SEASONS OF GRIEF

As with the blossoms exploding in Spring or the leaves turning neon before their last journey to earth in the Fall, the seasons usher in unique offerings for different times.

So it is with grief, the onset of pain while saying goodbye to someone or something dearly loved. It is a process that is baffling and tailored to each individual going through it. It can be harrowing and cathartic; unrelenting and abrupt; avoided but necessary.

This has been such a season for us. The season (about 18 months) has seen a beloved parent pass, as well as friends, relatives of friends and dear pets who are as much family members as if they walked upright on two legs.

Grief also seems to beget grief. By that I mean that a new passage of grief has fragments and echoes of earlier grief journeys so that the mourning process is often a confusing mosaic of heartbreak for the current loss as well as reliving walks down the corridors of earlier losses.

This is not meant to be a melancholy or angst ridden-entry. On the contrary, I’m one who believes that grief is very necessary for the human condition. And I’m one who avoided it for a long time and had to re-learn that grief must be passed through. It cannot be circumvented or avoided for very long. It always catches up and demands to be dealt with. 

As I often do when experiencing difficult or even joyous times, I turn to the written word. Writing has helped me immensely when going through hard times in my life. It makes tangible that which is often confusing or amorphous.

So, to comfort my own heart as well as to hopefully bring a kernel of peace to those whom I hold dear and who  are walking their own grief journeys, I offer these words along with my prayer for a metaphorical arm-around-the-shoulder as their lives re-adjust to the vacuums they are now dealing with…

“There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” ~Winnie the Pooh

“Grief is itself a medicine.”  ~William Cowper

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”  ~William Shakespeare

“Grief is a statement – a statement that you loved someone.” ~Barbara Baumgartner

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; 
   he drew me out of deep waters. 
 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, 
   from my foes, who were too strong for me. 
 They confronted me in the day of my disaster, 
   but the LORD was my support. 
 He brought me out into a spacious place; 
   he rescued me because he delighted in me. ~Psalm 18:16-19

 I cried out to the LORD in my suffering, and he heard me. He set me free from all my fears. ~Psalm 34:6

In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”  ~Robert Ingersoll

“Hope is grief’s best music.” ~ Unknown

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The Dinner Guest

Seeing as it is Easter week, I thought it would be appropriate to put up a short story that befits the season.

The Dinner Guest is a story I wrote many years ago. It retells the biblical story of Matthew the tax collector and of a particular dinner he held for Jesus (Matthew 9:10). Pretty remarkable since tax collectors in the day were considered a little lower than scum. But Matthew had been called by Jesus to follow Him and so he did.

I always wondered what it would have been like to be at Matthew’s (or Levi as he is also called) home where many of society’s ill-forgotten gathered. What would it have been like to be an outsider and to see Jesus for the first time? What would it have been like to actually steal a moment with him and pour out your heart?

And so, one early evening as the sun was setting outside my window, my pen took me back a couple thousand years and placed me in Matthew’s house with many wayward souls and one very special guest. And I’ll always be thankful I made the trip.

Here’s The Dinner Guest.

Happy Easter.

Dinner Guest

 

 

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Words to Harm, Words to Heal.

I am haunted by words.

Not in the frightening sense, or even in that writing scares me. It bewilders, frustrates and confounds me at times but the act of writing doesn’t frighten me.

But I am brought up short by words I’ve written, said or have not written or said and should have. There are some in particular I wish I could take back or certainly take another run at.

I’ve spent a lot of years writing articles, stories, books, screenplays, plays, just about every medium trying to come up with just the right word, the best turn of a phrase to convey my exact meaning. Sometimes the words flow as they should and it’s extremely gratifying. Other times, the words lay there, inert, awkward, not quite right and not at all what I envisioned.

See, that’s the thing about writing. Ideas are easy. It’s having a great idea and not screwing it up on the way to the page that’s the tricky part.

It’s kind of the same with life. I’ve written notes or letters to people and have caused hurt. Almost always unintentionally. Sometimes the hurt is inevitable because of the circumstances or the need to call on behavior that is harmful. But there are times when the words come out in a stream of emotion and what I thought I conveyed was instead interpreted as something else. And feelings were hurt. Distances created. Friendships tarnished.

