5 Observations While Mowing

This morning, after doing some classwork and working on a writing project, I set out to mow the front yard for the first time this year (did the back yard last weekend). I decided to make a mental note about five things and to fix them here rather than letting them slip away.

1. If you mow over a pile of dried rose briers and snag one of the W-shaped branches on the edge of your blade casing, it will drag along for several circuits, defying the peach tree you let it brush against, the catalpa tree, and the cedar. You are curious how long this can last, how secure it has latched itself and whether it’s the thorns that keep it so lodged, bouncing along the uneven lawn. Finally, you get too close to half a bale of dried straw that has been sitting on the edge of the basketball court throughout the winter, and the thorn rolls off with a wad of straw as if it’s finally found its long-lost love. There it will sit until a strong wind moves it or you blast over it next week when you come out to mow again.

2. The lilac bush still holds some blossoms, pale blue with brown edges. It does not look healthy. I’ve seen many bigger lilac trees than this one, which has been about five feet tall for years. A sturdy but dead-looking branch juts out and threatens to catch your shoulder as I pass. Why won’t it grow? What fault of soil or self makes this sweetest smelling of bushes struggle so? Compared to the peach tree, just a few feet away, our lilac looks dazed.

3. I wanted to save the patches of blue-lavender violets from the blade, but I also wanted to clip the mini-sunflowers–Philadelphia Fleabane, probably. This presents a problem: raise the blade? Forego the violets? Leave the whole patch, violates and fleabane alike? In the end just mowing a swath here and there through the patch seemed to do the trick. Sacrificed a few of the innocent for elimination of the guilty. What does this say about me!

4. Mowing the edge of the yard so that the grass flies into the road or driveway leaves a mess. I’m not much of a yard-keeper, but I can’t stand a film of mown grass in the road, so after I mow it out, away from the culvert I don’t want clogged with dried grass, I then go out into the road and blow it back in. This sounds crazy, but my theory says that this way less of the grass is actually blown into the culvert than a direct hit, filtered by the two feet or so of grass that catches stray clippings as I fly by. As to the driveway, a bunch of dried grass will just track into the house. No need to multiply the things that float around the floors of my house.

5. Mowing the yard, while seemingly a mindless activity, actually requires a complex series of decisions, problems to determine proper solutions for, passing whimsies, rambling reflections, and of course the rising and falling of aromas–the lilac tree, the grass itself, the dried straw, gasoline, exhaust (not even going to let myself think about pollution today), wild onion, clover. I’ve said it before and I say it again now: I like to mow the yard. Someone else can clean house.

Entropy and Me

This really isn’t just about me, but I couldn’t resist–entropy being, for those who need a reminder of their undergrad science classes, the state I’m heading toward, which we all are heading towards, some of us already there. I’m reading a book for my fall class called The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, by Tom Wessels, for, of all things, you might say, my course on Utopias, Dystopias, and Intentional Communities. But here’s the glue (ironically): entropy.

So a quick review. When the world began we were anti-entropic, a state wherein a complex system grows, taking in more energy than it releases; at maturity–where we’ve been for over 3 billion years on earth, a state of dynamic equilibrium, where there is balance between the taking in and releasing of energy. The third thing that happens is entropy–what we humans have been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution, a process that’s speeding up as we devour oil and shit out pollution.

The essence of entropy is a move from complex to simple or from concentration to diffusion, expending more energy than is taken in–think of a tree trunk, now in its entropic step toward re-integration into the earth. It began anti-entropic, that little acorn, taking in lots and lots of energy so that it grew to its adult magnificence. Equilibrium for a number of years, even those in which a drought or flood or fire occurred, and now that it is “dying,” it is no longer taking in energy but only giving it back–feeding all those creatures that are anti-entropic. Every complex system goes through this process, which we call the “life cycle.”

I think Wessels’ small book is good for my class because we are focusing on Ecological Crisis. Intentional communities are increasing in number–“commoners” another book I want to use calls them (Tom Bollier), those seeking a life where “the commons” are again respected and plentiful. The capitalist economy, both Bollier and Wessels say, is a complex system that is in its entropic stage. Another of those complex systems to join the ranks of the entropic is patriarchy. These are dying systems that cannot (if they ever could) accommodate for the realities of life–the individual, the community–because they assume a) control and hierarchy and b) unending progress. They (in various iterations) have gone hand in hand in our world for enough centuries to have caused enough damage, heartache, war, degradation to feel, well, a little bit delirious at the signs of their decay.

Or I would if it weren’t for another reality that comes with the entropic disintegration of a complex system like capitalism or patriarchy, and that’s backlash. Look around–can we say that the increase in hate radio, hate campaigns, hate wars, and hate policies is due to “advances” in technology alone? I agree that technology has sped up everything, accelerating the insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety that comes with massive social and environmental change. But I see the growing number of frantic acts as signs of desperation. A drowning white man (in a suit) grasping for anything as his little chunk of ice gets smaller and smaller in a big, salty, warming sea.

And here’s where we have to turn off our 24/7 news channels and instead skim the titles of a decent newspaper, dip in here and there to read (know what’s going on in the Ukraine, the Congo, LA), and then go in search of Something Else. Find the people and places where Something Else is going on. Where people who are able to make choices are. Option A Same Old Same Old–using hot water to wash their clothes, driving gas guzzlers, tossing plastic into the trash, feeling hostile. Option B Choose the anti-entropic action instead: cold water, bicycles/walking/fewer trips, recycling, practicing small acts of kindness. . . . I still feel hostile some days, but I have not surrendered to it.

