Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Under my feet


San Leandro Creek early this morning, 
so still, unmoving, only a shudder or two from frozen. 
Under my feet, points of light twinkle 
from the deep litter of dead leaves, each light 
a leap off a frosted drop sparkling like a star,
adding brilliance to a damp and dark 
forrest floor littered with corpses, 
but how they lie lovely in their graves, 
greens and yellows faded or completely gone, 
but at least they have me, a grateful woman
for this carpet of gold and brown 
under my feet where I spot a fresh leaf, 
still yellow, others gold or dull green, or grey
as if born at the last minute 
then dropped from the exhausted arms 
of these old trees. Just beyond I see
pure brown earth from which swollen roots bulge 
silent and battered as if they popped 
out of the ground in a plunge for air.
I can’t take my eyes off that sad disarray
of skins cast off  by the eucalyptus trees, 
as if in a rage about the shortness of everything 
they are tearing off their clothes.  
I find a long thin branch on the ground. 
It serves well as a walking stick to steady me 
up the slippery slope where my car waits. 
Just one last look around before I go. 
I'm pleased that all this winter dead-- 
its silence and bareness, its sharp chill--
doesn't carry me off to melancholy,
instead takes my hand and squeezes it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The view one recent morning

It rained lightly this morning. 
A rare thing around here. 
A good time to visit the wood  nearby. 
Inhale its air, clotted with wild scents. 

A redwood stump 7 feet tall, 
wide and dark as a bear, stands alone, 
wounded, beside the path. 
What whacked its crown off in its prime?  

A bird quacks hysterically in the branches. 
Why this racket? 
Some quarrel over a nest or meal no doubt. 

A plane roars past overhead. Who is looking down from those tiny windows?
Are they worried?

Some little leaves holler
Yellow! Yellow! We are yellow! 

Under my feet, a wet carpet of wood chips. 
So soft, my boots sink lower and lower. 

Trees large and small, some bare, some thick with needles, 
bend over the San Leandro Creek and across my path. 
What chooses which way they'll bow, when they'll grow 
tall, when they'll give up and fall? 

The creek lays still and dark as a graveyard. 
Tiny winged creatures leap in and out of the creek, 
some swim in circles, bumping leaves that just float
accepting whatever comes. 

Suddenly the sun slices through the cloud. 
I feel as if I've been standing alone 
in a dark temple 
and all the lights have just gone on 
and people are streaming in. 
Awake now, I turn back to my car. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

It's under control: Happy Birthday, Denise

In the summer of 1970,  I met my sister in the Amsterdam airport.  As soon as she stepped off the plane from Philadelphia she needed to stop in the bathroom.

I waited outside the stall, when I noticed her feet had disappeared. Hey, where did you go?   The door swung open.  She was squatting above the toilet, both bare feet on the seat.

 This is the most natural way for women to pee,  she told me. 

I admired her devotion to a more natural lifestyle but also had to suppress a giggle. For me, it was all too much work, the way she slipped out of her sandals, rolled up her bell bottoms so they wouldn’t dip into the bowl,

then balance herself with both hands flat against the walls.     

Ok let's get your luggage, I said. She would be staying for a month.

My sister held up a backpack and a small overnight case with a handle.

This is all I brought, she said.                                                                                                                                        

Inside the case, small shelves and drawers filled with vitamins and packets of herbs to be placed under the tongue for desired spiritual states.

She brought no clothes except some extra halter tops.  

It was clear she had become what we used to call a real freak--a bound and determined hippie.

I merely wore army surplus jackets and hairbands. My behavior didn’t stray far from conventional. I was too anxious or maybe just too lazy to explore radically different lifestyles. But my sister? She was the real thing. 

Tall and thin, her body was perfect for hip huggers and bra-less halter tops. She refused to shave any hair on her body, rejected makeup, was drawn to everything third world and eventually became an anthropologist. When she was 20, she had a boyfriend who was a jazz musician and heroine addict. Next came a health food specialist. Eventually she married a social activist from Columbia, then a teacher from Morocco.

