Friday, September 30, 2011

The Magic Box

It sits on all our desks; is carried in satchels; is sought out in coffee houses and libraries. Without it, we are like addicts without a fix. With it, we are addicts with a fix! It links us to the world: to our family and friends, to our business connections, to opportunities to buy and sell, or to disseminate or glean information. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Way Things Were, that benighted archetypal state, just a few short years ago, before computers took the world by storm. We are enthralled, in the true sense of being thralls.

When we think of the history of the computer, we seldom include its mythic, archetypal roots. We think in terms of brilliant minds working into the night hours in garages or university computer labs; of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But, in fact, we ought to be thinking of Thoth in ancient Egypt or Pandora, in ancient Greece, for that is where the long, dangling roots of this particular technology meet their mythic soil.

From Egyptian mythology comes a tale of a dreadful Magic Box, containing a compendium of the most powerful magic, the Book of Thoth. Sought by a Pharaoh’s son named Nefrekeptah, the box was eventually found beneath the middle of the Nile River, at Koptos. In an iron box was a box of bronze; in the bronze box, a sycamore box; in the sycamore box, an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box, a silver box; in the silver box was a golden box, within which lay the Book of Thoth. All around the iron box were terrible twists of snakes and scorpions, and it was guarded by a serpent that could not be slain.

Nefrekeptah managed to surmount all these difficulties and obtain the Book of Thoth, only to have his life begin to fall apart in shocking and terrifying ways. Eventually, much chastened, he managed to return the Book to its rightful owner, and his life and that of his family was spared.

Greek Pandora’s story is similar. Given a locked box by the god Zeus and cautioned never to open it, Pandora, consumed with curiosity, stole the key while its keeper was sleeping and opened the box. Out flew every kind of disease and sickness, hate and envy, and all manner of nasty things that people had never experienced before. Pandora slammed the lid closed, but it was too late: all the bad things had already flown away into the world.

Utterly devastated by her destructive act of disobedience, Pandora opened the box again, to show her husband that, indeed, it was empty. Suddenly, out flew one last thing: Hope. Whether Hope is the redeeming gift, as many interpret it, or the cruelest deception of all, as pessimists would have it, is a matter for philosophical debate. However, this story reinforces the notion of the dubious gifts contained in Magic Boxes.

When I wrote my first novel, Owl Woman, the home computer had not yet been invented. I wore out two electric typewriters composing that novel, numberless typewriter ribbons, and created pounds of manuscript. In order to edit, I literally cut with scissors and pasted with Scotch Tape. Then, the final mess of uneven, lumpy pages had to be re-typed one more time, before it was plunked into a manuscript box for mailing to my agent—a far cry from pushing some keys, running Spell Check and then sending it off into the ethers with an electronic whoosh.

So I am as passionate a devotee of the computer as you will find. As with any numinous object, however, I never lose my essential wariness and awe of this little  titanium box that sits so innocently on its desk/altar. Inside, a veritable Wild West exists, where the unscrupulous prey upon the innocent with impunity and the pioneering push ever further into uncharted territory. Violences of various kinds are inflicted there, where child pornography rings flourish and hackers break in to steal identities. Meanwhile, scholars bend over tomes housed in libraries half a world away, heedless of hucksters extolling snake oil over the same electronic pulse; strange viruses infect the unwary and unprotected and spies lurk, intent on invading our privacy.

Let the uninitiated beware: only fools and the arrogant trespass unmindfully in magical realms. This is a Magic Box, indeed!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quote of the Day

A garden makes all our senses swim with pleasure.
--William Lawson

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

The tremor of awe is the best in man.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Autumnal Equinox and The Waxing and Waning of Things

We’ve just passed the Autumnal Equinox and thus begins the dying of the light. Days grow shorter; nights grow chilly. In the garden, tomatoes and squash put out blooms that may never mature into fruit, and petunias stretch their scrawny necks, extending one final bloom toward the sun.

In our family we’ve experienced another kind of dying back. David’s first wife, mother of our two sons, Eric and Michael, died on September 16th. During this past weekend, the entire family, hers, his, her second husband’s, and ours, all came together to celebrate a life just passing and the continuance of our individual and communal existence. Such events, old as humanity itself, are as much a part of the cycle of things as the movements of the Sun and stars.

On the international level, Kenyan Nobelist and environmental leader Wangari Maathai died Sunday of ovarian cancer, at 71. Founder of the Green Belt Movement that pioneered the planting of trees in Africa, and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, her movement, by paying poor women a few shillings to plant, led to the planting of an estimated 45 million trees.

An environmentalist, feminist, politician, member of the Kenyan Parliament, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement she founded, she was comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi's slums, the muddy hillsides of central Kenya, or hobnobbing with heads of state. On world tours Mrs. Maathai spoke out against environmental degradation and poverty which, she was among the first to point out, are intimately connected. A radiant, joyful, positive and powerful presence, Wangari Maathai never ceased in her efforts to better the situation of the poor and their environment.

When we think of a Commune of Women, we should remember both the humble, like our boys’ mother Cheryl, who was a skilled and caring Registered Nurse, and the glorious, like Wangari Maathai, who burned like the summer sun in its full and fertile passage. Together, each in her own particular and passionate way, we form a community of caring that circles the globe and, while it may have its dark times, eternally renews itself in the dawning of hope, the cycling of the seasons and the eternal radiance of the human spirit.
PS: As proof of the cycle of renewal, please take five minutes to listen to "The Girl Who Made the World Silent for Five Minutes:"

Monday, September 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
--George Orwell

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

 Living itself is a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.
--E. B. White

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.
--Theodore Roethke

Friday, September 23, 2011

Prison as Cultural Shadow

At 11 PM EST, Wednesday, September 21, Georgia prison inmate Troy Davis was pronounced dead from lethal injection. To his last breath, he maintained his innocence of the murder for which he was condemned. Very likely, the doubt which shrouded his case will never be cleared; at least, not in the dimension which we presently inhabit. Whether a murderer or an innocent man was executed will always be subject to debate. There is nothing left of Troy Davis,  now, but a jar of ashes—and the matter of our own guilt or innocence in allowing a man who may have been innocent to be euthanized in the prime of his life.

I have long contemplated the institution of prison and its function as cultural shadow. In my capacity as creative writing instructor at a California men's prison, for five years I had a unique opportunity to observe the corrections system at work and to acquaint myself with some of its charges, a handful of inmates among the almost two million now incarcerated in the United States.

This experience and those acquaintances have changed my life and caused me to look deeply into the fabric of American culture and the role of the writer, there.

