Reminiscing on my violent, alcoholic father

It has been more than 35 years since my adoptive father died of health complications that followed years of destructive behavior and a losing battle with alcoholism.

Though he has long been buried in a cemetery plot in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, next to his father and mother, his impact on my life and my family lived on long after he passed away.

Even today, I frequently am forced to confront my long-buried memories of this often violent yet aextremely intelligent man who was an ordained Lutheran minister.

A shot taken with my adoptive father and sister in our home.

For the last seven years, when my adoptive mom was on her long and difficult journey with Alzheimer’s disease, my adoptive father’s memory frequently came up in our conversations. When I visited her in her home in University City, Missouri, flying out from my home cities of Seattle and then Portland, we spent endless hours talking about the past and her memories that grew dimmer over time. She could recall snippets of her past life and share them with me. She frequently repeated ideas or hazy recollections. She repeated two things more than any other during these seven years.

First, she told me, I have the greatest husband in the whole world. She was referencing her current husband and full-time caregiver, my stepfather, who cared for right up until her final day. Second, she told me, my first husband used to beat me. That was a reference to my adoptive father and her first husband, from the summer of 1958 through their divorce in the summer of 1973. During that time they lived in Detroit, moved briefly to Boston in late 1965 and 1966, and then moved to the metro St. Louis area, where my mom lived out the rest of her life.

My adoptive parents in front of their west Detroit home, likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

When my mom’s memory was sharper in the early years of her Alzheimer’s, she repeated constantly how often my adoptive father would hit her. She said the doctors told her the violence could have contributed to her awful and prolonged brain-wasting disease. I can still remember those incidents as if they happened hours ago. I too can never forget them.

I would always reply during these countless recollections that, yes, mom, your husband—my stepfather—was the best husband in the world. I would say nothing about her comments on her years of domestic abuse at the hands of my adoptive father—her former husband. These conversations continued until the second-to-last time I saw her alive, in September 2019.

In the end, my adoptive mom had two distinct memories, one of violence and one of love, which she likely had little control over because of her deteriorated state from Alzheimer’s.

Making Sense of my Adoptive Father

Though my life with my adoptive father in a nuclear family lasted eight years, I spent another five more visiting him, first in the St. Louis area and then in the Huntington, West Virginia and Chesapeake, Ohio metro area, where he resettled after the divorce.

Those trips with my adoptive sister to stay with him several times a year, as part of the divorce custodial settlement, were as bad if not worse than the times when we lived as a family under one roof.

I tried to reconstruct those years from memory starting about five years ago, as I began to write my memoir as an adoptee. I remember the day I wrote out the first outline to my memoir on a hot July day on a river beach. I then started with a chapter exploring my childhood and younger years with my adoptive father.

I wrote that chapter first. It proved to the hardest one to do because I had to dredge up memories that were neatly buried.

I also needed to revisit the places of my childhood and youth, in Huntington and Chesapeake, letting me remember things I had forgotten, perhaps as a way to carry on with life. I took a road trip there in September 2015.

My adoptive father lived for several years in this house, owned by the next door Lutheran church, where her served as a minister in the 1970s.

I published an essay on that trip on one of my blogs. I wrote about my childhood trips to see him: “I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile. I did. Despite the odds, I really did.”

When I finished the revised text to my memoir in late 2017, I left my first chapter on my adoptive father out. That decision came easily. I decided it was too personal about a relation that shaped my life. No one else would understand that journey but me. By that time in my life, into my fifth decade, I also realized I had become more like the generations who preceded me, who were reserved, not someone who wanted to “tell all.”

I also had come to a deeper realization about living life and finding meaning. I was able to see my unpleasant times with my adoptive father through a completely different perspective, shaped by my life and the knowledge I had gained from life.

Rudy Owens’ memoir on his experience as an adoptee and on the U.S. adoption system.

I described my later life’s wisdom in the introduction to my book, which I published in May 2018: “My adoptive father, a Lutheran minister, was abusive and an alcoholic. He had a serious drinking problem before I was even placed in his and my adoptive family’s middle-class, two-story brick home in metro Detroit. He treated my adoptive mother, my adoptive sister, and me very poorly. At times, when he was drunk, he could have killed my sister and me on more than a dozen occasions—when he would drive us in a total stupor. My adoptive family’s struggles were not pleasant, but they are also things no one could have predicted, and their meaning and purpose may still not even be clear to me. However, the way I confronted these challenges was uniquely my own, and I own how I addressed my reality and the conditions of my life. No one else is responsible for that.”

The Impact of Living through Domestic Violence Never Goes Away

As I continue to reflect on my life, I remain honest that the impacts of my adoptive father’s actions never fully disappeared. I see that most clearly when I read and learn about how domestic violence impacted others in their youth and their eventual journeys in life.

Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and film franchise.

I only recently learned that the fine British actor Patrick Stewart, known to the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, also grew up in a home marred by domestic violence. I had always felt something raw when watching Stewart’s performances, as Picard, as Ebenezer Scrooge in his version of A Christmas Carol, and his lesser and earlier roles in films like Excalibur. He always had bursts of rage that felt like a smothering volcano, but controlled just barely.

By accident this month, I found his essay published in November 2009, in The Guardian (Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence). In it, he laid bare what he and his mother experienced at the rough hands of his World War II hero and domestic-abuser father. He wrote in the bluntest of terms how his father badly beat his mother, especially when he was drunk. He described the terror of living under the shadow of a violent person, who put their lives at risk.

“Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it,” Stewart wrote. “No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting—and lasting.”

Everything Stewart described echoed eerily what I had written in 2016, without ever reading Stewart’s essay, penned six years earlier.

In the section of my book I deleted, I wrote: “In those frequent drunken conditions, the ordinary looking man could transform into frightening malevolence, and you never quite knew how he would erupt. The well-worn expression walking on eggshells is actually a perfect match for what my mom, sister, and I faced for years around him.”

I also described the ravaging effects of alcohol, which I internalize to this day, as a survival mechanism. “In those intoxicated moments, my father’s ordinary appearance would be transformed by alcohol. His speech would slur. His left eye would slant behind his glasses. It was the mark an alcoholic I learned to spot instantaneously in others the rest of my life—one of the weird outcomes of growing up around someone with this affliction. To this day I can spot a problem drinkers with Spiderman-like quickness, usually in the first five seconds of meeting them. And my self-defense response kicks into a state of hyper readiness, just in case.”

On some days, like ones I have had this month, I revisit my life’s decisions that still leave sorrow, including my decisions to live a life that eschewed anything resembling domestic normality and middle-class happiness. I still associate these with my adoptive family and father.

Like all of us, we have to confront ourselves and decisions. There are days it is hard, when I might see families that appear “normal,” and I can observe a father who acts compassionately around others without toxic masculinity or the effects of alcohol. On those off days, these apparently normal activities allow me to play “what if” games in my mind.

In the end, I let those thoughts go, because I own this path and my thoughts entirely.

In the chapter I cut from my memoir, I concluded with a meditation on restorative justice. I described how embracing forgiveness means letting go of the power the offense and the offender over a person. It means no longer letting the offender and their actions control you anymore. Without this act of healing, the wound can fester and can control one’s actions indefinitely.

Like Stewart, I cannot entirely let go of the memories of a violent man who failed as a father. But I have found a path to becoming a better person and the person I wanted to be. I never followed in my adoptive father’s footsteps. For that I take credit. I accomplished more than I knew I ever would.

Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying Goodbye

In December 2019, my mom began her stay at the Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton, Missouri. The place is close to my stepfather, who decided at last to put her into a care home. He has been my mother’s primary and dutiful caregiver for years. The decision was entirely his alone to make.

He felt good about the facility and its staff. It is partially owned and managed by the most respected medical system in metro St. Louis — Barnes and Jewish Hospital.

I first arrived at my mom’s new and likely final home on the first night of my four-day trip in late January 2020. I had flown out from my current home on the West Coast, in Portland. My plan was simple: spend as much time as I could with my ailing mother.

From the outside, the place looked remarkably plain, testifying to its focus on function. The three-story brick building has a gated courtyard and no fancy design features. It mostly resembles thousands of other care homes, where families, loved ones, and our society place our sickest, frailest, and oldest residents to live out their final days and die, hidden from public view.

My trip here also marked the final arc of my family’s life, not far from where we spent our early years together. Over the course of four days, I visited my mom daily, spending a couple hours each day with her.

My mom turned 83 last fall. When I came, she was at the end of her long, seven-year odyssey since she was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. That diagnosis changed everything. Those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s, like my stepdad and my mother’s husband of more 35 years, travel in the deep and dark valley of this horrible disease for intolerably long periods, with few moments of joy.

Though I lived nearly 2,000 miles away, my life also changed completely. I stopped taking vacations. Nearly all the free time I could pull from my work schedule went to trips two or three times a year to see her. I ceased to care about petty squabbles at my job, wanting to conserve my energy and health to focus on my family. It probably allowed unhelpful situations at my job to get worse because I refused to waste time on inconsequential issues and people who were not important to my life.

Every time I saw my mom, her conditions had deteriorated more. By time I came out this January 2020, my mom had already had two emergency room visits the previous month. She first stayed at another care facility nearly 30 miles from her and my stepdad’s cozy home, where her offered loving care for years. He found the Barnes-Jewish facility after lots of rejections and queries. It offered extended care, and he immediately liked it.

This is an expression I had much of the time during my four-day visit to see my mother at her new care home.

Over my four days in St. Louis, I visited my mom’s room on the third floor, where I got to slightly know some of the patients. Most of them were mentally sharp. Some had severe cognitive disabilities. Many were old and friendly to me. I had several conversations with mom’s neighbors during two lunches.

For those lunchtime meals, I spoon fed my mom what little amounts of nourishment she could swallow. When she did, she would smile at me, but not really see me because of her eyesight had long since failed.

I also befriended some nurses and nurses aides. All were cheerful and caring. They lovingly helped my mom with her basic functions: showering, eating, being wheeled in and out of the recreation and dining room. They were pros at moving her around. They also did the diaper changes and clothes changes. I couldn’t do that. Most were African American.

This sign decorates the rec room/lunchroom at my mom’s care home.

I particularly liked a day nurse, a man with tattoos covering his arms and about my age. I also liked another nurse, a South Asian woman who helped me get my mom out of bed and ready for lunch one day.

Since I last saw my mom in September 2019, she appeared to have aged about five years. She now had nearly totally gray hair. She was so weak, she was unable to walk.

According to my stepdad, on most days, she slept. Sometimes the TV was left on. Other times my stepdad said he put on music, which she liked. He set up some pictures on her bureau of happier times for all of us and put one of my mom’s favorite posters, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, above her bed.

My stepfather has arranged a loving display on the bureau in my mom’s room.

During each visit, I talked to her. I held her frail, withered hands. Sometimes she smiled. I liked that a lot.

The last morning of my final visit, a Sunday, began as a beautiful winter day in St. Louis. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. I took a brisk walk to clear my head. During those three miles I exchanged friendly hellos to friendly Midwesterners. I wondered to myself how many of them might have family members who were ill or experiencing dementia like my mother.

I arrived at my mom’s facility shortly after 10 a.m. It was quiet. As usual I signed in and walked to the elevator upstairs, through the institutional hallways.

I first went to my mom’s room and it was empty. I briefly panicked. I thought, she might have died the night earlier. I went back to the recreation and lunchroom. There she was, in her red sweat pants, a red sweater, and curled in a fetal position on the chair next the table below the blaring TV. I walked up to her and told her it was Rudy. I could see her smile, but I knew she did not see me.

That morning, a woman minister in her late 60s, wearing a blue turtleneck and blue pants, was leading a Protestant church service in the same room. About 10 of the mostly older patients participated.

I heard the minister speak the Lord’s Prayer, and half of the patients said it with her. She came up to me and asked if we wanted communion. I asked mom, and she agreed, likely not understanding what I asked. She ingested about one half of the wafer.

Mom began to curl up, wanting to sleep again. I ran to her room and grabbed a pillow to give her something more comfortable than a wooden chair arm to rest her head on. The minister, having finished her service, then sat at the piano and began to play hymns. She played and sang How Great Though Are, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Down by the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and other hymns I didn’t recognize immediately. At that moment I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing for those here, and for visitors like me.

I started crying when the minister and an older African American patient sang Amazing Grace.

This was it, I realized. This was the end. I knew I would never see my mom alive again. My eyes were turning red and I wiped away the tears on my jacket.

I told my mom I was leaving. She smiled and asked where I was going. I said, I’m going to Portland. She smiled. I don’t know if she heard me. I blew her a kiss, not wanting to give her my minor throat illness. Then I got I got a nurse’s aide to punch in the security code to open the secure elevator to leave.

Alone, I started to cry. I mostly kept up my straight-faced appearance in the lobby as I signed out. Once in the small parking lot, I bent over and wept. It has been years since I cried like this. I must have been a pitiful sight to someone looking out a window.

I got in the car and continued to weep. I turned the ignition and began to leave the parking lot, still crying.

Enough of this, I told myself. I wanted to be strong. So I pulled out my stoic shell and put on my public mask. It is the face I show the world, even when things go very, very bad.

I turned my rental car onto Forest Park Parkway, turned north on Interstate 170, and headed to St. Louis International Airport to catch my flight home.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

‘The Art of War’: the essential text for any U.S. adoptee

Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war.

Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.

For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.

So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?

My tweet to adoptees on preparing for long campaigns for equal rights: read Sun Tzu.

Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.

If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

(I first published a copy of this essay on the website for my memoir.)

Reflecting on becoming a surfer

One of who I call the Seaside A-Team catches a tough wave at Seaside, Oregon on a relatively calm day at he Oregon Coast in late September 2017.

A year ago last weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

It is a feeling of accomplishment. I started from nothing and had to “wipe out” my way to my new-found status literally hundreds of times. Yes, I had to fail repeatedly before I became competent to feel welcome in the ocean and among the community of surfers globally. I admit I am still slow and clumsy getting upright. I will never be great.

Beginning Surfing Later in Life

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Rudy Owens after a summer surf at Seaside Cove, on the Oregon Coast.

It Was Worth It

This past weekend, on Sept. 22, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed a quiet overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my nine-foot Stewart longboard. This ride repeated a nearly identical ride I had a week earlier, at the exact same spot.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

(Author’s note: An earlier version of this essay was first published on Sept. 17, 2017, on my photo blog called What Beautiful Light.)

Maintaining Balance in Life: A Daily Practice

(Click on both photos to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Balance is an important element in finding purpose and meaning, and perhaps pleasure—but that is not as important for me. In my case, working on big things, in my daily practice with everyone I meet and myself, and in my life’s trajectory, give me the ability to keep things upright and tall, when it seems like life can just topple things down. Also, you can always re-stack things when they tumble. Life teaches this lesson all of the time, and we should embed this memory into our subconscious, as our reservoir of strength.

The stack on the right of the color image above fell the day I took this. It was restored shortly after by someone, and so was balance.

Me, Mum, and the Wisdom of Time

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.

But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.

These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.

Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.

I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.

Me and Mum, the Good Days:

Mom at the Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.

Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.

When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.

My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.

At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.

Mom at a Shakespeare performance in Seward Park, July 2012, Seattle.

So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.

These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.

She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake  Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.

On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.

I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.

Facing Tomorrow, Today

The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.

Mom and the Ballard Locks, July 2012, and one of my favorite portraits I took of her.

Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?

Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.

Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.

I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.

When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.

I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.

I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.

I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.

