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Archive for the ‘Fathers and Sons’ Category

I had just been

On an amazing adventure

I worked on

The wheat harvest

To follow my Dad’s path,

To walk in his shoes,

To find out

What had led him

To change his whole life

And reclaim

His soberness

His family

His job

His life.

 *

Combine cutting wheat

I had returned to Houston

After spending the summer

From Oklahoma

To North Dakota

Following the wheat

Living a nomadic life

Exploring new worlds.

Combine moving to next field

*

I had been writing letters

To a number of friends

To stay grounded.

I had called

Whenever we stopped

At a place where

There was a phone.

One of my biggest

Supports was Donna.

We’d been friends

For many years

And she had been there

Whenever

I needed her.

 *

So when I got home,

We planned to spend time.

She wanted to hear

All about my experience

What it was like driving

A big truck,

Pulling a wheat combine

Combine on a trailer behind grain truck

On a trailer.

I had described it

In letters,

But it wasn’t the same

As being able to

Spend an evening

And tell someone

All  about it.

*

I called her.

She said

And I remember

This vividly:

“Say, I’d love

To get together.

I’m house sitting

For some friends,

I have to watch their dogs

I have to do a couple of

Loads of laundry.

I’ll cook you dinner,

And get a couple of movies

And we can watch those

While we visit.”

*

The whole thing

Just felt wrong.

Too many moving parts,

And no place to

Really talk.

I had presence enough

To say

“Donna, that feels

awfully busy.

Why don’t we do it

Another night

When there’s more time

To just sit and visit.”

*

She acted sort of surprised,

And a bit put out.

Like she had been

Doing me a favor

To offer me the time slot.

We never rescheduled.

She never found out

What my journey

Had been like.

 *

The only thing

I can figure out

Is that she didn’t

Really want to know.

Ouch!

Why?

I couldn’t guess.

*

We were never the same

After that.

**************************

Photo credits:

Photos by Dan L. Hays Copyright, all rights reserved.

“Good Question” e-magic @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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My Dad disappeared

For about a year

When I was seventeen.

The last I saw him,

We left him

Passed out drunk

On the living room couch.

Relatives came and got

My Mom, sisters and me

Leaving Dad

Who wouldn’t quit drinking

Who wouldn’t accept help.

I thought

I might ever see him again.

 *

Later

He returned to our lives

A changed man.

He sobered up

Got back his old job

Built back his old life.

*

But twenty years later

After he died

I realized

I never knew what happened

When he disappeared.

When he was on the edge

Of killing himself

With the drink.

Rumor had it

That he worked

The wheat harvest

Something he had done

In college.

Wheat Harvest

*

I started to write

The story of what I thought

Might have happened.

I realized

The piece I was missing

Was what it would be like

To work on

The wheat harvest.

*

I said to a friend

“Someday…

Someday,

If I ever want to

Really explore

My Dad’s story.

I might just have to

Work the wheat harvest.

My friend Pat

Listened quietly.

 *

Later he said

“You’ve talked about

working the wheat harvest

three or four times.

I just want to mention

Someday – if you want

To work the wheat harvest.

I have relatives in Oklahoma

Who do that each year.”

*

I did what I do

When hit with

The unexpected.

I sat there

Numbly,

Quietly.

And then said

“Thanks for telling me.”

Talk about upping the ante

On a spiritual quest

To walk in

My Dad’s shoes.

My friend had

Certainly done that.

Now I was left

To put it all out there,

Or leave it as “someday.”

*

I finally called Pat

And asked if he would

Do me a favor.

Check with his relatives

To see if I might

Join their harvest crew

For the summer.

*

Meanwhile,

I tried to figure out

If this was

Completely nuts.

Quit my job,

Go off and work

On a harvest crew

To find out about

My Dad’s story.

I checked it out

With Scott – a good friend

Who was really grounded.

He’d give me a solid answer,

Besides, he was

An accountant.

Logical, linear.

I later realized

I was secretly hoping

He’d tell me

“This idea is crazy”

So I could give up

The whole thing.

Instead he said

“Makes a lot of sense

I think you ought to do it!

It will be part of

Your healing.”

Major gulp!

*

Two months later,

I was living in a trailer

In Lone Wolf Oklahoma

With six high school farm kids

Learning to drive a huge truck

Used to haul grain.

And following

My Dad’s story.

*

Bunk trailers and work pickups

Cara - the grain truck I drove on harvest

It was the adventure

Of a lifetime.

We followed the wheat

As it ripened.

Living like nomads.

It was a world

I had never seen before.

