November 22, 1963

Football season was done. I think it might have been the first Friday without a football game. But it was Friday, so we had to do something. We planned on going to the Vine to see West Side Story. Back then, it took a few years for “big” movies to get to Livermore.

The bell hadn’t rung yet to mark the start of fourth period. Kids were still straggling in to Mr. Fraser’s fourth period Freshman English class. I had just taken my seat when Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Weiss rushed in, pulled a radio from the closet in the back of the room, then just as quickly left the room. I remember thinking it seemed strange. They looked so grim.

By the time the bell rang, we knew. We heard. President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Fraser led us in a discussion. We talked about politics, who was Democrat and who was Republican. He managed our bewilderment, kept it light, told us he was a Republican, then said we should use the remaining time to read our assigned book—Great Expectations.

Pete Prassinos, he of the beautiful deep dark brown eyes framed with long dark eyelashes, asked if he could go to his locker to get his book. Across the hall, Mr. Satterthwaite had the radio on, the scratchy sounds of the newsfeed barely audible. Pete returned with his book.

“He was shot in the head,” he said pointing to his temple.

Moments later, we heard the news bulletin clearly. The president was dead.

“Well, that’s it,” Mr. Fraser said and turned away from us.

“President Kennedy has been killed,” the voice over the public address system announced. “School is dismissed.”

The boys in the back row jumped up and cheered. Not because Kennedy was dead, but because school was dismissed. They were teenage boys who didn’t know how else to react.

“Hey!” Mr. Fraser boomed. He was barely five foot two, but his glorious voice drove the hulking members of the football team in the back row into their seats. “A man is dead! The president is dead. We need to respect that.”

And with that, he dismissed our class.

There were other things that remain vivid in my mind from that weekend:

My mother cleaning house wearing the skirt and blouse and heels she had been wearing when she was at the store and heard the news. My mother hated housecleaning and never—never—before or after that Friday wore heals and a dress to clean the house.

My father, the next day, threatening to break the Vaughn Meader record that lightly satirized Kennedy. My dad was an Irish Catholic. That was a big thing to him: an Irish Catholic as president.

Seeing Oswald shot on Sunday morning.

Going to see West Side Story on Sunday afternoon with Mary Ann Kriletich, Kathy Smith, and Kathy Keene. Weeping as we walked home, comparing Jackie to Maria, remembering that Jackie had lost a child just months before.

On Monday, the riderless horse, boots placed backwards into the stirrups, preceding the coffin as it made its way to Arlington. I had seen the same image in the previous week’s Life magazine, an illustration that accompanied an article about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand—perhaps because Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, had influenced Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We returned to school on Tuesday. It was a two-day week. Thanksgiving was on Thursday.

The Beatle’s arrival in February of 1964 took the focus off of Kennedy’s death. Or at least, that’s my memory. The trauma of the assassination of a president receded, seemed a mistake, something that still couldn’t happen here.

Over next five years, civil rights workers were murdered, fire hoses and dogs let loose on peaceful marchers, cities rioted. The war in Vietnam escalated, driving a wedge between generations—those who fought the “Good War” and those who questioned why we were at war.

By the time Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed five years later, we came to believe that assassinations were part of the American landscape.

I had Mr. Fraser again in my senior year for English Honors. That was his last year teaching high school. He had been accepted into the Master’s program at San Francisco State College (later University); I was heading there, too. I saw him once in the Humanities Literature and Language building, drinking from the water fountain.

I later learned that he did not make it through even the first semester. Academia, he quickly learned was not the place for him. He left for New York where for years he made a living doing voiceovers and acting bit parts in soap operas.

In 1996, on a trip to New York, Tom and I reconnected with Mr. Fraser. He had been Tom’s teacher as well. By that time we called him Bert. I thanked him for how he took care of us, my fourth period English class, the day Kennedy was killed. “You gave us a safety net in a very confusing moment,” I said. “And you showed us how important and sad that moment was.”

We agreed to keep in touch. We invited him to our wedding that September, but he was unable to attend. Sometime soon after that, a heart attack took him.

Mr. Fraser introduced me to William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in English Honors. I had to write a paper showing how the convict in “The Old Man” exemplified the sentiments of his speech. I don’t remember my paper. It’s been too long since I read the short story to be able to tell you how it exemplified his sentiment.

