Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Glories of Christmas, gifts past and yet to be.

We all go through some hard times. Perhaps not like we are about to experience, but hard. Hard times teach us things that otherwise we would not probably learn.

This Christmas many people are buying less. Many families are buying just one gift for each child instead of filling up the places under the Christmas tree. All of us will learn unexpected lessons in the months and years to come as our nation is humbled. If you had not guessed, that is going to happen.

I suspect that those lessons learned will eventually be viewed not as deprivation but as experiences that refocused us, enriching our lives in ways we did not imagine possible. Hardships bring their own kinds of gifts.

Many children are now learning what it means to have a job far earlier than they imagined it would be necessary. And yet the most significant correlation between future success and experience is how early you held a job and carried it out successfully.

Working is no hardship.

You could say that my first job was ironing handkerchiefs and shirts for my sister. I received $.01 per kerchief, $.15 per dress shirt. At first it took a long time for each kerchief and shirt. I got better and faster.

This was before anything was permanently pressed. I was around seven years old then and my mother used to move the ironing board down as low as possible to accommodate me. I piled the kerchiefs up carefully and buttoned up the shirts so they would not wrinkle.

My next job was selling lemonade and candy bars. The lemons were free. I walked to Savon to buy the candy bars; three for a dime, selling them for a nickel each. We had a lemon tree in the back yard at that point in time. The lemon tree figured in a special part of my life when I was young. Not only did I climb the tree and pick lemons to make that lemonade, I learned important things there.

Along with working I learned the most important lessons life held for me from things I saw, experienced, and learned from people around me.

There were lots of reasons to climb the lemon tree. I climbed that tree for the smell and for the hidey place that Mother had not figured out yet. In a large family alone time is hard to come by.

The tree did not fork for about four feet so at that point in my life getting up to a branch was a little tricky. This involved either a running start or jumping. After getting a firm grip on the lower branch I would haul myself up and into the cocoon of leaves that made a small cave. I had discovered that I could not be seen when I was there if I was quiet and remained still. I had pointed out this advantage to my friend, Jimmy.

Jimmy is James Dean. To the world at large he is an actor but he was my best friend when I was little. Sometimes, though not nearly often enough, Jimmy came over for lunch and to talk to my mother and to me. A visit usually meant a walk in the back yard to view the roses; Mom was always fighting mighty battles with the aphids there and Jimmy was one of the few people who was interested in those battles. I had told him about the hidey place in the lemon tree. He had nodded. Hiding places were things he had enjoyed, too. But living on a farm he had many more than were available to me in a house in the suburbs.

After I was in the little cocoon I would curl my feet into the crook between the branches and put my face against the bark. That was where the smell was strongest, but I knew that when I climbed down I would carry the smell around with me for the rest of the day, taking it to bed with me.

I think of this as the afternoon of the Lemon Tree. I climbed the lemon tree while Jimmy was finishing up drying dishes with Mom in the house.

I could see out when the wind moved the leaves. While I was lying there soaking up the scent of lemon Jimmy came out and looked around. I did not move. Then he laid down on the grass just where the Avocado Tree cast its shade onto the lawn. It was very green then and the longest it was allowed to get because the next day Father would cut it. The dandelions had been busy and several golden little crowns of flower were nodding right there in the grass. Jimmy put his arms behind his head and sighed a big sigh. His eyes closed. I kept watching him, not speaking. He made snoring sounds but I knew he was not really asleep. He liked to pretend.

Then he sat up. He looked right at me in the lemon tree though I was sure he couldn't really see me. Then he said, “Trees breathe.” He said it long, dragging out the sounds of the words and making them kind of scary. I looked around me. The tree had not changed. I could not hear anything that sounded like breathing. He said it again. “Trees breathe.” This time he made little gasping and choking noises like he was dying and collapsed down onto his back.

That was too much. I jumped down and walked over to him. He sat up as soon as I dropped out of the tree. I put my fists on my hips and said, “Trees do not breathe. I have never heard any tree breathe.” I was annoyed. Jimmy was saying things that were not true, I thought.

