March 28, 2016

Eye of the Storm

This week at Support for Special Needs:
This week has provided a short respite, a brief interlude in the eye of the hurricane. We've been doing this now for a long time, officially for almost thirteen years but of course a little longer than that. I've learned a lot in that time, usually the hard way, but there's a lesson I keep coming back to. Hold on to the quiet interludes, the ones that feel carefree even if they're simply pauses.

March 21, 2016

A Hard, Correct Answer

Today at Support for Special Needs:
When we talk about accessibility and inclusion, those aren't just buzzwords. And they're not just about school, either, although that can be hard to remember sometimes. For people like Schuyler, participating in our society can be shut down as soon as they exit the front door. I worry about Schuyler finding employment, but really, there are a lot of steps between here and there for which there aren't any easy answers. Transportation may be the most straightforward, but it's also pretty daunting. It's easy to forget about the simple act of getting from here to there when we're putting together the list of Things To Keep Us Up Late.

March 14, 2016

Building an Adult

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Schuyler is grappling with emotions that are new for her, and with the idea of relationships and a family of her own one day. It's all been so fantastical until now, and her ideas of the kind of person she might be in a relationship with are still very fluid and mostly kept to herself. ("I think I might like girls," she said timidly at one point in the interview. Sorry, grandparents.) Last week, at my aunt's funeral, Schuyler's natural sensitivity and empathy overwhelmed her a little. She wept openly for someone she's essentially never met, because she looked around and saw people she loved crying, and because she was faced with the reality of The End. On the long drive back to Dallas, she asked a lot of questions about death and the people she loved. I could tell she was thinking of her parents in particular and what the world would look like after we're gone. She's catching on that adulthood has some hidden traps, and some deep sorrows.

March 8, 2016

Uncivil Discource

Today at Support for Special Needs:
There are a lot of reasons I'm already disgusted and exhausted by this election season. If you want to understand, spend about twenty minutes on Facebook, or a minute and a half watching one of the debates. But perhaps the most disheartening for me right now is the intersection of politics and that old familiar ugliness, our society's propensity for using our most vulnerable population so cheaply and with so little regard for their basic humanity. I made a promise to never give my silent consent to dehumanizing our loved ones by saying nothing in the moment, and I intend to keep it. But it's sucking the life out of me, and I'm beginning to feel like if this is as good as we are, we deserve one of these embarrassments as our President. We deserve to be represented by our own kind.

March 4, 2016

"...the song woke his heart into the darkness and sadness of joy..."

There's a quote that seems to originate from a number of sources, which isn't surprising since it's not terribly original. But it is terribly true.

"You may be done with the past, but the past isn't done with you."

I returned to West Texas this week for that most compelling of homecoming reasons, a funeral. My Aunt Kay died last week. She was married to my father's brother, but she was also my mother's childhood friend. The four of them were the closest of friends, and that closeness applied to all of the cousins as well. We functioned like an immediate family; all of my childhood memories include my cousin/best friend, as well as her cooler-than-cool dad and her impossibly kind and good-hearted mom. When Uncle Tommy died in 1979 and our families drifted apart, something cracked in my family. When my father died eleven years later, that something shattered altogether. I don't think we ever entirely recovered.

Going home this week was about saying goodbye to someone who existed as a central fixture in my childhood, but it also served to try to place that childhood family experience in a larger context. Schuyler went back with me, partly because I thought it was important for her to begin trying to understand the whole end of life process but also because selfishly, I didn't want to go alone. Five and a half hours in the car from Plano to Odessa leaves a lot of time for conversation. When Schuyler asked if she had ever met Kay, I realized with sadness and shame that they had actually only met once, when Schuyler was a baby. It had been so long since I'd seen Kay, or my cousin Pam, either. Pam and I spent our childhoods basically functioning as brother and sister, and I hadn't seen her in fifteen years. Aunt Kay was part of a different life, one in which my family was whole and the future was whatever any of us wanted it to be. My life hasn't turned out like I ever imagined it would back then. Maybe that's true of us all, I don't know.

It happens, I suppose. You put your head down and you live your life, and then one day something terrible happens and you realize that you've let things slip out of your hands that never should have been treated so casually. I loved my Aunt Kay, as I loved and idolized my Uncle Tommy and as I adored my cousin. My memories of them are almost entirely from childhood, from a time so long ago that it feels slightly unreal in my memory, and from a place so unlike anywhere else in the world that it is almost impossible to describe without sounding like I'm making it up. West Texas in the 1970s really does represent a world that was very different from whatever past you probably know.

The time of my childhood is remote. The place, less so. Returning to Odessa is always something of an emotional shake up for me, but now, in the context of returning to embrace not just family but the family and the life of the past, it really is overwhelming. I sometimes turn to music to put it in perspective. Not the popular music of my youth, or the country music that was always present when my father was around. I actually associate home with specific classical pieces. Aaron Copland's celebrated Americana, for instance, like the slow movements of Billy the Kid or Rodeo or even the very end of Appalachian Spring. Big, lonely prairie landscapes in sound, albeit a little cliched.

