Altering Course

Last week, a road runner came to visit. He sauntered about the deck, with now and then a little burst of flight, landing on the table, and an overturned chair, and the stucco wall that overlooks the orchard. He was curious, in no hurry at all, and seemed to be scouting things out, assessing the appeal of the neighborhood.  I mentioned my feathered visitor to a friend later. “Spirit bird,” he said.

If this was to be my spirit bird, I wanted to know what road runners symbolize. I looked it up,  and all of the interpretations were hopeful…for example, bravery, epiphany, a shift in perspective. God, if ever someone needed a shift in perspective, it was me.

I had trouble sleeping that night, as I often do, but in a long wakeful stretch in the dark wee hours, I saw bright Venus above the hills to the east. Then I fell back asleep, and I had a vivid dream about my friend Dorothy. I’ve written about Dorothy before; she’s a poet and teacher, a little older than me, like a big sister, and she shows me how to gracefully move forward. We often sit and talk beside a little lily pond in her backyard, and in my dream the pond shimmered and expanded and became a great blue inviting lake surrounded by tall orange rushes. (I had recently read Annie Dillard’s gorgeous description of the total eclipse of 1979, in which the landscape was transformed and all the colors were otherworldly, and perhaps the shifting realities and bright strange colors in my dream were a residue of that.) Dorothy’s response, however, was surprisingly matter-of-fact. She simply encouraged me to get wet before the lake receded. And that was probably good advice.

But daylight found me sad again, and tired, and not at all certain how to proceed. I thought about that energetic little road runner, and I yearned for some inspiration, or a prompt to get me going. That’s when a message came in from a friend of mine, inviting me to go on a road trip. There could only be one answer. I said yes.

I’m leaving Thursday, and I’ll tell you more about it soon. My blog has been down…some sort of automatic update went awry…but my technically adept son-in-law has kindly restored it, and I’m up and running now. So do come back. I may have some stories.

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Well Worn Paths

It was hot yesterday, and I’ve been feeling very lethargic, but I decided that I had to get outside and take a walk. I have learned that there is something curative about walking, an actual physiological effect, and I always feel better once I get started. It’s a soothing, natural motion for me.

Even in childhood, I had an expansive idea of what a reasonable walking distance was, which may have been a trait I inherited from my mother, who used to drag me along with her all over the city. Once in a while we’d take the subway or hop on a trolley, but mostly we were on foot, and the radius of our wanderings was pretty impressive. Our feet strode along the sidewalks of Flatbush Avenue, the wooden slats of the Coney Island boardwalk, the leafy paths of Prospect Park. I think walking was my mother’s therapy, much as it has become mine.

But as ungrateful as it sounds, walking the same old routes can get kind of boring, even in an area as lovely and special as this, especially if my brain is in a muddle, as it has been, and especially when the sun is beating down on parched grasses and the whole world seems to be glaring and glowering.

But maybe the glaring and glowering is coming from me. I’ve been frustrated and disillusioned lately, and not connecting well with other humans, and I haven’t been effective at redirecting my negative energy into meaningful action. Yesterday in fact I really just wanted to run away, to be somewhere else entirely.

Nevertheless I donned my hat and stomped around outside, and I can’t say that I came home happy, but I did return more energized, counter-intuitive though it sounds, and more focused, much clearer about what is bothering me. I stared down at the dry brown ground and the familiar curve of road, calmed and reassured by the monotony of it all. And I was very sweaty.

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Summer Nights Through Screened Windows

I write too much about people and memories. This morning, in the thick of the oddly tropical weather we’ve been having, I’ve decided to take a hiatus from brooding. I shall lazily meander here instead, even while my “daily action” notifications are dinging.

One of my favorite things about summer is keeping the screened doors and windows wide open to the night air, and the nocturnal sounds that fill the room. Beneath a layer of cricket song there are all sorts of mysterious rustlings, now and then a soothing hoot of owl, and choruses of up-close coyotes.

I even love the long muffled clatter of the train in the distance, with its reassuring evocation of progress and transport, tinged with loneliness and yearning. I didn’t hear the train last night, but I saw one earlier in the evening heading northbound into-the-west, and I took the photo above.

What I did hear very clearly in the night, though, was a distinctively robust coyote. As groggy as I was, I made a cell phone recording so I could listen again in the daylight. If this link works, you can have a listen too: Night Songs

Best sound of all, though, was that canyon wren again, at 5 a.m.

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FOMO Alert

Many years ago, while on the road to Chicago from Michigan’s upper peninsula, I looked up into the sky and glimpsed a rippling curtain of pale pinkish light, and it was the Aurora Borealis. It is therefore technically correct to say that I have seen the Northern Lights, but I’ve never made  that claim because the experience didn’t seem worthy. I wanted a front row seat to the Aurora Borealis from a perfect far north vantage point before I could say I’d seen it. I imagined undulations of luminous green, an electric crackle, a sense of being surrounded by the visual music of the spheres. I’d still like that. Yeah, I want the Northern Lights on steroids, the full-on deal. People tell me that in order to achieve this, I will have to face cold weather and a long expensive trip with no guarantees. I may attempt it anyway someday.

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I know a few people who are embarking upon elaborate journeys this month in the hopes of experiencing two minutes or so of solar eclipse totality on August 21st. I’ve heard the rhapsodizing from astronomers, the hype and the huckstering, the almost-religious descriptions, and I played around with a few vague possibilities before I gave it up. Even as recently as two days ago at the urging of a friend, I found myself looking at last-minute airfares to Oregon and googling the $100-per-person camping area she’d found. What finally turns me off are the crowds. Not to mention that there isn’t a single spot along the whole band of totality that is anything but inconvenient.

I know that social media will be awash with stunning images, and people who have borne witness will wax poetic or delirious or tedious about it, and I will have moments of  envy and remorse at having missed it. But I’ve arrived at the conclusion that, just as with a relationship, if you have to work too hard at this, perhaps it just wasn’t a good fit. Maybe the people who live in that swathe of totality just won the lottery this time, and part of the miracle for them is that they can step outside into their usual surroundings and behold its other-worldly transformation. I have a friend with a cabin in Wyoming who is intentionally vacating. “Too much of a circus,” she concludes. Wyoming on an ordinary day is wonder enough for her.

My husband is the one from whom I first heard the term FOMO, meaning “fear of missing out” and I recognized immediately that I suffer from this syndrome. It’s a phenomenon fueled by social media, of course, and I’m just chronically restless, insecure, and dissatisfied enough to be susceptible. I am inundated daily by a steady stream of images from other people’s travels, by elsewheres and adventures that always seem enticing, and by depictions of accomplishments large and small that often turn out to be mostly promotions for products or self.  (Is it bragging, or sharing? If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If you don’t post it on Instagram, did you go there anyway?) I post plenty of images myself, this is true, but I’m also fond of words, and it seems to me that although everyone has a platform, very few folks are using words anymore, at least not carefully chosen and arranged in sentences intended for communication and exchange of ideas. But they’re all at a party to which I wasn’t invited, and they’re younger and hipper and far more accomplished, and I couldn’t keep up with them anyway.

Do I sound bitter? Maybe I am, a little. And FOMO is something I bring upon myself. But I’m not really upset. The truth is, my wanderlust is tempered by my inertia, and my envy is tempered by an underlying awareness that I’m actually fine where I am. Most of my problems are not location-caused. I recently heard an interview with a computer scientist named Cal Newport, who pointed out that “deep work”…work that is challenging, focused, and meaningful…requires sustained attention, and that we should not underestimate the depleting effect of the constant distractions and interruptions that social media inflict upon us. It got me to thinking that perhaps the most meaningful way I can avoid “missing out” is to immerse myself more deeply into the experience  of writing, working, and being right here.

In the meantime, the Perseid meteor shower is supposed to be spectacular August 12th, and we have a very good sky. And that rippling curtain of pale pinkish light that I glimpsed in the flat wide sky above the flat wide country in 1972…right there and then…that was the Northern Lights. I never told anyone.

