A FRACTAL JOURNEY

Mahakali

One day I saw life as a roller coaster ride at the amusement park. It was frightening, exhilarating, breathtaking, and just as I was learning how to lean into the banks and descents, it would be over all too soon.Although some may consider it morbid or depressing, I now think about death often. At 67 I think it is an appropriate subject; if a journey is inevitable isn’t it wise to prepare? Isn’t it more realistic to talk about the elephant in the room rather than ignore it? Doesn’t it give a significance and poignancy to life?

Not a day goes by without the Friend visiting my mind. I call it Friend perhaps to put a kindly face on the image of the grim reaper whose visage dominates our culture’s view of death, and thus avert some of the fear attending her arrival – for I agree with the beliefs of Hinduism that it is Kali, the Great Mother, who is the giver and the taker of life.

This body is becoming increasingly burdensome and heavy. Each year it requires more care and attention and I am often bored or exasperated by its demands. Various parts are rusting out or breaking down altogether. I expect that one day I will welcome the comfort of a longer sleep.

I look back over my life and try to weigh the disappointments and pain against the times of contentment and joy. In which direction does the scale tip? Am I remembering the truth of my life, or just the truth of my memory? While I realize I could have done better on this or that occasion, if given the chance now to relive it, a reluctant lassitude slides over me. Regret takes energy I would rather use elsewhere.

There are still things I would like to do but accept the fact that the limitations of health, money or time now make them unlikely. While each day may flow by in measured steps, the weeks and months have grown wings and blur with acceleration. This morning I acknowledge with amusement that my appearance is no longer important. I am now dressing in the manner of a child; my madras pants and blue t-shirt and orange sweater are a collision of colors and patterns. I am reminded of the grade school pictures of my sons with their striped t-shirts and plaid pants and kitchen bowl haircuts when the goal was to get outside to play as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile I wonder what will happen at the very end, when the body is so tired, when the heart is unsprung, when the breath is breathless? I sometimes fear a great blackness, a sterile emptiness, a bone deep solitude that may be infinite. What if I wake up and find that I am God and God is all there is – and that is not enough? Is the painful solitude I feel at times in my heart the reflection of a singular God who has no equal, no beginning or end, and is thus condemned to being alone for all eternity?

Fractal

My intuition tells me that this is a fractal universe, and God the fractal equation of a creativity that goes on and on in infinite varieties and multitudes. In a book I see pictures of fractals, mathematical permutations that create themselves over and over again in an infinite scalability. I sense that I am riding out this life on one of those paisley-like flowers on an arm of an arm of an arm, exploding outward with this galaxy, in a great tsunami of one of Brahma’s outward breaths – to be later swept up in his deep inhalation into a backward infinity. In and out, in and out, forever, each breath stretching over eons and eons, black hole to white hole to black again, one consciousness seeking entertainment in the material.

Each day I ponder for a moment or two what the last earth moment will be. Like doing pushups to strengthen the body, I do pushups of my soul so that it will not panic at the last moment and leave this world gasping for one more breath and thus lose what little dignity might be remaining. What is it to die with dignity other than to die without resisting the inevitable? Like a soldier going into battle who knows he will not return, I yearn to have the courage to walk into the sunset of life without looking back, without holding on. Is it too much, perhaps, to ask to die without fear? Is that the province only of saints and messiahs? What confidence is needed, what certainty must be embraced to enjoy this grace?

My hope is that the stories told by those having Near Death Experiences are true. I want to see again my loved ones. I wanted to be greeted by those who have gone ahead and are waiting for my arrival. I want to hold the little cats and dogs who gave me so much comfort, the aunts and uncles who watched over me, the mother and father and son whom I loved. I can’t bear to think that after feeling so often alone in this life that I will also be alone in the next.

In our middle age we all say that we want the mercy of a quick death but we do not often get to select the time or manner of our passing. It has been chosen for us and waits like a new winter coat in the closet for the weather to change. I no longer zealously monitor my diet and take dozens of vitamin pills to forestall heart disease, for a quick ending is to be preferred to the wheelchairs and nursing homes attendant on rheumatoid arthritis.

So as I get older I believe the great virtue is to endure without judgment and thereby open the heart to the possibility of joy; to have the courage of acceptance, like the old dog who does not complain of his joints when winter comes, or the cat whose teeth are gone and can now only drink milk.

