Sunday, October 31, 2010

Take a stand—if you DARE

In response to his father’s drinking, my son Marty embraced a Straight Edge lifestyle. Straight Edge is a subculture of hardcore punk music that embraces the philosophy of staying clean and sober, and often extends to eschewing sexual promiscuity. It is often represented by the symbol “XXX,” which signifies no drinking, no drug use, and no smoking. Throughout high school and college Marty has been a bass guitar player in several Edge bands and is now the vocalist for the band Agitator. (One uses the word “vocalist” because hardcore is more screamed than sung.)

In between school and work obligations, Marty and his bandmates have a blast touring the country in a cheap van, sleeping either on the floors of their concert sponsors or in the van in a Wal-Mart parking lot, to perform for small but passionate crowds in basements and churches and record stores. Their upcoming December tour will cover so many miles that Marty pointed out that in the middle of it they’ll need to get an oil change for the van.

By touring Agitator has gotten quite a following, and even when they perform in towns in distant states they find people in the audience who know the lyrics. Just click on this link if you want to understand what a feat that is, because Glee this is not. You can see in the video the way Marty displays the black X on the back of each hand, and further announces his lifestyle choice with his tee-shirt.

What else you will see in this video, if you dare to open it: raw rage and confrontation. I have posted it on Halloween for a reason. It’s scary. Yet even in this I find hope.

Marty was daddy’s little helper, just eight years old on the day of the standoff that ended in Ron’s suicide. At that young age, with only a few sessions of D.A.R.E. (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) under his belt, Marty was already made of such moral fiber that when he realized his father was drunk he raced from the house to help me physically battle Ron for his car keys. He already knew that drinkers shouldn’t be drivers, and bore the pinch marks and scratches of that rectitude for several weeks after Ron’s death.

Children look to their parents for the unconditional love and support that allows them a safe place to form their own definition of self. Marty’s father cut out on him that day, physically and emotionally and completely, and I can’t imagine the rage that might cause a young man who is already hormonally predisposed to fight.

And I don’t have to. Thanks to his songwriting and hardcore performances, I can see and hear it. Marty doesn't keep that darkness bottled up inside, where it could gain control of his actions, hurting others and destroying self. In hardcore Marty has a way to express himself that allows those dark feelings full expression, and in a way that other young people can relate to. Funneling rage into one’s art isn’t necessarily healing in and of itself, but at least it’s an honest first step.

I know from my own experience that anger is a necessary part of the healing process, because it is only in identifying what boundaries were violated that we can truly forgive. We need to forgive for the health of our own souls and I hope that both of my sons are heading in that direction.

In my next post, Marty will share his decision to embrace Straight Edge in his own words: he’s allowed me to post the lyrics to one of his songs.

Happy Halloween, everybody. If he had lived, today Ron would have turned 68, and seen the amazing young men his sons have become.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Zero Tolerance

“More than a decade later, the sound waves from that one shotgun blast continue to ripple through time.”
~from my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place

It stands to reason that Ron’s suicide continues to have ramifications in our lives. Perhaps one of the most obvious and immediate influences it had was on my policy concerning teen alcohol use.

I said to my sons: “If either of you comes home smelling of alcohol before you graduate from high school, you are not taking what happened to your father seriously enough. If I smell booze on you once you are going into 30-day inpatient rehab, no questions asked.”

Sound extreme? Good. I was feeling extreme. Was it even fair? Probably not—I went to beer parties when I was in high school. At one, the driver of the car I arrived in got so drunk that her wild dancing sent one of her wooden clogs flying from her foot through the side of a big expensive fish tank. Kegger over. The house emptied as quickly as the tank. Fish flowed helplessly from from it to flop around on the soaked family room carpet. This same girl drove us home, pulling over to the side of the road once so she could throw up.

Problem was, we suffered no adverse consequences besides the basic confusion that we called this “fun” when it made us feel ashamed and sick. We got home without a car accident. We got away with sneaking into our houses past our curfews. We lived to drink underage again. As a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past twenty years, I cringe at that thought of what might have happened. But it didn’t.

Now that I was a mother I had to act on the best possible information. That included a slew of drinking and driving statistics from MADD and other sources. And thanks to the events of the final eight weeks of his life we now had the information that Ron had an incredible tolerance for alcohol. He could drink as many as a dozen shots of whiskey in an evening—enough to put most of us into life-threatening alcohol poisoning—before becoming visibly drunk. At the time my kids were teens, research suggested this to be an inheritable trait. And until science reversed itself on this issue, or until my sons were mature enough to make a responsible and legal decision, I didn’t want them messing with liquid fire. They would not become addicts on my watch.

My sons got through high school without me having to invoke my zero tolerance policy. My first-born may have stories to tell me about that some day, who knows.

But not Marty. He was developing a zero tolerance policy of his own.

More on that in my next post, set for Ron’s birthday: Halloween. Some will find its content frightening.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Memoira Interruptus

As reflected in my spotty writing at this blog, I interrupted work on my memoir this past year and opted to funnel my writing in other directions.

These are the reasons I wish I could give you for turning my back on the examination of my own life:
  1. I finally got life all figured out.
  2. Because I moved from the farm I never thought about Ron, or what happened there, again.
  3. Life in Doylestown has been a non-stop string of welcome parades, tea parties with the rich and famous, and HGTV interviews.
  4. Against all economic odds, my editing business took off at such a rate I'm still adjusting to the G forces.
  5. Oprah called me and said that despite the fact my novels haven't yet been published, she read my mind, loved my ideas, and booked me for her show...and the rest is history.
Okay, okay, by number 5 I know you realized the entire list is fantasy. I'm still clueless; while at the lake this year I truly missed Ron for the first time; my life in Doylestown has felt like a constant string of attendance at book signings—for my friends' books; my editing business was as affected by the economy as the next person's, leaving plenty of time for writing; and I've continued to market my novel because I know darned well you can't possibly get published if you leave your book in the closet.

So what did cause me to abandon the memoir project, especially after going so far as type all the notes into a computer document and play with several different versions of its structure?

Surface reasons: I didn't want to expose others while sharing my truth. I didn't know the best way to structure the story. Agents told me the story would be easier to sell if I novelized it, because I could make it better. This last split into further problems: a) Life is life, and since I'm not God I can't really figure out how to improve on it and still suss out its truth; and b) I haven't found a novel all that easy to sell so I don't know what the hell they're talking about.

A deeper reason: That constant voice in my head, saying, Why do you think anyone wants to read about you? What can I say? Maybe I used up all my courage in the aftermath of the suicide: the voice won out.

The activities I engaged in instead may have been diversions, but they still required risk and perseverance: I continued fine-tuning and marketing my novel and renamed it yet again. I got situated in my new community and started a new writing group. After a particularly vivid dream suggested a viable story arc I began a young adult novel. I supported the goals of my fellow writers by chairing one writers conference, for which I maintained a biweekly blog, and contributed time to the smooth running of another. I consider all of that meaningful work. My point is I made different choices—choices that didn't seem relevant to the theme of this blog.

Writing about it now, I wonder if there might have been one more factor putting off the memoir. Did you see that little clause up in the third paragraph: "while at the lake this year I truly missed Ron for the first time"? It sure caught my attention. To avoid miring my memoir with angry rant, I required the distance of time and perspective. Maybe I just wasn't ready yet.

Now, ready or not, here I come. When I showed up to restart this blog in my last post I asked if the universe was listening. It was an answer more than a question: the universe asked the question of me first. In my next post, I'll share the incident that ended my waffling and returned me to the task of writing my memoir in earnest.

Instant clarity

In my last post I promised to share the reason why I returned to my memoir project.

On August 30 I was up at our lake house, typing away on a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old boy who seems to be the only one who sees something in his grandfather's odd behavior beyond a neon sign flashing "Alzheimer's", and is willing to bust him out of a locked memory ward to find the answers.

*Ding*: I had mail.

The note was from Deirdre, Ron's first wife. Deirdre and I became pen pals for one extraordinary reason: in the early months after Ron's suicide, she reached out to the widow and young children left behind by the husband she had quit so long ago. In one amazing handwritten letter after another, Deirdre offered me the one thing I couldn't possibly conjure for myself: context. To all appearances, Ron's suicide was in direct answer to my intention to divorce him, and to that notion Deirdre's precious gift of backstory created an emergency roadblock: as I moved forward, any access to the path of guilt would be denied.

The reason for Deirdre's August 30th e-mail: after a full year of symptoms, she had been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The one and only time I met Deirdre face-to-face, several years ago (an event memorialized in the photo, above—Deirdre is on the right), it seemed that I was the one with the big life challenges. She had a happy late-life marriage and a touch of sciatica. Then BAM. It doesn't get a whole lot more challenging than ALS. Like any story with an epic cast, life is a continual compounding of scenes in which our roles are always changing.

Because of my experience with Ron I wasted only a few minutes dispensing the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Instead I focused on the parameters of our relationship: she lived in South Carolina, I lived in Pennsylvania, and our time was limited. How could I best use that time to honor what she'd meant to me?

And I thought, what if it were me? What if I had drawn the ALS card, and only had a limited amount of time to keep writing? Would I keep working on this YA novel I enjoyed, that would have some emotional resonance and that I might even be able to sell, or would I write the memoir that will surely help me construct context and meaning from the chaotic events of my life?

I returned to the memoir the next day and have not allowed that voice that insists on second-guessing me to again gain purchase.

Here's why: whether other readers will be interested in my life or not is no longer my concern. Deirdre is my audience. My audience of one. In my return e-mail, I told her as much.

She wrote back:
You are such a funny bunny. You want "desperately to do something meaningful" while you are here on this earth and you have, my dear, you have. Think of those lovely boys/men you raised in the midst of a murky, twisted marriage with an emotionally stunted person. I could never have done that, never!
If Deirdre only knew how much she had to do with that. Her letters freed up energy I might have spent beating myself up so that I might best help my sons get through the ordeal of the suicide's aftermath.

I mean to tell her. As a way of honoring the huge gift she gave me 13 years ago, with that series of letters she has given me permission to reproduce, I am writing that memoir.

And since she's on a deadline, so am I.

One more thing. While Deirdre and I are both big readers, I learned from her bookshelves that time we met that our tastes are are quite different: I am an omnivorous reader, Deirdre is not.

She likes the truth, hard up and artfully expressed.

The only genre she reads is memoir.


Hello blank page, I'm back. (Is the universe listening?)

Nothing like reviving one's blog with one of those words that's so long you must pull it apart syllable by syllable to figure out it's meaning, right? Re-vi-vi-fi-ca-tion. Welcome to my world, for that's what a writer does to breathe new life into her work: pulls apart words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes, constantly questioning their components for meaningful expression and relevant inclusion.

As my temporarily abandoned readers already know, I have used this blog to explore the way writing helps us address issues of healing. Life questions that got me journaling instigated that journey for me some eighteen years ago; my first husband's suicide spurred it on.

The 13th anniversary of Ron's suicide was yesterday. Because Dave and I moved to Doylestown last December, this is the first anniversary of Ron's death I did not spend on the farm where he killed himself after a day-long police standoff. I thought I'd commemorate the anniversary by powering up this blog again.

Truth be told, I've missed writing about my life. A memoirist uses perspective like a sieve: you drop in the events of your life, shake them around, and allow the drab to fall through so that you might more closely examine the bits that glitter with meaning. I'll show you what I mean by applying that same process to my blog.

Sifting back through my last several posts, I saw some sparkle of meaning beyond that which I purposefully applied to the page.

Sunday, March 22: Blessed detachment
Monday, March 30: Scene and Sequel
These two posts exemplify the yin and yang of my writer's life. Networking/holing up, crafting/learning, reflecting/living, dreaming/enacting, producing/marketing, responsibility to others/responsibility to self: these sets of dueling needs are a fertile source of conflict in the life of the writer who's in it for the whole wild ride. Just when I've figured out how to tame my schedule to encourage that elusive notion of consistency, one of these duels heats up to wreak havoc. Turns out we are all characters in an unpredictable story. Hallelujah!

Saturday, June 6: While I was underground
Writer or not, if you plan to live fully, you must play the game in a ready stance—you know, like in tennis: knees bent, weight over the balls of the feet, racket at the ready, eyes scanning the horizon for opportunity and peril, weight shifting back and forth to propel you in the direction of the next shot. You gotta try. But watch: it's often when you're fully committed to your forehand that you'll feel the ball zing past your backhand side. This feels unfair—I was ready!—but such reversals are a necessary part of a great story.

Saturday, September 19: What he left behind
Our legacies will define us for future generations. Ron left a legacy of shock and horror. If I choose to write it, my memoir can leave a legacy of perspective and hope. The written word trumps the echo of trauma, paper over rock. For me this post also exemplifies the energy required to boost myself beyond the forces that could have kept me in orbit around a traumatic event. In terms of personal growth, that is rocket science.

Monday, September 28: The illusion of control
Healing is not "getting a grip": it's the opposite. Healing, for me, has been reassembling that flexible ready stance I mentioned above, body part by body part, and regaining the heart to face whatever comes at me next.

Tragedy need not define my life. My role as dance critic defined my relationship with a larger community even as the foundation of Ron's life crumbled beneath him—on the very day of the suicide standoff, for example, my editor at The Morning Call was awaiting a story I was writing on choreographer David Parsons in conjunction with his upcoming performance at Lehigh University.

Saturday, July 10: My lemon crosses America
The blog posts and essays and book-length material that comprise my memoir work, with its theme of how to carry on in the face of tragedy, is as serious as it gets—yet to become whole again one must honor one's whimsical side. Her move across the country was very stressful for my sister, but documenting the lemon's journey was a running gag that afforded much in the way of healing laughter. I can even find meaning in the choice of a lemon to exemplify my sister's journey: its sour taste doesn't mean it isn't good for you.

Forehand or backhand, ready or not, meaning whizzes past us every day. Writing about my life allows me to capture it on the page so I can mine the little stories for the big over-arching story. Finding the structure in that bigger story is in itself healing; what once seemed random is now architecture.

Please check back often, as I hope to update this blog three times per week. In my next post I'll explore why I temporarily stopped writing about my life.