Dannebrog

This is the little Danish-American town of three hundred where my grandfather, Stanley Pedersen, was born.  J. never got to meet my grandparents, so we stopped there on our journey, to feel for any echoes that might remain. It was a fiercely cold, sunny morning, with gusting winds that drove a body deep into its coat, hat, and whatever else it had had the good sense to bundle on.

The old folks were in Tom the Baker’s, drinking Folgers, and when we pushed open the door every head turned, just as they always have. Harriett’s Spisehus was under new ownership, Harriett herself still in good health but, in her upper eighties, ready to retire. Still, the old diner smelled the same: of old wood, plain coffee, and cooking grease. We were the only ones in there, but Colette made us each a plate of Danish pancakes anyway. The pancakes came out just as Harriett’s were: eggy, thin as crepes, the same pot of maple syrup and tin shaker for powdered sugar, OJ and bacon (for J.) on the side. So now J. has had the quintessential Dannebrog meal. He has taken its communion.Harriett's

We visited the cemetery. Wandered, covering our frostbitten ears, looking for the stone. Lost among a cluster of very old stones all ending in -sen, I turned back and saw the arms of J.’s blue coat waving like a ship’s signal flags. The stone was mossy and the bundle of dried sage I had brought from Montana looked invisible at its base, as if it had already disintegrated into the earth there. Are you sad? J. asked. They are at peace, I said.

The farm, three miles out of town, had changed hands several times since its original sale out of the family, Colette informed us. When we pulled in, the young family was not there, maybe in Cairo (karo, like the syrup) or Grand Island. So we felt at ease to look around. The arching tree that had grown strong and tall under my grandpa’s care was a stump. The barn, the smokehouse, the showerhouse, the farmhouse, were all there. A little less taken care of, but intact. The silo, upon which I had climbed to look as far as possible across the endless Nebraska cornfields. The cornstalks were dry and chopped short for the winter, and it wasn’t possible to know whether Grandma’s dazzling flower garden or Grandpa’s potatoes and vegetables would return in some iteration the following summer. I saw no elusive barn cats. But on the fenceposts lining the row where we had all learned, on Grandpa’s lap, to drive the John Deere, there they were. I shouted.

Boots

A pair of old leather boots that Grandpa had stuck on the ends of two posts were still there. I don’t know whether they were his, but it was his humor, not undone by ten years of unrelenting winds and seasons. We left and drove off down the gravel road back toward the interstate. I don’t know if I will ever go back. It has been done.

The day was cold, but it was sunny.

 

Ends

Four years ago we caravanned to a town we didn’t know, and it became home. Now, we leave Missoula in four days. This morning I sat on the floor and ate breakfast. Our furniture, which was lugged in from thrift stores and Craigslist and even alleys, has gone back out the door, to friends and strangers. Watching the apartment empty is like traveling back in time, to when we arrived, beginning a sentence to which we didn’t know the end. I couldn’t have imagined it would be so good.

My jaw aches, probably from grinding it at night, subconsciously clenching at change. Excitement for the upcoming trail is strong, but it is temporarily covered with a long to-do list and many goodbyes to kind people. I’ve already had a few teary ones, and more where the tears will come later, probably during the long, flat length of Nebraska, where it is safer to let them go.

This is voluntary, of course. All things end, so why not practice? A departure is a little death. One day I would like to practice being the one to stay, but either way, at parting, if there is sadness, there was love. And as far as I can figure, that is all that makes living human in a mad world worthwhile.

On the way home from work, the radio played a song I’d never heard before: “Good Times,” by Matt Costas. Here’s the chorus:

Finally those good times are comin
Good times are comin
Good times are comin
…to an end.

But he doesn’t sound sad. Those good times are coming to an end.

Different good times lie ahead.

Good night!

When the house lights dim

It is completely dark. The crowd hushes without being told. Open eyes see blackness, nothing but simple black, no light pestering rods and cones into interpretation, color, movement.

It would be restful, still, like pre-birth nonbeing, were we not all, as most are, secretly fearful of death.

Who am I?

Have I wasted my life?

Coughing. Wrappers. Whispers.

The one crowd becomes a crowd of ones.

Showtime.

Spring wallflowers

letter
(click image to read note)

As spring warms the hemisphere, people paralyzed by winter’s dark and cold now ease into movement, including depressed people. Bleak inner life and the newly pulsating rainbow of plants outside form a sour contrast, and the more vibrant flow of blood gives some the strength to act: suicides peak in May and June.

This spring I found a note by the river. The water rushed and rose up its sandy edge, full of demanding energy, and I could not walk past without stopping to bask. The paper was folded in quarters and slipped between the boards of a park bench where homeless people sleep when it is snowing, swaddled in thin sleeping bags.

