Tales from Shelter in Place: Mice

Lana Ayers  

Tales from Our Shelter in Place: Mice  

I worry over the squeaking sounds the come from the walls between the kitchen and the laundry room. At nights, our cat Silvia, the former feral one from the hoarder house with fifty-nine cats, stations herself in front of the dishwasher, feet tucked under so that she resembles a roast. And one morning we wake to find a quarter-sized daub of blood on the linoleum. Nearby rests something resembling a four-inch long leather shoelace. My husband tells me it’s a mouse tail and I feel faint. We can’t locate the rest of the mouse and hope it made a quick snack for Silvia.  

I consider myself lucky that I’ve never experienced rodents inside my home before this. Back when I was young and single in New York City I lived among cockroaches like an alien invading their apartments. Despite the diligence of  landlords calling in exterminators, time and time again, to spray deadly poisons, nothing ever truly did them in. Though I wished then it had.  

But here and now in rural Oregon, it feels wrong to interfere with the mice. Their ancestors likely claimed the spot where our house is built long before my husband and I ever arrived. The crawlspace under the house is a place of warmth and dryness away from the constant damp. Who am I to fault the mice for wanting respite?  

The mouse traps my husband ordered arrived weeks ago and remain unopened in boxes on the floor of our mudroom. I have not nagged him to set up the traps. Us killing the mice feels wrong. We are thousands of years past our hunter-gatherer days. Why not just let our cat Silvia follow her instincts as she is closer to her formerly wilder nature?  

Though I can’t put it into words, something about this whole situation nags at me. Maybe a deeper question about the environment and ecosystems and human disruption? Or perhaps, it’s just that this mice issue feels like one of privilege? We humans hold the power of life and death over beings no less worthy of prosperity than ourselves. All species of life are sacred. This was true of those darned cockroaches as well.  

I’m not saying that those squeaks between the walls don’t freak me out a little. They do. They activate some hind brain fear, I suppose. But in this chaotic time in America where racism is finally at the forefront all across the nation, and vital protests are taking place, this is the time for rampant compassion. No doubt the setting right of years of injustice is complicated and will take time. But it must be accomplished beginning now.  

We humans have erected all sorts of us and them boundaries—barriers to empathy—from the small like bugs, to the exceptionally large like entire continents and the peoples who inhabit them. Our little mice dilemma amounts to not much in the scheme of possible problems. There are greater goods I should worry over and find ways to contribute to solutions. And here in my house, surely, my own compassion can extend to the beings between the walls.  

Those traps need to disappear from view so my husband will forget they even exist. His attention span for all things domestic, that I normally curse for being short, can come in handy this time. As summer blooms warmth and dryer days, the mice, too, will take advantage of outdoor beauty. And so will we. Perhaps the mice between the walls will redouble in the fall when the rains return. But as we shelter in place in this beautiful slice of the world, I do my best to focus on and appreciate each day as its own gift of breath and bounty—even if some of that breath and bounty squeaks with joy.   

My lost loved ones are with me ever more now…

In this chaotic time of battling racism, illegal and immoral government actions, and the coronavirus pandemic, we hope to defeat them once and for all with as few lives harmed or lost as possible. And yet within the daily of strife of these, I feel my lost loved ones still with me somehow. The memory of their love helps get me through the darker days. This short piece below is about my dad, lost to me on this side of breath nearly three decades ago.

~ ~ ~

A Man of Few Words, But Good Ones

Lana Ayers

My father was a man of few words. He never started conversations. He left for work weekdays before I woke. But his absence made a deeper silence in the house than the quiet when he was at home. Back at 5:30 each workday night, he liked to change out of his coveralls uniform with lace-up boots, take a quick shower, and put on casual slacks in black or brown, with a plain tee shirt, his hairy toes wiggling out of the front of his beach-thong slippers.

Then he’d read the newspaper before supper, his cigarette sending untranslatable smoke signals up to the ceiling. Mother told my brother and me not to disturb him. He needed to unwind, but he never seemed like a ball of string to me.

At supper, we kids weren’t allowed to speak except to say pass the ketchup or are there more potatoes? But after our meal was finished, and after I swore I’d gotten all my homework done for the next day, my father was fair game.

Parked in his well-worn striped armchair, the black & white television tuned to a Knicks basketball game or a Cassius Clay boxing bout or to Bonanza, full of big hats and horses, my father sighed heavily and rooted for the good guys. C’mon, you can do it! It was then, without my mother or brother around, I asked him one the thousands of questions that floated around in my head day and night. The kind that drove my kindergarten and early grade teachers to tell me shut up and sit quietly—we’ve had enough out of you. But my father didn’t seem to mind.

