Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sifting Through the Rubble

Lately, I've been sifting through the rubble of what was my former optimistic self, trying to figure out what to make of what I'm filled with since the election, which is mostly this: pain and suffering and despair.

Pain is real, and should be acknowledged. Pain tells me to pull my hand out of the fire. Pain tells me to do something...NOW. Pain should be acted upon.

Suffering is self-created: a choice. Suffering happens when I resist what is. Suffering isn't noble. It doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help anyone around me. Suffering keeps me trapped in pain.
Despair is when I search outside myself for hope and, finding none, I believe that hope doesn't exist. Despair isn't real.

So here's what I make of these messy emotions: We are entering a dark era. The only way I get through this is to ditch the suffering and despair, and act on the pain. I can't look for someone else to save me. I've got to find hope inside of myself first, and let it build. I have to connect to every other flicker of hope I find, and create networks of hope. I have to appreciate every tiny beautiful moment; a cat sleeping in my lap, a kind word from a stranger, an extraordinary sunset...and let those tiny moments carry me until the rest of the world reflects light again.

The light will return. Maybe not now, maybe not soon...but it will return. That much I know.
It returns, because we create it. 


“Darkness defines the light.” That’s what my yoga/meditation teacher Kristen Eykel said, as we engaged in a deep discussion after a group meditation this morning. The darkness that is sweeping the country and the world right now is defining a message for us: RISE.

I woke up today, like every day since the election, with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I've been miserable and short-tempered, and not much fun to live with, even though i meditate and do yoga and I try, really try, to be positive. But today, I think I finally figured out why I can't shake this awful feeling; I am changing. Life is changing me and change is fucking painful -- it just is. I wrote about this in Fire Season. When a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, it's an ugly affair. Before the butterfly can form, the caterpillar must first completely liquefy inside the chrysalis, becoming what my friend Lyena Strelkoff termed "caterpillar soup." So maybe that's where a lot of us are at right now. We are lying on the floor in a puddle, beat down by life, caterpillar soup -- and that's okay. It's a stage, a step on the ladder of metamorphosis. 

My brilliant friend Lyena had this to say on the subject, "The only way to become more than we were (plus it's the fastest way out of the soup) is to surrender to dissolving. The more we deny how we feel, the more we try to run away from it, cover it up, try to shove ourselves prematurely out of the chrysalis with inauthentic gratitude or positivity, the longer the process will take and the more likely we'll get stuck there. 'Who am I willing to become?' --that's the only question I have to ask. And then let the process of becoming take its (uncomfortable, miserable at times) course. Adversity sucks. But adversity of any kind, personal, professional, communal, global, is always presenting us with the opportunity to become more than we've ever been. The thing is, we have to say yes. And if we don't, then adversity only sucks."

If there’s any silver lining behind these shitstorm clouds, it’s that people are beginning to wake up and answer the call of their higher selves. Human rights, equality, and basic goodness are not granted to us. We are the ones who work to make these things a reality. So how do we do it while the bad news is pummeling us, daily? There is so much: the environment, women's health, defending the marginalized, protecting journalism and the truth. Each of has to decide what our personal activism will be, and then take action. Some of us are warriors who will march, some of us are surgeons who will actively cut the cancer out of this country through legislation, some of us are seamstresses who will stitch the fabric of our society back together, some of us are wordsmiths who will renew the troops with hope and direction, some of us are healers who will hold up the wounded. We all have a role. 

And when we finally pull ourselves out of the soup, when we finally rise, we have to become more than we ever knew we could be. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, "I am willing to step into my full potential and own my power."  We have to shine brighter, be bigger, be more than we were before. What other choice is there?

 One thing is certain: the time for hand-wringing is over. All hands on deck. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't Tell Me To Get Over It

Not since George Wallace has a Presidential candidate run on a platform of hate and divisiveness. (The difference? Wallace didn’t win. We must have been a more tolerant nation in the sixties.) If you voted for Trump, regardless of your reasons, you put the stamp of approval on his hate, bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny. You sent a message around the world that this is our American value system.

