Finding Dignity in South Dakota

DSCN0721I like road trips. They falsely make me believe that time is suspended as I indulge in music, thinking, and one-sided conversations, which can be both enjoyable and distressing.

I left Omaha in the early morning and drove 4.5 hours north, then west, to find a piece of public art.

I expected her to be housed in a more ceremonious fashion, however she is located at a rest area, which now, after visiting, makes sense. I think of rest areas as places where people get syphilis rather than as a place to view public art.

This piece is called, Dignity, and she is striking. Her height and the medium, metal reflects the hot sunshine – at midday can be blinding. She stands over a tall bluff that I was unable to shoot well because of the thick haze from the blazing fires in Montana. She is 50 feet tall and all kinds of different people were gathered around her, shielding their eyes as they looked toward the sky – Asian, Caucasian, Native American, taking selfies and family photos with cell phones and expensive cameras.

The Missouri River as it flows past Omaha, is not an attractive river. It is brown and narrow and one imagines bodies and poop intermingled in the twigs in rotting bird carcasses but further north, in the Dakota’s the Missouri is blue and wide. I often forget that the Missouri River is a dramatic, beautiful river when it isn’t overly trafficked and dammed.

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Chamberlain, South Dakota, was the closest town and thus I went exploring. In Chamberlain, the Akta Lakota Museum seemed worth a visit given the history of the Lakota in the area. The town is small so navigating was easy.

Pulling into what looked like multi-use property, visitors are greeted by a large bronze statue of Jesus cradling a Native American child. The multi-use property houses the St. Josephs Indian School, which was founded in 1927 by Fr. Leo John Dehon, a French Catholic Priest. This was not the experience I had wanted nor the one that I had hoped for and the museum experience was a distilled down version of Native American history leaving out wide swaths of history including genocide and Lakota leaders – giving them nothing more than an asterisk or a footnote – leaving me angry and sweaty.  The Museum website  highlights familiar Lakota Chiefs like Sitting Bull but the Museum was filled with trite and familiar narratives like, “Indians use every part of the buffalo to make…..”. The Museum and I got off on a wrong foot when I was greeted by bronze Jesus.

The thick haze, mid-90’s heat, disparate poverty, and bronze Jesus,  left me leaving Dignity and driving south towards Omaha in the late afternoon.  I did not know how far I would drive as, even for me, driving nine hours in one day is a bit much – especially drinking roadside coffee but off I went.

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About the time my iPod sounded tired and my podcasts were exhausted; my Triscut box emptied and I had to pee I approached a small city with a motel that had air conditioning, crisp sheets, cable television, a bathtub and a Starbucks. No matter what motel, no matter where one is in the world, Law & Order can be found looping on at least one cable channel and nothing can lull me to sleep faster than 2.5 episodes of Law & Order. I slept for nearly 12 hours.

There is something wonderful about the dream of suspended time. In that motel, there was no work to be done, no fathers to care after, no groceries to be bought, no doctor’s appointments, no cleaning to be done, no physical therapy appointments, and no fear about what the future holds. It was a simple, plainly decorated, uncomplicated dark, cool room with crisp white sheets looping the reliable Dick Wolf franchise.

When I pulled into Carpenter Street, I did a little research about the St. Josephs Indian School and the first article that popped was titled, “U.S. Indian school’s fundraising letters sent to millions signed by fictitious kids”.  I call this, poverty fundraising. The school sent thousands of fundraising letters to people using fictitious kid’s names and stories.  The kid’s name in the fundraising letters: Josh Little Bear. Of course it was…..