It hasn’t happened often and only a handful of times over my life. But words are powerful and they can be heat-seeking missiles and once we fire them, it can be very difficult to undo the damage they have on impact; no matter how hard we try to clean up the mess.

This isn’t meant as a confessional. More like reflection and a renewed effort to handle words with greater care.

So, I am haunted by words. By the power they carry to move, transport and change. Words like, hurt, pain, grief, loneliness, why

But I also love words for the very same reason. They can be carrier pigeons taking possibilities in flight that can bring truth, healing and make the soul soar. Words like, friendship, joy, healing, hope and love.

May our words find the light that brings out the best of what they were meant to be.

 

 

 

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Rubbing Elbows & Breathing Inspiration

I’ve been thinking about my encounters with folks who’ve inspired me. These folks are also known in their particular artistic fields but whatever fame they’ve achieved is an afterthought; it’s their art that has always come first. They have been generous with their time and art; I might even say ‘heart,’ for behind all of their artistic passions is a tremendous heart for people and their craft. My time with them has affected my own writing and artistic endeavors. Here are three that readily come to mind…

Horton Foote. Writer of dozens of plays and screenplays and winner of the Academy Award for the screenplays of To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. I was gifted with a lunch with Mr. Foote through a dear friend of mine in NYC. HF (as my friend affectionately called him) turned out to be warmer and more genuine in person than I could have imagined. He regaled us with tales of working in live television, his approach to writing and how much he loved the theater. What I learned from him was that writing from the heart was critical as well as never giving up. And to keep writing, even if it’s into your nineties.

Ann Hampton Callaway. Ann is an award winning, Tony-nominated singer/songwriter and one of the most gifted live performers I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing in person. Full disclosure: she also happens to be a dear friend. But I can tell you that rarely have I seen an audience (whether it’s large like at The Lincoln Center in NYC or smallish at the Austin Cabaret Theater) so in the palm of the hand of a performer. Ann came up through the ranks through incredibly hard work, grit, giftedness and a wonderful giving spirit. And she has a great laugh. What I’ve learned from Ann is that whatever artistic endeavor you’re following, the heart dictates the gift. And being generous in spirit and otherwise, is its own reward. And you cannot beat the woman at puns. I’ve tried but she’s the master.

Wesley Bishop. Wes is a screenwriter who’s made a living at it for over twenty-five years. Wes and I first met when he was an actor at The Oregon Shakespearean Festival in the mid-eighties. I was barely out of college and trying to figure out this writing  and acting thing. Wes was a terrific actor with an undeniable stage presence. But he was also extremely genuine in person. And when I found out he was also a screenwriter I was amazed. Here was a man who was doing (and making a living at) the two things I loved more than anything in the world. I approached him for some advice and help and he gladly gave it, being both firm but encouraging. We lost touch over the years but reconnected almost thirty years later and I’m grateful we did. We’re able to talk on a different level now and I still appreciate his wit, straight-shooting and decency. What I’ve learned from Wes is tenacity; that your absolute best work is all you should show. And if it’s not your best, then keep working on it until it is. It’s a lesson that has paid dividends for me and one  I still have to remind myself of when I’m tired and think the works ‘good enough.’

Thank you Mr. Foote, Ann & Wes. I’m grateful for the inspiration. May I carry out your lessons and hopefully be the kind of example you’ve been for me.

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End of the Innocence

I lost a friend this week.

Actually he died in 2000 and I just found out. His name was Casey and he was my best friend from ages 5-8. I moved across town then and we were never that close again. In 1987 I found him when I was living in the Seattle area. But it was strange and hard. We had very little in common. Our lives had taken diametrically opposed pathways and we had a difficult time finding common ground. Still, the history of our childhood sustained us for a while while we tried to see if we still had the makings of a continuing friendship as adults. It didn’t seem so.

One day he came to me and said, “John, it’s okay, you know. You don’t have to feel that we have to still be friends.”  I felt awful and didn’t know what to say. I said I wanted to try. But we drifted apart and I never heard from him agan.

