Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

Notes from 2017 – The dreams of our ancestors

"The Sower" by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

“The Sower” by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

My paternal great great grandfather Gustav, a farmer, was born in the Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the French/German border that had been fought over since the time of Louis XIV. As a young man, grandfather Gustav, his two brothers, and their families emigrated to America in 1870 to avoid conscription into the armies of Napolean III during the Franco-Prussian war.

As one historian noted, the ancestors of most Americans of European descent came here as paupers, petty criminals, war refugees, draft dodgers, or religious fanatics. I certainly come from such stock. I’m alive today, in part because 150 years ago, the US was not afraid to admit refugees from conflict zones. As Bill Murray put it in Stripes, “We’re Americans! That means we’re mutts – the most lovable kind of dog there is!” Mixed breeds are often the healthiest too.

A century later, our open borders policy helped spark the technology-driven economic boom of the late 20th century. Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazis and then the Russian takeover before before coming to America in 1960. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. If you’re reading this post on a laptop or smart phone, you can thank these two pioneers, as well as the space race in the 60’s, which thrived upon a universal respect for science and affordable education which drew the world’s best and brightest to our shores. Microelectronics and the connected world were among the results.
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Daily Prompt: Memories of Holidays Past

What is your very favorite holiday? Recount the specific memory or memories that have made that holiday special to you.

3d - 400 - christmas_edited-1

Here is a story my father loved to tell. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when we’d take a Christmas tree to his assisted living place, he’d tell us about the electric trains.

One year he ran short of track on Christmas eve, so he hopped in the chevy and drove through the snow to a hobby shop in downtown Poughkeepsie that was open until midnight.  The place was filled with other fathers on similar missions:  picking up extra track, boxcars, and engines.  Trains were the thing that year.  That little store overflowed with camaraderie, humor, and joy.  Fifty years later, his eyes lit up when told this story.  I think it embodied the Christmas spirit for him, as he embodied the joy of giving for me.

As a depression kid, money was scarce while he was growing up.  One year someone gave him a silver dollar on his birthday.  His grandmother said he should put it in the church collection plate.  He did, but when he reached in to get change, his grandma slapped his hand, knocking the plate to the floor.  Undaunted, my dad crawled under the pews and recovered every penny, but made sure to collect his ninety cents change.

Prosperity finally came.  After a stint in the navy as a radar technician, he went to work for IBM, and after that, if anyone asked for a dollar, he’d offer them two.  After he got sick, I had the chance to return some of those favors, in both large ways and small.

The first winter he was up here, we happened to drive past a train store.  “Wanna check it out?” I asked.  He did, and we found a 19th century train that called his name.  We took it back to his apartment, and I set it up on his kitchen table.  Mary took him shopping for those Christmas village buildings which matched the scale of the train.  He talked about it so much to the other residents that sometimes when were visiting, they’d knock on his door and ask to see the trains.

Mary recently asked I if hated Christmas – a reasonable question, given the tone of my comments on Black Friday and what passes for “holiday music” in stores.  I don’t hate Christmas.  I do hate the machinery of media and advertising that cynical interests use to paint a mirage of joy that can be ours if only we buy enough stuff.

I learned from my father that stuff isn’t the problem.  Grasping for stuff, out of greed or a fear that I need it to be ok is the problem.  My father taught me that stuff can be a medium of generosity, and generosity lies at the core of what Christmas is truly about.

Artifacts of our ambition

artifacts1

Last night at dusk I went out to turn off a backyard sprinkler and noticed a broken garden plaque that lay among fallen leaves and plums.  It’s been there for quite some time, one of those objects I don’t know what to do with but like too much to throw away, so I leave it where it lies.  Last night, in the twilight, I noticed it.

A phrase sprang to mind:  “You look for the artifacts of their ambitions.”  This is the first line in Michael Koryta’s superb supernatural thriller, So Cold the River.  The main character goes on to say, “The reality of someone’s heart lay in the objects of their desires.  Whether those things were achieved did not matter nearly so much as what they had been.”

The plaque was a primitive image of the sun – the word “SOL” is still visible.  We got it in Mendocino a long time ago and hung it on the fence at a time when gardening was one of our major activities.  Its importance waned under the time pressures that came with more “gainful” employment,” but this little artifact, like a Velveteen Rabbit made out of stone, can still speak when I stop to listen.

After I snapped this photograph, I went looking for other such artifacts, both in a box of old pictures of mine and among vintage postcards, photos, and tintypes I’ve collected.  If you are a packrat like me, you surround yourself with such things. 

