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“We Live Life Forward and Understand it Backward”

The title is a quote of Sue Monk Kidd, which I heard on National Public Radio last week.  I had to pull off the road and write it down.

When 2015 was a new year,   I read an article by Parker Palmer titled “Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold”  and I’ve been reflecting on those questions ever since.   He recently posted another article that opened with this passage from “Letters from a Young Poet” by Rainier Maria Rilke:

 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.”

I have carried a small question in my heart for more than 50 years.   On a fall night that long ago,   I stood alone outside my grandparents’ home in California; my eyes on the night sky.   The rest of the family  had  gone inside.   Did I  hang back and not go in,  or had I come back out?  Family life was hectic then —  five young children and two tired parents.   I was under the radar a lot,  getting a reputation for responsibility, so I knew I had some latitude to explore the world around me.  There were few moments of quiet and I had found one.

The moon was huge, just over the horizon, and colored a deep orange;  shaped in an ovoid way,  like a football.  I searched my nine years of experience to make sense of this.  How could it be?  I knew the waxing and waning shapes of the moon, and this was not one of them.  Nor was this the color.moon

Eventually,  I went inside.   I don’t remember even thinking about asking an adult.  Besides, when we went out an hour or so later to go home,  the moon was back to its usual shape and color.   How was I to say then, “it was huge and orange and shaped like a football.  How can the moon do that?”

Memory is peculiar.   Why does that night, that moment, that moon, that particular unanswered question,  remain with me after all these years?  There is no other person I know who carries the same experience of the same night. To college and back.  From California to Nebraska.  From childhood to what Mary  Catherine Bateson calls “Adulthood II, the state of active wisdom”.

In the closing days  of September this year,  Tim and I stood on the sidewalk under our hundred year old maple tree,  peering through its branches for a view of the moon.   We were  looking for the rare eclipse of a supermoon;  huge in the sky because it is closest to the earth in its rotation; reddish because that is the  reflected light of the  earth during a total eclipse; sometimes called the Blood Moon.  And weirdly shaped as the shadow crosses.    And I know now that this is what I was seeing on that still night near San Francisco Bay so many years ago.    I read that there had been a  total lunar  eclipse in 1964.  I’m pretty sure what I witnessed that night occurred  a few years earlier,  possibly not a total eclipse. But now I know what I was seeing.

So in the place where that small question was held,  I now feel another small thing:  satisfaction; completion.   One more thing I don’t not know.

Mary Catherine Bateson says that  “Composing a further life involves thinking about the entire process of composing a life and the way in which early experience connects to later.  It involves looking with new eyes at what has been lived so far and making choices that show the whole process in a new light, and that offer a sense of completion and fulfillment…”

This sets me on a course; living  the questions.  I no longer feel like I am searching with urgency for answers; but rather hoping I am paying attention when they slide into place with that satisfying “Oh, of course.  Now it all makes sense”.


Sand Hill Cranes: A Meditation on Sound

I wrote this piece quite a few years ago, but I think of it, and reread it, every spring during this stupendous migration

When I step outside to clear my lungs of smoke and to breathe living air, I can hear the sand hill cranes down along the Platte River. It is an eerie counterpoint to the bright lights and disco beat of the Holiday Inn, a sound rolling and breaking in waves over the flat prairie where they rest in the wetlands on their southern migration.

From Nebraskaland , a publication of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

From Nebraskaland , a publication of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

I have seen them in daylight too. They are graceful in the air. From a dream I once had after I first saw them, I know that their angle of descent is also the precise angle at which humans descend into sleep. No longer airborne, they are suddenly awkward and angular. Maybe if I had not just been at a conference of hundreds of people, the birds would not look so much like an audience, all craning in the same direction, beaks up, alert, necks outstretched so as not to miss a single significant bit of information; or pecking through the fields as if there were a buffet line.

But it is the sound, not the sight, that is so arresting. It resonates off thousands of hollow bones and through a million years. It is a sound way older than human speech. In my memory, I keep this sound next to the low rumbling and grinding of a glacier I heard moving against Mount Baker in 1974; the first register of my mother’s voice; the vibration of my father’s saxophone; sounds to which the body has its own visceral response.

 

Note: I had lived in Nebraska for several years before I witnessed the migration of Sand Hill Cranes. I had never heard of such a thing — the pattern of their migration floats in the shape of an hourglass, collecting from the far Canadian north, narrowing right over central Nebraska where they rest midway; then fanning out again to the south. My younger daughter asked me recently…. “is there a reason you made us get up early, drive a long way, sit in the dark, and wait to see some birds? And it was cold and muddy?” Answer: “Yes, there was a reason.”


My 60th Birthday Manifesta

NOVEMBER 3, 2010

Manifesto: A public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions especially that of a political party. Or a birthday party. PS. Manifestos may also be life stance-related. That’s mine. Also, when it’s a girl writing it you can call it a Manifesta.

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On the summer day when I decide that I am going to write a birthday manifesta, here is my fortune from the China Palace: “You are contemplative and analytical by nature”. It’s true. But in spite of it, I vow to create in this document, the literary equivalent of dancing on top of a bar table. Intensely but briefly, while I can still climb down with dignity. Please be advised that this is a metaphoric device only.

I am experiencing something different in the days leading up to this birthday. I have set aside the usual and annual sense of dread that the clock is ticking away, which I first experienced at age 25. There is no dwelling on bones which I have now actually heard making sounds. So what. I am jazzed. I feel an enormous burst of joyful energy coming on. I am confident that a table top, probably with a cake on it, is the absolute best vantage point for looking forward and looking back. Bring no over the hill jokes to this celebration. Remember that your face will be at eye level with my dancing feet.

Looking back, I can see the good fortune that got me to this point, and I will pause to take inventory and be thankful. This part got long, and very well may get longer; and not everyone will find it interesting, and I moved it to the end — so skip it if you must.

Looking forward, I have things to do. This is my Declaration of Intentions.

