a chair, some tea, and a warm cat

Another terrorist attack, another suicide vest, another automatic weapon. Another dangerous sea crossing for people whose country has literally exploded. A black life that doesn’t seem to matter. A truck plows through a crowd. Another shooting leading to more grief and anger and misunderstanding and one more step toward an armageddon that I don’t even believe in. Everyone points the finger of blame, but it always points outward.

Most of us just want to live our small lives peacefully. We aren’t particularly weaponized or angry. We are too tired after our long days of working to cause much mayhem. These days I try to stay on my porch.

Most of us care care deeply, but feel powerless to make any real change. Our hearts are just too broken. And we’re too afraid. We want to live our lives, and for others to be able to live theirs. We are just small, soft animals and there is too much terror. There is too much grief. There are too many women being raped and too many orphans sleeping in the mud. There are too many shootings and too much stupid politics. There are too many lies and too much greed. There is too much hunger. Too many animals are being abused or languishing in shelters. Too much destruction of the environment. Too many cars. There is no clear enemy to rally against. We are all the victims and we are all the enemy. We all think that we are the good guys.

Just after the earthquake in Haiti, I took my brand new nursing skills and tried to help. Late one night on the road into Port Au Prince, traffic stopped and things seemed tense. Our guides and interpreters placed us in the middle of the car, so that their beautiful brown faces were the most visible from outside. They put themselves between us and possible danger. I wish we could do that here. I want to drive young black men to the movie theater or the grocery store. I want to make lemonade for their mothers. I want to have magic powers to lift the tension. I want to stand behind police officers who are against violence. I would put my warm hand in the middle of their backs, near the heart, so that they could feel me there and be less afraid.

But because I haven’t found a way to do these things, I don’t want to leave my porch. It is a sanctuary amongst the green summer plants and the bird songs. It’s a seven by fifteen foot oasis where I sit in my wicker rocker, with the cat snoozing on one side, and the dog snoring on the other. I’m sure many refugee women had porches and terraces and yards where they felt safe and peaceful. They had plants and birds nearby, and maybe even cats and dogs.

I would offer those who are touched by violence a chair, some tea, and a warm cat.  I wish the things I have to share could really help. I have love and songs and tea on the porch, but no way to deliver them. If I had endless wealth and a magic wand, I would buy all the run down rust belt homes in my area, renovate them, and move the fearful and homeless and weary of the world into them. I would fill their refrigerators with fresh food. I would buy them warm clothes for the winter and create work that offered joy and dignity. I’d provide them with musical instruments and paint and canvas. I’d bring them warm tomatoes and too many zucchinis from the garden. I’d learn all the languages, so that I could understand a joke no matter who was telling it. I’d create an army of mothers and puppies and beautiful things to envelop the world and heal the insane wounds that perpetuate the violence. I’d dust us all with a little amnesia and a lot of forgiveness.

But I can’t do those things, so I sit on the porch listening to the neighbor practice the flute, and the butternuts bouncing off the garage roof. I can’t save anyone. No matter how loud or political or unlike myself I become, I am powerless to change the advancing and enormous cruelty of the world. I don’t know the magic words. I am not a mover or a shaker. I am a gardener and a dog walker and a warm hearted napper. And I make a vow to myself. If I find a way to truly offer safety and comfort, I will do so. If I can protect a black life, harbor a refugee, protect an animal, save a habitat, encourage a fearful police officer I will do it. In the same breath I am frightened by all the normalcy in my little world. Why am I so lucky? Will it last? Will there be someone to comfort me if danger comes to my street?

some helpful words from a helpful source

a beautiful song

Perfectly Natural

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Growing up, it was more acceptable to be a murderer than to be fat. Many murderers were media darlings, but no overweight people were cool. Fat, body hair, and breasts are perfectly natural things to have, yet somehow it is wrong to have them. We are told to remove, hide, or modify. Having body hair anyplace other than on your head is as bad as having nipples. It just isn’t done in polite society.  

Recently, there was a topless protest at the small college where I work, in reaction to a student sunbathing sans shirt. The student, who identifies as nongendered,  was approached by a public safety officer and asked “are you a boy or a girl?”. This is an inappropriate question to ask a person who is part of the transgendered community. It is an inappropriate question to ask anyone. To me, the real question is, why does it matter if it is a “boy” or a “girl”? If you are in the middle of a city, regardless of gender, is it okay to be half undressed? Why is it okay for men to be partially naked and not women? I may not feel drawn to being topless in the city, but if I did, why is it illegal for me, but not my husband?

