Upvalley and Downvalley

Where I live now, on Colorado’s Western Slope, towns are strung out along the confluence of two rivers, the Roaring Fork and the Colorado. Those who live “upvalley” live southward along the Roaring Fork, and generally speaking, the richer they are or the richer they want to be, the closer they live to Aspen. Those who are considered less affluent or perhaps just more blue collar in their upbringing, tend to live “downvalley” along the Colorado River from Glenwood Springs, and west toward Grand Junction.

I’m generalizing, because it’s unrelentingly beautiful everywhere in between. Plenty of people choose to live in many of these spots confluence mapdue to professional considerations, personal preference, or historical connections. There are actually quite a lot of professional, artistic, and well educated people living downvalley, but some upvalley people either don’t know this or don’t like to think so.

I live in the middle, in Glenwood Springs, a Victorian town where the Roaring Fork and the Colorado join. If you’ve ever driven through Colorado on I-70 or come through the state on Amtrak, you’ve nicked the edge Glenwood. Perhaps you’ve stopped at the hot springs.

Often when I’m skiing upvalley, where most of the snow is, other skiers ask me where I live. When I tell them, the conversation usually just ends right there. “Oh.”

The right answer appears to be Carbondale (the next town upvalley from ours) or Basalt. (Most people think Aspen is kind of gross.) I wouldn’t mind living in Carbondale. It’s a cute town, closer to skiing, with a surprising amount going on culturally. But whenever someone does this “Oh” thing, I get my back up and feel kind of stubborn about the lower end of the valley.

So imagine how the feelings run about another town, about 20 miles downvalley, called Silt.

Silt is located in the Grand Valley, which deserves its name. Heading west on I-70 from Glenwood, you pass New Castle, the last of the semi-respectable downvalley towns. You go around a bend and the sky opens up into a wide stretch of mesas and light, light, light. Then you hit the triad of strangely named settlements. Silt, Rifle, Parachute.

We lived in Silt ourselves for a short time. I’d told my partner: Please, anything but that town. I can’t live in a place named after mud. Why would anyone call a town Silt? Not that Carbondale or Basalt are particularly attractive names, or that Aspen is all that creative when you look at any hillside in Colorado.

But as a poet, I feared Silt. It sounded like a place where people would just, well, settle. As if they didn’t care what happened to them. Even Rifle, I said, had more of a—I can’t help it—a kick to it.

The rental market around here, though, is very tight, and it’s so hard to find landlords that allow pets. We’re not ready to buy, partly because we haven’t decided on a town. So, my partner wound up choosing a house in Silt while I was out of town. It was seven miles from the job he’d taken as a public mental health therapist, in Rifle. We had a lot to learn.

When I saw the view from our mesa-top house in Silt, I had a hard time complaining:

SunriseontheRoan  phone2 022

All my life I’ve struggled to wake up in the morning. But not there. I couldn’t wait to get up and look out the window (the shot above left is sunrise on the Roan Plateau). The days were long, even in the dead of winter. A few months ago, I was back in Boulder to get my ski boots fit at Larry’s Bootfitting, and one of the customers there said, “People talk about the light in Santa Fe, but I think the light in the Grand Valley is just as good.” She was so right.

There were other charms. A few miles from the house—not a bad bike ride, or a quick drive if I wanted to take the dogs for a run on nearby trails—there was a reservoir, Harvey Gap.

HarveyGap 2012-08-18 09.23.28

Speaking of dogs, Silt has the best dog-park ever. Dogs can get right into the Colorado River, or meander through cottonwoods and thickets. Circling it twice was a 20-minute run for me.

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I can say that every single day I lived in Silt, I lived in stunned appreciation for the beauty. Every bike ride had a view for each pedal stroke. Pretti Lane, for instance:

pretti lane roan view 2012-08-18 10.01.05

 

silt horses pretti lane tony cropped

It was only about an hour to great skiing—either upvalley at Sunlight or Snowmass, or downvalley at Powderhorn:

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And the climbing opportunities were also great, at the West Elks, only a fraction of which are shown here, or at Rifle Arch, or the more famous Rifle Mountain Park.

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However. You need to breathe. And to drink water. That haze in the Pretti Lane shots? Coming from wildfires, which is just SOP these days in the West, but also from ozone and other toxins in the air from fracking and drilling. Whenever I turned on the washing machine, the whole house smelled like natural gas. The washing machine, not the dryer.

