The Crescent Hip

I had forgotten, but my left hip remembered. My husband and I were in Costco, wondering if they carried mattresses in-store (they don’t) when I picked up a ream of paper. I feel badly about all of the trees I have killed, writing, but not bad enough to stop printing. Something about black words on a white page proves that I have accomplished something that day, and not just humored myself.

I shifted the ream — twenty-four pounds of extra-white premium multipurpose paper — to my left hip. Feeling its heft, I hugged it there, filling a space I hadn’t known was empty.

Had it been my toddler son or daughter, their warm bottoms would have straddled my hip, cushioned, perhaps, by a diaper. They would relax against me, legs dangling, rubber-toed tennies syncopating against my thighs as we walked. If I leaned too far for comfort, they would clutch my shirt, but without much anxiety. I would never drop them.

At some point during my father’s elder years, he began to hold my hand. Early on, I recognized the gesture as one that used to pass between my mother and father. When I used to observe them from the back seat, I saw how he reached toward her, how she slipped her fingers into the hollow of his palm, how they fit together. They stayed like that until she sensed that he might need both hands for a complicated maneuver like merging onto the freeway. Afterwards, they linked again.

The first time that my father took my hand in the car, I could tell that it comforted him, but it discomfited me. Hand-holding (and back-scratching and foot-rubbing and pat-pat-patting, always three pats on the thigh) was something reserved for the two of them. He wasn’t confused — I was still Betz and he was still Dad — but for a long time, his touch felt awkward.

Now I understand. There was a hollow space that was not empty.

My waist lacks the curve it once had — I’m more straight-up-and-down than hourglass now — so there’s nothing in the mirror to remind me of my children’s favorite perch. I love my adult children as much as I loved those little hitch-hikers, but, as dry as that ream of paper was, it watered something in me, and the memories swelled and became whole.

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Last Thoughts Before Sleep

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 6.29.22 AMMy last thought before sleeping: we are all under the same roof, and when did that last happen?

When did my adult children, my husband and I last prepare for bed in synchrony: changing into bed clothes, brushing teeth, settling beneath sheets?

In the void beneath my eyelids I transport myself many miles north, to years long gone. I imagine my body spinning so that my head points south, as it did in the bed of my youth. Through grainy gray mist, my old room drifts into focus: the octagonal pillars of my great great great grandfather’s bed (how it creaked when I crawled into it); the oval mirror of my dresser on the opposite wall (the first thing I saw upon rising was myself); the lighted mirror on the dressing table (where I separated my tarantula-like lashes with a safety pin); the folding doors of my closet (always popping open, like sharp elbows); the switch plate painted olive (from my blue and green phase). My door connects to the basement recreation room, and beyond it, at the foot of the stairs, my brother’s room, where he sleeps.

Cool air touches my face — always cool, smelling subtly of loam and rain and salt. The heater announces itself with an explosive huff, indignant at being held back for so long, determined to set things right, to restore equilibrium, to defend its charges, to breathe warmth back into the chilling house. When it is satisfied, the duct tick-tick-ticks in satisfaction.

My father shifts in the bed above mine; his snoring a deep, stentorian rumbling; my mother’s, a higher pitched rant. Suddenly he is silent. He is awake, thinking, perhaps, that his children sleep under the same roof, and when had that last happened?

My children — old enough, now, to have children of their own — sleep on. My husband’s breath has relaxed into the soft, slow rhythm I know so well after almost 35 years of marriage. These three, who I love beyond measure (beyond life, beyond time) have given themselves to dreaming. This moment is my blanket, my pillow. Their rest is my rest. I am at peace. And when did that last happen?

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My Year in Books: 2016

Cat surveying books

Inspired by a friend-of-a-friend who writes a yearly round up of what she’s read, I’ve decided to adopt, or perhaps adapt, the same tradition. If I’ve learned one thing from Bennington Writing Seminar’s “read-100-books-write-one” philosophy, it’s the value of reading. For such an important concept, “value” is a wimpy word. Embedded in it is the calculus of what you put in vs. what you get out:

Reading effect > Reading effort

But “value” also contains the notion of treasure. Reading more and better has become frankincense and myrrh for my brain and soul. It’s made me a better writer and, I think, a better human being—one who pays more attention, even if (still) not as well as I should.

