More About Grandmothers

My grandmother’s home was at the top of a two-story wooden stairway in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. When I visited, I was always a small child, starting at the bottom of an endless stairway leading to a landing I could see only when I reached the tenth step. My father would follow me, laden with suitcases, my mother bringing up the rear. When my foot reached the landing, my grandmother would be standing there, stout legs bound in some sort of black cotton hose, her round softness leaning down to engulf me in a tent of pillow and fabric, smelling of sweat, something a bit acrid and something that smelled like the moment you pull a carrot from the earth.

There would be hugs and wafts of conversation above me, some in a language I didn’t understand, some in the language I did but that sounded mysteriously like the language I didn’t. This mass of movement, weight and flow would go through the old screen door, smelling of dust and wood without paint, my grandmother’s hand, sticking in my memory, pushing on the aging gray wood around the ancient screen, and we would be suddenly inside in her kitchen, my father taking a bag up the stairs at the back near the stove to the rooms above.

My mother would sit for a moment in a cracked, padded chair at the kitchen table, with its red oilcloth hanging over the edges. I might lean against her, absorbing the smells of the house, the blackness of the huge coal stove that dominated the back corner of the kitchen, cold at the moment, patient, the counter taking up the whole of one wall, lined with objects covered with patterned dish cloths, still sending out muffled odors of meat cooked with potatoes, onions and carrots, warm pastry, vinegar, and the rich smell of cakes made with filbert flour. I waited, breathing, while they talked about the trip and the health of Mr. Djingalevski, the storekeeper who lived below.

I waited patiently, fully at peace, for my grandmother to come over to me and take my hand. Then she would lead me across the kitchen, up the narrow stairs and into her small bedroom. There I could see on the feather bed a new, small stuffed horse, always the same simple pattern, made of colorful fabric, mane, tail and eye made of the same yarn. I climbed into the bed, boosted by my grandmother’s softly fat arms, to take possession of this new member of a growing herd. With my gift clutched to my chest, we would go back down the stairs where my grandmother would sit heavily in her wooden rocker and pat her lap for me to come up as my father came back down the stairs to join us.

There I would stay while she rocked with one arm around my shoulders, my head between her bosoms where I could hear the hollow reverberation of her Polish-English and breathe in her rich, earthy smells as she talked with my father. He would be unpacking, with some ceremony, the bag of gifts we’d brought her. He’d first pull out, with dramatic flair, the old blue glass face cream jar he always carefully re-filled with white Jergen’s face cream, offered as a new jar of some now unattainable favorite. Then a bottle of vodka, maybe a dress my mother had picked out for her, meat, some fresh vegetables if they were in season. After the ritual, we’d sit and talk as she left me in the rocker to get plates of sweets from the sideboard, with milk from a bottle that always tasted so different from the milk I drank back at home, and coffee and maybe a vodka for my father. She arranged it all on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Always more food, there would be sandwiches and fresh cucumber pickles with dill and sour cream until we couldn’t eat anymore.

Then she would take us down the wooden stairs to the back yard to see the garden. As we walked, she would stoop once or twice to pull something from the grass, always a four-leafed clover she would reach back to hand me, with a slight smile I could catch only quickly as she turned away. If it were still late summer or early autumn, she would pull me a huge orange carrot, break off the leaves, rub it on her apron and offer it to me to eat, the smell of earth and taste of earth and orange sweetness mixed with the pungent fragrance of turning leaves. Over the houses in the next yard, over some trees in the mid-distance, loomed glowing mountains of black stones, smoking and steaming, sending up some strange smell of rotten eggs and smoke. Sometimes I remember a crow, calling from the tree in the back corner of the yard, somehow part of the background of misty emanation, the voice of the slag heaps with their steaming fumes.

This afternoon I stood at the kitchen sink and watched several small mobs of birds fly around over the field, back and forth, up and down, each individual a part of a whole guided by wind, following the movements of their nearest neighbors, swooping up and down, back and forth in patterns of unison. As I watched, I knew it must generate a kind of ineffable and inherent joy.

And now I’d like to tell you another extraordinary ordinary thing. Many, many years ago, I spent a summer in Ithaca, NY, caring for the child of a Pakistani woman, Saadia, who was studying for her Ph.D. at Cornell. I lived with her, her three-year-old-son who had named himself Sana, and her auntie, Bibijon.

The three months I spent there was for me a kind of retreat, a pause. When I arrived, I knew little about this small family other than Saadia had known a man called Samuel Lewis, a Sufi master and great teacher who had died the year before in San Francisco. In the days that followed, Saadia told me more of their history, how Bibijon, although an aunt just a few years older than she, had taken on her guardianship, care and protection when Saadia’s parents had died suddenly when she was still a teenager. She told the story of how, when Bibijon herself was three, she had fallen from a second story window when her Ayah was distracted. She had barely survived and was left with a partially paralyzed left arm that became withered over time and a limp on her left side. As a grown woman, she was like some beautifully made marionette whose puppeteer held one side slightly crumpled in against her body with a skillful twist of his hand. Then, around the age of six or seven, she had fallen into a well whose cover was accidentally left partially open. With her functioning arm, she managed to grab a cross bar inside the well as she dropped. She hung on with that one arm for over an hour, yelling for help, before she was finally rescued. For all this, she never complained, only took care of those she loved.

Saadia had been a young girl, maybe nine years old, at the time of Partition, the British solution to the problems they had created during the process of leaving India. Muslims and Hindus who had lived together amicably for millennia were whipped into incredible acts of violence against each other. She and her family had been among those Muslims hastily packed onto trains so overcrowded that people rode on top of the railway cars. They traveled this way for several days, through dangerous territory, where Hindus were killing and raping Muslims and Muslims performing equally violent acts against their former Hindu neighbors. They were being driven away from their home in India to the newly created Pakistan, to the city of Lahore. Like so many, they did not want to leave their ancestral home. They, too, had had their role to play in achieving Independence. Meanwhile, millions of Hindus were leaving their ancestral homes in what was now Pakistan to move in the opposite direction, sometimes with moments’ notice. Most people left behind everything except what they could carry in a small bag. It is often called the largest human migration in history–an estimated ten million altogether. More than a million people probably died during the violence that resulted from Partition, some in their ancestral home, some on the trip. Saadia spoke little about it.

