13 August 2014

That Was Zen, This Is Now

“Fuck it! It was only a hobby!”
    –Carolyn See, Golden Days

I experience my life in multiple modes. One of my modes is action. I need to go to dance classes and ride my bike and keep doing little chores and projects and tackling work obligations to keep my life moving and my interactions with people fresh. When I was a newish mom and was feeling like I wasn't getting quite enough movement in my life or my kiddo's, I thought, “What would Sporty Mom do?” and it helped me think about myself differently, and have more ideas. I go to my dance class several times in any given week. When I'm edgy, my family will ask me, “Do you have a dance class?” in the kindest way. If I put myself in the “sporty” category in my mind, I'm more likely to be creative about finding ways to move. 

Another mode is rest and recovery. Whether spent on sleeping, eating, reading, or sex, this is time that brings me back to equilibrium after interactions or activities become frenetic or fraught, and time that reminds me that while I have the ability to be extraverted, I'm truly an introvert at heart.

Another is the emotionally ruminative mode. In the background, behind the emails and chores and calls and projects and research and internet rabbit holes, I am working through a tricky problem or idea in my head over time, chewing it and stretching it into different orientations and sizes and shapes to see where it leads me.

Today, in my ruminations, I circled back to the topic of forgiveness, which I remembered was the topic of the first piece I had my last writing group read.

At the time, I wanted to set the stage with that group, to tell them I had been through something exceptional and had issues with the whole forgiveness position. I understood how the Dalai Lama teaches you to let go of those grudges and resentments for they only serve to bind you more tightly to that person, but I thought, surely there's more I can do than just to turn the other cheek or walk away!

Again recently I started thinking about forgiveness, in part because I am spending more time with my sister and we're talking about our memories and feelings about what we survived, and it's the first time we've spent big swaths of time while both sharing the same perspective. For a long time, we'd say, “It's like we had different childhoods,” which was true for many reasons, yet saying it tended to reinforce our differences rather than emphasizing what we had in common. Now, we look at our father's issues, and our mother's issues, and we say, “It's a freakin' miracle both of us are alive and well!”

So both of us as we age are finding peace in being ourselves and following our dreams and paths and coming to terms with what we lived through and who we are today, but at the same time there's still a voice in that rumination asking, “Is there something more I can do with this?”

The answer is pretty much always yes; for me it's a matter of picking something, and keeping it positive. I am not writing my book to get revenge on my parents for being who they were, even though to them it may feel like it when they read it. I can't help that, I see now, but I can help myself by speaking my truth and telling the story as I saw it. And I hope by doing so, I'll be making the world a little safer for others who need to tell their stories.

So back to forgiveness. I asked the other night as we were doing dishes, “What's the flip-side of forgiveness?” and had to go chew on that for a couple of days. This morning I thought about the work it takes to judge others, how exhausting it is to continuously decide who's doing it right and who is doing it wrong.

Aha! That's what it is about forgiveness that is so insidious to me, I realized. It takes a lot of energy just to say whether you think someone deserves forgiveness. It requires you to judge another person.

I know my nearest and dearest will recognize I am pointing at something I do all the time, but what I noticed looking at it from this perspective is how exhausting that process of judging is, how far it pulls me from my center and my passions.

In her eyes and on her face and lips I can see my sister has found some peace, too. I think she and I are feeling peaceful because we are not engaged and actively judging and resenting but getting on with what we need to do. And it turns out that getting on with what we need to do is not always about forgiving those who have trespassed against us or neglected us in times of need but about giving ourselves what we need, which enables us to see what we have to give ourselves and the families and friends to whom we devote ourselves today. Maybe that is forgiveness, but I see it more as a kind of grace, which I probably wouldn't recognize without some help from the brilliant Anne Lamott.

Grace lets me move beyond the notions of attachment versus letting go. This is fine with me because I feel strongly that there are times and places when it is appropriate to be attached – to feel and react when we have been wronged or neglected. If we didn't have those feelings, how would we know to act on what we know in our souls is right and true?

For me, the less time I spend judging people, the more peace I experience. Where's your peace?

25 July 2014

Godfamilies are good families

24 years ago today, I learned that our dear friend and former college housemate Erica was in labor. I was living in San Francisco and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. At Marin General, I learned Erica had given birth very recently. So I got to hold Mark and Erica's tiny baby, named Rachel Stella, when she was just a couple of hours new. It was a joyful moment, especially in light of the fact that Mark and Erica later asked me and my husband to be her godparents. They clarified that a catastrophe for them would not result in our becoming her custodial parents – an uncle was already signed up for that role – but would mean we would be in the circle of friends and family who would become her tribe as she came up in the world.

Sadly we moved away from the Bay Area shortly after we accepted this honor, and it's a little harder to be active in someone's upbringing when you're a thousand miles away. But it's been lovely to become acquainted with our goddaughter over the years, and see her sister grow up into herself too. We've hosted them for a couple of ski trips that we'll always remember fondly.

As a kid, I had a lot of people who loved me and looked out for me everywhere I went, maybe because I was enthusiastic and curious most of the time and willing to chat with people a lot of the time. When I was a teenager, my mother realized she hadn't named a godparent and decided her best friend Marcia was the one. Marcia accepted the honor, godmothering me and my sister. That has become a source of love in my circle many times over as my godmom has two beautiful daughters. Now one of the daughters has three kids of her own, and so the circle keeps expanding to admit more.

As an adult, my circle shifted dramatically away from all those people I grew up with at different times in my childhood – people like Vivian and Hari way back at Olompali, and my family's friends Frank and Phee, Diane, George, Bob and Barbara, Marcia, and many others. There was attrition as people died or moved away or joined different circles, and my circle filled in with other people my age, some of whom have remained close to me. My own big moves back and forth between Colorado and California seemed to exacerbate that.

Few of those non-family members know me well today. I loved Judy dearly, and remained friends with her until her very end, but she's been gone for more than four years. I did some of the shifting by moving to California after graduating from high school. At the time I could not fathom staying in Colorado. I knew every nook and cranny of my town and wanted to go elsewhere. I'd never pictured myself staying.

But we have been friends ever since we met our roommate Erica, and she later married our mutual friend Mark. Having been appointed a member of their daughter Rachel's inner circle continues to give me warm feelings. I like knowing I am there not only for my husband and daughter but also for Rachel and her sister as they set out in the world. It feels good to know my godmother and godsisters are there for me, too. And I know my friend whom we chose to be there for our daughter as her godmother will live up to her pledge, no matter what happens between her and me.

We godfamilies are always a place where members our tribe can land. We will always have room for the others. How fortunate we are for these tribes, for loving and being loved by them.

23 July 2014

Scenes from this year's Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

Here are a few scenes from my experiences at the 2014 Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, just to give you a little more of the flavor of Camp.

On Thursday evening, the first night of Camp, most families arrive at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA near Tabernash, Colorado in time for the barbecue dinner (grilled hot dogs, burgers, and veggie burgers), held indoors or in the park, depending on the weather ("If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes and it will change," we like to say). This year the dinner was inside, in the Kiva, a cavernous building area that houses a rollerskating/games/climbing wall at one end and at the other end we have tables and chairs, a stage and a sound system, tables for a registration/administration area, and a village of little painted plywood buildings for the littler kids. The Kiva is the all-purpose room for several of the gatherings and groupings of our 100 families, plus counselors, and community members. A variety of additional camp activities are distributed elsewhere around the YMCA campus over the next two-and-a-half days.

