A Greater Voice: The Power of Our Intention

angel-gabriel-1986When I was five years old I was suddenly tired all the time, then I got a bad cold. After a week in bed, I was taken to the doctors and ended up in the Children’s ICU at a hospital in Rochester, NY. I had contracted mononucleosis complicated with double pneumonia. I stayed there for a month, and I left with not only my health, but also a strange experience and an early lesson I have kept with me.

In my family, you pretty much had to have a limb dangling in order to be taken to the doctor’s. My mother was not big on doctors. When I was thirteen I broke my back playing football. I lived on the couch for weeks before I could walk; Mom never took me to get it checked so I only learned years later that I had broken a piece of my lower vertebra off and that my body had eventually dissolved it.

I had two younger sisters and two very loud older brothers then, so I was very happy for the quiet, and more than a little happy with all the attention. There was only one other boy in the ward; his name was Robbie. Robbie had a tracheotomy, and once he could talk we had many pleasant conversations between nurse and doctor visits and being hauled out for x-rays and tests. I was always better one on one. My bed was right by the door and there was a picture window on the wall alongside it, allowing me to watch the comings and goings in the hall when they didn’t have the curtain drawn.

Robbie left after one week, but I had to stay, having only gotten worse. (I still wonder what became of Robbie; he was a fine fellow.) I was alone the rest of my time there. Funny how you don’t retain the parts that hurt when you are that young. Between painful shots of vitamin C in my butt each day (I remember that part), and a nose so continually stuffed that my upper lip was bloody and blistered from blowing, I had a delightful time of it. I had plenty of attention and felt kind of special; I didn’t get that at home.

The long hours and days were filled with the singular bliss of reading my Little Golden Books! You may remember Little Golden Books, they were a popular children’s book series with cardboard covers and a distinctive gold-leaf spine. Every time my parents visited, they asked me if there was anything I needed, the only reply I remember was, “More Golden Books!” The long days were filled with pouring over them again and again. I amassed quite a stack of them. They lived by my side in my bed at all times. I would wake up a lot during the night, and they were my constant companions.

As weeks went on, my condition worsened. My nose and sinus had gone completely solid. I thought I must have been getting better because I didn’t have to brave the blisters and blow my nose anymore. One day the doctor came in with a bunch of nurses and my mother. He was carrying a length of wire that was glowing red-hot. He explained what he needed to do and promised me he would not touch the wire to my skin, and then proceeded to put the wire up one nostril then the other, straight up into my sinus. It smoked, and it sizzled inside my head. It was not at all comfortable, but true to his word, he never burned me.

Some time after that, the doctor called my parents, who were both visiting together, out into the hallway. I watched them through the window talking, but could not hear what they were saying. I remember noticing that my parents looked very serious, and when they came back in to say goodnight seemed unusually nice, said a lot of nice things to me that I don’t remember, and didn’t seem to want to leave. They promised that they would be back first thing in the morning, and kept asking if I’d be alright. “Why wouldn’t I,” I thought, “I’ve got my books, I’m fine”

Years later, my mother told me that the doctor had told them that I probably would not make it. It must have been a hard night for them, but my night was quite different.

The late nurses were gone, the dim lights were on, and I was completely alone and awake in the middle of the night, my trusty Golden Books by my side, just looking around the room when I heard a voice. It is difficult to describe the sound of it. It was at once the most powerful and the gentlest voice you could imagine; I thought of it as a male voice, but it was neither male nor female, it was every voice; it was a great voice. It was not a voice in my head; it was outside of me and filled the room. It seemed to come from behind and above me, I remember looking to see what was there, but there was only the wall.

It called me by name, and I asked it if it was God. I don’t remember the answer, but my little catholic brain concluded that it must be God. It explained to me that I was very very sick and that I was not getting better. The doctors were doing everything they could, but they could not do it without my help. It said that it understood how comfortable I was here, but that I was not doing my part. The only specific words I retained was this sentence, “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.” It made me promise that from here I would pay attention to this and that I would remember that I must try to get better.

