Monday, December 16, 2013

A Year of Magic - Listening to Harry Potter with My Son

One of the things Elijah and I are looking forward to during our upcoming road trip to Denver (about 1300 miles on two lane highways) is to listen to an audio book. As we consider what to listen to we are both reminded of the magic year we had listening to Harry Potter. If you have not listened to the story told by English actor Jim Dale, you must. There is nothing like it. Here is an old essay about the experience I had with Harry Potter and my son.


Last summer, my ten-year-old son read Harry Potter. The seven book, 1,091,123 word phenomena that has swept the world. When he was done, he asked me to read it. I like to read what my son is reading. It gives the two of us opportunities to talk about books and characters. Protagonists and antagonists. Good, evil and all the gray in between. But HP was such a commitment.

Then I had a brainstorm. Instead of my reading Harry Potter, Elijah and I would listen to the audio tapes preformed by the remarkable British actor, Jim Dale. I had no idea what I was in for.

We stuck the first CD into our car stereo in October, last year, and then during almost every journey two and from school, the grocery store, anywhere, Elijah and I would listen. I was caught. Stuck. Riveted and deeply in love with the world JK Rowlings created. I laughed at her characters’ wit and charm, gasped when they faced imminent danger, wept when loved characters died, and was stunned by the beauty and terror Rowlings was able to weave into her complex and beguiling story. 

In late April, we finished the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I had to take a break. Not because I was tired or bored, but because I was not ready for the journey to end. The idea that my son and I had only one more book to listen to was just too sad. I did not want to let the story go. And more than anything, I did not want to let the characters go. So, instead of listening to book seven, I went back and listened to book one, The Sorcerer's Stone, in which Harry and his friends had not yet reached puberty and Hogworts was a bright and shining place with luminous ceilings and heavy-hitting Quidditch matches.
In June, thinking myself ready, my son and I forged forward and began listening to book seven: The Deathly Hollows. I thought I had steeled myself, yet day by day I watched with increased trepidation as Elijah put in one CD after another, leading us closer and closer to the end.

I know this is all very silly. I am talking about how hard it was for me to say goodbye to a fiction - a non-reality, a story. But it feels like so much more. It feels, in fact, almost precisely like it feels every time I open my eyes and see that my son has taken one more step into his own life, and away from mine. 

I will always remember Elijah's last year in elementary school as the year we listened to Harry Potter. Every morning we would get into our own little Hogwart’s Express and go off to school, shouting spells or debating whether Severus Snape was good or evil. (I must hand it to Elijah - he never once gave any hint of what was to come.) I will remember that Elijah turned eleven while we listened to Harry Potter, and we celebrated by driving all the way to Seattle just to see the Harry Potter exhibit. And, I will remember, always remember, Elijah reaching over to me as the final book ended, and telling me it's okay. "It's time," he said. "it's okay to be sad, but it's okay to say goodbye too."

Friday night Elijah, my husband Chuck, and I stood in line for the final Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 2. It was a long line, and it was filled with people of all ages, sizes, hair styles and dress. I did an informal survey, and almost every person I spoke with had read all seven books. Amazing in this day and age of Nintendo and TIVo and the internet and everything else that distracts us from the written word and the worlds it can take us. 

After the film, we watched the credits roll to an end. The war was over. Good had triumphed, and the characters we had grown to know as friends, had moved on with their lives without us. When all was quiet and the lights back on, I put away my handkerchief, and Elijah, Chuck and I rose from our seats and left. 
I know it's okay to say goodbye, but I don't want to. It’s silly, really. But I have never felt so in love with the places a book has taken me. Thank you JK Rowlings for the journey you have given me with my child. Thank you so very much.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Angel Dust

It was snowing when I dropped Elijah off at school today. At least it looked like snow - it was white and covered the ground and plants and streets and cars. Then I drove east a few miles, climbing to about 1500 feet, and poof - the snow was gone, as were the clouds. Below me, I could see the valley carpeted in fog.

This happens in Oregon's Willamette Valley from time to time. It's called freezing fog, and it crystalizes every speck of moisture in the air. The picture below shows that layer of fog. And the ones below that, the magic it creates.

Looking west toward the Willamette Valley from east of Silverton, Oregon
Fennel seed

Magnolia bud
Blue sky peaking through
Dawn the following morning - Silverton, Oregon

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Life of an Author's Dog

Waldo is my dog and dearest friend. He is always at my side, or close by as I sit at a desk or under a tree writing stories. He patiently waits for the moment I look up and say, let's go take these characters for a walk.

Waldo on the Metolius

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grand Canyon Inversion

On November 29th, 2013, the Grand Canyon had an unusual inversion. With warm blue skies soaring above, the canyon, at a cooler temperature, filled with fog. This time lapsed video shows the phenomena well. It was created by photographer Paul Lettieri. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Remember To Live - Naseem at TedX

Here is the talk I recently gave at Ted X. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. I think Brian and Linnea Kenny for allowing me to share a small part of their daughter, Kaitlin's, story. I think the National Park Service for giving me the present of a one month stay at the Grand Canyon as their Artist in Residence.

-Naseem Rakha 11/22/13

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gun Threat at School - What Would You Do?

We got the call at 9:15 last night. It was a recording from the principal of my son's middle school. "Excuse the lateness of this call, but I think it's important you know that yesterday after school one student reported hearing another talk about bringing a gun in tomorrow."

The principal wanted us to prepare our children to see police at the school. She wanted us to believe she and her staff would do everything they could to keep our son's and daughter's safe.

Mark Twain School, Silverton, Oregon
I considered not waking my son this morning. Let him sleep in, I thought. He hadn't been feeling that well anyway. Let him have the day off. But I didn't do that. Instead, I woke him, we talked about breakfast, lunch, after school plans. I asked him if he knew anything about a gun threat. He didn't. I told him about the call and what to expect at school. He nodded, and said he'd be careful. It occured to me to ask him how he would be careful. Do you know to duck and hide under a desk? Do you even know what a gun popping off in another room sounds like? But I didn't ask him these things. No. I simply got my keys and drove him to school. There were police cars in the parking lot. Officers at the entrance door, too. News crews stood outside with cameras.

I told my son I love him, and he got out of the car and told me he loves me, too. And then he shut the door and walked away and I drove off thinking this is just so damn screwed up. What kind of mother would just drop her child off at a place where someone has threatened to bring a gun?

This kind, I guess. Me. Maybe it's denial. The refusal to believe the worst could happen. Maybe it's faith that good people prevail and that the principal is smart and savvy and was taking all the necessary precautions.

But damn, I dropped my thirteen-year-old son off at school this morning. And damn, guns are showing up everywhere and kids are using them against one another. And damn, this is screwed up. Screwed, screwed, screwed, screwed up.

Where have we done wrong?

The hapless children, the hungry children, the angry children, the drugged up children, the worried, stressed out, "what kind of future do we have, anyway?" children. We are failing. It is as simple as that. A gun in the hand of a child is a failure of a culture, not just a parent.

I dropped my son off at school today because I don't want this culture to fail. This world is sharp with edges and ignoring them won't make them go away.

I dropped my son off at school today. That was two hours ago. School lets out at three.

-Naseem Rakha
November 21, 2013 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cats and Cookies - Why to Buy at Indie Bookstores

You are going to buy books for the holidays, right? Lots of books—hard bound, paper back, but books you can actually close with a thump, write on, take into the tub. Books which can prop open doors, or simply be stacked into avant garde furniture. Coffee tables made out of books. Bed stands. Platforms.

Well, when you go to make your purchase—promise to buy from an indie bookstore.

If you promise to do this one simple thing, I promise you will have a much better shopping experience. It's so much better to browse real shelves, made of wood or crates. There is a randomness to it, a spontaneous tickle of delight that's generated each time you find something you didn't even know existed, and there it is in your hand.....

Oh, the joy. So much better than clicking buttons on a computer, I promise. And not just that, at an indie bookstore you can find like-minded people, have actual face-to-face conversations, and maybe even a cup of tea or coffee and a cookie. Yes, a cookie! Indie bookstores are known for having cookies and even—get this—cats. All over the world - bookstores with cats in the windows, lazing on shelves, or under chairs. There are no cats on the internet.

Strike that.

There are a gazillion cats on the internet, but none can actually sit in your lap and purr like a purrrrrfect indie bookstore cat can, and will. Often. If you are good and come in and buy a book they will come and sit in your lap. And if you are allergic? Well for you, there are bookstore dogs! How great is that?

So promise. I dare you. Buy from an indie bookstore this holiday. Heck, buy from them all year long. Make the store owners and their staff feel their time stocking shelves, and reading books and writing reviews, and hosting authors and book clubs and story hour is all worth it.  Walk in, let them point you in the right direction, watch them smile with real honest-to-god lips.

Here is a link to Indie Bounds bookstore finder. Put in your zip code and you are off for a magic adventure into the real world of books and tea and cookies and cats.

Also, here is an article about 45 great indie book stores. But there are so many more. Wonderful places that are just waiting for you to visit.

What are your favorite bookstores?

-Naseem Rakha 11/9/13

Monday, November 4, 2013

Three Gifts

Today, on the Daily Challenge, I was asked to list three important gifts I have received from friends or family that have helped shape me. It was a good exercise.

So tell me, what three gifts have you received that have helped shape you?

Here are mine:

I have received the gift of time. My husband, son and father each allow me to get away from them and everyone else to write, or go backpacking, or live for a while in sacred spaces like the Grand Canyon. They understand that solitude and the wild are not just my fuel, but bring me quickly to the place I need to go to remember to be in the present. To walk with my fears and be at peace with who I am. 

I have received the gift of freedom from my father. An Indian man who was brought up in a very strict and patriarchal Muslim family. My father came to the US in 1951, and then defied his family and married an American. I was raised knowing I had to believe in myself and my dreams, and to always strive for independence, to never be shaped by peer-pressure or fad, and most of all to never be dependent on a anyone else for my welfare. 

I have received the gift of appreciation. Brought up in a multi-racial home in a multi-cultural housing development in the 1960's, I had friends whose backgrounds came from all around the world. Nobody was rich, but we had each other and I never did understand or accept the false notion that one group of people were better than another. All of my friends, whether Caucasian, Black,  Hispanic, Russian, Native American or Asian had their talents and I was privileged to learn from each. I was also taught to appreciate beauty. I was raised on a diet of music and art and culture. Classical music always played on the radio, I had ballet lessons, art and piano. I remember my father waking me at dawn to listen to the birds, my mother taking me out in autumn to collect leaves and press them between the pages of a book. 

I was raised with my senses alert and my mind wide open. 

Thank you.

Naseem Rakha, 11/4/13

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Revenge Business

I have been in the Forgiveness Business for quite some time now. In my world view, instead of governments encouraging victims of crime to seek retribution, they would provide the resources needed to find reconciliation and wholeness. Perpetrators would not be thrown into cells with little hope of emerging sane or remorseful. And human beings of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, backgrounds, beliefs and tattoo styles would search for and honor our similarities, before casting dispersions on our differences.

Who said it best? Inigo Montoya, that's who. The man who spent his life seeking revenge on the man who killed his father. "My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." There in the Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies, and a great book, too) is a profound lesson about forgiveness.

Here is what Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played Inigo, has to say about the revenge business:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Life is Beautiful

I am preparing for my talk at Ted X Bellingham entitled, "Remember to Live." It is drawn from words Kaitlin Kenny had written in her river journal through the Grand Canyon. The phrase, on its face, may seem sad given that Kaitlin died on that trip. But there is also another way to look at Kaitlin's words. Life is beautiful, no matter what we bear, or how long we bear that life for. Remember that, and remember to live.

This short piece, featuring the oldest holocaust survivor, captures that message. It was created by the group Everyone Matters.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Canyon is Opening (UPDATE)

Grand Canyon overlooking Indian Garden at Bright Angel Trail 10/10/13

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer just announced she has reached a deal with the Federal Government, and Grand Canyon National Park will reopen tomorrow. As part of the agreement, the state of Arizona will pay $651,000 to cover the costs of keeping the canyon open for one week. Fingers are crossed that the Federal shutdown will actually end within the next 48 hours. In that case, the bill will be less. Utah is also opening its parks.

There are many questions, though. For example:
What time tomorrow will the gates be unlocked and visitors allowed to pass through? (They opened the gates early - maybe 7 am.)
Will all hotels, restaurants, paths, and waysides be open? (Everything is open)
Will the Colorado river be open to river runners? (yes)
Will past permits be honored, and how? (Not sure yet.)
Will all staff be back at work? (Seems so)

So far, I have heard no answers to these questions.

In the mean time, I am feeling very lucky to have had the experience of being inside the wall. I have met so many good people, had so many interesting conversations. I was busy preparing an article about it for the Guardian, but I am scrapping that now. The canyon is opening, so soon its closure will be old news.

Mather Point, last night of closure. 10/11/13
Still, I will always remember tonight's walk. I went to Mather Point—probably one of the most popular places on the South Rim. It is rarely without visitors. Even in February, when it was -13 degrees out,  there were people standing on that point of rock pointing and gapping at all they could see. But tonight there was no one, and the sun was setting and the evening was absolutely silent.  Intensely silent. So silent I could feel it press itself against my skin, cup my ears. And I thought to myself, I will never be back here. Not like this. This, right now, is a singular moment, and I am honored to have been a witness. Very, very honored.

- Naseem Rakha, October 11, 2013 

Day 11 Government Shutdown - 60,000 Pounds of Food Brought to the Grand Canyon

At noon today, Oct 11, 2013, the Eleventh day of the Government Shutdown, St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance out of Phoenix, AZ delivered 60,000 pounds of food to the residents of Grand Canyon National Park. Because of the Government Shutdown, almost 98 percent of the community is unemployed. 

What people have asked me to tell you is that they want to work. Many of the employees here at the Grand Canyon have been here for decades. This is their home. Many of these same employees live paycheck to paycheck, earning just above Arizona's minimum wage of $7.80 an hour. They have no transportation to leave the Grand Canyon, and no money for gas if they did. They just want to work. 

What people have asked me to tell you is that they will survive, but it is hard. Many people live in dorms, and have no access to a kitchen. Winter is on its way, and there is no money for heat. Many people have children. Grand Canyon is the only National Park that has a preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school. Three hundred twenty-eight students in all.

What people have asked me to tell you is that they are a community, and though they are helping one another, they are suffering. Some talked of depression. Drinking. Staying in bed all day. They don't know what to do. Where to go. How to get there.

"We want to go back to work," they said. "We just want to work."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

First Snow - Grand Canyon, 2013

First Snow, Grand Canyon - 10/10/13 - 10th day of Government Shutdown 
Woke to snow. 
Three, maybe four inches.
I dress. Go out.
And a coyote walks across my path
And an elk brushes his rack against a tree
And a rabbit skitters under a bush.

I stop and look at its tracks.
Move on.
At the rim a raven lands on a ledge. Snaps its beak. Caws.
Then jumps from its perch and glides into the canyon,
Disappearing into blue-cold clouds. 
Just the sound of his call

Naseem Rakha October 10, 2013
Naseem is visiting friends and teaching at the Grand Canyon during the Government Shutdown

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In Grand Canyon National Park, Shutdown Day 9

Grand Canyon Shutdown Day 9 - no one at Mather Point
Inside Grand Canyon National Park the wind is blowing. It whips through trees, rattles leaves, blows grit across the paths. Empty paths. Empty silent paths, except for the moan of the wind and the caw of an occasional raven. The chatter of a squirrel.

No one at the bus stops
I sit on a rock at Mather Point when the squirrel approaches. He's wary at first, then bold. Very bold, climbing up my leg and checking out my pockets. But there is nothing in my pockets. "I'm sorry," I say. He sits back on my leg and stares at me, head tilted to the side. He looks puzzled. Not just about my empty pockets—why have pockets if not to stuff them with trail mix? This squirrel wants to know where all the pocketed-people are."Tell me," his little brown eyes ask. "Where did they go?"

Mather Point is usually bustling with people. They come from all over the world. Busloads of them. Each wanting their photo taken beside the great grand abyss.

I try explaining. "Congress," I say to the squirrel. A showdown that led to a shutdown. Fools. Damn fools. Positioning and posturing. Yesterday, I tell him, I watched one of those Jimmy Kimmel routines (see below.) He's a comedian. He asked people which they favor: Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. The ACA, dubbed Obamacare by the right, came out way ahead. "Obamacare? That's just socialism," one person said. 

No one parked at Grand Canyon Village
Yeah, well so is the farm bill. I told this squirrel. And corporate tax loop holes. And mortgage deductions. And the public library, not to mention each and every fire department. Big fricking deal. We live in a society, and whether the bible-thumping teapot-toting air heads like it or not, we are our brothers keepers. And so yes, Obamacare was passed into law, and yes it is helping insure people who were uninsured, and yes that helps the country. Yes. Yes and yes.

But no. I told he squirrel. Don't expect to see the crowds back for a while. Egos rule. In the mean time, the country holds its breath.

The squirrel seems to get my drift. No trail mix. Not now, probably not for quite a while. He gives me a wistful look, then takes off, down my leg and across the rocks to sit on the rim of the canyon, and just stare out at the empty space that lies between the rock walls.

Empty space. That's what the Tea Party offers this country. Nothing but empty space, empty words, empty promises. Empty paths leading through empty, windswept parks.

No one on the path in front of Bright Angel Lodge.

-Naseem Rakha 10-9-2013
At the Grand Canyon during closure, visiting with friends and gathering stories

Grand Canyon Closure Day 8

I arrived at the South Gate of Grand Canyon just as a protest began. Business owners and employees from the town of Tusayan, park concession staff, and tourists gathered at the gate to hear why park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga is not able to re-open the park.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Heading Back to the Canyon - Closed or Not

On the eve of my return to the southwest, I want to share this film with you. It is in honor of several things. First - the Grand Canyon - that magic place that takes up a huge part of my heart and life. Second - Kaitlin Kenney - the beautiful young woman who lost her life in the canyon in January this year. I have learned a great deal about life and beauty and hope and faith through her life, and I thank her and her family for that. And finally, this is for all those thousands of people who had planned to see the Grand Canyon, but can not because of the government shutdown. I am right there with you. The trip I planned is not likely to be the trip I will have, but I am open to what comes.

For the Grand Canyon. For Kaitlin. For you.

The Soul's Journey, a Film By Naseem Rakha

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spitting Mad


I was standing on the bank of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon when I saw a huge raft approaching. Bigger than any raft I had ever seen. It was bright white and the water was red. On it, stiff as pillers, were about one hundred men. All of them dressed in suits and all of them mouthing something. The sound of the water drowned out their words until they got closer and I could hear that they were actually chanting, 

"WE DO NOT LIKE GREEN EGGS AND HAM. WE DO NOT LIKE THEM UNCLE SAM!"  Over and over they said this. Like something out of Monty Python. 

Then I noticed they were approaching Crystal Rapid. Crystal is a killer rapid. Monster water, with a monster hole that has swallowed its fair share of rafts and rafters. But there was no way that raft, so big and full, would be able to get into the rapid, let alone through it. But then, cartoon like, the raft narrowed and entered the rapid and glided straight toward the hole. 

I shouted and pointed, but the men were oblivious and soon the entire raft and its suited cargo was gone—the only thing remaining—red, white and blue lapel pins flying out from the hole and landing on shore like fish scales.

I began to run down river. One by one, I pulled the pallid men from the water. They were cold. Shivering. And they were pissed. 

"This is why we should get rid of the parks!" one said. "Sell them!" said another. "Close them." "Drain them!" And at that, Moses-like, the river emptied. Roaring water flushed away. Fish flapped on dirt covered rocks. 

"No!" I screamed. And then, not having anything better to do, I spat at the men. And then I did it again and again, and soon there were a whole bunch of people standing next to me and we were all raging and spitting. And before long the river filled with our saliva—clean and clear with purpose and direction—washing the men away.

  • 401 parks were closed today because of the Government Showdown over the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare)
  • National Parks typically receive 750,000 visitors per day in October.
  • 22,000 National Park Service employees have been furloughed.
  • Over 7,000 private concession staff have been furloughed. 
  • All current visitors to the parks have 48 hours to find alternative lodging.
  • No river, climbing, backpacking, lodging, or camping permits will be honored. 
  • Overall it is estimated the shutdown will cost local businesses near the country's 401 parks over 30 million dollars a day in lost revenue.

This is what happens when voters elect government haters into office. Things bog down then, shut down. The airwaves fill with passion and pundits and prodigious speeches filled with kitsch and clamor.  But progress, real progress, policies which educate and feed and build and create, they are scrapped for ego and ideology. And in the mean time, parks close, and people don't get paid, and stores lose customers, and an economy - getting some breath of life this last year—gets strangled once again. 

This is what happens when we sell our vote to the highest bidder. Or believe the lie that a nation can be great without government services. This is what happens when idiots reign. 

It's time to get mad. It's time to get spitting mad. It's time to crash the Tea Party and its Koch addiction, and send them all down river. 

And now, for the book we all need to read: 

-Naseem Rakha, October 1, 2013

Friday, August 9, 2013

Who Wants to Join Me?

I am putting together a river trip down the Grand Canyon for late summer 2014 or spring 2015.

It is open to women artists and naturalists - both defined widely.

Grand Canyon - August, 2012, photo by Michael Miles
Basically I am looking for women who reach deep into their lives, challenging themselves to grow more compassionate and whole. Women who would find solace in a break from the rim-world, and love the buzz that comes from self expression and autonomy.

Bold. Honest women who don't mind big waves, sandy clothes, heat and cold and everything in between. I hope to put together the crew that I was with in 2012. (See Carl Sagen and Joseph Campbell meet Mandela in the Canyon).

Think breathtaking scenery, awe inspiring geology, mind bending conversations, and moments so grounding it will change your perspective of the world.

If you think you are up for this, email me with your name, reason for wanting to go, and mailing address.  I will have info sent your way.

Expect the trip of a lifetime. Also, expect to pay a few grand. The price is not yet set.

For a taste of the adventure - watch Mandela take on Lava Falls during our river trip in 2012.

-Naseem Rakha 8/9/13

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Chautauqua Home

If I could bring back one thing from Chautauqua
it would be my neighbors
It is so nice to be someplace where people invite you onto their porch,
take an interest in your day,
the community, the world.

Where people keep a close eye on the children,
know them by name,
mark their growth with pictures and notches on posts

So nice to live where people don't walk around with their fingers all pointed

their noses all bent
their eyes all scrunched into worried little sores.

Brittle people
with nothing better to do then
then shine their own buttons.

If I could bring back one thing from Chautauqua it would be my neighbors
and their soft swooping arms
ready to catch, and then, no matter how hard
release us into our lives.
No judgement.
No scorn.

The place we stay on Waugh Street - The Assembly Building 1887

Friday, July 26, 2013

Run Woman Run

1967 - Kathrine Switzer of Syracuse found herself being physically attacked and told to "get the hell out of my race," by Boston Marathon Race Director Jack Semple.
I run.
I jog a nice easy 10 minute mile (if I am lucky).
Point is. I get up, get on my shoes, my jogging bra (which I hate,) my shorts, or pants, or whatever, and I hit the streets.

Just today I was running. It's a short route around the Chautauqua grounds. 30 minutes max. But there are hills, and it gets my heart going. Nothing for a Tarahumara Indian, but I'm no Tarahumara Indian. (Check out Born To Run by Christopher McDougall.)

I am Naseem. Born in Chicago, raised 22 storys above the ground to parents who never ran, or coached teams, or watched sports (except for ABC's Wide World of Sports - "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat....") I was an unathletic, "drink of water" that was always chosen last to be on any team. Let's see, Naseem or the kid on crutches. Naseem or the kid on crutches....

But then in college I started to run. I don't remember motivated me, But I soon discovered that though I may not be fast, I was at least steadfast. And more than that, I found that my lumberous jogs around towns, through forests, around lakes, made me feel pretty damn good.

It's all that dopamine and endorphins and stuff. Happy drugs snapping my synapsis to action.

The point is, I run, and today, after my run, I stopped at the amphitheater where, Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS was speaking. I stood there, all sweat covered and hyped up on endorphins and listened to her talk about PBS and community, and then she starts in about the history of the women's movement in the United States and up goes a three minute film about the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, and suddenly it was not just sweat wetting my face.

I shouldn't, but do forget sometimes that women have had to fight for every scrap of power, recognition, and rights that they have today: to drive, to vote, to work outside the home, to divorce, to marry whom we want, to not marry, to go to school, to enter the profession that we choose, to have an abortion, to run in a marathon.

Thank you Kathrine Switzer.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"The Pursuit of Happiness"

Late June.
The Pacific Crest Trail still with fog.
Quiet as sleep.
The charcoal and silver skeletons of an ancient forest reach into a woolen sky.
I rise before dawn.
Watch the sky lighten, the path lengthen, the dark spires of stone and bone take shape and form.

During this Chautauqua Institute week on "the pursuit of happiness," people spoke of the foundational requirements for a happy life.
Love, family, community involvement, physical well being, tradition, belonging, balance, meditation, prayer, learning, awareness....
But no one mentioned the trees.
The soil.
Catapulted arrays of lighting cleaving the night sky.
No one talked about the susurration of the forest. The melodies of the wrens. The brackish suck of delta mud.
To stand on the edge of a canyon. To spirit down a river. To lay ones aching body against a sun warmed stone, and melt into the space beyond existence.
No one talked about that deep connection we have to the earth, and how it is our first mother.
Born of it. Return to it.
Molecules reclaimed by planets and stars.
But I think of it.
And know it to be true.
Happiness rides on the tides.
Settles in the sand.
Seeps with the springs and slithers with the snakes.
Yes, even the snakes make me happy.

Late June.
The Pacific Crest Trail still with fog.
Quiet as sleep.
The charcoal and silver skeletons of an ancient forest reach into a woolen sky.
Reflect in the flat gray slate of a mountain lake. 

-Naseem Rakha 7/25/13
more PCT photos at Naseem Rakha's photos - Fire and Fog

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Last Words

The last words my mother ever said to me were, "Peer Gynt Suite. It's the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg."

Beverly Francis Rakha, right before my birth - 1959
I was in my parents’ car, my father driving home, my mother beside him, my four-year-old son and I in the back seat. It was rush hour, and it was a Chicago summer. Hot. Humid. Miserable. That was Mom's word—miserable. She often used it to describe how she felt. And in the car on that day she was suddenly feeling "miserable." Which meant, to me, only one thing: we would not stop at the Walgreens to pick up some things I hoped to get for my trip back home to Oregon. Instead, we would go straight back to my parent's house and Elijah would have to do without trail mix or crayons on the long flight west. I sighed.

I was not patient with my mom's miserableness. Not kind or sympathetic. My mom had been suffering with one ailment after another since I was twelve. Back then it was phlebitis, a potentially fatal blood clot was found buried in her lungs. I had come home from school to find no one home. A while later my dad called. "You have to be in charge," he told me. Which meant feeding my younger sister and brother, keeping the house clean, the clothes washed and folded and put away. It also meant explaining that Mom would be okay. She will be okay. Right Dad? Dad didn't know. 

Mom did get okay. For a little while, at least. But then came the clots in her legs, then the ulcer that ended up eating up most her stomach, then the back problems which left her in the hospital for weeks on end in traction and on morphine. "The planes are flying so close to the window I can see the passengers. They have ashes on their face. Each one covered in ash." And then there were the falls, the anemia, and finally—the diabetes. 

"Do you have your pills with you?" I asked. She didn't. "You're suppose to carry them with you." Chastising. Frustrated. Mean. Everything revolved around Mom and her health. Dad at her side. Retired from work, his new job was Mom. Blood sugar tests two, three times a day. Monitoring diet, monitoring blood pressure. Keeping records, logs. He had been an engineer. His new occupation kind of made sense. 

I turned my attention back to my son. We were reading the book “Ferdinand the Bull.” It was a gift from my mom. Ferdinand is recruited to fight in the bull ring, an honor by all bull standards. But Ferdinand is not interested. He would rather spend his day out in the fields smelling the flowers. It's a predictable gift from a woman who was always pointing out the flowers, the sculptures, the clouds, the music. Born in Chicago to Catholic German immigrants, tailors with little education, she rejected a line of parent-approved suitors to marry a Muslim man from India. Her parents did not approve. Neither did his. They married in a court house, no parents in attendance. Within a year I was born and by the time I was five I was in ballet class. Seven, piano. Every month we went to the orchestra. When the Bolshoi came to town, we went, never mind if we really couldn't afford it. 

I looked up from the book about the nonconformist bull. Something familiar was playing on the radio. As a child I would dance to it, scarves tied around my waste. Swirling color with me in the middle.

"What's that playing?" I asked.

I watched my mother take a breath. "Peer Gynt Suite. It's the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg."

She sounded tired. Exhausted. The long car ride. The traffic. The heat. 

By the time we pulled into the driveway, my mom could barely get out of the car. "Low blood sugar," I said, and Dad told me to go find the pills. "The pills" were sugar pills. Super-sized Smarties that can jolt a diabetic back to life. We got her in the house. Put one in her mouth. Waited. 

A few minutes later dad got her a glass of orange juice, another fast acting sugar fix. He held it for her as she drank. "I'm fine," she said to my dad. But she didn't sound fine. She sounded like a drunk. She tried to get up, couldn't. She pointed to the bathroom, and Dad took her there. A few minutes later he called for help. I stepped into the bathroom to find my father trying to hold my mother up. She had fallen off the toilet, her pants at her ankles. We lifted her up, I pulled up her pants. It was all happening fast. Too fast for me to understand that this was beyond low sugar. Too fast for me to think anything but “this isn't good.”

I had never seen Mom in a full blown diabetic attack. "Is this what happens?" I asked my dad. "Is this normal? Should we call her doctor?" He looked frightened. We laid her on the couch. My son stook at his Grandma's side. 

Elijah is her only grandchild. She had been looking forward to our summer visit like a kid in a  countdown to Christmas. "Only one more month...Just two more weeks...Just five more days..." "Grandma?" Elijah said. "You better now, Grandma? No more miserable?" She smiled at her grandson, and that's when my father and I knew. 

Not low blood sugar. At least not just low blood sugar. 

Dad grabbed the phone. Ten minutes later, paramedics put Mom on a stretcher then rolled her into the ambulance. My son and I got back in my parents' the car, followed behind the fire truck, which was followed behind the ambulance, which had my mother and father. My father sitting beside her, I was sure. My father was always beside my mother. 

It was a hemorrhagic stroke, a catastrophic explosion deep in my mom's brain. If we had got her to the hospital sooner, turned around in the driveway perhaps. Better yet, had we raced to a hospital as soon as she said she didn't feel well. Paid attention. Had we listened. Asked questions....

"The bleed is massive," the doctor pointed to a scan. He laid out our options. Put in a drain, try to get out the blood. Or—do nothing. The drain may help, but it won't make my mom better. "Too much damage for that." Doing nothing would mean she would die, "in two or three days." 

My sister arrived. My brother. Both of them driving halfway across the country in eighteen hours. Mom is in the hospital's hospice. Private room, big windows, quiet, plenty of space for the family to sit around the bed. Dab her lips, talk to her. See if there is any response. Anything at all. 

Dad sends one of us home for her Walkman. We put in a cassette. Music plays. We tell each other we've made the right decision. Survival would not be what Mom would want, we say. Not if she couldn't move. Not if she couldn't feed herself, or bathe. Not if she couldn't tell us what piece of music was playing. 

I think of this now as I sit on my porch in Chautauqua and listen to the Orchestra practice for this evening's performance of the Peer Gynt Suite. I didn't recognize it at first. But then the memory came. Not the one in the car, but the one in the living room, me dressed in my mom's scarves. My mom and dad came to Chautauqua with me once. They loved it. The music. The dance, the lectures about all the things they cared about. Society, culture, science, fairness, hope. 

My dad moved to Portland shortly after my mom died. He is eighty-four years old now. During the day, when he is not watching the news, he is listening to KBPS, Portland's “All Classical” station. He listens to one piece after another, always waiting for Mom to tell him what is playing. "I wait and I wait," he says, "but she never comes."

Naseem Rakha 7/24/13

Coda: My dear friend Joe just sent me this link to the Peer Gynt Suite. My mom would have loved to have been on this train.