November 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
The fall has slid by with uncanny quiet and it was only last week that I realized the trees had already reached and passed their peak of color. In contrast to other autumns in which I visited the park several times a week, this year was interrupted by intermittent physical challenges that left me often at home.
Today, knowing it was the last week to enjoy the beautiful foliage, I go to the park early in the morning and take up a new vantage point for reflection. This time it is on an uncomfortable park bench midway between the duck pond and dog park in an area I remember for the many orange and red leafed autumn trees.
The air has a sun-warmed, dusty smell of dead leaves and heavy dew and the light brims with a golden radiance that is only seen in the fall. The sturdy baritone of the church bells from St. Philomene’s ring out a call to prayer and give balance to the high soprano of the twittering birds, the bass of the airplane overhead and sharp staccato of a barking dog.
A small flock of dark birds rush in and settle excitedly on a nearby small tree, setting loose an avalanche of orange and yellow leaves that first tremble, then shower down, making me wish I was beneath that tree with face upturned and being touched by those tumbling leaves. The birds depart as nervously as they came, wings flapping, shrilly calling to each other across the sky.
A gray pickup truck swiftly drives into the lot, full-sized American and State of California flags fluttering from stands locked in the truck bed. It stops, swings into reverse, then confidently backs into a parking spot. A man emerges dressed in army camouflage and is joined by a woman wearing casual Land’s End attire. They stuff the multiple pockets of their canvas vests with small items, pull a variety of fishing rods from the back of the truck, grab tackle boxes in each hand, and set off towards the small stream which has a local reputation for good fishing, at least by city stream standards.
A large doughy man wearing sagging jogging pants and an oversized sweat shirt climbs out of an old white panel truck that is tucked away in the corner of the parking lot. He stretches, scratches his stomach and with a lumbering gait sets off towards the tennis courts where the public bathrooms are located.
His departure is followed by the arrival a family van. A moment later the area is filled with shouts, laughter and the scrambling of children. A toddle climbs up on the curb and jumps down repeatedly, seemingly delighted by his accomplishment for balance and daring. A sibling thumps a basketball across the pavement while an older brother sticks buds into his ears and dips and dives to an unheard rhythm. Two school-age children start a game of tag and race through the trees towards the playground. While the mother struggles with the baby in the stroller, the father calls out commands in an African-sounding language.
As the family begins their day at the park, a small gray hatchback zooms around the parking area, nose down as if following a scent. A alert German shepherd rides shotgun and then looks back longingly as the dog park is passed and left behind is a fog of exhaust.
A large white 4 x 4 arrives and stops across two parking spaces. By default it is the King of the parking lot this morning, not only by its size and presence but by the sparking chrome hub caps that spin and rotate even when the wheels are still. An equally large and impressive brown man emerges and is led by a small tan Chihuahua down the path to the pond.
Meanwhile, the sleepy man from the panel truck has returned looking fresher and more agile. After opening the passenger door and positioning the side mirror to his satisfaction, he lathers his face with cream and begins to shave. I can almost hear him whistle as he twists his cheek first this way, then that.
When I return to the car I find slender orange and yellow leaves piled over the roof and windshield. Three have blown through the partly open window and are resting, like invitations waiting for a response, on my seat. I pick them up and silently read their quiet announcement.
November 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In the Roman Catholic Church November 2 is traditionally celebrated as All Souls Day, or the Day of the Dead. It is the time to remember all who have passed before us and pray for their release from Purgatory and admittance into Heaven.
When I was young I was more frightened of Purgatory than Hell as I could not comprehend ever being so bad it would require that ultimate punishment. I know better now. Purgatory is not in the future but in the present, not there but here. I/we are all in Purgatory now – suffering from our ignorance, our mistakes, our juvenility, not at the hand of God or one of His angels but through our own thoughts, words and deeds.
As I get older I find that there are more dead people than living people in my circle of love. Parents, aunts, uncles, friends and pets have passed before me and are hopefully waiting my arrival. What a reunion that will be! So many dear, sweet faces, such embraces and kisses after so long a separation.
This year I decided to perform a ritual to remember and celebrate all these loved ones who gave me so much. Tonight, when the sky is dark and the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest I will light candles and burn incense and listen to sacred music. I will call each one and bless them, ask for their prayers for me, and find comfort in their presence.
My Family & Friends
My son, Rob
My mom, Mae
My dad, Sante
Uncle Vince & Aunt Jackie
Uncle Dominick & Aunt Mary
Uncle Rocco & Aunt Anna
Uncle Louie & Aunt Lena
Sal & Leo
Rose & Edmund
Bob Taylor & parents
Dr. David Hawkins
My animal friends:
Ora pro nobis
October 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
It has been a warm and lazy autumn this year, the frost held at bay. The trees still have a firm grasp on their leafy dressing although they are changing from green to firery fall colors. In spite of yesterday’s strong winds few leaves are scattered across the ground at the park but their dry scent is in the air.
In the center of the playing field stands a teenage girl, her feet surrounded by a ring of bulging plastic bags. Her arms bend at the elbows and her hands cover her mouth as if in surprise. She looks around as if waiting for someone to rescue her. But after a few moments she bends down and grabs several bags in each hand and lifting them walks across the field.
For whose help might she be waiting? What cargo is she carrying with such reluctance? What is in those heavy bags, I wonder. Is she a street girl in the making, her bags holding what is left of her memories? Or is her burden more prosaic? Groceries, perhaps, although the nearest store is two long city blocks away?
When she reaches the pathway she stops again, her arms now stretched out long and straight, the bags hanging so low they almost touch the ground. She again looks to the right and left, pauses for a moment then continues down the path that leads out of the park.
As she disappears from my view I hear a voice shouting and when I turn see a middle-aged man with a long blond ponytail and shabby clothes pushing a shopping cart brimming with the flotsam and jetsam of his life. He angrily protests the sanctity of his inalienable rights to the occupants of the patrol car that is closely herding him down the parking lot toward the road.
“Is that what you’re gonna’ do? Follow me until I leave,” he yells, putting out a hand to steady his wobbling cargo. “I served my country now I can’t get a god damn break!” A rusty station wagon entering the parking lot swerves around him as he crosses the street and heads towards the creek. A woman gets out of the car and opens the rear hatch releasing the heavy bass beat of music from the local radio station.
She reaches into to the interior of the car, rearranging a variety of cardboard boxes and bundles. Then leaning against the rear fender, she lights a cigarette, surveys the scene and spots a young man with two dogs straining at their leashes. “Them pit bulls?” she says, squinting against the smoke in her eyes.
The dogs swivel their heads in her direction, legs stiff and trembling. “Yes,” he says as he drags the snarling dogs away from her and stuffs them in a nearby pick-up truck. “Sure look like a handful,” she answers, then flicking her cigarette into the grass, turns with a smile to greet two old ladies who are approaching.
“How are you girls today,” she says, as the two old women push their matching walkers into the park in step and in unison. They wear wooly handmade sweaters accented with bright yarn flowers, thick soled tennis shoes with wing logos and old world kerchiefs around their head.
“I got some real deals for ya’,” the station wagon lady says pulling something from one of the cardboard boxes and waving it towards the old women. “No want, no want,” they exclaim waving their hands in dismissal and continue on their way chattering in an unknown language.
When the black man with the blue jacket carrying a fishing pole and orange tackle box passes her, the station wagon lady pulls a boom box out of the car. Walking beside him she loudly complains that the friend who owes her money has not arrived yet but she can offer him this practically new radio for just a few dollars. Shaking his head, the fisherman picks up his pace and heads towards the pond.
The woman throws the radio into the car, walks to the park exit and with her hands on her hips looks north. When I pull out of the parking lot I pass a young girl standing before the open trunk of her car sorting through a pile of clothing and sports equipment. Why is it, I wonder, do we all carry so much stuff around with us.
In fact, there is a whole industry now that is built on storage – special boxes and drawers and chests and lockers and units to keep the things we once consumed but now cannot swallow. We pay others to keep what we do not use but cannot let go of.
We all have baggage – old stories, old dreams, old memories, old prejudices, old thoughts – and we carry it with us from place to place and job to job and person to person like luggage on rollers. Conscious of our burdens yet unable to release them – we carry our past with us if not in our cars or in our homes, in our souls – we then look for others to share them. But when we compose our online criteria at match.com we demand that ‘no one with old baggage’ need apply.
October 16, 2013 § 4 Comments
I looked out of the front door and saw the sunny, leaf-covered yard of my childhood home. A small sob rose in my throat, “Oh, mama!” The scene instantly vanished and my eyes flew open. I had just been sleeping; it was only a dream in an afternoon nap, I realized as I sat up.
As the vision that had rested in my mind’s eye began to fade, the strings of my heart were stretched taut and pulled back into other memories; to a time when the big maple tree ruled the small front yard of my family’s home; to a time when the dry autumn grass would be buried under the bounty of its golden leaves.
