This blog is about vulnerability and how it connects with the creative process. We’ve all had people in our lives so guarded we rarely see beyond their masks. Occasionally, perhaps at times of great sorrow, rage, or joy, we get a glimpse, a spark, a piece of something we recognize as genuine. Many guarded people see vulnerability as a weakness, as leaving themselves without defense and open to attack. I disagree.
What is often thought of as vulnerability is really strength. Sharing our deepest fears and regrets is a courageous and unifying act. Our vulnerabilities, not our strengths, connect us as human beings and help us to avoid the aloneness of never being known. Most of us have made discoveries about a dead loved one and wished we could have known this while they were alive. When I was going through my mother’s things, I discovered a box of poems she’d written. I was 29-years-old, had written poetry my entire life, and had no idea my mother wrote, too. I was stunned. And a bit hurt, as I thought I knew her better than anyone. Why hadn’t she shared them with me? I suspect she was afraid to be that vulnerable. But her fear was misplaced. It would have been a great gift and inspiration to me to hear those poems in her voice.
Readers of my blogs often comment or question the way I go deep into human emotions. They talk about the courage it takes to be vulnerable. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps vulnerable people are brave enough to be honest and true to both their hearts and their convictions. In this era of so many different modes of communication—Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—we select bits and pieces of ourselves for public exposure—more concerned with our presentation than with our true selves. And while I understand the necessity of a certain anonymity for public media, I can also see the inherent dangers in terms of self-knowledge.
Making any kind of art takes tenacity, a deep need to create, a belief you have something to say and, above all, the courage to say it. Perhaps all good art is an expression of vulnerability and suffering because of the way it opens the mind and heart to newness. For writers, making our characters vulnerable means we give them courage to show up and be seen. It is the most authentic state of being—this place where you are open to the darkness, the light, and all the shades and shadows in between. Being vulnerable allows you to write deeper, more emotional characters. How many times as writers have we gotten rejected by an agent or editor because, “I just couldn’t connect with your character.” Discover your most authentic self. Write about fear, pain, resentment and heartache—dig deep into your own emotions—and your prose characters will come alive. Readers will feel the connection.
One of the most effective ways for a writer to gain sympathy for a character is to expose his wounds. Vulnerability is the gateway to that exposure. Sharing deep fears and regrets can and does make us feel vulnerable, but it is an ultimately unifying act and will connect our fictional characters to our readers. When a person or a character is open, he begins to heal both himself and others. And so I challenge you to have the courage to be vulnerable in your lives, and in your writing. Go forth and be BRAVE.
This is the third in my series of blogs about poetry and the things in life that trigger poems in me. Our lives aren't always easy, most of us have been wounded, but I've also been blessed with two children who have grown to be loving, productive and insightful adults. This feels like the biggest "success" of my life. drawing a clipper ship together
A few weeks ago my daughter wrote a letter to her dead father and sent it to me. It was a profound message, both inspiring and heartbreaking. I didn't know how to respond--wasn't sure what, if anything, she needed from me. I concluded she merely wanted an audience for her feelings--an address to send her letter--a living parent who cared enough to read the words she needed to write. The dead are alive when we think of them. Her intimate sharing brought many feelings to the surface for me--both for my child, and for her father.
Like I always do when I don't fully understand something, I write about it. Because poetry, for me, is a way to say what I can't say in any other medium. I want to go deeper, go beyond the surface to the "real" meaning. Though my daughter's letter was written to her father, it was also a gift to me. My gift to her in return is my poem, "In Love's Crucible". Somehow, between the letter and the poem, I hope truth is revealed. Her father faced Alzheimer's Disease, faced the loss of his memories, his brain, his bodily functions and finally his life. He left a legacy of courage to his children and grandchildren. He showed us all what it really means to be a hero. We can still learn from the dead if we're willing to open our hearts and listen.
With her permission, I share parts of her letter, followed by the poem it triggered. I think it will be easy to see how and why this poem found its way to the page.
Today the index cards I made for the book I thought I could write about dementia, tucked in a corner of my bedside desk, literally flew at me. There was no wind. No reason. So bizarre. The room felt cold. I shivered as I picked them up. Out of the blue void. Defiance of physics. "Pop? Is that you?" I immediately thought you were there--telling me to keep writing.
I've been secretly waiting for a sign of you. Did it come today? You are gone. I can't call you or make you a breakfast burrito and put on Casablanca. I can't tell you about how the world has changed or listen to your thoughts about the many wars humans are still fighting. Everyday we lose more of your brave generation. The veterans of WWII. The survivors of the death camps. The nurses. The doctors. The philosophers and psychologists who said, "Yes!" to unconditional positive regard in the wake of such reckless hate.
I remember the day I read Viktor Frankl to you and you described the liberation of the American soldiers you witnessed in the Philippines. We talked for hours, trying to make sense of humanity and evil. You apologized for your anger toward the Japanese. You said you were wrong to react harshly to their presence when we went to the USS Arizona in Hawaii when I was ten. Mom looked at you and said, "They died here, too."
By the time you hit 85, you vowed to stop calling them "the Japs." You cried for the devastation at Hiroshima. You saw that all suffering is suffering. You struggled to release yourself from American tribal identity without sacrificing your patriotism and your love of freedom. You worked to transcend "us and them." I was your witness.
All those days and nights in hospitals. Your first hip fracture. They stood you up after surgery, one nurse on either side. Your bowels evacuated. It was automatic. You groaned in pain. The worst moment was when you noticed the feces. I immediately donned gloves and sang old Frankie Sinatra to you while cleaning.
Somehow, with the help of Sinatra, you managed to look at me and smile. You were so heroic, Dad--your courage and humor so much bigger than shame or fear. I believe you were laughing at the absurdity of it all. How could this happen to an accomplished and intelligent man like you? Together, we did the best we could. I think the nurses were shocked. God, we earned respect that day. Looking back, I know I did what I did because I couldn't bear for you to suffer shame on top of the theft of your mind and body.
I’m so sorry, Dad. I know you'd have rather been dancing in body and mind all the way to the end of your life. The last month in hospice was so hard on you. You were starving, but often would not eat. Oh my father, I could hear your stomach churning. I was scared. I did what I could. I read your favorite poems and Bible verses. I played the music you loved, held your head and put lotion on your withered hands and feet. I gave you water when you'd take it and at least made sure your lips were not too dry when you wouldn't. You could barely speak. I tried hard to hear the meaning of every subtle non-verbal cue.
I couldn't stop that horrible disease. I couldn't stop time. In a way, I wanted to go with you when you crossed over. I don't know what that means. But it's true. I am not who I thought I was. In the final moment, while you gasped the last breath, I said: "It's ok. You can go. I'll be ok. I love you. I'll always love you."
I was crying. My voice shook. I spoke, though. I did. And I'm so glad if you were hearing anything at all, it was those words. When a single cloudy tear slid out of your right eye and you were gone, I was seized by the impulse to stand and raise my arms above my head, just in case your soul was hovering there, free at last. Free at last! I wanted to celebrate it, just in case consciousness is more than we think we know. Then I heard your voice. You said: "Let's dance.
I wanted you back. I fought with you as a child. I fought for you as an adult. I've fought for others in the eighth decade too. I did it because of you. The walls we tore down. The walks we took. You with your flashlight; me with my questions. The many ways you caused and quelled my fears. When I was small, I didn't believe you loved me. I thought I wasn't smart enough for you. By the end, I knew you did. It's been a year, Dad, and I still hear you. I saved all of your voicemails.
It took seven years for Alzheimer's disease to destroy your brain. Every bit of sheer perseverance I mustered came from you. Every bit of spiritual guidance came from Mom.
I will always love you, Dad.
IN LOVE’S CRUCIBLE
On the first anniversary of his death
my daughter writes a letter to her father
and mails it to me. Winter whiteness fills
every room in my house. Silence hides
so much it is easy to forget and see only
beauty—a lone cardinal at the empty feeder.
This big loss behind her, so many still ahead.
One pine needle at a time, the world diminishes.
As a child, she fought hard with her father.
Now, she wants him back. Thanksgiving dinners.
long talks at the Cliff House. His wry laughter.
Always the Navy man, lectures on the Great War,
remorse at the vacation when she was ten
and he raged at tourists in Pearl Harbor as they snapped
photos of the USS Arizona. She alone witnessed
his late vow to stop calling them “Japs”.
His tears for Hiroshima. Alzheimer’s
taught him one man’s suffering belongs to every man,
and now even his repented sins are hers for good.
In a lucid moment, he looks up at her and says,
“I used to be smart.” She swallows the childhood fear
she wasn’t smart enough for his love, places her hand on
his chest, sharp closeness of ribs. “Do you still feel
love in here, Pop?” When he nods, she tells him
this is the only smart that matters.
