Sunday, November 23, 2014

Strike, Shadow, Strike!

Because of my work as a Hospice Nurse I no longer recoil from death and dying as I once did. But so many people still do. A chief desire of mine is to help people overcome this fear and loathing. I want people to see past it; to look beneath it to see the humanity; the person. At that level, we can all relate and share a common understanding of just how precious life really is. This allows us to stop running away from ourselves and each other, and instead turn toward one another and really live; really love.

Recently I was struck by a quote from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which really captures how I look at death these days.

Dickens sets the stage: Ebenezer Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He has been taken to a room which was very dark
"...too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.
Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part, would have disclosed the face. He thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side."
Here is Scrooge, unable to face death although he knew he wanted and needed to. And in that place of fear and hesitancy, he hears a voice. Dickens tells us "No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge's ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed."
"Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion!
But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's.
Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!"
Dickens wisely reminds us that if we love one another, revere & honor one another, then even in death the faces of our loved ones will not be dreadful or horrible. I've seen people gaze in wonder and awe at the face of a family member who has just died. The true worth and value of that person somehow becomes more understandably real than it ever was when they were alive. Part of missing someone is the realization that they meant far more to you than you ever knew...until they were gone. And this is good for us, because (if we let it) this experience opens a new space inside us to love more fully than we had before.

When someone dies and all we have left is their memory, this becomes a story we tell to ourselves and to others, and the next generation then remembers as well. It is like a seed falling to the earth and being buried: only in this way can that seed bring forth new life. And we, in the very act of dying, become the story that is told and changes the world around us.

The holidays are a very difficult time for many who have lost loved ones. We feel their loss more keenly when we see and experience the warmth of family and friends. This year may we all remember fondly our loved ones who are gone from our sight. Tell lots of stories and share memories of the bad and the good times of life lived together. And, in so doing, like Dickens we can taunt death; revile its seeming theft by acknowledging the way new life always has a way of springing up to the eternal.

Life and Love do win, my friends.

In the end Life and Love will always win.

~ Keith

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Fatherless Man's Reflection on Manhood and Not Being a Father on Father's Day


Many women who are not moms (whether they wanted to be moms or not) have written about how it feels to be a "Woman who is not a mom" on Mother's Day. I empathize with them, and want to share a bit about my own feelings of being a man who is not a father, on Father's Day.

Over many years and with help from others I have come to truly appreciate both the fact of my maleness and the fullness of nuanced femininity within me which makes my personal gender expression less stereotypically masculine than most of the men I see around me in the world. I've wrestled through my own feelings and come through on the other side (solely by the grace of God) as a secure and (mainly) well-adjusted man.

I used to have poor boundaries and live an overly-transparent life. These days I rarely wear my heart fully on my sleeve in startlingly-public venues such as blogging and social media. But sometimes it feels more than just OK to share these feelings with a wider audience, sometimes it feels important to do so. Maybe someone else needs to hear this. Maybe someone else is going through a similar experience and needs to know they are not alone. Heck, maybe I need to know I am not alone.

Part of being well-adjusted means telling the truth and sharing from my heart about stuff which is not all rosy and bubbly; acknowledging the pain that is still there so it can be dealt with. Sometimes that is shared only with people very close to me. Today it feels important, if a bit scary, to speak to this pain more publicly.

Brief disclaimer

After you read this, you may find yourself wanting to respond in some way, either in the comments on this blog or on Twitter and Facebook where this will end up being linked. You may perceive me to have some negative emotions (high marks for perceptivity) and therefore find yourself wanting to encourage me in some way. I welcome that, with the following caveat: I'm not writing this looking for sympathy. Empathy, however, is most welcome if you feel so moved. For a very brief, yet brilliant primer on the difference, and why empathy is so important I strongly encourage you to watch this 3 minute video before reading further.

And now, on to the post itself.

Father's Day Blues

Like many men in my generation, I had a father who was wasn't there for me and when he was he didn't know what to do with me. My dad was away a lot in the military until I was 4. After that he was away a lot at work. When he started his own business as a Court Reporter this just got worse. Even when he was physically present at home he was working so much he might as well have not been there. "Don't bug dad, he's working." From the time I was about 8 until I was a teenager, my bedroom was his office and I fell asleep to the sound of his typewriter or his voice doing dictation. It was confusing and maddening:  he was just a few feet away, yet so damn inaccessible. (Got a Harry Chapin song going through your head now? Yeah, me too).

And when he was physically present, dad was mainly emotionally absent much of them time, at least to me. My sisters can tell their own story but it seemed to me he was available more to them than he was to me. My sense was that he knew how to be with them, but not with me. I was somehow different and I picked up on that at an early age. I can remember some good times, sure -- who can't? But the overarching and lasting memory I have is that what emotions I did sense from him were disappointment and anger.

He came to every baseball game I lost (there were precious few wins) and watched from the sidelines at all the football games I spent on the bench (precious little time on the field). But I can't recall a single time he came to any choir concert or play I was in. Not one single time. The overall sense I had was that he felt frustrated because I was not the son he wanted me to be. And, since he was the adult, like so many kids my internal response at a deep level was to believe it must be a problem on my end. Something must be wrong with me.

I am the youngest of 5 kids and the only boy. So, with a mainly-absent dad, between my sisters and my mom I was influenced mainly by females in my early formative years. But I sensed from my sisters they did not know what to do with me either. I'm sure that, in part, this was just being the youngest. I was the new kid who made an already crowded social milieu that much more complex.

In addition, though, I sensed my stark difference from them all the more as I grew up. They all got certain kinds of clothes. Mine were different. They all were allowed to choose from a certain list of activities in and out of school. My choices were not the same. They all got certain emotional responses from mom and dad for certain behaviors. Mine were different. It's like they had a list of rules to live by that they knew but it was a girls-only secret. I could intuit and perceive some of them and even try to follow them...but it just didn't work. I was different and I did not know what to do with that any more than my father or my sisters did.

My mom tried to intervene where she could. She was the one person who at least seemed to somewhat understand me. When I did things they saw as peculiar, she'd tell them "He's just being a boy" (which served to reinforce and even normalize that "being a boy" means your family doesn't like you or know what to do with you when you behave "that way"). And mom would encourage my sisters to play with me, but they wouldn't always include me. When I was lonely and expressed that to her, my mom's stock response was "Well, I guess you'll just have to learn to play by yourself" (meta-message: "being a boy" means being lonely a lot of the time and just having to deal with that). Maybe she was at the end of her rope and didn't know what to do with me either. Maybe she was just trying to toughen me up and teach me to move past challenges. Whatever the motivation behind her comments, the main result was to reinforce the fact that I was different and no one knew what to do with me.

I did what I could to fit in. One year for Hallowe'en my costume was Pippy Longstocking (the female protagonist of some great children's adventure stories). I think a part of me figured if I could perhaps at least be a "tomboy" -- some sort of middle-ground between boy and girl -- then I could fit in.

Between the sense I got from my dad that I was not what he wanted, and the sense of being so different from my sisters and mom, I wrestled a lot with gender roles. I saw movies like "Freaky Friday" where people wake up in a different body, and I lay awake some nights as a kid and wished/prayed I could wake up in the morning and just magically be a girl. Then I'd fit in. Then dad would like me. Then I would have power. Then the world would be an OK place. Then I would be OK.

But that never happened. And I grew up as a man still feeling not quite right somehow. It has taken my whole life thus far, in fact, to continue working through these feelings and internal senses of not fitting in.

As I mentioned in the preface, I appreciate both the fact of my maleness and the nuanced femininity within me. And I am fully secure in who I am. This security, however, does not mean it is not challenging still, at times, to be who I am. Feeling different still comes up. Here are a couple recent examples:

  • In an unrelated conversation, I mentioned to a coworker that I was the youngest of 5 kids and the only boy (in a home with an emotionally absent dad). She commented "Oh, wow, that makes total sense!" and when I asked her what she meant she said she now understands how I became a nurse and work so well in a mainly female environment. My heart was encouraged by this affirmation and at the same time part of what my heart heard was "Oh, that makes sense now. You're not a regular man, so of course you fit in better than you would if you were not so different"
  • I've posted a few things re: #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen and a number of women have thanked me for restoring in them a level of trust and hope that some men do "get it". Hurray -- I felt connected and understood and accepted. Oh wait, except all that connection was with women. Not a single man has responded to those posts in a like-minded way or in person to even discuss it. I'm glad to not be "the scary snatcher-dude I have to be afraid of" to the women around me, but it is painfully obvious how different that makes me from most men. 

But I digress. At this point either you get it or you don't and me continuing to ramble on about it is not going to enhance the former nor change the latter.

Back to the conclusion of Father's Day Blues

Along the way I got married and for the past 25+ years Cathy and I have developed a wonderful life together. Early on in our marriage we discussed children -- even had a couple tentative names picked out. For a variety of reasons (which I won't go into here) we decided neither to have children, nor to adopt. For the sake of brevity suffice to say over the years we have experienced a number of people who don't know what to do with this. Or worse, they think there is something to do about this so they try to "fix" us, because we're, what's the word? Oh yeah: Different.

Over the years I have waxed and waned in my satisfaction with not being a dad. It is what it is, and we have no desire to adopt at this point. But still, I like to think I would have made a good dad. I see Father's Day commercials and sometimes I get misty-eyed wishing I'd had kids so that I could have at least taken the chance to try and be a different dad to my kids than my dad was to me. But that did not happen.

So here we are at Father's Day again. Heart-string-twanging commercials on TV, and Facebook posts about gifts of power tools and flannel shirts, goofy cards and meat-filled breakfasts made by little hands.

And I know some GREAT dads and have some pretty darn good memories of my own dad. So I celebrate with everyone who celebrates dads today. I even put cool pictures of my dad as my profile picture and cover photo on facebook -- not insincerely.

But I'm not a dad. And in general I did not have "a great dad".

And today when it seems like every other man out there is being celebrated for being a dad, or people are writing awesome stuff about how amazing their own dad is/was -- I am left out. Again.


And yes, I know all the things about being "a father figure" and all that. Yes, it is true and yet it is not the same. And we all know it is not the same.

So here I am, who I am -- a fatherless man who is not a father, on Father's Day -- feeling once again not-a-part-of-things.


~ Keith

PS / Epilogue: because "being secure" is not always 100%, and some of you will so badly want to silver-lining me, I will go ahead and mention here that in case you were wondering yes I have posted before on how awesome my dad and mom and sisters are. You can search my archives to read those posts which were honest and true. Before my dad died he and I talked about all of this some, and that was healing and good...and didn't change what was. And now that he is gone, I am again/still fatherless.

And I chose not to add anything about that up there in the body of this message because sometimes it is OK to just feel bad and to be sad and to not have to "find a balance" and "be fair" because those don't help in moments like these -- they just serve to invalidate the negative emotions and that is not productive or helpful. Don't believe me? Take 3 minutes and go watch this video.

Monday, August 05, 2013

True Story: Do the Dew

A friend and I were chatting recently, and I shared this story. At her prompting, I'm sharing it here for a wider aurdience...just so you all get some small glimpse into the life of nurses who visit people in their homes.

Lots of people think caring for people in their own homes looks like this:
...and sometimes it does. But not always.

True story: The year was 2000. I was a home care nurse and had a new patient to admit to our services in East Palo Alto, CA. For those of you who don't know, that was (still is?) a bad part of town – definitely the wrong side of the tracks.

(This picture is not EPA, but you get the idea)

As I pulled up in front of the house, there was nowhere to park…but right in front of the patient’s house, a dude was leaning into the driver’s side window of a parked car and clearly some sort of “deal” was being done, with cash being exchanged quickly, etc. Also of note, in one hand, the dude held the leash of a large rottweiler.

The car drove away and I parked in his spot.

The guy who'd been leaning in the driver's side window took the rottweiller (named "Felony", I later found out!) and tied it up to the garage door handle.

...then he began walking toward mydriver's side wondow. The look on his face said both "Are you sure you want to be here man?" and "If you aren't supposed to be here, you're going to be sorry!"

I took a deep breath and rolled down my window, introduced myself as a nurse who was here to see someone in the neighborhood and...was it OK to park here?

He said “Oh, you must be Keith! My dad said you would be here soon. Sorry about that man – I’ll make sure you always have a parking place, don’t worry about it!” …and he always did!

He turned out to be a very devoted son, and was really helpful all the time; clearly cared a lot for his dad…in the middle of various “deals” he was doing outside.

…and one day as I was getting ready to leave, he said “Hey, do you like Mt. Dew?” I said, “Umm, yeah, but I’m headed out to see another patient so I can’t stay, sorry.” He said, “No problem – here take some with you!” and he opened a closet door.

On the floor of the closet were approximately 30 two-liter bottles of Mt. Dew!

My mind flashed through a few scenarios as I wondered where in the heck he got THIRTY 2-liter bottles of Mt. Dew…but I didn’t ask him.

I just said thanks, grabbed a bottle, and walked out to my car… =)

~ Keith

Monday, December 24, 2012

Freedom and Flying

I read this quote recently (from a friend on facebook) and realized how strongly I identify with it!
I can't speak for anyone else, but at a certain point the experience of running surpassed in value, and by a pretty wide margin, my desire to make sense out of it. 
I don't know why I run. I don't know why I race. I don't know why I compete. I don't need to know. Because running means more to me than curiosity. It goes deeper than knowledge. I run. I compete. I move on down the line. I'm a runner. 
For us runners, the question of “why” is pretty moot. Not because it may not be interesting, or important, from a certain point of view, but because we’ve left the question of the meaning of running behind. 
After all the questions have been asked, and all the answers given, in spite of the disagreement on essences, physiology, rationales, training strategies, trail running, road racing, i-pod wearing, mid-foot striking, turnover cadences, arm carriages, Jack Daniels, Arthur Lydiard, 20 miles a week or 100, 5k or the 50k, whether it's really the Miles of Trials or the Trial of Miles, after all the words have been spoken and keyboards have been pounded, meanings given and ideologies subverted... 
After all this, we runners bend down and tighten the laces, open the door, brace for the cold and are renewed: another godawful, glorious, and meaningless 8 miler. 
- Jeff Edmonds The Logic of Long Distance
and accompanying this post was this picture:

I love that idea - "Aristotle's featherless bipeds" and how Edmonds goes deeper than that, since we are more than just "rational animals" -- or perhaps less-than; simpler.

Before my run yesterday morning, I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:
The cold dark morning-quiet streets call to me: 
"Come away, play, discover again you are body and soul"
& I'm reminded running is play
Not long after I started running, a friend (and very experienced runner) sent me a Nike postcard with a sentiment which has become something of a mantra for me:
Not because you are in a hurry,
or because you are being chased.
Just run. 
Back in 2010 as I was preparing for the Portland Marathon (my first, I ran it on 10-10-10) I read a poem by Charles Hamilton Sorley that literally moved me to tears because I so identified with it.

The poem still moves me to tears to this day, as I marvel at the person I've become, and truly enjoy the process of discovery as I am still becoming.

Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
'Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land. 

I am a runner.  And oh the joy & freedom I often feel when I run. It grounds me and releases me at the same time. I am a featherless biped, yet I am flying and oh-so-alive. Especially in the rain and wind!

~ Keith

Saturday, March 17, 2012

meme = me + me

My first post in ever-so-long, with an image from the interwebz, from my friend Jen. Ahh, the simple pleasures in life!
~ Keith

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Asking For Help

Asking for help is not always easy. Especially when it is help I know I don't really need. It's about not being lazy; not shirking. It's about integrity. Anyone who has a 3 year old child (or has been one!) has learned this lesson: sometimes it is important to do something just by myself, just to prove I can. Not to prove it to anyone else; simply to prove it to me.

That's what running has been like for me. I started running in June of 2008 and the changes I've seen within myself have been nothing short of remarkable. Miraculous, really.

When I set out to run the Portland Marathon in October 2010, and various people asked if I would be running for charity I knew it was something I just could not do. As noble and good as it would be, it just did not feel right in my heart. Running for a cause would certainly add motivation to my training, but it would also cloud things somehow. Selfish as it might sound, I didn't want to run for anyone else.
I had to do this for myself.
Once I'd run the marathon, and began to think about running another, I was surprised to find the idea of running for charity was still something I did not want to do. I was really hoping to get in to the 2011 NYC Marathon via their lottery system ('cause I'm nowhere near fast enough to get a guaranteed entry based on skill/timing!). Wanting badly to run in NYC though, I told myself I'd run for charity as a back-up plan: something I'd resort to as a way to get a guaranteed entry only if I had to. I felt that way right up until the drawing on Wednesday 27th April, when the website confirmed my fears: I had not been selected via the lottery.

I knew there would be perhaps 100,000 people or more who would be swooping down onto the official charities so I'd have to be quick. I took a break at work and began to actually look through the various charities I could apply to run for. That's when my heart began to change.