So when we look at such dyspopic works as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or McCarthy’s The Road, both of which I’m using in my class, we see the entropic direction of our current path taken to the logical conclusion, what’s next for Planet Earth and Creature Human. When we look at the impulse toward complexity (diversity) and away from simplicity (mono-agriculture) we see life-affirming action seeking equilibruium, stretching to pull us back from the dystopic brink.

Uncertainty and Upheaval

Recently at my university budget cuts and space reallocation have caused a great deal of upheaval in people’s lives and as a result, uncertainty about their place. “Does what we do matter?” they ask. Or with more clarity: “what we do doesn’t matter. [ergo] We don’t matter.” Also in the past year, at least two faculty have died–one very young and one at retirement age, the former due to hospital infection after gradual healing from an aneurism, the other in his sleep. At least two students committed suicide. At least four senior faculty have applied for positions and only one has gotten what he wants. A new doctoral program got slapped down at the state level. We stayed home for two days due to snow, and now our entire humanities/arts building is shut down for a week due to an old transformer blown and so, no electricity. Faculty are holding classes outside or in other buildings, but if the “fix” doesn’t fix it, we have 6 weeks of classrooms to find, not to mention offices and art labs. One of my programs was told to anticipate a move in two years and now we’re told we need to be out by August and the building that had been “promised” is now not quite so.

So those are institutional uncertainties, just a smattering of the kinds of upheaval that seems increasingly to define us. Not that in the past we didn’t lose opportunities or find ourselves without an institutional home (for awhile) or lose colleagues and students in tragic ways. But things have ratcheted up in ways we are not accustomed to–what does that mean for how we teach? For how we do our creative and research work? For how we serve the institution and our fields and communities?

Then there’s context: are we feeling a kind of uncertainty for the first time that others have known for a long time? And who, for that matter, are “we”? Our part-time instructors whose low-paying jobs with us are vulnerable to full-time faculty needing a section and to budget cuts? Part-time faculty are paid for out of College funds, yet the tuition goes to the general fund–and now they go for budget cuts by axing the part-time faculty line. Now the College has no permanent budgeted money to pay the xx% of classes taught by part-timers, so they turn to lapsed salary lines–but if those have been carved into increasingly smaller pieces of pie, it soon looks like there’s no money to pay out.

Are staff included in this “we”? Those without whom the university would grind quickly to a loud halt. Those who make a third or a half of what faculty make (not to even mention the upper administration of the coaches). Does “we” mean just my university or is there a nation-wide escalation of worry and doubt–ask Detroit or New Orleans.

Depending on who you listen to, it’s clear that some “we” or another is increasingly under fire or the magnifying glass. Some of the we’s are privileged and others are not so. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of the usually-comfortable now squirming. It’s more like the almost-always uncertain are now on a par with the newly uncertain, like a burgeoning class onto itself. If you are listening to Fox News you get one sense of who the devil is, threatening our very personhood. In fact, if you listen to the 24/7 news you know that things are dire and getting worse. Somehow they’ve been doing that since 9/11. And if I’m to talk about uncertainty from middle-class, educated, hunky-doriness when communities are decimated by white flight or drugs or joblessness and the cold shoulder of our classist racist society, then I have to place one within the other: the most important element of context is that opportunity in this country is neither blind nor subtle. That’s a myth. Note: thanks to Isabel for calling my attention to this article about “FUD”: http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/25/understanding-the-propaganda-campaign-against-public-education/

I haven’t even mentioned the uncertainty and confusion of our personal lives–“our” meaning all of us in this country–home foreclosures, lost jobs, abuse, drugs, prisons, homicides and rape, the list is merciless. But I want to resist a fatalistic attitude–and I understand if that seems like a privilege in itself. Still, the most powerful examples of the kind of resistance to fatalism that I’m thinking about come from those communities most beleaguered. Fierce elders coming together, musicians and artists, boxing clubs, community gardens, book clubs in jails.

It is exactly out of our personal space–unpredictable, messy, vulnerable–that we have the resources to navigate the landmines and maneuver around the gaping holes before us, perhaps even to disengage the bombs for others and close the holes as we step over them. (Using metaphors of bombs makes me uneasy, since real people are still losing legs to land mines left after war and new wars ongoing.) What is it we have to pull out of ourselves? There is really no limit, but I think maybe these are few:

Affirmation for others and ourselves. If we support each other out loud then we begin to believe that we’re not alone, that it’s not “just me.” Tenderness. Showing a little kindness. If someone snaps or yowls, imagine first that it comes from a place of pain, not of willful meanness. Confidence–I want to put our heads together with a certainty that we can come out the other side with minimal wounding and better understanding. Laughter–maybe if we have these first three then we will find ways to laugh. Nothing so awful stays so long as to prevent humor. It’s like water finding the cracks and seeping into our conversations. A pun will do just fine. A not-cruel imitation. A juxtaposition that makes an image. Those adorable goats scampering across a floor (thanks, facebook).

As I look at my little list it appears that they all are both personal-community strengths, and that feels right.

Last night as our night was winding down, our five-year-old granddaughter Leah lay down beside me, her head on my lap. It was a bit of “throwback Thursday” for her, as she had one of her old sippy cups with water and was holding it to her mouth, her eyes closed. She got a little chilled so we grabbed what was within reach: a cloth napkin, a kitchen towel, and the scarf I was knitting, which she pulled around her head. Adorable moments are always easier with children, and yet it’s what we do, we humans, when we are confident–maybe not completely secure–but at least confident that we won’t be alone when whatever is that’s going to hit us comes roaring in.

