A Taste of Wild Raspberries

August 2010.
For a long time I have largely avoided writing because I had done it so much I began to feel it got between me and experience, the way cameras and video recorders can get between you and watching your child grow up. The recorder, the reporter was always there, translating experience into simile and metaphor before I’d had a chance to taste, let alone digest, what was happening. But writing has been my main mode of digestion for most of my life—to make sense of the exchange between my inner world and the outer world, to extract nourishment from the meanest and the most expansive movements of these worlds.

Today I walked in the fields and woods of Thacher Park, the first time in many weeks because I have been so busy—busy-ness, busy-ness, busy-ness and I no longer have my sweet joyful dog expecting and needing me to take her for her weekend excursions. And myself, though I need these walks as much as she did, myself I can put off and deny in the face of work that must be done during the precious little time I am not at work, at The Job.
Every time I go to Thacher Park now, since Heidi died in May, I weep a little. Sometimes quiet, tears rolling down my face for brief moments before the wind in the trees or birdsong or the peace of the place soothes me and I walk on. Sometimes I stop and gasp with sobs, seeing her smiling face looking up at me with joy and adoration. Never for long, though. I think the disinterested benevolence of those woods has much to do with this, but I also know that it is because I am slowly digesting the enormity of her absence. Like a snake who has swallowed an elephant.

Heidi had been sick for a year and a half at least. She started throwing up after meals months before emergency surgery to remove her spleen and a tumor the size of a navel orange. We didn’t know whether it would be worth putting her through the pain at the time— the vet gave her two months tops post-surgery—but we could not bring ourselves to euthanize her then, when the last time she had seen us was in the examination room and I could not stop crying and holding her. So damn the expense, and the pain of recovery, and the dismal prospects. We gave the go ahead, and brought our doped-up girl home a day later, wincing at her slow movements and the twenty-seven shining staples along her shaved belly.

Two and a half weeks later, on a mild March Saturday morning, I coaxed her into the back of my old Ford Escort wagon and we went to get those staples taken out, picked up my friend Eileen, and went to Thacher Park to walk through sloppy mud and melting snow. It was a bit too much for her, those two miles or so of trails, and she lay down on the drive home instead of holding her pretty head up for me to see in the rearview mirror. Heidi spent the day sleeping and I felt guilty for having pushed her, but Sunday saw us back up there in the woods, for a shorter walk this time, and she was a little better. A little stronger.
Every weekend after that we walked in the woods, as we had been doing since autumn 2002, when I sought solace after an ill-conceived foray into law school. Every weekend I said good-bye, letting Heidi lead me wherever she wanted to go. We walked every trail we had ever walked, and even found new ones. Every step was precious, every time perhaps the last time we would walk this way together.

Spring bloomed, summer ripened, and August offered me wild raspberries for first breakfast three yards from Beaver Dam Road—the small ritual I had observed for years made sweeter now by the question of her presence, the ever-present last-ness of each ramble. But Heidi lasted. Longer than the vet’s prediction, longer than my most hopeful hopes. We walked through autumn, then winter, until I fractured my hip in January and was forced to stop for weeks, each one passing interminably as I let Heidi out to throw up in the backyard after every meal, wondering how much longer she would last, each weekend passing irretrievable.

We walked again, and again, and spring came again, and we passed the anniversary of Heidi’s surgery. She remained joyful and always willing, eager to go on our rambles though slowly starving to death, throwing up more and more often, until one Thursday night in early May she couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes all night long we ran a slow race to the back door, and by dawn I knew the time had come. Even though I knew she could continue this way for weeks, or maybe months, longer, I didn’t want her final days to be lingering, didn’t want her to die when she could no longer go up to her Place, the woods.

