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Halloween, death, and also life

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I have always liked Halloween. I grew up Catholic, and Halloween is followed two days later by All Souls’ Day. That time also includes El Día de Muertos. It is a time for thinking about death and those who have gone into it.

I have been aware of mortality–my own, and everyone’s around me–from a very young age. A cousin died at 10, when I was 2; I don’t know when I first became aware of it, but I was pretty young. (My earliest memory is sitting in our car and seeing her come to the hospital window to wave.) My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 5. My newborn baby brother died when I was 6. (I have a photo of him in his coffin.) A classmate and her younger sister and another child were killed in a car accident the summer after we were in fourth grade. My best friend’s 16-year-old brother was killed in a diving accident when we were about 12.

When I was 5, and again when I was 7, I was seriously ill. I didn’t, I think, know at the time that I might die, but I wasn’t much older before I did realize that I could have. In a way, I think of every day I have had since then as lagniappe.

Death and the possibility of what comes after has always interested me. Being raised as a believer, I envisioned heaven, but I gave that up along with everything else theistic decades ago. The idea of some kind of “survival” after death, however, has continued to fascinate me.

I like cemeteries. So does our younger daughter. Both of us are interested in death, and neither of us fears it. She was quite young when she first told me she wasn’t afraid to die. (This isn’t “nature,” as she is adopted, and while I “nurtured” her interest and acceptance, I don’t think I initiated it.) For me, cemeteries do represent a kind of afterlife; as long as someone, even a stranger taking pictures or doing genealogy, recognizes one’s having existed, one is still “present,” in a sense, in the world. I acknowledge the reasons for not continuing with the burial-and-monument tradition, and I specify cremation for myself for those reasons, but I deeply regret the loss.

I mentioned genealogy there–that’s another of my interests. One of the commercials for Ancestry has a young man saying that you start to feel that you know the people you “meet” in researching, and I agree. For me, it isn’t just knowing “where I come from” except in a very general sense of coming from every human who came before me. The story of how we got to where we are has given me many of my other interests and hobbies throughout my life: studying California history, collecting old bottles (and especially digging for or otherwise finding them in situ), joining historical societies, visiting historical museums, collecting old things in general, exploring ghost towns, reading about the Old West…endless.

In a real sense, the dead are not dead to me, because I picture them (sometimes with literal pictures), I imagine their lives (from their writings or things they left behind), I treasure possessions they once treasured or maybe just used in daily life and discarded. This has helped me, I think, to see a common humanity in everyone–something I have felt from a very young age.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts. The word “ghost” can mean many things. Energy of some form that can be sensed by some living people under some circumstances–I think that’s a possibility. I have experienced some sensitivity to certain places and one very early odd experience, and people whose reports I trust have had experiences that hint at something we can’t otherwise explain. I don’t think that entities conscious of their “being” as the human they were exist, but I like to read fiction that tells how such existence might play out–and who knows?

As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all star stuff. Before we were conceived, the energy and/or material for our existence was there, and after we die some of it persists in some form. That’s enough for me.

Family

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I’ve been trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound smug and doesn’t offend people who aren’t as fortunate. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but here it is:

I am grateful beyond description to the universe, to fate, to any power that might have had a hand in it, for giving me the family I have today.

My family of origin was not a happy one, for reasons that need not be repeated here, but when I hear of the circumstances of some others’ growing-up years, my family looks–especially for its time and place–not so bad at all. As my father, then my brother Dennis, then my mother passed, I was on good terms with all of them, and I miss all of them. And despite our having some political differences (though we have far more core values in common), I have a close relationship with, and much admiration and respect for, my brother Steve and his daughter. I have solid contact with my great-niece and her adoptive sisters, with one nephew’s family, with another nephew.

Jonathan and I see his sister and brother-in-law far too seldom, but we are all compatible and (to the extent I can speak for the others) enjoy each other’s company. My mother-in-law and I are of very different personalities, but we like and respect each other; I felt honored when she once asked me to be the one to accompany her on a short road trip.

In parenting, we seem to have avoided repeating our parents’ mistakes (though we have undoubtedly made our own new and different ones). I am so happy to see that many of my extended family have also done so; some cycles have been broken.

There is no one in his or my extended family that we would not be glad to have a visit with. He has few cousins and I have many, but we would enjoy time with any of them. Sure, there are some we have more in common with (and a few we definitely can’t talk politics with!), but none we don’t want to have contact with. Our kids have friendships with their own cousins and some second cousins.

And closest to home, we have great relationships with our kids, and they with each other.

How did I/we get so lucky? Yes, we try to do our best, and if I may say so, we are good people. But that’s true of many.

I am the most fortunate of humans, and I want to remember that every day.

Music and Me

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I started listening to popular music when my mother played the radio or we watched “Your Hit Parade” on my grandmother’s TV in the early 1950s. I remember “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window,” “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” “I Went to Your Wedding,” “Mona Lisa,” “Mule Train,” and one of my mother’s favorites, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Nat King Cole.

But in 1956, when I was 9, along came a popular song that spoke to me. It was “The Wayward Wind.” I always loved the wind–I still do today. By then we lived next to the railroad tracks: “I guess the sound of the outward bound / Made me a slave to my wandering ways.” I never took up those wandering ways, but the idea, the draw, the urge has never left me.

Then when I was 12 I discovered American Bandstand on TV and KFWB Channel 98 on the radio, and I found my generation’s music. Here’s a list from that year, 1959; I remember almost every one of these, and can still recite at least a line or two from most of them: http://www.musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1959.htm

For my 13th birthday, in 1960, I got a transistor radio! And all kinds of music started to speak to me: fast songs, slow songs, instrumentals, pop music, folk music (and later protest songs), country, western … I liked some of just about everything.

A year later I started high school and joined the band. I had a terrible sense of rhythm, so of course I became a percussionist. (I learned much later that I have a pretty good ear and probably could have done fairly well on an instrument that actually produced notes.) For four years of high school and a year and a half of college, the band was my social group, both in and out of school. Every boy I dated was in the band, at my school or another, till I met my first husband when I was 19.

I wonder how my life would have gone differently had I joined the glee club instead of the band. A couple of my friends who were in the glee club urged me to do so. But when I was in grade school, someone told me that I couldn’t sing well–and I believed it. However, it wasn’t true. And in my junior and senior high school years, I sang alto in the church choir.

I have realized in the course of my advanced years that there are at least two areas that had I really gotten into them, would have taken over my life: music and sailing. Either one of those probably would have been my life, given a chance.

All I Left Behind

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That’s the title of a song written by Emmylou Harris and sung on the album “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions,” by Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt. It tells of the objects the singer “left behind with you along the lost highway.”

What I left behind was my home. Over and over, through my life.

My family lived in five different towns–two of them twice and one of them at least three times–by the time I was 6. We lived in the same house in Cherokee, Iowa, twice–half the second floor and all the third floor of a big old house on a corner lot. The owners lived on the first floor; it was his family’s home. I loved that house, that neighborhood, my friends there, the way our family was while we were there. It was far and away the best place, emotionally, of my childhood, and I lost it twice.

Then when I was 6 we left Iowa completely, and moved to the very foreign land of Southern California–leaving behind a huge extended family, including my beloved Nana, with whom I had spent a lot of time–leaving behind “home” in every sense.

From the time I was 7 till toward the end of my junior year in high school, we lived in one house in Garden Grove. For a kid like me, who needed to escape and be alone a lot, it was great. When we moved in, our one-block tract of homes was almost surrounded by orange groves. Our lot, on the circle end of a cul-de-sac, was 1/3 acre; about half was fenced yard, and the rest was tumbleweeds. I didn’t love the house–it was a small, ordinary ranch house, and we weren’t a happy family–but the outdoors around it was important to me. Even as development grew up around us, we still had a broad railroad right-of-way on one side, all sand and rock and native plants and lizards and horned toads. I came to love the little patch that showed the desert that Southern California really is. But we moved.