The music I associate with home isn't about cowboys or even people, which is just as well since my ancestors weren't cowboys or romantic lawmen or heroes of the Alamo. They were the oilfield poor, living in primitive camp houses with faded, peeling paint and cheap screen doors and the occasional snake in the living room. That was my family's world, at least until my father's generation changed course. Uncle Tommy joined the army and moved to New York for a time, probably enough to get a taste for a life different from his own father's. My own father quit the oilfield after watching a friend and coworker burn to death in a horrible accident. My family grew from a hard and dirty industry, but one that hardly any of us still living have any experience with. I have petroleum in my blood, but none under my fingernails. For the first time in my life, I actually find that I regret that, maybe just a little.

Growing up there, I always understood something about Odessa, or any town out in the desert, and it's something of which I'm still very aware. Experiencing that part of the country isn't really about understanding the towns, not even larger ones like Odessa or Midland. West Texas gets under your skin when you drive outside the city limits, and not necessarily all that far, either. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I would sometimes head out to the edge of town, where imported and pampered green gave way to mottled brown. I'd eventually pull off the farm roads and follow a dirt road until I found an open spot where the mesquite bushes had been cleared, usually to accommodate a pumpjack. I'd lay on the hood of my car and listen to the rhythmic wheezing of the well, and I'd watch the sun set in a mess of vivid color and take in the sight of the stars sprawled out across the sky. Sometimes I'd see jackrabbits racing through the brush as I approached, and once I even saw a rattlesnake lazily twisting across the road in front of me. But mostly it was just silence and solitude, bigger than anything I've ever experienced since. The daunting but quiet snows of Michigan, the rolling waves of Long Island Sound, the towering Redwoods of northern California, some of my favorite places in the world, but none could quite compare to the almost oppressive silence of the West Texas desert.

When I'm not there, when I'm living my life in various cities as I have since I left Odessa at eighteen, I still feel the desert of West Texas. When I'm in large groups of people or in busy parts of the city, surrounded by beautiful chaos, part of me is still back home in wind-tossed solitude. Back in my youth with my family, including all those who have slipped away in some way or another, I didn't understand it, I don't think. I didn't really hear the weird, loud silence of West Texas.

My father did, I know that now. He longed to get out into the wilder parts, and we did, often. My father and I had a complicated relationship, as he had with most of our family, and I didn't always fully appreciate trips to the lake or the camping excursions to places like Fort Davis or Big Bend. But I guess I was soaking it in just the same, because I think I'd give just about anything to go back. Not just to the place, but to all of it, with my mom and my dad and his cool older brother who never got to be old in my memories, with my own siblings and my cousin, and with my aunt, to whom I never got to say goodbye. I never got to say goodbye to any of the ones I lost; my family hasn't had a surplus of lingering hospital deaths. Just unexpected phone calls with sad voices and then hurriedly packed suitcases. And memories, played out against that huge desert, always present.

I left the desert as soon as I was old enough, or I guess I thought I did. Maybe those of us who lived there never really get to entirely leave it behind. It speaks to me. Is that strange? West Texas has a voice, and a kind of ancient loneliness. It predates the current fracking boom that has exploded my town with apartments renting for two grand a month but which will probably be occupied by mice in a few years now that the bust is looming. It's a towering sadness that goes back before high school football and my family's departure from the oilfields, back before dusty depression era towns and the first oil strikes, before the US Army and its experimental camels and before the Mexican settlers or the invading Conquistadors before them, before the missionaries came with their god and even before the Mescalero-Apache and Comanche came with theirs. I can imagine the desert how it must have been before humans arrived at all, because it almost certainly wasn't very different at all from now.

That looming sadness comes not from tragedy or hardship, although that desert has certainly known plenty of both, as my own family knows all too well. I think it comes from that very timelessness, that sense like nowhere else in the world I've ever seen, that this world has rolled along for millions of years, and our presence won't matter for more than a blink. A few jackrabbits will hear us and scatter, and maybe our footsteps will startle a few horny toads (if we can even find them anymore), but that's about it.

And yet, those of us who lived there and those who have gone back to that receiving earth are a part of the West Texas desert. I've known so many people who have visited it and who simply don't understand how anyone could feel fondness and that low-burning homesickness for such a hard, barren place. Those of us who grew up there joke about its remoteness and its flatness and the rough people who live there, people with whom we like to pretend we have nothing in common but from whom in reality we are separated only by years and experiences.

I hear it all the time, and I've said it to myself many times over the years.

"How could you ever live in such a place?"

And then that ancient voice whispers, "How could you think you could ever truly leave?"