I read before, but most of what I consumed was “Cheetos” literature—colorful but lacking nutritional value. Don’t get me wrong, I still munch my way through literary snacks. I like sci fi yarns, for example. I still need these—want these—for respite from life. Much of what I read in the fall was background for a novel I’ve begun, some of which deserves rediscovery (like the work of Jane Addams). But I’ve also had weightier stuff in my diet to took time to digest. (Whew, think I’ve more than milked that metaphor…

I didn’t expect books to save me, but this year, some of them have. I ended 2016 with Elie Wiesel’s Night and his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and marked this passage:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe… Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.

It’s something to be approaching one’s 60th birthday and discovering—that’s how it feels—a new way to read.

This list isn’t complete, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to keep a reading log next year. This one is cobbled together from grad school annotations and memory. I also want to read more poetry and I’m seeking recommendations of favorite poems. A poem a day, that’s all I ask.

If you like this list, consider perusing an even better one by the one who showed me the way, Susan McCallum-Smith. (I’ve just ordered her Slipping the Moorings book of stories.)

* = recommended

Snacks

  • Jojo Moyes, After You (fiction)—lightly satisfying romance with a little lusting after the handsome paramedic the protagonist meets. Sequel to Me Before You, which I didn’t read and probably won’t.
  • Pat Murphy, The Falling Woman (fiction)—set in an architectural dig of a Mayan ruin, the intertwined story of an estranged mother and daughter with plenty of mystical and psychological detail. 1987 Nebula winner.

Confession: I know I read a lot more light fare, but it didn’t stick with me; that’s the thing about literary snacks, eh?

First courses

  • Mary Gaitskill, Because They Wanted To (stories)—Unsettling, haunting, riveting stories that won’t leave you, especially the title story.
  • Jamison, Leslie, The Empathy Exams (essays)—I read this as background for my graduate lecture about how empathy is created on the page. Her title essay didn’t advance my analysis, but it did affect my thinking about what is and what isn’t empathy.
  • Jill McCorkle, Going Away Shoes (stories)—Jill is a brilliant story teller (and very nice person) and this older collection of short stories never disappoints, but “Midnight Clear” really spoke to me: the story of a woman who is trying to find a new way to make Christmas feel like Christmas after a divorce, as her house falls apart. (No, I’m not divorcing.)
  • Daniel Menaker, The Old Left* (stories)—Like a flywheel, The Old Left gains energy from an inheritance that’s held just out of reach, and the inherent chafing between generations. The first piece, “Brothers,” will slay you. More people should read Menaker.
  • Alice Munro, “Working for a Living” (essay)—Munro proceeds in a slow spiral, working her way to the core of the story. The detailed description leaves no doubt that Munro knows what she’s talking about. Munro’s father is expected to continue in his father’s tradition of diligence, to work “for its own sake” rather than prosperity. Simple subject-verb constructions deepen the feeling of doggedness. By the end of her description, Munro has laid the groundwork for her theme: work and her characters’ relationship to it, and in turn, to one another. The land of Huron County is harsh and the work, hard; the people do what’s necessary and don’t waste words.
  • Susan Stewart, “Channel” (poem), published in The Paris Review #218 Fall 2016—This poem is almost as long and meandering as the river channel it evokes, and I loved it so much that I sent it to my brother for Christmas. Just look at the beginning:

Sweet runs the water ever

out of spring and meadow,

frothing low, rising,

weaving through

the sodden grass.

Silver line, transparent flow,

zigzag

and shine and

swerve

where the willow damsel-

fly dives and climbs.

