A second start, retrospectively

Sophocles wisely wrote of introspection in Oedipus Rex: “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.” That very feeling  often has prevented me from writing about the deepest material of my life. But this time I choose to override those fears and get the story down, even though, I warn you in advance, there is much suffering in it.

Before I left for California, I attended a small dinner party. There was a man there who learned of my upcoming quest to find my missing son and he made a galling remark that sent me popping up from table and wishing my hosts a goodnight. After a lull in the wine-soaked conversation he looked at me and said, “And what exactly do you hope to accomplish by going to California?” “Find my son,” I said cooly, and left.

Several men expressed this dubiousness about my purpose and the suggestion that what I would find could not end well. Women merely told me I was brave. Certainly, I preferred to take the feminine principle with me into the battle for my son, but in the fairness of retrospect I cede that both viewpoints were true.

I found an Airbnb spot just off Telegraph Ave., which I knew from police reports–and even my son’s earlier phone calls–was now a sort of panhandler’s alley. I started off with my photos of Sean and a blank notebook for writing down clues. I wasn’t sure of my directions, and as I passed a small park I looked around for someone to ask. There was only a scruffy bum on a park bench and, habitually, I passed him by in search of someone more presentable. And then I stopped myself. This is exactly who you speak with. I was aware in that moment of a shift of consciousness. Street people were now my allies, advisors, keepers of precious information. My eyes on the street.

I approached the man and showed him the pictures of my son. He looked at them carefully: one taken in Washington, D.C., several years ago, my son’s beautiful blue eyes and chiseled face against the distant confection of the Capitol. “No, no, I don’t know him,” he said. And then he took a closer look at a more recent photo–one of Sean and I in the Castro taken earlier this summer. “Well, it could be,” he said. “Looks like a schizophrenic guy who sleeps under a blue blanket in People’s Park.”

I knew this couldn’t be Sean, but I at least wanted to follow any lead. “Where’s People’s Park?” I asked (this was another of the Stations of the Cross for Berkeley homeless, and was the chief feeding zone for free lunchtime meals). He pointed me just a few blocks away and I set off.

IMG_0855Considering its large renown through the ’60s, People’s Park is actually quite small. There is a small stand of redwoods on one end, a large open green in the middle, then cluster of scraggly bushes and trees at another end. I came at it from the redwood edge, where I found an enclave of homeless people camped out in sleeping bags and perched on tree trunks. My first impression was that there was an abundance of matted hair. And men. One fellow sat on a sleeping bag with long blonde dreadlocks and tilted his head to the sky. His eyes were rolling back in his head and he was talking to himself. I entered this gathering with a soft, but firm step and crouched to speak to man closest to me, a nearly toothless fellow who looked to have just awoken.

I could feel a quiet alert go up among the men as I approached, but it also was jaded, almost disinterestedly reflexive.

I told my name and that I was looking for my son. I pulled out my photos of Sean and he took them in his dirty hands. “Yeah, I seen this guy,” he said. “He was here last night. He sat right there.” He indicated the very spot on the log where I now perched beside him. “What did you talk about?” I asked, and before waiting for an answer said, “He’s great to talk to isn’t he? Very smart and interesting guy.”

He called out to some of his buddies to ask if they’d seen someone named Sean. No one paid him attention. I pressed him for details, but his line of connection suddenly faded, and he said, “Actually, I think I saw this guy in San Francisco.” Another homeless guy with a long, shaggy black beard ambled up. “This is Hate [sp?], he’s kind of the ringleader here,” said the first homeless guy by way of introduction. A couple of people chuckled. Hate took a look at the photos and said, “I think I see him around here sometimes,” and handed them back.

As I made my way through the enclave, everyone, it seemed, had a different story and I had the thought that it could go on like this endlessly. When I got back to the first homeless guy, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself, smiling through browning teeth: “They call me Mumbles,” he said. “Mumbler?” “No, Mum-bles,” he said laughing roughly. “I guess it’s ’cause I mumble.”

Mumbles asked me if I had a place where Sean could find me in case he ran into him. I gave him my business card and wrote across the top of it, Sean’s Mom. I’m in town. Please call. “I sure wish I had a mom who would come look for me,” said Mumbles. People were, by now, listening. “Yeah, man,” someone else called. “You’re a good mom.” At this I burst into tears.

Can’t beat the Dickens

photo-11Yesterday I went to the library to pick out a book to take with me to California. I knew exactly what I would bring, David Copperfield. This was the very first Dickens I devoured; I had it with me during my first trip overseas, a tour of Scotland with my parents when I was 13.

Aside from generally shunning the old farts, and grunting taciturnly during roadside Highland picnics (an unfortunate encounter with haggas, compelled me to eat nothing but canned Heinz potato salad thereafter), I kept my nose glued to that book as views of lochs and mountains, meadows and sheep rolled gorgeously past. This was a book to get lost in.

I loved books exceptionally until my son was born. Then a strange thing happened. I found that I could no longer endure even the slightest hint of human pain written down on the page. I didn’t know this until I launched into Anna Karenina during my first weeks of mothering. I was perfectly content in the beginning, but as the story progressed and Anna’s agony increased, so did my anxiety. I simply couldn’t bear the “oncoming train” of sorrows, and the idea of having her motherhood ripped from her sent me over the edge.

And so I read Anna Karenina by skipping the Anna passages entirely. I happily read about that great character of agrarian reform and family bond, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, who lives at the edge of her tale. All good stories have their shadowy parts, so naturally my reading selections became quite limited—romances, short stories (shorter pain), magazines. This applied to films as well: no child violence, beaten or imprisoned women, horror, even suspense movies “done me in.” Fortunately, I had read most of the canon of English lit before I went wimp, else I would be a total illiterate.

To avert undue pain, before I started it I skimmed through Copperfield to reassure myself that all ends well (Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed …). Properly convinced, I am again happily entrenched. This time, however, I read this work with greatest wonder.

Every page is wrought with astonishing detail, humor, poetry—and loving foreboding. I know Little Emily comes to a great, sad end but because of the majesty of his vision and the tenderness with which he wraps the good, I am willing to take the walk with him.

His effortless metaphor makes me think about the world differently, that experience is drenched in allegories we are too blind to notice. This: A passage in which he strolls the Yarmouth sands with Little Emily and reflects how, had he known the fate that would befall her, he might not have leapt out to catch her when she seemed about to plunge from a weir into the water. He then writes in the next paragraph about a starfish:

We strolled a long way, and loaded ourselves with things we thought curious, and put some stranded star-fish carefully back into the water–I hardly know enough of the race to be quite certain whether they had reason to feel obliged to us for doing so, or the reverse …

And a delicious footnote from the editor there, that the passage is reminiscent of the poet Crabbe(!):  ‘Here dull and lifeless he’d lie down and trace/How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race.’

Journeys. Stories. Words. I feel glad to be alive.

The moon belongs to everyone

photo-7Throughout my life I have taken great comfort in the moon. I love the idea that wherever you are, its shape is the same–thumbnail, crescent, half-moon, full. Across oceans and filtering through woods, covered in clouds or peeking above skyscrapers, that moon will be the orb that everyone sees.

Tonight it’s almost full and I think of Sean. Is he studying its shape from a grassy knoll at the edges of town? Will it fall softly on him as he rests? I wonder if he ever looks at the moon and wonders if I’m looking at it too.

Tomorrow night, I’ll share Sean’s moon. After 15 hours of flights and taxis and rental cars. The depth of uncertainty I face exhausts me before I even embark. I’m not sure of God or helper angels, but I do believe in the lunar qualities of love. And so tonight, from my heart, I ask: Please moon, mover of oceans, bring my son and me together again.

Other peoples’ opinions

imagesI used to make up cover stories about Sean when he first started living a nonconventional life–dropping out of high school, going to rehab (last I heard, he was still sober, yay!), leaving the work world, sleeping in empty buildings. “He’s trying to find his way,” I would say, smiling. Beyond that, I didn’t offer many details and most people didn’t push it.

But eventually I started telling the truth. It was disrespectful to tell lies, and in many ways I did respect his choices even if I didn’t understand them. He was, and is, doing something very few people have the courage to do: live his principles.

Sean is emotionally incapable of working in the kind of petty hierarchy that his retail-sales jobs assured him (and really, aren’t most workplaces constructed that way?). His cultural studies–feminism, LGBTQ, psycholinguistics, philosophy–revealed to him a mycelium of socioeconomic contracts that ensure the domination of consumerism. The idea of being forced to spend his life working jobs he hates, to earn the right to eat and sleep, galls him. He wants no part of it. Sean envisions a world of bartering, freedom, nomadism, shared property. Many younger people do, hence the rebirth of communes, urban co-ops, free farms that are sprouting around the globe. The ’60s meet pending climate-induced Armageddon.

People generally are startled when I tell them my son is homeless. “You mean, he’s backpacking?” they ask hopefully. It takes a few tries for me to convince them that he really does live on the street and that it is a lifestyle choice, not a default (although, I often reflect that it is a default because there really are no condoned avenues for those who want to live outside of society).

I think it’s important for people to know that they know people who love homeless people. That they are not wasted people, unloved, unconnected, without history or family. Before Sean even went homeless, I used to pass people sleeping on the subway vents and think to myself: This was somebody’s beloved son. It eased my discomfort to think that they had been held in warm arms somewhere in their lives.

Being direct about Sean’s situation opens me up to other peoples’ opinion–and unwanted advice–more often than it helps me to accept our condition. People who have never had children often tell me, “Oh, he’s just trying to grow up. You need to lead your own life now and let it go.” People who have children give me fix-it suggestions: Can I get him on meds? Has he seen a psychiatrist? Maybe a job will help.

None of these suggestions is particularly wrong; they’re just so wearingly passé. Of course he’s seen a psychiatrist, taken meds, had jobs. And yes, I have attempted to lead my own life–I’m leading it now–and tried with every part of my being to “let go.” We–meaning Sean and I–have done these things and hundreds of others in an effort to heIp him feel more stable inside and find his place in the world.

As for letting go, I think I’ve done a damn fine job . I am able to sleep every night without medication. I can go to work everyday and concentrate reasonably well. I can visit with friends, laugh, cook, walk and find joy in every day I live. But there is this one thing. And it never goes away. It lives in my heart and throat, a constant throbbing. My mother love.

That love center between Sean and I is very deep. Probably more so than many mothers and sons. It’s a connection that my own mother, for instance, cannot understand. She thinks I should just let him be to forge his own independent life–even if, heart wrenchingly, it means living a penniless, dangerous street life. Some parents have stronger radar than others. Mine went on red alert a few weeks ago when my concern for Sean traveled from my head to my heart. Something’s wrong. I don’t know how I know this is true–and I pray it is not–but my instinct is telling me very loudly to try to connect with him.

What if I ignored that calling? I’ve certainly had thousands of impulses to go find him. The difference this time is that I’m not propelled by my anxiety. It is a stronger, more stable voice. I have to go look for Sean because it is the right thing to do. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Whether he will look at it that way or not, I can’t control But I need to know that as a mother I did every damn thing I could.

Preparing to search

CandlesHow do you prepare to hit the streets of an unknown city in search of a lost son? I have taken care of the practical aspects–rented another Airbnb flop (this one close off Telegraph Ave. where the panhandlers purportedly roost), rented a car, developed a Missing flyer to post on poles and bulletin boards, called the police for advice, printed off homeless resource centers and soup kitchens.

The psychic preparation is lest distinct. Once I decided I actually was going to fly to Berkeley to try to locate Sean, I noticed a new spaciness in my approach to life. It’s as if my mental CPU is very busy running some background software, leaving little free space for running the rest of my thinking. I’m probably dreaming deeply, epically, because I wake up groggy. But I am oddly calm. I wonder if this is the calmness before the storm or if I actually have entered a realm of blessed serenity.

I have a couple of mentors in my life who have been incredibly kind and smart in helping me think this through. Both have asked me to call them daily while I’m out there, which will be a good touchstone. One friend made what I thought was a brilliant point: “Make sure to make some happy memories when you’re out there. Do something wonderful for yourself.” That had not occurred to me, and I now see it as essential for keeping me from sliding into a manic mode or donning a martyr’s robe–both are habits I’m working hard to shed.

I recently wrote two prayers: one for my son, one for me. Tomorrow, I will go to a nearby chapel to light candles and dedicate those prayers. This is the deepest preparation I can invent, because whatever I may find on those streets–son, no son, drug-addicted son, loving son, angry son, mentally ill son, other peoples’ sons–I will need God’s soft mercy.

Here is my prayer for myself:

From all the souls,
in all the stars
across universes known and imagined,
I find my own self.
May I raise my voice to sing out the Lord.
May I use my hands to lift up others.
God, help me keen my mind to the truth
and soften my heart toward my humanness.
Lighten my mother’s pain,
and erase the marks of my mistakes.
Help me to trust this eternal bond:
the mother
the child
the universe unfolding
As it was, as it always shall be.
                — SF