Tuesday Morning

It’s early morning…everything is still quiet, the house is asleep. I had a dream-filled night, a solid sleep from eleven until five, which is pretty good for me. My daughter arrived last night,  and maybe I sleep better with her in the house.

I’ve been ridiculously excited about her visit. We got to town two hours early to do some shopping and wait for the airport bus. I hurried forward with exuberance as the bus approached, actually skipped when I saw her familiar profile through the windows among the other passengers slowly moving toward the exit, and I tried to contain an impulse to jump up and down as I waited for her to emerge.

And now she was standing before me.

“You don’t have to prance,” she said.

Oh well. She allowed me a hug.

The picture above has no relevance to this. It’s just a bull I had to get by as I walked along the canyon road the other day. He looked at me but didn’t seem particularly concerned, and I managed to slip past him, with trepidation. The cowgirls tell me that the bulls are not a danger as long as I don’t bother them. My worry is that I’ll come upon one that’s just existentially annoyed and ready to take it out on hapless me.

My daughter just came upstairs and made us coffee.  Both of us have work to do, and no particular plans. I just wish it were normal to have her nearby.

It’s going to be another breezy day: I can see the leaves outside trembling in anticipation.

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Turning Toward A Brightness

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

RS Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’, from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

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Summer Settles In: A Re-Run

Summer is upon us. It’s been cool and foggy here at the coast, burning off by afternoon, daylight’s glare fading gradually until it all turns into magic, the broad white lingering sky that comes between sunset and darkness at this time of year. In fact, I just stepped outside to be in that light, and thought I’d return and write something in my enchanted state, but no new words arrived. Instead, on an impulse, I typed “summer” in the search bar of my blog, and the following post was one that appeared. It was written six years ago, and I found it poignant for many reasons. So much has changed, but I’m still here. (Ah yes, the heart learns slowly and our lives spin fast.) Here it is again, six years later:


Sometimes the blessed fog embraces us, burning off by afternoon, and then heat radiates from rock and backcountry, and a visiting lizard lingers on the deck, and a small party of scouting ants appears by the kitchen sink and I put away the butter and seal up all the sugary things. If I don’t get out on my bicycle in the cool of morning, I’ll never get any exercise, but if I don’t get an early start on writing, I will have lost my moment, for the climbing of the sun seems to correlate with my brain’s descent into stupor mode, and that’s the way it is.

On 4th of July I kept remembering a summer of a decade ago when my daughter wanted us to take her into town to see people and a fireworks show, and we said no. We said no because we were hot and tired and unmotivated and not terribly fond of driving and crowds or leaving the ranch. “I’m stranded here with a pair of boring old hermits,” she said, in tears. Then she went downstairs to her room feeling friendless and forgotten, trapped inside her parents’ weirdly isolated world, and she spent the night writing in her journal and being carried away by books. And I wonder sometimes if that’s why she left home so promptly and efficiently and went so far away. But mostly I want to apologize to her, long after the fact, because we should have taken her to see the fireworks.

The other day I went down to Orange County to look in on my mother. That’s never easy for me, but I guess looking in on elderly parents is what human beings are supposed to do. I took her for her favorite kind of outing…ice cream and a drive in an air-conditioned car…and I am truly grateful that she can derive so much joy from something so simple.  She seemed frail and flushed and her thoughts untethered. At one point she saw a sign for Edinger, a Santa Ana street name, and she started talking about Ebinger’s, a bakery in Brooklyn that I remember from my childhood, source of truly delicious cakes brought home in pale green boxes tied up with string. She remembered that two of her children were born in July and asked me to make sure we sent them cards. She twirled the white curl of her ponytail and mentioned that she could still walk far and run fast, but I pray she doesn’t try.

I also saw my sister, who had taken a much-needed week from work and she told me that she had been lying in her room and everything was quiet and she suddenly felt terribly bleak and sad. But we all feel that way sometimes, I think, when we step back from our busy-ness and the clamor of the world recedes. “That’s why we need to stay busy,” she said. “You’re the one who told me that. You said the trick is to stay busy.” But now I was thinking that the trick is to sometimes stop being busy and face whatever lies beneath.

