When to Leave Darkness

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Are there poems or books that stay with you for most of your life, that reemerge in your thoughts like a close friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a while but with whom you can resume the relationship easily and comfortably? Who grow with you as you move through different decades and phases of life? To whom you turn when you may be feeling lonely or are hoping to make sense of thoughts that you hope will align and better define beliefs you instinctively know are right?

After all this build-up, readers may be wondering what book or poem I’m going to recommend!

Louise Glück’s brilliant poem, “Gretel In Darkness,” has haunted me for years. I first met Gretel as a child in her fairy tale existence. I followed Gretel and her brother in English and German, fascinated by their story. I became fearful of being lost, of the dark, of fires. I would lie awake at night in my parent’s home until I sleep overtook me and my worries. I always admired Gretel without understanding why.

When I was 18, I met Gretel again thanks to my poetry teacher and mentor, Tess Gallagher. Unlike the first time I encountered Gretel, I was now able to talk about her which Tess encouraged me and other young poets in her workshop to do after reading Glück’s poem. Tess said that this is a poem she would always return to for inspiration. Since then, I have visited and revisited Gretel several times a year.

I could take this post in a couple different directions, one of which would be to ask readers of this blog to join me in a line-by-line explication of “Gretel in Darkness” and savor its words, structure, and imagery. Instead, I will urge you to read, then reread it, and possibly keep the poem near you as I have for decades.

You may feel, like I have, that I’ve grown up with Gretel and, with each year that goes by, appreciate her more than I could have imagined. I guess that might make me a little different from Hansel who appears to have willed himself to have forgotten what happened in the witch’s cottage. Gretel remains haunted by their entrapment and escape, by trauma that will not leave her even though she is now technically safe and those closest to her appear to have moved on.

Where will Gretel’s sense of abandonment and need for reassurance take her? Will she try to erase memories of her youth by seeking new forests on her own, by daring to find a new home, by seeking a woman or man with whom she can start fresh and find a path out of her darkness?

Or will she choose to stay silent, perhaps knowing that being too vocal about the dangers she faced and that still scar her would make it more difficult for the next generations to be brave. Maybe there is even a part of Gretel that has found peace with remaining in the dark.

Choices

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Recently I read an article about about a juvenile offender who spent nearly seven decades in prison. Now in his 80s, he’s reentering a world he barely knows. Everything changed in his life when he was 15 and found guilty of a crime for which to many minds, including mine, he was unfairly punished, his life put on hold when it had just started to unfold.

He will have to relearn what most of us take for granted: how to live with freedom to explore and make choices that he can call his own.

A few weeks before the article caught my eye, I reestablished contact with a close friend from the ’80s, a decade that, as they continue to accumulate, was one of the most significant in my life. I was living in Europe, and spent most of my days in a culture and language (German) that I thought were going to predominate in the years ahead, that I would stay in this world even as I learned to navigate my place as a young gay man who felt he would never quite fit in.

The choices I made back then and through today have been my own, though, unlike the gentleman who is embracing a new life he believes, even in his 80s, is filled with hope and possibilities. Now he has the freedom to again decide his own fate.

While there is part of me that has sometimes yearned, especially during the pandemic, that time could be frozen forever, that I could go back to the ’80s and relive that decade, perhaps as even a better version of myself than I was back then, reading about the gentleman from Pennsylvania has reawakened gratitude for open spaces and choices one discovers when making one’s way through many beautiful, unpredictable, difficult, but ultimately rewarding miles we accumulate in life.

I’m extremely lucky. I have found my permanent family and now home. I was very fortunate that my reflection about my journey to arrive at this place was published this week in a major newspaper. (Rudiger’s article) The day after it was, I read the article about the gentleman from Pennsylvania who in many ways is starting his journey anew. His fortitude, patience, and embrace of the unknown are are lessons for all of us to savor what is dear to us, what we may even at times take for granted but we can call our own.

