The Lost Country

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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.

Two Worlds (poem) – Childhood and Charlottesville

Here’s one of my first attempts at poetry, written during my (overly) dramatic and (unnecessarily) tumultuous late teens or early twenties. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t just a choice between serenity and strife. In fact, life always fluctuates between the two. It’s how we handle the episodes of strife that matters most. Wayne Dyer said we all need to have an “insular Tahiti” – a place inside ourselves the world can’t touch. Otherwise, pain will invade us completely and overwhelm our ability to cope or even imagine being happy again, like thinking a storm will last forever and the sun will never shine again.

As a kid, I loved a toy called the 3D View-Master.

I didn’t have video games or an iPhone. We only had a couple of TV channels, and except for afternoons and Saturday mornings, only adult shows were on, so we kids back then were much more easily entertained. I would crawl inside those View-Master slide worlds and live there, so much so that my mind today is a panoply of the idyllic scenes the geniuses behind this toy created. My childhood wasn’t perfect so this escapism was a blessing and a relief. I suspect the mental vacations into the View-Master slide worlds must have been even stronger for kids living in worse circumstances than I did. The fantasy inside the little binoculars versus the real world they were born into.

I’ll be using 3D View-Master slides in part to illustrate this poem. Enjoy!

Two Worlds

Two worlds have I known along the path of this life –
one of serenity, the other of strife.

The first world I knew was a magical place
of warm smiles and laughter and kind-hearted grace.

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Of meadows and tulips, wood shoes and white blouses.
Of bread trails and bonnets and gingerbread houses.

Of blind mice and windmills and Little Jack Horner.
Of Winnie and Tigger and the tree at Pooh Corner.

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Of fun-loving pirates and billowing sails.
Of serpents and mermaids and friendly, blue whales.

My young eyes saw the world as a sweet, gentle place
without hatred or killing over nation or race.
There was no better or worse, only different from me
and it made life enticing, a grand mystery!

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I remember gazing in wonder, unexamined and pure,
at the indigo sky. Oh, the thoughts it allured!
So many places someday I would see!
So many people to share it with me!

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But the wind-spinning freedom which was my young world
grew shrouded in darkness as adult years unfurled.
And the strangest thing is I never noticed peace die.
I just knew it was gone and I didn’t know why.

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Thus began the long years of searching for answers,
questioning poets, musicians and dancers,
politicians and teachers, gurus and sages,
spending my youth between dusty pages
to recapture a feeling, stolen or lost,
and hold it again, no matter the cost.

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Many years have passed now. I’ve grown old and gray
and I watch the games that my grandchildren play.
I can hardly recall how my youthful heart yearned
and I won’t bore you with stories of the lessons I’ve learned.

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But I will tell you this – joy isn’t somewhere “out there.”
It cannot be studied or found anywhere.
It’s something you’ll either let in or you won’t,
something you give to yourself or you don’t.

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Do you hear what I’m saying? All the searching’s for naught!
All that you need, you’ve already got.
There will surely be pain. That’s life’s one guarantee.
But how much we suffer – that’s up to you, and to me.

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Post-Script: Not to end on a negative note, but as I was looking for photos to illustrate this, the domestic terror attack in Charlottesville yesterday was heavy on my mind. Maybe that’s why I chose this poem to post today. Nobody starts out hating. May we all retain the joy and appreciation of differences we had as children, and create an America we can be prouder of. 

 

Big Hair = Big Fun

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When my mother would take my older brother and I to the supermarket with her as kids, we would often look for the woman with the biggest hair, open a box of Cheerio’s or Cap’n Crunch, get a handful out, then walk behind her and take turns lobbing them into her beehive. The hair was so big, she usually didn’t even feel it.

Occasionally, one of them would feel something and turn around but we would turn quickly and examine some item on the shelf, pretending to discuss the ingredients, before she got a good look at us. We loaded up quite a few bouffants. It was like decorating a Christmas tree. Yes, we were monsters.

