Tree Love

Tree Love

 

I think about a tree, once a great friend to me, an essential element of my daily life, close, close, close within my hands, tactile beneath my fingers and toes, a loamy odor up my nose.  Does it still stand, straight and tall, incrementally shading the emerald grass carpet of a suburban backyard some ten miles from where I sit now, remembering?  Does a loose-limbed child yet scale its elephant-skinned truck, so finely creased and wrinkled?  Do ants draw their fine ribbons along its sturdy boughs, leaving chemical traces of their intent? What about the birds that nested annually in its crown – do they keep a home there even now, half a century later?  How many lizards, cocoons, webs, and pods litter its branches?

 

Suddenly, I remember a photograph I captured several years ago, when I took my husband on a visit my old neighborhood to see the house I grew up in.  Scrolling back through my phone’s photos, I stop at the façade of my childhood home, immediately registering the blank space in the upper right-hand corner beyond the roof – no tree. How could I have missed that when I took the picture?  Failed to register the chasm rent in my past, yawning blue and blank as the sky now nakedly revealed? MY tree, the keeper of my secrets, witness of my heartaches, companion to my tears.  Gone.  A life extinguished, a body drawn and quartered, roots wrenched from clinging soil, leaves raining down in grief.  How long ago had I lost it?  Why hadn’t its absence redounded in my soul?

 

Every child should have a tree, it seems to me, of substantial girth and deep roots, with accommodating boughs that will support the scrambling of bare feet and toes.  Mine was a beech, already thirty feet tall when we moved into the three-bedroom, yellow stucco, ranch-style house on Ranney Street in 1965. At four years old, I was initially too small to reach the long, straight branch that jutted out at like an Ent’s perfect elbow four feet above the ground. And so, I played among its roots, gnarled hardwood fingers pushing up through the dirt around its base, perfectly delineated arenas for my plastic animal figures longing for respite from shag carpeting and furniture legs.  What a cornucopia of animal feed – twigs and frass, pulled weeds, grass clippings, leaf litter, and scattered seeds.  My horses and goats and giraffes and elephants were at home there in the silty dirt and so was I, concerned not for dusty knees or hemlines.  Pill bugs and earwigs, snails and ants, caterpillars, spiders, moths, bees, wasps and butterflies – all were abundantly extant, accepted without prejudice.   My world was close and dear, familiar to me as my own skin, which was slicked and furred with its detritus.  I belonged among this organic stuff, breathing in its scented oxygen, long blond hair littered with sticks and leaves, toenails and fingernails packed with peaty earth.

 

As soon as I was tall enough, I would hook my right knee around that long straight branch and spin myself to sit upright, the branch almost the same width as my spindly thighs. For months, this was my perch, five feet above the ground, a new vantage point from which to view my animal kingdom nested placidly below, a veritable god among the leaves.  Wrapping my arms around its substantial trunk, I’d press my cheek against its cool bark and feel the green pulse of sap, invisible but present.  The tree was a body, just like I was a body, with mysterious inner fluids and resilient flesh.  A much larger, older body that could hold and contain mine, which felt insubstantial and pliable compared to it.  I felt the tree abiding through starlit autumn nights and sunbaked summer days, breezes rustling among its branches, soft summer sprinkles moistening its leaves. Without ascribing it words, I was aware of its subtle, diffuse consciousness. Amidst the profligate foliage of that suburban backyard – which seemed so wild and untamed to my childish eyes – my tree was the undisputed king, the tallest, broadest component among herbaceous borders, fanning palms, clipped lawn, and trimmed hibiscus.

 

Growing up the oldest of five children, all born within seven years, I was desperate for a space to call my own.  As soon as I could make the climb, I claimed the topmost limbs of the tree as my personal den, an aerial retreat lofting above the chaos and din of an 1100 sq. ft. bungalow mushrooming human

bodies.  Wedged in the deep vee of its split trunk, I would survey my realm, peering into the neighbors’ backyards, noting the dads’ departure to and arrival from work; marking whose bike was flung on which friend’s lawn; calling out to scratching dogs sprawled on cement patios; watching the clouds drift, swirl and separate like cotton candy against a tonal backdrop of baby blue.  Here, I would inscribe the initials of a decade-spanning crush, my best friend’s brother, four years older, inhabitant of an unfamiliar universe of baseball cards, ten-speed bicycles, driveway basketball, and Beatles’ singles on the record player.  I loved the golden blond bangs that swooped across his forehead, hiding one eye; his bronzed arms with their gilding of platinum hairs; the loping ease with which he rounded the sandbags thrown into the cul-de-sac to serve as bases. I loved his deepening voice and the confidence with which he teased his sister and me.   I loved him with the blinding, unrequited passion of prepubescence and the tree was my only confidant, lending its invisible ears to my ceaseless suffering, seiving my salty tears through its toothed leaves, soothing my heartache with its gentle green caress.  I read countless books nestled in its green halo, my limbs entwined with its, my spine supported by the iron column of its trunk.  It was a clear space where I could read words aloud and feel the timber of their inflection.