I promised.

I got better.

I was elated and didn’t sleep the rest of the night. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother, that God talked to me last night and told me that I had to get better and that I was going to get better. My mother was a devout Catholic, and I can’t imagine what she must have thought of this; I never got to ask her.

Years later I asked a well-known trance psychic about this during a reading and he said “Yes, call it the Angel Gabriel if you like, there are those who look after us and he is the one who sends us messages when we most need them, this is why he is depicted with a horn.” I am not a devout Catholic, but I practice openness devoutly enough to be certain that there are greater voices to be heard and heeded. Certainly this was. And, to be honest, I kind of like the idea that the Angel Gabriel came down to blow his horn for me.

There have often been times in my life when things worked well enough, and I settled into a kind of complacency that kept me in one place, not happy, only merely content. It is always then that things fall apart, forcing me to remember my promise.

Life will never happen to you without the power of your own intention. Had I not heard that greater voice, I would not be here to tell you this: “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.”

I will try.

I am trying.

I have done.

A Dandelion in Winter: How I learned that breaking the rules matter.

Dandelion field 2I am discontent in winter. It’s the death; everything is dead. Dormant, yes, I know, but it’s death to me, and my psyche struggles here in the bowels of February. When this happens it will reach of its own accord to memories of sun and earth and life.

Sister Leona was Hawaiian. She was small, with a flat brown face and round, kind eyes. She was my second grade teacher at the Immaculate Conception Grade School, and other than my ongoing debate over which of the Bodie twins I had the bigger crush on, was my only fond memory.

She was different than all the other nuns there, steal-toed, white-knuckled, bitter women, bent on a wayward course of love through discipline and sacrifice. I survived five years of uniforms, clip ties, ridged single-file lines that followed black habits to silent afternoons of forced reverence, bloodied hands (yes, they did that then), and a catechism that was lost on me from the start.

Sister Leona had a quiet sweetness about her, and she played the Ukulele for us, a large Baritone one that made her look even smaller. She did not fit in there.

It was June. We counted the days to summer and freedom, and we burned for the outdoors. On one spectacular day, we sat at our desks with our proper posture and folded hands, looking jealously out the windows at the recess yard behind the school as she entered the classroom. She took her customary place by her desk, but instead of speaking she just stared at us. She stood quietly regarding her class until the last head turned from the windows to see why she had not begun. Then she said, “Line up class, and follow me.” Then she picked up her Ukulele and went to the door.

We followed her into the hallway and out the front doors of the school, a path unheard of unless there was a fire drill, which there was not. Sister Leona’s second grade class followed her down the walk, across the parking lot and onto the lawn of the convent, then behind it. The sun and the scent of spring soon washed away our whispered questions, and we followed the tiny shrouded figure into the woods.

We emerged from the trees, still in single-file, and stood at the edge of a secluded glade no more than a few acres long and completely surrounded by trees. It sloped gently to the south like an ocean swell. What we saw there, I have never seen since. We stood like pilgrims at the Elysian Fields gaping at an awe-inspiring field of Dandelion.

They stood nearly as tall as we, and blanketed the field in an unbroken, sun-drenched, dazzling yellow tide. You could burry a yardstick in them. I have never seen them so tall. They were packed like wheat the length and breadth of the entire field. We were second graders and about four feet tall, and we could stretch our arms out straight from our shoulders and tickle our palms with the soft yellow canopy.

The silent questions were now voiced, “Sister Leona, what is this, why are we here, what are we supposed to do now?” She smiled and nodded toward the field, “Let’s go!” and waded in with her Ukulele.

The field was pristine, it was easy to tell that no one had been there before or had walked among those flowers, or if anyone even knew they were there. I have thought since about how she didn’t seem to fit in with the other sisters or enjoy the stiff protocols of the school, and how she must have wandered the convent grounds in meditation over questions I will never know. She must have come upon that glade in her wanderings. Whatever she saw there, she must have been thinking of us, because she left it untouched.

