Thursday, September 04, 2014

Frequency change approved.

This was the eulogy I delivered at the service celebrating my father's life and passing from it in 2009.

Good morning.

My father was a pilot, and some of my earliest memories are of airplanes: gliders, U controls, radio controlled model planes—then later, airplanes in dim hangers and on baking tarmacs, the  sharp sulphur smell of aviation fuel, the gleam of propellers in  sunlight,  mysteries of all the instruments and radios.  I was fascinated by this, and my dad spent endless hours explaining lift, drag and thrust, pitch, roll and yaw to me—and instilled in me a deep love of flying.  I'm a pilot too.

My father was an instinctive pilot; he learned to fly  in his teens, and was then forced to unlearn all of those skills when he went into the Air Force;  I have heard there are good stories to be told of the molding of Cadet Fawcett by the heavy handed instructors of the Air Wing, but after some gentle reorientation, Dad joined the test pilot corps based at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  Dad left the Air Force after an injury, but this didn't quell his love of flying.  He continued to fly—a Beech Bonanza, a Beech Baron.  He never qualified for jets, because he didn't think he could wedge that 6' 4" frame into what he affectionately called “Bill Lear's mailing tube”. But Dad and aircraft just went together like a hand and glove.

My father was an intuitive pilot; I remember watching him fly a very fidgety Piper Arrow on a hot turbulent afternoon in Western New York.  I was all white knuckles and sweaty palms and a steady stream of almost profane language while I had my thumb (unawares!) locked down on the push to talk switch of the radio when my Dad suddenly said “I have the aircraft”.  I looked over in amazement:  he had the yoke  easily balanced between thumb and two fingers, and suddenly what had been a bucking bronco of an aircraft became a tame and docile machine.  “Don't fight the plane; move with it, exploit the strengths, recognize the flaws.  Be patient.  Be calm.  Observe.”  Those are good words to live by as well.

My father was the best pilot I have ever known.  An airplane is just a collection of metal, rubber, wires and bad upholstery without the guiding hand, eye and mind of the Pilot.

When a pilot is planning a long journey, he files a flight plan.  After leaving the ramp, the aircraft is directed by Ground Control radio, then handed off to Tower.  The pilot completes his checklist at the end of the runway, and when given clearance, he advances the throttle; the plane rolls down the runway and at the proper speed there is a sensation of the the earth tugging, clinging, fighting to  pull the aircraft down.  But velocity and lift win out, and the nose wheel rises from the runway, followed by the mains.  The gear and flaps are retracted and the plane climbs faster and faster.  The plane is released to Departure control who will guide the aircraft through the crowded airspace

When the airplane has exited the controlled airspace there is a dialogue between the pilot and Departure:  for example, “Bonanza November 1931 Juliet Foxtrot, turn right heading 270; climb and maintain one zero thousand; squawk 1200 and  contact Center on 128.55.  Frequency change approved—good day”  The pilot will read back these instructions, and then begin his journey.

I see my dad on this final trip; there is no more cancer,  no more pain and fear, he is tall and strong, eager for this journey.  He strides purposefully across the tarmac, swinging easily, gracefully into the left seat of  his airplane.  He completes his preflight checklist, taxis to the east end of the runway and after receiving clearance  moves the throttle forward to a smooth and steady take off with just a gentle rock of the wings to those of us watching from behind that inevitable  fence. The air is calm and stable today, and his airplane climbs rapidly, fading into a white dot before it disappears from our sight.  I see him looking over his charts, studying the instrument  panel,  gazing out to  that sun pierced and  amazing horizon; I see my Dad doing what he loved the most:  flying, suspended between the vanishing earth and that brilliant, deep blue sky, climbing to heaven.

Have a good flight home,  Dad.  Frequency change approved.




Monday, November 04, 2013

Falling into the Arms of God


I rolled over on the sofa and groped for the remote; behind me, my husband was rattling through the kitchen in a noisy effort to make the morning caffeine.  I had fallen asleep in front of an old movie the night before, and my back ached from lying on the sofa.

Channel 3 flickered to life, and I blinked.  One, two, three times . . . what the hell?  Towering Inferno?  Then understanding slammed into me with a sickening thud.  I gasped out Bill’s name, but it took a couple of tries before I got his attention.  “What?” he snarled.  “Look.  Please.”  I think it was the despair in my voice that made him turn and see the South Tower of the World Trade Center sway, totter and fall across Manhattan in a ballooning mushroom cloud of flame, smoke and dust.

We sat on the sofa, transfixed by the horrors of that morning, served up to us in glittering high def on our new plasma screen TV.  Much of the coverage was unedited at first; I distinctly remember seeing a figure on fire,  a man, cartwheeling through a window and spiraling down in a smoke trail like some shot up fighter and crashing into  a walkway with a horrifying bang.  Then more, some holding hands and taking their last step into the void to escape the hell behind them.   The slow, deliberate, implacable collapse of the North Tower which absolutely obliterated every discreet object in the area to a twisted and ruptured pile of steel and concrete.  We all saw it that day, saw the evil that mortal men are capable of inflicting on innocents, and the joy that many took in the wholesale slaughter and destruction.   The machine of war was put into motion on that day, and is still grinding on.  We were all scarred forever by what happened on a clear, blue Tuesday morning.

Every anniversary it seemed like the wound was reopened, the grief reexamined, the tears wiped away and the pain brought forward again and again and again as the names of the lost were read.  When I visited friends in New York in November of 2001, there was a foul, rotten odor in the air, and every surface was coated with thick, tenacious, gritty dust.  My friends have since told me that searchers continued to find fragments of bones on the roof of their building years after the attack. You could feel the particles squeak under your feet.  You could feel the ghosts.

But time has a way of numbing the senses; and I listened to some interesting rationalizations.  We had it coming; not much compared to the last century’s sad census of mass death.  It’s a bitter parade: WWI with Verdun, the Somme and fields of poppies; Armenian genocide; Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Khmer Rouge and murderous North Korean dictators; and less obvious death and despair from persistent and oppressive colonialism.  This year, some commentators noted that maybe it was time that America let go of 9/11 and get over it.  The last rescue dog from Ground Zero died.  Children are growing up and moving on.  Slowly, America is forgetting what happened on that day.  Like so many other days, it becomes less about the reason and more about the federally approved day off.

