When the Dance Becomes Graceful

When we were sixteen, Mary Ann and I went out on a date with our fathers.

I don’t remember what the occasion was, or what inspired the date. We lived on the same block, a short street that curved into another, but our fathers weren’t fast friends.

It was a midweek evening. They dressed up in suits, not their work attire (my dad was an electrician, hers supervised maintenance crews for our town), and took us to the Rock House, the fancy dining place in our small Bay Area suburb.

I had recently gotten my driver’s license, so while our fathers lingered over after dinner drinks, Mary Ann and I took off in my family’s 1960 turquoise Ford station wagon.

Radio tuned to KYA, we tasted a nascent luxurious moment of freedom as we crossed Chestnut Street and bounced over the railroad tracks. The moment screeched to a halt with a loud, ominous crashing sound.

We hadn’t been hit. There was no other car in sight so there had been no accident. I maneuvered the car to the curb and looked in the rear view mirror. There, just past the railroad tracks, was a muffler.

I think Mary Ann and I had a brief discussion about whether or not that was my muffler. I know we didn’t get out and pick up the muffler. I’m sure that the sound of the car as we drove home verified that it was the muffler of my family car lying on P Street.

I’m sure I told my dad. I don’t remember his reaction, though I doubt he was angry with me. I’m sure the car sounded a bit like an airplane as we drove home.

But it was the muffler-falling-off-the-car incident that came to mind on Monday when Mary Ann called to tell me her father, Mike, had died two hours earlier. It was not unexpected, he had been in a nursing home for eight years, he was in his late eighties, and hospice had been called in a few weeks before. But, as Mary Ann said, whatever expected means, that’s not how it feels when Death arrives.

There is a special place in your heart that gets touched when your friend’s parent dies – especially if you knew the person when you were a kid and he or she was the parent with all the collateral authority.

The last time I saw him was when I visited Mary Ann in the middle of September. She had received a phone call early that morning from the nursing home, letting her know that he had fallen, but seemed to be uninjured. We stopped by to check in on him.

He was in a four-person room. One bed was empty, the occupants of the other two were sleeping. Mike’s bed was hidden behind the curtains drawn to provide him privacy.  He wasn’t very social. His cave protected him from his surroundings.

I hadn’t seen Mike for probably fourteen years. He lay on his bed, curled up, his back to us, his body as lean as I remember it. “Mary Ann,” he called loudly as she bent over to kiss him on his cheek.

Mary Ann. As long as I could remember, her family, even her parents, referred to her as Sis or Sissy. She had two younger brothers, but really, I think everyone thought of her as their big sister.

Her father in particular used to piss me off. He insisted that his wife shouldn’t work, but from the time she was twelve, Mary Ann worked, contributing her income to the household budget. One Friday afternoon in high school, Mary Ann learned that she wouldn’t be going to the movies with us because her father had accepted a babysitting job for her. He knew that she would use the money she made on Friday night to take her brothers to the movies on Saturday, giving him the afternoon free to be with her mother.

After Mary Ann’s husband died, Mike wondered aloud what they were going to do with her, as if she had ever been their burden.

I wanted to strangle him on Mary Ann’s behalf, to slap him silly, over the years.

But as I saw him lying on the bed, calling her name, I understood that the two had found a place of grace between them.

I have a picture in my mind of our fathers at the table the night of our date. My dad was raised on a farm; Mary Ann’s was the child of Eastern European immigrants. Both had served in World War II.

There was something rather dashing about them dressed in their suits, the slight scent of Old Spice on their clean-shaven faces. These were men who would know what to do with the muffler lying on P Street.

My father died in 1994 from complications of Alzheimer’s. He’d been in a nursing home for two years, had spent the previous ten years slowly being swallowed by the disease.

Mary Ann was at his memorial, and at my mother’s twelve years later.

It’s not that parents become like children when they begin to decline and need our care. It’s just that the balance changes. It’s a dance that has no choreography, and is different for every set of parent and child. Who leads and who follows is always in flux: Sometimes both lead. Other times both follow. Then there are moments when both surrender to love and the dance becomes graceful.

Maybe that’s what touches the heart when a friend’s parent dies, seeing that it can become more graceful over time.

He called her name. Mary Ann. Not Sis. Not Sissy.

Mary Ann.

Pre-Pubescent Girls to Post-Menopausal Women: A Friendship

Mary Ann, please don’t worry about the future, ’cause you’re too nice a person to have things turn out bad. I know that much happiness and especially love is in your future.

June 1967 (what I wrote in Mary Ann’s annual)

It’s not just the cool air on my skin. It’s the light. And, there is a stillness, a calm. It’s a time of reaping.

The equinox is a week away, but autumn has arrived. My favorite time of year.

I wrote in June that summer is baskets waiting to be filled. Autumn is the time to fill them.

Butterflies, when they emerge from their cocoons, wait until their wings dry before they take flight. In my morning pages this morning, I wrote that I was ready, like a butterfly, to take flight.

I’ve said before that I think the caterpillar is one of the most courageous creatures ever put on earth. The caterpillar, responding to its DNA, cocoons itself, becomes a protoplasmic soup, and from that protoplasmic soup becomes a butterfly. Then, the creature who could only have an earth-bound view of the world, waits for its wings to dry, takes flight, and sees a view of the world as new and magnificent as we saw when astronauts sent back photos of the earth as seen from the moon.

I think that the caterpillar represents for me the willingness to submit to the mystery of life calling. It occurred to me that the butterfly taking flight is the end of a journey, but not the point of it. The cycle will start again.

It is in the cycle that I find faith and hope.

I visited Mary Ann recently. We’ve known each other for fifty years – from pre-pubescent girls to post menopausal women. We come from similar backgrounds: our fathers were working class men who had served in WWII; we lived down the street from each other, a short street in a new housing development, our neighbors included PhDs, a dentist, the City engineer, a former priest, and stay-at home mothers. The street teemed with kids playing baseball in the street in summer.

We met in January of 1960, when I walked by her house. What’s your name she asked me? Then, how old are you?

Buddy Holly had barely been dead for a year, his sweet lyrics found power in rock and roll rhythms as he assured us that not only was it easy to fall in love, but that love would surely come our way.

By the time the decade ended, we had graduated from high school; my mother had gone to work, but Mary Ann’s continued to stay at home. The vineyards that covered the fields behind our house had been plowed under to make room for more families just like ours. Four leaders had been assassinated, Woodstock promised a new day dawning. The sun set forever on that day when a man was murdered as the Rolling Stones strutted on the stage, their dark rhythm joining forces with lyrics that announced to the world that the girl was under their thumb.

Mary Ann married a man who cherished her, was widowed five years later, then, much like me, ended up on the bumper car ride of relationships, getting involved with men who didn’t cherish us. We took the path of the Rolling Stones rather than Buddy Holly.

But as we talked over our visit, it was clear to me that though I had been to college and she hadn’t, we had both kept ourselves in check in similar ways, believing that our role was to stay in the background, just like our mother’s had. We both have been the caretakers, tending to the needs of aging parents and parents-in-law; been the backbone that ensured that family business was taken care of.

And both of us have been responding to a siren’s call to awaken to another journey. For a brief moment, I worried that we were too late. That we were supposed to be retired now, not venturing on a new journey.

Then it occurred to me. Whatever the new path in our journey might be, our lives had prepared us for it. That the attention we paid as we tended to the needs of people who are dying, had given us a particular kind of wisdom. We had not lost time by tending to life’s ending; we had learned to trust its course.

I suspect this might be the norm for women as they enter their seventh decade. I wonder if we have an advantage over men in this. Perhaps we are so used to cycles and tending to life passages, that we can more easily see this as an opening into a new, rather than the ending of a career.