Too Many Plots!

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Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!

I am grateful to readers of this blog, to all who have stayed with me for nearly five years (!), to anyone who has checked out one or more of my hundreds of posts, to our interactions, to a wonderful community of fellow bloggers who inspire me to dive deeper into thoughts, who share a love of writing and … humanity!

It’s been a challenging but ultimately rewarding week in unexpected ways. I’ve relearned for the thousandth time the wisdom of letting go of attachments while never giving up hope.

Attachments come in many different forms, sometimes with too many plot lines that leave me and frequently those closest to me exhausted! I’m very lucky, though. As I write this, I just received a Valentine from my husband of more than 18 years soon after I hugged the other love of my life, our young daughter. Their patience and kindness are the best gifts I’ve ever received.

A close second has been the support of my vast extended family. There are so many of us we could easily be our own village!

It’s taken me a while to feel like I truly belong, but many of us in my generation and even those who are much younger have grown closer.

But back to plot lines and plots! I have found that when they are too numerous it’s a good idea to discern what I can let go of. Sometimes that requires a fair amount of silence. I savor opportunities to become better at listening closely to the still small voice of God to guide me even when the answers are not immediately apparent.

As a Quaker whose home meeting is in the Midwest even though my permanent home is in Hawaii, I have a plot in a beautiful prairie cemetery. I also purchased a plot near my maternal grandparents in rural Pennsylvania when I was very young. Knowing I was gay, I couldn’t imagine my dream of having my own family would ever come true. I found comfort with the notion that my plot would always keep me close to two people I loved dearly, my grandmother and grandfather. At the time, many in my family laughed along with me about my purchase, but I was glad I made it, especially now.

During the pandemic, my husband and our daughter do most of our walking safely and socially distanced in cemeteries, including one close to our permanent home. The views are breathtaking, the stones are glimpses of rich, astonishing histories of many cherished lives. I recently inquired about purchasing some plots knowing that in this way I would truly stay in Hawaii forever! I’m definitely in no rush, but I hope to gain ground so to speak.

This past week, as life was feeling a little too complex, I gave up one of my plots to a beloved cousin so she could have the honor of being near our grandparents eternally. We had talked for years about this, and it was finally time for me to let go and give her the honor she richly deserves. I do this out of respect, out of love, an unusual Valentine’s Day gift to be sure, but one I’m glad I made!

Fruitful February

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February has always been a challenging month for me. When I lived on the Mainland, I could sense spring was around the corner but still a ways off. Even in Hawaii, the most beautiful place on earth that has become my permanent home, it’s unseasonably cold!

Growing up on the edge of Appalachia, the nets were always down on the tennis courts and I knew it would be a while before I could play outside again. The scarcity of holidays in February made even a short month seem long! As much as I loved school, the semester at this time of year was often filled with a lot of studying and preparing for big projects, kind of like putting in miles and miles of training leading up to a marathon!

As a teenager who won many national poetry awards, most of my entries were submitted late fall / early winter. I used to call the time of year before winners were announced in spring “The Waiting Game.” I remember rushing home in March or April to check the mail. Yes, in my day, notices came in the mail or once in a while with a phone call!

Decades later, as a 50-something middle-aged guy, it’s surprising how little has changed!

The main difference is that I’m a parent. During the pandemic, my daughter is learning and I am working from home. Even though we are beyond fortunate with a large, glorious house nestled in the mountains with stunning views from every corner of the house and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets that crown the skyline of Honolulu, even with a job I love that I can pursue while staying safe with my daughter, let’s face it, even with living in Hawaii, February takes discipline and then some when I have the privilege of being a parent.

I’ve been putting in the good and necessary time for immediate and long-term projects for my work and home life. I’ve begun training for my 31st marathon. I’ve been a practitioner of delicate diplomacy for higher-profile positions that will become formal next month as a volunteer for two first-rate organizations. I’ve spent extra time with my daughter on her schoolwork and life lessons that I hope will benefit her in the future.

Even though life has taught me that hard work pays off in the long run, that careful planting and tending of seeds in February will bear fruit in the months ahead … it’s still nice to receive rewards during this month! Knowing that probably makes me a more tolerable parent. When my daughter and her two dads received medals and shirts in the mail for finishing a marathon during the pandemic, I made opening the packages and subsequent photo op celebratory family events with a special meal included. When I have an essay published in a major newspaper in a few weeks, I’ll smile broadly. Yesterday my husband and I entered the entire family in a 5K with beautiful shirts and a lot of bling! Although I like to keep my email inboxes pretty empty, during February I wait before I file promising, joyful personal and work-related notes.

And then I try to take my own needs out of the picture, to create a little joy for family and friends who may be anxiously awaiting warmer, longer days just like I am by calling, writing, or texting them, by being a good listener, by practicing compassion, by making small acts of kindness a habit, by striving to be more generous and giving.

In Praise of Cicely and Cloris

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If you could meet and get to know celebrities or admire them only from afar, what would be your choice?

For me it’s a tossup.

When I was young, skinny, and bullied for being gay almost every day for about eight years straight (no pun intended), I used to spend hours dreaming about heroes I hoped to meet: tennis, television, and movie stars; musicians; poets; politicians; maybe even famous families or royalty!

These dreams about meeting larger-than-life personalities often took place during hours on my own when I ran or walked through and around all parts of the village where I grew up and found places to hide from a world I often felt was too cruel; when I hoped to impress my parents by weeding and then weeding some more the gardens they planted; when I would find a backboard and would hit hundreds of forehands and backhands. Looking back, I should have practiced my serve even if no one were around to return it!

The dreams continued after I watched tennis matches or a few favorite shows with stars like Mary Tyler Moore. I also read book after book of poetry and then wanted to learn more about the poets and would escape to the village library. Once there, it was hard to leave!

Decades later, I look back and wonder how those dreams actually came true? As a former tennis journalist, I met many top players; as a young Fulbrighter and later an embassy employee, I was lucky to be introduced to diplomats, sometimes even people like the former president of Austria or former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; as a lifelong poet, I was fortunate to study under the guidance of Tess Gallagher and Hayden Carruth who would bring guest writers and artists to our workshops. I’ll never forget meeting Annie Leibovitz. She was working on a photo spread of Tess for a major magazine and had recently completed one of Mary Tyler Moore. Although shy, I asked Annie what it was like to meet Mary who is still one of my heroes! Annie said Mary was warm, down-to-earth, a hard-working actress with a great sense of humor, and very skinny!

What Annie told me was just enough: Mary still had her mystique for me. In fact, even when I spent more time with some of my heroes, like Evonne Goolagong (who gave me two hours for an interview and with whom I played a doubles match!), the mystique usually remained intact.

In many regards I prefer it that way! I like to look up to people, to admire them as heroes, to be inspired. What would happen if I got to know them too closely?

That never did happen with Cicely Tyson or Cloris Leachman, both stunning civil rights activists and actresses, the latter of whom I watched on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I never met them, but I was fascinated by their life histories. Both women died this past week after gracing this earth for more than nine decades each. In different ways, they broke hundreds of barriers to advance the world.

One of the closing scenes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the credits rolled across the television screen, was of Mary walking down a street in Minneapolis as the sun was setting, her arm around a friend.

That is how I picture Cicely and Cloris now, looking down at us from their places in heaven, encouraging us to live our dreams and to dream more, holding each other on a lovely evening that never ends.

To An Aunt, Always Relevant

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This week promised inspiration or inspired promise.

A 78-year-old man who waited many years to live in the White House was celebrated in a breathtaking inauguration.

