Friday, March 30, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: More of Calypso and Hill

Today’s post is an excerpt from my novel in progress, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Hill and Calypso, who have just met for the first time, have dinner together, then sit bantering at an outdoor café. The manuscript for Fiesta of Smoke now numbers 868 pages and I’m working hard on the closing chapters. So, back to writing. I hope you enjoy today’s excerpt!

For those who may have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post, the Prologue, on January 8, an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2; Calypso and Hill Dine was posted on March 14.

. . . .

The conversation turned to more general topics, until dinner was finished. Hill ordered îles flotantes for dessert and watched with amusement as she doctored her coffee with outlandish amounts of sugar and cream.
Years in the business had made him adept at sizing people up quickly but Calypso represented something of an enigma. She carried herself like a much older woman, self-possessed and confident. Yet, with the possible exception of the backs of her hands, powdered with a faint freckling of brown spots, she appeared no older than about thirty-five. Forty-two, max, he decided.

“Forty-eight,” she said unexpectedly, laying her spoon neatly on the saucer and flipping her eyes up to his with an annoyed glance.

Hill was completely caught off guard.

“Sorry!” he muttered, thrusting his lip into his coffee and holding it there for a long, steadying sip.

Forty-eight! But without that look of careful preservation that women began to evince around that age, turning themselves out as products of skin-care systems, hairdressers, dressmakers, plastic surgeons, and then moving with a stately delicacy as if any abrupt move would break some fragile membrane that held them tenuously together.

“You don't look it.”

“This, as they say, is how forty-eight looks.”

“Yes, but I mean, many women approach it differently. . . ”

“Oh, I know. They start smearing airplane glue on their faces. Or shellac -- whatever it is that gives them that look of being stretched too tight. Like contact with water -- or lacquer thinner -- would make them sag.”

“I guess most women . . .”

“It's a matter of genes, I’m sure,” she cut in on his banal generality-in-the-making. “And my expectation, deeply held, that I will never grow old. Like Calypso.”

Hill sat back and studied her openly now, feeling that the conversation has given him unspoken license. So he was alarmed when she suddenly snapped at him, anger flaring her nostrils, her mouth grim:

“Age! Age! This fascination of the male with age! Is she too old?  Has she begun to wrinkle? Do her breasts sag? You create narcissists and neurotics in your women, draining off all their energies in the minute scrutiny of this thin fabric, this organ . . .”  She pinched up the skin on her arm. “It disgusts me!”

She snatched up her bag and began to push back her chair. Hill had to stand, reaching across the table, to lay a restraining hand on her arm.

“Please! Please! Forgive me. Please sit down again. I am a fool. Please. Please forgive my rudeness.”

She wavered, body half-bent over the table, eyes seeking the door.

Hill could imagine her flight: the river wind of early evening would catch her skirt as she emerged from the restaurant. It would flare about her like yellow wings and in a few quick strides, she would be to the corner, melting into the shadows . . . gone!

Obviously, there was no indemnity against the foolishness of falling instantly in love with her and he never had been a gambler in his life . . .

“Please. You must forgive me. You’re right: I’ve been concentrating on the most minor of your attributes, your beauty, although it is indeed
glorious . . .”

Still he felt the pull of her arm, leaning out toward the coming night.

“ . . . but only because I suspect it is the veil of deeper worth . . .”

         Her eyes flicked toward him, her face now watchful.

“ . . . only because I have to satisfy myself with acquaintance with the outer woman, until the inner opens to me . . .”

She smiled, the weary, wry smile he was already coming to anticipate.

“Well done, Hill.”

She pulled her arm quickly upward, breaking his grasp, and -- his breath stopped while she hung poised -- slowly settled into her seat again.

“Just so we’re perfectly clear: I am not an object!” The face she bent to her coffee was still tight with anger.
. . . .

From the Left Bank, floodlights threw the flying buttresses and sculpture on the side of Notre Dame into high relief. Calypso had a profile, he mused, watching her watch the cathedral, such as one sometimes sees incused on ancient coins.

There was nothing of the slattern in her: she was totally, unimpeachably, gloriously female, without a whisper of that jaded quality that so often emanates from femmes d’un certain âge. She belonged in a room where pier glass would reflect her from every angle as she moved across polished parquet floors. She was that 20th-century anachronism: a lady.

Any pretense that he was a disinterested newsman would, at this point, he realized, be sheer nonsense. He felt ingenuous as a deer, gazing at her with the innocent brown eyes of surrender, capitulating without a shot having been fired.

They had, to this point, skirted around topics of a purely personal nature. This, after three full hours of acquaintance, surprised him. He was accustomed to eliciting information like a cannery putting up peas: mechanically, at high speed, with precision, neatly packaged.

