Yesterday, Earnest and I arrived at the SPCA veterinary clinic at 7 am but then discovered that our appointment was for 7:15. Rather than stand at the door, looking through plate glass windows at a darkened room, we set out to explore the deserted streets of the industrial neighborhood to the east of the clinic. We walked, passing blank walls of shuttered warehouses pushed up against weedy patches of bare earth. Occasionally, we found trees, full grown sycamores or plane trees, or an odd scraggly bush that might have once belonged to a hedge that failed to survive months without rain. It seemed a pale world, until we turned a corner and came upon three murals, two painted on canvas and one on plywood, installed on the blank face of a warehouse wall. The two canvas murals, painted elsewhere by children and then unevenly stretched and attached to the wall, made me smile. The third, skillfully and precisely painted, gave me pause.
It is uncommon to see large scale children's art on the street as open and as freely playful as these two imaginative murals, and it gave me real joy to see these paintings hung, albeit a bit haphazardly, on this otherwise dreary industrial wall. Both paintings are lively, illustrating active life in a brightly colored world, but neither includes humans. Theirs is an animal world. At first, I thought, of course that make's sense. We were, after all, around the corner from the SPCA, but none of the animals depicted in these paintings are animals ordinarily seen at the SPCA.
A lazy koala bear clings to a tree limb. A stylized Giraffe wearing headphones pilots a blue airplane, and the bluebird of happiness motors behind. A yellow chick holds a green guitar and another keeps time on drums. Above this fledgling rock and roll band, reptiles -- a spotted dragon, a bug-eyed frog -- maintain control of otherworldly spaceships, zooming through red skies past towering skyscrapers presumably inhabited by birds, snakes, or maybe blue teddy bears and green chameleons. I see no guns, no swords on this animal planet, just animals doing what they don't ordinarily do, except, of course, for the appropriately relaxed koala bear, easily drowsing in his tree.
It is more courageous to lay our weapons down than to pick them up and wish them long.
I am made as happy by these animals in flight as I am made uneasy by the more stylized mural to the right, with its disturbing message neatly scrolled across a bright blue background, decorated with blood red roses, a medieval sword and a skull, missing its bottom jaw. Dead men don't talk. Courage defined as A brave arm makes a short sword long.
I love the boldness of the tattoo imagery and color, the roses and the precisely drawn snake, but I distrust the linking of courage to weaponry. In this town, on these streets where violence is more common than not, we need a different definition of courage, one that lies outside the arena of battle, away from war and conflict. Swords are meant for killing, and there is too much killing on Oakland streets. Why not think about courage as knowing fear but acting peaceably, refusing the violence that normally accompanies fear? It takes great courage, for example, to stand for peace in a world dedicated to war, even more courage to seek peaceful solution when conflict is more easily and profitably marketed on TV, in video games, on the silver screen. The greatest bravery is not perhaps to pick up the sword and dive into battle with powerful enemies hoping to emerge 'victorious' but to set down the sword and to meet the aggression of the same powerful enemies armed only with human arms, open in ready embrace, offering love in place of violence. There is great courage in kindness . . . Sing, raise up the voice instead of the sword. Make art, pick up a paintbrush, lay lines down on canvas. Write, invent worlds never seen, record those that are here. The pen is mightier than the sword.
in an octopus' garden in the shade
As my back is still pinging enough to make me shy away from driving but as my little dog needs to walk twice a day, I decided by late afternoon to walk down past the Post Office to the grassy park at the end of Peralta Street. The park, with its meandering concrete path and its fledgling trees, is sandwiched between the steep freeway embankment, the Church of the Living God, and the last of the Post Office parking lot where great trailer trucks stuffed with mail arriving from airports and traveling to ships come and go. The green grass in the park is lush but perforated with ground squirrel holes; we saw no little critters. They were, I suppose, all underground, away from the sun, the humming freeway, and the rattle of BART. We were the only ones in the park, Earnest and I; he was glad to roam free on the grass for a bit, and I was glad not to have him yanking at my sore back. We both relaxed until the freeway noise resolved to a rhythmic melody punctuated by the click-clunk of train wheels readying for a stop. City Jazz. Good for a lazy afternoon.
Walking home, I noticed two women walking towards us but on opposite sides of the street. The first, a tall stately African American woman with blue-black skin, had cadmium-red hair, dyed and chopped. That hair was lacquered as shiny as helmet, cut in a clean line across her forehead with sharp triangles plastered close to her ears. The second woman, about a half block behind, was short and wide with plaster-white skin and a great cloud of hair colored the very same shade of red, flaming from her head. The first woman wore an acid green shirt and silver shoes; the second, a bright yellow dress with lace beneath. In the far background, waiting for the light to change while lounging against the wheat paste poster of the Dalai Lama was a slender woman covered neck to ankle in a most artificial shade of turquoise blue, looking as if she had just been cut from an acrylic sky. When the light did change, there was red above her head, too -- the same red as the women's hair but unattached to anything except the time it takes to cross the street.
I stopped and rubbed my eyes just to make sure I wasn't imagining this scene. The brilliant colors seemed too intentional to be casual, but I knew this was no stage set, just an 'average' moment of an 'average' day on an 'average' street. Nonetheless, I felt as if I had fallen pell-mell, not like Alice into a rabbit hole, but into an Edward Hopper night scene that had been washed bright with sun or onto some vast floating field cluttered with petals blown from poppies.
Then, later in the afternoon, long after we had returned home, there were sirens and firetrucks, racing down the street -- so many that I put down my book and went and looked. There, on the block where I had seen the women with the fire-red hair were the flashing red lights of emergency vehicles. I saw no smoke. For a moment, I wondered if the women with the fire-red hair I had seen earlier had indeed been real, or were they markers, pins on a map of dreamed disaster.
I thought I'd post a few more photos of street art in West Oakland -- these pieces fill several sides of a warehouse some blocks north of Bee Aware. I took these photos on that same grey day, not today, as I photographed Bee Aware. Today, after pulling a muscle in my back, I am lying flat, not walking, just waiting for my body to decide to knit itself back together. I have my computer next to me on the floor and am typing off to one side with my right hand, so if things get a little garbled, that's why. These things happen; I'm just glad when they happen, I'm on level ground and not up a ladder.
The first few images posted here were created some months ago by a collective of women artists up from LA. Sorry, I don't know their names so we will just have to let the images speak for themselves.
This skeletal gal with her blood-red lips and blood-red roses rises from the ground on the side of the building facing Mandela Pky. She watches the wall not the street, but if you're near by, you can't miss her.
From death comes life, from grey blooms red.
When you look closely at these photos, you can see the concrete blocks that create the warehouse wall. Knowing the size of a concrete block, you can imagine, then, the size of these paintings. I cannot reproduce the entire integrated mural here (there is not enough space), but I am hoping that by including various pieces of varying colors, style and techniques, you will be able to grasp the size and scope of this ambitious project.
The warehouse hosting the art occupies all of a rather large block, and this piece (pictured on the right), somewhat more 'traditional' than the living skeleton popping from the grave, runs for some twenty feet.
I hope you will note that the images of young women portrayed in the various sections of the mural are illustrative rather than realistic and have skin that ranges in color from a stark chalky white to fluorescent pink and every shade of tan wisping out to green. These are women of the dream.
I paused for quite some time before this piece. I was not as much intrigued by the cartoon-like figure in the foreground as I was entranced by colors of the imagination in the background. I appreciate that cloud behind. It lifts me away from city streets into a paradise of unfocused thought.
I liked the mystery of that, the invitation to move away from the real, away from the cartoon and toward all that cannot be seen. I appreciate the generosity of that invitation. Street artists are, of course, generous with their time, their vision, and their money. They are rarely paid for their work and, for the most part, pay for paint themselves. They freely give their visions to the community, and those visions have the power to transform a drab undistinguished wall to a startling beauty that can remind us all of the power of creativity and of the imagination, remind us that we need color in our world, thta it is not all stop and go, black and white, that there is a space between.In Michael Walsh's book 1996 Graffito, Oakland street artist Eskae suggests that "graffiti has a lot to do with language and people taking back the language." In this mural, I read the language of hope, of caring, of dreaming, especially in this outrageous portrait of beauty and audacity. This green-cheeked woman is heads above me, literally, a giantess looking down without any condemnation or regret. She offers strength. This is how we should all look at the street, invitingly, straight on with no fear and plenty of warmth.
Rather than scrubbing graffiti away, painting over hurried tags, we should perhaps be hiring talented young artists to paint the dreary chipping walls of the inner city, adding color and dream in areas that have been blighted by poverty and fear.
The imaginative visions of both portraits drawn and the tangled woven calligraphy of the stylized signatures on these walls remind all who pass that art is not all about commerce, that there are ways for artists to use time that create beauty and joy for those who live in worlds away from museums or galleries. Passers-by cannot help but muse about the generosity of those who created these murals. This once dreary corner has been transformed to a beautiful happy place.
In this panel (pictured on the left),two playful figures are floating on clouds, spinning records in the sky, raining music down on the bold bright colors of the cityscape. I'm listening, and I hope you are, too. I even felt like dancing.
Dance, America, dance in the streets.
If you are in Oakland, please consider visiting West Oakland, stroll through the gardens planted between the north-south lanes of Mandela Parkways and visit these murals, so that you too might appreciate this generous gift to Oakland from these talented LA artists.
