On Labor Day

DaddyMy father aspired to be a doctor. I still have in my possession a letter from St. Francis College outlining the requirements for a pre-med course of study, sent in response to his hopeful inquiry. The 1920s were drawing to a close, the stock market was about to crash, and our nation would soon plunge into the Great Depression that was so formative in the lives of our parents’ generation. But my father’s family was already poor. His immigrant father struggled to make a living, his mother was ill and frail, and life did not allow for luxuries like college.

The eldest of four brothers, one of whom died at the age of four, my father was brilliant and motivated and knew the value of higher learning, but many dreams dissolved in the rooms of their railroad flat in a gritty neighborhood of Brooklyn. He managed to take a few classes, read voraciously on his own, and wrote and spoke with unusual eloquence, but he finally picked up the buckets and brushes of his father’s humble trade. He still yearned for a respected profession, and he certainly had the heart and ability to be a wonderful physician, but he took the jobs that came his way, added murals and decorative effects to the drudgery of basic wall painting, and never had a break. He labored until the day he died at the age of sixty-seven.
Painters in FloridaI remember him coming home at night in paint-splattered overalls and paint-splattered shoes, washing and grooming and emerging as the handsome and dignified gentleman he was. In those early years when we still lived in the city, he would leave the house to attend night classes at the Atlantic States Chiropractic Institute, and even though I was only a little girl, I sensed his noble determination and felt proud of him.  He completed the program with distinction and was forever after Dr. Carbone, a legitimate, hard-earned title, even if he painted houses by day.

It was difficult to start a viable practice as a chiropractor in an era when the profession was often dismissed as quackery, and especially for a man who was working long hours to support a family weighed down by more than its fair share of adversity. He grew tired. Now he came home exhausted, lay down in bed, and often fell asleep with his eyeglasses on and an open book that had slipped from his hands to his chest. I tiptoed in once and gently removed his glasses, and my heart swelled with a huge, protective, overwhelming love.

But I was useless. Being young is an all-consuming career, and I had not inherited his vision or his drive. He warned me that the clock was ticking and that I needed to advance myself, get a degree, become someone in the world. Become a doctor, in fact…by which he meant M.D., for he still saw that as the pinnacle profession, and he knew that I could do it. Unfortunately, I had zero interest in becoming a doctor, nor did I seek to define and pursue whatever it was that interested me. I thought I had plenty of time to figure things out.

And in the meantime, I can see how he shielded me, doing things for all of us that we should have been learning to do for ourselves. Somehow he would manage to find an old car for me, and somehow he arranged to keep it maintained, and somehow there would be cash in an envelope to pay for my gas. It shames me now to think of it. He was trained in the crucible of hard work and taking care of others. It was all he knew. And he was a force of nature, a one-man industry for betterment, constantly repairing things, solving problems, even cooking and cleaning the house.

In fact, it’s his housecleaning proclivity that prompted me to write about him today. I had a phone conversation yesterday with my childhood friend Carol. It was the first time I had heard her voice in fifty years, but that’s a story for another post. What surprised me was what she remembered about my father from our Coney Island Avenue days. “I have an image of him sweeping and mopping the stairs and the lobby,” she said. “I remember it in such detail. He used one of those mops made of string, but what I especially remember is the pail. It was one of those tin pails with a wringer inside, a very nice pail, and he worked with care, like it mattered. Your father really tried to take care of things.”

He sure did. And when Carol described it, I could almost smell the pine-scent of disinfectant, an odd aroma to associate with love, but I do. I could see the tile floor of the little vestibule where Carol and I sometimes sat and played with our dolls until the landlady hollered at us to get out of people’s way, not that there were any people. And I could see the steep wooden stairs that led to our apartment on the first floor, and the narrow dim hallway. My father kept it clean for us.

unnamedAnd it occurred to me that there were probably a hundred more impressive things for which my father might have preferred to be remembered, even by his daughter’s childhood friend. She might have seen how imposing and handsome he looked when he stepped out in his suit, how smart and well spoken he was, how generous. And there was the respectful way people asked him for advice and referred to him as Doc, and the fact that he passed even his x-ray licensing exam, and how he moved listeners to tears when he drove up to Albany and addressed the Assembly of the State of New York about an issue that mattered to him deeply.  And he really was a chiropractor, and yes, that is a doctor.

Carol didn’t know, either, how he painted the walls of our rooms with flowers and birds, making everything more beautiful, and cooked us tomato sauce and lentil soup, and washed our hair and tucked us in, and shelved his own dreams to give us all the chances he hadn’t had, and fortified us with love and courage that we draw upon to this day.

I came across these lines from a poem called Physics by Sharon Olds that my own daughter had written out and given to me once…yet another story for a different post…and it occurs to me that this is how I view my father too:

Now she tells me
that if I were sitting in a twenty-foot barn,
with the doors open at either end,
and a fifty-foot ladder hurtled through the barn
at the speed of light, there would be a moment
-after the last rung was inside the barn
and before the first rung came out the other end–
when the whole fifty-foot ladder would be
inside the twenty-foot barn, and I believe her,
I have thought her life was inside my life
like that.

I don’t know how he fits, but yes, he is inside my life like that forever.

My father wanted most of all to be a physician, but in the end, he was so much more than that. And the poignant image of him humbly mopping the stairs takes on new meaning to me on this Labor Day. I am proud to be the daughter of this worker.

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Brief Companionship

IMG_0869 (1)The day was like this: a muted white sky morning, almost raining. As my friend and I walked up the canyon together, a dog wandered from the yard of his house and began to follow us. “Go home!” we shouted, to no avail. He followed us all the way up to the rocky place that was our destination, watched for a while from a distance as we sat and talked, then came and rested at our feet. He was a big oafish sort of dog, a little intrusive and inappropriately devoted, but I began to like him.  He had a wet wool smell and a somber face. He got nothing from us but still stayed. It was nice to feel so readily accepted, nice to know we didn’t disappoint.  He followed us back as far as his own house, where he detoured up his driveway without a glance back.

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Re-Play

coyoteI posted the following on this day seven years ago, and I’m re-posting it now because it’s pretty much exactly still true. That’s how life is around here, especially in summer. Timeless. Seamless. As Jane Hollister Wheelwright once told me, “There’s no stream you can follow. Everything becomes cycles. Over and over.”

Last night a coyote stood directly below the window, so near that I heard the catch in his throat, the little grab for air, in the pauses between yelps. He lingered for a long time, and I hoped he was flushing out rabbits. Sometimes he barked like an ordinary dog, and other times he summoned up a more traditional howl, and it went like this for quite some time. I grabbed a flashlight and tried for a glimpse, but by that point he had scampered up a hill and into the orchard, and all I could see were the shadowy silhouettes of trees and everyday objects rendered strange and supernatural by the night. I stepped outside onto the deck and was startled by stars. Was Mars the one with the orange hue? It was a warm night, and it was very still. It was nice to be standing out there, and although it was becoming less and less likely that I would ever get back to sleep, that doesn’t matter much when you can sleep in the next day.

This is the time of summer when I used to be braced for back-to-school. Maybe the frantic flurry of meetings and preparation would have already begun by now, and I certainly don’t miss it. It feels very luxurious to be able to watch the edge of summer and have a sense that it belongs to me, or that I belong to it. The days are a seamless space, not the background for a dance already choreographed. And this week I got to stay at home and pay attention to my own life. I’m paying attention, of course, to the larger world as well, although in a manner not unlike the way I sought a glimpse of that coyote. I am standing behind a screened window, watching, scanning the horizon, seeing mostly shadows and occasionally looking up to discover there is miracle still happening.

Still here in the dark, flashlight in hand, looking around.

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The Bread Bakers

IMG_0566It sort of started with Jeanne, as many things do. She used to be my neighbor, and now she lives up north in a misty place, perfect for bread baking, which she has taken on with her usual zeal and finesse. She did a demonstration of her baking method while we were visiting her last month, and we had it sliced and toasted for breakfast. It was truly delightful, a substantial and flavorful loaf, just moist and chewy enough inside with lots of good air holes and a genuinely crusty crust.

Jeanne describes bread-making as magic…the alchemy of heat and yeast, the traditions of the ancestors, and she uses the method passed down by her great-great-grandfather from Alsace-Lorraine. “It requires mostly just my hands, and heat, and flour, water and salt,” she says, “And time for it to ferment.”

It turns out that my young neighbor Carey has been baking bread also. One day when I stopped by her house, I noticed and admired a newly baked loaf that looked very handsome indeed. I ended up leaving with a jar of sourdough starter, an instruction sheet adapted from the Tartine Bread book, which has apparently become a sort of bread-baking bible, and Carey’s cheerful reassurance. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “You just have to keep doing it. Follow the basic directions, but find what adjustments work for you.”

And thus began my official quest. I bought a bag of top notch whole wheat flour at the health food store, somehow assuming this would make for a superior loaf. I went through all the steps, found the dough to be too wet and sticky, and kept adding flour.  The final result looked great,  but it was dry and dense. “A heavy wheat brick,” said my husband. It tasted terrible too…possessed of a peculiar sort of tanginess. It was, despite its good looks, inedible.

