Monday, June 9, 2014

Spreading Ashes for a Beat Poet, reading a eulogy, saying goodbye and finding myself again on an unbroken circle from Houston to Breaux Bridge, NOLA to Dallas, Austin and home again

The seasons of a man's life, from decades prior through the trees which watched his ashes become a part of everything once again

Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash
nipples, Ribs I touched w/ my thumb are ash
mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash
bony cheeks soft on my belly are cinder, ash
earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock tip, curly pubis
breast warmth, man palm, high school thigh,
baseball bicept arm, asshole anneal'd to silken skin
all ashes, all ashes again.
August 1968
On Neal’s Ashes by Allen Ginsberg

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
-        TS Elliot, Ash Wednesday

Off to Texas to spread some ashes, I posted on facebook ten days ago, above a picture of dad n 1945.

We’d all meet n Texas to spread Dad’s ashes.  That was his request.  Spread em out for the world, rather than leave them at the family burial plot at Midway Church, where Shepard's have rested since 1740. Over the next week, ashes seemed to be everywhere.  I remember the first times I spread ashes, at AIDS funerals in Washington DC, saying goodbye to Stonewall veteran Bob Kohler.  Those were visceral and raw. Bob's blew right back in my face as i poured them into the Hudson River.  But this was my Dad.  And that was entirely different matter.  Over the weeks before, the event took on a grotesque crescendo of gloom.   Two months after his death, no one wanted to go to the service.  But a few of us went. 

The service for Dad was painful, a stuffy, stale Episcopalian affair, sparse on spontaneity, full of routine.  

Scenes from a funeral.

“That’s the reason many people don’t go to church anymore,” noted one attendee. 

Thinking about Dad’s life, “the should's and ought's are hard to keep at bay,” noted one friend, who did not attend.

Few of Dad’s friends from a lifetime of travel were there, only their memories.  But his story sat in front of me, my notes, the stores and memories, the ideas that I had known I would need to tell for some fifteen years.  And so I read a eulogy, a long eulogy I had imagined reading for a long time:

Eulogy for Jack Shepard

Some years Dad related as a poet, others a malcontent. But it was never really clear who he was. One thing was sure, Dad wanted to understand the relationship between poetry and god. Still, many of us wondered: Who was Jack Shepard? 

            “I know there was a Jack Shepard who got hanged holding up a stage coach n 1720,” Dad confessed in a 2009 interview.  He loved telling stories, weaving tales.  “They caught and made an example of him.  I like that story more than the story of the crusades,” Dad confessed referring to the family history drafted by his grandmother, grand ma ma, Irene Hewatt Shepard, who died in 1981. 
            “Well, who were the Shepards?” I asked following up.
            “Dust covered Calvinist sons of bitches.  That’s my roots.  Dorchester England, they got their roots right from the Puritans.  They came over with the puritans in the 1680’s.  They came with the puritans, to Dorchester Mass. There’s a Shepard Street right there, spelled the same way.   Dorchester England to Dorchester Mass to Dorchester Sc, to Georgia, where they established a colony of thieves and cut throats in Savannah Georgia in a place between something or another, settled in another fever swamp and built a church there like a New England Church. What i’m tryng to tell you is you have an ancestry that you canpass onto your kids that isn’t known to others, that you can trace from the people you knew to the Midway church records which trace us to 1740.

From top to bottom, Dorchester England, Ma, SC, and GA,
where the Shepards made their migration through time.
Dad loved to tell the story. 