Mains

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah* (novel)—One of my favorite books of the year. The voice, the story, the themes! (And if you haven’t seen the author shut down a white guy when he tries to tell her what’s racist, do yourself a favor and watch. But especially, read her!)
  • Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl and Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (nonfiction)—I admit I wouldn’t have read “Voices” were it not for being assigned to lead a book group discussion, but I’m glad I did. Rather than exposition, Alexievich lets her interviewees carry the “story” through collected testimonies. In her Nobel prize speech she explained: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think — how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion…. I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood. We were taught death. We were told that human beings exist in order to give everything they have, to burn out, to sacrifice themselves. We were taught to love people with weapons. Had I grown up in a different country, I couldn’t have traveled this path. Evil is cruel, you have to be inoculated against it. We grew up among executioners and victims. Even if our parents lived in fear and didn’t tell us everything – and more often than not they told us nothing – the very air of our life was poisoned. Evil kept a watchful eye on us…. I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia …”
  • James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time*—I read Baldwin’s 1963 letter to his nephew inspired by the centennial of emancipation at the same time that I read Coates’ Between the World and Me. Given the undeniable threat of violence to young black men, and the prevalence of racism and microaggressions against people of color, both are a must-read. Wait, and one more: Claudia Rankine’s
  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights—Forgive me, I found this book slow and the characters annoying. (I loved Jane Eyre and Rebecca, so it wasn’t the vintage of the writing.)
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, and The Beautiful Struggle* (memoirs) (the second of which I preferred and discuss here, though I recommend both)—Since Coates is so visible right now, I had an idea about what to expect, but was completely surprised by some of his imagery—the mentions of magic and fantasy (orcs, dire wolves) that fit so well with an adolescent’s view of the world. Likewise his selective capitalization—e.g. the Great Knowledge—effectively underlined his point. But it’s the scenes that stick with me, with their stark reality of a world so different than my own and its set of rules. For example: “But somewhere about third grade they got the message: Fists could equalize it all. That if they could raise their dukes, they could cut a lot of the bullshit. It did not matter if their jab was wild or the headlock was no more than a firm hug. That they stood instead of ran made them hard targets and served notice to the bandit that there was no free lunch.” (46) The passages about music, and his father, were breathtaking.
  • Marion Coutts, The Iceberg (memoir)—her chronicle of her husband’s illness and death (from a brain tumor). She writes in her cryptic opening, “A book about the future must be written in advance. Later I won’t have the energy to speak. So I will do it now.” (1) Coutts creates state of mind first, then remembers moments. There’s a meta-message here: she will freshly illuminate everything that catches her eye, everything that happens as she sifts through memory. The “Iceberg” includes those events you’d expect in a memoir about a man dying of a brain tumor: diagnosis, treatment, counseling, setbacks, caregiving, practicalities, final decisions. The braided thread of spoken language adds to the events—their child’s strides in acquiring language, the husband’s language deterioration, trial-and-error strategies for helping the husband to communicate and work—but the vast majority of “The Iceberg” is spent on reflection. In illuminating her experience, which in turn illuminated my own, Coutts achieves what Sven Birkerts suggests is a memoirist’s task: “modeling a way to reflectively make sense of experience—using hindsight to follow the thread back into the labyrinth. Reading their work, we borrow their investigative energy and contemplate similar ways of accessing our own lives.”
  • Laura Shaine Cunningham, Sleeping Arrangements* (memoir)—Sharply told, mostly in present tense. It helped that the first sixteen pages and ending are in past tense, to enable the adult memoirist to reflect on her experience. This sharply etched portrait of a child’s unfolding consciousness succeeds for many more reasons than the appeal of its oddball characters and poignant situation.
    • “And when I think back to that time, as I do daily, I escape into that trance that memory shares with arousal. The same buzz in the blood, the reprieve, once more, from real time. That ecstatic condition the scientists call “alpha” and psychologists know as “flow.” I still enjoy the transports of delight, the near-optical illusion as the outer world recedes and the inner world is allowed to take over: powerful, illogical. The radiance of the daydream.” (222-223)
  • Anthony Doerr, All That Light You Cannot See* (novel)—an intricately woven tale of three characters during WWII, with the twist that the principal narrator is blind. The novel has the suspense of a car chase, but with transcendent imagery.
  • Andre Dubus III, Townie (memoir) and House of Sand and Fog* (the novel)—Meeting and working with Andre, one of the most generous human beings ever, changed my life but you don’t have to meet him to fall in love with his books. What a storyteller, the way he builds and builds and builds. What visceral detail.
  • Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (memoir)—I reread this story to see how Eggers broke the fourth wall compared to Lidia Yuknavitch’s far more subtle approach. If you don’t remember it, this book was a big deal about fifteen years ago. I read it then, but the irony/sarcasm/witty asides weren’t much to my taste. Then again, it came out not long after the death of my mother when I was in my 40s. I appreciate it more now, especially the challenge of being a young man and a young writer talking about taking charge of his younger brother after his mother’s death.
  • Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted (novel)—Linked stories about Pam, a character “not unlike the author” according to the back flap, and her experience of seeking and traveling. She’s a wonderful storyteller, and I love her nontraditional structure here.
