Category Archives: bible

Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

Imagine: suddenly, without warning (because that is how war arrives) you are a war refugee! Simply running away from being murdered. And how are you received when you can finally stop running, when you are out of range of the guns, the bombs, the blood? No countries to take you. No one to feed you. You are a skeletal pawn in a skeletal game.

Embalmed corpses declare war on the living and fight for their “territory” against other embalmed corpses using armies of young people; embalmed corpses feeding on fresh, young blood.

I know something is very wrong, somewhere. It must be addressed, and addressed properly. Our prayer, our incantation, our spell to heal, must be more powerfully crafted, more distilled, more essential, than was the horrid spell we are trying to break: a tradition of might over right, strong but wrong, a spell of ignorance which has caused so much harm, and is trying to do more… powered by the love of power, the love of control over people.

The scarred parts of the heart can be replenished; the broken parts, glued; the weak parts, strengthened; the fear assuaged, the pain relieved. But the desire to change, to truly alchemize oneself, spin that straw into gold… the gold of the sun… the silver of the stars… the red planet… the North Star… primal navigation by looking not at the ground, but by looking up, to the sky… that kind of desire doesn’t visit often.

If you want to know where you are going, be sure your map is accurate, or at least doesn’t kill you. Migrating birds know this. Power & Liberation. Slave & free. Joy & Suffering. High & low.

Craving slaves, some are trying to roll us back to serfdom, only they can use our own science & technology to rape us! Serfdom: tied by birth to land. You are a pawn, a source of income; in thrall to your Lord and Master. Freeing serfs is always a struggle. Brute force arm-wrestles the human race, and brute force often pins people to the mat, but… you cannot keep people down for long. The oppressed will continue to spring up and defend their inalienable human rights. All people are created equal: including our ancestors, who existed long before the self-anointed first “private property” owners. Human beings are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, yes? The earth cannot belong to any one of us. Period. We own this planet. All of us.

 

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Opening editorial message for Truth, the magazine, 1st draft

illustration truth the magazine opening editorial statement

Opening editorial message for Truth, the magazine, 1st draft:

First off, my name is not really Kimberly Townsend Palmer. It is, or rather, should be, Kimberly Townsend Pomikala. Pomikala is a Bohemian name, which my father was born with but which was changed by his family not too long after he started school in Arcadia, California. It was changed because one fine, sunny day he came home in tears after being called a “dirty Bohunk” by the other children. It was 1943, and the world, and finally the United States, had long been at war. The biggest battles were not being fought on battlefields but being fought inside the human heart. Many families lost their entire physical existence, multiple generations snuffed out in less time than it takes to inhale, exhale — mine lost only its identity. A small price to pay for being safe in southern California, in a town named for the residence of the Greek gods. So my father grew up as a camouflaged ethnic. The name was changed, but the inside could not be changed. He never felt at home anywhere he went. He might well have been a war refugee of a metaphysical battle — a battle, the fundamental struggle humanity has been waging since its inception, the inexorable war between truth and ignorance. Factual accuracy is not always the truth — truth goes to the essence of a thing. Not the surface, but what is deep within.

The story is told how Eve caused the fall of humanity from the garden of Eden by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What is the remedy for this? What is the essential nugget of truth we may take away from that crucial moment? My answer is: there is no absolute good, there is no absolute evil — there is but truth and ignorance. Eating the apple and gaining the surface knowledge of good and evil was a trap humanity fell into, a trap we have been struggling to release ourselves from ever since. Love exists. Hate exists. Both can serve the truth. Both can serve ignorance. We must harness ourselves to the wagon of truth and pull our heavy burden to wherever the driver leads us. The driver is God, the driver is love, the driver is peace, serenity and acceptance of the way things are on this planet. Many things we label good and many things we label evil are in fact neither. They are simply in the service of truth or in the service of ignorance. Satan, in the guise of the serpent, led Eve and Adam into a terrible, incomprehensible trap and God is now and has always been guiding humanity out of that trap. The reason God forbade eating of that fruit was it was not yet the right time for humanity to have that knowledge.