And I was thinking how I wish I could make her worry and sadness go away, but I don’t even do so well with my own, and my life, by contrast, is a cinch.

But the heart learns slowly and our lives spin fast.

Recently I was standing on the stairs talking to my 85-year-old mother-in-law when a butterfly darted by. “When I was a little girl, I used to chase butterflies,” she said. “I’d run all over the yard in pursuit, going around in circles.” She walked down a few steps, paused, and looked back. “Come to think about it, not much has changed.”

As we drove home yesterday, we saw pelicans soaring low above the water in beautiful formation, a wondrous sort of welcome.

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An Open Reply to A Disillusioned Friend

Your email would have depressed me terribly had I not already been terribly depressed. I do agree with most of what you’ve said. I still wake up in the night with a sense of disbelief and heartache about what is happening to our country. After two hundred and forty years of this great, hopeful experiment in democracy, flawed and scarred though it may be, it is horrific to think that what might finally take it all down is an ignorant and bizarre conman, a cabal of unscrupulous crooks and right-wing fanatics, and the power of technology to distort and manipulate in unprecedented ways.

It’s a nightmare wherever we turn, from the deliberate disdain for knowledge and expertise, to the dismantling of institutions established for the common good, to the attempt to tear down even what fledgling steps were in place to help heal our beleaguered planet for future generations. There is something almost nihilistic about it. I see shameless, unmitigated greed, enabled by a rigged system, and among the populace, widespread ignorance and a displaced sense of anger and victimhood that has been deliberately incited and encouraged.

I never even knew how much I loved my country and how many things I took for granted. So perhaps in that sense, I too was part of the problem. I never realized to what extent I lived in a “bubble” of relatively enlightened people…folks who teach kids and hold passports, who ride bikes and read books, who care about the environment and education, and who understand that one fundamental role of community and governance is to help others along who may have been less fortunate.

And I guess I understood only in theory how much active involvement and attention a viable democracy demands of us; it doesn’t just trundle along of its own volition. I suppose I also underestimated the degree of hatred and resentment and alienation others felt, and couldn’t fathom that to many of those others, blowing the whole thing up…some kind of giant, scorched earth fuck-you…was the most appealing action. Nor did I really ponder the fact that we were not at all insulated from corrupt and evil oligarchs abroad, and how that too could hit us.

Anyway, I’ve had plenty of days since November when I feel immobilized by despair, just as you are feeling now. To be honest, I have a few such days every week; I’m only hoping today won’t be one of them. I go into a downward spiral at such times, and everything feels hopeless, and I don’t even want to think about it.

But then I consider the younger people who will inherit this mess, and I look out the window where in this very moment a hummingbird is darting about the honeysuckle, and there are oak trees in the canyon like gentle grandfathers, and the beautiful, life-filled sea beyond, all of it struggling to be and continue. That’s when I know I’m gonna get up and keep fighting.

Of course the problem is knowing what “keep fighting” means. It’s easy to feel helpless. What impact can we possibly have? Monte keeps telling me it’s a long game. We can’t burn out this fast. It takes patience and stamina, he says. He’s good at patience and stamina. And he understands politics.

Sometimes I get frustrated even with the folks on “our side”…the ongoing bickering, the wishful whining about Bernie, silly stuff. That’s when Monte tells me, “Don’t feed into cynicism!” I’m trying not to. We make do with the allies we have; our shared concerns far outweigh our differences. And we’re learning. I’m grateful for all who are committed and active and are earnestly trying with varied skills and styles to change things for the better instead of giving up.

We in California happen to have good Senators, and in my particular district, an excellent Congressman, although his seat is threatened….so I’m not making daily calls to their offices about the Republican’s so-called health care bill, for example, since I know we are on the same team. But I make donations, write letters, and participate in a local group to do outreach and voter registration, support our local representative, and to strategize and spread information and remember that we’re in this thing together. I’ve also signed up with organizations like Swing Left to flip seats in 2018.

