Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

#lovewins

My partner and I have been together for three and a half decades. There were no cell phones in the early years of our relationship, and home computers were not yet commonplace. Imagine. No email, no Facebook, no text messages. We kept our eyes on each other.

We were living in Berkeley then, holding part-time jobs, because being separated for eight hours a day was inconceivable. I remember how we used to gaze at each other, in and out of bed, delighting in every gesture and freckle. Time went away, slid out the back door and left us in peace. While the rest of humanity continued somewhere else, we were locked away, immersed in a slow tease of mutual discovery. For approximately three years, until the trifling annoyances of modern living inevitably elbowed in, we were on our honeymoon.

Not an actual honeymoon. Marriage, honeymoons, wedding anniversaries—we were not allowed these celebrations, and, to be fair, we scarcely considered them. You don’t order what’s not on the menu, and we were too busy adoring each other anyway. Some of our friends were having “commitment ceremonies,” but these did not interest us either. We knew we loved each other—what was achieved by announcing it? There was something a little sad, we thought, about gathering in this way, exchanging rings and vows that meant nothing in the real world.

It was only later, when we began paying health insurance premiums and property taxes and school bonds, that we began to understand what we were missing. At the federal level, marriage confers at least 1,138 rights and protections; excluded from marriage we were disallowed these privileges. We could not adopt a child, could not file a joint federal tax return, could not draw one another’s Social Security or pension, could not get legal protection for inheritance rights, could not take dual advantage of a group health plan, could not make emergency medical decisions for each other, could not even be at one another’s bedside should a critical illness arise (same sex partners are not considered “next of kin”). We were registered as domestic partners, but that status was useless when it came to tangible benefits, and in fact only hindered the situation, making our tax preparation (one for the state, one for the federal government) more complicated and expensive. The only thing that domestic partnership actually did was illuminate its own inadequacy.

So there we were, multitudes of same sex couples, paying into a system that barred us from its benefits. Marriage, it was argued, did not belong to same sex couples. It was biblical. It was sacred.

I have always been astonished by the number of people who consider the bible a divine guidebook, who will not accept the fact it was written over a period of many years, by a dubious collection of authors. There is wisdom in its pages, and there is also stunning foolishness and spite. Trolling through this tome, one can probably find passages to justify any sort of bias. To leverage the law on this book, to define marriage in accordance with the bible’s arbitrary edicts, is impolitic and dangerous, a reckless mix of church and state.

The real history of marriage is far from sacred. Marriage was created, about four thousand years ago, as a means of guaranteeing that a man’s children were his biological heirs. In ancient Greece a father handed over his daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring. Hebrew men could take several wives, while married Greek and Roman males were free to satisfy their urges with anyone of either gender. Wives were required to stay home and tend the house; if they failed to produce children their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.

By the eighth century the Catholic church stepped in and the blessings of a priest became a necessary part of the marriage ceremony. The church’s involvement did improve the situation for wives, forbidding divorce as well as infidelity, though wives were still expected to defer to their husbands in all matters.

Not until the Middle Ages did the concept of romantic love begin to alter the arrangement of marriage. Wives won some respect in this evolution, but the idea that a husband owned his wife persisted for centuries. When America was colonized by the Europeans, a husband’s dominance was recognized by a legal doctrine called “coverture,” whereby the bride relinquished her identity and surrendered her name.

The most dramatic change came in 1920 when women won the right to vote and were finally considered full and equal citizens. Women were the first victors in the battle for marriage equality. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage were at last overturned. Now, five decades later, same sex marriage has received the same treatment. Fifty years. That’s a lot of opposition.

I came forward as a lesbian when I was twenty-two years old. The challenges involved, the ridicule I was headed for, did not deter me. This was what I wanted, who I was. My passage had been made a little easier by the gays and lesbians who preceded me, and now it was my turn to help. If we do not live our truths, how can we evolve? Living openly as a lesbian has made me tougher; it has also, conversely, made me softer, more achingly aware of the struggle faced by everyone who lives in an atmosphere of censure.

What surprises me still is the smoldering malice, the amount of time and money people have spent, are still spending, on stopping same sex marriage, as if their own lives are in some way threatened or diminished by it.

In 2004, when Gavin Newsome began allowing same sex marriages to take place in the city and county of San Francisco, my partner and I, anticipating legal backlash, waited. Sure enough, the Supreme Court of CA swiftly halted these marriages and voided the marriage licenses of four thousand same sex couples. In July 2008, a month after the court finally legalized same sex marriage in CA, my partner and I were wed, tearfully, surrounded by close friends and family. At that point we had been together twenty-eight years. It was our sweetest day, our greatest triumph. Our union was not recognized at the federal level, but this was a solid start.

I’ll never forget the night of the 2008 presidential election. We were jubilant, celebrating our first black president—how far we had come!—when someone said, “Prop 8 passed.” We stared at each other. What? It was true. Our rights had been put to a popular vote, and suddenly we were living in a state that left me and my partner, and thousands of other newlyweds, stranded. We still had our marriage licenses, they just didn’t mean anything. Not until Prop Hate, as we called it, was overturned five years later did we regain our legal married status.
We took Prop 8 personally because it was personal, as are all attacks against equality. To see the lengths that people will go to in an effort to deny others their rights, especially rights attached to an institution as benign as marriage, is to encounter hate, at a frightening bedrock level.

Laws of course do not change public opinion, at least not right away, but we’ll never get anywhere without a level playing field. This is where opposites attract, where “them” becomes “us” and “different” becomes “normal.” The biggest benefactors of the nationwide legalization of same sex marriage will be children. In making every household matter equally, in giving all parents the same opportunities, we have bequeathed our children an inestimable gift: the space to come together, the chance to be kind.