Stars on the ground may be indeed Few and Far between, but they are there and we can see them sparkle if we only stop long enough to look, to really look. Maybe we can't understand every image or every moment tucked behind transformed letters, but we can feel the exuberance and perhaps, if we are lucky, some of that joy will stay with us as we turn away and walk again past empty lots strewn with trash or past abandoned buildings with broken windows.
We might know then that is not the V for Victory these two young woman flash, but the sign for PEACE. Those who cry for war are many; those who promote peace are Few and Far between.
Art in any community promotes peace, especially art that erupts in unexpected places, offering us images that make us think not only because of what they represent but also because of how they are situated.
What happens when a sharp-nailed werewolf dressed in purple silks balances the sign for the recycling firm East Bay Resources on the flat of her nose? We laugh and then we knock on the door with a smile on our face, ready to do what we can do to recycle and renew.
As we move onto the far north walls of this building, we leave behind the work of the LA artists and come to walls currently being painted by Oakland artists, including the talented folks of the TDK crew. When asked what TDK 'means,' you might hear Those Damn Kids or Tax Dollars Kill or Too Damn Kool or Teach Dem Kultur or The Dream Krew. The Dream Krew -- that's what it's all about, dreaming, sharing the dream, encouraging others to dream.
The waking dream.
As Carl Jung suggested Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.
Trust the dream.
an as yet unfinished dream
Bees and arctic ice are our canaries in the coalmine.
I was on Mandela Parkway today, walking in the central divide, and this extraordinary mural caught my eye. I always notice bees, and these bees are exquisitely painted, alive and humming beside a beautiful enigmatic signature, crowded with human faces that come and go. Sometimes, I find eyes staring out at me, mouths open and close. These, I think, are the human bees that have swarmed from the hive behind, a back-lit pyramid towards which fly the winged bees, allied insects of the Melliferous or honey gathering division of the Aculeate (or sting-bearing) Hymenoptera. In the upper right and left hand corners of the painting, words are printed:
BEE AWARE CONNECTED
Save the honey bees WORLDS
I loved this bee-thronged lotus bloom, wished it had been a bee warm afternoon, but the day was grey and cool, a wan afternoon fading into evening, dying into night. Nonetheless, standing in front of the painting, I feel as if I am flying to the light. I only hope my wings don't melt.
I thought of a poem I wrote a while back.
Before the end, bees disappear
and mosquitoes and love bugs
but gray-haired couples push
twins in three-wheeled strollers
with room to jog behind.
There are many sunny days.
No rain. But there is wind.
Then towns disappear and cows
lodge in trees stripped of leaves.
Small children dance nightly
in circles, palms locked on
naked thighs, mouse ears
pressed to crescent moons.
Birds sing past midnight.
At one a.m. meadowlarks, at three
anemic crows, by five sparrows.
Across the sea, a soldier fires his last bullet
into a bleached skull too large
to be human. The sound is immense,
greater than stars or sea waves.
Some years ago, I was driving across the country and decided to stop at Carlsbad Caverns. As I had only been to one other cave – Onandaga Cave in Missouri – I had some idea what a spectacular cave might be like, but I was ill-prepared for the magnificence and holiness I discovered within the earth at Carlsbad, 750 ft. below cactus studded ground. Rather than take the elevator, I decided to walk into the caverns along the mile-long concrete pathway that wound slowly downward to the main cavern, and I was glad for that decision. As if acting as guards, cave swallows flew anxiously about the entrance, looking much like disoriented bees removed from their hive. Their backs flashed orange as they swooped up, then down, drawing invisible nets across the mouth of the cave. I acknowledged their greeting and ignored their warnings as I walked into the dim interior of the cave, feeling as if I were entering an abandoned hive, occupied by honeyed ghosts.
The cavern was not brightly lit, but there was enough light to allow me to see both the delicate and the stalwart formations. In deep recesses, a lacework honeycomb of soda straws and tiny columns created miniature fairy kingdoms and in the great vast hall of the main cavern, huge stalagmites glowing honey gold rose majestically toward the ceiling hundreds of feet above. Along the walls cascades of “draperies,” rock folded gently as if it were fabric, and waterfalls of shiny frozen calcite acted as curtains, separating this magic world from the more mundane layers of sturdy mountain rock. I stood alone, hearing only the buzz of my own body, and felt again as if I had entered a hive, once pliable and free, now stolid and stone, yet the deeper I went into the cavern, the more protected I felt, wrapped in the embrace of a dimensional and palpable silence. I could feel the earth breathing, and every honeyed exhalation spread evenly on my skin, clearing pores and feeding bones; every inhalation pulled me to the heart of the hive. Several times, I was so overwhelmed that I could only sit and breathe.
