Why I would stop freelancing tomorrow if I could.

Because I am 49. Because I have two children. Because I have a mortgage. Because I need to sleep. Because I do not live in New York or Washington.

Because networking is difficult in the middle of the prairie. Because I’m talented and I know it. Because begging to have one’s talents recognized, much less used, is demoralizing. Because doing so for the better part of a quarter of a century is even more so.

Because the media industry’s business model is now rooted in free or near-free labor. Because not paying people is reprehensible. Because expecting creatives to produce their art, edit their art, fact-check their art, promote their art, and support their art, almost entirely on their own, is not only ridiculous, it’s very bad for the product being peddled.

Because I chose to be unsure when I could have made choices. Because I chose to tend to babies when I could have chosen to work differently. Because everyone makes mistakes, occasionally never knowing which choices were mistakes. Because I’m tired.

The tiny world that is foreign policy/Middle East writing found out on Monday that Open Zion, the outlet at which I’ve hung my hat for the past year and a half, will “sunset” at the end of the year. I’ve known that this was coming but wanted to allow the powers that be to tell the world on their own terms and in their own time; alas, as is the way with news, when a bunch of people know something, that information will find its way to the public.

For reasons that have to do with the weird way I’ve lived my life (early career spent in a foreign country; mid-career spent an ocean + half a country away from the first place), choices I made about parenting and activism, and no doubt a certain gormlessness, as well as the death of print, the Great Recession, and the general difficulty that has always attended a life in the arts, my career has not gone as I might have wanted it to. Open Zion was the single most steady gig I’ve ever had with my by-line attached, and without wanting to put too fine a point on it, it’s a blog. Extrapolate out from there what you will about money made and influence wielded.

If I were 27, or possibly even 37, this would look a lot different. But I am not. I am 49. I have two kids. I have a mortgage. I need to sleep. And I do not live in New York or Washington.

Having the luxury of being home when my kids walk in from school is worth more than any of this to me, and that is part of why I am where I am. But I would do almost any job in the world if it would allow me to maintain that, and stop freelancing.

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A house – in memory.

Two years ago today, a beloved and wonderful man died. I wrote this for him and his daughter, my oldest friend in the world, and I post it again today in his memory. I miss his laugh, the laugh that would fill rooms and call over strangers. I miss his words, his stream, his rushing river of words. I miss his whistle. I miss him. He didn’t believe in heaven, but I hope that he has found whatever rest any of us may find after this world.

There’s this house.

It’s at the bottom of a hill, to the left and in a small valley, as you drive north on Wisconsin State Highway 23. If you come over the hill at night, you’ll see the lights in the windows, an amber glow under more stars than you’ll ever see in a Chicago sky.

The house is small. The kitchen floor is rough and unfinished, the wallpaper torn here and there. There’s a terrible Christmas clock hung on one wall because it met a need and now serves to amuse. The house smells of wood stove heat and cooking, and of the earth that washes off vegetables fresh in from the fields.

The fields belong to the house, and they rise and fall gently with the valley, rows neat, the order that people bring to nature so that they can feed themselves. It’s a farm that feeds many, and the house watches over the rows and the people working in them.

One of the people is a seven year old boy who was born on the farm, in the house, coming into the world with clear eyes and a smile that is like fresh water. He and his brother are growing here, they go to school inside the house (as their sister did until she went away to school), they play Legos here, and they eat and eat and eat. There is always a plate of something, somewhere. And if you don’t finish it, don’t worry, someone else will get around to it.

There is also, right now, today, someone dying here, the grandfather with whom the seven year old shares a name. He is 69 and after decades of housing a spirit so large it could hardly be contained, his body is all that’s left. Soon, it too will be gone. Right now the little boy and his brother play 20 feet away, and stew is made in the kitchen, and someone sits and watches and holds the grandfather’s hand, telling him, again, that he can go as soon as he needs to. That we do not want to hold him.

The house is so large, in its smallness, so blessed and full of blessing. In the middle — no, not really: In the everywhere, in all the corners and all the rooms, on the stairs, at the door, lifting a body small, or weak, spreading a blanket over a child, or a man — is a woman with long hair falling over her shoulders, her nails clipped short for they are often in the dirt, her arms spread as wide as she can get them around the world and all the everyone and the everything that she can reach.

