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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Address


An address can never truly be permanent.  We will move again or die, right?  Maybe not.

My husband, children and I moved recently, to a lovely rent house 2.4 miles from our former address.  We sold the former house to build our dream house, and during the eighteen to twenty-four month period of construction we'll live in this borrowed space.

Renting feels kind of nice, like volunteering or working a temp position.  We're not fully responsible for this space we don't own.  There's no forever commitment, so it feels like play, with a slight degree of anonymity.  We can enjoy the space, the way a candystriper enjoys strolling down hospital corridors as though she's officially on the payroll, when her only duties are refilling water pitchers and delivering flowers to the correct rooms.  Sure, a temporary space does feel somewhat borrowed, but it provides a pleasant, albeit false, sense of possession.  It's like a nice hotel room stay while on vacation.  Who cares that we can't paint the walls when we've got complimentary comforts like soaps, shampoos and lotions, even a coffee pot in the room.  We can hang our clothes here, sleep here, take a hot shower, watch TV.  We have a key.  But because we're only here for a little while, and because the room is part of a larger dream we've worked hard to achieve, we will not tire of the place.  Instead, there's a sustainable newness, renewable anticipatory energy.

The borrowed space is a symbol of what is to come.

To celebrate building anew I've made other changes -- a new (leased) car and dramatically different hair color.  I've lost 25 pounds.  I've gotten comfortable in this larger, more accommodating home office where I now write, so unlike the claustrophobic and doorless nook I left behind at the former address.  Now I have space for my big black writer's desk, my massage table and chair, manual camera and tripod, photography manuals, essential oil collection, an enormous armoire to hold mountains of books/notes/files.  I have space for more bookshelves, keepsakes, a comfortable chair where I can read in peace or journal.

I was able to rescue everything from the storage facility where my possessions had lived far too long, objects of creative expression and sentimental value.  They are personal effects, define who I am, and they now accompany me in this temporary space.  I find myself falling into temporary love with the clean vanilla walls and warm hardwood floors, with the ample light shining through large windows, with a door that locks.

I can't tell you how happy this makes me, how whole and secure I feel.  I'm no longer scattered between two floors, several rooms, closets, drawers and an offsite storage facility.   Finally, I have an adult room of my own.  No more living in pieces.

I have an ambitious goal during this eighteen to twenty-four month period of building our dream home.  The goal is to finish writing my memoir.  The rough draft is nearing 80,000 words.  It's a mess but has a discernible shape and is mostly breathing on its own.  My family of origin has never felt more alive, present.  I don't believe in ghosts, so I attribute this warmth and communion with my deceased or far away parents and siblings to hard-won healing, to methodically assimilating memories, lessons, pain.  Writing about my first loves has taught me more than sharing a life with them could.  There was much I hadn't seen before cradling all their letters at once, their report cards, birthday cards, photographs, shirts, before folding these impressions into deeper meaning, into words.

I've now walked the streets of my loved ones, studied their footsteps.  I've collected every available piece of them, every note, essay, photo.  I've gathered them here in a temporary space, a pocket for each family member inside a fuchsia and burgundy cloth crate.  They live there for now, each in their own compartment, as well as in the bright pixels of their evolving story.

All this collecting and storing is like a prayer or meditation, an adoring psychical embrace.  I'm holding them in thoughtful remembrance while recording their story.  They are no longer scattered between years and stray pieces of paper, too many miles of disjointed memories.  I have secured pieces of their lives in this temporary but spacious room, so that they may be released again, free as the dream I have always wished for them.  Their new home will be among pages of contiguous story, their story, safe and whole.

Their permanent address will be titled Pieces.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dear Sister Amygdala

Originally published 2/12/2015  This is a work of fiction...*cough*

So I understand that you slapped a seven year old across the face.  My son.  Your student.

You know he is disabled, that he has autism.

What's that?  You're saying the slap came from the almond shaped mass of nuclei deep within your brain? That your amygdala was trying to do what it does, process fear and anger, maybe a few old memories from your childhood?

Were they painful memories?

Oy, Sister.  He touched your veil, tugged on it even.  Yes, it came off, and this was the end of the world how?  Yes I know that you were humiliated, mortified.  But you should never, ever-ever-ever slap a student, especially an autistic seven year old.

Especially my autistic seven year old.

