Sunday, June 13

My Place


            I like rain. There is sublime joy from walking in it. Unique is the passion play between warm, fragrant earth as it opens to receive the powerful spring rainstorm. To me it sounds like homemade Fajitas with peppers, onions and fresh spices sizzling in a cast iron frying pan. There is however, a particular kind rain at the Oregon coast, specifically in Newport Oregon, when wind and rain combine, such that, within a half a mile of the coast that it will rain in a curious sideways fashion. As if the world had been tilted ninety degrees. This horizontal rain has its own beauty, but after three straight days of it, I too was ready for some change. It was, after all, the second week of June. Nearly summer. I was jittery. Jumpy. Though not a coffee drinker, which I know in Oregon, is just plain wrong, but nevertheless, it was like I was on my fifth double mochaccino. Whatever that is. I needed to get out of the house and fast!
            Backing out of the driveway I see the sun is just starting to break through the clouds and in the distance I see a double rainbow. Commonplace here at the coast, but no less unique and beautiful. Left at the end of the block takes me to Walmart and right takes me across the Yaquina Bay bridge. Walmart is the safe bet. Indoors. I can get in a decent walk and grab some milk or orange juice, or something, anything, so they don’t look at me with that, “what you didn’t buy anything” grimace. I choose right, towards the bridge. At seven am, only the very top of the bridge is visible through the fog. Were it not that I knew this route by heart, the nearly hidden left turn, that even on the brightest of days is more mirage than entrance would be impossible to find. Friends have told me, “this must be some kind’a magical place all right. I had to turn around three times.” Anyone who has driven on Highway 101, knows that by mid May, that the parade of RV’s, makes turning around on Highway 101, an all day affair.
            Turning down the gravel road, I laugh at the very small sign that reads, “Nature Area.” I giggle again. I am so close to the Pacific Ocean I could spit in it, but the city of Newport wants me to know I am near a nature area. If they only knew. For this so called nature area is indeed magical. It is one of those few places that if you’er not meant to find it, you just won’t. I know Newport natives that have never heard of it, or have looked for it and never found it. I get reports back like, “nothin’ down that road” or “found the gravel pit” and “ya sure that’s the right road?” Oh it’s the right road, and for me at least, it is exactly what I am looking for. I park my car near the small, pressure treated bench, where I put on my serious old school style heavy hiking boots. Two layers of socks, my arcane bit of lacing and tying, and I am ready. I grab my two most stout walking sticks and my knapsack from the trunk and head down the trail.
            The pea gravel sounds like frozen snow as my boots crunch loudly. Knock, knock! Anybody home, they announce. The improved part of the trail goes on for about a half mile ending at a utilitarian, redwood colored bridge made of pressure treated lumber, held together with stainless steel screws and nails. To the left of me, is a solid row of tree sized rhododendrons.  Tightly packed together, with their leaves, blooms and branches all interwoven, like one of those English formal gardens that you see on PBS. It’s a nice walk, but, my path today does not lie down manicure lane. The wisdom I seek is to found at the end of much different trail.
            About three hundred yards down the gravel trail I turn right in between two medium size aspen trees. The trail winds around a bit and the Aspens and “Rhodies” are replaced with larger and larger pine and cedar trees. Some would call this old growth, but the proper term is mid-growth. Most of the trees here are replants from the early nineteen hundreds. There are a few old ones here, but most if not essentially all of the great ones were felled in the logging boom of the late eighteen hundreds. It is dense in here. Each step I take it grows darker as the canopy blocks out the sunlight and the trail is slick with fresh mud. My heavy soled boots swish and slide, and then slurp as the thick mud only reluctantly lets go. There is wildness here. An unkempt yet uniquely organized amalgamation of green and growing things. Grove-like patches of Chanterelles, Hen-of-the-Woods other fungi become plentiful. Some are quite tasty, but most will kill you before you can say pass the salt please. I arrive at the place I call Sentinel’s Gate. Following my usual ritual, I place both my palms on the heart of the sentinel. His exposed heart beats still, but his mortal wound from the logger’s saw is still raw and rough. My fingers search out the undulating pattern of the many rings and they feel the fear of the painful, jagged horizontal saw cuts that murdered him, from who knows how long ago. 369 rings, last time I counted in 1998. The colony at Plymouth Rock was less than ten years old then. Even trees that most would call old and dead will speak to you, if you are patient, open hearted and willing to listen. A word of caution though, you may not always like what you hear.
            Past sentinel’s gate the trail winds down into the valley. Today the path is treacherous. Mud, fallen branches, and newly exposed roots make me glad I brought both walking sticks. It is midnight dark now. Only small shafts of sunlight hit the ground as they illuminate the maze of glittery silver trails left by hundreds of slugs. Mastodon sized, a few Banana slugs slink in front of me. I am forced to choose each step very carefully. In places the moss and lichens are thick, lush and brightly colored. deep iridescent greens, electric yellows remind me of 1960’s deep pile, shag carpeting. Reaching the valley floor, I turn south as the trail climbs equally steep up to the top of the hill. You cant’s quite see the ocean from here, but the thick salt air tells you it is very close. I take time to rearrange a few rocks and branches to make a place to sit less painful.
            After removing my boots I give my toes a chance to scout out a spot to begin my meditation. Quickly stripping my remaining clothes, I sit cross legged, naked, as I fidget a bit. Giving warm bare skin, a chance of melding with, colder than I would like, very wet ground. Focusing on my breath, thirty years of daily practice, is new again in this moment. Mist rises from the valley beneath me and the pungent smell of peat mixed with the salt air, can mean only one thing. The earth is opening herself up, yet again to to receive the coming rain. For a moment or two the valley is eerily quiet. There is a depth, a palatable prayer-like quality to the silence. Suddenly, sheets of rain echo and boom as it races towards me across the valley floor. I am wet. Truth and wisdom of this day, rise from within me and through the vehicle of the rain, penetrate me. The rainstorm rages and consumes me. The line, a manufactured delusion really,  between nature and my individual self blurs and vanishes. I am the rain, and the rain is me. 