Living in an old house trailer

In one place for two weeks

Then moving,

Trailers, trucks, combines

A caravan

To the next farm

As the wheat ripened

From Oklahoma

To North Dakota.

Combines and tractors

*

Combines dumping grain on trucks

I learned many things.

I grew up in the city

But had the heart of a country boy.

I love driving a tractor

Or a wheat combine.

I don’t do well on little sleep.

Living in a trailer,

Farm boys are not

Particularly neat

When Momma’s not there

To clean out the tub.

When pulling wheat from

A plugged up combine

The dust really itches,

When it gets down your neck.

 *

And special things happened.

    I got to visit the filmsite

From Dances With Wolves.

We saw Mount Rushmore,

Me at Dances With Wolves filmsite

My first pic of Mount Rushmore

Both affected me deeply.

All in all

It was a magical summer.

*

It gave me the truth

About what I believe

Happened to my Dad.

How he had

A spiritual awakening

And realized

He had to return

To clean up his past.

I finished the story

I wanted to tell.

I wrote it as a novel.

It will be called

“Nothing Left To Lose.”

 *

But as I look back

What Pat said

When the idea

First came up

Turned out to be the truth.

He had said

“Dan, you think you’re going

On the wheat harvest,

To learn about your Dad.

I think this trip

Will be about you.

You will learn about

Yourself.

Heal yourself.

Claim your own power.”

*

He was right!

I often look back

On the wheat harvest experience

As a turning point in my life.

When I claimed the truth

Dan the writer

Of my path

Not to follow the business world

   Of my Dad and my friends,

But to claim my birthright

As a writer

Dan the writer

A teller of stories.

And a country boy.

I am completely convinced

I did the right thing

In going on harvest

To walk in Dad’s shoes.

Because I found – myself.

********************

Photo Credits:

Photos by Dan L. Hays Copyright – all rights reserved.

“The Wheat Harvest” the slowlane @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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I vowed to myself

“I will never be

Like my Dad was

Toward me.

I just won’t!”

I wanted to have

Nothing to do with him.

His path

Was not mine.

*

Then one day

I read a poem.

*

A poem I had written

When I was

Fourteen years old.

*

The poem read:

A fiery, bubbling demon

Against the sky.

The huge volcano.

Lava pouring from its lip,

Like angry words hastily spoken.

It seems to be making fun

Of someone below it.

Or trying to shame a person

For doing a wrong.”

I was astonished

At how early

I had realized

My Dad’s

Venomous tongue.

I said to my mentor,

“See, that poem

Is about my Dad.”

*

His simple response

Is tattooed on my heart.

He quietly replied:

“Is it?”

*

I was stunned

As the truth

Of his words

Clutched my soul.

I had become

      Just like my Dad

*

My Dad at age 19

Me at age 19

My words had

Been harmful

To many people.

I constantly

Had to make up for

The damage I had done

With my sharp tongue.

*

It gave me a task –

To uncork

My own volcano.

Find out

What fueled

Such deep anger.

It became

My commitment.

My life’s goal.

*

It was critical

That I do so.

Imperative

That I solve this problem.

I was watching my Dad

As his health suffered:

Heart attack,

Open heart surgery,

Colostomy,

Not following doctor’s orders,

Overweight, still smoking

And just

Sitting on the anger.

I was watching my Dad

Commit slow suicide

By stuffing

His own anger.

He had sobered up

But the past was the past

And he wanted no part

Of figuring it out.

He would not deal with it

Or even admit

How angry he still was.

*

So he sat on white knuckles

And it was killing him.

My Dad at age 43

I knew my Dad

Would die early.

I knew that I

Would die early too

If I didn’t do

Something drastic.

That’s why my task

Was so necessary.

To not be like

My angry Dad.

*

It led to

A lot of hard work –

Uncovering abuse,

Healing wounds

Releasing anger –

But without hurting anyone.

First, do no harm.

I became

A completely

Different person.

Calm, alive,

Safe for other people.

The venom purged

The volcano disappeared.

*

Then years later

I had a flash of awareness.

Had my Dad

Not sobered up

He would have died

Many years

Before he did.

It was a paradox.

Even while sitting

All that anger

He helped many people.

After I delivered the eulogy

At his funeral.

One man said to me

“Your Dad

Saved my life.”

I knew from his look

He meant it literally.

*

Then I put

All the pieces together.

My Dad –

Who abused me

When he was drunk,

Illuminated my path

To healing

By his example

By his journey of recovery.

And in that way,

I want to be

Just like my Dad.

Me at age 58 at a high school reunion, after a night of dancing!

*******************

Last Saturday night I read a new poem at an open mic event.  The next morning I got up and wrote three new poems.  “I Just Won’t” is one of those poems.  I will read it this Saturday night at the open mic event!

Photo Credits:

Don Swanson via Wikimedia. Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Pictures of Dan and his Dad, Copyright Dan Hays. All rights reserved.

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On the first day of my creative writing class, the teacher opened the discussion by asking “What is a story?”  She suggested that we begin by defining the word.  Several people responded.  I took a minute to think about the meaning, and then raised my hand and said “A story is something that happens to someone.”  The teacher smiled broadly, nodded, and said “That’s it exactly – at the very basic level, the essence of a story is action.”

So what was the best way to tell a particular story, to describe that action?  Over the next several years I read a lot about point of view – mostly looking at first person and third person, and what were the advantages and limitations of each.  First person is confined to the thoughts of the narrator.  Third person can either be omniscient – using the thoughts of all of the characters, or limited – using the thoughts of one character’s mind. After I experimented with point of view, it became apparent that it depended on the story.

Years later I wrote about a time my Dad’s life when he disappeared for a year, worked the wheat harvest, had a spiritual experience in the process.  He returned a changed man.  After his death I realized I’d never asked him what happened.  I started with the part I knew, leading into what might have taken place later.  I decided to make it a novel, and chose the third person omniscient viewpoint.  I wrote in a more detached style, which allowed me the distance to step back and imagine the events objectively.  I could speak from the perspective of various characters as needed.

When the story was about me, “something that happens to someone” still held true.  Something had happened that I wanted to share, and decided to write about it in depth.  Not an original concept.  Many people have written a memoir for that very reason.  The first person viewpoint had an immediacy that helped me capture the emotions and experience of the moment.  I wrote about the events surrounding the time of my father’s death 17 years ago.

I knew what happened, and had journalled extensively about it at the time.  There was plenty of fodder to refresh my memory of the events.  As I wrote I fell into the mode of  “I did this, that happened, I felt this about it, I experienced, and then next I …”  I was in the middle of the events, with no psychic distance.  To tell that particular story, I needed to be that close.  Yet as I wrote, I could feel the events at a physical level.  My heart raced as I felt unsafe when that strange person entered the room.  I smelled the coffee I drank in a restaurant as I chronicled my feelings in a notebook. I felt the heat of Houston on a muggy afternoon in October; heard leaves blowing in the breeze that only stirred up the heat without relief.

Even more happened.  I had never written down everything that took place the week my Dad died.  I heard the jangle as the phone rang; heard my sister say “better come home, Dad is dying.”  I sat in a darkened airplane and wrote brief notes in a small notebook “it’s too soon, I’m not ready for this.”  I walked up to a hospital at night in Tulsa, wondering if it was just my imagination because of the lights, or was this huge building really pink?” (I saw it the next day, and sure enough – it was pink.)

I looked down at my father lying in a hospital bed with a tube down his throat, barely heard the nurse saying he was already functionally gone, and the machines were keeping him alive.  I returned to the room after the machines had been turned off, and his breathing had stopped.  I stroked my father’s forehead, something I never would have dared if he were alive.  I walked into to the “Grief Room” at the hospital, where no one was attending to the needs of my family, sitting and crying all alone.  I pushed down my feelings because someone had to make funeral arrangements, and the task fell on me.

Later in the week, I visited his office at the hospital, heard his boss describe how he had spent his last several years helping others.  I drove just outside Tulsa and walked across his 5 acre pecan orchard, then used his chain saw to cut down a couple of dead trees, a project he and I had shared.  I sat at the dinner table at my parent’s house and went through my parent’s financial papers to reassure my Mom.  I stepped out in front of a packed church to deliver his eulogy.

Of course it was cathartic to write down those experiences – isn’t that one of the biggest benefits of memoir?  I felt the events, experienced them in a deeper way than before, and could release some of the emotional charge they contained.

As the memoir continued I wrote about the events after my Dad died.  I met with a minister to discuss an reservoir of old anger I had discovered – anger at my Dad, anger at God.  I dreamed a man was chasing me with a gun.  I did an inner child exercise, and remembered a violent incident with my Dad when I was a teenager.  Then came some intense healing work.

I did an exercise to cut cords to the feelings I was carrying from generations of my family – an ancestral burden that had weighed me down greatly.  Many nights I released terror from the violent incident.  I relived the violent incident on a feeling level several times.   I wrote down ways I had changed, and burned the papers, to let go of who I used to be.  I dreamed that there was a tiger living in my house.  I knew it was my rage, and had to be dealt with.  I made a commitment to release that rage in safe ways.  There were a number of other healing experiences, and by the end of the memoir, it all led to a new sense of forgiveness for my father.  I wrote down my tremendous gratitude for the whole experience.

