Monday, October 18, 2010

I was the favorite.

It's an in-joke with my brothers and sisters. I'm not sure I get the joke. It's possible I was favored somewhat because I was the quiet one. When you have six kids, the quiet one is the favorite.

It was nice to be back at the old church, though it's changed somewhat -as we all have. But when I was young, the place was like a second home to me. I remember my mom trying to get me to go to church when I was a kid. It was a battle, but she finally found the one thing that would get me to go. She paid me. It's true. In the fifth grade, I got, like, 50 cents every Sunday. By Junior High, I had upped it to a dollar. We both won.

Though her parents were of dedicated, Bible-Belt, Christian stock, she never spoke to me of Jesus. She never quoted the Bible, prayed with me, or pondered aloud -at least to me- the Big questions of Life and The Universe. She was busy with six kids. I guess she figured, at a dollar a week, it was a bargain to pay me and have someone else do it.

If you knew her like I did, you know she was a saint. She was not like my father, who was more the "hardened adventurer." She was like Mother Teresa, and he was like Humphrey Bogart. They were an unlikely couple. As a matter of fact, a good portion of my youth was like being a deckhand on The African Queen. I remember, distinctly, one time being on our boat, the whole family. I was probably about ten. We were motoring upriver, and my Dad spied a large cave, port side. He wheeled the boat around, excited for some spontaneous exploring. It looked dangerous. When my mom saw what he was doing, she stood up in protest. She groaned and said something like, "Oh, Gary. No." My Dad just smirked and said –and I'll never forget it- he said, "Oh, Lois. The world is probably going to end in the next five minutes. What are you going to do about it?"

He was a tough guy. But she sat down and took it, prepared for anything. She made sure our life jackets were properly buckled. And I remember thinking, The world's going to end in the next five minutes? And we're just sitting here? In a boat? In a cave?

My mom could take anything. And she didn't play to win, she played to outlast. She knew a certain wisdom of life: that it's better to use your strength absorbing the blows in defense of others, than it is in delivering the punches. She was like Muhammad Ali.

But she didn't see herself as Muhammad Ali, or Mother Teresa. I think she saw herself as more Audrey Hepburn or Cyd Charisse. Or, on her bad days, that character in the 1948 classic film, The Red Shoes, about the ballerina who dances to her end by way of a pair of enchanted slippers. It was one of her favorite movies. But when I think of her, I think of the Gene Kelly classic, An American in Paris. She loved Paris, though she never went there. It’s good to have a dream like that, in life. And that Paris that she loved was not the real Paris, but the Paris of a Hollywood soundstage. And I think that even she believed that sometimes it’s better to just leave some things as dreams, where they are sure to be beautiful forever, and where hope can spring eternal.

The cancer was her toughest fight, and she fought it for a long time. But in the fight she never gave any thought to any preconceived, inevitable end. Her doctor would never say how long she had, probably because he couldn’t tell himself. “Your mom's a fighter,” he would say. And, as far as I know, she never asked how long she had, either. She asked when she could go back to work.

And that's who she was. A fighter, a dancer, a hard worker, and if you thought you were the favorite... well, you had five brothers and sisters, and there were hundreds of other children she was off to take care of there at the church, at the hospital, and elsewhere. And then, eight grandchildren. But she made you feel like you were the favorite.

She had her ditsy moments, as we all do. But she took them all in stride, with her ever-present, self-deprecating laugh and smile. I hesitate to tell the story, but my family will never forget the Christmas a few years back when one of us had gone to open a gift from her. It was wonderfully wrapped, but upon opening we'd found that the box was, well, empty. She'd neglected to put the gift inside! It was actually pretty funny, and my mom laughed about it, too. And, to be honest, I don't remember any gift she's ever gotten me. But I remember The Empty Box. We all still laugh about it. Just last week, after my mom died -it was so hard- and we all got together at my sister's and we ordered a bunch of pizzas. When they were delivered, it so happened that one of my nephews opened one of the pizza boxes and it was empty. There was no pizza in it. My sister said, "That's mom's!"

