icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

QUINTESSENCE

Lost Fathers

1957 Sandia AFB, New Mexico

my lost father

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons

- Lucille Clifton

Father's Day is a national day of commemoration created by a young woman in Spokane in 1910 in honor of her father, who raised her on his own after his wife's untimely death. I spent part of the day yesterday thinking of my own father, Thomas. Dead at 45, a career AF officer and fatherless himself, having lost his own dad in combat in WWII, my dad was an introverted, scientific man. He cooked. He liked Hank Williams, he had migraines. He liked to tinker. My father worked with his hands on projects of his own design, and he liked the wilderness, he was an Eagle Scout. He never said much, but he had a gentle smile. He was a quiet, withdrawn man as he grew older. Some of that a result of the harsh life of the military service and secretive work in cryptography during the cold war. Some of that the companionship of vodka. And there was the widening gulf between my parents as we grew to be a family of six, all the while moving every other year of my childhood. The oldest, I find it comforting to think of the things he and I did together - the hikes through the national forests, the projects we worked on, his large hands patiently steadying mine. The pained moment in the car, just the two of us my senior year of high school, our family destroyed by divorce, when he turned to me and said, "You can be anything you want to be, Glenda." I am saddest that my siblings have no memories at all of him, such is the scarring destruction of life post-divorce.

And then there are my own children. Also fatherless, Ken dying of cancer in their very early preteen years. And yet their world is full of men who have come into their lives as powerful and caring mentors. Friends, music teachers, college masters, family men, military commanders, professors. When they celebrate Father's Day they feel the core of love they grew from, for their childhood had a vivid bright sun of love. There are no forgotten memories of their dad, but a roadmap to what a father's love was and can be. I see my son growing into the kind of man his father was - strong, committed, fun and compassionate. And I see my daughter wanting to love men principled and with character like her father. The legacy is different from my father to theirs, yet our memories occupy the same place in the heart.

As you think about your own father and what that legacy of love may be, remember also what it is not. What you take forward into your own family life and leave behind. What your children will learn based on their heritage of grandfathers and fathers. We are a chain of memories woven into the generations. Nurturing plaited into a rope of commitment and strength. Celebrate the love, and let time erase the rest.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Memories on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2011
And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, down from the high train trestle bridges we call the "wishing trains" because we so often whisper secret wishes as we cross under the train cars suspended high above. They thunder overhead on their way across the continental U.S., great diesels hauling container goods, crops, oil and chemicals, slatted stock cars swaying down the tracks before they disappear through granite cuts into narrow pine valleys. My husband quite liked the idea that he would have a view of the river and the trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

Today, cemetery breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow paths that are lined with the stars and stripes. Families with lost looks on their faces, clutching plot grids, wander the acres under the ponderosa looking for the buried but not forgotten. Children's hands are tucked in the adults', and in the little fists more small flags, bunches of lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to be a continuous sea of monuments. A new engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's - a nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Somebody's son, someone's brother. There were two flags flying in his honor, the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. He met men in those years who were friends and mentors. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy. His life is at a crux point as well. What direction will it turn? How will he think of his service, years from now? National service opens us to the community beyond family - opens us to the identity we share as Americans. Whether in the military services, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, the Red Cross - take a moment to thank the next young or old person you meet giving of themselves to all of America.

This fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO - proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know who came before her and follow her now. Service requires only that we show up, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Let the poems of your memories carry the day.

And finally, as I think of my son and how proud his father would be of him, as I wonder about his future, I think of Eric Greitens, the decorated Navy war hero and author of "The Heart and the Fist - The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Seal." Eric penned a personal note to my son on the title page - "Follow your heart and continue to live with courage." Words that might inspire us all I think.

 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Hello, Sun

WHY I WAKE EARLY
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety -

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light -
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
- Mary Oliver

I'm leaving for New Haven on Friday. Flying east across the continent. Excited to sit in the sun and celebrate my daughter's joyful achievement; watching, with the other parents, the first beat of a garden of wet new wings, brilliant as butterflies from the chrysalis. I will hold my breath to hear the music of her future unfolding before her as she walks the lawn to shake the hands of the scholars and educators who have made such a tremendous impact on her life. I will be sitting beside my son, and for the three of us, this moment will mirror a future we never could have imagined the day we lost Ken. He would be so proud. He is part of all that has made this moment possible. And although the physical world is our boundary - it both giveth and taketh away - on this day spirits will soar. For we are the promise of the morning.