Dreams change, and ambitions, just like our lives, can be fleeting. The artifacts often outlive them. Nothing shows that more clearly than this picture of my father, my sister, and me by a stone wall I helped build.

father, me and jan

The Kodachrome is fading and my father is gone, but not long ago, I checked Google’s satellite view, and that stone retaining wall, some 3,000 miles from where I now live, still appears to be standing.  How can you even begin to say what it means when you’re five and your father shows you how to place stones in a wall and trowel the concrete into place between them?  “The reality of someone’s heart lay in the object of their desires.”

boys of summer

I’ve always liked this team photo, with its mix of bravado and shyness in front of the camera.  Did any of these boys of summer dream of playing in the majors?  Did any of them come close?  Did they love the game any less than the 2013 all stars who played in front of millions of viewers last week?  I’m guessing that at the moment this picture was taken, they may have loved it more.

stereo picture

What about the fellow in the foreground of this stereopticon slide? Do we even want to know about his ambitions?  Close up, he looks like Groucho Marx in a yellow hat.  The picture is labelled “Surf, Sand, and Fun, Atlantic City, NJ.”

cemetary photo

This is a poignant image, from a photo I took of an arrangement in a glass box, embedded in a gravestone in an old Italian cemetery in Binghamton, NY.  Virgin Mary stands amid plastic roses, her image distorted by thick old glass.  I spent a summer there working in a factory, and returned again and again to this cemetery, which was full of angels and lambs and redeemers, for don’t these all speak of a nearly universal ambition – the longing for redemption, in the here, the hereafter, or both?  The world is alive and things within it can speak to us if we listen.

And finally, one of my more important artifacts.  I kept this photo of a young 19th century woman over my desk while writing my first novel.  This, I thought, was how the book’s heroine would have looked if she’d posed for a picture.  So this photograph, taken more than a hundred years ago, of a woman whose dreams I cannot begin to fathom, became an icon for one of my own ambitions.

old photo of young woman

I didn’t tell her story very well, but as the character in So Cold the River observes, that often doesn’t matter.  Sometimes when I look at this picture now, it holds a greater mystery than it ever did when I used it as a writer’s prompt.  Now I can see its own inscrutable mystery.

James Hillman often quoted John Keats who said, “Call the world if you please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.”  In the same letter to his brother and sister, Keats added that our pains and troubles “school an Intelligence and make it a Soul.”

Artifacts of our ambitions are things we notice as the eyes of soul begin to open.


					

Hometowns

Do you have a hometown?  When someone asks where you’re from, are you able to tell them?  Or do you mumble something like, “I’ve lived in a lot of places?”  I do that.

According to the census bureau, less than 1/3 of the people in western states live where they were born.  My wife comes from Rochester, NY.  I was born in Poughkeepsie.  We met in San Francisco.  That seems to be the norm out here.  I had lived in five cities and gone to six schools by the time I finished high school, so I can answer,”Where are you from?” in a lot of ways.

Childhood memories are layered in ways that reminds me of geographical strata.  Each place, school, and time had its own feeling tone.  Recalling those times sometimes seems like gazing at ancient pictographs on differing layers of rock.

Near Tucson, Jan. 2008

Near Tucson, Jan. 2008

A visit to Mary’s family in Rochester last week was like visiting earlier layers.  The sense of place in western New York is much like where I grew up.  The feel of the air, the look of the sky, the wind through the trees, the trees themselves, are now foreign but deeply known at the same time.  Maybe the answer to my question is,”I am from all the places I’ve ever lived.”

Rochester postcard

Old factory towns like Rochester have a strong sense of communal past.  There is more “home” in some towns than in others.  In the local paper, I came upon the smiling face of a handsome young man in the obituary section.  Charles “Dutch” Lydon died on June 1st at the age of 89.  He won five bronze stars in combat in the Pacific in WWII, was an “avid” bowler and golfer, and “a proud Kodak employee for 30 years.”  He is survived by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Tom Brokaw must have been thinking of people like Dutch when he coined the name, “greatest generation.”

I don’t think my parents generation was great just because they were superior beings.  I believe the times demanded and fostered their greatness.  Men like Dutch Lydon knew where they were from, knew what that meant, and believed in it.  Now there is no more Kodak to be proud of.  Silent factory chimneys stand like tombstones for that way of life.

Not that smoke and soot were good for you, or that Kodak didn’t screw up in the end and screw its workers.  Not that things were so good if you weren’t a white hetrosexual male.  Not that my generation didn’t rebel against all that.  It’s just that from our current perspective, we can see things of value we lost when this way of life came to an end.

