Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Am I the Devil?"

I get used to a lot of questions here at the bookstore. Book questions, and questions from tourists, and questions from lost kids and street folk. But today's question was unique. The woman in the long velvet dress, with a silver necklace around her neck, and her sad brown eyes, is one of Champ the pitbull's favorite people. She gave me my goldfish. Well, really, she gave me three goldfish, but that's another story. She brought by sunflower seedlings for the parking lot garden last summer, and routinely stops to check on Champ. She calls Champ "my dear brother dog".
Carrie has struggled all her life with psychological problems, but mostly she makes it okay through the day or the week. She has a house, and a bunch of chickens, two dogs who adore her, some rabbits, and a vast tangle of gardens.
She drinks a lot, and is probably no stranger to other forms of self medication. When drunk she can be loud, or very sad, grieving for her lost children and her innocent youth. Today, when she rushed in the door, she said "my friend is dead, she's dead, how can this be?"
Chrissy died a few days ago, at home. Results of the autopsy aren't in yet. Speculation includes drugs; speculation always includes drugs. Chrissy was in her late 40's. Her brilliant little girl--well, the young woman who is her pretty daughter--has been studying this year in Denmark, and as I type is flying home to our community.
I'm so sorry, I told Carrie. I didn't know she was close to you. We talked a while, and Carrie cried and cried. "What is happening to her body?" she asked, and I explained the little I know about such things. In a sudden death there is an autopsy. I told her my own experience with the coroner and the morgue up north is that they are caring and respectful; this body is in good hands.
But Carrie wanted to be beside her friend. The folks at the hospital gave her the phone number of the morgue, and blinded with tears and confusion Carrie went to a local pastor. He's her neighbor, she said, the new guy who just took over one of the Christian churches. She asked if he could help her call, if he could talk to her a while.
He told her no, Chrissy was a devil and so was she.
"Am I the Devil? I'm not the devil, am I? You know." said Carrie. This is when I started to cry, and I took her in my arms, and I told her "No, you are not the devil. I know this with my whole heart. You are a much loved child of this universe, and so is your friend."
"But if I'm not, why would he say I was? Do you know about prayer?"
I told her I didn't know why he'd say that, yes, I know about prayer, and maybe we should consider praying for him, because he is obviously so very far from his Christian teachings.
"I wanted to hit him" said Carrie. "But I didn't hit him."
That's very good, I said.
"Am I the devil because I wanted to hit him?"
No, I said, you are not. And you didn't hit him. I would have wanted to hit him myself, I think.
"There was no blood" she said, going back to what the people at the hospital had told her. "How can there be no blood?"
Well, said I, when my father died, there was no blood; he just took a long last breath and was still, while I held him in my arms. Sometimes it's like that. Remember Samantha? She died at home in her bed on Christmas Eve, when her heart just stopped beating.
"I'm not going to do that, am I?" asked Carrie.
I said no, probably not, though we all do die, finally. Chrissy is okay, I told her.
"She wants us to be okay, I'll bet" said Carrie. I agreed.
"You're sure I'm not the devil?" she asked. Very, very sure, said I, hugging her again as she said goodbye to Champ and went out into the bright November afternoon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

dancing on the graves

Last week my partner and our son Gabe went to the coast to distribute the political newspaper we put out each month from the midst of our bookstore. Trips to the coast are always a treat for me; I put aside, during the normal weeks and months, my love of the ocean I so rarely see, but when I am within range, when the first salt tang of the air hits my lungs, I smile and smile.
It was a brilliantly clear autumn day; not a trace of fog as we came over the forested hills and slid into one of the tiny almost-not-there-at-all towns. There, on the roadside, is an old cemetary. For the decades I have lived here I have imagined stopping there, going through the big wooden gate, entering the square above the sea ringed with a dazzling picket fence. I mentioned my fantasy to P. He turned the car around and pulled over on the dirt--why not stop now? This is uncharacteristic of my love, who usually plunges straight ahead on task, and I was delighted.
We opened the gate and went in.
Salt air had worn away many of the inscriptions on the marble and granite stones, but some of the fancier monuments still stood. A lot of simple wooden markers, names long gone, leaned this way and that on the bright green grass. A few late dandelions marked an unknown grave with bright yellow flowers.
We read some of the names--the ones that could be read--to Gabriel as he danced about, happy in the warm air.
He found a few favorites and leaned down, pressing his ear to the ground. "Not talking much" he informed us.
And then he reached out his hands and told the people to get up, come on, be alive. He tried it a few times, then shook his head "Not working" he said.
We went to talk with the goats who were watching us from the yard nearby, and Gabe continued his joyful dance from grave to grave.
I took a few rose cuttings from an old rose, a prickly, glossy leafed rose that had totally engulfed the gravesite of a woman whose name was Elise, who had died long long ago. I didn't think she'd mind, and the little bright pink flowers were so enticing. Maybe it will take root in the parking lot garden--it seems very willing to do so.
The ocean was very blue, and glittering with sun sparkles. "We alive" said Gabe. Yes, yes we are.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"My name is Diane," she said

She was sitting on the sidewalk as I walked past with one of my dogs that foggy, chilly night. We'd arrived back at the store around 11 at night, and now it was nearing midnight. The dogs greeted us as if we had been gone for years, as if they had been cruelly neglected. No matter that our daughter had kept the store open, given them treats, filled the water bowl.
But now, the woman on the sidewalk brought even eager Champ to a halt. "My name is Diane". Her voice was vague, quiet. She was wearing a thin shirt, a knit cap under which her blondish hair straggled out. Her face was lined and worn. I said hello, told her my name, told her I had the bookstore down the street, and continued my walk.
About two in the morning my partner came to me, saying "we need some food for a woman. You want to choose a coat? I think she could use a sleeping bag."
The emergency peanut butter and jelly came out, the wholewheat bread. I found a carton of yogurt, a plastic spoon, some fruit. And a warm coat.
My halo is slipping, I told my tired partner, handing him the gear and the food and leaving him to deal with the early morning crisis. Yes, I should have gone myself, and sat beside her, and heard whatever tale of woe she had to tell me. But I was tired. I hadn't slept much the night before, or the night before that, and just longed to curl up on my mat and become oblivious to this world, in which, let me assure you, every day there are people in crisis and people who are desperate and people with no one to hear their stories or hold their hand or let them sit awhile in a quiet place.
Diane was gone the next morning. She'd said, P. reported, that she was en route to San Francisco. She asked for money for gas, though she had no car. I hope she's okay. I'm sorry I didn't hear whatever story she had to tell. P. says she had a number of stories, all pretty contradictory.
Meanwhile, we were considering the question of the vandalism that had happened while we were gone for the day. Our free table outside, on which we place books and food and warm clothes, free for the taking, was gone. The sign we lean near the door, bearing a wonderful multicolored cat, inherited from another bookstore I once managed, owned by my eldest son's now dead father, had disappeared as well. Some of the trees had had branches ripped and left broken.
P. thought it might be political--we are outspoken, and sometimes someone gets mad at that. I thought no--it looked like desperation and drugs.
We pruned the hurt trees; they will be fine.
I found the sign across the street in the bushes.
Early in the morning the phone rang. "Hi, is this the bookstore in (name of town)?" Yes, I said. "Well, I'm really sorry. I think I might have hurt your table."
I asked him what had happened. Had he had a hard day? Indeed he had, and he told me his story. Desperation. Cold. His pack and all his treasures stolen. Some alcohol. Perhaps some drugs. He felt such rage, and such need, and he came to this place--and we are so often here, we can be trusted--and we weren't here.
He said he was so sorry, he'd pay for the table, what could he do? I asked where the table might be, and later checked, but no, it's gone.
I asked him to stop by and see me the next time he's in town, and maybe we can talk a bit more. We traded names. He said he thought his life was spinning out of control. I listened some more.
I hope when he does show up I will be able to sit with him, and give him the time he needs, and maybe the names of people he can trust as well.
It's only a table, after all. And for him it might be a life.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

a garden in the pink mylar bags

The three little girls came up to my waist, and earnestly held three bright pink mylar bags. As I held Champ the pitbull from dashing out the door, and helped the motorcycle guy who'd come for today's free spaghetti balance his plate and his books, the girls chirped: "We have a donation for you!" Pretty, smiling faces. Yes? I said, wondering what on earth the pink bags held. "We have flower bulbs!" they crowed. I beamed. "Yes", they said, daffodils and irises and tulips. We love your garden!". Thank you so much, I said, I do love flowers, and I will plant these out there and you can watch them in the spring when they bloom.
The parking lot garden is one of my favorite projects ever. There, in the asphalt wasteland, where everyone told me grimly nothing would grow, there are now strips of trees and flowers, little succulents, a continuing, changing rainbow of loveliness. And many of the plants and seeds came over the bookstore entrance, held by homeless people and drunks, by earnest citizens, by grandmothers, and by little girls with pink bags in their little hands.
Inside the mylar bags the bulbs rest, marked with carefully crayoned labels, each one with a little heart drawn by the name. Tomorrow I will plant them, and enjoy the red liquidambar leaves as they fall, and the still blooming pink zinnias under the little weeping willows, the golden birch leaves, the last orange gold peach leaves, the scarlet maple.
Kind of a stone soup sort of garden, a continual source of surprise and delight.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In the wake of the election

I met with the blue eyed politician today. He's a state senator in Sacramento and has been a friend of those of us who try to get care to the very poor and the at risk. We sat in the clinic meeting room with hospital and clinic executives, a reporter, one hospital board member and me. He said in the wake of the election maybe, just maybe, there will be openings. Maybe the governor will need to readjust. Maybe the poor will get what they need. Maybe the whole balance is shifting.
Well, maybe. We shared sandwiches and coffee and had our photos taken for the local paper. The hospital board member gave me a ride back to the bookstore, as we talked of daffodils. She's trying to preserve as many of the wild species as possible. In Spain, she said, they are building a four lane highway where the wild daffodils grow. We have to make certain they still exist somewhere. Good work, said I. See you at the next meeting. Maybe we can save the world a flower at a time, a conversation at a time, a moment at a time.

Friday, November 04, 2005

they met the protesters with military-style force

My partner (and the dancing cardboard skeleton) made it home unscathed, very late the night of the protest up in the county seat. But the reports of the reaction to this peaceful, if creative protest on the steps of the federal building by ordinary folks--these reports are chilling. Yes, there was full on police and federal marshal presence. But what is more chilling yet is the response given to the young bicyclists from Critical Mass. A large group of these people rode from their little college town to the site of the bigger demonstration. It's about a 7 mile long ride. As they came in to the main town they were met by the cops, including helicopter support. Several of the young women were pulled from their bikes and roughed up. A number were taken to jail, charged with such things as failure to respond to a police order.
Understand, we are not talking violent riots here, or even rock throwing. We are talking peaceful protesters trying to reach a demonstration against the Bush regime and the tragic continuing invasion of Iraq. My 62 year old neighbor and his wife turned out for it. Lots of folks who had never thought of going out on the streets turned out for this. They carried a cardboard coffin. They played taps. The skeleton danced. Children held up signs. And the brave Critical Mass bicyclists tried to come join.
"Well, they didn't shoot us" comments one of the bikers, wryly smiling.
Yes, true. But--mark my words--these are harsh times. When a regime trembles before its fall, you don't expect everything to be sweetness and light.
But hey, I'll be out on my corner tonight--it's Friday; the women in black will gather again, standing in hope. And standing because--well, if you don't use your freedoms, it's easier to have them removed. Or that's what I think.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

skeletons on the federal steps

It's the day of the dead, and a big demonstration, spearheaded by my long time partner, is in progress in the county seat as I type. Last night I helped him put together a dancing, lifesize skeleton made of cardboard and wire; kind of a charming creature, with its gleaming crooked smile.
Do you suppose there will be police there? he asked. Naive man.
I said, be prepared for a major police presence--you have called, after all, for the toppling of the current regime, and you have said you will be going to the representative's office. They are not going to like that.
Critical Mass bikers are enroute there.
Word comes that the protestors on the steps have been surrounded by Federal Marshals,Sheriffs, and the Highway Patrol.
I may not see my friend back here tonight. I sigh and turn on the local radio station--our friend the news reporter is in place with her tape recorder at the protest, and she'll let me know if anything big happens.
Fifteen years ago she was the one who called from the logging protest: don't worry, but Paul is chained beneath the truck now, and the cops are talking with him. He seems in good spirits.
Life in a political household can be interesting indeed.
The year our daughter, now 20, was born, he did a trespass action at a close by naval sub station--on August 6. The trial dragged on till our daughter was 4, and he finally got off with community service. Our little girl learned to walk in a courtroom, holding to the fancy box sides.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

George W. Bush is in my closet

Well, really, he is in the back hall of my bookstore, leaning amongst the broken down boxes ready for a trip to the recycling center. And, really, he is kind of flat, wearing some old clothes, looking unusually pale.
My partner was up late last night, spreading papers and cardboard and glue all over the main room carpet, trying to get George W. in shape for a rally/protest/demonstration tomorrow at the courthouse steps of the biggest town nearby. There is something to be said for the joys of political activism. You can develop talents never tapped since kindergarten days. My generally art challenged partner of these couple decades finds he can make posters, and masks, and now, even George.
I kind of wish he hadn't. Or at least hadn't left him leaning, leering, unsteady there in the hallway, about to fall upon the unwary. At least the dogs don't seem to have noticed him yet.
Tomorrow he will be the centerpiece of the topple the regime demonstration. Like Saddam's statue, explains my earnest partner in between wondering where he last put his glasses.
And then the walk will go to the local media places, and to our local representative's office (he's a good guy, but hasn't come out forcefully on Iraq, and the folks will want to talk with him--or his flak catcher--about that).
But meanwhile, there he is. Maybe I should get a good book to put in his flat cardboard hands.