The Eccentric at the Base of Design

The squirrels and crows are feasting on the persimmons. I can see them through the window of my Writingshed. My high school English teacher, who was also my mentor, either said or quoted a poet (I don’t remember for sure which, and I have to paraphrase):

The persimmon tree in winter proves
That the eccentric is at the base of design.

I have found myself reflecting as the year comes to an end, not just on the past year, but the past decade.

I was supposed to go to my uncle’s ninetieth birthday in January of 2000. I had been looking forward to it, a respite from the craziness of having worked on a Y2K project.

Then I got bronchitis three days before I was to leave. I held out hope until the last minute, but had to call and let my mother know I would not be able to join them in Sequim, Washington for the celebration.

I hung up the phone, and told Tom this felt just like the time when I was seven and couldn’t go see Heidi. It was the Shirley Temple version of it—she was still a bit of an icon for littler girls back in the mid fifties. We were living in Saudi Arabia, the movie was only going to be showing for that one day. I got the flu that morning. My mother poured me ginger ale and I cried, imagining that every little girl in our American community—except me—was trapsing off to see Heidi, and that I would never, ever, get to see it.

This first decade of the twenty-first century has been tumultuous. My mentor, my mother, my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law all died during this ten-year period. My uncle turned 100 in January of this year, then died in June. The Supreme Court decided an election, the world became less safe, more hopeful, and more hateful.

I feel changed by the events—personal and global—of the last decade. I think I learned the art of surrender; that resistance, while not futile, prolongs agony. And, strangely, I learned how empowering surrender can be. It seems to have allowed me to drift with the current of my life when necessary, and then swim with intention when the time is right.

I think what is different for me, about me, is that I have come to appreciate that the eccentric is at the base of design. On that January day in 2000, after telling Tom my story about Shirley Temple and “Heidi,” Tom kissed me on the forehead, I lay down on the couch, wrapped myself in a blanket, picked up the remote and switched on the television, intending to drown my misery in daytime television.

It tuned to AMC, the last station we had watched. At that particular moment they were broadcasting “Heidi”—the Shirley Temple version.

Let Go Before You Think You Should—For Best Results Use Joy

I throw like a girl.

The ball just never gets very far down the field. So when I saw people at the dog park in Mill Valley flinging balls that  arched gracefully into the air and sailed far down the field, I thought, “Well, here is my dog’s salvation.”

I bought one, took it to the dog park, placed the tennis ball in the Chucker’s claw, pulled my arm back and let fly. The ball landed with a thud in front of me.

My dog was not amused.

As a last resort, I read the instructions on the packaging. The secret to graceful flinging was right there in black and white. “Let go before you think you should.”


Well, that has deep meaning.

I was going to write a post about a month ago about people advising others to “Just move on,” from a disappointment, betrayal, loss, or trauma. I find that really annoying. Because, truth is, people do move on. They wake up, their feet hit the floor, they go to work, they buy toilet paper, they go to bed, then wake up the next morning and do life all over again.

What doesn’t happen, and what moving on doesn’t accomplish, is resolution. Life after a life-changing event is not the same, and the ground beneath your feet doesn’t get stable just because on the outside, your everyday life looks the same.

This has been a strange decade for me. It included a tremendous amount of loss. People died. People fell out of my life. I had to move away from Mill Valley, which is close to the ocean and sheltered by Mount Tamalpais—a physical place to which I felt spiritually connected—back to my hometown, a physical place to which I feel no spiritual connection.

Returning threw me into the white water rapids of my past. I thought I had calmed those rapids. But really, I had just given myself time to gain the strength I needed to navigate them.

Writing became my way to navigate the rapids. My writing took on a new depth. I learned how to rewrite. I learned how to love rewriting. I discovered that finding the right word, while arduous, was the way through.

I learned about endurance and that I am resilient.

It’s been over a decade since I learned that essential life instruction in the directions written in black and white on the Chucker’s packaging:

“Let go before you think you should.”

I have thought, well, yes, if only I could learn to let go before I think I should. And then it occurred to me just the other day: that’s how we let go. We always let go before we think we should.