He did know that Calypso was a writer. This much she had confided and not much more. She seemed more comfortable listening than talking and when she did speak, it was more in the nature of general observations than factual personal material. As if to emphasize this perception, she turned to him, saying,  “Those great swags of ivy hanging down the quai almost to the water always seem to me to have a valedictory air, as if some occasion of tremendous importance were about to transpire, or had just taken place -- the death of a king, possibly. Something grand and tragic.”

She ran her eyes over Hill, who hunched on a tiny metal café chair like a bear on a beach ball, his suit rumpled, his tie askew. An unlikely companion. She wondered, as she turned back to her contemplation of Notre Dame, what had induced her to take up with him -- besides his obvious protection from the watcher.

Perhaps there was something to the notion of the attraction of opposites. The man must be half a foot over six feet, with hands like baseball mitts and a paunch like a wine cask. He was everything Calypso avoided in herself: overweight, poorly-tailored, badly shorn and noisy. Still, there was something appealing about him that she couldn’t define but which she suspected might simply be a startlingly brilliant mind.

“So what kind of writing do you do?” Hill asked, leaning toward her across the little metal table. “Don't say you’re a correspondent. Your face isn’t tough enough.”

She smiled. “No. Nothing so hard-edged as that. There’s a juncture in my brain where facts and the joy of writing diverge, I’m afraid. I’m a novelist.”

“I don't think I’ve read any of your books. I’m sorry . . .”

“Oh, I don’t use my own name -- people assume it’s a nom de plume, anyway. I write under Michael Rockland.”

“Michael Rockland! No kidding! You were on the Times Bestseller List most of last year!”

“Ummm hummmm . . .”

“But I’ve still never read any of your books,” he admitted.

“Think nothing of it. I got tired of writing excellent, obscure novels and living in poverty, so I wrote a blockbuster, that’s all. It’s full of screeching Masarati tires, clashing gears and square chins with clefts. The men are all dangerous and virile and the women are beautiful and intelligent but vulnerable. Pap for the masses. The only thing I’m proud of concerning it is my bank account.”

“Ah, I know the type. The men wear aviator glasses. They are tanned and suave and move within an atmosphere of menace.”

“Yes, indeed. And the only one to whom they show their essential vulnerability is the woman they love.”

“That’s a switch -- the vulnerable man, I mean.”

“Not at all. Remember who buys books: women. He’s the prototypic ideal man, in control of the world but with the soul of a poet.”

“Of course, in real life you wind up with someone like me.” Hill gestured grandly across his chest, as if presenting her with some noble, unknown quality. “I’m a real man, with the body of a water buffalo and the soul of a turnip. Tell me you’re in love with me!”

In laughter, all the planes of her face fractured. The flesh mounded on her high cheekbones, her eyes closed to dancing slits, her mouth opened in a glorious, toothy smile. She was transformed from a serene and regal presence to an imp. It was a face that could find humor in anything, including herself. Hill was duly captivated.

“She laughs. She laughs. Why do they always laugh?” He shrugged, his palms raised heavenward, in a gesture so French that it gave her instant insight into Hill’s long familiarity with Paris.

“Tell me you love me,” he insisted again.

“I’m saving myself for someone tall, dark, and handsome.”

“They don’t make them that way anymore. The dark ones are all squat. The tall ones are Aryan types with crazy blue eyes. And I’ve cornered the market on handsome. The man of your dreams doesn’t exist.”

Her face became very earnest. Her eyes circled his face but seemed to be seeing something else. “Oh yes, Hill, but he does,” she said softly. “He most certainly does.”

“Complete with sunglasses?” Hill was alarmed by her sudden seriousness.

“Mirrored,” she affirmed.

“And a dark aura of danger?” he gasped in mock incredulity.

“Ominous, definitely.”

“If you tell me he drives a Masarati, I’ll tell you you’re living a schizoid delusion -- or you’re a fool for some no-good playboy.”

She granted him a thin smile. “I have no idea what kind of car he drives.”

“Ah ha! So you admit you scarcely know the man. He may be married -- as if that mattered nowadays. Or a neoNazi, or a homosexual. This man is a figment, concocted from a few sightings, a lot of romantic garbage your mother fed you as a girl and an over-active imagination! I knew it. Why bother finding out how vacuous or insane or thoroughly nasty he is, when you can have me, right here, right now, in the too, too solid flesh?”

She smiled her wry smile and intended to say, “Hill, you’re too much,” but what came out, with a little shake of the head, was, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

“Oh, but you have. We were lovers in Egypt under Akhenaten, remember? It was fantastic. We bound our wrists together and promised to reincarnate together again and again to appease our unappeasable lust for one another. Surely you haven’t forgotten?”

“No. I haven’t forgotten -- I’ve just changed my mind. It’s tall, dark and handsome this time around, Hill. Accept it.”
. . . .

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich 1929 -2012

Feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has passed into the next world, leaving behind shoes too big to soon be filled. An award-winning poet, her socially conscious verse influenced a generation of feminists and anti-war and gay rights activists, and explored topics such as economic justice, the love between women, sexuality, racism and women’s rights. Rich authored more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction and won the National Book Award in 1974 for her collection of poems, Diving Into the Wreck. In 2004 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The School Among the Ruins. A socialist, she believed "socialism represents moral value -- the dignity and human rights of all citizens. That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible." She won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships and many top literary awards including the Bollingen Prize, Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award, but when then-President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 1997, Rich refused to accept it, citing the administration's "cynical politics." "The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate," she wrote to the administration. "A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored." In 2003, Rich and other poets refused to attend a White House symposium on poetry to protest to U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rich was 82.

I offer this poem in remembrance:


I stand on this bitter shore waiting
         for the boat that never comes,
         transport to the mapless land.

I have a gold coin clamped
         in my cramped-up palm,
         my hoarded fare.

By all accounts
         the boatman is fierce
         beneath his blackened sails.

Sometimes, across the water
         I think I see peaks
         that may be only clouds.

The busy people jeer me - -
         a slacker, a weakling
         they say.

How could they know
         what courage
         simply to stand

before the pitiless sea,
         the blank stare of the coming time
         and wait?

All I know for sure:
         far landfall's outer rim
         glows on night's horizon
         like a dawning sun.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alchemical Journey

You’ve moved
As if your feet were lead
That dragged   and marked
All your wanderings:

On sooty pavement
Sand   and black loose soil
Up stair treads   across beige carpets

The snail-like silvery tracings
Forming a strange hieroglyph,

Its involutions   turnings
Abrupt right angles
A labyrinth

Into which   year by year
You plunge deeper
Hopeless of Ariadne.

Your soles sigh on the grit
Of the Bridge of Sighs
Above the black hulls of somnolent

Leave metallic half-moons
Disappearing abruptly
On the verge of train tracks
Leaden lacunae of departures
And arrivals.

Inward   through the maze
Of your wanderings
Toward the Minotaur,
That shadowy  echoing energy

Baying like a caged hound
Just around the next corner
Of the blackened ramps and
Cobbled arteries of your heart.

When   in terror and weariness of years
You reach the dark central cell
Perhaps in some narrow rising street
Of shuttered doors

In icy Mistral
Clutching a thin coat,
It is the faint glow of your own steps
That lights you.

Watery light reveals an old woman
With swollen legs
Tending pink geraniums.
A freighter in Marseilles harbor
Mouths a smoky OM.
There is a smell of fish.

Brought to bay in the final vortex
Of your flight
You reveal yourself to yourself:

How you’ve always brought you light
Through darkness.

Lead is transmuted;
Water turns to wine;
Labyrinth becomes mandala
From whose center

Your heart opens in terrible beauty
A vermillion rose
A mass of liquid fire.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Snow Geometry

The transformational quality of snow is always a source of amazement. Overnight, the green and flounced world of the woods is changed, through the prestidigitation of weather, to flat planes or crystal lattices. Homely wire enclosures manifest as sparkling grids.

 Frozen hoses spiral as mysteriously as nebulae. 

 Stone walls peek from beneath marshmallowed heaps like mandorlas of gloom.

 (Do you know about the mandorla? It’s also known as the Vesica Piscis, and is the almond shape created by the coming together of two circles, symbolizing the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces. The circles may be understood to represent spirit and matter or heaven and earth – certainly appropriate to the coming together of heavenly snow and dark, wet stone and soil.)

Even the roof contributes its geometry to the frozen snow that slides slowly from it, creating a wave form the harmonics of which must surely be humming inaudibly through the crystals of ice. 

And in the garden, the little boy on the fountain is wearing the magician’s conical cap of the sorcerer’s apprentice, as he pours from his alchemical vessel.

Meanwhile, in the warmth of the house, the poppies of spring are wearing their own wildly spiking caps as they burst forth in Dionysian revel. Round and green, their bud casings are miniature earths, sprouting fingers of growth that reach for a sun still flirting behind clouds. What a mystery and a wonder the world is and how magical, these final days of that old geomancer, March!

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Second Unexpected Guest

On my birthday a week ago, the weather was a tour de force of options and possibilities. Like a gift package in which layer upon layer of wonderful things is revealed, the weather presented me with rain, hail, sleet, wind, snow and brilliant sunshine. My favorite kind of day!

In the late afternoon, with about eight inches of snow on the ground crusting over in the cold sunshine, I heard voices in the front yard and went out to discover my neighbor John talking with David. And between them sat the most woebegone, bedraggled little dog. John explained that he’d found him sitting in the road and it was clear he was lost and desperate.

I took this poor creature immediately to heart. Into the house he came, all a-wiggle to have someone, anyone, attending to him. He was a pitbull puppy about five or six months old and he was soaked to the bone, covered in red mud, shivering, hungry and scared. I immediately stripped off my clothes and took him into the shower, where hot water and a shampooing restored his white coat with just a tinge of red stain remaining. He endured this with remarkable patience and restraint, although David had to park himself at the shower entrance to keep him from leaping out.

After a big rub down, the next activity was ingestion: he drank nearly two quarts of water and then proceeded to clean up all the canned dog food I had left in the house. Finally, somewhat satisfied, he stationed himself on the hearth, as close to the fire as he could get, sometimes actually sticking his head into the firebox, causing steam to rise from his broad cranium. He lay there gazing at me with adoration from his piggy little pink-rimmed eyes.

And I gazed back. Rarely has a dog captivated me so instantaneously. He was one of those puppies in transition: huge paws over which he stumbled charmingly and ears far too big for his growing noggin. He had three spots of orangy-brown, two on his rump at the base of his tail and one around his eye, and there were black polkadots on his belly, which he displayed by lolling on his back and kicking his feet in the air in excesses of delight at being warm and humanly embraced.

It was too late to call Animal Control or the Humane Society to see if anyone had reported him missing. So we made him comfortable as possible as night fell and waited for the morrow. Already David and I had decided that, if he had no owner, we would adopt him. Meanwhile, his presence in the house had sent the cats into a panicked diaspora. Panda went tearing off into the woods and Sophia took up residence in the studio, refusing to come in under any circumstances, and had to be fed there for the two days of the puppy’s residence.

Yes, his stay here was brief. The next day Animal Control read his description back to me from a report they had taken, which also confirmed that he had been lost for two days prior to our taking him in – the two days of terrible cold, wind and snow. Poor baby! No wonder he was trying to insert himself into the stove!

The first night I went to bed, leaving him on the hearth. In the morning, I awakened to find him nested in my armchair and puppy poop in front of the dog door and the front door. He’d made an effort to get out, poor thing, so I couldn’t be angry with him. I flung the door rug outside into the snow and cleaned up the messes. Then we spent all day Tuesday learning dog door. He was remarkably bright and eager to please and by the end of the day he was breezing in and out through the magnetized flap and there wasn’t a single other accident in the house.

He developed an attachment to me as quickly as I did to him, apparently, because he followed me everywhere, even inserting himself into the shower while I bathed, so that his head and shoulders were soaked. He wrapped himself around my feet, whenever I sat down and shadowed me when I moved. We were fast becoming bonded.

And then the phone rang. A moronic voice said, “Yeah, I hear you got my dog.” My heart sank. Not only was I fond of the little guy but I had dreaded the thought that his owner might be – well -- questionable, as pitbull owners sometimes can be. Judging by the voice, my worst fears were coming to pass. But what could I do? I’m not a dognapper. This man clearly had a right to have his dog back, so I gave him directions to get here and said my prayers.

Which were not answered. A battered truck pulled up within the hour and a specimen of the Aryan Brother type emerged: three days growth of beard, multiple piercings, a grimed motorcycle jacket, and a red bandana over the head. He was 40ish, swaggering but, mercifully, polite and grateful. “Yeah,” he said in a gravelly voice, “I just moved here from Idaho.” Oh great! The dog fighting capital of the West! My heart was sinking like a stone. The puppy’s too. He took off for the house, voting the only way he could as to what his future should be. I had to extract him and his owner carried him off to put him in the cab, saying, “His freedom is over. He goes on a line, from now on.”

“If you ever want to get rid of him,” I ventured, “I’d be happy to take him.”

“This dog is valuable! I’ve had all kinds of people offer me big money for him.”

Animal as commodity. No way to argue with that.

I can’t get that little guy off my mind. I’m keeping him in my prayers and I’m going to ask Animal Control if they can do a welfare check on him. I’m hoping his line breaks and he finds his way back. If he does, dognapping may just be a criminal activity I might consider undertaking.

Signs of Life:

A lost puppy is a sad thing, but a lost child is sadder still. Watch this video to see the amazing work of a Nepalese woman, Indira Rana Magar, founder of Prisoners Assistance Nepal (PA-Nepal), who rescues children who have been incarcerated along with their parents and gives them a home. There, they are educated, learn to dance, play and have physical education classes. This video will touch your heart!
Here's the link to watch it online: 
Here's a link to the donations page on PA Nepal's website:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Busman's Holiday

As you may recall from yesterday’s post, I was without internet service for almost a week, which was a very interesting experience. Combined with the snow, it made for a sense of quietude that was deeply refreshing. The time that normally would go into writing a blog or answering emails or reading my friends’ Facebook posts was suddenly liberated for other uses. I’ve heard that people experience withdrawal when this happens to them but that wasn’t the case with me. No offense whatsoever intended, but I enjoyed every minute of release from daily communication. Maybe it’s because I do so much writing, anyway. Fiesta of Smoke is now up to 850 pages and it takes a lot of words to move a novel that far along!

So in the space and silence that technical malfunction opened for me, I indulged myself maximally. In what? Well, I read, of course! My friend Reggie gave me Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies for my birthday and I dove into it guiltlessly. It was a true busman’s holiday.

The book is a novel based on true events in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship. It’s main protagonists are the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom are dead at the opening of the book. How they came to be the targets of Trujillo’s death squads is the meat of the story. Like my own Commune of Women, it is told from the point of view of each sister, by turns. As I am deep into the chapters of Fiesta of Smoke in which I’m having to describe the horrors of death squads in southern Mexico, the book was doubly a busman’s holiday, if such a grim subject could be so considered: not only was I wallowing shamelessly in beautifully crafted words, but I was immersed in the very ambience of terror I am seeking to generate for my own readers.

No idyll of idleness can last forever, however. Mine was a day and a half long. Tomorrow I’ll tell you how this delicious interlude was ruptured by the arrival of yet another unusual animal.

In the meantime, the news from the Billy Whiskers café was all good. Coco the cat was making the rounds of the mostly full tables. Karen gave me a photocopy of a photo taken in 1951 of one of the monuments of our childhood, Bill Taylor, about whom more in the future, and everyone was happy about the snow except another regular, Connie, who declares she’s too old for it.

Until tomorrow, my friends! Enjoy your day; be well; count your blessings!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Unexpected Guest

The week just past has been quite a week! Whether you consider it from the birthday angle, the weather one, or the appearance-of-odd-animals one, it was a stand-out.

For weeks David had been planning a birthday supper for me on Saturday, two days before my actual birthday. Cookbooks loomed in heaps around his armchair. Recipes were put forward, then rejected. Finally, we settled on a menu of cold cucumber soup, Greek moussaka and green salad, with a key lime pie to top the evening. He made grocery lists; tracked down locally grown lamb; and minced and chopped for half a day. Together, we constructed the pie from scratch, one of our favorite joint kitchen ventures.

By the time our intrepid guests arrived, kicking snow from their boots and dusting flakes from their shoulders, the house was redolent with smells too heavenly to describe. Despite the weather and having to put on chains to get here, our guests were upbeat and ready for a gathering. The table was set with old French plates; crystal glasses winked in the firelight. When David brought the huge blue earthernware casserole to the table, trailing fragrant steam and displaying a perfectly browned topping, we all cheered. It was one of those nights when, thanks to the protection of the kitchen gods and David’s hard work and fine touch, every single mouthful was delicious. The wines were perfect for the meal. Even the meringue on the key lime pie refused to ignite into flames, when we left it a second too long under the broiler.

We laughed and conversed our way through all four courses, then sat by the fire chatting with demitasses of coffee and cups of tea. We were warm, well fed and companionable. Suddenly, however, I gave a shriek and ducked, as a bat streaked low over my head! It swooped and darted like a black comet above our heads, then retired to the wall of the loft from which David, always more courageous in these matters than I, ejected it through the balcony French doors, out into the snowy night.

We were all rather stunned. Never in my life have I seen a bat during a snow storm. It was sobering. I thought immediately of how Carl Jung, one of the fathers of depth psychology, found occurrences like these significant, not in the primitive sense of an omen but as a synchronicity marking a significant turn of events. Immediately, I went for my book that explains the symbolism of various animals. Bat, it turns out, symbolizes rebirth. Then I felt that we had perhaps treated our intruder less than courteously. He had, after all, brought our entire gathering a blessing of renewal and the promise of a fresh start. Uncanny and spooky as the bat was, it wasn’t a leftover from Halloween, but a harbinger of Spring.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue the tale of the past week but now, I have to get ready for our weekly outing at the Billywhiskers café. Never a dull moment!

Have a wonderful weekend, all! 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sorry for the Long Absence!

Good morning! I apologize for having been absent from my blog for so long. A snow storm took out my internet connection last Saturday. My genius friend and neighbor, John Van Dam, got me up and running again, late yesterday. It’s been quite a week: my birthday dinner, Saturday night; my actual birthday on Monday; a spectacle of snow, wind and sun; the arrival of a mud-crusted pitbull pup; and a bat swooping through. Tomorrow, I’ll tell the tale. For today, I have over 500 emails pulsing menacingly, awaiting answers. So, until tomorrow, Happy Spring, a little belatedly, and have a great day!

Signs of Life:

Here's something to consider:

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JOIN US and meet Nakita at our after party, and she will be there for all our Youth, to share, smile and have FUN on Saturday at the OISE BUILDING, U of T, TORONTO.



Saturday, March 17, 2012

Irish Blessings

New Grange

 Every day, every night
That I praise the goddess,
I know I shall be safe:
I shall not be chased,
I shall not be caught,
I shall not be harmed.
Fire, sun and moon
Cannot burn me. Not
Lake nor stream nor sea
Can drown me. Fairy
Arrow cannot piece me.
I am safe, safe, safe,
Singing her praises.

--The Shield of Brigid, Irish prayer

Ireland is an ancient land of myth and mystery. Leprechauns, sprites, elves and fairies make their home there and many are the stories of their mischief and their blessings. St. Patrick was a fine fellow, I’m sure, but he intruded on a culture and sacred tradition far older than Christianity. Long before St. Patrick served in Ireland as bishop in the second half of the 5th century, the goddess was worshipped there. Christians were responsible for reducing the status of Celtic gods and goddesses to trolls and fairies. Whether we think this is a good thing or a tragic loss, just for this one day let’s honor the Ancient Ones because, strange as it may seem, they are still honoring us by honoring Earth.

Wherever you go and whatever you do,
May the luck of the Irish be there with you.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

And Happy St. Paddy’s Day, too!

                                    The Paps of Anu

Friday, March 16, 2012

In A Cloud

It’s one of those magical mornings on the mountain, when it’s wearing a cap of cloud. The far distance disappears and the near distance is filtered through scrims of moisture: the leafless black oaks in silhouette; the pines like ghostly presences; the shoulder of the nearest ridge a mere arc of shadow, blotted on mist. Birds pass, black against white, solitary, featureless, like errant thoughts in my recently slumbering brain. A silence; a hush; an inhalation: how to describe the utter quietude inside a cloud? It is living silence; the brief pause between systole and diastole.

The minutia of nature take on tremendous importance: a few drops patter down on the metal roof, jarred loose from the branches by a breath of wind; a rend appears in the surrounding curtains, to reveal canyons, one behind the other, roiling with mist that rises and curls like smoke; a flight of wild pigeons rises like hope out of the eastern draw, sketches itself on the rice paper air in quick strokes of sumi ink, then is gone. The world comes and goes; approaches and recedes. Each glimpse is a haiku in action, written and erased in the creative rush of nature.

I build the fire, brew coffee, feed the fur children. My mind is filled with fog. I sit before the screen of incipient thought like a patron before the theater curtains, awaiting the moment when they part. For now, all is mystery, silence and suspension of action. I remind myself to breathe. I write. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Behold! I Tell You A Miracle!

A couple of days ago, in the Angels of Rain post, I told you of my friend Liz and her fight for life. On Tuesday, all life support was removed from her – and she began to breathe on her own! Still, because tests had shown she had brain damage to both lobes, the prognosis was not good. Her sister stood by her bed, reading the 23rd Psalm to her and, when she came to the last lines, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, Liz repeated the words after her! She’s very fragile and still has a long way to go, but she’s alive and this community is rejoicing.

This is not the first time I have heard of such a miracle. Years ago, my friend Bobbi was hit head-on, on her way to work one morning, by boys who were road racing. She lay in a coma for over two months. When she finally awakened, she reported that she had spent the entire time with her ancestors. They had discussed together whether she should return to life or stay with them. Finally, she had a meeting with a great and luminous spiritual being who counseled her, saying the choice was hers, but that she had small children whose welfare she should consider. When she returned to this side of the veil, she was able to identify in the family album those souls who had been her comfort on the other side.

My dear friend Javier was shot at point blank range in the left temple, one night on the street in Chihuahua. He “died” on the operating table, left his body, observed the operation and was later able to tell the doctor what he was wearing and saying at the time. Then he reached up to take the hand of a radiant spiritual being whom he calls, simply, God. He traveled through the hand and arm of this being and then traveled with him through space, in the form of a crystal ball in the being’s heart. He asked many questions about the nature of life and death and about religious teachings – is there heaven; is there hell? In each instance the being answered his questions.

Finally, the being brought Javier to a vast and lush green meadow, with a huge white cliff rising behind it. This, he was informed, was where they would part company, as Javier had to go back to this life. Javier argued, saying he didn’t want to go back and that, if he did, he would be a vegetable, as he had a bullet lodged permanently in his brain. The being told him that all would be well with him, and departed.

The next thing that Javier remembers is awakening in his body and hearing the doctor explaining to his mother that, even if he were to live, he would be a vegetable, as the bullet was so deep in his brain as to be inoperable. He would never be able to move, speak or remember. At which point, Javier opened his eyes, turned to his mother and said, “Madre, I had an accident,” thus proving in one feat that he could move, speak and remember.

He gave me the x-ray image of his brain. Two bullets are clearly lodged right next to his pituitary gland. Yet my friend Javier is alive and well and just as brilliant and cantankerous as ever. I asked him if God had any messages for us. Yes, He did: I AM, and I give life and I take it away.

Since he was a small boy Javier had been praying: God, if you exist, show yourself to me! This is definitely an sterling example of be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. But what extraordinary voyagers these people are! They have been to a far land and returned to report on it. Bobbi and Javier each say that the love, serenity and joy they experienced on the other side surpassed the ability of language to describe it. What greater gift can we receive than the reassurance that our loved ones are safely and sweetly embedded in such love? Or that we, when our time comes, will be, as well.

