Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

We Are Vagina, an Apache Myth of the Future

Created for Sparrow Film Project, and featured in their 2015 Gala at the Museum of the Moving Image, We Are Vagina is the weird child of a film challenge, involving randomly selected myths as prompts–ours being, of course, the Apache Vagina Girls!–and, by way of an indifferent spin of a giant wheel, eras–ours being the year 3000…

 

 

We created the soundscape for the film-making team Lowe & Kasnakian. Listen closely and you will hear not only our most endearing vagina voiceover and a beautiful composition by Alabaster Rhumb, but also some of our favorite-sounding emoji–yes, emoji speak!

Finally, in case you’re curious, here’s the Vagina Girls myth as told by the great Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God…

 

…there once was a murderous monster called Kicking Monster, whose four daughters at that time were the only women in the world possessing vaginas. They were “vagina girls.” And they lived in a house that was full of vaginas. “They had the form of women,” we are told, “but they were in reality vaginas. Other vaginas were hanging around on the walls, but these four were in the form of girls with legs and all body parts and were walking around.”

As may be imagined, the rumor of these girls brought many men along the road; but they would be met by Kicking Monster, kicked into the house, and never returned.

And so Killer-of-Enemies, a marvelous boy hero, took it upon himself to correct the situation. Outwitting Kicking Monster, Killer-of-Enemies entered the house, and the four girls approached him, craving intercourse.

But he asked, “Where have all the men gone who were kicked into this place?” “We ate them up,” they said, “because we like to do that”; and they attempted to embrace him. But he held them off, shouting, “Keep away!

That is no way to use the vagina.” And then he told them, “First I must give you some medicine, which you have never tasted before, medicine made of sour berries; and then I’ll do what you ask.” Whereupon he gave them sour berries of four kinds to eat. “The vagina,” he said, “is always sweet when you do like this.” The berries puckered their mouths, so that finally they could not chew at all, but only swallowed. “They liked it very much, though,” declared the teller of the story. “It felt just as if Killer of-Enemies was having intercourse with them. They were almost unconscious with ecstasy, though really Killer-of-Enemies was doing nothing at all to them. It was the medicine that made them feel that way. “When Killer-of-Enemies had come to them,” the story-teller then concluded, “they had had strong teeth with which they had eaten their victims. But this medicine destroyed their teeth entirely.” And so we see how the great boy hero, once upon a time, domesticated the toothed vagina to its proper use…

Nietzsche and His Pain Named Dog, #52essays2017

I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.

The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.

I presented it last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell,” and it resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.

In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.

Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.

Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.

 

A Pain Named Dog

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*

Likenesses, A Family History Through Photos, Real and Imagined

My story Likenesses, about love after death, was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of FLAPPERHOUSE.

You can hear a fun interview with me discussing the writing of it with the smart and charming Ilana Masad on The Other Stories Podcast, episode 63!

 

And, if you like to listen to your literature…

 

[1981]

 

When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”

 

[Mama and Papa, 1910]

 

Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.

A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.

In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.

 

[Papa, 1923]

 

Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.

As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.

Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.

 

[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]

 

Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.

Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.

Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.

Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.

It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.

Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.

Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.

 

[Alci, 1942]

 

Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.

In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.

It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.

 

[Alci, 1958]

 

After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.

During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”

In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.

Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.

All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.

That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.

“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”

“Will you go overseas with Alci?”

“I will be with you forever.”

When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.

That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.

 

[Alci and Demi, 1968]

 

Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”

He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.

She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.

“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”

“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”

In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.

 

[Michelle, 1976]

 

After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.

One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)

Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.

Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.

 

[1981

 

Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”

Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.

A Flame’s Progress, Greek Easter 1981

We arrived late as always, so that there was no place to sit, though there’s not a whole lot of sitting in Greek Orthodox churches. Standing in our coats, clutching our unlit candles, we crowded in with the others who, like us, came to church but once or twice a year. I was between my mom and my Thea Yvonne and on the other side of her was my Uncle Art–there’s a strange convention in our family to call our Aunts by the Greek thea but our uncles by the American uncle. I don’t know why, but it pretty much sums up the willy-nilly Greek/American distribution of traditions on my mother’s side of the family. And if there ever was a perfect blend of these two strains of holidaymaking, it was for me Easter, when I got the best of both worlds.

 

I waited impatiently for the music that heralded the candle lighting, and when it happened, the church erupted in song. “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) was sung over and over again. Wikipedia tells me that this is called the Paschal troparion, originally written in Koine (common) Greek, the original language of the New Testament, but translated into countless languages and sung in Eastern Orthodox Churches all over the world, as witnessed by this YouTube video.

 

The gold ceiling caught fire as the candlelight passed from the priest to the ancient and impossibly shriveled old ladies who sat at the front of the church swaddled in black, like ornery newborns. I could not see them, but knew they were there because they were always there, coming early for the good seats and staying late against their doom.

 

The stone church glowed like an oven when the first candle of my relatives was lit. My mother nudged me to hold my candle with its protective cup to catch dripping wax, straight. This I did with great anticipation, mouthing the words of Greek I wished fervently I knew, a desire, which would be forgotten by morning when American Easter baskets of chocolate bunnies and sugar flowers would drown out the yearning for the culture in which I feebly swam. But for now, it was the dark ritual that sparked passion in my young heart, and it was coming to its wonderful climax.

 

Being in the back meant that although we were among the last to arrive and receive the flame, we were the first to leave. Once all candles were lit, and a final round of Christos Anesti sung inside the church, the doors were flung open and we took our fire and our song and our ancient ritual with its pagan roots outside.

 

We circled the Ascension Cathedral thrice and, so embedded is the celebration of light in the human imagination, that even my profoundly secular heart (which loves all dark and mysterious things without attributing the magic of life to any great being) find this ritual memory moving to the point of tears. Who can deny the beauty inspired by belief? There is horror inspired by belief also, but this essay is a celebration of the beautiful.

 

Atop the Oakland hill, the streetlights twinkled below. Our flames’ progress was not the only light in the darkness, as our forefathers may easily have imagined on some Hellenic hill in centuries past, but still, as my eyes were just beginning to show signs of the degenerative disease that would eventually mar distinctions between day and night, I easily imagined ours to be the only light in that dark bosom of midnight. What ten year old could fail to appreciate the delicious transgression of wakefulness? Or to relish the solemn joy that was the reenactment of the ultimate Christian paradox: in order to live, one must die.

 

Perhaps some of the congregation reentered the church to finish out the service, and there is some part of me now that yearns to return with them into that quiet place, filled with the recent echoes and rustles of some hundred souls. But that was not then my yearning. In the back seat of my uncle’s Cadillac, I stared at my candle and chattered about how beautiful it all was while already my mind was turning to dinner with its own set of light-hearted rituals.

 

The table spread out like an Easter parade with silver candelabras waiting to embrace our still-lit candles set next to baskets with glittery grass and shining colored eggs. We did not then do the red eggs as is traditional in Eastern Orthodoxy, though, in recent years, my mother has placed the incongruous blood-red eggs (with all their gruesome metaphorics) into American Easter baskets. But when I was little, she wanted me to enjoy the sweetness of the American dyes as if to preserve my innocence, although, even then, the veil had begun to fray.

A mysterious dystrophy was happening in my retinas and I’d already been to one or two ophthalmologists that year. It was precisely those doctors who, confronting their own ignorance and inability to explain why their lenses could not correct my vision, opened a great and never-to-be-closed chasm in my child’s psyche: I was made suddenly and irrevocably aware of the limits of human understanding. It was in 1981 that I learned how the smell of ignorance permeates all–never mind the bright white robes of clean and apparent knowledge.

 

 

It is also in my memory that at that year’s Easter dinner I had my first taste of watered wine and felt very grown up. I was the youngest and only girl at the table. The only other kids there were two of Thea Yvonne’s three sons, who were quite a bit older than I. Thea Yvonne had yearned for a girl child that she might pamper with all the sweet things her own childhood in the Greek mountain town before and during World War II had not offered her and her sisters, and I was happy to step in. Her beautiful house offered me eyefuls of objects to gawk at and love, as well as a storehouse of visual memories to treasure, now that I can no longer see:

 

A collection of Madame Alexander dolls dressed in costumes from around the world, and Art Deco prints with elongated women in peacock dresses whose skirts are attached to gloved hands. Pristine and plush white rugs led out to a dark pool–one made of stone that puts aqua fakery to shame. And, beyond the pool, Thea Yvonne’s rose garden taught me to love outrageous blooms with august names like Queen Elizabeth and Sterling Silver that resembled not at all the upright uniformity found in shops. One blossom presents itself to my mind’s eye in a cinematic close-up: a pale rose with a dark center, its ivory petals rimmed with wine.

 

I am suddenly tempted to Google “Easter egg fight,” to know if it is American or Greek, though I suspect the latter for two reasons: First, Greeks tend to be a competitive lot, and second, because the tabletop tournament requires some Greek be spoken. But I will not. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant and pretend my family invented the game.

 

I believe my mother conducted the Easter egg fight that year, but that could be because she was my first combatant, sitting next to me as she was. “Pick your eggs!” Everyone reached into the baskets and chose, very carefully, the egg they believed would beat the rest. I chose a purple one. It felt strong and solid as a stone.

“Ok, pointy end to pointy end,” said my mother. “You want to hit first?” “Uh-huh,” I said and poised my egg above hers.

“Christos anesti,” I said and my mother responded, “Alithos anesti.”

“Oh!” we both cried. I was victorious.

“Turn your egg around.” This time she hit me, but again I prevailed.

 

I took my winner egg to my cousin, whom I may have had a little crush on, as I did most boys since I didn’t have many of the male persuasion in my life after my parents divorced and I started at an all-girl school. But I beat him too, on this my favorite and most special Easter ever. And on it went “Christos anesti–Christ has risen!” Alithos anesti–Indeed he has!” BONK Smash CRACK I went around the table to the eggs that remained uncrushed and crushed them all!

I was so proud. My champion was placed back into the basket with great solemnity.

 

Then I selected another egg to be sacrificed to my dinner–sliced and generously sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten on top of buttered pita bread–what we called the sweet Easter bread that required much love and warming blankets to encourage its multiple risings. I was not much of a meat eater back then, so I can’t tell you about the leg of lamb, but my current, wiser self knows it was delicious and regrets her youthful folly!

 

Eventually my eyes grew droopy. There was no more postponing the inevitable. I was tucked into bed. First to sleep, first to rise, I woke up to a new house–one transformed into an Easter Bunny’s playground, and enjoyed an Easter egg hunt made for one, traipsing around the house finding little nests of candies with clues to the next treasure written on cards decorated with baby chicks.

 

Because my eye disease stole my central vision first, it would not be long before I could not read such cards, but on Greek Easter 1981, the year I was ten and balancing on the cusp between seeing the world through a bright child’s lens and darkly through that of an adult, I was filled with excitement at finding what had been created just for me. I ran upstairs to show my mother each piece of candy and trinket I found, as if she had never seen it before, as if we’d never either of us seen anything like it before. Or would ever again.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*