In Cahors

We are on our way to the Dordogne, the refuge of the Neandertal, the land of the caves where the ancient humans painted and carved on walls tens of thousands of years ago. The beautiful, rich valley of that big river, lined with limestone cliffs. On our way to finally see Lascaux (of course not the cave itself where we nearly destroyed the artwork of the ancestors before closing it off, but the elaborate replica, Lascaux Four, there at the base of the hill where the cave itself sits, closed to all but a few occasional scientists in moon suits). On our way to the valleys of the Dordogne and its tributary the Viesse, we stopped for a pique-nique in the city of Cahors.

We drove in the way we had come four summers ago when we were wandering the area, looking for a new home. We remembered the cafes by the river, away from the flow of the big old buildings of the city, and the trees that will flower later in July. We turned to the left to stay close to the river and settled on a spot with benches that looked over the water to the cliffs beyond, old houses with their clay tile roofs nestled at the base of the rock, next to the river.

It was just beside the road, but it didn’t really matter. There were trees, grass and rose bushes. We found a bench beside a fig tree, poured ourselves some wine, brought out the bread and cheese and olives, ate and watched the parade of humans, cars, buses and bicycles.

When we had almost eaten our fill and were pouring a second glass of wine, we each, in our own way, gradually became aware of a presence quite near us on the lawn. I had hesitated to turn and look, sensing it might be some semi-wild creature we would scare away. Walter had looked. He turned slightly and touched my leg. “See that woman? She has a parrot in the tree.” I turned squarely to see.

“Bonjour”, I said, suddenly unsure of the gender to the person who stood there, close to our bench, chopped brown hair under a nondescript cap, loose-jacketed, looking up at a big, brightly colored parrot in a fig tree beside us.

“Bonjour” replied the person, the voice either male or female, a bit rough. The parrot looked at me, cocked its head and squawked.

“Il est curieux de vous.” the person explained, glancing quickly at us and turning back to the bird.

“Comment dit-on ‘parrot’ en francais?” I wondered aloud.

A blank look passed quickly over the face turned towards me, incomprehension.  Something in the eyes, perhaps a directness in the brown-eyed glance, made me recognize this person was a woman.

“Quel es le nom de cet oiseau?” I stumbled.

“Bertrand,” she replied. “Bertrand, mon perroquet.”

Confused for a moment, I thought, no it can’t be a parakeet, it’s too big, then remembering some lesson I’d had with the French word for parrot, I said,

“Oui, perroquet! Il est beau avec le rouge et le bleu et le vert. Quel âge a-t-il?”

A small smile of pride, just a hint, appeared on her face as she calculated the length of time and then replied that he was thirty-four years old. I translated for Walter, who was picking up much of the meaning already. He said,

”I wonder how long parrots can live? That’s pretty old.”

I asked. She said with some confidence that they could live to be about fifty but most kept in a house lived to be about forty.

“I’ve had him since he was a few months old,” she told us, with an accent that seemed part of the air she had breathed since a child.

We talked for quite some time, learning that he like being outside and would not fly away, that he couldn’t say any words but imitated the bark of the neighbor’s little dog quite nicely, that he sometimes imitated a laugh from the television.  It was clear that this bird had been her closest companion for all those years. We learned somehow that she watched movies about the old days in France. In fact, she watched a lot of old movies on her TV at home. She had been born in a nearby village and lived in Cahors all of her adult life. There was much I wondered about her life but didn’t dare to ask, what she had done, had she been married, did she have children, what kind of home did she have.

We told her we were going to the caves at Lascaux, about a hundred kilometres north on the Dordogne River.  Her round, tanned face crinkled. She had heard of them, of their paintings, but had never been. It reminded her somehow of a movie she’d seen about men who wore plumes on their helmets. She had been to Toulouse with her father once or twice she remarked, hearing we lived further south, near the Pyrenees.

Our conversation could have stretched on and on. She was clearly content to have our interest. We could have become acquainted. But the road called us, the paintings in the caves, the river itself. We made our excuses. She motioned to Bertrand who sidled up the branch and jumped to her shoulder where she snapped a leash on a ring around his leg.

As we gathered our things she stood, watching, Bertrand squawking, impatient. She waved, unmoving, as we walked toward the road. “Au revoir!”

“Bonne journée!” I called back.

For those moments, walking away, I was filled unexpectedly with a certain kind of joy. Having seen through the window of her eyes some part of a life, some flicker of recognition beyond the filters of language and culture, I was stirred, happy to be able to communicate in my imperfect French. As we climbed into the somewhat battered car we’d bought a few months ago here in France, I looked forward eagerly to the next things we would experience on the road–together; the beauty of the cave paintings, the unknown stretches of a big river that had supported so much life for so long.

She, on the other hand, was probably returning slowly, by way of several familiar stops, to some small old house nearby, perhaps to chat for a while with a neighbor, then a meal in her kitchen and an evening to watch old movies with her parrot chattering in the background. Perhaps content. A good day. A recognition. Small things.

We Move (With Stars) to Fougax-et-Barrineuf

When in the midst of danger, it is necessary to clear the mind of fear.

As I look out into the clearing sky, clouds drifting through blue in a silent etheric wind, clarity is all there is. Even the grey of a floating cloud disturbs the mind for only a brief moment in its passage through the window frame.

In the middle of the night, a memory of a possible mistake the day before jolted me awake, its voltage striking out from the world of dreams. At first a gaseous cloud of foreboding, the lights switching on one by one in the rooms of my mind quickly gave it form and color. Consciousness, fully activated, was pulled, as if by some magnetic force, to circling thoughts of all the catastrophes this one mistake would generate. I had no doubt I was doomed. From that small rotten seed, rot spread out in larger and larger circles until the whole world was nothing but rot, crumbling away into nothingness. “No”! I almost called out. Not wanting to wake my sleeping partner, I called silently on all the forces I know, the forces of beauty, the forces of comfort and tenderness “Absorb this!”, I called out in silence, “I’m only one tiny atom in the ocean of life. Let this rot disappear in that endless sea!”

Just then, a flash of light in the black sky through the window. Just at the meeting of dark hill and dark sky, a comet had burned in the atmosphere. Just there. Just at that moment, it’s particular light had reached my particular eyes. It’s just like this that things burn away as they rub against the molecules of air. “There,” I told it silently. “Take all that mess! Take it!” In true comic book fashion, the explosion of light that had happened in some flash in some moment long past blasted the mass of rot to smithereens- “POW!”. Then, reciting to myself all I knew of the basic childhood lessons of falling stars and luck and wishes, I let myself be comforted. I passed back through that hazy boundary, never remarking the passage. I floated into sleep in this still strange house, in this still strange village, in this still strange region of a still strange country.

The cloud of grey anxiety still floats around me like a swarm of gnats.  As I did with the ringing in my ears, I have taught myself through long practice to use the immense space inside me to push that fear out beyond the curves of the infinite The “it” of it then exists no more. There is only empty space. I hear only silence. The sounds that penetrate through the delicate bones of my ear dissolve with more than imperceptible immediacy in that vast quiet. They existed but never did.

Then another night arrives and I’m awake in the middle of it, looking out once more at the dark curve of that same hill, stars bright above it in the frame of the bedroom window. The long-handled triangle of Cassiopeia is balanced on two vertices just above the horizon of the hill, the line between the two piercing points of light perfectly parallel to the gentle curve of rising earth. In drowsy relaxation, I watch as the whole delicate edifice of the constellation settles ever so slowly onto the hill. As I drift and wake, I see those two stars are vanishing like bits of smoke into the dark mass of the hill. The whole spaceship of the beautiful queen is sinking imperceptibly into the earth.  I shiver, smiling, and pull the covers around my chin, feeling the wind of the earth speeding on its axis.

I’m walking now through the village, exploring, probing. I try not to look like some overly curious tourist, poking into places where I will never return, but it’s useless–the force of my curiosity draws me everywhere. I walk the path by the river and then along the length of the long main street of the village. On my way back to the house, I realize with a kind of sudden ecstasy that the sound of water is everywhere, in the streets of the village and all around this place nestled in hills and gorges, a place where people have settled for millennia—the reason they have been here. The river, the little canals dug to divert the water from place to place, the small stone basins with spigots still running with public water, the open faucets of the laveries where women gathered to wash the family clothes in huge stone basins, the mill races, still running around stone buildings where their water pushed wheels and ground grain, little waterfalls, big waterfalls—all running, playing the infinite musics of water. There are few spots in this settlement, spreading from a central street and a church, where the notes of running water can’t be heard. It’s a flowing village.

The snow-covered peaks of late winter will soon send their melt down as they have forever and the river behind the house will sing with even more excitement. This winter brought snow, late and lighter but enough. We can only look for the rhythms to continue somehow in some new form. We can only encourage them with our planting, our tending of the fruit trees, our preparation, our connection. That’s what we’re doing here, after all.

Falling and Still Fountain Water
Washing for All Water
River in Sunlight Water
Captured Then Free Water
Mill Race Captured Water
River Running at Twilight Water

The Rocks

 

We climbed towards the enormous red sandstone arches feeling the blood of our bodies pulsing in the warm light of late afternoon, the cold air pushing and pulling with its rushes of strength, the blackbrush and sage shrubs leaning this way then that in the gusts.

Feeling the weight of my feet, dragged more by the force of gravity than I remember, grateful to reach the platform of rock under the unimaginable grace of rock arching over, I stopped to watch some children running up and down the sloping red rock above me.

A young father, slim and bearded, sat at the top of the slope beside the opening of the arch, an arm around his young daughter, who, not much more than two, plump legged, yellow-haired, pacifier dangling on a cord from her neck, rested only for a few moments in the ease of his protection. She watched her sister for a while with great attention, a lithe girl of six or seven, barefoot, long blond hair tossing behind her, running up and down the steep rock slope, chasing her two also barefooted younger brothers who then turned and chased her, up the slope, down the slope, full of the bursting energy of the first bloom of youth. The littlest girl then quickly squirmed out from the arch of her father’s arm, turning backwards, finding footholds to climb down the rock. The father climbed down next to her, arms relaxed, attentive but calm.

Further down, near me, the mother called to her littlest boy to see if he was ready to come down with her. He shook his head vigorously, no, ducking into a small rock crevice and out the other side, swooping up the jagged rocks again after his brother. The mother called up to her husband, “I’m going down. I’m a bit tired.” He called back acknowledgement as he walked, hand in hand, with his tiny daughter, across the top of the slope beneath the grand arch.

As I climbed up further, I watched as the young man showed the tiny girl where to put her feet on the rock wall leading up to the opening of the arch. He helped her kick off her boots so her feet could more easily find the places where rock would hold them. She climbed easily, finding footholds, her father beside her on the rock, not too close, letting her feel her balance outside the sphere of his protection.

An older man was beginning his descent from the opening of the arch where he had been sitting. I had seen him there from the back, sitting still for a long interlude, absorbed by the wide view beyond.  Now the man was awkward and hesitant, a counterpoint to the tiny blond girl, uncertain where to put a foot, how to find a firm way down. Leaving the baby on the wall for a moment, the young man moved over to help guide the older man’s faltering feet on the rock. The little girl continued her climb on her own, close in to the rock, easily finding the next place to put a foot. Her father, relaxed, returned to climb up next to her.

The two finished their climb, side by side, reaching, at last, the rock platform stretching under the arch. He held her hand lightly as she climbed up to the narrow shelf whose delicate breadth I could not judge adequately from below. He sat down beside her, an arm draped loosely around her once again. I watched as her small blond head relaxed against his side. They sat that way for some time, the father pointing from time to time at some feature in a distance certainly full of the glowing light of the coming evening.

The older man, humble in his anxiety, made his way down to the more level ground, grateful to have safely found a way.  Soon, the father and daughter made their way back down,  he coming first, reaching up and holding the tiny girl gently around her waist as she found her first footing, then descending alongside. The older children had not yet slowed in their running, climbing, hiding and chasing, the mother calling for them to start their way back.

As we all started down the path as the early sun was already beginning to make its orange way down to the horizon, I turned to the mother.

“We’ve been admiring how nimble your children are. I wish l was so agile.”

She said “Oh god yes! Me too. I have to just let them go. I can’t hold them back–they have so much energy to burn.”

As I walked down behind the group, children running ahead, barefoot still on the cold rocks, I thought about my own children and now grandchildren.  My fear of the harm that might come to them in the immediate moment, has it prevented them from learning things that will keep them from the real dangers of being a human alive in these times?  Did the culture that surrounded me shape my teaching to prepare them for a world that is fast changing into something more dangerous, more challenging? 

In that magnificent rocky land where people have lived for millennia, finding water and growing and hunting food where there seems to be none, surviving amidst the beauty, it is easy to become absorbed in imagining the lives of these ancient relations. Over the years and years that we live in parallel tracks in time as children and parents, as overlapping generations, as beings becoming ancestors, we go back and forth in this balancing, finding the edge between survival and annihilation where the skills to survive are born.

My children grew up in a time when some of us had begun to see the limits to the comforts of our culture.  But they and their children are still embedded in a culture that seems to see only some endless present of limitless energy, of technological fixes.   It will be up to them to find the skills to survive without the comfort and protection all this excess of energy has provided. It will be up to them to find the footholds in a new terrain.  I hope the love of those of us rapidly becoming ancestors has guided them well enough. I hope they can draw on its nourishment as they climb away, over the rocky ridge, out of our site.

IMG_20171203_161529965

 

 

Briefly

We had flowed into proximity somehow

in that enormous space

full of goods, full of desires.

 

We were waiting, chocolate bars in hand

to pay the cashier.

Her skin was dark.

Mine white.

 

I noticed.

I listened

to some resonance of this 

inside me.

 

“What is this noticing?”

 

The flavor of this mixed 

with the flavors

of a young man/woman

I could see

standing beside that display

of Swedish Fish 

and chocolates, 

but not, certainly

in any 

desired

association with it.

 

Rugby shirt

covering a muscular chest.

Tattoos covering

the light chocolate skin.

Tight braids covering the roundness of head 

in rhythms.

Intelligence twisting itself 

through those eyes.

Strength sending out waves 

around that body.

 

They had stood together, talking.

Now one on line behind me, 

one waiting

with the taut patience 

of a tiger.

Mother? Sister? Aunt? This woman behind me, 

chatting to a friend

then touched me on the shoulder,

a touch

vibrating warmly through my shirt, 

my skin.

.

I turned.

That chocolate any good? 

was the question, 

spoken plainly, as to one 

known, familiar.

And in reply, I, laughing,

said I didn’t  know.

 

I’ve never been here before.

Never tasted it,

I said,

but figured since it’s not American chocolate,

it must be good.

 

Chuckling, Yeah

she said, Yeah,  

not Hershey’s!

And I’m not even getting it for me.

It’s for my husband,

Yes, and mine’s for a friend.

was my reply.

 

What generous people we are! 

she remarked,

brown eyes smiling 

into mine.

 

Yes.

Yes, we are. 

In recognition,

that opening in my chest.

That greatness.

 

Turning to take my place again in line,

looking ahead to a  blond woman

busy

behind a metal counter,

heart still open to her eyes

behind me.

 

Friends had found each other for those moments

now passing with reluctance.

 

Those friends.

They are everywhere.

We have come here somehow

together

and flow into each other

casually

in this marketplace where we find ourselves,

wandering,

trying to remember.

 

 

 

The King

I am the king from another place. I don’t know where it is. Maybe I’m lost. I remember what happened many years ago when I was very young. When I was still in school and lived with my parents and my brother. We lived on the farm. I felt an explosion in my head one morning just after my mother called me to get up. An explosion of light. Then I felt this warm feeling in my chest like when my mother put the breakfast on the table in front of me and ran her hand through my hair. I knew everything had changed but I didn’t know, I didn’t know what had happened. That was when they started talking to me.

One voice was huge. It came from that same place in my chest. It was the one who told me about being king.  But that was later after the other voices came and got me all worked up. They didn’t like me. They kept whispering hateful things and sometimes they shouted.  The first time, it was just that huge voice. I couldn’t quite make out what it was saying. I just kept trying. I had to pay attention.

Sometimes the government talked to me from the TV to tell me how terrible I was and that they were coming to get me and everybody else like me. They didn’t let me go to school. My mother got scared of me. They kept taking me places. I ran away. I lived rough. I had people who liked me and then people who hurt me. It’s been a long time.

They kept taking me places. I ran away. I lived rough. I had people who liked me and then people who hurt me. It’s been a long time.

One day the voice in my chest came back and told me about being king. I’ve liked that. It’s a good job. Now I’m in this place in a house. There are other people who live here. There’s one old woman I know from somewhere but I don’t tell her. Each morning I get up. I wash my face in the sink in the room I share with a man I seem to know but whose name I don’t. He seems like a nice man. He hardly speaks. Sometimes he looks at me. Sometimes he looks at the floor while we’re getting dressed. He’s pretty old. He grunts at the floor after he’s buttoned his last shirt button and reaches for his walker. I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.

Now I’m in this place in a house. There are other people who live here. There’s one old woman I know from somewhere but I don’t tell her. Each morning I get up. I wash my face in the sink in the room I share with a man I seem to know but whose name I don’t. He seems like a nice man. He hardly speaks. Sometimes he looks at me. Sometimes he looks at the floor while we’re getting dressed. He’s pretty old. He grunts at the floor after he’s buttoned his last shirt button and reaches for his walker. I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.

I sleep in my shirt and underwear. They protect me. I just put on my pants with the belt I got in another time from the bag at that place where they let us sleep. That place where people scream and sometimes fight. Where demons are allowed to come and go. The man who sleeps in my room lets me go out the door of our bedroom first when we go to breakfast. He’s not one of those guys trying to get me from inside the walls, part of the gang. I think they don’t like it when he’s sleeping here with me.

I’ve been here a little while. It’s a nice place. The lady here most mornings likes me most. She calls me Mr. Moon because my face is so round she says, and shines like the moon. I like that name. I don’t tell her my real name. She’s pretty short with a black hair down to her shoulders. I think she’s from China with those eyes but she speaks our language. She has a different laugh from other peoples’.  I like it. It kind of tinkles up high and then goes down low and then it keeps going for a while like the water that drips from our faucet. It tickles me in my chest. Sometimes it makes laugh a little. Sometimes though I wonder if she’s trying to get inside me. Then I get worried.

I take the medicine she gives me in the little white cups, two orange long ones, two little white ones and a bunch of big ones white and blue and pink. I count them and see if I’m allowed to take them today. The friends will tell me. I listen. Sometimes they tell me not to take the orange ones. Sometimes the white. The lady says I have to take them so I can go outside today.

Sometimes I have to fight with my friends. I tell them I’m king. I have to go outside. I take those pills. Then she gives me a plate with breakfast on it. I put my head down and look at the food on the plate. I decide which part I can eat and I stick my fork in and just put it right in my mouth and chew it. Sometimes it’s good like the pancakes. They let me put lots of butter on them even though they say it’s not good for me, for my heart. It feels good.

I keep looking at the plate until I only see food the man in my head says I’m not allowed to eat then I get up, pick up my plate, shove my chair in with my foot and take the plate over to the sink to wash it off. I put it in the dishwasher like that lady showed me to do that day when the taxi dropped me off from that big hospital.

Then I look outside to see whether the sky is blue or grey. I can see from next to the kitchen sink. If it’s blue I’m ready. If it’s grey I go back into my room and get the sweater from my top drawer and put that on. I’m dressed in my sacred clothes. I’m ready.

They’re telling me now. You’re almost too late. Some of the most important people have already gone by. You’re the king. You have to greet them all or they will know. They’ll send their invaders through the night air right in and suck on your brain. I’m a little scared. I run a little out the door, over the ramp to the end of the driveway. Now I’m calm. My day has begun.

They’re coming by in cars, little ones, big trucks, those big black things with windows you can’t see through. Some on bikes. Some on motorcycles with hoods that hide them. Most of them are kings and queens like me. Some are Satan’s evil creatures. I think he sends them mostly in the big trucks with dark windows so I won’t see.

I greet them all. They told me how to greet the other kings and queens. I’ve known for some time. I’ve practised. You put out your left leg. You look up to see them. They want to know you’ve seen them. Then you bow your head down with a long sweep of your right arm over your head. Then a wave.

I do it just right. They know who I am. I know who they are. The ones who have practised, who were taught, who really know, look at me and wave or bow their heads. It’s good then. It feels good inside me.

Some are afraid. Maybe they don’t know who they are. All day. I never get tired of it. It’s good to greet them all. To see them. I forget about the brain suckers until a dark window goes by. Then there’s that sound in my ear. Sometimes I have to put my arms over my head. But mostly I just look at everyone and bow. To see. I go in to lunch when that other man comes out and calls my name.

I haven’t told him my real name but I know when he calls. Sometimes I lie down and take a rest after lunch. It’s tiring being king, but they tell me I have to do it. There is danger. Sometimes I don’t feel good, I feel sick in my legs and my body and I just can’t get up, but they tell me I have to or I will be sent away. So I go out. When the man calls me, I go back in for dinner. The people aren’t coming by this place much by then, out on the road.

After I’ve put my dinner dishes in the dishwasher, I start my other job. I sit in the chair by the door and watch to make sure none of the gang comes in. They’ve told me that’s my job. Otherwise, the people from the gang will get in. The really bad ones. The ones from the cars with the black windows and other ones. Sometimes in other places they’ve attacked. I screamed and I fought but they got me and took me away to some big hospital. I don’t have enough people to see there. Just sometimes one king or one queen. I have to be here.

The man at night wants me to come play cards with the other people from the other rooms but I just tell him no. If he bothers me too much I go to the bathroom and come back. I don’t talk to anyone, even if they talk to me. I’m just quiet.

When he comes to lock the front door I go to my room, take off my pants and hang them on the bed. I can’t take off my shirt or my underwear. They’re sacred. They protect me. I lie down.

Sometimes I sleep. When they’re not banging on the walls and roaring at me. I need some sleep. For tomorrow. The others need me to see them. To greet them properly so everything can flow through me. Like butter on those pancakes. Like the light that comes into my eyes through the window at the kitchen sink. I am the king. The sound from my chest tells me. The warmth from the middle of my chest.

IMG_20170202_152036177 (1)

Tribute to the Friendship of Mothers

A few days ago it was my daughter’s birthday. Somehow we old women delight in thinking of the adults we still call our children as the babies they were, bald and plump, eyes shining. Even now that these same adults have extraordinary interiors about which we gain only a clue now and then, we love to think of the very beginning, the seeming essence of what they are now, their very beings.

All those years ago when I was five years younger than she is now, I walked with her most evenings, she tucked in against my chest in one of those demin Snugli carriers, then a novelty, through the streets of our new home in Long Beach, California. I left the house almost every day in that interlude an hour or so before her father came home from work when she was a bit fussy from the fatigue of being alive and I, restless.

It was autumn in Southern California, still hot in the afternoons, every morning a bit grey until ten and then clear blue until sunset. The Camellias were still blooming. Annuals of all kinds still grew in the gardens of the old part of town where we lived. Lemons still hung on trees. The air was fragrant, soft and clear. On the weekends, we would still go swimming in the warm water of the bay and lie in the sun on the beach.

It was all still so improbable that only a few short months before we had lived in the fast pace of Washington DC where the heat of the summer was oppressive, everyone worked seventy hours a week and walked ardently from office to car and drove home late in the evening to Maryland or Virginia to watch an episode of the Jeffersons or Dallas, go to bed and repeat. Here, actual adults lounged on the beach or in outdoor restaurants dressed only in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops at all hours of the day. They appeared to have incomes of some sort since their clothes were stylish and they could afford a high-priced hamburger at two o’clock but there was no visible evidence of employment. Were they all living off royalties from screen plays or did they work only a few hours in the morning?

That afternoon, I walked with her in the pack down a now-familiar street past small older houses with gardens and lawns, the streets lined with Jacarandas, Crape Myrtles, Palms and Eucalyptus trees. Her cheek resting against the middle of my chest, from time to time I drew in breaths of the warm sweet scent of her head as she watched things go by. The small ecstasies of having a baby were still fairly fresh, everything in the world now new because of her presence in it.

We had crossed the street and were in the middle of the block, heading towards the ocean and the pier. There I’d take her out of the pack to see the waves and the sea gulls and we’d talk to the old people and kids fishing over the railings.  As we approached a grey stucco house I’d seen many times before, I was curious to see what could be called by no other name than a perambulator standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, complete with woollen baby blankets draped over the edge, ready to receive a baby in great comfort.

The shiny black buggy had big metal wheels, hefty springs and a big cave of a sun shade from the top of which hung some kind of bunny toy, dangling down where a baby lying on its back could reach up and bounce it. Even back then, the anachronism of this wonderful contraption was captivating.
Just then, a tall woman with dark hair walked came out the front door with a baby in her arms and closed the door behind her. As she turned to come down the stairs to the walkway, she caught my eye. She sparkled. I can’t say what sparkled. It could have been her eyes, but it seems that something traveled through the air.

“Oh! Hello!” she said, with a rare kind of gaiety. “You have a baby, too!”
Her sound of her voice, something that would become familiar over the next years, was novel, clear, with a slight upward lilt that was hard to place in any geography of accents.

We walked towards each other, joining on the sidewalk next to the baby buggy, remarking on each others’ babies with that ease of two new mothers. She put her daughter down in the “pram” as she called it and excitedly gave me a run down of the features of this marvel of a vehicle.

It was evidently the Rolls Royce of prams, with exquisite suspension provided by heavy-duty steel springs, a mattress that would have delighted royalty, an adjustable handle and many other features now beyond recall but wondrous nonetheless. She asked if I’d like company on my walk and we set off together toward the pier.

As we walked, conversation flowed with charming ease, her ready laugh light and warming. We learned enough about each other to cement a friendship. She was originally from England. The pram had been a gift from her father who still lived there. She and her mother had come over on the Queen Mary when she was a child. She had a four-year-old daughter in addition to the new baby, now happily playing till dinner at friend’s house across the street. Her husband was a doctor with a specialty in oncology who worked in a big hospital in Los Angeles. She had been a nurse but hadn’t practiced since she was pregnant with her first child. She was an “older mom”, in her mid-thirties. I gave her a sketch of my own life. We told a couple of our important stories, laughed together and listened seriously.

When we reached the pier, she bounced the pram over the boards to the end where we took out the babies, bought a ice pop each from the tiny store and sat on a bench with babies on our laps, watching people perched on their ice chests, fitting bait to their hooks.

As the babies grabbed at each other and bounced on our knees, we kept up an easy flow of conversation about the fabric of our days as mothers, what the babies were doing, talked about pediatricians and friends. Still talking, we walked back along the pier and over the sidewalks back to her house, where, now fast friends, we hugged good-bye, promising a walk again the next day, she going across the street to get her older daughter and I to walk the few blocks back to the house we’d rented with an olive tree in front and oleanders along the driveway.

That evening I was content in a way I hadn’t been since the move across the country. The acts of making dinner, sitting in the back garden in the cooler evening air and putting the baby to bed now fit into a flow. The delight of finding a friend of like mind and temperament, the prospect of all the connections that might branch out from this encounter and the knowledge of what went on in one of those other houses I’d passed every day grounded me in a way I hadn’t felt for years. The only-child always present in me felt whole again.

It wasn’t until years later that she told me that our first meeting, seemingly so serendipitous, had been planned. She had been watching me go by her house with the baby for a few days in a row and thought that I looked like someone who could become a friend. She had kept watch that day out her big front window in order to spring out when she saw me coming, hoping to appear, as if by chance, at just the right moment to join me on my walk.

We’ve been friends all the years since, even though I left for the Northwest when those two babies were just three years old. We call and share the important events in our lives, talking hungrily about details no one else would love to hear.

We were pregnant with our last children at the same time. There’s a photo of us somewhere in one of those old photo albums with PVC pages that I can’t take with me to France. It shows two tall women, one in her mid-thirties, one forty, facing the camera and laughing, their two huge bellies touching in the middle, belly button to belly button.

 

As friendship grew

 

Death of the Great Friend

 

He lay on his back, hands, rising and falling gently, one on top of the other, resting on the middle of his chest. He was not sleeping and not awake. His mind was empty, open, free.

There had been visitors. They came to sit with him. As each came into the room and looked into his face, he briefly opened his eyes. Each found themselves stretching out beyond the confines of physical form and world, gone, nothing but the blue of his eyes. Each friend sat down next to the bed, each, through the flow of their natures, sending out waves of love. The waves lapped through him, reverberating, pulling to the shore with their tides.

When each left, the waves began to subside, lapping gently across the uppermost surface, the depths still silent, calm. But even when no one was present, waves of emotion came washing through him, pulling from somewhere out in the world where friends moved through their lives, longing for his presence, aching. He breathed from the silence and met them, gently as ocean meets shore and touches air.

Some could feel the breath moving through them. Others dreamed of him. Others were washed by thoughts of him, images of their time together, the magic of walking alongside him, looking into his eyes, playfully running down city streets, being pulled along, hand in hand with a compact, neatly dressed man with sparkling blue oceanic eyes, round, crinkled yet young face, cropped white hair, still vigorous in his eighties, headed somewhere to talk to someone important or maybe just to go feed the ducks at the park.

He had been prepared for these moments since he was a very young man. He had wandered from Norway to the Himalayas at the age of sixteen. He had studied with great mystics in the East and the West. He had lived and worked in over sixty-five countries, served during WWI, worked with MI6 during WWII, helped hatch a master plot to kidnap Hitler in 1944 (which was rejected by Roosevelt), was captured towards the end of the war by the Nazis, miraculously released with a visa. Author, economist, mystic, so much more, he had spent the last thirty years devoted to Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, a benign system of bringing solar energy from the sea.

Until his body was stuck down, he had continued his daily work to bring OTEC to the world, communicating prolifically with other engineers, presidents, presidential candidates, US Senators and a wide circle of friends. He went to the beach and bathed his legs in the ocean, his mother. Now even the unending flow of his letters had stopped.

There had never been any boundaries. Now that was becoming more and more evident to all those who loved him.

There was one heart holding him, despairing of the loss of him. He travelled to her in a dream and smiled and winked. There was nothing but ocean. He was nothing, as he had ever been.

 

 

 

The Senses

 

 

 

 

When I was a child, there was a huge old flowering crab-apple tree in our backyard. When it was in bloom the fragrance was intoxicating, filling as it did the fresh, unspoiled sense of youth. I planted one on our farm just after we got here. In this late spring, it is just about to open its flowers, releasing once again that familiar perfume.

But I don’t need to wait. I can remember the fragrance vividly. There is somewhere inside the space of my mind where I can breathe it in. If anything, the fragrance is more penetrating, more directly delivered through the walls of whatever nerve cells register such information.

My friend recently had a virus that gave him a cough for a week or two. After the cough died away, he discovered that his sense of smell was almost gone. Since this sense of his had been heightened ever since his exposure to the chemical sprays used on the fruit trees he picked in his twenties, this was a curious thing. I began to imagine for him what it would be like not to smell the cherry blossoms on my walk up the hill. Not to be able to smell the lilacs beginning to bloom by the barn. Not to smell the roses that will be opening in May. What if that external sense were blocked?

As have most people, at least in their childhood, I have often tried to reconstruct the experience of the blind by binding my eyes and trying to navigate my house. I have tried to experience deafness, but mostly in my imagination. You can always hear a little something when you plug your ears and I can’t afford those big blocking headphones.

