Traveling Up The Coast

The day before yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of my daughter’s wedding. It was a hot day in Portland that year as it had been twenty-one years earlier when my daughter and I arrived in our new home in the Northwest in another July. On that day, we had traveled together for a week from Long Beach, California, up the Pacific Coast Highway all the way.

She was three at the time, just as my granddaughter is now. The sides of my abdomen were just thickening with the pregnancy that would be my son. Her father had gone ahead to start his new job and we had said good-bye to all our friends. I hadn’t wanted to leave. Life had been good in the warm weather on the bay with plenty of families around us with young children.  But life turned on its own events.  I decided to make the best of the time I had alone with my daughter. We would have a long road trip, wandering up the coast, stopping wherever fancy lead us.

Our household belongings had gone ahead in a moving van so I packed our bags for the week into the back of our Nissan and pulled out of our driveway in the old part of town for the last time. We were on the road! She was excited, in the back in her car seat.  She yelled “Bye everyone! Bye house!”

The trip started with familiar landmarks, the road out of town, then taking the long way through San Pedro and Seal Beach with the roiling landslide-heaved roadway, the two of us yelling the usual “Whee!” here and there as the road dipped and pitched. The sky was nearing blue as always in July before ten am, day after day, when the low morning clouds rolled off. The temperature was climbing, but not yet hot. We stopped to take a walk down the path to the beach where we came often to play in the sand and look for shells in the water. She ran ahead with her bucket down the wide trail, wispy hair blowing in the same rhythms as the sea grasses rasping in the breezes.  It was still morning. Plenty of time. No rush. Nowhere to be. We might just get to Morro Bay that day or maybe we’d find something else to woo us.  She ran to the water’s edge, the waves hissing in at her feet, and stood for a moment, pail at her side and shovel lifted as if in unconscious salute. We walked through the water for a while, side by side, splashing the moving water with our feet, then sat on a towel and had a bit of snack.  We waved good-bye to the beach with its odd old concrete wreck of a building, surrounded by a few crumbling concrete tables with shredded old fake bamboo umbrellas leaning this way and that.  I felt as if we were leaving some secret ruin we had discovered, still unexplored by others, our special spot where we’d told stories and made things up, now to be left for others to defile.

We travelled for just a few hours that day, taking Route One all the way around the big airport, up through Santa Monica, past Will Rodgers Beach, singing Raffi songs and pointing out things along the way.  Around Santa Monica, I’d decided to stop at my favorite restaurant for lunch at a place in Topanga Canyon with decks arrayed around a stream and “whole food”.  It was a splurge. We were doing that.

We had a leisurely lunch, with me even sipping a glass of white wine, until she began to get a little cranky. Time for a nap. We head off up the road. After she’d fallen asleep, I pulled over in a spot near Malibu that smelled of eucalyptus and had one of my own short naps to take the edge off.

I’m not sure I remember how far we got that day, but I remember the road trip games, one spotting animals and earning points based on the different species. Camels and elephants were one hundred points. We saw both that day. She got one and I go the other. I think she got the camel, the most exotic by our count. We laughed and maybe I cried a bit to myself, I’m not sure.

I’m pretty sure we stopped for another look at Hearst Castle the second morning, spending the most time looking at the swimming pool and the strange plants. We indulged in everything we wished, ice cream, beer, lingering over things that made sense to no one but us.

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We meandered. We stopped when either of us saw something that drew us.  “Look at that, Mommy!” she’d point. I’d slow and if there was anything I could identify and we’d pull over and take a look. We walked on the beach at Big Sur and felt the wind and got absorbed by all the life in the tide pools. We drove the famous drive in Carmel and stopped at the Lone Pine to take photos.  We went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco and spent a few hours doing almost everything that could be done. We may have flown a kite in the Golden Gate park. That night, I think we made it to my friend Stephen’s in Palo Alto where she ran around and had a swing with me in the elevated chair he’d built that could be pulled up to the clerestory in the ceiling. We swayed back and forth getting a little woozy with the height.  My friend and I stayed up late talking while she went to sleep in the cozy nest of the loft.  The next morning, he rode her on the seat his wooden home-made bike and we left after breakfast, waving to him, his wife and stepson as we pulled out of the drive.

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We went to the beach at Point Reyes as we’d done in the past. She had eaten sand there as a one-year-old. Now we joked together about it. We stopped at the Monterey Aquarium to admire the otters for at least an hour.  We stopped at gift stores, at any roadside attraction that didn’t look pornographic or crassly commercial, we picnicked and had an elegant dinner here and there, she sipping Shirley Temples. We were road companions of the best sort, forging our friendship further, she a novice at life and language and I on break from profession and the prescribed activities of parenting.

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As we got into the woods of the northern California coast we stopped at Trees of Mystery, playing together among the weird forms despite the other tourists. Then we stopped in the Redwood State Park. I saw again how actually tiny in stature my road companion was, there among the huge Oxalis leaves that looked like a giant’s clover, she stood, head tilted back, round blond head, pudgy arms hanging at her sides, eyes taking in the sheer enormity of it all. “What do you think?” I asked. I don’t believe she was able to answer, totally dazed as she was. An old couple wandered through. The woman stood and looked at her for several moments before looking at me in the eyes, straight, deep, with a smile more in her eyes than on her lips. She turned and joined her husband as they wandered slowly, engulfed in the same awe.

That night, we found a small motel by the river with little log cabins and a swing set. We took a wonderful, cold refreshing swim together in the river where it slowed and eddied along the banks. Others were there, bathing in the evening sun filtering through the great trees pushing in towards the water. We ate sandwiches and climbed into the big, high bed. The movie “Gandhi” was on. We snuggled and watched it together, she asking questions as Ben Kingsley led the salt protest march to the sea and spoke to hundreds at an ashram. She fell asleep after a bit and I clicked off the TV, lying beside her in the dark, cool evening, listening to the river.

We explored the Sea Caves where the mad barks of seals echoed through huge rooms in the rocks like halls of an ancient castle, smelling of urine and seal feces. We stood by the ocean in Oregon and listened to the waves crash on the rocks.  We both still remember the surprise of finding a roadside “State Site” created especially for the Darlingtonia Carnivorous Plants that grow only in that one limited bog, their bright green hooded bulbous forms creating a perfect water trap for insects and adapted with leafy structures that resemble fangs or a serpent’s forked tongue, making them look beautifully like a hooded cobra.  We stopped at light houses and climbed at least one, wondering at the people who had lived there, tending the motion of the huge reflecting light. We stopped at a petting zoo. And finally, about a week after our good-bye to Long Beach, we arrived at our strange new suburban house in Vancouver Washington, over the river from Portland, in a place where there was no ocean to bathe in of an afternoon, no eucalyptus or palm trees, no hot sun beating down, and no friends to walk to in the evening. We would see.

Update from Small Town America

Here I am on the outskirts of a small town in the upper northwest corner of the United States, out in what is called “The County”.  The friends we’ve made over the last twelve years have also been on the outskirts of the culture of this place in time and space.  Our Polish friends, Art and Margaret Roszja are a good example. They come from a very long line of artists and scientists. Margaret’s father, still in Poland, is an astronomer and was a political prisoner in Poland. Last year he received the highest civilian medal for withstanding repression.  Her great-great-great paternal uncle was Frederick Chopin and her paternal aunt, Bronislawa Kawalla, is an internationally renowned pianist and judge on the panel of the international Chopin Competition. Art’s cousin was murdered by the Secret Services in Poland. He became a national martyr and hero. His brother is the pre-eminent classical guitarist of Europe. They fled Poland in 1988 with a small child after a series of events that convinced them of the need to escape a repressive regime where freedom of expression was almost non-existent and where one could easily loose one’s life in challenging authority.

After finding refuge in a refugee camp in Norway, Canada eventually opened its door to them when the US would not. They worked hard in Canada, raised children, created a thriving construction business with public sector contracts, renovated their home near Vancouver and finally decided to come to the US, where Art’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were citizens. For him, it was a return to his homeland.

Their imagination, energy and creativity lead them to aspire to do something unique for a community where they hoped to find stimulation and inspiration, something with whimsy, something unusual, something beautiful and in its own way astounding so those passing by and those in the surrounding area would be able to experience something out of the ordinary, something that demonstrated the possibilities of mind, the extravagance of the spirit.  They could have renovated the old house as others have done, making it a dull, pleasing Craftsman-style set of boxes, painted in drab colors, but they instead conceived of a multi-story Clock Tower, which would be set off by the stunning view of Mt. Baker as you come from the west on Main Street towards the center of town.  They had the energy, money and willingness to do something significant for the town. We all imagined the clocks facing in the four directions, maybe even a chime sounding the hours. Margaret hoped her aunt would come to play piano for the public at the completion.

The judge told them on Friday, among other things, that since they had chosen to do something unusual, creative and unique, causing the city to stretch its thinking about what is permissible, they need to be grownups and take the responsibility for all “the trouble” they’ve caused the City of Ferndale in the past nine years.  They have been categorized as “a nuisance”  for all these years of struggle to finish their project. Never during the nearly four hours of hearings I’ve attended in 2016 was there any mention of the errors the city has committed. No suggestion the city may have brought the whole weight of years of conflict down upon themselves. The local blogger, driven by an ostensible devotion to journalistic objectivity mentions only the government version of the story presented to the court. He has little effort to dig any deeper. Neither has any other local paper, including “alternative” news.

On Friday, Art and Margaret narrowly escaped the fine of over $100,000 the city sought to impose for failing to comply with the terms of a voluntary agreement issued by the court in February.  The city also requested the couple cover all the city’s legal fees (including “staff time” which probably encompasses the hours spent by several city officials who have attended all the hours of court hearings without cause).  It is unclear whether the judge will require this.  However, it is clear the judge issued an order stating that the Roszjas were in contempt of the court’s order from February, although no mention was made at court or in the resulting order of what elements of construction were not completed. In fact, all the elements agreed to were completed, within specifications and on time. The decision of contempt was based solely on the word of the City’s Planner who came to the site and declared the elements unfinished.  No independent inspector was allowed by the city, although requested by the Roszjas. In February, the Roszjas had consented to their attorney’s recommendation and agreed to a faulty order in order to simply move ahead to complete the planned construction, putting the fight behind them and accepting in good faith, as they purported, that the city shared the same goal.

They returned home to do just that, but the city almost immediately had further orders.  Each time the Roszjas moved forward to complete elements of the construction they had been permitted to complete, the city sent them repeated correspondence questioning the legality or safety of things they had already permitted.  In March, they mandated that the reflective glass the Rojszas had installed on the east side of the building be removed and replaced with siding. The city felt they had the right to approve the type of siding the Roszjas would use to replace the glass, although there is no legal basis for this claim. Any other home owner in the city is free to replace siding or replace a roof without permits. The permit for the siding went back and forth for weeks, as had previous permit requests. After much delay and indecision, they required the Roszjas to purchase a Structural Engineering Analysis of the siding proposal, something also not required in any other circumstance when home owners are renovating a home. The engineer the city specified was unable to take on the job for at least a week, further delaying the project.

At court, the judge gave the appearance of again wanting to reach a just compromise in a difficult situation, citing the old test of a true compromise–“Neither side will be happy with the decision.”  However, for a judicially ordered compromise to be just, it must be based on the judiciously weighed facts presented by both sides in a dispute. In this case, the Roszjas have never been allowed to present the evidence of the city’s bad behavior in this conflict. The court appears to believe that if a government claims that something is so, it is so.  Those accused of opposition to the rules of the government evidently have no standing to present a case that runs contrary to the government claims. The position of the Superior Court of Whatcom County runs counter to the whole concept of Due Process.

The Roszjas went home again on Friday, changed their clothes and went back to work to complete what they understand the city will allow them to complete. Tomorrow, the judge will review requests from both attorneys and decide whether there will be further threats of fines and/or a requirement for the Roszjas to pay the city’s legal fees and costs.  The city has repeatedly denied they are treating the Roszjas any differently from any other residents within the city’s boundaries. They feel there is no evidence of bad behavior on their part, no prejudicial or persecutory acts.

We just wonder what will happen.  The people damaged by all of this are the Roszjas. No damage has been done to the good denizens of the city. No one’s safety has been compromised.  The supposed insult to the eyes of the community has been caused by the city’s inaction and ineptitude, if not downright deliberate prejudicial treatment. Although it is the Roszjas who are being treated as criminal actors, guilty of opposition and neglect if not malicious mischief, it is actually the city who is behaving in a manner contrary to American Constitutional Law. The people of the City of Ferndale have, in fact, been damaged not by any compromise of their safety or pollution of the environment, but by the loss of an opportunity to experience something, day after day, which provides a window into a realm beyond the drudgery of the daily grind. They have been deprived of the generosity of art.

It is the Roszjas who will pay for daring to contribute something beyond the normal for which they have been willing to expend large amounts of their own energy and financial resource to accomplish.  This is just the sort of oppression and repression by bureacracy they sought to flee twenty-eight years ago.

 

 

A Bulletin From Small Town America

Amidst all that is going on around the world today—the Brexit vote, Donald (the guy teaching the world how to fire people from corporations) vs. Hillary (the guy being hired by corporations), cops being exonerated for the death of a black man in the back of their van, everyone ignoring the real motivations behind the Orlando shootings and believing only what they believe, no one paying much attention at all to the fact of a planet being murdered by all of us together, every day, dying in front of us in fits and starts, gasping—I attended the Whatcom County Superior Court hearing for two dear friends of mine, a couple who escaped a then-Communist Poland years and years ago only to eventually come to be persecuted by yet another authoritarian regime—the City of Ferndale.

They are being hounded for trying to transform an ordinary old two-story farm house they bought almost fourteen years ago on the Main Street (left over from more rural times) into a unique and marvelous Clock Tower of multiple stories, whimsical and attractive.    They run a construction company held in high repute that has renovated many public buildings in Canada and Washington State including several schools, a lighthouse, a city clock tower, a dome, a city park, a wing of a prison, and many others, doing much of the work themselves.  The house was purchased, in fact, right after they had completed seismic improvements on the City’s high school and rebuilt a wing of an old local elementary school. They hoped to incorporate much of the high quality construction materials left over from various jobs into the design of their own Clock Tower (including, originally, four huge clocks which would face in the four directions). They clearly know what they are doing.  Both work harder and more efficiently than people half their ages. In the eight years we’ve known them, the City has managed to obfuscate every permit application they have made, delayed, refused, countermanded their own instructions, written ordinances specifically targeted at this couple’s efforts and prosecuted them for the results of their obstructions.  I know these tactics from first-hand experience when, in trying to initiate a viable Farmers Market in Ferndale, we were ordered to follow  procedures and then told in the next breath there were no existing procedures.

Today was the second time I have attended a hearing in their case. The first was three months ago when the judge “compromised” with the City and gave them mostly 90-day deadlines to complete the construction. They were better than the totally unreasonable deadlines and fines the City asked the court to impose, but still unreasonable.  However, at the time, our friends thought they could meet the deadlines, working diligently and with the materials they had been given permits to use.

Soon after the court date, the City began complicating things further, asking for things already installed to be taken down (including some glass walls they subsequently wrote a city ordinance to prohibit) withholding fire permits, asking for an engineering inspection when none had been specified, etc. etc.  (I’m sure it’s becoming evident that this case as it has wound along for ten years, has been enormously complicated. I plan to tackle an expose-length article telling the whole fascinating story, but I’ll keep it brief here.)  Meanwhile, over the years that our friends have been blocked from using the materials they had accumulated, these had to be stored next to the building. They bought big white tents in order to cover some and decrease the eye sore, leading the City to develop new ordinances against large tents.   As a result of their inability to move forward, public opinion about the site plummeted, even as our friends continued to be hired to work on several of the local schools. It was not hard to find folks in the bars or the local grocery store complaining about those “lazy immigrants who just let things go and create a public eyesore. Why don’t they clean that place up and just finish the damn house!”  The mayor fed this, directly and indirectly, dragging them to court over one thing and another while he proceeded to build a new police station much too large and too expensive for the town in the existing library’s building, almost bankrupting the City in the process.

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The eagles flew briefly on the glass walls and the crown lit the sky at night.

Today, the City’s attorney complained in a fretful near-whisper to the judge that our friends were basically unruly children who “didn’t like following rules” and clearly needed to be held in contempt of court and fined severely in order to get them to comply with the completion of the renovations.  The defending attorney made a decent attempt to counter and asked for the court to review what had been completed since the court order was issued in February. He then asked the court leave things as they are since his clients had actually substantially complied and were more than willing to move forward with the final stage as fast as humanly possible. He made the reasonable request that the court put the settlement agreement behind them and, if it felt it necessary, schedule status reviews in front of the court. The City asked instead that they be given a 30-day deadline (meaning they would have to postpone all the jobs to which heir company has committed in the coming weeks) and be fined substantially for their present non-compliance.  No testimony from our friends was allowed.  The group of local supporters who had dressed for court to attend the hearing were not allowed to speak.  The judge appeared to take the City attorney’s word that the agreed items had willfully not been completed.

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Hard at work this early, early spring, taking down what had already been built.

To end today’s session, she stated she would take the decision under advisement until tomorrow. We shall see what transpires.  Margaret, the wife of the duo, wondered aloud over coffee and donuts after court if “the death penalty might be imposed for building a Clock Tower.”  (Frivolity and humor were things the City has pointed to as indication of an anti-authoritarian attitude that must be quashed to protect the city from disregard of rules by other citizens.)  Her husband countered that the City’s insistence they complete a metal roof on the tower before completing the spire for which they were just granted a permit would lead Margaret to slip to her death anyway, making it unnecessary for the court to impose that penalty.  One small-town travesty seems to speak volumes about life in our America, even when it speaks with a Polish accent.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

What It Is To Burn

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Under the big white tent in the forest we met that night, as agreed. There was a man with a double hand-held drum, a woman with a violin, a man with a oboe, a man with a tenor sax and me with my flute. We were all in our early twenties.
There was a knot in the middle of my chest and my heart was racing. I was not at all sure I could play with these musical people, whether I could play without a sheet of music in front of me to dictate the notes. I had played classical flute for years, well enough, but not with the beauty I really craved to hear. A few times I’d played freely for myself, in the woods, playing nymph to a stream and to the occasional accompaniment of the German Shephard named Blue who lived with us in our cabin in Vermont. I was clearly a romantic, loving the solitude of it and the mystery. But that night as I stood, poised under the tent, listening to the sound of crickets and an occasional night bird, I felt wiped clean, my mind emptied, listening for some sound within.
The violin started with a simple melody, joined soon by the drum who picked the rhythm from the flow of notes, structured it and lead it forward. The sax and oboe started to speak up, inserting their voices into the conversation, changing the topic, pulling the rhythm. It needed the voice of the flute, the pure soaring. So there it was.

At first the voice of the flute was mine, hesitant, uncertain, poking here and there in the discussion, trying to find a way in. Then the oboe turned to it, eager to hear what it had to say, imitating, reflecting, and then questioning.

It was when the sax came in to the conversation, though, that we all realized we had been invited to a dance. We swung around each other, gracefully at first and then with more abandon. I, standing there, blowing my breath into a long piece of metal, stood back in myself and began to hear a music that I was not playing, that the oboe was not playing, the violin was not playing, certainly not the sax or the drum. It was a swirling of melodies coming from somewhere in the middle of the tent, in the middle of the forest, played by no one but playing us all. Water jumped in the air, splashing, spraying. Somehow the air caught fire. We became the fire itself, hot, leaping, Latin, sexy, burning, crackling, purifying with joy.

The fire burned for some long time, or it might have been intense and brief, as it consumed its fuel and burned it away, sometimes roaring, sometimes quietly crackling, to ashes. As we all listened, it died into the cool light air of the night, a breeze wafting here and there and resting finally in the quiet of the darkness.

We packed up our instruments, speech being far away, hugged our good-nights and went to our sleeping bags, burned away, yet filled with vastness.

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There is a spacious sky always. It is vast and silent yet filled with the sounds of innumerable birds, clicking and humming insects, mummerings and songs. It is infinite and empty yet filled with the movement of countless particles of life. With our stories, we refer to it. We know it, yet never speak of it. We forget it easily and without care. It is often at the comings-in and the goings-out that we find ourselves living there, in that vastness, and are awed.

 

FIRST PAINTING

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Our neighbor down the road brought rescue cows with her from the dairy farm in Massachusetts where she and her husband had worked.  They had inspired the owner to allow a small rescue operation, calves with medical problems that would, on any other farm, have led directly to their slaughter. My friend learned to nurse cows through all kinds of ailments and spent such long hours with them her thoughts and emotions melded with theirs.

When her husband died suddenly a couple of years ago and she had survived the engulfing grief sufficiently to be able to sleep just enough, she put four of the rescue cows in a trailer and set out for Whatcom County, Washington, to live with her brother and sister-in-law, pulling the animals behind her in her big, old, brown Ford Excursion.  A very quiet and solitary younger man who had worked with them diligently for years at the farm drove the rental truck, filled with hay.

They made a detour to pick up her son in California. When she arrived, the cows had not been out of the trailer for the twelve days of the trip. They stayed in the trailer for two more days while she and her son built the fences and modified the stall in the barn.  When finally the cows were able to leave the trailer for the relative comfort of the pen and the barn, my friend told us how they had demonstrated their ecstasy, rubbing their cheeks against her side and mooing with sheer exuberance.

Driven by all their pent up energy and the excitement of a new space, they managed an escape from the barn that very next morning. The largest of them, a steer of some four years, galloped past my friend’s bedroom window where she slowly unpacking.  Seeing him through the window, she dropped what she was doing, called for her sister-in-law and ran out the front door. By that time, he had run around the rows of lavender her brother and sister-in-law were farming and was headed back at a good clip down one of the aisles.

Fear in her bones that he would trample the precious lavender plants, she paused, trying to anticipate and guide his flight, but he turned and took off up another aisle before she could intercept him. On the far side of the lavender field he stopped, lowering his head to munch some clover.

“I sauntered up to him,” she told us, “walking a little in this direction, a little in that, looking at the lavender, lulling him into thinking he had all the time in the world.”

“When I finally got to him, we rubbed cheeks. I took hold of his halter and led him easily back to the barn.”

Her sister-in-law had already managed to lead the other cows back, she related, since they had docilely gone only a short way into the grass.

This steer who had gone on this nice run had been born with a hole in his heart. His name was Mason. My friend had nursed him intensively through for his first months, almost constantly at his side. He had survived.  The vet had told her he couldn’t make it past six months, never having had the experience of someone saving such a cow from the butcher. He had reached his sixth year and a weight of fifteen hundred pounds.

“We had such a connection. I know it sounds silly, but I could read his thoughts from across the yard. We would look at each other for long moments and understand.”

My friend had come to dinner one night. As we ate and drank wine, she told us about his death the day before. For days, she had been working with the vet to figure out what was happening to Mason, who was in pain and unable to stand. The vet had no experience with cows surviving with a damaged heart since they are all slaughtered soon after a defect is discovered. No domestic steer live past the age of two when the maximum “return on the dollar” is reached.

They tried everything they could think of—both curative and palliative medications, deep beds of hay to cushion his pain. She sat with him throughout the last days and nights, his great head resting on the crook of her arm, eye to eye, nose to nose. They had looked deeply into each other’s eyes, she talking to him about what was happening, reassuring him she would do whatever he felt he needed. As he breathed out, she breathed his breath in. As he breathed in, she gently blew her breath in through his nostrils. He could no longer sustain his weakness and discomfort. They had decided together to put him down the next morning.

She had given him the shot herself and ushered him through the letting go of life, friend to friend. For her, she said, it had been a profound ending of so many things, a loss of so much that was so loved.

“He knew what was happening.  We saw each other. We felt each other. I felt his letting go, his relaxing into what we had acknowledged.”

For many days after that night at dinner we didn’t see her, perhaps lost in the meanderings of emotion, until the other day she broke her head through the waters and pulled her big Ford up into our driveway once again.

SECOND PAINTING

 

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Several years ago now, they called me during a formal benefit dinner for the social service agency where I was a supervisor. My mother, they said, had just had another in a series of heart attacks which, at ninety-six, were usually barely noticed, multitudes of tiny capillaries having formed around her heart to share the load. This one, however, seemed to have been the final blow.

She was clearly leaving. The hospice worker, they said, was there, making her comfortable with morphine. Lyle, the companion I had hired to take her on outings, happened to have been there visiting another woman, and had gone immediately to be with my mother.  When my mother had moved from the east coast to be in an assisted living near me, she had been lonely during the days I couldn’t visit. I had tried to get her to hire someone to take her out but she was adamant she could find a friend herself.

One day, the director had called me in a panic to say they couldn’t find my mother. I was on my way over when they called again to say they had found her a few blocks away down the busy road. She hadn’t wanted to come back with them, saying she was just taking a walk to Times Square. They were ridiculous to think such a familiar trip was dangerous.

So I’d tricked her. I told her Lyle was a retired woman I’d met. She was bored, I told her, and looking for company, for a new friend. After just a couple of lunches with her, she was totally captivated by this woman who was lively, excited about life and let her teach her French.

Despite the deception and the money I paid her, a genuine friendship had grown. This was a caregiver who cared from the heart. I had watched her cradle my mother tenderly in her arms when she had become inexplicably sad. She’d hugged her and consoled her one day when a caregiver had accidentally died her hair a neon purple-red. She’d taken her for a visit up the road to Mt. Baker and turned back when my mother was overcome with panic at the site of the mountain looming larger and larger around them. She’d danced with my mother in the spring tulip fields. She’d learned to speak whole sentences in French.  When I walked into the room, she was there with my mother, stroking her thin hair, helping to pull on her nightgown and talking quietly in her ear.

As I’d gotten into my car at the hotel, I called my daughter in Seattle to tell her it was time. As I’d clicked off my cell, I thought how like a birth this seemed—calling someone to say the labor had truly started.  There on my mother’s bed, with her head cradled softly on Lyle’s shoulder like a child, we talked, all three.  I was still in the long black dress and scarf from my fancy dinner and my mother said, as she often did when I first walked into her room,

“You’re so beautiful!” exaggerating, as if discovering something for the first time.

We kissed each other’s cheeks, lingering a bit more than usual.  As Lyle was helping her settle back on her pillow, I said,

“You look so nice and comfortable.”

“Yes”, she said “Delicious,” with a little sigh.

“How was your day?” I asked.

She paused to think for a moment. I thought she had drifted away. Then she said, with certainty,

“It was good. I accomplished.”

Savoring it, she repeated, “I accomplished,” and smiled to herself as she let Lyle settle her back on her pillow and her eyes, with heavy lids, closed.

I called my husband to tell him the state of things. He had chosen, long before, to stay at home at this moment and allow us our intimacy.  My daughter called to say that her husband, someone my mother could somehow remember when she forgot everyone else, would drive her.  Since my mother was sleeping deeply, I thought it was a moment to prepare the celebration we could share with her as drifted.

Across the street, I bought a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream–my practically-tee-totaling mother’s only indulgence–some French cheese and some bread. I walked back with it and set out the sherry glasses she’d preserved from her wedding seventy years before on the round glass and metal coffee table she’d bought in the ‘60s as a sign of her avant-guard tastes. I pulled over the box of photos I’d salvaged from the mice two years ago at her home three thousand miles away and began the wait for both my daughter’s arrival and my mother’s exit.

While she slept, snoring lightly, I began sifting through the scores of black and white photos I’d left for her as a project she never remembered she had. Memories of emotions, both painful and warm, ran through the thread of these moments in time. We had fought so hard for so many years. I had felt so much exasperation, desperation to be away from her, even years after I’d gone to college. Then the last years of warmth and intimacy, she fighting to maintain every shred of autonomy possible.

Even though Harvey’s is much too syrupy for my taste, I poured myself a sherry glass full and sipped it, beginning to feel the reliable warmth spreading through my veins.  I settled back on the sofa, feeling the fatigue in my chest, and closed my eyes. There, in the resulting dark space was the image I’d just seen in the photo I still held in my hand, too tired to put it away–my mother with thick, long dark hair pulled back with pins, a thin, lithe attractive young woman with lively, challenging eyes, her knees bent, a tennis racket balanced in her hands as if to receive a back hand shot from my young, handsome father on the other side of the net.  I watched this for a while in my mind’s eye, noticing the drape of the tennis skirt and the tenseness of the muscles of her arms and shoulders.

I must have dozed for a while and was awakened by the hospice nurse opening the door quietly to check in. She nodded hello, saw my mother was resting peacefully, lifted my mother’s arm to take her pulse, turned toward me and whispered,

“She’s doing well.”

I nodded.

“If she wakes up and seems uncomfortable, give me a call. I’m sleeping here in an empty bed tonight.”

So like a midwife, I thought.

I pulled over a chair next to the bed to sit beside my mother’s head. The skin of her face was like translucent rice paper, splayed with darker patches. I noticed how it stretched gently over her convex cheeks and folded over in soft waves down her neck. Through the opening of her nightgown, I studied the bony ridge of her shoulder-blade and the beginning of the familiar valley that was her mastectomy scar. I had seen it first in the weeks after her return from the hospital when she, who was always up and busy from early morning, lay in her bed, day after day, recovering.  I remembered the empty feeling in my gut when, at ten, I first saw the angry red and purple jagged lines around the indentation in her chest.

As I sat, looking, my mind a bit blank with fatigue, a fast series of deathbed scenes from old movies and TV shows flipped by behind my eyes. I smiled to myself. The triteness of such moments. The reality of this. The stale-ish smell of her skin, the present quiet of her soft breathing, the sense of calm, sitting there together. I went back to the sofa and pulled out the album I’d started.

“Look, Mom.” I said.

“Who was this person standing next to you and Uncle Abe? Looks like you were at Cape Cod. I think it’s the light that makes me think that, and the pine tree in back of you.”

“And this one. Your friends around the swimming pool, and me, fifteen, sitting there on the white chair, playing the guitar. I must have been playing that folk song I’d just learned. You look happy and I look like I’m trying to be Joni Mitchell.”

I picked up one after another, talking about each one with her from across the room.  I knew she was listening from some remote, amicable distance, just as she’d done when we sat together at the kitchen table, so many mornings, with the light coming through windows, sometimes cool, sometimes warm, above the worn café curtains, she half-listening, always following other thoughts of school, of worries.

Sometime during the flow of this conversation, my daughter was suddenly at the door with her husband behind her. As I got up and we came together and hugged, my daughter, so young, her skin cold and fresh, taking off her coat, kissed her grandmother–who continued her sleep–very softly on the cheek.

I invited her husband to stay, but he declined, saying he’d go back to the city and work in the morning. He found the hospice nurse who was still up and brought a cot into the room for me. We made up the sofa for my daughter and the cot for me and we settled in, drinking a bit of sherry, eating bread and cheese and talking about times with my mother, both of us aware she might be listening, pitching our memories and the tenor of our voices to include her, talking about the difficult and the joyous—so she would know we encompassed it all.  The moon was full and bright outside the window.

We lay back and continued to talk intermittently, like a sleep-over party where one friend had slept early, all the while listening to my mother’s breathing. We fell into light sleep. Each time the breath paused, suspended, I came awake, aware my daughter was also suddenly alert. We’d wait together for the next breath and then drift back.

We had both fallen into a deeper sleep, when, opening my eyes a bit, I noticed the moon was gone and there was the beginning grey light of dawn. Quickly, I woke myself fully, realizing my mother had taken a breath just as my consciousness had begun to open. I waited for the next, holding my own breath, suddenly aware my daughter was doing the same. It didn’t come.

“I think she’s gone.” I heard myself say, immediately feeling the choking of unexpected tears in my throat.

“Yes”, my daughter said, “Yes. I think so!”

We both jumped up, pushing off blankets and pillows. There I was, the mother myself, crying and saying “Mom! Mom!” putting my head on her chest, hugging her, my daughter behind me, hugging me and touching my mother’s hand. I, the adult who had remained calm in front of this daughter for all the years of divorce, kept the most intense for the darkness and my friends.  Coming from the calm of the night, such a wave of intense emotion had not been imaginable, yet here it was, like the scenes from the movies, the best and the worst.

We stood back in awe of the force of what had just happened, looking at her face and then her body, covered in a sheet and a light blanket.

“Look!” I said, inhaling sharply with the choking of tears in my throat.

“Look how there was something there one minute, fire, warmth, thoughts, and, as soon as the breath left, it was gone. Right away. Like a switch turning off. Boom. Gone. Just something left that looks like a pile of clothes and paper.”

The breath itself had done its time moving through her body. This breath had not gone.  I, for instance, had caught it in that moment of balance in waking, in the pause waiting for the in-breath. My daughter had caught it in her moment of attention. All those who had passed through her life, talking, looking, breathing, had breathed it and were passing it constantly, back and forth, in and out.

We leaned over her, embracing that empty form and each other.  As the first intensity of emotion began to die down like a wave receding from the shore, the last thing I’d heard her say, so mundanely, came back to me.

“I accomplished. I accomplished”,

She had not been reviewing just her day, as she had every day, but her life.  And it was good. She had recognized in that wide-open moment, that the thing most important to her life had occurred. She had accomplished things. Important things. She had taught well. She had raised a child. She had fought political fights. She had helped friends. She had accomplished. And she was done.

I remembered how, a few months before, as we sat together in a doctor’s office after a heart attack, she looking vulnerable in her medical gown, I asked her if she were afraid to die. She’d said, after a short pause in which she seemed to savor the answer,

“No. Not really.”

I asked her how she would like her death to be. She’d replied,

“I’d like to just disappear one day, drift away like a cloud. One minute I’d be there and the next, people would say, ‘Where’s Pearl? I thought she was just here.’ “

“I don’t want anyone to be sad. I don’t want anyone to cry. They’d just notice, ‘I guess she’s gone’, they’ll say.’”

After a while, we smoothed her blankets and stroked her cold head.  I went to tell the nurses she had died. The motions of practical life began again.  Breakfast was being served. The sun was high in the sky. My husband and my daughter’s husband were on their way over to help. The coroner would come. We would figure out the arrangements for her body and her cremation. We would spend the next two days moving her furniture, talking to the funeral home. It was all about movement. Life. Breath.

 

THIRD PAINTING

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And then there is the moment of the first breath. The ushering in.

Nearly three years ago, my granddaughter came in to life one early morning. Each birth is a birth, a commonplace occurrence. It seems somehow trite, tinged with narcissism to tell it, what young women do together when they are in the throes of young motherhood, excited they have participated in something so complex, so fraught with dangers and seeming miracles. Yet each birth stops time in its tracks and opens into the depths of experience so little traveled.  It is a story that reaches down into the well of the real things we have told each other for thousands of years.

My daughter called that Saturday when things were beginning to settle at the end of the day. She sounded a bit tired. She told me her waters had broken and the contractions had started at least a bit. The midwife had told her to come in to the birthing center. It was procedure.

It was late in the day. I’d been waiting for this moment for many days. Even so, it was somehow unexpected. As I hung up, I thought of how many births happen late at night or early in the morning. Get there soon, I thought.

It came back to me as I dressed–the trip to the first birth I’d witnessed so many years ago as a woman of twenty-two.  How time seemed to stop as I drove to my friend’s house after getting the call labor had started in earnest. There was a sensation a hole had opened in the fabric of time. Lights had turned green for me as I drove, focused.

I threw some things into a bag, said good-bye to my husband, got in the car and set out to Seattle, thinking as I drove of things to talk about with my son-in-law to keep him at ease.  His culture had not prepared him to be at his wife’s side during labor and birth, but after long and quiet self-examination, he had determined he would do whatever he could to care for his wife and be present for the birth of his daughter.  I could be there to distract him with conversation and hopefully some laughter and wisdom.

When I arrived at the birthing center in Seattle, I parked and made my way through the wandering halls, finally finding the group of birthing rooms arranged around a circular nursing center. It was already late at night. The midwives directed me to the room lined with windows where my daughter was resting on a birthing bed, smiling, dressed in a bright flowered yellow and rose loose Khabyle house dress. She had spent months with her husband’s family on the north coast of Algeria, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and the shore of the Mediterranean, working on a visa for him. She had worn this dress at home with her many sisters-in-law and had kept the custom when she’d returned.

In a few minutes, a woman dressed in a blue hospital gown with a gauze mask walked into the room. I recognized her as a close friend of my daughter’s. I’d met her once or twice and knew her as a young woman who exuded competence and calm, a woman with a steady, gentle gaze. She had attended a Master’s program with my daughter and was, in addition, a nurse. She had volunteered, without hesitation, to be a doula at my daughter’s birthing. My daughter had been overwhelmed by this offer, knowing how skilled she was and particularly how well she was able to draw the truth from the arcane language spoken in the medical world surrounding a birth. An interpreter and mediator as well as a firm support.

She had arrived, she said, shortly after my daughter, coming from the end of a double shift at the hospital where she worked.  Matter-of-factly, she told me that the morning before she’d started that double shift she’d been at her son’s soccer game and screamed her head off. When she’d gotten my daughter’s call she realized she had a scratchiness in the back of her throat whose cause could be one thing or another.

“I can’t be sure, so I put on a mask. I really, really didn’t want to let her and the baby down.  I wanted so much to be here. It’s a small thing.”

She wore the stuffy mask for the next thirty hours.

We chatted together a bit, the four of us, in the quiet space before a contraction.  There was joking and laughter, my son-in-law lightening the mood. He’s good at that. A mid-wife wandered in, introduced herself to the two of us who had just arrived and checked on my daughter’s progress.

So began a long night, followed by a long, long day that stretched into a second night. What I was to remember afterwards was the sense of women together, totally focused on the energy of moving life from inside a woman’s body to the outside, a sense of knowing each other and the needs of the moment without question, of observing the reality of each of those moments and digesting its emotion, its signals, its demands as if we were all breathing one breath, riding together the waves of an ocean, ignoring fatigue. And the warm companionship and deep, quiet emotion of my son-in-law, working within the flow of all this.

Since she had begun the long day just ending without having slept the night before, we tried to let my daughter rest as much as she could. Between the times she had to be awake to meet the rising pain in her abdomen and back, we reminded her to close her eyes, but she never was able to sink into real sleep.

As they do, the pains became more and more intense with passing time. We took turns kneading and pushing our fists into her lower back to help her bear it.  She stood now with her forearms bracing her on the bed. Her husband, being the strongest, took many turns. The doula, being the most skilled, took even more. The midwives wandered in and out, seeming unconcerned.

As the hours dragged on, she became more and more tired. She took long turns in the warm whirlpool water, relaxing as much as she could while we massaged her through contractions, sometimes alone with her husband, forming a space where her anxieties could be heard.  As she began to look more and more like a limp, wet rag doll, he visibly fought harder and harder to bear his own anxiety. He left the room from time to time. I could see him through the windows, walking in the street below, smoking.

The midwives, now different women after the change in shift, clearly were beginning to be concerned as they talked together quietly.  The doula had been trying to coach my daughter as much as she could, not wanting to usurp the midwives’ authority. She tried to help her visualize how to use her muscles to push with the natural force of her uterus’s contracting muscles.

But as she became more exhausted, it was increasingly clear she had not found a way to work effectively. She was confounded and confused. We asked the new midwives to help her figure out how to push with more efficiency. They tried at last, but with each push there was still little movement of the baby down the birth canal.

As if seeping into the air itself, a draft of fear was creeping into the room. It had an ancient smell. Somehow, as the puffs of emotion went through me, they suddenly uncorked a memory of giving birth to my daughter, this same daughter who was suffering now, beginning to struggle with her fear. My body, without urging, remembered a distinct sensation, the sensation of my midwife’s two fingers, pressing painfully hard down on the floor of my vagina while she said,

“Push right here! Push where you feel that pain! Focus it right here.”

This was the moment when, bordering on the same rush of fear my daughter must now feel, fear that something might go seriously wrong, that somehow no baby would be born, my mind and my body had organized themselves as one. Now, there in the room with my daughter, a grown woman, I took the midwife to the side and explained what might work.   She looked at me skeptically. I quietly insisted. “Try it. Now.”  Recognizing there was no alternative but to listen, she went to my daughter and told her what she was going to do. She helped her climb back up on the birthing bed.

Standing at my daughter’s head, I whispered in her ear, feeling the reverberations of voices of women’s voices through the millennia, “This is what helped me when you were being born. It works.”  The midwife pressed with her fingers and my daughter cried out with the pain and pushed. The baby’s head moved!

By this time her energy was at such a low ebb she was too weak, even with this new help, to push hard enough with each contraction.  A few hours earlier, the midwives had put a monitor on my daughter’s abdomen to monitor the baby’s heart rate. When there was less anxiety in the atmosphere, my son-in-law and I had rested on the window seats talking a bit together and listening. As my daughter rested between contractions, the beeps of the monitor sounded like a little horse trotting down the road. As the contraction started, the horse would speed to a near gallop. We would say,

“There she goes! Running, running! Go horse! Go!”

As the contraction progressed, it would slow to a languid walk, like a heavy plow horse. As it slowed, our pulses clearly quickened, our attention focused acutely on helping the horse make it down the lane. We commented to each other about the little horse, imagining its color and the look of its head. Now, the whole room was focused on the pace of that horse. It was clear its plodding, tired pace was leading it down the road toward darkness, just as its spirited gallop was clearly filled with the exuberance of life.

Soon, another woman walking tall and confidently was ushered into the room. The midwives introduced her to us as the obstetrician on call. They explained they had called her in to help them assess the progress and look at options. Her eyes in a slim, olive-skinned face were clear and her glance direct and penetrating.  She looked into my daughter’s eyes.

“I’m going to examine you and see and see how far that baby’s progressed. We may need to help you out some more.”

As she said this, another contraction gripped hold. The doctor reached in, skillfully easing the opening, helping the head to move further forward.

She said, “That was good. There was more progress. But I’m concerned, I have to say. You’re so tired and have clearly worked so hard and there’s still a significant way to go. It could happen, but you might well not have enough left in you to push as hard as it takes.”

“Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go prepare for a C-Section. It will take a little while. Meanwhile, if you end up pushing that baby out while I’m gone, I wouldn’t mind a bit.”

They agreed together to do whatever was necessary, two women deciding calmly in the midst of it all.

She and my daughter exchanged a slight smile as she walked away.

As the door closed behind her, my daughter came to life as a contraction hit.

“Ahhh!” we heard.

“Okay. Let’s do this!”

Her friend and I went back to our respective places at her left and right sides, bracing her with our shoulders under her armpits as she rose to a sitting position and bore down with real strength. We found we were all screaming together, “Ahhhhh!!!!”

It was as if she had somehow tapped into the strength and freshness of a full night’s sleep, pulling strength from deep within her spine. The horse’s footfalls slowed to a lazy, slow, slow walk as if it were impressed by the force of the waves it felt as they washed through, over and over.

“She moved!  She moved!” my daughter yelled.

As the midwife at the end of the bed checked, she said,

“Yes! Definitely a good one! Keep doing that.  Whatever you were doing, keep doing that!”

For the next twenty minutes or so, an eternity expired. Each time she pushed, we were all stupefied by the energy she pulled from somewhere well beyond the capacity of her physical body. In all this, we noted in the peripheries of consciousness that the father was no longer in the room. I thought briefly “He’s terrified of losing her. The intensity. The screams, The blood.”

As the three of us working together, somehow persevering through each wave, saw the baby fully crowned in the mirror the midwife held, the doula went quietly out of the room, bringing him back saying,

“Come. You can be here to see your daughter born.”

He came quickly with her, and though he could not watch, he stood by his wife, touching her, reassuring her as she pushed until the midwife said,

“You can come and help catch her. Come now!”

He stepped around as his wife began another push and the head slipped out and back. With the next and final push, the baby slid out with a gush of fluid into the two sets of waiting hands. As excited tears welled in his eyes, they were reflected around the circle of women. The mother, oblivious to everything now except the baby and her husband who held her, called to him across the bridge of their intimacy to bring her. The midwife gently took the baby from him and they walked her up together to the mother’s waiting arms.  Two sets of hands, masculine and feminine, lay her with ineffable gentleness on her mother’s chest, where she met her mother’s hands for the first time.

If you have ever been in the presence of a birth, you know what expansive joy and nearly explosive relief were present in the next moments as the women and the father worked together to position the baby, greet her, birth the placenta and cut the cord and, as the agony of the afterbirth was passed, how calm began to descend. As the midwives wiped and weighed the baby, I heard one say quietly to the other,

“I wish all the dads were as wise as this one. I wish they knew how to respect their own limits like he did.  I was truly impressed.”

Culture meets culture.

Much later in that first day of her life, as we had all slept a bit, the parents alone with this new life, I held my granddaughter against my shoulder, wrapped tightly in her swaddling blankets, feeling the heaviness of her sleep and the fragrance of her.

“When I saw her there on your chest, her eyes looking out,” I said to my daughter who was resting on the birthing bed,

“I thought, ‘My God! Look at that. Not only is she alive and breathing and moving, she’s beautiful!’ and I realized all along I’d been rehearsing the possibility she was likely as not to be as ugly as a plug–or deformed. But I knew I would still love her enormously. After all, my great aunt Bella was an ugly son-of-a-gun and was an amazing woman with huge intelligence.  But, ‘Miracle of miracles,’ I thought as I had looked at into her eyes for the first time, ‘She’s actually beautiful!,‘ “

“Not that it matters!” I added, smiling.

“Oh no!” my daughter laughed. “You did?”

“Me too! I thought that same thought as I looked at her face as I held her. I thought ‘How could it be?’ But I knew I must be the only one thinking that–a mother’s fears!”

As tears squeezed out of our eyes, we laughed as if we might not stop. I thought of my own mother, the one who had adopted me after years of trying and never had the same opportunity for that anticipation.  And then the mother who had, before such pain of separation.  In the expanse of this overwhelming joy, I ached for them both.

 

 

The Row of Trees

 

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There is a place along the route of my morning walks where the trees, planted in a row, cast a striped pattern on the road.

I had walked along that stretch of road at many times of day, in seasons of grey and of brilliance, of wet and of dryness, before, one particularly early morning in spring, I truly experienced them.

Drawn to the beauty of the shade, I walked along the side of the road where the shadows spread their darkness onto the pavement. As I walked, a deep sensation of awe, of beauty seeped into my gut. I inhaled it deeply, drawing in a great sense of joy, astonished by its power. I walked along its whole length, listening, breathing, feeling the expanse and spaciousness of the sensation. I turned around, walked back down the road and walked it again, remembering something, someplace where I had felt this before.

Then it came, clearly taking its form in my memory. The cathedral, the Duomo, in Sienna. The striped columns of dark and light marble like the rows of poplar trees in the surrounding countryside.  There, walking between the two rows of columns, each repeating that pattern, stretching high above my head into the sky of the dome above, I had felt the same sensation of incredible internal depth, spaciousness, beauty, indescribable yet palpable.

It was a cathedral built in the 13th century. It echoes the striped marble arches of the of  the Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem five centuries earlier and those of the Great Mosque of Cordoba built slightly later in that century.  There are other more northern cathedrals such as the one built a century or two before the Duomo in Durham, England, which incorporate some variation of this pattern. What brought the architects of these great halls to this alternation of light and dark? What gives it such an effect?

When there is sun in the morning, I try to get out early enough to catch the right slant of the sun , the brief angle in its climb that creates the longest shadows along the row of trees on the east side of the road.  This morning I caught it just right. The shadows were long and distinct, the light bright between them. I savored the experience fully as I walked in the fragrant spring air.

Wondering again, I examined, in the Proustian mode, every nuance,  holding up its facets in the light of consciousness. What else was there? What memory? With a kind of internal start, I recognized the other place I have experienced such a great stirring. It is in the forest, particularly in the forest of early spring when the contrasts between light and shadow are most pronounced.

Is there some primordial sense triggered by this experience of patterns of alternating light and shadow? Did our ancestors who created the paintings in the caves of France and Spain some thirty-two thousand years ago transmit the same sense of inexplicable awe they experienced in the forest to their paintings on the deep interior walls, drawn in the alternating patterns of light and dark made by their flickering torches? Was this art continued through the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, repeating in their own mediums the experience of boreal awe?

It is embedded somewhere deep within our cells, in the primitive mitochondria perhaps, and echoes throughout the halls of our consciousness, like music. It calls to us less frequently now, since most have lost the faculty to hear it.

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Apparition

The branches of the wild Hawthorne
are so laden with blossoms
the bees become confused.

Stunned, they cannot complete
the siphoning of each blossom.
slowing tumbling from branch to branch
in some intoxication.

Restless in the act of love
she swings her arms
now back and forth
now up and down,
head turned.

They cannot be shaken
from such total absorption
from such resonance of vibration.

Day Going By

She wheeled the wire shopping cart piled high with belongings further to the side of the road, a smile on her face. She was happier than she’d been in days. Earlier in the day she’d found a black plastic dust pan with a long handle–what she’d heard them call a lobby dust pan the time she’d had a Motel 6 cleaning job–behind a house near the back alley. It didn’t look beat enough to throw away. Maybe someone from the house had just used it to clean up around the trash and then forgotten it, but there it was, by the trash can. A throw away for sure. Now it was stuck, handle down, pan up, in the corner of her cart and she was smiling. She had plans. They were great plans. She had a purpose. She arranged her belongings again in the cart, shifting the blanket around a bit on top. It was a nice clean blanket, almost white. She smiled more sweetly to herself. I don’t have to go back to that place tonight. Too much noise. Too many people in my business.

After a while she thought she’d get busy.  The friendly girl was talking again, but it was just pleasant jabber. She could keep it in the background if she got going. The Nasty Man hadn’t put in a word for the last couple of days since she’d left the downtown shelter. She’d found a nice place across from the dump, sheltered and flat, surrounded by trees. No one else was there now, although there was a bit of trash and a torn, wet ragged shirt on the edge of the cleared spot. Other people came there for sure but for tonight it was probably hers, private, her own.

She crossed the busy road to the side where cars and shiny pick-up trucks pulled in the road to the recycle. There was lots of debris by the side of the road, stuff that fell off loads, blown bits from the last wind storm. She took out the stubby old broom she’d found a week ago in the dumpster and pulled out the new treasure. She stopped to admire it for a minute. Black. Solid. The hinge at the bottom of the handle let the pan swing down just right. Looking down at the gutter, she thought my, it’s dirty. Really needs attention. She began sweeping things up into the pan.  There was a nice song in her head.  Seemed like the Other Woman was singing in the background. She hummed a bit, sweeping. Cars went by.

Soon the pan was getting full and she started to think where she’d dump it. She looked around for a trash can, a dumpster. Nothing out front of the industrial buildings on this side. She stood the lobby pan on the asphalt next to the grass, making sure to move the handle so it balanced, just so.  Look how nice it just stands there, waiting for me, so polite. She rummaged in her cart. There it is. My garbage bag. She pushed down the crumpled chips bag and the mushy remnants of the buns from the food bank. Opening out the top of the bag carefully, she made room for the wider opening among her other belongings in the cart.   She picked up the dust pan and tipped it carefully into the bag, the way they’d taught her at The Agency before she got that motel job. The chunks of trash and the dust slid nicely into the bag.  She made sure the cart was propped safely on the grass within reach, taking her time.  The song was nice now. Slow, the voice mellow. The Uncle Guy started to shout at her once when she was sliding the dirt into the bag, but she told him, loud, “No! It’s not like that,” and he shut up. She picked up the pan and the broom she’d propped against a tree by the road and kept up her work.

A couple of times she got so absorbed in making sure she got the bits of bark that had blown onto the asphalt that cars honked at her, thinking she was walking into their path.  She’d look up and see the driver shaking his head. Once the driver shook a finger and looked like she was saying something nasty.  Once a woman in the passenger side waved her hand through the open window and smiled at her.  A guy riding by on his bike, racy helmet, orange tight shirt, gave her a thumb’s up and shouted “Good work!” as he zipped by.

The Uncle Guy was starting to criticize her work. “That’s stupid! Why’re you doing that! Who cares! You’re worthless anyway. Never make a dime.” She kept shaking her head and muttering things under her breath back at him, but he wouldn’t stop.  The friendly girl had gone away and the singing had stopped. Every once in a while there was a hissing voice, maybe coming from under the bush near the trees. Something watching her? She was starting to feel the old sense of dread in her gut. Time for a break.

She took her lobby pan and the broom and went to sit down in the shade on a big rock.  She muttered at The Uncle some more and then decided she was hungry. Her stomach was rumbling gently.  She thought about what was in her cart and remembered the loaf of white bread and a bit of cheese left over from her trip to the food bank a couple of days back.  Getting off the rock carefully, still holding her tools, she went to poke through the cart. She found the bread, squished but not yet moldy, the cheese in an old plastic bread bag, just a little wet since she’d put a half-eaten apple in with it. She tossed the apple that was now brown and bruised and brought the bread and cheese back to the rock, the bags in one hand and the tools awkward in the other, dragging.

She sat for a while and ate some bread and the rest of the cheese.  It was pretty quiet. Not too many cars. A bit breezy, but not cold. The zippered sweat shirt she’d found was enough to keep her warm in the shade. The fir trees towering around her were dark but they felt strong, protective. The crows that had been hopping around on the fir needles under the big trees by the road now came hopping nearer to her, cawing. She threw a bit of bread and two big ones converged on it, squawking, wings beating, beaks parted at each other. They both flew off a few feet, cawing. The smaller one came back to the bread while the bigger one jumped up to a branch and preened.  She watched for a long moment while other crows came and went, noisily.  Soon her interest wandered, her mind blank. She thought about the black lobby pan. It was still there, propped next to her against the rock.  I’d better get back to it. The Uncle Guy crankily told her she might as well give it up, she was so useless. She decided to ignore him. Someone had taught her that not too long ago, a case worker. You could just ignore him sometimes. It was hard, but if she got busy it might work.

With her lobby pan and broom, she went back to her cart and checked to make sure everything was still there on the top as she’d left them. I’d better close up this bag a bit, she thought, ‘cause of those crows. They’ll just hop on up here and start pecking around.  She looked around on the side of the road. Yup, still a lot of mess. She rolled the lobby pan behind her, the smile returning, the broom in the other hand, and moved out towards a pile of bark and debris on the edge of the asphalt.

A car honked loudly, startling her badly so she jumped back and dropped the handle of the lobby pan with a clatter. The car–she saw it was an old red one, new paint, maybe a Buick–went up to the next drive, pulled in and backed up quickly, coming back on the other side of the road. The driver was rolling down his window, hard, she could see. As he pulled up across from her he shouted at her out the window, “You fuckin’ crazy woman!  I could have fuckin’ killed you!  I could have killed you and then where’d I be? In fuckin’ jail, you crack head! Jail! Fuck you!!”  He jerked up his window as he floored it, engine sounding like a race car, back to the turn-off to the dump where he squealed in, gravel popping and then backed out fast, driving towards her again.  She watched, frozen. as he passed, close, stretching his arm out over the passenger seat with his middle finger emphatically extended. She could just barely hear the  “Fuck you!” through the closed window.

She shook her head, arms loose at her sides, tears starting in her eyes, her chest burning. The Uncle Guy was yelling at her. “See!  You’re fuckin’ stupid! You need to just kill yourself. Hang yourself on a tree. It’s easy. Just do it! You need to do it. You know you do!”  Her head reeled. She sat down where she was on the grass and then yelled “Fuck you, too!”  as another car passed, a girl in the passenger seat looking briefly at her and then away, as if there had been nothing there.  Yelling had made the tears stop. She crooned to herself for a moment.  Oooh.  Ooooh.  Aaah.  She remembered suddenly she hadn’t taken her noon med.  She still had a few they’d gotten for her at the shelter.  The small ones. She got off the ground, feeling a little stiff, picked up her tools and went over to her cart. Moving aside the garbage bag, she found the box under her blanket.  It’s Thursday she thought. Yeah, and opened the one marked Th.  She rummaged around some more and found the half bottle of water she’d saved and downed the pill. I’d better get back to work, she thought. Yeah. There’s lots to do. She smiled as she picked up the lobby pan and the broom, pleased at how nicely that hinge let the pan swing down as she lifted the handle to carry it back to the next pile. “Maybe I can get that cleaned up before it starts getting cold. She’d like that. She would.”

Taking Tea

Then there was this dream I had the other night.

During their reigns, Khrushchev and Brezhnev had teas made of special herbs related in rather occult ways to their respective names.  On visiting their rulers, people were made to drink this tea, which was, in both cases, foul.  Sometimes still, Putin brings them out and serves tea to those who cannot refuse to drink it. He watches them gleefully as he leaves his untouched.

“Delicious, no?” he enquires with a handsome smile.