Learning To Grieve

Grieving is an art, a demented performance piece demanding parts of yourself for that special touch of realism. I thought by now I might have developed some expertise as I’m reaching the point where I’ve outlived a great deal of those who wished me ill, and am unfortunately starting to accumulate losses of those who now take a piece of me with each death.

For some of the losses, there were others I loved as much. There were others who loved me. There were others who understood me. Many are still with me, still let me grieve in my own steady way of approaching all things emotional. They lack for nothing in their desire to help me through this time that turned out to be more painful than I ever imagined it would be. But there’s a large piece missing that Tina filled.

I knew Tina’s death would hit me hard. I anticipated the grief. I prepared for it the best I could. But what I didn’t prepare for was the realization that Tina was the only person I never had to explain anything to, because she was there for all of it since we were fourteen years old. In fifty-six years, no more than a month went by without some kind of contact between us. She knew everything about me. Absolutely everything. I never had to explain because she knew it all.

Now I find myself having to explain all those things that never needed an explanation, and by doing so it has forced me to look at them all over again with different eyes.

I saw how the smallest of things can impact a life, things that seemed so insignificant at the time were actually the seeds of life changing events. I grew into those smallest of seeds. I took them into myself and became me, decades later, but still me.

I saw how things that consumed me for days, weeks, years, actually meant little in the larger pattern of my life. I don’t want to say it was all a waste. I learned things, important things that made me who I am today.

I learned to love, to dance, to sing under a full moon with those who knew why I needed to do so. I learned what it meant to love so passionately the body’s skin and bones were barriers to overcome.

I learned to talk to others without fear, without the crippling shyness of my youth. I’m still not very good at it, but I’m getting better.

I learned to cry in front of others without shame. I learned to let others see, hear, and know what I really felt.

I learned if I eliminated toxic people from my life it left more room for the good ones.

I learned to see my ability to love, my compassion, my desire for a kinder world as strengths to speak of with pride instead of seeing them as weaknesses that required an apology.

I learned to care more to make up for those who care less.

I learned to say this is me, and not apologize.

All of this I learned. And now I learn one more lesson I thought I already knew. I am learning to grieve, because until Tina died I didn’t really understand what it meant. Now I do and my next lesson will take a great deal of time. I will have to learn how to live with it. But I will get there.

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Ursine Logic

When a loved one goes missing there are few resources to help you find them.

In the weeks before Tina died, she became obsessed with what she called “closing the circle.” During our high school years she read about a ritual that enclosed loved ones in a protective circle. I remember how she got me to go along with her idea that not only did I need protecting from the horrors of life, but so did my small group of high school friends. None of you are strong enough to fight on your own, she told me, and she was right.

I was bewildered by all of it then because even now I can’t remember how we ended up as a group that she thought needed protecting. Individually yes, but a group? I didn’t think of us that way, but we were, because we were all odd kids. We were artists, actors, musicians, poets. That made us stand out in a high school that was made up of the lower end of the working class and going through a period of violence, race riots, and the constant turmoil of the mid to late 1960’s.

There was no protection from that. Nor from the rampant use of hard drugs like heroin and pills. Poverty burns out the soul and sometimes survival meant blotting out the feelings enough to make it to the next day. There was no help for those who struggled with just living.

By the time I was a senior in high school I knew three people who overdosed on heroin. I knew at least half a dozen girls who dropped out because they were pregnant. I knew two who died from botched do-it-yourself abortions. I knew several who committed suicide. By the time we were seniors, many of us spent at least one night in jail, or the underage equivalent, Juvie, because they didn’t know what else to do with us. Those were the social services available.

A lot of us were poor. A lot of us came from dysfunctional families. A lot of us would never finish high school. We contributed far too many of our graduating class to Vietnam where they died. For those of us who were strong, who could fight back, who had resources to help us, we got out. But that out was often a small step forward, and one shift of the wind could send us backward, deeper into the hole we tried to crawl out from.

Our little group found strength and solace in creativity. We drew and painted our pain. We sang our despair. We wrote poems about things we wanted but never believed we could have, like love, stability, a roof over our heads, a family that didn’t abuse us, abandon us, or put conditions on their love for us. We weren’t typical teenagers. We were in too much emotional pain to ever be typical.

So I joined Tina then in drawing a protective circle around us. And yes, it kept us alive and protected in high school, but it did nothing to heal the wounds in our souls. Nothing was strong enough for that. We were on our own. And the struggle to survive met the indifference and cruelty of life in America. Not all of us were able to push our way through the walls erected in our path simply because we grew up poor, sensitive, abused, and alone.

