Posts Tagged ‘birds’

mary’zine #66: March/April 2014

April 16, 2014


winter wrap-up

I’m feeling pressure to finish this issue before my winter theme falls hopelessly behind the times. We in the upper Midwest are dying to stop complaining about cold weather so we can start complaining about the wind, the brown lawns, and the humidity of springsummer (no longer separate seasons). But considering that it is snowing as I write this (on April 16), it might not be a problem. Temperatures are straining to rise into the 40s (with the 50s surely not far behind), but you never know in these parts. You just never know.

Yes, it’s still winter in the U.P., despite what the calendar says and despite the photos of beautiful flowers and sunrises the West Coasters are sending our way, on the pretext of assuring us that spring will someday come to us as well.

My winter stories this year have not been ones of clumsy, comical falling down in the snow. I have fallen down (clumsily), don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been very funny at all … (see mary’zine #31 for some knee-slappers.) … partly because I have an even harder time getting up than I used to. I fell on the back steps but had the railing to hold on to as I hauled myself up. I fell at the end of my front walk after attempting to shovel a narrow (1 shovel-width) path for the mailman. Fortunately, the mailman happened to be standing right there, and when I stuck my hand out to be pulled up, he really had no choice. As I harp on constantly, the city snowplow comes through and shoves the snow off the road and onto whatever surface happens to be in the way, preferably a surface that has already been cleared. And there’s a general understanding—or maybe it’s a law—that you’re not to dump what is now your snow back into the road.



this was taken somewhere in Canada; so yes, it could be worse.

The driveway poses a bigger problem than the front walk, because, though it’s not very long, my mighty Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo doesn’t have a lot of traction when the snow is deep or the icing on the cake is actual ice. My usual method of making the driveway passable is to power through with the Jeep, back and forth until the tracks are deep enough to guide me in and out of the garage. But with the massive snowfalls we’ve been getting, combined with the city plow’s habit of building snow banks in front of every egress, an oddly sturdy hump of snow and ice has developed at the end of the driveway, so when I power out, there’s quite a stomach-lurching backwards drop at the end. I always have to remember to quickly move my foot to the brake so I don’t go too far and get lodged in the neighbor’s mound of road snow.

The other day I had to clear out three areas: front walk, driveway, and a circle in the back yard to dump a bag of sunflower seeds so the birds and squirrels don’t have to make snow tunnels to try to get sustenance. I was exhausted after doing the front walk, so I went inside and took a 3-hour nap. Then I forced myself to do some major shoveling at the end of the driveway, but the snow had gotten pretty high. The spirit was willing, but the flesh it took to shovel the snow out of the way of the Jeep tracks was weak. Actually, the spirit wasn’t very willing, either. Then I went to do the power-out thing. I managed to go back and forth a couple times, but when the Jeep slid out of the tracks, I panicked and managed to lurch into the side of the garage door and it was good-bye, passenger side view mirror.

An even bigger problem is that the ground has frozen way farther down than is usual. There’s a danger of the pipes in individual houses freezing, but even worse is the possibility that the entire water relay system will freeze up. Therefore, we’ve been told to keep water running from one faucet continuously, even after warmer temperatures make us forget all about our hoary winter.

I got a postcard from the city about this, but only after the citizenry debated in the newspaper and on Facebook what was going on and what exactly we were supposed to do about it. Various people “heard” things, such as that households south of 38th Ave. did (or did not) have to keep their water running. Someone posted that she lives north of 38th Ave. (as I do) and was told that she had to keep her water running. So I called what is euphemistically named “Infrastructure Alternatives” but is really “Waste Water,” as the man who answered the phone wearily confirmed. He asked for my address and told me I didn’t have to keep my water running. But the buzz grew louder that the whole town was supposed to keep their water running, and I eventually got an official postcard saying as much.

So then the question was: How much water? Word went out that the stream should be “the width of a pencil.” That didn’t sound right, because in the olden days it was always described as a “trickle.” Then I came across a website from a Green Bay TV station that said it should be the width of “a pencil lead.” That’s a very different thing. But apparently no one else noticed the discrepancy, and the “pencil” people won out over the “lead.” This policy is in effect until further notice, since warm weather above ground won’t do enough to thaw the earth below. We’re still having the occasional snowfall and single-digit temperatures. And I still have a ski jump at the end of my driveway.



seeds of gratitude

The birds must think they know
That the Bird gods blessed them with this bounty
Spread upon the hard snow.

Do they take it as their due to grow?
Or do they feel a burst of love
When they spot the seeds below—
This mysterious gift—unbidden—fallen with the snow?

Or am I the one who’s grateful for us all—
welcoming with a glad eye the
who comes alone at dusk
and cautiously, disbelieving, approaches
the abundance, a surfeit of love and trust.



I don’t claim to be a poet, but sometimes I can fake it pretty good. The first poem I ever wrote was also about a bird. For high school English I wrote a rambly true story in free verse about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. It was sentimental—of course—but at least there was feeling in it. My friend, a wannabe sophisti-cat, made fun of me for it, as did the fat girl who wanted to replace me in his affections. This was the era of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and anything less than howling did not a poem make. Mid-‘60s, it just seemed that all the artists, writers, and poets were men, and 90% of them were tortured existentialists. I had a teacher in college who was such a man, an extremely intense man who moonlighted as a shoe salesman, and he wrote all over my essays with great passion in red pen. Sometimes I think my whole college education was an apologia of 1950s existential guilt and penile hubris. I would still be an English major today, but I’d get to read a wider swath through American and world (and female) literature. But I digress.


strung out on epiphanies

There will be clouds of course. At least that’s what I’ve heard. That you fly through them.
     —a Dutch woman contemplating what her first airplane ride will be like

During my first airplane ride (Menominee > Lansing, 1964), I had what may seem like a mundane epiphany: that the sun is always shining, despite the low cloud cover that seemed like a permanent part of my world. I “knew” this already, of course, but some knowledge has to be experienced directly.

Recently, I had what seemed like a profound epiphany, but it’s hard to hold on to. I can tell you that it had to do with love, but what hasn’t already been said about love? An epiphany is sudden and starkly real. It’s an experience. I can still feel the effects of this one, but I’m afraid that trying to describe it will just lead to a hackneyed greeting card sentiment fit only for Hallmark’s Sarah Jessica Parker collection.

But I have a cool metaphor to offer, take it or leave it. If I were a string of Christmas tree lights… stay with me… the bulbs shine brightly, but between them are lengths of unglamorous infrastructure to hold them together. Sometimes you’re the bulb, sometimes the cord.

For months now I’ve been thinking about love, sex, anger, forgiveness—what I want, what is (or isn’t) wanted from me—and it’s been a pretty tortured, confusing time. I have deep feelings, but I often don’t know what to make of them, how to accept them, where to direct them. All felt up and nowhere to go. That didn’t come out right.

I described the situation in mary’zine #65: I had a wonderful sexual experience with an old friend, but she declined to take it farther, for very good reasons. I knew I had to accept her decision, but how were we going to continue our friendship? I felt stuck: couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t about her at all, I was responsible for my own feelings—but how often do you work through something by thinking endlessly about it? In the midst of the emotional muck, I just tried to stay “real” and not push myself in one direction or another.

At a certain point—being open to whatever the truth turned out to be—the clouds cleared and I knew what the problem was. My ego was having a tantrum. I could count on one hand (with a couple fingers left over) the times that my friend had gone against my wishes. My ego was wounded, and all I knew to do was to hide behind the well-used, patched and puttied wall that had been my go-to place for licking my wounds for as long as I could remember. In the past I couldn’t have been so open to seeing a less than flattering side of myself. But years—many years—on this planet have taught me something after all, and I was actually relieved to know the truth.

When I allowed myself to own this truth, my feelings of anger and resentment just dissipated. My other friends were astonished to hear me express such a mature attitude. It’s an ongoing process, of course. Part of me didn’t want to give up my defenses. It was a big deal to me, and I didn’t want to just drop it and never speak of it again. So much for my mature attitude. I wanted to keep her on the hook, I didn’t want the elephant in the room to become invisible. I felt a bit like George Costanza on Seinfeld, when he didn’t get credit for buying the “big salad” for Elaine because George’s friend handed it to her and was graciously thanked. The genius of that show was that it highlighted the pettiness we all feel at times. On Seinfeld there was famously “no hugging, no learning.” But the universality of the characters’ selfishness was a lesson for the viewers if we were willing to take it in.


I have often wished, frivolously, that the birds who come to my back yard to dine and bathe would come to trust me and not flee when I open the back door carrying a heavy bag of seeds and a watering can. In an ideal world, they would realize that I’d never harmed or threatened them, that I was the source of their bounty. As in the Disney world of Snow White, they would fly chirping around my head as they crowned me with garden flowers. I know it’s just a harmless fantasy. But if I’m feeding them out of love, it makes no difference that I’m not being thanked or seen as the giver, the provider.


Without warning, I had one glorious day when I got it. I glowed with the feeling, with the knowledge, the long-sought epiphany. Love isn’t to be found outside myself, it’s in me, it is me. I don’t love X, Y, or Z: I love. In our hearts we are like those worms that are both male and female. Each one of us is holographic, we embody everything. Looking for love in all the wrong places? It’s all right there, in you! You can put it out or you can take it in, but you don’t need to be thanked, appreciated, affirmed, over and over again. You are the source, or I should say the conduit. If we can just be, love exudes from us like the fragrance of a flower. We think we can shut it off, but it can’t stay shut for long. It can be a deluge, a downpour, an outpouring—or it can be like the pencil-width stream that continually trickles down the pipes to thaw the frozen earth—or heart—on which we live.



love, everywhere

It’s one thing to have a private epiphany and the feelings that go with it, but then there’s the world and other people: Real Life. My money where my mouth is.

In the almost 10 years since I moved back home (“Back in the USUP”), I’ve often lamented that I don’t have friends here. It’s great to spend time with my sisters, but it’s nice to have other connections as well. I’m friendly but not quite friends with a number of people: my contractor and his wife, a server at my favorite restaurant, my haircutter, my dental hygienist (now that’s a first!), various people who I’m happy to see and who seem to be happy to see me. I’ve been limited in my idea of what a friend is. Leaving my cozy nest and going out into the world, I don’t always have a great experience, but I’m often surprised at the connections. My last two encounters with Karna, who cleans my teeth, have been delightful. I’m at a disadvantage in that situation, of course, because I often can’t talk because her hands are in my mouth, but believe me, I take advantage of every time she pauses or turns to look at my chart. And even when I can’t form words, I can laugh in response to her funny comments and stories. I don’t even remember what we talk about, but in one of our sessions I told her, during a 3-second break in the action, “I’m having fun!” And I could tell she was too. Last time, referring to my sense of humor, she told me, “You are dry, Mary.” I was saying I maybe shouldn’t have told Dr. Aschim that one time that I felt like I was doing all the work. But I have this quirky, risk-taking side, which my mother also had (you might be surprised to hear this if you’ve read my “autobiography” of her). It means that I might say something inappropriate at times, but the risk is usually worth it. I may leave in my wake a number of people who are shaking their heads and thinking to themselves, “That’s a weird one,” but since my heart is in the right place, I’m coming across more people who “get me.” Isn’t that the ultimate in relationship, regardless of what level it’s at?

The computer and the phone are essential parts of my life here. I have regular conversations with my faraway friends P, T, and B, and online a strange thing has happened: Among my Facebook friends there have emerged some real friends, even though I haven’t met them in person. Even in “social media,” feelings come through loud and clear. A lot of it involves bantering: I can spend more than 2 hours having a conversation on private messaging with one person at the same time that I’m responding to 2 or 3 other people who are Liking or Commenting on or Sharing things I or they have posted. The range of connection covers the whole spectrum of human relationship, from barely conversant to casual to intimate. You may dispute the possibility of intimacy, but it’s there. Many connections are based on politics, cats, street art, the weather, commiseration over common problems, and bonding over joys and triumphs. I used to think that all interaction on Facebook had to be superficial by definition… but people find each other. The beauty and the voluntary nature of contact allow for freely made associations and surprising discoveries.

One of the people I’ve connected with responded enthusiastically to one of my paintings, some of which I’ve posted online. We had already established that we’re kindred souls, so I told her I sometimes give away my paintings but the person has to ask. I gave her an out by saying that she might like the painting a lot but not want to have it on her wall. The requisite “are you sure”s and “what do you want for it”s were quickly dispensed with, and finally she said, “I want it. And I want it on my wall.” So after tearing apart one room and two closets looking for it, I sent it to her the next day. She loves it. She’s happy. I’m happy. She doesn’t live here, so I may never meet her in person, but I feel like I have a friend for life. Lesson learned: If you put yourself out there, friends and meaningful connections can pop up not only in “all the old familiar places” but in unexpected places as well.


and sometimes… love hurts

My cat Luther just bit my thumb as I was trying to balance him on my lap so that I could reach the keyboard. I try to keep my fingers away from his mouth and firmly remind him, when he gets too close, “No biting!” But he hasn’t gotten the message. He doesn’t seem to do it out of anger, it’s more that he just finds me delectable. If I were to collapse at home and die, I would fully expect him and Brutus to gnaw me to pieces… not out of malice but out of whatever animal logic tells them it’s the right thing to do.

Luther has a chronic bladder infection and has had at least 3 surgeries to remove jagged stones. After the last one, about a week ago, Dr. A said he wouldn’t survive another one. This is devastating news, of course. I now have to wait and see what happens and decide when his quality of life has declined irreversibly. He’s been through a lot and is not exactly welcome at the vet clinic. One female vet told me, when I brought him in for an emergency after hours, that she and Luther “don’t like each other” because he’s “nasty.” Through angry tears I said, “He’s not nasty, he’s scared to death!” She apologized, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. But ol’ Dr. A takes him in stride.

When I got Luther home after his latest surgery, he couldn’t walk straight for several hours, and when he could, he tried to get away from me by scooting under the bed. At about 24 hours, I petted him and said his name gently. He always responds to his name, but this time he turned his head away. I don’t know how much of his behavior is emotionally based, or if I’m just imagining what he’s feeling. At one point I went to check on him, and he was splayed out in the litter box. When he realized I was there, he pulled himself halfway out, presumably to escape from me again. I know it’s not really personal, but it’s hard to take. I was telling one of my friends on Facebook how he’d been acting since coming home, and the minute I sent the message, Luther came walking over to me and rubbing on my leg and purring. I wanted to think we were having a mind meld where he knew what I had just written about him. Anthropomorphism: a chronic state in which animal lovers can’t let their pets (or their backyard birds) be who they really are. We try to impose our feelings and expectations on them, as though the actual bond, visible or not, between us and them isn’t enough. I am going to try to be with Luther for the time he has left and not dwell on the inevitable. Easier said than done. But he’d better not bite me again.






in love and gratitude,






mary’zine #63: September 2013

September 19, 2013

I really appreciate how the Internet fine-tunes the ads for me so I see exactly what I’m most interested in buying.



 ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????my way no highway

I live a block from Hwy M35, which is in the process of being dug up, someday to be restored to its former glory as a thoroughfare  par excellence or at least par ordinaire. There’s no other way out of my neighborhood, so it’s been a daily challenge to find a place to cross without getting stuck in a sandy morass or intimidated by heavy machinery hulking down the road. It would be useful to have signs that indicate where it’s possible to cross the construction zone to get to passable streets, but there are only those that state the obvious: “Road Work Ahead” or “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” One sees the “road work ahead” quite clearly, and one must be able to go “thru” to the other side if one wants to leave the neighborhood for any reason. I go out daily to scout for access, to reenact the rite of passage, praying that the way back via U.S. 41 and a numbered avenue will deliver me past the upheaved and ruptured roadway to my home.

One day, the water coming out of my faucets looked kind of brown. So when I see another big-machine-and-crew doing something down by the bay, I go out to ask if they’re working on the water lines. I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I approach a huge truck with a man sitting high up in the driver’s seat. I call up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” “WHAT?” “Are you working on the water lines?” “YOU’LL HAVE TO ASK THE GUY IN THE….” He points at a large bulldozer that’s moving incrementally back and forth in the dirt while a bunch of other guys stand around watching. So I mince through the dirt and mud, feeling like a very small female person indeed. Everyone stops what they were (or weren’t) doing, and I approach the man in the very tall earthmover and yell up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” Again with the “WHAT?” I glance to my right and am startled to see the first guy standing inches away from me. I must have jumped a little bit, because he explains that he’s there to “protect” me. From what? “In case the equipment moves.” OK. Earthdozer guy isn’t saying anything, so this guy tells me they’re digging a trench for a culvert to drain water to the bay. At least that’s my interpretation: All I really got from him was that water was going to be going toward the bay, not the other way around. I thank him and go back in the house feeling not only small but really, really not-a-man.

The good thing about all this construction is that it provides work for the locals.  For example:


my new part-time gig

Someday, the heavy hand will write and, having writ, will move on. To 14th Ave., I hear.

only God can take a tree

We’ve been blessed with an unseasonably cool August, with some heavy thunderstorms, one of which plucked a large limb off a tree in my backyard. I have several trees, and I love them beyond all measure. The ones on the south side of the house have leafed out to the point where I can sit in my big comfy chair by the upstairs windows and remain out of sight of any passing walker, stalker, or would-be talker. A mighty fortress is my pad. My lawn service came and took away the offending branch and all was right in my little world.

Then: Another thunderstorm, with whipping winds. I’m awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of a branch creakily detaching itself from the mother trunk. I go out with a flashlight and try to find which branch, which tree. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be out there walking into a possible death trap. So far, none of the limbs have hit my house, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t get caught under one. It turns out that the enormous tree in my front yard had lost two big limbs from high up.


As with the other tree, I thought it would be a simple matter for my lawn people to cut off the broken limbs and haul them away. They aren’t tree experts, but, except for needing a ladder, what would be the big deal? It rained a lot that week, so they missed the weekly lawn cutting, and I waited in limbo—ha! limb-o!—not knowing if I had to call an actual tree service to do the deed.

Two weeks later, the lawn guys show up for the usual mowing. I had left them a message to ask if they could take down the broken branches or if it was too big a job for them. So there they were, but when they’re finishing up, I see that the branches are still hanging there. Then my doorbell rings. A guy I’ve never seen before says, “We can take down those branches for you and haul everything away.” “Yeah, that’s what I was hoping.” “A tree service would cost you $500,” he says, “but we’ll do it for half price, $250.” I say yes because I’d prefer to deal with the people who’ve been taking good care of my yard for 9 years now. The guy says that he and his “foreman” will come by on the weekend to do the job.

It slightly bothered me that I didn’t know this guy, but I couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup: 6 or 7 guys descend on my yard, and in less than half an hour they’re gone. So the owner of the company (T for Tony) returns my call about the tree, and I describe the guy who said he was going to do the work: short, full beard, the word “monkey” on his t-shirt. T says, “He’s not one of our guys.” So then I think that some ne’er-do-well has pulled up just as the legit lawn guys are leaving and has taken advantage of my assuming he’s with them. There’s precedent for the workers around here trying to go behind the boss’s back. A few years ago, my sister Barb was having the roof (rhymes with “woof”) on her garage replaced, and one of the guys came to her and said he could do another job for her, something to do with the siding, I think. She agreed, of course, and a few days later the boss of the original crew called her up, drunk, and yelled at her for giving work to this guy—she should have gone through him. Well, of course, Barb didn’t know that. She tried to explain, but the guy told her to fuck off! The wife of the guy later called to apologize for him, and I think she sent Barb flowers. Imagine her (the wife’s) life for 1 second.

So… I worry for the next two days. What am I going to do if illicit short monkey beard guy shows up Saturday morning and starts hacking away at my tree?

Oh, I forgot to mention that T said the tree “needs to come down.” “WHY?” “It’s rotten.” I’m shocked. The tree is more than twice as tall as my house, and I’m going to have nothing but a stump out front? Some people across the street recently had 3 or 4 huge trees cut down, I thought because they interfered with power lines, but maybe they were rotten, too. I’ve been feeling sorry for them. Now I’m to join their sorry stump club? (Update: I was paying the breakfast bill at Schloegel’s one morning, and the cashier said we’re neighbors. I didn’t know her from Adam, but she recognized my face. Hmmm. Anyway, she said that the son of the old people who’d lived in that house, who had since died, took down those majestic trees because he “didn’t like them.” Is this a male thing, this hatred of nature? Another XY I know is the same way: no room for trees, must put down more and more concrete to accommodate cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, trailers, ATVs, RVs. You don’t think it’s fair for me to take a sample of 2 and extrapolate to the entire male population? You’re right, but I still think I made my point.)

So T says he’ll find out who the mystery guy is, and he’ll call someone named Dan to assess the tree situation. But I haven’t heard back from him by Saturday morning, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting downstairs by the front windows all weekend so I can catch the imposter in the act. I feel like the little not-man with the construction guys again, only this time I’ll have to deal with a guy wielding a chainsaw. I call T, not expecting to reach him at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, but a woman answers and says she’ll have him call me back. And he does, hallelujah! He says the guy with the monkey shirt is one of his guys and that he told him no, he couldn’t borrow the company’s ladder to do the job. That’s a huge weight lifted off me; at least I won’t have to fight off a rogue tree trimmer. (But, T—could you have called me 2 days ago to tell me that?) Dan the Tree Man is out of town, but T assures me he’ll get in touch with him and they’ll come over and look at the tree.

All’s well that ends well. Turns out I got two other enthusiastic recommendations for Dan, from my niece and my sister. He came and took down the cracked branches while I was away one morning. Apparently the tree isn’t rotten after all. I feel blessed to have several trustworthy men in my life. I couldn’t be a home-moaner without them.


Speaking of nature, I’ve been derelict in looking after the wildlife that perch on my hanging feeders and paw and peck at the ground. When I run out of birdseed and “critter food,” I am loath to make a special trip to another state (5.9 miles away) to get supplies, so days can pass before I get off my ass (oh, “I’m a poet and don’t know it; but my feet sure show it: they’re Longfellows” [sh*t my dad said]). I am never more happy than when I see the birds and furry rodents feasting upon the seed and nutty riches I lay out for them. Besides making the birdbath to runneth over, I’ve put down a ceramic bowl that I fill with water for the ground creatures, though I don’t know if they partake. (Update: I sat out on the back porch the other day to watch the goings-on. It was slightly too cool to be out there in shorts and a t-shirt, but I was roughing it. It took several minutes of sitting absolutely still before the creatures that had fled when I opened the back door returned to the bounty. At the most populous point there were 2 mourning doves, a blue jay, a squirrel, 3 chipmunks, and a cardinal, mostly coexisting without incident. But one of the chipmunks chased another one around the yard and out of sight until it reappeared, the apparent victor. I got an answer to the water bowl question when another chipmunk came out of nowhere and ran toward it, stood up on its tippy toes, and leaned over the edge to take a very small sip of water.)

I was happy to see this. I thought how cool it would be to take photographs of some of this action, but I cannot seem to operate a camera. I did take a halfway decent picture of Luther with my cell phone (to show the people at the vet that he is not always a savage beast), but now I have no idea how to upload it to my computer. Anyway, these times when I sit outside—not exactly in nature, but nature-adjacent—and watch the wild ones are very precious to me. In my youth I did the whole tromping through forests and up mountains thing, but the microcosm of my back yard is just as satisfying to me now.

We anthropomorphize animals, we just can’t help it. I’m always dreaming up explanations for why Luther seems to know when I’m getting dressed to leave the house without him and when I’m about to grab him and take him to see ol’ Doc Anderson. Recently, he had to get more “crystals” (stones) removed from his urethra and, true to form, he hid until I tricked him by tapping the cat comb on a ceramic cup. (The slightest touch on that cup brings both cats running.) Luckily, I managed to grab him. The experience is traumatic for him, of course, since it involves a forceps and his urethra. But it’s no picnic for me, either. Apparently this is going to keep happening, at >$300 a pop. But there’s a happy aftermath. When he recovers fully from the anesthesia, he can’t seem to get enough of me: He follows me around, wants to sit in my lap, and rolls on the floor from side to side, seemingly for my amusement. This may be more anthropomorphism, but I say he’s grateful to me for getting him out of that hell hole and doesn’t hold it against me (or forgot) that I was the one who brought him there in the first place. After about a day and a half, he goes back to normal and sets down his gratitude like a heavy valise and goes off to play-wrestle with his brother.

We know that certain animals are “intelligent” (however that manifests), but are we any good at assessing it? I saw a video the other day that blew my mind. An elephant was shown at an easel, painting what the description said was a “self-portrait.” (The trainer gave her the brush with paint on it, and she held it with her trunk.) It was uncanny. As the figure took form, looking more and more like an elephant—observers in the video whispering “oh my god” and other words of amazement—the elephant, whom we learn is named Hong, completes the painting by adding a flower held in the painted elephant’s trunk.

I didn’t know what to make of this. I figured the picture probably wasn’t a “self” portrait, but maybe elephants had the ability to depict their fellow creatures just as early “man” did on the walls of caves. This would be extraordinary in itself—that animals would have the skill and especially the intention of making pictorial representations—but what if the painting came out of some subconscious animality that equaled humanity in its depth and expression. (In which case, the trainer should really take a few classes at the Center for Creative Exploration in San Francisco to understand that Hong could have gone much farther with encouragement. “Could anything else come into or out of the painting?”)

It turns out that the trainers, well, train the elephants to make certain strokes with the paint. In the age-old way, they give them treats to reinforce what they want them to learn.



I’m so happy in my fortress, with my kitty cats, the Web as Wide as the World, an endless supply of books (some Kindled, some inert) and music (iTunes is my master), regular phone calls and FaceTime with friends, and visits with sisters. I’m living a fair approximation of the life my mother enjoyed for 3 years after retirement and before colon cancer. She was so angry at the end, her bliss cut short at 69—weird to think I’m only a few years from that point myself. I don’t think I’ll be angry when I face the inevitable. I’m so grateful for the unexpectedly full and rich life I’ve been given, against all odds (and many ends).


(do you think this is overkill? hahaha)

This is where my health stands now:

I had diabetes for about 5 minutes, but now I’m “normal” again, though at the high end. I am seriously overweight; there’s a skinny person inside me who’s not even trying to get out, because she believes she’s still thin. I weighed 112 in college. My mother called me Olive Oyl when I was a teenager. I ran 10K races in my 40s. But after I retired from my job at age 50 and no longer had to walk several blocks from Golden Gate Park and hike up the hill to UCSF, I was doomed.

I recently had a follow-up appt. with my doctor. The nurse takes my blood pressure, which is 146/70. I say, “That’s not too bad, is it?” She allows as how “it could be worse.” I agree: “I could be dead.” She giggles. I like to leave ‘em laffin’. My doctor is très jovial, which I appreciate, but she’s a little scattered. When I first started seeing her, she’d ask every time, “Are you still not smoking?” “Not since 1971!” I should never have mentioned that I smoked cigarettes for 1 year back then, but I cannot tell a lie. (None of the many doctors, including two psychiatrists, I’ve seen have ever asked about my recreational drug use. I find that odd.) So anyway, on this “visit,” the doc casually refers to my “arthritis,” and when I say I don’t have arthritis, she looks back at the computer screen and says, “Oh, I just saw ‘osteo-‘ and thought….” (So what did that “osteo-” mean? I didn’t think to ask her.) A couple months ago, she asked when I’d had my last mammogram and then wrote down my (wild) guess. She has all the information in front of her!

I’ve been concerned about my high CRP (C-reactive protein) level for several years now, and no one can tell me what it means, except “inflammation somewhere in the body.” Even my previous doctor, the one I liked so much who disappeared off the face of the earth, maybe caught up in his own personal rapture, had no answers for me. Neither does my present doc. But she decided to have me do a treadmill test with “echo” to see if the inflammation is “cardio.”


I walk on my treadmill for 15 minutes a day, so I wasn’t too worried about the test. There was a lot of prep, because the ultrasound tech had to take images of my heart while I was resting so there’d be a basis for comparison afterward. She told me everything that was going to happen (more than once), kept asking if I had any questions, and finally said, “I’ve been throwing a lot of information at you, don’t you have any questions?” I wanted to say, “I must be smarter than I look.” When it was finally time to get on the treadmill, another tech told me how high my heart rate should go, and there was a monitor so I could watch that and the time. The first 3 minutes was easy… about what I do at home. But then at minute 3, the tech ramped up both the speed and the incline. After 30 seconds of that, my legs were killing me and I almost couldn’t keep up. I thought I was going to tread myself right off the back of the thing, like Bill Murray in some movie or other. The tech asked if I could make it to 4 minutes. I did, just barely. Then I had to quickly get over to the cot and lie back down so the ultrasound tech could take more images. I thought I would never catch my breath. A cardiologist went over the results, and I got the word that my heart is fine. So the high CRP is still a mystery.

By the way, I had a problem with the questionnaire I had to fill out ahead of time that mirrored my confusion over which chair in the exam room was “first” (which I wrote about several months ago). Most of the questions required yes or no answers, and, appropriately, there was a blank box next to each answer. But then there was a series of questions about diseases, and instead of “yes [blank box], no [blank box],” there was only “yes [blank box] no.” Maybe you were supposed to write Y or N in the box? That didn’t even occur to me at the time. I ended up circling the vertical line of “noes” but boy did I feel dumb. Or perhaps too smart for my own good, which sounds a lot better.

In the same vein, I was filling out an insurance form and had to make an appointment to speak to a benefits counselor. I set up the appointment, and in the confirmation it said that I would be calling the counselor on October 16 at “1:00 Central Standard Time.” Well, we’re still on daylight saving time on Oct. 16, so I spent a few minutes wondering what they meant by calling it standard time. Clearly, they just hadn’t thought about it, because in another communication they called it simply “Central time.” So it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was cheated out of several points on my IQ test in high school by questioning things that the makers of the test never even considered. Now that I edit for scientists, I know just how careless even smart people can be in writing. You may call this “overthinking,” but I call it “thinking.” The IQ test has been called biased because of cultural assumptions and references that minorities might not be familiar with. I say it’s also biased because it doesn’t take into account people who are too smart for their own good (and/or born editors).

This wasn’t my medical adventure, but I played a small part in my sister’s colonoscopy by driving her to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I sat with her during the taking of the medical history and the failed attempt to teach a nursing student how to insert an IV needle. “Tom,” who introduced himself unforthcomingly as “head of a unit downstairs” and “also a professor,” was there to teach a male nursing student how to hook up an IV. Tom explained to him how to insert the needle as if he were flying an airplane: first, go in at a 15 or 30 degree angle, then level off like when the wheels are dropping down. I rather doubt that the student had ever piloted a plane. Barb suffered through all the jabs, and at one point she said, “Would it help if we made airplane noises?” I thought that was hilarious, but Tom merely said, “No.” Eventually, he had to put the needle in himself. (Aha! a reading comprehension test: In whom did he put the needle?) I felt bad for the student, but even more so for Barb.

Barb also weighed in on my anthropomorphic imaginings about what goes on in Luther’s mind when he thinks I’m going to take him to the vet. Sometimes he hides under the bed, and sometimes he acts completely unconcerned. I was telling her that he sat in the middle of the room as I was getting ready that morning, not reacting at all to my going up and down the stairs, getting dressed, etc. (He seems to get most suspicious when I put socks on.) Barb’s suggestion was, “Well, it was still dark out, and he knows the vet isn’t open at that hour.” That, indeed, is my favorite explanation.

more odds, more ends

In dismal news for editors and editrices, the word “literally” is about to get another definition in the dictionary: It will also mean “metaphorically,” since just about no one uses it correctly. I guess that’s one way for language to evolve. But when that happens, we lose a perfectly useful distinction. “Literally” used to mean something. Now, people will be able to say, “I literally died laughing”—and get away with it!

Conversely, we maintain distinctions that have no meaning, such as “the exception that proves the rule.” Once upon a time, “prove” meant “test,” so exceptions test the rule. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Writers are using a concept that doesn’t exist when they say, “well, that’s the exception that proves the rule,” as if exceptions to rules actually show that the rule is valid. They don’t!


After about a 3-week spurt of work, I’m idle once again, spending many hours a day reading for fun instead of profit. I tend to have several books going at once, and at one point I was reading two mystery novels, both of which had major characters named Amber and Kirsty (which is strange in itself). Whenever I encountered either name, I had to do a little mental calculus to remember which Amber and Kirsty I was reading about: the two killers, or the insomniac and the mentally disabled child. To make matters worse, the Amber and Kirsty in the two-killer book had changed their names so their crime wouldn’t follow them through life, and their childhood names were used interchangeably with the new names, so I had to remember each time that Amber=Bel (or Annabel, just to confuse me further) and Kirsty=Jade. I never finished the book, and now you know why.

I’ve now started reading another mystery novel in which the main activity is playing poker online, so the real names of the players are interspersed with their nicknames—and even those fake names change according to which avatar the player has chosen for that round of play. So you have Chip Zero chatting online with Second Gunman, and sometimes they call each other by their real names, which, no, I am not going to go through the whole book looking for examples.


I came across a phrase in something I read recently that I have never seen expressed in quite this way: A character was talking about his dying father, and he (the son) referred to the feeling as being “suspended over the abyss of anticipatory grief.” This phrase exactly expresses what I felt when my mother was dying of cancer. I had never before had the (almost literal) feeling of looking into the abyss. I was feeling it in my body and “seeing” it in my mind’s eye. And yes, it was “anticipatory,” because I felt very different after she died. Just as she did with her crossing, I had traversed the abyss in a way, by going through the actual experience and not just fearfully imagining it. Afterward, I had more navigable feelings, such as peace and catharsis, and strong (sometimes lucid) dreams.

all’s well that ends

There is a word to describe the state of bodies in perfect chemical equilibrium with the outside world. That state is called “Death.”
—Paul Tobolowsky,
Stardust Dancing: a Seeker’s Guide to the Miraculous

I was kind of blown away by this quote. I immediately had the image of a person standing upright in the chemical swill (or ground of being, to be fancy about it), and by that posture considered to be “alive.” Instead of a parallel reality, this would be a perpendicular one. The flat surface would be the “undifferentiated”—complete harmony and oneness. Anything standing perpendicular (seemingly “apart”) to that would be the “living,” a seemingly separate entity.


you are the glass ball, distinct and yet reflecting everything around you


dead?   the cosmos remains, but you are no longer a visible or self-conscious entity

(And no, I don’t think you get to take your glass ball and go home, i.e., there is no individual soul. You are soulful because you are part of everything that is.)

When I went to to find the image(s) to match my first thought, I couldn’t seem to find the right search term. So I browsed more widely, and the glass ball came up. I think it’s a more eloquent illustration of aliveness than my idea of a stick figure standing (alive) and then lying down and blending in (dead). I love this process. It’s not just the writing, it’s the challenge to be open-minded and find what I need without imposing too many prejudgments on it.

the end

thanks for reading!

p.s. I cannot get the hang of the layout, spacing, etc., for these posts. Sometimes—and I fear that this might be an understatement—I am too dumb for my own good.

mary’zine random redux: #12 March 2001

October 20, 2009

You wouldn’t believe what I go through when I’m writing this ‘zine. On the one hand, I respond to whatever has been brewing in me that insists on coming to the surface, whether I want it to or not—like the seXXX issue. In that way, writing is like painting—whatever is pushing comes out, I can’t stop it. Hm—guess it’s like birth, too. On the other hand, I’m increasingly aware of having an audience, and the part of me that wants to please my readers tends to flutter around the delivery room, agonizing over what the baby’s going to look like instead of just getting the thing born. Will it be funny enough? interesting enough? deep and light in the right proportions? Will anyone else care about my precious philosophical spelunking, or will the triumphant consummation of pages of meticulously reasoned insights go unread on the back of a toilet or under a stack of magazines?

A friend of mine told me early on that she thought I was “generous” for writing the ‘zine. I was surprised by that word and told her honestly that it felt more like being selfish—like, look at me, read me, see me. She said “Oh,” and I wished I had kept my mouth shut. The problem with “telling the truth” is that there’s no guarantee that anyone else will (a) like it, (b) relate to it, or (c) care. And so, in writing the ‘zine, I’ve had to talk myself into the necessary writer’s delusion that there’s nothing I can do about that and therefore it’s out of my hands. I’ll just concentrate on breathing and pushing and let you decide how you feel about the funny-looking creature that emerges.

pookie’s higher self

I learned recently that Pookie is afraid of the rain. I don’t mean being out in it, I mean hearing it on the roof. I don’t know why I never noticed this before—maybe it’s a new development. To me, the sound of rain is restful, so when I see him slinking past me, moving slow, looking fearfully right and left, I can hardly believe it’s rain related. But it is, as I saw when it started hailing one night. He looked terrified, crouching in a corner, hugging the wall as if he were being pelted with bits of ice. I doubt that he’s ever experienced rain directly, though I know he wouldn’t like that either. If I want to totally mess with his mind, I have only to flick a few drops of water at him when my hands are wet and he’s taking up more than his fair share of the kitchen. I’m not proud of myself for doing this, but it’s a cruel streak I can’t seem to control. I actually remonstrate with myself afterward: “You are baaad,” but I can’t stop myself from grinning wickedly at his startled attempts to discover where the water is coming from while he frantically licks at his back. But he doesn’t even know the rain on the roof is wet—what bothers him is the sound and the fury, signifying—something—I don’t know what.

When I first noticed this strange behavior, I tried to pet and comfort him, but he wasn’t assured in the slightest; he just turned his head anxiously away, looking toward the ceiling and the rattling windows. I tried to hold him, but he doesn’t like to be held at the best of times, so he tolerated that for about a minute and then I had to put him down (as in “on the floor,” not… down down). I even tried to reason with him, making little reassuring cooing sounds and explaining that he was perfectly OK and nothing bad would happen to him. Obviously that was pointless, but it’s weird how you always, with animals, revert to human reasoning when direct interspecies communication fails. “If you just stay out of the kitchen when I’m making dinner, you won’t get flicked with water, will you?” Or: “You’re not wet, are you? The rain isn’t coming in, is it? Then what are you afraid of?”

Coming upon him hiding in the downstairs bathroom, the only room with no windows, and feeling helpless to do anything for him, I felt like Pookie’s Higher Self. Like any higher self, I could see the big picture; I could see that he lives in a fine shelter (if I do say so myself), one that’s sturdy and reliable, and that he’s safe no matter how afraid he might feel in the moment. But the fear takes over the lower self, and there’s no reasoning with it. I don’t even know if I believe in higher selves, but if they exist, how powerless they must feel to help us, how loving they must feel toward us….

When the rain stops, Pookie forgets all about his earlier terror and is happy to curl up in his sheepskin-lined bed with its attractive Southwestern motif and dream his mysterious dreams… or to gaze at me with love-besotted eyes, head at a tilt, hoping for any crumb of Divine Love I am willing to bestow upon him… at least until I drag out the vacuum cleaner, and then his pea brain goes into action again and he assumes the terror position under the dining room table.

Pookie knows only love and fear. Maybe he’s not so different from his “higher self” and oh-so-complicated mistress after all.

God spelled backwards

Dogs have been in the news and on my mind ever since the horrific death of Diane Whipple in San Francisco. When simply walking out of her apartment, she was so viciously mauled—by a dog that was on a leash held by one of its owners—that by the time the police arrived, the body was naked and there was hardly any evidence of her clothing, just little bits of cloth and a ton of blood. Someone said to me that that incident probably didn’t help my fear of dogs any. I said the dog didn’t give dogs a bad name as much as its owners, a married couple, have given people a bad name. They blame the victim and take absolutely no responsibility for the attack, show no remorse. (In one telling detail, the owner on the scene didn’t get around to checking the victim’s pulse afterward, because she was busy looking for her keys in the blood-soaked hallway.) There are so many disturbing aspects to this story—the prison attack-dog-ring connection; the “punishment” that only bars the owners from keeping dogs for the next 3 years (no criminal charges have yet been filed); the fact that the victim’s female partner can’t sue for wrongful death because they weren’t legally married (and of course they couldn’t get legally married)—that to me, the dog itself is a crucial but almost secondary element, like the smoking gun or bloody knife wielded by a murderer. If I’m going to extrapolate from dog stories to life, I’d rather do it with the following….

The universe is infinitely correlated.

—Deepak Chopra

I am not a dog person, to say the least. If dogs were as standoffish as cats, I wouldn’t have any problem with them; I could admire their finer qualities from a distance. But then dog people wouldn’t like them, and we’d see a lot more ferrets running around. Pot-bellied pigs, something like that.

Dogs seem so intrusive to me; they’re always invading my space. And they have way too much saliva. To me, cats are a thinking person’s animal, because they have a little dignity (except Pookie when he wants his tuna-flavored laxative, but even then, he keeps all four feet on the floor). Also, cats can entertain themselves, usually by napping.

I think there must be a bad-dog incident deep in my past. In the only recurring dream I’ve ever had in my life, which I had around the age of 6, a dog was biting me, and I would wake up with a pain in my side. Maybe this dream-dog was a metaphor for darker, more sinister invasions of my space, I don’t know. Anyway, back in those days in our small town, and especially out in the country, people didn’t keep their dogs inside or control them in any way. And they certainly didn’t “walk” them—the dogs walked all by themselves—or ran, rather. You simply couldn’t ride your bike or walk past a dog in its yard without its chasing after you, snarling and barking. Were these dogs “all bark and no bite”? Maybe, but they terrified me. On the other hand, we had a gentle collie named Dollie, but I bonded better with our cats, Smokey and Mickey, and with our parakeet, Tweetie Pie, who used to sit on the rim of my glasses and peck at my teeth. I loved feeling his soft feathers against my cheek.

Anyway, this is not supposed to be Mary’s pet history, this is a dog story, so let’s get on with it. I was walking home from Unicorn Printing one day when I saw two little brown dogs running at top speed from the Circuit City parking lot straight toward the road. Yapping, ears flapping, they were the very picture of joyous doggy abandon. I froze. Somehow I knew exactly what was going to happen, even though traffic is light on that part of Bellam Blvd. The dogs crossed the median strip and ran into the other side of the road, and that’s when I heard the thump and the yelp—one dog had been hit. The driver, an older woman, just kept driving. I don’t think she noticed she’d hit anything. In that moment, I wished with all my heart to be somewhere else, wished I could just keep walking and let someone else deal with it. But I was the only pedestrian around, I had no choice.

I crossed the road and stood over the dog, not knowing what to do. She was still alive and obviously in pain. In a few moments, a young guy in a station wagon with a big dog in the back stopped and got out. I was so grateful, I could have hugged him. I asked him if he could take the dog to the vet—I figured he must be a dog lover, unlike me—but he said he didn’t know where the vet was, he didn’t live around here. So I made a split-second decision and offered to go with him. At that moment, a truck driver stopped and gave us a towel to wrap the dog in, and we got in the station wagon and took off. I held the dog on my lap; she was so smooth and so small. (Don’t ask me about breed, I have no idea.) I had one of those wild, irrelevant thoughts you have in an emergency—that I was lucky it wasn’t a big dog, that it wasn’t bleeding on me or thrashing around or trying to bite me in its distress. For that matter, I was lucky with the driver. This guy was young and personable; what if he had been big and scary-looking; what if it had been a carload of guys? I’ll take dogs over carloads of guys any day. How far did my Good Samaritan responsibility extend?

