What Is The Sound Of One Hand Clapping?

Is the above sculpture a Zen koan? 

I encountered this piece of public art near Puget Sound in West Seattle on a hot summer day in 2020.  The koan “What Is The Sound of One Hand Clapping?” rose in my thoughts. 

Koans are meant to bewilder, to provoke what Zen Buddhists call the “great doubt.” 

Could things be any more bewildering than the Summer of 2020?  A time capsule of our uncertain times:

  • We have a global pandemic
  • The tragedy of George Floyd’s death and its global repercussions
  • Protests and riots across the country
  • Fires raging across the West Coast

What do the above events have in common with Zen koans?  From what I have read, koans are meant to free one from the constraints of rational thought, by offering something different from formal logic. 

Formal logic?  How to explain anything? I thought the day I encountered the sculpture. 

And then I looked beyond it, to Puget Sound.  I was surprised and cheered by the sight of a few bold souls who braved the chilly salt water inlet with its sharp rocks and sea lions. 

Perhaps the sound of one hand clapping is the point beyond which speech exhausts itself.  The point where we know when the world is too much with us and we try something new.

I vowed that I, too, would plunge into the chilly water.  I returned the next day in my swimsuit and watershoes.

Be the water, I gasped.  It was exhilarating!

Stay tuned for the Summer of 2021 — I hope to be taking more dips in Puget Sound.

And may the planet be at peace!

Turn, Turn, Turn

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” ~ James Joyce, Dubliners

Ah, the neck muscles of youth. Was that really me?

Around the time of these antics, my Father died suddenly of a heart attack.

Life was irrevocably changed. My sisters, new mothers at the time, were gone from the house. It was just me and Mom.

I felt like a lone confused wolf. The breadwinner who provided for us was no longer at the dinner table. Shouldn’t I be sad?

I confess that one part of me was relieved. No more fights between him and Mother, the worst being a particular Christmas Eve — finding him slumped over the steering wheel of the car in the driveway after his visit to a local tavern.

I did not want to be a grieving 16-year old.

I wanted fun, to make people laugh. And so I sought surrogate sisters vis-a-vis my “friends.”

But Mother told me my friends were sophomoric.

Sure. We were sophomores in high school.

Then Mother told me I had to find a job. After Dad’s death, our social security checks were not enough. If I wanted to go to college, I’d better start saving.

The florist in town hired me part-time. She had a heavy German accent. Wass ist los? she’d ask, hovering close. My reply: “Eh?”

I found myself emptying containers of stinky flower water and making corsages for the prom I did not attend.

The jewel in the crown: helping the florist set up funeral wreaths in churches. My Father’s spirit seemed to hover at every turn. I felt lots of heaviness and guilt in my heart over him. What had I not expressed to him that he needed to hear from me before he crossed over?

I showed up erratically at the flower shop. The florist dismissed me — I was no longer needed.

Meanwhile, my friends seemed like they were having a ball. They worked at Turnstyle, a discount department store. They bought hip-looking clothes on the layaway plan. They formed a clique, but I was not in their sisterhood.

The lone wolf once again.

To everything turn, turn, turn

I started dating a guy down the street. He was Edward Scissorhands minus the scissors. We talked about our plans once we graduated from high school.

What were his plans? He looked forward to joining the circus.

Perfect!

When my “friends” learned I was seeing “circus boy” (as they called him), they laughed. Then they spray-painted an expletive on ES’s driveway.

ES did not deserve this disrespect.

Lightbulb: my friends were sophomoric. Could Mother possibly be correct?

Though I severed from my friends, I did not stay with ES. Barnum & Bailey claimed him and I needed to move on.

And so, to supplement college savings, my Aunt found me a summer job at the factory where she worked. I found myself bagging cotton and polyester fabrics alongside a tall, dark hippie sporting a handlebar mustache.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road …

Name a maiden who does not want to be looked upon as eye candy. Especially by a hippie who sports a handlebar ‘stache and rides a Harley-Davidson.

My Aunt, much to her dismay, spotted me on the back of Easy Rider’s motorcycle as we fled the factory and sped down Cuba Road on our lunch hour.

A short-lived tale. ‘Stache and the factory did not last beyond summer.

Fast forward. I am in college. Headstands are a long-gone thing of the past.

I trudge across campus, pre-Kindle and pre-computer days, backpack laden with classics: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and James Joyce’s Dubliners.

It is in Dubliners where I learned that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”

I could relate to Mr. Duffy. I was largely living in my head, an English Lit major, enthralled by the classics.

I was in heaven, curled up in my apartment with its old, hissing radiator, sipping Constant Comment tea. Books became my BFF’s. I was feeding my mind.