The times then were much different as far as getting help for things like addiction, mental illness, and depression. The groups that existed all emphasized getting strong enough to fight your demons, as if we were all blessed with hidden reserves of that magical strength.

Or to rely on Jesus who seemed to be pretty much an indifferent bystander to our fates. As one of my friends was fond of saying he gets off on seeing people suffer so he can then praise them for enduring their suffering. And it gave “society” an excuse to turn the other cheek. Let god help them. God helps those who help themselves. Ask your church for help.

There was no help for the creative souls who didn’t know how to function in a world where they had to speak instead of draw, or paint, or dance, or compose music. It was assumed we’d grow up and set aside our creativity in order to make it in the “real world.” It was like expecting us to go through life with one hand tied behind our backs.

Those of us who were strong enough to crawl away managed to live a life just above the poverty level to continue creating. Our jobs supported our arts. And no matter how hard we pushed, no matter how much we believed in ourselves, our talents, our needs to express ourselves in various socially unacceptable ways, we had to crawl along with the past wrapped around our ankles. Not all of us were strong enough.

Those of you who have been following this blog know how Tina and I reached out to our small little groups of weirdos over 50 years later. I did it to honor a promise I made to help her close the circle she drew around us. She insisted to the day she died that it was important for me to go back to that time, to look at it again, to see what I missed, to try and fix something I probably didn’t even know needed fixing.

And I did. And I ended up in a heart-wrenching dead end. One of our little group went missing in 1979. It is very likely he spent much of it homeless or addicted or institutionalized. It is also likely he just chose to disappear and none of these realities are true for him. Sometimes you have to walk away from everyone and everything to heal the trauma. I did and so I don’t find it unlikely that he did as well.

But the problem in this supposedly richest country in the world became apparent when I tried to find him. As late as 2013 I was able to help someone find a lost relative through a service that was offered by social security. You could put a note for a loved one in a sealed envelope with their name and social security number on the outside. If the person was getting any kind of benefits, they would forward it to the last known address. They no longer do that. It wasn’t “cost effective.”

Another resource was the Salvation Army. They rightly assumed anyone needing food, a bed for the night, emergency medical care would pass through one of their portals. So they have a form you can fill out and they will search for the person, offer them the chance to reconnect, and honor their request if they choose to stay missing. It was free. Now it costs 50 dollars to fill out the form and have them search their records.

If you try to find someone using the internet, you will find all kinds of places who want money to help you search. I’ve never used these sites but those who have, warned me the information is often outdated, wrong, or simply a scam to take money from desperate people. You can also hire a private detective.

So yes, in America if you’re poor and end up on the street, you better hope those who care about you have deep pockets, because there is little or no help if they try to find you to offer help, love, hope, a bed for the night. And if you need mental health services, there are even less options. You’re not worth the effort. If you are homeless, you are considered trash messing up the neighborhood. If you are addicted it’s your fault, your problem, your burden to deal with. We are a shameful, disgusting country to treat fellow human beings in such a way.

My missing friend is 70 years old. Imagine trying to survive alone when your body is achy, tired, unable to support you anymore. Imagine trying to survive when you’ve spent a lifetime trying to fight back the demons on your own. Imagine living without hugs, without love, without knowing there’s someone who cares whether you live or die. Imagine being so incredibly talented as an artist, so sweet a soul, so lost in the world and no one cares.

That’s why I will continue to look, to try and find resources I can afford to help me look. No one deserves to be cast out as forgotten trash. And none of us can call ourselves a human being if we turn away and pretend we can’t see the despair all around us.

I’ve heard so many say they suffer from helper burnout, that there’s only so much they can do. I know families who have given up looking for their loved ones because of the cost, the emotional draining, the feeling of helplessness. While it’s true some don’t want to be found, and it’s also true some families should never be reunited, it’s also true that nothing in this country makes it easy to at least try to find and help those who have been abandoned by society.

Bring back the option to send a note through Social Security. Set up a free national databank of homeless and those looking for them so every shelter can provide access to it. Do something about the damn homeless problem in this country. It’s a national shame, an embarrassment, a stain on our humanity.

Find ways to help people without humiliating them, and yes, forcing them to mouth the words of the helper’s religion is humiliation. Stop passing barbaric laws like the ones that forbid you to feed the homeless. What the hell is wrong with people to come up with such a cruel law? Shame on you!

Provide a minimal shelter for those living on the street. There are many options for tiny homes, tent villages, and space to stay and feel safe. This is not an expensive proposition beyond the reach of many communities.

We have an obligation to help our fellow human beings, no matter how we justify saying it’s not our problem. It IS our problem. It is OUR problem. It is the ultimate test of our humanity whether we care about other people the way we care about ourselves. Too many of us fail at that and we should suffer the shame of failing in such a way.

It is my sincere hope that none of you ever have to experience the despair of trying to find someone society has thrown away. It’s a heartbreaking, exhausting experience. I’ve done it a couple times now. We must be better than this. These are human beings who were once loved and cherished. And now they are alone, desperate, sick, ill, and they know few care what happens to them.

I care and I will continue to care. It’s my job as a human being. I hope most of you will make it yours. It’s the only way we can close the openings in that protective circle my friend drew so long ago so none of us fall out and get forgotten.

My personal website

Kate Taylor’s Books and Art

Tina moved on to her next adventure shortly before midnight on the night of the 6th. We’ve been friends since we were 14 years old.

it was not a good time

for a black girl

for a white girl

to walk together alone

on the street at night

men threw money at us

how much for you both

fuck you we shouted together

that’s all you get for your dirty money

fuck you and no more

and then we’d laugh

and run before

they ran down their lists

and checked off

whores, maids, the laundry ladies

are fucking each other

faded away from them

like screams of frustrated rage

ugly old boys

who shouted their lust

from their cars

we cut our fingers

mixed our blood together

we vowed to protect

each other forever

from men like them

from men like our fathers

we were the strength

our mothers lacked

we walked away together

and nothing they did

nothing they said

nothing they shouted

could change that

so they bellowed out their windows

fuck you you’re too ugly

we didn’t want you anyways

***************************

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Kate Taylor’s Books and Art

Introspection

in·tro·spec·tion/ˌintrəˈspekSH(ə)n/noun

  1. the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.”quiet introspection can be extremely valuable.” definition provided by Oxford Languages

I’ve never been a city person. It’s always been me against the noise, the frenzy, the mass of humanity crowded into too small a space. Cities are not good for introspection. They require doing, constant response, and outward focused attention.

There was a time I needed that, thrived on it, depended on it. It was also the life of someone who spent it in the arts. I grew up attending my aunt and uncle’s piano concerts, and those of their friends who were cellists and classical guitarists. I attended countless recitals by their students. I went to museums, art galleries, stage performances. I wanted it live and personal or it didn’t interest me.

As my friends and family developed into their personal arts, I attended their dance performances, concerts, art openings, poetry, book readings, and they attended mine. For the great part of our lives that was how we defined entertainment. It was also the way creatives supported and continue to support each other.

I still go to art openings, although in this time of Covid most of them are online. I still listen to new poems, new songs, new dialogues. But they’re all virtual now. It’s the new reality and I try and adapt the best I can, but I miss the mingling, the walking through the galleries with others, the long conversations over coffee in the bookstores. I miss all that.

But those who create don’t stop creating because the times change. If anything, my friends are working on some of the most compelling and fascinating things now. I’m seeing sides of them emerge I suspect not even they knew were there. Some of it is the introspection that comes from age, but I know a great deal of it grew from the months of quarantine. We’re only now starting to see how it manifests externally.

Kristina has motivated me to write more authentically, to put in those ideas I think are too far out there to be understood. Make them think, she always told me, make them think. She still says that, but the they are not the same they as now. Nor am I. I’m different. There are days I barely recognize myself. And yet I’m still there. I’m still me.

It’s the me who writes books on an island in a house that has more windows than walls. It’s the me who is surrounded by the natural world and with silence that is enhanced by the songs of birds and the wind through the trees. It’s the me who realized I needed this environment to write the books I wanted to write, not the books other people wanted me to write.

I moved to an island seven years ago because I reached the point in my life where I needed to go within in order to proceed forward on the path I needed to take. I wanted to stop the external noise that interrupted the places my mind wanted to go. I wanted to write something that wasn’t about politics but was still political. I wanted my words to have less objectivity and more subjectivity. I wanted to be the change I sought in the world.

I also moved here to achieve the blissful state of contentment I sought. Many people seek happiness, but I sought contentment because unlike happiness, it was stable, calming, a part of me that was not dependent on external realities.

