16 November 2009

The Death of a Father: Chapter 1

The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, and Senor Xolotl
1949, by Frida Kahlo

It's funny how I can remember every moment of that day 2 and a half years ago. Everything I said, every interaction I had with the nurse, every cigarette I shared with his homeless partner in crime. The taqueria in Austin my brother and I went to a few hours after he died and where I felt like I might die. Every bite I took of the stuffed bell pepper in the hospital cafeteria as I sat across from my uncle who I hadn't seen in more than 10 years. The way his body shook as I held him when he passed. Every moment of that day, and the few days after burned into my memory.

I never knew how important my father was to me. I know that will sound strange to most people, but I had a rather complicated relationship with him. I wondered sometimes if he existed at all, or if my memory of him was a dream. In my last communication with him I sent a Frida Kahlo postcard where I wrote that exact sentiment to him. His friend Jeff whom he slept under bridges with in the summer, and the woods in the winter, told me he remembered the postcard. He told me that my father read it to him. I had never known if he had received it.

The problem was this: How do you experience a loss when the person was lost to you? How do you experience a loss when it was easier to pretend he didn't exist than explain to people who your father was or what kind of relationship you had with him?

The death of my father shook me so deeply to my core, that even I was surprised by it. It was as if every nerve ending had been exposed; my life the most awful and the most meaningful it had ever been.

A few days later I boarded a plane to leave Austin, Texas to return to the Midwest. I didn't feel ready to leave the last place my father had lived. The streets that he was so familiar with. The hoards of homeless people he would have called his friends. I wanted desperately to stay, believing that somehow the city itself could offer me answers. As I sat on the parking garage steps and sobbed louder than I ever had before, not caring that people rushing past me were witnessing this, the sky suddenly lost its brightness. Clouds darkened the sky and a cool wind picked up. In a few minutes it was hailing amid the loud thunder claps and sudden lightening bolts. A sudden storm that seemed to be mimicking my own emotional turmoil.

As the plane rose into the sky, on my right the sky revealed the sun and the storm lifting with bright rays of sunshine slicing through the clouds. On my left the dark, heavy gray storm clouds still existed around the glow of the moon. I was flying through night and day. The sun and the moon following me all the way home to the Midwest. I knew then that with this loss there would be a gain, but I wasn't sure when or how. All I knew then was that I had a very, very long way to go.

16 July 2009


I just looked at this poem I wrote in 2002/03. I think it still holds up, although I may do some editing at a later date. Thought I'd share.

Letter from Inside
I look forward to his letters
written in unsure cursive—
he cannot sleep at night
the guards keep
the radio on and
there is never complete darkness—
a fluorescent buzz of light
constant as breath—
Saturday a man arrived
in his block singing all night
… All You Need is Love …
he laughed as he told me
over the gingivitis stench
of the visiting room phone—
Our reflections blur
against the Plexiglas
muting clenched jaws
and the hiss
of orange jumpsuits
It couldn’t have been
any other way—
a voice in my head
tells me
What did you expect?
Someone had to end up here—
The path behind us
is scattered—
memories hang
drowning us
with uncertainty—
We are ugly
stupid and deserve
everything we get—
the Lutheran neighbor says
pushing us out
of her home—
teachers look
blankly at us
and suck
their perfect teeth—
Isn’t it sad?
They’ll never go anywhere
Sometimes I try
to talk to him
about the violence—
The stepfathers
The belts
The unexplained rages—
I am reminded
of police officers who
cut him from the rafters
telling him
he should have used
a stronger rope
I study the graffiti scratched
into the cheap brown paint
dressing the visiting stalls—
Houston ’99, Free Shep Dog—
he points a nervously
chewed finger to
Fuck tha Police
he says, exactly—
His eyes wander away
as we look for words
that scratch less—
words that force
the shadows out
from behind
our sharp eyes

11 October 2008

The Things People Say

People say weird things. Here are some of the comments I heard in the last few weeks:

1. "I can't believe the secretary was complaining about my time sheet. I mean, if she wants something to complain about I could really give her something. Like police brutality to some inmates here. Yeah, I could beat up a few of those assholes" -Unknown Deputy who works at the Dane Co. Jail.

2. "If you want to do humanitarian work and truly help poor people, become powerful. You cannot be poor and help the poor" - Ayurvedic Practioner at seminar I went to.

3. "You could do a pretty good WWII" -JV referring Lia almost being able to put her hair in a ponytail, but she actually meant to say a "George Washington"

4. This joke that Justin Ver Halen told me last night, but I cannot repeat it. It was that horrifying. If you see me in person ask, I'll probably tell you, but I cannot type it. It was that shocking. And I'm not shocked by much.

I thought there were more, but I'm drawing a blank at the moment. So, that's all I got. Some of them were disturbing, some were very funny. Just like life, disturbing and hilarious all at once.

