Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Witless and Worried

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

I think about these words by Rumi as I try to get my wits back after witnessing a mental meltdown by my mother. Just yesterday I talked about her wisdom and honor in spite of her dementia. I went to visit her that afternoon, and she just went sideways with a desperate sort of frustration. She said words that hurt and made a scene that was frightening.
“Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.”
Alcoholics Anonymous teaches us to the take the body, and the mind will follow.
Do what is necessary, the next right thing.
“Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.”
Why has my mother been broken this way? How can I continue to be a good daughter when it hurts so much?
“Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.”
I told my loved ones about it when I got home. I talked with my husband, called my sponsor. Their caring for me doesn’t make the pain less.
But I made better moves than I used to. I didn’t pick up a drink, drop a pill for relief.
Rumi says that if I am frightened, I should not sit down and be quiet about it. I should make music. We should participate in the beauty we love.
“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” This is the notion of paying homage to my Creator, to welcome myself home to the land I love.
On page 68 of the Big Book are some lines I love:
“We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves. We are in the world to play the role He assigns. Just to the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly rely on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.”
I rise and greet the new day—not with fear but in the beauty I love.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

How do we find happiness? My mother’s last pearls

It’s funny how your parents get smarter after you’ve left home and become a parent yourself.
My young adult daughter believes I was a personal friend of the dinosaurs. I believe she needs my input more than ever. This disparity often drives me to my own mother for advice.
At 78 and shrinking, Mom is a gnome of a lady who can’t walk without pain and a cane. For most of my life she was a busy Norwegian in blue jeans who knew more about hardware than many men, strong and wiry, an expert in an arcane craft: handmade cooler pads.
Now confined to an assisted-living home, her insights are edged with mercy, a quality I think we all could use more of. I wish my daughter would sit at her grandmother’s feet and learn a little there.
But alas! The young are too busy making their own mistakes to value the wisdom of the old, who have made theirs already and grown wiser for it. Someday my daughter might wish to know what her grandmother knew about life, and it will be too late.
So I took my pen and paper and sat at my mother’s knee. What do we need to do to be happy? I asked. She laughed. Seriously, I said. For a few minutes, she communed with the oak tree arching over our heads, and then she dropped five pearls in my lap.

Have a smile for everyone!
I took my mother to a craft fair recently. Something in a booth caught our eyes, so we wandered that way and handled the merchandise. Her exclamations of pleasure and enthusiasm drew others to the stall, and Mom exclaimed over their beautiful eyes, their wonderful sweaters, their lovely hair. She had to hug them all.
In this way we made our slow way around the room. Women approached her and asked, “Will you come to my booth? You’re a people magnet, and I need business at my stall.”
On the drive home, Mom heaved a great sigh. “What a wonderful time!” she said. That is the consequence of a smile.

Listen to children and nature.
Mom can’t get out into the world under her own steam anymore, but she’s busy watching it from her windows, which overlook a field on one side and busy family street on the other.
Listening to children at play, she says, gives you an insight into what they’re thinking. Children innately forgive and forget. Listen to the congregation at the monkey bars, and your faith in the future of mankind might be restored.
Observing the world at her doorstep provides a daily ration of food for the soul, claims my mother. Emerson said the sky is the daily bread of the eyes. Mom is a little more down to earth. “It’s thrilling to hear the songs of birds, the breeze rustling the leaves,” she says. “It means I’m still alive!”

Take care of what you have.
Ordinary things, well cared for, become the treasures of your children’s children. My mother points to a well-used pitcher on a shelf. “It was my mother’s,” she explains. “It’s not valuable, but I like to look at it and remember the iced tea she made on hot days.”
If we are forever replacing with the new, she wonders, what chance have our children to make such sentimental attachments to our simple, well-used things?
It is not only things. This same woman insisted, when we were young campers in national forests, that we police our campsites before leaving. “Leave it better than we found it,” she’d say, to our annoyance. Today, when we pull into sites littered with human laziness, I wish all campers followed her rules.
The work of a person’s hands also matters to this woman, who drilled her children in their chores. Paraphrasing Lord Chesterfield without knowing it— “Any job worth doing is worth doing well!”—she would demonstrate the proper way to push a broom or clean a surface.
Imagine a world in which people cared for their environment, possessions, towns and children with that dictum foremost in their minds!

Put the best construction on everything.
One day I stood at the sink scrubbing furiously on an old Revere ware pot my husband had burned dry when he got sidetracked by the dogs. I was furious because it had been a wedding gift to my mother, passed down to me. I wished to confront my spouse with this sin against my heritage.
Mom sat at the counter, so I bemoaned the pot’s fate to her.
“Oh, that old kettle!” she laughed. “Just cook in it! It will be fine!”
My mother, the guru. As Ben Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.”
The Eighth Commandment teaches us how to live at peace in a community: by bridling our tongues. My mother, a good Lutheran, quotes Martin Luther’s explanation of this command, which boils down to viewing your neighbor with kind eyes. This way mercy lies, and tolerance, and harmony with others.

Give your time to others.
“The best way to enrich your life,” Mom says, “is to give your time to people.”
Teddy Roosevelt, a president she admires, once declared, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” My mother takes this to heart—literally.
“I have universal blood!” says this proud blood donor, who has traveled painfully by walker in these later years to donate her pints of O.
No longer able to function with advancing dementia, my mother makes quilts for people in distress. She helps a local nonprofit agency prepare mailings. She makes lists of organizations that need volunteers, in the event that she suddenly can work again. I find this heroic.
“The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others,” said Helen Keller, another hero, “will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves. … Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.”