Leah winding down for the night

Leah winding down for the night

Looking Back and Seeing Now

I am pulling together all my journals and blogs over the last 4 ½ years with the thought that, with editing, they might be worth something to someone. I have done all the copy/pasting into one document, 153 pages single-spaced initially and now am deleting what is not so relevant. Today is Monday, March 24, 2014, and I am sitting in the living room listening to Brahms’ Requiem and reading those entries. Back in the first year or two, I listened to this piece over and over every day. It is so beautiful and searching that I seemed to find an expression of what I was enduring in the music—beyond expression to a momentary redemption. As I listened I heard angels singing and believed they were embracing Casey, and perhaps in doing that, embracing us.

I think about how much I enjoy pictures of my friends with their loved ones on Facebook. Latoya posting a picture of lovely Omni in her spring dress, holding the skirt out in its fullness. My colleagues with their movies and pictures of kids they adore and are bursting with love for. My other friends with their animals, funny, touching. Me with my pictures of birds at our feeder. Friends’ artwork, showing how they’re reflecting on what matters, marking their way through material and movement. I know we laugh at how superficial Facebook can be, but I am touched by all we share there.

I revived this blog back in 2012 with the intention of making time and space for the little things that matter—and looking back over my posts I see how meditations on pink and spider webs and wrinkles and icicles. I look up and see a glimpse of my neighbor who walks up and down our street and around the circle, trudging along with her little dog Scooter. She is looking more hunched in the last few months than before, and I wonder about their bond—he with his little jacket in the winter, she bent over but looking up to smile and greet. What do they do when they go home? Does she watch TV? Sew? Read? Clean? Is it just the two of them? I know nothing about my neighbors’ private lives and yet I see them day after day, just as they see me: heading out for work, returning, walking sometimes, our three dogs racing around or trotting amiably beside us. In the summer, they see me mowing. Our connection is so tenuous, even if so predictable. What would happen if it all blew up?

I wrote a poem a couple of weeks ago (the last post) and it was the first poem in a long time. I’m not doing so well marking the small things that mean so much, am I? One poem in the last two years, or is it three? Where have I been?

In reading my old Family Blog—the one I did back in 2010—I find myself face-to-face again with my mother at 19, 20. I stumble on the interview I did with my cousin Bette about her growing up. What determines the kind of life we live, how much love we are lucky to have showered upon us, what evil confronts us? So much luck, ill or good. So much unknown. Is it any wonder we hang on to the familiar and resist change?

My uncle and mother were raised by the same mother and father and yet how differently they found their paths in lives strewn with intermittent joys and sorrows, failures and jubilations. What I know of their two lives rises and confronts me: my mother with her short marriage resulting in me and then just the two of us for the rest of our time together, my uncle was blessed with a beloved wife and two children. Then somewhere along the way disappointment marked their lives. He began drinking—how much did this cause or reflect his disappointment? My aunt pulled back, pored her love into her first-born, her son Bobbie, probably protecting him from his father’s harsh unforgiveness when he did not measure up . . . while my uncle turned his hopes on his daughter. She tells the story of hating to play piano, but forced to, her dad banging a rhythm with his fist on the edge of the piano as she struggled to keep up. Threatened, she tried to save herself.

Who wouldn’t reach out to hug the girl she was, hiding in the bathtub, and for the woman she has become—generous to a fault, hard-working to the bone, so hard on herself. Funny and fun-loving, my one and only cousin. The only one in the world still alive to share being the generation after the children of Isabel March and Lyman Hiatt. Whatever happened between her father and her and her brother, my loving, love-hungry cousin took care of her dad for over 15 years until he died last year (she asked me to write the obituary, which is here).

I remember her daughter, my Uncle Bob’s granddaughter, calling me to say that he was going fast and would I like to talk to him by phone. He might not hear, but I could try. I’m so glad Niki gave me the opportunity, and I poured out my gratitude to him—how honored we all are to be related to such an intelligent, unique and ground-breaking man. I told him that I was glad that my boys had gotten to know him and how they always speak of him with affection and pride. I don’t know what else I said, but in the end my voice was breaking as was my dear cousin-once-removed Niki’s.

I read about my camping trip out west when I wanted to run away from WKU, so disappointed in myself and in my colleagues who didn’t want me for the job I thought I wanted. How I came home in early September, not knowing that I had a little over a month to cherish my youngest son. How I complained about this or that (while acknowledging that I was glad to be home), glibly oblivious to the coming tragedy that would gut me and Ken and Casey’s older brothers, his tiny daughter. Our world completely rocked and knocked.

So I am come to this point, looking back, considering now—not so interested in whatever tomorrow has in store, because what I seem to have is then and now and nothing more. I am listening to Brahms and in honor of this recollective moment am going remember some of the haiku conversations we had, when all I could post on Facebook was my heartbreak. How people responded, with love and creativity. Thank you, from me now to you then……

In Honor of Our Haiku Conversation….from 2009, when my reaching was a raw call to touch something reciprocal (they’re mine unless indicated):

I’d ride to find you
(if love were a big strong horse)
and bring you back home.

Do not walk in pain.
Stay positive in the light.
Embrace your true friends.

Monday morning now.
Someone should make me coffee.
Guess that would be me.

Here’s another day
low as dirt and bleak as dun
12 hours till bedtime.