We move on, but grief, betrayal, anger, sadness move on with us, and, blindside us when they arise to remind us that something has changed for us. We are not the same as we were before whatever life-changing event pitched us into change.

And then one day, Aeschylus says it’s through the awful grace of God, we manage to find our footing on the path change has put us on. There is no resolution, closure, justice, or erasure of trauma that gets us there. I think it is simply that we realize we are on life’s path and decide it’s the path we want to be on.

Let go before you think you should. I think that might be what faith is to me.

I learned one other life instruction from product directions. It was from a giant bubble wand—one of those big hoops that make long, giant bubbles. Those bubbles look particularly magical to me.

The directions said that you could use any liquid dish detergent, but for best results, use Joy.

A Solstice Celeberation

I’ve celebrated the solstice for nearly thirty years. Or, to be more accurate, nearly thirty years ago was when I became aware that it was the solstice I celebrated at this time of year.

The first three years of the eighties were not kind to me. I was tossed about by the fickle seas of relationships and the economic downturn. Three relationships ended because the hes weren’t ready to make a commitment, and then immediately got involved with women whom they married within six months. I was unemployed on and off for pretty much half of the first three years of the decade. Once, I was second choice for a job; another time, I was the first choice, but the funding got pulled; a third time (this is true), the woman who interviewed me didn’t choose me because she thought the banking environment would hurt my soul.

It was a weird time.

By the time Christmas 1983 rolled around I was feeling like a colossal loser. My family’s tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Christmas day was a leisure morning followed by a celebratory dinner. We alternated between our house and my aunt’s for the celebration: Christmas Eve at one, Christmas dinner at the other. There were always two days.

The tradition continued after my aunt died. My mother just opened the door to more people on Christmas Eve. The family of my mother’s coworker joined us and soon, we were alternating houses with them.

But, in 1983, someone, for some reason, decided that enough was enough and we’d just have Christmas Eve together. That left my mother, father, and me alone on Christmas day. I knew it was coming, but didn’t realize how lost I would feel that day. My parents did as well. My heart was breaking at the sorrow of their empty house. I felt bad for them, especially my dad, who seemed particularly sad.

And then, the words that a 34-year old single woman, alone, unemployed, and unsure of her future least wants to hear spilled out of his mouth: “You’re such a pretty girl,” he said, “I don’t understand why you’re not married.”

My father sipped his drink, sad and clueless. My mother was horrified. I was devastated — even my father thought I was a loser.

I fled the house to return to San Francisco. First I stopped at the local Lyons for a patty melt. At least there, I thought, I would find other lost souls, all of us quietly and anonymously eating whatever for our lonely Christmas dinner. I sat at the counter.

Alas, Lyons had it’s own community. The patrons seated at the counter were conversing in the familiar way regulars do. The waitress called everyone by name.

Except me. I sat eating my lonely patty melt as “I’ll be Home for Christmas” played in the background.

I vowed to never have another Christmas like that again.

That decision sent me down the road of understanding why I can’t ignore this time of year.

Although I think the story of Jesus is compelling, I do not believe that he died for my sins. His message that no matter how bad we feel about ourselves, redemption is ours for the taking is compelling. What I took away from all I had learned in Sunday School was about compassion — compassion is what allows us to connect. It is our immortal self meeting with our mortal self.

Since he was not the only great teacher to deliver that message (Ghandi, Buddha, Martin Luther King, for example), celebrating his birth (Christmas), but not others, did not resonate.

And yet, I knew I felt — something — at this time of year. It usually involved a deep sadness, which totally didn’t fit with the conventional sugary view of the season. I don’t even remember how I started delving into the solstice. But as I did, I began to understand that my deep sadness was a natural reaction to what was happening in the natural landscape around me.

Then, on the solstice in 1987, I went to a Paul Winter Consort concert at Davies Symphony Hall. After playing “Wolf Eyes,” which included a recording of a wolf’ howling accompanied by his alto sax solo, Paul Winter invited us, “Please join me in the Howlelluja chorus.” The audience in Davies Symphony Hall, the site of many a staid classical concert, broke into howls. I wept as I howled. People left the hall howling.

