Do you remember your senior year in high school? Maybe you were in the senior class play, or on the football team, or sang in the choir? Senior year is filled with things you do for the last time, and filled with planning for the future, college applications, proms, and graduations.
I graduated from high school in 1973. There were a few events of historic value in the first 5 months of the year:
When I look back on the last five months of my senior year of high school those news items are not the things I recall, nor do I recall the other activities that fill the days of a soon-to-graduate senior. The one event that stands out for me from that spring with crystal clarity was Secretariat’s record-breaking sweep of the Triple Crown.
My interest in horse racing started my freshman year of high school, when I watch the Kentucky Derby on TV for the first time, and picked the winner, Dust Commander, out of the post parade. I was hooked from that day on, though back then, there wasn’t much coverage for those of us not in the horse world, and there was no Breeders Cup until years later.
My only horse racing crony was my 10th grade English teacher, Frank Mussitsch. I went to visit him during my free periods whenever possible, and we often talked horse racing. In fact, that year when he signed my yearbook, he wrote, “If you can’t be a Secretariat, you can at least be a Sham…” My friends were horrified by his words, not realizing Sham was the horse who might have won a Triple Crown race or two in any other year. In 1973, he finished second to Secretariat in each race, which meant that he was a very good racehorse himself.
Why do I bring this up now? Well, most of you don’t follow horse racing, so you wouldn’t know that Penny Chenery, the breeder/owner of Secretariat, died Saturday, September 16th at the age of 95. I’ve read a lot about her in the past few years, particularly since the film Secretariat was released.
I was thrilled a few years ago that Secretariat was finally acknowledged as setting a record in his Preakness Stakes run, and that her determination was rewarded. The official timer at Pimlico malfunctioned, but thanks to the wonders of technology and Penny Chenery’s insistence that the racing authorities review it, Secretariat is now officially the record-holder for all three Triple Crown races.
I didn’t know Penny Chenery (then known as Penny Tweedy) and was pretty much unaware of her except peripherally when Secretariat was running, yet her partnership with Secretariat had a major impact on my life. When I watched Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes on our black and white TV, and saw the ever-widening gap that became his 31-length margin of victory, I cried. It was a transcendent moment in my young life, and no previous successes or victories were remotely comparable. It was the first time I had experienced true greatness and utter perfection and I will never forget it.
There have been a few other moments like that since – seeing the Protopopovs skate in their first professional competition, seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby, reading the seventh Harry Potter and knowing I would never again read it for the first time, but Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes was the first.
When a horse runs a race, he or she doesn’t know what’s at stake. Upon returning to the barn, the winning horse will most likely head for the hay and chow down. Most horseracing folks will tell you horses know when they’ve won and when they haven’t, and I can believe that, having spent some time with horses (see my August 2016 blog on Chandler), but it doesn’t seem to stay with them. A horse running a race is the purest form of athleticism – victory for its own sake – at least for the horse. It’s how we once viewed the Olympics, when amateur sport was considered the only pure form of sport. Secretariat and Penny Chenery gave me that first taste of greatness, and the truth is that even now, I struggle to explain why that was so important and why it meant so much to me.
Steve Haskin, one of my favorite writers, said in an article in The Blood Horse on Zenyatta, “We have chosen to allow these magnificent creatures to infiltrate our very being and touch our souls in a way that bonds us to them – yes, at rare times spiritually.”
Penny Chenery’s physical presence is gone. But she and Secretariat will live forever in my heart, my mind, my soul. As I move through the world, the people with whom I come in contact will unknowingly be affected by Penny Chenery and Secretariat. Their magic continues its work in the pond of my life, spreading its ripples of influence into the lives of the people I touch.
Who or what provides magic and inspiration in your life?
It was a house with some unusual features - the garage had been turned into a family room with a window seat that stored toys and built-in bookshelves, and was never very warm. We had a basketball hoop on the tiny back patio, which I loved, though I hated it when the ball went down the stairs to the cellar door and I had to go down after it. The cellar was a typical unfinished basement, with a fruit cellar built into it, and it held a washer and dryer that were fed by the clothes chute that came down from the second floor. The basement was to play an important role in my story.
One of my favorite holiday activities was arranging and rearranging the Nativity scene. There was Mary, on her knees in the traditional blue robe, and Joseph, also on his knees, both of them flanking the baby Jesus, lying in the manger, arms wide to welcome everyone. The young shepherd stood tall carrying a lamb fireman-style on his shoulders. One wise man knelt, the other two stood, all of them carrying their gifts. The colors were bright, not like the pastels stores favor these days. And the stable in which they sheltered was made of a strong cardboard, with a hole in the back for a light/star. In Indiana, one side pole of the stable was broken, and at some point my mother decided it was beyond saving, and she threw it out.
On Christmas Eve, I decided I needed to build a new stable for the baby Jesus and friends. We had a hammer and nails, and there was plenty of wood lying in our yard, having fallen from the trees in lovely, stable-sized branches. Of course, I had never built anything in my life. I was nine years old, and the hammer was adult-size.
Undaunted, I harvested my wood after lunch, and made my way down to the basement, determined to create the best stable ever. Hours later, I had a few nails sticking out of sticks, none of which would stay together as soon as I tried to add a new branche. My level of frustration was high, to put it mildly, and by the time we sat down to dinner I was near explosion level. I made it through dinner without exploding - it was after dinner when I went back down to finish it and my brother or sister or both of them came down and nagged me to come upstairs so we could sing Christmas carols.
Vesuvius had nothing on me when it came to eruptions. I would guess my mother might have characterized my behavior as hysterical. She sent me to my room to calm down, while the rest of them finished the decorating and preparations, including setting up the Nativity scene under the tree, without benefit of stable.
When they were ready to sing Christmas carols, my mother came up to get me. As I recall, she thanked me for my hard work, and explained that sometimes things just didn't work out the way we planned. We sang for about half an hour, all of us choosing our favorite carols, and I looked at the nativity scene under the tree. Without the stable, you could actually see everyone better. I don't think we ever had a stable again...
Have a wonderful holiday, and safe travels. I will be travelling too, so it's unlikely I will be posting refularly during the next few weeks. Be well, Doc
Anyone who knew me at Tassajara probably remembers I had some difficulty sitting low on anything, which is why, by the time I left, I sat on a chair in the zendo. However, in the summers, on my days off, I could often be found on a chair on the lawn in front of the Stone Office under the trees, with my nose in a book. Or on the deck of the swimming pool, reading or writing. And yes, I did have red shoes the summer I drew this picture - red Keds, just like I had when I was five years old. They even had the white rubber toe area. Was it a pain having to tie and untie them? You bet. But I loved them. And just like when I was five years old, I wore them until they literally had holes in them.
Please be sure to notice the squirrel in the picture - yes Leslie, I still think they're cute! At Tassajara they knew no one would hurt them, and I once had one jump onto my leg and put its little front paws on my arm as I read. It looked up into my face as if to say, "Don't you have a treat for me?" When I said hello, the sound of my voice sent it flying off to scamper across the lawn and into a tree.
At the retreat, I'd asked Adyashanti how buddha could be willing to see the clown. His answer had to do with love and self-compassion, things about which I still had a lot to learn.
In a sense, you could say my playing with art and poetry is a form of love and self-compassion. They give me a way to explore the world without needing to justify their existence. They are play, and a treasure trove of delight.
Take a few minutes to find your own way to play today...
My sister Mic and I loved those books, and we both still re-read them to this day. Yes, we read other things as well, but neither of us has ever outgrown our love for the Parrishes and the Jordans, with a dash of Candy Kane thrown in for good measure. She did write some other non-Army books, though none of them captured our hearts in the same way.
Why did we fall in love with those characters and the world they lived in? Maybe part of it was the mystique of the military. When we were growing up in the late 50's and throughout the 60's, we believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of the military. We didn't really understand the reality of war, except when a much loved character would die.
It wasn't always a safe world she created. At the same time, her characters took on their challenges with grace and enthusiasm for the most part. Janet Lambert wrote about veterans living with pain from their wounds, death, the effects of war on the losing country - she handled big subjects, and she made them personal and intimate in their impact on character and reader alike.
From sixteen-year-old Jennifer valiantly coping with the seven young Jordans while her father was off fighting WWII, to Tippy Parrish unceremoniously yanked out of her happy teenage life on Governor's Island and thrust into the grim reality of a defeated, bombed Germany post WWII, Lambert tells warm, tender stories against a background of a world that no longer exists in the same way.
Mic and I laughed at ourselves, because we needed a box of tissues nearby every time we read Don't Cry Little Girl. We talked about the Parrishes and the Jordons as if they were our own family. And we both delighted in A Song in Their Hearts, when Candy Kane and her husband Barton became friends with Tippy and Peter.
Which brings me full circle to my experience of visiting West Point with my nephew Quinn. His twin, Lane, is also in his final year of Army ROTC at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now I begin to understand the gallantry of Marjorie Parrish and Jennifer Jordon and all of the people who had a loved one in harm's way in her books. Lane and Quinn will be second lieutenants by this time next year, stationed who knows where, and while I'm proud of them and their commitment to service, I am also well aware of the dangers they will face.
When I read Janet Lambert books now, they will have a resonance they never had before. It makes me wonder if, as a writer, I will write something that will resonate for someone I will never meet...
One footnote on the title of this post - Not About Heroes is the title of a play on the WWI poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The play title was ironic, as is the post title. It is not about heroes, and yet it is. Owen's work, in particular, is heart-wrenching in its expression of the realities of war, and heartbreaking because he was one of the casualties of the war. I don't think of war itself as heroic; rather the willingness to put oneself in harm's way to protect others, many of whom you will never know - that is heroic. To carry on quietly the life at home while a loved one is away at war - that, too, is heroic. So this is not about heroes, and yet it is...
We only had five nights together, six days. Because of that, I kept the focus on craft, not on marketing or selling. That focus paid off the last night when we had readings, and had a chance to listen to everyone else's work. It was moving, funny, and intimate.
The deep gratitude in the title includes so many people. Gary for sure. And Gail. Without their generosity and love, as well as Gary's teaching,, my life would be completely different. Natalie Goldberg for sharing writing practice. All of the folks over the years I've worked with at WRW. David, Tex, and Jason, who were a wonderful group of teachers for this workshop. The kind and caring staff at St. Raphaela, who made such a welcoming space for a group of writers. And most of all, deep gratitude to Peter, Bernie, Charles, Diane, Dave, Deb, Paula, Martha, Eric, and Kelley. Your great effort was a gift to all of us...
That's not to say that I have any interest in running for office. It goes deeper than that. I can remember being a kid, and becoming aware that I had no power to overrule decisions made by adults, even though it was my life and my interests that were involved. At one point I realized that my relationship with my mother bore more than a slight resemblance to a line in a Billy Joel song - "...a constant battle for the ultimate state of control."
When I got into college, I started out as a religious studies major. During my first year, I switched to major in communications/theatre. I acted in a play, but more important, I got interested in the idea of directing. Once I started to direct in the second semester of my sophomore year, I never acted again, except in a class. What was interesting about my directing was that underclassmen did not direct. However, I wanted to direct an original musical written by a fellow student. One of my theatre pals who had graduated advised me on how to approach the one-man theatre department, Mr. M. as we called him.
Mr. M. told me no when I first asked him if I could direct. I've always been stubborn, but there was something different about this. I knew that if I really wanted to do it, I had to keep trying, and to come up with a compelling reason for him to change his mind. It was a carefully orchestrated presentation, and I was successful.
The picture above is the Little Theatre, now known as the Leone Marinello Little Theatre. The black walls, when I directed there, were the warm, light brown color of natural wood. The carpet under the chairs was red. And the stage under the black plywood box was natural wood with steps the width of the theatre that led down into the house. Mr. M. designed it himself, and it was both challenging and rewarding to act and direct on that stage.
That whole move, from religious studies, to theatre, to directing was also about power. During the years I spent in meditation at San Francisco Zen Center, one of the things I learned was that I felt powerless most of the time. We all spend much of our lives walking a tightrope of power - what we have, what we don't have.
I don't know how tonight's election will turn out. The power I had there was to cast my vote for the candidates and issues of my choice. Everyone else had to do the same.
I don't know how my writing or either of the workshops will turn out either. There I have a lot more power, to focus my attention, pursue my goals and my dreams, and speak/write the truth of my understanding. Words have power. If I wield words, I wield power, or at least, I do if people read them.
How do you feel about power? Does it make you uncomfortable, or do you enjoy it? Think about it. We all have it...
Be well, my friends.
“They (the Irish) are good-humored, charming, hospitable, and gregarious…”
Monica, McGoldrick, Ethnicity and Family Therapy
Kids, Grandkids, and Great-Grandkids
Mom loved her children. There were times when that love darn near drove us crazy. She had great expectations of all of us, and a firm belief that her expectations wouldn’t just be met, but exceeded. That extended to her grandchildren as they came along, and had she known her great-grandchildren beyond infancy, I’m sure it would have extended to them as well.
She was the matriarch of our clan, and some of us were fortunate enough to know her for many years. One of the reasons I started to write this was for the ones who will only know her from our stories and pictures. There was nothing she loved more than having her children and their children around her. And she did get to meet some of her great-grandchildren before she died, though they won’t all remember it.
