Beannacht by John O’ Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

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The Fixer of Crackers Coexists With The Cracked

We grow macadamia nuts. Every day I look out onto an orchard of more than a hundred thriving trees whose dangling tasseled blossoms fill the air with pungent fragrance, and that yield the sweetest and most satisfying of nuts, rich in the good kind of fat. But there’s a lot of work  before the eating. After the nuts are harvested, they must be husked, dried, culled, and cracked, and that cracking step is a tough one, because macadamias are gifted with the hardest of all nut shells. We often find bits of shells cracked open by neighborhood animals during their late night parties, but they must have some pretty impressive teeth and technique. I read somewhere that it takes 300 pounds per square inch of pressure to crack a macadamia shell.

crackerEnter the cracker.

What I like most about the one we use is its color. Well, let me back track: what I like most about the one we use is that it usually works. But even when broken, as it has been for several months, its color is pretty. As you can see to the left, it’s an oddly bright and pleasing shade of green paint on a steel frame that could  very well have been left dreary. I also like the polka dot holes in the cylinder through which the nuts tumble out. And I like the industrious noise of it, when it works, and its Rube Goldberg aspect. It seems more contraption than machine.

But it’s been broken and idle and I’ve watched wistfully as burlap sacks filled with nuts in shells are hauled off to a distributor and I yearn for our own little share of the goods, whole round edibles in perfect 8 oz. portions, or the wonderful fragments my mother-in-law calls “cookie bits”.

Enter the fixer.

It’s Monte, of course, who reads directions and figures things out. The cracker comes with a xeroxed sheet of instructions for both operation and repair that look like they were hand-typed by Mr. Shaw, the man who designed it. It talks about removal of bearings and end plates, replacing inserts in flanges,  and setting a locking collar in the direction of rotation of the shaft.  There are blades and taper pins, and even a warning about distorting the cover plate in a manner that could render the cracker worthless.

It isn’t only that I dropped physics and have never really understood how things work in anything other than a magical way (and I’m not proud of this), it’s also that I am impatient and not inherently interested. I look at these instruction sheets and feel overwhelmed and bored. Suddenly I notice a hummingbird darting around the honeysuckle. I remember something else I meant to be doing. I become the hummingbird, but not as efficient.

But Monte? He got that cracker going.  Eight blades, eight removals, eight replacements with small tools and patient hands. And it brings to mind something else we’ve been talking about around here lately, which is attentiveness, and taking care of things. I’ve got a flunking grade so far. Monte’s the zen master.

Now I just want some nuts.


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Words from Wendell Barry

“We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.”
















How to Be A Poet by Wendell Barry


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

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The Salute

DSC00079We were sitting in the coffee shop in Lompoc this morning when our old friend Dick Jacoby wandered in.  I love running into Dick–he always has a twinkle in his eye and a story to share.

Somehow we got on the subject of Dick’s army years. He joined when he was 17, and at the age of 18 he was stationed in Japan, during the Allied occupation. General Douglas MacArthur was the Supreme Commander during this remarkable period of recovery and transition for the defeated nation. He established his General Headquarters in the Dai Ichi Insurance Building in central Tokyo whose higher floors overlooked the Imperial Palace, and he traveled along a broad boulevard in a black 1941 Cadillac limousine flanked by military police motorcycles. Dick was there.

“When MacArthur came out of his headquarters, all of Tokyo stood still,” Dick told us. “He was really a big deal. He had five stars on each shoulder and he had kind of a crushed hat and a corn cob pipe and he’d come out of his headquarters in the afternoon and everything in Tokyo would stop…”

At this point, Dick got distracted. It’s a busy coffee shop, after all, and he knows a lot of people. “Hey, there’s Bob, my good friend!” said Dick.

“Are you bothering these young, good-looking women?” said Bob. “Well, ladies, I can repeat that story as well as he can. Probably better, I’ve heard it so many times.  Dick forgot to mention that MacArthur was wearing dark glasses.”

general-macarthur-pipe“There’s always a critic,” said Dick, proceeding.

“Anyway, as I was saying, when MacArthur came out of his headquarters and got in his car, his guards on either side of the car saluted him very formally, and everything in Tokyo stopped in the middle of the day. The lights all turned red, all the traffic stopped, all the people were stopped on the sidewalk. Then his car takes off and heads toward the Imperial Palace.”

“Yeah, I’ve told this story a few times,” Dick admitted. “But on this day I was the only person standing there on the road near the Imperial Palace. I was the only person there! And I was standing dead still. And I’m thinking that there’s a five-star general coming, and his car came down the street, and he was alone in the car, and I was alone on the sidewalk, and I saluted him. I figured it was the thing to do. And he took his pipe out of his mouth and he returned my salute. So I made General MacArthur salute me. And I made him take his pipe out of his mouth.  I was 18.”

“May I take your picture?” I asked Dick. I was already thinking that this was a blog post.

“Yeah, go ahead. You can be like those newspaper photographers who always take two in case the first one comes out good.”

Dick knows about this because he ran for City Council back in the 1960s. One of the newspapers printed a photo of him with a shadow under his nose that made him look just like Hitler. He was advised to go around the neighborhood, knock on doors, introduce himself, win some hearts. It was not a practice he relished. He knocked at one door, waited a while, and there was no answer. He figured he’d leave, almost relieved.

“You gotta do these things,” his friend had advised.

“So I stayed there,” said Dick, “and I kept knocking and finally this old guy came and opened the door and said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy that’s running against my son!’ God, I wanted to go home immediately. Can you imagine?”

“Did you win?” Cornelia wondered.

“I did. I won. But it wasn’t because of successful campaigning.”

“May I take that one more picture?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” said Dick.

Afterwards, I had a hard time choosing which to use. They both looked good to me.

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You Be The Mother

little girl dirt roadIn a moment I want to share another poem by Marie Howe, one I think should be required reading for every parent.  It certainly brought back memories of my own little girl back in days that were more precious and fleeting than I ever imagined. That’s her above, striding along a dirt road, a funny and confident little mop-head. We had truly wonderful times together, that little girl and me, but I think there probably was a lot of rushing and fretting too, and I wish I’d slowed down a bit.

And there were days when she would declare that she was “Mommy” and I was the little girl. Sometimes she would assume an officious, big shot demeanor in that role, which I guess from her perspective was a major aspect of me. She was powerful and bossy then, as she clomped around in my shoes or jingled my car keys or referred to Monte as, well…Monte. But she could also be considerate–”Careful,” she would say, turning around to help me find my footing on the goat trail–and liberal with treats, and genuinely nurturing as she read me books and cuddled me on the day bed by the window. Anyway, this was my brief season of great significance, and it was touching to be admired and impersonated, but the ending of Howe’s poem is an unsettling reminder for parents to be conscious of what, exactly, they are modeling and teaching. The poem is called “Hurry”:

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry —
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

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This Is What You’ve Been Waiting For

april skyIt’s getting warm again. I took a real slow walk up a steep hill while listening to a podcast of Krista Tippett interviewing the poet Marie Howe, part of a series (“On Being“) that a friend only recently turned me onto, and I’m so glad she did. In the last few days I’ve listened to fascinating conversations with Thích Nhất Hạnh, Studs Terkel, astrophysicist Janna Levin, and today this remarkable poet who seemed to be getting to the heart of everything important.

Here’s a poem she recited called “The Gate”, written after the death of her brother. I think it’s perfect…and I hereby aspire to be more fully aware of the this, although I acknowledge that listening to a podcast while out hiking may be somewhat contradictory. Then again, maybe having a poem in my ear was part of my walk’s very this-ness.

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This — holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

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Of The News and The Olds

lightskyI spent too much time in recent weeks trying to write something with the goal of an editor or expert deeming it worthy and rewarding it with praise or publication. I couldn’t write anything at all that way.

But this is for you if you want to read it, just a quick report of the news and the olds, neither essay nor poem, a post…barely prose.

Of  importance to me, I suppose.

In the morning there was a line of white light etching the outline of the sea against the sky, and Santa Rosa Island was a blue mirage floating above the water, and the wind was humming through my bicycle wheels, and I felt the sheer bliss of being alive, the crazy unfair luck of it, but the momentary bliss.

Later that same day we said said good-bye to a friend in the place he chose to be, with two old men who remembered him from the long-ago days, and there were tears and laughter and ashes and earth, all of us aware of falling, falling, but grateful for each other and the beauty of the world.

A bit of rain came through like diamonds.

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Just Beginning To See

dry cleanerThis happened. It was the depths of the 1970s, and I was taking classes at the state university in Albany. One semester more and I’d have a degree, and that would mean I’d finally accomplished something, or so I’d been led to believe.  I was renting a room above a dry cleaner store in a place that always smelled like solvent when it didn’t smell like something unappealing being fried in the kitchen on a cast iron pan by one of the two young women with whom I shared the apartment, both of them lonely and peculiar, and I guess this was where I belonged.

I was still romancing the alcoholic professor in Syracuse, and I’d had a fight with him before boarding the bus back to Albany, and  there was nothing unusual about this except that he’d swung a punch at me this time, and I’d made my exit with drama and pathos, filled with outrage and self-pity in equal parts and sporting an actual black eye. But I had friends, and one of them, a medical student, had given me a couple of pills called quaaludes. (Yeah. I know. Some friends.)  This will relax you, he said, and oh, did it ever.

So I was back in my room above the dry cleaner’s in Albany relaxing with my quaalude. I remember that a particular song was spinning on the record player: Tuesday Afternoon by the Moody Blues, either a very long version of it, or over and over in an endless loop. (If you survived the 70s, you know the song too.)

Pretentious, over-orchestrated crap is how one impromptu critic described the music of the Moody Blues, and someone else referred to adolescent lyrics trying too hard to sound profound. But in my quaalude state of mind, Tuesday Afternoon playing over and over was a custom-made anthem and a personal lullaby, the song to which I’d restart my life or sleep it all away.

It happened to be Tuesday, even. How’s that for serendipity?

Tuesday afternoon.
I’m just beginning to see,
Now I’m on my way.
It doesn’t matter to me,
Chasing the clouds away.

