September

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To me, the first day of any month is its own little New Year’s Day…an arbitrary new beginning to reinstate good habits and work towards whatever goals I keep envisioning and abandoning. I guess I’m pretty practiced at failing, but I’m also adept at brushing myself off and giving it all another shot. This is especially so when the month is September, season of yellow school buses, Indian summer, and intentions as sturdy as oak tag paper. There is a subtle shift in the angle of light, and the world seems ready for a change. We lift our weary heads and move forward.

When I was a kid, September marked an ending more than a start. It meant the constraint of classrooms after all those free-range months, new expectations thrust upon us, an anxious feeling that never quite left me. It was a feeling I felt throughout my childhood but it crystallized when my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. We were all about to enter schools…for me it was junior high…but our father stayed weekdays in the city for his work, and I will never forget those mournful Sunday nights of saying good-bye to him, with Friday and his return interminably far off, and so many hurdles along the way. I would face seventh grade that September as brave as a soldier, but this is probably when September and sadness really merged in my head, and I could no longer think of one without the other.

Of course there was also a scientific component to it. In those East Coast days I knew very well that even in its most deceptively hot and sunny guise, September had been assigned to bring in autumn, and autumn, as splendid as it might be, was just a last dance before winter, which would beat us up for months. The poet Mary Jo Salter said it well in her poem, Absolute September, which begins:

How hard it is to take September
straight—not as a harbinger
of something harder.

I just looked her up. She was raised in Michigan and lives in Baltimore, so we can appreciate her perspective. In fact, I wasn’t going to post this poem in its entirety, but it’s so short and lovely and understanding, that I might as well share the rest:

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent
scrubbed clean of meaning—or innocent
of the cold thing coldly meant.

How hard the heart tugs at the end
of summer, and longs to haul it in
when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.
It leaves us by degrees
only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf’s off the tree
no day following can fall free
of the drift of melancholy.

Yes, how hard the heart tugs, and that drift of melancholy…that’s what September evoked in my life long ago. There was always something over or something ahead but nothing to just nestle comfortably into.  Even the occasions on the calendar: Labor Day; my parents’ uncelebrated marriage anniversary; often Rosh Hashanah, of which my Jewish mother was quietly aware; and the equinox itself, all seemed fraught with mixed emotions. There were also my father’s determined proclamations that September would bring a turning point. Things kept turning, that’s all. There was nothing lighthearted about any of this.

Now in my California life, I can see September differently. It has wandered in confidently but without a lot of hoopla, and everything seems hushed and waiting for its next move, and  I am resolved to resolve. Once again.

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At The Sea Wall

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The heat radiated from the stones and sand and sapped us of our energy. Even our talk was lazy…inconsequential comments, meandering thoughts, broken bits of memory.

Oh, sometimes we were serious as we two are prone to be, but we also talked about the addictive nature of those honey-mustard pretzel pieces I’d carried as a snack, and boys we briefly dated, and how walking barefoot on gritty surfaces is like getting a wonderful foot massage. (Well, not for me, a city-bred kid, still sitting in my sneakers.)

I admired the sea wall from aesthetic angles, thinking about its initial purpose and utility, wondering about its history and the complexities of building it.  I later found reference to it in a 1916 guidebook written by Joseph Silas Diller (and others) who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1883 to 1923. In this particular book Diller was describing the Shasta and Coast Line railroad routes and the land these cut and follow, so richly observed it read like a poem to me.  You can understand how I got sidetracked, but I present the following excerpt, a geological perspective on our neighborhood.

North of Elwood is a famous olive grove and oil factory. West of Elwood some of the larger streams from the mountains have gashed the terrace which the railroad is following, and some beautiful views of ravines and sea may be enjoyed from the car window. This is particularly true from Bell Canyon west to Gaviota (Spanish for sea gull). The larger canyons cut back into the mountains, exposing the several southward-dipping formations in series. The light-colored rocks in the main range are Topatopa, the reddish rocks in front of them Sespe, and the shales along the lower hills, forming the foundation for the terrace, are Vaqueros and later beds of the Monterey group.

