Not that PBR

I’m sorry but what? My family? Two dogs. A couple of cousins in the wilds of Montana (one of whom flirts with me, very creepy) and a couple others here and there. Family is not all it’s cracked up to be. Some families are just fucked from the getgo. Some fall apart over time. This joyful holiday get-together-with-family BS is just an added pressure this time of year, and I’m at the point in life where I get to choose my “family.”

Last Christmas I spent with some of my chosen family in Colorado Springs. Providence brought me a sister not long after my brother Kirk died from alcoholism. “Here,” Providence said, “from Kirk.” We thank Kirk from time to time because without him dying we wouldn’t know each other. To learn about that, you can read my post on the Kindness of the Gods.

The Christmas Eve get-together of family and friends was hilarious and grim as only family Christmases can be. The “brother-in-law,” we’ll call him “M,” got drunk and spent the evening sitting on the “going to the basement” stairs of the split-level house my chosen sister (CS) had borrowed from her second brother (who was not there) because it had a dishwasher and more space than her house. Probably 30 people attended. I knew most of them, but didn’t get to talk to everyone. I was in a lot of pain from my hip and couldn’t stand for more than five or ten minutes, so I had to spend the party sitting on a comfy chair (“No, no, not the comfy chair!”)

My “son-like-thing” was depressed and mildly inebriated, in a bad relationship and lost in life. My nephew, one of the sweetest people on the planet, a developmentally disabled guy in his 30s, sat with me on a small sofa with his head on my shoulder staring at my tits. My CS’s oldest brother and his piece-of-work wife interviewed me about my education and credentials to see if I merited their attention and conversation. I passed, but that didn’t mean we had anything to say to each other.

After about a couple of hours, my CS noticed that “M” was MIA.

“He’s on the basement stairs. He’s been there all night.”
“Is he OK?”
“He doesn’t look so good.”
“I’ll take him home,” I said. I’d signed up for that job early in the day.

Some friends helped “M” to my car. No one knew if he (blind and arthritic and drunk) could walk on his own, and the thought of him falling was not to be borne. “I’ll meet you there,” said one of my CS’s friends who was there with her son and his new girlfriend. I was pretty stove up at the time, needing hip surgery and unable to easily climb stairs, so I wouldn’t have been able to help him into the house. We’d have sat in the car godnose how long.


“Great,” I said, relieved. On the way “home,” I dropped off my CS’s very pitiful ( 😦 )alcoholic musician friend, then took “M” home. The friends drove up, ready to help, but “M” was fine. He went in by himself, headed directly to the basement, his hangout, with the mini-fridge and the 20 pack of *PBRs.

“You going back to the party?” asked the friend.

I shook my head, thinking how amazing life is that even with everyone in my own dysfunctional blood family dead, I could still have a Christmas Eve like that. ❤


*PBR stands both for Professional Bull Riders and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.

Real Fame

I had six aunts. I now have two. Last night I learned that the youngest — Dickie (Madylene) — has gone into hospice with a large mass in her lung. She doesn’t want to go through the misery of tests and so on, so she’s asked her kids to just let her go. I don’t know how that is for them, but she is a nurse, she is not in the least sentimental, and she is very, very practical. When I read my cousin’s message more-or-less conveying this, I heard in my mind Queen’s song from The Highlander, “Who Wants to Live Forever?” No one does. I don’t. I am sure my aunt doesn’t, either. The second-to-youngest of my aunts is at “the home” with pretty advanced dementia and doesn’t want to eat or drink. Both of these women are in their 90s.

I’m very sad. My relationship with some of my aunts has been important to me and, I hope, vice versa. I grew up around these women. My mom felt her family was important, she relied on their being there, so we spent time around them. This aunt — Dickie — has kids around my age, in fact, one of my cousins was born a month after I was. We grew up as friends.

One thing I learned from these women is that OTHER adults — not just parents — can be important in a kid’s life. I reached adulthood wanting to be that OTHER adult, not the parent.

A few years ago I decided I wanted my Aunt Dickie to know who I am. We’d been close, but had gotten estranged as a result of family stuff, and I didn’t like that. I have always liked her. I sent her a letter and a copy of Martin of Gfenn. She loved the book and wrote me a letter with two messages that meant the world to me. She was proud of me and she loved me.

I sent her Savior which she liked even more and then The Brothers Path. She really loved that book. Last winter her church book group read it as their winter book. She wrote me that and said, “I’m making them order it from Amazon so you’ll make a little money.”

Later I heard how the book group went. “Please keep writing the story of my mother’s family,” she said. “I’m very proud of you and she would be, too.”

This year I’ve ploughed through the sludge of disillusionment over writing, publishing, promoting, etc. Afew weeks ago, — after months and months — I looked again at what I’m calling “The Schneebelis Go to America,” and saw it’s a pretty good story. I wondered if I should keep going, or? My aunt’s words, “Keep writing the story of my mother’s family” echoed in my mind. “That’s a good reason to write,” I thought, “so my Aunt Dickie can read my book.”

My grandfather, my aunt’s father, in 1941, wrote a letter to his brother’s kids when their dad died. He wrote:

“I’m awfully sorry but it is a natural condition to make a change. It would be too bad for us to have to be bothered with this old body for ever. It seems sad but it might be if there was no death, that life would lose its meaning and love would perish from the earth and I would rather live where love rules and death is sure as to live forever in a land without love — but I am very sad.”

I can’t say it better.


I was driving east on US HWY 160 on the weekly road trip to the big city for groceries — Alamosa, Colorado. It was a semi-bleak February morning, Sunday, somewhat early. I was armed with the coupons they’d sent in the mail, a bunch of good deals, as it happened. The envelope was covered with pale pink hearts against a dark pink background. There were even free things in there; free juice — my favorite brand, other stuff. Added up to a savings of more than $40. Not bad.

I hate shopping, but it’s a 25 minute drive and I have satellite radio in my car. It’s a luxury for which I pay $6/month. I was listening to the 60s station — uncommon for me — Paul Revere and the Raiders had just regaled me with “Kicks” (but they don’t keep getting harder to find). After that? The Association, “Never My Love.” I don’t think I’ve heard that since it was on the Top 40, and, for some reason, the song filled my car even though it’s not a song I ever liked.

I looked around at the mountains all around me, the white, white fingers of fog filling a high valley in the Sangre de Cristos, layers of random clouds all negotiating the future like a bored couple on a Sunday afternoon. “Shall we rain? Shall we snow? What do YOU want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” I thought of my novel in progress and how much fun it was last week when I finally FOUND the story. I thought of how I could organize the vastness of the narrative and got a good idea.

The song kept playing.

The mountains right now are snow-covered, white and indigo. I thought of my piano teacher in Nebraska who consoled me when I had to move away by saying, “Just think of the mountains, how much you love them and how happy you’ll be to be there again.” The family was moving back to Colorado.

The song was still singing, a full-on love song, and I remembered the moment I realized I was a writer. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in Nebraska, probably 12 or 13. I had my dad’s portable typewriter sitting on the closed case. Not a bad desk for a kid who liked to sit on the floor. I was writing a poem. I was SO happy. It was a love poem to the fields and forest where I hiked and played, to storms and seasons, to natural features, foliage, wind and sky.

The song moved closer to the ending, and then I saw it. I have always found a way to be near any mountains, out in any nature, that happened to be around. I have always written. Life without love? No.

What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you…
Meanwhile, I move we return to celebrating this egregious paper holiday of disappointment in the Roman way. Bonum Lupercalia!!

Ephemera (R Rated [at Least])

I have picked up my first “novel” and have returned to typing it into my laptop. It’s a sad story, a love story, mostly autobiographical, but not completely. I reread it five or six years ago after not looking at it in decades and was surprised that it was at all good. I did not even have the sense that someone else wrote it. It was my voice, a time in my life, a long ago snapshot captured in prose.

The events in the book happened in the late 1970s. They could not happen now; they could not have happened before. The magic of it is that I wrote it back then; it is a glob of verbal amber. It catalogs many firsts in my life — the first time I traveled to a large city alone; the first time I visited a major art museum; the first time this, the first time that — and now I see how many went on to become things I love. At that time I had only dim glimmers, vague yearnings.

As I said, it’s a love story, one that’s very hard to tell, partly because it involved a world that is not only gone, but one that was underground. My boyfriend was gay, and our experiences were — many of them — part of the world hidden within Denver in the 1970s. Downtown, in anonymous looking, almost invisible bars, the secret world emerged when the 17th street bankers and lawyers returned to their homes in Cherry Hills after the day’s work ended. Trying to find even just a photo of that world is — so far — impossible. It’s not only that it has been wiped away by the passing of time, but it was not even supposed to have existed. So far I have found only a scholarly article written at the time and the cover of one of the issues of the monthly Gay underground periodical.

How did this happen? One day I was walking toward my car in front of the English department building at the University of Denver. I was in grad school. First quarter, second year. Breaking apart marriage, barely enough to live on with my teaching stipend and scholarship. My life, my heart, were tied to my thesis — my life line. Late fall.


I looked up. A strikingly handsome man from one of my seminars was waving at me from the front of the building. “Hi!” I waved and got in my car.

The seminar was Yeats and this guy was clearly the smartest in the class. I’d made a comment about a poem, an image that was obvious to anyone who’d attended a parade where people rode horses. No one else had caught the image through which Yeats was trying to say “PARADE!!!!” Only me, only this guy.

“You want to go have a pizza and talk about ‘Sailing to Byzantium’?” he asked me the next time the class met.

“OK.” Husband was in another state, having given me the “drop out of school or I’ll leave you ultimatum.” I stayed in school.

We never talked about the poem. About an hour into the evening I realized I was on a date, not just a date, but a date with an irreverent, widely traveled, wryly humorous, and brilliant man. I learned later he’d graduated summa cum laude from Harvard a couple of years before.

“You’re so real,” he said to me. I didn’t find that exceptional. He was real, too. Then, as he walked me to my apartment after bringing me home, where (unbeknownst to me, my husband was waiting (lurking?), having driven down from Laramie for reasons I don’t remember), he said, “The thing is, I’ve had passionate affairs with both men and women.”

I believe I said, “So?” I didn’t see then how it could possibly matter.

I honestly do not care a shred about LGBTQ (now we’re adding Queer to the acronym) rights. Everyone has to struggle toward his or her own freedom. One of the things I learned during this relationship is that, ultimately, if we love, we love a PERSON, whatever our “sexual orientation” may be. There’s so much more to that struggle than law, that I don’t know why the laws protecting people’s human rights are even debatable. Colorado was one of the first states to decriminalize homosexuality. Back then, gays could marry in Colorado. There was no gender statement in the Colorado constitution (the obvious assumption was, of course, that marriage was between men and women, so obvious it didn’t need to be stated) and the county clerk in Boulder county issued many marriage certificates to gay couples. The question I heard debated was not whether gay couples could marry but why they would want to. The world of the 1970s was so different in so many ways from our world today that it’s impossible to reconstruct all the intricacies of it. In 1976 Denver had its first annual “Gay Pride Parade” but none of the gay guys I knew had wanted anything to do with it, least of all my boyfriend. “I don’t want to be defined by the way I fuck,” he said. “Besides, I’m not proud of it. I’m not ashamed, but I’m not ‘proud’. Are you proud to be heterosexual, Martha?” I think I just shrugged. I agreed with him. In answer to the ubiquitous “choice” question (I can’t believe people still believe homosexuality is a choice) he said, “Who would choose this, to be separated forever from the simplest, most basic and normal aspects of human society?”

Peter wanted a family and begged me to marry him. “Our children will be remarkable, wonderful.” That is certainly true, but I didn’t want a family, not then. I wanted to see the world and have adventures AND I wasn’t blind to the reality of our situation. Anyway, Peter has been dead since New Years Eve, 1989. I last saw him in September of 1981. The five years we were together are long gone. There is no trace of anything except this manuscript and a letter that says, “Keep writing! Love, Peter.”

I’m going to try to finish this thing.




Daily Prompt Switcheroo If you could switch blogs with any blogger for a week, with whom would you switch and why?

It’s not because of anything other than I love to hike and I can’t. I can walk two miles or so on predictable ground (Yay for what I can do), but I can’t hike and I can’t run up and down hills. I’d switch blogs with Scuffed Boots or Pursuit of Life or Trail to Peak. Why? Because I want to go hiking. I don’t want to trade with them. I don’t want them NOT to be able to do what they love so much, so maybe I could just give them a day off? To write their blogs, I’d have to be able to really hike and godnose there are a lot of beautiful things to see here in the San Luis Valley.


I guess I could write about a hike in the past, but they all have melded into one lifetime hike of immensity and joy, but one or two stand out, not because of the landscape, but because of my companion. Usually, like 90% of the time, I hiked alone with my dogs.

Love is a conundrum.

It was 1994. I was teaching international students. A guy showed up in my class, Francesco, an Italian guy in his 30s, a little older than the usual student. I was exactly ten years older than he, and I had just extricated myself from an objectively (call the cops) terrible relationship. After class one day he asked me about hiking in San Diego. Hiking was one of the two things I could be counted on to do (the other was teaching). It was my passion, solace, inspiration, joy, companion. I could certainly speak on it. I felt strange, though. How did he know?

As the semester progressed, we got to be friends and one December afternoon, sunny and spectacularly clear, we went to Mission Trails where I hiked the same trails day after day never seeing the same thing twice. I knew the landscape better than I know the lines on the palm of my hand.

Back then hardly anyone went to Mission Trails. It had not yet achieved any great fame and was not yet a “destination”. The visitor’s center was being built. Hiking and mountain biking had not yet become fashionable. Most days I hiked in complete solitude. Mission Trails is predominantly a coastal sage and chaparral ecosystem which means that to the uninitiated eye there is nothing there. To my eyes, everything was there.

Francesco and I arrived just as the afternoon sun was approaching that oblique winter angle that tinges everything gold. We walked across a field and above us hovered a black shouldered kite, a bird that, when it hovers, looks like an angel in a Renaissance painting, back-lit and holy. “Spiritu sanctu,” said Francesco. And so it was. We watched her long enough to see her dive, miss and speed off in frustration and perplexity.

My dog Molly was with us because I never went anywhere without Molly if I could help it. She was an Australian shepherd/Malamute mix and, as some said, “More than a dog.”



We went through a canyon that in spring could rush with water under a canopy of California lilac which is not lilac at all, but a species of ceanothus. The immense sycamore trees — burned 9 years later in the Cedar Fire — were golden-leaved sentinels. From the end of the canyon we turned uphill and ran together up a steep fire road that leads to North Fortuna Mountain. We spent some time on the top and it was dark when headed down. The moon rose fuzzy on the damp horizon, but bright enough to light our way. Molly took off with coyotes, scaring me, but she came back and I’m sure she would have had stories for me had I be able to understand.

For me at the time, it was a pretty average hike. What made it NOT average was Francesco. Francesco is a mountaineer who grew up in the Dolomites. He was as at home on foot as I was. For the first time hiking with another person I felt completely comfortable. No one said, “This is steep” or “How far is it?” or “What’s there to see from the top?” “It’s getting dark. Why did we start so late?” Nothing like that. Motion was a reward of its own for me and it was for him, too. We were both happy.

We shared more hikes and they were always the same in this way, an almost wordless sharing of experience with complete understanding and fearlessness.

As I said, love is a conundrum. At least we understood hiking.

“By that time I didn’t want to say to myself the truth; but now, after all these years I can speak frankly: doing the same things, seeing the same Nature, fearing (sic) the same emotions, matching our bodies with the landscape in the same way……you know how this is called? I call it love.”

P.S. in the picture above, taken at Zion in 1994, we are the two unequivocally and obviously happy people.


Daily Prompt All Grown Up When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?

Because being grown up is learning not to let ones interior world obscure the exterior world — in other words, knowing the difference between feeling/perception and objective reality — I’m posting another section from a novella Il Treno. I’ve posted other sections from it here, here, and here.


“In every parting there is a latent germ of madness, and one must beware not to tend it and let it ripen in one’s mind.” Goethe, Italian Journey

My last morning in Italy dawned grey, ambiguous, defeated and melancholy. I nursed the slim hope that, in the outside world, I could escape the pitfalls of my character, for the interior world was empty, tired and very, very sad.

The undulation of my moods during these two weeks had become predictable; a day up, a day down; a day of philosophy and joy, a day of stupefaction and ire. Two days before–a day of stupor–Elisabetta came home for lunch. I had done nothing, stayed writing e-mails to people at home. I wrote copiously and thoroughly, knowing I deserved sympathy and that I would get it from people to whom I had given sympathy. As we ate, I told Elisabetta that I was sad and angry, and no matter how I tried to master my emotions and forget everything, I couldn’t. “Those feelings are natural,” she said, “you can’t forget it just because you want to.” I strove hard not to talk to her about it. Dario was her brother and who, after all, was I? And so my conversation had gone into epistolary monologues. I knew the answers would not arrive until my mood had left this trough and reached the crest of the next wave. Everything was out of phase.

On this last day I had little hope for rejuvenation; there was no more Italy ahead. In the convoluted labyrinth of regret were places I’d allowed to slip past me on the Venice train; destinations I had not pursued. Why I did not leave Milan that day I do not know; we’d had plans, there was that. They fizzled out as the three of us sat over an apathetic breakfast. Discussing alternatives, I surveyed the mood of my hostesses. I wanted to leave them alone to pursue their own lives, but beyond that I did not think of anything. I could have gone to Vicenza and Verona, but instead I wandered the now familiar streets of Milan, mapless, walking to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in the grey of low pressure and drizzle. The church was closed; I entered instead the Museum of Torture.

In the Castello Sforza I had seen an amazing utilitarian sculpture, the head of Satan carved in wood, painted blood red, fastened in front of a machine used for sharpening knives. When the knife sharpener operated the machine with his foot pedal, wheels turned moving gears. Smoke came from his nose and his eyeballs whirled. Then, Satan’s mouth opened and he “spoke” to the people in a diabolical voice. Considering the substantiality of Satan to the people paying the knife grinder, this must have been a mesmerizing advertisement. I had been fascinated, too, though the Devil stood silent and subdued in a sanitized museum, surrounded by furniture of the period.

My last day in Milan, as I stood in the midst of three floors of Torturous Implements of the Holy Inquisition, I saw what competition my smoking, growling Satan had had on the streets of his day. Only the Devil could have distracted the crowds from these tools of hell used to punish the ungodly. Death by filth and septicemia, slow dismemberment, disemboweling or castration seemed to be the most “effective,” in other words, the slowest and most entertaining, means of torture. The appropriate devices were made of wood and painted with happy rural scenes of farmers plowing and girls on swings.

There was a rack on the top floor of the museum. “Very popular during the Spanish Inquisition,” said its description, “The rack was excruciatingly painful.” This one, as the sign to the left pointed out, was particularly cruel. As the person was stretched, his joints painfully pulled apart, a roller beneath his back, covered with knife-edged points, scraped his skin away; when the stretching stopped, his body weight pushed the points more deeply into his flesh.

The pillory, used to discipline chronically arguing spouses or neighbor women who disturbed the peace of their neighbors, left only permanent scars, assuming the wounds were cleaned and treated after the heavy wood and iron apparatus had been removed.

In the three floors of this, the most terrifying exhibits, to me, were the sepia toned reproductions of old paintings, book illustrations and drawings of the implements IN USE. Artists rendered these scenes beside the loving innocence of the Virgin Mother and her Child. In this painting was a man, his genitals weighted with lead balls as he hung, tied by the wrists, to poles shoved into the ground. This dark side was a vital part of the worlds and times I had been striving to see all week. I talked for a moment with the pierced and tattooed docent who asked me what I thought.

“They are terrible, but what is more terrible than their reality,” I said, “is that they were thought of in the first place.”

“That,” he said, “is precisely the horror. Do you think it will rain?”


“Yeah, of course. ‘What did you learn from the experience? How would you do things differently next time?’ There’s no ‘next time.’ This is LIFE. It doesn’t happen twice.”
“You seem down, Lamont.”
“No, not at all, but…”
“Surely you’ve failed at something.”
“A lot of things. So? Berthold Brecht said it right, ‘Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.’ In a way everything we do is rehearsal for the next thing…and then we die.”
“Rather bleak view.”
“Accurate, though. 🙂 ”
“Are you going to write to this prompt or not?”
“I don’t like this kind of prompt although it’s definitely well written and will lead to some interesting posts. I just don’t like navel-gazing. I think this is. In any case, one thing in my life I never got right is luv. Marriage and marriage-like-things never met my expectations. A failed painting or story is just a lesson, practice. Failed luv sucks out a person’s soul and steals time one can never get back.”
“You had expectations from luv?”
“Well, yeah. No one enters into those things without expecting to be happier, to have a friend with whom to share the dark and light moments of life, a travel companion even (dare I say?) a soul mate. I see those marriages, too. They really do happen and yeah; I know people ‘work’ at them, yadda yadda. I worked at mine, too, but they were uniformly abysmal.”
“I do not think I was designed for a close relationship — I mean a day-to-day relationship — with another person.”
“Maybe with the right person it would have gone differently?”
“Yeah, that’s possibly true. And I don’t dispute I never found the ‘right’ person.”
“What if you had?”
“But I didn’t. So there might be a ‘glitch’ in my ability to choose, or in the people who ‘chose’ me. Anyway, it’s something I hate thinking about. Most other ‘failures’ are redeemable, but not that one. It just didn’t happen.”
“You’re not dead yet. It could.”
“Really, Dude? Can you see that? I can’t see that. If I learned anything from these truly nightmarish experiences it’s to avoid the whole thing.”
“Not going there, Dude. You and WP can prod all you want, but THAT, or those, bits of personal history really are personal. What did Mark Twain write in Eve’s Diary? That book is a pretty good description of male/female relationships as I’ve known them. And, as Eve said, ‘The burnt experiment shuns the fire’. Eve sees herself as an experiment, God’s experiment. I always loved that. Here’s an excerpt…”

I had created something that didn’t exist before; I had added a new thing to the world’s uncountable properties; I realized this, and was proud of my achievement, and was going to run and find him and tell him about it, thinking to raise myself in his esteem—but I reflected, and did not do it. No—he would not care for it. He would ask what it was good for, and what could I answer? for if it was not GOOD for something, but only beautiful, merely beautiful—

So I sighed, and did not go. For it wasn’t good for anything; it could not build a shack, it could not improve melons, it could not hurry a fruit crop; it was useless, it was a foolishness and a vanity; he would despise it and say cutting words. But to me it was not despicable; I said, “Oh, you fire, I love you, you dainty pink creature, for you are BEAUTIFUL—and that is enough!” and was going to gather it to my breast. But refrained. Then I made another maxim out of my head, though it was so nearly like the first one that I was afraid it was only a plagiarism: “THE BURNT EXPERIMENT SHUNS THE FIRE.”