The future seemed much simpler that day I assured Mary Ann that there was nothing but love ahead. We aspired to marriage — thought that was what our lives were about; finding the right man was the happy ending, nothing much happened after that.

Love was in our future, but it wasn’t to be the man who would make up for our mothers’ disappointments born out of their sacrifices to domesticity. Instead we went on a journey to understand what it meant for us to love. We learned that it was sometimes hard work, and that we had to start with ourselves — not in a self-indulgent way — but by finding out who we were, what we wanted, and what we needed to feel cherished.

We have both found our happy ending relationship-wise, we are married to men who cherish us, who give us time to let our wings dry so we can fly.

As the days grow shorter to share equal time with the night, I am filling those baskets of summer. Preparing for the change of seasons. Reaping the perspective of a long-time friendship. Finding faith and hope in the cycle of life.

Ready to fly, and then start the journey again.

Deliver us from Fear, Lead us out of the Wasteland

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It once was possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice, “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That page 30.

I “liked” a Facebook page called Pledge of Renewal. It showed up on the right column of my page with the suggestion I might want to join it because it was a group who pledged a renewed support and dedication to the Constitution.

I took the bait and clicked over to the page. I found that this group’s interpretation of the Constitution, and what America represents, was quite different than mine. It (PoR for short) insisted that America is a Christian nation that has lost its way through political correctness.

I “liked” the page so I could participate in the comments and discussion. I had to leave after a couple of weeks. Willful ignorance fueled their hatred. Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya. His Hawaii birth certificate was a fake, but the Kenyan birth certificate was valid. He is a Muslim who is out to destroy America. Glenn Beck’s Restoring America rally showed that white people could own Martin Luther King (perhaps they didn’t realize the irony in that statement). The rally was peaceful (uh . . . maybe because it was homogenous?) and those geese flying in formation down the reflecting pool were sent by God to prove that America is a nation of white people blessed by God – no not that god, “our” god.

Good white Christian people had been oppressed long enough. It was time to claim their right to be right, and the “other” wrong. That was what our Founders meant by freedom of religion — the freedom to put the full force of the law behind their Christian beliefs. They might tolerate same sex relationships (hate the sin, love the sinner), but God reserved marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman (serially, perhaps, but  . . .). Once a man fertilizes a woman’s egg (whether by rape or consensual sex), she becomes an incubator with no rights over her body.  Islam is un-American and evil.

Oh, and, of course that mosque (that isn’t a mosque) should not be built at ground zero (even though it wouldn’t be) because ground zero is sacred ground and Muslims build mosques on conquered ground.

Most of the time I was measured in my comments and responses, suggesting that no laws respecting the establishment of religion meant just that; that the founders had learned through years of bloody battles that religion is a private matter, between the individual and their god (or lack of god). That religion that is forced by law of the land has little to do with faith.

Or, as Joseph Campbell says, when force, not love, is required to give the myths and metaphors of religion meaning, you have wandered into the Waste Land.

The good that came out of my wandering into the Waste Land was that I started reading Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong again. They chased the Blue Meanies away.

If asked, I say that I am spiritual, but not religious. My father was a Catholic who had been married before; my mother a Baptist who drank, smoked, and danced. I checked out both religions. The Baptists dissed the Catholics; the Catholics insisted that they were the true and only church. According to the Catholic Church, my parent’s marriage was not sanctified by God (sort of like a marriage between two people of the same sex) and thus invalid. If Catholicism determined the law of the land, my mother would not have been recognized as my father’s legal widow and I would be considered illegitimate.

My parents took no sides in the religious wars going on around me. They let me choose my spiritual road for myself.

I am grateful for that. And, it makes me laugh at the notion that calling America a Christian nation means something. Which sect of Christianity are we talking about: the one that says the Pope is infallible, or the one that says women can be ordained as ministers? The one that says dancing is a sin, or the one that sponsors dinner dances as fund raisers? The one that says homosexuality is a sin, or the one that has a lesbian as its minister? Or the one that says ordaining women as priest is more heretical than protecting priests who molest children?

