A Painted Memory

Mornings in the lonely field, and I 
Would love the way you taught me to: 
Matching up my wobbly strength against 
What clime and time and space can do -- 

Gathering a bit of air inside 
The lungs that knew the breath of you -- 
Traveling the lonely field, and lost 
In what you didn't make it 

Through

I am six years old, and we are entering a restaurant that looks like an unpainted barn. It is even newer than I am.

The ceiling is high and sloped, and all along the walls are gigantic paintings, all beautifully painted, of horses, cowboys, and buffalo. One of them is a painting of a cowboy lighting a cigarette next to a horse in a stable on a winter night. Light from the the match is shining on their faces.

We lived in Florida, so, I had never seen snow. It was another six years before my first glimpse of it for real. I had seen horses, but never very closely; my older sister took lessons. I could immediately “feel” that painting: I felt the cold, smelled the match, smelled the horse. I still remember.

The restaurant itself had a line we moved through: we picked up drinks and salads on trays, and ordered the rest of the food that was later to be brought out to us. The place was called the “Ponderosa Steak Barn”, and was unrelated to the restaurant chain that came out a few years later with a similar name.

We ate at the restaurant countless times when I was growing up; it eventually closed. Years later, as an adult, I was back in that town working, and the building had been converted to a Chinese Palace theme. Several of us from work went to eat there for lunch. I went back to use the restroom, and in the back hall were all the old paintings — including that one.

Leaned up against a wall, in a poorly lit hallway, were paintings almost as tall as I was — twelve of them. And there was that cowboy, and that horse, and that match lighting his cigarette. And for that brief second, I felt the cold, and remembered what it was like to step into a new restaurant with my family at six years old.

It was kind of like stepping back into a different world, and even more like stepping back into a different me. Six year old me appreciated art — and food — like I never quite have, since.

My mom used to say, “you never feel things as keenly as you did when you were young.” As a kid I head this, and thought nothing. As a teen and twenty-something, I interpreted it to mean she was now numb from life. Over time, it came more and more to be an observation about the nature of things: neither sad, nor hopeful, just… factual.

There was a second winter painting of the twelve in total (the rest were warm weather paintings) that I saw all those years later in that hallway: it was of a deer standing by a tree in the snow. The photo, above, was the closest thing I could find to it online; the original painting had mountains in the background, and the edge of a nearby forest. It was, my dad remarked, one of only two of the paintings to not have a human being in it.

I thought my dad was wrong, because, clearly, WE were in it, or we couldn’t have seen it, right?

Isn’t that how empathy works?


(Nano Poblano. It stretches us to the very limits of our limit-hood, but has been worth it nonetheless.)

parade

today we celebrate en masse 
and gather in array; 
today in gratitude we march 
or sing, or shout, or play -- 

or gather in more quiet homes 
a meal or less to share; 
today's the annual parade -- 
maybe I'll see you there

Gratitude is healthy, but only when sincerely felt. Feigned gratitude tastes terrible, one of those foods we ingest because manners dictate that we do so. It is no coincidence, then, that we attempt to celebrate the expression of gratitude by eating things we (presumably) love. It makes any residue of fake gratitude go down easier.

Before the meal, usually, is the parade. Parades are busy, and colorful, and loud, and musical, and exciting — some of us like all of these things, and most of us like at least one of these things. Colors would be the one I like the most. I could do without most of the other parts. I love bright colors, though.

When my parents would take me to a parade as a child, or watch one on television, I could tell that parades had meant more to them than they did to me. They had grown up in a radio age, and only saw what they directly experienced. I grew up in a television age, where images were far more plentiful. People in the Internet age experience connectedness in different ways still, and in greater visual and auditory abundance.

It’s a common-yet-strange disconnect when things that mean a lot to people don’t mean much to their children. Thanksgiving itself, as celebrated here, seems to still mean lot to the young ones, although observably differently depending on the child. Some love the crowd, the excitement, the noise, and others don’t. We are all very different from day one, even before circumstance begins to shape us like weather.

If you happen to watch a parade today, or anytime, remember this: nothing says “celebration” like getting dressed up and going for a long walk, while people cheer. Except maybe watching it.


(More from the other Cheer Peppers here.)

When You Think You’re the Only One, You Are

“… people I thought were family, who somehow make my grief about them…”


For every birthday, there is a deathday: 
 a day marked on secret calendars, 
 calendars written in indigo-Coptic, 
 grand, terrible, and wonderful, but unreadable. 
  And we're the only ones who have it. 

For every story, there is a central thread: 
 a meaning, and a delineation, 
 clear only after seeing the whole, 
 tying everything together, ineffably. 
  We cannot speak what speaks so loudly to us. 

Living within walls we did not build, 
 but which, rather built us; 
 understanding none of it, other than that 
 we are inside the walls, and all others, outside. 

When you think you're the only one, you are; 
 when you do not think you are, you are not. 

Bereavement is both 
 the ultimate reality, and 
 the strongest illusion; 
 and both parts of this paradox 
 are true

It was the one-year anniversary of someone I knew’s passing two days ago. Her roommate, who had taken tireless, personal care of her friend through the final rough years of her life, reached out with a card to her late friend’s son. HIs response was lengthy and angry, and included the quote at the top of this piece.

We all have our ways of dealing with grief, and I’m no expert. I’m not quite sure what a grief expert looks like, now that I think of it. Someone who has been through a lot of it? Someone who has seen a lot of people go through it? Someone who has read studies about people who go through it?

None of those seem like enough to be an expert, and who would want to be, anyway?

Reading his response, it evidently never occurred to him that his mother’s roommate might also be grieving; from his perspective, all the grief was his, literally by birthright. He never saw the raw, daily manifestation of his mother’s illness, and what it took for her roommate to take care of her, and his mother certainly never told him. So I could sort of understand.

Many of us hesitate to say much of anything to the grieving besides a few mumbled cliches, because we know grieving people can get as angry as they want at anyone, and many will. There really is no “moral high ground” when it comes to grief, because there is no high ground at all.

When we feel like we are the only one suffering a loss, we really are alone, for nothing anyone else could feel, or say, or do, has any meaning to us. When we feel like others share a form of our grief, however different their experience was, we are not alone, even if we don’t get to talk to them about it. It is a paradox, but as I said in the poem above, it appears to be true, no matter how paradoxical it is.


Have you experienced the anger of the grieving? Was it yours, or theirs? Does any of this make sense to you?

“…things no one else can see.”

The effort made, the distance spanned 
In hope of giving some relief: 
  We cannot wear another's grief, 
  Nor hold their times within our hand. 

Though selfishness be rightly banned, 
And our tales placed within a sheaf, 
  We cannot wear another's grief, 
  Nor hold their times within our hand. 

That love was once, and ever is, 
Like Autumn falls upon the mind 
That struggles deaf, and dumb, and blind  
To where we find what never is -- 

It isn't good or great or grand, 
A touch like chill and wind-blown leaf: 
  We cannot wear another's grief, 
  Nor hold their times within our hand. 

Starting out, we are gaining in powers, and we come to feel ownership: of the world, of life, of ourselves.

The rest of our years are spent learning to let go of all of that.

Our significance comes from our goodness, not our greatness. It does not matter that our names our not known by millions, if our good deeds, or good hearts, are known to a few. If our names were known by millions, it wouldn’t meant that we were. Known, that is.

Grief and sorrow are inevitable, because we are born with an innate sense of permanence, a that is a thing this life does not offer. There are many types of loss, and some of those go beyond any place words can travel.


When someone we love is gone, we suddenly realize just how stark the limits of imagination are. Reminiscing can recreate feelings, but it cannot recreate actual people.


I accompanied the two of them to the cemetery: a dark-haired young mother and her fair-haired four-year old son. They stood by her late husband’s grave almost perfectly still, the only motion being the light wind moving their hair.

I was standing off at a distance.

I was struck by the boy, who is a classmate of my granddaughter’s. I’ve seen him a handful of times this school year, and never known him to be still, even for a second. But his every movement on this occasion mirrored those of his mother.

His mother, who is hairdressing client of my daughter’s, held her son’s hand and seemed to be seeing something there I could not see.


Grief is always composed of things no one else can see.


(Other posts from this month’s community blog posting group.)

Where Does Love Go

“Where does love go when it’s gone?”

‘Wherever it came from.”


A message sent from Florida 
Where you and I were once... you know... 
I guess your reminiscing, since 
It seems that time, and wine, have flowed 

Into the veins you call your life. 
I say I hope I find you well, 
Then slowly you unfold a tale  
Of loss and choice, of ebb and swell -- 
 
And I see years long past remain 
Within each of us, differently. 
I seek to understand, because 
However things have come to be 

I do not, could not, wish you ill. 
You were my lover, are my friend, 
And I wish you the happiness 
Far fewer know than now pretend. 

For each of us, and all of us, 
There's nothing simple, now or then: 
There's myriads within each heart, 
Both what we are and what we've been.


When a person writes in the volume that I’ve written, it’s easy to see patterns. That’s a nice way of saying I write the same things over and over.

When I started writing poetry here, I spent much of the first few years reliving old relationships. Part of it was to better understand myself, but an equally important part of it was trying to understand better the women I had been involved with, something I don’t think I’d done a very good job of at the time.

Of course, I realized the obvious things, looking back. As a younger man, I may have been overly focused on the physical aspects of the relationship, for instance, or at least, focused to such a degree that I let other parts of relationships flounder. I also realized that being selfish comes pretty natural to me: I never had to read an article or watch a YouTube video to learn how to do it.

In addition, there was this: girls often find early that boys don’t always treat girls like, well, human beings. This tendency in us guys is very pronounced, and it is not always as ill-intentioned and baneful as it can be. I was interested in working through why I struggled to see women as just other people, then using that knowledge to better understand the actual women I had dated.

Eventually, life strips away the pretense and the fantasy in any relationship that is carried on long enough; all too frequently, then, people come to resent the other person for not being what they never were. Love is less about embracing fantasies than respecting and valuing realities.


When my ex girlfriend in the poem above messaged me, it was to talk about a breakup she had recently been through. The reasons she had broken up with him were perfectly understandable, at least to me, but I could see her struggling with the notion that it had in some way been unrealistic perfectionism on her part that had ended the relationship.

All I could think to say was, if regret could be converted to energy, it would be the ultimate renewable energy source.

“Where does love go when it’s gone?” she asked me.

“Wherever it came from,” I said. “Or to wherever it is going next.”


Wood and Wire

I ask the music, for a time, 
To carry me to somewhere else; 
Another time, some kind of place 
Where troubles stop, and tension melts -- 

But it's a lot to ask, I guess. 
Creating island and lagoon 
From wood and wire, dust and string, 
When it too's tired, and 

Out of tune

It’s 3:30 in the morning as I type this and yesterday was not a great day.

I am sixty years old, but still feel shocked, saddened, and naive when confronted with the ugly realities of everyday life. I know it shouldn’t surprise me, but, it does. Over and over again.

Since I was born with a limited capacity to process and absorb reality, I have long used the arts as a place I could call… if not “home”, maybe like “an affordable hotel”. The piano has been the primary place for this, but it could be writing, or reading, or coloring, or… you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t, so here is some examples of pictures I recently colored using the Color Therapy app:


Reality is overrated, anyway. I mean, sure, that’s where you find all the food and stuff, but, it’s also where things like “assault” live.

Whether fortunate, or unfortunate, I have to spend most of my hours firmly within reality. On days like yesterday (which was not a great day) I feel pretty much like the piano pictured at the top of this post: chipped, dusty, and scantly able to perform my original purpose, which I’ve largely forgotten, anyway.

The best escape from reality isn’t always by way of fantasy, but into other people’s realities. That’s one of the beauties of “Nano Poblano”: reading other people’s blogs and seeing what their lives, loves, and struggles might be like.

Yesterday was not a great day. But maybe today will be.


Falling, In Love

[Originally posted May, 2018. 30 days of prose, day 10. – Owen]


Falling in love is like stepping off of a flying airplane; them loving you back would be the parachute. But that parachute doesn’t always open.

Splat.

Love in relationships always comes with risk. We can’t know what others are really thinking, and we can’t know how years or circumstances might change them. But we step out anyway.

And sometimes, we crash.

Hearts, however, are usually stronger than bodies, kind of like the flight recorder on a airplane.* They are usually ready shortly for service on another flight. The decision to step off a plane again, though, gets much harder.

Before I met my wife, I had lots and lots of practice at falling in love. Many of these were more like falling of a curb than an airplane: short fall, easy landing, right back up, no problem. But others were harder: awkward falls off of bicycles, and diving boards, and even a roof or two.

Finally, I stepped off a plane for real, and man did it feel good. Scenery rushing by, blue skies, green pastures, and another person there with me. It was such a rush.

Then I hit ground, hard, in a fenced off area called “divorce”. As I lay there, wounded, I saw her (my ex) bounce immediately up and get on another plane.