I imagine the family must have settled well into their new home over the years. They had always been highly respected, devout, well-educated and generous to the community. They built a fine new home which they named Bhallah House. It is clear they resumed their position as respected community members, probably contributing to the creation of a new government in this new country. It is an era of her history, the time she had spent with the parents she’d lost too soon, about which she never spoke. She did speak, however, without vanity, of her beauty as a young woman and her pride in the fact she had been the first Pakistani woman to marry a “foreigner”. She had married a handsome American man she had met during her years of study. He had converted to Islam and they had a wedding of great extravagance and beauty in Lahore, publicized throughout the country. They returned to Ithaca soon after so Saadia could complete her studies. It was there she began to realize with increasing clarity that her new husband suffered tragically from manic depression. That summer, a year before my stay, he had managed to purchase a gun from a local gun shop despite Saadia’s attempts to alert the community to the possibility and shot himself in the head in the woods near their home.

That summer when I was twenty-three, they were continuing to hear this shot echo through their lives every moment of every day, although no one would be able to tell looking in. Bibijon spent her days in the small student housing apartment near the campus, cooking, cleaning, praying and talking quietly and intimately with Saadia. She was a tiny woman. I could embrace her whole frame between my shoulders and gently fold her in as if holding a bird in my hand. Even though Sana was now getting bigger, with a round head of dark, curling hair, and she could not carry him, she would sit with him on the bed when he cried, her good arm around him, thumping him rhythmically on the back with her paralyzed hand, sometimes singing quietly in Urdu. I would watch him respond with his whole body, calming, sinking deep into her chest, his sobs becoming sharp in-breaths. Very soon you could hear the relaxed breathing of near sleep. When mothers visited with colicky babies, she walked them, holding them closely and tightly to the soft part of her shoulder, thumping their small backs in a surprising way, always quieting them when no one else could.

One night a week or so into my stay, Bibijon made a soup based on a rich broth made of lamb livers from the Hallel butcher, seasoned with a mixture of spices only she knew, some variation on the infinite combinations that make up the concept of Curry. Its aroma had filled the house since lunch time, incredibly enticing, inducing embarrassing stomach rumblings even when no hunger was possible. Finally, dinner time arrived. On the one small patch of floor with no furniture, Saadia spread, as usual, a beautiful flowered cloth reserved for meal time. As she and Bibijon laid table settings (I was forbidden, still treated as a kind of guest), I sat cross-legged next to the cloth. Then the brought heaping bowls full of soup and plates of cooked greens from the tiny kitchen area and, laying them on the cloth, came to join me, chatting companionably, pulling their saris around their legs. Sana perched on a bed with a small plate of finger foods near him, Saadia and Bibijon taking turns feeding him broth from a small cup, he smiling and making sounds of satisfaction. After dinner, he was put to sleep with singing and Saadia, Bibijon and I sat talking, comfortably arranged on the beds grouped together in one room, Sana’s breathing like the presence of a small, warm animal.

A sense of completeness, of perfect comfort and peace, had settled with the evening, a feeling of another time, another culture. After talking for a while about their lives in Lahore, Saadia asked me to talk more about my own life, to know each other better she said. What they had spoken to me about their lives had been frank and straightforward. It would clearly be ungracious and ungenerous not to reciprocate. Their lives together had been full both of wonders and of horrendous grief. I was a young woman, raised in the privilege of the American middle class who had taken risks in ways only the secure can take. There were things that had happened in my life in the last year—events that had left me shamed and devastated—I had spoken of to no one outside the circle of my family and my closest friend. With these women from a background so sheltered, so distant from chosen risks, I had kept this world in me hidden, as if it might defile them. But in that moment of infinite capacity, I was conscious for the first time of my thoughts filing past through my mind as if on a ticker tape and for the first time of innumerable times to come, I instructed my mouth, despite its reluctance, to open and speak whatever it would. The words formed themselves and somehow burst their bounds. The story, the details, the emotions, I observed as they emerged as if a story from someone else’s life. As I spoke, Saadia translated softly for Bibijon whose English was rudimentary.

As I told it, the narrative became increasingly clear, and again for the first time, I recognized the volcanic aspect of the experience, how it had vomited forth the entire collection of building blocks I had carefully arranged during my adolescence. Here I was then, without justification, without defense. Bibijon nodded again and again as somehow she began to understand the reason for the tears now running down my cheeks and onto my shirt. Touching her paralyzed hand to the middle of her chest, she motioned to me with the other, patting the edge of the bed beside her.

“Come. Come.”

As if magnetized, pulled, I went to sit close to her, and she, taking me with her strong hand, pulled me gently to the floor, pulling my head against her knees. As I had come towards her across the room, I had seen some light in her eyes, not quite of sadness. Her eyes held me with a penetrating clarity as I had approached her from across the room, only seeing, nothing else. Surrounding my shoulders with her paralyzed arm, she now began to sing softly, holding me firmly against her and patting my back solidly with her other hand. thumping as if pounding some certain note into the enclosure of my body. Saadia, too, began to sing. Any sense of self dissipated as a fog disappears in a light wind. There was nothing to do but sink into the enormity of this stillness as grief opened itself like a dark blossom.

One bird called from some tree in the darkness. All others had roosted for the night.

Sing! Sing Forever!

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Before I go on, I have to tell you something about my granddaughter.

No, no! I know, but I really have to tell you!