My mechanic told me that his kids are not allowed to drink the water in school. That’s the school’s rule. No drinking the town water.

The upvalley people, many of them environmentalists, will say: We need to drill because we must reduce our dependency on foreign energy, so we can get out of these wars. Or as another environmentalist, someone high up in Garfield County administration, put it: We need the revenue. She said, Our county is one of the most powerful in the state, and it has no debt because of oil and gas drilling.

It doesn’t seem to change their minds if you point out that we don’t HAVE ENOUGH oil and gas under our American soil to make a difference in our foreign dependency. A month ago, the US Energy Information Administration dropped its estimate of shale gas reserves by over 40%, after a flurry of internal emails last year expressed widespread reservations about the inflated optimism about the future of natural gas drilling in this country.

A friend who sells weapons navigational systems to Middle Eastern governments, US energy companies operating in the Middle East, and defense contractors told me: Middle Eastern countries have enough oil and especially natural gas to supply the world for well over a hundred years, easily. They play down supplies in order to keep prices high. Whenever they want to change US production levels, the Saudis et al simply cut their prices. That’s because the oil and gas we have cost a lot to get and to refine.

Yet, the downvalley people in Silt and neighboring towns say: Please drill. We need the jobs.

They’re right, they do need jobs. Silt, a bedroom community dependent on drilling, recreation, and construction work, with a fair amount of small-business owners who commute upvalley as far as Aspen, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the county, perhaps in the state. It’s just that drilling doesn’t seem to be helping with that. The boom economy actually caused the problem by bringing in too many people, driving prices up, and then when the boom corrected, the costs didn’t adjust properly.

It’s always this way in the West. You wonder why anyone ever believes it will be any different. It’s like a cheating lover who promises he’ll treat you right this time.

The price a community pays for the boom time is high. Few people upvalley ever go down toward Silt or see what’s going on there. They’ll say: Oh, I know it’s beautiful. But you never know when you’ll wake up in the morning and have a drilling rig next door.

Right? We know we need the energy, but we don’t want to live with that shit.

pretti lane well padsilt rig

 

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PA230289PA230290.

The trouble is, most of the people who make the decisions about what to allow and what not to allow live in Glenwood Springs or further upvalley. Or all the way in Washington, DC. They don’t really see “those people” who live in Silt or Parachute. The ones who, despite all this drilling, somehow can’t keep their houses. Whose schools are closing on Fridays despite these high county revenues. Upvalley people of course hear about meth use, but it’s usually fodder for jokes and eye-rolling instead of compassion.

Few people realize the long, back-to-back shifts that gasfield workers pull, for example, and the lack of safety precautions on the rigs—probably the original driver of the meth use. Or see that when it’s reported that drilling has “moved” to, say, North Dakota, the families don’t move. The workers, usually the fathers, commute crazily back and forth, often paying as much as $2500 per month for a camper in North Dakota on top of their Colorado expenses.

Meanwhile, my partner tries to help the children in downvalley towns, many of whom experience “anxious attachment,” which in school looks a lot like attention deficit. Some of them are not learning well. They can’t sit still and can’t concentrate, because they miss their fathers and they don’t know what’s going to happen next in their lives. This is on top of losing a day of school due to closures, while their strained parents try to pay for an extra day of childcare.

(Oh, we’re not responsible for what happens with the schools, said the county official. That’s up to the local communities and the state. Hm. I thought she said Garfield County is one of the most powerful counties in the state; why can’t it use that power to get more help for local communities?)

The thing is, Garfield County also wants to sell this region on recreation. On retirement. But you can’t do that if you’re wrecking the climate with oil and gas development, or making real estate investment dicey by destroying views and water quality. Who does want to wake up and find an oil rig next to their retirement home? Policymakers have to choose a direction.

It’s always easier for county administrators to collect revenue from extractive industries and punt regulation/accountability to the feds. If you work more soberly to attract long-term businesses that will employ people steadily and provide benefits, even if wages are lower, you might bring in fewer people, more slowly, overall. But perhaps they will be the people you really want for the region. Perhaps you could essentially Ben & Jerry’s Colorado—realign attitudes, loyalties, and politics simply by treating people better. It would be an interesting experiment. These gasfield workers are amazingly loyal to energy companies who treat them like crap and quite often kill them. What would happen if you took these tribal guys and gave them good jobs?