Riddick, this ain’t nothing new

The power of resilience remains as one the bedrock storytelling themes since humans first swapped tales around the campfire. It appeals to all of us and our desire to find inspiration to confront the challenges that life throws in our way.

Vin Diesel Riddick, 2013 Film

Vin Diesel plays the anti-hero Riddick in the 2013 film of the same name–a classic story of resilience against all odds.

To my surprise, one of the most creative and gripping versions of the thousands-year-old storytelling trope came packaged in the 2013 sci-fi action drama Riddick, starring Vin Diesel. Riddick, for those who are not diehard fans, is an interplanetary outlaw, hunted by mercenaries, evil empire and evil religious despots called Necromongers, and baddies who either want him killed or captured.

The film opens with a shot of a hand sticking out of rocks on a god-foresaken landscape. A flying vulture lizard lands on rocks and starts gnawing on the fingertips.

In the background, Diesel’s gravel voice mutters, “Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead. Guess when it first happens the day you were born, you’re gonna lose count.” Then the hand grasp’s the creature’s throat until it thrashes and dies. And we know at that instant that our hero is going to show us that no challenge will stop him from achieving his goal of leaving that planet, alive. “So this, this ain’t nothing new,” he says.

So starts the 2013 reboot to the franchise, which began with muddled and bloated 2004 Chronicles of Riddick that is best forgotten.

Opening Scene of Riddick Photo

The 2013 film Riddick opens with a memorable image of a man’s single-minded goal to survive anything that comes his way.

But, I simply love the beginning to the latest installment. Everything about it is fresh, mythical, and ancient at the same time. (See the first 10 minutes on YouTube.)

You have your classic hero story. Having been nearly killed by falling off a cliff after a double-cross by the intergalactic religious power maniacs called Necromongers, Riddick crawls with a busted leg on a desert floor to a pool of sulfuric water. Unable to drink it, he escapes a pack of giant hyena type carnivores by diving in the pool. “Just me and this no-name world. Gotta find that animal side again,” he says.

He resets his broken leg in a brutal fashion, screwing in armed plates into his flesh to act a cast. He then encounters a species of bear-sized, two-legged mud demons who have giant scorpion-like tails and giant mandibles that are poisonous. They block his path, and he has to go through their pool to a better place. “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days,” Riddick says after nearly getting eaten by one. “This was shaping up to be one of those. Whole damn planet wanted a piece of me.”

For the first 20 or so minutes of the film Riddick embraces the man vs. nature and man vs. beast storylines flawlessly. You don’t really care that this is a sci-fi action film at this point. You basically care about a guy who is unfazed when the odds are stacked against him. You admire his resilience to not only overcome the planet’s hostile nature, but to even grow as a person.

Vin Diesel as Riddick and Jacka Dog Photo

Vin Diesel’s character Riddick survives challenge after challenge in the 2013 film of the same name, with his short-lived friend, a jackal-like dog.

Riddick does get through the mud demons, befriends a puppy wild jackal-like creature who becomes his sidekick, defeats two crews of mercenaries who land to capture and kill him, fights off countless other mud demons when he’s left for dead, and leaves the planet. A survivor to the end—pure Riddick. Never a moment of pity, never a moment of whining. He just accepts his fate and finds a solution.

I can point to countless books I have read and loved that follow this same storyline and outcome, and they are among my favorites. They include The Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton and his crew of the Endurance and their survival from disaster in Antarctica in 1914 and 1915, and Escape from Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba, about his incredible escape from the German death camp in 1944 with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler. They are great yarns because they deal with human ingenuity and strength that withstand unimaginable challenges. Those are also hallmarks of great people and true leaders.

Stories like these will always be retold, and relived. I think they speak to something powerful inside all of us, which rejects misfortune and turns it into growth and conquest.

So give the film Riddick a chance. You might be surprised you have read or seen the story before but find its telling good enough to inspire you when a few bad days and legendary bad days cross your path. Remember folks, that ain’t nothing new.