Vulnerable

I hear on the news, “the vulnerable population,” and they mean me. I’m one of the old folks now. I don’t feel it, in my skin, in my body, that is. I feel the same as I always did, from the time I can remember. It’s good to know – reading books – that I’m not just this little voice, telling me to stand up straight, to look people in the eye, to feel ashamed of myself because I said something out of line. It’s good to know, for sure.

But I was talking about being one of “the vulnerable population.” We’ve been told to shelter in place by white men in expensive business suits (their eyes look glassed over, they’re preoccupied), so I expect that’s what we need to do. I have restless energy inside of me, and I read and read, and check Facebook to see if there’s anything else posted that I might have missed, and then I jump up and turn the cushions over on my easy chairs and straighten a couple of vases on a shelf. I dust. I use a brillo pad to clean under the grates on the stove. I feel accomplished, even if I am one of “the vulnerable population.”

I hate being in a category, a category of any kind, but especially this one. I sit in my wingback chair in my basement office and read, and then I put the book down and I think. I’ve always been a big thinker, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in the “vulnerable population” before, so I have to think about this now. What if I die in the next few weeks, if this scary virus comes to my house? What then?

I think about my good friend, Bonnie, who died last fall. Does she even know we’re going through this now, or is her being alive still, an illusion? I expect no one knows the answer to that question, although some people say they do. Is she missing this? I can visualize her sitting in her pretty house, reading a book, stopping from time to time to fill her cup with tea and to gaze out at her Japanese Tea House. What she’s missing now!

If I die during this “outbreak” (that’s the word the white men in expensive suits use), then I guess I’ll just have to accept that this is the end. This is how it all ended, for me. I’ll have to be ok with leaving a few places in the house that are not dusted, I’ll have to die without ever having jumped out of an airplane, that I will never see Milwaukee, again, or even take a walk around the Lake here in Oakland. There won’t be any time to be ok with it, or not. I’ll just have to go through whatever it is to go through and be ok, or not. That will have to be ok.

I expect I’ll have to be ok with it when the curtain of consciousness drops, and that’s all there is.

I make a few phone calls. I make a few phone calls to other members of the “vulnerable population,” like me. I know quite a few interesting people, so they’re not bored by being ordered to be at home, either. They’re reading and doing crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles and trying to take it all in, too. Maybe they get up to dust another shelf in the house, too. I don’t know. A few of them are writing poetry, or working on a novel, or maybe a memoir. Even if they’re “vulnerable”, they’re interesting, at least to me.

Today the dog next door, a Burmese Mountain Dog, beautiful, runs into my house, sniffing, her big nose lifted into the air, and then she runs out again. Is she vulnerable, too? My neighbors, two quiet young people – they’re not “vulnerable,” at least no one has told them they are, or they don’t believe they are (I was like that once, too), stand in their front yard and talk to me for a few minutes. Are they looking at me, thinking “she’s one of the vulnerable ones?”

I expect the point of this to me is that I’ve always been vulnerable, and you have, too. It’s just that we don’t think about it. We don’t have time to think about it, for the most part, until we’re right up against it, which I don’t believe I am yet, do you?



For Sue, 2/2004

All that lonely winter                                                                                                                     

I listened to Beethoven’s somber flute                                                                                    

circling my grief.                                                                                                                            

I’m so sorry you are gone,                                                                                                            

and me without saying goodbye.

Every winter since                                                                                                                        

I listen to that spiraling song,                                                                                                     

never landing,                                                                                                                               

like a bird,  

looking for a place to call home.                                                                                                                                    

—Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2004

for Bonnie, 1945-2019

In the spring of 1982, in my first year of seminary at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, I lived on the third floor of Arch Hall, on campus.  One day that spring when I was alone in my dorm room, there was a knock on the door.  When I answered, I was greeted by a small blond woman who was there hoping to see my roommate.  Since my roommate wasn’t home, Bonnie Bonetti and I began a conversation that day.  In my mind, that conversation never ended.  It began in that doorway and it traveled through the years until last autumn, when Bonnie died.

I remember when Bonnie was going with Jim.  She told me that when she met Jim in a class at seminary and noticed him, she began to pray to God: “bring me someone like him.”  She kept saying that prayer.  And God brought her someone like Jim.  God brought Jim to Bonnie.

We had fun, sitting together in coffee shops in Berkeley.  At the time, we were both dating the men who we would marry.  We were both in love, with those men, and with God.  We talked about Jesus, about our faith, about our journeys, our low places, our high places.  We were both surprised and disappointed that there were precious few people at seminary who would talk about such things.  We talked about what we called, “breakthroughs,” those times in our lives when we were witness to God’s grace breaking in.  And as young women, we had plenty of breakthroughs, and plenty of stories to tell one another.  Our years of growth in the faith had a long journey ahead.

We talked about God, we talked about politics, we talked about clothes and hairdos, we talked about God, and how we were witnesses to God’s grace in our lives.  We talked about our families, our conflicts and our love.   We talked about our worries and our failures, and we gave to one another a viewpoint different than our own.  Sometimes when Bonnie and I would meet for coffee, a walk in the park, or lunch, through the years, Bonnie would begin the conversation by saying: “what should we talk about – lipstick or God?”

A few times when I was discouraged and low, I would ask Bonnie, “what do you like about me?”  And she would take that question seriously, naming a list of things she liked about me.  Sometimes we just need someone to do that for us.  I had Bonnie.

One of my favorite memories of Bonnie and me together is the day she taught me the rosary.  She brought me a rosary as a gift, and we sat together on the lawn of Danville High School, in the sun on a lovely summer afternoon, as she and I fingered the beads, and she spoke the words, a meditation together.  Bonnie once told me that she thought of me as a Catholic – a high compliment from her, whose faith was so central to her life.

There are so many places in the Bay Area that I associate with Bonnie, so many places we walked together, met together for lunch, sharing our life’s journey through our trials and worries and exasperation and difficulties.  A few months before she died, as Bonnie and Jim made plans for their retirement that was coming closer, I told Bonnie that I would miss coming downtown to meet her for lunch.  At the time, neither of us knew how quickly that would be true, and with such an ending.  Now, when I drive past downtown on 980, I think about Bonnie, I remember her there, working with Jim in their business.

About 5 years before this last illness that would take Bonnie’s life, she was hospitalized and unable to speak.  I went to visit her as often as I could, one day more than one time.  She smiled when I entered the room, but sometimes she would close her eyes, to rest, I expect.  I sat silently next to her bed, crying.  A nurse came into the room, and when she saw me sitting there, she said: “you can talk to her.”  “But she’s always the one who talks!”  I said!

After she came home from the hospital, I visited her at home, before she returned to work.  She told me about what she had experienced inside herself during that time.  She told me that she was in God, and Jim was there, too.  She told me that Jim kissed her as he left the hospital one evening and said: “You’re my Bonnie, and you’re coming home with me.”

One vivid memory of Bonnie is meeting her in a parking lot near my home, off Piedmont Avenue.  I had been grocery shopping, and I was surprised to see her there.  I was troubled by some problem that day, and I spilled out a few words to Bonnie.  She listened and said, “You’re great!”  “But you don’t know how sad I am inside!”  I answered.  What I remember is that her perception gave me some hope, another way of looking at what was troubling me.

I expect many of you can relate.  Bonnie always saw the best, the best in all of us.  She had a peaceful spirit.  Sometimes I saw great waves crossing over that spirit, but at her center was that peace, that quietude.  That was who she was.  She was this great, quiet, peaceful, loving center, and we all relied on that.

In the past year, during one of our lunches, Bonnie told me that Jim had taken ill in the night, and when he was still ill in the morning, they made plans to go to the doctor.  And she told me that when she saw Jim so ill, a thought crossed her mind: “It’s over.”  She didn’t know how soon that would be, and how the ending would come, at the time.  She was talking about their years of happiness together, a gift from God, God’s gift to her.

Bonnie led a life of service.  Service to all was a central value of her life.  That’s why she had knocked on the door of my dorm that day in 1982, that’s why she worked to help the homeless, that’s why so many of you are here today, to honor the service she gave to you.

I still don’t have it in my mind that Bonnie is gone.  Grief is a long, mysterious, and often lonely journey.  I’m still trying to know that she is gone.  I know she touched so many of you, as she touched me.  I hope you can see yourself in my memories, too.

Oh, there will pass with your great passing
  Little of beauty not your own;
Only the light from common water,
  Only the grace from simple stone!

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

**Delivered as a Eulogy at the Memorial Mass for Bonnie, Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light, February 14, 2020.

 

Down Broadway on Sunday morning

Down Broadway on Sunday morning

It’s early,
Sunday-speaking,
as I drive down Broadway toward the Bay.
I drive, I pray,
searching, finding that empty place inside me
where She lives.

I settle in, and then
I pass the tents, crowded together
In the park,
folks moving slowly from the ground
where they spent Saturday night.
Cigarette smoke rises over their heads:
a little bit of comfort to start the day.

My prayer, then?
It’s hard to find that empty place inside me.
She is murmuring,
“I’m here,” she says.
She has settled in on the grass next to the tents,
searching for a bit of comfort, too.

Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/31/2019

meb/11/5/2019

Old

In unison, we walk into the store.
Though we are strangers, we nod to one another.
The nod speaks: “I see you. I’m old, too.”

No one asks for our wisdom.
We walk the aisles, invisible, benign:
We are the elders here.

When we leave,
I fall into step behind him.
I take in the long gray hair, the pony-tail.
I take in the faded jeans, a limp:
a grief-filled resignation in his gait.

I know what he’s thinking:
“I’ve got ’em fooled: I’m young.”

meb/4/2019