My door, once frozen to him, opens at once to her grief.
I stand at the window and look at the dirt road that leads
to her childhood. Even as a baby, her face reflected every
season’s weather, happiness pink as dogwood blossoms.
Rage, a summer monsoon with hail and tornado winds blowing.
Later, when his walls collapse and hips fracture, she grows
wings of protection that flutter over him like moths in search
of his light. As disease takes his mind
and he forgets how to swallow,
she fights hard for him, sings Sinatra to fill
his heart with joy as she moistens lips with cotton balls, rubs
lotion into withered hands, reads poetry and Bible verses
while trying to catch each nonverbal cue.
When the end comes, she is still there, raising arms
in hopes his soul feels her presence
as it hovers in the reflective glow of a sun that lingers golden
on the sea’s surface, blinks, then slowly fades
and sinks below the horizon.
This is the second in my series of blogs about poems and how they came to be written. "When My Father Slipped into his Death" was written after my dad, a man from whom I was too often estranged, completed his very difficult life. He was buried on my 50th birthday. At the time of his death, he'd been a widower for twenty years. I lived in Oregon. My father lived in Delaware. He visited us for a couple weeks every year and I talked to him on Sundays.
As my father got older and less involved with other people, my husband, whose own father had already died, thought I should call Dad more often. I told him once a week was enough for me. And so, my kind-hearted husband called my father every morning. I'm ashamed to admit this wasn't something I was willing to do, but I was grateful to Andy. And it made me feel better to know someone was checking in with Dad on a daily basis. They didn't talk long, but it seemed my father looked forward to Andy's calls and waited close to the phone at 8 a.m. When he didn't answer one January morning, Andy called my brother, who lived about 5 miles away from Dad, and asked him to check. My brother found our father dead.
When I got the news I was leveled. This reaction shocked me. My father was a wall I'd been pushing against my entire life. Without him, I felt as if I had nothing to keep me upright. I was no longer sure who I was in a life that no longer included him.
Looking back, I guess I thought there'd be time for Dad and me to work through all the pain of his alcoholism and abuse. Time for him to tell me he loved me and was proud of the woman I'd become. Time for me to love him better. But time had run out for my father and me.
I regret holding on to my anger. I regret not loving my father more when I had the chance. I regret not taking enough time to listen to him--to learn some of the things I learned after his death. He was a difficult man. But I've come to know and understand so much more about him. This poem was written shortly after his funeral. And it opened my eyes to something I'd long denied. I loved my father all along. I was just too angry, hurt and proud to admit it. Now, he haunts me more than any other person I've lost. Writing poetry about him allows me to find him again. To see his life through a wide-angled lens and not the telephoto of my childhood.
When we cleaned out my father's house, I took one of the orthopedic shoes he'd worn since the grenade blew up in his hand during WWII. For me, this shoe represented his tenacity. The way he fought hard to keep his leg and to learn to walk again with the help of a brace.
I had the shoe bronzed and laced it with the same purple shoelaces I refer to in the poem. It sits on a shelf near my computer in my writing room. Every time I get a rejection letter or feel discouraged by the many setbacks we face as writers, I look at that shoe and think about the discouragement he must have felt when the doctors told him he'd never walk again. I think about the way he kept trying--never gave up. This is the precious gift my father gave to me. Do I wish I could talk to him again? Yes. Would I call him every morning if I had another opportunity? I'd sure like to think I would.
When My Father Slipped into His Death
When my father slipped into his death,
the fingers of his good hand clenched
a fist at his chest. As if caught
in the unlit swell, opening like the mouth
of a river, he protested, struggled to stay ashore
wrapped inside the dry logic of himself,
where survival was the only parable,
certain enough for belief.
Through the dusty mauve curtains,
morning splashes, clear and carmine,
staining the sun-starved skin with color
like the insides of a sea bass.
Near the foot of the bed, I expect fear,
but the face and hands are too familiar.
In a rush of lost affection, I uncurl
his fingers, pet a ruffled arch of brow,
the bead of shrapnel embedded
in the rise of his cheek.
He wears only one shoe,
laced with a radiant magenta bow,
shimmering and elusive,
as the dorsal fin of a blue fish.
I laugh out loud, wiggle the still-tied shoe
from his stiffened foot. A black orthopedic
worn for more than fifty years.
Two holes the size of dimes dot the heel,
receptacles for the long steel
brace that buckled onto his rotting leg,
inflexible from ankle to thigh.
Those first tenuous steps into
whatever remained after the grenade.
I cradle his shoe against my check
and the years of rage, too hot to touch,
cool at once into this mourning.
The narrow canal of our long silence opens,
a giant body of water, big enough
for a man and his child to disappear.
One of my writing friends suggested I write blogs featuring my poems and what triggered them. I've decided to start the new year by doing just that. Today I'm going to share a poem I wrote when my daughter was fourteen. It was triggered by a visit we made to a prison where the former president of her high school senior class was incarcerated. She was adamant in her desire to visit him. Being her mother, I was uncertain about allowing her to go inside an adult prison.
Being a persistent teenager, she eventually broke open my fear and made me realize what she wanted to do was a noble thing. Her caring for this 18-year-old boy was genuine. He'd been one of her brother's best friends--her brother had managed this boy's campaign for senior president. She knew him well. And she wasn't about to abandon him because he'd made a stupid mistake. I knew her compassion was real and right. So I took her to visit him.
As we were leaving the prison, walking across the asphalt parking lot, I had the clear, and somewhat painful, realization that she was not a little girl any longer. She was transforming into a woman--taking a giant step that day. My hand did reach out to touch her face. And I knew, at that very moment, I would write a poem about this day, this transformation, this amazing child/woman who'd been entrusted to my care. And so I went back in time and recaptured the many ways in which my daughter was destined to "catch the light."
Catching the Light
At six, my daughter believed stars
could punch holes through the darkness.
For that fleeting second
when each new light stood still
she'd leap to catch it--
hold it briefly in the palms of her hands.
Two years later, the sky starless
and arranging itself for rain,
she held a shoebox coffin
lined with maple leaves,
air holes dotting the lid.
I remember the sound as it hit the earth
and the Siamese kitten shifted its weight--
settled into leaving.
Unwilling to cover it with dirt,
she held the small shovel
like a crutch beneath her arm.
Today, she visits a friend in prison.
"Thank you for bringing her,"
he mouths above an offered hand
she cannot take,
matching it to her own
pressed flat as a moth against the clear plastic wall.
Leaving, she pauses in front of the windows
and I feel her heart lift itself up.
She watches his fingers flutter--
catch her fading light--
through the narrow bars.
Somehow strange to me now,
neither child nor woman,
my hand reaches out to touch her face.
This slow and painful rise into herself,
pure and fleeting as starlight.
It's a strange and beautiful thing to look back on the lives of my children--the ones I believed were mine to teach--and discover just how much they've taught me. Not surprisingly, my daughter started her own business, providing mediation, training and counseling services for caregivers and families of patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimers' Disease. She calls it, "Shine Your Light."
With Thanksgiving only one day behind us, and in the wake of the tragedy in Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude as the affirmation of goodness and how important it is we acknowledge there are good things in the world—things that are sometimes intangible gifts, but they still benefit us in many ways.
Robert Emmons, a scientific expert on gratitude says, “We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…we acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Individual goodness is measured by what we embrace, what we create and who we include. By practicing gratitude we strengthen our relationships and feel closer and more committed to others. Gratitude promotes forgiveness. Studies have shown that gratitude even lowers your levels of stress hormones.
Most of us feel grateful when good things happen in our lives, but we don't put as much emphasis on daily thankfulness as we could. Thanksgiving is about gratitude and unlike most other holidays there is nothing commercial about it. Families and friends gather for a good meal and to express their love and thanks. Many volunteer to work in soup kitchen and donate dinners to the poor. But it is only one day. Every day provides us with a chance to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.
So often we gloss over the little happinesses and glimpses of beauty. Slow down and take a moment to savor them. Watch how the light filters through the pine branches or reflects off the snow. Stand at the edge of the ocean and prepare to be astonished. If we spend more time counting blessings and considering our own mortality, gratitude will become an active part of our lives. And if we choose a path of gratefulness, happiness will follow. Gratitude will turn what we have into more than enough.
Today, I make a resolution to adopt a philosophy of gratitude and stay aware of how I’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. I plan to keep a gratitude journal, recording at least three things for which I’m grateful every day. In doing this, I hope to live in a way that makes me worthy to receive the many gifts this life has offered me. May you experience happiness. May you bring light to someone else's life. May you live in joy. And may you allow yourself to feel gratitude and to multiply that feeling by sharing it with those around you.