But I remember, and Santayana’s admonition about those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings round my head.  We are more alike than we are different, but those in power want to exploit the choler and frustration of citizens to achieve often obscure and frightening ends.  And that is evil as well.  Sometimes it seems that no matter which way you turn, there is nothing but rage and dead ends, bitter dishes at the angry buffet.

I don’t know how to eliminate evil; I don’t have a clue how to effect change, speak truth to power, spin out webs of stereotype and hyperbole.  The only territory I know absolutely is the rather dark land in between my ears, and I guard that frontier carefully.  But on that day, watching the burning man, incandescent and spinning like a Catherine wheel, I knew that I had to make a choice, for myself alone.  Be good.  Be kind.  Try to do the right thing, always.  Maybe begin those halting steps back to a spirituality that I thought was long gone.   Try, in some minute way, every day, to honor the lost—all those lost to corrupted power and terror.

Tom Junod, in his article “The Falling Man”, put it most pointedly, and also most poignantly:

“Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.”

Perhaps we are falling into the arms of God.  We are all trying to fulfill our own small miracles, and by that grace, (even in the midst of the sorrows of this world) find our way home.





Monday, October 21, 2013

Yarnell 34.2225° N, 112.7497° W

"If you came this way, 
Taking any route, starting from anywhere, 
At any time or at any season, 
It would always be the same: you would have to put off 
Sense and notion."

You parked the car well off the road to avoid drawing attention. Now you hike north and east, winding through scrub oak and spherical granite boulders which are slowly spalling themselves through freeze and thaw into quartz dust; the sky is a cerulean blue with white cirrus feathers trailing off to the east. In other words, another beautiful October Arizona afternoon.

You stop, breathing hard, and take a long drink of warm, flat tasting water; a handful of trailmix, another slug of water. The USGS sectional map and compass say you are not too far from your destination, but you know that it is on private land, and you will not trespass. Looking up, you see the blackened scar of ridgeline; that is on federal land, and is accessible. At least for now.

"Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. 
Dust in the air suspended 
Marks the place where a story ended. 
Dust inbreathed was a house- 
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse . . ."

The terrain is changing from tan grasses and green oak to singed foliage and black ash. Fire was here--intense, volcanic heat that has baked the ground to a ceramic glaze. You have walked through the forest crematoriums before, boots scuffing up little puffs of floury powder, the deconstructed components of trees, animals, homes and people. You saw the same ash puff under your feet when you walked across an apartment building patio in The Battery in November of 2001. Dust in the air suspended marks a place where the story ended.

Grumbling, you struggle up the last pitch of the trail which grows exponentially steeper in the final one hundred feet. Getting too old for this. Then you break the ridge and the panorama spreads out at your feet, luminous in the golden light of late afternoon. Across the landscape of a thousand square miles, the burn scar lies black, thick and dead across the rolling land. You see the box canyon. That is where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped and overrun by a forty foot tall wall of flame driven by the howling gusts of a dying monsoon thunderstorm. You sit on a round boulder and dig your heels into the sand skirt. And you watch. And you pray.

"The parched eviscerate soil 
 Gapes at the vanity of toil."

The investigations are ongoing; but you know these men died due to incompetence and neglect. You try not to linger on the manner of their deaths, but you have worked in burn units; you have seen the victims of fire, dead and alive, come through emergency room doors. When the hotshot bodies were found, some were still in their fire shelters; most were out, charred in positions of escape like artifacts of a new, awful Pompeii.

Some sad comrade had covered the bodies of the dead with American flags. You understand the sentiment, but everything that surrounded this horrible event soon came giftwrapped, like a box of Whitman's Candy, in American flags. Memorials and fundraisers were held, even the Vice President was wheeled in to mumble inanities about sacrifice and first responders. Then the stew of the media: blow dried and gelled up quasi journalists posturing in front of a cyclone fence adorned with teddy bears, flags and sympathy cards. Some wives were numb with grief, others captivated by the fifteen minutes of fame on teevee and the inevitable fundraisers. Americans assuage their collective guilt by pelting the victims of disaster with gold and manna. You observed the free for all with a growing sense of cynicism.

But this is here and this is now. You watch the shadows lengthen across the box canyon, barren and
desolate except for one lonely flagpole at the end, bravely wearing the Stars and Stripes and the Arizona state flag. Swirling gently in the evening breeze, they are the last things to be lost in the blackness that sweeps up the canyon and across the land. There is no sound here; no birds, no rustles in brush; it is dead and it is quiet. Unlike that last day, where the 911 tapes disclosed a dispatcher hushing the screaming men because she was trying to get some work done and they were distracting her. It was a hell on earth. Like everyone you talk to, you hope that the end was quick, that the pain was transient, and the souls of the men were swept to heaven on those winds laced with flame.

"Who then devised the torment? 
Love. Love is the unfamiliar 
Name Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame 
Which human power cannot remove. 
We only live, only suspire 
Consumed by either fire or fire."

There are tears in your eyes, but you must do this. The sun is an oblate blob of golden fire on the edge of the turning world. You kneel in the ash and the dirt; lay down the eagle feather given to you for this purpose; the crucifix; a saint's medallion; a matchbox toy car; the totems of this and other ages. You secure these to the earth with a lovely piece of rose quartz; and then, rising to your feet one last time, you look into that well of darkness. It is a void so black and so deep and so far out of time.

"And what the dead had no speech for, when living, 
They can tell you, being dead: the communication 
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living."

The prayers said, you shrug the pack over your shoulders and don the headlamp in the ebbing twilight. The stars begin to flicker over your head, one after another, and the crescent moon lies lazily on her back in the clear blue of the western sky. The boulders cast long shadows in the fading light. It's a tricky descent, but between a mixture of hopping, glissading and stumbling, you make your way back to the car.







