Peeling Onions

•January 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

All-new post sitting in draft folder. So, instead of calling it a day, here’s how to make SOS for lunch.

Completely in the Dark

“Boys! Home for dinner!”

The alpha male with the booming voice was tasked with ringing the front door dinner bell and bellowing that call to the entire Casco Point neighborhood.

That daily ritual reminds me how important food and mealtimes were to the Family Project—especially Dad—right from the beginning.

Even when we were guests of my maternal grandparents, Ray and Mamie Adams (at left, picnicking in July 1964), Dad was at the head of the table, saying grace, our heads bowed. The women cooked the food and set the table.

Years later, after we’d moved to Minnesota, the task of setting the table fell to me and my brother. And, since Mom never really learned to cook, meal preparation was eventually split between Mom and Dad.

Because of grandmother’s preoccupation with making her husband’s life hell, she perhaps neglected Mom. I never recall Mom deeply considering supper menus…

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Tell Me a Story

•January 13, 2017 • 2 Comments

Going through some soul-searching on my own stories and what matters as a new year begins. All-new post next Friday, so here’s an appetizer until then.

Completely in the Dark

Once upon a time, there were no stories.Story Time 2

Umm, what?

That’s right. It’s a ridiculous statement to make, because I can’t remember such a time.

If there ever was a true beginning of the world, then that was not it—no stories? No life!

No Bambi fleeing a burning forest.

No Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a wicked witch’s spindle.

No foot race with golden apples and—terror of terrors—a lovely young woman with a priceless wedding gift, and whose misuse of it is legendary.

It started so simply: “Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle,” “Hickory, dickory, dock!” “Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,” “Little Bo Peep, lost her sheep…”

Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail… and Peter.

And then Wynken, Blynken… and Nod. Just three dudes sailing off in a wooden shoe, “on a river of crystal light…” I could see it! I could imagine their crazy flight!

Story Time 1My maternal…

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Offsides!

•January 6, 2017 • Leave a Comment

After last week’s post on songwriter Marlee MacLeod, I got to thinking about my own forays there. So, this. Next week, all-new post. Happy New Year, friends!

Completely in the Dark

Kevin Gibson asked if I could write him some lyrics.Game2

On Aug. 16, 1978, I “worked Tables 17 and 4 with the same old crowd.” As mentioned, the Tonka Toys factory was so loud we couldn’t chat while working.

But sitting outside at the picnic tables on dinner break, “Kevin Gibson and I did a lot of talking about collaborating our songwriting talents. So this Sunday I think we’re gonna get together [to] do a little jamming and go out and have a few beers.”

The diary entry concludes with just one word: “Offsides!”

The grind was getting me down. I was itching for a creative outlet. Kevin could see that and offered a way out. If I wrote some lyrics, he promised to put them to music.

The next day I was back working the tumbler-deburrer, which involved a wage increase for the night. There, between tumbler loads, I…

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No Vacancy

•December 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“There are far bleaker vistas than this, if you dare/But they lose all their mystery suddenly, once you’ve been there…”
—“Walk You Home” by Marlee MacLeod

Let’s just say I had a “Come to Jesus” moment.

Not your standard Road to Damascus, full-blown revival tent conversion.

Man, I’ve already been there, done that.

Instead, it involved the first draft of this post and sitting with its original lede, which read: “I hate the holidays.”

So I sighed deeply into the “Nada Hail Nada Full of Nada” brewing up within me, twitched nervously in the roaring silence, and stayed with it for two weeks before I realized that it was bullshit.

Truth is, I love the holidays. I’ve just done everything in my power to avoid running into them on the street.

But “the street” happens, whether you like it or not.

Case in point: On Christmas Day I ventured out for worship service at a Unitarian church in St. Paul. The sidewalks were slick with ice, so the only safe place to walk was literally in the street. A city bus took me as far as Selby Avenue, where I doggedly crunched and shuffled toward Portland Avenue, getting to the service five minutes late.

