Launch

It has become a ritual. We set the alarm, bundle up, go outside, and stand on the deck looking westward and up, sometimes feeling silly. Why are we so drawn to these spectacles in the sky that we rouse ourselves from good sleep and a warm bed to watch? I think of it as an acknowledgment of wonder, and whether it’s a meteor shower, an eclipse, or a rocket launch, I feel compelled to be present, observing.

This morning the show was the launch of the SpaceX Starlink Falcon 9. Vandenberg Air Force base is about fifteen miles from here, just over the mountains, and although these space age launches seem to contrast oddly with Gaviota’s bucolic hills and cattle ranches, proximity to the coast and low population density render the area well-suited for the purpose. The base launched its first ballistic missile in 1958 and soon became the regular site for test firings of strategic missile weapon systems and polar-orbiting satellite launches.

I remember my friend Bob Isaacson’s description of the surreal sight of an Atlas missile launch during a post-branding barbecue he attended at Las Cruces Ranch in the 1960s. Cowboys fell silent as the white column collapsed and spiraled in the winds, and then someone stood up and booed. “We knew things would never be the same,” Bob said.

Decades later, the launches still seem somehow dissonant and incongruous, but there is also something undeniably exciting about them.  It was cold outside this morning, but we were filled with anticipation. We heard the sound of a canyon wren as we opened the door, and the sky was already growing light, and at the precisely scheduled moment, a fiery shape emerged above the hills, soaring into the sky, followed by a long white plume, curling and swirling and shifting shape.

We watched until the exhaust grew pale and dispersed, and all pieces of the rocket faded away above the sea, and the rumbling gradually subsided, but one morning planet-star still glimmered bright. (Jupiter, perhaps?)

Then we lingered as dawn unfolded in rose tones above the hills.

And I actually intended to go back to bed, but too many wonders abounded.

Sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and there was a beautiful grapefruit on the counter, and Monte made me coffee and himself a cup of tea, and I watched the steam rising above his cup as though it were amazing.

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Things Hard To Contain

Sometimes I plan and think about a post before I blog. (Oh, that word, “blog”… it’s so ugly and dismissive.) Right now, though, I am typing quickly in a stream-of-consciousness way, maybe because this space has become a touchstone to me, and while I know I am talking out loud to a few people, I’m also talking to myself.

I’ve already posted two entries about the “On Being” gathering from which I just returned, and when I revisit them I see that they focused a lot on my own uncertainty and introvert tendencies. It’s interesting how the process of writing reveals so much about what we are experiencing. It is as Patricia Hampl said, “I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”

But little by little I hope to talk less about my personal feelings and report a little more about the content of the conversations and presentations. There are so many things to write and think about in this post-gathering reflection time. I have so many pages of notes, diligent student that I am.

Dipping into my notebook, I see that a topic that came up early on and more than once was prayer, described as a form for the amorphous, a container for things that are hard to contain, a rhythm that helps us to make sense out of senselessness. I was particularly drawn to ideas about praying because a few days earlier a dear friend of mine had told me that she and her Bible study sisters are praying for me as I get ready to face my surgery next week. My friend is a believer, a deacon of her church, and a kind and caring fellow traveler, and although my own beliefs have grown shaky over the years, her kindness and certainty are comforting. She reminded me how Anne LaMott had distilled prayer into three basic types–help, thanks, and wow–and I get it. I’m feeling all three to the depths of my being; I may as well utter the words. Sometimes I think I have lost my voice entirely, muted by the onslaught of everything, but maybe I have been praying all along.

Come to think of it, I felt like I was praying during a lovingkindness meditation session I attended. And sometimes I pray when I walk, with each touch of my foot on good ground. Writing too can be a kind of praying, or am I letting myself off too easily? And love most certainly is…love, which Parker Palmer, one of my favorite of the presenters at the conference, said is a word we must bring back in a more robust and grounded way. Truth, he said, is an eternal conversation conducted with passion and discipline about things that matter, and love is not a quality of God, it is the unleashing of God. We live in what he called the “tragic gap” between harsh realities and what we know is possible. We walk in that gap knowing it will never be closed, but we keep trying.

There was a lot of discussion at the gathering about joining one’s inner life with one’s outer presence in the world, and I’m not at all sure what that means, but I’m pondering. And I don’t expect instant answers. I’m reminded here of something Naomi Shihab Nye said, quoting from one of her poems; it was something like this: “You’re not living the whole thing at once./That’s what a minute said to an hour./Without me, you’re nothing.”

And of course there was a mention of the late and beloved William Stafford, who said, “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.”

So that’s what I’m doing, trying to figure it out, still a pilgrim at a point in life when I probably should be a wise elder. I think it was Marilyn Nelson who described a dream she had in which reality was a dark space where the only light that enters comes through those who allow it to come through themselves. Unless we open ourselves up like that and in so doing become the light, we will continue to flounder in the dark. I’m trying to stay open, which is an ironic thing to say when I am about to have my ear opened like a door and my head cut into.

And all of these thoughts have been prompted by just the first  few pages of my “On Being” notebook, but yes, we’re not living the whole thing all at once, and now it’s time for a walk. I need to see what the wind and the trees in the canyon have to say.