  • Paul Lisicky, The Narrow Door* (memoir)—I know “grief memoir” sounds awful as a genre, but really, they are love stories, and Paul’s is one of the best I’ve ever read, the story of his love for his best friend, who died of cancer.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory* (memoir)—One of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever, and best depictions of the workings of memory.
    • Such sensory details, suspense of time: “Summer soomerki — the lovely Russian word for dusk. Time: a dim point in the first decade of this unpopular century. Place: latitude 59 degrees north from your equator, longitude 100 degrees east from my writing hand. The day would take hours to face, and everything — sky, tall flowers, still water— would be kept in a state of infinite vesperal suspense, deepened rather than resolved by the doleful moo of a cow in a distant meadow or by the still more moving cry that came from some bird beyond the lower course of the river, where the vast expanse of a misty-blue sphagnum bog, because of its mystery and remoteness, the Rukavishnikov children had baptized America.” (81) Or this…
    • “The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black. A bronze angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany here and there in the darkness, reflected the odds and ends of light from the street, where the globes of tall street lamps along its middle line were already diffusing their lunar glow. Gauzy shadows moved on the ceiling. In the stillness, the dry sound of a chrysanthemum petal falling upon the marble of a table made one’s nerves twang.” (89)
    • This! “But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoast. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” (100)
    • “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” (139)
  • Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (nonfiction)Junger (author of The Perfect Storm and a long-time war journalist) tackles the important topic of PTSD, why veterans have such a difficult entry after serving in a conflict, and what might be done about it. The book is a longer version of an essay he wrote in Vanity Fair. I thought the magazine article was better, and I’d recommend reading that.
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (poetry, but written in non-traditional prose form)An immersive experience into the aftermath of a failed relationship, longing, beauty and, especially, the color blue.
  • Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family (memoir)—Although at first I missed the feeling of something being at stake, I fell in love with Ondaatje’s gorgeous imagery and language (“frozen cars hunched like sheep,” “light leaned” into chiseled indentations)… and then was intrigued by how he wove bits of dialogue, long quotes from others, landscape description, anecdotes and personal narrative. Even poetry. His sense of the unconscious mind and dreams was breathtaking.
    • “What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto.” (21)
    • The switch to “you” here, directed to his father! The ending image… : “But the book again is incomplete. In the end all your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues. Not that we ever thought we would be able to fully understand you. Love is often enough, towards your stadium of small things. Whatever brought you solace we would have applauded. Whatever controlled the fear we all share we would have embraced. That could only be dealt with one day at a time — with that song we cannot translate, or the dusty green of the cactus you touch and turn carefully like a wounded child towards the sun, or the cigarettes you light.” (201)
  • Margaret McMullan, editor, Every Father’s Daughter (memoir) — Reading and comparing 24 essays, all ostensibly about the same topic, was fascinating. Thanks to my pal, Sharon Swanson, for sending it to me.
    • Phillip Lopate’s introduction: “What is it about the relationship between fathers and daughters that provokes so much exquisite tenderness, satisfying communion, longing for more, idealization from both ends, followed often if not inevitably by disappointment, hurt, and the need to understand and forgive, or to finger the guilt of not understanding and loving enough?” (17)
    • Bliss Broyard, “My Father’s Daughter”: “I once asked my dad why all the great stories were sad ones. Most good stories are mysteries, he said. The author is like a detective trying to get to the bottom of some truth, and happiness is a mystery that can come apart in your hands when you try to unravel it. Sadness, on the other hand, is infinitely more resilient. Scrutiny only adds to its depth and weight.” (47)
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen* (poetry and prose, nonfiction)—If the United States had a required reading list, I would put this on it. It will change your point of view. I won’t tell you how, for to do so would be to ruin the experience of her art, as much performance on the page as words.
  • Justin Torres, We, The Animals* (memoir)—A riotous and colorful memoir of Torres’ family, seen through loving and observant eyes. An Irish innkeeper once offered me a little Jameson’s on oatmeal with the explanation, “It’ll lift ya up.” Torres will, too. If you ever have the chance to hear him read,
  • Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn* (stories)—I was introduced to Claire via Writing by Writers, and man, am I ever glad. Her short stories are so fresh, so unexpected, so tight, so riveting. Maybe the best collection I’ve ever read.
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony—I can’t believe I left this off my list originally, but this stunning novel, one of the first by a Native American author to receive recognition, is a must-read on many levels: writing that is at times mystical, and at times visceral; the story itself, about a vet with PTSD who finds and heals himself; and perhaps the books’ broader observations about the toxic materialism of American culture (particularly white culture).
  • Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception (memoir)—The pacing was a little too slow for my taste, but I did love his sentences. It worked best when the focus remained on Wolff’s quirky father.
  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water* (memoir) — Yuknavitch’s memoir is not only “about how I survived the life I was dealt with,” as she said in The Rumpus. One gets the feeling that writing itself, for her, was and is a survival tool. She writes to makes sense out of her experience, as many of us do. But, with her second-person address, she demonstrates that she writes not only for herself but for others. She is talking to anyone who is trying to survive.