Naples and Capitan are small places beyond Elwood. From Orella, the next station, to Gaviota and a little beyond, the Monterey shale beds along the coast are very uniform, having a southerly dip of 30 to 45 degrees. They are well exposed along the foot of the sea cliff at low tide. The straight shore line along this part of the coast is due to the uniform trend or strike of the beds and their steep seaward inclination or dip, which render them very resistant to the attack of the waves. Nevertheless, at a number of places between Tajiguas (346 miles from San Francisco) and Honda (Spanish for deep, 310 miles) the railroad company has been compelled to build a sea wall of concrete.

At several points the low terrace which the railroad follows is covered by boulders from the hills immediately to the north. In the vicinity of Gaviota these hills come close to shore and a good view may be had of the coarse, steeply inclined sandstones.

At Alcatraz (meaning pelican) on the right (north) there is an oil refinery to which oil is piped across the Santa Ynez Mountains from the Santa Maria field.

From Gaviota nearly to Point Conception the rocks dip south and at El Cojo (Spanish for cripple), 11 miles beyond Gaviota, the shale beds dip north, indicating some complications of structure at the pronounced bend in the coast which forms Point Conception. The shale extends northwestward from Point Conception to the Lompoc Junction.

Point Conception Lighthouse, 1916The windswept country near Point Conception is devoted to the raising of cattle and hay. On the point are a lighthouse and a life-saving station. From Carpinteria to Concepcion, a distance of 56 miles, beautiful views are obtained of the Santa Barbara Islands. The intervening channel is shallow and, with the islands, belongs to the continent rather than the ocean. Beyond the islands the depth of the water increases very rapidly, and this steep submarine slope, which if it were land would appear as a large cliff, marks the real boundary between continent and ocean.The slope has probably been formed by faulting as the continent rose. It runs north and south off Point Conception and determines the abrupt change in the trend of the coast.

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I got tired of typing and stopped before Jalama, but I do find this stuff fascinating. And meanwhile, back at the sea wall in its present day incarnation, I thought about how wind and water and weather have shaped it into art, and how time seems to be melting it like Salvador Dali’s clocks, and how we in our impermanence would do well to transform into beauty before we disappear.

The sun continued to beat down on us. We sipped at what little water we had left, contemplated the long hot uphill walk back to my house, and wished that we had driven to the beach like reasonable people. And then my friend did the only thing that made sense. She took off her dress and ran right into the ocean for a swim. It looked refreshing. I  removed my shoes and waded.

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And Love

IMG_6678I didn’t want the only post of the day to be one titled Death, so I am adding a quick one on love. I even have something to say on the subject. You see, a few weeks ago a male friend mentioned to me in an email that he counts me as someone he loves. He is a happily married person of great integrity and character, and it would never have even occurred to me that there might be anything even remotely untoward or non-platonic about this declaration. All it did was make me feel appreciated and valued, even exhilarated at being free to acknowledge the depth of our friendship. (And by the way, let us never underestimate the worth and significance of friendship in our lives!)

But on the heels of that email came another message from him in which he felt the need to explain and said he hoped he hadn’t startled or worried or embarrassed me by using the word “love”.  It seems to me we are either so casual about using the word (I love those shoes!) as to render it meaningless, or so shy that we reserve it only for the precious inner circle of our contacts. Do we imagine that the word is de-valued if used too often? Are we saving it only for the rarest of intimacies?

Everyone needs to know they are loved, if even for a flicker of a moment or a facet of their being, and one of the most grievous mistakes we can make is to leave it unsaid.  I confess to feeling surges of love every day towards many people in my life. Even those I might not love in their entirety are nonetheless capable of inspiring affection and appreciation.  I often sign casual emails with the word, and it isn’t insincere.

Maybe it’s a general posture towards the world. I know this is ironic coming from someone who also has an irritable misanthropic side. But even if I don’t always live up to my own lofty aspirations, I can honestly say that my goal is to lean toward the side of love and be brave enough to say it and show it and let it spill.

This seems a good place to quote a few lines from a poem by Dan Gerber:

I think of my father
telling me an hour
before he died,
how he thought of all the
men and women he’d loved
and how
he wished he told them
when he could’ve.

So I say let’s acknowledge and celebrate love, which in all its forms is filled with light, worthy of pronouncement, and always better expressed than withheld.