I still feel the pull for connection and want to touch the earth and those who live here. I hunger for the mind to mind and heart to heart resonance of kindred spirits who may be separated in time and space. That is why I continue to write; the reason for the art. I believe aging is the time when we must turn our eyes to other horizons and open our hearts to welcome new directions. We must see in our sunset an opportunity like the blaze of Autumn to offer a final instant of glory in the world.

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SEZ WHO?

I have always had a reputation even among those who do not know me well of having a calm deposition and peaceful demeanor. During my tenure in advertising I cultivated the unflappable satisfaction of a Madonna even amid the high anxiety of client presentations.

You can imagine my confusion and chagrin (which has nothing to do with smiling) when I found myself in heated discussions recently with two friends.  Forsooth, to call them discussions is being disingenuous for my blood pressure was up, my face was pink and deep within my throat a growl was forming.

In one case I was ready to push back the chair from the table and flounce , which is fleeing in a bouncy manner, out of the coffee shop. In the other I was ready to press the red X key that would abruptly terminate a Skype conversation.

And the subjects of these two discussions? Why, politics and religion, of course. The two topics any wise hostess bans from the dinner table. In both cases these old friends slyly insinuated their favorite conversational hobby horses into our heretofore pleasant tete-a-tete.

The religious conversation combined elements of both metaphysical New Agism and extreme left wing do-gooderism.  Now I have been at various times a New Ager and a do-gooder but that particular day I was not in the mood for the excesses of naïve idealism.

But it was not to be. I would be convinced and converted, or else. Finally, I noticed a triumphant look in her eye when a comment had drawn blood and I had heatedly responded. It was veni, vidi, vici all over again and we weren’t even in England! It was less a matter of dogmatism than the desire to sharpen her wit on my whetstone.

When our coffee date was over, she told me how much she had enjoyed our stimulating afternoon. “People just don’t want to discuss anything important anymore. How can we make the world a better place without conversation?” I agreed and staggered to the car, vowing never to cross (s)words again – although on the drive home I did come up with some real zingers.

Then other day I was Skyping with a friend when the subject of gun control laws came up as a result of the tragic Colorado movie theater event. He was strongly in favor of total gun control and a ban of weapons sales while I posited that it was the violence and insanity of our society as whole that was to blame, not the weapons. Before you could say ‘duck’ his ten-minute diatribe on weapons was underway.

I am still uncertain about both experiences. I do not like to argue. If two people have opposing or incompatible viewpoints, I am happy to put that topic aside in future conversations. Or, is that the coward’s way out? Am I afraid to disagree, or stand up for what I believe in? Or is it a matter of not wanting to take any position? Is it that I no longer believe in anything?

The older I get the less I enjoy confrontation and the less certain I am that I am even partly right. I would like the world to be a kinder, gentler place but have no idea how to bring that about except in one’s personal life. I don’t believe that the government, religion, philosophy or science can save the world; in fact, it more often seems to befuddle it – which is a wonderful word that combines the dazzle of being with the ambiguity of mud.

In the future I will head off any controversial topics with a quick thrust. I have decided on a verbal riposte that will flicker briefly on the tip of the tongue, then strike deep – “Sez you!”  And failing that, pulling out the coup d’ etat of comebacks,  “So’s your mother!”

THE BEAUTICIAN

She was in her mid-20’s when she met him, long past the age that her cousins and girlfriends had married and there was something knowing in the way that she carried herself that said she was no longer a virgin.  She had red, Rita Hayworth hair and the low, sultry voice you got from too many cigarettes. Her roman nose was too arched for real beauty and her almond-shaped eyes had a yellowish glint that gave her small face a feline look.   Her name was Jacqueline but she was called Jackie and worked as a beautician in an Italian beauty shop on the wrong side of the wrong town.

He was the youngest of four children and the only son in a first-generation Italian family.  His mother and father were immigrant peasants who never learned to read or write. He had been drafted into the Second World War but due to the incessant prayers of his three sisters and mother had emerged unscathed from the conflict.  Upon returning to the States, he got a job in the local steel mill and found girl friend at a local dance hall.  But his strong-willed mother did not want a non-Italian, non-Catholic, daughter-in-law and eventually exerted enough pressure to wear down the young soldier as the war had never done. Finally, he relinquished his love and set out to find the kind of wife his mother expected.

Because Jackie fell in love with him right from the start, she never had a chance.  She was the Rebound, the girl he got when he gave up the one he really wanted.  And although she was Italian, it seemed her family was not from the right part of Italy.  His family was from Roma whereas hers hailed from Calabria; and everyone knew they were the black Italians, crazy with their passions and jealousies and knives.

An uneasy truce was declared between the mutual families when the six bridesmaid-wedding was held.  Jackie wore an ivory ensemble of satin and lace with hand-sewn pearls and a tiny turban-like hat.  In the wedding picture, the groom looked a little drunk as his best man stood beside him. In the background, his mild-mannered father was wearing his only suit and his mother had a dark dress with big white flowers in honor of the festive occasion.

After a two-week honeymoon at Niagara Falls, Jackie and her new husband moved into the second floor apartment in the family home his mother has prepared for them.  Within a month, Jackie and her mother-in-law were fighting and within a year, the first and only child was born, a son, who was, of course, named after his father.

Soon her husband began drinking more and staying out later and Jackie suspected he was seeing his old girlfriend again. The famous Calabrese temperament that had been sleeping appeared and soon Jackie was following him when he went out.  She cried, she threw things, she begged him to stay home, she scratched him with her long, maroon, manicured, nails.  His mother called her a witch and said she was killing her son.

After three years of marriage, they divorced.  Jackie went into a deep depression and was institutionalized.  It was the mid-1950’s, so they gave her shock treatments to snap her out of it.  After a few months, she returned to work at the same beauty salon that she left years before to become a bride.  There was a haunted look at the back of her yellow eyes and tightness in her curving lips.

He continued living at home in the upstairs apartment of his parent’s home.  He went to work at the mill every day, drank too much every night and saw his son on weekends if the child support was paid up.  Since he was Catholic, he could never marry again without being excommunicated so the nice girls wouldn’t date him.

Although I had known Jackie most of my life and had, in fact, attended her wedding as a toddler, I got to know her better in my early teens when she and my uncle finally remarried.  This time they bought a house in another neighborhood several miles from the domineering mother-in-law and Jackie used the downstairs rumpus room, as it was called then, to set up an at-home beauty shop.

I used to go there for haircuts and perms and every once in a while Aunt Jackie would talk to me about how unhappy she was.  “I hope you never learn what it’s like to love a man more than he loves you, Marie. It’s like always being hungry,” she said one day.  “No matter what I do, he never wants me like I want him.”

The continual battles they had were common talk within the family and my uncle, although a nice man was, like his father, a born victim.  Everyone felt sorry for him because of “that woman” while overlooking his steady drinking and lonely eyes.

I remember one day when I was about 14 my uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said that if I hadn’t been a girl I would like to be an archeologist or an architect.  He told me, “You do what you want.  Don’t listen to nobody. Don’t let them take your dreams away.”  He never identified “them” or talked about which dreams he had lost, so I was left to surmise.

Within the next few years, first Grandma and then Grandpa died. When Aunt Jackie didn’t attend Grandpa’s funeral because of a fight they had had that morning the shaky marriage was over. My uncle went back to living alone at the home he grew up in.

One Sunday morning about a year later my mother stopped by to see why he hadn’t answer the phone.  She found him still in his pajamas, sitting on a kitchen chair, dead of a heart attack- or was it a broken heart – at 42. When a family friend was informed of his death, the immediate response was “Did he kill himself?” Meanwhile his sisters blamed the shrewish wife for driving the beloved brother to despair.

Jackie took his death real hard because now he was forever out of her reach and took more and more medication to battle her depression. The son who had been named after the father eventually grew up and had a child and a divorce of his own.

Over the years Aunt Jackie attended all of the family parties and weddings and faithfully gave my children birthday cards each year with a few dollars in them. On these occasions she would arrive stylish dressed with hair and makeup perfect. After exchanging some pleasantries she would sit quietly in the corner smoking one cigarette after another, becoming more and more withdrawn as the tranquillizers kicked in.

Aunt Jackie lived alone in a tiny subsidized apartment on the wrong side of the wrong town until one day her son found her in bed partly conscious and unwashed.  After being hospitalized for several days, she was taken to a nursing home where she patiently waited for a few months before rejoining her long departed husband.

