Friday, September 19, 2014

Civic Gratitude

Out the West Berkeley morning window
The purr and rattle of garbage trucks reminds me to appreciate our civility.
No trash piled high in the gutters or in fields like in some places, as we all may have noticed on TV.

Appreciate it like:
Clean drinking water, close enough to walk to (the WHO* defines this as less than a kilometer away) but for us we mean the kitchen.

And that brings up:
Curbs, sewers,
Public libraries and education.


Think about this the next time you’re driving fast:

How much we trust the Highway Department
for its lines and signs, telling us to slow, to speed--
and in each other for following these rules.
Certain death on certain curves when we don’t.

But what trust! marks every road trip, every foray in the middle of the night in a strange state, for we barrel through unknown towns unthinkingly, we confidently speed our
65 mph bullets towards each other, and
Blindly we trust, for all the signs the country over are the same.

Back in town, where our garbage is picked up and we can turn off the bad news if it gets to be too much,
I always feel a little sense of panic at a busy green light if we’re both turning left. For a moment it’s a face off with the oncoming car:
What if he changes his mind at the last minute?
But ultimately, we rely on each other to follow through on the mutual promise of two left turn signals, as we
Execute a careful concave dance and go safely our own way.  

*World Health Organization

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Bravest Child

I want my child to be the bravest child.

Not only the one who goes first, for example,
Down the darkest, scariest path at camp, to
Part and pass under the bangs of willows, the shadowy oaks,
Past the boogeyman,

But be also the one who is kind.
Once you calm your raging heart and enter the unknown 
Be the one who will pivot back towards the next in line
Smile, and tell your friends,

"You can do it."

Illusions, Refusal

Near the end of the month
a new doctor,  a new prognosis
a new game.

What if she says
"3 months."

I shift my head, I look away.
I will not accept it.

As if we are negotiating.
As if I am buying--
then decide not to buy it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014

Country Lover
Funky blues
Keen toed shoes
High water pants
Saddy night dance
Red soda water
and anybody's daughter

From "And Still I Rise," in "Maya Angelou: Poems. Just Give me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie, Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit me Well, And Still I Rise, Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?" Bantam, 1993.

I like that one because the way she says "Saddy" reminds me of how my Grandma Hattie also said "Saturday," especially when she was happy.

Rest in peace and thank you, Maya Angelou. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Saved by the Bay

Today I visit the Berkeley Marina. I’ve not been in a long time to watch the waves.
It’s a wonderful respite: 
joggers, one blue heron, black birds, kids, and that guy that rides his rollerblades
while being pulled by a kite.

A garbage dump for seventy years, all wrapped up in plastic then covered with dirt then native plants. Nice touch. Chunks of concrete to bind the whole mess together round its edges.
They kept going like this, filling in more and more, all around the bay, until
a third of what was water was turned into land and they weren’t going to stop 
until it was all filled in, Berkeley right up against San Francisco against Oakland.


Three East Bay women

Kay Kerr
Sylvia McLaughlin and
Esther Gulick

said, “STOP!”

And the filling in of the bay was stopped and now Berkeley’s not any closer to

San Francisco and these red-shouldered black birds are tweeting loudly in my ear.

Tonglen Intention at the Berkeley Marina

The waves' air feels warm
Though I know, of course, that the water itself is cold.

Crashing lightly against rocks placed there by humans 
all around the perimeter of this new land-filled peninsula to hold the trash in,
the waves feel somehow less "real" than by the true bay. But where is that?
I stand on a garbage pit and so does everybody, all around our bay.

But who cares? Who cares if the dirt was trucked in and the snakes weren’t born here?
The red-shouldered black bird doesn't care. She has a house and she’s singing.

Not the blue heron, either, though I fear he is too used to us, by the way he did not flee today even when I was close enough to hear his massive feathers scoop up the air when he finally did.
He never lost his focus on the prey he was hunting, ignoring me the way an autistic child enraptures himself with his own concerns.

The European starling doesn’t care her bushes grew from seedlings started 25 miles away in a suburban nursery. I don’t dare suggest to her that the nesting site she's chosen is inauthentic. She would tell me, “So what? I am authentic.”
And I’d duck my head in shame and fear because she’d be right and she might hit me on the head with her beak; they do that, you know.

The Clark's grebe's cap and neck lines are crisp, black and white dinner attire. Seeing her I relax; she's an old friend. She dives under and I wait for her. She emerges farther away than I'd guessed and I try and imagine her underwater streamlined glide. I can't because now I'm distracted by all the trash floating by the rocks. I wish for a huge net, the kind at swimming pools but with a longer pole. There's plastic everywhere and I look away.

I visit the sky chair. Thin and broad loops of steel, powder coated blue, create frames of sky. I have a physical memory of lying it in when it still had the matching steel bench. Today I sit on the rock chair someone put there instead. I miss the bench. The view was better.

The water looks like powerful broad strokes of melted dark chocolate. It is soothing today as it was when I came here once, sick with colitis, and tried to image it smoothing out my ulcerous large intestine. I came here, too, when first diagnosed with my second illness. I tried to walk it off, back when I still had hope I could exercise my diabetes away.

Today I have much worse problems but
nothing in particular is wrong today.

I let the water soothe away my non-problems and then remember
I have another option than feeling guilty that I’m white and rich and having a day of no problems at this serene safe place:

Tonglen. It's a Buddhist mediation technique I’m trying to learn from a Pema Chodrön CD.
Breathe in the bad stuff and breathe out calm; breathe out these soothing waters and share it.
Don’t hog the good feelings or the pain. We’re all connected and nothing stays the same,
Pain one day and joy the next.

So I sit in this sky chair with the water and the red-shouldered blackbird now chirping ferociously at me and I try and send it out to all those who are

Lying in a hospital room getting diagnosed with something that will end their lives.
Trapped in their own house, buried and dying in a Washington mud-slide.
Nigerian parents of 300 abducted girls
with a government who won't help.

One heavy headed cormorant flies low over the water, the path of least resistance back to the breakwater. The black bird’s call is persistent and I get the feeling he doesn't want me here anymore.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Catholic Guitar in the '80s

I learned to play the guitar on Jesuit hymns and The Beatles. My sixth grade teacher, I’ll call him Mr. Sigma, taught me to play after school. Possibly motivated by his desire for company at the school’s daily 7:30am church service, he taught me persistently and with kindness. The Beatles songs were a reward for learning some church songs. I loved Mr. Sigma. The only male staff member aside from the janitor, Mr. S was about 27, with slightly curly, very red hair, and a generous moustache. He was genuinely unpretentious, and I felt I could be myself with him. I was an overly tall, awkward 12 year old, and the shoulder-to-shoulder, non-speaking role with Mr. S was one I was eager to fill. Every day at 7:25am I would meet him in the church vestibule, where in winter months his cold Martin acoustic guitar would be leaning against the baseboard heater. I’d arrive, not a second to spare, and he’d take my guitar and begin tuning it by ear, while I tried to wipe my nose discreetly on whatever article of clothing I could without being noticed. I associate St. Louis winters and church with never having a Kleenex. He gave me the song list and we’d silently head into church and set up our music and guitar stands halfway up the aisle. We didn’t need to talk because we did this every day. This service was mainly for the Kindergarten through Eighth grade classes, the nuns who taught us and lived next door, and a few lonely elderly neighbors. Mr. Sigma’s music livened up an otherwise dreary hour, though for him it may have been a monotonous drudge to supplement his teacher’s pay. He was a little grumpy at this early hour and sometimes chose songs he could play with brute gusto, maybe a little anger, masquerading as religious fervor. Actually all those Jesuit songs you can play like that; they are three-chord tunes, folky-rocky, and full of emotion and crescendo. “And if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack (Audience: ‘Ouch!’), Sit on a tack (‘Ouch!’)….”
            Then we’d pack up the guitars and head to class.

Mr. Sigma also talked me into joining the children’s choir. I already played with them during practices—he needed someone to accompany them as sometimes he had to
stop playing to give direction or discipline a rowdy section—but I never sang ‘officially.’ One day during practice I was singing softly while playing guitar. He leaned in to hear me better and said, “Your voice isn’t bad.” It’s all the encouragement I needed—I loved to make a noise—so I started to join the choir at the early mass on Sundays. This mass was for the general congregation, though the reason we sang at the least popular time of 8am was because a lot of people without kids in the choir would avoid this mass. Loud and tambourine-y, we had spirit if not cohesion.

            Clothes were always a big issue between me and my family, especially when it came to church. I fought pretty hard in general to wear what I considered normal clothes and they considered boy clothes, but on Sundays they had more clout. Once I joined children’s choir, however, I had a loophole. One of the saving graces of choir was that we were stationed in an actual choir loft. For the entire service we were ensconced up there, separated from view and the general congregation by a solid wooden railing and stairs that were a little tricky to find. We didn’t even have to go down for communion, which was, in my insecure mind at least, the de facto fashion, humiliation and exposure parade. The priest and altar boy came to us, which made me feel pretty special. This change in procedure was liberating for me in the clothes department. One day I feathered my hair and showed up wearing black parachute pants, tennis shoes and a black nylon zip-up jacket. I rustled up to Mr. Sigma feeling quite self-conscious, though 80% sure that I looked awesome. He took one look at me and said, a bit disparagingly, “Hello, Johnny Cash.” I didn’t get the reference, but even though I knew he just took a light stab at me I took it as a compliment that he called me one of my favorite boy names.

            This was around the end of my “Gender Disregardment” period. I mean, I had wrestled with my extended family’s ideas of what I should wear as a girl and how my hair should be cut since I was four, but until I became close with Mr. S in my mind I was mainly “boy.” I don’t mean I wanted a penis. I didn’t even necessarily “want” a vagina, it was just what I had. I just considered myself more aligned with what my boy friends wanted to do with their free time than what my girl friends wanted. Sports, football in the street, GI Joes under the pine tree. Running in the alley between the backs of the garages playing ninja with my brother and his friends, older kids versus younger. Trip wires and nun chucks. Then one day, in the middle of a game of ninja, I just walked away. I was suddenly bored. I’d still play with boys for another year or two, and I never stopped playing sports, but the wrestling and the violent, high-energy games of fantasy gave way to board games and long talks.
            But Mr. S. saw me as a girl. He was one of the few adults, though, that didn’t seem confused about my brand of girlness. He accepted my Johnny Cash outfits and the gender-ambiguous haircuts that were the compromise between my parents and me. In my 8th grade graduation book Mr. S wrote that he has witnessed me turn into “a lithe and lissome young woman, confident and competent.”
“What?!” I thought, both embarrassed and pleased that he noticed something specific about me. I think it was the beginning of my understanding that I could be both lithe and strong, tough and attractive.
Although Mr. S had no idea I would come out as a lesbian 5 years later, he was my first ally. And I’ve got the Jesuits and The Beatles to thank for that.