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.

Kathryn:
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.

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

Linda
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.

Kathryn
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!

Tim
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?

Susan
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.

Susan
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?

Susan
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.

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.
BurnsApology
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.

96CaseyatBeach

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.

Thanksgiving Tree

At first I thought of it as a kind of christmas tree, with ornaments on which we’d write down what we’re thankful for. However, I knew if I gave the assignment of drawing the tree to Latoya we’d have something better. First, she drew a November tree, strong and brown with the heartwood in plain sight. Then she and Omni began cutting out leaves for us to write on.

As people arrived, we pointed them to the “art room,” where they could choose a leaf shape and markers and design their own leaf. Since our group was mixed–very young, family, new friends, old friends–it proved to be a great ice-breaker, as people leaned in and watched each other, then ohhhh and ahhh, as they saw the leaves emerge. I think it was Latoya who saw that the leaf shapes also doubled as frog shapes, so we ended with some tree frogs as well.

Thanksgiving Tree

Thanksgiving Tree


This is a new activity, but every Thanksgiving we go around the table with whoever’s here and share what we’re thankful for. I volunteered to go first this time, and Ken said, “Don’t make everyone cry,” which made me laugh–I confess that I have a tendency to do that, ever since our Casey was killed four years ago. But this year it seemed–with Leah writing for the first time, and putting “mom” and “dad” on her leaf–that he was recognized in a new and better way, than my usual tears and quivering voice.

I am very thankful for this girl of his and Diana’s. For her pronunciations–”Can I play on your I-padge?” and thrill of learning to read, “Th” “e”–”The”–”mmm” “aaaa” “nnnn”–”man”–”iiiii” “ssss”–”is”–”ffff” “aaaaa” “ttttt”–”fat.” The other day she asked if she could have a piece of jerky from a bag that was sitting on the coffee table. I said sure and went back to reading. A moment or two I looked up to see her trying to open a tiny square packet. “Wait,” I said, “here’s where knowing how to read is so important. Come here.” She brought me the packet and I had her sound out (“read”) the words: DDD—-OOOO NNNNN—OOOO—TTTT EEEEE—AAAA—TTTT. “Do Not Eat,” she said. For the way she flops around in an arm chair, sitting comfortably on her neck while her legs wave around in the air. “How do you do that?” I ask her. “You could do it, too, Grandma, just try.” For her smile and the light she brings into the room.

It’s not corny to say “I’m thankful for family,” not at all, not when your words are surrounded by actions that show the thanking is not just another opportunity for consumption and waste. I’m sorry that so many people don’t have a family or that they’re estranged or the thanksgiving dinners are cause for more pain and disappointment. Another fight, another opportunity to take advantage. It’s also not corny to be grateful for what you have, or to realize that if you lost it, how lonely you would be, how bleak the world. Does that keep us acting as if what we’ve got is precious? Do we treat our closest friends and families as if they could break?

In the meditation course with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein that I’m (slowly) working my way through, she says, “A teacher of mine once said, imagine that the breath at hand is your first breath, imagine that it is your last breath.” The point, I think, is to feel it in all its uniqueness and not to take it for granted. Since my mother-in-law is recovering from surgery and in the process has been struggling with respiratory distress, I know that she would have a different take on breathing, but would surely agree that when we are denied air, we would give anything to have just one more breath. At that moment, all ephemera will drop away and who we are as beings in the world–fluid, re-forming, contrary, sneaky, courageous, contradictory–will come to a single point, of rising, falling,and though I don’t really know what that feels like, I suspect that in the moment when there is no more, some sense of self and who we were and are will rush.

In that moment, we will want to feel gratitude–certainly not regret.

Thinking about my in-laws

In-laws have a bad rap out there in Trope Land, and I wonder why it’s so easy to vilify the people who enter our lives through marriage, or in many cases, through partner relationships that may or may not be permitted access to that (ig)noble institution of marriage. There are, I believe, social traditions where mothers-in-law are culturally permitted to dominate their daughters-in-law, but are they really so omnipresent that these nasty stereotypes about in-laws should be so rampant? The folk tale tradition has certainly added its two cents when it comes to in-laws, evil stepmothers standing in, perhaps, for the domineering mother-in-law. Maybe all mothers except for the True Mother (elusive as she is) are suspect. We can never measure up.

But I have wonderful in-laws. And right now they’re in trouble, and that makes me want to do something. Brush aside the miles and wrap my arms around them and lift them toward the light. Call for the true spirit of “in-law” and give narrative space to the gift of a loving family made larger and warmer and safer because we are connected by our relationships with each other. Put in writing why we need more ever-lovin mothers and sisters and brothers, widening our family circles. And they don’t have to be official. I call the mothers of my two granddaughters my daughters-in-law, though they never married my two sons. They are mine and I am theirs. That’s “law” enough for them to be “in.”