Once in winter, she walked through the snow barefoot because that’s how Native Americans once did it. 

When we sat in my apartment in Munich, she played the first of several tape recordings her boyfriend made for her trip, mostly pep talks about staying on a macrobiotic diet, using herbs liberally, holding on to positive thoughts.

Her commitment to those youthful ideals has endured until the present time. Last summer she taught school in an African village. The summer before, she worked on a Peruvian dairy farm. Our mother thought my sister too self-controlled. Our mother, a woman with an exuberant and moody personality, considered self-control a flaw. But my sister knows that’s how you change yourself and the world, and how you don’t give mothers the satisfaction of seeing how they hurt you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One thing I think about on Thanksgiving

Sue pressed on a bottle cap protruding from a hole in her throat. 
It was her turn to tell why she joined my “writing for beginners” group at the San Leandro library. 
It took several presses of the cap to explain that since her tracheotomy, speaking was very difficult. 
Being a person who loved to communicate,
I decided I better learn to write. 

But Sue panicked when she heard the library 
would publish our Thanksgiving Day stories. 
I don't know where to begin, she wheezed.
I don’t want to embarrass my children.

Sue settled on the topic of her mother’s old oak table. 
She wrote about how in the weeks before Thanksgiving, 
her mother pulled off the plastic table cloth and polished the table 
from the top to its claw feet. 
A week before the meal, she set the table for eight, sometimes squeezing 
ten around it. 

For decades, her family assembled at this table for a traditional turkey dinner, 
every year losing and gaining family members as they passed or moved away and spouses and grandchildren took their places. 

When Sue’s mother died, Sue brought the table to her own home
and continued the ritual of polishing and setting in exactly the same way.  
The work summoned memories that made her sink into the nearest chair. 
Every plate Sue set, every candle she unwrapped, brought to mind 
scenes from her childhood, from her children's childhood, 
and now from her grandchildren’s childhood. 
She felt the gentle presence of spirits hovering around the table, 
especially her mother's, always there at my elbow, checking my work

When Sue died four years later, her daughter invited me 
to a memorial service at the Oakland Hilton. 
In the hallway, I spotted clawed feet 
beneath a white tablecloth with framed family photos. 
In the center stood a double-paned silver frame 
holding Sue’s story, The Table. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My dear friend Bill Boyd

Bill
Died November 20, 2006
When he was diagnosed the year before, he called to tell me. 
He struggled to suppress the coughing to get out a whole sentence. 
Ok let’s cut right to the chase, he said. I have lung cancer.  
I felt tiny ants skitter across my skin in all directions. 
We waited for me to speak but no words rose up, 
only the thought of Bill dying, which was both conceivable 
and inconceivable. 
He had been a smoker 
but consumed enormous quantities of vitamins. 
So I assumed he'd be among the lucky ones 
who'd dodge the cancer bullet.  Besides,
Bill was a lifelong student of mind control 
--EST, FORUM and NLP.  He'd spent years 
in therapy, had read countless books about the mind. 
Had worked so hard at self knowledge, I called him. 
a Bill-ologist. 
Finally I had to speak. 
Oh God, Bill. Oh God. I’m stunned. 
Yeah, he said, isn’t that a fucking downer? 
But I’m not going in for all that radiation and chemo and all that shit. 
I’m going to look around for alternatives.
That seemed too risky but I dared not disagree. 
Faith can perform miracles. 
Conviction can bend reality or at least seem to.  
I don’t know what the rules are in this new realm, 
only that there’s a feedback loop between mind and body. 
People have raised and lowered their body temperature 
with thoughts alone. I saw a man walk on burning coals. 
If anyone can do this, it is you Bill, I said, surrendering to his vision. 
because I don't fully understand this mystery that engulfs us.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An unfamiliar road


From time to time, driving in the country, 
I'm struck by a disturbing image of an unfamiliar road.
A straight two-lane highway lined for miles 
by rows of tall trees, 
the trunks lean and nutty, bare up to the middle, 
then bushy with leaves thick and green, each tree 
identically tall, their pointy crowns aimed at the sun. 
I may or may not be alone in the car 
but I'm always alone on the unfamiliar road when
it suddenly seems familiar. 
I tell myself, Ah, here it is again
I don't know where I’m going or coming from 
on that unfamiliar road but each time I think I’m
on it, my heart starts drumming, something 
whispers, Look, you will die here
and in a flash I watch my car plunge deep into the arms
of these tall, straight trees.
On a drive to Mount Lassen, the road 
suddenly took the shape of the unfamiliar one.
This is the road! 
I slowed the car, turned off the radio.
But looking again, Maybe not. 
These trees have needles. 
No leaves. No slim brown trunks. 
So I relaxed. 
Once along Highway One 
between Stinson Beach and Point Reyes, 
I came upon an unfamiliar road that too began 
to look familiar. 
I pushed on the brake, 
tightened my grip on the wheel. 
No, look, look! This road curves, it bends. 
It’s not the unfamiliar road, 
which is very straight and very flat. 
There’s a road I drive often along Lake Chabot. 
It’s lined with many kinds of trees, all of them
the wrong trees, and the road has sharp curves, 
so I know it isn’t the one. 
I try not to think about that road. 
They say we give ourselves permission to die 
a certain way 
and then wander into that death
like a sleepwalker. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A family story


My brother Arthur was born blue, partially strangled 
by the umbelical cord. He couldn’t catch his breath. 
After that, he was different from other kids. 
He made funny noises, couldn’t remember his address, 
said odd things. When he turned 9, St Joseph’s Elementary School 
said Arthur couldn’t keep up so my parents sent him to Mary Haven School for Exceptional Children in another state. 
He returned home when he was 18, 
tall and lean and strong. 
My mother got him dressed in a suit and walked with him 
from store to store but no one would hire him. 
So she sent him to the navy and to everyone’s surprise the navy took him and put him on a battleship. 
After three years, he returned to my parent’s house in Philadelphia. 
One day he typed up every page of a joke book 
just to have an extra copy of it. He watched a lot of TV and helped my mother with odd jobs 
around the house. Then one night he went to a sports bar and met Barbara, 
a frumpy little woman 15 years older, who told him she was dying of cancer. 
They began to date and soon she insisted he marry her. 
Not long after they married at City Hall, 
they rented a row house and she helped Arthur get a job as a bus driver. 
Then she forbid him to have any contact with his family. He obeyed her.  
After ten years of silence, my other brother, Frank, parked in front of Arthur’s row house
before sunrise one day and waited for him to come out. Around 7:30, the door opened 
and Arthur stepped down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. 
Frank jumped from his car and called to him. 
Arthur turned his head and when he saw Frank, he began walking faster. 
Frank ran after him, Wait! I just want to talk to you a minute. I’m moving to California
Arthur didn’t stop. He turned his head and in an anguished voice told Frank, 
Get out of here before she sees you! Get out of here! 
Twenty years later, Arthur was notified that his mother was dying, 
and then that she had died, and finally that she had been buried. 
Arthur didn’t respond. But his lawyer, inquiring about my mother’s will, 
which directed her estate be divided equally among her four children, 
instructed where to send Arthur’s check for $40,000. 
I pity my brother, strangled in the womb, strangled outside of it. 
I hope the money bought him a little happiness but I doubt it.

