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.

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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.

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 a 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.

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.

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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.

The Opposite of Happiness

There is a central craving built in to the array of our emotions. Its opposite is loneliness.  My thesaurus lists the antonym of “loneliness” as “happiness”.  It makes the case for me.  In a true lexicon, dry and linguistic, the opposite of loneliness would be a word such as “affection”, “love”, “closeness.”  But there is really no one word to capture this absence of loneliness, this magnetic pull at the core of our humaness. Our sense of feeling close to others, understood by others, respected by others, worthy of sharing with others is so central to our sense of well-being that its lack is defined purely as the absence of happiness.

Yet, here we are, constructing loneliness, literally.  We see its result reflected in all the choices we are making. It is almost as if we have accepted that the natural result of affluence, gained now at such cost in a world where resources are dwindling, is isolation, which we must then protect at all costs.  I see the presence of this conviction as I take my walks through what was, until fifteen years ago or so, part of rural America. The result of affluence here has been that those who have it, and work long, long hours for it, want big houses, filled with comfort and luxury, surrounded by space which keeps them separate. In that space food used to grow. People worked together to produce it, even though the advent of cheap petroleum as the central slave allowed for less human cooperation.   Now it is a safety zone, an isolation bumper.

The children in these houses are extremely lucky if they have siblings to play with.  Each set of parents initially erects, at large expense, a playhouse with swings, slide, and other doo-dads. Sometimes it seems a kind of lure in hope that other children will come over for “play dates” and their children will not be lonely. This rarely happens. As the children grow older, a trampoline goes up, more recently, by parents conscious of dangers all around, surrounded by a wall of mesh to keep them safe from the combined effects of gravity and exuberance.  If there are siblings, it gets used a few times as they try to outdo each other. If it’s an only child, desultory efforts are made at mastery and then it becomes new again only on the rare occasions when a friend comes to visit.

Then an “above-ground” pool appears in summer, glorious in its newness, a representation of the deep desire to be outside in water, in nature, and for children to find joy together.  A party may be held to celebrate, with several children joining together on some sunny day for a couple of hours at a time.  Screams and squeals of play can be heard. The splashing and roiling of the water is imagined from afar. Happiness. Children together.  Afterwards, on really hot days during the quiet times, it’s possible the parents get in and float for a while on a rubber raft (with cup holder) after work or on weekends after riding the mower. Hard to tell.  That activity would be quiet. It wouldn’t have much of a chance to penetrate the boundaries of isolation.

At houses with a bunch of young siblings, occasional laughter and fighting can be heard in the summer afternoons. Much less frequently, friends come together in a band at someone’s house. Sometimes they play a game the parents have bought for the occasion–Slip and Slide or some game “guaranteed” to get the kids outside and active.  Once or twice in twelve years I’ve seen a few kids use a trampoline together.  The only hold-out from this pattern observed over the years on long walks, runs and bike rides is a small farm with six home-schooled kids. When the kids were little, I saw real tricycles and wagons with kids pulling each other. Once I witnessed a picnic in the grass with everyone together, talking and laughing. Now they seem to be busy studying most of the time.

We tried initially to get to know our neighbors. Each eventually made it known in some way that they cared much more for the preservation of their own rights to enjoy themselves than they did for connection. Dogs that barked all night. Dirt bikes ridden without mufflers all hours of the day despite objections.  Target practice where bullets “strayed”.  We raised beautiful organic food, plenty of it. We had a farm stand. All the neighbors passed it by on their way to the local supermarket four miles away. Once or twice they stopped by in June to ask if we had corn (August or September) or in the heat of the summer to see if we had snap peas (early June).  Some people came from further away but most of the beautiful vegetables in the coolers went into the compost or to the local food bank at the end of the day.

A couple of years ago, a couple moved in to the lavender farm up the road. Soon his sister and a friend joined them from Massachusetts where her husband had recently died.  We struck up a friendship based on shared interests. We remembered that habits of connectedness in other parts of the vast territory that makes up America are different from what we have gotten used to here. People drop by. They actually come to dinner when they say they will. They believe in reciprocity.  We have made those connections richer over time. There are other friends who understand the natural laws of connection, but they are the few, the exceptional.

When we were hunter-gatherers, we lived in bands. We worked together most of the day, some of the time with our own gender but much of the time with the whole group. We fought occasionally with other groups for resources or because we became angry, one family, one band, with another for some breach of conduct, some insult.   With the advent of agriculture, many things changed, the most salient being the centralization of power, but we still worked together. Wars got bigger and bloodier. Slavery increased dramatically.  With the industrial era, people congregated increasingly in cities where it became easier to exploit them in mass. The long dreariness of work days where people could not talk together created more and more isolation of individual from individual, individual from family, family from community.

As we have learned how to consolidate wealth, we admire those who have it and acknowledge their need to isolate from the rest of the community as only necessary protection. We understand that people will want to grab some of those resources if they can. Those resources give you power and justification in the world.  Through this understanding we have absorbed the sense that the more money we are able to pull into our sphere, the more we need to distance ourselves from others to protect what is ours. Thus, the more we have, the more isolated we become, exempting only those who have enough resource themselves to allow for admiration but not a dangerous level of envy.  Those made too desperate by the weight of the system become outsiders, wafted by the winds of exclusion.

Even now, when so many people are so stressed by the insecurity of life in society, drained by the work they must put in day after day just to keep from moving backwards, we hold on to the habits of protection, just as we hold on to the hope that just around the corner the economy will shift, we will have money in our fists and a job for life. In our exhaustion and distress, we have forgotten how to rely on each other. We are sold instead the “serenity” of home ownership where nothing permeates from the outside world.  We are afraid to trust to connection, especially when we know most of those around us are secretly as desperate as we are. In our isolation, we have become malleable to the forces of fear.

In the cities of the US, the children of relative affluence come together to play in playgrounds, safely guarded by parents. In contrast, it is in the neighborhoods where there are no playgrounds and parents have little time and energy to watch over their children that they play together in the streets. Their lives are full of conflict and stress, danger and fear. They are increasingly isolated in these imposed communities by the fear and protectionism of those of us holding on more and more tightly to what we have. They have much to struggle through to survive, just as most humans have over the millennia.  Some are lonely, others are not. But, of necessity, they know each other’s struggles, each other’s families, each other’s weaknesses, each other’s strengths.   Are we safer with this connection or without it?

 

Brother Muhammad Ali

It was a Saturday early afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin and I was twenty-two or so. I was a college student and spiritual seeker.  Finally, after a series of very painful years, taking me through Vermont, New York City and two other undergraduate programs, I had come to Madison at the age of twenty-one and settled in to a new life and a new school.

Shortly after my move, my Sufi teacher had given me the assignment of starting a Sufi Order Center in Madison. I am convinced he did it just to shake things up. In that, another life-time, I had, trembling, started leading the Sufi Dancing in the square.  I had learned to speak and sing in front of a group of people, to lead gradually and then all of a sudden when the slightly older couple, who had been less formally leading the dancing, came into conflict with this youngster who had the effrontery to think she could do better than they.

My Sufi friend, Labonna, another blond twenty-something, full of energy, love and life, had just walked into the Underground Café on State Street. I hadn’t seen her for a while.  I was finishing brunch with a few friends in this vegetarian haven and was in an expansive mood.

She was someone I didn’t know well. She was of the archetype of the cheer-leader-girls in high school whose circle I could never penetrate and who had never included me in their parties since elementary school. But she seemed to like me, bridging the gulf from that world into mine, the world of sensitive, impassioned war protesters, back-to-the-landers, yes—“Hippies”.  We hugged, talked a bit and decided to spend the afternoon together on what I remember as a beautiful spring day.

We went to the park beside Lake Monona, sat on the grass and talked, walked and danced around together, taking hands and spinning, just out of sheer exuberance.  We may have smoked a joint, or maybe not. Our conversation was rangy, meandering through the politics of the day, the people in the Sufi group, the lives of our spiritual teachers.  It happened that our teacher, Pir Vilayat, had recently had a secret meeting with Muhammad Ali. They had talked about the spiritual life, it was said, and what it meant to live by its tenants. It was reported through the grapevine that Ali had really enjoyed the meeting.  Labonna talked about how interested she had been to hear about this through Sufi friends in Chicago. I talked about my admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against the war and the way in which he had nobly accepted his exile from the sport he loved so much as a consequence of living by his principles.

Labonna was a Chicago kid. She had many contacts in the city.  Her conscious or unconscious presentation as a young Marilyn–maybe the “Some Like it Hot” version–was mixed from a brew of intelligence, enthusiasm, impulsivity, narcissism, and innocence, with a modicum of tough street kid.  She knew that Ali had been living for some years on the South Side, near the Muslim Temple of Elijah Muhammad. She even knew the garage at Stony Island Ave. and 69th Street where he hung out with his friends.  Now Ali was a brother. He had met with our teacher so had become, in some sense, connected.  Labonna had met him once, a year or so back, in Chicago, and they’d talked a bit. She had liked him very much as a person, she said.  He had a strong magnetism yet was firmly grounded and human.

We decided to go find him. It was afternoon. She had an old Chevy. We could do it. It was only about two and a half hours down I-90. We didn’t know what we’d find, but destiny was calling. He was a young man who had suffered and was seeking. We were young and full of an ideal about the unity of all seekers.

She drove and smoked.  When we stopped for gas, we shared her lipstick, she complimenting me on how it was a perfect color for me. The high school girl in me was enchanted. We were calm in our excitement, confidant in the force of the moment.

We arrived in Chicago as it was getting dark. I had only been to there once when I was a kid of twelve, travelling through on the train going west, stopping with my parents to see the Museum of Science and Industry and walk through downtown. I remembered nothing.
Labonna navigated fairly well, showing me for the first time a certain vulnerability.  She was confidant finding her way from the freeway to the outskirts of downtown but it was clear the South Side was not her usual stomping ground. By the time we hit the boundaries of that neighborhood it was dark, and all the faces were dark. Two young blond women in a car, driving a bit aimlessly, asking directions. It never occurred to us to have any trepidation. These were all people, young and old, as dangerous as anywhere at night, but yet familiar.

When we stopped to ask, it was “Do you know where Muhammad Ali is tonight?” Those we addressed looked only slightly quizzical at first, then, meeting the direct glance and smile, softened and seemed to feel it was a part of the natural life of the neighborhood. They directed us to the Temple, which turned out to be closed. We found someone hanging out on the corner and asked him if Ali were in town and if so, where he might be. He directed us to the garage on 69th which also was dark and empty. We stopped at a convenience store nearby and went in to ask again. By now it was around nine-thirty and the streets were pretty quiet. The guy at the counter told us to wait a minute.

He went to the back and returned with another young man who, in a friendly manner, asked why we were looking for Ali. We explained about our teacher and our desire to talk with Ali about his experience in meeting with him. He seemed to accept this. He said, “Well, that would have been nice, but he’s out of town for a few days. His apartment is close by here, you’re right, but I’m afraid you’re a day too late. He left yesterday.” We thanked them both very much for their help. They smiled. It seemed they smiled with genuine warmth. Who knows?

As we got back in the car and she turned to me and said, “Well, we followed through. There was something that pulled us here. We didn’t shirk. We decided to do it. Too bad. I was really looking forward to hanging out with him.”  “Me too. But we found his atmosphere.”

It took a while to find a gas station still open. We had to drive almost to the North Side to find one. We fueled up and drove back to Madison, talking now and then, she smoking, me occasionally dozing, looking out into the night through the late hours of a long day.