Monthly Archives: September 2012

A former client of mine passed away suddenly this month.  I went to her memorial service yesterday.  There was a moment toward the end of the service when we all sat in silence with our thoughts and memories about her.  She had had some unthinkable tragedies in her life, but she had also had a life with joy and purpose.

In that silence, I wondered how hard it was for her to die?  I wondered if she worried about those she left behind who themselves were struggling and often relied upon her as a lifeline?

I quickly saw these thoughts were little more than a torment.  Whatever her death had been like for her, whatever she had or had not thought about it, it had already happened and those moments were now past.

Then I simply sat with what I knew and had learned about her life.  The chapel was full of people to whom it made a very big difference that she had lived.  And so, in the silence we all shared, I found myself thinking, simply, Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The screen door of the cafe creaks open.  Someone holds the door for a mom with a stroller and  for a child.  The child is one of those little kids so small you can’t believe they’re actually walking on their own two feet, her hair put up in two limp ponytails made from three or four wisps of hair each.  This particular diminutive girl also wears a pair of round blue glasses, and had clearly visited a face-painting booth earlier in the day.  Her cheeks sport blue stars with arcs of color streaming out behind them.  She navigates the stairs like an old pro.

I look up to see who is holding the door and see a grimy, black-clad man with facial tattoos.  He is covered in facial tattoos.  In trying to make sense of this tableau, I think to myself that this must be the dad because, look, he and the girl look alike, both sporting blue-ish color on their faces.

A second later, I laugh at myself.  I am reminded of friends who have children they’ve adopted and who encounter others who remark on how much their child looks like them.  I did this myself this week when clients brought in a newly adopted baby and I caught myself searching for – and finding – a resemblance.

Our brains so enjoy making connections, finding patterns.  I love that about us.

Yesterday, late afternoon, I was putting my bike away when I heard two men at the Free Bench.  At first I couldn’t hear their words, just the boisterous energy of their exchange and flashes of color seen through a gap between the roof and the Bench as they bent and sorted.

When one of the men had seen enough, he started walking past the driveway where I stood.  He said over his shoulder to the other, “What did you find?” just as the other guy said, “A golf club! All I need is one more golf club.  If this is a seven iron, I am in business.”  While he said this, I still couldn’t see him.  Then he came striding into view, the golf club up-ended in a manner meant to reveal whether or not the club was, in fact, a seven iron.

I will show my ignorance here: I do not know under what circumstances a single golf club comes to be on the Bench, nor do I understand how someone’s golf bag comes to be one golf club short.

The guy was so excited.  I hope it was a seven iron.

While spending my 15th summer with my mom’s folks, my mom’s biological dad and his second wife contacted me.  Somehow they’d heard I was in Oregon, and they called me at my grandparents’ to invite me to accompany them for a few days to the annual family picnic for his side of the family.  In the space of a few hours, I met my biological grandfather for the first time and embarked on a five-hour car ride with he and his wife, Edna, to a gathering of family I’d never met.

Which is how I found myself on a dock in Coos Bay, Oregon, several days later with my newly-met cousin, Larry, and my erstwhile grandfather, Cliff, throwing crabbing nets over the side.  Once the nets were submerged, Cliff produced a bag of peanuts and we sat, dangling our feet off the edge of the dock, shelling them.  This was the first time I’d been around Cliff without Edna and I wasn’t sure what to expect without her there to guide the conversation.

It cannot be underestimated, the pall that sitting with an older, taciturn man can have on two teenaged people of opposite genders who have just met.  Still, I liked peanuts, and since crabbing consisted mostly of waiting, I liked that the shelling gave me something to do.  As the afternoon drifted and we gave the unwitting crabs a chance to crawl into the nets, we made our own individual piles of the hulls, not at all concerned when the wind lifted the occasional one to float away on the sea.

Cliff cleared his throat.  “Lookie here,” he said.  He held together two halves of a long peanut shell.  “Do you know what this is like?  Look at this shell.  It looks just like the others on the outside.  You expect you’re going to find maybe as many as three peanuts in here.”  He held it in front of my face and then in front of Larry’s. Indeed, three gentle bumps promised that number of peanuts.  “But when you open it-” he split the halves apart –“there’s nothing.”  Sure enough, there was not three, or two, or even one peanut; there was nary a peanut in sight.  This happened every now and then: the outside formed but not the inside.

