Monday, October 27, 2008

Jean de la Lune

This Friday I found myself in the early afternoon legging it along the two-lane highway, just beyond our neighboring town, still miles from home.

I'd been biking back from the Island where Husband had dropped me off that morning in the first misty hours of light - wisps rising up from the rippled surface of the river. I'd gone to help 'pop' garlic at the farm. It was good to get back there.

The ride from the Island, back along the River, is "world-class biking, nothing better" - says Husband. I don't disagree: nice, level ride, no real hills. To one side: the river with her houseboats and a ruffle of alder, maple, oak. To the other side: rocky basalt cliffs, ferns, tiny waterfalls, Douglas fir.

And a clean, wide bike lane.  Well, mostly clean.

I'd come more than half way on the bike that afternoon - it's couple-hour ride - and had just begun to congratulate myself at being almost home already, when my back tire began to flop around.

Dismounting, I found a nail in the tire - small, bent, but sufficient.

At least my eldest daughter, newly driving, had an orthodontist appointment within the hour and would be driving the van with the bike rack my way.  And we have the wonders of modern technology in the form of cell phones.

Cars whizzed past as I walked down the highway. I'd picked up my weekly share of produce at the farm and my yellow waterproof panniers on either side were full and heavy. I lifted them now from the back and hung them over the handlebars, hoping to take some weight off the flopping tire.

Cyclists use the fine wide bike lanes on this road most days of the year. I was a common sight. No one stopped to offer help, nor did I expect them to. That one gear-head in a neon aquamarine helmet and yellow jacket had succumbed to road conditions --reduced to pushing her conveyance like a broken wheelbarrow-- just marked one-up for the Autos in the ongoing, almost subliminal antagonism between spoke and hubcap.

I forgot the traffic, though, walking along, taking in the intensity of the changing leaves.

Really looked for once at a lonely house along the highway.  Shingled roof wrapped fatly around the log-edge of the eaves. Heavy oaken door: great iron hinges and just off-center, a slender diamond-paned window.  A round hobbit-window and wide picture window into a sunny (perhaps book-lined?) room.

It was like the story of a little house in the middle of the woods.  Snug and self-sufficient.

As I approached the outskirts of the town just next to mine, a man ambled out from his roadside apartment to check the mailbox, "Hmmh!  Don't you have a patch kit?"

Which I supposedly carry always.  Husband has put together a handy tool kit for me. But one of the panniers I'd grabbed this morning was apparently  not mine, so though I had hand-sanitizer and bandaids and honey sticks, ibuprofen and notebook and pens and a tiny doll-sized Bible, I had no tools, no pump, no tube, no patch kit.

Which was a pity, since I'd just been contemplating, before my tire went flat, the joys of self-sufficiency that a long-distance bike allows.

In fact, Sufficiency has been the mantra running through this week. Over the weekend, we'd ordered metal roofing to redeem our never-used-by-us chicken coop. We'd talked plans for making a root cellar out of the bike room off the garage. Then early in the week I kept finding myself repeating under my breath, Ҫa suffit, "it suffices." I kept remembering, half-remembering a line from some poem: "Each something in their --or was it its-- sufficiency . . . "

The day before I'd made bread (again, at last) and then, at the farm this morning I'd talked breadmaking with one of the apprentices, our breath rising like mist, our cheeks and noses red. He was going to try working as a baker next - cold days working out in the mud had made a floury, yeasty heaven of the idea of those early, early mornings in a bakery. "So how do you make your bread?" he wanted to know.

recipe is beautifully basic - things I keep on hand - olive oil, honey, water, salt, yeast and whole wheat flour I mill fresh in a kitchen grinder. It is the epitome of self-sufficiency.  And smells not just of warm grain and yeast but of thrift and industry when it comes out of the oven.

The other apprentices, on their way out to the fields, kept stopping by the table this morning where we worked dividing the garlic into separate cloves for planting.  Each young farmer seemed to have a story about their cider-making of the weekend before, their plans for applesauce this coming weekend as the apples kept falling from the trees around us, how their little red hen was laying, sausage-making.

Two of the apprentices have rented a big old house over the hills together and have already started getting a garden plot ready for next year, setting up some beehives in the spring. I admire them all - their energy and practical idealism and easy competence.

I'd hoped by rubbing shoulders with them more of their competence would have rubbed off on me.

Pushing my bike, I hobbled into town, trying to remember which traffic light to turn at for the orthodontist - this walking was taking longer than I had expected - hoping it was the next light, then hoping it was the next one after that. A familiar van pulled into the bike lane ahead of me and, like an angel in heaven's blue, suddenly there appeared my flame-haired friend on her way home from the City. She'd pulled the seat out of her van that morning - "I don't know why. It must have been for you!" - and now helped me lift my bike inside and both panniers with their weight of gorgeous produce.

With ease and speed we drove past the corner for the orthodontist and I called my daughter once more - now to let her know she wouldn't have to wait for me. As we slipped through the intervening fields towards our own town, my friend asked if I hadn't felt "pretty vulnerable out there on the road?"

"I guess not." I hadn't thought of it.

I'd thought of bread and the secret hidden house along the highway.

I'd thought how the farm last year had been an answer, the place for me, but now felt like a wrong-sized jacket I wanted to keep but couldn't fit into quite right any more.

I'd thought of travelling by bike, carrying with me everything I'd need.

I'd thought of my son asking me again last week about a book we used to check out (over and over) a few years back - Jean de la Lune.