Love, Cynthia

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Death

IMG_0279How’s that for a title? Not fun…but I’ve been trying to get a better handle on my attitudes about this subject. I guess you could say it’s part of the bereavement process, and it occurs to me suddenly that “process” is a funny word, something one might apply to white rice or bacon, connoting a series of steps or ingredients leading to a finished product, and even if the result is artificial or unhealthy, completion and closure are implied.

Well, I think the experience of bereavement is much more ambiguous and ongoing than that, but I have learned this much about the topic of death: avoidance, fear, and denial are not enlightening. So I’m gonna look at the thing straight on and keep blabbing. It’s of course universal,  but we start with specifics: the particular pain of an individual death, the epic complexities of personal history unleashed, the reverberations of prior loss, the inevitable hunger for meaning and peace. For me this year it was the death of my mother, whose name was Esther.

I have already written in this blog about a recent dream in which she was alive, all dressed up and looking pretty, eating cake with frosting, and happy to see me as always. A woman was walking by, and my mother asked me to call out to her. She wanted the woman to come and see that she was doing well. I remember distinctly that the woman’s name was Maria. “Maria, come and have some cake with us! See? Esther is alive, she’s doing fine.”

Maria was joyful, and so was I. (When I woke up, I wondered, why Maria? Who is Maria?)

Anyway, the part I didn’t tell you is what happened in real life the next day. I had been wandering around town experiencing those intermittent waves of sorrow and remorse, obsessing in particular about not having been present for her in her final days and hours, and before I could talk myself out of it, I impulsively dialed the hospice agency whose client she had been.  “I know it’s been months since my mother died,” I said, “and I know she was old and frail and I really shouldn’t be finding any of this so difficult to wrap my head around, but I just need to get some clarity about her dying…was she comfortable? Scared? Was someone with her? Can you tell me something that will make me feel better, please?”

The fellow I reached by phone was surprisingly brusque for a hospice person and not particularly understanding, but he looked up the records and called me back. He told me a few trite things: it was her turn, you did the best you could, let it go, move on. But then he added one specific and verified fact: my mother was not alone. Someone was with her…a woman named Maria.

Various friends have suggested that this dream and the Maria detail constitute a message from my mother, or heaven, or some agent of God, and it’s clearly intended to comfort me if I would only open my heart to it. I wish I could so readily accept it as such, but I guess I’m a pretty tough cookie. I tend to attribute this sort of thing to coincidental line-ups of ordinary events, perhaps subject to spin based on need and desire. I am not so arrogant as to presume that what we perceive is all there is –and it seems to me that unlikely and impossible things happen all the time– but I’m afraid my current framework of religious or spiritual beliefs is somewhat vague and tenuous these days, and I can’t easily lean into it for solace and support.  I think faith involves an element of choice, and something lately has been holding me back. I don’t know why.

In fact, I went to a bereavement counselor last week, and she specifically suggested that I investigate the spiritual component of my life, not necessarily with a religious or churchy orientation, but in some way that enables me to clarify my beliefs. That’s a tall order, but I’ve started out by reading one of the books she recommended, called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. I’ve only just begun, so it’s too early to draw conclusions, but so far the book has been a mixed bag for me. At times it just exacerbates my regret about not having been there to help my mother through her passage, and I can taste anew that bitter “too late” residue regarding the deaths of other people I have loved.

On the other hand, it does help to reinforce the reassuring idea of death as a natural process of purification and release, something far more meaningful than mere annihilation.  As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says in his introduction, “I tend to think about death as being like changing your clothes when they are worn out, rather than as some final end.”  And there is much in here about how to live in a way that helps prepare us for death, our own and that of others, and about impermanence and interdependence as infusing life with meaning and hope. So I’m pondering.

The counselor also recommended that I stop beating up on myself and disembark from what she called “the value train” in which everything I do is judged, weighed, measured….and found inadequate. By me. That’s been on my to-do list for a long time, or rather my stop-doing-it list. She further suggested that I do some writing about this whole experience. Fancy that. I told her that I have been writing about it. (Faithful readers of this blog might even say I have written about it obsessively and ad nauseam.) But she put a little twist on the assignment: I am to write a letter to my mother.  Alas, this sounds like an excruciatingly painful and masochistic exercise, and I doubt that I will take it on.

But the counselor seemed like a kind lady, and I very much appreciate having a different space in which to “process” things. It’s amusing too to see that give or take a few unique twists, everything I’ve been experiencing is sufficiently cliché to have generated piles of handy little pamphlets and booklets about it.

What I conclude at this point is that we eventually just learn to coexist with heartache, and that no amount of reading, writing, talking, meditation, or prayer is going to take it away. It weaves itself into our souls somehow, rendering us human and compassionate and perhaps more fully alive.

_____

I was in the midst of writing this blog post (the ominous blog post of death) when I heard about the death of Oliver Sacks, whose work I have read with interest and awe over the years, and whose reflections upon learning he was dying of cancer were particularly beautiful and profound. So it seems relevant to share a few of his thoughts here, both in his honor and for the illumination they offer:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

______

Here’s to Oliver Sacks. It is beautiful and fitting that a man who dedicated so much of his life to exploring the wondrous realms of the human mind should leave us with so much wisdom about how to gracefully face and accept death. He wrote with such eloquence, insight, and courage.

Gratitude. Love. Even silliness.  These words tumble forth, shining. They don’t erase our sadness for the ones who have suffered or ease regret for outcomes we wish we could change, but they do shed their light on what we still have.

So ultimately this is not about dying, but living. Perhaps I should change the title of the post.

Two days ago I had dinner with friends at a picnic bench by the sea, and it turned out that all of us were either in the difficult midst of caring for an elderly parent or had very recently experienced the death of one.  We ourselves are no longer young, all of us graying and weathered, feeling decidedly finite, but it was a good moment, sitting there together while a big round moon rose over the bluff.

When we were leaving, one of them, an affable neighbor and avid surfer, came up to me and very kindly said something like this, “I don’t know if this works for everyone, and I don’t want to sound trite or act like I’m giving advice. I’m just gonna say what works for me. What I do is acknowledge it. I just say, yes, this happened, and it’s so big, so much bigger than I thought, but yes, it happened and it’s happening. You look at it and acknowledge that it’s there, but you stay in the present.”

“I think I know what you mean,” I said. “I sort of do that too. I feel those feelings and memories coming over me, and I know I can’t eradicate them, but I make a concerted effort to push them aside. I try to push them behind a wall in my head.”

“No,” said my friend. “That’s not what I’m saying. What I mean is, embrace it. Be present. Embrace it all.”

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The Pomegranate

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My friend and I had been walking for an hour or so along a hot and dusty road when we saw the pomegranate tree. It’s a season too early, but the fruit looked red and ready, and one had dropped to the ground. I picked it up. Its peel had begun to crack open, revealing plump garnet seeds like little jewels within. I shook off a few ants, broke it in two and handed half to my friend, and we walked along dislodging the seeds from the white membrane and popping them into our mouths, our fingertips soon stained pink.

“You know what?” said my friend. “I’m happy.”

“Oh my goodness,” I said, as it dawned on me. “I’m happy too.”

Posted in Friends, Memoir, Small Pleasures | 2 Comments

Beach Days

beach days
Here in the midst of summer at the coast, I have been thinking about beach days, in particular their special dream-like timelessness. I’ve looked at photos of people at the beach taken over the years, and except for clues of costume and the technology of the toys, it is impossible to decipher the dates.  There is a lovely universality to the doing and not-doing. The picture above was taken here just a few days ago, and to me it seems classic.

Another classic  photo (below) was taken at a nearby beach in the 1930s. It’s from the collection of the late Deborah Spalding Pelissero and was kindly shared by her son. I think it captures the same lazy, dreamy mood:
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And one more…from early 2000s.
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Dearest Leo

DSC04059It’s hard to comprehend how young we once were, but sometimes we are given a clue. I was idly scrolling through some books on a shelf upstairs when the above slip of paper dropped to the floor, and the feeling of being thirteen came rushing back to me. It is all that remains of a little diary I kept in 1964, a diary I called Leonardo.

Underneath that taped construction paper heart I had written the name of the boy I truly loved.  Now all these years later I poked my old fingers into it only to find it empty.

But here’s what it says on the other side:
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In case it isn’t obvious, the word that got cut off there is “heart”…always in my heart, that’s where dearest Leo dwells, and he’s still in there somewhere, of that you can be sure. Life hasn’t entirely beaten from me a certain dreaminess and hopefulness, an approach that won’t entirely conform to good sense, a trove of hearts and stars and wishes still sparkling underneath the dust.