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When I was a little girl, about four or five years old, my father went away on a trip to Florida. I only vaguely understood the purpose of the trip, but it was related to the construction or remodeling of a motel in St. Petersburg called The Marlin. My grandfather and my uncle, who were already there, had invested in this motel, and Daddy would be driving down with his friend and helper, Vito, and I understood that this was a work trip, not vacation, but I felt a great surge of anticipatory abandonment nonetheless. I pictured palm trees and beaches and tropical skies, and my father in an exotic elsewhere far away, entirely minus me, being whoever he was without us.

The home of my childhood was a tumultuous one, and Daddy was our strength and our happiness, the heart of the universe as we knew it. I wanted to go with him. “I’ll be back soon,” he said. But soon seemed like a series of empty o’s and moons and gloom. I went to the window that looked down on Coney Island Avenue, wept dramatically, then pulled myself together and decided to be a helper instead. I opened his suitcase, whose contents were austere, and looked in his closet in search of better choices. The best thing he had were his ties.

Oh, his beautiful ties! I couldn’t even decide. I pulled down a sumptuous armful…gorgeous silky swaths of color: deep maroon, sapphire blue, a richly textured burgundy. They were striped or patterned in wondrous ways, classy but not bashful. Now these were adornments worthy of my father, who so often wore the paint-splattered overalls of the hardworking man he was, but who was also elegant and handsome, someone who enjoyed stepping out now and then feeling dressed-up and dapper.

And because I couldn’t decide among the ties, I crammed them all into his suitcase. Why not be extravagant? I imagined him selecting one each morning, and it would shimmer like a jewel in the Florida sunshine, and he would emerge with new confidence. Or maybe it was just my way of going with him.

I suppose I’ve always had a fondness for ties. Decades later, I admired my husband’s ties: bright flags among dark suits, a promising little crowd of prospects to choose among each morning. I had favorites…the one I bought him in Rome, with multiple hues of  magenta; the retro one with a print of open fans; a bright red one with white flowers, so contrary to expectations. He doesn’t often wear ties anymore, so he gathered most and donated them. He’s very efficient about getting rid of things, too efficient sometimes. It was only by pure luck I was able to rescue the ones in the picture above, and I’m not sure what I will do with them, but I keep them with my arts and crafts supplies. (Monte doesn’t know I have them; I wonder if he will ever see this blog post.)

But, back to the 1950s, and my father’s trip to Florida, and the ties I so helpfully packed. He of course opened the suitcase before he left, and he was not so much delighted as baffled and bemused. “Cheez,” he said. (It was an exclamation he used. Some contraction of Jesus and cheese? It meant surprise, but with a dash of bewilderment.)  “Who put all these ties in my suitcase?”

The answer to that was immediately apparent. He hugged me. But it would be hot and muggy in Florida, and it wasn’t that kind of trip. He didn’t take any ties with him.

And in the end, I was glad. Because I could open his closet the whole time he was gone and bury my face in his ties.

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My Mother’s Books

In her better days, my mother loved books. Often she would remove them from the bookcase at the assisted living residence and carry them back into her room with her like stolen treasures. Whether or not she read them in their entirety, I cannot say, but she definitely turned and dog-eared pages, underlined passages, tucked little notes within, and inscribed them with her name. The books accumulated in stuck drawers, and in stacks on the verge of toppling, and periodically I would place a pile of them in a box, take them downstairs, and carefully put them back into the communal bookcase.

Occasionally I bought her brand new books I thought she’d like, the kind with large print, and she received these happily. With their hard covers and bright titles, they were an instant form of wealth and décor, palpably good and substantial, but I believe my mother also sensed that they were depots where she might catch a thought and briefly be transported. One day she actually told me that a certain novel had pulled her into another place, that she could hear the story in her mind as she read, and the characters were alive conversing on the page, keeping her company. She told me this with excitement and delight, as if it were a new discovery. I cannot even remember what book it was, but I always thought of this as my mother’s late-in-life arrival to really truly reading.

