Mortality

Brendan

Brendan Hartmann. Photo by Callen Harty.

Lately, even before this last weekend, mortality has been on my mind. My partner, Brian, has been talking about the fact that we’re getting older and how he worries about me because of already surviving a heart attack a decade ago. And I can’t imagine life without him in it, either.

In the last several weeks or so, I had seen a couple friends pass away, another go into hospice, and another go into the hospital and he is not expected to make it out. In addition, I’ve seen other friends lose mothers and fathers, grandmothers, lovers, and friends in just a few weeks. Yesterday, we woke up to news that a 29-year old friend, Brendan Hartmann, had passed away on Friday. And it reminded me that mortality isn’t reserved for the old.

It can be easy to forget that every day is a gift. Every day awakens new opportunities. And every day, most of us waste it by not living life to its fullest, by not connecting with those we love, and by taking so many things for granted.

I was surrounded by death when I was younger. I do not remember any of my grandparents, my father, and my oldest brother as they were all gone before I could form any memories. In addition, I could have died numerous times in my life, including a near-death experience when I was two years old and the 100% blockage in my left coronary just over a decade ago.

Because of this, I have always understood how precious life is. I’ve done my best to live it well. But I have also failed. I have let friendships fade away. I’ve laid in bed depressed when I could be out doing something. I’ve forgotten to appreciate.

Brian and I have been making an effort lately to try to reconnect with people, to make sure those we like and love know we like and love them, to spend quality time with each other, and to make our days count. He’s ten years younger than me, but I’m 62 now. I understand I could have another heart attack tomorrow, or get into a fatal car wreck, or move into the next realm of existence in any of the myriad ways that is possible. I also understand I could live as long as my mother, which would mean a third of my life is still ahead of me. Brian could go before me. The point is, we can’t know, so we have to treasure the days because of that and honor the gift of living.

I am thankful that at least within the last couple months I had reached out to Brendan to encourage him. He had been going through hell in St. Louis, getting and losing jobs, getting punched by someone trying to rob him and then getting harassed by the police, hitting what he called rock bottom for a year, living in a place too rough for such a sweet and gentle soul. But most of the time, despite whatever hardships he was having, his posts were about believing in the kindness of strangers and the innate goodness of people.

I don’t know how Brendan died, and I don’t need to know. What I know is that he was too young. He was a talented young man with an inquisitive and wonderful mind. He cared deeply for people, even those he didn’t know. He had potential. Despite his troubles, despite whatever it was that took him from us, he deserved to live through his rough period and come out stronger on the other side. So many people do. Some do not. I wish that he had succeeded. I wish that he had found whatever help he needed. But we can’t change what is. We can only learn from it and move forward.

Tonight, my promise is to honor the gift of life by recommitting fully to it and to those I love. This is how I can honor Brendan and the others who have recently left my circle and this plane. The greatest gift we can give to others is to take the time to listen to them, be with them, and love them. I will do my best.

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9/11 and the Enduring Sorrow

Fireman

Firefighter wiping away a tear at a 9/11 memorial event. Photo by Callen Harty.

(Note: This was originally posted on 9/11/12. The post has been slightly updated with some current information)

Nine. One. One.

On an autumn morning so vivid it seems like yesterday and so foggy it seems a lifetime ago our nation was irrevocably changed. After two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers and later the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania I could not believe the burden of sorrow placed upon the shoulders of America’s people. We all wept openly at the horror unleashed that day.

Today we still remember—we will never forget—and there are those who still weep. And yet, even while memorials are held across the country for the victims who died that day, most of America blithely accepts the further losses we have endured. Few cry for the rights lost to the Patriot Act right after the 9/11 tragedy and few notice the soldiers and civilians who for nearly two decades have not come home as they should. My sorrow continues to grow.

It was not only the twin towers and their inhabitants that were lost that day.

Out of fear, along with apathy, we have willingly given up many of the rights that made us the envy of the world. Immediately after 9/11 politicians talked about how we were attacked because others in the world were jealous of our freedoms. If that were true, they are jealous no more. Our freedoms have been regularly and gladly traded for “homeland security,” like a child giving up everything they have for a flimsy blanket to protect against a monster in the closet that may not even exist. The enemies of freedom are winning. The surprise is that those enemies have come from within our own ranks and they are from both of the major political parties. This is not a partisan thing. It is the powerful seeking greater consolidation of power at the expense and with the consent of average citizens.

Likewise, out of a desire for retribution we have lost our capacity for compassion. American soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan and one would barely know we were engaged in a war at all. The news barely touches upon it. American citizens seem to care more about who wins “Dancing with the Stars” than who is winning the war, or whether we should even be in a war in the first place. We watch “reality” television shows while ignoring the reality of innocent civilians dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere day after day. This, too, is not partisan. We went into Iraq and Afghanistan under a Republican President and stayed there under a Democrat and remained there again under a Republican. There is no end in sight.

The sad thing is that when the attacks happened on 9/11 we had an opportunity to change the world. We could have sought help from the world community to track down those behind the plot. We could have brought them to justice in a court of law and shown the world that our system was fair and impartial, that we were about more than violence and war. We could have taken the goodwill from all quarters and turned that toward a better understanding of each other. We could have rejected the historical knee-jerk reaction of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We could have led the way toward a more peaceful world in which disagreements and aggression were not met with equal aggression but with hearts open to compromise, understanding, and cooperative and peaceful resolution.

Instead, the Bush administration created lies about Saddam Hussein storing biological weapons to justify an attack on Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and it used the idea that Osama bin Laden was initially hiding in Afghanistan as a reason to attack that country. There was no discussion of attacking Saudi Arabia, the home country of the majority of the 9/11 hijackers. Iraq happened to be oil rich and have a dictator Bush’s father did not defeat in a previous war and Afghanistan happened to have a huge pipeline over which we wanted control. War hysteria was whipped up with constant misleading stories from the White House, jingoistic songs on the radio, uber-patriotic displays at sporting events and elsewhere, and a general portrayal of anyone who might oppose getting even as weak and un-American. Most of the country jumped on the war bandwagon and off we went.

In the years since that time we have lost 4,571 American soldiers in Iraq, including eight so far this year, and more than 2,370 in Afghanistan through July of last year, more than twice as many souls than were lost in the attacks from the hijacked jets. Thousands upon thousands more Iraqi and Afghani and other soldiers and civilians have also died. In the  years since the attacks Americans have been subjected to intrusive searches at airports and borders, Muslim-American citizens (and others) have been subjected to racial profiling, businesses have had records searched, common citizens’ banking, telephone, e-mail, and other transactions have been monitored without warrants, citizens who simply appear to be anti-government in some way have been subject to surveillance, warrantless wiretaps have been used, the government has been given the okay to indefinitely detain citizens, and American citizens have been killed by their own government for suspected terrorism activity without the benefit of an arrest or trial.

These things have all happened. These things have all added to the rubble left from that horrible day. The flags flying at half-staff today honor those who lost their lives in the attacks. When I see those flags or when I see memorial services being held a tear still comes to my eye. I shed tears for all the innocent lives lost in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, but I also shed tears for all the soldiers and civilians who have been lost since, and for the loss of liberty in the land of the free. May we all find peace soon.

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On Suicide Prevention Day

Invisible Boy

Thinking of suicide in a scene from the play, Invisible Boy. Photo by Callen Harty.

Trigger Warning: This post talks about suicide/ideation, child sex abuse, and depression. Please take care of yourself.

If there is one thing in my life that I failed at that I’m happy about it’s suicide. When I was younger I went through a horrible period of self-doubt, paranoia, depression, and God-only-knows what else that was affecting me. I felt unloved and unwanted and in short, I hated myself so badly that I couldn’t imagine that anyone else would care if I were alive and dead.

The thought of suicide was my constant companion. It went everywhere with me. It slept with me. It talked to me, a lot. One night I went home and took a bottle of pills out of the medicine closet, sat on my bedroom floor, and downed them. When I woke up in the light of day I could see on the bottle they were penicillin. Years later I wrote a comedic bit into a play about that experience in which the character said the following:

“Fuck. I should kill myself. I can’t do nothin’ right. Prob’ly couldn’t kill myself right either. Well, I know I can’t. Like that one time when I was all drunk and really wanted to do it and I swallowed a whole shitload a pills. Just no one told me there was penicillin in the cabinet. Fuckin’ din’t get sick for months.”

Sometimes the only way to survive is through humor.

Several months after that first attempt I came home, drunk again, and found a razor blade embedded between the wall and wooden window frame. I took it out, looked at, pondered, and ended up passing out with the blade against my wrist. That prompted the following poem:

The contemplation of suicide

 

The stars cry tears of light.

Night heat beats my temples.

Distant, very distant, laughter commences.

Tonight, the stars are my only friends.

But I must abandon their sorrow.

 

Window-fractured starlight disperses

over the thin metal blade in my hand.

My wrist pulsates. Blue veins throb

in anticipation, like sprinters awaiting the gun.

The cold metal finger caresses my skin.

 

I close my eyes in fear of blood

as the metal probes my frightened wrist.

But the weapon sneaks stealthily from my hand

as my drunken body succumbs to sleep.

I awaken with a razor blade beneath my pillow.

 

Two attempts and two miserable failures. The third time I was on the floor of my bedroom with a large kitchen knife against my wrist when I realized I couldn’t do it. I went and knocked on the door of one of my housemates and she took me in and comforted me. That was decades ago and I have not gone back to that dark place again.