 I want to make two important points, right at the outset:

First, I believe the majority of prison inmates are among the most severely psychologically wounded members of our culture. The psychologist Winnicott speaks of a child's "knowledge from experience of having been mad." Madness is not a state of mind one readily equates with infancy and childhood and it is a disturbing notion. Yet severe early trauma was part of the life history of the majority of inmates in my classes. It's not without reason that one of my favorite students, a black man whose mother was a prostitute, who never knew a father, and who was born addicted to crack cocaine and was prostituted for over a decade as a child, has said, "The Department of Corrections says my name is John Doe Smith, but I'm here to tell you, my real name is Madniz!"

A survey conducted by the U.S. Justice Department revealed that among those polled, 87% of female and 44% of male prisoners were attacked either physically or sexually or both, as children. It is not difficult to imagine that, for them, normal ego growth was interrupted by early, incapacitating, traumatic anxiety.

My second point has to do with the privatization of prisons in America. With this trend, a new and insidious threat has arisen that strikes at the heart of the democratic process, of Constitutional guarantees and of the moral and ethical underpinnings of our nation. The agenda of private prison corporations is not so much hidden as thinly veiled behind euphemisms hinting at the inmate population as a resource; as a cheap and plentiful domestic labor force. Masquerading as a virtuous anti-crime movement is the reinstitution of what virtually amounts to slavery.

This might sound preposterous, but consider the facts: prison industries show a multi-billion dollar profit, annually. Inmates at our prison are paid between 12 and 65 cents an hour. They have no benefits, no union and no right to refuse to work. Their work spaces are not subject to OSHA inspection. Their work hours are not necessarily limited to 8 per day nor are they compensated for overtime or hazardous duty. There is a formal assumption of superiority by the officers who oversee them, providing great latitude for arbitrary and capricious behavior on their part and concomitant fear on the part of the inmates.

Consider further that 3-Strikes laws, nationwide, have filled prisons to overflowing with non-violent offenders, many of whom will be incarcerated for life, the vast majority of whom are people of color. Behind political hyperbole about "making our streets safe" lurks the specter of greed, and a deliberate economic policy geared to compete with third world countries in the labor market, with the added element of gratifying racist agendas.

To recapitulate, for emphasis: inmates are among the most severely psychologically wounded members of our society and, with the rise of private prisons, they are being targeted as a virtual slave labor force for industry. Despite its name, the Department of Corrections is much more involved in warehousing than in correcting or redeeming human lives. Therefore, one finds a situation in which those who are among the most severely traumatized individuals of our society are shut away in subhuman conditions which both recapitulate and exacerbate the original trauma, without benefit of psychotherapeutic treatment and the barest of creative outlets, with the likelihood of becoming lifelong drudges in prison industries. That a nation which thinks of itself as among the most civilized in the world could treat its wounded so abysmally is a shocking thing and speaks to our collective, medieval notions about criminality.

It is instructive to explore just which archetypes haunt the prison setting. To do so, let's imaginally enter the world of the prisoner:

How does it feel, to be incarcerated? First, you are always afraid. Maybe you sleep with a book on your chest so you won't have a shank driven into your heart. Maybe you don't use the bathroom at night, for fear of being gang raped. Maybe you look out your 7 X 18- inch window into asphalt and French razor wire and think of suicide. Doubtlessly you live in fear both of your fellow inmates and of The Man, the Correctional officers who run your life. And you've learned not to cross the Line, that imaginary boundary that runs through the prison yard, separating one race from another, one gang from another.

You will never doubt the universal applicability of myth if you enter into the world where Chronos still eats his children, in increments of 25-to-Life. If you sit in the undoing timelessness of doing time. If you allow yourself, even for a moment, to be ingested into the belly of the beast.

Prison is the embodiment of the shadow fantasies of the Senex. Imaginings around how to control, suppress, repress, disempower, punish, humiliate, depotentiate, depersonalize and dehumanize are the ground of its being.  Institutionalized paranoia is its pathology. A hatred of beauty, moistness, lushness and the Feminine is its aesthetic. Black, deep blue and gray are its alchemical colors. Suffering and depression, its climate. Reason and logic, its justification. Violence, fascism, racial bigotry, homophobia and classism, rationality’s shadow. Pure rage and testosterone,  its propulsive energies.

My creative writing classes entered into this scene at the point where an inmate had been incarcerated, clean, sober and introspective for a sufficient period to begin asking himself: "What does my soul want?" My approach is much different than the traditional academic one because I have seen demonstrated, time and again, that one cannot come into proper, creative relationship with writing -- or quite possibly, with any other facet of life -- in the absence of Eros. My first, most challenging, and overwhelmingly important task was to create a container, safe from the vicissitudes of prison life, in which gang hatred, racial strife, classism and sexism could be laid aside for a time, and an atmosphere of mutual trust, concern and encouragement could be generated.

In such a supportive atmosphere, individual voices were free to arise, speaking and writing from an authentic place for the first time. The voice arising out of my classes was a powerful one on four main counts. First, it is a voice enraged by punishments which did not fit the crime. Second, it spoke of childhoods and young adulthoods of unbelievable brutality in a numbed, matter-of-fact voice. Third, its tone, when speaking of the future (always a terrifying direction for their gaze), was wistful and filled with longing for, and imaginings of, redemption. Finally and surprisingly, it was also a lyric voice filled with concern and love for Earth and the beauty and fragility of nature, where they seemed to see and hear their own wounded and unbearably beautiful souls resonating.
What I heard were brave voices echoing in the void of their lostness. What I imagined was a way to supply a road map out of Hell. An owner's manual for the dispossessed. A myth for the untold wasting of their lives.

I encouraged an imagining of redemption, of light after darkness, of resurrection after crucifixion. They needed a light at the top of the shaft they fell down, before they ever dreamed of consciousness of their peril. They needed a ladder up; a vision of beauty and brilliance to prime their souls, and an imagining of an authentic place in society in which to invest them.

The readiness to be enkindled is built into the prison model. There is a deep, erotic longing to rise out of darkness into light. Creative writing, for many of these men, opened a door to an unimagined world joy and light. Darryl, for example, told me: "I've been in prison, off and on, since I was 13. Now I'm 39. This is the first time, ever, that I've been with a group of people where race didn't matter and where people were saying positive things. It's changed my life."

Within the gray, institutional walls of my classroom,  a sacred space was born out of this longing. Jung has said that sacred space is where the individual suffers what they always needed to suffer but lacked the courage to suffer alone.

In my classroom, the Line was crossed: blacks, whites and Hispanics came together, across gang and ethnic barriers, to support and encourage one another. The energy generated was high -- a kind of Dionysian revel. Sometimes our alchemical brew gave off a terrible mephitic stench, as old and suppurating wounds were unwrapped and exposed to the air. There were shouts and tears. Someone would leap to his feet and sing a spontaneous Blues riff, or suddenly lift his shirt to show where half his rib cage was blown away by a shotgun, or knife scars crossing his belly like zippers.