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Dignity (a.k.a. Dignity of Earth & Sky) is a sculpture on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near Chamberlain, South Dakota. The 50-foot high stainless steel statue, by South Dakota artist laureate Dale Lamphere, depicts an Indigenous woman in Plains-style dress receiving a star quilt. According to Lamphere, the sculpture honors the culture of the Lakota and Dakota peoples who are indigenous to South Dakota. Assisting Lamphere were sculptors Jim Maher, Andy Roltgen, and Grant Standard. Automotive paint expert Brook Loobey assisted with the colors for the quilt, and Albertson Engineering of Rapid City, SD ensured the sculpture would endure the strong winds common in the area. (Wikipedia)

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Not Enough

Taking care of a person is arduous, rarely fulfilling, work. Today, I called Eastern Nebraska Office on the Aging, to schedule transportation to 10 unique chemotherapy appointments. This scheduling demanded at least three back-and-forth messages and one hour spent on the phone. I also had five meetings. I then called the hospital to schedule the chemotherapy appointments. This took numerous calls. Then, I realized the first appointment was scheduled for the eclipse and I really, really wanted to take that day off because I bought a second tri-pod and a second camera with a wide angle lens and studied how to shoot an eclipse. I sat in front of my computer screen for 45 minutes wondering if I should cancel my plans to shoot the eclipse….then, I just cried because caring for a person is hard.

This is not whining.

Writing about care giving triggers people to rain compliments on you but that is not the intent for this topic; the intent is to find a place, an outlet for the myriad crashing emotions bashing against the sides of my skull.

My friend said, “I wish there was something he could do or say to you so you felt appreciated. So you did not have to dig so deep internally to remind yourself why you are staying in Omaha, Nebraska to help a person who, by all accounts, gave little to your life.”

I have made a choice to assist a person into their final phase of life. This is messy. Emotional. It is usually ugly and lonely, too. I sometimes weep as I wish we had shared fun or generous memories with which to plant him as if some kind historical context would give me the peace of mind I think I crave. I do not have that luxury. There are few pleasant memories. There is little, if no, joy. His history with us is spotty and rife with crushing disappointment. There were fits and starts, promises broken and unflinching disappointment. There does not exist a today and yesterday comparison that looks like, “Well, when I was ten years old he really showed up and I just have to remember that…..” I want to root him in a garden of the past that is lush with beautiful daisies. As much as I know, unequivocally, that relationships are not logical, linear nor do they make one damn bit of sense my brain struggles to put this relationship in a context where I struggle less and feel better more.

To the topic at hand, there will likely never be a way for him to thank me in a way that justifies my choice to stay in Omaha, Nebraska and live where we live – in the house with the broken garage door.  This choice to stay here is deeply personal; one which defies logic and he will never be able to reach it. No words. No moments of redemption. No gesture will ever fill that space and knowing this, offers freedom. I think of my friends who have been exemplary parents. There will likely never be enough authentic loving gestures expressed on Mother’s Day, Christmas or birthdays to ever to really equate to the energy and sacrifice it took to raise their children. Knowing there are no redemptive gestures opens a door, which lets frustration drift out like a patch of thick fog wisping gracefully out into the ocean.

I often do not understand the choice. Questions go through my mind and out of my mouth, “Why do we help people who don’t deserve help?” I easily help a child in Cambodia and need nothing in return and moving to and living in Cambodia and Africa were choices born of sacrifice; but, nothing will ever amount to this choice because, for the most part, I do not like him and it is easy to give to people with whom you do not know. The hardest people to like are the people we know.

There are moments of liking, moments of connecting, and there has been remarkable moments of forgiveness  and understanding that has happened in a matter of months, yes, only months. The frustration smothers these moments but I cannot leave. I cannot pack up and leave him. Why is the most interesting question of all. Why remain anchored, here?

Most connections defy logic and any question beginning with the word WHY suggests the anxious grasp for a logical response and immediate peace of mind. Our minds spend their time in the struggle between logic and unreasonableness and that straddle breaks us unless we find a way to live in the middle of the fence between the knowing and unknowing, free of expectations of redemption.

There likely will never be an experience in my life that compares to this – where giving is giving – just giving. In many ways, it is an extension of time spent in Africa and Cambodia but brought to a new, harder, stranger, scarier depth.

Giving reaches its ultimate depth when it is scary, hard, unexplained and unreasonable.

My Father’s Tulips

 

                                                                                                     FOR two weeks this spring, tulips popped their small, delightful heads out of the soil in my father’s garden and they graced our lives with color, conversation, and beauty.

My father’s tiny, unkempt garden of possibly five tulip plants revealed my father’s passion for flowers and I could not have known this had I not been brought back into his life, and I felt glad to be exactly where I was the moment this softness came to the surface.

Knowing a person’s softness makes grief harder, more complicated, more beautiful.

A man who typically limits his conversation topics to politics and football revealed a quiet, yet fierce, passion for his flowers and the safety of his tulips caused a bit of a resentment in our row of three condos.

A neighbor, with good intention, put up a basketball hoop for the neighbor’s kids and my father thought this hoop in too close proximity to his flowers and this bothered him so much that he would not invite said neighbor over to do some light handyman work in the condo.  When he told me about the basketball hoop, his body language changed, his eyes lit with passion, and he described his anger at the newly placed basketball hoop, saying, “Maybe I should put up a spiked fence to protect my tulips.” And then, one afternoon while my father was sitting in his chair in the driveway, soaking up the afternoon sunshine, reading the newspaper and enjoying his tulips, he noticed a bird built a fragile nest in a rather precarious spot right behind the basketball hoop. My father, the non-confrontational, even passive man I have known my entire life knocked on the neighbor’s door to make her aware of the nest so her sons would not harm the bird’s nest while playing basketball.

And now, it is not even May and the tulips are gone. They lasted just a few short weeks.  Yet, during the tulips short visit to our lives, my father would say to me, “Come outside and see the flowers, they are something.”

Now, when we pull out of the driveway we talk about how unfortunate it is that tulips last but a few weeks and how we wish they could last longer.

Often our notions of beauty are joined with notions of longevity; yet, I find myself measuring the beauty of those couple of weeks of tulips not by how long they were pleasing to us but by the way they came in and out of our lives so quickly and abruptly that my dad and I will often pause and draw upon our memories and our stories as we search for ways to appreciate their beauty, even in their absence.

The tulips in my father’s shaggy, unkempt garden created a deeper narrative in our relationship and next season when the tulips come again, my father will be gone.

 

 

This Isn’t What We Wanted

Yankee Stadium. Nebraska native, Joba Chamberlin was on the mound that night. Dad came to New York to watch my triathlon. We went out to the Hamptons for my tri, ate black-and-white cookies while we walked around the Village; he ate Indian food for the first time and Cara, Jen and I stayed up all night drinking wine, laughing and talking while he slept in the other room.

My father has six months to one year of life left inside of his body.  It started with colon cancer advanced to colon and liver cancer and now it is colon, liver and lung cancer.

To know that someone is dying soon is odd information to hold. He is reasonably cognizant and mobile so his death is looming with elusive inevitability. Death should be like checking out a book at the library – a due date.

We have frank conversations.  We have personal conversations.  We sit stiffly at his breakfast table sipping coffee while talking intimately and this intimacy between us feels like two foreigners trying to negotiate a transaction in two distinct languages. Our exchanges remind me of a time when my friend Jen and I were driving around Portugal. We were pulled over by a policeman and ticketed for some mysterious traffic infraction. The policeman spoke Portuguese, Jen spoke Spanish, I gestured. The exchange was awkward, scary, and tense; but for the remainder of the trip, we laughed heartily about the abusurd scene.

My dad and I were never close like the fathers and daughters of my envy.  I translated his sensitivity for humanity to mean that he had an ability to show sensitivity toward his children and I wanted him to be different or better or closer or more available.  I wanted intimacy and he did not have this to offer and it made no sense to me and, for most of my life, I could not accept his physical and emotional distance. Looking back at our lives, I doubt he understood it either.  We were jointly perplexed by our desire for closeness and our inability to create it.

If people are unhappily married, they can leave the marriage and seek out a new partner; if a friendship is unhealthy or miserable, people can leave the friendship and seek out new companions; but we cannot trade in our father for a new father or a mother for a new mother. The opportunity to understand these complex relationships is finite. These relationships that define our very existence can be marked by infinite limitations and frustrations.