Whatever it meant, those were my feelings exactly, especially the “it doesn’t matter to me” part because really, nothing did. I was all druggy and drowsy, lying in my narrow bed with a view of the bookie joint grocery store across the street and the eerie glow of a neon sign flickering on as daylight slid into evening, with the smells of dry cleaning fluid and frying onions wafting through the rooms…and someone knocking at the door.

It was Jim, a grad student, Vietnam vet, casual friend. He’d grown up in a little town outside of Syracuse and was studying at Albany now for a career in administration of something or other. Anyway, he knew how it was with me and that professor jerk, and he’d heard about this latest turn of events and hoped a punch was the wake-up call I needed, but for now he was just making sure I was okay. He sat by my bed as Tuesday Afternoon played over and over, and he offered me orange juice and put an extra blanket over me as the room grew dark and drafty, and he stroked my head and stayed with me, and I closed my eyes and drifted. Hours passed.

This happened too: Right before he left the room, believing I was fast asleep, Jim leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead.

It was the tender gesture of a parent, almost. It was innocent and gentle, secret and spontaneous, not made for response or observation. It was decent and kind and quietly given, the sort of behavior that had lately been so lacking in my life, I had forgotten it was normal.

So something did call to me and draw me near on this Tuesday long ago. I woke up feeling valued. Simple as that. A little bit better, subtly changed.

Neither vigil nor kiss was ever mentioned.  Jim was just someone I knew, and I was a confused young woman, slowly and painfully inching my way forward with plenty of big mistakes still ahead. And yet.

I was beginning to see.

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Strange Days

morning launchToday we woke up to the noise and vibration of a launch from Vandenberg about ten minutes before eight. It was an Atlas rocket carrying a military weather satellite, not that I knew this at the time. I ran outside and saw cows on a green hilltop grazing peacefully in silhouette against the sky and the curling white curve of  contrail cloud above. The deep rumbling of the rocket continued for a long while. It seemed a strange way to begin the morning, and  I spent much of the day in a strange frame of mind, tending to some business, puttering with plants, taking a break once to sip hot chocolate in the sun.  I was brooding a lot, but too blurry to come to any conclusions, and there was a familiar sort of sadness hovering at the edge of things, ready to weigh me down if I let it.

Late in the afternoon I went to the beach with Monte hoping to clear my head. The beach was moody and wild, and I was walking into the wind listening on my iPod to a song by Johnny Flynn called  The Lady Is Risen.  I don’t know exactly what this song means, but I love it.  It stirs me up and felt just right for a strange day and a seashore walk:

“She loves full and true, as a fighting bequest
She was given her earth by a sea come to rest
And the children she bore loved this truly too much
Calloused pride come to die in our hands as we touch
And so soften me now, let me take as it’s given
For the wind’s started up and the lady is risen.”

todayAs I said, I don’t know what it means, but those are beautiful lyrics…don’t you think? In fact, I felt irrationally happy all of a sudden. (Dare I say risen?)  The air was salty, the ocean gleaming silver, and a grateful sense of alive-ness and exhilaration filled me like breath.

Then I saw a pair of vultures circling, swooping low toward the beach,  gliding above the cliffs and returning again and again, and I realized only when I was a few steps away from it that a sea lion lay dying on the sand.  The poor creature lifted its head, let out a cry, and looked at me with doomed, vacant eyes as the vultures eagerly awaited its death.

“You know life isn’t always like the end of your novels
All things might wind up but they always unravel…”

So sang the song. And so it goes, a plot not neatly tied together, a grand procession of contradictions, euphoria and heartbreak rolling in like waves.

I walked back to where Monte was surfing, and Tavis, a young neighbor of ours, had gone out also, and I watched them both in their own ways dancing, Tavis doing frisky skateboard maneuvers: reverses in the air, exuberant turns, full of youthful energy, and ol’ Monte, capable and steady.

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Arroyo Hondo Foray

Arroyo hondoYesterday we enjoyed a showery stroll through the 782-acre Arroyo Hondo Preserve managed by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. To the left is a colorful relief map of the canyon, which features impressive rock formations and many layers of geological history. It was inhabited for centuries by the  Barbareno-Chumash Native Americans and in 1827 became part of the vast Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mexican land grant given to former Santa Barbara Presidio Commandant Jose Francisco Ortega.  Its 1842 adobe house was at various times an Ortega family residence, a stagecoach stop, and at one point a sort of pub for railroad and highway workers. The Hollister family owned it until its 2001 sale to the Land Trust. I remember going there in the 1990s with my students to interview J.J. Hollister.

creekAnyway, it was a beautiful morning, raining only for short intermittent stretches, and just enough to make things sparkle. We walked from the mouth of the canyon up into the mountains, a stretch called Outlaw Trail. During the days of stagecoach robberies the area was a great hide-out, offering outlaws refuge and good long views down to the road, and hence the name. Stories abound.

But my favorite part was wandering by the creek with Cornelia. Crossing on wooden boards or stepping carefully on rocks, we talked and laughed, and I had the feeling of being ten years old and in a secret and enchanted place.

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