The Irony Report from Small Town America–Episode 4

This morning my heart is about as flat and gray as the clouded sky. As I type this, the sun is breaking through, returning the contrast to the view of the field and barn through my ground level window.

This contrast of light and dark–this is what provides the energy of life. Contrast creates interest. Chiaroscuro. Drama. Bright light alone can create energy and joy for a time, but those who live in climates where blue skies prevail exalt in the coming of storms. Even the earth and the rocks need relief from excitement. If they were always heated by the sun, their vibrating molecules would be forever in a state of agitation, never allowing stillness to penetrate. The cold, the gray allows everything to draw into the silence of its core—an in-breath.

What to write? The pencil poised over the blank page. At the moment, I am acutely aware of the suffering of my friends. Friends with a critically ill family member, a friend whose husband with dementia has disappeared. Friends with grave illness. Friends and family suffering from the stress of trying to make it each day of their lives. Some younger, some older. I am a vessel for their emotion. The self deep inside is making room for them.

And then there are Art and Margaret, owners, architects and builders of the Ferndale Clock Tower, valiantly cheerful and ironic in the face of ridiculous financial threat from the government of a city meant to support its citizens. I’ll get back to their crazy story. It’s a small piece of the enormous and dangerous absurdities happening on a grand scale around us.  It reflects on so much more. It may remind us of the current frustration we face as citizens of a country whose leader is able to tell lie after lie with impunity.  This is a story of what happens when this is tolerated by a community.

Okay, they’re immigrants, not citizens. I’m surprised they even contemplate US Citizenship at this moment in history since they hold Canadian Passports (the country that took them in as refugees from an oppressive communist government) and perhaps passports from their native Poland. But they have contributed significantly to the welfare of this region by re-building schools and college buildings, repairing the dome of a county capital building, creating structures for parks, and last but not least, attempting to make a spectacular creation out of their old house on Main Street. They have been able to complete all of their projects on schedule, within budget and have always exceeded inspection standards. The last mentioned project, however, has represented their ultimate challenge. No other homeowners in the town of Ferndale have been held to the standards imposed on the Roszjas by the authority of the City. For over ten years, the City has acted as if it were dealing with a terror threat–a threat of terror in the form of two Polish immigrants erecting a dangerous and contagious structure on its Main Street, right there for all to see.  They have thrown as many obstacles as they could create in the path of its completion,not to exclude a barage of criminal charges thrown with great abandon at Art, and then dismissed as groundless by the court.  In one small moment of triumph, Art later won a harassment suit against the City (which, as a result, lost its insurer) with a small settlement.  

It has not let up, however.  City officials trespassed on their property while they were away working on a project across the state in order to take “incriminating” photos of recycled building materials stacked behind and on the side of the house.  Wisely, the court would not allow them to be entered as evidence since they were taken illegally. To top off the City’s Laurel and Hardy approach to persecution, staff from the City office used the pretense of an Emergency Status (due to the flooding of the local river) to trespass once again, aided and abetted by the local police shining lights on the early morning scene, and steal many valuable, recycled building materials intended for the house. Under the supervision of the police, they were hauled away in a truck, most never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, the Roszjas have had to submit to makeshift inspections created uniquely for them as the denizens of the city drive by every day, complaining to each other about these shiftless people who never finish their monstrosity. As Margaret said a while back:

The absurd never ends. So many little people want to be a part of the Clock Tower team. We have another one jumping on the wagon (a third party inspector with predictable confusion). The inspector is mixing-up codes, materials, methods of installation, applying his own standard, etc. all in concert with the attorneys—all milking the system mercilessly and all trying to drive the Clock town journey. How many drivers do you need for one wagon? The more the merrier! There are still empty benches at the back of the moving wagon.
After a forensic-style investigation with magnifying glasses, with the highest available resolution and zoom, we learned that on a molecular level, water might penetrate and accumulate in the structure. The highest standard applied to the Clock Tower is still too low for the amazing environment of our city. Under our city standards, the safest and most compliant thing is to build nothing. Even the fiddler on the roof will be in danger in the basement of our building, with or without music. We are restarting with tons of caulking, flashing and special inspection tests, hoping the next report will not find that now the building is watertight but unbreathable.
One would wonder how previous generations built Clock Towers, cathedrals, castles and those structures are still standing today without our current great team involvement in their construction…
We are looking into the future with confidence that in the end, President Trump will make the Clock Tower Great.
Forever!

At the last court hearing, they were granted the right to find a third party inspector who would be approved by both parties. The difficulty was that there is no precedent for a mid-construction inspection for homeowners. No qualified building inspector could be found in the state of Washington. Most had never heard of such a thing. When an academic was finally located who believed he might be able to come up with something, he found fault with things already approved by the city such as certain types of composition brick used for the siding. At some point it was suggested they would have to deconstruct parts of the wall, remove bricks and caulking and have them ground up and submitted for chemical analysis!

As of my last installment, the Roszjas were puzzling over how to comply with contradictory legal mandates from the City, pouring over emails and a three-inch stack of legal documents they’d recently received from the City’s attorney. All through the fall and winter, they have continued to work on the house ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week except for breaks for other construction jobs. They are now, on top of huge legal fees, facing stipulated fines of $486,000 for infractions they never committed. They have never been able to testify in their own defense to the court. Several requests have been denied. As a result, they have never had the chance to refute what the City has held to be the facts of the case. The court has just accepted these false assertions as correct and allowed them to become the basis of the City’s suit. However unconstitutional this may seem, it someone matches what we are now experiencing on a national level. As a fourteen-year-old friend of mine would say when her outrage reached crisis point, “It’s a TRAVESTY!”