“For one man is my world of all the men

This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.”

Christina Rosetti, Come Back to Me

A MAN OF CIRCLES

Circles 3

A man made of circles

He rolls into my life

A river through my valley

As I stand upon the shore

A witness to his flood.

Steeped in life’s deepest pools

Streaming from core scented wells,

He pours over me,

Running new courses

Through the bed of my body.

Obstacles pushed aside,

Floating effortlessly,

Washing all clean

And leaving behind

A fresh mown mind.

A man made of circles,

He rolls through my life.

Hooping round my heart,

In loops he dances

As he ever closer comes.

Ever nearer,

Ever circling,

Surrounding me,

Until he slakes

The desert of my soul.

CABIN FEVER

Today is the first time in more than a week that the windows are not shut and the shades drawn by noon. The air conditioner and fan are taking a much deserved rest. We have experienced the first of the summer heat waves that come each year to Northern California and force new rhythms into daily life. Anything that requires driving, needs cooking or resembles moving must be completed early in the day – at least by those lucky enough to be able to escape into air conditioning.

This self-imposed isolation creates a world of its own in which the ordinary is suspended and the extraordinary the norm. In this cabin of my imagination I am thrown back upon my own resources – all escapes have been cut off except for books and movies. This week I have been absorbed by a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, noted stripper of the 40’s; Manning Up, a sociological exploration of a new life stage called pre-adulthood; Colette’s book of short stories, The Tender Shoot; and Willa Cather’s My Antonia, a wonderfully lyrical book of life on the early western prairie.

The Cather book made me nostalgic for my own early days and simpler times but perhaps that desire to reminisce is just an aspect of aging for I am no longer beguiled by the magic promises the future can project. Through day dreams I journey back to the past which, although also out of reach, offer pictures and sounds and smells of earlier times I now view with tenderness and longing. The pain has now been tempered by time; the joys are now better appreciated. Gratitude is a prevailing quality.

In contrast to the isolation and hermetic quality of the days, the nights have become more alive. While the air conditioner sleeps, the windows are raised high, the sounds of traffic and backyard conversations fill the air. Likewise, my dreams take me down ancient corridors where beloved faces and voices come to visit.

Sometimes poignant and loving, sometimes frightening with old traumas and projections, the dreams float in on the cool delta breezes of the night and stealthily encircle the bed. In one I embrace my son and wake up weeping. In another, a woman – is it my mother or myself – berates me for failing and asks why I don’t try harder. I see long departed pets as well as a dog I do not know eager to run with me through the fields. I see myself as I was and will not be again.

Towards morning, a slight chill is felt as the mists lift. I pull the sheet around my bare shoulders while my mind stretches out long tendrils trying to recapture the messages the dreams have left behind. As dawn creeps over the horizon, a night bird sings its final song.

THE MOON

“How like a queen comes forth the lonely Moon

From the slow opening curtains of the clouds;

Walking in beauty to her midnight throne.”

George Croly

Scientists have confirmed that water has been found on the moon.  This is amazing; it means … we are free to cut the apron strings of Mother Earth and drift across the face of the universe on the solar winds.  We can now walk to the corner of our block to see if any cars are coming …and cross the street.

Diana, chaste goddess of the moon will now have men walking her pristine landscapes without reverence.  Once the moon has lost its chastity can it continue to inspire lovers?  Once observation towers spike its horizons will anything be hidden from man’s sight.

I wonder if the obelisk a la “2001” will be found on the dark side.  Was Arthur C. Clark a prophet in this as he was with the communications satellite? Have our space brothers left their calling card there in some ice-encrusted crater?  One good alien will do more to obliterate racial and ethnic prejudice than any law. Humanity will at one instant discover its brotherhood.

The religious ramifications on an alien existence are delightful and we will have to give the devil a new face and derivation.  Heaven will require a new location.  We will have to stretch our parameters of God.  He will not only have to be the Father of the plants and animals and stars but of little purple men with suction cup mouths.  Can we look in that face and call it holy?

Us and Them will have to be redefined.  Once the language barriers have been breached, what we will learn of their myths.  Did they also have a Garden of Eden and did a footless tempter dwell there?  Did the female of their species also betray it and have they also been punished accordingly?

