Missing Poster

MISSING

the sign said as I drove by.
It could have been a dog,
a shepherd-terrier mix gone after a tabby,
or the cat
after a wild bird,
a black-capped chickadee or a twittering bushtit,
or it could have been a green-yellow parakeet
flown the coop
in search of sky

It could have been a turtle;
once I saw a sign that said “found turtle” —
she’d left my backyard pond and was strolling on her scaly little legs
down Boyd Avenue to find a mate

it could have been a teen in shredded jeans,
backpack in tow, running from a mad mother,
a drunk father, or after a dream of stardom
or it could have been a child, drifting in the amusement park
after cotton candy, diaphanous, pink, beautiful;
it could have been anything, I thought

as I drove into a dark hole
after God knows what.

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First Day on Retreat at Sky Farm Hermitage, Sonoma County, California

This is my backyard bullfrog, photographed by Robin Kempster

This is my backyard bullfrog, photographed so beautifully by Robin Kempster

A hawk circles
above canyons bleached gold,
Bishop pines and Valley oaks,
their grizzled lichen-spotted trunks and
gnarled branches hung with Spanish moss.
There is nothing lazy about this hawk,
laser-focused eye in search of dinner.

A fat lizard stock still, on the wood deck
casts her eye on me,
pumps her front legs up and down,
darts quick as my eye blinks,
picks up God knows what in her tiny mouth.

A bullfrog stands watch in the pond’s reeds,
plays the didgeridoo for a mate.

No mistaking — they know what is their true nature.

And I –
drift in and out of sleep in my hermit’s cell
on a crystal-clear Sonoma afternoon,
check email, buy a book online, read a story of love, grief, identity,
eat leftover chicken enchiladas in tomatillo sauce,
tangerines, chocolate, olives, beets, quinoa, strawberries, cherries until I am too full.

But
what I want is to be emptied,
pared down to being
who I am, not what I eat, read, or buy.
I want —
like the the bullfrog, the lizard, the hawk —
to know
my purpose,
to heed St Romauld:
to sit like a chick
content
with the grace of God.

 

Viva Oaxaca!

That’s what they shouted as they swirled wildly down the Alcalá (a half block from my door!) at the start of Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza. I think this festival — which brings together people from all the indigenous groups of Oaxaca to share traditions through song and dance — is my favorite of Oaxaca’s many celebrations. A centuries-old tradition that originated with the Zapotecs, “Guelaguetza” means “great courtesy,” and its essence is a system of mutual assistance between communities or individuals. Isn’t that the way all of us were meant to live?

Click on one photo in the gallery, then follow the arrows to the right or left for a photo slide show.

Faith / Fe

Espero: “I hope” / “I wait” / “I expect”

In a strange land
they assure me
I’m learning to speak
their language poco a poco.
“Paciencia,” my young teacher, Alberto, advises,
and, when I can explain to the phone company rep
in his language that my iPhone crashed and tell Carlos
that the house dog has a tick
on her right rear inner flank
I’m proud.
But today the woman at the bus stop
is telling me something.
I understand none of her words
and all I can manage
with a shrug of a shoulder
and a weak smile is
“no entiendo,” I don’t understand.
But I hear her tone,
see her face,
a softness in the eyes
the upward turn of the lips —
it is lonely and intimate,
like talking with God.

Crossing Over

You think you know who I am
by where I live
or the clothes I wear
and you decide, on these conceits,
to walk with me or not

on this blessed journey
in the land of sixteen languages
I see how we divide
and so deceive ourselves,

I see how many times
I formed the completest picture,
only to astonish myself —
I knew nothing of you

I see the faces
of those who were born anew here,
come from the four directions
to find something precious,
or sprung fresh from the wombs
of mothers with jet black hair and eyes, high cheekbones,
the woman selling zinnias in the Zócalo,
braids plaited with red ribbons
falling below her waist —
even her forbears were from some other place
across the Bering Strait

We are what we carry —
hair, eyes, songs, dress,
words and ways from churches, synagogues, or mosques —
but if only we could melt our petrified identities
for just one blindingly brilliant afternoon —
you might come to know me,
and I you.

Gracias a la Vida!

Fireworks seen from my balcony on Berriozábal, Oaxaca

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco …

Thank you life, you have given me so much
You gave me two eyes which when I open them
I can distinguish perfectly between black and white …

— Violeta Parra 

Last evening a friend and I went to see a play about the life of the late Chilean singer, songwriter, folklorist, and visual artist Violeta Parra. She’s known as the mother of the New Chilean Song Movement, and she revived the Peña, a community center for arts and political activism. I never knew that La Peña on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley owes its name and mission to Violeta.

Just before her suicide in 1967 at age 50, Parra wrote the beautiful song Gracias a la Vida  (Thank you life), which has been popularized by Joan Baez (watch Joan sing it!), Mercedes Sosa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others. It played as we waited for the drama to begin, and my friend said to me, “I don’t always feel grateful for what life has given me, and I wish I did.” Her longing played across my dreams last night …

By dawn I asked myself, Am I grateful for what life has given me?

In my mid-forties, when I was lonely in my marriage, on the brink of leaving it, and desperate to find a spiritual home, the people of First Church Berkeley lifted me up. There was community, new friends, song; a way to see the commonality in all beings, and the truth that we need each other to live. In all of this, I recognized something so much bigger than my one life. First church planted in me the seeds of gratitude!

Surely gratitude for a difficult childhood or divorce doesn’t come easy. But I suppose what I’ve been given has made me who I am at this moment and who I may yet become.  I’ve traveled beyond past miseries with the help of so many friends, and they, like a loving family, live always in my heart (and on Skype!) though I make my life now in Mexico and they are far away. And even with so much distraction, violence, and treachery in the world, I know if I can sing, pray, watch the beauty of a sunrise, a child’s smile, or a hummingbird’s dance, I’m on my way to gracias a la vida!

According to Gratefulness.org, the practice of gratefulness moves people “to live in the light of all we’ve been given.” They say that can be a force for personal change — inspiring compassion and generosity — as well as for world peace.

Heady stuff! May gratitude and peace be with you.

These Tough Men

on a visit to Oaxaca’s Santa Maria Ixcotel Prison …

These tough young Mexican men want to talk to me, shake hands, say nice to meet you in English or mucho gusto in Spanish. They want to know: where are you from, how long will you be in Oaxaca, what is your work, but they don’t ask, will you come back to the prison at Santa Maria Ixcotel. It’s better than jails in the USA, R. tells me: the food is good, and I can go to school. He stole a taxi while drunk. A grin plays across his lips. The eight-year sentence is commuted to four for good behavior — he sells candied platanos in the prison “patio,” he’s going for his high school diploma, though sometime in his young life he earned his GED in Tulsa. His mother doesn’t like to visit, his girlfriend comes every few weeks. Holding his tray of platanos, he doesn’t leave my side. He insists: I can stop drinking on my own and not get into trouble again, but I tell him since I’m old enough to be his mother I will offer advice (he smiles): you probably can’t do it alone. He resists, but when my host, a man of the cloth, tells him he himself once had a problem with drink, went into a program and was healed, the young one softens. These are tough young men. But. The men in the drug rehab program with wiry, small, tattooed, not-so-recently-washed bodies once dulled by dope ask for communion once a week. They laugh in genuine good humor when the father dances the electric slide. They pose for the camera he smuggled in, happy for the two-minutes close together, terraced, arms around each other’s shoulders. These young macho Mexican men are tough like choir boys. Tears threaten to spill from me but I stay tough as I click the shutter, wondering at the tender hearts beneath the t-shirts in blue cotton that say Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn).