Journal Page from Thursday

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.   (William Stafford)

“How you fall is also important,” says my friend Nyuol, who is twenty-six but very wise. “If you fall, fall gracefully. If you stumble, turn it into a dance step. “

We are sitting beneath a trellis in Dorothy’s backyard, lit by stripes of sunlight. An old friend, a new friend, and the stranger that is me. (Stranger and stranger every day.)

Dorothy reads us two of her poems. I linger on these lines: 

Pretty soon you don’t know who you are, think you were–or care.
The lizard’s your sister, the mountain your mother, the sky your mind.
I haven’t minded the sky enough lately. I haven’t mined the sky.  There’s a lot of material I’m missing.

Nearby is a gathering of irises, very purple, past their prime, proud dowagers.

Dorothy reads a poem about wrinkles. (They don’t hurt.)

These are dangerous times.  I feel that we’re veering out of control.

But one of the dangers is in relinquishing these quieter realities…quieter, but crucial, and equally valid.

Let us evict from our heads that fraudulent narcissist who is taking up far too much real estate there. He is not worthy, says Nyuol.

I am only beginning to grasp the monumental patience, restraint, and stamina the struggle will demand of us.

But we are here now, and we  shall honor this moment.

Dorothy weaves in snippets of Mary Oliver, who always seems relevant…starting with wild and precious lives and what we plan to do with the one we have.

Nyuol remembers Dorothy bringing Mary Oliver poems to the English learners when he first came to this country. Wild Geese, in particular:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Dorothy’s husband Tom has joined us. He’s a kind and soft spoken person, and I’m always glad to see him. We are both a little hard of hearing. He pours us wine, a glass of beer for Nyuol.

“Tom and I have acoustic neuromas,” I stupidly announce to Nyuol. “It’s a kind of tumor in the auditory canal.”

To which there is no response.

“Benign,” adds Tom brightly, lest anyone worry.

It’s a breezy day. Everything is, to paraphrase Rilke, recklessly in bloom.

Nyuol is writing a novel and thinks I should too. You can make up anything, he says. Otherwise, it’s just reporting. He chooses to proceed un-tethered to his past, and invent new meaning or no meaning at all.

I’m mostly a reporter.

Earlier in the day, I had ridden my bike past a long hedge of pink roses. I saw whales. And someone pointed out a hawk’s nest by the side of the road.

I went back to the school where I used to teach. My old partner Donna was there. “I keep thinking about what you said after 9/11,” she told me. “Remember what you said? Hope is not optional.”

I probably did say that. It sounds exactly like somebody I used to be when I knew who I was.

Tom and I have segued to a sidebar about music, in an aging Boomer way. He’s a big fan of Neil Young. And by the way, he says, he recently revisited my oral history website and re-read the fabulous interview we did with Jackson Browne.

I turn to Nyuol. “I interviewed Jackson Browne,” I tell him proudly. “You know who Jackson Browne is, right?”

To which there is no response.

Soon we are making our goodbyes and moving towards the car. Dorothy quickly gathers fragrant bundles of rosemary and oregano for us.

The mountains grow hazy in the late golden light.

“How can anyone live here and not be astonished?” asks Nyuol.

I don’t know.

My car still smells of oregano from Dorothy’s garden.

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Day Trip

Our calendar was unexpectedly blank for the day. No one was counting on us, no tasks were urgent, and our irrelevance felt like license for a field trip. We recruited our old friends Kit and Beverly and set out into the misty morning.

It’s a three-hour drive from here to the Carrizo Plain, a trip we traditionally make in winter, lured by the austerity and tranquility of the place. We like to wander in the silvery light and contemplate the sandstone rock formation with its mysterious Native American symbols. But it’s been such an extravagant springtime! Why not glimpse Carrizo in bloom, even as it fades?

The region is located in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, and it’s vast, about fifty miles long, and fifteen across, the largest remaining swath of native grassland in the state. The Temblor Range borders to the northeast, and the San Andreas Fault cuts through at the foot of the mountains, exposing that most infamous break in California’s topography. The alkaline Soda Lake, a central depression in the midst of the plain, receives all of the area runoff. We accessed the plain via Soda Lake Road and walked up to a viewing point to get oriented. Yellow-orange ribbons of bloom skirted the lake’s milky shores, and a zig-zag of mountains rose in the background.

It was the kind of day that covers your skin with kisses, not the wet, sloppy kind, but light enticing kisses. Pale sun shone through sheets of fog, promising rainbows that never materialized, but we were happy with what was. Kit drove on a narrow dirt road into the hills. It was rutted and bumpy, winding around inconclusively, and we were surprised to come head-to-head with another car, driven by a woman who looked to be our age, traveling solo. Kit has been driving backcountry roads for decades and knows the protocol. He gracefully backed up until there was a little extra space, then pulled over to let the lady pass. She was grateful. “You’ll see up ahead the ditch I almost went into,” she said. “And I still didn’t find where God spilled the paint. Have you seen it?”

We’d seen a lot already: goldfields, desert candles, owl’s clover, blazing stars, tidy tips, poppies, lupines, filaree, fiddlenecks, delphinium, daisies, snake’s head, and so many flowers we didn’t know the names for, bright natives in full glory holding their own against invasives. Yellow prevailed, which we’ve observed at home as well, but as Beverly suggested, we just had to embrace the yellow. It was its own vibrant show, brilliantly nuanced, and quite satisfactory. But we weren’t sure what the lady was referring to. “God-Spilled-the-Paint!” she shouted. “It’s somewhere around here. I’m gonna find it.” And off she went in a little wake of dust. Boomers.

We meandered, deliciously devoid of goals. Beverly demonstrated her roadrunner mating call, a talent I never knew she had. We stopped for lunch at a campground and saw an owl in a tree. The clouds were theatrical, plush and mighty, wielding great shadows that moved by swiftly. We walked up a hill along Quail Springs Road and found thickets of fragrant gray-blue salvia and bush lupine in a washed-out shade of purple, and tiny pale blue flowers, as translucent and delicate as porcelain, and always there were those yellow expanses in the distance, surrounding us like light. A patchwork of the Central Valley was visible to the east below.

There were manmade remnants, too,  all along the way: abandoned old homesteads in the far distance, eroded tanks fallen on their sides, broken fences inexplicably placed, bullet casings on the ground. Mysterious transmission towers stood on the hills like sentries, resembling stars crossed with crosses and set on stilts, almost religious.

Almost religious…as am I…or spiritual anyway, because I believe that all this glory is telling me something, even if it’s just to jolt me awake. And I know this was a pilgrimage of sorts. So much beauty, so much life. With our heartbreak in one hand, and our joy in another, we fall again and again into love.

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Still Going

Yesterday I went for a walk with my friend Cornelia. It required that we climb a few hills, face down a brisk wind, thrash through brush and foxtails, step gingerly along bumpy uneven ground, and even clamber up a creek bank once, holding onto a rope to stay steady. But it was one of those magical walks,  infinitely rewarding. I feel grateful to have the time, geographical proximity, and mobility to be able to hike like this, especially with a good companion. Cornelia and I  have similar styles; we can walk briskly while gabbing, and we don’t wear down too fast. About midway through we found a spot out of the wind, and sat on the warm ground having lunch and tea, aware of the day as a gift to be cherished. We figure we can keep up this sort of thing for maybe ten more years, then we’ll see.

I’m feeling very vulnerable. I talk all the time about the sadness I carry, and I’ve never made a secret of my ongoing struggle to fend off depression, but lately it seems that I’m grappling on a deep level not only with my own personal baggage, but with political and global issues. It seemed to me that our world was turned upside down November 8, and the feeling has not abated.  I realize that in some ways the election shed light on existing problems that needed to be resolved, but God…how could anyone have ever believed that this was a solution? And so we now face corruption, lies, destructiveness, greed, intolerance, cynicism, and unprecedented incompetence every single day. It’s toxic and exhausting, dangerous and disillusioning, and just when you think it can get no worse, it gets worse.

But I want to do more than whine, and I know relentless hammering turns people off, (in fact, I’ve probably wearied my readers right here) so I’m trying to rant a little less while staying meaningfully involved, fighting back with donations, calls, and emails, participating in a local organization, and putting forth whatever effort I can, hopefully in ways that are more than symbolic. It is a struggle that demands of us a monumental kind of patience and steadiness, all the while hoping we can turn the nightmare around before irrevocable harm has been inflicted on our nation and the world.