Maybe my siblings claimed I was my mom's favorite because we both liked the movies so much. But even though I was the one who went to film school, she liked movies more than me. At film school they taught you to analyze and critique them, pore over static images and look for symbolism. But my mom just loved them. She loved all of them. I don't know a frame of celluloid that she didn't enjoy. So often it seemed she was incapable of criticizing a film, and it drove me crazy, for some reason. But what a lesson: Let it go. Just enjoy it, while you have the chance. It’s a movie, after all. What was the point, otherwise? My mom. Always a positive outlook. Never critical. Ever-loving.

She was a Christian like no other. She didn't preach the gospel, she bore it out in her life, and in her manner. She was humble and unassuming, but mighty. And she was good.

This is what I learned from my mother: That you should work hard, but enjoy the movies. That you should surround yourself with children. That the world, in many ways, really is going to end in the next 5 minutes, and that you can turn the other cheek and take the blow with more strength than was used to deliver it. And that, like her unforgettable Christmas gift, the Tomb is empty. That there’s always hope.

And that we are all God’s favorites.


Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Post

Because it's time. Because CHANGE is in order! Well, ain't it? Oh, it's a new year. I resolve to redirect these energies elsewhere. Not that I abhor the blog, or anything like that, but I think the effort has been fulfilled. The title feels used, the opinions, redundant. There's no further need to clarify things. You know where I stand. I've done enough damage to my reputation. And now's as good a time as any.

The Most Significant Thing has always been the following seven: Family, Friends, God, Country, Work, Health, Passion. On hindsight, I should have set up those labels early on and just ascribed every post to one or the other, with an additional label for those days where I just showed up and voted "present" (but who really uses those labels, anyway?) So, such are the most significant things. Ignore one of them, I hold, and your life falls out of balance. Not saying it's easy.

The truth is I have found myself unspectacularly coming back to one of those things in particular: Family. Over the years I've found myself changed up to that point -where the family was once a source of pain, dysfunction, disappointment, and despair, now it is my reliable foundation, a hopeful destination, and an unexpected source of pride. I guess I'm growing up.

It's New Year's Eve and I'm surrounded by the whole big clan. Last night there was an impromptu talent show (I was a judge) that seemed straight out of Dan In Real Life, my new favorite gem of a film. I was sitting there on the couch with a glass of wine, alongside my siblings and their spouses and kids, and we were all hollering and laughing -and it seemed a perfect moment. But I noticed something significant: the simple fact that nobody there made the moment fun per se, but it was the collection of everyone that made it unforgettable. No one in the group was perfect, but everyone was indispensable. No single person held any right or privilege, any authority or preference, any grand talent or unique quality that superseded anyone else's -but the mere collection of us, with little more in common than blood, made the moment whole. "Wholeness" may be more important than any sort of balance, or it's at least the necessary construct of it. What I mean to say is, "balance" -which I have always sought with some sort of Zen indifference- is impossible without all the pieces and parts. When you're trying to get the engine to run, you can't just ditch a few gears. Some 500 posts, or so, and if I haven't made my point by now then I'm not sure I can. Hey. We're running out of metaphors here.

People have told me how lucky I am for having such a loving family, such a big family. And I am. I'm lucky. But frankly I believe it can be had by anyone. Start today: have six kids! (And try and love them!)

That's crazy, I'm sure. But my mom did. And my family has been through a world of incomparable hurt, unmentionable whatnot, and has come through to the other side. My parents made mistakes, but if it was a mistake to have six kids, then at least one wrong thing went right. There was thick and thin in my family over the years, feast and famine, hurdles and harbors, but somehow we're all still together in spite of us all. I would trade nothing for them, nor could I. I have walked away from friends and watched friends walk away over the years, but my Family has remained. What is there to do besides, make it work.

Families are funny things: born, made, assimilated, adopted. They take all sizes and shapes, and mine is not like yours. But one thing they all are: necessary. It begins and ends with family. They are there when you're born and, if you're only half-lucky, they are there when you die, but first things first -you're the family. Some folks fall off, for whatever reason, but you hold on to it and make it real. I have one sibling who goes out of her way to make every event a real party -always, at a minimum, unforgettable- and I'm lucky. And grateful. You do your part by at least contributing with your presence at the births and deaths and the significant in-between things like holidays and weddings. It took me a long time to learn it, but if you don't show up, you'll lose that most significant thing, and unwittingly replace it with something lesser. Without family, you're an orphan. And, hey, maybe you've always been an orphan. If so, endeavor to build a family. Eventually, they'll thank you for it. (And, hey, how do you think you'll feel as a result?)

