…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

oh antic God….

Book stall Madrid, Spain)

Book Stall, Madrid (c) Carole Craig

 

oh antic God, return to me my mother in her thirties —  Lucille Clifton

A year and a day: put off the black, fold back the weeping veil. It is finished, final, over, done. The ashes are scattered, the book is closed, the bell takes back its tongue.

I find nothing final in this moment. There is the slow seep of sadness and a fresh mingling of my mother’s life and mine.

In San Francisco I have taken to selling things. Not by choice. I rented to a tenant who took me in dangerous dislike – I am told he wants to see me bleed. Among his many revenges was the building inspector and thereby the discovery of a myriad of things done to my mother’s house as acts of love and friendship, as acts of gratitude to Faith Petric folksinger that must now be undone, repaired, rectified, approved and stamped.

It will cost more money than I personally have. Her second best guitar will go, the ‘guilute’ she carried and played in Ireland more times than I can count, the large, loved Morris Graves painting, the small collection of silver dollars, the Chinese figures, books and more books, both hers and mine.

For making me really look at the books, I can be almost grateful to the tenant. They would have languished forever on the ToDo shelf, unmarked and undiscovered. I never would have known, for example, that her father gave her a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam for Christmas in 1939. She was deeply angry at him all of my life, for good reason I believe, and I never heard a good word about him. I don’t know if he gave her The Rubaiyat because it was popular then or if it was unusual and he recognised that it would suit his unusual, intelligent, estranged, daughter. It is the Edward Fitzgerald version, boxed and illustrated. It might fetch a pretty penny, but won’t be going. For the first time ever, I have a link with my grandfather.

The ten small blue volumes of the World’s Thousand best Poems (1929 and arranged alphabetically) will go, without regret, but I am sorry to lose the leather bound Scrapbook of Elbert Hubbard, socialist, anarchist and follower of William Morris.

That sadness is not just because the book, printed on Hubbard’s own press in true Arts and Crafts fashion, is a symbol of much that I hold dear, but because it, and so much else in the collection, represents my mother’s younger, intellectually aroused self.

By the time she and I could have real conversations, she held her ideas firmly and saw my desire to discuss them as a threat. The variety of books is comforting, they show me that we once had that need to question in common after all.

In fact, as I come speedily up to my 70th birthday, I see the same questions for my life that I see in my dead mother’s: what gives meaning and coherence to living?

I find among her things a note written to herself at 2am on the 7th of July, 1949. “It is as if, through all my life,” she writes, “there has run a kind of paralysis. I am sitting in a room at 223 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, doing nothing. (Nothing, that is, that ‘matters’ or of the things I tell myself I should do ….)”

I inhabit that feeling intimately, life consumed in the living of it.

For my mother in July of 1949 it was her messy drawers, my toys that needed mending. Later, it was “her desk” and reading and answering endless, endless emails.

I don’t know, – because she never, aloud, admitted she was dying, never summed up, imparted wisdom, said goodbye – if at the end she thought she had done what mattered. Whether for her,  her life trailed off into a mist of undone “should’s” or felt complete, finished, done.

 

oh antic God – Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.

That’s why I came here, bringing nothing.

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

 

“That’s why I came here bringing
nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.” Ken Smith — Possessions

The eyrie that was my mother’s room has been visited by disaster – drawers open, clothes scattered, papers sliding to the floor. It is as though she died in a cataclysm, not peacefully, in bed, sung to, cared for, loved. I should have foreseen that death, even quiet death, is catastrophic, cyclonic uprooting and displacing the familiar and the known.

I travel through like a rescue team sifting debris. Triage: what from this life can be saved? Not the carefully coiled lengths of string, the dry ballpoint pens, the bits of paper cut into squares for notes no larger than ten words, the calendar pages so handy for making envelops decorated with the sticker that admonishes the receiver to “Save Trees!”

Grey areas are harder. Who will want the pile of unused Christmas cards, a tape recorder, two plastic kites, the tangled and never worn strings of beads, the fifty, at least, tee shirts, stamped with organizations joined, festivals attended, trips taken, politics engaged?

“I grew up in the depression,” my mother said. Waste not want not.

There are things less easy to explain: Christmas lists beginning in 1954 and going on for every year thereafter, the presents given and the cost, the receipts in an envelopes attached with decaying paper clips; a box with a folder for every significant illness endured; monthly outgoings 1954 to 1965 and for Mexico in 1945; carefully inscribed lists of cards received; the complete contacts for a tour of England 1980; twenty unused covers for the San Francisco Folk Music Club Directory, 1971; the minutes from a PTA meeting, 1952.

