The Lost Country

bridge-child-net-photography-pride-shadow-favim-com-100579

I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

th

While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

giphy

 

 

  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.

 

Little Things (poem)

window

A man who hungers for the adulation of millions
and puts little importance on the love of just one
often finds nothing mattered more than that love
When the days and the battles of his life are done.

Little things like romance were a petty distraction.
Love taken for granted, vanity none could endure.
And at the end, in a lonely room full of trophies,
He finally learns how big the little things were.

Integrity or Despair?

Sackett

Everyone is a teacher. I met one today. He was reading a Louis L’amour novel called The Strong Shall Live, sitting on a city bench in the outdoor seating area of Porto’s, my favorite bakery in Burbank, California. He appeared to be over eighty years old and wore a neatly-pressed suit and dress shoes despite the warm July weather. Because of his age, I imagined him to be a throwback to a time when men dressed well when they planned to be among others.

I had seen him reading in that spot before but never spoke to him. Today I decided to change that. I asked him how the book was. He smiled and said, “Excellent! I’ve read it a few times but it never gets old.” He said he has plenty of time to read now that he’s retired but likes to be around people. “Some men don’t like to drink alone,” he said with a smile. “I don’t like to read alone.”

I asked him what he did when he was younger. He replied, “What didn’t I do would be a shorter answer, or maybe what I wish I would have done.”

That seemed like a more interesting question anyway so I asked, “Okay, what do you wish you would have done?”

He said, “I always wanted to be a screenwriter. I even wrote a movie, but I never had the guts to share it with anyone.”

I told him that was a shame and suggested that he dust it off and share it now. He said, “Ah, no. I’m afraid the subject matter is as dated as I am. Nobody would be interested.”

I told him I happened to be a writer, offered to take a look at it, and suggested that maybe it was providence that brought us together, but he refused to share his screenplay. “To be honest,” he said, “I don’t even know where I put it.”

My fellow writers will understand how sad that made me feel. At the bottom of some box lay 120 pages he poured his heart and soul into at one time, yet never shared with anyone. He just held the dice, he never threw them. All the work for nothing.

An old line came to mind – “Much talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.” One could say the joy and reward was in the writing, but what is writing without an audience? Without new eyes? Third-party perspective?

He went on to say that he had done some stunt riding for westerns back in the 40’s and 50’s when he was very young. He had learned to ride growing up in Texas so it was easy work for him. He dreamt of being an actor but – and this is the part that really made me sad – he said, “I was never successful at that because I was a combination of shy and ignorant. I wasn’t assertive enough, and even if I had been, I was stupid.”

I felt he was being unfairly hard on himself and tried to make him feel better. I said, “Everybody is shy and uneducated to some degree when they’re young. There’s a reason people say ‘youth is wasted on the young.'” But he kept insisting that he was incurably stupid as a young man, and blamed that for his never being the screenwriter or actor he wanted to be. I tried again to comfort him by saying those businesses are hard for even the most assertive and educated. He conceded that was true.

It’s difficult to see anyone of an advanced age kicking themselves around. They’re the embodiment of what psychologist Erik Erickson described as the final stage of life – “integrity versus despair” – people either feel they’ve accomplished something with their lives or they’ve wasted it, that they were good or bad, wise or foolish. Grumpy old people are usually in despair. Nice, kind, friendly old people feel integrity – satisfaction with a life well-lived. I wondered if my new friend even saw the irony of telling me he never tried hard enough while reading a book called The Strong Shall Live.

This man puzzled me because he was very kind to me but not kind at all to himself. I suppose that’s true of most of us. Most of us occasionally say or think things about ourselves that we would never say about someone else. We really are our own worst enemy. As Mark Twain wrote, “I never met a man who gave me as much trouble as I have.”

So what lessons did this teacher teach me? I’ve been both shy and ignorant. Fortunately, it was many years ago when I was very young. But I’ve worked hard to educate myself in my chosen field, and I’m actually a bit of an extrovert now, so I’ve turned that around, thank God. It seems, therefore, that the only way to prevent that kind of despair in old age is to DO THE WORK, and what the work consists of is a uniquely individual thing. It can only be determined by us individually, privately. What is it that stands between you and your dream right now? How are you going to dissolve it, destroy it, get it out of the way?

Part of the work for me was writing my way out of my shyness, doubt, sadness, regret, guilt or any other emotion I didn’t want. These exercises often took the form of poems – big ideas in little packages. Powerful ideas change people, not lectures. What Joseph Campbell called “ouches and aah’s” – trials and revelations.

One of these poems was the one below about the bullies that hide in the heart. As much as I liked the man I met today, I don’t want to become him. I don’t want to read novels about courage under fire but have none myself. I don’t want to reach old age and wish I would have tried harder. I will not “tip-toe through life to arrive at death comfortably.” No. Lack of effort is failure by default. And the less we try to become who we are supposed to be, the less comfortable old age becomes. 

There’s No Way Around But Through

When I was thirteen years old or so,
walking through the hallway to class,
the school bully stood in front of me
And absolutely refused to let me pass.

