On Dust and Rain

Nothing smells clean. Outside my window, the willow struggles into a fragile green sheen; the redbud is millimetering into tiny sharp arrow tips.

In the storms racing through Missouri this week, we missed being in a tornado, tornadoes being lazy creatures, all in all, in spite of their fierceness, and don’t like battling through a city for the most part. Their preference is for flat land. We did get a half inch of rain, which brings our grand total of moisture since the beginning of the year to about an inch and a half. We’ve had one mild snowfall.

Last evening, I cleaned the back porch, screened on two sides, buttressed into the house on two sides. We carried out the leftover firewood and stacked it back outside. I began sweeping up shovelfuls of dust and dry leaves, nose twitching at the reminder of drought creeping in from the west. Everything has a powdery coat.

I feel like one of the women Gordon Parks photographed during the dust bowl days: hand shading eyes, watching for locust or a rolling dust storm. But I’m probably being over-dramatic. It’s not quite that dry although dry enough.

When I lived in Hawaii at Kalani Honua down by Volcano, my job, in exchange for free room and board, was garden work (once the memoir is published, you can read all about it). In the nights, rain often pocked through the jungle and across the compound. I’d wake briefly, glance out the screened window beside my bed, think I won’t have to water the garden, and fall asleep in the soft green scent of jungle, leaves rejoicing, earth wafting its gratitude. I wondered, from time to time, how you’d explain the smell of dirt to someone who hadn’t stuck their hands in it: loamy, yes, but that presupposes knowing what loam smells like.

There is a word to explain the smell of rain, petrichor, a combination of bacterial spores and plant oils, but about as useful in terms of scent as describing loam.

We have city water and hoses. I water the yard, taking care to soak the ground close to the house so the old rock basement doesn’t shift and crack walls. You’d think a house this old, built in 1924, with a rock basement, would have gone through all the shifting it was going to do in its close to hundred years. You’d think.

I thought the same thing a few years ago when we had a summer drought. The ceiling in a dining room corner dropped nearly two inches and the stairway wall cracked. We found a company who restores old houses. They restored.

Hence, a pricey lesson in old home management. I learned to no longer think that way. I water the house.

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A lighthouse from home

Mom at Anneta's0001

While re-reading letters I received in Hawaii as research for the memoir, I came upon one from Mom with a newspaper clipping. She’d spent several days with me at Kalani Honua, the jungle retreat setting where most of the story occurs, and had met a young acrobat, Tom Foolery, who liked listening to her stories. Tom appears briefly in the memoir.

“I cut it out just for you,” she wrote, “so you could maybe enclose it in your daily log or whatever. It’s really neat of the two Toms. Love their assumed names.”

Mom was always clipping out pieces of paper and sending them, not just to me but to almost everyone on her letter list. She wrote a lot of letters after she stopped writing a column for the newspaper. Well, actually, she wrote a lot of letters even while she was writing a column.

Here’s the joy of her letter: after telling me what the family was doing, she ended with. “Janet I did enjoy so much spending time with you and seeing your garden. It’s laid out so neatly and evenly. Surely wish Dad could have seen it. And lots of other things…” Dad had died two years earlier.

That had been her first trip back to Hawaii after he died. They had traveled to Hawaii for more than ten years to spend the worst of the winter months at my sister’s. The trip must have called up many memories.

Memory. I write and read about memory, how the brain works, why it works that way, where memory is stored (mine is mostly stored in letters and journals). And I’m reminded again of how much I am like my mother. Actually, I’m reminded often. Her memory was less than stellar, and less so as she became older. I take heed of that.

But it’s more than memory, or lack of, that mirrors. She was a reader and a writer. My love of both comes through her.

And along with writing, I save newspaper clippings. Some because I want to read again, some with a scrawled note essay title I could/should write (which I often don’t get around to), some about books I want to read. One of her mementos I treasure is a folder of partially completed essays. In her own handwriting.

At Kalani, people gathered around her “like a lighthouse from home” as I wrote. She looked like every dream grandma looks: short, white hair, short body too, at 4’11” although she always added another half-inch because it made her feel taller and no one could see the difference anyway. A grandma who baked cookies and told stories. People loved being around her and easily teased out story after story. She didn’t bake any cookies at Kalani, but whenever she’d pass the open air kitchen and ask for a cup of coffee, the kitchen worker always brought her a cookie with it. She didn’t even have to ask.

At the end of her letter, she added “Tell everyone I said hello.”

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Time and Memory

WritingAlthough showing up on these pages has been rather hit or miss, mostly miss, I am writing, and that writing, a full-length memoir, is keeping me from here.

I admire that so many of you show up often. Thank you. Even when I don’t get around to commenting, I do read your posts. They give me a break from the words in my head. I have to get it done. You see, this is the fourth or fifth go round, if you count a half-completed novel, of this same story: Living in Hawaii or how I met my husband. Well, not really. Right now it’s titled Written on the Reverse, a title culled from my many years of reaching crossroads and never knowing what they said because the writing, usually on the reverse and destined to remain invisible for an unknown number of years, was impossible to decipher.

I’m circled, here in this writing corner, by old journals, old letters, a workshop schedule from Kalani Honua, the jungle retreat where I lived for many months, a map of Hawaii, books, papers, old manuscripts.

Here’s a piece I’m not using from an old manuscript, but I liked what it said and so pertinent to what I’m doing with all these old memories, I wanted to share it. I hope you enjoy it.

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Time: time warped and woven into layers of mesh so invisibly dense we lose our way, not realizing, perhaps, not understanding that all our realities are engaged, all our lives a dimensional experience in forgetting and remembering, all the time, with each person who walks though our life.

We keep old photos, scrapbooks, journals, yellowed newspaper clippings, grandmother’s dishes, as if the past were somehow more real when tangible—as if the photo or dish or paper somehow held who we were or where we came from. Perhaps they do—memories’ bones and blood. We are the experiences and the people whose memories we hold, and they remain, experiences or people, for good or ill, in our bones and blood, in the very cells of our being. Where did all these come from? These saved moments—the journals, copies of letters, books and words and photographs—all concretized time, a journey into excavation to reshape experience.

While working on this memoir, primarily set in Hawaii, I’ve remembered and reread books that once guided me through a maze of learning and growing. Catherine Kalama Becker writes, “In Hawai’i, many people believe that iwi (bones) are an extension of a person’s mana (power) and are therefore very sacred.” The bones of royalty, Kamehameha’s for example, were hidden and treated with respect.

Bones endure for centuries, millennium even, turning personal power into communal power. Our bones, in other words, carry our memory. When someone is overburdened in life, her rachitic back responds: his disks rupture from the strain, a back bends or sways, hips go out. The people who are part of her life, or his life, also suffer the consequences of those memories. If we would remember to treat our bodies with care, the mana we send them might just keep us upright. My many years of working memory through my body with yoga, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, and spiritual exercises have sent a new message into my bones. And slowly, I have patiently (and often impatiently!) restructured my body.

As a kid in church, I got tired of hearing, “Your body is a temple,” always followed by Don’t. Don’t smoke; don’t drink; don’t dance; don’t have sex. No one ever said Do.

Do be kind to your body; do treat it with respect; do allow your body the rest it needs; do clear your mind of negative talk so your body feels comfort; do enjoy this body you’ve been given. Do play! Or as another friend from Hawaii, Monique Pasternak, said, “Your body is a temple. Pray in it every day.”

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