Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cricket Van Buren must be in her seventies now, though you'd never know it to look at her. Maybe Valen was right: after the first, few mono-syllabic answers to his initial queries, she started to talk. She seemed to forget that anyone else was in the room, and directed all her answers to Galaxy. There were long pauses, when she seemed lost in thought, but Galaxy waited, once or twice shooting Valen a look when he tried to interrupt.

She'd joined Bay Zen Center nearly forty years earlier in those first few years when sitting in silence with gentle Roshi Anh had seemed the answer to the cacophony of a bitter, angry divorce. Later she'd almost stumbled, but even that was forgotten now, it was so far in the past. The twisted bun high on the back of her head had been white now for many years, her face settled permanently into a gentle smile. She walked in quiet joy, as if slightly removed from her surroundings. Her steps were a bit less certain now, her hearing slightly less good, her eyes less sharp, but they still twinkled above the apples of her round cheeks, maybe just a little less red than in years gone by. She’d spent most of those years in these mountains, where she knew the turn of the seasons, the sound of the bells, the voice of the creek as it rose and fell with the rains. She knew where the wild strawberries were likely to ripen first in the Spring and how to keep the biting brown flies at bay in the first few warm weeks of summer.

She’d been Tenzo, Ino, Director, and dishwasher in repeating turns. Now, finally, she no longer had any designated title—she was the mistress of Masiana and in many ways mother to all the Way-Seeking minds who passed through. She’d been here longer than anyone, now. Most of the companions who had first made this place a home were long gone. Some had left for good, hearts and spirits broken by Hara's betrayal, some had gone to other Sanghas, some to their next incarnations. She didn’t even visit the shrine much anymore, the place of sacred ashes. The way was very steep and she didn’t need the carved stones to remind her.

Although she missed Roshi more lately. “Kicket, ” he would say, the r’s ever eluding him, “is not good name for you. You are lucky, like kicket, yes,” he’d say, “but calm, like deep still water. Quiet, but strong. ” At her dharma transmission he’d given her the name Keisui, Strong Water, and later it had seemed right that she’d ended up here. But the waters of Masiana Creek were more moody than her own, rising with terrifying swiftness after a winter storm, and sulking to a trickle at the end of the long, hot summers. Cricket’s waters had always run at a steadier flow.

She recalled the two young people before her, noticed how beautiful they were, and how they unconsciously leaned toward one another, unaware. She smiled, and answered their questions.

They finished the interview, and Galaxy watched from the doorway as Cricket headed down the path.

She came to a stop, feet aligned together, and bowed deeply from the waist, palms facing each other in traditional gassho greeting as she passed Devon, who did the same. It was an automatic response that brought her out of her reverie into the here and now. Devon straightened and continued on, her face expressionless. Sometimes the faces blurred together now. Some of the current residents had been here long enough, like Devon, to have become part of the Valley. Others were like children, no matter their age. And, anyway, they were all so young! Children that came and went. Each unique. Sweet and warm, or cold, or harsh for a little while; then passing, like the seasons.

Her own childhood was another lifetime ago. She’d outlived her only brother; barely recognized the family name on those few occasions when she happened to look at a San Francisco paper. His children gave to the Opera, won big court cases, were photographed at the Symphony Gala. Their children went to the right schools, here and in the East, were scouted by law firms and political parties in their turn. Except for Macie. Her path hadn’t included a mate, or children. Not yet--Cricket reminded herself gently. She'd hoped Raine would be happy. With her new husband. And finally, the father she'd always longed for.

Until the shocking revelation a few days ago, Cricket hadn't thought about Hara in a very long time. The news that he was Raine's father--which meant that he and Cat--didn't hurt her as much as it might have, once. She had never doubted his devotion before. They had all benefited from his tireless efforts. The fund raising. The Outreach programs. The well-known names he'd brought into the Sangha. She had perhaps been guilty of pride, Cricket admitted to herself. Had remained above the machinations of money, and power. And thereby, quite by accident--there are no accidents! she reminded herself--avoided what surely would have been a terrible mistake. One that how many others had made? She thought of beautiful Cat, how she'd wasted away that winter, even as the child within her grew.

Stranded after that terrible storm, they didn’t notice that Cat was eating even less than the rest of them. They piled all the clothes they owned under and over their thin robes and no one even noticed that Cat was pregnant. They all walked around in a daze. They didn’t know what to do, they were cut off from the outside world for months. They sat for hours, for days, for weeks in the old, unheated Zendo. Freezing. Starving.

Now Cricket thought she understood. It had all passed over Cat like a high wave--and she'd made no effort to keep her head up and breathe. She moved, when she moved at all, in a dazed trance. She refused to name the father, refused to talk, ate only what was put in front of her. She stewed for hours in the one hot plunge that had survived the collapse, froze for hours in the Zendo. But the child was strong.
It remained.