“Daddy, why is the grass green?” I’d say.

“Because it sets such a nice backdrop for the yellow dandelions.” He mimed picking a flower and placing it behind his ear.

“Daddy, why do birds sing all the time?”

“Because they want to make Dean Martin jealous,” Daddy said, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx’s.

“Daddy, why do I have to eat peas? They taste like mush.”

“Peas are a secret weapon against sadness,” Daddy said, leaning over to where I sat at his feet to brush my forehead with his calloused hand. Rough as it was, nothing was ever so tender.

“Daddy, what is God?”

Daddy got up and clicked off the television knob. Back in the striped chair, he patted his thighs. I went to him and he pulled me up into his lap with ease, even though I was a chubby thing. I liked being so close to him I could count the hairs growing in each nostril, like dense, secret forests.

“God is the sky,” Daddy said, one arm hugging my back. “When you see the stars at night, that’s god. And in the daytime, the fluffy white clouds, those are god, too.”

“I thought God was like a person, only giant or something,” I said.

“The great thing about God is that each person can see God the way they want to. I look up at the sky and feel peaceful,” Daddy said.

“Even when it’s raining?”

“Even then. Rain makes everything grow. And quenches thirst.”

“Even when the clouds look like elephants or crazy clowns?” I said.

“Especially then,” Daddy said. “God is always up there for me. And for you, too. Like an upside-down ocean of goodness.”

“So why doesn’t god do anything when everything hurts so much?” I said.

“I know that’s hard to understand, Baby” Daddy said. “The universe is good, but some people in it aren’t always so good. You just have to keep believing in the good, that life can be good, even when things hurt.”

“I don’t know if I can do that, Daddy,” I said, hot tears dripping down my face.

He brushed my cheeks. “Well, until you can believe it for yourself, I’ll believe for you. When you look up at the sky, I’ll be a cloud, or fog, or the clearest blue, or the reddest star, radiating my love for you,” Daddy said. “Just remember to look up.”

Threads, a pandemic poem

My emotions have been all over the place in these last couple of weeks. It’s been so difficult to stay optimistic and motivated. I’m trying to focus as much as possible on blessings. Of which there are so many–clean water, fresh food, my pups and kitties, my husband, family, friends, the beauty of the natural world, the beauty of all the arts, that I am still here. Here’s a poem that I hope you’ll find uplifting.

Lana Hechtman Ayers
  
 Threads
  
 Threads hang loose from
 the ties of my too robustly 
 laundered mask.
  
 Any day could be my last.
 This was true even before
 the coronavirus.
  
 But the sky distracts us
 with its palette of blues,
 its permanent drift.
  
 There’s a Buddhist rift
 in autonomy now,
 how probability
  
 shifts destiny as if
 fate was ever 
 more than poetry.
  
 The stars are themselves
 at last, clearer now
 without excess exhaust.
  
 Despite all human losses,
 summer blooms & blooms, 
 fragrances brighter.
  
 My personal regrets grow lighter,
 float off. Only what I can do 
 this moment matters.
  
 Old misgivings scatter 
 like dust motes in a breeze.
 I remember to breathe deeply,
  
 though breath is the way in
 for this unstoppable death,
 it’s also the only way to live. 

Close, Closer: a quarantine love poem

Close, Closer
         a quarantine love poem

  
 breathe me 
         into a heat that flares
                 air tightening between us
  
 i burn within your eyes
         myself aflame & wondrous

 speak my name over & over
                 swirling vibrations around us

                         —antidote to isolation
 
i have loved you
         [inside of time]
                 ) outside of being (
  
         this moment is a trench

 i am the sea
         encompass galaxies of night

 you are moonrise
        & every 
                 gleaming
                         shadow



 © Lana Hechtman Ayers  

Lessons from Lockdown

Lessons from Lockdown
  
 None of us can truly know 
 the heart of the innocent man 
 waiting on death row,
 though living in this pandemic
 makes us feel closer to
 believing we fathom some
 great injustice.
  
 That death is the only promise
 life ever made, is made
 more visible now 
 by this invisible virus
 soaring in and out on breath.
  
 Taking stock, taking inventory
 however you say it
 (and not just of consumables
 like toilet paper and beans)
 arrives eventually, 
 for all of us,
 days or weeks into lockdown.
  
 Whether we’ve been furloughed
 (or just plain let go) 
 from our jobs, 
 or have taken to working from home,
 we come to that urgent 
 question honestly—
 what matters most in this moment?
    
