Monday, January 30, 2006

Thoughts about my dad

When I visited my dad on Thursday, his last day, I could tell that he was in congestive heart failure. When he coughed up some fluid with difficulty and exclaimed, “oh, boy,” I said, “I’m sorry, honey.” With alacrity, and even a little cheerfulness, he responded, “I’m okay.” My dad was more than okay. He was a mighty man, into whose life, talent, and character I can give only a few glimpses.

My dad grew up on a farm in north central Iowa. He met my mom in high school and, on her graduation, they were married. My parents relocated to southern California shortly before I was born. We first lived in Venice and then moved to the idyllic Hollywood Riviera neighborhood of Redondo Beach a few months before I turned seven.

My dad joined the Navy near the end of World War II after having been deferred from the draft both for having a family and working in a defense plant. I am very happy to say that his answer to the (rhetorical) question, “What did you do in the war, daddy?” included such happy memories as these of his stay on postwar Guam:

He used large motorized equipment to smash open coconuts;
He made what might have been the world’s most expensive ice cream with augers and liquid oxygen; and,
He strung cowry shells onto wire and sold the resulting necklaces at the base hospital.

Although we watched every episode of Victory at Sea together, the war experiences he talked about throughout his life were these light ones.

My dad was a funny guy. One of my favorite memories is of opening the refrigerator in our home one morning and seeing annotated eggs in the door egg holder. My mom had, one could infer at a glance, boiled some eggs and, when she returned them to the holders, had distinguished them from the others by writing “raw” on all the raw eggs. When my dad discovered this he grabbed a pen and wrote on the remaining eggs something like this: “rah!” “rah! rah!” “go team!” and so on.

One of my dad’s greatest gifts to me and surely my best gift to him were the love of baseball and a World Series game. My folks and I, sometimes together with a favorite priest, would pile into the early 1950s Nash Rambler, purchased because the seats folded down into a frequently-used bed, to go to the Hollywood Stars games at Gilmore Field, in those pre-freeway days something of a trek. My first major league team, which I acquired the same way most children do, because it was my parent’s team, was the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were not the closest team to my dad’s Iowa hometown, as Chicago was much nearer, but I’ve always believed they were his team because their star was a big flame-throwing Iowa farm boy named Bob Feller. I followed the Indians closely since, as an 11 year-old, I subscribed to and read baseball’s trade paper, the Sporting News. (Baseball wasn’t all that I got from my dad, as you will see.)

In 1965, when I had begun to put baseball aside for nearly ten years to more fully immerse myself in the 60s, the Dodgers met the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. Unlike today, tickets could be obtained by the general public and by working the postal system I was able to get tickets for my dad and me. Looking at the records, I’m pretty sure we watched Sandy Koufax pitch but what I remember most about the game was the jubilation of the diverse band of fans in the left field bleachers and the wonder and gratitude on my dad’s face when I surprised him with the tickets. When I visited my folks over the years I’d always get my dad to watch a game on TV with me if possible. I think now that he just liked the game while I “worship at the church of baseball,” but that’s the thing about a good gift: in the right soil it can blossom and baseball remains a steady font of pure joy for me.

My dad was the most competent person I’ve ever met--he always was eager to learn something as deeply as he could. He had many avocations (the word “hobbies” seems inadequate to delineate the excellence that accompanied all he did). Sure, there were oddities, like the fact that his handmade (in the 1950s!) camper shell and our house were always economically painted the same color and, later, when his energies were focused on the contents of one suburban back yard in Kennewick where he grafted 6 varieties of apples onto one apple tree, but nothing was so emblematic of the man as the commitment and dedication that he mobilized when he decided to keep bees.

What follows is a brief piece I wrote about him on Father’s Day while on a writing and meditation retreat in June 2004. The Beekeeper.