I was in the Kiva filling my plate with veggie burger, watermelon, and dessert. At the condiments table, a teenager I knew asked for help.

"I don't know you, but could you please help me get some baked beans?"

"Of course," I said. As I shook some ketchup onto his plate and scooped a spoonful of baked beans out of the giant can, I added, "You might not remember me, but you know me. I saw you when you were still at IMH." He thanked me politely, perhaps looking at me a little more curiously because of my comment, and then went to dine with his family and friends.

I feel like we already know each other on some level because he had been at the orphanage when we had come to adopt our daughter. There, everyone we met said he was the little prince of the orphanage, that he was always at the center of things. At the orphanage, I saw the massis (caretakers) and sisters (nurses) chuck his little chin and cheeks, saying affectionately that he knew everyone's comings and goings and he had a say in everything that went on there. At the time, I felt the complicated mix of pleasure and remorse about our being there to adopt a little five-month-old baby girl, when here were one-, two-, and three-year-old children who still needed families, some of whom had disabilities, special needs, or all of the above. It had been a long time since I thought of that.

That Thursday night as we pumped ketchup and mustard out of large plastic jugs onto our picnic plates, I wondered what it was like for him to be plopped down at age two-and-a-half or three into a family in the United States with several other kids after being master of a universe in an orphanage in India. What does he remember about his toddlerhood? I remember him and some of the other children so well; I see the ones who come to Camp grow up into themselves a little more every year, while they still look out from the same eyes and faces they had when they were babies and small children. I saw one girl whom I'd met when she was a toddler with close-cropped hair. Now those same glittering eyes crinkled as she laughed with her friends and tossed her dark ringlets, which reached halfway down her back. I wonder when I see my daughter and her orphanage mates every summer whether any of them still remember when other parents and people came to take the little babies away. Did any of their little best friends get adopted before they did?

So it started early at INHC, all the thinking about all the facets of our shared journeys, all the wearing of different shoes.


On the second day of camp, I looked for people who needed help but no one did, so I went into the Kiva to see what was happening. One of the community members was setting up a clay lantern-making craft and four women were seated in front of slabs of cool, soft terra cotta. People in India make little lanterns like these to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, and this year's camp theme was the festivals of India and Nepal. A little cool clay appealed to me greatly, so I sat down to my own slab of clay and started mashing it around to see what it wanted to be.

"Some people paint them after they have dried. Someone made a bird on theirs," the instructor said.

I started forming an elephant's head and legs. Another person made a paisley shape and paved it beautifully with shiny gemlike stones. Another person made an elephant head. A fellow joined us and made a clay hand, modeled on his own. I made my elephant's body into a dish and attached four stubby, squat legs that wouldn't come off. I made a head separately, thinking I would attach it later. I squished clay into ears, trying to make them look India-shaped (because Indian elephants have ears that are shaped like India), and pinched and poked clay to make a trunk. I found a way to hang the head on the body, which was the dish for the candles to rest in. A few times people remarked on how soothing it felt to work the clay. One of the directors saw us crafting quietly and called us the "rehab group," which cracked her up, and us too.
Diwali clay elephant lamp

Later I said to her, "That was one of the most fun activities I've done at Camp in years!" I felt a little bad for saying that when we've done huge projects with grand conclusions like building houses and making movies in our recent past, but sometimes it's those quiet, contemplative shared moments that unfold into peace of mind and heart.


On Friday evening, we attended the party the camp throws to feed and thank the coordinators and their families, who all sacrifice on some level to contribute to Camp, whether financially, with supplies, or with physical labor or attention during Camp. I felt funny in a way about being there this time, even though officially I had a coordinator role. But this year every time I offered help, I was gently told, it's okay, we have that handled. So I went to sessions and made myself generally available if anyone needed me. But I sure didn't feel like a coordinator this year, so going to the coordinator party made me feel a little squirmy, like I shouldn't really have taken advantage of the offering. At the same time, we have repeatedly declined offers to stay in one of the reunion cabins, the multi-room cabins rented by the camp to house all the directors, community members, dance teachers, and counselors at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA. We prefer camping so that we have some time outside, with the astounding variety of skies and colors and clouds and views of the Indian Peaks in the distance. So we really appreciate the coordinator party because it is lovely having someone else cook for us that one night.

One hour later, my husband and daughter and I had all eaten our fill of savory foods and the trays of rich, honeyed baklava glistened on the table, no one yet hungry enough to take the first piece. I had changed out of my camp t-shirt, which I wear most of the weekend, and put on a casual salwar kameez (loose pants and tunic dress) of light cotton. I felt a little dowdy. My daughter teased me about already having spilled on my outfit. We chatted and joked with my daughter's crib-sister and her family. We were joined by one of the directors and her daughter. We bantered and chatted and laughed about the day's events, in-jokes, and whatever else caught our fancies. I thought: I'm so glad I do this. I do this so my daughters can feel comfortable in this place, in this way, with all these people.

My friend Fran, the mother of my daughter's crib-sister, so a kind of family member to me over the past decade-plus, asked what my favorite thing about Camp is. I looked around the room and said to her, "It's really about this right here: the rainbow of people who come here together to do this every year."


In one of the adult workshops, we learned what middle-school and high-school kids had talked about in their sessions called "This Is Me." A social worker and psychologist presented posters the kids had made during their session that listed first all the annoying stuff they had to deal with as adoptees or members of mixed-race families -- or simply as teenagers (some of the kids who attend are siblings of adopted kids, some biological kids and some adopted from countries other than India and Nepal, and some of the kids are the kids of the community folks who present many of the workshops for kids and adults). Then the kids had listed some of the good things about their culture and being adopted. In the negative column were things like "Dumb questions" (e.g., "So, did your parents not want you and that's why you were adopted?") and "Stereotyping", and in the positive column were things like "Music", "Dance", "Skin", and "Education" or "Information".

At one point during the "Dumb questions" discussion in the adult workshop, I raised my hand to share an observation. "Looking at this as an adoptive parent," I said, "it seems like our adopted kids have a double burden in terms of self-advocacy. I mean, first everyone has to learn to advocate for themselves, which isn't easy in and of itself. But these kids have to do this extra layer of self-advocacy. It makes me see how important it is for us to support them, as their parents and community."

"Yes, this may be," said the presenter, "but we don't ever put ideas in the kids' mouths about this. We try to ask them open-ended questions and let them come up with the answers. We never put words in their mouths." Ah, yes, I thought, nodding. I can just be there for them, because it can be exhausting over time to field all those "where are you from?"s and those double-takes people do when they see our family (the ones that always prompt me to say, "Mental math! They're doing their mental math, trying to figure us out."). But I see how there's no need to give anyone a chip on their shoulder. We just need to help our kids get the information they need to be informed about their history and culture and food and current events, and some emotional-intelligence tools for fielding the dumb questions and stereotypes, so they can keep moving beyond those and toward what they truly want and need to do in the world. The kids feel pride in what they know of their cultures and often have the attitude that with a little more information, everyone could be more comfortable in their skin, including them. This is truly what INHC is all about.