When I finally came once again into the sun, late late in the afternoon, I was so disoriented I checked into the motel at the entrance to the park—reasonable rates—and return to the edge of the cave, my frozen hive, to wait for sunset when 300,000 bats would spiral out of the cave and fly off in all directions in search of insects. When these tiny Mexican free-tail bats, so small they curl easily into a film canister, exit the cave, they swarm and spiral like bees, wings whirring in unison, slowly gaining altitude until they finally rise above the lip of the cliff and head in various directions toward the near-by rivers. At first, like bees, they form their own river, but as these are bats, that river soon breaks into islands, and the smaller bands of bats fly off in separate directions—some going south, others west, and a few adventurers flying north. None fly east towards the dry desert. Like bees, they search fecundity.
Save the Honeybees
On a dusty street, an agave blooms
with tiny clustered flowers, twenty feet
above sidewalks of ash brushed sand
littered with crumpled petals brown rosy
marked by black. Bumbles come and go.
I’m glad to see those bees. I’ve worried lately
about the absence of wasps and houseflies.
A white-ribbed sky turns and twists, a map
of delta flats at low tide where seabirds catch
the wind. Their flight and earth spin provide us rest
blue shade at the edge of empty beaches
near jungle terraces marked by restless jazz.
I sort photos of circuses and clowns.
In exchange for food, I give up speech.
The earth is a beautiful cave, green shade at the edge of the universe.
Last evening after dark Earnest went onto the backyard to sniff around, and suddenly he was wildly barking – a sharp officious bark reserved for intruders. I went to see what was up, and saw him pounce on a critter hiding under the foxglove, shake it rapidly twice, and toss it high into the air – something I have seen him do with my shoes, only this was a live critter. Well, alive no longer. I turned on the backyard lights and went closer so I might see what he had captured such ferocity and speed. Curled on the grass, limp and quite dead, was a half-grown possum. I am not a fan of possums, but seeing this young creature dead on the grass wrenched my heart. Earnest was still barking wildly and poking the body with his nose. I did not want him to tear the body limb from limb, and not knowing just how far his instincts might push him, I feared he might. I went back into the house, got the leash, then pulled him gently from his prey and led him unwilling and still barking up the stairs into the house. Then, I wrapped the dead possum, lifted it from the grass, and carried it to a curbside trashcan awaiting an early morning pickup.
My next job was to clean the dirt and blood from Earnest’s face. He was still quite agitated, but settled down when I spoke quietly and firmly to him. He sat still, as he has been conditioned to do, and allowed me to clean him up, which I did with warm water, wet towels and then with pre-moistened paper wipes. As I gently scrubbed away the dirt and death from his face, I thought about the instinct that had prompted him to pounce. He has not been trained as a hunter. Not in this life. He came to live with me when he was still a puppy after spending the first months of his life living quietly in a SoCal apartment, much loved by the man who had had him since birth, so loved that when that man realized that the rigors of his job would keep him from giving this little dog the attention he felt the pup deserved, he looked for another home with someone who had time to share with his beloved dog. That someone was me. Earnest has always been a peaceful and affectionate dog, responsive and aware, ready and willing to learn all that is necessary to live in a human household. He has become a dear friend, and I have always appreciated and encouraged his peaceful nature, praising him when he greets others with friendliness, hugging him when he offers kind kisses to other dogs.
Then suddenly, with stunning swiftness, he kills another creature. As I picked up that limp body, noticing the pink padded possum toes, the closed eyes beside a razor sharp nose, the strange grey fur interrupted by coarser longer hairs, I thought about the power of instinct, what it is to have a directive to kill bred in the bone. Scottish terriers, a breed that has its origins in the 15th or 16th century, were bred to kill vermin on farms and to drag rabbits, foxes, otters, and badgers from their dens. They were bred to kill. Even today, as a breed, Scottish terriers are known to be extraordinarily territorial, feisty, and rugged, ready to race wildly over rugged terrain – a reputation shared even by those who spend their days frolicking about fenced backyards, avoiding flowerbeds. No one mentions ‘killer instinct’ when talking about pets. Looking down on the dead possum, I couldn’t help but think that such centuries-old breeding still influences modern dogs who have never seen a moor or been on a foxhunt, and that thought sobered me.
Of course, I don’t want my beloved dog killing small creatures. I did not let him worry the carcass. I removed the body as quickly as possible. But as I have had other dogs in my life who also exhibited as suddenly and as powerfully such instinctual behaviors, I am not one to deny the power of instinct. I once shared my house with an even-tempered and quite distinguished English bulldog, also adopted, born and raised in NYC. He was a tender soul, gentle with kids, kind to cats, but when confronted by a wayward bull who had broken through a fence, he did just what bulldogs had been bred to do. Barking wildly, he raced under this enormous animal, grabbed hold of the loose neck skin, and while expertly avoiding rampaging hoofs, this pussycat of a dog managed to direct the bull out of the yard and back onto the high desert. After my dog moved adroitly aside, the bull took off at a gallop -- with my sweet Teddybear in hot pursuit, nipping at its heels. Watching him ‘at work,’ one would think such expert maneuvering was trained behavior, but he had never seen any bovine creature except from the window of a car. I certainly never expected such skilled rodeo dancing from this sedentary dog whose major physical activity up to that point had been ball-chasing and then only for brief intervals. He preferred lying quietly, watching the sun move across the floor. Give him a rawhide bone to chew and he was a happy camper.
Such behaviors as herding bulls or ferreting out and killing small animals may have been originally learned centuries ago by ancestors, but when these contemporary city-bred dogs exhibit such behaviors, one thinks instinct. B.F Skinner believed that all behavior is learned behavior, but seeing such sudden eruption of instinctual behavior, one has to wonder. Both the dogs I describe are domestic dogs, raised as pets, but belong to breeds that had hunting and herding traits selected centuries ago. Familiar only with city streets, Teddy, the bulldog, was seven-years-old when he first encountered that bull in Colorado. Earnest, my young terrier, has not been raised or encouraged to go after small animals. Both can be described as house pets, comfortable lying for hours on their mats, accustomed to eating meals provided twice a day, yet both exhibited unexpected behaviors certainly not learned in their lifetimes. These very specific and distinctive behaviors seem instinctual, bred in the bone.
I wonder, if dogs are born with an instinctual knowledge of behaviors learned in another age, and if that instinctual knowledge is at times so powerful it overwhelms more contemporary conditioning, what does that mean? What about humans? What powerful yet unrecognized instincts overwhelm us? Is war, for example, conditioned or instinctual behavior? If we were to recognize it as instinct born in an era with rules and circumstances that no longer apply in the contemporary world, might we more easily eliminate it?
Humans are animals who learned centuries ago that their survival might depend on guarding territory and energy stores, but does such behavior fit in today’s world where cooperation is needed for the survival both of human culture and the planet? If instinctual behaviors of dogs can be diminished and discouraged – and they can be – so then can the instinctual behaviors of humans, but first we may have to first admit we have these behaviors, negative and positive, bred in the bone, that we are not blank slates at birth, that our past touches, trains, and tames our future.
* * * *
Let us think again of Titian,
explain the exact nature of this fixation.
Shepherds, naked in winter
drunk on curves.
Okay, it’s imprudent to wait for God
and diamonds never burn.
Discontent makes a shambles
She came for asylum, became
skeletal, blind at dawn,
pummeled by odor
---from: drawing breath
A few days ago this wheat paste portrait of the Dalai Lama appeared on a support pillar for the BART tracks at the base of Peralta Street. The portrait is exquisitely rendered in black and white, and brought forward to the street with bold strokes of thickly applied red and yellow acrylic paint, with the red dripping like blood to the side of the mysterious sign reading Qincheng Prison.
I have been puzzling about the relationship of the Dalai Lama to Qincheng Prison. I don't think he was ever imprisoned there, but, of course, hanging a picture such as this fine portrait might just land the art enthusiast in prison and it is entirely possible that the Eleventh Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
, born April 25, 1989, may already be in that notorious prison. Not for posting a portrait but for being acknowledged by the Dalai Lama. Gedhun Chekyi Nyima disappeared from public view in 1995 after the Dalai Lama confirmed that he was indeed the Panchen Lama, and where he is today remains a mystery. Just six years old when he was spirited away (together with his parents), he has completely disappeared from public view.
Chinese officials disparage the notion thta he has disappeared, describing him instead as an 'ordinary' Tibetan young man, happy, healthy and attending school but refuse to identify his location or to provide any proof of his current life. After the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the People's Republic of China declared Gyaincain Norbu
to be the Eleventh Panchen Lama, but many reject that notion, preferring to think of Gedhun Chekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama. If he were alive, which is not known, he might very well be imprisoned in Qincheng. Sadly, the isolation of that sometimes terrifying place may be what this now young man knows of the world. Qincheng Prison is a maximum security, soviet designed prison where many political prisoners live isolated from one another and the world.
The Tenth Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen
, was locked in Qincheng for 13 difficult dark years from 1964 to 1977, and it is certainly logical and possible that the disappeared Eleventh Panchen Lama may also be there. We simply don't know, but this simple portrait reminds us of that possibility and also of all those political prisoners who have spent time in the barren cells of Qincheng . . . and of those who are still there, divided from one another by thick walls and rank. Yes, it's true, those of higher rank are granted better food, improved living conditions, and longer times in the exercise yard. Not very Marxist.
