Little Piece of Heaven

empressMy son, Clay, was young, a teenage boy, when we headed to one of Seattle’s finest hair salons. I’d agreed to give the owner tarot readings in exchange for appointments but regretted the decision almost immediately.  I hadn’t realized what it meant to be privy to the inner workings of a salon filled with drama, love affairs and a stress driven owner. I was on the verge of calling it off when I took my son in.

A young stylist wearing a short skirt and broad smile took Clay to the shampoo basin, where she caressed his head into a lather of suds, then rinsed and toweled him off.

This was not treatment he was used to, having been given cuts by yours truly, until I got distracted one day and clipped his ear.  After which, he burst from the house, declaring our hair cutting relationship complete and final forever! There was no going back and no forgiveness. It was over.

His young stylist squared his shoulders to the mirror pulling strands of hair skyward, while lifting and stroking fringe near the base of his neck.  Clay purred beneath the attention, not knowing that his delights had only begun. The stylist then pulled him back against her enormous breasts where he released a long low sigh, as if resting on great celestial cushions. And the more she cut, the more he relaxed, his smile spreading slow and sweet, like honey on toast.  And when she finished, she brushed little piles of his blonde hair from the shelf of her breasts.  “There you go sweetie, you’re all done.”

He was a boy feeling handsome and cared for as we made our way to the car, his attitude erasing any resentment I’d felt.

“Mom, I really liked that haircut.  I’m pretty sure I’d like to come back.”

I smiled, a mama’s insightful smile.  “I thought you might.”

Be Green

It was a simple request. “Could you move my truck from one side of the street to the other?” Monday is street cleaning day in Los Angeles and my son Clay was running out the door. “Sure,” I answered. “No problem.” 

Clay drives a gigantic 2008 Chrysler which he calls his people mover, but I think of it as his Mafia car. Even though it’s flashy and expensive, I can’t see it without thinking of rap music and Blade Runner. It’s a car Al Capone might drive. That car supports Clay’s big city image, but it’s the 1970 pick-up truck that brings home his country roots, his childhood and the depth and integrity of his spirit. 

Several years ago I considered getting a masters in creative writing as part of an extension program. I loved the idea of combining education with trips to California to see Clay and my granddaughter, Brit. That way I’d be a frequent visitor. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. Still, I remember the day I visited the campus and was waiting for Clay to pick me up. I was completely overwhelmed by the city, as usual, until I spotted that friendly old green truck rounding the corner with Clay behind the wheel. As soon as I saw it, something inside me began to relax and breathe again. 

Today Clay parked at a meter near Melrose, giving me money to plug the thing until the cleaning was over, but when the neighbors began leaving for work I decided to back the truck up early to save him fifty cents. God help me, my mind works that way. I had never actually driven the truck, mind you, just sat on the passenger side and admired it from afar. So I took my little nostalgic self across the street and climbed into the cab. 

I slammed the door as memories of less complicated days, open pastures and family came flooding back. I took a moment to soak that in before getting down to business. First the seat needed to come forward, but it wouldn’t move. It was stuck and my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals. Hum, what to do? I balanced on the edge using the steering wheel for stability, as I placed the key in the ignition. It took a while to find reverse, a really long while actually, since the steering column held no clues. But once I started going backwards I discovered the thing had no power steering and I was not about to muscle it around other cars. So, I put it in drive and pulled forward, toward an alley where I hoped to back up more easily.

Let me pause here to say, that if you think it’s simple pulling on a steering wheel with all your might while balancing on the edge of a seat because your feet don’t reach the pedals  – well, it’s not. Turning that wheel made me red in the face. It required ten hard yanks to budge an inch. I was sweating and holding up traffic both ways on Harper Avenue, as I strained and pulled and smiled to reassure busy commuters in fancy cars that they would be on their way as soon as possible. 

Once I reached the alley and traffic had cleared, I found reverse again (Thank you, God) and worked to back it around parked cars and into a meter free space. All this to save fifty freaking cents. And I had not even moved it to accommodate the street cleaners yet! 

I moored a good yard from the curb, which seemed just fine, since my expectations had gone from neat parallel parking to not abandoning it in the middle of the street. I went inside, took a bath to ease my muscles, dressed and drove my beloved-comfortable-steerable BMW to the grocery, returned, unpacked bags and sat on the couch pondering what to do about moving the truck. I went outside to contemplate my dilemma, as if starring at the old boy might help, when my answer came walking down the street – a big guy who looked to be in his thirties, with huge arms and plenty of strength. I was saved.

“Hey, how would you like to make some money?” I hollered. “Do you have a minute to help?”

To my surprise, he kept on walking. “Sorry, I’m in a hurry.” Then over his shoulder half a block away, “What did you have in mind?” 

“Look, I’ll give you ten bucks, and all you have to do is drive my son’s truck from one side of the street to the other. It’s that simple. It’s just that the truck has no power steering and I can’t do it myself.”

He didn’t even slow his step. “Sorry, I’m from New York City and never learned to drive.”

What a thug. All he had to do was sit next to me and let me use his arms. Oh well, I reasoned, I did it once. I can do it twice.

So I got in the truck again, only this time there were no cozy, I love you, vibes, it was more, “All right you mother ******. I need you to behave and help me out here. I am not going to wrench my back or block traffic again. This is going to work!” And amazingly it did. I got the beast parked on the right side of the road next to the driveway, even found a little shade, slammed the door and got out. Didn’t even lock it, hoping someone would steal the darned thing.

When my son came home I asked why he still kept that old truck, and what good was it without power steering and a seat that would not change positions?

“Mom, you would not believe how many offers I get to buy that truck. It’s a classic now, a real gem. Plus I need it to haul motorcycles. Sorry you had such a hard time. I never thought about that.”

I guessed I could like that truck again too, given a little time, but not quite as much as I did before.

Lottie

I saw a funeral van parked in front of a Los Angeles house today, as two men carried an empty stretcher inside. “That old lady must have died,” my son said, as we drove past. I thought about my mom being carried out this time last year and my father’s mother, Lottie, before that.

I never knew Lottie as a young woman. To me, she was always the white-haired, square-figured woman with wire rimmed glasses and a kind smile, living on the top floor of my uncle’s farmhouse. Lottie gave birth to three amazing men, all of whom rose to the top of their professions like cream. Still, I knew nothing of her young life, not a single thing. I saw no photos of the lovely woman she must have been, the young wife or the delighted mother – not a single image.

Lottie kept our photos on the kitchen table, laid flat, under thick glass. Every time she wiped crumbs from her morning, noon or evening meal she spoke to the photos like they were real people. 

To my oldest sister, the conversation went something like this. “Hey, sunshine, we got a little snow here yesterday. One of the cows came up lame so we called the vet, but Johnson Hollow road iced over. Glenn got the tractor stuck near the pond trying to clear a path and had one heck of a time getting it out. His gloves were froze solid by the time he hit the house and he was cussin’ up a storm  How are things in Philadelphia? Are they good? Ya got a nice clean face now. Can you feel that, me scrubbin’ up your face today?” 

To my brother, Doug: “Had a new bi-plane delivered to the airport this morning. The fella who bought it has more money than brains. Wants your dad to teach him to fly, but that fella won’t last. Your dad tested him out, dipped down, then spun a few times over Schweitzer’s field. The man lost his lunch right off the bat. I know you’re clear over there in France with that little bride of yours but we’re thinking of ya over here. I just wiped mashed potatoes off your forehead. Did ya feel that? “

Lottie spent most of her days rocking back and forth in her bedroom chair, watching life from her upstairs window, the glass old and wavy. She watched seasons change, cars motor by and the birth and death of each annual harvest.  

After she reached one hundred, she asked me to pray for the end of her life. I put my twenty year old hand over her weathered and gnarled one and agreed. But I lied, because I could not imagine life without my grandma Lottie. I wanted her to keep rocking in that tired old chair for decades to come. But two years later, when I’d become just another photo under glass, a funeral van pulled up to the farmhouse in the same way and she was gone.

Letters

 

 

I got a letter in the mail from my sister, Kristen, in New York today. Yep, a real letter. When was the last time you got one of those?

I asked nearly one year ago, if she would do me the kindness of writing to me on paper instead of email and she agreed. It is one of the best gifts she could have given. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to seeing that envelope in my letter box. It stands out like a diamond among bills, political fliers, mailings from alma maters asking for money, and constant AARP mailings, reminding me that I’m no spring chicken. 