Their appeal is finally moving through to a hearing in late March. Their counsel has outlined a very clear argument stating basically that the City 1) wrote their Settlement Agreement with no actual agreement with the other party (the Roszjas), 2) mandated the Roszjas complete parts of the structure but then, as the permit issuing entity, dragged their feet for two years before issuing a permit for that construction, and 3) never even granted the Roszjas their right to contest the facts of the case, face-to-face with their accusers. It should be open and shut, but I have no faith that the courts will abide by the laws.

Now we get to the light. In the shadow of this darkness, Art and Margaret carry on with liberal doses of humor. When our local Trump fanatic drove his pickup into the graveled parking lot in front of the clock tower in October, Margaret jumped at the chance to enter the City of Ferndale’s Halloween Decoration Contest for the scariest Halloween decorations. In a gesture of supreme irony, Mr. Munchler, Mayor of Ferndale and the party ultimately responsible for maintaining their ongoing persecution, had invited Art to be on the jury for this contest. In light of this honor and in order to prevent conflict of interest, Art could not submit an entry. However, Margaret determined that as an American wife, independent of her husband, she could submit an entry and receive Art’s unbiased judgment. Therefore, she was delighted that fate had delivered her the opportunity for the most genuinely frightening decoration, free of charge. She authorized, without Art’s consent, the installation of the huge Trump sign on top of the clock tower. What parallelism!  Before even a day had passed, they had lost several loyal friends. These folks weren’t laughing.

One spring, on top of an artfully arranged mound of bricks, they mounted three large crosses in front of the house. Again, unappreciated by the citizens of Whatcom County. Undaunted, last summer they established a beach in the front parking lot, blue plastic water complete with waves, a boat, a sandy beach, a beach umbrella and several beach chairs. Occasionally they and their friends could be seen lounging under the umbrella as if they had not a care in the world. A few years ago, they nailed plywood sheets to the front of the unfinished house front, creating a huge flat surface, ideal for a screen. Facing the house from the graveled lot they erected rows of chairs salvaged from a classroom at the college they were refurbishing. For a long and glorious summer evening, we drank beer as we watched, projected onto the huge screen, parts of the great film trilogy, “Red White and Blue”, by the great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, all witnessed by the Ferndale Police driving by from their extravagant new police station, just across the street and down the block.

This week, as part of their ongoing construction, they are completing the spire for the top of the tower. For now, it is a large wooden pyramid in front of the house, being covered today with zinc panels. It is topped by a tall flag pole displaying the American Flag. Such patriotism! The Masonic Founders would be proud! It was this spire the court mandated be completed before the city even got around to issuing the long-awaited permit.  And, for an even more elegantly ironic touch, two days ago, a City official drove up unannounced in his pickup.  He was one of the City crew involved in the theft of materials several years ago. In the back of his pickup sat a huge, gun-metal dark room door, strangely resembling some sort of retro, futuristic phone booth.

Art and Margaret recognized it as a piece salvaged from one of their college campus renovation jobs. They speculate the guilt must have been eating him all this time.  It now sits like some bizarre monument in front of the house, a complement to the flag pole pyramid.  Even with all the hours and hours of construction spent up on the roof through the winter weather, building things and then tearing them out to satisfy the City, they have now, at last, been able to mount clock faces on the four sides of the tower. They are all permanently set at 10:04. Evidently, no lightning strike was required to stop time at that precise moment, but who knows what the future might hold when we return to it, yet again.

From a perch on top of the house where there was once a temporary walkway from the “deck” to the tower, in the good weather one year we staged impromptu absurdist dramas with Art’s artistic sister from Canada and her witty husband, borrowing lines from the prominent Polish playwright, Witkiewicz, once again in view of the cops driving up and down Main Street, as they do many, many times a day. I haven’t laughed as hard since. As Nell said in Beckett’s Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…It’s the most comical thing in the world.” We need more theater of the absurd—now! Ah, but wait, we are at present all seated unwittingly in expensive, tax-funded seats in some enormous theater-in-the-round called America.

We will certainly have another production on March 3rd when the City of Ferndale again takes our Polish comrades back to court to contend with three-hundred pages of accusations of contempt which would (on top of attorney and court fees) at least temporarily, more than empty the royal treasury of even the Glorious Emperor and Empress of Ferndale.

Long Live the Ferndale Clock Tower! It would make a grand City Hall. In the shadow, all we can do is create some light. The sun is out now, making a most astonishing, transcendent blue in the middle of a huge cumulus cloud that has a bit of gray on its edges.

From left: Art, Margaret and dear Comrade Lloyd (one time owner of the Frank-N-Stein Pub where all the trouble started, and twice mayoral candidate)
The glorious Clock Tower spire

Poem VI

 

 

 

 

What shall we do in the face of all this beauty?

Standing on a rock overlooking the fast flowing river,

wind touches our face, blows through our ears

Washes our eyes.

The great leaning manzanita tree

does not move.

What shall we do in the face of all this darkness

pushing in all around? This danger?