 

At night, in flying dreams, I invariably launched from my tree’s crown: first I would stand, both feet wedged in the deep vee, then I would spread my arms and fall, soaring, hands spread, body undulating, hair streaming back. Through my winding, circumscribed flights, my tree would orient me, a beacon of feathered green, shimmering in the moonlight, a silent sentinel, peaceful and approving.

I never ventured out from neighborhood, fully entranced by the dew-spattered lawns, the curtained and shuttered windows like a line of sleeping eyes along the blacktopped corridor of Ranney Street; cars slumbering curbside; sidewalks chalk white and empty; hoses curled like cobras on hooks flanking garage doors. The incongruity of darkness costuming the mundane and ordinary captivated me, misting my neighborhood with a portent that wasn’t accessible in daylight.  I was aware of conversations happening on different frequencies, invisible embroidery that laced and looped between fauna and flora, knitting the world together, infusing it with intent.  Buoyed by an intense recognition of home and well-being, I would wheel and plummet, circle and dive, assured of my absolute safety in the nightscape.

 

***

 

I miss my tree.  Even more so now that I’ve realized it’s physically, not just geographically, gone.  Within its penumbra I once embedded with nature.  Seamlessly integrated, absorbed by my environs, I played and dreamed and cried and read and didn’t hold myself within edges, outlines or borders.  Awareness percolated within me, rising like sap within my veins.  Thinking was diffused, unstructured. Undisturbed, I could focus on the voice inside, rather than those outside, my head.  The episodic drone of airplanes overhead, children’s voices punctuating birdsong, tires whirring over asphalt, dogs barking, the occasional siren – these aural layers blanketed the ambient stillness, enhancing, reinforcing my arboreal cloister.

 

It’s been a long time since my boundaries have blurred; I rarely go barefoot outside or get really dirty.  I don’t fondle pincher bugs or discover twigs woven in my hair.  My knees are never scabbed.  Play is something I do with letter tiles on a tablet screen; reading, curled up in a papasan chair with the lamp on.  Ants are, in general, to be avoided.  I haven’t had a flying dream in 50 years.  I’ve lost my physical connection to nature; though I still appreciate the palette of a brilliant sunset, the whistle of wind rushing through trees, the sharp note of fresh grass clippings, the eely feel of a slippery river stone, these days they reach me across borders and edges, corralled within outlines that delineate their separation from me.  I can no longer hear sap rising, in me or a tree.

 

I saw my childhood crush – that best friend’s brother – at my parent’s golden wedding anniversary almost ten years ago.  He was puffy in that way former military men get when they retire to the couch.  His sweeping bangs had been domesticated into a crew cut, his skin now pallid, his voice husky and phlegmy from what may have been years of smoking.  I avoided him completely, my heart beating like a drum within my chest, not wanting to taint the sanctity of my years-old passion.  Somewhere I keep his initials within the outline of a heart, carved into the uppermost branches of a beech tree that no longer exists. I no longer sense invisible networks of pheromones or lose my edges to waves of passion.  I am contained within borders, stranded within my own treeless plain of consciousness.

The Blue Hue of Sadness

The Blue Hue of Sadness

This morning during the course of a phone conversation with my daughter, I found myself voicing the surprising observation that maybe? Perhaps? Could it be that I’m depressed?  This proposition actually shocked me because for most of my life my mental landscape has been infused with, if not the garish balloons of happiness, then at least those pale-pink bubbles of contentment that manage to percolate and regenerate, despite oscillations of fortune and fate.  But over the past few years, ostensibly since my return from Peace Corps, those pretty pink bubbles have flattened; there are not so many of them and they tend to pop before they get off the ground.  While I’m not drowning in the somber blue hues of sadness, per se, I do notice that I lack that characteristic acceptance of the world as a good place to be. I feel sort of gray and faded and slightly bruised, as if I’ve been through the wash too many times and then tumbled in a dryer for hours.  The first impulse that grazes my mind when I awake in the morning is to shut my eyes and go back to sleep; the thought of a new day arouses no anticipation or delight.

My daughter agreed with my self-diagnosis rather too quickly for my comfort, I’ll admit.  She recalled that I’ve always been a capable, efficient problem-solver, ready to plan, develop a strategy, excited to take on any challenge that presented itself.   I concurred that I feel mysteriously helpless these days, as if I am caught in a perpetual fog without any goal posts to define success.   She and my husband have attributed this ennui to me living with three people who are in a different life stage but nonetheless corral me into an world view replete with the prosaic irritations and inconveniences of aging.  I halfheartedly agreed, thinking that this assessment might suggest a nuance of my psychological affliction but does not apprehend its essence.

But then we hung up and I clicked on to my news feed like I do randomly at least ten times a day and the stark negativity of the scrolling headlines assailed me, capturing in an instant the chronicity of what’s ailing me.  All the relentlessly horrific news, hour after hour, day after day, stretching beyond a few unfortunate months into a bleak accumulation of years: climate change, rising sea levels, monster hurricanes, water table depletion, cataclysmic drought, species extinction, opioid addiction, soaring home prices, rampant gun violence, human trafficking and exploitation, Hong Kong, China, the Middle East, Venezuela, Brexit, the resurgence of nationalism, increasing suicide rates, growing economic disparity…the list is endless and plays in a recurring loop not just on my news feed but in my subconscious mind. I once subscribed to the tired adage that knowledge is power, but I’m beginning to think that nowadays most knowledge is just overwhelming and debilitating.

And, of course, there is no one bad guy in all this (though I could certainly identify a couple.)  There is not a single cause or genesis for the burgeoning cancers plaguing our planet.  Instead, it seems like the primal forces and genetic attributes that shaped the trajectory of our evolution are being dramatized across the global stage and no one has any viable means for snatching them back behind the curtain.  Our curiosity and acquisitiveness, tribalism and egoism, technologies and innovations are accelerating and amplifying the fears, vulnerabilities and superstitions that have always lurked in the basements of our psyches.  Now that a political protester in Hong Kong can send her activist buddy in California minute by minute updates of what’s transpiring at the airport, we have effectively outmaneuvered all the filters – such as time, distance, and objectivity – that once tempered the channels and flow of information.  Seemingly every time we open our social media feeds, tune in to a podcast, attend a public gathering, or flip on the news we are assaulted by strident opinions, catastrophic events, and scary science.  One has to be diligent in assessing the information presented to uncover all the forces at work behind the scenes in order to comprehend the interplay of both historic elements and current events.  It is an exhausting endeavor to stay responsibly aware and informed, an effort that most folks have no time – or perhaps its just a dearth of available energy – for these days.

One recent podcast on the economic implications and complexities involved in culling elephant herds in Africa sent me on a three-hour long dive into National Geographic videos, World Economic Forum reports, and scientific white papers.  Conclusion: there is nothing I can do to solve the overpopulation issues of elephants versus humans in Africa.  And is the fact that I now understand them just a little bit better going to make any difference in how I operate in the world? Probably not.  It just makes me more depressed.  Then there’s my informed take on Boris Johnson: I had read numerous articles and listened to several podcasts that led me to conclude that his suspension of Parliament was a Machiavellian maneuver designed to derail his political opponents.  But then a subsequent conversation with my husband (whom I generally trust to have done more even more research than me) cast a pall over my conviction.  Could Johnson perhaps have a superlative appreciation for the least ugly option to force the Brexit debacle toward some sort of resolution?  I don’t know; it’s just too complicated for my overburdened brain to process.

I know people who just opt out, choose to not look.  They’re busy fiddling, or working, or raising children, making art or honing a skill, binge-watching Netflix, or traveling in Indonesia. One of the more magnificent aspects of modernity is that it offers us a smorgasbord of entertainment choices, lifestyle options, educational opportunities, and professional pursuits. It does not provide any attention guidelines or morality gauges to accompany them, however.  So, it can become a relief to put the blinders on, voluntarily choose ignorance, fill one’s hours and days with responsibilities and errands and distractions and amusement.  Who can blame any of us for intentionally avoiding the congestion and smog of intercontinental highways in favor of the narrower, quieter private footpaths?

To ground these esoteric speculations in my daily life and demonstrate their impact, let me describe what should have been a stress-free family gathering last Monday that I managed to twist into a fraught-filled opportunity for disaster:

My dad and I stopped by niece’s apartment complex on Labor Day to enjoy a meal and a swim.  My daughter and her fiancée were there, along with my 3-year-old twin grandsons, my 9-year-old niece, and my brother.  My niece’s husband was BBQing carnitas, the adults were enjoying some chips and cocktails, and there was a relaxed vibe of summer simmering down in the air.  Both boys had arm flotation devices on as they played by the edge of the pool, hopping on and off an inflated raft under my daughter’s watchful eye.  Yet I became unaccountably obsessed with a fear of them falling in – which would not be disastrous in any case because, as I mentioned, they were strapped into flotation devices.  I sat distracted, unable to attend to conversation, eyes glued to the boys, hands clutching the arms of my chair (ready to launch into a dive should one of them fall in, my daughter’s fiancée jokingly observed). I became such a general buzzkill for everyone that Dad and I wound up leaving early.

Now, reflecting on that experience, along with so many others where I have overreacted to a perception of the boys’ relative safety and well-being, I begin to trace the dim outlines of my current emotional geography: I am constantly, chronically, helplessly adrift in an amorphous sea of worry and anxiety.  It has been during the three years since their birth that this worry and anxiety has taken a more tangible form and found an anchor in them.  Babies are so incredibly dependent and fragile; even as they grow into toddlers and little kids, increasing their ability to navigate their environment, we appreciate how vulnerable they are to mishaps and accidents. Our natural inclination as adults (especially mothers) is to anticipate and avert those mishaps, seeking to protect and preserve their innocence and joy.  And on the macro-scale I’ve checked all the preventative boxes in my due diligence to ensure them a viable future: I dutifully vote in each election; fire off letters to my representatives; recycle, repurpose, and reuse; conserve water and energy; drive an eight-year-old, four-cylinder compact, yada, yada, yada.  It feels like fragile fingers stuck in a trembling dike when countless leaks are springing open every minute.  I seem to know in my bones that it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down and most of us are swept away.  Which happens to include two of the people most important to my world: my grandsons.  So, instead, fingers in the dike, I attempt to control the small, mundane circumstances of their existence: supervising their proximity to the street during playtime; checking on their breathing throughout the night whenever I sleep over; Googling food additives and sunstroke symptoms; obsessively monitoring their vaccinations and oral hygiene; assessing the intentions of passersby – all admittedly misdirected and ultimately futile attempts to hold back the tsunami of a global, increasingly insane reality.  The truth is the odds are stacked against them and their viable future. It all screams disaster from here.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why those who do have some influence or power to alter the course of this tsunami don’t look at their children and grandchildren in the same way.  Rather, it’s the children and grandchildren themselves compelled to call out the powers-that-be, broadcasting forcefully and relentlessly the message that “what’s at stake right now is the existence of [our] generation.”

This is the true nature of the knowledge that debilitates me, begs me to close my eyes and sleep, turn my head and stream. My joyful, innocent grandsons have much to fear over the horizon and not a lot of promise to fill their sails.   For every nugget of optimism or resiliency I run across, there are metric tons of misery, despair, and anguish outweighing it.  When I was a child during the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the world was filled with fantastic possibilities; we were voyaging into space, plumbing the ocean depths, fighting social injustice, redefining civil rights, agitating for peace, celebrating diversity, and generally expanding our horizons.  These days, it feels as if we’re cultivating the habit of shrinkage, erecting fences and borders, exploding bridges and connections, collapsing in upon ourselves in fear.

Every day, every moment, I sit on the sidelines, obsessed with the headlines, no agency to alter the course.  I must watch from the bleachers as the lambs are led to slaughter.  The world is spinning on a tilting axis of madness.

Maybe it is the blue hue of sadness after all.

*photo courtesy of Thierry Fillieul from pexels.com

 

This morning during the course of a phone conversation with my daughter, I found myself voicing the surprising observation that maybe? Perhaps? Could it be that I’m depressed?  This proposition actually shocks me because for most of my life my mental landscape has been infused with, if not the garish balloons of happiness, then at least those pale-pink bubbles of contentment that manage to percolate and regenerate, despite oscillations of fortune and fate.  But over the few years, ostensibly since my return from Peace Corps, there has been a noticeable flattening of these bubble; there are not so many of them and they tend to pop before they get off the ground.  While I’m not drowning in the somber blue hues of sadness, per se, I do notice that I lack that characteristic acceptance of the world as a good place to be. I feel sort of gray and faded and slightly bruised, as if I’ve been through the wash too many times and then tumbled in a dryer for hours.  The first impulse that grazes my mind when I awake in the morning is to shut my eyes and go back to sleep; the thought of a new day arouses no anticipation or delight.

 

My daughter agreed with my self-diagnosis rather too quickly for my comfort, I’ll admit.  She recalled that I’ve always been a capable, efficient problem-solver, ready to plan, develop a strategy, excited to take on any challenge that presented itself.   I concurred that I feel mysteriously helpless these days, as if I am caught in a perpetual fog without any goal posts to define success.   She and my husband have attributed this ennui to me living with three people who are in a different life stage but nonetheless are corralling me into an world view replete with the prosaic irritations and inconveniences of aging.  I half-heartedly agreed, thinking that this assessment might suggest a nuance of my psychological affliction but does not apprehend its essence.

 

But then we hung up and I clicked on to my newsfeed like I do randomly at least ten times a day and the stark negativity of the scrolling headlines assailed me, capturing in an instant the chronicity of what’s ailing me.  All the relentlessly horrific news, hour after hour, day after day, stretching beyond a few unfortunate months into a bleak accumulation of years: climate change, rising sea levels, monster hurricanes, water table depletion, cataclysmic drought, species extinction, opioid addiction, soaring home prices, rampant gun violence, human trafficking and exploitation, Hong Kong, China, the Middle East, Venezuela, Brexit, the resurgence of nationalism, increasing suicide rates, growing economic disparity…the list is endless and plays in a recurring loop not just on my news feed but in my subconscious mind. I once subscribed to the tired adage that knowledge is power, but I’m beginning to think that nowadays most knowledge is just overwhelming and debilitating.

 

 

And, of course, there is no one bad guy in all this (though I could certainly identify a couple.)  There is not a single cause or genesis for the burgeoning cancers plaguing our planet.  Instead, it seems like the primal forces and genetic attributes that shaped the trajectory of our evolution are being broadcast and dramatized across the global stage and no one has any viable means for snatching them back behind the curtain.  Our curiosity and acquisitiveness, tribalism and egoism, technologies and innovations are accelerating and amplifying the fears, vulnerabilities and superstitions that have always lurked in the basements of our psyches.  Now that a political protestor in Hong Kong can send her activist buddy in California minute by minute updates of what’s transpiring at the airport, we have effectively outmaneuvered all the filters – such as time, distance, and objectivity – that once tempered the channels and flow of information.  Seemingly every time we open our social media feeds, tune in to a podcast, or flip on the news we are assaulted by strident opinions, catastrophic events, and scary science.  One has to be diligent in assessing the information presented to uncover all the forces at work behind the scenes in order to comprehend the interplay of both historic elements and current events.  It is an exhausting endeavor to stay responsibly aware and informed, an effort that most folks have no time – or perhaps its just a dearth of available energy – for these days.

