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.

http://www.vintag.es/2017/02/when-big-hair-roamed-earth-hairstyle.html

 

Across a Field of Lilacs Spread – by Michael Mack

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This is my favorite poem by the great poet and storyteller, Michael Mack, known to some of his friends online as Balladeer. He was a good friend of mine. I was heartbroken when he died last year of cancer. I learned a lot from him about writing and living well.
Michael, I hope there are lilac fields in heaven, and you have been reunited with your childhood love.  

 

Across a Field of Lilacs Spread

Across a field of lilacs spread
Like downy blanket soft and fine
Beneath the heat of summer’s day
Your freckled face smiled out at mine.

Your pig-tails flying in the breeze
Brought out the first-grade love in me
As futures lie before us spread
Like pathways to eternity.

Through school we went, inseparable
My class ring on your finger small
Our names in hearts with blackboard chalk
Proclaiming puppy love to all.

Then I was called to go away
As duty to my country came
And lilac tears were shared as we
Vowed one day things would be the same.

What happens to a soldier’s mind
When faced with war’s insanity
Humanity turned inhumane
With young men dying needlessly?

Somewhere the ‘little boy’ got lost
As innocence was blown away
And, by the time that I was through
I found that I had lost my way.

I wandered through the years alone
A soldier in civilian clothes
Who couldn’t wash the blood away
Or lose the shame a soldier knows.

On nights when pain was less intense
My dreams would bring your face in view
With pig-tails flying in the breeze
And lilac fields that we once knew.

Now life has entered winter’s chill
As summer’s fire has all been burned.
My path has finally brought me home
So, here at last, I have returned.

They tell me that you never married
Lived a nice life quietly
Became a teacher in the school
And always spoke the best of me.

They say the whole town wept for you
And even Jesus shed a tear
And opened arms to welcome you
When sickness took your life last year.

So here I stand…I place a lilac
Lovingly upon your stone.
I bid farewell to childhood romance
And to life I might have known.

Across a field of lilacs spread
I see the sadness in your eye.
You say you love me one last time
And then you turn and wave goodbye.

 
 

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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A Child’s Grace (poem)

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A Child’s Grace

My father was saying Grace one night.
I looked at our table, covered with food.
I was usually happy at dinnertime
but this time I fell into a serious mood.

He said, “Dear Lord, we humbly thank You
for nourishing our bodies with this meal”
but then he said “while some go without”
and I wasn’t sure just how I should feel.

“While some go without.”
The words rang in my ears.
I thought of what that meant
and my eyes filled with tears.

My mother noticed my sadness
and asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
But I had trouble finding words
for a feeling so strong.

Then I said, “Mama, I’m worried
I haven’t been thankful enough
for all the food on our table
and this house full of . . . stuff.”

She told me, “It’s okay, dear.
That means you have a good heart.
But to show God you’re thankful,
you just have to start.”

My father looked in my eyes,
smiled, stroked my hair,
and said, “God’s listening now.
Will you continue the prayer?”

It was a big night for a child,
moved by such a strange mood.
I wanted to show I was grateful
and for much more than food.

I said, “Thank You, dear God,
for peanut butter and jelly.
I’ve never known how it feels
to have no food for my belly.”

I said, “Thank You for my life
And for my little brother.
Thank You for my home,
and my father and mother.”

“Thank You for water.
Thank You for fish.
Thank You for the ability
to dream and to wish.”

“Thank You for my family
and all our pleasures and joys.
Thank You for my bicycle
and all my other toys.”

Thank You for fruit,
for honey and bread.
Thank You for the fantasies
that dance in my head.”

“Thank You for my books
and the adventures they hold.
Thank You for creativity
and tales yet to be told.”

“Thank You for my health
to walk, run and play.
Thank You for my parents
who show me Your way.”

My brother kept peeking,
worried I’d talk until dawn.
The list of my blessings
just went on and on!

I thanked God for the TV!
I thanked God for the phone!
I thanked God for everything
I was so lucky to own.

I just kept on thanking
and when I was done,
I’d said thank you for
everything under the sun.

For beaches and mountains,
for flowers and trees,
for dogs and dandelions,
for bunnies and bees.

For rainbows and kites,
for clouds and warm sun
for endless summer days
devoted only to fun.

For school and for teachers,
for all the lessons I’d learned.
I thought I’d covered it all
and left no stone unturned.

But I still wasn’t satisfied.
Something still wasn’t right.
We all sat in the silence
and I closed my eyes tight.

Then I found what was missing
and said one more prayer . . .
“Please, Lord, give all I have
to poorer kids everywhere.”

And with those last words,
a great peace filled the room
and a sweet scent flooded in
like a meadow in bloom.

Everyone could feel . . . something,
even my little brother.
“That was beautiful,” said father.
“I’m so proud of you,” said mother.

In giving thanks for my blessings,
I felt God’s loving embrace,
but when I wished for others
I discovered true Grace.

We were all hungry by then
and our dinners were cold
but how full and how warm
were my heart and my soul.

Mark Rickerby (c) 2015

Related story –

http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/boy-5-makes-diners-cry-as-he-says-grace-with-homeless-man/story-fnq2o7hp-1227360850445

On Becoming a Father and Husband, and Redefining “Adventure.”

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I was talking with a friend recently about how much I miss traveling. I did a lot of it in my twenties when I was single. Nothing excited me more than waking up with a Euro-Rail ticket burning a hole in my pocket, pulling out a map, picking which ancient city I would see next, watching the European countryside whip by from the train window, arriving in the bustling train station, the launching pad for another day of adventure, and just walking, open to anything that might come along. Pure serendipity.

In response to my reveries about my free-wheeling, globe-hopping days, my friend, probably concerned that I was unhappy in my new roles of husband and father, said, “Mark, you’ve done the world traveler thing already. It’s time to do the daddy thing.” 

I married much later in life than most, and recently became the father of two girls. One of the reasons I waited so long was that I had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of loveless marriages and poor examples of parenting when I was growing up. So few were the positive examples of both, they had become the equivalent of prison in my mind. But walking around in foreign cities became less romantic and more lonely as the years passed. It became increasingly clear to me that God did not intend for us to spend our lives in solitary confinement, or as foundation-less gypsies. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”

So I got married and became a dad, and I’m loving every minute of it, but that old version of me still makes an appearance now and then, like that gag they did in the TV show Get Smart where the face of Maxwell’s fellow agent kept popping up in unexpected and impossible places – glove compartments, mailboxes, etc. Likewise, my old self shows up now and then as if to say, “I’m still heeeere! Thought you got rid of me, didn’t ya?” And when he does, the wind that used to turn me into a gypsy for months at a time blows through me again. To scratch the itch, I sometimes watch travel videos on the Internet, which make me even more frustrated.

While watching a movie set in the Greek islands one night, my eldest daughter, then two and a half years-old, climbed onto my lap, touched my face with her tiny hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “I ruv you, daddy.” Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her close and inhaled her honey-scented hair, and suddenly all those “far-away places with strange-sounding names” stopped calling so loudly. Even the old version of me, the one who keeps wanting to run from responsibility and be a carefree wanderer (also known as a “bum”) took a few steps back and bowed his head in reverent silence. Little girls can do that. The greatest strength is no match for their softness. Taoism in action.

And in that moment, I realized that my memory of all those travels was making diamonds of coals a bit. I remembered the emptiness and lack of real direction that drove me to those far-flung corners of the earth. Even when I lived on a Greek island, I knew I was on an island in more ways than one. I was hiding from the emptiness I felt at home. I needed God, true purpose, and family. Faith, not just the scattered remnants of religion murdered by logic. A real direction fueled by vision. Blood, not just friendship. My own people, who would stick with me, and I with them, through thick and thin.

The road will always call, and I’ll eventually answer again, but this time I won’t be alone. Marriage and fatherhood is not the end of adventure, it’s the beginning of the greatest one. I’m going to do this right. And how much grander traveling will be when I can show my daughters, with their unbridled sense of wonder and amazement, all the things I saw in my own turbulent youth. How much more amazing they will be to me to see them all again through their eyes, without all that emptiness traveling with me. How terribly heavy it was to carry. Now I will carry them instead, my beautiful bundles of love and light, as a transformed man with a new reason for living – perhaps the highest – to make my heart as pure, happy and loving as theirs are.

A response to this post from a friend who did it all differently. (Had three sons right out of high school.) 

“The truest and greatest adventure of my life was, and still is, being the father to three amazing men. Fatherhood is the fruition of all that I am. Seeing you with your daughters warms my ever-present memory and ever-present reality of what it means to be a father. I smile inside for you my friend, because I know what’s before you and the true wealth of life that is yours as you hold on to it with both hands and all your heart. Your feet are walking the road of adventures that in your mind you never knew were there. Truly the most rewarding, meaningful, and personal fulfillment of one’s life is being a parent and father! As I travel the world, breathing in the diversity of life’s experiences, I go as a fulfilled man, not lost or wondering, but knowing exactly who I am. In the light of that fulfilled maturity will be the soul of three young men, traveling with me, who have given to me the honor of being their father. I feel blessed the opportunity is before me; blessed that its richness and diversity come to me as a complete, mature man; blessed to see it in my completeness. Yes, “I did my time” as they say, but it is time I would gladly do over and over again.

We only get one pass at the seasons of life. Making each season count is the challenge before us. We embraced life differently, at different times, yet with the same zest my friend… Not better or worse, just differently. No journey is wrong or bad. Every quest brings to the traveler what they need to be full and complete. You are, as am I, on the quest that was made specifically for ourselves. Life holds no guarantee of safe travels or of fulfilled relationships that end in perfect bliss. Risk is always a part of every quest. To not venture out with both feet and all heart on any quest regardless is to cheat oneself of all there is to be realized.

I have a favorite quote that comes from the movie 180′ South – ‘The word adventure has gotten overused. To me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’ If it’s being trapped in a third world airport and realizing the eventual escape, or being the man your daughter needs, holding her broken heart at the loss of her first love. Things go wrong, my friend, and when they do, you find the truth of who you are. That is when the quest has done its work in you. I believe that you will find you are a greater man that you ever knew yourself to be. “Honey-scented hair” is but the tip of the greatest iceberg.

And yet one more before I head out for a hike (lol) from 180′ South – ‘When I put myself out there, I always return with something new. A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’ You’re out there, my friend. Embrace!”