A sense of belonging and community, for one thing.  Friends and family you can count on were cited as key factors in a recent survey that named the ten happiest countries in the world.  Do I even need to say that the United States failed to make the cut?

Sense of community is an impression, an imagining, a gut feeling, but it makes a profound difference.  Walking along the Lake Ontario shore, we stopped to admire a fine old brick building, a public bathhouse, with half a dozen tennis courts sheltered from the wind in an enclosed courtyard.  The bandstand in the park was under renovation, as was the carousel with its hand-painted animals.  This is a city that doesn’t just pay lip service to words like “community.”  A cop on patrol passed us with a smile and a “Good morning,” because, though the park was filled with people, he had nothing more pressing to do.

Many in my generation grew up on Easy Rider and On the Road, filled with wanderlust and a longing for the horizon.  Others married their high school sweethearts, anxious to settle down.  People I know played it both ways, with differing results.  There aren’t any rules of thumb.  From the time of the pioneers, California has attracted people looking to reinvent themselves.  This is where Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.

It has taken me longer than usual to write this post.  I kept putting off hitting the “Publish” button in hopes of reaching some kind of conclusion.  Doesn’t seem likely at this point.  Just a number of questions without any clear cut answers.

What does it mean to have a hometown, or maybe the question is really, how does a “town” become “home?”  What does it mean to have a home, to “feel at home?”  What does it mean to be from someplace?  “You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously said.  Nobody asks the flip-side question, which is whether we ever really leave?

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have along these lines.

 

“I, state your name,”…

I always laugh at certain Mel Brooks jokes, and “I, state your name,” is one of them.  This factoid seems like a good intro to this post, which is based on today’s WordPress Daily Writing Prompt, “Say Your Name.”  Here is the full text of the writing challenge:

Write about your first name: Are you named after someone or something? Are there any stories or associations attached to it? If you had the choice, would you rename yourself? 

To answer the last question first:  when I was a kid, I longed to be Joe, or Billy, or Bob (I was a Yankee, so Billy Bob wasn’t an option).  Somewhere along the line, Morgan began to fit.  I think what really cemented it was my years in the hi-tech world.  Before I left, it was so diverse that if you include international teleconferences, in a given month or even week, I might interact with people from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Israel, England, and Arizona.  I learned that there is no such thing as a “common” name.

I was named after my mother’s father, and this is where family history takes a turn toward the novels of Thomas Hardy – a single tragic event that rippled through many lives.

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan was the son of a Dutch immagrant who became a paper tycoon. Not one to rest on family privilege, at the age of 17 he lied about his age to enlist in the war to end all wars.  Fortunately, WWI ended before he could get “over there.”

Back home, Morgan married my grandmother, June, a schoolteacher.  The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia to manage a paper mill.  My mother was born there in 1923.

In the 20’s, baseball fever was rampant, and Morgan pitched for the company team.  Sometime around 1928, a line drive caught him in the groin.  It hurts to even think about, and after a series of operations, he developed tuberculosis of the bone.  The family moved west, first to Tucson, then Prescott, Arizona, and finally to Albuquerque, where Morgan died in 1930.

My grandmother nursed him during that time and said that on his last night, he was joyous and smiling and said, “The worst is over now, I can feel it.”

My grandmother became quite the cowgirl.  Most of the roads were single lane, and the rattlesnakes could easily grow to six or seven feet long.  Coming upon them, Grandmother June would run over them with the model A – repeatedly – then climb out to cut off the rattles.  My mother had a snake phobia and was frightened even of rattles in the trunk.

Another time, when she was six, my mother climbed a rock spire in Prescott known as, “Top Rock.”  Once on top, she set up a wail, crying that she couldn’t get down.  Without a fire department to come to the rescue, June put on her boots, hiked up her skirt, and learned what she had to know about rock climbing on the fly.

In the end, the death of my grandfather, Morgan, affected everyone badly.  Grandmother June developed TB and spent several years in a sanatorium in Colorado.  Though she recovered, the disease affected her inner ear balance, so from her mid-30’s on, she had to use a cane.  She saw a psychiatrist for depression, something I never learned until she was gone, for at the time, it carried a stigma.

My grandmother believed there is only one true love in a person’s life.  Though men courted her well into middle age, she refused all offers, in order to “be true” to Morgan.  At the end of her life, when she lived with us, her depression returned.  She believed her life-long loneliness was a judgement from God.  This compassionate and adventurous woman died believing she must have sinned in some way that lay beyond atonement.