 

One recent podcast on the economic implications and complexities involved in culling elephant herds in Africa sent me on a three-hour long dive into National Geographic videos, World Economic Forum reports, and scientific white papers.  Conclusion: there is nothing I can do to solve the overpopulation issues of elephants versus humans in Africa.  And is the fact that I now understand them just a little bit better going to make any difference in how I operate in the world? Probably not.  It just makes me more depressed.  Then there’s my informed take on Boris Johnson: I had read numerous articles and listened to several podcasts that led me to conclude that his suspension of Parliament was a Machiavellian maneuver designed to derail his political opponents.  But then a subsequent conversation with my husband (whom I generally trust to have done more even more research than me) cast a pall over my conviction.  Could Johnson perhaps have a superlative appreciation for the least ugly option to force the Brexit debacle toward some sort of resolution?  I don’t know; it’s just too complicated for my overburdened brain to process.

 

I know people who just opt out, choose to not look.  They’re busy fiddling, or working, or raising children, making art or honing a skill, binge-watching Netflix, or traveling in Indonesia. One of the more magnificent aspects of modernity is that it offers us a smorgasbord of entertainment choices, lifestyle options, educational opportunities, and professional pursuits. It does not provide any attention guidelines or morality gauges to accompany them, however.  So, it can become a relief to put the blinders on, voluntarily choose ignorance, fill one’s hours and days with responsibilities and errands and distractions and amusement.  Who can blame any of us for intentionally avoiding the congestion and smog of intercontinental highways in favor of the narrower, quieter footpaths?

 

 

To ground these esoteric speculations in my daily life and demonstrate their impact, let me describe what should have been a stress-free family gathering last Monday that I managed to twist into a fraught-filled opportunity for disaster:

 

My dad and I stopped by niece’s apartment complex on Labor Day to enjoy a meal and a swim.  My daughter and her fiancée were there, along with my 3-year-old twin grandsons, my 9-year-old niece, and my brother.  My niece’s husband was BBQing carnitas, the adults were enjoying some chips and cocktails, and there was a relaxed vibe of summer simmering down in the air.  Both boys had arm flotation devices on as they played by the edge of the pool, hopping on and off an inflated raft under my daughter’s watchful eye.  Yet I became unaccountably obsessed with a fear of them falling in – which would not be disastrous in any case because, as I mentioned, they were strapped into flotation devices.  I sat distracted, unable to attend to conversation, eyes glued to the boys, hands clutching the arms of my chair (ready to launch into a dive should one of them fall in, my daughter’s fiancée jokingly observed). I became such a general buzzkill for everyone that Dad and I wound up leaving early.

 

Now, reflecting on that experience, along with so many others where I have overreacted to a perception of the boys’ relative safety and well-being, I begin to trace the dim outlines of my current emotional geography: I am constantly, chronically, helplessly adrift in an amorphous sea of worry and anxiety.  It has been during the three years since their birth that this worry and anxiety has taken a more tangible form and found an anchor in them.  Babies are so incredibly dependent and fragile; even as they grow into toddlers and little kids, increasing their ability to navigate their environment, we appreciate how vulnerable they are to mishaps and accidents. Our natural inclination as adults (especially mothers) is to anticipate and avert those mishaps, seeking to protect and preserve their innocence and joy.  And on the macro-scale I’ve checked all the preventative boxes in my due diligence to ensure their future: I dutifully vote in each election; fire off letters to my representatives; recycle, repurpose, reuse; conserve water and energy; drive an eight-year-old, four-cylinder compact, yada, yada, yada.  It feels like fragile fingers stuck in a trembling dike when countless leaks are springing open every minute.  I seem to know in my bones that it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down and most of us are swept away.  Which happens to include two of the people most important to my world: my grandsons.  So, instead, fingers in the dike I attempt to control the small, mundane circumstances of their existence: supervising their proximity to the street during playtime; checking on their breathing throughout the night whenever I sleep over; Googling food additives and sunstroke symptoms; obsessively monitoring their vaccinations and oral hygiene; assessing the intentions of passersby – all admittedly misdirected and ultimately futile attempts to hold back the tsunami of a global, increasingly insane reality.

 

For the life of me, I can’t understand why those who do have influence and power to alter the course of this tsunami don’t look at their children and grandchildren in the same way.  Rather, it’s the children and grandchildren themselves compelled to call out the powers-that-be, broadcasting forcefully and relentlessly the message that “what’s at stake right now is the existence of [our] generation.”

