Browning MT, Day Three

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Creek Clean up Photo: Paul Anderson

We begin the day with a dirge and end with a dance.
Bill — housing activist, festival organizer, sousaphone player — is 64. To the tune of the Volga Boatman, we sing the happy birthday which begins “Death destruction and despair…” ands is graced with verses such as “May the candles on your cake burn like cities in your wake, Happy Birthday” and “Your servants steal, your wife’s untrue, your children plan to murder you, Happy Birthday.” The twenty-one verses are all in this vein; we stop at seven. A good time is had by all.

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Today is the first of our service projects. We are asked by our hosts, the Blackfeet Business Council, to help a local Manpower crew clean Willow Creek which runs through Browning. When we are told about this before we leave, I see the waterways of Cairo clogged with the detritus of urban living. Why else would they want our help? I don’t make it to the clean-up, but I see the pictures, grassy green banks with the snow capped mountains in the background. They look more Switzerland than Egypt but a truck of trash is removed.
P6150508At the Stick Game Arbor where we live and hold our forums and workshops, hola hooping continues, boys circle the room on skate boards, Erin has a workshop for kids that makes fashion from junk, clowning is popular with everyone and Chautauquans learn to play the stick game.P6160552

 

 

 

 

 

The street dance begins at 7 in a parking lot. There is a DJ, a snow cone stand, a table on youth addiction and a truck with free meals for kids. Matt, a young local man who hangs out with us, says they do them every Thursday night. “They try to get families to do stuff together.”

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Healing  fracture seems to me to be thematic in a lot of what we learn is going on in the community programs. It would be. At the heart of Blackfoot culture were theBuffalo. The “white father’s” conquerers destroyed the Buffalo in order to destroy the people who lives were built around them.
P6160641P6160637At the dance, there is a horse race with hobby horses, the music is hip hop and pop and a good time is had by all.

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Gofundme.com/handsacrosstheborder

Browning Montana, Day Two

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In the way of things, especially Chautauqua things, it is the fun and games that get the crowds. People do listen to Blackfeet community workers on historical and domestic trauma, traditional medicine practitioners meet P6140432and exchange, we are ready to present on the topic treaties and the border. But it is juggling, hoopla hoops, and clowning that draws us crowds. What we seed is joy.
Hand Across Borders day of forums and workshops are the destination of a local school trip. Other children come. The children seem, in the best possible way, to be without paralyzing shyness or false modesty, dignified, if that is not too heavy a word for a child to carry. A boy whose name I never get (it is one of the many moments where my quasi deafness breaks my heart) shows me how he can hoopla hoop arm to arm after his first workshop. Matt (with me all names are provisional) invites me with pride to look at the lodges (tipis)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that have gone up. A girl doubles with laughter in the closing workshop.
A crew chops meat for half the day for the potluck dinner and a superb musician and his group start playing at 6pm. Nickolas Crawford and his group (look them up, Crawford Bros. Band have a Facebook page and are worth hearing — I speak as someone raised by a mother who was a friend of Leadbelly’s) have a huge, wonderfully played repertoire. It was while they were playing I have my Chautauqua moment. Early for a tour, I admit.

Chautauqua moments — for some floods of tears, for just about everybody a sense that they can’t continue the tour — come to almost everyone on almost every Chautauqua. Mine is floods of tears on my sleeping mat, back-patting from a dear friend and some confessional about everything that is the matter with my life.

Joannie, a cofounder of New Old Time Chautauqua and a prime force for this tour, says that Chautauqua moments pretty much come with the package. We are, she points out, stripped of the “cupboard cup loyalties” that P6130363 get us through, our books, our place to sleep, our room with a door that closes if we are lucky.
My Chautauqua moment ‘s catalyst is a stray dog. A young, lovely creature whose tail wags and who rolls on her back in friendliness and who is thin and hungry. Short of carrying her back to Ireland I can do nothing substantive for her. If I feed her she will get into trouble for coming into the Stick-Game Arbor where we are staying, if I don’t feed her, if we don’t feed her — I am not the only Chautauquan she charms — she will be hungry. Later someone tells me there are packs of hungry strays in the town. We can’t come close to feeding those. In the spirit of do what you can, I — and others — feed the stray who has come to us. Perhaps she is a cypher for what we are doing here.