            ”But who were the Shepard’s? I asked.
”Dusty, hidebound, mean sons of bitches that lived in Georgia from 1740 until you guys had the good sense to get out of there, 250 years later.
”But you've been leaving for decades now?
i hit the road in 1958 and never  returned for serious,” Dad boasted in 2009.
“Whats your favorite place you've ever been?”  
“San Francisco without a doubt,” Dad replied, reveling in Tennyson’s point that we are part of all of the places we have been. The poem would guide him as he got older.
He learned to read and write at the hands of his grandmother when he was in second grade, reading Classical Gods and Hero’s and Uncle Remus Stories. We read a few tales from it ourselves that day in 2009.  “That’s a dialect that’s no longer existing, he explained at one point, as we read.  Then the mood changed.
“This is serious.  This is important,” he explained beginning another story.  “You’re great grand father Hewatt moved to Texas after the civil war. He did not make much money. But he was a gentle man that your grandmother adored.  In these days, people didn't die in the hospital.  They lived at home.  People saw enough death to know it was gonna happen.  So your great, great granddad was going to die.  So, they gave him a bath, a fresh shave.  And sent out a message to the town to say goodbye. When they got down to two people, he daughter was 18 years old and stayed in the room with him. So she was in the room with him keeping him alive.  What was killing him was congestive heart failure.  And she had a great big stick him and a bottle of nitroglycerin to stick into his heart.   And when he was about to die and here she is trying to hold the syringe, she still remembers it. And he says, ‘Take it easy sweet thing.  You don’t want to send me off without saying bye to the boys.  So with her hand steady she says she got enough into her dad’s heart and she brought his two boys in.  They came in and he said, ‘I sold the farm and gave that to the banker and that enough to care for your mother.  So here’s what I want you to take with you.  Boys, don’t ever lie and don’t ever steal.  And that’s a man who died 110 years ago.   And we still remember.  That’s a good inheritance.  Don’t ever lie.  Don’t ever steal.  Don’t ever lie.  Don’t ever steal.
            So, who was John B. Shepard will asked in his collaborate draft of Dad’s obituary. “John Bowles Shepard III, known to his friends as Jack, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1937 the oldest son of Kirk and Harriet Shepard.  Jack grew up primarily in Thomasville, Georgia although he graduated from the boarding school Episcopal High in Virginia in 1956.  While at Episcopal he started on a state championship football team and was admitted to Harvard University. 
            “The next 10 years of Jack’s life were rebellious and eventful.  After reading the poem Howl by Allan Ginsburg, he left school, hitchhiked to San Francisco, CA and lived, and asked questions, writing poetry in Haight Ashbury.  While the Beat Movement made a lasting impression, he eventually left it behind him to enter the military where he completed Officer Candidate School.  The first of a long series of schizophrenic moves.  Who was Dad - the beat poet or the soldier?  Could he contain multitudes and be both?  He'd have to. 
            “In 1960 while at Fort Benning, GA Jack met Dorothy Mayher and they were wed in 1963.  He went back to Harvard to finish his degree in 1965.  The couple sandwiched the birth of their first son, John, in 1966 and Jack’s admission and completion of Harvard Law school in 1968 with two adventures in the Middle East, traveling from London to Berlin, Istanbul, to Calcutta.  Outside of Kabul, they visited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, immense 6th Century statues of buddha literally carved into cliffs, and that the Taliban destroyed in 2001.  Most everyone they met was kind and friendly.  They met a man named Mohammet Ali, on quasi-business, asking him for a translation, but ended up becoming fast friends.  These days traveling with his best friends were some of the happiest days of his life.
            Jack practiced law in Atlanta for 3 years and had his second son, Ben, before deciding to change careers.  In 1972 he began a Phd in English literature at Princeton University.  In 1972 he had his third son, Will. 
            In 1974, Jack’s health derailed his aspiration to become a university professor.  Despite returning to Georgia and law in 1976, he finished his Phd in 1978.  Life soon led Jack and his family to Dallas, Texas in 1979 where he spent the next decade practicing labor law and raising his family with Dorothy.  After putting their last son through high school, Jack and Dorothy divorced in 1990. 
            Jack changed courses again, married Beverly Smith in 1991, left the law for good and entered Chicago Theological Seminary (1993-6).  He became an ordained UCC preacher in Long Beach, California and retired in 2002.
            After retiring to Santa Fe, he moved to Houston, Tx so Beverly could receive help for Alzheimer’s.  Beverly was moved permanently into hospice in 2009.  In 2010 Jack met and moved in with Linda Sharp with whom he happily spent the remainder of his life. 
            While he spent the majority of his days searching for the meaning of life, with each year, Jack felt more and more comfortable enjoying movies and meals, poetry and stories, watching the leaves and seasons change, alive and loving for a moment in time.

“Who was Jack Shepard?” Will asked,  “As his son I only know stories of what made Dad who he became in the second half of his life.  Dad was an introvert.  “Really?” you might be thinking to yourself. You could usually find Dad in the study with some baroque concerto in the background, reading some obscure book of English pros in the middle of a cloud of cigar smoke.  When he was a boy his mother would not let him read until the sun went down since he would not go out play otherwise. Some things never changed and he was happiest lost in his own thoughts.  As boys we used to seek out Dad and when we found him, a big smile usually crossed his face, he put  down his book and we would talk for hours.  Dad would drive me around the ghost town of Bridgeboro, GA, and tell what the dilapidated shacks were as he told stories about an age that had pasted.  Dad was a man with a sharp wit who rarely accepted what people told him and was always ready with a story.  Dad’s life sounds like the plot for a Steinbeck book.  He came from an established family with deep roots; there was parental ambition; youthful promise; reckless abandonment; a time of change; far off adventures; love found and lost only to be found again; tragic reality; an abundance of talent leading to distraction; and a love of life too bright to last.” 

Bridgeboro, GA home of the family farm. 