Emil Huskamp

July 1, 1915 - January 20, 2006

Emil Huskamp, born on July 1, 1915 to Herman Huskamp and Olga Homrighouse Huskamp, in Fenton, Iowa, passed away January 20, 2006. Emil married his high school sweetheart, Hulda Wolder, in 1936. During their lives, Emil and Hulda made homes in Iowa, California, Idaho, and Washington. A Navy veteran of World War II, Emil earned his living as a cabinet maker and in maintenance work, first for St. Lawrence Martyr parish in Redondo Beach, CA, and later across the western US for the FAA. He excelled in the pursuit of his passionate interests: he grew orchids and African violets, which he sold commercially; planted and tended large vegetable gardens; and kept 100 bee colonies and marketed the honey. On his retirement, Emil and Hulda built a large and comfortable home entirely by themselves on a 10 acre ranch, which included a sandhill crane nesting location, in McCammon, Idaho.

Emil leaves to cherish his memory daughter Jean (Carrie) of Tacoma, sister-in-law Ardis Voigt Huskamp of Algona, Iowa, niece Trudy Huskamp Peterson (Gary) of Washington D. C., other family, and many friends. He was predeceased by his beloved Hulda, who passed away in October, 2004, and by his cherished brother Eugene. The family thanks everyone at Family First Adult Family Home for their loving care of Emil and Hulda. The family gratefully suggests remembrances be made, if desired, as donations in Emil’s memory to Heifer,, an organization that is dedicated to helping people in poverty obtain a sustainable source of food and income. A gift of honeybees would be especially apt.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

My Mom

My mom was a painter and photographer, a teacher, a rock hound and arrowhead collector, a quilter and sewer, a homemaker and a partier, a hunter and fisher, a wife, friend, sister, daughter, and mother. It seems to me unfair that I am left to share my recollections of my mother. How much better for one of her fiercely loyal friends, one of those women who sat laughing and smoking in our kitchen during my mother's most vital years, to be standing before you telling stories—and there were stories!—of Hulda, their beloved friend. Instead I will share a daughter's memories, which by their nature are more sharply focused and complicated.My mom and I on March 16, 1943

I was an independent child but nevertheless my mom made sure that that I could follow my interests and passions. She embroidered cowboy shirts for me and created a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. To her everlasting credit, she founded a Girl Scout troop for me and my friends and remained its leader for seven years, thus enabling me easily to retain my neighborhood friends when my parents became Catholic and I transferred to parochial school. She took me to professional rodeo, to see Harry Belafonte at the Greek Theatre, to see an American Bandstand touring show at the Pike in Long Beach. Often we would all pile into the car, my mom and dad and I, and sometimes Father Hoban from St James, to go watch the Hollywood Stars, our beloved Pacific Coast League team, at Gilmore Field (where CBS Television City is today) or, if they were playing the hated Los Angeles Angels, at Wrigley Field in inner city LA. Father Hoban was an Angels fan and I remember happy tussles with him in the back of the car during the long pre-freeway trip back home to Redondo. Our family took camping vacations each summer. We had a 1950 Nash Rambler the seats of which folded down into a bed, which we used often. During the summer of 1958 we were camping in the Fort Bragg area of Northern California, a rough and dirty trip that saw my folks fishing for salmon in small boats on very large waves. I had long since been bitten by the folk bug and, as our trip home passed through San Francisco, I pleaded for us to be able to go to a show at the hungry i. With an effort that became the stuff of family legend, my mother organized an evening at the folk club for me, resiliently dyeing my dad’s camping shoes black so they resembled dress shoes. We essentially had to beg for gas money to get back home but we were treated to a concert by the reclusive Tom Lehrer, who opened for the Limeliters. Later, when I began working at the telephone company, my mom would get up at 5:00 in the morning to start cooking Christmas dinner, since everyone at the phone company worked on Christmas in those pre-direct dialing days and she was determined that we would spend the holiday together as a family before my shift started at 4:00.

Still, my mom and I were very different people and the beloved public Hulda was a far more complicated person within the family. After I left home we were in close contact but not close. Over the years I watched her life change as my folks left their wonderful home in Redondo Beach to follow my dad’s new job at the FAA. Later still I felt awe as they built their own wonderful house in Idaho, bringing it up from the ground when they were the same age I am now, an absolutely stunning effort.

