I jolt awake to the rattle of supermarket carts down the dawn dark streets below my window. Only a hint of jangling is enough to conjure images of scavengers rummaging through the cans and bottles. These faceless fantasies of the homeless feel threatening to me. With neighbors whose middle-class lifestyles mirror my own, I have shared garden tools and dinners, but with the poor in my neighborhood, I have averted my eyes and locked my door. I live here, but in many ways, remain a stranger.
When my daughter Caitlin was a baby, her cries used to shock me out of sleep. Staggering into her bedroom, I would lift her up, cradle her in my arms and suckle her back to sleep while I sang her a lullaby. It was always the same one.
I gave my love a cherry, it had no stone.
I gave my love a chicken, it had no bone.
I gave my love a ring, it had no end.
I gave my love a baby, with no cryin’.
Now caught in the cycling of my own jangling worries—about family finances, about my writing, about the neighborhood—I can’t get myself back to sleep. I should seize this time to meditate, I think. I toss the blankets off and then pull them on again. For eight years, since Caitlin’s birth, I have had to muster the energy, the presence and patience to attend to her. But more often than not, I can’t summon the discipline to sit up and tend to my own mind.
I peek through the blinds in our attic bedroom. On the dimly lit street I see the familiar line of cars: our bashed-in ‘69 Toyota (my husband Patrick’s commuting-car) with its peeling Stop MX/Cruise bumper sticker, our tenants’ Dodge truck littered with tools and boxes, and the two ‘87 Volvos, ours and our tenants’.
Next door, by Grandmama Darlene’s front porch, I can see the shining Lexus of her grown up granddaughter Donna’s new boyfriend. Polished each day by the boyfriend, the Lexus shimmers in all its gold glory. Grandmama Darlene doesn’t have a car, nor does her daughter Dee, who was kicked out for her violent drinking and is now living on the street.
Several hours later I finally gather my energy to drive across town to an early-bird yoga class. Once there I will be forced to meditate! I pry open the door of the Toyota, with its busted lock. I take in a long breath and am hit with the unmistakable stench. Tobacco! I know Patrick sneaks a few puffs on his cigar between the BART station and home. But the scent of nicotine has never seemed so caustic as it does this morning. Why? Irritably, I stuff half-smoked cigars into the ashtray, push closed the tray, take another long breath in relief, only to find another unmistakable odor. I sniff again. Yes, alcohol! I feel uneasy. As I’m driving along, I try to picture Patrick driving home, taking a few draws on his cigar, then circling to the corner liquor store to pick up a Budweiser to drink in the car before he comes home. Possible, but unlikely.
As I start to get out at the ashram, a dark heap in the back seat catches my eye. A pile of blankets? I flash: “a dead body!” Someone rolled a drunk and stashed him in our Toyota! The bundle quivers, exhales a pungent scent of beer and tobacco. An eye blinks at me from between the folds of the blankets. “It’s Dee,” she says, throwing back layers of material to reveal a wool cap, a familiar face. “Where the hell am I?”
Dee! From next door! Of course. Dee whose gregarious nature is at the hub of a complex web of relationships in my neighborhood. Consummately relieved, I don’t miss a beat. “You’re on Alcatraz, below Adeline. I’m going into my yoga class. I’ll be out in an hour if you want a ride back across town.”
The car is empty when I get out of class, but all day I think of Dee. One of the first longtime residents I knew by name, Dee had introduced herself to me while I was gardening soon after our family moved into West Berkeley. When Caitlin was first born, Dee would call from her steps to mine: “How’s the baby?” And to Caitlin, “Hi, Sugar!” Over the years I have seen Dee on the streets of our neighborhood. Wiry and diminutive, she paces past the spruced up Victorians, sits outside the upscale cafes down by the train tracks, or stands on street corners deep in conversation with her cohorts. Progressively over the years, I’ve seen her drunk. Up and down the block, she weaves, spewing her cusses. Or from the foot of the stairs next door she engages in a raging clash of tongues with her older daughter, Donna, and her mother, Grandmama Darlene, on the porch.
In the evening a number of folks from around the block are hanging out as usual in front of Grandmama Darlene’s. Dee is sitting on the stairs with her younger daughter Michelle. How often have Dee and I crossed paths without acknowledgment? This time our eyes meet. She says, “You ain’t goin’ to tell on me, are you, girl?”
When I’d told Patrick, it turned out he’d known all along that she sometimes slept there. “Don’t worry.” I say. We stay on the stoop talking longer than we have before. After all, I know now that she has been sleeping in our car. She knows that I’m not giving her a hard time for it. Our family shares a secret with her. And she and I have been across town together.