Where emptiness dwells
may love take root like peach trees
bearing newfound fruit.

Delight in small things
New Merrell sneakers arrive
Walking feels so good.

I got new sneaks too!
Mine are gray with lavender
We are soul sistahs!

Kathy E
think of you daily
and how much the heart can hold
sending haiku love!

Melanie, when I said I was trying not to wallow:
Let’s wallow away
together today, white flags
poised, almost unfurled.

Wallow but don’t wail.
Unless wailing eases pain.
Sleep to wake anew.

If haikus annoy
stop reading my posts today
I can’t stop myself!

Jane’s haikus are great
They make me check my facebook
And then I chuckle

Wow. Now I’m chuckling.
I wonder where this will lead—
More hilarity?

I love Jane’s haikus
I love Jane and Kenneth too
I admit bias.

You are Ken’s sister
You are my sister-in-law
More now, you’re my friend.

Life goes on . . . and on
Death, too, does not go away—
These two [=] mindfulness.

Nothing is the same
it will never be the same
yet still, morning breaks.

my hands grasp at air
everyday the tear widens–
will I split apart?

No, you will not split
even if we don’t know how
we’ll hold together.

Nightmare or sweet dream?
You wake me with a whisper.
Stay and tell me more!

Yesterday Ken and I found a place for the beautiful urn that Laura Bain-Selbo made for Casey’s ashes. They have sat these 4 long years in the box we were given, in the plastic bag—except for those we spread under the peach trees. I said to Ken, “I feel a stab just thinking about where to put this.” We talked about how many stabs a day we still feel. I asked if he wanted to keep the original box and was not surprised when he said he did, though it is “just” a black box made out of very think plastic with a lid that doesn’t close. On the side is a white sticker marking what’s inside.

We are now past the mother’s Part V of Brahms’ Requiem and approaching the “death, where is thy sting” Part VI. Every section of the great work has spoken to me in different ways, which is why I wrote “Requiem for the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” each of its seven parts in honor of its antecedent in Brahms’ Requiem. This part, the most dramatic conversation between the chorus and the orchestra, reaches higher and higher, deeper and deeper, with every iteration of

Behold, I shew you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:
for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory?
(1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55)

Whatever else I might believe, I know that Casey believed in the trumpet, the incorruptibility, the transformation through God. And so when I hear this, I hear angels singing, taking him under their wings, transporting him. I believe in something, for him, because he did. And why not? Can you think of a better reason to accept the possibility of redemption and transformation? What alternative does not leave you on your knees in a dark night with no end?

As powerful as Part VI is, it is Part VII that I love most. At our one-year reckoning of his death we had a second memorial at the church where some of his ashes lie behind the marker that reads, Casey Stewart Olmsted, February 10, 1989-October 26, 2009, at the Columbarium above the labyrinth at Christ Episcopal Church, where he used to attend, with his dad, and where people still remember him fondly. We closed our memorial with Part VII, an image of him reading on the porch at Gethsemani Abby.

I hear the tenors singing, calling him home, their voices so exquisite that all that is ugly shudders to a silent awe. The lyrics are simple for the nine minutes of repeated refrain:

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth:
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours;
and their works do follow them.
(Revelation 14:13)

So, my darling, your works, your life, do indeed follow you—and everyone else taken from us when we are ill-prepared. What the Spirit calls forth, is. It’s the tenors—oh, the tenors singing—that I have always heard calling him. They are his spiritual brothers who lift him with their strong arms.

I do not know what happens after death. But I do not accept that Casey’s spirit is utterly gone. Beyond his family’s memories or our expressions of loss, however we find our way to make them, some part of who he was lives on—perhaps it’s in the air we breathe, the air he once exhaled, perhaps it’s in the light he gave to some of us, lifting the darkness of our doubts just enough to allow us to continue, with awe and affection, and sometimes a little grace.

Poetry: A Whisper for You

Here’s a new poem. You can scroll down to listen.

A Whisper for You

Last night I dreamed
my boys were fighting.
That was long ago, and yet
they are 10 or 11 again,
and one of them has hit or twisted
some part of the other’s body
so that he is curved into the wall.

A blade sudden as a ray of light
cuts heart-deep, and my own voice
rushes at me from across the room:
“I can’t do this anymore!”

They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.

What is it you can’t do anymore—
stand by watching, hands dangling
or cupped and asking to be filled?

I reach across the rocking floor
seeking what it is that holds me here—
my dog’s soft ears,
her warm scent of a cared for animal,
the sweat that leaves
gray trails behind my child’s child’s knees—
yes, these are the things I’ll miss.

And you? What will you miss?
Tell me. I’m in no hurry
and am learning to listen underneath
when someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.

In the moment

I’ve said or been told to live in the moment so many times that it’s practically a cliche. Running from task to task, I hear a little voice, “be here now,” and reply, “just a minute.” Remember Janis Joplin’s “Tomorrow never happens, man. It’s all the same fucking day”?

And the Buddhists say the same thing. This world we’ve parsed out into segments called time, which we “manage,” is an illusion. A sleight of hand. Sure the sun rises and sets in a day and night begins at 7:05 or whatever, but only here on this street. Globally, it’s day and night sweeping across the land constantly.

