Category Archives: ageing

The truth and reconciliation

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My body is not one. It has shown itself now to be a collection of minor beings struggling to work together without really knowing how. I felt them begin to pull apart, these pieces of me, my own free floating awareness pitting me as an observer against my-selves. As I lay in convalescence after the harrowing break, with the black rock of my own death still cold in my hands, I ask again and again, “how did this happen?”

How and indeed why – the questions come and go like Prufrock’s ladies sometimes louder than before, sometimes softer, always there at least somewhere in the background. The science is clear even where it is ambiguous. The autoimmune disease turns my best defender against me. Now my oh-so-powerful body attacks me. It cannot tell the difference between me and my enemies. It attacks with full force like a mad dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing and can only lash out, because that is now the nature of its being.

My body is not one. A beast lies within, ready to attack at some semi-random moment when something wakes it up. The beast wasn’t always so. It was my friend in older times, defended me against the world and kept me safe, until something flipped and everything changed. A gene was switched, some of the doctors will say. Something triggered it like too much stress, spicy food, or alcohol. It feels like possession, like something outside stepped in and captured this part of me and turned it rogue, like a son who attacks his father because in his greed and hubris he cannot be who he was born to be. It feels angry within me; it has something to say, only it has no words and can only attack what it cannot understand.

My body is not one. It is not what it was. After the attack, this time, they had to cut away a big piece, and what was once complete and then quite sick is no longer there. It was cut out by carefully trained hands, that piece of my body turned against me by the beast. It was cut away to stop the harm, a piece of death arrested, excised, and placed into a bin for further study, when the doctors will try to figure out why and how. With the diseased part of me gone now, they say I’ll be able to start over. With the resection went the larger risks, some of the cancer prospect, and the places where the beast fed on my life itself.

My body is not one. It will never be one again, even when I get better. I will have to care for the beast and love it surely as one loves the rogue son – for he is mine and I cannot deny him. I must forgive the wrongs and find a new way to love myself and my-selves, believing in a kind of healing I’ve never imagined before. The doctors have cleaned up the mess and put the beast in a box. I’m being redrawn and reconnected, like the overhaul of plumbing in an old house, a renovation in flesh and blood.

My body is not one. Part of it has died, part of it is new, part is restored, part must be contained. What did the doctors see when they began the renovation? Maybe that’s not even a question they ask. They just do their best and move on, repairing harm and ending suffering. Is it up to me to see what I need to see? The doctors came back and told me that I was young even though I felt old, that I was healthy even though I felt sick, that I was already getting better even though I was racked with pain and doubt.

My body is not one. Yet all must be reconciled. It cannot just be contained. It cannot be a regime of toleration. We cannot agree to disagree, play nice, share the sandbox. We must transcend that which divides to form a new self even while the rest of our clamoring selves continue their cantankerous dialogue down beneath. I read the letters of Saint Paul to myself over and over again, on building a church of love from disparate groups and individuals who want to belong together. Saint Paul comes to us with words soothing and stern, asking us to let love be our guide, the same self-sacrificing love shown to us by the Savior – for us to enact in our own lives until we return to Him and are one again.

Can my body be one? I have to ask even though I suspect it will always be at the very least a balancing act between reality and desire. Every day will be a challenge to keep my-selves together in a common vision of who we are. It will be time and sweat and hard work even when I know something is different inside. The doctors will tell me I need to be vigilant because the beast cannot be tamed forever, even with the greatest love I can give. I can never trust fully. The beast has taken that away even though I must love my beast-child while never turning my back.

Can my body be one? Without trust there can be no reconciliation. But how can I trust the beast? Maybe that is not the right place to start: rather, I can begin by calling it what it is and not what it feels like. It’s not a beast or a rogue son. It’s a mistake, there only because it is. We can’t know how it came to me, except to know that my mother shared some of these symptoms and, in the end, succumbed to her own autoimmune demon via multiple sclerosis. She struggled so hard to know why, only I don’t think there’s a why. Illness is as much part of life as health.

What is it, if not a beast? Is it me? Could it be that simple? It may be an aberration, something most people don’t deal with, but I’m not the only one. Rare perhaps but we are many, and as I look around me perhaps not rare indeed. We are who we are, and this is part of me, as much as missing nine molars is part of me. Those teeth were never there and my mouth ends in gum lines where others have teeth. Yet I eat and have a bright smile that warms hearts and helps me say hello. It’s nothing more than who I am, a man missing a lot of molars, with a baby molar still there on my right side at 52 years. And now, a man with Crohn’s Disease and a long life ahead.

Reconciliation is never complete. It is an ongoing action, something practiced, never done, always incipient. The virtue of reconciliation is that it is always on the verge of its own demise, challenging us constantly to make it real. The daily exercise of reconciliation is a stand against entropy, casting hope into the world. Reconciliation is a pathway, a bridge from one way of life to another. Reconciliation keeps the pieces of me together and holds out the hope we need even when the disease itself will always be there, even if only in shadows.

My body may not be one. But all the pieces are mine. Reconciliation keeps us honest and gives us a chance.

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Notes and credits

The opening photograph is the author at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn following emergency surgery for a burst colon, January 27, 2016. The second photograph is flowers in my room, sent by family.

