A Winter Poem

February

spring snow

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
Again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bed sheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the wind-chill factor hits
thirty below, and the pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

by Margaret Atwood

 

 

 

Yes, I Can!

New Beginnings

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The holidays are over, and another new year is upon us, along with a plethora of well-meaning, but impractical and impossible to keep, resolutions. We all know that daily life has its own plan, and often gets in the way of our best intentions.

Rather than make resolutions I will inevitably break, my desire is to simply try:  try to begin each day with a positive outlook; try to be kinder; try to fit at least one walk in;  try to write each day. And, keep in mind, it’s all right to mess up once in a while, pig out on that bag of chips, feel angry, skip a writing day if the muse doesn’t call you. I  skipped many days on my blog, and felt plagued by guilt, at first.  But at the same time, I have been writing furiously on my new novel, a sequel to Key Witness, and have completed 18,000 words of the first draft. So, I am forgiving myself, as we all should when we falter. Pick up where you left off, and keep making forward progress. That’s my resolution.  Yes, I can!

yes I can

Rocking Chair Musings – More Work – 4

My story is not unlike many others who strived to achieve a better life for their families. A succession of minimum wage jobs followed a succession of moves: long distance telephone operator in Oakland, California until I fainted because I was pregnant and fell off the stool; waitress at a diner called “The Hungry Truck”; department store window dresser and retail worker in Milton, Florida; clerk-receptionist in Pensacola, Florida; day care worker in Coronado, California.

Then, with three children under twelve and a home to maintain, I attended college and worked part-time in the administration office. The middle school where I did my student teaching in Milton, Florida became integrated that year, the year Shirley Jackson ran for president. I landed my first teaching job in Whidbey Island, Washington, the beginning of a twenty-five year career in education.

While my husband served on three cruises during the Vietnam era, the children and I worked a small farm there in Washington—milking a cow, feeding chickens and pigs, gathering eggs, working a garden and harvesting bales of hay—then I went to my teaching job. Whenever my husband was transferred to a different duty station I out of necessity changed jobs as well.

The positions ran the gamut from teaching severely handicapped children in Washington, first graders in the military school in Sigonella, Sicily to teenage boys transitioning between incarceration and introduction back into society. There at Blackduck, Minnesota High School I had been tucked away in a small upstairs alcove so that neither the boys nor I could contaminate the regular students. These boys had all been traumatized at some point in their life and reacted by striking back at society. One Native American young man had witnessed his brother commit suicide by lying on the railroad tracks in front of a train. Another had been tortured by his mother by being scalded in boiling water.

“I could throw you down these stairs if I wanted to,” he said.

“Why would you do that?” I said as calmly as possible. These boys never acted out their violent threats and I learned to listen when they wanted to talk.

I moved on to teaching English to children in Honduras, then to working with so called “learning disabled” Navajo middle school children at a BIA school in New Mexico. These were the quietest and most agreeable youngsters I had ever met. They taught me the art of quiet reflection and the benefits of silent observation.

I spent the last fourteen years of my career in education teaching middle school science in Las Vegas, New Mexico—a school that was nearly one-hundred percent Hispanic. In fact I was laughingly referred to as their token Anglo. These children could be exuberant, rambunctious, competitive and charming. Silence was the unknown enemy to these youngsters.

Looking back I hold no grudges or regrets, I wouldn’t change a thing. There were numerous days of stress and fatigue, but did I ever once feel useless? Hell no. Life has always been a series of adventures and learning experiences and challenges—it was then and continues to be so to this day.

plenty, sister

 

 

 

 

 

Rocking Chair Musings 3

More Work

I never imagined there could be so much desert in the United States—California’s Mojave stretched into an unending blur—heat mirages rising like cool pools of water only to disappear when approached. Then came Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and not much change of scenery in the monotonous stretch of Texas.

desert 2

Other changes occurred though. Most notably, all the colored people moved to the back of the bus when we crossed over into Texas. When the Greyhound stopped for food or a break, signs like “Whites Only” began to appear at drinking fountains and bathrooms. Having grown up in Northern California I had never experienced segregation or blatant racial prejudice before. The truth is, our town boasted very few African Americans, but several Chinese and Japanese families, and across the river in Yuba City, a good many Mexicans due to the Bracero program. The huge influx of Punjabi from India had not yet begun.  But, racism did not enter my mind in those early days, whether due to ignorance or lack of exposure, I don’t know. My perception of the world began to change.

segregation 1

 

Millington, Tennessee, a sleepy little southern town, relied on the Naval Air Station for its livelihood. The tiny octogonal-shaped house my husband rented sat tucked back on a narrow dirt road connecting the downtown area with the main highway that ran to the base. It showed many signs of abuse and neglect in the filthy scarred walls and floor. It took a week of scrubbing to make that little house livable.

shack

 

We had no car but at least the location was convenient for Tom to hitch a ride to and from the base each day and for me to walk to the Piggly Wiggly where I wandered dumbstruck through the aisles staring at the conglomeration of unfamiliar food items like chicken feet, chitlins (chitterlings), pigs feet, hog maw  and poke greens. We also had no money. Rent consumed fifty of Tom’s ninety-one dollar paycheck. My husband smoked at that time but couldn’t afford cigarettes, even as cheap as they were then, so he persuaded me to go to the neighbors and bum some. I humiliated myself one time only by asking strangers for cigarettes and knew I needed to bring home some money because I never wanted to do that again.

chicken feet

 

The Handy Andy Shoppette situated on the highway leading to the military base was within easy walking distance. It carried a variety of overpriced items and gave credit to its mostly black customers. I stocked shelves, worked the cash register, swept, dusted and mopped, and got scolded for being too friendly with the “negroes”, an admonition I didn’t understand. Sometimes I babysat for the owner and his wife, anything to supplement our meager income. We didn’t live in Millington for long, but with my job we survived and were even able to indulge in an occasional movie.

Rocking Chair Musings 2

 

More Work

The next summer, shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I was hired as an usherette at a movie theater. The now defunct State Theater in downtown Marysville even supplied employees with a uniform—maroon slacks in shiny polyester and jacket with a black stripe running down the outside of the pants, black shirt provided by me.  All decked out and equipped with a large flashlight I began checking tickets to see if they were general seating or loge, and showing customers to their seats. The loge seats cost a little more and were in the balcony where smoking was allowed. I had friends who smoked, mostly guys, so naturally I let them sit in the balcony whether they paid for loge or not, which they never did.  But, after watching the same movie three or four times, I frequently became bored and entertained myself by spotlighting couples making out in the back rows. People complained and transportation to and from work became problematic. Most evenings my mother dropped me off on the way to her waitressing job at the Uriz Hotel. Then someone from the hotel (restaurant) would pick me up and take me back to the kitchen where I feasted on tidbits the cooks prepared for me until my mother got off work. All in all, it wasn’t a bad job, but for some of the aforementioned reasons, I didn’t last through the summer.

I spent my last summer in California working the hop harvest at the E. Clemens Horst Ranch outside Wheatland. I had become a married woman four days after graduating from high school and needed money to join my Navy husband in Millington, Tennessee where he was stationed at that time. Tom had lived with his Uncle Howard and Aunt Eunice in company housing on the Horst Ranch since leaving home at fourteen. Howard, a full-time employee of the ranch, managed to get me and Tom’s sister, Betty, on the payroll that summer. Betty and I are the same age, and she and Tom were the oldest of twelve siblings from deaf parents. If I considered my childhood tough, I only need to think about theirs for about three seconds.

hops

 

Betty and I worked in the hop house, a two-story building of which the upper story had a slatted floor covered with burlap. The hop flowers were poured onto the second floor, and our task was to rake them even so that heating units on the lower floor could dry them before they were pressed into bales. Hops are prickly and itchy, summers in northern California are hot, with heaters, even hotter.  Not a cool job.

Uncle Howard and his brothers celebrated payday with a trip to town for cold cuts: bologna, sliced American cheese, Wonder Bread, chips and sodas. Several members of my husband’s family worked the hop harvest, and when they returned from town we sat on the tailgates of pickup trucks to eat fat bologna sandwiches, drink Coca Cola and commiserate about broken tractors, long days and low pay. Howard’s wife, Aunt Eunice, was a terrible cook. After days of her beans and hockey-puck biscuits, bologna sandwiches were a feast.

Balogna Sandwich. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.

 

Work

It seems someone hacked into my blog – posting something in French about X Boxes. A very rude and strange intrusion. However, I hope deleting them as spam will be rid of the parasites, and I can continue with my maudlin meanderings.