I moved to the left, and then to the right.
He just laughed and moved that way, too.
It was that moment when it dawned on me –
There was no way around but through.

So I kicked the bully right where it hurts.
He let out a yell and I watched him fall.
After that, he gave me plenty of room
When he saw me coming down the hall.

I really should try to remember his name,
Maybe send a flowery thank you card.
Without the lesson he taught that day,
My life might have been very hard.

You see, a bully doesn’t have to be human.
It’s what keeps you and your dream apart.
So much talent is forever lost to the world
Because of the bullies that hide in the heart.

So whatever it is that stands in your way
And keeps you from living a life that’s true,
Remember the lesson I learned from the bully.
My friend, there’s no way around but through.

51F2XttXB0L._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_

Just Live (poem)

Young hand holding old hand

I wrote this about twenty-five years ago. It’s about four stages in a man’s life. When I wrote it, I was in the second stage. I’ve completed the third now and hope to complete the fourth gracefully. 

Just Live

There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.

Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.

Like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.

***

A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.

His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.

No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”

***

A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,

when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.

Then he thought, “Oh, my God.  Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”

That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.

***

An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”

He says, “Don’t be sad.  I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .

“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.

I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.

Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.

So do one thing more for me.  Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”

~ Mark Rickerby

RIP Erin Moran

18077224_10155248165356350_8321397138919067173_o

There are plenty of bad photos of Erin Moran on the Internet when she was having problems that the tabloids were happy to exploit, but I will always remember the energetic, innocent girl, the quintessential little sister, on my favorite TV show as a child.

It was initially reported that she died of a heroin overdose, then corrected to stage 4 throat cancer. However, her drug use and excessive smoking were well-publicized for years before her death. Every untimely celebrity death is another example to me of what the world can do to us if we let it. We’re all going to get old, but we don’t need to speed the process along with substance abuse. Successes will come and go, but how much we let the low points define us is always our own decision. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in it we make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Maybe she didn’t care enough about herself because of personal tragedies, or because Hollywood stopped calling, or maybe she was just wired that way. Whatever it was, the tragedy is that it (cancers and overdoses) are often preventable.

Her death is also a little personal to me because my brother and only sibling died of a heroin overdose. I watched his gradual self-degradation the same way I watched Erin’s over the years. He went from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who played baseball with me in the street to a tattooed, toothless convict. It was horrible to witness. He told me he saw Erin Moran once. They may have been traveling in the same circles. I also saw my dad unsuccessfully fight an addiction to cigarettes his entire adult life. When he died of aspiration pneumonia, he couldn’t breathe on his own because of all the damage he had done to his lungs. So it’s safe to say I’m anti-drugs and anti-smoking. To me, it amounts to throwing our lives into the trash.

Erin was born in Burbank, California, which is where I live, but she moved to a place called Palmdale, about thirty miles north of Burbank, which is a cesspool of drugs and crime. That’s probably where her heroin addiction started. It’s sold there like soda pop.

Take care of yourselves, friends. Embrace life and health. Reckless living and bad health decisions only help old age and death find you sooner than they deserve to. We can’t remain children, but we can prevent the world and others from stealing from us the things that are childlike – joy, hope, trust, innocence, purity, excitement. It may be true that nothing gold can stay, not completely anyway, but we can hold on to most of it by keeping a healthy body, mind and soul. Those who allow this world to pollute and invade them ruin their lives, hasten their deaths, and break the hearts of those who remember them when their eyes were clear and bright and anything was still possible.

Rest well, Erin. I wish you were still here, happy and healthy, enjoying your status as one of America’s sweethearts. I hope your health and mind are fully restored to you in heaven. May you have an eternity of Happy Days there.

That We Were Kind (poem)

oldlady.jpg

Does anyone know where the little boy went?
The little boy who used to be me?
He’s still alive somewhere inside this shell,
Though the shell is all you can see.

Can you still see him reaching out for love
From behind these time-worn eyes?
The child with a heart as bright as the stars
Hiding beneath this thin disguise?

What a cruel trickster Father Time can be,
Changing our costumes as we age.
From infant to child, and from young to old,
A new character with every stage.

We might as well be four different people.
The adult barely resembles the child.
The external transformation is so complete,
Young and old are rarely reconciled.

But there are some whose eyes still twinkle,
For whom the child within never dies.
The outside world can see only the surface.
Only they know how their surface lies.

What can we learn from all this changing?
From the fact that nothing is real?
How can we judge by a deceptive façade
That hides the way we truly feel?

The way to get the whole picture, it seems
Is to think of everyone that we see
As the child they were, who they are today,
And the old person they soon will be.

We should also see them as dead and gone,
Their short life on earth finally done,
With all their trials rendered null and void,
All their battles either lost or won.

Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on
And you may contribute a verse.”
The same is true for every person we meet.
We make their lives better or worse.

Thus, we should measure disheartening words
And make sure they need to be spoken
So we won’t be among those who caused dismay
If they reach the end of life heartbroken.

And when those we’ve known are old and gray,
Remembering years they left behind,
Comforting words we said might return again
With the memory that we were kind.