Happy Hard Year: Surviving 2017

“He told of how the trees had grown in all sorts of conditions, endured lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations. [The boat builder] said the wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, but it also taught us about the reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about things larger and greater than ourselves.” Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat

Anticipation trails the greeting: “Happy new year!” The newness in the turn of the calendar somehow holds out hope of a fresh happiness, a better year. But I remain grateful to be able to maintain the status quo of a mom on duty, keeping up with the home lessons and activities, churning out the chow, running the house. Put my face on this year? Maybe! The lipstick box awaits, now organized. Host company?? I pulled off Christmas. WRITE? Perhaps I ask too much. Because I have learned to be satisfied with very little, even through the homesickness for my blog. I’ve shown up here drenched, not in the exhilarated sweat of the marathon victor, but in the swells of a twelve-month winter that have finally cast me out on shore. It’s been a year I would not repeat for any amount of money and it is with eagerness I accept the well-wishings of a happy 2017. Except that though we don’t like to think about unexpected hardships, they come. In fact, they don’t take holidays, and have left me with friends and family whose Christmas season remains an anniversary of dear losses. So maybe the relief of a tabula rasa is a luxury not within our rights. Maybe we can at best just hope to survive.

That is what I got out of the book The Martian, Watney’s desperate fight to stay alive an amplified contemplation of the symphonic battle between the harbingers of death and impulse of life we call the human condition. The farmer’s labor is a prayer, dependent on forces he attempts to harness but cannot control. And there is the financier, the urban version of this struggle, in his relationship with market conditions. Life is conflict – in the community, family, ourselves.

“A protagonist is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition he or she faces,” Pulitzer journalist Jack Hart quotes a writer in Storycraft. Isn’t that life? Even trees testify to the seasons they have weathered, confess their ordeal and age in their rings and core. “He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in the wood. He said those separate fibers, knitted together in the wood, gave cedar its ability to bounce back and resume its shape or take on a new one. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, Pocock said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood.” DJB, The Boys in the Boat. There is a strength adversity builds that is of a different order than the brawn of success. It comes from just holding on and being able to look another day of it in the face. You are not capable, pretty, or smart. You just try to keep standing. Day after day.

“I continued to go [to the nursing home], and I struggled to find meaning in their bleak existence. What finally helped was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 

Part of my problem with suffering is that I’m surprised by it. Why can’t it all go my way?? Well, if it won’t always be California sunshine, can I at least have my greenhouse? You have been reminded. Expect a hard year, and happiness will follow somewhere in that.

“Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. The population is strong and growing. That’s pretty impressive, when you consider it was exposed to near-vacuum and subarctic temperatures for over twenty-four hours. With hundreds of millions of bacteria, it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.” The Martian

midnight in wonderland

we felt so grown up 
when we were kids
and now wonder that 
we are so old when 
we're not yet grown

we started losing 
our parents to 
time and frailty.

in the cycle of life 
things go upside 
down sometimes

you rush
d o w n
the
  rabbit hole
      into a world
above the logic of sorrow

and find you are so
small, but remember:
Mom's high ceiling, 
your sure ground.

see the sky and trees
in your pool of tears
they're the other side 
of life. how beautiful 
things are when they drown

how clear it is underwater.

you long to run 
to the garden 
beyond that door 
but you don't fit

life would feel deformed 
under the weight of loss 
if it weren't for the faith 
that was bigger than the 
life that shut down

she archived her fears and 
hopes in her kids, did
anyone hear the story 
in between, did
anyone  look?

hold fast 
your heirloom assurance

the midnight of your dreams
is really a new day.

for HJ &
anyone else
who would like it

STRANDED

Now, why’s the AC dying again? We just fixed it. Weird. Car’s sluggish, too.

Mph: 70. 60. 50. 45.

Ok. Gotta pull over. I run the hazard lights and crawl over two lanes to the shoulder – just in time. The Sienna gives out and it takes me a minute to realize the hood’s smoking. My eyes fall to the cubbyhole where my phone usually sits. Great. The day I run out of the house without it. Noted, husband. Noted. I can make out Pyrite Exit, 1/2 Mile up the freeway and all I can do is hope for a gas station there. Collecting my keys, hat, and the little water I have, I don’t go five yards before deciding, “Not in these sandals. Not in this sun.” Turning back toward the car, I do the only thing left to get to a phone. I stick out my thumb. As the minutes wear on, I’m not sure what strikes in me greater wonder. Finding myself “hitchhiking” or seeing that nobody was stopping. I am also a little nervous about who might want to come to the aid of a lone woman.

Before I can worry too much, a car horn interjects and I spin to see a beat-up truck behind the fence. Cozy in the front, three Latino men who look to be in their twenties wave. Apply every politically incorrect stereotype and judge by appearances, and these were not guys a sober helpless female would turn to for help. Here goes nothing. My New York sense of adventure moves me forward.

“Hi. Can you please call my husband, tell him I’m stuck on the 60 and need AAA?”

