Sunday, May 30, 2010

There was something extraordinary in the air at the Rowe workshop this year. So many incredible people, and the whole thing had a kind of blessing hanging over it. Even though, or perhaps partly because of the sadness of Genie Zeiger's not being there.

Genie was a beautiful poet and essayist who died last Christmas; she was a long-time resident of Western Massachusetts and had created a lot of writerly community with the workshops she held out of her home. She had also made the original connection so that The SUN could get in and do the workshops at Rowe, which have now turned into an annual tradition.

So there were toasts to her honor, and remembrances of her, and some tears shed. There was heartbreak, and it was an extraordinarily beautiful weekend. Both things were true. That is perhaps the most miraculous thing I've learned from being close to Carla in the last few years, that you can have sadness and joy at the same time.

The Monday following Rowe, I visited my 15-year-old nephew's classroom--at his request--and talked about poetry, read a few poems, and answered questions. I was pretty wiped out from the previous weekend, still I wouldn't have missed it for the world. How many 15-year-old boys would want their middle-aged weird poet aunties to come in to their schools--want it and initiate and arrange the visit themselves? Noah made all the arrangements; he talked to his teacher, met me in the lobby, held my hand and walked me to the office to sign me in.

Not to brag or anything, but my nephew is, I think, a new breed of young man--engaged, present, kind, funny, smart, and most of all, not ashamed to be human. I don't remember boys being like that when I was his age--most teenagers, myself included, adopted some kind of facade of fake cool, rolling our eyes and feeling simultaneously alienated and victimized and superior to the adults around us. He exhibits none of that. You can talk to him, one person to another. What a gift.

Then I came home. At the airport Christopher greeted me a little nervously: "There's been um, a new development." One of the feral cats--kittens, really-- had dropped a litter of her own on our front lawn--six babies--and then abandoned them because she was too young to care for them; a barely pubescent mother. She was later seen lurking around the backyard reading Cosmo and doing her fingernails while her babies starved loudly in the front.

Christopher said the sound of their piteous mewling was more than he could bear, he had never heard anything like it. A cacophony of soprano whistles and shrieking. He took them in, set up an elaborate system of two plastic tubs with air holes drilled into them, lay in a supply of towels and newspapers, went out and bought expensive newborn kitty formula, tiny bottles, a funnel, the works--and so I was plunged from minor poet-stardom into newborn kitty care in the space of a few hours.

It was not a graceful transition. Kittens are supposed to be cute. These looked like large rats. They were so frantic to feed they nearly knocked the bottle out of my hand. They scrabbled and climbed on each others' heads in their frantic attempts to survive.

And they had to be fed every three or four hours, and then diddled--there's no other way to say it--to make them pee. Apparently the mother cat, if she's a good mother, licks their nether regions to stimulate elimination. In the absence of a real mother, Christopher and I were reduced to tickling their hindquarters gently while wearing rubber gloves until we were rewarded by a few drops of golden showers. Sorry to be gross, but that was the reality of our situation; hunched over, sitting on an old toolbox (closed) with its handle poking up into our own nether regions, trying to get to the kitty poop before they could get it smeared all over their fur.

They had fleas. They were a squirming writhing mass of naked need. And we couldn't figure out what to do with them. Oakland SPCA won't just take all abandoned kitties automatically. C had to go to work on Wednesday and guess who had to do the daily feedings? He tried to spare me as much as possible, so he ended up doing the very early a.m. feeding and the late-night one--this in addition to setting out food for the seven other feral cats who inhabit our backyard and the one indoor one. Oh, and working full-time.

He was getting haggard. I tried and failed to be saintly. Then I got angry and desperate. I posted our plight on Facebook, and was rewarded with some sage advice, and we ended up surrendering the kittens yesterday at a no-kill shelter in another city. Phew! Last night we finally had our delayed, romantic reunion, and then Christopher slept for ten hours and emerged rosy and beaming.

Now all we have to do is trap and spay the remaining seven and get the four younger ones adopted so we don't go through this again in a few more months. And still the feral cat situation in the city at large continues to spiral out of control.

How did we get into this situation? We just live here. We noticed. Or, to be more accurate, Christopher noticed. He's the cat person. But once you see, are you then responsible to...respond?