 Read More 
Post a comment

Against the Bland: An Unexpected Answer

Freshman Year, Yale 2007

Expansion occurs when I open to a new thought or idea, or when I allow a question to attract an unexpected answer.
- "Daily Word," May 16, 2011

Change of wind on the weather vane today. In a week I will watch with a bursting heart as my daughter earns her college degree. I will sit in the sun on a folding chair in the company of other silently proud parents observing similar cornerstone moments in the lives of cherished sons and daughters. A recent opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times addressed the seemingly unfounded optimism of college graduates. What is it about this moment that poises us all on the brink, believing, fully, in a future of unlimited possibilities? It is an authentic moment of expansion. We are in the crux: witness to the intellectual power of young minds that will unleash unimaginable potential. Unexpected answers to old problems. Fresh solutions to our generation's dogged failures. Where we ourselves have stalled out solving the great dilemmas of the world, the young carry the hopes of the many forward.

"The Key Lime," writes Campbell McGrath in his pithy poem - "Curiously yellow hand-grenade/ of flavor; Molotov-cocktail / for a revolution against the bland." Young minds are the explosive key limes of our times. Let us celebrate that bright tang of intelligence and enthusiasm. Let us wish them well as the graduates of 2011 take all we have saved of the lessons of the past and invent new answers for the future. Shatter old paradigms. Let us be proud of the next generation, proud of continuity, and remember, for a moment, we ourselves were once the sharp bite on staid thinking. It's never too late to rethink the question and find an unexpected answer.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Pilgrim Soul

Moonrise over Lake Coeur d'Alene

WHEN YOU ARE OLD
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

- William Butler Yeats, 1893

My Uncle turns 83 this week. He is a life-long bachelor. A friend's father is visiting from the north plains, a forthright man of 79. One man lives a life marked by a lack of intimate commitment to others, while the other stands as the patriarch of a family that swings as a pendulum to his needs and decrees. Reading this poem by Yeats, I think about the degree to which we invite connection into our lives, and what we do with its thorny, fragile presence. We let intimacy pass us by, uncertain the waters are friendly. Or we put our backs into love's labors, build our fortress and imprison ourselves within. Or perhaps we are simply loved, taking our place among "a crowd of stars."

Walt Whitman wrote a famous poem on reconciliation, by the same eponymous title, with these lines: "That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;/ For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead." What is loved may be hated. What is needed, denied. At the end of our time, however, strife and conflict sift through our fingers in forgotten dust. What remains, as Whitman writes, is "Word over all, beautiful as the sky." The grace of life, the gift of individuality, the transcendent ability to love. The bachelor, the patriarch, the warrior, the singer of songs... Each of us identical in death, and yet so vastly different in the love we define.

As the sun opens in the new spring sky, I think of Yeats, "How many loved your moments of glad grace." Perhaps it is enough to honor within ourselves and in others, the pilgrim soul.
 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

The Best Friend

Best friends. My son and daughter, 2007

I have heard this music before,
saith the body.
- "5. At the Edge of the Ocean, Rain," Mary Oliver, 1992

We've all been there: the moment our ordinary lives tumble into the disordinary, the uncertain, into crisis that burns moments as dried fields. For me, critical tilt hit late Wednesday night with the sudden onset of a serious illness and hospitalization my son experienced away at school. A continent away, to be precise. Fortunately, the ultimate outcome is his return to good health, but the experience of being his parent through an unimaginable unknown - yet again - shook me deeply. A close friend, both physician and mother, told me about seeing an older patient one day in her office who wrung her hands over the well being of her children. Concerned, my friend asked her patient, "How old are your children?" "57 and 53," was the weepy reply. My friend said to me later in some wonder, "It just never ends, does it?"

No, it doesn't. We are never not parents, I have realized. Our prime directive to protect meets our ultimate impotence to control the big things. To mitigate the harsh risks in this wild unfathomable universe, to sidestep or diffuse danger and misfortune whenever it unfolds for those we nurture and protect.

At dinner last night, a young man, his arm loosely around the woman he loves, tossed out a blithe remark about atheism. I laughed, sympathetic with his honesty. But an unexpected personal truth flew from my own lips before I could so much as filter myself, "Ah, but wait till you become a parent! God will be your new best friend." The father sitting next to me met my eyes with a wry smile. There was a world of shared knowledge in that communal glance - unspoken memories of babies crying their hearts out, prayers behind the wheel of a car racing somewhere after an emergency call, visiting hours in cheerfully painted hospital rooms, negotiations in principal's offices, the heart-crunching rush to roadside accidents, anxiety and college admission envelopes, waiting out a prom.