In the Power of Myth series Bill Moyers asks Joseph Campbell if humans create myths based on their environment. He said yes. He gave the example of what it was like when a Pygmy, who lived in a rain forest, was taken to a mountaintop. The vastness of the landscape overwhelmed him. He wanted to retreat into the rain forest where he felt safe.

I think we are all Pygmies standing on the mountaintop right now. The site of the earth viewed from the moon, has altered forever our notion of boundaries and horizons. The earth is home to all living creatures. We are interdependent. Our mastery of weapons makes none of us safe. It puts us all at risk.

I think we have a choice. We can look out over the vastness of our world with awe, and be willing to embrace it. Have compassion for being human. Feel fear, but not let fear determine our actions. Retreat to the safety of our rain forest, but keep the memory of the vastness that lies beyond it alive in our hearts.

The alternative is to let fear lead us into the Waste Land.

Perhaps this September 11 is a good day for America to go to the mountaintop. Maybe that will quench the flames arising from the Quarans the church in Florida threatens to set on fire. Let us not become the men, crazed with fear of change and hatred of the other, who flew planes into the towers, taking lives and inflicting unmerciful pain on the loved ones left behind.

Let us experience compassionate love, so we can experience our own lives and apply our hearts unto wisdom.

The Scent of Abundance

The scent of dry grass cooling in the night air, cold cream, and hot naked light bulbs. That’s my sensory memory of summer.

I spent my high school summers at May School Theater, a one-room school house  that had been converted into a 90-seat theater. We’d stop at the A&W drive in, buy cone-shaped pints of root beer, and drive the five miles to May School Road, passing by the cemetery with the tree that looked like the devil at night, and into the suede-colored grass that covered the hills and fields in the country outside Livermore, California.

Summer 1964 was my first summer at May School Theater. I was part of Junior Theater, a city-sponsored theater program for high school students.  Members of Cask and Mask, the community theater group, directed us in plays like The Reluctant Debutant, The Admirable Chrichton, and State of the Union.

Livermore was a blend of ranchers, cowboys, merchants who served the ranchers and cowboys, and the newcomers: physicists, chemists, engineers, and physical scientists who worked at Sandia or Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

The newcomers brought with them cultural sensibilities nurtured in the universities they attended: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UC Berkeley. Many of the newcomers had gone to school on the GI Bill. Born and raised in towns much like Livermore, their horizons had been expanded by being in Europe and the Pacific, and then by their education.

And then, there were the other newcomers. Blue-collar workers like my father, who  worked at the Lab, and teachers for the schools that outgrew their capacity as soon as they were built. The newly minted teachers brought with them the hope and audacity of the new generation for whom John F. Kennedy claimed the torch had been passed.

In the summer of 1966, after the July performance of Junior Theater’s State of the Union, our group of high school and soon-to-be-college students decided we didn’t want it to end. We formed the Auxiliary Players and produced, directed, and acted in plays we wrote as well as plays by the likes of Eugene O’Neill.

Cask and Mask sponsored us. Our high school teachers encouraged us, basked in our brash willingness to take on whatever we wanted to chew, even if it was more than we could. Failure was an option, but not trying was not.

I thought this was normal. When I went to college, I learned that in a town the size of Livermore (population 10,000), that kind of encouragement was usually reserved for sports.

After high school, I moved to San Francisco to go to college. I came to love San Francisco summers. There would be the day I would feel the cool moistness of fog on my skin and know that summer had arrived. The warm days of October signaled that summer had ended. I didn’t miss the hot days of a Livermore summer, though I would sometimes long for the cool evenings.

I stayed in San Francisco for 15 years, then moved to Mill Valley. The summer days were less grey, but pleasant. I’d see the temperatures rise to 90 plus degrees in Livermore and be grateful for the 75-degree sunny days.

