Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy Holy Days to All

I never really wanted to be an angel.
The tinsel set into my fine hair always scratched, and the angel robe made of muslin sheets wasn't nearly as elegant as the sky blue robes worn by Mary. Mary was always some dark haired girl I hated. I had trouble keeping my wings on. Balancing on boxes in the back of the stage, singing quavering glorias--no, it really wasn't my thing at all.
My mother was unsympathetic. I could have been a shepherd, she said, telling me the story of the year she had to wear an ugly blanket and pretend to herd sheep, after her angelic years before. She'd had her hair chopped short that year, and the teachers told her she wasn't worthy of wings and glitter.
But I wanted to be Mary. Mary had lines in the play, and was the one under the lights, and who said she had to have dark hair?

This minor and ongoing disappointment of my traveling youth came up this year because P. and Gabe and I went to a Christmas Eve vigil at the tiny Catholic church in the neighboring town. Paul was raised in that church; I was thrown out of my own protestant version--a story I may one day write. But lately we've had encounters with a deacon of the church who is a Catholic radical. We get along very well with that sort of person--to combine spirit and social action is a sweet and reasonable thing for us. So, invited to the vigil, we went.

We were late. I'm an early person, myself--always about 15 minutes ahead of time to meetings and events. I like to check out the surroundings. I like to feel safe. Paul is always about 2 hours behind any promised time, but can, with struggle, make it within a half hour. And when it is the Holy Church--well, he tried. He went there before coming to collect Gabriel and me, to warn the ushers we'd be barging in like sheep or angels.
Well, probably he didn't say sheep or angels.

So we slid in, and took our places in the back pew, as the tiny children, most of them from the Spanish speaking community, gathered for the tableau: little angels and Joseph, a scattering of shepherds, and tiny sweet Mary, and all the rest.

The priest had come from one of the big cities down south, and tried to deliver a good sermon. The congregation tried to sing. We prayed for the leaders of the world, that their hearts might soften, we prayed for peace, we prayed for a lot of things, and tears ran down my face, as they often do when things like the hope of peace and the pains of this world seem to collide.

Listening to the priest's version of the story of the birth of Jesus I found myself thinking "yes, the child was special--they all are". The people around me were dressed very simply--this was no church in which people had gathered to show off finery.

And this year's tiny angels ran around the pews. Gabriel, for his part, was bored with it all. "Fake" he kept saying. Was it the statues, or theology? I haven't quite figured it out.
But there is a sort of blessing to the cycles of the year nonetheless.

After Paul took communion (I, being of "a different persuasion" declined, though I often take communion with the nuns at a local monastery) and we wandered into the newly falling rain.
"It could be snow, elsewhere" said the smiling woman who'd been buying mysteries a few days before. Well, we could pretend.

I returned to start the potica baking. It takes up to six hours, this rich yeast bread, ceremonially shaped, filled with a nutmeat paste. I bake it, as I promised Paul when we first joined our lives, for Christmas, Easter, and his birthday. I have his mother's recipe, straight from her new-from Slovenia mother, handed down for generations. Each woman who has taken on the recipe has made small and large changes. My version this year was a slightly defiant hybrid. Why not fold it the traditions of my Finnish mother and grandmother and greatgrandmother? So the ground almonds and the sweet yeast dough were spiked with a touch of cardamon this year.

Paul, harking back to the Dickens Christmas Carol he reads to the family over the 12 days, called it the best potica ever--baked in a toaster oven, shaped on a cardboard box.

Fruit of the fields, shaped by human hands--let it be for us a connection with the universe.

We shared it with friends and wanderers and with our children, warm in the bookstore, wind and rain blowing.

It is shaped in a circle, an ancient token of the wheel of the year, the wheel of time, and the lovely sun, moon, and earth.

There are mysteries still, beneath the simple things. And then we read aloud from our translation of Hafiz--why not fold in some other lights into our life? The poem I turned to invited me to sing ribald songs to my animals and plants, to hug my children, and to turn to my love with a renewal of the first love I felt.

And why not? Even if I made a bad angel, I guess I can rejoice a bit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Sometimes as I watch him dozing by my chair, I have a glimpse of the golden, tumbling puppy he must once have been. Sensing that I am watching, he raises his massive head and tries to look at me through his large, clouded eyes. "Good dog, good boy" I say, and stroke his head. He sighs heavily, and puts his head down once more, content to return to his dreams for a while.
I never saw him as a puppy.

It was a winter night close to Christmas, when a storm was raging and the cabin roof was leaking, and the children and I were trying to roll out ginger cookies by candlelight. I was still a little raw from the grief I felt at my father's death that September. Yes, it was a good death, as deaths go. The past two years had brought a lot of healing in that most perpendicular of relationships. He was a military man. I was his eldest child, his only daughter. I honed my rebellion and my strength on his rigidity. There were years, as I was growing up, when he was only a photograph on my mother's dresser, and others, after I was grown, in which he was simply a letter (he'd send carbon copies for a while), answered by my letters. His new wife hated me, I thought--well, I was much like my mother, after all. And my peace activism was, he thought, a direct slap at his entire life.

When he called and told me the doctors had given him six weeks to live he was very straightforward and unemotional. I hung up the phone and sobbed, and a customer browsing the literature section rushed to my side, alarmed. My customer had lost his own parents years ago, and knew the territory. "You have to go see him" he told me. I realized it was true, though I had no money for the airfare, and was worried about leaving my youngest, Gabe, whose Down Syndrome made him a particularly fragile child.
The next day I determined I'd borrow the money, and that Gabriel would survive a week or so without his mother, and called my dad to tell him I was coming--unless, of course, he'd rather not see me. That time it was my father who broke down, and cried, and said "you want to see me?"

We'd both assumed a lack of love on each other's part. In the next two years--for my father took great delight in proving his doctors wrong--we discovered the depths of our love and healed a lot of misunderstandings. He traveled, against doctor's orders, to Alaska to see the glaciers and eagles and polar bears.

And at the end, as I had told him I wished to be, I was there with him as he took his final breaths. I was holding him in my arms, breathing with him, our eyes locked on each other's faces. His last breath was so quiet I didn't know for a moment it had come, as a thunder storm raged in the New Mexico sky outside his bedroom and my stepmother, exhausted by the last days, slept quietly. There was no fear, no struggle. It was his final gift to me, I think.
But yes, I cried. And I grieved.

And back at home, as I rolled out those cookies and tried to make it a bright holiday for my brood, my heart still ached.
The loud, peremptory "WOOF" outside assumed instant obedience. We were, as P. said, between dogs that winter. "WOOF!!!"
I opened the door to the storm, and to the ragged yellow lab who came in, looked at the children, sighed and settled on a blanket near the stove. His paws were worn, and his fur oddly matted, as if he hadn't been brushed in a long while. His eyes were golden. All three of my children were delighted to have what appeared to be a horse sized dog in the middle of the tiny cabin.

Of course we let him stay the night, and the next, and...

We asked around about the dog--after I brushed him he was gleaming and lovely, a fine dog. He knew how to sit and shake hands and seemed very content to hang out with our gang, including the cats, who took turns sleeping curled up with him. Finally, through the country grapevine, word came from his first family, who said they hadn't been able to keep him--he kept wandering--and if we wanted him, he was ours. Buddy, the yellow dog. I was delighted.

It turned out Buddy had grown up in Los Angeles in a small apartment with three boys and two hamsters. This family hadn't known him as a puppy either--the mom had discovered him as a year old dog, tied up by a school, with his back leg broken. She'd taken him to a vet, and taken him in. Through some tough times Buddy had been there for her, a warm yellow back to lean again, a big dog to hug and whisper fears and secrets to.

And then the family moved north, to the woods and the wild. Somehow--I have never quite figured this out--the man of the family thought Buddy would enjoy being chained out in the woods, far from the family. Buddy didn't like this, and barked a lot. He was beaten. A neighbor--a tough old guy with a soft heart--took Buddy off the chain repeatedly, and Buddy took to wandering. (Buddy's liberator still comes by to visit him, and in fact Buddy still now and again walks far up the hill to visit that family). One day, about a year after Buddy had come to us, the woman who had found him by the school came to visit.

It was like having a birth mother come to see her child--I was so full of conflicted emotions. What if Buddy, on seeing her, pined for her? What if she wanted him back? I steeled myself to letting him go. As it turned out, although she cried, and I cried, and she filled me in on Buddy's past life, and on the divorce proceedings--perhaps Buddy wasn't the only one who got beaten--Buddy was mild and friendly but insisting on sitting by my side, his great head leaning on my knee. "He loves you" said his first woman. "I love him too" I told her. She was delighted to see how happy Buddy seemed in his role as bookstore dog and greeter of all. "You've found your place" she told him, patting him. He wagged his tail and looked at me.

So he has been with us since. That first year I released my grief and pain running with him on the dirt roads, up hill and down, heart pounding, sometimes with tears running down my face but more often, as time went on, with newly refound delight in being alive.

Dogs are very good for putting you back into life.

He's slower these days, but then, so am I. He has helped foster kittens and and tolerated puppies who bit his ears and tumbled over him. He helped me adopt our injured, valiant pitbull, Champ. He has been Gabriel's faithful friend.

Most days I take him for a walk to the local feed store, where he is well known and gets special treats. We talk to the hamsters there--Buddy is always interested in them--and to the birds. He carries back two treats--one for Champ, who waits patiently.

His golden fur is turning white now, and he sleeps more. His sight is dimming, but he can still smell very well. He follows me everywhere I go in the bookstore, as if he doesn't wish me quite out of his sight. Our customers fuss a lot over Champ, who sports a bandaged paw and a wistful air, and Buddy stands back--but then he stands in front of his favorite browsers, as if to say "Hey, good dog, here--come on, pay your tariff: you need to pat me"

Paul calls him "Buddy-satva" because, of all the beings we have known, Buddy is the most purely loving, offering unquestioning devotion and acceptance to everyone--cats, dogs, people. Even the deer in the garden. When we walk through town, late at night, Buddy finds the strays--the addicts in despair, the runaways, the shivering drunks, the lost ones. He stops, and lets them pat him, leans his warm weight against them, lets them know there is some love around, even when the universe seems dark.

Does it make sense to say one of my strongest teachers is a dog? Sense or not, so it is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

the midnight cat

You would think the midnight cat should be black, inky black, disolving into darkness and fog, but she's not. My inheritance from my friend Red, who died now about 6 months ago and is missed every day, the midnight cat is the color of sunset glimpsed through a thick forest of dark firs. Red called her a calico, but said others told him she was a tabby. Her eyes are enormous and green, her tail only half there, and crooked. She has an unmistakeable meow, and calls to me sometimes as I walk Buddy the elderly yellow lab very late at night.
Red cared for her about a year before his death, and up to two days before he died I had never met the cat. I heard about her, but she was never in sight, just a watching presence hidden somewhere whenever Gabe and I stopped by to visit Red at his little trailer in the lot by the car repair place.
For Red the little trailer was a upscale step; before that he'd been living on the street. Somewhere around the time of his death, in June, I posted a bit about who he was...if you are interested, go there.
But that day, two days before he died, the cat was worrying Red. He thought perhaps she was sick, or had some sort of lump on her back. He came to the bookstore and begged me to come see the cat, and check her health.
His anxiety was so great that I immediately put up my "back soon" sign and followed him. There was, of course, no cat in sight anywhere. But he called, and out of the tall brush to the back of the gravel strewn lot, out came a bouncing, bounding kitty, who leapt happily into his lap, curving and swirling and kneading, gazing at him with great love and at me with considerable suspicion.
It took some cajoling, but after a bit the cat came to sit on my lap. There was nothing wrong with her at all, and she settled down and started purring while Red and I talked of many things, there in the late afternoon sunlight. "I'll have to give you some seeds of the white poppy" he said. He was very proud of a California poppy he'd grown which had, instead of the bright orange flowers most common to the species, milk white blossoms. I'd expressed a lot of admiration for the plant, which was just begining to unfurl its blooms.
After Red died, after a friend and I sorted through his belongings, after the big memorial service, I returned to sit with the cat. Yes, she came as I called, that day at sunset.
Since then I have gone every night to leave food for her, and to check on her water. The tough New Yorker who runs a pizza place next to the car repair lot agreed that Red's cat could have her food near where she was used to being fed. When the RV was given away, at Red's mother's request, the pizza guy put the cat's dishes on his restaurant's back porch. I brought over an old cushion, so the cat can eat in some comfort when she wishes.
And often it is midnight when I meet her there. I sit and pet her a while. Often she wants the affection more than the food I bring. Sometimes other cats have gathered--word gets out in the cat realm. A huge silver tom with a red collar, a little black and white cat too terrified to come near.
The midnight cat holds her ground. I wonder sometimes if she would like to come inside, but she seems so content ranging freely. Would she be a tame, placid bookstore cat along with my fluffy Pippin and Destiny and the dogs and the piles of books? I don't think so.
She's not around every evening. Sometimes I leave her food and wonder if harm has come to her. Red had her spayed her first year with him, so I know she is free from worry of raising a kitten brood. When the big storms come, and the vacant lots flood with water, I worry about her and go out, rain dripping through my hair, sometimes finding her curled in a sheltered corner on that porch, sometimes not finding her at all.
And every night, walking over to the gravel where the poppies still grow, I think of my friend. My son Gabe insists Red is still dancing somewhere on the clouds. But he says Red has been dead too long--when is he returning to us, to have more fun?
I think sometimes the midnight cat wonders as well. Or maybe she knows more than I do. Cats often do.

Monday, December 12, 2005

a handful of stones, a foxglove plant

The plant appeared on the curbside early in the morning, roots clinging to bits of sandy soil, leaves still moist in the early morning fog. It is not unusual to find plant orphans at my doorstep or at the edges of the parking lot garden--some months ago a climbing rose with deep red flowers; not long ago a languishing pothos with yellow splotched leaves. The pothos, repotted, dangles over the window. The rose is at the end of the north wall, where someday I hope to guide it up the crumbling side of the building.I planted the foxglove along the wall where it will add a certain magic to the garden come summertime.
As I was tucking the foxglove roots in, and wondering if it will flower in white or in deep splotchy pink, an agitated young woman clutching an orange kitten came up to me. Her human traveling companion held one of their three puppies and was trading shouts with another guy. The woman, breathing heavily, said "will you call the police? That guy is crazy. He's saying all sorts of things about us, and they aren't true."
I told her no, I wouldn't call the cops--and her friend, who had walked away from the scene, dogs tumbling along with him, agreed. Police complicate things a lot sometimes. But I knew the guy who was bothering them, and agreed to go talk with him.
I've known--let's call him David, which is not his name--since he was a small child, with wide dark eyes and an intense spirit. He cried easily as a little child. I never knew what happened to his father, but his mother had quite a struggle raising him on her own. As he reached his teens he was diagnosed with various mental conditions, and fell into bad company. Last summer his mother moved from the area, leaving him to fend on his own--no child any more, but a young man living sometimes in the bushes, going hungry, tormented by fears and visions. There are a few of us who know him, and try to help him as best we can, but it is often like dealing with a feral cat. He is frightened, suspicious, and proud.
When I reached him he was yelling at another kid, someone who had a dog on a leash. He was claiming the dog was sick, poisoned, and poisoning all the other dogs. The shepherd mix looked healthy enough to me, and his exasperated owner was trying to explain that the dog was fine, had up to date shots, and no, they had not been up in the big city to the north recently. David was hearing none of this, and the guy was getting angry. Voices got louder and louder. I stepped between them and said something about "hey, let's calm down". And then, naively, I spoke to David. "What's happening, David?" I asked. "Are you okay?"
He gazed at me wildly. "How do you know my name?" he demanded. I explained that I had known him since he was a small child, that I had known his mother, and that I was worried about him. Would he maybe like some soup, I asked, thinking that sometimes food helps him settle his mind.
He was fine, he said, and no, he did not need to eat, he was beyond that. But then he glared at me. "If you know me, why did you steal from me?" he asked. It is true that for months he has been stopping by the bookstore, asking whether someone had left a package for him. No one has, and from time to time I have wondered what the package was supposed to contain. I was about to be enlightened.
"I know you took my package" he said. "It had my name on it, and it had good drugs in it. You took it, and you used those drugs, and you stayed up every night for seven days..."
He went on to describe in rather graphic detail all the things I did during those seven days and nights, most of which involved sexual things. Had it not been such a stressed encounter I probably would have laughed; as it was I kept saying "no, you are wrong" and he kept saying "I know you are lying, because your eyes are transparent, and I can see into your head, and there are birds in there, and colors, and I know".
Didn't look as though the conversation had much future. Fortunately, the people he'd been yelling at before had taken their gear and various companion animals away, and there wouldn't be a fight this afternoon.
I too took my leave, wondering what had triggered this episode. David will go months sometimes coping pretty well, and then go off. There was the time last year that he came into the bookstore and claimed that on the poetry show on the radio my partner had read poems that revealed secrets about David's life; secrets no one knew. I finally convinced him it was merely an odd coincidence by giving him copies of the poems--ancient Greek poems--and showing him that they much predated his own birth.
And there was the evening he showed up at the door, hungry, sad. I heated some food on my hotplate and talked with him a while. "I'm sorry. I do bad things sometimes" he said. "Please, will you forgive me?" I said yes, yes, of course, and hugged him.
But this day I was unsettled, and worried. Still, he seemed to be calming down, whether or not he believed I was stealing his drugs.
That night another young man came by, to show me his handful of pretty stones. Did I think they were worth a lot? They were jadeite, gathered at the beach near Big Sur. And, by the way, did I have a warm blanket--his had been taken. Yes, I found a sleeping bag, and made a note to myself to put out another call to our community for warm blankets and sleeping bags. We have no shelter here, but so many wandering the streets, and in a cold week I may give away 20 blankets or warm coats. He asked about food services. No, there is very little here. "Have you eaten today?" I asked. He looked at the ground, up again, and said, quietly, "No."
Well, wait here, I said, and went to see what I could throw together--a couple sandwiches, some fruit, some water. He's going north, and may find better help there. Meanwhile, those pretty stones...
Worthless, really, but I didn't tell him. I remembered gathering them with my father, happily splashing in the ocean waves, my dad joking that we were rich now, with our handfuls of green stones.
We were rich, of course, but not in the way my traveler wished to be. We had the salt on our skin, and the ocean, and a blue day full of laughter. Green stones, childhood, a time before the many twists and turns the world would bring us. A time almost before sorrow.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The black balloon

"Well, I understand why he might have thought maybe you were homeless or something" said my very undiplomatic partner tonight. "I mean," said he, "look at what you are wearing".
I glanced down. It is true my mother used to say I often looked as though I dressed in the dark, grabbing things at random. Fashion was never my calling. And for our long day up north, distributing our paper on a cold and rainy day, I had dressed warmly: old boots, black; pink turtleneck under fuzzy gray sweater under big puffy black jacket that is about 4 sizes too big, but is very warm; long many pocketed fuzzy pants over sweatpants. And then there were the four pens stuck into the v-neck of the fuzzy gray sweater, just in case I had to write something. Never travel without a pen.
And then there are my reading glasses. I bought them at a discount store. They are black plastic, merrily adorned with splotches of yellow daubed at random. They are my favorite reading glasses ever, second only to the pair that had rhinestones on them. People used to laugh at those. People just kind of stare silently at these.
And I was carrying my son's earphones (big ones, to keep him calm in noisy places, since he has been very sound sensitive from birth) and a nice action figure, and my old, somewhat battered purse.
Partner/true love P. had gone off with Gabe to the men's room at the big mall up north.
The big mall, my idea of hell, is Gabe's idea of true delight. There are shiny things, everywhere. Even the ceilings are mirrored and glitzy. There are stores and stores and stores, and lots of tired looking people carrying bags, and a food court where the most enticing sort of junk food--the kind I do not buy anywhere else--is fried or flipped or stirred.
And tonight, Christmas music.
We had dutifully wandered the gleaming, enclosed corridors, and Gabe had played some video games at the big video game place, and he had had a gardenburger and a soda, and we were going to go home after those hours of stopping at odd places in many towns, putting out piles of our radical paper.
But who can say "no, you cannot go to the restroom, kid?" Even though the Great Mall was closing down for the night.
So off they went, and there, in the increasingly sparse food court, by the tubs of plants, I stood. I wandered over to look at those plants--variegated ficus, and some ivy. Real ones. I touched them, and murmured a few kind words to them, along the lines of "good job, plants, hang in there".
The security guy, splendid in his blue uniform with lots and lots of gold buttons, stared across the court at me. I smiled at him.
Some teens tried to come in the door, and he rushed over to push them out "No, we're closed". He walked slowly by me. I went to check on the wellbeing of another tub of plants (dracena, doing pretty well). Again, from the other side of the court, he stared at me, pondering. I smiled, cheerily.
But I guess I wasn't too surprised when he walked over, somewhat ponderous, very official, and said, very carefully and slowly, lest perhaps I might have trouble understanding him, or be drunk, or something, "The. mall. is. closed." Yes, I know, I said, I'm just waiting for my son and my partner. "You really need to leave, mam" Thank you, I will, just as soon as my son and partner come back. "You need to leave". Yes, right, I will. He hesitated. Must be hard sometimes, I said to him. He looked relieved, possibly convinced of my sanity.
And then the little boys ran up, on their way out with their mom. They'd been listening to this exchange, and the oldest child, who was perhaps about 8, came over to me shyly. "You can have this" he said, and gave me a balloon. "Don't you want it?" "No, I think you need it" I thanked him, and told him I'd give it to my boy. "Hey, god bless you, lady" he said, and went on with his younger brother.
And P. and Gabe emerged, much, I am sure, to the relief of the poor guard. Gabe wasn't too interested in the balloon--it's black, and advertises a communications company, and matches my reading glasses very well. I am delighted with it, because I suspect it was that child's way of reaching out to a woman who might--who knows, look at her clothes!--have been homeless, or crazy (did you see her talk to that plant?). The gesture of a loving heart. It bodes well for the future, having children like that around.