Then again, the energy released was often celebratory and joyous. There were laughter, shouts of encouragement and applause, as each writer read his work aloud from the orange Naugahyde Hot Seat.
Occasionally, the energy approached the sublime. A rich, velvety hush would fall. The atmosphere of the room heated up, producing a thick, voluptuous, oceanic consistency, as  the moisture and lushness of the archetypal Feminine were constellated. At those moments, I looked at my students and saw their faces suffused in a deep glow of wonder and peace. All violence had fallen away. A profound psychological reversal had occurred, sometimes propelled by the smallest whiff of kindness or understanding. The mean and cramped prison room had become an alchemical vessel in which the dross in us all was being transformed into gold.

At just this transcendent moment, I must remind you, as I needed continually to remind myself: these men are criminals -- drug dealers, robbers, rapists and murderers. They were dangerous -- one must never forget that. My question, however, is this: what does the shadow of America's shadow look like? And I postulate that what darkens the faces of these men so deeply is the strong light that streams out behind them, from their shadows; from their wounded souls.

These are the ones whom society does not address: the disempowered, the seasoned in Hell, the broken on the social wheel and the desperately soul-hungry. Take, for example,  Mickey. Over 6 feet tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed, he was handsome as a movie star. He moved with the unconscious elegance of command. If you saw him on the street, you might imagine him as the son of wealthy, doting parents who had carefully groomed him in the best schools. Maybe he rowed for Harvard or played tennis at Stanford.

In reality, both of Mickey's parents were drug addicts. Mickey robbed his first liquor store at the age of 8 to feed his parents and younger siblings. I pointed out to Mickey that he had lived a classic Hero's Journey -- that he had become what Joseph Campbell called a "person of self-achieved submission," who had taken upon himself the redemption of a deficiency. The world might see him as a criminal but he was also a hero who had provided for his family in the best way he knew how. Mickey's face lit up in pleasure, at my suggestion. No one had ever called him a hero.

Another anecdote about Mickey will demonstrate what is lost, when such a brave spirit is not nurtured. During class one night, Mickey sat aloof because he was pouring over my copy of Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, a book on art history, after saying he never missed one of Sister Wendy's programs on PBS. Suddenly, mid-session, Mickey erupted from his seat at the back of the classroom, shouting, "Oh my God . . . !!!" We all turned to him, startled. He had leapt to his feet, book in hand, an enraptured look on his face.
"It's the Madonna of the Rocks! It's right here! " He held the illustration up for all to see. And then, stammering with excitement, Mickey told us the history of Leonardo Da Vinci. The entire class sat, transfixed, as Mickey's passion swept the room. His eyes glowed and his voice was powerful with warmth and fervor. Then, as suddenly as he had erupted, he faltered, looked embarrassed and sat down.

Mickey was only 25 years old. If he were my son, or yours, he would probably have been in the University, getting his Masters in art history, maybe spending a year studying in Rome. But Mickey's story doesn't end happily ever after. Shortly after that incident, Mickey's visits to class became fewer and farther between. He'd been marked by the Aryan Brotherhood for inclusion in its ranks, a summons one disregards at his peril. The last time he came to class, he brought me a sheet of beautifully executed calligraphy: MERRY CHRISTMAS, SUZAN. LOVE, MICKEY, in letters 2 inches high, and he thanked me. Then he disappeared into the black rat hole of a prison hate group and I never saw him again.

I've kept a file folder of inmate writing. Mickey's name in calligraphy is in there, along with a lot of other men's poems and life stories and letters of thanks. I opened that folder, in the process of preparing this post and the roll call of names fell out: Rico, Lonnie, Russell and Henry. Ron, Richard, Rodney and Supreme. Aldo, Alejandro, Raymond and Michael.

Leaning over that file folder, I felt as if my heart had fallen into a bed of living coals. I wept with a grief I scarcely knew was in me, over the names of these men. Because, in prison, you don't have a first name. Official identification cards have a mug shot, a last name and a number, that's all. So one of the subversive things we did in my classes was that we all agreed to call one another by our first names, the ones our mothers and fathers who first loved us used.

In prison, absolutely the most radical, the most subversive thing you can do, is love.

Jeremy, Ricardo, Bruce and Jagindar. Kenny, Everette, Mark and Shadid. Anthony, Jason, June Bug, and Larry "The Moose Is Loose" Jarrett. To the world, they're just criminals -- dangerous, expendable and richly deserving. To me, they are my brothers and sons who fell through a crack in an inner city sidewalk one day, into a world so dark, so terrible, so brutal, so grotesquely depraved, that, in truth, I can scarcely bear to think of them there.

My student Madniz wrote of this state, from the perspective of his own nine-year old self, in his poem, "Through My Eyes As A Child":

True memories sworn to never forget
I'm up to a ounce an a half of dope a day
100 pounds, soaken wet.
My only hope was to see
just how high I could get.
Look at my get-up-an-go
now that it just done got up and went.
This is what I heard from slow-movin tears
that honestly fell down a face
that wished it never appeared.
Freakish-pressure-pimped-by-pleasure . . .
Well I'm dazed and amazed an only 9 years old . . .
Racin down the alley like so many times before.
Destination? 211: any local liquor store.
Don't try to stop me now!  Because I'm goin!
Where is ma mom?
Out on the bulavard - - whorein!
Don't you see it all over my face?
Come take a real good look in my eyes! . . .
Why did ma daddy have ta leave me this way
on ta go?  He wouldn't even stick around
ta play the father-son role.
Flip-spinnin in anger!
Cold-heartedly checkin each chamber!
of that nickel-plated 38
he'd got from a gangsta!
Peep-game, Baby Boy!  because
ya liven in da pit of pimp-players
and hoes!  and all day suckas!
Always talkin dat shit!!!
I see it in ya, son.  Ya got dat look in ya eyes!
So when thay come ta try and dis-ya
Aim!  Press!  Make em die!!!!
Through my eyes as a child
This is what I visualize!

I did my best to feed these men hungry to become. I told stories; I taught depth psychological concepts like projection, shadow, synchronicity and archetype. We discussed and wrote about our dreams and our lives as hero's journeys, or alchemical processes, always looking for gold amid the dross. We turned from life as disaster to life as sacred business.

Over the months, profound shifts in outlook did take place, and voices drugged and abused into drabness came alive. All I could do was affirm that Darkness is a sacred place and that if they continued to honor it with such scrupulous honesty, it would surely honor them.

Madniz came to class one day, with a poem he was very excited to read, in honor of the class and of poetry and of the courage of poets to speak out. "Words are like gems", he said, by way of introduction, "they glow with color." I want to remind you that Heraclitus, the 5th-century BCE Greek philospher, said that Logos is a flow like fire, as you read the last stanza of that poem:

                        All wordz aren't wordz anymore. . .
                        they . . . soulfully dance . . .
                        out of the face of truth
                        eternally spitting
                        sparkz out of the
                        very pit of
                        foreverz never-ending
                        with each   living   syllable   uttered.

