Thursday, May 09, 2013
The day started with the scent of rain on the wind. During our morning walk Champ was alert to the change in air, pausing, sniffing, rolling in loud, abandoned glee, moaning and wriggling against the spring grass as only a pitbull can. The oxeye daisies are in bloom now, constellations of white and yellow. To Champ’s delight the ravens were flying low and coming to perch in the cedar tree, calling to us and hopping from limb to limb. Champ has ambitions. He’d like to climb trees. Sometimes he tries, but he doesn’t get all that far.
Still, our morning walk limbers both of us up, and sets my mind clear for whatever the day might bring.
And a good thing, since the day continued not all that much later with loud words and then, as I looked up, startled, from my keyboard, with a blow.
One young guy had hauled off and hit another. The injured guy flew, or stumbled, gracefully enough, down the north steps.
I was out the door in a flash with my “this is a safe zone, hitting is not okay” speech. The guy continued with some loud accusations and a lot of “he needs to go back where he came from” ranting, and walked across the road. There he was met by another guy, tall, with a sweet wide eyed puppy in tow. The puppy’s guy started yelling about how uncool it was to hit my young friend.
Oh, I’ve seen a lot of discussions like this. There’s lots of walking back and forth. Lots of “fuck you!”. Lots and lots of drama.
A friend joined me on the porch for a bit, as I watched and listened. The energy was still pretty rough, so I decided to cross the street myself.
As I waited for a opening in the stream of cars a local businessman drove by, rolled down his window, yelled out “get out of my town”. Okay, then…
And my third young friend, the one with the pretty puppy, was throwing his hands in the air, crying out “I give up! I just give up on all this rainbow stuff . Everyone is nothing but selfish!”
Well, I made it across. Introduced myself to the hitter. “I know you, Kathy” he said, but he offered to spell his name in case I needed to call the cops, who knew him pretty well, he said ruefully.
I assured him I wasn’t calling anyone.
He told me he’d been called a dirty traveling kid the other day. Him! He grew up here! And someone said bad things to his girl (she was waiting patiently in the dusty car, with her dog). He told me he just wanted all the kids to go home, to leave the town. All those others.
Meanwhile the slender punched out kid joined us, assured by the puppy’s guy that no more hitting was gonna go down.
In fact they all eagerly assured me no more hitting was happening. I told them I was glad of that, and I suggested, maybe, soft yelling if people had to be yelling. Just for the calm of it. They laughed.
So we had a discussion, there on the street with the promise of rain.
We talked about drugs and about bigotry. We talked about respect, tagging, the death of a much loved 16 year old gir. We talked of knives, fights, struggles, hurts.
Everyone apologized for bringing the struggle to my peaceful porch.
The kid with the bruised cheek decided he’d spend the rest of the day cleaning off the tags written on a few walls.
The kid who hit him thought that was cool.
The dude with the puppy checked for consensus, and the friend I’d spoken with on the porch crossed the road bearing a gardenia flower “for the peacemaker”. Thanks, David.
I told them they were leaders, I could tell. But what about all the kids arriving, coming to town, taking advantage? Asked the angry young man who’d started this all.
You are a leader, I told him again. And I believe we can cope with anything if we meet it with strength and kindness. And being together is much better than fighting one another.
He said “I have to start here, with me, with myself”. I smiled.
Later that afternoon I saw him downtown, laughing with some newcomer kids and a friend I recognized from last summer. “Having a better afternoon?” I asked him.
Yeah, yeah he was.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
I have been watching the delicate lethal talons of eagles rearrange lichen in their nest high in a fir tree. I have watched those talons and those beaks that could shear my fingers in an instant gently turn eggs, settling them down again into the soft needles and fluff, and then seen the huge birds settle down to keep their babies..or their babies to be…warm and safe through the storms. It looks loving to me, but the biologists who watch the cameras with me warn against such sentimental thoughts. But still..there is such a sense of miracle. The timing, the odds against this vibrant and free life. The eagle pair is an experienced and bonded pair; they’ve raised a number of north coast eagles to maturity; indeed one came back for a visit during the pre egg days.
All day long my spirit is with those eagles, my mind strays to the nest. Yes, it is an odd obsession, but it is a sure bridge for me over the difficult waters of the tumult and rush of life banging these days at my door and my heart.
April is a beautiful and challenging month. It is a month of new life, of the budding grapes and the wildflowers. There are birthdays and memories. It’s the month I decided I might as well keep living, and found I had made a glad choice.
Twenty years ago I lay my body down in the long sweet meadow grass of April and wished I could simply rest there forever, sink into death, into the heart of the fertile earth. Be stone, or leaf. I wanted my mind still, my broken heart quieted, my exhausted body finally resting. I wanted just to leave and to take my fragile, sick youngest child along with me to that rest, where we would surely be cared for, where it wouldn’t matter, where nothing could harm us. I am, after all, a good mother.
Yeah, I know the edge pretty well. With help I turned back then, and as I say, I have been glad. There has been a lot more time, more love, more balancing in that difficult path we all take, this journey of ours.
But sometimes, particularly in April, I think back to that green meadow.
Oh, but I wouldn’t have seen the eagles.
Or passed these last few weeks of banging on the door: an accident, a cat to cradle into death, a good dog and his desperate person. The news from far away and from close at hand of acts of compassion or courage (and sometimes maybe they are the same).
I slip back to the eagles a lot, in between the tumult. There is something about that precision and care they show, moving the eggs, calling to each other, ripping some fish into eagle food, braving the storms that spangle their feathers with drops of rain—there is something in these that is for me healing and inspiration. Twenty years ago the eagles were not nesting in this region; they had died because of DDT and lead pellets. Now there are at least a few known (or sort of known, people do not blab the locations) nests, and generations of eagles rising.
I believe in eagles, whose return would have seemed impossible. I think especially at the edge of things, in the dark nights and in the barrage of alarm and frustration, it is good to know the impossible isn’t really that at all. Or that a bit of unseen crazy bravery might just change the world. We do keep trying.
And whatever happens, April breaks forth into blossom.
Thursday, February 07, 2013
One Starfish At A Time
When my first child was born after long days of labor, I was not prepared for the all engulfing love that surged through me as I held him, small, wide eyed, fresh to this world.
It was like a shock to the heart.
Suddenly the world I had made it through okay for 3 decades, careless & wandering—suddenly that world was filled with hard corners and sharp edges I had never noticed. And threats from things far away (I remember thinking “must get involved now in anti-draft organizing”). And beauty, of course. Always beauty.
He was so small, six pounds of determined life, held against my skin.
He thrived and is thriving and this isn’t really about him, or about his lovely siblings, each of whom came with their own independent renewal of wonder and love and their primal reminders of how fragile our life is. His sister, but for the skills of our midwife, might have ended her life and mine on that beautiful spring day…we walked very close to the edge, and came back treasuring this life all the more. His little brother blessed us all with the peace of a wise, wild, unique soul.
I have been very lucky in my life. But the edges are always there for me; once your heart has cracked open it’s just no use trying to shut down again. The world floods through, your love floods out, you try to figure out…how do you deal with death and war and cruelty? How do you pile up enough beauty and kindness, enough hugs and “you really are okay” to sweeten an entire world that sometimes seems bent on…oh, the most absurd, the most terrible things?
We all find our way, of course. Sometimes stumbling, sometimes falling. I remember thinking I had grown up properly when I no longer had skinned knees; I guess you grow up a bit further when you realize perhaps your soul itself is a bit..skinned..by the news of the world. Which I remind myself my friend Thoreau said one should ignore (and then he ended up in jail, that prickly guy, protesting a war and war taxes…so, perhaps his advice was bravado and he never took it himself anyway).
Not long ago a friend sent me a little starfish, made of ink on thick paper, nicely drawn, with that starfish story that has been making the rounds for a while. You know the one; the man or woman who is standing on the shore, which is covered with a zillion poor little starfishes, and he or she is gently returning them to the ocean. A practical person comes by and points out that look, there are a zillion zillion lost and dying starfishes right there, and even if our idealist spends the whole day putting them back in the sea…lots won’t be saved. Our friend serenely replies something about “well, the ones I do put back will”. I don’t tell jokes well, and sometimes I privately scorn the sweet things passed round—but I treasure my paper starfish, my little emblem of maybe you can’t do everything, but you can do something.
And that’s how I get through. Well, that, and making sure I have some fresh flowers around, and the batty attention of my cats, and the hopeful eyes of my dog, and the sometimes outrageous silliness or profound tenderness of friends and of strangers.
Just do something. If you see something wrong, or hurting, or in need. Do something. It might be..I don’t know, a bit of food for someone who is hungry, a bit of water for someone who thirsts, a listening heart or a voice that says “you are okay” or “wait, that’s wrong”.
I know, it’s simplistic. And some people, seeing something that is just..wrong, do far more dramatic things. Lock themselves to a truck. Climb a tree. Go on a fast. Dance before an altar, release classified documents, stand witness. End up in jail or with the Nobel prize.
Or on the other hand, maybe we choose a simple life. Keeping the tenderness of the open, broken heart. Picking up the pieces, what little pieces there might be. Being thankful for the glad morning that comes again, and again, and again, until that final day when it comes no more for us. Maybe it won’t matter then, but I like to think if we each make our brave, impossible, gritty or lovely choices—it will matter, to someone. To the one starfish, or the stranger, or in some mad way, to the universe entire, wheeling, mystical, beyond our dreams, that engulfing love.
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
A Remarkable Heart
My youngest son has always had a remarkable heart. He is quiet and takes his time assessing the world and its peculiar shifts and changes, but the beings he has loved, the things that enchant him, are wholly his. During the time he was in his mid teens, by far his best friend was a streetwise guy from Brooklyn, homeless, forthright, impolite. The guy was a heroin addict and an activist. Gabe adored him.
To see them dance together was to get a glimpse of wild angels. Red was the one person I most trusted with my extraordinary son. When he died trying to detox, a light went out in our lives, but, you know, you go on. I wished for Red four years ago when Gabe was feeling the weight of the deaths of children all around the world. Red could maybe have explained a few things, or I think he could. We’ve become more careful of news and political discussion around my son since then. His heart is too open. He is too easily overwhelmed.
When he was an infant our hearts were synchronized. Well, it felt like that. I’d hold him, feed him, watch him, and enter with him a world of green and golden peace. The wind in the fir trees, the sun against the madrone bark, the sweet call of the whitecrowned sparrow—nothing else existed or mattered. For a moment, all was well, all was safe, all was clear.
Later he asked me to teach him to fly. To this day I don’t know if he ever believed me when I said I couldn’t, that we didn’t fly like the ravens when he was asleep. He had seen many things that he couldn’t do, that we could, that he thought I could teach him. I tried.
And I tried to keep him breathing through a winter of pneumonias, and managed to do so, holding him in my arms, upright, begging him to keep taking breath after breath, crazy with anxiety and exhaustion. That winter I almost lost my way entirely. But other springs and winters followed, and he grew strong.
We got to look at his remarkable heart some weeks ago. All his life his doctors have reassured us that, though he has Down Syndrome and challenges, he has a good, strong heart. Our latest doc thought, since he had never had an echocardiogram, well, why not. Routine. Just in case.
We watched the heart’s mandala, the flow, the steady dancing rhythm.
The curly haired technician was kind and cheerful. She took twice as long as promised, but we figured she was being extra thorough, ruling out all those problem spots common in the hearts of those with that tiny extra chromosome. It was fascinating, like watching visible music.
And the night our doctor called me with the results—you know how in old fashioned melodrama some one trembles head to foot? I could not stop shaking for two hours.
And then I cried.
And then I started researching.
My son’s unique heart apparently has at least 5 very special variations from normal. They are of the type that would have been expected to kill him before his second week of life.
Yes, he has a very strong heart.
So I’ve been thinking about this world of ours, this new year, all the news and all the struggles.
I could shake head to foot for continued deaths, for rapes, for climate crisis, for fears and follies of this world. I don’t, but yes, often I do weep.
And then, well I do a couple things. I love the moments I have with great tender ferocity. I refuse defeat and despair. And bit by bit, wherever I can, I do what I can to celebrate, create, and honor a world of sustained kindness and vision. To figure out what matters, and hold it closely. To just keep loving, working, loving some more.
(the photo is of Gabe with his dad, on an adventure)
Saturday, December 08, 2012
from the landscape of dreams
I have recurring dreams in which I am wandering a city, a beautiful city with strange, twisting alleys and cobblestone streets. There are arched doorways and richly cluttered shops where I often meet people I know in this dreamworld, the magician with ice blue eyes, the old woman who often crowns her soft white hair with a wreath of red berries, a little dark haired child who is my daughter, lost long ago but here restored to me.
The landscape of this realm includes the sea, edging the rocky shore, and a river flowing between meadows. Across one of these meadows there is a white stone monastery. I never go there, but watch, sometimes, as the people come out and perform ceremonies. Once in a while I am part of a procession, as it moves through the town. There are flowers. Sometimes I walk beside a lion, in the thin winter sunlight.
In the shops I look through shelves and trays, looking for treasures. The blue eyed man has special things to show me, and has shown me these since I was three years old. Then I thought if I held tightly to the treasures I would have them when I woke. But my clenched hands were always empty—no blue crystals, no little carved stones looking like horses, no golden birds.
These days in that dream place I am often with some of my waking-life family (alive or dead) and friends (also living or dead—in that place everyone is alive, and we meet sometimes with a bit of confusion: Oh, I thought…but here you are! And we smile a lot).
But sometimes we are trying to cross that bridge, that wooden bridge that spans..sometimes a river, sometimes a space from one building to another, so high up..or we are trying to climb a hill to safety, scratching our skin on the rough granite. The city has turned precarious.
Sometimes I look and think “oh no, where is…?” For someone is missing, and I should have been paying more attention. Those are nightmares of responsibility, from which I am glad to awaken. They are dreams in which I think “oh no, what I have loved, those I have loved…I haven’t kept them safe”. I wake in tears and in relief, and listen to the breathing around me—my son, my partner, the cats, the snuffling and restless pitbull. It was only a dream. Oh, thank god, it was only a dream, no worries.
But these days, waking, something nibbles at the edges of my mind. Disasters, storms, changes, deaths. It has been an autumn of sudden deaths. Some I loved are…suddenly, elsewhere. It’s not new to me, this sense of fragility, or the litany of the dead. I often recall my friend, dead at 21, who burst into my dreams on the night he died and faced me laughing. “Oh, wasn’t it the most brilliant joke?” he said to me, impish, impossible, dramatic. How we laughed. I was..24 or 25, and when I woke I cried. But he would have liked me better laughing.
Waking these days it feels as if perhaps I am trying to cross that bridge of my beautiful dream city, where the ground is moving and all is complication, unknown languages, splendor and love.
I turn around and someone else is gone.
I turn around and someone is calling out, wounded by grief.
And yet…well, perhaps it is a brilliant joke. So what do we do with this, our lovely complicated life? I think we pay attention. I think we try to love one another, laugh with each other, be ridiculous, embrace our sorrows but more, embrace our delights.
I think we look at every rainbow and delight in every silly thing. And sure, let’s…well, let’s not save the world, let’s treasure the world, let’s cherish it.
Each breath, each moment, each choice.
Friday, November 09, 2012
He Saved My Life
He’s been dead a while, 14 years or so. I never met him, but he gave me a life that extended four or 5 times beyond what it would have been. Because of him I lived to have children, to experience many joys and some sorrows. His beautiful eyes meet mine, across the years, in his military photo probably taken before I was born. He was a handsome guy, and he was married to beautiful darkhaired woman whose eyes seem to sparkle with wit. Her name was Olga. His, Vasilli Arhipov. He rose to the rank of vice admiral in the Soviet Navy.