But on occasion, I realize that I’ve just been so in-the-moment that I’ve forgotten myself—the myriad responsibilities, my hopes and worries, my longings and regrets and rehearsals of times now gone. But wait, even there, in that sentence I’ve defined “myself” by my jobs and various big and little obsessions. Is that who we are? I’m no Heideggerian but I know a little of his “dasein,” which means basically “being there” in one of two modes, authentic or inauthentic. So far so good. For Simone de Beauvoir, there were two selves, Subject and Other, with the male always the former, and the female (woman is not born, she is made) always the Other, caught in a state of immanence and voicelessness. That’s what “Subjects” do–speak for others, write the histories, declare the laws, incur the wrath, among other things. So I’ve mixed up Heidegger and the Existentialists in one paragraph, having gotten to them through Janis Joplin, such that my philosopher friends would cringe. But there’s a point here, albeit a bit chatty, that this thing we call “self” so glibly is much more than the sum of what we fill our mental landscapes with. I am not my worries. You are not your heartache.

To further show just how light-handed I am with large bodies of complex thought, from my understanding of Buddhist thought, the mind is undisciplined, but trained throughout our lives to flit–towards what feels good, away from what feels bad, and to go numb with what’s neutral. So “monkey mind” is what we know, quietness and being in the moment is what we do not know.

Last Sunday, during a quick trip to Florida to help out my in-laws, I was sitting with my mother-in-law, just the two of us, in her temporary apartment in a wonderfully sunlit and comfortable assisted living facility. Her husband and son were gone for the morning. We were listening to a local church service on TV, led by a former Baptist now Presbyterian (that seemed relevant). He was talking about stillness, using some psalms and a passage from the Old Testament about Moses and the people he’d led into the desert. “How do you respond to a spiritual crisis?” the preacher asked. It was rhetorical, but his assumption was that most of us do not go “still.” We might weep or yell or pace, but we don’t let go quiet. We don’t let things spin around us, instead we spin. We are not the mountain that the winds pound but cannot hurt. We are not the sky that the clouds pass across but do not change.

Because I’m a knitter, I was listening while knitting, my eyes on the color purple, my fingers, the clicking needles. Evelyn was to my right. Suddenly everything outside of us seemed to slip away. I wasn’t particularly focused on either of us–didn’t wonder what she was thinking or feeling, wasn’t my usual impatient self. It was a moment of peaceful listening. And then I noticed it, thought something like, “wow, that was really pleasant.” It was as if we were there and not there at the same time, the her-ness and me-ness evaporated and we slipped into a different sort of place. Maybe the dasein had a moment of authenticity.

Occasionally there are moments of slippage and then an awareness of a different level of consciousness. Sometimes it’s gender that disappears. We’re so conditioned to notice what sex another person is that to forget it seems remarkable. For instance, sometimes in the midst of conversation there is such a connection that I forget I’m talking to a man. Then a little voice goes, “Wait a minute, is this a man or a woman?”

It seems like a good thing if even occasionally we forget to filter through all the levels of difference that we attach to each other. Peeling away the layers, making a direct connection. Isn’t this another way of being in the moment?

The Killer Apologizes: A Letter to My Son

Dear Casey,

Today is February 10, what would have been your 25th birthday. You were shot and killed 4 years and 3 months ago, on a dark Kentucky Road, by a 55-year-old man, father of three, a gun collector with a 3rd grade education, a poor man with disabilities, a beer-drinking Soldier of Fortune magazine reader. He was a little drunk that night, when he grabbed the handgun out of his son’s hand, stepped out on his porch, and began firing into the darkened car so whoever it was out there wouldn’t come back and try to “whup his boy” or whatever it was that was going on between an 18- and 20-year-old. Firing into the dark, Leland Burns put three bullets into a tree in close proximity and one into the car, where you, seat-belted, fuming and probably hollering out the open window, were heading for home–until that fourth bullet entered your shoulder and traveled through your lungs, your pericardium. I have lain awake countless nights wondering what your final thoughts were–a minute later or a mere 40 seconds–before you lost consciousness. I know in my heart that they were directed toward us, your daughter, your parents, home.

About six months ago, your dad and I and your oldest brother, met with the attorneys to put an end to the civil suit. The man who killed you had already served some 3 1/2 years and this settlement was a reconciliation of sorts, a recognition that he’ll be out soon, no matter what we do or say, having served the typical 60 percent or so of his state sentence–the federal charges on gun violations are an additional sentence, and he’ll serve something less than 18 more months. For this meeting, we requested an opportunity to talk him. We’d spoken with our lawyer about our desire for an apology, and she spoke with his lawyer, for this is how things unfold in the Courts–lawyers talking to lawyers, statements of the grief-stricken having their place, usually at the end, when decisions have been made. She had said, “Do you think an apology will have value if you request it, if it doesn’t come voluntarily?”

I found myself thinking about the times we made you kids apologize to each other for some misdeed. Did it mean anything? Were we teaching the usefulness of the hollow “I’m sorry” (“sorry about that”)? Or is the habit of apologizing something that grows on you, gathering meaning as you learn how to shape the words?

My answer was, “Yes, it will still matter.” I thought that I could look at his face and know if he was sincere.

As we crowded into a tiny room behind the Courtroom in the Warren County Justice Center, my heart leaping at my throat, I knew that an important reckoning was about to happen, but I didn’t realize what a mashing of the superficial and profound it would be. We sat there staring at Burns, while the jaded old toad of an attorney interjected now and then and the Commonwealth Attorney stood by the door, respecting that this was important to us but unmoved by the regret expressed. They handed us this letter, typed on an ordinary piece of white paper.
I think I tried to read it but the words were meaningless–later, I read it maybe twice more, but except as a token for you, it has no meaning for me. I could pick it apart, but I don’t want to. The spoken words were more important, and so I want you to hear them now.

