Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The country of dead leaves and tenderness

October has been my favorite month for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because when I was born I got through one day and then October clanged in, threaded with the nostalgia of a displaced New England mother longing for what she would always call “real autumn”. And October marks the birth of my first child, the birthdays of many poets (Keats, Thomas, Plath) and Halloween, all sweets and shudders and doors left open for children. And masks. You can be what you want in October.

We slid in past a full eclipse this year. My stepmother phoned just before October, on my birthday, to tell me she loved me and she wanted her ashes divided between her second husband’s grave and her third. My dad was her second husband; her third introduced her to a love of country music and made her laugh. October came. She died.

And my artistic love of 50 years ago died. And a garden friend. And a street advocate. It’s like there’s a party somewhere and everyone is rushing off before the refreshments are gone, or the music slows. I’m getting so I flinch at the sound of the phone.

And then…well, there’s the complicated one. The other morning I walked with a good friend down by the river and along the cliffs and into the woods.

The day was October blue. The mist had just lifted. The river is low, but enough for the ducks to enjoy. A heron and an egret were fishing, standing beside each other. At our approach the egret flared up and flew upstream. The air was sweet with the scent of water and poplar and melilot. There were birds singing. We came near a few camps and apologized, along the willows or in the circles of ferns. We walked on.

There’s someone missing from the October days. I get calls from out of state; there’s a worried woman. There’s a little boy whose daddy came to make money. There are friends who haven’t heard. There’s a turned off cell phone, and a whole lot of rumors, whispered, fearful, lurid.

In the October morning my friend and I went, clambering over fallen trees, pushing through brush, hoping the poison oak we were brushing against would be kind to us. We paused, sniffed, moved on.

We felt the moss beneath our feet, watched the glitter of the creek in the filtered sunlight, tried to figure sign, by heart, by rumor, by luck…where this young father might be.

Yeah, I expected to maybe find a body. I hoped to find…oh, an injured guy. Or something.

The woods held their secrets for the moment. We thought, once or twice…is that the smell of death, over the smell of bay leaves and October sunlight. We told each other it could be…a squirrel, a bird, anything. The air eddied and teased.

Someone asked me today if I was grieving, wearing black as I am. I said the black was accidental. But my heart has been slammed, again and again and again, this lovely month.

And we are walking now towards the end, to All Hallows, to the spooks and masks and sweets. Day of the Dead, All Souls.

I don’t sleep well, these nights. Hey, if I should not be here, remember I love you. And..may all the lost, all the forgotten, all the beloved…be found.

There's a update, sadly. The body of my friend was found the day after I went looking; I did not climb far enough up the cliffs. His dog had stayed with him for four days after his death. He was murdered, my young man from Ohio. We are trying to get the dog back to a grieving mother far away who will love her.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Only a breath

I forget my dreams a lot these days. They are wisps on waking, and I wake often, checking on my son or being checked on by a cat or two. The cats think the wee hours of the morning are surely dinnertime. Paw to the nose. Gentle push of breakable and noisy things onto the floor, or my head.
Changes in Gabe’s breathing wake me as well. I check the oxygen, the lines, the machine.
The other night Gabe was wide eyed, moving his sleep mask away. “What’s up?” I asked him. “Want water, need new pants?” I ran the mom litany. Gabe’s nonverbal mostly. I need to watch closely, guess wisely, have patience.
His eyes were wide. Anxiety. Holding my gaze he put his arms up. Hands up, don’t shoot. He then fell back, pointing to the imagined wounds in his side, very dramatically dead. And then opened his eyes. Hands up. No shoot.

Well, I hugged him changed his pants, got him water and a snack, hugged him again, adjusted the machines and kept the light on a while. At last he settled back to sleep.

I try not to let him watch the news, but with obsessed parents, well, things slip through. And news like Ferguson or Gaza or death anywhere goes straight to Gabe’s heart. And he seems to think we can make it better. And I think he must dream of these things sometimes, and I wonder what he thinks, really. And what can I say?

I wonder what other parents do. Dear god, I wonder what black parents across the country said to their kids after Ferguson, or any number of other events. What parents say in Gaza or…well, anywhere. We’re relatively safe and privileged. I take the easy route with Gabe, hugs, sustenance, maybe a book, a diversion, a favorite toy. The physical connection. It’s been our main language since I first carried him. I wait for his smiles, his glances full of mischief, his acts of small and knowing rebellion. I love it when he laughs. He never cries, he just sort of shuts down, goes away to some dream where I can’t follow, and I hope all is good there.

His dad dreams of strange cities. I know this because we often share dreams come morning. My dream wisps vanish, except…lately, I too was searching for something. I knew my key was fragile. My daughter was there, but going away.

I think of dreams a lot these days. My stepmother is sleeping a great deal, the result of stage 4 cancer. My sister sends me messages about the pancake she cooked for her mother, and how it was eaten (the first thing in a while). About the silver bangles. On my sister’s wrist now; they always jangled gently when my stepmother moved. I wonder what my stepmother dreams, in these longer and longer naps, in this moving away from us. When my father was dying he returned in his dreams to the planes he loved to fly, he was flying. I remember still his brown eyes fixed on mine, trustingly, as we breathed together, as I held him in my arms, as one breath followed another and then, then I was breathing alone.

The more I know, the less I know. Only a  breath. A hug in the night. Maybe happy dreams to replace all the pain, all the churning impossible news. Maybe only love. Maybe only silly cats, and friends, and strangers, and the dawn, all over our breaking world. Maybe only love.
We’ll hold it together. Somehow.

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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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