You're his first nun.  He met you only six months ago when school started.  He had no idea what the significance of the veil was.  But more important than discussing the obvious, I have a question:  Would you have told me yourself about the abuse?  Or did you think losing the veil was more significant than slapping a disabled child, so therefore not worth mentioning?  Were you so angry you felt he deserved a good hard slap and then, at best, hoped he wouldn't (be able to) tell anyone?

I wonder.

This morning I learned that you've been terminated.  My son would have been withdrawn from your school if the principal hadn't terminated you immediately.  And I must admit I'm a little sad about this, as puzzling as it sounds.  I don't really think you understand the gravity of your actions, which is part of the problem.  Someone who lives in a bubble shouldn't work with disabled children, especially when that someone has such a short fuse, a fuse lit by imaginary slights.

Yes, I understand that your cultural roots and naïveté contributed to your actions, lit up that tiny amygdala of yours like a roman candle.  With your emotions in overdrive I'm sure you felt there wasn't enough time to think of my autistic son's limited capacity to understand what he'd done, his unacceptable crime against your habit.  You only had time to think about your own feelings, right?

That's pretty messed up, Sister.

You described your emotions well:  "For a moment, it felt like an electric wave rushed over me."

Shock, perhaps?  Yes, you felt shock.  This is how I felt as well, when I learned you'd struck my son.  I'm still in shock.  Are you?  Is your amygdala still burning with rage?  Or are you feeling better now?  Maybe I should pray for you.


You know what's funny?  We've been down this road before.  Back in 2010 my son attended the preschool across the street from the school.  He was three and a half, had attended the program since the age of eighteen months.  He had a new teacher that year, Ms. Wormer.  She told me that she thought there was something "not quite right" with my son (her exact words).  Then a few weeks later she held my hands, looked deeply into my eyes and said she had joined a prayer group "to cope with having him in [my] class.  It's going to be a tough year."  She was, in essence, begging me to withdraw my son.

And so I did, immediately.

Fast forward three years later, when after a successful stint in a special school for children with autism, we decided to return to the Catholic education system.  With great trepidation, we enrolled my son in your school.  On the way to his "visiting day" he appeared nervous and said, "I don't like St. They're-All-The-Same.  The teachers are mean."

Really?  I wonder now what Ms. Wormer did to my son besides insult him in front of me?  And how did my son feel yesterday when his greatest fear came true?  His and mine.

Shame on you, Sister.  You and Ms. Wormer should have tea sometime.

I'm concerned that all the progress we've made over the years has been compromised now.  You've slapped the trust and confidence right out of both of us.  How many times did it happen, these slaps?  Just once?  Or have you been slapping him down for the past six months?

Yesterday, when I talked to him about never pulling on your veil again (as you'd asked in your hastily handwritten note, complete with exclamation points), he suddenly slapped himself across the face.

"Why did you do that to yourself?" I asked him.

"Sister hit me like that.  Hard.  It hurt."

I didn't want to believe such a thing could really happen.  I hoped my son was just acting out another scene from a favorite movie, but we don't really watch movies about nuns assaulting disabled children.  That's just not my favorite genre.  Then I watched the tears well up in his eyes while my own amygdala twitched and burned.  In my mother's gut I knew.  I knew you'd hit him.

A few minutes later you emailed me, asked a second time (just as emphatically) that I reinforce your lesson to my son, to make sure he never touches your precious veil again.  I emailed back, explained my son's reaction to our little talk, his inadvertently ratting you out.  To be fair, I asked you to elaborate.

Hours went by with no reply.  I imagined you lying prostrate before God, begging forgiveness while careful not to let your veil touch the floor.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later you wrote back:  "Yes I did.  And I am sorry for any hurt it may cause him.  I [sic] was more of a reaction to something so shocking on my part.  I understand that it was not the best response at the time."

An understatement, don't you think Sister?  Don't you also think my child was shocked to be slapped senseless by a woman in God clothes?  What a lovely shade of off-white.  I suppose each piece of your clothing has significance, perhaps even its own prayer as it is donned -- God bless this holy habit, and the institution for which it stands.

You are unaware that you've been terminated.  You are in training classes this morning, social skills training, I believe.  How ironic.

Tomorrow the school principal will hand you your walking papers.  You'll never hurt my son again, and he'll never again put his hands on your holy habit.  But I can't help but wonder where you'll go next.  Will you be transferred to another school?  Will you hurt others?  Will your career follow the course of abusive priests who were secretly shuffled from place to place, their egregious behaviors never properly punished?

