Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Can't Go Home Again

I look at the devastation in the Philippines- the anguish on the faces of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children as they sift through the rubble, barefoot,  in contaminated water, searching to salvage...anything.  The typhoon's horrific violence, unleashed on these tiny island villages leaving a smiling people, bereft and homeless.

I see the tornado that swept through Illinois. Random selection. Implosion. Obliteration. Unrecognizable terrain.  Any sense of direction, lost in the ruin.

I think of  the Syrians in exile. Families relocated to refugee camps across boarders.  Makeshift shelters. Escaping man's inhumanity to man. Even their own beds not safe as they breathed lethal chemicals while they slept.

History's human story is filled with chapters of people struggling to survive,  seeking new beginnings, risking everything to escape oppression, famine,  starvation, annihilation.  Ellis Island. "Next year in Jerusalem." The Mayflower. Immigrants. Refugees. Boat People. Tribes.

Each story filled with one common theme - hope that they will find home.

I have, over the course of nearly a year and a half, been thinking a lot about home. I have been home sick.  And I've been sick of home.  While my plight pales in comparison to the catastrophic experiences of families whose very lives are at risk merely from having been born in a war-torn region of the world, the question of what home means has been forced upon me by circumstances entirely out of my control.

As I look back on my life, I am aware that home was a place of deep rootedness. Long before I was
born, my father was a traveling salesman.  He and my mother, lived in apartment hotels throughout the southeast while my father sold for RL Polk and Company City Directories. Eventually, they bought a trailer and towed it from town to town, like tortoises with their shell, home came with them wherever they went. It wasn't until they arrived in Anaheim, California, in 1949, that they finally bought their first home, famously, on Flower Street where they lived next door to the family who would become their best friends.  The migration began. My father and his brother opened their own business. The promise of opportunity beckoned to other family members. Letters and urging from my father to travel west lured my aunts, uncles, grandmother, cousins. They all relocated to Southern California. On Flower Street alone, my Aunt Betty and Uncle Larry lived at one end of the block, and my mother's mother, Mema, lived next door to my parents. My father's sisters and brothers all moved from Ohio and Kentucky, to the post war suburbs, holding on to the hope and dream of a more promising future.

While I came into the story ten years later, in 1959, the successful rise of my father from his poor Kentucky roots to business owner, home owner, and independent publisher, is everything that the American dream promised. No myth at work here. With no privileges of class or education, equipped only with an ethic of  hard work and know-how, and blessed with a dashingly handsome face and charismatic personality, my father was a self-made man with a high school education and determined
spirit. The luck of timing in a post World War II economy, provided fertile soil to put down the roots from which my childhood would grow. A childhood of privilege. Not great wealth or connection but an easy life in a suburban neighborhood. A house that to my parents must have seemed a palace as they earned their way to the life-style of pool parties and sipping scotch around the bar in a den added on for entertainment.  My father's dream of success matched with my mother's frugality and common sense, provided me with a security that was certain. Clothes. Toys. Trips. Most importantly, education.  My father took his greatest pride in providing my brother and myself with the best private school education available. My brother attended St. Catherine's Military Academy, then, no doubt, a sign of prosperity. We both attended St. Boniface Catholic School, parochial high schools and ultimately, the greatest achievement of my father's life, he sent us both to the University of Southern California.

The trajectory of my life was tied to the coat tails of my father's success and his beaming optimism and belief
that if you didn't "make it by thirty" there was something wrong. With no perspective of my own and only my father's example from which to imagine my future, my expectations were cemented into what certainly became the myth of my generation: that children would always do better than their parents.  What happened to the publishing industry is something my father could not have foreseen. Ink dried up and paper went up in flames, along with the independent publisher, the local bookstore, and the dial phone. While the new generation of digital media, spurred by the rapid growth of the internet, created new opportunities, those of us caught in between have been forced to adapt and seek very different paths than those carved by our parents.Making it by thirty became the impossible dream. Thirty came and went with the ups and downs of a business landscape that brought boom and bust.

 The complete reset of our economy brought on by greedy banks, bloated egos and Wall Street hubris brought an end to any notion that my future would be as bright as the one my father experienced for himself or imagined for me. My story is littered with worthless stock, meaningless stock options, empty promises of liquidity events, and the ravages of public offerings and unmet bottom lines.  Mergers and Mayhem as far as the eye can see from Chicago to LA. From family business, to corporate giants, bankruptcies that make Miller's character Biff in Death of a Salesman, seem more like a prophet than a lost soul. I understand the earthquake of when they "stop smiling back."  The ash heap has piled up and so, unfortunately, has my bitterness. Willy Loman's got nothin' on me.

The Great Recession may not rival the dramatic images of breadlines and dust-bowl migration, but the loss of dreams, homes, and financial security have altered people's lives and dashed the hopes of the promise of a comfortable retirement. Savings accounts tapped to put food on the table. IRA's cashed in to pay the mortgage. Short sales. Foreclosures. Rooms for rent. The  divide between the haves and have not's has less to do with  level of education and more to do with luck and the winds of fortune shifting.

The depth of my disillusion may be irreversible. I have been lied to. Not intentionally.  The lie of our times is woven into the fabric of my being and into the collective psyche of American society. That lie promised that reward is inevitable after sacrifice. I have perpetuated that lie with our children by sending them to prestigious universities and going into debt to give them an education that will hopefully launch them into a bright future. And indeed perhaps this one sacrifice will pay off.  As luck would have it, they are still young enough to be on the cutting edge of the new technology and may pick up where my father left off with a new generation of entrepreneurial spirit.

 Not so for me. Instead, I am forced into exile. To rent my home, a home that represents my lost dream. Much like my parent's vision of pool parties and fun - I dreamed of a life at the beach. Sailing and kayaking. Yearning to be a member of "the club", like Sabrina crooning her neck from a tree over the wall of the Larabie mansion on Long Island. Fueled by an imagined fantasy life that seemed possible at one time, now has, as Blanche says in " A Streetcar Named Desire," "slipped through my fingers."

Home has been torn from me. And I have clung. Stubbornly. Voraciously like a lioness roaring down a predator, I have fought to hold on to what I believed I deserved.  How wrong I have been.

And what of the family in the Philippines clinging to a tree for survival as everything they own is swept away in the typhoon's gale?
There is no comparison to our situations.
 My shame and guilt for my longing to live in my dream house tempers my grief and gives me perspective.

 But it is grief none the less. I pack up the rooms of my home just as I've packed up my family business, forty-nine years of telephone directories, my father's legacy, and my brother's life. I am no stranger to boxes.

 The family who will be renting our home for two years plans for the birth of their baby and what color to re-paint my daughter's room. The Paris decor will come down, holes will be plugged, and our memories and dreams will be boxed up.  My would-be studio, decorated in Mary Engelbreit yellow, will be transformed into his office. The yellow has to go. Of course it does.  Bold in its choice, its merriment now seems naive and stupid. I am embarrassed by it because the history of upside down cherries is a story from our home on  Pine Street that he can't possibly know and so the room seems ridiculous.

 I've fought not to have to do this for a year and a half. But now there is no choice. When you reach the end of the rope, it's the end of the rope. At least we can rent and aren't forced to sell. And who knows, just like the "L Box" in London, there may indeed be a happy ending to this story.
And so I hold on to that hope.
The hope that we will go home again.  But I cannot cling to that hope. Expectations have been dashed too many times for me to be that foolish.
For now will mourn the death of this dream and heal this wound of uprootedness.
I will bow my head in shame for my yearning for a materialistic lifestyle of boating and beach and seek higher ground in the heights in the spiritual lessons of this exile. I will process my guilt, and reflect on the sins of my father, seeking to forgive him for planting in me the seeds of a dream that my life would be better than his. An innocent enough dream -  reality is what I've had to face over and over again. He died too early to give me the necessary tools to deal with adversity.  I've had to learn that all by myself.

I know it is all in how you look at it. I've always been a home body. I lived two blocks from my mother for twenty years of my marriage. Eight houses away from my extended family for my entire childhood. Maybe it was my Mother's need to stop rolling along in a trailer that got imprinted on my psyche.  She stayed put for over fifty years on Resh Place.  My idea of home is roots.  I have idealized the notion of the family home, filled with memories, laughter, tears, and moments.  It is not easy for me to let go of that and turn my home over to another family to fill that space with theirs, while erasing mine.The hole in my heart is gaping.

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz says over and over "There's no place like home.
We all say, "Home is where the heart is."

My problem is, I left my heart on Savona Walk. 
I hope Thomas Wolf was wrong when he said, "You can't go home again."
But if he is, I will have to redefine what home means to me.
I will have to find a new dream.

Will the phoenix rise...again?
There's always hope.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When I Die I Want God There

I remember the day I drove to the crematorium.
I knew I had to be there with my mother even though I knew she was already gone.
Have I told this story?
Have I written it?
But I'm remembering it now.
So I'm re-telling it.

I'd awakened  that morning knowing it was the day.
I'd arranged with the mortuary to be there, though they'd advised against it.
I was having a hard time letting go of that body.
That body had given me life. Had held me and hugged me and tickled my arm and patted me.
And for the past few years, I'd cared for it in ways I'd never imagined. Mother and I had traded places.
On that morning, I was having a hard time with the idea of that body being incinerated.

So I looked for a sign.
The first was a camellia in full bloom in our yard.
Mother's favorite.
I carefully snipped it and wrapped it in a wet paper towel and foil to take with me.

As I drove down the winding road to the crematorium
there were two birds - with a wide wing spread - soaring ahead of me.
They were the only two birds in the sky that I could see.
They flew ahead of me the whole way to the crematorium - as if leading me.
Soaring, dancing in the sky.

And I thought
There they are - Mom and Dad.
Dancing again at last.

I knew that they were together. That they had sent a sign to me
that they were dancing in the heavens and that it was alright.

When I arrived at the crematorium,
They pulled the casket out and asked if I wanted to see Mother one last time.
I said I did.

I placed the camellia on her chest. Kissed her cheek for the last time -
and gave the okay to roll her body into the oven.

Whether those birds were a sign
or whether they were just two birds swooping in the wind
whether a camellia in bloom was a sign
or whether it was just the start of spring
whether there is a heaven
and eternity
or whether there isn't
doesn't matter.

This is what I know.

Believing it
is comforting.
Believing in something eternal
makes the living more meaningful.
It is all a mystery.

I just know that when it's my time,
I want God there.
Because believing it
makes it so.