My story is a work in progress but definitely not a journey. Check out my Facebook Page devoted to metaphoric integrity. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=lf#!/group.php?gid=114112218619288

Declaration of Intentions

”I am what I am.” Albin, in La Cage Aux Folles.

Also attributed, in a slightly different vernacular, to PopEye. (“I yam what I yam” ) in various Saturday Morning cartoonfests.

Why did the sense of dread weigh so heavily on me on the eve of my 25th birthday, in a way it never has since? Twenty five is all is all about possibilities – who you might or might not meet, who might or might not want you, what the faces of your children might be like; what the course of your career might be, whether you are living in the place you should be. Retirement from what one has not done yet: unthinkable.

The sweet thing about being sixty is… those possibilities have materialized. Someone did want me. I saw those faces and they were more beautiful than I ever imagined. A career evolved from those chance encounters of the twenties. Finding such a rich community, such necessary and satisfying work, putting down deep roots, on the edge of Nebraska: I have everything I want. There is nothing more but to see how it continues to develop

Today I am younger than I will ever be. This is a moment to reconsider time. How I spend it, with whom, and why.

· Tim, Allison, Aron, and Kaitlin. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles; precious elders in the family: my time is your time.

· I will get my attention span back. I want to concentrate more deeply on fewer things.

· I don’t need to know everything any more. I don’t mind saying “I don’t know”. I don’t want to sound like an expert from “Modern Jackass” Magazine, as Ira Glass put it. I give up on predicting what kind of winter it’s going to be based on odd behavior of squirrels. We’ll know soon enough.

· I have followed the red thread back into our family history. It’s intriguing and I have leads to follow up.

· I will make the best of being invisible — something curious about aging. I started noticing it maybe in my 40’s; that to certain people, mostly younger, I was so irrelevant as to be unseen. Going grey, after all, is a form of transparency — losing color. But what a great cover for an observer and storyteller. I hear everything; they see nothing. With every accumulating bit of invisibility, my intensity is fired up a notch.

· Sometime during this decade, I will retire. I have had the blessing of work that allows for the pursuit of personal and social healing ; work which demands the active expression of hope and compassion; which presents intellectual and emotional challenges; which test weaknesses and demand more strength. I have had the best, the kindest, the most intense colleagues, willing to join together to do what no one person can do. I find that I am drawn now to the early childhood services we have been developing in recent years – for new parents, babies, new families, and the best possible start. It comes back to the basic human connection that starts each of us on a path; that started me on a path.

· Teaching others what you know means you get to say it out loud, over and over, hear it questioned and challenged, till you understand it inside and out, and know it is real and true. And it takes up life with someone else. It will be left in capable hands.

· I’m on the lookout for a non-traditional simpler second career, which must continue to challenge, but mostly amuse me.. It quite likely may involve the growth of Secular Humorist artworks emanating from the basement. Recently I became enchanted with the AMC series “Rubicon”, a twisted tale of conspiracy, corruption, terrorism and other threats to national security, and had the opportunity to take an aptitude test. I have recently received a letter stating that I fit the profile of a secret operative. I tell you this just in case I see you in public and have to pretend I do not know you.

“I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain…. Why try to change me now?” Cy Coleman

· I will have time for sustaining the friendships that span the decades, as many as six decades for those of you whose friendships go back to childhood. And the ones that were new in Nebraska –old friends in the best sense of the word.

· I am grateful to have arrived at 60 years in relatively good health, with concessions for wear and tear. I’ll be doing what I need to – stopping just short of tofu bacon – to stay that way.

· You collect a lot of stuff over 60 years and I love every bit of it. But I will be organizing it, sorting it, synthesizing and recombining it, sifting out the best, making gifts of it. Half wondering if I might turn out, as Allison has warned, like James Hampton, that guy in the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit who built an altar in his garage, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, made of left over aluminum foil

· So less stuff please. I am, however, in the running for more adventures.

· I have been a writer for most of these 60 years. Readers optional. I have published half a dozen pieces in recent years . But now I know that it’s a small circle of people I really want to write for, and it’s you who have made it this far. So this Manifesta will mark the initiation of Radio Free Omaha, on Open Salon, where I will continue to publish occasional updates.

Inventory of Good Fortune

Yes, it started with a Fortune Cookie.

“A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way.” John O’Donohue

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Outliers, seeks what it is that explains personal success:

“Personal explanations of success don’t work… People don’t rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage and patronage… (we are) the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.’

I was born into the precise midpoint of the twentieth century, in the year 1950. If you are one of the 3 and a half million of others born that year, consider this a shared celebration. We are part of the vast renewal of life after World War II, a repopulation of the earth with its ghosts of more than sixty million lost; flooding the cities and, as quickly as ground could be broken, filling acres of suburbs; schools bulging out into temporary trailer-like classrooms to keep pace with the wave of children. How could we not be hopeful? How could we not be focused on change and renewal?

Converging in the year of my birth were families with origins in rural villages of Germany, England and Ireland; with complex routes of immigration through Texas and New York City; through Connecticut, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Colorado. In the upheaval of the depression and the war years, out of moves precipitated by everyday family tensions, rivalries, and secrets — one family settled at last in Southern California; the other in the North, near San Francisco, where a chance meeting of Army boys and local girls brought my parents together for a brief, intense courtship, followed by their marriage in 1949.

In 1950, in the year of my birth, Betty Friedan was a restless housewife and young mother, pushing at the constraints of a traditional woman’s life.

In 1950, the French still occupied what was then called Indochina. Only a few years later, American troops replaced the French in what we knew as Viet Nam; And the new war would give rise to arguments that irreparably divided husband and wife; father and daughter. It would, as well, lead to healing and reconciliation

In 1950, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public services were still pervasive, though the Armed Services had been integrated after World War II.

In 1950, people with mental illness or disabilities were still segregated in institutions which offered no hope of participation in or return to community life.

1950 was a threshold in the midst of the 20th Century. I learned that term, threshold, in an exploration of Celtic mythology – the power that resides in between places, or the “thin places” – the moment between night and sunrise, the turning point between seasons, the estuary between land and sea, the horizon where sky meets water; where one thing becomes another; what John O’Donohue calls “the huge adjacency of possibility..”