For some lucky elders, the pleasure of reading endures, a comfort through all the diminishment of old age. But as time passed, my mother’s powers of concentration faltered, her thinking became less linear, and her mind seemed mostly in the immediate present or the very distant past. She remained defiantly cheerful until her final year or two, and was always responsive to kindness, but deafness and frailty exacerbated her confusion and isolation, and her world became smaller and emptier. I know she read letters and the entries of a diary we kept together over the years, in which we printed the events of my visits to help her re-live them. I know she flipped through the pages of magazines. And sometimes I would notice a book on her lap as she sat dozing in her big green reclining chair, but I think she lost the ability to get deliciously immersed. She still liked being surrounded by books; maybe she had a memory of them as having once been companions. But now they filled the room like silent visitors, with nothing more to tell her.

I’ve been reading a lot lately as well as thinking about reading, reflecting on the books that inform us, or distract us, or inspire and help us through, and how reading becomes an enhancement to life or a parallel life and sometimes a crucial nutrient. This week I’ve been facing On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, a slender but essential book for our time, and climbing into The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins for escape. The latter, first published in 1859, is a mystery, convoluted and compelling, told in several voices, and whenever I open it, I am swept from the everyday cares of my modern life to the brooding melodrama of Victorian England. I will miss that book when I’m finished. (Isn’t it amazing that a book that was a 19th century sensation can still have such power to entertain?)

I’m also thinking a lot about my mother lately, partly because events keep triggering memories–I can see that doesn’t stop happening–but mostly because I glimpse her so often in myself. I will never truly know who she was or what it all meant, but I will spend the rest of my days wondering. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and look outside, and my first thought is a wish that she too could have awakened to beauty. Or I hear my husband coming up the stairs, so vital and true, and I think of her long brave years of widowhood. But I look down at my hands, so like hers, holding a book, and I’m glad that she loved reading. I just wish the path had remained open to her longer.

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On Looking At the Night Sky Without My Glasses

Wow. There’s a lot going on out there. Stars, satellites, maybe even a space station? I had gotten up to pee and was sitting on the toilet looking out the bathroom window. A blinking body of light was drifting by at that very moment, its own silent parade. (Maybe not silent if you were nearer to it; maybe its sound is reverberating through the galaxy even now, echoing through time and heaven; maybe the universe is ringing with music…)

All around were scintillating stars, scattered like salt from a shaker, and a couple of meteorites streaked by. The blackness was strewn with glitter and glimmer, and my squinting only smeared the sparkles into broader blurs of light, and from my perch upon the porcelain I was overwhelmed with wonder.

It took a long time to get back to sleep afterwards, but I didn’t mind.

(Image: Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh)
You might also be interested in this post about the Perseids, or  Diamond Nights

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Risking Delight

Last night I went to sleep all on my own, without taking even a flake of Ambien, which lately has come to feel like an accomplishment, and my head rewarded me with a series of weird vivid dreams. In one of them, I was wearing an orange flower-print dress. It sounds garish, but it was gorgeous. It had a 1940s vintage look, in a silky rayon fabric, and it fit like it was custom made for me, nice and snug around the midriff, then flaring gradually, wide and twirly by the time it reached my knees. It was a dress I could spin around and dance in, not that I ever do either.

In fact, it was the dress you would wear to stand on a bluff at sunset waiting for your lover to return from afar. There would be just enough of a breeze to tug the silky fabric taut against your body and lift the hem a bit further above your knees, and the light would be the very golden kind. Yes, it was an orange print dress splashed with sunshine and flowers, unabashedly orange, and I felt fabulous in it. I swear, if I could find that dress I’d buy it and wear it. I’d break into song and know how to dance and be whoever I was in my dream.

But there are big things to worry about. Why was I dreaming about dresses? Is there some sort of symbolic message here, some meaningful yearning, or am I just exceedingly shallow? It had been a full week on the political front, brimming over with drama, obscenity, and meanness.  And none of this should be a surprise. I will never forget the words, shortly before the election, of a plainspoken octogenarian acquaintance in New York, the African-American man who now lives in the building on Coney Island Avenue in which I grew up. “How can anyone not see this for what it is?” he said, with tears in his eyes. I naively reassured him that it would never happen. But that was the before.