Jimmy said for the third time but this time he said it differently, smoothly with no scary in it at all. “Trees breathe; they breath in light,” he glanced up, not looking at me but past me to the sky and the sun, “and breathe out life.” With that he looked back at me and gently blew right into my face.

I sat down on the grass, still looked at him, waiting for him to say more. I knew he would. Jimmy did not just say something and expect me to accept it without explanation.

Jimmy went on to explain to me that trees use the energy of the sun to make oxygen, which we breathe in to our lungs to keep us alive. Oxygen, he said, is like the sun flowing through us and since it comes from trees and other green, growing things, it unites us with the lovely green world of grass and trees and all of the growing things on Earth.

“That includes dandelions,” he said. He plucked one right then and handed it to me. I looked at it. It had so many slender little petals reaching out from the middle like tiny arms. I touched the center with my finger and then with my nose. The center was soft like a piece of velvet I kept in the bottom of a little box in my bedroom for storing precious things.

Dandelions are nearly the same color as lemons, I thought. I smelled it. It did not smell like lemon but I liked it. I sniffed again, smelling for the life it had breathed in along with the sunlight.

Gifts can come in boxes under the Christmas Tree but they come in other ways, too. The Story of the Lemon Tree was a gift from Jimmy.

Jimmy stopped coming over to the house in 1955 due to unavoidable circumstances.

Making gifts out of not much was something Jimmy taught me. I had the dandelion for many years, until it fell into a pile of dust.

When I was still in college and the economy was grinding to a stop in 1970 I faced one Christmas with just $5.47 for buying presents for family and friends.

At that point in my life, as you can see, I counted every penny.

I loved giving presents and spent a lot of time thinking about what would please the person to be gifted.

Fortunately, I was handy with a needle, although I did not have access to a sewing machine.

Since I had so little money I innovated, making little rosettes filled with highly aromatic, rose scented powder out of scraps left from other projects. I stuffed then with cotton left over from bottles of pills I had thriftily saved. These would have served, just as they were to lavishly scent drawers filled with delicate hosiery and such but I looked at what I had available and bought for the three ladies on my list, my mother and two sisters, clear glass containers into which I poured bath salts I had bought in bulk for $.59. The three glass containers I got on sale for $.39 each.

I tied the cachets on the tops. They looked very nice and delighted their recipients.

I don't remember what I made for my brothers, but it cost less than $.56 each. For my father I bought a plastic butter dish, filling it with scrolls of jobs I would do for him, when he needed them. One was sweeping out the garage, I remember.

Dad had once told me he wanted a butter dish like this for the cabin. He understood, though no one else did. They all scratched their heads. He smiled. Dad always understood.

The best gifts are the ones that become part of who you become. The people in our lives are, themselves, gifts.

Have a Merry Christmas, filled with glorious gifts, given and received.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

From a Tiny Tear to the End of America's Fascist State – How to extract yourself from the Web Corporate Greed.