The additional fun was thinking about what those poor women said to their families when they got home and all those prizes in their hair were discovered. They must have said, “I knew those two little &^%$!’s walking behind me were up to something!”

I wonder if this created bad karma, or if the power that distributes karma thought it was funny, too.

Or maybe I’ll have to answer for it when I get to heaven.

Saint Peter:  “Okay, go ahead. Wait! Hold on a second! There’s this little matter of Cheerio’s and big hair we need to discuss. Gonna have to stop in God’s office first.”

The ultimate school Principal awaits.

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Too Full (poem)

This is an old one, written one day when I was lamenting more than usual the loss of childhood and the state of mind I had then. I don’t have many photos from those days so I’ll borrow a few from my favorite movie, Stand By Me, which is more or less the same thing.

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Life, once,
was sharing secrets in tree-houses
on warm, summer nights
as a golden sun set over a perfect world.

Life, once,
was Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher,
the flush of spring on their cheeks,
walking in the sunlight
along the banks of the Mississippi.

Life, once,
was filled with friends
who looked right at me
with clear eyes, hiding nothing.
Friends whose hopes were my hopes,
whose enemies were my enemies,
whose dreams intermingled with my own.

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But, now, I am too full,
too full of the world.
I have seen too much.
The minds of those that, once,
I believed to be noble, incorruptible,
defiled by greed and vanity.
Spirits as wide and open as the dawn
mutilated by disappointment.
Poets of the finest natures
who could reach into hidden paradises
and pluck out rare blossoms
twisted by fear and desperation.

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I am too full.
I have absorbed this world,
so bloated with pain and pretense.
It is in my pores too deep to wash away.
I can no longer recall
what it was to be clean, hopeful.
I have been polluted, inside and out.
I have seen too much.
I have breathed in, too long, this air
so thick with despair.

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You were right, Robert,
though I didn’t believe it,
couldn’t believe it
from my lofty, teenage perch
twenty years ago.
But you were right,
“Nothing gold can stay.”

They say time heals all wounds.
Some it has but mostly
it has made my spirit lonely,
crying out for friends it once knew
before time took them away.
Friends whose word was everything;
friends who came running when trouble started;
friends who judged me for who I was,
not what I had accomplished.
But they are all gone now,
lost in the parade.

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I forgive them
for I know what life demands of us.
I’ve changed, too.
But logic comforts only the cold intellect
and makes no less the longing,
no less the sorrow.

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Do you remember me?
I remember you.
We were blood brothers once.
We pricked our thumbs, pressed them together,
and said we were bound for all time
but I don’t know where you are today.

Susan, my childhood love,
we drew a chalk rainbow on the sidewalk
and made promises, simple but deeply felt,
promises we knew we would keep
no matter how old we became.

Are the promises of childhood
still floating in the high air
above the sidewalk,
waiting to be fulfilled?
Or were they washed away
by time and the elements
along with the chalk rainbow?

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Friend.
None I have today fit the definition I had back then.
And I miss them.
I miss them
and I wish they could come back
though I know it is impossible.
Slugs have consumed the gardens of their spirits
and I wouldn’t recognize them anymore.
Perhaps they wouldn’t recognize me, either.
A little more is forgotten each day
like the remnants of childhood
sold off at garage sales
or passed along to other children
who can put them to better use.
It’s true – we must put away childish things
or this world will swallow us whole.

But I can still remember
when I was young,
how the sun, streaming
through the edges of my curtain
made me want to run out into it,
to my friends,
to new adventures.
I remember how easy it was to shake off sleep
with them calling outside.

I want to feel the sunshine
pull me out into the world again
the way it used to.
Through my window and out into the world.
The world I once believed it to be.

~ Mark Rickerby

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Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. Episode 7 – The Shot Heard ‘Round the Playground, or How My Fear of Pilgrims Began

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The sitcom in heaven starring Yours Truly didn’t begin when I was an adult. No, those pranksters up there (God and Jesus) have been pulling this stuff on me since I was a kid. Here’s one of the earliest episodes. 