Side Dishes

I’m not sure what to call the books that I read as research for historical fiction, but I enjoyed these books as written works as much as the information I gleaned from them.

  • Jane Addams, The Long Road of Woman’s Memory (nonfiction)—I wouldn’t know how to characterize her writing, and maybe I shouldn’t try. Addams—noted suffragette, first American woman to win the Nobel, and founder of the social work discipline—was also a wildly popular author in her time. Rather than using statistics and exposition, she told stories of people she met through her work at Hull House, a “settlement house” that provided services to the many people living in the 19th ward of Chicago at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Her story about the rumor of a “devil child,” and the people who flocked to Hull House to see if a baby with horns had been born, says much about how rumor travels, and how power is acquired by the transmitter. The book is a look at social ills and social judgment, with many ideas that are relevant 100 years later.
  • Susan Crean, The Laughing One and Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings (nonfiction)—I dived into the lives of women impressionist painters in the early 20th century and thus came across Crean. Besides reading more journals (in published and unpublished form) and loving the experience of it, Crean uses an innovative technique to bring to life the journals of Emily Carr, who is as well known in Canada as Georgia O’Keeffe is in the United States. In The Laughing One, she fictionalizes scenes based on the journals, then includes the journal excerpts, and then writes as a historian to comment and provide further context. The book is a worthy read to see what women faced, and continue to face, to make art and get the recognition they deserve.

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The Circle

White board

The PICC line kept bothering him. That was what prompted me to move a chair right next to my father-in-law’s bed in the ICU. Relieving my husband after the long hospital night, I hoped to reassure Ray, to keep him from fiddling with the port that gave nurses immediate access to a vein just above his left elbow. He was tired, finally, but couldn’t quite settle.

The night before he’d been in rare form. When the night nurse asked him how he wanted to fill in the field on the white board for “what should you know about me,” he answered, “I am very attractive to women.” She wrote, “I am very attractive and funny.” He should have been exhausted after the heart attack that brought him in. Instead, he’d been euphoric, joyful, perhaps, to be on the other side of the pain that had seemed an insurmountable wall.

“4512,” he said. Then, “4512 McDonald Drive.”

The house where my husband and I lived while our house was being built. We rented it from my mother-in-law, whose mother still lived there when we were first engaged. My memories of it have gone syrupy. Nights walking my infant daughter from room to room, trying to soothe her, humming lullabies, willing her to sleep, desperate for it myself.

“Do you live there,” Ray asked.

“No,” I answered. “We haven’t lived there for a long time.”

I gave simple answers, hoping to satisfy him so he could rest.

“Who owns it now?”

I didn’t know and told him that my brother-in-law and his wife moved in after we left, but they hadn’t lived there in a long time either.

On his forehead, a thin white scar, shaped like an upside down Y, nested in the V that emerged between his eyebrows. He was worrying.

The pillows I’d tucked behind his back helped him maintain his position on his side but discomfort still needled him after too many hours in the hospital bed. He pulled himself toward the rail. With my left hand, I stroked the fine white scar. With my other arm, I leaned on the hospital rail. I felt it then, Ray’s hand gently holding on to my upper arm.

“The principal,” Ray said. His eyes were half closed. “Do they need me to sign a paper?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. “The principal is handled,” I said.

“Mike should get the principal. I need to sign the paper.”