 

This is the nature of the knowledge that debilitates me, begs me to close my eyes and sleep, turn my head and stream. My joyful, innocent grandsons have much to fear over the horizon and not a lot of promise to fill their sails.   For every nugget of optimism or resiliency I run across, there are metric tons of misery, despair, and anguish outweighing it.  When I was a child during the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the world was filled with fantastic possibilities; we were voyaging into space, plumbing the ocean depths, fighting social injustice, redefining civil rights, agitating for peace, celebrating diversity, and generally expanding our horizons.  These days, it feels as if we’re in the habit of shrinking, erecting fences and borders, collapsing in upon ourselves in fear.

 

I am left with no agency to alter the course.  I must watch from the bleachers as the lambs are led to slaughter.  The world is spinning on a tilting axis of madness.

 

Maybe it is the blue hue of sadness after all.

Photographic Evidence

Photographic Evidence

Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course

FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:

  • the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
  • your attire in the photo, and why
  • one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
  • at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
  • your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
  • the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)

Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.

Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.

Pioneertown

Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property.  While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me.  After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me.  I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize.  But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.

I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it.  I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun.  Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible.  (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)

Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties.  For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out.  Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.

Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days.  Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.

Halloween 2018

Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers.  Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling.  Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!”   Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him.  Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone.  I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party.  I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat.  But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.

Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo.  Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.

Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl.  Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist.  But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

“Yvette!  WE’RE GOING TO THE POT STORE,” my dad shouts from the driveway up to my bedroom window over the garage as if the message was in the all-caps print he favors.

“Great Dad. Now I and the rest of our neighbors know where you’ll be for the next hour or so.” Looking down, I can see my mom climbing into the passenger seat of Dad’s jumbo-jet sized, luxury SUV.

“And no one says pot anymore, by the way.  Say weed.  Or better yet, just dispensary.’”

I sound so like the snarky teen I once was that I have to do a mental check.  My dad’s awareness of marijuana had its foggy beginnings during my middle school years, when he shifted from beat cop to narcotics, grew his hair long, donned a uniform of loose peasant shirts, suede boots, and bell-bottom Levis, and played The Guess Who in our tangerine-colored family van.  He might have adopted the trappings, but he was miles from cool.  Shouting out his destination in our smartly landscaped, ethnically diverse, Tesla-littered cul-de-sac reminded me of his past indiscretions.

I surmise that properly identifying cannabis and recognizing its psychoactive effects might have posed a bit of a challenge for a small suburban police force back then, mostly because my oldest brother had the actual plants growing in our backyard that my dad routinely watered every weekend when he did yard work.  Dad could never tell when we were high, which was more often than not during those years.  I do remember him spouting the inflammatory prophecy of it being an evil “gateway drug” which would inexorably deliver its users into full blown heroin, cocaine, LSD, and/or psilocybin addiction.  (Though my siblings and I dabbled in those substances, most of us ended up in thrall to sporadic quantities of crystal meth – oh, the all-nighters studying, cleaning, organizing, writing!)

Now my parents are rabid, copious consumers of all things THC- and CBD-infused – cookies, gummy drops, oils, lotions, and patches.  Their dispensary expenditures routinely exceed $300-400 per month.  Nothing I would’ve ever predicted in 1975, but probably the most mind-altering consequence of living in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.  (And heavily taxed, I might add.  HEAVILY.  Another example of liberals putting their money where their mouths are, I’m just saying.)

I reflect on this reality whenever I open my desk drawer and see my vape pens rolling around with the Pilot G-2s and Sharpies.  Getting high is such a mundane aspect of life these days, for many reasons preferable to imbibing alcohol, which used to be my go-to relaxant until I suffered a (very) scary bout of elevated liver enzymes a year ago.  Mostly I employ it as a soporific, taking a hit or two prior to shutting off the lights for bed.  Zonk – menopausal insomnia cured!   Occasionally, I’ll take it along for a coastline jog; nothing corrals the chattering distractions of the running brain like the hypnotic, looping effects of a little THC. But mostly I don’t think about it.  Unlike high school, I don’t have to deal with shady strangers on corners or someone’s lascivious cousin with his own apartment in Downey or the manager at the local pizzeria who charged a 200% markup over street prices but gave you a free pie as a cover.  I just drive the 2.6 miles to the local dispensary, park under the watchful gaze of the armed security guard, wait in line behind five other convivial senior citizens to present my ID to the woman at the front desk, and am buzzed through to an emporium of products presented in myriad flavors, sizes, strengths, and delivery mediums.  Capitalism has transformed the War on Drugs into a surprisingly pleasant shopping errand.

Subsequently, I don’t know if the high itself has changed or its integration into the routine of life has tamed its tantalizing qualities, but it certainly doesn’t hold, at least for me, the cachet that it once did.   When I was fourteen, my relationship with psychoactive substances sprang from the nascent desire to fathom the teleological difference, if there was any, between mind and brain. Suffused as I was with Buddhism, Beatnik writers, Schrödinger’s cat, Platonic ideals and rudimentary Catholic theology, one can imagine how effectively a marijuana high could contribute to my efforts.  Now, I just want to go to sleep.  Same feeling, different outcome.

