Monday, August 24, 2015

Being a Grown Up

I went with my son and his friend to a local town fair yesterday. I hope to always enjoy this experience because it teaches me so much about myself. At the fair, I don’t have to grow up –in fact, everyone’s young and beautiful (well…) and I can spend money liberally, eating what I want, and go on death defying rides, all of which are things that prove that I am immortal! You know the place: carnies hawking their wares and experiences, pigs racing, trailers being pulled, fried this and that, bad-for-you Italian Sausages (but oh, so good!), pigs and camels and gargantuan pumpkins and cows and the smell of horse poop in the evening. As I moseyed about mostly alone, I decided to spend time greeting the creatures and happily reached over to pet a smaller cow. This went well for a moment until I realized the animal had lassoed my shirt in its large mouth and was quickly drawing me in, far closer than I wanted to be! My favorite moment was at the magic show when a pigeon appeared out of a balloon much to the amazement of the four year-old volunteer from the audience who was on stage holding the balloon. Before she returned to her seat, the magician asked her what she wanted more than anything else “to take home” with her and she said, “My friends.” Made me laugh and made me cry, though I’m not sure in which order.

Childishness is one thing but foolishness belongs almost entirely in the realm of so-called adulthood. And by the time we’re considered to be a grownup we will definitely have crossed paths with many a fool. The best response when this happens is to keep walking and ignore them and if that’s not possible, then a cautious and respectful engagement is the called-for protocol. (But more on this topic in another blog post.) What I’m trying to say is that it’s time for every adult to grow up, and growing up isn’t easy, in part because people disappoint us and we often disappoint ourselves by our own bad choices and thinking.

In an ideal world, it’s a wonderful thing to be a child. Toddler bowel movements are celebrated by attentive adults, and any attempt at singing or dancing is met with praise from admiring big people. And all but the most cynical among us enjoy watching children at play. I loved watching my kids play, even when I was irritated by their lack of responsibility! Adults are always telling kids to “grow up!” but it’s the job of the child to play hard. Playing is for them a serious business! (I wish I could watch my little ones play again. I’d just sit on the porch and applaud. And join in more often than I did.) Of course, we should all continue to play long into adulthood. In fact, the idea of the good life and “doing what you love with the people you love” – which is sadly unattainable by most- is a celebration of this. But every one of us needs time off to feel that childlike freedom, to recreate, to stop in occasionally at a local Vanity Fair, to ‘vacate’ our normal patterns, to get away from life-as-we-know-it. That’s a good impulse, this yearning for a holiday, this need for a Sabbath break, which I think is woven into all of us and something we desperately need to heed, for resistance can lead to dis-ease, dismemberment (we all need to be included as members, to belong is an essential and good; question is: to what do we belong?) and certainly a dislocation for where and who we long to be. So, yes to play and yes to rest!

All I really want from this life is to be as complete and whole a person as I can be and I also want to take a few friends along on the journey with me. But that second part is probably misguided, the little kid version of reality. What I’m learning is that being an adult means making room for those who are different or flawed, because the measure of maturity, the cost of adulthood, is about learning to care again, for others and for myself -maybe especially for myself- and if that makes me an awesome friend, then I’m willing to give this growing up business another chance.

Our Abraham, pausing from a moment of serious play in the summer of his third year.



Monday, August 10, 2015

Consider the Chair

"The chair of Esther - be amazed!"

“Grandfather, my mother says that the time has come and that I must give away some of the things that I once treasured. But why? I understand that some of the things I earlier enjoyed have come to mean less to me but does that mean that I must give them to others who will not appreciate them as I have or even worse, deposit them alongside mere rubbish?”
“Everything must be thrown out, one day. The dump is our inheritance.”

“But what of holy things? Must they also end up as common garbage?”