"What should I have done?" Christopher asked me. It was a sincere question. He felt bad about turning our home into a feral kitty nursery without consulting me first. "What would you have done?"

The book (and movie, with kate Winslet!) The Reader hinges on this question. An illiterate woman, employed as a Nazi guard is later prosecuted for "just following orders" and continuing to guard a bunch of Jewish prisoners while they burned to death in a locked church. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the movie's been out for over a year.)

She is not exactly evil, but rather, morally blind. Morally illiterate, as well as actually illiterate; she can't "read" the situation, she can't figure out what is right and what is wrong. "What would you have done?" she asks the judge and the jury. It's an honest question, and it angers them. They don't want to think about it.

What would I have done if Christopher hadn't taken the kittens in himself? Would I have walked by them? called Animal Control (they never come, in Oakland.)

I took in a homeless girl once. Although now I sometimes--often--walk right past people begging on the street, there are so many of them. It was a disaster when I took this girl in--and it was also wonderful--just as caring for these kittens was disastrous and wonderful. To make the choice to love something that can't love you back. Like the world.

Working in our yard together last night, after the heat of the day had cooled off and the datura flowers were pouring out their fragrance over the moonlit grass, I felt the presence of wild felines occasionally stalking in the weeds, or vanishing in a graceful leap over the fence. I could see how these elusive profligate creatures make our landscape more beautiful, more alive; how this is also their city as much as it belongs to anyone.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nobody has had the heart to say it on their blog yet, so I will. Carla died.

She died peacefully, surrounded by people she loved, who loved her dearly, having been able to say good-bye to so many old and new friends. She died knowing that she made a huge difference in the lives of so many people, including mine. She died having done everything she could do on her "bucket" list (hate that term, but whatever.) She tied up as many loose ends and finished as much business as she could. No one could have used 47 years on this beautiful planet better.

She died way too soon, and she died of a disease that will be curable, or at least much more treatable five years from now, in part due to her efforts raising funds and consciousness to fight ALS.

I don't know why it had to be this way; I don't know why she's not here anymore, and frankly I have a hard time believing it. Even though I was one of the lucky ones that got to say a personal good-bye to her on Friday, May 14th, her last day of being fully awake before she slipped into a coma. She had a great time that day. Her beloved Maclen was by her side, and her caregivers, and good friends came and went. The house was full of love and light--and tears, as well, but plenty of laughter.

She set the bar very very high for living and dying with grace and purpose.

And I still can't quite wrap my head around it. And I still want to talk with her about the Anna Deavere Smith play I just finished reading, "House Arrest", and I want to tell her about my trip to Massachusetts where I taught with other SUN writers at Rowe and had an amazing time, and I want to brag to her about my nephews and nieces who are turning into such interesting and wonderful people, and roll my eyes with her that in my absence Christopher heard six (yes, you read that correctly six) abandoned feral kittens mewing piteously in the tall grass in our yard and felt moved to take them in.

(Their mother is True Dee, the barely-adolescent sister of Trixie who got knocked up the same time Trixie and her other sister My Sharona did. C managed to get Trixie and Sharona aborted and spayed, but True Dee would not be captured and gave birth and then abandoned the babies because she's just too young to know what to do with them.)

They take formula from a tiny bottle. They weigh 300 grams each and sleep in a pile all together--a kitty pudle of black and gray and white arms and legs and six tiny heads. They are gaining in strength and awakeness hourly and all are bent on survival and sucking down as much formula as they can. They all seem to be girls so far as we can make out, although who knows, maybe some of them are boys whose boy parts just aren't big enough to be apparent.

Anyway, we are now officially kitty grand-parents, and C is off to buy a heating pad for them, while I prepare to post photos on Facebook and Craigs List.

I could tell her about that and show her my lightly scratched hands and kitty-pee-stained new pants and she would get a laugh out of it. And even though she's not here, I do tell her, whever she is.

Friday, May 14, 2010

For Carla

I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great
Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Years ago I saw the AIDS quilt--or part of the AIDS quilt. It's too big to be shown all in one place. How many football fields does it cover now? Anyway, just to see a piece of it was something. To walk around the squares and feel the depth of love and loss was overwhelming. Each of those squares represented a whole person's life. And each square represented the creativity of the families and friends of the person who had died, who cared enough to make a thing of beauty to commemorate their loved one. Some were very simple, with just a name and perhaps an image sewn on. Others looked like they had been designed by a team of theater professionals.

Individually, they were all beautiful. Taken all together...I wish there were another word for overwhelming besides overwhelming.

So it is with Carla's life right now. I know my little piece of it, the square I sewed with her, memories and conversations I will always cherish. But it's only a small piece in what is a phenomenon too big too colorful, too gorgeous and various and painful and shining and hilarious for any one person to take in in its entirety.

There are people all over the continent--and who knows, maybe all over the world-- who have bigger and smaller pieces of relationship with Carla, from all of her students to the mothers in her moms' group, from audience members and folks who only know her from her blog to her intimate family members. And it's all part of this enormous quilt of life that would need an untold number of hundred football fields to show.

The ripples go out and out. This is what it means to be an artist. There's no telling where the ripples end because...maybe they don't. Maybe the people you brush with your creativity, the lives you ignite, go on to ignite other lives and in the end the result in incalculable.

Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes." And so do we all, probably. Very few of us realize as many of our multitudinousness as Carla has, but they are there, even buried. And that vastness of life is available to all of us, heartbreakingly beautiful, shining in the dark...

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Christopher was awarded Teacher of the Year at the Juvenile Hall where he works!

It was recognition given him by his peers, his fellow-teachers, which is the best and truest kind, especially as he has such deep respect for his colleagues, many of whom have been teaching for longer than him. They see on a day-to-day basis the work and love he puts into the kids he teaches, the extra lengths he is happy to go for any of them who shows an interest.

He routinely buys books, magazines, learning supplies, etc for the kids out of his own pocket, and stands up and fights for their rights to a decent education all the time. He never expected to be noticed in a positive way for doing all this.

So the award comes all the sweeter for being a surprise. And of course I am teasing him plenty about it, wondering where the sash and tiara are, and what are the perks that come with this title for moi? Mrs Don't Mess With Me I'm Married To The Teacher of the Year at Juvie, and He's Got Sway?

I am seriously extremely proud of him. Talk about invisible work! Teachers do tremendous work every day for little recognition, and special ed teachers least of all. And teachers like Christopher who works with kids who haven't made it in the outside world and are being groomed to be the next generation of adult prisoners--when he can make a difference there, it's a life.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

I have been honored to see Carla lately. I know so many people are thinking of her and the ending of her blog and what it all means, and that some of them may read this blog as well, so my best report is: she is weaker and thinner--and still completely Carla. Still beautiful, salty, clear, lucid, loving. She is the most clear-eyed person I have ever known. Like a pristine stream running over gray-green pebbles, if said stream also had a proclivity to tell off-color jokes and make fun of Republicans.

I find it hard to look at death, to even wrap my mind around it. When I was five and my father told me "Everyone dies," I remember exactly that my thought was "Won't they all be surprised when I live forever!" Immediate denial, which I guess is how five-year-olds are.

But this. Carla. Her presence is still precious and real and vivid. And she is surrounded by love. The care-takers she has now are tattooed angels of grace.

Like a lot of people I semi-believe in reincarnation without having any idea of how it might work. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that something of us keeps going after death, and I'm game to plant my flag on that.

But I'm not sure that that's the most helpful thing to say to Carla right now (even though she pretty much knows that's what I believe.) My denial of death, or open-mindedness about reincarnation, or whatever you want to call it--this mish-mash of spiritual ideas we're all swimming in. I think what is most precious and useful right now to Carla--and to all of us--is just simple presence. Being with what is. Which is definitely ebb tide, and an inexorable pull out to sea.

If we--if I-- can just sit in that--that and the beauty of this world--that's all we can do right now. When I went walking at dusk the other night in the hills I surreptitiously hugged a Redwood. I was by myself on the path, but then a young man came along walking his dog and I straightened up and pretended I hadn't just been doing what I was doing and he pretended not to notice anything. And we passed each other and nodded good night.