From the moment I first saw the dogs running, I felt like I had stepped into another world. I guess this is the nature of emergency. Time slows down; you find you can’t use your brain so good. Everything seemed to happen on cue—me alone, helpless with the injured dog; then the guy in the car, the guy in the truck, the decision to move. It all felt overdetermined, like a dream or a fairy tale, or like a play—as if I were only saying my lines, even though I had no memory of having tried out for this part, let alone rehearsed it.

The driver introduced himself as Paul, and I directed him to the East San Rafael Veterinary Clinic, where I take my cats. As we slowly crept down Francisco Blvd. in the rush hour traffic, I could hardly believe what I was doing. There I was, in a moving vehicle, with the two creatures I fear most in the world: Man and Dog. Two dogs: Paul’s big dog was standing in back of me, literally breathing down my neck. I kept moving my head away, but it didn’t seem appropriate to say, “You know, I don’t really like dogs. Could you get this beast away from me?”

The ride was taking forever, as the little dog panted softly in my lap. At some point, I realized someone would have to pay the vet. I mentioned this to Paul, and he didn’t say anything. I took this as a bad sign. I was willing to pay my share, but he was in this as deep as I was. When we finally pulled into the vet’s driveway, I got out and walked quickly toward the door, carrying the dog. As I was about to go in, I realized Paul wasn’t behind me. I had a moment’s panic. I had left a folder of original art from the publisher I was working for on the floor of the car. What if Paul, having got me there, decided to take off and leave me to deal with the vet bill? I would have no way to find him. And would someone who would do a thing like that try and track me down to give my stuff back? All this flashed through my mind in a second. Paranoid much? Well, yeah. But I guess Paul was just tending to his own dog—or having a quick talk with his conscience—because in a moment he came and joined me.

The dog died just as we got her into the examining room, and I burst into tears. I generally hate crying in front of men, because I think it reinforces their feeling of superiority. But my take on male-female relations will have to wait for another time. The vet said the SPCA would take care of the body, so that let us off the hook about paying.

I asked Paul if he would drive me back, and he said of course. On the way, we talked about how fast death can strike and how ordinary our respective days had been up to that point. I had been on a routine photocopy run; he had been shopping at Circuit City. We were both supposed to be home by now, sitting peacefully at the computer or thinking about dinner. How Rude is Death? I asked him to let me off at the scene of the accident—I had a momentary, reflexive fear of letting him see where I lived—but he insisted on driving me the rest of the way. I’m happy to report that he didn’t come back later to sexually assault me or burglarize my home. (I think it’s important to acknowledge all the times my fears don’t come true, rather than just forget about them and go on to the next one.)

I was shaken by the experience, which transcended my personal feelings about dogs—even threatened to change my personal feelings about dogs. Mon Dieu! Or: Mon Ueid! (Dieu spelled backwards.) The next day I went for a walk in the hills above Dominican College, and I saw the threat of death everywhere. Up ahead, a little dog stood in the middle of the road, barking furiously at me. I thought for sure a car was going to come speeding around the bed and hit her. A little farther on, I saw a deer with her big ears tuned to the sound of distant barking. I stood still, not wanting to scare her into the path of danger. Suddenly, a big dog came loping up the road toward us. My feelings were a mob scene. Was I afraid for myself, for the deer—or for the dog? Who was at risk here?

The deer bounded across the road and away before the dog spotted her. The dog’s humans called to him from down the hill, and he crashed through the woods toward their voices. I was left standing there alone, on full alert, like a guardian of the animal world—St. Mary of Assisi—but with no power to stop Death from striking again.

For the next two weeks, I kept reliving the moment when I saw the two dogs running toward the road. At my next therapy session, J said I had had a traumatic reaction, and we worked on it somatically for the whole hour. Afterward, she got this pensive look on her face, the way she does when she’s about to say something about herself and isn’t quite sure if she should cross that boundary. She said that the session had been a gift to her. She was leaving for Honduras that afternoon to help train trauma workers to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. She hadn’t actually done the trauma work in a while, so my experience gave her the practice right when she needed it. It seemed like such an unlikely connection, from the dog dying in my arms to the hurricane victims hundreds of miles away. But there it was. I felt honored to be a conduit for such a connection—a reminder that our actions have consequences far beyond what we can see.

It was as if that one brief moment in time—when my premonition of disaster was confirmed by the awful thump of tire on flesh and bone—had set off a series of ripples, like a pebble dropping in a pond—as if everything in my world were now being touched, in one way or another, by what had happened. And yet this event was so minor in comparison to more personal losses I’d experienced. Maybe that’s why the ripples were more visible—I wasn’t as deeply involved, so I noticed them more. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the mechanism behind the “infinite correlation” of everything.

I sensed that there were many ripples that I would never even see. For instance, I wondered what had happened to the other dog, the companion to the one that had died. We hadn’t given that dog a second thought as we rushed the injured one off to the vet.

awakened from a catnap… to the sound of one dog barking…

Two days after the therapy session, I was taking a nap and was awakened by high-pitched barking outside my window. It sounded familiar—I ran to the window to see, and sure enough, it was the surviving dog from the accident, playing with a little girl. My heart was pounding as I debated what to do. I saw the little girl and the dog go around a corner to a row of units across the way, so I quickly got dressed and went to find them.

The Vietnamese woman who came to the door spoke little English, but I felt pretty language-impaired myself. In halting, shy sentences, I told her about the death of her dog. She thanked me and said, “We love her very much.” I was touched by that; I wanted to say, “So do I!” But my mind was racing with conflicting thoughts—Why do you let your dogs run in the street?! I pointed out where I lived, and after more smiling and mumbled phrases—“Sorry” and “Thank you”—I left. I wasn’t sure if I had gone over there to give something or to get something. I wasn’t sure what had been exchanged, if anything. But I was left feeling hyperaware of the connections that were still being played out—and hopeful that my showing up at her door had touched her in some way.

There were a few more ripples—like the time I was driving on my street and the surviving dog ran in front of my car—almost turning me into the inadvertent killer instead of the would-be savior. I felt a weird sense of responsibility to that dog, as if it were now up to me to keep him alive. Or the time I saw a neighbor boy trying to get the dog to attack a baby bird. I went out and talked to the boy and “saved” the bird—put it up in a nest in a nearby tree, out of harm’s way—checked on it later and it was gone. What had happened to it?

The two dogs and everything connected with them had assumed larger-than-life significance to me. The more ripples I saw, the more I looked for. I wanted to see the workings behind the façade. But I suspect that I mostly wanted proof of my own importance. I had placed myself at the center, and I wanted to know that there was a reason for my participation in the “original” experience—as if it only started when I came on the scene.

Of course, the ripples became more faint with time and then “disappeared.” But I’m sure I was witness to only the tip of the iceberg of those ripples—a metaphor I am not going to apologize for, take it or leave it—for example, who knows what effects the experience may have had on Paul’s life?

I first wrote about this incident a couple of years ago, so I have been going back and revising my account—adding details I didn’t have room for before, looking for any new perspective I may have gained with the passage of time. And as I did so, I started to get a little nervous. This is what I find so intriguing about writing. All writers say that you learn what you think by writing, and that’s certainly true for me. I may start out with a clear idea of what I want to say, but the more I stay with it, trying to make it truer and truer, the more my thoughts and feelings change. Writing is a lot like painting in that way; it takes you deeper.

I finally realized what was making me nervous. What if the death of the dog meant nothing to Paul except as a little story to tell his wife at dinner? What if the ripples started and stopped with me—meaning that all the connections and coincidences I had seen were products of my overactive imagination? What if I was choosing what to notice and what to ignore because I wanted to believe that Deepak is right, that the universe is infinitely correlated and thus my life and death, my time on this earth, are of vast importance? But what if “infinite correlation” means that everything is equally important because even the smallest thing is necessary to the whole? Then I am exactly as important as the bird flying past my window or the ants planning their next assault on my kitchen.

There’s no doubt that there are connecting threads running through all our lives, sometimes visible, sometimes not. But I seem to have an investment in collecting the proof of those threads. I want to believe that “when bad things happen to good people”—or to good dogs—there’s always a reason, a lesson, a connection, a guarantee of meaning. I wield my Deepak Chopra quotes and my metaphors and my synchronicities as if I can reduce the universe to fit in my little cup, rather than face the Not Knowing—the great, uncomfortable Void of that moment when nothing has yet been revealed, when anything can happen.

When I stood over that injured dog in the road—unprepared and inadequate—utterly without resources—sure only that I was not the right person to deal with a doggie-mergency because of my firmly held pet preferences—I was all unknowingly experiencing the moment at which Creation happens. It’s the moment when the past is of little help and the future is no help at all. Time deserts you, and you go forward on sheer instinct, purely responding to what has been put in front of you. It’s only afterward that you gather the bits of evidence and set about proving to yourself that you’re part of an immense, intricate puzzle, that there’s some bigger hand at work, moving you here and there, making your life worthwhile. But does being an intricate part of the puzzle increase one’s significance or diminish it? If the bird flying past my window is also an intricate part of the puzzle, then which of us is expendable? Neither? Both?

We say we want freedom, but we want safety—which is to say, knowledge—even more. We want to bargain with the universe—“I’ll do this good deed if I can be assured that the man won’t kidnap me and the dog won’t bleed in my lap.” But when this situation with the dog went down, choice was taken away from me—my preferences and personality and history became irrelevant—and I entered the Not Knowing. I could have kept walking, and Paul would still have stopped, and the dog would still have died. Do I have to imagine a mini-“It’s a Wonderful Life” to figure out the difference I made? Why is it so important to think I made a difference? Why isn’t it enough that my life has its face value, like every other life? Do I have to be trivially, remotely related to disaster victims in Honduras (as opposed to directly and meaningfully, like J) to feel that I deserve to be on this earth? Why this constant quest for meaning? Why that word “deserve”?

I do believe that Not Knowing is the greatest gift we humans receive, but it’s the sort of gift (to steal someone else’s joke) that when you receive it, you say to God, “You shouldn’t have.” Like most of us, I do everything I can to avoid such moments, to avoid being in the new, the now, the unrehearsed. I live in the past, in repeat experiences, looking over my shoulder, assessing the tracks I left behind. All I know is what I see receding in the distance behind me, as I marvel at what has already come and gone.


Over the years, I have adopted many ways of organizing experience into meaning. I discovered politics in the ninth grade, enamored of John F. Kennedy’s idealism (my mother scoffed at my innocence, said all elections were rigged; only with the Bush-Gore election have I begun to wonder if she was right); took a sharp turn to the right when I became a devotee of Ayn Rand and a would-be voter for Barry Goldwater (I was a little too young to vote when he ran on his “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” platform); drifted left in college, gravitated toward SDS, though I never actually joined; voted for Eldridge Cleaver when I finally turned 21—one of the few acts of my youth that I sincerely regret.

In Maryland in the early ‘70s, I met Peggy at a small college where she was a student and I was a librarian, and we became part of a leftist, faculty-led political group. She and I were the first known gay couple on campus, and we lived with two professors—a Greek communist in exile from the junta and the first radical feminist the college had ever seen.

Politics were important to me—the U.S. government was not only waging war on the Vietnamese but also killing Black Panthers and college students at home—but the political construction of reality didn’t satisfy my deepest needs for meaning. For one thing, there was no room for psychological factors in our analysis, so you had to fit your personal life into the cracks of the bigger picture. As “working class dykes,” Peggy and I had an edge in that world, even though our friends knew absolutely nothing about the working class despite their interest in Marx and Mao. And the group became increasingly sectarian, obsessing about the errors of other leftists—those bloody Trotskyites! One night when we were hanging out, drinking wine, we played a kind of political parlor game. As part of the game, we had to reveal our deepest wish. I knew better than to say “to be happy,” so I said something to the effect of “The communists will take over, and there will finally be peace and justice in this imperialist hellhole of a country.” That was my belief system at the time, but on some level I knew I was slanting the truth, that something was missing.

After Peggy graduated and we moved out to California, we were cut off from the political climate in which we had met, and we were exposed to other mindsets, to say the least. Exploring this new world, I took a drawing class, and the teacher turned me on to the Seth books—Seth was a nonphysical being who was channeled through a woman named Jane Roberts. I became enamored of the metaphysical realm as a kind of backlash against those years of leftist political indoctrination, and my worldview took a 180-degree turn.

Because of the—for me—radical idea that “you create your own reality,” I spent a lot of time overinterpreting everything that happened to me as a kind of personal message from the universe that I was creating. (If I was creating it, then why would I need to get messages from “myself”?) Once, I grabbed my cat Radar to keep him from attacking another cat, and he bit me on the hand. It didn’t take me long to notice that the wound was in exactly the same spot where my baby sister was touching my hand in a photograph of us from 1954. Somehow, I saw the picture as (a) a premonition of the wound-to-come-some-22-years-later and (b) a vision with which to heal myself. It was as if the universe was winking at me with every image, every juxtaposed word, object, or experience. And so I turned everything into symbolism, the “higher meaning” being much more important to me than the direct experience. I suspect I have not made much progress in this area.

I moved on from Seth when I discovered painting for process, or, as it is also described, painting as a spiritual practice. The beauty of painting is that it’s nonverbal (though I can get plenty verbal about it), and so there is one place where I don’t really know what’s going on, and I don’t have to. But the desire to understand my life and my place in the world still exerts a strong pull on me, as witness this ‘zine.

In essence, I think I have been a “meaning machine” since birth. I was having philosophical debates with myself at least by the age of 8 or 9, if not before. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. Kids are seeing everything new and haven’t yet learned to either accept the essential mystery of existence or create a belief system with which to wrassle the mystery to the ground. But I remember clearly the moment in which I “popped into” this reality. One day my father, a master of clichés—he lacked the legendary gift for language of our Irish ancestors—yelled at me, “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive!”—by which he wasn’t making a metaphysical point, he was merely expressing his irritation with my slowness in bringing him his coffee or rolling his Bugler cigarettes. I had heard that expression from his lips many times before—along with other golden oldies like “I’m going to knock you into the middle of next week!” or “I’ll knock you for a month of Sundays!” or “I’ll give you something to cry about!” He never hit me, but he threatened me constantly, as if he could raise welts by the sheer repetition of words. Maybe that is an Irish thing, I don’t know.

But that day I heard the words “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive” literally, and I went Poof! and realized that I was alive! It wasn’t that I had never been self-conscious; I had always been extremely shy and hated being the center of attention. But I had never been consciously aware of my existence before, and it was quite an amazing revelation. I am alive, on this earth. I am ME. Whoa.


So the ripples from the death of the little brown dog go backward as well as forward, because everything I’ve ever experienced—my physical birth, my metaphysical birth into self-awareness, my choice of college and profession and partner, my move to California, my decision to walk instead of drive to the copy center—brought me to that place and time where I saw two dogs running toward the road. And I wasn’t even at the center of that event, except in my own mind. There’s an infinite number of centers and an infinite number of ripples from each center and each interaction between centers and all around the peripheries, going in all directions at once. It’s not possible to trace all the ways in which any of us affects the world, old Jimmy Stewart movies notwithstanding.

A few pages back, I asked, “Why this constant quest for meaning? Why that word ‘deserve’?” Well, “deserve” is certainly a useless word. I’m alive, whether I deserve to be or not. It’s a gift. And my quest for meaning is also pretty useless, because “understanding” will never really prepare me for the future. Not Knowing will find me again, and then I will be just as bereft of resources as I was when I stood over the injured dog—as it should be, because Creation demands complete surrender to the moment. You lose yourself in that moment because your “self” is not much good to you then. Greater forces are at work, and need to be.

So I do my backward looking not as preparation for the future, as if I could study for the test of life, but because it’s in my Buddha-nature to do so and because I enjoy doing it so much. This realization is gold in itself, because it’s my habit to disparage my desire to look for meaning. It’s my habit to disparage myself for being the kind of person I am rather than some other, undoubtedly better kind of person, the kind who likes to travel to foreign countries or jump out of airplanes, as if only the exotic and the extreme can bring the New, when the New is all around us every day, in both the simplest and most complex forms. Gee, I feel like Dorothy returning from Oz.

It was an extraordinary thing in my life that a little brown dog took her final ride on my lap and died in my dog-disparaging arms. I don’t have to justify or explain this—though I’ve enjoyed trying—and you don’t have to care—though I hope you do. After all my careful analysis and ripple-tracing, I have only one thing to say: Wake up to the fact that you’re alive. We are all the pebble dropping in the pond, and the ripples we send go on forever.


Birds know the rain is coming. They gather excitedly on lawns, and as I walk by, they release themselves in clouds of chirpy panic, flustering and fluttering ahead of me. In the trees, other birds are outlined clearly against the latticework of bare branches. They are as still as a painting, secure in their visibility. But the birds in the dense bushes come rushing out of hiding to escape from me. Strange to think that safety can be found in exposure, and that danger can invade one’s hiding place.

Birds saved me once. Rejected in love, lost in suffering, I looked out the window at the desolate rain and was astonished to see hundreds of birds. They covered the lawns, the street, the tops of cars, the telephone wires; they burst into and fled the scene, filling the sky. It was a powerful sight that shocked me into sudden happiness. My heart felt too small to receive this benediction—but the benediction remained, perched like a bird on a wire, carrying me through the next days of sorrow with a tiny smile and an unfamiliar feeling of hope.

mary’zine random redux: #33 Summer 2005

July 19, 2009

I’m slouched in my big red comfy armchair, enjoying the luxury of central air conditioning and trying to decide if I should (a) edit the paper on cytomegalovirus that came in last night, (b) take a nap (I’m halfway there, if you really want to know), or (c) eat lunch. Pookie is lying next to the chair in front of the heating—or in this case, cooling—vent. He hasn’t been feeling well, so I’m not sure why he wants to be blasted with cold air, but if any creature knows what it wants, it’s the Poo man.

pookie’s seizures

Pookie has had a rough time of it lately. I took him to a new vet to see what condition his condition was in. He’s been in renal failure for about a year, and lately he’s been having “seizures.” (I think they’re actually more like “episodes of loss of motor control,” but I’ll call them seizures anyway.) I’ll hear a thump! and look to see that he’s fallen over, limbs spazzing, body contorted. I scoop him up and hold him close for a minute or two until the spasms pass and he can get down and wobble off on his own. There’s a definite advantage to being a cat in this situation, because he just goes on with his life, leaving me to worry for the both of us.

The other cats in my family tree go to a clinic in Marinette, but Barb had told me that the best vet there, Dr. V, had recently retired, moved to Green Bay or something. Besides, I wanted to find one in Menominee to cut down on drive time…. specifically, drive time with unhappy mraw-ings from the back seat.
I didn’t have much hope, because Barb and K had both said that the vets over here mostly work on farm animals. Cows? In Menominee? I saw cows and horses every day while driving down the freeway in Marin County, and haven’t seen so much as a chicken here. When I told K this, she exclaimed, “Well, we don’t keep them in town!”—like I’m some hick who lets the pigs sleep in the dining room.

I checked the phone book, and lo and behold, the Bayshore Veterinary Clinic is barely a mile away. I called and made an appointment and brought Pookie in later that day. I hate going to the vet, partly because I’m embarrassed that Pookie’s fur is so matted. I pull clumps off him all the time, but I feel like the little bird that comes once every thousand years to the mountain and takes away one grain of sand, and when the whole mountain is gone, that’s when eternity will begin. When Pookie’s clumps are all gone, eternity will just be finishing up. I once took him to a professional, who got him de-matted all right, but he wouldn’t speak to me for 3 days and I hated to think of what she did to him to keep him from scratching her eyes out.

While we wait for the vet in the examining room, his assistant, a middle-aged woman, is checking Pookie out. I can tell she’s judging me for not having good cat hygiene, because she takes a comb out of a drawer and holds it up like it’s a rare artifact known only to the Rosicrucians, Veterinary Division. “You can get them at Kmart,” she says, helpfully. I say I have one, and she’s all disbelieving, “You DO?” Just then the vet comes in, and guess what? It’s Barb’s Dr. V! He hadn’t gone to Green Bay, he’d only migrated over the bridge. I mention Barb’s name, and he remembers both her and her cat and goes on to regale the assistant with the story of LaMew getting shot in the elbow.

Dr. V goes to work on Pookie, sticking a thermometer up his butt while checking his internal organs (?) by squeezing up under his belly. Pookie’s butt is in the air, his back legs are helplessly straddling Dr’s V’s arm, and his face has a look of complete horror as he realizes he has become Dr. V.’s bitch. While this is happening, the vet assistant is taking the comb and gently wisping it over Pookie’s back, removing approximately one cubic millimeter of fuzz at a time and dropping it carefully into the wastebasket. She has the decency not to say, “See how easy it is?” but this also robs me of the opportunity to counter with: “Yeah, well at home there’s no one to distract him by CRAMMING THINGS UP HIS ASS.”

Dr. V doesn’t know if the “seizures” are related to the renal failure; they could be a sign of “kitty dementia”—uh-oh, me and Ruth Fisher, sisters in bondage to the mentally ill—so he gives me a mixture of amoxicillin and prednisone to squirt into Pookie’s mouth twice a day. Oh joy. Oh frabjous joy.