One person’s crash is another person’s escape, I guess.


So why do we do it? Why do we try again?

I can’t answer for you, but I can answer for myself. I loved the feeling that came with stepping off of that airplane, and I wanted to feel it again. In addition, I wasn’t going to let one person stand in for any other person I might love for the rest of my life. For that next person might be my parachute, and I might be hers.

The other reason I had for trying again came from an observation I’d made, which was: planes can crash whether we ever get off them or not. Isolating myself hadn’t prevented crashes in the past, but it had prevented joy.

In the end, we love because we’re made to love, and because the choices of others do not determine who we are.

But it sure feels like they do those times we hit ground.


* I innocently asked my dad when I was a kid why they didn’t make planes out of the same material as flight recorders so that people would survive the crash. I got a long explanation on the aerodynamics of heavier metals.

A Trip to the Garbage Dump

A church Sunday School trip comprised of 4th graders on a Sunday afternoon, with 20 or so of us in a couple of our teachers’ vans. It was near the end of the school year, in late April. I know it was roughly half boys and half girls, but the boys were in one van and the girls in the other, as we were near the peak age of boys and girls avoiding each other without thinking about it much.

The dump had a barbed wire fence around it and a guarded gate. To my almost ten year-old brain, that meant something valuable had to be stored inside. The guards let us in after some discussion with two of my teachers. In just a few seconds, we were on a dirt path between what seemed like gigantic hills of garbage. The teacher in the passenger seat had us roll down the windows. “You need to get used to the smell before we go out there,” he said.

what do we learn
when we're learning?
what do we gain
when we see?

why should we seek out
the ugliness,
when keeping our distance
is free?

The year was 1972, and while we were told not to touch anything, we hadn’t exactly made the trip wearing sanitary gloves or anything. We had split up into smaller groups around various teachers, and we were walking around, just looking. And smelling. A garbage dump smell is not one you ever forget.

Still, there were treasures in there. Televisions and radios that had been thrown away, whole. Couches, chairs, beds, dressers. Articles of clothing, some still in the dressers that presumably had held them. All of those were relatively rare, of course, it was mostly food packages, boxes, diapers (a lot of those), and unrecognizable sludge.

We climbed up and down the hills a little bit (supervised, and one at a time with a teacher) and circled around the place, which seemed enormous to my eyes. The teachers were talking to us about what we were seeing, but I don’t remember what they were saying, other than them repeatedly telling us not to touch anything or pick anything up.

teachers swim against 
ocean tides
of haphazard minds 

Children tire easily of almost anything that is good for them; I remember being ready to go for a long time before we went. It was growing dark by the time we got back to the church parking lot where my parents were waiting in our old green station wagon. As I approached the car, they had a change of clothes (and shoes) waiting for me. It struck me that they had must have each visited a garbage dump before.

Later that night, after a bath, a sandwich, and some milk, I remember thinking about how cool it would have been to have one of those old radios like I saw at the dump, and that maybe, if I had one, and plugged it in there in my bedroom, I would hear old broadcasts of the Lone Ranger, or the Glenn Miller Band, or reports from the Pacific Theater.

romance lives
where our minds find it:
bad places,
anywhere --
the adventure is in us,
externals just are.

Full admission: I do not remember why we went on this trip, or why it was thought relevant to Sunday School. I don’t remember what the teachers were trying to tell us, except (a) touching garbage can make you sick; and (b) it’s illegal to steal garbage, even though, arguably, nobody wants it. I don’t think the latter of those two things was really what they were trying to get across.

Nevertheless, looking back, I learned a lot that day, and a lot of things in my perception of the world changed. Here are few of them:

  • People waste a lot of things that still have value. I understood that day why parents never threw away what they might give away, even when the former was more convenient.
  • Ugliness has to be experienced; reading about it is no substitute. It has to be smelled, for lack of a better word.
  • When we throw things away, they go somewhere. Out of sight doesn’t change their reality.
  • Teaching is always worth it, even when they aren’t listening.
  • Reality is full of possibilities, and when we divorce ourselves from reality, we miss out on possibilities.
  • Maybe if I’d noticed what was going on with girls at age 10, I wouldn’t have been so bewildered by them at age 15.
  • Somewhere, across town, there may just be a place I’ve never been, and it’s a whole different world than I’ve ever experienced.

