All posts by russellsilerjones

pieces

Jeanine and I are sitting at a wobbly table out front of a coffee shop in Portland, Maine. It’s a hot day here, July 1, but we’re in the shade, there’s an occasional breeze, and the brick sidewalk, which spends long months of its life covered in snow, just has an aura of cool.

I brought a book with me, but the world around is way too compelling and will not let me read. A man pushing a shopping cart full of Gatorade sees me watching him: “I keep people hydrated! A drink and a bag of chips for a dollar and a quarter. That’s a good deal, right?” A woman, also pushing a cart, this one stacked with bottled water, shouts to a friend across the street, “They’re a dollar-eighty-eight for a 24-pack! At CVS! Today’s the last day!” A passenger in the front seat of a Jeep sings along to the radio: “Hey, hey, I wanna be a rock star!” Homeless women and men trudge along, with thick tans, dirty backpacks, and the slow, numbed footsteps of elephants. There are dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, teenage girls with iced lattes, millennial males on skateboards flying past at 20 miles per hour, and a small white feather sliding along.

This feather, I think, maybe it’s what’s left of the unlucky seagull selected for slaughter this morning outside the bedroom window at our Air-B-n-B, which is where all the seagulls of Portland seem to gather and, I can only assume from the desperate, strident, blood-thirsty, ceaseless screaming that’s happened at 4:15 every morning since we’ve been here, choose some member of their tribe to be offered to the gods in a brutal and gruesome ritual sacrifice.

I might be wrong, of course. This particular feather on the sidewalk might have nothing to do with all that.

We’re here visiting our daughter, Peyton, who moved here three months ago. She’s off and running in a career, and living in as wide a circle as she can before the commitments of relationship and responsibility that will come later and shrink the radius of possibility. Right now, the epicenter of that still-very-large circle is a fourth-floor apartment, across the street from the Portland Sea Dogs minor-league baseball field, and a sea dog of her own, Emmy Lou, who dearly loves the sea, and also the seaweed, and the sand, and all the other dogs who get to run free at the beach before 9 am.

(And speaking of free, and sea dogs, the baseball Sea Dogs let fans in for free after the sixth inning, and that is how, a couple nights ago, we saw Tim Tebow ground out to first in the top of the ninth. That’s the Tim Tebow, who used to play football for the Denver Broncos and now plays baseball for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, and so I can’t help but wonder, what is it with Tim Tebow and horses? I’m thinking that, one day, he will win the Kentucky Derby.)

Earlier today we walked and swam at Mackworth Island State Park, just north and across the bay. Mackworth Island is a glory land of trees. Maple, oak, large pines, basswood, and what looked to me like the remaining twelve feet of a long-gone American chestnut. I can’t imagine that could be true, over a hundred hot summers and harsh winters after the blight that decimated this great, giant giver of food, lumber, oxygen, and pride. But what remained was massive in diameter and had the twisting, knotted pattern of trunk that chestnuts have, so who knows. Fifteen years ago, I found an old chestnut stump in the forest above our house. It was rotted through entirely, save for the outer ring, two inches thick. I brought it home and took it to my office, where it leans against a wall and offers me something I won’t even try to explain, and probably don’t need to.

And the swimming at Mackworth, in the icy cold water of the North Atlantic. Man, oh man, I do love cold water. I can’t stand it much more than a minute, but that minute is amazing, and the amazement birthed in that minute keeps living in me and extends to most everything else I encounter for the rest of the day. Which may be why I’m so smitten with the world wandering past this coffee shop.

This is a pleasure trip for us, but the shadow of grief is fallen across it, too. A year ago, in April, Jeanine’s brother Marshall spent a weekend in Portland with his daughters Jess and Hannah. That was the last time they saw each other before he died in June, and we have brought with us, for Peyton, a beautiful blown glass vase holding a portion of her Uncle Marshall’s ashes. An artist friend of Marshall’s wife, Michelle, made these vases a few months ago, and Michelle distributed them to us at a gathering, in June, that Peyton was unable to attend.

When Marshall died last summer, our son, Walton, said it felt to him like Marshall had shattered into many pieces, and flown into us, and we would all carry pieces of him – his goodness and his suffering – with us. Now we have these pieces of Marshall, ashes, to release whenever and wherever we decide is right, and these exquisite, graceful vases, pieces of sand, shaped by fire and breath into pieces of art.