Halloween, 1976 was special. I had made princess outfits for the girls, then two and three. They were excited by the promises of sweets to be plopped into their own little plastic pumpkins. Dawn, the oldest, dressed as a small version of Snow White, asked what she was to do when the pumpkin was too full. I told her I would take a pillow case. Pausing, she told me to take two. Dawn remains an optimist today.
Trick-or-Treating was always fun. The kids and costumes always made you smile. But that Halloween we had a special added feature. Mom, that was me, had made special Halloween literature to pass out with the Trick-or-Treat announcement. The kids had that down cold. They had passed out their first literature with their first anti-tax rally the April 15th before.
Our Presidential candidate was Roger MacBride.
Roger was a jolly candidate. The adopted grandson of Laura Ingalls Wilder, he was then often in Los Angeles working on the TV Series from the Little House Books. He had promised to have the National UnVictory Party right there in LA if we got him on the ballot in California. The Party was planned for the old Ambassador Hotel. We all went.
This piece of literature was brown and the front read, Caught in the Web of Higher Taxes and Inflation?” It went on to urge you to vote for Roger MacBride for President. I knew the pieces would be read. No competition and the recipients were curious, you could see that; mostly they were reading while still dropping candy into the upheld pumpkins. We did well in that precinct.
My kids were raised Libertarian. That meant that Victory Parties never were held because of the hope anyone had won, but because the campaign was finally over. Dawn and Ayn, Ayn was just 13 months younger than Dawn, were 11 and twelve before they realized that sometimes candidates won. That was a shock.
When she was 12 Dawn would insisted that 'her' candidate, Ed Clark, be included in First Lutheran Northridge's Mock Presidential Election. Ed did better there than anyplace else in the county, coming in with 20%. Dawn was always eloquent. She remains so today, but today she has moved Green with Market Attitude. Ayn is still Ayn, which means I named her correctly.
The kids knew how to fold, staple and mutilate literature, how to sort mail for bulk mailings, how to lay out newsletters, and the rudiments of boothing by the time they were eight and nine. They also could unerringly choose the right answers for what is today known as the World's Smallest Political Quiz on line. Then, we knew it as the Nolan Chart, for its originator, David Nolan, the founder of the Libertarian Party.
A stalwart Libertarian Activist, Ed Ogawa, made up the box with electronic components and switches to be used at the L.A. County Fair. It was used there, but its heaviest usage was between times at home.
Dish washing was occasionally punctuated by questions because of the Nolan Quiz and literature, as the kids got older.
“Mom, what is drug legalization?” “Mom, why do you want to get rid of people after they eat?”
“What?” Actually, I knew Libertarians who had stranger views than that. “It says we want to abolish the FED.” Oh. Explanations were always forthcoming. Had to be.
Raising children is always a challenge, especially when you persist in being different. But sometimes that political experience came in useful for real life, for instance, one day when Ayn was in 7th grade.
Ayn had a tiny glistening tear just beginning to roll down her cheek when I picked her up from school that day. The year was 1986. Ayn had been attending First Lutheran School, Northridge near our home in California since she was two years old, beginning at their pre-school, for four hours a day.
At that point she was just a few weeks from graduating into the 8th Grade, which was as far as First Lutheran went.
“Honey, what's wrong?” I has always been the kind of Mom who wanted to know about all ouchies so I could fix them. If possible.
Ayn sniffed, wiped her eye and began. “They are having the election for school officers for next year. I want to run for Secretary, but I can't.”
A campaign! One of my favorite things.
“But Honey, why can't you win?”
Ayn was and is a very intelligent girl. She received excellent grades, was diligent, hard working, responsible and full of lots of other virtues that qualified her for election to a position of responsibility. She also managed to come back in from playing still clean, no matter what she and her siblings had been up to. Ayn always looked just perfect. With long gold hair that hung in ringlets that Fra Filippo Lippi would have wanted to paint and her startling blue eyes and perfect skin she looked like a little angel. All that biological capital would be a real asset when running for office. My mind leaped ahead to the possibilities.
“Because I am not one of the IN GROUP.”
I paused, considering for a moment what to say to this outrageous assertion.