I will be ashamed when I travel next month, when people in other countries eye me with suspicion and fear. As I walked into my son’s school yesterday, I looked at the other parents and wondered, are you one of the people who outwardly smiled and feigned tolerance, but privately endorsed this candidate of hate? And then dread gripped my stomach when I realized that people of color are probably looking at me because I am white, and wondering the same thing. I want to tattoo my forehead “I DIDN’T VOTE FOR HIM! I LOVE YOU!” Trump politics have set up a horrific scenario where we can no longer trust one another. So no, I can’t get over it. And neither can you. It’s going to take a long, long time before our country can repair the damage he has done.

Protest is an American right, protected by our Constitution.
I am sickened by the posts on social media calling the protesters “idiots,” calling their marches “pointless.” I suppose they’d have said the same about the march on Selma, or the march against the Vietnam war. This country was founded by protest. Ever heard of the Boston Tea Party? Or the American Revolution? Before you start calling protesters “idiots,” go back and study American history and the Constitution you claim to love so much, and then tell me who’s the idiot.

Webster’s defines Democracy as “control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” The majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. She, like Gore in 2000, won the popular vote but lost the election. In any other Democracy around the world, Clinton would be our nation’s leader. It’s time to overturn the Electoral College and let our country be a true democracy where the majority of Americans decide who will lead them.

There is no bright side to bigotry and hate. There is no upside to misogyny. There is no “making the best of” xenophobia. I may not be the silver lining person you’ve come to know, not for a while anyway. My faith in America has been shattered and I am grieving. I may not cheer up for a long, long time. Maybe four years. But as each day passes, I am gathering my resolve, and my strength, and my voice. You’ll probably be hearing a lot from me over the next few years. It may not be cheerful, but it will be loud.

I didn’t vote for him. He is unqualified, undignified, unhinged, and represents the antithesis of American values.
He is #NotMyPresident.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What's happened to political decency?

I'm horrified by what I'm seeing in this Presidential election season. We have lost all decency and decorum. I remember back when America was appalled that Dan Quayle misspelled the word potato. People couldn't believe that a man who couldn't spell was Vice President of the United States. But now, America holds ignorance up like it's a virtue.

During the debate, I watched Donald Trump spew unintelligible rants about Russia and Syria, proving he knows nothing about the world or foreign policy. And yet his followers cheer for him and the talking heads say he did well in the debate. 

I remember when it was unconscionable to call someone a liar, back when the most shocking thing said during a debate was "Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." Donald Trump has dragged our political system into the gutter, pointing his finger in Secretary Clinton's face and calling her a liar, calling her the Devil, saying she has a heart filled with hate, saying he will throw her in jail while his supporters jeer and holler. And the talking heads praised him for ending the debate by saying she was a fighter, as if that somehow made him a gentleman. Trump has turned this campaign season into a dystopian reality show. Jerry Springer even tweeted that he'd like to have Trump on his show. What an embarrassment we are, in front of the entire world. I am so concerned for our young citizens watching this, worried that they will become calloused and immune to how wrong this is. I hope to God we can find our way back from this dark era. I hope we can return to a two-party system in which our elected officials may not have agreed but they worked together and respected one another. The objective of a two-party system was to discuss our differing ideas and come up with bi-partisan compromises that best serve the people. It was never intended to be a death match.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Loving and Losing Stitch

I'm shattered. This morning, our beloved Stitch didn't greet me when I woke. He didn't come when he heard the can opener, and I thought that was odd. I called, and he didn't come. Evan and I found him lying still on the rug in the living room. As long as I live I will never be able to erase the heartbreaking image of Evan shaking Stitchy's lifeless body and shouting, "Stitchy! Wake up, wake up!"

Stitch was only nine years old. He wasn't sick. This was a complete shock.

Yesterday was a really good day. I was home all day. We took several walks in the field and he was happy and spry. I gave him a few treats. He ate all his dinner last night. And then, somehow, he passed away in his sleep. 

