Sunday, October 4, 2009

safia chisti

Not all the stories in our lives are about us personally. How could they be? We're naturally social creatures and not the paranoid, selfish, violent beings the media likes to foist on us as a way of coercing our decisions. This is a story about a woman I knew and how her life was changed by the kindness of strangers.

In the late 1980's I was living in Providence, RI where at the advanced age of 42 - yes, the meaning of life, the universe and everything age according to Douglas Adams - I was the proud owner and driver of my very first car. It was a standard shift little red Pontiac leMans which I loved. She could fly and I was her pilot. An old friend called me one afternoon from Philadelphia and asked if I'd be able to drive a woman she knew from Providence to New York. All she told me was that I'd find the woman a very interesting travel companion for the three and a half hour journey and that the trip would involve an overnight stay. I really didn't need much convincing and agreed to pick up my mysterious passenger the following afternoon.

I met Safia Chisti at her daughter's house in North Providence, noticing nothing unusual about her as she walked down the steps from the old tenement, nothing about her that made her appear different from any other middle-aged white woman other than perhaps the scarf she wore covering her hair. We introduced ourselves and she put her little bag on the back seat, took the co-pilot position and off we went. I soon learned my friend had been correct about the lady being interesting.

Safia Chisti wasn't the name she had been born with, nor was it a name she'd gained from marrying Mr. Chisti. She'd had a normal American name which I knew once but have forgotten now. To me she was always Safia. Before circumstances saw her change her name and her life she had been the divorced mother of a grown-up married daughter and was a Providence city bus driver. She had also recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. I don't know how familiar you may be with that disease but twenty years ago there were no targeted treatments like there are now and the diagnosis was essentially a six month death sentence.

Her only option was to keep working as long as she could. One day when she stopped downtown to pick up passengers a rather nondescript man climbed on board, paid his fare then stopped and looked at her. Taking a slip of paper from an inside pocket he told her, 'You have to go here as quickly as possible. Your life depends on it.' Naturally she wondered if he was planning to hijack the bus to Worcester, MA or some other place not on her usual route but he got off the bus leaving her with the piece of paper. On it was written a very foreign sounding name and an address in Pakistan.

Well, what's a woman going to do? Most would throw away the piece of paper, forget the whole incident and just keep on with the normal routine until they couldn't get out of bed one day. Not Safia. Safia went to the post office, had a passport photograph taken, sent off the documents and bought a ticket to Islamabad. Two weeks later she was in Pakistan with the piece of paper, a sleeping bag, a suitcase and her purse. Rather than finding a hotel she showed the paper to a taxi driver who took her to a small building standing next to an unprepossessing mosque - a neighborhood place rather than one of the enormous ones. Oddly enough the man who opened the door wasn't surprised to find her standing there and better still, spoke English. He welcomed her inside for tea and sweets and a closer look both at her and the now rather worn piece of paper that had brought her to his doorstep.

He told her about a Sufi master who lived a hermit's life in the Himalayan mountain region of the country and told her that's who had sent for her. Oh my. It's hard to imagine, isn't it? She was instructed to make her way to the northern border with China and was given another paper where he'd written the instructions in English for her and Urdu for anyone she'd need to consult for help on the way. She left by bus early the following morning, a trip that lasted days and transfers to buses more and more local all the way to the region where the world's second tallest mountain stands, K-2. When there were no more buses she walked for miles, eventually climbing to the hermitage where she met the elderly man who would be her teacher for the following two years. Not only did he not speak English, he wasn't particularly happy to see her either. Through sign language he indicated that he expected her to work - which she did. Safia cleaned, carried water and wood and cooked. The teacher taught her to pray. He gave her a new name. He also taught her to speak Urdu and to read and write Arabic. After a little more than two years he told her it was time she went home.

Anyway, although we were driving to New York, our destination was in Spring Valley west of the Hudson River in the Catskills - Rip vanWinkle territory, yes, and 20 miles outside Manhattan. The Sheikh was called Tosen Baba and was a professor of mathematics at Columbia during the week. We arrived at the mosque in good time for a wonderful dinner and a chance for me to converse with some very interesting people before the evening prayers, the teachings and the group Zhikr, the remembrance of God. There's no way to describe the warmth and beauty of inclusion in a Sufi Circle and although I was, as a first time visitor, shy and reluctant to participate I was drawn into the company of the women's position at the back of the mosque. In fact, I made sure to stand behind all of them. The prayers and the music were astounding to me and, although I'm not overtly emotional, tears streamed down my face.

Safia left for her home in Philadelphia the next morning after breakfast and I went home too. The following Saturday found me back on the road to New York alone and listening to the Paris Concerts of the famous Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan she had given me as a parting gift with the admonishment that one is never supposed to dance to Qawwali music no matter how tempted one may be. Only moving the head is acceptable. So I moved my head in time to one piece after another while the driving time flew by. Unfortunately, I was so wrapped up in the music and the idea of another evening with the Sufis I missed the exit I was supposed to take from the highway and not long after found myself barreling down the Bronx Expressway on my way to the city center. It was after 5 o'clock, getting dark this autumn night and raining heavily. Not knowing what else to do I made a right turn into the huge empty parking lot of an old commuter station so I could at least stop and try to figure out how to get back to 95 and the correct exit. A car followed mine into the lot and parked next to me. When I looked over I breathed a sigh of relief to see it was a woman driving and that she was waving me to roll down the window. I don't know how in the dark and the pouring rain but she'd noticed I looked lost and was there to help. When I told her where I was supposed to be going she gave me very clear directions for the quickest way to Hwy 87 west.

Within an hour I was in the town of Spring Valley again but couldn't remember how to get to the address. Pulling up at a stop light I tried to remember landmarks Safia and I had passed the week before. Somehow everything looked very different this time and I was kicking myself for not having paid better attention. A young guy crossing the street came over to my side of the car and motioned that he wanted to talk to me. I opened the window a little way both to keep the rain out and for the old paranoid reasons (after all this was the US and not someplace safe like Pakistan) but he too asked if I was lost. It seemed I was giving signals I wasn't aware of. Anyway, I told him the address I was looking for and he told me how to get there and ran off to somewhere drier than the middle of the street.

Not long after I found the narrow drive that led up to Tosen Baba's house and the attached mosque. The rain had stopped and the clouds had blown away leaving a beautiful starry nighttime sky. People had begun arriving for Zhikr and I wondered who I'd meet and what I'd learn that night.

Going there on Saturday evenings became a regular, if infrequent, habit for several years after that and when Safia was in Providence seeing her daughter she came with me. I never did become a Sufi in spite of the appeal and eventually we moved out to the west coast. Safia lived for another five joy-filled years. She'd found what she was looking for.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

how Crow met susan

Crow here. Since I've never told you how I first encountered susan I thought today would be a good time to remedy that oversight.

One spring morning long ago in human terms, but not so very distant in mine, I happened to be flying over the green rolling hills of the southern Ontario countryside. It had been a long flight that left me feeling in need of rest, so spying a tall tree just beginning to sprout it's foliage, I took on the guise of a normal crow and prepared to land. What to my surprise should I discover beneath the tree but a little girl making dandelion garlands? She seemed to be perfectly content but it was a strange place to find a child all alone for it was a cemetery and not too far away from where she sat were rows of old headstones and a little old church in the distance.

Being too curious to maintain my usual reserve I had to ask, 'Why are you out here by yourself, child?'
Not the least surprised about being addressed by a bird she answered, 'I just got expelled from Sunday school.'
'Why was that?'
'The teacher told me since I wouldn't stop asking impossible questions and was disrupting the class I couldn't be there anymore.'
'Does that upset you?'
'No, I like it out here better.'
'What's better about out here than in there?'
'Out here I don't care about the questions I asked in there.'
'I see.'

I stayed nearby until her father drove into the lane near the church and she ran off to meet him. By then I'd taken an interest and planned to return.

The next time I saw her was winter, nearly Christmas, and a school pageant featuring a play written by her teacher had been planned and rehearsed for weeks. The expected captive audience of these events - parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins and neighbors - were all gathered to see the children perform. As I stood in the wings waiting while they donned their costumes and all was made ready on stage I found a copy of the script which appeared to be about Santa, Mrs. Santa, toy making elves and the reindeer having a boisterous adventure on their way to meet the Baby Jesus and his retinue. Forgive me for not being able to discern a more detailed plot synopsis but it was clear the writer was never going to challenge my old friend Will Shakespeare. The good thing about it was that it allowed parts for all the children of the second grade as well as their pets and some favorite toys to be on the stage at once. The audience members were checking their Brownies and flash attachments.

