14 September 2000

Firmly Against Them

Max and his daughter Eva picked me up from work at about 5 pm. We whisked through the City in Eva’s new SUV and headed right into tourist central – Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39. Max is a naval engineer and his professional society meeting was this evening. It was compromised of a guided tour of the World War II submarine, Pompanito, complete with Veteran submariner’s providing detailed explanations of life on a submarine and the machinery of the magnificent vessel. Honestly, I didn’t understand half a word of it. Naval architects and marine engineers are interested in esoteric details of the vessel’s operations. I understood neither the questions nor the answers. I liked the salty-dog demeanors of the graying men and I suppose it didn’t much matter what they were saying. Being near them felt comforting.

After the tour we walked from where the submarine is docked on Pier 45 to Swiss Louise, a restaurant on Pier 39. One of the docents provided an address to the society members, tearing as he spoke of the pride and commitment of those who wear the “coveted twin-dolphin insignia.” While again I understood less than half of what he said, he had a warm and inviting smile. I thought he’d make a good Santa Claus. I think some day I’d like to take that guy to lunch.

Max and I get together every month or so. He makes a stellar effort to stay in touch and tracks me down despite my hectic schedule. I’m glad he does this. It keeps me grounded. We’ve been meeting for lunch in the grand ballroom of the Palace Hotel, downtown. It always feels a little tawdry, taking the train downtown and slipping into the side entrance of this upscale hotel at noon. It’s part of a ritual to stay connected. That’s something that’s difficult for me to do.

I became friends with he and his late wife, Anna, a few years before she died.

I had the sense that Max and Anna were a bit anxious around me at first, this tattooed stranger wearing Doc Martins adorned with spikes and an aggressive politic. It didn’t stop them from offering me a ride home or following up with phone calls and pursuing a relationship. A time came when I’d be having dinner at their home in Dublin and strategizing with them on various political initiatives.

I believe that Anna told me things that she didn’t confide easily in other people. In quiet moments over coffee, in her kitchen, she told me that she never liked being a mother. She felt trapped by her children and never embraced motherhood. If she had it to do over again, and saw a different horizon, she’d have done it all differently. She told me that she never felt as alive as she had since becoming an “activist.” She felt that her world was opening up and she had an incredible sense of purpose and joy.

She unfolded before me. It was awesome to be witness to this blossoming. (She went to see Le Miserable and stood up and cheered as the revolutionaries stormed. “Everyone looked at me,” she said, “but I didn’t care.” I wanted to tell her that it was smug intellectuals who lead people to their deaths and there’s no honor in that type of deadly arrogance, but I didn’t want to burst her bubble.) Her new hero, she told me, was Malcolm X. This from a white suburban woman, complete with colonial-style home with a two car garage, a white picket fence and 2.5 children. Malcolm X. Imagine that.

When she lost her hair to chemotherapy, I asked to take off her hat. I touched her bald head. “It’s beautiful, Anna,” I told her, “don’t cover it up.” She shaved the rest of her hair and bought a pair of purple Doc Martins. I was titillated.

She invited me to speak to a group at her church, educating and organizing Evangelicos in the suburbs about pharmaceutical companies, expanded access and FDA regulations. The cancer metastasized and eventually overwhelmed her bones.

She was in a great deal of pain. She asked me to lie in bed with her, to press my body firmly against her back and hold her. She’d always had dreams of soldiers on hillsides, sentries of sorts, who protected her. “The soldiers are gone,” she said, “or rather they’re drunk. They’re laying there drunk and they’re not protecting me any longer.” “Perhaps they’re just resting,” I said. She died not long after.

Max invites me to celebrate Anna’s birthday with his family each year. This year it was a Hornblower Yacht cruise. Eva tells me that we’re going camping in the Grand Canyon next year. It feels like such an honor. I stand humbled in the presence of this family and the way they embrace. I hope that one day I’m really able to recognize my ability to press firmly against them and hold them – the way that Anna let me hold her and in a strange way, the way she continues to hold me.

07 September 2000

It Was Just A Puddle

There’s something very comforting about the predictable expanse of sky in the desert. You see the weather coming and it does. There’s time to prepare if you want to – or not. Clouds drop to meet the earth like a white wash on the horizon and half hour or so later it’s drizzling lightly on your toes. A patch of blue provides a window for the sun to highlight textures of the mountain range and you can predict the small puddles on the porch will be dried up as the weather, invariably, approaches.

On this drizzly Thursday morning God speaks in rumbling distant thunder – a soft low voice speaking of serious things over coffee at the kitchen table before the children get up or in hopes that they won’t hear. There’s business that must be dealt with before the day starts and the work begins and this is our time alone to discuss things.

It’s precisely how I imagined it would be - everyone in my consciousness, some physically closer, some not. Cassie is here, but not here. She’s exactly in the place I envisioned. Her, waking up early and wandering out for a walk in the morning - myself thinking, writing. Her in her own world but very near – me in mine but near. In the dream she would enter and leave, always with excited and engaging thoughts to share.

The morning ambles on – Cassie returns. We read and talk, interrupting one another constantly with “listen to this!” A few paragraphs or recital from her book or the magazine I’m reading leads to a tangent of discourse and eventually fades to quiet again as we refocus until one or the other of us break the silence again.

As the morning passes into midday, the low measured talk with God becomes an argument – voice raised and thunderbolts returned. Lightening is deceptive. Our first instinct of interpretation of things may sometimes be all at once far too complex and simplistic. Lightening doesn’t come from the sky, it’s drawn from the sky by the ground. A force from within the earth beckons the energy in the sky, which comes down to meet it part way. It’s the earth, however, that speaks first.

“There was an exodus of birds from the trees because they didn’t know we were only pretending. The people all looked up and looked pleased, while the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.” – Ani DiFranco

It wasn’t the kind of argument that leaves me feeling in conflict. Maybe that’s merely because I wasn’t taking it seriously enough, wasn’t listening carefully – perhaps if I were I’d believe things weren’t right with the world and there’s a great deal more conflict I have with God that’s needing resolve. Instead, be it delusion or divine clarity, I take it as an inspired oration on the order of things or welcome instruction on watercolor – a simple fact that didn’t go unnoticed or unlearned that lead, ultimately, to my enrichment.

The sun leaks out from time to time from rips in the desert cloud cover. A puddle of water gathered on the plastic lawn furniture forms an organic mirror filled half with sky and half with building. Looking at it long enough I’m left with the impression that it might be a window into another world when in fact it’s merely a small reflection of the one I’m in. One that the dry desert air will likely swallow up before the evening – making it no less than what it was but gone nonetheless.

It’s perhaps what’s all at once right and wrong with the way we look at ourselves. Seeking epiphanies like organic reflecting pools and believing that we’re looking at the “real thing.” When the moment is over and nature has dried up our looking glass, we’re left with a lingering feeling that something large and immutable happened when in fact we were simply knocked off balance because we “paid attention” for a moment. It was just a puddle.