Muralizing, part 1

Mary Sand creating a new mural for me.

Since she was our graphic designer at the Express in the days when the students put out an actual, hold-in-your-hands newspaper, Mary Sand has amazed me with her patience and skill. It’s not easy dealing with a bunch of student editors (and one fast-moving, mind-always-changing adviser), but Mary designed the Express and Mainline magazine with ease and aplomb and taught us all a lot in the bargain.

Turns out she’s also a super-talented muralist (a leaf off her painter mama’s tree), guided by thoughtful art teachers at Sacramento City College. And now, to honor the centenary of my house and its little garage, Mary is muralizing a fanciful garden.

It’s her canvas, I told her, giving her minimal input. But she asked for copies of some poems and wants to work in my words to this art piece… one of the best investments I can imagine for this old house, this old teacher about to retire.

I’ve long said that the greatest gifts of teaching are getting to know and nurture people like Mary. If we’re lucky, some of them stay in our lives and add to them, the students who taught us more than a little, too.

Mary at work muralizing my garage
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Photo / Dez Pain

Listen to Jan read this poem here.

And so you sit in the chair to which you have been guided
by the white-cloaked angel, your own pew among many
sprinkled around this cathedral of inoculation,
filled with other souls like you, each tended by an angel
who asks them to bare an upper arm — which one?
your choice — and you choose, wondering, as you do
so often these days, if it’s the right choice, the best choice.
If there is such a thing anymore.

And you have waited for this, prayed for this deliverance,
and now it is here, and you wish you could see the smile
of the angel at your shoulder, lifting tiny bottle to
delicate needle, but the angel’s lower face is shrouded,
upper face shielded, and you want to clutch one of
the angel’s blue-gloved hands, say, thank you
because you have read about the more than 2 million
around the world who would have loved to sit
where you do now.

And the angel says, “Take a deep breath,” and you do,
and you barely feel the prick of hope deliver the promise
of safety from the unseen demon that floats into the
unsuspecting, some of whom you know, some of whom
you loved. And you smile up at the angel, who,
you imagine, smiles back under the mask, who says,
“There you go,” and suggests you sit a bit, to rest
in this holy place.

And you do, gazing above your own mask at the olders
spaced so far apart, gray and white heads anchored
in the gentle sea of angels, reminded that you are
among the fortunate, with many decades behind you,
perhaps one ahead of you, if you’re lucky, your odds
greatly increased thanks to the little card in your hand,
the blesséd testament of new science delivered unto you.

And when you rise, you inhale deeply,
find your footing and walk, grateful to do so,
toward the exit, toward the light.

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Food, glorious food

Food distribution, Sacramento City College, Jan. 25, 2021

Six days a week, between about 1 and 4 p.m., I head to my city’s oldest college campus that has taught students for going on 105 years, now quiet, seemingly abandoned. It’s not, of course, though nowadays students and teachers like me learn and teach from home. Still, maintenance folks and district police, along with a few hardy administrators and operations people, not to mention construction workers laboring on new buildings, appear at Sacramento City College every day through the pandemic.

As do the cats, the ferals of SCC, some of whom I feed Saturdays through Thursdays. My colleague, physics professor Doug Copely, feeds the cats on Fridays just outside the old portable building where he was teaching before last March when we were all sent home, having no idea when we’d return. (We still have no idea when we’ll return.) I worked in that portable for 20 years before journalism moved to a new building across the campus.

It’s one of two feeding sites on campus, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, the Sacramento City Kitty Committee (so named by my retired colleague Holly Kivlin) continues to feed the ferals that hold down the campus space so others don’t occupy it.

Yesterday, the first Monday of the spring semester, as I pulled into campus next to Hughes Stadium, the 1928 football stadium named for a long-ago school superintendent, I saw masked volunteers waiting by tables, also there for food duty. They do a different kind of feeding as part of the college’s now-monthly food distribution. Students who’ve signed up for various pickup times drive up and, staying in their cars, pop their trunk lids or hatches so volunteers can deposit a box of food from the Sacramento Food Bank.

This is all the doing of Dean of Campus Interventions Andre Coleman and his team who, working from home, have been concerned since last March about food insecurity that they know affects students. Before the campus shutdown, Coleman and his staff, plus volunteers, provided donated food weekly on campus—no questions asked—to all comers. But the shutdown stopped that, and it took Coleman and his staff months to reinstate the first regular food distribution in November.

Now they’re giving food boxes monthly to those who sign up—again, no questions asked—and drive in to receive it.

Of course, all over the region volunteers are participating in food distribution, even during the pandemic—not least through agencies like the Sacramento Food Bank and the River City Food Bank and on-site feeding places such as Loaves and Fishes. Multiply this times thousands of groups doing this across the country, across the world, always, not just in pandemic times, people doing the work of angels.

I watched the teams at work as I fed the ferals, realizing that we were doing the same kind of volunteering at the same time—feeding those who need feeding. I’ve always fed students, too, bringing snacks from home, buying pizza for newspaper staffs, going out for sandwiches. I’m not much of a cook, but I can buy food, and students are always hungry.

Like the cats. For better or worse, I’ve brought a number of cats home over the decades (cats that have been pets do not fare well after being dumped, so we in the Kitty Committee have tried to find them homes). I often tell people I haven’t gone out to purposely acquire a cat in 25 years. Unlike the recipients who pick up food, the cats are champion social distancers and not nearly as grateful. Even across the road at the trailer, I could hear people calling out their thanks after the volunteers closed the open trunks and hatches.

And that made me smile. I rarely see the feral cats; they’re wild animals, after all. But I have gotten to know some of them over the years who’d sneak out and eat, who’d learned the sound of my voice. The food distribution folks and those of us feed the cats don’t require thanks. I’m honored to be part of a campus full of people who believe that feeding the hungry is important enough to show up at a campus closed by a pandemic, to smile behind their masks as they put food boxes in trunks, and wave as the recipients drive off.

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Happy second rebirth-aversary, Dickie!

Shooting our annual Christmas photo, Sacramento, CA, December 2020

Two years ago today Dick Schmidt felt dizzy and collapsed as we stood in line in Honolulu to board a plane home after our annual winter trip to Hawaii. Without warning, he died in that moment.

But two men immediately came out of the line behind us — Claudio Alvarado to monitor Dick’s then-nonexistent pulse and Salesi Maumau to perform CPR. Chris Ohta, a Hawaiian Airlines employee, ran to get an AED and returned with it to literally shock Dick back to life.

That began a chain of goodness and compassion from strangers who stunned us as much as the events of Dick’s cardiac arrest, a series of kindnesses that continues to this day. We are grateful beyond measure to Claudio and Salesi, to Chris and all the Hawaiian Airlines staffers who rushed to help that day, along with the EMS personnel, the lovely women at the AED Institute, and the tremendous medical team at Moanalua Medical Center.

Each of them, as our friend, songwriter Antsy McClain, sings, proved that “a stranger’s just a friend waiting to happen.”

Some longtime friends appeared in Honolulu to be by our sides—Makena Ongoy, Jan Lake, Andy and Leona Doughty, Cora Johnson and Connie Raub. Many others, including those of you reading this, cheered us on from afar.

Every time people ask me, “How’s Dick?” I want to respond with “alive and well.” Usually I say, “He’s doing great.” We both are. Even during a pandemic and unrest. He’s taking photos, as he always does, closer to home than on our usual travels, loving his snazzy iPhone (for which, I tease him, he had to die before he agreed to own) with its outstanding camera. (Thanks, John Thompson!)

He continues to be a great helper serving family and friends, something he’s done all his life. And he’s coming up on his 78th birthday in February, in addition to this second “rebirth-aversary,” as one of our new friends dubbed it. (Thanks, Eryn Maumau!)

We’re alive and well and so “gratitudinous,” as Dick likes to say, for all the love bestowed upon us. Thank you all.

Dick at Thanksgiving 2020
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New Year’s Eve 2020

For Dani, whose help this year has made all the difference

On the last day of the no-good-very-bad year
we get to work. You come to my house—
a near-weekly stint for the past nine
months—take stock of the living room,
the boxes, empty and full, into which we
have slowly poured the detritus of my life,
survey the interior of the old garage
and new shed, and say, “What if we…?”

Without thinking too hard, a plan emerges,
the notion of making things better
cheering us both in a time when it seems
we can do so little.

How can it be that everyone on the planet—
no one is immune—suffers at the same time?
Additional agony doled out to those who
have the least, who have been preyed upon,
kicked one too many times, who can’t carry
any more pain, who deserve better.
Still, no one got the hall pass, the easy out.
Everyone is fighting a great battle;
many of us are dying in the trenches.
The wounded wander, masked and stunned,
trying to make sense of the senseless.

You and I know the sick, the dying, the dead.
Yet we work like stevedores, unloading freight
from the vessel of my century-old house
into the shed, which replaced the one erected
by someone who died two decades ago.
The last of his handmade Adirondack chairs
graces the deck, the second incarnation
of one he and his brother built. There is
so little left of him, the one I called husband,
yet he lingers as you and I work on this
last day of the no-good-very-bad year.

As we schlepp boxes, I mull over the remodeled
lives none of us saw coming, think of a friend
who spends each year’s end cleaning,
tidying up for the next twelve months,
literally putting her house in order.

And so do we on this sunny, light-breezed
day, so unexpectedly lovely that you pull out
the folding table recently tucked away for winter,
and you eat your bean and cheese burrito,
and I dive into my chicken taco plate, an
abundance of warmth on our backs,
basking in the accomplishment of a job
well done. This is grace, I think,
this peaceful moment of satisfaction.

Well done, indeed, good and faithful
servants, you who toil, you dearly departed,
rooted in the hearts of your loved ones,
now residing in mystery—never, thank God,
left behind, never forgotten.

Jan Haag, 12/31/20

New Year’s Day sunset, the island of Lanai, Hawaii, 2007 (Photo/Dick Schmidt)

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fear not

Never have we needed
to hear it more

as Mary, terrified, must have
received the angel’s tidings.

Or the same words delivered
to others whose faith was slipping

or perhaps had vanished entirely—
how did it sound to them?

In these days of trial and peril
let us embrace the message,

which, when absorbed
with our deepest breaths,

heartens and reassures,
counsels trust, even as we

weather the most frightful
storms, reminds us that we

are the sky through which the clot
of weather-beaten cloud passes,

where the eternal sun shines,
where abiding peace prevails.

Jan Haag
December 2020

Photo / Michael S. Williamson

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Santa Gets Cleared by the World Health Organization

All is calm; all is bright
at the North Pole,
where Santa,
it has been reported,
is immune to the virus
and ready for takeoff.

The big man and elfin team
are working in earnest,
getting ready to load the sleigh,
hitch up the reindeer
and make their worldly rounds.

No one knows if he’ll wear a mask,
but his is a solo act.  And he’s a champion
social distancer, able to slip presents
undetected under brightly lit trees.

It’s official:

This jolly fellow,
stealthier than any virus,
who circumnavigates the globe
in one night, will fly his annual journey
as always, leaving the greatest of gifts
under every tree—peace and joy and love—
this year delivered with extra helpings
of hope.

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William Shakespeare gets a COVID vaccination

81-year-old William Shakespeare was the second person to get the first
COVID vaccines at University Hospital in Coventry, England, Dec. 8, 2020.

In the winter of our discontent
‘tis not a dagger I see before me but a needle
to begin the Taming of the Flu, as a newspaper called it.
Patient 2B or not 2B. I choose 2B.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
A miracle. Here’s our own hands against our hearts.
We have seen better days. But
a light heart lives long. And
what light through yonder window breaks?
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile.

A man can die but once, but let that not be today
or tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Uneasy lie the lies from the head that wears the crown.
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Hell is empty and all the devils are here.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.
The evil that men do lives after them.

Nothing will come of nothing.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
We know what we are,
but know not what we may be.
Let us
Be! Be! Be!

Mostly Will’s lines (the original Shakespeare) with transitions by Jan

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Fall leaves in Dottie’s backyard

I just met a cat named Serena
And suddenly the name
will never be the same to me.

I’ve known more than a few kitties in my life, falling hard for them as a kid when my family acquired our first sweet kitten named Fluffy. She grew up to have many litters of kittens in the days before my mother decided that spaying a cat was a good idea. Consequently, my sister and I, as well as our next door neighbor, Sue (who grew up to be a veterinarian), got lots of lessons in “taming” kittens, as we called it. That amounted to a lot of girl-handling and saying as their tiny needle-sharp talons pierced us, “No claws! No claws!” Sometimes that worked.

I grew up to care for ferals at the college where I’ve taught for three decades, going to school daily to leave fresh food and water, even during the pandemic. I’ve trapped and hauled cats in big wire cages to vets to be tested, spayed, neutered and sometimes euthanized. I’ve hand raised brand new kittens, even toting a cat carrier bearing a pair of pale orange twins to school where some of my students kindly bottle fed those babies as I taught. Dick and I spent many a night rising every few hours to feed them, too.

All this is to say I have some cat experience under my belt, as well as my share of mistakes. So when Dick’s sister-in-law Dottie this summer fell and broke her hip, she was away from home for a good couple of months. Dick, his niece Rebecca and I joined the team of Dottie’s neighbors to do in-home care for Serena, a sweet calico tabby with only one ear. She had the other one amputated because of skin cancer, and she’s now a happy indoor cat with Dottie, who lives alone since the death of her husband Steev, Dick’s brother.

Serena was easy to care for—delighted to be introduced to cat treats (aka kitty crack) and quick to jump on a lap for a pat. We brought her cardboard scratchers and, with the help of Dottie’s neighbors Barbara and Mary, made sure she was fed and visited twice a day. When Serena developed breathing difficulties and had what looked like an ear infection, I took her to the vet, followed by a 10-day stretch of applying various medications to her eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s been a great team effort.

I typically sing to cats when I feed them. The smart ones realize that dinner is about to be served, and they usually come from wherever they’re sleeping or hiding to sit politely in the kitchen before the chow-down. I’ve made up kitty songs for years, often spontaneously. I’m fond of this variation on “Wooly Bully”:

Catty o’ catty
It’s just the catty and me
There’s the catty
And she’s ready to eat

Catty, catty. Ooooo!
Catty, catty.

Catty, catty. Catty, catty. Catty, catty.

(Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump)

With Serena, a take on “Maria” seemed appropriate. And she responded, coming from wherever she was to sit and watch, even if she wasn’t hungry. I’d sometimes put the food down, and she wasn’t interested, but she’d follow me as I sang:

I just hugged a cat named Serena
and suddenly I’ve found
how wonderful a sound can be.

Dottie with caregiver Iyona

Dottie finally made it home to Serena in October, and in mid-November she had her hip replaced. She came home the day after the surgery (amazing!) already feeling much better with home health care people on duty all day and night. Things were going well until the Sunday night before Thanksgiving when a new care worker left the front door open when he went out to his car, and Serena scooted out.

Dottie alerted neighbors Barbara and Mary, who immediately went out to search for Serena—to no avail. Dottie texted Rebecca and me, and we both said we’d be over the next day.

Rebecca, who lived with me for a time when she was attending Sac State, is the master cat finder. She discovered my old cat, Noodles, who, in his dotage, had lost more than a few kitty marbles. Though I was trying to keep him inside and safe, he’d still sneak out sometimes, and I’d find him lounging in the sun on the driveway, which was better than his former habit of sometimes sleeping in the middle of the street. On a hot day. (Noodles never was the smartest thing on four paws, I’m afraid. Lesson learned: Don’t name a cat something that calls his intelligence into question. The cat will live down to his name.)

One day Noodles disappeared, and Rebecca and I traversed the neighborhood calling and looking under bushes. Nada Noodles. A week later, Rebecca was driving down the street and saw Noodles on a neighbor’s porch about a block away. She parked the car, got out and walked toward him saying, “Noodles, ya moron! Where’ve you been?” He seemed content, she said, not eager to go with her, though she scooped him up and brought him home. The neighbor, Rebecca reported, had been feeding Noodles and even let him in her house.

“Did you just forget where you live or find a better place?” Rebecca asked as Noodles gave us his Noodle-y look.

So R. (as we call her) did a morning look-around for Serena, and we joined forces later in the afternoon to search farther and wider. We put out dry cat food in a few places, hoping she was close enough to find it. Barbara and Mary had been looking, too, talking to the neighbors. The neighbor to the east of Dottie said that his dog was growling at something underneath the back porch. But when the neighbor looked, he couldn’t see anything. I even went to the vacant lot at the end of the street and searched all the way to a slough. No Serena.

The next day I was busy with school stuff, though R. went back to search and post flyers, as did the neighbors. Finally early Wednesday morning, after Serena had been missing for three nights, Dottie’s overnight caretaker saw a one-eared kitty peering in the front window. I said I’d go over mid-afternoon and resume the search.

As I’d roamed the neighborhood a couple of days before, I’d called Serena’s name, but now, the day before Thanksgiving, I sang my way through Dottie’s yard and the neighbors’:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Unfortunately, the yard guy with his blower had arrived, taking care of three yards the day before the holiday, so I gave up for a while and went in the house with Dottie and Kanisha, the daytime caretaker. Dottie was in tears. “I just want my kitty,” she sobbed.

When the yard guy was finally done, 4 p.m.ish, the sun was beginning its descent. Mary came over from across the street with a cardboard cat carrier. She and I walked to the fence between Dottie’s driveway and the neighbor with the dog. Mary called and I sang through the tall pickets:

Say it loud and there’s music playing.
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.
I’ll never stop saying

Suddenly Mary, peering through the fence, said, “There she is!” I caught a sliver of Serena emerging from under the porch coming toward us. There’s no way into the neighbor’s yard from there, so I sprinted around the front of the house, hoping I could find a way into his back yard. It turned out that there was no fence on that side, so I jogged into the yard, singing:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Jan and Serena / photo by Mary Larson

And there she was, emerging from under the porch, the little one-eared calico tabby with the white chest and tummy, walking toward me, crying. I stopped, kept singing, and she walked right up to me. I bent over and patted her. “Is this where’ve you been?” She let me pick her up and began to purr. I cuddled her, but she didn’t try to wiggle away, as she often does.

Mary met me in the front yard, both of us flushed with delight. She took our photo. I walked Serena up the new ramp to Dottie’s front door that Mary’s husband George had built just before Dottie came home. As I got inside the small front hallway, Serena leapt out of my arms and plonked on the floor. She walked over to one of her scratchers and immediately dug her front claws into the cardboard. It took Dottie, sitting on the sofa, a minute to realize that Serena was back, and as I went for the box of kitty treats on the cat tree by the window, Dottie gasped and said, “My kitty!”

I put some treats down on the scratcher and then on the cat tree, so Serena would follow me and Dottie could see her. Mary took photos. Kanisha shook her head in amazement, and Serena looked, well, serene, as if it had all been no big deal.

Dottie kept saying again and again, “Thankyouthankyouthankyou… my kittymykitty mykitty.” I lifted Serena onto Dottie’s lap, and she continued up to the arm of the sofa. I stood there grinning and a little teary myself, my heart rising at the sight of a woman who has been through so much this year so joyful at the return of one who was lost.

We’ve all been there, especially over the last eight months—so much lost. But then we are grateful for what’s been gained, too—the recovering body, the friendship and assistance of the kindest neighbors and pitching-in family, the gift of a new hip and kind strangers-turned-caretakers, the joy of arrival, whether in a wheelchair or carried in by someone who loves you, and the feeling of putting your paws down again in the place you call home.

Serena and her mom / Photo: Dick Schmidt

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Election night 2020

Zooming through poetry class online
for the 11th week—still not used to students’
faces in little rectangles onscreen, wishing the ones
who elect not to show their faces would—

weeks of discussing imagery and metaphor,
sonnets and villanelles, syntax and sound,
putting them into virtual rooms to write to prompts,
praising those who read aloud their brand new drafts,

when, as I’m talking, of course, the big orange cat
saunters in my office crying his siren wail,
and I can’t turn around and look at him,
though the students catch his yowl,

but I sneak a glance over my shoulder anyway
and see Diego, head bent reverently over
a dark shape whose tail curls into a question mark
and, before I can stop myself, an “oh, shit!”

falls out of my mouth, and, because they are
muted, I can’t hear my students’ chuckles,
but I add, “The cat just walked in and dropped
a dead rat on the floor… a big one,”

and someone unmutes and says (though we have
not discussed this all evening), “Well, that’s
about right for tonight.” And as I turn back to
the screen, I see them laughing—with weariness?

With relief? We are all so tired; we have reason to be.
And one of the brightest students in class
unmutes to observe in a properly academic tone,
“Well, that’s a metaphor, isn’t it?”

And we all laugh—the grinning faces of those who
allow themselves to be seen in these vulnerable moments—
and I look again—yep, it’s dead, it’s not going anywhere,
and the big cat meows mightily over his catch,

and I say, “Yes, let’s call that a metaphor;
let’s call it hope.”

Diego in a quiet moment
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