Monday, May 4, 2015

To Be Alive



Eight years ago this week my life was very different from what it is now. I was sad, so very sad - a sorrow so impossible, so inconceivable, so bottomless that there is no word for it. I was saying a long, slow good bye to the love of my life as he lay, surrounded by family and his best friend, decimated on the battlefield of cancer.

In the aftermath I felt broken. No, not broken. Shattered. Shards everywhere. Little pieces of me scattered about, glinting like tears. Daylight was too bright, nighttime too dark. Everything felt out of step. An eighth of a measure behind.

Then the moment came. I remember sitting up and saying aloud to an empty room, "I did not die with him. I'm still alive, damn it!" Those words changed something. They became a paradigm.

It wasn't so much that I woke up. I was lucid enough before that. I became aware. I paid attention to what alive felt like. I noted the moments that made me feel most alive. I don't know how else to say this but that I began to be alive in my life.

I took measures to change the way I lived my life, which had always been answering to everyone but myself. I stopped worrying that the world would end if I didn't live up to some other person's expectations. I only worried that I wouldn't live up to my own. Because alive felt fantastic, and I wanted to live alive.

That makes it sound easy. It wasn't. It isn't. But it's as vital as drinking water and breathing air.

There are other people (I recognize kindred spirits) who've come to this place without losing the love of their life. Maybe they lost some other loved one, maybe divorced, maybe had a scare, maybe hit rock-bottom on a boozy trail, maybe just woke up from an epiphany of a dream and thought, "Enough of this shit. I want alive." It doesn't always take something completely catastrophic.

What it does take is willingness. Willingness to feel everything. Because to be alive is to feel, to have awareness of each moment. It takes allowing the bad moments, even when there's nothing more to learn than, "Ouch. That hurt."

I'm not one of those that believe that there is a lesson in everything, or a reason for everything. It's just what is. It's the reality of the moment, good or bad. My days of ecclesiastical excuses for what happens in life are long gone. If I thought that way, then I'd be obliged to think that John had to die so I could meet Steve - that's not reason, that's insanity and stupid and cruel and entirely unfair to all three of us.

I digress.

Alive. To live alive. To be aware and love every moment of that awareness. It is what this life is for. Some might argue that it's selfish, but it isn't at all. If we are truly alive and aware, we are exactly who we need to be and where we need to be and what we need to be.

I wouldn't change a moment. I wouldn't smother that shattered feeling any more than I would smother the moment of pure joy I felt the first time I realized that I'd finally unleashed my artistic side. It's not the sum of the parts, baby... it's being whole. Alive is absolutely whole.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Gel

Write it out; shake it off.

That's what I tend to do with a feeling that won't quite gel. That won't give me something tangible to fling at the wall (or canvas or blank page).

Here's the thing.

Himself is having a birthday today. A so-called Big One. I never thought I'd be madly in love with a 60 year old guy. Not because I'm so much younger and the notion is rather dodgy (yes, I wrote that with a British accent) - I'm only 6 1/2 years his junior after all, and at this age, 6 1/2 years is nothing.

At this age.

I think it's because of that very fact. That he's turning 60 today and nobody would look at the two of us, nod their heads and whisper, "Sugar Daddy..." or "Cradle Robber". We don't even qualify as a handsome middle-aged couple (because, really, I don't see 120 and 113 down the road). No. What we are is tip-toeing on the cusp of "what a nice older couple they are."

It isn't the old part I mind so much. At least, I don't think it is.

It's the speed with which we seem to be getting there. Yes. This feeling is only compounded by the fact that the eldest of the two boys for whom I was a nanny turns 35 today. (I always find it somewhat portentous when two people on my A-list share a birthday.) Thirty five. He wasn't quite 7 when I met him. Where the hell did those decades go?! I blinked and *poof*...

And I still can't pinpoint the feeling. There's no gel to this yet.

Keep writing. Keep shaking.

