The Ballad of Young Bill Merklee

My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.

William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.

This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.

A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.

When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.

In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.

William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.

Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.

It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.

That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.

It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.

When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.

Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.

Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.

Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.

The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.

***

In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.

“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.

“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.

“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.

“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.

***

Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.

It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.

[2015]

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Dreams So Real

Good night Irene, good night Irene / I’ll see you in my dreams

This has troubled me from time to time: Why haven’t I had any dreams about some of the people closest to me who have died?

Some say the dream state is a way to contact the departed. There are traditions that maintain that the world of our dreams is another aspect of reality, even a separate reality. Others say it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our brains doing filing, sorting, and even problem solving during our physical downtime. I can tell you from experience there really is value in “sleeping on it.”

I’m not going to discuss any of that here. Anyone who has ever awoken in a cold sweat from a heart-pounding nightmare, or awoken laughing (my favorite), or seen a dog whimper and move it’s legs while sleeping — knows that dreams produce real reactions in the waking world. No, my main question was always “Why dream of some people and not others?”

After more than 24 years, I finally dreamt about my late sister Barbara.

I don’t know why this should have taken so long. Only a few days after a friend of mine died from injuries he suffered in a car accident, I dreamt he was in the kitchen of the apartment I was living in at the time. In the dream, I awoke in the late morning to the sound of someone in the kitchen. I got up to see if it was my roommate. To my surprise, it was my deceased friend Rick, leaning back against the stove. I said, “Rick, aren’t you dead?” He just smiled, and I woke up.

Some time later, a co-worker died after a long struggle with cancer. A number of us had donated blood during his treatment. In this dream, I was wearing a business suit. I had fallen asleep on a toilet in an ornate Art Deco public restroom that had marble sinks and counters and small, black and white floor tile. But there were no stalls to speak of, so there I was out in the open, half asleep on the throne with my plants down around my ankles. Other men in business suits came and went without disturbing me. When I fully awoke in the dream I noticed one of the guys standing at a urinal looked like the recently departed co-worker.

“Nick?” I said. He zipped up and turned around. It was him. “I thought you were dead.”

He also just smiled, put his finger to his lips as if to say “Shh,” and slowly nodded his head side to side.

In my dream about Barbara, I found myself in front of the house in Bergenfield where I grew up. It was a mix of the way it looks now (I sometimes drive past it when I go to visit my brother in the next town) and the way it looked then: the pine tree my father planted was still in the front yard, but the fence and hedges that ran between us and the neighbor’s house were gone. I walked into the front yard, and there was Derek, one of the cats we have now. He’s an indoor cat and never even tries to venture outside, so this was unusual. I told him to get in the house (a house he’s never lived in) and held the side door open for him. As I did this, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Ben, a guy I used to work with at the local newspaper, was in the neighbor’s yard measuring a post for a split-rail fence. In the dream, this seemed perfectly normal. He didn’t notice me and I said nothing as I entered the house behind Derek.

The kitchen looked pretty much the same as the last time I saw it, which was 13 years ago as we were clearing out the house to be sold. I also felt like I was 30 again. No one else was in the house. I walked to the back where our childhood bedrooms had been, and there was Barbara, wearing what might have been a hospital gown since it was open enough in the back to see she was thin and frail, like when she was going through chemo. Her hair was up and she was sorting though a bunch of things in the room that she once shared with our sister Cindi, putting things in scrapbooks.

“Hey you,” I said, “What are ya doin’?” In the dream, at least, it seemed perfectly normal to see her — no dramatics or tearful histrionics. I was just happy. She looked at me and smiled. “We’re going to get something to eat,” I continued. “Want to join us?”

“Thank God,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t eat my one meal a day.”

“Oh good,” I said, “cancer humor.” And I hugged her and noticed how short and bony she was. “It’s so good to hug you.”

I awoke gently, not in tears but with a sense of wonder. I immediately started replaying the dream in my head, over and over so I would not forget the details, and then wrote them down. I finally had a dream about her, and I was happy. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

My wife and I sometimes try to interpret the symbolism in our dreams. Of course it’s a completely amateur endeavor. At the very least, we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what real-life experiences probably informed what was happening in dreamland.

In the one about Nick, the ornate restroom was likely based on a similar one I’d used at the New York City archives when I was doing some genealogy research (though it did have privacy stalls). I imagine this became the setting of the dream because it resembled how busy the restroom would get at the newspaper where I worked, after the morning sales meeting as everyone prepared to hit the road.

Rick’s dream was very realistic because it took place in the house I was currently living in, and nothing seemed out of place or unusual except for Rick being in the kitchen.

So I set about identifying the elements of the dream about my sister. The outside of the house was a combination of the way it had been when we lived there and the way it looks today. I can construe that to represent a bridge between past and present. The former coworker measuring fence posts next door makes sense because both my sister and I had worked at the newspaper with him. The cat probably should have been Alex, a gray Abyssinian my late sister had brought home as a kitten only to discover she was allergic to him. She couldn’t bear to send him back, so I adopted him and he became my best friend of 17 years. Derek, one of our current cats, seems to have stood in for Alex. Derek is diabetic, and I give him an insulin shot twice a day. So that may be some allusion to having helped care for my sister when she was ill. The inside of the house appeared largely as I had left it the last time I was there. And Barbara looked only a little healthier than the last time I saw her alive, so there was a sense of picking up where we had left off. I’m not surprised that the hug felt very real; I have many tactile memories of hugging my sister.

But what triggered this dream after all this time? I believe it was a “Throwback Thursday” photo posted by a friend on Facebook. She is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and she posted a TBT photo of herself from when she was undergoing treatment. I’m so certain this photo was the catalyst for my dream that I thanked her for posting it and told her what had happened to me.

There are many interpretations of what dreams may or may not be. I’m always happy to discuss all the possibilities, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I got to hold my sister again, and I am so grateful.

[2015]

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Mark Becker (1960-2014)

My friend Mark Becker died in a horrific accident on the New York State Thruway on February 27th. He was on his way to teach a class at Bard College. He was 53 years old.

Like me, he went to college a bit later in life. Unlike me, he didn’t stop with a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s, and then to teach at Columbia University and at Bard. His specialty was geographic information systems (GIS). His work included documenting the effects of global warming and mapping the most effective placement of resources in the battle against AIDS in Africa. He was also the Associate Director of the Geospatial Applications Division for the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

All of this grew, I believe, out of his crowning achievement: the co-founding of the Bergen Save the Water Action Network (SWAN) with his partner of 30 years, Lori Charkey. Bergen SWAN has been responsible for the preservation of thousands of acres of sensitive forests and wetlands in Bergen County, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York that would have otherwise become home to townhouses and shopping malls.

A memorial service was held for him on March 23rd. Lori and her cohorts managed to turn a rather sterile corporate auditorium into a magical homage to Mark, complete with live plants, live music, water fountains, and wind chimes. The tributes were remarkable, mainly because they showed a life well lived in so many circles. I’m sure my stories were as much of a surprise to his academic colleagues as theirs were to me.

Here is what I had to say about my friend:

I met Mark through my sister Barbara. She passed way in 1990. I find it very poetic that we are here celebrating Mark on what would have been Barbara’s 51st birthday.

I was forming a band around 1978 and needed a guitar player. My sister suggested I call Mark. I think my first question for him was “Can you play Led Zeppelin?”

Let me tell you: He could play Led Zeppelin. And The Beatles. Jeff Beck. The Allman Brothers. Yes. The Police. Steely Dan. Mahavishnu Orchestra. His bandmates who are here today can attest to his musical gifts. Mrs. Becker, thanks for letting us rehearse in your basement. We apologize for stapling carpet to the walls.

But music was only the beginning for me and Mark. He was curious about absolutely everything, so any subject was fair game for the most intense conversations. For him, everything was amazing, and that outlook was contagious.

In the mid 80s we were roommates in a house in Westwood, NJ. It was a growing experience, especially for me since it was my first time living away from home. I was a slob. Mark was not. Neither of us liked confrontation. After so many days of me leaving my unwashed dishes in the sink, I came home to find them stacked in the middle of my bedroom floor. I didn’t get mad. I washed my dishes. Lesson learned: Clean up your own damn messes. We had a great couple of years in that house; a lot of music and a lot of laughs. It’s also where I got to know Lori, and to marvel at the life she and Mark were creating together.

Mark was the closest thing to a Taoist I ever met. He would never have called himself that, which made him the best kind of Taoist. He was contemplative. He did not impose himself on nature, but rather sought to understand his place in it. He was one of the most peaceful souls I have ever encountered. The first copy of the Tao Te Ching I ever read was Mark’s.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but he helped put me on a path that would lead me to embrace Zen Buddhism. Mark did this, not by proselytizing or by pedagogy, but by being who he was, by living his convictions, and by being my friend. I wish I had thanked him.

I can’t help but note the passing this year of two champions of the environment for whom music was as vital as breathing. When Pete Seeger passed away earlier this year, Arlo Guthrie’s response was “Well, of course he passed away! But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

For my friend Mark Becker, I leave you with a similar sentiment from Walt Whitman:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

 All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed . . . and luckier.

[2014]

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Songs Along the Path

It was quite a trip from being raised Roman Catholic to having my jukai ceremony at age 51. (Yes, I was tempted to write “a long, strange trip” or “a long and winding road,” but thankfully I stopped myself.) I had doubts about my given religion even as a child, went through a rebellious atheist phase in my twenties, and eventually found my thoughts and feelings about things spiritual were closest to Taoism and Buddhism.

I can pinpoint the various influences that got me here: the TV show Kung Fu; my roommate’s copy of the Tao Te Ching; listening to Alan Watts on WFMU; sessions with a therapist whose approach was decidedly Buddhist; stumbling across copies of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind in a favorite book shop; finding Heart Circle Sangha and finally getting up the nerve to step inside.

Perhaps the subtlest and most powerful influence has been the music I’ve listened to since my youth. It has stirred me as few other things can, and its ability to do so has not diminished with time.

The Beatles were my first exposure to Eastern spiritual themes in pop music, as they were for so many others. But in going back through my music collections, I identified so much more. Some of the songs certainly have overt Buddhist references: John Lennon’s Instant Karma, Three Dog Night’s Shambala, Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva, Alex Chilton’s Dalai Lama. Some have spiritual themes that, while not expressly Buddhist, are perfectly at home in Buddhist contemplation. Others contain a feeling, theme, or even just one line of lyric that got me to consider the bigger picture, or seemed to affirm something I was already feeling.

I’ve compiled more than 200 of these songs, and the list continues to grow. Recently I distilled the collection down to what could fit on a CD so I could present some friends with a kind of Zen mix tape (remember mix tapes?). I sequenced the playlist for a bit of narrative structure, and was struck by how many of the tracks reference water imagery and impermanence.

These, then, are some of my songs along the path. Regardless of the artists’ original intentions, this is what I get from them. They’re all available on CDs or iTunes if you’re inclined to try the collection for yourself. Your mileage may vary.

Litany (Life Goes On) by Guadalcanal Diary
We start with a sort of overture or grand statement for the collection. Relentlessly positive, the lyrics spell out how the world looks through clear eyes and with an open heart. The uplifting music takes what might otherwise be the uncomfortable uncertainty of “We move so quickly / Who knows where he time goes? / Where does this road lead? / No one knows” and turns it into a celebration of possibilities. Embrace life and fear not; it has no beginning and no end.

Now by King Missile
Probably the most obscure song on the list (and the shortest), it has the uncanny ability to focus my attention on the only thing we ever really have: the present moment. It contains what is, for me, a very playful depiction of dependent arising: “Once there was nothing but nothingness / Then something happened and now there is somethingness.”

Mind Games by John Lennon
This is the song that truly started me on the path. Where Litany is a celebration of being presented with this marvelous world, Mind Games is a call to action, a resounding chorus of how one can proceed. It made me want to know what the “karmic wheel” was, and it introduced me to the idea of non-attachment: “Yes is the answer / And you know that for sure / Yes is surrender / You gotta let it go.” It never fails to lift my spirits.