I believe when my father married, at a very young age and when he quickly had children he wanted with everything available to him to be a good father and a good husband.  Even after he got and remained sober for the rest of his life, I believe he recommitted to these hopes with renewed vigor. For reasons I doubt he understands, my father could not consistently show love or show up. He moved in and out of our lives according to his needs and this jarring movement left a gaping hole in his four children’s hearts and lives.

Yet, as I have spent most of my life processing the absurdly selfish man to whom I owe life, when life nears closer to the end, there can be a natural softening between people. When I open up the boxes in my mind, which hold a lifetime of tears and frustration I am also reminded of his uniqueness.  He was a terrific reader and superb critical thinker.  A bit artsy my father, curious and sensitive. He tells a story of him as a child skipping school only to spend the day lying on the ground behind his father’s barn staring at clouds. I find a connection with him through this story because when I was a child I often lost myself in an afternoon of making pictures out of fluffy white clouds.

As we drive home from his doctor’s appointments, we discuss our shared love of satire and he tries out his jokes on me. He sits in his favorite, rather worn, chair reading the New Yorker and we spend our time discussing the current administration while listening to NPR.  He displays a childlike innocence when, in the morning, he suggests some new and improved cancer drug he saw advertised while watching Late Night with Johnny Carson re-reruns on television. When the person with whom you have spent decades bundling up sorrow and sadness and stuffing this sadness into the closets that live inside of your mind acts with authentic vulnerability their meaning and the narrative of your relationship changes. The narrative of any relationship is not fixed. Not even after they die.

My dad gave to his children our profound love and appreciation of music. When I am upstairs doing this or that I often hear him whistling to the radio playing loudly downstairs. He will yell up, “Andrea, remember Sly and the Family Stone? They had the most bizarre interview with Dick Cavett on his show. I think it was the drugs.” I pause; I will miss his whistle.

He had a wonderful singing voice and he tells a story that when he and mom were newly married they took my older sister, who he thinks was five years old, to a church where she sang in the children’s choir. A woman sitting behind him said, “Who is that little red-haired girl singing? She has a beautiful voice!” Dad told me he beamed that day and he felt proud to be her father. There was a time when I would have craved the attention that my older and more talented sister received from him but now it feels joyful to see him sit comfortably inside of a happy memory. There are so many sad memories from his life and from our life that, from this day forward, if he only remembers the good stuff, I will hold these moments with him.

He will never be the father I wanted him to be but this is no longer sad or hateful; not because there isn’t time for sadness or anger, there seems to be an infinite amount of time in this world for hard and unmanageable feelings, there is no longer a need. It is as if I am standing on a train platform watching that train slowly leave the station. Who he was as a father and as a man is just a fact. It is a fact of my life. It is as true as the grass is sometimes green, the sky is sometimes blue and the clouds are sometimes white and puffy and linger beautifully overhead.

This Time of Year: Sandy

Sandy died on Thanksgiving morning. Early morning. I was living in Portland, Oregon and my brother-in-law called me. I think it was 10 years ago, maybe more, I am not good with dates.

It is October and no matter how much I try and chase the memory of her passing throughout the year – it taps me my shoulder when the leaves change color. This year, when I suggested breast cancer awareness activities to my CEO, at a hospital, she said, “What will that bring us – two or three mammograms?” I wanted to say, “It might save a life.”

My sister was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She was young. The cancer was aggressive. She died 15 months later. She called me on a Tuesday afternoon and said, “Hey, this is funny, I have a boil on my sternum.” Yet, by the time she called that week on Friday, she told me it was stage three breast cancer. My best friend who worked for a doctor said to me, “I want you to prepare yourself.”

There were many flights. Most of our interactions throughout our lives, and in the end, were conflicted. Most of my writing at the time was angry. We had a conflicted relationship. It became only more so in her final months. We were awash with emotion. We had a troubled relationship that was hard to put into words and, a decade later I understand that most close relationships are difficult to articulate clearly. Words are hard to find when there is love, admiration, respect, anger and disappointment.

Her name was Sandy. She was named after my mother’s oldest sister, Sandy. Sandy was three years older than me and she was a lot like me: sensitive, smart. She was also very talented. She could sing. Her voice matured at an early age and it earned her a scholarship to a reputable liberal arts university, Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When I think of Sandy, I think about her voice and I think of the last time we were together, in Las Vegas when she wanted to connect and I was not able to connect. When she was in the late stages of cancer, and she took her children to Vegas so her daughter could see Paul McCartney live and so her son to see Cirque du Soleil.  Her hair was gone. She slept unless she was taking her children to the shows they wanted to see.

That weekend, she reached out to me. Sitting in her bed in the hotel room. I did not reach back. She looked me in the eye. I think she knew she was dying. The years of our conflicted relationship floated in front of me. I did not see a dying woman reaching out for forgiveness but the noise of our past muddied up our present . I did not believe that time was finite.

Every fall, I am filled with sadness. The sadness is sneaky. It slithers in like a centipede.

Sandy was talented. She was vibrant. She was flawed. She cried. She loved being a mom. She loved pleasing people.

She was not perfect.

I miss her.

I asked my mom tonight, “Do you miss her?” She said, “I miss her every single day of my life. I don’t remember what year she died but I could not care less. I miss her and talk to her every day.”.

 

 

 

 

 

Unexpected Pleasures from My Life

The Watch

When I was five years old, I found a gold pocket watch buried deep beneath the snow in the backyard of my childhood home in Weeping Water, Nebraska. I thought it was a shiny toy and tossed it in my top dresser drawer. I don’t know exactly when I learned that it was not, in fact, a shiny toy but a ladies pocket watch valued at $6,000. I carried  the treasure with me through many moves. It is a 1862, 24 karat gold  Waltham women’s pocket watch – like something George Sand might have worn around her neck as she wrote a story on a manual typewriter. I carried the watch with me when I moved and moved again until I found a watch repair shop in Lafayette, California – a place I lived for less than a year – who swore to repair it to its original authenticity. The part in question was the pin that connects the beautifully designed cover to the body of the watch. Originally, it was 24 karat gold and every watch repair shop I visited over the years suggested using  a gold plated pin, which would have taken away from its authenticity. Then, by chance, I found a watch repair shop who was thrilled to see such a rare piece and who had a contact in Chicago that made those pins in 24 karat gold.

I left the watch with the repair shop.

Then, I moved. And moved again. And yet again. Every once in awhile, I would call the shop, and update my contact information hoping that they would finish repairing the watch and return it to me. I called them from Los Angeles, from San Francisco, from New York and from Singapore.

The watch had been with the repair shop for ten years by the time I moved to Portland, Oregon. Over the ten years, the watch repairman’s mother passed away, the shop in California burned down; and for a time the watch was lost in Chicago with a watch repairman who was replacing the pin.

While working in Portland, I decided it was time for me to get back the watch I dug up in the deep Midwestern snow when I was five years old. I called the shop with my original claim ticket and told them that my father was celebrating his 70th birthday and I wanted to give it to him as a special gift. The story was, well, a story. They returned my call only to let me know that the watch was ladies pocket watch and, it was not yet finished.

About the same time as my latest inquiry, I was working with a woman: Michelle. She was my employee and I don’t know why but I knew she was a woman who could make things happen so one day I walked across the hall, shut her door and said, “I was wondering if you could help me with something?”

Michelle and I had one of those “fastly” made friendships that happens just a few times in one’s life. We had not worked together long when I said to her, in an earnest, naive voice, “Do you think there is a way that I can be in a relationship with someone but never, ever have them see my thighs?” I knew we would be friends when she said, “Probably not” without pause and without shame.

Before Michelle agreed to call the watch shop in Lafayette California, she said, “Honey, I just don’t think they have your watch. It has been ten years. They probably sold it.” With that in mind, she called the watch shop and said, “This is Andrea’s mother and it has come to my attention that our cherished family heirloom is in your possession. We need this returned immediately.”

Two days later, well ten years and two days, I received a phone message that said, “Hi Andrea, this is the shop and your mother called. We will have this to you within the week.”

The watch arrived in perfect working order in ten years and one week.