The things is, I have lived so much since that time. I have found love, I have founded organizations that have helped so many other people, I have traveled, made friends, shared so many experiences with so many wonderful people. Yes, it’s trite, but it does get better. It got better mostly when I dealt with the underlying issue–the reason I was drinking so much and the reason I no longer wanted to live. For me, it was seven and a half years of childhood sexual abuse. For others, who knows? But once those issues are faced squarely and dealt with, so many other things come into focus.

The other thing is, I have seen suicide from the other side. My best friend was lost to a drug overdose after failing at suicide a couple previous times, just as I had done. Two of the youth that we worked with in the queer youth theater group I mentored for twenty years also died at their own hands. They both had so much promise and so many people who loved and cared for them.

I have said it before and I still believe it. Suicide is not selfish as so many people say. If someone goes that far, they have thought it out, they have made a choice, and I sincerely believe that like me so many years ago, they cannot see or think clearly. It feels like the only way out of such incredible and unbearable pain. What they may not realize is how many people do love them and how many people will live the rest of their lives with a hole where their heart once resided. Perhaps if they knew that, they would understand they have so much to offer and that eventually–hopefully–this too, shall pass. I don’t ever want to lose another person in my life in this way. On this Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day (and every day), I urge anyone thinking about it to pause, reach out, and accept help wherever it may be offered. If I was able to ultimately create a meaningful life after the place where I was emotionally, then I believe anyone can. It truly can get better.

Peace.

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Gunfire

open carry

Man with a weapon at a gun rights rally.

Gunfire

The sound of distant gunfire draws nearer
as bodies drop
one after another after another after another
after the sound of rapid-fire gunfire
shatters the air and airwaves again;
guns glinting in sunlight
moonlight
man-made light.
Darkness has fallen upon us.

There is no light today in Texas,
tomorrow in Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon,
another place as yet unnamed.
Bullets ricochet across the country,
getting closer to my heart each day.

I weep.
I weep for lost children—we are all children—
for Odessa, Harvest, Pulse, Virginia Tech,
Sandy Hook, First Baptist, Parkland, Columbine,
for the ones forgotten
because there are so many
we cannot remember them all.
Some were not tragic enough for memory.

Some were not tragic enough to be remembered.

I weep for my country,
for a nation so lost that we cannot
love each other
enough
to even try to stop killing each other.
America, how many guns do we need?
How many times do we pray and cry
and gnash our teeth
and move on and forget?

Today we offer condolences and heartfelt sorrow.
We watch the news in disbelief.
Tomorrow we watch the latest episode
of the most popular show on television.
We go out drinking.
We try to forget. We lose ourselves
in whatever ways we can, nervously
waiting for the next bullet to fly through the window
as the sound of gunfire draws ever nearer.

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On the Child Victims Act

Chris

Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

 

This morning, Wisconsin State Representatives Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent and State Senator Lena Taylor introduced two bills at a press conference at the State Capitol. The first was the Child Victims Act, which eliminates the statute of limitations on civil suits by victims of child sexual assault. The second eliminates a loophole that makes it possible for clergy, who are supposed to be mandatory reporters. to not report child sex abuse when they find out about it.

Representative Taylor contacted me last week and asked if I would speak at the press conference. I was honored to be asked. The following is what I said this morning:

To summarize in a couple minutes why the Child Victims Act is important and should be passed is an impossible task. A man cannot give an elevator speech on almost eight years of childhood sex abuse and a lifetime of its after-effects.

I stand before you as an adult survivor who spent decades in denial, hiding behind drugs and alcohol, thinking that suicide was the only way to escape the horrible things that happened. I couldn’t escape. The reality was always with me.

The abuse started when I was ten and continued for almost eight years. My innocence was stolen, my trust in others was gone. I was threatened and was so frightened I knew that I could never tell anyone what had happened to me. It took me years to build the strength to share my story.

Throughout my life I have had dreams, flashbacks, and issues that relate back to my childhood. Several years ago I wrote a play about those experiences and as I was writing it a sudden terror came to me that if he found out what I was doing, I would be killed before I could finish it. I was panic-stricken. Forty years after the abuse ended the terror was still palpable. These are the kinds of things survivors live with every day.

To ask survivors of childhood sex abuse to process everything they need to process before they are 35 years old is an unfair burden. Most cannot. This arbitrary limit needs to be removed. It has only been in the last decade that I’ve been able to deal with and speak openly about what happened to me. Two-thirds of victims do not say anything until well into adulthood. For male survivors it’s an average age of 52 years old. The processing of these emotions is an unfolding that never ends. It is not done at any age. There is no statute of limitations on recovery and the legislature needs to recognize that.

