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Keep turning

Photo by Famartin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Famartin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Without a doubt, it’s chaos out there.

A world spins out of control. Our dysfunctional divisions widen. There’s no progress in sight to tackle the burgeoning challenges of the day.

It’s enough to make one wonder: What’s the point?

What gives?

And yet, this midsummer I am reminded again to slow down and take in a broader perspective. Informed both by longtime friends and some fresh experiences, what matters is making the most of every moment—or at least, fully appreciating those moments that matter most.

Turning around to face the light. Welcoming our capacity to turn, open to gratitude, even when ugly stuff rears its inevitable head. Perhaps recognizing the mosaic of both in our lives: seeking grace amidst the confusion, and even despair.

It is a choice we can all make—or not. I’m unsure why I still need reminding of this, since the downside of not doing so is so stark, like the sudden flash of heat lightning on a humid, dull horizon.

Should we be surprised by their gratitude, their will to make the best of moments?

Someone recently introduced me to a story I’d like to briefly share about a woman who chose to live in full despite having a rare, incurable disease. Amy Frohnmayer Winn lived with a rare recessive-gene disorder called Fanconi anemia, which results in bone-marrow failure, leukemia, and worse. Her two older sisters also died of the rare, incurable disease.

Amy did not merely exist with her condition. She thrived. Like her sisters growing up in Oregon, she endured having her blood counts monitored and bone marrow biopsied frequently. Her parents, who also raised two sons who do not have the disease, made sure their children experienced everything most of us would want: being active, learning to ski and play tennis, take piano lessons, opportunities to attend college, and enjoy sleep-overs with friends.

Amy’s story was perceptibly portrayed by John Brant in “Running For Her Life” in Runners World earlier this summer, which I highly recommend. She became a dedicated daily runner, covering four miles most days on her favorite trail along the Deschutes River in Bend (an area Denise and I were able to sample last summer with our son!).

Brant writes: “The trick, the task, the challenge, the girl realized with precocious insight, was to be present in the moment; to accept with clear eyes the good or ill, grace or pain, that each moment delivered.”

That’s a potent reminder for us all.

Unidentified trail runner. By Robin McConnell. Courtesy of Flickr.

Unidentified trail runner. By Robin McConnell. Courtesy of Flickr.

The article was recommended to me by someone I’ve only met on the phone, a potential reviewer for my forthcoming book. She suggested that Amy’s passion to live in full and what her parents have done for three decades aligns with some of the people I’ve written about, whose struggles with loss and other tough stuff ultimately transformed their lives.

Her parents, Lynn and Dave Frohnmayer, started a family support group in the 1980s along with founding the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund to learn and share more about the then-little-known disease.

Each of us may know others who, in the midst of excruciating trials, decide to live each day the best they can. We are moved, even astonished, by their guts and forbearance—indeed, their grace—enough so that we catch ourselves getting upset over some relatively trifling obstacle or ordeal.

Should we be surprised by their gratitude, their will to make the best of moments?

As an old friend reminded us recently, “Any day my feet hit the floor getting out of bed is a good day.”

In my circle of friends, we recently lost sweet Marie, only in her mid 50s, after a long struggle with breast cancer that had metastasized throughout her body. “Giggles” was her nickname, and she lived that way to the end. She had an uncanny laugh, and a certain toughness that may have seemed at odds with her small frame.

“Struggle” does not seem like the best way to describe how she lived—the little I really know of her journey in recent years. When we visited her in hospice, she ate ice cream trying to keep up a once-veracious appetite. Marie was still self-deprecating, chortling about the antics of family members, fully herself. Her oldest daughter was about to get married, and she hung on to be at the ceremony.

She, too, appeared to make that choice to stay present. And how vital it felt that we had been able to reconnect a few years earlier.

So, keep on turning. Into that crazy mosaic, under that full canopy.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.

“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye

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Fathers and sons, swells and circles

The Embarker takes off for her 50th year. Photo by Jean Perry, The Wanderer, Mattapoisett, Ma.

The Embarker takes off for her 50th year. Photo by Jean Perry, The Wanderer, Mattapoisett, Ma.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to join my dad for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

We watched a marine sling lift lower his 19-foot sailboat into the water at Mattapoisett Boatyard to start its fiftieth consecutive season.

Climbing aboard, we adjusted a few things, raised sail, pulled the Embarker to the end of the pilings, and headed off into a light breeze.
On one hand, her launch was a nondescript event befitting a minor luxury that my family has long enjoyed.

Yet it’s been fifty years. Where did it go?

Reaching this benchmark means so much to my father. Nearing 79, he is experiencing a dwindling circle of dear friends while facing his own natural limitations. For several years we’ve worried about his balance on the spongy fiberglass deck. Sailing alone is out of the question—not because he cannot do it, but hustling to the bow to pick up the mooring is problematic.

A dad’s gift of affirmation

Still, I don’t foresee much preventing him from heading out into Buzzards Bay in decent weather, even during a gusty southwesterly skirmish that typifies a summer afternoon there. At least one of us will be along to assist.

And appreciate the time together, dashed by salt spray on a tack, or settling in to the rhythm of small rollers easing us downwind.

Reminded again, as a good friend of mine insists, that we dare not take this moment for granted.

Taking stock of the circle of seasons, and how things come round with those we love best.

I’ve been thinking about what being a dad means this week.

The most vital thing I learned from my father is not his just tenacious and beneficent work ethic. He built a company that provided for hundreds of people. That continues to be an inspiring achievement, driven in part by his engineer’s skill set and entrepreneurial zeal. And also by something deeper, as both a provider and humanist, to help others have meaningful careers and sustain their families.

For me, the bedrock he provided was validation. An openness to accept me as an individual pursuing other dreams. Unconditional support when I wavered, not without firm admonishment at times, but softened a bit like a large swell pushing the boat’s stern off-wind.

As a dad myself, hopefully I continue to convey some of the same.

An affirmation of our children’s passions and life choices. Appreciating who they are rather then trying to mold them into some likeness of myself. Celebrating their steps forward, while acknowledging the occasional gaps, their anxieties, or when pain resurfaces about the loss of their brother, or the occasional divides and contradictions that span a family.

Year in and out, we crave acceptance and forgiveness. Acknowledgment of our strengths—and support for our shortcomings.

We dare not take this moment for granted

Sailing again out towards Nye’s Ledge, my dad’s memories remain clear. He and his longtime friend, John Flood, also a civil engineer, took an inaugural sail on Embarker on November 11, 1967. It was a mild day in the 60s with only 10-12 knots of wind.

My dad had never docked a sailboat before. Returning to the boatyard dock, he knew enough to turn it into the wind. “We missed it by three feet,” he laughs.

There would be other November sails returning her for the winter.

We’ve heard many of the stories, and longing for them again, we settle in, listening to the light thump of a breaking wave.

My dad, Bob Brack, on board. Photo by Jean Perry, courtesy of The Wanderer.

My dad, Bob Brack, on board. Photo by Jean Perry, courtesy of The Wanderer.


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Running with his best

Photo of the Wareham River, 3/17/2017 by J. Douglas Wright

Photo of the Wareham River, 3/17/2017 by J. Douglas Wright

Three days before he died, Doug messaged me on Facebook for my birthday:

“Burn a candle for me, old man,” he wrote.

John Douglas Wright, I’m overdue to light that flame.

Gregarious and loved by many, Doug was a light in our lives going back to junior high school, at least. A gifted athlete, he was funny, chortling, the spiritual fifth member of a cranking band in his college-to mid-20s days, an expert on plants, a nurseryman, patio builder, long the stud of our crew, youngest brother of five, a creator with his drawings and landscape design, adored by his late parents and family.

We cannot forget his infectious laugh, the smile bursting open ruddy cheeks, his solid, eclectic musical tastes, his heart—his good core.

How do we carry forward the best that was Doug?

As his friends and brothers know, there was also another side. He was deeply wounded if not saddled by survivor’s guilt following a car crash that killed his close friend when Doug was 25. The trauma of Gonzo dying in his arms, the cruel randomness of being struck by a stolen car going the wrong-way in a high-speed chase—this may have largely set the stage.

He veered down and sometimes lived in that hellhole where addicts and alcoholics go. For long stretches when I was not in his life—not knowing the depths of his descent—the disease ran him aground.
I don’t wish to linger long there, since those who love him already know.

We are left to wonder: which among Doug’s gifts can we run with? How do we do this?

Perhaps one answer is recognizing the positive things that came to light—as we take stock of his life and how others tried to help him, or came together remembering the man as they knew him best.

Despite some setbacks, he was doing better the past two years. Living with two close friends of ours, they became a family unit, often cooking meals together and making it through another week. He and Dianne competed to see who Pugs would jump up to for belly scratches on the couch. They gave him so much, a step out of the isolation that had been his life.

As friends gathered for a double-edged celebration of his life on Sunday, we basked in a momentary reunion, albeit tamped down by a chilly, grey afternoon that somehow seemed more appropriate than the previous day’s sunshine. I can only hope that this will continue as we occasionally evoke his spirit.

Taking stock of his life, how others helped him, or came together remembering the man they knew

Another of Doug’s longtime friends told me that as he discovered the extent of Doug’s troubles, early on he wished he could shake him up. Wasn’t there something he might say to help him understand that it was okay to live his life again? To give himself permission to let go?

Ultimately, this friend realized that he could not carry that weight of self-blame if Doug failed to turn it around. It would always be Doug’s choice.

Yet this friend never stopped checking in. Calling. Reaching out. Sensing when Doug was in a downward spiral, when he hadn’t heard from him, or when he knew something was off.

I think this is what strikes me the most: we don’t stop trying. We forgive. We clasp shoulders with those we grew up with who now live very different lives. We look to the sky for slants of light through clouds. We keep showing up.

And we dare not forget the best in him.

Some of us who were close to Doug have gnawing questions and laments. We may feel we did not do enough. This is unfair, especially for our friends who took him in. At times we looked the other way, or were worn out by his issues.

A bit hardened even while reconnecting with Doug three years ago, I felt that he had dodged responsibility to face his trauma and clean up. As if this was some ultimate failure. As if I sat in judgment. “How are you honoring your friend’s life?” by succumbing to this?

This is not what Gonzo would want you doing to yourself, I cried.

He may have been trying to climb out. Inching forward, even when set back again.

As spring arrived at Dianne’s house, Doug poked around outside doing what he was most passionate about. Pruning overgrown trees and edging gardens until neighbors asked him to do theirs. Spreading mulch and caring for annuals and tomato plants. Enjoying the sun on their porch and or walking Pugs.

There was more to do, but hopefully, for Doug, not so much left unsaid.

Let’s run with what we loved best in him.

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