Then something happened which I hadn’t envisioned.  After I published the memoir, which I called Freedom’s Just Another Word, I had numerous people say they benefitted greatly from my experience, from reading about my journey and the steps I had taken to heal.  I was genuinely surprised.  I hadn’t seen that coming, but was delighted that it happened.  That was not the reason for the memoir – it just was something I needed to do.  For me it was an enormously healing process.   But if writing a memoir could yield additional rewards like that – helping other people heal and grow – then it was a huge success.

 Originally Published in Laura Schultz Now

Photo Credits:

“Good Question” e-magic @Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

leaves in the wind: jans canon @flickr.com.  Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

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What if I don’t have a talent for creative writing?

On the other hand – what if I do?

______

It was September of 1988, and I had signed up for a creative writing class at The University of Houston.  The teacher was a well known published author and writing teacher from New York City who had agreed to guest lecture for a year.  It seemed like a great opportunity and I wanted to learn more about my craft, so I sat nervously in class with 30 other students.  Oh, did I mention that I was 38 years old at the time?  It felt a bit awkward that I was so much older than most of the students, but I was willing to accept that discomfort to get some depth perception on my writing ability.

In the first class the teacher described our writing process.  We would each turn in a 1,000 word piece every two weeks.  The teacher would select a few of our writings, then the class and teacher would review and critique our work.  Gulp!  I had been journalling extensively, had written some short works and won praise for them, but this was unveiling my talent at a whole new level.

The class was an hour and a half long. The teacher lectured for the first part of class, then read one of our works, and the class would spend 10 to 15 minutes reviewing it.  We reviewed 3 to 4 pieces per class, and the group was very generative in their comments – honest but gentle. The teacher was a bit more incisive – she got to the heart of the matter candidly and sometimes a bit harshly.

My first piece was not read aloud in class.  I worked hard on a second piece entitled “The Hunt,” about an experience I had as a 14 year old deer hunting with my Dad and his friends.  The story was about how frightened I was being with grown men who were combining poker, whiskey and guns in a very unsafe environment.  I really put myself out there, and didn’t know what response to expect.

When the teacher said aloud “The Hunt,” I felt my heart begin to race and my breathing grow rapid.  I didn’t know what to expect.  As she read the class was very quiet.  She finished, looked up and asked for comments.  The class raved!  “Insightful … brilliant … I could feel myself being there.”  I waited for the teacher’s opinion.  She went through the piece quoting passages and showing how brilliantly the story unfolded and was portrayed.  She said it was almost like the narrator was outside the experience, standing and looking on at the events.  At the end the young boy has almost a living nightmare, the men running down the road after a deer, one of them tripping and falling and shooting his father in the back. The teacher was effusive in her praise of this part.  One of her benchmarks about stories was: “Did it earn the ending?”  She was clear that this story really did earn the ending.

I had tensely been listening and taking notes all over my copy of the story.  I finally looked at my watch and realized that 45 minutes had elapsed.  I left class that day with a new appreciation for my writing gift – I had seen it in a way that none of my friends could make me believe.  A published author – a professional – had raved about my work.

I thought maybe it was a fluke until it happened a second time, on a piece I had written entitled “Fight Night,” about my Dad introducing me to boxing.  The teacher took about 40 minutes to go through that short piece, giving it an equal amount of praise as she did for my first work.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years, and it seems many of us share an uneasiness about “someone might figure out that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”  It must be something that goes with the writing talent.  If the teacher had panned my writing, I suspect some part of me might have been secretly relieved at being able to give up this need to write.

What I discovered in creative writing class was the opposite.  I had a gift, and it was my job to steward that gift – to share it in appropriate ways.  In ways, that was a far scarier prospect than the possibility of having no talent. Yet over the years, facing that fear has been much more rewarding.

Originally published in Write By Night

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“Dear God.  I am really angry with You!”

Just saying those words out loud made me hold my breath.  Would I bring down the fabled wrath for having said that?  But it was true – it was the most honest statement I’d ever made to God since I’d started trying to pray.  I was really angry – for a lot of reasons.  But I had been somehow conditioned that you don’t talk honestly to those you have a problem with – so the same should logically apply to God.

I knew something was really wrong in my life.  I had been plagued by problems for years, problems I couldn’t pin down as to origin.  I had even tried to talk about that as a prayer, many years before.  When I was about 21, there was a Sunday evening service at the church I attended, and at one point in the service, they would dim the lights, and people were invited to come down to the altar rail, kneel and pray.  One time my prayer had gone something like “Dear God, I don’t know if You’re really up there, and if You’re really listening, but if You are, I know there’s something terribly wrong with my life.  I seem to hurt deep down inside, and I don’t know where it’s coming from.  Please help me God.”  I didn’t seem to get an answer at the time, and for a long time afterward.

