“You are a secret that cannot be told.
There is no way anyone can know the secret
except by being close to you.
Now you know why people want to be close to each other.
In the cold and darkness of this universe,
we are attracted by the heat and light of other essences
and the life energy with which they burn.”
Paul Williams from Remember Your Essence
I wrote a version of the following piece in April of 2015 and submitted it to Doni and Joe for publication in my Free Therapy column and at the last minute withdrew and replaced it for reasons I can’t recall. As I wrap up four years of columns here, this seems a fitting, final note to play as I prepare to shift into a new direction with anewscafe. Thanks to all of you, my faithful friends and readers. May you always feel connected to the light and truth that connects us all.
In late August of 1984 I was 28 years young, a new arrival in Redding, California where I knew not a soul and no soul knew me. I was a stranger among strangers and yet I felt more at home than I’d ever felt in my life. My parents and the Air Force had always chosen my homes before this one, starting with my birth in Germany a decade after the end of the Second World War; followed by a series of homes in Los Angeles, Germany again, Washington, D.C. and finally, Dayton, Ohio when I was 13.
When I chose Northern California – or it chose me – it instantly became my home and in some deeply personal way, it felt like mine alone. A treasure of truth traced my trail and led me to the mountains that wrapped around the valley that called my name. It was the rivers, lakes and miles of endless wilderness that surrounded Shasta County like a sacred, sprawling shawl of trees, beasts and birds that collectively issued my invitation.
I saw it as a spiritual sanctuary, a holy place that whispered wild words, prescient promises, pure poems and precious prayers. Moving here was an act of great love, a wager of wonder and audacious hope; a leap into generous grace and gratitude filled with expectations of grand adventure. Following a painful divorce, a doctorate degree and very little money, it was my new start; my blank canvass on which I hoped to paint the next phase of my life.
I met a few people who’d lived in Redding all their lives and were clearly disillusioned with what they saw as a lifeless town of one-way streets, hot concrete, and limited opportunity. For me, however, it was (and remains) a mystical place where I knew magic lived and breathed beneath the hats and hearts of anyone I met.
Within a few months of my arrival I found my wife, an angel with dark hair, a warm smile that held my heart in carefully cupped hands and an ease of being that assured me I was truly home. A little over two years passed and we married and in the years that followed, two more angels joined our show, completing our small club of careful devotion.
My private practice took off, we bought a house and softly settled into our dream, banking it would fulfill our secret hopes, keep us safe, and bring us joy.
But something significant was missing from my life and it nagged at me at night.
Of course I adored my wife and kids more than I valued my own life. I still don’t understand how I could be so richly blessed to have these three women call me husband or father. And I was excited to be working at a profession that was deeply satisfying.
But there was a hole in my soul that needed filling, a loss I could not compensate with family love and professional success. I needed friends. On that score I was impoverished.
I had had friends all my life and the lack of them in my daily life was an ache that never stopped hurting. Before moving to Redding from Ohio, my best friends were Scott Redman and Fred Peterson, classmates who became like inseparable brothers and fellow warriors in our four year fight to survive the rigors of grad school. We were guinea pigs in the new movement to shift training of psychologists from a focus on experimental research to clinical practice. We were members of the charter class of Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology, one of the first programs in the nation to offer the new professional PsyD degree.
In our first orientation they warned us it would be grueling as students, faculty and administration would be learning together how to structure the year round program. They constantly preached “tolerance of ambiguity” and warned us that our minds, marriages and relationships would be under constant stress and strain. And they were right. By the end of our odyssey, there were several divorces, including mine, and only 18 of the original 25 of us walked across the stage to collect our diplomas.
I could not have survived without Scott and Fred. And yet I had it easy compared with Scott who since high school suffered with a debilitating muscle disease that slowly sucked the strength and power from his slender frame until by the time I met him in 1980, was a frail, stringless puppet in a wheelchair; a nearly useless body with a bright, brilliant mind that was always observant, sharp and clear.