07 July 2008

Mental Health, The American Dream, and Family

The topic of choice has come up many times in recent conversations I've had with friends and, unfortuntely, family. There is one specific circumstance where a person said to me, "I really believe that a persons life comes down to the choices they make". I cannot disagree more with such a statement.

I must admit it's a nice thought; the idea that no matter what our background or current environment may be, we can simply make a choice, a good choice, and we can shrug off those self-imposed limitations and have a better life. It sounds good doesn't it? I wonder if this is the basis of what people like to call "The American Dream". Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, kid. If one person can do, we call can, right?

The problem with this mentality first and foremost is that it's elitist. It's all very pie-in-the-sky and doesn't at all address or consider the real, and sometimes very long lasting, emotional effects (shame being #1 in my opinion) of physical and/or sexual abuse or simply being poor. It's well documented that physical and sexual abuse can affect the emotional lives of people for long periods of time, often for their entire lives.

Our bodies have memory, even if we cannot literally recall a specific event, our bodies can remember it and respond to this memory. The mind/body connection is so active in us, and to me seems obvious, that is why it is so maddening when people disregard physical manifestations of emotions as something that is just in your head. Well, that's just the thing, isn't it? It IS in your head, therefore, it's in your body. It's very simple: sometimes when people are scared or nervous, they shake = physical manifestation of emotions. Or, ever hear of people getting sick because they've been stressed out at work? Yes, that happens too. Anyway, I digress...

My point is, is that abuse or exposure to violent situations (like war) can bring on PTSD and various other mental health issues that many folks simply don't have control over. They never know when a situaition or a person might remind them of the traumatic event and quickly they are back in that space again. How is it then that these people just "make good choices" and get on with it? I'm sure many war veterans would love to hear that.

I am not saying that some people can't move on with their lives after a traumatic event and function in a way that works for them, but I think it's important to consider the person also. No two people have the same response to traumatic situations, so it's absurd to expect that if one person deals with it in one way, that the other will do the same.

A family member said to me, "yes, but don't you know people who have Borderline Personality Disorder who actually take reponsibility for themselves and have "regular" lives?"

I told her no. Not because I believe that people with BPD will not have "regular" lives, but because usually the reason someone is even diagnosed with such a thing is because it is the way that the world makes sense to them. They also usually developed it as a coping mechanism, a protective measure in response to a traumatic experience. The way I see it: their behavior is an attempt to get their needs met, which were often not met at some point in their life.

The funny thing about such converstations with people, specifically this particular family member, is that outside of their lives, outside of their families, it is easy for them to make these connections.

Having compassion for people is very important, I think, because there is always something going on underneath. There is always something more, always more than the fragment of ourselves that we choose to show each other.

24 May 2008

My people, My place

I am currently in Dekalb, Illinois, my hometown.  The place where I grew up or, better yet, the place that grew me up. 

It's a place where my family is and where all the things that I love and hate about myself exist. But, the fact that this place (figuratively and literally) exists for me at all, and still, humbles me. It is a place where people drive me crazy.  Where family has expectations of me and I constantly try to free myself of them.  That urge has softened in me a bit in the last year and though I have little tolerance at times for the ways of my family, I cannot deny the purity and simplicity of their love for me.  I drive them crazy too, after all. 

My grandmother, Alice, grew me up quite literally.  We lived with her much of the time growing up.  She is a quiet woman who resists and resents direction from most anyone, but mostly from men.  Her mother died tragically when she was  5 or 6 and then she lived a while in an orphanage until extended family took her in.  I cannot imagine what her life has been like. She is 84 now and reminds me everytime I see her, "I'm really old now, Peanut. I forget things all the time" to which I always respond "That is a lot of years to remember things, who wouldn't forget things at 84"?  and then she laughs.  

My grandmother often wishes that I would move back so that I would live in the same town with her.  She never understands people leaving, but she will counter it by telling me she knows I have a good job and that is really important. She tells me that if she wins the lottery she wants us to open up a little corner grocery store with me because we're both so good with people. She has always had this dream of owning her own little grocery with me. 

Driving here in the summer is so freeing for me.  I can only liken it to being somewhere it is natural for you to be, even if it isn't the place you fit in most naturally.  The back country roads I drive to get here are flat and uneventful for most, but to me they are a connection with the land; the people. The fields, the waves of tall grasses in between cornfields responding to the wind, the sweet stench of cow shit.  The dilapitated farmhouses or barns with beat-up cars, hoods popped, in the front yards.  Grubby looking men wiping their hands on their pants. 
And although Dekalb is changing drastically and generally isn't at all like what I've been describing, parts of it are still like this.  My family is still like this. 

We all have things to learn from each other, and they will be hard, I promise.  But, I have to remember to take a deep breath, look out at those fields and remember what it is in me that is natural.