Wake Me Up

Fall semester 2013 I was already conscious that I was nearing the end of my life as a teacher. Though I hadn’t “set” a target date or anything like that, I felt it “in my bones.” I say that as if intuition were something special, but in my case it’s only my mind working things out on my behalf without allowing my consciousness to mess things up.

I had two classes in a building apart from campus in classrooms over Starbucks. Both classes were great and I was sure that they were great partly because we all felt a little less like we were at school. Both classes were alive and active and brave. In one of the classes was a student who was very attractive to me — no, no, no don’t get the wrong idea. Not that way.

As I got to know the kid I learned he’d been a junky. I learned the circumstances of that and how he’d pulled himself out of it. As with many addicts he was way more alive than most people. I sometimes think that some addicts begin using booze or drugs as a way to dampen themselves, to tone down their energy or intelligence, something just so they can fit in. Sure, lots of people use drugs or booze to have more fun, but I think others use them as a way to have LESS fun, if that makes any sense. This kid was one of those. So here he was, 33, back in school. He quickly fell in love/lust with a classmate, a hot and smart Russian girl who cheated on exams.

Driving to school one afternoon I heard this song by Avicii and I thought, “Wow that’s about the kid” and hearing it more often I thought, “Wow, that’s about me.” I heard the song often and eventually bought it. I was thinking a lot about addiction and intelligence teaching this kid. As the semester went on, I realized how much he looked like my brother,  another explanation for the instant rapport and fascination. “Look,” I said one day, pointing my laptop screen in his direction.

“Who’s that?”
“My brother.”
“Wow. That’s weird.”
“I know.”
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”

I walked to my car that night the song in my head, thinking, “But I am older.”
“You’re still not awake,” answered that random other side of my mind. “If you were you’d see things as they are.”
I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing and I started to look for it. Finally I did see it. I had to. It wasn’t fun to look at; it was disappointing. It made me sad and frustrated but it set me on the path I had to take.

People have often asked me how is it that I’m sober when my brother was an alcoholic and my mom, too. Why? Well, seeing that would be enough to sober up anyone, but I also don’t think I am sober. I learned a long time ago that work away from home could give me independence financially and personally. It got me out of the house and helped me move my life forward. Teaching always gave me an incredible high — that is until 2010 when a student physically assaulted me over an A-. At that moment, part of me began waking up. Was teaching my calling or was it a drug? What would I have done in these 35 years if I had not been a teacher? My brief stint as a free lance writer taught me that I didn’t want to be a “pen for hire.” The expense of being a painter was one thing that kept me from being a painter. I think. Or maybe deep in my soul I knew (or simply dreaded?) that I was not good enough. One thing about addiction is that it lets the addict off the hook. The direction is clear. Get more stuff. One imperative. An addict can succeed at the one thing the addict cares about — the stuff to which he/she is addicted. In addiction an addict hides from the failure they fear.  I saw that while I might love teaching (I did) I was also afraid of other dreams. The imperative to earn a living is real, and I never stopped writing and painting, regardless how many classes I was teaching. That should have shown me something but I was not awake to it.

“I’ve really enjoyed being in your class, Martha,” he said. Most students called me Professor Kennedy, but coming from him, that sounded weird. He had sensed this and didn’t use it.
Usually when we talked the conversation went off in the same kinds of crazy directions my conversations with my brother had gone. I really liked this kid. I knew he had been in my class to teach me just as much the other way around. “Thanks. I’ve enjoyed knowing you, too.”
“I’m sorry I won’t see you any more and we can’t talk any more.”
Unlike the kid, I’d been through this thousands of times. A teacher is an important figure in a student’s life for a term, or a year, or a few years, very occasionally forever. “Me too., but you know, I don’t make friends with students any more. I used to, when I was younger, sometimes, but I haven’t for a long time.”
“I can understand,” he said. “You’d have a shitload of friends!”
“Yeah. I don’t even connect with most students on Linkedin.”
“You’d have what, like a billion connections?”
We laughed.
“Here’s my real email.” I wrote it on a piece of paper that I was sure he would lose. “We can meet up next semester for a coffee or something.” Beginning to end it was a gesture. He put it behind his drivers license in his wallet. In that moment I made the break. I took the first step out of the world in which I had hidden for 35 years.