Plainly put, we are not yet advanced enough to receive the knowledge of good and evil. God is the only entity qualified to eat of that tree. We have taken a small, superficial bite of knowledge and used our imperfect bodies, minds and hearts to inflict merciless cruelty and oppression on others. Our biggest enemy is pride — believing we, as fragile, physical and temporal beings, can ever know enough to accurately judge another’s worth before God. How dare judges and juries impose the death penalty! It is not our role to take life, which is bestowed by God. It is our role to live it and seek the truth and banish ignorance. We are entitled to keep ourselves safe, we can ensure our physical and emotional safety from injustice and repression — but we cannot ever presume to know the will of God.

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Alabaster, Briefly, a short story

illustration alabaster briefly

Alabaster, Briefly

After the hurricane, but before the power came back on, Ella went out walking with her daughter, Katie, to survey the damage.  The huge old ficus tree in front of the library had toppled over, its immense grove of roots lying naked, withering now in the sun.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” the three-year-old said.  Humidity bore down on everything like a weighted fishing net.  The tree had been a twig thirty-five years ago, when Ella was a kindergartner.  She remembered the planting ceremony — her mother, president of Friends of the Library, in a blue linen sheath and white gloves, stepping on the edge of a shiny new shovel.

Now the tree, too, was dying.  The shelter it had provided was still dark and cool — the web of roots from each branch created a division of rooms like a house.  Ella pitied that sodden, gigantic mass, torn from the soil, not dead yet, but no hope, terminal.  How long did it take a tree to die?  Uprooted for half a day, the leaves were still supple and green.  It would take days for them to wilt, weeks for a crew to cut the tree into logs and load the logs into a wood chipper.  Her mother would be long-buried by then.

It was late August, and Sophia’s diagnosis had come in January, just after New Year’s.  Ella was far away when it happened, stuck in New Jersey with a new job.  Now her mother needed her and she was marooned.  She had turned into one of those people she hated, one of the ones who moved away from their family to chase money, thoughtless and selfish, leaving their sick, their aged in the hands of underpaid nurses.  “She’s in good hands,” Sophia’s friends told her over the phone, meaning the hospital.

Ella flew down after her mother’s surgery.  The decision to operate and the actual sawing open of her mother’s skull had happened faster than Ella could get there.  When she arrived, her mother was in the Surgical Intensive Care unit, bed number three.  Sophia couldn’t talk yet.  Her head was wrapped in a helmet of gauze, and over that, someone had placed a flowered disposable surgical cap.  She looked like a confused scrubwoman.

Ella’s reaction when, at first, Sophia didn’t know her was not heroism but, rather, numb acquiescence, a slow nod to absolutes.  Ella performed the worst sort of cowardice:  cutting the lines free before it was over.  In that first hour, Ella could feel the passage beginning, away from her mother — the slow casting off from love, the mournful horns, departing from a foggy land of illness.  Her mother had a ruddy stubbornness Ella was shocked to see.  Over Sophia’s lunch tray — each food sealed in a separate dish — her hands danced above a nonexistent teacup, squeezing a lemon primly into thin air.  She had gone another way, in her soft hat, her skin hot, glossy as if with fever, the surface papery-soft but no longer familiar.

After that, Sophia’s pale and knowing return to her usual self was anticlimactic.  Ella had expected to cry more, to feel something else, not this.  Nothing was how Ella had imagined it, not Sophia’s furtive, over-the-shoulder glances of fear, not the way Ella’s stomach dropped as she stepped into the room, not the aching bones, not the past no longer claimed.  Her mother seemed glued, as never before, to the newspaper and the television news shows.  Finally, Sophia confessed to Ella how, for a couple of weeks after the operation, she had been under the brain-surgery-induced delusion that she’d murdered somebody, by stuffing them full of shoe trees, and had been waiting for it to be on the news, in the paper.  How she’d kept waiting for the police to march in and cuff her, drag her off to jail.  Sophia and Ella laughed, and the way the humor was mixed with horror was something entirely new to them both.  Brain tumor jokes — a new genre, previously unexplored.  How do you get a woman to stop shopping?  Remove part of her brain.

The social worker at the hospital sent Ella out to look for nursing homes.  In one of them, a man, or rather, a man’s body — with no visible, communicable cognitive function — was being fed through a gastric tube, through his abdomen.  Ella took in the odor of urine, other bodily smells and functions.  The man was an ideal nursing home patient, permanently hooked to his nourishment line like a freakish, prize-winning, squash.  The nurses rolled him side to side in stages, every two hours, to prevent bedsores.  He never opened his eyes or moaned.  His family seldom, if ever, visited, the nurse said.  Ella stood at his open door until the nurse drew her away.  Ella wondered if she was seeing Sophia’s future.  Is that what her mother’s life — everybody’s life — would boil down to?  The specter of death winked at Ella through perfect cat’s eyes.  What was past the curtain?

There are far worse things than dying young, dying suddenly.  And so Ella said no to the nursing home.  She calculated how much money her mother had and decided to spend it to make Sophia’s remaining life as comfortable as it could be, considering the fact that inside Sophia’s skull was a bomb, gathering energy to explode.  Ella hired someone to nurse her mother twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Someone with the right hands, the right smell.  She interviewed them over the phone, scheduled in-person interviews.

Lillie had a gold tooth in front and wore outrageous wigs:  red, blonde, honey chestnut.  Her bosom was soft, like feather pillows.  Ella knew Lillie was right for the job from the first second.  How was that possible?  All Lillie’s Bible-thumping was okay by Ella.  She knew Sophia would be well cared for.  She knew Lillie wouldn’t steal anything.  She knew Lillie wasn’t, in any way, a spoiler.

Lillie believed in Hell.  She described it one night, a pit filled with fire and snakes.  Lillie’s eyes widened and Ella could see the white all around the dark iris, merged with the pupil in fear.   Lillie believed in speaking in tongues, in visions, but she hadn’t made the commitment to become a Christian because, she confessed, she knew she wasn’t strong enough yet to keep all the Commandments.  Lillie had borne a six-year-old son, father unmentioned, who lived back home with family.  He was her shame but also her delight.  She named him Christophe and had him baptized the same day he was born.  She might not be saved, but her son was.

She was from Jamaica and already spoke in two tongues — one, a lilting version of Standard English, the other, a speedy patois she used to converse with family and friends.  Ella wondered if Lillie had secrets — when Lillie spoke like that, Ella tried but couldn’t understand.  She had inklings she, herself, was being talked about.

Lillie was good to Sophia and Katie.  Katie loved to snuggle with Lillie in her bed, rolling against her enormous bosom, watching cartoons.  Katie sought out Lillie’s bed even when Lillie was not in it.  Lillie cooked chicken and rice dishes with a lot of saffron.  Her hair oils and hygiene products covered the bathroom counter and the windowsill in the shower.  She had feminine cleansing wash, feminine cleansing wipes, feminine deodorant spray and coconut-scented douche.  Ella wondered what Lillie was trying to wash away with all that stuff.

Ella and Lillie met frequently in the night, checking on Sophia.  Ella usually slept in a T-shirt, Lillie in a long, shiny pastel gown with lace about the neck.  She glided softly on her plump bare feet and suffered from insomnia.  When Ella couldn’t sleep, she’d listen at Lillie’s door and if the television was on, she’d knock.  Together, they passed hours watching twenty-year-old British slapstick on PBS.  Lillie never laughed, but most of the time Ella couldn’t stop until she suddenly remembered why the two of them were there.

You never know enough about a particular cancer until after the patient, in this case, your mother, is dying, Ella thought.  Then you know, you get the whole picture.  Then you’re suddenly an expert on the ugliness of the tumor’s tentacles laying waste to the brain, pushing aside healthy cells, strangling them in the search for nutrients, a vigorous weed nothing can kill.  Healthier than normal brain tissue, hardy as a kudzu vine.  The operation had removed a clump from inside Sophia’s head — mixed normal brain and cancer.  What part of Sophia’s personality had been stored in those cells, then disposed of and lost to the hospital’s furnace?  These neurons and those neurons, together, perhaps held the memory of Ella’s birth — Sophia couldn’t remember what she couldn’t remember.  Ella didn’t want to know for sure what was gone.

