Thursday, June 27, 2013

Old Love

Old love.
Like a bench
warmed by the sun,
softly dappled with shadow
and memory;
an almost distinct outline.

It is not something to sink into,
this bench of hard wooden slats
and chipped paint,
this old love.
It is something to perch upon
before moving along.

It is not a comfortable perch,
not this bench,
this old love.
It is a vantage point,
a resting spot,
worn smooth from use,
though splinters lie in wait
ready to pierce the armor you donned so carefully--
(and wear so uncomfortably)
(and hold so invisibly)
donned only this morning
before leaving.

But you sit.
pause for a moment
in the sun and warmth of
this old love,
perched and dappled and indistinct,
focused on some inward image of long ago--
or far away--
or never was but should have been.

This old love,
this paint-chipped bench
where you sit
and shift,
to find that spot of comfort and ease,
the one that used to be--
or almost was--
a question on your lips:
(in your hips and knees and neck)

No, and no again.
There is no groove,
no flow
nor easy rhythm
of unthinking nonchalance--
even if there ever was,
or if there never was--
and so you stretch
and breathe in all the glory of
dappled memory and
armored comfort,
rise with indistinct reluctance,
moving softly to find the next bench along the way.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ferris wheel, ferris wheel, fireworks: for my dad, on Father's Day

My father can play three songs on the piano. One is Debussey's Clare de Lune. The other two are also classical pieces. I have no idea which ones. But I would love when we would go to my Aunt Laurie's house-- immense and modern, with huge rooms and (to my eye) impossibly high ceilings, her baby grand sat in sharp relief against the white walls and white shag carpet of her white living room-- and my dad would play.

I sat next to him on the piano bench, almost too eager to breathe, barely containing myself for the length of his short repertoire. He didn't know the entirety of any of the three works, but he knew enough to keep us all transfixed. Before the last note died, I would burst out "Again, daddy! Play it again!"

And he would. He would bring his large hands-- so much more comfortable holding a golf club or a cup of coffee-- he would bring his hands up and  begin to play. And for those few minutes, I was mesmerized by his hands, fluid and graceful, saying everything that mattered, everything that he couldn't say: Of course I'll it play again. I love you.

Dad wasn't much for words. Used to make me crazy. Read this, Dad; can you believe what it says? Watch this, Dad; what'd'ya think? Listen to this, Dad-- what do you say?

That's nice.
I guess so.
I don't know.

I was like a puppy all during my childhood and adolescense, jumping and wagging and slightly desperate for his attention. Notice me, Dad. Engage. Talk. Debate. Argue. Something. Anything. And mostly, I would skid head first into the wall of his quiet.

But when I asked, he would lift his strong hands to the keyboard and play for me, one more time.

Years later, long after I had moved out of their house into my own, we would joke about it (well, "joke" in the very-few-words-but-still-shared-sentiment of my dad's world). After I had talked to my mother for however long she would grant me, after the obligatory how-are-you-what's-new-are-you-dating-anyone back and forth of our conversations, she would invariably end our call with "Here. Your father wants to talk to you," and she would hand the phone to my father.

"Hey Dad."


"Poor Morry," I would say, laughing. Morry was my grandfather, my mother's stepfather. Her mother would do the same thing, every time. Whenever she was done with her part of the conversation (always in some weirdly truncated shorthand, so worried was she about the toll charges that she was sure would bankrupt her or us), she would shove the phone in Morry's hand, insisting that he wanted to talk to us. After a painfully uncomfortable and mostly silent minute or so, peppered with pat questions and unheard answers ("How are you, Papa?" "Fine, fine.") that trailed off into gentle sighs that filled up the remaining space, until we could all (thankfully) hang up.

"How's it going, Morry?" I would tease my father.
"Fine, fine," he would say. I could hear his distracted smile loud and clear.
"You don't wanna talk, do you, Dad?"
"Not particularly. Everything ok?"
"All good, Dad. I release you-- you can hang up now. Love you."

And so it went. I understood the why of his reluctance at some point, finally. He made his living with his words. If he wasn't talking to a client, he was arguing their cases in court. He spent his days talking, so by the time we picked him up at the train station at 5:45 every night, Monday through Friday, week after week after month after year, he was done talking.

Dad lived in a world that merely shadowed our own, intersecting it in the background and the in-between times-- early morning just before leaving for the train or the golf course; dusk and dinner, sitting at the head of the table, inhaling whatever meat-and-potatoes dinner Mom had made. My brothers were lucky. They had Indian Guides and Little League, smaller and infinitely more tender points of intersection. I was always so jealous that they had found this private, boy-language that engaged our father in a way that I never could.