Dear 17-year-old me,
First of all, you are every bit as good as that wealthy DuPont boy who didn’t ask you out on a second date after he saw where you lived. You don’t know it now, but you are so much better off without him. I want you to know you are beautiful. You are not fat, an occasional pimple does not make you repulsive, and your butt is not too big. Ride in that convertible and let your hair go where the breeze blows it. Most of all, don't ever underestimate your worth. Dream big. And remember you'll never know if you can succeed, if you don't try.
I know you are devastated over the breakup with your first love. Don’t let anyone make you believe your feelings for each other weren’t real. I’ll tell you a secret: In later life, you will become friends and be the one person he wants to talk to before the brain tumor takes his life. You will make a quilt in his memory for the grandchild he didn’t live long enough to see. That cosmic wrong will be righted in a way that will open your heart and make it sing.
You will make mistakes with men you choose to love. They will hurt and humiliate you. And you will behave in ways you never dreamed you would. You will do some things you are ashamed of. Most of us do shameful things at one time or another in our lives. Be kind to yourself. And don’t let your hurt turn to bitterness or your shame darken the rest of your days.
When love beckons again, follow it even if you’re afraid of where it is taking you. Don’t hold grudges. Forgiveness is an amazing gift to the person who wronged you, but more importantly it's a gift to you. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. But do take time to reflect, to be grateful for the good and learn from the things that weren’t. Always make your mistakes on the side of love.
Explore the world's religions until you find a spiritual path that feels right. If that path leads you to love and goodness, it will also lead you to God. So stay on it.
Take the time to talk and listen to your parents. Ask them questions about their lives, about the past and their place in it. Once they are gone, there will be no one left to answer.
Love your mother with all your heart. She is the earth from which you sprang. Write her long letters and visit her as often as you can. There will never be anyone else in your life who knows and cares about you the way she does. She is your greatest advocate, your biggest fan, and the one who will pick up the pieces and put you back together when you fall apart. Trust me on this. Your mom will be taken away much sooner than you know. She is so wise in matters of love, life and forgiveness. When you hear her singing hymns in the garden, stop and listen. You will never hear anything quite so beautiful after she is gone.
Spend as much time as you can with your little brother, Jerry. He is fourteen years younger than you and will lose his mother at a vulnerable time. Don’t give up on him, no matter how much he acts out or how much advice you get from others to exercise “tough love”. Later, when you loose him in that hit-and-run accident, tough love will mean nothing and you will never fully forgive yourself for letting him go before you had to.
Forgive your father. Your teenage angst may tell you that you hate him, but you don’t. Realize that WWII grenade that exploded before you were even conceived took more than his flesh and bones. Though no one knows it yet, he is suffering from PTSD that has led to his alcohol abuse. He was orphaned at 6 years old and had no role models for parenting. One day he will tell you his story and it will break your heart. Open that heart to him now. Don’t waste any more time.
After your mother dies, and he doesn’t behave the way you think he should, hug him. His grief is as real as yours. Your mother was his first love, and though he will live another 20 years after her death, he will never love another or get over losing her. Your children will call him Pop Pop and he will love them in ways he was never able to love you. You will swallow back tears as you watch him paint your daughter's toenails or wave his crutch from the sidelines when your son scores a soccer goal. He will one day tell them you were the best thing that ever happened to him.
Make strong connections with women of all ages. These friendships become more important as you grow older. Love and celebrate them. Life didn’t provide you with birth sisters, but you can choose your own. Hold on to your best friends from high school and college, even if your life takes you miles away from them. But don’t be afraid to let go when you no longer feel the connection. Some friends are for a lifetime--others may only be for a short while. Our time here is limited. Letting former friends go does not negate what you had when you had it. There is nothing more important than how you treat your fellow inhabitants of this planet. Be kind to people and animals. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be of service to those in need.
Take as many writing classes as you can, read how to books, attend conferences and make friends with other writers. Practice your writing every day. The need you already have to capture life in words is going to grow. You don’t know this yet, but writing will save you. It will lift you out of your grief, help heal the holes in your heart left by the early deaths of your mother and three brothers. It will teach you all you need to know about yourself and the world around you. Though you will hold other jobs and even climb a few rungs up the corporate ladder, writing will be the most rewarding work of your life.
Rejoice in your children and all they will teach you about unconditional love. Take every opportunity to spend time with them. Housework doesn’t matter. Drop the dust cloth and pick up the crayons. Tell them stories. Encourage them to tell and write their own. The years pass quickly and their childhoods will be over before you know it. In what seems like the blink of an eye, they’ll turn into kind, productive and responsible adults. They will surprise and delight you—go on to do amazing things of their own. And perhaps most astounding will be the grandchildren you’ll love more than you can possibly imagine now.
Be grateful for every day you are alive. We all experience loss and disappointment. All life is impermanent. But, trust me, you will have enormous happiness as well. You will travel to places you never dreamed you’d go. You’ll live in the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the foothills of the Sonoran Desert and the mountains of Southern Oregon. You’ll retire early and spend a decade living on an Arabian horse ranch where you’ll be free to write poetry and fiction.
Finally, seventeen-year-old me, be brave and embrace everything life offers you. In the end, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than you’ll regret the things you did. I can promise you this: while your life won’t always be easy, you will find joy and a love that finally lasts.
from a much older (and hopefully wiser) you.
I suspect most writers experience self-doubt. We look in the mirror and ask: Why am I spending so much time in front of the computer? Do my efforts have value? What am I taking away from my family and friends in this pursuit of the writing dream? These doubts may be especially common for writers who haven’t sold manuscripts or don’t have an agent.
I’ve spent the last week on the Florida Panhandle in Destin. I haven’t written (until this morning, the last day of our week here) but I have thought about writing a great deal. Last night, after having seafood at Dewey Destin, a restaurant that is little more than a shack on a wharf jetting out into the Gulf of Mexico, we walked to the edge of the pier. The sun was about to set. As we stood watching it sink into the bright orange horizon, two dolphins appeared. Facing each other, they leaped out of the water and flipped over—again and again. Their performance was timed as perfectly as anything I’d ever seen at Sea World. There was no reward of fish at the end of their display, no cheers from the bleachers. Nothing to indicate anyone was watching. Those dolphins were merely doing what came naturally to them—doing what they loved for no reason except the pure joy of it.
I think we writers can take a lesson from those human-like creatures. If you love to write, if you need to write, don’t worry about the rewards. The exterior ones may or may not come. The internal rewards are there and we reap them with every story, essay, journal entry, or poem we write. Each new word is an act of discovery. And perhaps one of the most important things in life is a clear understanding of who you are.
So this is the lesson of the dolphins. First and foremost, do it for the joy. Write because it is in your nature to do so.
I’ve often said I don’t know how I feel about something until I explore the experience in writing. This was never truer than when I visited the Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland. Like most of us, I learned of the Great Irish Potato Famine in a high school history class. But I had no idea how moved I would be to see those seven bronze statues rise out of the cobblestones beside the Liffey River.
I also toured the nearby Jeanie Jackson (one of the coffin ships used to transport the starving immigrants to Canada and America) and learned so much more about the famine and the plight of those immigrants. They were called "coffin ships" because nearly half of the immigrants died before arriving at their destination. Ireland lost one-third of its population in the mid eighteen hundreds due to starvation and immigration. After touring the ship, I returned to the nearby Memorial.
Both moved and ashamed, it was all I could do to keep my composure. This time, the futures of the individuals those statues represented spread out and came to life in front of me. I wanted to believe everything they ever were was still here in the immeasurable mystery of time and space. I wanted to believe I could grasp the details of their lives, feel what they felt. But I knew it was impossible. Still, I needed a way to understand more fully—to tell their stories. Those feelings didn’t release their hold on me until I wrote the following poem.
This I Can Only Imagine
At the Famine Memorial in Dublin
Together six bronze statues rise, alone,
like pawns on a chessboard of cobblestones.
Tattered and barefoot, they clutch bulging bags
to their chests: a crocheted blanket that once
wrapped an infant daughter,
love poems from a dead wife,
work boots for a new life in America.
A dazed father struggles to keep pace,
mouth frozen in a silent scream.
An unconscious child flops over
this father’s shoulders like a sack of potatoes.
The emaciated family dog
trails his master toward the harbor,
only to be left behind.
For two seasons, men and women,
like these, harvested blighted potatoes,
too black and mushy for consumption,
carried wicker peat baskets from the bogs for heat.
They sold their last pigs and chickens to pay rent
and planted again, praying for a good harvest.
Winter came—colder than any before.
While their spouses and children died of famine fever,
they collected broth from Quaker soup kitchens
until demands couldn't be met and they closed.
Landlords, silos filled with grain for export to England,
evicted the potato farmers--
leveled their thatched-roof cottages.
Burdened with dreams, they boarded “coffin ships”
by the thousands, in search of refuge in America.
For forty-seven days, each time an Atlantic wave hit,
their ships creaked and leaned.