Three years ago we moved my mom and dad to Tacoma to be closer to us. Her exterior world began to shrink. Hulda hated the restrictions caused by her infirmities, hated her growing loss of independence, and especially hated being thought of as "old." With the blessed help of Buddhist meditation practice I found it easier to stay compassionate through her resentment of loss even as I assumed more responsibility for her care. Since January, when my folks entered an adult family home, she seemed to enter into a greater acceptance of her life as it was. Once she said to me with a light smile and no little grace, "You’re the parent now." (I like to think I responded, "Well, you still don’t get a raise in your allowance!"--probably not, although she would have laughed as we delighted in each other’s sense of humor.) When we went out to brunch on September 12 to celebrate her 87th birthday we toasted with champagne in tiny flutes and hung out together just like, as she said more than once, "a couple of pals." We saw an oncologist a few days later, a visit that gave us a chance to talk of the possibility of her not fighting her multiple organ failure any longer. On September 30 my mom was accepted into hospice care and exactly two weeks later she passed away. During her last week she had a chance to be visited by Carrie, Dianne, and Michael. On Tuesday I played the mandolin for her as she lay smiling. On Thursday I told her that she could go if she needed to and less than two hours later she was gone. During her last week she spent a lot of her energy planning a gift for my birthday, which was Saturday. This, I believe, says quite a lot about who she had become. We always told each other of our love, a love which by the end had passed beyond reservation and regret. I kissed her forehead as I left her on Thursday, saying, "I love you." I wished I had said what I clearly could see, although I’m certain she knew it, "Mom, you’ve become love."

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Pete and Me

I recently heard an NPR interview with Pete Seeger in which the interviewer tried to get his reaction to someone who, in the worst of the McCarthy / HUAC times of the fifties, had "named names" to the Committee, helping to destroy the Weavers' career and causing great damage to Pete in particular. "Aren't you bitter?" the interviewer asked. "I believe in forgiveness," answered Pete.

When I was 17, although I didn't know this at the time, I decided to become Pete Seeger. I fell in love with the Kingston Trio, a kind of Weavers clone, when I was in high school and I was drawn irresistibly to that music. I knew that I wanted to sing these songs with people, that I would do anything--but this is sheer revisonism. I was simply compelled.

I picked out a Sears guitar as a high school graduation present and took it with me to Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. My roommate later told me that when I appeared in the room, guitar in hand, she thought to herself, "What is that?" I definitely was in the first wave of the Folk Revival at IHC. On weekends I would take the long bus ride to McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica to breathe in the rosewood-scented air and to build my collection of early Sing Out! magazines. When I had two chords to rub together (G and D7) I taught my class Everybody Loves Saturday Night, not hard since those four words comprise the entire song lyrics, which we sang at some now-forgotten event. Then I bought a long-neck five string banjo from a small outfit that advertised in Sing Out!, a banjo that I still play more than 40 50(!) years later, and took it with me everywhere. I went to my old high school to lead songs, I went to my old college (when it became my old college after that academically disastrous first year), to lead songs, and I went to the song swaps held next to an athletic field in Griffith Park. I put myself into situations I can hardly believe as I look back, since I was a shy person, all for the songs. I talked with Dave Guard after a Kingston Trio performance at the Hollywood Bowl and found out that he had learned the banjo the same way I was learning, using the Pete Seeger How To Play the Five String Banjo book and by exchanging letters with Pete himself. (Pete was famous for answering all his mail. When I wrote to him, Pete Seeger/Beacon NY, saying that I wanted to play the five-string banjo but hadn't seen any women who played, he wrote back saying that his sister Peggy played (he included a Folkways catalog of her recordings) and that he had learned picking in the mountains from a woman named, if I remember right, Samantha Baumgartner.)

When I left Los Angeles I left behind a large musical family, so I began to recreate my own up north. Every important relationship I've formed has involved lots of singing together. When Carrie and I got together in 1978, singing and playing helping to bring us together, we helped to found a very active and creative branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an international women's peace and justice group. Now we led songs at national meetings as well as at local and regional rallies and memorials. One of my favorite moments happened when I carried the banjo to an anti-apartheid march in Seattle. We started playing and singing the great old songs and soon there was the first part of the march followed by a gap then a huge circle of singers moving down the street. I celebrate all my major birthdays by hosting a sing along. For my 50th I put a faux political button on the songsheet cover saying, "I owe everything I am to the Weavers." It's true. I do.