All quotes were from "Little Gidding" by T. S. Eliot.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Darkness



I love being outside; have loved it since I was a kid.  I spent summers at Camp Keewano and Crystal Lake, disappearing after breakfast and returning for dinner, filthy, scratched, sunburned and mosquito bitten.  In between those ordinal points I climbed trees, built forts, learned my woodcraft, rode my bicycle; and as I grew older, I camped and backpacked  in the glacial moraines of Northern Michigan and the rougher and more forbidding Appalachian terrain of Pennsylvania and New York.  I learned to budget my time and strength, to read the nature of the trail, to keep an eye cocked at the luminous, ever changing sky and to feel that deep, profound reverberation in my soul of being there.  Just being there, in the moment, in the place and in the still, serene wildness of it all.

It has never left me, this sense of belonging to the wild, even through the massive disasters and minor disruptions of every day life.   With an ordinary arrogance, I always assumed that I knew my way in the woods, walking up and down upon the earth. Bad things only happened to others, amateurs with their department store hiking gear, who couldn’t orient themselves out of a small elevator.  I wore my Patagonia, North Face and Vibram proudly, and even fancied a through hike of the Appalachian Trail; the ex husband particularly disapproved of that idea.  The divorce divested me of all my hard earned gear and left me doing some real life camping out of my car for a period of time.  Homelessness is a great leveler of egos.

I pointed my Honda west to Arizona and, in the process of rebuilding my world, found new campgrounds, new roads, new mountains and a man who shared my passion for living under the open sky.  Some of the happiest days of my life were spent with Bill, prowling through desert washes and mountain mining roads; the end of the day would often find us filthy, scratched, sunburned and mosquito bitten, slouched in front of the fire with snoring Labradors under our feet and a mug of Kentucky whisky balanced on a knee.  There was nothing to fear, nothing at all.  We were kings of our world, the woods behind us, the flames before us, and the galaxy lazily circling over our heads like a banner of distant fire.

That world included a particularly lovely campground in the Granite Mountain Wilderness outside Prescott, Arizona.  Yavapai had been built in the thirties by a gang of young Civilian Conservation Corps workers.  Some of the original foundations were still present, and the campsites were scattered through these ground works in a grove of fragrant ponderosa and scrub oak.  One blue, sunlit September day, we set up camp after a day in the woods; enjoyed dinner and a night cap and after settling the dogs, we fell asleep in the pop up camper.

Somewhere after midnight, nature called, and I crawled out of a warm sleeping bag and headed out to take care of business.    Coming back, I laid out flat on the concrete picnic table and watched the sky.  Jupiter was falling to the west; the moon had already slid below the horizon.  The stars burned steady and unblinking through the clear, crystalline air; my eyes traced the old, familiar constellations.  The Big Dipper; Cygnus; Corona Borealis.  Bootes.  I looked for my old friend Camelopardalis, but the Camel was out of sight.  It was an incredibly silent, calm, peaceful night and I could feel the massive bulk of the Earth hurtling through that darkness, that void.

Then I heard five, loud, distinct steps crunching through the woods.  Fear, terror, indescribable horror washed over me as if I had fallen through rotten ice and submerged, drowning, into freezing dark water.  I had never felt this before, this sense of imminent death, of being petrified and unable to move.  Somehow I did move, rolling off the table and onto my feet.  My primate eyes, even dark sensitized, couldn’t make out the black mass in front of me, but something was there.  It moved forward with three deliberate steps and I saw it was a fully grown brown bear, teeth glittering in the dim starlight.

Adrenaline flooded over me; my palms were greasy with sweat, and I felt my heart hammering in my chest.  I had no weapon but a large Maglight flashlight like security guards carry; my pistol and knife were in the camper.  This bear looked thin and I stood between it and the pop up with its snoring collection of dogs and husband.  What should I do?  I balanced on the balls of my feet, feeling the rocky ground through my moccasins, holding the Maglight with both hands like a baseball bat.  It seemed like an eon passed as the bear and I glared each other.  It was hungry and I was scared, but neither one of us moved, frozen in an eternal regard.  I could hear the breathing, smell the rotten musty odor of fur and feces.  This too was the wilderness.  On any given day, anyone can die.  In a campground, dismembered into a bloody mess.  By a bear.

Suddenly the spell was shattered.  One of the dogs finally woke up and realized that stink was something new and dangerous, and a volley of barking, snarling and howling erupted from the camper.  Bill’s voice called to me and a light came on.  “Bear!” I screamed.  “Don’t open the door!”  I was afraid the dogs would pour out and attack the beast.  With my words the bear’s head swung back towards me; I could see, sense its confusion.  Now.  Now.  Now.

I took a quick step forward and brought the Maglight down across the bear’s muzzle with all my panic driven strength.  I felt bone crunch and shatter.  The bear howled in pain and rage and leapt over the table, across the wall and off into the darkness.  I could hear the crashing dim and disappear over the thunder of my own beating heart.  Looking down, I saw the front of my t shirt was spattered with black blood and hair; the Maglight was slick in my blood covered hands.  I stood there, petrified, unable to move, swaying in the starlight, the sky whirling over my head.

Time seemed elastic; ages passed, and I felt Bill’s arms around me, soothing me as I dissolved into a shaking mess of tears and incoherence.  He sat me down at the picnic table; the dogs started licking the blood from my hands.  “Don’t worry, honey.  I get the picture.  My flashlight?  What the hell did you do to my flashlight?”  He turned it over and over in his hands.  The lens was shattered, the head of the light was cracked, clotted with a thickening mass of fur and sticky blood.  I felt an arm snake around my quivering shoulders, pulling me close, holding me, guarding against the darkness, the wilderness. 

On any given day: if you walk in the wilderness, you play by its rules, and they are not fair, even to the prepared.  But on that night, in that darkness, I won; I felt my heart reach back to the hunters of Lascaux, survivors of the hunt, sketching out pictures of bears in the smoky firelight.  Every day is a victory if you make it alive to the next dawn. 






Monday, October 07, 2013

Building The Perfect Wheel





 It's not for the faint of heart, but once the skill is learned, building bicycle wheels can be almost as easy as lacing up a pair of hiking boots. I remember sitting on the living room floor of my coal company house in Clarion, Pennsylvania with a set of Hi-E hubs, a box of glinting DT spokes and a dark gray pair of Mavic tubular rims. Now you would use high end clincher rims, but back in those days all the cool kids had tubular rims which required gluing silk cased tires to the running surface. And I desperately wanted to ride with the cool kids.