 

 

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The truth and dreams, 3: White Whales, Holy Grails, and Shooting Stars

Most of us will chase something at one point or another.  It may be a short chase, after something well-defined and easily obtained.  Or a long chase, made as much by the struggle as by the goal itself.  Or a youthful chase full of bright-eyed, dreamy exuberance.  Or the quest of later years, when what lies ahead is increasingly defined by what went before.

For some, the chase is a noble cause that will leave the world a better place, regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. Others will take the low road of vengeance, recrimination, or pride, plunging into the depths like Captain Ahab on the bloodied back of Moby-Dick.

“Moby-Dick, p. 548” by Matt Kish

To those caught up in the chase it’s not always so clear which side they are on.  For those convinced of their righteousness, the nobility of the cause is beyond question, hardship merely a price worth paying, while to others the same quest is utter nonsense. In the end we only remember the quests that hit stride at the right time, when the right people are paying attention. Those chasing Holy Grails and windmills tend to go down anonymously.  It doesn’t mean their quests were futile or unimportant, even when they were imaginary or sad.  As Dona Walda put it after we finished her oral history in 1993, “We’re not important, but in our own lives we’re important.”

My father once told me that when you see a shooting star, it means a great man has died.  It’s an archaic saying that calls to mind stargazers and great dreamers, who loom in my imagination like ancient Greek statues but are just as easily my own grandfathers, my mother, a neighbor who befriended us when we needed it.  So many little things come together to make a life under the stars and with the stars, each one’s path to “follow a star,” as the saying goes.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Bob Dylan wrote that verse as he stared down fifty, as I am doing.  It makes me wonder, too.  What are these shooting stars, really?  My father believed in “great men,” whose lives we look up to like we look to the stars.  Centuries of belief in the ancient world tie our lives to the movements of the stars.  The great tragedies are “star-crossed” while Abraham lifted the history of a nation by counting those same stars against the backdrop of nothingness and everything all at once.  I believe in the chaotic beauty of a universe held together as much by accident as intention. We all chase our stars, our white-whales and our Holy Grails, eventually going the way of the stars themselves, flaming out against infinity.

Notes and Credits

Photograph of Supernova Remnant N 63A Menagerie from NASA, taken by the Hubble Telescope.  You can find the whole Hubble collection at the Hubblesite, which catalogs all the photographs along with explanations of the phenomena being documented.

The Moby-Dick illustration is from Matt Kish’s collection Moby-Dick in Pictures:  One Drawing from Every Page.  It’s a beautiful book – see the profile in the Atlantic Monthly. This one, “P. 548,” is used by permission.

Photo of a white (albino) humpback whale found at Cryptomundo.  The whale is called “Migaloo,” and more photos can be found here by Dan Burns of Blue Planet Marine and Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.

Dona Walda was the matriarch of a family I met in Aurá, a suburb of Belém, Brasil, in 1992-93.  I came to know Dona Walda and her family as I took oral histories of their experiences in Aurá, which was founded by land invasion in 1990 during the gubernatorial elections of that year, when candidate Jader Barbalho went around the state promising to legalize invasion neighborhoods if he won the election.  I visited with my friends from Aurá from 1992 through 2004, learning much from their neighborhood’s history and writing a few pieces about he neighborhood association for scholarly journals.  Dona Walda’s statement after her interview with me is one of the most touching things that I’ve heard across my entire career of interviewing people about their lives.  A wise statement, I will never forget it.

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The truth and dreams, 2: Exile

I am far from my country. It’s been long enough now that I am not sure what that means any more, apart from a nostalgia for things from my younger days, each year more frozen and remote, filled with artifacts and dioramas of a life long gone.

I am far from the people I once knew and cherished.  Many have passed away, the great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents.  My mother, too.  Those who remain have changed or disappeared.  At least one has succumbed to mental illness and is no longer the man we both knew.

I am far from everything that once made me who I am.  I carry some of this with me, in the food I cook and eat, the songs I play, and the point of view I have on the things that surround me now.  But it’s not quite complete, this lonely authenticity of the exile.

I live in only two times:  the past and the future.  In the past, I feed on my memories and fill myself with pride and sadness all at once.  The longing for places I have lived pulls me like a current, begging me to return to places I can no longer find.  I revisit the important points in time when I could have done one thing differently, one thing that might have changed the course of my life.  I wish, and then I lose my wishes against the impossibility of having done what I now wished to do.

In the future, I am different and splendid, having come through a desert separating one world from another.  Here I am, or at least I will be, a man who carries the burden of his life with a wisdom all can see.  Here I am, one who rose and fell and rose again from the very bottom of bottoms to a new place that is my home.  Yet this new place that I call home is always just up there, around the next corner, over the next hill, just the other side of that magnificent stand of oaks reaching up to the sky.

It is never now.  It is never now that I have lived my life, even my life past.  Never have I sat down to rest, to stop my thinking and dreaming and yearning just to say “thank you” to the universe and to those who love me.  I never have, I never did, and I don’t know if I ever will. In those moments when I try, I don’t feel like I have truly stopped. Something deep inside won’t let me.  The urge to get around that next bend or hill or stand of trees propells me forward and keeps me going, like a fish that will die if it stays still in the water for too long.

It is the special irony of the dreamer that our inability to live in the present poisons the past and the future, rendering both lands inhospitable and just out of reach.  The dreamer is the exile from time itself, a man or woman who has no home and no place to go, for home will be always around the next bend.  The only redeeming thing in the dreamer’s life is that his or her dreams may one day be useful to others.  This, at least to me, is the only way to fill an empty present with meaning, enough so that I can embrace the exile, take him in my arms, and give him the sustenance he needs to wake up one more day, neither closer to nor further from home but, as always, the exile.

Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  Sunset:  February 13, 2012, at Eagle Beach, Aruba.  Frozen pond:  December 17, 2011 in the Catskill Mountains near Walton, New York.

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The truth and the bee tree

The bee tree is gone.

It was there, under that tree in April of 2008, that I saw a bee swarm come up in the park.  I’d never seen such a thing before, and it remains to this day a most magical experience.  I was laying on the ground with Duke, my dog, just enjoying a nice warm spring day.  My son, Noel, was playing ball with his friend not too far away.  The bees came up on me and Duke slowly, a few at a time, until they were arriving by the dozens and then hundreds.  They hovered over us but never landed.  The sound of thousands of bee wings in motion covered us, like a blanket, and I felt a warm serenity.  After a while I noticed the bees moving up toward the branches of the tree above us.  There, the bees were swarming around their queen, who was leading the colony away to find a new home.  They shared a part of their journey with us, and we were blessed.

A few weeks ago, in December of 2011, my son and I were walking through the park when we passed the spot where the bee tree was.  In its place, there was only a stump.  It must have been cut down recently, perhaps a result of Hurricane Irene, or maybe disease.  Between the Hurricane, last year’s tornado, and the unexpected Halloween snow storm in 2011, the park had a lot of downed trees to deal with – so much so that the park was giving away the mulch they made from this year’s Christmas trees.  Whatever the reason, the bee tree was no more.

With death comes reflection for those of use who are left behind.  That’s how I felt when we happened upon the stump.  In the time since the bee swarm in 2008, a lot has happened.  About a year later, Duke died, which I chronicled in “The truth and sleeping dogs” on this blog.  We buried some of his ashes in the park, where he had spent so many happy days.  Noel is now in the fourth grade and is a whole lot more of a person than he was then.  His wants and desires are more solid.  His life in the park has grown, too, from birthday parties and piñatas, to baseball and sledding and flag football.  Back in 2006, when he was 4, he saw a racoon on the little hill by the Third Street Playground.  For a year or two, every time we passed that hill he would slow down and hunch up, stopping to say, “Daddy, be quiet, we’re hunting for raccoons!”  He doesn’t say that any more, but he still thinks about it and we were talking about that raccoon just last week.

In that time, I lost a job and spent a little over year doing odd consulting gigs while trying to see if I could reorient my career.  It was a pretty bad crash, but I came out of the better in the end.  The year of searching was a gift, in which for the first time in my life I stopped and simply enjoyed myself.  I started Truth and Rocket Science at this time, in February of 2009 about four months after I stopped working. That summer, I wrote a post called “The truth and Twitter, part 3:  The Swarm,” reflecting on the “swarm culture” that Twitter is producing.  In the post, I brought up the bee tree and added a photograph of it.  That photo gets a lot of hits – if you Google “bee tree” or “bee bee tree,” this photograph is on the first page of images that comes up.  In February 2010, I took a limited contract with an agency providing services to people with HIV and those who are at risk of HIV.  By Christmas the funds were running out and I was about to be laid off when the department director walked off the job and a new career was born.

In the wake of my mother’s death, my father and I have created a new relationship, two men supporting each other against life’s adversities.  I met a wonderful woman who has helped open up my heart in ways I haven’t been used to.  I got up to 7 miles a day running and then herniated a disk in my lower back, which has put me off running for the last 18 months.  With everything else, it left me feeling older and older, approaching 48 now and wondering what it would mean to start thinking of myself as middle-aged.  I spend a lot of time reflecting on my youth and what I’ve done in those other 2 or 3 lives I have led in Ann Arbor, Brazil, South Africa, Rock Island, and the Mississippi Delta, to name a few of my great haunts.  I can go on YouTube and watch videos from the 80s and 90s for hours, remembering all the songs that form the soundtrack of my life.

At this point, the episode under the bee tree seems like a lifetime away.  In the next few years, as I have over the last few, I will pass the bee tree’s place again and again.  It won’t be with Duke, and less and less with Noel as he grows into his own life and starts to spend time in the park without me.  Today I did 2 laps around the park on my bike, smiling as I passed the bee tree stump in the darkening eve.  In the next couple of months I will start running again, and there it will be, a reminder of so many things in life and, at the bottom of it, the day when Duke and Noel and I saw the bees migrating to their new home.

It all brings me back to another place, when I first read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the fourth or fifth grade, in religion class at Catholic school.  A good 35 or 36 years later, my brother gave me his son’s copy of the book to pass on to my son.  The first time I read it to him, I had to choke back tears.  Something profound came over me, like it does sometimes when I’m doing things with my son.  I suddenly see myself in him, or my father in myself.  Time stands still and life takes on new meanings, like light refracted through a prism emerging in many colors on the other side.

I’m not ready to sit on that bee tree’s stump just yet.  I have a few more things to do, but one day I will go to Prospect Park and take a seat there.  I’ll be an old man, and my own son will be grown and maybe with children of his own.  I’ll sit there, and I’ll remember to thank the bee tree for the times we have shared.

The Bee Tree of Prospect Park, RIP 2011

 Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  The image from The Giving Tree was scanned from my own copy, which was published by Haprer Collins in 1964, the year I was born.  In that frame, the boy sits on the stump.  It’s the last thing the tree could give him, “and the tree was happy.”