Was it around the time I was reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis that my neck and shoulders started aching? Relieved that I did not wake up in bed transformed to a vermin like Gregor Samsa, I phoned a chiropractor.

“Lose the backpack,” he said, after examining and noting the Atlas bone in my neck was out of alignment.

Was it the backpack? Maybe it was the headstands of the “sophomoric” years. Or reading so much and living a short distance from my body, like Mr. Duffy.

No. I would never give up reading.

I feel I personally know Mr. Duffy.

Now, my book choices are more of a buffet. The entrees include Zen meditation and mindfulness books, creative non-fiction, poetry and contemporary literature. And when my eyes are tired, podcasts. (Some fave podcasts: Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, Clear & Vivid with Alan Alda, The New Yorker Fiction, and On Being with Krista Tippett).

My body is becoming a portal for the breath. I “train the puppy” as the mindfulness facilitator leads our weekly meditation group. Why is it so difficult to sit still? “Don’t just do something, sit there!” my brain scolds my squirming body. I embrace that voice too and listen for waves of breath, to let go.

I am not the only Boomer who has lived a short distance from her body.

We are at the end of 2020 and approaching the hopes of 2021.

Turn, turn, turn.

Is it a cosmic coincidence that 1/21/21 is a palindrome? Read backwards and forwards it is the same — and it is the day our new President is sworn into office.

I leave you now with that mystery.

Skulduggery

It is a Halloween like no other.

Skeletons love nothing more than to wave at us as we take walks, drive by, or ride bikes. Skeletons wave from Adirondack chairs, Barcaloungers, hammocks.

Skeleton families group together in rockeries.  Mama Skeleton holds Baby Skeleton on her lap.  Papa Skeleton digs out skeleton hands from the earth.  Junior Skeleton hangs out with Doggie Skeleton who holds a bone in his mouth. 

A content, friendly skeleton family.

Skeleton sporting shades leans back in a chair holding a red drink. Kool-Aid? Somehow, I don’t think so. I sense this is Alcoholic Skeleton. Perhaps family life got to him? Maybe he needed Al-Anon?

Solo Skeleton swings from a tree swing wearing an Audubon cap.

Skeleton on porch holds a pair of binoculars: “The better to see you with, My Dear.”

Skeletons hang from rooftops, climb trees, drape themselves around lamp posts.  Skeletons pirate a ship on a lawn.  Skeletons dance on porches.

Skeletons, skeletons, skeletons.

Where do all these skeletons come from? Are people buying them on Amazon or do they have skeletons in the closet?

I try to hop on the skeleton bandwagon, but brick and mortar stores are sold out. 

Clearly, a case of skulduggery. 

Witches, ghosts, and vampires?  Sorry, guys, but you are passe this year.  Skeletons rule in Halloween 2020. 

And rightly so:  it seems the Grim Reaper has never shadowed our world so close with COVID, race riots, environmental meltdowns, United States presidential election turmoil.

As for the masks…I won’t go there.

Watch your back. And rest in peace.

Fairy Garden

Mom in her fairy garden. She inspires my Muse.

Come dance with me in the fairy garden
in the glow from the harvest moon.
We’ll prance in rings to the fiddler’s strings
under archways of silvery blooms.

The fireflies shall light the path
with lamps of amber and gold.
You might spy an elf, a pixie, a gnome
in the hollow of a tree trunk’s soul.

And if you spot the Fairy Queen
arrayed in a dress of rose petals
give her a wave and your steps will grow light
as the down of the nightingale’s feather.

You shall feel much joy in this secret garden
where the stars sprinkle dust from the heavens.
Where the robins pipe songs from dusk to dawn
and the wind softly carries bird blessings.

Orwellian

FlyingPig

George Orwell penned a fable, a tale called Animal Farm;
hogs rebelled against Farmer Jones, much to his alarm.
Though this is only fiction, I could almost suspend disbelief
when I read news of Corona, and its effect on the world’s beasts.

The unpeopled streets of Paris have attracted wild boars.
They root and grunt for food, but cafes have shut their doors.
Rats replace the revelers on silenced Bourbon Street;
perhaps they will host a Mardi Gras where humans do not meet.

Starved monkeys battle in Thailand, they fight over yogurt cups.
Corona has emptied Thai tourist squares; the primates now erupt.
Let’s not forget Welsh mountain goats who migrate into towns
they frolic and munch on hedges and play like a troop of clowns.

Beasts emboldened by Corona try out new behaviors
while we observe a brave new world, six feet away from neighbors.
What if the animal kingdom continues to revolt?
How do we know that pigs won’t fly?  Or pick at our dead bolts?