I’m writing about work, how our work ethic influences our lives and our perceptions, and I’ll start from the beginning-my first paying job.

we can

How Does it Feel to be Useless

Ouch. When my husband of less than five years said that to me, it felt like a slap in the face. What the hell? I kept a clean house, ironed those uniforms the regulation way, cooked great meals, took care of my kids and did yard work. I had never felt useless in my entire life, and didn’t at that time. But I was a stay at home mom with two toddlers, not contributing anything financially, and money was in short supply. It’s not that I hadn’t worked outside the home before. I had labored at an amalgamation of minimum wage jobs, but the lack of a college degree and frequent moves, plus child-care expenses made my contribution minimal to say the least

I grew up with a strong work ethic. My mother drummed it into all five of us kids, not so much through nagging, but through example and expectations. My parents never took a vacation, never had a day off. When their five day week job ended they threw themselves into a two day non-stop workathon around the house. We were expected to help, especially me, being the oldest and a girl. And I didn’t argue, didn’t really mind washing windows with vinegar and newspaper, waxing floors, ironing, doing dishes, and whatever else was required. I received some privileges and respect for my labors. If I needed a ride to town, I usually got it. If I wanted to invite a friend to spend the night, that was fine.  But that was not enough for my husband. I felt hurt, shocked, mortified. I should have said so, but I didn’t. Hating contentiousness and disharmony, I sulked, then looked for a job.

My introduction into the work force began at the ripe age of fourteen when I signed on to pick peaches with my cousin and a group of Mexican farm laborers at an orchard not far from the house on Murphy Road.  We were assigned to pick a section of the orchard, provided with buckets, ladders, and lugs to fill. Lugs for the uninformed are flat wooden boxes that hold a lot of peaches. A swamper, usually some young high school kid, drove a tractor around and loaded the filled lugs onto a flat-bed trailer. We were paid by the lug. Something like seventy-five cents.

peach

The day began at  six in the morning, and my mother packed us a lunch and a jug of grape Kool-Aid. So young, so inexperienced, I started out full of enthusiasm, convinced I could easily out pick those braceros. (Another note here. Braceros were laborers from Mexico working with a temporary green card.) An average day went like this: climb up the ladder, fill your bucket with peaches, climb down the ladder, empty bucket into lug, then back up ladder and repeat. The morning seemed bearable, though my skinny limbs ached, and I immediately recognized that my lugs did not even come close to the stack the Mexican workers had. I tried to work faster. By noon the late August heat began to take its toll. Temperatures climbed into the low 100’s. After lunch I felt nauseous, dizzy, cramps. I climbed down my ladder to lie down in the shade. My cousin did the same. The Mexicans laughed at us. We were wimps. Overcome by heat exhaustion, I vomited and curled into a ball. There had to be an easier way to make money.

I returned to the orchard for two more days before admitting failure and found a new calling at the D’Antonio’s packing shed, standing over a conveyer belt for eight hours a day as pears rolled by on a conveyor belt. My job was to cull the small, green, imperfect fruit

pear

 

It wasn’t so bad, actually fun because many of my friends from school worked there as well.

Rocking Chair Musings

 

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My granddaughter and namesake once told me she was glad that I’m not the kind of grandma that just sits around in a rocking chair. Well to confess, that is something I actually do from time to time. It’s a good place to read, watch for wildlife, think, and dream. I have just a few more words to summarize my thoughts on religion.

Since my early experiences as a church -goer, my relationship with organized religion has consisted mainly of attendance at marriages, funerals, and the occasional Christmas play.  I do not condemn churches regardless of their affiliation. For some they provide solace and an opportunity to socialize with like-minded people. I do condemn hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and unbending dogma. I prefer to deal with matters of spirituality in my own way.

