Friday, December 30, 2016

How to Sing Auld Lang Syne With the Dead

My dearly departed number enough to make a chorus. In 2016, the year we've come to revile for its loss of so many beloved celebrities and the loss of hope for a woman president, I also lost my mother. It's a common thing to lose one's parents at this stage of life, but nothing is more unexpected than the expected death of a loved one. We tell can tell everyone about the many trips to death's door and the seemingly incessant knocking there, but once the door swings wide, there's nothing to do but gasp with disbelief. 

What surprises me these many months later is how close I feel to her at times. How I can clearly hear what she might say in a given situation. How the hairdo or the shape of a daughter's lipsticked smile makes me feel as though my mother is just inches from my grasp.

And what surprises me these many months later is how far away she feels. Her clothes are gone, her room repainted, the wheel chair at the dining room table donated. Some days I cannot find her in any room of the house we shared.

It's the same with the man who loved me, my friend Dale, my ex-mother-in-law. I can open my eyes in the deep middle of the night dark of my bedroom and see Dan's bass leaning in a corner, and I can almost hear the strings humming. They are playing George Michael songs on the radio a lot these days, and I'm transported in front of the TV with Dale talking about rock-a-billy. I pick up the pen to write my mother-in-law's name  on the order form for the same box of Christmas oranges  I've sent her for decades. The body has momentary lapses.  

I never look heavenward when searching for the dead. I don't believe in heaven or hell. For me, there is no old man with a beard, standing at a gate. I find neither solace nor fear in those images, though if  I hold fast to those convictions, I must also mourn the loss of  the myth of reunion. How do we all meet again in paradise if there is no paradise? Lately I've come to believe that these stories are translations of a cosmic reality so profound that we mere mortals cannot grasp it. Somehow though, I believe our spirits will merge; we'll be one with love and each other in some indescribable universal song.

New Year's has long been my favorite holiday. I want to start over. I need to start over. But should auld acquaintance be forgot? Do we go forward without the dead? We do and we don't. If it's true that we are stardust (and it is), and if it's true that our carbon atoms were once "part of volcanoes, giant redwoods, Apatosauruses, diamonds, plastic bottles, snakes, snails, lichens, nematodes, photosynthetic algae, the very first cells," as a recent science article in the Washington Post tells us, it's easy to imagine how we are and could become part of each other. "It’s certain that your carbon saw the interior of a star, survived a supernova, sailed through the solar system and splashed down on Earth long before arriving at you," Sarah Kaplan writes. And now for the best part of the article. "Now breathe out. Riding an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide, a carbon atom just left your body, headed for its next great adventure." 

I was holding Dan in my arms when he took his final breath. I was stroking my mom's hair and her hands at her bedside when she breathed out and the next in-breath never came. But I breathed in. I breathed in.

It's fairly certain that if I've ever breathed in the carbon atom of a singer or a musician, it's rendered no effect on me in terms of musical talent. I can't carry a tune. But on New Year's Eve, I'll sing Auld Lang Syne inside my head--or maybe out loud if I've had a third glass of wine.  I'll sing it, arms wrapped around myself, wrapped around cosmic love, while looking up at the stars.  2017 will be a brand new start.

Happy New Year. 

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Day After Christmas Beach Report

Winter has come to Southern California. The high here today was 59, and the foam from the churned up ocean almost looks like snow. And we do have snow, actually--on the mountain tops. I'm running around bundled up the way we Californians do. Wool sweater, scarf, insulated boots. It must look ridiculous so someone visiting from New England, say. But California houses (at least the ones I've lived in) are not well-insulated and so it's hard to get cozy even when you're inside out of the wind.

I'm glad the wind did not deter me from my beach walk this morning.

Note the quarter in the upper right as a size reference.

It was a wild, windy day with white caps, diving pelicans, shrieking terns, and lots of people (probably holiday visitors) who looked rather chilly in their light clothing. I wore a fleece jacket and a hooded sweatshirt over my wool sweater. If you've had to shovel snow today, or deal with a car that wouldn't start, or slipped and fell on the ice, or waited for the bus in below freezing temperatures you can have a good long laugh at my expense. And maybe think about a trip to a place that looks like this.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

Christmas at my house used to look like this.

Today, for the second year in a row, I spent Christmas Day at a bar with friends, listening to fabulous local musicians.

Booze and boats. What a lovely view.

The party ended at 4:30. Santa can party til he melts, but I'm snug at home.
Wherever you are this Christmas, I hope you are safe. I hope you are loved. I hope you've given and received, and that some delicious and festive concoction has passed your lips. I hope you've uttered kind words and heard that kindness echo back. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Solstice, Everyone.

 Light keeps us from bumbling around lost. It lets us see what's really there. Light can tell us when to stop or go. It can warn us or warm us. Light shines through the eyes of those we love and shines out of our eyes into their hearts.

Channel Islands Harbor Parade of Lights

Last night's sunset with the Christmas lights that  finally went up on my patio.

Light warring with darkness at the beach this morning
Light coming in through the window of my mother's old room, illuminating her favorite Christmas decorations.
Note the set of identical twins.

Tomorrow the days grow longer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Monday Beach Report

Yes. It's Tuesday, I know. But this is the way the beach looked yesterday around 9 in the morning. I find the other worldly beauty of a gray day full of magic.

And there was beach glass. Lots of it.

In other news, life just keeps happening. (This is a good thing, mostly, if you leave the current political nightmare out of it.) But I'm going to Chicago for a funeral tomorrow. The holidays are barely registering with me, though I still hope to put up a Christmas tree with my mom's crocheted snowflakes when I return. A dear friend will be staying at my house while I'm away, and will continue to stay on for a bit after my return. Who knows maybe some festive fury will overtake me.

last year's tree far I'm not really feeling it. Did you know that the Christmas holidays are actually a risk factor for death? According to CNN, "There's a spike in deaths for all age groups on those days with one exception -- children." So maybe we should avoid it like smoking and cholesterol and too much sitting. I'd like to see those studies about Christmas and dying to look more closely into how shopping figures in. I'll bet non-shoppers have a better outcome. That's my story anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Christmas long ago. I think I was maybe 12.
One thing's for sure, I'm really glad to be among the living.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Derailed.Figuratively speaking, thank god.

Yesterday the train I was on hit a car.

Or the car t-boned the train. This was how the incident was described by Amtrak.

I am a fearful flyer. I'm often anxious while riding in/driving a car. I like trains. They don't worry me. Even so, I always choose the middle car. Yesterday I was riding in the snack bar car in the dead middle of the train. The car struck just a few feet from where I was sitting. The train lurched and wobbled, the sound of something not meant to be there grinding beneath its wheels. I yelled. The guy standing near the door, waiting to get off yelled even louder. "I think we just hit a car," he said. The snack bar attendant opined that it was something smaller. He was wrong.

The sirens were screaming when we stopped. Just outside the door to the train car a piece of smashed metal sprouted from the train like a deformed wing.

No one on the train was hurt. No one informed us about the person or persons in the car. The sheriff came to investigate. Amtrak employees in the blue trousers and white shirts sledgehammered and crowbarred, trying to remove the piece of car that had welded itself to the train. As time passed it became obvious that I'd miss the event at the bookstore where I was supposed to read my piece recently published in a special post-election anthology put out by the Rattling Wall and Pen Center USA. I considered showing up an hour late and maybe catching a few of the fabulous readers, but the whacking of the undercarriage of the train by the determined man with the sledgehammer was not exactly a confidence builder, so I caught the train back home.

I searched the news all day, wondering about the car. There was nothing but this tweet from Amtrak:

ALERT: Train 784 now released by police following investigation of vehicle incident. Now 1hr 43 mins late.

That seems like good news. No one died.

Here's the link if you'd like buy the anthology. It looks pretty fabulous.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Ways We Miss the Dead

I had a dream last night too muddled to recount. In it was a young man--the friend of one of my daughters. He was shot and killed at a party when they were in high school. In my dream he was playing the guitar and I was trying to explain to a friend that he was dead and had come back only for this one special evening. No matter how I tried, I could not make her understand.

Friday night I went to the mall to buy a purse and to have three dead watches checked out to see if batteries might revive them. One of the watches was my mother's. I had a snappy red leather band put on it along with the new battery, wondering if some day I might wear this watch, its pulse beating on my wrist now instead of my mother's and somehow this might make me feel her presence in my life in a physical way. While I waited for the work to be done on the watches, I walked through the mall and found myself in Sears, walking in the very same aisle I once walked regularly with my mother to get to Miracle Ear.

The other day I told a friend how my father often spoke in tired and true old sayings and how he didn't even have to deliver the whole saying because he'd said them so often that we kids knew what came next.  Up too late? "The early bird," he'd say. A friend got in trouble for running with the wild kids? "Birds of a feather," he'd say.

On Thursday night, my regular night out to hear music at a local bar with friends, the musicians played a song we'd never heard them play, Sweet and Shiny Eyes. Bonnie Rait recorded it and I think Willie Nelson put out a version too.

Your sweet and shiny eyes are like the stars above Laredo
Like meat and potatoes to me
In my sweet dreams we are in a bar, and it's my birthday
Drinking salted Margaritas with Fernando
Young and wild, we drove five hundred miles of Texas highway
To the Mexican border as the day was coming on
We crossed the Rio Grande river and we swore we'd have things our way
When we happened to walk into Nuevo Leon
Your sweet and shiny eyes are like the stars above Laredo
Like meat and potatoes to me
In my sweet dreams we are in a bar, and it's my birthday
And we're having our picture taken with Fernando
In my sweet dreams we are in a bar, and it's my birthday
And we're having our picture taken with Fernando

The version I know best was sung to me live. The way I remember it, it was usually after dinner at my place. Dan would pull his guitar out of its case and carry it back to the table. We'd push our chairs far enough from each other so he'd have room to play.

In my sweet dreams I'm in a bar, there are people playing the guitar, and the dead are back for a visit, their eyes sweet and shiny. We know, just by being in their presence how lucky we are, and they know that they were lucky, in a way, to leave this life first because we were here to hold them, to mourn them, to keep them alive in our dreams, to tell their stories--and they can never do that for us.

Here's an essay about that by Donald Hall from the New Yorker.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Birthday Cake and Bears

from Pinterest

Last night's dream:

The cake was the most important thing. I had to get the cake for my 16-year-old daughter's birthday. Some other mom had ordered it for us, insisting there had to be a fancy cake and a party when, really, our lives were unraveling. This other mom had planned everything--picked a date and a time and sent out invitations. My daughters and I were between houses, halfway moved, not sure where to sleep and what belongings were where. A party seemed impossible. 

The cake was from a special bakery in an L.A. neighborhood I'd never been to. Some inner city suburb, or it's own separate town within the city. It had an interesting name I've been trying all morning to remember. Hidalgo. Trivalgo. Something pleasant and slightly exotic. I looked it up on the map on my phone. Oh. There. It wasn't far. We drove over a huge bridge, a friend and I, to get there. There was a taxi stand and an information kiosk at the bridge. I didn't quite remember the name of the bakery, even though the other mother had told me twice. Dark something. Or something Black. I looked up bakeries on my iPhone. Dark Orpheus was the name of one of the bakeries, so I asked the information guy where it was. Walk through the canyon, the guy said. It's so beautiful. So we left my car parked near the bridge and set out. 

The canyon was deep and lined with fallen leaves. The walls of the canyon were pocked with small caves. There was bear scat on the trail.  By now, my younger daughter (not the birthday girl) had joined my friend and me, and so I had to worry, not just for my friend and me, but for my daughter too. I knew a bear would find us. At the very end of the the canyon, we had to scale a rock wall to get out. The hand and foot holds were easy, but we had to climb past a deep cave. The bear came roaring out of the cave just as I was near the top of the rocks. My friend covered himself in leaves and the bear tore past him. Run, I yelled. Shouldn't I play dead? he asked. Run, I yelled again, and he got to his feet, the leaves sticking to him so that he looked like a person made of leaves. My daughter was far behind. I turned and could see her blond ponytail bobbing as she took a steeper part of the canyon wall at a run, charging to the top like a super-hero. The bear didn't chase us.

There was something somber about the bakery. The wait staff wore black t-shirts and black pants and black bow ties. I couldn't remember the name of the mother who ordered the cake, so I asked if they had a birthday cake with my daughter's name on it. They did. It was tall with a hard shell of dark chocolate icing. It was elegantly decorated, her name written in a swirling script.  But we didn't want to carry the cake all the way back to the car, so I went to get the car, but there was some kind of problem, and now it was getting late. The bakery might be closed when we got back, so I took a taxi and had the taxi driver call them and plead, all the while I was getting texts from my friend to hurry. They wouldn't give the cake to anyone but me. 

I made it. But no one had money for the taxi back, so we walked, marveling at the city. There were many ornate tall buildings and terrazzo sidewalks. We cut through the lobby of a classic cinema, balancing the cake in its box while we admired the gold mortar between the dark granite blocks of the smooth and sparkling walls. We have to come back here, we said.

But now had to get to the party. But where was the party? New house? Old house? Would my daughter's father come? He'd said he would, but we knew maybe he wouldn't. Should some of us go to one house and the rest to the other house in case some guests showed up at the wrong place?

Somehow the party happened. People seemed to have a nice time. The house looked good. There were patters of food shining in the candlelight. My ex-husband was there. He and I spoke. Some mystery was revealed, but this morning I have no idea what it was. And I never got a piece of that cake.


I'm always grateful for an elaborate dream. And even though I'm often scared when I dream of bears, this bear incident resolved itself rather easily, even though I know that in real life a person can't outrun a bear. 
I Googled the name of the bakery. You never know. There's a restaurant called Orpheus New Orleans Cuisine. It's in New Zealand. 
Interesting that there is still some processing of the divorce and mothering of teen-agers. But even that felt like a welcome respite from the current political reality.
What have you been dreaming about?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thank you, thank you, thank you...

View of the mountains in  Las Vegas
Thanks for the birthday wishes, everyone.
I hope your Thanksgiving  was full of gratitude, good food, and love.
I'm still roaming around, experiencing all of the above.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Trump Victory Tour a.k.a. Thanksgiving

Every place I visit in the next few days, it's quite likely there will be Trump voters present.

Yesterday I drove for 6 and a half hours at a top speed of 30 miles per hour.

Today traffic moved faster. The desert glittered with years of litter.  A couple of the roadsigns were pocked with bullet holes.

I hope Thanksgiving dinner is utterly and completely delicious.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Art of Josephina Aguilar

I'm back from Mexico, back from Day of the Dead, shuffling through life like a zombie. I've been sick with a bad cold since my return, and I have one of those Samsung washing machines that's trying to kill me. Oh, and Trump won the election. Well, not really. He won the electoral college vote and some say he's going to be president. Just typing those words turns my stomach.

I'm going to keep posting about art, theatre and literature here.

 Josephina lives and works in the modest family compound in Ocatlan, Mexico. She and her siblings learned from their mother and Josephina has taught her own children to be ceramic artists too. Josephina is blind now due to the complications of diabetes, but continues to work with just a bit of help from one of her daughters. I saw her build an entire figure using three basic tools--an agave spine, a piece of metal, and sort of ceramic hammer/roller she made herself.

This photo and the one below were taken by my friend Linda Kane

I brought this one home with me.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dia de Los Muertos: the fiesta in the cemetary big city style

"Tell the taxi driver Pantheon General," Jane said, pronouncing the name of the cemetery in Spanish. "Tell him tercero porta." She warned us that he might not be able to drive up to the third entrance, so get out wherever he left us and find the third entrance on foot. Luckily, I went in the same taxi with Jane or I would have been arguing in my almost nonexistent Spanish with a taxi driver. No, no, not the carnival, general. Pantheon general. All of the entrances to the huge cemetery were masked by a blocks-long carnival. Tilt-a-Whirl, shooting galleries, go fish, every junk food concession imaginable. For blocks. And blocks.  The Pantheon General was the urban equivalent of our previous night's visit to a village cemetery. Only this night we went to the party at Jane's husband's grave. There was beer and mescal, tamales, a hired trio if musicians and scores of friends come to pay their respects. 

Oh, by the way, there was a base player. 

The next day we went back to the Pantheon General  to tidy up, and to clean (there are water spigots every 30 feet or so) and adorn the graves of friends of Jane's as well as the grave of an unknown gringa adopted years ago by Jane and her husband. 

The simple mounds of dirt are few and far between at Pantheon General. The graves are, at a minimum covered with stone or or tile. Some are shielded from the sun by roofs or canopies; others have small enclosures complete with benches. There are flowers everywhere. It's hard to fathom that Mexico can grow enough flowers to decorate the graves of all the dearly departed. As we were leaving, people continued to stream in, arms laden. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Dia de Los Muertos: the fiesta in the cemetery

The Santa Maria Cemetery in Atzompa, Oaxaca

I imagined what it would be like. I didn't come close. 