Under my ex husband's disapproving eye, I began the task. One spoke through the hub and into the rim at the valve hole; screw the nipple on. Skip four holes to the right and repeat. Do this all the way around the rim. Flip the wheel over. Same thing. Then begin the intricate pattern of spoke heads in, spoke heads out, weaving over and under in a three cross pattern, screwing on nipples until the wheel is built. A good wheelsmith can assemble a wheel in as fast as thirty minutes. As I recall it took me three hours and any number of bottles of bitter Lord Chesterfield ale to build, go back, fix, rebuild, find another mistake and so on. But finally my wheel was done, gleaming like a blade in the light from the floor lamp. I checked the spoke tension, popped the wheel into the truing stand and after a handful of tweaks my wheel was ready to accept its glue and Clement tubular tire. In fact, I had done such a good job that after the initial truing, I didn't have to dial those wheels in ever again; they lasted longer than the marriage. I sold them after my divorce, and I believe that somewhere in Western New York those wheels still are turning.

A racing bicycle is a wonder of physics, which is why physicists love bikes: witness the grin on Einstein's face as he pedaled his bike around college campuses. Newton's laws are everywhere, and, when violated, bloodily so. Gravity. Centrifugal force. Gyroscopic precession. Leverage. Balance. Speed. Power. There is a whole universe whirling in a bicycle pointed down a Pennsylvania mountain road. And there is nothing like being folded into a tight wedge between the handlebars and the saddle, nose just above the angle of the stem and watching the speedometer edge above sixty miles per hour; at that point the wheels sing over the pavement, slicing through the air in a high, thin soprano. It is as close to flying as I have ever been.

The bicycle wheel exists in tension and compression: the bicycle is both supported and suspended by the spider web of spokes. Which is not unlike the human condition: we exist in stress, stretched and pushed to unknown speeds. Sometimes we fail, collapsing in the cobbles; and sometimes we soar, singing, flying down through the green darkness of the Pennsylvania forest, chasing the mosaic of sun and shadow.




Monday, September 30, 2013

De Profundis




The first time I saw him, he was lying on a hospital gurney, laced in a web of IV lines and sensor wires; a vent sighed in the corner to the beat of twelve breaths a minute.  The young man’s eyes jerked asynchronously in their sockets; feet pointed and arms curled in, almost protective of the fisted hands.

A good looking kid; coming home from a football game, drunk and high, and his buddy missed the curve.  My patient rocketed through the windshield, doing what his coach had told him not to by leading with his head.  The EMTs found him a hundred feet from the burning car.  And now here he was, laid out on a kind of medical sacrificial alter, surrounded by his stunned parents and sobbing girlfriend.  I worked quickly, fabricating the splints to support his hands and feet; pressing his limbs into the hard plastic felt like molding Silly Putty into a bundt pan.

I saw him a month later on the rehab unit.  His gaze was vacant but at least his eyes moved as smoothly as dance partners.  The trach was gone, covered by an elegant little bandage secured by micropore tape; it’s important to keep that precious, tiny hole sealed up while it heals because maggots just love to roost in there.  I tried to edge by the empty eyed boy slouched in his wheel chair when suddenly his hand clamped down hard on my wrist, leaving a bruise.  “Ow!” I snapped and rolled my forearm down against his thumb, breaking his grasp.  He stared at me hollowly for a moment, then closed his eyes and fell almost immediately asleep.   The encounter left me shaken, though.  It was as though I peered into those blue eyes and could almost see stars, galaxies, infinite space in the dark pupils.

As my patient began to rouse from his vegetative state, he became a handful of battling demons.  Querulous, angry, frustrated with even the seemingly simple activity of drinking Coke out of a can; that task earned me the can right in the face and a drenching.  Another day he was hauled out of the rehab room, spitting foam in an incoherent rage and masturbating furiously.  Oh, that kid made me mad; I would go out after work with my friends and just vent for hours at how frustrating this all was and how I wasn’t getting anywhere with him.  It never occurred to me at the time that it wasn’t about my getting anywhere.   It was his journey and I was along for the ride, like it or not. 

When his words finally returned to him, it started as a steady stream of remarkably colorful profanity that went on for hours and hours and hours.  It finally stopped when he fell asleep in his chair, but would resume again the minute his eyelids slipped open and that icy blue gaze looked out on the world.  The speech therapist was almost at the end of her own rope; we were sitting across the table from him when suddenly his eyes fixed on me.  It was almost as if a light turned on, a blue laser light shining out of his head:  “You.  I remember you.”  The speech therapist came to life in an instant and I eased out of the room, feeling his eyes on me even as she was talking to him.

He left our unit shortly after that to go to a specialized neurorehabilitation hospital downstate.  His father rolled him by my office, but I was out at a staff meeting.  When I returned, I found the filthy and mangled splints on my desk, along with an icy cold bottle of Coke.

Life carries us in strange directions, ripples moving ever outward from that first impact of rock into water.  I left that job, took others, moved across the country, treated hundreds of patients.   I’m terrible with remembering names; but what is even more terrible is that I remember all of the people.  I used to joke that I should get overtime since I treated them in my dreams.  But, sleeping or waking, I never forgot that young man.  It seemed like everything he did with me in therapy seemed to strike sparks as big as lightning; he came from the edge of death to the possibility of a new life.  I wondered often what happened to him but never thought I would see him again; patients come, are treated and are discharged; most leave, stronger and better, but a few never make it home.

But I seem to have my own personal gravity, as I found out last year.  Standing in Safeway’s checkout, idly flipping through the latest trash from Hollywood, and suddenly a man’s hand clamps down on my wrist.  Alarmed, I step back and look up, ready to cold cock this guy, when I see those blue eyes and the darkness behind them.  “It’s you, isn’t it?” he asks; I nod.

We step out of line and go get a coffee at Starbucks.  He’s nervous, but determined.  I hear his story, see pictures of his wife and children, hear about his job in IT at a local aerospace company.   He asks about me, and I skim over the last twenty years in a sentence or two.  I am uncomfortable with his attempts to thank me, but he insists.  “I need to say it.  You saved my life.”  I titter uneasily.  “Dude, I’ve never saved anyone, and lost a few along the way.”  He frowns at that.  “Listen.  You don’t understand.  I remember.  I was falling, dropping faster and faster down this black hole when I felt you holding my hand—putting those damn braces on.  It was like someone had thrown me a rope, and I started to climb, up, back, out of that place.  I can see it just like it happened yesterday.”

