Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Fruits of Our Labors

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The hardest thing I have ever done ended today with the most difficult phone call I have ever made: telling my niece that her brother, my nephew Alex, died last night of an accidental overdose, at age 27.

Alex’s life was never easy. As an infant, he had a cry that was already raging at the world. I had never heard that kind of cry from a newborn before, and it made a lasting impression on me. So much so, that when he started getting in trouble as a 12-year-old, my partner and I decided to take him into our family to see if we could get him through adolescence in one piece.

Bringing him into our family was hard on everyone. For the entire first year he lived with us, I could not leave him in a room alone with any of my kids for more than five minutes. If I did, someone would be crying, something would be broken, Alex would have hurt someone or completely disrupted the scene. It was like having an infant in distress—a 13-year-old, raging infant in great pain who couldn’t see past himself to think about anyone else. My children suffered a lot so that Alex could have a stable home life for those years.

Raising Alex was where I discovered the greatest coping mantra ever. Much of the time living with him was simply unbearable, and I could not have done it if I’d thought in terms of there being five more years to go, or four more years. Instead I told myself, “It’s only three more months.” Three months was a length of time I could endure, and repeating that every day got me through all six years of his stay with us.

Alex was very bright and could be quite charming—especially if he was the center of attention. He was hyperactive, and we thought about whether to get him tested for ADD. In the end, we thought that with a history of addiction in his family, he would be better off not taking Ritalin as a teenager. Maybe that was the right call, maybe not, but in the end it was the prescription drugs that really kicked him down the stairs.

His middle school principal once told me, “It’s the smart kids that figure it out eventually. The ones who aren’t smart usually don’t make it.” That consoled me for several years, thinking that because Alex was so smart he’d get it together. It turns out that intelligence has very little to do with it, nor does morality. Alex had a very strong sense of right and wrong, but his self-destructive streak was simply stronger, and he didn’t learn to control it in time to really live.

As I finish writing this, it dawns on me that I never sang Alex the song I wrote for him, back when he was 17. In spite of all our struggles, there were times when I felt a deep connection between us, and those moments were like gold. One evening as I returned home late from something or other, the lines of this song came to me in an easy flow. I’d always meant to sing it to Alex when we had a good moment alone together, after he was out of the woods and doing fine. I never did, and now I never will. Here is a recording I made of “Take Wing” four years ago.

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Last night’s may have been the last 2 am call from the Sheriff that I will ever get—may it be so. But this is only the beginning of all the days when I will think I see Alex in town, then realize it’s someone else. Every time I see a bright, handsome kid bouncing down the street like he’s got the world in his pocket, it will always look like Alex to me. There is no good reason that he should be dead today. It’s a damn tragedy, and I don’t know how you live through tragedy like this. Maybe by thinking, “It’s only three more months,” then he’ll be back. Yes, that’s the ticket.

If We Dismantle It, They Will Come

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There we stood in a park in San Francisco, about fifteen of us circled around a large ceramic bowl on the ground in which we had written the things we wanted to see increase: more money for this, more power to that, healing for her, a better job for him. Interspersed among the slips of paper was a collection of seeds, representing the power of growth. Once we had raised energy for our intentions, we took some seeds home with us, to keep focused on the vision we were growing.

Rituals like this one can be inspiring and affirming, and most importantly, show no signs of going away. But at one point it dawned on me: every altar, bookshelf and windowsill in my house was now littered with sacred seeds and pebbles, fragrant bits of greenery, beads, pieces of yarn (cut from webs we’d constructed), half-burned candles signifying something, and other ceremonial souvenirs I had brought home. The thought formed unbidden in my mind: was all that growing and visioning still taking place, if I could no longer remember the point of each stone and leaf as I dusted it?

I kept quiet about my troubling thought, but like all seeds planted in the darkness it just kept growing, eventually making it hard to see what we thought we were doing. Then some unfortunate person posted a comment to an email list, suggesting that in response to the latest egregious corporate land-grab we should all imagine planting a forest of trees so thick it would trap the evildoers and prevent them from carrying out their scheme. It would be like in Macbeth, only with high-speed internet and better candles.

At that point I felt like the Lorax, speaking for all of the trees, seeds, junk and jewels I had collected in my house, none of which I knew what to do with after charging them with hallowed intentions and bringing them home. I spoke up: “I can’t believe you are suggesting planting another damn tree in the collective unconscious. How will we find a clear place to plant, with all the rubbish we’ve left there over the years? Isn’t it about time we found another metaphor for making things happen the way we want—like, for instance, pruning and weeding?”

Unfortunately my reasoning was lost on its intended audience, due to my strong, practically violent language. But thus began my own transformation from a ritual accrualist to someone with a tidier home and a different sensibility about magic altogether. I started thinking that perhaps the best way to get help from the spirits was not to construct a grand, visionary edifice for them á la Field of Dreams, but instead to clean the place up, invite them over, and see what they choose to build.

I didn’t throw out everything all at once. These were ceremonial artifacts after all, and shouldn’t just be swept into the dustbin without any thought at all. And while several items did find their way into the compost and trash, most were eventually set out under bushes and trees in my yard, residing there until they were carted off by activist squirrels in the neighborhood.

With the clutter gone, what remained in my home were things that did have special significance, and that I actually used. It took a while to get used to this new ritual aesthetic, but over time I feel it has streamlined my access to all sorts of worlds, and made my place a destination spot for helpful spirits year-round.

Now there is a comfortable clutter of personalities on my mantle for Samhain. That seems right—this is the ancestral mixer holiday, after all. Day of the Dead figures cavort with pictures of my beloved dead, the recently deceased get the chance to meet my grandparents, and there is plenty of food, music and candles for all.

There is a place for jumble and clutter, especially while everyone is getting along. But sometime in November there will come a day when it feels like the party is over, and it is time for everyone to go away until next time. I will relish emptying the mantle then, and will live comfortably in the silence until the Solstice spirits start knocking on my door and I let them in, one by one, slowly painting my house with colors and lights for a new year.