But the most carefully crafted plans of bears and dreamers often take odd turns. As I sought the middle ground in myself I realized it was a place I never lived. I never even got close to it. During one of the last present time conversations I had with Kristina before her mind narrowed to a small period of time, she reminded me of all the things we’ve done together over the years, all the edge clinging, the chance taking, the risks we didn’t know were so risky then. You never did ordinary, not in your art, your words, or your lovers.

Kristina can no longer type, but she can still talk and use the speak to text on her phone. Her emails are just as long, if not so well punctuated. I woke this morning to this list of questions from her.

Do you see your high school self differently now? Have you been able to sort through the good memories and let the bad ones sink to the bottom? Do you see how once you love yourself it becomes easy to love others? Do you feel that in your heart? Do you feel differently now about your high school friends? Do you understand how a small piece of something can seed a larger whole?

At first I thought the tumor was allowing her to move beyond the limited memory that has condensed her life to the years between 1965 to 1975. But then I realized those were also the questions we asked ourselves then. We just never received a satisfying answer.

Kristina is still in her tumor defined world. The time frame of her memory hasn’t changed. She just sees it all differently now. And because I committed myself to going along to wherever her memory takes her, I’ve had to look at those years differently as well. I’m nowhere near done. There are days when I feel I’m just getting started.

After I finish this book, I have an art project that’s been festering. Actually, I have several. And more books. I have time and a whole library of research material not at my fingertips, but living inside them. I intend to spend at least the next year setting them free.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anais Nin

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Stuck In Another Time

I’ll admit to experiencing a great deal of bewilderment over what is happening to Kristina’s brain right now. I know for the last few weeks she has focused solely on a period of time between age 14 and about mid 1975 or so. I always considered those the crap years of both our lives and I couldn’t understand why she wanted to relive them, complete with the cast of characters, half characters,weirdos, and oh my gawd, not high school too!

Today I received a fairly detailed explanation from her partner. Whatever else the tumor is doing, it will not let her memories or thoughts progress beyond 1975. Anything after that has ceased to exist. Her partner explained, along with links to various thickly written articles, that forms of this occur in elderly dementia/alzheimers patients quite often. The present no longer exists, but they remember entire swatches of time in great detail.

The most moving example of one way this works was the elderly dancer who didn’t recognize anyone anymore. The present no longer existed for her. She lived inside a world no one could enter. Until they played a piece of music. Suddenly she began to move her arms to it, to dance as she danced it on stage many years ago. The old woman disappeared and the young ballerina took over.

I suspect this is what is happening to Kristina. It is why she focuses so much on how we helped each other hide from our fathers, why she remembers people I barely knew in high school, but can’t remember the name of her partner of twenty years. Those were the years we were active in many political and social organizations. Only when I understood this did I also understand she is living in those times with me as if it were the present. Me and those barely remembered people are the most real thing in her life right now.

My heart breaks for this amazing woman with a mind that could entertain any subject, any topic, and who could research the most obscure reference and come up with its origins. Her mind was truly a wondrous thing to experience. To have it trapped so cruelly in those times makes it all the more horrible.

And yet, in my sadness there are many things that made me laugh with a type of oh my god she didn’t oh yes she did type laughter. One of those came when I went to look for an old email in the account we shared for our political blog. I noticed she had logged in and sent some emails. Considering the state of her brain, I thought it best to see who she wrote to and what she said in case she reverted back to some of our more…ahem…radical days.

She wrote to everyone I knew since junior high school, using contact information that remarkable brain was still able to glean from the internet. Research was her job for thirty years. It’s hardwired in her. She’s good at it. Too good.

Some I have kept in contact with, but not like that. Not detailed like that. And there was one giant misfire. She wrote them and sent them as me. For the last weeks I’ve been joking about the horror of receiving an email that says hi we went to high school together. And now some of these poor unsuspecting people did. A couple of them weren’t even people I knew. They were people she knew.

I’ve avoided sending anything to the list she made up for me of people I must contact to help her close the circle. She convinced herself it was essential and when she wants to convince you, her language becomes the stuff of ancient orators. She can speak from the mountain tops and it’s hard to say no. So I played along, wrote the emails but didn’t send them, edited things in and out to amuse her, confessed things I would never confess. It was fun, cathartic even. I only succumbed once and sent a poetry book that she insisted I send. I did because it was a harmless gift and since people buy a lot of them I figured maybe they’d enjoy it too. Out of nowhere but still harmless. But for the rest of them I’ve been finding excuses, debating whether it’s fair to lie and say yes I sent them. I heard from them. They were delighted to hear from me. I don’t want to lie to her. It would feel wrong. I think she knows this so she did it for me.

When someone has known you since you were 14 years old, you have no secrets from each other. This was made very clear when I read some of the emails. Yes, she knows me all too well. But also, there’s a part of her brain that blurs the line when it comes to what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. It became what is yours is also mine. She took pieces of my emails to her that were answers to questions she asked me about my high school years and the years that came after…up to 1975. I gave her some very honest answers. She wrote back with her honest answers. And then behold, pieces of mine and pieces of hers all ended up in the same email from me.

I cringe a bit. And I laugh a bit. And I changed the login information on that account. I was briefly tempted to write the ones she sent these emails to and try to explain, but after thinking about it, they might be a bit concerned to receive yet another very personal and detailed email from someone they haven’t seen in 50 years or in a couple cases, don’t even know. Fortunately, she only wrote to those whose names she remembered, whose names she recognized. I am very grateful she never made it to the 90’s, and just the idea of it made me delete all those old contacts I never ever want to accidently ever send anything to. Ever.

And I forgive her because I know a year from now I’ll look back on this and wish more than anything she was still here to do it all over again.

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Do Not Speak The Pain Lest You Wake It In Others

My friend I’ve known for 56 years is dying. We both knew there was no cure, but now that she’s stopped treatment, the reality is no longer so far off, something to deal with later. Now it is soon. We are down to a matter of months. I draw some comfort from her acceptance, her calmness, the Buddhist faith that has sustained her since she was 14. I can’t think of her without also seeing the peacefulness of her being that drew me to her as a place of safety, and which eases my sorrow now in the face of her death. It helps. I want it to help. I cling to it.

And then there’s the artist. Being us, rather than sit back we seized this as an opportunity to do one last collaboration together. We did this during the 60’s to bring an end to war. We did this in the 70’s to help women see their own power. We did this in the 80’s when greed took the place of compassion in America. We did this in the 90’s when I worked for the refugee network and cried myself to sleep at night over the horror that humanity inflicts on itself.

Every step of the way she has been there, with her hope, her optimism, her faith that humanity was better than it knew, and all it needed was someone to say hey look here, look at this good person you are. Reach out to this one, hug that one, have a conversation that lasts hours with as many people as you can. Talk to each other. Learn from each other. Heal each other.

We’ve walked this path together for 56 years, and now we are coming to the end of the trail. I express my frustration to her that time moves so damn fast now. There’s so much left to do and not enough time. So we define our priorities. We can’t heal the entire world, but one person. Damn. That one person. We can start them healing themselves. Isn’t that how it starts? Isn’t that what it takes?

She has always been the better artist. She can draw and paint anything. I’m a sketcher. I draw it on a pad, scan it, turn it into something else. We’re both writers. We’re both geeky. And we both spent the better part of our 70 years learning to live with the pain of our childhoods as something outside ourselves, something that really wasn’t part of us anymore. We got over it. We got a life. We left it all behind.

But that was before, when we held back because others might be offended, annoyed, misunderstand our intentions, read something there that wasn’t there. Excuses. We had them. I had more than most because she’s lived most of her life out in the open, and I’ve spent most of mine staying in character.

Dying changes that. Knowing you’re dying changes it even more. She has always wanted to change the world, and now she wants to give it one last go. I sent her a line drawing, she added color to it. I added words. She added more words. In between we talked about our efforts to close the circle for her.

She’s much better at this than me. I told her this and her response was so typical. No, she said. You’re good at this. They buried their hurt so deep that we represent the shovel they never want to see again. But I’m dying so I can keep waving it around until they at least get curious enough to kick over some dirt.

And damn is she good with that shovel. She had me writing to people I haven’t seen since high school. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than getting an email saying hi we went to high school together.

It wasn’t a good memory for me. It never will be. And except for a select few in the world, most people feel that way about high school. They don’t want to be reminded. When I balked, she wrote the words for me. No one else could do that, but then no one else has lived those words with me. Have you sent it yet? No. Why not? I don’t want to bother people. Her amazing laugh was her only response. I started laughing with her as I always do.

I am like most people. I prefer to move on, to fix the stuff in the present and trust that the things and the people associated with the past are able to do the same. But she has always been someone who has this fascinating ability to break things down into patterns. She sees the world that way, as interconnected pieces that sometimes fit together easily, and others so crammed into misshaped spaces they’ll never fit properly. She connected the patterns for me so that it made sense to hit the send button on those emails.

I only told her no once. He was an awful person. There was no friendship to save because there was never one where he gave back. He was selfish. He cared nothing about others. Women were pretty things he bought and then discarded when another one came up for sale. I felt dirty being his friend. I felt drained by him and I don’t ever want to do that to myself again. She was there for those times. She knew I was right. He never made it to the list.

In the last couple weeks the cancer has spread to her brain. That and the medication she takes for pain makes her less than lucid at times, and at others she is very clear, very adamant, very much in control. I’ve learned to go with whatever one she is that day. I allow her to do and say things that no one else would get away with. I allow her to do her dying her way.

But it was and continues to be difficult for me. I do it because I love her and because she was there for me at some of the most awful times in my life. I do it because she’s dying. It seems an odd reason but if you’ve ever experienced the imminent death of someone you deeply love, you’ve had the conversations that went far beyond any you had while you were both living. It’s those conversations that make me agree to whatever she wants.

I do it because she is an amazing woman, and she is doing her dying the way she has always done everything, with a hand left out to help others. Her house was always open to those who needed a place to paint, a quiet place to replenish, and especially a place to talk to someone who cared about them, often more than they cared about themselves. Over the years she has developed a remarkable gift of letting others look into themselves and see only beautiful things. This is how it works.

Me: I can’t possibly write to that person. They won’t even remember me. I don’t want to bother people. That’s always my default. I don’t want to bother people.

Her: But what if they’re happy to hear from you? What if they can see past all the bullshit of society? What if they followed similar paths? Isn’t that worth it?

Me: Spends the next few hours getting to know the things in me that will make them happy to hear from me. It’s an interesting exercise. But it doesn’t make it easier.

Her: Hours later. Have you seen the amazing human you are? Do you finally see what I see?

Me: Yes. But that doesn’t mean they ever will because they don’t know how I got from there to here. All they know is then.

Her: Even more reason to contact them. Everything grows.

But as has been the nature of our friendship, she also saw my perspective that sometimes reaching out to the past is the same as ripping a bandage off it just as it began to heal. This is what she wrote to me when I said I didn’t want to rip open their wounds.

I know they hurt. We all hurt. Is it possible to go back in time and just fix the little things, the misunderstandings, the words that were never said. What if that fixes the foundation so the rest can heal?

She has this way of saying things in ways that make sense. That made sense to me. Fix the tiny breaks in the foundation so the house can stand on its own. So I let her search for those in my past. I let her suggest what to say. A couple of times I let her write the words herself and send the email as me. I have that kind of trust in her, that kind of faith in her wisdom.

And so we spend her final days doing art together. We call the project Healing The Wounded Child. The image above is the first one. It is mostly mine. She wanted it that way. Creating now is hard for her. So I make the lines for her to add color to, same as I always have in everything. Now she does it with art. She’s had to let go of the meticulous, careful, exact artist and just color in and out of the lines. Maybe that is my gift to her on the way to her next destination, to just put it out there and let it be.

When I told her how sad I was and how I didn’t want her to die, she gave me that amazing laugh. Die? Miss me? People die when you forget them. You’ll never forget me so I’ll never die.

She’s absolutely right. About everything.

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Today’s Ear Worm

All Along the Watchtower

WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN

There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief

There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

Copyright

© 1968 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1996 by Dwarf Music

My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art

The Shared Moment

I still remember the exact moment when I met someone exactly like me. Life doesn’t often give us a chance to see ourselves in what I call the fleshy mirror, so when it does I look deeply.

It was difficult at first, as are all things that require effort. But to see what others see, how could I resist such an opportunity? I would have to turn in my curious bear card if I didn’t at least let my glance linger.

And linger it did. I still laugh at the battles between two willful beasts born within months of each other, or as one of friends described it then, two iron rabbits meeting the immovable force in each other.

But I also saw a shy withdrawn child who hid in corners at social gatherings. I saw how others misunderstood and called him standoffish, aloof, snobbish. Like me he had few social skills other than the mandatory ones that kept us out of jail, guaranteed we could somewhat work for others, and drew people to us the same way many are drawn to the impossible task of taming cats.

We helped each other take the first step in learning to walk through the halls of a perilous universe. He was finally able to perform without his fingers shaking on the strings so badly he couldn’t play. I was finally able to read in public without having my voice choke in fear halfway through.

Over the years I met other fleshy mirrors and some I glanced at briefly, while others I stared into like a scrying stone. With each one I experienced the same feeling of recognition, the same sense that here was someone who understood. And the relief that I was not alone in who I was.