And grew in spite of her. Seemed to take its nourishment from her flesh, grew as she wasted away. She had been slender, with generous curves, warm like the island sun. She grew gaunt, never really recovered her health, looked too old too soon, the skin hanging off her too-thin frame. Raine Tanawe Ladyblossom was born in Pine Cabin 12b, caught like a fish in the old tin tub they used to wash potatoes. By then Cat must have known that he was gone for good. They couldn't get her to look at the baby, hold her, name her. Finally, when pressed, she held the surprisingly healthy thing to her shriveled breasts and stared at the storm raging again outside. "Rain," she said. It was all she said for a very long time.

Cricket filed the paperwork later, added the 'e.' Mother and daughter found one another slowly, protected there in the ravine from the worst of the ravages outside.
But Raine would never know the Cat she had been.

Cricket’s own children, James and Ivy, had been raised in material comfort in San Francisco. When she’d found her refuge at Bay Zen Center they were already in college; they’d found their way more often to their father’s new house in Marin for a few years, let him keep paying for winter ski trips and summers at Stinson beach. Roshi told her to wait, to sit. Eventually they found their way back home, back to her. She’d been waiting, sitting.

They weren’t Buddhists—or as Roshi had often said, they just didn‘t know it yet—but they were good people. She tried not to be too proud.

They brought their own children to Masiana now, also not children any longer but bright, confident young adults themselves. Sarah, the oldest and nearest to her grandmother’s heart, had just started med school. The youngest was still in high school, busy with sports and dances and electronic gadgets in neon colors. Both families came every summer, at least once, and over the years had grown as comfortable here as the residents. The annoying young man Ivy had married treated the place as his own private refuge. She knew he went where he shouldn't. He liked the privacy of the one remaining plunge in the old abandoned bathhouse across the creek.

He wasn't the only one, she thought. She'd seen Evan sneaking over there these last few months, too. Another entitled, cosseted son...She stopped the thought. It was unworthy.

Cricket went to see the family as often as she could stand. Christmas, mostly, and for the big occasions. She had grown comfortable in their homes, had her own room at Ivy’s with a warm, soft bed and the luxury of her own bathroom. Nobody spoke yet of a time when she wouldn’t be able to stay at Masiana any longer. But she glimpsed it, sometimes, out ahead of her. Getting closer. A time when she’d have to go back down into the harried noisy world she’d left such a long time ago. She could sometimes feel the great Wheel turning now. And tried not to hope that the time would never come.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Almost Perfect

The act of sliding his right arm inside
the sleeve of his designer raincoat
tore an almost-invisible thread
which released a tissue-wrapped bit of powder
into a few drops of liquid left at the bottom
of the triple-density waterproof pocket.

It may have been there for some time;
poised for the next, inevitable, storm.

The poison developed slowly,
(she’d been such a good girl in school)
until he took his place behind the wheel,
crushing the expensive fabric
and forcing the pocket open.

Released, the almost odorless gas
filled the tiny sports car, unheeded,
until he lost
consciousness—just long enough.

Pedigreed power, briefly free of his iron control,
escaped along a rain-slick road
and soared over a cliff toward the distant horizon.
Desperate flight--
until the crash, too soon, at the very bottom
on pain-sharp rocks at the edge of the pounding surf.

When they finally retrieved
his broken and wave-whipped body,
there would be no trace of what was, after all,
a common industrial byproduct.
It was the perfect crime.

that afternoon
he loaned his raincoat
to her beautiful, sixteen year old son,
hoping to avoid
another storm.



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Friday, February 5, 2010

My friend Monica

In first grade I had a best friend named Monica. We were inseparable, as only two six-year old little girls can be. We played house, we played jacks, we played at recess, we played at each other’s houses. And we giggled all day long. She was nice, she was funny, she understood about shiny, crystal, see-through pink plastic beads.

My mom liked her parents, and hers was the first ever, big-girl, all-night, stay-over, birthday slumber party I ever attended. Her mother, like mine was beautiful, and kind. She also had a father.

He was a bit of a mystery to me. He was tall and handsome and also kind, but I didn’t really get the father thing and was a little wary. Monica took him totally for granted. I was a little in awe of the way she just called him ‘Dad’ –like it was nothing—and told him what to do. I remember that he had a wonderful laugh, deep and unexpected.

One day Monica and I were playing on the playground, and jumped up, almost beside ourselves. We had made an incredible discovery, and we couldn’t wait to TELL. We ran off to find a teacher.

Unfortunately, that day the teacher on playground duty was not Mrs. Chin, our beloved first grade teacher. Not Mrs. See, the kind, white-haired old lady. (For years I thought she was the one who made all that chocolate…) Not even Mrs. Woodward, the principal.