Greetings from Home

A Sunday in January, 2021, and I am on a walking trail at a local park. The sun is setting. There are maybe six people here; in pre-plague days, I would see closer to a hundred. This park consists of a lake, a trail, and around 15 different picnic areas. We walked here often when my son was young; now I come here maybe once a year.

it is a new year, and I know I need to get up and move around more. Working from home, even though it has been for public health reasons, has seemed like the next logical step in web connectedness: to somehow be with everyone, without ever being with anyone.

I’m deliberately unplugged while I am walking, though. No earbuds, phone left in the car, even took off the Apple Watch. I thought I’d give my own thoughts a listen for awhile, just to see if I am still in there. It turns out that guy is enjoying the ambient outdoors: frogs, crickets, cars in the distance. I genuinely like being alone: it limits the number of people I’m disappointing.

I am always disappointing somebody, it seems. Both the people I love and the people I work with have very high expectations on my account. I am thinking about this now, in the car, driving back home. People have a clear, strong idea about what I’m supposed to be, and I’m rarely exactly that: hence, the disappointment.

Why people have such firm conceptions about my role and expected performance levels I am less sure of; however, that has been true for as long as I can remember. As a child and teen, that phenomenon manifested itself most often in discussions of my ‘wasted potential’. Others knew what I was supposed to be, and I was not that, so I was a guilty of a moral failing, having (in their eyes) squandered some precious natural resource. That has never really changed: I was supposed to be better than I am.

As my headlights swing into the driveway, I see my wife’s car is gone. Checking my phone, after parking, I see she has left me a text indicating she has gone over to her mother’s to do some things around the house. My mother-in-law turned ninety-two this last year, and she also had clear expectations for my wife that were never met. My wife was supposed to be Miss America; as it was, she Miss About-Twenty-Different-Pageants, and close to being Miss Georgia. But she wasn’t, disappointing her mother and brother, who had her life planned for her.

In turn, my mother-in-law had disappointed her family, having married a non-Jewish boy and stayed in the South. Her family had emigrated from Poland about fifteen years before the Nazi horror; marrying outsiders carried an emotional weight I am sure few of us could understand, now. But the cycle of disappointing our families stretches out in every direction I can see. So it is in no way unique to me.

This is a very common pattern for me: I start out talking about myself, only to end up realizing that the problems I have are shared by many. “Children Will Break Your Heart” is the name of one my favorite Garrison Keillor stories. And they will. Children are part of us, but they are not us. This is a situation that only the very lucky end up on the happy side of.

I have five children I have been a part of raising (one child and four stepchildren from two marriages). In my experience, with parents and children, it is always a contest as to who will disappoint whom more; who “wins” that contest, in any individual case, depends on your perspective, I suppose.

My wife texts me to say she is on her way home and would I like her to pick us up something to eat. I am not really hungry, and tell her so, saying I’d be happy to sit with her while she eats so we get a chance to talk. My wife is a minister, and Sundays are very busy days for her. She comes home with a salad, and we sit down at our chronically cluttered kitchen table.

I honestly don’t know how my wife gets everything done that she does. She carries the concerns of a large number of people on her heart and shoulders at any one time. I try to be the person in her life who doesn’t ask for things and who listens to her concerns, as she might not have any such person otherwise. The concerns she carries she often cannot share: illnesses, betrayals, and other things shared with her in confidence. She also presides over 50 or so funeral services a year, and the sheer amount of grief she deals with staggers me.

In addition, she spends six to ten hours a day, most days, with a three year old and a five year old, occasionally supplemented by a seven year old. That seven year old also spends the night once a week. Her emotional capacity to deal with all of this is amazing.

We talk about her mother, various congregants and relatives; what the upcoming week looks like for both of us; how much each of worries about how little the other one sleeps; how many doctor visits she will be accompanying people on this week, and so on. In a fictional story, any night with a couple that ends with them having a conversation and not going to bed together would be a let-down; in the real world, it is a thing that commonly happens, and it’s perfectly okay.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about the disappointments we’ve suffered, or inflicted: it’s about the good we do, or have done.

 Greetings from home, please do ignore the mess.
 We all have our joys, our secrets to confess:
 The great disappointments burdening our hearts --
 But we understand each other in these parts.

 The way that life goes, the way things have to be;
 The tendency to a general entropy,
 Where we let the days go thoughtless into blight
 Instead of us savoring each day

 And night