I wonder if my aunt, also in her 70s but pretty much confined to her bed and seriously ill from COVID-19, watched the celebrations. I would call her and ask, but I’m not sure, even after knowing her all these years, if she were pleased with the election results. On Christmas she lost her husband, my uncle, to COVID-19. I’m not about to stir waters unnecessarily.

Life has not always been kind to my aunt, but she has been breathtakingly kind to others throughout her life. As a teacher, she has been a champion of young people who are underestimated, who have felt they have been on the outside looking in, who have ever wondered if they would find happiness. In spite of her struggles, she provided this happiness with her humor, intelligence, beauty, courage. I was lucky to be amongst the hundreds who have benefited from her friendship and loyalty.

When I call her we talk about our vast family, laugh about our family members’ many quirks, catch up on the many years we have not seen each other in person. I always mention how without even knowing it at the time she helped me stand up for myself and hold my ground when I needed to.

My beautiful aunt loves gorgeous homes and clothes, fireworks and pageantry. I’ve been thinking a lot about her these weeks as our country embarks on a promising new chapter. I would give anything to see my aunt healthy and full of confidence again, to have her visit my wonderful family and home in Hawaii. She will forever be my teacher, someone whom I love to speak with and see.

The Room That Changed My Life

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Many years ago I walked into a teacher’s work room at my college. The assistant professor was standing with a few colleagues. I asked if I could have a few minutes of his time. He asked why. I said I didn’t agree with a final grade he had given me. I paused as some of his colleagues smiled. He looked a little embarrassed and asked why I felt I deserved a better grade. I explained, gently, that I had more than fulfilled the requirements for the course, that while I was not amongst the most vocal student in the class, I had quietly mastered the subject.

The assistant professor turned to his colleagues, sighed a little, and agreed to change the grade.

Years later I realized going into that room changed my life. For a kid who grew up gay and graduated from college in the ’80s and felt like a fish out of water most of the time he was at that major university, I’m surprised I had enough self-conviction to stand up for myself, to walk across campus, and go into that room that probably no longer exists or has been remodeled a dozen times, without an appointment, find the teacher, and request the upgrade.

Later, after graduating, I found out I had made the cut to be eligible for a Fulbright scholarship in part because I had that grade changed. After learning of my eligibility, I quietly fulfilled other requirements. To my shock, at age 21, I became a Fulbrighter, an honor I have tried to live up to in the decades since. The Fulbright gave me the opportunity to study and work in Europe where I eventually lived for several years. I met statesmen and stateswomen, including presidents of countries, their siblings, secretaries of state, ambassadors and diplomats. I was able to keep my promise to my grandfather that German, the language of our forefathers and foremothers, would remain part of my life forever. I have kept that promise by teaching it, writing poetry in German, and passing the language on to my daughter.

I’ve recently thought about all this because one of the siblings of a president I met, Nancy Walker Bush Ellis, died last Sunday. Nancy led a proud life of service and was a great supporter of the Fulbright program and an extremely generous philanthropist. When I was still very young, I interviewed her for an article I wrote for a newspaper. We sent cards to each other every couple of years before we lost touch. I will always remember her kindness and encouragement.

The word courage is part of the word encouragement. Nancy helped give me courage I often lacked. As my young daughter, born with an extra chromosome, navigates the marathons she will face in the years ahead, she may enter rooms and need to stand up for herself, perhaps not realizing at the moment that believing in herself can make all the difference for the rest of her life.

Art, Faith, and Politics

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I was in the thick of blogging, every day rather than only on weekends as I do now, after the 2016 presidential election.

One follower of this blog who knows I’m a poet told me that artists should keep expressing their art even in the midst of their despair, that art is a powerful, creative, even healing voice.

Another artist wrote gently and lovingly that perhaps it was better to stay focused on poetry, tennis, raising a daughter born with an extra chromosome, and marathon training in my posts rather than on my dismay about the current occupant of the White House. I have pretty much followed her wisdom which I value greatly as well as my that of my aforementioned friend.