After a few days on this regimen, Pookie starts vomiting and leaving little piles and dribs and drabs of diarrhea on my nice oatmeal-colored carpet. He’s also listless and unsocial, and I find him curled up in odd corners of the house, like next to the vacuum cleaner (his mortal enemy) in the downstairs bedroom. If I’m around when he has a seizure, I pick him up and press my face against his furry head and try to remember the feeling for when I don’t have him anymore. It occurs to me that I’ve been living in a state of grace for the last few years, since his near-death from a bladder infection, when I hardly cared whether he lived or died. If he had gone to his Maker then, I doubt that I would have felt more than relief. No love = no pain. No wonder so many people go that route. But I was given the gift of his return, along with the blessing and the curse of love, and now it hurts like hell to think we may be coming to the end.

baby robins

But where there is illness and the knowledge of certain death, there is also birth—three little robins on top of a light fixture on my back porch, in this case. Mère and Père Robin take turns bringing the little ones worms, which they drop into the gaping mouths that seem too big for their wobbly, fuzzy little           heads. I’ve never seen a bird family this close up. You haven’t seen beady eyes till you’ve seen a mother bird guarding her babies. And the feeding ritual seems a bit strange. Mère or Père flies up to the nest—the babies have had their heads sticking straight up and their mouths wide open for a good 30 minutes already—and drops a big wad of wriggling worms into one of the mouths (“Here, hold this”) and then takes them back a bit at a time, makes worm mash out of them, and feeds the other big mouths.

But gosh, the kids grow up so fast. One day the strongest of the three babies—its chest starting to fill in with orange tufts—was standing at its full height, flapping its wings like crazy. I hoped against hope that I was about to witness baby’s first flight, but apparently it was just a dress rehearsal. Can you imagine spending the first weeks of your life in a tiny spit-glued grass bowl with two siblings who are getting bigger by the day like you, and Mom comes home every night and squeezes in, too…. and then all of a sudden, you realize… “I’m born to FLY! I’m going to spread my wings and leave this two-bit nest behind!” Can you imagine the relief?  A few days later, the babies were all gone, and I was surprised at how let down I felt. Empty nest syndrome, indeed.

I’m flattered that the robins chose my porch to start their family on. It makes sense, though—I provide quite the little birthing center out there: fresh water, an ample supply of dry food (seeds) and wet food (the aforementioned worms), and, of course, shelter—everything but flying lessons and foot massage. And then there’s the “garden.”

The people I bought the house from had an aboveground swimming pool. So when they moved and took the pool with them, I was left with an unsightly patch of dirt in the lawn. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so K suggested I plant something there. We went to Erik’s Garden Center early one rainy Monday morning because she needed to buy her spring plants anyway. I was a little hesitant, because “Mary Mary quite contrary I may be, but don’t ask me how my garden grows, because it don’t grow shit.” But I was soon excited by all the different colors and types of plants. I ended up buying two hanging baskets of petunias—pink and white for the back porch and purple for the front porch—and, after much deliberation, two broccoli plants and a creeping phlox. (Because I follow my intuition, that’s why.)

K told me what fertilizer to get, we dug up the weeds in the dirt, and she planted the three little plants. Unlike the hard, dry piece of ground next to the patio at my condo in Marin, this dirt is really good, and we dug up many worms. More bisected worms than whole ones, but don’t they regenerate themselves? (Oh, the things I don’t know.) K saw some little maple treelings growing against the foundation of the house and said I should take them out. So I pulled them up by their roots and planted them in the dirt patch also. I never really expected them to live, so I planted them only about 4 feet apart. Could be interesting. Future generations can tell the story of how the hapless old lady who used to live here came to have Siamese-twin maple trees in her yard.

The robins aren’t the only satisfied customers out there. The bird bath is as busy as a public pool, and little birds flutter through the white-barked birch tree mocking the  jays and blackbirds that are too big to dine at the small feeder hanging there. There’s a whole flock of little birds that enjoy taking sponge baths in the 80% of the “garden” that has nothing but dirt in it. They squiggle themselves down and around until they’ve made a cozy indentation and then wriggle all over getting dirt under their wings and all over their bellies. Then they frolic in the broccoli forest or sit on top of the leaves and bite holes in them. I wonder if they’re completely delusional (look! it’s a lake!) or if they’re evolutionarily inclined to want to be covered in dirt.

home girl

One of the happiest outcomes of my moving here, so far, has to do with nephew Josh, K and MP’s younger son. K was having a rummage sale to which a lot of us had contributed our junk, and we were sitting around on lawn chairs in the driveway waiting for customers. Josh was feeling down because his dream of buying a house seemed to be on permanent hold. He and wife Jana lived in a trailer, and there was barely enough room for them to turn around. Even though Josh makes relatively good money as a ship welder, Jana works at Wal-Mart, which, ‘nuff said. They’d been looking at houses, all just out of reach financially, and were starting to think it would never happen.

I had bought MP’s original Ford Model-T running board, which is solid polished wood with a metal inlay. Josh offers to take it out to my Jeep, because it’s hella heavy and he’s a big strong guy. While he does that, I double-check with myself to be clear about what I’m about to do.

As he’s coming back from the Jeep, I go to meet him and say, “Let’s walk.” We walk around the corner, and I ask him exactly how much he needs for a down payment. It’s unclear, because he doesn’t know what they’ll have to pay for a house, what they can get for their trailer, etc. I explain that I don’t want to lend money to family: I don’t want to risk disrupting relationships if for some reason they can’t pay me back. Then I pause significantly and add, “But I’d be willing to give you $5,000.” He’s apparently having a delayed reaction to this news—or doesn’t trust his ears—because he says, “But then I’d have to pay that off, plus my other debts, and….” I stop and put a hand on his arm. “Josh. I’ll give it to you.” He starts to say “Noooo,” but mid-vowel I can tell he’s not going to waste time protesting. He wraps me in a big bear hug. “Thank you, thank you!” “I love you, Josh.” “I love you, Aunt Mary.” Then the music swells, and… wait, there’s no music. But I still feel like I’m in a movie.

This happened on the last day of April. I was surprised at how quickly they found a house they liked and made an offer on it. I guess you’d call it a “fixer-upper,” though they don’t use that term here—fixer-uppers are pretty much what you get. It’s in a pleasant neighborhood in Marinette, centrally located and not too far from K and MP. And it’s on Mary Street! When Josh tells people that I “made it all possible,” I quip that his moving to Mary St. was one of my conditions. I think they know I’m joking. And here’s another twist. When I moved back here last fall, Josh bought me a button that said “Mary is my homegirl.” Are we impressed with these tidbits of synchronicity, or what?

I’m thrilled that I was able to help them out. It feels a lot better than when I donated $1,000 to the Menominee High School scholarship program and found out the scholarship was awarded to the daughter of the financial advisor to the school district.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle having money when so many in the family are living from paycheck to paycheck. I haven’t really figured it out, so I just take it case by case. It’s still awkward to give a sizable gift to someone who can’t afford to reciprocate. I wonder if the saying “It’s better to give than to receive” isn’t the moral lesson we think it is, but rather a simple fact. Giving is a joy—though I realize it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time—but it can feel complicatedly ambivalent to receive: There can be shame that you can’t reciprocate; confusion about whether you’re supposed to try to reciprocate or merely accept the difference in circumstances; and fear that the other person’s generosity is masking an expectation or a form of one-upmanship… like now you owe them, regardless of what they say.

I think the economic disparity between me and other members of the family is still an issue, but I’ve realized that I can’t control anyone else’s feelings, I can only try to be clear about my own. I truly believe that it’s not important how much a gift costs—what’s important is the intention behind it. But we all grew up poor, and that can warp your sense of worth.

welcome to the dollhouse

Speaking of giving, one of the many things I appreciate about my sisters is that when they go rummaging, they’re always on the lookout for things I might like. Mostly, they’ll bring me crystals, crosses… anything different, colorful, or shiny to hang in my big windows. One day Barb called me from my driveway—that’s how she circumvents my request to “call before coming over”—and said they had a surprise for me. I had once mentioned that I’d like to have a dollhouse to make “dioramas” in the little rooms. Well, they had found a metal dollhouse that was exactly like the one I had as a little girl! I couldn’t believe it. I briefly wondered how they knew it was like the one I’d had, but of course!—they had played with it too—one of many hand-me-downs from me, first-born. I was touched that they had ceded it to me instead of one of them claiming it for herself or for a grandchild.

Late one night I felt inspired to do a sand tray (sans sand) with it. At first I was a little intimidated by the emotional baggage represented by this dollhouse. The fact that I was “playing” with it 50-some years later, a few blocks from my then-home, was a little mind-boggling, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “Twilight Zone” episode with this plot device…. doo-doo-doo-doo…. Woman plays with childhood dollhouse… After she puts all the dolls in it, they come alive and she becomes the doll! OK, Mare, get a grip.

So I started putting things in the rooms. It was physically more difficult than I’d expected, because, man, those rooms are tiny, and I’m so much bigger now. Duh. And I was really self-conscious at first—I was afraid I was going to keep such rational control of the imagery that I wouldn’t be able to forget myself and just let it flow. But sand trays always take you somewhere you didn’t know you were going to go, so I just… went.

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, I put three little pink rocking chairs in a row with a “bomb” in each one. (Me and my sisters?) A baby lay on the floor in front of them, and a red rubber skeleton hand edged into the room. Men (action figures, a.k.a. dolls) were climbing the sides of the house, trying to get in the windows, which have little open squares cut in the metal, so their arms reached through. In the bathroom I put a skeleton on top of a pile of knives. The living room filled up with tangled red wire, with a soft plastic skull stuck in the middle. A rescue squad vehicle sat halfway into the room. Little green soldiers on the outside took aim at the house.

I put a little pink baby on a makeshift bed in the other bedroom, surrounded by empty blue rocking chairs and a couple of skeletons standing like sentries at the front opening. The baby felt like my little brother Mike who died of leukemia. At that point I knew I was emotionally engaged. I put another baby in one of the rocking chairs, with no idea of who it could be. I didn’t worry that I was orchestrating the scene anymore, because my crafty conscious mind had let go. My “story” had been successfully interrupted, and I could do anything.

I put men climbing on the roof and trying to come down the chimney. One man was caught in a kind of metal mesh cage. There were chains hanging off the roof, black and red wire coming out of the chimney, a large skeleton hand, snakes, and an old light bulb filament. I wrapped the house in long strings of white beads. Long black rods poked through windows and bifurcated some of the rooms.

By now, the only room that had nothing in it was the kitchen. My parents weren’t even represented (details, details)… but all my energy was going to my brother. So into the kitchen went a little yellow crib with a baby in it, red and white flowers, a red plastic heart, and gold Christmas ornaments. The feeling of doom from the upstairs rooms (and the roof and the windows and the whole house, actually) was changing, and I felt a deep, unexpected pulsing of joy in my chest. I grabbed a small jointed skeleton with blue rhinestone eyes and laid it on the floor in front of the crib, and the “sand tray” felt somehow complete. It was then that I noticed that the skeleton had lost one of its eyes. My heart skipped a beat… then another. My brother had blue eyes and had to have one removed when he was a year old. I had often painted him with one closed eye and one bright blue one, and the image has always stayed with me.

This is what happens in the creative process. The mind holds on as long as it can, and then it lets go like a tired swimmer slipping under the waves. From the mind’s point of view, all is lost. But the giving in allows the power of the Mystery to take over. And then the mind has the grace to acknowledge and even feel gratitude for that all-embracing force and the surprising gifts it brings.

Actually, the feeling of getting in touch with the creative force, the Mystery, is not limited to “art.” At times I feel strongly—almost supernaturally—touched when I’m out in the neighborhood or even driving and fully take in the green of the big leafy trees, the lush carpets of lawn, the yellow-green light during a half-sunny/half-darkblue-stormcloud daytime thunderstorm. At those moments I feel swathed, or swaddled—held or holding, I hardly know which—by everything that is. I’m all alone and yet so big—amorphous—that there’s nothing and no one outside “me.” Just as when I’m in the creative flow, I’m only another form through which the prism of sensory experience is being filtered.

July 4

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, I asked Barb if she and Brian and Deb and the kids were going to have a cookout down in the park. She consulted Brian, who thought it was “a great idea.” So Barb went and bought most of the food, and Brian got a pork roast to grill for shredded pork sandwiches. I thought it was just going to be the six of us, but when I arrived, Deb’s brother and his girlfriend and their baby, two friends of Brian’s with their kid, Brian’s live-in and visiting kids, Barb’s daughter L and her husband with their two boys, and K and MP were all there. Deb’s nephew Devon, who’s barely 4 years old and small for his age, was making big circles around the park on a tiny motorcycle. MP was helping Brian dig up some dead rose bushes. Women bearing food were streaming into and out of the house like a line of ants.

K thought she should be helping set things up, but I told her we should take advantage of our elder status and sit out on the deck and have a drink. I’m a terrible influence on her.

Before the food was ready, it started raining, so they set everything up in the garage. The smokers stood at the open garage doors smoking and looking out at the rain. The radio was tuned to the oldies’ station, where every song seemed chosen for the weather: … listen to the rhythm of the falling rain… pitter patter pitter patter… oo-oo-ooh…. We sat on folding chairs awkwardly eating hot dogs and deviled eggs and chips and cupcakes on paper plates on our laps and trying to keep track of whose drink was whose. The kids—I think there were nine of them altogether—raced around the garage, weaving in and out among the adults, who were themselves constantly up and down getting food or going into the house or to their cars for something. Food and drink were spilled, napkins distributed, and second helpings helped. When the rain let up, Sarina and Devon went out and threw rocks at the puddles across the road. I went out to watch and realized that when I’m around kids, I constantly think something awful is going to happen—they’ll hit the neighbor’s cat with a rock… they’ll get too close to the road and get run over—and I’ll be left standing there, powerless. (Why this should be is a whole ‘nother story.)

While we were eating in the garage, I felt like a ghost—or close enough to a ghost, socially speaking, not to quibble about whether I was actually alive or dead. I felt like Scrooge watching the world go by without him (The Ghost of Great Auntie Present). None of the middle generation, the late-20- and early-30-somethings, so much as glanced in my direction. And how could I blame them? They have their kids and their houses and their jobs and their future to worry about. Deb’s family is unusually close-knot (ha! Freudian slip—close-knit), and all the brothers and sisters and the parents are in constant touch and routinely babysit each other’s kids and help build each other’s garages, redo bathrooms, whatever needs to be done. They’re like a giant, well-oiled family machine. It struck me that “family” is inclusive by being exclusive. Barb is one of the grandmas and Brian’s mother, but K and I are fairly expendable twigs on that limb of the family tree. I figure my only hope for feeling comfortable in that situation is to get in solid with the kids. Kids’ attention is fickle at best, but if I have enough one-on-one time with them, I’ll at least have a real connection there and not just be Grandma Barb’s peripheral “sister from California,” whose story is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news.

Here I am talking about connection, but I want contradictory things. Time goes on and one adapts, even to a miracle. But I want to retain the “disconnect,” the “synaptic gap,” the cognitive dissonance of wow, can you believe it, between life as I knew it a year or so ago and life as it appears to me now. I want to be immersed in the experience, but I also want to stand a little apart to maintain an awareness of what’s really going on here… what’s the deeper meaning there…. how does the past inform the present or the present redeem the past…  I’m interested in difference—the strange blessings and contradictions of life—and in trying to express what I see.

At one point, Barb says to me, “This is all because of you,” and I think, You mean no one else thought to have a Fourth of July BBQ? Odd, since I hate the Fourth of July! I’d just wanted to eat hot dogs and deviled eggs.

the grand-nieces

As much as I enjoy the grandkids, I’ve resisted babysitting them. As a teenager I hated being responsible for other people’s precious darlings and was beset by paranoid fantasies (if a man comes to the door claiming to be a relative of the parents, do I let him in or run and hide under the bed?). So I told Barb that I would invite the kids over for a sleepover in my attic room sometime, but she’d have to come with. Over the summer, when they’re not in school and their regular babysitter isn’t available, Barb has been watching them one day a week. I’ve taken to dropping by, taking them out to lunch, and playing a game or two until I desperately need to return to my solitary (big red comfy-chaired) existence. On one of the days that Barb was supposed to have the kids, she had an appointment, so I agreed to watch them for the 1 or 2 hours she would be gone. As the time got nearer, I began to regret my decision. I was afraid I’d just sit there in previous-babysitting-trauma-induced paralysis, one eye on the clock, too stiff to talk, let alone be an engaging companion–slash–loving great auntie.

The first 5 or 10 minutes alone with them were pretty much as I’d expected, until I realized that kids inhabit worlds of their own, and there wasn’t anything special I had to do. Sarina suggested playing dominos, so we did. We played the game where you start with double nines and progress through the double eights, double sevens, etc., until you run out of numbers. We had only got through the first couple of sets before both kids were lying face down on their chairs and playing the game from the floor. To give me a domino to play on the table, they had to go through numerous contortions to get the right one on the table and slide it over to me without being able to see. This gave them the giggles, and they kept up a chatterfest under the table about I know not what. At one point, Summer calls up from the floor, “Aunt Mary, look in the drawer.” I was sitting at the end of the table where there’s a small drawer, so I opened it and found the domino Summer had placed there. Gee, talk about resourceful… I guess when you challenge yourself to play dominos on two levels, you have to think on your feet, er, stomach.

When they got bored with that game, Sarina wanted to play Bingo, so she and I did that while Summer made bead bracelets. Bingo lasted about 5 minutes. Sarina won, so I think it was a case of quitting while she was ahead. Then she brought out Chutes and Ladders, which I knew was a famous kid’s game that I must have played before, but for some reason I couldn’t get the hang of it. The kids thought that was hilarious, especially when I tried to move my piece up the chute or down the ladder.

Next, it happened to be less hot than usual that day, so we went outside so they could play on their jungle gym. They showed off all their acrobatic tricks on the swings and with the hanging rings and did cartwheels on the lawn. I know it’s a cliché, but wow, the flexibility in their thin limbs! Their unflagging energy! Part of the jungle gym structure has ladders and a simulated “rock climbing surface” to climb up to a kind of treehouse, so I made a feeble attempt to follow them up while they squealed, backing up to the opposite side of the platform as I grabbed at them while teetering 12 inches off the ground. This led to their christening me the Lava Monster. (Don’t ask me why Lava.) They went running through the yard, and every move I made in their direction evoked genuine—or fake/genuine, if you see the distinction—terror and screams. I did indeed feel monster-like, roaring and occasionally grabbing hold of a passing arm and wondering what a Lava Monster was supposed to do if she caught one of them. Their shrill screams made me drop them pretty quickly anyway, so as to prevent permanent hearing loss (mine).

Finally, the grandma cavalry arrived. Though I hadn’t been having a bad time, by any means, I was grateful for the rescue. Barb was just in time to take us all to lunch at the Downtown Sub Shop in Menominee. On the way, we saw K and MP riding around in their truck, and they joined us for ice cream.

The kids have another “Aunt Mary,” their mother’s sister, so when we were driving back from lunch, Summer said, “There’s our ‘normal’ Aunt Mary’s house,” and Barb cracked up while I howled. “Normal?!” Poor kid just meant “as opposed to ‘Great Aunt Mary’.” Summer had endeared herself to me earlier by saying, “I hate not knowing things.” I really like smart kids. Four-year-old Sarina is smart too, but she’s still illiterate. I’m looking forward to being in their lives for a long time to come.

the flagpole of now

Pookie started feeling better when I stopped giving him the medicine. He still sits on my lap at the computer and watches the screen avidly as the colorful symbols of Alchemy pop up and move around. He still scratches my knees bloody trying to make himself comfortable. We’re taking it one day at a time, or I am. He’s just living.

He’s living, and I’m thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about thought. Many years ago, I heard an amazing talk by Krishnamurti in which he said that time, thought, and fear are all one thing. I noticed with Pookie that if I stay completely in the present with what’s actually happening, I don’t have all the anxiety associated with my projections into the future. He’s on my lap now, he’s purring now, he’s scratching my knees bloody now. Anything that I imagine might happen—or worse, believe will happen—is completely unreal, hypothetical. Several years ago, I spent months playing out in my mind the imminent death of my little black cat Radar, who had feline leukemia. As it happened, he died peacefully in his sleep, with his head butted up against a wall, and I had a friend visiting who helped me bury him, quite illegally, in front of my apartment building. I didn’t shed a tear. It was all just what it was.

So here’s how I picture time = thought = fear. We are sitting on a flagpole (whether it’s all the same flagpole or we each have our own is beyond the scope of this discussion). No, I’ll simplify and say I am sitting on a flagpole, which is the present moment, what is. If you think about it, there’s no flagpole “back there” (past) or “up ahead” (future), because it’s always now. I may think about “tomorrow,” but when “tomorrow” comes, it’s today. No way to get off that flagpole unless we’re sent into space and come back 200 years later while aging only 2 weeks on Earth. I don’t even want to get into that.

OK, so I’m sitting on the flagpole of now, and because of evolutionary developments in the brain, I can imagine things that aren’t real, i.e., aren’t happening now, on my flagpole. When we imagine those unreal things, we are extending our reach beyond the flagpole, forward and back, but those extensions are completely imaginary, a product of our brain capacity. Brain development, per se, is a fine thing, because it can be useful to have a memory (of the best season to plant crops, say) and to make reasonable predictions (if I plant corn now, I’ll have some in late summer). And yet, all that is pure speculation; everything that actually happens is happening now. Late summer may never come, capiche?

When we project these speculations into the “past” or the “future,” that is the nature of thought. We can think about what’s happening, but the thought is never the thing itself. Obviously, that’s also the nature of time, because projection in thought, by definition, is in time and not in the present moment.

Here’s the crucial bit, which is what I realized with Pookie. It’s impossible to have fear in the present. We think we do, but really, fear always comes before or after the fact. In the moment, whether it’s confronting a snake on the path or holding the poor cat while the vet “puts him to sleep,” there’s nothing but this flagpole, then this flagpole, then this flagpole (which are all one flagpole, you understand).

(I sure hope my flagpole analogy is holding up, because if not, you’re probably feeling really irritated right about now.)

So…. everything that our brains project (or “remember”) into the air in front of or behind our “flagpole” is the same thing: thought = time = fear.

QED, n’est-ce pas?

Pookie’s having up to three “seizures” a day now. Be in the moment for him, in whatever way feels right to you, would you?

[Mary McKenney]

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