I enjoy having the Dalai Lama gazing kindly on the street, looking past the Bike shop and over to the Revolution Cafe with its great Goose nesting on the roof . His presence reminds me to cherish our own freedoms -- no one will be locked in solitary confinement for pasting a portrait of the Dalai Lama on the wall for all to enjoy. We need his compassion and kindness in the neighborhood and we also need to be reminded that as tough as life might seem here, conditions are far worse elsewhere for others who continue to struggle for the right to live simply and kindly within centuries old traditions, to live for peace, to believe that human community matters more than commerce and increased consumption of manufactured goods. What he tells us is simple. We can listen, we can hear, we can do. He reminds us that we can live without religion . . . but we cannot survive without human affection.
This, he says, is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple. Your philosophy is simple kindness.
It happened again. Same words, different voice.
Yesterday, it was hot in the East Bay, another Spare-the-Air day, drive only if necessary, no fires, no barbeque, think about the earth, for goodness sake, think about it . . . and so I walked in the park near the lake because of its proximity and because of the cool that rises from the waters. I walked across the green grass and through the children's playground. I love to hear them laugh; that sound triggers pleasant memories of my own children clambering happily over the geodesic dome in Washington Square Park before it was identified as too risky for child's play and removed. It was tall, true . . . much higher than any contemporary play structures, fifteen sixteen feet (maybe more) at its peak, but that height was exactly what made it so exhilarating. Even small kids could could manage to climb upwards from bar to bar and reach the top. How happy they were to climb higher than high where they could sit with only air beneath and survey the parklands below . . . as happy as I had been as a child atop tall trees swaying in a wind combing field grasses until they shifted gold against the sun. Kids need the sky.
These children in yesterday's park had no such soaring structure to climb, but nonetheless they were making their own fun, challenging boundaries, finding ways to color outside the lines. They raced about on the flat ground chasing the geese, always grazing nearby, but the fun of watching those birds pop from the ground with wings outspread soon fizzled out. One boy, maybe five-years-old, tired of the geese waddle, found a new game, a new border to be crossed. He began kicking at the garbage can placed near the playground as a receptacle for candy wrappers, old newspapers, and water bottles. As the can was really a tall open-mouthed quite biodegradable cardboard box and quite light-weight, he soon discovered that even though that box was almost as tall as he was, he could easily move it about. He began to kick at it with a ferocity that made it slide speedily across the grass. It seemed as if he were determined to tip it over. I waited for a parent to say something, but all was silence. Finally, one heavy kick did indeed tip the garbage 'can' on its side and the contents spilled onto the grass and began blowing about. Then, a new game; they all began kicking the trash.
I waited -- again -- expecting parental intervention, but when nothing happened twice (very Beckettian), I stopped. I looked at the boy, and said not unkindly Now that you have emptied the trashcan, please pick up the trash. Then, it happened. The same words -- again -- different (and younger) voice.
He stopped kicking, looked solemnly at me, tipped his head to one side, and said I don't touch trash. The same words but spoken by a much younger child. Something inside me slumped.
I don't touch trash.
But trash touches us all. The boy's father finally appeared,began to pick up the blowing trash, told his son that throwing trash about was not the thing to do, but I don't think he meant it. His voice drowned in the word. It was all too much. Spare the Air, spare the lake, spare the ground. Spare us all.
This morning, I slipped on my vinyl gloves and went out on the street to greet the day by picking up trash, bagging it, and slipping the filled bags into concrete garbage cans provided by the city, cans that are unspillable but too easily filled. In less than thirty minutes, I filled two bags with trash -- empty potato chip bags, candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, newspaper bits, coffee cups, jello cups, and plastic spoons -- and the crossing guard spoke to me for the first time in nearly eight weeks. Thank you, he said. It's a small thing, I said. Then, he told me a story about sweeping the front walk of his childhood home, sweeping with such ferocity that anyone passing by would have thought a dust devil had zipped down from the heavens above but it was only him and his broom. One day, he said, when he was sweeping, he saw an acorn roll tipsy turvy on the walk. He picked it out of the dust pile and planted it at the back of the house. Ten years later that acorn was a tree.
I like small things. I adore kids, love seeds, and stories that spiral skyward like bees that transform to hawks.
a peaceful way
I find I am more relaxed, more comfortable walking along streets where plantings have converted sidewalks from walkways to pathways. I am happiest when trees overhang and shrubs, especially those that flower, push their way over concrete, translating straight lines to unpredictable jigs and jags and flat bare ground to mounded hills of green where chipmunks hide and squirrels bury nuts.
