It was enough

29 06 2010

My Dad died one year ago today.

One of the most beautiful memories I have of his death is a conversation I had with my sister the night he died.  She was telling me how she had cleaned out the room he rented at his brother’s house within hours after his death.  At first, she told me, she was so hearbroken that our father’s entire life had been reduced to one room.  And that that room could be emptied, 80 years of life totally erased, in just a matter of hours.

Then, she said, “I realized that it wasn’t heartbreaking at all.  That room had been just enough for Dad.  He was nearing the end of his life and, where our society tells us that we have to have more and more and more, he saw that none of that mattered at the end of your life (ever??) and so, he had ‘just enough’ to live his final days.”

I remember us both saying how amazing it was that our father…a very simple man, an old boxer who spent the better part of every day camped out on a bar stool drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…had been so wise in the end.

I had forgotten about that conversation until today, the one year anniversary of his death.

I cleared my schedule for the hours around 11:13 CST, the time of his death.  I wanted to be sure I was fully present to honor him when that moment came.

This morning, after meditation, I lit a candle for Dad.  It burned all morning.

Around 10 CST, I called my sister to check in.  Like me, she had freed her schedule to honor Dad.

We had a great, free-wheeling conversation that covered all the bases.  Talking over each other, as we do all the time.  Half-interrupting, half-finishing each other’s sentences.  Not from impatience, but from a love and an excitement that just wants to gobble up the entire buffet of each conversation.  We talked about work (and how much better the world would be if people would just do as we questions asked).  We talked about our pets that run our lives.  And we talked about the new beginnings that simultaneously are unfolding in our lives.  New beginnings that came, as all births do, from death.

All of a sudden, I looked at the clock.  I had totally lost track of time.

It was 11:13.

I stopped my sister.  “Well, it’s been exactly one year since Dad died.”

“So it has,” she said.

We then confessed to each other that while we had known we would each honor Dad in some way today at 11:13, we hadn’t a clue as to what that ‘honoring” would look like–though we each said we had some vague, slightly dramatic idea of sitting in silence, letting some equally dramatic something wash over us.

Now, here it was 11:14 and that moment, that opportunity to honor, had passed.

“You know,” I said, “the truth is that nothing would have pleased Dad more than to know that one year to the minute after he left us, his kids ‘honored’ him by simply being together, surrounded by love and laughter…and peace and opportunity.”

“You’re right,” my wise big sister said.  “We paused at 11:13, no drama, no big scene.  We were simply together.  It was enough.”

And it was.  Enough.


The Single Story

21 01 2010

Yikes!  My husband was NOT happy with me for writing yesterday that Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin love America as much as we do.  He explained that people like them were in it more for the money and power.  Of course, I explained that he had just described 75% of Washington DC’s residents and 98% of the media, but….still.  Maybe it wasn’t the best way to make an important point.

A point that I, increasingly, believe is the #1 challenge we face in this country.  So, I’ll try again and, as often happens in life, I’ll turn to someone else who makes the point far better than I did!  Her name is Chimamanda Adichie and her point is “the danger of the single story”.

A Nigerian author, she draws from her own experience to observe that, too often, we all have but a single story of each other.  And that “single story” approach always will lead to misperceptions…and missed opportunities.  She talks about, how when she attended college in the States her roommate “already felt sorry for me before she even met me.”  In their first conversation, the roommate–an American–asked Chimamanda, who had just arrived from Nigeria, if she could hear some of her “tribal music”.  The roommate was shocked when Chimamanda pulled out a Mariah Carey CD!

Here’s a link of Chimamanda talking about “The Danger of the Single Story”  (it’s from a great website, btw, called

It’s worth the watch…and, then, try to see where you paint people into Single Stories.  Where you have a single story for all Democrats…or all Republicans.  All feminists..or all gay marriage opponents.  For a parent who you’re still punishing for wrongs done a lifetime ago…or a coworker who you dismiss because their skills are oil to your water.  Then, try to see beyond the Single Story (note use of the word “beyond”…vs, say, “ignore”).  Don’t hurt yourself (or your ego!), maybe just start be seeing Two Stories…and, then, as Chimamanda explains, see how your vision of others..and yourself…changes!

The “change” fallacy

3 12 2009

I got a big kick out of an acquaintance’s Facebook post yesterday (he’s created a virtual Facebook fortune cookie where each day brings a new one line pearl of wisdom guaranteed to make your business succeed).  Yesterday’s was:  “To make a change, clients must believe they’re getting something greater than what they’re giving up.”

Now that’s a very logical statement…if it were true.  If we actually got to choose whether we changed or not.  If, by choosing NOT to change, we could STOP change.

The truth is, we can’t.

Remember that old adage:  the only constant is change.  Well, like most overused phrases, it’s overused because it happens to be true.

And, yet, we increasingly live in a world that denies change (even as the world, itself, is changing..constantly).  That pretends “change” is just one more thing to be spun or mastered by the infallible genius of human intellect.

Folks nip and tuck their way out of aging.  Hoping that you’ll look at the wonders surgery can do to a sagging neck…and not notice the natural beauty of aging hands.

As financial markets were hurtling America (and much of the world) over an economic cliff last year, the airwaves were filled with promises of change.  And, yet, one year later, what HAS changed?

Congress (hopefully) is about to pass health care reform that does increase access, but doesn’t do much to reduce cost.  Because politicians have refused to change the system where it is most fiscally ravenous:  the costs at the final two years of people’s lives.  The costs associated with senior care.

In our own lives, how many of us deep down inside know it’s time for a change…in career, in relationship, in scenery, in habits.  But we tell ourselves we’ll wait til it’s the “right time”.

Of course, what we really mean is that we don’t have the cajones to acknowledge the change that’s already happened…and all that’s needed is for us to acknowledge it, let it in.

Because that’s the fun little truth about change.  It’s always happening.  It’s happened with every second that you’ve read this blog.

And if you ignore it, you more and more find yourself in what a client of mine calls a “disorienting dilemma”.  You think you’ve dealt with it by ignoring it (just wait for the press releases trumpeting the “landmark” health care reform!).  You put a check mark next to an incomplete (or totally ignored) task and go on your merry way.

But here’s the funny thing about change.  It won’t be ignored. You can’t tuck it away in a box until the sun, the moon, and the stars align for that “perfect” moment to deal with it.

Nope, it’ll keep stalking you.

And we can muster up all the illusion we want to ignore it, eventually being consumed by a tsunami of the inevitable.

Or we can do the natural thing…and acknowledge the change.  Welcome it.  Dance with it.  And learn to ride its wave.

An Olympic pitch…IN Chicago, not just FOR Chicago

2 10 2009

The big news this morning is that the President and First Lady knocked it out of the park in pitching Chicago as the 2016 Olympic site.  “They were rock stars” gushed a Today show reporter (of course, that’s about all the Today show does these days…gush…but I digress).

I’m thrilled that the Obamas made the pitch.  It’s great to see a president have fun touting all that is wonderful and positive and promising about our country and one of our best cities.

At the same time, I wish President and Mrs. Obama would make the 1.5 hour flight from DC to Chicago to tell school kids there that they’re as passionate about them as they are the Olympics. That their future is just as important to America as one week in the summer of 2016.

I wish they’d do it for Corey McLaurin.

I wish they’d do it for Corey Harris.

I wish they’d do it for Derrion Albert.

Who are these guys?

They’re the three young Chicago students who have been murdered since school started less than a month ago.

Three kids.  One month.

And this isn’t a flukey spike in crime.  Last year, almost 40 Chicago school kids were killed…that more than one per week.  Right here.  In America.  In our President’s hometown.  In the city that, hopefully and in so many ways justifiably, the whole world will be watching 6 summers from now.

The President and Mrs. Obama could fly to Chicago, give a speech and be back home—with their two children–in less than the time it took for them to fly ONE-WAY to Copenhagen.

Don’t you think that would be time well-spent?

Mrs. Obama said the other day that she would “take no prisoners” in her bid to secure the Olympic nod for Chicago.  What do you think would happen if she brought that same attitude to Chicago schools?

Or urban schools across the country for that matter?  As I write this, Boston has just announced that 5 more of our city’s high schools will have metal detectors.  Meaning that 35 of our 39 schools have them.

It’s all part of a federal program called “Secure Our Schools.”  Is that where we are as a country today?  That we “secure our schools” with metal detectors….instead of values?  Instead of leadership?  Instead of community?

Hours ago, President Obama wrapped up his pitch with these words:  “If we walk this path together, then I promise you this:  The City of Chicago and the United States of America will do the world proud.”

Imagine if he said those words–not via video, by the way–to the kids of Chicago. If he told them that he and the First Lady have their backs.  That they will take no prisoners in making sure kids go to school to learn, not to be killed.  That he would walk with them…to do their city, their country…and themselves proud.

Now, THAT would be worthy of a gold medal.

My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

A moment for fathers

21 06 2009

Father’s Day is a bit of an odd day for me.

My birth father is proof-positive that love and blood alone aren’t enough to make you a father.  They must be equaled by intent.  One of the constants in my life is that Dad always has offered the first two qualities and, rarely, the third.

But the universe has more than made up for that karmic deficiency by providing me with two father figures throughout my life.  Men who show that, if you have to choose the balance among the three qualities mentioned above, love and intent will always win out over blood.