It was cathartic. It was visceral. It was an ending and a beginning. It was sorrow transforming into joy.

I understood there was reason to celebrate. But it wasn’t all sugary and spice. It took travelling through the dark to find the light. It was a celebration of life — the bitter with the sweet — but life. It’s the celebration of darkness giving way to light, of fear giving way to love.

A dog who was part wolf had wandered into my life in 1986. He had a magnificent spirit. I had him for barely five years when he died rather suddenly. A tumor on his aorta took him away. I was heart broken. It taught me to hold love firmly in my heart, and let go lightly when a life comes to its inevitable end.

My solstice poem came out of the journey to understand what I celebrate, and the lesson I learned from having a magnificent spirit grace my life for so short a time.

Read it aloud and howl if you wish. Please feel free to forward it to others if you are so inclined.

Wolf Waited
© 2000 Karen L. Hogan

Wolf waited.
He waited as he did every year on this night,
It grew darker and darker and colder and colder.
And still he waited, knowing she would return.

Darkness reached his deepest pitch.
The birds, the trees, the ocean, and the rocks grew still.
Wolf gazed deeply into the eyes of Darkness as
Wind wove her cold fingers through his rich, thick fur.

He closed his eyes,
Held his breath,
And listened as Wind whispered,
then felt her caress as she flew away.

Wolf knew it was time.
He opened his eyes and saw her
—    a glowing luminous ember
emerging from the opening
between the earth and the sky.

She did on this day
what she did on this day every year of Wolf’s life.
Light returned.

On the hill overlooking the ocean,
Wolf circled three times, lay down, and took his rest.
Light wove her warm fingers through his rich, thick fur.

Before he left,
Wolf whispered to me what Wind whispered to him.
He wanted me to share it with you.
Here’s what she told him:

“Expect to be loved.”

Numbering our Days

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

The bearded man speaking on the cell phone at the airport looked familiar to me. I was returning from Washington where I had attended my 100-year old Uncle’s memorial service.

“Polly will be there,” I heard him say as our paths converged, and then knew that it had to be Steve. I’d gone to high school with Polly and Steve, though I’d only seen them once, eight years earlier, in the more than forty years since we graduated. They had come to the memorial service for our high school English teacher I had organized. I knew he lived in Washington, she in Oregon.

He hung up the phone and I tapped him lightly on the arm. As we made our way through the airport I learned that his father had been injured in a tractor accident. It was serious. His father, who had been a physician, had become a vintner late in life.

We parted ways as he left to find his ride.

Livermore was a smallish town back when we were in high school. And ours was the new high school. It started with just freshman and sophomores. Steve, Polly and I were among the first students. But even though it was a small high school, we gathered in groups, pretty much hanging out with whoever was our designated group. I liked them both and knew them enough to wonder about them over the years, but not well enough to have a way to keep in touch.

Their father died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. The memorial was last Saturday.

This has become a familiar experience for me, acknowledging the loss of my contemporaries’ parents, a life passage. It brings with it a mixture of past and present. The buried memories of who I thought I was and who I thought they were back then meeting the reality of who we had become and the life paths that brought us to where we were today.

The grey rainy skies that had been the previous week gave way to one of those weird late Fall California days on Saturday: bright-blue skies, the sun casting its warmth over leaves still clinging to the trees and the vines in the vineyard.

As I listened to the generations read their tributes to Father and Grandfather, the yellow leaves of the tree by the porch drifted down. Sometimes it was a lone leaf weaving its way through the air, other times a flock of them descended to become a part of the autumnal tapestry gracing the ground.

Be a renaissance person, the grandchildren remembered their grandfather telling them. Both generations drew from Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas in their eulogies, though they had written them independently of each other.

As the day drew to a close, the sun set behind the vineyard, turning the surrounding trees into silhouettes against the darkened sky, its warmth turning to that bright sunset red you see at the edge of the world the moment before it disappears.