I stare at him.  The boy was in a decerebrate coma when I put the splints on; there was no way he could remember.  He sees my disbelief and becomes a little angry.  “It’s true.  I came back.  You don’t have to believe me, but it saved my life.”  “My friend,” I say, “you saved your own life.   Your family was praying for you, your girlfriend was holding your hand.  That is the truth.  I’m glad I could help you as you recovered—maybe that’s where I passed you the rope.”  He’s not mollified, but as we exchange business cards and promise to get together again his mood eases; wishing each other well, we leave by separate doors.

I don’t think I saved him that day, or any other day; I think it was those collection of sparks from moment to moment struggles in rehab that relit the fire of his life.  But, more than that, it was the powerful spirit of the boy that refused to die, who put up the hand, rolled back the stone and leaped for the rope, emerging into this bright, strong, brilliant world.








Monday, September 23, 2013

The Grampian Hills




 One of the first books I checked out of the Beulah Library was “Good Night, Sweet Prince”, Gene Fowler’s biography of the great actor John Barrymore.   Fowler eloquently described Barrymore’s obsession with a map of Scotland that detailed an obscure range known as “The Grampian Hills”.  The Grampian Hills ultimately became Barrymore’s own Elysian Fields: serene, magical, unattainable, a nepenthe in which all his sorrows were washed away.  Barrymore was ultimately doomed by alcohol, his own personal demon; but the image of the Grampian Hills was a powerful one for me.  A land, imagined with midnight blue lakes, sunswept fells and overarched by an endless sky

The ridges and moraines that surround Crystal Lake were like the Grampian Hills to me. Deep and intensely green at noon, they flowed to gray, blue and finally black in the darkening sky at sunset, seemingly eternal (even though ephemeral in the geologic time of once glaciated Northern Michigan). The lake was equally as mysterious: two hundred feet deep, varying between turquoise and navy, laced with white caps, and with water so clear that I picked out a huge Petoskey stone and dove through twenty feet of icy cold water to retrieve it from the sandy lake bottom.  The Petoskey stone now sits on my desk, a silent semaphore.

I didn’t, couldn’t know it then, but growing up in Northern Michigan was a magical time; I was blessed with the freedom and the resources to sail the lake, ride my bike through the hills, lie on the beach at Elberta and watch the sky shimmer with boreal fire. My mother, who was an unhappy person, encouraged me to stay out of her way, and from an early age I learned to tread lightly around her. My father came on the weekends, and generally regarded me as a strange creature from another planet that he would never understand. So, the library, the lake and the sky occupied me.

My first job was working at Horizon Books. I spent a lot of time there, so much so that the owner hired me on part time to help with cleaning, restocking and supervising the half off rack that was parked on the sidewalk just outside the door.  Looking back now, I think it was one of the best jobs I ever had; the hours were flexible around my sailing time, I got to read every book I could lay my hands on, and this was the place where I met Bruce Catton.

Mr. Catton was a bit of a North Michigan legend: a famous Civil War historian and Pulitzer winner.  Despite his local hero status, he was a remarkably pleasant and unassuming man.  He visited the bookstore several times a week, and was clearly amused by my wide eyed awe.  Mr. Catton would sometimes come and perch on the bench by the front door while I was guarding the half price books.  As the afternoon shadows lengthened across the sidewalk, he would gently ask me questions about literature, history, poetry, music, Crystal Lake.  He had much to say, but most of it told in stories of his youth growing up in the area, his time at Oberlin College, surviving World War I and the Spanish Flu and his interest in the War Between the States. I was immensely flattered that he treated my thirteen year old self like an adult and worthy of an opinion about What It All Means.  He was my first editor, looking over my adolescent short stories and poems and returning them with proof marks and serious commentary in the margins.  Seeing these manuscripts now, I cringe with embarrassment at just how bad they are; but I believe he took just as much time with them as he would with a post graduate’s treatise on the Battle of the Wilderness.   I can see now that I idolized this kind gentleman, but it was those long conversations that propelled me into reading more, thinking more, writing more, taking chances and making the leap into the university.

The summer waned; my family returned home to Grand Blanc, and to a winter of  cold rain, dirty snow, and a steel gray blanket of clouds which the sun never seemed to penetrate.  But, as they say, the promise of spring lies under the snow, and sometime round the middle of April, the clouds lifted, the sun emerged, and the black, icy drifts vanished.  Springtime in Michigan can be an amazing, almost fluorescent green, ephemeral as a breath of air.  Then, Memorial Day, school was out and we were back at Crystal Lake, to my job and another pleasant summer of reading, sailing, riding my bike and conversing with Mr. Catton.  Years passed.  But time was holding all of us, green and dying; time was running out.

The last time I saw Mr. Catton, he looked thin and wan.  He asked how my studies were progressing and offered advice and encouragement.  I remember that I told him that I had read his autobiography and how much I enjoyed hearing his story, told in his words He smiled at me and his hand clasp crackled like dry straw.  “Keep writing,” he said.  “Your words will guide you all the way home.”  I didn’t understand what he meant, but impulsively I hugged him farewell.  His frail body felt like paper and sticks under my hands.   I never saw him again;  Mr. Catton died shortly after that encounter. When I heard the news, I went and sat on the seawall with my arms looped around my knees, looking West, and watched the sun set behind the Grampian Hills, shading the lake in lavender, pink, blue, scattered with molten gold; then the twilight for an hour; stars, a black sky, northern lights.  I realized that he knew he was dying at our last meeting, and somehow those words were a message.  And now he was gone.  The water whispered over the sand beach and it was the loneliest sound in the world.

I always meant to go back to Crystal Lake but after my mother died, my father sold his summer place, married again, and started a new life. There was really nothing there for me anymore, just memories.  Going home is a questionable business.  You can never truly look back, relive the past, find the lost; but life has a way of fooling with you.  A friend’s daughter attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen this summer.  Pictures and videos appeared on Facebook, and it was the Grampian Hills all over again:  the air full of music, Crystal Lake an aquamarine gem, rolling fields, forests and sand dunes, Lake Michigan like a gunmetal mirror under a cold, clear blue sky.