An area of brain, diseased, removed, yet the surgeon explained how the microscopic roots fanned out — to remove Sophia’s entire tumor would be to remove her entire brain.  The surgery would provide some extra time on earth, a substantial number of better days, but would not stave the weed off for long.  Eight months almost to the day.  The radiation treatments barely slowed the growth.  The terrible vitality of the cancer equaled the slow deflation of Sophia’s life.  Ella was useless to help in that regard, but took care of all the practical details, made it possible for Sophia to die in her own room, her own bed, on her own sheets and pillows.

Time moved forward but memory moved in many directions.  Sophia’s oncologist said, “The cancer appears to be in remission.”  Ella, an intelligent woman, a scientific woman, found herself pleading for divine intervention, for the laser beam of God to drill into Sophia’s head and burn out the tumor.  Appearances of remission, external, controlled for a time.  Sophia walked, talked, and played bridge again.  But for eight months lived in the shadow of death.  Ella was buoyed by the mercy of not knowing; crushed by the agony of not knowing.  Sophia lived on the edge of the river, where each tussock of cool grass might be the last.

Sophia became confused, just as she had before they opened her head.  She started taking pain pills for the growing headaches.  “I don’t know if they think they’re fooling me,” Sophia said.

Ella caught her mother looking through her 19th-century medical dictionary, the same one Ella had pored over as a child, staring endlessly at the pictures of congenital birth defects.  Hydrocephalus, and the like.  You never know what cancer will do until it’s already done it, Ella thought.  She wanted to transcend her awkwardness in speaking to her mother about her own death, but wasn’t able to.  She held her breath until she felt faint, but no words came to her.  Sophia knew she was dying; Ella pretended she, herself, didn’t.  It felt like Sophia knew Ella was merely pretending, and spared her anyway, one last act of maternal grace.  Apparently, Ella was good for only the simplest things, things like comforting her mother with voice and touch as she became more and more childlike.

But really, Ella wasn’t good even for that.  One afternoon when Sophia was knocked flat with pain, Ella tried to lie down in bed with her, stroke her back, the way her mother had done for her all her life.  “No, don’t, it hurts,” Sophia said.

Ella, feeling helpless anywhere but at her mother’s side, stared for hours at old photographs.  In one was the three-year-old Sophia, sitting on her father’s knee, dressed in white, a huge bow on the top of her head, a mass of dark curls, her small legs unexpectedly spindly, her feet surprisingly bare.  The sole of her foot held the whorls of this day, this moment.  Ella tried but couldn’t decipher the expression in her grandfather’s eyes.  What would he say, that circumspect ghost?  How to explain to him, how to excuse the futility of all Ella’s lavish preparations?

That night, Ella dreamed Sophia gave her old Bible to Lillie instead of her.  And in the dream Ella was terribly hurt by that, but since her mother was dying, tried not to show it, and wondered, with the agony of a child, why her mother hated her so much.  Lillie’s eyes, round and widened, with either alarm or fear, darted hawk-like around each room, and those eyes, surrounded by her smooth features and her gleaming, dark-brown skin, those quick eyes seemed to hold all feelings, all knowledge.

It was Lillie, Ella had to admit, who did the most work for Sophia.  In the days that followed, Ella could only watch as the bond between the two became stronger.  The next week, Ella was back in New Jersey, resigning from her job and packing the contents of her office.

“Take as much time as you need,” her boss said kindly, but she knew he didn’t really mean it.

“I need more time than you can possibly imagine,” she said, and he nodded and tried to look sad.

On the phone later that morning, Lillie told Ella how Sophia seemed so much more cheerful since Ella had departed.  “She’s perked up so much,” Lillie said.  Ella wasn’t surprised.

Back in Florida for good, Ella grew angrier by the day.  She lay awake nights fuming about the receptionists in the oncologist’s office who made her feel like an obnoxious pest for calling.  Their crisp, girlish voices made plain there was nothing more they could do other than prescribe painkillers.  Why didn’t Ella realize that and leave them alone?  Then she chided herself for being enraged by their callousness.  Rational thought had vanished.  Ella’s remaining thoughts and feelings flew around like feathers and fur and sometimes, like lazy dust balls.

Katie, at bedtime:  “I’m scared of monsters.  A tiger is in here.”  When asked to cease and desist:  “I’m just being quiet.  Don’t talk, Mommy.”  Ella watched her breathe after she fell asleep — both her daughter and her mother were flying along far, far above her, and she couldn’t seem to rise.

The day before the hurricane Sophia said, “Hi, sweetie,” and smiled when she saw Ella.  Sophia was close to dying but Ella felt her mother still knew her.  Sophia held Ella’s hand and kissed it.  She rubbed Ella’s arm.  Her mother’s head, as Ella adjusted it on the pillow, felt so warm, so heavy, and so sweet.  Her hair — smoothed flat behind her ears.  Her nails painted red by Lillie, she lay on pink embroidered sheets, sporting pale shamrocks on her homely nightdress.  The steel bed-rail gleamed, chilling against Ella’s thighs as she leaned in to try to glean some intricate, fine-grained meaning from the hour.  The charging ceramic horse she had hung over her mother’s bed, the one which had driven bad dreams away in childhood, his mane still wild and golden against the gloom, would be only a minor talisman in the end.

A urine catheter and bag hung on the hospital bed’s side-rail.  “Is that juice?” Katie asked the first time she saw it, and Sophia and Ella both laughed.  The tubes were transparent at first, then, growing clouded and organic with use, became less a fixture than anything.

It was too hard for Ella to bear.  Every time she went in the room her mother grabbed her hand, gripping with all her strength.  The way she looked at Ella — she wanted to tell her something, but what?  Ella wished she could stay away.  She wished it wasn’t like this.  She wished they could just sit in the living room together, watching TV and Sophia could needlepoint.

Ella waited for the hurricane.  Last week had been her mother’s birthday — the storm would be her penultimate gift.  But Ella didn’t know that until afterward.  Memory back-filtered such telling details — pictures of the dying mother were snapped, then parts of the view faded but parts brightened.  Life as journey, as vision, as caress.  Each thing became smaller at first, then loomed larger.  Her mother’s eyes, teeth, hair.  Perception was flawed.  The hopeless interpretation of the mind.  Where was her guardian angel?

Suddenly, Ella was in love with hurricanes as never before — yes, there was the threat of death, nothing new, especially these days, but there was also the stupefying power of the wind, the pelting rain.  Ella longed to be in awe, in supplication, flattened, watching the storm roll over her body like a man would, naked, trembling with powerful need of her, shouting with passion as she lay under him.  She was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was the way things needed to be.  For so long, a storm had been raging inside her — it was a relief to have it visible, a relief to simply be reduced to holding on.

In the past, when Ella’s mother wasn’t dying, she always drank to excess when a hurricane was approaching.  Sophia had always seemed terrified by the darkening sky, the strengthening gusts of wind, and the first huge, cold, solitary raindrops that pelted heads at random.  When hurricanes were on the horizon, she cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon-and-honey tea shot with brandy in crystal cups.  When a hurricane arrived, Sophia was always more or less unconscious.

But this time, Sophia wasn’t afraid at all, instead, comforting Katie from her deathbed — the three-year-old crawled in with her, not Ella, in the middle of the hurricane.  Ella was too tired to have any more hurt feelings.  “There, there, nothing’s wrong, baby,” Sophia crooned.  Ella pretended it was herself in her mother’s grasp.

Sophia wasn’t afraid, and then Katie wasn’t, either.  Sophia, in the middle of that hurricane night, showed Katie it was just the wind… showed her the trees, whispered into her ear, in the midst of baby curls.  Ella knew how that felt, her mother’s velvet skin between the ear and the shoulder, all of it perfumed silk.  Ella closed her eyes and slept.

Later that night, just before dawn, while the wind ravaged the trees and tugged on the roof of the house, Ella woke to hear Sophia speak for the last time, the sleeping Katie draped across her chest.  “Ella, Ella,” her mother breathed over and over, quietly, so as not to wake the child she held.  “Ella, Ella.”  Sophia smoothed hair she believed was Ella’s as she whispered.  Ella watched from her mattress on the floor, afraid to move.

