Thursday, September 27, 2007

Goblin Men

"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"

The Poet is Christina Rossetti. The picture is an illustration by Jessie M. King for the 1907 publication of Rosetti's poem.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wash Day Nightmares

On crisp autumn wash days like today, I am overcome by nostalgia for high school homecoming dances after the big game. Especially when I’m doing the laundry on a sunny afternoon and I’d rather be outside.

I’ll never forget my senior year at Holy Christ Academy, when our home team Dialectical Materialists beat the team from Saint Lumpen Proletariat – the team from the school on the other side of the metaphorical tracks, where – let’s just say they valued diversity a bit more than the home team.

Thinking about the actual education I soaked up between games and dances in high school, it occurs to me much was wasted. Take high school home economics, for example. Alas, I may never use my skills to whip up a tuna casserole with crushed potato chips on top; or to make a toilet seat protector out of dumpster trash; or to survive a robot uprising,

In the noble-but-Sisyphusian task of making my whites whiter AND my brights brighter, I observed just now that Shout Out doesn’t make a sound as it silently attacks the juice stain on my t-shirt. Why didn’t I learn at HCA not to juice a pomegranate without an apron on? How cool would it be if, when you dabbed on the Clorox pen, the stain on the clothes would shout, in a tiny echoing voice, “NNNnnooooooooo…”?

Back in those days, we all figured by now robots would be doing the wash, and we’d be riding jetpacks to the grocery store. All the same, I take cold comfort upon finding complementary personal hand wipes near the my grocery store’s cart corral where the jet-pack recharge station should have been. NNNnnoooooooo…

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Friday, September 21, 2007

Grief and Passion in the Mundane World

“’My home is above the Sphere of Parting Sorrow in the Sea of Brimming Grief,’ she answered with a smile. ‘I am the Goddess of Disenchantment from the Grotto of Emanating Fragrance on the Mountain of Expanding Spring in the Illusory Land of Great Void. I preside over romances and unrequited love on earth, the grief of women and the passion of men in the mundane world. The reincarnations of some former lovers have recently gathered here, and so I have come to look for a chance to mete out love and longing. It is no accident that we have met’.”
- Cao Xueqin and Gao E, trans. A Dream of Red Mansions, Vol.1

The naming of Chinese gardens is an ancient tradition, recorded here in what is considered to be the original fictional novel about – among many other things – Chinese gardens.

Beginning with overwrought names, Chinese gardens are weighed down with belabored metaphor and obvious symbolism to the point that the visitor finds mystic beauty in rocks, yes rocks. Beautiful and tortured, shaped like gods stumbled upon out of the mists of the early morning, awakening some dream within a dream.

One thing about reading several books concurrently is the connections and inspirations stumbled upon like a misshapen monk at a roadside shrine, who dispenses enigmatic riddles. What Woody Allen or somebody described as a clue within a riddle wrapped in the dust of dreams and sewn into the smallest of ornately painted Russian stacking dolls. And shipped UPS ground to an enigma, to be delivered next Tuesday.

The backyard this morning was still so saturated with the dew that the air sparkled, I saw the yard like a Chinese garden – laden with moist portents and secret messages from the future. I usually spend time in the back yard in the afternoon. The sun highlights a completely different habitat in the morning. Spotlighting things lost in afternoon shadows, and turning familiar sights into trespassing strangers. (The pictures are from a trip up the California coast in 2004.)

I was chased from the yard by the morning round of sprinklers, so I came inside and picked up a book that was at hand – and that’s where the quotation is from. The sprinklers are almost done. Then, I’ll go back outside and try to hear the sirens and decipher their cries. Sometimes it’s all about grief and sorrow. This morning it was about how the world isn’t so mundane at all, if you look carefully.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Riddle of Love

"Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled’
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!"
- Alexander Pope, An essay on Man

I’ve written a lot about faith recently. Today, I’m on to another of the Big Three: love. Love gets harder as it gets older. Desire is easy when the object is lovely.Then come the mornings ever after.

As if it’s not bad enough that I grow old, I learn that you grow old too. The blinding insight sharpens our vision. Under the less flattering light, it’s clear to see that the sun that once bathed us in a youthful glow, slants sharper in the sky, casting our faces in harsher contrast.

The new light permits us to see more than skin-deep into the dimming eyes of our once-young lover. The brilliant, youthful glow fades, it mellows into warm wisdom. When I was sixty, working in the warm autumn one morning, I felt like a hard smooth shiny mottled stone, still warm to the touch, before it grows cold in the shadows.

Yesterday, I had the kind of day I always dreamed of having before I retired. Working at my new potting bench, I didn’t have to spend almost an hour getting out and putting away tools, pots, soil et. al. Just working, planting seeds for Veggie Garden winter: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and some rainbow silverbeet Swiss chard. Then, I got to scrub my fingernails at the outside sink. Life is good.

