Oh This Heat

oceanThis heat. This miserable heat. On Monday, I finally mustered up the determination to go for a walk. My stalwart friend Cornelia came over and the two of us trudged up the canyon, across a ridge, and down to the beach. Then she went for a swim and I removed my shoes and stood on the shoreline with my trousers rolled up like J. Alfred Prufrock, toes in the surf, cool silky water splashing now and then on my legs. That’s about as wet as I get, but it was something.

It’s been hard to sleep.

I’m learning some good techniques, though. Last night when I lay awake thinking about very sad things, I decided to assert my own self-protective will and declared those things off limits.  I pushed them aside in my head and built a wall in front of them…a very thick gray impenetrable partition of concrete and steel and I told myself, yes, those things are always there, but I don’t need to look at them.

Ha. It’s like storing nuclear waste.

summer houseAnother good technique is listening to podcasts. I fell back asleep to a wonderfully deep male voice, a voice like wood smoke and bourbon by a river. I was asleep even before his story ended.

For three evenings in a row we’ve gone to the beach to cool down. Last night there was a howling offshore wind and white sea spray was flying from the tops of waves that were breaking unpredictably in the shallow water.  It was fun to watch guys surfing, some getting air (I’m told that’s the term for it) and doing rotations, others getting slammed.

Then we shared a light dinner with friends at a picnic table, the table cloth lifting with every gust of wind, our talk circling aimlessly in the air.

Not much of a blog post, is it? But it’s all I can muster for now.

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You Might As Well Grow

imageWell, I have seen my future and it’s my present. We’re visiting a dear friend who recently moved to a northern California community, and everyone here seems to be a gray-haired boomer in jeans and hiking shoes walking dogs or one another. It’s a place where left-leaning is the middle of the road and folks are concerned about the world and their arthritis in equal parts.

We stopped at a beautiful roadside chapel built for nondenominational prayer, meditation, and spiritual renewal. It was designed by James Hubbel and dedicated to the memory of a young man “who believed that art is the intermediary between the physical and the spiritual”. (I would agree with that young man, although I think nature can be an intermediary too.) The chapel is as much a sculpture as it is a building. Its spired cedar roof is curved as though in flight. Within are molded redwood seats, mosaic floor designs, and exquisite details wherever your eyes might wander.

imageA fellow in overalls and construction boots was playing a wooden flute in the light of a stained glass window. He courteously stopped when we entered and gathered his things to leave, despite our encouragement that he continue.

“No,” he said, “this is your space too.”

But we saw him again outside sitting patiently on a bench in front of the teak wood door, his flute on his lap, a nearby fountain murmuring its watery song. He introduced himself: Steven, and said he first moved to the area in 1974.

“We were gonna live off the land and change the world,” he said, sounding both wistful and ironic. It didn’t work out exactly as hoped, but he’s still here, after all these years.

Apparently marijuana became the main industry in a nearby town, and its effects have not been positive. But Steven told us about a bakery not far from here called Franny’s: “You’d be lucky to find a bakery that fine in Paris!” and a seriously good restaurant called Uneda Eat.

imageAnd  he told us about local art classes, movie nights, even tango, led by an excellent local instructor. He recommended the latter: “It’s an exquisite form of communication between two people,” he said. He cautioned our friend to carefully choose the events she attends, because the possibilities are so numerous it’s easy to become ensnared in social commitments.

It was starting to sound like summer camp, but it isn’t easy, navigating solo in an unfamiliar setting. I have so much respect for my friend who has moved to this place and is making a life, fixing up her modest house, working in the community garden, swimming and walking, finding what there is to love here. I don’t know if I’d have the spirit to start all over again.

But in a way we’re always starting all over again. For just as we’re becoming used to ourselves and our routines, things shift, and we’re in a whole new chapter in an accelerating sequence of events. We look around and see ourselves everywhere, fading figures in faded jeans.

imageWe took a detour on the way back to see an old abandoned house surrounded by a profusion of pink ladies. There was something hilarious and outrageous about these silly lilies, as pretty as they were.

Who even planted them, I wondered, and when?

But they continue to grow, delighted with themselves, even as the house behind them falls apart.

