Friday, January 27, 2006

another women in black friday

Or today, woman in black with flickering candle. Sometimes there are a few of us, and sometimes I stand alone, at the edge of the sidewalk, near the wall by the parking lot, facing the main street. I stand from 5 in the evening until 6, each Friday.

The Women in Black groups have been standing (and sometimes walking, sometimes singing, sometimes being very silent, sometimes weeping) for many years, all over the world, starting first in Palestine/Israel. Our own little group started after 9/11, and not really as women in black at first--there were just a couple women thinking it was really important to hold a space and time for peace. The woman I first stood with left the area after the first several months, and for a while I stood mostly by myself. But she, Michele, noted that we often wore black, and there was this group, and anyone could declare themselves part of it. That December day, in the snow, we laughed and declared, aloud over our candles, "okay, we are women in black!" These days I have one friend who often comes, and who is so punctilious she lets me know if she won't be here, and assorted people who come for a moment or for the hour as they feel moved to do so.

Although many, if not most, women in black groups hold silent vigils, our group will talk, and listen. It was a conscious choice for us, and makes sense to us, though we honor the power of the silent vigils. In my first months standing, I heard a lot of harsh comments. There were wishes that I be blown up, that I go to Afghanistan or Iraq and see how I liked it there, that someone simply shoot me. There was one kid who blew out my candle and stood to see what I'd do. (I relit the candle. A year later he came to me to talk about whether it was a good idea to join the army.). There were veterans who came to talk with me, swaggering and somewhat bellicose. I remember my first conversations with one of them particularly vividly, because he began with "I killed people in 'Nam. I had to. It was my orders. I'll bet you think I'm a really bad person, huh?" We talked a long time. He said "when I returned, no one was there to meet me". I'm so sorry, I said, I'm so sorry you went through all that. I hope no one else has to, ever.

We are not adverse to having men stand with us. This veteran stood with us for months, before he became too ill to stand.

Another vet never stands quite with us, but brings his violin and plays, leaning against the post office, carefully watching the street. His son is serving in Iraq right now.

When I stand alone, in the rain or in the snow or in the beautiful spring and summer evenings, I watch the trees, and the birds settling down, and think. I try to hold all the struggling souls in my thoughts, keeping the little candle in my lantern lit. Sure, I often wonder if it does any ultimate good--but then I think, that's not the point. It's just a contract I've made with myself, a little break from the rush of my life, a very small standing for the right to stand, as well as for peace on this planet.

A few months ago we had six women standing, dear friends all: the environmental healer, who spends her days hauling stones and planting trees and making the land, this logged over but still beautiful land, better; the young craftswoman who works in fabric and silver and keeps a small herd of much loved goats; the elder who had to sit in a wheelchair who had stories of journeys to Africa and China; the activist who has taken water treatment equipment to Iraq; Sara, my faithful writer friend who simply showed up one summer evening and has come back almost every week; and me.
There were also three dogs.
That was the week the plainclothes guys took photos. Well, I hope they came out nicely.

It's punctuation for my week.

The UPS truck driver asked last month "what's the proper etiquette? Can I wave at you?" Sure thing, I said. So he honks as he passes, and gives a thumbs up. Some evenings there are lots of cars and lots of honks and waves and signals. Sara sometimes notices middle-finger salutes; without my glasses I can't tell exactly what the signal is, and I tell her I simply assume they are all peace signs, all positive.

I also assume, someday, someday the world will grow up. Kids won't be sent to kill other mother's children. People will disagree--and converse about their disagreements. We will learn to love one another.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Love & Death

Once my partner complained "All your poetry is about love or death". Or both, said I, what else is there?

We had both overstated the case, but there is some truth to his complaint. I shrug it off still.

These are the vital points of our existence, the puzzles I take apart, and put together again, and have done since childhood.

And they touch everyone. When I was an overly sensitive teen I would walk alone through the seaside city in which I lived, and look at each person passing me, and as I smiled at them I'd wonder--what grief is hidden in that lined face? Has that little child known sorrow yet?

And I would think "and all--all of them, all of us, will die someday."

Well, I was a philosophic, poetic girl. And not always gloomy--in my early forays into grafitti I'd chalk bits from e e cummings poems on walls.

"i'd rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance"

at least that's how I recall it.

The other evening I was buying dog food at the nearby market. The checker, busy ringing up the sale, gave me the standard "how-are-you-today?" greeting that the checkers are taught to bestow on us. Fine, said I (the standard response we all give). And then I looked at her. "Are you okay?" I asked. Her eyes were red and swollen, her face paler than usual.

It's a good thing I shop late, and am often the last customer there, because she wasn't okay at all, and had a heavy weight on her heart. She had just heard that her mother was very ill, and not likely to live, and was trying to figure out how to get back to see her, in the midwest. We talked a long time. "I feel like I'm going crazy" she said. "I can't keep my mind on my work at all".

Well, I know the territory. But I'm not sure there is any way to point the way. Grief is such a very solitary journey. I was able to tell her she's not crazy, and to give her a few basic reminders (eat, try to sleep, be very gentle with yourself). She leaves in a few days for two weeks in Oklahoma, a place she truly hates, where she will face family she dislikes.
When I saw her yesterday she had had another call. Her mother is down to 80 pounds and very weak. Perhaps she saw my thought on my face; anyway she stared into my eyes and said "do you think she'll be dead before I get there?"

I didn't lie to her. But perhaps her mother, who adopted her as an infant when she herself had just turned 18, will wait till this eldest child is at her bedside.

I wish there were a secret phrase. I wish there were trustworthy maps to this country. I am glad my own parents are dead, though I miss them every day, because I have made it through the worst of the mourning--the days when I steeled myself to get up, when I told myself I would not cry until I made it at least one block down the street.

Her supervisor was tolerant as we talked while she closed out the till, and kindly walked away as she cried, and I cried too, a couple of tired, weeping women under the fluorescent lights.

No shortcuts through grief.

And yet, I know there is some sweetness on the other side.

Monday, January 16, 2006

I dreamt of bluebirds last night

It was a vivid dream: a flock of Western bluebirds suddenly appearing outside my cabin windows, between rain showers. I called to my daughter to come look, and told her--which is true in real life--that the last time I glimpsed a flock of these electric blue birds with their russet/rose chests was after the first flood I went through, years and years before her birth. In my dream three of the birds fluttered into the house, and I opened a door to let them out again.
The quality of the dream was sunlight, and joy. Perhaps the return of an old happiness.

Back to the waking world, where it is still raining, and roads are still blocked, and deaths go on, and children grow. I planted some more narcissi along the parking lot, and white hyacinths, and white irises, and came back to read my latest letter from the maximum security prison a few county lines away.

Nyadzi writes "I know you. You will plant this grief."

The name he prefers is not the name his mother gave him, and certainly not the number with which the prison system identifies him. After we had corresponded a while he asked that I use it, rather than his birthname, because it was the name he took as a young man. He tells me it is from some African language, and means something like "death before surrender". He tells me he figures he'll die in prison. Because of this state's three strikes program he is serving a 35 year to life sentence.

Never were there two friends from such different worlds. I first encountered him through a political paper I help put out--it is free to prisoners, and those who want it and can't afford it. He sent in some poems and essays, long, long essays, pondering rebellion and freedom and religion and life. He asked for correspondence. We printed some of the essays, and a poem or two, and I wrote him to ask if he'd perhaps like to write for us regularly; tell the truth of his prison experience; share his harsh knowledge. I sent him books.

He was born in the south, to a poor black family, the youngest of 14 children. His mother sent him to live with his grandmother. Grandma moved with him to southern California, to the east LA ghetto, and there she died. And there, at 14, he found himself on the street. His life went on like many a story of those days--gangs, violence, jail. But he was hungry for books, and he loved learning, and when he could he'd make his way to libraries. We figured out that for a time, as I worked my way though college working in a library in a working class area, and went through all the self important dramas and love affairs of my late teens and early twenties, Nyadzi came into my library. I do recall a slight, proud black teen who never met my eyes, who gobbled history and good literature. These days we ponder our odd crossing paths.

We debate in our letters--he challenges my nonviolence; I listen to his very justifiable rants about a system that seems constructed out of a tale by Kafka. He writes of his family, his now dead mother. He writes of vanished dreams. He asks if I know what the birds are, the little birds, brown ones, that he can just glimpse from his small window. He writes of the reality of prison, and asks about my children, and especially about the dogs, the cats, the landscape. And the gardens. Oddly, of all my friends, it is Nyadzi who most clearly understands what my gardens are to me--solace, centering, stabilizing.

There's a growth on his lung, and the prison doctors say, well, it might be cancer, but then it might not. He says he's keeping strong.

I send him postcards with pictures that might bring a little beauty into the tiny concrete cell.

And he sends me letters. In the last one he writes of an encounter with a particularly harsh guard. To push back, to in any way seem to attack this guard would of course make his life in many ways worse--but in the past, goaded beyond what his pride will endure, he has. This time, he writes, he thought of me. "I didn't want to disappoint you" he said, "I remember how you try to hold to nonviolence. I thought of you, and stayed still." He says it may have saved him a beating--but I tell him I am so naive about the truth of life in a maximum security prison, one of the most notorious in our country--and I understand the will to survive.

Meanwhile, we try to figure out the name of the little birds, sheltering from the rain at the edge of the cell block.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

firefly summer

Perhaps because I am trying not to be overwhelmed by current grief, I have found my mind drifting to long ago. The image that came up was of a jar of fireflies, glowing green. So many years ago.

My friend's name was David. He had freckles, green eyes, black hair that refused to stay put. He walked very quickly, despite the crutches and the heavy braces on his leg. We'd walk to school together, over the rutted roads, under the pine trees. In those days little girls wore dresses with sashes that tied at the waist, in the back. Even then I was fairly fashion challenged, and my sashes always came undone, my braids unbraided. I'd take my shoes off to walk in puddles. David was very good at tying the sashes, so that at least my dress was proper as we reached the school.

We were--oh, perhaps all of six years old. Maybe seven.

And the fireflies? On long summer evenings we'd catch them together, there in the woods, and put them in jars to serve as temporary lanterns. The jar of fireflies for a long time was the image of those days to me--and just about the only image I held. Memories are funny thing--why do you recall one thing, and forget another?

David and I swore we would marry one another when we were old enough. He knew a lot of funny riddles and jokes; at seven that seemed a good thing in a future husband. That, and his skill in tying those sashes on my pink or blue or pastel green dresses.

But we were military children, and military children get uprooted a lot, year after year. There are new schools and new landscapes, and new friends. Departure is the normal state of life.
I didn't think of this early love for years and years, until one summer when I was very sick with a high fever, and suddenly the face of that little boy came into my mind. With it came a rush of other memories--not just the jar of fireflies, which I had certainly remembered for years--but of the winter after the firefly summer. The mysterious silence of adults. The absence of my friend.

It was death, not departure. And I remember crying all through the night, night after night, nights in which it was the young maid, who barely spoke English, who wiped my tears.
I was grateful for the summer fever that brought back those memories, which I have not lost again. And when my mother died I found an old school photo. I am skinny, grinning impishly, staring at the camera. Beside me, looking at me with a half smile, is that freckled, darkhaired boy, leaning on a crutch, just about to tell me a riddle.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Flood Garden

The rain has been falling for days now. Springs rush from hillsides where no one knew there were springs. Hillsides rush to the roads, in slow, tumbling falls of mud and rock. The major roads that lead in and out of my region were blocked for days, open for hours, blocked again. Wet and disconsolate tourists wander through my shop, happy for something to entertain them, anxious to have news of when the highways will again open fully.
I don't tell them that some years the closures lasted a week or more; why depress them?
And the power goes on, goes off. On now, and folks from the hills have rushed to town for supplies and mail, sharing stories: Firecreek is blocked, China Creek fell in, Salmon Creek is impassable...

And the flood garden has flooded twice already.

When I first came to this region it was for a week long stay with a friend I'd worked with in a city library system--it was the job that got me through college, and to Europe. After a few years of wandering and adventure I had returned to California, intending to travel further north, beyond state boundaries, to a possible job in another library in Oregon.

Sally had just retired and bought a place outside a town I'd never heard of, though I was able to locate it on a large map. With her teenaged kids she'd made the move. While I was still in England, pondering my next steps, she wrote: come visit me a bit.

The Greyhound Bus ran in those days right to the three block main street of her new town.

I arrived in the summer, with a migraine, my boyfriend of the era, a backpack, and Sally's phone number. Dust blew down the street; the place looked shabby and grim.

What happened next stunned me. As I stumbled off the bus and looked around, an inner voice said "this is where you should be". I thought "great, I'm going crazy". The voice repeated; I shrugged it off.

Sally had a little, extra cabin close to the river, the little guest cabin where my boyfriend and I were to spend that week. During the big floods of the decade before the cabin had been half destroyed. The silt from that river's onslaught was piled just beyond the cabin steps.

It was there, when I decided, with Sally's encouragement, to turn my life around and stay, that I planted the first garden. We called it the flood garden, and in years to come I would see it under water more than once. I still remember the joy I felt, carrying stones from the river bed, tucking in herbs and flowers, planting trees--a hawthorne and a deep rose flowered crabapple.
They are still there--the rosemary having grown into a vast and tangled hedge, through which roses press. Boyfriend of the era went on to his academic career, writing books, living in grand cities, writing me about his new loves. I got a job at a local motel, and then at a local bookstore. When my firstborn was tiny he learned plant names in the flood garden, and wandered the bend of the river with me, looking for shiny stones and watching the white egrets fly up into the tall fir trees that grow along the river's edge.

Sally spent her last years living in that little cabin--her daughter and partner and grandson live these days in the big house. She added dozens of roses to the flood garden, and a white bench on which you could sit and look out towards the river and the hills. Her daughter tells me the bench went journeying this week, bobbing along the flood swollen river, but the trees are holding firm.

This morning, standing in line at the post office, I chanced into conversation with a guy who lives up from Sally's old place. We shared news of the river levels. He said, "yes, the flood garden was covered again--do you know where that is?" I told him a bit of my history. "So you knew Sally?" Yes, I said, she was how I came to be here in this remote area; how I reached the tiny dot on a map. We shared our appreciation of the beauty of the river. "The storm has changed it again" he said "it's cutting a new channel behind the island." "Yes, the first winter I was here it did that--the water came to the porch."

Things change, he said. And then he said something that brought tears to my eyes. "You know, there were all the paths where she'd walk with her dog" Yes, I said, remembering how she'd delighted in her energetic last dog, Lucy. "No one walks there now. The paths have grown over."