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I was in third grade and starting to get pretty good on the monkey bars. My friends and I liked to play a game all kids play called “Chicken” wherein one kid starts on one side and one on the other, then swing hand-over-hand toward each other and try to pull each other down with their legs. 

There is an inherent danger in this game that is obvious to any grown man, but as a boy, I was oblivious to such danger. Oh, I had heard about getting kicked in the fellas but I didn’t understand (until this day) how or why it hurt more than getting kicked anywhere else. 

Opponents for this game weren’t usually chosen, they were just whoever happened to get on the bars at the same time. My random (or maybe not) opponent that day was a little girl who dressed like and had the severe, no-nonsense face of a sadistic orphanage headmistress. She was terrifying in her black dress with black shoes, complete with square, silver pilgrim buckle. Her hair was pulled back so tight, she could hardly blink.

I almost backed out but changed my mind because my friends were watching and I would never live it down. Before I knew it, we were swinging toward each other. I smiled and made some sort of joke but her stern expression just became sterner. It was clear she was intent on destroying me. 

As we got close enough to leg wrestle, I opened my legs to wrap them around her, as custom dictates. She, however, seized the opportunity to send a kick right up the middle an NFL field goal kicker would envy. I can still remember with extreme clarity her skinny legs and the heavy shoes dangling limply until the last moment when one of those bird twigs suddenly came toward me with an athleticism and accuracy nobody could have predicted. The pilgrim buckle connected squarely with my prepubescent berries, and all at once I understood what all the fuss was about. I understood why there was no “hitting below the belt” in the boxing matches I watched with my dad. I didn’t have long to understand, though, because less than one second after she buried her pilgrim shoe where God split me, I was face-down in the sand wondering what just happened.

The bell rang ending recess and all the kids started running to class. Lizzie Borden’s granddaughter laughed and joined them. After the initial gasp of horror, my friends felt too sorry for me to even say anything or offer assistance. It was one of those “it’s best to leave him alone” moments. And alone I was, for fifteen minutes after the other kids returned to class. I heard my teacher come outside and yell my name. I rolled over, spit out some sand, and started to yell, then thought twice. I was hidden by the short wooden wall of the sand in the play area. I could stay there forever, or at least until the first snow of winter covered me up. 

After another thirty minutes or so, I got up, hobbled to the drinking fountain, washed the remaining sand out of my mouth and nostrils, and snuck back into class. To this day, I have a morbid fear of pilgrims, or more correctly, pilgrim shoes. Fortunately, you don’t see pilgrims or quakers around much anymore. However, I still hyperventilate and break into a cold sweat at my daughter’s annual elementary school Thanksgiving show.

 

Messin’ with Mark – A Divine Comedy – Episode 3, “The Dog Poop Lob That Did Its Job.”

This is the third installment in my attempt to convince the mortal world that I am and have always been the star of a sitcom in heaven called Messin’ with Mark, a show created, written and produced by God Himself for His personal amusement and that of the angels that inhabit His heavenly area up there.

Jesus didn’t approve of His Pop’s antics at first, but He got with the program when He saw how funny it was to have ludicrous and even impossible things happen to me, and my pained reactions, which apparently They both think are pretty funny. 

I’m reaching pretty far back for this episode, but I think you’ll agree when you’re done reading that some divine intervention had to have taken place. 

My brother, Paul, was three years older than me. Not a lot of time between adults, but two different worlds to kids. He was bigger, taller, stronger and smarter. We got along well except for the usual sibling rivalries and disagreements. But one day when I was about nine years old, I upset him pretty bad. I can’t remember what I did but it was bad enough for him to chase me right out of the house and down the street. I sought refuge at the house of my best friend, Dana Eckman, who was home at the time and let me in just as Paul was about to pounce on me. I locked the door as he tried the knob. He banged on the door before walking away and yelling, “You’ve got to come home sometime, you little jerk!” 

I probably should have let him calm down but I couldn’t resist waiting for him to get a safe distance away, then walking out onto the front porch to annoy him some more. I suppose I figured I was already going to get a beating so I might as well enjoy myself while I could. I danced and said something very original like, “Can’t get me!” or the classic “neener neener.” He came running back. I continued dancing just long enough to make sure I could get back inside and lock the door a few seconds ahead of him. I then went to the front window and laughed some more at his red, anguished face. Dana just watched, horrified. He didn’t understand the complex cat and mouse game that is brotherhood. Paul swore he would kill me as he walked back across the street. I went back out onto the porch and continued my dance. He ran back. I ran back inside, and the cycle repeated several times. I started getting bored so I upped the ante and walked to the sidewalk. I was pretty sure I could get to the house before he could make it across the street. My brother eyed me, calculating, trying to figure out if he could beat me to the door. He must have decided he couldn’t because, as I was dancing and singing my “can’t get me” song, he scanned the ground for something he could throw at me. Fortune smiled on him as his eyes spotted a dog poop. But that wasn’t the only bit of luck he would have that day. Oh, no. Far, far from it.

Without thinking, and probably not very hopeful he would even hit me, he threw said poop in my general direction. My singing and dancing was so unguarded and carefree that I failed to see him pick up the poop and throw it. I didn’t know he had thrown anything until . . . IT LANDED IN MY MOUTH.

Yep. Right in the old pie hole. One hundred points and the big plushy on the midway. God must have had a little mercy on me, though, because it was one of those bleached white dog poops that had sat out in the elements so long, all the color and, more importantly, flavor had run out of it. It exploded in my mouth and left me feeling like I just chewed up a piece of chalk. Of course, the shock made me gasp and inhale a bunch of it. I coughed as my brother, amazed at his luck, gleefully cried out, “That’s dog poop! A direct hit!” 

Oh, how the tables can turn. I was now retching and he was the one laughing and dancing, celebrating his throwing arm and the poop dust I was coughing up. Sometimes karma takes a while, sometimes it shows up right away.

It’s hard to describe the maelstrom of emotions that went through my mind at that moment except that they were all bad – repulsion, anger, humiliation, horror. I ran to the hose in front of Dana’s house but it had one of those recessed knobs that requires a special wrench to turn on. My brother’s laughter rang in my ears as I continued to cough up white, poop dust and search desperately for water. I finally ran into Dana’s house and stuck my entire open mouth under the faucet upside-down and ran it full blast until my head, neck and upper torso were drenched.

I finally washed away all the poop, but have never been able to wash away the memory. Having dog poop thrown into one’s laughing mouth tends to stick in the memory bank, filed under “Funny now, not so funny at the time.”

Bows and Arrows

Now that I’m a dad (of 3 and 5 year old girls), this chapter from Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet is something I find myself re-reading quite often. I loved the elegance of his writing long before I was a father, but it connects with me much more deeply now.

Every moment with my children is imbued with two emotions – savoring them and lamenting them for their fleeting and temporary nature. (Another writer once labeled this “Nowstalgia.”) Every advancement is a step closer to total independence from me.

I took the training wheels off my eldest daughter’s bike yesterday. She didn’t want me to let go as I guided her along, and when she had tried it for a while, she asked me to put the training wheels back on a little while longer. I told her I would raise them higher so she could ride without them without the risk of falling.

Part of me wants to keep her training wheels on forever, but I know that keeping a child dependent is the highest crime a parent can commit. Stronger than my desire to keep her small and always seeing her daddy as her protector and hero is my desire to see her ride her bike full-speed with the wind in her hair and know the freedom I felt when I first discovered that magical mixture of momentum and balance. It’s the closest thing to a real flying carpet we have in childhood. And I want her to have the confidence that feeling creates. i.e., “Wow! If I can do this, what else can I do?”

Yes, she is my little arrow, and I must be a stable bow.