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Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Subtle Energy

Physicists tell us that thoughts, like everything else in the universe, are a form of energy. The more we dwell on something, the more energy we give it, and this energy spills out of us and into the world.

Yesterday I happened to see a deer and two fawns munching my agapanthus buds. I kept very still behind the window, and they did not know they were being watched. Eventually they moved off, carefully, gracefully, looking this way and that, before trotting across the street and disappearing into whatever hidden pockets they came from. It’s a miracle they are managing to find places to give birth, considering all the space we have taken from them. I regard my agapanthus flowers as an apology: the deer can have all they want.

It’s the effort that breaks my heart, the way animals make solid use of what’s left. At the nursery where I work, two house sparrows have made a nest in a privet topiary. From the birds’ point of view, the advantage of that dense green ball—excellent coverage—outweighs the disadvantage—foot traffic. Each time a customer traipses by, the mother, alarmed and fierce at once, flies out of the privet and onto a nearby roof from where she gives a series of warning chirps. This may not have been the best option available to the sparrows; then again, it may have involved more consideration than we think. Maybe our cooperation was something the birds factored in. Not only do we give that privet a wide berth, we have put a Sold sign on it which will stay in place until the young fly away. (We’ve also had to sequester more than a few hanging asparagus ferns—a plant to keep in mind if you’re interested in helping house sparrows.)

And then there are the baby katydids I find each year on the leaves of my lilac bush. There is just a handful of them, and they don’t eat much, certainly no more than they need, and before I have time to adequately admire their miniature beauty, they are gone.

In my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, I explore the ways in which humans and the natural world intersect. If thought is a form of subtle energy, maybe animals, with their heightened senses, can tune into it. Maybe the deer I watch from my living room can feel my unceasing praise, and maybe this admiration strengthens them, the way love profits everything.

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Small Repairs

Once again I have said goodbye to my mother. She lives in New Mexico and each November I travel from California to visit her. Last year she broke her hip, and so I was there twice.

Each time I visit my mother someone accompanies me, a sister or my partner, though once I did go alone and it wasn’t easy driving across the desert wondering what might happen to me if the car broke down. About forty-five minutes from my destination I had to take a comfort break, and reluctantly I pulled into the only rest area on that desolate route. I had not seen another soul for many miles, and you can imagine my unease when another car pulled up right behind me—a man of course. Men can relieve themselves pretty much anywhere, so naturally I was suspicious. I deliberated behind the wheel a moment but my need was too urgent, and as I hurried into the building I imagined him right behind me. My last five minutes on earth, that’s what I was thinking. No one would ever know what had happened to me. I’d wind up in his trunk, or out there somewhere, my lifeless body withering behind a clump of sagebrush. False alarm. I passed him on the way back to my car and he didn’t even look at me.

Getting to Carlsbad is never easy, requiring two plane trips and a long drive. Other than the famous caverns, this hot dusty place has little to recommend it. Still, my mother likes the town, and my sisters and I no longer encourage her to move to a more accessible area; I wouldn’t want to be pestered either. And I understand the comfort she must feel living in a town she knows and trusts. Our senses dim as we age, and this inability to perceive things as clearly as we used to can make the world a threatening place.  Familiarity is invaluable.

Much is accomplished on these yearly visits. One of us takes my mother’s car in for servicing and stocks up on supplies, while another tackles the household chores and yardwork. My mother has limited mobility and can no longer manage tasks that involve strength or dexterity. She should not in fact be living alone, which is something we don’t discuss because we all know the difficulties involved in a transition. For one thing, she is not wealthy; the sort of the retirement home she could afford is the sort we wouldn’t want to see her in. Nor does she wish to live among others. She is a lone wolf and has managed so long on her own that cohabitation would likely finish her off.

So we do with her what we can. We buy easy-reach tools, install grab bars, replace the nonskid stickers in her shower. We change the ink in her printer and order foam mattress pads to ease her aching shoulders. We clean her bathroom floors, hem her pants, bandage whatever wounds she’s acquired. And we try to do these things tactfully, to make light of them. To spare her.

At the end of each day we watch some TV, play card games, share stories (carefully avoiding politics and social issues; a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, my mother can’t fathom our liberal views.) Struggling for common ground, we retrieve mismatched memories and laugh over many of them before falling into silence. Time is running low and we can’t think what to say. If our feelings are hurt by some offhand remark, we don’t let on. Intent on minimizing damage, we skirt any trouble and keep an eye on the clock.

At the front door we say goodbye and this is the moment when my mother seems to shrink. I look back and see a tiny bent-over woman gripping the doorknob, lifting the other hand to wave. She is scared and relieved at once, sad that we are leaving and eager to reclaim her solitude. And so are we. Flying home, we will think of questions we meant to ask, things we should have done. There is more to do here, there is always more to do, but for now she is okay. We will also wonder if we have just seen her for the last time, but this thought is too painful and we push it away. As many times as it returns, we push it away.

My mother can be harsh, no question about that. I am a dutiful daughter, I’ve been told, for making this trip each year. I don’t see it that way. I feel no moral obligation to visit my mother. I go there because she is a frail woman whose life has not been easy and it makes me feel better to help her. She should be living in more sensible housing, with a walk-in tub and nonslip floors and no stairs, but she is not. She is where she wants to be. What is there to do but pick up our tools and make the best of it? Ongoing, seemingly futile, what matters more than these small repairs?