In exactly one week, I will be in the ICU recovering from The Grand Opening, which has been so long pending, and it will be so good to have it behind me. But it has yielded unexpected gifts: a renewed appreciation for my circle of loving friends and family near and far, and a startling clarity and intensity in the way I am perceiving the sensations of being alive, as though everything has been amped up into high resolution. It’s a little like what ee cummings said, “be unto love/as rain is unto colour”… my world is saturated.

In the meantime, I think it’s important to remember that everyone is struggling, and we have all lost something dear. Naomi read this poem, “In Transit” at the gathering, and I want to share it here:

I mailed a package to myself, it never arrived.
Months later, wondering what it contained…
the package was oversized, I paid extra.
Mailed it from a place under trees. Surely shade
and sunlight was in the package. Mailed it
from a place compassionate to refugees.
Unopened envelopes inside the package,
poems from kind students hoping for response.
How do we answer without knowing
who they were or what they said?
This is why you must smile at everyone,
living and dead, everywhere you go.
You have no idea what has been lost
in transit.

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She Hums Along

Walking down the hall to the shared bathroom in the morning with my toilet kit in hand, I had a déjà vu sensation that it was 1970, and I was living in a college dorm. When I entered the bathroom, two bright-eyed young women were standing side by side at the sinks washing and grooming and chatting. “Have you always written poetry?” one was saying to the other. “Always,” she replied, with a mouth full of toothpaste. “Even as a kid…I find it very sustaining.”

It was 6 a.m. I needed coffee. I hadn’t slept well. I wanted to be open and friendly, and I sincerely admired the ability to discuss the role of poetry in one’s life at 6 a.m., but I had a vague headache and I was feeling old and irritable, and, as I said, I needed coffee.

It was one of those “What am I doing here?” moments, and in the course of the weekend, I was to experience many. But I heeded the advice of my friend Dan, who told me to remember Rilke: Just keep going. No feeling is final.

And no feeling was. Whenever I felt strange and disconnected, some lifeline would inevitably appear, in the form of an unexpected conversation, a gesture of friendliness, perhaps a memorable fragment of wisdom or poetry, and everything would shift. Or sometimes I simply walked the trails beneath the redwood trees, those reliably awe-inspiring and perspective-restoring ancient beings.

I tuned into gratitude, too…how lucky I was to be there! I understood that I was the recipient of a special opportunity, and I only hoped that I would prove worthy, and that of course led to feeling insecure and misplaced, but…well, no feeling is final.

One evening at dusk, I bravely entered the hot tub-infinity pool already inhabited by nineteen (I counted them) people. They were young and intense, lots of tattooed skin and hipster glasses, little groups engaged in animated conversation about the issues of the day, and the meaning of art, a young African-American man in dreadlocks quoting Reverend William Barber, Maria Popova herself in a black bathing suit and very red lipstick, and the steamy mist rising like their words from the water, drifting upward beyond the tops of the redwood trees, and I could not believe I was in the same pool with these people, a part but apart, perched on my own little section of ledge, but everyone’s glistening bodies so close together, and perhaps our aspirations were aligned, but I cannot say. (And I only wish that I could harness my power of invisibility for the good of humanity!)

Again and again, I found I lacked the energy, skill, and confidence to effectively navigate the social dynamics, meet some of the people I admired, join the community, and become part of the noise. I had come in search of wisdom, inspiration, and tangible ideas to carry forward, but I’m a hard-of-hearing introvert, after all, and I guess I would have had to work harder to connect with other people in real ways, and I discovered I don’t have the ambition.

In fact, when Marilyn Nelson read the following poem, called Bird-Feeder, I thought to myself, “Exactly!”:

Approaching seventy, she learns to live,
at last. She realizes she has not
accomplished half of what she struggled for,
that she surrendered too many battles
and seldom celebrated those she won.
Approaching seventy, she learns to live
without ambition: a calm lake face, not
a train bound for success and glory. For
the first time, she relaxes her hands on the
controls, leans back to watch the coming end.
Asked, she’d tell you her life is made out of
the things she didn’t do, as much as the
things she did do. Did she sing a love song?
Approaching seventy, she learns to live
without wanting much more than the light in
the catbird window seat where, watching the
voracious fist-sized tweets, she hums along.

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Just Beyond Yourself Is Where You Need To Be

We convened among redwood trees, four hundred participants who had come to listen, learn, and be present with one another. It was an experiment. Whoever was there were the right people, and whatever happened would be the only thing that could have happened. Krista Tippett welcomed us, mentioning the tumult and tenderness in the world, and acknowledging that we are living through a time of disarray, despair, and destruction–but reminding us that this is not the whole story. The hopeful and creative story of our time is one less publicized, and we would focus on that…through generous listening, words that matter, patience, hospitality, adventurous civility, and humility. It was a lofty declaration, and a vague one, and a little like a prayer.

People milled about during breaks, some sitting in collegial little groups, and whether old friends or new acquaintances, they were talking and laughing, and I realized I could become less alone if I were more assertive about approaching people, but I stood awkwardly apart. One learns many lessons at such events, and the most significant are unexpected realizations that have nothing to do with topics on the program. I learned (again) that I am unequivocally an introvert. I have a dear circle of friends, but I don’t know how to access or navigate large groups of strangers, and such situations deplete rather than stimulate me. Entering the dining hall for meals was always the hardest, carrying a tray to an empty place, and sitting there alone like the weird friendless girl in the middle school cafeteria. Maybe there’s an awkward middle school child inside each of us, but some conceal it better than others. In any case, I definitely felt the grounding virtue of humility. And eventually, a couple of kind-hearted women joined me, and we chatted and explored the premises a bit, and things improved after that just by sort of knowing someone.

What helped even more was poetry. David Whyte spoke the perfect words (in his beautiful Irish accent). He talked about generosity, about giving and being more than you think you can and are. “Just beyond yourself,” he said. “Is where you need to be.” He talked about friendship, too, and how a friend bears witness, more than anything else, a friend sees you. And he talked about being brave, about doing things right now that will make you the ancestor of future happiness. “Live in this place as you were meant to,” he said, “and then, surprised by your abilities, become the ancestor of it all…”

It had never occurred to me before, but I thought about the young girl I was in 1981, setting out on my journey to California, and how she was the ancestor of the happiness I have known. And of course I wondered if there are things I can still do today that will help to yield better days tomorrow, even when I am gone. It takes persistence, a pact with the world and with oneself, and I silently promised that I would try.

Here is Coleman’s Bed, the poem David Whyte read that carried me off into the night with courage and conviction:

Make a nesting now, a place to which
the birds can come, think of Kevin’s
prayerful palm holding the blackbird’s egg
and be the one, looking out from this place
who warms interior forms into light.
Feel the way the cliff at your back
gives shelter to your outward view
and then bring in from those horizons
all discordant elements that seek a home.

Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,
how the discarded is woven into shelter,
learn the way things hidden and unspoken
slowly proclaim their voice in the world.
Find that far inward symmetry
to all outward appearances, apprentice
yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back
all you sent away, be a new annunciation,
make yourself a door through which
to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.

See with every turning day,
how each season makes a child
of you again, wants you to become
a seeker after rainfall and birdsong,
watch now, how it weathers you
to a testing in the tried and true,
admonishes you with each falling leaf,
to be courageous, to be something
that has come through, to be the last thing
you want to see before you leave the world.

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

Ghost then, to where others
in this place have come before,
under the hazel, by the ruined chapel,
below the cave where Coleman slept,
become the source that makes
the river flow, and then the sea
beyond. Live in this place
as you were meant to and then,
surprised by your abilities,
become the ancestor of it all,
the quiet, robust and blessed Saint
that your future happiness
will always remember.

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Not There

 I live on two levels: here, which is a pretty nice place to be, and there, which is a thick morass of sadness and remorse about things in the past, strewn with jagged rocks of worry about what’s to come.

I was talking about this recently to Dan, my pen pal, poet-friend, and accidental mentor, whom I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog. Dan has often suggested meditation to me, but in his last email, he expounded on this in a way I could relate, meditation in an everyday form, by which he meant “those moments unencumbered by the notion of a substantial self –when I’m walking the dog, reading or writing a poem, or, as I am at this moment, apparently writing to you– as well as the sitting I do in the morning with a cup of coffee after feeding and walking the dogs…”

He went on to say that this everyday kind of meditation “is inseparable from poetry and art of every kind, ‘a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration’, as Elizabeth Bishop defined the conditions necessary for creating or appreciating art.”

And at one point he presented this exquisite thought from Angelus Silesius (c. 1624-1677) a German priest, physician, poet, and mystic of the Catholic church:

“God, whose love is everywhere, can’t come to visit you unless you aren’t there.”

It’s a chilly morning…Monte just handed me a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, like a chalice of sunlight to drink in the present.

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Biography

When I was a child, I had trouble choosing books…and it occurs to me I still do. I think then, as now, it was because I felt overwhelmed by the wide array of possibilities. There were just too many titles from which to choose. And it wasn’t a decision to be made casually, because I had discovered early on that books could exert a great deal of power over me, and just as a good one could draw me into its story and transport me to another time and place, the wrong one could infect my mood like a hard-to-shake bad dream.

I remember, for example, reading a book about a family of dolls who were lost on an island, and it was dark and creepy, the dolls far from home and wandering, disoriented, in a shadowy forest. Although I didn’t particularly care for the dolls, who seemed wooden and false, I felt lost and disoriented with them. I plodded through the book anyway, but I hated every moment of it.

In general, I preferred real life to fantasy, and I liked things that were written in a straight-forward style, not too challenging. I was easily distracted, lazy, and frivolous. Some of my happiest reading binges involved comic books and candy. (Twenty cents could buy a comic plus two nickel candy bars. Heaven was cheap in those days.)

But I discovered a fondness for biography, and I came upon a dependable collection in the school library called the Landmark series, which served up children’s versions of the tales of Dolly Madison, Davy Crockett, Betsy Ross, and various others…most of them white and patriotic, of unquestionable virtue, and responsible in some way for founding or expanding our nation. In general, I seem to have preferred stories about women, and I was particularly fascinated by Amelia Earhart and her mysterious disappearance. But I was also enamored of Abraham Lincoln, who is still as dear to me as if I’d known him in real life. I remember crying when I read about his assassination, and hoping maybe I’d meet him in heaven someday. (In my defense, I was only about eight years old.)

And yet, of all the biographies I read during my biography spree, the one I recall most vividly was Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. I remember it not so much for the details about Clara Barton’s life, but for its telling of her death. It was 1912, and she was in her 90s, bedridden with pneumonia. In her final moments she perhaps imagined herself to be once more on the Civil War battlefields, tending to the wounded, and she struggled to sit up, while “tender hands” restrained her. Nearly sixty years after reading this book, I thought I could still remember the last lines:

“Let me go!”  she cried. “Let me go!” 

And she was gone. 

Now that, I thought, is good writing! It was melodramatic and morbid, and I was deeply moved. It made me sad, but in an inspiring way, and although I had no inclinations toward nursing, I thought maybe someday I could be a writer.

Clearly those lines had significance to me if I could still recite them decades later, but I recently became curious about whether I was remembering them correctly. And because we live in a time when we can do this, I searched online and found a used copy of the book, which was published in 1955. Days later, it was in my hands:

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Awestruck

It was a night of colorful dreaming. My trusty bicycle was somehow run over by a truck and lay bent and broken on the ground, but Monte picked it up and straightened it out, and then for some reason my old friend Teresa appeared. (That’s the two of us above, taking a break after a mountain bike ride back in 1983.) Anyway, Teresa handed me a yellow cardigan sweater and urged me to continue my ride. I also met Barack Obama in this dream, and that was a treat, but I was distracted by a cloud of bumblebees hovering above our heads whose hum had turned into high-pitched human speech, and I was sure they had a lot to say.

Later I told the real Teresa about the part of the dream in which she appeared, and she promptly looked up the color of the chakra yellow and told me that it relates to pearls of wisdom, well-being, and clarity, which sounded good to me. She also sent me loving thoughts and advice, all of which reminded me what a sunny-natured and filled-with-light person she is and always has been, and that too seems yellow, and I figured that this particular dream episode was telling me that there are loving people who would help me through even if I was broken. (As for Barack Obama and the bumblebees abuzz with human voices, well, it at least it feels like something hopeful. )

Recently it occurred to me that if one dreams subconsciously and then consciously thinks about those dreams later, isn’t it possible that the interpretations one attributes to them were already embedded in the original dream? It seems that whatever I later think my dream meant is valid. It’s the same me…right? So I’m going with the love and hopefulness.

On a personal note (and let’s face it, that’s the primary note I play in this blog) my upcoming surgery, otherwise known as The Grand Opening, has already had an effect on me. Obviously it imparts a heightened sense of vulnerability and anxiety, but there are also some good things. I feel extremely “woke”, more tuned into life and the preciousness of every day. Colors are so vivid, light is so bright, friendships so dear. And people I have loved, even the ones that are gone, feel very present in my heart.

The other day I heard a podcast interview with a guy who has written a book on trump. Near the conclusion of the interview, he said to picture driving on the road late at night and you’re beginning to doze off, and suddenly the lights of a speeding, oncoming truck jolt you awake and you steer away at the last moment, and that adrenalin shock is what gets you home safely. Maybe trump, he says, is that speeding truck coming at us, undermining our democracy and threatening all we care about, and maybe the adrenalin will snap us awake and we’ll manage to steer away and drive home again. (Yeah, this is what’s served up as optimism right now.)

And maybe it’s a little like The Grand Opening. Well, no, it’s not the same….only in that a scary thing, in this case, the prospect of having my head cut open, to put it dramatically but accurately, seems to have jolted me awake and charged me up.

I’m charged up by wonders too, like getting up in the darkness of pre-dawn to watch the blood moon earlier this week, seeing that strange lunar eclipse before the moon sank down below the hill. And even apart from that magnificent orange orb, there were stars, so clear and bright, shimmering and twinkling. I stood beneath the great cathedral of the heavens, awestruck.

And today is Groundhog Day, midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, and the anniversary of the day I first rode into California, thirty-six years ago. It is an astonishing gift to be here, and I don’t know whether to respond to that knowledge with a sense of urgency or stillness. But I’m going for a bike ride right now.

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A Rally and A Road Trip

Diane and I are driving east along Route 58 on our way to Las Vegas, but we’ll spend our first night in a place called Newberry Springs, where we’ve booked lodging in a caboose. The day is sometimes rainy but mostly gray and pending, and it feels like we are driving through a cloud, with bare trees etched against the sky, and green hills giving way to brown mountains. We are comfortably ensconced in our cozy little carapace…and the miles go by.

We talk about our childhoods and our families, not happy stories, but we laugh a lot, and we know that laughter, like tears, comes with vulnerability, a gift of being open. Now James Taylor is singing Fire and Rain, and although we’re several years apart in age, we are both remembering our younger days in cold and dreary places. My husband once remarked that James Taylor and Leonard Cohen were the record albums depressed college girls listened to in their dorms, and Diane says, “Exactly.” And what would he have known of those bleak northeastern winters? He was surfing in California then, but Diane and I grew up in  New York, and although it took some doing, we always knew we’d leave.

We talk about that urge to leave, the belief in its necessity, and finding an elsewhere that becomes a home but always carrying a residue of alien-ness too, and a permanent nostalgia for things that never were. But we’re good now, and consciously grateful, both of us retired from teaching and eager to learn new things.  Diane is taking a woodworking class, and I wish I were brave enough to try painting, but I know I’d be terrible, and it feels too late to start at almost seventy. “Seventy gives you permission to suck,” says Diane, and maybe she’s right. Anything is possible. The story is ours to write.

And we talk about what teaching taught us. For me, it’s still a jumble. I am grateful to know some former students in their current, grownup lives, and I hope that I was a worthy influence, but even after all this time, I haven’t quite figured out what it all meant. Diane has more clarity; she believes that the most important lesson is to try to respond, not react. “Losing my temper doesn’t work,” she says. “You have to keep the conversation open. You have to try to understand the source.”

Understand the source…it’s a useful concept. And it occurs to me that this is part of what our road trip is about. We’re going to attend the Women’s March rally that will be held in Las Vegas on Sunday, an event intentionally based in a “purple” state that is racially, ethnically, and politically diverse, in some ways a microcosm of Western America. The theme of the rally is “power to the polls”, and it marks the launch of a monumental campaign to get the vote out.

But we’re also paying homage to the mountains and the sky, to the desert and its waters, to the foundation and the source of life. In a time when so many environmental protections are under assault, we are driving back roads through country that is quietly trying to be, through landscapes that many have viewed as nothing more than potential mines and quarries and industrial sites.  We are hoping to talk to a few people along the way too, maybe people who are a little different than the ones we meet at home. We’ll see.

We stop by a railroad track for lunch and watch the freight trains going by. Long strands of cars, forever going by, a ubiquitous backdrop to our travels.

Judi of the Desert

We arrive before dark at Newberry Springs, a small community in the western Mojave Desert, and we find our way to Sarkasian Ranch on Route 66, where we’ve booked a caboose…words I never thought I’d say. The ranch is a sprawling property at the base of the mountains dotted here and there with old railroad cars, trailers, and a handful of houses. The proprietor, Judi, comes out on a golf cart to greet us. She has a great mass of curly platinum blonde hair, and a megawatt smile, and she is made up like a movie star. (“I put on my make-up every morning,” she later tells us, “whether or not anyone is going to see me.”)

She invites us to hop on board the golf cart and she takes us for a little tour of the premises before depositing us at our caboose. There’s a fishing lake and koi pond, a tortoise preserve and a labyrinth. There are peacocks ambling by, a baffled looking emu, and a raven named Ralphie who seems to have the run of the place. There are quirky sculptures and found treasures everywhere, and all the trees have some sort of adornment…glittery stars and owls, toy dinosaurs, and colorful plastic water pistols dangle from the branches… there’s no rhyme or reason to it, just pure delight.

Judi is undisputed queen of the domain. She describes herself as a psychologist, author, and storyteller. (I later looked her up online and discovered that she is also a producer, children’s entertainer, animal rescue worker, and designer of something called an “exer-chair”.) She’s had three husbands, is a grandmother and a great-grandmother, and believes that if you want to do something, you just have to dive in and do it. She shows us her bookstore, complete with a metaphysical room and an antique sofa from an opium den, and she talks about her plans for art activities, parties, events, and retreats.

Judi has created her own world here, and it’s wacky and tacky but also brave and magnificent. She stands there in full make-up as the sun descends and the distant mountains darken, reminding me a little of the good witch Glenda. She smiles her movie star smile, and maybe there’s a flicker of sadness in her eyes, but she’s upright and undaunted. Her advice: “Nurture that part of yourself that is important to you, dream your dreams and be your own fairy godmother.”

We sleep soundly in our red caboose, lulled by the mournful sound of distant freight trains passing in the night.

On the Road Again

In the morning, we drive just a little further along Route 66 and stop for breakfast at the Bagdad Café because it’s there, and who wouldn’t? It’s a vintage truck stop diner made famous by the 1987 movie of the same name, which, according to Roger Ebert’s review at the time of its release “walks its own strange and lovely path”. Outside of the café there’s a classic old motel sign, a lonely abandoned trailer, and an endless stretch of forlorn desert bleaching in the harsh glare of the sun, but within, the place is busy, cluttered with memorabilia, and noisy with talk and the clatter of plates. We walk beneath a framed picture of John Wayne to enter the rest room, then indulge in a greasy American breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, served by a gregarious fellow named George, who tells us that he came here decades earlier after losing his job at the Hector Mining Company.

We chat with a friendly blonde woman who is on her way to a conference in Santa Fe; it turns out she’s from Santa Barbara…we even have mutual friends. She’s sorry she won’t be at the rally, but she wants to get involved for the long-term, and before you know it, we’re standing in the Bagdad Café exchanging contact information. Meeting someone from home is not what we expected in this unlikely context, but we’re allies. And life is nothing if not implausible.

There are also a couple of bikers in here, some local kids having a birthday party in a side room, a German tourist taking serious photos with a big lens camera, and one woman in particular whose face is a deeply etched road map of hard times. She looks like someone who’s had too much of some things and not enough of others, and she’s feeling kind of pissed about it all. Fed and caffeinated, we hit the road.

We’re about three hours from Vegas, and the highway stretches before us like a shimmering mirage. There are volcanic fields and white sand dunes, and various structures that we take to be refineries, mines, or processing plants, and above it all a breathtaking skyscape of utterly cinematic clouds. We pull over at a place called Camp Cady Wildlife Area, 1900 acres of desert riparian habitat, and we read a sign about the River Bluff Ranch on the north bank of the Mojave River. The river, which has been described as upside-down and backwards because its water generally flows below ground and inland from Silverwood Lake to Soda Dry Lake, was used by ancient indigenous people as a trade route to and from the Pacific Coast. In 1826, Jedediah Smith passed through here to become the first American to reach the California coast via an overland trail, and eventually the Mojave Road became a primary route from Los Angeles to the Arizona territory and points East.

Right now there is no one in sight as far as the eye can see, and we run around under the crazy sky in the center of a two-lane highway…because we can…but we begin to understand that what seems like the middle of nowhere is in fact a place of great geological and historical significance. We will encounter this kind of truth again and again as we travel. Zoom in anywhere to find a universe. There are microcosms and ecosystems within seemingly irrelevant places, there are layers of history and stories in vast swaths of silence, there are remnants of lives lived, and there is nature in all its wondrous incarnations trying to survive.

We are pilgrims. We are wonderstruck. We get back in the car for the drive to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas appears gradually…heralded by billboards and buildings and increasing traffic, it spreads across the desert in all its garish dissonance. Has there ever been a city more completely removed from the natural world? We use our phone to navigate to The Golden Nugget on Fremont Street, in the heart of the old downtown. It’s hard to miss. There’s an extravagant arched entryway, studded with chunky gold lights, and several towers and parking structures, instantly alienating. We’re staying here for convenience, and it has what we need, but we keep our heads down as we wend our way through the crowds and past maze after maze of slot machines and card tables. People seem remarkably eager to throw their money away, despite the odds, and everyone is seeking fun in a desperate sort of frenzy, but nobody looks happy.

After we check in, we go outside to take a walk, and it’s interesting to see the colorful old neon signs, but there’s a sordid undercurrent to it all. The area is jam-packed with drunken revelers and street performers of varying degrees of talent, among them a young man adeptly drumming on plastic buckets, a couple of acrobatic dancers, and a shaggy looking fellow holding up a sign that says, simply, “Fuck You”. It saddens me to see a pale, thin, almost-naked girl standing in the chilly air of dusk advertising lap dances; she has a blank expression, and looks to be younger than my daughter.

There’s loud music playing, and a lot of ambitious drinking going on, and I feel as if I’ve stepped into the midst of a frat house party gone awry, and when someone exhales a cloud of cloyingly sweet cigar smoke directly into my face, I know I’ve had enough. I realize that for some this is a vacation destination, and I understand that the tourist, restaurant, and hospitality industries represent livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people, (and I must say most of the employees we interacted with were good-natured and patient) but I’m completely out of my element. We’ll go to the rally tomorrow and get out of here.

The Rally

We arrive at Sam Boyd Stadium early in the day and take seats high in the bleachers. There’s a festive air as women and men, young and old, drift in, many carrying colorful signs: Voting Is My Superpower. Karma is a Bitch, and She Votes. I Am No Longer Accepting the Things I Cannot Change; I Am Changing the Things I Cannot Accept. White is Just My Outside Color. Respect Existence or Expect Resistance. Grab ‘em by the Ballot Until They Turn Blue. The first speaker is a Native American woman who reminded us that Las Vegas sits on native land, and that indigenous women face a disproportionately high rate of murder and many go missing, never to be found. There are tribal dancers on the stage––to dance is to pray. Later, State Representative Paulette Jordan of Idaho, an indigenous woman running for governor of that state, urges other women…and immigrants, and LGBT people, and people with disabilities, and people of color…to run for office. First we marched, and now we run. And the real Women’s March will be to the polls on Election Day.

“Last year we dared to hope for a better, brighter, more inclusive world,” Planned Parenthood President Cecilie Richards tells us in her remarks. “This year, we’re gonna go out and build it.”

Voter registration and engagement is the strategy, and, as Linda Sarsour proclaims, “We will win. This is not an opinion, but a fact…we’re gonna win. But I don’t like to win small. We’re gonna win big! The women of the USA are gonna take back America.”

An earnest young immigrant woman talks movingly of how the government is toying with lives. A survivor of the deadly Las Vegas mass shooting speaks to us in a tremulous voice: “It’s hard being here and speaking in front of a large crowd, and also scary. But doing nothing is not an option…we have a a responsibility as women to register and vote on behalf of candidates who promote the issues we care about.”

Tamika Mallory has a message for white women in particular: “Don’t come to this rally today and sit here with your pink hat on saying that you’re with us, and you’re nowhere to be found when black people ask you to show up in the streets to defend our lives. Stand up for me, white women! You say you want to be my friend? I don’t want to hear it from your mouth. I want to see it when you go to the polls at the midterm election.”

“Saying thank you to black women is not a damn hashtag!” is how former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry states it.

There are musical performances, and deeply moving song and spoken word by Jess Flo. We see sex workers holding up red umbrellas, restaurant workers, and teachers, locals and people like us who have come from far away. There are earnest young volunteers with clipboards registering voters.

“We are on assignment,” Nina Turner declares. “We are called upon right now to be the change.”

For me, the most rousing speech of the day was that of Rev. William Barber. Here’s an excerpt, but you have to imagine his powerful voice and the African-American oratory tradition:

“I say to you today, we’ve been crying and whining long enough, talking about what happened in 2016, it’s time to get up. It’s time to get up and register everybody you know to vote. It’s time to get up and take the power to the polls. Instead of deporting immigrants, we need to deport some of these politicians. If we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now…It’s time to get up and know that love can win. Justice can win. When we organize, black and white and brown and red and yellow and old and young and Jewish and Muslim and Christian and those who do not have a faith but they believe in a moral agenda. It’s time to get up…and no more fighting each other! Let’s fight racism, let’s fight sexism…it’s time to get up and demand justice for all. Because we are the people that know we can take a word like shit-hole and turn it into fertilizer…it’s time to get up and vote people out of office who do wrong…it’s time to get up and speak truth to power…”

But we didn’t just go to this event in Vegas for the theater of it. This was an informative and inspiring reaffirmation of our commitment, and a clear and persuasive call to come together and get out the vote, very focused on the midterm elections. We’ll learn more soon about tangible steps, and I know there’s a lot of work to do, but I intend to follow through to the best of my ability.

One of the speakers offered this quote from Maya Angelou: “Sometimes it’s necessary to encounter defeat just so we know who we are.” Well, we know who we are now. And we’ve all been traumatized, but as Rev. Barber said, it’s time to get up. Amidst all that terrifies us and breaks our hearts, there are many things to inspire and encourage. I refuse to despair.

A Quieter Place

We leave Las Vegas the next morning. Our destination is the Amargosa River Valley at the edge of Death Valley, about eighty miles to the west but a world away, and we soon arrive at Shoshone Village on California State Route 178. A decaying old automobile is parked alongside two obsolete gasoline pumps, and there is rusting antique farm equipment scattered about on the ground, each piece with a label, an in-the-field museum of agricultural machinery. We have lunch in a little café called The Crowbar.

Afterwards, we enter the Visitor’s Center. I”m very fond of little local museums, and this one is a truly fine little haven, lovingly curated. We talk to a woman named Carla at the front desk, and she offers a wealth of knowledge about the history of the area as well as tourist information, and then we walk on wooden floors and peer into glass display cases filled with mining and railway relics, Native American artifacts, and geological displays. There are wildlife exhibits too: a coyote preserved in mid-howl, a handsome pair of ram horns, and most remarkably, there’s an excavated prehistoric mammoth fossil on display in the back, like a grand finale, or an astonishing clue to mysterious beginnings that go back further than imagined. Photos and documents tell the stories of the human characters who came to seek their fortunes and build a community here, among them Ralph Jacobus Fairbanks, who founded Shoshone in 1910 as a trading post, and Charles Brown, whose granddaughter, Susan Sorrells, inherited and still owns the town.

A stone’s throw from the museum is a wooden house painted green but faded into varying shades by the sun, and partially hidden by a large tamarisk tree. (We later learn that these trees, although pretty, are problematically thirsty and invasive.) Peering within, we see that the house is open to visitors, and we enter to discover the office of the Amargosa Conservancy. We browse in its sunlit front room, reading about the wild and scenic river, the many species of wildlife, and ongoing efforts to fund restoration and encourage ecotourism. We’re eager to wander outdoors.

As we set out on our way, uncertain where to go, we see a young woman in a wool coat and a red bandana tied around her head, Rosie the Riveter style. We ask if she can suggest a good walking route, and indeed she can. It turns out she’s the head of the Conservancy, and a delightful person too. Her name is Tanya, and she’s “from the West” mostly, although she lived for a time in Iowa. Tanya gets us oriented and even walks with us to our turn-off. She’s dedicated to her work and has an enthusiastic and intelligent demeanor that reminds me of one of my former students, Elise, and she is instantly relatable. I guess Tanya recognizes something familiar in Diane and me too, and she suggests an organization called Great Old Broads of the Wilderness that we might consider joining. We thank her for tending to the environment, and she thanks us for going to the women’s rally. (She’s another ally, and she wishes she could have been there.) We like her so much that we hug her when we say good-bye, and take pictures, and say we’ll be in touch.

We walk past the cemetery first, a few humble graves marked only by rotting wooden crosses, others more substantial, and many decorated with bright plastic flowers. Soon we come to the old miners’ caves at Dublin Gulch, vacant but still remarkably intact, with smokestacks and wooden front doors and even bedsprings inside. From a distance, there’s an eerie kind of beauty in the broken glass glittering in the sunlight, and the old rusted cans strewn upon the ground, but it’s a desolate place. Carla had told us the story of a British prospector who had high tea daily in his cave, and a German bootlegger who hauled in a Victrola so he could listen to Wagner, but it’s hard to imagine now. We follow a series of white poles and the contours of the rocky hills and a brushy wash, keeping sight of the oasis in the distance, and we gradually make our way back to the town.

We stop and chat with a young man named Eddie from the Nevada Conservation Corps who’s working on a restoration project by a creek. The crew is focusing on a pupfish refuge, but also improving the overall habitat to enable wetlands to return. “Come back in five years and see what we’ve done,” Eddie tells us. I hope we will.

(There are good people out there, quietly doing good things.)

 

 

The Amargosa Opera House

I cannot believe I had never heard the story of Marta Becket and her opera house. A young dancer from New York, Marta was vacation camping in Death Valley with her husband in 1967, when they discovered their trailer had a flat tire. While her husband tended to repairs, Marta began to wander, drawn to group of old adobe buildings nearby that had been constructed in the 1920s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company as part of a complex for a company town. The largest of the buildings was an abandoned theater, then called Corkhill Hall. “I can dance here,” Marta thought.

“Peering through the tiny hole, I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself,” she later wrote. “The building seemed to be saying…..Take me…..do something with me…I offer you life.”

Marta and her husband agreed to rent the theater for forty-five dollars a month, and began its transformation. Her first performance was on February 10, 1968, when she danced for an audience of twelve. But although she performed regularly three nights a week, sometimes no one came at all. Her solution: paint an audience.

It’s a place of magic. Diane and I walk through the theater led by a young man named Jason who shows visitors around and works in the restaurant; he’s originally from Indianapolis and lived in Los Angeles for a while, but he found his way here and it felt right to him. We are astonished by the murals, which took four years to complete. There are kings and queens and knights, acrobats, dancers, and troubadours, angels and birds on the ceiling…a whimsical and sumptuous rendering of one woman’s beautiful, madcap vision. There’s something extravagantly defiant about it. Long after her husband was no longer on the scene, Marta continued to dance and paint, living on until her 90s. Her final show was February 12, 2012.

We visit the hotel, also, where Marta’s artistic touch is evident in every room: trompe l’oeil paintings, decorative parrots and clowns and peacock wings on the walls, dancers and angels galore. We meet Holly, who was Marta’s caregiver at the end of her life, but Holly tells us that it was Marta who cared for her. Standing beneath a mural of three cherubic angels, Holly shares a little about the rough times she has endured, most painfully the loss of two children; she was on the verge of giving up, but Marta had faith in her. “I think she’s still looking out for me,” says Holly. I think she’s still looking out for all of us, in a way. Her message is to be unafraid. Dream. Dance. Do. (Even if no one is watching.)

Tecopa and Beyond

And we go to Tecopa, of course. It’s a high-energy vortex; you can sense it right away. Maybe it’s the therapeutic, geothermal heated, mineral-rich hot springs, or the way the chalky salty minerals make the ground look snow-dusted, or how the mountains glow orange at dusk and the night sky blazes with stars. But maybe it’s the flourishes of quirky creative humans: a purple-painted kiosk, an old truck rusted and peeling into multiple hues and abandoned in a field like an art installation, or in one place the twinkle of tiny red and green lights in the trees and the air, so it’s like walking through a fairyland, and it isn’t even Christmas.

The highlights of our too-brief stay in Tecopa were a dip in the silky waters of the hot spring pool at Delight’s bathhouse, and a fabulous meal at Eric Scott’s Steaks and Beer, a gourmet restaurant in the proverbial middle of nowhere. (Follow the yellow-lit path…)

But speaking of meals, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention El Valle Restaurant in Amargosa Valley, where we stopped for Mexican food, including homemade tortillas, and it was top-notch. El Valle is run by a lovely lady named Ampara, whose Christmas tree is still standing in the entryway, but it’s been redecorated as a New Year’s tree, because 2018 is going to be a great year, and in a couple of weeks she plans to turn it into a Valentine’s Day tree, because, as Ampara is fond of saying, “Why not?”

Is there a theme to our wanderings? Today I think it would be about daring to aspire and create, and having the freedom to do so. There’d be something about resilience, too…and the spirit of why not.

The Ash River Wilderness Preserve

Our trip culminates at the Ash River Wilderness Preserve, and it’s the perfect place to be still and contemplate, the perfect place from which to return. We take the boardwalk path and look upon a crystal clear aquamarine stream. From the bottom, nearly fifteen feet down, 2800 gallons of fresh water is flowing to the surface and collecting in limestone bedrock. This aquifer has given life to fish, animals, and humans for eons. Ancient indigenous tribes saw this as the holy and sacred place it is, and they came from miles away and all directions to gather here.

In 1980, a corporation proposed turning this place into a development that would include hotels, strip malls, an airport, and over 30,000 homes. Why drive to Las Vegas, when you can bring Las Vegas here? Thankfully, vigilant citizens stood up and fought it, and today Ash Meadows is a wildlife refuge.

We stood at the source. And today, as always, there was the water, and the wild heart of the desert, trying to be.

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It’s Time To Get Up

I’m back, and what a journey it has been! I have a lot of writing to do. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short video from the Women’s March Rally in Las Vegas. There were so many powerful speakers, but Rev. Dr. William Barbour was among the most inspiring:

Take a listen:  https://youtu.be/e_qrFxcjJrk

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Road Trip With a Mission

I’m leaving tomorrow morning for a road trip to Vegas. My friend Diane and I will be doing some meandering, but our ultimate destination is the Women’s March in Las Vegas on Sunday, which as it turns out isn’t even a march, but an all-in-one-place rally. It will be a call to action that will kick-off  the #PowerToThePolls campaign, a “national voter registration tour” to target swing states, register first-time voters and get more progressive female candidates elected to office. There’s a line-up of inspiring speakers, including Congressman John Lewis, the iconic Civil Rights activist and Georgia Democrat.

And I was braced for a march, but I’m staying positive and hoping this will be a potent, peaceful event that galvanizes the kind of sustained action we will need to turn things around in the midterm elections. If we get some good representation and regain a majority in Congress we can at least keep some of the harm of the current regime in check until we can get out from under it and return to more hopeful times.  Above you can see the the sign I’m going to bring. Clearly sign-making is not among my strengths, but I think it’s good enough.

So Myrtle and Mabel are gonna do Vegas. I’ll certainly take some notes and pictures and share a few blog posts when I return.

On a personal level, I see this trip as another say-yes adventure, part of my own campaign to stay active and positive, get out and get strong, pay attention, and be filled with love and friendship and purpose.

The Grand Opening, which is what I have taken to calling my acoustic neuroma surgery, has been scheduled for next month, and I’ll let you know how that goes too. I have received a great deal of help and encouragement from others who have been through this and were willing to talk about it, so I’m going to share my experiences as well. Maybe that will help someone else.

Now, back to packing.

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