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What the Woodpeckers Teach

The colony of acorn woodpeckers that lives in the three oaks next to my house is worth telling about. Since we're next-door neighbors and the birds live their lives in the open, I've learned some of their habits by observation. What I've seen has driven me to bird books, for which I thank my grandfather and my mother, and possibly their grandfathers too, because I've read that reading is a learned behavior.
Both my mother, Frances, and Granddad Joe carried Audubon books into the forests and deserts we visited, and I remember the pair of them, sometimes with my aunt or uncles, poring over books at picnic tables, laboriously trying to identify--by studying the minute features of it--some particular tree or bird or flower.
They could spend what seemed like hours doing this. And the family still can't visit wildlife, or even our back yards sometimes, without hauling out the reference books and binoculars.
The acorn woodpecker excited some discussion among us all.
We're fortunate here in the oak woodlands to have these birds; their range is small, and from what my books tell me, they seem unique among woodpeckers. Both males and females wear a red cap and a black and white tuxedo, and they've been exceedingly busy this month with their acorn harvest.
One of my three oaks is what's called a granary tree: This one large oak is where they store their harvest, in holes peppered all up and down the length of the tree's trunk and arcing out into its branches.
The wonderful thing, the unique thing, about these woodpeckers is their community. They live as a colony in these three trees. Everyone harvests, everyone works hard poking acorns into well-worn holes, everyone helps.
They share in the work, and they share in the bounty. We wondered if they harvest grubs that might grow in the stored acorns, but the books say they live all year on the acorns themselves, stored so meticulously in the granary tree.
They even cooperate in raising their young, from sharing the duties of incubating the eggs to sharing the endless chore of feeding the young and, finally, training them to fly. The young belong to everyone.
I have seen this colony of woodpeckers work together also to fend off an onslaught of starlings that appeared one day earlier this year. The woodpeckers unified to protect their interest in the three oaks. Even though the numbers of starlings and woodpeckers seemed about even, after several hours of strategic swooping and chattering, the woodpeckers convinced the starlings to set up house elsewhere.
Together they protect their habitat. They take care of their "land" and resources, reusing the same holes year after year. They diversify by consuming crops from different varieties of oaks, and they maintain emergency supplies, living on nature's bounty of insects when that "crop" is available.
They share in the rearing of their offspring, cooperating in raising up a new brood of responsible woodpeckers and sending them off to find new communities elsewhere, thus keeping their population stable and not overtaxing their resources.
It appears to me that the acorn woodpeckers illustrate the life of a good community--my own, I hope.
I hope my community's leaders make decisions that use our resources well and protect our habitat.
I hope the spirit of cooperation flourishes in the statewide and national level, that we all work hard to be good stewards and share the bounty of our efforts with those less fortunate than we are.
God bless us, every one.

Chris A

Photograph by Greg Cope

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Great Spirit of God

He said he was like the ocean, a surging white-crested wave
of power sucked from moon and sun, the currents and the undercurrents
all arriving at this place, at this time, by the design of God himself.

I walked the beach shooing away the sandflies and scuffing through
the dried-up seaweed, sending up showers of sandflies that clung
to my lips and my hair. No tide had brought unbroken shells.

He said he thrived on the backs of whales, that he could speak
with the humpback and the sperm, that he knew whalesong
was a way to communicate the great potentiality of God.

Sand dragged at my shoes, not good shoes for walking in sand
and with a terrible foreknowledge I kicked over a mass of kelp
where beneath there lay the bedraggled corpse of a gull

He stripped off his shirt and he looked like a brown crystal vase
from a shop in Beverly Hills. Watch me, he ordered, knowing
his physique was riveting, though expensive, and no one turned away.

I watched as he would have me watch, in semi-sighing awe
as he gathered up his board like a girlfriend and padded to the sea,
that mystery girl I never was nor believed in as I scuffed the beach

But I was turned away when the 20-foot swell took him and his board
that power sucked from moon and sun, the currents and the undercurrents
all arriving at this place, at this time, by the design of God himself.

Chris Alba (c) 2009
Photo courtesyRyan HelmWeslshSurfNRG

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Few Days in Paradise

The California coastline was blocked by fog most of the way north, but this one shining cove revealed itself for my camera. We've stopped the car about halfway up to Big Sur for this shot, all those mountain ranges on the right still to cover.

I'm half crazed with the tiredness that follows such a trip but wanted to check in and say we made there and back. We had women's meetings, men's meetings, bonfire meetings, art meetings, decoupage meetings, and sculpting with found objects meeting over the picnic table. On the right is flying Root Man, and he is held up by granite and Flying Root Woman and the breath of its maker, 6-month Julia, on the right.

Julia is one of those newcomers who Gets It. She has been the joy of the past six months and is on her ninth step. She doesn't even mind when surrounded by old timers and middle timers and people who would could be her mother's age (moi).

We had the usual hodgepodge of AA people from our county. People shared their choice dinners, and Joe took up one of his blue-ribbon carrot carrot cakes and his ever-popular scones.

I didn't hike much because my hips are bothering me, but I did take a nice slide in the river unexpectedly, and found the water very nice, thank you.

This is our Earth Mother on the left and her black Mustang. She makes outstanding fajitas and maintains a loving curiosity about everything. She nearly has three years of sobriety and is another one "getting It." The shot on the right is our farewell espresso at Gorda with Julia and Joe ready to hit the road home. And home is where the heart is, right? Just be thankful for what you got, and where you go, be blessed by God.

No redwood trees photophraphed, no banana slugs, nothing of wide nature in her glorious best, but here's one of nature's own sculptures:

Things I am grateful for today:
Safe travel on a curvaceous road. Short AA speakers who get right to the point of how they stay sober today. The sound a river sings at night. Laughter. Beautiful daughters and aunts who babysite our critters while we're gone. My sobriety today. Espresso. Granite and feldspar. The heat here will be falling 20 degrees tomorrow.
And blogging. I missed my blogger while I was gone

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Want to Rescue a Polar Bear?