There is something so precious about a handwritten letter arriving by post. I watch for it like a child waits for a holiday morning. I envision my sister taking time from her busy life to sit down in a quiet place, gather her thoughts and reflections, and move pen across paper as she shares them with me. Being environmentally conscious, they arrive on the back of papers from her office recycling pile, which I also read because they are further clues into the state of her life.  

I don’t rip her letter open and read it right away. I wait, make a cup of tea and then choose just the right moment when I can be still and alone, to fully savor our written visit. I like knowing that her hands have held the same paper only days before, imagining it on her dining room table or balanced on her lap.  Sometimes she writes from the backyard, so birds and garden news are included, sometimes while waiting for her grandson at an art class and sometimes just before or after dinner.  

 People’s failure to write has always baffled me. Friends I love dearly will not write a real letter. They say it’s too hard to find an envelope, a stamp, and place it in the box. I’m grateful for email because I get to hear from those who would otherwise be gone from my life. Of course, email is wonderful in being so immediate and now, but I don’t always want immediate and now. 

I remember how sad I felt when friends stopped sending me birthday cards and gave me ecards instead. I don’t require gifts, but the idea that someone made a card for me or went to the store with me in mind, matters. The idea that they spent a few minutes at the computer and then pushed the send button feels different, not so special.

I saw an old British film last week, where a woman went to her letter box and took out five or six envelopes from friends. I remember those days and it makes me sad to think of them as gone. Maybe that’s why I need to write so much. I don’t want to think of tangible correspondence going the way of the man who used to deliver ice for our freezer or the milkman whose bottles clanged their way to the doorstep. But I have a feeling that’s just what’s happening. For now, I comfort myself with my sister’s letters, and these blogs pieces, which are my letters to the world.

The Fire

beach fire

When I feel lack in my life, my chest constricts, I don’t breathe deep and I create a little cloud of gray worry that lives above my head.

I begin to doubt myself and my place in the world. It’s amazing how quickly an event or series of obstacles can pull me into a place of fear.

But I had a lovely lesson about lack at the ocean last Sunday.

I was with my daughter, Kristen, her partner Kenny, and ten year old Isabella. We’d had a full day of playing in the surf, walking on the beach and climbing over shell-encrusted boulders.

It was time to drive back to Portland but Kenny wasn’t ready. He needed one more walk on the coast, so we filed down the stairs next to the sea wall at Cannon Beach and let the sunset wash over us in radiant shafts of orange, amber and red. 

I wish we had a fire, Kenny said. It’s a perfect night for one.

People had wrapped themselves in sweatshirts and jackets to roast marshmallows and hot dogs, while warming their hands and feet near the flames. They had come prepared with large stacks of wood, papers and lighter fluid. Bonfires made little islands of blaze, up and down the shoreline.

We can’t have a fire, I said, we have nothing to make one with.

We watched the sun slip beneath that long going-on-forever line that defines the sea. It was breathtaking and full of calm. As the day faded into black, the bodies that huddled in close circles of humanity felt ancient and primitive.

We were moving toward the stairs to leave when I noticed a tiny spark of light, a small flicker in the distance, as if someone had ignited a book of matches and dropped them on the sand. The silhouette of a man on hands and knees came into view as I walked closer, his silver hair reflecting moonlight. He was bent over a small stack of twigs blowing into their base with great hope and intention. A young woman knelled beside him with an open wallet, searching for useable paper. She pulled out receipts and studied them, deciding which ones she could give to the fire and which ones must be saved.

There it was. The world’s smallest campfire made of a few broken twigs and copies of the days expenses.

I stood above them. That is the most pathetic excuse for a fire I’ve ever seen.

Yes, I know, the man laughed. I watched as he continued to blow on the base and the woman searched for more cash register tallies.

I dropped a tissue into the fire. It’s clean and dry.

Kenny caught up and became entranced as well. He bent down to help by blowing on the fire, while I searched the beach for more wood. Unfortunately, everyone had scavenged it clean, except for a few scattered twigs. Soon, their tiny fire became a group effort, with everyone searching their pockets for paper and probing the shadows for wood.

Kristen and Isabella were visiting with the rest of the family. There were new babies who were feeling sand on their fingers for the first time. Theirs was a family vacation that was coming to a close in a few hours.

I’d like to report that the fire became a raging inferno, but it never did, and in the end, it didn’t matter because we all got to help and had fun doing it.

Driving home I began thinking about how important it is to begin what we have in our hearts to do, no matter how insignificant our efforts may seem or how depleted our resources.

This will be fun!

blackberriesIt started when my kids were very young. There was the wagon and the hill and the blackberry bushes at the bottom. All three of us piled in the Radio Flyer ready for an exhilarating ride down the hill. My son, Clayton, in front, my daughter Kristen next, and I squished in the rear.

This is going to be fun, I said.

Kristen was worried, how are we going to miss the blackberries, Mom?

Don’t worry dear; I’ll just turn before we hit them.

We flew down the hill screaming and laughing. At the critical moment I pulled on the wagon tongue, but it wouldn’t budge.

Oh, we’re in trouble, I yelled and tipped the wagon on its side, only seconds before  lurching into gnarled thorns. Clay walked away laughing, wanting to do it again, but Kristen gave me a look of distrust that said, no way lady. No more rides with you − a look I’ve since become familiar with. 

In the spring of 1980 Kristen had her appendix removed. I thought a camping trip to Mount St. Helen’s would speed her recovery, so I made up cots in the back of my panel truck, threw our bikes inside and took off.  We stopped at the visitor’s center before settling in, where I carefully explained that the mountain was one of many sleeping volcanoes on the west coast, all of which were inactive, so she had nothing to worry about.

mt roadI have an idea, I said brightly. It’s all downhill to the campground. Why don’t you hop on your bike and enjoy the slope? I’ll follow close behind and pick you up at the bottom. That should be fun!

She rolled up her right pant leg as I untangling colored streamers on her handlebars, so they’d fly free in the wind. Ready?

She started gently with a push and glide, then balanced herself with a careful turn of the pedal. The smell of pine sat on the breeze and played in my hair, as I congratulated myself for finding the perfect vacation spot for Kristen’s recovery. But my serene mood was quickly broken by a piercing scream, and the sight of her bike careening out of control. She moved in abrupt zigzag patterns, back and forth across grass and gravel barely staying erect, going faster and faster. As she approached a curve, she risked a sharp glance over her shoulder, calling for help, panic written on every inch of her face. I sped as close as I dared.

Mom, my chain has come off. I have no brakes! What should I do?

Jump off, I yelled. Jump before you go faster.

And she did. I stopped the truck in the center of the road, bolted from the cab and pulled the still spinning wheels of the bike away from her body. I gathered her in my arms and held her as she wept.  

Oh, I’m so sorry, I said as I picked pieces of stone from her right arm and bruised knee. I’m so so sorry.  That was a bad idea. 

Three weeks later it rained ash in Portland. It was a clear Sunday in May when I walked out of the Benson Hotel after a workshop and smelled sulfur. Looking skyward I saw plumes of gray snow-like substances falling on cars and sidewalks. Mount St Helens was showering us with debris from her explosion. This continued into the next day, one small eruption following the next. Kristen gave me the look, the − I don’t think I trust my mom anymore − look. 

These stories move through her childhood finding a crescendo in Mexico. Kristen was in her twenties; freshly back from living in Greece, when I decided a mother-daughter trip was in order. We were sitting by a swimming pool in a fancy hotel in Cabo san lucas, when a man approached asking if we’d like to parasail.

parasailOf course, I said, jumping from my beach chair. Let’s do it. This will be fun!

I moved immediately toward the boat. Kristen came along. We sat in a double harness beneath a brightly colored kite that whisked up with lightning speed 600 feet into the air.  A speedboat pulled us without effort into a vast sky, where we dangled our barefeet above a cobalt sea. The boat, only a tiny speck tethered by a strong black rope, moved beneath us in azure currents next to an endless pale shoreline. I was in heaven. The bird in me was home. At last I knew what it was like for my human body to take flight. I looked over to share my joy with Kristen and found her frozen with fear. She was white, paralyzed, her eyes open in solid circles of panic. Her voice echoed in tiny sounds of terrified half sentences.

Down. Now. Can’t do this. Let me down. Her breathing was shallow, short and full of urgency. Mom get me down NOW!