Finally, I understood. Real estate was always top of mind to this self-made man. Out of all the properties he could resurrect, he landed on one that had been out of the family for almost 20 years.

“Mike got the principal. He bought the house from Mary Lou, and then sold it. It’s all handled. You don’t need to worry.”

That seemed to do it. He closed his eyes and rested. He seemed to be beating the odds. He’d made it through the night.

With my left hand, I stroked his forehead. With his left hand, he held my arm. We’d made a circle.

Two hours later, he was gone. But I feel it still, that embrace.

Ray Stone, Jr.: March 15, 1932 — December 31, 2016

Ray Stone, Jr. March 15, 1932-December 31, 2016

 

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The Price of Freedom

Iwo Jima landing

I know my father did his part to secure the freedom I now enjoy — with the 23rd Marines, 4th Division, and the battles to secure Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.

What I don’t know is what it cost my father. Dad, like many vets, didn’t talk much about his experience. This week I learned a little more when I received a copy of my father’s citation for his efforts on Iwo Jima. It arrived as part of a thick bundle of papers from the National Personnel Archives that I requested a year or so ago… and promptly forgot about.

What Dad had shared came out in fragments. I’d done some research to learn what he couldn’t tell me. But the citation, which explains what Dad did to earn a gold star in lieu of a second bronze star, helped me piece together more of his story. (Excerpts from the citation appear in italics to differentiate them from Dad’s few quotes.)

Having assumed the duties of operations officer in an infantry regiment during the planning phase, Major Campbell, although confronted with many difficulties incident to the absorption of a large number of replacements and the indoctrination of inexperienced staff officers, placed all units in a high state of readiness for combat….

The “incident… of a large number of replacements” understates the reality. By the end of the second day of battle, the “Fighting Fourth” alone had lost more than 2,000 men. By the end of the second week, half the American forces were dead or wounded. The men who were sent in to reconstitute platoons, including “inexperienced staff officers,” died even faster than the men they replaced. But Dad didn’t talk about that.

…Embarking on a control vessel during the initial stages of the landing attack, he supervised the transmittal and execution of numerous orders issued during the ship to shore movement. With only a limited beachhead established and with the beach area practically untenable as a result of heavy and accurate enemy fire, he landed with the command echelon of his unit and quickly obtained contact with all units ashore, thus rendering invaluable assistance to his regimental commander….

My father began to talk about the war when he was in his 80s, but he was the storyteller who couldn’t get much past the “once upon a time.” The story began with D-Day, when he stood in his roiling landing craft with his first view of the beach:

“From up on the deck of the landing craft, the light was growing. We saw this ungodly ghostly tower rising six to seven hundred feet in the air. It was a volcanic spire, the goddamnedest thing I ever saw.”

Although he’d been ordered hold off by the Beach Master, he saw an opening in the boat traffic and ordered his landing craft to go for it.

“The island was shaped like a pork chop – a volcanic mound with steep sides, honeycombed with caves. It overlooked the beaches we landed on — the Japanese had perfect visibility.  Down at the far end was another escarpment looking the other way.”

It was eerily quiet when the Marines began to land. One of the things that intelligence didn’t know was that the beach was composed of volcanic ash. Small landing craft foundered; men sunk in the quagmire that sucked at their boots.

Then the island came to life. Mortars, rockets, machine guns and artillery cut the men on the beach to ribbons. A Saturday Evening Post headline dubbed Iwo Jima “the Red Hot Rock.”

Foxholes collapsed. There was no cover.

Dad said, “We had one fine officer who took a posthumous award for scooping up men without leaders and taking the key point.  They got all shot up.”

…Throughout the following twenty-five days, Major Campbell was required to assume progressively greater responsibility because of many casualties among leaders and staff personnel….

Dad never mentioned that. But it makes sense. More than a quarter of the original men of the Fourth who sailed out of San Diego in January 1944 became casualties (killed, wounded or missing in action). Iwo Jima was the only WWII battle in which overall American casualties exceeded those of the enemy.

…He made frequent visits to forward areas where his demonstration of coolness and courage under fire served as an inspiration to those who observed him…. 