A little release, a little shout, poem, question, inelegant, referential, young, assertive, testing. Yet assuming a friend.

I went home and listened to the song it spoke of: the Smiths’ “Sing me to sleep.” Pictured hundreds of solitary teenagers in American bedrooms cultivating a self-image of moody misery, Morrissey intoning on repeat, a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower on the floor. Some are serious, some sorta, some not. So which is she?

Lately I’m aspiring to become, like a famous pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” (Vonnegut, another literary reference– though what was hers? I couldn’t find it…) I’m more tender, awake, slow, open, and loving when I shake off time and control for even a short while. That kind of shedding has much to do with death, the death of the little self. A friend died snorkeling amid a symphony of colored fish off the coast of Hawai’i last week; rest in peace, Ed. Another fell from a roof in California while installing solar panels; peace be with you, Hans. Contemplating these deaths makes such a practice even more welcomed and needed.

Dear Friend, nobody else has to go for us to become awake together. Easier said than done… but it can be done.

Zzz

I have long been thankful that humans – and most creatures – require sleep. No matter how determined, how frantic, how executive, controlling, even insomniac a person may be, eventually, sleep’s gonna win. Every pesky little doer is going to be taken out of commission, made vulnerable, and rejuvenated through a host of mysterious mental and physical processes. And on a regular basis. So… may as well find a dark nest and accept it.

I love that it’s mostly unconscious, but still one is aware of time having passed afterward. A solid chunk of relief from I, from thought – and the awareness that it happened, even though there’s really nothing to remember. Long hours of simple bodily being, practically without effort. As a sucky meditator, but one who loves it on the rare instances when it “works,” this is a spectacular reprieve. Being in a body is a strange experience, so damn particular all the time, bounded and defined. But when it gets dark– the sublime melt. Good practice for death, though who knows what that’s like. Good practice for surrender, for succumbing, for giving over what doesn’t belong to me, not permanently anyway.

Of course, it is interrupted by absurdities, which are in turn laced with archetypes – two of the most interesting things around, really. But even without dreams, there is no boredom. Thank the powers of evolution that it’s not possible to lie asleep bored for a third of one’s life.

And arguably, humankind does the least damage while hitting the sack. Arlo Guthrie has said that he prefers a sleeping president. After all, who can you bomb while you’re sawing logs? On a smaller scale, I know I do the world no favors when I am sleep-deprived. Even a few missed hours on a single night, and I’m beastly. This is why statistics on the ever-decreasing average nightly conk-out time of American citizens so alarms me. People of the nation, save yourselves and the world. Hear my impassioned cry for more sleep: (yawns)

Sleep makes wakefulness beautiful, or at least bearable. In these dark days, sleep is even more a confidant, a lover, a land to be explored.  So good morning. I hope it was lovely. And, in not so long – good night.

Frank Little’s flowers

Mountain View Cemetery, Butte, Montana. Bordered by a highway, a Super WalMart and the Bert Mooney International Airport. The front acres are groomed, discrete and squared, but the back field sighs on and on, dry and thatchy, to the barb-wire fence at the rear edge. Wild grasses stretch tall and thick there; in the hot wind they are a blowing curtain, veiling and blurring in the shadows of the hazy mountains. Families clump near the entrance, shapes on a silky lawn watered a comforting green. But in the back, an animal slinks across the path, then another: small and red, untame. Two fox pass through their hole beneath the fence, from one secret place to another.

There are graves among the tall grasses, unkempt and abandoned. The graves of a generation who no longer have families to fret over their final property. These acres are for meandering, not paying attention, for considering death on a distant, impersonal level. But stop. Amid the anonymous drought, one completely trimmed, decorated, beloved grave. It rises like a parade float from the earth, hung with red, pink, blue, and yellow silk flowers, a candle with much wax left to burn, a little flag or two.

FRANK LITTLE
1879 – 1917
SLAIN BY CAPITALIST INTERESTS
FOR ORGANIZING AND INSPIRING HIS FELLOW MEN

The only long-gone to be remembered, ninety-three years after death by abduction and hanging, on the edge of town, over a railroad trestle, his murderers never pursued. Among the eclipsing grasses and the foxes stealing memory, this man is still pushing rebel daisies.

Yes, No

The daycare’s philosophy is never to say no to a child. You can give options, but you can’t say no. As in, “Caligulina, would you like a graham cracker, or a ride on the swings, or a bunny to pat? Those are your choices. Besides, a butter knife is too dull for stabbing effectively, OK, honey?”

Perhaps it’s regressive, but sometimes, dear humans, the answer is no. No, you can’t run in the street. No, the earthquake is not just. No, you can’t be eighteen forever, even if you dress like you can. The ultimate no is the end of it all. The grown-up philosophy to the Daycare of Yes is the theology of Nothing Really Dies. It’s true, energy continues, transformed but eternal, a beautiful unfolding chain. But you and me? There won’t be any you and me anymore. Sorry, but no.

Still, there are options. Even in the wilds of no, there are trails through the sharp sedges and along the sheer cliffs. You can tiptoe and take notes, smell the breeze and look for other animals in your predicament. You can drink deeply from the spring and see what you become. You can run as hard as you can and see where you fall. Or you can stand in one place with your eyes shut and hum and pretend you are in Disneyland, or Schenectady, or the Daycare of Yes.

So what’ll it be?

Say yes to no.

Germophilia

“Hope you feel better soon,” I tell Imma, handing her a receipt as she leaves. The next lady in line, inches away from releasing her purse onto the counter, suddenly frees herself from gravity and sucks her possessions and facial features upward. She leans away, but hisses with the air of someone leaning in: “Does she have The Flu?

“Oh no, just a sore throat I think,” I reply, from within a mask of cheer.

“Oo. Ooo,” she coos, peering at the counter as she would a fresh grave. “I’m a huge germophobe. I think I don’t want to set anything down here.”

“Well, ah, I’m sure I could wipe it down for you, or would you like some sanitizer?” I reach for my spray bottle and cloth, but her face remains frozen in arches.

“Um, I think I’ll just go to another desk.”

Her caution has saved her from the plague, she thinks. But who do you think touched the door handle, I want to ask her, or the pens? The delivery confirmation slips? Who stacked the brochures there for you? Who stocked the walls with boxes and stamps? Who coughed in the entry? Who sighed? Her lack of thoroughness in paranoia is disappointing. Why settle for neurosis? If one really wants to be positive of one’s hygiene, commit to psychosis. Witness the colorful festival of bacteria dancing on all surfaces, not just toilets and doorknobs. Acknowledge the legion of supremely creative viruses, struggling to evolve as all life forms do, all of us parasites thriving upon other beings to survive. Tremble at the ugly, though incomplete, truth: it’s a race to the death, and enemies dwell within necessary oxygen, food and drink, elimination. There is no escape.

The woman has settled at Shanelle’s counter. Shanelle hands her a book of stamps, perfectly concealing her sinus headache and congested nasal passages, smiling and nodding. Meanwhile, I greet my next customer, who twiddles his sniffly nose, then reaches forward kindly to shake my hand.

We’re gonna die

We both know this. As for me, you tell me that maybe I’ll fall into an unmarked hot spring and boil. Maybe I’ll buy a car without side airbags and be crushed. Maybe Yellowstone will blow and I’ll have picked an apartment on the wrong side of the Mississippi. Maybe I’ll lick cookie dough with salmonella. Maybe I’ll puncture my throat gesturing with a sharpened candy cane. Maybe I’ll walk to the bus stop on a dark night instead of driving, and be dragged off to an unspeakable end. Yes, one of these fates which you illustrate for me out of love, out of care, or one of a thousand other fates all ending the same place, will be mine. And despite vitamins, safety features, savings, insurance, prudence, mistrust, fear, despite health food, moderation, and vaccinations–one day you’ll die too. Cautious one, beloved friend, choose your path through the wondrous wreckage of this world. Step with all the care you please. The way may be just as you like, or otherwise. And as we fall, one by one, or perhaps hand in hand, as we lose gravity, weight and our entire collection of atoms, may we be thankful for our days. May we die in pain but without bitterness. May we think not “If only I hadn’t–” but “Oh! this was worth it!”

Ayiti

I miss my arm, my right arm. I cannot see it. Sometimes this is because my eyes are closed. Sometimes this is because there is no light. But even when my eyes are open and the light shines in, I do not know if it is there. Anyhow, my arm is of no importance now, though I have much time to think about it. I am not sure why time goes so slowly or what I am supposed to learn here lying under the weight of my house, waiting. Who knew such a small house could be so heavy? Perhaps it is the five hundred years of history pressing down as well. I try not to think or ask anything; these hurt. Instead I imagine I am eating fruit that falls from the sky without weight. The juice drips down my chin. I’ll swallow this fruit until I drown in purple juice, not thinking, not asking.

I miss my other half. The boy who was stomping one leg, then the other, pretending to be a giant, though he only ever rose to my hip. He is nearby but he makes no sound. He did sing, all night, but then light came back through the gaps and told us that the night was over, and I hear his song no more. So. We both make no noise now. Perhaps his feet awoke the giant quake. Perhaps his song was too much joy for this land. Perhaps he will be a bird next time. A bird who drops fruit to the thirsty. Or perhaps he will be a left side, and I will be a right. We will join at the heart.