Middle of Nowhere

Cruising the low deserts of California conferred much pleasure in my youth. Flat stretches of landscape frighten some, but I thrilled to the sensation of expansive space; the purple hills hanging in the distance; the shimmering waves of heat hovering just above the asphalt. At times the yucca sprouted buttery blooms; other times the ocotillo waved red flags of flaming blossoms. I never tired of watching the miles roll by; the washes, the jutting striated rock formations, the places I knew desert dwellers concealed themselves, waiting for the indigo dusk of evening when the cool luster of starlight signaled relief from the heat of day.

Desert driving was not for the weak of heart in those days of rutted two-lane roads undulating across the landscape like roller-coasters, crisscrossed by train tracks every hundred miles or so. Signs warned of flash flooding, and one only had to experience a single rare deluge to understand for eternity where rainwater goes in places it rarely falls. Dips in roads became perilous ponds that could swallow tires and seep through doors and crack a car’s engine. Service stations were sparse as poplar trees, and we filled the gas tank at any opportunity.

Desert Center was a parched, dusty, windswept patch of earth containing a handful of wizened humans, mobile homes, a fuel stop and general store/cafe. I often wondered, even as a young child, who on earth would choose to live in such a formidable location. Without air conditioning, a person could die.

It was the newly air conditioned cream-colored Mercury with the wooden sides whose radiator regularly overheated in the most extreme conditions. Our urban-loving mother rarely accompanied us on these wilderness expeditions, but on one memorable occasion, she tagged along. Though Dad always carried jugs of water for emergencies, I still remember the rabbit fear in her dark eyes which did not diminish until we pulled into Blythe, steam billowing from the hood of the Merc. As we chugged into the first gas station that presented itself, both parents palpably relaxed. A curious child, I observed the tall dusty uniformed attendant as he raised the hood to carefully crack open the silver hued radiator cap with only a red cotton rag protecting his bare blackened hands.

Fifty years later, I can instantly conjure the smell of rain on creosote bushes; recall the mechanic’s grease-encrusted fingernails and the silver wedding band encircling his left ring finger. A warm desert wind wafts a unique mixture of odors to the nostrils, and Squirt soda never tasted so good as when, fresh out of the ice chest, we swilled it down like elixir of the gods alongside that isolated stretch of highway in the blistering scorch of afternoon.

Desert Center 2

 

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Downstream

Life might best be conducted as a downstream flow;

a remembered lesson from when, at twenty-something,

I ran the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

Fire and ice, blood and water,

Dig In! Dig In! they told me; no matter

if my paddle sunk into a black hole

comprised of no substance at all.

 

The hardest was at the beginning,

just like my life.

 

Then we bashed and shuddered,

united in that undulating rubber raft,

holding on with feet thrust under gunwales

weighted down only by the volume

of air they contained;

next the river smoothed out

into rills and eddies, emerald banks

buttressing swirling cowlicks of steel blue water

and we bailed out, leaving paddles behind,

sleek like otters in those chilly depths.

Lie on your back, feet pointed downstream,

the only caveat, bobbing like neon corks

in bulky life vest padding.

 

Forty years later, that liberation,

explosion of frenetic chaos followed

by utter calm and support of flow,

still teaches me how human life may be borne.

 

image: West Branch of the Penobscot River – pbase.com

West Branch of the Penobscot River - pbase.com

Avian

I have never managed to save one, not that I haven’t tried. All my life I have discovered fledglings, either crowded out of the nest or cast out, or injured in the attempt to gain instant knowledge of flight. As a child it was neighborhood cats who preyed upon nestlings situated high above the ground, but with three dogs in our yard, cats don’t pose a problem here.

I found another yesterday, quite by accident. Remanding garden tools to their shed, I spotted movement in the grass under a rough-hewn wooden skid. Moving closer, a diminutive red-tinged crown appeared, rallying a hearty  twitter of distress. Fishing the little one gingerly from under the skid, I inspected it, only to discover a chafed, raw spot adjacent to a left wing. The appendage appeared possibly damaged as well, though the little creature clung mightily with tiny sharp toenails to an extended finger.

I know my track record in such matters, and gently placed the little bird back where I found it, praying for a miracle. Frankly by morning I had forgotten the animal, in a rush to get our big chocolate Lab to the vet for a fractured tooth extraction. Later upon my return to search for something in the tool shed, I spotted the wee one. Mouth gaping wide open, it again perched upon my flesh. Remembering a water bottle I had left in the shed the day before, I dropped a minuscule amount into the chick’s yawning mouth. Almost immediately, its spirit took flight. Eyes glazing over, it folded that precious newly-minted body into death.

I dug a hole in my garden, placing the tiny carcass between two large leaves. Murmuring a blessing, a few silent tears glided down my cheeks to soak into turf below. Many thoughts crossed my mind, among them the ease with which most creatures release their hold on life when it no longer seems tenable. That, and the fragility of existence, itself. Covering the makeshift grave with earth and mulch, I pressed the damp soil down firmly but gently with my foot, lest something attempt to dig it up in the night.

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Eulogy to My Mother

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My mother kept things.

She didn’t quite know what to do with people: seven children; two husbands; countless grand- and great-grandchildren. She also rescued or fostered several dogs and a few cats in her almost eighty-nine years. She might have made it to ninety and beyond, but no matter. She was not attached to life, but rather to bright and shiny objects; to record keeping; to sugar and solitude. Life disappointed her as often as people did, through no fault of its own. Existence was simply what it was, as was she: a confounding confluence of a much beloved matriarch who died too soon and a difficult father. Or so I’ve been told. Mom was good with information, as long as it was fact rather than feeling. To drag emotions out of her remained nearly impossible right up until the day she died.

The loss of Mom’s own dear mother seared grooves in her steely temperament, and she never quite smoothed out the scar tissue. My birth apparently helped, for before she got religion, she insisted I was her reincarnated mother. Yet the woman was as much mystery to me as to four siblings preceding. She presented herself more as a friend to have fun with, perhaps to ease her conscience about being too heavy-handed with the older kids. But none of us ever knew then any more than we know now about her innermost regrets. We only know our own.

And so it is that this week she left the confusion of a world that demanded too much of her sensitivities. Yet for some of us, this is the very essence of a full life: to dig in soulfully, to feel and know joy as well as heartache, to risk and be rewarded, to join or bask in solitude, to exist in a perpetual state of unknowing while loving the serendipitous, the unpredictable outcomes. To exist in a vacuum excluding these sensations seems inconceivable, yet I know there are others like her who cannot seem to break out of this particular mold.

Mom’s death was expected, and if it could have been planned and painless, she might have scheduled it sooner. I blew in on the winds of change to assist my sister who had been her sole caregiver for five years, allowing our mother to remain in her own home. When Mom was no longer able to maintain her hygiene by refusing to let my sister help, she had to be moved to a nursing home. She died three weeks later. I considered this a blessing, coming as it did on the heels of my sister’s phone call entreating me to come soon if I still wanted to count Mom among the living.

Going through her cache of keepsakes, it’s unsettling to discover forgotten bits of my own history: old hand-cut business cards – the vivid red of my eldest daughter’s teenage business venture crafting dream catchers when we lived in the Southwest; the bright yellow experiment in naming what I do for a living; a faded blue jewelry header signed with a silver felt-tipped pen from my husband’s silversmithing days. Paper is easier to preserve in southern California’s dry climate than in our Hawai’i home, thus these items dwelled for fifteen years in a corner of an antique desk drawer. How now to delegate these reclaimed treasures? And how poignant the sentiments such objects recall.

Like the crows my father despised and I loved, Mom tucked away glittery things: rings and earrings and necklaces and bracelets – far more jewelry than she likely even remembered she possessed. Then again, I might have underestimated this woman who gave me life yet remained such a mystery. My sisters and I – for Mom survived three sons and two husbands – divvied up what we could while feeling ill at ease about discarding numerous missing pairs in her considerable collection.

As a person who wears a gold wedding band and maybe a pair of simple gold earrings when going further afield than our own little North Hawai’i town, I’ve been sporting a sparkling five-gemstone-and-gold number on my right ring finger. I’ll have to wait until I’m back home to ask my husband if the stones are tourmaline or pink sapphire. For some reason that has absolutely nothing to do with anything resembling my own aesthetic, this reminder of Mom keeps me close enough to her memory until I feel as though her spirit has found expression in that broad face of eternity.

In Transitu

There are times when the veil is drawn.

 

Days go missing,

while retreat seems the only option –

Time away from the world to heal;

to gather fragments and splinters

back to a body weakened with pain

and strange imaginings.

 

Many eschew the need –

push beyond boundaries like babies crowning,

struggling to breach a new world

before anything is known;

where all is forgotten

and a burning to explore, all-consuming.

 

I used to be a wanderer;

no further need to cast far afield of myself.

Invisible cords keep me tethered

to this life, this presence.

No longer yearning for distractions.

 

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The Real Thing

How is it that a visceral memory of thirty years ago sustains itself so vividly in both the body and mind? Such is my experience of whitewater rafting – a rolling, jaunting, thrilling escapade down some of the wildest water that still exists in North America, albeit dam-controlled. Thirty years ago, it was the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine. Today it is the Deschutes River in Oregon, and I could hardly wait to get to the mainland from our home in Hawaii in order to experience this kind of water, once again. I love the ocean’s waves, but there is something about whitewater that captivates the imagination.

We don’t have to be on the river until a reasonable hour of the morning. Still, there’s frost on the ground as we don wetsuits and neoprene booties. Teeth chattering, I throw on my long sleeved rashguard for extra warmth. This in no way prepares me for the shock, however, as, on the second rapid, I am jettisoned from the boat, along with two others, into the icy drink. My god, I think, it’s early September! How is it even possible for water to get this cold, this quickly? The guide remarks that we are the only ones on the river, and even a week before, there were dozens of rafts with hundreds of occupants, waiting in the eddies for a turn in the roiling current.

Forgetting how flexible a twenty year-old body can be – certainly compared to an almost-sixty year-old physique – I lurch forward and knock my two front teeth into the back of my daughter’s head. No harm done, save for a fat lip for a few days – but I become wary, a feeling that is asynchronous to the memory I spoke of earlier. I wiggle and tug at the good front tooth that remains, after having an implant replace the other I lost to Hawaii’s unpredictable surf twenty years ago. My arm still aches and is oddly dysfunctional after being torqued out of alignment during my surprise tumble. I shift to the other side of the craft; paddle with the opposite arm. Still, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to strip out the pain with my other skilled hand. Eventually I am successful, but again I am uncharacteristically cautious, as I turn to the guide and whisper, Hey – I don’t want to bum the others out, but if there’s any way to keep me in this boat for the duration, I would really appreciate it.

The remainder of the ride is enjoyable, mostly because those I love are having the time of their lives. Vicarious pleasure settles in, and it’s okay. I have discovered balance, once again. My delts and biceps hurt less, but I remain chilled to the bone. I launched into this journey with a nagging cough, and cannot imagine how shivering all day is going to make it better. Still, the view from the river is extraordinary, and the water itself possesses a magic that is impossible to describe.

 

MULBERRY STREET (or was that really a lobster crossing the road?!)

 
“Young man,” said Miss Block
“It’s eleven o’clock! This school begins
promptly at eight-forty-five;
Why, this is a terrible time to arrive!
Why didn’t you come just as fast as you could?
What is your excuse,
and it better be good!”
 
“This morning, Miss Block,
when I left home for school
I started off early, according to rule –
I said when I started at quarter-past-eight
I must not, I will not, I shall not be late!
I’ll be the first pupil to be in my seat, then
BANG!  Something happened on Mulberry Street.”
 
~ Dr. Seuss
 

Hoping I have done it justice, this poem memorized to recite to my third grade classmates leapt to mind this morning while riding my bike up Union Mill Road to my regular route along Akoni Pule Highway. Honestly, you might think I’m fooling or maybe a little daft – but it is said that truth is stranger than fiction. And though incredible, this story is no fabrication.

I lived thirty-two years in Maine, the lobster capital of the world. Yet somehow the sight of a lobster crossing the road never transpired in my experience. All that changed today, when, pedaling up the steep hill toward the highway, I spotted what appeared to be a small lobster marching across the asphalt. I slowed to a stop, checked for oncoming cars. We were alone in this warped world, the lobster and I. I shook my head, but there was nothing wrong with my vision. It was indeed what appeared to be a baby lobster, marching west to east with small unoccupied plantation houses on either side. The fact that it might be a crayfish did occur to me, but being unsure, I didn’t dare touch or attempt to grasp it. Casting a line to my frazzled mind, an image of the drysack I carry along with me in case of rain emerged. I grabbed the conveyance, unbuckled it, and set it in front of the creature who, without hesitation, sauntered deep within its recesses.

I’ll take it back to the ocean, I thought, after my ride. I’ve ten miles to go. I wonder if it will be okay like that, in the bag, in the sun? A half mile down the highway, I turned back toward home. This is ridiculous, I thought. If I’m going to chance upon a lobster crossing the road on the north shore of Hawaii Island when I never saw such a sight in all my years of living in Maine, I’d best get the poor beast to water and pronto. But what to do? Lobster or crayfish? Fresh water or salt? I didn’t want to kill the critter I was attempting to return to its natural environment. As luck would have it, a fishing tackle shop lay sandwiched between one of the town’s veterinarians and a quick-stop store/gas station on the corner of Union Mill Rd. and the highway. I popped in to confront old Mr. Naito with my discovery, though I cautioned him first that he would remember this for the balance of his life. Indeed he looked a bit suspicious – to many locals, God bless them, white folks can seem a bit touched in the head at times, with their mainland notions and quick movements and speech. Likely I was placed amongst the “crazy ha’oles” he has encountered in a long life of many transitions, not the least of which was that our community boasted an enormous sugar plantation not fifty years ago – cane waving in the bright sunshine as far as the eye could see before the blue of the ocean sharply delimited the expanse of green. So many changes have occurred since that time that the grace of living here is that somehow the locals have managed to maintain a loving spirit of Aloha toward most everybody – the craziest among us included.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Mr. Naito and I eventually conjoined in the conclusion that what I held in my possession was indeed a crayfish. When asked where best to return it to its habitat, he gestured up the hill to the Kohala ditch – a massive irrigation system built during plantation times. A bridge marked the particular spot he referred to as a fast-moving current, and I carefully shook the crustacean out of its borrowed lair onto leaf mold. Examining it more carefully now, I noticed its shell was covered in a light coating of dried mud. Venturing now to grasp its body, it neither squirmed nor asserted itself in a harmful fashion. Rather it reached its claws and tail out to their furthermost boundaries as if enjoying a good stretch, perhaps sensing the presence of water nearby. With that gesture, I wished it well and tossed it gently into the swirling waters below.