No, you're not a pedophile, not even close, but you behaved inappropriately, a delicate word for a nun who hurts children.  And it wasn't just some kid you hurt.  It was my kid.  This incident has completely severed our faith in "the faithful."  I was already full of anger and doubt regarding religion, especially the Catholic Church.  The list of reasons is very long, but yesterday was the topper.  If a nun can't behave, a priest, a church, a teacher, what's the point?  Who can we trust?

Bottom line, Sister Amygdala, you chose a habit over a human.  That's not what Jesus would have done.  That thing on your head is made of cloth.  But my child is flesh, bone, blood, heart, and a mind that won't forget.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fishing For Adjectives

*Written from a recent HoW (House of Writers) retreat in Tualatin, Oregon.

Once in a while I'll hear splashing, here lately, something leaping from the still surface of the Tualatin river and slap-crashing back into it.

That's so like how words emerge, that perfect word, the noun, the verb, the adjective.

Which is more elusive?  In greatest supply?  Are there more people, places and things, action words, or words we use to describe these?

And what about the words to describe what we can't see, hear, feel with our fingers or taste with our tongues?

What about the invisibles? 

Show me love.  Show me rage and grief and feeling alone in a crowd.  What is that moment in the middle of the night when the distractions sleep, when that army of secrets we keep from ourselves rises from the darkness?  How do we show the closing of the distance between ourselves and the bent woman in torn clothes, or the battered infant limp in his abuser's arms, or the man in the Bob Marley t-shirt ready to leap from a bridge or into a fresh bottle of Xanex?  

What is the word for the encapsulating moment we realize:  We are everyone

It takes more than a word or ten to gather the invisibles, to show the tenderness of a mother's nails gently raking her daughter's arm, the soul of the collective, an ephemeral place or moment.  Sometimes it takes an ineffable journey, an every conceivable cover to cover trek from Big Bang prologue to dust-settled denouement, a first to last breath of all nouns, verbs, commas, periods, pauses, breaths; a leap of infinite space where the words are left out, where they retreat.

Sometimes adjectives aren't words at all, but in the ghosts of what we don't say, can't begin to say, just beneath the surface.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Amazing Grace

"I hope our faith isn't just a bunch of bologna," said my nine year old daughter.

Heavy thoughts for a fifty-two pounder.

What do I say to that?  I had the same concerns and doubts at her age.  My conclusion was formed incrementally over the next forty years, after trying on different religions, after struggling against my suspicions, praying then refusing to pray, after reading and re-reading the Bible, quizzing priests and pastors, asking questions until my lips turned blue.

My conclusion?  That Catholicism and the Bible are, for me, bologna.  All deities are the adult version of Santa, a kind higher power, a force for good.  Something pseudo-sacred.

This was never what I wanted.  I fought so hard to hold on to faith, but the truth beat me down.

As I type there's a prickly heat in my belly, an angry fire tinged with anxiety.  It's the result of stuffing sadness and grief for the past several years.  I'm grieving the loss of God, only rather than acknowledge my sadness and grief, I've squeezed them into a tight fist of anger, a fitful response to the loss of psychic comfort.

I never wanted to be the one to take that comfort away from my children.  My plan was to show them the Catholic bag of tricks, then let them find out for themselves that it was all bogus.  At least that way they'd have a comfortable childhood, a safe passage toward adulthood.

But my nine year old is too smart.  She smells that funny odor of falsehood, the not-quite-right stench of a lie -- well-intended or not.  It's her intuition nudging her common sense, and she's too self-aware to ignore it.

There's another emotion at work here:  fear.  I'm flying solo as a parent when it comes to losing my religion.  My husband is 100% Catholic, EWTN solid, Bible study strict, a proponent of transubstantiation, the saints and sacraments.  So you see, I'm in a precarious place, a situation I must ultimately confront.

Love is definitely putting others' needs before your own.  Which is why I've signed up to assistant-teach catechism to my youngest son who has special needs.  He wants to receive the Eucharist.  He needs my help to make it through the education process.  I will do whatever it takes to help him achieve this goal.  I will encourage what brings him peace of mind, encourage prayer and belief in all Catholicism has to offer.  And I will continue to attend mass every Sunday with my family, genuflecting, kneeling, reciting prayers, bowing my head when the Nicene Creed refers to Mary's virginity.

Because it's my duty to make my children feel safe, even if it means promoting an impossible world in which humans beat death and miracles happen, biting my tongue as my child begins to see the less appealing truth.  Until my daughter is ready to embrace what she already knows, I can only hold her, tell her how much I love her.

