Category Archives: Family

Musings on family – parents, children, and living with both

Three Times a Wood Passes for Rain

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That is the line I woke up with a few weeks ago. Three times a wood passes for rain. It gripped me and I rushed to write it down before it vanished. As I wrote, there spilled out from behind it a whole dream that was just as poetic and mysterious. In the final scene, I am sitting on the lawn of my parent’s house, next to my mother’s casket.

I think about the dream a lot, but only now do I have the first idea what that opening line means. And that is because I went to Jenya’s memorial on Sunday.

drive up from seattle to vancouver

Jenya Bohr was an aikido buddy of mine, but our deeper bond came from his role as high school teacher to my son Bowen and nephew Alex. Jenya helped Bowen graduate when he only wanted to take junior college classes. And he helped Alex graduate by putting up with way more than he should have. But being an effective teacher to Alex meant propping him up, being in turns cajoling and reassuring, overlooking his massive academic failures, and constantly believing in the good he had inside him. Jenya excelled at that.

This Samhain was the third anniversary of Alex’s death, and I managed to get through it without too much extra heartache. But on Sunday I found myself crying with several of Alex’s old teachers at the memorial, not just for Jenya but for Alex. One teacher told me she’d had a dream the night before Jenya died that she went to visit and he was dead, smiling with his eyes wide open. Her immediate thought was, “I have to tell Alex!” which woke her up, because she remembered Alex is already dead and therefore Jenya must be, too.

Alex’s death flipped a switch in me. I grew up with a highly developed instinct for managing unpredictable behavior. Being the family harmonizer, the “responsible one,” became second nature to me, so I recreated my starring role early on by marrying a borderline personality and having kids young. I had enough energy for all of that, then Alex joined us and it all got turned up to eleven, all the time.

While raising three children, then four with Alex, then five the next year as his sister Rose came to live with us too, I clung to aikido like a mast in a storm. It was what I did to find my center, and to breathe and move from there in relation to others, even multiple attackers. Aikido absolutely got me through those years, re-patterning me so that I no longer tolerated anyone who kept trying to knock me off-center, unless it was an actual teenager under my care. And once the teenagers started moving out there was no more organizing principle for the marriage, so it too went away.

There is the normal pace of healing when we change the habits of a lifetime, and then there is the turbo-charged version. Alex’s death brought me to an unbearable rawness, as I faced once and for all the limits of my power and responsibility. I began setting new standards for relationships of all kinds, and held to them no matter the consequences. Internally, I ruthlessly weeded out old emotional patterns that kept me off-center, losing 35 pounds in the process. As a result, I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been. 

In my dream, there is an implication that after the third time something changes. The woods do not pass for rain. What is seen is fully revealed. There is also a vein of premonition through the dream, as my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s registers in that stark final image. May her current quality of life continue for a long time.

Three years have passed since Alex’s death, since the turbo-charged period of change began that led me to this place. Yet it is never a far walk back to the grief, despair and loneliness that his death also ushered in. Jenya’s memorial reminded me of this fact. I walked through those woods again, and came out the other side. And today it is raining for the first time all season.

When the Past Comes Back to Save Us

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Memory is an odd thing: slippery as a fish, shapeshifting and disappearing with the flick of its tail. We call our memories ours as though we had some dominion over them. But nobody knows why memories surface when they do, after decades of absence.

In his final years, my grandfather was tormented by a rhyme from his schooldays that he could only remember part of. It was a verse listing the presidents, and each time we visited he would recite what he knew: “Washington, Adams and Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe. Adams again, then…”

He begged my father to look it up for him, ask a librarian, do something to ease his mind by recalling the rest of the verse. Each time my father promised he would, though I could tell by the look on his face that he would not. He never did.

The past can haunt us, but it can also come back to save us.

It was the Spring of 2008 when out of the blue I remembered my first piano recital, in 1967. I was five years old, the youngest student and therefore first on the program. Our recital was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in downtown Oakland, with its beautiful Julia Morgan architecture.

The room seemed cavernous to me, and my family sat on a pew several rows back. I remember feeling confident about my piece, and calm about playing it in front of everybody. When my name was called, without hesitation I walked up to the front and sat down, played my piece, took a bow, and returned to my seat. That was that.

