight cool down, I was wondering if there was a similar solution for this larger issue, Islam vs. the West.
It’s so easy to let this polarize us: “Western countries are the colonizing, war-mongering, weapons-manufacturing bad guys who keep bombing the poor innocent Muslim countries back to the stone age.” Or… “Muslims are violent, medieval hicks who memorize the Koran instead of educating themselves, love their guns and bombs more than their wives and daughters, AND (worst of all) would impose their backwards, rigid ways on the whole world if they could.”
But there’s got to be another way. Another road less traveled by.
I don’t know it yet. But my guess is that it must start with compromise. We’re all citizens of the world, and as such, we all have to claim some responsibility for the state of things.
There’s certainly truth in the “colonizing, invading forces” argument, and all that resulted from the foreign policies of the US and Europe throughout the 20th Century and up to this very day. We Westerners really need to take a deep breath and a cold, hard look at accountability.
And my humble advice to Eastern minds would be that there is empowerment in claiming responsibility and shedding the role of persecuted victim. And there is strength and positive action to be found by looking inward.
It is not my intention to “preach” or to offend. I only offer that I have lived through an “East versus West” struggle for the entirety of my marriage, and that perhaps sharing this perspective might bring us a tiny bit closer to finding our way together, in peace.
HELIUM BALLOON LETTERS AND MOTHER’S DAY FOR THE MOTHERLESS 5.11.14
Ah Mother’s Day. First: if your mother is still living, and if you have any kind of half-way decent relationship with her, you should probably go call her. Do it now. I’ll wait …
The other day at the gym there was a booth staffed by a few middle-school girls. They were selling something to raise money for their school. “Hi,” one of the girls greeted me, “would you like to buy your mom a Mother’s Day card?”
I paused for a moment while the various possible responses ran through my head:
“My mom’s dead!” I could wail dramatically, and then run off crying. Scaring and scarring the poor child who probably doesn’t yet realize that mothers aren’t always going to be around.
Or I could make it a teachable moment. “Well,” I’d calmly say, “my mother is deceased. Not everyone still has a mother. Maybe you should make it more obvious what you’re selling so that people who aren’t interested can stay away.” Or something.
Or I could buy a card and send it to someone who is a mother. Or tie it to a helium balloon and send it on up to heaven.
I didn’t do any of these things. In my stupor, I didn’t even support the school, which I had been intending to do. I just said, “No, thank you” and walked away. No drama, no teachable moment, no nothing.
Mother’s Day is hard for the motherless.
My mother died nineteen years ago. She was 52. It was a brain aneurism. It was a shock. Completely.
My brother and I were 21 and 23, respectively. We felt far too young to be losing our mom. Since then, I’ve met folks who’ve lost their mothers at an even earlier age. And folks who lost their mothers much, much later — but even then they feel like it was too soon. They feel lost without a mother. And they become acquainted with the darker side of Mother’s Day.
For more than a decade, Mother’s Day was really rough for me. All the commercials, all the sappy poems and cards and flowers were absolutely everywhere, all the time. Grief would come and just lay me flat. For years! No one mentions the motherless on Mother’s Day. But we’re here. And yes, it’s still hard.
I was only half-joking about the card with the helium balloon. About a year after my mother died I joined a grief group called “Motherless Daughters” (based on the book by Hope Edelman, which I highly recommend). Towards the end of the six-weeks, the counselor announced that for the final session, we’d be writing letters to our mothers on thin sheets of tracing paper and tying them to helium balloons and letting them go.
All the girls laughed a little at this idea, but we dutifully took our sheets of paper as we walked out.
I struggled with how to begin. Do I give her updates like a normal letter? If she’s in the spirit world, doesn’t she already know everything now? If there is no spirit world, what’s the point?
In the end, I did wind up writing a “normal,” informative letter, with updates on everything that had happened to me in the past year. And it was nice, almost like a conversation.
I called my brother and told him I was doing this. He was silent for just a moment, and then in a quiet voice said said, “Tell her I said ‘hi.’”