And there I sat.

For nearly an hour I wrestled with old Christmas carols and the scary worried jangle in my head. The silence persisted and pressed in from the outside, like the pressure around a deep sea diving bell. I fought back with tears and general inattention to the worship service.

Afterward I walked up to Grand Avenue, bought a Sunday paper, and met an elderly black man outside Walgreens who begged for a handout. I gave him five bucks, then headed down to the vacant intersection at Grand and Victoria, where between icy blasts only a handful of people were out walking their dogs.

Moments later that same beggar hobbled by with his cane, walking in the street as I had been doing, flagging down people wherever he could find them. When a half hour passed without a bus, I saw him again crunching and shuffling his way back up the avenue.

I instantly felt miserable: to-the-bone cold, tired, hungry, ashamed of myself and my needy neighbor on the street, and anxious and worried about the future.

That alone should affirm the whole “I hate the holidays” thing, right?

Well, it would if you wanted to overstate the obvious.

But three gifts had been laid at my feet that I didn’t see until I re-read the draft of this post: 1) the gift of this blog itself, the process I’ve developed for it, and the journals that accompany it; 2) the gift of this particular “Season of Silence” and “what it wants to say”; and 3) the gift of songs written and performed by Marlee MacLeod.

***

“I have a light on, a stranger’s kindness/It brought me from there to here.”
—“Econoline” by Marlee MacLeod

Returning to Minnesota from Christmas at my parents’ Florida home, I faced a fresh new year: 2001. A journal entry from Sunday, Feb. 18 states:

“Two or three years ago I read a City Pages article on a local singer-songwriter that I took a brief fascination with, and saw that she was playing at the 400 Bar in Mpls., so checking in with previous concert-going buddies Kimberly and Lisa from work and we met up at [the 400 Bar] a couple Tuesday evenings back to see Marlee McLeod play.”

Marlee MacLeod was a transplant to the Twin Cities from Alabama. She’d been featured in City Pages and was recording albums and performing around town. She had the pipes of a country & western Grace Slick, and wrote song lyrics that sliced ‘n’ diced like a Ginsu knife.

Hot damn. I had me a new musical hero.marleeposter

That February 2001 was the first I’d seen Marlee MacLeod live and described it in the journal: “…she seemed ill or generally disenchanted with the turnout, but we three enjoyed the show, and I was impressed with the smartness and strength of her songs. She even did a cover of The Who’s ‘Love Ain’t For Keepin’,’ which really blew me away.”

Marlee had written a song called “No Vacancy.” It’s always been my go-to Blue Christmas song. She played it that night, pretty much to me alone as friends Kimberly and Lisa had taken off after the first set. (I’m including Marlee’s brilliant lyrics and a YouTube link to the song below.)

That whole night reminded me of my Iowa City Crow’s Nest days, and I admitted as much to the journal: “I felt the same sense of excitement and possibility watching Marlee play…as listening to Rain Parade, R.E.M., Aztec Camera, the Three O’Clock….wow, great days.”

Great days.

Where have they gone? Are they still out on the road?

Or have they found their way home yet?

***

“I’m not scared of gettin’ lost, it’s the gettin’ found I dread.” —“Ride” by Marlee MacLeod

This blog is another gift, if looked at the right way.

The wrong way: Not as an ego toy or even as a passion project (unless you consider breathing, eating, and sleeping a “passion project”). It challenges me exactly in the way it’s doing now: figuring out what I want to say, pretty much based on what I said (which comes into play with the diaries and journals).

So why keep a journal at all? It’s a valid question.

Outside of habit (I’ve probably written more entries in the journal this past year than in the last decade), the answer is easy: I feel less lonely.

Writing as talking doesn’t interest me as much as writing as conversation. So, here:

In this quiet breakfast nook (at left), pour us some coffee and plop yourself down, my friend.