For me, almost always, he was a silent, bread-winning presence, a not-quite stranger who came and went according to his own rhythms. Every so often, I would find the bridge between our worlds and be filled with the music he coaxed from the piano, a language all our own.

We grew comfortable in our every-so-often conversations. They rarely veered from the gentle paths we had carved for them. "How's it going?" "Fine, dad. Go ahead, Morry-- you are released." What more needed to be said? Love was wrapped around every letter, every vowel in those short sentences.

My story would end here, in that gentle back and forth game of verbal shorthand at which we had become so adept. It would - it should - but doesn't. Apparently, those warnings they slap on the side of a pack of cigarettes are true: smoking is dangerous for your health. For Dad, it became true in spades: throat and tongue cancer. When he was diagnosed, we were told that if he had to get cancer, this was certainly the best one to get, since it was mostly curable and survival rates are quite high. Of course, an 89% survival rate is high until it's used in connection with you dad. Then it's impossibly small, while 11% looms larger than mountains and sky together.

After a year of chemo and radiation and hope and prayer (not necessarily in that order), the doctors found that while the tongue cancer had been eradicated, the throat cancer seemed to have snagged on his vocal chords, wrapping them in strands of ugly, deathly cells. There was no choice but to remove the voice box. And so, on September 10, 2012, dad underwent a trachyectomy.

I went to visit him, shortly after his surgery. He was still raw and tender, still a little lost and unsure.  Always a man of small conversations and few words-- he was wrapped in silence. We had gotten him a white board to write on. We wanted to get him an iPad or Tablet. He refused them all. He was too impatient, too used to the rhythms of talking and vocalizing. He would start to write, and then his fingers and thoughts would tangle, and he'd push the board to the side, waiting mutely for us to fill in the blanks.

And then he would bring up his large hands, swirling them through the air between us, fluid punctuation to whatever he was trying to say. Impassioned, expressive, swooping movement meant to be his voice:

Ferris wheel, ferris wheel, fireworks!

Or something to that effect. I read his hands about as well as I read his lips. I realized, though, that the words didn't matter. Or didn't matter much. I was transfixed, once again, by his hands, saying everything that ever needed to be said-- everything he had always said-- I love you.

Love you back, Dad. 
Happy father's day. 
16 June 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

God of the Infinite Ocean

There was a time that I doubted the existence of God.

Hard to believe, I know.  To be totally honest, it was less that I didn't believe in God and more that I wasn't quite sure that God believed in me.  I wanted the God of Infinite Compassion.  What I got instead was God's Evil Twin Brother.  While I had little evidence of God's mercy and love as it played out in my life, I had ample evidence of how God (or His Evil Twin) was really trying to fuck with me.  I knew, from an early age, that I was lost and alone, slightly broken and beyond repair.  It was all God's fault.

It was so much easier to deny God than to face the idea that I had been abandoned.  So much easier to defy God than continue to hunger for a redemption that never came.

And I defied God with a vengeance.  I thumbed my nose at Him, ignored Her, talked trash whenever I could.  Talked loudly, and with passion.  I wanted to hurt God, just as I had been hurt.  I vowed to never sing again--- the one thing I had that had ever brought me a sense of peace and wholeness, the one thing that led me on a shining and sure path to God and grace.  I gave that up in a heartbeat.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  I drank too much, to drown out the silence of God.  If not alcohol, anything: drugs, shopping, food or sex. I used everything I could to bolster my doubt, to delight in my heresy.

That'll teach Him.  Ha.

I spun through my life like a whirling dervish.  It was a mad dance, and I careened off people and places with equal vigor and disregard.  I reveled in that frenetic, frantic motion, ratcheting up my speed in an ever-widening arc.  I was a ghost in my own life: untouched and disconnected.  Empty.

I carried that little pocket of emptiness with me everywhere.  It was familiar, like a worn old robe that slips on so easily, draping just so against the contours of your body-- covering, concealing, comforting.  I could forget about my war with God and belief and just move faster into the empty, all sensation, devoid of meaning.  One night, one day, again and again, stretching into eternity, pure and empty.  And it was good.

I drank my way, stumbling and reeling, with brief forays into over-indulgence of every kind, to California.  Fueled by the passion of social justice, I went to work for a national poor people's organization. I flirted with the belief that if I acted with integrity, that integrity would transfer to me, by osmosis or proximity or luck.  I wanted to believe I would feel unbroken at last.  I hungered for wholeness, even as I drowned it with alcohol, prayed to a God I was convinced was an illusion, who could not hear and who would refuse me at every turn.

And then I stood in the ocean.