I walked through the parking structure that night knowing that I would be teaching only a few months longer. I didn’t want to live in a world any more in which I was a role and a function. I woke up. A little. So here I am in the summer of 2014, cleaning, painting, repairing and packing, hoping to be able to quickly shed the chrysalis.


Kindness of the Gods

In 2010 my brother — a hardcore alcoholic — died. None of his friends or family knew about it until five months afterward. I was devastated, naturally. I’d “cut off” my brother six years earlier when his constant demands for money and his absolute lack of awareness about anything in my life or his daughter’s life was too much. I always hoped that he would want us enough after a while to stop drinking. I have known people who made that choice — family vs. booze. My brother chose booze. And, right now I do not want to hear anything about “it’s a disease; they can’t choose” because the reality is that yes, addiction is a disease BUT the only cure lies in the hands/mind/heart of the addict. There is NO OTHER cure. Simple cure, horrendously difficult to accomplish. If you believe otherwise, you’ve bought into the addict’s con and my prayers go out to you.

When I learned of his death, I contacted one of his friends. We did work to confirm it. I was left, then with finding his body. After some effort it was delivered to me — ashes — by my sweet, friendly and dog-loving postal worker. She had no idea what she was handing me over the fence, but there was my brother.

My brother was my best friend. I loved him with all my heart and soul. So, as it happened, did many others. When the news got out I made a Facebook group for his friends. My brother was an artist and soon photos of his works began to appear on the page. Memories and stories appeared, also. Then, one of his friends from high school — Lois — held a wake for him. I couldn’t go (it was in Colorado and I’m in California). They filmed it as it was going on and I watched it on Facebook and commented — as if, almost, I was there. I saw my brother’s friends, all of whom were from his teens and twenties. I felt I had met them and knew them and loved them, but I only knew a couple of the

Three years later I went to Colorado to give a paper. By then I’d made Facebook relationships with some of my brother’s friends. We planned a small “service” for him and a dispersal of some of his ashes which I shipped ahead in case TSA didn’t like the stuff that looked exactly like gunpowder. I met some of these people for the first time. Others for the first time in more than 40 years. My new/old friend, Lois, and her husband cooked a brunch for everyone who would be coming. We sat in her living room and talked about my brother and about addiction and about each other and where life had brought us all. When the time was right, we took my brother’s ashes up to a place we had all loved as young people, to rocks on which my brother and I used to climb. I put some ashes between a cedar tree and a juniper tree, and one of my brother’s friends tossed some of my brother into the air.

I did not know these people. Many had not seen my brother in decades. ALL of them — all of us — had had some terrible experience with him. They were there to memorialize my brother, but they were also there for me. Never in my life have I experienced anything like that. I felt as if my brother — now in some place where he’s no longer tormented by the demons that pursued him — brought me to his friends. Perhaps he was finally able to see how golden they are. Perhaps  he knew I would love them. In any case, out of it and their kindness, have come friendships that I treasure with all my heart. I almost cannot believe my good fortune awakening from the sorrow and darkness of my brother’s life and my life with him into such a circle of kindness.


I Quit Facebook

I quit Facebook last summer, cold turkey, and it stuck. For the first few days it was very strange for me, but then…  I have a presence on Facebook now for my novels and to run a fan page for an art guild of which I’m a member. I have no “personal” presence. A couple of my friends followed my lead and, as did I, found their lives were better — more peaceful and more productive.

What continues to be strange is that if you leave Facebook people have serious reactions — they can feel rejected (personally), they can stop being your friends IN REAL LIFE, and it is pretty much the end of contact. I didn’t have a ton of ‘friends’ and most of my ‘friends’ were really friends or good acquaintances. From time-to-time I get emails that say, “We miss you on Facebook.” After quitting Facebook I finished the edits on a novel and began another.


Day One: Facebook. I suppose it’s a kind of drug. Yesterday, I took a step back and thought about Facebook. What’s good about it? Connections with people I want to be connected with. What’s bad about it? It’s a time suck and an emotion suck.  There’s so much bullshit in day-to-day life that looking for it at home on one’s computer just seems kind of nuts. Can I live without it? Can ANYONE live without it in these days? Can friendships survive the absence of that connection? I guess I want to know the answer to that.

Human relationships are already fraught with peril. So… Whatever it is I want from life or have ever wanted from life, well, generally just something that isn’t hedged in by ickiness.

Day Two: It’s a little strange not to check my “wall” and I realize how much of that was habit not curiosity. Reading news stories and checking sources for students, hitting on articles I would otherwise share is also strange, but OK. I remembered my first exposure to Facebook and how perplexed I was that my Facebook friends posted things which were no more content-rich than “I just inhaled” “I’m exhaling now”. Of course, I think I became/have become that person.

We need attention. I’ve had a long email conversation today with a friend from long ago about loneliness. She is very lonely and reasonably so. She’s married to a man a lot older than she is. They live in a beautiful condo but out of the center of things. She’s somewhat introverted and from another culture so making new friends is not all that easy for her. She would really like a social life and I think she needs one.

I’d like one, too, and I think Facebook filled that gap in a way, but not a satisfying way. It is a social life without actually having to “socialize.” For me maybe that makes sense as I live “way to heck and gone” (such was not the case when gas cost 1/3 what it does now) and I work a lot, but for my friend Facebook doesn’t make sense. I don’t think it does for me, either, or I’d still be there.

Anyway, it is an addiction and it’s not going to be gone in one day. I would like to tell someone that my ear hurts or that my painting is going well or that Einstein didn’t say, “Insanity means doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” I’d like to craft a rant on students being lazy. But thinking of what I would do on Facebook makes me ask a question I would ask if I were actually posting on Facebook. Is any of that necessary for me to say or for others to know? What is really necessary for me? It would seem that it’s necessary for me to grade papers as they come in and work on a cow painting and maybe ride the stationary bike. Maybe it’s essential to focus on where I want to go with myself and my life and to use my time for that rather than seeking attention. Maybe NOT having THAT attention will inspire me to turn outward toward the world. Maybe I’ll return to long afternoon rambles in the mountains (doubtful with allergies and $4 gas but who knows?). I have definitely perceived the different amount of time I have without Facebook.

An interesting article that describes many of the discomforts I’ve been having:

Now the trick is to stick with it. There are even PLANS for quitting Facebook. T

Day Three:  And so here we are again. I’m grading student papers, most of which are not very good, but I’m just kind of stuck here reading bad writing and non-thought and not being able to breathe and fearing going outside because of the allergens.

But… a friend wrote about using Twitter to promote her artwork. I took a little internet jaunt to see what I could find out and I logged into my Twitter account. The thought of doing anything with it was completely enervating and that was that. Good idea or not, I don’t want to. Kim, who also “quit” Facebook yesterday is experiencing REAL depression and probably needs to see a doctor, but she also thinks Facebook has contributed to her feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and dread.“Ultimately, Facebook is changing the human race. People think, speak and live in status updates. We have become short spurts of witty commentary. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to truly connect with a person, rather than just their online character. We are all becoming narcissists. 

“We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being ‘alone together’…We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party,” wrote M.I.T. professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle in the New York Times.”As for me — I don’t know much more than I just want to stay away from it, for now at least. One day at a time!Facebook is a tedious distraction. More often than not, Facebook acts as a distraction and not a tool to “reconnect.” In fact, it’s estimated to be costing the U.S. economy billions. Constantly checking Facebook is an addictive habit, and one that is hard to break. We check our smart-phones every six-and-a-half minutes, and part of the reason why is that we’re always refreshing our Facebook pages. It’s hard to overestimate the site’s addictiveness. Alexia Tate, a friend of a friend who I’m connected to on Facebook, took a break from the site for 40 days during Lent last year. When she came back, she noticed that she’d become more of a Facebook fiend than ever. “Kind of like smoking,” she wrote in an email.”

Another article, a very good one, “The Flight from Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, says, wisely (in my opinion)

“So, in order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don’t experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves.

We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”


Oktay, Heroin, and the Color Purple

Weekly Writing Challenge: Leave Your Shoes at the Door

Nice idea. NOT possible. No one can walk “a mile in another’s shoes” or moccasins as I was raised to say the saying. Still, though it is not possible, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. It’s very important to try.

Back in the early ‘90’s (I was in my 40’s) I had a crush on a guy, let’s call him Ali, who didn’t return my feelings. I am not even sure now if I actually DID have a crush on him or if I thought I should. He and I hung out together a lot, but this story isn’t about him, it’s about a friend of his, Oktay.