Descendants of Rediess and Jessing created the threshold I crossed over in 1950: 1544 Ninth Street, Alameda, California. German and Irish; Baptist and Catholic; southern and northern California. My parents were young, 19 and 21, closely held within the extended family, especially my mother’s. In my baby book – which had a lot more strict questions, by the way, compared to modern day baby books — one of the fill in items was “How does baby respond to necessary discipline?” And my young mother drily commented, “Indignant, but generally well behaved.” That’s pretty much been my motto all along.

As the years of my grandmother’s life accumulated toward 98, I heard variations on this comment from many of the grandchildren: the experience in her presence, of being at that moment, the most important and beloved child in the world; in a way that no one envied, because it was equally true for all. This fundamental sense of fairness and multiplicity and abundance took root in me very early in life: the power of attachment. If every single one of her six children, every one of our six children, every one of nineteen cousins, can experience loving fairness, should it not be possible everywhere?

My family wasn’t perfect. But it might has well have been. I had a rough day once. I can’t remember the details. I was probably eight years old. In the tangly web of extended family, we were spending the night with the Miller cousins. I took whatever hurt it was to bed with the kind of hiccupping sobs that you outgrow eventually. My sweet and patient Aunt Helen sat beside me, said nothing; defended no one, accused no one; placed her hand wide across the middle of my back, grounding and calming. This is the muscle memory I carry of family. I still feel that hand on my back once in a while, perfectly balanced, steadying but nudging forward too. You can survive this. Later I learned how hard-won this sense of fairness had been. How women with courage transformed hardship, unfairness, and worse, harsh treatment, what we’d call abuse today, into the evenness I felt that night.

My mother converted to Catholicism after her marriage to my father; presenting me with a spiritual and intellectual challenge in early life. By age 16, I had finished wrestling with angels. I left with one precious learning though: a sense of social justice, to build upon the fairness I breathed in from the family; a lens to bring focus and clarity to events around me. Protesters – the first time I remember seeing the now ubiquitous peace sign — around the gate of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory where my dad worked; the deaths of four girls in Birmingham, Alabama, exactly my age; Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, turning up in our house, on my mother’s side of the bed; the election, then the death of a popular young president, the first Catholic to serve in that office. If family life can be even and kind, why can that not become true in the wider world? It wasn’t; but it seemed compelling to try and make it so. It made for a life’s work.

The accident of our new address put me in line for a new high school, built to keep pace with the baby boom. It attracted a young and talented faculty, willing to experiment with new ideas — modular scheduling; student directed learning; critical thinking and clear analytic writing applied to the very air around us as it changed: the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam. For one destined to be both indignant and well behaved, it was a small Utopia. Berkeley and San Francisco were close enough for school excursions; then, as suburban life began to chafe at some of us, these places became the longed for cultural mecca we would escape to very soon. Meanwhile, young men from our town were either enlisting in the military and leaving for Viet Nam, or trying to figure out how not to get drafted.

Sometime during those high school years, I remember a field trip to Sonoma State Hospital. We saw ward afterward of fragile and profoundly disabled patients in cribs and carts; children and adults, and in retrospect I wonder who ever let a busload of high school students see a place like this? But one moment stayed with me. Crossing the threshold of what was euphemistically called a cottage; I met a young woman in her early twenties, red hair and brown eyes, strapped into a wheel chair, who I can still picture clearly to this day. She had cerebral palsy; back bent into a curve, arms twisted, hands and fingers no longer mobile. She had gotten none of the positioning or therapy that might have mitigated the damage done over the years to her growing body. She found my gaze, and returned it steadily, with a small smile. In some ways I still feel locked into that gaze with its sense of intelligence and compassion; that young woman, like a twisted Buddha with serene brown eyes. It put me on a path. I wanted to know about that locked in world which seemed about the very basic question of who is human and who is valued.

The best thing about being born in 1950 has to be that you come of age in 1968. Possibly the biggest and best year ever. So Far. And the best soundtrack too. That was the year that I was accepted at the University of California as a Regent Scholar. I never saw a tuition bill. It’s the only thing I can even faintly imagine thanking Ronald Reagan for. ( But I won’t) It was a geographical move of forty miles, but a cultural move of much greater magnitude. More like eight miles high. My dad drove me to my new life in Berkeley. What did I have with me: some very serious questions about fairness and social institutions. The war machine, the institutional warehouse, the entrenched privileges of white culture; the marginal place of women. And I was landing in a place and time to fan those flames. That became quite literally true. I expected adventures. I did not expect to see an armed TAC Squad occupying the campus, which happened by the end of the first year.

In the spring of 1970, I was completing my second year at UC Berkeley. I was listening to Richard Farina and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I was reading JD Salinger, everything he wrote, over and over and over again…. For Esme, with Love and Squalor being among the favorites. I loved the juxtaposition of Love and Squalor; it seemed so ominous. I had just declared my major in Psychology — I went for the art of it, but they were teaching science: how neurons work, how rats remember. I wanted to understand the creation of an identity, start to finish, from the cradle of the family to one’s two-footed, solo adulthood. Or so it looked then. I wanted to understand the process of psychologically separating from one’s family. And in my life that same family was in the process of separating at its own root. Were the splits in the culture reflections of splits in the family, or was it the other way, that families divided, and a culture lined up on either bank?

“An invisible red thread connects those who are designed to meet, regardless of home, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break. “

(Chinese Proverb)

On that spring day in May of 1970, the news cut through my anxious and unproductive introspection. In the days after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia — though of course, he said it was not an invasion- four students lay dead on a college campus in Kent, Ohio; the government killing its own children. Ten days later, two more students murdered at Jackson State College in Mississippi. I remember sitting on a bench, tearful in brilliant sun, for the hurt families, the dead students; the vengeful government; the unforgiving fathers. This cannot be a day as usual; I remember thinking this, and joining the student strike; civil disobedience. Indignant and not well behaved. I did not know Tim then; but there was a red thread: we met eight years later in Nebraska. He was in Kent, Ohio that day; a young woman named Allison was one of those who died that day, and her name was given to our daughter born 10 years later.

