It’s been nine months since my Dad passed away. As time is a fickle and irreverent companion, nine months took but one beat of my heart…and some days take an eternity. I sure do miss him. If you’ve read past writings here about my Dad you know that he was a larger than life character…I love the movie Big Fish with Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor because it reminds me of him, of us. He was also not prone to express his emotions. I suspect much of his generation had no language for it. So in many ways it seems I am getting to know him better in his absence than I did in his presence.
After he died I found pictures of him as a child that we never even knew existed. What a cute kid! Do you ever look at childhood photographs of yourself or your loved ones and see the utter sweetness in our faces? And I don’t know about you, but often at night, in the vast dark silence, I still FEEL myself AS that little kid…I AM still her…perhaps that is always true for us all.
People sometimes ask me why I put up with so much from my family. Did they not see those photos of THEIR family? We are all innocent here. In the end we must give up our beliefs about what the past meant. We must forgive them…we must forgive ourselves. We must. I’m not saying it is easy, or that it means we allow any further abuse. We draw a line; we turn to face the dragon, we pound our staff and declare to our pain, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS.”
As the new year begins, I too have a resolution. I am taking Edwene Gaines’ 21 Day Challenge: to fast from complaining for twenty-one days – the length of time psychologists say it takes to change a habit. Complaining is a bad habit. Addiction specialists tell us that the easiest way to overcome any bad habit is to replace it with a healthier one. And so, I will begin each of the 21 days by listing at least eight things in my life that I am grateful for. It’s a wonderfully sneaky exercise as it starts you thinking in terms of gratitude…and you tend to keep thinking this way throughout the day. I’m so grateful someone else figured that out for me…
I’m on Day Three today, and I have a big confession: I have done Day One over more times than I can count. You see, if you slip up you must start over the next day. If you know me, you find it remarkable that I’ve made it this far! Meaning, of course, that if I can stop complaining, ANYONE CAN STOP COMPLAINING!
But I am putting my “money where my mouth is”…as Edwene says in her Four Spiritual Laws of Prosperity. It’s time to walk the talk. My friend Nadine gave me this book for Christmas (grateful.) IT JUST WASN’T THIS CHRISTMAS! It was a year ago. That should give you a hint about what I’m working with here….sheeeeeeez….but in my defense, the book was packed in a box for months during my l o n g move (not complaining) and I just re-discovered it. With prompting from Nadine…
Last week Nadine sent me this YouTube video which reminded me that I had that book around here somewhere. I invite you to listen to this Yoda in the form of a munchkin…and follow the yellow brick road with me.
“The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.” -unknown
I don’t know about you, but I see an awful lot of myself in P.L. Travers. The uptight intellectual snob who wrote Mary Poppins fought with Walt Disney over creative rights for twenty years. She needed the money, but she was utterly opposed to her beloved characters frolicking in a musical – lest they be made to seem trite or unimportant, powerless. Sometimes a push is needed to allow truly magical things to happen that would otherwise never come into the world. It allows for healing to take place. I suspect that is true of all art. It gets away from the artist and takes on a life of it’s own.
To this day this is one of the best selling stories of all time, and I know why. It speaks to us all, to overcoming heartbreak and becoming powerful again, to healing. Heroes come in so many unexpected ways, don’t they?!
For my dear Dad and my beautiful sister Shelly, who both played piano and sang the soundtrack of my childhood.
Mahatma Gandhi wisely said, “I like your Christianity. I do not like your Christians.”
My fundamentalist born again sisters used to wear bracelets with W.W.J.D. engraved on them…they brought a smile to my face and made me happy. They always made me think “What Would JONI Do?” And as long as I was thinking of Joni, I could hardly go wrong. I read recently that when Joni Mitchell met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche she offered him a line of her cocaine. He sat up, appearing indignant and began breathing like a dragon, nostrils flaring…she was sure she had offended him. He continued to breath this way for a long time. Slowly she began to feel differently, and soon entered into an altered state where she remained until she had another thought…as herself, another “I” thought – that snapped her out of it. Three days had passed. She was cured of her addictions.
I have had a similar experience, seemingly brought on by illness. There was no other person present at the time, at least not visibly. I felt a strong presence, and I believed it to be the Christ. Not the man, Jesus, but the Christ – the state of enlightenment. Christ wasn’t the man’s last name – he was Jesus THE Christ – meaning the christened, the enlightened. Personally I think if the man DID manifest himself back into A body and walk the planet, he would be appalled at the behavior of most who call themselves “Christians”. And I also believe that in his disembodied state, moving freely through the cosmos (and us), he IS just dumbfounded by human behavior…but I digress…
I have since tried to research that experience in order to connect with others who have had it; it is often called a “conversion” experience. It is said to have happened to John Newton that night the storm threatened to sink his ship, his last voyage to deliver slaves for auction, and inspired him to write the hymn Amazing Grace. I can believe it. You could not have that experience and not be completely changed. I sure was. I felt every cell of my body being remade. It isn’t something words – at least not any words I know – could ever describe.