New York

A couple of years after moving to New York I met a woman who was smart, funny, and much younger than me. She had moved across the country to live in New York for one year. I admired her because she was brave. I don’t remember the first time we met or how we became friends but when we met, I felt like her friend and her sister. While I admired her, I also wanted to be someone whom she liked. My relationship with her was a tension between vying for her acceptance and a desire to protect her. We spoke daily. We would get bagels and sit on the bench in the warm spring sun talking about our jobs, the men we dates and the challenges with our friends. We had a lot of fun when we both lived in New York going to bars, to the beach, and doing all of the things young people do when they move to New York. During the short time she lived in New York, far away from her friends and family, she became pregnant and together we went to the doctor. That day defined my relationship with a woman with whom I would end up sharing a lifelong friendship.

There are times when life’s big shit cuts through the other shit and creates an unarguable definition of relationship.

Over the course of the many years since we have been friends, there have been times when our relationship experienced tremendous stress. One such time it resulted in what looked to be a permanent parting. While I was living in Africa, a mutual friend’s mother passed and I reached out to my friend to make sure she knew of the death. After a few emails, I was sitting on a veranda in Africa calling her via Google voice surrounded by complete darkness during a power cut listening to her laugh, her trepidation and our new relationship.

North Dakota

One Friday afternoon in Southwest Iowa, I heard, “Go to North Dakota” and within two hours I packed two cameras, several lenses, two pairs of underpants drove north. I had a basic idea of where I was going but only a basic idea.

In Iowa, I zipped off the off-ramp into a construction zone and was immediately pulled over. It is rare that the Hybrid will go fast enough for a ticket except for in a construction zone. The officer asked, “So, where are you off to?” and I told him. My authentic exuberance charmed him and my ticket was greatly reduced.

After I visited the protest, I became miserably lost. After finding the  road, which would take me home I stumbled upon expansive fields of sunflowers. Of course, I stopped my car along side of the road to take a photo of the fields of bright yellow. As I stood on the side of the road, empty of traffic, noise and distraction, tears flowed down my dusty cheeks. The striking contrast of the dusty landscape of North Dakota, the yummy blue sky and bright yellow sunflower faces caused my eyes to leak uncontrollably. Maybe it was visiting a group of thousands of people who were united for a cause, maybe it was appreciating living in a place where people can protest without being shot, where voice has a place or maybe there is something powerful about absorbing beauty alone. The beauty of the human spirit and of the sunflower faces was mine to love and love it I did. On a highway alone in North Dakota there was freedom to weep shamelessly at beauty.

Cycling

I chose to ride my first century in Vancouver, Washington in the Spring. Spring in the Pacific Northwest is cold and rainy. I started riding when my sister got sick with cancer. She called me at work on a Tuesday and said, “Hey this is funny, I have a boil on my sternum.” By Friday, it was stage four breast cancer and within 15 months she was dead. I started riding a bike while trying to make sense of this new chaos.

I rode the Spring Century alone. I was new to riding and did not yet own any rain gear. In fact, my gear was mostly second hand and rather shabby. At the half-way point in the ride, I had the choice to turn around or to finish and I chose to finish. It was raining and every time I bent my head forward a puddle of cold rain would fall out of my bike helmet. I didn’t have long-fingered gloves so I wrapped my cheaply made jacket around my fingers and pedaled forward with the intent of finishing my first century.

At some point, after the half-way point, I was alone on the highway and a semi-truck passed me leaving me covered in mud. I popped a snack in my mouth for imaginary encouragement and kept pedaling. An older cyclist pulled alongside me and said, “Hey, how are you doing?” I said, “I keep talking to myself and that conversation is not going very well.” He said, “How about I ride with you for a bit” and we talked as we rode. I don’t remember what we talked about but he kept me company and the inner conversation I was having quieted. At some point he told me how many miles I had left and what I could expect and I finished the ride.

The following Monday morning, I emailed a male colleague who was an experienced rider and asked him if he finished the ride. He said no that he and his riding buddies turned around at the half-way point and then, he asked if I finished. I said that I had finished. He replied, “Respect” and our friendship was forever changed.

Queen

I was a kid who, every other weekend, packed a bag and waited for my father to pick me up for our weekend visit. These visits were stressful. My father was recently sober and a devoted member of Alcoholics Anonymous and most of my weekend visits were spent in smoke filled rooms full of confliced adults revealing their most intimate thoughts.

My father drove many cars throughout my childhood but one that he had for a long time was an off-white, two-door Pontiac.  By all standards, this was a cool car. It had a vinyl, plastic bench back seat where me and my three brothers and sisters would slide around as he quickly turned a sharp corner. It was about an hour drive from my mother’s home to my father’s home every other weekend.

One particular weekend, while I was sitting in the backseat, miserable from the heat and the incessant fighting that was now part of our family fabric, I silently thought, “Please please please radio play a good song and maybe everyone will listen and stop fighting,” and then Queen, “I Want to Break Free” came on the radio and, Dad turned up the volume so high that everyone stopped arguing and started singing together, “But life still goes on,
I can’t get used to, living without, living without, living without you by my side, I don’t want to live alone, hey God knows, got to make it on my own, So baby can’t you see
I’ve got to break free.”

We probably fought when the song ended but I don’t remember…..

 

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courage

Roman bridge over Rio Tormes in SalamancaAt some age, words and their meaning, began to evolve. When I was younger my life experiences were limited; therefore the words I thought I knew were narrowly defined. Then, unexpected life  experiences made meaning evolve. It is unexpected life experiences that change meaning. Experiences that sideswipe the order I thought I created.

At 25 years old there were things I was sure I could count on: I would have a famed career making films. I would be a writer. I would always live in a city. I would do everything and anything I wanted to do in my life. I would make life grand.

I didn’t know what courage was when I was younger. I did not feel courageous when I when I rented a car, alone, on my first trip to Europe; just as the borders were coming down after the wall came down. My boyfriend flew into Brussels, Belgium to meet his brother and I chose to fly into Frankfurt, Germany so I could drive the Autobahn, alone – an experience I had only read about in books. My expectation was that I would land in the Frankfurt airport, pick up a map written in English and, well, drive to Brussels, Belgium. I didn’t have an address for my boyfriend’s brothers apartment in Brussels but I had a phone number. I naively believed if I packed some US quarters, I would find a gas station, use the phone and well, he would answer and I would get directions from Germany to Belgium. It was all very naive. I didn’t even pack a travel guide. Just me, a backpack full of clothes, a journal, a Walkman and a few cassette tapes and some US quarters for the pay phone.

I landed in Frankfurt and the airport, unbeknownst to me, was one of the largest airports in the world – at the time. Also, in 1989, there was very little English spoken in Europe. I wandered amazed through the Frankfurt airport, bumping into to experienced travelers in search of my English language road map. This did not exist.

I found the rental car counter. We muddled through. They were, rightfully annoyed at my lack of German language skills. They pointed impatiently to where the car was stored and I found my rental, put the keys in the ignition and pulled the car out of the car park. I quickly stopped. I realized I had no idea how to find Belgium. I pulled my compact car up to the the taxi stand. Wrote Bruxxles on a napkin. Four or five men wrote down the highways I was to follow and off I went. Zooming away, eager for the Autobahn experience, I glanced in my rear view mirror to see four or five men waving wildly to the right and with a quick jerk of the wheel, I turned right, flew over a small grassy medium and off I went. The taxi drivers were seen clapping wildly and laughing hysterically at the very young looking woman zipping furiously down the Autobahn toward the country called Belgium.

At some point, after I learned to stay the heck out of the left lane, I stopped at a small country bar and I am not sure how much I spent to make that call, but I reached my boyfriend who laughed hysterically while I jotted down directions. Brendan’s brother was working for the newly formed, European Union. No one thought the European Union would take….

When I arrived at the flat in Brussels, I felt like a hero.