It’s the last Minnesota home my late parents owned, a farmhouse in Minnetrista. Our final Christmas there was in 1991…

Dad’s probably got some leftovers in the fridge, if you’re hungry. I’m content to sit here and stare out the window, watch the birds hopping in the snow, see the pines swaying in the wind.

So let’s catch up a bit.

Perhaps you recall in 2009 I left Facebook. And just after this election, I quit Twitter. I still check in at Instagram, but hate myself for it. Social media is good for only one thing: distribution of content. I’d hoped it could be used more as a tool for engagement, but that’s like trying to emcee a concert stadium packed with thousands of people—with not a soul listening to you.

Furthermore, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Tumblr make it easy to rant—talk, talk, talk—but never listen. Or learn. Or have a conversation, you know, like we’re having here in this breakfast nook in a house I haven’t lived in for over 20 years.

So, what do you think? Could it be we’re all screaming at each other in our selfie-made digital house of mirrors?

But I see you’re looking up from your coffee, curiously sniffing the air. It takes me a moment to understand, but then I remember.

Yeah, that’s smoke you smell. From the fire that burnt the house down in January 1992.

Guess it’s time for us to leave.

***

“You’re not a listener, are you? You’re a teller, I can tell.”
—“Mata Hari Dress” by Marlee MacLeod

That last gift—the silence—has been the hardest one to accept.

It’s all wrapped up with the other “gifts:” the grief and loss, the insecurity and isolation, the loneliness, the poverty and want, the noise from The Bubble—of privilege and pride easily found, expressed, and shared on social media. I pulled the plug on that only to quickly drown in reality’s roaring silence. The pain that followed was extreme. But it helped when I asked it one question, probably on that freezing Christmas Day after church: What do I need to learn from you?

I’m here, O Season of Silence, listening.

I wish all the happy Christmas memories could last, but every year it gets harder to create new ones. There’s a Family Project ornament I’ll never forget: a glittery green plastic star that encased a tin center that spun wildly when heated by Christmas lights. It fascinated me as a child. Has it found a good home? Or did it end up in a landfill? I worry about these little things.

I’m still breathing, still fighting, still writing. And still hoping my tribe is out there and I’m just late meeting up with them.

But now it feels later than late. Marlee didn’t know where to send the postcard. I wonder if anyone remembers sending postcards.

So here’s the Christmas song Marlee sang to me on that lonely, cold February back in 2001 at the 400 Bar.

She’s singing it for you now:

“I … I drive for a livin’
And I been leavin’ shreds of my decency all down the line
I’m takin’ in more than I’m givin’
I … I see lights, what are they for?
When every day’s a holiday, what’s one more?

Is that the star of Bethlehem? No, that’s a Holiday Inn
Is that the light from a stable I see? No, that’s a sign that says
No vacancy

I … I know this cold all season
You can say be of good cheer but my dear
I won’t without a damn good reason
I … I told you already I’m never satisfied
Sing me that song, it reminds me of home
Wherever that is

Is that the star of Bethlehem? No, that’s a Holiday Inn
Is that the light from a stable I see? No, that’s a sign that says
No vacancy.”

Last Letter to the Old Man

•December 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The post originally on slate for publishing today veered into Wholesale Rewrite City. So here’s a timely topic for today. Cheers, MM

Completely in the Dark

I saw you on the street today. At least I thought it was you.

photo via Unsplash / Gerard Moonen Photo via Unsplash / Gerard Moonen

Seems you’d just been to the pharmacy and had your walker cane in your right hand. With the other you had a suitcase in tow, atop of which rested your purchases in a plastic bag.

You really struggled to keep walking onward.

I wondered about your home—was anyone waiting there for you? Or are you still living alone?

Have you solved the riddle of relationships, or do they still confound you?

I’m guessing you’re at least 75 years old, so that means you’ve got 20 years on me. Hopefully your memory is as sharp as ever. But if it isn’t, there are always those diaries and journals you’ve kept most of your life, right?

