Tuesday, March 28, 2006

entering the cruel month

Well, actually, I love the month of April. Two of my children celebrate birthdays then; the sweet lilacs bloom, sometimes the rain stops.
But I was at a lunch meeting today in which the faces of April were mulled over. The lovely young bureaucrat from the northern city, who works with the District Attorney's office, unfurled her black felt cape and murmured that April is Sexual Assault Prevention Month. It was an appropriate comment, given that the theme of the meeting had much to do with rape and other such assaults. But I could not help but murmur "and, of course, National Poetry Month" as I passed the platter of strawberries and sliced fresh pineapple and blueberries and grapes to our other visitor, a tough and dedicated nurse who has worked with the sexual assault response team for 13 years.
The others in the clinic meeting room were local women--women who sit with me on my health center's board of directors, the director of the small local hospital, a woman who works with the schools. Community Leaders is how our visitors saw us; we see each other as concerned, dedicated, and often overwhelmed women.

Fact: should you live in my area, and be raped, and manage to make your way to the tiny hospital or to my clinic, you will not be treated there. Yes, you will be, maybe, consoled. Someone might hold you, take your hand, wipe your tears--but treatment will happen in the north, and only in the north, an hour or two away.

Are you poor? Have you reliable transportation? Are there children waiting for you alone at home?

The women of my region often, very often, go untreated, uncounseled, and do not report their assaults.

When my board realized what was happening we contacted the good people of the north and asked to meet with them.
That's what today's lunch was about; preliminary to a forum in the fall, and the start--maybe--of change.

The good women of the north told us why it was necessary that the women of my region make that sometimes impossible journey. There are many factors, and they are very logical--the cops want nice fresh good evidence and the trained medical people and special equipment is in the north. "It's just so much more efficient" said the world weary, compassionate nurse, who also said she'd seen too much in the last few weeks. Her lovely companion from the DA's office chimed in with legal reasoning.

I said "I hear you say things must stay as they are; I am hearing you say it would be very difficult to change things--but what we need from you is not this, but a clear sense of what the barriers are. Because we mean to change things, and in order to do that we need to know who to talk with, and what we need to have here."

And then we started making our list. And we asked about statistics--we all know of the numbers of rapes and assaults in the hills here; a particularly horrific case just surfaced last week, involving torture, kidnapping, rape, and more, involving young men who are well known to me, and a young woman who is also well known, and her small children.
The women from the north, who had their own horrific stories (a seven month old just died three days ago after being raped--oh, dear god, we stopped and thought about it, and one woman basically said "hanging's too good" and I--oh, leave it to me to be the uncomfortable voice in the room--I said, after wiping my tears, "but--to do that--think of how damaged that soul must be, I mean--that's not a sane act"...). But the statistics--though in the room we could privately count up known assaults that went to double digits, and triple, over the year--4, only 4, made it north.

Yes, community need. A culture of secrecy. Women who think they deserve it--the young mother would not have reported her assault and her horror except for the insistance of her best friend. She says "but--I made them mad".

So, you see, I would rather spend the month of April in poetry and flowers. Well, I'll work them in. Meanwhile I've been thinking of the woman who walked briskly by my Friday vigil and asked us "are any of those dead your children?"

I said: yes, all of them.

And all the assaulted ones in my community--and all their attackers. My children too. And we have been failing them so direly.

Friday, March 24, 2006

to let the light flow through

Sometimes I wish I were transparent.

It's not that I don't wish to be in the world, nor that I don't cherish (sometimes too much) my egocentricities. But sometimes I think if I were only able to be fully open, and fully transparent, there'd be room for amazing things to flow through me.

A. came by today, thinner than when last I saw him. He was a big bear of a man a couple years ago, a guy into writing bad poetry and publishing it, making slightly obscene T shirts, and concocting and selling herbal remedies that were only slightly short of the olde timey snake oil peddler's wares. About two years ago he fell ill, with a growth on his neck. Yes, he saw doctors, and rejected what they told him. He made his own herbal remedies, he tried various fasts and faiths. A year ago he stopped talking, because it is too difficult for him now.

My old friend Red used to help A. out a lot. No, not materially, but with careful, sensitive words, and tender hands that rubbed pain from A.'s aching bones. When Red died, A. was one of the many--lost projects. I took on Red's cat; I increased my concern for some of the more fragile street folk, but--A. slipped through.

Partly because I always found him annoying. He would talk loudly, his poetry was bad, he was so full of himself. I often left P. to talk with him--braying male energy puts my teeth on edge.

A. wouldn't say he was dying, though of course we all are, and my suspicions of his quicker demise are pretty sharp. No, he insists--writing his notes down in an increasingly illegible hand--that he will survive, and thrive. I supply him with a lot of books these days--yeah, he buys them, but at a deep discount. Today, as I chatted with him (I chatted, he wrote), he wrote "wd u press fingers to back?"

I had him sit in the rose chair, told him my hands may not be very strong, and set about trying to relieve some of the pain in his spine and neck. I'm not a trained masseuse by any means, but I found myself thinking of transparency. Of letting something come through my soul, into my hands, to help this person I have mostly disliked. And, after all, it's not so much different than the massages I give my dogs and cats and kids. A.'s breathing got smoother, and some color returned to his face. For a moment, some ease. He left with my suggestion that he please see one of the local doctors, writing "but u--u r healer also, good one".

Yeah, I thanked him.

There's been a lot flowing through the bookstore today. In preparation for a memorial service tomorrow: bread from the cafe down the street, and slabs of cheese. For the needy, gallons of fresh milk. A bag of warm clothes for a family in distress at the trailer park. A lot of gossip, some good news, some sorrowful news. And the book seekers, hoping to stock up before the next storm, which is due to hit this evening.

I'm not quite certain why I keep feeling I must not hang on to any of this--the delights, the sorrows, the bits and pieces. To simply let it all come, and go, while I stay--transparent. As these windows overlooking the busy road.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

you are my sunshine

My youngest son thought it strange to see his mother stopped in her tracks outside the produce section of the local market, near the bananas, staring at little stuffed bears and unicorns and dogs and rabbits, pressing the stuffed animals' stomachs, listening to the tiny digital music. "Go now, let's go," he said, tugging me towards the checkstand.

"Your grandma used to sing that," I said. But Gabe could care less, and even if he'd liked the song, or had some emotional connection to it, he has better musical taste.

We went to the checkstand, detouring for a chocolate bar and a bunch of roses--cream colored roses with pink and coral edges. No, they weren't in the budget, but I was still enthralled by my mother's song, and remembering one of her frequent homilies: Always Leave Room In Your Life For Beautiful Unexpected Things.

Yes, thanks mom.

My mother was born on the same day, in the same year, as Marilyn Monroe. Like Marilyn she was ravishing, and given to pleasing those she loved. The youngest child and only daughter in her family, she was coddled and loved and admired. I grew up with stories of her mother, whom I never met, the daring and talented and lovely woman who'd come on her own from Finland to the States, who died not long before my conception, who never met my father.

My conception hurried the marriage. And possibly my mother's grief hurried the conception; I don't know. I do know my mother dressed in black for most of my childhood, a stylish black that set off her pale hair and brilliant eyes and red, red lips very well. She smelled of Tigress perfume, cigarettes, and sweet cosmetics. And at night, on good nights, she'd come to tuck me in and sing to me: you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...

For years I thought she'd made the song up herself, my beautiful mother who could do anything. It is amongst my earliest memories, those memories that predate the birth of my first brother when I was 3.

I learned a great deal from my mother about persistance and flexibility. We moved constantly, since my father was in the military, but wherever we went it was my mother's flair that made the temporary housing of the moment into a home. She planted and left dozens and dozens of gardens, made and left dozens of friends.

When I was ten she was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to her brain and told she had six months to live. I remember her crying and poring out her fears before her first operation. I remember most of all how helpless I felt, how incapable of keeping a household together, of caring for my brothers--by now there was another, almost two years old. It was then I had some of the more intense hallucinatory experiences of my life--perhaps my frightened spirit making up magic for comforting; perhaps, who knows, a gift of the universe.

I took it as a gift, this reassuring and splendid figure, crowned with roses, smiling so beautifully as I prayed and waited for my dad to return from the hospital.

My mother taught me stubbornness. She surprised her doctors, and survived. They told her her lovely face would be paralyzed. She sought out physical therapy and proved them wrong.

Over the years she'd survive three bouts of cancer, finally being defeated by the fourth, fighting till the end. My brothers were with her in that distant hospital. My flight got me there well after her death--but not too late; in fact I was just in time. Having been with my father through his dying, this six months later it was good that my brothers--who had felt shut out then--had their time. My heart was with my mother always; there was nothing to settle, nothing we needed to tell each other in last whispers as the machines shut down.

In one of our last conversations I spoke to her about her grandchildren, about various political and community efforts. It was hard for her to talk then, physically difficult. But she rallied enough over the phone to sternly say "Your children are fine, but for you the important thing is that you are a poet. Don't ever forget that."

From my mother, who in our turbulent times, my teen years, had shouted "I gave up my art for you kids and what thanks do I get?" (to which I had meanly replied "I didn't ask to be born, you know") it was a characteristic reminder. It made me smile. I found many of my poems carefully tucked in one of her drawers, and a draft of a letter to a friend in which she crowed over a prize I'd won one year.

Oh, and the naked polaroid photos! I quickly hid those from my dear born-again Christian brothers. They would never have understood mother's wild side.

I think it was that wildness I loved best in her, and which I continue to cherish. But that song, that sense of a world that was right, everything tucked in.

It's a sad song, you know: the other night dear/as I lay sleeping/I dreamt I held you /in my arms...but then I woke, dear/I was mistaken...

please don't take your sunshine away.

To my three year old mind it was a song of great peace. For some reason I called it the bird song--"please, sing the bird song again". It hasn't a bird in it, except in my memories, in which there is a fountain, and sunlight, and lovely birds flying round in a peaceful world.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Those Perfect Snowflakes

It's snowing today, white, drifting flakes. The hillsides are white, the trees dusted with silver. My youngest woke me early, wanting to go out to see the snow falling, and falling.
In town it is a rare thing; usually we get rain in the winter, floods and surges and mudslides. In the hills, yes, sometimes a snow storm or two, but not in the town, which is at a lower elevation, near the river.
It being Friday, I stood this evening down the street in my woman in black vigil, a black scarf wrapped round my head for warmth, gloves on, my breath white, my feet cold. My environmentalist friend is snowed in, and Sara was enroute to the airport early this morning; others who now and then stand are out of the country or beyond the open highways today.
The times I stand by myself are often the best times of all for me. To be in one place, watching the clouds, tasting the snow filled air. To be still and mindful.The ravens did not seem to like today's snow, and huddled in the big redwood tree near the church, murmuring raven complaints in soft voices.
I held two boards with numbers on them; estimated Iraqi civilian deaths; US military deaths.
The numbers grow alarmingly, week after week, and as I stand I try to bring to mind actuality, not number.
Today I had one other number in mind, one other soul, having just heard that Tom Fox's body had been found. He was a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams; three others are still in captivity somewhere. Actually, thousands, thousands, are in captivity throughout the world held by governments or fools, held for money, power--or for something I don't know and can't comprehend. I read the reports from Guantanamo, from the so called "black prisons" (the secret sites where people accused of this or that are hidden, tortured, god knows what). I read obsessively, and correspond, and publish a newspaper, and...
and stand in the snow, with grief and some numbers on my heart.
I watched the snowflakes drifting, remembering childhood wonder: each is different. Each is unique. Each is beautiful. There were so many snowflakes.
There are so many souls.
Oh yes, I know in the long run, in eternity, it should all work out. But there are times I am too impatient for eternity, too battered by the seemingly useless, unneeded deaths of bright souls.
I thought this evening of how mothers have stood holding the photographs of the disappeared, of their husbands or children, or fathers or other dear ones. I thought the numbers on my boards were like those pictures, an infinite and terrible swirl of loss and longing.
I want the world to grow up, beyond war and terror. Or to be forever about four years old, bright faced, seemingly invincible, watching the lovely snow drift from the sky.