A Father’s Day Presence

What I thought was a kind of springcleaning of my Writingshed has really been an excavation. As I went through boxes of what I thought were old photos, I found stuff as well. Stuff like:

The 1956 Scimitar, the annual for the American School in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I was in first grade and had nightmares about my teacher, Miss Hadaka. She does look quite dour in her photo.

A lunch menu from the Wonosobo dated November 27th 1957. The Wonosobo was the Dutch freighter that was our home for 75 days as we made our way from Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California.

A disembarkment paper permitting me to leave the ship to visit Bombay.

And, I found some letters my father had written me while he was in Dhahran alone, earning housing points so he could bring us over with him. He took the job with Aramco because it meant getting us to a more financially secure place.

The letters span the period of about a year, from October 1953 to July 1954. I was four years old. I’m sure there were more – either I haven’t found them yet or they just didn’t make it to the scrapbook.

In these letters he assures me that Santa Claus comes to Saudi Arabia (he arrives by helicopter because the sand is hard on his reindeer); explains that Arabs drink water from water bags made of goat skin, describes how they make them, confesses that he would likely never drink from a water bag made from goat skin, and explains that really, it’s ony the Bedouins who still use them – his crew has cooler cans with ice-chilled water; and talks about how happy the Arab children are, though they have no toys.

In nearly every letter he describes the kittens he’s come across and how they make him think of me, and that when we join him, I will get a kitten. We couldn’t get a dog, he said, because they don’t have anyone to give rabies shots. But we’d definitely get a kitten.

In one letter, he describes a camp in the middle of the desert. He was on an exploration – probably a trip into the desert to explore for oil. “On each of these exploration parties, an emir and a troop of soldiers accompany each party, the troops have their tents pitched a mile from camp, and over about three miles and a couple of sand dunes away, the emir and his four wives have some more tents pitched.”

He describes the desert foxes that come into his camp, the kangaroo rats, and the locust, “You see one flying around, or rather, a jillion of them and you’d think it was a flock of sparrows. The Arabs catch them and boil a big bucket full of them and let them dry in the sun and eat them, but they have no competition from me, cause Daddy was getting too good of food to try anything like that.”

On the same trip he describes the sight of his Arab crew kneeling and bowing in prayer along the ridge of a sand dune. “Sundown is prayer time for the Arabs and so they try to get on the highest point to try to be the last one to see the sun go down, they feel they are closer to Allah that way.”

In that same letter he says, “The thing I remember the most that I liked was at night; as I’ve told you, we had a full moon, and you’d walk out past the camp lights – it was cool at night – just right for shirt sleeves. You could sit out there and talk – everything seemed so peaceful you’d think you were on another world.”

Another letter speaks of his yearning for us, “Honey, I’ll sure be glad when you guys get over here, it’s sure lonesome without you. You’ll have a good time over here. First of all you’ll have a nice long airplane trip across the U.S. to New York then across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and stop at the place Daddy sent you the little Dutch shoes from. Then you’ll fly over some real pretty mountains and cities to Rome, and from there across the Mediterranean Ocean and then over the desert to where I am.”

In what might be my favorite letter he says he got a high school graduation announcement from one of his nieces in Iowa. He see the photos of me and how much I’ve grown and changed since he last saw me and imagines the day that I will graduate form high school. He reminds me that there is a swimming pool where we can swim at night from April to November, it’s that warm in Arabia.
“Karen,” he wrote, “I was talking to a friend of mine here today who has been nationally known in America for his diving ability and he helps the children out, at the pool on swimming and diving. His star pupil is a little girl about nine years old. She’s cute as a bug’s ear and can she ever dive and swim. She’s a regular porpoise. He told me that when you get over here that he’ll help all of you out on your diving and swimming.”

I don’t remember whether this person taught me diving and swimming. But I do remember the diving board. I remember walking out to the edge of the board and looking into the water and being so terrified that I turned around and walked off the diving board to solid ground.

I know I did this several times, each time hoping to find the courage to jump. One day I asked my father to stand by the side of the pool as I climbed onto the board. I don’t really know what made me decide that that day was the day. I just remember that this time, I would not go back the way I came. I closed my eyes, jumped, hit the water, and felt the water rush up my nose. I suspect it was natural buoyancy that brought me back to the surface because I did surface, swam to the side, climbed out, and got in line to jump off the board again.

I don’t think I’ve ever yearned for a daddy who would take care of me, fix whatever was wrong and make the world right. My father wasn’t that kind of daddy. In fact, in many ways I tried to save him. Battered by his own father, his wounds ran deep, and for many years, I thought it was my job to heal them.

I didn’t need an omnipotent daddy – my road in life is one of independence and competence and adventure – exploring the unknown landscape, seeing the beauty in a desert drenched in full moon light.  I suspect that is in my DNA.

I know my mother read my father’s letters to me when they arrived, but I have no memory of that. She or I glued the envelopes with the letters tucked inside into the scrapbook that also has my drawings of angels, spelling exercises from my first grade class, and a letter to me from Santa Claus.

For some reason, I never went back and read them, until today. They are written on delicate tissue-like paper – the kind of paper you used back then to send a letter via airmail. They were mostly written at night, just before he went to bed. His handwriting is not always easy to read – I have to get the context to decipher some words. Each letter ends with “I love you and miss you.”

My father died sixteen years ago. He had Alzheimer’s so really, he’s been gone for longer than that. He’s been gone so long, that I don’t exactly miss him. I’ve grown used to him not being here.

It was obviously hard on him, being away from us. Missing two years of our childhood, my brothers’ and mine. But, he did some pretty great things in his absence. He explored worlds few Americans knew of or experienced fifty years ago. He paved the way for us to join him, described the route we would take to finally reach him. When we had the opportunity to travel, he put us on a Dutch freighter so we could spend 75 days seeing worlds that were exotic and remote back then.

He allowed us to taste what he had tasted.

And, because of his absence, I have a record of how he felt about us, his family. Wistful yearnings for us mixed with the stories of life in a landscape far removed from our daily landscape. Tender feelings. Feelings as delicate as the paper he wrote them on.

The Grace of Everyday Living

Summer is in season. The summer solstice is two weeks away, but, summer is in season here where my writing shed lives.

When I lived in San Francisco, it would be a foggy day. There might have been other foggy days, but there was always the one that seemed to herald to me a change of season.

Here, it’s the bright morning sun with a cool breeze finding its way into my writing shed. I think the same birds visit at this time of year as other seasons. But their songs sound like summer to me.

Summer is in season.

I love the day that heralds the seasonal change – the passage of time.  It seems foolish to ever want time to stand still – or worse, to kill time – doing whatever it is  we do when we say, “I’m just killing time.”

I did a major housecleaning in my writing shed. Books had been strewn on the floor, magazines haphazardly placed in baskets, old photos stored in multiple places, waiting until I got around to organizing them.

It’s great to find old photos. Talk about visible signs of time passing. I found photos of my stepdaughters taken at the Renaissance Faire, at Fort Point, on Fathers’ Day – the French toast brunch they’d prepared spread before us.

I came upon one of my mother and I taken twenty years ago in front of the Haida totem pole that had been installed in Sausalito as part of a celebration of Haida culture and art. The Haida artists had carved it in its place.

I visited the totem pole from time to time — experiencing  it.

One early morning (I can’t say for certain, but I think it was in the fall), as I sat at Caffee Trieste, I saw the totem pole being carried away on a truck. I knew that the installation was temporary, but I hadn’t known when it would leave. Perhaps it had been there a year, through the four seasons.

I felt somehow privileged to see it pass by me, as if I was in the right place at the right time. I think it would have been much harder on me if I had just gone to see it one day and found it gone.

My father was still alive when the photo of my mother and I was taken, but Alzheimers had already stolen him from us. I had just recently divorced my husband. So it was just my mother and me.

Those were good times with my mother. She trusted me, which she didn’t always do. I used to think it was because I was untrustworthy, not worthy of her trust. But time taught me that that was just the flaw in her tapestry – not trusting love.

But this photo captured a moment of trust. Two women on their own, riding change.

Spring and fall seem like active times to me – times for planting and gathering. Summer and winter seem to me to be more about nourishing and trusting and waiting. Winter is about trusting that the sun will return. Summer about trusting that what you planted in the spring will grow – that you will be able to reap it in the fall for nourishment in the winter.

I’ve gathered a number of baskets over the years since that photo of my mother and I was taken. As I went through my writing shed, divesting myself of stuff I no longer need, organizing the stuff I do need, I emptied baskets. I have five empty baskets — baskets waiting to be filled.