Ali had invited me for dinner. He had learned to cook (having gotten tired of paying incredible prices for Turkish food) and was making Kefta (meatballs). It was Hallowe’en so I showed up with my face painted like a vampire. When Ali answered the door, he screamed, thinking I was bloodied from being in a car accident.

“You gave me a heart attack,” he said.

“It’s Hallowe’en,” I reminded him.

“You Americans,” was his response. Yes. As he cooked and told me about a girl he was slowly falling in love with (he never rushed into anything; he was a non-impulsive man, a kind of vampire himself, who seemed [to me] to feed off the crashes and emotional highs and lows of his friends.) We ate and talked and I fought a sense of boredom spawned of the futility of the situation. The doorbell rang. Ali answered and a long loud conversation in Turkish ensued. I sat on the sofa and imagined how great it would be to walk into the rainy night and go home, taking the arrival of Ali’s friend as a reason for me to leave. I found my coat, put it on and headed for the door.

“Don’t go!” Ali protested. “You can’t go, this is Oktay. You will like him. You will want to talk all night.”

Oktay was very thin and very tall. He wore black Levis and motorcycle boots; he carried a helmet and he wore a leather jacket. I found him extremely attractive. There was a wild energy.

It turned out that Oktay was a photo-journalist and his assignment had been photos of the border war between the Turks and the Kurds. He told me his life story. He was raised by a single mom, hated school, hardly ever went, one day saw a camera in the window of a store in Istanbul and KNEW he wanted to be a photographer. He put all his energy into learning to take pictures and worked in the shop instead of going to school. After a while he was so good that he became a professional photographer and ended up taking horror photos of the war.

“No one, not even Turks, knows what’s going on there. No one. Babies with arms blown off you cannot imagine, any way, I hope you cannot imagine. And my country? It acts like it’s not really happening. I don’t know what is worse. The war or the lies about the war. But, now I’m here and this,” he gestured wrapping in air all of American culture, “does not seem real. At least that is real.”

I have long wondered why that is. For most of my life I believed that goodness, beauty, comfort, functionality were LESS real than pain, suffering and hopelessness. I believe it was growing up in my family that did this to me, growing up with an increasingly crippled father and a mentally disturbed mom. Something switched in my mind after my brother died, and I now find myself no longer drawn to the painful and sordid, but to anything that is NOT painful or sordid (without being facile or cliché).

So, I understood Oktay. Maybe I hadn’t seen one armed babies , but the darkness of life was part of my experience in ways I didn’t then understand completely.

“Now, I’m here because I have to get off the junk.”


“Heroin. But they don’t know what I have seen. And if they do know, if they have seen, how can they see as I have seen? How do you know if I say purple it is what you see as purple?” He held up his plastic cigarette lighter.

“That’s a stupid dispute,” I said. “We reach a consensus about that and it’s sufficient for us to communicate about the color. We cannot see the world through each others eyes, but we can agree your lighter is purple.”

Oktay laughed. “You are practical person, I see. I need more practical people around me, I think. You don’t take that seriously.”

“No, not that.”

“But no one can know another’s pain, that is what I mean.”

“I can know that you have felt pain. I can know that of everyone. I assume it to be true of everyone. It is my position.”

“You are unusual, then,” he said.

I did not know then that I had been raised by an addict and trained in the service of addiction. I did not know that an addict would be attractive to me because it would be familiar; it would feel like home. But I was drawn to Oktay in a mysterious way and it was mutual.

“You are fascinating woman, you know?” he said. “You are old but you are beautiful.” He was 23.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I would still want you, you know? Even you are old.”

Soon after, I got in my car and drove home. Oktay would soon be on his way to LA to work and later he would call me, tell me he was coming by, but he didn’t. Later, a friend of ours was stopped at customs. There were packets of heroin sewn into the coat she was wearing. Back in Istanbul, Oktay had given it to her as a gift. His plan was to take the heroin out of it later when they met up sometime. He failed completely at rehab, and his paper brought him back to Turkey. He lived a year longer before dying of an overdose.

Though we met only one time, Oktay turned out to be an important person in my life. As I learned more about my own family, struggled to save my brother from his addiction, faced the reality of my mother’s addiction, and saw my role in these family dramas I understood something about myself because of my strong, seemingly mystical, connection to Oktay.

He was right, perhaps, that we cannot know anothers pain. Perhaps he knew (but I doubt it) that we cannot save them from it, either.

Lion in an Iron Cage
Nazim Hikmet

Look at the lion in the iron cage,
look deep into his eyes:
like two naked steel daggers
they sparkle with anger.
But he never loses his dignity
although his anger
comes and goes
goes and comes.

You couldn’t find a place for a collar
round his thick, furry mane.
Although the scars of a whip
still burn on his yellow back
his long legs
stretch and end
in the shape of two copper claws.
The hairs on his mane rise one by one
around his proud head.

His hatred
comes and goes
goes and comes …
The shadow of my brother on the wall of the dungeon
up and down
up and down. (1928)



Forgive and Forget?

Garden of the Gods:Kirk's spot

Where My Brother’s Ashes Are

A lot of people have relatives who are addicts. The addict gets a lot of sympathy and the family might get some, but never as much as the “poor” addict. There’s no question that an addict shooting up or drinking him/herself to death is about as sad a story as there is. What I discovered over the years of attempting to help my alcoholic brother is that in the eyes of many of my family members he — because he was a problem and needed to be rescued — was more valuable than I was.

I was not aware that somewhere deep inside of me, I agreed with them.

As happens with drunks (my brother was a drunk) they either stop drinking, they die from drinking or they make the transition into becoming “incorrigible” drunks. My brother took the long way and by the time he died in 2010 he was 57, and I had not spoken with him in five years. I heard about his death accidentally. Someone trying to collect one of his brother’s innumerable debts contacted our aunt with the information that my brother had died. That message made its way to her daughter — my cousin — and then to me.

I was angry and abysmally sad. In order to save myself I had cut off direct contact with him. His persistence (and my trying to help him through various attempts at rehab) had led me to work three jobs. That sacrifice (and it was) was better than losing faith, better than believing his  words, “You don’t understand. I like being drunk. Why are you trying to stop me all the time?” But it took a toll and some of my friends, seeing the effect on me, stepped in, pretty much saying, “If you don’t stop, this will kill you.” They were right.

As the knowledge of his death sank in, I realized that I hated him for dying, for taking from me that burning coal of hope that there would come a day when he would decide that life, his daughter, his sister, his immense talent were worth more to him than being drunk. Now that door was irrevocably closed. I was then stuck with finding out how he had died; of what he had died; where he had died; what had happened to his body; if he’d died alone or in a hospital or? I was stuck with telling the family and facing their castigation, “Why didn’t you take better care of your brother?”

It’s very complicated this addict stuff. I had a lot to sort through and a lot to help my niece sort through. Then one day I saw a little saying somewhere — no idea where — but it said, “Forgiveness is accepting that you cannot change the past.” That was exactly right. I could not change my brother’s decisions in some dim moment thirty or forty years before. I could not change his nature, his childhood, his basic personality, his choices. Just as I’d had to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s choices while he was alive, I couldn’t re-write the past to make it turn out as I wanted. And yeah; I was angry at him for making the story turn out like that instead of the way I wanted it to.

With that understanding, I began to find my brother again. Not the drunk, but the man and the boy I’d loved, my best friend, but still a person I had always known was not me. I forgave him for taking himself away from me (that was, after all, what I hated him for, for not choosing me over booze).  

Last March, I took some of his ashes to Colorado Springs, our home town, and with his friends made a little pilgrimage to a spot between a cedar and a juniper tree below a formation that we all climbed as teenagers. Some of my brother’s ashes mixed with the sand, some were thrown into the air by his friend. It was a great day; spectacularly beautiful, filled with love, cold-late-winter sunlight, vibrant colors and spontaneous song. One of Kirk’s friends remembered a song Kirk had written and banged out on the piano, singing along. 

Kirk, 1974

I still miss him, and though no longer angry or as sad, I still couldn’t quite “get” the puzzle of his choices, but a dream I had recently put it all together. In the dream I was in a hotel in Death Valley. I opened the drapes to the sliding glass door. My brother was outside, lying on the grass, smoking his pipe. I opened the door. 

“Kirk, I thought you were dead!”

“Naw,” he said, jumping up and hugging me. “I just couldn’t handle that reality any more so I left.”

(Based on the daily prompt: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/prompt-forgive/)