Last night (wed 24th april, 2013) was a party to celebrate Milane who died four nights ago. She loved a good story, a wicked joke, a gathering of friends. And so we gathered, a small party hosted by Nina MacConnel and Tom Chino. All of us shell-shocked, seized in passing moments by grimness, but mostly there was conviviality and the sharing of food and drink, particularly gin and tonics, Milane’s favorite.
There was a gift for each of us. Before she died Milane sorted through her photos and there was a little bundle for each of us with our name on it. Moments forgotten: Memories returned. There I was in a celebrating group at a Christmas party at Bookworks, the bookshop Milane once owned, there in the Getty Villa garden, a trip made when the renovated Villa opened. At book signings. When we left the party that night Tom and Nina gave each of us a large white paper Japanese lantern to take home and light for Milane.
In our garden, hung on the fence where apples are espaliered, close to the chicken run, the lantern has refused to stay put. It dances wildly, a white ghost cavorting in the dark swell of the night.
Milane had a gift for gift giving, and an eye for things. She took great pleasure in choosing just the right thing. Around my garden there are various Milane manifestations, but the one I love the most is a cement dove, a garden ornament migrated from another era, cast aside I imagine at some swap meet where her anachronistic beauty caught Milane’s eye. I love to hold the dove, her solidity fits perfectly into the shape of a hand, her lines are simple, her proportions just right. I knew Milane was dying when she gave me a clay icon of Ganesha that she had brought many years ago from India. She told me that his dharma is to place and remove obstacles, and also that he is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as the Patron of Letters during writing sessions. As part- Elephant he likes to eat flowers, fresh ones every day, she told me. At first, and for a while after Milane died, I did make an offering everyday of fresh flowers, but the punctiliousness of the habit has waned, the offerings sporadic and whimsical. Like my efforts at writing, at meditation.
The dove sat for several years on a rock in the white garden (so grandly named, more for aspiration than actuality, all kinds of colors creep in, some muted, others garish like the scarlet and orange nasturtiums). Then came the chickens. In their frenzied searching for bugs, in their rampaging destruction, they knocked the dove to the ground and she broke in two. Distraught, I was ready to send the chickens to the pot. But Milane cocked an eyebrow and laughed. We jambed the two pieces together and wedged her high up in a corner of the bower where the grapes and wisteria grow. In summer you cannot see her, but she is there, and in winter when the foliage dies back, when the garden mutates, you can see her there, up high, looking down at the chickens.
Nina’s chickens were asleep that night, the night of the party. I imagined them dreaming of Milane, carousing together in their sleep, a communal feathery dreaming. I hold Nina responsible in part for the coming of chickens to Herman Avenue. Steve, sensing a whiff of chicken desire in the air, had been waging a gentle campaign that began by the mysterious monthly appearance in my letter box of Backyard Poultry. Gorgeous full page spreads of birds: the silver spangled Hamburg, white feathers adorned by black crescent and V-shaped spangles; the Bearded Buff Laced Polish, creamy white and golden buff laced together, sporting an extravagant feathery top knot; The Mottled Houdan Bantam – lustrous greenish-black feathers, with one of every two or three tipped in white. My dreams were infiltrated by Porcelain Bearded d’Uccle Bantam cockerels from Belgium, Black Breasted Red Aseels from India, and Old English Creoles. And then, almost every time I saw him, Steve would suggest that I visit Nina and take a look at her chickens. So eventually I succumbed and Nina invited us to lunch. Us was me and Helen Barnes. She and Jeffrey were continent swapping: while Jeffrey was visiting Australia she had travelled from Melbourne to keep me company in San Diego. I had a bone marrow biopsy scheduled for that morning and had forgotten what an ordeal it can be (forgetting is part of the game, selective memory a survival device). It took a long time and then there were all sorts of bureaucratic hospital diversions and waiting and waiting and waiting. So by the time we got to Nina’s—stopping by the farm to see Tom and gather some vegetables from the farm stand—it was long past the lunch hour. But the sight of the chickens was restorative, to see them roaming, pecking, zigzagging around, following one trail only to be distracted, tempted by a posse of insects over there, a potential worm in the woodwork over here. To examine their coop, how the perches were composed and food distributed, how their shelter organized—all of this was inspiring.
And then there were the eggs. The eggs did it. Helen and I watched spellbound as Nina conjured from the eggs an omelet, so effortlessly, breaking the eggs with one hand, flicking a wrist and twirling a fork and then on our plates: yellowness, the taste of yellow in our mouths.
The transmutation of matter. How an egg becomes something else. You look at an egg, there it sits on the kitchen counter, self-contained, perfect in its ovality. Perhaps it is a deep speckled brown, maybe pale blue or green. When you crack the shell, break the oval perfection, you release into the world a magical potential.
At the party on the 24th of April I could not eat much. Nausea was settling in. Stomach cramps. I could not resist Nina’s couscous and Tom’s vegetables, the mellow spices that tickled the tongue but did not obscure the taste of Chino carrots and peas and fava beans. But when it came to the desert I could not manage a single spoonful. I was sitting next to John Alexander who was entertaining our end of the table with hilarious stories of gardening mishaps. At one point he looked quizzically at me and said “what about strawberries. How do you like them?” Oh I like them I said. “How about I bring you a plate just of strawberries, no cake or cream?” It almost broke my heart to say no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want those strawberries that come from the garden of the gods. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t imagine the taste. It wasn’t that they made me feel sick. It’s just that there was a nausea right through me, not just in the stomach. John’s hilarious stories had made me forget for a while, or rather the story telling and ripples of laughter had absorbed the ukky sensation.