Two of my sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law are right now at the side of my mother-in-law, as she struggles to breathe, to cough out that fluid in the lungs. Four days ago she had surgery to remove a sarcoma attached to her sternum and a spot on one of her lungs. The doctors successfully removed the tumor, but the “margin was marginal.” This “other mother,” under the trauma of surgery and medication, has had some delusions. She has been restrained. Her son is worried from afar, though the ticket is bought and we will go in a couple of weeks to step in with the next stage of recovery. I think of my sisters, her daughters, at her side, day and night, comforting, appeasing, caring for her. They are tired and worried. My brother-in-law is helping them help her. My father-in-law–what must he be feeling right now, his wife of well over 50 years so unlike her usual strong self, so little to do but trust in that strength, pray, trust.

Tonight she is sedated. Tomorrow they put in a pace maker to steady her heart.

So who is this mother, my mother, my mother-in-law, Evelyn, whom we all adore? But no one more than her children, her grandchildren. You hear sometimes about someone’s being the “glue” who holds a family together. The “rock,” perhaps. I don’t think of Evelyn as glue or a rock, though she is a powerful force of adhering–to her principles, to her unmitigated love for her family. And she is as strong as any rock. But she is more like the spirit of love that infuses our family and teaches us how to be our very best selves. My youngest son said of her, “You know what I love best about Grandma? She doesn’t judge people.”

When I think of unconditional love, it is Evelyn’s face that comes to mind.

My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, Evelyn and Helen

My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, Evelyn and Helen

Recently my oldest son wrote her a letter to express his appreciation of her, and I share it here.
GalenLetterEvelyn1
GalenLetterEvelyn2

So, take your tired, ugly, woman-blaming tropes about wicked in-laws, and bury them. Let the headstone read: “You lied.”

And to my mother, Evelyn, be strong, take that glue, that rock, that loving spirit and wrap it around your body. Breathe into it, say, “not yet, not yet. My family is calling me, my daughters, my son, my husband, my daughters-in-law, my son-in-law, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, they’re calling me, and I am eager to rejoin them.”

For updates, you can visit Caringbridge and look up Evelyn Casey: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/evelyncasey

Discovery

This morning as I was waiting for my coffee to brew I took to looking at various photos and artwork that we have tacked up around–on the refrigerator and cabinet doors. Most of what’s up has been there for years. There’s the “It’s a girl” we put up when Leah was born 5 years ago, one of Omni with her dad on a field trip to Chaney’s Dairy, one of Ken and me taken back in 1998, I’m guessing. And there’s this, a drawing Omni made for me last year. I have loved this drawing and looked at it many times, but today was the first time I noticed the word “find” over on the left side.
omniWelcomeBackGrandma
As you can see, this is a welcome back sign my granddaughter made for me. Where had I gone? How long was I absent? The answer is shopping, and about an hour. This morning because I discovered the word “find” and now see a new dimension of the work of art. It’s not just a pretty design with flowers and bright colors. It’s also a puzzle. Who will be the first to find the two “I love yous”?

And now that I look even closer I see there are actually 3 “I love yous”–one vertically down the center in the middle of a red ziggly-jiggly, one above the G of “Grandma,” and of course one along the bottom, with “find.”

Our friend Tsering would say that this is a most auspicious way to begin the morning. It would do no good to say, “Today we are to discover something we have not noticed before,” because once it’s a rule and we go off with our magnifying glass as if it were a scavenger hunt, then it’s not really a discovery, but more of an uncovering, a revealing of what’s there. For it to be a true discovery, we have to stop looking for it to be so, and just look. Or listen. And the more everyday the listening and looking are, the more likely discovery will happen. Part of the joy of discovery (as opposed to uncovering) is the story that snaps to.

In this case, the story has many chapters and scenes–in fact, Omni has written a fair number of stories on pieces of paper that are folded and stapled. “The Mean Teacher” is one I recall, and another about a girl with no parents who went off on a quest, meeting strange creatures and no small amount of danger along the way. But our story goes back to 2004. We have a pictures of her (and her cousins) around the house, and I remember this one of the first time Ken and I saw her together, when her mother, who we knew a whole lot less well than we do now, let us take her out for a couple of hours. We went to a park in Daytona Beach and she examined the bolts on the picnic table. Even as a little tyke, she exuded her trademark intelligence, curiosity, trust, and beauty.
kenomni2

Some rules are good, however, and I think we might be a better people if we did more drawings for people we care about, cards with “find ‘i love you’ two times.”

Unexpected gifts: my boy

Today was a satiny, blue-ribbon kind of day. I will save the best for last, and all of it is good.

First, I got to introduce new colleagues in my department. I was feeling good about what I was able to say about them, and then, glancing around the room, saw smiles on people’s faces—people I hardly know but are in my College. It was like they couldn’t help it. I hadn’t realized how good it must have been to hear about our wonderful new colleagues, their commitment to scholarship, teaching, and social justice–every one of them. I sat down and three people at my table smiled and said, “that was great.” Now this has nothing to do with me. I was merely the messenger, sharing other people’s good work. I made it a point to quote from each one–one quote was from A–’s application letter, another was something J– had said. I kind of fudged her quote, but when I looked at her with a “was that okay?” she nodded and grinned.

Something else happened at my table, with the person I was sitting next to, but first, another good thing:

I went and got a massage (deep tissue with some Swedish) from the Jacque at the Preston Center. She pried until it hurt a little, but in an okay way. She is wonderful, gentle and kind in her touch. As I lay on my stomach, my face pressed into the face-hole, snot gathering in my sinuses, I was overcome, had to press the sheet to my face. I don’t know if she knew, as I tried to be as unobtrusive as I could.

Then I hurried home for a pre-semester “judgment free” party at my house for about 17 women. We sliced and roasted and ate together, I made my new hibiscus lemon drop especial, we sat in or by the pool with our food, and laughed and shared. Everyone seemed comfortable. The affection that I saw circle among them made me feel extraordinarily at peace.

I really don’t know why some days are so blessed. The whole day was an unexpected gift, and this is where I tell you about the really special thing that happened. It’s the kind of gift you’re hungry for but don’t know until someone places it in your hand.

I am grateful to you, Jill B, for handing me the folded paper and saying, “I found this picture of Casey and wanted you to have it.” She then told me about the day he helped her on International Day. It was in 2008. I asked her if she would email me the memory, and she did.

Casey was in my World Regional Geography class in the fall of 2008. The students in the class were required to do an engagement project related to course content. One of the options was to work at the BG International Festival. Casey signed up for the first shift, 6:30-10:30am, for set up. I remember asking him if he would be able to get there that early on a Saturday morning. He said, “Yes, I have a baby. I will be up earlier than that.” When I arrived he was already there waiting for me to unload the car.

And here he is, that bright day in September 2008, when he was a student at South Campus and the world was his.

Casey, International Day 2008

Casey, International Day 2008


And now you know why that massage, someone gently getting to me at the muscular and tissue level—while I lay vulnerable and trusting—brought forth in a rush the mingled grief and joy and gratitude at the unexpected gift. My boy handed to me . . . in a folded piece of paper, an act of kindness and intimacy in a setting that could have been just another university function; something she had planned, knowing that she might see me, this day, almost four years later.

Thank you, Jill.

A little thing, a poem, a cross

It’s a little thing, this cross on a chain that I have worn now for almost four years. A friend of mine said once that of all the people to wear a cross on a chain, I am the last one people who know me would expect. She said this, I think, because she knows I’m not a christian and am suspicious of easy symbols that aren’t grounded in a heartfelt, sincere, “authentic” reality. It’s not that I don’t respect the importance of symbols hanging from rear view mirrors–mine sports a butterfly–or that cheap, store-bought trinkets can’t be beautiful in the context of someone’s personal sacred space–I appreciate and honor anyone’s private use of symbols. I also recognize the beauty and spirituality of public symbols in holy and sacred spaces. A Guadalupe candle, a little Buddha, a rose. (Please no hearts, though, especially ones that are broken.)

This cross on my silver chain does not mean what most crosses on silver chains mean.

My cousin wears a white dove on a silver chain. She’s worn it since her mother died of cancer many years ago, in her loyal care. She says she hasn’t taken it off since. I only take mine off when I’m preparing for a massage, or the doctor says so. For my cousin, the dove is a spiritual symbol, a sign of her belief in the possibility of communication between this physical world and the world beyond. Her mother’s presence always there, against her breastbone.

My cross is more of a medium, like the dove, since it belonged to my son, who wore it for its more expected reasons. He was a spiritually searching person, who was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, became a Muslim for a short time, then returned to Christianity. At eighteen he was reading Edith Stein’s Science of the Cross, underlining passages in the Bible, writing poem-prayers.

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

I’m reminded of the good-luck pebble that the Lieutenant Cross carried under his tongue, in Tim O’Brien’s great story “The Things They Carried.” It’s a beautiful symbol for his loneliness, I think, which he mistakes as longing for Martha, who has written him though they don’t know each other well. The pebble, carried in that warm place, is both a distraction from the dangers of war and a kind of reminder of their humanity, perhaps even their wish just to be happy.

Some few days or weeks after Casey was shot, we found his cross on the floor of the sun room, where it had come off during the night. I placed it on a red string that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama, and put it around my neck.

Blessed by the Dalai Lama

The cross is cool this morning
as I lean forward and it falls
against my left breast.
I will warm it there
the pretty silver T on a red string
blessed by the Dalai Lama.