I did. And at our final group session I took that letter filled with my words and his, and tied it to a helium balloon and released it into the night sky. It was dark, but I felt like I could see it for a long time, sailing up, up, up, till it was just a tiny dot, like a very dim star.
If you’ve recently lost your mother, I won’t wish you a happy Mother’s Day. I know it’s pointless. All I can say is please do allow yourself to feel the grief. Breathe it in. Wallow in it. Miss your mother terribly. Because missing someone is a kind of connection too. And as hard as you may try to hold on to the memories — and even hold on to the pain – it all fades in time. There’s nothing you can do about that. Mother’s Day is hard for me now because it no longer lays me flat with grief. And I guess that make me feel guilty, like I’m not missing her enough anymore…
So on this Mother’s Day, don’t hold back, don’t worry about ruining anyone else’s day. This is your day too. And if you’re up for it, I recommend a balloon letter as well. Tell your mom what you’ve been up to. Tell her how you still miss her terribly.
Tell her I said “hi.”
* * *
P.S. After I posted this on Facebook, a few folks wrote with concerns about helium balloons affecting the environment. This led me to research a bit and discover that there are companies (Qualatex and Kaos, for example) that make rapidly-biodegrading balloons that won’t harm animals or the environment. Or you can certainly devise another “letter to heaven” alternative. I’d love to hear about it if you do!
LESSONS FROM THE JUICE BAR 1.20.14
“People are going to ask you for more yogurt,” Kate said.
Kate was the manager at the juice bar where I was working after college. She was a small, quick-moving woman. Very competent. Just the kind of person you’d want managing your juice bar. She was great with the customers, very intuitive, and she taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.
“People ask for more yogurt when they want a thicker smoothie,” she explained. “But yogurt doesn’t make a smoothie thicker – bananas do. When someone says ‘more yogurt,’ what they really mean is ‘more bananas’ — they just don’t know it yet.”
It was years before I realized how valuable this lesson was.
This past December, Nomad and I were hired to play Turkish music at an awards dinner. The organizers of the event were nervous and kept asking for unusually specific things – telling us exactly how we should set up, exactly which songs to play, and oddly, which songs not to play. We felt ourselves getting annoyed, and started to turn on each other: “This doesn’t make any sense!” “I know, but that’s what they want!”
Then I remembered the juice bar.
What the organizers really wanted was a good performance.
They wanted the evening to go smoothly. They wanted their dinner guests to be entertained. Every single little annoying request was just these guys trying to figure out “what would make a good performance?” But they weren’t performers, so they didn’t actually know.
We were the experts.
We know what makes a good performance.
We had to trust ourselves and our instincts. Without any argument or confrontation, we did exactly what we wanted to do that night – including an impromptu Turkish/American fusion version of “Silent Night” in which the audience sang along.
The performance was a hit. Many of the guests told us how much they enjoyed it. Our employers were thrilled with the audience reaction and involvement. No one mentioned the songs we were or weren’t supposed to play. No one commented on the way we had set up. The evening was a success.
At its heart, the juice bar lesson was about true communication. When someone is asking for one particular thing (be it yogurt, or a bizarre, Turkish version of “What a Wonderful World”), it’s wise to consider what their ultimate goal is (thicker smoothie / good performance). Then you, (the expert) help them achieve their goal by giving them what they actually need (bananas!!).
In the end, everyone is happy if the smoothie tastes good! 🙂
LOVE, COMPASSION AND RABBITS IN CHINA 12.16.13
I wish I’d never heard it.
It was Sunday. Nomad and I were sitting down to a pancakes and strong Turkish tea — a weekly tradition for us, along with listening to the NPR comedy show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” We were two minutes early and so caught the hour’s news.
There was a segment on an angora wool factory in China, and how PETA had footage showing workers ripping the fur right off the living, breathing, un-anesthetized rabbits. The reporter explained in a calm, British accent what was happening in the video, and how you could hear the rabbits scream out in pain.
Then we heard it.
I’d never heard a rabbit scream before. Never even realized they could. It sounded like a cross between a housecat’s wail and the screech of a small child.
