Angels in the strangest places


My angel, Alejandro. (P.S. Dalai Lama says: No Refunds)

I’m not the first person to discover how close angels hover when we’re in trouble. If I knew any scripture I’d toss something angelic out, but, being brought up Unitarian, I can usually only muster a round of “We Shall Overcome” when things get bad.

I considered J. to be an angel. Even Mumbles. Strangers who saw my vulnerability and were moved by it–and tried in their ways to help me. You can’t ask for much more than that. This is where the street becomes a very clear teacher, where it’s easy to be humbled quickly–in beautiful ways as well as pained ones.

I can’t remember the rest of the day after I saw Sean. I think I must have gone back to my rooms and made some desperate calls. I seem to recall phoning my ex-husband–the good one, not my son’s father–and crying to him. I eventually made my way back on the street, heading down to Shattuck. I figured Sean had given me the big slip and maybe headed up into the Berkeley Hills.

I don’t know why I decided to stop in the Tibetan shop, maybe the smell of incense. Inside, a man was drumming on a glass counter as tabla drum music played on the stereo. He  asked me if I needed any help. I gave him a weak smile and said, “What I need help with you can’t give me.”

He shot me a big smile and said, “Everything will be all right.” He was Hispanic and had a big mustache and merry eyes. He stopped his drumming and began picking up items to present to me. “A bracelet?” he asked. “No, no, really, I’m just looking,” I said.

“Do you like incense?” he waved his hand across a large table with dozens of boxes. “Well, yes,” I ventured. “Try this,” he said, thrusting a box of Frankincense at me. It did smell good and I had a sudden flash of Sean and me driving in the car with nag champa burning in the ash tray and Portishead on the stereo. I picked up a few cheap boxes and headed for the back of the store, where I spotted some luscious Tibetan blankets made out of lama wool.

They were cheap–$25–so I found a soft soft brown and cream plaid and added that to my cache. Then the storekeeper lured me toward a bowl of smoothed stones. “Pick one,” he said. That overwhelmed me somehow, the concept of choice. “You pick one for me,” I countered. He reached in and found a soft rose quartz. “This is good for you,” he said. “It is healing, has good energy, right?”

I held it in my palm, rubbing a dubious thumb over it. This guy was so sweet, I was starting to worry about disappointing him. He took it out of my hand. “We need to clear the energy though,” he said. “When people touch some of their energy stays in the stone.”

I looked a little confused and he handed it back to me, reaching across the counter to pull out a Tibetan singing bowl. “I’ll clear the energy. I show you. Put the stone in the bowl then put your hands underneath.” He pantomimed hands cupping hands. I did as he said, and he rested the bowl on my hands, holding my hands underneath with one of his own. With the other he began thrumming the outer edge of the bowl with a wooden pestle.

“Close your eyes. Relax,” he commanded. (By now I was going to have to go along with the gag whether I liked it or not.)

I closed my eyes as he stirred the bowl. It hummed and vibrated in my hands, traveling all the way up my arms to my skull. My brain hummed. My nose itched but I didn’t dare scratch. Slowly though, I softened a bit. The humming got louder and deeper; I felt its waves. And the space it made between me and my sorrow.

Once I peeked and he was looking around the store and nodded to a customer entering. Still, he kept his humming. And I couldn’t help smiling–half embarrassed, half something else. Something sweet and unexpected. He bonged the edges of the bowl like a bell. Once, twice, three times.

I opened my eyes. He was smiling at me. “Yes?” he said. “Relaxed?” He put the bowl down.

“Yeah, that was really sweet of you.” I was embarrassed now to find my hands still in his. I took them back and fumbled with my wallet.

“You want the bowl?” he said.

“No, no no,” I said. “But thank you.”

“Okay. Come back anytime. The bowl is here.”

And I did. Every damn day I was in that wretched place, I stopped by the Tibetan store and my angel–Alejandro–put my hands in his and sang the bowl.


The texture of pain

cement wallDespite the jumble of contradictory Sean sightings by the redwood encampment in People’s Park, I felt sure he had been there last night. I thought about how I had slept just blocks from him, my radar already casting its beams as I slumbered. And how he rested unknowingly nearby.

I wandered a few blocks down to Telegraph Ave., where an assortment of young street people were forming a gauntlet at sidewalk’s edge. Many had dogs sporting bandanas. A few had cloths spread on the sidewalk with odd wares: small rock and minerals samples, glass pipes, trinkets. I looked for Sean among them, hopeful in a way that he was part of this anarchist collective and not the crackheads in the park.