 Contemplating impermanence,
 cherished clichés come first—
 love and family and peace.
 Shelter, and safety and sustenance.
 Friends and all our faculties—
 sight and breath and movement
 most of all, 
 while touch evades
 those of us fully alone.
  
 Home is the sky
 that is always beautiful,
 and the tree that leans a little,
 the chickadees coming 
 to the feeder outside
 the kitchen window.
 The low moon swooning 
 and disappearing into the night.
 Heightened awareness
 of sweetness.
 Beloved voices arriving 
 on the various devices.
  
 Giving and grace 
 become commonplace—
 singing, composing,
 planting herbs,
 dancing at the curb,
 dropping off goodies
 for the elderly couple
 up the street.
  
 We can keep this all going,
 the simple goodnesses, 
 the heightened senses,
 even without threat of virus,
 without sacrifice.
 All that is necessary—
 a shift in attitude from 
 being among the condemned—
 to a gratitude for what is,
 for the absurdity of uncertainty’s 
 boundless lessons and blessings.  

Remembering my brother…

A decade ago on this date, my brother died of a 9-11-related illness. 
This poem is from a collection about my brother, called 
The Dead Boy Sings in Heaven. 
The title comes from all my memories having been altered by knowing 
how young he'd die, so that even in my childhood memories, 
I began thinking of my brother as the dead boy. 
He's in my heart always, but especially now, 
since he was a first responder.

The Dead Boy Cruises
      for my older brother Alan

This may be the happiest
moment of my life.
I never get to tag along
with my brother at nighttime.

I’m in the backseat
of the dead boy’s
hilarious friend Vinnie’s
red AMC Pacer,
squeezed into the middle hump
by his friends
Richard (the smart one)
and Danny (the cute one).
My brother rides shotgun.

The windows rolled down,
the stars clear,
the radio throngs
“The Night Chicago Died”
all the way up
Rockaway Boulevard.

Everyone is quiet.
All there is
is the cruise,
and the breeze,
and song after song,
that make my heart beat
likes it’s in my throat.

As if to signal a turn,
the dead boy
extends his arm
out the open window.
My brother’s hand becomes
a sail. 

Mother’s Day Gift in the Pandemic

 Mother’s Day Gift in the Pandemic
  
 As the young man comes closer 
 than three feet to hand me 
 a complementary 
 Mother's Day gift bag, 
 You may be killing me 
 is what I think but do not say, 
 feeling the heat of fury 
 rise in my throat. 
  
 I am trying to keep my mouth shut, 
 hold my breath, 
 my cotton mask no match for his youth 
 and eagerness to provide 
 cheerful customer service. 
 He has on a mask, but somehow 
 I can tell he's smiling—
 happy eyes. 
  
 He’s high school age, 
 maybe a bit older,
 wants to chat. 
 Says he's going to go 
 for lots of hikes. 
 Never has he appreciated the sun 
 so much since coronavirus,
 all this being trapped indoors. 
  
 He seems so fervent and strong 
 and maybe will have 
 a whole life ahead of him. 
 I hope so.
 Mine may be over soon 
 now that his breath has come 
 within the death radius. 
  
 He glows with health. 
 I have lived longer than 
 I ever believed I would, 
 an angsty teen thinking maybe 
 I'd make it to 21. 
  
 But the years passed with me 
 still breathing. 
 I see now even in the worst 
 of times—with my grandmother 
 dying, my violent husband
 trying to kill me, 
 my father dying, 
 my separation, divorce, 
 my best friend dying, 
 my brother dying—
 all of it was a gift 
 I had little idea how to unwrap,
 how to make use of.
  
 Now as each day is 
 a promise not made, 
 I cherish the sweetness 
 of this boy's optimism,
 my little puff of anger gone. 
  
 I have never been a mother 
 to any but four-legged creatures.
 Suddenly I have this lethal urge 
 to hug this young man—
 Coronavirus be damned—
 tell him he is wonderful 
 and loved and the world is 
 better for his presence in it. 
  
 I do neither.
 I don't know him.
 But I do wish him well
 and thank him 
 for his heroism in this time.
 I hope the world will be 
 the kind of mother 
 he needs most. 
  
 As for me, 
 today is as good a last day 
 on earth as any. 
 Though I'd rather rain 
 than this balmy sun. 
 I've had a mere five decades to 
 practice my humanity, 
 still very much a work in progress.
  
 No one ever gets it completely right
 my Buddhist coach assures me. 
 Last week she came close to 
 being in a fatal auto accident.
 The sun was not so blameless then, 
 blinding her as she came 
 around a curve. 
  
