A Sad, Sweet Boy

A SAD, SWEET BOY (A NEEDLE IN HIS ARM)

He was a sad, sweet boy.

He was a sad, sweet boy with a needle in his arm.

We told him he was special.

We told him he had potential.

 We said we could point the way to his happy future:

"Look, Look. It's right over there," we said.

But he would only give us his sad smile—

The one that said he was in on the joke,

The one that said it was wrong to tease him like that.

 

His brother tried to say, “I love you.”

But the boy heard, “Don’t be like me”

Which, of course, meant he already was.

His sister said, “I love you.”

But the boy heard,

“Please stop fucking up. You scare me when you’re fucking up.”

His father said, “Do that” and “Be like this.

Then you’ll be happy.”

But the boy heard,

“I don’t like you the way you are.”

 

We took him by the hand

And we walked him down a hall

And pointed to the many doors we'd built

With their prizes and their promises

And their instruction books.

We said, “Choose any one. Look:

This one will make you successful.

This one will give you a purpose.

This one will keep you safe

And happy.”

But he found another way.

He chose a door with the needle on it

And until it clicked shut behind him

We thought we'd have another chance

To say one more thing—

That perfect thing—

That would take the needle out of his arm.

 

 

Hiking the Landscape of JHATOR

     With the advent of summer in New England, I thought I would share some of the real locations I incorporated into JHATOR. Sofia, the protagonist in the novel, hikes the conservation areas near her home to find respite from her grief. As she interacts with and absorbs the wisdom of some of the local wildlife, she learns a new way to deal with her sorrow. The conservation areas listed below are lovely natural places. I hope readers of my book might enjoy them for the literary references as well.

AUDUBON SANCTUARY AT MOOSE HILL, 293 Moose Hill Parkway, Sharon,MA: The first and oldest Audubon sanctuary, Moose Hill offers of vast  overview of Massachusetts varied ecosystems. In the book, several important and dramatic events take place on the ledge, including a violent confrontation between Sofia and Anat, the vulture. Take an easy hike along the Billings Trail to the Ledge Trail and you're there. Along the way, you'll pass a large stone cistern that was part of a farm that once occupied the land. At the ledge, you can look across the tree tops and sometimes spot a hawk skimming below your feet. The red cedar tree that Sofia loves is there. It has a slender trunk but its bark is twisted and blasted  by exposure to years of wind and storm. As you gaze across the trees, you will spot Gillette Stadium in the distance. From your lofty vantage point, you can either bless or curse the Patriots if you feel so inclined.

BORDERLAND STATE PARK, 259 Massapoag Avenue, N. Easton, MA: This is a relatively flat and easy place to hike with open meadows, rock formations and wooded trails around a large central pond. The Ames Mansion is across an open field by the parking lot. There are sometimes tours of the mansion but the grounds are also nicely landscaped. This area is only a few miles from Moose Hill but for the purposes of my story, I moved the entire park so that it was directly adjacent to the Audubon property. This device helped explain how a five-year-old girl could walk into the woods and disappear or how Sofia could follow Afra, the doe, into the woods at night and become so thoroughly lost.

ROCKY NARROWS, Off Rt. 28, Sherborn, MA: This is one of many properties protected by The Trustees of Reservations. It is a heavily wooded area and somewhat more strenuous to hike than Borderland but it has two lookouts that provide views of the Charles River. Rocky Narrows itself is a spot where the river winds between two 650 million-year-old granite walls. The other is one of the many King Phillip's lookouts scattered about the state. While I didn't place Sofia directly in this location, many of the wooded spots I described were inspired by Rocky Narrows. It can also be reached by taking Snow Street to Forest Street off Rt. 28.

GREAT WOODS, Oak Street off Elm Street, Mansfield, MA: Sofia's neighborhood conservation land, where she often walks with Jet, is modeled after Great Woods. It is where Sofia stretches out on a grassy meadow with her dog and where she encounters Anat feasting on the rotted carcass of a dead mammal. Much of the property used to be a farm, long abandoned and overgrown. Stone walls run throughout the woods, including one that borders what appears to be an abandoned and decrepit orchard,

     If you are one of my readers, I hope you will visit some of these beautiful spaces if you find yourself in southeastern Massachusetts.

