She has a shopping cart, piled neatly high. One large red suitcase is affixed to the front handles. She has laid out a towel for herself and another one for her small dog – collared, placidly alert – to sit on.
“You really have to believe in yourself,” says the middle-aged woman to the younger middle-aged woman walking towards the recycling bin next to my table.
She caught me looking at her as I walked into the university cafeteria, already decided upon a single Americano and butternut squash soup because I get a discount for bringing my own cup and the soy milk is free and a roll is included all for eight dollars.
The dog snoozes, the woman remains sitting up. She has no book, she reminds me of the grandmother corralling four young children – two clasping copies of real estate fliers – whom I approached to let know, en español, that the children’s corner in our library was open, free, muchos libros para los niños, just go through those sliding glass doors and turn to the right.
“You’re doing it, you’re really bridging those gaps,” says one nicely collared shirt guy to the other as they pass by me, walking rapidly in tandem.
The dog has moved to sit next to the woman, hip-to-hip, each looking in opposite directions. There is a soda cup bearing the name of a corporate chain beside her, but she hasn’t been drinking it. I know the drill with social services and food banks, I wonder what her list of hundred-plus-plus reasons is, the list that brought her to this juncture, this modus operandi.
Within the cluster of our brushed metal + umbrella patio settings, I count eight loners, four pairs, two trios. Puffy clouds overhead. Three hours north a fire, in its sixth day and only 12% contained, has burned 65,000 acres on the other side of our mountains in what is called a wilderness but was once the homeland of many Pomo, Patwin, and Wintun.
“In all my thirty-two years of being a fireman, I’ve never seen a fire so explosive,” said the second-in-command during yesterday’s radio interview.
During the community meeting for those displaced by fire, the point was made that evacuation notices were only transmitted along high-tech channels. Residents were encouraged to seek out neighbors whom they knew were elderly, who didn’t own cellphones, who weren’t wired into the internet. This still resulted in the death of at least one elderly neighbor with a cellphone and internet access.
I look up. A man in a black tank top and shorts has approached the woman. He tosses a duffle bag onto the top of her pile and nestles a water bottle into the interior of the cart, rearranging things. They both haul backpacks over their shoulders and leave together, he pulling the cart alongside, she with the leashed dog. It is thirteen hundred hours exactly.
There, but for the grace of so many gods (and goddesses and demi-gods), go I. Go all of us.
“So is it true that Americans landed on the moon? What was that all about anyway? And what is the moon like? Is there really no water on the moon?” my adopted father, the Tado clan chief, asked me late one evening.
Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface while the Tado were recovering from a volcanic eruption followed by the Indonesian civil war, so it’s no wonder there was a news blackout. In the late 1960s, few in the Manggarai district could have afforded a radio, much less a television. Flores Island remains one of the most neglected corners in the eastern end of the archipelago – even now, only a handful of Tado households own a TV.
After confirming to Daddy the 1969 lunar landing did, indeed, take place, I tried to describe the composition of the lunar landscape versus other planetary landscapes. No internet connection, no library of picture books meant our visual resources were restricted: I scanned my mind for an understandable comparison before realizing I could refer to local topography. Our research center was located next to a pitted rock escarpment, the site of a natural hot springs bubbling up into a muddy pool dominated by free-ranging water buffalo. The clan’s lands were delineated by small mountains with rocky outcroppings and sharp boulders.
“Imagine an entire miniature planet, with a super-dry surface covered by a crusty rock layer in the lowlands,” I proffered, “plus steep mountains as tall, or taller than the ones here, but with sharper crags.”
“Ah,” responded Daddy. “But what did the astronaut do when he reached the moon?”
Wishing desperately for a film clip of Apollo 13 and a better command of technical Indonesian, I fumbled through an explanation of the lunar module, the scientific goals of the trip, and how it was possible for a heavily suited man to navigate the moon. After covering the differentials between lunar and earth gravity, our conversation swung over to a discussion of basic astronomical principles: planetary revolutions and orbital paths around the sun. To contrast solar and lunar eclipses I called back to the kitchen for props, requesting an assortment of plates and bowls. While Daddy watched intently, I circulated dishes around his head.
“Hmmm,” he grunted, his pursed eyebrows indicating he understood my explanations, but wasn’t entirely satisfied. Occupying the role of a living encyclopedia for a community of thousands, Daddy is perpetually hungry for more information.
Although I enjoyed matching wits with the chief, scouring my memory banks to translate vast topics into village-speak was both exhilarating and exhausting. Personally, I found the traditional Balinese cosmology more understandable. In their version of lunar eclipses, the events involve the demonic sky monster Kalu Ratu engulfing the female moon goddess Devi Ratih and producing darkness. To reclaim the moon goddess, everyone must beat on drums and gongs as long as the eclipse lasts to help the ubiquitous Hindu hero, Vishnu, force the monster to spit her out again.