And then I read his obiturary on Saturday. There was a picture of him at about five years old, with black-rimmed glasses, red-checkered sweater and his dark brown hair swept back with VO5, I’m sure. It was the Casey I knew. The one who laughed and shouted with me from our respective two-storied windows; who would be Batman to my Robin as we climbed into his grandmother’s cadillac and pretended it was The Batmobile; the one who watched Frankenstein with me in the lving room of our house on Cherry Court and then went screaming into my bedroom when the monster went on a rampage. And the one who looked at me with saucered brown eyes and cried, because of his loneliness, of an inner pain and a sensitivity way beyond his years.

I wrote a novel, a detective/thriller/coming-of-age story that had a main character patterned after Casey. I guess it was my way of reaching out to him, to tell him I’m sorry we weren’t table to strike the same chord we did when we were little.

Here is an excerpt from ‘Brother’s Keeper.’ I grieve for you, Casey and I miss you. May you know the rest, peace and joy that seemed to elude you in this life. My prayer is that you are being embraced right now as you have never been. Love you.

*Kincaid was a hyperactive boy with black-framed glasses who lived with his grandmother, for reasons that I didn’t understand at the time. Both his Mother and Father were alive, albeit divorced. He used to get lonely. I’d hear him crying to himself sometimes behind the row of Laurel bushes that separated our two houses. In fact, that’s how we met. I was in the back yard, excavating mom’s petunias with my Tonka Dump Truck Loader when…

I heard this soft whimper floating out to me. At first I thought it was a kitten. I crawled over and poked my head into the thick Laurel and saw this small, hunched figure.

“Hey,” I said.

He jumped a little, scared. His glasses, which were already too big for his face, slanted askew, his eyes big brown saucers.

And I started laughing. And couldn’t stop.

“Cut it out,” he said, adjusting his glasses.

I tried. I really did. But you know how it is when you start laughing and you know you should stop. I think that flips some breaker in the brain that throws the giggle gear on high. At least it did in my case. All I could do was put my hand up to try and communicate through some six year-old digit language. I waved my fingers in front of me, helpless, in near-hysterics.

“I said cut it out!”

I nodded, in total agreement…just unable to oblige.

“That’s a mean thing you’re doing,” he said rising to his knees, facing me through the tangle of Laurel wood. “You piss-pocket.”

That did it. I rolled over in submission, holding my gut, laughing silently because I had no more air. I’d never heard ‘piss-pocket’ before. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I looked over at my new-found neighbor and he was so serious that a new wave of hysteria over took me. I think I mouthed ’I’m sorry’ before rolling over on my side, shaking from waves of laughter.

And then he put his head down and I thought I’d crushed him. When he looked up I expected a trembling lip and globs of tears. Instead, a crooked smile greeted me and he was laughing as well. He snorted and this made us both erupt. He started laughing so hard he fell into the bush. And there we lay, our first meeting, laughing joyously and uncontrollable on a June morning forever ago.

As we spent more time together, I noticed his crying jags grew less and less. When he did cry, I always felt helpless. He’d come over sometimes and sit on our front steps. He’d prop his chin on his hands and the tears would come. Seems like all I could do was simply sit next to him or put a hand on his shoulder. When I’d ask what was wrong, he wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me. Some things that happen to us when we’re young can’t make their way from our damaged hearts and minds out through our mouths. . .

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Trunk Tales

Every writer has the proverbial trunk where dead and dying manuscripts go to find peace, many often never heard from again. And that’s a good thing. Most of what we write when we first start writing seriously is not ready for the printed world. Every once in a great while a lightning shot out of the blue will ring out, a 23-year-old kid fresh out of Columbia will land his first something on an editor’s desk who scoops it and paying boatloads of cash. But I think it’s fair to say that is pretty rare. It’s also fair to say I hate those young kids.

Master Hemingway said something to the effect that the first million words anyone writes is pure, uhm, dookey. Certainly part of the craft if learning while you go; discovering character and setting and story as you put the words down. That doesn’t mean they always work.