As for me, I'm a father. And that means, above all else: keep the family together.

It's a new year.

(My mother last Easter with her, so far, eight grandchildren. She's a saint.)


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The past few days have been a diverting series of misadventures, unlike life back home only in the sense that we are surrounded by some life-affirming, invigorating, astounding beauty. We hiked a bit, explored various gift shops, and sampled local dining fare, leaving a wake of broken crumbly crackers, drinking straw wrappers, and shattered tree ornaments wherever we go. Restaurant servers ro-sham-bo to get our table out of their zone when they see us coming. But the kids are cute enough.

Hiked along a slick icy path the other day for a few miles or so. Long, shoulder-splitting icicles hung precariously above us at points, making us feel brave and trail-worthy. Everyone seemed to handle the 25 degree temps pretty well. At one point the Little Ditchman began moaning, "My knee hurts. My elbow hurts. I hafta go to the bathroom," and I figured we better turn around and head back to the car. Then she said, "Do you dig the hole before, or after?" Pause. Huh? "Oh. It's before!"

She'd been quoting lines from Up, so, yes, she is my daughter after all.

Yesterday we drove in an easterly direction, a hundred miles or so across the vast Colorado plateau (which extends well into southern Utah.) It was a perfect, scenic American byway, blanketed with a recent snow and the remnants of the holidays in rural civic displays, surrendered to the season. If you've seen Cars, (which the Little Ditchman happened to be watching during the drive) and have balked at those over-painted, idealized stretches of southwestern highways with their perfectly carved sandstone tunnels and bright red buttes and towering hoodoos dotting the landscape, I can now attest that that Pixar-crafted vision is grounded in reality. It's all there on UT Highways 9 and 12 -pine trees, teepees, and all.

Arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park at about the same time as a mild snowfall, which was charming for the kids and yet demoralizing for us adults who found the fabled, deep canyon, natural wonder of the southwest, filled with a heavy fog. "Oh well," we thought. "Next time." As if there would be one. On the way out of the park we drove to another viewpoint, on the off chance that maybe some of the weather had lifted. We were in luck.

(We're collecting all the states!)

Today, it's back to the big family for the turning of the New Year, which will be great. (We're out of money, anyway.) I'm going to insist on one last drive through the valley to gaze up at those awesome, glorious red cliff-faces, dusted with last night's snowfall. It's stunning, though the kids aren't quite able to grasp it yet. They get out of the car and immediately look down, so as not to trip over or miss some curious twig or rock or lump of ice. I guess, as you grow, you slowly lift your head, willing to be taken aback by all that miraculous world around you -those curious twigs, rocks, and lumps of ice a thousand times the size.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year-end salutes and salutations from Zion National Park!


Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings from behind the Zion Curtain! I ordered two large beers at a restaurant last night and all I got out of it was a series of trips to the men's room. It was a nice men's room. Tidy and fresh. They must give them extra attention here from all the extended use, since 3.2 percent is the maximum alcohol content legally allowed in the beer, if you didn't know. This amounts to little more than mugs of carbonated, hop-flavored water, so if you thought you were in a state of inebriation, you're not. You're in the state of Utah. (Unless you drink twice the beer at twice the speed. Enjoy the men's room!)

Zion! We're actually in Zion, too, which has always been just a few hours from my sister's place, though we've never made the trip to get the coveted Visitor's Center stamp. Aside from our church retreat, the Ditchmans didn't get a vacation last year, so this is it. Original plans were for Yosemite, which I thought would've been a pleasant, wintry way to ring in the new year, but it turns out the whole family was going to be in Vegas for the 2010 event, so how could we miss out on that? Anyway, we're making good use of that nether week of days between Christmas and New Year's by visiting Zion. Nothing happens in those few days anyway.

And room rates are cheap. "You've got the best room in the house," the perky lady at the front desk said when she handed me the key cards. This was a surprise, and words I've only heard once before at the El Tovar when I asked Mrs. Ditchman to marry me, bear me children, and then drag them to National Parks seven years hence in the middle of winter -all sickly and complaining. Yes, we were up all night from the cold, dry, coughing, (dammit.)