But it was just after Christmas in 1987, and my Dad had just died, at a time when the problems I had been struggling with had escalated.  It felt like my whole world was spinning out of control.  I was 37 years old, and my anger at God had already started to surface.  In anger I had torn up and shredded a lot of Bible study notes, frustrated at the seeming lack of answers in all that study I had done.  Then I got the phone call – come home; Dad is dying.  I had returned to my parents house, had been there when my Dad died, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.  It had been a hugely emotional time, and I was still reeling from it.

Now, a month later, the anger was back, and boiling.  I was willing to risk all sorts of possible bad things to be honest with what I was feeling, and just say – flat out – how angry I was at God, and at the situation.  Having stated my anger, and not been struck down by a bolt of lightning, I sat down and started writing what I was angry about.

I had recently started narrowing down where all the issues were coming from.  I had remembered several ugly incidents with my Dad when I was a teenager.  First my Dad had shamed poetry that I had written for a school literary magazine, told me it was worthless and I’d never amount to anything.  It was a horrible experience, and it felt like a light went out in my soul when my writing was taken away from me by being told it was worthless.   The next thing I had remembered was arguing with my Dad over being able to wear my hair like the Beatles.  He was a former Marine, and refused to allow it.  Then late at night he came into my room and beat me up, telling me not to talk back to him.  I had a feeling there may have been more – the evidence pointed that way – but I didn’t know how to root out whatever still might be underneath.

Then there was the horrible hurt I was feeling over my Dad dying.  Our relationship had been strained for a number of years, but recently we had found a new supportiveness and peace between us.  And then he died.  It wasn’t fair!

So it came back to “Dear God, I am angry with you!”  I knew I couldn’t keep carrying that anger, so I took a risky step.  I set up a meeting with a minister at my church, to admit before a man of God about my anger.  Wow – now that felt risky!  But it also felt necessary.  I had watched as my Dad denied his anger and refused to deal with it for many years.  He had suffered numerous health problems, and had died in his late 50s.  I had been watching his behavior and expecting his early death for several years, and knew – somehow I just knew – that if I didn’t deal with my own anger, I would end up going down the same path.

I met with the minister the next day.  I shared with him what I had written, and the things I was angry about.  I held my breath, expecting some dread penance for irreverence.  Instead, the minister confirmed that many people felt things like I was feeling, and had experienced deep anger at God.  It just wasn’t supported at church to talk about that, so everyone put on what I called the “happy Christian game face” and didn’t talk about things like anger at God. He said I had opened the lines of communication with God in a whole new way, and God would honor that honesty.  He told me it took great courage for me to share what I did, and that it would only help my healing process. Then the minister said something very interesting – he said not to be surprised if other things continued to be revealed to me.  He was right!

Several weeks later, I found the deep source of the issues that had plagued me.  A very deep and violent incident with my Dad when I was seventeen, while he was drunk.  I kept getting clues that something had happened, followed them, and was led to have this incident revealed.  It was a horrible event to remember, and I knew it would take a long time to fully work through the effects.  But – there was also a tremendous sense of relief.  I now knew why my world had been so skewed, and in the big picture, things made a whole lot more sense.

So saying I was angry at God, being honest in that way, had led to a huge healing process.  Not eternal punishment, chastisement or condemnation.  I still had some of those teachings stuck in my soul, and it took a while to release those old beliefs and realize that God really did want the best for me.

Then the question.  Did God hear my plea down at the altar rail when I was 21?  Were things revealed to me at a time and in a way that I could handle knowing the truth?  It sure seemed like it!  I know I couldn’t have handled knowing about the violence when I was 21.  It came out as gently as it could given how horrific the abuse had been.

“Dear God.  Thank You for revealing this incident with my Dad at a time when I could handle it.  Thank You for being so loving toward me.”

Quite a different prayer than the earlier one.  But they felt connected – the angry prayer led to the thankful prayer.  I do believe that.

Photo Credit:

“Speak Truth Banner” Donnaphoto @flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Right Reserved.

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I had a remarkable radio interview tonight with Kate Loving Shenk.  We explored my healing journey, and my upcoming book Healing The Writer.  Listen at the end, when Kate gives me a direction that had been sitting there in front of me, but I hadn’t seen it yet.  Helping other people with creative blocks, based on my experience. The picture is me at age 19 – and I’m reclaiming that creative soul!

Here’s a link to the radio show:

My Healing Journey

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