Dad did tell one story that supports this assessment, but he told it as an amusing anecdote: “Some days later, maybe D+4, I went down to Division HQ. My job was to prepare to take over and I needed to know where everyone was, their weaponry, etc.. Enough of the island had been taken by then that you could move around. I had to walk about one mile to the other end of the island.  In the command post, the situation map was surrounded by officers and I couldn’t see anything.  Then, the Japanese started firing high velocity rounds from their position on a cliff.  Division HQ staff bailed out and I took all of the information I needed and walked out.”

When my father told this story, he smiled that wry smile of his — one lip rising higher than the other.

…His unselfish devotion to duty and superb judgment contributed to the success of the attack and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. — Roy S. Geiger, Lt. Gen., USMC

Like many vets of his generation, my father minimized his role. He turned the spotlight on the front lines.

“Iwo Jima as an overall operation was absolutely petrifying. No doubt about that. But I was not a front line trooper although there were some near misses, but the near misses are a little different. They’re come and gone before you think about it. The danger’s over from that immediate thing, or you’re dead, one of the two. Either way it’s not a problem, I guess.

“It went on a long time….I was not down on my belly in the sand taking fire from some unseen joker a hundred yards ahead. I had enormous respect for the kids that did it. I’m not a hero. But I knew some that were. If there were heroes at all they were the line troopers that actually took the brunt of this thing. That has to take enormous guts and will to go day after day after day of this stuff and your friends getting killed around you. Bad. Really bad.”

It was only when my father uttered these last two fragments that I had a sense of what the war cost him. He closed his eyes and paused. His throat tightened when he said, “Really bad.” The memory, decades later, was still too hot to touch.

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Turning My Mixed Feelings Over to Divine Love

My cousin Lynn's bark prayer boat, launched for my father

My cousin Lynn’s bark prayer boat, launched for my father

This is a strange birthday. Next year is one of those milestone birthdays, when I’ll put a “6” in front of the single digit, instead of “5.” But I’m not lamenting my age or the passage of time. I’m.. what?

In April I attended my friend and classmate Mimi Chiang’s memorial. In May I celebrated my beautiful cousin Lynn Fawcett Whiting’s life. Tomorrow I will join with friends to remember Jim Jennings, who illuminated my life ever since I met him in 1995 or so. This, while the horror of Orlando echoes.

Mimi, Lynn and Jim were — and are — inspirations to me. Mimi for her courage in life and on the page. Lynn, for the art and beauty of her soul. Jim, for his love and wisdom.

Beginning in 1999, when I confronted my mother’s terminal illness, Jim was the person I turned to when I experienced a crisis of faith, or simply quailed in the face of life. This blog is peppered with his advice to me. Search “my mentor Jim” and you’ll find him.

Maybe this is a good time to repost what he wrote me shortly before my father’s death in 2013. I worried about my father’s faith. I worried about my faith. I worried… I still worry… about a lot. I’m not very good about lifting those worries up. I wish I had that kind of easy faith, but I don’t.

What I have had, and do have, are messengers like Mimi, and Lynn, and Jim. People who glow with something unnameable.

  • God is with us, actually inside each of us even when we do not sense it, and remove enough of our own clutter and misgivings and pain to be fully conscious of divine love inside us.
  • God doesn’t have a dossier on each of us that reads how long we will live, how we will deteriorate, whether you get cancer or I get Alzheimers. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, and that experience is governed by the natural order which is haphazard, and evolutionary, and our individual biological destiny gene defined more than most anything else. But the soul was, is, and shall be.
  • It’s perfectly natural for us to wonder how a loving God could allow this or that, but fairness as we want it to be does not come with free will and nature.
  • I have asked for most of my life, “Why did you set it up this way God?” In my dotage I have come to accept that I will get an answer…I will see and understand only when my spirit is set free from my human experience.  Meanwhile, I have to trust, have faith in God’s unconditional love, and try to be a loving other in the world. And to be perfectly comfortable in having a fit from time to time about why it is this way — why my 34 year old father of three kids is dying of brain cancer, or my lady in the Alzheimer’s unit is so very lost. [Jim was a chaplain for hospice at this point.] Very hard to accept that we are not in control; that we have to ultimately turn it over to the embrace of the Divine.  Meanwhile we care for each other in the fullest sense we know how, offering love and our own broken heartedness with the words of the Christ  “Thy will be Done.”  You can even go so far as to say, “Well dammit, Thy will Be Done.”
  • I am sure you understand the chaplain was asking the question so he could get a sense of where your Dad is both spiritually and religiously so he can approach your Dad accordingly.  What the chaplain’s job in this team is, is to do anything he can to help your Dad have peace of heart and peace of mind. Sometimes this is expressed in religious language; often not.  Your Dad does not have to have all the answers to all the questions right now. He needs heart connection because that ultimately answers the unanswerable questions and ensures him peace of heart and peace of mind so he can release. Whether he connects in any way to a traditional notion of God, he sure does to your Mom and he wants to go and be with her.  So for him, there is a there there, and he has his heart set on arriving.  Leaving is generally harder than entering, for each of us.
  • Turn all your mixed feelings over to Divine Love.  Literally, write each one on pieces of paper; put them all into a bowl or pot.  Take a lighter and burn the scraps safely and as you do, tell the Divine to take care of this messy stuff so you can take care of your Dad and your self.  Each moment now, even the most gritty ones is precious. HUGS

Jim was always better with words than I am. … Even the most gritty moments are precious. The soul was, is, and shall be.

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Going Home

North Cascades Loop

North Cascades Loop

This I wasn’t expecting: a homeless man on the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway, so settled that his encampment included a small Weber barbecue. But there he was in Marblemount, the last place you can get gas before making the push over Washington Pass and descending into Eastern Washington.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I had just slowed down to 25 MPH, mindful of the ticket I got the last time I exceeded the speed limit on a country road in Washington. Ahead of me on the gravel shoulder was what I can only describe as a contraption: a metal framed cart on wheels piled high with stuff. As I pulled past the cart, I saw what lay beyond it: a container perhaps six feet long and four feet high, covered with a grey plastic tarp, and in front of it, a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, his wiry gray beard extending down the front of his jacket.

Then he was behind me. I’d rounded the corner but couldn’t get the image out of my head. Was he a local who’d come on hard times? With only 200 people in the whole town, why wasn’t someone helping him? Had he rejected help, preferring to live outdoors? Or was he a stranger who’d been dropped there by some trucker, who then decided not to move on? Should I stop and ask?

I didn’t. By then I was a mile down the road, anxious to begin the climb into “the American Alps.” The old man (who for all I know was my age) was someone else’s problem.

I’ve read about the tent encampments under the freeway in Seattle. Homeless activists in Sacramento have been protesting a no-camping ordinance. But somehow I expected the North Cascades Highway to live up to the legend I’d built around it.

My parents sometimes took this route when we visited my grandmother in Yakima, my aunt and uncle in Wenatchee, or my mother’s best friend in Colville. Taking Highway 20 added time to the trip, but my mother turned it into a seasonal pilgrimage — stopping to cut vibrantly-colored branches for her fall arrangements, or to harvest mounds of wild blue elderberries, plump with juice, to make into jelly.

At first, driving east on the North Cascades Highway, I’d seen what I’d expected: clapboard houses dwarfed by candy-colored rhododendrons, jade colored rivers sliding past moss-covered railings, white dogwood blooms on branches reaching as if for alms, grey exhalations of mist drifting up tall peaks. My past was intact.

Before long I noticed things that hadn’t been there in the 70s. The modern Armed Forces Career Center occupies choice real estate in Burlington. A few miles along, parked in the driveway of a farm, is a semi-trailer wrapped with an image of three silhouetted soldiers next to the legend, “Never forget.” When my father last drove through, with his military identification sticker, no gas station attendant would ever have told him, “Thank you for serving.”

The drive-through espresso shacks are new, along with the Indian casinos and chainsaw-carved statuaries. (Bigfoot and eagles seem to be popular.) And — this being Washington — prominent green crosses glow next to dispensaries with names like the Skagit Valley Collective and the Marijuana Mercantile.

But the Douglas firs and red cedars and white dogwoods and purple lilacs and monster rhododendrons and mom-and-pop donut shops and pasturing sheep and black cows and sleek horses and blossoming blackberries and galloping rivers and proud peaks are still here. So I embroider them into my mental tapestry: my father in the front seat, piloting; my mother next to him, arm resting on the door, eyes scanning for wildflowers or birds; me in the back, the skin of my thighs stuck to the vinyl below my favorite cutoffs, the ones with the suede side laces and butterfly applique on the back pocket.

For more information about the North Cascades Loop click here.

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