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Filed under ageing, death, Duke, fathers, life, Park Slope, sons, truth, youth

The truth and moonshadows, 4: Coda, from friends

After I published the essays, “The truth and moonshadows, 1-3,” a couple of my friends shared their own stories with me.  The essays prompted them to think of their own fathers.  They are two very dear friends, whose associations go back many years.  This gave me an idea, and on this, my 47th birthday, I ask …

The Ask

What I seek from this posting is any email or correspondence concerning other fathers and sons. I’d like to collect some of our stories and figure out what they mean.  Send me stories and photos and I will work with you to craft something that we can share.  After you read this, post this to other websites, or email it to friends who are themselves fathers, whether of sons or daughters.

Peter

I met Peter in 1996 when I walked on to the campus of Augustana College as a newly minted Ph.D. with an office in a former closet next to his own office, which was small but had spectacular windows.  Peter was my epitome of an academic, walls of books surrounding a neat desk from which he produced a steady stream of books and articles, all the while teaching a full spate of classes for dozens of undergrads who came through Augustana every year.

John,

I just finished reading the third installment of your look at fathers and sons, and maybe because I did so in the ancestral land of my own father—Finland (a place he never saw)—I thought back on our relationship.  The summer after my first year at Michigan was the last time I lived at home.  I got a job working for the mining company, the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. (“do or die for the CCI” was the old refrain in Ishpeming).  My Dad had just retired from teaching and I think [he] was at something of a loss, trying to figure out what’s next and seeing his son giving indications that whatever his future was, it wasn’t going to be in the UP.  Most days after work, we went fishing, something we really hadn’t done while I was growing up.  He sought out all of the old small streams where you used to be able to catch brown trout.  It would appear that by the summer of 1967 those streams were all fished out because I don’t recall catching anything, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  The experience was, however, a moment of silent bonding that I never forgot.

When my son, while studying for his PhD at Tennessee, and I decided on a road trip that would take us from Nashville through to his place in Knoxville for a few days (including his treat: a John Hiatt concert as a replay of the first concert I took him to when he took up the guitar—John Hiatt and the Tennessee Queens at the Col Ballroom in Davenport), and then on to Ashville.  We called it the “-ville tour” and decided then and there that we would do a comparable road trip each year.  In fact, we had plotted out a trip that started in Memphis and headed south from there.  Before that happened, Aaron proposed to Katie, they got married in Virginia last summer and thus Memphis wasn’t going to happen.  I did help him with the move into New Jersey last summer and will do the same in July when they move to Providence, RI. I am really happy that Aaron got married, but I realized what my father was thinking about back in ’67.

By the way, you really do look like your father.

Best,

Peter

Jeff

Jeff and I met in 1986.  In that year, I began the Master’s program in Latin American Studies at Tulane.  Jeff had started in ’85, and so he was a veteran.  He lived with a bunch of hippies and Dead-heads up off Broadway in the coolest house I’d ever seen.  A year later I met my first wife in that house.  I was a neophyte from New Orleans, going to school in New Orleans, who had never left New Orleans (save for a 1984 summer in Mexico City to study).  I was a social justice oriented quasi-Marxist, inspired in equal doses by Liberation theologians and Sandinistas (who were sometimes the same people).  What I said in seminars made sense in some ways; in others, however, it was inchoate and in need of focus.  Jeff gave me a nickname I didn’t become aware of for many months:  “Raw Material.”  It was an affectionate nickname, meaning I would be capable of some very good things when I got more shape and maturity to my view.  Of course, he was right.  The summer before I left New Orleans for good, I lived in that house, subletting Jeff’s room while he was off somewhere in Colombia or Baltimore.

Nice read, John. It was challenging for me to focus on because M is on the phone in the kitchen, and for some reason is being really loud with her parents this morning. I started with part 1 and read all 3. The 3 generations of your family seem to share high emotional intelligence, which is usually repressed in our gender and looked down upon. My friends (especially those from work) look at me askance whenever I emote, unless it’s sarcasm, anger, or drunken boisterousness. I’ve always said that my dad has almost no affect—though he has a good sense of humor—and his only 2 emotions are love and anger. He’s never held back on the affection, but he doesn’t seem to be as insightful as you and your dad both seem to be. Noel is lucky that way. I’m also impressed that you can trace your family back to the 17th century!

Jeff

Notes and Credits

The photos are by the author.  The first is of me and Noel and Duke, taken in the summer of 2006 in front of our home at 50 Sterling Place.  Duke departed us in April 2009.

The “UP” to which Peter refers is Michigan’s “upper peninsula,” the triangular nose of land north of Wisconsin that sits between Lake Superior’s southern shore and Lake Michigan’s western shore.  People from the UP are called “Yoopers,” and it was an area historically known for its iron mines, independent spirit, and Finnish settlers.  In Marquette, there is Northern Michigan University, where another old friend from Augustana now teaches.  Ishpeming, where Peter was from, is a few miles west of Marquette on Hwy 28.