Understandably, my mother suffered from depression too.  Sometimes it manifested as a “sense of impending doom.”  If a picnic was planned, she’d be the one to look at the morning sky and say, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”  Both of these are tendencies I have to battle.

I never knew either grandfather.  Though there were uncles to teach me essentials like how to play poker, I know the lack of “wise old men” in the family contributed to what Robert Bly calls “Hunger for the father.”  Perhaps this helped nudge me toward the arts, where we learn that hunger can work like the grain of sand in the oyster that leads to the forming of pearls.

Sometimes I think about ancestor worship – not in the literal sense – yet some primitive part of me seems to believe that what we do now can affect those who came before.  That the effort to live well may carry some kind of redemption.  My grandfather Morgan’s story is filled with life unlived.  His name is a good one to carry – it reminds me that what I do matters.

The first time I went to a Zen sesshin, we ended each day of meditation by reciting this “Evening Caution:”

I beg to urge you, everyone:
each of us must be completely awake:
never neglectful, never indulgent;
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;

By the time I got there, I already knew that.  These truths lie embedded in family history.

Of Football and Family

I’m anything but a diehard sports fan, but I’ve noticed over the years that certain sporting events become unforgettable when they mark key moments in my life or our collective life.  Do you remember how moving the Super Bowl was in Feb., 2002?  Our nation was still hurting after the 9/11 attacks, but here was proof that we were not going to let anyone stop us from celebrating life.

I thought of my father yesterday.  Football was one of the ways he and I connected.  Thirty years ago, he and I talked on the phone with growing excitement as the season progressed, and this new quarterback, with the unusual name of Joe Montana, led the formerly hapless 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  The best game of the season, however, was the Division Championship game. Montana won it with an 89 yard drive after the two minute warning, and a justifiably famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with less than a minute to play.  This wasn’t just a persona moment; it set the entire region on fire after a difficult decade.

Montana to Clark, with 59 seconds in the game, Jan, 1982

My father moved up here to be with us in 1999, after he was diagnosed with a wasting illness. Mary and I spent most of our Sunday afternoons with him during football seasons. First lunch and then the afternoon game. My father died in 2007, and we haven’t watched much football since. Until this season. Until our “formerly hapless” 49ers took off so dramatically you couldn’t help but notice and want to follow along.

Yesterday it happened again, 30 years later, almost to the day. The niners won the Division Championship game with another spectacular drive and touchdown pass, this one with only seconds left. Another on-your-feet, unforgettable moment. Hopefully, something to rouse all of northern California after a difficult decade. My father would have loved this game.

Smith to Davis, with 9 seconds in the game, Jan, 2012

I don’t go in for sentiments like, “Maybe he was looking down from heaven.” Hopefully those in the afterlife have better things to do than peer over our poor shoulders. But I do believe – and I’ve heard various spiritual teachers hint at this – that the ancestors and those who are gone can pick up our prayers and love and kind thoughts. That’s a pretty good deal. And if football is the occasion, there is nothing wrong with that.

As the poet Lu Yu put it (quoted in The Tao of Pooh):

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?

Father’s Day Musings

About ten years ago, a woman from the U.K. told me that in a British poll, Homer Simpson had been voted “the most influential living American.”  One thing hasn’t changed much over the last decade:  men don’t get a lot of respect in the popular media.  Best case, they come off as lovable though horny goofballs like Joey and Chandler on Friends.  Worst case they are portrayed as liars and nincompoops who couldn’t survive a day without the steadying hand of a woman.  Without Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburgers, some guys would starve.

If you believe the marketing experts who layout the Father’s Day advertising supplements, the male imagination is limited to Docker’s shorts, socket-wrench sets, wide-screen TV’s, and golf balls.

When I was in the first grade, my bus used to stop to drop off a boy at a corner then turn uphill toward my house a mile away.  One day that boy’s father shot himself; it was clearly accidental.  He was a WWII veteran who brought home a German luger, and as he was cleaning the gun, he forgot the round in the chamber.  The details were discussed all over the schoolyard and the kitchen table at home; how the man had tried to reach the telephone before he died.  I lay awake quite a few nights with this reminder of my father’s mortality.  I think of that boy every Father’s Day and wonder what thoughts he has.  It may be that no one appreciates a father as much as those who have lost or never had one.

Father’s Day is a nice time to celebrate the expressions of men’s generosity as they have appeared in our lives.  It’s a time to celebrate every man who ever told us, “You can do it,” and made us believe we could.