I don't care that I'm older and aging still. Given the alternative, I'm pretty damned happy with that.

I mind everyone else getting older.

I am not at all daunted by my own mortality.

I just don't want mortality sneaking up on people I love.

That's it. There's the gel. Nothing I can do about it. That oozy stuff will get us all soon enough.

Writing done. Shaking off commencing.

I am... rather... I get to be head-over-heels, crazy in love with a 60 year old, 6'2" strappin' sexy beast of a guy. One who doesn't give a flying monkey's ass about wrinkles or flab. One who brings me joy and laughter every day. One who loves me and supports the things I love doing. Ain't nothin' wrong with lovin' that man. Nothin' at all.

Happy Birthday, Steve!

I am proud of the 35 year old man who was once the 6 year old kid who held my hand to cross the street. That I've been privileged to watch him grow and evolve and become this magnificent human being - friend, husband, father - that he is today? What a gift. What an absolute treasure.

Happy Birthday, Jonathan!

I know it won't be long at all before I'll blink again. Decades will have disappeared and an entire generation will be gone with a new one dotting the horizon. I will be much grayer, more wrinkled... as I sit and dig through the amazing richness of the human connections I've made in my life.

Ah, yes. There it is. The tear of amazement that I'm allowed this wealth of love. That I'm allowed it at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Good in Goodbye

Yesterday I quietly celebrated what would have been my 25th wedding anniversary. Would have been, but wasn't. Yes, celebrated. You'll see.

It would have been my 25th wedding anniversary had I not chosen to end my marriage after 8 years. There you have it - I was the one who did the leaving. It wasn't a decision I came to or made lightly. Five years into the marriage I realized that it wasn't working. At first I worked hard to ignore that sad little fact. Then I worked hard to fix it. Then I worked hard at being angry that nothing was working. Then I started working on myself and came to the realization that it just couldn't exist.

That's all there was to it, really. There was no affair, no deception, no violent fight, no real nastiness of any kind between us. Together we were going nowhere. Separately, perhaps, we could. I kissed him on the cheek and wished him all the very best the day I moved out. I had no idea what was in front of me; my only scope was what lay behind.

I read something a couple of months back that has been rattling around in my brain. The idea is that there are three basic ways that people deal with being lost. One is to immediately try to find a way out -- to find a way back to the safe, known zone. Another is to make a place -- to turn the lost place into something known, thereby rendering oneself no longer lost. The third is to venture deeper into the unknown -- to turn it into adventure and discovery.

If I had been as honest with myself back then as I am now, I would have known that what I was feeling through most of my marriage was lost. I was wandering in a not entirely uncomfortable fog. So, for a time, I made it a place that was known. When I thought about getting out, my first thought was of going back to Michigan where I grew up. But if there is anything I've consistently adhered to it's to not go backward. That left me with venturing deeper, discovering what else was in the fog and what might be beyond the fog.

I'm so glad I did, and that's why I was quietly celebrating. I'm not one of those who ever says, "I just should never have married him." It's sad and painful that it didn't work, but it also brought something to both of  us that we needed at the time. I needed that fog. For a while. I needed a safe, quiet place to land. And let's be honest here, even the best, most pristine moment is tinged with regret of some sort. It's what makes those moments so sweet.

Sometimes the thing we're trying so hard to fix isn't what's broken. Sometimes there's not even anything broken. You can't teach a goldfish to ride a bicycle. You can have fun watching the fish swim around. You can have fun riding the bicycle. But to try to amalgamate the two into something beautiful and productive... it doesn't work. Even so, it doesn't mean you stop appreciating either one.