In another community these guys might be welding ships or building One World Trade Center, under the protection of a union. Right now they’re getting drilled into the ground, blown off 5-story rigs in high winds, and having their arms torn off. They work back-to-back 12-16 hour shifts at jobs that require a lot of focus and then are judged for using meth. Most of them are contractors or subcontractors and don’t have benefits. The tech companies I’ve worked for have had to provide perfectly ergonomic workstations due to OSHA and other standards. I mean, these employers have been worried about us getting carpal tunnel. What is up with the safety enforcement for these highly profitable energy companies?

No one holds these companies accountable on just about any level. They are granted exceptions for flaring wells even when fire bans are in effect statewide. Fracking is unsafe, environmentally. The studies that initially showed that it was safe for drinking water have been discredited. And yet nothing has been done to change any practices, or simply to stop it. The longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be to attract better alternatives to the region. Who’s going to want to come to a fracked-up place like this?

I miss Silt. I miss the light and the big sky and the fact that I couldn’t look anywhere for one second and not see something beautiful, even if I had to overlook a rig or a wellpad. Glenwood is in a narrower valley and loses daylight much faster. But the water is better, and yes, probably the people are more educated overall, and much more friendly, as I think liberal outdoorsy types often are. I’ve found a community of writers and thinkers faster. But because of the lack of light it’s harder to wake up here. And I suspect that, as far as material goes for me as a writer, there’s less here. Overall, I wish we could have stayed. I wish our landlord’s house hadn’t been foreclosed upon. I wish the air and water had been safe.

Right now there’s a big debate about allowing some drilling to take place closer to Glenwood. No one local really wants that, partly because it would be in wilderness, but mostly because it would mean more traffic through an already overly burdened city infrastructure. However, there’s a back road the big trucks could take. Guess where it goes? Through Silt.

My guess is they’ll “solve” the problem that way.

We’re a little hypocritical about energy, said a Carbondale friend. We sure are. She meant that we take it from other countries, and kill for it. I mean that we wreck small-town America for it.

But not the hip small towns. Just the places where people are asking for it.

 

 

****

For a moving portrait of the culture of oil and gas-dependent communitiescolton, please, please read Alexandra Fuller’s absolutely gripping  The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, which I briefly discussed in an earlier post.

For more on the environmental aspects of fracking, please check out Western Resource Advocates. They also have a blog.

For more on the community perspective, visit award-winning young-adult author Peggy Tibbetts’s blog from Silt.

 

Maybe you don’t want to live next to a drilling rig—and I don’t blame you—but if you drive a car or have a thermostat, take a look once in a while.

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Burning Down the Room

I just came back from visiting my son, now 21. As I think about my next steps in the world—I’ve moved into my third rental space in less than two years—it seems like a good time to post this draft of a blog post I found in my files recently. I’m not sure why it never got pushed live when I wrote it over a year ago.

 

Burning Down the Room

 

Burn it all down. Room by room. Tree by tree.

I was in a trauma counseling session, trying a technique my doctor had recommended called brainspotting. It’s based on EMDR, and doesn’t seem significantly different to me. In any case, I’d been having a lot of panic attacks and my doctor thought this would help.

I had headphones on, playing music that randomly went from ear to ear, so that both sides of my brain could process the episode I was grappling with. My eyes were open and focused on a single point in the room, I think to give my mind a point of “rescue.”

I’d been cooped up all winter with a broken ankle, so it hadn’t mattered so much that whenever I had to go anywhere I had to put my head down between my knees for several minutes, maybe an hour. But now that I needed to catch up on a bunch of tasks as well as move forward in my life, this type of handicap was unacceptable.

We started by focusing on a wildfire that affected my neighborhood the previous fall. I didn’t think the fire itself was the problem. It was a metaphor for many other disasters in my life, many lovingly built structures that had been destroyed. I was having a hard time finding shelter. Believing in shelter.

The trauma specialist told me to burn the whole house down. And the entire surrounding forest. And then see what happened. In my mind’s eye, obviously, not for “real.” But when you mentally enact these scenarios with these headphones on, you’re in a slightly hypnotized state, and the affect is high. It does feel real.

house8However, it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to burn down most of my little house. The kitchen I’d designed so carefully. The walls I’d stayed up all hours mudding and painting. The floors I’d refinished. My wonderful soaker tub. Those beautiful windows and skylights. The gleaming golden ceiling. The “spirit in the sky” turquoise paint in the hallway. Bye to the Persian rugs chosen for these spaces. I had to close my eyes, but all the bookshelves my brother built and all their contents went to house3ash without the world collapsing into a black hole.

It was harder to see the old lilacs and the monster Ponderosas go. Some of those trees are among the oldest in the canyon.

I stopped when I came to Julian’s room. I mentally stood in the doorway for twenty minutes or more, keeping the flames at my back.

What’s happening? the trauma specialist asks.

I’m trying to burn my son’s room, I say.

Oh, she says. We’d both been expecting other, older events to come up, stuff from my own childhood, as the walls of my house fell.

It wasn’t what this room was, but all the things it wasn’t. It was never sunnyhouse7 and welcoming, like the south-facing corner room Julian had in our pre-divorce home, with its warm, pine-paneled walls. I was never able to get the furniture arranged so the room in this “new” house felt right. Partly because while we lived there Julian was at an age where whatever I said wasn’t going to be received.

There were things I found in this room, over the years, things I didn’t want to find. In some cases the use was all too clear. I never figured out what some of those other things were for.

This room was empty a lot of the time. When you’re divorced, you only get to be a parent half time. If there’s a hint of conflict—and when isn’t there?—with a teenager, there’s always the other parent, promising no curfew.

Standing, in my mind, in Julian’s doorway as the flames try without success to eradicate all of that—the rap and the Sponge Bob posters with their mixed messages, the other signs I found, almost too late, of his psychic pain, I realize it’s not that I don’t want to let it go. It’s that I don’t want to let go of the hope that I can roll back time and fix it. THEN.

But how’s Julian NOW? the trauma specialist asks, gently.

I want to say he’s fine, but then I realize that’s just a statement of faith, or even hubris, like some guy from Arkansas who knows nothing of foreign policy who pontificates on Iran. Julian’s in college, and I see him once or twice per year. I had the money in savings to pay for tuition, but not much extra for travel. All I have to go on is what he tells me over the phone, and what he posts on Facebook, which isn’t much.

What’s your relationship like?

Pretty good for long distance, I say. But we don’t talk or text every day like some parents do. He tells me what he’s thinking about as a consequence of his physics seminars. I listen to his music uploads on Soundcloud. He shares his thoughts on relationships.

THEN WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT? she asks. Do you realize how many parents don’t have this?

I don’t know, I say. I wasn’t the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I never made this room into what I imagined. In fact, I was sort of thinking this house was just the first post-divorce house, and then I’d give him a *real* home.

So it’s okay if this house burns?

In a way. If I had a better house to go to. But that never happened. And now it doesn’t matter, because he’s gone anyway. It just all seems…irrelevant… now. I didn’t finish the nest, really, and now what’s the point?

I kept trying. I kept thinking tomorrow would be another day. But it feels like we’re out of tomorrows.

So now it’s time to go build your nest, she says. What would that look like?

Good question. I never for one minute thought I’d have a tough time answering that. I’ve always been an independent person, with a strong sense of who *I* am. But maybe because I also had a strong sense of WAIT, GET BACK HERE, KID, I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU, I wasn’t quite as ready for this next step as I expected. 

I move out of the doorway and let the roof come down on the last room standing.

But I don’t feel right about it.

 

Hat tip to Andi O’Conor’s blog, Burning Down the House.

<<Please note that post draws on an exercise, a guided meditation of sorts, that took place in a therapy session. The purpose of the session was to process fear and uncover underlying issues (I’m simplifying). As those who have been following this blog know, there was a fire, but it did not reach my house. I am not literally planning to burn down my house, nor have I ever burned any structure, intentionally or otherwise.>>

 

Thinning Down the House

I’m moving on again. I’ve had to do this a few times in the past couple of years. Like a lot of people, we’re finding that the jobs we want or can get are not necessarily where we were living, or where we wanted to live. (Yay for the efficiencies of capitalism, as people take great losses to truck around after work, often forced to leave perfectly good homes and positions.)