The men smile and three cell phones appear in a flash. The guy nearest me in Shotgun beats his friends to it and waiting through the rings, apologetically swings a tattooed arm to keep his cigarette smoke from reaching me.

“Honey, it’s me!” I call out to prove the call is no prank.

I’m told help is on the way and decline the men’s offer to stay with me. As they pull away, the guys point behind me and looking back toward the freeway I see a young man in something like a Corvette smiling as if to ask, “Anything I can do?”

“Thank you so much but my husband is coming.” I nod my thanks and in a few minutes make out a police car in the distance. California Highway Patrol stops to make sure I’m okay and offers the cooled vehicle for a waiting room but I’m not feeling venturesome enough to climb into the backseat I associate with a jail cell. And then my knight in shining armor pulls up.

________________________________________________________________________

Later: “When I heard a man’s voice on the line saying, ‘Your wife…’ your life flashed before my eyes. I thought I’d lost you and saw myself putting T in school. And writing on your blog.

Over my dead body.

stranded3

 

Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

Forty-two days after burning in a horrible fatal crash, Lauda jumped back on the Formula 1 track to defend his championship title against Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.

I wasn’t into racing, but this was my kind of story. Lauda,_Niki_1973-07-06

The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer, the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile upon him. The pursuit of dreams for Lauda, on the other hand, is a fight from the get-go. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda becomes an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. It is the hospital where he will find himself in his fiercest battle. Both men embody greatness, but Lauda has my attention in the life-altering crash that almost claims his dreams and the way he handles the tragedy.

What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray the gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain. He has no peace about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Going through with the event is obviously asking for it. Hunt turns the room full of men who are scared alike, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. Classically high school, afraid of looking chicken as terrified as they are for their life, the guys put it to vote and the race goes on.

Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashes at 170 mph, and the Ferrari erupts into flames. With the rescuers having trouble getting him out, he is trapped for over a minute in the inferno.

That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. He slips what looks like a very long thick metal rod down his throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” Lauda orders through bruised lungs. He remains captive in bed as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day he attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.

Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival out of the way, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show him peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he undid in reality on site. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for swaying the vote that fateful day. “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car,” answers Lauda.

Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses. Not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on what’s louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? He might as well hand the years of his sweat and showdown with death over to his enemy. Lauda has fought many times over and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved from scratch, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to be so with himself.

The roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder about the things that assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on that impossible road. The real racer off screen admitted to having been absolutely petrified, as credible heroes go. As some of us know, it is extremely difficult getting behind the wheel again after any auto accident.

The cars take off – and one after another pass Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass. Then drivers collide in front of him and he manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion afterward reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.

Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage – and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the forces that be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside cars that look like sleek coffins.

I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga. But some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama. They explore what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks all to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are the more alive you feel.”

The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking upon it from the other side of time. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors would give him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?

 

Maybe We Don’t Want to Listen To Your Story

I had my feet up on the couch, willing the bleeding to stop. I couldn’t find any pads last night but remembered the spare diapers I kept for my nephew’s sleepovers. They were perfect. What a word. Perfect. I suppose I should have this down by now. I changed out the diapers every hour, at times faster. The empty trash bin had filled, blood-sodden, overnight. Today my back yearned for something soft underneath as the pelvic ache grew louder.

The doorbell rang.

My body refused to move but I was waiting for a package to sign for. I had to get the gift to Dad. I tried not to think about the rush in my pants when I got up and shuffled, exhausted, to the door. Outside the window stood a man with a pen behind an ear, clipboard in hand. Damn solicitors. He waved hopefully when he caught sight of me. I waved back an angry dismissal and slapped the blinds back against the pane. I was losing my baby, my life a promise of barren existence, and he just wanted my money.
===================

I can do this. It’s a numbers game. Hit 20 homes – that’s at least three sales. 30% commission. Everyday and I’ll get us a two-bedroom and move Janie to a better school. When Laura gets her raise I can go back to one job.

This one looks good. The biggest house on the block. Car in the driveway but no answer. Man, I wanna get home for dinner. Try it again. There you go, I knew you were home. Oh, come on. At least give me a minute. Some people are so rude.

Houses2

I recently heard a playwright on NPR who, in reference to racial conflict, said we walk into one another’s story everyday. Black people often find themselves trapped in the white imagination when they stumble into fear and ignorance. But it isn’t only across race and color lines that we do this. Every house, every apartment is a story box. We don’t know what just happened behind those closed doors, don’t know who is dying behind that smile. As you read this, a couple is exchanging wedding vows. Some bloggers are cracking jokes. A child’s stomach knots in hunger. A man tosses dirt over his wife’s casket. A girl just landed her dream job. A father of four lost his. Not only was the salesman clueless about the woman’s situation, she was in no position to come out. She didn’t have the wherewithal to step out into his story. We ask and sometimes the answer is no. And it has nothing to do with us.

