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THAT TAKES NERVE

I am contending with a weird bug. In its tool box of mischief is a little allen wrench that turns some little nerve from On to Off. Now that I think of it, it is probably not some little nerve, more like an interstate shutdown, going from right leg to left fingertips. Two years ago I had something similar which landed me in the hospital for days of Cat Scans and MRIs and X-rays. Several time Guillian-Barre Syndrome was mentioned. I was asked my attitude toward ventilators. I said to my doctor, I can’t be dying. Everybody thinks I’m an incredibly healthy person. It would be so embarrassing.

The only thing the tests showed was some inflammation on the spinal cord. A couple of rounds of steroids later I could lift my foot and unfurl the smaller fingers of my left hand. I was outta there.

Now, like a bad boyfriend the bug is back, or his ugly cousin. Gives one pause. Fosters humility, you could say, as if that was good for something. The garden becomes a big what if. What if I can’t climb the terraces? What if I can’t prune the tree? In the house the what ifs are stacked just as deep. What if I can’t manage the keyboard? The accordion?

I’ll be fine. I sit on the patio in the extraordinarily benign spring light. My garden vibrates health. Thanks to all the organic matter I’ve been dispersing for years, the soil is a teeming biome. Just a moment ago, at noon, I startled a raccoon (we startled each other), foregoing the protection of darkness to gorge on the juicy morsels easily unearthed.  Losing its nerve it scurried off.

Come on back. It’s self-pick. All you can eat.

BREAKING FREE

I couldn’t sleep as long as she was awake. She’d say, “Herbert, you don’t need to be sitting there wearing yourself out. Go off to bed. I’ll be fine.”

I’d answer, “I will, in just a minute,” and then I’d stay in the rocking chair, wide-awake, watchful. When I heard her stuttery little snore, when I knew she was asleep, then I would go to my bed and be able to get a little shut-eye. With her asleep I let myself believe death would be satisfied with half a bite and not demand the whole banquet for one more night.

It happened slowly. Little diminishments. Not lapses of memory so much as loss of interest, she who was always keen on something. Keen on everything. The doctors had nothing to tell us, no blueprint. Only that it would be fast. It wasn’t fast.

I made it to spring,” she said. “It’s spring, isn’t it?”

It is. The lilac is in bloom. The rain has made it happy.”

Happy,” she said. “That’s a curious way to put it.”

We’re forecast for some more tonight. Thunderstorms. Tomorrow too.”

Tornadoes,” she said.

“Likely.”

Forecasters are paid to alarm folks but the Doppler doesn’t lie and that night in its embrace there were a least four suspicious cells and two confirmed funnel cloud sightings. In other words, a typical night in Western Kansas in May. If the sirens went off I might get a little worried but what good would worry do me? Do us? There was nowhere we were going. I could not carry her down the stairs to the basement. No we’d stay in the den which was now her sickroom and wait it out together. If that meant a tornado would carry us off, I can’t say I would have minded.

That night she asked me to read to her. “What would you like?” I asked. It was an unusual request.

Anything.”

Down in the basement were shelves of books our son Matt read in college. I picked one out. Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. By the time I got back upstairs she was asleep, her lower lip fluttering.

I got in my bed, formerly our bed, and turned on the lamp. I could hear the wind pouring through the trees like surf. Raindrops lashed against the window pane. I opened the book. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I didn’t get very far in, maybe a page or two—reading puts me to sleep better than anything—then I was awakened by a crash as if the hammer of Thor, the sledgehammer, had fallen upon our little house. It threw me out of bed. Lightning flashed like a strobe. I put on my bathrobe and hurried to check on my wife. That is when the siren went off.

With a sizzling explosion the whole street lit up. There was a half foot of rainwater from curb to curb, rushing down the slope. In the middle of this instantaneous lake was an elephant. It got dark. Some less incendiary flashes confirmed it: there was an elephant running down the street. Lumbering, actually, in agitated circles, in my front yard. An old elephant. What I thought had been sirens was her bellowing.

I could understand why she would be terrified. Of all places in the world to find herself, this flapjack county seat on High Plains in the middle of gotterdammerung. I went out on the front porch. The elephant stopped her agitated dance, giving me a look that seemed inquisitive, perhaps pleading for reassurance. I walked out into the rain. My bathrobe was soaked instantly, draping over my shoulders like a leaden shroud. Small step by small step, I got closer, fixing her gaze onto mine so strongly that nearby bolts of lightning didn’t break our connection. It was something profound. A recognition. I don’t know what else to call it. I was almost a body length away—elephant body—when she folded her ears backward, turned and lumbered away. I stood in the rain and watched her trot through the Ballingers’ garden on the corner and disappear. She seemed to know where she was going, playful.  I felt a great sense of release, of acceptance. Of knowing, too, where I was going. That stayed with me throughout, to varying degrees. I will not forget it.

The storm was subsiding. These things come on with a bang and blast through. Soon it was like the storm never existed, the air so tame with that after-the-rain smell that could you bottle it would make you rich.

Only after putting on some dry pajamas did I start questioning. Hallucinating an elephant in my front yard? Then I had a revelation: my wife had left me, passed on, and the universe was sharing the news. But when I went into her bedroom I heard her little snore right away. She hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d slept through the storm. She seemed peaceful.

The next week in the World there was an article about two elephants from the traveling circus getting spooked during the storm and breaking free. Which explains it. At least some of it.

MISTER TWEET GETTING A TRILL

He has ridden the ass of persistence into power. He manages the facility now as well as being head lifeguard. He sits hunched, the red rescue tube straddling his hips, the red whistle straddling his lips. He sets an example. He is not afraid to blow his whistle. Just now he has to get out of his seat because his repeated tweets have not thwarted some forbidden behavior. This irritaties him, and he worries the polyester microfiber of his red lifeguard shorts as he marches to the other side of the pool where a few more shrill tweets and some haranguing have the corrective effect. What that involves is a mystery to onlookers, unsure of the offender as well as the offense. The young Latina? Her toddler? The Iraqi grandmother?

Mister Tweet goes back to his perch. He is keeping us safe.

Jemaa el-Fna

not understanding a word

the depleted traveler cannot drink

from the freshets of feeling

running through the crowd

 

pigeons eavesdrop knowingly

wing-skimming the pool of light

one bird lassoes a sudden descent

and lands on the storyteller’s shoulder

 

transformed: a vivid white dove

they coo and they kiss

wings flapping like our hearts

given to witness such intimacy

 

now all the birds are hovering

like planes at la guardia

cousins of the holy spirit

prepared, for a kiss, to strike fire

 

as the storyteller resumes his tale

an adventure in the desert

here is what we hear, this life

this life could happen to you

CHANGING MY VOTE

Parking. Running a close second to the detestable Donald in municipal conversation. Wednesday night a meeting in the local elementary school to discuss Residential Permit Parking brought out a sizable segment of the neighborhood. For the innocent: RPP means you pay over a hundred plus bucks per year to get a sticker for your bumper that means you won’t get a ticket for parking if your stay in the RPP area is longer than two hours. A lot of neighborhoods have it already. Bernal, our neighborhood, and specifically Mirabel Ave. where I live have an acute parking problem. We don’t have street cleaning so folks “dump” their cars for weeks at a time while they are out of town or commute elsewhere. Occasionally you see a Warning Sign on these vehicles windscreen; there’s a BMW in front of my house at this moment sporting one. The warning is that something will occur within 48 hours if the car is not moved, but I’ve rarely seen a ticket applied alongside.

Given this reality, neighbors worked to canvass the neighborhood’s adjacent streets to achieve the requisite 51% yes vote in a contiguous area a mile in length in order to meet the requirements for RPP. The Municipal Transit Agency (MTA) did their own surveys to determine whether a requisite percentage of parked cars were from out of the neighborhood. The numbers were reached, the i’s dotted. So there at Flynn Elementary was the map projected on the screen, the RPP blue streets, Mirabel right at the heart of it, in the middle of a broader area that included all of northwest Bernal. It was all accomplished according to the rules with a lot of effort put forth by neighbors to contact as many households as possible. I voted yes.

Wednesday night’s meeting was a manifestation of unintended consequences. First the meeting itself, which was advertised as a chance to re-vote, since two stipulations were added after the neighborhood poll: 1) the applicable hours would be from 8 am to 6 pm, not 8 to 8 as previously proposed, and 2) no address/household would get more than 2 permits (4 was the number before.) These are not sticking points; in fact, they are changes which I, and I would wager, most others approve of. But if your street is not included in the proposed RPP zone, what would a changed vote signify? Nothing. Both pro RPP and con RPP made that point. I’d guess at least half of the people in the room were outside the zone and spoke against RPP. With one or two exceptions, they were concerned not with these proposed changes but with the fact that a vote was not offered them in the first place.

Now it’s legitimate to say that those non-affiliated streets in Northwest Bernal could have done what our little enclave did, go door to door and get signatures. Maybe their particular blocks didn’t feel same acute need as did our blue-street blocks. But what is clear, those folks who are outside the RPP are going to get screwed by this new reality, and they know it. If you are on the fringe of the zone and you need to park in the daytime, forget it, or if you are surrounded by RPP streets and yours is not included, well, you can imagine. You’ll easier find a unicorn than a spot.

I’m not a gung-ho fan of RPP; it smacks of nimby-ism and privilege, but hey this is present day San Francisco, deluged by Uber and cement trucks and google buses and SUVs that get longer and blacker and drive faster. And everybody has a car. Or two. I would vote aye again if all the streets that were marked out as part of the Northwest Bernal Area were included, an area that makes geographical sense, bounded by Cesar Chavez on the north, Mission on the west, the hill on the north, and Alabama on the east (the street, not the state.) The people on streets not yet part of the zone must have a real chance to be included, with time to debate their choice. Sure, it would delay implementation for some time, but it’s worth the wait. The arbitrary deadline the MTA gives for this new vote (May 17) is as nonsensical as the premise of Wednesday night’s meeting. The MTA makes its case that the RPP area is determined street by street, that this is the democratic way. It may sound good in theory, but the actual consequence is what we saw at Flynn Elementary; contention, anger, misunderstanding. If you can convince me that’s an overall improvement in neighborhood quality of life, pitting neighbor against neighbor, “our” street against “theirs”, you might also persuade me that we don’t have an ass in the White House. In the meantime I’m changing my vote to No.

BREATHING SPACE

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

                 Margaret Atwood

It rains and continues to rain. The gods have heard our clamoring, or at least mine. A time lag was involved: I started doing my incantations and prostrations three winters ago. I am not complaining. Eternity has its own speed. Lake Tahoe is at a record high. Weeks ago,Tom in Santa Barbara told me their reservoir was half full after being bone dry. By now it may be full.

My garden is where I take the rain into my bones. The leaves have a glossy radiance. Although rains are forecast for next week. I assume they are winding down, devolving into fitful showers. I’m sad about it, but then I wasn’t flooded out. The worst that happened was a drip drip drip in the closet.

Spring is here. What could be more ordinary? What could be more monumental?The garden feels like one long breath. You can practically hear the subterranean activity. If my deafer self can hear it so can the possums and the raccoons who nose around and dig nightly. I’m hoping they get so fat on worms they can’t climb onto my roof and frolic. I’m not going to worry about them until the day they do something unforgivable, as they surely will. If they are pulling down my house or decimating the garden I’m not aware of it. Ignorance will do for bliss. It seems important to put this on notice: here, now, in this garden there is peace, even with the political noise abounding. I’m grateful, to whom it may concern.

How receptive the soil is. My decades-long experiment in extreme mulching has, if nothing else, had a wonderful effect on the soil. Instead of raking assiduously and putting leaves in the green bin, I scatter them, layers of ginkgo, maple, boxwood clippings from my garden and frequently from my neighbors’ if what’s collected is uniform and free of weedy grasses, branches, etc. Keeping it uniform mitigates the unsightliness, but looking tidy is not on the docket. At times, momentarily, it looks better than tidy, say when lagoons of gold ginkgo form under the apple trees. It looks curious, artistic (said with raised eyebrow.) The sun of color sets and the leaves sink into their gray, moldy fate. Last fall on top of all this roughage I added a a four-inch padding of straw taken from bales left over from the annual Halloween block party. I let them sit in the rain before I took them apart in damp slabs. Wet, the straw is much easier to handle; dry. you end up with strands caught in the grasses, like hair of blonde cheerleaders. Nestled snugly, the straw is butt-ugly but it’s definitely, without a doubt, artistic.

I talked to Rita today. Her avocado tree, one of the few trees in her garden that seemed to have weathered the plague, has gone limp, another straggler on the road to the Land of Shades. Shade is what she planted the umbrella tree for. She sent me a picture. Fallen over. Eaten out by termites.

Last September I visited her in Nigeria. It was the rainy season. For the remainder of my traveling existence I will visit countries only in the rainy season. It rained five times a day. For two weeks I planted and transplanted dozens of trees, shrubs, seeds. Everything was growing great guns (I wrote about it (http://www.themonthly.com/faro1702.html). The garden was ripe with all the promises a garden makes: peace, beauty, abundance.

In the dry season the termites arrived. The ‘Golden Showers’ vine shriveled. The coconut palms turned gray. Can termites delight? If so Her Jelly-ness must have been delighted with delicacies from far lands. Yum. Coconut. Bring me the head of a papaya. Acres from Rita’s garden, she lounged and gave orders, sequestered in a fortress of roots, inaccessible. She couldn’t be dug out. Termites are the world’s best architects. A bath of poisons was drawn and sent below. The workers hadn’t planned on that. The termites were terminated. Then the ants moved in, ants that, Rita says, eat bark. Au-revoir avocado.

It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s for a moment take a different view. African termites have been around for over fifty million years. They didn’t last so long by being nice. The African savanna is their territory. Aerial photographs show that the immediate areas around the termite castles are greener than the surroundings, with more animal life. They are an enrichment in that particular ecology. Life begetting life, the absolute opposite of what happened and is happening in Rita’s garden.

Sure, Rita’s garden is an intrusion into an ecosystem. So is every other garden from Eden onward, mine included with its straw, its camellias and New Zealand ferns, its thrips. A garden by definition is a disruption that exists on borrowed time and at nature’s discretion. We stumble onward. I’m trusting the bacterial playground I’m creating with the organic matter is beneficial (meaning, to me).

The apple tree is in bud, big white blossoms. It is thrilled with the rain and, I daresay, with its new straw shawl. I have to believe in the inevitability of a large crop, extra juicy and extra sweet. And that Pie Day will continue into eternity.

Just now, some hard news has flashed through the cloud of unknowing: areas of my garden, sizeable areas look downright slovenly. The parts that are presentable, which once I was proud of, now have an unmistakable, irredeemable mediocrity. The daphne I took so much delight in over the years looks weary unto death, having hungered too long for more light. Something must be done. I rip it out. Be merciless. Beauty demands it.

I am happy to get to it, to crawl around on that tender dirt. OMG how did I not notice the asparagus fern has put its claws into the ground beneath the ‘Freedom Bell’ camellia. Of course I saw how it popped up through the leaves into every open space but it was a delicate and sweet rampage. Getting the bugger out by the roots is a fine battle. I’m enjoying it.

Another thing I schemed to ignore for months: the thrips infesting three of the four camellias. I thought the rains would diminish their colonizing but apparently not. The leaves of ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ are white, although there are new leaves emerging ignorant of the battleground they are born into. I am almost resigned to remove the three diseased ones. One of them, Doctor What’s-his-name, I never liked with his poofy red flowers. He was another plant I craved once upon a time. The one camellia I would miss, ‘Freedom Bell’ is still unscathed. No thrips. Why? Who knows. Good vibes.

In Rita’s garden there are four masquerade trees on the side of the house in a row: two are dead, two fully alive. Why?

What if ‘Freedom Bell’ gets infested. Why has it not yet? What would I spray it with? Not nasty chemicals. I write Rita, tell them to stop with the chemicals. But what do I know about termites? Or thrips? Someone will no doubt recommend a mixture of wistful thinking and garlic with a teaspoon of dish detergent and six hail Marys.

Is procrastination a response? Truthfully, I didn’t procrastinate. I cut off every leaf of Doctor Who’s-it and put them in a brown paper bag and into the green bin.

What if a beetle were killing the apple tree, and one blast of the latest lab miracle bomb was just the thing? Do you get a whiff of hypocrisy?

When humans have done their dirtiest Nature will make a snack of us, Next time she’ll order from the other side of the menu. She has all the time in the world.

I have the rest of the morning. I have energy. They both last a little less than three hours. By noon I’m pooped. I look around and see that I may have gone too far. There’s a lot of bare dirt. Especially in the shade. Maybe with the restored openness the daphne would have survived. Maybe I was rash. That daphne was an olfactory enhancement to the neighborhood.

With the asparagus fern gone, ‘Freedom Bell’ rings openly. Breathing space. Sadly now all the flaws in my pruning are exposed. There’s no such thing as almost graceful. God knows I have tried. One more snip. One more. Until I have again done exactly what I did last year, taken too much out, exposing gangliness, all elbows.

Self-criticism rarely puts a dent in self-deception. ‘Freedom Bell’ is not thripless. Because I wouldn’t look they did not cease to exist. Imagine that. The good news is that they’re on only few leaves, the lower ones in the deeper levels of shade. I am willing to take some warm soapy water and clean them one by one. Something I would not do with Doctor What’s…oh yes, now I remember, ‘Clifford Parks’. I’m sure he was a respectable man and does not look favorably upon standing stitchless in my garden. Last fall I did a similar denuding of ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ and new leaves grew in nicely but soon became pale from sucking thrips. So much for perfection. Is my mega-mulch partially responsible for turning my garden into Thrip-u-topia? I hope not and go on hoping. It’s that thing with feathers.

Rita has put in a replacement umbrella tree.

I’m going to go out and get a new daphne.

VOTE FOR ME

If I ruled the world                                                                                                                  every day would be the first day of spring

from my garden to yours