URGENT: PLEASE CALL ASAP

While attending last year’s writing workshop sponsored by The Sun magazine I made a commitment to myself: from that day on, I would submit a piece of writing each month, to a section entitled “Readers Write”, where the magazine’s loyal followers or someone like me who’s recently new to the venue, share a bit of their own writing. When I saw the prompt for this next month, my heart sank: The Internet.

With any small amount of pondering over this one word, this mostly incomprehensible concept, with all its power to connect, to announce, to shame or defame, to make trash into glory, to tell stories of intimacy or revolution, for me when I let myself wander in the word, I still come up with death: the death of my brother and his younger daughter. The almighty Internet was the obedient messenger that carried a small electronic envelope holding a brief collection of letters, words and punctuation, and when the stark symbols were slowly strung together and my brain would enable the words to take on meaning, it would lead me to learn of their deaths.

I did not receive a phone call, which is probably still a more common, albeit equally excruciating way, to learn of a tragedy. The actual day of their death came and went like always, for I knew nothing. Yet. The following day, Saturday, was lovely at its onset: a glorious summer day with sunshine – not something to be assumed in the Pacific Northwest. My Saturdays almost always began with a very local yoga class taught by our gifted and sometimes hilariously funny yoga teacher, a visit to probably more than one farmer’s market, because that is my most favorite social activity, and then finally I ended up at work. I know that sounds like a strange way to spend a lovely, sunny Saturday but I had my reasons. At the time I did not own a computer. Sometimes on the weekend I would go into the funky, round yurt that housed the herbal medicine business where I worked, pull up a chair in the office – a space that has no exterior windows so it is a bit like a cave, and find a space in my heart and soul to write. Newly processed medicinal herbs transitioning from fresh plants to herbal medicine infuse the air with a layered aroma that speaks of medicine, yes, but also fresh cut oats, and mints and best of all, mountains of handpicked rose petals – their fragrances all woven into the countertops and walls; into the air itself. For me it was a comfort smell, a calming smell and I could settle in and write.

There I was in my Saturday reverie. I sat down, signed on and began to write. La-la-la, still in my reverie. As sunshine streamed into the main space of the large, circular, semi-permanent structure, I could hear a gentle breeze combing through the tall cedars. Now and then the eerie cries of a red tailed hawk would be directly followed by krak-krakk-krakkkk! screaming out of the ravens as they chased the intruding hawk out of their airspace. After a while, I decided to check my email.

Here is what I saw in my inbox:

URGENT: PLEASE CALL ASAP

The email was from the older of my two nieces. Something was terribly wrong. I could not see myself, but I knew the color had drained out of my face. My entire body was quaking at an almost imperceptible, but very high frequency; to an observer I probably would have appeared calm. I was anything but that.

I stared at the subject line of the email. I wanted to know, didn’t want to know, wanted to know, didn’t want to know – couldn’t’ find the courage to open the email. Something made me press the key that opened me to a world I never thought I would enter.

“There has been a very tragic accident and I need you to call our house.” My eyes found these words and again: The World stopped. The email was signed by my sister-in-law and my older niece. Only the two of them. There were two other members of their family, of my family, but their names were not on the email. MY BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER DAUGHTER. Why were their names so achingly absent?

What happened? WHAT HAPPENED? I called their number and the trembling increased. A young man’s voice answered the phone with the kind of tone that happens when you’re barely breathing – when it feels like letting any but the smallest amount of breath escape would cause a total and utter collapse. And it would.

I did not yet know what had happened but with this short message that the mighty Internet had carried from Maryland to Washington State, my life was about to both implode and explode, with the utterance of a few brief sentences that were somberly forced out of the mouth of my older niece’s sweetheart.

But why didn’t they call me? Why would an email be the way to communicate such a dire emergency? As I listened to his unimaginable words, these questions were overshadowed by the shattering of the very ground that my life was rooted in, and remained unanswered for days, in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

There was an accident, a car accident. Hearing this, I knew we were approaching a subject I did not want to hear about and most of me shouted to run, sprint, as far away from these words as I possibly could. I did not move, did not utter a sound. They were passing a semi-truck and something went terribly wrong. They didn’t know too many details yet. They were both killed instantly. Don’t you wonder how anyone knows this last detail? It’s what we all want to believe because the alternative to this is too much to bear.

Our conversation was brief. What could either of us say after those few sentences? This very dear, twenty-something young man had become the Gatekeeper for my family. He took all the calls, and continued to speak in the shallow-toned voice of someone who is attempting and mostly able to just barely hold tragedy at bay. Bless him. What a weight he carried and in some ways, continues to carry to this day.

What I learned in the weeks that I spent back east with my family, all of us walking in a place that is between life and death, is about the things that we never think about. I am not speaking here of the big things, that one of your siblings or your father or your beloved is going to disappear in one brief moment of everything going wrong, or insanely that two will die together, but the little things. Like for example, that my brother who was so enamored with the power of the Internet, spelled Google, and of computers, spelled Macintosh, lived in a universe where he had all of my sister’s and my contact information stored on his laptop, and only on his laptop, nowhere else: not in some raggedy-edged address book or on an outdated address list, or as a collection of words and numbers scribbled in his classically illegible left-handed scrawl, on a piece of paper that miraculously remained in one corner of his desk blotter that he always meant to put in a more permanent location. “N o      P r o b l e m       ,” is what my brother would always say in a characteristically slow, sing-song kind of way about all manner of questions or concerns, but specifically here aimed at his particular method of perceiving the mundane world, categorizing that world, explaining it, and storing the trivial bits of information that it is comprised of in only one, insanely fragile place. This does not seem like anything to be concerned about, UNLESS you are trying to reach the sisters of this brilliant, charismatic and larger than life genius of a man, and unless you need to tell them that he and his younger daughter have just been killed in a car accident. Then it is a problem, and a big one, if that computer is inside the car that has just been all but run over by a semi-truck.

Now here’s the rub: eventually “they” were able to track down my sister’s phone number using all the usual methods available for sleuthing down we, unsuspecting subjects of the kingdom of zeroes and ones, whose entire personal stories can be so readily available on the Internet these days. But not me: “they” were able to locate the small town (pop. 3500) that I lived in AND my post office box number in that small town post office, BUT THEY COULD NOT FIND MY PHONE NUMBER. Isn’t that remarkable? Unthinkable? Being that both my brother and sister-in-law lived and worked just outside of Washington DC, they knew all sorts of people that either were directly connected to the far-reaching tentacles of our behemoth government, or knew people who knew people who were: people whose job it was to FIND people.

And they could not find my phone number. This I did not learn until the day of the “viewing” at the funeral home. After we’d been receiving hundreds and hundreds of heartbroken visitors all afternoon, held their hands or their entire broken selves as they wept and wailed, when the crowd had thinned out and there were, more or less, only family and very close friends remaining, one gentleman gingerly approached me inquiring if I was indeed the elder of my brother’s two sisters. Nodding yes, he looked at me with his head slightly tilted and then, shaking his head said simply, “How’d ya do it?” “Do what?” He was the person who tried to track me down. To me it seemed simple…obvious: I’d had an unpublished/unlisted phone number for a very long time, but again he shook his head. All these years I thought that made me invisible. Nope. If certain kinds of people with certain kinds of access want to find some regular, slightly cynical, maybe a bit paranoid person like me, those flimsy phone company protections don’t stand a chance, they’re almost, but not quite…worthless: except for this one time, for some completely inconceivable reason. They could not, with all their new fangled, fancy, high-tech, spy vs. spy, code-breaking software, find a “normal” person like me, even in the face of a family tragedy.

By this time we were both shaking our heads and I felt, in some tiny, aching way, triumphant: over the Internet, over the insane and enormous lack of privacy that we 21st century global citizens are increasingly exposed to. This triumph was a kind of miniscule but not completely unimportant little gift that this man placed in my outstretched and trembling hands, the same hands that had been clasped and held and tenderly patted for all those long hours as the newly informed mourners came to share their shock and grief over this tragedy that we had been carrying now for seven long and nightmarish days. Just a little gift, no bigger than a robin’s egg, he placed in my hands and every now and then I savor it because some days it feels like that’s all I have.

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To Dwell in the Kingdom of the Pomegranate

I grew up in the 1950’s… “mid-century” I believe is what that era is now called. I, like so many of our generation, was fed on a sad, sad, diet of lonely, canned vegetables. Not everyone was fed this tasteless, lifeless fare, but many of us were. This means carrots and beets that plopped out of the can as small, identical cubes, peas that were slightly grey in their greenness, green beans cut to exactly the same length, sometimes corn which was the least worst, and then the grand finale, “vegetable medley” which was some of each of these worn out vegetables. I think that once and a while my mother got adventurous…maybe lima beans, which caused my mind to shout out to me: “Danger, what ARE those?” or even more frightening: boiled, frozen spinach. We always had one of two versions of potatoes, either mashed or baked, which as I grew older my father forbid me to eat, saying they were fattening. As I have recounted these dining choices to friends my age, I have learned that this was a common theme in many parts of the country during the fifties.