Yes, I realize this is sounding awfully gloomy, but as political writer Sarah Kendzior said via Twitter this week: “You can’t see the approaching mushroom cloud through rose-colored glasses.” We have to look straight at the reality, refuse to normalize or get used to it, and stand up against it. What is happening is not presidential, not patriotic, not sensible, not okay. I don’t think things are going to be “okay” within my lifetime, but I’d like to see us on track, at least.

I ran into a friend at a party recently whom I had last seen right after the election. He was delighted to see me upright and out in public. “You’re doing a whole lot better than you were last time I saw you,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re making peace with it.”

But he was wrong about that. I have not made peace with it. It’s just that I can’t constantly be raging, or weeping all the time; I can’t let it own my whole life. It’s a little like the deal I made with myself after the deaths of people I loved, most recently my mother. I realized at some point that if I am going to live a life, I have to sometimes shove the grief into the background. Grief and I coexist. That’s not the same as peace.

But a walk outdoors with a friend is no small thing, and I came home from yesterday’s feeling renewed. Cornelia and I have known each other for nearly twenty-five years; our daughters were childhood best friends. To the left is my favorite photo of us, taken at my daughter’s wedding. I was trying to gracefully see her off into her new married life, and Monte and I had just given a little speech about it, and although I’m smiling bravely, it was an emotional moment for me. (Not pictured, but nearby, was Vickie, my other tall Bestie.)

I see this picture every day, since it’s affixed to my refrigerator door, the ultimate gallery. And I like it because it reminds me that even when I’m falling apart, there are strong dear friends who will help to hold me up. Like yesterday. The journey we’re on is not as we expected, but here we are, still walking.

Posted in Friends, Memoir | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


Over the years, I’ve been following the work of an artist friend, James Griffith, who has lately been making extraordinary paintings using the medium of tar–”primordial goo”– from La Brea Tar Pits. James has always demonstrated remarkable skill in creating exquisitely detailed images of flora and fauna, but with these works he lures viewers into a layered and sepia-colored world that reflects a vision of the origins of life and provokes fundamental questions about who we are and where we are going.  There is something both noble and poignant about them, wondrous and haunting. I don’t know that they are intentionally designed to call out to us across millennia and awaken impulses of concern and responsibility, but I certainly felt a renewed awareness as I stared into them of how deeply I cherish our planet, and a profound connection to the epic saga of life, and a hope, in these precarious days, that we are not obliviously veering towards the end of it. It has been said that art is not so much a way to change the world, but to change perceptions of the world. I believe the latter can lead to the first.

We met up with James and his wife Sue at the gallery in Santa Monica where his astonishing tar paintings were recently on view in an exhibit appropriately called Biophilia (love of life).  It was a privilege to walk around with the artist and have him point out elements I might have missed…the significance of a grid or shift in texture and color, a word on technique, perhaps a background anecdote.  And here’s a link to an in-depth article about the paintings, written by art critic Lita Barrie.

If you’re curious about Sue and James (and why I love them), a good place to start is this post from ten years ago about the Folly Bowl, an amphitheater they built in their backyard where friends can gather to hear music and poetry and express themselves in beautiful ways. An amphitheater? Why not? These two specialize in endeavors that are quirky, unlikely, and life-affirming. Sue is an artist too, but she has channeled her creativity, passion, and environmental conscience into a landscaping business that emphasizes native plants, water conservation, and the needs of the birds and the bees…in dazzlingly original designs. She is proud to say that the gardens she has created have enticed many clients to live more of their lives outdoors.

Afterwards, we walked around Santa Monica in the broad flat light at the cusp of dusk. James told me that his father had been a photographer, and one of his gigs was to take pictures of children with Santa Claus at the old Buffums’ department store in Long Beach. James was his assistant, gathering letters addressed to Santa, which he said felt somewhat fraudulent even then.

Eventually his father gave James his own camera, and he proceeded to take lots of pictures, then re-wound the film and took lots of pictures over it again. He did this repeatedly.

“I had watched my father deftly winding the film and taking pictures,” he said, “and that was the part that that interested me: not the end result, but the process.”

