Twilight over Tioga Lake

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We've come a long way

October means many things. Baseball playoffs. Halloween, always a fun event in San Francisco. Me turning 33, not terribly exciting. But noteworthy for me this year is that October 25th marks my 10 year anniversary in the city.

Many of my friends have been here around ten years as well. Recently I've been reminiscing with some of them, remember not only our own experiences, but also ways in which the city has changed.

When we first moved in here, it was the end of the dot com era. Thankfully many of us, including myself, had places we could move into because finding an apartment then took a whole special kind of dedication. I heard stories of hundreds of people showing up to apply for a room, dressed as if for a job interview, wine bottles and flowers in hand to hopefully impress the landlord. Some of us like me actually shared a room for a time out of necessity.

I remember the first bar I went to, Kilowatt, with some college friends. Those friends lived in the Mission at the time, when the Mission was a kind of sketchy place. Now while it has some rough edges, the Mission is the cool and chill hang out of choice for most young San Franciscans. We might not want to admit it, but we were the ones who helped the gentrification along.

Now that most of us are in our 30's, we consider it pretty damn exciting when we make it out on a weeknight, or even both weekend nights! It is impressive to look back on our early and mid twenties and remember raucous house parties where twelve people spent the night, complete with a band and dj who played until dawn. Going out to Kelly's Mission Rock and The Top until four in the am, actually completing Bay to Breakers (once in pouring rain), towel dancing competitions at Coachella year after year--we were good partiers.

Things change, but it is funny how you are usually ready for the change. I was initially nervous to see friends get married and start families, but these events have been some of the most rewarding and joyous occasions I've experienced. And things tend to come full circle, as well. Now that we have friends that have bought their own houses in the city, the house party is making a comeback.

My experiences at the jobs I've had out here practically merit their own book. My first job was out of desperation through a temp agency--making telephone calls. It was downtown near North Beach, so I enjoyed getting to know the area. I was the only one who didn't chain smoke during breaks, and instead walked spastically fast around the blocks. Then I worked for $10 an hour at the horse stables in the park, which was fun although I was so poor I took part in a paid asthma research study on the side. Everyone thought I was nuts, but I'm not dead yet.

While tutoring and babysitting for a variety of cool or completely nuts people on the side, I landed a job at a preschool, where I still work today. To this place I owe so much, as it has given me many wonderful friends and numerous incredible experiences, including a trip to Israel. Some of the hardest things that have ever happened to me happened while at this job, the hardest being the untimely death of a coworker three years ago. But even that tragic event brought people together in a beautiful way, and incredible relationships grew out of it.

Since I've lived in California, I've visited seven foreign countries, went on two amazing road trips, countless camping adventures in the Sierras and elsewhere, a few trips to Hawaii, and many nostalgic and fulfilling visits back home to Massachusetts. I've had my parents visit many times, a number of cousin visits, and some friends come, but would love more!

I have changed quite a bit myself, I believe mostly for the better. A friend was good-naturedly teasing me about how cheap and anti-corporation I used to be. I wouldn't pay more than $5 to go to a club, only shopped at thrift stores, and loudly decried major chains. Now two of my favorite places to visit are Disney World and Las Vegas, and I would be half-naked and starving if it wasn't for Old Navy and Trader Joe's. But I don't consider that selling out. Enjoy the places for what they are, and do good in the world to counteract the greed and excess as much as you can.

I love San Francisco and all the places I've seen out here, but what makes home home for me are the people. My SF friends come from Sacramento, Southern California, New York, New Jersey, England. They come from the Midwest, Canada, South America, Massachusetts like me, or are native to the Bay Area. They are teachers, writers, producers, managers for successful companies, talented artists and photographers and musicians. They are why I am still here.

A while ago, a good friend asked me what was the most significant decision I ever made in my life. The answer was easy--the one to move out to California. It was a decision I made spur of the moment. I suppose there may be a parallel universe out there where I live on the East Coast. I probably would be happy and successful in that life. But I can't imagine an existence without the places, experiences, and especially people that are in my West Coast life. Thank you to you all.

Here are two new poems, both about recent experiences I had in California. Thank you to Anna, Sam, Gina, and Eamon for being a part of them.

Dwelling Place 9/27/09

Day 4 in the Sierras is supposed to be an easy day. Day one is for acclimating, day two we can climb a little higher, day three welcomes a strenuous hike, day four should give legs and lungs a break.

That never happens.

The Eastern Sierras' beauty is quiet, harsh, intense. Our eyes tire quickly in the thinner and bluer air, glare from granite and tarn bounces into the iris.