In 1961, when I was an awkward 14 year old, navigating life on an air force base in the middle of the Mohave Desert, he stopped a mutiny and prevented a nuclear accident that would have rivaled Chernobyl.
But it was the next year that he really saved my life.
October 1962. I was still on the desert, now barely 15. I was concerned about poetry, my white cat, and a guy named Jimmy. I was also fond of my tortoises, my Dutch rabbit named Happy, and, to a degree, of my annoying younger brothers. My parents didn’t talk much about the news. I was learning a little Spanish and practicing a speech (on nonconformity) for the Lion’s Club contest.
But in those late October weeks something shifted. My classmates practiced running home at the sound of sirens. My mother, in the calmest possible way, told me that there might be…did she say war? Did she mention bombs? I don’t remember, only her description of how, perhaps, we would live underground for a while. We would share things. Food might be canned and boring, but I should eat and be thankful. We would try to stay together.
I practiced the run from the school, over the cinderblock wall that bordered our yard. My mother said if we missed each other I should find the buses. They would be taking us to the borax mines. Officer’s families, like ours, would have preference.
My best friend was a sergeant’s daughter. Could she come home with me? No, she would want to stay with her family, said my mother, when the sirens came.
I never thought to ask about my cat or my rabbit. I wouldn’t have liked that answer either.
Looking back I marvel at my mother’s calm during those weeks. I also marvel at my 15 year old mind, which didn’t seem to be picking up anything about the Cuban missile crisis but instead focused on whether or not a certain sandy haired guy really liked me. He was the son of the general, and so would be with us in the caves. I imagined the fun we could have.
Paul, ten years older, tells me that during these weeks he worried a lot. Chain smoking in Los Angeles. Forgetting to eat. Sure the end of the world was at hand.
But on October 27, 1962, the fine eyed Vassili Arhipov, in one moment, in one simple refusal, saved my life. And Paul’s. And yours as well.
The already acclaimed naval hero was on board a submarine in Cuban waters. In the world people were waiting and watching a terrible game of brinkmanship and bravado as the US and Soviets seemed determined to tumble over into war.
And Vasilli’s ship was buffeted by depth charges. The crew, his commanding officer, everyone..they thought this was it. And they readied their response—nuclear torpedoes.
But there was a failsafe, much like that in our missile silos. The launch took three officers. Two were ready to go for it. Indeed, they may have been eager.
Vassili said no.
He said they should wait to hear from Moscow. And he continued saying no, standing his ground, refusing to launch.
And..the crisis passed. The world teetered at the brink of doom and was pulled back, by one simple act. By one man.
And my life went on. Thanks, Vassili. It has been a good thing. And..I will always take hope in this, that one person, against the reasoned beliefs of all those around..could say no. Or sometime, in another circumstance, say yes. Or dance. Or question. Or celebrate.
The point is…they matter, those moments. You matter, with your heart and your soul and your will. You never know when your small act may save the world. Take joy from that. I do.
(the photo of Vassili and his wife Olga I found here: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/oct/19/secrets-dead-man-who-saved-world/) and I hope it is okay to use..
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Perfect October day, one of the bright blue ones with fluffy clouds straight out of kindergarten drawings. I half expect to see the sun turn chrome yellow, show a bunch of straight rays, and wink a crayoned eye at me. The ravens are playing their autumn games (tumble, toss, and chatter) and the first flocks of robins are arriving. All is as right with the world, for a moment, as something from a nice Victorian poem.
There was a lot of activity in the quiet corners of my world when I walked out with my dog into the morning air. Trucks, workers, people rushing about in their early tasks.
So I didn’t betray her, as she sat carefully concealed, holding her dog at her side. And for once my dog didn’t betray her either—no sudden barking, no dancing joyful greeting. We slipped by, as quietly as possible. I knew her from other encounters, when she showed up exhausted and pale and asked for a glass of water, having walked miles in the hot sun. Today we met each other’s eyes, nodded, and I walked on.
But what sort of world is it, I thought, where a fragile young woman seeks the shelter of a bush and is afraid to be seen?
It’s a strange world we live in, where these days signs get posted inviting people to get out of town immediately, where people are referred to, routinely, as trash, bums, lowlifes, drifters.
And where people like my young friend live with the constant threat of losing their belongings, their companion animals, & sometimes their freedom.
And sometimes their lives.
The man on the phone who promised terrible things would happen was unashamed and gave me his name along with his threats. Others have been less self assured, or less open, though the threats and suggestions have been fairly lethal, a vigilante escalation of rhetoric. And sometimes of action—a disabled man screamed at and shot with paintballs, veterans told “we don’t want your kind”, children met with insult and hatred.
The town I live in is about 4 blocks long, embraced by the hills and river. Blue skies, clear air, a community so small that when my youngest wandered I knew he would be returned to my arms safely by a neighboring shopkeeper or worker or one of my friends on the street. A place wrapped in kindness. Or so I thought. And so I still hope.
I was sweeping my porch the other evening when one of my young travelling friends said “hey, can I ask you a question?” as he filled his water bottle. “Sure,” I said, wondering what was coming up. The question he asked me made me pause, confused, not sure what to say at all. “Why are you so kind?” he asked. I felt embarrassed, unworthy, and stammered “I’m not really, not all that kind”. I am well aware of my impatiences and my times of needing to be away, away from the bandaging of hurt hands and the psychic bandaging of hurt hearts, I know I am not always joyful as I meet each need or question. My friend persisted. “Why do you care? Why do you care so much?” I said “it’s human to care. We are connected. We all care about each other, don’t we?”
No, he said. No, most people don’t care.
I’ve sat with that question a lot, turning it this way and that. Cause I’m not a saint and I’m not particularly special; I’m a pretty ordinary, aging woman. But yes, I care, and I care deeply, and I think I care because…there is no reason in the world not to care, and so many reasons to do so. Because when I hear someone cry in pain I have to run to help. Because when someone is hungry my stomach tightens. Because what hurts someone else hurts me, a lot, and I really don’t do well with pain. I care because I’m awfully selfish and I want to walk out in the October sun with my dog and feel good. Despite everything I know, and I know some terrible truths, just as anyone in this frail life of ours, on a changing planet does.
So I listen. And I do what I can, whether that’s providing a bit of food or a blanket or a bit of respite or a bandage or a motherly exhortation to get to the clinic or a phone call or a handful of food for a skinny dog. My partner, who has been known to give away the shirt he’s wearing (I laugh at him, he is a cliché, but a great one) says he just does what he does because it’s easier. And he doesn’t want to face people who are desperate when he could help. He claims to be practical, a pragmatist. I’m not so logical, but, yeah, I’m lazy. And trust me, it is much easier to be kind.
Besides, once upon a time I read a lot of stories, and there were some that stuck in my childish heart. Someone said that he had been hungry, and unfed, and naked, and no one came to give him clothes. And in jail, and no one bothered to check on him there, and so sick and alone and no one seemed to care.
I was ten. I was gravely troubled. I had never met a hungry person or a naked, cold one, or someone in jail. I had visited relatives in the hospital, so I felt clear on that one. But the others…I worried a great deal that I would never figure out how to reach those people. No worries now, half a century later, abundance flows through..including abundant opportunities to reach out a kind hand.
And sure, the phone calls and the threats sometimes give me pause. But such opportunity, such interesting lessons. We are here such a very short while. Our time together is a quick time. It’s like a childhood run through the autumn leaves, a snowfall that we thought would last forever, that friend we always thought we’d finally tell things to.
The shaky treehouses I built as a girl fell to pieces long ago. Many of my friends are dead now; David, who walked with me to school, the woman who was a mentor and friend and love for decade upon decade. People I knew a moment and people I loved a long while. It’s all over so very quickly.
I think we have to love each other, and this lovely planet. And if that doesn’t work, I think we have to love more.