But Faulkner’s speech has stayed with me over the years. I go back and read it from time to time. With each reading, it resonates more deeply with me.

Innocence and experience. Experience does not necessarily lead to cynicism. It can, if we are willing to go deep enough, lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, how to wend our way through sad times. I was fortunate, that on that awful day, November 22, 1963, I had Mr. Fraser as my guide.

From Faulkner’s speech:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

And, Yet, Here I Am: Writing Shed 3.0

“You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad.” — Mingyur Rinpoche

I have never liked the word happy. I have always felt it did not leave room for sad, that happy was somehow superior to sad. I got the subtle message that happy girls were preferable to sad girls. Happy, smiling girls made people feel good. Sad girls brought the room down.

So, when asked if I was happy, I felt obliged to go into a long dissertation about the transitory nature of happy.

And, yet, here I am in Happy Valley.

Happy Valley on a foggy morning . . . sunny morning photo to follow

Happy Valley on a foggy morning . . . sunny morning photo to follow

Our first morning in our new home on Happy Valley Road, as Tessa and I crunched our way across the frost covered front yard to get the New York Times from the mailbox, I heard the soft mooing of a cow and cocky crow of a rooster drifting our way from the farm across the road. The early morning sky was brilliant blue, the way blue shows up when the air is crisp and cold. The snow-dusted mountains, creators of the valley, were sentinels in the background.

Happy Valley.

I don’t think I have ever regretted my life. Or wished I had another. Or envied the life someone else had or has. I have felt imperfect that I was not the happy ray of sunshine that banished sorrow and pain from the world. Along with that was my warrior-like insistence that I was entitled to my happy-impaired moments.

I happened upon Laurie Anderson’s Farewell to Lou Reed in Rolling Stone this morning. “I believe that the purpose of death,” she writes, “is the release of love.”

I think she mastered feeling sad, without being sad.

So, maybe, the same can be said about happy.

After he loses a daughter to drugs, a recovering country singer played by Robert Duvall in the movie Tender Mercies says he doesn’t trust happiness, never has.

Perhaps we, I, need to master the ability to feel happy without being happy. It’s a state of being, not a stasis of being.

So, here I am in Happy Valley. It feels like home. It embraces the life sounds of a mooing cow and the cocky crow of a rooster as well as The New York Times.

It is life.

I can say that I feel happy with life. I feel happy with my life.

I live in Happy Valley.

Writing by Hand

writing by handI got As in penmanship when I was a kid. I found an essay I had written my senior year of high school—don’t remember even what it was about, just that I was applying for some kind of senior-year prize. I could read every word. My penmanship was neat and even.

I don’t know when my penmanship turned illegible. You would never know my name by reading my signature. Sometimes, I can’t even discern what I was saying in my journals—not even by context. I’m certain there are brilliant gems, words of an insightful genius lost to posterity because it’s impossible to interpret the penmanship.

Lately, I’ve made a commitment to writing so I can read what I’ve written by hand.

Writing by hand. I call this writing acoustically. When I’m in my Writing Shed, I use a fountain pen—a black fat, elegant pen made by Mont Blanc and left to me by my mentor, Ed Brush. Recently, I have discovered Levenger ink—Raven Black.

My hand-written writing comprises two things: recording the Animal Tarot Cards I draw each day, and my morning pages. I sometimes skip my morning pages. I think that is okay.

As I wrote today, I noticed I was writing legibly, neatly, evenly, taking the time to form each letter, careful to spell words correctly, and punctuate for meaning. The slow flow of the ink filled the white space on the page letter-by-letter, word-by-word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. Its clean smell wafted up from the page.

I slowed down. I took the time to smell the ink.

An actor friend wrote on his Facebook page today that he was taking his next step without a plan. His other plans had all fallen through, so he was just moving forward, leaving behind fear of what others thought of him, embracing his own life.

He was writing with ink.

My career path in life has been pretty non-existent. I got diverted from a career in health care administration when I quit a job after ending a relationship with my boss. I became a bar tender so I could spend time with my writing.

That was nearly 40 years ago. That decision was the turning point of my life—the moment I decided to embrace my own life, though I didn’t know it at the time. I backslid off and on, taking paths that had clearly marked signposts. I failed miserably anytime I tried. The signposts annoyed me.

Where Fred Astaire aspired for perfection, Gregory Hines would allow a mistake to take him to the next move, making it up as he went along if the occasion called for it.