It's no El Tovar, but the place is clean. It's got a magnificent view of the edge of the park, and a nice little balcony for drinking it all in, if you can handle the Utah chill. The kids are making a mess of the place, which is one of the reasons we're not staying here, aside from the fact that we can't afford those things anymore. We love old, historic lodges (who doesn't?) so we'll be stopping in for a Near Beer later. In Zion, you get drunk on the view.

It's my first time here, and I didn't know what to expect, but it's all truly lovely -in that breathtaking, grandiose, National Parks sort of way. We went for a little family hike when we arrived yesterday and hoofed it up a snowy sandstone cliff for the promise of an unrivaled canyon view. The Little Digger was in the REI utility papoose, and the Little Ditchman cheerfully bounced astride us, though we were a mile high on a sandy, icy cliff face, with a single frozen steel rail the only thing that stood between us and a busy night for local mountain rescue teams. Then, since we didn't fall, night did -as we hadn't properly gauged the length and breadth of the hike. Happy tunes gave way to whiny complaints. Fingers and faces froze, and I thought, "Yeah. This is about right."

We made it back to the car. Easily found, as it was the only one left in the lot. And it wasn't completely dark yet. Never go camping with a Ditchman, that is, if you prefer the safe, unstoried, boring vacations of anal-retentive homebodies. We're not like that. We prefer impulsive jaunts, the thrill of danger, peril 'round every bend! Indiana Jones carries our bags!

But we're gonna take it nice and easy today.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

A terrific Christmas -the first one we've celebrated at home since we were married, since we usually party down in Vegas. But our Little Ditchman is at that wondrous age where The Magic Man will actually, expectedly, slide down her chimney and dispense the annual reward for twelve long, hard months of niceness. She spread reindeer food on the grass (ingredients: oats, glitter, etc.) and when asked whether she thought the enchanted caribou would alight on the back lawn or the front, she was thoughtful about it. "The front," she announced confidently, giving no reason. And who among us would argue?

We were able to cram all the events in: me with my last minute shopping, Family 'A' coming over for Christmas dinner, Christmas church service, up late to meet Santa and help with the wrapping/assemblage portions of his labors, Christmas morn full of glee and delight, prep and clean abode for sitter, drive hundreds of miles to Family 'B' for Christmas dinner, and finish off with a rousing rendition of our annual family tradition of singing the 12 Days of Christmas around the table -though we were 4 days short this year, and some of us had to double up.

The Little Ditchman took two verses, and I was at first concerned she couldn't handle the workload and tried to take one from her. But her mommy and others jumped on me for this, righted me, and off The Little Ditchman went -she would've taken all 12 verses if given chance. It was quite a sight, and I was proud. (So she loves to sing carols -who woulda thunk it?) I've written of the glorious tradition of ours before, so I won't go into it, but it was fun, especially seeing the little girl join in so cheerfully. It's nice that my big family keeps having kids. We need to fill out the choir.

And there was the Great Unwrapping. This year was different, as it has been spread out over a week or so. There was some on Christmas Eve, and then the following morning, and then just a bit ago, and there will be some later, as more family arrives. In the past, it's been a tsunami of ribbon and tissue, (which I find fun) but this year it was necessarily a rolling set of swells every so often, all perfectly surfable. It's become this way out of necessity, and so be it. Santa comes to our house now, too, and we love it.

I got a good gift, by the way, from my sister. One of these. It met my criteria for the perfect gift -something you've always wanted but were just unwilling to shell out the cash for. I love it! Though... I admit I'm not sure it contributes much more to the wine than a nice swirling of the glass would -but hey, it's a gift. It's fun. And I'm gonna use it later, and I won't have to decant an entire bottle.

Like the day after Thanksgiving, I've found myself with a moment to type some here. Everyone is out: at the park, shopping, movies, and me and the Little Digger are home having a Bud Lime. It rounds out the season. Though this time, instead of napping, he's opening every cupboard and emptying the contents on the floor. (Forgive me if this reads a little on the choppy side.) He's that kind of kid. Leave the bathroom door open and he'll follow you in and fondle your pee stream from between your legs.

I'm looking forward to the next few days. There's a lot of looming worry on the business front, and it's great to put it all aside for a while. Year's over. Go again.

(That is, go again next week.)


Friday, December 25, 2009

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart,
And to radiate the light of Christ,
Every day,
In every way,
In all that we do and all that we say,

Then the work of Christmas begins.

-Howard Thurman