Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Well....As Hamlet Would Say...
"What Is This Quintessence Of Dust?"

I’ve been writing about an older woman I knew who died last September at age 96. I’ve been dealing with her estate, and all of her personal effects, for the past year. Let me tell you another story about this woman.

Her parents were from Russia, and they came to this area at a time of great turmoil in their country. Her teenaged mother had fled their burning village during the Russian Revolution with only a copper pot and pillow. She was smuggled out and never to see her family again. I knew her mother, as well. When "Granny" was in her last week of life (and she lived to be a grand old age,) she reverted back to speaking only Russian, and she kept talking to her mother (whom she hadn’t seen since she was seventeen) up high in the corner of the hospital room. She had once told me when I was a young girl that she loved her mother so much, she would put two chairs together to sleep next to her. I found the copper pot in the basement about a month or two ago.

I had heard about this pot for quite some time. You can't imagine how I felt when I found it. Realizing that this teenage girl ran from her village during a revolution. Never saw her family again. And she entered this country with only a pillow and this pot. To paraprhase Nabokov, "Speak, History."

They ran a little Mom and Pop store named after their daughter over on A Street on Capitol Hill. When they died, they were buried in this really old cemetery over off Benning Road which is a part of D.C. you don’t want to linger in, not even the residents, not even during the day. Things were so bad, they had to keep the cemetery gates locked, so to visit you would have to call the caretaker and meet him there so he could let you in…and wait to let you out. And yes, I've heard of muggings and murders in graveyards. We aren't even safe with the dead.

Several times I was asked to go with the lady so I could re-landscape the gravesite. It was a very dark, dank, dismal place to be. High iron gates, a lot of overgrown vegetation. Leaning markers. Very little sunlight (so shade plants) and always the danger some “youth” would come through the back way and attack you. I was never comfortable there. The place reeked of neglect and being forgotten and lost in this changed world where it was plopped down under lock and key. Everything said “stay away.”

All of this upset the lady greatly. She wanted to be able to visit her parents in peace. She decided she would unplant them and move them to a cemetery not far from where she lived. Her family was there, all in a row: her sister, her brother-in-law and her niece. She approached her spiritual leader about how to go about this, and he forbade it; saying it was against religious law…which was hogwash on toast.

What was odd, (to me,) was that she had worked for Congress in the 1930’s…up through the 1970’s. She never married, was a career woman and very opinionated and strong minded; i.e. not a woman to hold her tongue, but just lay it right out there. She had subscribed to The Village Voice since it’s inception. The same for Rolling Stone. Very attuned to her culture. I have to admit it's interesting to know that you can yell at Bush on the television when you're ninety. She was highly political, and even in the last weeks of her life, loathing Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes to the end. She desperately wanted to be well enough to vote in the last Presidential election and she missed the opportunity by weeks. I thought about her a lot on that day.

Her parents had been Orthodox, but she never really pursued religion until after her mother died. This adherence and obedience to a controlling bully, I could never understand. There are so many stories I could tell against this man, but won’t. While I never called him a self absorbed, lazy creep to her face, I did tell her to go ahead and move her parents, because it was so important to her. She never did, and she carried that upset with her to the end.

In the last year of her life, she lost her teeth, and we went through hell with that. It took a good nine months to replace them (a lot of trips to the dentist on day’s off,) as she was so frail and it was hard to get accurate measurements. It was also an out of pocket expense, so a lot of sacrifice on the part of everyone to get this done. And when the teeth were done? She wouldn’t wear them.

A few weeks ago, I was in her basement: bad lighting, overheated and tossing, tossing, storing, and I found a pair of teeth. I had to wonder. “Are these hers?” I showed them to her nephew, and he held them up to the light, much as Hamlet hoisted that skull, and he said, “No. This is my grandmother.”

Later that night, the nephew said, “I think we should go to the cemetery where she is buried, and bury Granny’s teeth there.” You have to understand. I’ve been doing quirky things like this my entire life, so I was game. Soooo…this past weekend I said to the nephew, “Let’s go bury the teeth” because it was the week of her birthday.

As bizarre as this seems, I hope I am doing things like this when I’m eighty, because it sure keeps life interesting. I’ve dug graves in my past, I’ve landscaped them, and now I’m doing burials. So yeah…..we didn’t get Granny replanted next to her daughters….but on the other hand….we did.