We had taken an Adventure Day, we rabble-rousers, we agitated agitators.  We took a day off from saving the world and drove down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, to play and cavort and drink.  We basked in the sun, let the salt breeze caress our pale skin, wandered the boardwalk without thought or care.  We laughed easily, and teased mercilessly.  We were released at last from the social and political battles that had defined us and given us purpose for so long.  We devoured the day and wandered into the mist of evening, almost spent.

We ended where the earth ends, where earth and mist and water come together in ceaseless susurration and motion.  No one had ever told me, this Midwestern child, how noisy the ocean could be.  No one had told me how the ocean could excite every one of my senses, make them tingle and feel alive as if for the first time.  

I wandered away from my friends, drawn to the edge of the sea.  I stood there, the water lapping against my ankles, licking up my calves, the salt drenching my skin and tangling in my hair, the moon--- huge and round, the golden light skipping along the waves in a path to eternity--- the moon rising like a promise, surrounded by the laughing roar of water and sky.  I stood there, amid the vast and endless sea, in the gathering night, and met God, at last.

My God: the God of Infinite Compassion, of light and sound and forgiveness.  God of the Ocean.  

It was all so huge, so boundless.  No one had ever told me.  No one told me that, in the face of all that holiness, the truest prayer is not spoken but heard.  And for the first time, I listened.  I quieted and calmed my heart and my fear, and I listened my prayer, a whisper of moonlight and a shout of the tide.  I was so very small against that moon-kissed horizon, and I felt comfort and peace and whole.  

I listened, and my prayer was forgiveness, my prayer was redemption.  My prayer was love.  I stood motionless, exhausted and enthralled.  Empty still, but ready to be filled.  Broken still, but ready to be healed.  I listened a prayer again, and at last, there was love, and God.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

As yet unfinished

He is taller than me now.

Not just his hair, which is big and tight-curled and easily gives him a couple of extra inches. And not just because he stretches himself out, lifting his chin and bouncing on the balls of his feet, eager to have this bit of supremacy over me. No-- he is taller because he has grown, at least a handful of inches in the last month or three.

On the day he was born, as soon as the nurses had cleaned and swaddled him, his father-- trembling with the wonder and awe of it-- held this small child who lay so trustingly in his large and calloused hands. He lifted our son high, as if to show the boy's face to God, and then slowly, with aching tenderness, he cradled our son against his heart and danced.

I can see the infant that he was, like an after-image superimposed in the air next to him, closerthanthis, as if from a too-bright flash. God, but he was small when he was born! A tiny little thing, just over six pounds and only 18 inches long, he fit so easily on his baby blanket when I folded it into fourths. He barely fits on his bed now, sprawling in his sleep to take possession of all the available surface.

From infant to adolescent in the beat of a heart, the blink of an eye. He carries the entire procession of image and experience with him: the day he took his first step; the gash on his knee when he learned, much to his surprise, about falling; first words, first friend, first loss; the daily tedium flecked with bits of exhilaration.

There have been an infinity of firsts (and seconds and thirds), he has learned some, and played some, been bored and exultant and defiant and curious. There is an eager, impatient momentum that surrounds him. He carries this all-- this life, his life-- a gathering, expectant spiral, shot through with his father's fierce joy, a celebration of love and pride. There is some of me as well: the dreamer, the seeker, the cynic.  This is the warp and weft of him, a tapestry of knotted thread.

It is complex and unfinished, just like him.

These days, the threads bear less the imprint of his father or me than of an almost thoughtless mix all his own, of twisted color and varying weights. He weaves together the comfortable and known threads of his childhood, and now, in a syncopated stutter step that becomes more sure every day--  something wholly his own: a variation on a theme, at once familiar and new, becoming a different story altogether.

It is breathtaking. Just like him.

Once upon a time, in a land that was long ago and far away, I would say "Hold my hand, baby. The street is busy. I don't want you to get hurt." He's a teenager now. He's tugging away, rushing towards the busyness of his day. Of his life. I can still feel the memory of his touch, his small hand in mine, eyes wide and a smile so sweet it could break your heart. We walked together, ambling along a winding path. We taught one another-- about patience, about God, about kindness and love.

Always love. His for me, me for him, every breath, every word, every touch-- it was, ever and always, a lesson in love: unconditional and infinite. Was it enough? Will it be enough to carry him through as he steps off onto a diverging road that only occasionally intersects with my own?

"Hold my hand, baby. I don't want you to get hurt."

He will, though. He will get hurt and be heartbroken. He will be lifted by hands not my own, and find healing and grace where I have never thought to look. He will tell his own stories, grand and glorious and filled with everything he carries with him-- his father's fierceness, his mother's dreams, his own precious threads that he discovers and creates and borrows. All of it, a knotted, twisted tapestry, as yet unfinished.

All of it-- unfinished, unfolding. His.

To my beloved boy, Nate, upon his graduation from middle school
June 2013