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Too Much

image

My friend Jacquie Phelan, otherwise known as Alice B. Toeclips, is a former road, cyclocross, and mountain bike racer, as well as founder of the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society (WOMBATS), which she formed in 1987 to encourage women in the sport. But that doesn’t begin to describe her. She’s witty, outspoken, even outrageous, a complete original. She lives in northern California and I don’t get to see her very often, but yesterday she invited me to meet her at a very special house at the end of a winding road halfway up Mt. Tamalpais. She rode forty miles to get there, then brewed us two pots of good hot tea.

“Do you prefer the green kind, or the amber?” she asked.

imageI was distracted. I’ve never seen a house quite like this one. Built in the early 1960s by Jacquie’s father-in-law, it evokes the spirit of its era, a time of creativity and possibility. It’s tall… five and a half levels…built of mostly recycled materials with details such as old church doors and bronze fixtures, unexpected turns and views, a mix of flower power wall paper and dark wood antiques. There were eclectic paintings and prints, a vintage macrame wall hanging, Persian rugs, stained glass windows, replicas of ancient Egyptian statuary, a washing machine from 1970 still in mint condition.

“This was built at a time when people still had dinner parties,” said Jacquie, standing wistfully before a large dining table covered with a yellow print cloth beneath a brass chandelier. On the wood-paneled wall was a plaque of a golden sun. The room seemed to glow.

Jacquie’s mother-in-law Carol lived in this house until her death just a year ago. Jacquie loved her dearly, and is still bereft and befuddled in the aftermath of her leaving. She calls it “no mom’s land” and it’s a tough place to navigate. When you lose someone this important to you, she has written, “there is not only a hole in your life, there is one less leg upon which to balance oneself.”

I notice a vase of sunflowers on a table by the door, a tender nod to Carol. I can feel her presence and her absence.

imageBut Jacquie is philosophical about it too. If you have to stay stable on two points instead of three, she says, you turn them into wheels and roll on. Only in motion can the balance be sustained. She and her husband Charlie are slowly pushing forward, and sorting out this house is part of the ride.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Already books have been donated, objects packed and moved, furnishings sold, carpets rolled up. Repairs and improvements have begun in order to render it rentable. There are those who would sell this quirky place or knock it down, but Jacquie and Charlie love it.

“Someone will appreciate it,” says Jacquie. “Some old hippie maybe.”

It’s a house designed, built, and lived in by colorful and imaginative people, and the evidence is everywhere. There’s a studio filled with Carol’s prints and print-making materials,  and Jacquie keeps giving me remnants she refers to as ephemera.

image“That’s the actual term in the print world,” she tells me. It’s printed material not meant to be preserved. Some of these are beautiful: extravagant alphabet letters, elegant dispatches on quality paper, swatches of color and swirl. Ephemera. It seems a suitable word for our lives and all our stuff.

The house is filled with stories, but what Jacquie feels right now is the weight of them, the heaviness. She is all motion, as always, and a verbal dancer, but there’s a sadness in her eyes. I recognize the look. I know that road. She talks about her neediness, about how some people think she’s too much.

Too much. I think it’s an understandable response to life.  Better than too little…right? Too much means present and proactive. It means feeling and acting and asking, trying to process and connect and make meaning. It means experiencing everything, now and out loud, the whole epic saga, with all of its pain and mystery and joy.

I turn back for a last look at the house before we leave. An accidental prism has spilled rainbows on one of the Persian rugs. Ephemera.

Then we pack Jacquie’s bicycle in the car to give her a lift back to the Marin Headlands where she can finish up her ride. She’s a celebrity at this bike event. Alice B. Toeclips pedals on.

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In Which We Weave A Beautiful Myth…And Make It True

drakes2The Bengali poet, artist, and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore wrote these words as he neared the end of his life:  “As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of civilization like a vast heap of futility, yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in man.”

I suppose there are those who would substitute the word God for man there, but whatever one believes, the instrumental role of humankind is certainly indisputable in determining civilization’s outcomes.

And yet. It’s discouraging. It’s overwhelming. It’s downright heartbreaking sometimes. How does a sentient being maintain faith in our own species?  How do we make things better when the problems are so vast? Sometimes I just want to hide under the bed.

