Sunday, November 18, 2007

Up on the housetop reindeer pause...

December 8th is an anniversary for me. This year it will mark seventeen years since the day I fell off the roof of our house while putting up Christmas lights.

I only fell eight or ten feet and I managed my fall. Knowing that I couldn’t prevent it I intentionally jumped and hit the ground with a tuck and roll strategy to minimize the damage. I shattered nearly every bone in both heels and ankles. After five hours of reconstructive surgery I spent a week in a hospital. I was in a wheelchair for the next three months while receiving painful physical therapy three times a week. And now, seventeen years later, I still walk with a noticeable limp and am in constant pain. If I spend a full day on my feet for some special occasion — a family outing at Disneyland, for example — the pain can be so excruciating I can’t sleep. On my best days it’s just a constant, nagging reminder of one really bad decision I made a couple of decades ago.

And I’m the lucky one. I could have easily broken my neck or back and been in that wheelchair for life, paralyzed from the waist down. I could have died. People do, even from a fall of just eight feet. The doctors at the ER told me ‘tis the season. They get many such cases every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there is one thing all of us have in common: We’re all, every one of us, smarter than the fools who will take a tumble.

Absolutely none of us think we might fall off the roof when we go up there. I know you. You don’t think so, either. You’ll be more careful than I was. “Thanks for the heads up!” you’re thinking.
That was my attitude, too.
That morning, December 8, 1990, Carolann phoned me from a friend’s house to say she saw a sign in our neighborhood for a guy who would put up Christmas lights for $20 but I said, “Oh, no. It’s my job. I’m the dad!” It cost me thirty THOUSAND dollars and a lifetime of constant pain to put the lights up that year.

And there are the dreams.

You have occasional dreams of being able to fly? I have frequent dreams of being able to run again, to run like the wind in a baseball outfield as I did when I was young or just to chase after my grandsons at my current age. I can’t do that. I have to call after them and hope they run back to me.

All for the sake of Christmas lights.

I met my wife when we were teammates on a competition dance team. I haven’t been able to dance with her for seventeen years now. Oh, we can slow dance but we can’t do the show-off stuff, the fun spins and fancy twirls that brought us together in the first place.
Thanks to those damned Christmas lights.

Frankly, I get tired of telling this story so I’m not putting much effort into it. Some of you have no plans to go on the roof so it doesn’t matter. The rest of you are going up on the roof no matter what I say.

Personally, I’m not going to fall off anything higher than a bed or a barstool from here on out. You all do what you like.

I really hope you have a wonderful holiday season. I mean that sincerely.
Merry Christmas; Happy Hannukah…

“God bless us (and ground us…) every one!”

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Friday, November 16, 2007

Perfection in solitude

When I was between marriages some twenty-five years ago I was forced to learn a very hard lesson most people manage to avoid all their lives. I learned to be truly alone for long periods of time and to love it.

I had never been alone for more than a couple of hours or an afternoon at most. I grew up in my parents’ home, moved into an apartment with a buddy, soon got married and lived with my first wife until I was thirty. Then, the divorce. Reality caved in on me and I found myself living in a small apartment with our old furniture and nothing else that would ever allow me to use the word “our” again. “Our” life was over. Mine, alone, was beginning and I was terrified.

Forced to take a vacation alone, I rented a house near a beach north of Mendocino and settled in for a week of misery as a newly-single recluse.

There is nothing more alone than a large, empty, unfamiliar house in which the only thing that is yours is you.

People who have never been married for a long time and then have it suddenly collapse can’t know the vacancy of self-mourning, and try as I do I can’t find exactly the right words to explain it. I’m not talking about self-pity but rather, true self-mourning because half of the whole person you were is suddenly nonexistent. I think it must feel exactly like being only half dead. I missed everything about my life, my wife and son, our home, our street, our yards, our dog, our routines, but even more than all of that I was in a desperate race to scar my soul, to repair the trauma to my spirit before it bled away. And so, I cried. I gave in to my grief completely, nonstop except for brief periods of respite provided by fatigue. Then I would tumble into a restless sleep and eventually awaken still empty, still lonely but refreshed enough to well up with pain once again and resume groveling in my misery.

And that’s the key, I think. Give in and grieve. Be mindful of your physical well-being and force yourself to take care. Don’t drink to excess and stumble through a strange world in which you don’t know the players. Eat when you should. Sleep as much as you can. I found writing to be cathartic. But nothing heals like pure grief, for that is its purpose.

During a lull in my despondency, a few days after beginning my self-imposed confinement, I stepped outside my rented home just to take a peek at the world. It was dazzlingly bright blue, the sky and sea; golden, the sun and sand. One of those perfect winter days on the Northern California coast that looks and feels like a personal gift from God, all just for you. And that’s when I first heard the voice inside my head which described that day to me then exactly as I just wrote it:

“This day is a gift from God, just for you.”

It was a stunning revelation. I was not alone in the least! And as I listened to that calm, reassuring, wiser part of myself I realized I had always been there and that I had a lot to say! I had just never been able to hear it because my world had been a cacophony of voices and distractions fighting for attention. And as I listened to my internal confidante I learned something else amazing:

I like me.

A few days later I was wandering through a little shop in Mendocino and I spotted a poster waiting for me to carry it home. It was a beautifully photographed picture of a tiny, empty rowboat, mirrored in a calm sea. The caption beneath it read: There is perfection in solitude. It is the reflection of serenity.