So the first principle, as Carey says: “Looks can be deceiving.” She recommended turning my failed loaf into croutons. Monte recommended marking it down to experience and throwing it away.

“It’s just your beginning,” wrote Jeanne in an email. “It is a journey, and this is a good start. I think Tartine’s basic recipe is more like 80-90% white (some bread flour, some all-purpose) and 10-20% whole wheat. You tried a much more difficult option to use all whole wheat.  There are so many variables involved, hence the huge challenge that has excited so many people to try baking it.”

Notice how tactfully Jeanne interprets my folly as “a more difficult option”, as if I am a brave innovator instead of an awkward novice. I wondered if I should try a different starter, maybe hers. “I really think the one you have is working great,” said Jeanne. “The flavor will be about the same with either one, as they adapt and blend with your local airborne yeasts, as well as it having to do more with temperature of the air, and the flour you use.” She also reminded me that having two starters would mean feeding two starters. I’d forgotten about this whole “feeding” thing. It’s a little like having a pet in a jar, a creature composed of yeast and lactobacilli. I don’t fully understand the science of it.

The second principle would be: tweak and customize for your conditions, but stay within the basic framework, and don’t be changing horses in the middle of the crossing. Or something like that.

breadFor my second loaf (at the left), I used mostly unbleached white flour with a small amount of whole wheat. The dough was sticky again, so I kept adding white flour to make it easier to work with, and I sprinkled flour into the bowl before I left it overnight. Too much. You can see the lumpy splotches of flour there, which is not very appealing. It also didn’t rise as high and proud as Jeanne’s or Carey’s.

But look at those nice air holes! And it actually tasted pretty good.

“You’re learning more each time,” said Jeanne. And she was right. Take a look at loaf number three!

bread

It was sluggish about rising, and there is something sort of miniature about it, but it was perfect in every other way.

So the third principle: keep trying, apply the lessons learned from previous bakings, and be patient.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to report on every tedious twist and turn of my baking journey. I just wanted to document this little adventure because it has been so therapeutic for me. When in doubt, bake a loaf of bread. You need not explain yourself further.

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In Pursuit of Perseids

IMG_0781It’s just the way I am. If there’s going to be a meteor shower, I want to watch. And so last night I hauled a sleeping bag, pad, and pillow out onto the deck. My original plan had been to set a clock for 3:30 a.m. and go out between moonset and dawn when the the sky would be darkest and the meteors brightest, but since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I decided around midnight to assume my post.

I tend to think of the nights here as silent except for the occasional high-pitched coyote song and frogs in their season, but as soon as I settled myself outdoors I remembered that the air contains a constant undercurrent of sound. It enveloped me like a rich and complex tapestry: clicks and hums, murmurings of an of owl, animal scratchings in the brush nearby, and whisperings of wind in a tree whose black shadowy shape became as familiar to me as a friend.  There’s so much happening constantly that eludes our notice. I lay there as my eyes adjusted to the dark.

The moon, a quarter full, cast its pale light like a filtering lens, and swaths of the sky were white with the Milky Way, but as I watched, the darkness deepened, and there were stars of startling brightness everywhere. I scanned the sky, trying too hard, impatient for a reward, and then with my peripheral vision saw a thin line of light zoom by, and minutes later…whoa!…a blazingly bright, thick streak, shooting by too fast for a double take but memorable indeed. Now that was a shooting star.

Long waits in between. Watching a meteor shower takes a good deal of patience. I’d read that this year’s Perseid shower is an “outburst” and may yield as many as 200 meteors in an hour, so it seemed to me that one or two a minute was a reasonable expectation, but expectation is not an appropriate state of mind in these situations. I tried to get comfortable and simply key in to the pleasure of being present to witness this jeweled summer night, just me and the same vast sky my ancestors once beheld.

On the other hand, never mind about my ancestors.  I’m pretty sure they would have been far too exhausted and weary from their daily labors to indulge in luxurious bouts of pre-planned sky-watching, intent on seeing a particular quota of meteors. No, for them it would have been a matter of happenstance, of looking up in the very astonishing moment a meteor was shooting through the heavens, and the more romantic among them would have seen it as a gift or an omen, and possibly made a wish.  And oh, their wishes have rolled down through the ages and found their way into my heart. I was born with yearning in my DNA.

As were we all, perhaps, for it is the state of being human…is it not? To be alive involves a continual wanting and reaching, a struggle to to stay upright despite crushing sorrow and the awareness of our own brevity, an ancient kind of yearning that only ceases in brief moments of one-ness and forgetting, or with the elusive equanimity that comes with enlightenment.