            So who was Jack Shepard?  He was obviously more than a list of accomplishments.  He was a person who asked questions.  What was the meaning of life he asked over and over again.  What was the connection between poetry and the sacred?   What was the sublime?  He was acutely aware existentialism was in the air in Moultrie Georgia in the summer of 1945, he wrote in his constructive theology from 1996.   He reminded us all to ask questions as we walked.   We spent years and years driving and hanging out, saying hello and preparing to say goodbye.
             The night after Dad died, I went to see Judith Malina at the Living Theater and remember my father who knew all the world was a stage.  The Living Theater is a place to open the mind across time, through space, and memory, blurring the space in between public and private, life and death, memory and experience.   I go there whenever I can.  Its been there at my lowest points and some of the most lovely, allowing me to take pain, sit with it, throw my hands in there air, and let it go. The anarchism of the living theater inspired a generation.  It seemed to find its way into some of the fateful goodbye notes for dad. 

John Jordan, posted this not on facebook, sending you lots of love, cross Atlantic hugs and some thoughts on the equilibrium of life and death: "For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. It's shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To somebody who did not understand growth it would look like complete destruction.

The force to destroy is also a force to create Bakunin famously argued.  This paradoxical quality opens up a way to think about how to be, to live, as well as make sense of the experience of my Dad, so caught in the contradictions of modern living.  He felt devoted to his roots, while always leaving them, loved the moderns and reveled in where he came from, fought war and loved the army, hated the law and practiced it, preached in a church and didn’t believe in god, loved literature and walked away from teaching or writing about it – over and over and over again. He chose the margins.
“We have to endure the reality, digest it, and go on with our life” one of my students reflected earlier in the day, after we talked about grief in class.But enduring it, looking at the pain, and transforming the negative into a new way of living, we achieve a kind of magical power, Marshal Berman wrote, paraphrasing Hegel, before his passing last year.   There is no place to hide from these experiences, even if Dad did ridicule those who ducked away from them as "ontologically challenged." 

After the show, I rode home and looked at the sky, wondering about Dad, unshackled from this mortal coil, liberated from so many of the “ghosts and excitements” as godfather Richard had recalled his life.

Bye Dad.  Have a great trip, I thought riding over the Manhattan bridge, looking at the sky. 

With these stories and ancestors, memories, spirits, bodies, ghosts, and memories, we stay connected in time.  Throughout the coming daysi found myself thinking of John Donne’s metaphysical poetics and watching lives pass in front of our eyes:

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

And so, we all end where we began. So Dad, the relationship we build together from grilling chicken together on Sunday nights decades ago, through Mom, John, and Will leaving home for it to be just us for my school years, to music shows, to see Jerry Jeff Walker and Cafe Noir on Greenville Ave, the theater, poetry and stories we shared as the years continued and  grew older, it all lingers.  But these are connections in time, between hands spinning through the years, of knowing what the other might say, or laughing about what it was, and letting go, and holding onto to what life was and could be, of learning from what should not have been, and embracing what was, being patient with our hot tempers, and feeling the connection with that past, and letting it go to be another person.  Letting go of the boy who needed the father, so desperately needed the father, and a father who mentored the boy through years of growing, writing, mom and the brothers moving out while we stayed, careers stress, and eventual tenure, to become the man who appreciated his friendship, as he became older and lost his ability to walk and remember, and had to let go.  
I think of him solitary in a hospital and I despair.  When I think of him flying away, it feels better to imagine.

These cycles of feelings churn through my mind, thinking of dad, hanging around the city and walking the streets where we used to walk, looking at the city he came to visit, that we shared.  
The streets of NOLA where we walked and walked.  
The night after was a long one, full of memories, trembling grief and relief, and reflection, remembering things we did on these streets.  Walking, going to the Village Vanguard, eating at El Quixote. Sitting at the bar after a football game or even a street riot as happens from time to time here.

Feb 15th, 2003, he visited New York, taking a stroll out of the Chelsea Hotel, where he was staying.  I was going to meet him in the streets, but didn’t find him until we both reconvened back at the hotel hours later on that day, that was later described as the largest day of protest in world history.  Dad took part in march turned street riot. 

