|photo by Renee Podunovich|
Sorry to say that the Catholic meaning of it all is totally lost on me, but the image of this man, holding his own head so tenderly, reminds me about mindful awareness. Isn't this the goal after all of so many spiritual disciplines- to get ahold of the mind and its errant ways via compassionate witnessing, rather than letting it drive the bus of our life so recklessly? And somehow, getting free (however momentarily) of the mind through mindful awareness practice is akin to creative process for me.
I've posted the story here. Enjoy! http://newworldwriting.net/backissues/2000/012300-podunovich.htm
The Café Patio
“You’re birthday party falls on The Feast Day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” she says, laughing then pushing her yellow-gray front tooth in and out with her tongue, making a slight clicking sound. Slowly, gently she rolls wads of dry Prince Albert tobacco into an almost translucent Rizla paper, like bundling an infant into a soft warm blanket. Such care for something so habitual and ordinary; a lacy white baptismal gown for dried plant matter. I want to reach over and help her, hurry her diligent fingers. I lift my coffee cup from the small patio table which tips toward her. Milk froth must have stuck on my lip, because she motions with one of her veiny hands to her own lip. I lick it off. I set the cup back down on the table, and like a seesaw with the added weight it settles back toward me. I wonder at her slow, meticulous rolling, and the secret enjoyment in her eyes at the idea of St. John loosing his head on the day of my party. Had she not mentioned it, I would not anticipate him. Now, on top of fading into another year with more premature gray hair, I will be sure to hear him all that day. He will be tiptoeing one step behind me, hiding in doorways as I glance back, then showing up at the party, mingling with the headed guests who are at a total loss for words.
It is hot in the mid-morning New Mexico sun. Out on the streets, the heat is blazing off the adobe walls and the black asphalt, the whole town looking like a mirage. Funny that it never disappears, even when you switch angles or get nearer to it. You just become filmy like children’s bubble liquid. Then the hype, the marketing and the “atmosphere” blow until you are round, floaty and a momentary part of the illusion. The cafe patio is under the shade of a trellis thick with leafy vines, itself snuggled under a tall and slender cottonwood which stands like a grandmother with her shawl spread to shade us. The patio is cool, and the small dirt alleyway quiet. A slight breeze shuffles the leaves, and blows out her match. Strands of her long gray hair blow into her eyes like naughty ghosts. It is the kind of hair that birds love to gather for their nests.
Suddenly, walking briskly up the alley is a stout man, in his early forties, wearing a tan trench-coat and what appear to be combat boots. His walk is hurried and intent, and his head would appear jutted forward, only he has no head. He passes the patio and opens the turquoise door to the bookstore that is across the alley. The sleigh bells on the door jingle as he shuts it behind him. The breeze delivers the scent of gardenias and garlic upon its airy fingers.
“You really believe in Saints?” I inquire, as I get up quickly from the table. I cross the alley and pretend to look at a patch of giant Hollyhocks growing in a crack of cement in front of the bookstore window. She is too immersed in lighting her cigarette to hear, or if she does, feels it is optional to answer. I peer through the enormous stalks and see that inside, the beheaded St. John is browsing with the other customers. Satiny petals brush against my cheek and I get the idea to collect some of the Hollyhock seeds and plant them in my own garden at home. The seeds are plentiful, hundreds in one round pod, and hundreds of pods on the six foot stalks. There is nothing extraordinary about the flowers but that they grow where no other plant will dare. Poor, dry soil makes them proliferate, and like true ascetics, they delight in the absence of pleasure. Their display is so simple and it hides no mysteries. There are the tight buds, the open blossoms flushed and thick with pollen, and then the wilt and decay of the wadded brown petals. And finally the seeds nestled in their pods.
“God! What does it mean?” I ask her. The words muffle into an open red blossom that I am examining up close.
“What?” she asks.
“About the Feast Day!”
“Well, I don’t know,” she says, leafy green eyes on her cigarette the whole time. She exhales dramatically and her words are carried like smoke signals in the air. “Mine always falls on The Feast Day of The Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she adds, as if this is an obvious point that needs no further explanation. Gingerly she picks at the variety of stray things that have gathered in her lap; scraps of tobacco, granules of sugar, even vagrant leaves.
“Sacred Heart,” I say, fingering the seed pods, now grabbing and pulling them off the jostled and swaying stalks. Pulling and grabbing, stuffing the pockets of my blazer with them, imagining them in full bloom along the rusty wire fence of my garden. I notice St. John again, right on the other side of the window. He is pretending to look at a book on Georgia O’Keefe, without his head of course, and holds the book open in his palms like it is a bible and he might be administering mass to the crowds.
“God! I hate Santa Fe!” I say, loud enough so that two tourists, enamored by the Wild West as only tourists can be, look disapprovingly as they enter the bookstore. “They act like I am stealing something,” I complain, “it’s just weed seeds after all.”
“Who?” she asks. Of course she wouldn’t know. She doesn’t pay attention to anything but what is in front of her directly; a rolled cigarette, a cup of coffee. Even across the small alley, only 100 feet away, I could be across the Grand Canyon to her. She doesn’t notice that St. John has decided to purchase the book. He is presenting it to the poor gawking clerk, who doesn’t remember this situation from customer service training.
“Maybe it’s like an allusion to a Zen Koan. ‘No mind is all mind,’ or ‘The head is not ahead” I say, giggling silently about my pun. I walk back to the table and sit down, carefully, so that I won’t bump it off balance. It tips toward her anyway.
“No,” she says very seriously. She clasps her hands in front of her chest as if to pray or emphasize her point. For a long moment she eyes the labyrinth trail of vines above us, as if they understand something that I don’t. “It wouldn’t be that obvious. We won’t know until the actual day arrives and then we’ll see what turns up. How can we know?” she asks.
Yes, it is so obvious. How can we know anything except that we are sipping coffee on the patio of the cafe? St. John is by the Hollyhocks admiring them, or at least has his body turned toward them. His purchase is in a brown paper sack tucked under his arm. He starts to pluck at the stalks, just as I had done, collecting the seed pods and putting them in his coat. He turns toward us suddenly, as if waiting. With his free hand he is fingering the rough seeds that are falling now, out of the pods and into the silky lining of his pocket.
“What more is there to know beyond the contents of a seed?” she inquires. Bud, blossom, death. These everyday emotions, thoughts and activities are just days of sun, rain and photosynthesis, ending always in exactly the same place: Seeds in the pockets of the living and the Saints.