The festive atmosphere began as we walked through the streets at 1:30 in the morning. Food vendors cooking up hot meals. Men with boxes of candy and chewing gum working the crowd. We could hear the music blasting happy tunes. Not ranchero, not banda, but something polka-like. The band was from the neighboring state of Chiapas, I was told. An accordion, a couple of electric guitars, drums, singing. As we passed through the gates of the cemetery, a couple was dancing arm in arm.

Townspeople poured through the entrance, arms full of marigolds, cockscomb, gladiolas, blankets, babies, pots of tamales, tall candles. The graves had been cleaned and readied; some were already completely decked out with flowers in vases or simply mounded over the graves. Candles were everywhere. Fruits and vegetables were laid out for the returning spirits. Drinks were poured for them. Some people were wound into blankets sleeping next to, on even atop the mounds of earth, under which lay their loved ones. Families brought chairs and settled in. Food was passed around. There were smiles and laughter and conversation while the band played on.

It was comfortable enough to be a norte americana there to observe rather than participate. Stepping along the winding narrow paths on uneven terrain between the graves amidst tall lighted  candles and the crowds was challenging. SeƱora, a woman called, standing up from her little wooden chair to point my way. The people seemed accustomed to visitors, maybe even proud of the beauty and willing to share it.

I've never felt comfortable visiting my father or anyone else in a cemetery. It feels sad. It feels deserted. Pouring out a beer or a shot of scotch and laying out a pack of Chesterfields, I'm sure would be frowned upon. Lighted candles would probably require a permit from the fire marshall, and amplified music would, no doubt, cause nothing short of scandal. But I think that if I lived in my hometown after seeing what I saw last night, it's quite likely that I'd be having martinis in the cemetery after my mother's ashes are returned from the University of Iowa Medical School. There'd be hummingbird feeders, candies, cookies, cake, and orchids. 

The Art of Irma Blanco

We've driven through the countryside to various artists' studios outside Oaxaca. Cornfields line the road and it looks like a poorer version of Iowa. We arrive in a village that looks nothing at all like an small Iowa town. The church is topped with domes instead of a towering spire. The streets are cobblestones or dust. The walls of the houses are brightly painted and often graffitied. Curb appeal is an unknown concept. Lawns do not exist. But when you are invited in through the formidable gate and enter the home studio of an artist, it's like that moment when the Wizard of Oz changes from black and white to color.

Irma Blanco, 2nd generation ceramic artist.

This piece was created before our eyes, hand built in 15 minutes or so. The raw black clay transforms to the color below after firing.

Irma specializes in these elaborate creations as well as whimsical smaller pieces.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Veil Grows Thinner

We visited candle makers and weavers in Teotitlan Del Valle today. It seems like everyone who lives there is an artist. 

Zapotec master candlemaker Viviana Alvarez and family
World renowned master weaver Issac Vasquez

The sky was its own work of art.

In the church courtyard at Teotilan

I watched the clouds shift and the light change. Within a few seconds of one another, two hearts appeared in the clouds.

Later we stopped at a nearby cemetery to observe the preparations for Day of the Dead. People were cleaning off the graves and beginning to decorate, but they welcomed us. A few of us struck up a conversation with a couple. He had lived in Santa Barbara, California but returned to his town after a few years. 

Back at the Casa, we tested out our altar.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Everyone Rises from the Dead Here

This morning we sat in the sala, talking about religion and Day of the Dead and what a big holiday it is. Easter is not the huge holiday that it is for Catholics in the States, Jane (the owner of the Casa) told us. "Everyone rises from the dead here in Oaxaca--at least for one day," she said. The weather is changing in Oaxaca, the heat easing, the skies thinning into a clear blue. The spirits are coming, people say. They can get through now. We can feel it.

We went to the Abastos Mercado today to the special section for Day of the Dead. We bought marigolds and cockscomb, Pan de Muertos and sugar skulls, candles, copal, and whatever else people in the group wanted for our alter here at the Casa. As we turned a corner and came upon the flower section--all marigolds and cockscomb, my eyes filled with tears. All those thousands of flowers will be purchased for graves and altars. All that color and sweetness for departed loved ones. Maybe the scent and the color is what guides them to us.

The dining room, decorated for Day of the Dead

Supplies are piling up for the altar, there's sawing in the courtyard as I write this.