My skin is a map of mosquito bites, sun scald, and white dryness.

Our muscles are sore in ways they were not when we did this ten years ago.

Our abdomens' clench and bloat in the 10,000 + foot altitude.

It is not necessarily comfortable to be here. But it is necessary.

So I am humorously dubious at the start of this "easy" day. We ferry over navy blue Saddlebag lake, sun hot and wind cold. My friends says, "We'll just head towards the glacier and go as far as we want."

But we always want more, always! There will always be another lake in that valley, perhaps a river or a mining ruin, maybe even a peak attempt.

Today's promise of a glacial lake is too tantalizing. We will go all the way, no matter how much we tell ourselves we do not need to reach the end. Nature brings out a greed in us.

The basin hike starts out on a dusty path with green shrubs and surging stream. When we stop for water, the mosquitoes could make me cry. Onwards, upwards, don't forget to breathe, keep your eyes up. A pika may spot us.

We break above the trees. The mosquitoes are temporarily sated with our blood and wait below. Slog on, slog on, and then we can see the lip of the basin, and sun glinting off the glacier itself. How can we stop now? We are metal, the glacier magnet. We happily submit to its force and are pulled up.

Scramble over bright gray rock, sky too blue even for sunglassed eyes, stifle stomach pains. And then we arrive. Our map tell us we are in Inyo National Forest; Inyo meaning "Dwelling Place of the Great Spirit."

And some great spirit dwells here for sure. Darkly quiet except for human panting, the ridges of the basin scratch the sky. The glacier itself is rather unglamorous--a large slab of dirty snow that leaves black water stretch marks down mother mountain's side.

A bruised blue lake hunkers under the glacier, absorbing it in minuscular measurements. Slushy ice streaks are drawn across, and I lower myself onto a granite slab to better hear the ice. Tiny blips of air shoot their way through the slush, and pop on the surface. I penetrate my finger into glacial innards, happy for its bite.

We feel we have to ask permission to dwell here ourselves. It is oppressive and holy and beautiful; an ancient monster sleeps nearby. A feeling of danger lurks--crumbly rocks hover just on the edge of gravity, crystalline snow runs precarious over hypothermic waters.

But we're not done yet. One more perfect lake exists beyond our sight; we are too close.

Stumble, clamber, boulder. We are not so much tired as lulled into a mellow stupor by lack of oxygen. One last heave, and there it is.

This first run of glacial waters is a calm turquoise. Not clear like tropical waters; it is opaque and milky.

I could drool over so much of my favorite color. I want to dive through it, drink its siltiness, bottle it and bring it home, though I don't do any of those things.

Watch. Listen. Purge the regularness of life from my body and let the Great Spirit dwell there for a moment. Turn myself inside out, feel the wildness on my organs.

Then we hear a crack of ice! A loud and wet sound, the sound of geological time sloughing by. The earth ticks another second older. How lucky we are.

We imagine sleeping here, cradled in stony arms, sung to sleep by a monster's requiem. But we know it would be neither safe nor wise to do so. Stay here too long, and you may be permanently absorbed into the Spirit's corporeal being.

The Spirit grants us permission to leave, as it did permission to stay. We could dwell here forever, but have done so long enough. With a silent nod and a satisfied smile, we take our leave.

As is the case when looking back, I don't remember the discomfort.
I just remember the ultramarine pool, the brooding peace, the earth aging slowly.

Selfishly, I kind of wish I had taken a piece of it with me.

A tiny bit of rock.
A little bit of lake.
A sprig of bush.

Would the Spirit have followed me home?

No, and I know this. If anything, it would have forsaken a thief.

Instead I just think. And plan to go back.

The Lucky Ones 9/28/09

I don't
consider myself a

I still go
to spin class.

I subject myself to
sweat, pain, and constant yelling
by the instructor.

One day, seeing that we were
not working as hard as we could,
she screamingly
reminded us that

"Spin class is optional, you know!"

True, and I panted out a laugh.
I don't have to come here. Yet it doesn't make
spinning any easier.

But another time
she told us in a
calm and measured tone,

"You chose to come to spin class.
Actually, you are lucky to be here."


Why, I suppose I am lucky to feel


by my own choice.

When else
do I chose my luck?
Or even when not a choice,
am I most fortunate?

I think back to a
day spent on the beach
with my friend and her toddler.

The little boy
felt all of life in
his small body.

Simply to run
was the happiest joy
for him.

He may not
know his luck yet, but the
seed of good fortune
is sprouting within him; he
will know it in time.

This day was not

I wore only a sweater, the
wind zipped right through
holes to my skin.

The cold lingered long
after I had gone inside,
and I felt shivery all night.

But how blessed is it
to have a beach
a sweater
a place to go into and still feel cold.

Also that day
I risked bare feet
and therefore cold feet
and wet jean cuffs
and stepping on dead jellyfish, which I did.

A most interesting sensation:
my foot sluiced through
transparent Jello. I
could feel the layers of
gelatinous skin compress underneath me.

Easy to think "yuck," but again
how fortuitous to have
a jellyfish
an ocean
a foot to feel cold death against.

Those of us
with the generally comfortable life,
like me,
are reminded to
count our blessings, be thankful.

When we complain, which
we do,
we are sometimes reminded
to think of those without.

I do think
it is ok to complain.
There may be the
bad relationship
no relationship
low money
bad health.

There are reasons.
And you are not terrible to lament them.

But there are the things within
all those reasons.

Think about them sometimes.

Think of them
and be thankful
they are there.

Like I will think about the
spin class
the sweater
the jellyfish.

That I
are truly

the lucky ones.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Truth is Right Here

I am taking a departure from my usual rainbows and unicorns because I have realized something, and I need to get it out.

Conspiracy theories annoy the hell out of me.

For a long time I found them mildly stupid and not at all harmful. Then I saw this line of graffiti in a San Francisco cafe bathroom: "Know what's coming. Google 'FEMA concentration camps.'"

Well, I have to give the graffitier credit. Never having heard of such a thing, I did most certainly did look up "FEMA concentration camps" on the internet when I got home. A crapload of websites came up, and as well as Youtube clips with supposed footage of a concentration camp, right here in the U.S.

Basically, the people behind this one are claiming that FEMA is not an emergency and preparedness task force. They are instead a section of the government that has the authority to take over every aspect of life, including control of all transportation, food, and education. There are all sorts of "first hand accounts" of people talking to Marines who admitted purposely killing children and all sorts of other barbaric things.

FEMA also has "concentration camps" all over the country, "empty, but fully guarded and ready to take prisoners." Believers say these camps will be for "dissenters" or the any people the government considers "undesirable" in the event of a catastrophe. Eyewitnesses have also found mysterious trains that must be ready to ship prisoners, unaccounted for train stations, "hundreds of thousands of plastic coffins," etc, etc.

Unsurprisingly, most of these websites belong to far right, government fearing groups that also warn us of the "New World Order" and the Illuminati.

I've shook my head in pity at the ignorance of most people falling for these myths, but this one took the cake. When you enter "FEMA concentration camps" or something like it into a search engine, there are also a number of sites that address the hoax and disprove every myth. The Youtube clips are actual footage of some sort of prison camp--taken in North Korea, a place that I am not surprised would have such a thing. The trains and train stations are perfectly normal. The "plastic coffins" are also perfectly normal coffin liners.

Unbelievable. Literally. And yet--so many people believe.

And this is why it makes me angry.

Do I think our government is corrupt and has done some messed up things? Hell yes! The 2000 and 2004 elections, the handling of Hurricane Katrina--our government is very flawed. But holing yourself up with lots of guns so you don't get taken to a concentration camp is not the answer. If you want change in your country, start a grassroots organization, volunteer, run for office yourself. Better yet, join Amnesty International or a similar organization and find out what the hell North Korea is doing with a prisoner camp. That is how positive change will begin to happen. Not by creating or feeding into outlandish stories.

I also find it near irresponsible to create such tales when unimaginable horrors have transpired and continue to exist in this world. It is no secret that concentration camps were used to detain and then kill people during WWII. It is also no secret that the systematic killing of groups of people still happens. Bosnia and Rwanda are not far behind us, genocide in Darfur happens as you read this.

Why then, waste your energy believing our government is "out to get us!!!" when you could be using some that energy dedicating yourself to stopping the atrocities that continue today?

The FEMA conspiracy theory is the most recent in what I feel is a long list of ignorance and denial. Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories arises from people not wanting to accept that bad things happen. I think JFK and Princess Di are examples of this. People die in car crashes and get shot every day. It is a tragedy no matter who it happens to, including the rich and famous. It seems to be almost a comfort to people to think that sinister, secret forces are at work rather than the will of the universe. It gives an idea of slightly more order in the world. But the reality is, shit just happens sometimes.

I will admit 9/11 is a tricky one. The administration was certainly shady about many things. And I've read all about the possibility of planted explosions and the mystery surrounding WTC 7. Some of it is compelling, though I have also read articles that have thorough explanations for everything. For the moment, my stance on this one is that there is a very good chance the government was aware the attacks were going to happen, but they were not planted by the government. When the theory goes into the "no planes hit" territory, I get angry again. There actually is ample evidence of the planes, at all the sights--and there were people on those planes, and they are all dead. Isn't rather disrespectful to the victims' families to suggest there were no planes? I think it is extremely disrespectful. And just plain stupid.

Again, 9/11 is another example of people not wanting to accept the truth that evil exists outside as well as inside. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, but to be frank we have been incredibly sheltered compared to other places in the world. What about so many other nations that have endured years of war or occupation from outside forces? I'm pretty sure those nations do not think it is "an inside job." Is it because we have experienced few acts of aggression from outside factions on our own soil that makes it is so hard to accept that another would attack us and it must have been from within? How about questioning WHY someone would want to punish us and try to change our image and actions, instead of assuming our own government was behind it? I think it was Dan Rather that actually said something like that shortly after 9/11.

For a while, I felt it was just laughable that people did not believe we put people on the moon, but now that pisses me off too. Obviously this one is not as harmful because it does not involve death and destruction, but this one particularly shows how easily people flock to something out of ignorance. I think it almost "cool" to believe in this one.

Every single hoax claim regarding the moon landing--the shadows, the flag, moon rocks, stars, radiation, everything--has been busted. They have mostly notably been debased by my faves, the guys from Mythbusters. The top reason people give for why the government would do this is so we would have a one up on Russia. First of all, Russia had been to space numerous times by then. They were first the ones to send an unmanned ship to the moon, first to send one to Venus, first to do a spacewalk, and first to send a woman into space. Granted, humans on the moon is a big achievement. The "space race" was very back and forth in the early days, and it the claim that the U.S. needed to prove one to Russia just doesn't make much sense.

Now if we did fake it, don't you think Russia and many other major world powers would have figured it out, been pretty pissed, and let the whole world know? Ever think about everyone yelling liar is from the U.S.? You don't ever here Russia screaming that we made it up. And the idea of the money and time the government would have to spend to pull this one off is ludicrous. Finally, nearly everyone claiming the moon landing was a hoax knows little about space. The debunkers of the myth are all scientists and astronomers--and while NASA has a site dedicated to debasing the myth, many have nothing to do with NASA. Just please, educate yourself. Don't think you're a holier than thou hipster because you believe this one. You're not. This one is simple common sense.

I just found a great quote by the Mythbusters guys. It is regarding the moon myth, but it can be applied to any conspiracy theory.

"There seems to be a common tendency among conspiracy theorists, as well as among a lot of people with entrenched belief systems, to get stuck on an idea and never give up. Conspiracy theories are not really a special category -- maybe you can call them myths, but I look at them as an obsession that people want to maintain, like being abducted by aliens, Bigfoot and so on. You can't really expect that reasonable evidence will change anyone's mind if they are determined," observed Hyneman.

"The moon hoax shares its roots with every other conspiracy theory: the strangely comforting idea that someone is REALLY in charge, for good or ill. The idea of an overarching intelligence that moves things and public opinion with perfect precision is the subject of countless books and movies, but in reality it's far from true. We WANT it to be true, but good and evil are usually far more banal," explained Savage. "Do we really think that the same government that screwed up so badly during the Watergate scandal could have perpetrated the moon hoax? Come on!"

Exactly. The government DOES screw up--Watergate another example. But pull off the moon landing and other things? Just think about it. Think for yourself; don't follow.

Finally, a word about "evidence." Before you start spouting off stuff about explosions and the way buildings fall and shadows on the moon being evidence of a conspiracy, think about it. Is that evidence, or is that speculation? How can you know your (most likely) internet source knows what they are talking about? When you examine myths and conspiracies closely, you will find they contain very little hard proof of what they are claiming. Remember the "Satanic Cult" scare back in the '80's? Supposedly the world was rampant with these cults, they were abusing children and killing babies, and Geraldo even did a special about it. Turns out there was hardly anything to supporst these claims, and the whole thing was considered a hoax.

In conclusion, the universe is random. We are subject to its entropy. People will die young that shouldn't, enemies will attack, seeming miracles--like men on the moon--will continue to happen. There isn't a whole lot you or I can do about it.

If you are a conspiracy theory believer, you probably have some things to say to me. That's fine. And I do not think you are an unintelligent ignoramus. You are probably an insightful, compassionate person who read some compelling "evidence." All I encourage you to do is this--learn. Learn about the corruption that actually is happening here. Learn about the suffering that is very real around the world. And you CAN do something about that. Be wary of every piece of "evidence" that comes your way. Where did it come from? And why is it circulating? Are there any real smoking guns? Yes, we should question what we're told. That does not mean believe every story out there. Did you believe every urban myth told to you as a child?