I imagine that by fifty-seven I have followed all the less strenuous, non-academic, quasi-spiritual paths towards figuring out life’s meaning; the mental vistas currently afforded me by THC have become a bit mundane and claustrophobic. Is it maturity?  Monotony?  Resignation?  Smoking weed no longer promises the (wink-wink) mystical elevator into the absolute it once did.  By virtue of their legality, THC and CBD products are heavily regulated to be content verifiable and consistent.  Does this affect the nature of the high itself?  Certainly, smoking dope of this type is not the roulette’s wheel of my youth, when the whispered gems “Mexican Sinsemilla” or “Humboldt Indica” conveyed deluxe, transcendent properties sure to send the mental explorer catapulting into deep space but more reliably, come to think of it, fizzled out into blank stares and ill-advised snacking.  And there were a few, definitely uncomfortable occasions early on, after legalization but before I got the dosage right, when my thoughts caromed off into cramped and circular orbits that recalled the “bad trips” of my youth, anxiety-fraught treks through ricochet-laden mental environs that are even less enticing after so long abiding in the world of forethought and consequences.

Perhaps what I am really yearning for is that breath-stealing, soul-melting experience of magic mushrooms or E(cstasy) kicking in, when the boundary between mind and brain dissolves, liquefying into a non-question, any answer irrelevant to the numinous revelations pouring from within and without. But, of course, when one is fifty-seven there is a larger context underpinning the choice of what to ingest into one’s corpus: will this kill me? Weaken me? Make me healthier? Live longer, stronger, wiser?  Increasingly, the risk associated with most drugs outweighs their various temptations. I see now that death will always have the upper hand, catch me soon enough and provide all the outstanding answers to life’s Big Questions, anyway.

It does amuse me that, after all these years, I am coaching Dad on the socially appropriate way to reference his ‘gateway’ drug in the driveway of the same house where squad cars would periodically deposit my two truant younger brothers after they were caught smoking ‘pot’ in the flood control channel behind their high school.  How times have changed.  What was once the stuff of dire parental warnings and government propaganda has transformed into an AARP-touted pain-reliever and  a sleep-inducer for the Boomer generation.

Perhaps that’s what makes the high substantively different, in the end: anything your parents condone can’t be that much fun, right?

The Bathing Ritual

The Bathing Ritual

Assignment 2 in Memoir and Personal Essay Course: Write a narrative describing an activity that you do regularly which incorporates at least ten steps—something you perform preferably every day, but at least several times a week. With attention to voice, imbue the writing with a sense of character and personality. Pay attention to the way you transition from one step to the next. Connect each step in a unique way that is not merely repetitive like “first I do this, then I do that.” Instead, think about cause and effect. Explain the rationale for each step and why it follows the one before it. You are only allowed to use the words “next” or “and then” twice total.

 

My maternal grandmother was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood.  She was one of the first women to be sworn in as a police officer in Glendale, California, and for years made the 35 mile drive each Saturday to our home in Orange County to share grand tales of her professional exploits with my young mother, housebound with five children under ten.  I would generally hunker down somewhere near the couch, where I could hear what had gone on that week in the juvenile bureau and with her partner, Copie. Since my grandfather’s motorbike accident left him a paraplegic in 1943, my grandmother was the sole breadwinner and his caretaker for decades; to my inexperienced self she represented the epitome of independence and self-determination.  This, of course, was before I appreciated the extent to which care-taking can infringe upon self-determination and independence.

 

These days, GG (the sobriquet bestowed when she became a great-grandmother more than 36 years ago) is 98 years old.  Making her bed, combing her own hair, reaching anything on a higher shelf, opening pickle jars – little things that most of us accomplish thoughtlessly – are painful, almost impossible feats for her, saddled as she is with arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, compromised mobility, and vertigo.  There have been numerous falls in the preceding decade, many of them resulting in trips to the ER and overnight hospital stays. Now, even some of the basics of personal hygiene have become challenging and potentially dangerous.  Like many other common tasks of daily life, it has become a preventative measure to assist her with the mechanics of undressing, getting in and out of the shower, and donning her pajamas once again.   Providing this type of support to her consumes about ten hours of my week, time that I give willingly and joyfully, but which does limit some of my wider-ranging activities and time away from home.

 

GG is a congenitally orderly person who craves routine and predictability.  Hence, she’s happiest if she has a bit of notice that shower hour has arrived so can she prepare herself and the environment accordingly.  Usually, I enter her en suite bathroom to find her new pajamas already laid out on the dresser, her bathmat placed in front of the shower, her towel hanging from the vertical hand bar just outside the shower door.  It is only then, when all elements are in place, that the ritual may commence.