Postscript: I went to see my dentist this morning. He's originally from India and into high tech interactive server everything. Huge enthusiasm about you name it. I got a tour of his new offices, very modern, very elegant, and we talked about all that he had done. He just kills me. He has got "a guy" for everything: "You like that tile? I got that from a guy in Philadelphia who knows a guy in Italy. You need a plumber? Call my guy. Computer tech? Carpenter? Jewels? I've got a guy in Jaipur." His wife is a pip, too.

I was telling him the story above, and he listened and nodded--he got it, then he told me his story. In moving his offices, he was getting rid of some things, including plaster molds of teeth. One set belonged to a young man of eighteen that had died not long ago. He was driving on River Road in Potomac at 3 a.m. and hit a tree. The car burst into flames and he died trapped inside. My doctor had kept the mold because it was an interesting dental correction, and in the end, the parents sent the police to him to identify the young man's remains through his dental records. He had just completed this sad task, so it was still fresh in his mind. He hated to toss the molds, but it was obviously a very sensitive thing to ask the parents about; i.e. "Do you want your son's dental molds?" He approached them with delicacy, and in the end they did want them.

He understood my story completely. I told him, "I have my own plaster molds, and my mother's molds, on a shelf on one of my bookcases." They make an interesting conversation piece." Then we stood and both of us took pictures with my camera of the beautiful vista out his office windows. "Look at that sky," he said. "I need that sky."

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

OM-elette Or
Suburban Satori

Back in August, I read about a website that I thought would be fun to participate in. It's called Book Crossing, and the idea is you register a book you wish to give away, (you can print numbered labels,) then you seal the book in plastic (if you wish) and find a spot and leave it, waiting to see if the finder goes back to the website to acknowledge the find and keep. Their term for this is a "travelling book," and if the book is never recorded as "found," then it is called "wild." At first I focused on the idea of someone recording the find and how cool that would be, but then I went into a more "release and giving" mode and found acceptance in letting the book go on it's way into the world.

I had been watching over a senior citizen who died last year, and in the process of cleaning out her house, I also had to deal with her voluminous book collection. I had done so much with all of her books: let friends come in and pick and choose, selling them on Amazon (which I continue to do,) and taking a lot of bags and boxes to local libraries where you get a tax deduction for their resale rooms. My friends were done, so I was pretty much reduced to winnowing out for library donation, but I thought, "Book Crossing might be more fun," and it appealed to my sense of street art.

Let me explain. I've always been a big fan of projects where you do something that goes back out into the world. One thing I've done for years is whenever I am on a beach, I bury pennies. This started at the ocean when I would see those elderly men with their metal sweepers and massive earphones, searching for pieces of eight and Spanish doubloons. I would get a little ahead of these men, dig, dig, digging (sometimes including a nickle,) then sit back and watch them come towards me. Eureka! El Dorado!

Another project I do on Cape Cod in Massachusetts is carving these elaborate pumpkins for Halloween, then after the season has past, going back to retrieve the pumpkins from people who were recipients, then leave them in Colonial cemeteries: on stone walls by the side of the road, or up in the branches of a lichen covered trees, or sitting on a skull tombstone aslant.

Cape Cod and beaches are rife with these ideas. I would also go to a toy or craft store and buy oh....1,000 marbles. KMart sold a set where different kinds each had their own little tray: cat's eyes and auggies and such and then in the center, the King of Marbles. A large black marble covered with opalescence sheen, and every evening when I went for a walk at sunset along Cape Cod Bay at low tide, I would toss some marbles out far into the water. My last night there was always reserved for King Marble. My hope was they would make their way back to the rocky shore and perhaps a few summers later, a lucky child searching for shells would find a marble--maybe even scrubbed down to plain glass. Even if they didn't come back, at the very least a curiosity for the lobsters.

I've gone into woods and created art in nature, leaving maps for the person receiving the gift to go on a treasure hunt. I was going to do one of those this Spring and ran out of time, so I can't describe it for now, since it's on hold for next year. So leaving things out for others to find was not a novel idea to me and leaving books seemed appealing.

I thought the elderly lady would like it, too. A few years back, I had gathered up a ton of books she was finally willing to release. Her idea was to donate Judaica books to her temple. Her rabbi, always the pill, demanded that someone provide him with a list of every book: it's title, author, publishing information and a brief summary, for his review. I do believe I cursed the man through the whole ordeal, and I know a control freak when I see one. More on him later this week.

Given the generous nature of this woman, and the breadth of the books she was offering him--basically an entire library, I thought surely he could find someone to do this for him, but...."no," so during a very hot period in August, I had to box up all of the books, (and I was recovering from a back injury,) haul them out to my car, haul them into my home, unbox them, create these "lists," rebox and wait. He did accept them, and then I had to haul them over to the synagogue where I believe, to this day, they continue sitting in a large storage space.

I half thought about approaching him about creating a memorial library for the old lady, since she was kind enough to give him this gift, but I'd fear he'd demand me removing them, following her death, and I was not opening the lid on that jar of herring. The sad thing is, they were great books: religious, history, novels, children, language, cookery...every aspect of Jewish life and most "like new" in condition. I could go on about this man, but won't out of respect for the dead, but to say he's a piece of work is not even beginning to tell his tale.

The first book I chose to release, (or travel,) was a book on meditation. At first I was going to leave it on an outdoor bench at a Buddhist Kaikon. Then I remembered a little park with a duck pond the lady had always enjoyed, and it was situated in an Orthodox community, so I drove there to leave the book. The day of the drop, it was just me and ducks for the most part, and the book is still listed as "wild" although I am sure someone took it and didn't follow through.

The letting go felt right. I am sure the ducks were thinking, "If that's not Wonder Bread, stop bugging us." And thus ended my first book drop, and I've done another since, which I will write about later this week. It involves feet washing and Charlton Heston.

The new Zen goose: We don't migrate. We meditate.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

She's A Brainiac, Altair

Last week, my friend Reya over at Blog Gold Puppy was talking about the luxury of time, and how she often tries to slow things down to enjoy them more. I wrote back, telling her how I try to stay in a "patience" zone and absorb the moment when I am doing those things she described. I always felt my late father was rushing through his life, with each event being hurried along. The first to arrive at a party, (and positively antsy to get there,) then once there, he couldn't wait for it to end.

I told Reya that I listen and watch a lot to what is going on around me, trying to understand what it means and stay sensitive to it; seeing the big picture, as it were. A few years back, I read an article about animal's "rhythms" and how their heartbeats were slower than humans, so it helped to move more slowly around them in every way. I tested it out and I found dogs, cats, horses and squirrels very responsive to it. It even worked on crows who are incredibly wary around humans. They tend to scatter when you are near, and for a few years I was able to study crow behavior--and, I would add, they are highly socialized, community driven birds.

Older people respond to slowness, as well. The only contrary thing I would add is that you have to speak louder, but still slowly. Slow and loud. I've been caregiver to some seniors, and I've been working on the estate of one who died last year. Once again into the fray of emptying out a house and handling once loved possessions, not without it's own sadnesses. I'll be writing an oddball story about one such moment later this week.

The other day I was doing a drop at the library book depository. Recently, they had added medium sized rocks between the curb and the sidewalk, and I had made a note to myself what a treacherous bit of land this had become; especially involving feet, ankles and knees. I had twisted my right ankle the other day (thinking with relief when I did so, "Whew...that was a close one,") only I must have sprained it, because it remains weakened, and I am still wary of it, not giving it full weight, so I was carrying around my own slowness.

There was a minivan parked in front of me with it's side door opened, and I thought "Soccer Mom," only a little old lady was inside, removing her books to return. She was dressed rather nattily in black Bermuda shorts and a pressed cotton top, but her legs were skeletal; that cliché of skin and bone. I watched her cross the rocks and saw how her feet tilted unsteadily, so as she made her way back to her car (and I practiced "stillness" in standing, waiting--wishing not to startle,) I said to her, "These rocks are highly impractical in terms of crossing them to get to the sidewalk."

She looked into my eyes for the longest time. Then she said, "Would you mind repeating what you just said to me?" So I did. Another pause. Another long stare. At this point I had the sense I was gazing into the innards of a dated computer: watching synapses firing, seeing lights bounce. Point A to Point B to Point....then she said, in a very formalized, very slow voice, (but well ennunciated) "I concur with your assessment."

I had to stare back, thinking, "There is your future." I held back while she returned to her car, wondering how she even maneuvered such a heavy vehicle. While I waited, I took out my camera and shot a picture of the shrub next to the book depository. For some reason, it struck me as "brain like" in it's appearance. I shot a close-up of the brain shrub, as well. After all, I was in slow mode and waiting my time through this event. I don't know why, but those branches were like a symbol of what I had just experienced.

A few days ago, once again at the book drop, I got out of the car and saw this:

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

September's Baccalaureate
A combination is
Of Crickets--Crows--and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze

That hints without assuming--
An Inneundo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.
~~ Emily Dickinson

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