Twenty-five years does a lot for a person. Forget what they tell you; you never stop growing up. You never stop learning about the world you live in, about yourself, about other people, about love, about forgiveness, about joy. Have I exited the fog? I'd like to think so. Has the adventure stopped? Nope. If you're awake and paying attention, every moment is a surprise. Every moment deserves its own celebration. Even if it's a quiet celebration.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Muses Never Sleep


Funny where inspiration will rear its head (and nethers, as is often the case). I was sitting in a coffee shop, minding my own business, reading a wonderful book (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan... go get y'self a copy). Amid the comforting din of coffee making sounds and background chatter, I heard strains of a country song. Sorry, I have no idea which one or who sings it. As I listened, the first words that came through to me were, "Who's at me..." In the context of the rest of the song, it was clear that I'd mis-heard. Even so, "who's at me" stuck. And struck a chord. Whenever I create, I feel like someone is  "at" me, picking through my stuff, staring over my shoulder, nodding approval or clucking disappointment -- in the vernacular of the present day, gettin' all up in my business. That'd be my muses -- they've got the energy of a toddler on nine hours of sleep and four espressos. And they're always "at" me.

So. From that, this...


Muses Never Sleep
who’s at me
peering into a
languid Sunday noon
sniffing wood smoke on
my lover’s hands
riding on a wave of murmurs

who’s at me
leaning into canvas
checking still wet paint
and crawling words
dancing to the beat of silence

who’s at me
wandering the foggy cedars
folding
unfolding
and refolding dreams
flitting through origami

who’s at me
prying at the edges
of grainy dreams
pushing, always pushing
the cart full of if
reaching for a handful
of trembling air

who’s at me
you constant
you ceaseless
you ever
you daring
bold, ethereal enigma
you, who’s at me

©Barb Black

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can We At Least

I always find myself sadly amused when people claim they are not prejudiced. I find myself doing the wry, one corner of the mouth smirk, eyes rolled up at the ceiling thing when people are shocked to see acts of prejudice.

I don't care who you are, what road you've gone down on the walk of life, how compassionate and loving you are. Somewhere in your life prejudice holds sway. Even if you despise it and do everything you can to counter it, it's there.

We're humans. That's why. We're humans and we are full of all kinds of fears. Some fears have a certain rationale, some are completely irrational. Most of what we fear is born of ignorance and becomes the bedrock where hate, intolerance and that insidious little bastard prejudice make a stand.

Even when we educate ourselves and get past the ignorance, we still fear. Think about it like this... you've lived in the same house for ten years. Your furniture is in the same position it was this morning, and probably where it's been for the past few months, at least. Nothing has changed. Same old place you come to and get cozy in every evening. Suddenly, the lights go out. It's not so cozy now. Every noise seems amplified. What if someone is sneaking in? What if you trip? Yet, they're the same noises you've been not-hearing with the lights on. Someone could sneak in with all the lights on. You could just as easily trip with daylight streaming through the windows.

For a few minutes, you were taken out of what is normal. And you felt fear. Being human... oy... it's the way of it.

It hit me last week... the idea that we don't always get past our fears. I gave up mulling over all the current anger and hatred in the world and decided to watch Mockingjay, the third in The Hunger Games series. Katniss and her comrades were hiding out in a bunker as bombs were going off outside. The room was shaking and plaster was crumbling and sifting down onto their heads. People were screaming and crying and cowering. Then the power went out and people screamed and cried louder. But. As soon as a few of them turned on flashlights and they could see again, they seemed to decide that the noise and crumbling plaster wasn't so bad, at least as long as they could see it happening. One fear outweighed the other.

One fear outweighed the other and I think that's how we get past our own crap. I fear that I won't have loved enough, or loved right at the moment someone needed it most. I fear that I won't be showing compassion at the exact second somebody requires it. I'm human. I'm not always right on point, y'know? I get self-absorbed and crabby just like everyone else. However, by and large, the fear of not having my arms wrapped around the right person at the right time? That makes me push past any fears and prejudices I may feel.

I also try hard to rise above it, because I've been on the receiving end. And it's not nice, so I don't want to perpetuate it. As a woman, as a serially overweight person, even as someone of above-average intelligence, I've been the target of some real nastiness. I've even confronted it on occasion with a, "Look. You don't even know me. What makes you hate me so much?" That's when the conversation starts. That's when the understanding kicks in. That's when the fear and prejudice gets put to rest.

We don't have to love everybody - hell, we don't even love everything about the people we really love! We're probably not ever going to be completely without fear. We're always going to be ignorant about something.

We are human. All of us. So...

Can we at least agree to approach each other with a deep breath and an eye toward what we can learn from each other? If we're going to prejudge (and we are), might we at least begin with, "Now, there's a human being..."

Friday, September 12, 2014

In A Moment

Did I think about it? Of course I did. Unless one lives under a rock and/or is brain dead, it's impossible not to. Since neither of those scenarios apply to me, yes, it was on  my mind. Like millions of others, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I can do that with all of the more defining moments in my life.

Those kinds of memories don't have the grainy, aged film look that many other memorable moments do. They are high definition and they are larger than life. They are so big and so well defined that not only can I see the peach fuzz on a face, but each individual hair that makes up the peach fuzz.

I know each line on the back of my father's massive hands as the tremors of end stage lung cancer shook them. Shook them so much that he couldn't unzip and re-zip his pants when he had to use the bathroom. So he asked me, his then teenage daughter to help. I did so willingly, but with a tremendous, painful lump in my throat. I understood all at once what it must have taken for him to ask for my help. No man should ever have to ask his daughter for help zipping his pants. In the few short seconds it took me to help him, his hands trembled at his sides. And I remember every line on the back of his hands.

I remember the way the sunlight hit the dust on the monitor the day I clicked open an email from a friend only to read that a beloved mutual friend of ours had died very suddenly. Six words stole the air from the room, "I'm afraid our girl is gone." As the world spun away, the dust and the sunlight and the monitor remained, and only those three things. Jesse was gone, dust, sunlight, monitor, Jesse gone, sunlight, dust, monitor, how can that be, monitor, dust, sunlight. I watched as the first chuff of a sob broke free from me and made the dust dance in the sunlight.

I can see the reflection of my office building in his black truck. The building number above the door is backwards. I approach the driver side window with a smile. He's early. I'm happy to see him. Then I see his face, the streaks of gray in his mustache, the way his lower jaw is working - he always did that when something troubled him deeply. I stop short at the look on his face. "What." I say it not as a question but more as a definition of some great heavy beast standing between us. His look is one of mixed shame, fear, and almost anger. He knows he's going to break something in me as he answers with one word, "Cancer." I sigh, and then I can move forward to grasp his shoulder. "Oh, my love." It's all I can say. It's enough. I look down and notice that the backwards number is wavering. I don't want him to see my tears. Not yet. He has enough to deal with.

September 11, 2001. I was finishing an early morning workout on one of the treadmills in the small gym that was part of the apartment complex where my late mate and I lived. There was a woman on the other treadmill. I think she had blond hair. We had TV turned on to the news chatter of local weather, traffic, blahblahblah... "We interrupt your regular broadcast... breaking news..." We both watched as the first plane hit the tower. "Oh, my god..." the woman next to me said softly. "That didn't look accidental," was my response. I finished up and went home to shower and get ready for work. I walked in the door and told John to turn on the news. "A plane just ran into one of the World Trade Center towers," I said. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I heard the tell-tale click of the TV as John pushed the on button of the remote. The image of the tower, smoldering in the middle, filled the screen. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it was an accident," I repeated. I couldn't shake the heavy feeling in my chest. I was taking a sip of coffee when the second plane hit. I quickly set down the cup and propped myself on the edge of the sofa. I remember thinking, "Smoke and ashes... oh the people... smokeandashesohthepeople..." as if I was about to write a poem. There was nothing poetic about it.

Yes. I thought about it yesterday, the same way I often think about those clear, hard-edged moments of my life. The moments that show me how easy it is to feel wounded and how tough I can be despite that. I thought about it and proceeded with my day in the only way I know how to honor those unthinkable times, those people who have suffered agony that I can't completely understand, the people I've loved and the people I'll never know who have been taken in death.

I thought about it. I thought about it and then and set about living deliberately. Bringing honor isn't so much in a totem or a memorial or a moment of silence. Honor is in living anyway. Honor is in living well and fully.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When They Were Humans


It began a couple of months ago when I came across an old wedding photo of my parents. It's one I've seen many times before - two fresh faced "kids" to whom I bear a vague resemblance, dressed in wedding garb, smiling as they look out of the back window of the get-away vehicle. A thought I'd never had before while looking at that picture came barreling through, "They're looking out the back window at all their friends and family waiving them on and wishing them well. Meanwhile, the car is speeding forward to an unknown future. A future that is as wide open as any can be." I can imagine them as newlyweds, nervous about their first night together, excited about building a home together, maybe even wondering if they'd just made a tremendous mistake (c'mon... they wouldn't be the first couple in history!).

I stared at those two in the picture, familiar yet so completely foreign to me. I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time in my life, "Am I at all what they had in mind?" I mean, my parents were Catholic. Barring any medical issues, they were going to have children. They ended up having five. I was the fourth. It's not a matter of self-doubt or self-loathing or anything like that when I ponder this question. It's more of a..... *sigh*... I wonder if they pictured a family beyond babies or school aged children. I wonder if they ever pondered an adult child, female, headstrong, creative, emotional, funny, intelligent and nowhere near perfect and entirely okay with that.

I could ponder this very question with regard to any of my siblings, again, in no way implying anything derogatory. "Is he what they had in mind? Is she? Were we?"

Because it isn't in their eyes in that picture. The look in that picture is the perfect mash-up of  here-we-go and dear-god-now-what-do-we-do. That was back when they were humans. Before they became parents. Before the world stuck its big nose and its meaty fist and its grimy foot in the door. They had dreams. She had dreams of being a teacher; he had dreams of being an artist. In a way, both of those dreams came true. She ended up with a captive classroom of five; he became a commercial artist - a sign painter.

How many times over the years have I forgotten that they were humans? Countless. They were my parents. As far as I was concerned, that was their identity and their only identity. Put a seal on it, and call it done. I wonder how many times they sighed heavily and thought, "I wish I was something besides a mother doing something besides housework and raising children. I wish I was still a human." Or. "I wish I was a guy going off to the woods to fish and do artwork and that I didn't have to worry about protecting and feeding these people. I wish I was still a human."

Am I what they expected? After all that.

I know my aged mother is proud of her children, of that there is no doubt. I know my father was too. That's not in question. Was this person, the one sitting here typing at you, was she in any of the imagery of some distant future? I just wonder about that. That's all.

I found myself delving further back. There's an old adage that says you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you come from. I traced a line back to my father's great great great grandparents - the Blacks in my lineage who first came to this country from Ireland, Archibald and Sarah. They would have been young, early 20s at best. Yes, back when they were humans. They came on a promise of land that they could own and work themselves and upon which they could build a family.

Am I what they expected?

Are any of us ever?

Yet we, as Lionel Ritchie once said of his own heritage, "stand on the shoulders of greatness."  Never mind the personalities that didn't always see eye to eye, never mind the occasional clash in ideals. Generations sacrificed without once thinking, "There will be a woman named Barb. We're doing this for her." No. They just did it. They persevered through adversity and never wasted time in complacency. They did what had to be done and now, here am I.

I owe a tremendous debt to those who cleared a path. I owe them my own dedication to the work I do. I owe them my own tenacity when faced with impossibilities or inevitabilities. I owe them an authentic life.

I may not be what they expected, those people, back when they were still humans. But I'm determined to make sure they're at least pleasantly surprised.