I witnessed the efficacy of the get-our-moon-goddess-back trick one long, sultry night in a beachside resort on Bali’s northwest coast. Drawn by the gamelan music, we strolled along the sand to a modest temple a short distance from the resort grounds. Inside the temple walls a local village gamelan orchestra in elaborately batiked sarongs, headscarves, and jackets ting-tonged their way throughout the night’s eclipse. Spectators ate, drank, gambled, or in the case of one young toddler dressed to the nines in a miniature version of the instrumentalist’s get-up, hung out peacefully until two foreigners walked by.
Taking one look at us smiling down at him and admiring his outfit, the kid burst into tears and buried his face in his mother’s lap. I don’t know if it was because his mother used a common threat to chide him when he misbehaved (“sit still or the foreign white devils will come get you!”), or because he rarely encountered tall, skinny, white-blond haired tourists. Perhaps all the talk of the demonic moon monster was conflated in his mind with our appearance.
No matter. We left the temple grounds and the kid calmed down. Ultimately the music and all the other Balinese variants of lunar voodoo worked.
They got our moon back.
During the era of Three Minute Public Comment Frustration, while enroute from one marine policy meeting to the next, I stopped to lean on a concrete bridge in Northern California and stare intently at an enormous sea creature. Weighing in at around 30 tons and stretching 15 meters (45 feet) long, a female gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was swimming in slow circles beneath the Klamath River bridge, exhaling mightily through her blowhole every twenty seconds.
Her sleek, pale-bluish-and-slate-grey body curved with a mighty elegance, her white-edged tail dipped and rose through the greenish-teal river water. Her crusting of barnacles emphasized her age and gravitas. It was easy to see how passersby were thrilled by her grace and proximity.
I felt it too, but I also felt a potent dismay, and my eyes filled with tears.
The last time I witnessed a creature turning endless circles was a platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in a small aquarium along Australia’s Gold Coast. Initially I could hardly contain my excitement: my first-ever real, live, honest-to-god platypus! I was enthralled by the morphological craziness of a monotreme mammal who laid eggs; an otter-like creature adorned with the bill and webbed feet of a waterfowl. This critter represented evolution turned inside out and gone haywire. Before my aquarium trip I pressed a colleague so constantly to repeat his story of seeing a platypus for mere seconds on a rainforest trek, bobbing up briefly in a waterway before disappearing again, that he grew weary of my asking.
I walked closer to the aquarium, close enough to be eye-to-eye with Mr. (Ms?) platypus. And my excitement snuffed itself out. With a dull thud in my chest, I realized what the platypus was doing.
This was not a healthy platypus. This was a platypus desperate to be somewhere else. A somewhere else without tight glass walls or piped-in, sick-smelling city water. An ancient somewhere, occupied for centuries by platypus kin.
I watched with increasing anxiety as the platypus’ paws mechanically stroked through the water, aimlessly, depressingly, circling the edges of the aquarium. Platypus eyes held no gleam. Platypus didn’t pause, didn’t engage, didn’t slow down or speed up. I was witnessing a desperately unhappy creature, and there was nothing I could do, short of enacting a kidnapping: shoving a sodden platypus into my backpack and smuggling my charge to a remote water hole.
Continuing to stare – and play the act of a clueless tourist – was a passive, but nonetheless real, way of being complicit with platypus imprisonment. Out of respect, I curbed my voyeurism, turned my back and walked out. The image haunts me. It is one of the most vivid memories I have of my trip to Queensland.
Back on the Highway 101 bridge just south of the Yurok tribal office in Klamath, as I watched the whale repeat her pathway through the water, exhaling methodically at almost exactly the same spots at each turn, I worried. I wondered what inspired her to choose the most easily accessible aquatic spot for tourists along the entire length of the northern coast, and to remain there for months, allowing thousands of humans to gaze at her. She had arrived with her 6-month-old calf, who, once weaned, left after a few weeks. The mother remained, swimming in circles.
An oceanic filter feeder, a whale cannot last very long in freshwater without a daily diet of marine plankton and crustaceans. To encourage her to return to the sea, local tribes sang to her, and scientists tried using noisemakers and orca calls.
Recounting the story of the whale to my partner that night, I began to weep. “Why don’t we know her song?” I cried into his shoulder. “Why aren’t we stopping everything we are doing to communicate with her? Why aren’t we keeping up a vigil by the riverside, staying with her until someone has a dream where she speaks to us so that we can figure out what she is trying to tell us, what we are supposed to do?”
I said “we,” but I really meant “I,” the I who was so burdened by student papers to grade, a consultancy deadline to meet, bills to pay, that I decided I couldn’t just stop and do what my heart wanted so desperately to do.
A week later after I stood on the side of the bridge and watched her, the whale, after turning in slower and slower circles, beached herself and died.
When I craft a flash nonfiction piece, I choose my words/line breaks/rhythm with the same care I bring to poetry.
Because writers can wait for weeks, months (years!) before our words are published, I’m jump-starting the process by pairing short excerpts from my book-in-progress with online videos.
Hungry readers can devour experimental flash nonfiction on this page…and when it’s published, I promise to post the link.