Amos and the Dinosaur

And now for something whimsical and wistful. In case you can’t tell, the blob to the upper left is a dinosaur, and the dinosaur is pursuing the brave boy on the brick wall who happens to be wearing a fedora and gloves. It’s an exciting moment that may even involve the station wagon getting crushed. The snapshot was staged and taken by my brother Eddie on Coney Island Avenue in the late 1950s, and I’m pretty sure the boy was Eddie’s good friend Amos Crowley. I like how the shadow of the arrow is pointing toward his approaching doom. (I wonder if Eddie intentionally included that little touch.) In any case, I believe Amos survived this frightening adventure, but I wonder what eventually became of him.

As you can see, my brother Eddie sort of invented trick photography. The picture is blurry in parts and double exposed, but as far as I’m concerned it’s art. It’s also a kind of time capsule, because the more I look at it, the more I am drawn back into my childhood. I love the peaked roofs and bare branches  and the newly white-washed Mobil garage, and even the dirty sidewalk. I love Amos’s pose: his stance, his slant, the way he holds his arms, a little like a dance, and  I love the play and the absurdity here.  The world was there for our imagination and exploration, and Eddie was up for the challenge. If only he could know that nearly sixty years later this photo has been published here for all the world to see.

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Small Comfort, A Poem by Katha Pollitt

small town lady

The lady above is someone I met at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden several years ago. I don’t know who she is, but she was one of many pilgrims who had come to marvel at roses in rain, and for a few minutes we all had that in common. I was delighted beyond all reason to see how many people were taking time out from busy urban lives that day just to walk around looking at flowers, inhaling their fragrance, noting their names. This lovely woman with the perfectly imperfect smile had a story to tell, but for now, she was just happy to be exactly where she was.

After visiting the garden, I took refuge in a corner cafe and sat over a cup of coffee, perusing a damp newspaper, perfectly content. The following poem brings me back to the feeling I had then, and to a kind of prayer I still carry in my heart.

SMALL COMFORT by Katha Pollitt

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We’re near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.

“Small Comfort” by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem

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After The Genie

GenieyouarefreeAlong with many others, I’ve been feeling heavy-hearted about the death of Robin Williams.  It’s a genuine sadness, a real sense of loss, as though he were a personal friend. It just throws everything off kilter, somehow. For almost as long as most of us can remember, there was this absolutely one-of-a-kind and kind-hearted genius, a man of rapid-fire brilliance, a delicious sense of absurdity, and a breathtaking wit that did not preclude sentimentality, who made us laugh despite his own vulnerability and pain. And now there’s not.

I don’t know what to make of it. The world is just diminished somehow, and there are plenty of other headlines and developments to brood about, much of it troubling and scary, but maybe that’s why the laughter was so important. With his meteoric energy and nimble stream of consciousness, he seemed to contain multitudes, and if there was something manic and madcap about it, maybe that just came with having a mind so fast. He was utterly unique.

And thus we are bereft.

Much has been said about the way he made his exit, but here’s a fact: just as terminal cancer ends in death, so does depression when it’s terminal. It’s not a matter of choice or fault or selfishness. Robin Williams was undoubtedly suffering more than most of us can ever understand. It’s terrible to contemplate that much anguish and alone-ness.

I had a friend who hung himself. I spent time with him in the months and days before this final act, and no one can tell me that his agony was not real. On some level he realized that his death would hurt the people who loved him, and he didn’t want to cause them pain, and he struggled mightily, deferring the end as long as he could. There is a point when the illness takes over, when nothing is real but the pain and the need to put a stop to it.

I understand how easy it is not to understand this.

The man I knew who committed suicide dreaded certain hours of each night. He was grieving over the loss of his wife and could not silence his thoughts. He was haunted and tormented and ashamed of himself. He despised the fact that he no longer possessed the qualities and capabilities which made life worthwhile to him. He wanted to want to live, which of course is very different from wanting to live, but the illness of his brain destroyed everything but his need to find peace. At last he had to over-ride even the bonds of love and loyalty to his family and friends. He set himself free.

But I think the last stretch of a life often assumes way more significance than it should. It is the sum total of a life that matters, rather than the illness or aberration that may shortly precede or precipitate its end.

That’s something I realized when my father died, not by suicide but a heart attack. Nothing had turned out right for him, and his final years were a litany of  hardship and disappointment. I was in my 20s then. (As, it occurs to me, are Robin Williams’ kids, and I sure do feel for them.)  The only way I could think of to get through this was to look at the whole of my father’s life, not its sad conclusion.

So I chose to give more weight to his shining moments, to the pleasures and accomplishments he knew, and to the dreams he once held, even dreams that had eluded him, for those failed dreams had contained promise. He had sailed towards them as though to stars in the night, sustained by the quest.

And I am looking right now at a picture of my late sister taken on a bright fall morning when she was healthy and newly in love and all things seemed possible–this reality is as valid as her days of suffering in a hospital bed, and it’s the one I cherish.

I have abandoned the tyranny of sequence and chronology.

Subsequent events do not negate or diminish all of the wonders, joys, and hopes which preceded them. They are not more important, they do not contain the meaning or the bottom line, and they are not somehow the summation of anything just because they happened last.

I even think we can fulfill dreams retroactively and add posthumous chapters, extending the impact of someone’s life with acts that honor who they were and what they loved. We can do something constructive and hopeful in their memory, and while that doesn’t eliminate the sadness, it imparts a bit of usefulness to it.

What does this have to do with Robin Williams? It has everything to do with Robin Williams, because it has everything to do with being human. It’s about honoring the unique gifts of the people whose lives have touched ours, celebrating what joys were experienced and given, learning whatever there is to be learned from the painful parts, and somehow being better because they lived.

And in the particular case of Robin Williams, there is so much to celebrate. He was of a different plane, a different planet, I suppose, and he stayed as long as he could, distracting and delighting us, and nothing can alter this fact.

So we can be a little kinder to each other. That would be nice. And let laughter be the legacy, and light.


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Getting Some Traction

art districtA few days ago we did something unusual on our way home from Orange County. Instead of driving through and beyond Los Angeles as fast as we could, we exited the freeway at 4th Street, headed into town on one of the old bridges that cross the L.A. River, which is basically a concrete channel at this point, parked on Traction Avenue, and got out of the car.  We were in the Arts District. Who knew? (Well, anyone who knows anything knew…but this is your country bumpkin blogger blogging, the one who’s still amazed.)

buildingBordered by freeways to the north (the 101) and south (the 10), the river on the east, and Alameda Street on the west, the neighborhood was at one point the site of a thriving 104-acre vineyard planted by Jean-Louis Vignes, which by 1849 was California’s largest wine producer.

Then came citrus. By the late 19th century, orange and grapefruit trees lined the banks of the river. (Apparently there is a 30-foot grapefruit tree still standing above the Japanese American Plaza in Little Tokyo; I aim to take a look at that next time I’m in the neighborhood.)

Anyway, storage and shipping of produce necessitated the building of warehouses and railroad freight depots. Then manufacturers of various goods took advantage of the shipping infrastructure and created factories nearby.

But times changed, and as these sprawling industrial spaces were vacated, the area became a classic scene of urban decay and abandonment. It was a pretty rough neighborhood even through the ’70s and ’80s, rife with drug use and crime.

festiveArt stepped in! Resourceful and creative types envisioned those abandoned spaces as studios and galleries. An artist-in-residence ordinance was passed by the city in 1981, allowing artists to use the buildings as living quarters as well as work areas. Painters, sculptors, clothing and graphics designers, filmmakers, foodies, and craftspeople of all sorts have converged here, and the place is a’splash with creativity. There are interesting (albeit pricey) retail stores, not-Starbucks coffee shops where hip young people sip their beverages, and colorful street art everywhere you happen to gaze.

The Art District is still in progress, still evolving, and there are already plenty of mutterings about its being too trendy, with rents climbing beyond the reach of struggling artists, but there’s definitely something happening here. It was another good reminder to get out of the car, look around, and learn a little.

mural“This place makes me want to be young again,” I told a very young woman who was working in one of the gallery-shops.

“You are young!” she said, without hesitating. “And here you are.”

It was a good response.

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Waking At 3 a.m., A Poem by William Stafford

glow of eveningEven in the cave of the night when you
wake and are free and lonely,
neglected by others, discarded, loved only
by what doesn’t matter–even in that
big room no one can see,
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure eight
and lies down in your head.

You think water in the river;
you think slower than the tide in
the grain of the wood; you become
a secret storehouse that saves the country,
so open and foolish and empty.

You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right. And you sleep.

by William Stafford

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Saturday Morning Visit

when pigs flyIn the morning, I stood in a garden that was a’flutter with butterflies, clipping flowers for an impromptu nosegay bouquet. Lori came out with a tiny glass jar to put it in, and we brought it as a thank you to the lady we were going to interview.  The interview will be part of the Living Stories Collective I keep mentioning, but in the meantime, it’s been such a privilege to visit folks in this very unusual neighborhood of ours.

creek bedTo get to this particular house, we drove across a bridge above a creek so empty of its water it was just a dusty pathway between stark walls of rock. “It used to rain,” said the lady we interviewed. “Remember rain?” I do.

Once a dairy farm, the property we visited is bedecked with sundry buildings…a remodeled bunk house, a rainbow-colored Quonset hut, a party room brimming with curios, decor with a sense of humor…as well as an art studio, a garden, and a comfortable house, not to mention goats, and chickens, and plenty of pigs.  I love glimpsing these unusual, off-the-beaten-track places where people quietly live their lives. I love hearing their reminiscences and reflections, observing their love of home and deep connections to the land.

This particular lady pays attention. She used to be a passionate hiker, and we all know how a good walk clears your head and heightens your awareness of place. Nowadays she paints, and when her pictures come out well, she  feels she captured a moment. “Afterwards,” she says, “when I look at my picture, I’m back on location.  I can feel it. I can feel the heat from the grass, the sun on me, I can feel the bugs…I’m there, where I was when I painted it.”

On the walls are flowers rendered immortal in oil on canvas, dirt roads and grassy fields in varying kinds of light, and the curves of luminous green hills. Rained-upon hills. I remember those.

The room is cool and welcoming, and a tall white poodle steals an oatmeal cookie from a plate.

I always feel more grounded after these visits. A bit steadier.



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A Poem by Naomi Shihab Nye


by Naomi Shihab Nye

“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”
—Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem” from Red Suitcase, 1994.

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Just Walking to the Neighbors’ House

sacate road

A few days ago we walked along that familiar road to have dinner with the neighbors. The hills were glowing with the last remnants of afternoon sunlight when we started out, the road tired and dusty from a long hot day, and I heard the song of the canyon wren. We carried random offerings: heirloom tomatoes, homemade ice cream, and a bottle of Canadian ale with the hopefully-not-prophetic name of La Fin Du Monde. 

cyn in canyonI love when we can walk someplace instead of driving. Getting there and getting back are as much fun as the event itself. Maybe even more so.

headlamp faceThe grand finale was walking home in the dark. Monte wore a head lamp to illuminate our path, and I used the light of my cell phone. At one point we turned the lights out, stood quiet and still, and looked upward.  As I’ve said many times: still amazed.



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A Lovely Day in Lompoc

flower treesSometimes I have these “I love my life”days. They happen when I focus on my tiny corner of the world and manage to tune out the barrage of bigger badder news, which, let’s face it, has been pretty disturbing and overwhelming lately. But I’ve decided that accepting grace is a graceful thing to do, and I’m pleased to use this blog to share some of the kinds of things that irrationally delight me. Monday, for example, was filled with fine moments.

wet streetI had to go to Lompoc for a meeting with Kam.  I parked beneath the stately Italian stone pine trees that line H Street by the old white church, built in 1908 as the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the grand Carnegie library building that now houses a museum.  The streets were damp from an unexpected bit of rain that passed through very quickly, like a fleeting mirage or wish just barely granted.

We worked in the coffee shop for a while and then wandered around the corner with our friend Cornelia, who’d happened by, to peek into New Lows, an art space and store on Ocean. I’m not even sure how to describe it, but it’s a source for hand-screened t-shirts, designer street wear, skate boards, sunglasses, and art supplies, as well as a gallery and setting for arty events like a recent día de los muertos themed happening that was still being talked about.

