Friday, July 28, 2017

The Heart of Guilt

I read an interesting book this week, Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart (1994).

Gilmore's brother, Gary, was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977. At the time of Gary Gilmore's execution, the death penalty had only recently been reinstated: he was the first person put to death in the United States in almost ten years.

In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had determined that executions constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and, given the appearance of racial bias against African American defendants in particular, it was determined that the death penalty might also constitute a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the wake of Furman v. Georgia, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in the United States began.

In 1976, however, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court established guidelines that states must follow in capital sentencing in order to ensure that the imposition of the death penalty does not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."

The Supreme Court determined that there must be objective criteria that guide and limit determinations of whether or not to seek the death penalty (and this objectivity must be guaranteed by an appellate review of all death sentences) and the judge or jury (whoever hands down the sentence) must be allowed to weigh the record and character of the defendant.

With the guidelines established by Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was once again considered constitutional. In Utah in particular, defendants sentenced to death had the option of death by hanging or by firing squad.

What made Gary Gilmore's case unusual was the fact that, when he was ultimately sentenced to die for his robbery and murder of two men over the course of two nights in Provo, Utah, he insisted that the sentence be carried out. Gilmore opted for death by firing squad, stating, "I'd prefer to be shot," and openly objected to requests for a stay of execution filed on his behalf (by his mother and the ACLU).

If you've read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1977) (or if you've seen the 1982 movie starring Tommy Lee Jones), then you're familiar with the story of Gary Gilmore's crimes, his trial, and his eventual execution.

Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart tells a different story-- namely, the story of the Gilmore family, both before, during, and after Gary Gilmore's crimes, conviction, and execution. As Mikal Gilmore insists in the prologue,
I have a story to tell. It is a story of murders: murders of the flesh, and of the spirit; murders born of heartbreak, of hatred, of retribution. It is the story of where those murders begin, of how they take form and enter our actions, how they transform our lives, how their legacies spill into the world and the history around us...

I know this story well, because I have been stuck inside it...
His story is an interesting one, in no small part because he is well aware that, due to the eleven-year age difference, his childhood was nothing like that of his brother Gary. For whatever reason, Mikal was his father's favorite son and spared the relentless emotional and physical abuse that was inflicted on his older brothers.

His memoir is an elaborate and eloquent reflection on the nature of guilt and judgment, both his own and others'.

In Shot in the Heart, Gilmore is brutal and unsparing in his reflections about himself, his parents, his brothers, the legacy of his family, and the toll that the notoriety of his brother's crime and punishment ultimately took on all of them.

Gilmore's opening sentence echoes Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov on the eve of his double-murder, Gilmore describes how he too has "dreamed a terrible dream." 

Shot in the Heart weaves Gilmore's dreams with his family's stories of ghosts and hauntings and long-standing secrets.

And although Gilmore acknowledges that he has been "stuck inside" the story of murders, hatred, and retribution that mark his family, he also remarks on the irony of the fact that he is in many ways an outsider in his own story. There are gaps he can't fill, questions he can't answer, answers he will never find.

I read Mailer's The Executioner's Song over a decade ago, and I confess, I found it underwhelming. 

Quite frankly, I think Mikal Gilmore wrote a better book. I say this even as I acknowledge that, as Gilmore himself points out, his book does something very different from Mailer's.

Personally, I prefer what Gilmore's book attempts--namely, an understanding of the human circumstances and consequences that surround a situation like the one that eventually engulfed his brother.

When I read The Executioner's Song, I felt like I was inundated with details.

And I mean really inundated. I distinctly remember opting not to read a full 100 pages of the book, once I realized that Mailer was including the court transcripts of Gilmore's trial... after he had already summarized the trial in extensive detail.

I've read War and Peace and I teach a course on 19th-century British novels. It takes a lot for me to decide that a novel "too long." But that was how I felt about The Executioner's Song. It did not need to be nearly 1200 pages long. (YES. It IS. This is what I'm saying.)

In retrospect, the reason I came to that conclusion was that it never felt like Mailer was giving me a sense of ... the human meaning behind it all, for lack of a better phrase.

I set Mailer's text down feeling like I knew a whole lot about what happened to Gary Gilmore and nothing at all about Gary Gilmore. It was clear that something had gone seriously wrong in his life; it was clear that his more or less constant incarceration in "reform schools" and prisons from the age of fourteen until his death at the age of 36 had contributed greatly to that.

It was clear that he was, by the time of his death, a vicious and truly troubled man who came from a troubled family environment. And yet, I could never quite fathom why he insisted on being put to death--and to me, that was important, to try to come to some kind of understanding of that or to offer us the chance to reflect on it.

To hand the reader reams of court documents and letters and interviews... that simply didn't help me understand what I wanted to understand about the case.

That's why I think Mikal Gilmore's work is the better effort. It represents a whole-hearted attempt to understand his brother Gary, in spite of the distance--both temporal and psychological--that always existed between them. But it also doesn't shy away from the horror that was his brother's life.  

Mikal Gilmore makes no excuses for his brother. He is honest about the anger and frustration and desire to simply escape what his brother wrought in his life and in the lives of his family members.

But he also mourns the brother he lost. And I think it is the combination of these two very different kinds of pain that make his writing incredibly powerful and his memoir well worth reading.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Anniversary


Tomorrow at 5:38 a.m., it will be 6 years since this sweet boy, my little friend and godson, Ezra, passed away.

This picture was taken in 2009, when he and his mom and brother and sister came to visit me in my little rental house by the bay in RI, the year I had a sabbatical.

That was a little over a year before everything changed and all of us were blindsided in a way that left none of us the same.

When I took this picture, I named the file "Ezra the Thoughtful." Because that's what he was: thoughtful. In every sense of the word.

He had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. Bugs, birds, books, cars, coins, toys, rocks, movies, games... the list of things he wanted to find out about--and then tell you about--was unending.

I remember that, shortly after he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, I went to visit, and he sat with me, showing me all the rocks in his rock collection. He explained each one and where he had found it, and why he liked it.

I remember at the time thinking that it just wasn't possible that there would be a world someday soon, and he wouldn't be in it. It just wasn't possible.

But it was. And it is.

And I think, for all of us who knew him for the short ten years he was with us, since he left, the world has always been a little darker, the light always a little dimmer, the faith and hope never quite so strong, as it was when he was with us.

Once you realize that, yes, bad things really can happen, for no reason, and no, things don't always work out for the best (far from it), and goodness and innocence and love are absolutely no protection against anything, you change.

The change isn't good or bad, it is just is. 

Sometimes, people who've experienced it will tell you that this is how it is, that this can happen--like I'm doing now.

And you can say, yes, you know and you believe it, but unless it happens to you, you just don't know. And you can't possibly believe it, because it really is unbelievable. 

You look back at who you used to be, and sometimes, you marvel at how naive you were.

How naive and how lucky. You had the luxury of ignorance. That's a luxury you only realize you enjoyed once it's gone. 

But instead of staring at that bitter reality, I choose to remember other realities.

Like the reality of Ezra's silly laugh when he and I played with his toy dinosaurs when he was a toddler. I  can still hear it sometimes, when it's late and I'm home and things are quiet and I'm thinking about him.

Or the reality of his love of cake and ice cream and any kind of sweets he could get his hands on. (We shared that love.)  His birthday was exactly one week after mine, and every year, he and I would consult (very seriously) about the kind of cake we were each going to have for our birthdays that year.

Or the reality that he had an amazing ability to draw and build and create, and that we all marveled at it, at how early he showed so much creativity and promise. I think we all looked at the things he made and wondered what great things the future would hold. 

And of course, there's the reality that he once--accidentally, of course, without realizing what it meant--gave his mom and I the finger.

My best friend, his mom, wrote this in 2012, on the one-year anniversary of his death:
Ok. the joke is over, Ezra, you can come out now.  It's been one year, that's plenty of time to carry on this never-ending game of hide and seek.  Who or whatever is in charge of the universe, we've had enough, send him back and let everything go back to the way it was!
A year of marking time, recalling dates, seasons.  What were we doing at this time last year, etc.  So what goes on during the second year after death, I wonder.  More of the same I suppose, each year a little farther away, a little duller, the hole filling in with what I don't even know.  Yet it all does often feel still so fresh, so much like we are right back there in that hospital room again . . . waiting, emptied out of hope...

You begin to realize how the loss of one person leaves such a void, it overwhelms you, catches you off guard regularly and often, like ocean waves hitting you unexpectantly and unceasingly, the bigger ones toppling you over.  You must pick yourself up again and again.  But they are always there to hit you another time.  Another wave of grief.
That's the reality that we still live with.

If you're waiting for the cliched ending, the one with "closure," you won't be finding it here.

On the morning my dad died, when I knew he would die, I was devastated. But at one moment, I also had an odd and profound sense of peace, that I can't quite explain.

It was as if the world went quiet for a second, and I realized that yes, this is just... this. 

The day I arrived at Ezra's hospital room and saw that he had taken a sudden, terrible turn for the worse, I remember feeling an overwhelming feeling that this was just... wrong.

Profoundly, biologically wrong.

And that this would never be something that led to a feeling of peace.

I remember that, I started to cry and cry (and cry), and that I didn't think I was ever going to be able to stop.

My best friend's mom came and found me crying. I remember she hugged me and cried too, and said, "I know."

I think that's the only reason I was able to stop crying. At the time, all I could say to her was, "It's just so sad."

And that was that. And it was when I changed.

And I know that, although Ezra would be sad to know that he changed my life in that way, I also know that he would understand that the change that happened was inevitable, because he had changed my life in so many good ways.

A few weeks after Ezra died, his little brother, who was eight years old at the time, wrote the following:
Ezra was my brother until he passed away.  He was the only brother I had.  He died because of a stupid tumor.  His favorite shoes were orange and yellow crocs.  His favorite jacket was black.  His favorite television show was The Nature Show, and his favorite thing to do was play outdoors.  I really loved Ezra.
So did I. We all did.

We still do.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Little Things

It's been a week of fits and starts and frustrations, and tonight, I'm feeling a bit sad about that. You know, when you had big plans to get a lot accomplished and... nada.

But instead of wallowing in it, I'm trying to take stock of the little things I've done this week that were, in their own small way, worth it.

For example, it's blueberry season. I went for my second picking session this week, and got absolutely soaked. If the phrase "catch your death" had any relevance, I would have caught it--it was that kind of chilly and rainy.

But that was okay. I pick a lot of berries every summer (in case you hadn't noticed) and I've come to expect that at least once, I'll get soaked to the bone and at least once, it'll be so hot that I'll think I'm going to pass out right there in the field, unable to get my berries in a basket (so to speak).

When I got home from berry picking, instead of getting down to work, the way I'd planned, I decided I'd better harvest the basil and make pesto. I was afraid the basil would bolt and go to seed, and although I didn't plant as much of it this year as I normally do, I still didn't want to lose any of it simply by not cutting it back in time.

The weather has been cool and rainy for the past couple of days, so it was the perfect opportunity to get these smaller harvesting tasks done.

It was also perfect weather for working on several of the many large knitting projects I have nearing completing. In particular, I'm finishing up an actual dress (yes, you read that right) that I spent months and months knitting.

If I can finish the pocket tonight (and I think I can), all I'll have left to do is one 3/4 length sleeve. Then it's block it, finish it (it will need a button or two) and... it will be done at long last, ready to wear next winter.

I'm also 3/4 of a sleeve (I sense a trend here) and a neckline away from finishing a sweater that would also be nice to have ready to wear next winter.

And then there are socks. Those are always little things that fill in the gaps between big knitting projects. And that work well in the summer, because let's face it, no one wants to sit with a big alpaca wool dress on their lap in the summer. They just don't.

I've been doing a bit of weight training this summer as well, and I added a little more weight to my bench press lifting--that may seem like a little thing, but when you try to lift it, you notice, trust me.

That's said, I'm happy because I'm now bench-pressing 70 lbs, whereas at the start of May, I could only lift the bar itself (45 lbs). My goal is to see if I can get to 100 lbs at some point--maybe by this fall? (Maybe not?)

I also read a little book, that I think is part of why I'm winding down my Saturday evening feeling a little sad. It's Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air (2017). Although it's good, and I recommend it, it's also quite sad.

Kalanithi died of cancer when he was only 37. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer around the age of 35, which is when he began writing his book. It describes his life up until his diagnosis, and then his illness itself.

He was unable to document much of his time during his illness because he was so sick. He died somewhat suddenly, after his aggressive cancer "flared" when chemotherapy no longer worked.

Obviously, this is probably not the kind of thing I needed to be reading, given that this is July and I'm rapidly approaching a couple of difficult anniversaries when I lost people close to me to cancer... but there it is. I read the book.

I think I sort of felt like I "needed" to read it now, because I have a funny feeling about this time of year--almost like I don't think it's right to be... too happy, maybe? I don't know how to explain it, except to say that, when you go through some really difficult times at a particular point in the year, I think you forever feel like that phase of the year is a bit of a memorial to that time.

It's not possible to not sense the memories in the air, if the weather changes and suddenly, it's the way it was that year, for example. It's like it's a time that you always carry with you, and even though you're on the other side of it now and can look back and marvel at what you endured, you still feel like it's with you, in a way.

It's a big thing, marked by memories of all the little things, that made you who you are today.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Freeing Myself

I really can't believe we're already over a week into July. Yes, I know there was the little holiday there right at the start of the month, but still.

My latest news is, I've pledged to participate in "Plastic Free July." If you don't know what this is, you can probably guess.

Based in Australia, "Plastic Free July" is designed to encourage people to reduce their use of single-use plastic items (straws, cups, water bottles, soda bottles, produce wrapping, etc. etc.). Basically, you pledge to try to help cut back on the use of all of that plastic out there that you're only using once and then throwing away.

Because once thrown away, it ends up in the landfills or the oceans. And that's just not good.

I confess, I don't do a lot of take-out coffee or food, so I'm not a big contributor on that front.

So, to do my part, I decided I would eliminate using plastic grocery bags.

In particular, I would no longer line my smaller trash cans with those little shopping bags. I took ALL of them (and ye gods, I had a lot) to the grocery store and stuffed them in their bin to be recycled (it was the best I could do!) and that was that.

I haven't been able to bring myself to not line my larger trash can with a plastic bag. They recommend using newspaper instead, but I don't really have any.

What I can tell you (okay, that was a little unintended pun with the word "can" there), is that I've significantly reduced my trash overall.  And I mean, significantly.

Yes, I'm only one person, but because pretty much all "wet" trash from food or eggs (everything minus meat or dairy) now goes into my compost, I'm emptying my actual garbage can every 2 weeks, at most, instead of weekly (or more than weekly).

This is something.

I'm giving reuseable beeswax food storage wraps a try, to help eliminate plastic wrap. So far, so good: I find that I prefer them to plastic wrap, which I was never a huge fan of, quite frankly.

I've also decided to really try to reduce--if not eliminate--my use of paper towels. (Yes, I know they're not plastic. I'm on a little roll, though. HA--I did it again with the pun.)

I'm using rags, whenever possible, and as it turns out, it really is often possible.

For the most part, it's been a question of adjusting my habits and catching myself not reaching for the easy solution offered by a single-use disposable items.

I'm planning, at some point, to make a trip to a local co-op to see about buying bulk foods. This is going to need a little bit of planning on my part, though, if I'm going to opt out of the plastic bags. I'll need new container options.

I've gotten so that I bring my own containers to the grocery store to put veggies in, after my friend mentioned that having them roll around the cart (which is what will happen if you no longer use those little baggies) was no fun.

I'm actually reusing the old plastic veggie containers I had from before-- I'm re-purposing them, in short, which is a good thing. (Just be sure to take the bar code off the base of them.)

As I've said before (almost four years to the day, in fact, in my post entitled "My Half-Life: A Pale Green Wrapper") make these kinds of adjustments works best if you find one thing you can commit to, and then build on that over time.

And if it doesn't work for you, it just doesn't. But you try and you gain awareness, and maybe you simply cut back--or you decide to make some other thing that will work for you.

If you're interested in Plastic Free July, they offer a really handy chart with suggestions for actions that you can take. It also shows the effect that any change you implement will have on the oceans, environment, and land-fills. It's available here, and I really hope you'll join in and give it a try!