The day of the rally, the City of New York had withheld permits, cut off the UFPJ’s phones, escalated terror alerts to discourage marchers, and shut down trains and transportation routs from Brooklyn to Manhattan and throughout the city–all contributing to a climate of panic. Despite the state imposed barriers, activists from all walks of life descended on city. The day of the march, the police sent horses to break up the marches, sought to separate crowds from each other, pushed marchers off sidewalks with batons, and tear gassed those in the streets. My father, a 66-year-old retired pastor, who was in town over the weekend observed, “We started out at 51st St, then 57th, then 62nd, and then 68th up 2nd Avenue. At 68th Street, we realized we were being pushed out of town. Every time we’d try to turn down to go to the rally, the police would push us up away from the rally. It was perfectly clear that was what they were trying to do. It was crowded like a VE day. They brought out batons to push us and we chanted, ‘Let us through!!! Let us through!!!’ Every time it would calm down, the police would try with to stop us, yet most of us broke through anyway. I was just a citizen trying to gather with other citizens to have a conversation with the President. I was trying to communicate how I felt about this. I’m a citizen. I pay for this war. My friends are going to go get shot for it. I’d like to have a say so. I don’t want to have my head patted or told what to think, being told my opinion doesn’t count. Being told to pay attention to people who know what they are doing like Kenny Boy and Dick Cheney, the important people. We’re going to war. Bush says, Trust me. I’ve got a memory long enough to remember the last time a president said, trust me, I have a secret plan. Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam was to invade Cambodia. All Saturday, it was quite clear they were running the marchers out of the streets, like a defense used to run Tony Dorsett out of bounds. They were running people away from the rally.” By the end of the day, this 66-year-old retired pastor had engaged in direct action, working with a crowd to push up through a police line to get past police to get to the rally. And he was not alone.

"We have always been scared of becoming communist," he explained at the time referring to the red scares which tear at the country periodically.  "But we never came close.  What we have become close to being is fascist."

Later that night, we took a subway back home to Brooklyn. 

                     “Looking good,” a homeless man commented, reflecting on my drag outfit I had been wearing at the riot as part of the Absurd Response team.

Dad loved that.

Once  in Brooklyn, he met our daughter for the first time. I’ll never forget walking into the house with Dad and seeing Dodi there, looking up at us, just three weeks old.

Dad loved so much, but confessed, he could only endure so much of it.  He was a first class snob and a supporter of the Beat Movement, which challenged so much of conventional narratives of the Post War Eisenhower era in which he grew up.  The beat movements transforming his way of seeing the world.   His memories of that period,  stories of learning to be his own person in an era of 1950’s total conformity, went on and on.  We talked about that era over and over again.  These conversations inspired me again and again.  My first oral histories were with Dad, as he reflected on this era.  I wrote down his musings for a class on the US in the World after WWII

My professor, one of the founding faculty at the college, specifically referred to my paper in the class noting:
“And Benjamin interviewed his dad who a part of the Beat Movement.”   Dad

Maybe there might be something for me in these oral histories Dad was pointing me towardThey helped me love looking at history. Years, later my essay “History, Narrative, and Sexual Identity:Gay Liberation and Post-War Movements for Sexual Freedom in the United States" in P.  Hammack and B. Cohler’s. The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative, Social Change, and the Development of Sexual Orientation,” featured another interview with Dad about the Beats.

Preparing for the essay, Dad and I read through Howl  together, taking it apart, piece by piece, line by line. The story of the poem, was very much a narrative which transformed Dad’s life, catapulting him from Harvard, out West into another way of seeing the world.  This was a generational pursuit. Dad’s experience in this movement was my entree into seeing history as a living entity, something ebbing and flowing from the past into our current moment.  

My essay situated a young Dad among the crowd in post-War San Francisco:

Among the waves of dreamers to find their way to San Francisco was a group of writers, who came to inspire a new movement for freedom…Perched in a smoky coffee house deep in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Ginsberg would contribute to this burgeoning queer civil society with one of the great feats of recently literary history. He first read, performed, screamed “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. The first lines are now familiar enough, yet from the vantage point of 1950s America, they are striking:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night (Ginsberg 1956). 

“Howl” is a spiritual poem, full of references to the Old Testament, the sky, and illumination. The poem is a deadly attack on material culture. “I dropped out of college and hitchhiked to San Francisco after I read it,” recalled Reverend Jack Shepard, who was an undergraduate student at Harvard at the time. “It was an apocryphal poem about breaking out of the mold that they were trying to put us in.”

Dad read the poem to my friends and myself several occasions.  We talked, laughed, and wondered about what he was talking about. We talked about Moloch.  And as the years continued, the story opened up.  The beats inspired Dad in ways few of could imagine, creating a redemptive narrative he lived for decades of his life. It  helped him see the road as a liminal space, opening us to experience something of a “holy America.”   These poems helped him see streets and minds could be filled with words, creating an alchemy of nonsensical verse, that helped us define ourselves, opening up alternate narratives of living. It transformed his life, as it did mine. 

Reading it and walking through the city streets of San Francisco, of Manhattan  we used to stroll, thinking of dad, it is hard not to imagine the memories as ghosts, their reflection lingering in the colors in the rain, in the illusions between bodies, crowds, and memories.

As the years went on we always read poetry when we hung out, those poems chiming through Dad’s head, a chorus of voices ringing across the theater of his mind. Sometimes we read as we drove or camped along the California Coast.  As the years went on, i just visited him in Texas where we drove or just stayed home and read. 

