All posts by Quinnland23

Robert delights in being a struggling writer and artist. He’s illustrated the children’s book “A Different Kind of Day” and worked as staff cartoonist at the Sacramento State Hornet. When he’s not struggling creatively he works as a code monkey specializing in education and user experience. Robert lives in Rocklin, California where he also struggles with writing short author bios.

In Printed

I may not be a fan of New Years resolutions,  but it is a good time to dust off the ol’ bucket list.  One of the top items on my bucket list is to be credited both as writer and illustrator of my own published piece; likely a children’s book but who knows, illustrated spy dramas may become all the rage.  I’ve always thought that this would be the ultimate creative outlet for me despite what all publishers and submissions guidelines may say to the contrary.  They make it repeatedly clear that writers should steer clear of submitting artwork since they have their own collection of darling in-house artists to choose from.  To which I say “you’re not the boss of me.  I play by my own set of rules.  I write my own rulebook complete with illustrations drawn by yours truly.” To which they reply with resounding silence or a short, mildly polite rejection “Thank you for not following our submission guidelines.  Have a nice day”.

It would seem I need to be more professional in my approach.  I need to prove to them that I can offer value on both sides of the creative playing field.  I often wonder if they initially rejected the Wimpy Kid books because of submission guidelines or suggested Jeff Kinney’s clever stick drawings be redone by an in-house illustrator who previously specialized in cover art for trashy romance novels.  Now eleven books later with Mr. Kinney’s ability to essentially print money any time he needs a new boat, or a house in the Hamptons I’m pretty sure he’s given full creative freedom despite the fact that Greg and the rest of the crew bear no resemblance to Fabio or his bodice bosom counterparts.

Now a secondary bucket list item which is closely tied to the first is to read in print any reference to me or my creations with the phrase “wildly popular”.  There’s just something about that expression that tickles my sensibilities; “wildly popular”.  Not “mildly popular” or “really quite popular” but “wildly popular”.  It’s as if “scathing report” and “inflammatory remark” had a love child from an angry bout of make-up sex resulting in “wildly popular”.   I’m not sure if that’s better than going viral but it sounds a great deal more sanitary.

I am not under the delusion that everything I write or draw is solid gold masterworks worthy of worship.  This is still all a work in progress and the rants and ramblings contained herein are merely an exercise in creative expression.  My 5 views in a week is not “wildly popular” by any metric.  The ice cream man can achieve 5 followers by cruising the park on a mild spring day.  No, I may be just screaming into the void (which is slightly preferable to pissing into the wind and still more sanitary then going viral) but I can dream that one day the numbers will pick up and the small handful of views today will snowball into a wildly popular number,… like maybe 16 for instance.  And then, once I have my “wildly popular” blog to shove in the publishers’ faces they will have no choice but to bow to my demands and happily offer me a three book publishing deal for my series “Clifford the Big Red Spy Dog”.  Until that happens, I resolve for the New Year to either get at least one piece of fiction or two articles published by the end of the year,… or reach 16 followers, whichever comes first.

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Runequest Cover

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Today’s creation was inspired by a friend who was packaging up some home-brew Runequest rules (RPG geekiness if you’ve never heard of it), so I recreated the original Runequest cover illustration in my home-brew style.  Some bits may not exact but I’m happy with the overall feel compared to the original.

 

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Lock Picking Love

When I was young the key to my heart was a crude thing, made with a single rough groove fashioned to unlock an equally rudimentary lock.  In all honesty it was more like a simple deadbolt that anyone interested could open with an easy twist,…   heck, I let a few people in who weren’t even interested.  After a few false starts with that so-called security system I learned to upgrade my lock to something a bit more complex, like one of the those old fashion tube keys with two or three predominant teeth at the end; I had formed a rough idea of who I wanted and what it would take for that mystery person to find more permanent residence within my heart.  I was ready for the big league; dating.

Regardless of whether you’re starting out in your youth or jumping back in well into your adulthood, the predatory nature of dating seems to encourage a different approach to unlocking the hearts and minds of potential mates.  When you put yourself out there you are presenting the perfect package you perceive yourselves to be.  Like a well-padded resume you may inflate some aspects of your personality while compressing some aspects of your physique so tightly into that sexy outfit that your legs fall asleep from lack of circulation.  You navigate the online pre-date banter and the coffee shop small talk in order to better size up your new acquaintance.  In reality the goal of this interaction is to discover how this person ticks.  Does she love kids? Does she love cats?  Does she vote liberal?  Does she watch FOX?  Does she like wine?  Does she chug whiskey?  With every bit of information gathered you get that much closer to learning how to unlock that person’s heart.  You take it on faith that the person you’re sharing your life story with will use that information for good and not for evil.  You have to trust that the baby kissing, dog-owning, liberal wino she is presenting is a true representation of her personality just as she has to accept that your positive reception of her responses are equally truthful and not just a juvenile attempt to lock-pick her heart or shop-lift the pooty.  For me it was this firsthand experience with how to unlock another heart that taught me the most about what it takes to unlock my own.  Over time that rough idea solidified and through trial and error I added, removed and replaced various locking mechanisms with more refined iterations.  And then I got married.

When you find “the one” the lock is discarded, having served its purpose.  There is a certain degree of relief knowing you’ll no longer have to fiddle with your lock or find your missing key.  You accept the love you’ve found as permanent and make concessions to keep your heart happy while keeping it available to your new partner.  While the old lock may grow rusty your heart continues to grow in size and complexity.  Through that long-term relationship the concept of love evolves far beyond those original crude notions.  You grow in directions you hadn’t even considered.  At times you struggle with the concept of self while you try to become who your partner wants or who your children need.  Where does one heart end and the other begin?  How have all of these relationships changed you?

When you lose “the one” the lock snaps back into place without notice.  In addition to that lingering rust of disuse there are the new levels of complexity that have evolved over time; more pins in the tumbler requiring a more complex arrangement of corresponding teeth.  Not only have you continued to learn what you like and dislike in love, but you’ve also quietly learned what it was about yourself that you surrendered or suppressed in order to make those lasting relationships function.  You have a greater sense of self which requires its own measure of security and consideration.  Now a double-sided key is required to perfectly hit every spring just right.

Dating at this point becomes a challenging pursuit.  While we may develop an appreciation for our own sophisticated complexity, we don’t account for the statistical unlikelihood that we’ll be able to find a suitable key-bearer, and even if we do manage that much there’s still the question of being the proud owner of a reciprocal key.  It’s like one of those games at the fair where contestants line up at a locked door and selects a key at random from a bucket hoping to unlock it and win the prize.  You stand in line again and again trying in vain to find the lucky key.  After countless attempts to gain entry you finally have the satisfaction of opening the door, but rather than being met with some glorious prize you find instead a second door, like the adjoining rooms of a hotel, and realize there is an entirely different line of people standing behind that door trying to do the very same thing that you are.  You return to the back of the line increasingly dejected and start the process all over again hoping by some miracle that you and your perfect mate will somehow manage to open the doors at the same time and share your new communal space.

Frustration becomes your new companion.   Dating prospects come and go, leaving only a pile of discarded keys in their wake.   Are the good ones all taken?  Are only the freaks remaining (present company excluded)?  Is it you or it is them?  (It’s you).  You focus overly much on finding someone to unlock what lies within. You primp and polish the lock to a shiny luster, not bothering to go any deeper, since the deep stuff will likely go unseen,… like wearing ugly underwear on the first date as a guarantee that no one will ever see it.

Once the dust settles though you consider a different approach.  What if you unlocked your own heart?  Open it up with the sole purpose of sharing it with others with no expectation of reciprocation.  An open heart is easier to love and more accessible since the lock is no longer in the way.  You do what you love.  You be who you are.  You are open to everything (some limitations and exclusions apply in considerations of introverts; see manual for complete details on proper care and handling).  It would be like opening the door to your hotel reservation to find the adjoining room already wide open for you to spread out in.  No barriers.  No restraints.  At the very least you have more nooks to explore, and more freedom to enjoy yourself.  If you happen to discover your soulmate waiting in that adjoining room, then all the sweeter,… if it’s not your soulmate you should probably call management because that would just be creepy.

The point is there’s no guarantee I will find that perfect match.  I think there’s something to be said about young love.  It seems so simple in retrospect.  There were so many growth experiences personal and professional that became shared experiences, and so many shared experiences both good and bad that became precious memories.   I cannot replace those memories, just as I cannot recapture my youth.  Any relationship now must deal with that complicated heart regardless of how it evolved, and I must accept that any heart I encounter will be equally complicated by its own evolution.  So, for now, I’ll just go back and focus on opening my own heart,… if I can just remember where I left my keys.