Maybe some of what we do is just therapy or symbolism. At times it does feel futile. On the other hand, if we need to dig a tunnel to get out from underground and all we have is a teaspoon, we’re gonna keep on digging with that teaspoon, little by little, at least until we find a more effective way. It’s better than rolling over…right?

Like you, I was disappointed by the outcome of the Georgia District 6 vote this week. It would have been a nice morale-boost to win even just one of the special elections as we lead up to 2018.  But upon closer analysis, it should fuel even greater determination, because the numbers suggest that things are changing. Although this long-held Republican district should have been an easy win for the GOP, the results were incredibly close.

It’s a great wake-up call too, a reminder that politics is ultimately local. If we’re going to influence elections in other parts of the country and try to get a majority back, we need to better understand the regional contexts. Things we might find appalling (such as Georgia victor Karen Handel’s statement that she would support outlawing adoption by gay couples, or Montana’s Gianforte assaulting a reporter ) were obviously quite palatable to many voters in those places. The frameworks are fundamentally disparate, and, to state what is now very obvious, other people are not just us with different zip codes.

Willie Brown put it this way in an article in the San Francsico Chronicle about what the Democrats need to learn: “Ossoff’s profile and image didn’t help. Democrats need a “blue dog” moderate, or better yet Marine war hero, if they’re going to have a chance in a historically Republican district like the one where Ossoff was running. Preferably one who wears a baseball cap and overalls.”

And we can get behind candidates who are relatable to voters in their districts, maybe not quite what we would envision for ourselves, but still an improvement.  There are lot of “flippable” seats coming up for vote in 2018.

Believe me. I get it, and I’m with you. I am heartbroken about what is happening to our country. It is unprecedented and dire and demands of us a kind of ingenuity and resilience and spirit that we may not even possess yet. But we can’t let them win. We won’t. It can’t end this way!

And look: some things ARE working. The courts have blocked unjust and ugly orders. The press is refusing to be silenced. The people are standing up in protest. There is a noisy minority opposition in Congress, and they have been able to stall a lot of attempted actions. State and local governments are defying presidential proclamations. Investigations of Russian involvement, and of trump’s corruption and conflicts of interest are ongoing. And even if the GOP Senate’s cruel health care debacle passes, it will just be a matter of time until it is a noose around their necks. Patience.

Maybe I’m just in denial. Maybe I will just decide to run away or hide, to live out my own brief life span and try to keep myself and immediate others safe. I’m not quite there yet.

Thanks for the catharsis and therapy platform.

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Occasionally it becomes necessary to buy new underwear. Elastic frays, fabric thins, straps break, and finally one’s listless little heap of lingerie seems sad and barely functional. This observation prompted me to take a trip to Macy’s last week, where I ascended a narrow escalator and found my way to Intimate Apparel strategically located upstairs and to the rear.

When I was a child, Macy’s was a classy store. In those years before shopping malls and discount chains and the unimaginable phenomenon of sitting in front of a computer at home and procuring merchandise online, department stores were important destinations. We went to the one on Flatbush Avenue, pictured to the left. As mundane as that building may seem, the photo confirms my memory of a wall of windows on the upper floors, where shafts of sunlight entered and cast a kind of spell. Bicycles gleamed, china sparkled, and there were mysteries in unpacked cardboard cartons.

Indeed the place was an emporium of worldly goods, including an actual toy department upstairs, and model rooms displaying furniture where you could pretend you lived, and lamps you could click on and adjust and decide for yourself which warm glow of light you would choose to cast upon the space if it were yours. There were thick drapes and sheer curtains, men’s neckties in bright colors fanned out on tables, and circular racks of summer dresses, better and casual, and white pleated skirts, and pin striped seersucker blazers. There was jewelry, fine and costume…and millinery, oh, how I loved millinery, hats adorned with nets and ribbons and feathers and flowers and tiny birds and beesand there was even a section called notions.

I’ve read a lot about the economic and cultural shifts that have led to the demise of department stores. Times change, people adapt, and we don’t need more hand-wringing. That said, it was strange to enter Macy’s last week, because it felt like an abandoned ship. Instead of displays, clumps of stuff were crammed on racks, everything looking shopworn, and signs announced price slashing, 40-percent off lowest price, shouting deals, deals, deals. There were vague scents of perfume by the cosmetic counters, but it mostly smelled like cheap goods, some intangible synthesis of polyester, plastic, and insouciance. A few weary customers browsed. I felt suddenly sleepy.

There were a lot of Intimates. I had no idea there were so many variations of panties, bras, or camisoles, and such clever garments for the squeezing in and smoothing out of girth. I noticed groupings of items up to 70% off, took a quick look at those, and understood why they were there. I went over to a normal-priced rack and selected a few pairs of panties in boy cut, hi-cut, French cut, brief….no sense even looking at thong or string bikini. I narrowed these down to six pairs, and made my way to the register. Alas, the woman who had been idly standing there a few minutes earlier informed me unapologetically that she was just about to start her lunch break, but I could go anywhere else. Theoretically this was true, but most of the stations appeared to be un-staffed.

Finally, I noticed a desk where a thin young man with wire-framed glasses was working the register. Six customers stood in line awaiting their turn, and I took my place at the back. Apparently there were no simple transactions. The line moved slowly. The woman in front of me griped in equal parts about the tacky merchandise, poor service, and the bad music being piped in at this moment. She recalled going to Buffum’s or Bullock’s with her mother for back-to-school shopping when she was a kid. She talked about how everything had gone downhill. I was getting depressed.

But department store memories were uncorked now and pouring into my head. I remembered myself as a little girl in Macy’s, going to the ladies’ room all by myself. Everything was shiny, all tile and metal, and the room had echo potential, as bathrooms often do, which I imagine is why so many people sing in the shower. I entered a stall, unrolled a strip of toilet paper and set it on the toilet seat before sitting, as my mother had taught me to do, then hoisted myself up to take a pee.

The echo potential, combined with a misguided illusion of privacy in the little stall, and sparked by that old department store magic, caused me to break into song. The song was one I used to hear on the radio. The lyrics went like this:

Sing, everyone sing.
Sing, everyone sing.
All of your troubles will vanish like bubbles.
Sing, everyone sing.

I was belting it out. My voice took on a vibrato I didn’t even know I could produce. I sounded great! I sang it over and over, my troubles vanishing like bubbles, my vocal stylings sophisticated beyond my years, my voice ringing out from the toilet stall and bouncing back from the tile walls, an instrument of pure exuberance.

It’s hard to say how long the concert continued, but eventually I flushed and made my exit. Three women who had been standing there by the sinks, shopping bags at their sides, were watching me step out. One of them applauded me indulgently. One of them just stared at me and said, “Wow. All of that was you? That was a lot of singing to be coming out of one little girl.”

I was mortified. So thoroughly mortified that here I am remembering it, sixty years later.

But what really amazes me sixty years later is the realization that I had so much capacity for unbridled joy that I would spontaneously break into song in a public restroom and think nothing of it. Where does it go, all those unfiltered impulses and undiluted wonder? Must maturity imply shutting down so much of it?

Maybe there’s still a bit of magic even in the Macy’s, something in the parking lot worth singing about, stories worth hearing from the people in line eyeing their cellphones and worried about what they’re missing. I’m going to try to open up, re-see, be defiantly naive.

Maybe the thing that changed the most was me.

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Don’t Feed Into the Cynicism

Yesterday I was feeling especially demoralized about…shall we say, the political situation?…no need for details here. I was ranting about the frustration and futility of it all, feeling terribly disillusioned. Monte wisely reminded me that it’s a long game, requiring patience and persistence.

But it seems to me that to keep up the patience and persistence there has to be some innate and incredibly durable optimism in place. And my optimism was beginning to feel shaky. I could sense myself going negative, seeing ugly things with ugly eyes.

“Don’t feed into the cynicism,” said Monte. I knew it was a warning I should heed.

