Thursday, September 25, 2014

October Dreamin' -- Don't stop now

(Originally posted on May 27. 2013)

Hey, it’s okay. It’s allowed. If you’ve given up on the idea, perhaps it’s time to try again. Go ahead and dream your dreams. It’s good for you and fun too.

Recently, as I was writing my Family Matters story, I found myself deep in the “dreaming” business. The story follows three generations of the Padgett family as they struggle to find the elusive place where their individual, sometimes conflicting visions of the future can blend into a common dream. It is clear from the beginning that not everyone will get everything they want. In the course of their seeking there is bound to be discord and the need for compromise. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

For two hundred seventy pages the frustrated Padgett grandparents, the family’s October element, deal with radically differing visions of what retirement ought to be, while their daughter tries her best to save a relationship torn apart by another set of conflicting dreams. Meanwhile the granddaughter, longing for a return to the laissez-faire freedom of her Los Angeles roots, struggles to imagine a future for herself in small-town Tanner. At every turn it seems that someone’s dream is in danger of being stepped on.

I call them “dreams”---those enticing hints of the future we long to have for ourselves. If we nurture them properly and allow them to play out, those idealized visions can help us be the person we want to be and live the life we want to live. I suppose most folks understand how important dreams are. In the beginning, when we first set out to find our place in the world, what else did we have but dreams? But now the question is---is there a place for dreaming in our October Years, when it sometimes feels like we are used up and out of possibilities? If someone is taking a poll on the subject, put me down as a loud “Yes.”

Like you perhaps, I’ve had a few ill-defined “want to’s” bouncing around in my head for as long as I can remember. But it was only a few years ago, during what I like to think of as the September of my life, that I found the nerve and motivation to double down on my personal “dream thing”---telling stories about my Tanner friends and their October dreams.
Each of us grows up with a uniquely personal vision of what-can-be for us. Sometimes that vision is hazy, hard to make out. Sometimes it is as clear as daylight. And even as we shape those images they are also shaping us. We are both the cause and the result of our dreams. After all, we spend a lifetime painting our own personal mind-picture of the person we are. Though we rarely allow anyone else to see the whole of that intimate portrait our dreams, the ones that remind us of “who we want to be,” are constantly at work on that mental canvas---redrawing, refining, and clarifying the “me” we view through the lens of our personal dreams.
We October types have been at this long enough to realize that integrating the mental images which our dreams produce with the untidy facts of real life can be difficult at any age. Perhaps you remember how hard that was as a teenager. I do. How could I have ever entertained those silly pie-in-the-sky fantasies---of doing the things I dreamed of doing, of becoming this or that, of some special “her” liking the likes of me? You think I’d have learned my lesson back then. 
Yet here I am, late in life, still playing those silly mind games---of October dreaming and telling my stories. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one trying to live out my “want-tos.” In the face of October reality the “why” we keep dreaming may be found in boredom, isolation, and frustration---or perhaps disappointment with our earlier efforts. Whatever the reason most of us are inclined to wander back to that familiar mind space from time to time---telling ourselves that we ought to know better---yet still seeking the undeniable comfort of our dreams.

Of course, along the way there will be detours and disappointment, times when we step back to ask ourselves why we have not become the person we had hoped to be. Yet in the face of those shortcomings we keep dreaming---because we must. That was true in our formative years, in adulthood, and now in our October Years. As always we are a work-in-process---constantly bumping heads with reality, even as we continue to lean on what I call dreams. 
In Family Matters the Padgett family is forced to face their dreams---the ones that are pulling them in very different directions. (That happens sometimes, doesn’t it?) In the course of their journey there are moments when the common ground they seek appears to be out of reach. But they are first and foremost a family. Their individual dreams require a recognition of that “familyness,” even when it means reshaping their own motivating visions. For them, just as it is for you and me, it is all about the often frustrating blend of family, dreams, and compromise. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fractured Families -- Today and Yesterday

Of course it's been like that forever---sons and daughters grow up, spread their wings, and leave the nest to seek a life of their own. By the time we reach our October years we understand that. And we know too that often as not their leaving is a bittersweet moment---weighing the excitement of their hopeful beginnings against our own sense of loss.

I suppose that ambivalence is to be expected. After all, we raise our children with the implied understanding that one day they will strike out on their own. If necessary we can cite biblical injunctions to justify their departure. It is that reality that makes preparing our offspring to go off on their own one of our most important parental roles.