Occasionally — not often enough — she sits with a cup of tea and lets the house shelter and bless her as much as she and it have blessed others. As one life ends, and all the others carry on.

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

Brett F. Moore died on March 6, 2010, at about the time that I was writing the above. I loved him, and I miss him more than I can say. I am so very grateful to have had him in my life. May his memory be for a blessing יהי זכרו ברוך

Davy Jones, 1945-2012

See update, below.

Genuine sorrow over here: Davy Jones has died of a heart attack, aged 66.

I loved him once, as only a very little girl can, with a kind of ache that would sit on my little girl heart whenever I saw his beautiful face. His voice was lovely, and he and his Monkee friends are, I’m sure, a big part of why I have such a big place in my heart for absurdist humor. Because if you think The Monkees was just a little kids’ show? Look again. It was madness. Wonderful, inspiring madness.

But in the family and in the home in which I live as a 47 year old, Davy is best known for his collaboration with children’s author Sandra Boynton (also a purveyor of absurdist humor, if you think about it) on the song “Your Personal Penguin.” He sings the part of the penguin.

So in his memory, in real gratitude for his pop presence in my life, and with tears in my eyes, I offer you this: Davy Jones, singing “Your Personal Penguin.” May he rest in peace – may his memory be for a blessing.

*

Update: Sandra Boynton has responded to the sad news:

Davy Jones. Not possible. My first crush. I dreamed, along with everyone else, that he could be my Personal Penguin. Oh. A wonderful man.

So nice to hear that he was, in fact, “a wonderful man.”

Please help Troy Davis’s family.

Troy Davis & his family in a picture taken before the prison cut off "contact visits."

Readers of this blog will remember that I spent a few weeks this fall laser-focused on the case of Troy Davis, an innocent man on Georgia’s Death Row who, despite all evidence against him crumbling over the course of his incarceration, was executed on September 21. You can read the pieces I placed in The Atlantic online here: “Explaining the death penalty to my children” and here: “Troy Davis and the reality of doubt.”  You’ll find the post I wrote the day after Troy was murdered here.

I spent several weeks laser-focused on the Troy Davis case, but some people have spent several years, such as my friend Jen Marlowe. Working with Amnesty International, she did everything from producing a powerful series of videos telling his story, to counting signatures calling for the state of Georgia to spare his life. She came to know and love the Davis family, and her work on their behalf continues — in no small part because their tragedies didn’t end with Troy’s execution.

Indeed, the tragedies didn’t even start there. Troy’s mother Virginia died suddenly in April 2011, a death her daughter Martina was sure was a result of simple heartbreak over Troy’s failure to win a commutation of his sentence. Martina herself had been struggling with breast cancer for a decade when Troy was killed; two months after burying her brother, Martina herself died. The boy they all left behind, De’Jaun Davis-Correia, is an outstanding high school student who looked up to his uncle as a father-figure and is today hoping to attend Georgia Tech, where he wants to major in industrial engineering. It is a sign of the strength and the beauty of this family that De’Jaun is already a dedicated death penalty activist, and has been named by The Root as one of its “25 Young Futurists” for 2012. I cannot imagine how he gets up in the morning, much less makes plans.

But sorrow and loss aren’t the end of it. Three funerals in the space of seven months and years of cancer-related hospitalizations have resulted in bills that would overwhelm anyone.

For that reason, Jen (who is currently working on a book about Troy and Martina) is raising funds for the Davis family. Here’s the letter she sent out this week:

The Davis family lost three warriors for justice in the past seven months. Virginia Davis, the matriarch of the family, passed in April, just two weeks after the US Supreme Court denied Troy’s final appeal, paving the way for the state of Georgia to set a new execution date. According to Martina, her mother died of a broken heart–she couldn’t bear another execution date. Troy was executed on September 21, despite an international outcry over executing a man amid such overwhelming doubt. Troy’s sister and staunchest advocate, Martina, succumbed to her decade-long battle with cancer on December 1, exactly two months after her brother Troy’s funeral, leaving behind a teenaged son.

There are still outstanding medical and funeral bills that the Davis family must pay.