The line broke, and with screeches of delight we plowed into the flowers. Some walked alone picking armfuls of dandelions and flung them in the air, others jumped and rolled and tunneled, then huddled together to make nests. We lied in them looking up at the perfect sky, thumbs against the sun, talking and laughing, and guessing at cloud shapes. Sister Leona gathered us after a while and sang songs from Hawaii, only now we learned them and sang with her.

She taught us how to make leis with the dandelions we’d harvested for her. The way we knew each other as classmates ended and we became children again, and friends for the first time. The popular girls championed the lei-making, and helped the boys, who forgot all about their feigned irreverence. They made sure that every shy girl and fat boy wove as well as the rest, there were no loners that day.

dandelion_by_megan_griffith-d4iyibw
She talked about her home, and the ocean, and we wondered together how the field would look when the dandelions went to seed—a million new wishes waiting to be blown on the wind. We were her dandelions.

Leona is a Hawaiian name, it means “lioness.” This one broke every rule we had learned, and taught us the proper way to value what really mattered. This, it seemed, was her plan.

Whatever questions lead her to that field; I believe that we were among them. I also believe that I had the privilege that day to play in Leona’s miracle.

She did not stay long at the convent. Some years later I heard that she returned to her home in Hawaii, and there the sea took her back.

I never shook the image of a Ukulele floating on the water.

I’ve had many teachers, and I did not know this until I was older, but there have been none so important and formative as that of little Sister Leona.

If what she meant to do for us was to grant one golden day, one pure, bright spot in the seat of the soul…

She did that.

dandelion-1

Flying in the Face of Fear

warriorI have had a life-long fascination with flight. When I was six, my most fervent dream was to be able to fly. I had no thought of being a pilot, I wanted to levitate off my bed and sail through the air by force of will alone. I held on to that dream into my teens. I was neither the loudest nor the cutest, being a middle kid in a large family, so I was often invisible. Granted, that was fine with me most of the time, but it did leave a vague sense of being overlooked.

In my mind, spontaneous flight was the obvious solution. My prayers each night for years was to wake up and discover that I could fly, now that would get me some attention! I would nonchalantly float down the stairs one morning to the surprise and astonishment, and dare I say it, admiration of all, not to mention the host of baffled doctors and scientists at the door.

My first actual airplane flight happened when I was about nine. I had a window seat and spent the entire flight with my forehead glued to the window. It was one of those glorious days when the aircraft curved lazily through a towering forest of high cumulous clouds that created spectacular cities of immense sky-castles. I remember thinking that if the plane suddenly fell out of the sky and killed us all; I would be all right with that. I would die happy, and I wouldn’t mind being afraid.

clouds3_fly_590x300When I was in my twenties, I would occasionally be gifted with a flying dream, a dream wherein you find yourself flying through the air not unlike my childhood wish. As a result I began practicing techniques for acquiring a waking dream state, and became pretty good at it for a while. A waking dream state is a state where you are consciously aware that you are dreaming, and you can in some cases control or direct your actions within the dream. It’s a pretty cool experience when you get it.

Once I would become “awake” in my dream, I would walk forward then jump up a little on each step, lengthening my “hang-time” on each bounce. Soon I would be doing moon-landing size leaps, and then finally stay airborne. It takes a great deal of concentration, but I would often be able to stay aloft and fly around at will!   As cool as this was, it was just a dream; it wasn’t really flying. Yet, it was not without its own sort of peril.

Some times I would lose myself in it and fly too high. Looking down from a great height while floating in the air calls to mind falling. This is distracting and can break your concentration, which is the only thing keeping you in the air! Fearful thoughts of, “I could fall”, and “ holly shit, what am I doing!” creep into your consciousness. Suddenly you are Icarus with wings melting and it is really terrifying!