It's happened in our family, and probably yours too---that day when we watched our children or other family and friends preparing to take the next step, leaving for some other part of the country. Though we had mixed feelings about their going, we knew that moment had been waiting for us for a very long time. Those partings happen often in today's mobile society, where families are apt to be spread all over  the place.

In most cases the "leavers" depart in good spirits, excited by fresh and hopeful possibilities---a new life chapter to be lived out, new chances to "become." In that light how can we, the ones left behind, begrudge their willingness to take a chance? Still, though we would never stand in the way of their growing and becoming, there is probably a part of us that resists their leaving---at least a little bit.

In a very real sense they are a part of whom we are. In ways we often fail to understand we may have depended on their presence to make our life complete. Though we have no right or inclination to hold them back, we can't help but wish they would stay, or at least not move so far away. Those are the urges that separation produces. I suppose they are as old as mankind.

Of course, in our world of interstate highways and on-time airlines that parting need not be a permanent thing. There will be  opportunities for periodic reunions. Additionally, with today's connecting technology the sting of enforced separation has been softened. The internet and wireless communication, in all their many forms, has made staying in touch with separated family easier and more immediate.

But now I ask you to pause for a moment to shift gears, to gather those thoughts of family partings and come with me to a another time, when leaving the nest was apt to mean something very different.

You see, for days Roma and I have tracked her OregonTrail ancestors over flat, cornfield lined Nebraska highways and crooked, dusty Wyoming backroads---up and down, from the broad Platte River plain to the Continental Divide. We have visited impressive interpretive centers and hiked along riverside trails---seeing first hand the challenges those pioneers endured. My Lord, we even woke up one morning to an early September snow.

Though it has been a satisfying and eventful journey, at some point along the way I found myself dwelling on a unexpected series of melancholy thoughts, October questions I have never seen anyone else address---a sad fact that guidebooks and documentary videos seem to ignore.

Think of it this way. For just about every brave and daring Oregon Trail pioneer family that sold off most everything they owned to raise the hundreds  of dollars their "Oregon dream" would cost, there were family and friends, the ones remaining behind, who waited to say their good-byes as the hopeful travelers left. In a real sense the very core of the emigrants' limited world had gathered to see them off. (Those were 1848 or 9 dollars---which meant many families were too poor to take advantage of the promise of a new start in Oregon.)

There were times, of course, when the departing travelers left no one behind, when the family was remained intact. One of Roma's ancestors joined a wagon train made up entirely of more than 300 members of their Baptist church. The congregation emigrated en masse. And surely there were times when parents and even grandparents, perhaps too old to be undertaking such a venture, joined the overland company simply to avoid being left behind. 

Still, more often than not families were destined to be separated---some leaving, some staying behind. When that happened each of those parties could expect to live the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

For many of those left behind that emigration separation was not an entirely new experience. Only a generation or two earlier they had perhaps made a similar, if shorter, journey over the Appalachians to the OhioValley and beyond. That too had been a time of parting trauma, of leaving home for good.

For the Oregon Trail pioneers that parting was framed by the all-too-likely reality that they and the family members who remained at home would never see each other again. After all, the 1840s and 1850s (pre-railroad times) were not a time of mass trans-continental travel. 

The odds of parents, who stayed to tend a subsistence-level farm in mid-America, ever seeing the son, daughter, or sibling who had moved half a continent away to the far-off reaches of a mysterious place called Oregon were slim indeed. In most cases from that time of parting their relationship would have to be sustained by little more than fond memories and long letters. It would be an expensive, painfully slow, and often unsatisfying means of communication. But it was the best there was.

Think about that for a moment. How would you deal with that sort of parting---watching a son or daughter, a brother or sister, ride off to a new life that in all likelihood would never again include you? 
In the name of creating a new, more promising life they were leaving you and their own past behind. It was the only way. And for those left behind? The more I think about them the more I realize that there were two very different sets of heros taking part in that "leaving" drama. 

So here I am, dwelling on a harsh and very permanent kind of parting---the sort few of us can get our minds around. Take a moment  to imagine that your son or daughter is standing in the doorway, suitcase in hand, preparing to leave you---forever. From that moment on your only contact will be in the form of long letters from far away. The moment they turn their back on you for the last time your relationship will be a matter of memories and words on paper.

Of course those wagon train pioneers, the ones who made the long trek, endured a hard and dangerous journey. Theirs was the stuff of legends---the story of brave men and women, many of whom did not live to see the promised land. Largely because of their efforts our country now stretches from sea to sea. In a very real sense it was their willingness to leave their families, friends, and the life they knew that made their success possible. 