The harrier comes to visit for a reason, the white

patch at the base of his tail flashing in the early

morning light as he careens through the air,

cutting it in a smooth curve as he descends.

That bird inhabits my chest,

swooping towards the field below, fierce

in graceful, silent beauty.

Grey head with sharply focused eyes,

bright. Gliding over the earth.

See each thing that moves

as if with a magnifying glass.

From above in your flight, really see

all that is happenning there

in the grasses.

Come to alight with grace

in the branches of the highest tree.

Wait.

Now that you have seen

Your patience will speak to you

of doing.

An Urgent Letter to Us

As the 1970s were drawing to a close, many of us had spent our early youth protesting against an unjust war being fought by our companions, going back to the land to live a simpler, less consumptive life, attempting to educate and protest against profligate use of fossil fuels and trying to find new ways to live together. In the midst of all the distress of the present, we may have forgotten the glue of inclusive love and community that bound us all together. It has been so mocked and belittled over the years that its reality has been all but obliterated in a haze of marijuana smoke. It was a reality.

In those waning years of the 70s, after Nixon had systematically smothered our efforts, Ford had solidified that oppression and a more liberal Jimmy Carter had been elected, many of us began to feel our biological clocks moving ahead and decided to use this moment of increased hope to complete our education or go into the workforce so we could begin careers, get resources, have families, and continue fighting for these global emergencies from the home front.

Unfortunately, a by-product of those choices was acceptance of the belief that we could work within the system to change it. Many came to believe the government could be turned in a direction that would save us. Many of my closest women friends became lawyers, academicians, and some, eventually, the bureaucrats responsible for enacting governmental policies, devout believers in the efficacy of American Democracy. Carter’s years wasted away and the pendulum swung again to the right, where it has stuck ever since, through both Republican and Democratic presidents. When, during the early Obama years, Naomi Klein said we had to take the opportunity to “Move the Center”, few heeded her call.

Sometimes those friends of mine felt they were making some progress, but most of the time they were at the mercy of policies which, at best, allowed for minuscule steps in a positive direction, and at worst, set things back years. There were a few people like my present partner, who knew the system would not save us, no matter how we tried to shift it from within. He and others like him continued to live life closer to the ground. When, out of frustration and necessity, some decided to make the attempt to push the system by joining it, the window of opportunity had closed. It was too late. They have struggled to survive while continuing to do whatever they can in the community they find.

I became a social worker just as Carter was completing his term and after life diverted me from a career in academic research and teaching. I spent thirty-five years going to work every day to do whatever I could to save children, allow families to function, and protect and care for the homeless and vulnerable. Occasionally there were times when this was possible, at least in some small way. I would be doing these things still if I had not come to feel that each day I was stepping into what felt like a building burning ferociously around us. I, too, was at the mercy of a system that fed itself rather than feeding those whom it was meant to serve. Then, I dreamt one night I was trapped in that building and people were calling from the outside, arms outstretched, imploring me to get out before the burning beams fell on me. I knew it was time to leave before the building crashed down on my head. You can’t do much when you’re dead.

Here we are forty years down the road from that shift at the end of the 70s. The same emergencies are with us. They have grown exponentially. The things we were doing every day before we surrendered to the heels of the government grinding down on our heads are still the things we need to do now, every day. From the evidence I see in all the various forms of media, the overwhelming majority of us in the opposition have inculcated the belief that it is the government that will doom us or save us. Many have taught their children that the greatest value is to change things through the use of the democratic system—which they regard as the best modality for living together the world has ever known. Perhaps with a truly functional democracy, we would get somewhere, but this is not one. I have seen this staunch belief to be the road to ruin. What was critical in the 60s and early 70s was the willingness to make personal sacrifice in order to address the over-weaning emergencies confronting us every day. It was one of the few times in our history as a species when it did not take the actual presence of war in our midst to make it viscerally apparent that our lives were at stake.

When confronted with the presence of the dangers we now face, it is clear this same sense of imminence has been lacking, even as our situation since that time has only become increasingly dire minute by minute. Protests are fine as a tool to pressure power to make slight adjustments in course. Phone calls and letters to government officials are fine for the same reasons. But these activities serve to take the edge off our anxieties. We do them and then do our best to return to our work, to living our lives pretty much as usual, diverting ourselves if we can with all the media options available.

The government will go on. We need the energy of our anxiety to do the real work. Even if one ruler is impeached, another possibly more destructive will take his place. Those in power will make decisions that are horrendously damaging to our short term health and certainly to the sustainability of life on this planet. It comes down to the same choice it came to 40-odd years ago—making revolution or, together, taking things in our own hands. As in the 70s, it is clear the first option is ridiculously out of the question. The power of the US government and its partner corporations is such that we would be immediately and thoroughly destroyed. The only alternative is to get busy and do the work ourselves. This means, for most, sacrificing what they have come to feel are the essentials of life: giving up the new cars, working in ways that give us sustenance but not much more, growing our own food, finding ways to live simply together and supporting those who are not able to make it–giving up the rat race we have been hypnotized into experiencing as essential to our very physical and cultural survival.

At last, it is becoming clear we are at war with our government. Perhaps we have some common ground with our brothers and sisters who voted for Donald Trump as an “anti-government” choice. But now that he is the government, those who still idolize him may come to recognize their hero has just shifted one set of policies that support the rich for another. His supporters have the intelligence gained from experience. If we can stop allowing Mr. Trump and his cronies to manipulate us into wasting our anger on each another, perhaps we’ll find ways to support the lives of all those who have not shared in the power for all these years instead of using our energies to maintain the unsustainable lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed.