Despite everything, I still tear up when I hear Amazing Grace.

Monday, July 6, 2015

It Sucks To Be You

Disclaimer:  The following is a work of fiction.  More or less.  Sort of.


"It sucks to be you," Rebecca Wolfe said laughing as she leaned forward in her office chair.  I'd just told her something personal and emotionally charged.  I wasn't laughing.

"And I thought you had it all..." she finished.

"Well, people aren't always what they appear to be," I said.

This was a woman in a position of power, and I was alone in her office without witnesses.  She'd requested a meeting via email on a Sunday night.  She wanted to know if we could meet the next day.  I knew it must be serious, her asking for a meeting late on a Sunday.

I suspected she was angry at me, or perhaps disappointed that I'd written a piece about an incident which took place at her business.  The incident involved violence against my child.

She had to delay our meeting for a couple of days, which gave me time to become more convinced that this was indeed about my blog.  I checked the website for any unusual activity and noticed a significant increase in traffic.  I saw a "referral" from Rebecca's business.  That was odd, I thought.  I labeled it as SPAM.

The next day as I sat in the reception area waiting for my appointment time, I imagined being face to face with Rebecca, her looking down at me from the top of her little empire.  I felt strangely guilty for "getting caught."  But "caught" doing what?  Telling my own story?

To ease my nerves I pictured Rebecca as a floating face, like the holographic head of the Wizard of Oz, except made of glass.  I imagined repeatedly smashing this face with a wooden baseball bat.  Over and over again, I crashed through her ornamentation, shattered her mask, her fragile front.  This uncharacteristically violent reverie built up my courage to face someone I'd actually admired up to that point.

When she finally emerged from her office to escort me back, I noted how briskly she moved toward me, her shoes like heavy metal clogs sprinting over ceramic tile.  I mentioned this jokingly, but she didn't seem amused.  Her face didn't seem fragile at all.  It was hard and fixed.

This was gonna be bad.

Sure enough, I'd been called in about the blogpost.  I initially let her do most of the talking, nodded quietly while she told me about incidentally finding my blog (nobody reads my blog).  I struggled to keep my facial expression as blank as possible, telling myself to keep nodding, to look down at the table, to avoid making eye contact.  I'd rehearsed this, letting her tell a story I'd already anticipated.  I'd decided that she probably Googled me out of curiosity, or maybe habit, a ritualistic gathering of dirt to use against those who might transgress against her.

Her story of how she found my blog was different.  She claimed to have been looking for information on autism, and lo and behold there I was, keeper of a blog about a Japanese aesthetic.  Not a very solid connection.

She was hurt, she said, that I'd written about something so confidential, something that could hurt her business.  She asked me to take down the blogpost, which I agreed to do.

What specifically didn't she like about the post?

That it was damaging to her reputation, that it was shocking, that it was true.

"I thought you believed in us," she said.  "Don't you trust us?"

I hesitated, glanced left then lied, "Yes."  I apologized for hurting her, said that I felt ashamed because she's "such a good person."  I'd always needed her approval for some reason.

"No I'm not," she blurted.

Ah yes.  People aren't always what they appear to be.  Right before my eyes, a former saint became a bully.  What I'd felt toward Rebecca Wolfe wasn't admiration; I was intimidated by her.  That walk, those shoes, the hard fixed face; the way she sat at the top of the heap.  She was a Viking in a dress, driven and on a mission to succeed.  At almost any cost, I would later learn.

I'd named no names in the post, and when I wrote it, I hadn't expected any traffic beyond my meager 36 followers, none of whom live in my state much less give a damn about this woman, her heap or reputation.  The post wasn't even about her.  It was about an employee of hers who broke the law and was quietly escorted out of sight, out of mind.  No incident report.  No notes.  No paper trail.

The only indelible mark was what still remains on my child's psyche.  His and mine.

She made the point that people would still know who the post was about if they know me at all, and she wondered out loud again why I would want to hurt "the business."  Why write about these things publicly, she wanted to know.  "Why not just put it in a private journal?"

I'd wondered that myself.  I had no ready answer for her, so I agreed to take down the post.

I would come up with an answer much later, which was that although I've kept a journal for forty years, this incident wasn't something I wanted to talk only to myself about.  I needed someplace else, a small quiet corner in space, like a cyber broom closet.  Nobody really notices a broom closet, except maybe the few lost souls who open the door by accident.