Pat and Doc
It was a love story that lasted for more than 60 years, was blessed with a healthy, happy family, and was filled with enough joy, laughter, grief, and loss for many lifetimes. There’s no doubt that his loving care kept her alive during her battle with Alzheimer’s. She lit up when he came into her room at Vincentian Home at the end of her life. His commitment to taking care of her was reminiscent of her care of her dad and Rita Rooney at the end of their lives, only this time she was on the receiving end.
In her autobiography Mom wrote, “Mama and Papa Smith...would turn over in their grave if they knew what a gem they had in their first born daughter…” My feeling is that if they did turn over in their grave, it would only be to get a better look. They can be proud of her. After all, Dad never got to the other names on that list of potential dates...
“The Irish are...typically clannish and place great stock in loyalty to their own…”
Monica, McGoldrick, Ethnicity and Family Therapy
Mom had plenty of clashes with other members of the family, particularly big brother Bill. But no matter what the issues that initiated conflict, the clan pretty much always rallied together in times of difficulty or rejoicing. When Mic and I hit our teens, as teens do, we wanted to go our own ways, convinced we were quite adult. Mom and Dad gave us a fair amount of freedom to be with our friends and do the things we liked, and they also knew when to say no.
I was a freshman in high school when Mic and I got involved with the North Hills Youth Ministry. Mom taught with Bill Haley, one of the leaders, and encouraged us to join, even though it was a non-denominational group. For the next three years we went to weekly youth group meetings, attended retreats (Mom said at one point, “Stop retreating, start advancing!”), and became part of a Core group that was our primary interest through most of high school.
On a personal note, I've been fortunate to spend some time with my Aunt Helen even before Mom died. Her love and support has meant a great deal to all of us in these past years. It's her turn, now, to be the matriarch of the clan, and she is a worthy successor to her sister, my mother....Doc
Mom got involved in co-chairing the Bridge Luncheon for St. Teresa’s, held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Babcock. She and Jeri Noble were there once for a meeting and some of the local mob guys who hung out there mistook them for prostitutes. They set them right.
Mom also joined an informal group of friends that called themselves The Club. It consisted of Mom, Jeri Noble, Rita Darr, Lorraine Young, Bea McClure, and Lois Cole. Everyone had kids around the same ages, and the purpose of the Club was girls’ night out. Once a month they’d meet at a different house, the hostess would provide the food (it got fancier as the years went on), and the ladies would sit and talk through the evening. In the summer there was usually a picnic out at North Park, and the women remained friends for the rest of their lives, though they stopped meeting monthly around the time the kids went off to college.
The second thing was the assassination of President Kennedy. The first Irish Catholic president, who had safely shepherded the country through the Cuban Missile Crisis, who was just like them with his young wife and family, was brutally killed. The days to follow, right through the end of the funeral were in everyone’s face, hour after hour, on the television.
The religious and political foundations of Mom’s life were rocked in the early 60’s. Before the end of her 30th year she had lost both of her parents, the young handsome war hero Irish Catholic president of her country, and the bedrock certainty of her Catholic traditions. The one major family loss during the early 60’s was the death of Aunt Mary, Mom’s mother’s sister. Then Dad lost his job and even Mom’s economic security was in question.
Eventually Dad found a job in Columbus, Indiana, a place Mom would forever remember as “godforsaken Columbus, Indiana.” While it was heaven on earth for kids, it was hell on wheels for Mom. Torn from the heart of her sister, brothers, and myriad cousins, Mom was deeply unhappy and never stopped hoping we would return to Pittsburgh.
Mom and Dad went to their one and only Kentucky Derby while in Columbus, and took the entire family to see the new film, My Fair Lady. We went down to the legendary Brown County and had dinner at a well-known restaurant, but all we kids cared about was the old-fashioned candy available at the country store. Mom may not have liked Columbus, but life there was seldom dull.
A little more than a year after moving to Columbus, Indiana, Mom’s dream came true and we moved back to Pittsburgh. By the time we returned, all three children were in school, which left Mom free to go back to work if she wanted to. The one job she could get that would make it possible for her to be home for us after school was for her to teach school. Although she hadn’t completed her degree, St. Teresa’s hired her to teach, and she eventually taught English, religion, and spelling.
After Rita’s death the holidays became more focused on getting together with Aunt Helen’s family. Sometimes one or more of the brothers and their families would come also, but the Doughertys and the Burnhams were always there. We kids were growing up, and Mom was considered the “cool” mother by all of our friends. Many a summer afternoon either Mic and her friends or my friends and I would sit around the kitchen table with Mom, drinking iced tea and talking about life.
The further adventures of Mom and the rest of us next week...
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop