Saturday, August 23, 2014

now while the world is burning

The air is thick with smoke. My heart keeps racing. The sunset is glorious, the golden sun haloed in shimmering orange, so pretty I am tempted to stare directly into it, and after I watch the sunset a while afterimages dart about everywhere I look, a black sun, a red one, dancing colors.

There are fires to the south of us and fires to the north. The Cal-fire map makes it look as if all of this part of California is blazing, as if all the hillsides are burning. Although I know rationally that the fires are miles away, that I am safe where I am, my body doesn’t seem to agree. The scent of smoke says “run now, get away, save yourself, quickly!”

It’s hard to concentrate. I keep checking on the cats, the dog, my son. I wonder how much I should worry about the smoke particles and his compromised lungs and valiant heart. I close the windows. I open them again, to get some air. The sky has turned flamingo pink and glowing and it is one of the most lovely sunsets ever.

I have flashbacks to the fire at the top of the hill when my children were very young, and we had no vehicle, and we needed to decide whether to walk out, down the hillsides, or stay put, praying that the fire would burn up and back down the eastern side of the hills, not to our tiny cabin, not to our refuge. We watched the planes laden with giant orange bags of water flying over, coming back to the river, flying again.

I wondered what to take. In these days of disaster preparedness we are supposed to have entire kits ready and evacuation plans and enough water for everyone for…I don’t know, lots of days…and flashlights and radios and all sorts of very sensible things. Back then..well, even if we had such a kit I couldn’t have carried everything. I was carrying a baby and holding a toddler by the hand. My eldest son was calm, and probably my partner was as well.  So I made my quick material choices: if everything is going to be lost, what do you need to save?

Well, obviously the children. And obviously the dogs. And though my heart was wrenched, I had no way to corral the cats and hoped they would be smart and find shelter.

Other than that…well, I grabbed an envelope of important papers, my notebooks, and the journals I kept for the children, which were full of photographs and musings: first smiles, long nights, astonishing sayings, sunlit moments and times of turmoil. And I think I may have grabbed my great aunt’s necklace. And a pen.  I think my partner similarly tried to save some manuscripts…memories are vague.

That fire never reached us. It was small, only a meadow fire, and quickly put out. Not like the acres burning now up and down the steep ravines, through the deep forests.

Everything is so dry.

My heart keeps pounding.

But I’ve been thinking…it’s good to know what’s important. What you treasure. What you’d hold to if everything else were lost. I gave those child journals to my children as they passed 21, and I think they had fun with them—those records of long ago days, the assurance that they matter, are loved, are treasured (and sometimes despaired of: “why is he still crying? Why can’t I tell?”). But I would have those things in my heart anyway. My own journals, my poetry—would I save it now? I don’t know. I gave my great aunt’s necklace to my daughter.

Leaving now…I’d take the cats, the dogs, my youngest son, who would of course want his papa close.. Maybe I’d grab a notebook on the way, and a good pen.

I should be more practical. I make a note to get my first aid supplies in order and remember where I keep batteries. I should store some water, put aside some matches, make sure my son’s medications are backed up.

But I know what I most hold to, even if the world is burning up. My loves, my vibrant breathing living ones, two footed, four footed.

Grab my hand. If there is danger, at least we will be together.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Now They Will See Me

I’ve been thinking lately of Birdsong. It has been 10 years or so since I last saw her, wrapped in finery from the free box, dangling single brass earrings in her hair—a star, a crescent, a glittering butterfly, telling me drunkenly “Now they will see me in my true beauty!”

She annoyed me greatly on the days she was drunk or in the florid upswings of her bipolar illness, loud and flamboyant and demanding. But she knew a bit about books and a lot about plants. One afternoon in a calm moment she described the beautiful glassed in porch in which she once grew her begonias and African violets and ferns, in the days when her girls were young and still with her, before the bottom fell out of her universe.

We shared a lot of similarities. I often thought that with just a small twist of fate she could have been the town booklady & I the desperate, drunken, sometimes charming survivor.

I particularly remember the time at the start of bombing…somewhere, Iraq, Afghanistan—when I stood alone in my weekly Women in Black vigil down the street a bit from the bookshop and was joined by Birdsong and Bobby and Cricket.

Bobby fixed me with his blue eyes and said “I did terrible things in Nam, so if you are a peace lady you got to hate me” And I said “I’m so sorry, so very sorry you went through that. I don’t want anyone else to go through that, not ever”. He asked if sometimes he could come and stand beside me. I said yes.

Cricket was just tagging along with his Birdsong, but they wanted to know if they could also stand with me. Sure, I said. You might have noticed I wasn’t exactly a very traditional Woman in Black, except for the black I wore. I’d answer questions. I’d talk. I’d even laugh, and I wasn’t going to turn away anyone, man, woman, child or dog, who wanted to stand beside me. So Birdsong and Bobby and Cricket did, especially on the days when my stalwart associates Sara and Michelle weren’t able to be there and I would have been left by myself.

Bobby died of hard drinking and pneumonia and probably the spinal problem he brought back from Vietnam. Cricket got bit in a fight and the wound turned green and oozy and he died of gangrene in a hospital up north. I remember thinking, as I wept at the news, that access to soap and hot water might have healed him. Birdsong by then had flown somewhere else. Maybe to find her daughters in the Midwest, where that glassed in porch was, where there were memories of begonias and ferns. I don’t know.

But I remember particularly that first time she joined me, because she sat on the side walk, smelling a bit of cheap booze, and glared at me. “D’ya think I’m homeless?”

I really wasn’t sure what to say to her, knowing as I did that she was sleeping in a torn tent on the edge of town.

“I’m not” she said. “People say I am and they tell me to move on and they look down on me, but I have a home”.

She waved at the darkening sky. “There, see that—that’s my roof”

I smiled. “Well, true enough, that’s the roof for us all”

She said “and this is my home, right here” and she pounded the cement sidewalk with her open hand. “I’m home, ain’t no one got the right to tell me to move on”

So, as I said, I don’t know if she’s still living, if the sky remains her true roof, if she found peace or calm or anything. But I remember her in her finery, and how she said she was a queen, an empress, and how when she walked down the streets of this town, someday people would know her in her glory.

And how astonished they would be, to see her shining there, so beautiful, so radiant, so much in her own true home in this aching, fragile world.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I thought it should make sense, this life.
Children are pretty matter of fact. What is, is. I see it in the traveling families. Tonight we sleep by the road, tonight we sleep in a tent, now we must try to be quiet in the car. I saw it in myself, a military kid. Today we move across the ocean.
And maybe because I grew up traveling, maybe because maps were guides…well, maps and airport lights and beacons and static filled radio broadcasts—I have long thought of life in terms of travel. The dusty roads, the places we go, the people we bump into, share a moment with, remember, the journey ahead.
I always wanted a map.
When I was 8 or 9 I prayed a lot for guidance. I wanted an angel to appear, shiny and feathery, holding a map or maybe the directions that apparently were left out of my baby hand when I tumbled into this world, nicely wrapped in my caul, and totally bewildered.
The map would be large and scrolly. There would be some sort of ribbon, and there would be stars and dotted lines and maybe a picture or two. And the angel would point to a place marked You are Here and then show me, moment by moment, year by year, the paths my feet would take.
I saw it as sort of a tangled and meandering path, even then, but I knew if I prayed enough the angel would come, and certainly the angel would tell me what it was all about.
Because…well, let’s face it, it was all pretty confusing. Even to a fairly sheltered child. Death was happening, and there were things called wars, and my mother was not expected to live..and the angel just never came with the map. Other things happened that gave me some measure of peace, but…no map for a pilgrim’s journey.
Okay, I was an odd kid. But I think of that map that never arrived and I think we are making our maps day by day, step by step, all along the way. Our own designs, canny as any spider spinning. Our own trail of memories, encounters. Our own meaning, though maybe we’d never put it into words.
I saw the man early this morning as he rose from his shelter of bushes beside the freeway. He didn’t notice me, or my dog. We were well screened by redwoods, and on a higher road. He moved awkwardly, but I didn’t stop to stare. We had appointments with squirrels and stellar jays and ravens.
But I saw him later, sitting on a low wall. I nodded hello. He had kind, wary eyes. He nodded back.  When I next saw him, having completed my uptown errand, he was walking. And he was walking with a lot of pain.
I stopped. “Your leg is hurting you?” I made it a question, because it was ridiculously apparent that this was so, and probably my remark was stupid…but I needed to ask. Yes, he said. He said he’d broken his foot a few days before, and he was out sleeping rough and had no place to go, but he had made it to the local hospital.
They said there were two breaks. They said there wasn’t a thing to be done about them. They sent him on his way.
I told him about the health center and promised respect and…well, maybe there was something to be done? His knee was paining him a lot as well. Walking was hard. He figured…well, he’d heard there was a shelter up north and he thought if he could get the bus up there, and if he could have a bed, and if he could rest up a day or two…well, then he could go on.
He refused, gently, my offer of bus fare. I’m all right, he said. Just a little broken now.
I told him when and where the bus would come, and wished him a good journey, and a place to rest, and the ability to go on.
And here we are, all of us, on our journey. Not so far apart, though oceans might separate us, though some are in deserts and some in cities and there are crises and bombs and revolutions and terrors and great delights. And we are all, maybe, just a little broken, though we are lucky and our feet don’t pain us at the moment.
And no angel came with a big map.
But you know, I think I do know the way. It’s still confusing. Death is still around. My mother died…but after more years than we imagined. Things don’t make sense.
But it doesn’t matter. I take a step at a time. Sometimes I hold someone’s hand.  I try to love the journey.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Safe Places