I thought this was kind of zen-like…noticing without necessarily capturing; intuitively accepting that all is in flux; attention to process more than product.  But I’m glad nonetheless that James eventually learned to stop time with an image.

Later, we had dinner in an unassuming little seafood restaurant with Christmas lights and fishnet decor and photos from the forties, and in the dim forgiving light, everything felt slower and more gentle than it is.

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In Search of Better Thoughts

When I told my friend Dorothy I was trying to overcome my muteness, she wrote to me about white lilacs. In their brief season, she said, they are “white like brides, with less than a month of blooming, not questioning their right to express themselves, to invite visitations.”

But it wasn’t that I was questioning my right to express myself, just doubting that I have anything new to say, and so I’ve fallen silent.  Dorothy imagined the mute ones asking ourselves: “Should I try to say something? Is this the truth? Why bother? Who cares?”

I suppose I should write because I care, and not whether anyone else does. I should write because writing is a railing along a rough and precipitous trail. Writing is exploring, gaining my footing, leaving behind some markers, maybe even a map.

I feel lost. Is writing a way to be found?

This morning I went for a walk at low tide. The beach was scoured, rocky surfaces exposed. Everything looked tired and blank in the glare of the sun. Now I sit at my computer screen and its open page looks blank.

“We stare at the blankness,” Dorothy said, “and listen to some inner dictionary.”

Or listen for it.

“Once planted,” Dorothy mused encouragingly, “if tended, how many stanzas or paragraphs could sing in the air, be entered, and flown to another field, maybe turn into honey, maybe tempt a mute to belt out a tune?”

Mine would be a blues song, or a mournful lament. Who would want to hear it? Sometimes my sorrow is the only thing I feel, even when I know my life is beautiful. My greatest sins are the things I didn’t do, and then it was too late. Can I quell the pain by writing through it? Would someone learn from my confessions? Sometimes for a moment I subtract the me from what I see, finally free of my history, and it seems that I could simply be.

I’m wasting time. My own face is becoming unfamiliar to me, distorted with the jokes age plays upon us all, vulnerable and funny. What will I do with the precious next?

Dorothy recommends that I read a particular essay by Jane Hirshfield in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Hirshfield talks about perceptibility (as opposed to perception, or attentiveness) by which she means the ability to be known, to recognize that what we look at also sees us, and that the way one looks at a thing also determines what one will see. She quotes Ortega y Gassett:

There is a whole portion of reality which is offered to us without our making any special effort beyond opening our eyes and ears, and this we call the world of pure impressions. But there is another world built of structures of impressions, which though hidden, is none the less real. If this other world is to exist for us, we need to open something more than our physical eyes, and to undertake a greater kind of effort.

And here’s Emily Dickinson, who says it more succinctly: “Not Revelation’–‘tis– that waits,/But our unfinished eyes–”

Ah, my unfinished eyes, with their cataract-clouds of confounding connections! I need to find a different way of seeing the world and listening to it. “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves…” as Robinson Jeffers put it. Tall order, but knowing even this much is a start.

“Each poet,” writes Hirshfield, and I suppose she means each writer too, “in his own language, states that the basic matter of poetry comes not from the self, but from the world. From Things, which will speak to us on their own terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”

The hills today are tinged with yellow mustard flowers, and there’s a haze of brush and branch and yes, white lilac, where the grassland shifts to chaparral.  At my elbow a cup of tea grows tepid, and there are tulips in a vase nearby, their red so bright it almost vibrates. Parallelograms of sunlight adorn the faded rug. I can hear a motorized buzz outside as my industrious husband whips weeds on a hillside behind the orchard.

Everything has led me to this moment. What more do I want? Why must I analyze, apologize, and relentlessly strive to reconcile?

It reminds me of a poem by William Stafford, which asks:

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

I have no better thoughts. White lilacs for now will suffice, and the monotone buzz of the weed whacker, and the shifting angles of sunlight that have turned the heart-shaped leaves of the philodendron the most luminous of green.

