Pondering the relationship between remembering and invention.
Poetry is for me Eucharistic. You take someone else’s suffering into your body, their passion comes into your body, and in doing that you commune, you take communion, you make a community with others.
— Mary Karr from her 2010 interview with Judy Valente on PBS’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
The Quiet Man
by Norman Allen, guest contributor
For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”
It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.
Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.
But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.
Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.
Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.
True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.
It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.
In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.
Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Today is the 5th anniversary of the passing of my oldest son, Nathan. He would want me to be strong…to laugh, to free myself from the stuff that has hurt us all. And I am….But I cry also..because I miss him…
But my little one is married and soon to be a father…and me a grandfather… Life has a way of moving us toward that Place, where we can Be. The lessons learned from the passing of my son are overwhelming sometimes…but lessons they are. And we let go…and move on.
A virtual big hug to you from all of us here.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Giving Thanks to My Ancestors on Día de Los Muertos
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Seven Year Ache” by Rosanne Cash
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When I was in my tweens, Rosanne Cash was a staple in our station wagon and in our vans (yeah, my dad loved his Ford Econolines), on our icy trips to school in North Dakota or on our mountainous climbs up the Rockies during summer vacation. It was pure torture.
You see, I was a man of sophisticated rock and alt pop tastes. Give me Devo and let me hold on to dear life as KISS disbanded and made those awful solo albums. I used to squeeze my ears, longing to hear anything but Rosanne Cash or her daddy, much less the Statler Brothers or any other country music my mom used to blast through those tinny speakers.
But 30 years later, the songs I remember most are many of my mother’s favorites. And I was reminded of her victory earlier this year at a performance of Wits, when Ms. Cash made a guest appearance. The first song she performed — the one I still sing to myself on the commute to work or when my baby boys would cry at night — was, yes, her 1981 crossover hit, "Seven Year Ache."
The version you’re hearing and seeing is actually a second take performed after the show was over, which is unfortunate. Although she forgot a few of the words the first time, the moment was part of the pure delight of being at a live show. She endeared herself to the audience, and dare I say the host John Moe and Sandra Bernhard, with her professional embarrassment and quiet humility. Nevertheless, this version is absolutely enchanting and we’re excited to be interviewing her on November 17th before her performance at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Funny thing is, now, three decades later, Rosanne Cash is still a staple in my life — my online life. Her witty tweets and conversant replies are a part of my daily reading. Who would’ve thought… the hub caps never fell off.
Photos by Eamon Coyne/MPR
I Am from… Fire
by Angela Blake, guest contributor
Photo by Alicia Reiner/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am from fire.
I’m from the fire my father had for life and the fire my mother had for living. His was fueled by parties, drugs, wit, and self-involvement, hers by longing, anger, spite, and sweat. He was vivid; he hit her skin like sunshine and she finally felt warmth from an external source. She smoldered. He was curious to know how her sweat turned to the steam that hovered over her skin. What was her heat source? How could someone burn so hot without catching fire?
In the end, he combusted, was consumed by his own fire. In his 30’s, he was raging out of control, in his 40’s he was a smoking pile of embers. Today, he’s ash. He is gray and the heft of him scatters with the slightest breeze. Even his wit burned away. His heat from the outside stoked her burning on the inside and she nearly exploded. She had to protect herself or be destroyed.
She put down her longing, anger, and spite and put in more sweat. She worked and struggled and toiled and fought — she sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat — until the steam rose and condensed and rose and condensed, protecting her from the fire that was him and keeping the burn inside of her. It was a kiln, churning and working — always working — to produce something better, something that wasn’t just burning away life, but something that was living. She wanted to go on living, she needed to keep on living. She couldn’t let him take her, too. She couldn’t be burned away too. She had to work, work, sweat, sweat, burn, burn!
And I was born. I was ignited and her steamy sweat cooled me so I wouldn’t burn away. His flames, her burning, my birth.
I am living with a pocket full of ashes and a stomach full of embers. I am from fire.
Angela Blake lives in South Bend, Indiana and regularly rants, rambles, and reflects on life as a black chick in the Midwest at Afro(ec)centric.
Angela submitted this essay in response to our call-out for readers to fill in the blank, “I am from…” If you’d like to finish this phrase and share something about yourself, your heritage, your geography, your interior mind, your imaginings or vulnerabilities, read the simple guidelines and submit your work for consideration.
Wishing for Less Time
by Leah Elliott, guest contributor
(photo: Leandro Pérez/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
I never used to go anywhere without my cell phone. It was not only a means of communication, but my sole timepiece, and not knowing the time made me crazy.
That all changed one afternoon when my oldest son was two years old. After four years of living in the Southwest and its two seasons of hot and hotter, we moved to the upper Midwest. I couldn’t wait to experience the change in seasons, so one crisp October day I packed up my son and a picnic lunch and headed to a nearby state park to see some fall colors.
When we arrived, I unfastened the buckles of his car seat, retrieved our lunch, and instinctively reached for my cell phone. Then I paused.
It was one of those rare days when I had no other obligations or deadlines. My husband was on a business trip, so there was no one waiting for us to come home. I asked myself, 'What if I just don’t worry about time today?'
I returned my cell phone to its resting place among the loose coins in front of the gear shift and turned my full attention to enjoying the afternoon with my son.
After our picnic lunch, we wandered over to a pile of fallen leaves. My son splashed through them up to his thighs, tossed them in the air, and giggled as I buried him over and over. “Wow!” he gushed appreciatively as gusts of wind rearranged the pile and made little leaf cyclones.
While he was enthralled, I felt myself growing bored and impatient. I wanted to pull out my “five more minutes” ultimatum and move on to something I deemed more interesting; but, without my phone, I would have had no way of knowing when five minutes had passed. Then I reminded myself, 'There is nothing you have to do today except be with your little boy.'
I gave myself over to the freedom of not worrying about what would come next. Right now, nothing mattered except sharing in my son’s joy of as he raced through those leaves.
We went for a walk and came to a bridge spanning a river. I let him run back and forth across it as many times as he wanted, a carefree “Whee!” accompanying each crossing. We wandered farther up the path. He peered at the insects hopping through the tall grass, and I was right there with him. The ability to share in his wonder and curiosity came naturally once I quit clinging to a preconceived schedule.
When he tired of walking, we headed back to the car. I welcomed the delay when some flowers caught his attention. We stooped and examined them to his satisfaction before moving on.
I can’t tell you whether that afternoon lasted one hour or four, but I do know that we both had the time of our lives. Eckhart Tolle points out that humans existed for millennia without clocks. Our modern obsession with time perplexes me when I remember this. I wish for less attachment to time. I wish for more afternoons when time doesn’t matter. I wish for my son’s ability to be fully in the present moment.
I have to live by the clock day-to-day to keep appointments, interact with the adults in my life, and meet my children’s all-important bedtime deadline each night. Whenever I can, though, I put all my clocks out of sight and out of mind. I let my children take the lead and slip into their world, where nothing matters but the present moment and time is reckoned in hugs and laughs instead of hours and minutes.
Leah Elliott lives with her two sons in Fargo, North Dakota, where she is working on a master’s degree in vocal performance. She blogs about carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism at The Whole of All the Earth.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Get published by forwarding your original work on our submissions page.
What Do You Think Williams’ Mother Meant by Giving Her Those Journals?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This bit of audio from our Terry Tempest Williams interview has us all mystified. It resulted in this “thought experiment” among our staff, which led to wildly varying interpretations.
Take a listen to this confounding story about the journals her mother left her:
What do you think Williams’ mother was trying to say about herself? To tell her daughter?
What do those pages say about “voice” to the rest of us?
I’ve told and retold this story to many of my friends and family, and each person has a distinct take on what it all means, but they all ask with a wrinkled brow: Why? Why? Why? I’m anxious to hear your interpretation because I can easily come up with a half-dozen theories.