Another Day, One Year Removed

According to this website, Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday held on the third Monday of January. It celebrates the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., an influential American civil rights leader. He is most well-known for his campaigns to end racial segregation on public transport and for racial equality in the United States.

On MLK Day a year ago, Mark was watching a parade in Chipley, Florida. He had six more days of walking ahead of him before he’d be hit and killed walking westward, along U.S. 90.

I started watching Mark’s videos back in October. This was just prior the beautiful event that Brown (Mark’s library co-workers and members of the school’s literary arts department) held on a perfect fall day that also happened to be Josiah Carberry Day.

Each day I watched and wrote through the fall, as I was navigating Medicare’s Annual Enrollment Period as an insurance rep, trying to supplement my income, selling Medicare Advantage insurance. I made several trips down the coast and back, working on a story about Bucksport and the closing of its mill. I began tutoring in September at Hyde School, a private boarding school nearby where Cher’s son attended, as well as Michael McDonald’s (of The Doobie Brothers) son.

We passed from one season into the next. Winter brought snow and bitter cold. Mark’s parents experienced their first Thanksgiving without him, his birthday, then Christmas, New Years. Interspersed with this, we made an important and meaningful trip to California, and we buried the remains of our son on Memorial Day weekend. This Saturday, we’ll experience the first anniversary of his death. I note all of this to say that life goes on after a loved one dies, but the emotional pain and hurt never leaves. You find a way to carry on, but your heart aches each and every day.

Time doesn’t bring healing, or a lessening of the pain. Actually, I think the passing of time simply drives home the reality that your loved one is never coming back.

I just finished reading a book about a family that lost their 18-year-old son. The loss devastated the parents and their daughter, who was very close to her brother, three years older than she was. Rather than face the death of their son directly, the parents retreated into a cocoon of religious extremism, and neglected their daughter, who was entering high school and womanhood. Her weight dropped down to 85 pounds because she wasn’t eating.

Name All the Animals: A Memoir, by Alison Smith, was a book that I found somewhat enjoyable, for reading’s sake, but it also made me consider the approach that Mary and I have taken following Mark’s death. We didn’t retreat into despair, couched in religious veneer like Smith’s parents did. We haven’t tried to drown our sorrows, or medicate them away. If there were ever two people who had an excuse to quit and crawl under a rock, it would be us. But we haven’t. Why have we continued to face this thing head on and not give up?

Other people have talked about us being “heroic.” Why is it considered extraordinary to keep on keeping on?

All last week, I couldn’t help but notice the hand-wringing on social media. Yes, we have an awful human being as president. So what? Life sucks—move on! For some reason, I kept hearing the old Wobbly refrain, “Don’t Mourn, Organize” in my head. For Mary and me, maybe we can alter it to, “Mourn (for Mark), but Organize.” That seems to work (for us).

Come on people—suck it up! We’ve got work to do and our team is down a key member, and he’s not coming back. How about redoubling our efforts in Mark’s honor and memory?

Mark certainly modeled pushing through adversity each and every day on his final walk. In re-watching these videos, that’s been apparent to me. He just didn’t have any quit in him.

On Saturday, we hope to be with FANG and some of Mark’s fellow activists in Providence. They’ll be remembering Mark, and taking part in a march for a better world. Mark would have been there if he’d made it back home from his walk.

This is a tough week. Just like the other 51 weeks have been, since Mark’s death.

Mark with a fellow Earth-lover, in Chipley, FL on MLK Day, 2017.

Barefoot Man Walking Across America

One year ago, a barefoot man (who was a son) was walking through Florida. Something out beyond the horizon kept pulling him westward, past tiny towns, abandoned historic buildings, and swamps and forests. On this particular night, his footsteps would be illuminated by the super moon. Days ahead, a woman driving an SUV would be waiting for him.

Back home, his father followed his progress via the GPS device he purchased: he didn’t want his parents worrying (as much as they did the first time). Emails went back and forth. Each day, the father waited for a video and a new blog post.

The barefoot man (who was a son) decided it would be better to sleep outside, rather than within shabby enclosures named “motel.” He kept walking, making videos, and writing poetry. He wrote this poem on Day 089, somewhere near Gretna, Florida.

A Poem (from Day 089)
The dirt / used to be / named / after /some old white guy /named jeff / he liked / to do / all the things / old white guys / named jeff / like / to do / including / violence / and / oppression / people / got tired / of / being reminded / of / violence / and / oppression / whenever / they looked / at / the ground / so / one day / everyone / asked / the trees / and / the skies / what the ground / should / be called / and / the trees / and / the skies / voted / for / dirt / over / other options / like / pasta sauce / and / crack

The father thought he’d like to listen to this guitar player while he was walking. The man walking barefoot (who was a son) emailed his father saying he was listening to the man playing the guitar. His father imagined his son listening to “Highway Anxiety” and “Country of Illusion,” while walking, bathed in moonlight.

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A Year of Books (about grief)

An annual habit of mine since I’ve been blogging has been to compile an end-of-year reading recap. Each year I’ve done it differently: some years I got really involved with my reading recap blog post. Other times, like last year (2016), I simply “dialed it in” because I wasn’t really feeling much enthusiasm for that writing “assignment.” My reading recap in 2014 still stands as “the bomb” in terms of detail, depth, and length.

Keeping a reading list is another lesson I learned from Mark Baumer. He thought it was important to keep track of the books he read and he encouraged his parents to do the same. Like him, I had a website, so I incorporated my annual reading compendium into my blog/website. Like son—like father. Mary kept her list in a journal/notebook, as well as noting it on the Goodreads site.

When Mark was killed in January, I couldn’t read for most of the next month following his death. Grief affects you in a host of ways, and I experienced a sort of cognitive dulling that made following a narrative difficult, if not impossible. This concerned me, especially if it meant that something essential in my life like reading would get snatched away from me, just like Mark had.

I was grasping (and gasping) for understanding without much success in the days and weeks following Mark’s death. This was when I picked up a book written by a friend and someone I had worked with (as had Mark) in helping her publish that book. Linda Andrews wrote a beautifully-honest book about coping with the death of her husband, Jim. Her own experiences with many people’s inability to cope with what you are going through was oddly comforting. Coming back to Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve offered me a much richer appreciation for what she accomplished in writing that book. It also offered me the ability to make my way back to an important practice of reading.

Grief and an existential sadness have become daily companions during 2017, the year I’d soon like to forget (Mark was killed on January 21), or perhaps be offered some kind of do-over. I spent the final 11 months looking for other books that might offer solace and support. My experience became one where books offering insight and understanding of my new landscape of grief and loss and a world turned upside-down weren’t as readily available as I would have thought they would be. Maybe a better way of articulating that is to say that the kinds of books that spoke to me, personally, weren’t something I could just look up online or pick off the bookshelf at the local library. Finding them necessitated work and investigation. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s that the books that dot the self-help section dealing with grief and loss simply aren’t addressing the kinds of things I’m living through. Also, as much as we try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to “healing” the grieving, everyone grieves differently. I’m not looking to simply compartmentalize my feelings, or to make others more comfortable in my presence, which is often how it seems like we’re expected to process death in America. At times, feeling like I had to measure up to this unrealistic expectation made me angry. Continue reading