As if we needed more explicit evidence, events this week further demonstrated that the Republicans can’t govern and don’t understand policy, and that Trump, a disgusting authoritarian who surrounds himself with sycophants, is dangerously unfit for the powerful office he has been allowed to assume. (Don’t hold back, Cynthia. Tell us what you really think.) This is a president who is essentially at war with the American people and our democratic system of governance. He will likely be his own undoing, but in the meantime, his loyalists don’t perceive the difference between reality television and the real world, are blind to lies, hypocrisy, and corruption, and are titillated by the vulgarity and hate so freely spewed.

But with the “health care” debacle (and it isn’t over yet, folks) we also saw that the voices of the people matter, Democrats can stand together when it counts, and at least three GOP Senators have courage. I resent that we are all being held hostage, and so many vulnerable people have been made to live in fear, but the week brought renewed hope after all, and it’s worth savoring that for a moment. History has a long arc, with setbacks and detours and cycles and pendulum swings, and I believe we will eventually move beyond this. Right now, though, there is a sense of urgency.  The stakes are awfully high. (We have crazy people with access to nukes…how’s that for a wake-up call?)

As you can see, I need to lighten up. Maybe that’s what my dream was all about. We’ve got to keep some humor on hand, and joy, and capacity for crazy and colorful dreaming. These dark heavy garments are weighing me down. I need to step out again into the sunlight of possibility. As Jack Gilbert wrote in his Brief for the Defense, “We must risk delight.” It ain’t easy, but we must.

The day before I dreamed about the dress, I’d experienced one of those baffled woman-of-a-certain-age moments in which I locked my key in my car in the supermarket parking lot, and had to call roadside service through my insurance company. I felt pretty exasperated standing there waiting, my keys within full view on the front seat. I noticed a man with a bag of groceries wandering around in search of his car. “Can’t remember where I parked,” he said, embarrassed. I told him, by way of reassurance, that I’d done that many times and in fact was dealing now with an even more extreme example of fuzzy-headedness. He sympathized with that. He even came over and explained to me which window I should break and which to avoid if it came down to that, and I very much hoped it wouldn’t.

I continued to wait for my rescuer. I convinced myself that this was a good exercise in patience and humility, a benign little snafu. Eventually an enormous red, shiny tow truck arrived, glaringly more than was needed, blocking three parking spaces. A skinny kid with a clipboard and tools climbed down, leaving the engine noisily running. He asked me the year and mileage of my car, and expertly proceeded to assess the situation. His arsenal consisted of a slim jim, an inflatable wedge, and some other thing-a-ma-jig, and he was in his own way an artist. In a matter of minutes, he had unlocked my door, and I was so grateful and impressed, I sort of lurched forward to hug him, but he backed away. He did not, after all, see a fabulous woman in a flower dress but rather a worn out old broad in a gray tee shirt and a faded pair of jeans who couldn’t even tell him how many miles her car had, although I am still wondering why that was something he needed to know. But he was my hero. (Isn’t there something very cool about a person who knows what they are doing? My husband, for example, has no idea how exciting it is to watch him true a bicycle wheel. But I digress…)

Newly liberated, I marveled at the ease with which I could insert a key and turn on the ignition, then sit on my butt and with minimal effort be transported home. I switched my radio dial from news-noise to classical music, and headed north on Highway 101. If you’ve done this drive, you know how it is. In a matter of minutes suburban development diminishes and country comes quietly forward: mountains, ranchland, and the sea. This is the Gaviota Coast, the last precious stretch of undeveloped rural coastline in the “lower” portion of the state. Although highways have cut through the coast range and across the rolling landscape, this land of ranches, farms, and open space remains a beautiful anachronism. It is in every way a transition zone.

