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.