From yesterday’s whine about autumn to today’s rant against global warming took about three seconds in this racy brain, which found itself in a doctor’s office reading National Geographic on the shrinking ice cap.
A Swainson’s thrush dashed itself against my sunroom window and broke its neck the other day. I heard the unmistakable thud and went outside immediately, in what I hoped was a rescue operation. It had happened before; I had saved an unconscious hummingbird from the curiosity of my cat and dogs.
This time, the silky olive-brown body was warm, and the bird’s eyes were open: I had hope. I stroked its soft, speckled breast, but its head flopped like a rag doll’s, and its chances looked slim. But hope is hardy and hard to crush, so I wrapped the thrush in a towel and put it safely on the patio, where it could recover and fly away in peace if that should be its fate. And a miracle happened: It didn’t have a broken neck at all! It regained consciousness and flew away.
The accident reminded me of a moment last winter, when I found a cedar waxwing at the foot of the patio door. The waxwing’s body was cold, and there was no hope for recovery. I held it and examined the red waxy points on its wings, caressed its black bandit mask, admired its yellow tail stripe. It was the first time I had a close look at the beautiful birds that come every winter and strip my pyracantha bush of its fat red berries. I can tell you it is much more satisfying to watch the cedar waxwings strip my pyracantha than to hold a dead one in my hand.
I was sorry for my part in its demise; it was my mirror-like door that tricked it into thinking there was sky beyond. It occurs to me there is a link between these birds and the dire future of polar bears: human intervention.
The only polar bear I have ever seen was at the Seattle zoo. In an underground room one could watch the bear swim in its private pool, and I watched in awe as that gorgeous creature stroked past the window.
It won’t be long before two-thirds of the world’s polar bears die off because of the shrinking Arctic ice, said a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey. By 2050, the bears will have lost more than 42 percent of the range they need to live in.
In just the past few years, the ice has shriveled by more than 350,000 square miles. The 16,000 current polar bears are getting squeezed already.
I want to do my part to rescue those of God’s creatures that are in dire straits. So I read about the small things I can do to reduce global warming. Here’s one: I’m told that if every U.S. family replaced one regular light bulb with a little fluorescent one, we’d eliminate 90 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, the same as taking 7.5 million cars off the road. Maybe it isn’t much, but it’s a beginning. We replaced three. Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Song of the Arctic

The Arctic is screaming,
a scientist said.
The blanket of ice
on top of the earth
is fraying so fast,
some summer soon
the walrus and wolf,
the white bear and seal
will have no ice to wander.

They are not walkers on water.
They are not Christ.
They cannot redeem the world.
They must have their ice.

We read this in the paper
sipping lattes on Sunday:
take note for a moment
like a twinge in a tooth
but it passes we forget
we are a bowling ball
hurtling down the lane
at a bevy of pins
we soon will shatter
and they are living beings
screaming in the Arctic.

Chris Alba © 2009 Photos courtesies: Cedar waxwing Regent Science Class; polar bear on burg AmeNaevra(Norway); resting bear

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Trying Not to Grouse at the Autumnal Equinox

In spite of the harvest, in spite of the colorful trees, the brisk days, the frost-edges leaves, autumn is not my favorite time.

Autumn continues to be the precursor to winter, no matter how I try to think of the present, stay in the now, la-di-da. We hit the equinox, and my dahlias are dying. Everything in my garden that has given me joy all spring and summer is fading to death. The optimism I have worked so hard to build in AA now has to work hard against the flower gardener's sorrow.

I'm out there in the garden every morning, gathering in the last survivors, placing vases of flowers everywhere in my home. You'd think I was preparing for a catastrophe.

We're going through a heat wave here, a week of the 100+ temperatures; you'd think I'd be happy. But I'm not. I'm sad. I'm picking the stragglers, the vulnerable, the less-than-award-winners I grew this summer. Negative thinking is running amok.

It's a beautiful world I live in, BUT depression is starting to set in as the light says goodnight earlier each day. Maybe I suffer from SADD. Maybe I'm just MAD. I pour my heart and hands into that garden and it is the season for seeds, little birds that feed on the seeds, the last hurrah before the season I hate.

Boy, am I feeling melancholy today. The heat is cooking the tender young buds. Another week of this is forecast. Blah, blah, blah.

Thank God for small things, big things: I'm headed tomorrow for the redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. Thank God Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't close the California campgrounds. Thank God that today is my 18-month sobriety date. (Enter negative thinking: I had 15 years and went out!) (Out, damn thought; I've had a wonderful life of sobriety mostly, and I work the program hard, and I sponsor three beautiful beacons of women who are getting It, and the past 18 months has been among the best of my whole life! Thank you, Higher Power, that I haven't once thought of killing myself in a long, long time. There)

Okay, now I'm more serene. We can learn from the cycles of life. I have learned: to have faith that the dead will rise again; to have faith that each season is necessary; to trudge when necessary; to write poems when sad; to enjoy the moment even though this too shall pass; to use the same approach when unhappy; and to be glad for those who are glad about autumn.

According to the weather report, fall won't hit here for quite a few weeks, and then we'll have the pumpkins and squash, the riotous joy in the trees. The good news is: I can still wear shorts!

Here's a silly poem about my take on the autumnal equinox.


One wakens to find an autumnal gloom
has lowered the boom on summer.
The bright yellow days segue to grays,
and the loins that ran rampant grow still
Yes, autumn is crisp with colors in the mist,
with apples and pumpkins galore, but still –
And not the least of all are the colors of fall
and the riotous joy in the trees. But please
let the haze drift away and the sun warm this day,
and don’t let the winter come soon. For one’s bones
are brittle and they ache a little, and one’s brain
doesn’t bloom in the gloom.

Chris Alba (c) 2008

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Peanut Butter Skin

In the past 18 years, I've spent a fair amount of time learning to be.
I used to be someone else, usually drunk. Usually argumentative. Usually scared spitless of other people. Not to mention tortured.
Sobriety has changed me. Continues to change me. Continues to change how the world appears, not to mention the people in it.
I'm in a hurry this morning. We're off in two days for time in the Big Sur redwoods. My husband pants at my shoulder, waiting for me to help with the preparations. Happy Tuesday to you all.

Peanut Butter Skin

I am lathered in peanut butter and coated in oats.
I stretch my long limbs and pace the byways of life
in this voluptuous skin, casting off bits of me
wherever I roam …

Stupendously strange, I travel with ease on the streets
of my city, savored by people wearing polyester
and silk, who look in amusement and pleasure at me,
so harmlessly different …

I feel youthful and sturdy in my buttery pelt;
all of my parts are smoothly united. I am deliciously
warm, lavishly textured, and each gentle gesture
is a sculpture in motion …

I am simpler, and stronger, and wiser than when
I was clothed in my old clumsy skin. Gone are the
nakedness and the burning despair. In me
abides a creamy peace …

The membrane has parted between me and mankind.
I exult in my freedom, my affection for self.
How dear are the people who toil alongside me!
How precious the people all over the world!

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Day NASA called Me

The night the meteorite fell on my small town, a lot of people missed it because they were inside watching television.
I was outside on the patio, which faces due north, at 10 p.m. one July night. I glanced up at the sky.
A fireball blazed an orange flaming path vertically down the sky.
For seconds I gaped at it, until the flame disappeared behind the tree line.
A plane was going down!
I shoved back my chair, dashed into the house, grabbed the car keys, and raced up the road, looking for the flaming debris.
A helicopter circled in the northern sky, its searchlight beaming down into what appeared to be the riverbed. Then it headed off in the direction of the airport.
But I saw no impact area, came home, and called the sheriff’s office to report what I saw.
I was told it was a meteor shower. But I am an enthusiast of meteor showers, have stayed up late and driven far to see them. I know the difference between a bunch of shooting stars and a flaming mass headed for the earth in my neighborhood.
The first person I saw the next day was a lady named Dolly. She had seen the same thing I saw, and it was headed right for her bedroom! She saw the flames, heard the whistle of a speeding object, and saw what she thought was an impact out the window of her house near the golf course.
We got online with the trusty little computer and searched for meteors. Dolly left to go look for meteorites. I hooked up with a science site and found a photo of a great fireball that struck the Yukon in January 2000.
That led me to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and an email address for Ron Baalke, a fellow who knows lots about meteors.
I sent him a message about our event here in Paso Robles, described the fireball, asked a few questions, then went back to my work.
That’s when NASA called my office.
Our fireball intrigued Ron Baalke enough that he tracked down the my office web site, found our phone number and then called me up.
He’s a near-earth-object specialist, he said. He’s one of the guys who hunt the asteroids that might be hazardous to Earth’s health. “We think there are about a thousand of them,” he said. “We’ve identified about half of them.”
That gives you pause, doesn’t it?
Anyway, fireballs like ours, he said, are normally either space junk or a large meteor. Space junk was out since debris wasn’t scheduled to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on that date.
So there’s a decent possibility that the local fireball was “a reasonably large meteoroid,” said Ron. “It’s very possible the object survived the passage through the atmosphere and reached the surface as meteorites.”
And maybe the bits landed within—oh, say—50 miles of the downtown park.
Ron suggested Dolly, myself, and a few other witnesses triangulate our views to find the true location of the fall site. If we can find it, we can look for meteorites—“black rocks,” he said, “any size, from a thimble to a bowling ball.” They’ll have a dark crust with an interior of a different color.
Are fireballs like ours fairly common? I asked.
“They’re reported roughly once a month around the world,” Ron said, “but they’re actually more common than that.” There’s a lot of ocean and unpopulated land out there, he reminded me.
“What made you call me?” I asked him, still dumbfounded that NASA personally telephoned me in Paso Robles.
“You were the only person in the state who contacted me about the event,” Ron said.
Which just goes to show where a few questions in the right direction, even at the top, will get you.

Ph0t0 courtesy NASA

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gophers Suck

Gophers are God's creatures too, but when they invade my garden, they are asking for trouble. Yesterday I was all la-di-da about orb spiders; aren't they fabulous; aren't I great to admire them. Today I am totally pissed off at those rotten rodents: Gophers.

I raise dahlias. To the gopher, dahlias are like potatoes: Yum.

Found a gopher hole in the dahlias. Murder is once more on my mind. This old nature girl draws a line in the sand. I once beat a gopher to death with a shovel, myself and the neighbor lady. We laughed our as*es off: Old hippie and nurse, whacking away with our shovels long after the poor thing (ha) was dead. I think we were grossed out at what we were doing and what it said about our potential (not at all latent) for violence. Gophers deserve violence.

Apropos of that, I go tonight to my friendly neighborhood college town to do a featured-poet reading. Recovery has given me my poetry back. I had thought: too much insanity for so many years had killed what creativity I used to have. My poetry had been beaten to death by the shovel of John Barleycorn. Hallelujah for one more great gift of sobriety.

I am going to read this poem tonight for gophers everywhere who deserve to die:

The Dahlia Eater

I am the breath of life.
I breathe into the soil
and flowers bloom
where I have breathed.

Like God I touch the earth
and living things spring up.
I plunge dark matter
into the dirt and beauty
grows there.

Blood drips from my hands
and sweat drips into my eyes.
This living sacrifice
calls to the dahlias
and they rise from the dead.

When that creature
burrowed into my yard
I became something else.
I became that woman
from Babylon bent
on destruction.

I thrust poison into the soil,
my precious soil,
sifted so fine by that little
engineer, I could never
sift it so fine.

But did I feel awe? Did I feel awful
as I shoved the deadly pincher trap
into its perfect hole?
I felt bloodthirsty,
throbbing with godly vengeance.

Until I found
that soft brown body
terminally squeezed,
I never knew death
could be so hilarious.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spider Living in a Small Town

While things heat up in American politics and violence boils over in the world, I worked off some frustrations in my small-town yard last weekend.
We have a spider the size of a Mack truck in our garden. It has provided a lot of entertainment for several people over the many weeks it has spent in our yard.
In truth, the spider is only the diameter of a ping-pong ball when its legs are outstretched. Wearing natty stripes of yellow, ivory and brown, it's an orb spider whose web is an architectural marvel of concentric circles woven on supporting spokes that span five feet.
It lives in our shrubbery, surrounded by sweet alyssum and rose bushes. It moved there five or six weeks ago after first trying out a web in the nearby agapanthus, which was lower to the ground and must have proved ineffectual as a trap.
Now sprawled out on a web the size of a small trampoline, the spider is living proof that the secret to doing good business is location, location, location. It prospers on all the fly-by traffic, and at any given time it usually has a couple of good meals wrapped up like mini white burritos on its web.
It's just one of the fascinating neighbors we've gotten to know since we came here to this small town. After what was for my husband and daughter a lifetime in Los Angeles, I promised them nothing except we would live in a beautiful place.
They had already seen it on visits to my hometown over the years: summer's golden humpbacked hills studded with oaks the color of jade; spring's undulating green expanses slashed with ribbons of orange poppies and purple lupine.
It was no risk to promise them that every day we'd go forth into God's country, where hawks wheel on updrafts and deer come down to feed in the long, low light of evening.
We had no guarantees we'd prosper in the move - and in fact found, like many others, that wages lag behind the cost of living here.
We had no certainty, either, that we would replace the deep friendships left behind, forged through years of barbecues, riots, earthquakes, and backyard croquet games.
And indeed we've found that it does take time, years of it, to put down roots like that.
But we've been well-rewarded for our investment in the small-town way of life, in unexpected ways I never imagined, even though I lived here as a child.
Our daughter struggled through years of self-doubts to claim a spot on a volleyball team in high school. There was pride shining in her eyes as she put on her uniform and put her skills to the test. As a young woman now, she has found her place in a physical-therapy gym, certified in massage and loving her work with the recovering injured.
My husband, Joe, still gets mileage out of the mountain lion he saw one year, loping across the field of his headlights in the pre-down darkness. The great lion ghost gets longer and taller with every telling.
A few years ago he was hurt on the job and had to retire, and we had some rough times. Now he volunteers at a local school and works with a dozen recovering alcoholics, and he loves his new life.
Neither of us will ever forget the night we watched a local jeweler and a city councilman save a retired teacher’s life at a community party. Wally's heart had quit, but Pat and George did not quit—and today Wally is bouncing around town, lending a hand wherever he can, being of service in many different ways.
Working among people in this town has taught me that the real treasure of our area is as much in those who live here as it is in our beautiful landscape. I love bumping into people I know on sidewalks and in shops, taking time to share a few observations about the day's discoveries. My time here has given me glimpses into the lives of hometown heroes, small-town miracles, and wonderful neighbors.
Here is a thought along those lines, expressed far better than I could do, by Holocaust survivor and writer Corrie Ten Boom:
"The tree on the mountain takes whatever the weather brings. If it has any choice at all, it is in putting down roots as deeply as possible."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Flash 55, thanks to G-Man

Spring Has Sprung

Winter cracked
and it broke wide open

out sprang a nectarine tree
in a hot pink tutu

it did a little pirouette
pink petals shivered

then out sprang a plum tree
in a white bridal gown

it did a little shimmy
a snowfall of white petals

drifted down on
the breathless congregation

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prickly People Need Love Too

My husband and I have noticed that marriages between strong personalities tend to have moments of prickliness in them, which people survive when they practice forgiveness and tolerance of each other's character defects.

It's harder to practice a good recovery program at home, where we somehow feel free to let it all hang out. It's easier to be a good AA in meetings than it is to be a good member of AA when your partner annoys you.

My husband and I are both strong personalities. He is a self-confessed control freak, and I am often stubborn. We struggled for years to learn how to have mercy with each other, keep our side of the street clean, and grant the other person the right to be wrong.

But he's been sober for 22 years, and I've been sober for 16 out of the past 19. We've grown together. Forgiveness of ourselves and each other has become second nature, except when we have the usual sort of heated words that crop up when somebody's being a butthead. We made a promise to accept each other as the way we are, warts and all.

One day, when it was it his turn to be a butthead, I wrote this poem:

Cactus Love

A work of art the cactus is
a hymn of symmetry
a prick and proud to be

How primal yet complex it is
austere, yet blooms appear
delicate but severe

Compelling is this crown of thorns
it makes you want to touch
but pain results from such

It sounds like you, the cactus does
a fearsome man apart
yet beautiful at heart
Chris Alba (c) 2009

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Hallelujah Chorus

A year ago my best friend, a five-time cancer survivor, died after the disease struck a sixth time. Her name was Tonya; she was six-one in her stocking feet, and she was a fierce woman. I woke up this morning thinking about her. She lived a full life and was grateful for each day. I miss her friendship, her volatility, her great, large spirit.
That's Tonya on the right.
We talked at length several times about her impending death. I profiled her for our local magazine and wrote several poems about that doomed struggle to stay alive and grateful: my loss, our grief, her relentless lack of self-pity.
I took the photo when she first got the diagnosis that cancer had returned. It's the only photo I ever took of her that she loved.
There's still a hole in my life where Tonya's presence used to be.
Here's a poem I wrote about her a few months back. It works for anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one. She would tell us: Live in gratitude for each day God gives you to make a difference in someone's life.

I Can Almost Hear You, Love

I cruise the internet looking for you
the voice I need to speak
the words stuck deep
in the throat of the brontosaurus

I find you not but am distracted
by the voices chattering
like so many birds in the pine
outside the house they shrill

unless I’ve had my morning coffee
and walked the dog and felt
my life unfold, a blanket
keeping in what warmth remains

then the shrill becomes a choir
singing hallelujah I still live
though you do not and while
my throat is stopped yours is not

you speak and sing in some
other place beyond this place
and I can almost hear you, love

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Slug Bug No Slugbacks

This is one of those mornings when I am sluggish. You'll notice I posted one of my slug photos on the left, with an appropriately cheerful thought.
Sometimes sobriety means trudging in spite of feelings.
I checked out some fine blogs this morning in lieu of doing "useful things." Syd and Vicariousrising gave me lots of thoughtful moments.

My publisher canceled an assignment. I almost throttled my pet kittens. My Joe brought me a cuppa joe from Starbucks. I wrote a poem last night that I don't quite understand. I'm having difficulty sleeping. Yawn.

Things that are great: Eight of us women in recovery took a meeting yesterday to an alcoholic detoxing from a barbiturate addiction, and it was a beautiful meeting.

I took a sponsee to the beach and we looked at art, did her eighth step on the sand, ate oysters sober, and took in an open-mike poetry reading. My poem, "Codeine," drew laughter, much appreciated.

I haven't had a drink today, for many days, in fact.

My Joe and I work our program at home, and our marriage is a blessing.

Life is like a salad. There is all that scrumptious stuff plus the occasional stupid garbanzo bean and bitter raddiccio. I'm selecting a photo for this post that I took of a woman preparing a salad for the daily lunch her church serves the homeless.

I have too much to be thankful for to list. And I'm listless today, anyway.

I found Monkey Man's Sunday 160 challenge the other day. It's an ancronymical work, worth a yuck:


Damned if it is a measure of your worth that
U have more tchotchkes than books
Stultifying on your shelves, a reminder
That everything arises and returns to it.

I think I'll tear myself away from here and hit a meeting. It's attitude adjustment time.

But first here is my ode of sorts to the angry, sad contradiction the addict feels when doing drugs and trying to pray to a Higher Power. Using and praying are a strange juxtaposition. I drank and prayed so many times before I found Alcoholics Anonymous. Willingness and surrender were the keys. What a life I have been saved from!

Thanks for listening.