Ending certain exemptions for clergy as mandatory reporters is equally important. One out of three children disclose the abuse, which is a scary and dangerous prospect for them to do. A child who tells is going to tell someone they feel they can trust. They are also seeking help. When a child isn’t heard, or doesn’t think they were heard because nothing changes, they will likely join those victims who keep their dark secret for years. Exemptions for anyone in the helping professions makes it likely the child will not try again and even more likely that the abuse will continue. We cannot do this to our children.

As a survivor I applaud Representative and Senator Taylor and Representative Sargent for introducing these bills. I thank them for their concern and compassion. I urge citizens to contact their representatives to encourage them to get behind these important bills. I ask all the legislators to set politics aside and get these bills to the Governor’s desk. If there were ever a pair of bills that deserve bipartisan support, it is these.

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Cliff walk, Ardmore

Ardmore

Town centre, Ardmore, County Waterford, Ireland. Photo by Callen Harty.

Rounding hills, we drove into Ardmore town,

down a street lined with walls of alternating colors,

a post office, small shops, a tavern,

and the wild waters of the Atlantic

splashing upon the windshield.

I came searching for connection

and knew upon that arrival

where my love of water,

my inclination toward the sea

had arisen within me.

It was there, under the tower

that for centuries stood

sentry over the ruins of man

and the graves of men.

“Remember man, that you are dust

and unto dust you shall return.”

 

The postmistress directed me to Siobhán,

the town historian, the knower of all things

Ardmore. “Harty, is it? No, sorry to say,

the last of the clan left, oh, about 1950.

Biddy Harty, it was, if I’m not mistaken.

Moved up to Waterford City.”

 

Thinking then there would be no connection,

my ancestry as good as dust,

we walked the cliff walk.

We walked the pasture past

curious cows ambling toward us,

questioning our presence perhaps?

Past flowers in bloom, and

an ancient tree still flowering.

Past a song thrush gently singing.

Past the pasture out onto the cliffs

overlooking the sea below us.

 

My eyes watered as I stared into the depths,

as I felt my footsteps

walking the edge between life and death,

the path of my great-great-grandfather

and great-great-grandmother,

watching the bay in which they fished,

the ocean they traveled to America.

 

No castle could compare,

no ruins of long-dead saints

or rocks upon which legends are built,

nor modern hotels or car-lined streets.

What mattered was my feet

planted in the same earth as theirs,

my tears

rolling down cheeks from the same flesh

that looked out from these seaside cliffs

so many years before me.

This was the Ardmore I came to find

and the Ardmore that stays within my heart,

beating from one generation to the next.

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To Robin Vos

Capitol

Wisconsin Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.

Representative Vos,

It has been reported on the news, both locally and nationally, that you are upholding rules to prevent my representative, Jimmy Anderson, from calling in to meetings. The rule in question was established by the Assembly and can as easily be changed by the Assembly. Yet, despite the fact that Representative Anderson is paralyzed and has other health issues which make it difficult for him to attend committee meetings in person at times, you are being intransigent in enforcing a ridiculous rule in an age of cell phones, videoconferencing, and other electronic means of communication.

Your supposed justification for standing by this rule has been quoted by multiple media sources: “It just comes down to the fact that I think it’s disrespectful for someone to be asking questions over a microphone or a speakerphone when individuals are actually taking the time out of their day to come and testify in person.”

Really?!?

In 2019, you don’t think the citizens of this state understand the need to accommodate someone with a disability? You think they can’t clearly hear a question he might ask if it’s over a speaker? You think it’s impossible for the Assembly to make this exception while the Senate allows it in the same building? You think those of us who are in his district aren’t aware that you are playing power politics and that it has nothing to do with respect for individuals who come to the Capitol to testify?

There are many, many citizens who can’t come to the Capitol in person for many reasons who call their representatives or e-mail. Wisconsinites are smart enough to understand that there are myriad ways of communicating and doing business these days.

You really want us to believe it’s about respect for Badger citizens?

Really?!?

I have sat in attendance at committee meetings with you as the chair. I have watched as your Republican partners have shown disrespect to citizens who have come to testify. I have seen them interacting with their cell phones while citizens were speaking. I have seen them looking bored with the idea of having to listen to the people who elected them express how they feel about a bill. I have seen them chatting with each other, leaving the room, and generally showing disinterest and disrespect to those who might have an opposing point of view. I’m surprised you haven’t brought in some of your Rojo’s Popcorn to share with them while they kick off their shoes, chat, check their e-mail, and fall asleep during public testimony.

Don’t try to tell us it’s about respect. Wisconsinites are not the dullards you think we are. We know it is about you, power, and doing what you can to wield it to your party’s advantage. If Anderson were a Republican the rule would have been changed immediately. We get it.

It’s about power and how much you enjoy having it.

Really.

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