Posted in Memoir, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


This morning, for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about a weird incongruous memory from my childhood, something that happened more than sixty years ago. Isn’t it funny how random images appear in our heads, completely unconnected to the narrative in which we are immersed?  The memory was of a day when I went with my grandfather to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, just the two of us, which happened no more than once or twice in all of time. I was a four-year-old brat, unhappy for all sorts of reasons I would have been too young to articulate, and my grandfather was preoccupied and quiet. Even at that age, I could sense that he was not particularly fond of me, which in retrospect I can understand, but I didn’t know how to win him over.  There was something inaccessible about him, and it would be many years and much too late before I thought about all the questions I wish I had asked him.

I wore a heavy, coarse wool jacket, bomber style, zippered, plaid.  The early spring sun felt warm on my face, and there was bird song, the fragrance of blossoms, a lazy feeling. We had wandered through a greenhouse together, humid and tropical inside, and I would forever after love such places and associate them with my grandfather. But now we had exited the greenhouse and nothing was happening; I was bored and antsy and craving a what-next. My amorphous discontent turned to delight when I noticed a comic book lying on a bench.

It was a Felix-the-Cat comic, a special edition, small and thick, the size of a paperback book. I ran over and picked it up, flipped a few pages, and immediately assumed ownership. It would be fun to carry around and peruse at my leisure, a found treasure that even my older brothers would envy.

A young boy approached the area as we were walking away, and somehow I knew that his mission was to retrieve the comic book. He looked beyond us purposefully, certain that he had left it on the bench, not noticing that it was in my hand. My grandfather whispered to me in his bumpy broken English that the comic book belonged to the boy and I needed to return it.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I was obnoxious and indignant. Finders keepers, that sort of thing. The book had been abandoned and it was meant to be mine. My grandfather looked at me with a kind of weary resignation, his babysitting duties thankfully almost over, and rather than have to deal with my whining, he deftly took the book from my hand and slipped it under my jacket.

Had he learned this trick stealing bread as a boy from some Neapolitan street vendor, lifting sausage from a butcher shop, absconding with fruit from an orchard not his? He had executed the motion with such cool and expertise. Now I felt the book snug against my chest, and I moved stiffly to keep it in place.

The boy looked at me accusingly. I saw him say something to his mother and point at me. But my grandfather’s presence gave me an aura of innocence and respectability I didn’t deserve.  An old man would surely not facilitate a petty theft or condone such dishonest behavior.  Neither the boy nor his mother confronted us. I had made my grandfather an accomplice to my crime, and we had gotten away with it.

In the end, of course, I didn’t enjoy possessing the Felix-the-Cat book, and I couldn’t understand why I had wanted it so much. Even as we walked through the gates of the botanical garden, I had an impulse to let it slip from my jacket and fall to the ground, and I would have gladly left it there to be trampled by feet and rained upon. But on some level I understood that my grandfather had compromised his ethics to appease my want and shut me up, and I didn’t want him to see how little the coveted comic meant to me now. I owned it, and I owned the sordid history of its acquisition, and these were heavy things to carry. My grandfather wasn’t proud of me or himself that day, and somewhere in Brooklyn there was a boy who had seen me for the unscrupulous little crook that I was.

It was a lesson in honesty and integrity taught in reverse. I learned that the value and pleasure in a thing is inextricably linked to how it was obtained. I learned that shame has weight. I learned that the stone facade of my grandfather could be worn down by petulance but this would never yield his love or the secrets of his past.

Posted in Family History, Memoir | 2 Comments

Despite A Pall That’s Fallen On All

The Santa Ynez Valley women hikers ascended Gaviota Peak last week, looked out upon fog as thick and white as a field of snow below, then walked beneath a trestle of blooming ceanothus as we came down Trespass Trail.

There are wildflowers everywhere.

Spring Equinox occurred in the Northern Hemisphere at 3:28 a.m. today, Pacific time.

Hilary in Wales tells me there are sheep with purple splotches on their backs outside her window, and “lambs with black-button eyes and noses, investigating irrelevant things like the metal of the fence, then skipping up to their mums to suckle.”

Meanwhile, at our place, a shy turtle that appeared after the rain has taken to sitting on a rock by the pond…vanishing with a splash when he senses our nearness.

My little lemon tree is heavy with fruit,  lemons so hefty and  numerous that I’m going to squeeze them and freeze the juice for future use. Maybe I’ll make some granita too, a summer treat for springtime.

Whales are migrating north through the channel in majestic procession, spouting v-shaped plumes of sea spray that are visible from shore.

Monte saw playful dolphins while he was out surfing, so near to him he could almost hear their breath, a mutual and peaceable awareness.

We’re getting things done: both abstract business and concrete tasks. Our paperwork is ready for taxes. My closet has been emptied of extraneous content. Monte installed storage units in the battery room, whacked weeds, and solved problems. I baked bread.

I walked with Cornelia at La Purisima Mission. We sat on sandy ground at the top of a hill overlooking the Lompoc Valley. The sun was warm, the earth hummed with life.

Beverly gave me a wooden nesting box for Western Bluebirds, tiny birds, bright blue and rust. I already have a glass bluebird-of-happiness in the window above the sink, but now I look forward to glimpsing some real ones.

It was a March birthday celebration. Kit put on a rock and roll record.  Bev and I danced in the kitchen, pausing to sip wine, check the fish, and stir the mushroom risotto.

Tomorrow my daughter will be in a room in London, defending her dissertation before a panel of scholars. Whatever the outcome, I’m proud of her.

I received a message this morning from a young man I met when I visited Istanbul. He told me then about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and so we stayed in contact, in a Facebook sort of way. “Poetry is a good reason to be friends,” he wrote today, and I couldn’t agree more. And isn’t it a miracle that we live in a time when a person in Istanbul can transmit an instant thought to some old gal in Gaviota?

Then I read these lines from “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”, one of my favorites among Nazim Hikmet’s poemsI didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty/to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train/watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return.

I fell in love with the world at least three times last week and allowed myself to feel it for long moments without ache of regret or premonition of loss. I guess I had to wait until past sixty. One day I even looked at myself through a gentle lens, forgivable, if not quite forgiven.

I  got an email too from a very kind man who worked at the assisted living facility where my mother used to live. “I prayed for you and your dear mother at Mass on Friday and yesterday,” he wrote. Even my Jewish mother would have recognized the love in this.

Speaking of the old ones, Lisa told me about her beloved godmother, who once went out into the light of a full moon at 2:30 a.m., despite being elderly and frail. Why? To pick figs from the fig tree in the moonlight, that’s all…no further explanation. She lost her footing, fell down, and lay there until she was discovered at dawn. But I don’t think she regretted the expedition. (I am sure I would have loved this lady.)

Nights have gotten noisy in the canyon: frogs are singing, cattle lowing, coyotes yapping. When the windows are open, we can hear the reassuring rumble of a distant train now and then, or a vessel at sea, or the sea itself.

Landis in Hawaii wrote with links to a few disturbing articles but told me to go for a good walk after I read them. Yesterday he sent images from the Stairway to Heaven hike in Oahu, in case I was in need of inspiration. His latest dispatch: “If we despair, we will have given trump yet one more victory.”

The great majority of our nation’s people recognize what is going on. The approval rating for the Parasite-in-Chief has hit a new low. Good people are rallying, meeting in church halls and living rooms, making calls, writing letters, signing petitions, sending donations, summoning up a newfound relentlessness and fighting back, seeing perhaps more clearly than ever what we love and need and refuse to lose to tyranny, incompetence, and greed.

But we are living under a pall; there’s no pretty way to say it. The shock and anger hit us daily, the revulsion, the dismay. It’s a pall, and it’s a poison, and every day brings a new assault to something we hold dear. Let the record show: we stood, we spoke, and we fought back.

Sometimes there was a dance in the kitchen. Sometimes the moon lured us outdoors. The pond turtle quietly returned. This is how it was. We continued.

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Moonscape and Marriage

The moon was shining through white wisps of fog flung like scarves upon the hills, floating scarves, and one was patterned with the black branches of a tree in the foreground, and everything was illuminated in a beautiful ghostly way. I crept out of bed as quietly as I could, which is never quiet enough, grimaced at the creak of the door when I opened it, and stood on the deck looking out. It was chilly, but worth it to be standing in the powder of starlight and glow of moon. I tried to take it in somehow, or gather it like a cloak around my being. I wanted to go back inside a little bit changed.

“What are you doing?” asked my husband as I re-entered our bed, trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid disturbing him.  He sounded irritated.

“It was so beautiful, I had to go outside,” I said.

