Monday, January 29, 2007

A visit from Dora

"Why does that doggie have a sock?" The earnest young girl paused before entering the shop, staring at Champ, who was trying to look very sweet and nonthreatening, thumping just the end of his tail. "Will he bite me? I don't like doggies who bite me."

I assured her that Champ would not bite, but that if he scared her I would let him go sleep in the back room a while. And I told her about the accident; brief version, and tried to explain nerve damage.

"Does it hurt him a whole lot?" She had moved to Champ's very lovely armchair, the one a friend gave me, the elegant antique. Sara disapproves very much when I call it Champ's chair.

"I don't think so, but it might tingle a little. I keep his foot protected so he doesn't hurt it".

Dora, for that was her name, had some time on her hands. Mom was doing laundry next door, and "it is boring to watch washing machines" the child informed me, telling me her mom had said it was okay to come over to the bookstore.

"You have So Many books!!" said Dora, looking around as she patted Champ's golden head. "How did you ever get so many books?"

"Well, we've had a bookstore a long time, probably much longer than you've been alive."

"I'm 8 years old!" said Dora.

I wasn't quite certain if she meant she was the very advanced age of eight, or if she was the very young age of eight, but I told her the bookstore had been around for 25 years now, so it was older than she was. And that was a long time in which to have books come and go.

We had a long conversation that afternoon, mostly directed by queries from Dora, who was interested in every aspect of the store. She found the kitties, or they found her. She paid proper quiet attention to the aging golden lab, Buddy, whose hips were hurting him. He was in the very plush armchair that used to belong to a silent film star, with a nice blanket wrapped round him. Dora proclaimed his ears to be "just like silk!"

"Do you love any people?" asked Dora. I told her yes, I do love some people. She said "I love Austin a lot, but my daddy wanted me to meet these other boys, but I love Austin, and those boys, those boys were old!"

Turns out the boys were 9 and 10. Turned out that Austin is six. Dora wiggled in the rose chair, determined to make me understand. "I don't have a crush on Austin, but I love him. I like to play with him, I like to talk to talk with him. He has a nice rat."

And then she said "I miss my grandma so much". Fearing the answer to the question, but needing to know, I asked where grandma was. Grandma is in Reno, where Dora was born, but someday--maybe this summer, but that is so long to wait, Grandma may come visit the hill community in which Dora and her mom and dad live these days.

"At my school they call me Citygirl. And I hate that." I nodded, and the conversation turned to rabbits ("very soft and cute") to whether I had a little girl (I introduced my daughter, who was on her way to work, and who merited the "she is grown up but very pretty" assessment of my visitor). And then to poetry.

Dora told me she'd had to write a poem or run laps at school and she was very very glad that she had memorized some poems from her book of poems because she wrote one of those down and the teacher didn't know and anyway it was good she didn't have to go out running because the poem was okay.

But--what if he finds out? Then she'd be in such trouble. She gazed at me with those brown eyes and confided "I really can't rhyme very well yet". I told her poems don't always have rhymes, and she was very shocked. But she said she was going to take care to hide the book of poems so her teacher will never, never know the poem she gave him wasn't hers.

Someday you might write your own poetry, better poetry, I commented. "Well, the poem I turned in was really a stupid one, but the teacher thought it was okay. Maybe you are right. Could I write about your dogs someday? Maybe I will write about Austin. He has nice green eyes."

And she told me about looking for moonstones and agates on the beach up north, about the lights in Reno, about her new kitten, who scratches sometimes, and more about Austin, who has naturally curly hair and likes to listen to stories. She chose and bought a book of horse stories, and her father came to collect her, asking the question parents always ask: "was she good?" I told him she was charming, and welcome to visit any time she chooses.

"Good, I will!" said Dora, jumping up and down joyfully.

"Oh, wait" she said, and while her father waited, she came to say goodbye, one at a time, to the bookstore critters.

"Are you sure poems don't always rhyme?" she asked before she left. When I said "yes" she flashed a bright smile.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Five Things More

Dr. O2 tagged me with the five things meme...and I told him I'd been tagged before. But, repetition isn't bad (we make songs of it, and poems, after all). So, here we go:

1. Obviously a great many people do not know I have two blogs. The second is "jarvenpa's notebooks" and is linked to the right of this --yes, look, over there. What's the difference? Well the notebooks are where I make strange lists and oddments that for some reason don't seem to fit over here. (Including my first round of answers to this meme, sent me by Marly)

2. In my mid-childhood years I used to make little dolls of twigs and tinfoil and oddments and ceremonially bury them. I thought of this as providing wonderful archeological finds for the future, little realizing that twig dolls return to earth all too soon.

3. I grew up in a household in which it was not uncommon for people associated with the FBI and CIA and such to come to dinner, my cultured, tender "uncles", who bestowed upon me the lifelong belief I can spot an agent across the room with ease.

4. I have been, three times, at the edge of death, by my own hand. I hope not to be there again, but the experience has been very helpful; if I speak to someone wandering towards that edge I am heard, and often trusted. This is a gift.

5. I have a hungry, ragbag sort of mind, and therefore have studied such things as Chinese and ancient Greek (in both cases because I needed to read poetry in its own language), astrology and homeopathy, Baltic and Slavic folklore (with the fascinating M. Gimbutas; I was fortunate), and just about anything that catches my magpie fancy. Keeps life very very interesting, and my heart delighted with it all.

Must think of who hasn't been yet tagged; when I do I'll fill in some names.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Over the doorstep

"Can I have my shoes back?"

It has been raining for a while now, a blessedly soft, warm rain, but a rain nonetheless, and the little man known on the street as Hobbit was soaked through.
"I don't have your shoes" I said, looking at his feet. One foot bare, one foot in socks that were well soaked with rainwater. He was shivering, his thin red hair plastered to his skull. I wondered where the new bruises on his face, beneath the startling heaven blue eyes, had come from.
"Did you have your shoes this morning?" He wasn't quite certain. I'd seen him at the post office earlier--one of the few places out of the rain, and asked him if maybe he'd left his shoes there.
"I can't be at the post office, " he said, as if he were repeating some lesson.

"Okay--but, maybe your shoes...?" I stopped. There are days I can't find my own shoes, but I sleep indoors, and when my shoes vanish it is because my youngest son has figured out that it is very funny to see mom looking all over the place for them. With Hobbit, well..."let me see if I can find you some other shoes, " I said, "what size you you think you wear?"

"Six" said he. He is a small man, smaller than I am, and I am not a very large person. He is thin, and walks with difficulty even on good days. He says he has a spinal injury, dating from when he was a child of seven.

Hobbit grew up in institutions. He never knew, he says, his family. He has been on the streets since he was 8 years old, when he ran away from a misnamed Home. He doesn't like to talk about that. My veteran friends say he actually did some army time, somehow getting past the height requirement. Must be true, because with their help he has gotten a little monetary help.

"Where did you sleep last night?" I asked him, as I rummaged through the box of shoes. "In the car" he said. No, I haven't any idea whose car that might have been; it could well have been our car, because sometimes he does that, and we were here overnight so that my partner could go north for a demonstration.

Yes, I gave Hobbit a tent a week or so ago, and another one when that one vanished. He finds it very hard to keep track of what he has.

We found a pair of shoes. Size 7, but they were rainproof, and fairly new, and good looking, and he thought maybe they'd work. I took off the one soaked sock and found some new ones. His nails were long and thick and gnarled, and I had a moment of wondering if maybe I should offer to cut them...but there is a delicate line between help and intrusion.

I helped him put on the socks, the shoes. We found a dry coat, some dry pants, some extra socks, a hat. He went back into the rain.

Is this an edifying tale? No, not really. And he has just drifted by the shop again, having lost his hat, lost his new coat. He still has shoes though, so we have a little success going.

I never set out to do street outreach. My partner and I didn't wake up one morning and say to each other "gee, look, people need stuff, and we should help". Like many things in my life it was a slow, insidious seduction, a gentle guidance.

Partly it was that our bookshop, which has been in a number of locations as buildings sold and landlords had other, more lucrative uses for the space, has somehow always ended up across the street from a church. People expect churches to be helpful to those in crisis. They'd go to the church, and knock on all the locked doors. And then they'd come across the street to our open, lighted, crowded bookshop and ask where they could go for help.

It wasn't long before we realized how little help there was--but also how little help, at one moment, was required. My partner always reminds me that Gandhi only dealt with what was on his doorstep. We have a kind of wide doorstep.

I still recall the first person who really opened my eyes. It used to be that people released from the maximum security prison up north were dropped off in my region upon their release. I never quite got the logic behind that, but so it was. We'd have some pretty rough guys, flinching from the unexpected freedom, uneasy, trying to be tough, trying to find their way home, wherever that was. Used to be we had buses running to and from our towns. They closed down some years ago.

But the guy in question, whose name was Wayne, came to the shop late one winter night from one of those drop offs. He was obviously very ill, his skin yellowed, his eyes glazed and feverish. He was hoping to catch a bus the next morning to..some city, I no longer recall where, where he thought his sister still lived. My partner Paul did the leg work to find him a motel room, and we managed to rustle up enough cash to pay for it, and got some dressings for the sores on his leg, and made sure he had some food. It wasn't much, but I knew we wouldn't be able to rest if we knew Wayne, sick as he was, was sleeping in some cold doorway. There have been many others since, and will be many others later. The reason I remember Wayne so well is that he made me cry.

As he was leaving with Paul to be settled in, I stopped him and said "hey, we never exactly introduced ourselves, I'm....." and I gave him my first name, and my hand to shake. He took my hand, and told me his name. And then he made me cry, because he said "I need to thank you. You are the first person to treat me like a human being in many, many years." It wasn't that we'd found him a room, or food, or any of that, he said. It was that I shook his hand.

I told my friend Brian, who has supplied so much this winter, that story the other day. He said, "Yeah, people don't realize that touch is so powerful, loving touch most of all."

It's the small things that matter--that's a lesson I keep learning. I can't make everything good, I can't heal every wound, I can't even shield Hobbit from the driving rain. But I can do a little, and a little at a time.

And I can listen. Over the past week somehow it was as if I was holding an open clinic. First Dylan's mom came in. He was in jail at the time, she said. I've been watching over him for a couple years--he is strung out, and wounded. His mom left town for a while because she couldn't deal with him; he may be bipolar, he may be any number of labelled things. On his good days he is very sweet, on his bad days he is raging, violent, and frightening to most. Usually I can talk with him, sometimes I can get food to him.

His mother said she couldn't talk with him, and she cried. And then she gave me the huge bag of warm hats. She'd spent Christmas weekend making hats. "I don't think I can help my son" she said "but if I help others, someone else will help him. That's what I hope."
Yes, she made me cry too. All the beautiful warm, washable hats are out around town now--blue and brown, forest green and kelly green, claret.

When she left Heather came in crying, because she is missing her children. She is very young, but has borne and left four babies. They are being cared for by her own parents, and maybe someday she will be with them once more. She told me a story of addiction and pain and abuse, of fear, of longing. I just listened, and listened some more. And her friend Tyler wanted to tell me some of his story too. He's known as Glass on the street, and has a beautiful fragility. He said he'd been on the street about 14 years, and I was startled. How old are you, I asked, and he said "24".
"But that means that..." I couldn't finish. I am always careful as I ask--I will listen, but to be too inquistive is to break trust. Tyler told me that in early January, the year he would turn 9, his family--his parents, his brother, his sister--died in a car accident in Oregon. He told me the details. He'd been sick that day, so they left him at home resting while they went out for a ride.

Stories like that make me want to question the universe: "Okay, what were you thinking then??" I take them into my heart. I hold them a moment, like little precious things. I try to let go of them. There was the child who had shot his father, who still has nightmares about that. There was Chris, who spent his last day with me listening to Mozart before being beaten to death outside my shop, late at night. Chris' last breaths sometimes haunt me, because...well, I thought how tired he was, that deep rough breathing--I didn't continue to where he slept at the post office loading dock. Yeah, I'd heard the rowdy kids that night. I didn't know. Had I taken three more steps I would surely have seen his injured head, I would have called for help. It haunts me--steps not taken.

But I remember how he loved the music we listened to, and how he talked of going back to his mom after his long prison term, and how he said of the candles on my table "they are like good spirits, so happy, glowing here"

They are all my children, dead, living, struggling. They find their way to me over our wide doorstep. I can only believe it is meant to be like this