All this to say that I indeed have my own writer’s trunk. There has only been a couple of occasions when I’ve rescued a short story or two from there, still thinking they had something to them and found it was lucky enough to be true and placed them with a magazine. But most of the carcases are still there and I still get a little nostalgic for them, remembering where and who I was when I wrote them. I thought it’d be fun to look at some of the misfit manuscripts:

SHINING ARMOR – A young adult novel that tells the story of a young man and his little sister who go to live with their grandparents after their parents are killed in a tragic car accident. New town, new school, no friends. He has nothing to rely on except his martial arts in which he’s been trained by a Korean mentor who meant the world to him. It’s a story of loss, change, friendship and coming back to oneself. A little bit Karate Kid, A little bit My BodyGuard, a little bit of Peace Like a River before it was written. SA was written when I was 26-27. Still learning the ropes of what it meant to write, still infatuated with the process and rhythm of stringing words together, still giddy with all the possibilities of creating stories from scratch. It got me an agent but ultimately everyone turned it down because they didn’t think it was quite strong enough to sell. A blow but I was still proud to have followed though and completed a whole novel. I can only dream about the energy I had then to write 10 -15 pages a day. Sigh.

HAVE NO FEAR – A screenplay that throws together five young adults who are trying to come to grips with their phobias and the college professor whose malevolence and uncanny powers use those fears to control them. A bad amalgamation of Stephen King and John Carpenter. Some good dialogue but a lot of it is too over-the-top. But interestingly enough, the seed of this idea and a few scenes are making it into a new novel that expands the original idea. We’ll see if that one ends up in the trunk, too.

TO FLY – Another screenplay that was taken from a short film I shot right after high school. A wheelchair-bound boy dreams of flying liking Superman. Yeah, I know. That’s why it’s in the trunk.

GOKE-THE BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL – A scientist and his assistant try to figure out what created a series of strange earthquakes. Worse yet, a creature from the underworld comes after them. There are fires, blood and gnashing of teeth. Almost biblical. It was my first story I gave to a teacher in grade school. She couldn’t stop laughing after she read it. And it wasn’t a comedy.

Every once in a great while I’ll pull out a few pages and remember the younger man who dared to put pen to paper to try to solidify the stories in his head. They don’t always come out the way you want them to. But even the failures are sweet births and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

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Journey of an Article Idea

Have an article coming out in Alaska/Horizon Air magazine. It’s a nice publication and the editor, Michele, is a dream to work with. I got to thinking about the circuitous path of this particular article and thought I’d track it’s journey to publication.

The article is called A Crewcut For Flash, A Little Off The Sides For Green Lantern, though we’ll see if it hangs onto that moniker when it’s published in January. It’s a fun, little homey piece about my memories of going to Norm’s Barbershop with my Dad every third Saturday in the little town where I grew up. My intro to the barber’s chair at three or four created a traumatic experience for me. All I remember is a steel creature with teeth buzzsawing around my neck as pieces of my head fell away around me. Such is the imagination of a preschooler. But one Saturday, Norm hired a partner who took a notice of my interest in comics. As I hesitantly climbed in the barber’s chair he instantly regaled me with tales of the latest superhero who’d come in to get his locks chopped. Firing questions at him about The Flash, Hawkman or Spidey I’d soon forgotten all about my fears and in no time my hair was cut and I learned something new about one of my beloved comic companions. It was a lesson in compassion and joy and one I never forgot.

The memory solidified into a 900 word essay in the summer of 2004. By August I had a polished draft and began submitting it to magazines. It went to some regional magazines and then some other in-flight magazines. Editors seemed to like it but didn’t quite know what to do with it. So I kept to submitting.

And submitting…

2010 brought more rejections and some close calls with The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. I was running out of markets and was wondering if the piece belonged in the fabled writer’s trunk where manuscripts go to live; kind of like The Island of Misfit Toys.

Toward the end of 2011, ‘Crewcut‘ had been submitted 62 times. I don’t know if that’s tenaciousness or denial. But in November, Michele, the encouraging editor from Horizon Airlines with whom I had published several pieces in the past asked if I had anything lying around. Well…

So ‘Crewcut’ will finally be found in the pocket behind the airline seats and pulled out to be periodically read between the serving of peanuts and soft drinks somewhere over the skies of the Pacific Northwest. And Norm’s Barbershop will be remembered and the little piece that didn’t seemed to have a place to live can finally come home.

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