I want to leave you with the suggestion that each one of the imprisoned -- innocent or guilty, black or white, small-time thief or serial murderer -- is such a spark from the never-ending, immaculate creative flame. And our job, as souls, as citizens, as responsible creations of a responsive universe, is to learn how to fan the flame.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quote of the Day

Respect for the rights of others is peace.
--Benito Juárez

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Quote of the Day

I'm for the separation of Church and hate.
--Bumper sticker

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Golden Harvest

 On Sunday we accomplished our annual honey harvest. This is a glad but tiring day when community forms around a single goal, which is carried out in good spirits and spontaneous division of labor. It is a wonderful reminder of what can be done when people work together for the common good.

The day was perfect for our purposes, neither too hot nor too cool, with a cloudless sky and a lovely soft breeze. Early in the morning I was out in the courtyard garden, pruning back exuberant growth to completely clear the path between the hives and my studio, where the honey extraction would take place. David, meantime, was shearing weeds from around the hives to make access easier and also to reduce the danger of fire from the smoker, the device used to calm the bees.
 While I was working in the garden, a 3-gallon pot of water was coming to a boil on the stove, in preparation for the next phase, the sterilizing of the jars that would hold the honey. We assembled half-pints, pints, quarts and 2-quart jars, each of which had a turn in boiling water and then was placed upside-down in a box. This procedure is carried out with long tongs and a potholder and is never free from sudden scalding splatters that are a foretaste of the stings to come.

David laid out tarps over the Persian rugs in the studio and set up the centrifuge, a hand-cranked contraption about three feet tall and two feet in diameter, on the raised hearth of the woodstove. I stacked the sterilized jars on my big studio worktable. David cleaned and laid out the two specialized combs used for uncapping the honey, and secured paint filters over the mouths of two food-grade buckets, with bungee cords.

At 1 PM, our crew began to arrive: our neighbors, Mark and Peggy, who are part of our bee co-op; David’s older son, Eric, also a member, and his girlfriend, Kelley; another neighbor, John; and a friend who had never worked bees before, but wants to learn, Julie. David, Eric, Kelley and Julie suited up in hats with bee veils, long sleeved tops and gloves, heavy jeans and boots. Ankles and wrists were secured with duct tape, to keep the bees from crawling in and stinging, and off they went to the hives, an odd-looking band of warriors.
 Mark, Peggy, John and I observed from afar, as the first hive was opened, but soon the first frames full of honey, weighing between 5 and 8 pounds, arrived, and our work began. 
 I brushed bees from the frames, combed the wax from the surface to uncap the hexagonal comb and release the honey, and put the first 2 frames into the centrifuge. 
John and Mark took turns turning the crank. After 4 frames had been spun, the centrifuge refused to turn, the sign that the honey needed to be drained.
 This is a magical moment, the culmination of a year’s tending of the bees. The filtered bucket is placed below the centrifuge, the petcock is opened and out flows a rope of golden honey an inch and a half thick. Its amber color is gorgeous, its consistency voluptuous, and its fragrance ravishing. We all stood in wonder, as the shining rope uncoiled into the filter.

When the centrifuge was drained, the bucket was hoisted onto the worktable and Peggy began filling jars from the petcock at the bucket’s base. Meanwhile, David arrived with more frames bulging with honey and removed the harvested frames, to replace them in the hives. The bees will work their magic on the tattered comb and in just a few days, the perfect hexagons will be restored and will begin filling up with honey, again.

So it went, all afternoon, as our feet began to stick to the tarps and every step resulted in a tearing sound. The frames were heavy and showed graphically where one dispensation of flowers had ceased and another had begun to bloom. Some frames had half pale gold honey and half that was almost black. The flavors of these two were so distinct that we developed the discrimination of wine connoisseurs in tasting them. The pale honey had a sharp, clear flavor with a slightly sour and peppery under-note, while that dark honey was almost like caramel.

When all was accomplished around 5 PM, we had gleaned 9 and a half gallons, or 114 pounds, of honey! Our warriors were hot from being taped into their armor and all had been stung at least once and some, multiple times. Those of us at the other end of the operation were hot and sticky but unscathed by the bees, despite a veritable airfield of flying creatures buzzing around us. We all hoisted icy Tsing Tao beer and toasted the honey harvest and our work as a community.
 Those are the mechanics of a home honey harvest. Nothing, however, can convey the mystery of honey, its rich fragrance redolent of our local spring and summer flowers, its mysterious amber depths and the transmutation that is wrought by the bees. That is the subject for poetry and contemplation, and must await another day and another mode of writing.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quote of the Day

The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human.
--Pablo Casals

(The above is my excuse for not doing my usual posting, today. Yesterday, we did our annual honey harvest. I will be posting about that tomorrow. Thanks for your patience. SS)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
--Mohandas Gandhi

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quote of the Day

Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have  betrayed yourself.
--Rollo May

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Desk

If you’ve ever seen time-lapse film of a flower opening and then closing and withering, then you know a bit, already, about the desk where I write. It, too, has its moments, in its inchoate phase, of tight budding, when all is slick, smooth and perfect. Everything is orderly, dusted and hidden in decorative boxes, just like flowers hide their petals inside a tough green carapace. The desk seems to encompass limitless space into which to expand. 
 Then, slowly (sometimes quickly) there is an opening out. Things unfurl—a spread-open book here, a folder there, a stack of mail, an opened letter, a yellow legal tablet with notes—petal by petal the full bloom of the writer’s life spreads its effulgence across my desk. For a brief moment, just like a flower at the height of its glory, everything functions beautifully, falls to hand as needed, can be located and used with ease.

Then, slowly (sometimes quickly), irrevocably, the withering sets in. The notes I wrote only minutes before have disappeared into a stack of bills. The stapler is having sexual congress with the printer cable. A film of dust has coated the entirety like congealing fat on cold dish water. The scene is more of wrack upon a beach than of an orderly creative space. Things have come full cycle. Time to trim the withered flower and return to the bud. 

And so it goes, year after year after year.

My desk is a former dining room table that I bought at Salvation Army for $65. Apparently the children of its former owner got a little carried away, because one edge has craftily incised markings, like doodles scratched into the finish, one of which looks vaguely like a swastika and others that look like incipient initials. I imagine the giggles and furtive looks while this takes place under cover of adult conversation. And then the moment, perhaps with  mouths filled with mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, when the vandals are discovered: the shame and the woe; all glee drunk down like a last, bitter dreg.