I had at that point been politically active for a long time. Starting when I had barely put down my copy of Barry Goldwater's “Conscience of a Conservative,” when I was eleven I had been on one continuous and unending campaign. The campaigns came in various kinds. I passed out literature for Goldwater, later for any candidate I thought stood for the principles of freedom, free markets, and civic rectitude. I had left the Republican Party, along with thousands of other people in 1971 because of the outrage of Nixon's Wage and Price Controls, announced on August 15th of that year. I found the LP a short while later and joined, reregistering Libertarian, while I was actually pregnant with Ayn.
Losing causes obviously did not faze me. An election that was winnable was impossibly intriguing.
Ayn thought she could not win because of a few erroneous ideas. She had accepted those ideas as true because the other kids did. I knew the four girls she was referring to. They were not stupid but neither were they particularly intelligent. One always seemed to need lots of extra tutoring. They were all blond, not ugly, and had no visible infirmities; their parents did spend a little more money on irrelevancies, like buying them far too many toys over the years. One, I recalled, had gotten no fewer than ten Cabbage Patch Dolls that she displayed to her less fortunate friends from school.
Like all cliques their 'in power' depended on ideas linked to 'things' that represented status and the assertion of same. Human social ordering is very changeable if you understand the underlying principles. Changing ideas is like changing your underwear. Easy if presented persuasively.
“Honey, you are going to run and you are going to smash the opposition.” Ayn looked up at me doubtfully. The election proved me right.
The girl Ayn ran against cried when she lost. Changing the usual practice school officials refused to announce the vote totals.
Ayn had run her campaign against the bullying presence of cliques with my help as her campaign manager. Fortuitously, this tiny clique had been very obnoxious for many years. Like I said, the kids had known each other from the time they had been in pre-school together. Voting for Ayn became an opportunity to give those in 'power' a slap down. That is irresistible to oppressed majorities.
I injected humor, picking a campaign graphic of the ugliest old woman you can possibly imagine.
Every day Ayn took a few campaign buttons to school using variations of this graphic and a joke and gave the buttons away. She reported that people were buying the buttons from each other.
Check. Attention was riveted on Ayn, the installer of a new school paradigm.
I had tried to persuade Ayn to run for School President but she had resisted the idea she could be elected to such a lofty office.
The whole election was very disturbing for the school administration; they changed the rules for elections immediately. Not that it would have mattered if I had wanted to do it again. More rules create more opportunities.
That election did persuade Ayn that she was not consigned to the nameless mass of betas. Ever after, through High School and college and today, Ayn is an alpha.
The lesson I was trying to illustrate was that ideas can change and when ideas change so does everything else, immediate circumstances and the prospects for the future.
Ideas hold lots of things in place over time. The idea that some small group of people are inherently destined to rule is just an idea a small group manged to sell to the majority. The more recent idea set wholesaled by Bush Co. and the corporations have lot to answer for. The assertion that they have some kind of special decoder ring and are therefore destined to rule are just as silly as Ayn's IN GROUP.
Change the ideas, you change the outcome. Naturally, making Bush Co., their friends and employers, cry because we eliminated their streams of income and power will be just a little more complicated but it can be done.
Project: Installing better ideas. Better ideas are those that let each of us hold our own power and build our own futures.
Doing that is not rocket science.
Centralizing all power and money through streams of income that delivered money into the hands of a bunch of people who act like cases of arrested moral development was a scheme that it took generations for them and their employees to work out. But changing it can be pretty quick.
You need to lose your illusions.
Those illusions are many; they all take you to the mind set that allows others to control you.
“Baffle them with your bullshit.” That is the strategy they have been using for longer than you can imagine.
Those who want to control you will always assume the robes of authority. Question ALL authority. That is how they sold so many trusting people on the idea that a nation founded on the idea that each of us have an absolute right to autonomy somehow ended up being subject to a government that acts like a monarchy.
Silly when you really think about it.
We can in fact change our ideas and so change the whole structure of how we organize ourselves. Doing so will cost less, leaving much more for the things we want to do for ourselves and our communities.
The tools are readily available and more are coming on line all the time.
Start looking for the alpha within. It is there, you just need to recognize it in yourself. Ask Ayn.
And this Halloween, do your own Trick-or-Treating for Ron Paul.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Finding Beauty in the Silence. With thanks to James Dean and Arthur on this anniversary.