The spark glows warmer inside me. Physical beauty does not endure. Generously, age increases my ability to see the one I love. Those golden sunsets will etch deeper age and laugh lines on our stiff old faces, and acquaint us intimately with aches and pains as we cross the river of our lives from the sunny bank to the far shadowed shore.

But the goofy curl of the lips, the oblivious scratch of the chin: they’re all still there. Your warm chuckle, and your pleasure at pleasing me is still there despite the ravages of time. When I look deeply into your eyes, brightly warm, I see, again, the one I will always love.

Monday, September 17, 2007

It smelled like fall this morning

"When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I've got that feeling once again
I can't explain you would not understand

"When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone."
- Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb (Gilmour, Waters)

I’m always hurrying to the next thing, rushing the moments out of my way like raking dry autumn leaves – kicking up dust to obscure the other senses. Strolling slowly through the back yard this cool morning, there was a moisture-laden breeze that stirred the recently watered surfaces. There was a smell reminiscent of raking leaves as a kid.

I have absolutely no childhood memories of traditional fall foliage where tree leaves are painted in burning reds and warm oranges: such memories came later. Many people can recall the unmistakably lovely smell of the smoke of dry burning leaves, tended by dads with hovering rakes. I too recall that smell of leaves burning, but it isn’t as powerful.

This morning, the smell in the air reminded me of the majestic oak trees in the neighborhood I grew up in. When we were kids – before the EPA made us stop burning leaves – there was a magical time when the leaves fell, and we raked them into piles at the edge of the yard, just over the border of the crude asphalt curb where the street began. That’s where they were to be burned.

What happened after we raked them into piles into the gutter, that’s the smell I recalled today. After they were piled up, but before they were burned, we got take turns, each taking running jumps into the deepest piles, burying ourselves in the brown leaves, and then raking the piles high again for the next jumper. And oh, the smell. It was pure aromatherapy, before that word was even invented. It was the smell of the leaves that, in crushing their plain brown wrappers open, we released the final earthy smell of vigorous life. In the middle of the pile of leaves, was the organic leaf-memory of how they once sprang to life in a former season.

The smell associated with those childhood memories was what I smelled this morning – the unmistakable harbinger of autumn, brisk and cool. I was prompted to slow down and listen to the message from some vestigial level of my brain where scent is the language of deepest meaning. Peering down, I could smell the mulch being born beneath my feet. The sight reminded me of the color of the raked leaves. It was a uniform, dingy brown: the color of the stuff the dust is made of just before it becomes dust. Yet to me then, it was like magically sparkling gold would be to my eyes today. If it was a taste, it would be as a rejuvenating earthy potion to my tongue. The tactile feel was better than any feather bed in the history of the universe.

One particular magical Saturday morning, I must have been coming down with the flu while we raked leaves; but I was too young to realize I was getting sick. I must have sort of passed out in the leaves, where I must have had some lovely dreams. Some sibling had called Mom to the scene. I recall being picked up by my mother, who most certainly muttered softly in my ear as her hand caressed my forehead and detected fever. I was tucked in bed, but remember nothing about feeling sick. I do remember that the primeval jungle smell in that leaf pile is associated with the most wonderful remembrance of childhood innocence, protected from the whole world by a loving mother who had the power to make everything better.

This is the memory I recalled this morning in my garden – where microscopic levels of the same smell triggered a memory from thousands of miles away, and dozens of years ago.

We don’t have much of an autumn here, and we certainly have no fragrant oak leaves to mulch or burn. But some smell this morning awakened a memory so wonderful it became a dream. The smell was like jumping into piles of raked leaves, and awakening their final innocent, alive, olfactory glory one last time before they burned.

I don’t rake leaves any more, and it's been a while since I jumped into a pile. But earlier today, I caught another fleeting glimpse of whatever it was that I once saw in a childhood fever dream, way back before I had any inkling of how scary the grown-up world would be.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Things'Twere Best to Overlook"

"I too, have mused upon the way
The sun comes up and makes the day,
The tide goes out and makes the shore,
And many, many matters more;
And coaxed till I was out of breath
My mind to take the hurdle, Death.
I, too, have writ my little book
On ‘Things ‘Twere Best to Overlook’
And struck a match and drawn a cork
And called a spade a salad-fork,
For men that are afraid to die
Must warm their hands before a lie;
The fire that’s built of What is Known
Will chill the marrow in the bone."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Journal

We usually visit Huntington Gardens in Pasadena in the spring, when the wisteria is in bloom in the Japanese Garden. But we went there this past week with visiting family. It’s been years since I’ve seen the place in late September.