It took many more years for me to develop the confidence and verbal skills to talk to others. I was and still am far more comfortable writing than I am talking. I text far more often than I talk. But again that’s because many of my friends began as my fleshy mirrors. We interact as we are, not as we wish we were, nor how others want us to be.

During the pandemic solitude, we began to text less and talk more. I don’t know if it was the isolation, the introspection that grew from it, or the need to hear a human voice, but the connection to my fleshy mirrors deepened. Our conversations grew longer, more personal, more honest.

I formed deeper bonds with those I once shared only pieces of myself with in the past. They responded in kind. I suspect I’m not the only one who has been healed and changed by this. I suspect there are many “out there” who could have written those words as well. I suspect none of us are done yet. With anything.

That’s why I get so personal at times with this blog. I know the value of fleshy mirrors. I know how just one person understanding who you are, what you feel, where you’ve been, makes a difference. There is a special solace in receiving the understanding of another. It’s a blessing. A sacrament. A gift.

In spite of the terms I use, I’ve never been a religious person, nor do I see such a thing in my future. I detest dogma. But they serve to communicate my true beliefs. I believe in the power of love. I believe love is stronger than hate. I believe love feeds you and hate feeds on you.

The fleshy mirror who taught me these things was a man who walked gently on the earth because it was nature’s skin and he didn’t want to bruise it. I was frightened of him at first. I thought him odd beyond my understanding. I was suspicious of his intent and expected him to whip out his version of the bible at any moment and wave it at me threateningly.

But he did none of this. He simply taught me to value what he reflected back, that we both, at the core of who we were, believed the connection to nature and the connection to other human beings was the same. He accepted my atheism while expanding my connection to a spirituality that didn’t feel like fingers on a chalkboard like too many of the others often did.

When I write I remember what I learned from him. I write to establish that connection with someone else, that moment of looking into the fleshy mirror with someone who needs to feel less alone.

We’re all wounded children. That is what every fleshy mirror has reflected back to me. The worst experiences we’ve had are also the most universal. As my friend said, if you’re going to be the change in the world, someone has to take the first step. Why not you?

I live in my house as I live inside my skin: I know more beautiful, more ample, more sturdy and more picturesque skins: but it would seem to me unnatural to exchange them for mine.” Primo Levi

My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art

This Arc Of Time

I was fourteen when I met Kristina. I lived with two dancers who retired from the ballet and moved to Las Vegas. I was their live in babysitter. They were young, in their mid-20’s, beautiful, in exquisite shape, and determined to make a living with bodies that were considered too old for the grueling regime of professional dancing. They instead, danced on the strip. Nude. Wearing only strategically placed pearls.

One night, one of their friends helped sneak me in to watch their show from the shadows as I was much too young to be anywhere near a casino. They turned me over to a girl I remembered from school. Her mother worked in the wardrobe room and we hid under a pile of giant ostrich head dresses taller than we were and watched enthralled. It was the most beautiful performance I ever saw. Yes, they were nude, but all the controversial bits were covered up so what was left were two exquisite human beings dancing as if they were the only two people left on earth. I always think of them when I dance alone like I’m the only person left on earth.

For the next year when I wasn’t in school or helping my dancers care for their young daughter, I spent it with Kristina helping repair costumes her mother brought home. Her brother lived with a dancer and we often met at her apartment in the same complex. It was tedious work, but enchanting to a young girl who never imagined work clothes as sequins, pearls, tiny bits of material all elegantly stitched into a costume. I was never the princess type, but I held magic in my hand with all those beautiful pieces of sparkly things. I saw everything differently then because you can’t hold magic in your hand and see the world the same.

I was a painfully shy kid. I still have trouble with that. I have accepted that it’s a lifetime thing. I learned if I tell people upfront that I have a “problem” with shyness, they will help me out by talking, asking me questions, or letting me sit quietly until I feel comfortable enough to join in. People are mostly kind. And they understand what it means to be shy. Kristina was the complete opposite. She was outgoing and everyone she met was a potential friend. When I met her my friends were all in books. She changed that when she became my first real friend. It turned into a lifetime bond.

Recently, during one of our long email exchanges that writers often get into with each other, I realized she was the only person who knew me in all the transitional phases of my life. She was my support, my ear, the one person who understood why I cried so hard when my dancers got a job in Europe and I couldn’t go with them. I remember how she hugged me and told me it was going to be okay, that she would help me survive going back home. Neither of us believed it, but we said the words anyway, her to me, and me to her. Her father was just as violent and mean and drunk as mine, and her mother, like mine, put up with the abuse because she “loved” him.

None of the people who became part of my life after I left Las Vegas know what I went through just as none of her friends know what she went through. We knew. We understood. And over the years as we grew into our new lives, we kept in touch, but rarely mentioned those days. They were the past, buried, dead, gone, forgotten. The scars became fainter. People quit asking how we got them. We no longer had to lie.

But the wounds were still there. When we both turned 70 this year, the quality of our emails changed. We began to poke around in what we thought was forgotten. For both of us, the realization that ripping the bandage off old wounds hurt like hell came as a shock.

I suspect we’re going to have a lot more to say to each other about this in the next months. It’s way past time. In a strange way we both are looking forward to it, much as one looks forward to finally cleaning out that dark closet with all the clothes that no longer fit, the pieces of broken things that are saved for the memories and not because there’s anything left to repair. It’s time.

In her last letter we told each other how we healed some of the worst of the wounds. Unlike Kristina, I was never able to verbalize my feelings or talk about what happened to me. I was forty before I was able to say I love you easily. I’ve always put everything in my journals, into my poetry and my art. I tried traditional talking therapy and it went nowhere, mostly because the words just wouldn’t shape themselves into anything that described that time.

But life often gives you what you need to move forward if you let it. For me that was finding a way to heal that didn’t involve talking. I learned to heal the physical trauma through the body, to change where and how I stored the bad stuff. I learned that I kept my arms crossed to protect myself. The months of relearning to walk, sit, and talk without needing to protect myself opened the door to the rest.

I learned that I was afraid to look at someone because I associated eye contact with pain. Look at me! Look at me! He always wanted me to make eye contact before he hit me. He wanted to see my fear. I learned to look at people’s noses when I talked. It helped but it’s still difficult. Some things never go away. I’m like a wild animal that way if someone tries to make eye contact with me. But it’s getting better.

One of the other things Kristina and I shared was the simple joy of being outside in the desert, climbing rocks to get high up a canyon where we could look out and see nothing but desert for miles. Las Vegas was a small place then, just the strip, downtown, and a few houses on the west end where we lived. In between there was desert, great big open expanses of it. And that blissful silence. We would sit for hours in that silence. We drew strength from it. And for most of our lives, we looked for it. Neither one of us are loud or noisy. We are the peace we sought.

We both live in quiet, small, isolated places. She lives in a small cabin in the mountains up a dirt road no one drives up by accident. I live on a small island with a few hundred people and a ferry that stops running for the night at 8:30. I have few neighbors, and they are several acres distant in the trees, along the water where I can’t see them. Kristina has taught herself to paint because most of her neighbors are artists and they convinced her to try. She learned she’s quite good. Many of my island neighbors are artists, writers, musicians, people who require lots of quiet time alone. We know we are there but we don’t need to see each other to feel supported, loved, welcome.

In many ways, mine and Kristina’s lives have followed a similar arc. We began as abused children who made a blood oath to protect each other. Two 14 year old girls who didn’t know much but had already experienced too much. We went through the hell of high school together with our meager handful of friends, none whom we knew how to get close to the way we were close to each other. We were part of the antiwar movement and got spit on together by people who also threw garbage at us and called us commies. We both lost people we cared deeply for in Vietnam. It only motivated us to fight for peace harder. We still do.

And now as we age, the arc takes us on yet another similar path, one where the good memories seem to magically rise to the surface to push the bad memories aside. We’ve both contacted the good people, the kind people from those days because we both feel it’s important they know that kindness matters, that the world needs more of it, and especially to remind them it’s still there in them. If enough of us let kindness rise to the top and push the bad stuff away, maybe just maybe we can still make that bit of difference we always swore we would make to change the world. Maybe we can heal not only each other but also all the other wounded children who never stopped hurting. It’s worth a try.

My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art

Obsidian

          A background of stars 
          hair black as raven wings in the night 
          amber smoke from a lone candle
          drapes itself over your naked body
          like a veil cloaking your existence.

          Have I imagined you?
          Did I give you shape and truth?
          Did I will you into my life?

          You rise slowly, like a snake
          smooth, sensuous, uncoiling
          as your eyes caress me 
          from black, fathomless depths.
 
          Outside your window
          an owl hunts its prey 
          silently, lethally, efficiently.

from my poetry book  Imaginary Lovers  published last year




My personal website:
Ursine Logic's Books and Art