I talked a little to my friend Dianna Cohen about this the other day. “First you have to turn off the news sometimes,” she said.

And then, she counseled, since you can’t fix everything, you pick one thing and begin. Even if it’s a big thing that seems seems insoluble, you act as if it isn’t. You imagine how it could be.  And if it requires a million tasks, you try tackling one of the million. See it through.

Dianna chose the problem of plastic. She used to make art from plastic bags, an attempt to turn something ugly and ubiquitous into something pretty, at least. Then that didn’t seem enough, and she learned more about the disturbing ramifications of plastic pollution in our oceans, landfills, and on our health. She helped educate and organize people, gave talks, and spread awareness. She picked up plastic trash from beaches and turned it into sculptures and collages, some of it art, some of it just to make a point. The scourge of plastic seemed shocking in its magnitude and monstrous in its unstoppability.

Nowadays people do think more about plastic pollution than they did a few years back. It’s very hard to change behavior, and convenience often trumps sustainability, but a viable movement has begun, and Dianna is only one of many dedicated activists.

And just this past Friday night, there was a victory: California became the first state in the nation to approve a ban on the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags at major retailers, statewide.  It’s a proud moment for our state, where 13 billion bags a year were nonchalantly handed out to shoppers, soon attaching themselves to the landscape, flapping along roads, choking waterways, snagged in trees and fences.

A lot of hard and tenacious work went into making this ban real.  And it’s something to celebrate, but there’s a lot of work ahead.

Next stop plastic bottles?

Maybe plastic isn’t your cause, although Dianna has convinced me it’s a good one. It’s real and tangible. Even if you’re shy, you can start with the choices you make in your own life, like not buying water in one-use plastic bottles. You can help lobby for legislation. Pick up trash. Recycle. Educate. It’s way better to do something than nothing.

Or focus on a different issue entirely. Start anywhere, even right where you are.

The point is, only if we act as if it can happen will it happen. 

I’m writing this because I need to hear it. I’m reminding myself as much as anyone else who reads this blog.

You can call it whistling in the dark. I do that a lot. We need to pretend we believe even if we aren’t that sure, delude ourselves if that’s what it takes, craft a beautiful myth and just keep going until others see it too, and then keep going until the myth is truth.

Let’s not commit the grievous sin of losing faith.

Posted in Commentary, Finding Hope, Memoir | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Her Best Tree

my best treeMy mother-in-law plants trees. I love that about her. She propagates oaks and sycamores. She grows citrus, avocado, and macadamia trees, and a garden of native plants. She tends to things.

The other day as I was walking past the orchard, she asked me if I would like a grapefruit. “Of course,” I said. She handed me a couple. They had heft.

“You know you can pick these any time,” she said. I don’t know why I don’t. Whenever I taste them, tart, and refreshing, and utterly delicious, I realize they’re exactly what I’ve been craving.

She stepped back and looked up at the tree with satisfaction, even a bit of pride. She’s a tiny, white-haired lady, 89 years old, in a baseball cap and sneakers.

“That’s my best tree,” she said.

I noticed it as though for the first time. It’s astonishingly leafy and green and symmetrical, reaching out wide from its small sturdy trunk, and almost always laden with fruit. It’s luckily positioned in terms of soil and water, even in these days of stress and drought. It is a handsome tree. Productive, too.

Sometimes I take so much for granted. I walk by wonders without a second thought.

Yes, my mother-in-law plants trees, and it’s one of the things I love about her. I didn’t even know she had favorites.

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Amos and the Dinosaur

amos
And now for something whimsical and wistful. In case you can’t tell, the blob to the upper left is a dinosaur, and the dinosaur is pursuing the brave boy on the brick wall who happens to be wearing a fedora and gloves. It’s an exciting moment that may even involve the station wagon getting crushed. The snapshot was staged and taken by my brother Eddie on Coney Island Avenue in the late 1950s, and I’m pretty sure the boy was Eddie’s good friend Amos Crowley. I like how the shadow of the arrow is pointing toward his approaching doom. (I wonder if Eddie intentionally included that little touch.) In any case, I believe Amos survived this frightening adventure, but I wonder what eventually became of him.

As you can see, my brother Eddie sort of invented trick photography. The picture is blurry in parts and double exposed, but as far as I’m concerned it’s art. It’s also a kind of time capsule, because the more I look at it, the more I am drawn back into my childhood. I love the peaked roofs and bare branches  and the newly white-washed Mobil garage, and even the dirty sidewalk. I love Amos’s pose: his stance, his slant, the way he holds his arms, a little like a dance, and  I love the play and the absurdity here.  The world was there for our imagination and exploration, and Eddie was up for the challenge. If only he could know that nearly sixty years later this photo has been published here for all the world to see.

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Small Comfort, A Poem by Katha Pollitt

small town lady

The lady above is someone I met at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden several years ago. I don’t know who she is, but she was one of many pilgrims who had come to marvel at roses in rain, and for a few minutes we all had that in common. I was delighted beyond all reason to see how many people were taking time out from busy urban lives that day just to walk around looking at flowers, inhaling their fragrance, noting their names. This lovely woman with the perfectly imperfect smile had a story to tell, but for now, she was just happy to be exactly where she was.

After visiting the garden, I took refuge in a corner cafe and sat over a cup of coffee, perusing a damp newspaper, perfectly content. The following poem brings me back to the feeling I had then, and to a kind of prayer I still carry in my heart.

SMALL COMFORT by Katha Pollitt

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We’re near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.

“Small Comfort” by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem

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After The Genie

GenieyouarefreeAlong with many others, I’ve been feeling heavy-hearted about the death of Robin Williams.  It’s a genuine sadness, a real sense of loss, as though he were a personal friend. It just throws everything off kilter, somehow. For almost as long as most of us can remember, there was this absolutely one-of-a-kind and kind-hearted genius, a man of rapid-fire brilliance, a delicious sense of absurdity, and a breathtaking wit that did not preclude sentimentality, who made us laugh despite his own vulnerability and pain. And now there’s not.

I don’t know what to make of it. The world is just diminished somehow, and there are plenty of other headlines and developments to brood about, much of it troubling and scary, but maybe that’s why the laughter was so important. With his meteoric energy and nimble stream of consciousness, he seemed to contain multitudes, and if there was something manic and madcap about it, maybe that just came with having a mind so fast. He was utterly unique.

And thus we are bereft.

Much has been said about the way he made his exit, but here’s a fact: just as terminal cancer ends in death, so does depression when it’s terminal. It’s not a matter of choice or fault or selfishness. Robin Williams was undoubtedly suffering more than most of us can ever understand. It’s terrible to contemplate that much anguish and alone-ness.

I had a friend who hung himself. I spent time with him in the months and days before this final act, and no one can tell me that his agony was not real. On some level he realized that his death would hurt the people who loved him, and he didn’t want to cause them pain, and he struggled mightily, deferring the end as long as he could. There is a point when the illness takes over, when nothing is real but the pain and the need to put a stop to it.

I understand how easy it is not to understand this.

The man I knew who committed suicide dreaded certain hours of each night. He was grieving over the loss of his wife and could not silence his thoughts. He was haunted and tormented and ashamed of himself. He despised the fact that he no longer possessed the qualities and capabilities which made life worthwhile to him. He wanted to want to live, which of course is very different from wanting to live, but the illness of his brain destroyed everything but his need to find peace. At last he had to over-ride even the bonds of love and loyalty to his family and friends. He set himself free.

But I think the last stretch of a life often assumes way more significance than it should. It is the sum total of a life that matters, rather than the illness or aberration that may shortly precede or precipitate its end.

That’s something I realized when my father died, not by suicide but a heart attack. Nothing had turned out right for him, and his final years were a litany of  hardship and disappointment. I was in my 20s then. (As, it occurs to me, are Robin Williams’ kids, and I sure do feel for them.)  The only way I could think of to get through this was to look at the whole of my father’s life, not its sad conclusion.

So I chose to give more weight to his shining moments, to the pleasures and accomplishments he knew, and to the dreams he once held, even dreams that had eluded him, for those failed dreams had contained promise. He had sailed towards them as though to stars in the night, sustained by the quest.

And I am looking right now at a picture of my late sister taken on a bright fall morning when she was healthy and newly in love and all things seemed possible–this reality is as valid as her days of suffering in a hospital bed, and it’s the one I cherish.

I have abandoned the tyranny of sequence and chronology.

Subsequent events do not negate or diminish all of the wonders, joys, and hopes which preceded them. They are not more important, they do not contain the meaning or the bottom line, and they are not somehow the summation of anything just because they happened last.

I even think we can fulfill dreams retroactively and add posthumous chapters, extending the impact of someone’s life with acts that honor who they were and what they loved. We can do something constructive and hopeful in their memory, and while that doesn’t eliminate the sadness, it imparts a bit of usefulness to it.

What does this have to do with Robin Williams? It has everything to do with Robin Williams, because it has everything to do with being human. It’s about honoring the unique gifts of the people whose lives have touched ours, celebrating what joys were experienced and given, learning whatever there is to be learned from the painful parts, and somehow being better because they lived.

And in the particular case of Robin Williams, there is so much to celebrate. He was of a different plane, a different planet, I suppose, and he stayed as long as he could, distracting and delighting us, and nothing can alter this fact.

So we can be a little kinder to each other. That would be nice. And let laughter be the legacy, and light.

 

Posted in Commentary, Finding Hope, Memoir | Tagged | 7 Comments

Getting Some Traction

art districtA few days ago we did something unusual on our way home from Orange County. Instead of driving through and beyond Los Angeles as fast as we could, we exited the freeway at 4th Street, headed into town on one of the old bridges that cross the L.A. River, which is basically a concrete channel at this point, parked on Traction Avenue, and got out of the car.  We were in the Arts District. Who knew? (Well, anyone who knows anything knew…but this is your country bumpkin blogger blogging, the one who’s still amazed.)

buildingBordered by freeways to the north (the 101) and south (the 10), the river on the east, and Alameda Street on the west, the neighborhood was at one point the site of a thriving 104-acre vineyard planted by Jean-Louis Vignes, which by 1849 was California’s largest wine producer.

Then came citrus. By the late 19th century, orange and grapefruit trees lined the banks of the river. (Apparently there is a 30-foot grapefruit tree still standing above the Japanese American Plaza in Little Tokyo; I aim to take a look at that next time I’m in the neighborhood.)

Anyway, storage and shipping of produce necessitated the building of warehouses and railroad freight depots. Then manufacturers of various goods took advantage of the shipping infrastructure and created factories nearby.

But times changed, and as these sprawling industrial spaces were vacated, the area became a classic scene of urban decay and abandonment. It was a pretty rough neighborhood even through the ’70s and ’80s, rife with drug use and crime.

festiveArt stepped in! Resourceful and creative types envisioned those abandoned spaces as studios and galleries. An artist-in-residence ordinance was passed by the city in 1981, allowing artists to use the buildings as living quarters as well as work areas. Painters, sculptors, clothing and graphics designers, filmmakers, foodies, and craftspeople of all sorts have converged here, and the place is a’splash with creativity. There are interesting (albeit pricey) retail stores, not-Starbucks coffee shops where hip young people sip their beverages, and colorful street art everywhere you happen to gaze.

The Art District is still in progress, still evolving, and there are already plenty of mutterings about its being too trendy, with rents climbing beyond the reach of struggling artists, but there’s definitely something happening here. It was another good reminder to get out of the car, look around, and learn a little.

mural“This place makes me want to be young again,” I told a very young woman who was working in one of the gallery-shops.

“You are young!” she said, without hesitating. “And here you are.”

It was a good response.

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Waking At 3 a.m., A Poem by William Stafford

glow of eveningEven in the cave of the night when you
wake and are free and lonely,
neglected by others, discarded, loved only
by what doesn’t matter–even in that
big room no one can see,
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure eight
and lies down in your head.

You think water in the river;
you think slower than the tide in
the grain of the wood; you become
a secret storehouse that saves the country,
so open and foolish and empty.

You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right. And you sleep.

by William Stafford

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