Misty Walk

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Grass Mountain on a Sunday morning in February. I’d show you some views, but as you can see, there weren’t any.  We walked through clouds and sometimes downright rain. It was chilly at times, and muddy too. Oh well. Once you’re out there you might as well make the best of it. It was green and beautiful too, with wildflowers along the trails.

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Continuity

with Carol BesseyThe picture above was taken in the 1950s and I didn’t even know it existed until my friend Carol Bessey sent it to me a year or two ago. From left to right, that’s me, in a rather magnificent skirt, a boy whose name I have forgotten, and my dear familiar Carol in a stylish plaid outfit. We are unusually dressed up, and I imagine we were going to a party, but receiving this picture in the mail was like getting back a completely forgotten fragment of my childhood randomly withdrawn from someone else’s memory bank.

That’s a little how I felt last week when Carol sent me a handwritten note upon hearing of my mother’s passing. “I don’t remember too much of her,” she wrote, “only that she was thin and pretty. I mostly remember how you would borrow her clothes so we could play dress up and parade up and down Coney Island Avenue. What sights we must have been!”

Really? I “borrowed” clothes from my mother’s closet? Bold girl…it was surely not something I was authorized to do. But how wonderful it is to see my mother as my childhood friend saw her, young and attractive and the wearer of high-heeled shoes and dresses we coveted. It prompted many other memories of my youthful mother in those long-ago days: buying milk in glass bottles from the corner grocery store, having coffee with our neighbor Helen Wittner, taking me places on the subway and the trolley or walking through the neighborhood now known as Ditmas Park and pointing out the houses she would most love to live in.

I’m fond of advising people not to be tyrannized by chronological time or let the sad parts of a person’s life overshadow the moments that were good. It’s easy advice to dispense but not to follow, and I’m afraid I’ve been so haunted lately by the miseries that visited upon my mother in her old age that I’ve forgotten all her earlier incarnations. I feel so fortunate to have a lifelong friend to help me to recall other aspects of my mother’s long and complex life and uncover images more pleasant to hold onto.

And I feel so fortunate to have a lifelong friend, period. Carol was my first friend in the world beyond my siblings. She was a great pretender, a feeder of stray animals, a co-conspirator in many shenanigans, and a good-hearted true blue buddy in the Brooklyn we once knew. It’s been forty or fifty years since I last saw her, but we exchange cards and letters with every birthday, Christmas, and milestone. I know that she’s a grandmother now and lives in upstate New York, in a small town called Cairo. Maybe someday I’ll visit her. “She’ll be a stranger,” someone told me when I mentioned this once. “You might find you can’t even relate to her.” But I don’t think that’s true. I know who Carol is: my continuity.

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Look Closely

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Everything healthy in me says to be present right here and stop looking back. Look closely, look up, kneel down if you want and look deep within, but enough already of looking back, at least until it is no longer an exercise in remorse and self-punishment.

Is it early for wildflowers, or does this always happen now? Yesterday lupines adorned my path, and mariposa lilies. Pausing and peering deeply into one of those lilies, I saw the beauty within the beauty, and it reminded me of the designs and patterns inherent in nature and the way that can take us in and steady us sometimes.

The other day, as I drove along Highway 101 past a very green field, I glimpsed a cow on the ground and two men were pulling a calf from it, a birth happening right there while traffic zoomed by, and on the radio there was a report from Boston, in this very moment weary of snow, and when I got home, the fragrance of orange and lemon blossoms was intoxicating, and of sage and ceanothus in bloom, and a handsome coyote looked up at me with mild disdain and bounded off.

How grateful I am for the sustenance of  friendship. Last night, a perfect meal with good companions, and honest conversation about difficult things that somehow encompassed laughter too and happy events yet to come. We sat outside by a murmuring fountain as evening gently folded itself over the mountains, and there was a perfect meal, and a few strokes on a yellow ukulele, and we said good night as a billion bright stars blazed above us.

One of those friends, Dorothy, wrote a Valentine’s poem that concluded with these beautiful lines:

Look at the sun,
Look at a green mountain.
Look into the eyes of those you love
and into your own clear eyes.

A silvered glass can’t capture the infinite, translucent, mysterious
light you are.

Everything healthy in me says stop prolonging the suffering by suffering. It says return to your work, re-inhabit your life, let the balm of forgiveness wash over all including yourself, look around, love life, and make all that has happened mean far more than just sorrow.

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Clouds and Ceanothus

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Today I walked up to Gaviota Peak and down Trespass Trail with the ladies of the Santa Ynez hiking group. It was the first hike I’ve been on since the season of sad unfurled, and it was reassuring and good. Here’s our winter landscape: clouds as white as snow, and ceanothus in bloom. I came home tired and grateful. This too is real.
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Candlemas

moon februaryFebruary 2 is significant to me, for it was the day I rolled into California 33 years ago and began a new life here. It’s also Candlemas, which in Christian tradition commemorates the presentation of the baby Jesus into the temple of Jerusalem, and in secular folklore it’s Groundhog Day, when the shadow (or its absence) of a certain marmot predicts the length of winter. Astronomically speaking, the date marks the midpoint between Yule (the Winter Solstice) and Spring (the Vernal Equinox).

Here where the seasons slide into each other almost imperceptibly and winter is a gentle old fool who ripens oranges and turns the landscape green, the significance of this turning point is muted. But still, it’s a time to shift gears and look towards the lengthening days, a date imbued with hope and light and yearning, and it’s the anniversary of a milestone in my personal history, a time when I was brave. So I’m moving through the hours in that spirit.

“I imagine you’re in that slow, changed place that follows the vanishing of someone loved,” wrote my friend Treacy in an email today. That’s a good way of putting it: a changed pace in the wake of a vanishing.

And it’s a wobbly pace, through a very strange space. It takes some getting used to.

But now and then I look up and realize I wasn’t thinking about anything sad for a little while.

We’ve been planting things, seeing what will grow: easygoing, tolerant things like salvia, rosemary, and sage, and two kinds of lavender, and a circle of succulents, and a tiny little lemon tree that had been feeling bound in its heavy clay pot.

You know what else? I’ve been looking online at dresses that a mother-of-the-bride might wear in England in June. Because these days will lead to that day, and maybe I’ll be fine. Being fine  is in fact a very good idea.

Another shift: I’m trying not to exclude myself from mercy. I’m trying to quell regrets and reprimands, trying to accept, trying to let go.

Last night the almost-full moon turned the hills and sky blue-white, and the earth had a hushed and holy feeling, the way it is after a new snowfall, when everything feels forgiven.

And I was awake for that.

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Heiress

my mother in her roomYesterday I faced the difficult task of clearing out my mother’s room. Her familiar clothes were hanging in the closet, and I knew which were her favorites and the provenance of each.  The drawers were brimming with beads and broken watches, eyeglasses and trinkets, fancy fans and shoe horns, random treasures neatly wrapped and taped in tissue paper: a screw, a domino, a broken piece of star.  I saw the dolls whose names were Darling and Miranda, and good old Betty Boop, and the steadfast white bear with the heart on his chest who sat on the bed pillow through many hard times. Now they were gathered together like orphaned children awaiting their destiny.

I approached it all in a trance-like state, turning off my emotions so I wouldn’t start to cry. Thankfully I was accompanied by my dear friend Donna, who was functional and clear-thinking.  A sort of sorting system evolved, with bags for the Goodwill, for the dumpster out back, and smallest of all, for stuff to be kept. “Take your time,” said Donna, more than once, holding up something of potential value, whether real or sentimental. “Are you sure this isn’t something you’ll wish you’d held onto?” But I was ruthless in the giving and the throwing away. I didn’t want things that I knew would only make me sad.

So many hair ties and barrettes, so many chapsticks and lipsticks, so many unwrapped butterscotch candies. So many pens and crayons, and letters and cards almost all sent by me, so many handkerchiefs and scissors and post-it notes and magazine clippings and little mirrors and napkins and pictures of kittens and brochures with smiling people on the covers. So many books with handwritten notes tucked into them, so many purses and keys to nowhere, so many emory boards and band-aids and a secret stash of hearing aid batteries.  Money, too: a long-forgotten dollar bill folded into a tiny pink coin purse, and about 79 cents worth of change.

And everywhere there were photographs of people she loved, and of course they’re the same ones I loved, the original cast of characters. She and I sat side by side many times going through these albums and looking at those snapshots, and she never forgot who they were. Just weeks before she died, I showed her the framed picture of my father, and she leaned forward and kissed it. I’ve taken those photographs with me.

I also took the composition notebooks we referred to as our journals. These were a ritual: at the conclusion of each visit over the years, I would open to a fresh page and write the date and what we did together. I thought it would help her stay oriented and allow her to revisit the memories. They are thus a record of our outings over the course of fifteen years, with the diminishing radius of our expeditions reflecting her diminishing capabilities. They also document her accumulating problems, filled as they are with reminders, advice, and attempts at reassurance. So I’ve inherited the journals, and I’ll read them, I guess, but I don’t think I’ll keep them. I remember enough.

The mezuzah is mine as well. It was mounted on the wall by the door, and she always touched it before passing the threshold. “Heaven keep our going and coming each day.” It’s a kind of blessing and protection, and I like that it was hers. I’ve hung it by the door in the upstairs room of my house, a threshold of some importance to me. It reminds me to stay faithful to what matters.

Life moves along too fast too fast but after a while we look back and see what wasn’t clear to us while everything was happening. I understand now that my mother’s childlike enthusiasm was something rare and beautiful, and I can see how very brave she was. I am in awe of her resilience and stamina. She weathered terrible loss and loneliness and traumatic upheavals, but she remembered mostly good things and tried to be game. Discarding the remnants of face powders and blushers, I recall how much she liked to look pretty, and I remember how surprised she was to be old. And I realize in retrospect how much she loved music…in the deafness of her final decade she missed it more and more, and she hummed to herself a lot. I see again how fond she was of animals, and I wish she could have had a real pet in these years, but she was always on the lookout for a cat slinking by on the street or a bird splashing in the patio fountain. I must never forget how the simplest of pleasures can brighten someone’s day.

And I marvel at how much she loved to go outside and walk. Even after she fell and broke her hip, she swapped her cane for a walker and kept on moving. Here’s a quote from her, age 89, that I jotted down in one of the journals: “89. It’s pretty old…isn’t it? But I don’t feel my age. I could still run…if I ever have to run, I could run.”  Yes, my mother thought of herself as someone who could still run if she had to. She hated that wheelchair, another object left behind, but not one we ever really thought of as hers.

It’s a pretty good legacy, after all. I don’t know if I could ever be as stoic and brave as she was, but maybe after I get up and pull myself together, I’ll discover that I’ve inherited some of her resilience and stamina. I’ll definitely be inspired by her enthusiasm. And I already know I find great comfort in mobility, which I’m sure is a gift from her. (Some of my earliest memories, come to think of it, involve walking all over the city with her, she in high heels.)

Most important, I have had an excellent internship in patience, and I’ve been bequeathed a small trove of wisdom. I have learned that you only end up regretting the times you were unkind, and that what you perceived as a burden may turn out to have been a gift. And I’m not going to be sad, damn it. I’m going to try, as my mother did, to remember what was good.

So we cleared the room of my mother’s worldly goods, and a poignant collection it was. Ninety-one years of living, and this is what she owned. People have asked me if I am the executor of my mother’s estate, and I never thought about it that way, but yes, I suppose I am. Not only that, I’m an heiress.

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I Think I’m Home

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“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.”
                                                                    ― Barbara Kingsolver

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A Brightness

benchesThis is the way it is: You walk along feeling reasonably engaged in the present, looking at things, just being in the world…and then something terribly sad appears in your head and you’re suddenly not here anymore. You feel that if you tried to talk, it would just come out in sobs, and you certainly don’t want to unleash all of that, so you stay quiet and wait for it to pass. And it does pass, until the next time.

tidyThe other day we went to Brighton, an old coastal town in East Sussex. Our primary mission was to visit a woman who sells vintage wedding dresses, but it was also a pleasant expedition, and we conveniently still had our rental car. We had a leisurely drive and arrived around lunchtime. We sat by the steamy window of a little café watching the motley procession of tourists and locals hurrying by, and the song Sugar Man was playing, and there were aromas of hot tea and roasted butternut squash and bread fresh from the oven. There was a comforting murmur of conversation, and a clarity of color and light and beautiful prosaic life.

“Everything is so intense,” I said.

Monte looked at me skeptically, maybe a little worried. “Isn’t that what people used to say after they dropped acid?”

“But that’s not how I mean it,” I said. “It’s just…”

And I couldn’t really explain. Life comes over me in waves sometimes, bringing with it a fusion of heartache and wonder that almost leaves me gasping.  There’s so much to take in, so much to appreciate, so much to bear, so much to reconcile and fathom and accept.

supWe walked along the waterfront, a pebbled beach, nearly deserted, empty benches facing the sea, the charred remnants of a Victorian pier in the distance. There were even a few stand-up paddle boarders out there, reminding us of home.

Then we found our way to the wedding dress lady, and I watched my daughter try on dresses, each with a story of its own, and she was lovely and hopeful, and I sat squarely in the moment, from whence I looked forward instead of back.

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In Wales

blue walesWe are in a cozy room in an old farmhouse in Wales, and I sit in front of the fire and close my eyes, lulled by the music of a conversation I’m not quite following. People talk softly here, sometimes almost whispering––you have to lean in to hear them––and the almost-whispered words float beneath various textures of voices and an occasional lilt of laughter, and it becomes a layered composition of sound. It soothes me, as a child in bed might be soothed listening to the muffled talk of gentle grownups nearby.

house in walesWe walked here once in the very-green of spring, but outside now the colors are muted, and the land is dusted with snow. This is mid-Wales, a place called Llanwrthwl, Llandrindod Wells, and we are spending the weekend with the people we call our mirror friends, (although it occurs to me now, seeing anew how talented and attractive and unusual they both are, that we are probably flattering ourselves) whom we met at the airport in Los Angeles last year. It was an unexpected little miracle, finding such good friends in so unlikely a place and time of life, but here we are, and they have made us feel comfortable and welcome.

And it’s a perfect setting for whatever healing and sorting out I have to do, because it has no connection to any sad memories, exists on its own separate plane, and presents itself in a kind of moment-by-moment way. It’s its own little planet right now, this house in Wales.

welsh oakLater we appraise the sky before we go out walking, remembering that sudden downpour in May, but braced for cold as well. When rain comes this time, it quickly turns to hail, but then the sun returns and shines through the trees and the branches sparkle like diamonds.  We walk on mossy stones and mud and muck, looking out onto fields and hills, a palette of grey and brown and green that is somehow reassuring and calming.

In the late afternoon, Nick takes us to a hidden copse of ancient oak trees, a sheltering and sacred kind of place.  I’ll never forget this.  And I’ll never forget beautiful Hilary bringing me a glass filled with hot lemon juice and honey in the morning.  It’s amazing how much you can care about people you very recently didn’t even know, and how many interesting things there are yet to see that you might have never noticed.

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From An Attic Room in Oxford

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My favorite place in Oxford at the moment is the attic room we’ve rented.  I love the low slanted ceiling, the shaft of gray light through the narrow dormer window, and the cozy bed with its soft down comforter. I’ve been in this bed all day.

Sometimes your body tells you it’s had enough. Mine screeched to a halt yesterday, and suddenly there was nothing left of me but shivers, aches, and weariness. I honestly couldn’t get up this morning. I’m sick. And it’s understandable. I’ve been pushing myself hard through a sad and stressful time.

The thing you have to guard against is the existential undertow. The poignant specifics are enough to make your heart ache, but it’s the big unanswerable questions beneath the surface that pull you under.

And it’s cold outside. Everything is more trouble when it’s cold.

So I stayed in bed all day as the muted light shifted from whiteness to shadow, and I dozed and dreamed dreams that were torn bits of color, flapping in my head like prayer flags.

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