My major in psychology brought together one of the legacies of President Kennedy — the Community Mental Health Act, which began the movement for de-institutionalization and community services, and that young woman’s gaze, which I had not forgotten. I was working in an institution for kids with developmental disabilities; I was learning as a psychology major what science now knew was possible for human learning; and I connected with the ARC movement, in which parents lobbied for community services.

That brought me across the threshold of Lotte and Al Moise’s small wood sided house on Sherwood Road, along the Navarro Canyon road outside Fort Bragg in Mendocino County. It would become a second home, and Lotte would become a lifelong mentor. In fact, it was in her living room that three of us gathered to hear about her world tour of progressive services for those with disabilities – with stops in England, Denmark, and Omaha, Nebraska. We’d heard of the first two – but actually had to get out an atlas to sort out which of those square states in the Midwest actually was Nebraska. The summer after graduation, we hung a right onto Interstate 80 and headed for Nebraska, following Lotte’s red thread, to work for ENCOR, the Eastern Nebraska Community Office of Retardation.

The people I met at ENCOR in the early days – Shirley Dean, Tom Miller, Roger Harms, Mary Slaughter, Patty Smith, Bob Perske, Linda Marchello — and so many more – were single focused and passionate. Roger recently described this era as unique in its clarity of purpose, vitality, fervor, wild experimentation, and dedication to cause. It seemed like the natural progression of the civil rights victories of the sixties. We agree that nothing since has ever matched it. It felt like being part of a huge global wave of social change. Like creating it, not just being in it. This new movement was, in some ways, simple: to include people with disabilities into the normal rhythms of community life; to accentuate commonalities over differences.

Over the course of a few years, most of the population of people with disabilities in this five county area, who had been living in the large state institutions, came home, and most children, from that point forward, never had to go away. They stayed at home, or lived in group homes or foster families. Went to school with age peers; worked side by side with neighbors; bowled in bowling leagues with other portly Nebraskans.

This work environment brought together young workers just starting their professional careers with a new ideology. It was a powerful combination and it forged friendships — including my own marriage — that continue to the present day. Old and established social institutions were the target, and the result was more change than those institutions wanted, and less than what we on the cusp of change had hoped for. Here, those glory days were over in about ten years. Professionally, those friends and colleagues now populate the state governments and non-profit service providers of a dozen different states, part of the permanently altered culture of human services.

“Meet me at the Dundee Dell after work”. It was a message that would circulate a couple of times a week, sometimes because it was Friday, sometimes because it had been a rough day. We had things to prove: convince legislators to keep funding community based services; convince parents that community life was right for their young adult children; struggle with those young adults to break through years of inertia and disconnection with the outside world. We deconstructed our days, our lives, our culture and what it valued or devalued; tried to make sense of change and resistance, love and desire, oppression and rebellion, on the large stage and the small.

A year or two later, our friend Sandy Baxter, who was forever saying “there are 2,000 people worth knowing in this city”, sketched it out for me on the back of a napkin in the Dundee Dell after work one Friday, and so I started knowing what it was called; the Omaha 2000.”There are 2,000 people and they are in these tribes, maybe 12 or 13 of ’em. Many of ’em know each other and most of them pass through here – the Dell on any given Friday afternoon. You’ve got the Lost Generation, the Trend Setters, the Dell-Dwellers, and your Artists, Poets, and Musicians. Then you’ve got the Human Service Corps, the UNO Intelligentsia, Unrepentant Hippies and Old Market Groupies. Then there’s your Feminists, Gays n’ Lesbians, and those we refer to delicately as of Altered Consciousness, and the self-proclaimed Democratic Party Radicals. And finally, your East and West Coast Transplants. That about covers it. Everyone worth knowing.”

I first laid eyes on Tim in the Dundee Dell, on March 31, 1978. It was another one of those red thread moments. After service in Vietnam and a return home to Ohio, and attending Kent State University, he had gone to Washington, DC to work for Vietnam Veterans Against the War; where he met Sandy Baxter. They worked together in Washington, DC, and she lured him to Nebraska after she moved back here. He was on his way to live in Seattle, but interviewed with me by phone, and accepted a job I offered. He didn’t mind a year or two in Nebraska. He took up residence in the Fontenelle Family House, a holdout hippie commune and the best party house ever. Two rules: don’t park on the lawn, and don’t clean the oven.

We hung out at the Dundee Dell, and the Fontenelle House. Then, at the very end of 1978, on New Year’s Eve, this friendship turned into a marriage. The wedding was actually 10 months later on a beautiful fall Saturday in Nebraska, with friends and family in attendance, but it was already a marriage early on. I have studied the subject of marriage from many directions, earned a credential in marriage and family therapy; spent many years helping people heal and repair relationships. It’s hard to predict what will work out and what isn’t going to. All of it reduces to something quite simple at the heart of it: love needs mutual patience, tolerance, and respect to last. Especially when you are dealing with a legacy of indignation, well behaved or otherwise. I always wondered who would tolerate me. Now I know. I could not have wished for a more wonderful man, a better partner or a better father; to build a home and family with.

About nine months and a day after the wedding, we carried Allison Margaret over the threshold of her first home at 2440 Fontenelle Blvd. The hippie commune party house now had a baby in it. And what a great starter baby she was !! We learned as we went. Having watched her enchant an entire room full of adults with a gesture as easy as a tiny forefinger to the mouth, I understood something very fundamental about the characteristics of first born children. It actually led me later to a study of family systems theories of birth order. She continued to charm crowds, large and small. Bright, curious, creative. Verbal from an early age. There has been no end of surprises, including a surprise wedding about 28 years later. But that’s another story.