New Lows BenWe met Ben, the sweet hipster guy at the helm, and Cornelia and I each bought a t-shirt emblazoned with the word Edify…along with improve and instruct mentally and morally. I don’t know about “morally”, but in a tongue-in-cheek way these seemed like perfect apparel for a couple of retired teachers who still have very instructive tendencies. I knew mine would prompt a wry comment from Monte when I got home, but I still think it’s cool and shall wear it proudly.

desk in the corner

Meanwhile, the oral history project I mentioned in a previous post has proven to be a good invention, and I had an interview scheduled with a wonderful lady in Lompoc named Jean. I’ll save the real content for The Living Stories Collective website that will hopefully soon exist. But sitting with Jean in her timeless old house was like sipping lemonade by a river of memories.

I saw her as a child sledding down the snowy nighttime streets of Jamestown, New York during the Depression. I saw her traveling with her friend Nancy in Europe not long after the War, just two college girls and a suitcase. I pictured her as a bride, working in offices, raising children, hoping to do it right.

little girl jeanAnd I saw her arriving in Lompoc in 1965, in March, when the hills were green, and discovering that it was a perfect place for getting around by bicycle, still her main form of transportation. Jean and her husband have lived in the same house for nearly fifty years now, and sometimes she catches a glimpse of it and sees it as though for the first time. It surprises her how happy that makes her feel.

“I’ve had a very fortunate life,” she said, more than once. “And I’m grateful.”

Jean’s advice is simple:  Be honest with yourself and others. And be kind.

Then, on my way home, I stopped at a certain farm, which was maybe my favorite part of all. That aforementioned friend Cornelia, you see, happens to be The Farmer’s Wife (among other things) and although the weather was hot and muggy by now, we decided to go for a wander.

cornWe walked through dusty fields, gathering tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, melons, and squash…oh, such a bounty! I looked up at the tall stalks of corn and imagined myself in Iowa, and I sniffed cantaloupes in the sun, hoping for that sugary scent of ripeness. We laughed and knew we’d wistfully remember this someday. (Remember the way we were able to bend to the ground and get up again? And how we could still stride up those steep hills in the heat, even carrying bags of tomatoes?)

pickingBy the house there was a plum tree with the most delicious yellow plums I’ve ever eaten in my life. Nectar-of-the-gods plums, plums that leave you happy and sated and desiring nothing more, juice dripping down your chin and on your hands.

“Take them, eat them now,” said Cornelia. “They don’t keep well.” I needed no convincing.

The yard was sun-dappled, pink ladies swayed in the breeze, an old gray cat wandered by, and we were sweaty and sixty-something and feeling pretty good. Let’s leave us there for now, eating plums, laughing, thankful and aware.

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Wind and Sky and Summer Nights

Starry-NightOne night when the wind was howling we drove out to the west end of the Ranch to have dinner with old friends, wending our way along dirt roads past ancient oaks and fragrant brush, climbing upwards to magnificent viewpoints.

Oh, that wind, billowing my skirt, upending my hair, rippling the grasses, dancing the branches of trees. But even if its incessant blowing makes me irritable over time, I love the way it renders everything noisy and alive. The entire earth was animated.

Then afterwards there was that black expanse of heaven, strewn with stars. The darkness here is deep and pure, and the Milky Way galaxy spills visibly across the heavens, and there’s the Summer Triangle: Vega,  Altair, and Deneb, three brilliant stars linking the constellations of Lyra the Harp, Aquila the Eagle, and Cygnus the Swan. I honestly can’t discern any of those shapes, but I love the fact that the ancients gazed upward in wonder as we do now, imagining gods and creatures, weaving myths, dazzled by the infinite.

My friend who is a poet mentioned the summer sky in an email and shared some verses from Rilke’s Spanish Trilogy. One, referring to a shepherd, says,  “Late at night he wakes up, the call of distant birds already inside him, and feels powerful because he has taken all the galaxies into his face, oh not lightly…”

I gaze upward like the shepherd. I’m a pilgrim looking up. And I feel somehow both insignificant and privileged, grateful to be among those bearing witness in this fleeting moment granted me.

And the wind continued its howling as we drove back down the mountain, and the trees waved good-bye.

On these starry nights I fall in love with here all over again. Galaxies beam onto our faces, stars pound on the roofs, and I do believe some of the light pours into us and we carry it through our lifetimes and beyond.


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