The men in the boat didn’t look up. I tried. I yelled, but they were too far away to hear. Finally one of them turned. I waved and gestured.

We need to come down, I screamed, but my voice was lost in the wind.

The driver smiled and waved, happy to see that his animated guests were having a good time. Kristen was crying now in that cry we get when we think the world will end and us with it. I kept waving. Eventually the men in the boat reeled us in like fish.

Kristen walked shaken and wind-battered to our room, and fell into a deep infant-like sleep. When she woke, we sat together on the couch.

Mom, I can’t do this with you anymore, she said, exasperated. I can’t go running off with you on all the crazy adventures you dream up. This is it. This is the last one. I’m a woman now and get to say, no!

I’m sorry, I whispered, I just thought it would be fun.

Anatomy

dress on postMy kids both went to The Metropolitan Learning Center which is an alternative school in Northwest Portland. They grew up in a bohemian single-parent lifestyle with an artistic mom who was away, in rehearsal or touring with theater companies.

When teacher conferences rolled around, nobody wanted to be stuck inside, so we all agreed to meet at the naked beach on Sauvie’s Island, where we could talk, tan and enjoy the sun. 

The teachers discussed their latest field trips to Mexico, whatever art project they were working on, and how the kids were doing in school, while full scale volleyball games were  played on the shore and tugboats motored up the Columbia River.

The naked beach was relaxed and easy. Those who were fearful soon learned that their bodies were just bodies, like everyone else’s, nobody had a perfect one and nobody needed to feel ashamed. Being there was liberating.

My son was an adolescent at the time and uncomfortable on a naked beach, but felt inspired to hide on the hill with his friends to enhance his knowledge of human anatomy and upgrade his education from lifeless playboy centerfolds to the real thing. 

I walked the shore with my friend, B’Lou on my right, who was busy smoking long brown cigarettes and listening to the walkman she’d strapped around her waist. Carolyn was on my left, with a large straw hat and lots of proof that her bright red hair matched the hair on other parts of her body.

Clay and his friends were lying on their bellies in the hills, like soldiers on a spying mission, as our threesome approached.

Hey, check out those women, one of them said.

Clay smiled until he realized the woman in the middle was his mom, then jumped back like he’d been kicked by a horse.

Hey Guys, this isn’t cool anymore. Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore. The whole thing is grossing me out.

The boys were reluctant to leave, but Clay insisted. It took him a few days to tell me what happened, and he never quite looked at me the same again.

Mother’s Day

wisteriaI don’t know about you, but I find Mother’s Day a little on the loaded side. My mom lives in New York and will be 94 in June.  She can no longer hear on the phone so I send presents and write, but don’t call. My family of origin feels like a foreign country; one I have a passport to visit but would rather not.

My daughter and I have this communication thing that drives me crazy. If I say Good Morning in the wrong way, she feels criticized and launches an attack that would level a small country. We decided to do separate things that day.

My son called from California. That was nice. I know he hates talking on the phone, but he calls, bless his heart. To ease the pain of duty, he’ll multi-task, usually working on the computer as we speak, so there will be long moments when I wonder if he’s still there. But not this year, this year he was shooting crows with a new BB Gun to keep them from pooping all over his yard.

Hang on a minute, Mom. I gotta take this shot. Oh crap! Missed him!

I opened a magazine on Mother’s Day and read an article about this mother and daughter that looked so enchanted in each other’s company, you’d think they’d just gotten married. One of the things they do together is cook.  There was a recipe at the end of the article that shared a batch of carrot coconut muffins glowing in shades of golden brown. 

I made them this morning, thinking that if they turned out, I might be transported into their picture perfect kitchen – and their picture perfect relationship – and their picture perfect world. But mine did not turn out, of course! I forgot to soak the dried coconut first, so there were little hard things where yummy soft things ought to be. 

I don’t know. There is something about holidays, families, expectations and lack of perfection that turns my smile to a scowl and propels me to the garden, where I pull weeds with a little too much passion.

Perspective

ruby shoesMoney never went far enough when I was a single mom. Food stamps were quickly spent, a welfare check covered a few basics and the child support check, on the rare occasion it arrived, covered even less. I stood in lines for heating assistance, showed up for bags of government rice and cheese, and cultivated friendships with folks who liked having my kids to dinner.

It was 1980. I was going to school, worked part-time and had two kids. In third grade my daughter, Kristen, came home from school and announced that she no longer wanted the free lunches given to children on welfare, because the other kids were making fun of her for being poor. I sat her down in the rocking chair for a talk.

‘It’s very important that you understand the difference between having no money and being poor,’ I said.

‘Being poor is a state of mind that reflects a deep internal sense of lack. Being poor is when people believe they will always be deprived of the good things in life. They expect scarcity and get it, because they don’t know any different. Being poor is when you don’t understand how to use your creative skills to make ugly things beautiful. I don’t think you have the makings of a poor person. Not having money for awhile is different. That means that our financial supply is low, but it will get better, because we are not poor on the inside. We deserve good things and eventually we’ll understand how to have them, even if we don’t know how right now.  Money has nothing to do with self-worth or who we are as people. It’s just pieces of paper.  We are presently without money, so the government, the school and other people are helping us. There is no shame in that. It’s a smart thing to say yes to what we need. Let’s try an experiment; do you want to?’

She nodded her eight-year-old head in agreement and adjusted her weight in the chair. ‘Great, close your eyes and look deep inside yourself.’

She wrapped her little hands around the wooden armrests like she was bracing for a space launch. ‘You’re doing great, now relax a little. Her hands remained firm but she tucked her chin.’

‘Okay,’ I coached; ‘now tell me what you see.’

‘I don’t see anything. Everything is dark. ‘

‘That’s normal.’ I moved closer and lowered my voice.

‘Just keep looking. Go so deep inside that you can tell whether your spirit is rich or poor. Either way is fine, but it’s important to know; keep searching until you know. ‘

Her brow furrowed in serious concentration as she navigated the uncharted territory of her inner world. Finally her face softened, a smile crept across her lips and her eyes sprang open. ‘I’m rich inside. I’m not poor at all. I saw a beautiful princess.’

‘Ah, just as I suspected. Remember when we bought our panel truck and how ugly it was, and how we fixed it up and made it beautiful?’

She nodded, sliding from the rocker to a pillow on the floor. ‘Well, that’s  what I mean, because we didn’t leave it ugly. We made it nice. We can be rich in what we do, in the way we think, and the experiences we bring into our lives.  Get it? ‘  She smiled and I knew she understood.

Oh, My Papa

cigarOh my papa, to me he was so wonderful

Oh my papa, to me he was so good

Gone are the days when he would hold me on his knee

And with a smile, he’d turn my tears to laughter

 

Oh My Papa, was a popular song when I was growing up. I used to sing it and wonder if people really had such a relationship with their father. 

One afternoon I brushed against a photo album while cleaning my office, and watched it tumble to the floor. I bent to pick it up. I was in a hurry, and having to retrieve it heightened my impatient haste. The album had fallen open to a picture of my father in his hospital bed. The sight of him froze my attention. He looked straight at me, as if trying to tell me something, as if there was something left unsaid. I looked closer. There he was peering back at me, this proud angry man dressed in one of those awful cotton hospital dresses, his eyes pleading, and reaching out.

His eyes always told the truth, unlike his words.

He looked like a drowning man who had realized for the first time that no one could save him, that no one could make a difference, not now or ever again. My heart went out to him. I picked up the photo album and held it in my arms, pressing it against my heart, the way I longed to reach out and cradle his soul, the way I longed to release the bottomless unspoken pain that called to me from his broken life. I wanted to bury my feelings for him with his body, but it was not that easy.

I sat there for, I don’t know how long, embracing his spirit. There was nothing in the world but the two of us, and then I closed the cover and put it away. God, how I hated him and how I loved him so.

Reunion

When I got off the plane everyone hugged. It’s a family ritual. We hug when we meet and when we part. After that, conversation is limited. ‘Did you have a good flight? You must be tired. Are you hungry? Is everything going well at home?’  Curiosity prompts limited inquiries into one another’s lives, after which we settle in like strangers waiting together in a bus station.

