What We Need Is Here

img_3055The mountain lion meandered along the ridge, aware of us but unconcerned. We had seen a bobcat earlier, and the differences were clear. The lion had a larger body, a longer tail, and a different kind of gait, more leisurely and confident somehow. It blended well against the tawny hills and now and then disappeared into the brush, but once it was visible, it was unmistakable, and it was master of its domain, a magnificent being. I was glad there were four of us, and that the lion was distant and indifferent. We didn’t feel threatened, so we stood and watched until it was no longer in sight.

We hiked to a high point. To the north, we could see the contours and colors of the earth: the green and gold of grassy ground, the dark of woods, the ocher of sandstone rock, the white diatomaceous hills of Lompoc. To the west, a great expanse of sparkling sea merged seamlessly with sky, the hazy blue outlines of the Channel Islands…and Point Conception, the Western Gate. Still here, still here. And then I heard the canyon wren. How could that not mean hope?

I won’t pretend. I’m still reeling about events that are unfolding in our nation and the world.  But I see this as a time to learn and gather strength. I don’t think I can function effectively if I’m in a constant state of nausea and rage. Maybe the silver lining of this election will be that it woke us up, and we realize what wasn’t working and what’s at stake, and hopefully we can limit damage while we regroup.

I watched a clip of a Charlie Rose interview with Jon Stewart, and I thought Stewart had some calm and helpful insights on what just happened: “It all ties together…I don’t believe we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago. The same country with all its grace and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength, and resilience exists today as existed two weeks ago. The same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama. I feel badly for the people for whom this election will mean more uncertainty and insecurity. But I also feel like this fight has never been easy. And the ultimate irony of this election is the cynical strategy of the Republicans, which is: ‘Our position is that government doesn’t work. We’re going to make sure… that it doesn’t work.’”

what we need is hereI suppose we are the same country, although at the moment it doesn’t feel that way. It’s true that there is something inherently contradictory and impossible about the very idea of America, and yet here we are, capable of the best and the worst. Where do we go from here?  Lao-Tzu asked a relevant question in the 6th century BCE: “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”

That’s what I’m trying to do. Not withdrawing, but stepping back a little in order to see the big picture, ready for action when we know what is needed and how to be most effective. I’m still writing letters, making calls, signing petitions, communicating and networking, paying attention, not taking anything for granted. But I’m trying also to pace myself and not get all used up in symbolic, short-lived gestures born of outrage. There is this counsel from Thich Nhat Han disciple, Brother Phap Dung, who advised in an interview: “Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine. We go out and we help. Don’t allow hate and anger to take over your world. There are other things happening. Right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend may be somebody who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer them kindness if you are stable. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity. This is what we can offer.”

This hike was the part where we take refuge in nature, and nature does not let us down. Among our greatest resources are hope and conviction, and the wonders of earth, sea, and sky restore both. We descended the ridge and walked along a narrow road with oak trees on either side, cool shade and shafts of sunlight, brown leaves and damp earth beneath our feet. Still here.

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Thinking Loudly

img_3017I still feel like I’ve been thrust into a nightmare from which I cannot awaken, a nightmare in which a familiar landscape is suddenly changed, people you thought you knew are transformed into aliens, fundamentals you believed in with all your heart are being trampled, and what you know very well to be false is embraced as true. The list of alarming developments even in the past few days is long, but none of this should come as a surprise. Looking back I think one of the most disillusioning aspects of all of this is that throughout the whole campaign Trump was so clearly the grotesque self-parody that he is, but his appallingly evident lack of character, decency, and experience was completely irrelevant to those who voted for him. They gave him a pass on everything.

As, really, did many in the press and media, who thoroughly enjoyed the ratings he drew, held him and HRC to such different standards, and treated absolutely repulsive deeds and statements as if they were merely different points of view and worthy of equal time. We live in an age in which facts and truth don’t seem to matter, because real stories are indistinguishable from lies and propaganda, and Trump understood the way it worked. He was able to attract attention, tap into emotion, resentment, and some visceral but ill defined let’s blow it all up desire for change, and ride into power fueled by anger and illusion.

I want to be optimistic and constructive, but my own rage and frustration boil over sometimes, and there are waves of shock and revulsion. I’ve expended a great deal of time signing petitions, writing letters, reading and worrying myself sick about the direction our country is heading. Finally I am beginning to see something that my husband and others I trust have been saying all along: this is a long game, requiring patience, attention, stamina. Efforts to prevent him from taking office are futile manifestations of denial. He has “settled” the Trump University case with a relatively cheap $25 million buy-off (but oh, Hillary Clinton and her private email server, the horror) and despite the fact that he lost the popular majority and has huge financial improprieties and conflicts as he enters office, let’s face it, the Electoral College voters are not going to flip or abstain, as several petitions have requested. What we can and must do is keep his tenure short, limit the harm and contain the damage, somehow learn from this nightmare and be better henceforth.

Seneca, philosopher of Ancient Rome, wrote: “No man was ever wise by chance.” We must actively pursue wisdom and learn all we can from what has just transpired and from history before it. There’s a lot to read.  One article that appeared in the Times the other day had good advice based on Italy’s experience with Berlusconi. It’s called  “The Right Way to Resist Trump” by Luigi Zingales, a respected economist at the University of Chicago. Zingales urges us not to focus on personality. “An opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste,” he writes. “It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.”

We need to focus on actual policy and action as it begins to materialize. To quote Seneca again: “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” And the truth is, we do not yet know where this ship is headed and what we will need to do to correct its course.  Obviously we must resist fundamental wrongs, stall and sabotage when needed, and protect those most vulnerable among us, but if something is proposed that has merit, maybe cooperative effort can occur. Reflexively protesting everything isn’t helpful.

I also heard a recent interview with an historian named Thomas Ricks, in which he pointed out that every political action has a political reaction. I think we can anticipate a huge reaction from this difficult-to-digest political takeover, a pendulum swing that yields sweeping change, and that’s not necessarily bad. Things were apparently more dysfunctional than we thought. This is not the end of the story.

So I’m trying to calm down and be smart. Someone sent me a pertinent quote via Twitter by Dave Pell, Internet guru, savvy essayist, and creator of a newsletter called NextDraft: “He’s offensive. We’re offended. Let’s move on to what matters. Winning the next election.”  He also warns that every day we play a short game is a winning day for Trump.

Maybe, but these are such general statements, and I don’t always know what they mean. What will these long-game strategies look like? And even while looking ahead strategically it is essential that we remain vigilant in the present. Some people are more immediately threatened but nobody is safe if a demagogue goes unchecked. Erosion of hard-won rights and civil liberties, undoing of progress made to protect the environment, dismantling of a health care act upon which millions depend, many troubling conflicts of interest that will affect international relations…there is so much at risk.

I do see the sense of not wasting our energy, losing focus, or inadvertently feeding the monster by reacting blindly and fortifying the resolve of Trump supporters who mistakenly believe they are part of a righteous populist movement to better their lives and restore “greatness” to our nation. But what is our agenda? How do we reorganize and move forward? We have now seen indisputable evidence that our political party system is in need of radical overhaul, but what is the model? Business as usual? I don’t think so.  We seem to have misunderstood the electorate and underestimated constituent complexities even within our own party. Certainly the Democratic party needs some new leadership. (Isn’t it time for Nancy Pelosi to step aside?) Also, I hope we’ve learned that the view of elections as race horse entertainment benefits only the media outlets who profit from ratings. Despite all of our social media and the constant barrage of “news”–and maybe because of it–we have not been listening, hearing, understanding or communicating effectively.