 

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK FOR: “Hot-wiring Your Sex Drive”

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Right in the Prom Proms

The question was simple, “do you regret not going to prom?”  The answer is a fluffier bit of self-indulgent nostalgia.  I mean, really, in the grand scheme of things the importance of prom on my current life path matters not at all.  There was no pivotal scene from Back to the Future that would greatly alter my destiny if it played out one way or another, at least not one that comes easily to mind.  There are no lingering doubts or questions that perpetually haunt me to this day.  It’s just another pothole in the bumpy road of adolescence.   But let’s rewind and start with the backstory.

Hard as it may be to believe when you gaze upon my glorious adult form, I was not a child cover model for Teen Beat Magazine.  I was not among the popular crowd or a prized member of any jock-related subculture.  I was a typical nerd who spent the first two years of high school mostly hiding in the science quad to avoid getting my ass kicked.  Those same two years had me trying to free myself of glasses, braces and about 25 extra pounds I’d acquired in middle school.  By my junior year I had succeeded with 2 out of the 3 (the braces stuck around until the bitter end of senior year), but my emerging self-esteem was still making up for lost time.

When the junior prom rolled around my ongoing attempts to attract the opposite sex had remained fruitless. Turned out I was really good at forming solid long-lasting crushes, especially with unattainable girls like ones that already had boyfriends (often boyfriends that I was friends with) but what I wasn’t good at was actually having balls enough to approach any of these said crushes and make my feeling known.  This coincidentally made it very difficult to find a prom date, and the best option I was left with was to join up with a group and be a stand-in date with someone I didn’t really know and who had no interest in me whatsoever.  I pretended to be morally offended by this arrangement, insisting to no one out loud that I’d rather spend the night alone than be a generic token date.  Later, while I spent that night alone cursing my stupid insecurities and wishing I’d been used and degraded in any manner I’d been offered, I did regret the missed opportunity to be involved in the shared memories that were being formed by my less morally minded, or more social capable friends.

When the senior prom rolled around I was in-between girlfriends (literally, I had exactly two girlfriends in high school and this was betwixt the two).  I was however still quite proficient at securing multiple crushes.  The biggest crush at the time was on a freshman from the swim team who I nicknamed ‘Turtle” for reasons that escape me now, but at the time felt painfully adorable.  I had made a couple attempts to be witty and charming through the use of hand-written letters (god forbid I should actually speak to the girl in person), but as hard as it is to imagine, these attempts were vague and not backed up with any decisive action, like say, speaking to the girl in person.  As the prom approached Turtle was unable to read my mind and I took her lack of clairvoyance as a sure sign that she wasn’t interested and certain that if asked her in person she would surely embarrass me ruthlessly by pointing with mock laughter like all the kids do in that recurring dream where I show up at school without pants on, because that’s how I imagined all girls handled those awkward situations.

Remembering my regret from the previous year though I was not daunted by Turtle’s rejections and I instead turned to a friend of mine (and, as it happens, a friend of Turtle’s) to be my date.  She was also on the swim team and so it felt like it would just be an extension of the weekend parties we usually enjoyed together in the company of others.  It seemed like the perfect plan, except for one small detail; her dad.  For some reason dad, a devote Mormon (along with the rest of the family) was not thrilled with the idea of his 14-year-old daughter hanging out all night at Senior Prom, with a senior!  As a dad now, I’m honestly not sure what my response would be in a similar situation, but knowing my mindset at the time (how I valued my friend as a friend and she valued her values over everything) it would have been a pretty safe bet in every sense of the word, but the “no” was final.  This is where I could use a baseball metaphor and say I was down two strikes, and had to make the next one count, but there really wasn’t a next one.  In baseball terms I just sorta tossed the bat and meandered off the playing field.

I later found out that Turtle would have loved to have gone to the prom with me.  I’m pretty sure it was for the same reason as my prospective junior prom date, to tag along with the rest of our friends from swim team, but it would have made for an entertaining night none the less.  Even in this wild scenario though it’s hard to perceive an outcome that would have greatly impacted my future self.  It wasn’t going to be my first kiss, it wasn’t going to be my first sexual encounter, and chances are it wasn’t going to develop into a relationship to stand the test of time (since she still wasn’t clairvoyant).

I have a lot of good memories from high school.  I also have a fair share of bad memories from high school.  And then there are a great many things for which I have no memories from high school as demonstrated on several occasions at my 20 year reunion when stories, involving me, were recounted for which I had no recollection.   The point is high school was a part of my past, but I don’t think it was as pivotal as college or beyond.  I know there are a great many people who cherish their high school days as the best days of their lives.  Some may have held on to high school sweethearts or still live in the old neighborhood surrounding by high school friends.  For me the impact is not so great. So while I do feel I missed out on a rite of passage that is high school prom their absence is not a void I still ache to fill.  Other events since then have been more meaningful and more enjoyable.   I think it’s just as likely though my answer to this question may have been very different when I was still in my 20’s and maybe even my 30’s and the comparative evidence was more lacking.  I think like so many things in our youth this is an evolving perspective.

When I was eleven I recall telling my mom that I loved my then girlfriend.   My mom looked at me like she wanted to pat me on the head as she laughed, “Honey, you’re too young to know what love is.”  This statement still sits on the top 3 list of things I will never say to my children, but the point is at that age love was exactly what I thought love was, until it wasn’t and my perception changed.  By the same token I think the prom can potentially be the most significant event you will attend until it no longer is.  So whatever my experience was or how I may feel about it now, if I ever pat my child on the head and tell them the prom is no big deal they have my written permission to kick me in the prom-proms.

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Fostered, Freed

There was a tipping point at which the prospect of being a foster parent felt like a much-needed salvation rather than an act of final desperation.  There are many that approach the foster-care and foster-adopt programs from a purely altruistic place and simply open their hearts and homes to a child in need.  While there was an element of that in the decision-making, there were admittedly some underlying financial considerations as well.  After struggling for years with infertility, the remaining options with IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) were not only pricey, costing up to $10k per attempt, but with a success rate of about 25-30% it risked further frustration and disappointment.  Through random chance friends of ours were considering enrollment in an upcoming training program for prospective foster care parents around this same time.  At first glance it seemed like the perfect solution; it was not prohibitively expensive, it had a relatively good success rate and it felt like it put more of the power back in our hands, and anyone who’s ever been repeatedly disappointed by the results of pregnancy test can understand the benefits of empowerment.  Though there were a few dissenters in the family that feared for the welfare of our son or the potential for further heartbreak, most were extremely supportive, praising us for what appeared to be an entirely a selfless act.

For the next 6-8 months from orientation to final licensing, you become immersed in the foster care culture.  In addition to months of weekly night classes, you are required to submit to home inspections, and have all family members interviewed by a social worker.  You must be tested for TB.  You must go through finger printing and Livescan.  You must learn CPR and first aid.  You must learn to document all medications including any over-the-counter items that could come in contact with a child in your care.  It becomes an interesting editorial on parenthood, knowing that if all parents went through this degree of training and probing there would likely be far fewer kids in foster care in the first place.

Once you are completely official the real adventure begins.  The social worker is able to start calling you with potential matches and you are able to proactively begin your own independent searches.  This search process starts out with the most surreal checklist you’ll ever see, where parents are asked to mark off all of the things they would be “comfortable” with in a prospective child.  These questions range from the more benign preferences on gender, race and religion and build up to psychological issues, like (and I kid you not) biting, cutting, fire setting, and feces smearing.  Needless to say, a great many boxes were left unchecked for the safety of our son if nothing else.

The shopping methods were also disturbingly varied; you could catalog shop, browsing binders stacked high in the office, you could shop online through posted profiles, and you could even window shop at semi-annual picnic days for the local shelters.  Depending on your flexibility and tolerance level the available options could be wide open.  For us, more than anything else it was the siblings that seemed to be the most limiting factor.  There were a number of kids who, understandably, wanted to cling to their remaining family so they came as a package deal that we weren’t equipped to handle.  With that restriction along with other considerations we went through a few months of passing on the offers, until we got the one call we’d been waiting for.

The first pictures we received showed a sweet little girl (we’ll call her Leah) with big brown eyes staring up nervously at the camera.  Leah was staying with a temporary foster family who was helping her look for a permanent home.  Leah’s mother had abandoned her at 11 months old, leaving birth dad and daughter and moving to Washington State.  The young father had his own issues with life and realized he was unable to provide adequate care for his daughter.  The introductions with Leah were slow and methodical.  We visited her at the other foster family’s home a couple of times and then met her for a play date at the park near our house.  She was understandably shy and reserved but did come out of her shell in small bursts of tentative smiles.  Her connection with Jenean was almost immediate.  I think she longed for the missing mommy figure in her life and was able to build trust quickly from that.  The connection with me was slower in coming, which could have been caused by my own fumbling to form a fast bond mid-stream rather than building one slowly from birth.

She found security strapped into a high chair or stroller, which is how her dad often left her.  She hoarded food in her mouth, stuffing her cheeks like a squirrel.  She didn’t want to be left in her room alone.  She had tantrums if I went to get her out of the car instead of Jenean.  None of the problems were insurmountable and honestly many of them were not outside the toddler norm.  She soon found comfort in routine and stability.  She slowly started to thaw emotionally and found her place in the family.   We thought it was all going to work out.

Just as we were about to legally file for termination of parental rights from her birth parents, her mom flew back to California and demanded custody of her daughter.  Despite the abandonment and previous issues with substance abuse the rights of the birth mother in California hold up strong to the very end.  The social workers tried to calm our nerves, telling us it was unlikely that the mother would be able to meet the conditions of the court which were a number of rehab programs and proof of residence and income.    Surely she’d regress, or quit, or be unable to find a job.  It would all be too much and she’d return back to Washington within a couple of weeks.  We were all wrong.  In a way it was some meager consolation that her mom did fight so hard for her in the end.   Unfortunately she didn’t play nice along the way.

As one would expect the initial visitations were hard on Leah;  It was confusing to be taken from her new home to hang out with another woman she never really knew.  That in turn must have been equally hard to stomach for the birth-mom who had to hear references to this other family that was trying to steal her child.  Slowly those visits focused more on fun, like a visit to grandma’s with junk food and playful gifts.  She started telling Leah that we were not her parents and built up how she was going to take her away from all of that.   At this point the tantrums started up again before and after the visitations.  Even though we had been trained for the possibility of supporting reunification with a child and a birth parent, it was difficult to stomach when we had been so close to full adoption.   Over the course of a year and half, I was finally gaining some ground with the daddy-daughter relationship.  She enjoyed the playtime we shared together and I was able to see a future family with her in it.  But now, it was all changing again, and we had to be strong for her and help her get through the transition as best we could.

The last day she was with us, we got her ready for her “mommy time” like we would for all the other visits.  There really wasn’t a good way to explain to a 5-year-old what was about to happen, so we got her dressed, packed her backpack, along with some of her favorite toys and brought her outside to wait for the social worker to pick her up.  I think she started to suspect something was different from the prolonged goodbye hugs we gave her before buckling her in.  As they started to drive away Leah turned to wave goodbye, and I could hear her softly through the window say “goodbye daddy”.  It was the first time I remember her calling me that.  I went inside and cried for a very long time.

After all the work and all the turmoil, foster-adopt wasn’t salvation we had hoped for.   We felt more than a little betrayed by the system that would take a little girl out of a stable home and deliver her into an unknowable situation, and after that it was hard to stomach the idea of hopping back on the emotional roller coaster all over again, possibly multiple times before finding a perfect match.  Somewhere out there though a little girl is growing up with a very different life and maybe just a fleeting memory of the time she spent with another family while waiting for her mom to return.  Will she think fondly of us?  Will she think of us at all?  What started out as a promising solution to our problem, became a footnote in our personal history and the journey to find a child would continue down a different path.

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My Porch Front Days

In January I teeter on the edge of my porch as sheets of rain flow from the overhang and beyond. It is my life raft amid the growing storm. I imagine sailing off on a grand adventure of survival, so I run upstairs to gather my supplies and my plastic glow-in-the-dark sword.

In February I sit on my porch eating Sweetheart candies from classmates as my dad parks the VW Rabbit in the driveway. He has the box of Whitman’s chocolates for my mom and sneaks off to the garage to swap out one of the chocolates with a gold chain before he presents it to her.

In March I run straight off the porch like Wile E Coyote running off a cliff. Behind me is my enraged grandmother in hot pursuit with a rolled up newspaper. I’m not sure what I did to make her so angry, I’m just thankful that I can still run faster than her. This will not earn me a good review when my parents return tomorrow.

