Standing in the kitchen with my teacher Sharon Gannon, who was visiting, gazing out at the overwhelm of my Colorado backyard, a newly transplanted New Yorker gone from apartment owner to house renter, I was bemoaning the fact that because I didn’t own the place I was living in I was loath to expend too much time and money to make it lovelier. Why, we’re all renters, Jaimie, Sharon said. I believe in always improving my surroundings. Improving the world we live in, leaving it a better place than we found it, is a core tenet of the Yoga practices — Yoga is not separate from the nitty-gritty realities of life but is essential to it. There is no separation — between life and our spiritual practices, between you and me, between the earth and its inhabitants. Everything is part of the dynamic flux that is the pulse of the universe; everything has an effect on everything else. Hurt the earth, I hurt myself; improve the earth, I improve myself.
My mother, who wouldn’t know a downward dog from an upward-facing bow, has embodied that yogic truth for as long as I can remember. Many years ago I wrote a prose poem about her cleaning god’s house (see Bonus Track, below), a celebration of her superhuman strength and swath when it comes to that particular domestic art. That paean, written in the fall of 1995, was pretty prescient, because cleaning up god’s house, the planet in her immediate vicinity, is what she has been doing for about the last ten years.
It started with graffiti. She’d seek it here, she’d seek it there, she’d seek it anywhere — and get it disappeared. Actually, she didn’t have to seek it at all: it seemed to be always in her face — on benches, newspaper stands, light poles, traffic-control boxes, sign posts, not to mention the usual places, like the sides of buildings, whose kingsize blank-canvas-like facades were magnets for taggers. She’d write the address or control box number or names of the intersection streets or some other geographical ID (“in front of Gelson’s”) down on the pad, kept for that purpose, in her car as soon as she got to a red light. She doesn’t text while driving —or, um, even text — but once when I was in the passenger seat and we were waiting to turn left onto Bundy from Wilshire she whipped out her pen and pad, more focused — shhh! — on a stray tag than the arrow about to turn green, although, truth be told, traffic was moving at max Los Angeles dirge pace, so there was a good chance we wouldn’t even get through the light.
As soon as she made it her personal mission to end the scourge of graffiti on her watch — don’t try to tell her it’s art or any other form of personal expression — she began to see it everywhere. Like those little hairs on your chinny chin chin, you think there’s just one until you gaze into the magnifying mirror, and a whole forest seems to erupt in a flash. Her eye was drawn to graffiti like white on rice.
She lives in Encino, which is in the San Fernando Valley, and works in Beverly Hills, so anyplace between town house on one side of the mountains and job on the other is her main territory, but if, say, she has a doctor’s appointment in Westwood, Westwood is fair game as well. And like a master gardener who can detect an incipient weed among a field of poppies bursting with crimson, she can spot a tag mere inches high from two or three lanes over, whether she’s driving 30 mph on a main boulevard or 60 on the freeway.
My mother, like my teacher, has always believed in improving the world, and if she had been born in a different time, to parents who made her feel capable rather than in-, if she had not quit college and married so young, if she had not succumbed to the 50s myth that being queen of house and home was all a woman need aspire to, she might have been a councilwoman or congresswoman or senator or. … But her sights were circumscribed by husband and offspring, and she channeled her do-gooder energy into holding schools accountable for providing her children with the best education her tax dollars could buy. She was an avid P.T.A. member, worked indefatigably to get her candidates elected to the school board (even though she should have been running herself) and fought against busing like a mama lion protecting her cubs from a belligerent hyena. In fact, she fought so fiercely that, I only recently discovered, her phone and the phones of her cohort were tapped: she and her conspirators, er, colleagues, got a kick out of deliberately using the foulest language they could when talking on the phone to, um, plot their next moves!
Eventually, kids no longer in school, divorced and in the workforce, she found a new cause while powerwalking around her ‘hood before work: graffiti. On Sunday mornings when she had more time, could cover more ground, she carried a pen and pad, which she used to write a brief description — size, color — and the locations of said “unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface” (Merriam-Webster). After her walk she filled in the online graffiti-removal request form on the Los Angeles Office of Community Beautification website (laocb.org). Unlike the long sieges waged to get a candidate elected or end school busing, victory was guaranteed and imminent. The graffiti was usually cleaned up in a couple of days, and she knew, because she checked, returning as often as necessary to the scenes of the crimes until the tags were gone. Immediate gratification. She was hooked. My mom gave the website info to her neighborhood watch and to the board members of her condo complex, and soon she had enlisted her officemate Veronica and my brother David as well in her war against what she might call the uglification of her neighborhood.
