La Chiripa and the Nervous Birthday Breakdown

I should be happy and light today: (1) My birthday is nicely situated, right at the end of the school year. (2) Either my friends are all liars or I really do not look my age. (3) Apparently I have cheated death for the 14th time. Pretty good going.

Oh, yeah? With loupy canines and goofballs in your life, don’t count on it. (Not to mention slings and arrows of outrageous institutions mired in the last century, but that’s another story….)

The only fly in my birthday ointment is the fact that it just took thirty-one tries to start the car.

Oh, well. I’ll leave it running in the driveway and then take it down to the garage. It probably needs just a tune-up. Simple, I’ll have it back for a birthday of joy and fun.

As I bumped my dear Volvo over the (incompetently installed and twice complained of) letdown that signals the beginning of the driveway, I noticed that Mike had planted six mini conifers a mere foot apart in the wrong place on the boulevard…not to mention that the paving stones were laid three feet beyond where they were supposed to start.

Sigh! That will have to be done over! With supervision, apparently.

I managed to remember NOT to turn off the car, collected the day’s trophies and groceries from the back seat, and inched up the stairs, only to be accosted, before I could reach the front door, by Mike, who was already in full gallop, mid-sentence.

This would not be a problem except that Mike’s sentences are, on average, three hundred and seventy-two words long; nor does he grant one sentence a period before commencing the next, all of which is delivered in the style of stentorian oratory one can hear quite clearly a block or more away.

Sound can be experienced as an assault. Interesting….

Mike wanted me to inspect his handiwork of the day. Immediately rather than later, later being a time when I would have had a chance to set down the stuff I was carrying through the doorway.

“Mike…” I protested. I was drowned out and shepherded around the corner of the house to see Mike’s work on our project, which was supposed to consist of building forms for two little pony walls to extend the patio. Mike had apparently decided that my ninety-year-old house needed a partial new foundation in advance of the creation of any pony walls in its vicinity.  He had the needs of my house all worked out assured me that his plan, involving masses of two-by-fours, plywood and concrete, would eliminate not only musty smells beneath house but forestall any forays currently in contemplation by the local rodent population. He proudly displayed his work of genius while I tried to shut my ears to the excited welcome-home cries of my wolf, tied up in the rear of the property.

Before me yawned a two-foot chasm in the concrete of the sidewalk and a hole two feet deep underneath it, continuing the length of the hoped-for pony wall. Tree roots, probably belonging to my beloved giant conifer weeping softly not twenty feet behind me, had been cruelly cut, doubtless with great effort on Mike’s part.

On a similarly fine June day twenty-six years ago, I stepped into a hole left in a sidewalk, in a single step that in an instant ended my life as I knew it. Much of my present physical impairment is traceable to that day, June 11, 1990. That hole, however, came with insurance. This hole does not, because I can’t afford the house insurance. Bungled as my stepped-into-a-hole case might have been, it still cost the insurer six figures—how would I ever withstand such a judgment if someone got hurt in this hole?

Trying to find a shred of positive feedback for Mike’s strenuous efforts, I failed, utterly. Instead, I protested: “Mike, my brother’s coming to visit tomorrow. It’s my birthday. Then I have to do an interview to get my job back. Since there’s no paycheque, I’m having a sale here to pay the property tax. There will be people all over this yard. You have to go to court tomorrow and you might not come back if thrown in jail, which means I’ll have your pit bull dog to take care of, besides the wolf. Meanwhile your RV is blocking the driveway and this mess is blocking the other side of the house—there’s no way to get to the back of the yard without imperiling life and limb….”

Sometime during this pathetic speech, a great metallic crash announced the liberation of Lord Tyee, the resident wolf, who had just broken through his chain, barely sparing the deck from total downfall. He was all over his inchoate mom—literally. One hundred fifty pounds of bounce, bounce, bounce and lick, lick. lick.

I inspected Lord Tyee’s broken chain. I said, “I am having a nervous breakdown.”

Mike said, “You don’t have to have a nervous breakdown. I’m right. I don’t need no experts to fix this. You’ve got a real problem here.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” I said. “I have a problem. I deserve this nervous breakdown and nobody’s going to stop me.” I uncoupled the broken chain, popped the offending section into my pocket, found the mutt’s leash and said the magic words: “Car-car!”

The hardware clerks examined the broken chain in slack-jawed awe, extending cautious hands respectfully within reach of Lord Tee’s curious nose as they found us a bigger, heavier piece of metal to hold his enthusiasms in check. Back into the car, left running once again in the parking lot.

At home, such as it was (it had not fallen into the hole just yet), Mike was repeating his justification mantra aloud for anyone’s ears as I tied up my beloved jerk of a mutt. I might have said, “Shut up,” to Mike as I stepped back into the still running car, this time aiming for a cold espresso and a consultation with any being saner than myself about what to do next. I bought three more plants, cried a bit, took a deep breath, and headed home. This time I dared to turn off the car. Tomorrow I would take the darned thing to the car doctor.

Thank Dog. Mike the Genius has left for the day. The hole, alas, has not.

I found a tenspot and paid the nearest able-bodied person to fill it back in, minus concrete.

Alas, I opened the birthday mail. A substantial packet from the CRA contained my tax history from 1990 to the present day. Well. A strange present but, after all, it’s traditional to review one’s life on one’s birthday, isn’t it? Even the financial aspect?

In my tax story, all was well until the divorce. In the year the divorce began, however, my beloved spouse took control of everything—our business, our house, our taxes. He even hired someone “to break her legs” should I come back into our office.  The office, i.e., He, failed to pay quarterly instalments, which is what one must do in one’s own business. The tax for that year burgeoned quietly in the CRA’s offices for twelve years of legal proceedings which I was powerless to hurry along. In the end, He largely succeeded in denying me any share of the family assets. By settlement time, thirteen fun-filled years later, the amount had more than tripled to some forty thousand dollars. In the twenty-two years since we parted ways, I have paid over forty-six thousand dollars in interest and penalties!

That’s more than eleven hundred working hours robbed from my life. Eleven hundred hours that did no one any good.

The allegedly loving father stopped paying child support on our daughter’s eighteenth birthday, on the theory that (a) her birthday occurred halfway through that month and (b) the age of majority in the jurisdiction to which we fled for our lives was eighteen, not nineteen as in BC whence the court order originated. Nor did he ever pay a dime toward the education to which she was entitled—two degrees and a profession—and which she still does not have. No, she and her single mom, dispossessed of their past, their health and their rights—these two women somehow managed that.

It’s the divorce that keeps on giving.

Small wonder that house insurance is still unattainable. My birthday gift to myself is the relief of finally paying off the government for the privilege of surviving an agonizing divorce. It is the freedom to acknowledge, publicly and without fear, that my marriage was a seriously bad affair, that my husband, a person I truly loved, ruined my profession, my health, and my place in the community.

Decades ago, on our Mexican honeymoon, I purchased a small, brown, hand-carved wooden bird with metal feet and called her “La Chiripa”—the stroke of luck. Good luck, bad luck—who knows? Years later, when I wrote the second novel of the story inspired by my hopeless marriage, I looked everywhere for La Chiripa, to put her on the book’s cover, but she had flown, apparently, wooden wings and all.  Today, as I stopped in for that much needed espresso, what should catch my eye but a hand-carved brown wooden bird with metal feet! I paid for her without even looking at the price tag.

The stroke of luck has struck again.

La Chiripa’s birthday gift to me is simple: freedom. Freedom to speak, to pass on to young women the cautionary notes about marriage, the song of unlove and renaissance for which I paid so dearly. Freedom to speak, to name the oppressor, even to accuse. Freedom to rise above so called due process, to shake free of servitude, to wing away to a life of one’s own.


My ancient apple tree,
who likely refers to me
as her latest human,
somewhat less elderly than she,
has a sense of humor:
Wherever I have swept,
she drops a small green bomb
or shrugs off a bit of the moss
infesting her trunk, which turns
as gray as foot fungus
the minute it hits the concrete.
“Be nice to me,” I growl,
“and I’ll spray you with that elixir
once again, that stuff that took
twenty years off you, last summer.”
But I don’t mind her meddling
with my morning meditation,
the broom a choir of straw
sussurating over stones.
Broom-making may be a dying art,
for this one announced its imminent demise
after a single season.
At least it’s not plastic:
I can cut up the corpse,
let it contribute its final essence
to the warmth of my winter house.
We may survive.
For now, it sings, soft as any broom,
and in the same human key.
My back yard sounds like Indonesia,
feels like Guatemala,
might be Ecuador,
or anywhere swept clean
of human folly,
anywhere people care
about civilization.

Ordinary Courage

Receiving somebody’s blog on the nature of direct action, I seem to hear the megaliths of destiny moving around to better positions. I’ve long said that ordinary courage requires witnessing and, for some, telling what was seen. As I contemplate the writing of Pale Criminal, the final book in The Falling Sky Trilogy, the mind keeps straying to drastic actions certain characters might take to deal once and for all with the psychopathy stalking their lives. Naturally. Suddenly I get it: the three stages of ordinary courage needed for the conquest of evil are witnessing, articulation and direct action.

The third level may be required of us if we are to stop idiocy like the Enbridge pipeline. Frightening idea. I realize anew how much I enjoy being alive. How much it takes to risk one’s only life for a cause.

White Birds: dreams for dancers traces the stages of courage symbolically. At first, the victim of abuse is barely even a witness: she becomes disembodied before the abusive act is fully perpetrated on her. In the second, third and fourth dreams, she moves from seeing her disembodiment to recounting her story; from telling the tale to daring to change her form. In the final dream, she moves from shape-shifting to taking the direct action that ends the evil. A warrior may not always be successful in eliminating evil, she learns, but the roles of victims and accommodator are surely insufficient.

In Broken Sleep, chronologically the first book in The Falling Sky Trilogy, Paul and Zack, reluctantly shaken out of the comfort zones of their professions, become witnesses to Jane’s story. Zack, the son of Holocaust survivors, can do no more than witness. Paul, son of a successful survivor of the Greek underground, takes action with compassion. Matt, to appearances the all-round American star of the American Dream, takes action as he sees fit — for your own good, of course. As for Jane, just as no one knows precisely what happened to her father as a POW, neither her friends nor we the readers find it easy to predict what she can or will do.

La Chiripa is all about articulation, the telling of lies that encourage the ongoing evil, and the courage it takes to tell the truth. In Guatemala, that courage is only beginning to break through what is called “El Silencio”, the silence that rules after 42 years of CIA-sponsored violence. The wonder of PIra is that somehow, in spite of — or perhaps because of — her mother’s victimization, the child is fearlessly articulate. That is why readers love her as she carries “La Violencia”, the bigger half of the book. That is also why readers love to hate Matt as he carries “El Silencio”, for in his fearless telling of his actions there is no love, no compassion, no right but his own. He’s his own private CIA, over and over again.

You see, the bad guys will always take action until their evils can stand futile. “All that is necessary for evil to take over the world is for enough good men to do nothing” — or something close to that. We must be alert to the moment when the ordinary courage of witnessing and truth-telling is no longer enough. To the hour of direct action.

Is it any wonder that the prospect of writing Pale Criminal scares the hell out of me?