Namita Khanna Nariani, one of the facilitators of the teens' workshop, who also happens to be the head of the Mudra Dance Studio, described a situation with a student from India she had learned about who had moved to a new community and was at a new school. He had special needs, and brown skin, and was persistently getting bullied by his classmates. He was fearful and small, in danger of fading away. He didn't want to live.

One of the student's teachers called Namita for help. Namita came to teach the students in his class about Indian dance. She did a performance with her dance troupe, and then led the students in learning a couple of styles of Indian dance -- Punjabi, Bhangra, etc. As she taught them dances and explained some of the history, Namita was delighted when one of the Latino students in the class noticed, "This is a lot like our salsa dance." By the end of the dance instruction, the class had completely opened the boy and his culture up to his classmates, and their relationship changed completely. The boy felt proud of his culture, and felt cool for coming from the place where these fun dances had originated, and his cultural pride spilled over into pride in himself. The students learned more about him, and the bullying stopped. After the session, I talked with Namita, and teared up as I thanked her for all she does.

22 July 2014

A dozen years at Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

It's been another incredible summer, jam-packed with joyful occasions, strewn with surprises -- some of which have felt warm and wonderful to discover and others that make us look around and treasure each eyeful of scenery or love radiating from our planet or our people or our pets, because any one of them could be the last.

Our summer began with a trip to Los Angeles, where we gathered with family to celebrate my sister's recent wedding. It seemed so fitting that we found a restaurant for the event -- our grandfather might not have liked the place, but would have approved of the gathering. I was thrilled that all but one of my family members joined us (one was ill). Even the ones who live over on the Westside came -- by bicycle! (It took them a few hours each way, and they had to leave a bit early because they forgot a bike light.) After we returned home, our birthday march commenced, peppered with Father's Day, our anniversary, and the 4th of July holiday.

But the culminating event of the summer was Camp.

"Camp?" you ask. "What camp?"

Every year except one since our daughter was a year old, we have gone up to the mountains, two hours from home, for Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, which celebrates our children's Indian and Nepalese heritage and cultures. It happens every summer at a YMCA facility in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, 15 minutes from the ski town of Winter Park. When we started attending, it was still called East Indian Heritage Camp, because originally it was started to give the founder Pam Sweetser's child and all the kids coming to the Denver area (via our adoption agency, Friends of Children of Various Nations) a way to connect with their fellow adoptees from Kolkata (Calcutta) and explore aspects of their shared culture every year. Next year, I was thrilled to learn, a couple of young women who attended the first camp as children, came back year after year as campers, then counselors, then coordinators, are going to be co-directors of the camp.

One amazing thing is ours isn't the only camp. There are camps every weekend all summer long -- for Chinese, Cambodian, Eastern European, and other adoptees. But I love our camp. As a group, we pull off some ambitious and amazing projects, and there's a dance party at the end that's all about inclusion in the best ways (except for the part where the loud volume drives many people out of the room). Every year at Camp, there are great things, overwhelming aspects, tricky bits, interesting people, and big personalities. Above all, though, there's a willingness to put all our children and young people at the center of everything for a long weekend and let them get to know each other and themselves just a little better.

For me personally, it's marvelous to be a part of this community rising up to support these people. I love knowing the community members better and better, and the other parents, and enlarging the circle to include new families of all shapes and sizes and constituents. My recent revelation about making coffee -- there are so many ways to make an excellent cup of coffee, not just one -- holds for making families, too. There are so many ways for people to join together as families, and INHC's wonderful array of families and community members proves this is true. One of the greatest things about Camp is how it acknowledges how the kids' adoptions and living in mixed-race families affects and creates their own unique culture.

Until I started volunteering at Camp, I often felt overwhelmed by the activities and the emotions they stirred up. I didn't know as many families, and I often felt like an outsider. Looking back, it is clear we adopted our daughter at a peak in Indian adoptions -- hardly anyone is adopted from India these days (more kids are coming from Nepal now). What this has meant for us is our daughter grew up with a bunch of kids from her orphanage she now sees every summer at Camp. Now, having attended 12 years of these camps, we don't feel like outsiders in any sense. We weren't outsiders when we'd only attended once, but I couldn't help feeling like we were back then. For our daughter, it has not felt like she left India and never went back -- it's felt like she left India and a whole bunch of the kids came with her! (And then we went back, but that's another story, or several.) And she's never been "the only one" -- since we became her parents, we have had a community of families with kids adopted from India and other places around us, and camp has reinforced and extended our connections to these families.

For the last few camps, I have had larger volunteer roles, which definitely helped me feel more a part of everything. This year I volunteered to help with the audio/visual equipment, in part because of the loudness of some of the events. But every time I went to offer help, though, I was assured other folks had it under control. So I just offered support where I saw a need, which worked out well. This year I got to go to some of the adult sessions and enjoy conversations with other new and long-attending families. I reconnected with a former coworker who since adopted a child from China and a younger one from Nepal, and I participated in the adult dance performance, which I always love.

The hardest thing about writing about Camp is knowing how much to explain, and again I find myself not knowing where to begin. For what it is -- just over two days of workshops for kids and adults on dance, cooking, culture, and adoption/mixed race issues -- it has such a huge impact on our lives. Any questions? Please ask!

26 June 2014

Playing and being played

I just gave my cats a little electric guitar concert. I hadn't gotten out my fuchsia solidbody Godin for a long time; I had forgotten how messed up its pickups are and felt embarrassed for never having gotten around to getting them fixed. But on some of the pickup combinations the sound is just fine, and I have a booming chorus amp that adds to my meager musical efforts as much distortion and reverb and overall glow as I like at any given moment. This makes my little wanderings more fun, but loud for the little cats with big ears.
    Nora has probably heard me play two or three times in the two years she's been a part of our family. Her whiskers and tufted ears leading the way, Nora followed me into my office, her plume of tail high. Nora lowered her tail and crept closer to the amp's speaker as I played. She stopped, shook her head as if to shed the excess sound from her ears, and turned and trotted out of deafening range. She and Jack watched me from the sidelines as I played. Even though I didn't think the volume was that loud, the cats did look concerned from their vantage points at the edge of the room.
    When I play music awkwardly, or sit down to write without knowing what I will say until I say it, I feel sort of like a teenager who is about to graduate from college and doesn't know what is going to happen next. I feel perfectly positioned to take Tosha Silver's advice to do my things (because even though writing and storytelling is my main thing, there's more than one thing with me, always) and  see where the divine leads me. I feel more willing than ever to put myself in the hands of something that's not me, which is both a very new sensation and a very old sensation.
    It's a new sensation in that my judgments and skepticism have been falling away. I wonder lately whether each of us has a field of energy interacting with everyone else's energy field, or auras that mix and match or clash or that glow bright or dim according to circumstances or health or interactions with others. It's like starting with three colors of paint and combining them to make more colors: each time you mix two colors, you get something different. If there's one thing I've learned from my mother's health issues, it's that we are all so different, each exposed to a different set of hazards, blessed with a different set of genetic strengths and environmental advantages while having a unique achilles heel in each of our reactions to toxins, pollution, allergies, or other insults to our health.
    This sensation of turning my ... fate, for lack of a better word, over to something as vague as “the divine,” as Tosha Silver says, is also an old, familiar one in that I've always thrown the I Ching when I have not known what I wanted or where I was going. Sometimes I turn to the the ritual of shaking three pennies six times and recording the hexagram so I can look it up in the I Ching for advice, but it's more that I want some landmarks as I continue on my way, some signposts indicating what I should remain mindful of as I walk down the next section of the path. I trust that my contact with the coins will lead me to something I need to know at this moment. My edition of the I Ching has two different books that each list interpretations of each hexagram, so I look up the hexagram in each book to make sure I don't miss some detail I should to pay attention to, just the way I look up two different recipes for the same new dish so I understand how the recipe is supposed to work in theory, not just in one instance.
    Today I admitted to my sister that I've been having this growing sensation that science isn't all it's cracked up to be, that there's information I feel science's reductionist explanations leaves out, possibilities science doesn't admit. It's all these little coincidences that make me feel that way, and the ongoing feeling that the more I take chances and pick things up, the more things are being put in my path when I need them. I read about the actress Mila Kunis today, who said she decided to say yes for a year, instead of trying to protect herself, and a lot of great things happened as a result during that year as a result of all that yesing. I think my friend Hanna once said something to me about doing that, too, but I never really tried it.
    These days I feel I'm saying yes a lot, trying creative enterprises, asking for jobs that look interesting, and trusting the universe will say yes in one way or many. I also told my sister anything could happen; if getting a technical writing job is the next thing I do, that is part of it all, part of how I can serve my family and community, and I'll still have all these other things to offer, more things to which I can say yes.

21 June 2014

Strategies for Sports and Life

The only thing that ever makes me say, “I wish I could go back and do this over again” about my middle-school years is sports. I abhorred the chaos of basketball and soccer, while also being fascinated by the games in the abstract. I admired people who could ride unicycles or juggle, like my friends, or do cartwheels, like my long-limbed and slender mother, and I was curious about friends who went skiing every weekend, but for a long time I thought I had little in common physically with them.
In high school I took up running, skiing, and tennis. I loved hitting the ball around but wasn't competitive enough to become a strong player. I was not so assertive back then, either, and felt confusion about the difference between assertive and aggressive. The idea of fighting to get better at a sport was alien to me. I liked skiing because I was good at things you need time to do, like writing and reading and art. Things you could do and redo, not these we-have-to-play-the-best-game-ever-or-we'll-all-go-down-together, do-or-die contests of wiles and will.
A funny thing happened on the way to my gym classes, though. I started to notice that yeah, maybe I wasn't so great at pull-ups or push-ups, but I could ski or run or bike a few miles without feeling like I was going to throw up. And I loved that burst of energy and clarity that always occurred somewhere in my workout (the endorphins kicking in, no doubt) and felt that Aha! I'm-up-where-I can-see-again sensation.
My endurance has helped in all sorts of situations since. I tried trekking on cross-country skis, downhill skiing, and bicycling. I paddled rafts but especially loved taking a big oar boat through the rapids myself, analyzing the river to see the best path (there's that strategizing again).
But I do wish sometimes that I could go out and play soccer in a field with a bunch of people knowing what I know now. I see those But you could!s sputtering on your lips, but the problem with going out and playing soccer now is that given what I know now, I wouldn't play soccer on this set of knees. I've had surgery for meniscal tears on both knees and can just keep them happy and me fit with dance, biking, hiking, skiing and some squats. But given my current condition, soccer, distance running, gymnastics, and telemark skiing aren't going to be where I get my exercise highs. So hooray for my happy fortune in finding activities I love that literally make me leap for joy and stretch my body and soul. And hooray for the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapists who have helped me continue to use my legs for function and fun.
Recently, on my way home from my dance class, I stopped at a yard sale where I bought a tiny, intricately built cribbage set inlaid with metal strips to indicate the bounds on the scoring board. It had a piece of scrimshaw of a happy looking moose glued onto it. Last night I printed out the rules, tweaking the formatting until I could get them all on a single sheet of paper, which I completely filled with 10-point type. While the rules looked lengthy, I remembered cribbage as a fun game, even if it was one at which I often got skunked or double-skunked (I can't even bear to think about those times I was triple-skunked).
Back in about 1977, when I was about 14, my stepfather, Yankee, started me how to play cribbage. It is a game in which you set aside a couple of cards that go into the dealer's “crib,” essentially a second hand. You then take turns with an opponent laying down cards and accumulating points, to a maximum of 31 points and then you start again. Then you add up all the points for combinations of cards and runs. During each round of play, the score for the dealer's crib is added, so the dealer essentially gets to play two hands. Then the deal alternates and the new dealer gets the crib. You play to 121 points, usually, which is one point more than four “streets” of 30 points, which you score by placing pegs along a track on a board, leapfrog-style so you can see your existing score while you peg additional points.
But it all sounds more elaborate than it is, because there are limited ways to earn points. Play is fast-paced and you score points frequently. But you definitely have to think ahead about how to maximize the points, and you have to make decisions about what cards to keep when you are salting away cards in your crib as the dealer or which cards to pawn off on your opponent (the “pone” in cribbage-speak) when it's their crib. In other words, you need to strategize.
I have found learning to strategize one of the true pleasures of my life. A soccer team setting up a goal attempt a full minute before the ball is kicked toward the net, it turns out, requires as much planning and forethought as working out the details of a plot that involves multiple characters. When writing fiction, you have to be able to store things away to add later, or keep certain things out of certain characters' hands so they don't use them to hijack the story (a mistake I confess I've made more than once in my fiction).
I used to get mad at my stepfather because he knew all the cribbage scoring tricks – like getting two points for “his nobs” as the dealer when he'd turn up a jack as the top card of the deck.
My sister, my brother, and I all remember the night of the horrific carroms game with our father Steve a little differently, but we all remember it. Well, maybe my stepmother used her magical  religion's brain powers to clear that one out of her memory banks, but the rest of us remember it. It was one of those nights when my father was being a sore loser, this one worse than most. One of us was winning, and my sister and I remember differently who it was, but it didn't matter. What mattered was our father was losing, and he didn't like it. After a missed shot, he had a tantrum and threw the carroms and board across the room.
None of us wanted to play anymore (how's that for understatement?), but our father didn't want to walk away from the game because he was still losing. Emotional terrorism is what I call that now, and I had some serious unlarnin' to do when I sailed blithely and arrogantly into my adulthood.
And I wonder why I was never all that competitive. And why people thought I was.
But those cribbage games (and gin, backgammon, and pool, too) with my stepfather helped me learn so much about planning to win, not just winning. Those games challenged me enough to make me want to win against my stepfather (for once). The games were just tough enough to make me want to learn how to find the most bonus points along the way, not just when we stopped to total everything at the end. And the games were fun. He wanted me to learn well, so he would have a good opponent, not just someone he could knock down and win against every time.
While I had to discover my physical gifts on my own (yes, I can learn choreography! and bike or ski for hours!), my stepfather was the one who taught me all about grace in winning – and losing. He taught me true sportsmanship.

09 June 2014

Songs of Gratitude: On Being Seen

I keep circling back in my memory to the sweet eddy of time when I met – re-met, that is – my friend Hari at Olompali last month. It gives me joy every time I think of that moment:
“You're Flower?”
“I'm Hari, and I remember you.”
“You do?” I was tearing up by this point, seeing him in tears.
“Yes, I do. You were my favorite kid!”
Now we were both crying. The way Hari then so carefully and lovingly described his memories of our family told me he not only knew me but that he saw us. He saw each of us, and all of us together, which still moves me. He was among the community that was affected not only by our tragedy, but also by our presence at Olompali before that.
Every one of us is creating and always has generated those circles of ripples traveling outward, all the time, and my and Hari's wave circles overlapped in the late 1960s and are rippling into new patterns once again. I find more overlaps the more I peer into our pasts – Hari spent time in almost the exact spot in India where our child was born. He spent time with Thomas Merton, who had been a writing partner of my grandmother, my mother's mother, Paula Hocks.
Thinking about these warm waves still traveling toward me makes me remember another source of warm energy and care who rippled briefly in our lives. After looking through old photos with my mother recently, I have been remembering the year I lived in Venice, California with my parents, when we moved there together after I graduated from high school. I had a gap year, during which I worked a couple of jobs and not only saved money for college but also gained California residency.
My mother had been a home-birth midwife in Boulder and was determined to continue her practice in L.A. She started talking with doctors and trying to find backup like she'd had in Boulder – Ob/Gyns who were willing to go to the hospital on call as backup were she to call from a home birth that wasn't proceeding as it should. She'd had several doctors willing to meet her at the hospital in Boulder, but these doctors weren't so easy for an unknown, unlicensed home-birth midwife to conscript in L.A. So my mother had to be super-cautious and deliver babies at home only for people who swore they would call an ambulance or go to the hospital now if she said “It's time to go to the hospital.”
During this time, my mother delivered a few babies, and acquired an apprentice midwife named Lana. Lana lived in Sunland, a deserty suburb far north of the sprawl of Los Angeles-proper. We visited her there once, and she came to visit us in Venice a couple of times. We have photographs of her and my mother, both gorgeous women at the heights of their powers, with wise eyes and beautiful smiles.
While my mother was the essence of prepared and coolheaded in a crisis and had gifts for knowing how to make the pregnant women comfortable, keep labor moving, and help other members of the family feel useful and secure, Lana had another gift that to me seemed perhaps less pragmatic but was no less intriguing: she read palms.
Lana held our hands, looking closely at them, seeing the lines hatching a different set of patterns on each one. She described how the shapes and planes and intersections of lines predicted our fates as if our hands had each been inscribed at our births and we were each simply following our own hand-maps into the future.
I never saw Lana again after our few visits, but some of the things she said have stayed with me ever since. Like Hari, I feel Lana saw us, for who we were, what we had been through, and what we could become.
Lana said to me, “You are innocent. You have seen terrible things, but you will always have an innocence about you. You will never lose that sweetness.”
I will always be grateful to Lana for saying these things to me at that time, just before I set off and became independent. Her words gave me glimmers of hope for the renewal of my soul and openness of my heart in moments when darkness pulled me downward and muted my color and voice. Lana, I hope you know that you helped us so much, even though I feel we hardly got to know you.

21 May 2014

Oh What A Time It Was...

I've spent the last four days in Marin and San Francisco and South San Francisco, and are my legs/eyes/brain/emotions/heart tired! I feel like I ran a multi-day race. We flew out to California and saw our friend, went to another family's house for dinner, then split up to respectively visit another person and go to an author event at a nearby bookstore.

The next day, Sunday, May 18, was the Olompali Heritage Day celebration. We got there just after 10 and drove up the road, a newer road a little south of the one that used to go straight out to 101, just outside the city of Novato, which had only been a town when we lived at Olompali in 1969.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this day. I had sent my Olompali story to the folks making the documentary Olompali: A California Story. I met Greg Gibbs, the partner of the film's producer, Maura McCoy, who was one of the founders of this chapter of Olompali's history as one of three children of her dad, Don McCoy was the man who had leased the ranch (all 690 acres of it!) from the State of California starting in 1966. The Grateful Dead had been the land's renters for a few months, earlier in that halcyon year of hippiedom, which also happened to be the year we arrived in San Francisco.

We entered the park, me marveling all the while at the visitor center apparatus (paved parking lot and fences) and finding things not quite as I had remembered. The visitor center is in the Yellow House but the lower floor has been gutted and remodeled, so was entirely unfamiliar, and I didn't ask to go upstairs, where things have been less altered since I lived there.

I then met Gregg and Maura in person. Maura would have been about 10 or 11 when my sister died and Novato shut the place down. Perhaps Maura and I didn't click back in the day, and didn't remember each other fondly. Testing my recall, I asked a couple of people if they remembered anyone named "Ivy" at Olompali, but now I wonder whether it is Maura I've renamed in my memory banks.

After showing the film trailer, an early Q & A with Gregg, Maura, and Noelle followed to let the overheating projector recover before we could all watch the film clip. During the Q & A I stood up with all the people in the room who had lived there then. Some people didn't know who I was, and I didn't recognize most of the other 15 people or so who were standing with me in the room. 

After seeing the 10-minute film excerpt, everyone in attendance was quite impressed. Many of the Olompali folks had been through the experience of working with an archaeologist who sorted out the things found in the fire that gutted the Burdell Mansion early in 1969 so they were used to a certain kind of examination of their past. But this snappy, hopeful, and well produced tale showed how the place is woven into the fabric of California history and validated some key elements of this chapter of Rancho Olompali's storied history. It focused on how the commune didn't start out as a grand experiment in utopian living. It was more that the kids in three families all liked each other and the adults said, "Hey, we have money -- let's get out of the concrete jungle and try living in the country all together." And they did.

Sister Mary, who had been the commune's schoolteacher at what came to be called the Not School, stood up and read a poem she'd written to commemorate the occasion. Everyone cheered and accepted the copies she handed around.

After the film clip, everyone walked around and chatted. I introduced myself to Buz, who was the ranch manager at the time. I would have been just one of the little kids to him, I think. Then I introduced myself to a fellow in a straw hat and wearing a bead necklace. "You're Flower?" he beamed, brightening. "I'm Hari. I knew you and your family well. You were my favorite kid!" We were both crying now. I'm crying again as I write this.

Hari said he remembered me well, and my family too. I was so happy to hear this! We had been friends. "You were so imaginative and free," Hari said. "I remember your mother, too. I think I had a crush on her. I was 'between families' then, and she represented everything that my first wife had not been. And she was so beautiful. And you, you were my favorite kid. And your father." Here he sighed and struggled with what to say. "I don't think he was a junkie," he said carefully, "but he was using." I was glad to have another of my memories corroborated by another witness, because I had confronted my father on this point and he'd disclaimed any memories of the events. I said my father is living in Mexico now and we are out of touch. Hari nodded.