We walked past the Japanese house, and down through the deep shade of the jungle garden, beneath old growth trees, some of which are 100-year old cypress trees hung with air roots that start out as hanging vines, looking like they were designed for some old Tarzan movie. It was cooler there, than in the bright autumn sunshine, and the breeze carried a primeval forest smell that awoke that caveman deep inside my brain. Or maybe it was the sound of crickets in the dark undergrowth, making the sound that Amy Lowell (in her poem “Late September”) described as “the scrape of insect violins” in the middle of a bright sunny day.

Whatever triggered it, the experience reminded me that I frequently try to make sense of things beyond my ability to understand, and that I should take a break sometimes. I realized that I’m always looking for purposeful plan or pattern; some proof that things always work out for the best. Walking down the deserted jungle path, provided some perspective of my temporary place in the universe.

It’s hard for me to confront the reality of a universe that operates outside of some moral order, randomly stringing effects and causes like God’s dice game; where outcomes evolve from chance more than some unperceived purpose. Edna’s poem conjures the image of man as a microscopic caveman lost in a dark forest, warming our hands before a fire made from our puny scientific and technological accomplishments.

There in the jungle path, the fire of man’s accomplishments gave out not even a pinprick of light, or of faith. And, however briefly, I enjoyed the sense of being surrounded by infinite darkness and the mysteries of the universe, and of confronting death without fear. Or, if not without fear, then without despair.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ronald, Why?

“Whack the next guy with the same respect you’d like to be whacked with, you know?”
- Tony Soprano

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Our Death is Our Wedding With Eternity

"Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting you net
into it, and waiting so patiently?"

A certain degree of estrangement from other people can be a prerequisite to peaceful solitude. But at a certain point, it can imprison us in the cage we make to keep the vast nothing outside. Once opened, the howling wilderness of civilization threatens to rush in and devour us.

Behold the pause between the late and early – the seasonal holding of its breath before the moon chills the lengthening nights, and the afternoon sun weakens it’s stranglehold on the last late dahlias.

Do gardens have souls, or are they merely the perfect way station where other disembodied souls can pause and refresh themselves along their journey?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Vegetative States Become Meditative States

“Standing, these last, having come in from the summer, guns on their shoulders: dusty, overheated, blinded by the immensity: stunned by infinite cicadas: with head and cap amid the cloud of flies, up, up, which gave out a humming at times as of an unseen guitar plucked by the phalanges of a ghost.”
- Carlo Emilio Gadda, “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via merulana.” (That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana)

Although it feels like a mild summer morning, I’m still smarting from the week of extreme heat and humidity where I succumbed to the sweat and the flies working outside. I’m inside and moving into the deeper shadows, the cooler colors, the misty chills of December. I feel the yang softly unwinding as the yin rolls ascendant. As the season slows down, so do I.

Gardening is slower now, we’re both tired: my garden and me. The sun comes in at a sharpening angle, surprising my tired squinting eyes, momentarily blinding me. Suddenly, in that cool dark peace, I relax. Sometimes I can stop talking and listen.

Now in September, my muscles begin to ache sooner and remain sorer longer than in May. But that bodily weariness somehow loostens the invisible stuff inside me and I can feel my breath sinking deeper into my body like a stone into a clear, still pool. I’ve never studied meditation, but I’ve heard a lot about it.

I get a sense of the contemplative peace sometimes when I’m outside on a hot day in the back yard. Some days I can hear the vibrant hum of the world over the background noise in my head, I hear the unseen ghostly guitar. Both of my vegetable gardens will become dry skeletons by Halloween, and their decline is already evident, their phalanges already appearing. But a surprise: there is a comforting peace in that image: As I age, my body forces me to slow down. Only then, do I learn to quiet my restless mind and pay attention. Read the signs.

That state of listening can occur in a single day, and it’s the short term mental reward for the physical cost of gardening. Today, despite the vibrant growth and exhaustive attention, both of my gardens (the backyard and the public Veggie Garden) are, alas, brutal pastiches, awful messes.

And as I am surveying the wreckage, I take a deep breath and sense that same softening and silencing on a seasonal scale. Drifting slowly down the peaceful river of life in the seasonal twilight, with the ocean still a long way to go. Today I feel the undercurrent of a seasonal shift that parallels the daily sparks of brilliance. Brilliance is leaving: now comes wisdom.

Last evening, sitting with a soft curled-up cat, on my favorite blanket, on my lap I felt the deeper, seasonal tug of time. Stop talking. Sit still. Breath slowly. Listen carefully.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Heavenly H. Days

"Yet Autumn calls for courage, as the end
Of all things calls for courage, - love or life;
Seldom with clean-cut slicing of the knife,
but a slow petering, a dismal droop...
Then in such days the flame of faith is low;
spring is far off, and in the Winder dread
Most tepidly and cowardly we go."
- V. Sackvillew-West, The Garden, Autumn

We are watching for the hurricane to hit San Diego, and my Mom’s old saying was spoken: Heavenly H. Days. (Mom was too refined to say Jesus H. Christ).

It’s not likely we’ll get the hurricanes. This is Tuesday – the morning I spend at the nearby Veggie Garden where I volunteer. I encounter other volunteers which I have come to look forward to as much as the communing with Nature in all her Seasons. I don’t consider myself particularly clever or wise. But I am smart enough to enjoy the company of a group of (mostly) women, whose common interest is that we are trying to obtain wisdom. We confer about strategies to survive amid the ruins of time, and impending drought. It was 110 at my house yesterday.

A mechanical switch governing the drip system to the Veggie Garden broke after the garden closed on Sunday, and was not noticed until Tuesday morning (today), when D.S. noticed a small river flowing among the pollarded crepe myrtles, carrying the miniature myrtle blooms in their wake like tiny people fleeing tsunami rapids in fragile purple boats.

The story was relayed to volunteers this morning, amid collective mourning over loss of 15k gallons of water – like some long lost, slightly peculiar uncle. There was musing about how we’d love to see some hurricane-related wind and rain released above our parched desert paradise gardens. While our neighbors on the east and southern coasts are praying for the wind and rain to go away, we wistfully long for it. When I headed out at 9:00, it was 77F. When I returned home overheated and dusty at 11:00, my car said it was 97, Fire seems to be lurking beyond every shadow, waiting to spring out into the white spotlight.

An observer would be forgiven (once!) for assuming we’re all mild-mannered, overweight, craft whores trying to save the planet by buying recycled paper for our scrap-booking. That is a testament to the excellence of our disguises, the solidity of our secret identities. We are actually superheroes who got here by working harder and for less pay than men. While they retired and discovered Viagra, we’re still cooking and washing, and still looking for interesting and worthwhile stuff to do.

It might also surprise strangers to learn that we’re still in love with our retired partners, who may want little more than a comfortable chair, HDTV with basic cable, and a remote with a mute button. And if our purchasing power is not as great as that holy grail demographic (18 to 25 Adult Swim boy-man gamers), we can tickle the economy with what we buy at the arts and crafts store. We’re the Candy Crowly fat: distinguished senior political reporters. We may be >50, but we’re still voluptuously alive. And unlike the kidsthesedays, we’ve got the money, if not the hip hop lingo. Oh yeah, and the brains. Like the bruise follows the blow, our energies follow our interests. We’re doing it on our own time, so dude, don’t judge us.

At any event, the veggie garden was drying off when we arrived. The soil is a gritty but well-drained and balanced environment; and it is now leached of years worth of salts and impurities from the air and water. The Veggie Garden, and it’s malfunctioning drip system also sit almost at the summit of the 4-acre garden, so water spilled there is never wasted. Thirsty trees in the plaza downriver and the large succulents looked smug and grateful. After about 36 hours of drip watering, the downstream plants were mostly glad, except for some shallow-rooted older specimens in the design loop which simply leaned over - like the acacia tree that once stood in the middle of my back yard.

Observe the skeletonized leaves of autumn – leached of chlorophyll, but pungent in the dry heat, like a fig or an old grape. Those gray-haired volunteers in the garden (and the craft store) raised the first families understood to be the primary entrepreneurial unit of our fiscally entitled homeland. It’s our kids that screwed it all up. Parents themselves now, it’s they who are the uptight OCD fascist parents afraid of tiny germs on their granite counters. It so happens that Wolf is reporting that their fear du jour is mine shafts and kids <16 driving ATVs. Those are the dunes near my house where we typically hear about the occasional uninvited guest roaming in thirst, but those guys have their priorities in order. Where can we play with our expensive toys? Where can we lead high-risk lives that the government keeps mostly risk-free? The poor girls fell down a rabbit hole, but their parents are not to blame. Ever.

What should be the first sprinkles of our wet season, feel like some eternally unlikely probability. This year, the dry season stretched its arms to encircle the last part of winter, and now it’s going for the first part of autumn. A hurricane would be welcome about now to leach the heat, revive our parched spirits, and to purify the land and those in it.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Sun Going South

"In late sunshine I wander troubled.

Restless I walk in autumn sunlight.

Too many changes, partings, and deaths.

Doors have closed that were always open.

Trees that held the sky up are cut down.

So much that I alone remember

This creek runs dry among its stones

Souls of the dead, come drink this water!

Come into this side valley with me,

A restless old woman, unseemly,

Troubled, walking on dry grass, dry stones."

(The Poem is by Ursula K. LeGuin, from “Always Coming Home”. The picture of the group of men is Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” who were going to their execution)