On deck, they breathed fresh air, but when storms came
and sea water sloshed onto the deck,
they were forced into the hold, ate stale biscuits,
drank tainted water and slept, ten to a bunk--
the smell of vomit and diarrhea.
More than half died and were thrown overboard.
No Statue of Liberty lifted her torch in this new country
that did nothing but exploit and mock,
house them in tenements and post
“No Irish Need Apply”
in shop windows and factory gates.
Would it have mattered,
comforted them to have known,
the great-grandson of a potato famine immigrant
would one day be elected President?
In the Memorial’s forefront, the statue of a woman,
hands over her heart, gazes
into the cloud-streaked sky as if beseeching
a God in whom she can no longer believe.
Beside her, the River Liffey splits
Dublin into north and south.
As their voices rise up from the harbor,
the sky gives way to a gentle rain that falls,
like a blessing, on their bronze feet.
My mentor and fiction-writing coach, James N. Frey, says in a good story the ending is often implicit in the beginning. And there is something immensely rewarding about this circle where characters come back to the place they began—changed by the events of the novel.
This has proven true in life. I have been changed by events of the last month. Many of you have been following the journey my family took this Christmas. My children’s father died last Tuesday, January 20th. While he’d lived a good life and was ready, it was still difficult to let him go.
A few days ago, my daughter asked me to find a photo of the first time her father had held her. She wanted to put it beside the last time she’d held him. I was profoundly struck by this desire. I knew how important it was to her and I knew the photo existed. I went through twenty years of albums, but didn’t find it. I eventually discovered it in a scrapbook where I’d placed cards and letters from friends and family welcoming Bonnie into the world. Next to the photo, printed in her dad’s very neat script, was the following journal. He’d written it at midnight on the day she was born.
Within the hour May 5th 1973 will recede into history along with all of its predecessors. To some it must have been an ordinary day that won’t be missed in the mélange of life. To me however, it was the day on which something unforgettable happened to me: Let it be herewith recorded for history and posterity that on this day I, John Wesley Clayton Jr., saw Bonnie Elizabeth Clayton, my daughter born. I actually stood by the side of my wife and saw Bonnie emerge from her body.
To describe this event is to attempt to describe the indescribable. I don’t mean that the functional or anatomic components of the birth of my daughter could not easily be described as indeed these events have been in the medical texts on obstetrics. I intend something far different from the biological event. I’m referring to that overwhelming unity that I had with my wife. Something unique in the universe happened to us when Bonnie was born. It was as if I felt a part of her as I never before felt. We held each other’s hands during those final contractions. When I saw that God had given us a baby girl and then told this to my wife, a sensation of warmth and joy poured through me. We both shed tears of joy and in so doing experienced the ultimate in sharing. We were truly one in this act of love. When Bonnie was born, the love we shared was reborn. The nurses and physician present realized something new had occurred because they were happy too. But they will never, never comprehend what transpired between the two of us. It was truly a renewal.
Tonight, in the hospital we reviewed the sequence of events that had occurred on this historical day. We recalled the details of labor and delivery—stopwatch in hand! After Bonnie was born (officially 12:23 a.m.) and her mother was taken to the recovery room, I followed. We embraced, and she said that I had now given her everything. I had known that she had wanted a daughter because she wanted to know that special kind of relationship that exists between mothers and their daughters. Neither of us spoke of this wish because we would have welcomed a second son into our family. But this baby—this Bonnie Elizabeth Clayton—received a welcome into our hearts as no other child before born of woman ever received. Thank you God for this new life and the love that gave it birth.
As beautiful as those moments and others in our life were, our family didn’t stay together. John and I separated when David was 14 and Bonnie 12. They were sad and difficult days, but somehow we managed to get through them and actually became friends—good friends.
This Christmas I saw John for the last time. Many of you know this because of my blogs and entries on Facebook. I thought I’d said it all. But there was something that happened in the hospital I didn’t mention in my previous entries. My son, David, had taken a break to get some fresh air. Bonnie and I remained in the hospital room with their father. She sat on one side of his bed, I on the other. I was holding his hand while she talked to him, smiled her radiant smile, and later read that amazing passage about love from I Corinthians .
As i watched her tenderness toward him, I had an overwhelming love for those two other human beings in the room with me. I didn't see the skeletal old man with a missing tooth, I saw the man who’d held my hand through my contractions during the birth of our incredible daughter. I saw the man who’d “given me everything” when he gave me Bonnie. We already had a son that we loved with all our hearts. I wanted a girl. I had a great relationship with my own mother after whom we'd named our daughter. My mother died three years after Bonnie was born. I sometimes think of them as the bookends holding up my life.
