Monday, April 25, 2005

A Walk with the Leaves

I have an image in my mind that I must get out. I hope it fits here.

Yesterday I went to Berkeley to meet a very old friend. I live relatively close to Berkeley -- an old haunt from my youth -- but I avoid the place now. It's just so far gone -- a cartoon of how radicalism can devolve into such ugly extremes. When I went there to escape home life in the 1970s, it was a mellower place, softened by hippy culture. But now it's militant, with lots of angry sloganeering dashed on the walls, the negativity palpable. Berkeley is not a hopeful place.

Somehow, the disheveled spirits that roam Telegraph Avenue do not seem free, although they might think otherwise. Berkeley people look bedraggled and haggard. They're aged and worn even in their twenties. I saw two people fighting over what looked like a bagel on one street corner. People's Park was having a thinly attended anniversary concert. Booksellers ringed the park selling screeds by Carl Marx and Angela Davis.

It was a beautiful spring day. I had to park several blocks away. On my way back from Telegraph I saw two women walking parallel to me across the street. They had with them a girl who must've been five or six years old, prancing along behind them in a blue dress. I could hear the women talking about Bush and Iraq, agreeing that what was happening there was an abomination. "Pure evil," said one woman to the other. One of them wore a keffiyeh, the other had on a lovely yellow summer dress with jackboots. Two Berkeley classics.

Our walk paralleled for about three blocks. At first I was intent on their speechifying and invective. But then I saw the little girl tagging behind them, oblivious to their angry words. Every tree and bush was an opportunity for her to explore. She tried to climb a small tree on someone's yard, then jumped down and dashed towards a orange cat sitting on a porch. The cat scrambled away and the little girl giggled in delight, herself becoming a cat. She slinked around meowing, threading through front yards and bushes a few yards behind her chaperones, who seemed not to notice her at all.

It was breezy that day, and a big gust of wind pushed into the street. Startled birds took flight. I saw the little girl stand still to watch the leaves flurrying around her. She just stood there and soaked it all in. Totally attuned. Wind chimes tingled somewhere, and then quieted down. The leaves and spring blossoms settled, and the birds landed. During this brief event the two women walked far ahead of the little girl. The keffiyeh woman turned around and yelled at her to catch up: "Hurry up! Let's go!"

Then we went in opposite directions.

I am so troubled by this era. I wonder about that little girl, and her generation. I think the two women represent many different people -- wrapped up in the times, thinking they're in tune when they're not. They were so far away from of their playful, inventive charge. I think I have pulled myself away from my own daughter in a similar manner, lost in life's ones and zeros rather than living.

The fascination of a parent is seeing the world renewed, through curious, young eyes. So much before us goes unseen as we parse the code of our constitutions. When we are young, we become cats on a whim; we swirl with the leaves. And then we soon forget these things. We put on uniforms and talk the talk. We spend more time hashing ideals, less time discovering what surrounds us. Some of us forget who we were, and what kept us alive. Once in a while something happens, and innocent joy returns. But it always seems to be a reprieve, not the main event -- like an unexpected, brief holiday. The world weighs so much.

I hope the little Blue Dress girl will be okay. She seemed so blissfully alone. I wonder when civilization's abstractions will force their way into her consciousness, stealing away the leaves that once walked with her.