I realized there's another reason asking for help is difficult for me: it feels like an admission that I am not good enough, not bright enough, not strong enough. Reading through the charity webpages reminded me that, well, I'm not! I'm not good enough alone! No one is. I'm not bright enough to figure everything out on my own. No one is. And I'm not strong enough to get through this life alone. No one is.

Once I embraced that next-level measure of my own weakness, and allowed the humility to clear my perspective, I realized something else: Asking for help is sometimes easy:
If I have dropped a heavy load, it is hard to ask for help to pick it back up and carry it onward.

But If someone else has dropped a heavy load, and I stop to help them pick it up and carry it onward -- and in doing so realize that this load is so heavy I can't be the only one to help, then asking someone to help me as I help another...that comes easily.

So here I am. Asking for your help.
As I browsed through the charities, one stood out to me. the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). As a Home Hospice RN by profession, I see the impact of this disease in my day-to-day work. But it is also personal for me. Cathy's mom died of multiple myeloma. She was only 68. Everyone who knew her tells stories of what an amazing woman she was. Vibrant, playful, compassionate, loyal, and loving to all. I wish I'd met her, but I never got the chance. You see, I met Cathy in May 1987, but multiple myeloma had already taken her mom's life in February of 1986. Her name was Josephine Mary (Fanucchi) Thompson -- and I'm running in her honor. I'm running so MMRF can help others beat this disease, get the chance to live to meet their family, and enjoy a full life.
Nearly 90% of every dollar donated to the MMRF goes directly to research!
Will you please support my participation in the 2011 New York City Marathon benefiting the MMRF? Your donation can help make the difference! I have made a commitment to raise at least $3000 by the race on Sunday November 6th. I need your help to get there! Please help as you can. It all adds up! On the right-hand side of my donations page you can select a suggested donation amount, or come up with whatever you feel comfortable donating. For those interested in a per-mile sponsorship, here's the math for you!
  • $1/mile = $26.20 total donation (x only 115 people = $3013!)
  • $2/mile = $52.40 total donation
  • $3/mile = $78.60 total donation
  • $4/mile = $104.80 total donation
  • $5/mile = $131.00 total donation
Would you please consider sponsoring me? It is as simple as following the link above.

For more information, to make sure your money is going to a good cause and a reputale charity, you can follow this link to the MMRF site, and there's an NBC Nightline interview and article here, a reprint of a New Yorker article discussing the creative business model of MMRF here and the ubiquitous Wiki link is here.
Thank you in advance for your support!
~ Keith

Friday, January 28, 2011

Death's Sting is Fleeting and Weak

I find it hard to put into words the depths of feeling I'm experiencing right now. My long time-friend, mentor & spiritual example Mark Macallister took his own life earlier this month after a long battle with depression and chronic pain. He leaves behind his amazing wife Jody and two beautiful and wonderful kids, Levi & Bree. This picture shows their family together and at peace.
My heart hurts quite a bit right now due to the tragic, senseless and sudden loss of so bright a light as Mark shone to the world around. He was gregarious and compassionate and had friends in such a wide range of places I was almost always surprised when someone I knew said "Oh, Mark? Yeah, I've known Mark for years". He would never be the one to shine a light on himself, always demuring and deferring to others in a humility that was so natural and secure.

Mark exemplified to me the heart of love and care for others that is the best description of the word "Pastor" I know. It was primarily his influence in my life that opened to me the possibility of giving my life away to others in this pastoral way as well.

Living as followers of Jesus, Mark and I shared a hope that there is something beyond this life -- something which defies description although better men than me have certainly tried. I do take comfort in knowing Mark is "in a better place" although that rings so hollow in my ears because his current experience is so much richer than that little phrase could possibly convey, but also beacuse that little phrase sounds so trite and weak when placed against the pain of his loss to my heart.

I do also take comfort in knowing that death itslef was never supposed to be part of our story -- and so it will be done away with in the final analysis. And so I have a deep appreciation for John Donne's classic poem as well. I'd heard the opening line many times of course, but seeing "Wit" with Emma Thompson really galvanized within me an appreciation for the epochs-long wrestling match with death we humans have undergone.
Death be not Proud
By John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Requiesact in pace Mark, until we meet again when death itself has been put away.

~ Keith