Do we “simply choose to forget”?

These days, when many of us are spending far more time at home than we might have planned – it’s an opportunity to clean up, sort through and toss out.  I can attest that not everyone embraces this vision with vigor, but there is something about digging into old boxes that has always held a sense of adventure and discovery for me.   Growing up, my Mom had a bedroom that was basically “off limits” – filled with boxes and old furniture, but more importantly I think for her, filled with memories she did not want to be reminded of, yet could not find a way to let go. 

When her lifelong health problems ultimately reached a point where she was unable to care for herself safely, she seemed to be at the end of her days – and I went through a period of desperation to find a housing and care facility.  Ultimately, she improved – and I felt the “right thing” to do was to sell my home and return to that childhood tract house, where so many of my formative years and experiences still hung in the air.  Being raised by a disabled single parent who had no earnings, no car and little interaction with the outside world had shaped me in many ways, so returning to living alone in a home drenched in memories was not much of a change. 

Surprisingly, Mom hung on for eight more years, and during that time, I took on what I came to view as a “redemption” of the house, which had always needed much in the way of repairs and care that was never without our means.  I wanted it to be a home that someone would be delighted to call their own, knowing the time would come that she would move into eternity, and others would make the house their own.  As I began digging through the closets filled with old clothes and more, I began to uncover something I had not expected – shadows of the past that had not been viewed in decades. 

There were photo albums from my parents, grandparents and boxes containing images from unknown ancestors. I unfolded faded letters dating back decades (including my father’s as shared previously), greeting cards, travel brochures and more.  Going through them with first my parents, then in time other cousins and family members, opened a window to my heritage but, in time, also to a fuller realization of my own worth, and hope.   

But today I am sharing about a member of the family in particular who met me in my infancy and passed not long after – my maternal grandmothers second husband. Grandma Jean had divorced my grandfather Richard before WWII – a pretty uncommon act back then. High school sweethearts in Denver, they’d both lost their mothers as teenagers, and after marrying in Oregon, raised her younger brother and sister and had two children – my uncle, and then my mother. Sadly, Jean passed a year before my birth. My mother had issues with her father until his passing – he lived out of state, and I never knew him either. But Mom loved her mother dearly – in fact I am named for Jean’s younger brother Norman who died during the 1918 flu epidemic. 

My mother’s parents – teenager in love a century ago

Mom had told me that at some point grandma Jean had remarried, and they were seemingly quite happy until her own passing in the late 50’s. As with her not so socially acceptable in those days divorce, she again made a choice that in her time was rare – as an Episcopalian, she married a man of the Jewish faith. There were photographs, and even color slides, of their many trips together and with families – including strangers that were apparently his own. Other than a few unfamiliar names mentioned in passing in those old letters – there was only one other fact that many in my extended family recalled quite clearly.  And it was not a pretty story. 

Grandma passed in spring 1957, and he remarried shortly thereafter. Following my own birth in spring 1958, he had stopped by my parent’s home in Vacaville, near where my father worked at the state prison.  Less than six months later, at the mountain cabin where he, my grandmother, mother, cousins and other family members celebrated summer vacations and winter getaways, my mother’s uncle found his body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My mother’s cousin David, still alive today, clearly recalls the incident, but with more expressive verbiage. 

It was just one of those family stories, about people I never knew. But I looked through the photos and slides to see strangers faces from 50 years ago or more, and wondered what had happened to them.  Now, after retiring, and in this time of isolation where I finally am trying to piece together so many little fragments of my heritage, my family’s journeys, for those who will follow – I came across those color slides with strangers faces and unfamiliar names again. I thought of another cousin who maybe 3-4 years back had gotten a call from descendant of his 3rd wife – they had found some of our grandmother’s items in boxes and wondered if we wanted them.  To my ongoing regret, that never led to us reconnecting and recovering those pieces of the past. 

With all the amassing records and resources available to us online today, you’ve probably seen programs on PBS or elsewhere about “discovering family”. Well, perhaps at least part selfishly – knowing that it might possibly reconnect me with other records from my grandmother – I decided to see what I could learn about this gentleman and track down someone who might want to preserve these photos of strangers that I had found, who might be their ancestors.  At this point, I should explain I am taking care to not mention names, due to privacy – I generally do not share photos of living persons other than myself (with one exception).  However, I do feel the photos of those long gone, in many cases of family I knew little or none at all while they lived, bring the stories and discoveries that I share here a little bit more “to life”.  

As I scoured Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com and other site, knowing little more than his name and profession, to see if I could find reference to my grandmother’s second husband, some interesting facts appeared about his subsequent marriage and death – social notices, mainly, but then – an obituary. And in time, another article – describing his death, not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but – “an overdose of pills”? I was not surprised that the harsher truth of his passing had been softened, but i was not expecting another revelation. The memorial service article mentioning and naming children from a prior marriage – one that neither my Mom, nor her cousins and family, ever knew of. 

Among them, a son – and from the date, and with his name (because, of course, the daughters might have married, and I would not have as great a likelihood of finding their “trail”) – I found a high school yearbook from southern California with his picture.  From there – articles about his life, incidentals really – and with a bit more digging, I find several addresses.  I realize some percentage, maybe a high percentage, of you might think why I am doing this – reaching out to a stranger who is not a blood relative, may not even know my grandmother married his father, and that I might be opening doors that he or his family prefer to leave shut? 

I can’t tell you for sure that I know reaching out is the right choice – but I did. I wrote a letter; I made a call.  At this point, there has been no response – possibly by choice, maybe by chance. But I do know that if someone were to reach out to me with an offer of photos of family that I had never seen, and maybe to learn a bit about their lives from someone who knew them – I would jump at the chance.  Would I bring up the circumstances of his father’s passing?No, I would not – but if he asked, I would share what I knew. 

Because in my life, at least, learning the truth – the facts, the hard history rather than the pretty fairy tales – has given me strength.  Courage – to accept myself, and others, imperfect as we are – working on that every day, believe me.  Knowing that those who came before experienced not just joy and summer vacations and new cars and baby showers of the photos now faded, but also disappointment, uncertainty, and yes – failure – gives me hope, because I face those, we face those – every day.  Especially now. 

There is a conflict erupting in our communities, country and world, between so many fragments over so many divides.  I understand, in part, the rage of those who see the emblems of a past that brings pain even now and want them to be gone.  I can listen to the words, the hearts of others who truly believe that it is better to bury the past.  Yes, the dead are gone from us- but while we have their memories, their past remains.  We each must decide – for ourselves, and for those who follow, in our family whether of blood or of choice – what memories will we preserve. What steps will we take to pass on those pieces of the past – whether in our garage in a crumpled box, or in a remote corner of our memory?  Will we decide to let them go?  Or will we choose to let those who follow make that decision for themselves. 

I am not ready to throw away these pictures of stranger just yet – but the time will come.  It does not cost me to save them still; it is not a burden.  But their knowledge will end with me, I am certain.  My focus must be on preserving the lives, hopes, dreams and memories of those truly dear to me, for those who like me, one day, will look at them perhaps with a sense of awe, and wonder. Perhaps in time, even the lessons of my life will somehow speak, after I am gone, and as was the gift to me, provide a doorway to a greater faith, a stronger hope, and a deeper love. 

You must remember this … in 2040

Since my last post (July 5 2020) was the AMAZING “letter from the future” – I decided to write back – to Future NormL! Of course, this raises all sorts of issues with chronology conflicts – has future me (and presumably future you) already read what I am writing now?  If so … did that influence what future me wrote to begin with?  Whatever – here is what I want the future to remember, one day. 

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Hello Future NormL!  Thanks for your note. I just realized – I have no idea when you might be reading this – or already have?  Let’s say … Summer 2040, 20 years from now.  By then I will be in my 80’s and hopefully still vital and functional – I guess that is somewhat up to me right now, and I think I am doing ok on that front.  Mom and Dad both passed at around age 80; now, in this COVID era, well, nothing is certain.  

Uncertainty is not a threat – it is a traveling companion

I wonder what you will remember of these days – memory is such a slippery critter.  It scurries around in your brain, popping up and slides where it will … like a playful dolphin.  Perhaps it laughs as well – at how we reshape our perception, letting go of some things until they suddenly reappear like some Vegas illusionist, or haunting flashback. “The way we were” lyrics say, of course, “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” – I have not found that to necessarily be true, but considering how turbulent this year has been so far, setting it aside might be a gift! 

On the other hand … sometimes we learn the most from the situations we wish we could avoid.  Being isolated, cut off from the “busyness” – makes it difficult to ignore those ongoing questions we often sense within, trying to cut through the “noise” of the everyday.  Right now, the world seems to be going through a kind of upheaval – “unrest” is the polite word the news uses mostly.  It’s odd that one can read encouraging stories about where the virus is going – and then turn on TV or go to another news site and be told everything is falling apart.  It isn’t so much that you don’t know who to believe – but you can’t be certain that anyone really has all the facts! Hopefully by 2040, those questions will be answered – but more will arise!

Today, we are inundated by voices demanding change – things that need to stop, things that others want to hold on to – traditions, artifacts, cultural standards, socio political systems, governments, laws.  It is a storm of fervor, energy, expectations being expressed (few in harmony) – one wonders what will be left if everyone got their wishes? What will continue to be celebrated and treasured, and what will be tossed aside as no longer having meaning?  There are certainly plenty of people shouting out there who claim to be the best qualified to make that decision for us all.   Certainly, for all the people shouting they have the answers, there is a time to listen – but eventually, the voice I need to hear the most is probably the quietest – within me.  Perhaps the most valuable discovery from this era for me will be learning to listen to that still, small voice.  

Right now, I’m having trouble making out that voice.  Feeling my way through just what it is that I can say to you 20 years from now that will have some sort or insight or meaning. That’s one of the hardest things about writing, sorting through all the mental and emotional “little yellow stickies” that line the walls of my brain and heart, to make sense of it all, somehow. I realize my perception, my vision is filtered through the lens of time from my ongoing interest in family history – the fascination I have in reflecting on the stream of events, seemingly random, that brought together my own ancestors from all the other lands and eras here to the West, their lives, loves and losses.  They speak to me of what endures – and what is forgotten.  A sobering truth – we cannot know what will be remembered of our lives, nor do much to ensure that we will be remembered at all.  I am the curator of their lives, to a degree – and of their voices. In some ways, the fact that their lives are little remembered for the most part teaches me that perhaps my needs that seem SO important, SO vital today – will be forgotten, their urgency being replaced by the next crisis. Most of what seems so critical in this moment will fade in time. 

Setting my thoughts free to fly again

That may seem like a sad statement – but in reality, it is a freeing statement.  We are free to determine how we spend our time and energy, within of course limits that we cannot change – but still free to choose each new day what matters most NOW.  We can get up, repeat what we did the day before, the week, month and year before – or we can stop, or at least pause – look around – listen – and consider whether there may be a better path.  This singular crisis offers that window to new understanding. Will I – we – gaze beyond? For me, that is what change looks like – giving our eyes a chance to look at things differently, and our hearts a chance to open, again. 