Hari's story had been that he was headed down a narrowing path when he decided to go to India on a spiritual quest. His wife and children wanted no part of his strange journey, and turned against him. He came back from India changed and still seeking, but still without family. When he landed at Olompali around when we did, he too saw the possibility of a place where children were encouraged to play and sing and dance and explore and be curious and interact with the people around them not just in an institution. But he also went to the Haight and saw what was happening, how harder drugs were sweeping away that peaceful, loving vibe and turning the Haight-Ashbury into a place more often than not hijacked by the gritty, greasy stew of junkies, drunks, dealers, pimps, and bikers displacing the flood of hamsterish and earnest stoned people and acid-dropping intellects. Hari later had a second family, two sons who love and cherish him and he them.


As one example of the examined life the former Olompalians have lived since that particular experiment aborted, it had become apparent that the archaeologist's assumption was incorrect: the concrete pad outside the yellow house was not for a family gazebo that had since been dismantled or destroyed in a gale. Rather, it had been built for the giant bread oven that was gifted to the commune by a baker who took a detour on his existential trail when he came to live at Olompali. Bread was baked by nudists in the large commercial oven (An oven, or a sweat lodge? You be the judge!) not only for the communards but also as part of the Diggers' self-appointed mission to hand out for free on Sundays in San Francisco. Someone asked about the recipe for the bread and the answer came, "It had a lot of molasses. It was more virtuous than delicious." But I remember that fresh hot whole-wheat bread with meals being filling and chewy. Some days it tasted better than others. Remember: these were the days when people were experimenting with everything -- you can just imagine what happened when a bunch of communally minded people converged on the kitchen!

I have to curb my storytelling for now but will pick it up soon. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take this trip right now, and to myself for taking it. It has been a revelation and a delight. For now, a couple more thoughts:

We were all just borrowing this place. But oh, the things we learned!  That with care and intention and energy it is possible to create an environment conducive to joy and music and discovery and movement and mixing things up. That a lot of dark stuff got mixed up in it the way PCP or the poorly named "angel dust" hit the streets of the Haight like a toxic tide that brought with it a thousand more ills and imbalances. Yet, before all of that, there had been a big idea that still animates all the hearts of the true hippies I know: that this kind of joy and openness is possible not just for small groups of individuals but in society at large. Which is but one of the reasons my heart swells about the maker movement and I have long dreamed of opening a place called The Craft Palace. I have always turned to making something when I am feeling sad or alienated from others. We had a friend stay with us a few days and teach me how to improvise on the piano, and anytime I had a keyboard at hand and needed to hear my own music, I had that to cheer myself up or remind myself of my basic creative and generative self. Doesn't every child deserve the access to that I had? That experience gave me the tools to get the education I wanted from the environment around me, not only take what was handed to me by my teachers.

For awhile, I struggled with PTSD. I got distracted by all those demons, that "evil life that's got you in its sway," as the Rolling Stones song goes. And all that came in a middle section of the story, so we'll put that idea aside for another essay or several, not letting that hijack this joyful tale, and return to May 18.

As I have said, the big surprise to me was that we all left Olompali around when our family turned tail and headed to Colorado. Noelle said "about 12 of us moved back home to my mother's house in Mill Valley." I believe the McCoy family went to a place just outside San Rafael in Terra Linda when the commune ended (but I'm still fuzzy on some of the details).

I learned that while my family arrived on the crest of the dark tide that arose about six months before Olompali was shut down, when singalongs started to turn sour and the drunk guys stole the spotlight again, it wasn't me anyone was objecting to. I was where I was supposed to be, the whole time we were there. When I was flipping through the records in the mansion, and picking one to put on and listen to by myself, I was supposed to be doing just that. This environment had been designed for me, and spread out for me to discover at my own pace, which I did every time I put on an album or tapped a tambourine to keep time with a song.

I had so long carried the feeling of being exiled from that place, where heaven went along without us while we had been dashed back down to earth to suffer and shuffle along among the other mortals, an experience that set us apart from angels and humans equally. So what a revelation it is to feel that we belonged there. What a relief no longer to take it personally when someone like Noelle says, "We didn't want just anybody coming here." We belonged there despite the existence of cliques of drunk men or mean kids (who pop up in every crowd, right?). We belonged there because we were ready and willing and able to be genuine and free and true to ourselves, and once you've seen that, no one can take it away from you: It's yours. It's yours to keep in your pocket, to wear the way a superhero dons a cape, or to stick on a pole and fly freak-flag high, or to twirl like the streamer of a rhythmic gymnast. I feel I have given this great gift of belonging to myself, a direct result of taking this trip.

As I met people around the reunion, I saw that we are all still here, and still carry some of that joy with us. It's not always easy to remember amidst the chaos and demands of now, and the pain of losing so many of our fellows along the way. But we all shared and cared how it came out. My sister's death didn't just affect our family; it affected our whole community. It's too bad my family for whatever reasons could not stay and grieve with the others around us, who would have helped us process what happened and grow to accept it over time. We had to navigate that on our own in a way I wouldn't wish on anyone. But we made it through and for that I am grateful. There are so many times we could have not made it for one reason or another, but we did, and we're not victims of our past but survivors, one and all. It's a miracle each one of us is here. So I figure let's make the most of it and celebrate being in it all together. Oh, what a time it is.

OK go!

30 April 2014

The End of Olompali

We had lived at many San Francisco addresses in 1966 through 1968, among them a church rectory filled with hippies on Julian in the Mission, a couple of flats in Noe Valley, and a flat on Cole, just a couple of blocks from the busy epicenter that was Haight and Ashbury, and four blocks from Golden Gate Park, where we went to Be-Ins and spent many hours on the playground's swings and concrete slides. In the evenings we went to concerts and film happenings at the Straight Theatre and other nearby concert halls.
It was with the name of a new friend, Michael Morningstar, on our lips that we arrived at Olompali, maybe on a sun-kissed February day in 1969, one of those fine, pre-spring California days when you want to swim in the ocean or sow some seeds in turned soil. By the time we got to Olompali, commune life was in full swing and open to all comers, so it turned out it didn't really matter who we knew. Michael was friendly and relaxed and stayed in his room in the yellow house when he was at the ranch. I remember flipping through the records in the living room of the yellow house, and playing instruments there by myself. Once I asked Michael if I could have some money and he said yes, go ahead and help yourself to any you find. I did, and always felt fond of Michael for giving me that hundred dollars. He had sincerely offered it to me, and he had to talk my parents out of insisting I return the money.
The hardest thing to do at Olompali was sleep. I started out trying to sleep on a flatbed trailer with my father, mother, and little sister, but the cows snuffled at our heads during the night. We tried sleeping under the trailer, but the ground had been tilled and was horribly lumpy. We'd wake up cold and wet with dew in the early morning. (Maybe this is one of the reasons I've never been a big fan of the Grateful Dead's song “Morning Dew.”) My sister didn't mind sleeping outdoors as much as I did, but I went in search of a way to sleep inside. I got permission to sleep under a kitchen table a few times in a cabin where one couple lived, but the nights its occupants had noisy sex were not so restful.
I didn't like Olompali so much at night, but during the day it could be like a festival. The pool was cool and clear and I was learning to swim pretty well. We had friends and music and food – so much good food! My mother liked the communal cooking and baking, and found it the easiest way to get to know the other women and do something useful.
At first my sister and I spent a lot of time together at Olompali. I was sixteen months older than my little sister Audrey, who was called Baby then, but I was the more introverted one. Baby was a mimic. I can pull off a decent impression or accent now and then, but she was so funny and could capture it all: tone, facial expressions, and speech rhythms. We loved each other most, but we also liked having kids our ages to run and play with. Olompali had so much for us to explore: fields of tall grasses, gnarled scrub oak trees, a lawn with a gentle slope for sitting at mealtimes and rolling around on, the many intriguing houses, outbuildings, and encampments all over the property, and lots of interesting adults like Vivian and Laird (when he wasn't drunk or weird) who weren't afraid to talk and interact with children.
My sister and I started to become pals and run around with some of the kids who lived there, but I remember one girl who seemed to see me as a rival when I showed up. Somehow, though, my sister out-toughed Ivy. When Ivy was being mean, I would get scared or mad, but Baby could keep her sense of humor. Maybe she mimicked Ivy and made everyone laugh. Even though I was older, I knew precious little about being tough or funny, and learned a lot from watching my sister defend my honor. How I loved her.
In addition to the frequent and freewheeling after- or before-dinner music-making at Olompali, I also remember hearing the Beatles, CSN&Y, Bob Dylan, Richard and Mimi Fariña, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. John Mayall was someone's favorite, and I remember hearing the ubiquitous sounds of Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jimi Hendrix. People also listened to other music: jazz, Indian music, folk. My mother liked the Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys, and I took notice of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (the Flowers album was a favorite since I had changed my name to Flower back when we lived at the rectory in the city). Lots of people went to concerts and listened to The Grateful Dead, and people played Dead songs on their guitars and at fireside singalongs. The Grateful Dead played at Olompali a few times and the back cover of the Aoxomoxoa album features a photograph of them taken at the ranch, but I don't remember seeing the band when we were there.
We started getting comfortable with some of the routines at the ranch. My mother cooked and baked, and we ran around with the other kids. But just when we felt we knew what to expect, things started getting weird. I don't believe we were at the ranch when the big fire destroyed the mansion in February of 1969, or when that freaky drug raid happened, but looking back I remember feeling that these raging wars that were going on in so many other places – in Asia, the culture wars in America – were finally creeping into our own environment despite our attempts to escape them
In what I think of as the “rap time” after dinner, men brandished guns and pacifists pleaded with them to calm down. People who were inclined to point to astrological signs of impending chaos, darkness, or conspiracy became agitated and spewed their paranoia, in turn stoking others' fears and visions of doom. More than once I saw someone plunge a knife into the ground while ranting and raving about some anguish I didn't understand.
I wonder now: Were there returned Vietnam vets among the young men at Olompali, men who had been psychically wounded in combat? Where did the firebrands in our group come from? My father didn't serve; he had babies instead. But we knew people who had come back with that haunted gaze I later recognized when I heard the term “thousand-yard stare.” Some of these men were angry, and some seemed to need a lot of grass or other drugs and liquor to quench all that pain.
In June, we visited our friends the Pennys at their sunny place in Winters with the persimmon tree. I stayed with them for a few extra days on my own. We still have photographs of my little sister from one happy weekend in Winters when she was sitting in a shaft of light and reading the Sunday funnies. I think Bob Penny took the pictures – he always had the best and most up-to-date stereo and camera gear, and could develop his own photos.
That weekend after my parents and sister had gone back to Olompali, one of the Pennys answered the phone and learned that my sister was in the hospital. I vaguely remember a blur of activity and the tense drive to the hospital, Marin General. It might have been evening when we got the call, but I think we arrived at the hospital after dark. The Pennys vanish in my memory after this. I don't know where they were or if they stayed with us for a while and then went home, or if they took care of us in any way. I don't remember anything of the next several days but seeing my little sister lying in that little warmed crib in that gray room, pretty much naked but all stuck full of plugs and catheters and tubes. I remember and hoping and wishing and praying she would wake up and be the person I had known all her life and most of mine.
While my father flipped out in his own way and disappeared for the most part, ultimately getting thrown out of the hospital when he got caught trying to steal drugs, my mother asked some Buddhist monks to come into Baby's hospital room to chant for her when the doctors told us she would have permanent brain damage if she did wake up from her coma. I don't know why it helps me so much to remember that these kind people were chanting for my sister, and for me and my mother and father, but it does. Perhaps the chants helped us move through those awful moments without getting completely stuck.
Baby died on my mother's birthday. I was not with her at the ends of her life. I was not with her at the end of her conscious life when she fell into the water at Olompali when riding the tricycle in her long dress around the pool with an even littler girl, her friend Nika. They must have been riding the trike in circles around the pool. Later everyone figured the trike caught the loose stone at the edge of the pool and the trike and two girls tipped into the water. Neither of them knew how to swim, and they had the trike and my sister's long red dress to tangle them up. I wasn't with them so I couldn't help them swim to the edge. I wasn't with them so I didn't see how long they were in the water before the girl who was supposed to be watching them but wasn't paying attention emerged to find them and send up the alarm. I've read people's recollections saying none of the vehicles would start, so getting them to the hospital took forever. She lived another nine days but I didn't get to hold her as she was without the tubes and machines that last time and tell her how much I loved her, that I would never forget her, and I would miss her forever.
Reading other people's accounts on the internet, I discovered a lot of mythology around this moment at Olompali. Some said, gruesomely, that it was weeks before they were found because the pool water was murky and covered with leaves. But I remember the pool being well cared for, the water clear and clean. Some say the girls never made it to the hospital, but I know that was not the case. One article says they died shortly after getting to the hospital. I think Nika died earlier than Audrey did, but I honestly don't remember.
My sixth birthday was marked by a little party at Olompali six days after Baby died. My mother made me a beautiful and delicious cake, vanilla with vanilla frosting and decorated with shiny dark green leaves. People sang to me, and everyone cried and thought of my missing sister the whole time. A few days later my mother, father, and I left Olompali and did not return for years.
Only recently, when combing the Internet for Olompali recollections, did I realize that Baby's and Nika's deaths ended life as we knew it at Olompali, not just for us, but also for most of the people we knew there. We moved back to Colorado within a few weeks, and most of the people at Olompali also dispersed within that few weeks.
We still had a few connections to people we had known at Olompali. A few people we had known in California came out to Boulder around that time. Others visited occasionally, or we went to visit them on our road trips to California. I spent some lovely time with our friend Vivian in Northern California (in Rio Nido I think, and later she moved to Sebastopol). For a while, Vivian was a dedicated and prolific pen pal, exchanging letters with me about the turbulence of my friendships and my shifting relationships with my parents. Once in a long while someone would bring news of someone we knew from Olompali, but after a few years, we lost touch with everyone. 
This is an excerpt from a work in progress, tentatively titled "Flower Child: My Tales of Growing Up in the 1960s and Beyond."

29 April 2014

Post-Dramatic Stress

Sometimes when I read the morning's news in the paper and on social media, I am also scanning for a current writing prompt, and this morning's leapt off the page at me: PTSD.

I wrote recently that we were like the vets returned from Vietnam when we returned to Colorado shocked and shattered. My father, mother, stepmother, sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents – everyone in my family has suffered so much trauma, which means sometimes we still suffer from reactions to those traumas, just like those war veterans.