Let’s make use of what we’ve learned over the last 45 years—the government will always disappoint us and will never do what is essential to save this planet. As do the international “terrorists”, government often benefits from a divided populace. The supporters of Trump who saw him as an antidote to the forces working against their interests may soon resume their disillusionment with government. This I can understand. The emergency is ours to face. Sinking back into sleep has allowed all the urgent situations to become only greater and more dangerous. Don’t go back to sleep! It is at your door. Act as you do in an emergency. It becomes your priority. All else is secondary. In an emergency, what is of true value suddenly becomes crystal clear.

Cutting Away

With the onslaught of Executive Orders and reports of upcoming edicts about immigration, the day was a difficult one. This heaviness in the heart is hard to navigate. The refugees who will now be unable to find refuge here. The suffering of so many penetrates to the core of things.

My mind, restless for answers, turns to thoughts of growing food.  Late in the afternoon, with the gray cover of clouds giving the world a taste of cottony metal, the air milder than the last few days, we went out to prune trees in the orchard. We started with the Asian Pears, scraggly, branching this way and that, turning towards the warmth of the sun, now pushed by the wind from the Fraser Valley, pushed in the spring by the pervasive southwest winds.

We are bundled up and peel as we go. I am still learning. Walter has the experience of forty-five-odd years and the deep intuitive sense that comes from planting these trees and working with them for all the time of their growing here on the farm, watching them, feeding them, protecting them. The question is, over and over, what will ask the tree to produce its fruit, what will give it space and light, maybe not this spring but in some spring to come.

I start by cutting away the obvious water spouts—the straight stalks that spring up from a horizontal branch, growing up and up quickly during some abundant time of water, sun and nutrients, not pausing to allow a spur to grow, no patience for the time it takes for a bud to form. The blades cut through as I squeeze the handles of the big loppers together with all my force. These branches, growing vertically as they do, drop straight to the ground as I clip them. Seeing the weight of the wood as it falls fills me for a moment with plaguing doubts whose painful swirling make me conscious of my separation from everything else, drawing in my attention to the confines of my body as a swarm of bees around my head might do. My heart is suddenly heavy again. Having the sense to stop and breathe, I look up into the branches against the gray sky. The presence of the soft flow of energy beneath my feet reestablishes itself, moving through the structure of a tree, moving gently even in the midst of winter when the growth pauses.

I begin to cut away all the little twigs that pull energy from the main flow. Then I cut the branches curving down and the branches curving in towards the center of the tree. Absorbed, I work to make the tree feel open in its center, spreading out its limbs to welcome warmth and bees and breezes, shortening a branch here and there to keep it out of the way of its neighbor and give the remaining wood more strength. Walter comes over from the apple tree he’s topping to show me how to look at the energy of the tree and to be decisive as the tree guides you, boldly and confidently sawing off a big branch here and there to provide the shape and balance. There’s a certain brutality to it, but the result for the tree feels harmonious, balanced.

“What’s the first thing to remember when you’re pruning?” Walter asks.
I respond “Make clean cuts,” thinking of my roses and of his past instruction.
“Yes,” he says, “that, but also that nature will fix all our mistakes.”
When a tendency is thwarted, it will come back in another way. The art of it is to sense where this life wants to go and not get caught in your worries.

We quietly work together on one tree for a time, he using the pole pruner to cut away high branches. Standing back to see the whole, he says,
“Okay. It’s good. Enough.”
I walk over to stand next to him and see what he is seeing.
“Yes. It feels right.”
Standing there, I actually get the sense the potential energy still sequestered deep in the earth and in the tree’s core will now spread itself with more economy. Satisfying.

As the sun begins to set, we walk around the orchard to look at the other trees, using the attunement we’ve gained in the last hour to see what remains to be done. The presence of the fruit is already there. I can smell it in the soil and the damp air. Food will be there in its cycle. My heart is clear now, warm like my hands, ready for what comes next.

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.

Conversation of the Poets

Why is the small more important than the big? It was a challenge, written on a slip of paper and left on her dresser.
It was a riddle that threatened to uproot all justifications, all questions.
“Why is the small more important than the big?”

It was itself a question that contained everything, and there, perhaps, the answer.

The Great Owl hooted in the night. One call. Then silence, perhaps only silence. Another call. A short hollow note, a shorter almost grace note, a longer hollow tone. Silence. It was the call that gave the silence its existence. No other owl answers.

The big is contained in every atom of the small.

The silent, infinite expanse is contained in every particle of matter. The matter itself is barely there, if it could be said to be there at all.

A second question, on the other side of the folded slip. “Why is death preferable to life?”

Death is the infinite which expands within every breath of life, every pulse, she answered.

The three-quarter moon rising in the east and the eagle, white head barely visible, coming to perch in the top branches of the big cottonwood as the sun was low in the southwestern sky behind him. If I had not seen the tremendous motion of its wings as it flew to the tree and settled, I would not have noticed even the great mass of it as it became part of the dark stillness of the branches. Every few moments, I returned to the window to look as the colors of the day faded slowly, then quickly. His presence became less and less distinct until, when the last gold of the sun had completely extinguished, it had melted into the gray and black of encroaching night, I, unsure whether his presence had actually been or whether I had noticed a particular vibration of the night, barely visible in the light.