Saturday, June 12

For someone special

The song of your voice
echos in my heart,
each time I say your name.

I see two elder tress.
Over time we have grown close together,
each in our own different part of the Great forest.

The leaves and the tiniest of
our branches have discovered each other.

It will take time for our branches
to fully intertwine.

I want to savor and enjoy each moment of that with,


Friday, June 11

Response to the book Night

When I first saw it, I knew what it was, but my mind had already suspended my belief that it was possible. So it is, I believe, with many things in our lives. We see something, but we do not see it. We see the object, but we fail to, or choose to, not comprehend all of what is presented to us. When I was ten, for example, if you had asked me what an elephant was I could have told you. I loved elephants when I was younger, and to this day I feel they are amazing creatures. Back then I would have even shown you pictures I had drawn of elephants. But nothing prepares one for the first experience of seeing an elephant. The grace combined with immense size. Subtle, delicate seeming footfalls, and a massive trunk that can, with great skill and tenderness snatch a peanut from a child's hand. So it was to be on this day. I would see it, know what it is, but it would take hours, for the meaning of it, to sink into my soul.
            It was Mother's day 1978. I had been at this intersection of South Home and Madison  Avenue since three in the morning. The art of selling roses on Mother's day in this Chicago suburb was a very serious business. In about 45 minutes, other flower dealers would show up and demand that I leave their corner. Some florists even hired thugs, who would wave guns in my face, in order to persuade me to walk away. I would not. This is my corner, and I had the permit from the City of Chicago to prove it. Unless I left voluntarily, this corner was mine. On almost any corner in Chicago on any Mother's day, even the most inept would easily net over $1000 today. My corner, for some reason was different.  On a bad Mother's day, this was easily a $5000 corner, and hence the reason for all that added interest in me, not being there.
            Here, at the intersection of Home and Madison, at an unassuming traffic light, across from the Sears store, was the intersection of three great and historical neighborhoods. To my east was Cicero. A sometimes quiet, but still rambunctious area that never quite lived down its notorious Mob influenced past from the 1930s and 1940s.  Still, on almost any Sunday afternoon, in this Italian, very Catholic, American enclave, the air would be filled with the smells of long simmered Ragus, Bolengenaises and freshly baked garlic bread. From open kitchen windows, decades old recipes broadcast each Grandmothers love her for family. By ten in the morning, a dozen or more immigrant Grandmothers had, in perfect broken English insisted that it was their house I was having diner in that day. It made for a really long days, but I would never have Italian food this good, this lovingly prepared ever again in my life.
            North and west of me was the ever so proper neighborhood of Oak Park. This bastion of liberal Protestant bankers and lawyers was home to several homes designed by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. I was pretty naive back then, but I never once saw any cars, befitting the required luxury of Oak Park, in the Sears parking lot.
            South and west of me lie the pre-imminent Orthodox Jewish community of Forest Park. At this simple traffic light, three of Chicago's great communities came together, at least on the map. I had walked the streets of these neighborhoods many times. In Cicero, and Forest Park I would be welcomed as if family. Although my first experience in Forest Park was on a Saturday, the Sabbath, and due to my ignorance I thought it to be as snooty as that of Oak Park. I came to love this older Jewish neighborhood. In my experience Italian Americans and Jewish Americans had much in common, in a word, community.
            By seven am, in my little corner of Mother's day in Chicago, it was already hot. The air was still and thick. Laden with moisture from nearby Lake Michigan. Listening to radios, through the open car windows, the weather report was not good. It would be at least 100 degrees, higher in the suburbs. By noon the asphalt was softening, and my black and white Converse were beginning to make the sticky floor sound that you hear in movie theaters from too much spilled soda and candy. I saw the first one, as the man in the Buick Regal handed me a fifty for two dozen roses. It stared at me, yelled my name, I knew what it was, but my brain was not willing to surrender. I saw another one, and another. I had to stop. Catch my breath. My mind now reeling, wanting desperately to explode, and forever not have to retain what I now knew. Two more passed by me in the hot steamy sunshine. Then three. Finally, forcing my self to look, really look.
            They were all the same. Faded, by thirty plus years as living testament to an unbearable tragedy. These faded, blue-black tattoos, spoke louder now to me than any voice. Look, they cried. Do not turn away. See. Understand. I did not want to. The one inch tall square, block letters, reminiscent of third grade letter practice, were numbers. Seemingly random, but the meaning was clear. Prominently displayed on the left arms of both men and women, uncovered by rolled up sleeves, in response to the days roaring heat. These people, some of whose faces I recognized, were survivors. Holocaust survivors. Living testament to how horribly low we as human beings can become, when we choose to turn on our brothers and sisters. The heat on this day was oppressive.
            By three pm, I had made $7000, and still had a good three or four hours left to sell. But I could go no further. I walked across the street to the Sears. Leaning against the decades old red-brown bricks, and there in the shade of the painted steel over-hang, I collapsed. Overcome with emotion. I sat there not moving for over four hours, until my friends picked me up.
            Elie Wiesel's book brought back this moment in my life. I am glad for it. It has renewed the fires of compassion in me, in so many wonderful ways. I found it strange reading his book. On the one hand reading a book in which you know how it ends is one thing. The tragic necessity of how and where this book heads was with me from the very first word. In reading Night, I was brought back to my walks through Forest Park in Chicago. I relived my experiences in this community of kind and loving people. I was a total stranger, but in this upper middle class, orthodox community I was welcomed. First as stranger, but with not the usual coldness a stranger expects. My interest in learning the Torah and Talmud was at first laughed at. But despite many a joke, told with a kind of love, I still do not understand, I was quickly befriended and eventually became like family.
            Wiesel's book, recounts this feeling of community and of daily life, in this vibrant city of his story. Yet, we watch as life unravels for Elie and his family. This story touched me, not because of my first hand experience with survivors but because of his love.  We watch as an entire town, sees, but cannot not see. Despite numerous warnings, life continues, in much the same way, even in the harsh and quickly transformed ghetto. Still they do not see, until it is too late. It was hard for me to believe what I was seeing on that Sunday afternoon. Harder still, I feel for Elie and his family to believe, that such cruelty awaited them. Sometimes we must believe, before we can see.