The Obligation of Beauty

It took me over a quarter of a century to realize beauty is not something frivolous. We need beauty in our life. The truth still takes my breath away. With no particular aesthetic gift or impulse, I was for much of my life satisfied if my purchases were functional. They didn’t have to be pretty. And so neither did I, because my brain got me around. It was my mind, not my appearance, that helped me achieve in school and life and build relationships. I now look with patience upon the black-and-white assertions we draw in youth.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert borrows from The Italians by Luigi Barzini to tease out “why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. [His answers] have to do with a sad Italian history of corruption…and dominators…which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted…one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses. This is why Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas…actors, cooks, tailors…In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business – not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into rhetoric and plot.”

Gilbert goes on to describe how deep in the ruins of her marriage, she began to mend her soul by reading aloud Italian words out of a dictionary. I can relate. After my body broke down from stress and overwork in my 20s, I noticed the flowers for the first time. I had never seen them grace the cities I lived in. Too busy with things that mattered like studies and work, I had never looked. But in my frailty, I was ravished by their beauty, the force of their color. My spirit had fractured open, worn and thirsty for something beyond the dictates of duty. Eager for a song, not just the beat of the clock I raced. I didn’t understand why I took so hungrily to the flowers I had by practice dismissed. It took me years to realize that beauty is healing. And so the lyrical, sexy Italian sounds out of her mouth brought Gilbert healing joy. She says “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity…You were given life; it is your duty…to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

I would take it a step further. Beauty is the very fabric of our world. Yes, we’ve screwed things up with crime, war, destruction, and the abuse of our natural resources. But beauty dances in the pageantry of the sunset and of the cosmos (who said Jupiter had to be so beautiful??), in the languages of men. Some days the California sky is so magnificent, the clouds coiffed with a panache which in a painting would look overdone, too perfect. Beauty wasn’t an artful afterthought to this world. It obligated itself upon us. Beauty isn’t something to find. It is the substance of this earth.

How does this belated dawning translate in my life? While I remain impressed with women who match head to toe, my regard for them is largely what I hold for curious lab specimens. I was taken by my mother-in-law’s response when I thanked her for a recent gift card saying I’ll get something to look pretty in for her son. “Get something nice to be pretty for yourself. Life is short. Someday, you will realize that you don’t have much time left over to enjoy what you have now.” I was reminded that while vanity is one thing, self-respect is another and taking care with my appearance is good for the soul. The series on beauty that’s around the corner will take us through the body, spirit, femininity, relationships, love, memory, pain, suffering, art. Please welcome the guests who have worked hard over their stories and are still bleeding from the edits – because beauty is worth it.

Marriage: Expectations

While it’s true that my mother has given up more of her personal ambitions in marriage than my father ever did, she demands far more out of marriage than he ever will. He is far more accepting of her than she is of him. (“She’s the best Carole she can be,” he often says, while one gets the feeling that my mother believes her husband could be – maybe even should be –  a much better man.) She commands him at every turn. She’s subtle and graceful enough in her methods of control that you don’t always realize that she’s doing it, but trust me: Mom is always steering the boat.

So THAT’s it. Subtle. Graceful. Remember that, Diana. Subtle. Graceful.
*Mouths the words, trying to introduce them to her brain*

She comes by this trait honestly. All the women in her family do this. They take over every single aspect of their husbands’ lives and then, as my father loves to point out, they absolutely refuse to ever die. No man can outlive an Olson bride.

By this point, I was laughing so hard I could only nod in silence, shoulders shaking, when a man asked if he may take the chair near me. His eyes grew wide with the laughter he’d caught as he walked back to sit with his friends. Related post, If I Die.

My father once joked – not really joking – that my mother manages about 95 percent of his life. The wonder of it, he mused, is that she’s much more upset about the 5 percent of his life that he won’t relinquish than he is about the 95 percent that she utterly dominates.

Roar!!

Robert Frost wrote that “a man must partly give up being a man” in order to enter into marriage. Marriage is a harness of civilization, linking a man to a set of obligations and thereby containing his restless energies. Traditional societies have long recognized that nothing is more useless to a community than a whole bunch of single, childless young men…You need to convince these young men to put aside their childish things and take up the mantle of adulthood, to build homes and businesses and to cultivate an interest in their surroundings. It’s an ancient truism across countless different cultures that there is no better accountability-forging tool for an irresponsible young man than a good, solid wife.  ~ Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I must add there is no greater impediment for a man than an unsupportive wife.

Mr. Wayfarer has said women look for a finished product before agreeing to marry but they don’t get that (most) men mature in marriage. Any thoughts?

Mrs. W: How much life insurance do I have on you again?
Mr: “$ —”
Mrs: That’s it?!
Mr: Yeah, better to keep me around. I’m worth more to you alive.

Mr: The pastor said a fish doesn’t know it needs water until it finds itself on land. I take you for granted because you’re always there. I’ve been thinking about how much I’d need you if you weren’t.
Mrs: Oh, honey…
Mr: I’m not just a drummer. I think too, you know.