She sings opera. No, not like the kinder whizzes on the internet who stun you by singing ‘O Mio Bambino Caro’. She sings about the things happening in her day, the things she likes, what she feels, what she sees. She improvises. It’s a kind of arioso (“a light airy melodic commentary”), like a recitative but more musical and without the repetitions. We sing together or take turns. And she dances.

She has danced since she was only able to sit in her infant seat, rocking her body and waving her arms to the music of the French children’s songs her mother sang to her. When she could stand and then walk she danced to anything with intrinsic music—music itself, the rhythm of a dishwasher, the light dancing in the pool at the rose garden. All of life’s rhythms inspire some joyous response in her bones, in her cells. At her grandpa’s sixty-fifth birthday, when she was not yet two, she danced for hours in the middle of the living room, first to the guitarist playing in the corner, then to the recorded music, then to the rhythm of conversation and laughter, a spirit delighting in herself and the elation of music and movement. Now at three, when, yesterday, she was invited to a rock music fest, she danced with everything she has, swaying her hips, moving her feet in time with the music, ignoring everything else. Then she sang about it all the way home.

Her mother called us last night to pass on the joy of it all, her father and Lina playing in the background. Lina got on the phone and we talked about the apples, grapes and plums we had sent home with her a few days ago. She reported she had eaten them all. Then she asked, “How are you doing, Baba? What did you do today?” A rosy heat suddenly glowed like a wood stove fire being lit in my chest, the same sensation I remember from so many moments when my daughter was little, the sense that laughter, barely suppressible, was bubbling up from somewhere deep in my chest, driven by the delight that springs up from surprise, fed to some ridiculous degree by love. I told her about writing and working in the garden. “Wow!” she said. “I love you,” we told each other. She

A rosy heat suddenly glowed like a wood stove fire being lit in my chest, the same sensation I remember from so many moments when my daughter was little, the sense that laughter, barely suppressible, was bubbling up from somewhere deep in my chest, driven by the delight that springs up from surprise, fed to some ridiculous degree by love. I told her about writing and working in the garden. “Wow!” she said. “I love you,” we told each other. She asked “What are you doing now?” I explained we were sitting at the dining room table and Grandpa was trying out his new Fitbit that told him how fast his heart was beating. “Why?”, she asked. Walter replied, “Because he likes to.” She said, “I want to talk to Grandpa.” “What are you doing, Grandpa?” “Why do you need to know about your heart?” By this time, all four of the adults on both sides of the phone connection were feeling something like the people seated around the tea table in the scene in Mary Poppins when the table rises with each new crescendo in their laughter. Somehow we were managing, just barely, to keep our faces composed. We knew that if we didn’t use our best

By this time, all four of the adults on both sides of the phone connection were feeling something like the people seated around the tea table in the scene in Mary Poppins when the table rises with each new crescendo in their laughter. Somehow we were managing, just barely, to keep our faces composed. We knew that if we didn’t use our best grown-up restraint there would certainly be a stern, “Don’t laugh at me! It’s not funny!” which we would have to then say was true, even though we knew her entire being points directly to the real source of laughter.

Walter handed me the phone with a shrug and a smile and I, to distract her from her vigorous line of questioning which we struggled to make out over the phone,  asked if she could sing me a song.

“Which song?” she replied.

From the room on the other end of the phone I heard her mother say,

“Your own song. The kind you make up.”

Prompted, she began her opera. It went on for some time, about the dancing, and the apples, and her mommy and her daddy, playing soccer (she can already dribble down the field and kick a ball dropped onto her feet), her grandpa and everything. I wandered from room to room for awhile on speaker phone so Walter could hear.

We had to distract her again to end the song or it would have gone on and on into the night. It would have been a wonder, but even flowing brooks need to come to rest for awhile in quiet pools.

Tomorrow I will tell you stories about other grandmothers, connected as they are.

Walk Ahead

Walk ahead. It was 1969. There was a huge rally on the mall of the nation’s capital–some say seven-hundred and fifty thousand, some say a million. Many of us had been at the first Moratorium Against the War in 1967. We were among the thousands arriving in cars, in buses and on bicycles that morning or the night before. We spent the day as part of this gathering of humanity, young and old, veterans, students, workers, Civil Rights activists, all together–listening to Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary, African-American leaders. Later, a crowd of us formed to march on the Justice Department. Tens of thousands marched together, loosely led by the Yippees who had been the inspiration.

Suddenly in the distance towards the head of the march, I caught sight of a dear friend I hadn’t seen for some time.  Chollie, towering above the crowd, was stretched to his full seven lanky feet, draped in an over-sized, flapping American flag.  As I tried to push forward through the crowd to catch up, a huge phalanx of helmeted police, like some swarm of enormous carapaced insects, converged at the back of the crowd. As the awareness of their presence moved forward through the crowd, the message that they were ordering us to disperse traveled as if by electric impulse.  Waves of shouted questions rippled through the crowd. Soon roars of protest rose and fell.  In the spirit of the times, some turned to approach the police with flowers and were met by the blank, black helmets and riot gear. Others may have thrown rocks. It’s not clear. Within moments, tear gas grenades were launched directly into the crowd. Those protesters at the back, nearest the grenades, began to panic and push ahead into the crowd, the force of this thrust met by screams of protest and cries of fear from the crowd in front of them.

I looked ahead and saw Chollie, his flag now extended high over his head, bare chested, projecting in his strong voice back to the crowd as he continued to walk towards the Justice Department,

“Walk friends! WALK! Pretend you’re going to a Sunday picnic! Walk!”