I observed all of this from a continent away as I was sweltering through another Arizona summer.  Surrounded by towering thunderheads and irritating dust, sweat trickling through my hair and down my back, I was stewing in a sea of loneliness. Throughout my life I have stumbled from one crisis to another, watching my world blow up in new and interesting ways; but my husband’s death had drained me completely and left a vacuum that nothing seemed to fill.  On a miserably hot August night I finished looking through those pictures from home and, unable to stand it anymore, went outside.  The sky was lit with a fauvist sunset and thunder was rolling from horizon to horizon; it seemed that the air was paralyzed with heat, waiting for rain.  Something just has to give, I thought.

“Keep writing.  Your words will guide you all the way home.”  It was a blinding flash of insight.  What was, is, and shall be.  That will never change.  I came inside, sat down and wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.   I looked deep into the lake, broke the surface, reached down and just began to understand that place, that time.  And this place and this time.


“Life is a flame burning in water, shining on a sea which has no shore, and far overhead there are other flames which we call stars.”  Bruce Catton   Waiting for the Morning Train




Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Persistence of Memory



in the darkening room
the color of the air was gray.


he was lost in the bed,
drowning in a sea of sheets
a gulliver snared in a mortal net of lines
a spiderweb of tangled silver hair forming
a damp mat across his forehead.


if your heart were a train
marking off the miles towards a vanishing point
infinity gray in the distance
it would sound like this, slowly ticking away

fading into silence.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Racist.



My job is beginning to get to me.  I’m a home health occupational therapist, and I sit on my butt, driving around Phoenix all day to see my patients.  It’s not a very healthy lifestyle, what with value meals and hot coffee being the sum of  my nutrition most days.  Add into that a Bluetooth phone that won’t properly sync and contractors that are mad for text messaging, and it makes for a pretty stressful job.  That, and the golf cart demolition derby on the sidewalks and streets of Sun City.

So I wasn’t surprised a few years ago when my heart started to bark at me; I am descended from a long line of tall, ruddy faced Northern Europeans with all the genetic coding to die young.  My paternal grandfather died at 51; paternal grandmother at 64; and so on.  After a full tilt boogie work up at the local cardiologist, I found that while all those years on my bike kept the pipes clear, my Purkinje fibers were another thing altogether.  My heartbeat had always thundered on with a certainty like the march of time--but now when it burps, it is the most amazing and scary feeling; you are motoring along at the speed of light when suddenly, everything stops and you look down to see one foot out over a vast, echoing abyss.  There is a cold sensation of waiting, waiting, waiting . . . and then ba-dunk!  Meds help, but not always.  At the end of the day, I am overwhelmed with a shattering fatigue that doesn’t seem to ease with sleep.

So, longing for that old, worked over feeling, I joined the local gym (again).  I should practice what I preach:  exercise, healthy living, no booze, plenty of rest.  It’s a great idea, but most of my patients are where I’m going to be in twenty years.  Now I see a sprightly collection of golf mad Sun City septuagenarians who are going through periodic upgrades to their joints, hearts and eyes.  But in my line of work there have been way too many episodes of “I’ve never seen that before”.  Some things I would rather forget: people in pain, people without limbs, power, movement or sight, people burned so badly that you can’t tell the color of their skin, only the red mess of tortured flesh.  That’s the hard part, but that is what I do—rehabilitation.   And I would like to think I am pretty good at it.

So here I am, entre deux guerres, on the elliptical and watching a hundred people around me bobbing up and down like demented pistons.  It is an unsettling sight, and reminds me again why I liked cycling.  It’s generally a solitary sport, and no one can watch you groan, huff and sweat.  The TV overhead was on a 24 hour news channel, where the blow dried blonde was babbling on about the Trayvon Martin murder and George Zimmerman in a seemingly unending tirade of racist, racist, racist.  It made me flinch and fling a disgusted look at the TV.

Then I realized the man on the machine next to mine was watching me.  And he was black.  And I don’t know if he saw my eyeroll, but he suddenly stopped bobbing, jumped off the machine and stalked away.  I don’t know if he was pissed at me, at the TV, at Zimmerman, at Trayvon, or just at the world in general.  But there was no mistaking the widening of the eyes, the flare of the nostrils, the tightening of the mouth. U mad, bro?  Yes, he was.  I’ve seen that look before.

What I always struggled with was the anger.  I am from Michigan; I grew up in the 60s; I remember the integration of my school, the burning of parts of my hometown during the riots, the simmering, slow, hot hatred that festered between whites and blacks.  Michigan, in those days, was an unhappy place.  Like so many other whites, I developed a well polished defensive stance against the assumption and accusation of racism.  Hey, my dad’s family was Canadian; in my mom’s family bible there is a list of soldiers who went to off to fight in the War of Northern Aggression and died for their trouble.  I went to an urban college, wrote for the Flint Voice and tried to get real with the revolution and my black brothers and sisters.  But that barrier was always, always there.  That anger, that quiet, accusatory look.

I moved away, got married, got with child, got divorced, got less liberal and got back on my own.  Luckily, along the way, I stopped being a medievalist and became an occupational therapist.  But that had shocks of its own.  Going to see an elderly black lady paralyzed with pain and mute from a stroke (her skin a dusky charcoal from malnutrition and dehydration), and realizing the grandkids were dealing away her pain medication.  Having my car window shot out (while I was inside).  Being spit on because the project dweller thought I was the social worker there to question his eligibility for benefits, not the therapist who was to help him get back up on one foot and learn to walk on the prosthetic limb replacing the rotten leg lost to diabetes and gangrene. Watching in horror as baby daddy pitched an obviously pregnant teenager down three flights of steps into a pool of blood on the landing—and then baby daddy pointing a pistol at me when I tried to call 911.

It’s not racism, it’s reality in the projects, a reality that continues to exist no matter how much money is thrown at it.  And no, it’s not all of society, but it is the stereotype that cuts the deepest.  The anger and hostility directed at anyone in that world is caustic and terminally destructive.  It was better in the professional environment I move in.  Courtesy, collegiality, polite disinterest; but still the guarded look and at times ugly comments and actions. So I continued to polish up the armor and the ever growing chip on my shoulder, sliding by my fellow men and women in an endless waltz of political correctness, walking on crumbling eggshells in order not to offend.