I am amazed that we still have to protest things like this. For a brief period in modern history, we had a lot more freedom in what we did and wore. Bra-wearing was a choice, not a mandate. You could burn it, or wear it. You could have big breasts or small ones, or be flat chested (does that even exist any more?). Breast augmentation was initially for women who needed to be rebuilt after tragedy. It was not an elective procedure or a fashion mandate. Now, bralessness is indecency. For those of us who are less endowed, a bra is just a formality. Still, I’ve been chastised at two different jobs for not wearing one, even though I was adequately covered by more than one layer of fabric. Breasts are not allowed to move, or have nipples, but they are supposed to be large. Augmented breasts look frightened to me. They stick out, rather than relaxing in a comfortable position. The nipples appear to be in jeopardy, like they’re facing a firing squad. And we all know about the struggles of breast-feeding moms. For some reason it is indecent to quietly feed a baby in public, but perfectly fine to stuff your fake breasts into a push-up bra and shove them into everyone’s face.

Meanwhile, back at the protest, there were young men and women playing frisbee with no shirts on. It was cold out, and there were lots of skeevy old men and TV cameras. The breasts and the frisbees didn’t bother me, but the rest made me feel protective of my students. The deans were there in their suits and high heels, mostly with eyes averted. It was a strange position to be in, feeling the need to bear witness, yet not feeling comfortable actually looking at them.

As for body hair, like breasts, back in the sixties and seventies and even the eighties, there was a lot more choice. You could shave or not shave. I’m not sure waxing even existed then.  I loved seeing my hairy calves jutting out of my hiking boots. It felt strong. Not everyone enjoyed seeing hairy legs and armpits, but most folks didn’t feel that they had the right to comment about your personal business. It was the same with religion, a private matter. As for pubic hair, that was also private and not open to public debate, which is much a more civilized approach, in my book. Choice is the key. You should remove or not remove your hair when and as you choose.

Thankfully there seems to be a decline in fat shaming, thanks to the efforts of some brave and beautiful comediennes and underwear models. This reprieve also may relate to the fact that there are fewer people feeling entitled to judge others about their muffin top, now that we have high fructose corn syrup.

Healthy weight is a good thing. How you feel is everything. Hair or lack thereof should be a choice, and you should have any configuration of breasts that makes you happy, bra or no bra. These rights should extend equally to both men and women. I still can’t quite figure out why my boobs and pubes are anyone else’s business. In my happy fantasy world kindness and compassion are the important things, not other people’s privates.

 

99 words

I decided to try and do a 100 word rant. I pared it down to 99. I’m sure everyone in the world will love it.

 

Once, I tried to think of something the Taliban and I would like. Maybe that little kids in sunglasses look funny? The Taliban would probably think that’s a degenerate western abomination. I suppose we all like air. But as a favorite thing, would you list air? Is there anything that the whole human pantheon could agree on? Something that transcends age, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion and politics? Dogs are great, unless they are against your religion, or you’re just weird. Chocolate, unless you’re allergic. Kids? Nope. Pooping is close, unless you have irritable bowel syndrome. I am stumped.

A little bear and a light.

So I’m sitting at work crying. The reason is, this morning I found out that a fountain in my hometown of Geneseo, NY was hit by a large truck and badly damaged. This fountain is the most recognizable and beloved symbol of Geneseo. It is a large granite pool that sits in the middle of Main Street. At its center is a column topped by a small bronze bear that holds a welcoming light in its paw. It has held this light high in good times and bad. It celebrates all the holidays with us. It has played a large role in countless pranks over the years. It has provided water for livestock. It is an anchor for students coming to Geneseo for college, and for those of us who have travelled too far away from home.

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Photo by Christopher Haley

As a young child I remember marching past the fountain in the horrible Halloween costumes my mom made or bought for me. She was not crafty. I remember standing by the fountain Christmas caroling, and watching Buzzo’s Marching Band on Memorial day. I played my french horn in the elementary and high school marching bands, and my nephews played trumpet and trombone years later in those same bands marching past that same fountain. As a senior in high school, I rode past it in a World War 2 jeep, on my way to recite the Gettysburg Address by the War Memorial in the town park. Vintage war planes flew overhead in tribute to the fallen.

My Mom watched every parade, every year and clapped so embarrassingly loud, cheering for the firemen all in step, in their crisp uniforms. Cheering for the firetrucks as they drove past the bear and the fountain. She applauded veterans, boyscouts, cubscouts, tiger scouts, brownies and girl scouts, convertable cars with teenage beauty queens and octogenarian war heroes. All under the watchful eye of the bear.

poppy parade
Photo by Gretchen Crane

We all had to drive around the fountain on our road tests, sweating out the challenging left turn off Center Street. My grandmother, when she first moved back to New York took her driving test in Geneseo. After knocking down garbage cans on Center Street, and bouncing off the fountain in her classic Cadillac, she was denied a license. She never could figure out what all the fuss was about.

As teenagers, weekend excitement included driving up and down Main St, looking for other teenagers to look at. We’d drive from the stop light on the south end of Main to the center of town, around the fountain, back to the light… over and over. We followed the cars of the boys that we had crushes on. I don’t think they ever knew we were there.

My Dad was chief of police in Geneseo for many years. The fountain was large in his professional life. I remember him protecting it on Halloween, after the kiddie parade, when “vandalween” began and all the “bad” kids were out there with eggs and shaving cream. He had countless stories of hauling college students out of the fountain, of trying to prevent them from putting soap in it to make mountains of bubbles that would overflow on to Main Street. He understood how impossible it was for them to resist playing in it. His job required him to keep them out. I am sure that he ended up in it a time or two when he was their age, but he never admitted that. The bear was stolen more than once, but usually it was returned in a few days. Nobody liked it when the bear was missing, but again, folks understood how irresistible it could be. A famous photo that made it to the Tonight Show was taken by the fountain. A donut shop had opened, fortuitously, next to the sign for the police-only parking spot. Jay Leno thought that this was hilarious. I visited my cop Dad there on cold days, putting my hands over his ears to thaw them, because a knit hat was out of uniform and not to be tolerated.

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Photo by Gretchen Crane

So, I’ve been crying off and on all day, thinking about the fountain, and home, history and community. I think of all the people around the world who are suffering such huge losses as a result of war and terrorism. If damage to the fountain has made me this sad, how do they survive the bombing and defacing of ancient art work, the looting of museums, the absolute destruction of whole neighborhoods, whole cities? How do they live with the death, disappearance, homelessness and refugee status faced by the people they know and hold dear. What if my whole hometown had been destroyed? What if I had to flee my home, family, neighbors, community because of bombs raining down from the sky, in cars, or strapped to bodies?

I am so grateful to have grown up in a beautiful, peaceful, friendly small town. Main Street is vibrant and creative, mixing local color and depth with the energy and abandon of college life. I moved away more than twenty years ago, and still see many people I know and love every time I visit. These kind, community-minded people are a treasure. It isn’t always easy to live in a small town, but they do it with grace and style, and a very good sense of humor.

There’s a bench out front of Aunt Cookies Sub Shop. It is a perfect place to watch life happen in Geneseo. It is right next to the fountain, where the cars all have to slow down. You can look up Center street toward the Riviera Theater. For so long the Riviera inspired sadness, as it slowly decayed over the years. But now it is a symbol of rebirth and hope. The Riviera was in terrible shape, and people whispered that it couldn’t be saved. Luckily they were wrong. If the Riviera can rise from the ashes, so can the bear and the fountain. I know my home town is up to the challenge. I pray for the bear and the fountain, and all the people around the world who suffer from loss of community, family, identity. May they all find their way home, to a warm light held high, just as the citizens of Geneseo are lit by the light in the paw of a small bronze bear that watches over Main Street.

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Photo by Christopher Haley
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Photo by Curt Grant

 

Buried Treasure

My brother is storming up and down the beach, a grown man, naked, waving his little sand shovel in the air, swearing. Storming and swearing because he just found an extremely large bale of cocaine. It is a drenched, half buried lump, wrapped in a layer of rubber and plastic, covered in a trash bag and secured with rope.