The crowd behind him slowed, the ripple of warm calm traveling as if languidly all the way to those at the back. The crowd slowed, like a soothed animal. Many of us began walking backwards to monitor those behind us, smiling, wetting rags with water from bottles and handing them to each other, easing the terrible stinging in our eyes. Tear gas canisters continued to hit the pavement here and there around us, sporadically, until the air became saturated with tear gas. As it became unbearable, many of us split off from the crowd, moving towards the park at Dupont Circle in hopes of getting away from the burning air. There, as people began to gather together in small groups to discuss the next steps, there was a commotion on one side of the park. Word filtered through the crowd that some of the protesters had thrown a rock at the National Guard and overturned a police car. The gathered police and National Guard had already begun to push towards the crowd again. A new cloud of choking tear gas quickly filled the air. People began dispersing, running away from the park down the streets that radiate from the circle.

It was a helter-skelter moment, groups losing track of each other in the chaos. As dusk was falling, my friend and I held hands and ran together, looking rather blindly for some refuge from the gas. We ducked into the basement stairwell of a residential building and, finding a door open, went through into an entrance hall and closed the door. As we sank down to the cool floor, my friend seemed to be sobbing. I turned to her. Tears were flowing down her cheeks. As I poured water into her palms and she, trembling, tried to wash her eyes, tried to catch her breath, she told me in short bursts that the tears were only in part a reaction to the gas. She had been in Mexico during the previous summer when, it was said by observers, some three-hundred protesters in the central square of Mexico City had been shot by police snipers.

They had largely been students. They were protesting government policies sanctioning the spending of the equivalent of a billion dollars on the Summer Olympics about to open in their capital city. They were protesting the institution of martial law that attempted to suppress the opposition of a people impoverished and oppressed. My friend’s tears were tears of panic, tears of remembrance, tears of recognition. As I put my arm around her shoulder, she shivered. We, too, were students protesting policies of a government that perpetrated an insane war, sending our friends to their deaths, sending our friends to kill civilians in a country across the world, calling those who saw these realities crazy.  Outside were the sounds of large groups of people shouting to each other, running, trying to get away from the gas still spreading through the streets. No shots had been fired except those of tear gas canisters. The Kent State shooting was still a little more than six months away.

Eventually the street outside began to quiet into the calm of the late night. We opened the door and cautiously climbed the stairs to the now almost empty street. After wandering for a while in a kind of shock, we found the friends we’d come with in the park at Dupont Circle. Someone passed out squashed hoagie sandwiches she’d bought earlier in the day. We found we were ravenous.

From there, memory fades. What it most vivid in my mind is that image of Chollie, booming out,

“Walk! Just walk ahead. Just like you’re going to a Sunday picnic!”

In the face of chaos, in the face of those who would block us from doing what is essential, even though it seems too late, we still must breathe, slow down, take care of each other and walk ahead.  We knew this then. We cannot forget.

 

2016

 

The Ocean at La Push

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Standing in the cold ocean water up to my calves, the sound of the waves and the wind having soaked in through my ears and my pours, I looked out towards the horizon, feeling the ebbing wave pulling the sand from under my feet, making holes under my heels, shifting my weight slightly backwards. The moving sand tickled playfully. I remembered this feeling from my childhood, standing in the waves at Cape Cod.

I waited to feel the next wave washing in to see if it replaced the sand under my heels. I listened to the immense whoosh of the wave still moving away from me, infinite in its scope but curved into some finite form by the geography of the shore.  The incoming and outgoing ocean itself had created that geography over some seemingly infinite time. As I waited for the last faint diminution of that rushing sound, the gradual crescendo of the next flowing wave began at just the point of its dying, like the motion of a swing coming back after the child’s feet had curled underneath her as far as they could.

After several moments absorbed in the sensations of the waves washing in and out, my concentration disrupted, I moved my feet, walking along with the edges of the jagged waves, some coming in further, some staying closer to the depths where the land drops away. As I turned towards the dunes and the piles of logs pushed by storms to the top of the beach, Walter called to me, over the roaring of the ocean, “What were you thinking about just then, when you were looking out toward the horizon?”

I stopped and gathered my thoughts, which were already straying, then said “I was thinking how the ebbing wave sucks the sand out from under my heals. It makes two holes. I was waiting to see whether the incoming wave filled them back up. It doesn’t. The next ebb wave just takes away more. I have to move around a bit so I don’t fall over.”

My curiosity reawakened, I turned and looked out again at the waves coming in, the sound of the roiling froth, the sensation of movement in the meeting of going in and going out. I began to breathe with the sounds of the waves, breathing in with the whole length of the incoming rush and breathing out with the until the sound had receded completely, breathing in again with the whoosh of sound coming towards me. By just the smallest margin, it was a longer breath than I could take.  The ocean was breathing for the planet. It was my lungs that had lost their full capacity. If I sat with the waves and adjusted my breathing, I was sure, over time, they would regain their rightful strength and I would breathe completely again. It would take a lot of practice.

From the beginning, it is the ocean that breathes. Everything breathes with it. The tide comes in gradually, waves shifting randomly, and everything rises with it.  At the moment of the shift in the pull of sun and moon, the tide pivots, at the end of that in-breath, and shifts. Imperceptibly, each incoming wave becomes part of the breath going out, leaving behind it more and more of the shore where life bubbles up from its time underwater into its time with the air, the huge breathing of the tides containing within it the rhythm of the waves.  Strange to know this after so many years with the ocean. It somehow shifts everything.

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With My Daughter

In honor of today, my daughter’s birthday.

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When we arrived at the wonderful old hotel, the weather was perfect–a bright blue, buff and green summer afternoon with a light wind off the ocean which was just the other side of the three story, wooden, green-painted Sylvia Beach Hotel. It had stood there calmly near the Yaquina Light House since 1913, its big wooden framed windows taking in the surroundings. Now it was a literary themed hotel, each bedroom designed around a different author.