Your dad said something to Burns, some gesture of kindness and expression of regret that you had driven over to his house–nothing about the craziness that ensued, just a reaching out. I wanted something more–more than was possible in that room crowded with Court representatives. I wanted to hear the workings of his mind.

“Why did you do it?” I asked him. He answered that everything had happened so fast as to be nearly impossible to untangle. “I wished I could go back and redo that night,” he said.

I wanted to know what his internal life has been like, so I asked, “What have you gone through these past 4 years?”

“That’s difficult to say,” he said. “I got nothing. I lost everything–my wife, my home.” He tapped his heart with his right hand, “I’m sorry, I really regret what I did.” “They was just kids being foolish.” Tapped his heart. “I’m sorry, I wish I could take it back.”

And then, Casey, my voice broke and I told him, “I need to know you feel remorse because I couldn’t bear it if the man who killed our son didn’t care about what he did.”

He tapped his heart. “I am sorry, I truly am.”

I wish I could talk to you, to know what you think of all this. Do you believe the apology? Do you think he suffers over the taking of your life? Do you enter his dream scape, terrifying? Please tell me that you don’t think his only regret is that he “lost everything.” That he is that empty. Had I the wherewithal, would you have wanted me to say to him, at that moment, “nothing? You have nothing? You have your life, Mr Burns, and the opportunity to live it however you want.”

I want to share this excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened, Dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.

Do I find passages like this because they provide answers? Or, more questions and a beauty of expression that reminds me of you, child of god, my suffering brave warrior of a son, father, brother.

The most terrible thing I’ve ever known is losing you. If I’m to listen to Rilke, what is the helplessness therein that could possibly get help from me? What if “everything terrible” (Mr Burns) is the “something helpless” who wants help from “us” (from me)? These are questions I cannot answer, though I want to believe that life has not forgotten me–or you–and that it has those of us still here in its hand, though we are missing you.

And we all have a “you” to miss . . . or will.

From “Memento Mori”
I know the feel of your head in my hands,
your body tucked in the bowl my elbows made.


Meditation 101: empty phenomena rolling on

I am preparing myself for another post, which I intend to offer on Casey’s 24th birthday. It’s a commentary I’ve known is coming since last July, when Casey’s parents (me and Ken) sat down to hear The Apology. So this might be considered my little practice session for what I’ve been avoiding for over six months now, but which I must contend with, for Casey.

So I call this one of my “meditation 101″ posts, though I’m not sure where it’s headed. I’ll sort of jump in with some of the comments about Buddhism that my favorite commentator, Sharon Salzberg, and her partner-teacher Joseph Goldstein, have inspired. I am too much a rube to speak on my own about Buddhism or about meditation, though I am convinced enough of the truth of the lessons to plow ahead. For instance, here’s one notion that rings true, that “the great awakening happens when we realize that everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” I don’t know if that’s a better song title or bedtime mantra, “everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” Can you hear “Proud Mary” in the background, “rollin’ rollin’ on the river”? or the sound of the waves hitting the dock, “Sittin on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away”?

When I think about these “empty phenomena rolling on” in the context of “great awakening,” it’s not the sound of “rollin'” or “sittin'” that I hear. In fact, in Disc 9, Goldstein is teaching about the content of “the self.” What we think of as “I” is really a catalog of repetitions that have stiffened into something we think of as solid. We are “empty in the sense of empty of self, no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening. Everything is arising out of conditions.”

In reality (as opposed to the illusion in which we live day by day, beginning, for instance, with the idea of “time” as something we can “pass” or “buy” or “budget”–isn’t it crazy how many of our metaphors for time are related to money?) . . . as I was saying, In reality, our selves are as mutable as the ocean waves. What’s good about me, or annoying, what constitutes me as “a personality” depends on repetition, basically. I can think of a number of examples, but one comes to mind especially, and that is defensiveness, that knee jerk tendency to react, to metaphorically protect our vulnerable parts, when some judgement comes down. I remember my high school counselor telling me I was being defensive. “I am not!” I said immediately. Right.

“What we call self is a constellation of changing experience, of elements–elements of body, elements of mind, and each of these elements is insubstantial. . . . We rely on a superficial understanding of experience.”

What strikes me over and over as I listen and reflect on just how superficial our understanding (mine) might be is how similar these ancient (or at least old) Buddhist principles are to post-structuralist thought. Ever since Old Freud denied us the truth of our own feelings and Einstein denied us the reality of time, we’ve been struggling to reclaim our old certainty about our purpose here. . . .

Which, according to the Buddha, is simply to be happy. “All beings just want to be happy.”

I think a lot about that when I hear some more disgusting piece of news–another war, bombing, rape, attack, lies covering up abuses: how did that person get from “just wanting to be happy” to this or that violation? I think about this at odd times, riding in the car, listening to NPR. Or when someone acts out in a rage and we are stunned with the magnitude of what just got revealed.

It probably explains why I don’t like the news, why it doesn’t feel like a dereliction of my responsibility to feel ambivalent about knowing what’s going on. Not that bad things are just “empty phenomena rolling on” at all. They’re “reality,” some persons’ reality, and they’re hurting. There’s a lot of bad phenomena rolling on, and increasingly I want to respond by thinking instead about what great awakening might bring a little peace here, close at hand, a little peace, far away. Am I numb? Is this avoidance? or does reckoning with the reality of bad things mean in part recognizing that there’s “no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening,” no one fixed statue of a person. “Everything is arising out of conditions.”