If I asked how she was, she’d say something like, “All the graffiti I reported has been cleaned up!” A November 2009 email went: “how ya doin?????? reported 20 areas of graffiti. 2 yesterday and 18 today. new taggers ‘mane’ and ‘dh.’ my next door neighbor said that her husband reports graffiti and used to paint over it in their former neighborhood. he also has a pole to take shoes off telephone wires!!!!!”
My mom didn’t run out and buy a gallon of paint, but she has, during her decade-long tour of duty, reported hundreds of defacements (with 30 pending one Thanksgiving). In fact, she has been so vigilant that she practically put herself out of business. So, when the number of tags she had to report each week dwindled to the low single digits, she turned her attention to another neighborhood scourge: abandoned shopping carts and out-of-date fliers. She calls the stores that own the shopping carts to complain and carries scissors (not concealed!) on her walks so she doesn’t have to ruin her nails pulling down those signs. “Good for you!” one passerby said when she saw my mom doing her thing.
If the people who put up signs for yard sales would take them down in a timely manner, she wouldn’t get so incensed, but they don’t. “You have to take pride in your neighborhood,” she says. “It’s my neighborhood, and I’m not going to allow it. Besides, it’s a misdemeanor.”
In an echo of her graffiti-days enthusiasm, if I asked her on a Sunday, when we usually talk, if she’d had a good walk that day, her response was apt to be: “Yeah, I pulled down 20 signs. They’re not allowed to advertise.” Even when she visited me in New York, where, believe it or not, there wasn’t enough graffiti to keep her entertained, she pulled down outdated fliers. “It’s a disgrace,” she said.
“Estate Sale.” “Nanny for Hire.” “Free Stuff.” If my mom sees it, and it’s history, it’s history. The only exception: fliers about lost pets — she’s a softie when it comes to animals.
Last year she ended up in the hospital after a botched colonoscopy (don’t get her started!), and it was awhile before she fully recovered, at least physically, from the ordeal. The first time she was able to go out for a walk, she was less concerned with her stamina than with whether the neighborhood had totally gone to pieces in her absence.
Shopping carts and out-of-date signs keep her pretty busy, and there is always the annoyance of people who leave couches and mattresses out for regular garbage pickup instead of calling the number for oversize items, but my mom also usually has a pet project in her hip pocket. Most recently it was the fire station up the street from her, where she donates toys for collection every Christmas and leaves flowers every September 11. Station 83 had moved across the street into better digs, and its former home had become, yes, an eyesore. With weeds growing out of control, it began to look like any other derelict property. She called her councilman so often his number should have been on auto redial, she spewed her outrage on a talk-radio show, she was ready to turn herself into a human sandwich board and take her protest to the sidewalk in front of the abandoned station house, when, finally, the city got its act together and tidied the place up.
I like to think that the city knew it could push my mother only so far, that my mother’s battle, just like Arjuna’s in the Bhagavad-Gita, was a righteous one. Because she was (and is) living her dharma, selflessly serving the cause of a better world for all, like any good karma yogi — and demonstrating that you don’t have to even know what yoga is to be a yogi.
My Mother, Who Cleans
My mother is scrubbing the floors of heaven. On her knees, pink-latexed to elbows so hands don’t prune, pushing aside cumulus and nimbus and cumulonimbus with her water bucket to inch-by-inch the plain of linoleum squares, dirt-trapping valleys between. Angels hover like hummingbirds, beating wings into exhaustion as they wait for the all-clear, the nod signaling that it’s o.k. to alight, the floor is dry enough to walk on.
My mother is dusting the Grand Canyon. She has already run five miles, breakfasted lightly, and read two newspapers. She is sipping a cappuccino picked up along the way and wafting ostrich plumes over Anasazi ruins while the world sleeps still. Great Colorado, early riser, bucks and kicks, thinking she’s come to play. She puts a finger to lips, saying, “Shhh, you’ll wake everyone,” and the river, disappointed but obedient, amuses itself with quiet games.
My mother is vacuuming god’s den. The TV screams statically in response. He squeezes the mute button on the remote control with fleshy thumb, enduring no-sound, lifts feet without being told as the machine noses near his easy chair, stomach muscles like cold oatmeal quaking from the effort. My mother’s radar picks up a bag of potato chips half-concealed by a flannel flap of robe — crumbmakers — and following her gaze, he scowls, but reaches for the chip clip.
My mother is rearranging my living room furniture, placing “motherhood” over the mantel opposite the couch in such a way that it tracks my every movement, shifting like eyes behind a portrait in a haunted house. When she leaves to drain the Pacific Ocean for its spring cleaning, I put “motherhood” into a box on the topmost shelf of my bedroom closet, behind the crystal goblets that were my grandmother’s and are treasured, but in this life not practical. With so many chores to do — the steeples of Europe want polishing, the steppes of Mongolia must be stripped and waxed — she may not notice for a month or two.