Let my history then
be a gate unfastened
to a new life
and not a barrier to my becoming.
(from the poem “Yorkshire” by David Whyte)
Let my history then
be a gate unfastened
to a new life
and not a barrier to my becoming.
(from the poem “Yorkshire” by David Whyte)
It’s the terrible convergence of rampant guns, racial inequality, resentment, hostility, and fear. These elements have been with us for so long, there’s almost a disturbing inevitability about the events of this last painful week, even a sickening sense of deja vu. We were already heavy-hearted about the two senseless shootings of young black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, and then came the horror in Dallas, heightening the tragedy, exacerbating the anger and the anguish, and rendering peaceable and cooperative action more difficult. There is a cyclical nature to these kinds of things, and I do believe that a renewed momentum for positive change will follow, but we all need some time to absorb this.
Everything has felt so divisive lately. There are so many worlds within the world, so many conflicting realities, so many elsewheres even within the here. The current presidential campaign has made unity seem particularly tenuous, our national identity one we hardly recognize and do not feel proud to claim.
“World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural,” wrote the poet Louis MacNeice. It cannot be denied. Maybe the dynamics are as they have always been, but with greater populations, deadlier weapons, and the unprecedented power of media, social or otherwise, to render us relentlessly aware of it all–in this age we must bear witness, no matter where we are.
But in addition to unleashing shock and sorrow, rage and escalation, or the despair and shutdown that comes with overload, is it possible that these extraordinary media capabilities can help us find common ground? Can heartbreaking knowledge yield greater compassion? Can disturbing information push us toward enlightened solutions? We must make it so.
I am one of the lucky ones, a semi-invisible white woman of a certain age and means. I can probably just keep my head down and no one is going to bother me. But those of us who aspire to be good people and lead meaningful lives cannot ignore what’s going on. And I realize that being sad is useless, but I don’t know what to do.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be big. I know people who work with children in need, plant trees, grow gardens, serve their local communities in tangible ways. Maybe we start just by acting with decency and integrity in the circles in which we happen to be. We find our particular gifts to give, and we navigate with kindness. We learn to truly listen (which I especially need to work on) and see the humanity in one another.
But we must also educate ourselves and speak out when it matters, vote intelligently, and demand reason and courage of those who would govern. Projecting it onto a bigger screen, it seems to me that measures to curtail the insane proliferation of guns in this country are crucial. We also need to take real steps to acknowledge and mitigate institutional racism, revisit police training, and in the bigger picture create better and more equitable economic opportunities and access to education. And of course we must make sure that we do not elect Donald Trump in November, a candidate whose reckless, egomaniacal candidacy specializes in vulgar insults, taps into misdirected resentments, and proliferates tribal kinds of hatred.
I often feel like I am walking around balancing two trays…one very heavy and awkward and piled high with spilling-over sadness, and the other gleaming with the goodness of the world. Sometimes I succeed in holding them both adeptly, even managing to cover the first tray with a napkin and ignoring it for a while, but even then I’m vaguely aware of it. Learning this balancing act is crucial to being human. We must somehow hold onto loss and sadness and the knowledge of mortality without losing our enthusiasm for living or capacity for joy. I mean it in both personal and global ways. “Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere…” wrote the late John Gilbert in his Brief for the Defense. But also, “We must risk delight.”
Here in my own world within worlds, the canyon wren is back, and wind is howling through the pale grass. Yesterday I went to a baby shower for a young woman I am fond of, the kind of person who does good things in a gentle quiet way and will be a diligent loving mother. We sat beneath a canopy hung with balloons and prayer flags while she held up tiny baby clothes and bees buzzed about platters of zucchini bread, grilled veggies on skewers, and watermelon chunks. Earlier in the week, I walked on the beach and saw dolphins at sea and a crab doing a scuttling sideways dance on the sand. I thought the crab an utterly comical creature until it suddenly spread out its claws and twirled, in an instant becoming both beautiful and fierce, seemingly even proud of itself. “The drunkenness of things being various…” to again quote Louis MacNeice.
All is not lost. Human contributions include music, poetry, agriculture, and good ol’ messy democracy, which deserves more of our best selves. Maybe I’m whistling in the dark, but hope is as contagious as apathy or despair. Unimaginable innovations are yet to come, and some of them will be wonderful. We are the same species that just this month managed to get a solar-powered spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit, 365 million miles away. We can do better, right here. We will. We must.
We experience a distinctive kind of vulnerability living here in drought conditions at the edge of the brush and chaparral. I snapped the above ominous-looking photo on Thursday afternoon while we were driving north on Highway 101 near El Capitan. The fire had not yet reached the road, which was shut down in both directions just a few hours later. Pushed by howling winds and fueled by miles of dry vegetation that has not burned in decades, the Sherpa Fire is now at 7800 acres, with 45% of the perimeter contained. It is still burning fiercely, and apparently 1900 fire fighting personnel have been dispatched to the scene, all of them heroes to us. (I have found this InciWeb link to be an excellent source of regularly updated information.)
It’s frightening and humbling. Fire reminds us of the ephemeral nature of things, of what matters and what does not, of how little is within our control. We have been very fortunate here at this ranch. The fire is quite a bit to the east, and the wind has been pushing it away, not towards us. We certainly see the smoke, feel the anxiety, and know that we are always at risk, for that is the nature of living here. But we appear to be out of the path of this particular fire.
I have been thinking, though, about the phenomenon of fire in California and how many people have had formative fire experiences. Even among those of us spared the loss of life or property, we share a common residue of images and emotions: hills in flame, blizzards of ash, fear, evacuation, and at some point a necessary letting go.
My own daughter will never forget the children in tears on the school playground as the 1993 Laguna Beach Fire seemed to be encircling them. Many classmates and neighbors lost their homes. Eleven years later, smoke plumes from the Gaviota Fire rose visibly into the sky while she was in the midst of high school graduation ceremonies at Dunn School in Los Olivos. In both cases we were exiled from our houses with whatever possessions we happened be carrying or wearing that day.
My friend Julie remembers being evacuated for a week during the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, watching the flames and feeling curiously detached. “At one point,” she told me, “we were allowed to go home and had a half hour to gather our belongings. We ended up taking only a very few special things, important papers, and animals. In the end, it was a Zen experience. We gave up everything. And then we got it back.”
Another friend, Genevieve, was evacuated from her home at Midland as fire rolled down the mountains during the Mare Fire of 1993. She took refuge in Saint Mark’s church in Los Olivos and watched the sunrise for the first time in her life. “The proximity of fire strikes a primal nerve in us,” she concluded. Maybe it is some ancient recognition that we are part of a cycle much greater than ourselves.
Because the current fire is blazing in the vicinity of the infamous Refugio Fire of 1955, I am particularly interested in the memories of folks who were here at that time. One of them was Lincoln Hollister, who was seventeen at the time. He recalled:
Yes, I was with a crew keeping the fire away from the Arroyo Hondo house and the barn. I was with another guy between the barn and the highway. Glowing embers were flying around and starting fires wherever they landed. Some actually blew out to sea! We were battling these little fires with wet gunny sacks. The main fire was starting to cross the east Arroyo Hondo ridge, up high, when suddenly the whole canyon from about the barbecue pit to the crest, just exploded in a ball of fire, from west ridge to east ridge. This changed the wind direction, as the air was sucked into the huge ball of flame. Where we were, out in the field south of the barn all the little fires we were trying to put out suddenly started running towards the barn. Smoke filled the air and visibility dropped to zero. We put bandanas over our noses and ran in the direction we were headed, toward the barn, locking arms. Then a bit of clearing happened, and there was a ranch flatbed truck with people on the back. We were pulled up onto the truck and driven out, passing a fire department engine that was headed to where we had just been, to save the house and barn. My father had arrived at the intersection of the Arroyo Hondo Road and 101. He was relieved to find I had gotten out on the truck!
If you’re interested, here’s a link to a 1950s film about the Refugio Fire. It’s called “Watershed Fire” and it’s a classic. I shared it with Lincoln, and he mentioned that he saw his Uncle Jack Hollister, then state senator, about twelve minutes into it, in the discussions about re-seeding. He also recalls helping to stop traffic at Gaviota and turn people back when the 101 was closed.
“I was used for the back fire operation at Gaviota pass,” he added. “I was given a stick with a flare attached at the end and told to just run through the grass, with fire billowing up behind me. I was almost seventeen at the time…too young to be officially drafted as a fire fighter, but I was around to help as needed.”
Anyway, as I sit here in my comfortable house looking out onto the brown hills and tired-looking orchard, I know a battle is being waged nearby, and I hope it ends well and soon. I have the luxury of being philosophical because we are not in immediate danger right now. But I know that everything changes, and possession is an illusion, and new growth will come, but fire is a premonition of all that we must lose.
What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
(from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander)
Jeanne calls it the lion oak because once at dusk when she was driving up the road she saw a mountain lion on one of its thick lower limbs. But the tree is a lion in its own right too: a magnificent being, a king in our canyon, a silent sentinel to a passing century or two.
When my daughter was a little girl, the lion oak served as a prop for a math assignment. She estimated its height by comparing shadow lengths, measured the circumference of its massive trunk with an insufficient tape measure, carefully avoiding the poison oak on the side nearest the creek, and put her arms around it afterwards as far as they could go just to feel its solidity and strength. I can still picture her there when I pass that tree, a small brown-haired child, a little bit wild, a girl who felt at home here.
My daughter of course is faraway but the trusty old tree still stands. Last night on an impulse we took a walk to see it. The moon peered through its branches, waxing poetic, lovesick and loathe to leave. Indeed many love and have loved the old lion oak, but it belongs to itself.
The tree reveals itself differently depending on the light or the mind set of the viewer. Last night its bark looked gray and scarred and vulnerable up close, and some of us were sad, absorbing losses in our personal lives, horrified by what had happened in Orlando in the early hours of that particular day, dismayed by the political scene and wanting so much to believe that our nation is better than that spectacle.
But we also felt an unequivocal sense of wonder and reassurance in the presence of the tree. And you might have laughed to see us standing there, looking up at it, endlessly fascinated. The soundtrack was frog song and rustle of leaves.
The year was 1972 or thereabouts. I was front desk receptionist in a big office building in downtown Chicago. My duties included typing, clipping relevant newspaper articles and arranging them in a scrapbook for the publicity department, and preparing and serving coffee for my bosses, almost all of whom were male, while listening to comments about my appearance. These were not bad men, and the conspicuous appraisal of a woman’s physical attributes was perhaps meant to be complimentary, but it’s hard to describe how awkward and self-conscious and objectified it made me feel. There were one or two of those men who even sensed a spark of intelligence in me, wondered what I read and thought about and why I was not in school, and understood that I was capable of more challenging work. But I do wonder if young women today can fully comprehend the framework in which we lived our lives, and how ordinary and accepted it was for women in the workplace (or just passing on the street) to be treated with jocular condescension, or worse.
The women’s movement was at this point “second wave feminism” but still had far to go. To put it in context, in 1972 the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded, Title IX of the Educational Amendments became law, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to expand Equal Pay coverage, and the first edition of Ms. Magazine hit the newsstands. Inequities and limitations based upon gender were known, talked about, and beginning to be addressed, and many of us felt a sense of discontent. But we were not encouraged, and we accepted our roles, for as women we were trained first and foremost to please others. I doubt that I would have identified myself as a feminist, which was still something edgy and radical, but know that I aspired to something more. “You’ve been reading too much of that women’s lib nonsense,” said my then-husband once when I tried to give voice to my frustration. He was a nice man, a medical student, paternalistic and well-meaning…but those are the times in which we lived.
It may be hard for young people to imagine what a different world it was, what a hard-won (and still unfinished) legacy young women been given, and how historical, symbolic, and truly wonderful it is to see a woman Presidential nominee–and a strong, smart, capable one at that.
I have to speak out. The turning point was when a friend of mine, an intelligent person whom I respect and admire, posted a plea on Facebook that we all write Bernie Sanders’ name on the ballot, no matter who the Democratic nominee is. There’s been a lot about this campaign that I find scary and disheartening, but nothing so terrifying as the possibility of a Donald Trump victory brought about by well-meaning Democrats who think they would be making a brave statement by wasting their precious votes in this way.
Maybe we can first agree that Trump as president would be disastrous, a repudiation of all the values we hold dear. The man is dishonest, racist, sexist, irresponsible, egomaniacal, ill informed, mean-spirited, and completely unqualified for the job. He has employed the sensationalist tactics of reality television to gain attention, and he excites support by channeling anger, resentment and hatred. No sense in my going on about this when so many others have said it better. Read this powerful piece by Adam Gopnik, for example, if you need convincing, or any of Elizabeth Warren’s succinct and spot-on comments. Somehow I don’t imagine that Trump supporters are reading this blog post anyway; that just doesn’t seem like my audience. But we all need to face the fact that what began as a concept too absurd, bizarre, and cringeworthy to take seriously is now a real possibility.
Basically I’m talking to thinking, caring, liberal-minded independents or Democrats who are genuinely concerned about the future of this country and the world. I rarely use this blog for political rants, but I’m worried, and I feel it is my duty to use whatever forum I have to speak out. I know many of you are feeling the Bern. I myself understand the appeal of the things Bernie Sanders says and seems to earnestly believe. I too would like to see greater income equality, free health care and college tuition, real punishment of billionaire corporate criminals and a diminishing of their influence. While we’re at it, I would like to see us seriously and effectively address climate change. But wanting and promising these things is very different from the long complicated political and economic processes required to turn sentiments into policy. Simply declaring outrage does not make you virtuous.