But part of me wanted to stand up and bawl like an eight year old:  Why?  I didn’t do this.  I wasn’t here.  What the fuck, homer?  Five million Jews were blasted into nonexistence along with another five million of assorted Eastern Europeans and somehow the survivors got up and kept on living. A few Germans paid for what they did, but the whole nation was not destroyed.  Somehow Europe got its collective act together, cleared out the trash and rebuilt.

But now things are a little different.   My president thinks that Trayvon could have been his son; hell, Obama is two months younger than me.  I don’t hear him saying that about my son, who is putting everything out there for this country.  But that line of thinking runs counter to the preferred dialectic these days; I am considered a racist not just by the color of my skin but by my politics and even by the way I choose to live my life, bitterly clinging to my Skygod and boomstick.  The anger burns, the rhetoric rises; the word racist is used like a whip, indiscriminately and abundantly.  The white oppressors must be punished, over and over and over.  Maybe even beyond the seventh generation.  

Rhetoric eventually dies out and only ugly truth can remain.  It finally became real for me when I was speaking with a patient, an old black lady who had moved from Alabama to Arizona with her family early in the last century to work in the cotton fields of Mobile and Goodyear. The history of her people, laced  with want, hunger, heavy labor and slow death from overwork and tuberculosis are the threads that are interwoven into the tapestry of life in Depression era Arizona.   Slowly I realized that slavery didn’t end with the war between the states; this lady and her family were slaves as well, economic hostages paid in script and solaced with hellishly hard work during the week and a little church to ease the pain on the weekend.  And who profited from their labor?  It was clear enough.  She held my hand and smiled toothlessly at me, saying it was so nice of me to visit with her, and would I like a little sweet tea?  The shame was devastating.  And there really was no answer for it.



So, here I am, sprawled on the Cool Deck next to the gym’s outdoor pool, burning in the blazing sunlight; my joints feel deconstructed after the exercise.  I squint one eye open:  over there is a mess of kids pitching headfirst down the slide in a tangle of brown arms, white legs, hysterical screams and laughter as they somehow hit the water without major injury.  Next to me a woman in a sapphire swim burqua kneels in the water by her little child.  Said kid clambers up round the woman’s neck pulling the hood off, and her blonde hair gleams in the sunlight; I look into eyes as blazingly blue as her drape.  She smiles, and I smile back.  Under the slide, the kids are screeching at each other in a fluent Spanglish and the toddler gurgles in time with the splash of the water.  The woman’s Nigerian husband arrives with icy, melon flavored waters for us all and I inhale mine, so cold in the volcanic heat.  Time suspends and my mind drifts.
  
The Sun squats like an Aztec god on the edge of the White Tank Mountains, scorching the valley below,  and I dreamily watch my forearm, with its smear of freckles, scars and strawberry blond hair slowly turn red.  Twenty five thousand years of conflict with  glaciers, endless winters and predatory megafauna never prepared my genetic code for the midsummer Arizona afternoon. My existence alone demonstrates the victory of natural selection; my forebears survived their environment long enough to propagate and extend the family line all the way down to me, and hence my son.  My evolutionary duty is now fulfilled, I suppose.  And yet here I am, confounding nature in my own dusty little corner of the universe by immersing myself in UV-B, the modern thanatos.  I am in  my skin, dressed up in memory, culture, politics and power.  White in a heritage of oppression and exploitation, but just flame red here next to the pool.  Skin is the barrier, separating us at all levels.

Brown, black, white, yellow, sunburned; and when we die, yellow, green, purple, black and gray.  Color is power, but is ultimately ephemeral.  I squint in the sun, my eyelashes forming a reddish lace against a white sky.  The water slops in the pool like molten bronze, dispersing dazzling chips of light and I begin to doze.  Dream a dream, dream of peace, of love, of loss of all the cares, sadness and burdens; dream that somehow we will find each other, all of God’s children.  The Sun becomes like a pillar of fire, burning everything away--prejudice, hate, skin, bone, all of it to ash until nothing is left but spirit without mind, love moving in the void.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Underlying Conditions



It's happened again. 

While stumbling through the bleary eyed morning routine of coffee, feeding the dogs, and checking email, I hear the empty headed, blonde news babe on Channel 3 chirp that there has been another death in Maricopa County linked to the West Nile virus.  But, she babbles to her equally vacuous anchorette, the patient had underlying conditions that contributed to his demise, so there clearly is nothing to worry about.  Just use a little Off, and no green pools!  And now to sports.

I want to puke.

There really is no other way to say it.  Yeah, I know, more people die from car wrecks and bad food than from West Nile.  And you know, those underlying conditions.  If those poor slobs didn't have those underlying conditions, well now, they'd just be fine and dandy.  West Nile had nothing to do with it.  Nothing to worry about.  No panic.  Be calm, little sheep.

That is such a fail.  Yes, some people get West Nile and have nothing more than an influenza.  More people are infected and their lives are completely shattered by the devastation of the illness and the length of the recovery; and many are not able to return to work.  And some, fine one day, are bitten by a mosquito, and within a few hours are critically ill and eventually die, either from the disease roaring through an inflamed brain, or from other infections that invade the burned over wreckage that has become their body.  Like my husband.  With all his underlying conditions.

I am sure that the "underlying conditions" qualifier is to keep the public from panicking.  But the truth is West Nile virus is a killer, just like AIDS, smallpox, Ebola or any other flavor of death dealing infection.  Call the murderer by its true name:  Pestilence.  Disease.