The table is solid Philippine mahogany and it took three men to carry it up the stairs to our second floor living room—one of whom declared that, if it ever needed to be extracted again, he would do it with a chainsaw. Broad and solid, the table is just perfect for my purposes. There’s room for my laptop, printer and external hard drive; no less than three decorative boxes holding a veritable stationery store of supplies; a square basket heaped to overflowing with things to be dealt with Later (that archetypal time which never seems to arrive); my camera, an antique blue and white Chinese pot holding pens and scissors and a small clock in the shape of King Tut; a stack of books, another of notebooks topped by my date book, yet another small stack of Tibetan handmade books holding quotes I’ve recorded over the years, of which you, the reader, now partake; a square green tile decorated with a woman wearing a huge crown, brought to me from Spain by my friend Reggie, on top of which sits either a glass of lemon water or a cup of coffee; a small lamp made from an antique Chinese vase, featuring warriors on horseback; and of course, the ubiquitous cables and cords that snake everywhere and disrupt everything, like the worms of ruin. This leaves no room at all for other essentials, like my French, English and Spanish dictionaries, Thesaurus, Tarot cards and books, and the User’s Guide to Microsoft Word, plus my cordless phone, all of which have taken over the window ledge to my left and create a happy home for spiders.

Into this well-supplied and fortified domain I make my way, every day, like an intrepid traveler, venturing forth into the realms of imagination with the goal of informing and entertaining you, my reader, whose welfare is always uppermost in my mind. I do this in spite of the vagaries of the terrain, which shifts every day like the territory of dream. Just yesterday, for instance, my husband proudly brought about 30 pounds of winter squash and pumpkins in from the garden and plunked them on the one bare spot I had managed to excavate on the end of my desk. At the other end, a couple of letters from former students of mine in the prison, whom I still mentor, have proved to be the last straw for the pile in the square basket and a minor avalanche of paper, some marked in red with AVENAL STATE PRISON and FOLSOM STATE PRISON, has ensued.

These last keep me mindful. Whatever else can be said or felt about this constant burgeoning on my desk, it happens because I have the freedom to allow it to do so. I am not stuck in solitary confinement, euphemistically called The Hole, without pen and paper, as my student Madniz has been, for months on end. If my desk is one of life’s trials, I have submitted myself to it of my own free will. Like the queen on my green Spanish tile, whose hands are thrown up as if to ward off a multitude of squiggles that menace her, all about, I am still queen of this little country of the mind, and here, but for a pile of pumpkins and a few spiders, I rein supreme.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

Go on with a spirit that fears nothing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
--Robert Kennedy

Monday, September 12, 2011

Of Ants and Warfare

I was driving home, one evening, only a quarter of a mile from the house, when my headlights picked up an anomaly in the road, like a fat black hose stretched from side to side. I stopped in the road and got out to investigate. To my amazement, the “hose” turned out to be a veritable river of ants! All were moving in the same direction and at warp speed. I could actually hear the faint susurration of a million ant knees, as they marched! Never have I witnessed, before or since, such a vast upheaval of the ant kingdom. To avoid running over them, I backed the car, turned around and went all the way down the mountain and came up on the other side. Nothing could have induced me to disrupt such magnificent disruption!

Early the next morning, I walked up the road to the spot, almost expecting the unending flow to have continued, but nary an ant was in sight. There was, however, a cleared path on the shoulder of the road, as if a bicycle tire had skidded through the duff. It would be the equivalent of a ten-lane freeway, in human proportions. Every stick, every pebble had been removed, an heroic task. Where were they bound, and why, this superorganism on the move? I followed their highway to where it disappeared into the underbrush, bearing away its mystery and enigma with it.

On another walk, I discovered a large black scorpion, perhaps two and a half inches long, completely mobbed by red ants, which swarmed over its body like a red tide. The scorpion put up a valiant fight with the weapons at its disposal, stinging the marauders that clambered on its back and pinching in half those that it could reach with its grasping claws. For a time it looked as if the predatory arthropod might escape, but then, ant reinforcements arrived and, despite the scorpion’s tough exoskeleton, managed to simply bite it to death. I watched in fascinated horror as this ant execution took place, bent double at the waist, hands on knees, a stance both rooted and removed at a godlike distance.

Yet another time, I came across a full-scale war in progress in the middle of a blacktopped road, involving black ants from the east side of the road and red ants from the west. It was a horrific battle, complete with wheeling phalanxes, hand-to-hand combat and medics bearing away the bodies of the wounded and the dead. Atop a pebble the size of a pea, two ants reared on their hind legs and grappled like wrestlers. Recruits raced from the mountain misery on the roadsides, to replace the fallen.

Again, I assumed my stand above them and observed. There could be no real justification for such global combat, I reasoned. On the east side of the road, the woods stretched away for miles. Ditto the west side. Surely there was a sufficiency of territory and food for both ant clans. This must, I thought, be how God feels, watching human warfare: puzzled, adding up the plenitude of resources, perhaps inventing the world tragicomic, while He gazed.

Since childhood I have been observing a colony of harvester ants, just up the road from my house. This is a veritable Rome of ant colonies, with four huge boulevards a full four inches wide extending from the main mound to the four points of the compass. These are neatly bisected by smaller avenues that angle off at 45 degrees, which are in turn divided in half by smaller streets. Of course, one must kneel in the dirt and put one’s eye at ground level to perceive this, but I am an inveterate traveler and have endured worse in my pursuit of the world’s wonders. These ant highways and byways can extend, I understand, for up to 50 to 60 kilometers!

The division of labor is apparently effortless. Some ants exist to make the avenues ever smoother, and scurry about lugging what to a human would be the equivalent of telephone poles and pickup trucks. Others are true harvesters, coming in from outlying areas bearing single seeds of wild grass that tower in front of them like huge bouquets. They disappear into the maw of their mound, which is large enough for me to slide my hand into it (I never have), while at the same time still another class of workers exits the portal with empty seed husks and deposits them on the mound, which is fully six inches deep in them, with a circumference of three feet!

Observing their orderly kingdom, I always wish for a fiber optic camera that I could slide down their entrance, like a gastroenterologist performing a colonoscopy. I imagine the sprawling network of hallways and chambers beneath the ground, the nurseries for eggs and pupae with their nursemaid caste and the granaries, where yet another class of workers inserts the cleaned seeds like sailors loading torpedoes.

Scientists have excavated an ant nest in Brazil, after pouring six tons of cement and eight thousand liters of water into it, to preserve its structure in petrified form! I have read that ants make up to one third of the animal biomass on Earth. Like humans, they have organized civilizations, organize to accomplish specific tasks, have created architecture, are sometimes farmers, tend their young, and wage war.

 I wonder if, down the labyrinthine corridors of the ants’ world, perhaps at the very end, in a chamber tucked into bedrock or under a root, there is a scriptorium where a sister ant bends over her parchment of dried leaf, scribbling away about the curious habits of humankind, describing our odd child-rearing practices, our food gathering and our wars? And if she, too, is bemused and troubled by the latter?

(It is now possible to leave comments anonymously. Just go to the "comments" line in red and click on it, and you will see an "anonymous" option. Sorry for having taken so long to get this in place." SS

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tracks: Arachnid Housewifery and A Sad Postscript

Last evening, Maclovio took me for my accustomed walk around the top of the mountain. The summer dust was full of animal tracks, especially the tiny paw prints of squirrels, who clearly had been racing up and down the shoulder of the road all day, gathering the black oak acorns that are falling now. Mixed with these were the heart-shaped hoof prints of deer, the branching trident of wild turkeys, the child’s handprint of a raccoon, the tiny calligraphy of beetles and a few undulant lines where snakes had made a crossing.

When I see tracks that cross the road like that, I always glance to see if the transit is still in progress. That way, I have learned over the years just who makes what kind of tracks. It also keeps me from blundering onto a rattlesnake intent on crossing the road.

So it was business as usual, when I saw a small track in the dust that looked, at first glance, like a small lizard print. There was a dragged line about the size the eraser of a pencil would make if it traced a line in the dirt, which I took for the print of the tail of a lizard. On either side of this were delicate hatch marks about two inches long, which I assumed to be made by the reptile’s claws.

Taking my usual glance along the trajectory of the track, however, I noticed that it ended, mid-passage, and at its end was a small wad of something. I hurried over and bent close to discover, instead of the ball of plant matter I had expected, a large spider, her legs crumpled, tilted sideways like a wrecked and partially overturned car, and apparently lifeless.

I examined her carefully. Her abdomen was patterned in brown and cream and was extremely extended—so much so that it was what had made the dragged line in the dirt. Her legs were stout and covered in black bristles. In all, if she were alive and her legs splayed, she might easily have reached the edges of a fifty-cent piece. I could find no cause for her demise. I wondered if Maclovio might have trampled her, but could find no dog tracks near her. With a dry pine needle I gingerly lifted her, to see if I could stimulate a response, but she remained inert.

I was fascinated by her tracks in the dust and studied them carefully. I could not recall ever having seen any quite like them. Or perhaps, I reasoned, I had seen them and assumed they were made by a lizard. The dragging abdomen seemed to indicate she might be gravid and on her way somewhere to deposit her eggs when she was taken by whatever malady or accident overtook her.

I went on my way sadly, for I felt that she was a special creature and that she had met with an unhappy fate undeservedly. All the way along our usual track around the mountain top, I pondered her, her delicate calligraphy in the dust and her unusual fate. By the time Maclovio and I turned homeward, I had decided that I must at least remove her from the road. It was simply too ignominious an end for her to be pulverized by a passing car.

When we got back to the area, I began scanning the road for the little crumpled heap, but couldn’t spot it. I found her track, finally, and following it with my eyes, saw to my amazement that it was complete. The spider was nowhere in evidence but the evidence of her accomplished crossing was clear.

It’s hard to say why this gave me such joy. Generally I’m no great fan of spiders, although I’ve made my peace with them and certainly never kill them. But this spider, with her burden of incipient babies, had touched my heart. There was something valiant in her interrupted crossing, like a pioneer mother dragging herself across a desert toward safe harbor.

I searched the opposite shoulder but it was deeply littered in leaves and pine needles and so I could see no sign of where she had gone. Until, that is, I spotted a small hole in the road bank, about two feet above road grade and about the size of the end of my finger. I drew closer and discovered that a spurt of fresh red soil had been excavated from the hole and spilled down the bank. Bringing my eye right to the entrance to this tiny tunnel, I spotted two of the hairy legs of my spider, now happily rooting out more dirt from her abode.

Homemaking and housekeeping are two things that almost any woman, the world over, can relate to. Especially when it involves nest-building to accommodate new life. I went my way toward home, rejoicing for my little friend that she had found safe harbor for her brood and happy that my tiny boost with a pine needle might have been just the prod she needed to arouse her will to carry on. I have done the same for many women, over the years, and they have done it for me. I see no reason why an arachnid should be excluded from the commune of women.

I wrote the above the morning after that encounter. Last evening, again on my walk, I was eager to check on the progress of my arachnid friend’s housewifery. But when I got to the spot and scanned the bank, I could see no evidence of her little tunnel. Confused, I redoubled my search but to no avail. At last, standing back from the road bank and getting the larger picture, in a flash of insight I understood what had happened. Arcing through the slanting red dirt of the bank was a single tire track, probably from a motorcycle. Some daredevil had challenged himself to mount the almost vertical bank and, in doing so, had demolished the spider’s abode.

With a fingertip, I brushed away the loose dirt of the tire track, hoping to find her tunnel blocked but intact. I could find no sign of it, however. It was apparently completely sheared off and crumbled to dust. And I suddenly thought of the Palestinian women in Commune of Women and of the real women they represent, worldwide, who struggle to make homes under brutal circumstances and whose efforts are so often destroyed by the carelessness or, worse, the calculated violence of war. My heart was filled with anguish and I asked, as I have so many times in my life, when will it be enough? When will it ever be enough? When will we have our fill of war and destruction, at last, so that all the mothers of the world, no matter their nationality, race or even species, can live and birth and rear their young in peace?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Quote of the Day

Often the wisdom of the body clarifies the despair of the spirit.
--Marion Woodman

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Who Do the Voodoo? Lily Do!

 A lily blossoms, over mountain and vale, at all ends of the earth.
 -- Jacobe Böhme

Of all flowers, lilies are my favorite. The lush, spotted throats of the lilies are, for me, the epitome of feminine beauty. Although they are quite common, they always seem rare and exotic, like flowers from the deepest Amazon jungle or from another planet. Given its exotic beauty, should it surprise us that the lily symbolizes the rise of the age of the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps this attitude comes from my childhood. My parents pioneered on this mountain, when there was no water, electricity or telephone. My father brought water to the house he was building us by re-digging by hand over a mile of ditch system that originally had been dug by Chinese labor during the Gold Rush. What little water arrived by this languid means was muddy and filled with leaves and dead insects and collected darkly in a brooding sump in the backyard.

My mother struggled valiantly to raise gardens and managed through diligence and pure aesthetic hunger to create the beds that I still tend. Even given the poor soil of the mountaintop, which is about two inches of tough red clay overlying mother rock, with marauding deer and rabbits ever threatening the nighttime authority of our dog Spike, and with water sufficient to literally dribble from the hose, my mother managed to lift up bouquets of Sweet William, Canterbury bells, foxglove and Shasta daisies, and at the back of the southern border, a drift of orange daylilies backed up by an enthusiastic Cecile Brunner rose that hoisted herself up into the nearby apple tree and bloomed, twenty-five feet off the ground.

In the lily world there is scarcely anything more humble than these simple daylilies, yet the fleshy, pumpkin-colored petals were a sensual delight of my childhood. In later years, I named my favorite cat Mademoiselle Lilli B. Catroux I and her successor—who proved herself to be a reincarnation by refusing to eat at the new site of her bowl, which I had moved because I always stuck my foot in it while preparing dinner; refused to answer to any name but Lilli; and steadfastly maintained the odd habits of her former incarnation—Mademoiselle Lilli B. Catroux Too. Characters in various writings took on the name Lily or Lilianna. And my own name, Suzan, is derived from the Hebrew word for lily, shoshannah, a fact I learned long after my love for that flower had been established.

So, when my friend Glenn recently emailed, offering to send me a sample of an exotic lily that had mysteriously sprouted in his yard, I was intrigued. They are called, he said, variously, Dracunculus vulgaris, Dragon Arum or Voodoo Lilies. Now, maybe somebody out there could resist a Voodoo Lily, but personally I cannot.

When a foot-long mailing tube arrived from Glenn last week, I wasted not a moment to open it and withdraw the paper-wrapped contents. Here is where, as a writer, I fail you, dear reader: I cannot quite describe to you my reaction when pulling the Voodoo Lily from its carton. Within the paper swaddling lay an object?—a creature?—a plant form? marvelous beyond the power of words to convey.

Imagine a stalk, neatly cut off with garden sheers, at one end, and sporting an egg-shaped 3-inch knob at the other, studded in pea-sized bright green seeds. Attached to the stalk is a squiggle of dried leaves like medieval script risen off the page into 3-D and having an orgy with itself.

It is lying, now, on the Victorian marble-topped table in the sunshine, like the lost scepter of a fairy queen; or a fetish from the hands of a very wise shaman; or sea wrack tossed up from Neptune's palace. It seems to me its prototype might have been created in gold by the Minoans. Or possibly it sprouted from a seed dropped from the stars. I so appreciate that Glenn left its crazy squiggle of dried leaves intact, as I feel it may be calligraphy that tells the secrets of the universe, if we could but decipher it.

This strange and wonderful plant has given me pause. I ponder it. I think I adore it. In it the marvelous inventiveness of nature seems to have outdone itself in creating beauty, mystery and power annealed. The Voodoo Lily has worked its magic. I am enthralled.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Quote of the Day

Pain is the craft entering the apprentice.
--French proverb

Thank you to all who have tried and failed to leave comments on this blog. We have had a technical difficulty which John Van Dam, computer wizard extraordinaire, has graciously ironed out for  me. At least, that is our hope and expectation. When you click on the red "comments" line, a pop-up box now will appear, where you can write you comments. If this fails to happen, please notify me at I look forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

                                                                  Let There Be Flight 
                                                                           c. S.Still

Quote of the Day

The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.
--Wallace Stevens

Monday, September 5, 2011

Quote of the Day

It is possible to make things that house the gods. . . . Everything we make and build is a temple for some god or spirit.
--Thomas Moore, Dark Eros

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day

When Labor Day comes around each year, I always think of my father, one of the hardest working men God ever created. He began life on the family ranch, La Panza. The day he was born, my Granny looked out her bedroom window at a towering rock formation, Castle Crag, that loomed above the ranch, and named him after it, Abram Cragg. Something of that stony promontory lived in his bones, all his life, granting him a stoicism and dependability that earned him the nickname Honest Abe.

As a teenager, he moved eastward with his family, during the Great Depression. He picked cotton in Louisiana and was a blacksmith’s apprentice in Pennsylvania. He rode the rails to California and back, twice. Tall and blonde and handsome, he was also physically tough, inured to hard work, heat and cold and hunger. Yet his arduous beginning never hardened his heart. He could never pass by a hitchhiker, because he’d been down on the road with his thumb out, himself, many a time. Nor could he let a stray dog pass by without being fed and fostered, because he knew what it was to be hungry and without a home.

During World War II he was in the Signal Corps, with top secret clearance to work on code breaking. He had a huge intellect, an inventive turn of mind and a surgeon’s or sculptor’s hands, which he turned to pattern making when, after the war, he worked on top secret development of jet and rocket engines.

With my mother, he pioneered on the mountain where I still reside, bringing water by re-digging a mile of ditch originally dug by Chinese labor during the Gold Rush. He felled trees and adzed beams for the house he built us, raised hogs, hunted for venison, grew a vegetable garden and put in an orchard, all while working as a union carpenter, first, and then as an independent building contractor.

One day my mother turned on the tap in the kitchen and maggots flowed out. My father walked the ditch path to discover a dead and rotting horse lying in the water. Soon after that, with our neighbors the Hatlers, he built a water system to supply all our homes with filtered water. As the neighborhood grew, more and more people wanted on the system, until my parents were owners of a full-fledged water company.

This was a boon to everyone but my folks, who remained saddled with the company into their eighties. My mother kept the books and did the billing and my father, every day of his life, did the maintenance of the filtration system and of the miles and miles of pipeline.

It is at this phase of his life, in his seventies and eighties, that I most vividly recall his work ethic. His knees were almost crippled but I can see him, in my mind’s eye, straddling a 4-inch water main in evening snow. All about him were pitched-up gobs of snow bloodied by red clay, as he dug to find the leak that was bleeding the water system dry.

Gloveless, hatless, his thin blond hair lifting in wind like spun ice, a mud-spattered down vest, shirt sleeves rolled up and shirttails hanging out, he would be grateful for my invitation to come in for coffee--and almost too cold and sore to do it. Ten minutes by the fire and he’d be gone, going stiff-kneed down the icy stairs to his truck, still steaming under the snow-bent pines. Women downhill in trailers were struggling to make dinner without water. He’d dig by flashlight, if necessary, until the hemorrhage was staunched.

I don’t know if he ever knew how much I loved him. How, all my life, I loved his clarity of purpose, the absolute fidelity he brought to life, some infusion, perhaps, of the long winds of his childhood, sweeping across the Carizzo Plains with rumors of frontiers, of work to be done, of endless possibilities.

So he built, the curls of wood shavings ankle-deep like fall leaves; working the long grain like some men soothe the quivering flanks of horses; smoothing the grain, cutting and fitting, sawing and hammering and sanding. Beauty fell from his hands like meteors showering the summer night skies: houses and doors and paneling and horses rearing from the sawn hearts of Philippine mahogany. Wood obeyed him because it sensed his love.

When I was a small child, standing beside the forge, I watched his ball-peen hammer working the tonged red iron and delighted in his splendid curses, flying with the red sparks. He was Hephaestus, god of the forge, shaping the reluctant iron like bakers shape dough. In his dark shop littered with lumber, pipe fittings, old tools, the smell of grease and wood and gritty with steely filings, he was king of an arcane kingdom of chaos in the process of becoming ordered. I envied his competency, then, and the sweating and swearing over the coals or the laden saw horses. And I envy it still.

At the end of his life, with chalk line and plumb bob, he laid a course into the cosmos, probing the inside of black holes and questioning the Red Shift and the depletion of the ozone layer, with the authority of a life lived reading, and of thinking and living free. With his new tool, the computer, he tracked the warps and wavers of pure space and matter, like a musician taking musical notation. He was a pioneer in time, who scarcely left the county in fifty years; a pioneer on the frontier of human thought, with a heart like a war horse and the courage and stamina to match.

That big, calloused hand with the chipped and blackened nails—did it really carve the delicate swelling belly of a violin? Or grope tentatively along its strings, learning to play, when he was in his seventies? Or massage my flu-ravaged head, when I was a child?

I can still see him, climbing into his battered old Jeep, slowly, trying to avoid the inevitable pain that movement brought. And, God bless him, turning to wave and smile, as he slogged off through the darkening snow. Always, he turned to us who looked to him for aid and wisdom, with a greeting and farewell, as if we really mattered to him. And I wonder if he ever knew how much, how very much, he mattered, in return?

My father’s life as union man and independent was about honest work. He was not alone in this. His generation was an upstanding one that built a nation and then saved it, during a long and terrible war. He was not unlike my husband’s grandfather Gus, who walked all the way from Michigan to California, in his youth; who drove a mule team hauling gravel that built the streets of Oakland; and later, in a shipyard, the barges that plied the Bay. Or my neighbors, the Hatlers, who built and operated a sawmill each part of which, the woods, the machine shop, the mill, was manned by one of the sons.

On this weekend that honors labor, I honor the men and women, past and present, who have given their lives and their honest sweat to create, maintain and feed a nation, to house and transport it, to aid its communications, maintain its civil integrity and uphold its laws. How the bones of those departed must be spinning in their graves at the monstrous greed and corruption that is devouring our nation and that dishonors the honest toil of those who built it. Not all the billions that these corrupt ones siphon off can buy them one day of the honor my father and his like, with their calloused hands, upright spines, work-hardened muscles and battered tool boxes have earned. Today, let us be reminded, and then not forget, who really built this nation, and who keeps its integrity, still.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Quote of the Day

Granted that I must die, how shall I live?
--Michael Novak

Friday, September 2, 2011

                                                                  Misha and Maclovio

Loving What Vanishes

Man is in love
And loves what vanishes;
What more is there to say?
--W. B. Yeats

Perhaps no literary form is harder to master than the obituary. Complicated by a grieving heart, the effort to encapsulate the magnitude of a life in a few brief paragraphs is laughable—if one were able to laugh, at such a time. Memories flood in, too subtle and too precious to convey. All the nuances, subtleties and vagaries of the life now departed defy description. One is left with a handful of cold facts so stripped of personality as to be almost generic.

So, let us agree at the outset that we all recognize the weightiness of the passing of any loved one; how the heart founders and sinks, leaden, in the chest; how the sudden truncation of certain habits of relationship leave one adrift and confused; how a keen longing to have the event reversed rises up, against one’s most logical protestations, only to be dashed down again, a dozen times a day. Having established that territory of the bereft, we can commiserate, one with another, for one thing is certain: we each will have this experience in life and more than once.

Today, it is my sad burden to say that Misha, whose apparent demise and miraculous reincarnation I reported in my posting of August 3rd, has really passed over the threshold this time, as of 6 PM, yesterday. Our household is a hushed and heavy one, today. Maclovio, Misha’s constant sidekick, is curled on the couch as if against a cold wind, and the cats, Panda and Sophia, having less to say about their own needs than usual, have eaten their crunchies perfunctorily and departed into the garden.

Because there is no way to convey the joy that he brought to all our hearts, I will not try. I will report only the bare facts: that each morning, he greeted my arising with a solid thump thump thump of his tail against the hardwood floor; that he would sit up on his haunches and throw his front legs about my thighs and give me a big morning hug; that he loved his ritual dog bone and actually pranced at the sight of his breakfast; that he spent the day repositioning himself, so as to be in constant view of me and my projects; that he barked ferociously at all supposed impediments to our communal safety; that he was unfailing in this, to his last breath.

I would like to say that I knew my friend Misha well, but I recognize that he was given to secrets and lived a life of his own, quite apart from mine. There is the matter of buried treasures, for which he has, alas, left no map; and of his nighttime journeyings, often with his part-wolf girlfriend from up the road, Kia. Their biggest nocturnal find was the rotting leg from the carcass of a deer killed by a mountain lion. Their biggest fight was over a square of chamois, green and slimy from burial. Their needs together were primal and mutual, a bond most humans should envy.

Misha was a rescue dog who came to me, abused and shaken, from the city. He took to country life with gusto and never looked back. He had the unrestrained freedom of the entire mountain as his domain and all the neighboring dogs as his buddies and girlfriends. He pranced down the road with a distinctively graceful gait, lifted his leg in arabesque and ran like the wind. My friend Javier called him Ojos de Miel, Honey Eyes, both for the clear amber color of his eyes and their liquid sweetness of expression.

He had two great fears: loud noises and water. From the former I could not shield him, as this is an area in which gunshots are frequently heard and where thunder and lightning often blaze across the ridge. But from the latter I could give him a reprieve. He avoided me, when I was in the garden with a hose in hand, and did his surveillance on my behalf from a distance. He is the only dog with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing my home who never had a bath. It would have been too traumatizing. We compromised on daily brushing, and his evident pleasure was a model: now his three siblings line up each morning to have the curry comb stroked down their spines, too.

Those are the simple facts of our existence together. For him there will be no plaque proclaiming him African Devil Dog, as we jokingly used to call him when he and Kia spent frenzied hours whirling in mock battle and he would come home covered in red dirt, exhausted and happy. No diploma in psychology, although he worked a subtle alchemy on my husband that softened his heart and opened him to true relationship with another species. Certainly no AKC papers for his mixed boxer-pitbull heritage. He is like those simple souls we read about in the paper each night, with obits that read “she liked to knit;” “he built birdhouses;” “she loved to bake cookies for her grandchildren.” His is basically a life well-lived, honest, valiant and focused on the common weal but unsung, with all its mystery and richness going down into earth with him, inside his soft brindled amber and black skin.

For Misha, for all who sleep, now, in the arms of Earth, let our hearts be both heavy and warm, today. In loving, we encompass a mystery. In losing love, we encounter mystery that is fathomless. We are in love and love what vanishes. What more is there to say?