Posted in Beauty, Health, Poetry

A House Divided

I have recently been going through a lot of my writing from the last decade, both poetry and prose. I am working on assembling poetry by theme. The goal is a poetry chapbook of some sort. I am also trying to actually work on the memoir that I have been talking about working on for the last two years.

Seven years ago to the day, I wrote this. At the time, I posted it for all the world to see on my blog, this very site. For various reasons, all posts between 2004 and June 2015 have been deleted. Still, I posted it for the world. And still, things still lingered on for another 5 years, to the day.

Assonance or Resonance?
So desperate, I need some respite, in this place of war
I need a place to say some things I haven’t said before
A place to say the names of the bones behind the door
Voices echo in this headspace as you creep across the floor
Just like that broken record I picked up discounted in the bins
Only one side ever plays and the last song never ends
The last word gets repeated ’til I lift the needle from the skin
Mixing metaphors with my dopamine, like whiskey with my gin
Should we exit like we entered with no input from our friends?
Or give them all one more chance to peer around the bend?
If this ship is really sinking, they could be our rising wind
Can’t help but thinking…
They’d love another chance to play pretend
Maybe in this pool of listlessness, they’d be quick to condescend:
“Can’t comprehend why she didn’t leave him long before she did
Of her own volition, no contrition and no cognition turned to shit
It was painful to watch her dying from all those wounds she hid”

It would be far too easy for me to be angry: Where were my friends, family, seminary colleagues, professors, pastors, mentors, people who declared their love for me and my ex-wife while we were both crying out for help, each in our own way?

I think ultimately there is a twofold lesson for me: First, I have to write for me, for my own “salvation” and mental health, come what may. No matter who reads it, or how many, or how they respond. And secondly, I have to learn to separate those who appreciate my writing whether on a blog, in spoken word performances, or hopefully someday, in a book from true friends. And I have to do my part to hold close to the latter.

Jesus and Lincoln both purportedly said, on their respective campaign trails, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most of my life I have been a house divided: A free spirit, free thinker, trying desperately to cling to the dogma of the past to save me from the flames of hell. A self-proclaimed “extrovert” who took a Myers-Briggs Test, scored ENFP but has struggled with life-long social anxiety. I have worked just as vigorously to shut people out -who would love to love me – as I have to draw them in.

But I am changing. Good gawd, even at the ripe old age of 40, I am changing for the better. For most of my life, I have suffered from a simultaneously self-hating and self-aggrandizing fear that the eternal fate of others might be inextricably-intertwined with my words: my excelling or failing to say, “Jesus loves you.” But now I know that I have to be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning and say, “I love you.” My “salvation,” my mental health depends on it! And others depend on me. They wouldn’t be lost or hopeless without me. But I contribute to their happiness and well being right here, right now. So I continue to work towards casting out my own demons. I continue to work towards my own mental and emotional emancipation.

I am a house, perhaps in a permanent state of remodel. But I am no longer closed for repairs. Welcome to my living room. Take a seat. Or don’t. I have many stories to tell.

Posted in Beauty, Health

The Aftermath

25 years ago today, a jury acquitted Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind on charges of assault and use of excessive force in the now infamous caught on tape beating of Rodney King. In some ways not much has changed in 25 years. Now the footage is captured on iPhones instead of camcorders. But police brutality, especially against people of color, is still rampant in the United States. Victims of police brutality are still scrutinized and blamed. Rodney King certainly wasn’t an innocent man. Amadou Diallo was! But in either case – or any of the plethora of like cases we have been inundated with over the past quarter of a century – the narrative is always similar. It always becomes a story about how much the victim did or did not deserve the severity of force rather than primarily about those who abuse the power of a badge and a gun.

These are things I have been thinking about, at least since the fall of 1992. Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator. From beginning to end it was a scathing indictment of police brutality and race relations in America. And from “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” to “Who Got the Camera?” it was a completely different commentary than what I got from the Evening news with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and drastically different than what I heard from my parents. I am not being hyperbolic or speaking flippantly when I say that listening to that album with my headphones on was a large part of why I ended up going to seminary. I just no longer see the church pulpit as my avenue for trying to be an agent of change in a sick and heartbroken society.

What I haven’thought a lot about is the aftermath of a highly publicized event on a city and all of its inhabitants. From the violence that erupted in L.A. to the mostly peaceful demonstrators and vigils in Ferguson, there is some level of violence, lots of civil unrest, negative impact on local businesses, whether from looting or the enforcement of curfews. Already tense relationships between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities are heightened. And in this state of affairs the media descends on a city and saturates the entire country with coverage of their story… until the next big headline. I say none of this to minimize the importance of the people being heard. It is more of a judgement about our poor listening skills, about how we only talk about ugly truths when the worst things happen, we turn people and whole cities into talking points until there is another headline about a President’s tweet, or the unrest in Syria or a viral video of a bluegrass band covering AC/DC diverts our attention.

I am thinking a lot today about what the aftermath must be like for the communities affected. I am thinking about it largely for two reasons. Yesterday I listened to a heartbreaking report on NPR on how L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and sports and business mogul, Peter Ueberroth’s attempts to Rebuild L.A. were in large part a failure. And in many ways the city is still reeling from the aftermath of the verdict and the subsequent civil unrest.

I am also thinking about it because one year ago today in a much less publicized case I was a “defendant” for the first time in my life. The plaintiff was my ex-wife. We stood in front of a judge. There were no lawyers. He didn’t even bang a gavel. He simply pronounced us divorced. We had already been separated for 6 months. We had been growing apart for years, creating a void that was almost unbearable for all, including our two children. People find all sorts of ways to cope with the dysfunction of an unhappy home. I was distant and drank too much. I threw myself headlong first into the search for ministry placement. Then after a heartbreaking two year search and a very short lived time as an underpaid “resident pastor” I threw myself into being an online, Christian “social justice warrior.” My family suffered, I suffered, my art suffered. But divorce, while many things, is not a cure for dysfunction or broken hearts. The civil unrest of divorce creates a vortex of new pain and an aftermath that requires a lot of rebuilding.

I am working my ass off to rebuild. I am working to resurrect a bridge of communication that was completely dismantled between my ex-wife and myself, so that we can successfully co-parent two children whose dreams of a happy home and a white picket fence, with both parents together were shattered. I am working on reestablishing a relationship with the two most important people in my life, my 9 year old daughter with trust issues and clinical anxiety and my wide-eyed, usually optimistic but heartbroken 7 year old son. Some days the effort seems futile and fruitless when my daughter calls me the night before a “daddy’s weekend” and says she is not coming to my house anymore and hangs up on me. There are lots of fits, temper tantrums and some trying to play mom and dad against each other. But there is also a lot of precious time spent playing baseball in the yard, letting my son get unlimited turns at bat to kick my ass and letting my daughter make up her own 15 strikes before your out rule. There is ice cream and hugs and snuggles. And I cannot let myself forget things when they break my heart or during the void I feel, the 10 out of every 14 days that they are not here with me.

The aftermath is hard. Somethings take a lifetime and constant effort to rebuild. Time certainly does not heal all wounds. But love – love and tireless effort – can bandage those wounds and hold us tight as we walk through the flames and sift through the ashes and strain towards compassion, growth and new ways of navigating life and finding joy.

Posted in Poetry

Etched

Fifteen years ago, she woke up and wore white
All was ready: the pastor, the cake, the dress
The girl who never wanted to have children
Would say “I do” to an overgrown boy. Love!
Sometimes it blinds us to the worst in others
Gone bad, held captive, we forget how to smile

Etched on my memory: her red hair, her smile
My tux black, my vest silver, my shirt starched white
I stood with her, and with him, before others
A night spent chasing every other dress
With Bacardi, and falling deeply in love
With anyone! Such is the way of children

I got drunk; he got high, we were all children
I brought the music to make the people smile
He asked me to pray, and I did so with love
I think I spilled yellow beer on my starched white
I never knew how to act when “properly” dressed
Or in any attire in room full of others

She wasn’t my first crush, so many others!
Before, after, such is the way of children
It used to be any pretty face with a dress
Or many a chiseled face, with a handsome smile
I always mistook exposure of pearly whites
Or crooked yellows for an open heart, or love

A year, and three weddings later, I found love
I cried that day, more than all of the others
Yes, even more than the veiled woman in white
We had a plan, we made a life, we had children
Thirteen years, I watched the fading of her smile
We inflicted wounds no god or shrink could dress

Slow change of heart, a sudden change of address
An old friend with the most familial of love
Picked me up, made me remember how to smile
But was I what she had known in the other?
Another boy, surrounding himself with children?
Or worse, like an old sweater, washed with the whites?

Break the familiar! She was not like the others
Love scattered, like adults throw candy at children
Etched on my heart: her red hair, her smile, her black dress

————
Another one for National poetry month. This is a sestina. Sestinas are one of my absolute favorite forms of poetry. This is the third one I have ever written.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 25

The first time I really heard Ed Sheeran’s song Photograph, I was driving. My kids were with me. I was balling at the wheel. They were confused. I had just picked them up from school, to take them back to the home I knew we would not share much longer. I thought there really was a chance this might be it for us. I seriously feared that my kids might grow up only remembering their father in a photograph. I feared their love (or hate) for me would one day be immortalized in a picture their mom had taken. I feared the unknown more than I ever did before or have since in my 40 years of life.

The life I knew imploded, the same way the Character Mike says he went broke in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Two ways… Gradually and then suddenly.” Things had been falling apart for months, years. The couch or computer chair was my bed. I drank way too much. We barely communicated. But I just thought it was the new normal. It was a horrible way for us all to live. But I was raised to believe in death before divorce. In all honesty, I think I was beginning a slow descent into the former. I think my ex-wife may have saved us all from a far, far worse existence when she filed those papers.

But I never saw it coming. I was gearing up to move into a rented room with no bed, no car, only a 44 inch TV and a job that I had for about a month to my name. I really feared that I was going to lose all contact with my children.

That was a little less than 2 years ago. This morning the song was playing while I dropped my kids off at school, like I do every Wednesday morning. As I watched my daughter run to the school door with her school backpack, her overnight bag and her coat all in her arms, I took one of those snapshots that we all take in our heads. A picture of joy, captured by memory, no film or digital pixels.

The adjustment has been very hard for us all. The adjustment has been very good for us all. There home is no Thomas Kinkade ideal homestead. They have two homes. One is with me. One is with their mother. Difficult days come. We deal with feelings of anger and hurt and confusion as they surface. But we are no longer in danger of becoming the family on the cover of Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family.

I no longer worry they will grow up with nothing but a picture of me, or us together, inside the pocket of their ripped jeans. I no longer worry they will grow up hearing nothing but whispers from me on the phone, forever waiting for me to come home. We will not have to make memories for ourselves where our eyes are never closing,
our hearts were never broken and times is forever frozen still.

I am not trying to justify my failures as a husband or a father. Divorce is not a band-aid for love gone bad, ever, especially when kids are involved. It is a tearing. And it tears up my heart that their lives will be marked by those scars as they grow. But I also know the pain of growing up underneath two adults who love each other but never learned how to properly express love, never developed the emotional capacity to communicate with compassion, even when hurting. I know the pain of the loud outburst and the long periods of silence that follow. For me the silence was always scarier, more heartbreaking than the volatile outbursts. Those weekends with my father gone or sleeping on the couch, my mother crying in her bedroom, the walking on eggshells, knowing one wrong move could make you the target of their anger toward each other, they still haunt me.

What we have is not perfect. But it is what we have. That may be the most obvious thing I’ve ever wrote. What wasn’t always obvious is that there is hope. The future is uncertain, sure. But there are rays of light that pierce our darkest days. And there are seeds of new life, a different life, a difficult life but a life of love. And these seeds are everywhere. Today it was in hearing them sing along with Ed Sheeran on the way to school. It was in my son asking if he could throw his apple core out the window on the way to school to plant a tree. It was in watching my daughter run – not care free – but happy nonetheless towards her school. It was in watching her run and not fearing that she may never run into my arms again. I think I heard Ed Sheeran’s Photograph for the first time today.

Posted in Poetry

Yellow

 

I once dreamt in color
No need for meter, no need for rhyme
I dreamt I saw the sun
Showing through some demigod’s design
I once dreamt in color
I dreamt bodies were aligned
I dreamt of a sense of place and grace
I dreamt there was no need for time
I once dreamt in color
I dreamt I held her hand in mine
Backs pressed to pews of wet grass
Our eyes set to the sky
Our longings were our prayers
Drifting beyond our gaze above
I dreamt Demeter danced and no romance
Could ever substitute this love
I once dreamt on color
For once it was not in red
I dreamt fear had no more power here
I dreamt dismay had no more stead
I once dreamt in color
Not the usual black on gray malaise
If but for a night without my eyes
I could see through malignant haze

I once dreamt in yellow
A life saturated in gentle sun
I once dreamt in color
But that dream has come undone
I once dreamt in color
But it all ended before I woke
Memories of daylight left me blind
And I grew deaf from words unspoke
I once dreamt in color
The memories tattooed my world in black
I hope to live in color once
No going home, no going back
I hope to live in color once
I hope to stare brave into my yellow sun
It seems daylight has finally broken here
Or has another dream just begun?

Posted in Health

Heartbreak Smiles

Sometimes I wish I could remember how I answered. Other times I am glad some of the details are obscured by the acute pain of such an unfortunate experience. It is an instance of episodic memory that no child should ever have to suffer passing from their temporal lobe into the annals long-term memory

I do remember the line of questioning well: “What do you think Wayne? Should Daddy be able to come home? Do you think he is sorry?” I remember where I was when she asked: crouched down under that 3 foot wide, awkward built-in counter space between the refrigerator and the kitchen wall. But I don’t remember how I answered. At least I don’t remember how I answered that day when I was 5 years old.

I do remember how my mother answered me years later, shortly before her body succumbed to a rare neurological disease that would rob her of her short term and eventually her long term memories. This time my father was present only as the topic of discussion and I played the inquisitioner: “Do you really love him? Why don’t you get a divorce? Do you think it is too late for you both to be happy?” My mother answered with all of the nuance and conviction that her conservative, Charismatic Christian orthodoxy afforded her: “We don’t do that! God hates divorce!”

I was not yet one year into what I thought was the perfect marriage. A marriage that is currently pending divorce, as the friend of the court determines custody and child support arrangements. It should really be little wonder to those who know me well that I have taken to the task of translating this life of pain into something I hope will encourage and inspire others, through written prose and spoken word art.

Much of my early poetry recounts the pains of the many late night fights I heard growing up, hearing my mother take care of my father when he passed out in the shower, and the time she expelled me from the house when I was 15 to go live with him, in what would become his last great alcohol binge and my parents’ last separation.

I came home from school one day to find my parents in the living room of the seedy little one bedroom apartment where my father and I had been living. My heart sank. All throughout childhood I had taken my mother’s side every single time my parents separated. She had betrayed my trust, left me feeling abandoned to the father I had always felt estranged from. But those couple of months that we lived in that grimy little apartment where we shared a bathroom college campus style with the dirty old man that lived across the hall, provided me with a sense of closeness I had never felt with my dad. This time no one asked me how I felt about things. My father and I moved home that weekend and he never moved out again.

For some time, I performed a spoken word piece called “Where I’m from.” It recounted some of these painful memories in detail and ended with the lines:

I am from the pictures in the closet
and the albums dad wont give us
Smiling, smirking, rolling my eyes
Sad eyes and heartbreak smiles
and laughter and laughter
And I need them so I don’t forget
that I am more than plain white trash
from butter and Coke and a broken home
a shiny new double wide home
and the ashes of the shack that it replaced
and the marriage that should have burned instead

I no longer perform that piece of poetry. In fact my dad did eventually give me those pictures. And I no longer want to look at them. When my wife and I separated (for the first and last time) in October, I threw the majority of those pictures into the dumpster. I was reminded of this all recently as I read a fantastic piece from Carmelene Siani at The Elephant Journal. Siani recounts being given a picture of her own parents by her daughter as a birthday gift. She gave the picture back. She couldn’t look at it. She explains,

So, I gave the picture back to my daughter. It reminded me of instability and of grownups being afraid and of my mother saying she was sick of “living with the wolf at the door” and of my father “just being friendly” with the next door neighbor’s wife and of turning over my babysitting money and of never ever wanting a swimming pool but always, always wanting parents who were stable and happy and who loved each other.

I no longer feel I need to remember the phony, posed smiles for the camera to piece together a happy childhood that didn’t exist. I would rather remember the time my dad wasn’t there and my mom, my brother, my sister and I played Yahtzee and my mom laughed, a real genuine laughter with an authentic, contagious smile and no camera to catch it. She laughed so hard that she peed her pants. I would rather remember when my parents were separated and I lived with my dad and he took me and my two younger siblings to see Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. For once my father was fully present to all three of us because he wasn’t busy avoiding my mom. I felt at home.