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The truth and moonshadows, 3: Oh, Very Old

Note:  This is the third of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Oh, Very Old

My son, Noel, plays baseball with the 78th Precinct Police Athletic League.  He has a great throw and a yen to learn pitching.  I am trying to teach him, and for inspiration I took him to websites with pictures and facts about Yankee legend Ron Guidry.  I remember well the heady days in the seventies when Ron Guidry, The Ragin’ Cajun, was blowing away the Major Leagues and winning the World Series.  Everyone in Louisiana became a Yankees fan at that time.  My mom hatched a scheme to have my father, also Ron Guidry, sign baseballs and sell them to fans.  This would be no lie, she said, but my father wouldn’t agree to it.  On one occasion, he had his credit card refused at a gas station in Alexandria, Louisiana, because the clerk refused to believe that was his real name.

Noel Shanks Guidry

One night recently, as Noel and I were having dinner and watching TV-on-the-internet, I wondered what Noel might think of the song, “Father and Son.”  I called up the video on YouTube and pointed at me when the lyrics indicated the father, and at him when they indicated the son.  His comment at the end was that he didn’t ever want to “go away.”  Of course, a few days ago, he’d announced his intent to go to college in Colorado (notably, he had just visited the state with his mom).  Then he added quickly that he would come back to Brooklyn after college, saying “I’ll live in Brooklyn for ever.”

I said, “Sonny, it’s ok. All fathers and sons go through that.” He looked a little puzzled.  I said that “going away” is not just moving to another place.  It’s also about changing your mind or growing up into someone who isn’t like me or his mom.  He perked up when I said this, as if it meant something to him.  (I didn’t ask.)  Then we listened to other Cat Stevens songs.  When I played “Moonshadow” he said, “I feel like this song is familiar, but I don’t know why.” Then I told him about how I used to sing it to him when he was an infant.

In the years since my son was born, my father has come back to me in many ways. While Cat Stevens was busy becoming Yusuf and converting to Islam, Captain Ronald James Guidry was earning a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies and becoming Deacon Ron Guidry, ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.  He serves as a Deacon to St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of the French Quarter and was for several years Master of Ceremonies for the Archbishop of New Orleans.  He still doesn’t like guns and is trying to figure out if there is anything such as a “just war” – World War II perhaps, maybe Afghanistan in the early going, but certainly not Iraq (I or II) or the other imperial wars America has waged in the last 100 years. As Deacon, he has baptized all three of his grandchildren, including Noel.

I experience him now differently than I did as his young son.  I watch him with Noel and see something I hadn’t expected.  They understand each other and communicate in an intuitive way that seems both foreign and magic to me.  The older man is more easy-going and less rigid than when I was young.  I’ve imagined saying to him now, “where were you 35 years ago?” But I don’t.  He has the right to grow old, to become whatever person he wants to become, even if it seems different from the father I used to know.

As I look at it now, it seems my father was growing older even as I was; while I was busy becoming someone, it turns out that he was becoming someone, too.  This is something I can appreciate only now, seeing him with my own son. Such are the vagaries of time and companionship, and we are indeed companions, me and the Old Man, having survived my two marriages, bouts of unemployment and career redefinition on both sides, the loss of innocence and the freedom of wisdom, and on June 27, 2007, the loss of my mother and his beloved wife, Mary Krupa Guidry.

The Guidry boys - Noel, Ron, and John

At the end of the day, I’ve been able to return to my father and to Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, a famous singer who brought us together in odd ways many years ago. I listen both to the old Cat Stevens tunes (there are wonderful YouTube recordings) and the new Yusuf Islam recordings, his old songs and his new ones. The music he makes now is much like the music he made before, and he is still pursuing the same dreams. As Yusuf told Charlie Rose in 2009, “It’s the same old heart, you know, that’s the point.”

Last summer, my father did something he’d always wanted to do.  He saw Joan Baez live in concert.  He had always loved her voice and something about her message. The way he talked about seeing her in concert made me think a little of the consummation (albeit chaste) of a long and unrequited love affair, something like Love in the Time of Cholera, a book he has greatly admired and which he read at some point on those early Saturday mornings after my brother and I were gone from household to build our own lives.  It’s wonderful to see him happy.

For my own part, I have mixed feelings about the passage of time and growing older.  Cat Stevens was right—I had to go away, but sometimes I wish I never had.  Then again, every time I look at my son, I am old, but I’m happy.  And so is my father.

Notes and Credits

In August 2009, Yusuf Islam gave an interview to Charlie Rose, which I reference above.  It’s a great interview, and it’s easy to see how Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam are the same man.  Particularly poignant is when he talks about how his own son’s interest in playing the guitar sparked Yusuf to pick it up again.  The interview is on YouTube in two parts, found here (part 1) and here (part 2).  Another great interview with Yusuf in Dublin is here.

The Cat Stevens entry in Wikipedia list among his influences a folksinger from New Orleans named Biff Rose.  Biff went to college with my parents at Loyola University in the late 1950s.  Rose went on to have a career of some prominence, and he returned to New Orleans to perform at the Penny Post coffee house in the mid-80s, where I met him when I was performing there.  Around the same time, a young Emily Saliers played there as a student at Tulane University, following Lucinda Williams who’d passed through the venue years before.  The Penny Post is one of America’s great coffeehouses, founded in the mid-1970s.  It closed in the 1990s but has reopened as the Neutral Ground and continues to provide a space for singers of songs and teller of tales.  The Penny Post story is told by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

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The truth and moonshadows, 2: Of Fathers and Sons

Note:  This is the second of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Of Fathers and Sons

John Alexis Guidry

With the passage of time, everything changed, as it always does. By 2002, Cat Stevens had been Yusuf Islam for 25 years, becoming a Muslim in late 1977 and appearing to disappear from Western public life altogether. During that time across the 1980s and 1990s, my brother and I both grew up. We moved far away from home, and we had sons of our own.  My brother’s was named Joseph, after our mother’s father, Joe Krupa, a Slovak steelworker from the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.