The new house, in Tustin, was larger and nicer, and I really liked it. I was allowed to decorate my room to please my late-teens self. We still weren’t a happy family, but I was old enough to be out with friends a lot, and the family seemed to be a tiny bit more peaceful with more space, so we each had our own.

In my first year of college–a nearby community college–my parents separated (they later reconciled), and the house was to be sold. I, attending college and working part time, had the choice of moving to a different place with my mother and younger brothers or getting my own apartment. I chose the latter, but–it wasn’t my choice to leave that house at all.

At 20 I married, and after a couple of years we moved to L.A. for my husband to attend school. I didn’t care about the apartment we left behind, but Orange County had, over those 15 years, become “home,” and I was leaving. It didn’t matter too much, though; L.A. was just an hour’s drive, less if the traffic wasn’t bad.

I had come to love California, particularly the hills, canyons, mountains, and desert. I felt a deep attachment to its history–at one point I planned to make writing about it my life’s work. But, said my husband, now finished with school, I have a better chance of work in Minnesota–and off we went, back to his home, where his family and friends and hometown and lifestyle waited.

We bought a house in Cottagewood, in Deephaven. I put a lot of time and energy into that house–knocking out plaster walls, painting inside and out, refinishing furniture, planting flowers. As I gradually realized that I was no longer living my own life–we were living his life–at least the house felt like me.

But the time came when I knew that I had to give up the marriage or give up myself. Leaving the man was, by that time, not difficult. Leaving another home was–

Today “home” is where my husband and kids are, not a place. Maybe that’s what home always should have been. Or maybe I can’t let it ever be a place again, because I just can’t take losing it again.

I’ve come around to music again. In “I Am, I Said,” Neil Diamond sings, “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” From the first time I heard that, I thought–the places are different, but I know just how that feels.

(Previously published in a slightly different version in my LiveJournal.)

Remembering…

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I still hold in my mind, all these years later, scene after scene, clear and bright and detailed as a perfect photograph. I see the desert light, golden at dawn, intensely white at midday, red at sundown, and the fathomless shadows where the light didn’t reach. I feel the rock-hard pebbled sand surface through my sneaker soles–despite all wisdom, I could never stand hiking boots. I hear the silence of centuries, of eons, of speechless rocks and long-deserted human habitations and animals with no energy to waste on sound. I smell creosote and piñon, the baking wood of old buildings, the hauntingly mundane Bactine smell of the River. I remember the towns of forsaken dreams–Swansea, Planet, Garlock, Goldfield, Salome. I see the first sun-purpled bottle I ever found, lying under a rusting pipe outside an old mine. I see bats by the thousand flying out of their caves at dusk; a tiny sidewinder S-ing across an old grave; a tortoise under a bush that offers the only shade in sight; moths the size of small birds banging against a trailer’s screen door. I remember warnings of a hundred ways to die for a moment’s carelessness: the bottomless black hole of a vertical mineshaft, its top an immense opening in the level ground; the roads barely wide enough for a vehicle’s wheelbase, with a mountain on one side and a dropoff on the other; rattlers, scorpions, gila lizards; thirst; madness.

Maybe that’s why I took to the desert as soon as I encountered it: it was hard and unforgiving, unpredictable, requiring one always to be on the alert. It was what I knew.

Poem for a Trumpeter

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I was looking through some old papers and found this poem. I wrote it when I was 18. It was inspired by one specific person but here it is dedicated to all the trumpeters I’ve loved–there have been several. You know who you are.

*************

head thrown back, eyes closed,
he sits and waits,
hearing silent tones and
holding cold, unfeeling brass

suddenly the moment comes, he
stands and readies
sounds of all life’s unsaid words,
smooth, sad, sweet, and sure

low lonesome keening wail —
laughter in the night —
lies easily told, unrepented —
laments for the voice alone

brass becomes supple flesh
born of unbreathed dreams
broken, braced, and blown
blue midnight without stars

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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