Pure and Easy by Pete Townshend
Townshend has been a spiritual seeker most of his life. He became a follower of the Indian mystic Meher Baba in the 60s, and much of his best work has been rooted in this seeking. Pure and Easy is the foundation of his Lifehouse idea, a spiritual song cycle that he struggled for years to bring to fruition. The Who’s best album — Who’s Next — arose from that struggle. When he sings of “the note in us all,” it sounds to me like the Tao or Buddha-nature. This song also came to mind when I first read “The Note” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Hard to believe a traditional Scottish Christian hymn made it into Top 40 radio back in the 70s. The future Yusuf Islam is accompanied here by pianist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman and some beautifully haunting background vocals in a song about constant renewal. Like I tell my kids: Any day you wake up is a good day. Rejoice in it.

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
Continues the influence of my Christian upbringing with lyrics taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music by the incomparable Pete Seeger. It’s probably my earliest exposure to the ideas of necessary opposites and endless cycles.

Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
I take this as a call to meditation. Whatever is vexing you, the answers are always at hand. Just be still.

Rain by The Beatles
The first of five water-themed songs, this one made me look at the problems we create for ourselves through our perceptions: “When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads” and “When the sun shines / They slip into the shade.” Nothing is ever good enough. We always want what we don’t have. But then: “Rain — I don’t mind / Shine — the weather’s fine.” It’s just a state of mind. Get out of your own way.

Think About Your Troubles by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s album The Point was a favorite when I was a kid, the animated film even more so. This is a playful song about cycles and how everything, including your troubles, is impermanent.

Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads
When I heard David Byrne sing “Water dissolving / And water removing / There is water / At the bottom of the ocean,” I was reminded of how the Tao is said to be like water, seeking the lowest places which men abhor. A major theme of the song is self refection, and being surprised by what one finds. The refrain of “Same as it ever was” is almost a mantra. Rather than being a statement about how nothing changes, I take it to mean what was true then is true now.

All This Time by Sting
Written in response to the death of his father, Sting uses river imagery to evoke the endless stream of time, how we all rise and fall in the flow, and the folly of seemingly permanent monuments and rituals. I have always loved the last line: “They only get better one by one.” We have to awaken on our own.

What’s Good – The Thesis by Lou Reed
One of my early struggles with Buddhism was making room for paradoxes. This track is a meditation on loss from an album that was inspired in part by the death of Reed’s friend, the songwriter Doc Pomus. Reed juxtaposes things that don’t make sense together — some real, some truly nonsensical — while trying to come to terms with the death. His conclusion: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz
A latter-day All You Need Is Love. If love is indeed the answer (as we hear in Mind Games), then we would do well to let love rule.

(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Written by Nick Lowe, this is a seeker’s lament. We see the pain, hatred and misery. We respond with compassion. Why should anyone scoff at that?

One by U2
Our feelings of the universal are often rooted in our experiences of the particular. Here, a relationship is coming apart, and it brings out something much bigger: “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.”

Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
What Buddhist wouldn’t be intrigued by that title? It’s only mentioned once, but it’s the best response to contemplating impermanence, and being grateful in the moment.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison
From the über-spiritual album of the same name, Harrison wrote this in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the disintegration of The Beatles. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything — whether we see it as good or bad — will pass away.

Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Structurally similar to Mind Games, and musically just as rousing. Listeners have been quite moved by this track that includes the lines “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die?” Far from being morose, it’s a celebration of seeing the world as it is, seizing the day, and giving the lie to illusion. It brings to mind the Evening Gatha. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Find the River by R.E.M.
Back to water imagery for the final summation. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are frequently impressionistic (if not downright cryptic) and R.E.M.’s songs have always touched me at a more subliminal level. Find the River feels like an elder looking back at his life and passing the torch. Throughout the song, he observes how “Nothing is going my way” — except at the end, when he sings, “All of this is coming your way.” It could be a warning from a world-weary soul. Or it could be sage advice to check desire, to “do without doing,” to open up to what is flowing in the river — or blowing in the wind.

[2013]

(Click here for the playlist on Spotify.)

We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Kyron Horman

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. ~ Bertrand Russell

It has been just over a year since Kyron Horman disappeared from his school in Portland, Oregon. Much money and manpower has been spent looking for him, and authorities don’t seem any closer to find him or explaining what happened to him. His stepmother, who was the last person to see him, is not a named suspect. But most people who have followed the story believe she knows more than she has said.

I have been following his story from day one. I don’t know why, but when I saw Kyron’s picture, I took an instant liking to him. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me of my own son.

Some have been critical of the amount of attention Kyron’s story has gotten. They point out that children go missing every day, and ask why Kyron’s story is so special.

A lot of the attention has to do with the tremendous efforts of Kyron’s parents to make sure their son is not forgotten, and to make sure that people keep an eye out for him. I can only applaud their efforts. My heart breaks for them.

My heart breaks for missing and abused children almost every day.

Every time I read of some tragedy committed against a child — all too often by someone they trusted — I whisper “I’m sorry,” as if there was something I could have done to save them. I swear, if I could be granted a super power, it would be to know whenever a child is being harmed, and to be able to bolt to them in an instant to stop it.

I’d never have a moment’s rest.

From a Buddhist perspective, am I causing myself to suffer by clinging to these thoughts? Maybe so. But I find it difficult to be dispassionate about such things. It’s one of the aspects of Buddhism with which I struggle.

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days in which the family is listening to a live radio broadcast of the rescue of a little girl who has fallen down an abandoned well. The scene was inspired by the true story of three-year-old Kathy Fiscus back in 1949. The ensuing rescue effort was broadcast live via radio as well as the still-novel medium of television. I remember my dad telling me about it. The world was riveted by the story.

In the film, as in the real-life incident, the little girl did not survive. The family in the film is quietly devastated by the news. The father, holding his own little girl on his lap through all this, holds her a little tighter, barely able to contain his tears.

In the absence of any super powers, this may be the best I can hope for. These terrible stories will continue to come. I will hold my children a little tighter. And I will keep a watchful eye on all the other children in my small corner of the world.

[2011]

Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

Today my Uncle Harry would have turned 99.

He was the oldest of four sons. My dad always said it was Harry who got the family through the Great Depression. He was like a second father to me. He gave me my first Bible, my first dictionary, my first rifle, my love of the mountains, and along with my dad, my love and appreciation of America and its history.

While I have no recollection of my parents ever hitting me, I very clearly recall the day when I was five years old, bumped my head getting into my dad’s car, and uncharacteristically uttered an expletive. As soon as the word left my lips, I felt Harry’s hand smack the back of my head. It was the only time he ever did something like that. Lesson learned.

In the late 50s, Harry purchased a little over two acres of land in Sussex County, New Jersey. His plan was to build a house there for himself and his aging mother, to grow his own food, and to hunt and fish in the as yet unspoiled countryside.

First he built a small, one-room cabin in which he could live while working on his project. Shortly after the house’s foundation was put in, he took ill, and the house project was abandoned. But he kept the land and the cabin, and it became my favorite summer destination.

My dad and I (and later my younger brother Joe) would ride out there with Harry in his ramshackle Ford Falcon. It really was paradise for a young boy. Fishing. Exploring. Catching newts. Learning to shoot targets with a muzzle-loading rifle. Campfire cooking. The night sky ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. The thrilling mystery of being able to pull in stations from Canada through the clear night air on the portable radio. The stillness of the deep woods, with no planes or cars humming in the background. Just the wind in the trees, the cicadas, and later the sounds of all those night creatures.

When Harry died, he left that cabin to me in his will. He had stipulated that it be sold and the money used for my education. I convinced my parents to hang on to it, and I did return there a couple of times with Dad. But it wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Eventually, my parents did sell it to the owner of some adjacent property, because he promised not to develop it. I’ve returned there several times over the years, just to see if I could still find it. Though the cabin is slowly returning to nature, the gentleman has kept his word.

Given my later appreciation of the works of Henry David Thoreau, I have wished more than once that we could have kept the cabin. Regardless, Harry and the cabin are with me still.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ha.

[2011]

John Lennon (1940-1980)

Thirty years.

Like so many others, I will always remember where I was and who I was with when I heard that John Lennon had been murdered.

I was at a club called Maximus in New City, New York with my friends Z, Chris and J. Monday night was “New Wave” night, and we were hanging out drinking kamikazes and watching the still-novel medium of music videos on the club’s monitors.

We all had to go to work the next day, so we called it a night about 11 p.m. It was in Z’s car that we heard the breaking news that Lennon had been shot and rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt hospital. Soon after, we got the news that he was dead. The DJ on whatever station we were listening to thought it was funny to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” so we turned off the radio and drove home in stunned silence.

Back at home, I walked in crying, and found my brother and sister in their rooms crying, and my father looking a bit perplexed in front of the living room TV. I didn’t really sleep much that night.

At work the next day, friends and co-workers asked me how I was doing, as if I’d had a death in the family. They all knew how much of a John Lennon fan I was. But my boss couldn’t quite fathom the world’s reaction. I said something about Lennon having a big effect on my thinking, and he said it’s not like the guy was Aristotle or something. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Maybe I should have said, “Good thing. Ever try dancing to Nicomachean Ethics?”

John Lennon may not have been an Aristotle. But he was a seeker, and a very public one at that. If people like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus et al built the doors that lead to greater understanding, people like John Lennon knock on those doors, and sometimes hold them open for us and say “Hey, check this out.”

I might not be on this path were it not for John Lennon. His songs were my signposts.

We all shine on.

[2010]

Old Photographs

All we have is now.

This perspective, so central to Zen, has helped me immensely. The past is gone.  The future does not exist.  There is only now.

And yet, I have found that photographs of the past have a way of fostering compassion.

One way is having before my eyes representations of the world in which my ancestors lived. It’s one thing to hear the stories. It’s a bigger thing to have the stories illustrated.

I’ve been researching my family history for 15 years now, and one of the great joys is acquiring photos of the people and places I learn about along the way. It creates an appreciation for all those who have gone before me, whose lives made my life possible.

Old photos have also been helpful when it comes to family members who are still very much alive. I first discovered this while compiling photos from my mother’s past.

My relationship with Mom is very good. But like anybody else, she can be difficult at times, and of course there are those rough spots in our past that sometimes resurface when you least expect it. Letting go, it seems, is a full-time job.

But ever since I uncovered a photo of her when she was five years old, looking somewhat lost while sitting on a makeshift merry-go-round in Germany back in 1940, I see her in a different light. She had no idea what was going on or what the future would hold. And for all our life experiences, this still holds true for us as adults.

It’s now very easy for me to remember this when I look at her, age 75, and it brings up this wellspring of compassion that I would have felt for that lonely little five-year-old girl if I had crossed her path way back when. That’s not to say I don’t have compassion for my mother to begin with — I certainly do — but any transitory irritation or anger that may come up is immediately vaporized by the memory of that photograph. It’s a remarkable thing.

A similar reaction happens when dealing with my children. They’re only 10 and 14, and I have vivid memories of them at every stage of their lives. I try not to fall into the trap of longing for a time when they were younger and seemingly more respectful of their parents and kinder to each other. But a photo of either of them around age five does wonders do disarm my anger.

Yes, we only have now. But I have to wonder, since most of us meet the other adults in our lives as adults and not as kindergartners, if it would be a good idea to carry photos of ourselves at age five, and to share them at the moment we’re about to act out of anger.

[2010]

A Note

I felt sorry for Mr. Sorensen, always away on business with three beautiful blonds at home. Jen was platinum, Abbie was strawberry, and yours varied from time to time.

I liked flirting with Abbie, telling her that she and I would go out when she was a little older if her sister didn’t mind.

I remember being alone in the house with Jen on night, and all I could think to do was teach her to how to play Stairway to Heaven on the piano until two in the morning. I thought I was being a gentleman; my mind rattled with her stories about her rapacious ex-boyfriend. If I could do it over, we’d play the piano naked.

Though I coveted your daughters, I think I loved you the most, and I think you knew. I was flattered that we were able to talk about anything, that I could tell you I was a virgin and you could tell me that you really shouldn’t have worn white. I was somehow honored that I could drop and join in your afternoon get-togethers with the neighborhood women. And grateful for your understanding when you found my friend Jeff and I parked in front of your house one night smelling of blackberry brandy and talking nonsense after Jen and I had broken up.

I remember coming by after school one afternoon to ask you to stop taking my side in the break-up, and your smiling remark that we should be careful lest the neighbors start calling you Mrs. Robinson.

I still think about what might have happened had I seen the movie.

[1994]

Originally appeared in the Winter 1994 edition of Columbia Journal.