I look at Dee more closely, at her small face, a mole on her cheek. She seems to be cradling something in her arms. She nods toward her daughter Michelle, so willowy and pretty of late, with her many tiny braids. “My girl’s eleven today! I got her this little Lab puppy for her birthday.” Michelle gives me a shy smile, then looks gratefully at her mom. Dee opens her coat to reveal a silky ball of fur with a wet black nose.
Over the next few days, I hear a lot of shrill yelps from next door. Along with the unrelenting yipping, the fighting seems to be picking up again between Dee, who is still locked out, and the residents of the house. Maybe I’m noticing these battles because I’m now more attuned to Dee. Just as she sleeps in the back of our car, I feel as if her consciousness is sleeping in the back of mine. If we are all expressions of one another, my consciousness is also sleeping in the back of hers.
In the afternoon sometimes I see Michelle strutting up and down the street with the baby Lab on a leash. I hear her say proudly to her friends, “My mom gave me my little pup for my birthday!” As far as I can figure out, the shouting is about whether this untrained puppy stays in or out of the house. I hear the boyfriend—always affable on the street, telling us when we leave the lights on in one of our cars—joining in the uproar.
In our house, we too are getting into conflicts. It’s the first week of Caitlin’s school and I am trying to meet a writing deadline. I am incensed by Caitlin’s dawdling. “Caitlin,” I screech, trying to get her out the door to early orchestra rehearsal. In the background I can hear a tumult of shouts next door and yelps from the puppy. I yank Caitlin toward the front door. Warding me off with her elbows and shins, she ducks out of my reach and back into the house. A shiver of anger runs through me. I have to grip my own arms to prevent myself from walloping her on the bottom. From next door voices out shout the yipping: “If you don’t stop, I’ll kill you!”
For several hours I am sick at heart about myself, about Caitlin, about the climate of upset on the block. In the night as I am putting Caitlin to bed, I lean over her, caress her on the cheek with my fingertips. If only in these morning spats I could walk out of the room, simply let her be late.
The next evening, on our way out Patrick and I see Dee and Michelle sitting on the front step. They are leaning into each other. “Hey Dee, how’s it going?” I call out. She turns a pained face toward me. “No one told you? He killed it, he murdered it, my girl’s puppy. Right here. Right on the stairs here yesterday afternoon!” I feel a tremor. “Strangled it with his bare hands.”
For a moment we are all still, waiting in the silence of dusk for some gratuitous sign that it isn’t true. There is only the faint rumble of the freeway in the distance. No solace from the familiar high-pitched yelps. Finally I splutter out, “Who. . . ?”
“You know who,” she says, “Donna’s no-good boyfriend, that’s who! That no-good-scum bag dope-dealing punk.” She pauses. “You ain’t goin’ to see his fancy car on this block. The police took him away!”
As we drive off, I picture the boyfriend, tall and bony, nodding to us, polishing his car. I whisper to Patrick, “Can this really have happened the way she said?” I reflect on the escalating violence that morning next door. I remember mine with Caitlin.
For the next week, a squad car remains parked across the street, waiting. There is a pall over our corner of the block. Everyone is speaking in hushed voices, moving quietly. Caitlin knows the puppy has somehow disappeared, but she asks few questions. One night I am shocked awake by bellowing in the street. Through the blinds, I make out at least two squad cars and an ambulance. Then I see Dee by the princess tree, its blossoms an eerie mauve by the flashing lights. She stumbles back and forth, gripping her belly. “That son-of-a-bitch boyfriend jumped me and kicked me in the stomach. He says I ratted on him to the cops.” As she gets into the ambulance, she calls out her lament. “What about my little girl’s puppy?”
A few days later, Caitlin, who has been sleeping through the night for years, starts waking with scary dreams, demanding that we lie down with her. Years back, at bedtime, I hummed her lullabies until she drifted off, and in recent years Patrick has lain next to her, offering his warm calm presence to ease her restlessness.
I too am waking in the night, anxious and restless. The puppy, the casualty of this recent violence, calls to mind all that is precious and vulnerable—in myself, in Caitlin, in living beings. One night I wake particularly agitated. I start worrying that Caitlin will wake up as well. Sure enough, she comes running up the stairs telling us that she has a nightmare that won’t go away. I lie down with her on her bed. She keeps tossing around, flopping her pillow this way and that, telling me I’m lying too close, then too far away. My body is also jittery, my thoughts colliding and spinning in worry. At some point, I see that neither one of us is going to be able to sleep at all if I keep lying there next to her.
Suddenly, unaccountably, I know what to do. I tell Caitlin that I am going to sing her favorite lullaby from when she was a tiny baby and then I am going into the other room to meditate. I sing:
How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
Then I do what Caitlin has always adamantly protested in the past. I leave the room after kissing her goodnight.
In the dark living room I plump myself up a cushion right on the couch, fold my legs and straighten my spine for meditation. I begin by simply listening. I hear Caitlin thrashing in the next room, turning over, breathing with the uneven sighs of restlessness. I hear the refrigerator suddenly buzz, the whistle of the night train, a full throated mating call from our pet tree frog in response and the melody of his food-crickets rubbing their legs together in song. In the distance a siren cries out. I think of Dee nestled in her wraps in the back of the car.
Gradually as I sit and follow my breath, I hear Caitlin’s breathing becoming more regular until it finds the soft melodic rhythm of sleep. I go upstairs and also sleep. In the morning, for the first time in weeks, when I come downstairs Caitlin is sleeping peacefully.
When I wake her for school, she says, “Mom, I slept through the night!” I say, “I’m so proud of you, Babe.” She says, “When I woke up I thought to myself. ‘Mommy is protecting me with her meditation.’ And I went back into my dreams.” Then she meets my eyes fully with hers. “Will you meditate like that every night when I go to bed?”
Driving back from school, I think of Caitlin’s word “protecting.” I imagine what she may picture: a vigilant sentry sitting up straight and alert, paying attention to everything that is happening in the night, noticing any danger. Didn’t the Buddha say something like that? “Protect your happiness.” As I sing and then meditate, I am attending to this most precious and vulnerable possibility, in myself, in Caitlin, in all of us.
Now each night, on Caitlin’s request, after I sing I meditate in the living room. I am becoming convinced that even when Caitlin does not know I am meditating, the rhythms of my mind change hers. So on mornings when I awaken early, apprehensive that Caitlin will somehow sense the churning of my thoughts and awaken too, I have finally returned to the regular practice of crossing my legs and stilling my mind.
One evening as I sit, the lullaby I have just sung suffuses my meditation. I sing to myself, to Caitlin, to Dee in our car.
A ring when it’s rollin’, it has no end
A baby when she’s sleepin’ has no cryin’
I have recently learned that the name of this lullaby is “The Riddle Song.” Indeed, I reflect, each line poses a riddle which points toward mysteries of life—blossoms, birth, continuity, sleep. Of all the mysteries, the one which I find most stirring is the mystery of the ring as it rolls, spinning dark or light, agitation or peace, circling out. Who knows how far?
One afternoon as the rainy season begins, the winds pick up from the Bay, sending garbage and dry leaves in a fluttering rush up our street. The phone rings. “This is Michelle,” says a young voice. “You know, from next door. I was wondering if you could lend me some money so I could buy a new jacket.” She pauses. “I gave mine to my mom. You know she’s homeless. So she needs a warm jacket.” I hesitate, then say, “Maybe I could loan you a jacket.” And she, “Okay, but it’s gotta have a hood.” Then I remember seeing Dee earlier that day wearing a bright blue new-looking jacket with a hood fastened tight against the autumn wind.
Indeed it is a mystery how we are always changing one another. I am walking with Caitlin past the liquor store. Sitting on the pavement, leaning against the wall of the building are a couple of neighborhood men I’ve seen around but never spoken to. They’re dressed in layers of frayed clothing, they’re unshaven and are, I surmise, homeless. Maybe they’re the midnight scavengers I hear sorting through the cans. Sitting with them, passing a cigarette is Dee. “Hey, girl,” she says. And I, “Hey, Dee!” She turns to her friends. “This here’s my neighbor and her kid.” One man looks up into my eyes. His have a perceptive lilt; his grief and smile lines are deeply creased. He reaches out his hand and shakes mine. For a moment I am not a stranger where I live. Through Dee’s introduction, I read the lines in a neighbor’s face, feel the warmth of a hand.
Today as I scribble in my notebook, I am interrupted by Dee and Darlene screaming below my office window. I ache inside my own chest, bruised from a momentary flare-up of temper at Patrick and Caitlin this morning. Remembering that both dissension and peace are ongoing in life, I begin to write of the rolling ring. I imagine the circles of caring that I yearn for. Dee tends to her young daughter Michelle by getting her a puppy; Michelle tends to Dee by passing on her own jacket. And Michelle brings me into the circle to take care of her. I give Caitlin lullabies, and she gives me meditation—which is what I needed all along but couldn’t give to myself. In the back of our car, we offer Dee an occasional shelter from the cold, and she connects our family to our world—its caring and its pain.
The characters in this story are composites. With the exception of those from my own family, I have changed names, physical descriptions and histories. —B.G.