When we reached my mother’s house I unpacked and spent the evening in front of the television. My mother’s partner, Joe sat across the room in his recliner, my mom on the sofa and I near her feet. She stretched once, her foot touching my lap. I thought about pulling her slipper off and massaging her foot, but didn’t. Any sign of random affection was against the rules, and the rules were all the stronger for being unspoken. I would be seen as perverted or needy. I lived on the west coast after all. People did all sorts of strange things out there.

We sat together in a small over-warm room and gave our full attention to the television. An audience applauded and smiled. A game show host with too many teeth coaxed contestants to greater heights, and was interrupted at intervals by commercials of Jeep trucks careening down steep terrains, and people eating hamburgers. We watched. No one talked. I had come 3,000 miles and no one talked. We didn’t know how to reach each other. There was no vocabulary. We were inches away, but it could have been a continent. I excused myself and went to bed. 

dinner-tableThe next evening, we had a family reunion in a near-by restaurant. We started in the lounge with numerous rounds of drinks and the standard apology to the bartender. This is my daughter, Karen, she doesn’t drink. I was an oddity. Well, how about a coke or something, he would answer. You can’t just sit there with nothing. The evening wore on as I got more and more hungry, and they got more and more social. Grabbing my mother’s arm, I said, do you think we could eat soon? I’m really starving.

Oh yes, dinner. The light of recognition returned. That’s why we’d come. Of course honey, we’ll be right there. There would be twenty minutes more for breaking off conversations with barroom regulars, rounding up drinks and finally the migration to our table.

When the waitress came to take my order the table fell silent, as I inquired about the ingredients of a dish. My oldest sister, having her tongue loosened by alcohol gave me a sharp poisonous look. Don’t be a problem, she yelled from the head of the table. Just order like everyone else. I don’t know why you had to come home anyway.

I waited a few minutes more before excusing myself to sit in the Ladies room. I didn’t want her to have the pleasure of knowing her arrow had reached its target. I breathed deep, closed my eyes and tried once again to compose myself. Her attacks came without warning. I retreated into silence and counted the minutes until my plane left.

Susan picked me up from the airport and spent the night. Her love, words and assurances were like healing suave on freshly opened wounds. I talked most of the night, while she listened and offered compassion and insight. I cried with a child’s voice, while she comforted me like the mother and sister I never knew. I started my period after dropping off to sleep. Blood stains as I woke in the morning seemed a fitting symbol for the wounding of another visit home.

The Supposed ability

crow-featherSometimes I want to throw this culture right on its ear!

I picked up the dictionary this morning to check the spelling of clairaudience and read: The SUPPOSED ability to perceive and understand sounds from a distance without actually hearing them.

I continued.

Clairvoyance: The SUPPOSED ability to perceive things that are not in sight or that can not be seen. Keen perception and insight.

I looked up mathematician, which is defined as an expert or specialist in mathematics.  Why doesn’t it say a SUPPOSED expert or specialist in the field of mathematics? What a rip!

Thirteen years ago I wrote a memoir. My therapist asked me to do it. Go ahead, she said, write it all down. It will be good for you, give you insight.

And so I did. I took a year and wrote the whole thing out. And you know what she said when she read it? This is excellent. I’d like you to write my memoir when I am ready. Your book could really help people, and would sell if you’d just take the spiritual parts out.

It has taken most of my life to share who I am with people. I have just listed a few of the reasons why.

The fricken dictionary that informs the whole English speaking culture is giving me a bad rap. This is so exhausting. I read a book about a psychic that grew up in a family that supported and encouraged her skills. What a concept.

In March of 1993, my mother’s husband Joe was dying. I was leaving to teach a morning class when I was stopped by the feeling of a spirit voice trying to talk with me. His photo on the mantel was radiating light, so I sat down, closed my eyes and began to listen. I knew he was in the hospital with cancer and taking morphine to endure. I figured he was in too much pain to stay in his body, so he’d come for a visit. Sure enough, when I closed my eyes his face loomed before me. I’m going to die before my birthday he said. I need you to prepare your mother. We visited and I agreed but felt uneasy with the task. As far as my family was concerned, I had never been employed because my healing work did not show up for them; they had no frame of reference for it. This was going to be tricky. I was also a little angry because Joe himself had often said, I don’t believe any of that stuff. It’s not real, none of it! Now he was asking for a favor. The rejection of my core essence has always hurt, but in all fairness, if I was not living with one foot in the spirit world, I would probably not believe it either.

Joe had two weeks before his birthday. I called my mom to see how she was doing , not sure how to bring the subject up. We were talking about Joe’s condition and his unrelenting pain, when she surprised me. Do you get anything about that, she asked? I wondered what she meant. You know, psychically.  I couldn’t believe my ears. As a matter of fact, I have a lot to say about it, because his spirit came to visit and asked me to prepare you for his passing. He is going to go before his birthday but needs you to release him.  You need to tell him it’s okay to move into the light and that you are ready to let him go. He needs to hear that from you. He also wants you to give something he loved and valued away, to move it out of the house. You can decide what that is.

She listened and when we rang off, I felt a sense of personal healing at being allowed a conversation that would have been otherwise impossible. Joe’s birthday was on the 8th and he died on the 3rd. I returned home as requested and stayed close to my mother to comfort her. As usual she did things right, with no detail overlooked. Always stately in her approach to life, the gathering reminded me more of a coronation ceremony for a queen, than a funeral. People greeted her, handed her roses and bowed their respects and regrets, friends were in abundant supply.

That’s the story of Joe, but if old Mr. Webster comes calling, I’m going to make him look up the definition of Eating Crow, (to undergo the humiliation of having to retract a statement, admit an error). I’ll require a few revisions in his reference books.

Not my job

red-crossI am not a nurse. My father thought I should be. He saw my gentle ways and compassionate heart and declared me nurse material, but he was dead wrong.

Before that, he thought I should be an airline stewardess. In 1955 airline travel was all the rage. He was a world class flight instructor and had visions of me dressed in high heeled shoes, white gloves and a smart little tailored uniform serving gourmet meals to the elite few who could afford to fly. I tried to comply, but each time we became airborne, I turned white and threw up all over his career plans. We tried this repeatedly, thinking perhaps my queasy stomach and loss of breakfast was a fluke, but nope: airplane up, vomit, airplane down. I was predictable. No waitress in the sky job for me. 

I flew back and forth to a Vermont boarding school on holidays. I climbed the steep steps of a puddle jumper, the name given to a small plane with such a short distance to travel, (500 miles) that it didn’t bother with altitude. These flights were filled with business men in dark suits and polished shoes. They moved their fine leather brief cases out of range as I filled one barf bag after the next. When I finally stepped from the plane I was ill, weak and embarrassed.

These planes still exist, if you are ever in the mood to torture yourself. Anyone going into the Elmira airport can find themselves on a plane so small that there are no overhead compartments, one seat on each side of the aisle, and a flight crew that graduated at the bottom of their class. No matter what seat you were assigned, you’ll be asked to move to the rear, so the plane will have enough weight for take off.

The stewardesses and pilots assigned to Elmira flights are a different breed and take some getting used to, lest you think you are standing in front of a renegade nun brandishing a ruler that looks like a microphone.

On my last flight from Philadelphia the stewardess made the following announcements:

“If you have to go to the bathroom, I want you to hold it. If you get up and head to the toilet while we are in line for take off, the pilot is required to go to the back of the line. That would be bad for everyone involved. You don’t want to be responsible for that happening, so hold it.

Check for personal belongings before you get off the plane. On the last flight a man named Tom Harris forgot his divorce papers, left them right there in the second row seat. Don’t tell me he’s not going to miss those!

You’ll be happy to know the pilot did a real good job on take off last time and brought it down just fine too. He’s doing real well today, so don’t worry about a thing.

Soft drinks will be served after we reach maximum altitude, if you have exact change. Don’t ask before I offer. Also, hang on to them during turbulence, because the liquid jumps right out of the cup. Stay in your seats and you’ll have a nice flight.”

 I am tending my friend Susan today, who has been my non-biological sister and closest, dearest ally for 35 years. She just had a hip replacement and needs a live-in friend. Her attitude is always top-notch, even in recovery. She is a big Swedish optimist, whose laughter fills the house and whose love for me has never faltered.

I, on the other hand, am anxious and grumpy. I am a poor queasy excuse for a nurse, being traumatized by the sight of anything medical. The pill bottles, hospital bed in the living room and changing of bandages leave me nauseated.