My son was named after one Noel Matherne, born around 1768 on the First German Coast of Louisiana.  He married a woman named Charlotte Delmer on November 24, 1789, and among their children was one Eugene Matherne, among whose great-grandchildren was my own great-grandmother, Pauline Badeaux, born in 1896 and deceased in 1998.  Pauline married Ernest John Guidry II in 1917.  Their first-born son, Ernest John Guidry III, married Marie Lezina Vicknair on June 7, 1939, and on March 21, 1940, Ronald James Guidry was born.  Ronald married Mary Krupa on September 7, 1963 and on June 3, 1964, John Alexis Guidry was born.  On June 10, 2000, John married Denise Shanks and Noel Shanks Guidry was born on May 28, 2002.

From infancy through his third year, I sang Noel to sleep every night with “Moonshadow,” delighting in the playful exchange of eyes and ears and teeth and hands throughout the lyric.

mall map of Nova Scotia. From Atlas Portatif Universel, by Robert de Vaugondy.
L’Acadie, c. 1749, R. de Vaugondy

This August of 2011, my father, my son, and I are travelling together to Nova Scotia.  We’re going back to the Acadian homeland, called l’Acadie by its first European settlers.  As Cajuns, we don’t really have a European homeland, which sets us apart from most white people in America. Our ancestor, Claude Guidry, was either born in l’Acadie in the 1640s or arrived there from France in 1671 (the records are disputed).  There is no known Guidry prior to Claude, and the path backwards vanishes there.

He is known in the archives as Claude Guidry dit Laverdure dit Grivois.  “Dit” means roughly “said to be” (like “also known as”), and Claude’s other names mean “The Green” (Laverdure) and “Saucy” (Grivois).  “Saucy,” as far as the record indicates, appears to refer to Claude’s and children’s joviality and penchant for living life the way they saw fit. They were outlaw fishermen and trappers who intermarried with the local Micmac Indians and lived with them, thus exempting themselves from the early census of the colony in 1671, which didn’t count people in mixed-race marriages and their children.

We’re going to go to Claude’s old haunts in Lunenburg, LaHeve (Bridgeport), and Annapolis (Port Royale). If Claude was on the ship L’Oranger, which reached l’Acadie/Nove Scotia in 1671, he would have disembarked in Lunenburg, then known as Mirligueche.  If he wasn’t on that ship, then he was already living there among the Micmac. Which story is true isn’t as important to me as simply knowing that I will walk the ground that Claude trod. It’s a dream I’ve had for many years, of standing with my son on the Eastern Coast of Nova Scotia, looking out across the Atlantic Ocean and telling him that our people came from that water, somewhere over there, leaving everything behind, and growing up here, on the land of the New World.

The British and French had both laid claim to Acadie since the early 1600s, and across time this tension provoked an independence in the people there, who preferred to mind their own business and generally refused to sign oaths to bear arms for either side. As it became apparent that the French might not support these renegades, Yankee forces in Boston and the lower colonies formed a plan to expel the Acadiens and repopulate the land with Protestant Scots and Germans, creating a prosperous market for the farms and factories of New England.

“The Great Expulsion” of 1755 was an Eighteenth Century case of ethnic cleansing that dispersed our people throughout the Britain’s Atlantic Empire.  An idealized version of the story is told by Longfellow in Evangeline, a more historical form in John Mack Faragher’s A Great and Noble Scheme:  The Tragic Story of the Explusion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland (New York:  Norton, 2005).

That’s how we ended up in Louisiana.  How Noel and I ended up in New York is another story, but at least we’re not the first Guidry’s to make the move from Louisiana to New York.

Ron Guidry, Yankee Legend

Notes and Credits

The photo of Ron Guidry was taken from the website Josh Q. Public, profiling some great pitchers, including our namesake, the Ragin’ Cajun.

Throughout the 1600s, both the British and French and tried to have the Acadiens sign oaths of allegiance.  For the most part the people refused to do so, preferring to be left alone.  Neither the French nor the British wanted to protect them, and they fit into neither country’s imperial schemes.  Some yielded to the pressure, however, and on August 16, 1695, Claude Guidry signed an oath of allegiance to the British King.  The record in Ancestry.com states,

The Oath read “We do Swear and Sincerely Promise That we will be Faithful and bear True Allegiance to his Majty King William, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. So help us God.” Captain Fleetwood Emes, Commander of the Sorlings Frigate administered the Oath at Port-Royal. In taking the Oath, Claude signed his name as “Claude Gaidry”.

On January 9, 1723, Claude Guidry “conditionally baptized” twin grand-daughters Helene and Marie-Josephe Guidry in Boston.  They were there with other Acadiens who were prisoners and refugees of a war between the English and the Indians that lasted from 1722-25, known variably as “The Three Years War,” “Rale’s War,” “Lovewell’s War” and “Governor Dummer’s Indian War.” This is the last mention of Claude in any historical record.  Not long after he returned to l’Acadie and passed away some time thereafter, among his family in his homeland.