It was sickening.
I had just taken a bite of pancake, and it turned into cement in my mouth. I had to spit it out, and felt nauseous as tears poured down my cheeks. The laughter of “Wait, Wait” filled our speakers, sounding grotesque in the wake of the animal’s cries.
Nomad turned the radio off. We sat there in silence, sobbing and holding each other as our breakfast grew cold. Our horror was not lessoned by learning that several clothing companies had vowed to stop purchasing angora wool from China.
“Is that all we can do?” I could barely get the words out through my tears. “We stop buying the wool? That’s our only solution?”
It took me a solid 20 minutes to stop crying. Sobbing fits interspersed with hopeless questions like “What kind of human being…?” and “How could they…?”
We choked down less than half of the breakfast that Nomad had spent all morning preparing.
Then we started to talk it out.
And it became apparent that while it might be tempting to blame one particular person, or factory or country for these abuses, the truth is we’re all part of it. I looked at the tags in my hat, my shoes, my newly-purchased yoga pants … all made in China. I’m feeding the system that refuses to spend an extra dime to gather angora wool in a more humane way.
Most days, I try not to think about it.
I knew before yesterday that working conditions and practices in China leave much to be desired. Sometimes I get motivated enough to think “I should stop buying stuff from China (or Indonesia, or Pakistan, or whatever country’s abhorrent industrial practices are being highlighted). But that determination fades in the face of convenience and low, low prices.
And even if Nomad and I resolve to boycott products from China, we still drive our car. We still heat and cool our home, run our dishwasher. Practically everything we do pollutes our beautiful planet. We KNOW this, yet we can’t stop. How could we live without heat? How can Nomad and I work without driving to gigs? Without turning on all the gear necessary to record songs?
“We’re a wretched species,” said Nomad. “And there’s too many of us. Our very existence is unsustainable. Anything we try to do is a hypocrisy.”
As you can see, we fell into a pit of despair.
I sometimes get out of these dark places by walking. It was a cold, gray day in Nashville, but we piled on coats and scarves (probably from China) and set out for a long walk around our neighborhood – one of very few actions that does not pollute the earth.
“We think we’re so important,” Nomad was saying. “We think our individual lives are so precious.” He shook his head in disgust.
I stopped to take a breath of clean, cold air.
“Your life is precious to me.”
I said it in a small voice. I wasn’t disagreeing with his sentiment, just needing to make that clarification.
But it got me thinking in a different direction. It may be true that overall we are a wretched species, we kill each other and our fellow living creatures, often quite cruelly. We can’t seem to stop poisoning our environment.
But we still love each other. Even when I’m feeling nothing but contempt for humanity in general, I still love Nomad. And my brother. And my amazing friends and family. Because of their love and support, I can pull myself together and find reasons to carry on.
To those we love, we wordlessly say “I’ll keep going for you if you keep going for me.”
Nomad and I finally did come up with a plan to try and “do better.” We’re resolving anew to avoid products from China, to drive less, buy less stuff, turn the heat down and put on a sweater — NOT angora wool! We came back from our walk and donated to PETA and the World Wildlife Fund – those front-line soldiers in the battle for our Earth, for our souls. But even more important is the resolve to keep loving each other. And keep compassion alive in our hearts. Imagine how utterly desperate a factory worker must be to inflict that kind of pain upon an innocent creature. I felt immediate compassion for the rabbit, but I also need to cultivate compassion for the worker. They’re just trying to feed their family. What if I was forced to either do that job or watch my children starve? What if no other option existed?
I don’t have any answers. These are the issues that haunt our age. We are aware of the damage we inflict every day, yet we can’t find a way off this ride.
But I do believe that if there is some kind of solution, we’ll find it only through love and compassion; not judgment, not violence and vengeance, and certainly not from a plethora of consumer goods low in price but high in environmental, social and ethical cost.
Earlier this week, I was moved by Sandy Hook mother Nelba Marquez-Greene who lit 28 candles at her church: 26 for the victims — including her own daughter — and two more for the shooter and his mother.