Now that you know my background, you will not wonder, why, at age nineteen I was shocked and slightly uncertain when my childhood friend who had grown up during the same years just down the street, served me FRESH ARTICHOKES one evening in the apartment we shared in Corvallis, Oregon. I had never seen such an exotic vegetable, nor had I ever heard of it until that moment. She served them with mayonnaise AND melted garlic butter and OH THEY WERE SO DELICIOUS. What was going on? I was eating vegetables and they were good. AND they were FRESH. ?

It took some years for me to really appreciate the strange irony that existed in southern California in so many homes during the 1950’s. Here we were, living not far from an incredibly rich and diverse agricultural tradition, but the “modern era” had fallen upon us, and industrial agriculture was freeing women from the drudgeries of cooking, which meant out with fresh vegetables, and in with canned.

I tell you all of this so that you will understand why it is that I have only just discovered pomegranates; THIS WINTER. I can tell you how many I have ever eaten. That number is FOUR. With my first encounter in December, while out of town, I fell in love. I found some at our local grocery and plunged into their world.

I am not the first to be utterly captivated by the incredibly rich and sensual experience of breaking open a pomegranate and slowly making my way through the translucent, ruby-red seeds that are as rich as any jewels I have ever laid eyes on, or dreamed of. Each time I open one of the russet-red, roundish fruits, I fall in. Deep. There is a part of my personality that revels in the small, tiny and glorious details of such things. My dear friend and Astrologer Extraordinaire, Johanna Mitchell, helps me to understand this part of myself. I recall her saying that it is no coincidence that I create intricate, finely detailed artwork: think stained glass and beadwork, or now, handspun yarn using a drop spindle, as opposed to wild and crazy splatter painted Jackson Pollack compositions, and why I tumble head first into all sorts of intricate patterns, be it watching the painstaking motions of ants moving tiny specks of sand from one place to another in their enormous ant castles or the breathtaking formation of a flock of geese flying across a dusky sky.

Or the structure of fruits and vegetables: I was a natural for falling into the heart of the pomegranate.

For several years now, I have had the honor and great, good fortune of gathering with dear friends for their Christmas dinner. Not only do I love these folks, but also as luck would have it, they, and all their guests are excellent and passionate cooks. This year the meal included chicken stuffed with a mountain of pomegranate seeds and loads of chopped, fresh mint, that were then basted with concentrated pomegranate juice (pomegranate molasses). Yes, you are right. This was a gorgeous and mouth-wateringly sublime eating experience. As soon as I heard this part of the menu described, I volunteered to take apart the pomegranates; all three of them. If you know these fruits as I do, you know that would be no small task. My hosts were thrilled that I volunteered for the job, which at that particular moment, spelled out sheer tedium for them. Not so for me: I was in pomegranate heaven. Yes, it took me a while. I am not known for my speed, but rather for my way of being slow and deliberate: definitely the tortoise rather than the hare – but you know how that story ends. 

I began my task immediately. I wanted to make sure that I would have enough time to dwell in the rich kingdom of pomegranates without making my friends nuts. From time to time one or the other of them would stop and offer deep thanks that I was the one carefully taking apart the fruits, seed by glistening seed. My pace did drive some a bit crazy…not because we were short on time…but because “there must be a quicker way”. Two methods were suggested and demonstrated, and interestingly none were any quicker; although at first glance it seemed that either method would certainly be faster than me just standing there gazing at each seed.

Tonight I again returned to that kingdom, to dwell with the jewels of the pomegranate. It is January now and their season is about over. I spoke with the Produce Manager at our local grocery and he showed me how to find the best fruits in the large pile with a sign that read: 5/$5.

While listening to a story on the radio this evening, I indulged myself by painstakingly taking apart this mysterious fruit. I am as captivated by the texture and patterns of the thin, cream-colored connective flesh once I separate out the seeds, as I am by the exquisite garnet-like mass of this interior world that is revealed with the careful prying open of the hull.

As with so many of my small, but large, adventures, one of my friends will nod toward me with a loving smile and say, “It doesn’t take much…” What a life I live.

On This New Year’s Morning

On this New Year’s morning I traveled to the veldt…the edge between the domesticated and the wild. It is a place of great wonder and transition; for some of us it’s hard to notice. For me, here in this lovely spot where I live, that means I walked down to the water…to the Puget Sound. I have not begun my day by wandering down to greet and thank the one who arcs across the sky each and every day, for many months. When I murmured the question “Why?” in my heart, the answer revealed itself in the way of a slow and graceful, shy reply.