This morning I took her chamber pot from her bedside (totally gross) and spilled half of it on my feet as I poured it in the upstairs toilet. That was lovely, both the moment and the cleaning up after.

A nurse will visit to draw blood this afternoon, take her temperature, blood pressure and peer into her raw incision. I’ll take a long walk around the block, breathe some fresh air and think that maybe being an airline stewardess on an Elmira flight might not be so bad after all.

Clayton

air-coffeeMy son left today and I am not going to cry.

I am not going to envision the kind of connection we could have if he lived in Portland and not in Los Angeles.

I’m not going to replay all the ways I failed him as a child.

I am not going to dwell on the hurt I know he carries deep in the fabric of his childhood heart.

I am not going to miss his smile for days after he has gone.

I am not going to wish I saw him once a week instead of once a year.

I am not going to wish I could do his childhood over so I could be a better, normal, stable, not so weird mom.

I am not going to take it personally when he’d rather fill his visit here with friends and sports than hang out with his white haired mother.

I’m not going to think about how much I love him as I wash each dish in the sink.

I’m not going to dwell on what a strong man he turned out to be, what a fine husband and father.

I’m not going to yearn for the blonde curly haired toddler I cuddled and played with for so many years, the one who got older and went to live with his dad because I was melting down.

I’m not going to think about how open and loving he is with each child he meets.

I’m not going to think about how much his humor delights me, and how I could not imagine a more perfect son.

I’m not going to miss him with every cell in my mama body.

Well, maybe I will, maybe a little.

Respect

the-queenMy mother, Verse, is 93. She came to Oregon to visit for the last time when she was 88. I remember pushing her to the counter of the airlines ticket desk in a wheel-chair, while she dug in her oversized purse to find her passport. She was always smiling and eager to visit. She loved telling the adventure stories that lived behind each passport stamp gathered from around the world.

My mother is an amazing woman, so bright she skipped two grades in high school, graduating at age fifteen. She was academically gifted, but suffered from a painful childhood. As a girl, her mother explained that there was no such thing as love, and demonstrated by abandoning her in every way possible. She learned love from her father, but he left both the marriage and his daughter at an early age.

She sang in a big band before she met my dad, then left to manage a successful restaurant and motel. No, she did not manage it; she owned, lived and breathed it every moment of our growing up years, putting her dreams of studying law or medicine aside. My mother gave birth to three girls and two boys. All, without exception, worked in the restaurant below. It was a thriving business full of constant coming and going. It was the place to watch the World Series on the small screen television angled above the bar. It was a businessman’s lunch table, and the destination for every club and civic organization in town. The restaurant had the elegance to house wedding receptions and the warmth to invite family diners to return on a weekly basis. The travel-weary were given a warm welcome and the factory crowd brought their brotherhood to the bar. The romantic played the jukebox and danced, while teens drank cherry cokes and competed on the bowling machine.

I was her middle child, with a sister and brother older, and a sister and brother younger. I worked in the restaurant for years before going off to a Vermont Boarding School. During that time, I watched my mother make sure the meats being delivered were of the highest quality, the breads taken to the table were freshly baked, and the portions were plentiful and appealing. After a long day of work, she and I would sit at a small out-of-the-way table, her tiny shoes trailing built-up oven grease from the kitchen floor, her hands clutching volumes of receipts to be counted, her face drained of vitality and charm.

I don’t want this life for you, she would tell me. Go away from this place. Be more than this.

When she was finally freed of obligation to family, business, marriage and striving, she found her wings and began to explore. At eighty years of age, her gypsy blood bubbled to the surface.  With nothing to lose she decided to give herself as many adventures as possible. She tore across raging water on a jet ski in California, rode camels in Egypt, visited the Great Wall of China, flew across Antarctica, soared in a hot air balloon, took a safari in Africa, floated the Amazon river, and was the oldest woman ever to go hand gliding in New Zealand.  When we crossed the British channel, she was in the ballroom dancing in her new prom dress, while I stayed below, blue in the face from motion sickness. I think your mother is stronger than you are, the maid volunteered.

She waits in the airport wheelchair, beautifully dressed, her attitude full of determination and intention, but the clerk will not look at her. She addresses me instead. My mother does not exist for her. She is just an old woman to be patronized and called, Honey and Sweetie. Her passport is handed back quickly without a glance in her direction, its wealth of stories left untold. I watch my mother’s face fall as her existence is publically diminished.

The Test

walking-on-waterAs a child, I learned that God was both angry and male. At nine years of age, I decided to test him.

Okay, I challenged, if you’re going to strike me dead for swearing, let’s get it over with.

I cut loose with a string of words so crimson they could’ve blistered paint from our barn. Then I ran in the closet and prepared to die. I covered my head and crouched low, ready to meet my maker, ready to receive the punishment I had heard so much about.

I waited. Nothing happened. There must be some mistake. Maybe he didn’t hear me. No, I was sure he did. I shouted and took time in the delivery. He must have heard. But I was still alive. Still breathing. I was confused. Maybe there was a time delay. Could that be it? Not with God. He’s supposed to hear everything and act immediately. Strange though, I wasn’t dead.

I envisioned God the same way I envisioned Santa Claus, except God had flowing robes instead of a red suit. These guys seemed a lot alike. One could punish me by putting a piece of coal where a present should be; the other could make me an angel or burn me in hell.  Also the God-guy didn’t want us to have any fun. He didn’t even think dancing was good, but I knew for a fact that dancing was very very good.  Santa seemed less threatening, but didn’t get talked about as often.  “He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.  He knows when you’ve been good or bad, so be good for heavens’ sake.”  I knew I could never be good for a whole lifetime, which is what sparked the confrontation in the first place.

I uncovered my head and looked into the forest of dresses that hung above me in the closet. They weren’t moving. Everything was still. Maybe he’s waiting for me to come out in the open. So be it!

I unfolded my young body, wrapped my fingers around the door sill and peered into the room. No vengeful God there. I didn’t get it. Why hadn’t a lightning bolt turned me into a pile of burning ash?

I sat on the rug in the middle of the room and studied the ceiling.

I waited for a sign. Nothing.

I was going to have to figure this one out for myself. Maybe, I reasoned, there was no God. I didn’t see him and didn’t feel his presence. He didn’t strike me dead when everyone said he would. Why hadn’t he killed me? I broke the rules.  Suddenly everything fit into place.  If I was still breathing, maybe people got it wrong about God. Maybe like the spirits that visited me, he was kind and not mean at all. And maybe if he was kind, I’d better stop swearing at him so he could have some peace and quiet. That’s what my dad always said he needed, For crying out loud, will ya just give me a little peace and quiet!  I figured God, being God, probably needed more peace and quiet than most.

Shape Shifter

birdI was raised by an older sister, Mary Ann, who hated me. There are no in-roads between us. Not even the long journey from childhood to old age has altered its razor-sharp edge. There is nothing in this lifetime that can explain the on-going hatred in our pairing. I have searched for its root without success, because a sister is a precious thing to me. I extended my hand for decades, until my friends finally convinced me to stop trying. You can’t make friends with a rattlesnake, Karen. Give it up!  

When my mother’s second husband, Joe, died, I flew east to console her. It was the first time Mary Ann and I had slept under the same roof since childhood. We rode to the funeral together, but when the service was over the family car was gone.  I stood alone in the church, stranded. Outside I found a neighbor willing to give me a ride. This was typical of Mary Ann’s smiling calculated treachery. Mary Ann told me you’d gone home with someone else, my mother said.

In the evening, my mother asked that I go into Joe’s room and take whatever my son or husband might find useful. Joe was a large man, so I couldn’t imagine there would be much, but I agreed. I’d barely closed the door when Mary Ann appeared, her eyes arctic and fixed. What do you think you’re doing in here? My heart beat like a robber in the night. I repeated the instructions from our mother without result. Get Out, she screamed, her veins standing up like small ropes in her neck, her face red with rage.

Look, there is work to be done here, I insisted. Let’s do it together and help her out.

She could not hear. There is no help in you scavenging through a room you don’t belong in, so you can take things that are not yours. 

There was a time as adults when she’d let that anger go, thrown me to the floor, pressed her hands around my throat and voiced her desire to kill me. I am grateful for whatever gossamer thread of sanity held her back.

No, I said. This is something mom asked me to do and I will do it. Come. Follow me. Hear with your own ears.