That was many years ago and I soon returned to the noisy societal circus. But now I can hear my little internal voice wherever I go, whenever I listen. He’s a good guy. He cares about me and would never give me bad advice. In fact, he often gives me wise words for others which I dutifully pass along, humble messenger that I am.

Carolann and I are in the twentieth year of our honeymoon. As Paul Harvey would say, we are “happily ever-aftering.” But I still find time to get away by myself for a few days every now and then because we all need to be alone. I don’t mean just to take a nap or read a book. I mean truly alone for a significant period of time. That’s what it takes to shut out the noise, to settle down and listen. And then you need days to talk at leisure with your internal best friend, to make yourself wiser, to laugh at shared secrets; to frolic like dogs on a beach until you wear yourselves out with freedom and promise each other you will do this again!

There really is perfection in solitude. You should try it sometime.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Friday, November 2, 2007

My ageism rant

Long before I became a quintarian (I think I just made that up) I was aware of the ridicule suffered by our seniors. Suffered generally, by the way, with grace and quiet acquiescence. They get it. They’ve long expected it. Hell, they made fun of old people when they were young. And while this social skewering of our mostly honorable and wiser elders continues unabated and generally unrecognized we worry sweat beads these days about whether somebody might be offended by wishing him “Merry Christmas.”

Two old men in their eighties meet in a park everyday. They sit on a bench for hours and talk about their lives.

“I’m so old,” complains one man, “I can no longer pee in a stream. It sputters and spurts. Every morning I get up, go to the bathroom and stand at the toilet for ten minutes sputtering and spurting and dribbling until my bladder is empty.”

“I should be so lucky!” says his friend. “Every morning at the stroke of seven I relieve myself and every single morning, like clockwork, I release a long, strong, steady stream. I could knock over a horse with that stream! Every morning at seven!”

“What’s wrong with that?” asks the other man.

“I don’t wake up until 7:30.”



Actually, it’s a pretty good joke when told well. The problem is the jokes add up to stereotypes and I wouldn’t even mind that so much if it was occasionally acknowledged that the generalizations are comic and not universally real. And if you think that should be obvious, think again. Find a teenager and raise the subject of ageism, or for that matter somebody in his twenties or thirties. They’ve never given it a moment’s thought and can’t relate. They’ll smile, maybe roll their eyes a little and then acknowledge it’s not nice to make fun of old people. And even that’s not right. It’s fine to make fun of old people when the joke is a good one! It’s just not fine to believe that old people are jokes themselves.

Pastor Smith receives word that the oldest member of his congregation, Maude Hemmings, has taken ill and is hospitalized. After his Sunday sermon he rushes to her bedside to while away the day visiting her, bringing her local news, good humor and inspiration. While he’s there he idly treats himself to a bowl of peanuts next to her bed, but when two hours have passed he realizes with sudden embarrassment that he has eaten the entire bowl of peanuts.

“Maude,” he apologizes, “I’m so sorry I ate all your peanuts. I didn’t even notice what I was doing. I’ll bring you more peanuts tomorrow.”

“Oh, please don’t do that, Reverend,” Maude says with a sweet smile. “I hate peanuts. It took me all day to suck the chocolate off of those.’


Okay, so technically that’s not really a joke about aging. It’s a joke about the “ick” factor of eating a bunch of peanuts after they’ve been in somebody else’s mouth. But would it be funny if she wasn’t old or if her name was Judy rather than Maude?

Old people, fat people and Southerners. It’s always open season on them and nobody has even considered passing laws, creating regulations or invoking rules of respect for these soft targets that can’t effectively defend themselves against wholesale mockery. I guess I should say I think Southerners sometimes enjoy the generalization because it allows them to gain the upper hand over competitors who assume them dull witted. It’s still wrong but nearly universally accepted as good, innocent fun.

But oh, do we ever worry about pretty young women! Until they get old, that is. And of course, pretty young women with Southern accents are the best targets of them all.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, before my Grandma Georgia was victimized by Alzheimer’s and eventually died, I remember asking her to tell me about her life. She’d tell me where she was born and the names of her siblings. She’d answer any questions I asked but I didn’t ask the good ones. I think she did the best she could but she was no autobiographical fount of information and I was a lousy interviewer in those days. So, she’s gone and I really don’t know much about her and what I really wanted was a sense of what life was like in the first half of twentieth century America. And what concerns me is that I think I was an oddball in that respect. I don’t know anybody else who has expressed any great curiosity about the lives of their parents, grandparents and beyond. I don’t know anybody who has any interest in the wisdom acquired by our elders, their views of life and death and philosophies toward humanity. Who ever asks these questions of old people? I never have and before too long, if I’m lucky, I’ll be one.

I wonder what it’s like, keeping all those experiences, observations and philosophical conclusions to yourself because nobody cares enough to ask what you think? I’m already getting less likely to inject my opinions into conversations uninvited. I find myself getting quieter as I get older because it’s hard to get excited about the same old topics and it’s getting harder to find new ones of interest. And besides, who really cares what I think?

I’m marginalizing myself, I suppose. Not sure that’s a bad thing, I just find it kind of sad.

And maybe I’ve just answered the charge I posed myself in the first paragraph. It may be that the reason the elderly suffer indignity with grace and quiet acquiescence is because they’ve just reached a point where they just don’t much give a damn.

Still, it would be nice if someone did.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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