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When I finally stop crying and eat at the potluck and dance, I sit between two women. One of them, Loretta, is wearing a shirt with a patch commemorating a pow wow. “How do you feel when you go on a pow wow I ask. “You know what feels like when you go to church?” she answers. Loretta is a grandmother, six or seven grandchildren by blood, three other who have adopted her. She tells me a story about one of those. She was cooking one day. A little girl she had never seen before was watching her. A very little girl. Finally she asked the girl if she was hungry. Yes she was. They fed her and she was little enough they thought it a good idea to follow her when she left. She got home all right, but came and is now one of the grandchild group. I ask Loretta if the casinos help with the poverty; I have always hoped they do. She hesitates. Yes, but gambling (as we know) is addictive, as addictive, or more so, to some one from the Blackfeet as others. There are neglected children, she works for an organization that tried to hep them. It is hard.

“Do you ever think about leaving the reservation,” I ask. “Oh before I met my husband I travelled,” Loretta answers. “I lived in many all over. The reservation is where I want to live.”P6150449

PS Our funding site is: gofundme.com/handsacrosstheborder

Day One, Port Townsend to Browning — 20 hours in an old bus

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It’s 5:30 in the morning. We’ve been packing till midnight and beyond; we’re tired; it’s chilly; breakfast will be cold; there’s no hot coffee.

The eleven of us climbing on to the Blue Bird bus, the two in the U-Haul pulling the horse trailer turned kitchen are feeling pretty good. After ten months of planning and more than a little help from our friends, Hands Across the Border, a new New Old Time Chautauqua project, is ready to roll.

There is a certain irony that we are setting off in a bus that was originally used in the first Iraq war. A war about which an American general declared his troops were headed into “Indian Country.” So are we.

And there is a certain satisfaction in using a discarded artifact of war on a mission of reconciliation. Almost everything else is unknown
We are on the way to two nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy: The Blackfeet of Montana and Piikani of Alberta. This confederacy, followers of buffalo and riders of horses, had a territory that stretched Calgary to the Yellowstone River and from the Rocky Mountains to what we now call North Dakota. Archeology is finding evidence of their presence there for at least seven thousand years.

Their first encounter with nascent America was a foretaste of what would come. A small group of young Blackfeet men encountered Lewis and Clarke on their 1804 expedition to map the Louisiana Territory. According to Lewis and Clarke’s account they told the young men the land now belonged to “The Great White Father.” There was an altercation and two of the young men were killed. There followed a history of loss of land, starvation, massacre, poverty, division of their people by international borders, and broken treaties.

What a group of jugglers, mime artist, spoon player, brass band, assorted people of good will and an aspiring banjo player with a beautiful voice can do about past and present injustice is a guess. Our goal, says Paul Magid, juggler extraordinaire and a main reason we have climbed on to the bus is to “shine the light of truth onto actual conditions.” No pressure there.

Pressure or not, we bear up well. On the 700 mile, nineteen hour trip, to Browning Montana, we sleep, make rose bud necklaces, pole dance and get to know each other.

One conversation in the getting to know you category:
Our photographer Paul Anderson asks Donna — tribal member of the Haida and Tlingit, teacher of small children, practitioner of traditional medicine, a fulcrum of the horse trailer kitchen who has travelled from Wrangell Alaska for this journey — if she has any hobbies.
She answers “I have three jobs, I basket weave; I make native regalia; I smoke fish; I make salve. I do respite care for the mentally challenged. I teach. I make jewelry. I clean houses.”

We’re going to be okey.

