Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

2018…

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Today
is the last day
of the worst year
of my life

The only comfort is so small
that it is no comfort at all:
that next year will be even worse
as will each one that follows

There is no road ahead, just a path
with cliffs on either side
and the disorienting knowledge of
the ugliness of self-pity

The Christmas Trigger

 

christmas triggerFor a lot of people, this season is not the jolly one that it is supposed to be. Songs and movies that give comfort and joy to many, pull a decidedly nasty trigger for others. It is no coincidence that suicide rates rise during the holidays.

The days are as short as they get in the northern hemisphere and the darkness at the end of each one gets longer. It gets so cold at this time of year that our bones shiver and teeth chatter. Nature throws some of her worst at us and the way our society responds – with parties and gifts and time off from work – has the opposite of its intended effect on many of the ones it is trying to comfort.

This is a season of reflection. I think of family and friends who have died or drifted away. Luck and institutional advantages have offered me a life filled with joys big and small, so most of my memories are happy ones that help me get through these short, cold days but some people would just as soon forget all the ghosts of Christmas past.

Christmas is the season of love, the kind of love that exists in its purest form in every religion, moral philosophy, and agency that works to get food to the hungry and justice to the abused. And when justice is not possible, that pure love gives compassion and hope.

You don’t need to have a picture-perfect holiday, or find the greatest gift, or pretend that you’re jolly at the holiday parties. You do need to know that there are people in the world, even if they don’t know you, who are thinking about you in the midst of their holiday hoopla, and are hoping that you make it through this season stronger for your fight against the Christmas trigger.

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Like most people…

Like most people, the first time I saw a ghost it was hanging over the bathroom sink. Part of him was me but most of him was not. What was most recognizable about him was the fact that it would take very little effort to shatter him into shards.

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Memorial – Ruth Detjen

I recently went to a memorial service for the mother of a friend.

You can tell a lot about a person by the things people say about them when they’re not around, and by the memories of the people who love her.

They talked about strawberry shortcake and Volkswagens; falling trees and fireworks; telephone calls and Pretty in Pink. But what they were really talking about was love.

You can also tell a lot about a person by the memories and thoughts she shares through her art.

Ruth’s family offered her paintings to the gathering, an invitation to take a piece of her home with us.

The colors and mood of this one grabbed my attention:

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Ruth was also a poet, and we went home with a book of her poems, written over all the decades of her adult life. Here are four of the ones that found a place in my memory:

Secrets

There are no secrets.

They are plainly seen

in the pain and sadness

of a woman’s eyes.

Old Cup

The gossamer veins in the porcelain cup

Reveal a pattern,

like the crinkled folds in a love letter

impulsively crumpled, then rescued, smoothed.

The cup comforts my hand, warming, loving –

its healing roundness a balm of

honey mint and tea.

If this cup was carelessly dropped,

Shattering into fragments like falling stars,

if this should happen,

Falling, shattering, scattering china amidst

dust and crumbs on the floor –

I would sweep it all up, then carefully select

Just one piece – the largest, smoothest curve

of pure white china –

and place it gently on the window sill

in the warm pristine morning light.

Ladies of the Day Room 1956

tired of searching for a wandering,

feisty old person singing

Christmas Carols to herself and

muttering in German, they put her away.

They took me to see her in the

state hospital.

I saw patients being

led through the halls with staring

opaque glass eyes and silly smiles.

A beaming round faced colored woman

padded over to us on swollen feet and ankles

spilling out of her green institutional

slippers

told me in her lilting voice about the fish

she caught last night, cooked it

at it and it was so good,

smacked her lips, praised the Lord

laughing showing a

gold tooth.

And she was led away, humming to herself.

My grandmother – think, boney – paper-skinned

complexion as white as her hair,

fire barely flickering in her pale blue eyes

looked blankly at us.

she was hell on wheels, once.

Agitated, she asked “where’s Mama?

there’s something I have to ask her

when are we getting off this train?”

Grandma gripped my had so tightly,

I thought it would break.

Lost Dream

Waking with a delicate thread of a dream

just at the fringes of memory –

I should have grabbed a pencil, jotted down

the elusive thoughts and tied them

to paper before they slipped away.

the longing sensation lingers in my consciousness

somewhere under the busy-ness

of the day.

If only the thoughts had a name –

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Ruth Detjen and her daughter Amy