I think that might be what summer is to me – baskets waiting to be filled.

Sacred Ashes and Hallowed Resting Ground

Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seem to be on the Red Man’s trail, and wherever, he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

It’s hard to know what to say about what is happening in the Gulf. I wonder if this is what it felt like when Hitler was elected. Could anyone have possibly imagined the horrific consequences that would ensue?

I’m wondering if that is what April 20, 2010 will be in our history. Eleven people were killed in an offshore oil rig explosion that unleashed a different kind of horror. For forty-five days oil has been gushing from the ocean’s floor at the rate of millions of gallons per day.

No one knows how to stop it.

We certainly don’t know how to repair the damage it has caused. That’s what happens when you create God in your own image.

To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. . . Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors—the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

As the oil gushes out, we are learning that all the technological research and development went into drilling for oil. None went into what to do if an accident happens. And accidents do happen.

The Sarah Palin/Charles Karuthammer-world view would have it that this is the fault of the extreme “greenies.” The greenies – the environmentalists – forced the oil industry into drilling without a condom.

Could there be any more ignorant, cynical human beings on the planet than these two?

Long range business planning is developed in terms of business quarters. Three-month cycles.

This is not the time to have the small-hearted, lizard-brained in charge.

Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. . . .
Attributed to Chief Seattle

I’m pissed. And I’m up to past here with the fear mongering.

We need to change the story. Let’s start by calling this event what it is – a holocaust — a mass slaughter, a reckless destruction of life.

I think it’s time for Crones every where to rise and demand we be heard. And you don’t have to be an old woman to be a Crone. Jimmy Carter tried to get us on the path of oil-independence more than thirty years ago.

Obama has taken the first step. He said he grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred.

Sacred. Naming it sacred — our world. That’s where the story begins.

And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
Attributed to Chief Seattle

Note: The quotes for Chief Seattle are from a text different than the one I am used to. Here’s the link.

Lavender Honey

My friend George died six months ago today.

He died as fall was fading into winter. Now, with the waning of spring, there are signs of summer. The lilac blossoms are gone. The lavender stalks will blossom within a day or two. I pass the lavender on my way from the house to my writing shed.

It’s not so much that I miss their scent throughout the rest of the year as that I anticipate it as I see the passage of time in my garden. I know that one morning the scent will be there — a presence. Along with that — the faint buzz of bees. I wonder where they are making their lavender honey.

Lavender honey.

The sound of those words — lavender honey — slows me down. I’ve been wanting to slow down. Not having time slow down, I know that’s not possible, but my slowing down. Taking time to feel that there is time enough, if I let it be.

George’s dying was hard for me. I thought I would be a much bigger part of it because we met as hospice volunteers. I actually think that George pushed me away, as he did many others. He was so sweet and supportive that everyone thought that’s what George wanted—to be up close sweetly supported.

But, really, George kept people at bay. I suspect that for complicated reasons, he just felt safer that way. And so that’s how his dying went. In retrospect, I can see how bravely he faced it; how he marshaled all the forces he was accustomed to using in relationships to carry him through this most difficult of relationships. The one we have with dying.

Contained anger was a big force with George. I suspect that underneath that anger was the pain that people he loved both loved and betrayed him. That’s a difficult dichotomy to live with.

Fifteen months between his diagnosis and his death. During that time, lavender’s presence graced the path to my writing shed. I couldn’t tell you the day I noticed it was gone. Or even if I noticed it was gone. It’s just that once again, I anticipate its presence.

A friend who was a midwife to George’s death recently listened to the music Tom and Rob created that night that George died. She said it captured his breathing as he made his way through his final breaths.

Inspiration means filled with the gods. Perhaps expiration is about releasing them—releasing all those life forces that animate us.

About three months before he died, George wrote and then made a video recording of a message he wanted to leave behind. I watched it recently. Frankly, I can’t remember specifics. I just know that it brought his presence back to me. It’s the presence that isn’t armored with contained anger.

Loving is neither simple, nor easy. Sometimes you have to stand at the precipice of disappointment of what you wanted and what you got—and be grateful. For me, that’s being in a state of grace.

If Tom’s and Rob’s music is any reflection of George’s dying, then he died in a state of grace.

I read recently that grace is the unearned gift.


Lavender honey.

Unearned gifts.