My mother was resting on the couch, exhausted from grief. Mary Ann stood in front of her demanding justice. Karen has no right in that room. Tell her so. I expected my mother to bring a voice of reason to our disagreement, but she did not. Instead she said, now girls don’t fight, as if we were small children having an innocent argument.

I did not go back inside Joe’s room again. I went to bed, throwing off the web of sleep to remain vigilant. My flight left the next morning and I was eager to be on it. I was thinking about what a consistently dark presence my sister has been in my life, when the air seemed to split open. I noticed a large black bird flying too close to my car, its wingspan enormous. It flew low and turned whenever the car turned. I had never seen a bird do that before. In a moment of recognition, I realized the bird embodied the spirit of my sister. I drove slowly, looked skyward and knew. It’s you, isn’t it?  With those words the bird changed direction, flew toward my windshield, pooped all over it and left.

Past Lives

time

A past life explains the unexplainable in this life. It is a strong thread that runs through the personality and is unaccounted for by circumstance or environment. A past life is a kind of unremembered soul memory that pushes for expression in this time and place. I can best explain by pulling examples from the lives of my children.

My daughter, Kristen, walked next to me as a child of six and pointed at other women with children. Mama, I don’t want white babies when I grow up. My children should have darker skin. Those babies are not right.

She came to me in junior high school asking to go to Greece, with an urgency that got my attention. Her request seemed so important that I went to school to inquire about an exchange program, and found a possibility for her to visit in high school. When I told her, she threw herself across the bed and wept big bitter tears. I thought you would be pleased, I said. No, Mom, I can’t wait that long to ‘go back.’

Kristen is good at manifestation. She attracted a Greek family within the year, who invited her to travel with them to Athens for the summer. She came back more determined than ever. I need to live where people gather outside around long tables, drink wine and have in-your-face discussions. She saved the money she made as a waitress and went back again after high school. She learned the language, married a Greek man and lived there for three years. She wrote letters from the island of Paros that said, I have never felt so alive, or healthy. It is like coming home. 

One of my favorite memories of my son, Clayton, is from Seattle. He and I were shopping near Pike Place Market when break-dancing was all the rage. We saw a group of young black boys performing near the waterfront and went over to check it out. A crowd gathered to watch as the young men formed a line, waiting to do their athletic spins, flips and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. When I turned to comment, my son was missing. At ten years old, I was worried, until I saw him smiling back at me from the performer’s line. The dancers were as surprised as I was, to see him holding his own on their cardboard stage. That is where his past life spirit believed he belonged, street dancing with his black brothers.

As a little boy, he drew pictures of himself with dark skin. In high school, his African friend, Brian, made a bedroom in his walk-in closet, sharing secrets and stories like brothers. As a man of 38, he makes his Los Angeles home in the earthy grit of the hood.

How else can you explain this white mans perception of himself, if it is not a door from another lifetime that did not fully close?

We all have these mysterious threads that manifest in our lives as gifts we carry, desires to be realized or the curse that keeps us bound beyond reason. Looking at these threads, whatever you choose to call them, can bring insight and liberation.

An Introvert’s Christmas

 

Snow is falling quietly and softly outside my window. It is light and undecided, on the border between snow and rain. My husband rose early, eager to make the long drive to his daughter’s house, where his children and their children will gather to celebrate. The house will be full of loud people with big voices, competing with an immense television blaring football and commercials. Children will scream for attention, squeal with delight, and play with noise-driven toys.

I have baked sugar cookies, cardamon-orange sweet rolls, and sent raspberry jam from last summer’s crop. I placed a hat on my husband’s head, stuffed gloves in his pocket, and watched him pull from the driveway, his tires chained and crunching ice.

Now it is my time. I go immediately to the stereo and put on Louie Armstrong. His voice fills the space, like a kiss from the past:

I see trees of green,

 red roses too.

 I see them bloom, for me and you,

and I think to myself,

what a wonderful world .

I see skies of blue,

And clouds of white,

 the bright blessed day,

 dark sacred night,

and I think to myself,

 what a wonderful world.

 As I listen, I sponge the coffee table clean, open windows for a blast of fresh air, clang a Tibetan bell to clear the space, and place a match against the wick of a candle, watching its light move into a tall steady flame. Finally, I fold a warm brown shawl across my shoulders, sit on the couch and silence the stereo. I breathe in the quiet, wrapping it around me like a welcome friend. I am old enough now not to feel guilty about who I am and what I need, or to put myself in situations that feel wrong or abrasive.

It is a great pressure being different in a society that has traditions and rules about what holidays mean, and how they are to be celebrated. Thanksgiving makes sense to me, because it’s a time to be thankful. But Christmas follows too close on its heels, and escalates into a kind of material carnage and shopping frenzy full of pressure and disappointments. It seems a day set aside to magnify family issues, and the difference between how our lives are, and the ideals we hold. Add to that my sincere dislike for material accumulation and the incompatibility grows.

I did have a moment yesterday, when I slipped into parental guilt, knowing how much my daughter, Kristen, has always loved holidays.

I’m sorry I live so far in the country, I told her. I should have a big house in town, where we can more easily gather as a family, and do a traditional Christmas.

Her answer was kind and real. Mom, don’t do that to yourself. That is not who you are, or what you really need or want. Just be you on Christmas day and enjoy it.

Kristen is busy cooking for the nearly one hundred residents who live at the ashram, fulfilling her dream of living with a large spiritual family.

And so, I sit in this peace-filled room, alone, watching snow and birds, and allowing my writing to surface with abundant time and space.

I’m sure many would judge my holiday sad and deprived of humanity, but I have a deep calm and a welcome communion with myself in not wishing to be any where else, or doing any thing else. Perhaps next year, I will be surrounded by quiet loving friends, but this year I am content, and delighted beyond measure to find that I can allow the richness of what I need, without pretending to be other than I am.

Getting High

Friends and neighbors could not resist the swing we attached to the rafters of our porch. They pulled against sturdy chains, pumping themselves as near the ceiling as possible, back and forth, laughing, sharing stories and working to get higher still. The rest of us sat on porch railings or in the loveseat to cheer them on. That was when we lived in southeast Portland. The swing was one of the great pleasures of the house.  I could tell what kind of day the mail carrier was having, by peeking to see if she stole a moment from her rounds to swing, or if she ignored its waiting invitation and continued on. When winter came the front porch was abandoned, so we put a second swing inside the house. 

stoveMy last kitchen was like a hallway, with a playroom for my granddaughter at one end, and a dining room on the other. Many-paned windows saved it from feeling confined. Large connecting bolts screwed through the casing in the kitchen doorway, secured the swing for all weights and sizes. It arched deep inside the kitchen, with views above the refrigerator and high-dwelling shelves. The kids in the neighborhood loved it, while I would orchestrate cooking in dodges and darts to avoid their feet. Sometimes I’d pretend to be slow, so they’d tag me, and giggle with delight. If they were not in the kitchen, I’d use it myself. There is nothing quite like being airborne to break the monotony of chopping potatoes or peeling carrots. A few high kicks in the air and life has a different perspective. Suddenly it’s more important to see how high your feet can soar, than tend the pots and pans that sputter and steam below. 

Our country house has 16 foot ceilings, but oddly, no place for a swing. So, I cut, shoveled and graveled a path over the hill, and into the forest below. Gib climbed to the top of an extension ladder and higher still, into the broad arms of a Douglas Fir, in a heroic effort to provide my swing. He cut away branches, tied ropes around a husky limb, and got himself safely down, all the time looking like a crazed environmental terrorist.

When the light returns and spring invites us out of doors, it is not unusual to trail down in my nightgown, place my tea cup on a near-by stump, wrap eager fingers around the ropes, pull back strong against the hill and become airborne. The release from the earth and the wind in my hair is a perfect way to start the day. It gives me perspective and relieves the pressures of adult life.

Christmas Present

 

bead1It was going to be a meager Christmas. My son was five years old and my daughter, seven. I spent money on fabric, trims, buttons and dowels to make them each a tapestry for their room. I worked at night after they went to bed, clipping along measured lines to fashion a golden ballerina for Kristen and a Star Wars character for Clay.

Every year I imagined the next Christmas would be better. I promised myself that I’d have more money, more stability, and resources. Every year as I fashioned another homemade gift, I wondered what it would be like to go into stores and buy whatever I pleased. I wondered what it would be like to stop being a student, an artist and single mom. I was determined to change my essential nature, so I could fit into society’s shoe. I believed I could have a better life, if I only tried harder, worked longer or pushed in another new direction.

