Here Is Where We Meet

When my mother tested positive for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving, I was winding down my fall semester. On the last Sunday of November, she left the nursing home via ambulance to the hospital. On December 7th, she returned to her home of forty-five years for hospice care. My dad, my sister Liz, my brother Scott, and I were all there to hold her hand and love on her some more. Somehow, I believe, my mother orchestrated all of it and brought her family together for our goodbyes. Meanwhile, in the final weeks of my mother’s life, John Berger’s novel Here Is Where We Meet spoke directly to me, and I had a final paper to write. This post is an excerpt. In a fusion of fiction and autobiography, Berger weaves separate and seemingly unrelated threads of memories and experience and time and space to depict the interconnectedness of life and death.

The novel begins in Lisboa with the narrator, an author named John, ruminating on his dreams. In John’s dreams his parents are alive, and he phones them for various reasons, forgetting they are dead (2-3). When the Lisboa scene resumes, John’s mother takes his arm, they cross the street, and she says, “John…The thing you should know is this: the dead don’t stay where they are buried” (3). A person who continues to live in the hearts and minds of others can never truly be dead. We carry the dead with us wherever we go, whether we are awake or asleep. John goes to Lisboa and meets his long-dead mother there.

In her farewell to John, Mother shares a final philosophy on life and some motherly advice, which shapes the course of the novel. She says, “we are here to repair a little of what was broken” (51) and “we come to the eternal conundrum of making something out of nothing” (53). She advises her son, the writer, to “Just write down what you find…and do us the courtesy of noticing us” (53). For the rest of the novel, John does his mother the courtesy of practicing her advice, noticing the dead, and writing down his memories of them. Perhaps the narrator John and the author John Berger are one in the same, and in writing this book, perhaps both Johns repair a little of what was broken.

John, the narrator, spends the rest of the book traveling throughout Europe, from Lisboa to Genève to Kraków to Islington to Le Pont d’Arc to Madrid and to the Polish village of Górecko, as if travel is one of life’s secrets. He moves fluidly between settings, the past and present, the living and the dead. His travels reveal the most important people, places, and experiences of his life. John Berger published Here Is Where We Meet at age 79, probably when he considered the influences and interconnections of life and death more than ever before. 

John Berger’s eight chapters conclude with chapter 8 ½, a one-page dialogue scene with his mother that ends where the novel begins and connects it all together. Mother repeats her earlier advice, “Just write down what you find” (237). Perhaps life ends in the same way—we remember our loved ones and their words and connect all the pieces. John’s mother returns to her point in the way that people do when they want to make sure their audience has heard the message. Yet, even after eight chapters depicting the courtesy of noticing and writing it down, John responds by saying, “I’ll never know what I’ve found.” He doubts what he knows as we all tend to do, but in truth, John has found more than he realizes, making something out of nothing.

My mother passed at home on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her family. She is no longer here, yet she is vividly here. In my mind, my beautiful Mama radiates the sheer joy of her prime and laughs a sparkling twenty-year-old laugh. She lives on through my family, in our hearts and minds, and in the countless number of trees she planted around my hometown. I can only hope to do my mother the courtesy of continuing to notice, to write down what I find, and to repair a little of what was broken..

Hidden Valley Road

The Galvin family, Air Force photo, 1961.

My heart hurts. I just finished Hidden Valley Road. Then again, my adult son has paranoid schizophrenia. Our ten-year journey toward help has been rocky and torturous. My heart often hurts.  

Award winning journalist Robert Kolker combines an examination of twentieth century mental health treatment and the components of schizophrenia with the narrative of the Galvin family. Between 1945 and 1965, Don and Mimi Galvin had twelve children, ten boys and two girls. By the mid-1970s, six of the brothers had developed schizophrenia.

The Galvin family became one of the first to contribute to the genetic studies of the National Institute of Mental Health, and for their donation to the body of research, I am grateful. I will continue to keep the remaining family in my thoughts. Part of my sadness lies in the continued wait for a scientific breakthrough.

If you have experience with mental health issues, especially schizophrenia, Hidden Valley Road is a must read. If not and you are interested in knowing more, may you find compassion for those who suffer with severe mental illness and their families who are doing the best they can. There must be better help on the horizon.

Come Sit with Maya Angelou

Sometimes I sit with Maya Angelou. Dr. Maya Angelou. I mean, I sit on my couch with my laptop in my lap, my left knee bent, my left heel tucked under my right butt cheek, and Maya Angelou on YouTube (three and a half minutes below). She is probably the wisest, most accessible, most inspirational person I know. God rest her soul.

I discovered Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings maybe just five or six years ago, and this book catapulted into the status of my all-time favorite. Since then, I’ve reread it a few times, as much for Angelou’s style as the strength of her story. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. She would go on to thrive against all odds. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series. I still have four to go.

The Heart of a Woman (1981), fourth in the series, follows Angelou from 1957-1962, from California to New York City, Cairo to Ghana. She arrives in New York as a singer/dancer, joins the Harlem Writers Guild, becomes a civil rights activist, and raises her teenaged son. Angelou is the epitome of determination, only one of the reasons I find myself sitting with her.

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is a series of essays, a quick little read, published between her fifth and sixth memoirs. She opens up about her marriages, sensuality, sexuality—what it means to be human, American, and a black American. I sit with her in part due to her honesty.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) is the sixth of the series, and once more the title refers back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” This volume begins as Maya Angelou returns from Africa to the US to work with Malcolm X. As she arrives, she learns that Malcom X has been assassinated, and violence in Watts explodes. She meets Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks her to become his coordinator in the north, and then he is assassinated. A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya Angelou begins to write the first sentences of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.”

Still on my to-read list:

  • Gather Together in My Name (1974, volume two) follows Maya as a single, teenaged mother sliding down the social ladder into poverty and crime.
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976, volume three) spans the years of 1949-1955, Angelou’s early twenties and her struggles to support her son, form meaningful relationships, and establish herself in the entertainment world.
  • All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, volume five) recounts Angelou’s years in Accra, Ghana between 1962-1965 and her return to the United States. Racism and the journey continue to be themes.
  • Mom & Me & Mom (2013, volume seven) was published shortly before Angelou’s 85th birthday and focuses on her relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter. In earlier volumes (the ones I’ve read anyway), Baxter remains an enigma of sorts, and this final volume fills some gaps. Even though it’s still on my to-read list, I’m inspired that Angelou continued to write until the end of her life. Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.

Are you interested in diversifying your reading experiences? Here’s a list of 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read. Let’s agree to add Paul Laurence Dunbar and make it eleven. I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Sympathy

BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
 
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
 
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

(This post inspired by my friends Rhonda at Pollyanna’s Path and Greg at A Thousand Miles from Kansas for their kindness in award nominations and their understanding of my Q & A rule breaking. When you have a chance, go check out their awesome blogs.)

Kafka’s Metamorphosis on the Shore

Have you ever read a book that you loved so much? Except there is almost no way to adequately explain. Like if you tried, people might think there’s something wrong with your brain. For me, that’s Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Mind-bending, for sure.

Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. He travels incognito.

Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally.

Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound.

In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life.

  • Both Kafka and Nakata have companions who appear out of nowhere to help. How many times have you felt an insurmountable problem, only to realize that there is someone willing to help you? I know I have, over and over, and our connections with others are vital to life. Our truest, most intimate connections have the power to transform us. We have the power to choose those connections, or we can live lonely, miserable, dysfunctional lives. It’s that simple.
  • There’s a message here about a “persistent, inward-moving spirit” (329). I think that means that we flourish though self-reflection, knowing ourselves, and confronting our own souls. Yes, you can lie to everyone around you, but you’re only lying to yourself. It’s so easy to spot the faults of others, but what about your own? As much as your friends can help you, ultimately you must rely on yourself and what’s inside you for courage and honesty, motivation and strength. If you can overcome your own fear, bias, and anger, you will be the strongest person in the world.
  • There’s another message about maintaining a “pliant, youthful sort of curiosity” (329). What do you like? What interests you? Are you open to new things, new people, new ideas? Kids are naturally more curious, naturally more accepting of differences, naturally willing to try new things. As we age, we become more stubborn and consequently more stuck in our ways, but a childlike curiosity keeps life interesting. Our first inclination might tell us, I would hate a book like that, by a Japanese author, where absurd things happen. But all the absurdity serves a purpose if you take some time to consider it. As they say, never judge a book by its cover.