Dream or not, your subconscious does not know the difference, and the fear is real! A huge effort of concentration is then required to quell the terror and will your body to sink, sometimes agonizingly slow, back to the safety of the ground.

One time I was riding straddled atop a balloon no bigger than a beer keg high over a beautiful white city when it occurred to me that the balloon could pop, sending me to my death. It took me “hours” of fear and suffering to get that damn balloon down again, and I awoke drenched in sweat. Fear does not need a real circumstance in order to be potent, ask anyone with nightmares.

Years later I found myself between marriages, with no life, but reasonably funded in a bachelor pad in Orlando. One day while contemplating the cul-de-sac that was my life, I thought to myself, “Holly crap! I could learn to fly!” Two miles down the road was Orlando Executive Airport, which had a very nice little FBO and flight school, so I literally got off the couch, drove down and signed up to get my pilot’s license.

They told me I could choose my own instructor and ushered me into an open workspace filled with a dozen young men doing their time as flight instructors, building their hours on their waypoint to a job with a major airline. Stricken with the romance of it all, I decided I wanted an instructor with a personality, a rebel and a free thinker who would make this a fun and adventurous experience. It didn’t take me long to spot him, sitting on the edge of a table, foot up, smirking at his shoe, clearly in the midst of an extracurricular story to the guy beside him working.

After chatting up the guys, I suggested that this fellow would be my instructor. I noticed an exchange of glances between the flyboys, and one of them pulled me aside.

“Are you sure you want to pick him, there are a lot of guys here with more experience teaching.”

“Yeah, I’m good, thanks.” (Jealous? Come on boys there’s only one of me!)

It turns out I got everything I was asking for. My flight instructor, let’s call him Dale, because it is possible you may have once been on a flight he piloted, was an alcoholic and a terrible teacher. I’m not saying that he was ever drunk when we were flying, at least not that I could tell, but he was often hungover while we were out. I never gave up on him though, and true to form, he was a hell of a lot of fun.

A few months later, Dale said, “Izzo, let’s do your first solo flight.” I wasn’t sure if his request involved some secret knowing in the heart of a flight instructor, or if he was just bored; I think it was the latter. The first thought in my head was, “No way! He’s trying to kill you, the bastard is actually trying to kill you!” So I approached a gaggle of jaunty, desk-leaning instructors and asked them how you know you are ready for your first solo. They passed a glance around as if deciding which of them would give the unanimous answer.

“You’re never ready, “ one said with a rueful smile.

I wasn’t ready.

The minimum requirement for a first solo flight is for the pilot to taxi out, take off, do one full circuit of the pattern, and land on the second one. You get a hand held radio to your instructor on the ground and that’s it.

Warrior2

This is not my plane, but veery much like it.

We flew out to a nearby airstrip where we once practiced dead-stick landings. It was small, remote, and had no tower or traffic to contend with, ostensibly it was chosen because it was easier on the pilot, but I think it was also because you would kill fewer people when you crashed. I have taken a lot of tests in my time, but never one where if you failed you died!

I taxied out to the end of the runway. My legs were rubber, and my fingers were numb. Checklist complete. Staring at the open runway, there were a seemingly infinite number of reasons NOT to do this, and only one to go forward. Embrace your fear, I heard. So I kissed it squarely on the lips, “Fuck it!” Set flaps, power up, takeoff roll, V2 reached (take off speed), rotate (lift the nose) airborne!

“Wait! I changed my mind! I wanna go home! Oooh, shit!”

I focused on my rate of climb and compensated for wind to stay in line with the runway falling away beneath me. I had done this many times, but with no instructor it was completely different. I had never been so frightened, so alone, so beyond aid or assistance, so utterly reliant on myself, so completely in control of my destiny, so awake, so alive…!

“Whoo hoooo!! Ha Haaa!!” Heart soaring, I flew the first circuit perfectly, and then lined up my downwind leg.

Flying has a lot of cliché sayings that are never so true as when you live them. Among them, “Flying is easy, it’s landing that’s hard.” The Downwind Leg is where you are flying parallel to the runway before a turning decent to your Base Leg, and then turn onto Final Approach to land. This is where you begin a series of tasks that must be done accurately and in sequence; radio calls, airspeed, rate of decent, flaps, gear, etc. all while doing the actual flying to put you in position to get your plane on the ground. As I looked out my left window and saw the runway stretched out below me, I forgot everything.

I began to panic. Flaming squirrels were running up and down the inside of my spine, and I could not remember anything about landing an airplane. I have had stage fright before, but my life never depended on it. Another flying cliché popped into my head, “Panic equals death.” Imagine that you are taking your SATs, you have two minutes left and your looking at the last question, one of those ridiculously complex math essay questions, and someone has the barrel of a loaded gun to your temple ready to fire at the bell if you don’t finish it in time. I had to control this panic.

I’ve heard it said that you must “fight your fears”, those people in my situation end up a smoking heap in the asphalt. There’s no fighting that kind of fear! That is not the way to conquer fear. Embrace your fear.

Fear, in all its various forms, stops action. When we encounter fear, our instinct is to run from it, to run to safety. But we are not animals, and we rise above our base instincts. How many of you, I wonder, spend your lives chasing your dreams while running from your fears? You wouldn’t be alone. Have you ever stopped to wonder why those dreams never materialize before you? It’s because they are behind you, on the other side of those fears you are running from, and they are chasing you! Yup, you are actually running from your dreams. Sorry, tough luck my friend, no one said this was easy.

Do you really want to reach your dreams? Turn around. Open your arms, and let that fear wash right though you. Embrace your fear, accept that you are afraid, no fighting, no denial. Forgive yourself for it, befriend your fear, acknowledge that it is a part of you, breathe, and watch as it dissolves before your eyes. Fear cannot exist without your compliance. Your acceptance of it denies it of its power over you.

Scan, call Left Base, airspeed, rate of decent, scan, quarter flaps, scan… me and my pal terror began to land the airplane. Final approach. Fly to the numbers.

Most people think landing a plane is like a bird landing, where they just gently glide to the ground, but airplanes tend to want to stay in the air (thank goodness), so you actually have to point the nose down and fly it to the ground. It’s a little unnerving, at least to me. You aim straight to those great big numbers painted at the very end of the runway.Landing in Hyannis

By now I am showered in sweat. The runway looms toward me with its odd perspective and I am suddenly reminded of an old Star Trek episode, the original series, the one where Captain Kirk is fighting a giant ship-eating space thing that looks like a giant traffic cone, its open end glittering with a planet devouring plasma. Kirk was heading straight into the mouth of it, his only way to destroy it.

“Steady Mr. Sulu…”

If you know the episode, you’ll remember the corny music theme, the one they used whenever something dreaded was approaching. It sounded like this:

Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!

Desperate to remain focused and away from the panic still lurking in my scull, I invoked Captain Kirk, and began singing the little anthem.

“Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”

It helped. I felt just stupid enough to regain control of myself. Full flaps, Vso (landing speed) reached, fly to the numbers.

“Steady Mr. Sulu… steadyyy…”

“Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”

Since that day, I sing that little tune in my head every time I line up on final. Thanks Star Trek.

Warrior3Once you are over the runway and within Ground Effect (about as high off the tarmac as your wingspan is long) your plane will encounter a cushion of air that makes it kind of float a bit. The trick of landing well is to flare at just the right moment. Flare is lifting the nose so that your rear landing gear touches first. Flare to soon and your plane stalls and then comes crashing onto your landing gear making a truly awful sound that makes little dollar signs fly out of your head. Flare too late and you land flat or on your nose gear, possibly collapsing it, and ruining your day (year).

