Rain Came Through

rain in the canyon
Here it is, just beginning. The road is wet, my glasses were beaded with droplets, and I wish I could somehow post the way it smelled. Welcome, rain. We have yearned for you.

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Big Night In The Canyon

gnomeWe had three trick or treaters on Halloween night, one of whom was a blue-eyed baby garden gnome with a long white beard, hand-carried by his bearded father. Dorothy was there too, in her checked gingham dress and ruby red shoes, which she clicked upon request. The grim reaper stood shyly in the shadows.

Not much happens in these parts, and this visit from our new neighbors was a highlight. They pulled up in an old pick-up truck, and Monte and I were waiting for them eagerly, playing scary music, dimming the lights, ready to greet them at the door shining flashlights on our faces, illuminating our already-spooky wrinkles and droops. We let them scoop up heaps of candy since we knew there’d be no other visitors, and then urged them to take more. We snapped a few pictures and watched Dorothy click her heels, and I think they went home happy.

If we are stranded here during El Niño days ahead, we’ll all have to help each other. Storms and washed out crossings seem to promote community and inspire cooperation. But we’ve hit the jackpot in our neighborhood. Not only are the new ones young and strong and genuinely nice, they are also the kind of people who grow vegetable gardens and make preserves and probably have canned soup in the cupboard and a butchered grass-fed cow in the freezer.  Not sure what we elders have to offer. Maybe a story or two.

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DSC_0014If I’d listened to my handler, I’d be in New York right now, and that would have been wonderful, but heavy-heartedness creates its own kind of lethargy, and I just couldn’t muster up the gusto. A trip like that would have required more imagination and planning than I’d possessed at the time it was suggested, and now it’s too late, and here I am, very much not in New York.

But it’s not so bad, being Out West in this particular here. The weather has gotten…well, not exactly cool, but more moderate and pleasant, and when inspiration fails, there’s always some satisfying puttering to be done.

Besides, obsolescence has its benefits: anonymity and autonomy. No one has been calling, and each day unspools like a parchment scroll ready to be written on. Sometimes I leave it blank.

And yesterday I went with my friend Robin to a celebration of poetry at Allan Hancock College in memory of our good friend Bob Isaacson.  There were many fine moments, including a reading by Bob’s wife Sally of one of his poems, “Just Two Boys”, and featured poet Deborah Tobola, reading some of her own powerful work.

One young girl with short hair, tattoos, and piercings stepped to the front, introduced herself as Beka and said she was feeling pretty good about things, and she said it in a way that let you know this was a hard-won place to be. Then she read this poem called “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco:

Let them be as flowers,
always watered, fed, guarded, admired,
but harnessed to a pot of dirt.

I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,
clinging on cliffs, like an eagle
wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.

To have broken through the surface of stone,
to live, to feel exposed to the madness
of the vast, eternal sky.
To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,
carrying my soul, my seed,
beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.

I’d rather be unseen, and if
then shunned by everyone,
than to be a pleasant-smelling flower,
growing in clusters in the fertile valley,
where they’re praised, handled, and plucked
by greedy, human hands.

I’d rather smell of musty, green stench
than of sweet, fragrant lilac.
If I could stand alone, strong and free,
I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed.

She walked away looking confident, having broken through the surface of stone, ready to live as a weed, exposed and unharnessed.

On the way home, Robin had to stop at a farm supply store in Buellton for chicken feed, and I wandered around looking at ropes, cowboy hats, and other Country Western themed merchandise. New York felt further away than ever, but it was fun to poke around in there for a few minutes, pondering sage honey in glass bottles, a blue enamel camping kettle, nutritious biscuits for horses. Nothing at all that I needed.

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Here’s Another Poem I Love

Dot and The ClockTime takes us by surprise. It’s always rushing and running ahead of us, and suddenly we look up, wondering how everything happened so fast. But in this beautiful poem by Barbara Crooker (from Radiance, published in 2005, the first of six books of poems she has written) we are reminded of those precious moments when we somehow managed to pause and be, briefly oblivious to the ticking of the clocks. Enjoy and contemplate its truth.

In the Middle

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day I look out the window,
green summer, the next, the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail, a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

by Barbara Crooker from Radiance

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Change of Scene

Change of scenery, change in the weather, change in routine, all much needed. We escaped for three days, hiking with good friends at Big Sur and at Pinnacles National Park, where the above photo was taken, and we have come home feeling refreshed. One evening we sat on a wooden deck by an olive tree in Carmel Valley, sipping champagne, listening to crickets, watching lightning in the distance as a storm rolled in. I will always remember my friend in an orange dress running out to dance in the rain, and how sweet the wet world smelled, how revived and hopeful.