I stopped in front of a sweet-looking bearded man who was selling rock samples to show him my pictures of Sean. He recognized him immediately and said he passed this way daily, usually in the afternoon. And that he usually wore a straw hat, a kind of cowboy affair. I tried to imagine Sean in such a getup–he always hated hats, and cowboys for that matter. “If you just hang around here you’ll probably see him,” he said.

I pounded him with questions: How did he seem? Did he have friends? Was he okay? The young man–whose name I later learned was J.–was thoughtful in responding. “He’s a bit of a loner,” he said. “He seems a little spaced out. Sometimes he talks to himself.” My heart sank.

I was too buzzed to linger, so set off to see if I could find Sean in the streets. I stopped a vendor who was hawking a homeless newspaper. I bought one and showed him a photo of Sean. “Yeah, I just saw him at McDonald’s. He was with a girl. I think they do a bit of weed.” I asked for directions and sped off, my eyes combing the sidewalks and park benches hungrily.

As I walked past the university, I thought of my parents–who went to school there and actually met and started dating shortly after the war. Surely they had walked this sidewalk together in the ’40s, although I can’t imagine it was then full of castaways, mutterers in flip-flops, drunks sleeping it off on the sidewalk. Never in a lifetime could they have imagined their first grandchild would be among them.

I looked in vain at McDonalds, cruised Shattuck Ave.–the major commercial drag that connects Berkeley and Oakland. He was nowhere. So I circled back to Telegraph and delivered a couple of slices of banana bread I had bought for J. I chatted him up about his life on the streets and looked at some of his rocks, when he suddenly pointed and said, “Look, here he comes.”

I scanned the crowd in search of Sean and saw no one I recognized. And then I noticed him: Tall, bearded, ambling in a daze at the far end of the sidewalk. It was Sean. We looked at each other and I could feel his surprise registering slowly, grainily.

I gave him a smile, raising my hand like a TV Indian saying “How.” I walked slowly to meet him. “Hey, hi, it’s me,” I said. “You’re probably surprised to see me.” He said nothing. He looked at me coldly and his eyes were very red. “I hadn’t heard from you in a while and I missed you,” I said gently.

“Get away from me. I don’t want to talk to you,” he said and brushed past me.

Not time even to register effrontery. I caught up behind him, walking one step behind like an old-time Japanese wife. I said nothing for a moment, then began again: “I know this must be surprising, honey,” I said. “I just wanted to see you. I love you, sweetheart.” He ignored me completely, though I could feel his alertness.

He suddenly stopped short and looked me directly in the eyes. “You are harassing me,” he said evenly, “and if you don’t stop I will call the police.” He turned a corner and was gone.

This stopped me dead in my tracks. I heard a sound I’d heard before, a kind of animal noise, a howling. And then I remembered: It was a sound I’d heard during my long labor with Sean, like a wolf somewhere. It was me. Only I was so submerged in pain that I wasn’t connected to self anymore.

I howled and turned my body into the building I stood before. I could feel my forehead and fingers scratching against the roughness of the concrete. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

J. came up and touched my shoulder. “Oh man,” he said, “that’s so rough.”

“Go after him,” I pleaded.

J. took off around the corner and I covered my face with my hands and cried some more, leaning against the building for support. These were tears you had to stop for and I remember wondering what people passing by were thinking, and if this were maybe commonplace amid such misery.

He jogged back around the corner and said, “I’m sorry. He gave me the same. I tried to talk to him but he was very hostile.” I fell into J. and he wrapped his arms around me while I cried. “Oh God oh God oh God.”

A second start, retrospectively

Sophocles wisely wrote of introspection in Oedipus Rex: “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.” That very feeling  often has prevented me from writing about the deepest material of my life. But this time I choose to override those fears and get the story down, even though, I warn you in advance, there is much suffering in it.

Before I left for California, I attended a small dinner party. There was a man there who learned of my upcoming quest to find my missing son and he made a galling remark that sent me popping up from table and wishing my hosts a goodnight. After a lull in the wine-soaked conversation he looked at me and said, “And what exactly do you hope to accomplish by going to California?” “Find my son,” I said cooly, and left.

Several men expressed this dubiousness about my purpose and the suggestion that what I would find could not end well. Women merely told me I was brave. Certainly, I preferred to take the feminine principle with me into the battle for my son, but in the fairness of retrospect I cede that both viewpoints were true.

I found an Airbnb spot just off Telegraph Ave., which I knew from police reports–and even my son’s earlier phone calls–was now a sort of panhandler’s alley. I started off with my photos of Sean and a blank notebook for writing down clues. I wasn’t sure of my directions, and as I passed a small park I looked around for someone to ask. There was only a scruffy bum on a park bench and, habitually, I passed him by in search of someone more presentable. And then I stopped myself. This is exactly who you speak with. I was aware in that moment of a shift of consciousness. Street people were now my allies, advisors, keepers of precious information. My eyes on the street.

I approached the man and showed him the pictures of my son. He looked at them carefully: one taken in Washington, D.C., several years ago, my son’s beautiful blue eyes and chiseled face against the distant confection of the Capitol. “No, no, I don’t know him,” he said. And then he took a closer look at a more recent photo–one of Sean and I in the Castro taken earlier this summer. “Well, it could be,” he said. “Looks like a schizophrenic guy who sleeps under a blue blanket in People’s Park.”

I knew this couldn’t be Sean, but I at least wanted to follow any lead. “Where’s People’s Park?” I asked (this was another of the Stations of the Cross for Berkeley homeless, and was the chief feeding zone for free lunchtime meals). He pointed me just a few blocks away and I set off.

IMG_0855Considering its large renown through the ’60s, People’s Park is actually quite small. There is a small stand of redwoods on one end, a large open green in the middle, then cluster of scraggly bushes and trees at another end. I came at it from the redwood edge, where I found an enclave of homeless people camped out in sleeping bags and perched on tree trunks. My first impression was that there was an abundance of matted hair. And men. One fellow sat on a sleeping bag with long blonde dreadlocks and tilted his head to the sky. His eyes were rolling back in his head and he was talking to himself. I entered this gathering with a soft, but firm step and crouched to speak to man closest to me, a nearly toothless fellow who looked to have just awoken.

I could feel a quiet alert go up among the men as I approached, but it also was jaded, almost disinterestedly reflexive.

I told my name and that I was looking for my son. I pulled out my photos of Sean and he took them in his dirty hands. “Yeah, I seen this guy,” he said. “He was here last night. He sat right there.” He indicated the very spot on the log where I now perched beside him. “What did you talk about?” I asked, and before waiting for an answer said, “He’s great to talk to isn’t he? Very smart and interesting guy.”

He called out to some of his buddies to ask if they’d seen someone named Sean. No one paid him attention. I pressed him for details, but his line of connection suddenly faded, and he said, “Actually, I think I saw this guy in San Francisco.” Another homeless guy with a long, shaggy black beard ambled up. “This is Hate [sp?], he’s kind of the ringleader here,” said the first homeless guy by way of introduction. A couple of people chuckled. Hate took a look at the photos and said, “I think I see him around here sometimes,” and handed them back.

As I made my way through the enclave, everyone, it seemed, had a different story and I had the thought that it could go on like this endlessly. When I got back to the first homeless guy, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself, smiling through browning teeth: “They call me Mumbles,” he said. “Mumbler?” “No, Mum-bles,” he said laughing roughly. “I guess it’s ’cause I mumble.”

Mumbles asked me if I had a place where Sean could find me in case he ran into him. I gave him my business card and wrote across the top of it, Sean’s Mom. I’m in town. Please call. “I sure wish I had a mom who would come look for me,” said Mumbles. People were, by now, listening. “Yeah, man,” someone else called. “You’re a good mom.” At this I burst into tears.

Can’t beat the Dickens

photo-11Yesterday I went to the library to pick out a book to take with me to California. I knew exactly what I would bring, David Copperfield. This was the very first Dickens I devoured; I had it with me during my first trip overseas, a tour of Scotland with my parents when I was 13.

Aside from generally shunning the old farts, and grunting taciturnly during roadside Highland picnics (an unfortunate encounter with haggas, compelled me to eat nothing but canned Heinz potato salad thereafter), I kept my nose glued to that book as views of lochs and mountains, meadows and sheep rolled gorgeously past. This was a book to get lost in.

I loved books exceptionally until my son was born. Then a strange thing happened. I found that I could no longer endure even the slightest hint of human pain written down on the page. I didn’t know this until I launched into Anna Karenina during my first weeks of mothering. I was perfectly content in the beginning, but as the story progressed and Anna’s agony increased, so did my anxiety. I simply couldn’t bear the “oncoming train” of sorrows, and the idea of having her motherhood ripped from her sent me over the edge.