We came to Portland by plane, and at the airport, when Jeanine sent her luggage through security, the TSA agent made her unpack the vase so she could check it for explosives. “Tell me about this,” the agent said, understandably and kindly. “What’s in here?”

“These are some of my brother’s ashes,” she said. “We’re taking them to our daughter. My sister-in-law made all of us a vase like this.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. And this vase is beautiful. Tell your sister-in-law this is a wonderful idea.”

What Walton said, that there are pieces of Marshall everywhere, I am finding to be true. I see him and sense him in others – and not just in family members or others who knew him. Last week, in a fresh gush of sadness and shaking, I felt him swirling around inside me, in a wild, fast, figure-eight infinity loop, and a piece of him popped out of me and landed in the friend sitting across from me. If that sounds a little wacky to you, well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But it is increasingly my sense that the Mystery is greater than we can imagine and that all reality – everything — is connected. Things seen and unseen. The world, the underworld, the overworld. You, me, Marshall, the guy who wanna be a rock star, the trees, the water, the dogs, even the squawking freaking seagulls: a congregation of one, continually rearranging itself.

Last night I dreamed I was with a group of people gathered beside a river. We were singing and waiting for Marshall to join us. I could feel him approaching, from somewhere behind us, but I awoke before he got there.

And then, a few minutes ago, in front of this coffee shop, a family wandered up from behind Jeanine. A mom, a dad, and two little girls. And the younger girl, two or three years old, in a lime green shirt with multi-colored hearts and a silver unicorn, stopped and draped herself, arms and face, across Jeanine’s lap. She snuggled in and stayed there for half a minute, and her parents, thank God, just let her. Then she lifted her head and smiled.

Pieces all around and everywhere. Broken, shimmering, and finding each other.

Jeanine and girl in Portland

 

 

 

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spanking stories

Today is my dad’s 85th birthday.

Whatever you might say about your dad, I bet my brothers and I are the only ones who can say this: Our dad invented the spanking story.

Mack is a born story-teller. He and his identical twin Bob arrived 10 weeks early, during the Depression, in rural South Carolina. There were no ICU’s and IV’s. They slept in a dresser drawer, and they were nourished off goat milk. But they both made it, and I like to think they started telling stories in that dresser.

Their first language was one they created themselves – when twins do this, it’s called cryptophasia – and they spent their childhood making up stories together and acting them out. When they were adults, Uncle Jack asked Uncle Bob why neither he nor my dad pursued a career in acting. “Jack,” Bob said, “It just wouldn’t have been any challenge.”

Dad told my brothers and me stories all the time, animated with the voices, gestures, and facial expressions of the various players. We absolutely loved it. Lots were about his childhood – the other kids they went to school with, the games they played, the grownups they observed. I guarantee you, any one of us could mimic AJ Kinard’s mother calling across the field to her son: “Junior, don’t you eat those blackberries. They’ll burst your appendix!” Or Rita Dorn reciting “O Cardinal Bird”: “O cardinal bird” – slurp — “With frost-powdered wings” – slurp — “Composing new lyrics” – slurp — “To whistle in spring” – slurp.  Or Fats DeLoach, when Miss Lester called on him to pray before lunch, just after Fats had already snuck a bite of his peanut butter sandwich: “Mmmm, ah cane.” “And why not, Edward?” “Mm’ mowf fuwwa pnnna buhh.” And if we told you about poor little Poochie Chapman’s glasses – taped and smeared and filthy – you would cry.

But lots of people are great story tellers. Our dad’s special invention was the spanking story. He believed every boy needed two things each day: a good story and a good spanking. So every night, my brothers and I would brush our teeth and climb into bed. And every night Dad would make up a new story – let me say that again, every night he would make up a new story – that ended with a playful spanking. I only remember one of these – about a bear named Marvin, who was on a journey with many adventures, and as he neared what was the obvious climax of the story, he tripped on a root, flew through the air, and bounced down a hill on his beary-derriere. And as Marvin bounced down the hill, Dad bounced around the room, lovingly administering our nightly spankings (or as he might have called it, patting us on the poo-poo’s).