He improvised.

It has occurred to me that improvisation, rather than a career, has determined my path in life.

The constant has been writing, though it has only been the last ten or so years that I found my voice.

I love writing on a computer. It allows me to keep pace when my mind is racing. Its fluid nature matches the way my mind writes, then edits. Backspacing letter by letter to erase a word, highlighting whole sentence or paragraphs to cut them, or cut then paste them somewhere else. Seeing the change instantly in black and white without the distraction of crossed out words, scratched out sentences or paragraphs, arrows and notes to indicate where to move a circled word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

It has its own flow—writing on a computer.

But writing by hand, with the pen that once belonged to Ed Brush, the flow of ink filling the empty page, the smell of ink transporting me into the moment—that’s an improvisational moment for me.

Much like life, there’s no Undo command when you write by hand. Make a mistake. Then improvise.

The Changing of the Light

I am a little disappointed that Mama Quail left without saying goodbye.

Mama Quail was nowhere to be found the last I saw of the Quail family. Her babies, I think it was they—no longer fuzzy but still a fuzzy brown color—lifted from the ground with a flutter of wings as I started down our long driveway to retrieve our New York Times.

She had taught them well. They recognized an intruder and fluttered away in different directions. If I had been their predator, I would not have known which way to follow.

It is the Autumnal Equinox. Equal day and equal night. Light and dark share the stage equally as our part of the world makes its journey to the Winter Solstice. Dark has dominion during the coming season—staying longer each day until the Solstice, when Light starts its ascent.

The Harvest Moon rose big and bright this week, lighting up the San Juan de Fuca Straits. It’s called the Harvest Moon because in the times before we (we, as in humans) learned how to light the dark with electricity, its brightness extended the day so our food could be harvested into the night.

The beginning of a time of gratitude.

I have always liked the Fall—the way the air cools, the trees adorn themselves with new colors, the light shines through an almost invisible haze. It has always seemed like the beginning to me. Pagans recognize that. It is when they celebrate the end of one year and beginning of the next.

As our home begins this orderly transformation from one season to another, we humans are walking a different path. A mad man uses chemical weapons to slaughter innocents in Syria. Mad men randomly slaughter people going about the mundane motions of their daily lives. Politicians fluff their feathers to appear bigger than they are, threatening world chaos if they don’t get their way.

When God hates the same people you do, you have created God in your own image.

I never know how to answer the question, “Do you believe in God?” I guess it seems like the wrong question to me, as if there are only two answers, “Yes,” or “No.”

It’s not so much I believe in God, as I see there is an orderly transformation from one season to the next. Not orderly in the sense of schedule or chronology or predictability. Orderly in that one season turns into the next. Life begins and Life ends and then a new Life begins. There is pain, there is sorrow, there is joy, there is ecstasy.

If might makes right, there is no room for love in this world.

I don’t think that means being passive. I think it means recognizing that life is more a rock-scissors-paper world than one where owning an assault weapon ensures your safety.

But, what do I know?

I know that today is the Fall Equinox. It is my seventeenth wedding anniversary and we just purchased a home on Happy Valley Road. I will soon be living in Happy Valley where the elk wander through from time to time and the Olympics stand still in the background—a good vantage point to witness the changing of light.

Still. I’m a little disappointed that Mama Quail didn’t stop to say goodbye.

The White Wall

new yard path 1“I wish I’d paid better attention. I didn’t yet think of time as finite. I didn’t fully appreciate the stories she told me until I became adult, and by then I had to make do with snippets pasted together, a film projected on the back of my mind.”
—Jessica Maria Tuccelli, Glow

I am at that time in life. I want to ask:

“Did he give me a music box covered with pink roses?”

“Did you go to Fisk?”

“Did you give new meaning to Debutante Ball—with the busboy?”

But they are all gone, the people that could answer those questions.

Years ago, I don’t remember which television news magazine reported it, I saw a story about a woman, an artist, who had received a devastating diagnosis: she had an aneurysm that could burst at any moment and she would die.

She lived with this knowledge for a year. A moment-by-moment experience of life. After a year, they discovered that she had been misdiagnosed.

This is what I remember about her back-story.

Sometime after that year, a gallery owner came to her studio. He noticed a subtle, but significant difference between her paintings. She told him her story and they realized that the differences he noticed reflected that year of living with the knowledge that life, time for her, was finite. There was a distinct before and after to her work.