( )

In Dream’s Dark Sky

Daily Prompt Bad Signal Someone’s left you a voicemail message, but all you can make out are the last words: “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you months ago. Bye.” Who is it from, and what is this about? (I’ve reversed the prompt to focus on the speaker, not the listener…though what’s the difference?)

“Oh Jake, Jake! I’m so glad you picked up!” She stood at a phone booth between a liquor store and laundromat on a busy corner in a seedy part of town. How she got there with a pocket full of change she did not know, but she made the one call she knew she must make.  “I’m so sorry. I should’ve told you months, years ago. I’ve fucked up over and over again and I don’t know why. You are the only man I’ve ever loved, in spite of the stupid things I’ve done. I’ve loved you since we were kids, you remember? Back in Idaho? Jake? Jake? Jake? Are you still there? Are you there?”

She was pushed backward by a heavy wind. She dropped the receiver. It swung back and forth on the phone cord as she was pushed further and further away. The phone booth was no longer on the corner of two busy streets in front of a tired strip mall, but sat on a dark cloud in a yellow sky.

She could hear his voice, “Maureen? Maureen?” but she could not reach the receiver or speak so he could hear her.

The Windhover — Baby Hawks

Daily Prompt By Heart You’re asked to recite a poem (or song lyrics) from memory — what’s the first one that comes to mind? Does it have a special meaning, or is there another reason it has stayed, intact, in your mind?

For 17 years I lived in City Heights, a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego. During the last 80’s and early ’90’s I spent a lot of my free time with a group of local boys who lived to ride BMX bikes. The jumps were in the same urban wilderness park where I hiked, so often they piled their bikes in the back of my Ford Ranger and off we went. I still know Jimmy and Mikey, twenty some years later. I wrote a blog about our adventures and if you want to read more, let me know. 

When I get to the jumps after a long hike with Molly and Kelly, the boys are all standing around the sumac bush, the bit of shade where they fix their bikes. Five of them. Jimmy, Jason, Mikey, Craig and Marc. Mikey hands me a large cardboard box with a T-shirt over it. “Here, Martha,” he says. “These are for you.”

I lift the shirt. Inside the box are two baby red tail hawks. One a dark morph and one light. The sudden daylight scares them and they begin screeching and opening and closing their mouths. In their experience, this can only mean food. I am enraged, “Where did they come from?” If the boys broke into a nest, they are dead. They’ve killed snakes for me. I can imagine this.

Mikey points at a pickup parked near the gate. “Some guy put them under his truck.”

“Under his truck? It’s a hundred degrees! How did you find them?”

“We were going down to the river to swim and we heard them,” says Jason. They did the right thing. I am proud and moved. But this is complicated; five boys, two dogs, all the bikes and parts, and now the hawks.

“We gave them some Cheetos,” says Mikey.


“They look like worms.”

I love hawks. I want to fly like a hawk. I want that freedom and that vision. I call all hawks, “My Love.” The boys know this. They point to every soaring hawk and say, “Martha! There’s your love!”



I recite Hopkins’ “Windhover” when I hike, remembering the first time I heard it, recited in a grad school class by John Bailey, Oxford Don, Hopkins expert, spouse of Iris Murdoch. He stutters when he talks, but recites Hopkins perfectly. “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin…” His right hand dived and swooped like a hawk as he spoke, marking the swinging rhythm of the poem. Having since watched hundreds of hawks in flight, I realize that Hopkins had, too. He has caught their flight exactly. The boys have heard this very esoteric English major stuff. They know what it is. Mikey — age 12 — has even pointed at the sky and said, “Martha! Morning’s minion!”

“What do we do?” asks Mikey.

“We take them to the emergency vet and tell them to call Project Wildlife,” I say, “but I don’t know how we’ll do this.” The birds are thirsty, probably hungry even with the Cheetos. They are definitely terrified. They have nothing to grab onto in that flat-bottomed box. They are too young to fly; too young to be comfortable uncovered; too young even to be under an open sky.

If the hawks’ parents found them, they couldn’t get them back into the nest, and they wouldn’t want to. The babies have been too long from home by now and smell too strange. I am desperately in love with them. I ache for them. I am afraid for them. Their chances aren’t good no matter what we do. On the ground, they are food for someone, snake, coyote, raven. If I were alone, I might just kill them quickly and try to resist the temptation to put their battered little corpses under the wipers of that guy’s truck after smearing hawk blood across his windshield.

I am affecting a cowboy hat these days. It’s nothing but a straw basket turned upside down. I realize how to transport the hawks. “Mikey, sit beside me and shift. I’ll let the hawks perch on my arm and cover them with my hat. That way they can breathe, but won’t be scared.” Jason takes the dogs and the other boys take the bikes. Jimmy brings the hawks to the truck, his shirt still covering the box. I get in behind the wheel. Jimmy puts the box on my lap and I slowly, deliberately reach inside with my right hand. The babies climb up as if my arm were a branch. I quickly put my hat over them and swing my arm inside the truck. The birds stop screeching and relax, clinging to me. Wow.

Mikey gets in, careful not to hit my arm. Jimmy gently slides in beside him. There’s no horseplay, no jokes about farts or tickle-fighting, no sound, not even from the back. I look in the rear-view mirror and see three faces looking through the window. We are all desperately pulling for these two small lives. I put in the clutch and turn the key. We start to move. I’m glad we don’t have to turn around. It’s only three stoplights to the vet. “OK, Mikey. Second!”

In wonderment I drive through town with a 12 year old shifting my truck and two baby red tail hawks on my arm. They are quiet the whole way. We reach the emergency vet who calls Project Wildlife, after saying, “What were you thinking? These should be in the nest! They will probably die.” I don’t even answer him. I know how he feels and I know I didn’t do it. I think he’s an asshole to say this. He doesn’t know how carefully these boys (all of whom are with me in this vet’s waiting room) protected these two babies. He’s looked at us — and we are a rough looking gang, I admit it — and reached his own conclusion. His assistant takes the hawks to a cage in the back. Thanks to some asshole, if the chicks survive, a cage will be their world. I don’t know their story, but I know that no one who hoped to rescue them would leave them in an open box under a truck on a 90 degree day.

The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Drawing from My Journal that Day, April 24, 1993

I’ve been lucky to see hawks train their young. They are relentless and fierce since the baby’s life depends on its ability to dive, to feint and to soar. In so many ways, the boys are hawks; they are the Windhover. “Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion”


They practice and practice and practice and practice. I watch Mikey try the same 180 at Santee Ditch for a solid HOUR until he finally gets it right. Getting it wrong means face into chain link, over and over again, bloody lip, bloody chin, bloody knuckles. I watch them all attempt a can-can over the doubles and fall, and crash, and cut themselves, and break their bikes but they never stop, they never give up, they “…gash gold-vermilion” and get up again and try it again and again and again. And when it works? It is “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air!” Absolutely what it is!
“I really caught air that time, didn’t I, Martha?”

Loss and Ignorance in Milan

Il Cenoculo

“Could there be a more appropriate or better conceived subject for a painting in a refectory than a farewell supper, which was destined to become eternally sacred to the whole world?” Goethe quoting “Giuseppe Bossi: On Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Milan”

My first breakfast in Milan was a solitary bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. I washed the dishes. Taking my map, I left, securing doors and gates behind me with strange Italian keys, sideways skeletons, serious locks. At the bottom of three flights of worn marble tiles–the wearing down of which fascinated me–I stepped into the bright day through a doorway built to admit horses into the courtyard of this 18th century building. Sunday. Quiet streets. I had marked my map with a yellow highlighter, leading to my destination, La Ultima Cena, Il Cenoculo, the masterpiece which competes with the Mona Lisa as Leonardo’s most famous painting. “Dove Il Cenoculo?” asked Elena the day before.

“Sant’Ambrogio,” answered Elisabetta. That basilica was my destination.

“You can ride my bicycle, or you can take the tram, and the subway is just up that street, turn right, then left, then right and it’s there. Remember, the stop is Porto Romano so when you come back you know where to get off.” My first thought–which I rejected–was the bicycle, but it’s difficult to navigate on a bicycle unless you know where you are and where you’re going, and then there were the grooves of the tram tracks. Intimidated by the subway, and wanting to see the city, I walked. Self-consciously solitary, hesitant to publicly read my map, I was a black hopeful shadow on sun-drenched streets, seeking shade beneath the trees along Via Beatrice Este. I wandered past a Byzantine church, breathtaking, mysterious and–to me–irresistible. I walked around it but became confused when I was suddenly on a medieval street. Out of odd uncertainty, I retraced my steps. My goal was to see the one painting I would find at Sant’Ambrogio, nothing else.

Seeing a subway stop, I went down to ask directions. I was kindly informed that the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio was directly across the street. I ran up the stairs and emerged in a driven frenzy to find the entrance to the church; still, I couldn’t find it. I walked around the block looking for a likely entrance, and finding none, and further and further from where I wanted to be, I turned back. Each moment increased my self-doubt. This was not, for me, the simple confusion of a stranger in a strange land; for me, all this was failure. I was proving something to someone, to Dario? To his sister, his parents? To myself? That I could do everything myself? That I could give myself a good time, a successful time, that I didn’t need Dario or the realization of his promises, and so I was determined to see La Ultima Cena.  I had to do this without asking any of the questions I really needed to ask, or noticing anything around me.

I should have understood then. I didn’t find the door until I gave up possibilities which (to me) seemed reasonable and went in the only open gate, a spiked iron-clad foot-thick wooden monster that could have confined Satan. This was how I discovered that the entrance to this historic church is through the gate of the tower dungeon which houses Milan’s Museum of Torturous Implements of the Holy Inquisition.

I entered a small square. A one-eyed beggar from Africa sat on one of the benches that lined the courtyard. A couple of punk-rock kids sat kissing on a stone animal (lion? lamb?) outside the church door. The age of the place and its silence struck me; I entered without speaking to anyone. I did not imagine that others would understand even my poor, very poor, Italian, though only the day before I had spoken Italian the entire day, and the day before that, and the day before that and the day before that; my four days in Italy had been–except for the abysmal interludes of broken English with Dario–lived in Italian. Entering this church, I felt excruciatingly, self-consciously, foreign. Church bells rang the half hour.

“A combination of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio marked an important transition in style,” I was told by a coin operated recording just inside the doors. The recording said nothing about La Ultima Cena. I walked around the sanctuary, looking at the chapels and the paintings, puzzled that I did not see what I came to see, or a line of people waiting to see it, or any indication that it was here at all. I was momentarily entranced by a statue and shrine to a saint called Satiros, and nearly bought him a candle based on the painfully appropriate prayer asking for his help in overcoming “egoismo e indeciso.” The long line of suppliants waiting for a chance to buy these candles and prayers indicated something fundamental in human nature.

I continued to walk around the church, looking, but absently looking; occluded as I was by egoism and indecisiveness, I was paralyzed. All I REALLY saw was that I didn’t see what I set out that morning to see. I did not want to ask, “Where is Leonardo’s painting?” when clearly what WAS all around me was amazing. Finally, I bought a guidebook to Milan from a woman running a kiosk inside the church and from the book I learned that what I wanted was the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Sant’Ambrogio was the simply the closest subway stop. I walked out of the church moments before mass began. I missed that, too.

A destination serves best as a reason to venture out. Until I learned this, I endured the pathology of frustration. Knowing where I “wanted” to be, it became impossible for me to stay where I was, to see the random beauty of a place like this one. A week later, after I had learned how to ask useful questions and how to be somewhere, I tried to return. Sant’Ambrogio was closed for mass, and all that remained for me was to wander through the three dismal floors of torture, perusing devices representing the nefarious side of human nature, diabolically vindicated by “Church” and “Justice. The irony is this. Hell is exactly that, not to be where you are at any given moment. I had damned myself.

Des Lebens labyrintisches irren Lauf,” wrote Goethe in one of his prologues to Faust. “. . .life’s labyrinthine chaos course.”

I continued, through small streets and down some larger ones, reaching, finally, the monastery in which Leonardo had painted to pay for food and shelter.

I could not get in. “We are sorry. There are no more reservations today. Call this number to make an appointment.”

Tourists who were in Milan for only one day crumpled in disappointment or paced in frenzied agitation. “What if someone cancels? Then can we get in?”

“No one cancels.”

I looked around. There are tours in English and Italian; a Korean tour group had all the tickets for the next English tour which was also the last of the day. Next to the door a table was set up selling souvenirs of the Cenoculo experience; posters, maps, postcards, banners, all kinds of junk.

Per favore. Di mi il numero.”

Siamo ciusi domani, e martedi non ne piu prenotatti, mercoledi e il primo giorno.”

Va bene. Sono qui per una settimana.”

“Bene. Qui,” and he handed me a small card with the number printed on it. “Chiama un giorno di anticipo. Abbiamo un tour in inglese cinque volte per giorno.

Grazie. Grazie tanti. Arrivederci.

Clearly, my Italian wasn’t very good, or were there things about the painting I would understand better if they were told to me in bad English? The fact was, I didn’t care if I saw this famous painting or not; I preferred a tour in Italian because, at least, I would improve my listening comprehension. I had seen this painting–as we have all seen it–in reproductions everywhere on everything. My grandmother, in her little house on its gravel street in Billings, Montana had, hanging above her sink, a china plate on which was printed The Last Supper. When I was a kid, I thought that was funny since no one ever actually ate supper off the plate. I inherited it, as it had been a gift from my mother, and when it broke in a move, I felt no loss, either of the artifact of my grandmother’s life or of this painting. The plate was kitsch; the painting, by default, was kitsch. Seeing The Last Supper was just the thing you did in Milan. From my frustrated visit to the Basilica Santa Maria di Grazia, I had a story to tell the girls at dinner, “There were so many people, I couldn’t get in.” I knew I would say that and they would ask me when I could go.

A nineteenth century tourist had raved about Milan, calling it the beautiful progeny of a marriage between Zürich and Rome. I loved Zürich; I had not been to Rome. Today Milan is a city that, apparently, does not attract tourists, only those who want to hear opera at La Scala–which, during my visit was playing West Side Story–or who are passing through to real destinations like Rome, Florence or Venice, but Milan ultimately gave me unhurried, uncrowded experiences in intriguing, beautiful places. I was heading in the direction of downtown, toward the Duomo. Relieved of Il Cenoculo as a destination, I looked in my small book on what I might find on the way. My feet were burning from blisters I’d gotten the day before walking barefoot in hot black shoes, around the Naviglia, and though I was now wearing socks, they were too heavy, and pressed on my blisters.

I continued walking, past a building whose street door was flanked by ancient statues. I entered only the courtyard. I glanced at hacked up dismembered marble arms and legs, thighs without knees or hips, half a face with an ear, scattered in the yard, covered with dust, or resting on fat-legged marble tables like fossilized cadavers of titans; the ancient, presented like this, didn’t interest me. I turned away.

I was on the Corso Magenta. I really wanted lightweight socks. It was Sunday. What would be open? I decided to find something to eat and continued toward the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II.

I got lunch in an autocafe, one of a chain throughout Milan–all of Italy, for all I know–the equivalent of Denny’s. I found no seat except in the smoking section, across from a junkie who had piled his plate high with ham, pasta, salad and fruit he didn’t touch. I had rigatoni bolognese, worse than American pasta which is notorious in Italy for being overcooked. The bread was stale and my soda was expensive. As I ate, silently looking past the junkie out the window, I decided not to eat there again, even though it had a bathroom. A tourist on foot becomes preoccupied with accessible public toilets, and in the course of that day I remembered reading a description of the convenient public toilet behind the Duomo, complete with showers, run by the Tourist Bureau.

I set out in search of socks. The streets were now packed with people, and I shuffled and jostled my way along, past refugees from everywhere selling everything; Senegalese selling purses, Chinese selling cheap electronic toys, Angolans offering braided bracelets, Filipinos selling truly lovely handmade jewelry made of fishing line and glass. I was ignored; I looked either too destitute or too Italian to approach, and was left to go my way while those more obviously tourists were plagued and pursued down the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. I found a store open and entering, looked for socks. Milan IS fashion; and the clothes in this store were gorgeous, but in the self-consciousness of my solitude, I had difficulty looking. I found the socks and bought them. I crossed the Piazza delle Duomo, and went for the first time to a cafe that became from that day on my resting place.

Mi dispiace, ma, non posso cambiare,” the man behind the counter was saying to the young Korean woman ahead of me in line who had ordered ice cream and cappuccino and handed him a 300,000 lira note. “Aspetta un momento, per favore,” he continued, then looked at me, “Mi scusi, signora, si può cambiare questo?”

Si. Aspetta.” I gave him change (lira, back then), then I ordered an espresso and soda water. In solidarity with the Italian style, I put two cubes of sugar in my tiny cup of coffee, though normally I take it black, and stirred. It was better sweet. I felt triumphant that I could change that note; I felt that I was more than an imbecilic parasite lost with blistered feet, marching on the streets of Milan purposefully to erroneous destinations, who had come to Italy in pursuit of a man who had turned out to be a lying sociopath.

Sitting with my coffee, listening to an orchestra playing in the background and looking at the pigeon and tourist filled square of the Duomo, I understood all of it. I opened my book and looked at all the places I could go; I had no destination, I had only to enjoy myself. My one certainty was a plane ticket taking me back to California in three weeks. I did not want to stay so long, but I couldn’t change my ticket at that moment, that day; it was Sunday, and I was in Milan. That reality finally penetrated; I was in Milan, on my own, independent, in one of the world’s great, oldest cities. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and saw with excitement how little I knew of anything, especially of where I was. I was filled with the sense of magic possibility that is freedom. Adventure; (advent, the beginning or coming of something important).

After a change of socks I decided to see the paintings hanging in the Sforza Castle. I crossed the Galleria and found myself in a medieval market square with posts and rings for tying horses. Families of Italian and eastern European tourists ate picnic lunches on the raised platform of the market; it was a beautiful spot and I was able with my new wisdom to enjoy it, to marvel at it, to picture in my mind the horses tied and merchants bargaining beneath the watchful gaze of burghers and officials looking from the merchant exchange offices above. I bought a gelato, and crossed a traffic circle, entering the drawbridge gate over the dry moat that surrounded a castle from a fairy tale.

Castello Sforzesco vista dallalto

I wanted to see paintings, but the first entrance led me to carefully labeled marble body parts. Outside again, I saw a sign, “Pinocateca.” Painting gallery. The Castle Sforza IS medieval, but inside, the museum is ultra-modern and spare; it’s perfect. The European time machine–of which I had only seen scattered samples in museums–needs somehow to rest within a space so barren of context that each comprehensible jewel can be savored, relished, seen. The Sforza Castle was made — in many places —  into just such spaces. I passed through the first two in which tapestries hung above mammoth medieval chests and chairs, into another, with a vaulted green ceiling on which frescoes of zodiac signs were painted; it was splendid, set off by itself. From there I walked into the next perfectly Spartan room. Narrative and symbolic paintings of the Virgin, St. Sebsastian, St. Gregory, St. Benedict began their education of my eyes. I needed to be taught; I did not know how to see; I was tuned to subject, numb to form, blind to technique. At first I saw only that the paintings were virtually the same; the same subjects, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, insufficient representations of the Biblical reference I love most, the Garden of Gethsemene. There was the first Christmas, the infant Jesus on Mary’s Lap, the child Jesus, then sorrowing, brave Mary holding up the body of her dead son, and on and on and on over and over again from one room to the next. Goethe wrote that these artists, painting for patronage, limited by their patrons to these same subjects, were imprisoned, but there was none of the joylessness of imprisonment in these works; at least, I didn’t see it. All seemed to have been painted with patience, faith and love–and hope, of course, for a few dollars.

But I was learning. Learning of saints, and which ones cried out most for depiction–St. Sebastian with his arrow-pierced young body, his agony. Later, a strange image emerged; a levitating knife, poised to penetrate? or decapitate? There was no clue anywhere as to the significance of this airborne blade. Did it denote martyrdom? I posited this theory hoping to find the blade in a painting of the one man my Protestant background recognized as a martyr, St. John the Baptist. “That,” I thought, “will tell me.” I didn’t object to my ignorance; it was the force behind discovery. Looking for a flying blade seeking John the Baptist, I gasped to see his head on a plate, tongue hanging out, eyes rolled back, complete with blood, veins, nerve endings and a severed spinal chord.

Within these rooms of time I saw the discovery of fixed-point perspective and the effect it had on Christ’s formerly precarious balance on his mother’s lap. I saw men and women of Italy’s streets painted in the backgrounds of the familiar Bible scenes, replacing the anonymous paper-doll faces of the early middle ages. Intricate brocade on the gowns of painted archbishops was accomplished in the same way I use lace paper to create pattern and texture; through a stencil. It was all astonishing; I saw the palpable difference in the floating, light reflective surface of an oil or casein painting and the infused radiance of a fresco; plaster inoculated with color. I fell in love with its passionate immediacy, the vividness of a moment of life, the movement of existence. From that day, I sought them everywhere and yearned to try my own.

At the end, there stood Goethe’s passion, the plastic arts, a statue he could have seen in Rome, but didn’t. Starkly, simply exhibited in a replication of a sculptor’s workroom, without the fastidious self-consciousness of a set design, stood Michelangelo’s unfinished standing Pieta Rondanini. The great work was spot-lit from four directions with benches making a small amphitheater in front. I sat down. I had loved this piece since I saw photos of it in high school art history class.


Pieta Rondanini

There in front of me it appeared to be the fruition of ALL the paintings; in a relative sense they were complex sketches, studies spanning centuries, practice for this exquisitely unfinished work.

I had spent three hours in this palace of delight; I was surfeited.

On my way back I bought a strawberry gelato (é soltanto una fragola) and, savoring its sweet temporality, I slowly returned to Via Atto Vanucci. I had not seen La Ultima Cena, but when I did, three days later, all of this had prepared me for what is much more than a painting; as a work of art, it is a force transcending its many mangled restorations, a force of beauty reaching beyond beauty, a destination. Il destino. Destiny.

“The presence of works of art, like those of Nature, makes us. . .wish to express our feelings and judgements in words, but . . . in the end we return to a wordless beholding.” Goethe Italian Journey