If we can find it for each other, maybe we can save ourselves.
HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY / WHY EMMYLOU MAKES ME CRY 7.4.13
There is something about the voice of Emmylou Harris that almost makes me cry every time I hear it –- there’s a longing, a lament, in every note. Today, I might have figured out why.
This morning, July 4th, the radio ran a piece about Native Americans. Specifically about the photographer Edward Curtis who, in the very early 20th Century, made efforts to visit the remaining untouched tribes–people still living the “old ways” of their ancestors. There were few such tribes left, but Curtis found them. He didn’t pose or stage the photographs, but rather tried to capture the authentic humanity inside each subject. Curtis understood he was documenting a way of life that was rapidly disappearing and he worked hard to win the trust of the various tribes: Navajo, Apache, Hopi, Comanche and Sioux, and gain access into their sacred ceremonies.
Curtis also made wax cylinder recordings of Native people singing in their tribal languages. This for me was better than the photographs. There was one in particular they played of a Native woman chanting and pounding on some kind of leather-bound percussion instrument. Her beats and melodies were rough, but not totally foreign. There was the pentatonic minor scale. There were the Appalachian-style rhythms still heard in today’s “mountain music.”
It was a great program and I found it very appropriate to include a piece on our Native people on this day of celebration. I’m 1/16th Native American, and something deep in my blood always gets a little confused around Independence Day because, while I appreciate all that was gained with the founding of this nation, I also can’t help but think about all that was lost …
I sank into an introspective, melancholy mood.
And then Emmylou Harris sang.
And I heard her beautiful and familiar voice in a new way. Someone once told me that she’s part Native American. I don’t know if this is true, but today I felt I could hear it in her voice. With the Native woman’s chant still reverberating in my mind, I could hear those same notes, same rhythms in the lilt and cry of Emmylou. I felt she was singing for me, crying for me, for this fraction of my ancestry getting more diluted with each generation. And for a way of life that’s been all but forgotten by most of us. I tried to “reclaim” a little heritage when I got married, checking both the “White” and “Native American” boxes on the application. The lady behind the desk was nice but firm. “You gotta pick one, honey.” Genetically, white was my obvious choice. But she was sweet. “Which tribe?” she asked as she reached for my application. I told her Cherokee. “Me too,” she said and smiled at me briefly before popping her gum and getting back to work.
How many of us are there? Millions, I’d assume, not “injun” enough to be a real part of that community, but not so fully European that our DNA lies dormant when we hear stories of old tribal ways. Or when we hear Emmylou sing.
We have a far-from-perfect country, but I am grateful to be here. I am grateful that my husband was recently welcomed into our ranks as a newly minted US citizen. I look forward to our journey together: as a couple, as a nation, as a tribe. We have many miles to go—many wrongs yet to be made right—but the promise of a place where all souls might be truly free still does echo throughout our halls, across our prairies, down our mountains and up our canyon walls. Let freedom ring. You can hear it in the miraculously-preserved 100-year-old recording of an Apache woman chanting. Let freedom ring. You can hear it in the speeches of Dr. King and Betty Friedan and Harvey Milk. Let freedom ring.
Today I heard it in the sweet, mournful voice of Emmylou Harris.
Let freedom ring.
Happy Independence Day.
Inspired by NPR’s “On Point” and “Fresh Air” 🙂
LETTER TO A TROUBLED FRIEND AT THE YEAR’S END 12.29.11
I know that sometimes there will be darkness.
I want to tell you that I understand this darkness. I too feel anxiety about the future. I too get weighed down by the difficulty – no – the impossibility of everything. Never enough time / money / energy. And more. I sometimes cannot see the point in life at all. Why bother doing anything? Why get out of bed? Why get dressed in the same old clothes? Why put on the same tired shoes and walk down the same dull streets? Why do the same meaningless work for the same ungrateful people? Why pour out our heart and soul, just to be disrespected and ignored? What are we hoping to accomplish?