Most days, I recall the poems my father and I had shared before he departed to parts unknown, shuffling off this mortal coil.  Over and over, I tell the story of my father, who ran away from school to become a beat poet when he first heard Howl almost six decades prior.  

Even when he could not walk, the final scene of Macbeth rolled out of his mind from memory.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

“That’s a depressed man,” Dad commented, as if to suggest he was not.

Dad always wanted to keep fighting, to keep living, and loving, and hanging out enjoy another day, another sunset, another movie, another story, even as his reading and traveling days came to an end.

The last time I saw Dad, we read Robert Frost together.  Barely able to walk, he told me Lone Stryker was one of his favorite poems.  

The Lone Stryker by Robert Frost

He knew another place, a wood,
And in it, tall as trees, were cliffs;
And if he stood on one of these,
'Twoud be among the tops of trees,
Their upper brancjes round him wreathing,
Their breathing mingled with his breathing.
If——if he stood! Enough of ifs!
He knew a path that wanted walking;
He knew a spring that wanted drinking;
A though that wanted further thinking;
A love that wanted re-renewing.
Nor was this just a way of talking
TO save him the expense of doing.
With him it boded action, deed.

The poem says so much about Dad. Laying in bed, wanting to live and love, barely able to get up, Dad really was the thought that wanted further thinking.  I told him so, looking at him for the last time last January.

“You are like the poem Dad,” I confessed to him the last time I saw him, reflecting on the Robert Frost poems we’d been reading and his lust for another day to live and be, to love and watch movies and enjoy those around him. Somehow, Dad seemed to give up his resentments and frustrations as he got older.  “You are the thought that wanted further thinking. That’s like you,”  I smiled, looking at him as he lay in bed, referring to the Robert Frost poem we had been reading. He was smiling too. “That’s me.” All these years later, even with the battles lost and won.  We had come full circle.

That was late January 2014.  

Over the next month, he was less and less able to take my calls.  I’d call and he would not pick up or he would be in the hospital.   When I did reach him, he was still anxious to get out the hospital, for us to read more poems together. 

“Next time, we’ll read the Outlaw Book of Poetry,” the book of beat, outsider poems Dad loved.
“We’ll just get together and read some stories.”

  On another call I asked if poems were still running through his head.

“Less now, less,” he confessed, as if acknowledging that he was going into a quieter space, an internal room, where the chorus was more solitary. But the stage was opening, into a vaster place, beyond the limitations of our temporal bodies. 

We are all a part of this living theater, sharing in this globe theater of our streets and minds. The world outside the stage is really the illusion, Dad reminded me over and over again.   The real world is the stage.  I’ll enjoy staying connected with my Dad, bumping into him in the corners of my mind, grabbing a seat together, sharing a seat and a memory in the Globe Theater. 

The dead are as much a part of the living as those who are with us, sometimes more.  The shadows of the room, the stories, the very gestures of the everyday are connected with people and things no longer here.  Quiet moments are times to reflect on those last moments when they were with us in the realm of the living, sitting in a hospital bed, before they shuffled off into some other place in the realm of the ghosts and memories, beyond our comprehension.    

And so, just as Allen Ginsberg wrote a Kaddish for his mother, and dad read one for Allan, I read one for him, stealing a few lines from  Ginsberg’s epic poem for his mother.

Kaddish, part Two
For Jack Shepard, 1937-2014

Strange now to think of you Jack Shepard, gone without suits & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Brooklyn, NY, looking, thinking, dreaming, biking through the streets, over a bridge, from one side of the city toward another, teeming above the water, the Brooklyn Bridge to my left, the sky above me. 
Looking at the city where I ride, where the living theater invites us all toward a space in between
the rhythm of the city—a place where we go - and your memory in my head after—you left the country behind. Now its the memories of the space beyond that LA freeway, where you ran away only to return... in an eternal return, back again. 
And read poems aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—
And now sister death has come for you, liberating you from the hospital- where you now fly 
Dreaming of your life, Your time—and the stories we told, the poems we shared, linked in a time between thoughts, beyond paradox and oblivion, poetry, prose, tv, road trips and hotel rooms in  Mexico watching soccer, “Goal!!!” the commentator screamed and you laughed
A thousand road trips up and down the California coast, from Thomasville to Dallas, stopping in NOLA for a moment in time, discovering a secret city.  "That’s church" you said to me listening to the trumpet in my ear at commander’s palace, enjoying a street musician playing steel drums and sharing beignet from Cafe Du Monde.
    We met there over and over again. Wonderring the streets. 
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me in Brooklyn, or you and a phantom Georgia, Texas, San Francisco, where we lost each other, found each other connected in stories, off to Chicago where we both lived-listened to jazz, before you went back out west— back to Oblivion—

no more to say of your struggles against Eisenhower and a father who came home from the war, from Burma, mad, violent, beating your trembling body, terrified, a child who never quite felt safe from his father, from the man the war helped shape.
Screaming waking in the night… finding peace, longing and dying and nearly dying so many times.
    And resting on a tree stump together where we stopped when you couldn’t make it down the street in 1974.
    Cooking outside on a patio in Dallas, letting it go and living