The Davis family has had to bear more tragedy and sorrow than any family should ever have to. Together, we can ensure that the financial aspect of these losses will not be a burden to them.

I have set up a simple way to contribute online to the family. I hope you will choose to help, and that you will share this information with others. All you have to do is click this link: https://www.wepay.com/donations/fund-for-troy-davis-s-family Any amount will be highly appreciated and will help them greatly!

Please circulate this information to others you think may be interested in helping.

Any questions can be directed to Jen Marlowe at donkeysaddle [at] gmail [dot] com.

In solidarity with all the Davis family has been fighting for and in sorrow for all they have had to endure,
Jen Marlowe
Troy Davis Campaign

If you are in a position to help, please do so. As Jen says, any amount will be helpful, and in the end, all the little amounts add up. Please also pass the word along to any and all who might be able to join in the effort.

Troy Davis is not here to help his family through this ordeal — those of us who fought for his life must now do so for him.

Three giants passed yesterday – I knew about one of them.

I understand, to some extent, the fact that the world and everyone in it has been consumed with the news of Steve Jobs’ death. I’m not an Apple head, but I can recognize genius when I see it — and lord knows, there are plenty of Apple heads out there. I’m glad, on a human level, that Mr. Jobs was able to be involved with the work he loved up until the very end, and I hope his passing was easy. Other than that, and with great respect, I don’t know that the world needs me trying what to figure out what to say about his death.

Fred Shuttlesworth

However, two other American giants also died yesterday, two men of whom I had literally never heard before, and it might well be because of Steve Jobs’ death that I paid special attention to theirs, learning about their lives as a result.

The first was The Rev. Mr. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights pioneer known for bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to Birmingham, for surviving multiple attempts on his life, and for never, ever giving up. Here’s some NPR’s obituary:

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pioneer of the civil rights movement, died Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. Shuttlesworth led Birmingham’s battle against segregation — a battle that focused the national spotlight on the violent resistance to equal rights in the South and forced change. He was 89.

As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation. That belief was the driving force behind Shuttlesworth’s crusade for equality.

“He was the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement,” Georgia Rep. John Lewis said. It was Birmingham, he said, that brought the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in,” Lewis said. “He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation.”

When an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded a new organization: the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. A year later, he helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The activities came with a price. He was repeatedly jailed. His home and church were bombed. But Shuttlesworth didn’t back down.

“Instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klansman,” Shuttlesworth told the documentary Eyes on the Prize, “I said to the Klansman police that came — he said, ‘Reverend, if I were you I’d get out of town fast.’ I said, ‘Officer, you’re not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.’ ”

Another close call came at the hands of a mob in 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school.

“They really thought if they killed me — the Klansmen did — that the movement would stop, because I remember they were saying, ‘This is the leader. Let’s get this SOB; if we kill him it will all be over,’ ” Shuttlesworth recalled in a 1987 interview with NPR’s Susan Stamberg.

After being struck with brass knuckles and bicycle chains, Shuttlesworth said, the doctor was amazed he wasn’t in worse shape.

“I said, ‘Well, doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head,’ ” he said.

One of his last public appearances was at a celebration of President Obama’s inauguration, called “Where History Meets Hope.”

“We get to live free here today because of the work of this man. We celebrate the election of our president because of the work of this man. Give this man the honor he deserves,” Cedric Sparks with the Birmingham mayor’s office said.

Shuttlesworth came out in a wheelchair, a small American flag tucked into his breast pocket, too frail to speak.

The city of Birmingham plans to include his burial site on its Civil Rights Trail.

Derrick Bell

The second was Derrick Bell, a law professor and civil rights advocate who, the Times says, “was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them,” in protest over racial disparities. These resignations included leaving the Department of Justice in his 20s , over their insistence that he give up his NAACP membership, and leaving Harvard (where he was the first black tenured professor) over hiring practices. Here’s a passage from the New York Times obituary:

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who saw persistent racism in America and sought to expose it through books, articles and provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 80.

Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote that in light of the often violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools.

He was a pioneer of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition.

Mr. Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy,” said Lani Guinier, the first black woman hired to join the Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday.

At a rally while a student at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

Much of Professor Bell’s scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables and allegories about race relations, then debated their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who forced him to confront the truth about racism in America.

Not everyone welcomed the move to storytelling in legal scholarship. In 1997 Richard Posner, the conservative law professor and appeals court judge, wrote in The New Republic that “by repudiating reasoned argumentation,” scholars like Professor Bell “reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.”

Professor Bell’s narrative technique nonetheless became an accepted mode of legal scholarship, giving female, Latino and gay scholars a new way to introduce their experiences into legal discourse. Reviewing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” in The New York Times, the Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote: “The stories challenge old assumptions and then linger in the mind in a way that a more conventionally scholarly treatment of the same themes would be unlikely to do.”

Mr. Bell expressed doubts about his legacy, [writing]: “It is not easy to look back over a long career and recognize with some pain that my efforts may have benefited my career more clearly than they helped those for whom I have worked.”

But Professor Guinier, who continues to teach at Harvard, differed with that view. “Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers,” she said on Wednesday. “But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”

I am grateful to live in a world and raise children in a world made better by the likes of Steve Jobs, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Derrick Bell. May their memories be for a blessing, and may all who loved them find comfort.

יהי זכרם ברוך

Jack Layton’s final words.

On an Ottawa sidewalk.

I’m not Canadian, and though I’ve recently tried to get a little bit more abreast of Canadian politics and culture (starting with the wonderful Canada! How does it work?, by Canadian extraordinaire Michelle Dean, at The Awl), I will confess that I had only the vaguest notion of who Jack Layton was before he died of cancer this week at age 61.

Who he was, was leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, but by all accounts, Jack Layton was also much more than that. I’m only beginning to learn, but I’ve learned enough to wish that I could have voted for him, and that he might still be alive and well up north of me, making the world a better, more loving place.

I say “loving” because commenter corkingiron tells us that Mr. Layton apparently advised the men with whom he worked to use words like “love” and “compassion” and “nurture” more often, and the barrage of quotes that Mr. Layton’s admirers are now sending around the internet feature the word “love” quite a lot. Love — in politics. Now that is a concept to bring tears of gratitude to my eyes.

At any rate, I wanted to share the above picture of what are being referred to as Mr. Layton’s final words — for, knowing that he was dying, he wrote a letter to Canada just this past Saturday. It was released within hours of his death on Monday — the above are the words with which he chose to close his farewell. (I’m thinking that whoever chalked those words on the sidewalk must have done so as part of the larger ad hoc memorial outside of Toronto’s City Hall, but I don’t know for sure).

The entire letter is a beautiful thing, both in the writer’s clear desire to continue to help the people and causes in which he believed as they continue to work to achieve their real-world goals, and in his simultaneous ability to transcend party and politics and appeal to all who might be reading his words, particular those who might be struggling with cancer. It made me think of Lincoln, frankly, and I urge you to read it, and I thank commenter JHarper2 for providing it in yesterday’s open thread. You might want also to read these tributes, left in today’s open thread by caoil: An open letter to my generation and A Tribute to Jack Layton (from the White Ribbon Campaign, “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women”). Clearly, Mr. Layton was well-loved, and with good reason.

What really slays me is that as he lay dying, he wrote in the future tense.

My friends, love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.
And we’ll change the world.

*********

Update: Please also check out this blog by the woman who brought the chalk to Toronto City Hall in the first place, and then click on this gobsmacking picture of the square in front of city hall, post-chalk (both thanks to my Twitter pal @rosefox).

h/t Paul Dewar, Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and New Democrat Foreign Affairs Critic.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Hug those you love.

I promised last night that I would be writing about Israel’s social protests, but that will have to wait, because in the meantime I’ve learned of a death in the family and find I need to write about other things. (It’s the beauty of having a teeny-tiny, personal blog: The blogger doesn’t have to put on her game face if she doesn’t want to).

Peggy was my mother’s cousin, and thus a somewhat distant cousin to me, someone with whom I have had very little contact in my adult life, almost all of that via email.

But she was a regular figure in my tumultuous childhood, a person we saw at family events or from whom we got the occasional letter, someone who was unfailingly warm, and welcoming, and as my mother said this morning, encompassing. She was one of those adults who was able to get down to eye-level with a kid, and make that kid feel like she had no place she’d rather be.

Her husband, Gene, is cut of the same cloth, and as a child, without any way of knowing the least thing about their relationship, I saw them as a unit — a warm, welcoming, encompassing unit. And they were fun and funny, too, and for a kid in any adult-heavy situation, “fun and funny” is something very valuable indeed.

I remember vaguely liking Peggy and Gene’s kids, Jeff and Megan, but never got to know them well enough to really form a relationship. They’re older than me, or younger than me, and up until adulthood, that can serve as a real barrier. I do know that I felt a certain small jealousy of their family and their parents. I do know it seemed that they had something beautiful that was worth having.

So I can’t say that I’ll miss Peggy in any real sense. I haven’t seen her in time out of mind, and for reasons that made all the sense in the world, we were genuinely out of touch.

But I will sorely miss knowing that she is out there, being her kind and funny self. I will miss imagining her smile, and the way were beautiful eyes crinkled up as the smile spread. I am sorry that it made all the sense in the world for us not to be in touch. I would have liked to keep up with her, and I know she would have liked to keep up with me. After all, she was always the one who made the effort.

I’ve been lucky so far. Other than my father — dead when I was ten months old and too young to do a thing about it — I’ve lost no one to whom I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye, no one about whom I feel any measure of extra sorrow or regret because I didn’t get a chance to say or do what I needed to say or do.

But there are people in my life who, if they were to die tomorrow, I would know I hadn’t done my best. We don’t always get a chance to say goodbye (the fact that I always have is nothing short of miraculous, probably), and we don’t always get advance warning. Especially not when many of the people you love have passed their 70th birthday.

Upon hearing of a death, the people in my circle (both close and writ large) tend to say: Hug those close to you.

And I have been hugging people, and speaking of my love, since learning of Peggy’s passing, but I want to do more. When I reach my own grave I want to know that I have tried my best to genuinely be in the lives of the people I love. I regret not having made more of an effort with Peggy. She was a lovely woman, and I lost a real opportunity to have a lovely relationship. I want not to feel, at my own life’s end, that I have failed the people who matter to me.

Of course, no matter what we do, there will always be something — some conversation never finished, some compliment never given. Life is never neat. But we can at least know that we’ve made our best effort. And starting today, I’m going to try harder to make sure my best effort really is my best.

Rest in peace, Peggy. You were loved, even by those you hadn’t seen in years.

Amy Winehouse – may her memory be for a blessing.

UPDATE: Please also read Russell Brands’ deeply moving essay about Winehouse, the nature of addiction, and what it’s like to love an addict: “When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call.”

*****

I can’t tell you why, exactly, Amy Winehouse’s downward spiral so grabbed my heart, but I know that it did. I remember reading her 2007 Rolling Stone interview and feeling like – this isn’t rebellion. This isn’t rock-n-roll. This is a fucking death watch, and no one will say it out loud.

Later that summer, though, Winehouse found herself trying rehab for the first time. I wrote the following for the Chicago Tribune, and I remember writing it in a state bordering on fury. Addiction isn’t some sort of glorious debauchery, it isn’t an expression of genius, and it isn’t fucking theater. It’s a terminal illness, and a pretty fucking horrible one at that.

I cried when I learned of Winehouse’s death earlier today — I don’t know that would have cried if it had been Charlie Sheen, or Lindsay Lohan. Something about her touched me, and I am so deeply saddened that she was unable to find her way back to life. I hope that she is now, finally, resting in peace.

יהיה זכרה ברוך – May her memory be for a blessing, and may her family find comfort among the mourners of Zion.

“Severe exhaustion” – Rock n’ roll’s fatal flaw

It’s well known that in rock ‘n’ roll, along with the sex, you’re supposed to do drugs. Or at least hit the bottle good and hard.

Keith Richards’ supposed excesses are regular fodder for insiderish jokes. Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx recalls actually hoping, as a young musician, to become an addict. Singer, hard-partier, and recent Lollapalooza draw Amy Winehouse climbed the charts this summer declaring that she wasn’t gonna go to rehab, no, no, no. Fans and critics appeared oddly satisfied with her unabashed dissolution. That’s rock ‘n’ roll!

But on Wednesday, three days after her turn in Grant Park, Winehouse was briefly hospitalized for “severe exhaustion” — or according to the British tabloids The Sun and Daily Mirror, a possible drug overdose.

“Amy got a massive fright,” the Daily Mirror quotes a “close friend” as saying. “[She] is finally coming round to everybody’s pleading with her to go to rehab.”

Never say never.

Of course we’re all over such reports. We gossip and gape, and assure ourselves that we, at least, aren’t that bad. We relish the fall of the mighty, as we warm to the occasional tale of redemption. Rock ‘n’ roll is a spectacle, and what more grandiose show is there than a raw descent into hell?

As lesser mortals, we also get some satisfaction: All that seedy indulgence may lead to creative genius — but at least the world doesn’t know the results of my latest urine test.

Here’s the thing, though: The drugs, as The Verve once sang, don’t work.

Thirty years before Amy Winehouse landed in a London hospital, Elvis Presley died, destroyed by a well-documented, mind-boggling addiction to a rainbow of prescription drugs. On Aug. 16, 1977, the once-beautiful body of a man whose voice changed the world finally gave up, and an incomparable talent was lost to us forever.

We’ll never again have the privilege of feeling that voice rocket through our veins and fill our hearts with rough beauty. Nor will we ever know what Janice Joplin might have done if she’d seen her 30th birthday, or Kurt Cobain, if heroin hadn’t ruined him long before that shotgun blast.

Nor, I would argue, will we ever know what other surpassing truths the Beatles might have wrestled out of the air, through their hands and into our ears, if John Lennon hadn’t dropped so much acid, and then become a (temporary) dope fiend, while the rest of the Fab Four did their own little chemical experiments. Substance abuse cuts a pretty wide swath of destruction, even if the abuser doesn’t actually wind up dead. Even, it should be added, if the abuser isn’t famous.

Every interview I’ve read about Amy Winehouse indicates that, in addition to being enormously talented, she’s a young woman stumbling through an excruciatingly troubled life. There’s nothing artistic about it, just as there was nothing genius in Elvis’ final bow.

And what did Lisa Marie Presley lose 30 years ago? Her father.

There’s nothing rock ‘n’ roll about that.

August 13, 2007

Oldie-but-goodie: Winnie the Pooh and Elmer the Elf.

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next in the blogosphere (and I happen to physcially be in Israel right now) so in the meantime I’m running some old posts that I particularly enjoyed writing.

I recently read the final chapter in The House at Pooh Corner to my daughter, thus completing our sojourn in the Hundred Acre Woods.

The animals have all sensed, without knowing how, that Christopher Robin is Going Away, and they write him a note — a Poem, really, as drafted by Eeyore, which reads (in part):

I ought
To begin again
But it is easier
To stop.

Well, anyhow, we send
Our love.
END.

The whole crowd of them — Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, and of course Pooh — deliver the Poem to Christopher Robin, but they all feel “awkward and unhappy,” because “it was a sort of good-bye they were saying, and they didn’t want to think about it.” Eventually, having all crowded around, they slowly edge away, and by the time Christopher Robin is finished reading the Poem, the only one left is Pooh.

“It’s a comforting sort of thing to have,” said Christopher Robin, folding up the paper, and putting it in his pocket. “Come on, Pooh,” and he walked off quickly.

They walk and talk, with Christopher Robin filling Pooh in on “people called Kings and Queens and something called Factors… and when Knights were Knighted, and what comes from Brazil.” Christopher Robin knights Pooh, dubbing him “Sir Pooh de Bear, most faithful of all my Knights.”

And slowly it dawns on Pooh “how muddling it would be for a Bear of Very Little Brain” to keep track of all of the exciting new information to which Christopher Robin is now privy,

“So perhaps,” he said sadly to himself, “Christopher Robin won’t tell me anymore,” and he wondered if being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things.

We come to see, though, that Christopher Robin has his own fears. Having told Pooh that “they” don’t let you do Nothing almost ever, he finally says

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little.

“How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded.

“I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I – if I’m not quite -” he stopped and tried again – “Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

*****

Once upon a time, I had an imaginary friend. Well, in truth, I had a great number of imaginary friends, designed to suit whatever need I might have at the time. I remember that one of them wore only silver, and another wore only gold.

But the one that mattered was Elmer the Elf.

Elmer was a constant in my life for many years, and in my mind’s eye, he looked rather as you might expect an elf to look (if you have not yet been introduced to the Lord of the Rings). He was tiny, and dressed largely in green, and I believe he may have even had a peaked cap.

When I was about eight — maybe I was seven? I’m not at all sure — I sat with Elmer in my Queenie’s backyard, between the swing set and the bush that, if Queenie and Grandpa weren’t looking, you could take a flower from, turn it upside down, and you’d have a little doll.

I sat on the grass, and Elmer stood before me, and I told him that it was ok — he could go back to his family. I understood that he needed them and they needed him, and I would be ok. He could go. And, well, he left, I suppose. I didn’t see him go.

The amazing thing to me about this story is that I knew — of course I knew — that Elmer wasn’t really real, and never had been. But, like Christopher Robin, I was moving beyond my ability to see past the veil, and I needed to send Elmer home.

The truth is that my childhood had been kind of rough up to that point, and would continue to be pretty rough for another two or three years — I think it would have been nice if I had been able to have Elmer around for a little longer.

But the child grows, the mind changes, and quite possibly aside from anything else, having already been through a thing or two, it’s entirely possible that I knew in a way that I couldn’t have before that Elmer could only help so much.

And yet, at the same time, I know that I did Know, in a way that I will always Know, that Elmer — like Pooh, and the Velveteen Rabbit, and the stuffed dog that I lost in one of our many, many moves — was, in fact Real, would always be Real, and like Pooh, would not forget about me, ever. And that whatever happens, he still understands.

So they went off together. But wherever they go and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

A house. (Re-up)

In the hustle and bustle of life as it is lived (I just realized), I forgot to mark an important anniversary, more than three weeks ago. And so I re-post this, in love and in memory.

There’s this house.

It’s at the bottom of a hill, to the left and in a small valley, as you drive north on Wisconsin State Highway 23. If you come over the hill at night, you’ll see the lights in the windows, an amber glow under more stars than you’ll ever see in a Chicago sky.

The house is small. The kitchen floor is rough and unfinished, the wallpaper torn here and there. There’s a terrible Christmas clock hung on one wall because it met a need and now serves to amuse. The house smells of wood stove heat and cooking, and of the earth that washes off vegetables fresh in from the fields.

The fields belong to the house, and they rise and fall gently with the valley, rows neat, the order that people bring to nature so that they can feed themselves. It’s a farm that feeds many, and the house watches over the rows and the people working in them.

One of the people is a seven year old boy who was born on the farm, in the house, coming into the world with clear eyes and a smile that is like fresh water. He and his brother are growing here, they go to school inside the house (as their sister did until she went away to school), they play Legos here, their father reads Winnie the Pooh, and they eat and eat and eat. There is always a plate of something, somewhere. And if you don’t finish it, don’t worry, someone else will get around to it.

There is also, right now, today, someone dying here, the grandfather with whom the seven year old shares a name. He is 69 and after decades of housing a spirit so large it could hardly be contained, his body is all that’s left. Soon, it too will be gone. Right now the little boy and his brother play 20 feet away, and stew is made in the kitchen, and someone sits and watches and holds the grandfather’s hand, telling him, again, that he can go as soon as he needs to. That we do not want to hold him.

The house is so large, in its smallness, so blessed and full of blessing. In the middle — no, not really: In the everywhere, in all the corners and all the rooms, on the stairs, at the door, lifting a body small, or weak, spreading a blanket over a child, or a man — is a woman with long hair falling over her shoulders, her nails clipped short for they are often in the dirt, her arms spread as wide as she can get them around the world and all the everyone and the everything that she can reach.

Occasionally — not often enough — she sits with a cup of tea and lets the house shelter and bless her as much as she and it have blessed others. As one life ends, and all the others carry on.

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Brett F. Moore died on March 6, 2010, at about the time that I was writing the above. I loved him, and I miss him more than I can say. I am so very grateful to have had him in my life. May his memory be for a blessing יהי זכרו ברוך