 

We begin in her walk-in closet.  I pull down her pajama bottoms, she braces herself against the dresser and steps out of them.  Her underwear follows; we carefully preserve the protective pad she has inserted against bladder accidents as disposing of one before its fully soaked is wasteful.  Her pajama shirt comes off slowly, with considerable attention paid to keeping her arms below her shoulders: their arthritic pain is so excruciating she cries out if I accidentally pull her arms up too high.  I remove the button hanging on a chain around her neck that allows her to send an electronic signal to other rooms in the house if she requires assistance, though most often she hits it unknowingly against a counter or her mattress, sending my mom and I flying into her room, usually in the middle of the night, expecting to find her again on the floor. Traces of Oil of Olay waft in my nostrils as I bend close to remove the gold wristwatch, an essential component of her wardrobe that she references throughout the day to track her unbending, self-imposed schedule.  (Lunch is always at 10:30am, cocktails at 2:00pm, dinner 4:30pm, bedtime 7:45pm.  You can set your own clock by her unflagging routine.)

 

Once she is undressed, we leave the closet, GG pushing her walker some ten feet across the tiled floor to the shower stall. Following closely behind her, I marvel at her upright posture.  She moves rapidly, with straight-backed confidence, when holding onto the walker’s handles.  From the back, one might take her to be in her 70’s or early 80’s; her skin retains a rosy vibrancy, its delicate topography a well-preserved, creamy tulle sagging ever so slightly from bones sturdy and true.   People comment, still, on her beauty. It is a quality that emanates from her being, rather than her physiognomy or figure.  By the time once reaches her age, character has infused form; like a light glowing warmly from behind a worn curtain, one is drawn to the illumination rather than the occluding fabric.

 

I deliver her bright pink shower cap and help her position it over her head (those shoulders again!)  There is not much hair left these days, but her hearing aids cannot get wet.  She reaches in, turns the faucet on and waits for the water to warm.  After entering the stall, she lifts her bath brush from the shower knob and waits while I squeeze an inordinate amount of Oil of Olay body wash onto it – despite her depression-era thriftiness, she allows herself small, idiosyncratic extravagances.  She slides the door shut and I wheel her walker over to the counter top and set the brakes; this is where I sit for the next ten minutes or so while she completes her ablutions.

 

This marks a measure of her independence regained, actually, because for months at the beginning of this year I was in the shower with her.  She had broken her right wrist in a fall and wasn’t able to maneuver her plastic-encased cast sufficiently to wash herself.  During this period, I would disrobe, also, and accompany her into the steam-filled cloister of the shower stall, neither of us talking as her hearing is so poor, she is unable to make out words over the ambient noise of the water spray.  If I narrowed my eyes and imagination just enough, I flowed into the stream of consciousness into which so many women the world over daily immerse, the i soul-rinsing experience of communal bathing.  Sharing a shower, pool or sauna, baring one’s skin, scars, bumps, lumps, and awkward angles among a group of females, becomes its own form of cleansing.  I would slowly and carefully pass the brush over GG’s tissue-thin skin, as if it were a baby’s.  This was never an activity I imagined sharing with her when I was twelve, but one that I grew to love for its warm and relaxed intimacy.

 

Now, since she has regained the use of her right hand, I allow her the private bathing that our culture favors. I keep an ear tuned to her movements while I work the New York Times daily crossword at the bathroom sink,  turning occasionally to ascertain that the pink dot of her head is bobbing away behind the obscuring glass of the shower door.  I am usually close to finished by the time she shuts off the water.  Then, the long ritual of drying herself begins.  Because of her compromised flexibility, it takes seven to eight minutes for her to complete the task to her own satisfaction. But, before she will exit the shower, she must thoroughly dry all the walls, fixtures, and door, too, even though we have a weekly cleaning service that ensures mold or mildew never gains a foothold.  By the time I am completing the last few clues, I hear the door slide open and drop my pen to bring her the walker and stand vigilant while she places first one foot, and then the other, under the bath mat, bringing it up to wipe the surface of the opposite foot dry.  This is an important element of the ritual, don’t ask me why.  When this is done,  like an obedient foot soldier I trail her back into the closet.

GG has uncommonly long, narrow feet; I must remind myself to be patient while she stabs the arrow of her toes at the opening of her underpants as I bend over, trying to corral the moving target.  It usually takes three or four attempts. I pull the underpants up and she spends a minute or so adjusting the inserted pad.  The pajama bottoms are a bit easier. Once those are donned, I hold the top open at shoulder-level as she struggles to place her arms in the armholes and we both shift the cloth up and over carefully, trying to minimize the pull on her joints. Even though the top is button-up, GG insists on being respectful and having all but the very top button fastened, so I don’t need to “waste” my time on buttoning five extra buttons.  I’ve argued about this, to no avail.  It’s an element of the ritual.

 

I then replace the alarm button around her neck and her precious watch around her left wrist.  I run a comb through her sparse locks to lift them back into place.  She kisses me and says, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” no less than three times.  Sometimes more.  She is so very grateful.  As am I. For no matter how insidiously care-taking may infringe on self-determination and independence, I know that both of us benefit.  Though little conversation takes place during this thrice-weekly ritual, the closeness that it has engendered goes beyond mere words.

Elevation

I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.

SIlver_Lake_living_room

My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.

***

Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.

***

When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

When We Dance Alone

I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.

I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”

As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?

After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.

As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.

 

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne