Sunday, May 25, 2014

I know

I know the taste of tears, after twenty seven years the salt of my pain too familiar. Most days I am happy, but there are some when my heart sighs and a hushed memory escapes and releases the genesis of my sorrow. For a time, because of others, I cloaked my heartache and restricted them to private pages. The last time we spoke, you made me promise to never hide what I was feeling, to always be honest, no matter how afraid I might be.  In honor of you, I share.

I know regret. Time wasted, the past that can never be changed. 1:11 a.m., the sweetest gift, an unexpected hello. Words hung in the air, left unspoken. A borrowed record, Billy Joel's She's Got a Way quietly played in the background, a promise when you returned I would hear the words I longed for. You wanted to hold me, look in my eyes; the first time they are said should always be special. You reminded me of the feeling, the kismet of the first time we gazed into each other's eyes. Until your reassurance, I was afraid of the depth of what I felt. We were young, we shared dreams, and we had forever. The fourth Monday in March 1987, my innocence ended, the future shattered. A helicopter crash on a riverbank in the Philippines is where you left this earth, left me.

I know one phone call can change the world, change my life. Your voice, shared laughter, a plan and a promise for the future made my heart sing. A few weeks later, your name and two words, Bobby's dead, dropped me to my knees. The pain swallowed me as my life rushed out.

I know how it feels to inhale but not be able to breathe. My first panic attack, the moment my denial ended and the reality you were never coming home dropped like a guillotine on my soul.  Fear flooded my body, suffocated my heart, the loneliness in the room spun me until I collapsed broken on my bed. It is a desolation I will never be able to describe.

I know the torment of a restless night.  The unanswered why that haunts me, denies me sleep. The solitude of the darkness magnifies the void you left. The emptiness next to me, a reminder of what might have been, should have been.

I know the sheaths of the seasons. In the fall the leaves gently cascade from the trees, dance where you rest, before they settle in the recesses between the grass and the bronze. Winter arrives, its storms blanket you in snow. The rains of spring wash away the coldness and give root to the soft green covers of summer. Your seasonal quilt is not the same as the one you wrapped around us in Pensacola. It does not matter, I will always lie next to you. It is the closest I can get until I hold you again in Heaven.

I know the sensation of forty one characters. My fingers run along your inscription while my heart retraces the memory of you. Remembrances of your touch awaken my soul. Pools of my heartache fall on your rank, embrace your name.

I know how fickle the weather can be on your birthday. The March sun can be warm or the winds can blow hard and cold. The ground can be covered in snow, soft and muddy from rain or covered in fresh grass. The climate will not stop me, I will always visit. The silence of the solemn garden broken as I sing Happy Birthday, make a wish, blow out your candle and then share a cupcake. This past year, the hardest of anniversaries; you have been gone longer than you were here.

I know what it is like to love another. I did as you would want, over time I let go. My heart was conflicted over the wonder and the guilt the first time I shared my bed. After, I cried in the shower, tears of admission, acceptance that your arms would never hold me again.

I know what it is to fear time. Seasons fade my memory. I can hear your voice in my heart, but some days I can no longer remember what it sounds like. I close my eyes and some nights you are vivid, wonderfully alive as we dance. Others, only fragments of you appear in my dreams. I am afraid age will steal the clarity, the wonder of you. Scared, memories will be eclipsed by the darkness of time.

I know the cost of freedom. My heart knows it all too well.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Happy Birthday John Steinbeck

"In utter loneliness, a writer ties to explain the inexplicable." - John Steinbeck

Great books are not meant to be read then discarded like bad memories to collect dust on the shelves of Good Will. They are essays of life. They cannot be graded, for an A would do them injustice. They are simply, immortality on paper.

A good writer leaves traces of himself within each word, between each paragraph and engraved on each page.  Steinbeck was a master at evoking empathy for people and places unknown. His life experiences, beliefs, and love live on between the covers of his masterpieces. His soul is a part of the American conscience.

"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen." - The Winter of Our Discontent

His characters were honest, authentic; portraying them not as the images people believed they knew or saw every day but as they were. He gave his characters interactions and dialogue so raw many critics would claim his works were obscene, rather than admit they were the truth of the time.

He understood the three evils; isolation, loneliness and weakness. They destroy the soul and kill the American dream. People need, not only to be loved, but, a place to be. A home; whatever definition it holds within one's heart.

"There is more beauty in truth, even when its dreadful beauty." - East of Eden

Steinbeck often exposed what he believed to be America's shame and inequality. The naked, unabashed endeavor for much of America to survive. He documented the constant struggle between good and evil, the moral and amoral, the strong and weak, the weak and the weakest. He illustrated the clocked humanity verses the acknowledged society that was 'seen'. The consequence; many of his greatest works were burned then banned. Even today many still  challenge his writings in attempt to keep them from being read.