I always called Stitch my little gentleman. When we were walking through a door he'd always stop and look up at me, wait for me to pass through first. He was a gentle and considerate soul. He loved everybody. He never wanted to fight with other dogs or cats, he just wanted to be friends. I am still in disbelief that this has happened. I can't stop crying. This house doesn't feel like a home without him.
Many of you supported us when we fought for years in court to keep Stitch away from his former owner who had abused and abandoned him. You know the long journey and the struggle, how very hard we fought for him and how very very much we loved him. Stitch was no ordinary dog. He came to our lives to teach us courage, and how to stand up for something you believe in. I know that for the rest of my life I will carry the lessons I learned through loving this dog. Because of Stitch, we started the #SaveStitch campaign fighting for animal rights. After the L.A. Times, NPR and Fox News picked up the story, this case became a national conversation. In the courts we fought for pets to have the right to live in the home that is safest for them, rather than being treated as property to be returned to the owner, regardless of inhumane treatment. We lost our case and our appeal and weren't able to change the laws, but we held on to Stitch. After all that drama and 3 years of court battles, I don't know if we made a difference or not, but I do know that Stitch was able to live his life with us, in a home where he was loved beyond measure.

The short years we had him weren't nearly enough, and yet, I feel so fortunate to have had him at all. He blessed my life, and touched many others. He was my little gentleman. A piece of my heart goes with him...
(For those of you who don't know the story of Stitch, it's here. If you think I fight hard against gun violence, it's only because I learned how to stand up to bullies when I fought for Stitch;

Monday, October 3, 2016

We Gave Our Son a Stranger Things Birthday Party (and it was awesome!)

Evan, 10 years old,  just started middle school. It's been tough for him because he's amongst the youngest and smallest in the school, and since most of his friends went to other schools, he doesn't know many people. He's been miserable since school began mid-August. But the one thing that has made him happy is watching the whole season of Stranger Things - twice. He became obsessed with the show, watching countless videos and vines, reading insider blogs watching all the interviews. He said he even liked it more than Star Wars.

So this September, since he was turning ELEVEN, my husband and I decided to give him a birthday party he'd never forget.


Our front door.
We built the theme around finding Barb. These were posted outside the house.
Pizza and Eggo waffles and Twinkies for dinner? You bet!
The goodie bags had to be authentic.

I made his birthday cake out of Twinkies, Ding Dongs and candy
We played STRANGER THINGS trivia.

We set up an Eggo bar for the kids
We painted the alphabet on a tablecloth and hung it on our wall.
We used Stranger Things text generator to make his invitations
We got into character!
Our best friends got into character, too!
We downloaded the whole Stranger Things soundtrack and had it playing the whole night. After Stranger Things trivia and Demogorgon tag, we played a hot potato game to "Should I Stay Or Should I Go." And after dark, we surprised the kids by taking them on a Barb hunt. We had turned our basement into The Upside Down, dark with vines and webs and everything covered in black and a bubble blower going under blacklights to give it that weird snowfall effect.  We brought the kids down there two at a time, while the scary "LIGHTS OUT" Demogorgon theme blasted. After walking through massive webs and putting their hands through Demogorgon goo (warm, mushy, overcooked spaghetti) they would eventually find a corpse covered in slugs and bugs, with oversized Barb glasses. Suddenly, Sheriff Hopper would jump out of the shadows with a flashlight under his face, warning them to never tell ANYONE what they'd seen, and the kids all went screaming up the stairwell.

All in all, it was a fantastic birthday party that Evan will never forget, but the part that made Evan the happiest? When Shannon Purser (Barb) tweeted it!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Writing About Family: Truth and Consequences



Storytelling has existed since the beginning of humankind. Our stories are the connective tissue that holds humanity and possibly even the universe together. Poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Every person on this planet has a unique life path and therefore an interesting tale to share, and yet so many of us struggle with whether or not we have the right to tell our stories. We are silenced by the fear upsetting others, mainly our family, in writing our truth.

Who Owns The Truth?

I begin my book Fire Season with this note:
“In my extended family, arguing over versions of our history is practically a blood sport. My relatives will wrestle each other to the mat about the way it all went down. In reality, there is no such thing as absolute truth, only our personal interpretations of it. Each of us sees life through our own unique lens. The best way I’ve ever heard it described was by a woman I met in a writing group. She said as her mother lay dying, she and her sister sat on either side of the hospital bed, holding their mother’s hands. At the moment of her passing, the sisters spoke simultaneously. One said, “She’s gone cold!” The other said, “She’s still warm.” And both statements were true to the women who made them.
I do my best, as a flawed and complex person myself, to write with compassion and understanding. There are no heroes or villains in my books, only imperfect humans doing the best they can. Mine is not the elusive absolute truth, but it is my truth.”

The bottom line is that you own the rights to your life story. No one else can shape it, or write it like you can. Your story is the only thing of true value that you own-- the one thing that can’t be taken from you. Cherish that.

Write Honest Characters:
In memoir writing, it’s important to write with objectivity. If I portray myself as the hero and someone who wronged me as a one-dimensional Hitler, the reader is not going to believe it, and the story won’t work.  Even Hitler had a dog he loved. That’s the interesting part. Every character is rich with contradictions. Our job is to find those contradictions and flesh them out -- to portray each character as a whole human being. Fiction writers climb inside each character, listen to their voices. Every character comes to a scene with his or her own agenda. Even in memoir, we need to get behind the agenda of each character. Let’s say you’re writing about your mother (and honestly, who isn’t?). The message of the book can’t be “My agenda was to be happy but my mother’s agenda was to make me miserable.” From your perspective, that may be true, but certainly that was not your mother’s sole agenda in life. A powerful writing exercise is to try writing the scene from your mother’s point of view, in her voice, then rewrite the scene, from your perspective but with deeper honesty and a fuller understanding of each character.

Fear of Abandonment

Writing the truth is both terrifying and liberating – for you, and for the reader. The fact is that no matter how careful you are, you’re going to hit a nerve and upset some people, because, as Pema Chodron says, fear is a reaction to moving closer to the truth. Being a writer means telling the truth, facing the fear of abandonment, and writing through it. Initially, when first putting pen to page, write like an orphan. Forget your family. Dump it all out of your head, every single word, thought, and feeling. And then take some time away from the manuscript.  When you return to reread and edit, keep only what is absolutely necessary to the arc of the story. Delete everything else. Find compassion for every character. Soften the edges of your anger. When you finally hit send on the manuscript, keep in mind that it’s called a book “release.”  Release it. Your work now belongs to the world and the readers to judge, to love or to hate. For my own moments of panic, I have these words from author Steve Almond above my desk:  



Be proud of yourself for releasing a complete work of your unbearable feelings, and let the world do with it as they will. 


** An excerpt of this article was published in Writer's Digest:



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Magic Hats

On Monday night,  when I spoke at my Uncle Dan Haggerty's memorial, I told a version of this story, which captures what he meant to me, to all of us. 

