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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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Stars Are Not All Falling Down

I sleep best when the rain is falling. The world is reduced to a small center—the rain, the sound of my son’s oxygen supply making it to his lungs & heart, the purr of whatever wet cat has decided to curl up against my back, the snuffles & settling of the aging, valiant pitbull..these keep me lulled at the heart of a seemingly safe center.

For me, because I am one of the lucky ones, the rain is outside. And it is a warm rain. I close down that part of my mind that worries about the people who are sleeping under the freeway bridge or in their car, in the makeshift camps, or huddled in doorways. I sigh & turn back to my dreams, in which I wander strange cities and look for my children.

Gabriel, whose oxygen makes a reassuring white noise against the night—Gabe in particular gets lost in my dreams. Or he teeters in some precarious place, at the windowsill of a building in a surreal city full of statues and trees. I call to him to be careful. To stay safe.

Sometimes I wake with my own heart pounding, desperate to catch a falling child, to block a dangerous passage, to light a dark corridor.

These dreams are obvious, and my anxieties reasonable enough. If your child has a heart condition—well, yeah, this permeates your sleep, even if the rain gentles things, even if you have learned to go day by day through a busy & distracted life. Even if your answers to “how are you?” is always the expected, placid, “fine, and how are you?”

Because—really, how can you say “I live each day balancing a fine line between terror and love”? Or “let me tell you the truth; sometimes I want to fall to my knees and howl”?
You can’t.

And when the world crowds in—when you watch, in live time, the bullets in Kiev and the brave souls standing in the snow; when you hear from friends in all corners of the world and the news is heartbreaking and complicated, when the smiling woman right in front of you tells you she hasn’t eaten in three days and in one week you meet family after family who is hungry, right here in the seemingly prosperous little town you live in, and a little girl whose dancing eyes don’t let on that she is without shelter, because, after all, she has the shelter of her mom’s arms. But you see her oldest brother, and..he knows. And you wish so much that you could make everything better, everything okay, and you know you cannot…well, how do you go on, in those waking hours when the rain doesn’t enclose you? And what do you do?

When I was a little child, I learned that my reality is not necessarily that of other people, so I don’t promise you that what gets me through the day and night will help you in the least.

But here goes:
Don’t get distracted, except when it feeds your soul. Know what is key to you, be that your desire to finish a novel (writing or reading) or your need to save All The Polar Bears.
Do what you can. No, don’t put that off…is there a letter to write, something to learn, a garden to plant, a person to feed, a language to learn? Time is short, do it.
Get very distracted. When everything seems to be weighing you down, just let go of that. Remember what you enjoyed when you were four? Random movies? Climbing trees? Being bratty? Running with your dog? Do that a while.
Hold your space. Dreams take a while to grow..the good ones, not those nightmares you chase. Honor your need to have a little space for them.
Only connect. Yeah, you are human, open your heart a bit and listen.
Breathe. Oh, do remember to breathe.
Be grateful.
Plant some seeds.
And yeah, go ahead and cry. Your eyes might be clearer for that.
We’re only here a moment, don’t worry, all the stars are not falling down, and if they are…well, you are part of that too.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Just an old story

Did I already tell you this story?

It is an old one.

Seems a guy…or maybe it was a girl, wildhaired and dusty from her travels, or maybe it was an old guy, weary with memories of war & loss—but anyway, the wanderer came into the village.

Times had been pretty rough. Some of the crops that the villagers counted on had failed. Rain came at the wrong time, or rain didn’t come at all, or rain came in floods and sputters. Crops seeded when they shouldn’t. Crops molded as they stood. Those who thought they had good, prosperous work, were turned away. You could count the ribs on the village dogs and even the mice seemed thinner than usual and the town gossip was all about tragedy and loss, down the street, across the world. Didn’t matter.

They were for sure hurting.

The traveler had been on the road awhile & she was hungry. Or he was, or they were (maybe a band of kids, maybe a lonely man with a dog on a string and a pack on his back).

Oh, go away, cried the town folk. We ain’t got a crust to spare, and who do you think you are anyway, did you grow up here in the dry hills, were you born in this dust. We been here a long time, cried the town folk. A hundred years, or two years, more’n you. But you..you are new and the problem.

The town folk said yeah, you with the tangled hair, you with the packs, you with the wandering feet, you are ones to blame. You made the rains not fall or called them down. You seeded the crops. It’s you, you who make me want what I can’t have. You who are at fault that my love’s eyes seek someone else, that my house is falling around me, that the messages I get are only demands for payment, that my baby frets, that my heart aches.

We ain’t got nothing to spare.

But the traveler had a big cooking pot, and set it down in the public square. And some kid got some sticks. Or someone cooked up the propane or the magic heater, what do I know, it’s just an old story.

And asked for water.

Well, water’s not all that much, just a pailful. Someone brought it. And the wanderer took a fine round speckly stone, the sort that catches the sunlight, the kind that makes you think of summer nights and childhood, a good stone, and put it in the pot. Good thing, said the traveler, that I can make a fine, fine soup of water and this stone.

You do know the story, right?

And the wanderer tasted the delicious stone broth and said “oh, a bit of salt, and it would be perfect”. And then…a handful of parsley, a sprig of rosemary, some carrots, an onion…and so on.

The soup fed the whole village. And someone knew a song, and someone knew a story, and there were leftovers for the dogs too.

And they all realized…they did have something. They did have a bit to share, and together it was…well, it was soup. Or maybe (we can get all metaphorical if we like)..as each shared their gifts, it was community. It was home.

And the tangle haired stranger showed them the way.

Yeah, it’s only a story. But I think about it a lot.

(there has been a great deal of hatred directed towards the travelers and the poor in my area; I was thinking of that when I felt the need to write this little piece)

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

In the present, simply

The acorns started falling early this year. The first ones dropped nearly a month ago. Now they fall in quick bursts and startle my dog, who looks up at every click of acorn to stone, to grass, to dirt.

Or on a careful grave, since we often stop a while in the morning amongst the comfortable graves of friends in the little graveyard to the north.

Champ is confused and alert as the acorn volleys hit. But he soon figures out that his person doesn’t need defending and the squirrels are too far up to catch. So he sprawls in the grass, ecstatic and silly, wriggling to scratch his back, crying out in yelps and moans to the ground and the sky and the trees and the birds. It’s a good day.

Sometimes I scoop up a few acorns and put them in my pockets, then into pots of dirt. I’m always hoping for trees, for sprouts, for continued and renewing life.

And life does thrust through.

My times in the graveyard with Champ are part of what keeps me centered and in the moment. At least for a moment.

Though, well, I’d be lying if I told you my thoughts didn’t sometimes stray to the past. I’ve walked there and sat there under the oaks and cedars for 40 years. There are memories, funny ones and sad ones. The stones leaning or standing or laying flat hold names of people I knew well, and of course of many who lived and loved and died long ago. They all remind me of a crowd of my beloved dead whose bodies are now dust, part of the sea, part of a hillside or mountain, or dissolving into earth in some far away corner.

But here my thoughts don’t spin forward. That’s a good thing in these days of obsessive what if, what will happen, what should I do.

It’s a sort of daily vacation amongst the dead.

Oh, soon enough I sap back into the present-dashing-to-future. To lists and practicalities. To anxieties, phone calls, the lure of the cyber world, a glut of information, stories, petitions.

As Champ and I walk south again we see other early morning walkers on the highway or hills. Some have carts, some carry bundles. There are heavy backpacks, bicycles, dogs. Some walk on hurting bare feet. Some are young and lovely and laughing.

The morning fog touches us all with a calm equality. I was just reading a UN report on migrants. In our world there are now over a billion people on the move, leaving the places they lived, hoping for a better future. A quarter of those cross national boundaries, but the rest shift within their countries, carrying what they can.  Vulnerable people. Hopeful people. Children, women, men. Just people. As I’ve sat in the graveyard, across the country UN experts have been debating human rights of migrant peoples.

In my town the migrants have been yelled out, beaten, threatened.

Acorns in hand I return with Champ to the daily, busy world. My migrant friends from Spain or the South Bronx or Portland or North Carolina may stop by for conversation, water, mail. Maybe an apple or two, a smile, a greeting from my dog.

Acorns take a long time to mature to big trees, but if you don’t plant them you won’t have those trees at all.

Compassion and kindness and understanding of the stranger, the migrant, the neighbor, the annoying person who pushes every button you have—that might take a long time as well. But if you don’t start (I remind myself) how will it happen?

Only bit by bit, in the present, simply. And here, while the sweet air is on us and the acorns are falling and we are so privileged to wake and walk. Let’s be here together. Let’s just start there.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

I'm Here. You are Alive.

I’m worried, she said. What’s going to happen to us?
She leaned confidingly towards her friend with whom she was sharing a snack. They were eating crisp seaweed, drinking strawberry flavored milk while the dad of one of them (I heard him say “so I asked my ex what she wanted for the birthday & she said ‘take her away for the day’”) waited for coffee and breakfast.

Her friend looked up and smiled, her pink sequined shirt catching the morning light. Well, I’m going to be a fairy, she said.

Her friend brightened.  I’m going to be a princess, said she, and they were off into a discussion of the relative merits of fairies or princesses as life paths.

Later I saw the little boy with the superman figure clenched in his hand. He was striking up conversation with everyone at the Laundromat while pretty ceaselessly jumping, hopping, and twirling. When you are little it is so very hard to keep both feet on the ground & walk in careful straight lines. My mom always swore I wouldn’t put my heels down on the ground till I was 4 or 5. Tiptoe and bounce was the right way for me.

The jumping boy was excited to tell me “I can climb high trees! And someday I’ll fly!” I was impressed. And so was everyone else.

“Look! I can stand On One Foot!” and “I am Very Strong!” he said, as he and Superman swooped around.

When I was 4 or 5 I wanted with all my heart to grow up to be a ballerina (pretty costumes. Also you stand on your toes a lot) Or a cowgirl (I loved Dale Evans, someone many now don’t recall, the partner of Roy Rogers, ever lovely, ever smiling. I got to go to my aunt’s house—we didn’t have a television—to watch the end of the Roy Rogers Show, and sang along. Happy Trails to You, until we meet again…)

Or a nun. I saw a nun once. I liked her long black and white dress and the headdress she wore, and her pretty necklace, pinned to her gown, all beads and a cross. I thought it elegant. Someone like that must have a great life.

My mother, ever practical, told me I couldn’t be a nun. We were Lutherans. Lutherans don’t have nuns.

It seemed a serious oversight. I figured I’d change that when I grew up, between riding horses with Dale Evans and dancing a lot on my toes.

The future was bright. I don’t think I ever paused then to think or say “I don’t know what will happen to me”

At the time my father was a pilot in Air Rescue in Korea. We couldn’t afford a place stateside on his pay, so it was a good thing my aunt and uncle had some apartments near their big house where they were raising four sons. I was petted, cherished, & happy. I had kittens and a wild blackhaired Italian playmate named Gina.

Gina and I spent a lot of time looking for fairies. And of course finding them.

I felt safe.

Maybe no one talked of hard things around me? Maybe no one cried? I don’t know.

Sometimes childhood is a safe ground, but more and more I see kids who dance sweetly through uncertainty and brashly through change.

Traveling children, babies, 4 year olds, who sleep in a car or camp with a parent in the woods. Kids who would love to grow up to be fairies or superheroes. Or just grow up, maybe.

I love their beauty and strength.

So the other morning I saw a little video in which a 4 or 5 year old was featured. A sturdy, brave kid like my young tree climber.

But first the video was a confusion of adult men. Rushing, talking. One looked so upset, so stricken. He called out, over and over again at the full white heat of desperate love. His friends surrounded him. They were telling him something important, something he could barely believe. And then—the child! Healthy, unhurt. Upset, sure, and tearful, but not a hair on his sweet head was hurt.

He and his father clung to each other, surrounded by the father’s friends. The father touched the boy’s cheek, hair, face.

You are here! You are alive! I love you!

I don’t understand the language of the video, but human emotions need no translation, do they? The language of joy, relief, love—that’s universal.

I put my head down and sobbed.

They were Syrian. I thought of children all over the planet who wonder about growing up. Is it better to be a fairy or a princess? What does the future hold? I thought of friends and parents and this world we live in, full of hope and fear and decisions made by people I will never meet, for reasons I will never fathom.

And how I want to keep them all safe, all of us, everyone. Fairies, and cowboys and princesses and treeclimbers. And you. And me.

Happy trails to you, keep smiling now and then…
(the video is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYQe72F0Mc4)