Sophia’s death waited while the wind roared, her death staring with great golden leopard eyes, unblinking.  The mercy of the teeth sunk into the throat.  To stay, to leave — it became the tiniest of steps.  The tears in her eyes.  The death dance, the death rattle.  The odd, rhythmic, hitching respiration, the sticky sweat, the clock wound up by Sophia’s parents’ lovemaking finally unwound.  Sophia died late on the morning after the hurricane.  Ella was there, holding Sophia, as she drew her final breath.  And then exhaled.  Tick-tock — then nothing.

In truth, she lost track of her mother’s breathing as it stuttered and missed — her own heartbeat seeming to slow down — had that really been the last, the last?  Waiting for the next inhalation, straining to hear.  Ella just missed it, missed it.  Then it dawned on her, too late, Sophia wasn’t breathing any more.  Or was she?

“I think I saw her chest move,” Lillie said, panting hard.  She ran to Sophia’s dresser and grabbed a mirror, holding it in over Sophia’s face, peering for signs of breath.  Lillie’s eyes were dazed, her hands trembling, humid, as she passed the mirror to Ella.  At first Sophia’s hand felt the same as always, but in a few minutes her color had completely gone.  Her skin was whiter than Ella had ever seen it.  White, translucent, her dead mother became alabaster, briefly — a warm, heavy sculpture.  The funeral home people didn’t let Ella watch her mother stiffen, cool.  They hustled her out of the room, didn’t let the daughter see them zipping her mother’s body into a bag.  Had they forgotten that zippers made noise?

Lillie hovered over Ella as if she were spun glass, falling toward the floor.  Lillie’s hands were once again warm, strong and capable, but in the end had not been enough to keep Sophia alive.  She stripped the rented hospital deathbed and sponged the plastic-covered mattress with lilac-scented disinfectant.  Ella crept into the bathroom and locked the door, listening to the sounds outside with great weariness.  She eyed the bathroom window, wondered if she could fit through.

The water Ella drank to wash down her first tranquilizer was terribly cold.  On her tongue it was like an immaculate knife.  When Ella told Katie that Sophia was up in heaven now, with God and the angels, Katie’s voice grew soft and sad:  “I wanted her to stay the way she was.”  Me, too, Ella thought.  Me, too.

Ella stood in the driveway and watched the black hearse move off down the road.  Lillie was soon engrossed in cooking — gigantic pots of black beans and yellow rice.  The smells filled the house, harmonizing with the soapy lilac already there.  Ella’s first post-hurricane, post-mother walk with Katie was a mixture of familiarity and revelation — she was used to seeing that kind of wreckage.  She was prepared for the smell – the ocean things, dead and rotting washed-up things.

That night, Lillie snored through it all, her mouth hanging open, trusting, defenseless, still waiting to be strong enough to get saved.  She had not heard Sophia’s last words, and for that Ella was glad. Ella, Ella, Sophia sang out in the night like a chant, the repetition of the name apparently bringing her ease when might otherwise have been terrified.  Ella realized, as she had not before, how much she loved wind and rain, how much she loved how the world was made disheveled and clean by a hurricane.  She clutched her daughter’s small, hot hand, wondering how the child would remember this day; remember her when it came to that.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” Katie said again.  The child lifted her arms, asking to be held, and Ella obeyed.  She buried her nose in the curve of Katie’s neck and breathed.

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notes from september 18, 2001: richard

illustration rastafarian man

Notes from September 18, 2001: Richard

That morning, I heard my three-year-old daughter wake up and say with delight, “It’s not dark out anymore.” I went in and saw her already sitting up in bed — the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the pink, translucent curtain of her bedroom — and saw how her head was haloed, as usual, by what resembled the pale, disorderly golden floss some people put on their Christmas trees. Angel hair — she was a tousled, blinking pink-and-gold person, recently emerged from babyhood.

“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not dark out anymore. Good morning.” She flopped back down and remained lying in her bed, even after I folded her white net safety-rail down. “What a beautiful girl,” I said, smiling down at her.

“I can’t get up,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I can’t get up because I’m dead.”

My heart darted out of my chest, chirping and flapping and shedding feathers like a startled wren but somehow I managed to feign businesslike nonchalance and smile reassuringly. “You’re not dead.” The effects of the terrorist attacks one week ago had filtered all the way down to toddlers far away in Florida.

Well, later that morning, after dropping her at her baby-sitter’s, I stopped at a mini-market at S.E. 9th Street and University Avenue to get a bottle of water. As I pulled up, there was a guy tottering oddly across the sidewalk in front of the market, very tall and skinny, and his long, skinny pink tongue hung out like a dog’s, quivering with each stride. I hoped — no, prayed — that he would not speak to me. He stood in front of me at the counter to purchase a bottle of cheap wine with some very tattered, dirty money. His coins were coated with sand and dirt, and the clerk swept them into a pile then covered them with a napkin as he left the store. I paid for my water. Several middle-aged men stood talking energetically while their lottery tickets printed out.

After paying for the water, I walked to my car and there stood a tall, picturesque man, vibrant and attractive even though missing most of his teeth. He wore a black cap with stars embroidered along the front: three black stars, on a vivid yellow ribbon band. A paler yellow jumpsuit, a long beaded necklace — and long, luxuriant dreadlocks. He wore a couple of rings on his hands, a small silver nose-ring, and a gold earring in his left ear. He was quite handsome, though at the same time I could tell he’d recently been through some very hard times, and probably had been in those bad times for a quite a while.

For a second, I worried, because of the other man, and that man’s obvious level of dissociation with the world (I really had prayed to avoid him), but in a second of observing this man, I knew I was on much more solid ground. I wouldn’t be talking to a total lunatic. He held out to me a book — a Bible — and said he had just seen someone throw it in the trash, and God had told him to get it out and now pass it on to me. I took the book from him, bedraggled and slightly crusted on the cover with God-knows-what. I felt instantly ashamed for worrying what germs might be on the cover of the old, battered Bible, but I forced myself to disregard that, and act untroubled.

During our brief chat, he told me he was a Vietnam veteran. He pulled out a battered leather wallet and showed me his VA Hospital ID, which I knew to be genuine, as I have seen others: his picture was on it, and his name and date of birth. He was born Christmas Day, 1947.  I cannot remember his last name, only his first name, Richard, the same as my father’s.  I looked at the ID and then back at his face, and what I saw was an honorable man, intelligence shining out through his eyes, but also in his eyes a sadness that probably ran deeper than I could ever imagine. His radiance and his sorrow ran through me like a knife, because of my very-realistic fear we’ll now be in another war – one which will kill many young men and destroy the spirits of many more. I was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed by grief for him, as a veteran, as a street person, as someone now obviously fairly troubled in life. I saw him as he must have been, all those years ago, young and strong and relatively unscarred, and the breath caught in my chest, seeing him both then and now in the very same instant.

After a few moments, he asked very gently and politely if I had any money I could give him to buy some coffee. I was so happy he asked for something, so I could give him something. Ordinarily, I would give someone in this situation a few dollars, but I gave him $20 — I just wanted to give him something. Nobody can give him back what he lost, and money is a poor substitute for what he lost, but it’s a substitute nonetheless. Money and kindness are all we can really give. He went inside, and I buckled my seatbelt, turned on the car, grabbed the steering wheel, but then sank down over it, clutching it, sobbing for the first time in a long time, not caring in the slightest who saw me or heard me. It felt like a release; I only wish it had gone on longer. He came out with his coffee, saw me hunched over sobbing, and got alarmed — he knocked on my window.

“Are you okay?” he asked. Genuine concern; sincere compassion. I can detect those things in other people from the slightest of nonverbal cues, unguarded genuineness and sincerity are so rare in this world. His sincerity made it better, but also worse at the same time.

“I’m okay,” I choked out between sobs. “It’s just this whole thing.” He didn’t have to ask what I meant, because of course he already knew. The power of these events to affect us has crossed every kind of barrier — sex, race, socioeconomic status, education level, sanity level — we’re all family right now. I rolled down the window and he embraced me. I was grateful for the human compassion, pure and simple. His smell was strong and complicated, some of the notes pleasant, some sour, but oh, so real and human and I drank it in, all of it, the bitter and the sweet, a primal metaphor for this crazy life itself. He asked, tentatively and graciously, could he sit with me a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “Please.”

He started to talk, and I listened, giving him my fullest attention. I bonded with him in a way I’ve never bonded with any stranger in such a short time. I guess we spent about an hour together. Richard, from West Virginia. He is a Vietnam veteran, former Marine, former POW. He talked generally about what he was trained to do in the Marines, but said he didn’t want to tell me anything too specific about his experiences during the war — he said women shouldn’t ever hear such things. We talked about everything there is for human beings to talk about and he read to me from the Psalms and Matthew. So devout, so earnest, he held my hand in his while he read Scripture, ministering to me like a Sister.

In fact, he had been in the past a minister, he said, and from his familiarity with the chapters of the Bible I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He has two living daughters, now grown, and another daughter who died at age two, just two years ago, from a heart ailment. He has his deceased baby’s name tattooed on his shoulder, plus three scars from cigarette burns — two for each of her birthdays, and a third for the day she died. He cried twice with me, once while talking about her — Zaidyn — and a second time while talking about how his stepfather used to beat his mother, years ago. He told me he still calls his mother “Mommy” when he calls her on the phone.

“Do you think that’s stupid?” he asked. “For a grown man to say, Mommy?”

“Absolutely not,” I answered. “I think it’s wonderful. I think more grown men should.”

He has been barred from our local homeless shelter, St. Francis house, for two years for giving food he obtained there to someone else. It’s a rule there, you’re not supposed to do that, share your rations. What a dehumanizing policy. It’s our basic need, to share. Damn them for that. He lived in Jamaica at some point for five years, his grandfather was born there. One of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had played conga drums with Bob Marley.

I felt, I think, something like the presence of what human beings call the Divine. Divine love. I comforted him, he comforted me. I gave him another $20, all I had left in my wallet. He blessed me, I blessed him back with all my heart.

He still played conga drums around town. He knew of Ajamu Mutima, another drummer. “Another tall, skinny dude with dreads,” he said, laughing. As Richard and I spoke, I thought often of my father, and my stepmother Dorothy (his African-American wife), and of the rich heritage from Africa we all need to embrace.

He spoke of his lost two-year-old saying to him “I love you, Dada.” As a fellow parent, I knew how precious those words were. His pain at her loss, I felt it palpably, physically.

He knew when to end the interaction, and for that too, I was grateful, as I was overwhelmed and needed to go off and write it all down so I would never forget. Though I didn’t want to break our contact, I somehow understood it had to be broken, because it had been so miraculous, we had gotten so much from each other, we didn’t want anything to detract from the miracle. We didn’t want to descend into ordinariness with each other. He didn’t want it to end, either, but he was gracious enough to know to end it. Restraint can be admirable; sometimes, less is indeed more. But we were both reluctant to leave each other, and when I started the car and put it in reverse, he approached the window one more time. And that, too, was perfect.

Because he asked me, at the end, the question that made it all even more clear, more passionate and more profound. The question that made it, well, I don’t use this word much, but there is no other word to use in English — perfect.

“Did you feel it, too?” he asked me. He looked at me, searching my face with his deep brown eyes, eyes that held the world in that moment. Eyes I wanted to fall into.

I knew precisely what he meant, and I had indeed felt it. He had asked a question I couldn’t even have begun to formulate, so overcome was I with my feelings. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes,” I repeated, nodding to him with absolute recognition, and with that he leaned in and embraced me with joyous intensity for one final moment. I returned his affection as I would return my own child’s, or my mother’s. I am profoundly grateful, and I will never forget him. It’s true, Mystery can manifest in the most unlikely ways. We fell together like long-lost twins, then slowly let each other go.  Without saying much of anything but “Did you feel it, too,” and “yes,” we both knew without doubt that he was a noble person with an eternal soul, and so was I, and we had finally found each other for all eternity in a single hour. The force resonating through our bodies was Divine.

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