Years before, we had been travelling around the coast and had peeked in to the hotel. I was intrigued. Around my daughter’s tenth birthday, thinking of places I could take her for a weekend all to ourselves, I had remembered the place with fondness, imagined the walks on the long stretch of beach, collecting shells and rocks, and decided it was just the setting.  The E.B White room was even the cheapest room, and thus the one we could afford. This had made me especially happy. As a kid of eight or nine, I had read every one of his books for children.  Then I had read them all aloud to my daughter— Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan—both of us reveling in his wonderful language and his beautifully drawn characters.   White was an icon in my childhood home, growing up with a father who was steeped in the world of literary editors, contemporary authors and the craft of writing—E.B. White, the eminently intelligent staff writer for The New Yorker, essayist, humorist and generally the model for clear, sparkling direct language with wit and wisdom. I associated him with my father’s old Royal typewriter with its solid black letters sitting in each of the huge white, round keys on long curving metal stems.

The host took us outside and around to the corner of the building where she opened an outside door and let us in to our room. As I lugged our old bags and a big plastic cooler through the door I thought “We’re here for two whole nights! We have all this time just to ourselves to do whatever we want!”  No mouths to feed, no work to go to, no places to run the kids. There were the two beds in a small, cozy room with a shelf full of White’s complete works, including “The Elements of Style” and his books of essays. There was a model of a trumpeter swan and a stuffed Stuart Little.  And then there was the old, black Royal typewriter, just like my father’s, sitting on a small wooden writing table.  I had found my heaven.

We put our clothes in the painted dresser and decided on a short nap after the long drive. We snuggled into a bed with lots of pillows and I read most of the first chapter of Stuart Little aloud before putting it beside me on the bed and closing my eyes.

When we awoke, the sun had gone up the dome of the sky to the other side of the hotel. It was late afternoon with the sun’s rays beginning to slant across the hotel, casting its biggest shadow. A perfect time for a walk on the beach. We put on bathing suits, shorts and salt water sandals and took a canvas bag with snacks and camera and headed around the side of the building to the path through to the beach grass. The smell of the salt and of fish made us skip, holding hands until the sand got too deep and we stumbled, laughing.

We ran down to the water, took off our sandals and waded into the cold, cold Pacific water, waves sucking in and out over the rocky sand, the smells of brine and seaweed rushing up our nostrils, the wind catching our hair. We didn’t go in very far. Too late in the day to attempt a real swim, but it was our baptism, splashing water on our faces and tasting the salt as it clung to our lips. That night we ate in our room, read aloud and chatted in the dark till we slept. After I no longer got answers to my questions, I drifted into that twilight before sleep, watching inside to see who this was in this moment, outside of the routine of life. There resting in my chest was kind of warm rosy light. I sank into it gently, as I would into the embrace of a lover.

The morning brought sun in through our southern window. I woke up early as usual, full of the kind of anticipation I’ve felt traveling in a foreign country. She woke more slowly, rumpled with sleep, smiling. Even on our tight budget with the extravagance of a hotel, I decided we would go out for breakfast and buy ourselves some special picnic food for lunch.  We sat together in a little beach town café, she eating pancakes and I eggs, toast and bacon, talking about this and that, the new school she would be attending, her little brother, looking forward to a trip to the aquarium. What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jump suit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. .

What was this mother self? How was it different from the self I step into, like a full-body jumpsuit when I get up in the morning, preparing for a day as a therapist in a city hospital? Who is this person facing me, poised in those moments before the opening of her body and mind into young womanhood, someone I had known since she somehow received the first impressions of sound, sensation and light enclosed within the dark sea of the womb, since I greeted her essence inside me, since my first hungry look into the dark blue of her newborn eyes, still turned inward toward those internal realms of the sea, reflecting the lights of the outside world rather than fully absorbing them.  She was now a consciousness with an attachment to the experiences gleaned each successive moment, rubbing up against all those other selves wandering around in the world. At some point in our sitting there together, I felt myself take a deep breath, as if reawakening to my surroundings, a café with windows looking out on a sunny street, families walking by, looking for their next enjoyment. I  paid the bill and we got into the car to drive to the aquarium.

What I remember is the cylindrical tank in the middle of a big room where transparent jellyfish, the size of the largest glass mixing bowls turned upside down, hung suspended in the salty brine. We stood transfixed, pointing out the intricacies of the light gleaming through each sack of protoplasm, bouncing off their long dangling glass tentacles, puddling in spots in the dusky water. Then there were the astonishing symmetries of their internal organelles, rings of transparent circles as if a glass blower had worked magic and put glass forms suspended inside glass spheres. The dance of the light and form enchanted us and we stood, moving around the tank slowly to see them in the different angles of light and perspective as groups of people came and went through the room, looking, commenting, ooing and ahing, laughing briefly with delight. \

We watched the sea otters in their large rocky pool, diving, swimming around each other, floating on their backs. We made eye contact with several, entering for a moment into a consciousness that experiences the world as if filtered through a smile. Their sense of humor permeated even the act of eating a clam. We saw sharks swim, drew in the brilliant colors of tropical fish and walked in the sparkling sun and dappled shade of the gardens of native plants outside. Hungry, we went back to the car and broke open our picnic of bread, cheese and turkey, sitting at a picnic table, laughing about what we’d seen.

I think we went back to our room then and took a nap, getting up soon to get out to the beach while it was still hot enough to dry out after a cold swim. My daughter and I both were creatures of ocean. She had learned to swim as a baby in our town in Southern California, underwater paddling with eyes wide open and bright. She’d loved to swim around in the warm water of the bay, where I swam out with her, side by side. I spent my earliest summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, in and out of the waters of ocean and lake all day, for a couple of summer weeks each yer. We swam now, the water piercingly cold, sputtering, laughing, challenging each other to swim a little longer. When we couldn’t take the cold another second, we walked out delicately over the rocky bottom. Spreading our towels, we lay for a bit in the hot sun, warming, relaxed.  The itch to explore the beach soon overcame me and we pulled on our shorts and tops over quickly drying bathing suits, gathered up our towels in our bag and set out.