He warned me that I probably hadn’t properly shut the door, because he hadn’t heard the right noise, and that’s all we need are rodents coming in. Oh, he was definitely irritated.  “You’re such an odd person,” he said, as if he had just met me.

“Why is it odd to want to watch the night when it beckons you?” I said, or something like that. He reminded me that I had fallen dead asleep twenty minutes into a movie an hour earlier, seemingly out for the night, and now suddenly I’d bolted awake to go wandering, waking him up, opening doors, going outside. Yes, odd is a word for it, he said. Or difficult.

I suppose I am difficult. High maintenance in some ways, and the sleep thing has become a big issue, and there’s a lot of angst and emotion. My husband is more functional and concrete. He tends to tangible tasks every day, both physical and intellectual, and he does them well, taking time out several times a week to go to the ocean and renew his soul on the waves, a refuge I can never know, but of which he partakes with grace and skill. By the time he goes to bed at night, he is dog tired, and falls straight into sleep with enviable efficiency. There is something unequivocal about him.

And he  snores. But he also brings me coffee in the morning, and he does the dishes and pays the bills, and tells me I am beautiful, an attribute that expired long ago, but not in his eyes. Most of his frustration with me is because I act against my own self-interest. He’s crabby, but no one will ever be this protective of me, so entirely on my side…and at my side. Marriage is a constant dance of tolerance and compromise, and somehow this one works.

I began this post because I wanted to write about the moonscape, and the way it felt to be outside looking at the night and becoming part of it, and how afterwards I saw things differently and would write something lovely and transcendent. But no epiphanies have appeared, and I’m the same old pilgrim, short on sleep, and it looks like I’ve written mostly about the mundane stuff of married life.  I remember now that the destination of writing is never known in advance. And it occurs to me that what else do we have but this wonderful ordinariness…until suddenly we don’t, and all we can do is yearn for it.

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It was almost like a dance, wending my way toward the center along a path that sometimes seemed to be taking me ever further away, spinning within the spinning of the world, and therefore feeling still. At the start was a short walk straight in, but then a sharp u-turn curve, and a lull of a stroll to another bend, where I would steady myself for a graceful pivot, then proceed. The ground was smooth and bright with sunlight, dappled with tree shadow and garnished here and there with a red or yellow leaf, ornamental remnants of last year’s fall.

Labyrinths. The roots of the pattern reach far back into history, and labyrinth petroglyphs have been found in Europe that date even to prehistoric origins. Mosaic pavements with labyrinth symbols survive intact from the time of Ancient Rome, and the symbol was adopted by the Christian church during the Middle Ages. I found the following abstract of an article by L.K. Porter that succinctly summarizes the phenomenon:

Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, unicursal, serpentine, and often times circular labyrinth designs were inlaid into the floors of several European cathedrals, including Notre Dame of Chartres, Ravenna, and Amiens. The labyrinth’s re-emergence into popular culture through a new spiritual movement began in the early 1990’s in California. The labyrinth pattern borrowed from Medieval European cathedrals has been recreated across North America in various mediums, including inlaid stone, painted concrete, and even portable canvas. This movement has spread across North America to large metropolitan areas and small communities alike.

So I suppose that my seeking and walking this particular labyrinth, which is at Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, is consistent with a kind of California spirituality, but I don’t mind being a cliché.  I had recently enjoyed a morning walk at the labyrinth at St. Mark’s in Los Olivos, and someone had suggested this one, a little oasis right downtown. I came with my friend Chris, and we first peeked into the church in need of a restroom. We could hear strains of organ music, and a young man who was practicing paused, came to the door (with a yapping chihuahua in his arms) and offered us directions. The church had a welcoming, calming ambience, and the labyrinth is right out front. A sign explains that it is a replica of one on the cathedral floor in Chartres, France, and that it is a simple path to follow, not a maze of choices designed to confuse.

I started, and Chris waited and then followed, but sometimes we found ourselves walking side by side within the labyrinth, or facing one another. We acknowledged each other at such times, but for most of the walk, we were each in our own space and thoughts…or the peaceful absence of thoughts. I formulated variations of a phrase that flickered between thanks and asking, and I tried to hold onto some sort of mantra. But my head resists even the gentlest of direction, and at times my thoughts shaped themselves into prayers, the earnest kinds I used to pray as a child, but even those fell away into the sunlight. There was traffic from State Street, the voices of passersby, someone shouting, the brief chatter of a bird…it all merged into a kind of music. And it was warm, almost too warm, and I could feel the breathing of the earth like a very near being, someone real and dear and intimate.

We often walked away from the center in order to reach the center, seeing it draw near only to discover we were headed away from it, and feeling it recede only to realize we were getting closer. Of course it was a metaphor on  many levels: faith, trust, the inability to see the big picture sometimes, the oddly contradictory sense of purposeful meandering, the need to keep going even when we can’t be sure, the hope that maybe eventually it will turn out okay, and that in the meantime some of it is okay. I hunger for this message so badly now, I may be forcing it. But I felt a sense of completion afterwards, although I had accomplished nothing.  And I felt I had remembered and practiced something that needed to be remembered and practiced…an old tune I hadn’t played in a very long time, a thing I’d almost lost.

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Silk Pajamas

In 1998, I went to Italy with my friend Donna and her mom, Sue. We rented a car at the airport in Florence; Sue and Donna took turns at the wheel and I sat in the back seat, timid and amazed. We drove around Tuscany, staying here and there in small hotels and a bed and breakfast place, eventually making our way south to Rome and Naples. It was April, and it rained almost daily. (The Italians kept apologizing for the weather.) We got lost and confused a couple of times, and once Sue drove us up what were essentially stairs at the end of a narrow alleyway. We learned to read road signs and say mi dispiace.

In addition to exploring, Sue liked to shop, and she encouraged Donna and me to loosen up, spend some lire, partake of the banquet of worldly goods. I always needed to be talked into it, but in the course of our travels, I managed to purchase a burnout velvet blouse in an elegant silver-gray color, a pair of gold hoop earrings, and a few small hand-painted ceramic bowls carefully packaged in newspaper and bubble wrap. Donna’s key acquisition was a heavy stone statue of a little girl sitting, and I can still remember her carrying it in the pouring rain through the streets of Sienna. As for Sue, she bought all sorts of things, and although I can’t recall what they were, I remember her stamina for investigating shops, her enthusiasm for color and craft, her pleasure in discovery. She surprised us once with bouquets of fresh-cut lilacs, and the day was imbued with their fragrance.

Sue was a trooper, stomping around with the two of us, despite a problem knee. I have a clear memory of her walking through a grove of olive trees outside the town of Vinci. An elderly woman called out to us from the window of an old stucco farmhouse along a dirt road. She was selling homemade figs, and we bought a little bag and shared them. They had been dried in Italian sunshine and flavored with fennel seeds, and they were the best figs I ever had, before or since. But Sue was also sad sometimes, still newly into widowhood, and you could see it in her eyes now and then despite her easy smile. She had carried with her a little vial of her husband’s ashes, and occasionally she’d fling a pinch in places he would have liked. I saw her discreetly doing that once from a bridge on the River Arno, her bright scarf blowing in the breeze. She stood and watched the water for a moment or two, then turned and walked back into the vibrant parade of life.

And I can’t remember why, but I borrowed a pair of Sue’s pajamas during one of our hotel stays. They were wonderful loose-fitting silky pajamas, the color a cross between apricot and champagne, with a subtle pin stripe pattern, a 1940s look. I felt glamorous and indulged in them; I liked the way the sheen caught the light, the way they felt against my skin, the way they moved with me. I was Rita Hayworth in those pajamas.

Sue was pleased. The material world was here to be savored, she told me, in so many words, and I deserved nice things, and really, everyone should have a pair of silk pajamas. We stood in front of a window sipping red wine and watching the night. I was in my forties then, and I didn’t even realize how ridiculously young that was, but for a moment I was a starry-eyed girl in Italy wearing silk pajamas and letting myself dream.

Sue passed away last fall, leaving a house filled with treasures and memories that Donna had to sort through. And the other day, a package arrived in the mail from Donna, a birthday present. I opened the cardboard box, undid various wrappings, and caught a glimmer of apricot silk. They’re the very same ones, said Donna.

At night I close my eyes and think of sad things, and I still hold back from extravagance, but now I wear silky pajamas to bed, and I wear them while drinking my coffee, and the morning blinks at me in wonderment and reminds me to be present.

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