My May Day 2012

My dad up at the house in Annisquam some years ago.

Early the other morning as I was monotonously chugging away at my morning work out on an elliptical machine at the gym I took note of how inflamed and painful my body felt. I slowed my pace and made a decision. I would spend this May Day on the sea shore, which is exactly what I did on this dark and stormy May Day.

Lately I have taken to popping a couple of Tylenol PM’s before bed to dull the pain in my neck and shoulders; pain that is exacerbated by nights of fitful, restless sleep, which in turn are brought on by vivid and upsetting dreams. Nearly always it is the same dream, one that I have had for nearly four years. In it I am always running, always crying and always frantic. I’m in a place that looks somewhat like mix between the Spokane city central bus station and this odd part of downtown Spokane that doesn’t exist anymore since they built a mall. I am running to meet my dad, late and incredibly frustrated. I am meeting him in an ice cream shop of sorts to apologize for burying him alive. In my dream he never speaks, he sits quietly not looking at me directly as I try to choke out between sobs that I am so sorry for what happened to him, for not believing he was still alive. There are other jumbled scenes that come and go on any given night. A scene with a doctor explaining the he will die soon anyway. In another scene set in my dad’s house where I am completely upset about trying to get my dad to sit down and rest. In this scene I can see his heart through his chest, as if it’s open to the world. I am desperate to get him close so I can cover it up. There is another scene in a park near the house I grew up in where my brother is with me and says he has seen our dad. We frantically look for him but no matter what, whenever we spot him we can’t run fast enough to reach him.

Throughout every incarnation of this dream my dad never looks at me or speaks. At times in my fear and hysteria I scream at him to talk to me. To hear that I am sorry and that we should talk about it. But he is always looking, calmly at some spot on the floor or a wall, always sipping a small cup of coffee. This image is familiar; a pose I frequently saw my father take while living – at a table in a coffee shop, on the couch or at the dinning room table. The dream is terrifying in its ability to make me feel both frustrated and hopeful. In the dream my dad is alive, though unreachable. When I wake he is neither alive nor reachable.

This dream exhausts me. I sit with it throughout my days and think about it before bed. I never know if I’ll dream it or some new version on any given night.

After leaving the gym and getting to work I was chatting over the computer with a good friend. I said I needed him to tell me it was ok to bow out of political observances of May Day in favor of heading north to Annisquam and to my Aunts house on the shore. My thinking was that sea air, a warm fire; some napping, quiet and thoughtful reflection would help to clear my head. I wanted some space devoid of the everyday to think about my father. The month of May marks not just his birthday but the anniversary of his passing.

My friend, being a good friend, said of course it was alright for me to do what I needed to do. He then imparted upon me some useful wisdom. As a Unitarian minister he knows a lot about many different faiths. He told me that in Jewish traditions there are times set for grieving, and that grieving for parents is the longest. Generally speaking we’re not taught to grieve parents. Instead we are supposed to believe it is okay for them to pass on, that it is inevitable. But in the Jewish traditions, it is understood that with parents there is complex and important grieving to do. So I should take all the time and ways I need to grieve for my dad.

This got me thinking about how little I talk about my grief to myself or anyone else. Parents do grow old, sometimes they do get sick and then they pass away. In between there is a sort of passing of the torch as the kids become grown up and take on the role of care giver to the parent. This is all natural and normal. Even in sudden instances. Parents just die before kids, this is a normal progression of the life span…except, it is completely not normal to have a parent suddenly be gone from your life.

I have written before about my regrets surrounding my dads passing. How I regret not having come home sooner to be there with my family in his last few months. I think these feelings are tied up in my dream and the dream is a part of these feelings struggling to come out and be heard and acknowledged. I am all for processing emotions. I may not be the best at it for myself, but I full in support of processing. But this dream has got to stop. I am putting time limits on it and what ever processing I have to do to move beyond it, well I’m game. I need a new dream, where I hear my dad’s voice and whatever barrier keeps us from seeing each other is gone. I imagine it’s a process that means I need to be more honest with myself and everyone else that four years into this I am very much still grieving for my dad.


Two Years Ago Today

Some two years ago yesterday a dreadful movie version of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian opened. In Adherence with tradition I traipsed down to the theater for opening night. Meeting up with pals for a light dinner of sushi, I complained endlessly about how itchy I had been. I was itchy all over all the time. Over sushi and Sake we all developed a dozen or so itch explanations, each more outlandish than the next. The evening would have been a right success if it hadn’t been for the deplorable nature of the film. Yes, the acting was minimal, yes the editing was scattered and the script nearly non-existent but it was the barely there story line that presented itself in the first few minutes of the film that really ruined the experience.That and the overt and somewhat overbearing Christianity.

This is, of course, a shame. The book Prince Caspian is not a badly written book. In fact, it has a well structured story, which is both interesting and compelling. The characters are each engaging and well developed. After all C.S. Lewis was no unskilled at writing. He was a christian and very deliberately worked the story of Jesus and the bible into his writing. But in the realm of fantasy fiction this is not unusual.  The messiah, the savior, the sacrifice – are all  themes, which various ways find their way into works of fantasy and science fiction. Not to mention that the Bible and the story of Jesus have always been alluring to fiction writers as an example of these themes and worthy of at the minimum influencing story development and at most worthy of being retold in new contexts and on new worlds.

C.S. Lewis was a friend and colleague of J.R.R Tolkien. The two were part of a writers group, the Inklings. The friends often wrote letters to one another and differed greatly in their thoughts of how to work religion and Christianity in particular, into their writing. C.S. Lewis took a much more direct route. But Tolkien too, had elements of Christian theology in his writing.

I am not offended by C.S. Lewis for incorporating Christianity into his books. I enjoyed them well enough when I was younger and would recommended them to other young people to read. The ideas aren’t inherently offensive to me, perhaps outdated and too conservative. But the ideas of faithfulness to cause, loyalty and kinship are not deplorable, just easily used to also convey to the reader that Christ deserves your undying devotion.

But the film. The film. It was so over the top proselytizing that it made me feel pity for the long dead C.S. Lewis. A gifted writer, he used his talent to eloquently write his Christian faith into his work in a manner that while sometimes obnoxious, was at least well done. This film version just packed together a cheap Sunday sermon with bad acting and over-the-top special effects.

My friends were all in agreement upon leaving the theater. The film was a dud.

My bike ride home was uneventful. My mind was preoccupied with the lengthy list of things I had to do the following day. I was in the midst of planing a move to Boston and a summer of traveling. I was scheduled to leave DC in just a couple of days for a direct action training camp in Montana, followed by some time with my mom in Washington state, a train trip to California to spend a good two months with my dad and then a bike ride to St. Paul for the Republican National Convention where I was going to be helping with legal support for the protesters. My little basement room was mostly packed and ready to be moved into storage for the summer before being moved to my new home in Boston. The flurry of activity required of me to accomplish my many tasks had taken a great deal too much energy.

I went to bed among the boxes with the thought that my friend would very well make good on her threat to wake me up at 7:30 in the morning for breakfast with another friend from out-of-town. So when my phone rang in the wee hours of the morning I rolled over and didn’t get up. I knew it would be her too chipper for that early hour voice willing me to go to breakfast. Eventually I did get up though and listened to a voice mail message. It was not, in fact my friend, but my step mom. She sounded upset and told me to call home right away. My father had been quite sick for some time. This was the reason I was going to spend the summer with him in California. My heart sank. He must have been put back in the hospital.

The story from here on is not new to most. My father was not being readmitted to the hospital  but had in fact passed away in his sleep.

My dear friends surrounded me with such love and support on that day. They guided me through the steps of getting my things in order enough to leave on a plane that afternoon. They sat with me as I talked to my family. They held my hand as I told my brother that our dad had passed away. In those tendered moments I so cherished having friends to lean on.

Today it is two years since that horrible day. Sometime I wish I could go back and do it all again. This sounds awful but from my position it would mean being able to live in the moment of such raw emotion that seems neither misplaced or confusing. Two years out from that day I find the emotions to muddled in time to clearly feel and I can hardly say that I live in the moment.

Two years is some substantial amount of time. But when compared to the 27 some years that my dad was a part of my life and I a part of his, two years is a blink. I have perhaps processed a teaspoons worth of the grief I feel. I keep myself from crying because I imagine that if I started what good reason would I have to stop? There isn’t a starting point really and there is no real end point that can be reached through a clear and easily navigable process. Some large part of me feels like I would have to entirely give myself over completely to the effort or not at all. I’ve, for the most part, chosen the not at all option.

The analogy that I have used so many times is to compare my living to being in a vast and unknown wilderness. I entered on the day my father passed away and have yet to emerge, let alone find a path. It seems to me that I may be to wounded to make much progress. I must spend a great deal of time tending to myself in order to simply maintain my course through this wilderness. A path would nice, but there is also something to be said for having to wonder a bit. Getting scraped up, having to double back and sometimes slog through unpleasant things is not horrible. It’s just terribly hard sometimes.

Two years and I would have thought I’d be more capable of understanding what it is I have to due to mend myself a bit more. But maybe its just something that time heals and sometimes like with other things it gets worse for a bit before it gets better.

I do know that the omnipresent feeling I have of missing my dad will not abate soon. And perhaps if I live a little more in the present – in and among my thoughts and feelings – I will be able to settle more comfortably into knowing that I can’t simply call him up but rather must take time from my day to sit with him in memory.

Working on a Ship that I may never sail

Ship Gonna Sail

I stumbled upon this while cleaning out some folders on my computer. Early last summer I wrote this essay for the second issue of a zine on grief in radical communities called the Worst. The zine maker hasn’t been able to finish the next issue it seems, so here it is.

For more then a decade, I rehearsed getting that phone call from back home telling me my father had passed away.  I was still in high school when my dad was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. The doctors gave dire predictions of an early death in the next 5-10 years. Well, my dad surpassed all expectations and thrived for over a decade with only half a working heart.

My dad was a radical….a radical singer, artist, historian, story teller…so many things. He was U. Utah Phillips. He was also (more often to me) Bruce Phillips the comedian, French fry lover, prankster, gardener, and fierce little league fan. His lessons, many of which I and others learned from watching him on stage, and his grace, kindness, songs and stories are blessedly enduring because he kept on working after his diagnosis.

California Detox

After landing safely in San Francisco I took BART to Richmond and then the train to Davis where my brother and sister-in-law picked me up. All told it IMG_5272took five trains, one plane and two cars to get to my family. I was relieved to finally arrive. As we arrived the whole family came out into the lane to greet us. It felt so good to fall into the arms of my family, to see the old house all lit-up with twinkling strands of lights. The tall poplar trees were catching the wind and with the sun setting over the field and chicken coup it was the perfect way to end a traveling day.

IMG_5225My family was converging to mark the one year anniversary of my dad’s death. Walking into the house on the day that one year ago was my dad’s last day was surreal. There is still so much of my dad in the house, not just his possessions but his presence and energy too. All I could do was take a deep breath. While it felt hard to come home, it was also a joy. I live so far away from my family and all I have of my dad here in Boston are the trinkets I took with me when was out there this summer and old photographs. To be in his home surrounded by his life and the places of my memories of my dad was unexpectedly comforting. There is the kitchen where he did a little song and dance number one day when he got up at 4am to cook me some fried eggs IMG_5201before seeing me off at the airport. And there is the table where we played hours of Sorry. There is the couch were we watch movies and the patio where we ate dinner and talked away the hours. Instead of being traumatic it was healing. I could live in the memories without the longing feeling of wanting to be home again. We ate a nice super and just as the sun was setting and the hour of my dad’s passing near we all went to the Cemetery down the road where he was laid to rest. As we walked to his grave a little cat came out to walk with us. It rolled around on the warm grass by his grave for a bit. I IMG_5199brought my dad’s traveling bear Valentine (who now lives with me) and held him close. We remembered those who could not be there with us in the moment: my aunt Deborah who was gallivanting her way around Europe with a band, and our uncle Dave. Just as we were about to say our brother Brendan a car pulled out and who should arrive but Brendan. Fresh from the plane he walked with luggage and all towards us. It was a perfect moment. It made the moment perfect to have him arrive just then. I have missed him so much over the past year. We stayed until it was dark, telling stories and sharing memories. We cried and laughed and stood in silence.