Because that cynicism was growing fatter and nastier the more I indulged it, and I could easily imagine it taking over. It’s already far too prevalent. And it doesn’t inspire solutions, the way idealism does. It doesn’t help anything.

So I hereby resolve not to feed it. Neither my head nor this blog will become a cynicism habitat.

And I’ll be back tomorrow with a post that I promise will not be cynical.

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Raving With The Ravens

Having returned late the previous night from a brief sojourn south, I decided to go for an early morning walk up the canyon to clear my mind. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to step outside and be in the country, with a winding dirt road in front of me meandering along Sacate Creek (almost dry again) and past old oaks and sandstone rock formations. For me, it’s not unlike William Stafford’s poetic advice on How to Regain Your Soul, which ends with these words:

Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you

The air was fresh with morning, and the sunlight was soft and silvery, filtered through fog, and the grassy hills, now golden again, smelled sweet to me, like hay. I took a deep breath, feeling a genuine sense of relief, and walked onward, the crunch of dry leaves beneath my trusty hiking shoes, pausing to zip up the fleece jacket I’d put on over an incongruous red sun dress, in my element.

But my head was brewing over like an unwatched pot filled with toxic ingredients. Stop, little pot, stop. I refuse to think about disappointment dismay disillusionment death…

It will all be there later, when I return, I thought. All the bad news, all the old sorrows, all the existential questions.

Not to mention the tragedy and absurdity of what’s in the White House, the callousness, corruption, and lack of courage among those entrusted to lead, the naiveté and bickering within the ranks of resistance.

Stop thinking about this.

“I am especially open to sadness and hilarity,” wrote Grace Paley.

I feel the same way.  But I’ve been short on the hilarity lately.

The purpose of the trip from which I’d just returned had been to do an interview (for The Living Stories Collective) with a rancher and developer in southern Orange County whose reflections I thought might be worth documenting. But it was also just part of my ongoing coping strategy: be busy and purposeful, don’t think too much, and keep moving.

I had traveled via the same southbound train I used to take to visit my mother. It was strange to be sitting there, hearing the stations called out, knowing she would not be at the other end. I felt that old ache again. Oh.

I stayed in a sterile, over-priced hotel right next to a freeway, its long bleak corridors lined with identical numbered doors. I felt bewildered every time I stepped off the elevator, never sure which way to turn. I yearned for a walk and a wander, but there was nowhere to go but a fitness room with treadmills and a television set.

An old dear friend drove over to meet me and have dinner. Things are rough for her, and her father died recently, and she wanted to sit in the room and talk about loss and grief and the brevity of life and missing someone terribly and where do they go and what does it all end up meaning.

Stop thinking about this, I thought. There was nothing to say.

The next day, after the interview, I went to the Mission in San Juan Capistrano, and I checked out the old historical neighborhood across the tracks, killing time until arrival of my train. It was very hot, and my bag was getting heavy. I found a shady spot where I thought I could just lean against a wall and wait, but it smelled like pee. And somewhere in the course of my peregrinations, I lost a plain gold ring that had belonged to my mother. I didn’t discover its absence until long after I had boarded the train. How strange and blank my pinky felt, its tiny talisman abruptly gone.

Oh, it felt so good to wake up at home the next morning, and to step unfettered into the solace of Sacate Canyon, pulled along by my soul, shining back through white wings.

And there were wings indeed. Black ones. I had come upon a noisy conference of ravens, a great clamor in the high branches of the trees, and I seem to have interrupted it, and it wasn’t taken lightly. They burst from the branches, screaming in indignation, shrill raspy cries. There were at least four large birds, perhaps five or six, and they divided into duos, flew to more distant trees, then circled back. I had the sense that they were waiting for me to pass, urging me to hurry along, annoyed at the intrusion. But perhaps I overestimate my impact.

I tend to anthropomorphize, attributing my human emotions to beings who are navigating in an arena unknown to me. But my friend James later shared a story that suggests that ravens possess touching loyalty, high intelligence, and an emotion that sounds a lot like love: “We had two raven couples in our neighborhood,” he wrote. “One male was killed by a hawk in an air fight. The remaining three ravens have returned to our yard every day since, to where the injured raven fell, and they call to the four directions for their mate.”