“Little one, there is nothing common, only degrees of the sacred. All that is created, all that is imagined -such as these precious thoughts we have that flit and flutter within -anything that is dreamed and imagined and realized must one day perish, must finally be consumed by time and chance, by life and death.”
“But you’ve spoken before about the memory of love, Grandfather, and how that cannot truly be lost."

“That is true. The exuberance of youth, the passion of oneness, the slipping of childhood innocence on the brink of its awakening into a deeper innocence, the sweetness of young love’s embrace are thought to be eternal in the heavens and yet even a candle flame neglected will burn out; all things become as they once were, things seen and unseen must decline, erode and finally, be no more.”
“My dear father’s father, you speak in parables and mysteries! What about goodness and all things pure –what of these noble truths? Must they, too, come to nothing?”

“Let me tell you a story.”
There once was a woman who was all alone. She had no family but in her old age she adopted an abandoned child who was unwanted, sick and certain to die young. She spared no expense and made room for him and fed him and loved him. He got a little better and, though frail, lived into his teenage years. He read a lot and taught himself a considerable amount and so it happened that this child became the teacher to his grandmother, who was really more like a mother to him (he called her ‘Mammy-dear’). When he was feeling okay she would help him get comfortable in his favorite chair and from there this young prince would hold forth his court, filling his days with laughter among a growing audience of friends and admirers who had heard of his wisdom, funny stories and joyful spirit. Some of them had even come from far and wide to enjoy his great adventures and they were never disappointed as he mesmerized them with riddles, amazing facts and tall tales about galaxies and gadgets, wizards and other wonders.
And though the chair was known jokingly as his throne, others sometimes sat in it, typically when he was too tired to move from his bed. But he was as generous with his chair as he was with his time, possessed as he was with a rare majesty, a lifted beauty and expansive spirit. The chair had long supported his broken frame, this bent and bruised vessel of grace- and it was often declared by the visitors that “This chair and its occupant would end up alive forevermore!" "Surely” his many friends assured her, “his bright light would never burn out.”
One day though, her beloved grandson did die –the doctors could do no more- and then he was gone. And, although the chair had become less than comfortable by then, for a while she took to sleeping in it and for many years she could not bring herself to dispose of it for the chair had come to represent her child, a symbol of better days.
Eventually though, she decided it was time for the chair to find a new home. Some suggested she put it on the curb or even in the trash but she could not bring herself to do that. She asked around. “Certainly an old friend would want to have it, repair it?” she concluded. But there were no takers so she did finally put it on the curb and waited to see if someone would stop and collect it, filled as it was with all those memories and meaning. Cars did stop, and there was much poking and prodding. Some even sat in it but as it was no longer an attractive piece, there were no takers.
After seven full days, the weekly garbage pick-up day arrived and the hulking, grey truck arrived on the street. She said goodbye to the chair, sitting in it one more time in an attempt to sweep up in her arms all that had been at rest there, once upon a time. Then, she got up, returned to the house and looked away from the window for she had decided beforehand not to see it callously crushed by the huge truck press that was capable of reducing any discarded item to near dust. But she could not turn away for long. Instead, one last look through the darkened screen! Two garbage collectors were there now and one of them in front of the chair –“what?” she whispered, “he’s removing his glove and is now kissing his still-dirtied hand and he’s reaching down to touch the chair, his hand resting in blessing for that chair!” “My grandson’s chair!” and she wanted thank him for such tenderness, but her voice fell silent amidst the tears… then the shrill voice of the other collector who began teasing his coworker for “such non-sense; it’s just a stupid, junky old chair” he growled as together they grabbed the armrests to take up the chair for its final flight.  
Before that moment she had thought of the chair as the place from which her son gave life –but now she saw that, to him, it was a holy space he had mainly reserved for others. To this grandmother, it was her son who gave so magnificently, buried though he often was deep in the warmth of the many blankets she had provided, due to the growing coldness within. She understood now that the true source of her joy and love was given by him in his invitation to sit, with his open and unconditional welcome. “The chair was really for me” she marveled to herself that day, “healthy though I was, I was the one in need of healing and he saved that space for me, his throne for me.”
"Grandfather, that garbage guy was kind to do that and the grandma seemed to be very wise, too."

“My dear, I think you’re right! All things –and people- will eventually wear out and yet, somehow, in some way, we must appreciate, admire, trust, and sometimes, yes, be swept off our feet by some things and by some people, of course. It is in our nature to want and to need that kind of connection. Rare is the person who can see it; rarer still the one who values such insight. Transcendence is part of what it means to be human -built into the furniture, as it were. Never forget the deed of the ungloved garbage collector who knew enough to see the sacred thing before him, something he knew in his heart to be true, and, I think, eternal.”

“Oh, grandfather, you are much too serious! Next time I will ask only about easy things, about frivolous matters!”

"And then she was gone..."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Go Ahead and Dance

This poem was inspired by the use of the Funky Bones sculpture in John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars.

"Go ahead and dance"
~Wayne Earl

Go ahead and dance upon these bones
crushing them as nothing beneath your feet
speaking banal absurdities, roaring about
how you are the exception to such an end
how you will escape, now quick and light, both snare and fowler

Go ahead and glide over these relics
smoothing bone to dust under your press
snortling froth and foam, ranting about
how you will be spared the same fate
how you will escape, now strong and alive, without 'so much a singe'

Go ahead and bow before these dead
blessing the stone that does not move
feeling heat nor pulse, whispering about
how you will entomb a side-place there
how you must embrace, now bloated and spent, this playground for others


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Resurrection, Comfort and an Old Shoe

When my daughter Abigail was three years old, we
left her in the care of a babysitter so we could go out to dinner with friends.
That normally would have been fine, but on this occasion we were traveling
through Colorado and staying with friends so, not only was Abby in a strange
home, but, as far as she could tell, her mother and father were gone, perhaps
forever. So she reached for familiar things that could bring her comfort: in
this case, her pacifier, pillow and one of my shoes. We arrived home to
find the scene captured in the picture below and, as I recall, I smiled and
felt a wisp of regret but mostly laughed off what surely would have
been a traumatic experience for her. (Nearly a quarter of a century later,
her anguish is far more understandable to me now.)

Recently, I spoke to a group and made a
comment in reference to my daughter, Esther, that she had ultimately become the
real teacher as we learned much from her about coping with pain. I said that,
“The child had become teacher to the parent.” After the speech, a parent of a
child with Tay-Sachs disease approached me and
repeated my words about her own, two year old daughter, who was there beside
her. Tay-Sachs is a genetic neurodegenerative disease typically recognized
within the first year of life that eventually destroys the nerve cells in the
brain and spinal cord. Sufferers are eventually paralyzed, rendered deaf,
blind, cognitively impaired and typically die by age four.  I carefully
got down on my knees and took her daughter’s hands in mine and spoke for a
few moments to her child. This mom, who had come to our presentation looking
for hope, expressed deep appreciation for the thoughts we had shared
that morning about suffering and loss in our own journey with Esther. But to
this grieving mother, I really only said two things: “I’m so sorry for all the
pain” and, “Your daughter’s light is bright and beautiful and clear.”

Suffering? No thank you. As many have noted, if we
live long enough, we will all experience suffering and -like wrinkles- its
marks will certainly lengthen and deepen with age. Such is the cost and terror
of this thing we call life; it comes with joy abounding and pain endured, an
earned beauty that defiles soul and skin, a cutting that displays our
inner anguish and the overcoming of it. To attempt to avoid grief is like trying
not to breathe, the end of which is to render one unconscious. And what of
detachment as escape or coping tool? It’s quite possible that many
of my maladies of spirit and body are attempts at evading the gods of
pain. But there is no escape. Even the dominant religious idea of our time, the
received doctrine of redemptive suffering –the crucifixion/resurrection story,
celebrated by a billion people this very weekend- is predicated on the
need to address our deepest sorrow. As troubling as this narrative
might be for some, there is a simplicity in such an attempt to put all our trauma and
sadness in a single box of mysteries, as if we could somehow wrap a bloodied bow
around all our agonies with one answer to suffering.

Shoah writer and survivor, Elie Wiesel, wrote in
his book, Hope, Despair and Memory, “Because I remember, I despair.
Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” This is one of the most
powerful statements that I have ever read about the responsibility we have to
never forget atrocity, lest reborn genocides reattach and defile again. What
this witness to the Holocaust is saying is that to reject despair is to embrace
hope. Though many of us live with, and sometimes even revel in despair, I
think most would agree with Wiesel that it is ultimately our duty to
reject it. I must not forget that others have suffered, or my heart might
harden in a vain attempt to somehow lessen personal suffering. I must resist
such temptations to timidity in my calling as a witness, which may well be the
only link in another's chain of remembrance.

But what if I cannot reject despair? What if it
swallows me whole, or slowly dismembers and devours me piece by piece? If I
resist the tearing, there is no cowardice in that. (It appears that for some
deep-sufferers, there remains a hope in surrender, in letting go, even when
-perhaps especially when- one can no longer bear up under the weight of the
press.) Intermittent desperation for air is on the agenda for every one of us
from the moment of physical birth forward, but still we thrash about, trying to
escape or minimize the panic which inevitably confronts us, enveloping us in
varying degrees of intensity, stopping only when all evidence of decomposition
is complete. Because despair is the suffocation of hope, it is reasonable that
we would attempt to retreat from it in order to inhale exclusively from the
oxygen of some restored, future goodness. This may be because hope itself
functions in our lives as a life-giving organism.

Perhaps there are degrees of despair that serve us
in ways that are also life-sustaining in their work, acting as a kind of
spiritual immune system? One summer during college I worked as a lone lifeguard
at a large indoor swimming pool. I saved a few swimmers then who'd gotten in
over their heads and it was deeply satisfying to know that I was there and
capable of saving them. Now, I'm sure they would have been rescued by another
had I been asleep or unavailable, but I was alert and did what I needed to do
to deliver them from the void. It's possible that the only real deadly pathogen
in life is apathy.

Elie Weisel, along with that beautiful little girl
I met a few days ago, remind me that the world needs others to volunteer, rise,
and become the remember-ers of what our fellow sufferers cannot finally overcome.
I believe in the courage of an enlightened humanity, one that will stand
together in spite of personal, excruciating grief. I've seen such unbroken and
unstooped witnesses, especially among the young, these brave, vibrant and ready
heroes to an otherwise unremembered suffering, who offer proof that hope
endures in the presence of our deepest losses. I am much encouraged by the
presence of the many, and mindful that a drowning man has hope if his rescuers
number but one. Suffering is less every time an injustice is addressed, any
time there is a kindness or recognition of clear light, wherever it is found,
however dim.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday and if that celebration
of triumph over the Ultimate Loss means anything, perhaps it has to do with a
tenacious fixing of oneself at the door, clinging desperately for deliverance
even though we are entirely spent, bathed in a pool of our own tears -maybe
even our own blood- exhausted by too much longing. One evening long ago,
the hope of resurrection looked a lot like a pacified and poured out toddler,
eyes wet, yet Masada-like resistant, barricaded in a forgotten doorway,
comforted by an old shoe.
Our daughter Abby, age three, waiting for her mom and dad.




Tuesday, January 27, 2015

One Year Ago: TSWGO Book Launch

One year ago tomorrow, we celebrated the publication of Esther's memoir, This Star Won't Go Out. A few days later, on February 1st, about 300 people enjoyed an Evening of Awesome at the book launch event. We ended that grand night wrocking out with Esther's favorite band, Harry and the Potters. Unforgettable is too small a word for those magical days, filled as they were with visits from Esther’s family, closest friends and fans old and new. To paraphrase John Green, the only thing missing was her.

A year later, TSWGO continues to sell quite well and bookstores and libraries everywhere know it by name. Last week, I stopped in at a store I don’t get to very often. I ordered something and as the clerk took down my info and began adding my email address she suddenly stopped and said, “THE Wayne and Lori Earl –Esther’s parents?!” And then we were both crying and hugging as if we had been old friends, now reunited after a long absence. She held up her ‘Esther wristband’ (which I hadn’t noticed) and told me the tale of her own cancer diagnosis and the comfort this book had given her during her recent treatment. This 21 year-old, a moment ago a stranger and now a friend, had drawn courage from our Star.

In 2014, we went to the premiere of The Fault in Our Stars and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Autobiography and Memoir and we signed a bunch of autographs, spoke in DC, Alabama, California, Florida and Wisconsin and just about everywhere online. We heard from readers in places like Spain and Turkey, Russia and France who’ve been moved to Increase Awesome because of her and we wondered when we’d hear about the first baby to be named after her. (We met a college professor last fall who was several months pregnant but still unsure as to what to name her baby. She emailed recently to say that she'd had a boy and that from the moment she met us she had decided to name her baby, Abraham were she to have a boy. So Abe gets the name thing going long before his more famous sister, but I’m betting that Esther Grace will surely rebound.)

It has been 54 months since she left us; four and half years and still we remain focused on trying to love one another and others in a way that was so easy for her. I tell her readers that she really was like all that. It is surreal that she remains suspended in time (like all the dead who leave too soon) and this has created a certain kind of persona to be sure. Still, all who knew her here, see her true self there, in such a constructed postself. And that's remarkable. She really was kind and earnest and interested in so many things and especially in people and in decreasing world suck. We continue to draw strength from her example and are grateful to share her message of wonder and welcome wherever the invitations take us, invited or unexpected. That’s a pretty good legacy for anyone.

The best thing any of us can leave behind is a life well lived. That’s not news to my readers! But I am convinced that the best-lived lives assume a good character –not a perfection, but an aspiration toward such goodness. After Esther died, Abby left to California to continue the journey of becoming her true self and then our Evangeline went north to Vermont to seek aid in becoming the kind of person she must be. And just tonight, a full year after the book launch, Evangeline landed in Israel for a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University! I told her to say yes to the adventure and gulp it all up. After all, she’s just 23 and gets a hall pass to explore new worlds and breathe in new foods and friends, bleeding and laughing with them, aware that the memory of sorrow and any experience of joy are part of the same mystery. (“Thou art illusion Youth! This dangerous and beautiful age, full of boasting, at best a kind of Snapchat of the thing we call living. But so be it then. Live there as fully as thou canst for old age will surely come and memories be the material soul that remains.”) At 23, I had graduated from college, taking with me a deep grief and hopeful wonder for all I was leaving behind and for all that was yet to be discovered. At 23, next to a hotel pool outside our nation’s holy of holies (Disneyland), I asked my best friend to marry me! (I would have asked even if the answer had been no -but she said yes! and my life has been the easier for it though her life probably harder, yet richer, too.)

One year later, we’re still okay, Star. Because of your book I can see your face most anywhere I go. And sometimes I pick it up and hold it close. But you are closer to my heart than any image. I knew such goodness! I know it still. I have taken on some of the life you lived and now attempt to put it into my conclusion in plain view of any and all passers-by, this final thought from THE Wayne Earl: Abandon yourself to Love and true abundance will be the reward for those who understand that any bounty cannot be hoarded but rather, must be gifted for all. If you live this way, contentment and wisdom will be obliged to sometimes lead, but always follow you, all the days of your life.

                             Abigail & Evangeline at TSWGO Book Launch

Celebration of Esther at LeakyCon 2014!