West Nile virus is a disease.  And the dead were killed by West Nile, not by their "underlying conditions".  No amount of Health Department spin is going to change that.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The New World

I think that there is a moment in everyone's life where you are struck with a startling, shattering realization of the world beyond yourself.  For me, it came when I was about three, playing in the sand next to Lake Michigan on a late August morning.  The breeze had freshened out of the northwest as a cold front had roared through the night before with thunder, lightening and hail; with the muggy heat wave broken, there would be no more swimming in the lake that summer.  Something caught my attention, though; I distinctly remember rocking back on my heels and leveling a long look at the northwestern horizon.  The sky was a brilliant blue and Lake Michigan was a gunmetal mirror under it; there were waves, gulls, kids running around and yelling, fishermen lounging lazily on the pier.  But there was something there; something immense, silent and still, more powerful than anything in the world that I had encountered so far.  Clean, pure, full of light and dark, beyond understanding, and somehow, I was aware that I was caught up in that and would never be able to fully comprehend it.  I remember a sense of fear at first, then a growing awe at something I couldn't grasp but was fully aware of.  And because of that awakening, I would never be the same.

I was aware of it that day, and have felt it it since:  the solitude of an abandoned concert shell in November, watching the winter winds hurl snow across Lake Mendota, northern lights setting the sky on fire at Crystal Lake; the dark schist of the Estrella Mountains brooding over the empty valley below. For me, nature is the best mirror to reflect this feeling.  I have wondered if explorers had this sense of isolation and awareness as well; a conquistadore, having left everything he knew and loved behind with a full realization that he most likely would not return to that place, stepping from the shifting deck of a ship, splashing through the water and suddenly finding his feet on the sand of the shore.  Buzz Aldrin commented on the sense of "magnificent desolation" when he first stepped on to the moon: the boot in the dust, eyes raised to a close horizon and then focusing on the blackness beyond.   The New World, and all of God's gifts therein, but never what we expected.

On a sunny Saturday in October when I watched Bill die, I was overwhelmed by that same sense of being carried away by a power I could not understand. As my husband began a journey that I could not join, I remember standing on the sidewalk outside of the hospital, balancing on the balls of my feet, feeling the world rock and sway under me and seeing that same desolation in the stretch of the sidewalk, grass rolling away to the street, the vacant sky overhead.  Eliot's words circled in my mind:   

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Somehow, it all made sense:  I had been iceboating once on Keuka Lake, roaring towards Hammondsport at fifty miles an hour when we hit a patch of rotten ice--not uncommon off the Bluff, at the confluence of the two arms of the lake, where wellsprings deep underwater created whirlpools and eddies.  We didn't break through because of our speed and the iceboat balancing its runners on the thin skim of ice.  There was immense darkness under that ice, three hundred feet of cold water to the bottom of the ancient glacial lake.  I looked into that blackness with the same sense of awe that I had when I was first aware of the sun, the sky, the water of Lake Michigan and the same old, old wind that blew straight across Canada from the north pole.  At Hammondsport, we beached the iceboat, and stepping off across the crumpled ice I placed my foot on the frozen sand at Champlin Beach; this too was a new world.

A year ago, I was speculating on a sense of dread that I had been feeling; my father had died the year before, Bill's health had been declining, my job was on the rocks.  As the Earth turned around the sun, three hundred and sixty five days later it is a new world.  Now, as I stand on the shores of Alamo Lake, I look north towards Artillery Peak; the sky is a clear, translucent blue, the color of his eyes.  The air is still and cold, the water smooth as glass.  I am balanced on the soles of my feet, feeling the earth under me, rocking with the beat of my heart.   

The New World: every day is a new world, full of portent, potential, life, death, silence and the hope of God.  And so we step off, as we must, every day onto a foreign shore.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Principle of Moments

My love is a-miles in the waiting
The eyes that just stare, and the glance at the clock
And the secret that burns, and the pain that grows dark
And it's you once again
Leading me on - leading me down the road
Driving beyond - driving me down the road

My love is exceedingly vivid
Red-eyed and fevered with the hum of the miles
Distance and longing, my thoughts do provide
Should I rest for a while at the side
Your love is cradled in knowing
Eyes in the mirror, still expecting they'll come
Sensing too well when the journey is done
There is no turning back . . .  Robert Plant





The past weeks have been moments lit in flashes, like the strobe of lightning; instead of dynamic memories,  I see in my mind frozen images of life, struggle, death.  Then the ambulance, the hospital, the mortuary, sitting in a stifling sales room populated with stubs of coffins, crypts and truly hideous neon cremation urns.  A fan unsteadily oscillated in the corner while I filled out death certificates, applications, writing checks, paying in coin, tears and heartreak to bring Bill home.  The stale bureaucracy of death:  obituaries, letters, emails, sympathy cards opened, and then tied up with a ribbon and put away.  A dark green gift bag is delivered to me with a plastic box; inside of that 7.6 pounds of gray sand.  My son observes as we come into the world so we go out.


I sit at his desk, and idly open drawers; there are files and projects and notes for clients, work that will never be finished, a life ended.  A lot of this has to be shredded or destroyed; I slide the drawer closed.  I can't do this today, just like I can't sort over shoes, overcoats and photos, tools, guns or telescopes.  A picture of Bill as a young man, lying on his back under huge bundles of cable,calibrating a cyclotron; another photo of a long forgotten Christmas with his children, small happy kids with gap toothed grins and hands full of toys.  Pictures of Bill with dogs long gone.   I like the fancy that they were waiting for him with wagging tails and balls to throw, but this is probably more to make me feel better.


I have never subscribed to woo-woo, but when I came home that afternoon, as  I broke down and leaned against the refrigerator, pressing my forehead into the metal door,  I felt a sense of peace, coolness, wash over me.  I had felt this before, when my Dad died.  I was flying home, and  as the plane lifted into a darkening sky and the tears were burning my eyes, suddenly there was a wave of quiet release and suddenly I felt that somehow, everything would be all right, that the world would return to order and calm. 


Tonight, I drove down Rainbow Valley Road, the Estrella Mountains crouching against the skyglow of Phoenix on my left; turned onto Riggs Road, navigated past where the blacktop explodes into rutted gravel, found the cattle grate that signals the entrance to the North Maricopa Mountain Wilderness.  This was where we took our last camping trip and where we think Bill got that fatal mosquito bite.  I stopped, got out and lay flat on the desert pavement.  The air was still and quiet; the moon had set, and the stars were wheeling overhead in an incredibly dark sky.  Are you there?  There is nothing but the night, and the silence pressing in on me.  No feeling came, other than the sense of the firm earth underneath me, the softness of the air against my skin, the dark vault of heaven arching above.  But that will have to be enough.  Somehow, everything will be, will have to be all right.