I still visit that garden in my dreams. Usually I am up in the walnut tree, perched above the world, safe in the swaying embrace of those smooth branches. My hands are stained with sap from the husks of the nuts. In my dreams the ground is covered with sweet violets, which is not accurate really. The violets come from another place of safety and beauty, the woodlands of post world war two Japan where I wandered freely all the daylit hours of spring and summer. There too I climbed trees and rested against their strength. It was the safe place.

It makes sense that my dreams would combine the two safe places of my young life. At the edges are always the hollyhocks, row on row of them. My grandmother planted them against the wall of the house but they rushed out into the heart of the walnut treed garden, and in my dreams they are many and beautiful.

They were one of my first memories. I learned to walk surrounded by hollyhock towers. And they were there, those spires of star centered blooms, for all my childhood visits, well into my teen years. My grandmother made me dolls and fancy earrings. We had tea parties in the walnut tree shade.

The hollyhocks stood as people disappeared from my life, as inexplicable things happened. I sat in the walnut tree and watched them grow, all colors, red and yellow, white, pink, deep purple.

That garden is under asphalt now. It is a parking lot for a large Safeway in the San Fernando Valley in southern California. It has been that for many years, one of the lost places of my long life.

So much vanishes, you know. All the places we have stood, all those points where we loved or grieved. All those people we thought we’d see again. All those good intentions.

I was an Air Force brat, uprooted frequently, a wanderer like many I meet these days. But I had in my heart a walnut tree , the memory of violet strewn woodlands, the brave torches of hollyhocks. No one will ever take those from me.

And when I found a place to root my life, I planted gardens. I planted hollyhocks for my children, and I gave seeds away.

It’s all about where you rest your heart, you know. In all the turmoil and terrible knowledge, where you sit and embrace the air, where you rejoice, where you are safe.

For you it might not be the hollyhock borders. But whatever it is, recognize it, hold it fast, pass it on.

This afternoon I was sharing information, despair, and hope with one of my local friends and allies. We know, between us, too much of struggles and stories. We are the ones who answer the door to someone with broken bones or broken lives or broken dreams. There are, trust me, not enough bandages in the world to patch up all the hurt. But we try. And we try to keep our own hearts patched together too. You can’t do much good if you are howling in the night. Well, at least not every night.

As she turned to go she said “wait, I have something for you”.

She poured into my open hand a little pile of hollyhock seeds. Pink and purple she said, from her uncle’s garden some 8 years back, ready to grow and spread.

Yes…whatever that beauty is, whatever that safety, whatever that hope—we need to grow it, love it, and give it away.

Yeah, I planted more hollyhocks this evening.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Another hole in the heart

When the police come to my door it is not because they need something good to read, though to give our local cops their due, back in the day when the last Harry Potter book was being released with a lot of drama, at midnight, and the local market was the only south county source, joining me in line were one 9 or 10 year old Harry look alike, a 12 year old princess, and 3 of the local cop squad. Turned out they were way into transformation and quidditch, who knew?

But the other day it wasn’t books. It was a name and a “do you know?” and my assent and my “so what’s up with him?”

And that kind, solemn air people get when the news they bear might have edges. And a quick, “he died this morning, in Lancaster.”

There would be a call from the coroner’s office in that other county in the afternoon, and in a few days a letter addressed to “Friends and Family of Richard Eugene Ellis”. But for now the officer told me he’d died with my contact info in his pocket; the only contact he carried.

I wished with all my heart I’d asked him more questions when he was around, when I was trying to help him fill out complicated forms or make sense of bureaucratic mail and bank statements. He’d talked of a very estranged exwife and two daughters he had’t seen since they were little. They had pretty names like Dawn or Misty or something. He recalled them as little blonde children, always laughing. He saw them once, in the yard, playing. He thought they were happy. They’d be grown up now, and maybe there was a grandkid.

Last year he asked me to speak with his daughter, the one he had heard worked at a local shop. He wanted her to know he was okay, but having heart trouble. He wanted her to know he had never stopped loving her, or her little sister. I went to the shop and asked for her.

No one knew her.

When he called, hoping his messages had made it through, he was quiet a while. And then he said oh well, maybe she’d moved, it was okay, not to worry.

The year before I had a call from the intensive care cardiac unit of UCLA’s medical department. Since my friend was not conscious, and was apparently carrying forms naming me as the one who got to make all decisions in such cases, the staff needed to know what long term care facility he should be sent to when he was ready to leave.  They gave me some choices. I researched them and made a choice of one in the high desert where I knew Richard had friends; it was a place with a relatively high rating and good scores on pain management, and an average age of patients that was lower than others I considered. I figured Richard wouldn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of old folks, even if they were younger than he was.

The day he was to be transferred he told the staff he wasn’t going. They had me talk to him, they told me he’d drop dead without care. I talked to him and he promised me he’d do what was needed and then…when someone’s back was turned…he walked out, back into the streets.

And made it back here. He was a stubborn guy. He said it would take more than a measly heart attack or two to kill him.

He left when winter set in. I forwarded his mail to a cheap hotel in Vegas. He was going to strike it rich. He had a system. He was going to be a millionaire and he was going to buy a huge building for the bookstore and by golly, I would never need to worry about bills or anything again in my life. I thanked him for thinking of me.

The day he died, the day after his 68th birthday, he’d been waiting at a bus stop and the bus driver thought he looked…not good. Richard waved the driver on, but the driver, concerned, called 911. All sorts of vehicles and ambulances rolled out, according to my new friend in the coroner’s office. But when they got to the bench Richard was no where to be found.

They found his body a few blocks away. He had his pack, and my name and address and phone number. My friend on the phone said surely it was quick. I suppose they are taught to say that.

The thing is—I seem to be alone in remembering him. He kept to himself. He loved being under the sky. He’d done time in prison as a young man, manslaughter. A stupid fight, he said. He said he had a bad temper as a kid. He loved the light on the desert and the light through the redwoods. His eyes were brown. He carried a lot of hurt and a lot of love and wasn’t sure where to put it down, all of that.

So..there’s a strange hole in the universe, or a shift, or something. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. One thing I know—he mattered, this guy who tramped the woods and desert and cities for years, whose heart gave out at last. I won’t believe there is any person or any life that is wasted.

I’ll remember you, Richard. Thanks for the time. Maybe I’ll learn to listen better to my other friends, the other wanderers. I’ll try.

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