The book has since disappeared from the public library, though we keep going back and looking for it. During our bout of homeschooling, picture books in French had been a way to start the girls on their French grammar and vocabulary drill.

Son had been three or four years old, and  very like the innocent, open, little round-headed moon man on the front cover himself.

I'd thought, musingly, as I pushed my bike toward home, of the way Jean de la Lune had captured my son's imagination - how Jean, from his home on the moon, had fallen in love with the life on Earth, the dancing and laughter beneath the trees hung with colored lights and, wanting to experience it for himself, had caught passage on a comet's tail.

But he ended up in prison, ankle shackled, staring out through the window-grate at his first home, shining silvery and full in the dark sky. Miraculously - as the moon wanes, so does Jean, until he is just a sliver of himself and able to step out of his shackles and through the bars of his window. And then rockets back home with the help of an eccentric inventor.

Son used to ask for this book over and over, sitting afterwards with the book open on his lap, poring over the pictures. I would read it to him, wondering what caught him so. Hoping he would recognize within himself his own powers to escape and outwit - that deepest self-sufficiency. Wishing for him the help of friendly rocket-builders along the way.

Last week we looked for the book on Amazon, but it's out of print and rather spendy as people say here in our corner of the woods.

"We'll just have to keep looking for a Jean de la Lune that's not so expensive," I'd told him when he brought the subject up this week - driving to piano from his red-and-white country schoolhouse. "You know, I found it in English, too, except it's called Moon Man. But it has the same pictures, the same story. What would you rather have - in English or in French?"

"Wasn't my Jean de la Lune in English?" Son was surprised. Then silent after I explained the here-and-there translation-as-required we'd read it in.

"I want it in French," he said at last. "Because I know it in English already and then I would have it both ways." Though the English he knows was more French, but apparently  English enough for his understanding.

So I'd thought of that.

Of Jean de la Lune. And of fall. Of the thrill it used to be, starting a new semester. Of the color of leaves, gold on the branches, a deeper gold on the ground.  Of the abundance of just enough.

I hadn't thought of vulnerability.

After my friend deposited me and my wounded bike safe and sound in my own drive -- after she waved good-bye amidst my last, laughing thank-you -- after she drove back down the hill toward her own home -- I discovered I was locked out of the house, not having brought my keys because I wasn't driving, forgetting that the garage door was locked from inside because of the builders.

I sat out in the sun against the sliding glass door, waiting for my daughters to come home and let me in, reading from my tiny travel scriptures whatever fell open, dependent as always on others in this deeply intertwined life we live.

And in the sufficiently wondrous way it always seems to go, opened to . . .

. . . come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you . . .
What does it really mean -- sufficient, sufficiency?

That evening I made
Stir Fry Salad with some of the gorgeous produce from the farm - a surprisingly satisfying and incontestably nutritious dinner, delicious with the hot cornbread my younger daughter made.

It wasn't until the next morning, dawdling back up the hill after the usual walk & talk with my Saturday morning friend, that I realized the line of poetry I'd been trying to remember - "each weed's sufficient grace" - was actually from something I'd written myself, 14 years or so ago.

Considering that all the cells of my body have changed twice over since then, it's not surprising the words seemed to have been written by a different person, someone who might have know what they were talking about:

What Comes Next

Most days you drive along, looking for the bend
in the road, lost in a cloud of dust
and noise and thought. If only you would stop

you could watch the grassy foxtails gather sunlight.
You could watch them burn away the afternoon
until the shadow of these weeds lay long
and blue. You could finger stems, leaves,
touch shining seed hair. If you stayed
long enough, you could walk home
beneath the first stars, feeling your blood
rise and fall with the pull of the moon.

Afterwards, in the light of your own kitchen,
you might find burrs and fluff on your clothing,
dried leaves in your hair. That night as you slept,
perhaps Earth, this old mother, this laughing Sarah,

would rise from under the hill, dancing flat-footed,
her arms bent high, her fine
white mane bent down toward the dust,
each step raising a whiff of dust.

In the rain you would awake, before learning the steps.
You would scarcely remember the foxtails, their fire,
each weed’s sufficient grace. But your blood
already knows. Your arms and legs can find their own.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Swan Lake

Week of Oct. 12-19
. . . across the Swanee River
Down in Golden Glen, I saw her face
But I can’t quite remember when . . .

The windows of the house are all covered in plastic. Not that I’m complaining – a long-awaited home repair is in process - but the lack of light is bringing on a low-grade claustrophobia.

Then our daughters reminded us they'd be marching in a band competition down in Grant’s Pass. Why not make a long family weekend of it – Crater Lake on the way, loop down to the Redwood Forest, then back home up the Oregon coast?

Except the girls couldn’t see their way to coming down with us instead of in the bus with the rest of the band. The younger wavered a bit at first, but her sister put the steel in her soul with a few minutes of whispered confabulation

“You’ll miss seeing Crater Lake,” we said.

"I know. I wish we could."

"You may never get another chance. It’s taken us eleven years already,” we said.

"We love you. We’ll meet you after the competition, okay?”

Foreshadowing of days to come: my husband and I leaning on each other’s arm as we picked our way over the ice around Crater Lake. Our son ran ahead, throwing snowballs.

Yes, the lake is incredibly blue.

Too soon, our son wearied of his parents' undivided attention – Why wouldn’t we let him spend money at the gift shop? Didn’t we have anything else he could eat? Why don’t we ever get to stay longer at the fun places? Why did we always have to do boring things?