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Young Family
I made an enlargement of this photo for my mother a few years ago and mounted it on the wall in front of her bed so she could see it every morning. It was a source of delight to her, and she often pointed to it and mentioned it. Taken in 1946 or 1947, it shows her with my father and their first child, my oldest brother, on the grass of Prospect Park. They were a young, hopeful family then, with so much promise and possibility in front of them.

On this day that marks the sad anniversary of my father’s untimely death (and the beginning of what was to be nearly thirty-seven years of widowhood for my mother) I cherish this visual reminder that despite tragedy, heartache, and struggle, my father did experience proud and joyful moments. It’s comforting to see my parents being happy together, and to know that’s mostly what my mother remembered.

I’ve written about my father a lot, and even now that I have spent more than half my life without him, I still miss him with a gasping kind of intensity. If I were a tree, there would be a deep gouge in the rings from 1978, a scarring closer to the core than the bark, a visible trauma, but the tree somehow continued to grow.

I walk in his shadow. I stand in his light. He was the most loving, selfless, and devoted person I have ever known. The force of all that love has kept me going.

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Morning Birds by Naomi Shihab Nye

bird in the branchesSometimes I come upon a poem that perfectly reflects what I’m feeling, but I could never have expressed it so beautifully. This one is by the wise, kind, and eloquent Naomi Shihab Nye. I have met Naomi a few times, and we’ve had an ongoing email correspondence for more than a decade, so I think of her as a friend…especially when her words reach my heart as these do:

Crisscrossing watery tumble of sound
soothing summer drought
still they find one another   not sky
nor another parched night
can separate or silence them

You saw your mother
running down stairs in a dream
Would you follow her?
Absence makes no sense
You’re more present than the men I see
tell me anything

What you wanted and didn’t get
Is it eased now?
Someone leaves
space in a drawer
empty hangers clattering
field of mind shimmers
what never arrived
keeps us walking everywhere
we have to

bow down to what you planted
glossy figs filling bowls
sweetest rebuke to battle and bomb
all the ruins humans make

I’m open for clues   slip of straw in a beak
crane high in a tree
wing unfurled to shade her young


The poem is from her book, Transfer, published in 2011 by BOA Editions. The title refers to all the different kinds of transfers we make in our lives from one stage of our lives to another, but the book was written in the aftermath of the death of her beloved father, Azis Shihab, and the poems are very much about love and grief.

“Missing him contains memories so intense I don’t know how I will continue,” she has written. I understand. Tomorrow will mark thirty-seven years since my father died, and the yearning has never left me. It will also be my first October 12 without my mother in the world.

And yet, as Naomi says in another beautiful poem:

There’s a way not to be broken
that takes brokenness to find it.

I’m not always sure how that works, but I believe it.


(And here I am with Naomi!)

Cyn with Naomi Shihab Nye

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That Little Flame That Tells You Who You Are

looking eastAnd now it’s October. This morning we actually had a few moments of rain…a brief passing shower, almost like a figment of our imagination, just enough to get a fleeting whiff of the way rain smells. The deck was christened with a few drops that evaporated quickly and left no evidence.

Yesterday I walked with some friends at the state park to the Gaviota wind caves. It was, appropriately enough, windy. Howlingly windy.  And hot.  But I’m plodding along. I had a terribly regressive day earlier this week, which took me by surprise. I thought I was through with those kinds of images and feelings. But no, it doesn’t work that way.

The colors of the earth are dusty browns and grays, tired and thirsty colors, bleached and brittle, glaringly harsh and parched in midday, softer when the sun begins to sink, as above, looking east, where you see the hills in the reflected glow of sunset.

I’ve been working on the oral history website, and I intend to tell you about it soon with all the hoopla it deserves. I’m grateful to have recently found a new story-gathering accomplice in this project, and she is helping to breathe new life into it.

I’m  trying to be chipper and useful, even when I am neither.  I’m trying to muster up enthusiasm, even when my inspiration flags.  And I’m writing some, not judging it, just doing it.

I shall close this post with some advice excerpted from a commencement speech by Patti Smith that I recently bumped into via Brain Pickings or someplace like that. It’s kind of a pep talk, but sometimes that’s what we need. Also, she refers here to the character of Pinocchio, who, in the original story by the Italian writer Carlo Collodi, was actually not very endearing, but we’ll let it pass.  In Patti’s narrative:

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished. We are all Pinocchio. And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

She continues:

When I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work. Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.

