The heads of roses begin to droop.
The bee who has been hauling his gold
all day finds a hexagon in which to rest.
In the sky, traces of clouds,
the last few darting birds,
watercolors on the horizon.
The white cat sits facing a wall.
The horse in the field is asleep on its feet.
I light a candle on the wood table.
I take another sip of wine.
I pick an onion and a knife.
And the past and the future?
Nothing but an only child with two different masks.
—Billy Collins, “In the Evening”
The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.
First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors’ reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.
They ruin your multitasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in, without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.
My friend Barbara had already been living with Lou Gehrig’s disease for two years on the spring morning of our Muir Woods hike. She had done and tried everything to stem the tide of deterioration, and you would think, upon seeing her with a fancy four-wheeled walker, needing an iPad-based computer voice named Kate to speak for her, that the disease was having its way. And this would be true, except that besides having ALS, Barbara had her breathtaking mind, a joyously bottomless thirst for nature, and Susie.
Susie, her girlfriend of thirty years, gave her an unfair advantage over the rest of us. We could all be great, if we had Susie. We could be heroes.
Barbara was the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, the bad girls of breast cancer, a grassroots advocacy group with a distinctly bad attitude toward the pink-ribbon approach. Susie was her ballast, and I had spoken at a number of their galas and fund-raisers over the years. Barbara and Susie were about the same height, with very short dark hair. They looked like your smartest cousins, with the beauty of friendly, intelligent engagement and good nature.
Barbara’s face was set now, almost as a mask, like something the wind is blowing hard against, and she’d lost a lot of weight, so you could see the shape of her animal, and bones and branches and humanity. Yet she still had a smile that got you every time, not a flash of high-wattage white teeth, but the beauty of low-watt, the light that comes in through the bottom branches; sweet, peaceful, wry.
We set off. She was our lead duck, our cycling leader—the only person on wheels sussing up what lay before us at the trailhead, watching the path carefully because her life depended on it. Susie walked ever so slightly behind. I walked behind, in the slipstream.
Even on the path that leads through these woods, you feel the wildness. The trees are so huge that they shut you up. They are like mythical horse flanks and elephant skins—exuding such life and energy that their stillness makes you suspect they’re playing Red Light, Green Light.
The three of us had lunch in town two months earlier, before the feeding tube, before Kate. Barbara used the walker, which looked like a tall, compact shopping cart, but moved at a normal pace. She still ate with a fork, not a feeding tube, and spoke, although so softly that sometimes I had to turn to Susie for translation. Barbara talked about her wellness blog, her need for supplemental nutrition. Breath, nutrition, voice; breath, nutrition, voice. (She posted a list on her blog from time to time, of all the things she could still do, most recently “enjoy the hummingbirds; sleep with my sweetie. Speak out for people with breast cancer.”)
Now she is silent. When she wants to talk, she can type words on her iPad that Kate will then speak with efficient warmth. Or she can rest in silence. She knows that even this diminished function and doability will be taken one day at a time. When you are on the knife’s edge—when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, only that it will be worse—you take in today. So here we were, at the trailhead, for a cold day’s walk.
I’m a fast walker, because my dad had long legs and I learned to keep up, but today a walk with Barbara was like Mother May I? May I take a thousand baby steps? Barbara seemed by her look of concentration to align herself with all the particles here in the looming woods, so she could be as present and equal as possible. She couldn’t bother with saying anything unimportant, because she had to type it first. This relieved all of us from making crazy chatter.
This is a musical grove. The redwoods are like organ pipes, playing silent chords. Susie pointed out birds she knew, and moved a few obstacles on our route, as Barbara rolled on. Susie is the ultimate support, a weight-bearing wall. She’s not “I am doing wondrous things,” but simply helping both herself and Barbara be comfortable in the duo of them. She has lots of sly humor, but no gossipy edge, except in a pinch.