The teacher on duty that day was Miss Kneeneighborly. (That was really her name—you can’t make this stuff up.) She wore dark blue suits with narrow skirts and ruffle-collared blouses. She wore her dark hair in a poufed-up pile on top of her head and thick bangs that just touched the witchy points on the ends of her blue cat-eye glasses. She had long legs and wore too much perfume and high platform pumps with sharp little heels that tattooed deep puncture marks all over the playground, like the tracks of some dangerous bird.

We were more than a little afraid of her. She was old and strict and mean.

(She was probably about twenty-eight, and terrified at the thought of imminent spinsterhood.)

She already looked the part.

Monica and I slid to a dusty halt in front of her, a little uncertain of our audience, but too full of discovery and delight to stop. We were ready to burst.

“Miss Kneeneighborly!” “Guess what we found!” “Guess what we found!”  We stuck out our hands, side by side.

Miss Kneeneighborly made some noises about running, about shouting, about pushing (who was pushing?), and about my KNEES.

My knees were always a little banged-up or dirty. Dirty from kneeling in the dirt, dirty from climbing trees, dirty from playing on the monkey bars, dirty from inching the wrong way up the slide.

(Monica, on the other hand, was always spotless. No wonder my mother loved her.)

I reached down for the wipe-wipe, dust-dust, stamp, stamp the dirt off of my knees.

With my right hand, because my left was still held out, next to Monica’s, palm down.

Miss Kneeneighborly looked at Monica and smiled.

We took heart.

“Monica,” she said, “why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

Monica looked at me with a huge grin. She was missing a tooth. She touched the back of her hand,and rubbed it a little with her finger. “Look!” she said, “My skin on the outside is BLACK—” She touched the back of my hand, and rubbed it a little to show that it wouldn’t come off, either  “And HER skin on the outside is PINK—“ She looked at me.

That was my cue.

I flipped my hand over and pointed “And on the inside I’m PINK…” Monica turned her hand over and I touched it “ And SO IS MONICA!!”

Miss Kneeneighborly’s mouth opened.

In unison we shouted “We’re the SAME! INSIDE! Like SISTERS!” We both squealed and grabbed each other in a hug, jumping up and down for the sheer bursting-out-happy JOY of discovery.

Miss Kneeneighborly closed her mouth.

Then she opened her mouth again and BLASTED me.

Literally, blasted me, backpedaling frantically under the onslaught, halfway across the playground, up the ramp, and into the classroom where I was forced by the weight of her words into a chair, at a table, and left with my head pressed down on my crossed arms for the rest of recess.

A ten-ton torrent of words. Words like racist.

I remember her saying “Monica can’t help it that she’s black.”

My friend Monica stayed as close as she could.

I know, because when I finally stopped crying I could see her there, from under my right armpit, hanging on the railing, leaning farther up the ramp than we were allowed to go, trying to see if I was all right.

I wasn’t.

She stayed until Miss Kneeneighborly took her by the arm and dragged her away.

I had to stay there for the rest of recess. I had to stay there while the bell rang, and the other kids lined up outside, quieting down a lot faster than usual when they saw me sitting there. I had to stay there while Mrs. Chin led them back inside, and everyone sat down.

So everyone could see my shame.

Mrs. Chin came over, handed me a tissue, and let me go to the sink.

I blew my nose, washed my hands, and sat back down, while she went on with the lesson. Arithmetic, or phonics, or spelling, I don’t remember.

I remember that I kept my eyes down. I remember that I couldn’t lift my head, or raise my hand, or look at anyone. Not even my friend.

I don’t think either of us ever told our parents. I didn’t, anyway. You didn’t, in those days. Children were children, and adults were adults.  We didn’t talk back (much) and we did what we were told to do. By our parents and by our teachers. We had much tighter, more clearly defined boundaries. And, consequently, had much greater freedom (and were better behaved) than children do now.

Later that day, when we went to sit on the rug for storytime, Monica came and sat down beside me, like always.

And held my hand.

Like sisters.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I don’t know how to thank you, but thank you ♥

Someone did something for me recently that was so kind, so generous, so supportive, so loving, so unexpected, and so incredible, that I quite literally don’t have the words to thank her.

She knows who she is, and the world—my world—and my life is a better place for her being in it.

Thank you, dear friend. For loving me, for trusting me, for supporting my dreams. Always.

I love you!


Friday, January 29, 2010

So much good living, Part II.

Day 25. My nose is still stuffy, too.

The good living didn’t end in Switzerland. Even in England I managed pretty well.

Most of the time.

Liverpool was pretty good. There were some pretty funny missteps, but there were also some wonderful home-cooked meals, good bacon-buttys (grilled ham & cheese on thick farmer’s bread) at the local pub, and there was always the Chinese restaurant at Fiveways.

London could be tricky.

Lots of late nights at the office. Lots of meals missed, lots of meals out. Some of them were ok.

Or on good nights, crispy duck (or garlic prawns) at the Tradewinds on Baker Street with a favorite colleague.

If I was lucky.

Another nine rounds with the room service chef at the hotel, if I was not.

I lived in that hotel for six months. And later stayed, off and on, for another two or three years. A very nice hotel, with—very unfortunately, and very typical of British hotels, even really nice ones—a SHORT room service menu.

That led to frequent and frustrating battles with the Room Service Chef.

I’d order roast chicken, with green beans, and wild rice.

No, he’d say. The wild rice comes with the lamb (smothered in mint jelly—YUCK! What a horrible thing to do to perfectly innocent lamb.) and overcooked carrots and mushy peas. The chicken comes with runny mashed potatoes, greasy gravy and drowned green beans.

I get that.

What I’d LIKE is the CHICKEN (no potatoes, no gravy), with wild rice and green beans.

Not possible. The chicken comes with..

After two or three rounds of this (Who’s on first?) I’d inevitably, over and over again (I’m not kidding about this) be forced to order the lamb—WITHOUT THE LAMB, WITHOUT the overcooked carrots and mushy peas,

AND order the CHICKEN, WITHOUT the GRAVY, WITHOUT the potatoes.

And he would send up two plates:

One with the wild rice (hold the lamb, hold the…).

And one, with the chicken and green beans…

And charge me for two meals.

(It’s not like he didn’t get it, either. After three or four weeks he started sending just one place setting, instead of two. Still charged me for two meals, though. For being “difficult.”)

And then occasionally communications would break down entirely.

I once asked for a cheese pizza. I was really tired of all the strange toppings (tuna?!!) and weird ingredients and just wanted a plain, cheese pizza.

I didn’t think it was an unreasonable request.

It certainly didn’t seem like a difficult concept.

Wrong again, Sherlock.

First of all, cheese pizza was not on the menu. If it isn’t on the menu, it’s a PROBLEM.

Full stop.

I’m an American. The “If it isn’t on the menu…” attitude is INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me.

Make me a damn pizza. Refrain from polluting it with corn, leeks, aubergine, mashed potatoes, and any other of the strange and inappropriate toppings you have listed. Leave it PLAIN. Bake it. And then send it up here before I start gnawing on the furniture.

We went around and around: JUST cheese. Nothing else. No, not even onions. JUST cheese. No, nothing else. JUST cheese. Yes, CHEESE. Just like normal. Whatever cheese you usually use. Just don’t put anything ELSE on it. No, JUST cheese…

Ten minutes later, the furniture was starting to look pretty good. Or maybe some of the flowers might be edible?

I resolved to duck out of an all-day meeting with Nintendo the next day (the Japanese appreciate fine food—they’d understand) for an hour and go grocery shopping. If I took all the booze, the salted peanuts, and the jar of candied grapefruit slices (?!) out of the teeny, weeny mini-bar, there’d be enough room to wedge in something.

I waited.

The man next door called down to Reception to complain about the loud growling noises coming from my room.

(It was just my stomach, I swear.)

Then there was a knock at the door.

I looked out the peephole first (I’m no dummy) and was relieved to see that it was just a liveried room service waiter with a cart.

Not hotel security.

He wheeled it in, waited impatiently for his signature and tip (to add insult to injury) and bolted.

Like he was a little afraid.

I grabbed a thick linen napkin and carefully raised the domed cover…

What was revealed underneath looked like a pizza—mostly—and smelled like a pizza—mostly.

Except for five large, evenly-spaced, blue-ish gray, slightly lumpy, toxic-looking puddles floating on top.

I think one of them was moving.

I know of no naturally-occurring edible substance that color.

But it was late. I was really tired, frustrated, and starving. The company at that time had a large insurance policy on me—I figured if I was poisoned to death in this London hotel room the rest of my family would be set for life.

And that chef would get his.

It was not that big of a pizza to begin with, but I carefully cut around the pulsating puddles—leaving a WIDE margin of safety—and ate the little that was left.

By the time I’d finished, the puddles had congealed into a soft, blue-gray, slightly lumpy porridge–like substance. Darker streaks, like veins, were becoming visible.


And vaguely threatening.

I trapped them back under the dome before they could spring to life and make a break for it,  pushed the cart out the door into the hall, shut the door and locked it behind me.


Went for a bath, and a book, and bed.

And an hour later, just as I was falling asleep, it occurred to me.

He’d topped it with bleu cheese.