"To finish is a sadness to a writer - a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn't really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done." - John Steinbeck

The power and imagery of Steinbeck's words are boundless. My first realization of his influence, the endurance of his characters, places and times was in 1988 while I strolled along Cannery Row.

The eighties Ocean Avenue, the version I saw,  a scenic peaceful post card. The personification of a California tourist attraction, nothing like the riotous, rowdy, dismal Depression era Steinbeck depicted. The voices of his characters and the by gone places came to life as I walked along the now charming little piece of Monterey.

The shops, restaurants, aquarium, a tribute to Steinbeck's underlying message, there is beauty in all things ugly. With time, the elegance will be exposed be it a place or a person's soul.

The dreams, the tin, the stink, the desperation, the flop house, the honky tonks, the grocery store, the nostalgia, the saints, the sinners, the doc, the boys, the artist and the whore were all vivid and alive. Their ghostly vignettes dotted the row as I spent my afternoon by the water.

The sea lions frantic honks echoed from the bay, through Cannery Row to the parking lot. They caused me to turn and look after I buckled my daughter into her car seat. I smiled.  The sun was lowering in the afternoon sky, the hints of the evening shades were beginning to paint the horizon. In the hues of orange and red I could hear Doc's opera, hear his voice recite the Sanskirt poem to his guests in the final chapter of Cannery Row.
"Even now
I know that I have savored the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light- "  - Cannery Row

My life was vastly different than Steinbeck's characters. Yet that afternoon, as the sun shone on my face I was reminded even in our inequalities, I shared a lot with them. I too was sad and broken. I was a lost soul, resigned to my recent fate of loneliness.

Not many writers can bring a place so dead back to life so vibrantly, connect the souls of one era to another. Steinbeck had that gift.  He truly was/is one of the greatest American writers.

Happy Birthday Mr. Steinbeck!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Photographs; A Collage of Memories

Fragments of time, they cover my walls, adorn my dresser, sit next to me as I write. Snapshots that cause me to remember, laugh, smile and at times cry.  A collection of moments, scattered vignettes, glimpses of where I came from, reminders of the love that transformed me, made me who I am. Portraits spanning over a hundred years; sepia tones, black and white, and vibrate Kodachrome encompass me. Beautiful reflections captured, framed, treasured and loved; everlasting memories that will survive long after I have left this earth.

A photo floats in a glass frame. In the background, a small wave is rushing in from the Atlantic, small shells dot the wet sand, bits of sea grass pierce through the white foam as it recedes back into the ocean. Sitting center stage, against summer's backdrop, my daughter, Kathryn, and grandson, Cole. The loves of my life.

My daughter's hair is pulled back, a few loose strands silhouette her sun kissed cheeks, accentuating her sad eyes and playful frown. My little girl's whimsical pout cannot mask the truth, she is all grown up. A brightly colored shark hat shades my grandson's face, casting a shadow across his tears. At a year old, the ocean is too big, too loud and too scary, even in his mom's arms.  The moment captured for eternity, Cole's reaction to the Ocean greeting his toes for the first time.

A series of white framed 8 x 10s displayed against a vibrant purple background are testament to my daughter's patience and perseverance. Cole running along the beach, exploring the sand searching for seashells, watching dogs play in the surf. Proof love and time can conquer all fears.

Cherished photos of people I have never met stare back at me. Their journey, their love is a part of my soul.

In the midst of ambers, beiges and browns is a photograph of a chubby baby in a long white dress. He sits on the lap of a large woman. Her hair is pulled into a tight bun. Her tailored white shirt and long dark skirt are hints at her stern German upbringing. Behind them a beautiful young girl with a short bob. The only thing bigger than the bow in her hair is the collar on her blouson checkered dress. I smile at her Mary Janes, remembering how much I loved mine. On the other side of the woman, stands a young boy. His bow tie barely visible, he looks uncomfortable in his knickers and dark stockings. The occasion for the family portrait, my grandfather's christening. A joyous celebration yet all they expressions are sullen. The portrait taken at a time when smiles were not acceptable on celluloid. "People of good character did not grin, smirk, or, smile."

Directly underneath hangs a faded color Poloroid from Guadalcanal, 1944. My grandfather left for war when my mother was one, returned when she was five. A year later, in 1946, my grandfather died at the age of 36 while stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. My mother was too young at the time and  has no memories of him.