He wanted a gallery show that told that story. They decided on a mural that would take up one wall of the gallery. She wanted it to be done with pastels. She wanted it to be up for one month, and one month only. And she wanted the opening to be reserved for people who were living with a terminal diagnosis.

I believe she spent a month on the mural, weeping as she worked, her fingers bleeding from working pastel onto plaster. As I remember the mural, it was a series of framed scenes, scenes as you would see them through a window, as if you were doing something mundane, happened to look up, and see a snippet of life. Simple but glorious.

At the opening, the invited guests passed through slowly, weeping. Weeping with joy and sorrow.

After one month, she stepped back to look at it one more time, then wept again as she took scrub brush in hand and washed away her work of love and passion.

But a ghost of the image remained. The gallery, with her permission, covered it with white paint.

In a way, it was the coat of white paint that touched me the most. Behind it, the ghost of the mural remains.

I have come to think that that is how it is when we die. We disappear behind the coat of white paint, but the ghost of our experience remains—in the memory and hearts of those who experienced us.

I stand with my back to the white wall, its coat of paint between me and the people who are gone. I have memories, some vivid and clear, others misty and muddled. I cannot verify any of them. I cannot point to them as facts. But I trust their presence behind that coat of white paint, and that their presence in my life has shaped it.

Fill Our Hearts with Power

I really do intend to update the Writing Shed weekly. But sometimes, events seem to leave me dumbstruck. Well, not so much dumbstruck, as waiting for the light bulb to click on, shed light on the dark corners that harbor the missing pieces of the puzzle I am trying to put together.

My small personal world and the global world intersected last week. There was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. There was a comment in a blog by a colleague that claimed we really can’t ever get into another’s shoes, can’t really imagine what their lives are like. And then, the drumbeat for action in Syria, followed by Obama stepping back, deferring to our Constitution, defining this moment as one that has global as well as national interests.

In many ways for me, the decade of the Sixties was about tossing our Pick-Up Sticks into the air and waiting for them to come down. The music, the liberation from the conformity of the Fifties, the march into a future that attempted to shed the past, were a part of that era for me. But what really defined that period for me was the Civil Rights movement. That August 1963 March on Washington was a defining moment.

In the shadow of Lincoln, a quarter of mile from Jefferson, King took the idea, the dream, of America to the next level. Jefferson planted the seed. Lincoln cleared the blight of slavery, and then King called on us to partake in the bounty promised by Jefferson’s ideas. He claimed entitlement to the ideals promised by Jefferson’s declaration that all men are created equal.

Some pointed out that there were no women speaking on the day. There weren’t. But fifty years later, it was his youngest daughter who delivered the clarion call, the words that ended with bells rung throughout the country in the name of human rights.

The Civil Rights movement, the clarion call of King’s dream have rippled over the years. The women’s movement was about civil rights. The disability movement was about civil rights. The LGBT movement is about civil rights. It shone a light so that those who lived in darkness and shadow could claim their right to a place at the table.

Clearly, things aren’t perfect. My colleague’s blog told of her experience as a female attorney in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Fifteen years younger than I, hers was the generation of women who began changing in large numbers the landscape of the playing field that had typically been an exclusive male club. Women, it seemed had arrived.

The message she received when she joined the firm was clear: be one of the boys or be the outsider, and by the way, you will never be one of the boys. Her colleagues in the firm, she said, could not imagine her life, what life was like in her shoes, because we are not capable of really doing that.

I think she let them off the hook. I think they chose, consciously or unconsciously, to refuse to see the world from her perspective. They had too much to lose—their position of privilege based solely on their gender and race.

The biggest flaw in the early women’s movement was the assumption that we needed to be seated at the men’s table—that power came from emulating them. I think that is changing. I suspect that to the current generation (the Millenials, if you will), this is not much of an issue. I think they see each other as equals in a way that none of us dreamed possible fifty, or even twenty, years ago.

The drumbeat for action in Syria left me with such mixed feelings. The horror that is happening is Syria seems to me to call for some kind of action. But what is the proper action?

Then President Obama took a step back. He called on the American people to respond to the atrocities. And, just as important, he called for the world community to take a stand.

To some, this was a sign of weakness. I think not. I think it is a sign that he has a deep understanding of the world we live in, and of power.

We have perhaps the most powerful military in all of human history. We have the might to enforce might makes right. Obama is probably correct that he has the authority, the power, to order military strikes without the consent of Congress or other countries.

But that is too much power to put in the hands of one person. I think that is what Obama understood, and why he took the step back. That is not weakness. That is strength.

I don’t want to idealize Obama. I could be wrong. We’ll see. I’m hoping that by forcing Congress to be accountable, he can disrupt the dysfunction that has consumed it and that maybe, just maybe, we can take that next step to realizing the dream.

In the film The Mission the priest, portrayed by Jeremy Irons, explains to Robert deNiro why he won’t take up arms. Perhaps might makes right he says. Maybe so. Maybe so. But if might makes right, there is no room for love in the world. I cannot live in such a world, he says.

I hope we are taking this moment in history to make room for love in the world—to fill our hearts with power—as we move forward as a country and as a world community.

Huzzah to Next Week

My grandmother was nineteen when she got married, thirty when she got the right to vote. Three years later, my mother was born. Twenty-six years later, I came into the world.

By the time I turned twenty, women still could not get a credit card without their husband’s permission. I’m guessing that single women simply couldn’t establish credit on their own. My friend Sally, a professor at UCLA, was running downstairs between classes to use the Women’s bathroom—the Faculty bathroom on the floor where she taught classes had urinals. Faculty bathrooms with urinals is a not so subtle message.

A woman had to prove she was crazy to terminate a pregnancy. Newspapers still divided help wanted ads into Help Wanted Men and Help Wanted Women. A listing for a college educated, bi-lingual secretary paid less than a janitor. The secretary was filed under Help Wanted Women; the janitor under Help Wanted Men.The accepted wisdom was that men would be supporting a family, so deserved more pay. It was also accepted wisdom that hiring a single mother as a secretary was a smart move because she would be more compliant—she had a family to support and so would be afraid to talk back. Temporary employment agencies carried names like Kelly Girl and American Girl.

I was 13 when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I can’t honestly say what I remember about it, other than a sense of hope for the future and belief that my country valued the dignity at the base of being human. I also remember the cover of Life magazine, just a few months before—Myrlie Evers comforting her young son, weeping for his slain father.

The years that followed the speech were gruesome. Civil rights workers—black and white, men and women—were murdered for trying to register blacks to vote, their murderers set free by juries of their peers. Fire hoses were aimed at peaceful marchers; attack dogs set upon them. The North proved no better with riots in Watts and Detroit, hate-filled marches in Chicago.

It seemed by the next decade that some things had been settled: women had a right to choose; the right to vote was sacred, as sacred as the American flag; a precedent had been established that ensured human rights, regardless of color or gender, a precedent that laid the groundwork for ensuring rights regardless of sexual orientation. It was a precedent that human rights were more important than States’ rights.

To say that the events of the last few years have been seriously south of disheartening is an understatement. Given that it is a minority of people who are driving the effort to turn back the clock to an hour fraught with such brutality, it is particularly unnerving to watch events unfold.

Two important anniversaries will happen this week: the passage of the 19th Amendment, the one that enshrined my right to vote, and the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us his dream of what America can be.

His dream, his notion, of America is the same as mine. Our founders set in motion an idea, recorded in a Constitution, that enshrined a commitment to honoring the inherent dignity in a person. Back then, it was primarily applied to white, property-owning men. But an idea like that cannot be contained. It can only grow.

That was what was important about the Sixties to me. By the time the decade came to an end, we were just 25 years past a war that had horrified us with the Holocaust. During that same war, black American soldiers had to ride in cars behind German prisoners of war—those who had fought for the country were second class to those who we were fighting against.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put him back.

Change does not come easily to humans. But the nature of life is change. Snakes shed their skin because they keep growing—imagine what would happen if they didn’t—or couldn’t—shed their skin.

Despite the attempt to turn back the hour to a brutal, unjust time, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because we cannot thrive as a nation, as a people, if we do not adapt to change. The generation coming up has already shed the skin of prejudices to which older generations thought they were entitled. If older generations won’t shed that skin—well, imagine what would happen to a snake that refused to shed the skin it had outgrown.

Huzzah for this coming week of anniversaries. Let us celebrate their shedding light into dark corners. Let us fill our hearts with the power of human dignity these anniversaries commemorate to shatter the mean-spirited enshrinement of power by those who refuse to change.