And so, when I found the journal John had written 41 years ago, I thought about what Jim Frey said about beginnings and endings. I thought about how lucky I am to be a writer--to be able to think through my words and have epiphanies about what really matters in our lives. I learn things about life and myself I may not have otherwise realized. As I held John’s old and withered hand, it was hard to know where I ended and he became. We were one again. The three of us in another hospital room more than two thousand miles away from that first one. Bonnie was no longer an infant—she was a bright star in the dark sky of that dying room. She radiated with love for the man who’d fathered her. She ushered him out of this life with the same intense love with which he had ushered her in.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
From Essential Rumi
For me, as I suspect is true for many writers, I need to write about powerful experiences before I can fully comprehend them. This Christmas my son and his family from Chicago rented a house In La Jolla and we travelled down from Oregon to spend Christmas together. My daughter lives in San Diego. The day before we arrived, their father, my ex-husband of almost 30 years, was admitted to the hospital. He has been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years.
December 20, 2014 – I am in the hospital in La Jolla with my two kids and their dad who is near death. He has pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. He can’t eat or drink anything without aspirating it. And he can't cough. So he is receiving no nourishment. He looks as if he weighs about 80 pounds. His directive indicates he does not want a feeding tube, so I suspect he will die while we are here or shortly after we leave.
When I stood over John's bed, he was awake and his face broke out in a big smile when he saw me. He was having a lucid day and he knew exactly who I was. It was clear he wanted to say something to me, but his voice was barely more than a whisper. I put my face very close to his and he said, "I'm sorry." It was heartbreaking, but beautiful and sincere. I told him I was sorry, too. I told him it was okay.
After the divorce, we made a big effort to stay friendly, to share holidays so the children didn't have to choose between their parents. I'm not saying there weren't rough times, there were, but something fundamentally strong and good remained between us.
December 25, 2014
This turn of events certainly changed the face of Christmas. But not in the way one would expect. In many ways, it was the best Christmas ever. John gave us the kind of gifts that matter. The ones you don't have to unwrap or open. He gave us moments of lucidity, laughter, forgiveness, reunion, memories, and his profound courage as he fought to hang on a little longer. Our family was reunited in this final act of love.
It will be with heavy hearts that David and I leave La Jolla tomorrow, but we are comforted by Hospice and the enormous support and relief they have already provided to Bonnie. She has worked hard and long on her father's behalf. He could not have had a better advocate or daughter. My heart is bursting with pride for these two remarkable adults our children have become.
It is hard to see my grown children crying as they so tenderly care for him. They read to him from I Corinthians. As I watch them, I see such love on their faces. I suppose no one can ask for more than to be surrounded by the people who love you as you pass over. At first I thought I'd be really uncomfortable here--what is my role? John and I divorced nearly 30 years ago. And yet what I see is that love doesn't die. You can get pretty angry with someone, but if you ever loved, you always will.
There has never been a time in my life when I've been more proud of Bonnie and Dave as they watch over their dad as he passes from this life into the next. Today, they read to him again from I Corinthians—such an incredibly beautiful passage about what it really means to love—and before we left, they stood together at his bedside singing acapella every verse of Amazing Grace--one of John's favorites. The halls in the hospital quieted as others stopped to listen. All I could do was stand beside them with tears streaming down my face. What a testament to the power of love. I have been blessed with incredible children and how could I not continue to love, on some level, the man who made them with me.
December 26, 2014
This morning my son and I visited the assisted care facility to say goodbye to his dad. We both knew we wouldn't see him alive in this life again. He looked so small, still, and weak. Hospice has taken over his care and no extraordinary measures are being given to keep him alive. He is fed only if he asks for food. I stood by his bedside for a moment, touched his cheek and kissed him on the forehead, whispered, "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places." His eyes fluttered, but didn't open. I stepped back and our son moved into my spot.
When David spoke, his father opened his eyes and said, "Davey, I'm trapped in this cage," then shut his eyes again. Dave and I spent a few moments crying in each other’s arms. I told him he'd been a wonderful son and that his father had been proud of him his entire life. I told him that I saw his father when I watched David be daddy to his own small children.
And then we left the room, closed the door and walked out to the car. There were no more words.
As Rumi said, "The world was too full to talk about."