They’re the men I honored earlier this year by changing my name, by dropping “James” (my father’s father’s name) and “Woodruff” in favor of “Brett” and “Taylor.”

“Brett” honors my step-grandfather who was my father for the first ten years of my life. His last name was “Brettman”, but all of his friends called him “Brett”.  “Taylor” honors my stepfather, who picked up the fatherhood mantle after my grandfather died and carried it until he died this past year.

But, there is a back of symbol to these two words.  Behind the men they honor are the rich lessons they imparted onto me..lessons that continue to unfold moment to moment.

A career military man, my grandfather taught me to be a gentleman; to fuel outward respect with inward pride; and to live life without a net.

On that last point…I was  sick for much of the first ten years of my life.  As a result, a lot of folks treated me like a fragile, frail object.  Not Grandaddy.  He picked me up every Saturday morning for an adventure.  He always kept me out later than my mom or grandmother wanted; let me eat whatever I wanted; talk about whatever I wanted to talk about.

He figured that, if I was going to die in childhood as a lot of docs thought, I might as well enjoy the time I had.  It’s an attitude that caused him to move back to Southern California after doctors told him that a series of heart attacks and skin cancers made him too weak for such a move.  It’s the attitude that sent him to the golf course on January 20, 1976–seven months after the move–where he dropped dead walking to the links.  One that walks with me every day.

I called my stepfather “Thoso”.  He taught me three things:  to love nature; to ground in faith; and to always, always, always enjoy food…especially dessert, specifically Blue Bell and Spring Creek B-B-Q.  I got that last lesson first and struggled for years with the second.  The first lesson, the love of nature, was his last gift to me.

Like many gifts, it’s best shared through a story.

After a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s, Thoso died last March.  He had a rapid-fire series of strokes beforehand that brought me home to Texas 8 times between December, 2007 and March, 2008.

As I took that final flight home, 33-years of memories flashed through my mind.  Then, just as we were beginning our descent into DFW, a final image flashed:  Thoso and I were sitting on a ridge, looking out at the deceptively simple Texas landscape.  We had our arms around each other’s shoulders, gazing out.  Just sitting in silent awe at the wonders and gifts of nature.

When I got to my parents’ house, my mother told me that Thoso had slipped into a coma.  I went back to his room, knelt down and took his hand.  As I did, he opened his eyes, squinted at me as only a Texas cowboy can and said,  “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

They were the last words he ever spoke.

They weren’t just words of good-bye to my mother–his soul mate–and me.  They were words of appreciation for the gift of A life that was about to be extinguished so a new one could be born.

Never forgetting that life is a gift from nature best lived with adventure…and dignity…and pride…and faith.  What a gift to re-member on this Father’s Day…from the fathers who now walk to the left and right of my name every day.

Of words and keys

18 06 2009

The word on writers is that we write because we love words.  That may be true for some, but not for me.  I write because I love what words can lead us to.  I see words as keys.  Keys that unlock the doors leading to life’s mysteries.  Mysteries that aren’t meant to be solved, but experienced.  To me,  words are but the means to an infinite end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words this past week as President Obama, Democratic politicians and gay leaders have been knocked back on their heels by a community that is starting to grow tired of a words-only movement.  Weary of finding that words that promise action only unlock doors revealing brick walls.

But, I’m an artist, not an activist.  So, this blog isn’t about politics.

Rather, it’s an invitation to look at the key chain of words you carry with you.

If you’re married, when’s the last time you unlocked the door of your marriage?  To go behind the door of the word and into the room of your marriage? What’s there?  Two chairs facing a table of responsibilities? Or, a wall-less room where, as Joe Campbell says, the two selves who enter into marriage have re united into the whole self?

What does the key of your faith lead to?  Does it open the door to a “chosen” room that is bigger, better, brighter than anyone else’s?  Or have you realized that while the doors may be marked “Christian”, “Jew”, “Buddha” , “Shaman” et al, they all open to the exact same room?

And on and on the keys go.  They key for your career, your hobby, your politics, and on and on.

What do you DO with all those keys?

Are they your keys or did you just pick up the ones society says you should have?

Do you even know which doors they open?  Or are you one of those folks who just like to carry around a big key ring because you hope it will tell a story of how very important you are?  Hoping that just the fact you carry the words “married”, “religious”, “executive” with you…that those words alone will be enough to get you through life.

And, even if you know the doors they open, when’s the last time you went in?  In other words, do words open doors for you….or close them?

Finally, when’s the last time you borrowed someone else’s keys? What would happen if President Obama, a black man who can’t hide who he is, traded keys with a closeted gay man who not only CAN hide, but DOES hide every day?  What would each find in the experience that is the other’s room?

You can tell a lot about a life, a people, a country by unlocking the doors behind the words we use.  Perhaps we should do it more often.