My heart did its usual flutter of pleasure at the point where the highway curves slightly and opens out to a panoramic view of it all, and I reveled in the beauty. (Thank you for that comment, Laura.) I suppose I appreciated everything even more because of the small inconvenience and delay that preceded it. The ordinary seemed extraordinary again, as well it should.

Friends came for dinner that evening, and we had homemade ice cream and lemon granita and tomatoes from a local farm, and we sat outside and drank wine as a thin crescent moon appeared in the sky with a bright tiny star beneath it. I was unkempt and unwashed, like a worker come in from the fields, but I laughed at myself, and I was so very tired that night that I went right to sleep, and in my dreams I changed into a woman in an orange dress splashed with sunshine and flowers who was filled with light and light enough to dance.

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Little Nudges

I had two lovely bits of correspondence yesterday. One was from a lady who is ninety-seven years old. She’d heard from a mutual friend that I’ve been feeling blue. Here’s what she wrote to me, in her elegant old-fashioned penmanship:

“This is the time for you to write. Your talent is enjoyed by all of us….and even though Miranda is far away, think how fortunate you are to have such a beautiful, happy child who loves you dearly!”

That was humbling. I’m keeping it here at my desk.

The other was an email from Dan, my poet friend, that included this wonderful quote from Rilke: “Work of the eyes is done, now go and do heart work on all the images imprisoned within you…”

You never know what words or contact or little nudge will save you.

And sometimes it’s just the sky or the canyon wren.

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Hiding, Seeking, Being Here

I pushed my bicycle up the dusty hill. Everything is harder these days, but I try to keep moving. In the distance there was a blur of bright color…the blue of a dress, a luminous streak of pale blonde hair. A little girl was running down the driveway, waving and calling my name. “Come look,” she said. “We have a new hiding place!”

Years ago, the little girl’s grandfather used to call to me as I passed. He had a different message. “Are you nuts?” he would ask.  Or, “Take a break. Cool off. Come on in and have a margarita!”

It made me happy, though, to still be greeted at this junction. One of the things I love about living here is that there is a visible constancy beneath the ever-changing elements of life, a certain clarity about cycles and seasons. Maybe it’s because we live at the edge, where the natural world is prevalent and omnipresent.

There aren’t many people, either, so we know the few fairly well, and there is potential for community in an old-fashioned way. But it’s easy, too, to be reclusive and invisible, and I go there sometimes, laying low, feeling low.

One evening last week we were sitting on the deck with another couple who live nearby, and the sky began a progression of kaleidoscopic shifts of color and cloud formation. We were cast in a pink-gold kind of glow, and the clouds were like feathers above the hills and then like puffballs, a polka dot ceiling. It was like watching a show, and we basked in the blessing of it, and talked a little about our favorite times of day and about a particular oak tree, and what the sea looked like that morning.

While we were immersed in enchantment and chit chat about the magic, I mentioned that I’d been hearing the canyon wren a lot lately, and one of our friends, a curmudgeonly old fisherman-cowboy, said, “Ah, yes! The canyon wren!” and proceeded to replicate its song, a perfect little spill of notes.  Incongruous, yes, but we all live under a spell here, and we have a shared vocabulary of place and sound and silence and light.

So a little girl runs out and invites me to her secret place, and it’s a table transformed into a cover cave in which to crouch. Twenty years ago, just a bit further along this route, two boys in camouflage with tree branch muskets jumped down from a sandstone alcove in Sacate Canyon and startled me as I pedaled past. My daughter had a tree-fort once.

I’m hiding too, in full view, blending in better every day. Before long, I’ll be the memory.

And there’s so much to say and yet so little. I’ve been sitting at my desk on this foggy morning, taking a break from reading, tweeting, hand-wringing, trying to make sense of the insanity out there, trying to be a foot-soldier for hope but mostly feeling like I’m slogging through mud. I look outside, where the fog has settled in white silent witness upon the hills, and beaded webs glisten on cacti and leaves, and I find I’m having a William Stafford moment.

“You turn your head- that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone. The whole wide world pours down.”

Yes. What Stafford said. He always had a way.

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