In the end, I don’t think it spoils anything to say, Kafka’s metamorphosis is complete, and he has all the tools to bloom and grow. Life teaches us all about transformation when we keep our hearts and minds open. And I don’t know about you, but I’m happy that I’m not my past self.

I admit, this book might not be for everyone, but then again, maybe it is.

2020 Summer School Required Reading

Shout out to my friend Barbara over at ALTAIR 5G Theatre for bestowing upon me the Penable Award. Barbara wanted to know, “What’s your trick to regaining confidence in your life?” And this is it: intimate connections, using what I have inside (my heart, my brain, and my guts), and the childlike curiosity to keep on going because amazing things are still ahead.

(P.S. Barbara, salty, except I do love my wine, and about that song, here you go…)

 

Jesse James and Billy the Kid

“I wanna watch my birthday movie,” Kody said. It was Friday, May 8th. He turned 51.

I gave him a quizzical squint of my eyes and cock of my head. You would think after thirty years of marriage, I would know he had a birthday movie. Anyway, there was no time for birthday movies. Our daughter Lauren and I had planned him a surprise party at her apartment. My job was to get him there.

Restaurants are re-opening here in Houston with precautions in place at 25% capacity. Kody and I had made dinner reservations for later that evening for the first time since the quarantine, but Lauren planned enough fun to make him change his mind. I thought, what’s the difference between going out to eat or having friends who have stayed well over for a party?

“You’re not the only one who has a birthday movie,” he said.

I laughed. How many of my birthdays have I watched—wait, this is his birthday. Of course, he knows my birthday movie, but that’s a story for another day. “What’s your birthday movie?” I said.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he said. The title rolled off his tongue.

He has watched it over and over, but somehow, I had never given the whole thing a chance. All two hours and 39 minutes.

The surprise party was a success. With a bang, we broke the rules of social distancing, cancelled our dinner reservations, turned up the music, and ordered pizza. We were modern-day outlaws. Without masks or guns.

When Saturday morning arrived, the time had come for the much anticipated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time I gave the 2007 movie a chance.

The narrative prose is exquisite, the cinematography stunning, and the cast star-studded. Brad Pitt is Jesse James. So there is that.

Apparently, I’ve always missed the beginning. The narrator captivated me with his lines as the images played out:

“He was growing into middle age and was living in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.”

And that’s the movie. The last seven months of the life of American outlaw Jesse James with slow somber themes. Brad Pitt portrays him as mentally unstable, alternating between genteel and manic. No surprise. I recognize the look in his eyes.

Jesse James

The stage was set for my next literary endeavor of my grad school Maymester, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Another American outlaw. Same time period. In the afterword about his writing process, Ondaatje says that he started writing with a vague idea of Billy. “Twenty-one killed. Dead at twenty-one…I invented every gesture and choreographed every gunfight. I stole jokes from my friends and woes from people I knew less well.”

“What I discovered I had at the end of two years of writing poems and prose and imaginary interviews and songs and fragments was a manuscript somewhat like a valise containing the collected raw material for a collage. And so there followed another year of rewriting, refocusing, restructuring, and compressing all that material into some newly invented organic form that would contain the story…I learned everything about editing a haphazard structure in the time I spent choreographing and rebuilding The Collected Works of Billy the Kid…After the strict editing of the individual pieces I became obsessed with the arcing of the story, its larger architecture, as opposed to the clash of juxtapositions or plot development.”

An excerpt from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid:

After shooting Gregory
this is what happened
 
I’d shot him well and careful
made it explode under his heart
so it wouldn’t last long and was about to walk away when this chicken paddles out to him and as he was falling hops on his neck digs the beak into his throat straightens legs and heaves a red and blue vein out   Meanwhile he fell and the chicken walked away   still tugging at the vein till it was 12 yards long as if it held that body like a kite Gregory’s last words being   get away from me yer stupid chicken
Billy the Kid