Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I first became acquainted with Kübler-Ross my freshman year in high school – quite accidentally, and by osmosis. My freshman English teacher was Joanne Fahey, who also taught an upper-class elective on Thanatology that used Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” as its primary text. Seeing students with copies and finding a couple of copies in Ms. Fahey’s classroom, I eventually picked it up and read parts of it. I also think Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “Think on These Things” entered by consciousness the same way. I was very lucky to land in Ms. Fahey’s Freshman Honors English class, by the way. As a transfer student (we had just moved from Ohio that summer), by the time I got to pick my first year classes, the Honors classes were full with a long waiting list. I therefore landed instead in David Spaid’s regular freshman English class. It is to Mr. Spaid’s credit that upon reading my first assignment, he pushed to have me reassigned to Ms. Fahey’s class almost immediately. Both of them saw something in me that I certainly took a long time to recognize myself, and I will never forget their encouragement (and often, gentle scolding).
When it comes to surviving love and loss, I suppose everyone feels they’ve had their share. Of course, it’s a very subjective measure in any case. Throughout our lives what we call “love” and what we consider “loss” evolve almost geometrically, and often in directions that make both states probably unrecognizable to us at any other time of life.
When you’re young, love and loss are different from when you’re older. Maybe not different, maybe just profound on a different scale, measured by a different yardstick. When you’ve only had one friend in your short life, losing that friend is monumental – regardless of the reason. When you don’t make friends easily to begin with, a life that involves moving every seven years or so results in a pattern of loss that establishes how you interact and entertain people for the rest of your life. It’s hard to put down roots anywhere when you’ve been repotted several times. You learn to get your nourishment nearer the surface.
I can count the number of friends in my life whose houses I visited and who visited my house, growing up, on under two hands. In Torrance during high school, the list grew a little longer, but I tended to spend time away from my house more than I entertained at home. I spent hours at my friends’ houses. Of course, in those early years my solo living situations were always a little strange: roommates, weird neighborhoods. People rarely lounged at my place.
There are many kinds of love and loss. And so many objects to which you become attached. Until we moved from suburban Detroit to rural Ohio when I was seven, I was lucky to see my grandparents more than once a year. From Forest, Ohio my paternal grandparents were a mere 45 minutes away in Findlay; and my maternal grandparents only a 3-hour drive away in Greenhills, outside Cincinnati. I think if we had not had increased interaction with them, the death of both my grandfathers in 1974 might not have been so traumatic. They were for me, at age 9, real people. Particularly the open casket at Grandpa Litzenberg’s funeral – and the extremely long-winded exhortations from the presiding minister – left a deep impression on me. Both grandmothers played an important role thereafter, particularly my dad’s mom as we spent a lot of time at the Findlay farm, but even then I could feel the anchor being chipped away. It was only a matter of time before we picked up lock, stock, and barrel again. I suspect my father never really felt at home in the sticks; after being drafted in the Army during Korea, he left for college and didn’t really look back, except for the brief “back to nature” period from 1972-1979. It wasn’t in him to sit and watch the grass (or the wheat) grow. I inherited some of his restlessness, I think.
Anchors and roots. Powerful metaphors to consider, particularly now that I have lived in Louisiana (and Natchitoches, in Louisiana) longer now than anywhere else in my life. I still feel untethered, not to the people in my life, but to its places. Can you lose something you never actually had? Whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I struggle with a definitive answer. Is that a kind of loss? It certainly at times has presented itself as a longing – for a known universe, a certain environment, a stable footing.
Is that lack of grounding, so to speak, the reason why I have lived in eight different US states, and travelled in forty-eight?
I have now lived in 22 houses or apartments in 52 years – several involving moves within a single city over the course of one or two years. Having now lived in Louisiana for seventeen years, it is the state of my longest residence; and Natchitoches, at 11.25 years, is by far the city I have habited longest. By comparison, only California comes close.
By birth, a Michigander. By childhood, an Ohioan. By adolescence and young adulthood, a Californian. By education, a Bostonian. My first restart, or rebirth it might be more accurately named, made me a Memphian; although the labor pains began in Boston, that’s for sure. It was a short life, certainly, lasting only a year before the next rebirth, as a true “householder” in the traditional sense of the word, and to an actual career and more than anything learning experience of a first marriage, in Seattle. Moving back to my childhood home in Ohio was an attempt to salvage that life, to put it on life support. Ultimately, a failed attempt, but one that led to a real rebirth: moving to New Orleans, finding a real family and purpose in life. Who was it that said, “A writer of poems at 19 is merely 19; a writer of poems at 50 is a poet” or something like that? Finding your voice, as a writer, is a long arduous and usually painful process. It typically involves some of that “whence I was a child, I spake as a child” sort of nonsense, a lot of stumbling around (usually drunk) and breaking precious artifacts. It also involves something that some people never get around to doing: growing up. I once said that the definition of an adult is someone who puts the interests and needs of someone else if not before themselves, then at equal importance. Growing up, in that sense, doesn’t involve chronology or any number at all. Some people live their entire lives without making that cataclysmic, irreversible, and mind-numbingly frightening step into adulthood. Becoming an adult means stepping into responsibility. Losing some individual freedom and participating in a communal interdependence. As Martin Buber might have put it, it requires stepping beyond the “I” and considering “Thou” – the essential building block of any meaningful system of ethics. Without consideration of the Other, and more importantly, without recognizing that the Other is a mere artifice that gives us a means for temporarily and somewhat arbitrarily categorizing things, no morality, righteousness, justice or universal meaning can stand.
Profound loss, to return to Kübler-Ross, is horribly subjective. There is material, tangible loss: of things, of people, of possessions of both kinds; but there is also immaterial, intangible loss at an individual level: of self, of place, of purpose, of belonging of each kind. Woven into, or perhaps joining together this material and immaterial loss like a spider’s web between two fence posts, is loss of both individual and collective memory, of history, of accomplishments and posterity.
My own losses are somewhere in between. In Boston, due to my own negligence and failure to adult, I was evicted from my apartment and could only take with me a few belongings. This meant leaving musical instruments, clothing, 100s of hours of demo tapes, paintings, drawings, lyrics and poetry, books, and countless other things that I thought tethered me to life itself – at least the life I pictured for myself. After being homeless for a couple of months in the Boston winter, I ended up rooming with a friend until the spring, when I revealed the true state of my affairs to my parents, who horrified, sent me money to relocate and start anew. Another friend suggested a friend in Memphis, and so I went, with a suitcase, an old guitar inherited from my father, and a loaf of Macrobiotic bread. As the impact of that loss was neither immediate nor visible on the surface, I spent most of my time in Memphis doing the wrong things – except that I started writing, like a writer, in earnest. I thank Tommy Foster, Mary Burns and other denizens of Cooper-Young’s Java Cabana coffeehouse, as well as Paul, Kevin and Keith Norman of BHN Corporation, for the lifeline that kept me afloat and alive through the transition from foundling, through my father’s death in 1993, and beyond. At BHN I rediscovered not only my ability and inclination for honest, intelligent work, but also was introduced to Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now after which the company was named (there was a copy on the bookshelf in every office) – and began an honest spiritual quest that continues today. At the Java Cabana, I rediscovered my true love of writing, and observing, and experimenting with words and ideas, amongst a group of true individuals I still count among my friends and with whom I still exchange ideas (Asa, Rui, Mary, Dave, Tommy, Michelle, Tasha, you know who you are). Participating in the Thursday Night Poetry Readings at Java Cabana focused my will as a writer, as well as my appreciation of an audience, and the driving need to bring something to the pot luck, every time you show up.