Brian Doyle once said, “Stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives. Stories save lives. They crack open hearts. They open minds. We could change the world if we told the right story.”

I woke this morning thinking about my dad. Feeling grateful to be the child of a story-teller. And to live in a world of infinite stories. Some of which end with a spanking.

Happy Birthday Dad!

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time out of mind

Last night I went to bed with a heavy heart.

I won’t say all the reasons why. Some of them are public knowledge, and you can read about them elsewhere, wherever it is you get your news, perhaps from a publication in print, in newsprint, like the one in our town that keeps shrinking, shrinking so that a few years ago our son stopped calling it “the paper” and started calling it “the pamphlet,” or perhaps from a source online, or perhaps from a book, because books that took years to write and be edited and published also contain news, news to us anyway, of places and people and multiple other species, and tragedies and conflicts and compromises and courage, and sometimes, oftentimes, actually, the slow-steeped news of a book is way more true and relevant than the news that gets delivered simultaneous to its occurring, the news we call “breaking news,” and whatever else that phrase means, “breaking news,” it frequently does involve some actual breaking, of lives or environments or hearts or hopes, which is why news, old news and breaking news, often weighs so heavy.

And some of the reasons, of course, are personal and private, and include persons other than just me, and thus are doubly triply quadruply private, but are reasons you can imagine, and are likely familiar with yourself, and involve various sorts of bruising, bruisings I’ve received and  bruisings I’ve given, and the second kind is worse, of course, way worse, and now that I think of it, it’s interesting how the word bruise, in its verbal form, “to bruise,” can mean something you do to another, as in “I bruise you,” or something do to yourself, as in “I bruise easily” – I think the grammar-class way to say this is, “bruise” can be a transitive or an intransitive verb, but maybe someone who reads this and knows about these things would be kind enough to confirm or correct me on that – interesting, yes, and true, that when we get a bruise we also receive one.

But one of the reasons I went to bed with a heavy heart, the reason I’ll share here, is that I’ve been working on something that’s not working, working hard and steadily and persistently and yet dadgummit! it’s still not working, not working to the point that I’m thinking of it as “failing,” and no matter how often I hear the Thomas Edison quote about the thousand times he failed not being a thousand failures but a thousand times he learned what wouldn’t work, and whether what I’m working on actually is or isn’t failing, right now it feels like failing, and the feeling of failing is heavy, as I’m sure you and Sisyphus both know.

So, I was lying in bed last night, talking about this with one of the people I’ve bruised, and she said, “It feels like you’re trying to make this happen too fast, and I wonder what would happen if you didn’t feel the pressure of time, which looks to me like it’s self-imposed pressure anyway, and you could let this thing happen at an easier pace,” which is the sort of wise and kind thing she says rather often, God bless her, but I’m sure you know that sometimes someone can say something wise and kind to you, and you’re not ready yet for wisdom and kindness, you’re still brooding and stewing and sighing and needing to be stuck a while longer, and the wisdom offered, even kindly, is so radically different from your current and probably long-standing approach to things that it just doesn’t land, it won’t compute, there’s not even a file in your brain to put it in, which was the case for me with this comment about the pressure of time, because let me tell you I am always, always, always aware of time, in my professional life as a therapist, where I’m forever looking at a calendar or a clock and where what I say or do in any moment depends to some degree on what time it is, whether there are 20 minutes left or 10 minutes left, and in my personal life, where I have worn a Timex Ironman wristwatch continuously, for 30 years at least, while I work, play, eat, shower, sleep, you name it, taking it off only when the battery dies or the wristband breaks and I have to go buy a new one, so you can say, and be both literally and metaphorically correct, that I wear time like a handcuff, and you can also understand, I think, why those words last night, about not feeling the pressure of time, sort of bounced off me.

Only maybe they didn’t, or not entirely. Because unbeknownst to me, something happened in the night. And this morning, when I awoke, my wristwatch was gone.

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light

This Christmas we rented a friend’s house beside a lake at the top of a mountain. “We” are various members of my wife’s family. Some of us will be here three nights in all, others two, others one. Some came yesterday just for the day. Others are with us only in spirit.