Why? They seem a burden. If she didn’t keep the evidence would the life itself disappear?

On the ground floor, behind the hundred year old leaded glass, among the clay figures from China and the miniature Mexican children’s toys, are open necked bottles that in the 1960’s and 70’s held cheap wine. Did they hold memories for her?

In the basement are drawers full of shells, in the garden jars of stones. The jars, metal lids rusted tight, sit on wire shelves hung on the fence. There are more jars of stones under the sink that serves as a potting table, so green that their contents have disappeared; other jars sit precariously on the wooden cross beam of the fence. The stones in the jars are grey, white, red, brown smooth, rough, broken, whole; there are abalone shells, fracturing rainbows, whole sand dollars and the plain shells of clams, oysters, and mussels. Nothing is valuable or rare or even arrestingly beautiful.

The picture of my mother on my wall in Dublin is of her sitting on a rock at Stinson Beach, palm open, head down, looking for pretty pebbles. The stones and shells I understand.

In the days before she died, my mother’s time was filled with dreams, knotted memory and fear. She was on a cliff, afraid of falling. Once when waking, she was puzzled. There were people at the bottom. She was worried about them. We had to discover who they were. One was once dear but from the long past, the other a friend who had disappointed her. “I still feel responsible for them,” she said.

I think this is the heart of the stones and shells. She had gathered the stones collected the shells, touched them and altered their course. In her moral universe it would have been wrong to discard them because they had become inconvenient or dusty and took up too much space or because she had too many. She was responsible for them. A moral imperative: you must take care of what you touch.

Several years ago, tired of so many, I made her a rock garden with some of them. It was not a success and now I am planting flowers there. The stones and shells have become mixed with earth. To find them all, I have to sift the soil and it takes a long time. Carefully, I put stones and shells in empty pots until I find them the right resting place — my mother’s daughter after all.

Possessions — Ken Smith

They spent my life plotting against me.

With nothing to do but cultivate them,

but to be there, aligning their shadows,

they were planning to undo me,

wanting to own me completely.

They have marched through the rooms,

their presences litter the surfaces

close at my elbow calling attention.

When I sleep they being with their meetings,

when I leave home they hold a convention.

The minutes, the notes, the chairman

calls order, the lamps signal aye. When I die

they’ll start in on another,

easy at first learning his ways.

Now they’re gone, taken from me, good luck.

IIf I kept them I’d never be free. I’d die


and have to begin picking everything up,


all the waste paper, baby teeth, beards,


I’d have to go back for the fingernails.

So I’m shut of them, all the gossip and malice

the tables, the chairs with their jokes on me.

All the prying, the scanals. The telephone

stored it all up, the books lied to me.

Thats why I came here, bringing

nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.

I saved only a few smells of tobacco

and blankets, a dream of a waterfall,

a length of ribbon, my name, my number,

the holes in my suitcase.

Ken Smith

“The worst of it is over now,

kensal angel
Kensal Green (c) carole craig
“The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad.   Amy Hempel, BG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP 

I don’t know how to grieve. Perhaps I lost the knowledge when my daughter was very ill and there were times, many times, when it wasn’t clear if she would live or die.  I would come back from the hospital, lie on the bed, and wrap my arms around the dog.  After awhile, I would get up and go on with the inconsequential tasks of living. I believed, egotistically, and probably erroneously, that if I went down into the pit, fell into the abyss, if I didn’t keep going, my daughter wouldn’t either.

With my mother it is different, of course.  My daughter lived, my mother died.  Since her death I’ve filled time with the things to be done: papers to find, papers to sign; her cremation and her wake (yes, in that order),  papers to send, papers to examine, her garden to save, her house to repair, her memorial to plan, her plants to water, her friends to find the right words for. “It was a good, long life, a triumph,” I say.  “She was herself until the very end.”

It is not that I don’t recognise that something is wrong.   I talk too much. I don’t call my friends. I say the stupid things and have to apologise often.   I take the dogs on the short walks only.  I can’t sleep.  I don’t play with the cat. I can’t clean my mother’s room. I sleep too much. I can’t clean my own room.  I almost remember my dreams.   The basement is full of dust.  I don’t cry.

I hoped the Day of the Dead might me teach something.  In the Mission,   people whose faces have been painted white like sugar skulls follow Choc Mool.  When the line arrives at the square, brimming with its alters, its photographs, its candles, it as though some darkness has been conquered, the zombies smothered in a blanket of love. Next year, I think, maybe, I can put something there for my mother there.