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The truth and moonshadows, 1: Another Saturday Morning

Note:  This is the first of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Another Saturday Morning

When I was a child, Saturday mornings were tranquil and unoccupied, a time when no one had work to do or church to attend.  It was the one day of the week that mom got to sleep in, and it was the one morning of the week when my father had some time to himself. And so it was that Saturday mornings began with a ritual of discovery, waking up to seek out my father in the family room to see what he was doing.  This was important, because whatever it was that he was doing, it looked important.

Sometimes he would be reading; sometimes he would be writing.  But he was always writing in all the books he read, and when he listened to music on the stereo, he scribbled all over the record sleeves and lyric sheets. And then sometimes he was just writing in one of his empty books that were simply labeled “Record.” He had a whole bunch of these already filled on the bookshelves.

Teaser and the Firecat

One Saturday morning, I came into the room and heard a new record, as I often did.  This one was “Teaser and the Firecat,” by an oddly-named singer called Cat Stevens.  From that day on, the song “Peace Train” became an anthem in our household, for it was in those days, or thereabouts, that my parents and their friends were peace-loving young people, the “social left” of their local Catholic Church, complete with their own bearded-hippie-Jesus priest who rode a motorcycle, preached against war and hosted wonderful weekends at his family’s fishing camp down on Lake Verret. In our household, guns were forbidden, not even toys, and we didn’t go hunting or shooting, all of which set us quite apart in Louisiana.  Guns, my father said, had only one purpose, which was to kill people, and that was not something to celebrate.

At the same time, from the walls of our living room—the same living room where Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang every Saturday morning—there hung a striking sunset-silhouette photograph of my father’s tank out on the ground around Fort Hood, Texas, where my brother and I were both born.  On the same or a nearby wall (it changed every once in a while) my father’s bayonet was mounted on a felt-covered board with some other mementos, and on another wall hung award my mom got for service to Army wives.  Before Cat Stevens, Captain Ronald James Guidry was a tank commander and expert marksman.

Captain Ronald James Guidry, age 1 or thereabouts

Over time, Cat Stevens’ music continued to be played in our house. My father brought home each new album, all the way through Numbers, though I recall thinking that “Bannapple Gas” didn’t do the same thing for me that the other songs did.  Within a few years of that, however, around the same time that Cat Stevens seemed to disappear—and I would have no idea why that happened until many years later—my brother and I were both playing the guitar and learning the ubiquitous Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits songbook cover-to-cover.

It was around that time, too, that the songs started to mean something different to me. They were no longer songs that were important to my father for reasons that he told us. They were songs that helped me think about important things, too. They were songs that captured the way I had begun to feel about my father as I was starting to think about what I wanted from this world and realized, with no small degree of concern, that the things I wanted weren’t what he wanted for me.

This was a challenging idea, because I thought of my aspirations and values and dreams as direct extensions of my father’s.  I didn’t understand the difficulty he had with some of my ideas, but I began to think I should worry less about his feelings than just figuring out how to move along.  Like every boy my age with a guitar, I sang the words to “Father and Son” as if I had written them myself.

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It’s always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.
Now there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

Cat Stevens, “Father and Son,” 1970

For his part, I recalled how my father listened to “Oh, Very Young,” seeing in his eyes the familiar look of loss that increasingly haunted his moods the older he got.  I couldn’t tell if he was mourning his own lost youth or mine, or perhaps the notion of lost innocence, though whether personally or in general I couldn’t quite tell.

Oh very young what will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky.
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will.

Cat Stevens, “Oh, Very Young,” 1974

What I can say is that to this day, almost 40 years after first hearing that lyric, I cannot see my father in blue jeans without hearing the song in my head.  The images are burned in my mind and branded on my heart, stirring me still as I grow older and watch my own son as he emerges from the fog of childhood into a person of his own substance and mettle.

Notes and Credits

On some Saturday mornings, my father took my brother and me to Audubon Park.  These were especially magical.  He would sit in the grass and paint watercolors while we played.  Then he took us around the park, across the bridges and next to the lagoon.  He pointed out the places where he and my mother fell in love.  Whatever he did on those Saturday mornings, my brother and I followed.

When challenged that guns could be used to kill animals for food, my father simply pointed out that guns were not used to kill the animals we ate. He’d spent a goodly part of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Lutcher, Louisiana, fifty or sixty miles up-river from New Orleans. It was part of the sugar plantation there, but now it’s a Kaiser Aluminum Plant. And as a teenager, he was a butcher in his neighborhood meat shop. He knew how animals became food, and the few shot with guns today had mostly been killed in other ways for most all of human history.  When pressed on the point, he explained military history and why we have guns. He was adamant about this.

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E/F – The glass of life

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good (Genesis 1:31).

Life is full of contradiction, and so are attempts to understand where life came from, why we are here, and what will become of us.

An old English proverb proclaims:  There but for the grace of God go I. The proverb sums up the randomness of the universe—the order-out-of-chaos, the utter, unexplained, and unaccounted for contingency of life itself—as a matter of Divine will.

Some have interpreted this idea darkly, as for example the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, whose God is angry and holds sinners over the pit of hell “much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire.”  For Edwards, only God’s “pleasure” or “arbitrary will” stood in the way of eternal suffering, and the sinner “hang[s] by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it …”  Lions and tigers and bears seem meek by comparison—oh my.

For those who dwell on the goodness of the Earth, however, life as a gift of grace is a liberating thought, providing the freedom to leave other-worldly issues alone.  Instead, one’s gaze turns to the things that matter in this world, and in this moment a new kind of human freedom is born.  The world beyond this one is indeed arbitrary and unknowable, but in this world what we do matters.  Here we, not God, are responsible.