What I remembered most in the Spring of 2008 was how matter-of-fact that performance had felt. There was no moment of hesitation, none of the agony and nerves of later recitals and performances. I had no idea why the memory had surfaced, but used it as an opportunity to reflect on my current life of public speaking and teaching. Did I ever feel so calm and confident about performing now? Would I ever find my way back to that simplicity?

When a memory from the distant past revisits us, we turn it over in our minds for a few hours or days and then it recedes again. This memory did not. For weeks it kept returning, as I planned workshops, traveled and taught. Then, that Summer Solstice, my father died.

His death was quite sudden, and took us all by surprise. I was about to fly to Portland and teach, so needed to coordinate with my family to make sure his service was scheduled for right after I returned. That’s when I learned that his funeral would be held at the Chapel of the Chimes.

I had always intended to speak at his funeral, to honor what an important figure he was in my life. Now I learned that neither my sisters nor my mother wanted to. I would be the only one of us to speak, and therefore first on the program.

How could I possibly rise from my seat and proclaim that my father was dead? Because if I spoke about him in the past tense he surely would be gone, and therefore his return would be impossible. In that extreme, surreal state of grief, writing his obituary and then his eulogy, flying and planning and teaching and returning to speak again, returning to the scene of my earliest memory of public performance, seated now in the front row of a room that seemed so very small, that memory saved me.

By some miracle the words had come that I wanted to say. I wrote them down. I felt calm, sitting next to my mother waiting for the service to start. When it was my turn I got up, went to the lectern, said my piece, thanked the crowd, and sat back down again. It was done.

That simplicity had returned in the moment I needed it most. Unmoored by grief, there was no part of me left to be nervous or insecure. There was just this piece, the delivery of it, making people laugh and cry, and then the long drive home, wondering all the way what had just happened, how I had been so lucky to have a memory come like a lifeboat and carry me through rapids that I hadn’t even known were going to be there.

Abortion, Small Town Iowa, 1927

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My grandmother, Dorothy Mary Gibson Roberts, was so lucky. When her first husband became jealous, then violent, and then brought a gun into the house, she removed the bullets, hid the gun, then called her father to come pick her up in Sioux City. He drove down the very next day, nearly being run off the road when my grandmother’s husband saw them leaving.

With the clothes on her back, she went home to Whiting, Iowa, to stay with her parents while she got a divorce and figured out what to do next. Meanwhile, Will Gibson protected his daughter Dorothy from a raging, harassing ex-husband, filing divorce papers for her, and arranging for an abortion when she found out she was pregnant. My grandmother was 25 years old.

Fram, as we called her, was reeling from the consequences of her choices:

“It was one of my minor disasters. I didn’t realize you had to be in love to get married. And I was not in love with Al. I liked him a lot, but I just had no affection—I didn’t love him. I knew immediately I had made a terrible mistake.”

When I interviewed Fram extensively for my senior thesis in 1983-84, I got the story of her abortion from her bit by bit, asking another question each time we met, until I had as much of the story as she was ever going to tell. According to Fram, both the town doctors performed abortions, and they did quite a lot of them.

“It was definitely illegal at that time. It wasn’t fun; it was supposed to be a disaster, but nowadays it’s no disgrace at all. I remember going up to their office. It was at night. But I don’t remember that it hurt or anything. I don’t remember anything about it. It apparently didn’t bother me mentally. I would have done anything not to have a child, because I knew that I’d made a horrible mistake.”

The doctor who performed my grandmother’s abortion was also the doctor who delivered her and her two brothers. My grandmother was so lucky: her family was white and middle-class, owned the car dealership in town, went to Church with the doctors and their families, and were part of a small-town fabric that valued independence and privacy. She was lucky because in Whiting, Iowa in 1927, the town doctors believed that women and their families should be able to make their own health care decisions, and that women were strong, resilient, and capable of reconciling having an abortion with their relationship to God.

Watching the national coverage of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I wonder where those doctors are now. Why is there just one abortion clinic for the entire state of North Dakota, only one in South Dakota, in Arkansas, and in Mississippi? Why don’t more Family Practice doctors and OB/GYNs offer abortion services to their patients in these states?

Really, I am the lucky one in this story. My grandmother was able to recover from her low point, work again as a pipe organist and then as a secretary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she met my grandfather. This time, she knew she was in love.

They married and had two daughters, one of whom is my mother. And my sisters, cousins and I got to have a feisty, independent, funny, straight-talking grandmother, who in spite of the pain of recalling that time did tell me this story, so I could tell others.

Abortion is part of women’s health care services. Access to safe and legal—and affordable—abortion is the best way to insure women’s health, and the health of their families. Abortion has always been performed in this country, and will always be, no matter what some backward state legislatures decree. But not everyone will be as lucky as my grandmother was.

Smoothing the Sands of Memory

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My sisters and I talk a lot about memory now. Perhaps this is inevitable as the four of us straddle the 50 divide—two already there, the other two taking quick gulps of 40-ish air before their inevitable plunge.

One sister is downloading apps that help her brain stretch in new ways. When another says she no longer likes playing the piano because reading music is too hard, the rest of us wonder. Is it about time she just said no to something she hated, or is this a convenient excuse to shut down the part of her brain that used to be quite good at reading music? We fear the slow constriction that shadows our choices, and the loss of supple youth each decision underlines.

Through the magic of Facebook, I am now in touch with more high school friends than I ever was after we graduated. The other day as my daughter told me about something that had really embarrassed her, I thought about the two most mortifying incidents in my youth.

One, a moment of bad judgment in the vicinity of my then-boyfriend’s parents, I remembered quite clearly. It was still embarrassing, but then I realized that both his parents were now dead. How was I supposed to feel about my hideous lapse of good sense now that it no longer mattered? Could I let it go—should I actually rake smooth the ground where that stone had forever tripped me? What, if anything, was the cost of forgetting?

The other incident happened in junior high school, as most embarrassing moments tend to do. I remember the two classmates who witnessed it, and how afterward I spent many nights tossing and turning in shame. And that’s all I now remember.

I could easily contact those two classmates now and ask them, but other than a vague recollection of us being outside the auditorium, I have no idea what actually happened. Was it something I said? Something someone said to me? The details of that heart-pounding moment have been completely erased, and all that remains is the shell that used to house the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me in junior high school.

I feel about this incident the same way I do when I misplace something: I am frustrated by my inability to remember what I did with a minor, semi-valuable possession. But perhaps this is more a blow to my pride than any cause for concern about my memory.

After my dad died, I looked forward to finally asking my mom the questions she would never have considered answering if he were within earshot. But just as she seemed to ease into that reflective, post-raw-grief phase, she stopped being able to remember. Not through any act of will, but by the forces of erosion my sisters and I now fear.

There is a difference, I think (I hope), between realizing we have forgotten something and not being aware of ever having known. I am grateful for the things my sisters remember about our childhood that I do not. I am pretty sure they feel the same way when I fill in the gaps for them. And we now know the importance of living lives that others have witnessed, and knowing that even when the details fade away, the etchings of our passage remain.

Growing Up in the 70s—A View from 1979

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My current book project begins with a big dream I had as a teenager. I remember the dream very clearly, but decided to go back and find how I wrote it down originally. So I spent a few hours the other night in an absolute time warp, re-reading journals from my freshman year in college.

Just a couple weeks after graduating high school in 1979, I moved out of my parent’s house in Oakland and into the student co-ops in Berkeley. My journals are full of the painful struggle between my parents and me, as well as the adventures and friendships that marked my eager entry into a larger world.

Most of what I wrote is not fit for public consumption, but I came across one piece from December 27, 1979 that I think is worth sharing. I was 17, home for winter break, and wrote every day to maintain my sanity. This particular day I was on a tear about the impending decade change, my relation to older Boomers, and what growing up in the 1970s had really been like. Enjoy:

So many people say that the only thing happening in the 1970s was 50s and 60s nostalgia. Or they say it was the Me Decade. Or that everyone went out and bought new improved consciousness, or found themselves, or bought designer jeans. What a bunch of hype.

I have too large a stake in the 1970s to see it dismissed, panned and put-down so much. I grew up in the 70s, I am a product of the American society of those years. My first political awakening occurred during Watergate; I watched Batman, Room 222, The Waltons, All in the Family; I saw Star Wars, The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall; I loved Big Macs and chocolate shakes, I liked Saturday Night Fever, I was into baseball, football, and chess, I went to public schools—what more do you want?

We were exposed to, opened to, and offered excesses of a whole lot of stuff, mostly sugared drinks, lots of TV, sex and violence. Also rock and roll when it became rated PG. There was a lot of talk about the apocalypse, and I sat two feet in front of Daniel Ellsberg at the Bear’s Lair and listened with gaping mouth as he talked about Eisenhower and Cambodia and Tonkin Gulf and all that I’d missed.

For a child of upper-middle-income WASP parents, the seventies were a fantasy land. Television said you could be anything you wanted to be, and we believed it without realizing it. Things were wonderful, and if you couldn’t be who you wanted to be in real life, at least you could give it your best shot at night when the lights were out.

Television showed us how very sophisticated scenes were handled, how the woman was silent and smiled knowingly and how the man couldn’t quite penetrate her depths. Unfortunately, being that woman later on, I couldn’t remember what it was I was supposed to know so secretly, the one thing that had been taken for granted, so implicit on the screen.

I don’t know, it seems to me that we were shown the surface of a universe of things. We were given so much on that level, that most of us didn’t bother with its foundation, with the root images or impulses that might spawn such symbols. So much you were supposed to have been born knowing. If you asked you were uncool, and definitely not hip to what was happening.

But, with such free rein to go out and explore life, we also found ourselves with the freedom to reject what we were shown, to search for new alternatives as any spoiled child will do. We did. Our parents had not seen that they had given us this right to snub our noses at their neo-conservative values, as had been true in previous generations also. So we were not dramatically unlike our older friends, except we consumed more drugs earlier and in greater quantities with less reason than they did, but they had better stories to tell. They still do.

From Samhain to Solstice

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It feels like it’s time to take down the Day of the Dead altar. I am not aware of any hard and fast rule about this, but just last night as I added more wood to the fire and glanced up at the mantle, I had the distinct impression that things had to change.

The novenas that Deborah made need to be put away, those with pictures of George Carlin and Abbie Hoffman packed side by side with the ones honoring my father and uncle. The ancestor shrine I constructed from bits and pieces of Raven Moonshadow’s belongings will be as well, along with pictures of my beloved nephew Alex, my old boyfriend Steve, my good friend Barbara, and so many others.

Maybe there is no clear dividing line in home decor, when the colors of Samhain pass away and those of Winter Solstice deck the halls. Maybe I am simply reacting against the emotional burden of having my nephew’s picture prominent in the living room, a daily reminder that I will no longer see him change and grow with the seasons. Maybe I need to bring my thoughts back to the living: my niece’s baby who has had a tumultuous year; my daughter the newly-minted college freshman; my ailing mother.

Whatever the reason, I find myself looking forward to decorating with colored lights, bringing in fragrant fir boughs and branches of bright red berries, laying out a runner of rich jewel tones across the dining room table. This will not be a year when I procrastinate and keep the house bare until minutes before the Solstice. I may even get out the colored lights to hang the moment I return from Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow in Oakland.

I have written before about the evocative beauty of the winter sky here on the coast. The night is an echo chamber for the sea, carrying the thundering sound of surf and a fine salty mist over the dunes and into the village. It is a stillness that quivers with moisture, a silence that cradles sound.

For the last six years, this vast hall of night has cradled me as well. I love it here more than anywhere else I have ever lived, particularly in the winter months. I love how we can see the storms swirl in from across the Pacific, and how we are also the first ones in the sun after the storms have passed. I see the light break through low on the horizon well before the rain stops, and hours before those living inland ever feel its rays.

My friends have been taking turns this fall, gingerly asking me how I’m coping with an empty nest. I hope they are surprised rather than alarmed when I break out into a wide grin and tell them I love it. Emptiness does not equal sadness to me but rather spaciousness, clarity, calm. I love my children fiercely, look forward to their visits, and thoroughly enjoy them while they’re here. And then they leave, the house reverts to stillness, and I can see again the headlands to the west, the crisp blue outline of Pt. Reyes to the south, and above and all around me, the endless sky.

What is Up With the Age of 27?

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I am flummoxed, having just read the New York Times article about Amy Winehouse’s recent death. The end of the article states,

Ms. Winehouse is not the first singer who died at the age of 27. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones were the same age.

Are you kidding me? They all died at 27? That fact startles and disturbs me, and adds to my low-level sadness this weekend. Tomorrow my nephew Alex would be turning 28, if he hadn’t followed the template of tragic deaths at age 27.

Alex was a gifted musician too, and spent a few years getting good on the drums as well as guitar when he lived with us. One of my favorite memories of Alex was at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Summer Camp the year he turned 14. He was Mr. Cool on the drum kit for most of the bands that formed there, taking pride in being a kind of wild big brother to the younger kids. They all looked up to him, and it seemed like he had found the perfect outlet for his energy and his desire to lead.

The first year after somebody dies is full of “firsts,” and getting past the birthday is a big one. I don’t know what I will do tomorrow to commemorate the day, but it may involve playing lots of Janis, Jimi, Kurt, and Jim.

Talking to Children About Dreams (Video)

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It’s early in the morning and you’re busy getting your children ready for school. They are mostly cooperative, but one of them is moving very slowly and instead really wants to tell you about her dream. What do you do?

Maybe you’re a teacher, working with a small group of students who are writing stories. One of them proceeds to tell you his dream, and asks whether he could write that as a story. How do you respond?

If you have children in your life, eventually you will be faced with questions like these. Most adults these days want to encourage children’s creativity and avoid making them feel somehow “different” because of what they feel or experience. Talking about dreams with children is a great way to achieve both these goals, and many others besides.

I joined a dream group right after my third child was born, so by the time she was able to talk and tell me her dreams I had a little bit of knowledge about how to handle that conversation. The other ideas in the video below I figured out on my own, and I offer them here to help a new generation of parents become more comfortable talking with children about dreams.

My main requirement as a parent was that any dream activity or conversation had to be something I could do on the fly, without a lot of set-up, and whenever the moment felt right. There was just too much to do in our daily routine for me to stuff in one more must-do activity. Plus, I didn’t want dreams to feel like math homework—it had to be fun and non-stressful. Of course there are countless other ways you can bring dreams into the family (or school) conversation, but these will at least get you started. The basic idea is to expand our awareness of what is possible by bringing our dreaming creativity more fully into our waking lives.

This video presents seven great ideas for bringing dreams into routine family conversations, from keeping a dream map on the wall to making up dream stories in the car. It is the first in a series of “Essential Guides to Dreams” I have in the works, to share the most useful information on a number of common dream topics. Future episodes will cover nightmares, creating healthy sleep habits, and other topics of interest to parents and the general public. If you want to be notified about them as soon as they are up, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. Be sure and leave a comment if you have any suggestions for future videos!

Poems for the Return of the Light

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I have two poems to offer this year: an invocation by Leonard Cohen, and an elegy by Rumi. Both of these I read at my nephew’s funeral last Fall. Both I think deserve wider reading. So here they are, in honor of Brigid, the poet’s muse. May the light return to us all.

Holy is your name, holy is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

Leonard Cohen
Book of Mercy

Autumn Rose Elegy

You’ve gone to the secret world.
Which way is it? You broke the cage

and flew. You heard the drum that
calls you home. You left this hu-

miliating shelf, this disorienting
desert where we’re given wrong

directions. What use now a crown?
You’ve become the sun. No need for

a belt: you’ve slipped out of your
waist! I have heard that near the

end you were eyes looking at soul.
No looking now. You live inside

the soul. You’re the strange autumn
rose that led the winter wind in

by withering. You’re rain soaking
everywhere from cloud to ground. No

bother of talking. Flowing silence
and sweet sleep beside the Friend.

Rumi
The Glance