It is the night that is the ground of all being, light but a temporary condition of speeding vibration that passes, stirring the emptiness with its weightless breath, through that infinite space without boundary, without definition. Are we the breath or the emptiness? Who? The hollow tone. Who, who?

The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.

Runaway

Lying in bed, deliberately sleepless, waiting to make sure there is no sound at all. For the first time, the presence in the room of vestigial objects from childhood feels slightly distasteful.

Listening. Feeling the mood of the night.  No coughing. No quiet movement. The screen already removed and put in the closet earlier when any noise was covered by kitchen clean up. Is the opening in the old casement window big enough? Unused to lying awake, all sounds are magnified in the night.

Finally, there is complete quiet. No birds. No crickets. Perhaps slight snoring from the other end of the house, but how could it really be heard? 

She pulls back the sheet, quietly puts one foot then another on the floor, bends down to slide the small pack from under the bed and, with the help of a stool she had secreted in from the laundry room, she throws the bag out onto the ground, then somehow extends one leg and her head through the rectangular opening, boosts herself up, manages to pull up the other leg and, half sitting on the casement ungracefully to push herself through, landing on her feet, but twisted, off balance, embarrassed if only in her own presence.

In the darkness of the front yard, the familiar trees come into focus, grey, colorless forms. Breathing, watching for cars on the road. Nothing. 

Walking out to the road, brushing through the forsythia, leafed out and clinging, the smells of night are dampened, one dimensional, occasional. Walking down the road past sleeping neighbors, none of the lights in windows that make things seem alive and enticing. Flat. The shades of grey loom from every depth of focus. Blackness, perhaps a green-black tinge close by. Anxiety. Will someone see? Will a police car drive by and stop to ask what the hell a young girl is doing out on the road in the middle of the night, walking by herself? Keep walking. Ignore the dread in your stomach. There are places to duck into bushes if headlights appear.

Walking on and on over the daylight-familiar territory of the approach from the township to the middle of town. This old East Coast university town. Each block is known. The sidewalk begins on the main street. The cracks and upheavals of the sidewalk each almost drearily familiar but seem menacing in the dark.  No cars. Seems odd. No movement.

She walks the two miles to the middle of town, focused on reaching the shelter of the big stone mediocracy of the one Catholic church, delusional in her naïve youth, believing that there will somehow be sanctuary there for the night.

It seems a longer way than it has any of the hundreds of times it’s been walked in the light of day.  There it is, the looming fifties cathedral with its enormous rosette window facing the road, finally, after the little grocer’s which was shut and lonely. She walks the sidewalk up to the entrance inside one of the two archways. Of course locked. She tries the other door. Locked. Turning to watch the street. What now? A bit chilly, she pulls the sweater closer around her, buttoning it all the way up.

Awed suddenly in the pervasive flattened grayness of the middle of the night, she feels the beginning of some regret, a bit of smallness, looking around the inside of the archway of this now inadequately holy place.  There’s something about the steely cold of all the gray forms, drained of warmth, around her in the night that creates a mood rather than a vision.  She’d hoped to get some sleep here, imagining a pew she could lie on, her pack for a pillow, but that clearly won’t be possible. Only concrete and cool surfaces in the one place she can think to hide till dawn, sheltered from the view of the cops, who, at fifteen, she still respects and fears. They would not like this, she is sure. They protect property and the locked doors confirm this sanctity. The presence of black trees lining the main street is more penetrating than in the light of day.  Night seems serious, meant only for the attendance of sober souls who are ready to confront it full on. The washing out of all frivolous interest flattens her out as well, pushes in on her with its severity. The night began to feel like a gray mist enveloping the world, demanding something, some kind of honor.

Wide awake, evidence of no other consciousness, she learns to wait, to have thoughts that slow themselves over time.  The fear and some encroaching bit of shame become more familiar and calm as the hours go by.  The need to wait for that light that seems forever in coming becomes the only presence.

The train station is more than a mile still. The first train to Philly doesn’t leave until nearly eight in the morning but it will be light around six. A car here and there drives down the main street. It’s a quarter to five, maybe going to work. A police car passes by on the street, marking the beginning transition towards light. Objects now have just a touch of color as if the seriousness of night were gradually losing hold. Is it time to start out yet? No, suspiciously early for a kid like her to be out. Wait till six-forty-five. No one will arrive to open the church until later. Kids will be out on the street headed towards high school where she should be on a Friday.

Seven finally comes, the growing activity on the street pushing her nerve. She shoulders the pack, straitens her hair, pushing strands behind her ears, and stands in the shadows, watching for a moment when no one will be walking down the street or driving past to see her emerge from the black holes of the church’s archway. As she reaches the sidewalk, she feels her body begin to relax. Walking is a normal thing. She warms to the dawning day and a new sense of adventure that rises above her shame, quietly joyous. But it can’t grow too big, she warns herself. There’s still the danger of discovery. The wait at the train station will be the hardest. Her parents might have enough time to come and find her or to send a cop to pick her up. She’s brought a book to read there and on the train to keep her mind occupied and to give the appearance of a student traveling.

