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Possibly the most endearing line in Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini is spoken by Lucca, the boy whose character is loosely based on Zeffirelli himself. The English ladies, known as the Scorpioni for their determination to remain in Florence when England and Italy are at war, are being taken into custody. The delightfully eccentric Arabella, played by Judi Dench, has a much beloved dog, whom she is not allowed to bring with her. When Lucca appears on the scene, she cries out, "Look after him." Lucca replies, "Of course! We were puppies together." That's the sweet line.
Puppy is a near onomatopoetic word. Say it a few times while you watch a puppy roll and leap and trundle and run as fast as its short little legs will grow—puppy, puppy, puppy—and you may agree with me. When I think of puppies, the word that comes to mind is roly-poly. And then perhaps joy. Unbounded joy. And it's hard to resist feeling that joy, even if you might not want a puppy in your own life. Laughter, too––belly laughs as a puppy falls all over itself and jumps up with no shame, no attempt to recover its dignity. What dignity?
Learning, however, is not the first word that comes to mind, and yet, it's embedded in Lucca's words, "We were puppies together." Probably the reason I'm content with enjoying other people's puppies and feel no need to have one of my own is the learning bit. Clearly Lucca and Arabella's puppy (who is never named, as I recall) are learning life lessons together. Arabella's puppy is learning where to pee and poop, how to walk on a leash, though it happens with the greatest of ease in the film. Lucca is learning harder lessons––the fact that his mother is not just on a cloth-buying trip to Paris; she is not coming back. In fact, he learns that she has died, though no one told him until Joan Plowright's character takes on the painful task. Later Lucca has to learn to transcend his jealousy to help the woman of his teen crush (played by Cher) escape the Fascists.
There is great joy for children in living with a puppy, and there is wonderful learning–– how to care for another, remembering their daily needs, seeing where harm could come to them and finding ways to prevent that. And then simply reveling in the task of childhood and puppyhood––play!
The word puppy was brought to you by Ann Przyzycki Devita, who recently brought a puppy into her life and the lives of her children, so they and Chip are being puppies together.


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The stars spread their glitter still,
And the moon slid slo-mo down in the west.
God put on her bathrobe and came downstairs.
It was made of the softest wool
From my friend Roy's sheep that he loves so much.
I know because he told me how he sat and carded and spun it for her.
God put on her bathrobe and made herself and me a mug of strong black tea.
It came from Darjeeling, India.
I love this tea, don't you? she said.
My favorite, I said.
God smiled.
We sat in God's big, fat matching armchairs and sipped the good dark.
Then she stretched out her hand.
Come, she said and patted her lap.

I looked a question.
She nodded.
I set down my tea, and God did too.
I climbed onto her knee, and she put her arms around me.
She rocked me.
I burrowed into God's cushy breast.
Her fingers played my silver curls.
It's all right, she said.
You can't do anything
To end this.
Not even that? I asked.
Not even that, she said.


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Image courtesy Morguefile/hotblack