Cliff said, “This is like a life without Jesus Christ.”

I was suddenly alarmed.

“From the outside, everything looks fine; but inside, emptiness.  Do you see?”  He held out the halves again, matched their edges together, then pulled them apart.

No one had thought to warn me that Cliff might foist a Jesus monologue on me.  Even my father’s side of the family – most of whom attended churches whose names included variations on the word “evangelism” – tended not to buttonhole me in this manner.

“Do you see?” he said again, clearly expecting an answer.

I scrambled to gather a response, tried to form a sentence that would be both polite and conversation-changing, when I happened to look over at Larry.  He held my gaze a moment, then carefully, soberly, he rolled his eyes.

“Sure,” Larry said to Cliff.  “Without Jesus, a person is empty.”

“That’s it exactly.  Without Jesus we’re empty.”  Cliff’s hands dropped into his lap, a half peanut shell in each.

“Yeah,” I added.  I nodded for emphasis, then gazed out toward the horizon with an expression I hoped communicated my deep consideration of his parable, and which discouraged any further conversations like this.  Larry took my cue and looked thoughtfully at several peanut husks bobbing in the water.

Cliff said no more.

I saw Larry a couple days later at the family picnic and impressed him by picking up a garter snake.  Cliff I only saw a handful more times over the rest of his life.

I wonder sometimes at this outburst of Cliff’s.  Was he just trying to be a good Christian and share the Word with us (which would suggest some deeper spiritual commitment I wasn’t aware of)?  Did he think an elder’s job was to Dispense Wisdom and this is what he came up with?  Whatever his reason, what I remember most is how it felt when Larry rolled his eyes: a feeling of complete relief and sweet connection .

In reflecting on my last post, I want to add that while I tend to notice the people outside of the hospital in a way that is different from how I notice other people I pass, some of the hospital sidewalk pacers themselves remain studiously every-day.  They wheel their drips out to the sidewalk in their hospital gowns, or roll out in their wheelchairs, and smoke their cigarettes.

Is there anything more mundane than smoking, anything that better suggests that life goes on?  Sure I was just in for an emergency appendectomy, but I’m going to have my cigarette now.

Lest I sound critical of these steadfast smoking patients, let me hasten to add that I have a healthy respect for denial – and it seems to me that smoking outside your hospital room is denial in action. The point of life is to live it, and if looking the reality of one’s situation full in the face does nothing but stir up a cocktail of anxiety chemicals, then I say deny up a storm.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Riding my bike from work last week, I saw a woman standing by the side of the street, her face a network of wrinkles and her slenderness bordering on frailty.  Her dark, Amelia-Earhart-short-and-curly hair was uncovered, and she wore an indigo blue blazer and red lipstick.  The vibrancy of these colors contrasted starkly with her wrinkles and general pallor.  She wrapped her arms around her trunk in a self-administered hug.

The woman stood in the sunshine wearing sunglasses, stood by the side of the road, opposite the hospital, hugging herself.

I often especially notice people during this stretch of my bike ride because of the hospital. When any of us find ourselves at the hospital, this very fact means we are no longer living our normal lives. The hospital is a place where, if no one else is there to offer us comfort, we might feel compelled to hug ourselves. It is a place where we realize what we could lose, and thereby have the chance to notice its preciousness more deeply.

Perhaps I look more closely as I ride by the hospital because even a visual brush with this quality of presence sharpens my own appreciations. And that is always a good thing.

This Morning I Am Born Again
by Woody Guthrie

This morning I was born again and a light shines on my land
I no longer look for heaven in your deathly distant land
I do not want your pearly gates don’t want your streets of gold
This morning I was born again and a light shines on my soul

This morning I was born again, I was born again complete
I stood up above my troubles and I stand on my two feet
My hand it feels unlimited, my body feels like the sky
I feel at home in the universe where yonder planets fly

This morning I was born again, my past is dead and gone
This great eternal moment is my great eternal dawn
Each drop of blood within me, each breath of life I breathe
Is united with these mountains and the mountains with the seas

I feel the sun upon me, its rays crawl through my skin
I breathe the life of Jesus and old John Henry in
I give myself, my heart, my soul to give some friend a hand
This morning I was born again, I am in the promised land

This morning I was born again and a light shines on my land
I no longer look for heaven in your deathly distant land
I do not want your pearly gates don’t want your streets of gold
And I do not want your mansion for my heart is never cold.

Occasionally, I just need to acknowledge my privilege.  Today, the fact of it struck me as Garth and I readied our kids for school.  I shifted a client, and Garth went in to work later, so that we could walk with Luken to school, and then bike with Kami to her new school.  After getting our kids settled, Garth and I said a lingering good-bye to each other, and then biked off in opposite directions to work.

Meanwhile, other parents of other school-aged Portland kids punched a time clock at the usual time, first dropping their kids at school early, leaving them to mill around the playground and hallways until school started, sans parents.  I’m not even sure this milling around is a bad thing for kids.  What I want to notice about it is that there is a new-ish standard, and this standard has some of us – a minority of us, I believe – marking various transitions in our children’s lives with our presence.  Being able to do so is a matter of privilege.  I want to never be unconscious of this fact.

That’s all.

I have been thinking about Garth lately.  Friends of ours, Rob and Nancy, occasionally have the kids and me over when Garth isn’t able to join us.  At these times, I enjoy myself, but I feel a little sorry for Rob and Nancy.  I am not as interesting or funny a dinner guest as when Garth is there with me.  I’m not saying I’m never funny or interesting when Garth’s not around. I’ve been known to hold my own in a lively conversation when flying solo. But something about him spurs me to reach inside and find my good qualities in a way I don’t always manage on my own.

Isn’t this why most of us want to be married, to find, through our association with this person, a self that is more ourselves?

Lest you accuse me of shining the apple, I’d like to add that in my years with Garth I have also been spurred to reach inside and find my darkest, slimiest, most hideous and unattractive qualities, too. But that, too, is a kind of opportunity.

17 years ago today, Garth and I walked through April Hill Park toward a large tent that sheltered a hundred or so of our friends and family, and got married.  We will celebrate today by making a special breakfast for our parents as a thank you.  “Thank you” not just for raising us, but also for the countless ways they make it possible for our marriage to survive and flourish.  In our wedding ceremony, the minister mentioned the role that community plays in a marriage, and in a way, having our parents over this morning is a way to acknowledge our entire community by acknowledging them.

Which means, to everyone reading, there is a place at the table this morning for you, too.

Men’s flip-flops and sneakers; a hospital gown; several pink baby clothes; a photo of five dressed-up high school-aged girls; black faux fur-lined women’s winter boots; an Art Ltd. magazine; one silver shoe for a five-year-old girl; and a framed collage.

The collage says “Age” written in string and broken rubber bands shaped into the letters and glued on.  A girl’s face looks out from inside the sort of cap that British toddlers wore circa 1926.  The figure also wears a long winter coat from the same era.  The cap covers the head and ears and ties under the chin, and the effect in this collage is of a face swimming in a space helmet.  The space suit motif is completed by three threads that lead from the girl and attach to 1) a small map, 2) an image of variously-stacked blocks from a geometry textbook, and 3) an ultrasound picture of a uterus.

She is her own little Neil Armstrong, attached to lifelines to keep her safe in her universe.

How intentional is what I see, and how unconscious is it? What do the map, the blocks, and the uterus mean? Did the artist just cut them from a book because she/he thought they looked cool? Or are they specifically meaningful?

And are the threads lifelines or leashes? Is it, “I have a map to get me where I need to go, and I know how to build things, and these, along with my basic female-ness, keep me moving forward through the world?” Or is it, “I am constrained by maps that lull me into thinking they can show me the way; blocks are all rigidity and angles and do not brook the soft lines of the natural world; and my body is my destiny, a destiny I cannot escape even if I want to?”

Of course, that’s the point of art, right? To hold the possibility of both: life has its leashes and its lifelines, and sometimes one item can be both.