But take a look at Venice – its canals are crystal clear.
Is Corona all that bad?  Do we have so much to fear?
Cruise ships retreat from Venice while Gondolas skim with swans.
Perhaps our plague has benefits for us to ponder on.

We hear that COVID 19 is cleaning up our air;
from China to Los Angeles, the ozone might repair.
The noise pollution’s dwindled, bird songs are loud and clear.
Humans are more awake to birds – more silence helps us hear.

Life is stranger than fiction; of this I have no doubt.
If pigs could fly or pillage homes, I’ll give you all a shout.
George Orwell’s tale is curious, he had wild imagination.
What would he make of the deer in Japan who wander the subway stations?

Blue Teapot

TeapotBlue

I question why I write this poem
of a family relic from a place called home.
The teapot is blue, a Lipton coupon special;
I am caught in the spell of this memory vessel.

You thought of yourself as “the trunk of the tree.”
The tea leaves are muddled, but not your memory.
Decades have passed since I left you in Chicago.
Your DNA is in my cells, you cast a long shadow.

I imagine your oilcloth, the table where I listened
to yarns of the past while prunes stewed in your kitchen.
How you came of age during the Great Depression –
tales of gangsters, and flappers, and Italian processions.

The World’s Fair of ’32 – a Century of Progress;
Sally Rand’s dance with fans to conceal her undress.
Woven in your remnants are ones of Grandma too;
how she bore twin boys who perished during Spanish flu.

Now a sun shower blooms out my window in Seattle,
as I sip jasmine pearl to soothe the current rattle.
We have a pandemic in our year 2020,
so I sweeten my black tea with extra honey.

Picasso had his blue period and I am having one too.
It seems that 2020 roared in without a clue.
We The People scratch our heads, world leaders obfuscate
while we test vaccines to inoculate.

Where is our Century of Progress?  Who are we of the digital age?
Are we, as Shakespeare said, just players on the world’s stage?
When will we meet face to face in our community?
The world’s stage seems to shrink as we gather virtually.

If I were at your oilcloth to share Corona’s madness,
what would be your antidote to this peculiar sadness?
Would you brew me some Darjeeling to comfort and appease?
I would cross the moon and visit, welcome a wild breeze.

This simple little teapot has triggered these old times;
the Lipton coupon special that you saved for with dimes.
I find it a comfort, I find it a friend, in this year of our plague –
though you may muddle tea leaves, your tales are seldom vague.

The Wanderer

LaConner-101313-0077

One of the four led an attack,
loosed the yarn from the skein.
Unraveled thus she flew to the woods
to sort her heart from her brain.

Pinesap and toadstools welcomed her home,
in treetops she spotted birds nests.
It was here she need not think too hard,
here where her heart found rest.

Did the four influence this wandering child,
friend of the thing with feathers?
For in the woods is where she sensed hope
a place where she was untethered.

Bat Shit Crazy

MoonCollage

It’s strange and curious to say the least;
Corona is a bat-shit crazy beast.
We mask up for shopping, put gloves on our hands,
to defend from the virus which lurks across lands.

They say the bug emerged from a bat in Wuhan.
It is stealthy, mysterious, but we must carry on.
We are humbled and learning we have no control.
Life’s game board has changed and it’s taking a toll.

Work, school, and fun are unsettled and vague
because of our century’s very first plague.
Stay 6-feet apart from man, woman and child;
go out and seek nature, but don’t get too wild.

Stay in your community, no beach ball games;
you’ll be warned or fined — that would be a shame.
When shopping for groceries, don’t hoard the TP.
Shit-storm or not, please save some for me.

Take a break from world news, bake some bread with your Mom.|
Paint your pet rock, dog, or cat, unless you have qualms.
Just look to the Italians for cheer and solidarity —
they sing and clap from balconies, refusing insularity.

Bad hair days are certain, but don’t give up hope.
Get scissors, watch YouTube, cut your own to cope.
Sun rises, sun sets, light and dark like to play;
tune into earth’s rhythms and treasure your day.

 

Just Another Day in West Seattle

medieval-doctor-plague-mask

My 2019 encounter in the grocery store with a young man wearing a Venetian plague mask is so uncanny.    Here we are in 2020 and I shop for groceries wearing a plague mask.   Hand-sewn, for COVID19.   It’s all funny in 2020.   I wonder if Venetian plague masks are on-line for ordering?  Here’s my sketch of the incident last year:

April 2019:

It is a lovely spring day.  As I approach Metropolitan Market, I spot girl students wearing sandwich board signs to Save the Wolves.  They want to add me to a list to endorse their cause.  I smile, desist from lecturing that wolves like to deceive girls such as them and belong in fairy tales.