It is just him and a little shovel and a huge quantity of cocaine on a deserted beach in Florida. All he had really wanted to do this day was to strut around naked with his chimpy body and storky nose, maybe dig a few holes. But now he has to have an existential crisis all by himself on this isolated shore. He cuts through the layers of plastic with his shovel. He sticks a finger into the white powder and scoops out a big glob, then has a panic attack because it might be anthrax, and frantically scrubs his finger raw in the sand.

He is consumed with fantasies about what he could do, and what he should do. He could pay off his student loans, and his kids’ student loans and his sister’s student loans. He and his beautiful new wife, whom he met naked on a sand dune nearby, could move out of their condo and buy a house on the beach. They’d never have to worry about money again. He could expose himself to the sun every day. He could give a ton of cash to charity. He could buy a Harley to replace the one he guiltily sold when his kids were born. But how does a person who’s never sold drugs figure out how to sell more drugs than he can lift? He can’t even budge the damn thing. He hits it hard with his little shovel. Stupid buried treasure.

And somebody must be looking for it, right? Somebody not so nice, probably. Somebody who wouldn’t care about his student loans, who wouldn’t appreciate his philanthropy fantasies. Somebody who dumped it over the side of a boat into the inky night water in order to avoid capture? Someone who sunk the boat of a rival? Someone with binoculars who might right now be watching a naked idiot hopping around and hollering at a bale of cocaine on an empty coast? He looks behind him. He stops shouting.

What if he gets arrested? How will he feel when he has to go to prison for 25 years? It’s not as much fun to be naked in prison. What about when the feds take his few measly possessions away, leaving his wife alone in the condo while he is residing at the penitentiary? Breaking bad doesn’t really work out that well for nice guys.

So he calls the park police. A ranger shows up, and is pissed about having to dirty his shoes walking on the beach to get to the contraband. He has my brother help him lift this massive lump of cocaine on to the back of an ATV, and drives away. In my mind my brother is still naked during this whole process, but he probably puts some shorts on.

Later, he googles the value of just one small kilo of cocaine, two to three million dollars. He only kicks himself a little. For countless reasons, he has done the right thing. But still, he can’t help feeling wistful about the beach house and the student loans.

Substantial stuff.

As a child I played with a manual typewriter, loving the clacking, the fabulous bell that sounded when you whacked the return lever. You had to swing your whole arm to work the keys. They were pinkie crushers. Secretaries with manual typewriters must have had incredible muscles, under their nylon dresses. They could have crushed nuts between their fingers like movie martial arts heroes. Mad Men type men could not have realized this crunching potential, or they would have given these ladies a whole lot more room.

Chief McMillan taught typing. In his class, there were electric typewriters, small ones, in harvest gold and avocado. These required such a light touch, but still had the bell, which would ring with the push of a button. Chief would loudly chant the typing mantras, “a-s-d-f, j-k-l-;” and something or other about a fox. I loved that class, the chanting and the clacking and the ringing. It was probably the most useful class I ever took. I once had a very high score on a typing test required to get a state job, but was passed over because of being “too artsy”.

My parents bought me an electric typewriter when I graduated from high school. It was a Smith Corona, and came in a spiffy plastic suitcase. It was much loved for all 4 years of my undergrad career; so luxurious to be able to type in the comfort of my own dorm room.

As an intern at a woodland nature center, I met my first IBM Selectric. Near my tiny corner in the basement, the Selectric had its own desk. To create letters on the page, it had a mysterious ball, similar to the one in the planetarium that creates stars on the ceiling. Deliciously solid, heavy as hell. It took two strong men to move the Selectric, and maybe a few simple machines. It was reliable, and never had issues such as you would get with typewriters of a lesser pedigree. So sad for the TV detectives who had long relied on sticking key clues in ransom notes to find the bad guys. Most amazingly, it had a feature where you could back up and correct a letter. Honestly, this was a miracle. It could remember a whole letter, maybe even two. Back in the day it was hard to get a clean copy of any document. They were always gummed up with whiteout, or corrected with pencil, or retyped repeatedly. So imagine the epiphany, if you noticed your mistake quickly, like within a letter or two, the wondrous Selectric could correct it for you.