I spent much of my childhood living in a house built long ago on the side of High Tor, a mountain in southern New York state that had its moment of fame when it was featured in Maxwell Anderson's 1936 play High Tor. Anderson lived some distance down the road on the slopes of our mountain. I lived walking distance from the summit in an eclectic house, originally built in 1750 with the addition of a spacious living room sometime in the 1920s. Except for the addition of an attic dormer, the 1750 house had changed little over the years. It still had its worn wide-board floors, a front door that blew open in winter winds, and in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, the original mud adobe walls were evident where the thin layer of plaster had cracked away. I recall lying in bed and pulling ancient straw from that adobe, rolling that straw between my fingers, tasting it, and thinking this grass was green centuries ago.
The newer addition was up a flight of stairs that led to the kitchen from a small area that had once been perhaps the flat broom swept piece of ground near the back door of the old house but had since been enclosed and roofed over to make a very simple bathroom. The double Dutch door that had served as the back door for the old house was still there, but it opened to the linen closet, once perhaps the mud room. A new doorway between the hall and the bathroom had been cut to one side of the original door. A curtain hung there to separate the hall from the bathroom, and another curtain hung to cover the stair leading up to the 1920s house. If the bathroom were at any time occupied and it was necessary to pass from the one house to the other, it was possible to grab both curtains and hold them together to form a temporary privacy barrier. It seemed a satisfactory arrangement.
The living room upstairs was grand and spacious with its large fireplace, vaulted ceilings, and tall French windows that cranked out and easily served as doors for a small girl anxious to escape into the wild cool of the woods that stretched unchecked from the back of our house to the top of the mountain overlooking the Hudson River. It was possible to step from those windows and walk under the thick canopy of maples and oaks, pushing aside wild grape vines and clambering over ancient stone walls that had once served as boundaries for open pastures, always climbing up, past abandoned cisterns through vineyards to the small path that led to rocky top of High Tor. I loved making that journey, stopping at the meadow to search for wild strawberries and then spending hours at the top, watching sailboats drift on the river while freight trains, hundreds of cars long, snaked along its banks. The first part of this trek was trackless, a wandering upward through the forest. I was never afraid of getting lost; it was a small mountain with a road that ran to the left of 'my' woods. I knew I would find the path after I found the vineyard and I knew the vineyard was above me. I just wandered up, and when I found the well-worn path, its entrance marked by a huge boulder, I felt the embrace of the forest grow tighter. I always felt protected by the forest, but there on that path where wildflowers grew, I was grateful to be once again walking with others. Even if I walked alone on the path, I knew others had been there before me, walking in peace, listening as I listened to the song of forest birds .
a way to peace
Now, when I come upon a city sidewalk dappled with the shade from trees above, softened by the grace of bushes encroaching on its concrete heat, I feel the same peace. My body recalls the forest energy even though my logical mind understands that these bushes have been planted, these trees are tended and trimmed. The reminder of the wild is enough to settle my spirit, to revive hope, produce joy.
I am suddenly removed from the walkway, transported to a pathway, and that removal matters. To traverse a walkway is purposeful, businesslike and efficient, an organized trip from here to there. To walk on a path is to travel within and beyond, reaching one's destination certainly but at the same time, discovering and greeting the world. I realize that a city walkway cannot become a pathway unless both sides of the sidewalk are planted, allowing the walker to move through the landscape and through the self, rather than past it, but those of us who live in cities near walkways that can be perhaps easily transformed might try to make such magic happen. That through-line may just be a lifeline, a way to peace.
Winter may be huffing its way into the East Bay, but the street is still blooming. Flowers love fog.
The flowers of West Oakland are as varied as its people. Trees grow here that would be more at home on tropical isles as next to concrete sidewalks. Vines cover fences that might be more comfortable climbing up cliffs beside rivers in the jungles of South America, and roses are everywhere. Cascades of roses, waterfalls of roses, roses escaping fences and roses gracing ordinarily barren lots. Roses that have grown for centuries on the coast of England or on the dry dusty plains of Spain are happily blooming here.
I am grateful for their unexpected beauty, their delicate aroma. My neighbors have a red red rose that blooms even on the darkest days of winter. That rose always makes me smile, but the ancient pink rose blooming less frequently but ecstatically next to the wrought iron fence of the church opens my heart. Next month when skies are darker and days shorter, its leaves will be fewer but its hips bright red, food for the small birds nesting under the eaves of the belltower.
Walking further down the block, the bright yellow of Scotch Broom sparks against the hedges of lavender and sage. Scotch broom may be classified as a noxious weed in California, but few can deny its cheerful beauty. It blankets the dry slopes of the foothills with its hardy sunshine, and here in West Oakland it makes a welcoming arch to the lavender walk bordering the playground/parking lot behind the church.
When I stand near it, I feel as if I am again walking through the hot dry ravines outside Georgetown, in the foothills of the Sierras, looking for the entrance to a long abandoned gold mine, but that is another story. I will just say that I did find the mine and then crawled on my hands and knees into its dark interior but backed out quickly when I heard the steady thrum of a breathing sleeping animal -- a gruff rumble echoed through the tunnel and made me think the animal was large. I fled as fast as one can flee crawling backwards, and was never so glad to see once again that noxious weed, Scotch broom, ablaze with yellow bloom. I am equally glad to see it hear, blooming down the street from the rose.
Across the street from the church, in front of the house with the cast iron dragonfly on its gate, a feeding station for cats (no bears will eat them here!) nestles beneath one of two bushes of blooming angel's trumpets, one golden, the other a most delicate shade of blushing pink.
I like the music of these trumpets. They sing for the cats. They sing for the passers-by. And that song carries those who hear its fragile music to other shores, away from the hard edges of cities, away from trash blowing on streets, away from the grey rumble of trucks and trains and into the deep valleys of islands where the dense silence of vines and green growing is broken only by the cries of forest birds calling to one another.
I like that voyage.
Nearby a venerable old tree is host to a passion flower vine with many small pink blooms, themselves host to dozens of honey bees that hum and buzz around the sweet pollen laden flowers.
I have often thought that I should have a bee hive in my backyard. With all the blooming flowers in West Oakland, the bees would have no trouble finding enough nectar that might be steadily converted to golden honey, and what a honey it would be -- distilled from a mix of nectar drawn from lavender, passion flowers, sages, even roses.
I can imagine its sweetness, its delicate aroma, but for now, I will have to content myself with butterflies.
Winter is coming. The sun is late, and morning fog has returned. Once again little Earnest startles when the BART train snakes across the street. Somehow its thunder is held closer to earth on foggy days than on days with sun. I don't notice the difference but he does. When the train approaches, he keeps all four feet still and listens as that steel serpent chatters across the overpass. He does not want to get too close to this noise he cannot trust.
He never starts at other noises, like the whirr of weedwackers or power saws. Perhaps for him, that smaller clatter is containable, more accessible, easier to avoid. He ignores the high -pitched whine of the crew wielding weedwackers, cleaning the jungle from the yard of the empty house across the street, but that it is the noise that interests me. Earnest may think the train may leave the tracks, descend suddenly on the street, but to me it is just background noise, dull and utterly predictable. The whirr of weedwackers slicing through months of overgrown grass is edgy, something new, unexpected, almost hopeful. I hear it and wonder if the house, so long ignored, is again sold or will soon be inhabited again.
Certainly, this is no time for houses to stay empty. Folks need places to live.
Too many are moving onto the street. Sleeping bags are stashed under bushes in the park. Backpacks lean against park benches. Shopping carts appear daily on street corners.
I am mystified as to how this Trader Joe's shopping cart, hastily packed with bare necessities, made it out of the parking lot. Every time, I push one of these carts near the edge of the sidewalk ringing the parking lot, the wheels lock, but here it is -- stacked and parked. No one near to claim it or guard it, but no matter. Its contents, knotted plastic bags, are ironically safer than had they been stacked on the backseat of a locked car. No one will touch the bags stacked in a shopping cart left on a sidewalk, but leave those same plump bags in a parked car and someone might just break the window to get at those bags.
The assumption is that the owner of a car might have 'real' goods but someone who has borrowed a shopping cart can't possibly have anything of value. Yesterday, when walking near Lake Merritt, I passed by this Cadillac of shopping carts, neatly parked in its own parking space and piled high with all necessary for camping in the park -- foam mat, sleeping bag, clothes, pots and pans in the belly of the basket. As with the other more modest cart, whoever had arranged this moveable house was no where to be seen. Clearly, he or she was not worried about break-ins or theft. No one sat nearby, ready to leap at any passers-by who came too close. No one leaned on trees, sprawled on grass, watching, guarding, waiting. Park the cart and go on. Return at night, unload the bedroom, and cart it down to the lake's edge. Listen to crickets, wait for frogs. No need for locks or alarm systems.
Forty years ago, I wandered about Europe with my first husband. We carried on our backs a tent, mats, sleeping bags, pot and pans, a tiny Primus stove, several changes of clothes, drawing paper and several books. I don't remember what I read -- it was long ago -- but I remember reading as the light grew dim. Whenever we set up our camp -- usually in the middle of cities -- we zipped up the tent flap and went on our way, exploring the city, visiting museums and galleries, cathedrals and pubs. We camped at Crystal Palace in London, zipped the tent in the morning, took the tube to the Tate, came back late in the afternoon and cooked dinner before the sun set. We pitched our tent in Firenze, toured the Duomo, wandered the city. No one ever bothered our camp.
Then, I thought such freedoms were the code of the road, the unwritten rules of the life of the wanderer, but now I wander if it might be simpler than that. No place to plug in under a tree. No flat-screen TVs, no computers, no stereos stashed in those piled plastic bags.