Look, I came of age in the 1960s, and that spirit of questioning and searching and protesting shaped me too. I am not cynical. My heart still yearns for peace and justice, and I care passionately about the world. But let’s try to be level-headed about this and see where our best chances are for progress rather than decline.
First, let’s take a closer look at Bernie Sanders. The plain fact is that Bernie cannot deliver. He may be endearing and compelling, but he is not a credible candidate, and his campaign is mostly symbolic, even if he has begun to believe otherwise. (And good for him for pushing us a little to the left and highlighting important issues that cannot be ignored.) But his proposals are not grounded in reality.
In fact, it is irresponsible and disingenuous to promise programs and benefits without being truthful about the cost and the taxes required to pay for these things. We are talking about what would be unprecedented tax increases, and not just on the rich, but across the board, including the beleaguered middle class.
And it is naïve to think that a Chief Executive with so very little political capital and experience is going to simply glide in and implement radical change anyway. As you know, our government is not a monarchy…and laws are actually passed by Congress, and Congress, as we know, can be quite uncooperative.
Quite frankly, Bernie Sanders has little or no experience in governing at this scale. He has been mayor of Burlington, population 42,284, and has served as both a Congressman and Senator from Vermont, a mostly (94%) white state that had a population of 626,562 in 2014. (There are twenty-four U.S. cities with populations greater than the entire state of Vermont.)
Even if Bernie were on the ticket, it is unlikely that U.S. voters as a whole would elect a self-proclaimed socialist. This label would be an issue with the electorate, believe me. His age would be a factor also. Being president is a grueling job, physically and mentally, and at 75, Bernie would be a pretty old one. Just sayin’.
And Bernie has not been vetted at all. It has been easy for him thus far to remain under the radar while the ongoing GOP attacks against Hillary Clinton continue unabated, as they have for decades, propaganda so pervasive that even Democrats are buying into it.
And yet, Hillary Clinton has kept going. That’s called strength. (An aside to those who are saying she is no better than Donald Trump, and yes, I have actually heard people say this: ARE YOU SERIOUS?!! God, that’s discouraging.)
So let’s take a quick look at Hillary’s resumé, shall we? Graduate of Yale Law School, a First Lady who helped transform the role of First Lady, a U.S. Senator representing the state of New York (a state with a diverse population well in excess of 19 million people), and Secretary of State under President Obama.
By the way, do you remember back in the 1990s while Hillary was First Lady, she launched and headed a task force on National Health Reform? It was controversial and complicated and eventually abandoned, and she took a lot of flack for it, but the woman was so ahead of her time, and utterly fearless about taking on the hard stuff. Health care reform is what folks were finally ready to talk about twenty years later, and it’s still a rough ride.
As U.S. Senator, Hillary served on committees related to the budget, armed services, environment and public works, health, education, and aging. She has been a tireless advocate for women’s rights and a dazzling example of what women can achieve. She has met world leaders, handled crises, is known to be an incredibly hard worker.
One friend of mine declared his admittedly lukewarm support for Hillary with these words: “I’ll vote for her because I’d rather be disappointed than doomed.” Good enough. But you know what? There’s an excellent chance that we’ll end up being proud. Yes, she is controversial and she has made her share of mistakes and misjudgments. But she is brilliant and capable, she listens and learns, and for God’s sake, her flaws are at least within the realm of comprehensible human behavior.
Sure, cast your Bernie vote in the primary if you want, but a write-in or abstention in November as a misguided gesture of support or your big statement about how much you despise Hillary Clinton or the depth and nobility of your convictions is equivalent to a vote for Donald Trump. It does not make you a revolutionary. It is just naïve. I’d even say there’s an element of irresponsible mischief in it…’cause it’s the same “the hell with it all, let’s just tear it all down” attitude we see in Trump supporters. (It also brings to mind those Nader voters who thought they were making a statement in the 2000 election and helped usher in the nightmare years of W.)
Please, oh please, don’t be lulled away from good sense by writing in Bernie Sanders or not voting or otherwise diverting your vote in the November election. Please don’t be brainwashed by the nearly thirty years of relentless vitriol against Hillary Clinton. She may not walk on water, but she is a solid, capable candidate. (And hey, the woman’s card is optional, but isn’t it time we had one in that office?) It pains me to say it but we are in grave danger of a Trump presidency. We have to stand together here. Bernie is a diversion that could cost us dearly.
I woke up this morning to a loud thump on the sliding glass door of the deck outside our bedroom. A Western scrub jay had flown directly into it and was sitting on the ground stunned. It was a hard hit.
Curiously, another jay, slightly smaller and stouter, was perched nearby on the stucco wall that borders the deck and seemed to be waiting for its (her?) partner to recover. The smaller bird was simply sitting on the ledge, occasionally looking down at the fallen one, clearly aware of it. Do birds generally exhibit this kind of friendship and loyalty? This poignant little tableau went on for a long time. I missed their departure but I’m happy that both are now gone.
I imagine the injured bird’s patient partner coaching him now (“Don’t you recognize our favorite tree?”) and wondering about about his altered personality (“Honey, you never used to like those berries before!”)
And I keep thinking there’s a metaphor in here somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.
(Photo above found online at Bird Forum.)
One of the nice things about travel, and I suppose about life in general if one is willing to play along, is how even inconveniences and detours can yield little perks and surprises. When we arrived in Oxford, the usual room we rent was not available, and our hosts apologetically escorted us to a building next door where they had arranged for us to stay instead. The owner of the building didn’t live there, but there was a tenant in residence, a pleasant young man named Joel who taught at one of the local colleges, and so we would have a flatmate. I invented a secret backstory for Joel; making up stories about people is something I’ve been doing since childhood.
Joel really did have a mass of curly dark hair, a girlfriend in Italy, and a motorcycle. These are the facts. Sometimes we would cross paths with him in the kitchen area as he finished his tea and dashed out the door, and occasionally we would hear him in the front room playing his guitar, but mostly Joel was gone, and that’s as far as he figures into this blog post. (I took the picture above of a few of his defining artifacts.)
Still, the unexpected relocation was like a flashback to student days in the 1970s, when you’d rent a cheap room in a big old house with just a mattress and a beat up chest of drawers to call your own, maybe an Indian print bedspread for decor, and of course a shared bathroom and a kitchen stocked with motley stuff of ambiguous ownership and uncertain identity. In the cupboards here in our temporary flat there were brown paper bags with bulk tea and and unfamiliar spices, jars of crystallized honey and instant coffee, and open packages of dried apricots, ramen noodles, and dusty looking muesli. It even smelled like the 1970s: some vague essence of cannabis, patchouli oil, and laundry detergent. “Well, here we are, being young again,” I thought, and pretended it were so. (Making believe is another skill I honed in childhood.)
Two flights of creaky stairs led to the attic room that was our base, but there were bookcases all along the way, and they were filled with an impressive assortment of reading material. They were the kinds of books an academic would have purchased for classes: text books on art history and design, esoteric discussions of philosophy, hardbound volumes about science and poetry. It would be hard for me to generalize what exactly was the owner’s special interest, but I surmised that the books of more than one owner and field of study had been pooled here.
A title caught my eye: Children’s Games in Street and Playground by Peter and Iona Opie. I picked it up, and browsed it over the course of a few evenings. That’s all. But it was fascinating. How did I not know about the work of the Opies? They were a husband and wife team of folklorists whose particular interest was in the play of school age children (mostly in the United Kingdom). They weren’t interested in formal games and sports supervised by parents or teachers but rather in “the rough-and-tumble games for which nothing is needed but the players themselves.” They recorded the rhymes, chants, and folk terms that accompany play, described the games that they observed, in all their variety and disorderliness, and organized them in categories such as chasing and catching, seeking, hunting, racing, dueling, exerting, daring, guessing, acting and pretending. They discussed the concepts of designating someone as “it”, of declaring certain materials or boundaries as “safe”, and the play-acting of good versus evil dramas, all of which are universal. I recognized many of these games and rituals from my own 1950s childhood in Brooklyn. (And the settings were wherever we happened to be.) This kind of play hones resourcefulness, imagination, the ability to solve problems, entertain oneself, and get along with peers.
By the 1960s concerns were already emerging about children becoming too addicted to spectator amusements and reliance on adults for materials, ideas, and oversight. The issue is even more extreme in today’s era of helicopter parenting, computer games and parental desire to fill kids’ days with organized activities. The Opies pointed out that children are quite capable of self-organization and that these kinds of child-led games are essential to their development. “However much children may need looking after,” they wrote, “they are also people going about their own business within their own society.” I fully agree. The Opie book led me not only on a journey into nostalgia but also, in the words of one Guardian reviewer, “into a sharper recollection of the uncramped imagination and brilliant nightmare of childhood.” Well said. We need to have more faith in kids.
Anyway, here I am, still playing and pretending, and I enjoyed this particular little detour so much that I when I came back home I did a bit more searching and googling about childhood games, rhymes, and songs, and the work of the Opies in general. I was delighted to discover this recording of children in England demonstrating their songs and discussing playground games with Ione Opie. There’s something so sing-songingly familiar about it.