Rob was surprised to hear that James Dean was not the angst-ridden youth he portrayed on the screen. Rob teaches meditation and that was the subject that brought up Jimmy. I was around five when Jimmy taught me to seek my inward Silence, letting all fear, sadness, uncertainty drain out as I reached into the silence behind the wind.

That is what my Dad had called it when he told me about finding it himself when he was eight. The auto accident in 1911 that killed his mother and father left him afraid of heights; he had been thrown from the car as it careened into a canyon.

Jimmy had listened to the story as we sat on the lawn one afternoon; My father had told me about hearing the Silence as he learned to climb the cliffs of Yosemite. Dad had learned from his father, who had been afraid of heights until he had been lost at 10,000 feet dangling on the torn girding of a balloon over San Francisco in 1909. Looking down, Arthur C., his uncle and adopted father, lost his fear, whipped away in the wind and wonder. That had helped Dad when he started climbing in Yosemite. I have picture of Dad when he was around nine, sitting with his feet dangling into nothingness on Overhanging Rock.

Jimmy understood.

Jimmy was the person who told me that the same Silence connected me to God.

Much later I realized that the Friends he talked about that day were Quakers. He had learned about the Silence in Meeting. Sometimes it takes a while for things to connect when you don't understand the terms. I was raised Congregationalist.

My conversations with Jimmy ranged over many subjects in the years I knew him. I remember each of those conversations. I remember the excitement of rolling the ideas around in my mind, tasting them, examining them from different angles. I stored them up, taking them out to examine frequently. Each brought with it trains of other new ideas, each leading inevitably and logically to others.

Over the years I learned that ideas lead you in new directions, to discover unexpected beauty in things you thought were completely ordinary.

Rob, who is also a Buddhist priest, was surprised to hear how Jimmy described the process of photosynthesis. “Trees breathe; They breathe in light – and breathe out life.” Jimmy had told me that on an earlier occasion. I had in that moment seen the connections between the breath I took and the tree that made some part of the air I breathed. Oh. The tree's life flowed into me.....amazing, connections knitting life in all directions.

Jimmy surprised everyone who really understood him, though as time passes I understand how few must have seen this side of him.

This September 30th Jimmy will have been dead 52 years. He was 24 the day his Porsche Spyder swerved to avoid a clunker on the road ahead in Central California so, if he had lived, he would now be a cantankerous 76. I know, if he had lived, he would still be excited about ideas and the world would be a different place. He had firm intentions in that direction.

Life brings many changes, not all of them ones that fill us with joy.

Tomorrow is the 27th, the tenth anniversary of another event that brought enlightenment and changed my life. That is the day when my oldest son, then 19, nearly died for the first time.

Arthur went 300 feet 20 feet in the air, thrown off his motorcycle. He landed on his face. No one at the hospital thought he would live; it was a near thing. Six months later he shot himself through the brain. He lived, the doctors did not expect that, either.

Looking back you always wonder what you could have done to change one moment in time, to give events a different course. Imperfect knowledge breeds imperfect outcomes and leads one to wonder about the nature of 'perfection.' All of life is temporary, imperfect; but what we learn is forever. Arthur is glad he is alive; so am I. Sometimes finding yourself takes you into unexpected places that bring amazing blessings.

When Arthur was small he learned to ride a skateboard; watching him was terrifying at first, but there was beauty and grace there as he glided over the pavement. I know he did not see that himself. He was looking for a different kind of perfection. I could see that as elation on his face when he came home.

After he shot himself he had to learn everything over again and it took years before he could walk unassisted. Those steps were slow and unsteady. But in each step there was strength and courage that deepened my respect. Others may see the handicap. I see the man who has found that same Silence internal that my father and Jimmy once helped me find. But I also remember my son, gliding down the street as if he flowed on air.

Memories endure in the Silence; a reservoir of joy and love that never fades. Even if that were all that life is, it is enough.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anne and the Gifts Life Brings

From right to left - Melinda, Carol, Stephen, Anne and Cappy

Anne and the Gifts

The encounter began in a stark waiting room in a Japanese hospital in Tokyo. My sister, Anne Pillsbury Gripp, was occupying a room in intensive care there, having suffered a heart attack while attending an orchid show in Tokyo in 1994. Anne was the owner of the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate located in Goleta, California.

I had flown in to be with her and with her two mostly adult children, my niece Alice and nephew Perry. The next two weeks were surreal, punctuated by bewilderment and occasional humor.

Anne had always had problems with her heart, we knew that. She had suffered from Rheumatic Fever when she was two years old and it had left its print on her health; her cardiologist was optimistic but realistic. She and I had gone through the loss of the sister who was between us in age, Carol Sylvia, twenty years before. Carol had been 36 when she died of a heart attack. You don't like to think about what that might mean to you about your own heart.

Carol was just two years younger than Anne but no one would believe they were related. That was sort of amazing when both their last names were Pillsbury and they, unarguably, had the same parents. Anne was tall, skinny and dark haired with dark brown eyes. Carol was short, curvaceous, blond, and had huge, vivid blue eyes. Anne was a book worm who went on to major in math at UCLA. Carol went to secretarial school right out of high school and went on to dominate any job she took. Anne would become a mathematician for GE right out of college in 1958.

Anne and I had talked just before she took off for the airport to finalize plans to take all of the kids to Disneyland as soon as she was back, mine and hers. When the phone rang that day I picked it up expecting to hear her voice.

That waiting room was a long ways from Disneyland, no matter how you looked at it. There was too much time to think about how fragile life really is and about whether of not that still figure in the bed upstairs would wake up and see us. Twice a day we got to see her unmoving form for 45 minutes.

Carol had died the day before Valentine's Day, 1974. I was 9 months pregnant with my second child then. Later, my mother returned to me unopened the Valentine I had sent Carol. Inside were two embossed cards, one from me and one from the baby she had promised to Godmother. I still have those small cards in my desk. Every so often I take them out and hold them.

The nursing staff did not speak English but they were very firm about the time limit.

While in the waiting room we had little to look at except the other families. Some of these changed over that two weeks; some remained the same.

We could not comprehend when those who shared that small room with us spoke, although we knew it was about the people they hurried to see when the time came. We all of us went up together. Sad events brought all of us there, we understood each other. Waiting and not knowing is hard.

One day I bought a small box of candies and shared it with the lady and her little girl who were sitting cross from me. Her face lit up and she bowed, accepting the small confection. I smiled back, using the word for “you are welcome,” I had just then learned.

That started the Battle of the Gifts. I was about to learn about the Japanese custom of gifting. Giving gifts is a custom that is taken seriously in Japan. Gifts are a major line item for companies and for individuals. Gifts given at specific times of the year even have special names. A midsummer gift giving is traditional and called O-chugen. At the end of the year another gifting period blossoms with presents and is called O-seibo. Those are usually gifts given to those to whom you feel indebted.

The next day I was astonished to receive a beautifully wrapped gift handed to me by the lady who looked like a porcelain doll in western clothing. She smiled and bowed gracefully. I bobbed and accepted. Inside was a perfect pastry enclosed in cellophane. Delicious.

It was a much needed distraction at first. The gift-giving continued every day and the value and permanence slowly grew. Delicacies to be consumed turned into a small book, a set of cups, tea to be used in the tea cups. Alice and Perry began wondering aloud where it would end. So did I. Eventually, we found that out.

Talking to the English manger of the hotel where we were staying I learned that it might never stop. Frightening thought. But it was a distraction we all needed, I think.

Every night, on the way back to the moderately priced hotel, I looked for shops where I could get arm my self for the Battle of the Gifts. I enjoyed watching the shop girl wrap it. They were so fast and precise, making an art form of just handing it to me, small bow included.

Back at the hotel I would put it carefully on top of the tiny chest of drawers. Japanese hotel rooms are well appointed, but they are very small. Space at a premium the small bathroom had a bathtub that did not allow for stretching out anything. Breakfast in the morning was classical Japanese, grilled fish, Misho soup, tea and rice consumed rapidly at a counter in one of the small places we passed on the way back to the hospital. Occasionally I would hear from my children or from my husband back in Santa Barbara, but they sounded distant over the phone. They laughed over the continuing Battle of the Gifts.

Then that Battle drew to a close in a way that was very unexpected. I had been in Japan for two weeks.

None of the staff spoke English well enough to tell us what was happened. Straining to understand what the prognosis might be we had decided to put her on full life support a week after I arrived. I had immediately contacted the American Embassy to ask for translation services. They hung up on me after passing me around for an hour. That happened more times than I can remember now. Then I remembered a friend had mentioned the American Express would provide some services to gold card members and called them.

Within a day they had arranged for a specialist who spoke English and Japanese to talk to the physician overseeing Anne's case and communicate with Sue, my brother Cappy's wife back at Stanford Medical Center. Sue is a physician specializing in Oncology and Radiology.

Sue's tones were professional and sad at the same time. Anne had suffered a heart attack. If this had happened out on the street with friends present in the United States the emergency personnel called would have suspected a possible heart attack. In Japan heart attacks are far rarer. Anne had suffered irreparable brain damage. Her body was there, she was gone.

Alice, Perry and I needed to talk.

Sitting on the beds in their small room we cried together. We all knew what Anne would have wanted, there were no doubts.

I flew home alone. Alice and Perry stayed to arrange to have Anne medivaced back to the U. S. so she could be disconnected and die, as she always said she would want to do under these circumstances, at home in her own bed.

I still miss Anne. We took turns reading her favorite books to her and she was never alone. Dawn, my second oldest daughter, was reading her Pride and Prejudice when Alice said that Anne had stopped breathing.

When I was getting ready for the memorial service I discovered how many people remembered the pumpkin pies Anne baked for everyone every Thanksgiving I remembered the many garments and other items she had made for her family from a huge bolt of bold red and white stripped material that felt like it was made of canvas. I got a skirt and blouse; I was five then, that was scratchy where it touched the skin. I also received a jacks bag that lasted better than leather.

All the men in the family got short sleeved shirts that made us look like escapees or a singing group. It was so Anne, we used to say. Anne loved giving gifts. I thought about that during those hours in the waiting room, thought about the gifts, small and large we had exchanged over the years and what gifts mean.

In Japan gifts are very conscious parts of life. After those weeks in that stark, small, waiting room with the ugly linoleum floor and those hard chairs giving and receiving looked different to me. They mean more and now they are more than objects. Gifts are many things. Anne's death and the Battle of the Gifts taught me many things. Some of the gifts life brings, the least visible, connect us across time; the greatest gift, love, connects us us past death, and that I find as I grow older and hopefully wiser, is the most precious thing we ever receive.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

James Dean: A Recipe and a Memory

A Recipe and Insight from the life of James Dean.

The Eclectic Sandwich Delight

(Ingredients vary depending on what is available)

Peanut Butter

Strawberry Jam

2 slices of bread

onion so thinly sliced you can see through it.

Tomato “ditto”

Lettuce “ditto”

One of the big, fat dill pickles also sliced very, very thin

Potato chips, crushed to the tiniest possible shreds

Ketchup for dipping mostly

Lightly toast the bread so there is no brown but it is just a little crisp. Slather on the peanut butter on one piece and the Strawberry Jam on the other. Layer on the onion and tomato so that the whole surface of the peanut butter is covered only once with each. Then sprinkle with the well crushed potato chips and cover with the very, very thin slices of pickle, and just enough pickle so that the surface is barely covered. Sprinkle lettuce with a touch of Ketchup on top and cover with the other slice of bread.

Jimmy cut his on the diagonal. I liked that. Served with lemonade and a small glass of milk.

I saw this sandwich prepared and assembled and then consumed by James Dean in the early 1950s. I was struck at how precise he was and how thin the tomato and onion were sliced. Jimmy and I both wore glasses nearly all the time so I tended to lean in close to watch and nearly got my nose trimmed. I was very young at the time.

Jimmy had dropped by at lunch time for a chat and most probably for a bite to eat. He was very skinny and Mom was sure he needed a meal. His Mom and my Mom had known each other before Jimmy's Mom died. Jimmy ate lunch sitting at my small table with me in the kitchen. Mom had already eaten, actually. Jimmy showed me how to peel up the top of my sandwich (Beanie, with just peanut butter and the jam) and sprinkle on the crushed potato chips. I loved it. Then he let me have a bite of his; interesting taste.

Jimmy had unusual tastes in food but when he assembled things it worked even when you thought it wouldn't.

(From my book, What Jimmy Taught me about Growing Up.)

After lunch we went into the back yard.

Mom was showing her roses to Jimmy, pointing out the colors and other details like aphids. The War of the Aphids was a theme that brought on updates at various times to all of us. I wandered off. I was not much interested in roses. I had been pushed into a small grove of them some months earlier and had not forgotten the experience of being a pin cushion.

I went off to play under the Avocado Tree while they talked. That was my favorite destination in the back yard for making mud pies. The Tree murmured, making comforting, familiar sounds as its leaves danced and wavered in the wind. Being under the Tree made me feel like there was a tent over head and under the Tree it was always cool.

For some reason the mud there was especially fine grained and therefore looked like chocolate. Didn't taste like chocolate though. I had already ascertained that on a previous occasion. As I made up hamburger patties of mud, folding these into other shapes suddenly an idea struck me.

I had something I wanted to show Jimmy. I knew he would like to see it; he would appreciate it as no one else would. They were just walking back into the house when I grabbed Jimmy's hand. I told him he had to come look at something – right now. My mother smiled and went in the house. Stevie had started to cry, I could hear him.

A tingle of excitement runs through me even now when I remember dragging Jimmy by the hand over the concrete pathway along the side of the garage. My arm was up at an angle because he was so much taller than me. I looked ahead to the rather dense and tall bush against the back fence. On one brief occasion I was off the ground because I was pulling so hard. Jimmy was going to be impressed, I just knew it.

I rounded the tall bush and pointed, triumphantly. The bush leaned slightly outward, creating a small alcove behind it. There was just a foot or so of space and there was my prize. I had been visiting it for weeks. I don't know how it got there. It certainly had not been ours. The dead Tortoise had been past all hope when I first found it there spread eagled on its back. I had been watching it being eaten by ants for these many weeks, never mentioning it to anyone. I tried to look every few days, although I knew that I should not tell Mom. She would remove it, I was pretty sure.

Jimmy looked at the Tortoise for a long time, just standing there. Then he squatted down to get a better look, pushing the bush aside. He looked at me and smiled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners, as I stood there waiting for his reaction. I have lived a long life but I have never again been so right about someone who was still nearly a stranger. Jimmy was delighted; he nodded. We understood each other.

Then Jimmy told me that he had watched the same process himself back in Fairmount only it was with a whole cow.

I shuddered. Cows were huge and without shells you could see much more. Jimmy was the first person with whom I discussed the physical process of mortality. Normally, when things like gold fish died they were immediately buried, usually in the toilet after a brief prayer. That did not allow me to check back and see how things were going.

I had yet to persuade my parents to let me bury a deceased goldfish in a Band aid box to be dug up later for minute examination. The tortoise came first. Jimmy filled me in on various aspects of the process with horrid expressions of face and gestures of hands as he made rubbery faces that made me laugh.

We had a cat then, Tiger Lady, later Tiger when his gender was correctly identified. Tiger was still a fluffy kittenish presence then. Mortality was an issue still past my horizon for anything but goldfish and the tortoise. I was curious about the physical process of death, but Jimmy did not leave it there. With Jimmy answers led inevitably to more questions.

Jimmy told me right then and there that the essence of the Tortoise was gone. Its form remained but the thing that had built it out of the raw materials of the Earth, just like we were built, had left its body and moved on.

With just a few words Jimmy had given me more things to think about. From the process of the deterioration of the physical body we had arrived at the question of the force that created and moves the body while it lives and the destination of that essence after death.

Those questions were revelations in themselves.

How were we built out of the Earth I wondered, looking down at the dirt? I put that thought away for another time. Now I wanted to know where the Tortoise had gone, if anyplace. I asked Jimmy. He paused, cocked his head to one side and looked right at me. He told me he did not know, exactly; he wondered himself if it was a place we could really understand while we were still in our bodies. Perhaps we would have to wait to know. He told me that if he found out he would tell me. He nodded as he said this. Jimmy did not mind admitting the limits of his knowledge.

The death and aftermath of the life of Tortoise opened up a series of conversations about the nature of the world to me that filled several of Jimmy's visits and spilled over into conversations with my father, too.

Death, Jimmy told me, was not the end of the life of a Tortoise any more than it was the end of our own lives when death came. The essence that made us what we are continued. When he told me this he pointed out that I could not see the wind, only the things the wind carries. I was only aware of the light when it was gone. But all of these things were far more tangible than the essence that created and moved the Tortoise. All continued; Death was transition and illusion.

I already accepted that Jimmy would not lie to me; that was part of the trust that came with his reaction to the Tortoise. But I had learned that people would tell me things that were not strictly factual and often thought this was funny. Jimmy didn't do that. Jimmy told me the truth as he saw it about everything that came up. Then he told me to think it out for myself and never, never accept what others say as the truth until I had done that.

That was the first lessons that Jimmy taught me. Death is not the end; the essence continues; question what you think is true; trust yourself. These were lessons I would carry with me always.