Here's what I know about singing together:

  1. You want to do it even if you don't know it yet. Don't avoid opportunities to sing together for any reason.

  2. Singing together means that your bodies are all vibrating together to the musical waves your singing produces.

  3. Singing together means that you're mostly breathing together. (Thanks, Nancy!)

  4. If anyone ever told you that you can't sing, don't believe them. Besides, it doesn't matter.

  5. Singing builds community. The civil rights activist and scholar Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon has talked of how singing together in the racist southern jails of the fifties and sixties removed the protestors' isolation and fear, made them feel close and connected. I believe that only a singing movement will last.

  6. Just sing. It'll do you good.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Congenital Ptosis

I was my parents’ second child, the first having died during delivery by, family story has it, a drunken doctor. In response to my presence in her womb my mother’s body mobilized its earlier-awakened forces with one intention: to drive this alien presence, me, out of there as quickly as possible. For my mother’s blood lacked the Rh factor while my blood was, I suppose, loaded with it. I’m here, as you see, so that story has a happy ending, but my mother endured several more pregnancies, all of them ending with dead babies, often with babies she knew were dead even as she continued to carry them. I have never felt anything but a deep compassion for my mother regarding this. Still, I don't know why she continued having babies—or perhaps this is the arrogant view of someone from a generation with more choices—for she never seemed particularly suited to mothering. But to give her credit, she never tried to make me her "project," and as may be becoming clear I grew up and thrived in my way in an atmosphere of benign or uninterested neglect.trying to see

I know how fortunate I am both to be here and to be really very healthy after the attack my little survivor’s body weathered in the womb. But I was left with one reminder of the battle, one little Purple Heart, and that is my eyes.

I was born with bilateral ptosis, a condition in which parts of the eyelid muscles are paralyzed. My mother realized early on that this was a problem, as evidenced in the formal toddler-age portraits in which I am posed always looking down at something, a book, say, or a doll. She pursued medical treatment for me and so I had surgery, one eyelid at a time, when I was three or four, an event I still remember. So now I could look at the camera but those pictures show something still broken as I tilt my head back to gain purchase with my vision through the narrow aperture. Of course I was teased, as was everyone I expect, but I was spectacularly ill-prepared to deal with it. The neighborhood kids called me "look up sky girl," a phrase which still has power over me but which, as I say it, seems like a good first name for a happy Native American child or perhaps some badly-translated Russian. I always had friends, they always were kind, but the rest of the time was filled with roaming.

When I was 17 I had surgery yet again, this time wiring my eyelids to my eyebrows, so that I at least had some control over their use. I coped, I compensated, but I never talked about it. There was a long period during which if someone said to me, "You look sleepy," I’d immediately begin to coolly calculate whether the person was really so valuable as a friend.

At 31 another surgery, this time because there had yet to be a ptosis surgery for this year’s class in the teaching hospital and also because the last surgery was failing, leaving an eyelid curling into my eye. I was treated like a giant walking pair of eyelids in the hospital but this one utilized fascia taken from my leg and resulted in some somewhat normal looking and reasonably open eyelids. (I was visiting a good friend’s brother-in-law shortly after surgery. He was a biker type who took a look at the zipper running down my thigh and, pointing, said, "You get that in a knife fight?")

I became able to talk to friends about it, then acquaintances. I stopped being a connoisseur of ptosis surgery and stopped pointing out ptosis sufferers I spotted among public figures ("Robert Mitchum, check it out! Ptosis.") to others.

My eyes had other attention grabbers: very poor vision, irritation (wired the other way, I have trouble keeping them closed), a corneal disease, one failed cornea transplant, a second possibly failing, a third yet to come. With all this new attention to my eyes I’ve noticed that my last ptosis surgery has mostly failed. I see my eyes at rest narrow into tiny slits and worry that folks may judge me angry or mean. So I take care in conversations to use my eyebrows to open my eyes wider, producing a reaction, I imagine, of wonder at this bright interest always wedded to a look of mild surprise.

I'm okay. Most days I can still see well enough to drive. I'm as flawed as they come. I'm perfect.

Friday, July 02, 2004

The Fire

The first 14 weeks of 1978 I spent serving a fire. I was as ardent as a new lover in my tender care of the fire for we had a bargain: I would spend hours each day planning for and working towards its health and longevity while the fire in its turn would keep me alive.

I was alone deep in the mountains of Eastern Washington, winter-caretaking some casual friends' recently women-built summer cabin. This cabin had unfinished walls, not-so-clear plastic on the windows, an upstairs bedroom with a roll of plastic for confining the heat to the one-room downstairs living space, and two stoves, an ancient wood-burning cook stove and a converted 55 gallon-drum main heating wood stove. About five years earlier I'd sat in a mountaintop outhouse in Aspen, looking at the Rockies through the glassless cutout window, thinking, "I'd like to live like this." So here I was, up a long dirt trail off a little-used road, without a car, without a phone, without plumbing or water, and without electricity. I certainly was "living like this."

The large stove would, when filled to capacity, hold a fire for about three hours. As evening temperatures rarely went above 20, and often were zero or lower, this three hour limit, like death, wonderfully concentrated the mind. I cut kindling on the porch with a hatchet, developing a stroke that could sell knives at the fair, resulting in nearly translucent slices of wood that sprang apart under the hatchet, releasing their bonded tension with a satisfying "ping!" I cut the logs that were left for my use with a chainsaw, then further separated them with a sledge and wedge and again with an ax, sweating and stripping in the bright snow with Bob Marley and the Wailers singing, "If you are a big tree / We are a small ax," on the cheap cassette player. When the logs were gone I pulled up the ones that insulated the underside of the cabin and cut them, too. I frequently reminded myself, "You're cutting wood with a chainsaw in the middle of nowhere so if you make a mistake you will die." When the logs from underneath the house had been consumed by the fire I went logging in the nearby gully where many fallen trees had settled over the years. These trees held their tension against each other and closely observing these relationships was critical. I remember standing on a slowly bouncing tree while shearing off another tree above and saying to myself, "You'll be all right if you always pay attention." I thought, "This must be how climbers feel."

So I fed the cook stove, which gave me my daily hot meal of brown rice with butter and cheese and canned vegetables which, with alfalfa sprouts, constituted my every dinner, and on this same stove I heated snow that I shoveled and carried into a ten-gallon galvanic basin which allowed me a kind of bath every three days. When I needed drinking water I hiked up thtough the trees to a slow-running spring about a half mile up the hill from the cabin. I carried two five gallon containers, resting while they slowly filled from the stream, then carrying their forty pounds in each hand down the hill, 50 paces at a time followed by a brief stretch, until I reached the cabin, emptied them into a drum, then turn and repeated the pattern until the drum was filled.

The cabin's owners were in the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to feed the fire (to beat the three hour limit). After one night of that I instead settled into the routine of rebuilding the fire each morning and after a time I ceased to marvel that the four inches of water in the dogs' bowl had frozen solid overnight. Of course, after a time spring came and instead of constantly keeping the fire I could sit outside next to the snag and watch its American kestrel inhabitants set up nest keeping. In May I was relieved of all further fire keeping when one of the cabin's owners came to stay and I took the first bus I could find to Tucson to visit my Bob Marley friend.

I never returned to fire keeping and I never talked about it much. When I went places with a group of women I didn't join the (sometimes friendly) competition for best fire builder honors. The fire had given me generosity freely offered. I had nothing to prove.

My Old West

early rideIn my neighborhood when I was a child there was just one uneven step down from the world of post-war starter homes into the magical craggy world of, to me, the old west, weathered hillsides of sandstone and limestone, remainders of no long-vanished inland sea but rather only the nearby former boundaries of an ocean within easy sight and hearing. We kids called one deep gully "Skull Canyon," not from our imaginations but from the animal bones lying all about. At one corner of these hundred or so acres was an actual stable with horses for hire where I could ride. Stretched alongside the stables was an area perhaps a mile long and a half a mile wide, an area I roamed alone in all directions with my cowboy hat, bandana, and Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. (I was a nonviolent cowboy, but you never know.) At night I pored through books of cowboy lore, studying brands, saddle parts, barbed wire, clothing (only a greenhorn called them "chaps" instead of "shaps"), and the many ways that the clever application of said bandana could make one's life better, filter dust from long trail rides, soak a hot brow, or apply a poultice to one's trusty pony, come to mind. I knew many cowboy songs, "Your mother was raised way down in Texas / Where the prickly pear and the cholla grow," which I sang everywhere and, in this empty land, at full volume. One day a herd of horses escaped their fenced pasture two blocks from our house and galloped down our street. Who wouldn't believe in the magic of the west?

I lived this happy, solitary life for about six years. Then the canyons and the gullies, the short grasses and the long, were graded to unnatural smoothness and developed into subdivisions. When they marked the outlines of an elementary school on one of my ranges, I spent my outraged energy by pulling up every surveyor's stake.

But the west as I knew it was gone. The sturdy pinto horses with their big leather saddles loaded with conchos and straps disappeared to be replaced further up the hill by large registered animals wearing small leather pads and carrying strangely English-looking riders, no denims, plaids, or roping heels in the lot of them.

Only a few years later, when the best friend I made during my first year in college was getting married at the end of the term, I spent much thought and effort towards getting her the perfect gift: a pair of saddlebags. What could be better, I thought, for that long ride into the unknown? Among the stunned silent guests at the reception I stood alone, thinking, "Yeah, what a great present!"

My old west travels with me always. The songs are still mine, the always remembered smells and cowboy lore, and, especially, in every place I've ever lived or visited when I automatically pull on my shoes and go for a long roam about the countryside.

Come and get it
'Fore I throw it out!

34th birthday, on Chico young cowhand

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Beekeeper

My father's name is Emil. In my memory I see him as muscled, tanned, and vital, dressed in the J.C. Penney suntan uniform he always wore to work. For many years he labored as a cabinet maker but later, looking for an income less reliant on housing starts, he worked as a janitor at our parish church where my mother was a teacher.My dad and I

My father had many interests, all of which he pursued to excellence. When he planted a garden, an uncommon enough sight in 1950s Southern California, he didn't put in a small patch in the backyard. Rather, he plowed up a 30' by 30' plot near the football field of the parish school from which appeared (but never on my plate) such exotic vegetables as kohlrabis and rutabagas. When he decided to take up raising flowers he built a greenhouse to grow orchids and African violets which he then sold to the local gardening center. Much later, when he and my mom retired to a 10 acre ranch in the southeast corner of Idaho, they built their own large home by themselves--plumbing, electricity, everything. I always knew he could do anything with his hands.

I was happy just to exist in his environment. Our garage was filled with his tools, an excess of tools, so many that each kind had its own drawer, rasps and files here, hammers over there, screwdrivers in this one. I still recall the acrid metallic smell of all these tools. I spent Saturday mornings happily drilling, hammering, cutting, and sawing by myself, listening to the Saturday morning radio shows, with the Buster Brown Show ("Twang your magic twanger, froggy!") and Grand Central Station crackling out of the Zenith. Later the contents of the garage would reach to the ceiling and the garage become even more alluring when my father decided to keep bees.

My father approached the logistics of beekeeping as if it were he who had to have combs filled with honey before winter's dormancy. Great racks of hive parts, frame parts, bottoms, floors, tops, and sides of beehives rose in the garage, each individual piece in a large slot with its siblings. Each wooden piece was cut on a table saw to, I now realize, jigs of his own devising, some pieces cut in the most delicate lacy patterns for future joinery. The sweet waxy smell of foundation competed with the metal bite of the tools' smell for attention.

Nor did my father have just a hobby hive or two. He kept one hundred colonies and moved them around to different blossoms, cheaply-sold eucalyptus honey in the winter, sweet heavenly orange blossoms in the fall. Once, when my mom was sick in the hospital my senior year in high school, I accompanied my dad on a hive-moving excursion. After the sleeping and soothed-by-the-smoker bees had been loaded into the old pickup truck he let me drive us back through the night. As we pulled off the freeway I made an error in downshifting the double-clutched transmission and caused a sharp series of jolts. I don't remember if my dad said anything about it to me but, really, what was his lone irritated voice in the night air now filled with raspy invective from thousands of angry bees?

Still later he impressed me into helping with the honey extraction, putting me off the stuff for years.

I loved poring through the beekeepers' catalogs with their art deco multi-sloped-shouldered jars, so beautiful even if lacking the intense amber liquid inside (they still look like this to me today) and their labels in designs resonant of a golden age that probably never existed. My dad read The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping from A to Z. Decades later when I saw the book on friends' bookshelf, my heart jumped with delight. Only years later, when I not only understood what we all come to know, that we're really not like anyone else, but began to recognize the serious error of my miscalculation of the order of magnitude of that difference as it applied to myself, did I stop killing conversations by offering such insights as, "Do you know that they found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs?"

This complete attention to knowing a thing as thoroughly as possible is my dad's great legacy to me. I'm humbled to say that this legacy continues today in parts of my son's life.

My partner Carrie is visiting him today but I know that if I were there, where he lies, happily, I think, or at least cheerfully, but largely stripped of memory, I'd lean over, smile, and say, "Dad, remember when you kept bees?"

Fathers Day 2004

The Tune

What is the ecosystem of the tune? It is composed of a line of notes chosen from a twelve color palette displayed across a canvas, a sketchpad, a cartoon even, according to a selection from a restricted set of time and rhythm.

With such limited heredity how can the tune be so different from the tune that preceded it, the one that follows? Is this the tune that delights the player causing a big grin when the part with the knocking begins, or the one with the deep heart of the minor chord that makes the player long for home, or the one that turns with a bellow, exciting the dancers and causing their steps to lighten with the partners all laughing with each other, the dance set that ends with a happy pile of tired dancers with their hearts already imagining the last kiss of the night?

The tunes are so many, the repertoire so vast, that the most driven player is pressed to learn more than a handful. Are there 30,000? I can play maybe 50 today, maybe more. But each of these tunes has acquired its own story in my hands as it has in many of the hands that sheltered the tune before. The Butterfly, bringing all the hornpipe dancers up onto their toes, the Butterfly turned and fractured into the "here comes something important" theme in Roan Inish, the Butterfly which nearly froze in my hands in front of the crowd at Wintergrass. The jig Tripping Up the Stairs which we played so many times in front of the market on the day Jerry Garcia died, each time with a raised empty fist and a "This one's for you, Jerry!" The Star of the County Down, so enormous for us, the rich texture and voices, the audiences always wild, the final great performance with the Tacoma Youth Chorus. And Wild Mountain Thyme in the bright sun at the Seattle Center, our singing and playing as the the older woman sat to the side, tears streaming down her face. Then again, Wild Mountain Thyme with the Bellevue Chamber Chorus, the second performance a pure expression of flow. Cup of Tea, introduced at the Session, loved by us, becoming our title track. The Mountain Road, pushing the beat, the step dancers arranging their heels just for us.

We, people like me, are living members of a living tradition. Whether we are aware of it or not our every good act honors and respects that tradition, feeds and waters it until we give it away every chance we get. As with our meditation practice, true non-self is at the heart of the music. We get as proficient as we can, we learn the tunes and study the players, then we turn off everything else and, simply, play.

The tune is demanding. It will not open up for one who doesn't explore all its nuances and twists. But when you have the tune then you can sink and rise through its layers, you can make it sound and move people to dance, to tears, and you luxuriate in the joy of the tune and its power, its ecstasy or sorrow, its softness or its driving current. In the end only the tune remains, passed carefully through your loving hands.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Bumper

The day was soft with the scent of jasmine and eucalyptus as the first grade girl waits for her parents' friend. She stands near the curb in front of the school, unaware of the soft afternoon light, the nearby lawns brown from the late summer heat, and the ordinary absence of rainfall. She is alone. Her parents have gone to the Grand Canyon, leaving her to wait on this street of school yard and stucco bungalows. She was quite familiar with this place, Venice, and has explored her own neighborhood on foot, on bike, on street and sidewalk, and, often, in the neighbors' backyards. But she does not know the neighborhood around her school and so she is waiting.