My plan for him


When he turned 17, I took my son to Santa Barbara for a month. 
He was smoking too much weed. His GPA had dropped from 
4.0 to point 0. His clothes got baggier, his thick chestnut hair got shorter. 
A goatee and mustache grew on his perfect chin line. 
No more football, soccer, tennis, just boxing matches in parking lots with gang bangers and gang banger wannabes like him, 
just a lot of posturing and fierce staring, and angry rap music 
and where there once was warm, cheery chatter between us, 
there was now a great wall of silence. 
Maybe if he got out of Dodge. Met some new kids. 
Experienced a mellower life style. 
If he did better there, we could stay there so he could finish high school.
I rented a condo then called his teachers and explained. 
They let him fax assignments every week. 
On the drive down highway 5, he slept all the way. 
Sometimes I looked at him and wondered, do I still know him? 
This is not the 10 year old who walked the 9-mile Tomales Point Trail 
with me and on the way home cried out, “That was a fun day, mom! 
I wish we could rewind it!” 
I woke him up. Hey, we’re here. 
I bent over and shook him. Wake up. It’s dinner time
Slowly he pulled his skinny body upright in the seat and turned his head 
to the window. His eyes quickly focused on the parade of beautiful young women strolling down State Street, how they seemed to sing to each other, 
the joyful shrieks, their white short shorts and pink flip flops, 
and the young men too, just as lovely in their sea-side casualness, 
riding skateboards and bikes, jogging. 
My son plugged in his iPod and turned up the volume on the car speakers, 
yanked off his shirt as if it were on fire, and rolled down the window. 
When I stopped the car at a red light, he crawled out, head first. 
The light changed and my car continued to roll with my son 
now sitting in the window, his feet on the passenger seat. 
What are you doing? I demanded. 
His hands were drumming on the roof of my car in time to the music 
as he called out to everyone Yo! Yeah! Ain't nobody home tonight! 
Woooooooo!
Oh my God, stop! I screamed! Get back in here
I wanted to speed away but that could knock him out.  
So I continued driving and he continued drumming and whooping and yelping
as if he were sitting on a float in some Fourth of July Parade. 
This was the first sign my plan was not going to work.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What I save


It occurs to me I frame photos
of their childhood for the same reason 
my mother framed 
so many photos of her children’s parties,  
dances, roller rinks, the poses around
the Christmas tree: 
Not so she’d remember us that way but 
so wed remember us that way.  
Look, she shrieks when I blame 
her prickly temper for too much 
that’s wrong with me, 
See how happy you were. 
Your 8th birthday. So many gifts! 
The photos give me little clearings 
of pleasure in the woods of
my wearisome family ties. 
And now my children rebuke me for 
shortcomings as their mother which
worries me--do my failures cast 
too great a shadow on their childhood?
So from my album of ruddy flashbacks, 
I select the photos that remind them of their
three separate trips to Disneyland
To prove how very happy they have always been.

Notes


My mother writes me short notes and mails them 
even when we live in the same town. 

Ellie, Once I loved you with all my heart. Then you grew up and we went our separate ways. 
Read this interesting article about wrinkles. You have good skin. 
Use Ponds. Love, your mother.

Sometimes she asks, Did you get my note?
I reply, Yes, I did, thank you. 
She waits for me to say more but I never do. 
Now, 15 years since the last note arrived 
in my mailbox, I frame one or two and when 
I pass them on the bookshelf, 
I stand awhile and think of many things 
I might have said. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Redemption


My father comes from a breed unkind to sons
so who can blame my brother for saying
Good riddens when I tell him the old man’s dead.
And when I trick him into a graveyard tour
and pull alongside the flat rock under which
the old man sleeps face up and barefoot in his uniform,
who can blame my brother for saying 
I’m not interested.
And when I stand at the grave, who can blame my brother
for staying in the car and when in a loud voice 
I read the words on the plaque about two wars and 
a purple heart, who can blame my brother for standing
at my side and saying, Go sit in the car, please.
And when I lift my face to the clear sky, to redemption,  
I hear a pelting, a cloudburst.
And when I turn my eyes to that flat rock, 
my brother is urinating on it 

and who can blame him?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The voices


The voices arrive one day without warning.
No troubling ideas, just constant chattering. 
But this scares my mother nonetheless.
This is her mind, her spirit, her ego. 
Her instrument for living in this world. 
I want to ask if the voices sound like her, 
if they have a German accent, 
but I don't dare. 
They have no physical being, she says.
Her mind is blank, just noisy, coming 
from another consciousness. 
She talks to the priest about the voices 
and he wisely sends her to a doctor 
and gradually the voices fall silent. 
When my mother tells me this, the voices
are long gone. 
She is calm, unconcerned. 
She says it was just an electrical problem.
She is sitting across from me at Howard Johnson's. 
I have not seen her in two years and she looks and sounds
like one who is able to bear what she must bear, 
able to adjust herself to any situation, 
and sometimes adjust the situation to her, 
as she does with that situation that is me. 
She does not seem vulnerable, nor like someone 
who will ever die.
But I dare not question her too much 
because she does not like to be questioned.
And so, because, I cannot read her mind, 
I study my mother's face politely 
as I would a stranger's on a train. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

I'm sorry

 
I was too afraid,
didn’t try for Harvard,
didn’t even try to run for mayor. 
It never registered you have
to put yourself in fantastic situations 
to do fantastic things. 
Did Hillary play it safe? 
Would she have chosen State 
over Cal just to save the BART fare? 
And it didn’t help to have a romance 
quandary in the works at all times 
(I was too terrified of being alone). 
My poor little fledgling self, 
my poor little lion, 
why didn’t you find your courage?  
You might have stolen the show.  
Isn’t that what it was all about for you? 
Love, uncommon love? 
Well, I’m sorry. For us old frady-cats
the ordinary stuff will have to do.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I ate


There on the shore of the Bosphorus on 
that baking hot summer evening, 
hotter still when Rudy and I stood next to the bearded 
old man and his small grill, waiting for him to wrap 
two fish sandwiches.With sweat pouring 
down our faces, we searched for a place to sit 
but gave up and strolled as we ate. 
The fish was cheap and delicious. 
We went back for more almost every day, sometimes twice. 
Our hotel room was unbearably hot.  
The window opened to an alley so narrow 
no breeze could ever find us. Many times 
during the night, we stood up in the dark 
and soaked our bedsheets in water 
and then laid our naked bodies on them, 
feeling cooled only for minutes. 
But we were happy. We were still in love. 
I didn’t know if we would stay together forever 
but I felt sure that whatever happened
would be fine with me. Being very young, 
I expected my future to keep changing. 
No matter how delightful the present, 
I wanted the future to be even better 
and knew it would. When I returned to 
Istanbul a few years later with a different 
young man, one who was afraid to eat fish 
from the Bosphorus, who could afford a room 
with air conditioning, those wet sheets 
were much on my mind and for the first time, 
the past seemed a little sweeter than the present 
and I was no longer certain my future 
would be the one I desired.
Istanbul August 1970 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My new car



Life would be more enjoyable if I had just one self or could hold a single point of view or didn’t feel so many different things at once. I have often wondered whether I lacked a dominant unitary Self, accountable for all my thoughts. Biologists say that each hemisphere of the brain may have a mind of its own but these are normally coupled. The coupling can come undone as it did for a woman I read about whose left hand sneaked up her neck and tried to strangle her until she was able to force it back down to her side and sit on it.  In a similar uncoupling, a continuous shift of feelings whirled around my head when I walked into the Datsun showroom in Philadelphia. I was 30 years old, and for the first time in my life, able to afford a brand new car. Until that moment, I had made do with a clunky old Rambler station wagon, inherited from my mother, followed by several squalid VW’s, all of them grey, and smelling of thrift stores. One rainbow colored Chevy that cost me $75 lasted only 5 weeks. But now with my new oil company PR job (a career that part of me saw as not far removed from turning tricks for cash), I could afford anything in that showroom. My new consumer power came with a jolting strangeness, thrilling and self-actualizing. The glossy wine-red sedan with the jet black acrylic roof rotated slowly on an invisible axis. The salesman stopped the car and held open the door so I could slide into the black leather bucket seat. The interior smelled rich and liberating. It smelled of freedom from the poverty of the army brat, of the Europe-on-$5-day vagabond, the penny-pinching college student, and of the low-paid public media employee. Instantly my winning, above-average self rushed to the front of the crowd, bursting with egotism and pushed aside my meek and nervous twin, the nutty one who could never fit in, who was always saving for a disaster, the innate idealist who decried consumerism and argued for class struggle. That kind and pleasant and ardent person was shoved into the back seat where she watched with a measure of shame and utter amazement as I, arched and overflowing with repressed pride and lust, leaned back into the sumptuous driver’s seat, like a shallow, arrogant capitalist in an Ayn Rand novel, and after only a quick and raucous glance at the car’s features, having noticed the only two things that really mattered at that moment--it was new and it was beautiful--and with complete disregard for its price tag, I declared: I’ll take it!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In the Rain (Finalist, 2013 Abroad Writers Conference Competition, Category: Stories 500 words or less


We didn't see until morning that in last night's black sack of fog and pouring rain when I stopped the car, no longer able to see a road, 
I had parked at the edge of a cliff, as if I had meant to drive over it but changed my mind at the last second. When we crawled out of the tent at dawn, that's when we saw it. We could be dead now, I gasped. We could have crashed through the fog into that ravine below, the car crushed like a beer can, Jim spread eagled beside it, a dazed face aimed at heaven with his eyeballs popped wide open, my body crumpled in the drivers seat. Was this trip worth all this? We were somewhere in the hills of Eureka because he wanted to shoot some ducks. After we pitched the tent, I admired how his big hands could start a fire in the rain, stack it with foliage until the flames grew larger and larger and the smoke rose like mushroom clouds, the flames whipping around the iron pot he filled with raw potatoes, carrots, onions, beef, and rain water, and how delicious it tasted without any seasoning, after which Jim pulled out his bourbon and drank in large, noisy gulps. I drank a little, too, and we smoked, speaking few words, until we crawled into the tent and unzipped our sleeping bags. Jim fell asleep immediately but I lay curled in the bag listening to my dog under the car lapping up the last of the stew, and to the incessant rain and wind, wishing Jim would stay awake and do what he did yesterday morning when he woke me abruptly with the weight of his naked body, pressing, and pushing, murmuring as I tried to push him off, feeling his hands under my shirt, caressing my thigh, his mouth sucking me, his fingers entering me everywhere. I wanted him like that now. If only he would just wake up and talk about ducks, about how to make a fire in the rain, about whether his wife will come back, whether he wants her back--anything to break through this loneliness of being together. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The back yard


On the west side of our house, my father planted 
a row of sunflowers, their heads towered
over the fence, and made a cheery sight-
their dark, round faces tucked inside 
those yellow bonnets nodding at passersby. 
In the wind, they swayed 
every which way, a line of excited 
teenagers at a rock concert. 
Under their shade I moved on hands and knees, 
poking around for grasshoppers, pulling 
off their wings, dropping them into pickle 
jars with leaves and bottle caps of water. A
city of glass jars built on my dresser
noisy with crawlers I thought were better off with me
than in the yard fending off predators like my brothers 
who crushed their bodies with riotous joy and
observed the horror of death for amusement. 
But with me, the millipedes, chameleons, beetles 
became my children, not my prisoners. 
Sprawled under the tall flowers, half awake, 
half asleep, I let them scamper over my face--
how sweet the tickle of hairy legs and soft wings, 
the feel of damp, cool skins. At night awaiting sleep, 
the lightening bugs turned their tiny bulbs 
on and off, my lizards moved the pebbles and I
wondered if any of my crickets lay upside down 
again, their little legs wiggling in the dark, 
and if I wasn't too tired, I turned on my flashlight
and checked.