Scott never got less than an A in his life and earned the highest score in the history of the Ohio psychology license examination. But what I loved about him most was his presence. Maybe it was the crippling disease, the way it stole his mobility until only the light in his eyes, a mischievous smile and his rapier wit remained. He seemed to possess an acute awareness of what was important in this world and had no patience for trivialities. Before his immune system turned on him, Scott was a talented guitarist. I once listened to his songs recorded on an old cassette tape and tried to picture his lifeless fingers suddenly full of musical genius again, flipping and fretting across the strings, producing those crisp, sweet sounds.
When I told him I was moving to Redding, he took it as a deep, personal loss. He stared at me with intense, sad eyes and wanted to know why I would leave. What possible reason could there be, he wondered.
I tried to explain the feeling of magic I felt about this area and I stammered something about the natural beauty of the lakes and especially the mountains. “Especially the mountains,” I said emphatically. Compared to the flat corn-fields of Ohio, the majestic mountains (that he could never climb) are amazing I told him, searching his face for a little understanding.
Not the least convinced, Scott was incredulous. “You can’t hug a mountain,” he said, revealing the knife I was sticking in his heart. I said nothing. What could I say? I was abandoning him and I knew it. I looked down at his frozen feet I’d never seen walk and felt the heavy shame, like heat, rising and burning me from the inside.
Two years later, I flew back to Ohio for Scott’s funeral. It was 1986 and a man I loved like my own brother was dead.
The day before Scott died he threw one of his incredible parties at his house to celebrate his successful staging of one mile of the Hands Across America, “a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the continental United States” to raise money “to fight hunger and homelessness and help those in poverty.”
After his funeral, many of us gathered at his house for the last time. At one point I wandered outside and soon found myself all alone, sitting in “the Scott-mobile,” the special handicap van Fred and I used to drive for him, clutching the steering wheel and sobbing, thinking about my friend and the futility of mountains when you desperately need the hug of a friend.
I spent my first twenty years in Redding without close friends as I solidified my career and cared for my family. But it wasn’t until 2003 and the advent of the Iraq War that I finally connected with people who became not just friends but family.
It was a letter to the editor published by the local paper I wrote about Saudi Arabia, the nation we pretend was not responsible for 9/11 and much of the terrorism in the world. A man named Doug read the letter, looked me up in the phone book and called me at my home. He invited me to the next meeting of Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) and when I accepted his offer, I saw my neighbor, Melinda and made new friends, like Pamela, another Doug, Bob and many others who remain special to me to this day. Everything flowed from Doug’s phone call.
That’s what happens when we connect with our values and seek a life of action based on them. In the years that followed, as I became more socially and spiritually active and collaborated with people who care deeply about our community, our planet, and justice, I re-discovered something wondrous and real: friends. Dear, amazing, incredible human beings who I can say without reservation I love.
Recently, I spent the whole day, as I have for the last eight Earth Day weekends, working with Peggy Rebol and others from First United Methodist Church, at the Whole Earth and Watershed Festival held at the Redding City Hall & Sculpture Park, or what I like to call my own personal friendship day. From six in the morning to five in the evening I walk seven or eight miles, working a little but mostly visiting with dozens of people I have to come to value as dear, precious friends.
At one point I stood with a small group listening to the lovely sounds of the Jim Dyar Band and I thought about Scott. What would it have been like to still have him in my life? It has been nearly 30 years and I can still cry for him. I cried while writing this. And I thought about all the friends I had hugged that day, what they mean to me and the gratitude I feel for them and the blessings their lives have given me.
Our friends don’t always know how much we love them. Many will never know. There are no words for such mountainous grace. Still, we need to keep trying. Letting one another know how much we need to give and receive the love that streams from our happy eyes when a loved one arrives in view. We shouldn’t wait until their funerals to let them know.
Our time here is short. Scott knew that well. He called people who weren’t disabled like him, “TABs,” which he explained stood for “temporarily able-bodied.” We are all temporarily alive on this planet for these brief seasons of our existence. We emerge and bloom in the light and color of our spring, dance and flourish in the heat and heart of our summer, falter and fade in the cool recession of our fall and finally depart and disappear in the cold night of our winter.
What will we retain on the other side (if there is another side) from this brief, rapid run through this chaotic world? What will remain in our souls worth holding besides the love we received and gave without reservation? I loved Scott and love him still. What can any of us say about such love? Except a question: What is life worth without it?