In pursuing the wisdom and information, I’ve found I have to curate my material a little better, learn what sources I can trust, avoid Facebook, don’t obsessively read everything or listen compulsively to the news. Some articles make me cry. Others make me feel angry and riled up, but uselessly. One voice that alarms me, but which I feel should be heard, is that of Sarah Kendzior. She advocates a more immediate and proactive resistance, and although I am hoping we can create and implement effective long-term strategies, I think it’s important that we do not lose sight of the severity of the danger and the reasons for her perspective. She is an expert on the rise of authoritarian states, and even before the election, she was warning of the threat of the white supremacist movement, the insidious ways that fascism takes hold, and the very real dangers of a Trump Presidency. One of her most widely circulated articles is this one, about how to be your own light in the dark time of Trump.

I asked a friend who is knowledgable about Russia and eastern Europe for his thoughts about Kendzior’s dire warnings, and he in turn sent me this perspective from another source: “If Trump swerves that way he will be stopped by his own party as well as the courts.” He pointed out that there are great risks for those in power if they overplay their hand.  So again, the counsel is wait and see. We shouldn’t panic or over-react. He added, however, that he was going to make a large contribution to the ACLU because that organization is going to be more relevant than ever.

img_3020Meanwhile, I’m trying to stay steady and quell the nausea and dismay. Maybe we should pool our promises and ideas for getting through, and we can all draw upon these and encourage each other.  As for me, I was a teacher for many years and I will strive to live in that spirit. I am a writer too, and I will write and encourage writing, because writing helps us to heal, and to make sense of the world, and to speak to others even across time. Let us document these events as we work to shape them. I will continue to engage in real conversations with others who are living through this time and searching for the learning. I will find ways to be of service.  I will make calls and write letters, exercise our right of free speech, and hold our representatives accountable. I will step up in defense of those vulnerable to threats of deportation and openly condoned bigotry.

I will remember that many millions of us, in fact the majority, voted against Trump, and we are still here.  I will avert my gaze as Trump’s vulgarity permeates the White House, and I will boycott any publications that start talking about Melania’s fashion choices or other nonsense geared to distract, glamorize, or normalize this horror show. I will look at President Obama’s breathtaking dignity and grace as he honors the principle of peaceful transition under the most painful and bizarre of circumstances. (For a better sense of the President’s extraordinary spirit, insights, and strength of character, please read David Remnick’s piece here “Obama Reckons With A Trump Presidency”  or in the November 28 edition of The New Yorker. Obama is not going away either; I think…and hope…he will have an important role in what comes next.)  And I am certain that there are many others who will model bravery, resolve, reason, and diligence as we go forward. I will recognize the heroes in everyday life as well and try to be kinder and more compassionate than ever.

It’s not the apocalypse. But we are going to be living with a new kind of discomfort, a strange dissonance and anxiety. I’ve always been neurotic, so I suppose I have an advantage here. I never take anything for granted, and even in the happy times I’m simultaneously aware of the trouble to come. So I’m used to being uneasy, not sleeping well, forcing myself to go through the motions whether I feel like it or not, hoping the spirit kicks in. We’ll need a lot of that “put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” stuff. More zen-like friends tell me to just live my truth, bake bread, plant seeds, walk in the hills, be the light.  Some of them send me poems. I’m always grateful for poems.

I never thought I’d say this at sixty-five years of age, but I am also going to march in D.C. the day after the inauguration. It’s crazy and impractical, not to mention that I hate crowds and cold weather…but a friend invited me to join her, and we have a plan, and there’s almost an historic inevitability about it. I am viewing it not so much as a protest but as a show of solidarity, commitment, and strength. I remember how D.C. was filled with people celebrating when President Obama took office. I would love to see the streets fill up like that, but everyone will know it’s not a celebration, but a declaration that one election will not undo all the good that has been done and all that we aspire to for generations to come. Let it be known to the world–and that megalomaniac himself, the very day after his inauguration–that he does not represent or define us.

Despair beckons, but we will not succumb to it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As is hope.

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It is a profoundly painful and sickening moment. I guess I didn’t understand the country that I live in. I honestly thought we were better than this.

How do we face our children tomorrow? I expected to be feeling proud, knowing we had repudiated the hatred, reaffirmed the best in ourselves, even elected the first woman President. I realize this is the time to say something comforting and hopeful and brave, but I am too heartbroken and horrified to do so. And I hurt for those who feel even more disenfranchised and devalued than I do. This man will never represent us. This is not who we are. This cannot possibly be who we are. But as historian Bruce Bartlett said, “I now understand how the most civilized, best educated country in Europe freely elected Hitler.”

Let me get this straight. We have gone from the first African-American President to a man who is endorsed by the KKK. He is a racist, a bully, a liar, a narcissist, and a sexual predator who pays no taxes and has been involved in thousands of lawsuits. He has absolutely no experience in public service and is aggressively ignorant of the workings of government and the complex issues, both domestic and global, which will come before him…and let’s face it, he has decidedly fascist tendencies. His entire platform has been based upon insults and fear and the legitimizing of xenophobia, anger, and hatred. He believes climate change is a hoax and is likely to set back any progress we have made to avert environmental catastrophe. Among his expressed priorities are the dismantling of the Affordable Health Care Act, leaving millions uninsured, banning and deporting people on the basis of their religious beliefs, and locking up Hillary Clinton. Economists speculate that his policy proposals will unleash a global recession that will make 2008 seem easy.

Who will advise him? He is reckless, ignorant, and ill suited to the grave responsibilities of the presidency, disdainful of alliances and agreements, disturbingly belligerent and lacking in judgment. It’s terrifying to imagine him as a powerful figure on the world stage. And as he enters the White House, there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and a Republican majority in both houses. So much for checks and balances. The long reach of this demagogue will extend into the next generation.

Well, unless I am just having a very bad dream and typing in my sleep, it turns out that this is what nearly half of our nation’s voters want in a President, and enough to have won the requisite number of Electoral College votes. I cannot get my mind around it. We had an incredibly hard working and well qualified woman running, and we end up with the guy with no experience, knowledge, dignity or integrity who boasted of grabbing women by the pussy and described Mexican immigrants as rapists, to choose just two memorable quotes from a campaign in which ugliness was normalized. This has to be one of the biggest WTF moments in history. Was it sexism? Racism? Confusion between reality TV and the real world?

Maybe in a little while we can regroup, be the loyal opposition. Chin up and all that stuff. We need to remain vigilant, stay involved, maintain our ideals, never give up. But right now I just want to cry. I’m stunned and sad and so terribly disillusioned. I know I am not alone in this. I am sending love to all my fellow Americans who pictured an America so different from this one we’re about to wake up to. Let’s hold each other and make our way through the dark.

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Time Change

img_2546Yesterday was the end of Daylight Savings time, reminding us that the names we bestow upon the hours are arbitrary, but it does seem to mark a shift. Darkness is gathering a little too soon, and in the gloaming I see the dun-colored grass, the gray road curving, the orchard filling with shadow.

We are on the eve of an election more disturbing and dispiriting than any in recent memory. There’s no need to rehash it all here. I have heard it described as a circus, but to do so seems to make light of its fundamental sadness and the problems that will follow, no matter what the outcome. At the moment I tend to believe (with cautious optimism, not certainty) that Hillary will win the election, but I’m worried about the Senate and the prospect of gridlock and spite if the Democrats don’t win more seats. I’m also concerned about the potentially violent responses of the lunatics. And I’m so angry at James Comey, who put so much at risk with his last-minute nonsense, and the antics of the FBI. But mostly I’m still stunned and disappointed that millions of voters in this country bought into this whole Trump con, that they are that gullible and that filled with hate and anger. It feels like a scorched earth message, a giant fuck you. I am disillusioned in a way I never was. I can’t shake it.

Then again, maybe all that has happened is that the decay that already existed has been rendered more visible, and just as with the foundations of a house, we need to shed light on the rot in order to repair and rebuild. And maybe, as has been said, we are witnessing the last reactionary gasp of an old order, a predominantly white male one with racist and misogynistic overtones, and maybe it’s a desperate gasp because their dominance has truly ended. Maybe this election is a test, and we will reaffirm the best in ourselves. We need to grow into our diversity and interconnectedness, address change in enlightened ways rather than deny and resist it, create solutions together. I wonder if civility can return to public discourse. I wonder if we can ever be nice to each other again. So much damage has been done.

In the meantime, I’ve been sick for a few days and perhaps that exacerbates my sensitivities, but even here in my own little neighborhood, I am experiencing a sense of alienation. (It certainly isn’t helping that my sound track has been Leonard Cohen. At this very moment I am hearing: I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game...from his new album, You Want It Darker.) But the demographics of this ranch are indeed shifting, the culture is changing from within and without, and I am trying to constructively contribute and pass on what I know while gracefully accepting that I am old-fashioned and irrelevant. It’s a lot of work, being here, and in exchange there is the wonder of it all, but I can tell that there’s a tipping point. It might be different if my daughter didn’t live so far away, but lately I see that as much as I love it here, this will not be a great place to get old. A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation on the subject of community and stories, and I am only now beginning to realize that it was part one of a farewell song. And maybe partly fantasy.

Well, more to come. Time changes. Cultures change. Moods change. Seasons of life change too. Let’s see how things shake out on Tuesday. And then let’s see what is constant that we can count on, and what we can be.

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postcard-chicago-wrigley-building-new-michigan-ave-bridge-aerial-1923It feels so odd to say it now, but I once lived in Chicago. I moved there in 1971 to be with the medical student who was my first husband, and although I left repeatedly, it was something of a home base for about three or four years. Most of my memories of Chicago are filtered through the lens of my own troubled soul, but even so, I have a residual fondness for that boisterous, busy and definitively Midwestern city.

The view above is from a 1923 postcard, which obviously pre-dates me, but it’s familiar nonetheless. I worked in what was then a spanking new skyscraper, all glass and chrome, at Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, right along the river. When I stepped outside, I saw that very bridge and the white Wrigley Building, lit up in the evening like a place of enchantment a world apart from the mundane bustle of office life. I could see the Tribune building also, and the colored lights of passing traffic, and I always paused to take it all in before hurrying to the el to catch my train, braced against the chilly winds.

111-wackerAbove you see the scene from a different angle (that’s the Wrigley Building to the left), and as it is today. More precisely, as it was yesterday, which is when my brother took the picture. He happens to be in Chicago on business, and he took a few shots for me of places I might remember. He was about four years old when I moved to Chicago, but I carried thoughts of him with me always, and I still have a few of the notes and drawings he sent. I was terribly homesick, far too immature to be anybody’s wife, and worked downtown as a receptionist and Girl Friday. (Girl Friday…it used to be a thing.)  My pay was $425 a month, which I did not consider unreasonable, but it all felt pretty empty to me.

There was refuge in the Art Institute.  I walked there on lunch breaks and warmed myself in the 19th century sunlight of the Renoirs. I stood in front of a painting whose color plate in the “Paintings” section of the encyclopedia I had loved as a child. It was A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. I had never realized it was so big in real life, and composed so meticulously of little dabs and dots, and could somehow make me feel as though time had stopped in a calm and carefree moment. Despite its color and brightness it seemed that everything within was waiting and still, frozen…something mysterious and compelling about it, something pending.  And this was a welcome elsewhere.

I liked walks to the Loop too, with my buddy Rosie, who said I strode like a farmer, and she meant it as a compliment, or with my newly discovered best friend Cydnie, who shared the sense that the two of us had been rudely detoured from the lives we were meant to live. But there was a magnificent domed interior in the public library building, parks to cut across, and busy streets lined with tall impressive buildings where important things must be happening. We might peek into Marshall Field’s, the grand old dame of department stores, and admire the handsome clock that adorned its building at the corner of State and Washington. I remember a travel agency with glossy brochures about places I was certain I’d never see. I remember the rumble of the trains, and stores that smelled of candy.

And now my brother, all grown up, was in a hotel room in Chicago, and I, practically an old lady, haven’t been there in years, but it was fun to chat with him, knowing he was there. I was touched that he had asked about my old haunts and sent me pictures.

Naturally he had the the World Series on the television. And I don’t really pay much attention to sports, but I was sort of rooting for the Cubs, mostly out of Chicago nostalgia and sympathy for that 108-year drought, and also because I thought it would be fun for my brother to be there in the city if they won. So it turned out to be quite an exciting game, and a wonderful respite from…you know what.

But my brother also told me a poignant little story about our father that I’d never heard. Apparently, on the last night of his life, our father, not usually a baseball fan, was watching the 1978 World Series…the New York Yankees were playing the L.A. Dodgers. He called my brother, then eleven years old, into the living room to watch with him. It was a school night, and normally, my brother would have been in bed, but he came and sat with our dad for a while, and they watched a few innings together. I don’t even know who won. (I guess I can check that pretty easily.) Who could have imagined that this would be our father’s final night?

Oh, when my brother told me this, I felt again the old familiar ache and yearning that never seem to fade. But fact is fact, and nothing had changed with this new information. And as I assimilated the story, I saw that it only highlights the consistency of my father’s loving nature, and his capacity for exuberance even when he surely wasn’t feeling very well. Isn’t it better to know that he enjoyed a brief escape into baseball on that fateful night, and a moment shared with his son?

It was nice to be revisiting Chicago with my little brother on this night and watching the World Series across the miles with him. And now the rain came, and the game was delayed and then continued, and finally….the Cubs had won.

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poolMorning has surprised me. I looked up from my coffee cup and there it was, waiting patiently outside, a soft gray light beyond a translucent curtain of coastal fog. My list is long today; there are so many things I intend to do, none of which is significant taken by itself, but this is the very first. Write.

And so I am writing, not at all sure that I have something to say, but certain that if I don’t, I will lose even those flimsy thoughts that might be passing through. Already, weeks have gone by wordlessly with nothing documented or adequately pondered. Writing doesn’t always yield answers, but it helps me to see, and sometimes with seeing there comes a kind of truce. Writing is also giving, even if there is no one to receive it, and a declaration of existence, perhaps rendered more crucial by virtue of the ephemeral nature of that existence. And I can’t explain it, but when I am not writing at all, I don’t feel healthy. So let’s get back to blogging, at least.

I went to the Sierras last week for a few days with three friends, four women in a mountain cabin in a very odd moment in time, and it was good. The days were bright blue and gold, with snow on the peaks, and the temperatures just cool enough for jackets. We walked. And we talked a lot, as women friends do. We even watched the so-called Final Debate, although part of our plan had been to get away from all that, and I must say that it was fun to experience it together. We set up two iPads in front of the fireplace for multi-screen viewing, and kept a stack of therapeutic chocolate bars at hand, sharing the outrage and satisfactions and celebrating our Nasty Women camaraderie.

I will forever be grateful for women friends. And mountains. We’re all four retired, gratefully so, but still in search of meaning and purpose, wanting to help and create and relate. It brings to mind this poem by Wendell Barry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Now we stood before actual streams that sparkled and purled, and a pool of water bubbling from below, and we wandered and reflected. Oh, we were aware that many people in far-flung elsewheres were enduring incomprehensible misery occurring simultaneously with our mountain walks. The here-peaceful present and indeed all moments are composed of infinite and dissonant nows. We cannot contain them all. One of the women has been knitting hats for refugee children, and there was a little pile of color on the table. It’s a tangible thing, a pattern of kindness, healing for her and hopefully helpful to others. My own contributions to the world are vague these days. I try, but I’ve gotten snagged.