When Beverly pulls up across the street, the girl is delighted to be done with waiting. She looks down the block and sees a car in the distance, a car which seems to be a long way off. The girl is comfortable in her body and its reactions, she is fearless in her neighborhood, she is independent and unafraid. She steps into the street, starting the short journey towards her mother's friend and the rest of her day after school.

From that day to this the one salient image, the one very concrete reality, indeed the only impression for some minutes afterwards is this: the Bumper. The girl really has no memory of the sound of braking or even whether braking is attempted. It is the image of the Bumper that is resolute in her memory, the Bumper shining and frozen as ice spires bright with winter's light, suspended there at her hip. It's as if she has noticed a metal object attached to some formerly unobserved solidity, something that she might have accounted for in her assessment of the situation if time had been moving as expected.

Of her flight through the air only fragments of still images remain.

The next clear realization she has is of lying across a car seat, blood everywhere, with many adults suddenly around, crying and speaking in loud voices. They try to clean up the blood. They put a cool damp cloth on her forehead. To a first grader, even a very tall one, the view looking up from this angle is discomfiting. Perhaps if the pain and blood were absent, if her competent body of minutes before were still present, she would laugh at the worried faces, believing that she had fooled them in some surprisingly clever way. Or possibly lying across the big bench seat of this large and boxy 40s car, smelling of tobacco and cologne, might remind her of late night trips home from friends' houses, her parents in the front seat and herself happily dozing across the back seat. But these thoughts have no place here. There is little room for her pain and others' fears, no place even for the Bumper or her magical tumble through the air. She doesn't remember feeling afraid. Everything is, she will only understand much later and with insight gained from ample quantities of self-administered 60s chemicals, surreal.

Why are there not other children in this scene? Is the event so traumatic on its own terms, by its own defining instant, that all that remains is the long careful look down the street, the friend a few feet across the street, the step from the curb, and then inexorably and now almost desiringly the attention, the caress of the Bumper followed by the flight and its feeling of a badly-fed slide projector? Why, she wonders later and not just once did her parents not sue the butt off this speeder? But we were wondering, why no other children? The girl, now sitting in my chair almost 60 years later, does not know, so she imagines an adult's being late. She would like to imagine an adult's startled shout, "Stop!" and let's agree that almost certainly there was one, but in the girl's memory the encounter with the Bumper happens in complete silence. So, if there were noise, let's say it was the bright and dull sound of a large speeding object striking a small unformed human child and if there were children present, think of the delight, once the inevitable "I'm glad that wasn't me" thought passes, of the appearnace of the ambulance all twinkly and screaming. The girl is somehow handled into the ambulance's dark interior and is now the property of the people whose job it is to repair children after their ride on the Bumper. It cannot be immediately apparent that the only injuries, or so I believe, are a broken arm (ha! at six, it's her second) and abrasions enough to last a lifetime. No, the ambulance scurries determinedly to the hospital, lights and sirens a-blazin'. The girl is shocked, not medically, but in the manner of one who is struggling to create the word "surreal" on her own. (Given enough time she could have, too.) Her final memory of this day is of having the ethered mask placed over her mouth and nose and of the bright red and black dancing shapes that followed in her interior theater. The next morning, and this she remembers as well, the arm is found to have been set improperly and must be rebroken and reset, but of this process she blessedly has no memory.

The disturbing edge of this event has dulled over the years as the girl grew up and had many more near encounters with the ending of her life. She won't say that she was spared so that she could do great things, but she remains grateful every day for her life and she would be infused with this gratitude even if unscarred.

But she always remembers the Bumper.

Surround with Love

Surround with Love

We cherish those who lost their lives
We will always remember
We shall surround hate with love
And force it to surrender

I wrote this song in October, 2001

Kwan Yin in the garden

Kwna Yin, Goddess of Compassion

She who hears the cries of the world.