Once I even tried to create what it would be like to lose the sense of touch, but it quickly becomes complex. Touch tells me about the condition of my muscles, the rhythm of my heart, whether my shoes are good for my feet, the texture of a tree’s bark, the heat of a stove or fever in my head, the cold of an ice cube or the chill in my bones. It communicates through delicate neural traceries the spreading fire of sexual response.

But, if I become quiet and look around in the internal space, I can feel the touch of a feather on the palm of my hand, the softness of a rose on my cheek, the way the wind blows and tosses my hair, the roughness of cedar bark. It’s harder to block the external sense of touch and imagine what it would be like not to feel that  jab of a stick on a fresh burn or what it would be like not to experience the touch of the air on my skin or the pressure of a rock on my knees as I weed in the garden.

If I close my eyes and go into that infinite space, some internal set of eyes allows me to see so many things from my memory, my dreams, my imagination. With that interior vision, parts of some scenes appear darkly, bits hidden in background. Others are bright landscapes where it’s possible to turn my gaze from one place to another and, as with the twist of a camera lens, focus on the details of a stained glass window, the plants, the insects, the fallen leaves on the forest floor, or even the mundane objects on the desk in my last office.

Faces are more difficult. Features of even the dearest faces seem to retreat repeatedly into the mist. Emotions that cling to the connection between us eclipse the actual appearance of a nose or a cheek. Although I can often see into the eyes, the sparks, the iris, the depth, that blur of feeling persists in keeping the other details from me.

I can hear, as I walk a trail in my imagination, the call of a certain bird I heard only once, the sound of the wind as I stand on a rocky overhang halfway up a mountain, the clang of a metal bar dropping somewhere at the train station. But the voice of my son, of my daughter, of my dead mother. They are almost impossible to hear with any certainty.

But it is the sense of smell that comes to me most vividly in that internal landscape that turns the universe inside-out. I can smell the power of that deodorant my son used as a teenager. I can smell the stew my son-in-law cooks for us or the warmth of my daughter’s hair. I can smell the particular fragrance of the wild roses that grow along the road where we ride our bikes in May and then shift to the distinct spicy fragrance of the big, fluffy heirloom rose I planted in my garden. I can smell the loamy smell of the old-growth forest floor I’ve walked in Northern Idaho and the smell of the old, pink snow clinging to the granite in the Absoroka Mountains in July.

If I can explore that endless interior space with all my senses, where is the division between the body I seem to walk around in and the rest of the universe? Between the space inside what I call me and the space inside what I call you?

Hyperbolic Space

Stories. Why are they so important? I, for one, have always had a terrible hunger for ways to explore the senses of another consciousness. I have always suspected, despite what seems, that there are other consciousnesses beside the one I’m in. 

Other people talk. I hear their words. The meaning penetrates into my own experience.

Other people walk down the road I walk. I watch them from the window. Some look at their feet. Some look straight ahead. Some are evidently listening to something coming through attachments in their ears (I know because I have done this occasionally while weeding). A very few look around at the world they are passing through.

One or two I’ve seen have expressions on their faces  I think I understand. The muscles in their face seem soft and relaxed. There is, perhaps, a soft smile on their lips. Even from some distance, I can see a little sparkle of light in their eyes. Their head turns to focus their eyes around into the fields and woods, to wander to the houses and the trees around them. Their heads tilt back to look up into the sky and seem to focus on clouds and birds flying. 

Perhaps they are also listening. I sometimes see them tilt their head a bit as they walk, ear pointed towards some bird calling, airplane flying over, power saw buzzing, cow mooing, or dog barking.

Since we walk the same road, I suspect a consciousness that has some congruence with the world contained within me. But how do I know?

Stories. The ones in books I’ve read, mostly. An occasional story from a friend. A story from the childhood of another being walking around on this ground we seem to talk about as a planet. These stories have passages that point in that direction—the direction of congruence. They are not quite the same as the universe within me, but they seem to contain some of the same flavors, hints of perceptions that could be what I am sensing, just with different twists. Those bodies were not, after all, walking the same road, at the same moments.

And then, what of the differences in a shared slice of time and space? I walk along with my dearest friend. We travel the same road at the same moment. Yet, the report from his body is not the same as in the universe I inhabit. He may report about things that have happened that he now carries as thoughts. Perhaps he finds their strands somewhere in the winds of space and ties them to another strand.

He may draw attention to a part of all the life around us. His words convey ideas. The sounds carrying the ideas come in through all those tiny bones I imagine are hidden in the openings of what I call ears on the sides of my head. They transmit those vibrations coming from his mouth into neural messages in my brain. These messages travelling as energy somehow transmit what we call meaning to the space of my universe. The transcription is full of errors.

Often a clear sense of a perception appears in what I call my mind. Sometimes there is a struggle to see the image that is somehow contained in those vibrations. And to see it the way it appears in the universe of another? What colors were in the original? What physical sensations accompanied the thoughts before they were translated into muscular impulses in a larynx that would then emit them as a symphony of vibrations? What hormonal baths did the thoughts receive before becoming the frequencies we call words?

Such a simple thing–looking out from this space of the only universe I know, seeing what the group of colors transmitted through these eyes in my head allows my brain to call a person. Recognizing in that form all the similarities to what I see in a mirror and deciding, in that scintillating wave we call a moment, that this form then contains a universe somehow similar to the one I inhabit.

Does it? Such a leap! I must devour more stories! I must absorb all that data from all those receptors until it is woven into the infinite expanse of the universe I inhabit. There, they are re-imagined and become woven into its essential matter. Or was it that they were there all along?

More than one infinite space? How could it be?

 

The Walk

 

You have to pay close attention to all the beings you encounter, whether seen or unseen–sometimes both at once. They are openings.

Today for instance, the air is clear, cold and bright with blue movement from the water to the left and blue stretching infinitely above. I’ve been walking for some time, up the beach into the sun and now back down, crunching on the rocky layers mingled with crab shells, rocks and bright bits of seaweed.

Ahead on the beach, cold and a bit windy in the sparkling clear winter sun, is a small patch of yellow. At first, it seems to be some small recreational yellow boat propped up on the shore for the winter. As I walk, other components of this blob began to come into focus. It, too, is moving. As I watch, I begin to see the black lines of legs protruding from the bottom, carrying the yellow rectangle slowly away from me. I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

As I continued my walk, the figure came slowly into focus. A yellow waterproof coat covered most of a small figure whose shoulders were curved forward and slightly to one side, the yellow hood pulled up to cover the head. This bundle moved slowly forward, pausing every so often, moving a bit toward the water and then back as it progressed, uneven. A small black and white dog appeared briefly as it ran past the yellow figure towards me and then away again.

I was coming quickly towards them. Closer up, I saw the profile of a woman’s face, sunglasses covering her eyes as she looked out towards the water, white woolen watchman’s cap under the hood. She turned again to walk before I was close enough to be a presence. As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

“Oh! I wondered what that shadow was, falling on the beach! There you are.”

We both had stopped, she turning towards me on her right. I looked briefly to my left into a face somehow slightly twisted, canted, as the yellow package had been, with a mouth slightly curved down on one side, set around with the downward lines of wrinkles. Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile

Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile traveled plainly through the darkness. The dog was bounced at me on its forefeet, urgently excited to see another human. I bent to greet it, taking my eyes from her smile and meeting his. He let his head be scratched for a moment before bounding ahead once again.  It seemed to be his mode of ambulation–run off, return, jump, run off. 

I glanced back at her, standing still next to me, turned, curious. We shifted around each other to come side by side so we could resume our walking. As we set off, she turned towards me, that turning of her head seeming to require a manoeuvre of her whole body as if one with her torso.

She asked where I lived on the beach, slyly probing to see what this stranger was doing on her beach. I told her I wasn’t from the beach, but from a small farm a couple of miles to the southeast. I asked where she lived and she said,

“Well, we’re up here. We’re beach-facers.” She smiled at me.

The dog came and dropped a sand covered tennis ball in my path. I picked it up. My first mistake. I threw it a short way, he grabbed it and bounced back. This same routine continued for the rest of our walk, punctuating the flow of conversation.

As we walked slowly, keeping pace and pausing for the dog and for the answers in our conversation, she asked the name of the street where I lived. I told her and gave her some landmarks. She wondered if her children had known someone there growing up. We came to no conclusion. I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

”Really! What takes you there?”

I explained about extended family, dreams and desire and she herself began to dream. She was quiet for a moment as we stood, I having thrown the ball again, then said,

“When the kids were little we were in France. We went to London, bought a van, fitted it out a bit for camping and traveled down through France, into Spain, then over to Italy, up through Austria, into Czechoslovakia and from there to Germany. We ended up back in London and we shipped the van back to Montreal. We had been living in Massachusetts, so we flew to Montreal, picked up the van, drove back to Massachusetts, packed up our stuff and drove cross-country to Washington. We’ve been here ever since.”

She paused while I threw the ball again, trying hard to give it a good pitch. Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

We continued to walk, talking about the cold with its biting wind and how we didn’t mind it a bit with the bright sun. We had both spent time in colder climates on the East Coast, as we discovered. Her small form, spare, seemed to scintillate with energy beside me. She enquired where I was going through, back to the road. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

She enquired where I was going through, back to the road from the beach. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

“I think you may not be able to get around there with the tide in a bit. Come. You can come up through our place. Not here. Down a little way.”

We walked on in silence for a bit, the dog having found something interesting on the beach ahead. 

I looked over at the houses to my right, a pretence to surreptitiously glance once more at her profile. There was something somehow so familiar and intimate in the twisted mouth, the downward gaze, the focus yet abstraction of her presence. My sense of self, usually diffuse, took up a place in relation to her, alert, open, aware of some subtle union between us. After a bit, she pointed up to the houses, smiled again and said,

“We’re up here.”

Stooped slightly, her whole body turning in its yellow package, we walked up towards a concrete wall. I paused for a moment, a bit perplexed, but she motioned up. I pulled myself up the huge step, wondering how she was able to still accomplish the same. She stretched one leg up and boosted herself nicely. She turned towards the water and said, 

“The tide can come up right to the top of that step. See the marks on the other wall? That’s where it came in the summer. It might again.”

It might, we agreed, depending on what nature herself determines. She led me along a path next to the house to a gate going through to a driveway and the road. Awkwardly, I fumbled with the gate, she standing, a bit distracted. We both seemed discomfited, unwilling to let go of the intimacy but finding no bridge to extend it.

“Thank you,” I said, “for a lovely walk.”

“Good luck to you,” she said. “Keep warm.”

I turned, moving away a wheelbarrow that had blocked the entrance, and took my leave down the road. I have carried her presence with me ever since, held it close and will, I’m sure, let it into my dreams. There is a boundary, yet none exists.