But this time, it lingered. Or so it seemed. I don’t remember a sunset lasting as long as this one did, a waning ember that glowed in the dark.

It’s not so much that time stopped as it slowed down so we could acknowledge its passing, as if to let us know that though our days are numbered, they are enough — if we live them deeply and follow the beat of our own hearts.

“My head keeps hitting the ceiling,” Polly said as we talked about what it’s like to lose a parent. It’s true. There is nothing between you and the ceiling as the generations above you die.

Be a renaissance person.

That command came from many sources in the years Polly and Steve and I were in high school. Our teachers encouraged it. The high spirits and optimism of the sixties encouraged it.

I think it is a command we need to bring to the forefront of our culture. I think it is the way we can find our way again in a world that has been turned upside down by fear, greed, and solipsism.

We don’t quote stock prices at significant life passages. We quote the likes of Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas because they express what it is to be human — enduring truths that don’t vanish in the burst of a bubble.

Wisdom Matters

I did not know Elizabeth Edwards. And yet . . .

I have not written a blog for over two months. I wanted to write something before the last election, but it was as if the cat got my tongue. I wanted to write that To Kill a Mockingbird was a fitting metaphor for the country right now; that Sarah Palin and her followers are like the Ewells. Sarah Palin, like Bob Ewell, claiming victimhood and using love of family as a weapon, revels in the power to destroy lives. Her followers seem like Mayella Ewell, who is at the mercy of her rapist and physical abuser—her father, Bob Ewell. Even greater than the rage she has for her father, is that she feels for the town people who turn a blind eye to her plight.

The only power the Ewells seem to have is derived from the conceit that being white entitles them to more than if they were black, regardless of character.

I was not able to articulate that in October. Then the election happened, and the cat seemed to disappear with my tongue.

People, I think, are feeling powerless over their lives right now. As the gap between the haves more and more and haves less and less grows greater, survival fears creep in, which provides fertile ground for tyrants—those whose pathological need for power has no boundaries or decency.

And then, there was Elizabeth Edwards. Pundits and commentators reported that she had lost her battle with cancer. When reminded that she did not look at her impending death as a battle lost, they lost their veneer of objectivity. They seemed to let in the story they were really telling: a life had ended, and though they did not yet understand why or what, she had taught them something about living.

I’ve been sorting through why I can claim the right to pause at her passing, how though I never met her, I feel affected by her life.

She was the same age as I, so perhaps that is a part of why it hits close to the bone. I admire that she took a route that was new to women when we were younger; going to law school. She embraced her entitlement to her aspirations. It took me another twenty before I even recognized I was entitled to them.

When her son was taken from her, she didn’t lose herself in work. Instead she lost herself in grief. I think that’s healthy. I think that’s why she found her way out of it. It also says to me that though she had stepped into a world that was defined by a cultural stereotype of being male, she did not become enslaved by it. She did not man up, she womaned up.

Losing the 2004 election had to be disappointing. On the same day, she learned she had breast cancer. I think the fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer lurks in the dark corner of women’s lives. Dire news about cancer returning coincided with revelations about her husband’s infidelity. The betrayal became public humiliation as it played itself out in 24-hour news cycles. What was most difficult, she said in an interview, was that all through their thirty years of marriage she had been able to turn to her husband during bad times. That’s what she had lost with his betrayal.

If anyone might feel powerless, and bitterness at being powerless, one could understand her feeling that way.

Whatever route it took her to get there, she chose grace over bitterness and powerlessness.

Women like Sarah Palin and Sharon Angle declared that their opponents needed to man up. They are enslaved to cultural stereotypes of being male, a stereotype that might provide the illusion of power over others, but ultimately carries no genuine power with it. They apparently never met Atticus Finch.

Elizabeth Edwards showed us courage and grace in the face of humiliation, disappointment, and death. We all have the power of courage and grace, regardless of what life throws our way.

She showed us how to number our days so we can apply our hearts unto wisdom.

We need leaders who know how to number their days.

We need them to woman up.