But I don’t feel any different and I get on with the jobs.

There is a meeting to plan my mother’s memorial.  We discuss the tickets and who will perform.  What is needed and how to get it.  These are intelligent, competent people.  They loved her. She will enjoy her memorial and I can leave it in their hands.  When the meeting is over I walk out into strange, dark Berkeley and realise that I have now done everything for my mother I had to do.  There is nothing left.  For the first time I am profoundly empty. I am bereft.

I am of the nature to die.

Faith at her 98th birthday party (c) Carole Craig

Faith at her 98th birthday party (c) Carole Craig

I am of the nature to die.  There is no way to escape death.   Buddha

Faith died at midnight on the 24th of October.  It is a date she would have liked.  When I was ten years old she took  me from school  for half a day because someone had given her tickets to the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the official founding of the United Nations —  24th, October, 1945.

It was held at the San Francisco Opera House.  In the way of many UN functions, individual countries got up and made speeches nominally about the subject at hand.  Such speeches  are usually small or large shots of propaganda about that particular nation’s own way of doing things.

And here I need to pause in this story to emphasise that my mother was in no way a Stalinist.   She wanted justice for everyone — her life is a testimony to that.  From the great distance at which she lived it was still possible to think the Soviet Union might be a good bet.   

When the Soviet representative got up to speak the name Vlaldimir Lenin appeared.  In the dim auditorium, among the official representatives, well dressed power brokers, and those who had obtained tickets because they believed,  in the middle of McCarhyite America, there was the sound of someone clapping.   It was my mother.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.

There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

  • Buddha –
    – Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh

Note:  There are two more posts to record the arc of Faith’s dying.  One I had roughed out before we were told she had hours or days and another to describe how we spent  the last times.

Then, I presume, there will be more about the contours of loss.

If you cannot teach me to fly…

Image

Faith at Free Folk Festival 2013

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”   attributed to J.M. Berrie, Peter Pan

For a while now it has seemed that my mother’s firmly held belief that she would recover from old age might have something to it.  This upward swing came after a concert in her honor followed by a standing ovation from the folk music club of which she was chief protector, organizer and bottle washer for decades.   Music and admiration: her elixir vitae.

My earliest memories of my mother as a singer is the feel of coats. Rough, outdoor coats laid high on beds where I slept.  Prickly, but wonderful to burrow under when tired of adults talking, in all senses, over my head.  My mother took two things to parties in the early days: me and her guitar.

I remember only one song from that time and that not for the music:  Goodnight Irene by Leadbelly, blues guitarist extraordinaire.  My mother knew Leadbelly in New York, was better friends with his wife and somehow mixed with the singing of his song was the story that Leadbelly’s wife taught my mother “you could lead any man in the world down the street when you had him by the balls.” I spent a great deal of time under the coats trying to form an image to match that piece of information.

When I was older I sang some songs with my mother;  I had taught myself to read music at the age of five and was told I was a good singer with natural harmony. When I was nine my mother replaced me.  Nothing explained, not a word, just my babysitter was always asked to sing and not me.  I never carried a tune after that, don’t sing and every instrument I touched put something in front of my mouth.  When the folk music club began to meet at my mother’s house every other week, the relationship, as one might imagine, was somewhat strained.  Not only did they treat our home as though it was a public amenity, but they were a reminder that I had been weighed and found wanting in what mattered to my mother most.

There were still advantages: backstage passes at festivals, a few encounters with the famous. The one I remember best was Kris Kristofferson (newly coming to fame) and Ramblin Jack Elliot (friend and student of Woodie Guthrie, friend and teacher of Bob Dylan) spending the night because the toilet backed up and they were ones who unplugged it.

It was only after my mother broke her hip last year that I began to see the club in its constituent parts, the help and affection for her from its members.  And it was at this last concert, the one that pushed her uphill, that the outpouring finally touched me.

The last song of the set was Carl Williams’s It’s a Pleasure to Know You  which has been her signature farewell since she started letting go of parts of her old life.

My mother is in a wheel chair at the front, someone is holding a mike for her, everyone in the room is standing and singing.  Not just people from the club, but people who have been a part of my life: people I travelled in the circus with, people who supported me when I discovered I was pregnant, people who were there for me when my daughter was ill.  And there are tears running down my face at the sweet sadness of my mother’s good bye.  And I’m singing.

(link my mother singing It’s a Pleasure to Know You 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbVeyG0DH_A)