Passing the gates of the University and the locked shops of the town, she begins to worry that some family friend on their way somewhere will catch sight of her. She clings to the shadows of the shop buildings, making herself unobtrusive. Finally, the crossing to the other side of the main street, past the University Store, just another couple of blocks to the station. There’s a short ride in the small old train from the University to the main station. She hopes to make that first ride of the morning just on time.

As she walks up, she sees the ancient two-car train standing at the station, one or two people starting to get on board. She runs the last half block into the station to buy her ticket. The clerk in his railroad cap seems matter-of-fact about selling her the ticket to Philadelphia. She runs to the train just as the conductor is starting to close the door and slides through to find a seat by herself. There are only a few other passengers—a business man or two, a middle-aged woman looking like she’s dressed for a shopping trip in the city, a young Asian woman who looks like she might be a grad student, textbook open on her lap. No one seems to pay her much attention.

She’s always loved this train ride, ever since the first time as a kid, riding backward, rocking raggedly back and forth, jiggling, rickety rackety, clackety trakety. Pastoral looking fields lined with trees, streams, deep woods and then the backs of a house or when it’s approaching the station. She allowed herself to smile, falling in love a bit with her bravery, seduced by the audacity of it. She sat back into a sense of her own unique character, an actual person who perceives the world in a way really unlike anyone else around her, happy in the reflection of her profile on the inside of the window, seen evanescently as they pass through the woods.

She thought for a moment of the woman whose address she’d been given as a haven. She pictured a woman with long, thick black hair, round face, brown rather straightforward eyes and a kind mouth, a bit heavy, coming into middle age. She had really no idea. She was a jazz singer, though. And then, quickly, there they were, at the other end of the short line, the Junction. Gathered herself, the anxiety returning, making sure of her ticket, nearly leaving it in the pocket of the seat in front of her. She had just enough money for the ride and a few days of food. In the bottom of her pack, there was a nickel bag of marijuana her friend had sent as a present to the jazz singer, its presence eating a bit at that slight burning in the center of her chest.

Out the small train, through the tunnel under the rails to the westbound track, up the stairs, down the platform alongside the parking lot, in through the heavy doors to the waiting area, about twenty minutes to spare. Relieved to have gotten this far, she found a vacant shiny wooden bench and sat at one end, facing the track. She took out her book, one she’s already read several times and found absorbing. Aware of the people around her, touching down into the world of her book, she breathed, poised in her flight.

In the top of her field of vision, as she attempted to focus on the page, a form appeared, solid, large in a rain coat she suddenly knew. She looked up as her father took the few steps towards her, coming to stand in front of her with his hands in his raincoat pockets. She looked up at him, shot through with a bitter, burning acid of guilt, afraid of his eyes. He looked at her steadily for a moment and then, drawing one hand out of his pocket he pulled with it a familiar worn brown leather billfold.  Looking at it briefly, he opened in and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, a lot in those days. He extended it towards her. “Here. Take this. You’ll probably need it,” looking at her and then looking down and away  He folded the wallet with the same hand and put it back in his pocket. With the other hand, he reached into another pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.  Unfolding it, still standing, he put on his reading glasses dangling from the black elastic cord he usually wore around his neck. With a characteristic look down through his glasses, he read the page.

I’ve left home. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Just know I’m fine and will call you in a couple of days.

“That’s it?” he said. “That’s all? Just that? No explanation? Nothing? That’s pretty cheap.”

Shame stung her sharply and brought tears to her eyes. Speechless for a long moment, the twenty limp in the hand resting on her leg, she said: “How did you know where to find me?”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “You think I’m dumb? I looked up the schedules for Philadelphia and New York and picked the first one leaving. If I hadn’t found you here, I’d have gone to the next one “

Stupid as well. How could she have thought it could work?  So awkward to be in this young body, sitting there, no escaping the elaborate stupidity of it all, crushed. He said, “May I?” indicating the bench next to her. She nodded, unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears, wet-cheeked.

He said, “You know, the worst part of it for me is that it makes me know I’m a lousy father. When we adopted you, I knew what an enormous responsibility we were taking on. Your mother wanted a baby so badly, but I was worried—worried about whether I could do it. I didn’t tell her. And then, I loved you so much.”  By this time the tears were flowing down her face, freely, sobs, gasps choking back the wail that was trying to force its way out.

“I know now that I was right. I’ve been a lousy father. You can’t stand me. My drinking hurts you. I know and I haven’t stopped. I may not ever.”

Desperate, the sobs now escaping, despite the women looking at them, she grabbed his hand and whispered, rather loudly through the gasping, “ Daddy, no! No! I don’t hate you. I love you! You’re my dad. I didn’t mean to be so stupid. I’ve just been so damned unhappy. I wanted to be free of it!”   She said then, “I’ll stay. I won’t go.”, turned on the bench, looking at him.

He looked up and sideways at her face. “No. You should go now. We’ll see what happens. Go. Your train is here.” She sat, unmoving for a moment. He stood up, picked up her pack, and handing it to her, motioned for her to get up. As she stood, he put his arm around her shoulder, moving to guide her towards the door. She seemed rooted briefly, but then looked at him and said, “I can’t go. I can’t leave you.” He said, “Yes. Yes. You will.”

He hugged her shoulder quickly and moved her through the door. People were stepping up into the train as the pressure from the engines gave its low whistle and the conductors leaned out on the chrome bars to help people up. He walked her up to a step

“Good-bye,” he said, squeezing her hand as he looked for an instant into her eyes, “I may not be here when you get back,” and turned away.

The conductor was already ushering her through the door with a man pushing up behind her on the stair. As she stepped up and through to the inner door, she turned and tried to see him, ready to push back through to people congregating in the entranceway and bang down the stairs after him. For a moment, she couldn’t see him. Then she caught sight of his back, khaki raincoat-covered, going around the far corner of the station, down into the parking lot.  Everything seemed to drain down through her feet. She was empty, a bag of limp rags.  She pushed through and found a seat by herself next to the window, dropped her pack on the seat next to her and turned her face toward the window, catching the reflection of her desperate eyes just before they vanished in the light.

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Gathering

My apologies for the hiatus in my blog. Here’s from Thursday…

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Last night we got together with our friends from Susteinability. We met at Maggie’s Pub where we had started meeting about eleven years ago. For many years, Walter and I never missed a Wednesday evening. Lately, the energy from the other participates has been pretty diffuse so we’ve let go a bit and missed a few.

Last night was full of a different energy, generated from long friendship and the weathering of years of local politics.  The evenings had started as a place to meet and talk over beers about all the topics that related to farming, gardening and living sustainably. Broad range. We shared ideas about enriching the soil, cultivating landraces, saving seeds, advocacy, local politics, Lloyd’s idea for a Double Dome swimming pool, mycology, money, getting along, child rearing, everything. The young farmers who were just starting out then have moved into town or moved away. Walter and I started a Farmer’s Market in Ferndale that morphed into a Public Market, and now, under the guidance of one of our Susteinabiilty members, is hanging on by its fingernails in the summer, hoping to barely preserve itself as a vessel of possibility which could expand as times get harder. Local farmers certainly can’t make a living with the markets that currently exist.

When we started, the pub was called The Frank-N-Stein, billed as the smallest brew-pub in America. Lloyd owned the place and the rights to Whatcom Brewing, which he continued in the back building at his house down the road. It was a loose business proposition. He opened when he felt like it, on a skeletal schedule. We’d tell Bellingham friends how wonderful it was and they’d come to Ferndale of an evening just to find it closed. But every night he was there, friends came by to talk with Lloyd, whose expansive warmth and wit enfolded everyone. In 2004, when we had just bought our farm west of Ferndale, we saw the place on Main Street as we drove through town. One night we finally decided to drop in for a pint. We were charmed. Lloyd was the kind of pub owner you imagine when you think about the fomentation of ideas in the local pubs of Boston in the 1760s and 70s. Or the places in Scotland and Ireland where rebellious plans were hatched in small, fervent groups, mixed with jokes and song. Llyod knows everyone and connects people who need to know each other. It’s a significant talent.

At the time we met, he’d just run for mayor and lost by a narrow margin. He ran again a few years later and lost a second time to a mayor we’d all voted for as a Progressive for his first term, who even to a greater degree than Obama, betrayed our hopes scandalously.  That mayor had pegged the Frank-N-Stein as “the place where all the trouble starts”.  I joined the Board of Directors of the Double Dome Swimming Pool project and tagged along as Lloyd made valiant attempts to stir up interest in this fascinating and ingeniously sustainable community project. After our first year of discouraging experience as farmers at the Bellingham Farmer’s Market, we cooked up plans for a Ferndale Farmer’s Market at the back table of the pub, Lloyd bringing us cheap microbrews and sitting to talk every so often.  There we met the array of Whatcom County characters—wild New Jersey transplants, Whatcom County natives who hunted, fished, farmed, made wine and smoked their own fresh-caught salmon, Polish immigrants who were building a Clock Tower on Main Street, a Korean orphan adopted in childhood by a Dutch Reformed family in Lynden now with five girls of her own, a red-headed woman who raised sheep and organic vegetables across from one of the town’s middle schools, a Vietnam vet who experiments with biochar and sustainable gardening of all kinds, former English majors who were trying to make a go of mixed animal and vegetable farming, a Macedonian who made wonderful ethnic sausage, etc. etc. And then there were the two of us—mid-life sweethearts of diverse backgrounds, a Minnesotan anthropologist/public intellectual/farmer/writer and an East Coast-raised intellectual and social worker/writer trying to save the world one child at a time.  We have all traveled the road together, some dropping off onto other side roads, others joining in as their paths converged with ours.

Last night, there was Lloyd, emerging from a serious illness, somehow expansive again, his wit as sharp as ever. And our friend with the five beautiful, talented and difficult girls whose last year has been incredibly complex. And a downtown landlord, friend of Lloyd’s who is opening a wine and coffee bar on the corner next to Maggie’s. And the Polish couple, successful government construction contractors and erstwhile builders of their own magnificent project, the Ferndale Clock Tower. And our newer members, the owners of the lavender farm up the road from us, fellow travelers we’ve known since they moved in about three years ago. And the neurologist of Latvian heritage who married a Latvian woman he saw walking down the street in Riga when he was there many years ago, visiting family.  We laughed and talked briefly about Trump and the joke that our Polish friends had pulled with their Halloween Trump sign on top of their Clock Tower, the highest Trump sign in Whatcom County. It was offered to them one day in October by the “Trump Guy” who drove all around the county with huge Trump signs on both sides of his steroid-sized pickup truck.  Although it was the scariest thing they could think of for Halloween, the irony, as usual, was lost on the majority. They now have Tea Partiers dropping by unannounced at the Clock Tower daily.  They collect their opinions as connoisseurs of American oddities.