Just my luck, as I entered ground effect a cross wind came up. A cross wind will blow your plane off the centerline of the runway or even off it entirely, unless you correct for it by adding rudder and yawing the plane into the wind. This lines up your flight path, but your nose is cocked into the wind, which will make your wheels land sideways-ish, and they don’t like to do that. So, you must straighten out the plane just before you land. While you’re doing that, if you should let your upwind wing tip catch air underneath it, the opposite wing tip may touch the ground, and that’s very, very bad, i.e. cartwheel in a fiery ball of death bad – probably. A mild crosswind landing is a very easy maneuver once you get it, but for a terrified and under rehearsed first solo pilot, it’s a chore.

The panic returned, and at a point in the landing where there was really nothing to do other than do it right. Fear spoke.

“Oh fuck, I’m gonna land sideways, I’m gonna hit a wing tip I know it, I am screwed!! I will die here!”

As fear made its case, I countered out loud with a line corny enough to be worthy of Captain Kirk himself, but it didn’t seem that way to me then.

“Not today, pal, not today!

The landing wasn’t what I would call perfect, nor was it worthy of a cinematic ending, but this is real life. The first two kinda hurt, but the third bounce was okay!   (No, you’re not supposed to bounce.) Dale’s voice crackled in the hand held as I completed my landing roll.

“Congratulations Izzooo, you just completed your first solo!”

“Yeah, sorry about that landing, it wasn’t so good,” I said, as relief and pride swept out the last of the panic.

Dale responded with the best and truest flying cliché of all, “Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.”

I got a whole lot better at flying after that. After a total of seven month’s of training, I finally got my license.  I eventually bought a plane and leased it back to the FBO, one way to own a plane if you’re not rich, which I’m not. I owned a sweet little low wing four-seater, a Piper Warrior II.

On calm days when it was partly cloudy I would leave my bachelors couch, gas up my plane and go flying. I loved it, hard. Flying alone on these days was best. I would soar through cloud canyons and sky-castles remembered from my very first airline flight. I would fly parabolic arcs, climbing steeply then pushing sharply on the yoke, diving down until loose items floated through the cabin and I was lifted weightless in my seat. I had finally achieved my childhood dream of flying through the air at will, and I was not afraid.

I used to open the tiny forward window and stick my fingers out into the wind, remembering the words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “…I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings… … and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds… … put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

A dear friend of mine, now gone, used Warrior4to say that there are only two choices to make in life, Love and Fear. I say that if you want to live an extraordinary life, do something that frightens you every day, and don’t mind being afraid.

Remember too that those who say No are rewarded with safety, and those who say Yes are rewarded with adventures!

PART VI: Father/Daughter Stories–Lemonade

making-lemonadeMy daughter Madi loves nature. She loves learning all about animals, plants, and insects, and since she’s fascinated by it, she retains every detail of what she learns. We live in the Finger Lakes, in a region that is rife with nature camps, some of them surprisingly hard-core for the age they serve, sending kids foraging and shelter building, learning survival as they learn about nature.

She’ll often come back with “Did you know” stories about nature, most of them I pretend not to know, a few I actually have no clue about. During a Spring break, she went on a survival camp. As she returned, peeling off layer upon layer of wet muddy clothes, she talked excitedly about the adventure.

“And we built a shelter, and collected wood, and built a fire…”

“But, the counselors actually built the fire right?”

“Yeah…, sort of.”

(Parental wince)

“And we heated up our water over the fire and made tea!”

“Cool!”

“No, it was hot tea.”

“I get it. So you foraged for stuff to make the tea from nature? What did you find, chamomile, rose hips?”

“We made Hemlock Tea.”

“Guh… What?   Hemlock! That’s deadly poison! You couldn’t have made Hemlock tea.”

Yet, she was sure. It was Hemlock, they made it from the bark they peeled off the tree. Visions of my daughter lying next to Socrates flashed into view. I considered calling 911, but googled first instead. Yes, there is the Hemlock tree and the Hemlock plant. The plant is poisonous; presumably the tree is tasty. Lesson learned.