That boyfriend and I had a tumultuous relationship. I was never enough for him. When I was finally able to part with his intermittent company; feeling crushed, I made a list of everything I was afraid to do alone. I wish I had that list today but I remember three of the “to-do’s”: Go to dinner on a Saturday night alone; Go to a nightclub alone and Go a movie alone. I ticked off the “to-do’s” off my list week by week and the last on the list was to go to a nightclub alone. On a particular Saturday night, I packed it up and went to a club I knew well and sat alone, off to the side while the music played. I stayed for a couple of hours, decided I had fulfilled the goal and proudly packed up my bag and walked several miles home. It was very late and it wasn’t until I was crossing Mission Street in the sketchy Mission District that I felt queasy about the surroundings. The streets were empty. I was wearing my yellow Walkman and took it off so I could be very aware of my surroundings. At a very sketchy patch, a man started following me and my heart started to beat faster and faster. In front of me, I saw a telephone booth. I went into the telephone booth, started to dial 911 and turned around and he was staring right at me – closer than arm’s length. I held up the receiver and yelled, “Come on, you want a piece of this? Bring it and I will beat you to death with this phone.” This is pretty funny, looking back. But, it worked. He turned quickly away and made his way down the street.  I have never walked as fast as I did that night but after my key hit the lock, I started laughing. Death by phone.

When the list was complete – it was a proud accomplishment and that boyfriend lost his emotional hold. The grieving was far from finished – I grieve for long periods of time – but his control had evaporated. I learned how to manage competing emotions: loneliness, grief, and sadness while creating experiences that fill my heart with hope.

Earlier in my life, courage was learned through huge leaps and huge gestures. Today, there are fewer huge leaps and keeping courage alive is more subtle.

When I was in Fez, Morocco, I walked out of the Medina into Nouveau Fez which was more like a European city than the Medina where I had spent three days wandering down streets so narrow the sunlight could not reach the sidewalks. The Fez Medina was the largest pedestrianized area in the world, at the time. It is an ancient UNESCO World Heritage site where hot water was rare and coveted. It is the poorer, more interesting, part of Fez. Nouveau Fez, by contrast, is marked by wide, tree-lined boulevards complete with modern tea and coffee houses and fancy boutiques one might see on the Champs-Elysees.

As I wandered down the boulevard digesting the contrast, I noticed that there were no women sitting in the coffee and tea houses and me, as a woman walking alone, was of great interest – quite the enigma. As I made my way slowly down the boulevard back to the direction of the Medina, I promised myself I would walk into a coffee shop and take a coffee before I entered the gates of the Medina. I wanted to force myself to push through what is desperately hard to be the “odd man out”, in such a spectacular way. When I was in Morocco, it had not been that long that women were allowed to enter the tea and coffee houses when men were present. Walking slower and slower as I got closer and closer to the end of the boulevard, I faced the final coffee shop before the Medina gates and walked inside. The entire coffee shop stopped and stared. I quickly scanned the coffee house and noticed not one open seat, so I hastily ordered a coffee and proudly scurried down the boulevard coffee in hand.

Courage today is like buying that cup of coffee. It is made up of small, yet impactful, gestures. If I were to re-create that list of “to-do’s” today, it likely would look like this:

  1. visit my father because he is in a rehab facility that smells like pee. He is bored and stares mindlessly at at a TV since he is no longer able read the books he loves because chemotherapy has blurred his vision;
  2.  walk across the gym in front of the young meatheads while they stare at my bulbous backside and I think they are thinking, “what is SHE doing HERE?” but walk anyway;
  3. tell my girlfriends when my feelings are hurt;
  4. ride my bike even though I no longer have a “cycling body”;
  5. close my door at work and cry when I need to cry and apologize to no one for having feelings;
  6. set boundaries and apologize to no one;
  7. say no to the party even though I will grapple with complicated feelings;
  8. say no to unsafe people even though I will be alone;
  9. ask for help because I need help. they will judge but I will ask for help;
  10. stick up for the underdog, even though that is not the strategic move, but do so because, for all of my life, I too have been the underdog;
  11. and, be open to pain and risks with humans knowing I will cry; but, know if I can fight off a mugger with a phone or buy a cup of coffee – I will always recover from grief.