 

PS We seem to have just enough funds to make it back to Port Townsend from Brocket Alberta, but any help, very small or large, is appreciated at gofundme.com/handsacrosstheborder

 

no one leaves home unless

 

Rally 1-1

Famine Statue, Dublin Ireland 5th September 201

HOME  –  Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
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On the 5th of September at the Famine Monument on the River Liffey, a thousand people held a minute’s silence for refugees.  In the Great Famine/An Gorta Mor of 1842 to 1845, Ireland lost a quarter of its population to death and emigration.
Twelve thousand Irish people have so far offered beds in their homes to the refugees trying to find safety in Europe.  The government’s first offer was to admit 600.
 Born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali parents, Warsan Shire was raised and still lives in London.

The Island

Aran islands 1990

Aran islands 1990

These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland as though nothing matters – Linda Norton, Patterns for Arans

When I discovered I was pregnant — as much a surprise to me as to the doctor who told me a few months previously that I would never be — I realized that there would be some time when journalism would not be possible. I wasn’t worried, I’d write fiction.

Not that I had ever written fiction or was reading it regularly in any respectful or attentive way. But what I had in mind cheap mysteries and cheap romance.  How are hard could that be?

Hard enough. Even Harlequin and Mills and Boon eluded me. The fiction I like to write, even my cheap fiction (I have four historical romantic suspense novels finished in rough draft and one imitation Nora Roberts in something I thought was final draft but which has never sold) is dark.

However I did discover that I enjoyed writing, and almost could write, quick and somewhat simple women’s magazine fiction, the kind that used to appear in publications like Take a Break. Unfortunately, I made this discovery this just as that market largely dried up.

I have just read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and under the influence of his advising, urging, and hectoring to get your imperfections out there I am posting a women’s magazine story that failed to find its niche. It was written because of time I spent on the Aran Islands working on a travel piece (which did find someone who loved it, the Financial Times Magazine of all things), but the islands I had in mind are the San Juans off the west coast of Washington state and Canada.

The Island

 “It seems to me,” my mother said, looking down at the tiny creature wrapped in baby blankets by the fire, “that you don’t even like people very much.”

“Why?” I asked and smiled. Smiling was something I was sure she didn’t want me to do when she is in the mood to scold. But a smile turnth away wrath, or something, and with my mother, I am never sure what she does want.

“It’s obvious, Diana.” She sighed and I could see her shoulders rise with the intake of breath as she got ready to tell me. “All the animals of course.”

The blankets stirred. I picked up a baby bottle, tested the temperature on my wrist, got the puppy from under the blankets and started to feed it. It is usually wild things I try to save, but some summer people had abandoned a litter of puppies and this was the only one still alive by the time someone found them. “They aren’t mutually exclusive you know, people and animals, that is.” I thought I had her there. She herself had had four dogs to my certain knowledge; the last one lived on cooked-to-order free range chicken until it died at the ripe old age of seventeen. I had only three dogs and three cats and whatever creature I was nursing at the moment. Okay, all at once, but not such a difference.

“If things are kept in proportion.  However,” she continued and I knew what was coming, so, I must admit, I turned off and beamed at the puppy. Its progress from certain death to milk gulping life had impressed even the vet. I barely heard my mother’s list of complaints, I knew them all: where I lived — on an island; how I lived — by myself; how I kept house — a disaster; how I looked — like I was about to dig in the garden, which usually I was. She would end with: why couldn’t I be more like my sister, — a barrister, beautiful and married. But this time my mother switched tracks “and the way you are behaving about that Jeremy Browne, Diana, is really unfair. One would think you would cultivate someone like that.”

My attention snapped back. Getting me into trouble with my mother would be added to the long list of reasons I did not like Jeremy Browne. But I hadn’t expected my mother, on an infrequent visit, to know about any of that. Without missing a beat she added “I’m friends with his mother, didn’t you know ?” and got up to put on the kettle for a cup of tea.