The long spread of the sand, the expanse of water to the horizon, the dark rocks and cliffs within reach at the limit of our view, the smells, the warm air with barely a breeze, the patterns made by swarms of sandpipers running in groups in the surf, the sounds of sea birds, an occasional hawk screeching, children laughing, all combined to open some experience, some realm of perception so expansive that nothing was external. Both absorbed by this mysticism of ocean, we walked barefoot through the water, feeling the waves tickling back and forth over and under our feet, finding rocks of colors that exist nowhere else but under water, taking our time.

We finally arrived at the curve of the beach covered by a large, brown and gray rock formation, dotted with pools now at low tide, a rock cliff rising on the landside. Down the cliff thin streams of water tumbled, making a shower of  cold water beneath.

We each found our own pool to study, one that drew us, so we could sit as long as we liked to observe the world of water bugs, sea stars, sea urchins, feeding barnacles, mollusks, sea weeds and tiny fish for as long as it took to grasp the sense of this infinite network. Then, ready to shake ourselves, she took off her shorts and tee-shirt and, full of sheer delight, walked under the trickling shower from the stream above. I followed, both squealing. We lay down on the warm rocks to dry again, looking up into the sky above the cliff where a tall beach pine curved up from the grassy area on the cliff-top.

I watched as a Peregrine soared up above the tree on a current of air rising over the ocean. Then another joined it. I called to my daughter, absorbed by something in the pool beside her, to watch. Resting on air streams  between earth and water, gliding with wings spread perfectly, balanced and still, they came closer together with imperceptible movements, flying in tandem as if two fighter planes. As we watched, they both turned upside down in formation, spinning over in parallel, once, twice, miraculously, joyously. Propped now on our elbows, eyes riveted upwards, it was as if the exuberance of their joy transmitted itself directly through the molecules of air separating us. We flew with them.

It lasted for a brief moment or two, then they were gone, flying up and beyond the stretch of the cliff. We turned to each other in our astonishment, having shared something so rare and precious we knew it to be unbelievable. The afternoon had created an opening neither of us had imagined.

That evening, we ate in the little restaurant in the hotel, windows overlooking the beach, our one restaurant dinner. As if we were two grownups on vacation, we ate fish, I drank wine and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, warmly, gorgeously.  After dinner, we walked in the moonlit dark on the beach, playing with the water as we went. As we strolled, feeling the weightlessness of such atmosphere, she asked if she could tell a story. “Of course!” I said, and she began. She told her story for a while, perhaps of horses in the water, maybe unicorns, given her age. It was a story woven directly from her imaginings as they unwound into the night.

She stopped walking, stopped her story and said, “You tell it for a while.”

I picked up the story. It shifted, new characters emerging, lives developing.  We went back and forth like this for some time, until we began to realize we’d come quite a way down the beach and the sleepiness was beginning to overcome us. The story was losing its life. Before we turned back, still in the mood of going into the vastness, she asked me, “Could we do this again?”  I replied, “Oh yes. Maybe we could even write a book together.” “Oh yes,” she said. “Let’s do that!”

Those moments are imprinted in the memory of what I know to be the thread of this self, this one I inhabit still, joined by that cord of energy to this other self who has become a woman. She carries the same imprint somehow within her, stamped somewhere in the vastness of the interior.

The Irony Report from Small Town America-Episode 3

The current state of the Clock Tower Project
The current state of the Clock Tower Project

We return to the ongoing story of the Ferndale Clock Tower.

In early July, I accompanied Art and Margaret, the owners and builders of this nearly-completed landmark, to a courtroom on the second floor of the Whatcom County Court House. The City of Ferndale vs. The Rojszas, Superior Court–Take Three.

From time to time over the past few years, I’ve overheard people from Ferndale say (with many variations), “What’s with the people who own that tower house thing on Main Street? Do they think they can trash their place and create an eyesore for the rest of us? Why isn’t the City doing something about it? It’s a travesty!”

Well, the travesty is that the City is actually the cause. The city staff, the Mayor, the City’s Attorney and possibly the City Council have colluded to block the Rojszas at every turn. The motives behind their obstruction are not clear, but one suspects a combination of anti-immigrant sentiment and a desire to drive out, by whatever means, a perceived obstacle to their plan for commercial development of that part of Main Street.  It has a very similar feel to a situation unfolding in the King County Superior Court in a homeowner’s suit against the City of SeaTac (see (https://www.wethegoverned.com/city-of-seatac-slammed-with-18-3-million-jury-verdict-city-attorneys-guilty-of-deception/)

Although the details of a situation like the Rojszas’ are, in themselves, tedious, it is the full weight of all these small facts that provide the heft of the absurdity (and worse, dishonesty and deception) we endure as citizens. Small town governments like that of Ferndale are wasting enormous amounts of energy and anger, so much better directed at true injustices (starting say, with Global Warming), in carrying out vendettas against citizens who threaten the status quo by creating something new.  It is an age-old phenomenon. Yet in a world where the remedy for hate is more hate and for violence, more violence, it is important to acknowledge those places where generosity could reproduce itself prolifically. Although people like the Rojsza’s may end up in this country in a search for a more freedom of expression and movement, attempts like those of the Ferndale City government did not disappear with the advent of American Democracy, what is commonly referred to as a “free society”.  In fact, they seem to have become increasingly prevalent as its citizens become less financially secure and more fearful of “outsiders”.

On that Friday afternoon, after this third episode of court experience, Art and Margaret and I were chatting outside on the steps of the courthouse.  Inside, the City had continued to assert that the Rojszas were not cooperating with timely and compliant completion of their Clock Tower. Trying to celebrate the small victories their attorney had eked from the grasp of the City, we joked that each time they come back to court, the City has, in their collective imaginations, piled some new demand on to what has now become a mythic “Settlement Agreement”.   This time, there were, mercifully, no fines and the judge had stated the City would have to share the costs of a professional, third party inspector at the end of the Settlement Agreement period.

When we last left them after their second Superior Court hearing, the judge had asked for a few days’ time to consider the details of the Settlement Agreement.  In her presentation to the attorneys several days later, she had evidently declined to impose fines, but had held them out as a possible remedy should the City “be obliged” to do so for continuing lack of compliance.

Nowhere in her communications to the attorneys or to the court had Judge Montoya-Lewis made any mention of the overreaching and prejudicial acts of the City over the past nine years.  During those years, the Rojszas have been trying to complete their redesign while contending with constantly changing rules, lost permit applications and engineering drawings, and general delaying tactics through non-responsiveness and confusion.

Originally, back in September, the Settlement Agreement had specified the exterior would be completed to meet structural and safety codes.  Even then, the Rojszas had the necessary permits to complete the interior and were proceeding in a timely way towards completion. They continued work on the exterior as they could, since the City had not responded to their requests for permits for several aspects of the construction.  Despite this, the City continued to maintain the Rojszas were stubbornly and rebelliously refusing to move forward expeditiously on the construction and were deliberately creating a “public eyesore” and were themselves a public nuisance.  The cause of this mess rests with the City’s initial (and now continuing) incompetence in responding to permit requests compounded by their criminalization of these homeowners’ attempts to move forward through the mire of City contradictions. Perhaps, as in the case with the City Staff of SeaTac, what is truly at hand is criminal deception by the City.

A bit of history review may helpful. If you can, bear with me. It’s mind-numbing, but it’s a significant little piece of Americana irony.  The Rojszas bought their house in 2002. Soon after, they became involved with a Downtown Revitalization Committee, with Art as the Chair and Margaret as the secretary. They gradually began improvements on their 90-year-old, two story house. Since it was considered an old house, a permit was not required for many improvements since there is a special provision for these renovations in the National Building Code. However, beginning in 2005 the Rojszas applied for permits to modify their roof and put on an addition. Despite repeated requests, applications were lost and the City took inordinate amounts of time to respond when the applications were finally acknowledged.

In 2009, the City noticed that the Rojszas were making modifications to the roof. They then required the Rojszas to hire a structural engineer to determine whether the modifications were safe and structurally sound. If any modifications were necessary based on this structural analysis, the Rojszas would have 90 days to complete them. They would then be granted permits to move forward and, as permit holders, would be subjected to an inspection every 180 days.

It took the City six months to get an engineer out for the inspection. After that, they were required to get architectural and structural drawings done at their own expense, requiring an official engineering stamp. These were completed and the drawings delivered to the City. The City claimed they had not received them.  After a period of time, the City sent back the architectural drawings with markings made by the City staff with the comment from Greg Young, then Head of the City Planning Department, that everything looked fine. The staff continued to maintain they had lost the Structural drawings.  The next email from the City stated that, based on the drawings, there were permit violations. The Rojszas had already moved forward with the planned construction.

In 2010, the City revoked the permit and “red-tagged” the building, claiming the Rojszas had gone outside the limits of the permit. From that time until now, there have been periods during which they were allowed to proceed and periods during which permits were revoked resulting in “Stop Work” orders.  Meanwhile, recycled materials they had saved from other construction jobs waited, rusting and deteriorating, on their property, unused.  By the time a permit would grind its way through the City’s delays, the modifications to the building based on these materials were no longer possible. Since 2010, they have been allowed to work actively on the exterior for a total of about a year and a half. Each time they were forced to resubmit permits, they had to modify their earlier plans due to the shifting availability of building materials.

The City, meanwhile, pulled them into court for several felony violations in 2010, resulting in countersuit by the Rojszas who finally accepted a settlement of $130,000 when the court realized that one charge was based on an unconstitutional City regulation and the other accusation was baseless. The settlement only covers a small portion of the legal fees the Rojszas have incurred since 2009 and none of the wasted time and severe emotional distress caused particularly by false accusations of child molestation at a local Haggen’s grocery store and the City’s trespass onto their property to remove a large campaign sign they had posted for their son’s run for Mayor of the City of Ferndale. They have kept a documentation trail of delayed response to requests, lost documents, contradictory statements and the imposition of new rules at every turn.

In February of this year, the City pulled the Rojszas into Court maintaining they were in violation of their Settlement Agreement. Although there was no specific list of items that had not been completed, the City contended the Rojszas were recalcitrantly continuing to defy completion of the exterior, in violation of their Settlement Agreement.  The judge ordered that they stop violating the City’s rules and complete the exterior within tight deadlines.

The City brought the Rojszas back to court in May, saying they continued to openly disregard their responsibilities and the rules of the city and needed to be punished with fines and deadlines. During that hearing, the Rojsza’s attorney unfortunately failed again to obtain a clear list of the things the City claimed were still in violation of the Settlement Agreement. The Rojsza’s were a bit mystified, but continued working around the clock, seven days a week to complete what they believed had been agreed (and for which they finally had permits).

Facing a court review of their progress in July, they were concerned they still had never received a clear list from the city about what remained to be completed. They asked the City in on June 28th to come and do a 60-day inspection related to the court order. They were clear with the City Administrator that the purpose of such an inspection would be for the City to generate a clear check list of the incomplete exterior items so that all parties have the same understanding. The city at first refused, and then interpreted the request as one for a final inspection of the whole house (interior and exterior), despite a paper trail of clear requests from the Rojszas for an inspection to determine what items were still incomplete.

When the two inspectors from the City (neither of them construction experts) finally arrived on July 8th, they requested to be let in for an interior inspection, despite the fact the interior is not the subject of the Settlement Agreement.  When the Rojszas refused, another black mark of opposition was registered against them in the City’s book. The night before the inspection, a text from Margaret said, “I am so tired from working too much so I am not sure if I am alive or dead, but if I am dead please bury me in a bikini if possible under the mail box. 🙂  If I am alive, please wake me up.” This is evidence again, I am sure, of the Rojsza’s flippant attitude towards authority. If this is indeed so, let us have more flippancy. We will need it to survive.