In April Johnny West and Geronimo slug it out theatrically on the cliff of my porch trying the toss one another into the canyon below.   Old Mrs. Scott from across the street sees me playing and comes over to deliver one of the traditional sugar eggs with vignettes of little bunnies.

In May I sit on my porch playing with the miniature cap gun fashioned like a western derringer that I just got for my birthday.   The smell of fresh popcorn drifts from the front door as my sister comes out to join me. We wait for the station wagon to back out of the garage so we can pile in for the ride to the drive-in.

In June I fidget on the front step of my porch, watching my dad push the rotary mower. I’ve been pressed into service, required to rake up once he is done, and not permitted to play in my room while I wait; though it seemed a reasonable request to me.

In July I pound on the door frantically pleading with my giggling sister on the other side. After convincing me to play dress up she shoved me onto the porch wearing one of her old dresses and a gaudy assortment of costume jewelry. I need to get back inside before anyone sees me, also I think I hear the ice cream truck.

In August great armies of miniature plastic battle fiercely on the porch, trying to resolve the ongoing conflicts that have raged throughout the summer. A short-lived cease-fire is called so I can sample my mom’s macaroni salad and offer some expert suggestions for improvement.

In September as the acorns begin to fall tiny villages sprout up made entirely of acorn cap structures. I breathe deep the autumn air laced with damp leaves and wood smoke admiring one such village just below my perch. I launch off the step of the porch, crushing the puny village beneath my giant feet with a satisfying crunch.

In October I strike a heroic pose in the doorway before leaping over the already sagging pumpkin on my porch. The unseasonable heat has sweat and condensation already dripping from the inside of my Superman mask before I hit the grass. I press forward knowing there is candy at stake.

In November my porch is the distant safe haven as a neighborhood dog from across the street takes sudden interest in me on my way home from school. The dog gives eager chase to my fleeing form. After his hunt is called off I’m soothed with chicken noodle soup and, ironically, my favorite cartoon, Underdog.

In December the postman makes his daily stop on my porch to stuff our mailbox with holiday cards that we will later shake down for dollar bills. My mom rushes out with holiday greetings and presents him with a box of fresh chocolate chip cookies for his service.

In later years I teeter on the edge of my porch, remembering the fleeting joy of childhood, and wondering what lies beyond. I imagine sailing off on the grand adventure of life, and must leave the safety of the porch to pursue it.

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Less to the Story

There I was, fidgeting on one those folding metal chairs that only plague school gymnasiums and juror waiting rooms. The lights dimmed as the principle welcomed us to the annual Dance Show where proud parents spend $20, and an hour of their life to watch mostly kids they don’t know in an attempt to capture that one blurry picture of their child doing the coffee-grinder so they can post it to Instagram. While I waited for my daughter to grace the stage with “Who Let the Dogs Out”, I amused myself by watching the other children and imaging what was going through their minds as they struggled to keep pace with their classmates.   And then I had a moment that caught me off guard; I noticed a kid with no hair, he looked thin, and maybe a bit pale under the stage lighting. A scene played out in my head, of how he struggled against illness and bravely fought to take the stage with the rest of his class. I was moved by his courage and resilience in the face of adversity, wanting that one chance to shine and find a small slice of happiness amidst all his suffering. As I sat there, awash in emotions and trying to fight back tears, he fell out of step and began vigorously scratching his head. And then I thought “maybe he just has lice”.

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Planning to Death

I like to plan ahead. I’m a planner, an over-thinker. I like to know life has in store, and I do my best to be one step ahead of whatever it has to offer. There is however this one nagging detail that I haven’t been able to get in front of. Death. Mortality. The final exclamation point. The big send off. How does one really prepare for the end?

Now this isn’t meant as a somber walk down a dark morbid trail. I’m blessed to be healthy and have no immediate plans to attend any funerals. I’m talking about high level stuff; as an ongoing preoccupation that resurfaces when life’s other minutia settles down to a dull hum. It comes down to a question of what comes next after this great journey we call life. Is there life after death? Do we take a stairway to heaven and enter the pearly gates? Do we come back for another go around as a monarch butterfly in Mexico or a future sheep herder in France? Do we stumble through the afterlife as a restless spirit haunting the family home and animating creepy clown dolls? Does our energy transition into another form, contributing to a universal stockpile to be tapped for future creation? Or is it all just lost to entropy?

We are indoctrinated about these concerns from an early age. The simple bedtime prayer for kids starts right off with mention of death;

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This was the sort of thing that scared the crap out of me as a child. Surrendering to even that brief bit of oblivion was difficult enough, acknowledging that we may not even make it to sunrise was simply terrifying. I sided with Edgar Allan Poe on this one;

“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”

As we grow up our understanding of death and dying becomes an integral part of our early development. We experience the death of a goldfish, a family dog, a grandparent.   These are defining moments in our childhood. We try to come to terms with death without fully realizing the implications on our own lives; we are wrapped in the perceived immortality of youth with little thought of confronting the inevitable.

I imagine kids growing up on a farm might have a different perspective on the whole “circle of life” thing. They collect the unfertilized chicken eggs in the morning for breakfast and then break the infertile chicken’s neck in the evening for dinner. Farm to fork. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They witness life coming into the world in spring and life passing from the world in winter. Everything has a natural ebb and flow, all in its own time.

Then there are the less fortunate kids; the ones who grow up facing atrocities in war-torn nations or battling a serious diseases in children’s hospitals. For them death and dying is a harsh reality that they cannot be sheltered from. They cannot escape it, and often cannot justify it, trying to make sense of life’s wild injustice and trying to find gods hand in some universal order. For them more than any I pray there is a perpetual circuit of souls that, with each trip through life, is meant to teach us an essential lesson. If that could by any hope be true then those brave kids at least can look forward to a full, rich, life in their next go-around.

I remember back when I was a teenager I found a book of questions that were meant to inspire soul-searching and generate lively discussions among friends and family. The one that stuck out most in my mind asked “would you risk being diagnosed with cancer if it would give you a better appreciation of life?” My immediate gut reaction had been “absolutely!” before considering the implication that this newly found perception of life may not be long-lasting.   I imagine that bit of uncertainty is exactly what precipitates the change in the first place. We’re told all the time to make every moment count, treat each day like it’s our last, live like you were dying, but without a real end in sight it’s hard to stray from the safe and narrow. If faith is believing without being able to know, facing death is knowing without being able to believe.

Speaking of faith, though, this had always struck me as one of the greatest gifts one could have; the unquestioning certainty that the afterlife offers every abundance of love and acceptance without a trace of suffering or hardship. I had a close friend back in high school who was a devote Mormon and carried with her such a sense of peace even at that early age. There was an underlying confidence that everything would work out in this world or the next. Jesus will provide. Jesus will protect. Jesus will welcome you when you close your eyes on this life and join him in the next. You are covered, baby! I was raised in the Jewish faith where the focus was on living a good life without consideration for what comes next. I don’t recall any talk of heaven or salvation. We would watch grim footage from the holocaust; newsreels of bodies and bulldozers with no talk of those poor souls going to a better place or assurances that they now sat at the hand of god.   So without faith what should we be preparing for?

Just before my son was born I was having a difficult time with this very topic. It was a few years after my father had passed away and it struck me that I was about to welcome the birth of the generation that would one day outlive me. You think about all the generations that came before you were born and all the ones that are yet to come after you pass away and one’s lifetime starts to feel all the more fleeting. It was in this context that I sought out a counselor to speak with. After a couple of sessions speaking about my dad we got down to the mortality issue. Turns out the counselor I had selected at random had advanced prostate cancer and was facing some of the same questions. I tried to ask if he’d found any answers, but being true to his profession he ducked most of my questions with related questions redirected back at me. What he did offer though was something like this;

“Think back to your childhood and the things you remember. Think back further to your oldest earliest memory. Think back to when you were born. Now think back before then to when you didn’t yet exist. How did it feel? What was it like? Think to that and perhaps that is what you will return to.”

What I did take away from those meetings was not about what will happen to me, but what will happen after me. Knowing my children remain behind to grow and prosper does offer a touch of immortality. Knowing that I will be remembered and in some way have made an impact on the people who continue after me is some small sense of comfort. I guess in the end that’s all we can hope for. Benjamin Franklin said the only two things that are certain are death and taxes and while I can save all of my receipts and organize my statements each year, there’s really not much prep I can do on the death front.   Not like I’ll get audited for being unprepared.

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