I do not think I would have felt this way if they were other sorts of strawberries. But Tom’s strawberries are something else. For several years the grad seminar I taught on Gardens and Public space, a peripatetic seminar, would visit Chino’s farm and Tom would fire up the tractor, load everyone on the trailer and off we would go on into the fields. But before that we would sit at the trestle table where the workers have their lunch and discuss the reading and someone would present a paper. And Tom would send out two large bowls heaped with strawberries. Sounds of ecstasy, inappropriate sounds of swooning. I thought then that you would have to be on your deathbed to ever refuse a Chino strawberry. In the field Tom would stop occasionally and encourage people to pick from the plants in the field, strawberries for instance. And he would talk about the culture of strawberries, the particularities of the plant, selection for this region, how they grow, how they need to be nurtured. I have pages and pages of notes from Tom’s field discourses. He talks too about water, where it comes from, the price of water in San Diego, this virtually desert region, how he uses expensive domestic water on the strawberries because the municipal farm water contains too many salts. You might think of this as coddling but Tom, I imagine, thinks of it as farming.
Farming is work, practical, you get up each day at 4 am and by the end of the day you have to balance the books. You have to weigh up what comes in against what goes out and figure out how to make a living. The process is practical yes, but there is something mysterious, alchemical about the way in which water—clear liquid that flows, that has no color—is transformed into scarlet heart-shaped succulence. Water, labor, knowledge:
The condensation of a process into a succulent jewel.
Clear liquid that looks like water drips into my veins during infusions and some kind of transmutation happens, equally mysterious to me. Even when you check the science it doesn’t all add up. Even the oncologists say, we don’t really know exactly how it works. Drip by drip by slow drip it disappears into my body. A week later my lab results change, many of the danger flags disappear.
Saying no to those strawberries last night at Milane’s party felt to me for a moment like the approach of death. I wanted to howl for Milane. I thought to myself: she would never have refused a strawberry. Her ALS, once diagnosed progressed fast, but she continued to party with friends, a few at a time. Not long before she died, when speaking was difficult, she wrote on her writing app (a version of an old W.C.Fields saying), “Who put tonic in my gin and tonic?”
A few weeks later. I am beginning to emerge from that nauseous miasma, there is a shout at the back gate, and there is Alex Kershaw, a graduate student from Australia. A little sheepish looking, the way Australians sometimes are when performing an act of generosity. A self-deprecating shrug that says, Oh it was just something that fell off the back of a truck. He is bearing a cardboard box, in which gleam vegetable gems: round yellow and green striped squash, purple cauliflower, candy red radishes, and strawberries, deep scarlet strawberries. Around the vegetables he has tucked a Humboldt Fog cheese, a slab of dark spicy chocolate, a pack of organic Yerba mate.
Immediately I picked out a strawberry and bit into it. As that strawberry dissolved in my mouth, the juice dribbling down my chin, I knew it was a Chino strawberry.
The chickens, too, love strawberries. Though love is too tender a word to describe what happens when a chicken encounters a strawberry, and they are not particular, any strawberries from anywhere will send them over the moon. It’s the color red that attracts. Never go near them in open-toed sandals if your toe nails are painted crimson, or they will dive bomb, pecking mercilessly. They play dirty football with spoiled cherry tomatoes or mushy squished strawberries. We always keep the hulls for them, they go beserk when tossed the green bits with juicy red entrails slurping out.
Today, I will feed Ganesha some flowers. My daily ritual is to rise early, feed the cats, let the chickens out of their house as the sky lightens. They hear me approaching and set up a mighty hullabaloo, hurling themselves against the door and scratching at the wire window. As I open the door they come flying down from their roosts and cavort down the ramp, fluffing and huffing and preening. Then I make a pot of tea and bring it back to bed, set it over the tea candle warmer, and sip as I write on my magical writing machine, the Mac Air. This is a ritual. It sets me in motion for the day. Later I will meditate. Really I should start the day by meditating, but I’m greedy for writing opportunities, for using that early morning energy before it dissipates. As I describe this early morning ritual it takes on a life, seems orderly and calm. But the truth is there are many mornings when I can’t rouse myself, the chickens remain in prison, many mornings when I can’t get writing, read a detective novel instead, or feel sorry for myself, or find distractions like email or the newspaper which reveals all sorts of hyperlinks, passages into other worlds. And then of course there are too many other things to do and so meditation slips away. I’ll do it tomorrow…
Between habit and ritual a thin line: between therapeutic and spiritual practices, between the gracious and orderly lighting of candles and the compulsive repetition of obsessive desire, between routine and observance. Many ritualistic practices—from the quotidian and idiosyncratic to those more formally prescribed—serve to preserve the way things are, to protect us against change, transformation, difference, grief. And yet, and yet … there is always the possibility of something mysterious happening. Rituals might be ways of channeling and bolstering obsessive impulses, but also they are often mechanisms for structuring pathways and passages, for enabling transformation. Lighting lanterns to guide the dead in their journey, to ease the transition from one state to another, not merely for those who are passed but for those of us who remain. Making a pot of tea in order to write. Sometimes though the pot of tea is not enough. And so today I will feed Ganesha some flowers.
Gifts circulate, chemo too. And in the circulation: transformation. Of course gifts seldom come without ramification, and chemo comes with myriad fluttering strings attached. This we know. If I offer flowers to Ganesha it is in the hope that he will, in eating them, keep Milane alive even though she is no longer here. The flowers are at once food and fetish and gift, not unlike the strawberry. Superstition, ritual, faith. In offering Ganesha flowers, day after day (punctuated by desultory periods of neglect) I believe that the gods in general will be appeased. Of course I also hope that Ganesha in particular will preside over a writing session and kick my ass into gear.