And here I was, lying on a sleeping bag with the very cosmos shining before my eyes, thinking in those tiresome human terms.  Another flamboyant meteor shot by above the hills to the east, a beauty with a long wide trail of light. And another, just beyond my field of vision, was as pale and small as a white moth in the distance, but moving straight and fast, a jet-propelled glide into its vanishing. I began to rest in the spaces between. I felt that old familiar mix of insignificance and wonder, humbled to have been given the privilege of bearing witness, of being somehow part of it all, fleetingly and forever. I let go of the personal history and opened myself up to whatever unknown vastness and mystery encompassed me. In short, I fell asleep.

I awoke just in time for what was supposed to have been the peak of the peak, the hour for which I had initially planned to get of bed and begin my vigil. But coastal clouds had moved in as I slept, and the sky was blank, not a star in sight. I gathered my things, slipped into the house, and went back to bed, satisfied.

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Remember Me? Still Here

IMG_0533We went to visit friends in northern California recently, where we walked in a misty redwood forest and one day along a narrow trail that went on and on with nothing to see but the trees and brush on either side and I kept thinking we’ll finally come out into a clearing at the very next curve but it was more of same for nearly ten miles and at some point I just had to let go of that chronic habit of looking beyond, and when I stopped thinking of the walk as monotonous, it became meditative, like slipping into a sustained kind of now. I needed that.

Weird world. The coyotes have been singing so loudly under our window at night, it’s as though they are in the room with us. And there are red bugs everywhere. I asked someone what they are called, and he said, with great authority: red bugs. Sometimes they connect to each other like cars in a train, and they cling to plants, covering them in such numbers that the plants look red. I see them on the road, in the house…everywhere.

I went for a walk yesterday that took me along the main road for a bit, and someone drove by and complimented me on my hat (a cowboy style) and I complimented his (also cowboy) and then he asked me if I was writing poetry in my head while I walked and I said no, I’m being a poem…and I suddenly sort of felt like I was!

I seldom have not-sad thoughts about my mother, but while I was striding along briskly and happily yesterday, it occurred to me that this walking thing was one of the gifts she gave me. Walking was her escape; even when I was a little child, I remember her taking me with her all over the city, on foot. She prided herself on being a good walker well into the last part of her life, felt caged if she couldn’t go outdoors, and thrived on her mobility. At some point she used a cane, which she tended to swing around erratically, but boy could she move fast! At 89, she fell and broke her hip, and the rehab folks had never seen anyone so motivated to get back on their feet. After that she used a “walker”, steadfastly resisting the wheelchair that was parked in her room for her, and one of my last memories of her is watching her push that walker down the corridor, counting the rooms as she passed them, her long white hair pulled into an elastic tie, and a countenance that can only be described as defiantly cheerful. So I suddenly saw that she has given me this gift, and it’s a good one.

Another memory I have of my mother that may also be a nice part of my inheritance is her childlike capacity for amazement. Birds at a fountain, a cat strolling along on the sidewalk, clouds…oh, my…look at those clouds! I remember one day she stood at the window of her bleak little room at the assisted living facility, pointed to a tree across the street, and told me with great conviction that it was “the most beautiful tree in the world.” I thought of this as my mother being endearingly batty, but now in retrospect, it seems so…I don’t know…enlightened, almost. Because it was the most beautiful tree in the world. It was the tree she could see, every day, from her own window.

There’s so much around here that is worthy of amazement. Yesterday: dolphins swimming close to shore, always a good omen. Quail rushing around in their self-important way, a few tiny chicks among them. And an evanescent border of shimmering white light above the hills at the brink of the gloaming.

I interviewed a couple of cowgirls for The Living Stories Collective, and that was fun. I learned a lot about the work they do, and I very much appreciated some of their descriptions of this ranch. You can go to this link to read and listen. (You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting much on this, my more personal website, and that’s because I’ve been spending a lot more time on The Living Stories Collective.)

And I don’t feel like talking about the political scene right now, although there’d be plenty to say, but I have had a crazy, hopeful thought that maybe the whole outrage of this deeply disturbed and disturbing Trump thing will test us as a nation and we will reaffirm our best and better selves.

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cyn in doorway 62

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)

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Reflections

IMG_0335 (1)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.

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Fire

IMG_0050We 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.

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What If

1922 Pablo Picasso (Spanish artist, 1881–1973) Portrait of Mme Olga Picasso. 1922-23. Pastel.

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)

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