They are in the places where you never go. I'm not talking about pocket-sized dragons. I mean the big ones. The ones that make you shudder, the ones that dry out your mouth, make your stomach go cold, wound up in a tangled knot. Several times a day. Those dragons.
If you want to face your dragons (or quite possibly you don't), you will find them in a place unfamiliar––in the underground caverns of the mind, the freezing, barren peaks where it seems nothing can live. A place where the familiar no longer surrounds you.
Boarding school might have been my first such place, but I was too young to know what I was facing. You have to be able to look straight at your own reflection in the dragon's eye, and that requires some life experience, an ability to step outside all the feelings and then stare them down.
In my mid-thirties I entered the dragon's cave at the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School, in the dead of the dark Swedish winter. There for three rigorous months––34 days of silence, up at 3 a.m. to meditate, living with people I would never choose, building stairs of stone, cutting the rot from mounds of carrots in the dank root cellar until I couldn't feel my fingers, no reading, no writing––and the dragons swooped in. The steel-gray one, thin as a snake named Utterly Alone; the great red one, Obsession that assails me still; the one with green eyes, one that maybe you've met. Deprived of words and instructed not to communicate with hands or eyes––this and all things unfamiliar brought forth the monsters.
The pandemic presented me with the most gargantuan dragon of all. Once again, it was a dearth of  human communion that introduced the flapping wings, the scaly, slithering tail. Every morning the beast appeared when first I opened my eyes. It flooded me with rushes of intense anxiety. Throughout the day it attacked, flying up from deep in my belly, wave upon wave of fear. In the sixth month of COVID, I managed to look the dragon in the eye. I heard its name: You Have No Control. In that moment I came to the realization that control is possibly the thing I want most in this life, and I had none. No control over how others responded to the virus––whether or not they wore masks, how close they came in the supermarket, where they had been or what they'd been doing before crossing my path. With the dragon's snout in my face, I couldn't get away from seeing how desperately I want control. Of everything. All the time. Everything near me and most especially the behavior, the actions, even the emotions of others. I saw my urge to control had little to do with masks or social distancing. It was about everything in my life, and it had always been that. It was an illusion to think I ever have any power over others. And I felt sick inside at how ugly it is to want that.
Of course, I'd known for a long time that I like to be in control. And we need to control some things sometimes. But I never saw the pervasiveness of the desire for it so sharply as in this time of isolation. In this strange place where all of us are living these days. I hadn't seen so starkly the hideousness of my urge or smelled the stench of its hot breath. Deprivation of the familiar at the yoga school led to awareness. Awareness, the first step to letting go––and now, a strange, rare gift of the deprivation attending the time of Corona.


And the next step? I think it's simple but not easy. I think dear old Ram Dass had it: "Be here now." And let go.


Have you been to the place where the dragons are in this time of Corona? Have you looked them in the eye? Have the dragons borne you a gift?


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In the early 1980s I was homeless. I didn't think of it that way because to me, at the time, being homeless meant living on the street, which I never did. I was a lost soul, living for days or weeks in other people's homes. At one point I spent three weeks on the UC Berkeley campus, participating in a nutrition study, which gave me room and board and a stipend. From there I moved into an SRO, a Single Room Occupancy, also known as a "residence hotel." I worked at the desk there for my room and board and created an editing and typing business for spare change. I operated a switchboard that had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and met women who had been shoved out of mental institutions by the Reagan policy. I got to know women from China who were studying for a six-week stint at the Van Ness Business College. I talked every day to a woman who had made the hotel her home since 1936. There was a chiropractor who had lived there for fifteen years. There were transients––tourists from Germany, Ireland and Jamaica, a young lesbian couple coming to the Promised Land from South Dakota, staying in the hotel while they sought jobs and someplace permanent.


In October of that year, I decided to return to New Mexico and the larger Southwest. I could hardly wait. One night, shortly before leaving, I wrote a poem I called "nightsong" about my joy to be coming home. Yet, I would still be homeless for many more months. It was New Mexico that was home and the Navajo Nation that was Home-Not-Home. I was going back to both.


While I was packing to leave New Mexico for Iowa, which I will do a week from now, I found that poem. I didn't know I still had it. So, although I'm leaving my New Mexico home now, it seems fitting to share the poem that tells of my deep connection here.




rain tonight in san francisco

past midnight     on the narrow bed

in the dark           

hear water slapping cement

drainpipes  chuggalugg


missing you

hours    talking    eating        laughing

in our kitchens

playing cards til 4am

hearing willie nelson        on the road again


i am coming home     i am coming

        blue sky

        red rocks

        green chiles

        mutton stew

        lazy brown mud houses

        brown skins

i am coming home


the red earth    wild animals howl at harvest moon

dry corn cracks on Canyon floor

i am coming

my     self wild wide deep   and    voluptuous as

      The Canyon

i am coming home


       golden yellow aspens

       smokey blue mountain ravines

       dust clouds down the road


       i   am   coming   home




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