My friend is so right. It just never ends. Thank heavens for that best friend.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

The All of Life


I see you washing my handkerchiefs,
hanging at the window
my worn-out socks,
your figure on which everything,
all pleasure like a flare-up,
fell without destroying you,
again,
little wife
of every day,
again a human being,
humbly human,
proudly poor,
as you have to be in order to be
not the swift rose
that love's ash dissolves
but all of life,
all of life with soap and needles,
with the smell that I love
of the kitchen that perhaps we shall not have
and in which your hand among the fried potatoes
and your mouth singing in the winter
until the roast arrives
would be for me the permanence
of happiness on earth.

- from "Not Only the Fire," Pablo Neruda (THE CAPTAIN'S VERSES, 1952)

This stanza from a verse by Pablo Neruda marks the shift mid-poem from a love note to his lover to a deeply intimate song to the same woman he has made his life with. I found myself thinking of the phrase, "again,/little wife/of every day/." There is something achingly tender in the poet's recognition of the humble work of daily life, the hours after love filled by the mundane. It is his recognition of the precious happiness in these moments, his joy in the simple wrenching domesticity of his own life, that made me sit quietly for a moment in the midst of my own chores today.

My list of things to do, errands and tasks, is long. My heart not in them but thinking of words and pages I want to write. I look at the list. At the top - fill a box of things for my son away at the Naval Academy and mail. Followed by drop-offs at the dry cleaner, return items to a store, pick up groceries. A chunk of time, lost. More than an hour, or two, away from my desk. I read the list again, slowly this time. Where is the love here? The box for my son? These are things he needs and a few treats to mark his 20th birthday. I smile, knowing how he will grin to get thermal muscle wraps, protein bars and sour jelly beans in the same box. The dry cleaner? Reviving clothes worn to the symphony, both for myself and for my friend, as a favor. The return items? Dresses never worn, but the idea of them, of spring, makes me smile. And the groceries? Ingredients for a nurturing chicken soup for a pal with a cold. I think of their dear faces, the laughter and moments together. Aren't humble tasks such as these the "worn-out socks," the "hand among the fried potatoes," Neruda's celebration of "life with soap and needles"? In every way the "all of life"?

Today I know the words and pages will wait a bit for life to be lived. Little wife of the everyday... The pages will get written.
 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

21 to Enter

"Puppy," my favorite stuffy

No Exit.
Must be 21 to Enter.
- sign on a door


Adulthood, the final frontier. We can hardly wait as kids to be teenagers and as teens to have all the rights and privileges of adults. We open our first champagne. But to our surprise, life, as my daughter tells me, is revealed not to be an endless "spring break" as imagined, but "haaaard," she sighs.

No kidding, kid. The sign on the door says it all. Must be 21 to enter. And once you do, no exit. "Wallow in it," I used to say to the kids. "Don't grow up so fast, you'll miss these years later." Life is complicated. A challenge. Adulthood will engage all the skills we bring to it. I could sum aspects of my own adulthood as one constant struggle to simplify the struggle: to find the ease. To identify Joseph Campbell's elusive "bliss" and surf within it. What I discovered is that we can in fact simplify the obligations and busyness, chill the stress, unknot a number of tangled threads. Life can be gentled. Lived in manageable, meaningful bite-sized experiences. The ingredients of successful living can be boiled down to essential goodness in the most important elements: family, work, friends, faith, health. Five ingredients that demand all the attention we can give them. Anything - at anytime - can go wrong in life. The curve balls are relentlessly unpredictable and come at us fast. My daughter's big sigh admitting adulthood feels hard, reflected her awareness she was catching her own fast balls now. Adulthood says "suit up and play." We stand on our own merits, and survive on our wits. Who doesn't feel unprepared?

Not surprisingly, we talk a lot - my friends, my kids and I. About work, family, those basic elemental blocks of life. The goal is not to reduce our daily lives to a master check list and a punch clock, to sieve the spontaneous richness out of what is essentially the adventure of all adventures, but to ensure we've addressed the fundamentals. Combine well the basic five ingredients. Sprinkle on the spice. Perhaps adulthood can be less struggle in the making and more joy.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Advice to Lean Into

If you don't like it, get out of it.
If you can't get out of it, get into it.
- Grampa Glenn


Recently I had cause to think of these words of my grandfather's. Grampa Glenn we called him. A Scottish fellow, he stood about 6'3" with snowy white hair, with laughing blue eyes and a booming laugh. Grampa had offered me this advice a time or two in my turbulent twenties, whenever I sought his guidance on a tough job that was hard to get a grip on, or a relationship potholed with more cons than pros. He summed up so many life situations in those two lines of advice I was beginning to think that the only wisdom he had to offer was basically fix your attitude or fix your life.