Most of us have our own abandonment issues to face. My abandonment issues stem from my parents “staying together for the kids” and for the sake of their religion. They do not stem from the marriage ending. There is no doubt in my mind that my lack of trust, my acclimation to instability and feeling unworthy of love all contributed to the dissolution of my own marriage. But as Katie Vessel wrote a few months ago, the same week my wife and I agreed to separate, “My fear of abandonment from others was really my fear of abandoning myself.” She continues,

As a child, I did not yet have this wisdom. I read books, I wrote, I would draw and do my best to appear confident and conformed to social expectations, but I struggled.

As an adult, I get to choose.

On the cusp of 39 years of age, I am choosing to look at this as a second chance. I am choosing to look at this as a chance that my parents never gave themselves or their children. A chance for me, my soon to be ex-wife and our two children to live and love vigorously. A chance to greet the world with the warm, authentic smiles. The kind of smiles that are nurtured by stability and the certainty of two parents who love each of them with a boundless love, whether we are together or apart.

I no longer want to remember the sad eyes and heartbreak smiles of my childhood. I just want to remember my mom happy, free and laughing until she peed her pants. I choose to remember my dad taking us kids to the movies and being fully present to us. My own children are only 6 and 8 years of age. And I want the same thing for them, without a lifetime of canned, phony smiles they would someday rather forget.

Posted in Health

Dismembered

Divorce is a cruel and impartial vivisectionist. In this way it is much like death, the death of someone you love. In CS Lewis’ understated and underrated work, “A Grief Observed” he reflects on the death of his wife, Joy, with these words:

Oh, God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell, if it’s now doomed to crawl back to be sucked back into it. Where is God? What pitiable can’t to say, “She will live forever in my memory.” Live! That is exactly what she won’t do. What’s left? A corpse, a memory, a ghost. Three more ways of spelling the word ‘dead’!

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. The conclusion is not “So there’s no God, after all” but “So this is what God is really like, the Cosmic Sadist. The spiteful imbecile?”

I don’t care so much anymore what people believe. I care a lot about what we – individually and collectively – do.

One of the ugliest things we do is demand of others that they be happy, stay cheerful or just “keep the faith” amidst the sometimes unspeakable sorrows in life. Like the friends that Lewis is preemptively swatting away, we too often call this kind of happy bullshit, “consolation.”

Unlike Lewis – an adult convert – I come from the world of Christianity. I have been saturated in it and the plethora of conflicting worldviews therein all of my life. And I am not (yet) that far removed. In that world we tend to offer the happy bullshit consolation, coupled with trite explanations for suffering, quite often. We are – by and large – fans of Proverbs and not Job.

Since my wife and I split up I have been on the receiving end of a lot of this kind of tomfoolery. My dad thinks I would have a car by now and not be sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a strange house if I would only ‘do the right thing’ and ‘get my faith back.’

Sorry dad, I am more interested in doing good than believing right. This is what I have been doing since my world crashed. Writing. A shit-ton of writing. I have confessed and lamented my own misogynist tendencies after one of our last marital counseling sessions. I have wept aloud, raged and protested in bitter anger the divorce, my wife, and a whole host of shadows, ghosts, memories of others who have hurt me. But she never meant to hurt me. Nor I her. It is what happens in life when you stop communicating. Sometimes it really is too late. But I have also rediscovered my empathy. I loved her. I suppose I always will, in some way. She is the mother of my children. And I do certainly hope the best for her.

I am sure as I learn and grow, I will return to this subject matter again and again over the years. But right now I have to do something that Christianity always taught me was wrong to do: I have to learn to love myself. Divorce is a cruel and impartial vivisectionist. I am exposed, open, every nerve is raw. I feel like I have been experimented upon by god, or the universe. But I am still alive. And I plan to keep it that way. I plan to keep healing; keep growing. It is all I can do. Because I am not happy. I am not okay. But I want to be. I deserve to be. I will never be all “put together.” That is fine. But this experimented upon animal was intended to fly. Life has tried to clip my wings again and again. But I am still gearing up to take flight. I intend to soar. I hope you can see the determination in my eyes.