In grad school the computer lab was full of original Macintosh computers, with their tiny gray flickering screens and ram disks. The 10 or so dot matrix printers were deafening. In this room I realized I could get migraines. But tearing away the perforated edges of my dot matrix masterpieces was incredibly satisfying. There was also a laser printer, but it cost a bunch of money to use, and always got the ellipses wrong. My advisor was an ellipsis Nazi.

I saw an IBM Selectric through the window of a dusty insurance office today. A relic. I realize now that the Selectric was one of the last of the dinosaurs. Once upon a time, useful machines had a presence, they were behemoths, they were not disposable. Cars were made of steel and had deep voices. Computers took up whole buildings, punched holes in cards, acted directly on other objects. Devices didn’t go to coffee shops. You couldn’t slide them under the couch. The Selectric, like its kin, was a solid citizen, it owned the space it took up. It got the job done.

 

just in case you needed more about the IBM Selectric…

 

Ravens revisited

 

Here’s a rewrite of the raven piece, as presented in the class I’m taking.

Of ravens and birthdays

About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29.

That March morning we shared a cup of tea, enjoying the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn, looking at me expectantly. He always loved a good scolding. I made him pick it up. Ready for adventure, he pointed at Mount Jumbo, wanting to climb that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; not having the right gear for the slippery stuff. But he was the one who careened down steep Juneau streets barefoot on his bike; danced barefoot in crowded bars, ran around barefoot-crazy-Australian in the snow. Ignored the square dance caller, making up outrageous moves of his own.

We hugged goodbye after drinking our tea, and that was that. I never saw him again. Stunningly beautiful day, he couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. During the search for him, which took 2 days, there were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. In Southeast Alaska native culture Raven is creator, bringer of life and light, lusty, trickster. In my personal culture they are friends.

The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. The most brilliant of birds, they guide hunters to game, signaling by “dumping their pack”, an aerobatic feat, a flip upside down in flight. It grabs your attention. You have to follow. When the body was found, there were ravens all around, but Tony was not disturbed. Ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage.

Ravens are a presence. They have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They’ve razzle-dazzled my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Raven voices are mystery, vast in range. Raven language a miracle, vast in variation. They hop sideways, and look at us with head cocked. If only we were smart enough to understand. Once a raven did a crazy trapeze act for me, hanging upside down from a branch with a large stick clamped in its beak; it squawk-laugh-shouted then let go, plummeting toward the ground, dropping the stick and flying away a bare instant before biting the dust.

When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, making me feel less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

My dear friend’s flight put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven, like Tony, doesn’t take himself too seriously; reminds me to keep it crazy. Now, living where ravens are scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. In this concrete-bound world, where people are more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top, the madness of ravens, and the clean realities of wild places seem even more precious. Raven is free and unpredictable and outrageous, a guide through the changes, mistakes, regrets and love that we survive along the way. On a beautiful day just after my 29th birthday, one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. I fell too in that year, on that day. But I lived, transformed, and became more, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

Italian food is love

Growing up in western NY most of the neighbors were Italian. Italian food was just food, it was what you ate. When I moved to Alaska, it was a shock to find that there was no good Italian food. None. No sauce, no sausage, no real pizza. There were attempts at making these things, but really? No. I love Norwegians, but they just don’t make the best pizza. Meatballs? Beans and greens? Cannoli? No. Pasta fagioli? Oh hell no.

So when I moved New York’s capital region, Italian food became a quest; particularly after I missed the on-ramp to 787 in Troy, and found myself in front of Bella Napoli. It was love at first sight. A most wonderful, old-school Italian bakery with cases jammed full of classic Italian bread, pastries, cannoli, cookies, and the impossible sfogliatelle. The women behind the counter are not exactly surly, just classically gruff. The place is crowded, they are working fast. They fill cardboard boxes and tie them securely with cotton string from a dispenser overhead. They do not smile, do not chit-chat. They don’t care that you are in love with what they are selling. Just pay and get out of the way. I love this, not because I like grumpiness, but because there is no rancor involved. They are part of a culture that I can’t understand. A bakery secret society and I am not important. Even more intriguing are the men, who are kept in the back, with their five o’clock shadows, baking amazing things with white flour and white sugar, wearing white shirts stretched over muscles or flab. They offer nothing for vegans.

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DeFazio’s in Troy is another food mecca, the best pizza around. They also make great sandwiches, in such an amusing way. There are two shops next door to each other, the groceria and the pizzeria. If you want a sandwich, you go in to the groceria, where there is a sandwich menu on the wall. After you choose, the guy behind the counter slices the appropriate meat on to a piece of waxed paper, and hands it to you. You take your handful of meat and go next door to the pizzeria, where they have the rest of the ingredients. When you arrive next door with your meat, it seems like you are expected, even though no obvious communication has occurred between the slicer guy and the guy with the keys to the bread and veggies. It is weirdly wonderful to take that hand full of meat for a walk. If you want pizza, it is best to call around noon for pickup at 5. Again it seems like a secret society. Floury guys run around the tiny warm kitchen doing their alchemy. They are close enough to touch, but you can’t really touch them because their world is a mysterious other dimension. They are cheerful. They have energy, they bounce when they walk, as if there were springs in their feet.

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Andy’s and Sons, AKA Andy’s Italian Food and Deli, on Delaware Avenue in Albany, is my ultimate Italian deli. It is a tiny place, packed to the ceiling with food. Always full of people, some who know exactly what they want, and usually a few who wander in bewildered wonderment. The guys make great sandwiches, and seem so pleased when you order one. There are beautiful cheeses, homemade pasta, sauce and sausages, bountiful quantities of imported olive oils and such. The best thing, however, is the joy. You can feel it when you walk in the door. The air is charged with joy, and humor, and noise. There is yelling, the good kind, the kind about food, what you want on your sandwich. Big round men behind the counter have loud voices. They obviously have the kind of love for each other that is expressed through humor and mild abuse. One day a bunch of cops were waiting for sandwiches. Big sandwich guys yelling at big cops about sandwiches, it was wonderful. The counter guys can call women “hon” without being creepy or sexist. It is what you call a nice lady. I eavesdrop on their conversations. They are talking about food. The food they make, other people’s food, good food. It is slow food, worth the hours of bubbling, worth the wait. Their homemade salami is rich and flavorful, the gooey gorgonzola a rhapsody. Beans and greens, meatballs, why is this so good? This food is full of love. The room is warm and happy. I want them to adopt me, to share their adventure in flavor, to learn the secrets of sauce and spicy meats.

 

of birthdays and ravens

My fifty third birthday is next month. As a middle aged woman, I’m supposed to regret my age; to lament my gray hair and wrinkles. I’m supposed to say I’m 29, and wink at you. But I don’t want to be twenty nine. About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29. It was March 15th, the Ides of March. Beware the Ides of March, especially when you are twenty nine, which is the year that Saturn returns to the house it was in when you were born. Both of these milestones are about danger, falling down, rebirth or death. You survive or you change.

That morning we had shared a cup of tea, and enjoyed the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska at that time of year. We sat outside. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn. I made him pick it up. He pointed at Mount Jumbo, and asked if I’d like to climb it that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; he didn’t have the right gear for the slippery stuff. We hugged goodbye, and that was that. I never saw him again. Big sun that day, big moon that evening, stunningly beautiful. He couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

He fell. I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. It felt to me as if the forest and the dirt were cradling me, during the search to find him, which took 2 days. There were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. Ravens have a reputation in Alaska, which is very different than anything from Poe or horror movies. They are the most brilliant of birds. In Southeast Alaska native culture they are creators, bringers of life and light, lusty, tricksters. Ravens guide hunters to game. They signal by “dumping their pack”, which is an aerobatic feat; a flip upside down in flight, grabbing your attention. You have to follow. The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. When they found him, there were ravens all around, but his body was not disturbed. Some say ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, they made me less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

So many times, when I’ve needed help or support, they’ve appeared. While doing field work, an unpleasant boss was berating me in front of my coworkers, I silently thought “help, help, help”. When I looked up, 2 ravens were flying toward me and one dropped his pack. Ravens have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They razzle dazzle my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Once when writing a song about my mother and feeling lonely, a raven landed in the tree above me, a very large stick in its beak. It proceeded to hang upside down from a tree branch, still holding the stick, swinging like a trapeze. With a squawk it let go of the tree, dropping crazily, releasing the stick just before hitting the ground, and flying away making glu-gluck noises. Raven voices are mystery, raven language a miracle.

