5/10: A Long Memory

*editors note – this here is a fiction piece but many of you will note that part of the story sounds very familiar. That’s because I’ve taken a story about my dad, a true story and mixed it in to some measure. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately, this idea of taking some of his life and mixing it with fiction. Hope it worked out alright.*

The street was dark besides the yellow glow of a street lamp filtered through the trees that lined the street.  My attention was mostly kept by looking at the way the wet side walk glimmered. It had rained all day, all week in fact and it wasn’t until an hour ago that it had stopped. Walking home all was quiet. All the rain had kept people inside so much they probably didn’t know how to come outside anymore. Normally this time of year people would have had their windows thrown open to let in the cool evening breeze. The days this fall had been hotter then average, but the nights had been wonderfully average.

I was startled out of my thoughts by a loud crash. Just ahead at the next intersection a car had collided with a newly installed small round-about.

The city, in all its infinite wisdom, wanted to bestow upon our rather down trodden little neighborhood the gift of a beautification campaign. The round-abouts were some city officials I idea of making our neighborhood nicer. The round-abouts were place at random throughout the neighborhood, each including 4-5 large concrete planters containing dirt and the pitiful beginnings of some flowers. Most residents viewed these odd constructions and just another weak attempt by the city to show it cares for our neighborhood.

I approached the intersection looking cautiously at the car now resting with its passenger side up on the round-about rammed up against one of the large flower planters. Dirt was tossed all over the hood of the car along with one lone pansy. The engine was still running. Walking around to the driver side I saw the door flung open and a large man sprawled face down on the bricks.

“Uncle Hank. You alright” I said nudging the man with my foot. “Uncle Hank!” this time I yelled. I got a faint mumble followed by a groan. Slowly he rolled over. “Oh lord” I said and went to help him sit up. As I knelt down to help him up I caught a nauseating whiff of liquor mingled with body odder.

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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.

You will eat pie in the sky…

Pie 006Yesterday, May 15th, would have been my dad’s 74th birthday. In honor of the occasion and all the things I love and miss about him I made a gigantic apple pie. One of the many things my dad and I enjoyed doing together was baking. He taught me much about the wonderful traditions of baking bread, the joy of needing, and watching your bread rise. One 4th of July (perhaps one of his favorite holidays, not for any patriotic reason of course, but because it was the one time of year that one could blow things up) we were hosting a great little party at his house. He went to the store to get supplies and after my step mom had left the room he called me out on the porch. He had spent an exorbitant amount on a bag of amazing, vine ripe, juicy, locally grown peaches for the pie. We made two huge peach pies that were the best I had ever tasted. We had a great party and blew lots of things up too, which is more fun when it is supported by a full belly of peach pie and ice cream.

Here are the pictures of the pie!

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.

The Struggle to Say Goodbye after the Moment has Passed…

Goin’ Away – One of my favorite songs my dad Wrote as sung by Will Brown, Cindy Kallet and Grey Larsen
The day I realized my dad was leaving for the first time was when I was 7 years old. My mom was driving my brother and me to school. The day was cool and cloudy. I was sitting way in the back of my mom’s minivan; my brother was in the front seat. As we passed the Zip Trip convenience store and gas station up the hill from our house I saw my dad. He was inside the Zip Trip; seated alone at a table in the deli area, sipping a cup of coffee. His eyes looking down at the paper, his red 1957 Chevy truck parked in front. His possessions packed in the back. He didn’t see us passing by and he certainly didn’t see me…looking out the window of the van…looking at him wondering if he was lonely sitting there alone, wondering where he was going and if I would ever see him again.

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