Recently I returned from a trip back east, visiting my family: my sister-in-law and older niece. That journey is still a hard one; to the home that used to be so full of exuberant life spilling out of my brother and younger niece who’ve been gone for over two years now. That very same home is still often filled with palpable grief, and jagged anger. Standing on the outside of the anger, as I do when I travel there, it has been puzzling, heartbreaking, hard to witness, but this morning when I arrived at the gently lapping in-breath and out-breath of the great swollen Puget Sound, I began to understand that it was the same in my own home. It takes on a different form from theirs, so it is only now that I begin to name it.

There in the immense stillness of the morning, the answer slowly came. This stillness yet more captivating as signs of the recent storms were apparent everywhere: large and small sticks floating at the water’s edge, another slice of the cliff having slid, heading back to the sea, to the source. Seeing the waters so calm after a stormy high tide feels like walking into a room when you know that some great mischievous adventure has just occurred, know it because you heard it, but the moment you cross the threshold everyone in the room has a look on their face like, “What? Why are you looking at ME?” The only give-away is the fact that there is one vase still slightly trembling from all the commotion that you just heard but did not arrive in time to witness. That’s how it felt when I saw the water this morning, like the last bit of great swelling had calmed JUST before I turned the corner. And the great beauty of the waters turned to look at me, only slightly smiling as if to say, “What?”

Back to my question, “Why has it been so long since I have visited the ones that I love?” and finally the answer began to unravel. The searing pain that burned through me, the great loss, the great clutching of life that occurred in my family caused me to strike out at the ones closest to me. For me, that is the wild ones, this wild place. It is nature. That is whom I have the deepest, most intimate connection with. What I profoundly understood is that when there is a devastation, the blinding rage and heartbreak, the grief, that pours out uncontrollably, of course strikes the ones closest first. Only because they are the closest…they are right there.

I keep seeing the image of a lion striking out toward anything that comes near it when it has been injured – an image only, as I have never been near a lion in this state. I have been in very close proximity to domestic cats traumatized by house fire, and when I tried to catch one of them, it bit me HARD on my outstretched hand. In that moment, I knew that cat had nothing against me specifically; it was simply protecting itself in the only way it knew. The eruption of the volcano clears everything; all the beauty that lives just at its edge, not because it wants to destroy those sweet and tender plants, but simply because they reside…right…there…on the edge. And they get scorched, blasted, burned, incinerated. Some go quickly, others have a slower death. But what I also know is that it, life, almost, almost always, does come back to those places. It is not destroyed for good. Because we are such a motley crew…we humans, there are many, many different faces and phases of grief. Sometimes people hold each other up together as they grieve, sometimes the weight is so enormous, there is initially, just collapse. If there is no one to catch us, all in the path will be taken. Down.

My anger, or maybe ferocious grief, did not take the form of striking out at nature and thereby destroying it, but more subtly by my withholding it from myself, and I suppose, disallowing nature to have visits from me. I have also often, literally been feeding myself in a way that does not feed me, but instead does everything but feed. I have, in some way, been withholding life from myself. This is a way to numb the pain…or to use another phrase: a way to deaden the pain. Interesting, hunh? That seems, in a way to be what I’ve been doing…deadening my life. Is this an unconscious urge to walk a parallel path as my brother and niece who no longer live? When I write these words so clearly, I understand more of my wandering heartbrokenness these last years.

When I walked down to the water this morning, the view was exquisite. Mt. Rainier was partially cloaked in her luscious cloud cover; with one shoulder exposed to reveal the big snows she has received in the last few days. The Olympic Mountains were also almost completely “out” of their cloud cover…beautifully blanketed with fresh snow as well. Stellar jays and Kingfisher were ratch-ratch-ratcheting at each other, at me, at the day. At this moment, the one whose shining face I greeted at the water’s edge this morning, is shining brilliantly through the window I face as I write. A lovely advantage to neighboring these young woods in the wintertime is that most of the trees are deciduous and by now have dropped their leaves. When we have the great good fortune to see our bright shining orb in the winter, he beams right directly into my little cabin. Because I initially moved here in the summer, this delicious little secret was not revealed for many months and is such a gift when it happens. It is so bright right this minute that as I gaze out the window, the slender strands of random spider web lead threads are glistening here and there, as deep as I can see into the woods. This is magic. This connection is indeed part of my nourishment and noticing how deep my wonder is as I gaze gives me a sense of how devastating it is for me when I close my eyes, my heart to this that is right…next…to…me.