Now, in my mid life, I realize he pretty much nailed it on the head. We've talked a lot in this blog about owning our choices - and the power to make them. That's Part A - if you don't like it, get/do/love/be someplace else. Let your feet change the scenario. Choose a better life. But what about Part B? And isn't most of life Part B? Something we're stuck with? What then? If you can't get out of it, get into it? That's supposed to work? The first time I heard those words I instantly thought of the prisoner serving ten to life that learns to knit. His bunk mate who signs up for an advanced correspondence course in Flemish Medieval Musicology. Lots of time? Do something time consuming. What kind of advice is that? Surrender and accept the miserable horrible life you lead is supposed to cheer me on?

It took me, oh, three decades to get the real meaning of that advice. Get into it. The same powerful choice as get out of it, but applied to a situation that practically or realistically is something that must be honored. Rather than be an anchor on board the party boat, whining and complaining, dragging our way through the cruel lot we feel our life is, we have the option to find a new dial on the attitude wheel. One that has the potential to genuinely make us happy(er).

Right, you say. But hear me out. If we choose to look at our circumstances in a way that suggests they are limiting only in what we haven't yet done to improve them, then the horizon is endless. Many a dreaded job, miserable week in the bedroom, fight with a friend, or slog through a chore has been lightened and inevitably enhanced by a forthright change in attitude. This was aptly demonstrated to me by a college summer job I had as a cashier at a big box store for all of two weeks. Day 1, hated it. Day 2, hated it. Day 3, decided to say hello to everyone who seemed to hate their day more than I hated mine as we exchanged our required checkout transactions. Day 4, added a compliment to the hello. Day 5, began smiling first and last after our contact. Day 6, added comfy shoes (the kind with one inch foam platforms!). Day 7...and so on. What a difference occurred in my satisfaction with the content of the work itself, not to mention the contact with my fellow humanity. To say I found my calling selling twelve pack paper towels is not the win here, or that making employee of the month is the best option in every situation. On day 14 I employed the first part of the advice. I quit my job. But not without having learned the powerful effect of both attitude and choice.

So thanks Grampa Glenn. I know now what to say to my friend wavering in the midst of a punishing relationship. And I'm about to apply the rule to myself. My taxes are waiting. Still waiting. What if I used colored Post It notes, or two squares of chocolate for every perfect set of "zeroes/no change" I ring up on the calculator? That definitely gets me into the mindset. My bank account is ever so familiar with zeroes, smile.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

No Word for War


THE ESQUIMOS HAVE NO WORD FOR "WAR"

Trying to explain it to them
Leaves one feeling ridiculous and obscene.
Their houses, like white bowls,
Sit on a prairie of ancient snowfalls
Caught beyond thaw or the swift changes
Of night and day.
They listen politely, and stride away

With spears and sleds and barking dogs
To hunt for food. The women wait
Chewing on skins or singing songs,
Knowing that they have hours to spend,
That the luck of the hunter is often late.

Later, by fires and boiling bones
In steaming kettles, they welcome me,
Far kin, pale brother,
To share what they have in a hungry time
In a difficult land. While I talk on
Of the southern kingdoms, cannon, armies,
Shifting alliances, airplanes, power,
They chew on their bones, and smile at one another.

- Mary Oliver, 1972

My thoughts have been restless for days, in turmoil over the tragic violence that has claimed so many lives and damaged others in the quiet, lovely town of Tucson, Arizona. What does the senseless, polarized assassination of citizens and elected officials alike mean for our democracy, for the human race? Does our national shock and quick readiness to memorialize, to call for a verbal peace among political factions, mean we are inured to events like these, too ready to cleanse and forget? Random violence, once infrequent in our national awareness, is now nearly as common as reports of corruption and fraud among our leaders. How numb I feel. How helpless to engage the problem.

The question I consider is the invention and survival of barbaric violence in the construct of the human psyche: there it roots, like some kind of weed. Noxious and vile and fully able to profligate or abide in a vacuum in the dark, for ages if need be. Why? What is our answer?

When I read Mary Oliver's poem, I think of how context defines us. When we work to survive, we work together. When we work to dominate, we work in opposition. When we work to annihilate, we work in secret. The very restrictions and controls it would take to keep the general populace safe are anathema to our cherished principles of self-governance. But when we are without self-governance, and waltz with chaos and paranoia, are we still deserving of those rights?

The question of self-sustaining economies and business for profit in all things meets the burden of community care, the cost of treatment for those that require intervention. The unhinged roam freely, raining destruction in their solitary insanities. Whose responsibility IS the gunman's mental health? The city, the family, the state, the church, no one's?

And so we bury the dead. Those souls - children, brothers, sisters, husbands, friends, wives - who died participating in the very democracy that protects the gunman's right to bear arms, which allowed him the freedoms to act without reason or rule of law. My heart demands change. We must, or perish the many at the hands of the few, work together to survive together. We are community.
 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment