Painting the Floor Blue

chipped blue paintIn 1971 I moved into a basement apartment in Chicago with my then-husband, who was a medical student.  The floors were covered with ugly carpeting installed by the previous tenants, who told us that if we wanted it to stay we had to pay them. I was appalled. “You mean you’re going to remove the carpeting if we don’t pay you?”

That’s exactly what they meant. It would be completely worthless, but they would pull it up, nail by nail, and take it to the dumpster rather than allow the new tenants to enjoy for free what they had paid for.  This is when the stubborn hot-headed New Yorker in me kicked in.  “Well, I guess you better get going,” I said, “because we don’t want it.”

The truth is we did sorta want it, but it was a matter of principle. (Don’t ask me which principle; I don’t know.) It just seemed cheap and mean-spirited of them, and it pissed me off. They were moving up in the world, leaving this dreary place behind, and rather than doing so with good will toward the victims next in line, they intended to extract some petty cash. And I do mean petty. I stood my ground. Or rather my bare floor.

Maybe I was just calling their bluff. I think on some level I honestly didn’t believe these folks would go through all the trouble of removing the rug. But indeed they did, and now everything the ugly carpet had covered was exposed. It was a realm of rough and uneven wood splattered with stains and residues of glue and paint, with occasional carpet shreds, bent nails poking through, and sundry traces of history’s long and messy procession through these very rooms. The predominant color was something in the dark brown family. The medical student looked at it sadly, shook his head, and said, “Maybe we should have given them the money.”

I should point out here that no amount of decor was going to turn this into a charming apartment anyway. The ceilings were low and adorned with pipes, and the front windows faced the street at the level of passing pedestrians’ feet. The walls were white yet somehow still seemed dingy, and most of our furnishings were the motley discards of an old fraternity house. There was a faux leather sofa that was cracked and worn, a chunky bed with an ill-fitting mattress, and a typical student bookcase constructed of bricks and cement blocks.

“We just need some color and cheer,” I said unconvincingly, and I decided then and there to paint the floor. It will be like the floor of a country porch, I thought, conveniently ignoring the fact that we were about as far from country porch country as one could be.

I bought a bucket of peacock blue paint, a brush and a roller, and began the transformation. Readying the surface? Scraping and priming? These things never occurred to me. I poured and spread, slopping the paint around with a brush and telling myself it couldn’t possibly look worse than it already did. At one point I literally painted myself into a corner, but managed to step gingerly with minimal damage and leap over into an adjacent room.

I looked at the blue floor with a critical eye from the space as yet unpainted. As with many endeavors past and yet to come, I had to admit that the result of my effort bore little resemblance to what I had envisioned.  The rooms that had escaped my paintbrush suddenly by contrast didn’t look so bad.  If the peacock blue floor was an old crone in thick pathetic make-up, the rest of the floor space was a tough broad who’d lived hard and wasn’t in denial. I knew which one I preferred. Some dormant remnant of good sense told me to confine blue-ness to the one room and quit while I was, if not exactly ahead, at least less behind than I might get.

The story has many endings. One of them is happy. Not long afterwards, I took a shortcut through an alleyway, past the very same dumpster where the previous tenants had left their ugly carpet. On the cement pad by the dumpster there was a record player, a sturdy and handsome one with wood veneer and all parts seemingly intact. I carried it home, set it down, rode my bike to the library, and checked out a couple of records to test drive the thing. I went for classical, randomly choosing something by Beethoven because I’d heard of him. Maybe it was the 7th symphony.

The record player worked. The sounds of the music filled the basement apartment, and everything was changed: enchanted, elevated…I don’t know…maybe even lifted off the ground. I sat on the peacock blue floor and cried.

Symphony 7 II Allegretto

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An Old House

Hollister-House-02We decided to meet late in the day at the old ranch house, just four local ladies trying to be useful. We call ourselves the non-committee because we’re very informal, but we do care about this house and have been involved in tending to it over the years. Now we walked along a gravel path through the orchard, past persimmon trees beginning to bear fruit, and there it stood before us, still grand.

HollisterHouseCirca 1910-11A bit of background: The house was designed for Jim and Lottie Hollister by Bliss and Faville, which was the top San Francisco architectural firm in its day, and constructed in 1910. The Hollisters were both highly educated city folks who wanted a very comfortable, civilized house as a buffer against the rural isolation of this Gaviota land. It was built of redwood that was brought in by train and unloaded at the San Augustine siding. There were hardwood floors and French doors, redwood paneling and gold curtains, and an elegant stairway that led down from the upstairs hallway into the living room. It was a classy town house that stood a bit incongruously in the middle of this wild and often windy country.

J. Smeaton Chase, who traveled alone by horse along the California coast in 1911, was surprised by the sight of it. He wrote: At El Bulito Cañon, I caught a glimpse of the handsome large house of a local cattle baron. Gleaming white among noble oaks, it had the air of a French chateau.

Lottie cultivated luxurious gardens filled with exotic flowering plants that she ordered by mail from all over the world. There was a sun dial, a lily pond, and a lawn. A swimming pool was built in the 1930s, the first in Santa Barbara County. (It was filled with earth in 1970.) Thick wisteria vines, spectacular when in bloom, still cling to the porch and the eaves.  Kate Dole, who lived here during the early 1960s, once told us that the wisteria had grown so dense and tangled over the years that it had to be cut down with an ax just so people could to get to the door.

wendie

Rats chewed up Lottie’s sheepskin Ph.D. diploma, which seemed rather symbolic, and she never quite adjusted to the harsh and isolated life she found here. Weekly trips to Santa Barbara helped. Family members waved a red handkerchief to flag down the local commuter train at Drake Station near Santa Anita Canyon, a privilege granted them by the railroad in exchange for the right of way.

The house became known as the “Big House” and is referred to as the Hollister House today. The composite photo at the top of this page (meticulously reshot and layered by Kam Jacoby) is of two of the Hollister children, Clint and Jane, pre-1920, standing before the house as it appears today.

It’s fascinating all these years later to sit in the front room, its beautiful wood floor partially covered with a Persian rug, late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the wavy glass of the windows, a motley assortment of furnishings gathering dust, some of it fitting, some of it junk.  We’re deciding on priorities, what the landscape needs, what the kitchen is lacking, what should really be boxed and taken out of here.  It’s a small and pleasant way to be of service.

We remember Christmas parties in this house, with kids running around, and a jolly local Santa Claus hamming it up with his ho-ho-hos. There were murmurings of ghosts in the attic. We remember the year of El Niño, when it really did rain, stranding us all on this side of the creek and we held school for the children in the house. There have been poetry readings in here, and potlucks and lectures, and meetings both constructive and contentious. It’s our community center, in a way, but a place where the past lingers too.

When our non-meeting ended we locked the door behind us with an old skeleton key. We looked up at the oak tree Jane used to climb. The autumnal light was the same as it was a hundred years ago.

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Why We Tell Stories

The Three Waifs

WHY WE TELL STORIES by Lisel Mueller

1
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

2
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

3
Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

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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 manage 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.

image

 

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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.

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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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