Still, in a way I did not expect to find, many of us October types can understand that those brave pioneers were not the only ones to pay the price of separation.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

October Magic -- or so it seems to me

I can't make my way out of a straight jacket. Truth is, I sometimes struggle to get a shirt on and buttoned right. I don't do card tricks and I've never sawed anyone in half---at least not on purpose. But in the course of the last two or three days I have been reminded that something as simple as the first few notes of a long unheard song can literally transport me to a different time and place. That strikes me as a form of October magic.

The two of us went driving---from Oregon to Kansas---and are now ready to follow what remains of the Oregon Trail back to Oregon City. It is a long-awaited trip that was set aside last year when my few steps up a ladder put me in the hospital. This year, however, I am good to go, so we are off to retrace the journey Roma's ancestors endured on their way to Oregon. (My family, being the practical ones we are, waited until the railroads were up and running.)

Among other things I intended to set my modest blogging efforts aside for a couple weeks, to concentrate on seeing the western half of our country from the road instead of the sky. I was quite  surprised to find that it took just one day for an unexpected aspect of modern-day sightseeing to reveal what seemed to me an October insight worth exploring.

There is nothing like a long trip over straight and sterile interstate highways to renew old acquaintances---friendships that had not crossed my mind in a very long time. You see, to help pass the hours we listened to The Fabulous Fifties---an eight-disc set of CDs that OPB had gifted us in return for a pledge---classic tunes from that well-remembered time. There we were, driving down the highway, listening to old friends, probably the same ones you knew in the March and April years of your life. 

If you are a pop music person (not everyone is) that is quite a list of friends. Perry Como, Nat King Cole, The Four Aces, Four Lads, Fats Domino, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Johnny Ray---and on and on. Everyone has their own favorites. I had to chuckle a bit when I found Les Baxter's name on the play list. He's the one who nearly got  me fired from my DJ job on the college radio station when I introduced him as Lex Bastard.

But now, as I listened to those songs and the soaked up the memories they evoked, I was struck by their inexplicable power to connect me to my past. What is there about music---which in one sense is nothing more than melodic noise---that grabs us the way it does? What allows the ethereal reality of it to remain in some seldom-visited corner of our mind for decades? Yet the unexpected sound of a few introductory notes can unleash a flood of powerful emotions and warm recollections---hints of the very real (and oh so youthful) persons we were then, living out very real experiences. How can those connections remain after all that time? What magic is at work?

Perhaps like me there are certain songs or tunes that create an instant link for you to a particular time, place, or person. Other bits of that adolescent music may lack a specific connection, yet still reinforce the mood and mindset of an era---perhaps a special school year, or the social connections that were part of that moment. 

How many times have I been forced to admit that I sometimes march to a different drummer? I know very well that not everyone maintains mental files of the music, lyrics, and performers that they have endowed with the magical ability to resurrect bits of our personal history---the special moments, events, and persons we have carried with us all the way into our October and November years. On an allied note---do today's young couples have "their song" like we used to have? Having heard some of their music that seems unlikely---though I  suppose that might be a sign of October judgment bubbling to the surface.

For me it is the music of the Fifties that I've given that power. For you it may be the tunes of the Sixties or the Seventies that work the same magic. If you are living out your November years the war-time tunes of the Forties may take you to a place you don't visit every day. As near as I can remember the attraction began early for me. I can recall a vivid "Shrimp Bots" moment from the eighth grade---a bit that would eventually show up in my Best Friends and Promises story. 

It is quite remarkable to consider all the places a few hours spent with The Fabulous Fifties have taken me. But of course, I had other options. I could have packed my "Country Music Favorites" and spent long hours of driving along to the sounds of George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. (Don't you love that name?"

I could have done that, and perhaps would have---except Roma made it clear I would be traveling alone if I did. You see, she has a thing about "twang." Rather than risk a solitary visit to the Oregon Trail I settled instead for The Fabulous Fifties, and I'm glad I did.

It is tempting to end this bit of nonsense by assuring myself that everyone has their own mental library of March and April musical recollections. But in fact I'm not sure that is true. Though I am not  the only one who gets swept up in those "memories set to music," perhaps most October folks have outgrown such childish behavior. I would like to know what you think. Have you ever felt the magic---a few bars of an old favorite transporting you to another time and place? If so, I hope you'll take a moment to use the "Post a Comment" option below. I'd like to know what or whom had the power to work that magic for you.

Now we're off to relive a very different kind of travel, to a time and place where folks lived out their dreams and memories around camp fires, to music of their own making.