Ultimately, the change that I have the opportunity to put into motion is – mostly, if not solely – about the future I am building, day by day, thought by thought, choice by choice. For us. You, me – and the people who are in my life and yet to wander through. So future me, remember these things as you gaze back on these words – 

Don’t take anyone, or anything in your life, for granted. These family and friends, these moments and joys and opportunities to grow, explore and learn may not pass your way again – so treasure them. The people, the places, and all these tiny shimmering hues and colors that constitute “everyday life” will in time fade.  Whatever seems vital right now, realize that the impermanence of all our momentary crises leaves us with less control over the outcome, but also grants us a choice to work towards a better, more complete life. This is not a drill, not a practice game, not a “pause” button – it is an OPPORTUNITY – an invitation to create an existence that has real meaning. Progress, not perfection! Don’t worry that you have not made it, instead, relax in accepting you never will.  Truth does set you free – you can’t achieve all your dreams, no one will complete you, and you will always fall short of you wishes in countless ways  – but today you can give from your heart, and matter in this moment.  Live – now. 

When you remember this time, yes – recall the sadness and uncertainty, when threats seem to rise taller and threaten to crush out tomorrow, but also see triumph and survival; determination and sacrifice; overcoming – just like our parents before us, and theirs before them. All of us are incomplete people who struggled but loved. Then see in others that shining potential, that glowing hope that with a little encouragement for one another – a smile, a touch, a song or a quiet moment – we will find our way. I thank you for your letter, again – and I will work to keep building.  One day you can thank me in return. 

Will future me have learned from what choices I am making today? I hope so. Aspiration and achievement continue to be separated, but my climbing continues. “Living in the Moment” by Jason Mraz reminds me to keep my focus on where it will make the most difference. Until next time, friends – love always.

I got a letter … from the future?

The Time Tunnel …. Deliveries from the future now offered!

Gee Willikers! I got a letter from the future? Hopefully you will find something of interest in this most unusual missive whose origins will be revealed following. 

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At last! It has taken me quite a bit of time to be able to share these thoughts with you – time being the key here.  Because … this letter is from the future.  Your future.   You can’t imagine how many strings I had to pull to get the ok, and yes, of course, there were all kinds of edits by the powers that be – but I felt it was urgent to make the effort because – you need to hear these words today.  Now, more than ever. 

I know the future right now seems pretty … unpredictable? Maybe at times – bleak. You always were a worrier.   But even though you may feel like there is nothing you can do today to impact the future – You are wrong, so very wrong.  In fact, this is a turning point for you – and others in your life.  

What you do today matters so much, so much more than you know.  And it is a time of hope!!  Just … not the hopes you had before this started. Sure … you thought you knew how things were plotted out – and … hey, you were wrong.  A lot of people are feeling the same way right now.  Your plans – gone.  What you thought was certain … wasn’t really.  

Fact is, all those things that seemed so important … some were, some weren’t. What you though you wanted to have happen – well, it doesn’t come to pass.  Not exactly, anyway.  Of course, I can’t tell you the details – you’ve seen enough time travel movies – they do get some things right.  And I know you have a lot of fears that pop up right now, like those stupid arcade games you try to bash down with a hammer, they just return – I will say, focusing on those is a TOTAL waste of time (pun intended). 

This isn’t a time for fear … it’s a time for dreams, for choices, for hope – and so much more.   This is the moment you get to hit pause and say – where do I want to go from here?  Don’t snicker – I know there are limits to choices.  But it is time to think about choices maybe you have lived with for a very long time – longer than you remember even thinking about them, so that they seem like reality.  

Choices about character, honesty, openness … how much you share of your heart,  how much do you value belonging over authenticity … and what is your place in this world?  Things have changes so much, seemingly overnight … where do you belong?  What lies ahead?   Funny thing, sort of anyway,  is that the answers don’t matter as much as asking the right questions.  Of yourself.  Kind of like picking out what star to navigate by, back when there was no other way to find your way to where you were headed.  

 

This is just the start line … no map for the road ahead yet

I know you have already gone through a lot of changes, more than you thought you could handle, I do remember.  I know it was tougher, tougher than others around you could see, and you felt lonely. Afraid, uncertain.   You recognize now that pretty much everyone around you is in that same boat, in one way or another.   

You want answers to the big questions – so does everyone else. Well, most do.  Some stopped even asking, maybe that worked for them – not for you though.  So here’s a preview – you don’t get all the answers.  Even in the future, we still don’t have those answers.  But keep asking those questions.  The questions lead you to making the choices that lead you at least toward the answer.   Kind of like candles on the path. 

Heres the thing.  We were brought up in a time and place to believe certain truths.  Yep, the “big” TRUTHS!!!   Time passed, and life didn’t seem to operate the way we were taught – it didn’t really fit.  And others … they had different ideas.  I remember all the years of soul searching and wanting to “know”, wanting “Be sure” … well, I can tell you, absolutely, there is a TRUTH that you can count on, right now.  Especially, now. 

You are loved.  You always were.  Even when you were at the deepest places of pain and could never believe you had what it took to be worthy of love – you were, and are, and will be.  There is a source of that love outside you – one you cannot understand, or fully know, or explain – and all the people who say they know the Truth, well, they probably know some of it, but not all of it.  And that’s just how it goes.  The thing is, knowing that truth isn’t just for you to hold on to like some magical wand that makes everything ok –  because it isn’t just for YOU, of course! THIS is WHAT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER RIGHT NOW. 

Every day for the rest of your life, you can be a channel of that love!   You know this now, but hey I am just reminding you, ok?  You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have answers for anyone – just … reach out.  Reach up, outside yourself, open you heart, close your eyes … receive that love that comes from the source of all you know and feel … .wash in it, dance in it, sing in it …. Wrap yourself in it … and then …. Give it away.  Give it away.  Give it life, in the way only YOU can do – not having to be anyone else, in any other place, with any other changes in your life.  Today.  Now.   

Don’t be discouraged …. the way will become apparent as you move forward

It’s ok to not have the answers, not know what is ahead ….. it’s how we walk through the passage before us that makes the difference.   Trying, failing … asking forgiveness, and forgiving … most importantly accepting ourselves and others right as things are today, not perfect, never will be … and doing it together.   In love. 

The very best you have to offer those in your life, now and to come, is the deepest part of your heart.  The part that some told you to hide, to put shields around, to try to conform to what someone else said you “should” be.   It’s time to break out of that cage, because that’s the only way to let that love pour through you like a river of light and life, step out of the shadows, sing and dance and welcome tomorrow. 

We get through this.  Yes, we.  Sure …  not everything ahead is candy and ice cream. That was never the idea, you know.  There’s some more hard times – and like they say, the fire refines.  I know.  I know, because … yep, of course, I am you.  The you that lies ahead, that your choices today bring into being down the road.  I’m waiting for you to catch up – it’s going to be great! The time you have ahead is time of joy.  Joy to share with others. The discoveries you make …. The growth … it’s all good.  

Have faith … even when you can’t see those lights.  Hold on to hope … and share it with everyone you can, even just a little – somehow, giving it away brings it back to you.  And …. Love.  Doesn’t have to be perfect – just from the heart.  Love, always.   

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Back to July 2020! As I write this, we are just over 100 days since CCC (Covid Confinement Commencement). I’ve been posting here on “The New NormL” just short of 3 months, and a lot has happened (and not happened) in that time.  Originally, I’d planned to start months before – but my perfectionist nature had a hard time determining exactly what I wanted to write about. I just had a deeply felt sense that I needed to find a way to put my experiences and thoughts “out there” in hopes they might help some who, like me, was trying to find their way through to a better place.  Over the years I had written periodic little missives to friends and family – generally at holidays – and after all the changes in my life, a blog seemed to be the “next step” in whatever path was calling me.  When I registered the site in late 2019, I was happy with the name –long before we heard the phrase repeated incessantly- but still didn’t feel I knew how to bring out what I hoped to create.  

So I wrote the “letter to the future” to introduce my blog to all the people I hoped to stay in touch with, all the walks of my life.  But as I reviewed it, I realized – it was pretty selfish. Perhaps too cheery. Perhaps- not really what I needed to say.  Ultimately, I set it aside and never shared it to announce my new blog.  

Now, after months of awaiting what we used to call a return to normal, it has been getting to me.   I haven’t wanted to write as much – the accumulation of imminent dooms assaulting us constantly, whether through the news, zoom meetings, the crises that family and friends are experiencing, or nightly fireworks for weeks that invade an already restless night.  I know I am not alone in facing the internal voids which a “busy life” somehow helps us pretend don’t exist – but now are felt more deeply than ever, perhaps.  My personal belief is that openness about what I call my “expensive lessons” may help others somehow; that even though your own challenges, or those of someone you know and love, may be very different from my own – we all share certain commonalities. I am not a paragon of faith or optimism, but ultimately I would like what I share here to offer hope, even though I often struggle to find that myself. 

My June 12 post, “Quiet words of hope to a stranger”, had mostly been written years ago. A friend asked me after that post whether I had looked at it over the years since then – years that changed by life perhaps not completely, but significantly and rapidly – and seen the value in those words still for myself.  The truth is – I wish I had.  Perhaps all writing is primarily for ourselves to some degree, but I try as much as possible to pull out from my writing something that can speak to anyone. If you hear or feel or think about something from a new perspective because of some story I share here, I cannot ask for a better reason to continue – and I do plan to find my voice, to dig deeper, and to continue to build the new NormL. Perhaps this “letter from the future” somehow needed to reach me today, just as the letter to a stranger still echoes lessons and foundational truths that seem fresh again when brought back into focus have a long way to grow and go ahead.  The chasm between who I long to be and who I know myself to be seems to grow larger with the years, but we keep easing on down that road. 

We have a wonderful neighbor who shared with me recently (from a distance, masked) that she sends herself flowers every Friday – a gift from her present self to her future self, with an encouraging note. What a wonderful concept! So perhaps my own “letter from the future” is something you might like to try your hand at as well – just for you. Be aware, though – you may realize something about yourself that you had buried or forgotten, and you might discover something new – but it’s worth the effort. Sometimes the voice we need to hear the most really is our own, it just needs to “break through” all the noise that has buried it for too long. 

Music has always lifted my heart, and somehow the old songs carry with them not only the beauty they held when first discovered, but like fine wine, the memory and realization that our lives have come a ways, and we have much for which to give thanks.  Here is a link to a song from the past that perhaps will awaken renewal of hope for you as well.  

It’s not too late … let’s put our hands out in time ……

My next project- a letter from today me replying to my future self. I have no idea what I will be saying! But I will do my best to be there in the future and hear it when that day arrives. There is a tomorrow. We will meet there one day. Let’s keep climbing, together. Until then – as future Norm says – love, always

Johnny Prisoner: Patrick McGoohan - The Man Behind The Bars
The Prisoner”, Patrick McGoohan – “Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison to one’s self”.

Quiet words of hope to a stranger

My goal in writing here is simple – to share from my experience, my observations and my heart what I hope might have meaning for some readers, to offer the lessons I have learned or that my life demonstrates that, like yours, sometimes came at great cost.  A cost in years of unfulfilled potential, and wandering, trying to reconcile what I had been taught to the calling I felt in my own heart.  During some of those years, I was blessed that some came into my life to “walk alongside” and encourage me.  Little did I realize that I would be asked to do the same, for someone I never met and will never know. 

As I write in June of 2020, this would have been the month that many cities, mine included, were planning to host celebrate Pride; in SF’s case, the 50th annual.  But in 2012, I was just starting my own coming out process, in my early 50’s – a “late bloomer” in every respect.  I think my own first attendance at Pride was LA a year or two prior – so I was hardly in a place to share insights on “gay” life. It was a time of adjustment, discovery, mistakes and choices – not all of which turned out well.  Still, for some reason, my counselor at the time asked me to consider writing a letter – to a stranger. 

He had been approached by the parents of a 14-year-old boy who had recently come out to them as gay – something I could never had imagined when I was that age in 1972, 40 years earlier. His parents were more than supportive – so much so, that they felt and realized they could not offer their son all the guidance and insight he was seeking, and they had tuned to my counselor for help and support, for them as well as their son.  For some reason, he thought that I should write this teenager a letter of encouragement.  After all, my counselor was gay – what did I have to offer? 

To me, this was confusing.  I had spent years in “reparative therapy”, hiding from everyone in my life, exposing myself to danger through denial, and letting shame rule my heart; never knowing love, openness, true honesty – and missing out on acceptance from others as well as myself.  I was trying to find my own way after a life of hiding. What could I say to a 14 year old two generations younger in a very different world?  But I said yes – and ultimately, perhaps, the letter I wrote was the one I wish someone had sent me when I was alone and every voice around me was telling me that what I felt in my deepest heart had to be ignored. 

Here is that letter, from 2012 – and following – a closing observation.  

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To my young friend, who has more questions than answers – for whatever it is worth, this is the best wisdom I have to offer you as you begin an uncertain journey.

  1. BELIEVE in yourself.   Whatever flaws, whatever failures – you are an amazing and magnificent creation.  You have potential that you cannot imagine.  You must be on your own side – others will join you – but always, always know you have worth.  Surround yourself only with those who affirm your unique worth, and in turn believe in them and their worth as well. 
  2. EXPLORE life with an open mind.  The world has more wonders than you can ever see, more perspectives on life than you can ever learn, and more ideas than you can imagine.  Travel, whether it be across town or oceans, to see something new and be open to embracing that which others may not accept.
  3. RESPECT all individuals, whether they stand with you or are in your face – their lives are just as precious, unique and wondrous.  There will be some that you will never agree with on any issue at all – but you must respect them, and their values, to learn from them and become all that you might be.
  4. CREATE something – anything – you have abilities and powers that are yours alone, and that means that there is something you have to offer the world, one person or millions, that can only come from you.  Don’t shut doors that are open to you – try something new, the only failure is to say “I can’t”.
  5. GIVE freely … give from your heart, give often.  Give forgiveness to those who don’t understand you, give support and encouragement to those in need whether through your abilities or through your wallet, give when no one asks but you see the chance to make a difference, and give without anyone even knowing it came from you.  In return, in time, you will receive joy unlimited.
  6. ACCEPT that you cannot have everything the way you want it – not in your own life, not what you want from your family and loved ones, not from your school or your job or your friends.  You cannot control what happens to you – but if you accept that you cannot make things happen the way you want, you have taken a step to freedom.  This is a very hard lesson to learn, and live.
  7. If you can … have FAITH.  Faith is different from belief, different from knowledge – it is understanding that there is something larger than you.  You may not choose to have the same faith that those who love you want you to have; you may in time grow to have faith in something other than what you understand today.  That is ok.  But … if you can see that there is a power beyond you, beyond all that you know, and if you come to believe that power loves and cares for you, and each person you meet in life … you will experience life in a way that most never imagine, and you will find joy. 

Life is not always kind, and rarely fair; the rules and stories we learn as children in time may seem to be something to throw away.  There is truth in everything, and I hope you will, more than anything – SEEK – look for the truth, look for that which has value and meaning that lasts.  If you do look, beyond what others tell you to do, or be, or pursue – if you look within, and look above – you will find.  You will find the wonder of life, and you will celebrate, and you will become the miracle only you are. 

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Here we are, eight years later. I always loved happy endings, in fairy tales and myth, and later in movies – but I cannot offer you one, today.  I can share that in the years since, I have found love, married, moved to San Francisco, made plans that didn’t happen, and like you am doing all I can to stay balanced through the present challenges – and more to come.  But life has taught me there are no endings, only streams that converge and diverge, mingle and dance.  I cannot tell you what happened in that young man’s life, or where he is today at age 22.  But my counselor, Patrick, did tell me that the parents and their son were touched deeply by what I wrote.  So why share it with you today? 

By nature, most of us tend to congregate with others who share our viewpoint, history, goals or interests.  Birds of a feather. But sometimes the connections we need to open our eyes to new possibilities must come from outside our bubble. We cannot learn from those who merely repeat what we already believe to be true.  Although my life path might have similarities with your own, or someone you know, I believe we sometimes learn more from people who are different from us – that there are truths in all our experience that we can glean if we are open to listening to others, then looking within ourselves, and then realize there are options ahead we did not previously see. A secret door. An unfamiliar path. 

You have the keys to someone’s door, and the light to their path that they perhaps need your help to step forward on. Today, we are surrounded by need – and opportunity – to change our world.  Not probably in huge ways, on our own – but by listening, and caring, and accepting.  And perhaps, by sharing.  Perhaps your truths, that you paid a price for – are the hope that someone in your life needs to hear.  

So, join me for Pride – and “come out”.   Not in the sense that you might generally think of – unless, of course, that is something you might need to consider.  But in the sense of looking at what perhaps lies buried in your own life, unshared, that could make a difference by opening up to someone in need.  Perhaps that doesn’t seem likely to you, but I promise – you have pearls of great price that may offer hope to a stranger, as well.  Isn’t it worth it to take that chance?

If there was ever a moment to listen first, and learn – to realize none of us has “all the answers” but only together can we BUILD the road to a better tomorrow – that moment is now.  Listen to the hearts of those around you, perhaps strangers now, and your own – and you will know, somehow, when it is your time to “come out” and share your truths to those whose stream crosses through your path.  You may never know what miracles may follow. Let’s move forward , together.

Are you going … to San Frantasia?

I invite you to be my guest on a trip to an enchanted place – where dreams and history, fantasy and hope combine into a land that never was,  and will never be – but whose promise still shines brightly today. 

Copyright Albert Tolf, San Francisco

“It is the bridge to enchantment – Sunshine, Sails, Surf, Birds, Kites & Joy.  Hillside Gardens forever in bloom.  Fishing wharfs, foghorns & Moviemakers.  Architectural Daring – high as the hills.  The taste of goodness & and touch of whimsy.  It’s the past, present and future, flower stands & the bell atop a cablecar.  

San Frantasia – Timeless wonderland of the West.”

Decades ago, these were the words at the bottom of the poster which I saw among the pieces of history at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA, buried in an old freightcar filled with lamps, timetables, and more.  The jumbled vision of old and new, whimsy and dreams, caught my eye – never imagining I would one day live here in the less colorful yet still vibrant real city by the bay.  Like many curiosities that attract my eye, it faded into my memory, stirred recently by discussion with a friend who asked me to find it online – along with new discoveries. I hope you will let me guide you along the path that helped me find it after all those years.      

It turns out “San Frantasia” sprang from the vision and imagination of Albert Tolf, whose father Albert Tolf Sr. emigrated in 1900 from Sweden, settling eventually in Joliet, IL where Albert Jr. was born in 1916.  He had formal training at the Chicago Institute and for a while assisted on the now nearly forgotten “Gasoline Alley” newspaper comic. Following a vacation trip to San Francisco in the late 30’s, Albert fell in love with the city, moving here in 1948.   He worked on billboards and other commercial projects, including scenic painting for an amusement park under construction in Southern California – a risky venture by another visionary, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.  Soon, Albert gave up commercial art to build his own gallery featuring his oil paintings, at six SF locations over 20 years, including Post at Sutter near Union Square, the Transamerica tower, and a Holiday Inn lobby on Kearny.  One profile described him riding around his gallery on a custom unicycle! Albert married his wife Naomi in 1967, retiring to Santa Rosa where he passed in 1996. 

1974 profile of “Albert Tolf – Swedish American”

Another explorer provided an online window that opened my eyes to the broader world of Albert Tolf’s vision. In 2016, local resident and respected photographer Ron Henggeler was exploring a Berkeley bookstore, and found a worn volume published by Albert called “This was San Francisco”.  He too was charmed by the illustrations of local lore and events.  He scanned and cleaned all of the images, which you can find on his personal website, including thousands of wonderful historical and current images. I hope you will explore his amazing online gallery, but here is where you can see the entire book of Albert’s collection of local facts and curiosities – https://www.ronhenggeler.com/Newsletters/2016/5.18/Newsletter.html

The original images were published over several years in the 50’s, when Albert provided a weekly cartoon “In Old San Francisco”, illustrating local history and lore to the “San Francisco News”. This publication is long gone, like many, as after mergers it was eventually bought and shuttered by the San Francisco Examiner.  The website above has all of the illustrations, but here is just one example, of a name many of us know (and a treat many of us have enjoyed!) – Ghirardelli Chocolate.   

  GHIRARDELLI

From “In Old San Francisco”, First edition 1959, by Albert Tolf

After some more digging, I found that the volume Ron Henggeler had discovered was a revised reprint of the original edition, “In Old San Francisco”, published in soft cover in December 1959.  But I still didn’t know where “San Frantasia” came from?  As I learned in the few articles I was able to track down online, Albert created numerous images of his beloved city, as well as artwork of local landmarks in both present and past times, such as Union Square and the Embarcadero.  

“The San Francisco Waterfront in 1903” by Albert Tolf

Eventually I learned, to my surprise, the original poster which I had seen years before was initially available accompanying another smaller 1966 publication – “Al Tolf’s San Francisco .. Timeless Wonderland..” which he described as “a presentation of seven impressions and caricatures” with “one plate reproduced as a lithographic print”.  Tolf is quoted as saying “San Francisco is like one big Disneyland”, and it is clear his imagination was unfettered. Several of those images follow … because, as you see below, I engaged in retail therapy and tracked down – separately – both original books and the print for my own. It was apparently quite successful, with one article noting in time over 12,000 posters were sold.  A few even apparently remain on display in some locations scattered around our city, their origins mostly forgotten. 

When I look at this amazing “gee whiz” world that Tolf created in his poster, filled with cable cars on impossible heights, steam engines and horse drawn buggies alongside dirigibles, unending construction of skyscrapers near tiny houses, horses and convertibles – I am inspired.  This is a vision, yes, a dream – and I am struck by how that dream endures even over 50 years after he created it.  Today we are facing upheaval here and in our broader world, our village where creative and personal freedom, fringe culture and groundbreaking thinking have been birthed for over half a century since his publication.  Still, even now, in this time of uncertainty, sometimes bleak and seemingly impossible challenges – San Francisco remains and endures and becomes and evolves.  Just as, in a shorter time frame than this city, we all must, constantly, and at a seemingly increased pace.  Somehow, this vision I feel in Albert Tolf’s art gives me – hope. 