A tall, slender youth strides by.  He wears a long, black leather coat, black boots with spurs.  His face is hidden by a Venetian Plague Mask.  It covers his entire head.

Huh?

Why the mask?  What or who is he hiding from?

This is West Seattle, not Venice.  The 21st century, not the Dark Ages.

Oh wait: maybe I’ve got that wrong.

He walks past the Save The Wolves girls into Met Market.

“Unusual, eh?” I call out to the girls.

“Maybe he is in a school play or something,” one of them says.

“Hadn’t thought of that.”

I had not thought of that.

No.  My first thought, as I enter Met Market:  is this guy packin’?

We live in strange times and what is this guy trying to say or prove with the Venetian Plague Mask, the dark leather coat, the boots?  It’s not Halloween.  Does he have a concealed weapon underneath the costume?   Should I even go into the store?

Maybe I need to lighten up.

I grab a grocery cart, brave going into the store.

Plague Mask peers at me from over a pile of fruit as I squeeze an avocodo.   He turns and walks down another aisle.  The echo of his boots rings in my ears.

Now I have been to Venice but have never been to their carnivals where 16th century Plague Masks are part of the festivities.  To my knowledge, Venetians would not be wearing them to grocery stores.

Again, I wonder:  is this guy packin’?  Will he pull out an AK47 and start shooting?

I better find the store manager.

“There’s a guy walking around here wearing a long, leather coat and a Plague Mask.”

The manager looks at me like I am daft. “A plague mask?”

“You know. Venice. Plague masks. Carnivals.”

“And?”

“Well, it’s weird.  Kind of wonder about him.  Hiding behind a mask.  And his long coat. Maybe he has a concealed weapon.  Just thinking about safety, community.”

“Maybe he’s an actor.”

“That’s what the wolf girls think.”

“The wolf girls?”

“Yeah. The ones that are outside the store.”

The manager shakes his head.  “Lady. Is that the guy?”  He points to the espresso stand.

The young man has removed the Plague Mask.   He holds it in his hand as he chats with the barrista.

“Huh.   OK.   Just another day in West Seattle.”  I smile at the manager and exit.

“Fairy tales,” I declare to the Save the Wolves girls. “That’s where wolves belong.”

It’s All Funny in 2020

CoronaVintageShipPic

In 1908 in Seattle, a ship called “Corona” launched from downtown Seattle to West Seattle with a full deck of passengers. You can faintly make out “Corona” on the front of this ship which was one among others in the Mosquito Fleet.

The Mosquito Fleet ships were so nicknamed because they were small and quick, flitting from one side of the sound to the other.

While I never sailed on this ghost of the past, I did have a mosquito commute to work on the Sightseer which was pleasant.

AdmiralPeteOriginal

It took only 12 minutes to cross to downtown Seattle and was far preferable to 40-minute bus and car commutes on the West Seattle Bridge.   Less gridlock, less carbon footprints.

Before the Sightseer, I commuted on the Admiral Pete.  Pete was much smaller than the Sightseer.  He was the first water taxi when Seattle re-launched service in 1999.  I used to sit on an open seat in the back and feel the water’s spray against my skin.

But in 2020, things aren’t funny.  We are in lockdown now, with cities across the world in the same situation.

The haunting image of the Italian balcony singers of our Corona days presses me to get outdoors as often as possible.

My husband and I ventured out for a walk to Elliott Bay.  With Purell in our pockets and donning our disposable gloves, we visited the dock where the water taxis moor.

A water taxi was pulling in.   I was curious as to ridership these days, and so I spoke to the ticket taker.  Ridership is down 90%, he said, even though King County is offering rides for free.

Social distancing on the water taxi?  Of course, what was I thinking?  This is the new normal.  It just takes so dang long for me to wrap my mind around it all.

But wait, there’s more!  A few weeks ago, the City of Seattle decided to shut down the West Seattle Bridge for repairs.  There is no timeline for even temporary repairs.  We are in a pandemic and the most heavily trafficked bridge in Seattle is closed?  People are finding alternate routes, adding more time and requiring more patience, as they attempt to get to appointments, buy essentials.

I’d like to say things are funny in 2020.  I’d like to say “bring on the mosquito fleet” so we could all feel salt breezes and avoid gridlock on bridges.

Though I will never feel nostalgic for gridlock, I am nostalgic for mosquito fleets.  But also for bridges — which, after all, were first developed by the ancient Romans.