The Rojszas had waited until the day of their next court date to receive the letter resulting from that inspection. It had been only the morning of that day when we stood on the courthouse steps that the City’s attorney, Dannon Traxler, sent  a follow-up letter to the Rojszas’ attorney.  Her letter stated in part “Unfortunately the majority of the items required by the Judgment remain incomplete, and the inspection was a complete waste of City resources.” Yet, the Rojszas still did not have a clear list of what remained to be completed as a result of the Settlement Agreement, the whole point of the exercise.

The letter contained a “punch list” of items the City drew up as a result of the inspection.  Most of these items had to do with clean-up of the yard and of the building materials still scattered around the property due to ongoing construction.  Other items related to perceived imperfections in siding installation with which the inspectors were unfamiliar. Only two or three items related to things that truly needed to be completed and would be a day or two’s work. The rest of the six-page document is comprised of speculations about the interior they had not been able to see.

As we stood there together on the courthouse steps after the July hearing, laughing yet a bit despondent, Art and Margaret reminisced about how this whole project had begun.

“At the beginning of all this, I know it’s hard to believe, but we were actually grateful to this community and to the US where we had, in the end, come to live. We wanted to create something really interesting here where we were making friends, a gift. What ambitious plans we had! It would be a place that everyone could look to, a central place where you could see the time, like in Europe. We even had an elegant model. Margaret wanted it to be a place for concerts, ballet, expositions, openings for painters, Thursday artists’ dinner with after-dinner intellectual discussions! We knew how to do this, too! We knew how to build wonderful things and we had the energy. Then it started—requests for permits that were never answered, even after repeat letters, emails and phone calls (which we have documented). Then inspection dates that no one showed up for or got postponed repeatedly. All the beautiful recycled materials we had saved from our other construction projects got ruined, waiting out in the weather. When we finally got permits, we had to change the designs since we no longer had the materials! And the accusations we were defying city ordinances with our “junk”! It was our materials waiting for construction to move forward. What else were we supposed to do with them? We put up white tents, and then those were a violation. We put them behind a black curtain, as the city requested, and then that became a violation. And then the false prosecution for “Sexual Harassment”! My God! And they have been talking all along about our “refusal to cooperate” our “non-compliance”. We’ve never known what we had to comply with! In all the places we have done big construction projects, never have I run into such incompetence and obstructionism. We always do the right paperwork, get the right permits and complete the construction when we say we will, always way above code requirements! But here, in our chosen home town, No! We are made instead into criminals! Criminals!”

It is true. In court that afternoon, the city’s attorney again tried to hold that the Rojszas had been oppositional and intransigent.  The government, on both the large and small scale, has the power of authority and purports to speak for the interests of the people who put it in place. If the government holds that someone is in opposition to the best interests of the people as a whole, it bears the preponderance of the power, having the police and the court at its disposal. The citizens to whom this government is accountable tend to agree with their elected officials, much in the same ways they tend to agree that police will always take the side of protection and justice and that America is based on an unbiased judicial system.

It is therefore incumbent on that government to be magnanimous in its power, given how dramatically it outweighs the power of an individual citizen. But, it seems now that the City of Ferndale will not let go of the Rojszas and their fantastical and imaginative project. It is willing to spend inordinate resources and use the full weight of its authority to crush them.  They will not let them be. The officials of the city have convinced themselves and many of the citizens of the county that these are aberrant people (and foreigners, to boot) who are creating a junkyard in the middle of what should be a new, thriving business center on the Main Street.

Even the Court, thus far, seems to take all the City says on faith.  The “Party Line” holds that the Rojszas are criminally irresponsible (“like Gypsies surrounded by junk”) and should be punished as an example to anyone else who wants to step over that fuzzy boundary.

Many friends and admirers of the Rojszas and of their project have written letters over time to two consecutive mayors. We have supported and advocated in every way we know, but these efforts are always countermanded and overwhelmed by the oncoming freight train of the city’s prejudicial stance.

The City Council has abnegated their responsibility to provide a counterbalance to the Mayor in such an instance. They hold that since one of the Council People knows and has admitted to liking the Rojszas, she should recuse herself from any discussion of this matter before the Council. In no other instance has this been demanded of other Council People when friendship has been an issue.  In a small town, that would be unwieldy. It is expected that people elected to such a position will make a special effort to make impartial judgments. She has stood firm on principle and refused to recuse herself. The Council has refused to discuss the issue in her presence. Stalemate.  By default, the Mayor and his appointed officials have free rein. There is much here to remind us of the SeaTac case. Perhaps the court will finally find evidence of the City’s persecutory and unconstitutional behavior. It will take a court appeal by the Rojszas.

What a joy it would be to see this Clock Tower completed, to witness a gala concert, poetry readings, to have the picnics we used to have in the back yard and to create new events for the community. It is such a shame that this sort of joy has become criminal. Instead, we are told to find our happiness in “going along with the program.”  I, for one, would much prefer to see this glorious, idiosyncratic, anomalous fantasy standing in view of Mt. Baker than to see another row of new buildings for offices, many of which are now already standing vacant in this town where we see that white volcano on every clear day and feel the presence of the ocean at our back.

The Clock Tower develops
The Clock Tower develops

 

Beach Front Property
Beach Front Property
Patriotism on display. (you may notice a tiny model of the Clock Tower inside)
Patriotism on display.
(you may notice a tiny model of the Clock Tower inside)
A collection of windows. “All the better to see you with”

Here’s a video that takes you in to the house five years ago. You can get an impression of how much detail and solidity has gone into this project.

The Opposite of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.