I have spent the majority of the last sixty years trying to change people, my family mostly. I came by the arrogance of codependency naturally. How I managed to escape the alcohol and drug addictions of my family I don’t know. But I had a therapist who finally got through to me and convinced me that codependency is an addiction also. And possibly harder to cure.
Jesus the Christ was an alchemist, able to rearrange the molecular combination of the elements. The alchemists of the western world are the artists. They can change our states. They can cure us. I thank God for them every day I am alive…
“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change. So I shortened my sights and decided to change only my own country. But it, too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family. But alas, they would have none of it. And now, as I lay on my deathbed, I suddenly realize…if I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.
From their inspiration and encouragement I would have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.” – on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey
My son and I send each other songs back and forth…there seems to be no shortage of inspiration and awe for life, for each others’ ever expanding capacities…we are not musicians, but we have musical hearts. Don’t we all, really…have hearts that cannot resist? We cannot resist each other.
How was he ever to come from me and not be so soft, so strong, so wounded, so brilliant…as we realize our shaman selves together? He is a gift beyond measure, a pearl beyond price.
He is young, and was born wise it seems. My hair is white now and defies the ageless truth of who I am inside. But ooooooh….I believe. Fate smiled and destiny, well…destiny laughed as she came to my cradle. I sent him this song by the poet Natalie Merchant:
“I am a challenge to your balance…I’m over your heads.
How I confound you, and astound you, to know…
I must be one of the wonders of God’s own creation,
And as far as you see you can offer me no explanation.
With Love, with Patience, and with Faith, she’ll make her way.”
“I want to know what’s become of the changes we waited for love to bring…were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?” – Jackson Browne, The Pretender
Around the time I started this blog I also began participation in a class based on Julia Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way and it’s sequel, Walking in This World. The group was being facilitated by my dear friend, Kelly Forrester. Kelly and I met when she was seventeen and had suffered a devastating accident which crushed her leg and her dancing aspirations…she came to see me in my massage practice at my little business office in Traverse City, Healing Arts Associates. She generously claims I saved her life that year…she has now more than returned the favor some twenty-five years later.
But I wasn’t trying to recover my creativity in the class – I was trying to survive. (Turns out they’re the same thing!) I remember sitting across the room from Lisa Perrine Brown, whom I had never met, and having her look me in the eyes and proclaim that if I would commit to this process, to doing the work outlined each week in the corresponding chapter of the book, that my life was about to change…”Expect miracles…,” she insisted. I couldn’t trust that; I could let her trust for me. Danielle Bearre played us Amanda Palmer’s Ukelele Anthem and took orders for $20. ukelele’s…I didn’t order one. I wasn’t at all sure I would be around to play it when it arrived…but I have since become a huge Amanda Palmer fan. And when I learned that her husband, Neil Gaiman, had written some of my favorite movie stories, I embarked on a new reading frenzy. I started this blog and it provided an outlet for my 3 a.m. insomniatic angst…and Nan Peterson blurted out loud in class one night, “You’re a writer, Susan!” I could not see that; I could let her see it for me.
I had never met most of these amazing women. They couldn’t possibly imagine what their influence would mean. But this month I am participating in NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. I write almost everyday; I have since day one of The Artist’s Way class. I paint and draw, for the first time in forty years. My life looks nothing like it did when I timidly showed up so raw and vulnerable . My heart is still broken from so much grief and loss. But it remains as open as I can hold it. I love my new life.
I have had the great privilege of seeing most of these performers live – some several times in their many incarnations. Prince only once, and if you ever have the chance, do yourself that favor…Here they play what I consider to be one of the most brilliantly written songs of all time…were we just not listening?!
My dad passed away the morning after Father’s Day. I’ve been too sad to write until yesterday. We had spent much of my adult life estranged and had become close again just the last several years of his life as his health failed. We reconnected only after my Mom’s death. They had been divorced many years by then, but had remained good friends. After her death he fell apart. We all did.
Just this morning I am cleaning out closets and came across a small old box labeled “Mom’s Photos”…but they weren’t Mom’s – they were Dad’s. My guess is they had not been opened since my mother moved out of our big family home thirty-some years ago now. The box contained photographs from as early as the nineteen thirties…my dad as a baby held by his mom. Dad as a toddler in knickers and argyle socks, and as an Army Corporal during the Korean War. Precious treasure.
I never knew these photos existed. I had never seen a photograph of my father as a young man. I assumed there weren’t any. Trying to figure out who all of these other people were was perplexing. When I turned a photo over I discovered he had gone through this box in 1978 – the year my son was born – and labeled everything. Consciously or not, he meant this for Steven.