But the most intriguing article I found was from the San Francisco Rotary in 1967 – the second oldest chapter in the world! They were very kind to share with me that Albert, a devoted member, even designed their “Grindings” newsletter masthead, still in use today – shown here with their permission (thank you!).  It captures in just a few detailed lines much of our iconic city.   

Image courtesy of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, by Albert Tolf

The article showed a “work in progress” which hopefully still exists today, for the upcoming anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge.  Like his talent, it was large – as was his love for his city – and was created for display in the Rotary offices. But, as change comes to all things, Rotary closed their office in time, and passed it on to another non-profit agency with a long heritage – I hope to discover they still have it on display, and that I can share this history of their treasure for future preservation. 

Albert Tolf, 1967, “Golden Gate Bridge” work in progress for SF Rotary Club

As much as I would love to have one of his amazing originals of this “Timeless wonderland” that has become my home, I am happy to have brought “San Frantasia” and his books into my life. For those who are fortunate to have one of his many whimsical sketches, or full on oil paintings of his beloved city, or railroads, and other places he loved – perhaps our trip through time will help them learn of Albert’s amazing life – and to realize they have a small treasure.

It’s hard to say just why thinking of San Frantasia gives my heart a lift, but it does.  Although it’s impossible for me to pick out one “favorite” segment of his detailed vision, this tiny image from the lower right side is perhaps the perfect way to thank Albert, and all the dreamers and characters, visionaries, adventurers, scoundrels and outliers that brought us the city we love today.  May it endure, and continue to be a shining star for future generations.  “The best is yet to come” – it is now in our hands to bring that dream just a little closer to reality.  Shall we? 

Detail from “San Frantasia” by Albert Tolf, 1966

Resources –

https://www.lambiek.net/artists/t/tolf_albert.htm

“Sometimes I cry when I see the boys”

Memorial day weekend, 2020

What do we gain by looking at the past?  Some might say, very little.  Yes, we live in the present, and hope and plan for a better future – but the past still speaks.  It tells us stories – sometimes in words, in letters, more recently in videos, and silently in photos, in eyes that gaze into our present from times we never walked in, and people we never knew in life.   

Perhaps you, like myself and many others, look back on your childhood and feel a combination of gratitude, nostalgia, and yearning – some things you treasure, some you wish could have been different. Although we cannot change what happened –sometimes, life gives us an opportunity to see the past through new eyes.  I was given that opportunity, and it helped me understand my heritage, my family, and life in ways that I would not otherwise appreciated.  I feel today’s attempt to share how this came to pass for me will not be fully successful – too long, too personal, perhaps – but if you are willing to come along, let me try to share how seeing the past anew helped me build a better future. 

My Parents – in their only “Non wedding” picture together …..

This look back begins with a stack of letters in the 1960’s – from probably my age four to age 8 or 9.  My Mom, as she did with so many things, kept the letters – some would I know question the wisdom in that, but I am grateful she did.  They are undated, for the most part – all but a few typewritten, from my Dad to my Mom.  He would type them at work, I believe – some even on the stationary of the “correctional institution” where he spent his career.  Although I have wonderful childhood memories, I have few of my parents being together; they divorced when I was 7, being separated much of the time before then.  So they are my father’s words, not my memories.  Whether my Mom wrote back is unknown, but I doubt that she would have. 

Here is the beginning of one from I believe 1964, just the first stanza of a poem from my Dad to Mom – 

Ten years ago today, you became my wife

My pledge of love to you was for all of my life

Our honeymoon I remember, so well, so very well

Why did it have to change and become a living hell.

The poem, titled “To Nancy with Love”, continues for 7 more stanzas.  One page, brimming with regret, anger, sadness, pleading – like all of the roughly 2 dozen others.  My parents had married in 1954, my brother born the next year, I in 1958.  She had worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, her coworker’s husband worked with my Dad at the state prison at Terminal Island; they met, dated and were wed at her mother’s home. They honeymooned in Ensenada (she kept the napkins and matches from the hotel) and ultimately moved into central and then Northern California as my Dad transferred to different correctional facilities, eventually returning to Southern California, where family remained and where I grew up.  

Wedding Day, May 1, 1954 – Long Beach, California

Dad’s letters are filled with pain, but vary wildly, sometimes even within the same letter – one five pages long, typewritten.  Dad revisits arguments, his attraction to other women, medications, group meetings, talking with doctors and counselors and even the priest at the prison; feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, apologies.  Promising that he has always loved her, always will; in one, he blames Mom for the most recent incident, whatever that was, and points out her “unhappy life with your father”, which was true.  Her parents had divorced in the 30s, when that was quite rare, and I know she was scarred by it.  But he also admits to his problems with drinking; of physical violence between them; of emotional abuse. He talks about leaving our home after a heated argument, emotionally upset, and driving the car off the freeway.   “I often cry when I see the boys”. Yes, I realize, he truly did cry.  Nearly 6 decades later, I can feel the pain in his words.  He wanted a better life, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.  

Of course, all these letters were written while they were separated, and in some cases even after the divorce.  Some letters touch on problems at work, staying with his older brother whose wife had died, his ailing parents, his mother’s stroke and hospitalization and his father’s decline.  In his later years, Dad told me stories of his own father’s alcoholic issues – about his mother sending him to “get his father home from the whorehouse in time for Sunday dinner”.  One letter includes a detailed budget, with the notation – “Since there isn’t any money, I will have to stop drinking, but not because of your dramatic performances and emotional feelings”.  She was emotional; she also had severe health problems, exacerbated by rheumatoid arthritis that developed after my brother’s birth.  They struggled financially, like many families.  And I am sure there were other families in our neighborhood dealing with alcoholism, or worse issues.  