We found it where you slept one night
when you must have turned and pulled
the silver chain until it snapped.

I try to see you as you must have looked
the night we lost you,
the moments it took for the bullet to enter
your shoulder and ricochet off your rib
and pierce your lung and heart and lodge against your rib.

Such a great spiritual leader—surely
his blessed string could have entered you,
could have retraced the path of anger
could have threaded its way
back, back, back
and closed the unnecessary hole
could have pulled the metallic smell of absence out.

At the time, the surreal nature of reality led to my imagining the impossible–ways that something so final could perhaps be undone. Now it seems, from the vantage point of nearly four years, that retracing to heal, closing the wound, pulling out some lingering “smell” is still what I think the Dalai Lama or someone like him could do if only . . . Or maybe all this threading is what we’re doing ourselves on this long road towards . . . recovery and recovering our beloved.

What is the smell of absence? Usually it’s more a sound, a booming silence. A smell, they say, is the most lasting of senses, the one tied most closely to memory. What is the smell of this absence, and is it still metallic, the smell of a heated bullet?

Courtroom Sightings

I have spent my share of time sitting in the Warren County Justice Center courtrooms and am always interested in the cross-section of humanity who ends up there. Some of them, like me, are family victims of a range of travesties. Others are family or friends there to support the travesty-committers. And others are there to clear their names of something they did or didn’t do. I suppose there’s a small minority of people who are there for entertainment.

This week when I was there, the docket was full (as usual), so we had some time to wait, and I recorded this observation:

In court, the same scene as always. In front of us lawyers talking (some with normal volume, some in hushed tones while leaning into someone’s ear). They lean across the table or pace back and forth. One is talking about an unreliable witness who keeps changing her story, something about blood tests in Cincinnati. Another is joking behind a cupped hand. Their constant motion makes it difficult to hear the judge–the charges, the responses, the consequences. Sometimes the lawyers all stop, seemingly of one accord, and then I know that something interesting is going down. My son leans over and whispers, “They all look like douche bags.”

I am sitting three rows back in a sea of rows–10 long rows with an aisle down the middle, about 10 or so on each side, a capacity of 200. The t-shirt on the man in front of me reads: Sturgis: Home of the Full Throttle Saloon. The artwork is red, grey, and black–two skulls face each other screaming, their brows furrowed as if they are enraged. Wings lift from their exposed temples. Beneath the image it says, FTS x World’s Largest Biker Bar x. To his right, Kentucky Speedway July 9, 2000 – History Starts Now.

Behind me a woman with receding lips and I’m guessing no teeth is talking normal volume, complaining, along with the two people, a man and a woman, who sit next to her nodding and chiming in. (I catch glimpses now and then as I look around.) People are more fully clothed this time than last. Perhaps because it’s a cool day. Judge Wilson has not yelled at anyone for disrespecting his course, and not dressing in their “Sunday best,” at least yet.

Most of the people stepping up to the podium (with or without an accompanying attorney) are white. One grandmotherly woman pleads guilty to taking over $10,000 from her church. She was the treasurer and it was apparently too much temptation. Most others are white men–except when the orange suits are brought in. One is a white woman, one or two white men, but 5-6 are black men. One of them saunters and leers, and I’m surprised the Judge Wilson does not call him out, as I’ve seen him do this many times. Once he must have been unusually sensitive or cranky, because he yelled at at least 10 people who came up–pants around their knees, tube tops falling off boobs. I had to admit that it was a lot of not very good eye candy.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney in Warren County tells us that there are two kinds of people, those who give to the community and those who take, and he deals with the latter. Such a job must necessarily skew one’s view of humanity. I guess all our views are skewed. Most people are stupid, I hear. Most people are good at heart. Most people only care about Number 1. Add a modifier here and there, and all kinds of trouble begins. Most people in Court are —-. Most people arrested are —–. Most men who sag . . . most women who dress like —-s are…

I try not to judge these people I don’t know. Meeting that old white woman on the street, I’d never think, “There goes a thief.” Would I if it were one of those Black men in orange? Here in this setting, it’s hard to think that they’re all innocent until . . .

And yet, we hear Judge Wilson say over and over, “The right to a jury is the highest principle we hold.” He says to each person who pleads guilty–and there are a lot today–the same thing: “What is your level of education? Are you under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Do you have a mental condition that would prevent you from understanding? You have a right to a trial. You do not have to plead against yourself. And if a jury finds you guilty, you have a right to an appeal.” Then, after reading off the agreement: “Is this what Atty —- has said to you? Are you satisfied with the counsel you have received? As anyone offered you money or promised you anything for this plea? Are you certain that this is in your best interests?”

All of them, including the grandmother, respond, “High school [or 10th grade or 3rd grade]. No, no. Yes, yes, no, yes.”

There is more, but this is Courtroom B, Warren County, July 22, 2013.