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First off, I need to be alone. That is the only way to connect with what I call the “God” Spark”, that tiny particle of stardust that is inherent in every living thing. I would describe it as a “sense of awe or wonder”, and it can be found anytime, anywhere if you are open,but for me the best place to experience this feeling of spirituality is at my isolated place in the woods. Mornings, I can hear the “God Spark” in the birdsong and the soothing cadence of the creek as it tumbles over rocks. I love watching the dawning sun as it kisses the mesa tops, the dance of the turkey and deer, the zooming hummingbirds in their natural environment, the slinking cautious coyote. I am humbled by the terrifying beauty of thunder storms, the necessary kill of predators, and the persistence of all creatures to continue to survive even in the most adverse conditions.  I am reminded that we are all connected, all living things, plant, animal, microbes—all equals sharing a common speck of stardust, and whatever harm we do to one we do to all.

star2

 

I only have two rules in my dogma: “Find your own way to ignite that spark, and do no harm”.

I’m willing to share.  Join me on the porch for a cup of hot cocoa and some quiet contemplation.

 

Right, Wrong and Religion – 4

heaven

I wish I could say that was the end of my delving in religious matters, but I had to give it one more shot. My future husband, a year older than me, and now serving in the Navy somewhere in Texas, got it in his head that we needed to become Catholics before we got married. To this day, I do not know where that came from, as he also had no religious affiliation. Peer pressure, I suppose. At any rate, Tom stated in a letter that he was taking Catechism classes and that I should do the same so that we could get married in the Catholic Church. It was my senior year of high school and all my friends were having a great time flirting with boys, going out on dates and to parties, cruising Marysville and Yuba City, while I sat at home pining and lonely, feeling sorry for myself. Well, why not become a Catholic? So, I signed up for classes at Saint Joseph’s and began to attend Sunday Mass, though I had no idea what was going on.

church

 

I don’t remember the priest’s name at my catechism class, but I do recall the subject matter of that first lesson—venial versus mortal sins. The seven deadly mortal sins were spelled out: PRIDE; ENVY; LUST; ANGER; GLUTTONY; GREED; and SLOTH. The term “mortal sins” sent tremors of fear through me. As the priest lectured I started thinking about how many mortal sins I might have committed. Hadn’t I just eaten five donuts in succession last week before my younger brothers and sister could get a chance at them? GLUTTONY. Didn’t I love to sometimes lie around and do nothing but read and daydream? SLOTH. And what about LUST? I lusted all the time. Those were sins that could send you straight to hell if you didn’t confess. The possibilities for sinning were infinite, and the guilt that followed could be mind-boggling. Venial sins, I learned, are not so bad. You aren’t required to go to confession, but it would help lessen your time in purgatory if you did.

confession

Rituals were confusing—the holy calisthenics for example. Stand up, sit down, kneel, bow your head, make the sign of the cross, and repeat these words in unison. . .  . I began thinking then and there that Catholicism would not work for me, and about the same time, thankfully, my future husband came to the same conclusion.

Right, Wrong, and Religion – 3

 

I stuck my foot in religious waters a few more times before finally acknowledging church attendance didn’t work for me. One of the most memorable and frightening encounters that helped clinch my decision happened at a tent revival when I was about fourteen years old. As I mentioned in an earlier writing, I was coaxed by my neighbor’s same-age daughter into attending a Pentecostal healing tent revival at the nearby community of Linda. I hadn’t yet learned how to say no to invitations from friends, so I squeezed into their station wagon with the other five kids and we took off.

tent-revival

The parking lot had filled, and nearly all five hundred folding metal chairs held a warm body, but we managed to find vacant seats in the back row of the big billowing tent. A choir on an elevated stage in front led the audience in a soul stirring rendition of “Are You Washed in the Blood”. Directly in front of the choir a large pulpit or ambo awaited the night’s reigning star, reverend Jack Coe Sr. Banners and posters plastered along one side of the tent featured touched-up, close-ups of the preacher and his lovely wife. They promised hope for those who had none, and cures for the incurable, if only you believed. A clothesline of crutches lined the other side of the tent. Another song, fast and lively brought the preacher on stage and the audience to their feet with a round of applause a chorus of hallelujahs. The reverend delivered his fiery sermon pacing back and forth, fist-pounding, shouting, sweating, threatening, and promising. The crowd came to their feet with a profusion of clapping, arm-raising, swaying, and more hallelujahs, but that was just a warm-up for the main attraction—faith healing.

revival heal

 

A little old lady rolled up to the preacher in her wheel chair. He asked her to describe her symptoms, then laid his hands on her head and told her to stand up and walk. She did and the crowd swooned. More halleluiahs and praise Jesus’s came from the crowd. The preacher strutted like a cocky bandy rooster. The crowd came to their feet, preacher Coe placed his hands on another woman, almost like a push. She fell over backwards in a swoon. Some people began talking in tongues, others dancing, raising their arms toward Jesus. A long succession of infirmities made their way to the pulpit, wanting that miracle, believing. “Do you feel any more pain?” Coe asked an arthritic old man. The man flexed his shoulders, wiggled his fingers, raised his arms. “Not now,” he said. “Praise Jesus.”

The evening continued, more miraculous healings, more hymns, and finally, with a rousing crescendo, the plate was passed around. The crowd donated generously, but at fourteen I had already become a skeptic, a doubting Thomas, and not only because my last name was Thomas. I held onto my two dollars and left the revival vowing to stay as far away from places like this as I could, though I liked some of the music. I felt terrified I would become a victim of this mass hysteria and couldn’t wait to get back home.

 

Right, Wrong, and Religion

My religious indoctrination was somewhat eclectic, to say the least. But I learned a great deal from my experiences, some of which I would like to share with you. My intent is not to offend, but merely present experiences and memories as they occur to me.

preacher

 

As well as I can remember my mother never set foot in a church once she married  my father at the ripe old age of fifteen and left her Southern Baptist home. That didn’t stop her from sending my brother and I trotting off with Grandma and Grandpa Bean to the First Baptist Church in Olivehurst every Sunday morning to listen to reverend Cecil Gates preach about hell and damnation. I guess religion never took hold with mom, and she thought she’d give it a second chance with her two older kids—just in case. Maybe that is why we had to say those prayers every night at bedtime:

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

I didn’t mind that part. In fact I got to feeling kind of superstitious about it. Like, if I didn’t say my prayers at night something bad might happen and it would be my fault. It was that next line that chilled me though”

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.”

Now, what little kid wants to think about dying before they wake? Maybe that is why I am such an insomniac. That is pretty damn scary.

Back to church, nine and seven years old respectively, me being the big sister, we would be sent to Sunday school where we learned that Jesus loved little children who colored within the lines and were obedient and quiet. The coloring subjects were quite dramatic at times. This fellow Jonah was swallowed by a whale because he didn’t do what God said. Miraculously he was saved after three days and also given a second chance to redeem himself. Then there was the story of Moses and the burning bush that didn’t really burn. But, the voice of God boomed down and told Moses he needed to go to Egypt and lead his people back to their land, his people being the Jews I am guessing. There were many more fantastic stories that would puzzle the questioning mind of a nine year old, but I won’t go into them now. Those darn songs we sang still stick in my head, although the metaphors and analogies escaped me at the time.  I’m talking about “The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rock”, “O Be Careful Little Eyes What You See”, and who could forget, “I Will Make You Fishers of Men”.

 

After being inducted into the Lord’s Army we children were sent out to join the adults in the nave of the church for the finale of the Sunday happening. This is where events became very uncomfortable for me, and Preacher Cecil really got excited. It was time for everyone to leave their seats, head for the pulpit and accept Jesus as their personal savior. If you did you were promised salvation and eternal life, and if you resisted you were damned and would be condemned to join the devil and burn forever in a fiery hell.  Everyone watched to see where folks would end up. My little brother, Denny, and I looked at each other wide-eyed. I could tell he was scared, but when he started to stand up I jerked on his arm and pulled him back down. The piano droned on while the parishioners bleated—“Tenderly, earnestly Jesus is calling. Calling all sinners come home.” I shook my head at Denny. “They’re not talking about us. We’re not sinners.”

bible school

 

I wish that could have been the end of it, but summer bible school crept onto the scene, promising more coloring, more bible songs, and the memorization of bible verses and all the books of the new testament, in order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Acts, the Apostles, and the Romans… After two years of my continued resolute resistance to be saved, mom abandoned her plan to turn us into good little Christian children and we were allowed to live in peace as heathens. The irony of that religious training was that we were never taught in church to treat others as equals, to practice kindness, to be humble and generous. I learned the true lessons of right and wrong at home from my mother and the way she lived her life. The truth is, my Grandpa Bean, and I loved him dearly, was an ornery son of a gun who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a Mexican while cow-poking in his early days in Texas, and if rumors are true, he once belonged to the Klu Klux Klan, all the while reading his bible every night. So much for the scriptures.