It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street, look back over my shoulder,
or down the Avenue to the south, to--as I walk toward the Lower East Side
--where you walked 50 years ago, downtown and up, toward the MOMA where you walked in uniform and they reminded you that service men entered free of charge and you smiled and spent the afternoon looking at Picaso’s goat.
You loved the city and always left it… looking for meaning in the high places and the low.
            Stumbling between jobs and people, families and friends…
Thoughts that wanted further thinking, that’s what I told you reminded me of, that last day I saw you, poems teaming out of your mind
Are the poems still with you Dad I asked the last time we talked- No its all a little quieter here now, you confessed, moving further and further into your internal room, only to sneak out the back door, to fly away to a place where we shall not cease from our exploring and at the end of the exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the very first time

scenes from art and coffee dad loved., from giacometti to picasso,
to beignets at cafe du monde.  "That day looking at Picasso's goat was the happiest day of my life,"
recalled dad some five decades later.

Back to Wake or Not to Wake
 “That can be your next book,” noted another attendee after i was done reading.

With little of a wake, it did not feel like Dad was released.  A few of us went out to dinner, but he felt contained. We’d need to do more to usher in a dance with the saints and send dad off.

The next day, we’d spread his ashes in the Sam Houston Forest in North Houston and say our goodbyes.
Walking over through the woods, looking at the urn, filled with what was left of Dad, an  ominous feeling accompanied me.  It felt like the death march from Miller’s Crossing, with the two criminals walking through the woods and one man begging for his life, screaming against inevitable death.  Something horrible is gong to happen.  We all know it. But it seems inevitable.

Death March from Miller’s Crossing

Standing at the designated spot, a chorus of secedes chimed in through a symphony in the trees. The sun shone through the majestic trees, towering into the sky.

“Just listening to the symphony,” Dad used to say.

Mom, who knew Dad longer than any of us, meeting him in 1963, bearing three children, twenty  five years of marriage and another quarter century of of friendship, she took the first scoop of ashes spreading them through the woods, with the kind of hollow ambivalent feeling which only a quarter century of marriage, three children, trips around the world, illness, betrayal, and divorce can create.

We all spread them, ashes to ashes.

I saw a raindrop making its way through the ashes on the leaves of a bush where he lay.
In Niels’ ashes, Allan Ginsberg writes about holding his one time love’s ashes, wondering if its his ass or his nose, he’s clutching.  Hard to know?  But one does wonder about that holding the remains of a life, dust, needing to reconnect with dirt and rain and sunlight to create another flower, oxygen, and continue its journey.

Ashes in trees, space, time and the forest. 

As TS Elliot explains.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
            From Ash Wednesday…

A hard, painful ache held me.

I’m not feeling too well, I confessed as we drove mom to the airport for her flight back home to Princeton, where dad, mom and all of us lived four decades prior.  She's there.  Mom talked about knowing Dad, meeting him those days in Ft Benning, Georgia decades ago.   She talked about the good things, the betrayals, the limits, and losses.  Driving away, my chest was aching.  

We’d drive East from the airport, navigating away from those godforsaken highways, grabbing a taco on our way out of town. I've gone on a thousand trips through Texas.  But nothing without dad - not for decades, decades.  Leaving Houston without dad was hard.  But gradually we came to see he was wIth us on the road through holy AmerIca.

“Did you wash your hands?” Will wondered, laughing as we finished the tacos, looking around us as the kids played along the railroad tracks.  No neither of us had.  But it felt good to laugh, for the first time all weekend long.

Some of our best memories of a childhood spent traveling between Georgia and Texas, were spent stopping n New Orleans.  So we’d drove east to send Dad off n one of his favorite cities. 

The trees seemed to great us, sprouting from fields and farms along the road, Spanish moss, dripping from the ageless beauties, lingering outside time on the way to Breaux Bridge, where we planned to spent the night.

 We didn’t quite get to NOLA, making it as far as Pats Water Edge Café in Henderson, where we took Dad for a meal of crawfish.  The café overlooked the water, where until the railroad made their way to Breaux, according to local historians, steamboats plyng the Bayou Teche moving goods to the market.

Not sure what to order for Dad, we toasted him instead, getting a little help from our friends.

Eating and drinking with Will, Dad, Dee and the other good people of Breaux Bridge.

We drank and ate, late into the night, smiling and laughing, talking and retelling the stores of Dad’s life and ours, where we’d been as kids, been let down, made it up and moved forward, where Dad had succeeded, stumbled, and helped n a monumental conversation about a life.