Thanksgiving 1970. That's me and my cousin Tracey up front, Uncle Dan and our moms and Grandma looking on.
We were eight years old that Easter, Tammey and I. Tracey was ten, double-digits so she could hardly be bothered with us pipsqueaks any more, unless she was really bored and had no one else to play with. I was staying the weekend with my cousins, which I often did. Sometimes I spent a week, sometimes a month, or sometimes they lived at our house, if Uncle Dan and Aunt Diane were filming a movie out of state. Our mothers were sisters, so our families and homes were interchangeable.
What woke me that morning was his loud laugh. It was so unmistakable – high-pitched and almost maniacal, but in a good way that made you laugh with him. I had barely opened my eyes when Uncle Dan flew through the air and landed on us, knocking the wind out of us both. We screamed and protested but we were in for it. The ticklefest was on. He tickled us until we couldn’t breathe, then just as fast as he came in, he ran out in nothing but his Fruit of the Looms, his hair sticking out all over his head.
“Get up!” he shouted back as he ran down the hall, “We’re going somewhere.”
“Where are we going?” I asked Tammey, whose face was still flushed red from laughing. She just shrugged and started to get dressed.
 We threw on whatever clothes were on the floor from the day before, not bothering to ask where he was taking us because we knew it would be an adventure. Uncle Dan didn’t take you to places like the post office or the supermarket. He had no interest in the responsibilities that the rest of the world thought were important. He lived in Dan-world, where only Dan-rules applied.
I’d never known him to hold a regular job. In his earliest days, he was a body builder who played a muscleman in Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movies. Sometimes he was building motorcycles, or doing stunt work, but most of the time he was training animals for the movies. He used to keep wolves in the backyard, until one of them attacked Tammey. I was with her when it happened. We were about six. It was early in the morning and Tammey, Tracey and I were the only ones awake. Tammey ran out into the backyard in her little flannel nightgown, mistaking one of the new wolves for her pet wolf Akela. The wolf, who was not Akela, grabbed her by the head and shook her like a rag doll. My Aunt Diane heard Tracey and I screaming, dove through her bedroom window, and wrestled her child from the jaws of a wolf. Like one does. They took Tammey to the hospital and got her head all stitched back together. When they brought her home, they laid her down on the couch in the living room, and I sat by her side and held her hand all day.
Me and Tammey, always together.
Uncle Dan also had an owl that lived free inside the house. When I was a toddler, he had a pet lion that my cousin Tracey used to take baths with, but they got busted for that one and had to send him away.
Uncle Dan was completely uninterested in society’s rules. His friends looked like a ragtag bunch of reincarnated pirates, in fact, I’m almost convinced they were. They wore bandanas, had long hair and tattoos. They rode motorcycles and built custom cars and did stunt work in films. Some worked on the film Easy Rider, and Uncle Dan got a small part in the movie. Some were animal trainers. Uncle Dan was the king of the crew, sitting in his carved king’s chair in the living room, holding court, the owl often perched atop it.
His home was fit for a king, or maybe a wizard. He made it that way. On the living room ceiling he attached branches with little white lights woven through it, so at night it looked like fireflies. There were gargoyles staring down from the walls, animal skins draped over the sofa, and intricate brass statues of angels and faeries. The front door was a massive wooden arched door, with an iron ring as big as a dinner plate. It took two of us kids working together to get it open, or closed. I can still hear the loud creak of that heavy door, the sound of the iron knocker clanking against it (there was no sneaking in or out of that house) and I can still remember the particular fragrance of the living room: a mix of leather, wood, patchouli and pot.
Sometimes Uncle Dan would get a burst of inspiration and start drawing on the walls. He was incredible at creating imaginary characters like wizards, pirates and dragons. We’d watch over his shoulder as he sketched and the character came to life. He was obsessed with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and when the Disney version came out, he drew all the Jungle Book characters on one of Tammey’s walls – life sized. He also drew a mermaid in the bathroom, and began to paint her but never finished.
Uncle Dan already had the motor running that morning as we scrambled to get dressed and get our butts in the truck before he left without us. We jumped in the front seat, on our way to who-knows-where. Jazz was blasting from the car stereo -- always. We stopped off at a nursery, and Uncle Dan hopped out, leaving the truck running and music blaring. In what seemed like only minutes, he came rushing out with a cart full of flowers, vines and chicken wire, and loaded them in the back of the truck. Next, he drove to a pet store, but it was early morning and the store was closed. Nothing could stop him once he got an idea in his head. He always found a way to get what he wanted. He went to the payphone to make a phone call and before we knew it someone was there to open the store. Uncle Dan was persuasive. He wasn’t the kind of guy you could just blow off, and in fact, most people found it impossible to say no to him. He knew people everywhere he went and could always pull a favor. Uncle Dan strutted out of the pet store and handed me a cage with a tiny yellow and blue bird. “Here, hold this,” he said, and went back inside. I put the cage in my lap. The bird was only as big as my thumb, its eyes like shiny black beads. Tammey and I talked softly to the bird, trying to make it feel comfortable. We learned from Uncle Dan to be kind to animals. Only days before, there was a mouse in Aunt Diane’s closet. We helped Uncle Dan to catch it in a shoebox, then drove miles in the truck until we found a vacant field, where Uncle Dan set the mouse free.
Uncle Dan came out of the pet store and jumped into the front seat, handing Tammey a box. Inside was a baby bunny, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. I had never before seen such tiny and fragile things.
“Hold these while I drive, and be careful with them, okay?” he said, revving the engine.
“Okay,” Tammey and I said, and then we tried to keep our little pets calm while Uncle Dan drove with all the windows down, his hair blowing, Miles Davis blowing on the radio.
When we got back to the house, he immediately got to work in the driveway, cutting branches and chicken wire, leaves and flowers flying everywhere. I asked what he was doing, but he seemed to be in his own inner world, and didn’t respond.  Everyone thought I asked too many questions, anyway. Tammey and I were hungry, so we went inside, scrounged through the cupboards in the kitchen, and ate dry cereal out of the box, then we wandered off to play foursquare with some of the neighbor kids. After an hour or so, Four Square became a serious game of Dodgeball, leaving Tammey and I sweaty messes with dirt on our hands and smudged on our faces. When we heard Uncle Dan’s whistle, we dropped the ball and ran home.
Uncle Dan sat me down on a crate in the driveway and tied a bandana on my head. He lifted a tall, pointed witch hat made of chicken wire, with flowers and branches woven through and shiny green leaves and magnolias around the brim. Inside he had fashioned a perch out of a branch, and my tiny bird was sitting on it, blinking its beady eyes. The hat was half the size of me. He carefully lowered it on to my head and suddenly I became one of Uncle Dan’s magical characters. Being chosen by Uncle Dan made me feel important, like the sun was shining on me a little brighter than anyone else that day.
Next, he held up Tammey’s hat - a giant sombrero they had brought back from a trip to Mexico. Uncle Dan had covered the brim with cabbage leaves and flowers. It was truly a beautiful masterpiece. He cut the top of the hat out and put a head of butter lettuce there, with the baby bunny nestled inside. He had Tammey try it on, and she and I stood together, bringing characters to life out of Uncle Dan’s mind. Uncle Dan crossed his burly, muscled arms, stood back and studied us. He seemed pleased with his work, flashing that huge trademark smile of his and said, “You guys look great!” He then lifted our hats off of us and carefully put them into the truck.
I threw my arms around him, “This is the best day ever!”
He hugged me tight, lifting me off my feet. Being held by him was the best feeling. He was as big and solid as a mountain, and we used to climb on him like monkeys when we were small. 
He rushed us toward the truck, “Now let’s go. We’re late!”
          “Late for what?” I asked.
 “I entered you girls in the Easter hat contest at the mall.”
Easter hat contest?  This didn’t seem like something Uncle Dan would care about. At all.

The thing about my Aunt and Uncle is that they were always late, really late, to everything. If we wanted them to come to a party of ours, we had to lie and tell them it started an hour earlier so they wouldn’t miss it. Sometimes they still did. We zoomed in to the mall parking lot, Uncle Dan screeching to a stop and parking illegally.
 “Hurry!!” he said, “ the contest already started!”
We tried to run, but balancing giant hats with bunnies and birds on our heads was not easy. When we got to the center court of Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, there were hundreds of people watching the stage, and someone from the newspaper taking pictures. My stomach lurched. The girls on the stage were dressed in traditional Easter dresses with crinolines and little white gloves and hats with ribbons and bows. They wore patent leather shoes with heels, and stood posing for pictures with their moms.
As we walked up to the stage, everyone stopped and stared. I felt Tammey’s small hand grab mine and squeeze. The contest was already over, the judges had made their decision, but Uncle Dan talked them into letting us go on the stage to show our hats. I didn’t want to, but I knew how much this meant to Uncle Dan and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So we walked across the stage, our little faces smudged with dirt and sweat from Dodgeball, wearing jeans and wrinkled t-shirts with these huge magic hats, and instead of recognizing how genius these hats were, the girls and their moms stared at us like we had just stepped off of a spaceship. I really didn’t want to stand next to the prissy girls and their moms, because even though I knew that Uncle Dan’s magic hats were better than theirs, I also knew that we actually were from another planet, one those girls could never comprehend.
The judges had a quick discussion on the side of the stage, then a man stepped up to the microphone and announced the winners. The prissy girls with the prettiest dresses and ribbon hats won the trophies and the money. The man said we had received honorable mention for “originality.” The judges gave us some cheap plastic bubble wand as a prize, and Uncle Dan looked crushed. I’d never seen the King sad before. It made my heart hurt.
Driving home in the truck, we were quiet. Uncle Dan stared out the window, not listening to jazz. The hats began to fall apart, the flowers and leaves wilting in the heat. We had to return the bird and bunny to the pet store. I slumped down in my seat, a lump in my throat, wishing I knew how to make this right. But I didn’t.