Another way to think of it is to consider who it is we finally are, in that last moment, when in the next we are no more. Did we find happiness? Did we give it? If yes, then maybe we are finally “empty” of self, but “great” with awakening.

Okay, time for night-night.

Compulsion to Share: on Poetry (and other things)

Since I seem to have it, this compulsion to share, I’ve been thinking about times when we humans are more likely to put it out there, what’s on our minds. I’m not sure that “compulsion” is the right word, since that suggests an urge that wells up and propels us forward. We can push it down, but like a 2-liter bottle of soda released, it will eventually spew. Even if we refuse to voice whatever it is, it will leak out. Anger may leak as a twitch, shame as a red stain across our face, emptiness as an eating disorder, fear as irrational control over minutia. But since I’m not a psychiatrist, just a student of myself, it’s quite possible I’ve got it all wrong.

If we think about times when we share, it’s impossible not to recognize that all this is quite thoroughly culturally constructed. How often does the condemnation “inappropriate” appear when the “leak” occurs outside of the socially approved and legislated expression of what’s inside. A man can cry when someone he loves dies, but not at the movies. A woman, conversely, can cry all the time, but raise her voice in contradiction to “the man” and she is “out of line.” Children of tyrants are never, never to share their pain, and teachers, bosses, and ceo’s must always “be in control.” In fact, things get pretty interesting when someone breaks one of these rules. There’s something liberating about that. Often heroic.

And yet . . . there are those tmi moments when someone seems not to have learned the boundaries that keep some things in that we’d just as soon not know about. So, when to let the dog out!?

In counseling. Finally, someone has to listen. Paying them takes a load off, in a way, and if they’re very good therapists, they can help you see things a little differently, which may be all you need, a chance to finally see the forest and not all those individual trees. Talking your way to the “aha” moment can help you leave, if you must, or change your part in whatever dance you’re stuck in. At the bar. I’ve heard that bartenders hear more secrets than anyone else. You can go into a strange bar, and loosened, anonymous, tell it like it is (or for that matter, how it isn’t), get back on the plane in the morning. No one knows you, and that bartender will never see you again, never tell on you, except as another story of what happened at work today. With a friend, especially when there’s that magical connection of trust. After you’ve been caught–nothing else to do but tell the truth.

But there are other ways–like poetry, like art, like music, where we mold an idea, an experience, a feeling, a conviction, into a container, create a shape for it . . . externalizing the thing that wants out as something it isn’t but also is. In the end, nothing we say or create is ever identical to the living. It’s an expression of, but it is not the thing itself. But perhaps that’s close enough–I can’t be you, can’t live in your head, but I can, through empathy, walk beside you.

The other day in a meeting about faculty awards, someone said something about the unfair advantage that English professors have in articulating why they’re deserving. I jokingly said I wasn’t so sure about the writing abilities of some English professors, and a geography professor said, “too poetic.” I would like to have said, “Don’t blame poetry,” but didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later, when the comment kept coming back to me, that I wished I had come to poetry’s defense. Again, we’ve been taught that there’s a way to share in academia, and poetry ain’t it. By implication, we must extract the metaphor, the symbol, the compression of language, the heart of experience, we must never say “I” and instead, if need be, refer to ourselves as “the author.” Hogwash. I’m also pretty sure that what “too poetic” really means is “too flowery.” Don’t blame the flowers, they didn’t ruin that passage.

Audre Lorde wrote, in particular to Black women, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” but her words speak for all of us under someone else’s boot heal. We need more poetry, more expression, more listening. One good place that we don’t usually think of as poetry is music. Everyone knows that joy of busting loose in song–perhaps at that moment, singing (in the shower or alone in the car or dancing on the dance floor) at the top of our lungs, we are embracing the poet within. Maybe (if you want to survive) you’ve got to “lose yourself in the music / don’t ever let it go-go-go” (Eminem).

I wrote poems like a mad woman in the two or three years after Casey was killed–less now, though I have you, O Blog. I know lots of people grew up without a mother, or a father, or any idea whatsoever that they could fulfill themselves according to their own heartbeat and not be rejected. And many of them climb out of that dark place to re-create themselves, to heal. I truly believe we need someone external of ourselves to help us believe in our own worth and beauty. For many years we’ve had a poster hanging on our son’s bedroom wall, with a picture of the bunny-bird hovering in the sky and the mother rabbit morphed into a green leafy tree, reaching her arms toward her bunny. It’s a profoundly beautiful story for children, telling them no matter what they do or become, their mother will be steadfast–she will re-create herself for them. It could easily be a papa bunny, since the point is to show how powerful that unconditional love is. Here is a poem, then, based on the famous children’s story, Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.

Meditation 101.3 “release it”

In Sharon Salzberg’s guided meditation on breathing, she begins with “take several deep breaths and release it.” Now she is not one to confuse “them” and “it,” and yet it always strikes me that after one takes several deep breaths, the logical thing is to release “them.” But it’s “it.” So what is this “it” that we need to release?

What’s the one thing on this day that needs to be released? I don’t know whether to be relieved that I can release this thing today and let that other thing go tomorrow, or stressed that I need to figure out what the one thing is, and get it right. I mean, what if I’m releasing the thing that’s easiest to let go and hanging on to what would really set me free!?

Is it the mind, imprisoned by habit and indulgence? Is it fear? Hatred? Guilt? Regret? In another meditation that I shall return to, I’m sure, the instruction went something like this:

“Imagine a difficult time when you felt bad about yourself. How did your body feel? Now imagine that you are wrapping arms around that person who was you and surrounding her with compassion. What happens to the body, the memory, when you do this? Can you feel the change? Now imagine that same process with someone else, someone who is difficult or easy to dislike. Perhaps the person was unknown to you, and you noted them only because they were yelling or shaking their fist. Can you see that person as something more than the angry action of the moment? What happens to them when they are wrapped in loving arms? What happens to the anger then?”

I started this blog as a way to notice, to slow down and give time and attention to the things that I am accustomed to ignoring or giving just a nodding glance to before moving back to the obsessions of the moment–meeting external demands, granting what’s really least important the status of towering significance.

Tonight I was listening to the Christmas adagios CD, which always make me melancholy. They make me think of my mother, who loved beautiful music, and my son, who always comes to mind when I hear the angels sing. I went in search of him then, going back through the files in a folder marked “Casey’s writing,” seeking something I might have missed or forgotten. . . . The phone records for that day, the letters and journals I transcribed afterwards, incidents I’d written up so we wouldn’t forget. Two things caught my attention tonight. The first was an account of a really bad time, when it was so hard to wrap him in lovingkindness, and the second was a prayer he wrote when he was eighteen and working to change himself and turn his life around, a prayer about forgiveness and healing from “death on Earth.”

When you are the victim of verbal abuse you don’t always know it, and when you are the parent and the perpetrator is your child, you don’t imagine until it’s over and you look back, that those desperate nights when you hid in the darkness of your room in tears were not your fault after all. Not just your failure to protect or love enough or set the example so squarely before him that he’d have no need to turn away, seek comfort–or whatever it was–in drugs. It’s not till later that you come to understand that it wasn’t you he was trying to escape. He wasn’t cursing you, though his finger was jabbing at your face.

It’s hard to acknowledge that he wasn’t perfect, or that I wasn’t. But he would have hated a fake picture. He would have wanted honesty. So, here we are. The year is 2005. He’s 16. Two years later would come the prayer.

It seems to have started when Casey was sitting down in our good armchair at the computer eating ribs. I asked him to go into the kitchen to eat them. He didn’t. A few minutes later I walked by and saw that he had finished the ribs and his hands were greasy and had bits of charred meat on them. He rubbed them on the arms of the chair and refused to go wash his hands, saying they were clean.

This escalated into cussing and refusing to get up to wash. I asked his dad to come help me, since he was ignoring me. A lot of f-word and yelling, saying we were over-reacting. We were psycho for always taking away the video games as punishment.

He knocked over a large cup of water on the desk, which sent water everywhere, including under the protective glass. His dad pushed him and told him to go to his room. Casey slipped in the water and came up spewing more insults and cussing that if his dad thought Casey was “his bitch” he would take him on and kick his ass.

We cleaned up the water, which involved removing everything off the desk in order to lift the piece of glass and dry the water underneath it.

Casey came back and sat down at the TV to play a game. He didn’t talk much anymore. His brother took him to work at 4:00.

Two years later, Casey was well into recovery. It was a long, slow, terribly brave journey. Sometime–I’m not sure of the date–he began reading the Bible and certain mystics, really deep stuff, probably over his head, St. John of the Cross, Edith Stein. . . . But he knew what they were talking about, knew the “dark night of the soul,” and he was returning to the self he’d lost–to hatred, rage, despair, the self he’d used against us, just one desperate plea after another:

From Casey’s Journal, 2007:

I am Casey Lee Olmsted, an 18 year old male, and. . . I want to tell you that life in Christ, for me, is the only way to escape death on Earth. I would like to start out by explaining what it’s like to be Dead on earth. By death, I don’t mean it literally. I mean it by over-indulging in things of this world, for example Drugs, sex, sloth, and trying to avoid the Truth. . . .

Unfortunately, things don’t happen right when we want. So it’s easy to choose life at first, then drift into death when we don’t get immediate results. But by choosing delayed gratification, instead of ME NOW! ME! ME! ME! your wait will be well worth it. . . .

Keep a humble heart so you don’t have to be humbled. Proverbs 29:23. “Pride ends in humiliation while humility brings honor.” A lot of people have it backwards. Some think to admit your faults makes you weak. They couldn’t be more wrong! Admitting our faults brings us up! . . .

What if the Prodigal Son stayed proud? He would have nothing . You can see from this story, a son drifted away from his father and drifted into himself. What did that get him in the end? It got him a little instant gratification. That is an example of death on earth. Emptiness. How did he return to life? Humbling himself.

Forgiveness isn’t something to rely on so we will have a “clean slate.” It’s God’s gift to people so we can strive for perfection. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need forgiveness. We’re human, far from perfect! It’s okay to mess up, but it’s messed up to keep making the same mistakes. . . . Let’s move on, learn from our mistakes, do our best not to make them again.

May God be with us, in everything we do. May we accept his advice, grace, and prosperity, and share it with everyone, especially those in need. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

That’s my son, something of him at least. What a distance we went, from 16 to 18–and then to 20–but that’s another story. . . . I also found this picture, which was taken in 2008, when he was 19 and about to be a father. It’s of him holding his niece Omni, whom he adored. It was a mutual admiration, as you can see. We were at Fort Matanzas, the 350-year old outpost for St. Augustine, and he’d said, “Take a picture of me and Omni, over here.”

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas

“Take several deep breaths and release it.” Every day, if need be.