Loving the neighborhood and the neighbors, we moved by four houses up the street to our own home to celebrate Allison’s first birthday. All three of us were firstborn children. Four years later, I became pregnant with our second daughter, Kaitlin Rose. “I hope”, Allison said seriously, in anticipation of becoming a sister, “that you don’t plan to keep this up. And that the baby will know that the stuff that’s already here is mine”. So Kaitlin, with clear blue eyes, made her own place, made sure we knew how much she was her own person; that each child needs a different twist on parenting; that parents need a good balance of humility and confidence. Nothing has been more amazing and awesome than seeing the arc of these daughters’ lives, the unfolding, the creativity, the wonder. They are our best work.

Speaking of work – everything I have done in 30 years at Heartland Family Service has its origins in secure and loving family – the one I grew up in, and the one I helped to create and still come home to every day; peaceful; renewing. More often than not, a very nice man has prepared a fabulous dinner. My work is a variation of that steadying hand that I still feel in memory from time to time. It is fueled by the success of my own parents, and the village around them in their new young days together, in creating a bond that still holds firm with my sisters and brother; and which I see in our own children, in marriage and friendship, and among their cousins. The red thread.

So we are accidental Nebraskans, but Nebraskans none the less. It’s a harsh climate at times. We are feeling that acutely on the day after the 2010 elections. Red state, maybe — but this is a blue house, and we know of many others. At least 2,000.

Raising our children here has truly been an experience of knowing that it does take a village for parents to do their best. Our kids have been surrounded by a circle of friends, who taught and encouraged and challenged and loved them; and the same for us. “I need spare parents”, Kaitlin once said. And they’ve always had them.

The cool thing about being born in 1950, is you get to turn 60 in 2010. It’s a great year to be alive.


Bleak Mind in Bleak Midwinter

JANUARY 27, 2013

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
(Old Christmas Hymn)

Leading up to the Solstice, darkest day of the year, and the first major storm, I am filled with complete and joyful anticipation. It is a rare opportunity to have our two children together and at home, under one roof. This I remember, year to year, preserve and revisit

What takes me by surprise though, after the goodbyes, after the turning away at the airport, is the sad ride home into bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Snow on snow. Snow on ice. Snow on dirty snow. I forget how regrets tend to flood back at this time of year. I awake dreaming of insidious disasters, the roof leaking everywhere and in illogical places; people lost from my past now impatiently honking in the driveway while I search for scattered things.

In my first days back at work, it’s on my calendar to drive to Lincoln and testify at a hearing on children’s mental health Medicaid regulations. This is every bit as dismal as it sounds. But if it must be done, at least a spring day is not wasted on it. Medicaid hearings belong to the bleak midwinter. And there is a different light this time of year, just after the late sunrise, on fields of snow, pink and icy blue. I find a side road where I can stop for a photo.

On the road between Omaha and Lincoln

On the road between Omaha and Lincoln

I was once in a study group with a psychoanalytic psychiatrist who, among other interesting theories, believed that every region of the country had its own characteristic and collective mental dis-ease. I can’t remember all of them, but of course it stuck with me that the Midwest is all about depression.

The Nebraska State Office Building (SOB) has always struck me as such a perfect example of collective and institutional depression. The pure hideousness of the architecture never fails to stun me. Or is there any architecture about the place? Who would even claim this as architecture? This on-the-cheap, utilitarian, and graceless structure, shades of grey – and only one or two, not the full fifty — the public spaces devoid of art or anything beautiful ; the absence of natural light. And then there are the policies that emanate from this place. Pinched, stingy, disdainful of the poor : this building is a perfect place for thinking up such misery. The worker drones, heads down in cubicles; shuffling in hallways with lanyards around their necks, coffee cups covered because – I suspect — there is a quality improvement project to prevent spills.

I have been to this hearing room before. It is subterranean and fluorescent lit. full of hard steel stackable chairs. The room is empty and dark. I got here a little early, so I wait behind a coat rack in the hallway on one of those chairs. There’s a fair amount of foot traffic down here. It seems like it is part of a walking track for state employees, a hamster wheel of sorts. They come down for laps around the hallways with athletic shoes taken out of a lunchbag. I am guessing there is a fitness initiative behind this mindless and repetitive looping, which finally ends in state sponsored retirement.

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There is a minor functionary from the legal department who presides over the hearing. She flips on the lights at 9:55 am. A dozen, maybe twenty, scatter across the chairs. The room could hold three times as many. But this is to be no stirring debate; it’s strictly routine. They wrote the regulations, and the law requires a hearing. Any and all comments will be recorded. When I did a line by line comparison I found exactly NO changes from the existing regulations. Yet still a hearing must be held. The law doesn’t require them to do anything with the comments but they must be recorded. She turns on her recording device and puts out a sign in sheet. She invites comments. I’ve been to these before. There’s an ominous “After You, Alphonse” vibe. Everyone waits for someone else to start, to reveal the tenor of this event, even though no one thinks it will be explosive in any way. But no one speaks. Finally I break the silence, sign in, read my testimony, and give my thanks. By which I really mean thanks that it is over. “Anyone else?” she asks. Silence. No one? Bueller? Bueller? It turns out there’s a protocol for this. “ We will go off the record for ten minutes”, she says, “in case anyone comes in late or if any of you change your mind.”. She flips off the recorder and presides over 10 minutes of dead air. This is not helping the collective mood of state government. I know she timed that ten minutes, even though it seemed much longer. Back on the record with no other takers, and the hearing is adjourned at 10:18.

Wow. It was a long drive for an 18 minute hearing on regulations that haven’t changed and probably won’t. But like the irritating buzz of a gnat, my small protest is on the record. Someone on that hamster track is going to have to transcribe it for the permanent record. I feel one degree less depressed than I was when I arrived.

I leave the building, thinking that if it is still windy outside, perhaps I could engage in some competitive spitting. I can’t be sure, but I think I see the hearing officer doing laps in the hall when I make my way out. She’s several hundred yards closer to retirement.

Resolved: to make the best of winter.


There is a Season

In the morning it looks like the rain might wash out our plans for an outdoor festival. Wine tasting, music on an outdoor stage, a picnic in the grass. But by one o’clock, the clouds have scattered and the game is on; and by five o’clock, from the hilltop facing west, there are none, just the blue circle of the horizon in every direction, and a setting sun that lights up green and red and brown in the fields — all colors intensified by the cleansing rain overnight.

Fresh Basil and Tomatoes

Fresh Basil and Tomatoes

Tart apples, peaches, bread and cheese, smoked salmon. I cut into a tomato that was put into the picnic basket right from the garden. When I shred a few leaves of basil to mix with the tomato, the scent wafts to the next picnic blanket over, where five young women actually put down their smartphones and spin their heads around and yell “BASIL”!

What powerful flavor in those leaves. We eat it fresh till the first frost, and try to capture it in dried and frozen form, or as pesto, to carry us into the winter. But basil and tomatoes are really best savored in their own season. A scent so distinctive that I can actually remember it in February even though it last hung in the air in November; that grows stronger in memory till it is made real in summer heat again. Till then, sage and winter squash.


Bittersweet

MAY 26, 2014

I arrived in Nebraska in the month of June, accustomed to the Mediterranean heat of California, in the valleys of the coast range – so all that summer, I was wonderstruck by the furious, pounding summer storms, the thunder and lightning; torrents of rain; and the humidity that followed. It was all so novel. I did not live in a place with air conditioning, but it was part of the adventure of learning a new world. As the summer ended, I knew enough to expect a harsh winter. But before all that, there was fall, and it was one huge flame of color
Bittersweet
And bittersweet was one of the first hundred uniquenesses of the midwest. It was on a hike that fall that a friend pointed out the clusters of red and gold berries, high up in a bare tree. Bittersweet is a woody vine of the genus Celastruc scandens, native to north American central and eastern woodlands. It can meander on its own, but it likes to climb trees, and after the wind has stripped the last leaves away, the berries become visible. My hiking companion told me it’s considered a pest by some; vigorous enough to engulf and choke its host tree. A few weeks later, at a farmers market, I found wreaths and sprigs of bittersweet amongst the apples, honey, pumpkins and squash of the season. I’d learned that it was illegal to harvest it in the wild, and someone was making a lot of money selling these little twigs for eight dollars a bunch. So if I was to have my own, I’d need to have a house and a garden, and I began right then to pine for one – but the whole idea had to hibernate for a few more winters.

I planted it along the fence – it would cover the plain chain link, and the fence would be its trellis. I waited patiently for two or three seasons – but no berries in the fall. So the next thing I learned about bittersweet is that you need to have both a male and female plant; one to pollinate the other. I had no idea where to look or how to know that you had both varieties – but I lucked out on the second one I bought; it cohabited successfully with its neighbor, and in the next season, there was fruit. It likes the sunny slope on the south side. It has spread out over twenty feet along the fence. Over the years, the vines have curled out, looking for structures to grown in and around. They knitted themselves into the links of the fence; so densely that when it was time to replace the fence this year, it could not be extricated from the plant, so we trimmed as best we could around it, and left some of the fabric a permanent part of the plant. I’ve had the vines get entangled in my hair as I work around them, and if I were slower moving, I might be like the fence – made part of this growing thing, not to be separated.
I don’t know why it has the name bittersweet, never even looked until today. The berries are not edible, and might be poisonous. There’s an oriental variety that is more dastardly – the one that chokes trees and poisons children. But it leaves me reluctant to actually taste a berry to see how the name is earned. I am fine with the poetic implications.

The green berries come on at the height of summer, turning yellow with the cool weather of fall. But it takes a taste of three seasons to fully reveal the beauty: With the first freeze, the yellow hulls pop, almost inside out, revealing the red berry within it. I bring them inside in small bouquets, in wreaths for the door and table; give them away; small blazes of fall color that remain when the last leaves are raked or blown away. Most of the berries stay out there for the birds. I can see dozens of them dining on what I leave, still bright against snow in early winter. A bit of one season that carries over into the next.


Awesomely Untranslatable Words

JANUARY 27, 2013

In the course of some recent research on working cross culturally with interpreters in mental health services I came across an article about words and expressions that can’t be translated precisely into English. I’m always in the mood for a creative diversion and this one was rich.

The Spanish “duende”, for example, contains this complex idea: “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” Or “l’appel du vide”. Leave it to the French to have such a precise expression for the instinctive urge to jump from high places. Or the Portugeses, “saudade”, the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.”

And that brought me around an old corner of the mental neighborhood. Recently, for the first time in many years, I heard the classic bossa nova tune, Desafinado, and suddenly I was seeing the scratchy fabric covering of the HiFi speakers in the house I grew up in, and hearing the equally scratchy 33 1/3 LP recording, probably Stan Getz. Release date would put this around 1962. I was 12 years old. I just had to look up the full lyrics, but most of them had stayed with me pretty well across fifty years, along with the catchy, syncopated beat.

“Love is like a never-ending melody/Always have compared it to a symphony/A symphony conducted by the lighting of the moon/But our song of love is slightly out of tune….

My dad was a saxophonist, playing in the 50’s equivalent of garage bands, getting together in trios with friends to play in livingsaxo rooms and small local clubs and bars. He loved the jazz classics and kept up with its evolution from the forties into the 50’s and 60’s; including Dave Brubeck, and the Bossa Nova blend of jazz and Samba coming out of Brazil. And the Columbia Record Club brought us a steady mailing of albums, some costing only pennies.

So I went looking for the definition in the song’s title, and it turns out that Desafinado, from the Portuguese, is another of those untranslatable word — its approximate English meaning is “Out of Tune”, or “Off Key”.

“Once your kisses raised me to a fever pitch/Now the orchestration doesn’t seem so rich/Seems to me you’ve changed the tune we used to sing/Like the bossa nova, love should swing..”

Yikes. How does a 12 year old think about romance or marriage? I think it’s safe to say that although the most basic of influences has to be what is observed, and absorbed in family life, taken in like air, stored away to unfold later – 12 year olds do not like to think of their parents as exemplars of romance, And that is certainly not what the nuns of St. Michael’s recommended. I do recall being told, in a gender segregated Catholic school sermon on sexuality from a nun with a grudge against boys, that sex should never be discussed except in the presence of a responsible adult. This pretty much paints a picture of the word “awkward”. Awkward and strange. The body is already most of the way into adulthood but the mind and emotions have yet to stretch that far.

So I was hearing this musical portrait of romance as harmony and perfection; achieving a fever pitch; but I had no idea about fever pitch. No context at all, unless what the nuns were referring to was that sexual desire was akin to an illness

Were these songs written about marriages in which six children had been born within the first 12 years? About teenagers in love, about aspiring musicians earning a living in the real, mechanical world, about a girl postponing the dream of college? About marriages mixed of equal parts Baptist and Catholic?

I learned later, from my mother, that the marriage had eroded significantly by this time, beginning in the utter exhaustion of four children younger than five and my dad working night shifts; though it would not formally end until its 20th year.

I don’t recall seeing any overt disagreement; never overheard arguments; they were reasonably cooperative as parents — though it frayed in the months leading up to their separation.

They were quietly unhappy, in a marriage that broke under the weight of ordinary things. There’s a concept in search of an untranslatable word.


Disorientation. Try It.

In May 2013, I accompanied my daughter Allison on a transatlantic cruise. She was working on behalf of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, presenting programs on the thirteen long days at sea, and I was her lucky sidekick. It was a marvelous experience, starting in Fort Lauderdale – with a stop in the Azores Islands after ten days at sea. The next ports were at Cherbourg, Bruges, and finally England, from where we flew home. Here is a recollection after a few days back on solid ground — and ancient ocean floor — in Nebraska.

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Disoriented: Having lost one’s direction; confused.

Orient: From Middle English orient, from Old French orient, from Latin oriens (“rising; as a noun, the quarter where the sun rises, the east, day”), present participle of oriri (“to rise”).

(transitive) To familiarize with a situation or circumstance.
(transitive) To set the focus of so as to relate or appeal to a certain group.
(transitive) To point at or direct towards.
(transitive) To determine which direction one is facing.
(transitive) To place or build so as to face eastward.
(intransitive) To change direction so as to face east.
(by extension) To change direction to face a certain way.
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A few days after arriving home from our two week voyage, and at the end of a long day back at work, what was intended as a short nap turned into a sweet, deep sleep. When I awoke, just at sunset, I remember the physical sensation of surfacing toward consciousness, as if from deep underwater, and thinking “I wonder what country I am in.” Through those last few layers of dream, the mind did its checks to answer that question: date and time, latitude and longitude, time zone, city, state and country, home. I remembered that our bedroom window is oriented west, thus the sunset through a filigree of leaves on the maple tree. I put down roots of consciousness

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Within the first day or two of the cruise, I became aware of feeling the movement of the sea as it radiated through at least ten layers of the ship. Decks is the seaworthy term I think. During the day, and in open spaces where the horizon was visible, it was less obvious. My legs made a constant series of fine adjustments to keep me balanced. I walked laps around the deck one day, one of the days of rougher seas, and my step counter not only registered the mile I walked, but calculated the equivalent of climbing 20 flights of stairs, as the deck fell away and arose again In front of me. But in closed internal spaces, without the fix of the eyes for balance, it produced a vague dis-ease.

On the second night, we went out onto one of the open decks after dinner. I wanted to see what the stars were like. It was a little cloudy, and few stars were visible. I have never seen such absolute darkness. Yellow lights on the deck, and running lights along the sides, threw a few feet of illumination into the sea, and the wake alongside us lit up, then disappeared. In the main reception area of the ship there was a video screen that showed a little “x” for where in the huge ocean this p10005161380591967tiny ship was at the moment — so theoretically, I knew we were “somewhere”. But at night, there was no visual indicator that this is true. Yes, I was sure that someone on this huge beast knew where we were going. They even had a program about it, bringing up an awkward engineer from below decks to explain torque and thrust. For a few moments I empathized with the first sailors who made these crossings, and I completely understood how a moment like this could give rise to primitive fears about sea monsters. Most nights, the sensation of rocking that one feels lying down had a satisfying and maternal rhythm. But on this night I was far more concerned, imagining the great dark space we were in.

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So I checked that little red “x” every day, and for ten days we sailed toward the Azores Islands, a chain of volcanic islands about 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. With these long leisure days we had nothing to do but spread rumors, so I can’t even remember exactly when or how it began to circulate that we might actually be heading for the lost continent of Atlantis. Are we somewhere or nowhere? The maps I studied in anticipation of traveling showed beginning and end points, and detailed the lands, the continents, the ports, the cities. I realize how accustomed I am to thinking of lands as the positive and seas as “the negative” – the invisible spaces between, the emptiness to cross over. In the ship’s library I found an atlas that revealed the geography of the ocean below us. For a change, it was the land masses that were blacked out as if they were irrelevant. I learned that we had been following a formation called the North Atlantic Ridge, and the volcanic peaks of the Azores rise along it. Measured from their base on the ocean floor, the Azores would be the highest mountain formations on the earth.Pico do Ferro Belvedere, Panorama of the Furnas Valley

Familiar and unfamiliar, oriented and disoriented by turns.

Such a contrast to the slow and methodical sea voyage, the flight home from Dublin to Chicago was eight hours of high speed travel. I was well aware of that vast ocean below us, having just come to know it day by day. Now I could watch the little red “x” of the plane on the electronic map on the seat back in front of me. There is a line indicating sunset, and we rode just in front of it all the way, as if the day were being rolled up right behind us. I expected to be tired; I expected jet lag and forgot all the folk wisdom I heard about whether it is worse east to west, or west to east, and what you should do with your sleep patterns to diffuse it. I did not expect to be set down where I left off two weeks ago, with a vaguely pleasant sense of disorientation; what was once familiar seems a little odd now. When I looked up the word, all the associations to “Disorientation” were negative. Alienated, confused, lost. I remember the section of the mental status exam that explores this territory: do you know who you are and where you are in time and place ?

I think I prefer the mild psychosis of travel


One of the Seven Simple Machines

APRIL 15, 2012

I let him in through the basement door so he can park his truck nearby. I’d guess he is in his 50’s, reserved, wearing a dark blue uniform that telegraphs the message “service professional”. I remember my grandfather wearing work clothes like this, dark shirt and pants of sturdy cotton twill, forgiving of a grease stain, and fortified against wear at the elbows and knees. basement door2

In fact, one of those green work shirts still hangs on the clothes rod in my basement, brought home after his funeral, a sweet remembrance of his tinkering for years, in oilfields and shipyards and loading docks and finally, in his own small universe of garage and yard and basement. It surely is what he was wearing on that last day, when he left his work boots on the back porch, and went to bed for the last time beside his wife of nearly 70 years.

So this workman, coming to repair our washer, must see a lot of basements. I look at this space with an outsider’s eye, and wonder if he watches “Hoarders” on TV.

While we were remodeling, box after box of stuff landed down here, and only about half of it went back upstairs. Add to that the seasonal tides of holiday decorations and garden tools, leftover paint and lumber. Before he arrived, I had to thread my way through a narrow canyon of stuff to find pliers on the workbench; cleaned the cat litter; thought briefly about the cobwebs in the open rafters – but left them hanging. Nervously, I remember how I’d often invoked the dream image of a basement as a metaphor for the unconscious. Now I find I’m hoping that’s not true.

He’s a man with an economy of speech; to the point.

“So what’s wrong with it”? he asks.

“It won’t fill, The water just runs and runs but it never fills, just right down the drain. All of a sudden, just this week.”

He fiddles with one of the cycles on the dial. “Did you recently move it?” he asks. Improbably, in this cluttered space, that it could have been moved – I know he’s thinking that.

As a mental health practitioner, I recognize the diagnostic process in action. He is working his way through the appliance world equivalent of the DSM IV.

He looks around at the drain hose behind the machine, clamped to a length of PVC pipe leading to a floor drain.

“Here’s the problem,” he says. “This hose needs to hang above the water level in the tank.

” Yes, I think to myself, like it was until just last week, when we laid the hose flat on the floor to drain. And when the washer suddenly stopped filling. Uneasily, I remember a sixth grade science class about atmospheric pressure and how a siphon functions. One of those seven simple machines, from which all more complex machines are created. I can see the “J” shaped clear plastic tubing the cascading series of plastic cups, the cutaway diagram of water and air.

“That’s all it is”, he says. He shows me how to raise the drain hose and clamp it to a post near the washer. He glances at his watch. Who wears a watch any more? Doesn’t everyone check their cell phone for time these days? But here is a round moon face of a watch with a leather strap. My grandfather wore one like this at the cuff of that tough work shirt.He calculates the time he’s been here, about 3 minutes.

“Tell you what. I’ll call the office and say you cancelled the call.”

No 65.00 service fee, just a common basic science error in a hoarder’s basement.

“Thank you,” I say aloud. Silently my brain continues: “Thank you for not judging me. Or if you do, thanks for keeping it to yourself”


Fog

APRIL 15, 2012

There aren’t too many foggy mornings in Nebraska, but occasionally, when the temperature is precisely right, fog will form along the river, spreading out in the lowest lying areas on either side, softening the sharp edges that a clear sunrise will raise. These mornings stop me in my tracks. I had one this week, and stopped on my way to work, to follow the soft trail of fog along Elmwood Creek.

window_mendocino_reduced1334511769I am remembering another early morning walk, a year ago this week, on the foggy northern coast of California, in the village of Mendocino. It’s home to a few permanent residents; and many more seasonal visitors. Along the main street, a boardwalk of weathered wood, I pass a yarn shop, the offices of the Mendocino Beacon, a wine bar, an art gallery.

In one of these windows, what catches my eye are two origami cranes hung from a wire mobile; a box with a bamboo mat, a small buddha set on it, the composition of an altar. A pastel toned photo of a woman looking out at the sea; another of a man in some indeterminate uniform; a fringed shawl in reds and purples; a pair of old eyeglasses, folded.

I stop to try to capture in a photo, the way the artist found to balance the cranes, to keep them moving in slow arcs. I have been trying to perfect that issue of balance back in my Nebraska basement. But when I look more closely at the photo later, what I have taken is the reflection of sea and sky in the glass, the dreamy far horizon it looks out on.

This is an odd and lonely visit, a little sad, but sweet on balance. There is no person remaining in this small town that I mendocino main streetknow. The threads that anchored me here are gone. Friends dispersed, like me, to other places, or died. So I create small excursions, like this walk, or the ten mile drive on Coast Highway One that threads through redwoods between Fort Bragg and Mendocino; small perfect meals with a view.

It’s a funeral that brought me back after more than 30 years away. A dear friend died a peaceful death just short of her 93rd birthday, and was brought back to her coastal home, her ashes to be scattered along this rocky stretch of coast. I spent the previous evening in a motel room, composing my thoughts for her memorial service; fell into a deep sleep; and in the morning, set out on this walk.

When I was a student at UC Berkeley, Mendocino County was my place of retreat. Away from the grit and crowds of the Bay Area; the late night shifts at an institution for boys with disabilities; the pressure of academic papers and exams; the worry about the future. In quiet, this is the place where the threads came together. A child came here; an adult emerged, and departed.

I have a playlist where I store my late night impulse purchases on ITunes, the ones I can count on to evoke mood and memory. Enough songs about moons, blue and otherwise, to fill an hour. I’d recently rediscovered Jefferson Airplane’s Embryonic Journey — this short, intricately layered and wordless guitar performance, which I am hearing again now, was the theme song for what was about to unfold from this place: a cross country pilgrimage to find a future, work, and community.follow heart

Of the many photos I took last March, it is this shop window that draws me back, its glass reflection of the foggy, softenened line of horizon, where sea meets sky. It is what I left behind.

After a few months in Nebraska, I experienced a geographic crisis. I was landlocked. It was a little claustrophobic. There was no edge to find, as one would on the coast. Rivers don’t count, and what they call a beach here is not how I know the word. No choice about it, here we are in the middle of things. So I am drawn back, to what is reflected behind me.