I struggle with this, as you do. As, I imagine, we all do. We can look at other people’s lives from the outside and assume they have it made. They know who they are, they have success, they obviously have more than enough time / money / energy. But put on their skin and after a while we would surely discover that they, too, suffer, as we do. There is no external object, no magic formula that makes this darkness go away. No income bracket, no insurance package. Because the name of this struggle is “mortality.” Combined, worst of all, with awareness.
We know we are going to die.
You may have something special to add to this. In addition to knowing you are going to die, you may also have cancer, a brain tumor, a crooked spine, bad knees, stomach ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, fallen arches, rotting teeth. You may be losing your hair, your vision, your hearing, your mind. You may be struggling with addiction, you may have trauma in your childhood that you are unable to overcome. You may have all of the above.
And make no mistake, this FEEDS the darkness. The darkness LOVES this stuff. You have an infinite amount of ammunition to fire out at anyone who dares try to cheer you up. “What can you possibly know about it? You don’t have [state your most impressive ailment here].” And feel the power! The would-be comforter knows they’ve been defeated. They avert their eyes and back away, sometimes muttering an apology “of course, you’re right.”
And you’ve won. You are the most miserable person on the planet! This triumph may even comfort you for a time, the way a shot of heroin comforts a junkie.
I know this because I too have been the most miserable person on the planet.
But the temporary joy of self-pity fades. And what are we left with? Darkness. Fear, anxiety, never enough time / money / energy. We are all going to die.
Perhaps now, at the end of the year, we can pick up our heads, take a deep breath and shift perspective. The year 2011 is dying. She has three days left. The trees are leafless, the ground is bare – icy even. The few Christmas decorations that remain are pale and tired, torn ribbons, deflated snowmen. Seventy-two more hours and 2011 will no longer exist. It could be you, or me, with so little time left. But as she slips away, we realize she is just a number. A temporary blip on the radar screen of something deeper, something eternal. If these words survive for a decade, imagine how silly it will seem to have wanted to hold on to 2011. What if someone had written these words 30 years ago, mourning the passage of 1981? Doesn’t that sound ridiculous now?
Years come and go; time is eternal.
People are born and then die; life is eternal.
Waves rise and fall; the ocean is vast and unchanged.
This is not religion. This is merely truth. We are part of something that does not die.
In three days, 2011 will be gone. At some point, in 10 years, or 30 or 50 or 80, our bodies and personalities will be gone – these cancerous, ulcerous, weak and deeply flawed vessels will be ashes and dust. But life will continue.
The weight of darkness can be defeated with the light of understanding.
Let the light in and embrace our short time as these particular people in these unique but flawed bodies. We must continue to rise, dress, and do the best work we can every day. Be productive, be disciplined, be fair, be honest. And above all, bestow love and kindness unto the other flawed and wretched life-forms that inhabit this planet. We are all in this struggle together. We feed from the same eternal pool of light and love and life. We draw strength from it. We give back to it. And after we are gone, this is what will remain.
I know that sometimes there will be darkness.
Remember that always there is light.
* * * * *
WORTH FLYING FOR 11.30.11
I did not write this poem
It was written by you, oh lonely crow, oh magnificent creature
On this late-November morning in the hills of Appalachia.
The light is pale and thin. The sun a worn-out, milky disc in the sky — making no pretense of warmth.
Late-November is stingy with her colors, and on this morning she shares only the soggy brown of a few remaining leaves, the pale blueish-gray of a wintry sky, the shabby beige of a distant hill, dotted with trees already naked and shivering in the cold.
I play a walk-on role in this scene, making my way toward a low brick building, thinking only of the weak, vending machine coffee and electric heat that wait for me there.
Woosh, woosh, woosh.
I hear you before I see you.
Flying close to the ground, you make your startling entrance. Black wings cut the air with rhythm and intention, every feather a work of art, every movement showcasing grace, confidence, perfection.
Entranced by your effortless composition,
And I am curious.
What makes you leave one branch for another?
What did you see on that far-off hill?
How did you know
It was something worth flying for?