This notion of contingency, of the arbitrary nature of causality in the universe, isn’t a terribly God-bound thought.  The grace of God in the proverb can be understood in quite godless terms as the general force of randomness as it functions in the entropy of the universe.  Either way, life is contingent on a lot of things that are completely out of our control, and in that contingency, ironically, good and evil are placed in human hands and human hands alone.

The pitcher and its window sill

A couple months ago, I had a party.  I’d moved into a new apartment and wanted to share the space with some friends.  We prepared for the party all day, cleaning house and eventually going out to buy some good cheese, wine, bread, the makings of spinach salad, and such.  Along the way, my girlfriend bought a dozen yellow roses.

After the party, once the roses had dried, I took the petals from the stems and placed them in a bowl.  I had hoped they would smell like roses and I would crush them to place them in a bowl as potpourri.  Alas, they never smelled so good, but the yellow petals were very pretty and I put them in the pitcher, which sits on the window sill and now adds a dash of yellow to the room.

On this window sill in my living room, I keep a number of things.  There is a ceramic covered bowl that I bought in 1989 the first time I ever went to the Ann Arbor Art Fair.  It was made by Rob Wiedmaier, who worked out of St. Joseph, Missouri.  Next to that is a little wooden toy sailboat that my son made from a kit he received in the gift bag at another boy’s birthday party.  And then there are three photographs of my family.

Buddy-Buddy, Grandpa #1

In the first photograph, we have the Krupas, from about 1941 or so.  The patriach, great-grandpa Krupa, stands in the center.  His three children are there—Joe, Johnny, and Annie.  Joe was my grandfather, who my brother and I called “Buddy-Buddy,” because he that’s what he was, our buddy.  Next to great-grandpa Krupa is my grandmother, Joe’s wife, Mary Niznik.  She’s is holding my mother, Mary, who is about one year old in this photo, looking bright with her Shirley Temple curls.  These were good Slovak people from the hills of the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania.

Buddy-Buddy was a steelworker. After he died in 1969, my grandmother came to live with us, and for the next seven years, she was the most wonderful storyteller, babysitter, friend, and ally my brother and I ever had.  She made stuffed cabbage roles, she ground her own meat, and she made the Easter Bread every year, just like in the old country, which she called “Austria-Hungary.”  I took Joseph as my confirmation name in the memory of my Buddy-Buddy.  My brother named his son Joseph.

Grumpy, Grandpa #2

The next photo over is of my other grandfather, Ernest John Guidry, III.  In the photo he is old, in his mid-70s, sitting in his back yard decked out for Mardi Gras.  My brother and I never called him “grandpa.”  We always called him “Grumpy,” a nickname that my mother gave him because he was always so jolly and full of life.  He had 17 grandchildren, and he called each and every one of us “Peanut.”  When this photo was taken, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  He died within a year or two of the diagnosis, thankfully, we all felt.

The good fight

In the final photo, half hidden behind the rest on the window sill, are my mother and father.  They were photographed in the den/living room of their house in River Ridge, Louisiana, the house where I grew up.  I remember the first time I saw the place.  It was in 1973, late summer. Mom took my brother and I there—we were all of 8 and 9—and there wasn’t much of a house.  Just a slab of concrete on a sand lot with lots of trees all around.  There were only four houses on the street.  A couple months later, there was a house on our slab, and we moved.  Such it was in the 70s.  My father still lives there.

The photo is from the better days, before the multiple sclerosis put mom in a wheelchair and changed her body and all of our lives in ways that are all but impossible to describe.  She passed away on June 27, 2007, and for her funeral mass, she had the following read from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which I forever think of when I think of her—

I for my part am already being poured out like a libation.  The time of my dissolution is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. —2 Timothy 4:6-7

Consider the lilies

Such is life, with no reason to be and no reason to end, but every reason for the living to live.  Do not ask, but live.  Run the race you are given.  Be simple and don’t strive.  Be like the flowers of the field.

lilies

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. —Luke 12:27

Notes and Credits (Grandpa #3)

The photographs of the pitcher, the window sill, and the lily were taken by author.  The window sill was photographed as it appears in my living room.  Behind it, through the window, is the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, which has been the photographic subject of a few postings so far.

The lily grows in my apartment building’s garden next to the sidewalk.  The garden isn’t kept or tended very well.  It mainly just grows there, though I do see Bart’s mother, the landlord, sweeping and cleaning and watering from time to time.  I saw the flower when returning home from a run in the park with my son.

Of all the people in the photographs, only one is still alive, my father.  He is 70 years-old now, in quite robust health, and determined to reach 100.  His odds are better than average.  His father, who was pictured as described, died at 77, quite young for our family.  My father’s mother died at 91.  His grandmother, EJ’s mother, died at 101 or 102.  The rest of our aunts and uncles are in their 80s and 90s.  My odds, on the other hand, are something of a split decision, for my mother’s side of the family—the Krupas and Nizniks—mainly seem to die in their 50s and 60s.  Mom was 67 when she died, like her mother, who made the cabbage rolls and the Easter Bread.  Buddy-Buddy was about 58 when he passed on.  There but for the grace of God go any one of us, on any given day, at any given age.

For the record, my son and his cousins call my father “Grandpa,” because that’s what he is.

The Family Krupa, c. 1941

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The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

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