We are doing the things families do at Christmas. Eating well. Going for walks. Playing games. Making music. On Christmas Adam (the day before Christmas Eve) my daughter and one of my nieces cooked a meal so wonderful it moved someone to ask, “What’s the best meal you remember?” and we spent the next hour, around the table, talking about pizza in Italy and blueberry pie in Maine and the people we were with on a certain night, in a certain restaurant, in a certain city.

Last night, after another feast, we played Dictionary, a game this family has been playing for longer than the 32 years I’ve been part of it. One person picks a word from the dictionary, writes the real definition on a slip of paper, and collects fabricated definitions from everyone else before reading them all out loud. If you guess the correct definition, you get a point. If someone else guesses your made-up definition, you also get a point. But the point of this game is not points. The point is laughter. And there is abundant laughter in a world where “rusticate” means “to fornicate in the country” and “rodomontade” is “what wise people make when life gives them rodomonts.”

This morning five of us sang “My Girl” at sunrise on the porch. (That’s a story you can read on my sister-in-law Michelle’s blog.) Four of us ran the Hilly Hellacious Holyday Hanny in Dupont Forest. We lingered over breakfast casserole and fruit salad till almost noon. And people are playing cards in the living room right this minute.

We are also grieving. We lost Jeanine’s brother Marshall this summer. I have not had words or heart to write about it, and I still don’t, really. All I can say right now is that it shattered us, we miss him, and he is still with us.

No one said any of this aloud. No one needed to. Our togetherness – and when we needed it, our separateness – said it plenty well.

When I awoke this morning, the first words in my mind were these: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a verse from the Gospel of John, and it has always been one of my favorites. It acknowledges the agony and ache of darkness, twice, but it also affirms the unceasing, unfailing power of light.

We’re here by the lake because none of us wanted to do this first Christmas without him in any place that felt familiar. But we’re laughing and singing and remembering feasts gone by because the light keeps finding us.

I hope it is finding you, too.

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4:30 to 6:00

Here are things I did today between 4:30 and 6:00.

Took a short walk with Jeanine, in 70 degree weather, under a sky blue and clear from last night’s good hard rain, a light breeze stirring the smell of honeysuckle and the sweet wild rose which is everywhere right now.

Listened to 15-year-old niece play violin. She had her back turned and didn’t know we were there.

Spoke her name. She turned around, smiled, and hugged us, then showed us pictures from prom, which was last night.

Saw 18 year-old niece’s prom pictures and her just-dyed-red hair, which she’ll sport in a play she’s in next week.

Learned exercise, from sister-in-law, to help open up my tight-from-too-much-running hips. Involves stepping back and forth over a rope, which she has strung across her front porch.

Visited with friend who drove up, bringing two small frogs, both about the size of lady bugs, to transplant to the pond.

Greeted brother-in-law when he awoke from a nap and joined us on the porch.

Threw stick from the porch and watched dog propel herself from deck, to bench, and through the air, again and again.

Learned two new songs on the guitar, courtesy of brother-in-law.

Walked back home, ran into father-in-law, who was returning from a walk. Conversed with him about one of his favorite topics, eldering.

Cranked the lawn mower for the first time this spring and cut the grass diverse things growing in our yard, which takes 10 minutes.

“These are days you’ll remember. When May is rushing over you with desire to be part of the miracles you see in every hour. You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you” (Natalie Merchant, “These Are Days”).

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thursday friday

Here’s the thing about a spiritual experience. It feels real as can be when it’s happening. But afterwards, when you think about it, you wonder if you’re crazy.

I woke last night at 2 am.

This actually happens to me lots of nights – waking well before dawn — and mostly it feels related to having many things on my mind. I am 100% grateful for work that feels meaningful and 80% grateful for the mix of excitement-generosity-confidence-and-gluttony in me that says yes to so many delicious opportunities. But the consequence is: I spend most days feeling like I’ve got about six term papers due and most nights “bing”-ing on between 2 and 3. (For the record, I would prefer to get another two or three hours sleep, but all in all I get by and feel good enough.)

I think of these night-time wakings as being caused by memy choices, my stress, my cortisol, my character strategies – and what happened last night may have been as me-related as any. But last night, maybe, was different.

Last night when I awoke, it was with an energy in my chest that did not feel like it was mine. It’s difficult to give words to what it was – there was terror, rage, grief, and something else I could not recognize – but it felt like I was receiving it and experiencing it on behalf of someone else, possibly on behalf of many someone elses.

At first I wanted to refuse it and push it out, but gradually something in me said yes and allowed it. It was not an easy yes-and-allow. There was some struggle in it, but the struggle did not make whatever it was, or whoever it was, feel unwelcome. After a bit – I have no idea how long this was – I was able to align with it and give it my support, and then the feeling intensified. Again, whatever it was did not declare itself with words – mostly it was a strong sensation in my chest area – but I had some awareness that it involved great suffering, that it needed holding, containing, maybe even some detoxification, and that for this bit of time, I could be its kidney, or liver, or whatever I was for it.

This continued for a while more. It got stronger. I was participating in it to some degree – there was a bit of my own terror-rage-grief-and-something-else in with it – but more than that, I was providing space for it and bearing witness to it. It crested, and I could tell this was as strong as it would get. Perhaps it knew exactly how much I could bear. A bit longer and it began to lessen, gradually but surely, and eventually it was gone.

In the midst of this experience, at some point, I remembered that it was Maundy Thursday, the night before Crucifixion Friday — the night of the Last Supper, of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood and wrestling with would he or wouldn’t he, and then being arrested, abused by the police, put to trial, and sentenced to death – all this between sundown Thursday and sunrise Friday.

It unnerved me a bit for the experience I was having to be connected with the experience of Jesus – I think this was part of my struggle to say yes – but at some point it comforted me and encouraged me to consider that maybe Jesus was helping, that maybe thousands of Jesuses, maybe tens of thousands, were helping hold this anguish.

I assume there are people reading this who aren’t Christian and won’t connect with this last part, and people reading who are Christian and won’t agree with it, but I’m just telling you, as best I can, what happened.

And I might be crazy.

Or it might be that any of us, at any moment, can be called into service of the great mystery by which burdens are borne, signs and groans are felt, and suffering finds its way to the heart of healing.

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return to cato

I’ve not seen an obituary, so I won’t use his name. But some salt of the earth has left us.

He was not a close friend. He was a psychiatrist I knew professionally. For the first five or ten of my years in Asheville, most every Friday, he met with the staff at our counseling center for case consultation. He was a sui generis blend of humor, wisdom, and compassion.

Here are a few remembrances, in appreciation of him and the One who sparkled in him.

* * * *

One morning I asked him, “How are things at the hospital?”

“Oh, they’re treating me like mushrooms.”

“How do you mean?”

“They keep me in the dark and cover me with bullshit.”

* * * *

Another morning. “How you doing, man?”

“Oh, I could be worse.” He added, “Think about it. No matter how bad it gets, it could always be worse.”

From that day forward, this exchange became our ritual of greeting. “How you doing?” And every time. Every. Time. “Oh, I could be worse.”

* * * *

 

He did not pretend that his medical degree made him smarter than others. “There’s only one way to know for sure if this patient needs an anti-depressant.”

“How’s that?”

“Try her on one and see if it helps. If it helps, she needed it.”

* * * *

He was a long-standing member of the 12-step community. His presence and participation in that community helped others feel less shame about their own struggles. Through the years, I had several patients, who were his patients, too, come back from their first AA meeting and tell me they had seen him there, how surprised they were, and how his smile at them, or nod of the head, had helped them feel better about being there and getting the help they needed.

* * * *

As I was first getting to know him, I’d hear him say, “You won’t believe what Cato did to me yesterday,” then launch into a tale of some difficulty he had endured.

This happened several times — “Let me tell you what Cato did this morning” — before I took the bait and asked, “Who’s Cato?”

“Cato is Inspector Clouseau’s assistant. You know Clouseau? From the Pink Panther movies?

“Yes.”

“Cato’s job is to keep Clouseau on his toes. When Clouseau comes home, Cato has rearranged his whole apartment. Or he’s hiding from him and eventually jumps out and attacks him and they have these long fights. Once he even attacks Clouseau when he’s in bed with a woman.”

He paused, making sure the hook was set.

“Cato is what I call God sometimes.”

* * * *

So thank you, Cato. You did well with him.

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