I also mythologize and over-interpret, forever in search of symbolic meaning, trying not just to see, but also read the world. And when ravens are involved, why not? The Wise One (Wikipedia) tells me that in Native American culture, the raven is a god, a creature of metamorphosis that symbolizes change and transformation. Am I on the cusp of transformation? I kinda hope so.

In the meantime, I am bluster and bellow, outrage and ouch, wings outspread but flight unattainable.

Keep walking. Anything might still happen.

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A Hope Exists

On April 19, 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a commentary by my friend Mark Haunfelner. It was titled “A Hope Exists to ‘Cure’ the World” and it was an especially poignant and ambitious kind of hope in view of the fact that Mark had terminal cancer.

I found a yellowed clipping of Mark’s essay as I was sorting out my files yesterday, and I read it again, newly surprised by his eloquence. He was very near to his death, at the age of thirty-two, when he wrote down these thoughts.

But Mark was looking beyond his own life. He was deeply troubled about the state of the world, and he wanted to leave behind a helpful message, issue a plea that we make things better, and above all, to register a hope. Because a hope existed. And in present tense: exists.

“The fabric of life is precious beyond measure,” he wrote. “Against the backdrop of my thirty-two years, the evolution of this belief appears natural, having been nurtured by the humane and gentle example of my parents, teachers and friends. I could never fully comprehend the wisdom of this instruction until I was diagnosed eight months ago with terminal cancer. My immediate reaction to the discovery of cancer was one of personal grief and fear. With the passage of time, however, I find that I am troubled not so much by the thought of my mortality as by the fact that I have encountered it in a time and society that buzzes with the undercurrents of violence and self-destruction.”

Mark believed that the answer was to channel energy and resources towards peace instead of war. Maybe he was naive, but he spoke from a well of deep compassion. He was pained by the suffering and disregard for life he saw, and it seemed to him that our government was not taking measures to ameliorate these things, but focusing instead on military power. He referred to Albert Einstein’s observation that it was impossible to simultaneously build peace and prepare for war, and he noted with sadness that our society had chosen the latter. The race for military supremacy in the nuclear age was in Mark’s view a vicious cycle in which “military security” ultimately led humanity over the nuclear abyss.

Mark spoke of an “historic responsibility” to build a world beyond war, just as I believe he would have seen us as having an historic responsibility today to take measures to protect our planet from the devastating effects of climate change. He refused to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He wrote:

“When I was told that I had only a short time to live, I faced a choice not unlike the one I believe we face as a society. I could assume a posture of resignation, thereby making the predicted outcome inevitable. Or, I could think and act “as if” an opportunity existed to heal myself. If I chose resignation, I know it would be impossible to live whatever time that remained to me in a meaningful and worthwhile way. I realized that I must think and act as a well person. Only in this way could I affirm the value of my own life and create the possibility for healing.”

Mark stood not in denial, but defiance. He intended to live as if he were going to live.

“Viewing the arms race and the erosion of respect for life from a very personal perspective, I am convinced that thinking and acting “as if” peace is possible is the best means available to achieve human reconciliation and healing in a world without war. Just as a cancer patient cannot defer the urgent and unfinished business of life, we cannot stand idly by hoping that the arms race and its accompanying moral amnesia will go away. All Americans need to begin today by constructing a personal vision of what their lives, and those of their neighbors, would be like if world peace became a reality. Imagining myself in a world without war is not unlike how I imagine I would feel if my cancer went into remission–joyful, blissful, and exhilarated, much as if I had returned home after a long and difficult journey.’

His cancer did not go into remission, but his message is still here, and his hope exists.

“The attainment of a true and lasting peace would free enormous human and material resources to accomplish America’s unfinished business of feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly and educating the young,” he wrote. “It would liberate the wellspring of kindness and generosity among Americans that enabled us to create and renew our singular experiment in self-government. America is a nation comprised of nations–we are the world in microcosm. That we have come so far in learning to live with one another suggests our great potential for building world peace.”

I felt a pang reading that last part, knowing that we are currently living under an administration that is doing all it can to undo that progress we have made in living together, and that instead of liberating” the wellspring of kindness and generosity” and renewing “our singular experiment in self-government” there are forces at play to undermine it all.

Mark issued a call to action:

“And so I appeal to you my fellow citizens–I appeal to you with whom I have so proudly shared in the life-affirming work of free people. Know that the hour grows late and that the life of the human race hangs in the balance. I appeal to you because I cannot control the course of the cancer that threatens my life, but I know as never before that life is better than death, and that we must not squander the miraculous gift of life existing on this planet. The perilous circumstances we have created display a momentum that will yield only to courageous and decisive action. In the wake of human suffering or great destruction, the need for healing and reconciliation is strong…The act of preserving and nurturing life is an expression of our deepest faith–the faith that we are one human family called to a higher purpose than selfishness and greed, the faith that we are a bridge of justice and freedom joining the work of our parents to the dreams of our children, the faith that, like Michelangelo’s Adam, we can reach across the cosmos and touch the hand of God.”

A higher purpose than selfishness and greed. Yes.

We must live as though we can make a difference. We must act as if we have hope, and in so doing build a basis for that hope, and make it real. I’m remembering my gentle friend today, his being so small against a challenge so vast, his hope so outrageous and brave.

A hope exists.

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Gnomes and Ghosts and Other Things

We went on a road trip with our friends Kit and Beverly and spent two nights in a pair of Airstream trailers. The one Monte and I stayed in was like a tin can, its interior metal walls left mostly bare except for hundreds of re-arrangeable poetry magnets. But other aspects of the decor captured a sort of on-the-road travel theme: a curtain with a map print, a vintage ViewMaster with reels of America-the-beautiful scenes, a collection of old license plates. There was a sense of going someplace even while sitting still, but I felt cozily enclosed and ensconced in it.

A short distance away was our friends’ trailer. This was the Gnome Home, a theme executed with dizzying thoroughness, right down to a teeny-tiny pair of red gnome slippers on the floor by the bed. It was not just retro, but pleasantly regressive. While our husbands were on an excursion, I walked over to pay Bev a visit, and it was as if I’d stepped inside of 1959. We sat together on a coral-colored couch holding mugs of coffee. There were  turquoise blue walls and flower print curtains, puzzles and board games, whimsical unicorns and twinkle-eyed gnomes.

It was very good to be elsewhere. Earlier in the week, I’d been trying to tackle the Trunk of Pain, reading old letters from people I have loved, revisiting their suffering and sadness. Why do I keep all this stuff? I managed to throw some of it away, but finally, after reading one particularly grueling exposition of laments from my sister, I closed the lid and shoved the trunk back into its cobwebby corner of the garage.

Oh, my dear sister. I did not in those days comprehend how great her dreams were, and also how small and ordinary, or that the unattainability of the small and ordinary dreams was the cruelest thing of all. I did not then recognize how much like me she was, a version of me with more fire and strength, but trapped in a broken body. I did not then realize how urgent it is that we find our courage, speak our truths, go out of our way to be loving. I did not then understand the ferocious, unequivocal onrush of everything, how abruptly it ends, and how long death lasts. I cannot resolve anything, but I am forever sorry.

It wasn’t just my sister’s letters. There are other voices in that trunk and in my head, most of them–two siblings and my parents–now deceased. Often they are angry and disappointed…at their circumstances, and many times at me. I was not brave or heroic or even always kind, and I didn’t adequately rise to the challenges of being part of my family of origin, which were numerous and unusual. I wish I had been better, but I was sufficiently daunted by my own issues, distracted by imagined possibilities, busy being young. I only saved myself.

And I’m ashamed. Some people call it survivor guilt, some people call it grief. Some people tell me that enlightenment begins with acceptance and forgiveness of oneself, and there is no other path. Some people say I need therapy. Some suggest medication, others swear by meditation. Maybe keeping the Trunk of Pain is just another way I punish myself.

I want so much to have learned from it, and to somehow apply this learning.  As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote, persons who go through loss and struggle can work their way through to  “an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.” I strive for that; I write for that. Sometimes, though, it feels fatuous and futile. Nothing is changed, and I will never be absolved. I own these feelings.

But back to the Gnome Home, where I was sitting on the couch with Beverly in 1959 drinking coffee and gabbing, like a couple of housewives taking a break while the hubbies were at the office.

We talked about lighthearted things, but also about complexities of families, and coping with loss, and I told her about the Trunk of Pain, how haunted and tormented I felt, and that I’d wanted to throw away at least some of that stuff, lighten up a bit.  She thought I should consider burying it.

“Kit and I will help you dig a big hole in the ground,” she said. “We’ll have a ceremony. There needs to be a ceremony.”

It has its appeal. I’ll know the letters are there, sort of naturally decomposing, but they’ll also be gone, dispensed of with dignity.

And speaking of burial, Bev told me a story about going to the cemetery with her granddaughter Sadie to her parents’ graves. Sadie lay down on the ground right there, playfully assuming a dead person’s pose.

“Don’t you love to look at the sky and the clouds?” she asked Bev, while lying on the ground.

“I used to,” Bev replied.

“Why don’t you anymore?” asked Sadie. She sat up, grabbed Bev’s hand, and pulled her down to the ground.  And there they lay, side by side, looking at the sky together.

I love that little anecdote. Even the cemetery becomes a setting for being alive in the moment,  with death benignly in the background. And “Why don’t you anymore?” has become one of my favorite questions. Why must we be so sensible? Why do we quell those delightful impulses? It reminds me of something William Stafford said about kids: “They dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.”

In the course of the week preceding our road trip and our stay in the Airstream trailers, I saw a hooded oriole on the railing of our deck, brilliant yellow and black, a bright and thrilling presence. I watched the children at the local school perform a musical revue, and one of the parents, who had long ago been in my sixth grade class, came up and introduced me to his kids. I attended a grass roots meeting of earnest citizens who refuse to be bowed down by the nightmare of the current administration, and I felt a kinship with them, and a hopefulness that refuses to die. I rode a bicycle, saw Monte surfing, stepped out into the amazing summer light of 8 p.m. My heart soars or fills with gratitude many times a day.

So the sad memories asserted themselves like an episode of stormy weather, and now it’s quieting down, and I’m still here, still trying, still amazed.  It brings to mind these words by the poet Mary Oliver on the uses of sorrow:

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

It’s a heavy gift to shlep, but she’s right. Meanwhile, it’s hard to take things seriously in an Airstream trailer filled with unicorns and gnomes.

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Feeling Uprooted

Mother’s Day is one of those arbitrary proclamations that hit many of us with a hail of mixed emotions. My mother is gone, and my only child far away, and I know that I am not alone in finding the whole business, for many reasons, rather poignant, not to mention manipulative. I’ve been feeling alienated anyway, anxious and uprooted. Sometimes even the familiar begins to look strange. So many assumptions have been shaken. My current thinking is that we all need to mother one another, now more than ever, and that’s what I resolve to do. I don’t need a special day to remind me.

I was in this nurturing mind set as I prepared a meal with pleasure and affection for our little writing group, who gathered at my house Friday evening. We took turns reading bits of things we’ve written, more like a series of serenades, as Rebecca put it, than presentations for critique and workshop, but the conversation and connection felt right. We are finding our process, making discoveries, using our voices to document what it feels like to be alive in the world right now. We are primary sources.

Today I came upon these thoughts on writing by Jhumpa Lahari in the introduction to the novel Ties by Domenico Starnone, (translated by Lahari): “Writing is a way to salvage life, to give it form and meaning. It exposes what we have hidden, unearths what we have neglected, misremembered, denied. It is a method of capturing, of pinning down, but it is also a form of truth, of liberation.”

I like that idea. Let’s expose and pin down some tangible truths, find what will strengthen and steady us, hold on to each other for support.

Posted in Friends, Memoir, On Writing | Leave a comment