Friday morning I called in sick, then called the vets and made the appointment for Monday evening. Dr. Jarvis would come to our home to spare Heidi from having to spend her last moments in fear. I allowed myself a few tears, a moment of tears, then vowed not to cry, not to mourn—not this weekend, not our last weekend—and then we went to Thacher.
Twice a day that weekend we went to Thacher, except Sunday, when I could not coax Heidi from her spot on our bedroom floor in the morning. I went alone, thinking I must get used to it. I walked fast along the trails, escaping the fact of her absence, which sat inside my heart like a great, heavy stone, and then I saw, sitting on top of a boulder, a large rock. It called to me. I lifted it and felt its weight as I walked back to the car. Heidi’s headstone.
Later that day my younger son accompanied us to Thacher, then Heidi and I went again on our own Monday morning, and Monday afternoon my older son, Heidi, and I climbed the Long Trail up the steep hillside across Beaver Dam Road. We stood and looked down at the valley as the wind gusted around us. And walking slowly down, down to the car it really was the last time.

Heidi died on her soft, red flannel sheet, in the grass under the old cedar tree back of our house, with birds singing and the westering sun shining in her golden red hair, all of us around her, petting her and telling her what a good girl she is.

And I did not dissolve into tears as I thought I would. All the holding back I had done that weekend really had turned my grief into a heavy stone that filled the whole of my trunk, both solid and cavernous at once.

Today it is August 28, and I have missed many weekends at Thacher Park. So much can get between you and life. I stopped writing because I wanted to experience without the reporter constantly interpreting. And this is really valid, except I think about how often I have been filled with gratitude to my former selves for setting down in words their experiences, so I could read them and taste those moments in their immediacy once again.

Today I passed by the wild raspberries, hoping to find a few lingering berries at the end of their season, but the clusters had been picked clean by birds and other hikers. I found a few broken berries on one cluster and picked them, held them in my hand for a moment then popped them into my mouth—more crunch than sweetness. Faint regret for allowing busy-ness to come between myself and this small, yearly ritual, but I swallowed and walked on. I started thinking about writing, about the taste of wild raspberries in August, and saw with reluctance that the reporter was back and the trees were passing by unnoticed as words strung themselves into sentences in my head.

Midstep in my thoughts I was arrested by the sight of a perfect cluster of raspberries just off the path, a long way from the bushes I usually visit. Red and fully formed they hung there before I reached out and gently pried the caps from their heads. I held them in the palm of my hand, wondering at their perfect forms as the reporter in my head said, “how like the faintly ridiculous bathing caps those lovely water-ballet ladies wear.” Then I ate them, one at a time, savoring their perfect sweetness as I walked slowly on.

Miss Heidi

Miss Heidi, the Fluffernutter

How I Became a Leftist: Phase I

I was born into privilege—from a long line of Republicans on both sides of the family. We hated the Democrats, we hated Jimmy Carter, and my brothers and I, on long car rides, would try to outdo one another finding the meanest, lowdown shacks and say, “That’s Jimmy Carter’s house!” We didn’t know anything, of course, about politics. It was just something we picked up, something our parents laughed at, thought was cute.

That was when we lived in Texas. I was 6 when we moved there from California—just that age when you get really good at your body—running, riding your bike, swimming. All that good body stuff. It was 1974 when we moved there, and we were encouraged, forced, to play outside unsupervised. One of my mother’s signature lines was, “Go outside and don’t come back in until dinner!” I had a mile-radius roaming ground easy, with my bike, and I did everything. I explored the woods, found an ancient burial ground, caught lizards with their long, toothless mouths and put them on green leaves to see them turn green, brown leaves to see them turn brown. I dug clay out of our yard and made pots to dry in the sun. I melted my Crayons onto leaves with a magnifying glass, loving the drops of color so much I just wanted to eat them or something…something I couldn’t quite imagine.

When I was ten we moved to a small town in Upstate New York. I was a sun-tanned, gawky kid with a Texas accent who wore sneakers with skirts so I could run around at recess. It started right away. “Yvonne is a pest! Kick her in the chest!” This was recess now. A group of girls would walk around behind me chanting this, and I had no clue how to deal with it. I limped through the end of fifth grade and entered summer, thinking they’d forget about me over the months.

But sixth grade was worse—more girls joined in the fun, including my new best friend. She was my friend, but also the other girls’ friend, and so I was tied to this group somehow and I couldn’t escape. I still look back on it and wonder at that. I had no power to leave, find other people to hang with.

Seventh grade was worse still, because we moved to junior high and boys joined in with the girls. It became very focused on my body, which they picked apart with precision, but mostly focused on my chest—my flat, pubescent chest. I remember once, standing in the hallway outside my English classroom, all of them sneering at me, picking at me with their words, until one of them said, “What you got there on your chest? Mosquito bites? Why don’t you put some Band-Aids on those mosquito bites?” Everyone laughed, and it was too much, I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I started crying, right there in front of all of them, showing them how much they’d hurt me. Hot, shameful tears.

I endured this daily onslaught at school for 3 ½ years, from the time I was ten until the night before I turned fourteen, when me moved once more.

On the dark car ride to the new town, I swore I would never allow myself to be stepped on like that again. I asked to be put back into the 8th grade, even though I’d finished one quarter of 9th grade—just so I could hide my skinny, flat-chested body among a younger lot. When the prep-girls tried to make friends with me I withdrew from them—I didn’t trust groups. I made two good friends, Tracey and Mary, and went about building my life again, being a kid again.

One day, Mary and Tracey and I were marching arm-in-arm down the empty corridor after school, chanting some silly nonsense over and over at the top of our lungs to hear the echoes. We turned a corner and met the toughest girl in the school and two of her lackeys. Diane yelled at us to cut the crap, and without thinking I yelled, “No!” Diane said, “What did you say?” and I repeated, “No.” Tracey grabbed my arm and whispered, “Shut up!” Diane said, “Come over here and say that.” So I extricated myself from Mary’s and Tracey’s arms, walked over to Diane, and told her to her face, “NO.”

There was an instant of pause before Diane said, “You’re lucky I’m wearing a skirt today or I would beat the crap out of you.”

And in that instant I knew I’d won.

October 10, 2016

There’s a foul wind blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

I felt it keenly this weekend, and all day Saturday the phrase, “a foul wind is blowing” kept repeating in my head, even as I walked through the woods. The peaceful woods, where I go every chance I get to wash myself clean of the things I pick up that I wish I hadn’t. A foul wind is blowing, a foul wind is blowing…an evil spell that has affected us all. The id of humanity has woken and is running amok. A meanness is in the air–has been building for years but it seems to have crescendoed in the past few months, dragging even the most mild-mannered, careful people into its maelstrom.

Other thoughts were tracing themselves in my head this weekend, too, though. The first-year burdock that had grown almost exactly in the middle of the path–spindly and beaten down but still there, spreading its leaves–made me think of the random nature of life. A burdock growing here is stepped on and struggles to survive, while a burdock sown a few feet over, off the path, thrives. No blame can be attached to the burdock on the path–it was born where it was born, and according to the law of nature does its best to live. No blame. Just the luck of the draw. The spindly burdock isn’t inferior, and the thriving burdock isn’t superior.

The thing is, science is finding that plants are part of a complex network, and will help one another through that network, sending out nutrients and warnings about danger, and even killing off invading plants. So I’m thinking about all this and talking to my husband, saying that since all of life is connected, it stands to reason that humans are part of this network just as much as trees and plants–except we’ve been doing our best to destroy it instead of participating in the give and take. And Bob says, “Yeah, how strange it would be if I got a cut on my hand and the cells around it said, ‘Oh well, too bad. Tough luck. You’re on your own.’ Then my hand got infected and became gangrenous and I had to amputate it.” (Well, he didn’t say anything about gangrene and amputation, but I like the effect.)

So the thought of “no blame” attached to those who are sown in difficult places–such as ghettos, or Syria–and the thought of the network of life–how the refusal to participate in the give and take of life breaks the network–came together in my head alongside the “a foul wind is blowing” mantra and produced the little almost-rhyme couplet above.

A foul wind is blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

It is time for a full-on War of Love. This war has been building for a very long time, too–you can read about it in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Homer, the prose of Maya Angelou and Emerson, the fiction of Philip Pullman and George Eliot; you can hear it in the music of Beethoven, the Beatles, the Wood Brothers; see it in the art of Van Gogh and O’Keefe; study it in the scholarship of Joseph Campbell. Of course this is far from an exhaustive list–just a taste, a taste of all the voices of humanity that have, over centuries, sung their souls for Thee Old Cause, the War of Love.

