May 26, 2018

My Corner of the Canyon: Rattle and Hum


There is a low humming noise outside the window. At times it seems to fade, lost behind the sounds of passing cars, a distant chainsaw, or the crow of the rooster up the hill. Then it comes again steady, vibratory, almost soothing. At this time of year in Topanga, Ailanthus Altissimo, known as the “Tree of Heaven,” or sometimes by its baser name, “Ghetto Palm,” comes into bloom. I first noted a familiar smell in the air. There was a hint, just for a moment, of something on the breeze that reminded me of something else, something I knew but had forgotten.

“What’s that scent?” I asked not wanting to lose it.

Miranda, in her wisdom, answered, “It’s the tree, Mother.”

And, yes, it was the tree with its peppery, pungent, somewhat sweet smell. I’d been too busy to notice the branches had filled in and were hanging heavy with blooms and, sure enough, the green pollen was beginning to fall all over the patio, sprinkling through the air like a magical chartreuse rain.

In some cultures the tree is said to be a cure for mental illness and baldness, but I’m still crazy and the beleaguered husband is …..well, let’s just say he looks good in a hat.

In the morning hundreds of bees buzz around Ailanthus’ blossoms. The hum is from the sound produced by their little wings rapidly flapping. I can’t but admire their dedicated industry and wonder if they’re happy, programmed as they are to gather pollen for the hive. And, if not happy exactly, do they feel a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in doing what they are meant to do?

Maybe there is an award given to the best or fastest gatherer of nectar, a Bee Blue Ribbon, a tiny trophy or, at least, a nod from Her Highness. Or, maybe, the reward is just in getting to do what you were designed to do without once questioning your destiny.

Oh, how I envy them! There is no nonsense about wondering if one should, write, teach, have a pool route, act, sell burgers, or join the circus. They never ponder whether to get a pink streak in their hair, invest in gold, or if to toss or save the Calvin Klein sweatshirt. Alas! I am not a bee and the only programming I possess is a proclivity toward squalor and a taste for a different kind of nectar.

The bees continue in their manic mission, their hum almost taking on a mocking tone, while just on the other side of the window, the husband and I are dressing—on our one day off—to attend a funeral. The funeral is for someone we hardly know, a man who was married to a distant elder cousin of my husband. We have no vested emotional connection to the deceased and are attending out of a vague sense of family obligation.

“Maybe we should look at this as a date,” I callously suggest. “After all, the word ‘fun’ is in funeral.”

Deciding what to wear is, of course, a challenge for us and the buzzing bees seem to say, “Foolish humans, why waste time on clothes and death; just push the dead ones out of the hive and get on with it. There will be more to take their place.”

The funeral is at a big temple on Wilshire Boulevard. We can’t seem to find the right entrance and I half hope to maybe just give it up, ditch the whole thing, like school, and light out for a taco, an IHOP or take in The Muppet Movie. Can’t we just forget our troubles, fly from obligations and solemn occasions and jump into a fountain somewhere? But we persevere and arrive at the parking area.

We’re directed to enter the temple through a back entrance and, as we pass through the rear courtyard, I notice it is set up as a playground and this is where a pre-school is housed. “Yes”, I think, as we pass through hallways covered with children’s art, “You start here, young and running and playing, and end up, if you’re lucky, some 80 years later in another part of the building being eulogized.”

I long, for a moment, to hear the laughter of the children who play there or, better yet, crawl into the colorful little playhouse myself, have a tea party and refuse to come out. “No Death, you can’t get me here! Na-na-na-na-na-na!”

Inside, we meander the hallways that twist and turn through the temple. We walk in circles, lost, making wrong turns and false starts. Bees don’t get lost.

We finally realize our destination is on an upstairs level, closer to heaven and, at last, find our way to pay our final respects to one Lawrence Dresser.

Prayers are just beginning as the husband and I slip into a rear pew. It’s a nice turnout, not too big, not too small. I know I will not be called on to speak so the pressure is off, but I wonder if the eulogist in me can be controlled. Suppose I bound from my seat and just begin addressing the room as if I knew Lawrence, called him Laurie, told stories of our days in early radio together or out on the road selling insurance? I maintain composure and wonder at the circumstances that brought me to be sitting in this room on this day in April in honor of a man I didn’t know. I bow my head.

People speak of a man who was a brother, a father, a friend, a husband and a grandfather. I hear details of his life and glean a glimpse of his loves, his losses, his dreams. I see his children cry, I hear his brother-in-law recall a first handshake. Although I had thought to be outside an emotional involvement, safe from grief and sorrow, when his granddaughter read a poem by e.e. cummings, I reached for a Kleenex.

Later in the day, over a margarita, the husband and I discuss our future: finances, business decisions, colleges, the upcoming closure on PCH. Unlike the bees, we don’t know which way to turn. I look at the man across from me, who is working way too hard and wish I could help. Why can’t things be easy? Why can’t great success come our way? Why can’t we be lucky? Why can’t we get a decent margarita?

We humans don’t know the answers. But we do know a sunset, we know the stars, we know poetry, birth and death.

So rage you fates! Raise taxes, bring on your moving violations and increase the price of produce. Plug the plumbing and eat the roots of roses. Stop the highway, melt the chocolate bunny, break the glass and gray the hair.

We know something bees do not. We know love.

I Carry Your Heart

”i carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) i am never without it (anywhere i go, my dear and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true) and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

­­­and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows (here is the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher then the soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

—e.e. cummings