I should know my grandfather's voice, recognize his laughter but I don't. His embrace should have been a part of my childhood but it wasn't. He is a stranger to me, yet as I stare at him he is not. Standing in line with the other officers of the Quartermaster Corps on the beach of Guadalcanal I see my nephew's stance. My mom and sister have his blue eyes. My daughter shares the same rosiness in her cheeks when she smiles. His photograph reminds me there is a part of my grandfather in all of us, and so, in a way I know him well.

When people remark I don't look my age I am reminded of a simple black frame that holds a stoic portrait of my great grandparents, Jacob and Amanda Jane. Jacob's bushy mustache, pronounced ears, and slicked back hair make him look more like Wyatt Earp than a turn of the century Iowa farmer. The bump on his nose is the giveaway to his roots; it is a definite male Robinson trait. The image of my great grandmother stunning, my Aunt Jane, her namesake, is an almost identical reflection of her beauty.

Most amazing, the photograph was taken when my great grandparents were in their late fifties. Jacob farmed all his life and Amanda Jane had given birth to eleven children.  Together they raised their family in a small Iowa farm house, not an easy life, yet nary a winkle on either face. Proof the way we age is a product of genetics not cosmetics. Or, could it be, love is the best anti-ager?

One of my favorite photographs I was not part of the moment and have no memory of the time or place it was taken. I love it because it gives me a glimpse into the life of the man I love (and lost) while we were apart.

Inside the bamboo frame sits a photograph of Bobby, taken while he was on cruise, during a Navy tradition called steel beach. Aviator sunglasses, bare-chested, black jams with bright flowers, holding a microphone and singing with a band on the flight deck. He was most definitely 'Officer and a Gentleman' handsome. Even now he takes my breath away.

Most days I smile when I gaze at him. I confess there are days, usually in March, when his image brings tears to my eyes. The photograph, the moment, I was not a part of, reminds me of one I was; the first time Bobby sang to me. Thirty years have passed yet the night seems like a blink ago. The memory so alive, I can still feel traces of his heartbeat, see reflections of us in the mirror as we danced. Carefree, doors cast open, the ocean breeze swirling around us as we turned, the moon casting our shadows across the room as he serenaded me with Springsteen. Life was large and beautiful.

I often reach out and touch his picture. What I wouldn't give to hear his voice again, share one more dance, have one more photograph to place on my wall. There is no sorrow, I am truly lucky to have the memories I do.

My healing photograph is displayed in a brown frame with an off white mat insert. The trees in the outdoor chapel created a lush green backdrop for the portrait of my father cradling my daughter at her baptism. Dad's crew cut showing the first hints of gray. Kathryn's short flowing white dress pops against Dad's favorite tan Guayabera shirt.  Kathryn's feet in their lace trimmed socks kicking at his little belly bulge. Dad is healthy and strong.

After his death I clung to the photo, looked at it often, trying to erase the memory of his cancer ridden body. For five years I watched cancer whittle away his 6'3", 210 pound frame down to 135 pounds. My mind was haunted by the helpless feeling cancer gave me. I needed to remember Dad before cancer, when he was most alive, when he was with his buddy, Kathryn.

When Kathryn was younger, she would run and jump into Dad's arms. He carried her on his shoulders, in his arms, on his back, upside down, right side up, every way imaginable. Her giggles, his cadence as he walked. Kathryn was Grandpa's little girl, and she was the light of his life. I often joked Dad was the oldest kid on the block. To survive, I needed to remember him strong and playful. The photographs on my wall, exorcised the cancer from my memory.

As I type I look around me and I see my daughter, grandson, birthdays, graduations, weddings, regattas, football games, cheerleading teams, dances, Christmas, Easter, cousins, nephews, my sister, parents, family reunions; so many imagines creating a halo of love. Reminders of the many blessings God has given me. Memories I have clung to during the hard days.

I treasure my collections of 3x5, 5x7 and 8x10s, the patchwork of browns, blacks, pewter, and whites that decorate my apartment. My prayer, as I grow older my collage of memories expands and continue to give me inspiration and guidance as I commit memories to paper.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Writer's Block- Accepting What Was

Since the beginning of November I have been suffering from writer’s block and bouts of insomnia. Each night I would spend hours writing, only to discard the pages before heading to bed. My brain would agonize over the repeated failed attempts to start writing this particular chapter. 

My mind refusing to shut off, would sort through the interactions of the past year(s), grasping for anything that would allow me to do what I have been trying to do since I first began my book; merge what I thought I meant to one person, how I viewed him, to how it actually was and how it all led to my purgatory in January 1984.
The impossible tasks I gave myself, not only to abrogate the sin I have carried for so long, but record what I have refused to speak of or acknowledge. Somehow compose the wonderful, the ugly, the happy, and the transgression into sentences, paragraphs, and pages; a well written completed chapter.
Trying to define two characters, particularly one, was proving more difficult than I imagined. My problem, how do I keep him likable when he allowed the unthinkable to happen? Will my words be enough for the reader to understand both were good men, taught to live by the same code but only one was truly a man of honor? Perhaps the reason I can’t properly bring his character to life is because I have not fully absolved him for what happened? In order to forgive, I must acknowledge it, own it, am I ready to do that?  
One might ask, why is it so hard? Everything that was and wasn’t between Bobby and I was set in January 1984. Our fates with each other were sealed by the acts of others. It was what bound Bobby and I; my confession. It was the secret he took to his grave, the reason he swore no matter what he would always be here. It is why I always wondered, was it his sense of duty and obligation that kept him coming back, the knowledge he had or were we always meant to be together? Was it, as he said, something he always knew? The root, the complexities of it all, begin in this chapter. The one I am afraid to author.
When I first began my book, the stress of trying to portray everyone fairly, reliving every moment was too daunting, so I skipped the chapter and proceeded to the next. Now I must find the words that have eluded me and finish my book.  My frustration growing with every failed attempt.
Last night was the same, hours spent struggling to camouflage enough of the truth so certain people would not be seen as who/how they really were. After deleting seventeen or so pages I lay in bed staring at the wall, then the ceiling, next the door and finally reaching for the photo tucked behind my iPod on my nightstand. Praying his photo will ease my confusion. As I shifted from one position to the next, my brain shuffled through question after question until they seemed to swirl above my bed and haunt me.  Why was it so hard writing what was?
A hint of light was beginning to peek through the transom when I gave up the notion of sleep. Hoping my confusion and weariness would somehow filter out in a coherent form I turned on my computer. I was wrong. Frustration came quickly. Type a few letters then hit backspace, backspace, backspace. Join a few words, finish a sentence then highlight and delete; the maddening cycle was repeating. His character and mine, our relationship still not melding, the truth lost beneath the sugar coated illusion I was trying to create. One I had clung to for many years.
I closed word, pulled out a few pieces of his mail from when he was at the Academy and in flight school. I signed onto Facebook and Gmail to read the last couple years of correspondence. As the sun rose an epiphany occurred. I stared at his letters, remembering all that happened between us. The boldness of the truth screaming between the lines, his words were hollow. As empty as the love he gave me. I loved him but in 1983/84 I was never sure if he really loved me. Every I love you he wrote was followed by a but; real love never has a qualifier.  Why was I afraid to show the lopsidedness of our relationship? Thirty years later, was it my pride stopping me from conceding the truth?
He may have said he loved me countless times, written it a hundred more yet his actions proved otherwise. Reality, he was the only person who could have stopped what happened and he didn’t. As much as I want to cling to the idea I meant everything to him, he treated me well, I can’t. He may be a good man now but in 1984 he was a confused self-centered jackass and I was an immature fool who believed my love would change him. We were both young, na├»ve and stupid. I had no trouble portraying myself as such, why couldn't I do the same with him? 
Reading his letters I understood, I couldn’t connect with his character because I was writing how I wanted everyone to perceive him, our relationship, not how it actually was. My blindness, my stupidity, put in place the circumstances that gave a truly wonderful man guilt he did not deserve. Regret that should have been carried by him, Bobby borne willingly. Did he do so because they were friends or because Bobby and I would become lovers? The questions ricocheted in my mind while my writing was gridlocked.
The sun was halfway through the morning sky when I read a passage in my journal from 30 January 1984, “Why didn’t you look for me? Do you care? You turned your back on my tears. Did you ever love me? I will always love you but more than anything I wish I’d never met you.”
My journal from thirty years ago reminding me of the damage he had done, how badly he hurt me. Peace would only come with the truth. My twenty year old self demanding I show him how he truly was, not the illusion developed over the years. In 1984 I loved and hated him at the same time.  I finally comprehended It was okay to show the side I hated, the part of him that was conflicted. I was trying to characterize him, us as perfect, when none of us were. 
If we had been perfect, I would have never been damaged so deeply and Bobby wouldn't have had to put me back together. The difference I needed to show between the two. Bobby never said or wrote he loved me, but he proved it through perseverance. Something he never did. 
In 1987 I let the truth be buried with Bobby. One of the reasons I decided to write, to let everything finally be told.  I owe him that much. I owe him more, I owe him my life.
Now that I have accepted it all for what it was, the words are flowing once again.