One of my aunts recently said she had no idea what we were going through when my sister died in California and we moved back home immediately. “I lived such a sheltered life,” she told me. She is right that I never shared that luxury, but the truth is: her life was sheltered in some ways, but not in others.

My daughter's life seems so sheltered now that it is painful for her to learn about some of the harsher economics of human transactions. I am grateful every day that she didn't have to contend with the hectic pace of change in daily life that I did as a child. Her life is so predictable compared to mine, and for her, that is a good thing.

Recently I learned of the experiments on fairness done with capuchin monkeys in which they give two monkeys grapes for doing a specific task, then give one monkey grapes for that task but the other monkey gets cucumbers, and watch how mad that second monkey gets about receiving a different and less tasty reward. As a child in school, I saw how my friends lived and knew something wasn't quite right in my world. Now I see I was always working on the trajectory of my life, trying to change its course, make it come out a little better.

All of which perhaps explains those episodes I think about – those things I had been calling tantrums but were more likely bouts of mania, in which I tried to blast past some apparent restriction. Why? I don't know how otherwise to explain my desire to get out of my house and ride to St. Louis on the back of a friend's motorcycle when I was six or ride to Poughkeepsie, New York with a dad and his two sons (I have good memories of that trip except for the one about maybe starting a brush fire by sliding down a grassy hillside on pieces of cardboard). I don't know how otherwise to explain my midlife-crisis-y need to go to London and go to Chicago to see my favorite band. There was something in me that Would Not Be Denied. 

I of course have seen this force in my parents, too, and my mother saw this in her mother, and so on, and so on.

While my genealogical research is helping me put some of this in perspective, it doesn't necessarily disappear the PTSD that lingers on. My child is sensitive to a whole other set of concerns and perceptions than I am, and has a lot to teach me a lot about keeping my inner self calm, getting enough sleep every day, and acting instead of reacting. When I'm hangry, though, all that good intention goes out the window and I am short-fused and reactive.

Every time I think about this and write about it, though, I feel more compassion for myself and for everyone who struggles with their feelings and reactions to trauma. Our culture often tells us to keep calm and carry on instead of letting ourselves feel our pain or grief or anger, which are bad enough on their own, without the frustration at the injustice of continuing to experience these reactions to wrongs done long ago. Breathing and noticing what we are grateful for helps, too, yes, but so does feeling our own feelings as they come, whether that means spending quiet time in nature, meditating and observing them, writing them down to pull them out from the dark shadows and into the light to be examined, or expressing yourself through some other medium that gives you peace and perspective.

The other day I heard an NPR story about the Sherpa community after many Sherpa died in a recent ice slide on Everest. One Sherpa said, "Normally, when we climbing, we just pray: 'Om mani padme hum.' That mantra is very powerful mantra, and that protects you [with] safety and long life. But ... if there's a wrong time, even the mantra cannot protect them."

25 April 2014

Communication saves

Communication saved my life.

Yesterday my mother asked me about my experience of our traumatic end to our time in California in 1969 and our dismantled skulk back to Colorado. I told her we were so isolated by what we had been through. Think of it: we were in the midst of a circus in San Francisco in 1966-68 and Marin in 1969.

I was fortunate to have a float in that parade, in getting to see and feel those many amazing instances of peace and love and beauty that could occur between total strangers, individually or in groups. As a very young child in the late 1960s, I also remember seeing and feeling neglect, physical abuse, drug abuse, hypersexuality, and so much incomprehensible human strangeness. Fortunately, I was a resilient and adaptable, easygoing little person and had a family who wanted to treat me as a person. My feisty littler sister was sensitive to issues of fairness and justice, and was a great mimic. Then I lost my sister to a babysitter's carelessness (or lust, or participation in some moment that didn't involve watching my sister and her friend tricycling and running in circles around the swimming pool at the commune where we lived in Marin).

When we moved back to Colorado, we were shattered. Apparently we didn't talk about what happened. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my parents to come to the door of my grandmother's house and have to tell her and then the rest of the family that one of our family was gone, erased, as if she'd never existed. As her bereaved sister, I could just be sad and sleep a lot, which I was and did. My parents carried a horrible burden of shame and regret, sorrow and rage, disappointment and disillusion. We could no longer say with that innocent certainty that things would all work out in the end. That was no longer possible. 

In a way we became a lot like the Vietnam vets who would return to the States having seen far more than they'd ever dreamed of, read about, or bargained for when they'd shipped out, green and innocent, having been nurtured by their families and friends right up until being thrust into that horrorshow of human experience and humanity/inhumanity.

My mother tells me how we came to an acquaintance's family's house in Nederland, above Boulder, and told them our grievous tale. The wife burst into tears. "I can't believe you brought this to us," she said and ran from the room for the rest of the evening. (They ended up letting us stay in their tipi and use their kitchen and bathroom facilities for the next couple of months.) It seems to me that after that, we kept our hurt private. It was too heavy for anyone else to carry. It took years to get comfortable talking about Baby, but later we learned to reminisce about her: her precociousness at aping people's expressions, verbal and physical, and about her fearlessness compared with my caution. My mother said she felt she was often butting heads with Baby, and thought she had been our father's favorite child.

Now, I know that some of the things that happened around me when I was small could easily have caused a social worker to whisk me away from my unstable environment and plop me into foster care. But it breaks my heart a little now to think that today, if a child lost her sister -- and a family lost a child -- to a tragic accident, that child and family would all be plied with grief counseling services and offered help to process what had happened and move forward. But no.

We didn't have a funeral for my sister. Some of the mysteries of human experience remained associated with San Francisco forever, and I think as soon as we left I was always trying to find ways to get back there, to where I had last seen and played with my sister.

Things shifted when I started to realize that there were resources to help me, such as music, to lift my spirits and soul; the library, full of books where I could learn about other ways of doing, living, and being; and movies that showed me up close things that people around me didn't talk about. I had friends, people who listened when I talked, and who wanted to help me. One of our friends from the Olompali commune days, Vivian Gotters, reconnected with us when I was a teenager, and she was my wise pen pal through some rocky moments. I had counselors at school who helped me talk about the bouts of alcohol and rage my father cycled through, gave me reality checks that the injustices I suffered were indeed not normal, nor right; and helped me keep my head up (and down) at the same time. I kept seeking ways to speak my truth. As a student of self-defense I went on to learn more about the boundary between me and everyone else and found ways to say no that I had never comprehended were possible for me.

I think everything I have worked at in my life has been about opening channels of communication so that information can flow freely. It was isolating and stifling to be told, “We can handle our problems inside our own family.” That wasn't true. My father mishandled our feelings and drank his own into oblivion. I did appreciate my mother saying to me, “If you can't talk to us, you know a lot of people who love and care about you whom you can talk to.” I took full advantage of that (some might say too much – I think I could be kind of a leech when I really liked someone).

I would not be who I am today without the strength of my desire to keep information and love, energy, compassion, and curiosity flowing better and more freely everywhere I turn. I am grateful for feeling connected, not isolated, and for my many open channels of communication. They have truly saved me from many fates far worse than this.