Lord High God
(I prayed this prayer)
May we all be blessed on this day, with your peace, which passes all understanding
(This was to make him
feel good about himself
quoting his own words to him
as if they had meaning)
On this gloomy day, may we see the green hills, the chariots of clouds in the sky, the flowering trees, the golden trumpets of the daffodils, and as we see them, may we be filled with praise instead of snarly negativity.
(I was feeling bitchy
and I really choked up
on the “chariots of clouds” line
so I knew this one
was a really good one)
You are the Lord of the great clouds, you are the Great I Am, You are our precious Brother and Master and Friend.
(I think he likes
to be noodled with
this excessive naming
so I included it)
Forgive me for my poor attitude. Forgive me for the one dark blot, my soul’s dark spot, which you are cleansing not.
(Yuck, yuck
Honesty is always
the best policy. My aunt
says she has a healthy fear
of him and so should I)
Turn our agitation into constructive action, so that we may feel the glorious feelings that come with doing a good job with talent and grace. May we be a blessing to others we encounter today, and thank you for the blessing of medication
(I had dropped
three codeine tabs
and they were
taking effect, if
you know what I mean.
Sacrilegion didn’t
scare me & it
should have)

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Elegy for a Slug, Part 2

I owe Syd for this enchanting discussion of the "WHY?" question I posed in my earlier post. It is magical nature says Syd. An old friend says this current photo of the banana slug is "very yin and yang of them." Whatever. They are fascinating conversation.

In answer to my poem which actually said:

Elegy for a Slug

Why didn't God

throw him a shell?

Syd said...
A shell is actually buried under the slug's mantle. But unlike the familiar spiraling shells of snails, this one is only a thin, fragile membrane of calcium carbonate that is barely noticeable. It hardly deserves to be called a shell.

But the shell leaves a clue that slugs evolved from shell-bearing snails. The slug's shell is a vestige of a distant past. It is a perfect example for Darwin's exquisite logic: "Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation.

On the view of descent with modification, we may conclude that the existence of organs in a rudimentary, imperfect, and useless condition, or quite aborted, far from presenting a strange difficulty, as they assuredly do on the ordinary doctrine of creation, might even have been anticipated, and can be accounted for by the laws of inheritance."

Most shells are used to keep animals from drying out and not to protect the soft body within. But the slug has a lot of mucus that keeps its body moist. See how magical nature is?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gratitude After a Relapse

The Drug Addict’s Lament

the dope the dope the dope
shrieking at you in the cupboard
open the door the sleight of hand
stealing on Easter for Christ’s sake
how can you
the dope the dope the dope
shrieking so loud you hear nothing
but its call from the cupboard
so you open the door on Easter
rolling the stone away from the tomb
and free the dope the dope the dope
shuddering with shame and gladness
leaping into the tomb

Today I'm grateful for the freedom I have through the power of my God.

The BB says, "The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink."

It's part of my story that I was sober one Easter morning, and on a visit to my aunt I stole her painkillers--without a single thought about my sobriety! I'd had 15 years and drank again (see My Story), then got 14 months both clean and sober, then came that Easter morning and the attack of the "strange mental twist."

So today I keep a close walk with my Higher Power and I work extensively with other alcoholics. One of the meditations in my "Twenty-four Hours a Day" book has been a help to me:

"Keep as close as you can to the Higher Power. Try to think, act, and live as though you were always in God's presence. Keeping close to a power greater than yourself is the solution to most of the earth's problems. Try to practice the presence of God in the things you think and do. Abide in the Lord and rejoice in His love."

"Nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics!"

I am doubly grateful that my Higher Power has put newcomers in my life. They give me joy when all else fails. Today I'm off to the beach with Julia, to read the eighth step and go to an open-mike poetry reading. It doesn't get any better than that!

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Torture Turned Into Love

Coffee Love
Love has everything to do with coffee in our household. Joe loves me through coffee as thoroughly as he loves me in all the conventional ways.
When I arise in the morning, he has prepared my Mr. Coffee so all I have to do is touch a button. He does this at 4:30 a.m. while he readies for the gym. It is, for him, a loud and clear statement of his cherishing me, as clear as a diamond ring.

I receive that gift each morning when I rise at seven. Most days in my self-centeredness I fail to appreciate the fact that all I need to do is press the Brew button. Only occasionally do I pause and marvel at the love within a simple pot of coffee. For so long has he loved me this way, I forget that love is what fills my coffee cup.

I once thought love was a verbal declaration. If a desirable man spoke it, I pursued that man to the ends of the earth just so I could hear that soul-nourishing phrase again and again.
I repeatedly failed in such pursuits.

The men I tracked hightailed it to the hills for good reason: I pursued a man long after he grew tired of saying the magic phrase, long after I ceased to be the wonderful woman who warranted worship. I think I tried to lay hands on men who wanted miracles, forgiveness of sins, fine meals out of soda crackers, and other suitably godlike acts.

Hungry for love, I was a she-wolf in search of a meal. I thought love was a compulsion to worship and have riotous sex. The words were the nourishment I craved.

It was only through numerous miserable escapades that I became willing to adjust my concept of love. When I met Joe, I learned to recognize both my humanity and his. Our love is a desire to be kind, to accept calluses and farts, to find comfort in one another’s company.
The love expressed in that morning cup of coffee has the freedom of kindness within it. I shake my head in wonder at the love in the man. Then I drink my coffee. I drink it all.


Twilight falls on me
belly to cold ground
nose pressed to the
imprint of your foot
searching for the
scent of you.
I am in hot pursuit:

However cold grows your trail
I’ll not abandon it.
I am the shadow
which trails behind.
I shall lay hands on you.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I Used to Love Torture

Once upon a time, I was addicted to bad relationships. I must have loved torture.
Today I'm grateful that I can choose to have healthy relationships with people. Today I'm grateful to be in recovery, where I have learned everything I know about living life fully and making good decisions.
You know what tortures me today (besides everything that's evil in the world)? Those stupid tags they stitch into clothing, at the neckline, on the waistband, where they rub your tender skin. Who decided that stitching labels to clothing with fishing line was a good idea? Who decided that tags with sharp edges were just the thing to put on a neckline and a waistband? Whoever invented those stupid tags should be sentenced to wearing them all over their body, all day, all night, rubbing, irritating, torturing their stupid hides.

But enough of that. Let's talk about bad relationships. I've had my share. Drama and pain made me feel alive. Shoot, I actually thought suffering was artistic. LOL
I was such an artist at tortured relationships that I wrote this lyric poem about it (Warning: This poem contains rhyme!):

She Must Have Been a Masochist

Gentle jailor, blessed foe,
If you broke this yoke I would not go,
Nor would I were the lock ajar,
The cuffs uncuffed and the lash laid low—
If free of such, I’d not fly far
Before I craved the clutch of iron and chain
And my cold bed, where I have lain
And carved my name in stone
More nights than stars have known.
I know no home beyond these bars and claim
No wish to flee. I can’t abscond.
I have no lord but thee. Your scepter whip
Your reins and key are instruments of sanity.
What meaning lies in the land beyond?

Though my cellar be severe,
Sweet warden, all is clear in here:
These black shackles bond
My pale arms where they belong.
Had I not their iron grip, how should I stand?
How should I know the sun had dipped
Beneath the edge of land, without that
Slanting scrap of light?
How should I sense without your whip
To cut me as it kisses,
To burn me as it lays me bare,
Pealing has it hisses through the air?

My nerves have come to love the pain.
My neck would break without the chain.
I choose it so. I bear your mark.
My eyes have grown to love the dark.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Spirituality and the Slug

There are many mysteries we will probably ask our Higher Power when we meet at last. Some are very profound. Tonight's question is not in the least profound.

We went to the northwest and camped this past July. Banana slugs were in abundance. Gruesome they are, but a marvel of engineering from the Creator's point of view. Still, slugs beg a question, spiritual in nature:

Why? Why so slimy, and so vulnerable? Why so ugly? Someday I will ask God, if I remember it among the many inquiries I would like to make when I meet my Maker.

Because I have stepped on many a slug in my garden, where they are unwelcome, I worry about their spiritual significance. What on God's green earth puzzles you? Write a comment, and let me know.

Here is my query to my Lord. It is my shortest poem:

Elegy for a slug

Why didn’t God
throw him a shell?

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cracks in the Ground

One of the oddities of the 6.5 earthquake we had here a few years ago was the humongous crack in the ground that opened up in the countryside. It was two blocks long and about 15 feet wide.
Cracks in the ground open up interesting possibilities. A child might ask: What if you fell into a crevasse and wound up someplace like China or Wonderland?
People fall into crevasses far more often than you might think.

Uncle Otto at 90 years old was a spry, wizened man smoking a pipe at a family reunion. Right in front of my eyes, he fell into a crack in the ground: a time warp in which decades drop away. Suddenly he was a boy again in Montana:

“In the dark before dawn, it was 20 below. I walked behind the wagon to keep warm, a young boy feeling sorry for myself. I can still hear the sound of the iron wheels crunching in the snow.
“In the manor where I live, there are 135 old people. I gaze at their faces. The women, they must have been beautiful once. Now, like the rest of us, we aren’t so attractive. But the beauty was there…”
Time is a crack in the ground that you can pitch headlong into, and you find yourself being somewhere different from where your body stands. Memories are like that.

Sometimes cracks in the ground open up when you’re walking through hard times.
One minute, for example, something troubles you, weighs on you like an iron wheel around your neck. You’re shackled to your worries. Then suddenly you fall into a wonderful crevasse.
You open your eyes, and beauty is there. Trouble has vanished in the soft sloughing of waves on the sand…the wheeling flight of sea birds…the irresistible desire to run your fingers through the pebbles on the beach in search of sea glass.
If you are worried today, may the ground open up beneath you, and may you tumble into a blessing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Reunited at Last

I didn't see my eldest daughter Annika from the time she was 24 hours old until she was 21, when I as birth mother and she as relinquished child reunited for the first time. It was a glorious reunion, one of the happiest days of my life.

Over the years, I became an advocate for birth mothers and adoption. I've been blessed by Annika. We got together again at Christmas 2008, and we learned about the different traditions of our families; then we met again at a state park north of Eureka, California, to camp with members of her birth family. She's up in Portland now, making a new life for herself.

Getting to know each other has been profound. I'm interested in discovering other people who have had reunions between birth parents and relinquished children. If you've had one, please share your stories with me.

This is the poem I wrote as I drove to the airport to pick her up for our second reunion:


Down the hill, in the glade,
the writhing white branches of the leafless sycamores
look like dancing skeletons

dancing skeletons of trees
dancing dancing
my heart is dancing
you’re coming home today
oh my heart
is dancing

just like the sycamores down in the glade
their white arms swirling
above the green grass

you’re coming home today
and my heart is dancing

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Morning Coffee

Life is good. This morning the coffee tastes especially nice. We drink French roast, ground fresh. In this economy it's a luxury, but I'd rather do without almost anything than cut out the premium coffee. Coffee and the newspaper used to be a great team, but the news is always so oriented to the awful that I find myself scanning headlines only. Even that can get a person down.
An old friend named Sheryl Eddins introduced me to fresh-ground coffee. Back in the day, we shared a place in Venice, California, and her coffee of choice was Italian. I finally made it to Italy one year, to Florence, and I spent part of one morning chugalugging espresso. Got so wound up I ran around taking photos of street scenes and never made it to the Duomo.
Today's project is writing a profile of a wonderful old walnut farmer named Ray Pesenti of the Pesenti wine family. I used to dread the interviews of old folks: so much material and so difficult to transcribe. Thanks to my traveling laptop, interviews are a snap now.
Wouldn't it be a fine job, to make a living out of interviewing and writing profiles of the old timers in rural America? Huell Howser (sp?) has my dream job, except I would write the profile as opposed to televising it.
Let's see what to post as today's poetic musing. Why not a summer poem about hopefulness I found on the street one day:

One Hundred Thousand Wishes

what’s this world coming to
kids these days got no respect
I’ve had it up to here with you
don’t you dare mouth off to me
when I was your age
don’t look at me that way
you never talk to me anymore
what did I just say
I’m sick of all of this

look at those boys laughing
racing their bikes
look at them wrestling on the grass
sword fighting with sticks
look at those boys stopping
picking a pair of dandelions
look at them blowing
one hundred thousand wishes
flying on the summer breeze
look at them look at them

Chris Alba (c)2009

Saturday, September 5, 2009

One Heartbeat at a Time

"Anyone can carry his burden, however heavy, until nightfall. Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day," said Robert Louis Stevenson.

When I was younger and more self-indulgent than I am now, I thought difficulties would kill me.

It was mainly grief that I thought was deadly. When my father died, I was 27; I thought: No one will ever love me again the way he loved me. It was true; only one's father loves one like a father does. But it hurt so much, I feared that the feelings would make my heart stop.