 

Chapter One: Jhator

     Anat found a place on a bare, gray branch of a white pine, a place that had been scarred by lightning years before. She bowed her red, naked head in sorrow and gazed at the young man bleeding on the rocks below. He was broken, his limbs splayed at odd angles. His breath wheezed painfully. He would not live if help did not come very soon.

   Anat knew how these things happened. Even the most wonderful of days could go disastrously wrong. The young man was in no condition to tell her how he ended up forty feet below the trail he was hiking. At any rate, he did not want to talk to her; he could not even bear to look at her. He knew why she was there. He turned his face from her and wept. The scavenger did not need to be told anything. She knew he woke up on an early spring day shining with the promise of summer. He made the spontaneous decision to call in sick to work. No one knew where he had gone. He would not even be missed until the following morning and by then he would be dead. He took a closed path in the state park, so overgrown that he could not see how close he was to the mountain trail's edge until he stepped into open air. He had a cell phone in his pack but he lay on top of it and could not move either of his broken arms. He would only be saved if someone else played hooky that day, took the same forbidden path and chanced to spot him  below the ledge.

     "Can you hear me?" Anat called gently. "I know you are in pain. Is there any comfort I can offer you?" The young man squeezed his eyes shut. Anat sighed. He had closed his ears to her.

     Then, to her surprise, he said, "They'll never find me, will they?" He had opened his eyes again and was gazing up at the slender trees and shrubs that had found meager holds in the cracks in the rocks and threw screens of leaves across nearly every conceivable line of sight. He was right. Even from the air,no one would ever see him. Were it not for their sense of smell, even the vultures would have trouble finding him. He spoke again. "You'll wait 'til I'm gone--until there's no breath, no nothing, right?"

     "We never kill," she replied. "We never inflict pain. We wait with you when no one else will.." He breathed more softly. The sun was starting its late afternoon descent and his pain was ebbing. He was able to accept what was happening to him. While he still possessed understanding, Anat told him, "We are grateful for your gift. We bless you and wish you well on your journey." She thought she saw a glimmer of a smile. And she crooned a strange tune to ease his passing, a song in a minor key so ancient no one else in the world but Anat knew how to sing it.

     The carrion bird kept her vigil as evening threw a shroud of shadows over the young man, until she could see and smell that the young man was no longer alive. Even though she knew the shattered vessel was empty, she still kept watch through the evening and on into the night, now and then humming that first timeless song that would send the soul on its way. Dawn broke and in the growing warmth of the day Anat could smell that the flesh on the rocks below her was a young man no longer. Now it was sacred food.

     The vulture cocked her head and watched the sky. After a while, a swarm of black specks appeared in the distance. In time, the specks took on the exclamation point shape of sable seeds from a milkweed pod. They grew into obsidian chevrons--the familiar v shape of wings lofting on the air currents. Anat's children were approaching.

     Stretching out her great ebony wings, Anat launched herself from her perch and glided easily down to the rock slab. She probed and worked and worried the torn, bloodied clothing, the rents in the flesh. It would be easier for her children to feed thoroughly if she first prepared the gift. Anat was, after all, a very good mother.

     Her children began arriving in twos and threes. They arranged themselves around their mother and around the food. There were so many, the feeding would not take long. Anat was glad. It was time for her to migrate. She would leave this southern mountain for the northeast. It was spring, when the thaw would reveal the winter's toll. Anat would have much to do and.there was someone she had to meet.

Ashley

I wrote this poem several years ago for my dear friend, Rachelle, when her daughter was lost to us on a cold November night.

Ashley, November, 2005

You had been perfected

Before you came to that midnight shore,

Dancing, shimmering like the ancient ivory moon

Casting incandescent ribbons on dark ripples.

You were gliding forth to gather them

When the black waters closed

Over your head and outstretched hand.

 

You had become so perfect

When you sanctified those waters

With your lost and frozen smile

And your laughter, gently ripplinng

From the place of your departure.

 

When the Thief Gets Old

     I've written before about my Pharaoh hound and the Extortion Game.  From the time he was a puppy, Jet would let himself into the house, steal something then run outside with it.  If we ignored him (you know, to extinguish the unwanted behavior) he would amuse himself by ripping it up.  We taught him to bring the object back in return for a treat--hence, the name of the game. 

     The pastime evolved as Jet got older.  It became less a game of Extortion and more like Post Office.  Since most of the purloined goods in the original game were mail, magazines and newspapers, he began bringing us unwanted pieces of paper in hopes of getting a treat.  I suspect that, in his mind, magazines in a rack or papers in a recycling container had been his hostages all along. This behavior was usually stimulated when I stood at the stove cooking something Jet thought he would like.  I could hear the periodicals plopping down on the floor behind me as I stir-fried and sauteed.  The dog could empty a stuffed magazine rack in 5 minutes.

     Now, at nearly twelve years of age, Jet is somewhat slower and his chestnut coat is covered with patches of white.  By the time he has spent the morning hunting for mice or playing vigorous games of Tug with Sasha, my nine-month-old puppy, he is too tired and impatient for the plotting and mad dashes required for a good game of Extortion.  But the wheels in his head are always turning.  We now play  grandson of Extortion:  When anyone is seated at the dining room table for  a meal, Jet starts fetching paper items from the recyclables.  He bring them to the table as an offering, sitting none-too-patiently with the item at his feet.  When the hostage item is not acknowledged, he will pick it up and attempt to push it into the reluctant recipient's hand.  When that fails, Jet will start flinging pieces of junk mail at the diner.  Before long, glossy ads, post cards and newspapers are flying through the air, landing on the table and occasionally on the diner's plate.

     Jet is not rewarded for throwing paper at us.  Nevertheless, the onslaught continues at nearly every meal.  It is in this stubborn and impatient persistence that Jet betrays his advanced years.  He seems to forget that the trick didn't work the last time he tried it.  He continues it because there is some memory that he was once a master thief and manipulator.  His memories are not unlike mine:  The good times of the past seem so much better than they probably were.

     Or, this is simply a projection of my own perspective as we age together.  The dog's persistence might be motivated by our laughter, which we cannot silence when Jet is being Jet.  We are still his appreciative audience and, in his mind, Jet is still the master thief.

 

 

New Moon +1

The new moon is in two days on April 29.  I will be outside looking up at the night sky on April 30, new moon +1.  It has always been one of my favorite sights in the night sky.  It has also become an anniversary of sorts.

At the end of February in 1999, a fast-moving fire burned my brother's house to the ground.  It claimed his step-daughter and our sister, Linda.  John also kept our family history so almost all our family photographs and my father's relics from World War II went up in flames as well. 

During this dark time, I did little but go to work and come home again.  I remember driving home one March night after parent-teacher conferences and rediscovering one of my favorite astronomical events.  I stood in my driveway for a long time watching the first sliver of light from that month's new moon rising behind the trees.  It is an event that is almost invisible--a thin curved and glowing wire,  a trace of white light edged with purple shadows.  It is subtle.  It is elegantly beautiful--and it never fails to take my breath away.  This night was no exception but this time I audibly gasped with the wonder of a new discovery.

March 25, 1999 was new moon +1.  Since that day, new moon +1 has become the anniversary of the day I rediscovered joy.  It is the anniversary of when I remembered the world is still a beautiful place.  It is an anniversary I hope to celebrate every month for the rest of my life.

 

 

Conversation with a Doe

The following is an excerpt from JHATOR, which explores grief from a Buddhist perspective.  Sofia and the doe, Afra, are both grieving mothers.  In this passage, Sofia has been searching for Afra in the depths of a harsh winter.  The deer has been sick and hungry and distraught because she will not bear a new fawn in the spring.  They meet on a winter's night and, in the simplest language, Afra explains non-attachment to Sofia:

    "'I understand now why there will be no fawn,' said Afra.

    'You do?' said Sofia.

    'Yes.  I see my lost fawn inside me.'

    'You mean you remember her?'  The pair was moving over the wide, white expanse that stretched between the flanks of trees.

    'I know she is dead but I see her inside me.  She has been there all this time.  This is not a good thing.  That is why there will be no new fawn.'

    'I don't understand.  What does one thing have to do with the other?'

    'I see my fawn inside me.  She fills me up.  I am filled up and there is no room for a new fawn."

    There was logic in Afra's words--a stunning and sorrowful logic--that struck Sofia so hard her eyes stung with tears.  Afra stopped walking and looked into Sofia's stricken face as streamers from the full moon broke free of a scurry of muffling clouds.  'After your fawn was lost,' she asked, 'did you ever have another?'

    'No,' Sofia whispered, her voice breaking.  'No, I never had another fawn.'

    'And do you still see your lost fawn inside yourself?'

    'Yes, I see her inside myself.'

    'Even now, after all this time?'

    Tears were streaming down Sofia's face.  'Yes, always.  Always.'

    'So she has filled you up.'

    'Yes, she fills me up.  All the time.'

    'And so you have no room for another fawn.'

    Sofia was suddenly flooded with shame as she recalled the many times she had deftly turned aside Steven's suggestions they have another child.  They had never found a way around this conflict because the conversation had been forbidden.

    'No,' she confessed.  'I have no room inside. No room at all for another fawn.'

    'I understand now what I must do,' said Afra.  'I know now this dead fawn cannot stay inside me.  I have to send her away.  It will make me sad and it will be hard to do, but I will tell her she must leave.  Then, there will be room and the next time I mate a new fawn will come.'  She paused then asked, 'Will there ever be a new fawn for you?'

    Sofia caught a sob before it could fly out of her throat.  She could not let the words escape, the words that admitted she did not know how much room she had for anyone new to enter her life.  She looked at her animal friend, letting her shoulders rise and fall in a helpless shrug.

    Silence was never a problem for Afra.  Sofia struggled with her shame and her misery while Afra waited, breathing softly, patiently and watching, watching, carefully watching.  Finally, Sofia's breath shuddered.  She regained her composure and lifted her face skyward.  She did not know how long she and Afra stared at the moon as its soft halo glowed through a haze of scattered clouds and misty air.  After some time had passed, she felt Afra's warm muzzle touch her bare hand.  When Sofia looked at her friend, the doe was already moving away.

    'You're leaving?' asked Sofia.

    'Yes,' Afra replied.

    'Wait,' Sofia called.

    Afra waited.

    'Afra, I'm so afraid,' Sofia cried.  'I'm afraid this winter will be too hard on you.  I'm afraid you will die before the spring gets here.'

    Afra looked Sofia up and down, taking some measure only the doe understood before patiently replying, 'This night, I am not hungry.  It is not too cold and I am not tired.  And once again, you have taken some sorrow away from me.  If death comes, I will die.  But right now, here in the meadow with you, I am happy.'

    Afra turned away and with a slow, dreamlike gait, melted into the wooded shadows."

 

 

   

 

 

 

Why You Should Not Own a Pharaoh Hound

Jet, my Pharaoh Hound, turns a happy and healthy 11 this week. Without a doubt, he is my soul dog and I have come to love the breed.  However, since I gave him a starring role in my novel--and I assume readers will enjoy him as a character--I want to warn people about the pitfalls of owning a high maintenance dog.

Jet is a sight hound, which means he has the attention span of a fly.  He is also an intelligent dog who is extremely inventive when it comes to having fun.  An inventive dog means trouble, especially if you are the type of owner who expects a dog's play schedule to match yours and to nap quietly in the sun the rest of the time.

Here is what I learned about my Pharaoh Hound after I brought him home:

I knew I had a dog that liked to run, so I was prepared with a fenced yard and puppy play groups. The two guys redoing my bathroom were not prepared.  Jet got out an open door as they were bringing in a bath tub.  They chased him in their truck three miles up the road where Jet finally stopped to make friends with the construction workers at a new shopping center.

Jet does not play fetch.  Jet has two favorite games:  You Can't Catch Me and I Have It and You Don't.  Usually, I Have It and You Don't Is Played first--with the newspapers, a pair of socks or a paycheck.  You Can't Catch Me follows as Jet scoots out the door that he opened when he came in from the back yard.  If we tried ignoring Jet to extinguish the unwanted behavior, Jet would turn to his third favorite game:  No One Wants to Play Right Now So I Will Tear Stuff into Pieces.  After consulting with our local dog trainer, he said, "He's having too much fun."  In other words, we needed a Plan B.

Plan B turned out to be the Extortion Game.  We taught Jet to "bring it," which meant every time Jet stole something, we gave him the command and he returned it for a treat. It did not help that my teenaged children and I found the situation funny.  Jet knew he had us.  The Extortion Game continues to this day, but less often and less frenetically as Jet ages. 

We can work with Jet and love him for his idiosyncrasies because Jet is an empty nest dog. As an alternative high school teacher, I find it therapeutic to adopt dog breeds with a streak of the delinquent in them. They respond to love and education when adolescents might not. Jet has also enjoyed  an extensive education: Puppy Kindergarten, Advanced Puppy Kindergarten, Obedience Refresher, Agility, Rally Obedience and Canine Good Citizenship.  In families where owners expect dogs to think and behave like human beings, where busy family schedules must take precedence or where people are just basic dog morons, Pharaoh Hounds would qualify as "bad dogs."  We rescued a Pharaoh Hound who was a disastrous product of one of these idiotic dog owners.  She was fearful, distrustful and had been abused in an attempt to correct her "problem" behaviors.  We had to teach her to give herself a time-out when she felt anxious around new people.  (More on her story later.) 

This blog is my birthday gift to Jet, the most incredible dog I've ever owned.  If you are looking for an unusual dog, forget the Pharaoh Hound.  If you think you are among the 5% of Americans who would make a responsible owner of a Pharaoh Hound, think again.  Get yourself a Golden Retriever or a big, friendly Lab.  Let all the Pharaohs out there grow up with the special care and attention they need and deserve.

Meteors, or Life and Death in Meadow

It's what the stargazer came to the meadow to see:       

An icy, swift, inexorable flight,

That thin, flaming death trail.

A mouse titters, an owl calls then, soundless,

Night bird hurtles at prey.

In those final seconds, a tiny sentience knows

Claret spice of the last unplundered grapes,

Drowsy squabbles of geese on a reed-screened pond.

Cygnus arcs the width of a baby's finger while

A meteor scribes its name--

Sharp strokes of white light.

The death shriek whets the edge of autumn's first frost.

Bolide of talon and feather rends blood, bone and fur.

The cry melts away.  In a single beat of hushed breath

Stargazer, geese and sky make a prayer

Then resume life's rotation towards the dawn.

 

The Wilderness of Grief

     I know a woman who lost her young son to cancer about 9 months ago.  The little boy spent more of his life fighting his illnesses than he did being a little boy.  When he began the last battle of his brief life, his mother set up a Facebook page where she chronicled the exhausting and heartbreaking journey.  She shared the painful decisions she made with her husband to end treatment as well as her son's final days at home.

     She continues to post updates as she attempts to navigate the new landscape of her loss.  There are days she finds it hard to stop crying.  There are days she finds it difficult to get out of bed.  She tells us, her readers, when someone tries to pass off a hurtful comment as advice.  As the months have passed, however, she has started to share something else: flashes of happiness.  She laughed when her three-year-old daughter started a snowball fight at the cemetery and lobbed a snowball at her brother's picture.  She was proud when her husband continued to donate platelets.  She was delighted with the present her daughter made for her daddy.  And yesterday, she posted a good night to her son along with a little song, "You Are My Sunshine."

     My friend may not realize it but she is sharing lessons on non-attachment.  Grieving is a long and difficult process but we often add to our own suffering.  Sometimes we have a moment of happiness or pleasure but temper our enjoyment by observing how our lost loved one can no longer experience these things.  Sometimes we even sabotage moments of joy or beauty by feeling guilty.  But sometimes, when these wonderful moments come, our minds clear and we do what is correct at that instant: We laugh, we marvel, we play.  This is living mindfully.

     In that numbing world of grief, what is our correct action, moment to moment?  When it is time to cry, we cry.  When it is time to laugh, we laugh.  A breath.  Clear mind. Cry.  A breath.  Clear mind.  Do the laundry.  A breath. Clear mind.  Throw a snowball.

    My friend is a refugee on a path through a sorrowful wilderness.  She does not know her destination.  But she knows the next step,and she takes it--and the next and the next.  She is on her way.

    

Joy and sorrow, Zen and a dog

Because JHATOR is about grief and the return journey to peace and joy, I will be using this blog to share stories of grief recovery, updates on Jet and thoughts on living mindfully.  From time to time,  I might share some of my shamanic journeys but only if they are relevant to the stated purpose of this blog.