Thoughts: The Magic We Allow

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There comes a point where rebuilding is no longer an option. When things are so broken, so torn down that what was is beyond reclaiming. What is left is in ruins. Pieces are missing, taken by others, or simply rotted beyond repair.

It is true of buildings. It is true of ourselves.

I grew up thinking anything could be salvaged. My father was a master restorer of things. As a child and a young man, I saw him restore thing after thing. Old cars. A wooden sailboat. Once I remember him bringing in a box of wood that I thought was for kindling for the fireplace. As it turned out, it was an antique cherry Grandfather’s clock, and when he was done, it was magnificent. Today it lives in my sister’s house, one of those things you notice the moment you walk in the room.

Just before I went off to college, my dad bought a business, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.

A dream that went badly. It turned out the man he bought the business from had been cooking the books for ages, cooking them in a way so clever it caused the state legislature to rewrite laws to prevent what he had done. Not that all that lawmaking helped my dad – he came close to losing everything.

For my father, that was a turning point. He was never the same, according to my mother. What he saw as his failure haunted him the rest of his life. It colored the way he saw himself.

The irony of that is that while he was beating himself up, I was getting a different lesson. What I saw was how he picked himself up in mid-life. How he entered a whole new industry and succeded. I watched him recover financially, and not just stabilize his financial life, but thrive. He did good work, built great relationships with his clients, who often became his friends as well. He and my mom were able to travel extensively – something he likely would never have been able to do had he run his own business, even successfully.

I saw resilience and rebuilding. I saw the courage to plow through the dark times and, not rebuild, but recreate a life. I saw how hard it was.

It was probably the most important lesson I have learned in my life. That not everything can be fixed. That somethings are so broken they cannot be recovered. But that even when it is all broken, you can still build. You can take the rubble of life and build something new. And that new may be different, but it can be wonderful. It might even be better.

Decades later, as I neared fifty, my own life came apart. I lost everything. My marriage. My children. My work unraveled. My financial state went from solid to fragile. I sank into a black depressive place where I barely functioned. For years.

What I had, what I was, was gone.

But there was a tiny little sliver of hope gleaned from that lesson I had learned while I was in college, watching my father slowly build a new life.

That’s the key I think. When life comes undone, there’s a tendency to want to restore the old life. It’s natural, I think. There were parts of my old life that I loved. Part of the “before the crash”  time that was a delight to me, that I was proud of. I wanted that back.

The problem was, of course, is that too many parts were missing. There’s a reason things come undone in our lives and at times it is a cumulation of many many pieces that one by one, go missing, Like a Jenga game.

Unlike Jenga, though, where you can rebuild because all the blocks are there, in real life when things come undone, too many parts are missing. The tower can’t be rebuilt.

But something else can be built.

Going back to my father, when I was ten, he and my mom built a new house. He found an old 1700’s parsonage back in the woods of Surry County, Virginia that was falling apart. There was no restoring this house. It was too far gone.

But there were parts that were still useful. The floors in particular, beautiful heart of pine floors, hand-hewn, tongue and groove floors. We (OK, mostly he. I was only ten, after all.) pulled out those floors, had them planed down, and put them in the new house he was building. They were, and remain breathtaking.

The house could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My dad’s life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My own life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it.

But to get to that place of building something new, we have to stop trying to rebuild the old thing. And that is hard. Some of us never get there. Our lives come undone and we spend the rest of our precious time here trying to rebuild the tower, without the pieces and parts we need.

Not everything can be restored. But something can be built anew.

In my office is a small hanging corner cupboard. It is an 18th-century corner cupboard that is fifty some odd years old. How can that be? It is made from the shutters of that same old house my dad pulled the floors out of.  Nearly every piece of wood in the cupboard came from that house. Beautiful as it is, nothing there is what it was originally made to be. It is not a restoration. It is a new thing my dad made from the pieces and parts of the old house, and it’s beautiful. But it is not a restoration. It is something new.

My life now is something new. And it’s pretty wonderful. Not what I had planned 35 years ago, or even 15 years ago. I’ll never be able to restore that life. It’s gone. Too many pieces missing.