Betsy dreamed that Tony had become a raven. Maybe he always had been one. She wrote the song, but I sang it with her. We sang about the raven and the wisdom, and the loss and the blessings of love and work and play, Raven exhorted us to “just be thankful for today”. When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. He pushed me into an ongoing quest for myself. His fall put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven reminds me not to take myself too seriously; to keep it crazy, even when the world demands sanity and seriosity. Now, living so far from family and friends, in urban surroundings, where ravens are incredibly scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. I’ve placed myself in a grinding concrete-bound world, where people are much more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top. I don’t want to be 29, I want to be present, right now, with all the bumps and bruises, mistakes and regrets and love that I have survived along the way. I fell too in that year, on that day, but I survived and transformed, becoming more of who I am, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

Bucket Blessings

So, I’m taking a memoir writing class. I polished up my previous blog entry “Buckets of Sh*t” and presented it to the class. Here is what it looks like after I added and subtracted with the help of the class. They said to get rid of most of the boyfriend stuff, which is funny, since originally it was mostly about the boyfriend stuff! 

 

Bucket Blessings

I once lived in a small cabin in the bottom of an avalanche chute. It had a wood stove, a spring fed stream nearby where I gathered water, and an outhouse. Well, it wasn’t a full fledged outhouse, with a big deep hole; this outhouse was technically within the city limits, so it was more of a lean-to with buckets. Two of these were full to the top when I moved in, sealed with lids. 10 gallons of festering ooze. The previous tenant, who eventually became my sweetheart/man of my dreams/ex-boyfriend; promised that he’d come back and remove the buckets. This did not happen. I called the sewer department and explained my predicament. The sewer guy was sympathetic. Perhaps he’d heard the story before? Future boyfriend impresses woman with 10 gallons of pestilence? I carried the buckets, down the long, stumbly, slippery trail, placed them carefully in my car, and drove down the steep curvy road. A car full of explosives couldn’t be more nervous-making. I met the sewer guy, and we opened a giant access hatch (this was very cool, no odor, distant splashy sounds). We opened the buckets, which had been sealed for months. Abominable. Wretchworthy. The sewer guy was overwhelmed. There were f-bombs. I said “don’t you do this all the time?” He indicated, in colorful language, that normal sewage is benign, delightful in comparison. This was sticky. It was scary. He roared off in his big truck, leaving me with two nasty empty buckets.

Eventually I moved to another cabin. This place had an outhouse. A proper, old school outhouse, with a deep deep hole. It was a fading Cadillac of outhouses, a three-holer; two of normal size and a tiny one, custom made for a previous tenant’s Barbie doll. Someone had kindly left behind a piece of foam insulation cut into the shape of a toilet seat; a winter morning luxury. The view from this throne was sweet, looking down over the cabin and stream, trees and dripping moss. A northern goshawk had a feeding post right above. Marbled murrelet feathers drifted all around; one threatened species feeding on another. The trek to the necessary required a scramble up “the cliff”’. Once there had been stairs, and a functional floor, but now just rotting planks. I tiptoed on the better boards and never had a mishap. I was the outhouse ninja.

A few years later I found yet another lovely cabin in the woods. I called it the dollhouse and planted flowers all around. It was luxurious, with electricity, running water, a propane heater, and a composting toilet; which was indoors, with a floor. The problem was, you can’t really empty that tank all the way, or the composting stops. It’s like sourdough, you need starter. So, the guy before me had to leave his leavings behind (do you sense a theme here?). This wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the flying insects. The sleeping loft had a ceiling about two feet above my head. There were insects from the other guy’s droppings on that ceiling for weeks. The compost was off kilter. I bought a dust buster and had a nightly ritual of vacuuming overhead.

To you, from the outside looking in, some of this probably seems terrible. But there was beauty in all of it, or at the worst the opportunity to laugh really hard. How many people have lived in an avalanche chute? Well, maybe that wasn’t the best plan, but I survived, and it was beautiful. My outhouse on the cliff was a peaceful, connective place. As my surroundings have become civilized, I’ve become dissatisfied. Now I have indoor plumbing, but want more. I want tile. I want marble. I whine when the hot water runs out. Sitting in the outhouse was a satisfaction. I was present in the moment, present in the cycles of life and death, listening to the rain, and trying not to fall through the floor or freeze my ass off.