From the outside, childhood seems such an idyllic time.

There's a song I keep playing these days from a CD I picked up at a kiosk of local Wasatch Front musicians when we were last out to see my grandpa. I've listened so many times it starts to play now in my head, and my throat tightens and swells along with smoky-voiced Mindy Gledhill. In the background, an occasional violin like two sobs distilled and their echo, and the piano like something by Satie, simple and significant as a black-&-white photograph:
Deep within my memory,
Where the grass grows to my knees,
Where sparrows sing
And all creation speaks to me,

A long lost child
Falls behind.
Now she is miles and miles
From the present time.

And just like the birds that fly
Through the sky,
She’s been away awhile –

- Oh, but I will find her . . .
When I listen to this song I see my aging self back in that field of tall grasses, the purple flowers of alfalfa, the white flowers of shepherd's purse, bread-and-butter plant, puffy yellow dandelions and sweet morning-glory weed, and my scrawny, freckled, toothy, four-eyed self running to my outstretched arms, her stringy hair streaming out and all joy on her face to be reunited. Schmaltzy, I know.

This weekend, we stayed in the Motel del Rogue outside Grant’s Pass – a lost-in-time cottage-style motor hotel from the 1950s, very clean and homey, a little granny house with a tiny kitchen and a back porch looking out over the wooded river bank.

The first night our son had a hard time falling asleep on the daybed. Across the room, the big double bed on the other side of the main room still stood empty and waiting for his sisters who were roughing it (we guessed) in sleeping bags on the gym floor of Grant’s Pass Middle School with the rest of the girls in the band. (There was a second gym for all the boys, with chaperones sleeping on either side of the communicating doors, as our elder daughter had judiciously explained.)

Saturday afternoon we watched the girls perform. The younger: nervy, poised, her hair pulled up in a long ponytail, intent on setting up the instruments in the pit, then bent over mallets that kept popping up off the xylophone, keeping time with brisk bouncing nods.

The older one: doe-eyed beneath her tall hat, womanly in her sleek black uniform, suddenly short beside the other drum major - a towering six-foot senior boy. Her father and I watched her suddenly run all the way across the field, climbing her aluminum ladder to stand steady and serious-faced, chin squared, tirelessly measuring out the music at the top of her slender perch.

We are novices at appreciating these performances, never having been in band ourselves. I used to wonder what kind of commentary the half-time show was trying to make about the football game or the team and their opponents. Now I know.

Absolutely none at all.

Band geeks think the first half of the game is just warm-up, at best, the opening act for their gig. As for the score - that's what you call the director's sheet music - duh.

When a good band does their stuff, it is true, there is a spectacle that fills your eye, an excitement as the instruments skirl and blare, the drumthrobs beating through your body. Our band did a fine job, with no need to make allowances for their small size.

After the afternoon competition, before the final performance when we would be able to bring the girls home, we went back to the motel. I walked down with my son to the river’s edge. He looked for rocks, threw sticks. The water glowed in golden ripples as the river flowed down beyond him. I remember our girls being the same age. Deep in my memory that's the age they always are. Seven, eight, nine – the age of eternal childhood.

The day after their competition, both girls were tired. They complained - a little - about having to come walk with us in the redwood forest after church. But once we were all out in the air, the silence of the trees, so huge and old, made a quietness in us all.

Monday morning, our trip back up the coast was rushed – even with a sunrise start - because the girls had a mandatory band practice back home that evening. At noon we stopped, hiked a mile, two miles, into the Oregon Dunes to a beach all to ourselves. Gathered shells and sea agates and smoothed sticks. Stayed longer than we meant to and had to trot double-time back to the car. Drove without stopping the rest of the way up the coast. The girls kept falling asleep with their cheeks pressed up against the windows.

“Wake up. Look out the window at those big rocks. Are you awake?”

“I’m awake.”

“Wow! Look at the waves splash. Are you looking?”

“I’m looking.”

It's so strange to be on the other side of this conversation now.

The girls were a little late for their practice and the house felt stuffy and forlorn when we came home without them. The week started up again - Monday Tuesday Wedesday . . .On Thursday the plastic at last came off the windows.

The beauty and wildness of the flooding sunlight was a measure of how oppressed we'd been by its absence.

To celebrate I tried a new recipe: chard and pine nuts with fettucine. Not wildly successful. But the salad (slices of Bosc pear fanned out on a beautiful leaf of rose-tipped lettuce, sprinkled with blue cheese, walnut oil, salt and lots of pepper) was elegant and delicious.

Even if one of our daughters made a point of wiping the oil from her lettuce leaf before she'd eat it. The rest of us thought the salad sublime.

Friday, the girls and I had tickets for Swan Lake. Despite a frenzied hustle to get ready and sharp words at the last minute, we found parking in the City in plenty of time to walk the five or six blocks from the courthouse (monumental) to the auditorium with its giant's windows and modernistic portico. I watched my daughters stride along, hair flowing back from their bright faces. I admired our shadows wavering against the sidewalk, beneath the streetlamps, three women - heads leaning close, laughing apart - dressed as close to the nines as we are able, on a mild autumn evening.

The auditorium was full of elegant folk. As we entered, the lights dimmed and the orchestra plunged into Tchaikovsky’s lush score, the conductor’s hands blurring as he swept through the beat, until at last the curtains opened onto a stage setting fully composed, the colors pale and sweet but saturated - like a garden after rain.

The dancers moved with unashamed grace. And the weight of the past weeks of grief began to lift, like an animal waking and stretching up from where it had lain curled heavily on my lungs and heart. I almost laughed to hear my unpremeditated sigh of happiness so loud - as if I were easing into a hot tub after an aching day.I reached out and brushed my fingers against my daughter's leg, wanting to tell her how as a girl, younger than she, I had watched this ballet in the unfinished basement of our house on our tiny black and white TV, my feet tucked up off the cold cement floor, my hair up on pink foam curlers. How the watching had thrown me for days after into leaping and twirling from one end of the dark basement to the other. And now here we were. Seeing it together. I smiled - Isn't this wonderful?

She flicked my hand away, scowling.

The sting of it, the burn. Why would she swat my hand away? Why the look of loathing? Like I'd run into a glass door expecting to step out into the garden.

The dancers still moved, all graceful arms and long necks. The music still played. I sat there blaming myself, blaming her, blaming myself for her - (convenient how we can work it every possible way when we're the mother of the child).

I put an arm around her shoulder, drew her tightly in, whispered fiercely, "You hurt my feelings when you hit my hand away."

"I didn't hit your hand. I brushed it away," she squirmed. "You're bothering me."

I held my breath. Imagined the stillness of stone, "It embarrasses me that you would do that. And to pull faces at me in public. Why would you do that?"

"I don't like to be tickled."

"I wasn't! I didn't mean to! I was trying to tell you how happy I was. How glad I am to be here with you." I can hear the hurt and exasperation in my rising whisper. Neither time nor place.

She squirmed away again, scowling.

All around us were mothers with their elementary-aged daughters, grown daughters with their older mothers, enjoyment gleaming from their faces as they turned to one another.

After the first act and a compulsory solitary stroll around the lobby, my daughter came back, still stiff and grumpy. But the music and the dancing eased us both. After a while she lay her head on my shoulder, then kept falling asleep, waking only to complain that she had been looking forward for months to this night and now she couldn't even stay awake.

In the last act, I watched the heart-broken prince and doomed swan maiden dance their eternal goodbyes with a lump in my throat. Both daughters held my hands on either side. Fallen from the first bliss, but still we are here together and the music, the dancing's uncynical embrace of beauty and feeling still working its magic.

We walked out into the night, the air cool. Elegant grandmothers with small granddaughters in shiny patent-leather shoes, prosperous couples, their faces relaxed and clear-eyed, milled around us, surged with us at the green light over the crosswalk.

We walked back towards the columned courthouse, quieter than before but still together, where we discovered the parking garage was locked up and dark, the attendant gone home for the night. And our car locked up inside. We each tried the door. Twice.

Another woman and her daughter were already on the cell phone, "Dad, we're on the corner of 14th and - what's the road, Mom?" We followed their lead, calling home to my husband, who had been asleep - it was after 10 o'clock.

He would come pick us up (such a good man), Stay right there. He still had to wake our son and pack him into the car. And it's almost an hour's drive away.

The thought of loitering about an empty parking garage in the middle of the night - as the audience crowd dwindled away and the sidewalks emptied of everyone with legitimate reason to be there - didn't sound like a great way to end the evening - more like a way to really end the evening - so we turned and walked smartly up and around the block looking for something better. Lucky for us - for we found a door into the garage still left open and our car just up a short ramp.

Grateful for a car, for keys, for all the ordinary blessings, we drove home, listening to our music turned up loud, singing even louder.

Once we were home, I sat out in the car on the gravel drive to hear Mindy Gledhill's CD turn over from "Long Lost Child" to the first track:

. . . now I'm free to jump,
I'm free to fall,
Free to let it roll away
When I drop the ball. . .
'Cus you see it's falling
That's teaching me to fly . . .
And the next morning, sunlight poured in through the windows.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Perils with Pigeons (in seven parts)


Grandpa died two weeks ago.  

Around the table the night before the funeral: memories.  Grandpa jingling coins in his pockets: we couldn't ask him (our parents said) but we knew a trip to the general store across the street for penny candy was imminent.  Grandpa suggesting we name our dolls Rasputin and Rupitoo.  Grandpa asking at the end of each semester if we'd been bitten lately by the horsefly of love.  And something lovely my brother told about Grandpa always telling him each time he visited of the day my brother was born: "Your grandma and I were camping up to Kimberly on the Sawmill bench that day" and how they'd "come down off the mountain" to see his squally red face. Hearing that story every time, over and over, my brother called it, “the reiteration of belonging.”

My dad gave the eulogy: Grandpa's hard work in the hard times of the Depression, frozen potatoes all winter long, a single pair of socks washed by hand to wear the next day, his faithful fondness for my Grandma Hannah, who had died exactly 15 years and a day before Grandpa finally joined her. At the end of his remarks, Dad read
"The Last Leaf" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poem Grandpa has been reciting to us these last few years, as Dad puts it, "with a jaunty toss of his head and a twinkle in his eye."

Then my cousin, poised and slim, gave a tribute, including her brothers' and sisters' memories of Grandpa: the abundance of the garden, Thanksgiving Day and the song about Tom Turkey, letters written to Grandma and Grandpa while they jauntered off to be tour guides at the Joseph Smith birthplace in Vermont for a year and a half.

Then it was my turn to tell my siblings' side of the story. Looking out on the congregation was like looking at a field of sunflowers, or black-eyed Susans, familiar like that, taking you by surprise in their unnoticed loveliness. I felt bathed in the love of that field of faces as I spoke of our common memories of Grandpa.  The congregation smiled, gentle laughter in the right places, tears on the cheeks of my tough cowboy cousin. I finished by reciting by heart a poem Grandpa had helped me learn when I was very young -- “The Day is Done,” by Longfellow:

. . . and the darkness falls
From the wings of night
As a feather wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight
I could see the nods of the older people, the sound of my voice ringing through the chapel, the peace the rhythmic words bring, like a blessing, or as Longfellow puts it:
. . . like the benediction
That follows after prayer.


Back home again this week, the edges of everyday life begin healing back over me once more. But not comfortably.  I am discouraged.  Irritable.  Blue.  Deep submarine blue.  Swamped by the schedule, running late to everything. Out of that blue, our friend Dale calls.  He teaches at the alternative school, also raises bees, sells honey, delivers fruit to the surrounding towns from an orchardist friend during canning season. And also, it turns out, raises white homing pigeons, releasing them at funerals and weddings: “Doves we call them. But really they're homing pigeons. Pure white though.”  Which is enough apparently to turn feathered vermin into Peace personified.

He has a conflict tomorrow -- will I stand in at a funeral? I think I can probably pull it off. He doesn’t know the name of the person who died but says there will probably be a program I can pick up. “And there will be a family member, who will be assisting."  We arrange to meet at the school parking lot tomorrow for the passing off of the bird.

I bounce downstairs, “Hey, guess what? I've got a job tomorrow!”

My husband looks up while I tell him the plan.  “Doves? I didn’t think there were homing doves.”

“Actually they're homing pigeons -- pure white.”

“You’re going to release a pigeon?  Are casket pigeons related to stool pigeons?” He's inviting me to laugh.  But lately my funny bone is broken. He thinks pigeons somehow are hilarious.  “I can just see it . . ." now he begins to riff on all the many ways this could turn into disaster: " . . . trip over your feet and drop the cage, let the bird go in a big flapping of wings right during the prayer.”  In his words, I see myself turning into Lucy Arnaz.  Without the Lucille Ball charm.


The next morning I get up to make a proper breakfast because we ARE going to achieve normalcy once again.  But it's not ready in time for the girls to have any. Great job, MJ. Winning already, says the Voice of Grief that has taken up residence in my head, sarcastic and aggrieved at the demands of normalcy and just watching for a reason to wreak drama.  I wish I could be free of this spectre.  It's like carrying around everywhere an offended great-aunt.

After setting eggplant to cook for Italian sauce in the crockpot, where its bitterness will melt into a mysteriously deep richness, I discover my black pants are not in the dryer after all. Skirt?  Not in this weather, the Voice is scandalized.  I'll have to wear the dark gray instead. Good enough I suppose, sniffs the Voice. 

When I arrive at the school, our friend's green Corolla is the last one in a row of teachers' cars and next to it, one of those black metal shepherd crook / hanging flower pot holders that forks into the ground with alternating arching hooks from which two white wire cages are suspended.

Each cage holds a white bird as pretty as something in a picture book.

Our friend Dale has me practice with the extra bird. Shows me: how the latch unclasps, how he holds the edges of cage -- top and bottom with pointer and little finger -- while reaching in with the other hand. Has me try. I do, reach in and grab the thing.

“You must have been around chickens before?”

“Not really.”  Not at all, corrects the inner Voice, but I ignore her.

I hold the bird until he says to toss it in the air. Okay. He gives me the shepherd’s crook/plant hanger and the other white wire cage with a beautiful white pigeon — or dove, as it will be from this point forward -- with pink beak and pink feet and tiny dark eyes.


And I’m off, practicing the script as I go: "To conclude today’s service, this pure white dove, a symbol of ______'s soul will be released to his/her maker/ heaven/ God . . ." Driving briskly, but not too fast. The cemetery is between our town and the next — and I'm pretty sure I haven't missed it yet.  "To assist me . . . " I check the time.  Three more minutes only.  "Psalms 6," no, "chapter six." No, no, "chapter 55 verse six, Oh, that I had the wings of a dove for then would I fly away and be at rest.” 

So where is the cemetery?  Did you manage to drive past it somehow? The Voice, touchy and unimpressed, is sure I've mucked up already.  I think it’s still up here. Surely I haven’t missed it yet. It should be just around these trees. Well, it's not, obviously. I don’t remember it being by the railroad track. I can’t have missed it.  Okay, there it is after all, the Voice reprieves me.  This once.

I drive into cemetery, park away from the other cars. Square my shoulders —
set out across the grass, murmuring in my head, then would I fly away and be at rest, over and over.

A man in jeans and a baseball cap strides out to greet me — maybe this is "the family member who will be assisting me in the tribute"?  Not overly formal.  Just as well you wore the pants, these things matter to the Voice.

Jeans-and-baseball-cap takes the shepherd’s crook.

“Where do you want the bird?” he asks.

“Well, that’s up to you.”

He shrugs.

“Usually by the podium?” I offer.

“The head’s this way. Should we put it by the head?”

The head? The Voice does not approve of him.  I don’t think, on second thought, he is the family member.

He leads the way, just beyond the edge of the green canopy and thrusts the shepher'd crook firmly into the ground.

As I’m hanging up the cage, a woman in black comes forward. “Are you the family member who'll be assisting me with the tribute?” I ask her.  That sounds rote enough, murmurs the Voice.

“Yes,” says the family member.  She has long black hair and a face completely white.

From the other side, a grinning skeleton of a man reaches forward with an envelope addressed to Dale.  Pay, and part of it is mine.  It is a little crass, sniffs the Voice, at a time like this.  Even if the envelope is nice. 

I turn back to the woman in black, “I want to make sure I have the name right . . . complete . . .” Or really just a name at all, mutters the Voice.

“Christian . . . ” the pale woman says. Oh, no. A young-sounding name.  Even the Voice is sad to hear this.

“Do you want just the first name?" I ask, "or last name, too?”

“Decisions are so hard for me to make right now.”

I make a sympathetic sound. She is not much older than me and the grief is bare on her face.  More ragged than the grief I'm carrying.

“His father . . . his father's name . . . No, just Christian.”

So I write Christian in the blank. Then ask, “And you . . . ?”

“Sheryl.” I begin to jot her name down onto my notecard. “His mom.”

Her child is dead.  The worst.  Accident? Suicide? This is so unfortunate, the Voice sounds almost gentle inside my head.

“You are his mother,” I repeat stupidly.

“Just say ‘his mom.'”

I ask which she wants: maker, heaven, God? -- feeling ridiculously like a celestial stewardess.

“Released to God. Yes.” She is very sure of this. Then she looks troubled, “What will I have to do?”

“When it’s time I’ll have you come stand next to me. I’ll get the bird for you and I'll put it in your hands. I’ll be right by you and tell you everything you need to do.” I want to do all these things for her.  I want the moment to be as beautiful as I can tell she wants it to be.

Her faces releases briefly, “Thank you," and she turns away.

Then she turns back, her face worried again, "Be sure to say the tribute is from all his family and friends. So no one will feel left out." There is a crease between her eyebrows, the rest of her face is set in stone.


The pastor has arrived now, apricot blond and fluffy-haired as a chick.  Light gray suit, royal blue shirt, pale tie. He wants to know the name of the bird. I don’t know. He wants to know how old it is. I don't know. He wants to know if it is male or female. I don’t know that either, and have no way of determining, but I'm so tired of knowing nothing that I invent freely: “Well, the man who trains the birds called it ‘he,’ so . . . "  Is it more wrong to make up things to the face of a religious professional?  Or are they used to it? In any case, the pastor nods, satisfied. I stand at the cage. When the grinning undertaker turns on the CD-player to blare out a thumping, deep-bass Bible-ballad it throws the bird into a frenzy. I steady the bobbling shepherd’s crook and keep my eye on the bird.

The remarks begin. Christian was a young man, early 30s. The pastor doesn’t mention in the eulogy how Christian died. But it was at the same hospital where eight years ago my own son was born, which brings this death another step closer home to me.

Woman friend comes up, mentions how Christian loved her dogs and her cat, shares memories of watching game shows with Christian and if Christian didn’t know the answer he’d always answer with the name of her cat, “Kitty Bear,” which everyone finds humorous. 

Christian's younger brother now speaks -- embarrassed-looking, trim beard, and tidy in a white shirt and tie, black-and-white sweater, here from Coeur d’Alene -- "My relationship with my brother Christian has been up and down lately. A lot of you here know him a lot better lately than I did. But I want to share what I learned from him. When my mother divorced Brandon and wasn’t able to take care of us, Christian took care of me, made cinnamon sugar oatmeal for me, went to the Island and picked berries so he could buy me a hamburger. When eventually I was homeless, Christian taught me how to survive on the streets, Christian kept me from making some very stupid mistakes.”

It's like a skewed version of Pilgrim's Progress, our present Christian wandering much longer and further afield than in John Bunyan's story, the monsters he faces smaller, but trickier.

A wild-looking man, handsome but untamed, gets up: “First time I met Christian I wanted to strangle him. But I loved him. This was Christian’s walk sober—" he mimes it. “This was him when he was high, drunk, whatever—" arms flapping, bounding at every step.  He continues, “I fight a lot and Christian would say he had my back, then I’m fighting—” suddenly mimes looking around “'—Christian? Christian? Where are you?'" bends down to look under the coffin like it's the front bumper of a car and beckons, “'Come on, Christian, come on out of there.’"

His face lengthens, "I feel bad. I was in jail and I wasn’t there for him. I’m not putting the blame on me, but I loved him. I’m going to miss him. Oh man.” Then he kneels at the coffin as if at a bedside and recites, “For God so loved the world . . . ," he has a powerful voice and seems to be enjoying the moment as much as I did reciting the poem at my grandfather’s funeral the week before, " . . . that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

I look around and know it is true. I feel the wild man is my brother, just as fond as I am of saying the mot juste and hearing the sound of our voices ringing out.  But for all our self-dramatization, some real tenderness at the heart. I love the watery sunlight on the uncovered heads. I love the awkward guests on the other side of the canopy, looking around surreptitiously at each other, and the woman who begins to whoop with sobs on the front row.


More people are crowding up around the edge of the canopy, crowding around me and the bird who thrashes in the cage. I put a hand on the hook to stop the wobbling, which seems to steady our dove. A sweet-faced woman, blond, vague-eyed, bends forward, says something I don’t catch, nods and smiles helpfully. I smile back.

Another mourner stands up to talk. She talks about how Christian loved her dogs, too. How she will miss Christian so much.

Then a big man gets up. He says he remembers Christian and his brother from when they were young, growing up. He is very stern. He says as a Native American his beliefs are different, "At the end today, I will be praying for him that his spirit cross over that divide," he booms out with his huge voice.

There is a gasp from someone near me. I glance down. The cage is open. The bird is still inside.  I go to grab the dove, to close the cage, and our pigeon hops onto the ground. I snatch for it and my hands close in on the cold grass.  The wayward pigeon flies low and away, not fast, but faster than I can reach for it. I leap out onto the cemetery drive — 

and am flooded suddenly with the memory of chasing my 5-year-old daughter’s kite down the beach, which I had promised her I would not let go of -- "Oh, come on. It'll be fun. Of course I won't lose hold!" -- chasing and chasing I went then, pounding down the beach, weaving in and around the knots of unconcerned people, knowing I would never ever be able to catch the kite again, but not wanting to return to my daughter empty-handed, not wanting to fail in my promise already.  The kite keeps happily on, bobbing in the air easily and in no hurry, just high enough and fast enough to stay out of reach.  I ran and ran and ran until my lungs ached and my legs began to clench, and then suddenly the kite lurched - waggled joyously - leaping up into a stronger gust and over the sand dunes inland and away.  And I had no choice but to turn back and face the limits of what I could promise my child.
Beside me now, the sweet-faced woman steps out and watches the bird go, her face glowing with a great peace and happiness. I’m a little worried that the white pigeon is heading south for the City — which is the wrong way, as its home is supposed to be north up the River. I’m sure though it will get itself straightened out. Won’t it? Isn’t it trained? the Voice is dubious about anything going like it ought out of this tangle.  

I turn back to the dark green canopy and the funeral party gathered underneath. A wave of sickness rising up at my recurrent inability, my sudden ineptitude at simple tasks, and what I’m going to say to our friend Dale — whose livelihood this whole business is. And here I’ve gone and played out the script of pitfalls I was so resisting. I am a sad and very unfunny Lucille Ball.  Who loves this Lucy?

I make a pained and sorrowful face, mouthing, “I am so sorry” to the undertaker, the pastor, the crowd in general.  I feel so sorry.  Sorry for myself.  The Voice isn't talking to me, she has turned her shoulder in a huff, but I know what she would say if she were and the tone she would be using.  Still the funeral continues — just as life always does. And I still have to stand, next to the empty cage. My day ticking away. My legs beginning to tire from standing. I imagine briefly the dove/pigeon/dove suddenly flying back and landing at my feet. Maybe?  

Fat chance.  Ah, the Voice is with me yet.

Then the sweetly vague woman goes up to the front and says to the pastor she has a poem to say. She begins, but her words are garbled and too quiet to hear. Much gesturing to her heart.  To the sky.  In the direction that dratted bird has flown.  Back towards the wicked City. More and more, she turns her back to the crowd and speaks directly to the sky, blowing kisses. She is very, very skinny with pale long curly hair and wears she her long black, thin-fabricked skirt with lumberjack boots and a black jacket with dull-gold arms — The Governor Hotel embroidered on the back in posh curlicues. That place President Clinton stayed when he came out this way. Medieval beams inside, lots of wood, lots of wealth.

Wonder how she got that jacket?  The Voice notes suspiciously that it is just like the jackets the valets wear as they stand out in the road in front of the grand entrance and direct traffic around important disembarking guests.

No one can hear what the woman is saying. She speaks more and more quietly, her gestures more animated, no sign of ever stopping. The pastor shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He keeps his eye on the reciting woman, makes a small motion to check her -- restrains himself.  She, all unaware, gestures to her heart, to the sky, dabs again at her eyes and cheek, gabbling—her voice only heard in her own head, her movements not quite under control. Poor lady, my own Voice grunts with grudging sympathy, must be some significant chemical damage, poor girl, living on the streets . . .

Then as suddenly the woman stops -- as if midsentence -- and turns with a queenly graciousness to shake hands with the pastor and the undertaker. She slips away to the back of the crowd.

Could she have slipped the latch?  the Voice has begun to suspect she let the bird go herself.  But I never saw her touch the cage. I never saw anyone touch the cage except myself. Maybe it was just the thrashing of the bird that dislodged the latch. Maybe you should have kept checking the latch, hmm? says my tiresome Voice, gleeful there's always one person she can pin the blame on.

Now an attractive woman with blond highlights steps forward, skinny jeans, big puffy black parka. "I wasn’t going to say anything but when I saw the dove go, I thought - that’s just like Christian. I saw it go and said, 'There goes the dove. There goes Christian.  Slipping out early.'”

That’s making the best of it, the Voice harrumphs, humiliated to be associated in this debacle. My shame burns fresh in my face.

Christian's mother looks up, pale, unhappy. She hadn't noticed the dove's escape before. I will have to give Dale back the little envelope of pay, of course, without taking out the part meant for me. Of course. The Voice is a little surprised that I would have any question.

A vigorous white-haired man comes forward now, a restful looking woman beside him.  He's in a freshly-new white shirt, still creased, at least a size too large for him, though he is a large man, red-faced with a drunken red Scandinavian nose — a sailor, or the grandson of one. He says, “I am Christian’s father,” but can’t go on. He apologizes.

There is a deep-voiced, somehow practiced rumble of support: 
“It’s okay — Not a problem — You can do it, man.”  The Voice sniffs, Like at AA meetings I imagine.

But he can’t do it. The woman with him takes his hand, stands there at the front with him, holding him there. She says, “Christian had a gentle heart. He was gentle. He was a gentle soul.”   Then she urges the white-haired man forward again with a soft tug and a small gesture of her hand, her face very care-taking. Christian's father tries to say something more, but can’t.