One holiday, I gave them mugs with hot air balloons painted on them, to tide them over until I could supply the real thing. I told them stories about the adventures we would have, someday, when things got better.

When things got really hard, I stole left-over pizza from a near-by restaurant to feed them. I’d have a small salad, then wait for the fleeting opportunity between customers getting up to leave and the waitress clearing the table. I needed to move quickly and unseen, storing food in the container inside my pocket. I taught myself to do without, to fast, so my own hunger could have purpose and form; so I could make peace with working so many hours and still having so little to live on.

It was in this vein that I decided a Christmas tree was an indulgence, yet in my heart I wanted one. I remember driving home and saying out loud, Damn it! I do want a Christmas tree. I want a big one that fills the whole house, not some wimpy thing that suits my purse.

And so I got my wish.  It was midnight. I had just finished performing in a downtown Portland theater. The streets were stark, the glow of lights against soft rain the only reflection. I remember thinking how odd it was that there was no traffic on such a normally busy street. No one at all. I was getting ready to turn into my neighborhood when I saw something in the lane in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, swerving just in time, and there it was –  the biggest most perfect Christmas tree I had ever seen, right in the middle of the road, like it had dropped from the sky. I pulled the car over and waited for someone to come back for it, but no one did, so I pulled, shoved and muscled it into the back of my old SAAB, then drove happily home, excited to show the kids in the morning.

That was a long time ago now, but last year my son’s wife sent me an email: Do you remember the tapestry you made him when he was a little boy? Is there any chance you know where it is, or could make him another? He still talks about how much he loved that.   I guess hot air balloon rides and store bought gifts aren’t everything.

Sun

 

lion-in-snow1

I miss my little boy. He was a ray of light straight from the sun. His hair was blonde and tight with ringed curls, his eyes searching and open. I used to love to snap his blue jeans closed under that two year old belly that ballooned out inviting kisses, inviting me to blow that kind of mouth noise that made him scream and giggle with delight. His cheeks were full and round, the kind to grab and squeeze. I’d take one of those little hands as we walked and swing him skyward until he saddled snug against my shoulders. We’d travel for blocks that way, him being a giant and me with my ray of sunshine and love proudly displayed for the world to see.

Those years went so fast. When I look at him now, I wonder how it happened. How did my little blonde boy grow into such a man’s man. How did he get to be so darned big and grown up? I know there are logical answers, but they don’t satisfy the mama in me who often longs for her green eyed toddler with the rounded belly. I loved him and miss our times together. I love the man too, but he is a different kind of giant, one who no longer needs my shoulders to make him seen and tall. I marvel at the man before me. How did this happen? Life is confusing that way.

Post Holiday Blues

sunset-rideIt’s not like I want to live in Los Angeles. I never could, but there was something wonderful about being there for Thanksgiving. Sunshine and warmth for starters. I was with my son, Clayton and his wife, Khrystyne. He is six foot three and wears extra large shirts, she is a tiny Vietnamese beauty who perches on his lap like the little bird she is. Clay took me along Mulholland Drive to the base of the Hollywood sign on his bright red motorcycle. I loved every minute. Riding with him is one of my favorite treats. He has been racing and riding motorcycles for as many years as I can remember. I place myself in his hands with complete confidence, but when he rides with no hands or on one wheel, it’s Khrystyne who’s on the back and not me. 

His other love is skateboarding. Clay has built a half pipe in his backyard. Friends roll back and forth becoming airborne under propane lights with mariachi or soul music pouring from neighboring yards. Clay lives in The Hood where folks are awake and active without apology. 

Thanksgiving at my growing up house was elegant and formal, fine dining at its best with imported wines, fine china, crystal glasses and cuisine that still lingers in memory. Chateau brignon, prime rib, lobster and scalloped potatoes were artistically arranged with fresh flowers, fruits and good silver. That was the gift of owning a restaurant and having a mother who appreciated fine things.

It was different at my son’s house. The only table sat near the wall, covered with computers, monitors and work orders. We cleared that off, sliding the table to the center. Then we washed off lawn chairs to make enough seating. There was no tablecloth. I drew the line at paper plates. I asked for music to dine by. Clay put on a collection of old Beatles songs, followed by Snoop Dogg.  I could not help but contrast our meal with the way I grew up. 

I’m proud of my son. He dropped out of high school and lived lost for a long time. After his daughter was born, he stabilized and followed his love of graphic design. He is thirtyeight years old now, and sought out by CNN, People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, the Oscars and others. His visions are unique and bold. He has not forgotten how to play and still loves his mama. No candles and linen tablecloth could ever replace that happy ending. I could not ask for more, well, maybe more sunshine in rainy old Oregon.

The Lost Children

disagreement

We are making generations of lost children. These are the tender souls born to mothers and fathers who split apart and try again with other partners. Often the child from the first marriage no longer fits or belongs. This child, imagining a secure and welcome future is unwittingly discarded, often exiled to an island of loneliness, while being told to behave. These children are brought along without choice, becoming a reminder of another life, another time, another partner. They mutate into the unnecessary appendage of a new life.

I’ve watched it happen with kittens. Place one that doesn’t belong in the litter next to a nursing mother and she will bat it away, often wanting to kill it. So many of our little ones are living the Cinderella story without the happy ending. Soon they are taken to therapists. What’s wrong with this child? Fix him, give him drugs, make him conform, take away his anger. Where is the medicine for a broken home? Where is the mending for defeated trust and shattered hearts?

Boots

old-man

I saw an old pair of boots today sitting next to the free box in the laundry room at the ashram. My heart leapt. Oh, what lovely boots!

They smelled of earth, wild strength, and animal. They were leather, worn and marred, a statement of a well-walked, well-traveled country life. I slipped my foot inside hoping they would fit, but they were too big. Just as well, I thought, I have a pair just like them at home. They are irreplaceable. I thought about my husband and slipped my foot in one more time. They don’t fit me, but maybe he would like them, maybe he would wear them. That way I could still see them, and have them beside me as we walked wooded trails. But no, too small for him as well. Besides, he is a city man with little use for country boots. And so I left them, like I was leaving a kindred spirit, like I was pulling away from an old friend I could not invite inside.

My daughter was in the art studio putting the finishing touches on my book design.

Kristen, did you see those wonderful boots by the free box?

She stopped what she was doing, lowered her head and shook it hopelessly from side to side.

I knew you’d like those ratty old smelly things, she said. I would have stuck those in the trash years ago.

Kristen does not have much country in her. She is the fashion conscious model on the cover of Elle Magazine. What she wears matters very much. She has trained her daughter to have her careful eye and gift for beauty. Isabella, however, has been known to slip a gear, propelling in my direction. I want to wear Carharts just like Ma, she says. Poor Kristen feels she has been cursed by an unjust God. You want to use Ma as your standard for fashion? Isabella! God help us all!

I left the boots in the laundry room by the free box. Maybe someone else will find them and be overjoyed. Or maybe Isabella snatched them up when no one was looking, and is wearing them around the house as we speak. Most certainly Kristen is questioning her lineage and pulling out her perfectly fashioned hair.

Done

bass-playerSomething in me does not know the difference between an AK47 and a camera lens. When I look up and see a metal box where a person’s face should be, I freeze. Vacate. It’s automatic. Others comment on it. Gee, your picture doesn’t look anything like you. You’re so much more vibrant and fun. When people look through photo albums they can’t find me. Is this one you? No kidding. How about this one? I wouldn’t have known. It’s because I’m not there. I don’t know where my spirit goes, but it’s definitely absent. It’s the firing squad effect.

That said, you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear I needed a photo for my website, the close-up kind that shows all the wrinkles. Vanity aside, I’d just as soon be scheduled for dental surgery. I was complaining loudly to my daughter, Kristen, who is a professional photographer, when she and her nine year old, Isabella, came for dinner. Kristen has pretty much had it with me because I make her job impossible. It’s only duty and the umbilical cord that keeps her from doing me in. I was getting ready to ask her anyway, when Isabella sprang into action. I’ll handle this Ma. (She calls me Ma, which means teacher in the Buddhist tradition and royal pain in the butt in the daughter tradition.) Isabella grabbed me off the couch and took me into the closet, decisively pulling clothes off the rack. Here, hold these, take this one, put that on. Next we headed for the bathroom so she could do a make-over, which is not easy with the handful of cosmetics I own. She sat me on the toilet while plastering my face with powder. She gobbed my lips in color, browned my eyelids, rosed up my cheeks, dripped black from my lashes, combed my hair and pronounced me done.

Let me back up. Before we girls met for dinner, we met at the Goodwill to see if there were any treasures among the grunge. Kristen and I found nothing, but Isabella walked away with roller skates – great roller skates, exactly her size, in perfect condition roller skates. She put them on as soon as her feet touched my hardwood floors, becoming a peripheral blur. Isabella was doing my make-over while gliding, spinning, and doing a trick called shooting the dog, no pun intended.

When I was deemed beautiful enough, we went next door to my neighbor’s house for a change of scene. Bella sat me down in the library next to the books, posed me at the Grandfather clock, moved to the bedroom which looked like I was drumming up business for a brothel, then finished with a meditation pose on a circular blue rug.

I was playing with her, with no expectation of result, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t get a picture. Having spent all nine of her years on photo shoots with her mom, the girl’s learned a few tricks, plus she doesn’t hate me yet for being impossible. She was gliding by, sitting on one skate while extending another in front of her, when I asked how much money she’d like for her time. She looked at the ceiling and decided five dollars would due nicely. I gave her a three dollar tip.

The Telephone

parrot 

I was in my late twenties when I got a job as an Artist in Residence for the city of Portland. They sent a woman to my house to tell me the good news because I didn’t have a phone. Do you think, she asked, now that you’ve been hired that you would install a telephone?

Sorryit has nothing to do with money, I don’t want to live with a telephone.

Phones and I have never been friends. Don’t really know why.

Maybe because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and give them my complete attention, whether I want to or not. Maybe it’s the disembodied voice and lack of visuals that unsettles me – or maybe it was gathering my courage as a child to tell the operator that I needed the phone number for Walt Disney because I wanted to join the Mickey Mouse Club. I think he lives in Hollywood. That’s some place in California.

She dashed my dreams in one short sentence.  Quit playing with the phone kid. Click.

I didn’t give up. I wrote him a letter. One year later I got a postcard. Thank you for your interest. We’re glad you enjoy the show. Click.

benzDidn’t they understand that I was one of them? Didn’t they get how good I’d look in those ears? They should send a big long car immediately to snatch me out of my nowhere life and take me to my destiny. I could picture the uniformed guy stepping out of the driver’s seat and ushering me inside. He would put my meager suitcase in the trunk, as a souvenir, because the back seat would already be filled with my new, expensive, fit-me-perfectly Mickey Mouse clothes. Of course, I would miss my parents, but oh well, I’d get over it. What was wrong with those people anyway?

Maybe it was being sent to boarding school where telephones were off limits, although letters were allowed. I’d pour out my homesick heart and have my letters returned, misspelled words circled in red. Click.

My Aunt Ethel was a lifeline. She didn’t like phones either. She had her parrot answer hers. He was a huge colorful bird who toe nailed his way around an open silver perch. When the phone rang, she held it near his face and he’d scream HAIL OOOOOOOH. It was great.

Sometimes I carry a cell phone (to please my husband) when I can find it and it’s not dead. He is very modern and wants me to be. But I don’t like to take it. I like to lose it, because when it goes off it alarms me, sending me into the air with such force others assume I’ve been stung by a bee. It’s either that or fumbling for glasses, searching for the right button, and snap. Missed the call and took my photo instead.

My granddaughter, Isabella, asked how old her mom was when she got her first phone. Isabella thought perhaps she was being cheated by having to wait until she was out of elementary school. I wanted to tell her about phone operators who knew where your neighbors went and when they’d be back. I wanted to tell her about party lines and how each farm had a different ring and how you could spend hours listening in if you wanted to, agreeing or disagreeing in the middle of another persons conversation, but in the end I decided to leave it alone. She already calls me old school and asks what life was like before Christ.

Sisters

Unsupervised kids can do anything. We cut our own hair and each others.

I once took scissors and went straight up the back of my sister’s young head, all the time telling her to trust me. The result looked like a hillside stripped wide for power lines. She didn’t speak to me for awhile.

I  used to bleach my hair with hydrogen peroxide until it turned corn silk white. When I did it again, it got brittle and turned the yellow you’d associate with bad dental care.

My sister, Kristen, (whom I named my daughter after, because I loved her so much – and because she still loved me after her hair cut)…and I used to spend money on hair dyes. Probably money lifted from the folds of my father’s pocket during his afternoon nap. We bought a dye called, Coffee, which was a drastic disappointment, since we both pictured coffee with cream and sugar. Turned out the manufacturer took his straight up black.

She and I were friends and life-lines. I had her stand on my bureau once so she could gaze down at my chest. She swore I was not developing, but I insisted that if she could only look down, the way I could, well, she’d see the budding promise of breasts so apparent to me. She saw nothing, at any height. Oh well, a pair of well placed socks would do the job until the real thing arrived.

We used to daydream, she and I, about our grown up lives. Would we still live close to each other? Still sleep together when we came to visit? Still draw an imaginary line down the center of the bed to divide her side from mine…cross over and die? What would we name our children? That’s when I promised to name my first born after her. (She didn’t keep her end of the deal.) We knew we’d have to stay in really close touch, especially if we were going to get married and do-you-know-what with a man. Gross!

Renegade Storks

This is how I figure it happened for me, and maybe for you as well.

The stork shows up for work, maybe a little hung over, definitely hating his job. He wants to quit, but there is no retirement plan in the reproductive system, so he continues on, grumbling and feeling not so quietly put out.

There are long conveyer belts of babies all wrapped in familiar blankets of pink and blue.

The foreman near the conveyer belt is smoking a cigarette.

‘Bout time you showed up. Here, take this one. You’re on the pink line today, headed to the east coast. This one is sensitive so put her down some place nice.

The stork hates the sensitive ones. They’re way too much work. He could fly around for days looking for the right drop without compensation, just a, What took you so long? look from his sweaty over-weight jerk of a boss.

Fine, he says grabbing the bundle in his beak. I’m off.

And so he starts the long trip to New York, all the time thinking about how much he hates his life, his job, and his foreman. In fact, he does nothing but think about it until his little stork brain is a mass of nasty dark negative little stork thoughts. Then he gets an idea. There is no quality control at the plant, just a roll of the eyes, a turned down mouth, or a ‘you’re a hopeless stork’ shake of the head. The light goes on. Why should he flap his wings through miles of crappy weather to please them? What’s the point? The sooner this trip is over, the sooner he can crack open a cold one, and put his feet up where they belong.

What the heck! I’m just gonna drop this sucker right now, right in the middle of nowhere, right into this……….Oops. That’ll be a rough go. Little premature drop there. Oh well, good luck kid. Not my problem.

And so I was born.

written 10-19-08

The Clasp

I never had the money my sisters had. I never chose a sensible career path or sheltered in the safety of a solid relationship. I rode the crest of a wave ~ crashing, picking myself up and getting on again. My path has been bruised and alert, never fitting the mold. The Goodwill was my Neiman Marcus, junkers my transport.

I am not a gift giver or anyone who appreciates material things. They get in my way, need tending, replacing and are cumbersome to manage from the crest of a wave. But my mother loves things that sparkle, and grace her neck and ears with beauty. She belongs in the scene of a British movie, where the husband tiptoes behind her, gently kissing her cheek as she sits at her vanity. His starched white cuff is all that shows on screen, as he flips open a velvet hinged case to release diamonds which drip from her neck and cascade from each ear. That is my mothers role. She is the feminine bird fixing her hair and fluffing her ruffles for an evening of elegance and polish.

I know this about her. I want to please, to care for her, to fill in her empty places and so I shop. I shop without knowledge, money or experience. I shop for the child in her who delights at surprise.

I always buy jewelry because she can’t have enough. I imagine she will wear my gifts for a few years, feeling my love as she fastens the clasp across her wrist, around her neck or over each lobe. What I did not account for, is that she would keep my gifts year after year, attached to each one more completely than we bonded as mother and daughter.

How shocked I was to see the gifts from my days in poverty still owned and worn, the price I paid betraying itself in the green tinge on her finger or the dull marks on her neck.

Oh mother dear, forgive me. That was the best I could do, when you deserved so much more.

written 10-16-08