The puppy fell asleep and I put it back under the blankets. It was a good thing I had been reminded of Jeremy Browne early in the day; tonight I planned to sink him altogether. I dug through the piles of papers on my desk– my mother was right on that count, I was messy — until I found Jeremy Browne’s proposal, slick, professionally printed and delivered to every house on the island. ‘Ecology based tourism’, it blared, ‘the answer to the island’s dreams’. Less than a year on the island and he already thought he knew how we dreamed. He had come from the city and some high-powered media career. To write a novel, he said, but he was so occupied ‘improving’ things it was difficult to see when he took time to write. He’d organised the committee that got the new pier and perhaps a new ferry, and had been instrumental in adding the extra room on the schoolhouse. The room, I should add, where everyone was meeting tonight.

I was in love with the way the island had been since I was a child and my father had made it our special place. Wild and isolated, it was his refuge from a marriage that didn’t work, and a place he could treat me like the son he didn’t have.

Jeremy Browne proposed boats for whale watching, trails for bird watching, lookouts for otter watching and who knew what else. I’d lived on the island since my father died five years ago and was sure that the islanders wouldn’t want the visitors, strangers and all the they changes they would bring. I’d point this out, his plan would lose, and Jeremy Browne would go look for some place else to ‘write’ or to ‘improve’ as the case may be.

I had to admit as I walked up the path that the new room on the school had been a good idea, but it was enough. Jeremy Browne was already on the platform going over his brochure with a stranger, who with his jacket, tie and shining shoes was definitely a city solicitor type. I studied Jeremy’s face as I waited for the meeting to begin. Good looking if you wanted to call it that, with lines that could have come from laughter around his eyes. In different circumstances I might have liked him.

But not now and not ever when he started to speak and heads around the room nodded in agreement. He repeated the argument of his brochure: things needed to change so they could stay the same; tourism based on the island’s beauty and wildlife was the best chance for jobs; and jobs would give the island’s young people the choice to stay if they wanted to and to preserve island life. Shinny shoes and half a dozen people around the room chimed in in agreement. I had lost even before I said my piece, but I would probably have managed to keep my temper if he hadn’t waited outside afterwards to compliment me on my contribution.

“You spoke well,” he said, stepping out of the shadows and holding out his hand. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s someone who is magnanimous in victory. I said thank you but didn’t take his hand.

He started to walk beside me. “I agree with you about the island, it is unique and precious. But unless islanders can make decent livings here, not just fishing and the small farms, young people will leave. The cottages will be bought by outsiders, most of them will sit empty fifty weeks a year. You and I may live here all year but we’re not island born. We’re the wave of that future unless things changes.”

It wasn’t his lecturing that made me angry, although I didn’t understand why for some reason it was important to him I understood what he was trying to do. What fueled my anger was that he was right. We were intruders, blow-ins. I stopped walking. “You know why I came here? Because of people like you.” I heard myself, but didn’t stop. “You’re the brightest and the best and say you’re helping when you go around changing things to suit yourself, ‘it’s for their own good’ you say. But really its your good. You’ll probably make lots of money out of this island, you and your shiny- shoed friend.”

It was dark around us and I heard, more than saw, him laugh, “I told him he was overdressed. He comes from another island, Diana, where they are trying the same thing.”

Of course being wrong made me angrier and I turned away from him. He caught at my arm. “Diana wait…”

But I was too quick. “Just leave things alone” I shouted and ran.

My must have face given me away, because as soon as I walked through the door my mother put down her book and poured me a glass of wine. I sat on the couch, hugging my knees up to my chin. My mother sat next to me.  I told her about the meeting and about afterwards. “He’s going to ruin Daddy’s and my island, ruin it.” To my surprise I felt the heat of tears. I never cry.

My mother was quiet. The puppy made a sleepy movement. She bent and tucked the blanket more firmly around it. “Perhaps it’s time for me to be a little more honest with you.” She sighed, more sadness than exasperation. “I’ve always thought of you as the one thing I got right for your father.” She put her arm around me. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. “When I first met your father he thought I was brave and full of life. Like you. I was quiet and shy, but I loved him very much and I let him think I was something else because I thought I could make him happy.”

