Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2019

This is part of a series of journal excerpts reflecting on loss, healing, change, and other adventures, usually during the few summer weeks I spend in Sedona, AZ.  The journal revolves around the loss of my youngest son, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman, and the mountain I climb in his honor. 

July 29:  My first time to Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock) this year—but I have been here in Sedona since July 20th.  Never before have I waited so long to bike and hike up to this place, a place as sacred to me as any other in the world.  But I was, and am, involved in what my brother-in-law Danny Miller has called the project from hell.  In late February we were, for the third time, flooded by a pipe leak from the upstairs condo, so I came two weeks early to start replacing all the flooring, base boards, and trim to try and make up for some of the money we lost because insurance didn’t cover everything.  The $1515.18 for mold remediation, for example; or the many $100′s extra we paid for alternate housing for our renters while our place was being dried out, un-molded, and wall board and flooring ripped up and partially replaced.

BryMtn-Crowd2From the beginning it’s been Murphy’s Law x 10.  That’ll teach Danny to volunteer to help me for a week, though he’s closer to sainthood now for sticking with me while everything took 3, 4, 5x longer than it should have. Like the self-stick tiles.  I put them down a dozen years ago and thought, since they periodically came loose in our former Naperville house, they’d come up fairly easily. They didn’t. The incredible effort it took to pry them up was the least of it. The adhesive wouldn’t go away no matter what we tried.  Finally, it took a heat gun and scraping and scraping and scraping before I finished off by just pouring lacquer thinner all over, an act that had me so gassed—not just bone tired, but woozy—I had to buy a respirator mask.  Grinding down high spots in the concrete floor just took a normal dust mask, but it took a 3-hour round trip to Prescott Valley to rent a grinder, then 5 hours of grinding, and a 3-hour round trip to return the grinder.  The concrete dust?  I don’t know if we’ll ever get rid of it all.   Then the night before we were to lay new entryway tile, it started leaking from upstairs again!  Two plus days more delay as we stopped the leak, contacted the owner, and waited for things to dry out.  Etc. Etc.

It’s all crowded out the time I had to be on Bryan’s Mountain, and now well over 350 words into this journal entry and I haven’t even mentioned what it was like to be up there today and next to his tree.  When Aaron saw it the first time he said, “It isn’t in a lonely place.”  No kidding, at least today.  Sometimes I get long minutes sitting next to the small pine, looking, thinking, and remembering, but today people seemed to swarm the mountain, like the six guys I snapped a picture of as I was leaving.  There were perhaps 15-20 more besides them, their talking and laughing making me turn every few seconds.  In a way, I didn’t mind.  The tree isn’t in a lonely place, and the crowd seemed a perfect metaphor for the things that have crowded into the time and peace I thought I’d have since I sort of retired in late 2018.  I don’t think I’ve put together two days of peace and quiet since then, and that super-crowded feeling has only reached a peak—at least I hope it’s a peak—in the rigors of this condo rehab.  Always perspective.  “It is a First-World problem,” Linda said, and when I look at the dirt and chaos still around me at the condo I think, Of course, it’s not a refugee camp.

Bry-Blrk@duskThe six guys stood by Bryan’s tree a long time.  Perhaps they were captured by the gorgeous play of sun and clouds on the mountains and mesas in the distance.  They couldn’t know what it meant to me and my family, but even in a crowd there’s something deep there, something that holds you.

Just after we bought our place we did our first rehab, one considerably easier than this one. We brought Bryan and his step-brother Mike to help.  They worked for us until 1:00 p.m., then were free to do whatever.  One afternoon they climbed Bell Rock, staying til dusk, and Mike—climbing one spire higher than Bryan—snapped this picture.  Bryan seems so still, held there, just sitting and looking.  I mentioned in an earlier journal entry that he seemed turned in the direction of the tree where we placed some of his ashes in January 2007.  Bryan’s tree on Bryan’s Mountain.  The picture, dusky and grainy, captures a feeling, an idea, a memory that has the power to make me be still, quiet, and feel held, no matter how crowded life becomes.

  Go to the Lead Post in the Climbing Bryan’s Mountain series.  One of the posts, Here, has a video of my bike ride up and down the mountain.  Also, go to an article about Emmanuel House being named one of the Top 100 Most Innovative social change organizations in the world.  Bryan’s oldest brother Rick, and his wife Desiree, started this organization as a living memorial to Bryan, who died in 2006, shortly after his 21st birthday.  Emmanuel, “God with us,” was his middle name.  In 2018 Emmanuel House (which started simply as Bryan House) merged with long-time partner the Joseph Corporation to become The Neighbor Project.  These organizations help working families escape poverty, a project we know Bryan would have loved.  What started by serving five families now serves nearly 200.

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U.S. Returns Balangiga Bells

The Belangiga Bells arrive in the Philippines.

The Balangiga Bells arrive in the Philippines.

The VIDEO below from The World Tonight * reports on the return from the U.S. to the Philippines of the Balangiga Bells, one of the most infamous symbols of the Philippine-American War, which raged brutally from 1899 to 1902.  After centuries of Spanish rule, the Philippines had expected independence after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.  Filipinos had fought side by side with Americans to gain that victory in the Philippines, but suddenly the U.S. had other ideas.  It would not grant independence, but would embark upon an era of imperialism, and the bloody war ensued. To Filipino nationalists, it continued the fight for independence from Spain begun in 1896.  Americans regarded it as an insurrection.

On July 25, 2018, graduate student Bea Rodriguez-Franzen turned in a short paper (read it HERE) for my course on the “Third World.”  Titled “Brown Man’s Burden: A Commentary,” it focused on the decades-long attempt by the Philippines to have the U.S. return three bells: the Belangiga Bells, which were taken as war loot from perhaps the single bloodiest series of events in the Philippine-American war.  On November 15, 2018, roughly three months after she wrote the paper, the U.S. finally returned the bells.

The paper and VIDEO provide context and details on the Balangiga tragedy, as does a good Wikipedia article.  Because of these, I will only sketch it briefly here.

New York Journal, May 5, 1902. A vulture replaces the bald eagle on American Shield. Bottom caption reads: "Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines"

New York Journal, May 5, 1902. A vulture replaces the bald eagle on American Shield. Bottom caption reads: “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines”

“The Balangiga Massacre” originally referred to the killing of 48 American troops in the early morning of September 28, 1901, on the Island of Samar after a series of events—including the sexual assault of a Filipino woman by some American troops, the rounding up of 143 Filipino males for forced labor, and the confiscation of homes and crops.  The bells were rung supposedly to warn the troops of the attack by townspeople and tribesmen. But what followed is what the majority of people now call the real Balangiga Massacre.  Gen. Jacob A. Smith—nicknamed “Howling Jake,” or “The Monster,” or “Hell Roaring Jake”—ordered American forces to make the entire island of Samar a “howling wasteland.”  His most infamous order was condemned in the editorial cartoon at left: kill all males 10 years of age and older.  In the end, hundreds of villages were burned, and some 50,000 Filipinos killed.

In her paper Bea Rodriguez says the Philippine-American War itself, let alone the Balangiga Massacre, was left out of her history education, and she asks why it took so long for the U.S. to return the bells.  In some ways, the answer is obvious.  It required admission of a war crime—though, of course, this “admission” really wasn’t one, couched as if was in terms of “returning respect” and strengthening the bonds between two great allies.  Gen. “Howling Jake” was, in fact, court martialed and convicted for his orders, though the only punishment he ultimately faced was being forced to retire from the Army.

Balangiga5bIronically, the two Presidents under whom the Balangiga Bells were returned were Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, two leaders not known for de-escalating crises.  Both appear briefly in the VIDEO below.

Bea Rodriguez’s paper title refers to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which I write about HERE by way of introducing the paper of another graduate student, Janie Doutsos.  I begin this post by writing, “I had forgotten that Rudyard Kipling wrote his remarkably racist and smug poem to encourage Americans as they took over my homeland, the Philippines.  The ‘burden’ white men take up is the burden of civilizing the world.”  As the Balangiga Bells remind us yet again and again and again, “civilizing” people has often entailed murdering them by the tens of thousands, a process which throws dark questions on the word “civilization” itself.

* The World Tonight is a Philippine late night news cast airing on the ABS-CBN news channel.

  For more on Philippine culture begin with my article on one of its greatest National Artists, the writer N.V.M. Gonzalez, where I early on make reference to Americans calling Filipinos their “little brown brothers.”  Bea Rodriguez’s paper remarks about Americans soon turning to killing their little brown brothers during the Philippine-American war.

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Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 2

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Burt Britton’s 1976 book Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves contains nearly 750 self-portraits of writers and actors, from Edward Abbey (A) to Paul Zweig (Z).  It all started when Britton, then tending bar in New York, tried to get a customer to leave, a customer who wanted drink after drink and kept asking, “What do you want from me, kid?”  In a flash of inspiration, the young Britton pushed him a napkin and said, “Draw me a picture of yourself.”  The man did.  He was a writer.  His name was Norman Mailer.  So began a life-long habit I tell more about in “Self-Portraits of the Artists.”

I was delighted to find ten self-portraits of black writers that I write about on this site—go Here for the complete list—five of which I presented in “Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 1.”  They were Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Johnson, James Baldwin, Clarence Major, and Ronald L. Fair.  I commented there on the range of styles, “…from the scattering lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ and Ronald L. Fair’s self-portraits, to

Leon Forrest

Leon Forrest

the bold starkness of Charles Johnson’s, and Clarence Major’s combination of these two styles.” I also said they all seemed to capture their peculiar styles and concerns—and their looks, too.

This is Part Two of “Black Writers Picture Themselves,” and in some cases the writers haven’t captured their looks at all.  Ralph Ellison did, though. And with a careful realism I find quite moving when you consider the protagonist of his great novel Invisible Man was, well, invisible.   What did he look like?  What could he look like?  It’s as if Ellison’s self-portrait is saying, Look at me.  This is what I look like, what the Invisible Man could look like.  Not so scary, so monstrous after all.

Leon Forrest‘s self-portrait is as far away from scary as you can get.  Still touching the realm of realism, his self-portrait, though, seems shot through with a childishness belying the multi-layered complexity of his fiction.  His scattering hair perhaps

James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson

captures his fiction’s messy-nest thickness, though in real life he was almost always seen with hair slightly slicked back and perfectly coiffed.  Which coif James Alan McPherson didn’t have in the slightest!  His self-portrait presents a bald primitiveness, almost an anti-drawing, which he explains in his note: “I’d rather write than draw”!

It’s the two women in this second set of five that are the real outliers—at least as far as self-portraits go—and I find it moving that Maya Angelou has chosen to present herself as just a set of lips with her name printed therein.  If you ever met her, as I had the great fortune to do, you understand that one of the most memorable things about her was her voice.  I suppose, then, that reducing herself to just a pair of lips makes sense.  But she was totally memorable—all of her—so it’s a kind of shocking reduction of one of the most memorable people of all time.  In “Meeting B-Angelou2Oprah,” a piece which is really about meeting Maya Angelou—whom Oprah calls “Mother”—I speculate on the traumas of her life that made her see herself in a diminished way.  Maybe that’s it: the reason her self-portrait is so diminished?

Which brings us finally to Toni Morrison, where no human form is present at all, not even lips!  Morrison pictures herself as a plant, a flower in her flower garden.  At first this seems just charmingly self-effacing, until one begins to think about Morrison’s fiction, and her extraordinary literary criticism in “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”  I mentioned a kind of primitiveness in James Alan McPherson’s self-portrait, and I suppose there’s some of that here as well.  But a flower garden is a different kind of primitiveness than the bald skull McPherson presents.  If it’s sweeter, it’s also even more elemental in a way that suggests a kind of pre-human spirit that animates us, certainly, but all life as well.  Furthermore, it would be hard B-Morrison2to miss, in Morrison’s fiction, her obsession with shape shifting: of the human form vanishing or flying away (as in Song of Solomon) both as a form of escape and a manifestation of the human having touched some more vital, pre-human spirit.  The human doesn’t just escape this way, it also shows up this way (as in Beloved), born in from another world, almost sent back from there to take care of unfinished business.  We’re rooted in the here and now, but haunted by unfinished business in other realms of the mind, the spirit, the history and culture of our soil.

I believe there may be other black writers in the 750 or so self portraits in Burt Britton’s book, but I’m glad for these ten that add, to my mind, so much dimension to what I have written, or will write, about these writers on this site.  All writing is an exercise in portraying yourself, but pictures seem more elemental than words.  There’s that old cliche, of course, a cliche that seems more starkly true when writers themselves, so captured by, so entangled in, their nets of words, break free of them for a moment and say in pictures, Here—This, too, is me.


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