I like that. I’m signing off now to putter. And floss.

Be happy, Pinocchio.

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In the Wake of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels


A Street in Naples

This week I’ve been immersed in Naples, finishing The Story of The Lost Child, the fourth and final of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Isn’t it amazing (and wonderful) how a good book can absorb you, sweeping you away from your own life, and leaving you almost disoriented afterwards? I don’t know what I’m going to read next.

These Ferrante books (especially this last one) affected me on a very profound level. They are so rich and dense and complex and layered, so completely and artfully drawn.  I don’t want to talk in detail here lest I spoil the story for someone who has yet to embark upon it, but the novels collectively present the trajectories of two brilliant women, Elena Greco (the narrator) and Lila Cerullo, whose friendship begins in the Naples neighborhood of their childhood. These two at times seem to define, inspire, and invent each other as they navigate the rough world they are born into, aspiring to greater things, fueled and sparked by exceptional intelligence.

As many have said, Ferrante presents the complexity and intensity of female friendship as few writers have, and we see rivalry, anger, deep resentments, even periods of estrangement, as well as a fierce and steadfast love. But Ferrante explores other themes too: political and social change, feminism and motherhood, writing, memory, loss, the emotional and even violent forces of family and neighborhood and culture…all of it powerful and resonant. There’s tension, danger, and passion as the epic unfolds but it’s also imbued with an underlying sense of superstition and fairy tale,  rendering it primeval and dream-like. The books cast a spell, and now I feel as if I am emerging from a trance, wondering what I am going to read next that will be this satisfying and engaging.

I realize I’m particularly susceptible to this particular volume right now because of circumstances in my own life. There is a scene about the death of Elena’s mother, for example, and how afterwards she takes to wearing her mother’s bracelet and even eventually acquires her mother’s limp. This was painfully real to me, as I so recently watched my own mother’s pitiable decline and have lately been wearing her bracelet (my wrist thin and bony, so similar to hers) and seeing certain of her qualities coming into focus within me, including a rather abrupt hearing loss.  And there is much honesty here about becoming old and invisible, about kids embarking upon lives of their own (which is in fact the outcome to be grateful for), and late-in-life questioning of whether our work meant anything.

I admit I am also inherently interested in Naples, my paternal grandfather’s birthplace and the port from which he, and throngs of others, set out to Ellis Island as the 20th century began. Even in my own New York childhood I recall residues of Old World superstition, violence, and passion, operatic remnants of a heritage shaped by poverty, war, and corruption, not to mention volcanoes and earthquakes…all of it amounting to a contradictory amalgam of fatalism plus fierce aspiration and longing.  I recognize the pain and disappointment caused by daughters who do not adhere to expectations, and I am haunted by the possibility that those who leave are the ones who really stay. I am also intrigued by, among other things, the premonitions contained within childhood events, the courses laid out for us and the forces behind them, and the ongoing ripple effects of every choice and action.

Referring to Lila in the very first volume, Elena says, “It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means…” The heartbreaking event to which the final title alludes left me with an ineffable sense of loss…I wanted to undo it…but in the end, along with inexpressible grief and yearning, there is a certain resignation about vanishing, and we must all come to terms with it.  Lila is being truthful when she declares that her favorite computer key is delete.

“She wanted not only to disappear herself…but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”

There’s something so meta about this work. And defiant.

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DSC_0158-2Yesterday my girlfriends and I ducked into the movies in the middle of the day, bought a big bag of popcorn to share, and sat in the cool darkness of a theater for an hour and a half enjoying a fairly forgettable flick and a delicious little respite from everything. As you can see from the photo above, we essentially had the place to ourselves, which made it feel like our own secret hideout.

Going to a movie matinee has always seemed like a miniature vacation to me, a deliciously decadent little treat. I like the comforting curve and cushion of the theater seats in rows all around like a bulwark against reality. I like the smells of popcorn and air-conditioning, our cell phones on airplane mode, the occasional whispered comment of the friend at your side, sly and confiding, like a wisecrack in study hall when the teacher turns his back. I like being invisible and unreachable for a little while, lost in a story with my life on pause. Even Time, that old tyrant, stays outside waiting, and we blink into the brightness of the day when we exit, a little disoriented for a moment, and the world is newly surprising.

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