I put my head on her shoulder.

“I didn’t. So in a way you were my gift to him and I didn’t interfere with the way you were brought up.” She pushed away from me a little so that she could look into my eyes. Tears began to run down my cheeks. She took the wine glass out of my hand and pulled my head back to her shoulder. “Your father was wonderful in many ways, and he could have done things for what he cared about , like this island. But he preferred to live in a fantasy world.”

Her voice changed, I was sure she was smiling. “I know I nag, I’m making up for lost time. You’re a marvel and I love you.” She kissed the top of my head. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that either.

She was right about my father, I recognised his faults and adored him anyway. But somewhere in the cold chasm between my parents, I had lost sight that I also loved my mother — and needed her. I cuddled against her, but my mother was never one to lose an opportunity.

“You know Jeremy is right. Work with him. Don’t be like your father and live in a pretend world of things as you wish they were. Jeremy’s not doing this for money. His mother says he’s set up a trust that puts very penny back into the island. Wash your face now and go apologise to him.”

I stayed in the circle of her arm, not wanting to move, not wanting the magical found-my-mother moment to end .

She sat up straight. “Now, ” she said.

In the bathroom I scrubbed my face and hands and took my hair out of its normal pony tail, hoping a different hair style might distract Jeremy Browne from the dirt stains I couldn’t get off my fingers. My mother was giving the puppy its bottle as I left.

His cottage was on the ridge above mine and I could see that there was a light on. I knocked and waited, listening to the wind blowing around me. It seemed an age until he opened the door

“How nice to see you,” he said as though I had not stormed away from him an hour before. “Come in out of the wind.”

I stepped in and stood there feeling lumpish and awkward and not knowing how to begin.

“Can I do something for you?” he asked.

I shook my head no, then the words tumbled out. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. It’s a good plan, I’d like to help. ” I held out my hand.

He smiled and took it, but didn’t shake hands as I had expected. Instead he raised it slowly. I knew he could feel how rough my skin was and see the lines where the stains wouldn’t wash away. I tried to pull my hand out of his, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, ever so softly, he kissed my fingers. “Of course,” he said.

I think it was at this moment, dear reader, I fell in love.

Patterns for Arans — Linda Norton

These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland

as if nothing matters.

The people have lived here for centuries
with only a thin covering of soil over the surface.
Great use is made of the seaweed,
the cattle swimming out.
The women here are justly famous.
They weave their own tweed
and make a type of belt called criss.
The heavy Atlantic seas,
the slip stitch.
The difficulty of the patterns
are never written down.
Most impressive and rich, the trellis pattern
and the rope, the tribute to the hardworking bee.
But sometimes their knitting shows mistakes,
with a true Irish touch of nothing
really matters, a careless nonchalance
of the crossing of their cables.
And note mistakes in the simple patterns:
forked lightning or cliff paths,
small fields fenced with stone,
the ups and downs of married life,
the mosses.
The openwork has a religious
significance or none.
Sometimes the clarity of the pattern is
lost through the use of
very fine wool.
Green from the mosses, brown
from the seaweed, grey and cream
color from the stones and pebbles:
many are distinctly over-bobbled.
No matter. They are too lovely
to be lost. Wool and knitting
leaflets can be obtained.
In no case is the whole pattern given.
There are certain gaps and yawns
and part of the pattern is left out
as if it doesn’t matter,
or was too lovely,
so was lost.
Some of the simple patterns
are charming for children’s jerseys.
This one, for example,
would be lovely on a child.

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,

 

Ceimatus 2012

Wild Clematus, Dublin 2012 (c) Carole Craig

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench/hammer he nailed our address to a stump with/balsa wood steamship, half-finished—  What My Father Left Behind,  Chris Forhan

 

A year and a half into cleaning up my mothers things I have come to the conclusion that the venerable tradition of burying a person’s possessions with them — a horse to ride,  a sword to fight, a wife to serve, gold to appease an angry god — may have as much to do with aiding the living as smoothing a journey through the afterlife.

I have ordered the random: pennies put aside in case one was worth hundreds rather than a cent, 1940s on; a tin push toy with wings possibly Mexico, possibly 1945; a Christmas list with who got what and how much it cost, 1954; a once red paper flower labelled as from an Oud maker in Bagdad, 1973; records of building a garden fence, 1976.  I have sorted the voluminous evidence of her professional life: folders for festivals; songs lists for gigs; fan letters; milage records for the Farm Security Administration, diagrams of ship parts from World War II. Twenty four boxes, shelved and labeled.

It is the things more precious to my mother that defeat me. She liked pictures of herself — photographs and drawings. She liked the things that people she liked gave her. Once she liked spoons and bones to play and was somewhat a fetishist when it came to jaw harps. In the closet are lace up boots from the 1930s, moccasins with real Indian Head nickel buttons, summer clothes made out out of rice sacks from Southeast Asia. Without her, these things, always visible in her everyday life or carefully folded in everyday drawers,  are forlorn, of no more significance than the pennies. What to do? To throw them away is to be complicit in my mother’s exit from the world. I can’t do that. They languish in limbo— large plastic boxes under the eaves. At some point I will redeem the letters from Pete Seeger  and the others: Utah Philips, Gordon Bok, Kate Wolf, Malvina Reynolds.

I talk to a friend. She also had a difficult mother, one given to physical outrage. She too keeps as much as she can transporting it from the East Coast to the West. Members of our sisterhood, of our fraternity, she says, practice an archeology of self. What happened to us? Why? When?  We excavate.

My found artifacts: letters my mother wrote and letters she received, notes to herself, photographs, short stories she wrote, poems she copied, books she saved.

Before my mother became ‘Faith Petric, the Fort Knox of Folk Music’ — much loved as such, much needed, important — when she was still the person born in a log cabin in the mountains of Idaho making her way to the big city, she had a plan to sail to China. Among the papers I find is a 1940s application for that passport and her picture.  She has full cheeks and a white lace collar.

Seattle life — work in a bookstore, friendship with the painters of the Northwest School — and San Francisco life — the Black Cat bar, Chinatown, sailing on the Bay — held her instead. I like her then. She was adventurous. She had the intimacy of friends who read books in the French original and painted and sculpted and wrote funny letters and took photographs, who ran the San Francisco Labour School and went to Paul Robeson concerts, and to anti-lynching parties and wanted justice even as the FBI was breathing down their necks. From what was sent and received they seemed to have loved each other, been angry, disappointed, forgave and loved again. Relationships of equals.

Sometimes in old age my mother would say she was looking for a friend. Not that she didn’t have wonderful friends: Estelle who is making a film about her now, Bonnie who did so much to keep her at home, Morgan the saw player. But once she became the Fort Knox of Folk Music, the head of the San Francisco Folk Music Club, the recipient of the Noam Chomsky Peace Prize these were not quite relationships of equals. And power can corrupt.

I also like the earlier mother for selfish reasons. Shortly after she died I found a note she had written to herself.  I was visiting with my daughter who was young. My mother was having a hard time with that visit.   For comfort, she listed the qualities she liked about about me and those she didn’t. The didn’t like list had a dozen items. The like list had four – none substantial Do I wish it had been buried with her? I don’t know. I think not.

In that earlier time, when I am ten and she is not yet a folk star, she writes a letter to a man she loved giving news of her life. This one is the gold. “Carol is lovely,” she says.

 

 

 

What My Father Left Behind  — Chris Forhan

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,
hammer he nailed our address to a stump with,
balsa wood steamship, half-finished—

is that him, waving from the stern? Well, good luck to him.
Slur of sunlight filling the backyard, August’s high wattage,
white blossoming, it’s a curve, it comes back. My mother

in a patio chair, leaning forward, squinting, threading
her needle again, her eye lifts to the roof, to my brother,
who stands and jerks his arm upward—he might be

insulting the sky, but he’s only letting go
a bit of green, a moulded plastic soldier
tied to a parachute, thin as a bread bag, it rises, it arcs

against the blue—good luck to it—my sister and I below,
heads tilted back as we stand in the grass, good
luck to all of us, still here, still in love with it.

 

 

 

…the common objects of his disregard and the hot centres of stars

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Altar, Tenderloin, San Francisco

 

Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars  — James Agee, Let us now praise famous men

 

Ever peripatetic, I land in Dallas, Texas.  Throughout the airport are strategically placed volunteers ready to direct in-comers through the confusion of corridors.  The volunteers wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots and smiles.  I don’t expect to like them, but I do.  How can I not?  They are ripe with humour and good will.

After two glorious months in Dublin, I am back in the United States to deal again with my unfortunate choice in tenants.

Even before I arrive in San Francisco, I find myself greeted by the question that shadowed me as I left:  what part do I have of this country, whose people I like so much and whose government treats them so often with disregard and contempt?

Life in San Francisco is seductive: the expanse of ocean, the Mission where people are kind enough to understand my Spanish, the great roll of fog through the Gate, sunset among the decorous wine drinkers on Tank Hill, more affordable restaurants than I could ever eat my way through, North Beach and it’s memories, the vegetable markets of Clement Street, the free box at Green Apple Books, and, a glory and a prophylactic against my final surrender, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

The library —  light filled, book filled, talk sponsoring, exhibit hosting  — rises with Beaux Arts grandeur on the edge of the city of the damned. In the morning, people who’ve slept rough roll up their bedding on the grass that runs between the library and the gilded dome of San Francisco City Hall.

Up a block is the Tenderloin, euphemistically referred to as an area of single room occupancy hotels and apartment houses, also referred to as an area of drug dealing, prostitution, history, poverty, and despair.  Midday finds long lines for a free meal.

In the afternoons on the library steps and in the shade of the trees across the street, the homeless sit.  They are identifiable by the mounds of personal belongings that sit beside them.  At times there is someone on a corner or leaning against a lamp post or at the bus stop or in the street who can’t take it any more, who is gesturing, mumbling, waving, yelling or weaving among the cars.

Without the library and its environs, I would become inured,  seduced and captured by the American cornucopia.

Strung across the library’s lobby is a banner proclaiming. “Anyone can get a library card.”  Anyone can roll in with their possessions and anyone does.   Anyone can sit at the internet computers.  Anyone can fill the desks with books.  Anyone can use the bathrooms.  Anyone can charge a phone. Researchers, browsers, aspiring novelists (me), students, use the library alongside the library’s neighbours, people with nowhere else to go.

The library,  vestige of a vanishing communality, a place in which we are all briefly equal, provides a balm for the rawness I feel at my comparative privilege — given to me by education, skin colour, and luck.

It is a  self serving comfort and of no use.  It is not nearly as helpful as the small cheques my mother wrote every few months to antipoverty campaigns, women’s rights groups, environmental warriors, cheques so small that their value was probably used up in the regular snail mailings of free calendars, petitions, address labels, membership cards, and appeals for more money  such donation’s attract.

Recently, leaving the library, I see a figure on the on the street at the foot of the Pioneers Monument that stands, its Eureka rampant, between the library and the Asian Art Museum.

I and two homeless men go over. It is a girl in a foetal curl. Her black trousers are pulled down slightly, exposing her lower back. The trousers are worn and have the patina of street. I can see a tattoo, an edge of breast, the very short hair on the back of her head.  A mobile phone is held tightly to her ear. She is alive, she is conscious. The two men and I stand a while considering what we can do. In the end we do nothing.

It seems to me the perfect cypher for me in America. I’m here, I know there is a problem and I don’t know what to do.

 

Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars: All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defence, the enormous assaults of the universe.
 
 
So that how can it be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how is it that a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a continuation and cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another, does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate and not forever to worship.
 
James Agee, Let us now praise famous men