Forty-four years later, I would feel that way again, on a much deeper level, when I found out that my uncle was suffering with cancer. I had loved him more than life, and at times I had hated him. Throughout my childhood, I depended on him. He was strong, powerful, invincible. He took us in when my mom’s life was falling apart. My own father was in prison, but when I went places with Uncle Dan and my cousins, he introduced us as his three daughters. I loved that. When I moved out on my own and I was struggling, he showed up at my doorstep one night, without me ever asking, and gave me rent money. He took me on incredible trips to exotic places. 
But in the eighties, drugs changed him. My childhood belief in him was crushed. I struggled with how to forgive him for the things he had done, but the feelings were bigger than me and I couldn’t bear them.
I wanted to be at his side when he was sick, but I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t pretend like nothing had happened – that our family hadn’t been obliterated, that my trust in him hadn’t been shattered, that my aunt hadn’t been devastated by the things he did, the choices he made, and the cold way that he left her. Just like the eight-year-old girl I once was, I wished I knew how to make it right, but I didn’t. And then he died.
On the day he died, I went to the mountains to let my soul rest. I spent an entire day working on a 1000-piece puzzle, because nothing else made sense and this was the one thing I could fix. That night I dreamt that hundreds of puzzle pieces were raining down on me, and every one of them had a different picture of my uncle’s face. I had no idea what to do with them.
What is the moral of the story? My god, I wish I knew. All I do know is that love is everything. It can heal you, and it can also break you. Family is so damned complicated. You can love someone with all your heart and they can hurt you without ever meaning to, and heroes, as much as we want to put all our faith in them, almost always fall from their pedestals.
Love is a risky business, but I’ll take the risk every time, because what other way is there to live? Would I have traded in my childhood with my uncle to save myself the grief I felt as an adult? No way.
It was a wild, heartbreaking, magical ride, and I’m so glad it was mine.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Uncle Dan

It is with a heavy heart that I tell you my uncle Dan Haggerty has died this morning. Cancer.
Fucking cancer.

You might remember him as Grizzly Adams, the character he portrayed back in the late '70s, but to me he was the only stable father figure I ever had - the only one who stayed. As a child, I sometimes lived with my Aunt Diane and Uncle Dan, and spent countless weekends, Christmases and summers there. Uncle Dan's world was filled with magic and art and jazz and unending possibility. He was an incredible artist, and would draw and paint mythical characters. He was an animal trainer, so there were often wolves in the backyard, an owl flying around inside the house, and for a while, a pet lion. His friends drove motorcycles and had long hair and tattoos and there was a never-ending cacophony of revving engines in the driveway. He was never happier than when he was at the Renaissance Faire. He and his friends would build a structure, dress in authentic costumes and embody their characters. It seemed to me that he wanted to actually live there, to stay in that time, because he was the true Renaissance man, born in the wrong era. He was the sun in the solar system of my family, around which the rest of us revolved. He is such a huge part of what formed me.

In the mid-80s, he struggled with addiction, and that was when I lost my magical uncle. His struggle changed him, and caused a rift between us that I was never able to heal. I saw him last year at my cousin Tammey's funeral, and it was good. We reminisced about old times, and laughed. And cried.
I got the message late last night that he was dying. I couldn't get it through my head. I kept thinking he'd rally and we'd all say, "Whew, That was a close one." My uncle was always larger than life. He was invincible. Unbeatable. He had already survived drugs, a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and melanoma. I planned to see him this morning. I wanted to say goodbye. I lay awake at 5am, thinking about what I would say when I saw him: I would have told him that I loved him, and that I knew, I really knew, how much he loved me and my cousins. I would have told him that I knew his heart's intent was good, and that he never meant to hurt anyone, even during the dark days when he had lost his way. I would have thanked him for the magic he brought to my childhood. And just as I was thinking that, my phone alerted me that I had a text from my aunt Diane. "He's passed."

I love the photo above of me, my mom, my brother Christopher, my cousin Tracey, and Uncle Dan. Uncle Dan had such a huge bright spirit, you could "feel" him enter a room before you saw him. All eyes were always drawn to him, but this was Christopher's birthday party, and Christopher was clapping his hand over Uncle Dan's mouth, basically saying, "Can it, dude. This is my day!" Uncle Dan laughed and laughed about that. We all did. There are many unresolved issues in my family, pangs of regret we all must carry, but this simple memory of a birthday party in the park, when we had no idea what lied ahead, and how we would be torn from each other ...this was a good day. This is what I want to remember.

I have written so much about him, but never published, and I probably never will. But this is the end of an era, one that is almost impossible to capture in words but I worry that if I don't write it down, it will fade away and it will be as if it never existed.

I loved him. I was angry at him for a long time, but I loved him. There is so much I want to say, so many unresolved feelings in my soul. I know I have a lot of work to do. I'm not ready to say good bye.
Uncle Dan with my brother Christopher. One of the rare times he didn't have his beard. He was so handsome.