Monday, February 26, 2007

Winter’s Drive Along the Gorge

Our divorcee mother drove
the aging 1963 Valiant station wagon,
light blue (not nearing turquoise
as my older brother falsely recalls).
He and I squabbled in the backseat,
as we drove along the Gorge:

Columbia River on the left,
immediate blasted hillside on the right:
modern highway squeezed between.
It was always new, each winter week.

How could I not miss those idiosyncratic icicles?

They were singular stalactites showing off:
longer here, shorter there; dull at that tip,
dagger sharp just beside it; this one
clear as drinking water, that one white
as snow. One should fit in my pocket;
another in a giant's. Each different,
yet cut from the same once-fluid cloth:
downward motion made frigid, tactual.

Still, there was magic there,
seen through the lens of fabled child’s wonder
I can still occasionally conjure.
Now, though, it takes blessed effort,
not the simple ease of six-year-old
granddaughter on her way to the Ranch.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gudrun (Part II)

When last I saw her, she was nothing like the jovial embodiment of compassion and mischief, integrity and abiding faith who had helped me emerge from adolescence more intact than when I entered. She could no longer bake or hold a long conversation, but she could go for walks (accompanied); she could be gracious and loving (also confused and preoccupied).


They saved me because they spoke frankly: about the world, themselves, me, what was happening, what was possible, what was not. They were a salve to a bright becoming-young woman raised in alcohol-infused secrets and extended entanglements of violence and boundary crossings. They weren’t always right, but they were always there.


I remember watching her get lost in the grocery store we had visited scores of times together. Her adoring and dedicated husband of 35 years was only ten feet away, yet not the five she required to recognize her place in the world. I remember her panic rising, my inability to be a reassuring point of reference: I was no longer beloved adopted daughter, but one of the myriad swarming mass of humanity whom she had once embraced, but who now terrorized her with our disturbing strangeness.


Have you ever seen the hole a lit cigarette makes when pressed to unfolded rolling paper? Just at first, it is the exact size of the round embered tip. Then it grows, orange hair-line trim expanding the circumference unevenly, persistently, burning away the once-wood pulp, once-virgin forest, forever.

So it was with her brain damage. A little at first: lack of word retrieval, inability to recall unimportant facts. Then important facts, difficulty following multi-step tasks, like baking her delicious marbled pound cake. Then as simple as boiling water or remembering that one must turn off the stove burner after one turns it on. Refined rolling paper, wood pulp, virgin forest: all clear-cut.


Years she spent in this decline, descent,degradation, desecration, fragmentation. She became a simple nest of primal emotions, no discernible intellect left to sculpt her animal essence. Her bodydeath came much later than her soulloss. This cleaving apart calling into question God’s benevolence.

Now, finally this cleaving together: her death, a welcome relief to her suffering, and ours.

Gudrun (Part I)

There is no poetry here.

No beauty transcending cruelty.
No reassurance to offer nor metaphor to distill.
Just the harsh, relentless fact
that her body remained years

(too many years)

after her soul departed.
A corporeal shell,
lying in sterile bed:
hollowed, howling, haunted.
Ragged, roughened, ravaged.
Unrecognizing, unrecognizable.


These pitiful words,
this testament to
intolerable suffering
against which
she was helpless.

This is
all I have,
so tiny that infinite amounts


fit in the palm of my hand,
open or closed,
it does not matter.

Not to her.
Not to this suffering
which affixed itself
to this now-gone woman
who saved me
more than once.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gudrun's bodydeath

In her bodydeath, I realize that she was the most influential person of my adolescence. The first person to love me unconditionally in a way I could recognize and respond to. The first Christian whom I met who wasn’t a hypocrite, but truly lived her life following Jesus’ footsteps. It is hard to imagine that I didn’t learn from her, from them, about the texture of adoption; it must have been from them that I integrated it as an organic possibility, an “of course” rather than a noble task. So much I learned, took into my soul at the cellular level, from this woman I call my “German mother.”

I was still 16 years old. It was about a month after arriving in West Germany and living with this miraculous family, with this German mother and father and sister who seemed more mine than the one I had left behind in America, I attended a party. It was hosted by the German man responsible for a group of us exchange students placed with families in his region. He sought me out, asked how I was doing, how I was getting along with my exchange family. For anyone who has been an exchange student, you know that the family with whom one lives can make or break the experience. This well-meaning man approached me, let me know that the family with whom I was placed wasn’t “an ordinary German family” and if I wanted, he could find me a new family right away.

I was mildly shocked, but also had to laugh. Gudrun, her husband, Walfryd, their daughter Christiane, and their son Carsten, and their other daughter, Hannah, and I had already talked about how they weren’t “typisch Deutsch” – and that I was not a typical American – and that this suited us just fine. It was a match made in heaven – or so they would say. Gudrun and Walfryd would sometimes say that I was a Gottesgeschenk – a gift from God. Though atheist at that time, I was in full concurrence in the most secular of ways. Christiane and I, a month apart in age, were fast friends, attending many classes together at the Albert Einstein Gymnasium, introducing me to hand rolling cigarettes, strange new (to me) rock music, and a decidedly European sensibility.

Gudrun was practical and loving and real and funny and believed deeply in integrity. She grew up afraid of balloons because they could pop and sound too much like the bombs that exploded when she was a child during WW II. She was German through and through and knew deep in her heart that her father, conscripted into the German army was no Nazi, but was also misguided, narrow-minded, and wrong in his dislike for “Amis” (of which I was one).

Living with the Albrechts introduced me to political activism as one’s daily life. They didn’t buy fruit from South Africa, a boycott movement guided by their Lutheran church. They spent time and money assisting a young unwed mother who was struggling. They had recent immigrants over to tea or dinner, helped them navigate the less than friendly German welfare system. They told stories of their best friends, Peter and Hannah, who were living in Namibia, trying to add to a small village there, rather than let historical German colonialism take its toll on the impoverished country.

They called me their daughter and I believed them. Not their exchange student, but their daughter. They gave me money – little bits, but like what they offered their own children. They took me to Paris. They took me to Brugge. They showed me the farm where Walfryd grew up as young boy, lost from his family torn apart by the war, too young to have been forced to be part of the Nazi youth movement.

This amazing family took me in during my most humbling, painful time (so far, at least), when I had done the meanest thing I had ever done to another human being – they took me in with open arms and when I told them what I had done, they were no different towards me. That unconditional love they granted me gave me the ability to acknowledge what I had done, to myself and to that person, to take full responsibility and to return.

I stayed with them over and over again – any time I could return to Germany. The first year was 1984-5, but then I went back in ’87 and ’88, brought friends. The last time I went was in April of 1998 – a few months after her last surgery and a month before the remission of Walfryd’s cancer ended. It was a golden time.

Gudrun had constant pain, nearly her whole life, her back so fragile and inclined towards weakness. She did not complain much, tried to hide her suffering – probably thought it was the Christian way to bear it. Over and over she sought medical relief for this. In the end, it was the final seeking: surgery for her back that brought with it brain damage from the anesthesia. Again, so German, so non-American: they never thought to sue the doctors or the hospital. It was just a misfortune.

One that ate away at her brain capacity, decreased significantly when her loving, guiding husband, on whom she relied, died of prostate cancer. Eventually she became a danger to herself, leaving the stove on, walking in her neighborhood of 30 years and getting lost. Eventually, she became the shell, but not the inside. The soul has long been gone, with a body suffering, howling in a nursing home bed, for the past five years. Now, this past Tuesday, her body has died. This coming Tuesday her body will be buried next to her husband’s, her father’s, her mother’s in the village cemetery. I am so sorry that I will not be there.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Instantaneous Tilt

She was born that way:
Her eyes cannot make the image right.
She compensates, previous directional neutrality
vanishes as she faces ever so slightly left.

Isn’t this what we all have?
Some congenital bias
leaning us one way or another:
choosing drama over stability,
an inclination for physical labor or
pastel colors or transcendent salsa beat?
A simple slant towards
chocolate, not vanilla -- or vice-versa?

Don’t we all labor under
some off-kilter self-delusion
that proves one day to
rescue our sorry ass,
maybe even save our life?

And if not our precious life,
at least our dignity?

Why correct her endearing head tilt,
instead of commending it?
Why remedy it at all?
It should be applauded for making visions
of this vague world make sense.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Prayer for My Son

Let me launch him into
this shattered world

with skin thick enough
to withstand the shards,
with heart open enough
to place his hands among them,
with mind keen enough
to create Whole from pieces.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Tipping Point

The long-familiar now keeping
proximal vigil, communal weeping
as it gets harder to hold
your Fire, not the coming Cold.

Where does the balance fail
on this breathing scale?
When the fulcrum sways
towards death's way?

We spend these days,
finding our way
between faith unshaken
and hope forsaken.

Some sacred force will hit ~
let each welcome it.
Touching all of us:
some gently, some at full thrust.

Rather than tightening our grasping,
let us embrace your certain passing.
As you slip from this brilliant night,
may your path be filled with dazzling light.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston