Many Doorsteps

That Doorstep

That doorstep trips you up every time.

Look down, the key is under the bucket.

Look up, watch your head.

Watch, don’t let the cat out.

Look behind, or the screen door will hit you.

Put your bag down; it tips over.

Look down, the key is not under the bucket.

Look up, bang your head,

Hold the screen with your elbow,

Kick the door with your heel. No one answers.

The cat sits between your legs.

.

The Stoop

The concrete is hot. It must be summer.

The streetlight sputters on. It must be evening.

The Mallory’s slide open their window. There must be a breeze.

Cousin Jimmy has his guitar. There must be no work.

Mom and Mary Ryan sit down to stretch their legs. Dinner must be cooked.

I sit on the bottom step, feet planted on the sidewalk.

A cat between my legs.

.

The Wheelchair Doorstep

Someone must see it is raining.

Someone must be working the door.

It can’t be long now, can it?

Surely someone will come soon.

I back up, rev up my arms and rush the doorstep.

The tiny front wheels catch the lip and tip me forward.

Surely someone will come soon.

See me in the rain outside

A cat upon my lap.

.

That Last Doorstep

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for God knows what.

The nurses lied on his chart –

He has not eaten in days.

His eyes have not opened,

His throat has not moaned.

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for .…

.

He is waiting for the precise moment.

Relax, he’s been waiting a lifetime for this moment.

The exact right moment.

Some sound in his silence,

Listening for that precise breath

To choose to be his last.

Before stepping over.

.

I nestle under his chin.

Feel my purr echo in this chest.

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Life Depends upon a Sentence

Mom’s head lay on her pillow underneath my arm. I lay half on my chair, half on her bed as her breath grew fainter. I held her hand until her skin reacted uncomfortably to any touch; then I rested my hand next to hers on top of the sheet.

I don’t read much fiction. Fiction is made-up stories about people who never existed. I walk down shelves of fiction at  bookstores, past thousands of pages of things that never happened. Yes, some are written simply for entertainment: the neighbor’s sister murdered the minister’s child, the invasion of planet Earth failed; someone’s witty butler gets his employer out of a jam. Read them and pass them along to a used bookstore or a jail or the church yearly tag sale.

Non-fiction, such as History or Biography, is an attempt to tell what really happened at some time. The attempt will be flawed, but the author is accountable. “That’s NOT the way it happened,” says the neighbor’s sister; “The Earth was not really invaded by aliens,” says Orson Wells; “My butler was as dumb as a rock,” says the gentleman. So instead writers write fiction. How easy to arrange events to their liking, how unaccountable to anyone!

My mother’s family is a family of storytellers. Thanksgiving dinners were a raucous telling and retelling of stories from decades, lifetimes ago. Or just a few years ago. After my cousin Philip died, at each Thanksgiving dinner someone mentioned how much he’d loved canned cranberry sauce. Then the cranberry sauce became something more than cranberry sauce; we passed Philip’s smile around with the small bowl shimmering with red sauce, plopping the smooth jelly next to the stuffing as another story would begin.

After Mom died, the family had a large dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York. I leaned over and told a story to my end of the table: two of Mom’s sisters and a cousin. I told the story of the time my mother was working late at a Western Union office in Manhattan when a burglar came in demanding money. My  aunts, who must have heard that story a thousand times, listened and laughed yet again. My cousin laughed; she’d never heard the story. She agreed that story showed just what Dorothy was like.

My mother once told me that all my grandmother Kate could remember of her mother, Margaret, was her brushing my grandmother’s hair. And an aunt once said that my grandmother Kate remembered her mother pulling her hair when she got impatient. Those two sentences create two realities, two personalities for Margaret. Because there are few other stories about Margaret, much depends on a sentence.

As Mom’s head was cradled under my arm, I saw in her face all the stories that made up her life, that made up Dorothy. Stories we listened to over again, perhaps noticing how they changed a bit according to the teller; then we told them to others. No one corrected anyone. We listened.

One family member went back through records to find the History of our grandmother’s life, and so much is illuminated. Puzzle pieces slide across the picture finding places to fit. The stories catch fire again. And so the story continues.

This week I borrowed a book by Alice Hoffman and one by Anne Tyler. I will not settle in to read, but sit up straight to read stories that come from somewhere and create us.

Then I will read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because he said, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

-Dorothy A. [Hackett] Barrett, December 3, 1922 – October 6, 2015

Continuation Day, June 17, 2015

Our friend, Kate O’Shea passed away on July 17.

On our birthdays, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to say “Happy Continuation Day!” The day we are born is not a totally fresh beginning of new life, but a continuation of life. Not just inherited genes, but the web of the families who raise us, they all are reborn at our birth.  When I look in the mirror, I see Mom and Dad; sometimes I hear Dad’s words coming out of my mouth; unfortunately I sing like Dad, not Mom. The people who passed their lives to me were/are kind, loyal, racist, people who speak out against prejudice, full of life, lazy, alcoholic, generous, at least one thief, brave, funny, cynical, affirming, cold, calm, hot-tempered, loving. And they are just the ones I know about. Which seeds will I water?

As Jeannine’s mother was dying, her mother muttered, “Push, push…” as if giving birth.  As if she was being reborn. Jesus’ life story begins with a list of the generations he sprang from; it ends with Resurrection. Buddhist call this insight of Christianity, and of Jeannine’s mother, “No Birth, No Death.”

June 17th is Kate O’Shea’s new Continuation Day. She passed from our known to the unknown, leaving the trail of her soul for us to follow.

On June 17, we witnessed another Continuation Day. Not of an individual, but of a community. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “Mother Emanuel,” carries the lives of her congregants down generations. In 1822, one of her founders, Denmark Vesey, attempted to start a slave rebellion. Denmark was executed, and black churches were burned down. The congregants rebuilt their church; after which all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. So the people worshiped underground. All of this history, as well as their worship, their service, faith, their music, flow through Mother Emanuel.

On the 17th,  a terrorist killed nine of Mother Emanuel’s children. Mother Emanuel knows exactly which seeds she wants to water. Mother Emanuel mourned her lose, and forgave, and demands our whole nation shake off hate and turn to justice. For a start, she demands that the Confederate Flag, banner of a slave-holding regime, be removed from government buildings.

Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, called for the killer to be executed.The continuation of a misguided belief in the “justice” of retaliation.

And a nation has “Continuations of Values ,” passing down hate, powerful faith, retaliation and true justice.

Which seeds do we water? I know which Kate O’Shea would choose.

After Life

After Life

Alice Barrett
!     A car accident left me close to death last spring. During that time I gave some thought to the question: Death. Then what? Some flowers triggered an answer. While recuperating, I’d stare out the window at yellow flowers growing in front of the rehab building. They were thriving there because just the right soil conditions, sunlight, rainfall, temperatures, surrounding vegetation made them possible. What are the chances of that happening in the afterlife? Or the sound of rain on leaves, or smell of turned dirt? Pretty slim. That’s why it’s called after life.
! What about life here on Earth after I really do go?
! This week I learned that, because of logging and clearing, the most ancient of Earth’s trees all over the world are disappearing. !
! The sense of loss I experienced surprised me. I’ve never met a polar bear and I’ve glimpsed a few whales; all face extinction. But big old trees disappearing? I fell out of one when I was about 10. My cousins and I built a tree house in the woods behind our house. I loved “The Davy Crockett Show” and had a “coonskin” hat made with fake fur and plastic.
! When looking for a house to buy, Jeannine and I passed under a canopy of yellow autumn leaves coming up the hill. Our house is surrounded by trees, so many that we’ve cut some down so we can grow vegetables. During the last ice storm, the tree branches glistened like a forest of jewels.
! Now the Earth is going bald. Humans are supposed to go bald, not the Earth. Earth was designed to be self-replenishing. Ancient trees are sacred. But in Scandinavia at least, those are the trees targeted by logging companies.
! Jasper Fforde referred to 1847 as Earth’s “Best if used by…” date. He is right. Humans could have used a little thinning out about then, or at least some spacing.
! In Rikuzentaka, Japan, a centuries- old pine forest of about 70,00 trees was swept away by a tsunami. Except for one pine. The “Miracle Pine” became a symbol of hope for the survivors. However, the salt sea water saturating the soil began to slowly kill it. The city decided to cut the tree down in sections, treat the wood, fill it with a

carbon core, reconstruct it and replace its branches with plastic ones. It will then be put back in the place the tree stood. As a memorial to the tree. Hmmm….
! ! What will happen after I’m gone? A bald Earth peppered with memorials to trees? I admit that a world without polar bears horrifies me much less than a world without trees. !

! Before the government could cut down the Miracle Pine, people in the area gathered the tree’s cones to plant seeds in good soil. Many seedlings from one old tree. Life giving new life. Ahhh..That’s better.!
! Against all odds, I survived my injuries. I was helped by the miracles of modern medicine, a bevy of health professionals, family, friends and strangers. Maybe I don’t have to worry about the trees. Maybe I should trust. After all, I survived. With help, trees will too. There isn’t an afterlife. After me, life will continue to begin.