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.