And consciously or not, he knew somehow the box would survive in my mother’s care. She was The Archiver.
The past two months since his passing have sparked many memories, of course…some expected, some surprising. The most surprising are all the many times he stepped up to the plate and came to my rescue. Sadly, I have only seen those in hindsight. I am a time-traveler of a certain sort…likely aware of stranger’s stories more often than my own.
He and my mom were married at the age of nineteen, having been life-long friends and high school sweethearts. I was born when they were twenty, and by then he was stationed in Texas waiting orders to ship overseas. His brother was in Korea serving on the front lines, and I think they tried not to send two sons from the same family. (That was back when the country still had it’s soul intact.) As it happened, they were my grandmother’s only two children. Thankfully the war ended, and he and my Uncle Bill came home safely, reluctant heroes.
Throughout my childhood my mother drove all of us nuts with her constant picture taking. To this day we have canisters of old home movies. Since cleaning out my mother’s house ten years ago I have stored the many boxes of old photographs, always meaning to go through them. Sort them into separate boxes for each of my siblings and myself, and for our children – the grandchildren she worshipped and adored.
When my great Aunt Edith passed away she left a file cabinet hidden in the back of her bedroom closet with a note: “Give this to Susan.” I thought, “Why me?!” It lives in the back of MY bedroom closet now. It is packed full of photos and momentos…daggerotpypes and marriage certificates brought over from Ireland during the famine.
What will I do with all of this? Surely, I had to keep it. I moved recently, downsizing dramatically. Culling a lifetime of accumulated collections, I decided my criteria for throwing things away: would I risk my life to save this in a fire or tsunami?! Lightening my load became easier the more I did it. It feels so freeing. I have often envied those who could live in a gypsy wagon.
But alas, I have moved into a 1,000 square foot cottage and it is just right for me…and I sure am glad I didn’t throw that little box away.
Thank You, Rose, for your encouraging words. Bless you.
As people get to know me they often say I must write a book about my life…and I reply “I wouldn’t know where to start.” How do you write of the remarkable and ordinary?
As I meditated on this I heard “begin with the soundtrack.” I have always been a shadow musician and artist…and have written stories since Carol Ruth Owens and I made books of scrap paper in our front yards on Sandra Lane and filled them with adventurous mysteries like our heroines, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew…but with horses, of course…we were obsessed. We volunteered at Dick Trotman’s (yes, his real name…) stable so we could ride. I rode a gentle giant warmblood named Duchess. Even then in grade school I was tall and ugly skinny and the only bony child she would tolerate.
A junior high teacher told my Mother I was a talented writer…if only she could get me to finish something. I was not interested in writing. A sixth grade art teacher had entered me in the Detroit News Scholastic Art Awards unbeknownst to me, and I had won – with a watercolor homage to Rembrant’s Young Girl At an Open Half Door…all my waking hours I wanted only to paint. Little did I know I would win again, with an abstract oil my senior year of high school. I haven’t painted since.
Beginning college brought “two-fers” – creative writing instructors would have me complete two semesters worth of assignments in one. But I haven’t written since.
Let’s just say I lost my mojo. Has anyone out there seen it?
The last forty-five years or so have been about survival mostly. Learning how not to BE my emotions…how to navigate and balance the depression of addiction and medication and it’s insidious clusterfuck of side effects…the sins of my fathers…it’ll suck the mojo right out of a person.
Both my parents were “hobby” musicians, as were their parents. My mother’s father was a direct descendant of Franklin Pierce. He purportedly had some African American blood in his genes as well, and carried many of the physical attributes. But he passed for white, and made his quick and short lived fortune as a contractor building railroads, first for the booming automobile industry in Detroit, then across the continent, and eventually as far away as Japan. I ADORED him…especially on the weekends.
Amos Pierce lost his Golden Gloves to a young boxer named Joe Louis, and he and Joe became fast friends. In their twenties and suddenly well off, they hung around with their mutual friend, Chubby Checker…and many other young Detroit musicians, some who would soon have contracts with a new label called Motown…but first, they needed a big empty space to practice and relax in. So Amos built a rambling old Tudor mansion near downtown and finished the basement like a ballroom with a bar, a stage, and a big dance floor. Some of my earliest memories were negotiating the wide stairway, sister Sherry hanging on, carrying a heavy bag of cornmeal down to sprinkle all over the fancy new invention called linoleum so that the dance floor was slippery slidey…I’ve wondered if the Twist were born here. But mainly, I was just mesmerized by my six – foot – four grandfather with the head of curly black hair shaking to the beat. Late at night, perhaps early in the morning, I would flat out refuse to take off my new patent leather shoes. I remember those arguments; my grandmother coming to my rescue by making a pallet of blankets on the floor where I would eventually fall asleep. Somehow my sweet little self knew I didn’t want to miss a minute of this…