So I self-medicated. That's how I thought of it: medicating myself to prevent death. Taking a handful of pills, nursing a bottle of booze--it was all about numbing the sensation of pain.

When someone I was in love with decided we would no longer be lovers, my reaction was a similar panic: I'm going to die of a broken heart. So take a handful of pills and nurse a bottle of booze. I failed to see the irony, that medicating with substances could actually cause sudden death, whereas emotions themselves are not deadly. And sometimes I didn't care if I lived or died, because life felt so hard that any kind of peace was welcomed.

In recovery, I've discovered that the "broken heart" is just a cliche, not a deadly medical situation. Sorrow is simply the natural reaction to loss. It might be overwhelming; it might even be a permanent state, as it is when someone you love dies. But one day at a time, one breath at a time, I can go on and once again find joy in living.

The trick is to not become embittered. I have to look for joy; it doesn't come knocking on my door, asking to be let in. I need to be willing to see with eyes that believe in goodness and mercy. Here is a poem I wrote about having such eyes:

Robins Abroad in a Sad World

A pair of robins
red-breasted and proud
live like lords on my land,
fertile with worms
and a gourmet’s delight
of insects hidden
in a century’s layer of mulch.
I watch them sometimes
when my mind is full
of dire news, fed
by a river of sorrows
except when I watch
the robins strut
and pluck the strands
of their living harp,
masters at the art
of being.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trial by Fire

My marriage, 18 years strong, has not been all sunshine and roses. Both Joe and I had our fair share of failures before we met (in an AA meeting), but those prior failures proved to be our greatest asset when we were courting.

"I don't know how to have a healthy relationship," Joe told me. "Maybe if I do everything the opposite of how I've done it in the past, I'll do the right thing for a change."

We made an agreement: We will not run, stuff our feelings, or lie to each other. In the early days of dating, that agreement kept us going when old behaviors and old patterns of thinking threatened to do us in.

Our 12-step program gave us a good model to follow, and our agreement gave us compelling reasons to stay and tell the truth, as well as to be responsible for our own thoughts and feelings as we inched through the minefield of courtship and then marriage.

When my lifelong battle with depression struck again, and I went through a bout of drinking after 14 years together, Joe stayed and asked the most loving question: "What can I do to help?"

We survived, and I got sober again. Our agreement stood us in good stead through the perils of step-parenting, the death of Joe's parents, the normal disagreements of two married people. We have grown together and independently. Joe has said that the real secret of a happy marriage are four little words: "Honey, I was wrong." We have learned to practice forgiveness, of ourselves and of each other.

One of my meditation books this week used a sailing metaphor for the ups and downs of life. In sailing, one of the worst enemies is the dead calm, which leaves you dead in the water. Every bit of "turmoil" in the air is the sailor's friend. Our faith, said the meditation, is always at its greatest point when we are in the middle of the trial--the tumultuous wind that sends the boat scooting along to its destination.

Joe and I enjoy our periods of becalmed waters, when life is utterly serene. Then the wind of a trial stirs the air, and our sailing skills go to work. These trials make us better sailors and carry us further along on our journey. The storms exercise our faith in each other and in our Higher Power.

I remember that as I cope with my demented mom, with clinical depression, with an eating disorder, and with the other trials and turmoils that beset me.

Here is a poem composed when I was beset by problems caused by living life on life's capricious terms, and when my marriage and my faith were my sources of strength:


oh your smiling face
zzzts like a spear
into my chest
strikes my heart
stretches it
wide as a smile
I feel it
in my toes

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Demented Mom

My mother is 78, and following two hip replacements four years ago, she very quickly developed a form of dementia characterized by zero short-term memory. As her cognitive function deteriorates, she has developed child-like behaviors and a loss of verbal skills. She also became a quilting machine, sewing quilt after quilt of cut-up jeans and fabric squares.

She sewed so many quilts, we three adult children struggled to find homes for them all. They went to the women's shelter in bulk; they went to the hospital; they went to the homeless and to Africa on missions. They went to the police department and to skid rows in L.A. and San Francisco, and they went to homes of unwed mothers.

This year, the quilts began to shrink in size, from twin-bed dimensions, to baby-blanket lengths, and now they have diminished to the size of large placemats. Mom's ability to do the math required by quilting has vanished. This past month, she can't remember how to run her sewing machine.

Watching my mother's mind collapse inward is painful for me, her only daughter. She ran a business for 25 years, until she was over 70. In my childhood, I was afraid of her brisk, no-nonsense personality; now I am afraid of her childlike innocence. She asks me how to dress. She asks me, "Is this my purse?" She says, "Thank you for taking care of me."

Mom lives in assisted living with five other women who need elder care. I take her out every Wednesday on a field trip to real life, and she marvels at the sky, the hills, the breeze in her hair. To battle my sadness, I practice the attitude of gratitude that seems to be a secret of success in life. Her cognitive function may be shrinking like her quilts, but her joy in living has grown.

Sometimes Mom can make funny little jokes that are quite lucid. One day in January, I carefully explained to her that it was an important day in the church calendar: Epiphany. She listened to my explanation, then said, "Oh, I have epiphanies every morning. I wake up and realize, 'Here I am again!'"

And here is my poem about my mother's dementia, written on one of those sad days:

The Waiting Room

I sit here with my mother
feeling like a parent
hush, keep your voice down
don’t talk to strangers
stop squirming in your seat
why don’t you read this nice magazine

Oh, Mom,
where did you go?
I watch you browsing Newsweek
and you show me the pictures
You exclaim over Highlights
studying the hidden-objects page
You speak loudly of the fat lady
three seats over as if she can’t hear you

I can’t hear you anymore, Mom
You referred to yourself
as an aged child today, the first
truly lucid thing I’ve heard you say
in months. I’ve had better conversations
with my three-year-old grandson
yet you and I once explored
the whole wide world together

I wish I had known the last good talk
we had was the last good talk
we ever would have, so I could
remember it down to the last detail
With bitterness I’m at war
with your frontal lobe, and your
temporal lobes are my enemies

We wait here in this room
for the doctor to pronounce sentence
on your disintegrating brain.
It could always be worse,
and how much worse it could get
he will tell us, a word I use politely
for it is not us he speaks to, but to me
for you are lost in the fairy tales
of childhood once again
and I am left behind to sweep up the pieces.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Albert Einstein Quotes