As we rent out the home we own near Boulder, we’ve entered a new phase as tenants ourselves. One new liability of this role is that, in this economy, landlords are going into foreclosure quite frequently. Including the guy we’ve been renting from. So once again we have to move.

I was just reading an account in The New Yorker by someone who loves moving. I find it emotionally exhausting. 

Each time we’ve moved we’ve “streamlined.” Each time we still can’t fit our stuff into the new place. Too much of the past gets excavated, and there are too many decisions to make. I get why my partner wants to keep these pictures of his deceased wife and some of her jewelry. But what about her high-school diploma?

What about the dollhouse? he counters. He means this HUGE dollhouse my grandfather built as a replica of the home I was living in as a child. My grandfather also built miniatures of all the furniture in the house. The craftsmanship isn’t excellent, but it’s still a cool dollhouse. All of my siblings played with it in some way, even if was to use as a gerbil cage or as a matchbox parking garage. Somebody, possibly my kid, re-tiled it throughout in construction paper. Okay, it needs some remodeling, but I don’t think it’s a scraper. The point is, it’s been a imaginative focal point for generations of Steeveses.

The problem is that it’s competing for storage space in a very cramped basement with dozens of crates of my books. And with Tony’s climbing gear. 

Just the other day, I got an email from some advice guru—not sure why I’m on her list—on how to declutter. It appears that it’s energetically congesting to hold on to stuff. Put questionable items in a box, she says, and if you haven’t gone looking for them in six months, have your partner donate the box without your even checking it.

Nice, but what about the dollhouse? We’ve got stuff in boxes we haven’t seen in two years. I’m not throwing all of it out. I know I won’t need it all in six months, but I can’t swear I won’t need it in 12 or 24, or that I’ll be able to afford to buy it back if I do. Everything is way too uncertain.

I have decided to let go of the sheet cake pans. I’m pretty sure I won’t be making cakes for elementary school classes, thank God. But when it comes to things like the dollhouse, I was saving it for grandchildren, so the longer it’s stored, the better. My son is only in college.

So, I guess the dollhouse needs to be dragged around, at least until I know if a) the kid is even having kids, and b) he and his partner will want it for their kids. Maybe he’ll connect with the kind of person who would hate the idea of their perfect children playing with a dollhouse that was once peed in by gerbils. You never know with some people. 

But didn’t you have a crappy childhood? my partner points out. It’s a hundred degrees out and we’re sorting stuff in an garage without air conditioning. What’s so great about a dollhouse made by a grandfather who otherwise sounds kind of mean, and that replicates a terrible little house you hated living in?

Well. Um. He did put a lot of work into it. It doesn’t seem right to just… Anyway. Just put it in the keep pile, will you?

You can only get so thin right at mid-life. Maybe you can ditch a bedroom, but you’re still serving as a storage unit for your kids. You still have leftover pets. You still have to work and need good closet space for your professional wardrobe and a bathroom big enough for two people to get ready in.

In this economy, you don’t know what’s next. Are things getting worse for us or better? Will a smaller house or a bigger one be around the next corner? I don’t want to be a hoarder, but I also don’t want to give up hope.

“No one expected to feel this uncertain at this age,” said one friend, let go after decades at a multinational corporation. I agree. We’re not wired for it. In many cultures, people over 45 are elders. We’re not supposed to be rushing around trying to find jobs, trying to convince landlords that just because we have pets we won’t trash their places, trying to decide what to do with that photo album that’s always been on the bookshelf built into the dining room wall.  

Contrary to the “wisdom” of almost all these self-help gurus, it almost never feels good to let things go. Tony and I have almost always regretted the books and records we’ve sold or given away. Inevitably our tastes (okay, except the Bay City Rollers) have circled back. The grad school notes I tossed in the dumpster during one purge I then went looking for after I reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook. Turned out he was a professor working in an area I’d written a paper on, and he wanted to see that paper. Damn it.

In this last round, Tony has been putting his MSW notes into the recycle bin. “It almost feels like these parts of you never existed when you throw them out,” he said. I know that’s why I hold on to my books. Sometimes I forget I read whole shelves, but it all comes back to me when I stand in front of them.