Apparently I found it necessary to destroy all but this last page of my “silent loving friend” lest unworthy mortals uncover the secrets I had shared with him. Not that I was given to melodrama.

And it strikes me as hilariously ironic that I now share quite abundantly on this right-out-there website, easily viewed by mortals far and wide who may or may not do, not that there are great numbers of them reading this.

But it certainly is a different world. So much intimacy and accessibility, and yet so little.

It has been said that the internet is still in its adolescence, and I suppose that’s true. Who knows what it will turn into? But for now I’m quite happy with my odd little blog, my old-ish woman modern day version of Leo, because I feel that I am adding a whisper to the river, and I know it sometimes finds its way to a receptive heart.

Good-bye. Until next time.

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The Shoreline of the Invisible

moon februaryUsually when I sit down to tap out a blog post, I have a vague sense of what I want to talk about, or at least where I want to begin. That is not the case right now. But there is a loaf of bread baking in the oven and I must remain nearby for at least an hour, and the house is infused with its good aroma, and I might as well try to write. It’s a hopeful loaf, the kind that required lots of kneading and punching and rising twice, and its dough was supple and shiny, a heavy rounded mound that promises to be handsome.  We shall see.

I think too much, the luxury of a lucky life,  but not deeply enough, and usually without any meaningful new insights or resolution, often going over the same tired ground.  Maybe that’s why I was so happy to have had the wisdom of the late, beloved poet and philosopher John O’Donohue filling my head yesterday via podcast. He said this, for example: “The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more it seems to me, actually, that the visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world. And the same way I believe with the body and the soul. That actually the body is in the soul, not the soul just in the body. And that in some way the poignance of being a human being is that you are the place where the invisible becomes visible and expressive in some way.”

The poignance of being human. I think I’ve been trying to get a handle on this all along. I like the thought that we ourselves are the very junction of invisible and visible, a corporeal glimmer of something unseen but yes. It’s such a contradictory state, though, each of us a tangible manifestation of miracles but barely blundering through, acutely conscious and yet so unaware. Perhaps the poignance of being human is in experiencing all this love and pain and wonder without knowing what it means or what it meant, then promptly vanishing into what we can neither imagine or perceive.

“It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you.” That’s another quote from O’Donohue. I like that so much I think I’m going to proclaim it as my motto. Heck, I’m tempted to change the name of this very blog to “It’s Strange To Be Here.” Because yes, it’s amazing, all right, but also challenging, difficult, mysterious…strange.

Everyone wants to have mattered. I had another mother-dream last night. She wasn’t dead after all. In fact, she was dressed up pretty, ready to go out, and happy to see me, as always. A young woman named Maria was passing by, and I called Maria in so she could see that my mother was alive, and there were joyful smiles all around, then pastries proffered, very sweet. Even in the dream I could taste lemon filling, bright yellow, and my mother was licking butter cream frosting from her fingers. She wanted just a little more. Deserved it, too, I think.

But that was all in the tiny visible part of what was and is and will be. No sense getting worked up about that now. Then I’d have to think about my father too, and my sister and my brother and before you know it, that whole tragic epic and the worrisome state of the world.  I’d never get out of bed.

Maybe I should think more about the world, though. I get too focused sometimes on my own personal state of being, which is good if it helps me understand more universal truths and yields greater compassion for others, but usually it doesn’t. And this brings me to perhaps my favorite of all the things I heard John O’Donohue say, that one’s identity is not equivalent to one’s biography, and that “….there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”

A place where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness and tranquility in you. How beautiful that is! It acknowledges the miracle-ness of each of us, the core and spark that we contained and are, delivered pure and beautiful from the invisible to the visible realm. (Remember, said my poet friend Dan once, you are the light and not the bulb.)  That place is one we should treasure, hold sacrosanct, and visit often.

DSC_0057Well, I warned you that I didn’t know what I was going to write about. Meanwhile, the bread has been baking. There it is, at the left. It’s a dense moon of a loaf. I thought it would have risen more. But it smells heavenly and has a very thump-able crust, and if it tastes good, I’m going to declare it a success.

And because of this bread, I can now say that I accomplished something tangible (and visible) today.  My friend Jeanne refers to bread-baking as magic…the alchemy of heat and yeast, the traditions of our ancestors…she uses the method passed down by her great-great-grandfather from Alsace-Lorraine. “It requires mostly just my hands, and heat, and flour, water and salt,” she says, “And time for it to ferment.”  Afterwards, she dips a chunk in olive oil and eats it with a glass of wine. Which sounds like an excellent plan.

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When The Visit Is Over

DSC_0222My daughter and her husband(!) arrived back in England this afternoon, and here I am in the bewildered aftermath. It’s strange to know that they’re so far away, and yet were so recently here. I’m pouring milk from a carton they bought, laundering the towels they used, finding little traces of them still. It feels as though they might be coming up the stairs any minute, but they are on another continent across the ocean. What a confusing and amazing world.

There’s an exhausting feast or famine aspect to all of this, and I have to admit I don’t like it, but I’m staying busy and doing my best. The house feels very quiet now, and it’s time to get back to normal. Alas, I don’t have a clue what normal is.

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Beneath A Grapefruit Tree

sunrise
Lately the skies have had a different look, layered and tufted with tropical clouds, and at dawn and sunset brilliantly mauve and pink, casting a glow that seems to emanate from everywhere, the way it might if one were on a boat at sea. Above you see how it looked in the morning, and although I hadn’t planned to be up so early, it certainly turned out to be worth it.

Come to think of it, the whole day was one of guided detours, when even the simplest plans dissolve and new events replace them. I was walking to the garage to get my bicycle and ride over to the house where my newlywed daughter and her husband have been staying during their visit when I saw several grapefruit on the ground by the trees. The wind had been howling all night…another weather story…and the heavy fruit had dropped. Some were soft and rotting, but I was gathering a few to carry in my backpack when my mother-in-law Nancy called out to me.

“The ones from that tree aren’t any good this year,” she said, redirecting me to a grapefruit tree nearer the house. It happens to be her favorite, and one can easily see why. Its crown is full and symmetrical, its leaves green and glossy, its trunk straight and sturdy.

DSC_0025Nancy is often outside tending to things. She’s a white-haired lady just a month away from ninety, but she moves about with grace and agility and is a great deal smarter and more clear-headed than I am. I like to check in with her when I meet her in the yard. Many of our best conversations take place when I am walking through the orchard on my way to elsewhere and she pauses from her work to chat. Lately I’ve begun to realize she truly is my own on-the-premises guru, an amazing resource.

On this occasion, all sorts of debris was churning around in my mind, uncleared by my brief attempt at meditating, and I started babbling at her.  Her only response was to calmly beckon me to a better tree. We both looked up from beneath its leafy branches, and she pointed out globes of fruit like bright yellow suns and demonstrated how a gentle not-quite-twist revealed its readiness to be picked.  She handed me three or four of the beauties, then lingered to admire the tree, and I stood alongside her, noticing.

I was struck by how expertly she had led me from abstract noise and negatives to the concrete present, and how she’d demonstrated something real instead of giving me advice. And she reminded me, without explicitly saying so, that I live on a hill above an orchard, for God’s sake. The air had grown still, but it was infused with the fragrances of chaparral and blossom, of drying grasses and fallen leaves, and the indefinable sweetness of morning.

DSC_0019Being ninety the way Nancy is involves a lot of luck, that’s for sure, but it also requires a certain attentiveness. She has her framework of routines, which impressively includes swimming laps once or twice a week at a pool in town, but she adjusts these routines as needed. She has a sense of the bigger picture, recognizes what matters and what doesn’t, and she is not about to waste precious energy in pettiness or fretting about every little crisis that emerges. She is busy in tangible, useful ways but takes time out to rest and read (nonfiction is her preference), and if all else fails, there are trees to be tended and a yard to groom. Her presence is calming and illuminating somehow. I didn’t always know it, but Nancy is one of my favorite people in the world.

So I pedaled off carrying good grapefruit in my backpack and a bit of equanimity. I had coffee and Cheerios with the newlyweds and we lingered and talked and embarked upon our would-be morning walk in the sullen heat of noon. I watched my daughter ascend the hill ahead of me with her usual ease and strength. Cooling breezes welcomed us at the top, and a suddenly mackerel sky.

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