tawny hills and cloudNothing is different today except that a particular possibility ended. It was just a little flicker of a possibility and it wasn’t meant to be, and from this there are no terrible repercussions, just a tiny gasp of loss, a pause, a change in path. There were wisps of clouds in the sky, an autumnal slant of light, the air like a sigh. But I cherish hopeful beginnings, however they conclude, and I think if we walk the detours with courage and love, we can see with clarity how much is still here.

I was reminded of a huge and formative loss as well today because my brother happened to send me an email about the final days of our father’s life. My brother was only eleven when our father died, experiencing it all as a frightened little boy, and he no doubt repressed a lot of it. I wasn’t sure what prompted him to suddenly talk about it now, maybe concerns about his own health, but it sure took me by surprise how much pain it still evoked. It seemed I had been summoned upon to say something of comfort to him, though, and I drew upon the ways I’ve tried to cope. I urged him to focus on happy moments and joys our father experienced, for these were real too.

And I told him to try to suspend the tyranny of chronology sometimes and not let the ending negate all the good things that came before it, because even disappointing outcomes do not diminish the comfort and impetus dreams bring while their promise and truth seem viable. (Yeah, I concede that it’s a tricky formula to follow.) I also reminded him that our father instilled good qualities in us, and that his life continues to matter, and that surely some sort of spirit and consciousness transcends the physical span of a life.

And that got me to thinking about faith, “a great weight hung on a small wire”, as the poet Anne Sexton put it. How simple it used to be. When I was a little girl I even heard an angel sing, or so I believed. I was lying in my bed and the voice came from the corner of the room where the ceiling meets the wall, a silvery river of voice, and I never questioned that it was an angel. In those days I spoke to God silently but often, and had no doubt that he heard me and took a personal interest in me. Now of course all that comical childhood clarity is gone, and I stumble around in the dark, grasping at poems or looking at the stars, trying to make some sense of things or do some good somewhere.

Anyway, the world offers sufficient distractions, and this quiet day proceeded. I dusted bookshelves, laundered sheets, ate an orange. I read and wrote and rode my bike. The highlight was talking to our faraway daughter, when my heart experienced what can only be described as a brimming over with love. And when I began this post, I thought it was about loss. But it somehow became about finding.

God does not need
too much wire to keep Him there,
just a thin vein,
with blood pushing back and forth in it,
and some love.    
                  – Anne Sexton


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The Light Has Carried Me Here


Midlife     by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

This is as far as the light
of my understanding
has carried me:
an October morning
a canoe built by hand
a quiet current

above me the trees arc
green and golden
against a cloudy sky

below me the river responds
with perfect reflection
a hundred feet deep
a hundred feet high.

To take a cup of this river
to drink its purple and gray
its golden and green

to see
a bend in the river up ahead
and still

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October Moments

oct 4
I didn’t get very far. It’s hot. But I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I just needed to get outside on my bike for a bit, checking out the day. So I pedaled to the beach and sat at the redwood table that occasionally serves as my church pew, and I pondered and perspired and in my own way prayed. A train rumbled by as I rode toward the railroad tracks to get back to the main road. The Pacific Surfliner, I guess, headed north. I could see the forms of passengers on board, and they perhaps caught a glimpse of me, a woman on a bicycle with an ocean behind her. A pair of monarch butterflies darted about in the very blue sky.

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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, and they told us that if we wanted the rug 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 shred of rug, 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, 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 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. I glimpsed a useful insight too: I wasn’t married to all my misjudgments. Rather than replicate and exacerbate one could rethink and change strategy.

The story has many endings. One of them is happy. I took a short cut through an alleyway shortly afterwards, 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, maybe 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.


Early on, 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 here. There have been poetry readings in this house, 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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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