I have been to Muir Woods hundreds of times in my life, from my earliest days. This was where my family brought visitors. I got lost here at four, amid the crowds, but it was different fifty years ago. For the parents, a missing child was scary, yet you did not assume the child was dead. I was always afraid, lost or not. I got lost so often—once for more than half an hour among sixteen thousand people at the Grand National Rodeo—that until I was seven, I had notes pinned to my coats, little cards of introduction, with my name and phone number: If found, please return, as if I were a briefcase. I have gotten lost all of my life, maybe more than most, and been found every time. Even though I believe that the soul is immortal and grace bats last, I’m afraid because Barbara is going to die, and Susie will be all alone.
I love Wendell Berry’s lines that “it may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
I have a lot of faith and a lot of fear a lot of the time.
The day was so cold that for once Muir Woods did not smell of much; heat brings out stronger smells, but today was crisply delicious. We walked along the path like kids moving as slowly as one humanly can.
We rounded the first curve, vrrrooom. Susie and I spoke of nothing in particular. Barbara pointed to her ear, and we stopped to listen, to the tinkle of the creek, and all the voices of the water. There was the interplay of birdsong and people song and the creek’s conversation, as if it had a tongue, saying, “Keep going, we’ll all just keep on going. You can’t stop me or anything else, anyway.” Every sound is by definition a stop, which is how we can hear it.
We were walking in step with Barbara, as she held on to her conveyance, and I felt myself take on all the qualities that Barbara brought to the day, a fraught joy and awareness. There was a frozen music in the giant redwoods, like a didgeridoo. The trees looked like they were wearing skirts of burl and new growth. I asked Barbara and Susie, “When you flip the skirts up, what do you get?” Barbara pointed to the answer: a tree that had toppled over—roots covered with moss and what looked like mossy coral, very octopus-like. Some tree trunks had roots wrapped up and around them, like barber poles. Some trunks were knuckly and muscular in their skirts, with many knees, and some burl seats for anyone who needed to sit.
The trees looked congregational. As we walked beneath the looming green world, pushing out its burls and sprouts, I felt a moment’s panic at the thought of Barbara’s impending death, and maybe also my own. We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Left foot, right foot, push the walker forward.
When my son was six or seven, and realized that he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he cried for a while, and then said that if he’d known this, he wouldn’t have agreed to be born.
Barbara looked at me gently. We studied each other like trees. Her smile was never used to ingratiate herself. This is so rare.
The ferns looked almost as if they had sprung from an umbrella shaft—you could click it and cock it, and the spokes would burst forth or could be put away.
We picked up speed and barreled around the next corner, going one mile an hour: Susie mentioned that they had to get back to San Francisco for a meeting. The city seemed far away, on another planet, but not as far away as a meeting. We passed a great show of burl in a thick lumpy flow, as if it had been arrested in downward movement, like mud or lava. One burl looked exactly like a bear cub. Ferns and sometimes whole redwoods spring from burl. The ferns remind you of prehistory. Dinosaurs hide behind them. They are elegant, tough, and exuberant, like feathers in a woman’s hat.
I asked Barbara, “Are you afraid very often?” She shrugged, smiled, stopped to type on her laptop, and hit Send. Kate spoke: “Not today.”
The glossy bay trees are so flexible, unlike some people I could mention (i.e., me), with long horizontal ballet arms. They are light and sun seekers, and when you are in the forest of crazy giants, you might have to do some sudden wild-ass moves, darting through a small slant of space among the giants—“Oh, wham—sorry—coming through—sorry. Sorry.”
We were nearly to the end of the trail. I’ve always loved to see the foreigners here in their high heels, speaking Russian, Italian, happy as birds. Maybe they have Saint Petersburg and the Sistine Chapel back home, but we have this cathedral. Who knows what tragedies these happy tourists left behind at home? Into every life crap will fall. Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. On the list of things she could still do, Barbara included: “Clip my nails with a very large nail clipper, hear songs in my head, enjoy a baseball game, if the Giants or Orioles are winning.” Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. Their somehow grounded buoyancy is infectious, so much better than detached martyrdom, which is disgusting.
This is not what Barbara and Susie signed up for, not at all. Mistakes were made: Their plan was to spend as much time as they could at Yosemite, the theater, Mendocino, and helping people with breast cancer. But they are willing to redefine themselves, and life, and okayness. Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth—one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.
Barbara pointed out a bird so tiny that Susie and I didn’t see it at first in the fallen branches and duff of the forest floor. It was the only thing moving besides us humans. All of a sudden we saw a tiny jumpy camouflaged creature, heard the teeny tinkly peep. We performed the obeisance of delight. It is so quiet here, as though the trees are sucking up so much sound that anything that can get through them has a crystalline quality.
A great bay arch across the dirt was our last stop on the way. It was in full curvy stretch, arched all the way over our path, reaching for sun and touching the ground on the other side. I wondered if it would snake along on top of the duff, always following the light. It is nobody’s fool. Lithe and sinewy, the branch looked Asian: I guess we’re all Pacific Rim on this bus. All of its leaves were gone, as if it had spent its time and life force in the arching. Barbara trundled along up to it, smiled, and made the exact arch with her hand—like, Here’s the arch and I’m saluting it, standing beneath it, and now walking through.
The Book of Welcome
There must have been a book—way down there in the slush pile of manuscripts—that somehow slipped out of the final draft of the Bible. That would have been the chapter that dealt with how we’re supposed to recover from the criticism session in the Garden, and discover a sense that we’re still welcome on the planet. There are moments in Scripture when we hear that God delights in people, and I am incredulous. But they are few and far between. Perhaps cooler heads determined that too much welcome would make sissies out of us all, and chose instead accounts of the ever popular slaughter, exile, and shame.
The welcome book would have taught us that power and signs of status can’t save us, that welcome—both offering and receiving—is our source of safety. Various chapters and verses of this book would remind us that we are wanted and even occasionally delighted in, despite the unfortunate truth that we are greedy-grabby, self-referential, indulgent, overly judgmental, and often hysterical.
Somehow that book “went missing.” Or when the editorial board of bishops pored over the canonical lists from Jerusalem and Alexandria, they arbitrarily nixed the book that states unequivocally that you are wanted, even rejoiced in.
We have to write that book ourselves.
Where can we begin, in the face of clearly not having been cherished for who we are, by certain tall, anxiously shut-down people in our childhood homes, whom I will not name? How far back does the sense of provisional welcome go? I would start with my first memory.
I am three years old, at our family cabin in Bolinas, before the town becomes a counterculture artists’ community. My grandparents paid two thousand dollars for a rustic one-room cottage that was several hundred yards from Duxbury Point, from which you could see a great expanse of ocean, the horizon, and the reef below.
My grandparents, who had traveled the world in their work as Christian missionaries, had brought back eight or so Mexican sorcery masks made of wood, and they hung these on the cabin wall. Each one had devil eyes surrounded in white that glowed in the dark. The fangs did, too. I had already begun my work as a lifelong insomniac, and would stay up or wake in the glare of these eyes and teeth, terrified to the core. I remember that when my parents tried, grumpily, to comfort me in the middle of the night, I pointed to these masks as the source of my terror. They said reassuring things, like “Oh, for Chrissakes, Annie. Those are just masks!” Strangely, this did not help me sleep. So I’d crawl over onto my older brother’s side of the trundle bed and drift off. My presence would wake him up. He would push me back onto my side of the bed. I would come crawling back like green slime. He’d bulldoze me with his feet. I’d come back. Then he would begin to hit me. Anyone would have hit me, I realize now. Jesus would have hit me.
Sometimes I even woke screaming from these nightmares at the cabin. This further endeared me to everyone. I also had dreams back at home where the masks had found me, ten towns away, and one in which my mother turned around at the stove with a spatula in one hand, her sanpaku eyes glittering behind a bruja mask with hemp hair. But the masks stayed up. Why didn’t my parents or my grandparents replace them with something that made me feel safe, like, say, framed Audubon duck paintings? I was still afraid at eight and nine, and still couldn’t sleep. By then I had migraines, too, and felt freakish and forlorn.
The reality is that most of us lived our first decades feeling welcome only when certain conditions applied: we felt safe and embraced only when the parental units were getting along, when we were on our best behavior, doing well in school, not causing problems, and had as few needs as possible. If you needed more from them, best of luck.
It also doesn’t help that the planet is not nearly as hospitable as one might have hoped.
In the beginning, there was implantation, which was either the best or the worst news, and then God or life did some voodoo knitting that created each of us. We came into the world one by one. The next thing we knew, we were at the dinner table with delusional and unhappy people, who drank, or should have drunk, and who simultaneously had issues with rigidity and no boundaries. These people seemed to go out of their way to make it clear that we were not the children they’d had in mind. You were thwarting their good intentions with your oddness and bad posture.
They liked to think their love was unconditional. That’s nice. Sadly, though, the child who showed up at the table for meals was not the child the parents had set out to make. They seemed surprised all over again. They’d already forgotten from breakfast.
The parental units were simply duplicating what they’d learned when they were small. That’s the system.
It wasn’t that you got the occasional feeling that you were an alien or a chore to them. You just knew that attention had to be paid constantly to their moods, their mental health levels, their rising irritation, and the volume of beer consumed. Yes, there were many happy memories marbled in, too, of picnics, pets, beaches. But I will remind you now that inconsistency is how experimenters regularly drive lab rats over the edge.
Maybe they knew the child was on to them, could see through them, could see the truth, could see how cracked, unstable, and distant they were. We knew their most intimate smells and sounds and vulnerabilities, like tiny spies. The whole game in the fifties and early sixties was for no one to know who you really were. We children were witness to the total pretense of how our parents wanted the world to see them. We helped them maintain this image, because if anyone outside the family could see who they really were deep down, the whole system, the ship of your family, might sink. We held our breath to give the ship buoyancy. We were little air tanks.
They knew deep down they were manic-depressive crazy people, but they wanted others to see them as good family men and women, peaceful warriors, worker bees, and activists who were making the world safe for democracy. Their kids knew about their tempers and vices, but the kids were under the wizard’s spell, and also under the constant threat of exile or hunger.
The silver lining to this is that since the world we came into is an alcoholic, sick, wounded, wounding place, we also ended up with an owner’s manual for dealing with craziness. We knew how to keep secrets. Also, our parents came with siblings who adored us, because we were not theirs. They actually got me. When I’d come through the door, the expression on my uncles’ and aunts’ faces would be so happy. There she is! There’s Annie. Isn’t she something? The way they looked across the table at me, with pleasure and wonder, taught me what love looked like.
Their love was dependable refuge during the life-threatening teenage years. No one on earth feels less welcomed and more deformed than teenagers. Drinking was essential to my feeling semi-okay. Until I discovered booze, I’d always felt that I was invisible to the beautiful people, while under observation by my parents, and teachers, and most horribly, myself. I was so loved by best friends, yet I was scared a lot of the time, of many people, of failure, of sexual things that I thought or did or wanted to do. I developed a lot of charm, humor, and smarts, so I could bat the demons away. But they always came back.
Teachers began to welcome me, almost like friends, because I was smart, funny, and desperate. They gave me a lot of encouragement when I most felt like a complete loser, and then they gave me the great books that held the key to life: All humans felt alone, damaged, deformed, alien, and toxic. Toxic R Us. And all of the great writers drank, except for Kafka and Nietzsche, neither of whom you exactly wanted to be when you grew up.
College gave me passionate friends, some of whom stayed close, along with a sense of both political and creative purpose, from which I have not veered. But at some point you had to leave; you tried to make a life. You know the rest. The eerie carousel ride of adulthood, the warped music, gaudy paint, the vertigo of triumphs and hidden dangers in grown-up life.
High performance always made everything better. An awful lot of busyness helped, too, but not nearly as much as alcohol or sex, preferably both.
Then, in my thirties, my system crashed. I got sober, because I had gone crazy. A few women in the community reached out to me. They recognized me as a frightened lush. I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me, too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare, and then my salvation.
It turns out that welcome is solidarity. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re with you. This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we’re in on that.
I learned early in sobriety that there were two points of view about me—how my close friends saw me, and how I saw myself. I figured it was obvious that I was a fraud, and kind of disgusting. My friends thought I was irresistible, profoundly worthy of trust. I thought at first that one view must be wrong, and I made the most radical decision, for the time being, to believe my friends. I welcomed my lovable self back, with a small party, just the cat, me, and imaginary cups of tea, which I raised with an outstretched pinkie.
This welcoming toward myself took a big adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise. I felt I had gotten a permission slip for the great field trip, to the heart of myself, in the protection of a few trusted friends.
Frankly, I was hoping to see more white cliffs and beaches, fewer swamps and shadows, but this was real life, the nature of things, full of both wonder and rot.
As soon as I was able, my friends encouraged me to go back to reclaim the devious, dark part of me. I invited her in: Pull up a chair at the table, hon. We’re having soup tonight.
So our families were train wrecks; we’ve ruined the earth; kids die all the time. How do we understand that something welcoming remains, sometimes hidden, that we can still trust? When all seems lost, a few friends, the view, and random last-ditch moments of grace, like Liquid Wrench, will do. Otherwise, I don’t know. We don’t exactly solve this problem, or much of anything, although one can learn to make a perfect old-fashioned, or blinis.
I’ve discovered that offering welcome helps a lot, especially to the deeply unpleasant or weird. The offer heals you both. What works best is to target people in the community whom no one else seems to want. Voilà: now welcome exists in you.
We want you, as is. Can you believe it? Come on in. Sit down. Let me get you a nice cup of tea. Would you like a lime juice bar?
From the time I got sober and started remembering my dreams in the morning, the old cabin has been the setting for most of the dreams that involve my family. It is a stand-in for the dinner table, for the saga of intergenerational sickness, mental illness, secrecy. My very favorite dream featured a family reunion years ago, where my grown brothers had gathered for a meal at the dining table with our parents, who were alive and healthy. The cabin looked like it had been tricked out by Laura Ashley, with bed skirts on the trundle beds, doilies on the chairs. Sadly, though, someone had tracked in dog poop, and gotten it all over the rugs and bed skirts. My younger brother leaned over at the table to whisper in my ear, “This would be such a cozy place, if there wasn’t shit all over everything.”
That pretty much says it for me. I’m sure your family was fine, and if that is the case, never mind. But I have needed a book of welcome for such a long time. I didn’t know how to let go of judging people so quickly, on how they look, or dress, or speak, so I couldn’t stop judging myself. I didn’t know welcome was a matter of life and death. Look how often lonely people kill themselves, or others. Look at what squandered and ridiculous lives most people lead.
Until recently I barely even knew the signs of welcome, like the way a person plopped down across from me and sighed deeply while looking at me with relief: a shy look on someone’s face that gave me time to breathe and settle in. I didn’t know that wounds and scars were what we find welcoming, because they are like ours.
Trappings and charm wear off, I’ve learned. The book of welcome says, Let people see you. They see that your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event happened—me in your life, you in mine.
Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you; the rain falls down your neck; darkness comes. But now there are two of you. Holy Moly.
The book of welcome says, Don’t blow it! The two nonnegotiable rules are that you must not wear patchouli oil—we’ll still love you, but we won’t want to sit with you—and that the only excuse for bringing your cell phone to the dinner table is if you’re waiting to hear that they’ve procured an organ for your impending transplant.
At the age of sixty, I finally realized that I had been raised not to say “You’re welcome,” and I began to wonder how this habit had reinforced my sense of separation. When I grew up, girls were taught to minimize how much they had given, how much time and hard work something had taken. It might not even be noticed at first, because people expected you to do things for them. They felt entitled to largesse. So there was a double abnegation—your possibly sacrificial act of generosity wasn’t noticed the first four times, and then when you were finally thanked, you were taught to respond, “Don’t mention it.” Or, “You’d have done the same.” Glad to do it. It’s nothing.
If generosity is nothing, then what is anything?
Now I make myself accept gratitude. I look people in the eye, and say gently, “You’re really welcome.” I might touch their cheeks with the backs of my fingers. This simple habit has changed me.