And so I read Anna Karenina by skipping the Anna passages entirely. I happily read about that great character of agrarian reform and family bond, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, who lives at the edge of her tale. All good stories have their shadowy parts, so naturally my reading selections became quite limited—romances, short stories (shorter pain), magazines. This applied to films as well: no child violence, beaten or imprisoned women, horror, even suspense movies “done me in.” Fortunately, I had read most of the canon of English lit before I went wimp, else I would be a total illiterate.

To avert undue pain, before I started it I skimmed through Copperfield to reassure myself that all ends well (Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed …). Properly convinced, I am again happily entrenched. This time, however, I read this work with greatest wonder.

Every page is wrought with astonishing detail, humor, poetry—and loving foreboding. I know Little Emily comes to a great, sad end but because of the majesty of his vision and the tenderness with which he wraps the good, I am willing to take the walk with him.

His effortless metaphor makes me think about the world differently, that experience is drenched in allegories we are too blind to notice. This: A passage in which he strolls the Yarmouth sands with Little Emily and reflects how, had he known the fate that would befall her, he might not have leapt out to catch her when she seemed about to plunge from a weir into the water. He then writes in the next paragraph about a starfish:

We strolled a long way, and loaded ourselves with things we thought curious, and put some stranded star-fish carefully back into the water–I hardly know enough of the race to be quite certain whether they had reason to feel obliged to us for doing so, or the reverse …

And a delicious footnote from the editor there, that the passage is reminiscent of the poet Crabbe(!):  ‘Here dull and lifeless he’d lie down and trace/How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race.’

Journeys. Stories. Words. I feel glad to be alive.

The moon belongs to everyone

photo-7Throughout my life I have taken great comfort in the moon. I love the idea that wherever you are, its shape is the same–thumbnail, crescent, half-moon, full. Across oceans and filtering through woods, covered in clouds or peeking above skyscrapers, that moon will be the orb that everyone sees.

Tonight it’s almost full and I think of Sean. Is he studying its shape from a grassy knoll at the edges of town? Will it fall softly on him as he rests? I wonder if he ever looks at the moon and wonders if I’m looking at it too.

Tomorrow night, I’ll share Sean’s moon. After 15 hours of flights and taxis and rental cars. The depth of uncertainty I face exhausts me before I even embark. I’m not sure of God or helper angels, but I do believe in the lunar qualities of love. And so tonight, from my heart, I ask: Please moon, mover of oceans, bring my son and me together again.

Other peoples’ opinions

imagesI used to make up cover stories about Sean when he first started living a nonconventional life–dropping out of high school, going to rehab (last I heard, he was still sober, yay!), leaving the work world, sleeping in empty buildings. “He’s trying to find his way,” I would say, smiling. Beyond that, I didn’t offer many details and most people didn’t push it.

But eventually I started telling the truth. It was disrespectful to tell lies, and in many ways I did respect his choices even if I didn’t understand them. He was, and is, doing something very few people have the courage to do: live his principles.

Sean is emotionally incapable of working in the kind of petty hierarchy that his retail-sales jobs assured him (and really, aren’t most workplaces constructed that way?). His cultural studies–feminism, LGBTQ, psycholinguistics, philosophy–revealed to him a mycelium of socioeconomic contracts that ensure the domination of consumerism. The idea of being forced to spend his life working jobs he hates, to earn the right to eat and sleep, galls him. He wants no part of it. Sean envisions a world of bartering, freedom, nomadism, shared property. Many younger people do, hence the rebirth of communes, urban co-ops, free farms that are sprouting around the globe. The ’60s meet pending climate-induced Armageddon.

People generally are startled when I tell them my son is homeless. “You mean, he’s backpacking?” they ask hopefully. It takes a few tries for me to convince them that he really does live on the street and that it is a lifestyle choice, not a default (although, I often reflect that it is a default because there really are no condoned avenues for those who want to live outside of society).

I think it’s important for people to know that they know people who love homeless people. That they are not wasted people, unloved, unconnected, without history or family. Before Sean even went homeless, I used to pass people sleeping on the subway vents and think to myself: This was somebody’s beloved son. It eased my discomfort to think that they had been held in warm arms somewhere in their lives.

Being direct about Sean’s situation opens me up to other peoples’ opinion–and unwanted advice–more often than it helps me to accept our condition. People who have never had children often tell me, “Oh, he’s just trying to grow up. You need to lead your own life now and let it go.” People who have children give me fix-it suggestions: Can I get him on meds? Has he seen a psychiatrist? Maybe a job will help.

None of these suggestions is particularly wrong; they’re just so wearingly passé. Of course he’s seen a psychiatrist, taken meds, had jobs. And yes, I have attempted to lead my own life–I’m leading it now–and tried with every part of my being to “let go.” We–meaning Sean and I–have done these things and hundreds of others in an effort to heIp him feel more stable inside and find his place in the world.

As for letting go, I think I’ve done a damn fine job . I am able to sleep every night without medication. I can go to work everyday and concentrate reasonably well. I can visit with friends, laugh, cook, walk and find joy in every day I live. But there is this one thing. And it never goes away. It lives in my heart and throat, a constant throbbing. My mother love.

That love center between Sean and I is very deep. Probably more so than many mothers and sons. It’s a connection that my own mother, for instance, cannot understand. She thinks I should just let him be to forge his own independent life–even if, heart wrenchingly, it means living a penniless, dangerous street life. Some parents have stronger radar than others. Mine went on red alert a few weeks ago when my concern for Sean traveled from my head to my heart. Something’s wrong. I don’t know how I know this is true–and I pray it is not–but my instinct is telling me very loudly to try to connect with him.

What if I ignored that calling? I’ve certainly had thousands of impulses to go find him. The difference this time is that I’m not propelled by my anxiety. It is a stronger, more stable voice. I have to go look for Sean because it is the right thing to do. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Whether he will look at it that way or not, I can’t control But I need to know that as a mother I did every damn thing I could.

A brief idyll


The hillside where Sean slept with the foxes.

I visited my son not long after he left San Francisco and went to Marin County. He had settled in a little hippie town not far from San Raphael. He complained a bit about loneliness there, since it was a fairly upscale area without a large homeless population, but it seemed to offer him some needed tranquility after his sickness and sidewalk shuffling in the Castro.

I arranged to meet him at the public library (in those days, he still had his cellphone, fancy backpack, sleeping bag–all the accouterments I’d bought him), but had no idea what to expect. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a gaggle of boy scouts with camping gear gathering for a trip … Sean was slouched over a picnic table across the lot with his own gear, head on arms, a picture in contrasts.

I woke him up and he seemed dazed at first to see me. He was very tan–or maybe that was dirt?–and he smelled awful. But he was my same old sweetie. Within a few minutes it was as if we had always been together. I took him to my Airbnb flat and threw him in the shower, taking advantage of his preoccupation to hand wash his clothes in the sink. They were too dirty to wash in my host’s machine: great, inky billows of black grime filled the sink over and over as I squeezed his soaped up shirt. It took me at least 30 rinses–I’m not exaggerating–to get the water to rinse at least a wan gray. Clear was too much to hope for.

We had a good visit: He pointed out the hillside behind the supermarket where he slept outside with the foxes. “They make the cutest barking and whimpering noises when they sleep,” he told me. We strolled down to the stream where he washed out his socks and hung out in an abandoned leather lounge chair. As we had when he was young and we wandered the woods near our house, we followed the stream upriver and pretended to get lost. He showed me some edibles — bay leaf and something else I can’t remember. But I think his foraging was mainly theoretical because he told me he trotted down every morning to get a sushi roll breakfast at the grocery store with his food stamps.

What a sweet, luxurious life that sounds like to me now. He no longer gets food stamps. His bank card was stolen, along with his backpack, cellphone, clothes and  ID, so he can’t verify his identity to get a new debit card at the bank.

Why did he leave there? It’s one of the thousands of unanswered questions that haunt me. The day after I left he had to go to court to fight a bogus trespassing charge that overzealous San Raphael cops had slapped on him for merely walking on the campus of a local college (a privilege they seem to save for youths with backpacks, since plenty of local people walk their dogs there and stroll around unmolested). Predictably, the charges were dropped, but I think the whole scenario set him off, prompting him to hightail it to more homeless-friendly surroundings.

I wasn’t crazy about him sleeping on a hillside. But at least it was a known place, in a community where oddballs are the norm. When Sean left Marin he seemed to leave some sweeter version of himself behind. His phone calls became less frequent. Eventually they stopped.