Sunday, December 17, 2006


I'm sitting in a special place, a station on the great pilgrimage in the perfection of giving. This is a place where they practice the art of tucking you in through the medium of food and drink. Special beings work here. There is one whom I am convinced is an angel, she's so obvious about it. Poised, always with a smile that says "I see you, and I rejoice that you have the brains to come here and recieve the gift of food that I have to set before you."

Today it is my good fortune to arrive when they are still placing offerings of breakfast upon the altar of each lucky visitor's table. The entire front of this temple is glass, floor to ceiling, framed in wood columns. The rays of the morning sun venture across the counters and tables below, across the balcony, where a picture of a bull in fields of umber hangs, and into the inner sanctum, a room with three tables. The walls, painted the color of sunflower petals, glow gently in the light that penetrates this far.

At the table at the far back two men sit in companionable silence, sipping their cappuccinos. The man on the left is no giant, but he has a certain wiry intensity, the sort of person that one could easily imagine sitting at a bench with a set of wrenches spread out, adjusting a set of battered but functional Campagnolo derailleurs on his ancient racing bike, a large black fingerprint of chain grease on the side of his generous semitic nose. But here he sits, with no grease spots. His eyes light up, an smile comes to his lips, then he tries to restrain it so as not to telegraph his intention, but he can't quite stop it; you can see it lurking there as he tries to hold a straight face. He leans over to his companion and says a few quick words. His face lights up with a smile of delight as his friend snorts in amusement. Brothers, maybe, or lifelong friends.

The priestess of this temple comes to me with the holy beverage. She is tall, slender, focused, blonde. She moves like the heroine from some anime future, no motion wasted, focused purely on each guest, one by one. The cappuccino is perfect.

An older man comes to sit on the balcony; an intriguing woman comes to sit with him. She goes back and forth several times, for mysterious reasons which become clear when her husband finally follows her. They all sit together, smiling. Husband and wife adore each other quietly, without letting it distract them from their visit with the older gentleman. The woman has a lovely smile, which she offers generously and frequently.

The other table in my room is occupied by an older woman, a lecturer at the college. She is in a hurry to eat, but couldn't resist stopping here on the way into work, to let the magic of the temple imbue her spirit before appearing before her students. She takes her leftovers to go and leaves, quickly but reluctantly.

An air of quiet happiness settles over the temple as the worshipers enjoy the sacred communion. I read my book, a rather deep work on continuation passing. I've studied it before. Magically, here in the temple, the meaning washes over me and I understand. When finally I leave, the two gentlemen in the back are still sipping cappuccino.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Back in Tucson...

Thanks for all the kind comments on the previous post. Sorry I didn't reply. My grandmother's passing occasioned a road trip, perhaps her last gift to me. She gave me many. When I was in Oklahoma I remembered one of them, which happened a long time ago. Long enough ago that the scene I am about to describe is probably an amalgam of several visits. But I think it's still true to life.

When I was a kid we used to drive to Oklahoma nearly every summer. We even flew once or twice. I remember my mother's cousin Cherie coming to pick us up at the airport in Tulsa once. I was probably about thirteen, and she was tall, thin and beautiful - the image of the perfect seventies liberated woman, or something. But the trip that I'm thinking of was a road trip. We usually took three days. We stopped at Monticello once. I remember french doors, and a toy cannon, and lots of gardens, and, to be honest, a bit of boredom. I'm not a big museum person, and even then I wasn't. But I didn't really regret the visit - I just could have left sooner. I think Signe and my mother enjoyed the extra time they spent.

We drove across the country in a VW squareback, until it finally died one year. That year we bought a VW microbus while we were in Oklahoma, which of course threw a rod in Ohio. The mechanic who fixed it for us let us stay with his family in Zanesville for the night, because we had nowhere to go and no money to go there with. I don't remember his name, but I remember that the place where his shop was was on a tree-lined street, with brick buildings that still had painted advertising from the fifties. That's about all I remember, unfortunately.

The squareback didn't have air conditioning, so the further south we got, the hotter it got. By the time we got to Claremore, it was really hot, even though by then it was late at night. Even so, Signe and I were asleep, so when we had arrived, we were groggy and stumbly and out of sorts. I remember that the whole family was there to welcome us, and so glad to see us. The sliding glass door opened, cold air-conditioned air spilled out, and we lurched into the paradise of my grandmother's home, and into the welcoming arms of about five or ten relatives. I don't remember who was there, but I think my mother's cousin Mike (one of Cherie's brothers) was there, and I know my grandfather, grandmother and Mary were there. Maybe my Aunt Florence as well, I'm not sure. At the time she was living in Tulsa, so that would have been unusual, but Mike being there was also unusual. I guess my Uncle Jimmy was probably there.

The thing that triggered this memory is a meditation that I now do sometimes. The practice of the Mahayana takes as its object every living being. And when you think about the living beings you see, human or animal, and you look at them without rose-colored glasses on, you realize that their lives are characterized by two things. The first is pain. We all have so much pain. And the second is a lack of comfort. A lack of the things we want. And you could say that much of our lives are spent avoiding pain, and trying to find comfort. And really we are powerless to do anything about all of this pain that we see, and nearly powerless to give any kind of comfort. But in this meditation, we imagine that we are not powerless. We take away the pain. We give comfort. It's a nice thing to imagine. And one of my favorite visualizations for giving comfort is to welcome one of these tired beings into my home, and give it a comfortable bed, in a room that smells homey and comfortable, with soft, cool pillows, and a warm blanket.

And what I realized the other day, while staying in Claremore, is that this visualization comes from that night when we arrived in Oklahoma in the middle of the night, and were welcomed, and I was tucked into a comfortable bed, with a nice quilt on it. I remember how cool the pillows were, and how comfortable the blankets were, and how tired I was, and how happy it made me feel to be taken care of like that.

The funeral was an open-casket funeral. The only one I've ever been to. I've heard people say that one of the reasons why they have funerals like this is so that people can look at what's left after a loved one dies and see that the loved one is no longer there. And that's how it was - my grandmother was no longer present in the body that was in the casket. It was like an abandoned cloak, lying there with nothing to animate it.

At the end of the ceremony, I realized that the beautiful white blanket that they'd laid my grandmother's body on was one of her quilts. I realized this because when they covered her, the top of the quilt was suddenly visible. And it reminded me of that time years before when she'd tucked me in bed after a hard journey.

I had this sudden vision of my grandmother looking at the quilt that was about to go into the ground with her body, and looking at me with a stern look on her face (she had a really great stern look - not the kind that scares you off, but the kind that makes you want to correct whatever mistake you made that triggered it). She wasn't the sort of person to waste a quilt like that. And she was very humble in her way, and I think would have tended to see it as a waste.

And so I explained to this image of my grandmother that had appeared in my mind that we all know that we can't give someone who has died any real comfort by wrapping the body they have left in a quilt. But that the reason we do it anyway is that we want to do something, to repay her somehow, for the times she made us feel so welcome, and took such good care of us. And that wish is a good thing, a thing that deserves to be honored. And the only way we can honor it is by wrapping her in the quilt. And so we do.

So the stern look went away, and was replaced by a smile of understanding. Make of it what you will... :')