I hadn't wanted to be alone with what had happened to my son, so I whimpered within this small cyber closet, shared my stained rags and dirty mop water, just me, enough of a nobody to fly under most radars.  I named no names in my post.  Writing online was about a need I couldn't satisfy any other way.  I needed to scratch my message somewhere more visible than a private diary, less visible than a giant billboard;  I needed to pour bleach on my wounds in the company of a few disinterested eyes.

Rebecca suggested that maybe I'd been trying to reach out to others in my circumstance, others with children who'd been hurt.  Perhaps.

Unfortunately, the incident I wrote about isn't rare.

What else could I have done with this pain?  Called the media?  The police?  My attorney?  I'd considered these options at first, when my rage was out of control.  Without a doubt I had -- have -- a very strong case (with a five-year statute of limitations, by the way).  The guilty employee confessed, in writing.  She was terminated for injuring a disabled little boy.  At first this seemed sufficient. Then it wasn't.  So I shared.

I took down the post immediately following the meeting with Rebecca.  I felt better, cleaner, but the next day I felt duped.  I'd been silenced.  And laughed at.  By a bully.

Who and what are we allowed to write about?  Who has the right to tell us to take our words down?  Someone who quietly shuffles a child abuser out the back door?

I still wake up every morning feeling angry and unsettled, like I failed my child, like I gave away my own power at his expense.  The incident is more than three months old.  The evil employee was removed from the system, albeit quietly.  Why don't I feel better yet?

Perhaps because it's very likely that the incident was never reported to the proper authorities.  By law, Rebecca should have called CPS or the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, or police.

Failing to report this type of child abuse is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment of up to 180 days and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

My intuition has been screaming at me:  Something's not right.  Why did Rebecca ask other employees to keep quiet?  Why did she vaguely answer, "It's been handled," when I played dumb and asked how these incidents are reported?  Why didn't any staff members suggest that perhaps the increasingly distressing behaviors of the injured child prior to the nun's admission were due to frequent or repeated incidents of abuse?  Wasn't that a possibility?  

Yes it was.  And what do we know for sure?  That if this crime wasn't properly reported, the offending employee will go on to work with other children.

I called CPS myself within 36 hours of the incident, then again eight weeks later.  I called TDPRS as well, and General Counsel for the _____ of _____ _____.  They can't talk about cases, even those involving my own child, but they had no record of any other reports made.

Well, well, Rebecca.  Looks like it sucks to be YOU.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Dogs Don't Commit Suicide

George Carlin once described dogs as having a simple philosophy:  If they can do it, you can watch.

Their decisions are simple.  They're either eating, drinking, barking, peeing, playing, pooping, mating, licking, scratching, or sleeping (my Ratcha actually barks and poops at the same time, which I call sharking).  Dogs do have thoughts, but nothing like, Should I go with the gold or the indigo blue eye shadow?  Should I break up with Amanda, become a Buddhist, or take a fencing class? 

I was wandering around the lower level of Neiman Marcus the other day, searching for the restroom.  This lower level was for men's clothing and fine housewares.  Odd combination, don't you think?  Anyway, I was looking at a whimsical furniture line and thinking to myself, This might go well in a small English cottage, someplace Beatrix Potter might have written Peter Rabbit.

Then my phone rang.  It was my 9 year old daughter saying she had to stay after school because she'd failed to finish a social studies assignment on supply and demand.  Just after I hung up, a heavyset woman asked if I needed any help.  I was bent over, trying to see a price tag of $285 on the underside of a crystal decanter.  I told her that no, I was fine.  Just looking.  Then we discussed the types of items on display, including the whimsical furniture with it's black and white checkered patterns mixed with grandma floral upholstery, how much my husband would hate it, and I said, "It all boils down to what's soulful and what's not."

She agreed, although I don't think either one of us knew what the hell I was talking about, not yet at least.

My husband insists that dogs don't have souls.  I don't agree.  I think all living things have souls, that to be alive is to breathe, to inspire, to have an essence.  My husband thinks that only humans have an essence, a soul, that only they get to go to heaven.

Heaven would be boring with only humans.  We're too unnecessarily complicated, too petty, too stupid.  It takes us too long to learn the most important things, how to love well, how to live and die well.  Dogs don't have to learn these things.  They just know them.

I think it's significant that humans were created last.  Almost an afterthought.  God created all of nature, the flora and fauna, the planets and stars, and then he made the messed up people, the only part of creation to fail.  Why is that?  Why would anyone create creatures with a known failure glitch?  A surefire trigger to fall?  That's like using playing cards to build a skyscraper.

What was he thinking?  I'm gonna make these big, hairless, talking mammals that mess up all the time.  It'll be fun.

Considering all the choices we humans have, it's no wonder we make the wrong ones.  There's too much going on around us, social media, thousands of religions to choose from, deliciously unhealthy foods, and cable channels galore.  Dogs don't have this problem.  They don't have to decide what they're in the mood to eat or Tweet, which god to follow or movie to watch on HBO.  Dogs don't have to search for the down escalator to find a place to pee within a mega-commercial-worship-complex.  They just....Go.  Need to eliminate?  Nature says, Not a problem.

Dogs live in the uncomplicated moment.

Not humans.  They go nuts when making decisions, either too impulsive or indecisive.  Sometimes they have to research how to make these decisions, with the head or the heart, whether to follow their intuition or make pros and cons lists.  They even ask trusted friends for advice.

Why would we ask other people what we want?

Henry Miller once wrote, "The purpose of discipline is to promote freedom.  But freedom leads to infinity, and infinity is terrifying."

People aren't free.  We're too mentally untethered to be free.  We've either got thoughts scattered all over the place, like a train wreck, or our heads are so crowded we have to go to classes to learn to focus on what really matters, our own breath.  We meditate to get away from our own minds.  We have to clear out space, find a focal point of nothingness in order to pray, to listen, to hear.

Again, dogs don't have this problem.

I have a great coffee table book titled A Home For the Soul by Anthony Lawlor.  Lawlor introduces the reader to the soulful connections found in all homes, how a stove expresses the transforming power of nature, how clothes closets reveal our inner personalities, how to find the mythological and archetypal meanings within common objects of daily life -- beds, bathtubs, shoes, loaves of bread.  He explains how to use wood, tile, brick and stone to express qualities of the spirit, how to create meaning with furniture and personal objects.

This is just another example of humans trying desperately to find soulful connection, to locate the pulse of their own souls, or connect with others.

But check out Fido, taking a nap, snacking, licking himself or his poor anxious owner.  Dogs aren't feeling any existential angst, looking for their lost souls or struggling to keep them out of the mud of sin.  For dogs, there's no such thing as sin.  There's no such thing as evil or a haunting Devil.  For our canine friends, there's just nature, biology, instincts.  Dogs feel no shame, have nothing to apologize for, no reason to ask forgiveness (unless we yell at them for peeing on the synthetic carpet).

Dogs are just hairy, stinky, uninhibited creatures full of natural joy, which must be pretty awesome.

Maybe the problem with humans is that we have too much supply, of everything.  We have too much time, too many choices, too many unnecessary decisions to make.  All these choices, and we still demand too much.  The opposite should be true.  Demand should go down, but it doesn't.  Humans are never satisfied.  Our minds are fragile, inflamed, eternally stunted.

Maybe it's us humans who are soulless.  Maybe we're here to learn from the dogs.  Maybe we've got it all wrong.  After all, Dog is God, backwards.

We have this vast complex world all around us, exquisite beauty and mystery, but we always ask for more, bitch about no WiFi or why Seinfeld had to end, why there's not more leg room on airplanes or Doritos chips in a bag.

Maybe some day we'll figure it out, how we're supposed to go about this life thing with less misery and complaint.  We'll learn how to be consistent, how to cooperate with each other, how to be free without getting stuck or running over each other, killing each other.

Life is life.  It's a gift.  It's not meant to be squandered or broken into pieces.  We've been poisoned by ego and endless layers of soulless stuff, the Jimmy Choo shoes and $285 decanters, political hierarchies and "reality" TV, warring religious views, superstition.  We're stuck on which brand of deodorant to buy, how many cents per kilowatt we pay, who's kissing whom and what's for dinner.

We've become terminally distracted and suffocated beneath mountains of heavy, heavy stuff.  Now we can't breathe, and forget finding a pulse; we don't have one.

Pay attention to Fido.  He's here to teach you what you once knew.  Take it easy.  Romp and play.  Shark if you want.  Really live.

Monday, March 16, 2015


There are four plastic crates on the floor of my office.  Each is full of photographs, notes, personal journals and short pieces written about my family, a few of these published in local Houston newspapers and magazines.  There are five Jumbo Hefty bags filled with letters from various family members   Each letter is still tucked inside its original envelope, some dating back to 1972.  Many of these voices have been forever silenced.

Only a handful of the oldest journals remain, two years worth salvaged from a fire intentionally set by a deranged man in 2001.

If I had them all today, the journal made of notebook paper and bright yellow yarn would speak first, that first entry penned from a pink bedroom in Crowley, Texas, 1974.  Those pages would lead to 1984 and a red spiral notebook, unsteady words describing a violent immeasurable loss.

That particular shock was paralyzing.  It took three days to write such a difficult entry.  Shock is like a tourniquet, to keep a mind and heart from hemorrhaging.  I couldn’t speak, eat, or breathe.  

Writing this memoir will feel just as difficult at times, but the stories and characters won’t rest until I do.  Their chains rattle in my head daily.     

This story involves my parents, Joseph and Beverly Williams, my siblings, Charlotte and David.  Our family reached completion on East Crenshaw Avenue in Polytechnic Heights, where I was born and my family lived from 1964 to 1973.  We then splintered off in separate directions, toward others, toward drugs and alcohol, the streets and homelessness.  Mental institutions, hospitals, halfway houses and jail cells received a few family members who wrote letters from these and other temporary addresses.  Sometimes home meant a cluster of trees near busy highways, a roach infested motel or halfway house, a trailer without electricity, or a clapboard shack on a hog farm.  We each had adventures, lost and found each other over and over again along the way.  Some were luckier than others.  

It’s quite an undertaking to connect the heavy crates, faded photos, reams of notes and essays, to piece together the letters and journals as one continuum.  It’s even more difficult to blend the voices of both the living and the dead into one song.

And where does the song begin?  In the one-bedroom house on Crenshaw with my father’s red, white and blue guitar?  Or at the Houston morgue where one mystery became two?   Do we open with the bloated body discovered by a neighbor, or with the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles racing toward the Crenshaw house, my family gathered in the front yard to escape the fire my mother started in her sleep? 

My father has given me what he can to help solve various other puzzles.   We’ve exchanged letters for twenty-two years, sometimes in a question/answer format.  We haven’t seen each other since 1998, for reasons I still can’t put into words.

My sister Charlotte is also my memory, her almost nine years of back story preceding Crenshaw Avenue, kindle for that first fire.

My task is to paste until every piece has a home, to trust the story to know where to begin, which is like throwing a dart at a Jupiter.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Soul Glaucoma

Glaucoma runs in my family.  My dad has it.  He puts medicated drops in his eyes every day, to lower the pressure on his retina -- the light-senstivive tissue at the back of the eye.  Lowering this pressure prevents further damage to the optic nerves which connect the retina to the brain.

If he didn't use the drops, the vitreous humor (fluid) would build up and cause extreme eye pressure, damage the optic nerve.  Eventually, he would develop tunnel vision.  Then the tunnel would get smaller and smaller, until it disappeared altogether.

He would be completely blind.

I have high pressures in my eyes too, since my early 20's.  But the optic nerve still looks good, so no drops yet.  But I do worry about my vision, a different kind of seeing.

I used to think of depression as seeing only the negatives in an envelope of photographs.  The images on the negatives are real, but they're the dark version, the ghosts of familiar objects floating with eerie shadows.  It's the creepy side of reality.

But today I revised this metaphor.  I think depression is more like glaucoma.  We're still aware of our surroundings, what they're supposed to look like, but we can't see beyond the small tunnel.  Our spiritual vitreous humor is backed up, creating extreme pressure that chokes our vision, shuts our soul windows.

I've been struggling for months to keep a positive outlook.  Life has been challenging, and I've worried considerably about my most vulnerable loved ones.  Even when the pressure has been siphoned off, I've still had trouble seeing.

I couldn't find the crock pot or my auto insurance card.  I lost shoes and a jacket.  There were missing hand towels, medical reports, car tags, house keys.  I couldn't find joy, the light or my future.

Then today I woke up happy.  No particular reason.  Of course I embraced it.  But I noticed that it felt a lot like when we fall in love, how that high suppresses any negative reality.  The joy supercedes worry and pain.  We can get a speeding ticket or a late fee, stub our big toe or forget to pick up a prescription, but that's okay.  We're in love, and when we've got that, we can handle just about anything.

Even soul glaucoma, at least when it's in remission.

When it's not, I can't handle the slightest hangnail.  All obstacles, even the tiniest blips that very few radars would ever pick up, feel like a horrendous assault on my spiritual being.  And it's all because I can't see.  I'm blind.  And what I can't see, even though I know it's still there, feels lost forever.

Today when my joy returned, I found many other lost items.  I found the crock pot in a lower cabinet. I remembered that my lost shoes and jacket had been relocated to a storage unit to make space in my closet.  I found my auto insurance card, right where it'd always been, in my wallet.  My hand towels were near the crock pot, the medical reports were in an accordion folder, and the car tags were where I'd left them six weeks earlier.  So were the house keys.

These items were never lost.  I just couldn't see them, or remember where I'd put them before I lost my joy.  It was as if a life recorder had stopped where my vision ended, and the useful tapes were just out of reach.  The recorder stopped creating new memories, at least ones I wanted to remember.

Depression is very real, and can be as debilitating as complete blindness.  Even worse, once that tunnel completely closes off, so does the human.  Because it isn't only a sense of light we lose as our retina ceases to measure it; our life energy stops registering.  The life force never makes it to the brain.

I'll hold on to this joy for as long as I can, this light I can feel and see.   I'll believe it's permanent, just as I often believe the darkness is.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Baby, It's Cold

Happy 2015.

While walking the dogs around the neighborhood last week, I thought about deoxyribonucleic acid.  It wasn't the type of thing I normally think about while watching my dogs relieve themselves, but I'd just ordered James D. Watson's, The Double Helix, a personal account of how DNA and its structure were discovered -- the messy human version.  Science isn't so neat and distinguished at the onset.  Sometimes it's ugly with turf wars, papers to endlessly edit, credit to give and fight over, and the decision has to be made:  What do we call this highfalutin thing we've just discovered?

DNA is complicated enough, and the length and difficulty of the word makes it even more so, more intimidating and apart from the everyday.  But we carry our DNA around wherever we go, pass it on to our children, leave bits of it all over the place.  Why does it have to be such a long difficult word?  Why make something so everyday so far away and inaccessible?

What if we simplified the complicated?  What if we renamed DNA, 'The Twisted Ladder'?

What I'm getting at is, what if we had fewer parts, more wholes?  What if things could be reduced not to their smallest parts, but to their poetry, deeper meaning, their art?

Maybe I'm dreaming.  Life may be too complicated to simplify.

When does life get simple again?  Like when we were eight and mornings meant throwing on a t-shirt and shorts, grabbing a snack and riding our bicycles all day?

PB&J has been replaced with DN&A.  Life is a tall, tall place, too high to reach, too far to climb.  We'll never get to the top, and maybe we don't want to go there, but how far is high enough?  How much do we need to know?  How much do we really need?

Last night I stayed home.  Very few people in my circle of friends and family went out to celebrate New Years' Eve.  We all have small children and care less about partying.  We were content to stay in comfortable clothes, light fires, snuggle with our partners, kids, pets, and watch old Simpson's episodes.

Others dressed up, attended wild parties, drank too much, screamed until their throats were raw.  They drove in the cold to get where they were going.  They left home to find something else -- fun and adventure, a 'higher' plane.  What they were seeking was somewhere else, a place they had to dress up for, a thing they altered their senses to achieve, a realm beyond their comfort zones.

Did they get there?  Did the parties take them where they wanted to go?  Was it worth it?  Were there longterm gains?  Is a party moving toward or away from something?  Are we celebrating life, or trying to forget life?

I think those of us who were hibernating last night feel that all the partying back in the day was just a prelude to the real party, the true prize in living.  We've got our prize now, the security and love of family, a short distance that feels like forever.  There's nothing "out there" we need.  We don't have anything to run from or to, nothing we need to forget.  What's worth remembering is right here, at home.  All this, and no hangover.

Why go long when we can just chill?  Why go to Times Square when there's buttery popcorn, a warm fire and a thick alpaca blanket at home?  Why leave home when, Baby, it's cold outside?

Maybe some are still trying to find home.

Popular Alcoholics Anonymous sayings are teaching the same message:  Easy Does It and One Day At A Time.  Keep It Simple Stupid.  We've all been addicts of one stripe or another, always running, leaving one place for the next, looking for that special elusive 'other'.

There's a place for the complicated, the kind that can simplify our lives.  I love my iPhone, my Mac and Kindle Paper White.  I'm all for being plugged in when I want to be.  But at the end of the day, I don't want to be.  I just want simple, to snuggle, be warm, feel safe.  Let the Watsons of the world play with the double helixes, fight over who gets credit and what names to give all the pieces.  But at the end of the day, even they want to go home.  We're built for wholes.  And what's the highest whole?  What do we call this hifalutin thing we're all hoping to find?


This year I hope you find it, your whole, your simple, your home.