 Liz has been on a long voyage. That cloud flotilla, those angels of rain, were bearing her not only away, but back again. Behold! I tell you a miracle!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: Calypso & Hill Dine

 Today’s post is an excerpt from my novel in progress, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Hill and Calypso meet for the first time. The manuscript for Fiesta of Smoke now numbers more than 843 pages and I’m excited by my vision for the closing chapters. So, back to writing. I hope you enjoy today’s excerpt!

For those who might have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post, the Prologue, on January 8, an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2.
         Drawing her right foot to her left knee and then extending her leg waist-high, Calypso brings the back of her heel to rest on the top of the bridge railing. Raising her left arm in a graceful port au bras, she proceeds with the familiar routine of ballet stretches, humming a Bach cantata for rhythm.        
         Behind her, a tattered stream of weary tourists straggles by, some stopping momentarily to snap a picture of the back of Notre Dame cathedral, across the channel, as a figure in a gray suit, melting into the shadows of the quai-side trees, disappears in the deepening Left Bank dusk.
         By the time Hill gets onto the bridge, she has taken her leg from the railing and is doing some dainty little series of steps -- a pas de bourée? -- her hands resting on the rail for support, her profile averted. She is apparently completely absorbed in the wonder of Our Lady’s derrière.
         Hill is close enough, now, to ascertain three things: her dress is of a light-weight, open-weave wool of the most sumptuous Naples yellow; a red fox coat, heaped on a big oxblood-colored leather bag, glows like a fire at her feet; and she is humming, barely audibly, the strains of Zum reinen Wasser: “Where streams of living water flow, He to green meadows leadeth. And where the pastures verdant grow with food celestial feedeth.”
         He shambles into attack-ready position: leaning casually against the railing about four feet away -- a distance he deems friendly but not overpowering -- he too gazes at the stunning hind quarters of Our Lady and, after a respectful pause, ventures: “I love Bach, myself.”
         Of course, she stops humming immediately but she is slow to tear her eyes from the spectacle across the river. When she does, it is not to face him but only with a slight turn of the head, the eyes sliding into the corners, regarding him warily. The color has suddenly blanched from her cheeks.
         After a moment, the tension leaves her shoulders and her eyes crinkle wryly. “Truly,” she says. It is not a question and it rolls out between them like a ball of butter spiked with carpet tacks. The accent is American, like his own.
         Twenty-five years of savoir-faire melt and Hill is a fuzz-faced lout from Denver again, all elbows and size-16 shoes.
         “One of his loveliest . . . ” he manages to stammer, “his finest cantatas. I heard it performed there . . .,” he nods across the water to the cathedral, “the second Sunday after Easter. Two years ago.”
         “Such a memory!” She isn’t going to give him an inch. A cold wind comes up-river, wrapping her skirt around her calves. She has beautiful ankles above a pair of expensive-looking pumpkin-colored snake heels. He raises his eyes and finds her grinning.
         “Well -- do you have me all sorted out yet?” she asks pleasantly.
         Time for pure, out-West charm -- ingenuous, all-man, no-horseshit.
         “Listen,” he says, “I know just from looking that you and I are as different as hogwire and harpstring -- but if you’re not otherwise engaged, I’d be honored to take you to an early supper.”
         Her eyes take on a vague and unreadable look, as she gazes searchingly over his shoulder toward the Left Bank quai. Then, to his amazement, they light with a friendly twinkle. She grins again and says, “Okay! As long as we eat here,” nodding behind her toward Île Saint-Louis.
         “Dear Lady . . . whatever your heart desires!” Stooping gallantly, he retireves and then offers to her her coat.
         Hill took Calypso to Au Chariot de L’Isle, a cave close by, one of those subterranean places where they serve bony fish floating in grease, in light so dim they might have forgotten to pay the electric bill. His choice was motivated not by gastronomic considerations but by the fear that if he took time to call a taxi, she would change her mind and vanish like a swallowtail on a March wind.
         She settled right in, however, as if it were the perfect choice, and even condescended to make murmurs over the truly ordinaire wine. Kooky she might be, but a lady, too, through and through.
         “Allow me to introduce myself,” Hill began gallantly, as soon as the waiter had taken their orders. “My name's Hill. I used to be an international man for the Associated Press but now I freelance. More freedom that way.”
         She rested her elbow on the table and her chin on her hand and gazed across the table at him with complete attention, making him feel like the most fascinating thing since the invention of the cotton gin.
         Hill needed to watch himself or he’d be babbling to her like a fool in five minutes. She was the kind of woman who makes a man need to remind himself of that -- a real geisha, born to make a man feel twelve feet tall and virile as a three-peckered billy goat.
         “Just Hill? Is that given or sur-?”
         “Sur. I never divulge the other. Never. Classified information.”
         “Oh, come on. It can’t be that bad. Let me guess . . . is it Elmer?”
         "Good God, no! My mother wasn’t that cruel!”
         “Then it must be Walter.” She is looking deep into his eyes, reading something from them.
         He feels the slow creep of gooseflesh down his arms. “How did you know that? How could you possibly know?” he whispers.
         They’re sitting inside the silence of his surprise when their soup arrives. She smiles as she surveys the oily broth.
         “Just a lucky guess."
         Her lashes cast long, blue, serrated shadows across her cheeks in the candlelight.
         Hill examines her minutely as she sips from her spoon. Her dark hair is swept back into a chignon at the neck, the silky wings riffled slightly by a natural wave, like wind over night water. The face, while not fine-boned, had an indefinable delicacy about it -- a refinement of expression, perhaps, or a factor of coloring? Her skin is the palest apricot, washed with rose -- the complexion of a reposeful child.
         Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, which set her apart from the run of merely beautiful women. At first, he’d been taken by a wry, dancing twinkle that hinted at humor in the face of life's meanest tricks. But now, over dinner, the color has come through to him -- jade green, ringed around the outer iris with deepest cobalt. And beyond that -- what? That last glance, that penetration of his interior. . .
         He suddenly realized that he didn’t even know her name.
         “Calypso Sercy,” she said, buttering a dab of bread. “And no comments, please. I’ve heard every pun imaginable on the subject, already. I consider it an act of irremediable cruelty on the part of my parents.”
         “Well -- I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that!”
         “It’s not so easy as Walter.”
         “Calypso . . . Calypso . . .”                 
         “She was in love with Ulysses.”
         “Oh yes. The Queen of Someplace. She kept him seven years and promised him immortality if he would stay.”
         “Correct. And was inconsolable when he left.”
         “Why did your parents name you that?”
         “As far as I can tell, they thought it was quite literary -- they had aspirations.”
         “And the last name -- is it spelled the same as . . .?”
         “No. No, quite differently. But the sound is there, the intention . . .”
         “You’ll have to remind me about her.”
         “Circe is the one who turned Scylla into a sea monster and Ulysses’ crew into swine.”
         “My kinda gal!”
         She favored him with a wan smile.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Angels of Rain