I will be doing my best to address the real evils that are occurring right now. I will be very wary of any conspiracy theory that comes my way. If you believe in them and tell me about it, I will ask you: do you really believe this? Or do you believe it because others do?

And if I'm wrong? If the government murders its own, imprisons its people, and the Illuminati is running the world?

Well, I guess I'll see you in hell. Oh sorry--it will just be me in hell. You will have been saved by the Second Coming.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What I Brought Back

Most of the time, I am thankful for the dwindling nature of memory.  Life can be overwhelming enough.  We couldn't possibly live a normal life with every experience we've had at the forefront of our minds.

But how I do wish the memories of travel stayed with us a bit longer...or rather, that the travel afterglow lingered for just a bit more.

When I got back from my time in the Middle East, that specific "travel feeling" clung to me for exactly a week.  I wandered around in a dopey, happy haze.    The smells and sounds were still within grasp.  Since most of the trip was an intensive learning experience, I had much to process.  The thoughts and feelings started at the top of my head, and continued to melt down through me.

I felt so certain this trip would stay with me the longest.

And so soon it started to fade away.

Many people asked me, "When are you going to write about your trip, Elissa?  You must have such great writing material now!"

Of course I did have lots to write about--but it has taken--and may yet continue to take--some time.  Israel is not a place to remain unmoved and neutral, no matter where you stand.  There was much to filter through in the days that followed.

So far a couple of poems have come from the experience.  I may not be able to recapture that feeling in full--but writing the poems was a little like visiting again.  And until I can visit again for real, that will have to do.

Where have YOU been?  Or, where are you going?  Go.

Salty Breakfast    4/27/09

"Boker Tov!"  

I blink red-eyed at the sunny smile sitting at the breakfast buffet desk, searching for the Hebrew response to good morning.  

"Boker Or!" My mouth fumbles around the alien words.  Morning light.  My brain is gummy with jet lag and exhaustion.  I pry it open each morning for the deluge of facts and experience that comes with the day. 

Deep breath in, and enter a clinking and crunching commotion.
Blood sugar drains down my spine, leaving my brain hollow and achy.  Juice will help.  I rush to the beverage table, and drain what I suppose to be orange juice into a glass.

But what is this?  Eyes scrunched, I peer at the pallid concoction in my glass.  It is definitely not fresh squeezed.  More watered down than concentrate...yet salty-sweet.  Is it?  It is.  Tang.

Hmm.  So they like Tang in Israel.  I can live with that.  Now for the food.  

Scanning the steaming rows, I first notice what there isn't.  No bagels.  No pancakes.  No waffles.  No more thinking.  I turn off my brain and take.

After many tong fumblings and awkward "no, you first" with other travelers, I sit and stare at my plate.  I took some things that are not the norm for my breakfast.  No fear allowed.

Cottage cheese is a familiar comfort to start with.  I spoon it in.  Surprised by a thick tanginess.  I semi-successfully spoon it onto a round roll, shove it dripping into my mouth.  Laugh.  This is fun.

The buffet was fertile with salad.  Lentil, cabbage, carrot, pasta, pickled vegetables.  Crunch into the cabbage.  Peppery, brackish, and slippery.  Perfect counterpart to the chewy, soft cheese and bread concoction.

Now for the next step.  Pickled herring.  I carefully introduce it to my tongue.  And am shocked by delicious brininess, the texture firm and inviting.  I can do fish for breakfast.

Cheesed pasta--not unusual for lunch, but this is 7:30 am.  Kind of heavy.  Sip bitter and sweet Wysottsky tea, pray for it to be found at home.  Orange watermelon, yellow grapefruit, lemony avocado.  I squeeze it in, no longer hungry, but because I can.   And we do.  I look at my companions, each drowned in his or her own adventure: struggle down instant coffee, indulge in Cookie Crisps with 3% milk, suck on hard boiled egg.  Get up and get more and more and more!

I saved my obsession for last--a plateful of Kosher pickles.  Julienned, a deeper olive green.  I could cry at my favorite food being offered at all hours.  Place one in deliberately--one would think I was savoring a damn priceless truffle.   

Yes.  Nothing could have made this better.  There is no vinegar in these pickles.  Just a simple brine, which I suck out, then bite down into a crunch.  I eat one and another and another, until a lonely white plate with green tear drops stares back.  

Drunk on this salty newness, I see my friends stretching into action.  Time to go.  One last swallow of Tang for the road.

Surprise?  After all the savory salinity, the Tang kind of works.  

The day is ready for me.

Three Times to Kotel 4/30/09


The sky spits on us as we walk through the Dung Gate--an unceremonious introduction.  We are lagged and still adjusting: spine empty, brain grasps at everything handed to it.

As we approach the square, the sun does not come out.  There are no rainbows to confirm a revelation.  The sky remains a watercolor gray wash above.

But then we pass through some sort of vortex: an immediate energy change shivers through me. Our walking bodies fall into a murky slow motion.   Wall up ahead to the right, fortress to the left, ice-rink golden limestone underneath.  I look, and look, and look.

We stop, to listen and learn about this place.  But I am not for learning right now.  The wall wants me to feel it.  I stand impatiently in my body.  

And then I hear Jerusalem.

Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah. 

The Muslim call to prayer.  Haunting, alien, resonates across the square and through my organs.

Then the clanging of the Christian churches.  Familiar, slightly jarring, counterpoint to the call.

Underneath it all, the vibration of prayer and wailing at Kotel itself.  Even at this distance the exposed emotion transfers.

How is this happening?  How did I get here?  Everything comes together at the Kotel everyday.  

But for me this is once in an eternity.  Surreal, and so real....

I accept my place at this moment.  Contact will Kotel will come.  I can listen.


Evening now.  Aquamarine twilight soothes down the golden walls.  Now we can touch.

A small group of us move towards the women's side.  We approach slowly and with reverence.  I clutch a piece of white paper filled with printed prayers of friends, family, and students:
I wish people would stop fighting and have a peaceful day.
I wish my tummyache would go away.
May all beings be free of suffering.
I hope people stop throwing trash on the ground.

Will there be room for my note?  I suddenly get nervous in this position of an ambassador of prayer for so many.

There are many women praying close to the Wall.  Some are davening, but in near silence.  I feel large and awkward.  Is it ok to be doing this?  My friend smiles at me, anticipating and encouraging.  We get closer.

It takes a minute to find space.  I stick my arms against myself so not to jostle the pious.  Finally there I am, squeezed up against a stairway on the far right side.  

Before reaching out, I look up.  The Kotel is much taller than I had thought.  And this was only the outside wall of the Temple.  Imagine the real thing...

My hand reaches, makes contact with the Wall.  

Smoothness.  That is what touches me first.   Glossy, no rough edges on this surface.

I run my hand up and down it, and the magnitude of it all crashes onto me--how many hands have felt this, rendering it so polished?  Thousands and thousands.  So many tears and hands and raw emotion laid bare onto this surface.  It pulses into me.

I look to my companions, wondering at their experience.  One has her head bowed to the wall, eyes closed, deep in touch with it.  The other looks at me, her face open and smiling in recognition of the incredibleness of this moment.

Remembering my mission, I remember to breath and concentrate.  Predictably, there are no vacancies in the cracks around me.  No choice but to unceremoniously put my prayers on the ground.  The paper looks like a common piece of trash down there.  I feel shrunken and childlike, wondering if my and everyone's prayers will be heard.  

Surely God will hear them in my mind?  This is the closest you can get to God, many believe...

I creep closer.  Close eyes.  And think.  Hard.  For me.  For everyone.
Peace to Israel and all people of the world.  Health and happiness to my friends and family. Peace to friends and family no longer with us.  

My parents' prayer.  May Elissa and her group have a safe and mind expanding trip.

Four year old Brody's seemed especially relevant.  I hope that people stop fighting over the Jesus story.

Fingers continue to stroke the smoothness that has seen everything, and I feel something.  A humming, singing vibration.  My hand stops.  Right there.

I don't know where God is.  If God is.  But an energy persists here.  As if the Wall has absorbed all the emotion, fervor, longing, tears into it.  I cannot avoid it.

Or maybe God is here after all.  

I see my companions backing away, and I break contact.  

We walk backwards; slowly, slowly.  Back into the walking, talking now.  Back into comfortable, Godless reality.  We go on with our night.

Remembering that smoothness to this day.  


Friday evening.  We are deposited here once again to witness the Shabbat fervor for ourselves.

Alone I go towards the wall.  But this time is different.  There is a hushed intensity among the ever-increasing commotion in the square.  I feel more an interloper than an anticipated guest.  But I need to see this.

Woman pray quietly, sitting or standing by the wall.  The men's side, starting to swell with noise and activity, tempts me to watch.  I glue myself to the partition, peer between the metal slats.