It is somewhat revealing to read Dad’s thoughts about my brother and I, referencing regret about missing my birthday, our first Christmas apart, and other events.  In one, he says my brother has “much better control of his temper” and that I am “still full of the devil but is growing also”.  There is a note about taking my brother camping for the weekend with the neighbor boy (their father was a local attorney, also divorced).   In one he talks about plans to go to Disneyland “soon” – I remember a trip, perhaps that was a seed that led to my own love of “the happiest place on earth” – a place I saw as a  refuge from my own pain in adult life, when I had not yet realized the answer to the loneliness and isolation I struggled with, like Dad, lay within, not in escape from reality.  

The only pic I have of me with both my parents together

Mom also had stacks of letters from attorneys; issues about his owing fees, the ownership of the home and property; and Dad’s handwritten will leaving his property to my brother and me.  One attorney letter advised Mom that Dad was going to tell the state, who had financed the home mortgage under a veteran program, that he was abandoning the home and to take action against her; in another, her attorney indicates that Dad was representing their divorce was “off” due to “conciliation” – but that was not to be.  Their divorce was final in October 1965 after years of separation.  In the end, the home was awarded to Mom, along with $150/month alimony and $100/month child support for each of us – $350 a month. Mom’s physical and emotional deterioration continued; she never returned to work.  

In 1966, when I was 8, my Dad married a wonderful woman who did what she could to include both my brother and I in their lives.   We went on vacations to Pismo Beach and Arizona, I spent weekends visiting them a few blocks away.  In time, they had a son, and he and his family continue to be a blessing in my life.  My Dad did all he could, I believe – within his ability – to provide for my brother and I, to support us.  I remember the weekend visits, the trips to work, watching “Seymour presents” and “The Outer Limits” on TV together, and later, support and encouragement in other ways.  But no one has all happy memories. 

Friend, I do not want you to read these words and be downcast or depressed.  But something inside me quietly whispers that whatever value my experience has to offer others is dependent on understanding the depth of what came before.  I literally have only one memory of my parents being together – my coming home from kindergarten with classmate Tina from down the street, to find my father screaming at my mother outside the home, her on the porch crying, and then him driving away.  I suspect it was a form of self-preservation that the rest was erased from my memory.   In a home with little money for anything other than food, I grew up feeling different from all the children in my classes; I remember the pain of 5th grade open house when I was the only child with no one coming to participate, and the loneliness of not being able to talk about TV programs with others because we had no TV in our home, and no car to go to school events. And, in time, I became aware of the other difference, the one that was not allowed, that caused my isolation to become even deeper – from others, and from myself.  I buried my soul so deeply that life without hope, and intimacy, seemed normal. 

We put together photograph albums, we set them aside, with the pretty pictures, the smiles, the happy memories.  They are wonderful to revisit, and good to preserve.  Personally, I do believe there is just as much, if not more – to learn from our family’s struggles and losses.   Growing through them.  Understanding them, perhaps – and maybe, using those lessons to chart a better path ahead.  It may seem contradictory to expectation, but for me – coming to understand the flaws and challenges and disappointments of the past gives me hope.   

Trying to see the world through my Dad’s glasses … even then

When I first found these letters, I was 40; my Mom was in a care facility as I began the nearly 8 yearlong process of what I now call “reclaiming” my childhood home.  She had a bedroom, their bedroom, filled with boxes and things she had shut away.  In them, I found the letters, and … treasures.  Photos of family I never knew.  Family I reconnected with.  And in time, that led to sharing, stories – healing. 

My Dad and I had a difficult relationship for many years.  My own journey seeking help – for a long time, for the wrong problem, unfortunately – led to separation from most of my family other than my Mom.  During that period, I found the letters, and I learned to see that my understanding of the past was, like all of ours, incomplete – I came to a point where I realized that forgiveness was the only door that led to hope.

It took years, help from others, and pain – but in time, I made peace with my Dad. I dare to say we became close; my stepmother passed in early 2006, and my Mom a few months after. Dad outlived them both, and I am glad I could offer him support and care in those days.  After they were gone – I continued to gain insight into their struggles, and mine as well. Eventually the desperation of my own emotional isolation and embedded shame brought me to a place where I found – acceptance, of them, from them, and for myself. Recovery, hope, faith – and love.  And, in a way, I feel closer to both of them now than ever before.  I know them differently today. 

One letter is different from all the others – Dad wrote it to my brother and I at Christmas, with a note that he asked Mom to read it to us.  In it, he writes – “I know that you both will someday have children of your own and my fondest desire is that you will become good, strong men who are loving, and will love your wives and your children. Never become mad or hateful as you only hurt the ones you really love and yourself”. Is that not the wish for every father for their sons?  My mother has two grandchildren, my father four; none from me, but in my imperfect way, I try to share with all four the love that my parents had for their fathers, and I.  And, thank God, I have come to know love, not in the way my parents wished, but one just as real and alive. 

I close the file on these letters from the past; but I do not destroy them. They have shared their lesson with me, and perhaps hopefully with you.  Parents and children, spouses and lovers, hopes and disappointments, sorrow and joy – like the rhythms of waves washing into our lives, generations repeating the longing of our hearts.  With forgiveness, we have the chance to begin again, and build life anew – together.  It is not easy, but there is a way to seek it, and to give it, for us all.  I am thankful I found that doorway, and the life beyond and ahead.