The last road trip Dad and  I took, we stayed at the Bayou Cabins, so we dropped by, hoping for a taste of some of Rocky’s boudin sausage.

No one was home, so we hung out and took some shots, taking in some of the art of the majestic space, a sort of bridge to another time and history.  We ate lunch at Pont Breaux,  explored swamp the afternoon, enjoying the trees, birds, and crocodiles along this majestic water.

bottom shot by w shepard... before leaving town

Scenes from a swamp, Breaux Bridge and the way to NOLA. 

Hot and dehydrated, we made our way to NOLA to a house where some friends from Brooklyn said we could stay at 1024 Port St. between N. Rampart and St. Claude Ave. in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans.  Looking at the colors on the street, the small quirky homes, the Spanish moss n the trees, Caribbean color, azaleas, art, crusty punks, angel headed hipsters, jazz supporters, and other NOLA devotees, hanging out n the musky streets of the city in constant flux.

Most of our recommendations were closed so we made our way to Coop’s near the quarter, where we’d been advised to stay clear.  Instead of the musky smell of the Bahamas, the street smelled like vomit as we enter margartaville.  “New Orleans s a city with the clap,”Dad’s best friend Fred noted, decades ago.  She still feels like that, at least she did to us, standing holding a beer waiting for a table,  at the last restaurant I ate with dad at n NOLA two years ago.

Over rabit and shrimp jambalaya, several of the staff commented on Dad’s earn, coming over to bring us shots, to toast the beloved old man, whose smile stretched from ear to ear there.  They tapped the table n honor of all those who’ve come before, toasting to them before drinking themselves.

photos w shepard

Across New Orleans, we were offered toast after toast.

Sometimes you gotta travel the low road to find your way to heaven, explained eric, recalling puking the back of Dad’s Volvo car when he asked f we’d been drinking at Jame’s house n the spring of 1983.

“No sir,” he replied before vomiting.

Dad drove us home.

So, will and  made our way through the city’s low roads and high, with toasts and stores accompanying our trips.  We’d traveled here together n 1987, will getting served and enjoying the streets and strippers at 15. NOLA has always been a grand city.  I hustled a bit of this and that, eyes bulging and dreaming, enjoying and hoping as we made our way through the vomit lined street that night over a quarter century prior. 

We slept n the next day, eventually making t out for a lunch at Frady’s One Stop,  just down the street from our house.

Our hosts Erin and Kevin noted, “If you are easily grossed out then just don’t go to this super old school New Orleans corner grocery and po-boy shop – seriously, don’t go.  I guarantee that the décor and the types of products sold, including sandwiches hasn’t changed in many, many years (this could have been the corner store in my grandmother’s neighborhood in the 1960s).  But if you want a solid, cheap, quick New Orleans po-boy – seafood, roast beef or hot sausage - give this place a try.  This is about as authentic as they come.” 

We loved it and the oyster po boys and the neighborhood.

Taking pictures and strolling to the Basin Street Cemetery, where Mare Laveau, the voodoo queen’s grave draws legions, to this city of the dead.

Scenes from basin street cemetery and a day in NOLA.
photos by W. Shepard

At Backstreet Cultural Museum, the founder Sylestor Francis described the reason for the indian celebration at marti gras. “The Indians helped us out during slavery. We ran away and they helped us.  We owe them.  Now we act like Indians to honor them.”

Backstreet Cultural Museum founder Sylestor Francis and this writer.
photo by w shepard

And so, he showed us his collection of Marti gras Indian suits from the social aid and pleasure societies, as parade paraphernalia, roles such as the bull and the face of the future for the kids there.  He showed us one man whose body was held up high paraded through the streets for two weeks.  The point of the jazz parade, of course, is a for a final goodbye, followed by morning, grief, and a recognition that life goes on.   That’s why will and I were there.  To usher Dad off in style, dancing with the saints and sinners along the way.

“You cannot police a bird. The streets belong to the people.”

That night, we hit three sets, starting with kermts ruffians’ band at Bullet's Sports Bar among others at 2441 A P Tureaud Ave, New Orleans, LA 70119.  kermit didn't show up but his band did and they they blew us away ..funk, jazz, soul, loud horns nolas teeming with music... we saw three different bands and styles of jazz... world music. anyone who says nolas dead is not paying attention.   With a cross section of NOLA in the bar, the room roared with dancing bodies. And, once again, people were buying us drinks for dad, toasting him, and taking care of us.

bottom photos by w shepard

After a full set, we walked up to Galatoires, my favorite restaurant. 

“Feels like home,” Dad confessed the last time we dined there in 2009.   We eat there every time we come.  He took my daughter and I there a week before Katrina hit in August of 2005.  And his mom took him there in 1943, while his father stationed in Burma.