A few weeks later we encountered something festering on our front walk, and Madi, now an expert in all things natural, stopped to investigate.

“Oooo Daddy look!”

“Yes I see, don’t touch them please honey they’re maggots. Something died and they can carry disease.”

“No, they’re not … mag… what did you say?”

“Maggots, they’re maggots.”

“No Daddy they’re not, they’re fly larvae. I know because we collected them at camp.”

“You didn’t make tea out of them I hope.”

“Daddy!”

She went into a short dissertation on the stages of insect life.

“Okay, to you they are fly larvae, to me they are maggots, and they are disgusting.”

A short while later, as I was making her lunch, I found her walking around the house with a small plastic bowl full of said “larvae.” I reminded her that I had asked her not to touch them, let alone bring them into the house, and she explained how she deferred the request for good reason. She planned to sell them.IMG_1954 Madi had recently worked out that if she had money of her own, daddy was less particular about what stuff she bought, so she was all about finding ways to make it. I had suggested that she could earn an allowance by doing more chores around the house, but she declined, citing that she would rather make her money doing what she wanted to do. I found it difficult to argue that point since I had made a pretty good living in the arts, not doing what my parents would have called “real work”, so I let it go.

Her plan was to create a roadside stand to sell her fly larvae, and was gathering supplies for a sign and searching for an adequate table to put by the curb. She set the price at 25 cents per larva, and had already counted the squirmy little things to calculate her max profit.

“Sweetie, you can’t set up a stand to sell maggots.”

“Fly larvae. Why not?”

“Because nobody is going to buy mag… fly larva. You have to sell something that people will want to buy, in order to make money. What reason would they have to buy fly larvae?”

I felt a teaching moment coming on; I silently dared her to contradict that one.

“Frogs daddy, people feed them to their fish tank frogs, remember? We saw them at the pet store.”

Touché child of mine. Yes, we had indeed learned that at the last trip to the pet store to replace tropical fish that died of perfectly natural causes. This kid can’t be right all day!

“Yes, but look at your market demographic and point of sale location. Okay, advertising and overhead costs are low, your supply factor is reasonable, at least in the short term, and your mark-up is excellent, but you can’t reach your customer base.”

“huh?”

“How many people do you think will walk by our house who have fish tank frogs??

She began counting her larvae as if that would give her the required number.

“Look, if they don’t have fish tank frogs then they won’t need to buy fly larvae for them, right? Why don’t you do what most kids do and set up a lemonade stand? We can go to the store, by some lemons and make a pitcher. You’ll see, there are a lot more people who would buy a glass of lemonade from a cute little girl than would buy a 25-cent maggot.“

“They’ll be here.” She said with a knowing look.

She had been right a lot that day so far, so what did I know? I helped her make her sign, got her a tray table, and insisted at least that she eat her lunch while she sold.

Sales were grim, as in none; lunch was cold. She valiantly held up her sign on our quiet, country road getting more and more despondent. I took a few photos, because I wanted something to remind me that my kid was an iconoclast. She was no cliché, cookie-cutter kid from some Norman Rockwell culture; my kid had the courage and vision to sell maggots on a deserted road! How can you not love that!?

IMG_1955 One man actually walked by her stand. Her eyes lit up as she made her pitch. The fellow looked at me cautiously, and I’m certain I caught him glance around for a hidden camera. I just returned a look of, “Don’t look at me dude, I’m just a Dad along for the ride.” He left without a purchase. (Heartless bastard.)

When she finally gave up, she carried in her stuff, grumbling to herself.

“…stupid people.. stupid fly larvae… stupid stupid fish tank frogs… shoulda sold lemonade instead.”

“What was that Madi?!”

“Nothin’”

“Listen my sweet pea, everybody has days like this. Sometimes you make a good plan, but it doesn’t turn out the way you expect. Sometimes you want one thing that’s sweet, but you get something sour instead. Sometimes, life hands you a lemon.”IMG_1957

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So what do you think you should do when life hands you a lemon?”

She stopped. Her eyes rolled a bit in her head as she worked the problem. Her lower lip that had been turned out in a pout rolled inward as she gummed it, thinking. Then she smiled.

“Make lemonade?”

“THAT’S my girl!!”

Letting Go

September 13th: Dead Sibling Day. Before I jet off to Sedona today to sweat in the canyons and consult with Hopi spirits, I thought I would get this done. Not one of my usual posts, but I am deciding to do it because I may have something to say that is cogent for some out there, about letting go; and because one should at least occasionally walk the talk.

My younger sister, Jacqueline Ann Izzo, died about eleven years ago, and today is her birthday. More so than her death date, this is the day I remember her. I had five siblings, and there are now three left thanks to our ‘family friend’ cancer. My brother Kenny died this year in March. Grieving is simple; it’s automatic; in 6-9 months the brain chemicals leech out through your eyes and you’re done. After that comes the really hard part, letting go.

Letting go is hard because it means accepting a new life without that which they gave you and you depended upon. It takes guts, and it feels like betrayal until you understand what letting go really means.

My sister and I shared the middle spot in a family of six kids, so we were close, and she was very, very important to me. Growing up, Jackie was my best friend, my biggest fan, and the reason I am funny. She was the best audience a big brother could have. I could make milk spray out her nose on cue, even when she knew it was coming. On any given day you could walk into a room and find Jackie lying on the floor in tears over something that gave her a laughing jag days ago that just popped back into her head. She laughed at human folly, especially her own, and she never once laughed at anyone’s pain. Mostly though, she was important to me because she believed in me, without ever needing a reason.

Jackie was the first person who taught me that true courage had nothing to do with how afraid and timid you were about life, a lesson I have always cherished. My chronically reticent sister went into the medical profession, and countless people benefited from a strength she reserved only for others. During the years she battled for life, she showed an easy bravery, and when she had fought enough, she had the courage to let go. She died gracefully and well.

I didn’t have that courage, not with her. It wasn’t that long ago that I finally stopped reaching for my phone every time I thought, “I’ve GOT to tell Jack about this!” My daughter’s first name is Jacqueline, because Jackie asked me before she died; we call her Madi, because I knew it would be a long time before I could say the name. It was hardest watching Madi grow up never knowing what an amazing aunt she had missed, though fortunately she has another.

I sucked at letting go.

This year I did let go of Jackie. I cut the cords and finally stopped being the brother missing a sister, a friend, a fan, and a believer. I was very surprised to find out how much better it was. In a way, I got her back. Not really back, because she’s still dead, but there is a clear new voice in my ear, and she sounds very excited for me.

There are two places that I remember Jackie best on Dead Sibling Day, the two of us sitting under the kitchen table, me drilling her on her multiplication tables so she wouldn’t fail a grade, and summers in Nantucket. I’ve been going again since Madi was born, and Jackie is the reason I go. It has been a mixture of memory, tribute, promise, and chore, which has darkened and become heavy over the years. This year, thanks to some cord cutting, all the colors have come back to that place, and they are different.

And this is what letting go does. It makes a space for those things you lost to come from others willing to grant them to you. It is what I would have wanted for her if I had gone first.

I had said that letting go of someone feels like betrayal. It can seem as though you are being asked to disown everything they meant to you, but in truth it is not letting go of them at all; it’s letting go of the “you” you were when you had them, and making new room for others, …and it’s a bitch.

So the moral of the story is: attachments are bad, my friends. And not having them does not mean you are disconnected. Quite the opposite. Remember that, because it is very easy to forget.

I would like to state categorically, that talking about my sister does not make me sad, oh no, not one bit, not anymore. She is remembered not nearly loudly enough. So if you should hear me talking about her and notice me well up a bit, know that it is not sadness, … it’s Presence.

Happy Birthday Jack! I hope you are still saving me a good spot, and don’t mind too much that I’m taking my sweet time. I love you, always have, always will.