Your maternal grandfather kept a log of his day’s events. He lived to 95…

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The Impossibly Improbable Inevitable

•December 16, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Republishing this chestnut while drafting all-new post for next Friday. Happy holidays, friends.

Completely in the Dark

My beautiful pictureIt’s been just over three years now.

On Thursday, April 5, 2012, at around 1:30 p.m. EST, my brother Brian and I lowered our parents’ ashes into the grave plot of a Greensburg, Ind., cemetery.

Sixteen years earlier, on Saturday, Sept. 14, 1996, we’d walked around the very same cemetery.

Grandpa Adams died the following Monday night, Sept. 9,” the journal reports. He would have turned 96 that October. He’d lived a long and happy life.

My brother, his wife Stacey, and I arrived for the funeral that Thursday, staying in Greensburg at Mom’s childhood home until we flew back to the Twin Cities on Sunday. Then Mom and Dad returned to their retirement home in Florida, where they’d been living for a year or so.

“It was, actually,” the entry continues, “an enjoyable time together with my family… The viewing was on Friday night and the funeral…

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Atonement

•December 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I got curious.shoeservice

Not like “curious strange” (although you might think so), but curious like “I’m wondering about…” Always a positive sign of my mental health.

As I was wandering around the locker room where I work, I saw this (a framed St. Paul Pioneer Press article, below left), dated Sunday, Sept. 24, 1995.

Hmmm, I thought. Bet I have an entry from the 1995 journal on that date.

Noting to check it when I got home, I meanwhile tried imagining what I did that day, given the year and season.

atone1In 1995 I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in St. Paul’s Merriam Park, not far from where I am now. I recall I’d had a tough time there by June ’95, three years into freelancing and struggling to get by.

My Sunday ritual then was breakfast, coffee, and a newspaper at home. When I found the entry dated in the clipping, it reported it was a gray, overcast day, but I’d planned a road trip south to explore, since the entire day was wide open.

The funny thing about curiosity experiments like this is how it leads me down paths I could’ve never found otherwise. As I wandered further into those September’s entries, I found this from two days later, Sept. 26, which I’ve transcribed in full:atone2

“Went straight to bed last night after attending the Mythos Center’s salon and ritual on ‘atonement.’ It was an odd evening. …”

ICYMI, the 1990s were the “Decade of the Salons”: precursors of today’s Internet-driven Meetups. In 1995 I attended Sunday services at the St. Paul Society of Friends (Quaker Meeting). There I learned about the Mythos Center, run by a Unitarian minister named Ted Tollefson out of a bookstore he and his wife owned in St. Paul.

“There were about fifteen of us and it began a little rigid, with a salon/discussion in the library. After 8 p.m. we all performed a ‘ritual of atonement’ in the Meeting Room. I was feeling very open to things all evening, but became more uncomfortable and disturbed as we got deeper into the ritual. It consisted of a simple earthenware urn that was placed in the center of the room on a huge black sheet, with candles and pots of paint, green, blue, yellow and red, surrounding it. We were to paint the urn and describe, if we wished, our own need for atonement. There was a major decision split in the group as to whether we should break the urn upon completing the painting and calls for atonement, or keep it whole. This became a major item of negotiation for the group. I felt that each person should go with his or her first impression—stay with the gut feeling as to whether the urn should be broken or not. I started out wanting to break the urn…I felt that guilt and the desire for atonement should not be an easy process, and it seemed to me that breaking the urn would be the difficult thing to do after investing the time and care to paint and embellish it. The group seemed to feel that we should continue with the ritual until the point came to decide whether or not to break the urn. That seemed resonable.”

I’ve added italics in the previous and forthcoming sections because certain passages leap out at me now, about what I went through that awful summer. I was 35 years old.

“…The latter part of the ritual was the hardest for me. After painting the urn we were to describe our need and add some paint to the urn. I waited as long as I could for my turn. While everyone spoke their peace: ‘I need to atone for being so selfish,’ or ‘I need to atone for the hurtful things I’ve said to others,’ the group responded with moans and whatever sounds they chose to add—I suppose to give an element of witness and reaction: so that the confession seemed to have a reciprocating action. Ted Tollefson stressed that if one did not wish to say anything, that would be fine, and one could just witness those who wished to atone. I vacillated…”

Thinking now of that knife’s point: deciding to speak, and confessing my own transgression. I’m also thinking of others in that room who decided against making a confession. Did they have any regrets? Were they able to atone for their transgressions later?

“…in the end I approached the urn, jabbed it with red paint and said I wish to atone to my father for [wanting] to take my life. It was really difficult to say that, and the group responded faintly—respectfully, I thought. After everyone who had wished to speak had spoken, one of the Mythos board members, Garth, dressed in what I thought to be a silly red Taoist-like robe, put on a mask, played the ‘Trickster’ and destroyed the urn. We picked up the shards, I handed some to those around me, and took a piece for myself, drizzled it with rosewater and ran it through the burning sage smoke, put on my shoes, and walked home.”

Interesting that I painted the urn red, and that Garth wore a “silly red Taoist-like robe.” Was my earlier impression to destroy the urn the choice of my own inner Trickster? Would things have been better had it remained whole?

“…Two things: Open to what is happening. Having no control, or limited control, over events. Being a force in the events by one’s mere presence, and by actions and choices made by those actions witnessed by others, who reinforce one’s identity as a force in the events. Approval, disapproval. I like the fact that the ritual was simple, and yet we as a group brought so much silly baggage to it, the cluttered baggage of our own ways of living. The majority in the group was older than me: in their 40s, one woman was in her 50s. They are aging baby boomers, the head of the pack. They may have been hippies, they may have been farmers’ sons and daughters. They could not live in the ways of their families and their ‘conventional’ religions, so they’ve started inventing their own.”

Now those “aging baby boomers” have added 20 more years of “silly baggage” to this tired old world, they’re at the head of the pack, waging a scorched-earth policy over political and economic control of the only urn left—the fate of the entire planet.

“…This is the second thing: the thing I did not like and felt it was a problem: there was too much subjectivity to this choice. It left things too open to the vagaries of one’s own desires and self-deceptions. It’s as Dylan says in “The Man in the Long Black Coat”: “The preacher was talking in a sermon he gave/He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/You cannot depend on it to be your guide/When it’s you who must keep it satisfied.” That’s why I suppose I’m more impressed by an independent thinker like T.S. Eliot, who embraced … Catholicism. Now THAT’S avant garde. Eliot, I suspect, would not do something like that for ‘effect,’ whereas the group I was with last night seemed too easily swayed by a rational appeal to alter the direction of the ritual. That’s why I tried to appeal to intuition and asked everyone to search for their first feeling about the urn.”

Revisiting this moment from the past, begun as a thought experiment looking at a date in a framed newspaper clipping, reminds me how when I’ve been in the middle of things I can’t see the edges, even while I’m reaching out trying to find them (hence the appeal to intuition).

Whether I actually atoned to my late father for wanting to take my life—the one I still have, the one I question is worth living, the one he and my late mother so joyfully gave to me at the cost of their own lives—comes down to not a journal entry, or newspaper clipping, but two vague memories. Both are roughly tied together in time.

One—the time just after Mom died when Dad and I lunched together, alone, at a restaurant a few miles from his home in Florida. We drank beers, had some gumbo, and ate seafood. I remember the squawking birds and crashing surf, the salty-sweet smell of the ocean. And how sad he looked since we lost Mom.

The other—hugging him later in his kitchen. He was a big man with a big heart. That happened 13 years after the summer I might’ve died.

Maybe that was my atonement, a last attempt to mend a broken urn, but I don’t think so.

 
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