Did Christ and Mohammed and Buddha and Lao Tse live and die on their world, too?  Is their God one of mercy or one of obedience?  Is democracy their ideal or a hive-like caste system?  What do they consider beautiful?  Do they eat other life forms to survive or can they live on sunshine?  Do they have a word in their language for guilt?  Or regret?  Do they enslave each other or have they created robots to be their servants – or have the servants won the war? Do they cry when they see a sunset?  Have they seen the birth of a star?  Are they our parents or our children?

LOCK, STOCK & BARREL

The day started out innocently enough. My neighbor Gina, of the blond wig and tiara fame, phoned me to ask if I was interested in going with her to the local food bank that afternoon. This month’s budget had been crippled by the annual car registration fees, a smog certificate and unexpected medical bills so some extra help in the grocery department would be great. Sure, I blithely replied, and offered to drive.

By the time she knocked on the apartment door an hour later she had picked up another neighbor named John who also wanted to go. We trooped out to my car and I flipped the switch so all the doors were open. I left them to get in and settled while I took a bag of trash to the dumpster.

Twenty-three and one-half seconds later I was back and saw that Gina had made herself comfortable in the back seat. I heard her say to John in her Tweetie Pie voice, “She’ll open your door as soon as she gets back.” John, who had been ineffectually tugging at the handle of the front passenger door, looked at me over the roof of the car.

Hadn’t I already opened all the doors? Oh, well, I thought, then beamed a friendly smile at him. I ambled, which is like strolling only more roly-poly, to the driver’s side. I reached down and gave the handle a tug. Locked. I glanced through the car window and saw my purse and keys lying on the front seat.

“Gina, this door’s locked too. You’ll have to open the car from the inside,” I called.

“How do I do that,” she asked.

“On the driver’s door there are lots of buttons. Push the top one.”

She reached over the front seat and began poking the various buttons on the console. “They’re not working,” she said, a hint of agitation circling her voice.

“Don’t bother with the window buttons,” I explained calmly. ”Push the top button on the left side.”

“It’s not working!” she cried, her Tweetie voice going up to hummingbird level.

“Don’t panic, Gina!” shouted John, who was bobbing and weaving on the other side of the car and periodically tugging at his door.

“It’s getting hot in here!” Gina squealed. “I feel dizzy!”

“Gina, calm down and listen to me.” I thought my voice sounded very self-contained considering my teeth were clenched.

“Help!” cried Gina. “I can’t breathe!”

“Don’t panic!” shouted John. “You’re not going to die!”

I shot John a look that in some countries might be listed under Grievous Bodily Harm. I wondered if I could get away with a plea of self-defense when they found the bodies in the parking lot.

“Quick! Break a window!” Gina gasped, which is like breathing with your stomach.

“Gina,” I said as my hands twitched in choking motions, “do you see all the buttons on the door?”

“Call 911! I can’t breathe,” she said while draped over the seat back.

“Yes, you can. Now press the top button on the left side. It’s a toggle button and goes up and down. Press it up and down,” I said

“Ahhh,” she whimpered and stretched out a shaking finger.

Wiggle, wiggle, pop! I pulled that door handle like a parachute ripcord at 1,000 feet.

“Good going, Gina,” I said, grabbing the car keys in a sweaty hand and collapsing into the front seat.

John got in and as he buckled his seatbelt turned to Gina and said, “Boy, you sure get upset easy!”

Twenty minutes later we were all seated on metal folding chairs at the Baptist Church, the location of the area food bank. Now as fully recovered as she would ever be, Gina chattered about her dietary requirements and how she hoped they would give her lots of vegetables as she was a vegetarian.

“I eat a lot of celery,” she said. “It’s real good for your nerves.”

“Maybe you should carry a few stocks in your purse in case of emergencies,” I offered with some asperity which is like vinegar but more bitter.

While we were waiting, Gina regaled us with the highlights from her recent colonoscopy ending with the statement, “John had one too only his polyps were bigger,” to which John responded, “Thanks a lot for sharing  my personal information,” and turned his back on both of us.

I was circling the edges of hysteria when my number was called – which is better than your number being up. An hour later with the adventure over and the time for reflection at hand, I felt grateful, not only for the generosity of the food bank but for the delightful people I continue to  meet on this journey.