The curtains parted and the play began. Unfortunately, the children had only rehearsed in daytime without an audience and without the pets dressed up with bells and antlers. Chaos ensued.

Suddenly one little girl yelled, 'Stop!' and everybody went very still and looked at her. Wearing her little fairy crown and fancy dress my little susan imperiously and in no uncertain terms told the other children they were standing in the wrong places and weren't delivering the correct lines. So they all shuffled around and started over while the audience erupted in gales of laughter. Her parents, sitting near the front, tried to hide their embarrassment.

How could I not love a little girl like that? She was going to need some help.

Friday, June 19, 2009

story of 2 stones

Even though RI is known as the Ocean State public beaches are few and mostly found in areas sheltered from the full might of the Atlantic. Swimming had been a passion for me ever since I'd first taken to the little lake in front of our house in Ontario and realized I floated when I relaxed. After that it was a simple matter to learn different strokes for propelling myself through the water.

I heard of a beach in Westerly, RI far to the south of Providence and decided to check it out one Sunday afternoon. It was after 3:00 when I arrived, most of the people who'd been there earlier were either gone or leaving, so there was no trouble finding a spot for my car. Even before I climbed the white dune where the ocean breeze made wave like patterns in the sparse stalks of yellowing grass, I heard the sound of surf. It drew me on until I stood at the top spellbound by the sight that met my eyes. The grey green of the sea sparkled under a sunny blue sky, waves and white caps broke in endless succession against the bare sand.

Dropping my bag of towels and snacks, as well as my shorts and top, I walked down to the water's edge just to test how cold it might be. Not too bad. Seductive yet treacherous, the sea encouraged me to step a little further, get in a little deeper and, just as I was getting used to being wet above my knees, a giant wave that hadn't been there a moment before swept over me. I'd been sucked in, didn't know what end was up or down, all I knew was to hold my breath and trust I'd still float once it was done with me. When I surfaced I found myself far from shore and realized it had been twenty years since the days when I was a strong swimmer. I could see the beach and tiny looking stilted houses behind the dunes but no people whatever. Yet there was something that calmed my initial urge to panic and as the waves billowed I felt myself supported and held in loving embrace. I floated in a sunny green medium that was the essence of life itself.

After a period, I don't know how long, I swam in extended diagonals back to shore and sat on the sand while the sun dried me and my heartbeat harmonized with the sea. Near at hand I noticed two small egg shaped stones, they were smooth, crystalline white and appeared to be almost identical - as though they'd traveled through endless eons always together in order to meet me at that moment in time. It seemed they had a destination in their stony little minds and I was to be their means of travel. When I left I took them with me.

For years they sat in the little depression on the dashboard of my car until the day when I first saw the Pacific. We'd found a vast and empty stretch of sand facing the western ocean with a misty headland in the distance as the only break of land between us and the horizon. I took the stones and walked down past the tide-line where the water kissed the shore and left them there. That had been my job for this lifetime, moving two stones from one ocean to another. Since then I've been free.

Friday, May 1, 2009


When I was painting all the time, following the hints and flashes of inspiration that showed the next three or ten pictures or maybe just parts of another complete watercolor, there were always two things I looked forward to. The first was taking all of them out of the portfolios, where they'd been stored within a day of recognizing one more line would cause ruin, and looking at 12 or 20 all at once. Seeing where I'd spent the past year or two in imaginary worlds was always the best moment and I'd start making plans toward a gallery show, imagining the delight they'd bring to others and hopefully, enough money to allow me the peace and long silences required to stay in watercolor land.

The next best part was going to the picture framing shop where, naturally enough when I think about it, the guys who ran the place were always delighted to see me. As is normal in such places it was decorated with multiple examples of picture framing arts throughout the ages, and since my favorite store in RI had been in business for more than a century, it was an old fashioned wood floor, tin ceilinged place that offered feelings of security and harmonious gentility. Since framing for galleries meant sticking to clean lines and simplicity we'd spend the time it took deciding on the shade of white museum board mattes, whether to edge the separate pictures in gold, silver or copper frames and the benefits of regular glass compared to the non-reflective kind. Framing then wasn't as expensive as it is today but I was still happy with the professional discount and always satisfied with the result when I went to retrieve them a week or two later. The only problem then, of course, was that they were now huge, unwieldy objects.

So followed the next part. Although painting always has been a pretty intense part of my life I never really connected with the marketing side. I'd start making phone calls to the few people I knew in the New England arts scene. I tend to be pretty shy when it comes to such things but there were a few gallery owners who'd bought some of my paintings for themselves and were happy to hear I'd finished another selection. Since art shows are usually booked a year or more in advance it wasn't a surprise when I learned there were no venues currently available. One friend, having opted out of showing the work of contemporary artists, had turned her gallery into a showcase for dead nautical painters, since even if the paintings weren't good, at least they had historic value.

Two days later she called me back to say she'd met a woman who was planning to show her sculptures at the Providence Watercolor Club and required watercolors to comply with their rules. Would I be interested? I agreed with no hesitation since it was a great opportunity to have my work shown to the rich and well connected old New England society members who belonged to the place.

Accompanied by my friend I met the sculptor at her palatial home on Providence's East Side one early spring afternoon. Have you ever heard of a merry widow? This woman was the epitome of the title and having inherited her husband's factories and fortune, was using her newly gained money and power to make a frontal assault on the previously mentioned society. Her husband had not only owned a ceramics business that mostly made lamp bases but also owned one of the jewelry factories that made Providence famous in the 50's and 60's. What he hadn't let his wife do was to follow her artistic tendencies and after 45 years of marriage she felt she had no time to lose if she was going to make an impression.

What she'd done was to turn the ceramic factory into a production center for some of the ugliest lumps of hardened clay I'd never imagined seeing. She was quite proud to tell us the workers had to make these (poorly designed, acid colored giant lumps) sculptures if they wanted to keep getting their regular paychecks. Two of them were delivered and uncrated while we were there and a couple of her maids were dusting and polishing them so she could add her own unique artistic signature, namely, gluing large pieces of colored cut glass to each one in random patterns while dancing around her studio drinking from a large glass of wine. She called them her 'Dragon' sculptures and was happy to know I'd painted dragons too.

She came by to see the paintings and told me they'd make an excellent counterpoint. Just a week before the show was scheduled to open she called the friend who'd introduced us demanding I paint dragons into the pictures that had none. She'd donated $100K to the Club in order to bypass their watercolorist rule so if I couldn't comply she planned to cancel my part of the show. Well, since that was not only outrageous but impossible, I cancelled. My friend offered me a corner in her dead seascape gallery and a few of the paintings went there for a month. It was a pretty funny juxtaposition.

Late in the summer I got a call from a woman who owned a restaurant gallery in Newport wondering if I'd be interested in hanging a show for the autumn season. I'd never dined there but knew the place had a good reputation. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day I met the owner and checked out the gorgeous space, finding windows galore, even tall clerestory ones all around the dining area, linen tablecloths, antique carpets and tons of flowers. Feeling buoyantly hopeful we went back and hung the paintings a few weeks later.

My friends at work were excited about the show and had insisted on making reservations for a big dinner party on opening night. It was after 7:00 pm when we arrived, the first time I'd been there after dark. Remember I told you about the windows? Well, it turned out they only let in light during the daytime and what I hadn't noticed the other times was something that struck me immediately when I walked in that evening. The place was dark. Well, it wasn't grope around, black dark but the only lights were tiny ones high up in the ceiling and low ones at the front counter. The tables were all lit by candles that at least hid any disappointment I may have been showing.

We ate, laughed and told silly stories. The owner introduced me to the other diners who all applauded, much to my embarrassment and delight. Just before dessert the waiters brought out several dozen more candles in their little holders and my friends led a procession around the room examining each painting in turn. It was a wonderful night.

Friday, January 2, 2009

armadillo arms

We arrived in Vancouver in the autumn of 1972 to be surprised by the fact there were almost no places to rent. The only place available was a nasty little house with a significant enough tilt that we felt compelled to sit and sleep in the higher corners so our combined weight wouldn't send it sliding down the hill where it had come to a precarious and obviously temporary rest. None of us had planned on continuing the communal living experience we'd begun in Montreal but after a week of fruitless search a young man visited us one evening with a proposition. He told us about the big house he'd leased a couple of blocks away and the fact the people he'd shared it with had moved out to the country. He needed help with the rent and had heard we were looking for a place. With that offer Armadillo Arms was begun.

There are places that exist in space and time that defy the timelines of ordinary experience. Although I remember Armadillo's inception much of the following five years remains in memory as intense vignettes rather than a series of linked episodes. It was a big place, three stories tall at the front and four behind, standing on a huge lot overlooking False Creek, actually a tidal inlet of English Bay, where Vancouver meets the Pacific. Across the water was the city center and beyond that were the mountains that separated us from the rest of Canada. It seemed like a World's End kind of place and was large enough to accommodate us and any number of friends and acquaintances passing through.

The front porch was a gathering place as well as being the local center of the food co-op we started shortly after our arrival. The house became pretty well-known once we got involved in community projects like free clinics, arts and craft centers, park building and generally having fun without burdening the city government. The police only bothered us once when one of our friends decided it was a good idea to grow marijuana in the back row of the garden and two of the boys in blue came by to harvest it. They knocked on the door and said, "Do you know what this is, young woman?" I answered, "Where are you taking our wheat?"

Naturally, there were conflicts and all was not wine, roses, fresh cheese and orgies. In fact, we hardly had any of the latter but cracks in mutual understandings did lead to breakups. That said, there were new people and the beginnings of new relationships.

An artist from Ireland was one of the new house members and on a Christmas Eve, although she was looking forward to the arrival of her brother, she went along with everyone to a party in a house nearby. An hour after they'd left I answered the door to a youngish bearded guy wearing a long coat and a very big smile who made a bee-line to a velvet upholstered tank chair. Returning from the kitchen with snacks I noticed he'd put a lampshade on his head. "Poor Geraldine", I thought, "She has a crazy person for a brother." He sat quietly holding his wine glass and another hour slipped by before everybody returned home. They'd met brother Don on the way to the party so he'd been with them all the time. 'Who's that?' somebody said, pointing to the lampshade man. He left soon after.

We kept a vegetarian household because it made cooking simpler. There were usually eight adults and one child living in the house but evening meals around our huge dining table often fed twice or more that number. We'd got rid of all the post Victorian furniture, sawed down the legs of the table, painted the walls, sanded and finished the floors and had made a project of sewing several dozen large cushions that served as main floor furniture. Things like looms, spinning wheels, dyeing equipment, musical instruments, quilting frames, movie projectors and screens came and went but the creative environment stayed. There was always music.

One morning I was having my usual early soak and read in the bathtub, a time I could usually count on being alone and quiet, when someone tapped at the door and came in. This wasn't in itself unusual since we did share one bathroom and were pretty used to brushing our teeth and peeing while someone else was using the tub but I didn't know the guy who'd entered this time. He was pleasant and said 'good morning'. Somebody else came in right after and before I could start counting there was a steady stream of strangers coming into the bathroom carrying towels and toothbrushes saying 'hellos' and 'how-are-you's' and 'nice day, isn't it's?' and talking and laughing amongst themselves while my bath water cooled and my bubbles popped out of existence. When a guy came in saying he really needed to take a shit I finally put my water logged foot down and asked him to go out, close the door and wait for two more minutes. Quickly drying off and putting my robe on I opened the door to find a group of people I'd never met standing on the landing and lined up all the way down the main stairs. It turned out they were members of a rock band entourage whose buses had arrived outside of Armadillo Arms late the previous night. You just never knew who was going to show up or when.

The few years we spent together passed quickly with people coming, going and returning and the whole seeming as though it would always be. Geraldine married Alan, a sculptor who'd arrived with us from Montreal and their first child was born in the house. I'd never expected to be a midwife but that's another thing that happened and perhaps another story.

Toward the end of the time we lived there an eclipse of the full moon was expected but a week of heavy rains had made it unlikely to be visible in Vancouver. Long past midnight I awoke hearing someone playing guitar. Through the open window I saw the first shadow of the earth touch the moon and heard my friends voices murmuring on the porch roof below. Although I could have gone down to join them time I couldn't look away. Time seemed to have stopped as I stood there entranced. Music played, friends laughed quietly and the heavens danced their eternal waltz.