Don’t expect it to be easy. But take a step and another. Get through a moment and another, always turning toward love. Go home and be kind. Listen to your children when they talk. Watch them when they play. Cook wholesome, real food. Take care of yourself, love yourself, and love this beautiful world. Go outside and behold the beauty of sky, trees, wind, sun. Turn off the TV, throw away the fashion magazines and gossip rags and read again–really read. Read those you can trust and discard the rest. You’ll know who you can trust because it will nourish your soul. It will strengthen your bond with the goodness in yourself and others. Love may be roused to anger but it never counsels hatred. Ever.

I Wish I Knew Joe

September 26, 2010, a bit before midnight, day before the 6th anniversary of CS’s death and two days after leaving the job.

I am sitting on the porch with the few crickets left singing outside in the cool night, peaceful, after listening to all the cut conversations from Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. I am so glad to be here…this little ramshackle house in Albany, NY, United States of America, Earth. I’m a person among many persons in an overcrowded world of persons and not nearly enough wilderness ~ but a lot of wilderness if you count our minds.

(God, that man’s hands. Have you ever really looked at hands? They are stars. They are magnificent and improbable and so fine. Like faces they have beauty that transcends any conventional beauty if you really LOOK.)

Look. There is beauty all around. What can you do? Smile at strangers. Bring some comfort. I am indebted to Joe Strummer and The Clash for giving me back my anger and my joy, my self-respect, my strength. I don’t know where I am going. I don’t know what will happen, but I am free. And I always could have been, if I had looked. Jumping into the next thing isn’t always the right path. Beware. Hold yourself steady and really look.

“Anger can be power—don’t you know that you can use it?”

Something I saw  when I was very young and resisted the gray life ahead, but when I got older it tore me apart because I finally bought into the notion that being free was something that could be attained by playing the game, by fitting in where I had no real connection.

Of course, you make connections….You make them wherever you are, to try to make a place feel like home even when you are screaming “Let me out!!” You can tell yourself all kinds of stories about duty and love and giving the benefit of the doubt—doubting your SELF all the time while you sicken and die trying to fit a mold.

And there are approximate fits. Where you think you could bear spending most of your waking hours, giving your soul for a fistful of dollars and dreaming of retirement when you will really be able to do what you want—but of course we’ve seen that story played out a hundred different ways, or maybe just one or two. People who no longer have any lodestar because they gave it up to work for IBM or some other sure bet, security and lifelessness in exchange for life, juice, adventure, reality. Enough money for a house, car, kids, and maybe a diamond or two at Christmas. (Filthy diamonds ripped out of the earth by people who have been enslaved by the diamond industry.)

It’s all connected. It’s all connected. The sparkle and the filth. And if you are on one side then you are most assuredly on the other. So what’s the middle ground? Where am I going? Where do I want to be? I wish I knew Joe.

Thing is, it’s all connected. The net of gems is cast out upon the universe and one strummer on six strings can reach millions of people and change the lives of many more than that. Ripple effect. Your smile today can make a great difference in a moment that will be remembered by one and maybe felt by many others who will never see you or know of your existence. Because you make one person feel better for one moment.

So in a way I do know Joe, because he has given of himself and that ripples out to me ~ those ripples found me as I was drowning and lifted me up, not just enough to get air but enough to see. To look around and know I was not where I wanted to be. And then gave me the courage to think that I could have the audacity to leave.

No one, none of us, is a saint. And who ever said our heroes must be? I’d rather learn face to face from a bum than at the feet of a holy roller.

I am grateful to be here on this porch in the cool night air, looking at the layers of peeling paint on a window that went out of production 80 years ago. I am grateful for The Clash, and Joe Strummer, and all those people who spoke about him in that movie. I am grateful for September, the month of endings and beginnings. I am grateful for the freedom to write into the night.

For now…

I had a forceful intuition this morning that came on with all the common sense of a parent making the decision to change her child’s poopy diapers–they’re dirty, change ’em–or put her child to bed–he’s really freaking tired and needs to go to sleep so I’ll put him to bed, even if he’s screaming. What prompted this forceful intuition (wait for it…) was a questionnaire sent to me by the Democratic Party. This questionnaire, among other things, wanted to know whether I agreed with several of President Obama’s plans, including:

  • a plan to take executive action on issues that Republicans refuse to bring to a vote, such as immigration,
  • a plan to increase the minimum wage,
  • a plan to make it possible for more American workers to earn sick time and family leave,
  • a plan to close the wage gap and ensure women receive equal pay,
  • a plan to close tax loopholes and to simplify the tax code so that corporations and the ultra-wealthy will pay their fair share,
  • a plan that will allow American workers to gain the modern job skills necessary to compete in the global economy,
  • a plan to reduce carbon pollution, accelerate the development of clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and invest in sustainable and resilient infrastructure projects to prepare for the effects of climate change, and
  • a plan to provide a community college education to any American who is willing to work for it.

Well, sure, I said to myself. I agree with all of these things–except maybe the one to prepare for the effects of climate change, because I’d damned well rather reverse the effects of climate change instead. But it is good to be prudent and prepare for all eventualities I suppose, and our infrastructure is in any case in dire need of attention. So yes, I agree in theory with all of these things, but what exactly are these plans–what do they really say and how does Obama propose to carry them out? I was discussing this with my dear mate when the intuition bubbled up out of me: What actually needs to happen is to call a complete halt to anything but the absolute necessary functions of human life on this planet. Call a halt to production of unnecessary goods, call a halt to polluting, call a halt to everything but the bare minimum necessary to sustain humanity–then figure this the fuck out.

First, help Nepal get back on its feet, clean up the war zones, feed all the people and make sure everyone has clean water and adequate shelter. Get everyone–everyone— to the point of level two at least of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. That gives everyone at least the level of safety to work from.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Source: WikiPedia (Yes, I know, I really should donate. I will donate.)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Source: WikiPedia (Yes, I know, I really should donate. I will donate.)

Then we can figure out what to do about the massive mess we have made on Planet Earth, the only home we have in the vast reaches of space. It’s time to change the poopy diapers. It’s time to put overtired children to bed and be the adults.

Because otherwise this is all too slow. It’s too damned slow and government is made up of people who are in the business of trying to maintain the status quo as much as possible so as not to ruffle the feathers of those who keep them in office by giving them campaign contributions. In this state of affairs change is glacial, and we end up watching a bad, neverending football game in which the Republicans gain ground, then lose it to the Dems, who lose it to the Republicans, and back and forth ad nauseum. If indeed Obama has plans for these things, which I hope he does, he will never realize them in this system as it stands. All it is is more talk, when what we need is positive action.

Action that can be taken only by the people. If we wait around for government or, god forbid, corporations, to do what is necessary and right, we and our children and grandchildren will be living in a much more severe nightmare than the current one, and it will be our own fault. But it is so easy to be lulled into doing nothing, for we have been raised, like cattle on a CAFO, to be corn-fed, docile, unthinking, and powerless. Twelve years sitting in school, preparing to “earn a living” in a society that dispenses ever-decreasing returns to those who support it. We are conditioned to be afraid and conformist, and most of us are too tired at the end of each day for much more than a highball (or choose your poison) and a televised something or other.

But this isn’t what we are alive to do and be. The other night, on my way to see Night of the Iguana at the Albany Civic Theater with my two grown sons, I drove by a community garden in the middle of the city. It was a lovely, warm evening and people of all ages were out, talking to each other and digging in the earth. It felt so right to be with my funny, intelligent sons on our way to community theater, passing by community gardeners. It felt true and right, and nourishing.

It is this I put forth: not that we should take it upon ourselves to do a great something and change the world, but to do many and sustained small participatory somethings and thereby, seemingly without effort, through the actions of all of us, change the world. Feed those in your reach, be kind, think about whether your actions–what you eat, what you buy, what you do for a living–participate in the harm of other living beings. Change what you can, simplify your life, find out what is essential to you and stay close to that, leaving the rest. What is essential won’t be the same for everyone, and that is good…that helps keep the balance.

If we all, or even a majority, or even 50 percent of us did this, we could stop the runaway train we are on, and give ourselves time to come up with solutions. If we did this, the solutions would likely come about naturally and inevitably, like spring after a long, cold winter.

People

My kryptonite and my lifeline. What I think people think I should be or am, and fighting against it. Meeting people and exchanging various forms of love, nourishing each another, often in the most ordinary places (passing a stranger on the sidewalk and sharing a smile). I’m lucky to tread a balance, but often stray into hopeless entanglement with my need to label everything and tell myself what it means. To grab hold of it and make it something instead of letting it be whatever it is.

The trick is to always stand on your own two feet–to always know where you are and engage from there, instead of trying to figure out where the other person is and act from that imagined place.

The trick is doing it not just writing about it.

My two feet.

My two feet.

A Thought from Grandpa Joe.

We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.

The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.

If we fix on the old, we get stuck.
When we hang onto any form,
we are in danger of putrefaction.

Hell is life drying up.

Excerpt from A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

What do you call it when you don’t write? Hell? Oh, block.

2:44am.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. Just woke from a dream in which a woman is talking about writing with a fountain pen and how it is perfect for those times when you know what you want to write, and it is relatively short. Then I woke up and thought, I guess she prefers the more even, reliable flow of a modern pen for the hard work of just starting to write, when you don’t know what you want to say–or when you have a lot to say but you haven’t been saying it, so it’s backed up and clogged and things are going to get messy enough without adding a fountain pen into the mix. That’s what I thought–because I’ve never used a fountain pen, but I imagine they are messy.

Continue reading

Because

You can start anywhere, and there will still be stuff before that, just as pertinent to the story you want to tell. But you have to start somewhere, so a good recipe.

I’m supposed to have a game plan, a clear picture of where this is going, but honestly, the idea started in 2004, and if I don’t start I never will–so I’m just going to start.

We live in very interesting times. Can I quote William Blake so early without being judged pretentious? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And, oh yes, we are all the best and the worst.

What I envision is a bit of salve–healing the worst and encouraging the best in whoever it may. But it may not, and that is OK too. I just know that if I don’t write about the stuff I’m thinking I feel like I’m surviving, and if I do I feel like I’m in love.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

To outline the idea of Human Nation News, basic premises:

  • We’ve outgrown the us-them thing, and we need to think of all humans as part of the same group. We’re out here in space, on a planet we’ve nearly made uninhabitable for this number of people in the future, and we need to recognize we are one. Or not. But if we don’t and we continue on this path we’re on….it ain’t gonna be pretty.
  • Most of us know this at some level, but think we’re a minority, or that for one of a few reasons it’s impossible to change what has developed over centuries: it’s like turning the Titanic. But I believe we can turn on a dime, like schools of fishes or flocks of birds.
  • In fact, we are a majority.
  • I believe in the power of words, music, art, and the stories we tell to nourish the best in us, and also to feed the worst in us. We are given too much feed, and I intend to nourish.

Good night, and good luck.
(But as a professor I know says, make your own luck.)

In the Beginning

There was a recipe. A very good, plain recipe to nourish the body and mind.

Lentils, Monastery Style
(Adapted from Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé)

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon marjoram
3 cups seasoned stock
1 cup lentils, rinsed
Salt to taste (if using cooking sherry and/or store-bought stock, add salt at table if desired)
¼ cup fresh chopped flat (Italian) parsley
14oz can diced tomatoes
¼ cup dry sherry
⅔ cup grated Swiss cheese

Saute onions and carrots in olive oil until onions are translucent. Add herbs and stir, then add lentils and tomatoes, and cook 45 minutes or so, until lentils are tender. Add parsley and cook another 5 minutes. Add sherry at last minute. Serve in bowls, over a generous pinch of Swiss cheese, or put grated Swiss on top. Good with corn bread or a nice sourdough.