And then there’s the stuff that maybe is best to leave in the back of the closet. It turns out that there really isn’t that much that’s “energetically liberating” about going through every single box. It would have been fine if you left the dead wife’s jewelry at rest and spent your weekend out in the sunshine, roped up on a technical route on Independence Pass. Who’s to say that isn’t also a form of moving on?

Anxiety—it makes you fat and clingy.   

Dearly Beloved

It took 22 years to come to this.

I never knew what to do about letting Jacob’s ashes go.

But I am taking a creative writing fellowship on the East Coast this fall. My ex-husband is also moving, and our other son is in college on the West Coast. It didn’t seem right to put Jake in storage, or to drag him around the country.

It’s pretty hard for parents to design a memorial for their own child, especially when they have no religious community. When it’s a baby it can be even more difficult, because no one else knew the person or has any memories to share.

In the last few months I’ve been getting a strong sense that it’s time. And finally some ideas for how to go about it.

Return to the source, the place where he was made. Where both our boys were made.

Eldora1

Climb to an overlook on Spencer Mountain, where I used to hike, ski, or snowshoe nearly every day. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes pregnant with one boy or the other, and sometimes with the second son on my back or at my side. (And always with a dog or several.)

Hold up the urn, a hollowed-out piece of an aspen branch, and show Jake the view he never got to see with his eyes.

SpencerView

Point out the house he would have lived in.

Houseview2

Kiss some of the ashes, taste them on my tongue, and offer them to the wind that slips out of the jet stream to help make Eldora such a place of power.

Then lead my ex-husband and my living son back down the mountain to “the rock,” a boulder jutting into the rapids in North Boulder Creek.

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When I was depressed and drained I would lie there and draw on the heat of the rock, the roar of the water, and all that melting light from the glaciers above. I did this when pregnant with one son and then the other and after Julian was born I brought him here for picnics in the summer. I took him snowshoeing here in the winter, when the hurl of the wind supplanted the thunder of the melt. “Icy ri-ber” was one of Julian’s first concepts.

As the three of us approach the rock, there are many shared ah-ha’s and remember thises and remember thats. But also some shocks as a treasured memory turns out not to be shared by the other.

For years I’ve had a hard time revisiting this valley because its beauty pains me. I hate that I don’t still live here, that I couldn’t hold on to the magic for the sake of my living son.

And that’s part of why this ritual needs to happen, and why Jacob needs to go now. He doesn’t need to be tangled up in this confusion and regret any longer. This is a farewell to a marriage, a segment of motherhood, and a childhood, as well as to a little son and a brother.

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All this source water. Jake may never have seen this place, but he certainly heard and felt it.

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One of the most challenging moments comes when the box is empty. We’ve talked about burying it nearby, but I’ve forgotten to bring a trowel. Julian dangles the box over the river, stroking it. Should we just drop it? his dad and I wonder. It feels right. But when we do, we all are shaken by the violence with which the water grabs it away. 

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“I guess you’re never ready,” Julian says later.

No. You never are. Not for the final good-bye.

So I think of Charon and his boat on the River Styx, Moses and his basket of reeds. This valley was once a container for all of us, and now we’re all taking different paths. It wouldn’t be right to leave Jake behind, rooted.

Jake&John

Well, little boy. We’ve kept you close for so long. Travel far. Stay safe. Please, please check in. Our hearts are always open to you.

In Progress

Positive discipline, like going for a run, or studying, or writing a first draft—THAT I can do.

But negative discipline: NOT eating the chocolate, or having the second martini, or sleeping with the guy on the first date. That’s harder.

Then there’s accepting, moving on, whether it’s positive or negative. Integrating things I didn’t want to have happen and letting them change me and take me in new directions. The death of a child. A divorce. Like a lot of people, I’m not so good at that.

What I suck at most is allowing the good stuff to happen. What if it turns out I didn’t mess up my kid? He’s at college right now and apparently doing fine. He just got a National Science Foundation scholarship. He’s composing interesting techno music—a former perfectionist, he’s not afraid to put works-in-progress out there for the world. Not to brag; these are his achievements. However, it seems they might be at least partial evidence that he’s alive and well.

What if he’s all right in spite of the fact that I wasn’t the perfect parent, or the perfect wife?

I know. It’s a banal realization—there have been whole novels and movies on this topic—but there it is. I’ve been sitting stunned in my house since my son drove off to school last fall.

What if it’s okay for me to move on, too?

Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.