Most people who follow this blog know that I am not a straight white male, that I have lived with fear nearly every day these past four years. This past Wednesday I found myself at times quaking as I worked from home, looked after my daughter, and could not avoid the news. I guess that makes sense for a Quaker who wakes up every day hoping to be a voice for …

people with disabilities, folks who may feel they are on the outside looking in, who wonder if they are ugly because they have been told they are, who hope to find and to be loved, who wish to be celebrated, not ostracized, for who they are, who want to breathe freely and dream.

I have been all those people at times, but I am also extraordinarily blessed, not only with a stunning husband, daughter, and vast extended family, but also friends who have stayed with me, my art that has given me a voice even when my confidence was at a low ebb, and my faith.

A wonderful Friend, a fellow Quaker, once told me the beauty of Quakerism is that you can have one foot in this world and the other in the spiritual or faith realm. I’ve needed to be in both worlds this past, terrifying week. I’ve noticed in the past few days how I’ve expressed my faith in ways I usually don’t: subtle mentions of Quakerism with professional colleagues and neighbors. To my surprise, they didn’t run away or change the topic when we were speaking on the phone! They were curious. I love boundaries, so I didn’t overdo it, but how refreshing it was to talk a little about faith, to take a break from the news, to be safe at home and with my daughter write poems.

My Wish for the New Year

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When I began writing this blog years ago, I noticed threads that kept repeating themselves no matter what subject I chose to focus on.

Gratitude and faith have been among the top two.

Another has been looking back on life and looking forward, and certainly that theme has been informed by angels: those whom I readily see and those whose presence I sense in a different way.

All of them have guided me, intervened for me, even rescued me in ways that are immediately evident or that only years later I have been able to understand.

I’ve lost two beloved uncles during the pandemic. I look to the sky and thank them for the countless ways they inspired me and many others with their kindness, selflessness, and grace. Both are men whom I try to emulate. They played major roles in my vast family. I haven’t spoken to them directly in years, and perhaps I even have taken them for granted sometimes. During the pandemic, I have realized more than ever that I have never been truly alone and how I wish myself to be a better angel for others.

It’s Definitely Not About Me!

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Dear Readers of Tennis, Trisomy 21, and Taking in Life Together:

First, in my last post of 2020, I wish thank you all new and veteran followers of this blog! I’ve been writing it for five years now, and some of you have been with me from the very start. New readers have joined almost every week since then. My goal when I began this blog was to bring a greater awareness of Trisomy 21 to the general public and to give hope to parents or guardians of children born with an extra chromosome and to relate my journey of parenting of a remarkable, stunning daughter with Down Syndrome to my other lifelong passion: tennis.

Instead, I realized how parenting has brought me home to what has always been meaningful in my life: poetry and staying the course. With this blog, I’ve become a better poet, marathoner, and parent. I have joined a community of generous, insightful bloggers from whom I learn every time I read one of your posts. I am beyond grateful to all of you and wish you health, safety, joy, and many blessings in the New Year!

Before I sign off, I want to dedicate this post to my inspiration for this blog: my glorious daughter. She has defied odds all her life. When I lie awake at night wondering if the world will give her a decent, level playing field so she can make her own way as an independent, capable, self-reliant person, she has embraced waking moments mostly free from anxiety, rejoiced in simple and complex pleasures, learned to accept setbacks, and celebrated being a winner.

This past week, my daughter was a winner beyond what I ever thought imaginable: she completed her first official marathon (yes, all 26.2 miles), and had a poem published in a major newspaper. She accomplished all those miles and beautiful, poetic words on her own. She richly deserved all the congratulations she received from friends and family. I even received praised for my parenting.

I will only write this: I am an imperfect parent who will always navigate this lifelong journey. I learn every day. What I know instinctively, though, is I want my daughter to succeed in ways I never have or at least to succeed earlier so that her confidence will grow and grow. At 10 years old, she is well on her way!