I slept well that night after many sleepless nights tossing and turning in anticipation of this trip. That night as I slept in a house full of my family, we all passed through that last night with my dad. We were all there with him.

I passed my time in Nevada City doing nothing in particular. I saw many friends, ate too much food and read a lot of books. It was the usual visit home.IMG_5269

IMG_5258We hosted potluck for friends one night. There was lots of music playing and story telling. We went to the river too and watched the raging spring run-off IMG_5250tumble through the canyon. We ate at Ikes Café were we always loved to eat. We watched movies and drank Pero and simply enjoyed each others company. I can’t imagine needing more then that really.

California 004One evening we even replicated the Boston tradition California 002of Taco night. It was a huge hit. I learned a new term the sums up the goal of taco night quite well – “Tacomma”. Ahhh, the beauty of taco induced comma.

I flew out of San Francisco early in the morning. So my step-mom and my brother Brendan and I drove to the City a day early to spend some time onCalifornia 042 the beach and eating some good sea food. We stayed in the very same hotel that my step-mom and older brother Duncan stayed in while my dad was in the hospital for a month. We ate at the same restaurant they ate at almost every night. It was an eerie way to end the trip. It brought home some tough stuff I’ve been wadding through over the past months. I often think to myself that I should have come out sooner to be with my dad while he was in the hospital and to support my family. But I did what I did in the moment. Keeping some California 041distance from my dad’s failing health was a coping response I suppose. None-the-less the answers don’t come quickly and the edge of the wilderness I’ve been wandering through since he died is not in sight. The journey continues.

California 070California 046California 041

Taking my breath away

I had the peculiar experience the other night of realizing that I could no longer recall the date of my fathers passing. I was angry at myself at first. It seemed horrible to forget such a date. As if I couldn’t be bothered to recall such a thing amidst my busy life.  I actually had to look up the date on my dad’s Wikipedia page. That felt eerie and uncomfortable. I chastised myself for not being more deliberate about marking the day, which it turned out would be the very next day. I counted on my hands that it had been eight months…a concept I can barely wrap my head around. To me it feels like not more then a month. Not that the emotions are as raw or as intense as 8 months ago, it is just that the memory is so clear.  Each morning, in some way, is that morning…the morning my dad died. But things are less intense now then back in the beginning. Maybe that is how time just seems to slip by. The realization that it had been 8 months makes me feel like I’ve got so much more work to do in the process of acknowledging and moving beyond his passing.  I said to a friend in those early days that I felt like I was entering a new wilderness, not necessarily a frightening or hostile new wilderness. But one that is unfamiliar, dense and wild. There is no path, for grief is different for everybody. But I just have to pick my way through, slowly but surely. Sometimes stopping to take a breathe or to take in my surroundings and sometimes just forcing my way through rough patches. I am definitely in the thick of it and perhaps for a bit too long I’ve been stopped, taking a breath and just looking around. Now its getting on towards time to be moving along towards another new patch and little further into the thicket.

Around these times of contemplation around my dad’s passing I often pick up Wendel Berry’s “Farming: A Handbook. Its a collection of his poems all about farming, land, earth, and life. In it I find some of my most beloved poems. It is also the book that I found the poem “A Praise”, which I read at my dad’s memorial.

Yesterday I found a poem that quite literally took my breathe away. It is called “Awake at Night”

Late in the night I pay
the unrest I owe
to the life that has never lived
and cannot live now.
What the world could be
is my good dream
and my agony when, dreaming it,
I lie awake and turn
and look into the dark.
I think of a luxury
in the sturdiness and grace
of necessary things, not
in frivolity. That would heal
the earth, and heal men.
But the end, too, is part
of the pattern, the last
labor of the heart:
to learn to lie still,
one with the earth
again, and let the world go.

It is that last bit in particular “…the last labor of the heart: to learn to lie still, one with the earth again, and let the world go.” Almost words to live by.