Meanwhile, I’m still a bit obsessed with mortality, as if it were a new discovery. I guess it has been stirred up by the surprisingly substantial number that is my age, but it’s also an after-effect of my mother’s death, which forced me to see a long life in its entirety, with all its pain and disappointments, and opened the wounds of old losses too. One day while walking, these words about my mother came into my head: All her wants went wanting/in their wake, an ache/unsung her songs/un-righted her wrongs…

At that point I had to stop for a moment. My heart hurt too much.

When I came back home from the mountains, I had a dream that I was standing on a grassy hilltop with my mother and one of my girlfriends, our silhouettes framed against a wide white sky. My mother looked more as she did in her seventies, long gray hair, upright yet surprisingly tiny and tentative, pleased to see me. I took her hand, introduced her to my friend, and the three of us held hands, forming a circle. My mother had never been to or seen such a place as this wild, windy hilltop, and she was surprised and proud, maybe even delighted, to be there with me. I was vaguely aware of some worry pressing on me, that old familiar instruction to hurry, but we stood for a moment holding hands in that circle, and she said to me, “I love you” and I said “I love you” and I felt at peace, at least with her. And I was so happy to see her in the great outdoors, the kind of experience she never knew. I wish her life had been bigger, and happier. I guess I wish that for all my lost loved ones.

I’m still working on The Living Stories Collective, and last Saturday I gave a presentation at a community gathering, and it seemed to resonate. We all need stories, and we need to ask questions and listen to one another. There’s a pool of wisdom available to us if we tap into it, and it’s possible to feel a little less alone.

I’m now in the process of transcribing my latest interview, with John Hollister Wheelwright, who is the last living person who actually resided for a time in the old ranch house here, and he and I walked through the rooms together. He is now in his eighties, and he lived there with his grandparents when he was a boy. He remembered it as a quiet time, but he still recalls hearing the murmur of his grandparents’ late night conversations, and his grandfather’s cathedral-shaped radio issuing forth FDR’s announcement after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Grandmother playing Bach’s Prelude Number 1 on the piano, still his favorite melody.

At the age of twelve or thirteen, he took to climbing down from his bedroom window after his grandparents went to bed. The ranch was wildness then, with virtually no one around.

“But what was there to do?” I asked. “Where did you go?”

“Oh, I was off to the races, having a fine time for myself,” he said. “I’d go down to the orchard and eat some fruit. I’d walk down to the beach, or wander around the canyon.”

It seemed poignant to me; I wanted there to be more than that. “Did you have a sense of wonder about the night?” I asked, in my wide-eyed way.

“Children don’t specifically have a sense of wonder,” he replied. “They accept as normal what they see, and they hope that what they see as normal remains.”

I suppose it’s true. And then we grow up and begin to see that normality is change.

But once in a while, wonder takes hold of us.

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with-carol-besseyThere we are in 1959, or thereabouts. From left to right, that’s me, Carol’s cousin (long since deceased) and Carol. I had never seen this photo until she sent a print of it to me just a few years ago, tucked into a letter…and I have absolutely no memory of the day. Carol tells me it was taken at her house, and we were going to a birthday party, which would explain our fancy garb. (I’m crazy about my skirt…looks like I was feeling very festive.)

Carol was my first friend, the child who taught me that there were kids (other than siblings) with whom you could play. We both lived on Coney Island Avenue, both went to P.S. 179, both went to St. Mark’s (she recruited me) and we were inseparable. We played with dolls, made up stories, got into our share of mischief. People often ask me: how did you get back in touch with your childhood friend? My answer is that we never entirely lost touch. I moved away when I was about twelve, but we have been exchanging Christmas cards, birthday cards, and little notes every year since…and that’s a lot of years!

I have seen a succession of pictures like stepping stones of Carol’s son from kindergarten through all the grades, right up to his wedding day. Lately there are occasional pictures of her two grandchildren.  Carol doesn’t do email, Facebook, or “any of that”– she’s oddly old-fashioned and skeptical of such things – all her correspondence, fifty years’ worth, involves paper, pen, and the U.S. Postal Service.

Carol has been through a divorce or two, followed by a long and loving relationship that ended with her partner’s death about a decade ago.  Recently she’s taken up with a fellow named Pete who has a motorcycle repair shop near the office where she has worked as a secretary for thirty-four years, located on the main street of a small town in upstate New York. Carol is stable and consistent; she knows who she is and where she stands.

And I was going to be in the area, more or less. How could I not want to see my first friend? We estimated our arrival time and found the address easily, a simple brick building with a green awning near a hair salon and a banquet hall. We pulled open the street level door.

There she was, so fundamentally familiar to me. I saw the same prettiness I remembered, the same blue smiling eyes.  She talked to me in a casual way, as if we’d seen each other just the week before.

But our journeys have been so different. Carol stayed in Brooklyn through the 1970s and doesn’t view it, as I do, through a lens of sentiment and nostalgia. It got rough for a while. She talked about crime, danger, racial violence in school. She was happy to move upstate. Now, though, she admitted that this town too had seen better days. It looked shabby, shops closed up, houses in disrepair, poverty around the edges. “It’s drugs,” was her assessment.

It felt like the early 1980s in her office, with an IBM typewriter, old computer monitors like big beige boxes, and stacks of yellowish file folders. She’s brisk and efficient, at ease in the realm. Someone hurries in and drops off the papers for a closing that’s scheduled at two. She takes a quick phone call and jots down a message for her boss. Carol works hard, and she’s a good person. I could see that. People count on her.
img_1859-1“So you really live on a ranch?” she asked. We sat in the coffee shop across the street from her office eating sandwiches cut into triangles and served on paper plates alongside a little pile of potato chips. “With cattle and horses? You’ve gone away about as far as you can go from where we grew up.”

It’s true. In many ways I have. And I suspect that there isn’t much in my life these days that Carol would relate to.  Most of our conversation had to do with childhood escapades, and even some of these could not be confirmed. I seem to have a penchant for colorful detail and elaborate narrative. I began to wonder how much of my past I have invented.

“She was always like this,” said Carol affectionately, turning to Monte.

Outside, a tattered flag drooped from a storefront and a trash can lay on its side by the curb. A school bus dropped off three children whose mother escorted them back across the street, then resumed idly sitting with a companion on the porch of her house. There was a Trump sign on someone’s front yard, mute testimony to the toxic anger that has infected millions. My first friend lives in this town, but I don’t know what she thinks about all that. I’m not even sure I want to.

We have just enough time to go over to the motorcycle shop and meet Pete, a thin shy man with a gray beard who looks at Carol proudly. I’m so glad I made this trip to visit her. But even as we hug goodbye, I realize how unlikely it is that I will see her in person again.

The cards will continue. The memories will endure.

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feathersWhen I removed the slipcover from our couch cushion yesterday a cloud of feathers burst into the air through a rip in the fabric, and there I stood, bewildered, in the midst of an absurd little living room blizzard. Meanwhile, feather clouds filled the sky, and feathers seemed to set the tone of the day. Feathers, mind you, not purposeful wings, just scattered messy feathers, like a pillow fight gone awry or the remnants of a backcountry battle in the night.

This day is the sad anniversary of my father’s sudden death, thirty-eight years ago. I was very young, still standing on the edge of my feather, as the old Buffalo Springfield song goes, expecting to fly, but such is the abrupt end of youth. Today is also Yom Kippur, a contemplative time, the holiest of the Jewish holidays. My mother, the puzzle of whom I shall be pondering for the rest of my life, fasted and kept the spirit of it each year well into her final stretch. I feel a sense of it now, truly sorry for my wrongs, hoping to learn and do better, knowing it may be too late, heavy-hearted. And the worries of the weary world continue, wherever we turn, rendered ever more visible to us all.

Every evening this happens, an arch and promise
renewed. Nobody has to notice: a breath
crosses the lawn, or outside the window
a spirit roams, as mysterious as any wanderer
ever was. And it is only the night wind.
(William Stafford)

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New York Glimpses


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Patterns, Color, Light


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