December 19 is my daughter’s birthday and December 25 is of course Christmas. The plan is that my son will fly in on the 19th. We are texting back and forth about who will pick up my daughter from the airport.
Logistics are important because we have planned to have a surprise birthday party for her. We need to keep her away from the apartment while decorations are made and people gather. He texts “we’ll see…” and explains that he has received a positive result from a home Covid test. He says that home Covid tests are unreliable and that he will do a test at an urgent care center in the morning. He says he will do the kind where he gets the results back in two hours. He is living on the other side of the continent, 3 hours ahead of me.
I wake up at 7 o’clock to a text from my son saying that he has tested positive for Covid. I call immediately. Sure enough he can’t come for Christmas. Fact is, even though all he has is a runny nose, you can’t get on a plane with a positive Covid test.
Quick to respond, I get all the presents out from under the tree to the post office within a matter of hours.
Later in the day, as I am driving to my elderly friends house in the country, I receive several texts from my daughter’s best friend. We have been texting quite a lot in the last week planning the surprise party. It is a lot of fun planning it and we have gotten closer doing it. Of course when driving on a highway I can’t read a text. I have to say “Siri, read me the latest text” and then I have to dictate an answer and I have to hope that auto incorrect hasn’t messed it up so badly that it is not understandable.
The text conversation on the highway is all about how my daughter has managed to plan her own birthday party. She has invited everybody she likes out to dinner on Saturday night. The people who can’t come to that, she invites to a picnic in the park on Sunday. Julia explains to me that to have the party on Sunday would be redundant as it would be the same people.
My daughter has an important stressful job where she works hard and she is not going to like having a repeat party so the Sunday night surprise party needs to be canceled, and it is.
However I have ordered ahead and bought a $50 very fancy cake that is my children’s favorite. I manage to get the cake to Julia so the young ones can enjoy it at dinner on Saturday night and at the picnic in the park on Sunday.
Before I give it to her, I slice off a little bit for myself and her father and her to have at the simple birthday dinner Sunday night (which was to be the decoy before the big party). I also slice off a piece for my son who can’t come for Christmas. It is cold out and it is colder in New York so I figure it will travel well.
In choosing the title, it was either the word “murder” or the word “rain” to be put first. In this world of social media, we are always considering what has more the draw. So I chose “murder”. No judgement there. Full disclosure, I’d probably prefer to read or watch a mystery over any other genre (feeling appropriately guilty about that and all).
On with the story. Because of the rain, this morning I arrive at my kitchen counter to find hundreds (at least) of ants scurrying around the honey jar. it is closed (thank god for something) but they are all over it. Without thinking, I pick up the jar and wash it off, killing a few score ants in the process. I open the honey and am glad to find none inside. I do all this automatically because my mind’s focus is on one one thing: my coveted morning black tea.
Afterwards, I witness the tiny debris of death in the sink. I also notice the hundreds (at least) of ants still on my counter now searching for something that is no longer there.
i watch them as they communicate to each other, butting heads for a scond and moving on, the way they do. I think about how they are sentient beings with mothers and children. how they work so well together. Without a queen bee, they seem to be one for all and all for one. I am moved by their ability to cooperate far better than humans. I remember how they can carry six (is it six?) times their weight.
As there is nothing left for them to be there for, I decide to wait it out. I don’t kill anymore. The unthinking mass murder moment is over. I am thinking since there is no more honey, the ants will eventually leave. Over the next couple hours as I go in and out of the kitchen I check in with the group. The ants that are all in a tight thick circle around where the honey was, I thought were dead as they were unmoving for hours but later in the day I came by and they were gone. By the end of the night they were all gone.
I had the great good fortune to have a spiritual teacher for 34 years. He died suddenly. We didn’t know he was ill. A few weeks before he died he said if he were beyond alone in empty starkness and the only other being around was an ant, he would try his very hardest to communicate with that ant. It was sort of a crazy thing to say but I liked it and I always remembered it.
It’s a rather impossible situation like one hand clapping. I don’t know how one communicates to an ant but I do know that you don’t have to kill them. There’s always another way.
Despite all the paraphernalia in stores you can buy with Guadalupe imagery on it, there is not a single place I could find to go to a Guadalupe mass in the San Francisco bay area. Well, Mission Dolores had one at 5:45am but that wasn’t working for me.
So Tuesday I call up the Newman Center which is the Catholic Church servicing Cal (University of Berkeley) thinking (once again incorrectly) that Berkeley may have the pulse on things.
Amazingly enough the “Father” who gives the mass, Father Stephen, answers the phone. He is nice. He is hip. He is understanding. He explains about the four types of masses they have there. He says the 10am is most vibrant. It has a choir.
I explain how I am not just going for Guadalupe but also for my younger sister Sally who was devoted to Mary and who passed away 24 years ago. I want to honor her as well as Guadalupe. He understands and gives me to think he will certainly address La Madre on her feast day. He asks me to introduce myself to him and tells me he will give me a cross for my sister. I thank him. He says “God bless you” and I say it right back as I usually so. Then after I’ve hung up I think perhaps one doesn’t appropriately say that to a priest. Perhaps one is supposed to be blessed and not talk back. Either way I am excited to go to church on Sunday.
I’m all dressed up recalling the 18 years I went to church with my family. I have brought a picture of Sally to show Father Steven. I get there and the place is maybe one third full. I notice with interest that maybe the majority of people are there alone. It is so different from my childhood when the church was filled full with families, some of them with eight kids.
it is a stark barren building with no Mary imagery at all and only has the crucifixion front and center. There is no color except a dark red candle and the priest’s costume.
Father Steven starts off with us turning to our neighbor. He tells us we have 3 minutes total for each of us to express for what we are grateful. No one is near me in my pew (row) so I turn to the guy behind me. He starts to go on and on about himself and then I see that the guy at the end of his pew has no one to talk to so I invite him in and as the first guy continues to go on about himself I realize there is a young woman in the row behind these two men who doesn’t have a partner so I invite her in. The first guy is still going on about himself so I suggest we move on to the next guy since we only have 3 minutes. The next guy is negative and says little. Then the young woman, who is a bit shy and lovely and a student, is glad finals are over and she is going home to her family in San Diego. Then it is my turn and I say quickly that I am grateful for Guadalupe and the fact that there are girl god images. I look only into the young woman’s eyes as I say this.
The choir is pathetic. It is a barely audible group of 7 people who look like they’d rather not be there. There is a screen with lyrics so we can sign along but sometimes it is not on the right verse and besides it’s hard to know where the melody is.
Then the priest sits down and whoops! he see someone doing something and apologizes that he has forgotten the children’s part of the mass. About 9 kids (none of them dressed up) come on stage. We bless them. Then they leave to go somewhere else.
I am remembering when I was a kid and we suffered through mass every single Sunday. It was “good for your character” we were told; like brushing your teeth.
I am also remembering all the many times I have been at Hindu services with the great humanitarian Amma (www.amma.org) where kids run around everywhere in full-on chaos and there is non-stop loud singing sung by many, most of whom don’t understand the language they are singing.
All that is as it may be and I am still hoping for something in church. The priest who is large and a bit round, though his purple gown hides that, sits down again and a woman comes to the pulpit twice and solemnly reads the “Word of God”. Her gone, the priest gets up out of his chair and makes a big deal showing off a bright red book with gold rimmed pages. I assume this is the Bible.
He opens it and reads a prayer from Paul to the Corinthians but he sort of mumbles “Corinthians” and it sounds like Paul is writing to the “Bolivians” but of course he isn’t. That’s now. He’s writing then.
Which reminds me, after we said our gratitudes to our neighbor(s), we were instructed to take a few minutes in silence to think about what makes us anxious. I have a pretty good life and I immediately think about all those tornado victims who’d lost everything just a day ago. I think about the refugees; so many of them all around the world. Often when I am breezing through Instagram where I mostly follow other artists, i come across an NPR photo of people fleeing for their lives. I am anxious about them. I am anxious about the people in Libyan prisons keeping migrants out of Europe where the director has told the guards, “You can do anything to them, You just can’t kill them.” (The New Yorker 12/6/2012). I am anxious for them and for babies still at the border.
The priest reads the passage for the day. It is Paul telling a story about John the Baptist telling the people in Corinthia (What is that land now?) not to be anxious.
The church is in the third week of Advent Father Stephen explains and he admits his sermons throughout advent are mostly the same but each week they get deeper and this week he is addressing happiness.
He asks everyone not only to sing but to be sure to do all the movements that go along with the singing. Participation is everything.
He begins, “When you are happy and you know it clap your hands” (Clap Clap)
I clap and then I realize I am not happy and I do not want to clap. He says something after we clap and moves on to the next line which he claims is more difficult “When you are happy and you know it, stomp your feet”
I get up and leave the mass. I am looking for someone in the lobby to whom I can give feedback. It is more than empty.
I leave the building. A woman is entering. She is very late for mass so I ask her if she works there. She explains she is just going to church. I give her my feedback. I tell her my story. I show her the picture of my sister. She has blond hair and blue eyes like my sister. She listens. She understands. Both of our eyes tear up. She hugs me.