As I sat back in the corner and observed for a moment, pressed up against Lloyd whose head is  now bald and watching Walter beside me telling a story, it occurred to me that there truly is a seismic shift that, although the plates have been moving all these past eleven years, is now so clearly obvious to us all. The question appeared then, like a bubble—what to do to help that which is obvious in this moment to so many to remain before us all at every moment. We will continue to  live through an unfolding crisis. There is so much to attend to and so much to push us back to a waking sleep in order to tolerate the stresses of life. Although my material resource may be slim and my physical strength may be ebbing, I have the fortitude built by years of experience watching, listening and experimenting with my actions and the inner strength built by years of spiritual practice. I am listening. I am opening my eyes deliberately every morning, remembering the dreams that kept me company during the night. I am getting up and doing one thing that, as I watch it, as I hear it, as I feel it, has positivity, life, movement, beauty. And another, and another…

It is perhaps actually when we give up hope but do not lose interest, give up our personal investment yet preserve our investment in all of us together, and in this state, continue to do the work… it is perhaps in this way that something which is in itself hope will actually begin to emerge. We may need to give up much of what we have gathered around us to give ourselves comfort, including our conceptions of ourselves and of those around us. We may need to strip ourselves down pretty close to the bone, but that’s the work anyway, isn’t it?

 

 

The Day After

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I spent close to two hours this morning without thinking about Trump, first deep in meditation and then absorbed, deliberately, in finishing a novel I’ve been reading.

For the few days since the end of the kind of the time-keeping we reserve for the good weather, I’d been enjoying waking up with the sun, just before it rises.  It’s urging me up early. I will keep pushing my waking earlier, moving against the direction of the sun’s path for a bit so I can regain my old habit. I stayed in bed this morning, though, to absorb the jolt of the night, but I vowed it would be the exception. It is better for me to be up for a while before the light returns. I love the quiet, the stillness of the energy before the energy of the light begins moving molecules faster and faster.

Election day dawned with a full blue sky, warm and still. The breeze began mid-morning and kept freshening, bringing more clouds, some with gray centers. The wind was warm and the sun shone on and off, heating things up to a record for around here this late in November.  There was a pause in the settling of the season into rain and wind and chill. The moon, visible just around our early dusk, was almost exactly half, just like the balance of our country. I watched it float over the barn as I finished preparing a meal for our guests and drank wine and thought about how nature sometimes seems to reflect the state of the human condition.

The repairs on the barn were completed two days ago. It is solid and sturdy and filled with the presence of the huge mow and the old stalls. It feels good sitting there in our consciousness of the space of our land, whole, healthy, a weight, a capacity, a real place. It could become whatever could be imagined—a place for refugees, perhaps, from all this. On the morning of the election, I took a walk to see what was happening in the world.

Somewhere along the way, practicing seeing with eyes that took in all the green, blue, brown, orange light into an infinite mind, a thought experiment occurred to me. What if someone were to be born without the mechanism to invert the image created by the light coming in through the curving cornea? They would then, presumably, see a world upside down from those with “normal” occipital brains. From my point of view, then, as this gifted person, would it be that the sky would be below my head and my feet above my eyes, walking along a road above my feet? But, I would then never know that my “up” was not the other person’s, and my “down” their “up”. Would it change anything about how I went about doing things? Not, I think. I began to smile to myself. How do we know how anyone perceives the light, the sound let alone the complexities of all the interactions of humans around them in circles spiraling outwards? We assume we take in all this sensory information and experience it pretty much in the same way. After all, the way we’re set up has many more similarities than differences. But hold on, there are so many subtle differences as well!  Happy in the brightness of everything around me, I wove out methods in my mind to test whether someone had this reversal of ordinary visual perception, hitting on an experiment I thought could clinch it.

These thoughts gradually hooked themselves up to another chain—how do we know what anyone is perceiving? That it is anything like what I, in this particular ego, perceive? We hear speech, we are designed to feel the same emotions we see in another’s expression, movement, tone. We can touch each others’ skin and seem to feel the same sensations they feel as we touch. We can smell—fear, exertion, the earthy smell of illness. We can occasionally sense something more directly with an organ not necessarily physical. But we cannot perceive directly what another ego perceives, not even with our most intensive creative imagining, not even if we have lived intimately for years and years. We try to devise verbal experiments to catch them out, but more often than not, I am sure we mistake one thing for another.

My neighbors, I am sure, in some part see promise in Donald Trump. They see hope where theirs was almost dead.  Where I see a deadened consciousness, they may see light, inspiration. What does their perception do to how things will unfold, minute to minute.  There is no experiment I can think of that will allow me to understand whether each one somehow perceives an inversion of the objects, the events that I perceive.  I can only use my organ of imagination. I can only create other possibility so other imaginations, hiding somehow within the packages of human individuality, might see a way to jump in and ride along together for awhile. Those possibilities, built bit by bit, day after day, I imagine will help me and those I love to survive. I imagine they may even percolate outwards. Even someone seeing an inversion of the objects I am seeing might benefit. Hard to tell.  But what else can I do but act from my own perceptions and settle my mind so I can see more clearly? There’s certainly a lot to be done so we can continue taking care of each other, here, in this world where we have somehow ended up, somehow together.