In 2001, after a 34-year absence, I moved back to Livermore. The population had grown to nearly 90,000. May School Theater had burned to the ground in 1980. Some say it was arson.

I drove out to May School Road, which is much closer to town, now that town has sprawled out towards the freeway. The tree that looks like the devil is still there, but the A&W drive-in closed years ago. I think I know where May School was on that road, but I’m not sure.

When the temperature reaches the 90s, I yearn for the San Francisco, Mill Valley summers. I am not a hot weather person. But on a night that follows a hot still day, if I am out amongst the suede-colored grass of the hills and fields, the scent of grass cooling in the night air reaches me. It brings with it the sensory memory of cold cream and the hot bare lights that surrounded the makeup mirrors at May School Theater.

It is the scent of abundance. The abundance that comes from biting off more than I can chew, trusting that failure is an option, but that not trying is not an option.

My Past Flows into My Future

In the film The Graduate, as Benjamin battles for the soul of Elaine, rescuing her from a marriage that would imprison her, Mrs. Robinson snarls at Elaine, “It’s too late.”

“Not for me,” she says.

They run from the church, get on a bus, sit in the back – she wearing a wedding dress, he disheveled from his long drive and battle to save her – look backward from where they came, then set their gaze forward. They’ve made a clear choice: “Not that.” They look neither happy nor sad. They look bewildered, maybe even scared, the unspoken question, “Now what?” hanging in the air between them.

The Graduate came out in the fall of 1967 – the year I started college at San Francisco State. By the end of my freshman year, Johnson announced peace talks, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, and in a philosophy class to which black radicals had been invited, I experienced for the first time the depth of the racial divide.

I had been catapulted out of a world that was trying desperately to remain static and into a world that was changing with volcanic intensity.

It was within that volcanic intensity that I met the man who would become my first husband. We were together for five years, married for two and a half.

Our breakup was not very elegant. I was the one who initiated it. Though I could not articulate it at the time, I left because I needed to answer the question, “Now what?” He was stuck with great determination in “Not that.” I don’t think either of us had the language to understand what “not that” was or meant.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been touring that past. First, I reconnected with people from that period who I thought I had lost in the breakup of the marriage. The following week, I waded knee deep into my family when I attended the memorial for my uncle, who died in June at the age of 100. One of the attendees was my younger brother, who, for reasons I suspect are not even clear to him, has shut me out of his life.

I have visited the past many times, trying to make sense of it. What was different about this particular journey was that I could see it through the prism of my present – and I am very present in my present right now. My heart is strong – it allows me to see things without guilt, shame, anger, or blame. All because I decided that the story I had been told was mine, wasn’t. Starting this blog was my way of discovering my story and owning it.

My brother, both of them actually, have written me out of their stories. I’m sorry for that. I don’t think I deserve it, but, I don’t get to write their stories, they write their own.

I think my former husband might have written me out of his. I’m sorry for that, too, because whatever pain we caused each other (plenty to go around when a marriage breaks apart), I’m clear that he is a part of my story. He is the person responsible for showing me the “Not that” door. I placed myself at San Francisco State for that opportunity, and he provided it.

It was my choice to go through the “What now?” door that doomed our relationship and began the long and sometime arduous journey to my present.

Reconnecting to the people I knew then, especially the women, helped me understand how deeply sexist the Not That was. We have all grown and blossomed into people our mothers either never dreamed of being, or only dreamed of being possible.

It took close to twenty years for me to learn that I could marry without sacrificing myself to Mrs. Robinson’s curse “It’s too late.” I fell in love with and married a man who sees who I am – whose story includes me. He cherishes my heart and I cherish his, which is, in part, why my heart is so strong.

I think that’s probably the answer I found for “What now?” Cherishing and being cherished.

The present, a college professor wrote on the board once, is how the past flows into the future.

Connections from my past are flowing into my future, and I’m grateful for that. They were a part of my story then, and I think they will be a part of my story now.