First I smile at our three guys, let loose in the mayhem.  They have pulled up chairs right in the middle, absorbing the pious pandemonium around them.  I envy them.

I see all sorts of hats entering.  Tall black ones, circular fur ones, kippahs.  What else is there?  Long black coats, army green jackets, blue windbreakers.  Long gray beards, trimmed ones, smooth child faces.  Guns.

There is a maddening stacking and unstacking of white plastic chairs--to what end I have no idea.  Men start to gather in small groups, nodding, talking, touching.  A celebratory seriousness.

Still more come and come...where are they fitting?  They stream into every open space, eddy into the corners.  

Sometimes I focus in on one person.  An older man mouths words from the Torah in his hand, slightly rocking back and forth.  Behind him, a young man in bright blue kippah and raincoat spasmodically sways in a veritable trance.  Amazing to see, and a little frightening in its unfamiliarity.
I look back to my male trip mates, and see they have disappeared.  Maybe the thickening intensity finally got to be too much for them.  It would have for me.  I remain shielded behind the division.

Energy and voices continue to swell.  And I hear something--something I know!

David melach Yisrael,
Chai, chai, vekayam...

A song we sing with the children at Shabbat, being sung here at Kotel!  I feel a surge of connection once again to this place that was distancing from me.  I cling to the slats, pressing closer.

Now it is nearly dark, and the men's area nearly full.  Songs everywhere rise on voices, bodies rock back and forth, arms grip around backs.  Pulsing energy rides a wave of raw religion.

I shiver out of my own trance, and notice my whole group stands together in the square, minus me.  Once again I back away, slightly pushed on ripples of zeal.  

Once up and away and released, we look down on the joyful madness.  Even at a distance the voices shine on, now in full discordant harmony.  

Shabbat means day of rest, but the Wall Shabbat seems the farthest from rest.  Celebrate first--rest will come. 

The third time I was not so much a part of things--almost a voyeur--but remain thankful for having seen nonetheless.

We stroll along fortress walls, bask in the turquoise twilit calm.  The wall retreats behind me, ever and ever farther away.

Kotel is now months and miles from me.  Everyday more and more.  

I have left the wall.   I may leave it again some day.  But it will never leave me. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What is the Real Near Death Experience?

I'm not trying to be morbid or anything.  But death is something that has kind of been on the mind. I attribute it partly to strife in the world, and to the fact that in a month I will be visiting a country that is currently at war.  This is something I have never done before.  And some people in my life are understandably concerned.

But how do I feel?

Incredibly fortunate.

I feel this way because I, like many, live a sheltered life.  It will be an incredible experience to go to a place where stability is not guaranteed.  It will be incredible no matter what.

It is not like I am completely unafraid of death.  I have recently developed a fear of flying.  And what is that really is about is a fear of dying.  It is not so much  about death, but that I don't want to stop living.  I don't want to miss out on what's to come.  But what can I do about it?  Not a whole lot.

There is the possibility of danger on my trip.  There is the possibility of that anywhere.  Life is the near death experience.  And that is exactly why we should live without fear.  Try to, anyway.

Here are a couple poems about this subject.  Spread the love and not the fear.

The Worm and the Word

I search for signs of death on this afternoon walk.

Like much of San Francisco, Buena Vista park once housed the deceased.

Their bodies were quarried long ago, but the headstones remain.

Fractured into large bits, they are much more useful as pieces of the walls that line the walkways.

Scouring the damp paths, something else catches my eye--an enormous worm, trying to burrow into the wall.

He is not the diminutive garden variety, but a long, engorged night crawler--being bright daytime, he is pulling an “all nighter.”

Boring into a stone wall is a futile job.  So I grab him. 

The violent disruption of work inspires a spasmodic dance of protest in my hand.

I watch, delighted.

I glance down at his attempt at penetration.  The stones were scraggly gray granite, except one.  

Ivory marble glowed ghostly from the earth.  A fragment of gravestone.

Still holding the creature, I squat down and drag my fingers across the stone.  It is bone cold smooth, and lovely.

I have to laugh.  The cliché of it all--finding a worm, the eater of decay, digging near a gravestone!

Stroking my viscid  friend with my thumb, I see the one remaining word upon the grave--”DIED.”

My laughter folds into a thoughtful frown, as the mention of death often will do.

That is all that is left of this person?  No “Loving Husband,” “Cherished Mother,” “Beloved Brother” or “Sister?”  

No.  Just that he or she, some unknown time in the past, “DIED.”

As if to remind me of his role in all this, my companion waves his blind head in the air.

Where was the worm going? Is he finishing a job started long ago?  No doubt this annelid’s ancestors rendered the bones of ours.  Will his progeny feast upon our children’s children’s children?  

I see the word again: “DIED.”

But are the dead forever dead?

I look up at the eucalyptus tree.  That body now rests in the chloroplasts of leaves.

I feel the sun’s photonic fingers tickle.   The individual’s soul is beyond Antares. 

And all that is left to the rest of us is one word and one worm.

I look around at the cretinous mass of joggers and dog walkers and baby-pushers. 

We all brush death off, though the leaves and stars await us as well.

My clammy friend stirs, hopelessly trying to bore into the crease in my hand.

I place him in the soft dirt above the stone, with a nod of respect to him and the missing dead.

Someday, we’ll meet again.

Whispering Room

All I know about the Columbarium is that it has a "whispering room:" a perfect circular shape that allows one to whisper and be heard on the opposite side.

Sounds like a fun diversion, and I take my six year old companion Ali in a spontaneous moment.

We arrive at the stately and solemn building, my eyes glancing over the words "This is an Internment for Endowments."   Don't know what that means.  We enter.

Inside, the hushed air quiets us.  Lazy light drifts through stained glass, and we notice four orbicular levels rising above the open center.  

Look around.  We are surrounded by names.  Names on strange drawers built into the wall, and boxes, and shelves, and oh....I see where we are.  We are with the dead, with their dusty remains to this earth.

I keep fearfully still as I carefully explain to Ali.  Will he be frightened?  But no, he is calm and accepting, as children often are of these things.  Taking my cues from him, I decide it is safe to explore. 

Slowly we circumnavigate, trying to imagine these named niches as a living body.  They were once messes of flesh and water, blood and organs, disappointments and dreams.  Now they are neatly compartmentalized on a shelf.  So much simpler.

We see this "Internment" is more personal than your average graveyard.  There are letters, jewelry, toys, other possessions the deceased is allowed to "keep."  These artifacts speak of travels, interests, loved ones.

George has a stone hippo.

Kelly, a glass carousel horse.  

Otto--only 2 years old--a Hotwheels car.

Vincent--a Kit Kat!  Even the ashes of a cat are with one man.  I am astounded by the ingenuity of humans, even in death.

Outside of Richard's urn, there is a gathering of cards, teddy bears, and flowers.  I see "Happy Birthday!" and "I miss you" written on the cards.  I can't help to touch an antique metal tin among the offerings.  Now I have a connection to this man I will never know.

Ali, a boisterous little Italian, is unusually pensive and quiet.  I point out interesting items and read him names and epitaphs, and he takes it all in.  But I censor some unspeakable tragedies, like several family members who all died on the same day.  I can only picture an appalling accident.

We notice the drawers have handles on them, which leads to some questions I don't really want answered.  Can you ask to see your beloved's ashes?  Would you want to?  Do they continue to decompose until there is nothing?  Nothing to see, anyway?

Up and up we wind to the top floor, intruding our presence among the forever rested.  We decide not to try the whispering game after all.  Such a diversion would be abrasive.

There are many "Reserved" empty cases, so patiently waiting for their owner to come home.  One stands out-- a Post-it note attached to it says, "Ann--Now you never have to worry about leaving San Francisco!  --Jim."  Funny, sweet, and macabre.  I am a bit taken aback by this laugh at death.

I try to meditate on a vacant mini-lot.  How does it feel to look at your own "plot," knowing your dust will be there longer than you were on earth?

I think about it....

But all I can think is how small it is.  So small...and suddenly I am cramped and nauseous.  I tell Ali it's time to go.

Outside, we breathe the uncloistered air and take stock of our corporeal selves.  I brush myself off, as if particles of death stick to me.  But don't they always?  Living matter is formed from the dead....

Suddenly, a hawk lands so close to us!  It is viscerely alive, shocking to experience after being around the unseen fragments of former life.  The hawk should be hunting, but it just watches us.  We don't dare to move.

Ali speaks first, and finally his voice leans towards plaintive wisdom.  "Elissa," he asks.  
"Will you show me how to write my mother's name?  So I can find it when she dies?"    

Before today I may have found his question sadly strange.  But now this is serious.  

Statued under the hawk's hypnosis, I say, "Yes Ali, I will."  I will write down all the names.  Someday, every one of us will join the growing pile of dusts.  How will we begin to find the ones we love?

I have to smack myself from this terrifying trance.  

As we leave, I watch the hawk watching us.  It keeps watching us.  Watching us until we're gone.


About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."