Again, the deep-voiced rumble of support from under the canopy.

The big-boned white-haired father kneels and puts a hand on the casket. Silently.  Then he and the woman with him move away, out from under the canopy, pull cigarettes from their pockets, light up.

The pastor resumes. Makes a graceful allusion to God releasing Christian early from his captivity: “while I’m sure it would have been very beautiful to release the dove, it seems appropriate that the dove escaped and made his way home before time.”

I feel so grateful to the pastor that I completely forgive him his apricot-colored blow-dried hair and pale tie and his stupid questions. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. The undertaker turns and gives me a scarecrow smile of surprising kindness.


And finally a Bible verse from Christian’s brother who says he is reading it for the woman gulping out her sobs on the front row, Bonnie, “who would read it I’m sure if she were able.”  Bonnie cries out louder still.

More music from the CD player -- rough-edged men’s voices singing “Amazing Grace” to the chord progressions of the old blues tune, “House of the Rising Sun.” So while my ears hear,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun . . .

my mind hears,

. . . don’t do as I have done,
But shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
The pastor prays over the casket, sprinkling dirt in the sign of the cross. Christian’s mother lays a few long-stemmed carnations. People begin to mill about. The Native American stands with a fist outstretched over the casket, eyes clenched shut, his lips moving. He opens his hand and dried leaves fall to the top of the coffin.

More flowers. Someone tucks a rolled-up magazine in the handle of the casket on the side away from the crowd. The skinny undertaker in his brown suit and his baseball-capped assistant remove the painted green wooden platform that had covered the grave shaft beneath the casket. Bonnie howls again.

The undertaker and his assistant pull away the first of the metal bars holding up the casket when suddenly the supporting canvas strap snaps.  With a horrible crash the casket falls headfirst and askew into the grave.  Bonnie on the front row drops to her knees, wailing, clutching at her stomach with one hand and her mouth with the other, louder than ever. Christian’s mother, Sheryl, her face frozen and her eyes pained, bends over Bonnie to comfort her.  Then straightens, giving it up as a hopeless task, her face a mask of stone.  She has worked so hard to make this funeral a fitting thing.

Bonnie shrieks, “They’ve dropped him on his f***ing head. They’ve dropped him on his f***ing head.”

Men jump down into the grave, working to wedge the casket back into place. The undertaker has taken off his jacket and his tie, the ragged neck of his undershirt shows in the open neck of his thin white shirt. Christian’s father tries to climb awkwardly down into the grave and they have to shoo him back.

When the casket is mostly straight and almost level, settled at last in the bottom of the shaft, the undertaker and his assistant straighten back up, hands on their hips, breathing deeply.  Christian’s mother walks up to the edge of the grave to address the men there, speaking stiffly, “Can’t you open it and straighten his body?”

Down in the shaft the upper half of the two-part lid is awry. The undertaker starts to shake his head.  Then smiles his professional smile, “We-ll, let’s see what we can do, shall we?”

Gamely he climbs back down, opens the upper-half of the lid and reaches deep, deep down in along the sides of the casket.  Straightening the body, I assume, though I don’t try to see.  Now some of the other mourners have come up around.  They look down.  They see only legs sticking out from under the upper half of the casket lid, twitching.  The new mourners begin to yelp, “His legs! His legs!”

When the undertaker climbs back out onto firm ground, he tells me I can go.  His smile still valiant but somewhat slipped.

At least no one will remember the dove flying the coop after all that, the Voice offers.  She is so horrible -- I am -- that it's all I can do to keep from shrieking with laughter.

When I get home I look up the entire psalm: 

Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. 
Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness.
I would hasten my escape . . . for I have seen violence and strife in the city. 
Sometimes that Holy Writ strikes a little too close to home, doesn't it?  Maybe it's better to leave it with the first line, better to stop with fly away, and be at rest -- leaving the bitterness and trouble to cook down until it's only an unspoken richness to our common meal.

Because no matter how seemly our rituals of grief may or may not be, we still finish up at the same empty beach, a little seawrack of memory.  The same inadequate fondness and loss.  We can name it different things -- this death, this grief, this parting -- but there's the same emptiness of the gulf before us. We can trust that there is land on the other side -- but for all of us the same derisory piping of a bird and the wind riffling through someone’s hair, while we stand there in the face of what is huge and beyond and grievous.

(this was the first ever post, for the final word: The Pigeon Curse Repealed)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Poems for October: "The Day is Done," "The Wild Swans," "Stepping Westward"

(week of Oct 5 - 11)

The Day is Done
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sorrow comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist.

A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple, heartfelt lay
That will soothe this restless feeling
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo
Along the corridors of time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor
And tonight I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet
Whose song gushed from his heart
Like rain from the clouds of summer
Or tears from the eyelids start,

Who, through long days of labor
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have the power to quiet
The restless pulse of care
And come like a benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night will be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Will fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.

(week of Oct 12 - 18)

Wild Swans
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.

Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock the door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

(week of Oct 19 -25)

Stepping Westward
by Denise Levertov

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.

If woman is inconstant,
good, I am faithful to

ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now

is a time of ripening.
If her part

is to be true,
a north star,

good, I hold steady
in the black sky

and vanish by day,
yet burn there

in blue or above
quilts of cloud.

There is not savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be
what, woman,

and who, myself,
I am, a shadow

that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. I can
eat as I go.
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