Born to Run (2016)
LONG TIME COMIN’
My father’s house shines hard and bright.
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling so cold and alone
Shining cross this dark highway
Where our sins lie unatoned . . .
“My Father’s House”
If I had one wish in this godforsaken world, kids
It’d be that your mistakes will be your own
Your sins will be your own . . .
“Long Time Comin’ ”
“My Father’s House” is probably the best song I’ve written about my dad, but its conclusion wasn’t going to be enough for me. In “Long Time Comin’ ” I lay out the wish I’ve had for my children. We honor our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship. I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry. Insisting on our own experience, our own final calculus of love, trouble, hard times and, if we’re lucky, a little transcendence. This is how we claim our own lives as sons and daughters, independent souls on our piece of ground. It’s not always an option. There are irretrievable lives and unredeemable sins, but the chance to rise above is one I wish for yours and mine.
I work to be an ancestor. I hope my summation will be written by my sons and daughter, with our family’s help, and their sons and daughters with their guidance. The morning of my dad’s visit to Los Angeles before my fatherhood stands out now as a pivotal moment between us. He had come to petition me, to settle a new sum from the dark and confusing elements that had been our lives. He had some faith that it could be done, came searching for a miracle whose embers he felt stirring in his own heart and that he hoped was burning and buried somewhere in the heart of his son.
He was asking me to write a new ending to our story and I’ve worked to do that, but this kind of story has no end. It is simply told in your own blood until it is passed along to be told in the blood of those you love, who inherit it. As it’s told, it is altered, as all stories are in the telling, by time, will, perception, faith, love, work, by hope, deceit, imagination, fear, history and the thousand other variable powers that play upon our personal narratives. It continues to be told because along with the seed of its own immolation, the story carries with it the rebirthing seed of renewal, a different destiny for those who hear it than the painful one my father and I struggled through. Slowly, a new story emerges from the old, of differently realized lives, building upon the rough experience of those who’ve come before and stepping over the battle-worn carcasses of the past. On a good day this is how we live. This is love. This is what life is. The possibility of finding root, safety and nurturing in a new season.
The tree sprouts, its branches thicken, mature, bloom. It is scarred by lightning, shaken by thunder, sickness, human events and God’s hand. Drawn black, it grows itself back toward light, rising higher toward heaven while thrusting itself deeper, more firmly, into the earth. Its history and memory retained, its presence felt.
On a November evening during the writing of this book, I drove once again back to my hometown, back to my neighborhood. The streets were quiet. My corner church was silent and unchanged. Tonight there were no weddings and no funerals. I rolled slowly another fifty yards up my block to find my great towering copper beech tree gone, cut to the street. My heart went blank . . . then settled. I looked again. It was gone but still there. The very air and space above it was still filled with the form, soul and lifting presence of my old friend, its leaves and branches now outlined and shot through by evening stars and sky. A square of musty earth, carved into the parking lot blacktop at pavement’s edge, was all that remained. It still held small snakes of root slightly submerged by dust and dirt, and there the arc of my tree, my life, lay plainly visible. My great tree’s life by county dictum or blade could not be ended or erased. Its history, its magic, was too old and too strong. Like my father, my grandmothers, my aunt Virginia, my two grandfathers, my father-in-law Joe, my aunt Dora and aunt Eda, Ray and Walter Cichon, Bart Haynes, Terry, Danny, Clarence and Tony, my own family gone from these houses now filled by strangers—we remain. We remain in the air, the empty space, in the dusty roots and deep earth, in the echo and stories, the songs of the time and place we have inhabited. My clan, my blood, my place, my people.
Once again in the shadow of the steeple, as I stood feeling the old soul of my tree, of my town, weighing upon me, the words and a benediction came back to me. I’d chanted them singsong, unthinkingly, endlessly in the green blazer, ivory shirt and green tie of all of St. Rose’s unwilling disciples. Tonight they came to me and flowed differently. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . . all of us, forever and ever, amen.
• • •
I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family and to you. I don’t know if I’ve done that, and the devil is always just a day away, but I know this was my young promise to myself, to you. This, I pursued as my service. This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.