 Who would have thought us 
 as fragile as we are 
 against light and breath? 
 Today I will pet my dogs 
 and cats and hug my husband. 
 Drink tea. 
 Eat a ginger cookie or two. 
 It will be enough. More than.  

Pandemic Wonder, for Andy

Pandemic Wonder
             for Andy
  
 None of us is immune
 to death, we humans born 
 with an expiration guarantee.
 This was always the deal.
  
 So why does death feel 
 more real than ever before?
 There’s no cure or vaccine
 for the Corvid 19 yet, sure
  
 and there may never be.
 Perhaps it will rage
 through all humanity
 until only the fittest remain.
  
 How many lives will be
 claimed when this 
 pandemic is finally history?
 That, and for how long
  
 this enforced isolation will 
 continue are a fatal mystery.
 But you and I are blessed
 that while living through
  
 such stressful times, we are 
 one another’s shelter in place, 
 each other’s compassionate grace.
 And the days, however brief
  
 they may be, grow sweeter
 not in spite of, but because of
 coronavirus’ looming noose.
 We live so much closer now—
  
 as we should have done all along, 
 a gift granted by uncertainty—
 this death threat that heightens 
 and enlivens our love. 

Another World, a pandemic poem

 Another World
             a pandemic poem
  
This morning I woke in the former world, 
the world before the virus, or so I believed. 
The sun had the same kiss of brass to it 
as it does in this post Covid 19 morning. 
The scent of spring was similarly buoyant
on the morning breeze, daffodils and the early 
hyacinths. The same black-mohawked Steller’s Jay 
perched on the edge of the roof, staring down 
at the morning coastline below our hillside, 
sea dark and serene, swells horizonward with 
white crests like bobbing gulls. They may 
have been actual seagulls, this morning, 
or in that former world. A calm, lulled, 
sort of ordinary morning that brims with 
coffee aroma and the slow thoughts that come 
into focus with each sip—the necessary 
to do list—work, pets, chores. A morning that 
but for the virus could be any other. I can 
take  my cat into my arms, but not hug 
my neighbor, just home from his cataract 
surgery at the hospital. I cannot take 
the dogs for a morning stroll in 
the shuttered park, nor meet a friend out 
for lunch, nor run an errand 
just to pick up an item or two. 
Every decision in this world’s morning 
is about staying far from death’s embrace. 
About keeping each other safe. 
About love filtered through masks and screens 
and the morning light of pandemic.
   

Welcome to the New World, a pandemic poem

Lana Hechtman Ayers
  
 Welcome to the New World
  
 Movement in my peripheral vision’s edge
 makes me look away from the screen
 out the window in front of my desk.
 I’m barely in time to catch the tell-tale
 white head and serrated wide wings
 of an eagle—American symbol of freedom—
 before it soars over the roofline out of view.
 I’ve been staring at my computer for so long
 the words of the manuscript I’m editing 
 have become ancient hieroglyphics. 
  
 The sight of the cumulus-filled sky bordered 
 in blue and the rippled pink-tinged beige sand 
 and aqua green seawater below the hillside 
 is such welcome relief. Concentration has been 
 hard to achieve with the startling grief 
 I’m experiencing  during this global pandemic—
 so many losses. To look out at this bright spring day 
 one could be fooled into believing all is well. 
 Calm. People strolling the weekday beach,
 throwing frisbees or tossing balls to their dogs.
  
 Even the stubborn hydrangea outside my porch
 gate has come into full leaf, buds at the ready.
 But my heart will not settle into steady rhythm.
 My breath is shallow. Later, I must make my weekly
 excursion into town for food—masked, gloved,
 hatted, scarfed—looking like a nineteenth century
 immigrant just off the boat from Poland,
 wearing all of the clothes she owned at once, 
 frightened of the unknown new territory where
 communication and comfort appeared impossible.
  
 I wonder, is this how my grandmother felt,
 fifteen and alone, disembarked at Ellis Island
 into the blinding sunlight after weeks seasick
 in the dark bowels of the ship? Her family had sent
 her in 1918, decades ahead of the holocaust, 
 not knowing she’d be the only one of her bloodline
 to make safe passage. And how did my young
 grandmother manage her loneliness, 
 knowing no one else, everyone and everything 
 around her strange and possibly dangerous?
  
 I never once in all the years I knew her, nor 
 in the years since her passing, stopped to think 
 of her bravery. I never thanked her or celebrated 
 her for being the heroine she was. She made my 
 American life possible. If my grandmother could 
 muster all that courage at the tender age of fifteen 
 for a sea journey of weeks, surely, I can 
 manage as much for a simple half-hour trip to 
 the grocery store and back, in my own car,
 me a native here in my fifth decade of life.