Each year my mother would complain over the seemingly endless chore of raking of them and each day more and more would fall. Who would have thought the old tree had held so many in its arms, had been so rich. In my dream as I had looked out on that leaf-filled yard I knew that mother was gone and that it had now fallen to me to brush the ground clean and ready it for the coming winter snows.
In that instant I felt a stab of love for the long departed mother who had been both a support and burden to me throughout my life. “Oh, mama,” was the cry of a child who awoke from a frightening dream with arms outstretched, the cry of a sad girl who felt alone, the cry of a woman asking for forgiveness for her selfishness and neglect. “Oh, mama – love me, protect me, hold me, forgive me. I’m sorry,” all tangled and braided together in one long strand of yearning backward through time like a blind root seeking sustenance.
And while my heart was reverberating to the chord of the past, the maple stood composed and patient as trees so often do while it waited for me to pick up the rake with its worn wooden handle and rusting tines, to continue the yearly ritual of life, to accept the responsibility of its care as had been bequeathed to me – if only in dreamtime.
“Oh, mama,” my heart says as I rake up the scattered pieces of the day and ready myself for the long winter nights to come, “how I miss you.”
October 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was looking at my hands the other day and noticed how arthritis has affected the shape and direction of my fingers. Long-term inflammation has freed them from the configuration of conventional finger appearance and allowed each one to wander off in its own direction thereby achieving an individuality and uniqueness not possible in ordinary circumstances.
For example, a v-shaped chasm has developed between my middle finger and ring finger of my right hand. These two fingers can no longer lie parallel to each other but must maintain a 60 degree tangent. In fact, when I hold up my hand the outline is eerily reminiscent of the Vulcan greeting, “Live long and prosper.”
While this digital anomaly may suggest an exclusive membership in an arcane society, it is inconvenient when receiving change from the grocery clerk. Coins fall like rain through that gap. Likewise, when I cup my hands to wash my face, the water immediately drains back into the bowl. When I type the ring finger now rests on the semi-colon rather than the L.
My left hand has two eccentric members at present. My index finger has a wave-like profile with the middle portion flying high and handsome and the end joint concave. The thumb has taken a turn to the right from the main joint making it ready for hitchhiking at a moment’s notice.
When I look at my palms see a maze of crisscrossing lines that I am reluctant to read. Is that my life line that splits in two so precipitously? What does the line of destiny reveal? I turn them over and see the scattering of brown age spots and high blue veins. I see skin that is now thin and fragile looking.
I see the hands of my mother and of my grandmother and of all the other women who had the privilege of aging. When I look at my hands I no longer see knobby fingers and bones and wonder what happened to the girl/woman I used to be. I see hands that have made beautiful by life, hands that have been sculpted by experience.
These are the hands that have wiped the noses of children and brushed away another’s tears. They have held lovers in the dark of night and clasped friends in times of celebration. They have been turned into fists of anger and hung loose in sorrow. They have scrubbed floors and painted pictures and planted gardens. They cover my face and hide me from the world.
These hands have taken and have received, have comforted and sought comfort, have worked and lain idle. They have been folded in prayer and opened in love. They have learned to hold on and to let go. They have served me well all my life and have been made beautiful by that service.
September 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
When I drive through the intersection where the Mexican lady sells watermelons and the corner house has with all the pigeon coops on the roof I see the reclusive old Sikh walking down the street towards the neighborhood park wearing his signature orange turban and white beard. Although I recognize him I refrain from waving as I pass by for we do not have that kind of relationship.
A few minutes later I am placing my lawn chair on the grass mid-way between sun and shade and hear rock music playing from the radio of one of a pickup trucks parked behind me that hold city workers, carpet cleaners and handymen who are eating their paper bag lunches.
Today is one of those near perfect autumn days when the temperature is in the 70’s, the sunlight golden and the breeze carries the scent of dry pine needles and leaves as it puffs by every now and then. I notice that several trees have, in the last two days, turned from dark green to shades of brown.
I am surprised because our nighttime temperatures have yet to dip below 60. But the trees know and are already preparing for Indian summer – at least that’s what we called it when I lived back east – those two weeks in October when the countryside is transformed into stained glass colors of red and orange and yellow – a last celebration before the Big Sleep.
Which brings to my mind a story I heard a few days ago that claimed mother bears gave birth to their young while in hibernation only to awaken in spring with a ready-made and hungry family. It seems too remarkable to be true but why would anyone make up something like that.
As I assess my gullibility I look across the field and see two unattended German shepherds sitting beneath a tree, heads tilted upward towards a squirrel that sits on a high branch and mockingly chatters to them. One dog whines in frustration and wiggles back and forth on its haunches while the other, whom I am sure is the female and more deadly, maintains an unwavering stare.
Meanwhile, from the other end of the path a cocker spaniel comes bouncing along. On turning the corner and seeing the shepherds the cocker freezes in mid-stride, fearful of attracting their attention or interest. Luckily, the spaniel’s owner scurries forward, snaps on the leash and makes a wide detour. While the restless shepherd deliberates between squirrel and spaniel, its steely-eyed mate is undeterred.
A rusting blue van driven by small man with a gray goatee pulls in and parks under a tall pine. The double back doors are covered with decals of national parks and conspiracy organizations, and the license plate reads Wyoming. The side windows are veiled with a combination of thin cotton curtains and cardboard, and the rooftop carrier holds a miscellany of plastic crates and black boxes that look like old batteries. A small American flag hangs limply from the antenna.
Over the next half hour I hear the pickup trucks start their engines and slowly the parking lot empties of all save the van from Wyoming whose owner now sleeps on a blanket in the sun. Then I see an old man with an orange turban tapping his cane along the path to the duck pond. I start to raise my hand to wave but remember in time that we do not have that kind of relationship.
September 15, 2013 § 2 Comments
I spent part of my down time this summer changing my eating habits. I cut dairy out of my diet – when you get older sometimes the stomach doesn’t like lactose anymore – and now I am mostly a vegetarian. As a result I feel better and have a lot more energy – not to mention I’ve dropped a few pounds.
I’ve found that eating meat or not eating meat can certainly be loaded with moral ambiguity. The die-hard vegans and vegetarians usually take a moral high ground over the killing of animals saying it is unspiritual while the meat-eaters huff and puff in a sort of self-righteous patriotism. This can tip over into religious positions where Indian gurus and saints are quoted while the meat-eaters mock anyone still wearing leather shoes.
It’s all very primordial and reminds me of a conversation Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in which Campbell said that the man’s primary moral dilemma was that physical survival depended the killing and/or consumption of other life forms which in turn gave rise to a terrible guilt that could only be assuaged by religious intervention and ritual. (This is my memory of the conversation and may not be completely accurate.)
And I think this is still the moral dilemma of life on this earth. Even the vegans who will not eat meat or use any animal by-products, and that sect in India whose name I can’t remember (is it the Jains?) who will not kill insects or eat any fruit that hasn’t naturally fallen from the tree, cannot live with consuming other life forms. Perhaps they seek to evade that responsibility by claiming that they did not intervene or contribute to the demise of said life but that I think is splitting hairs.
To my mind what is at the bottom of the conundrum is the guilt one may feel – that my survival is at the expense of another’s life. That belief is only true if we see the ‘other,’ the cow, pig, egg, the apple, bread made of wheat, as something ‘other than’ and ‘separate from’ ourselves. We cast ourselves in the role of predator and others in the role of prey – typical human hubris.
Do lions consider the antelope in this light? Do they feel guilty when they bring down a buffalo? The predator and prey participate in a mortal dance together, each playing their part to the best of their ability. If a lion captures the deer, the deer does not hate the lion for its part of the dance. In a few seconds the deer is transported back into the group soul of all Deer and waits for another incarnation (my belief – I can’t prove it).
I think why our modern culture is so caught up in the meat/no meat controversy is because we have lost our gratitude for the animals and for the food that we eat. Not only do we no longer say prayers before our meals, we do not honor the animals that are our food. We believe that we are the supreme species on earth and the only one possessing consciousness of any kind- after all, aren’t we the thinkers?
We have turned our animals into food machines that are mass produced in animal factories and then raised and killed in the most inhumane ways. That is the real source of our guilt. We no longer honor them and in so doing have become dishonorable ourselves.
I do not believe it is wrong to eat meat, but it is wrong not to respect the animal that is sacrificed. When we eat, whatever we eat in transformed within our bodies and becomes part of us. We exchange energies and atoms; the cow becomes part of us and so does the experience of the life that cow led prior to being killed. It is a communion in the most sacred sense.
How does the flesh of an animal that died in terror affect our energy body, interact with our cells? By treating animals, and all food, as soulless and without any kind of consciousness, as part of that cosmic partnership we become soulless ourselves.
But when we approach what we eat with respect and gratitude a grace enters into the relationship in which the eater and the eaten become one. At some level the cow participates in my life and I in his; the apple touches human consciousness and I absorb the sun through its gifts. We are all one, indivisible and dependent. In truth, nothing that has life ever dies but goes on and on and on …