But it’s pretty wonderful. I would not trade it for the life I once had. And the beginnings of this wonderful life came when I realized, and accepted, that I’d never have my old life back again, and set about, not restoring, but building.

It’s hard building anew. There are no blueprints. We still have that old stuff to figure out what to do with. Call it baggage if you like. Or call it building blocks. Something to build on a giant puzzle where some of the pieces seem to be of one puzzle, (the old one) and some seem to be of another (the new one). A giant collage, with about a million mismatched pieces.

But that is where art comes from. And that’s where amazing new lives come from. The adventure of discovery, along with the adventure of salvaging the stuff from our past that is useful and good, and merging it with the new things.

The sad part is that my dad never fully embraced the wonder and power of what he managed to do. His failure haunted him till the end. Somehow he never took the lesson that saved my life to heart for himself.

But I am grateful for that lesson. I do love restoration. Like him, I like to restore old things. And the things that can’t be restored, like the life I once had? Ah, that’s when the magic starts.

If we let it.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

PS: The picture was taken in Turner’s Falls, Mass. It was a wonderful old abandoned factory until a fire destroyed it for good.

 

 

 

Poem: Gloriously Wrong

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Gloriously Wrong

I know what you see.
I have seen it too.
Ruins. Remnants. Remains
of something once vital, once thriving,
full of purpose, a bastion
of commerce and creativity,
vital and bustling and alive,
boats, fresh from the sea,
seafood still writhing in the nets,
fishermen, hands raw, wool caps on their heads,
busy in the last act of the day, the unloading,
the distribution of the day’s catch
before they find their way home
of the closest pub.

Those who have lived close remember.
They can still smell the raw captives,
the desiel oil from old engines.
They can hear the clank of winches
and the dull thump of boats against the docks

that are no longer here.
None of it remains save these singular posts,
the last soldiers in a war of attrition,
victims of a neglect born of busyness,
too much activity, too much to do to maintain
the silent battle against saltwater and time
until the battle was lost,
the bastion abandoned, left
to become what it is this moment.
a monument to what was, and then,
with enough time and neglect,
a vague signpost to what was.

I know what you see.
I see it too.
I have lived it.
I have been those strong piles, driven deep into the earth.
I have been the platform,
the safe haven to tie up to
in times of storm and tides,
treasured and neglected until board by board
the rot won.
I became no more than this you see in front of you
A few final posts in the earth,
not even enough of me that passersby
could know what was once there.
an eyesore,
blocking the view,
dark and half rotten against the sea,
against the sky.

I have come close to the death,
close as skin to washing away,
to devolve from ruin to mist to a vague
memory, and yet now I stand
on new ground,
rebuilt by grace and stubbornness,
at the hand of others,
cheerleaders and historians,
mystics and priests of the God of Second Chances,
I have been reset, deeper still into the earth,
relying not on new foundations, but deeper still
into the soil that birthed me.
I have been built again, fresh cedar, new nails
of zinc and steel,
each day a battle against tide and storm,
two steps forward,
one back,
repeat,
a battle already lost, slowly won again,
won as slowly as it was lost,
a thing without drama,
a daily reminder that dead rarely means dead.
That there is life after life.
Life after rot. after betrayal, after false Gods and
failing,
each new shoring up of your own raw deal
a reminder when you see others
of what can be there,
not the same historical structures that once lived here,
but something new,
worn still, and yet more vital for the resurrection
that almost came.
too late.

I know what you see.
I have seen it too, and
was gloriously wrong.
The dead are not dead,
no matter how they seem.

About this poem

One of the good things about having been broken and rebuilt? You never see others in the same light.

The photograph was taken at the tip of Cape Cod, near Provincetown.

Tom

Poem: Broken Ribs

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Broken Ribs

Your hand slides down the wooden ribs.
There are gaps, far more than mere holes, in the hull.
The wood is rough, at places rotted,
left to weather for a generation
before you brought it here.

The protection in this old shed is minimal.
It is cold and there are gaps in the clapboard.
But still, the roof and walls offer protection,
a slowing of the death
while you begin the work of restoration.

You are not fast in this work. It is new to you
and you are feeling your way, learning the mysteries
of sistering ribs and rope calk.
The roof and walls give you a fighting chance
against the decay of time and weather,

a safe place, imperfect as it is,
a place to undo time
and the damage of neglect.

You have no idea when you will finish,
or if.
That is not the reason you toil
at this invisible and thankless task.
You are aware perfection may not be possible.
The craft is too far gone
and your skills are meager.

But you have been broken yourself
and know the value of safety
and gentle hands. You are aware
that to the broken,
better is worth as much a celebration
as a perfection unattainable.

About this poem

Some breaks never completely heal. True of our spirits and true of our bodies (ask my ribs when a low-pressure front goes through.).  But that is no reason not to celebrate the healing that HAS happened. We are beautiful, scars and all.

The picture was taken at Mystic Seaport.

Tom

Poem: The Frail Grace of Becoming

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The Frail Grace of Becoming

Behind the curtain, you see the mess,
the work in progress, the stuff
that is not part of the tour,
that carefully curated  walkthrough
that you get for the half hour of your time
dedicated to this place before moving to the next.

No, this is what you see when you go behind the scenes,
past the closed doors and curtains,
when you take the time to linger and speak and listen
to the curator, that person who knows
and loves and fears for the destruction of this fragile work,
who trusts you only slowly
not to break or steal or worse, laugh
at the unfinished work, who trusts you not to mistake
the chaos of reclamation for the finished room,
for the frail grace of becoming.

About this poem

A thank you note to all those who have shown me grace along my journey.

My daughter is a historic preservationist.

The picture was taken at the Vanderbilt Mansion near Hyde Park, NY.

TOm

 

Poem: Modern Art

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Modern Art

The restoration is done,
not to perfection, but well enough
that you are no longer a museum piece,
an unholy relic on the artist’s bench,
pieced back together like a puzzle.

It has taken years,
most of it in plain view,
largely ignored by the passersby
who saw the half completed icon
as no more than a bit of history,
something on display, a reminder
of how broken we can become,
of paths not to follow.

The work has been painstaking. Tedious.
Done in fits and spurts and long seasons
of silence, Often
in the dark, by braille.

Somehow, the pieces never quite fit together again.
Some have gone missing, lost in the floodwaters.
Others have grown appendages and thorns,
defenses against a reoccurrence.

What is left is not a recreation then,
for recreation is an impossible thing, an illusion.
No,
what is left is a new thing,
a thing without a finishing at all,
always changing,
new things cling to it like cellophane.
transparent texture.
modern art.
unrecognizable and yet
stirring something deep in the heart.

About this poem. 

Not the poem I expected to write this morning. Not about art, but a life of rebuilding, of recreating, and what lies ahead.

Perhaps too personal to make sense, but there you go.

Tom

Poem: Eight Years

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Eight Years

It is early in the morning.
The sun, broken by clouds, rises over the quarry.
Through the open window, you can still smell
the grass, fresh cut the day before.
Birds are singing, a mix of melody and raucous rap,
unabashed and anything but harmonious,
their joy making up for the lack of musicality.

Eight years.
That is how long you have been here
in this corner of the world so foreign to you
a decade ago.

Eight years of healing.
Eight years of gazing at mirrors,
chipping away at the stone you had become,
more archeology than art.
Michelangelo’s angel, without the beauty,
the heavenly cleverly disguised
in a stone-clad facade.

It is hard work, restoration,
harder to reclaim the beauty than to toss it aside
and begin a new.
There are decisions to be made,
admissions that some flaws cannot be erased,
that scratches and scalloped out sores
are not healable,
They are instead,
part of the beauty.

You breathe in the grassy air.
Tears, allergy caused perhaps,
or caused by the dust of re-creation,
slide down your cheek.

Eight years.
Lost years that had you not become stone clad,
your heart dead from overuse,
you might have spent otherwise, growing
like some corporate chart, ever upwards.

But that is not the way of journeys.
They rise. They fall. You get lost.
You get found,
or you do not.

The tears dry.
You can feel their crustiness on your cheek.
You can feel the sun as it rises finally
over the mountain of grey slate.
It is a good day.
You are alive.
Fully.
Finally.

Eight years
well spent.

About this poem

It’s been eight years since I moved to Vermont.

Tom

Thoughts: The Road Back

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Yesterday I was talking to my son. He has begun his first college classes down in Florida, and after a week of orientation and a few days of classes, he is in a good place. It does a father’s heart good.  Much of our talk was not about school, however. We talked about coming back to ourselves.

He spoke of a session they had in orientation where they were told to seek out two people they did not know and just talk. The first person he went to was a disabled young man. He was surprised at himself.

“When I came up to Vermont,” he said “I would have been too anxiety ridden to do that.” He told me. He would have wondered what to say, or say the wrong thing. But, he told me, “We had a really good conversation.”

I was not surprised.

When both of my kids were in elementary school, the teachers used to always pair them up with the new kids that arrived in the middle of the year.  They always noted their compassion, their ease with the new kids, and their care of the underdog.  Far more than grades, this was the thing I was most proud of while they were there. So to me, going to talk first to the young disabled man was perfectly in character – a coming back to himself and something essential.

He has had a lot of that happen to him these past two years, reclaiming parts of him that had become lost over the years. His excitement and joy in rediscovering his true nature has been a joy. Even more so because I have traveled a similar journey.

I was divorced a little more than a decade ago, and the pain of it dang near killed me, emotionally and spiritually. The guy who crawled out of that experience, with the help of a couple of fine therapists and a pair of gentle pastors, took a long time to reclaim the best of himself and get back on a path of life that was true to his nature.

Yes, I struggled. And a lot of it sucked.

My experience is that it’s easy to break a person. To tear them down. To ply them with negativity and self-doubt until they leave behind the best of who they are, Most of us are in some ways, still vulnerable, like a kid. And the people around us, even ones that love us, can and too often do, chip away, or even whack away at things they don’t appreciate or understand until what’s left is a fragile skeleton of patches, all trying to please or fit in.

This can happen all at once in a traumatic event. Or it can happen over time, in a subtle murder of who we are. It can come from a single person, or from all around us.

If we are lucky enough, or courageous enough to break free of that environment, of the toxic people in our life, what is left is a reclaiming. It is slow work. At times, we have forgotten who we were. At times, we are afraid of who we were, because of the negativity we have been plied with.

We come back to it slowly, if at all.  Like a child afraid of being hit, we are tentative. We try on bits of ourselves again, like finding old clothes and trying them on to see if they still fit.

It took me years. It took my son less time.  We both got help, good help. But I had further to go, and I didn’t have a safe haven. He did.

The joy in that, in rediscovering ourselves and finding out the good in us that was once condemned or shunted aside, is an amazing thing. SO amazing it’s almost worth the journey to find that joy of rediscovery. (Almost).

He and I are both in good places these days. And I think sharing this journey, albeit over different times, has brought us closer together. Life still has its crap times. All is not roses and champagne. But when we are living within who really are, the tough stuff is easier to deal with. And the good stuff is… well…. amazing.

The thing is, when we are hiding who we are, or afraid of who we are, or trying to please the world by becoming something different than who we are, we are working not just against the world and all it has to throw at us, but we are also working against ourselves. We become our biggest roadblock.

The road back means releasing something. Letting something go. Leaving something. Or (as in my case), being tossed aside. It feels terrible, that separation. It hurts. It is scary. But it is also an opportunity.

In some cases, mine, for instance, we are no longer sure who we are outside of the relationships that broke us. So we can’t just jump in and say we’re gonna get back to “X”. We have to rummage through our closets and finding “X”, try it on and see if it still fits, where it needs to be altered, or where perhaps, what you once were, you are not anymore.

It’s slow. It’s scary. It’s necessary.

OK, Maybe not necessary, A lot of people don’t. They stay broken. They believe the lies and misapprehensions of others. They never learn to trust their inner truth.  Their joy is at best, partial. At worst, non-existent.

But it is necessary if we want, not just to live, but to live joyously.

Talking to my son yesterday was a time of joy. In his journey. In mine.  “I can do this.”, he said as we got to the end of the call. His voice was full of excitement. It was full of joy.

And so was I.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom