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


ha herringboneirongate1900buildingfacade


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Brooklyn Again

14424844_10155222474654018_7688390004370725552_oThere were glimmers from my childhood days as we walked the New York streets, but I often felt like a visitor from another dimension. We were staying in an apartment at the edge of the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, and I retraced the once-familiar routes in search of landmarks and memories. The stores on Flatbush Avenue had long ago transmuted into different kinds of businesses. Where was the old Woolworth’s with the photo booth and lunch counter and aisles of worldly goods? Where were the sidewalks inexplicably flecked with sparkles, and Garfield’s Cafeteria, and the little grocery shop with sawdust on the floor? Where was the drug store with its show globe glass apothecary jars in the window, filled with colored liquids, and the squares of blue mirrors by the door? “I want to find the blue mirrors,” I told Monte, who looked at me bewildered. Children notice and remember so many odd details. The old Dutch Reformed church, built in the 1700s, was a reassuring presence, its graveyard a silent island of history in stark contrast to the bustle of the street.

New immigrant groups have long ago displaced the ones I knew, and the area is known for its cultural diversity, with Caribbean, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Central American, West Indian, Jewish, and Asian residents, among others. There were Muslim women wearing head scarves, Orthodox Jews with black hats, beards, and buttoned white shirts, and young people in urban street wear. Everyone coexisted. Music emanated from doorways and passing cars: rhythm and blues, rap, a snippet of song sounding vaguely West African. It was quite a contrast to my usual soundtrack of cows and coyotes.

I have truly become a country girl, and while navigating the streets and riding the subways, I often felt daunted by the sheer numbers of people, the messy abundance of things and trash, the overwhelming needs and complexities of the world. At other times, I mostly felt inspired and humbled by the way people cope in their daily lives, tolerating one another in such close proximity. Therein, perhaps, lies hope.

img_1542At times my wanderings were bittersweet, in particular evoking memories of my dear departed siblings, Eddie and Marlene. Prospect Park was our backyard, the Brooklyn Museum a fascinating oasis of wonders to explore, Coney Island Avenue a setting for games and pretending until at dusk mothers shouted their children’s names from windows. The Victorian houses on the tree-lined side streets of Flatbush, now called Ditmas Park, were as lovely as I remembered them in the days when my mother would wistfully point out the ones that she might choose if ever given the chance to move to someplace nicer. Eventually my family moved from the city to Long Island for a more modest version of that same basic dream: a private house, a backyard. For my mother, a city person who never drove in her life, it was an isolating and disappointing move, and it took her a long time to adjust. But I was barely twelve. I wonder why I remember so many details about Brooklyn with such poignant specificity. I guess it has to do with where one’s earliest years were spent. My daughter has a theory that it’s like dog years…each of the first ten years of our lives carries the emotional weight of seven. I think there’s some truth to it.

img_1565We stopped at my old address and there was Scottie, a constant in a place that’s always changing. Now 85 years old, he has owned and lived in the building for about forty years. I’ve met him several times before, and he always remembers me, and we stand and talk in front of his shop about things we remember and changes he’s seen. Maybe some people would find it far-fetched, but I think Scottie understands the link we share by virtue of having lived at the same address, though decades apart. He knows that we are both part of the story of this neighborhood, which is a story of this city, and of this nation. This particular conversation was unusually honest and troubling, about his experiences as a black man in this country, the loss he perceives of community and caring about each other and understanding history…and the disaster that is Donald Trump.

Ah yes, this election is in the air, and I can’t entirely remove this journey from the context of that. Scottie and I seemed to have similar feelings of revulsion and dismay about the Trump candidacy. “How can people not see him for what he is?” he asked. “If he’s elected, it’s all over.”(Let’s pray that day never comes…and while we’re on the subject, this commentary in The Atlantic is a must-read.) Anyway, we chatted some more as traffic passed along the wide street and an occasional pedestrian walked by on the sidewalk that had long ago been my home stretch.  At one point, he got a little emotional. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s more than just anger. It hurts.” I told him how much I respected him. And may the best in us prevail.

The lovely Methodist church was locked and in disrepair…broken window, chipped paint, even the steeple looked rusted. (I’ve written previously about my friend Carol, with whom I used to go to this church, and I’ll tell you later about what it was like to see her again after 50 years, as I did on this visit!) But a few blocks further was Holy Innocents, the Catholic church where a couple of my siblings and I were belatedly baptized, and where a nun once stopped me at the door as I tried to escape mass early with Eddie, handed me a strand of rosary beads, and sent me back inside. (I still have those rosary beads.) Some kind of event was wrapping up, and people were dressed up in old-fashioned Sunday clothes: suits and dresses, and even hats. One lovely lady with a Caribbean accent noticed us peeking in, ushered us around the back, and urged us to take a seat in the  sanctuary, telling us to pray, take our time…and “May God bless you.”  We could hear an unseen choir rehearsing a hymn in another part of the church, and it was very haunting and beautiful. It wasn’t a hymn I recognized, but some of the lyrics seemed directed at me: “What are you looking for?” and “Open your heart and you will see”….

I sat there for a long time.

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On Labor Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brief Companionship

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bread Bakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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In Pursuit of Perseids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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