Dad's ashes on Bourbon Street in front of Galatoire's. 

We ate at Gallatoire's a week before Katrina in August of 2005.  Eventually, all our numbers wll come up. its good be in a city where they honor those opennings and closings. 

We spent the rest of the night taking in jazz, enjoying sets at Preservation Hall, where  Dad first took us and we spread some more ashes. 

scenes from bourbon street bottom photo by w. shepard

Wandering for more tunes on Frenchman Street.

bottom photograph by w. shepard

By Wednesday, it was time to finish the task, pouring the rest of the ashes in the river of life, Mississippi…  Watching the last ashes pour from the bag, we looked at them linger n the water, with our tears.  it was over.  our task was done.  and all was empty again.  dad was still with us, but not as much now.   and that was hard.   

TS Elliot continues
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
-        Ash Wednesday, TS Elliot

Driving back to Texas, Will lit a cigar, bringing Dad’s memories into the trip. We talked about our lives, uncles, prep school, uncles, Dad, grandfathers, stories, hopes, and future plans, watching the sky on the way back. 

The sun gradually faded into the sunset on the sky, the silhouettes of farm houses and tress lingering n the distance there to accompany us.

Packing up to fly back home, Will was walking away.  “Wait Will,” I cried giving him an pine cone from the Sam Houston forest where Dad lay, with the birds and secedes chirping.  He smiled and putting it in his bag and turning to leave, to go back home to his life.  Growing up our relationship was like East of Eden, today iis more like The Brothers Karamazov, a redemptive forgiving space for new trips and stores of of our lives. 

Dad is gone and its up to us now.   Some day our time will be up and we'll meet our maker.  But for now we are here for this time.

As TS Elliot reminds:

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place

Will gone, I stopped and sat, thinking and just sitting, eventually drove north, navigating away from the highways, north to Dallas where we lived for a decade, harvesting a thousand and one memories and  a few friendships which continue to endure. I’d spend the day driving and hiking, pulling off the road at the cemeteries and woods, lingering with the trees once again, not driving too fast to miss it all…

And inevitably, the road led me to the Beltline looping Dallas, where we drove and drove and drove, through years of migrations to parties, late night drives, and a thousand Friday nights looking for something, anything out there for us to see.

Dallas leaves its public tragedies and its private regrets, divorces, summer intrigue from a quarter century ago when the tanks rolled in on Tiananmen Square.  The occupation captured my imagination and i was never the same.  That was the summer when a lust for something better took me from Dallas to Austin to Barton Springs, to the 500 Café, to Ten Hands Shows every night in the Deep Ellum, back to the Caravan of Dreams, late nights n the summer with a new friend, sucking the marrow out of life.  Look at all we have she screamed looked at the morning sun rise. Driving and looking at the many sides of the city, the way the sun shone on the reflecting glass of the city, seeing it for the very first time. Everything seemed so real and possible.  We jumped off cliffs into the water, danced, boogied, hung out in the car, careening between here and nowhere, drove and from Austin, listening to van halen, the best of summer of my life.  Poor Dog played the summer night away.  The crescendo of music and subsequent losses, the ups and the lessons of the downs taught me more than anything. in between vivid images, the memories of my dad who made his way through the city, working to be the best father he could be, they are hard to shake, especially driving around Dallas, on mockingbird.

This is where you learned about community, Dad reminded me, looking back on Deep Ellum.  That is always with. Those thoughts are always with me looking at the inwood theater where I worked, and the world came to me, tripping through the summers of a misspent, well worn, not wasted  youth.

Driving back to Austin, it took a few hours to get out back out into the open road.  But as the day wore on, the space between the road and sky opened up into sprawling vista of dessert, flowers, caves and mystery.
Conjuring Joshua Tree and the road, the space opened a space which felt very familiar and distant, something to find and something to leave behind in a Texas of memories. Dad and Mom loved the desert.  His best friend Fred spend the second half of his life bumming around Texas, lured by a desert Lawrence of Arabia would have loved.  Their friendship inspired my latest book on rebel friendships.  This majesty will always be my Texas.

There is no way to completely reconcile the loss of a parent, with its savage end point.  But the road heels.  The second line helps them become a part of everything as they take their part in a larger, far more majestic place in a cycle of living and dying and the spaces n between.

Leaving for New York,  I left something dear behind, something which was regained in the dessert, between the caves just north of the Pedernales Rver, the pine cone from the Sam Houston Forest, the Texas Hill Country, the Lone Star Caverns, the Bayou and the streets of Brooklyn I was returning to see them for the very first time.  Now when i see trees, they remind me of my dad who i used to sit on stumps with back in 1974.  

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing down your memories. They help me remember because the stories are fading away. Love, Will