Yesterday afternoon, Maclovio and I went out for our usual ramble to the top of the mountain. The sky was blue, the wind sharp and the air moist and heavy. Everywhere the signs of spring are showing forth: a few manzanita bushes are hung with the delicate clusters of pink, bell-shaped flowers that the bees so love; buttercup leaves are six inches tall now, but still without flower stalks or buds; and the limbs of the black oaks are pebbled with tiny, egg-shaped buds that will soon split open to release little tufts of chartreuse and rose leaf babies. In all, it was a perfect March day.

We were just starting up the flank of the mountain’s peak when I noticed the extraordinarily beautiful clouds that were beginning to sail across the sky west of the summit, where they would periodically blot out the sun. We are often witness to the arrival of storms because of our 3,700-foot elevation and, as rain was predicted, I didn’t pay much attention to them at first. I was busy looking for wildflower seedlings and watching Mac’s antic racings. But when the light dimmed again, I glanced up and was struck with amazement.

The sun was hidden behind a cloud of such astonishing beauty that it brought me to a complete halt. It was a huge, multi-layered construction, scudding along like a noble ship. Its underbelly was a smoky blue-gray, hazy and delicate as a silk chiffon scarf, while its interior was an inky indigo, very dense and pregnant-looking. Toward the top, it was a confection of curlicues of pale gray and lavender, the topmost, sun-shot edges of which were brilliant, radiant white and trailed off into enchanting wisps, curls and tatters that shifted and reconfigured themselves with each passing moment.

We were now high up on the southwestern shoulder of the mountain, with a view across the western, southern and eastern foothills and eastward to the Sierra crest. The clouds were coming from the southeast and coming fast before a chill wind, like a magnificent flotilla of fantastic ships. Each was distinct from its neighbors and each was a wonder of form, color and fluid dynamics. This was no mere storm front. These were living beings, magnificent, purposeful, endlessly generative – the very angels of rain.

And I thought, then, of my friend Liz, who is lying in an ICU on life support, which will probably be withdrawn today or tomorrow so that she can pass peacefully into the next world. She will pass through that portal very much like one of these magnificent clouds, stately and pregnant with all she has been and all she has accomplished in this world. It seemed to me that these clouds were a special benediction upon her life which has been of such great service to her community; a reminder that each of us can be an angel of rain, bringing life-giving moisture to our small piece of creation.

And I also contemplated the privilege of being alive, in that moment, to be witness to the magnificent sweep of vista and wind and the endless mutability of the natural world. What a gift each passing moment is, each breath, each encounter, each sight and thought and word! I was witness to the passage of a flight of angels and to the exhortation to live freely, love much, give all. In so doing, we become multilayered, endlessly mutable, absolutely original and unique. We anoint our little patch of earth like an angel of rain.