Playing Records in the Basement

12248141_10204205105441592_1607536067048109916_oThe Righteous Brothers had lost that loving feeling, the Beatles needed somebody (not just anybody), and the Rolling Stones could get no satisfaction. Such emotions were still abstract to me, but it was 1965, and we were playing records in the basement of Bobby Flanagan’s house, and the boys were funny and sometimes we danced. The world was new.

I am the girl in the lower left with the impossibly lustrous and managed hair, wearing my favorite wool jumper with the brown and black checks.  Everyone looks dressed up; I can almost smell the shampoo and shoe polish. It must have been a Sunday. Rosemary and I often used church as our excuse to get out of our own turbulent homes, not because we were religious, but because we knew we’d see the Lowell Avenue boys there, and afterwards, we would go over to the house on Locust Street to listen to music and goof around. It was innocent and appropriate, but my father was suspicious, and my forays into normal teen-age social life were accompanied by anxiety, conflict, and guilt.

This picture re-emerged via Facebook. Bobby Flanagan’s brother seems to have inherited a trove of these vintage snapshots of family and friends, and he sent it to me out of the blue. I was surprised at how familiar those wood paneled walls looked all these decades later, right down to the arrangement of whimsical family portrait plates, and how easily I could imagine the pop and fizz of the cola Dave is opening and the silly surface banter and laughter beneath which deep rivers of yearning and hormones were beginning to surge. We inhabited the beautiful exteriors of the young, blissfully unaware that those facades were ephemeral. Our problems, though pressing, were relatively simple, and there seemed to be no limit on the time we’d be granted to figure things out. Not enough loss had yet accrued to shake our faith or hint at our mortality.

I was contacted recently by another Facebook friend from Central Islip High School, Kathleen. It turns out she lives in San Luis Obispo, practically neighbors, and she and her husband have retired, and we decided to meet for lunch at a halfway point. I remembered her vaguely as a small, slender girl who was a majorette or cheerleader, one of those school spirit things, and a pleasant person, the kind who might have smiled and said hello to you in the hallway, which wasn’t the norm. I worried of course that we’d have nothing at all to say to each other, and that our lives had so diverged we couldn’t possibly relate, but as it turned out, these folks were actually…well…nice.  Nice is a weak word, I know that, but nice is about the best you dare hope for when setting out to have lunch with someone you haven’t seen since 1968 and barely knew even then.

More than nice, there was a certain generational camaraderie. We were shaped by the same forces: Vietnam, for one (and yes, my friend’s husband remembered his lottery number) and assassinations and political turmoil and crazy 1960s hopefulness and inevitable disappointments. Somehow it distills into nostalgia, and we’re old farts reminiscing. It’s that youth thing again. We were so very young then, and we are so very not-young now, and wow…here we are. Naturally, Kathleen and I talked about classmates: memories from school days, marriages and moves, the sad inventory of the ones no longer living.

And it turns out we had each gone on one date with a certain boy named Stanley. All I remember about my date with Stanley is going to a carnival, one tentative and uninspired kiss behind the ferris wheel, and being very bored. Apparently it was mutual, because Joyce, his former steady girlfriend, called me up the next day to report that he’d had a “really shitty” time with me, and they were back together now, and even though I didn’t care, that stung a bit.  I ate a dish of vanilla ice cream, read a book in my pajamas, and recovered pretty quickly.

“Oh, he was so cute in those days,” said Kathleen. “But I saw him years later, at one of the reunions, and he didn’t look so good. No, he hadn’t aged well at all.” We indulged in a belated giggle at Stanley’s expense.

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Windy Days

DSC_0043As we drove out of the ranch to go into town the other day, we noticed a man with wind-tousled white hair standing on the bluff facing the sea and playing a shiny brass trumpet. He wore a pullover sweater…for some reason I imagined it was cashmere…and had driven there in a little red Mercedes that was parked nearby.  Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What did it mean? Elegy? Celebration? Loneliness? Defiance? An expression of wonder? A simple impulse to pull over and play a trumpet? It’s another one of those questions that must remain unanswered, but the glimpse was its own little gift.

DSC_0019The springtime winds have been roaring for days, a constant combing of the grass that even now is rippling, with occasional bursts that bang against obstacles and snap brittle branches from trees. From where I sit I can see clouds sailing by with impressive momentum, a pair of hawks coasting in currents of air, shrubs and flowers quivering. Everything is bright and noisy and in motion.

Meanwhile a solitary bull has been wandering around in the tall grasses nearby, befuddled and irritated, calling out for his missing companions and vocalizing his general complaints. He’s as massive as a wall but pitiable somehow, and chronically out of sorts.

I listened to an “On Being” podcast interview with poet-philosopher David Whyte this week while walking through the windy canyon, and many things he talked about were of interest to me. For example, he said that when he was in deeply attentive states as a biologist working in the Galapagos observing animals, birds, and landscapes, he began to realize that his identity depended not upon any inherited or manufactured beliefs he held, but rather on how much attention he was paying to things that were other than himself.

“As you deepen this intentionality and this attention,” he said, “you start to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence, and I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. That whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m pretty guilty of “abstracting” myself out of my body and out of my direct experience of the world, constantly attempting to interpret and resolve, which is a form of disconnection from life as it happens. But how does one arrive at that place where what you think is you and what you think is not you meets and melds? How does one inhabit that in-between space?

I guess we start by looking out and noticing. Monte and I went to a carwash-gas station in Goleta as part of our trip to town, and while my compulsive husband vacuumed the interior of my car– “This is because you EAT in the car!!!”–I observed that even there in that ugly zone of machinery, concrete, dumpsters and freeways, a row of trees had been planted along a fence, and they were thriving. The leaves on those trees were glossy green and dancing, and there were scraggly yellow blossoms, and a bee was buzzing around the blossoms, and there was so much movement and life right there.  

And somebody was standing on a bluff playing a trumpet. Maybe that is all we need to know.

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Status Report

IMG_6604One day when I thought I was more or less fine, a feeling of sadness came over me, a sadness so big it might swallow me up, and an unabiding loneliness. The sadness was familiar, but the loneliness was odd, because I am a person who in fact is seldom alone. But it was more of an ancient familial loneliness, an awareness of having outlived others in my family of origin whose unique place in the world and in my heart I did not always fully appreciate.  And it was an historical loneliness, the knowledge of having jumped off one trajectory and gone against the grain to get myself to a different kind of life, and maybe that was selfish, and my guilt is the price, along with the gone-ness of people I wish I had helped more and with whom I now yearned to talk and laugh sometimes, the way people do in this segment of life when the events that are over are far more numerous than the ones that are pending, and it would be so nice to reflect upon it all with a few who started out with you. But it was finally an existential loneliness too, the simple awareness of being on a little boat solo, as indeed each of us is.

The scenery is great. I cannot remember a more gorgeous and flamboyant springtime than this one still happening around us. As Rilke said, “Everything is blooming most recklessly.” There are poppies and lupines in places that are usually bare, mariposa, filigree, and shocks of bright pink phlox. The wind is rippling the tall grass, and plump white clouds are sailing above, casting beautiful shadows on the hills. “If it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of night,” Rilke wrote, and in the heart of night, I feel the shrieking as a shuddering, a mounting sense of panic, a free fall. Maybe we’re all just veering out of control.

No wonder I can’t sleep. Starlight strikes the rooftop, wind whistles through trees, coyotes howl as a train rumbles through, and somehow I am the recipient of this unlikely gift of existence, whether or not I make sense of it.  A friend of mine recommended a book by Pema Chodron called The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. He warned me that it is a difficult book…troubling, I think, is the word he used, which in itself scared me, but I bought the book and am resolved to go through it. “We gradually discover that we are big enough to hold something that is neither lie nor truth, neither pure nor impure, neither bad nor good,” she writes. “But first we have to appreciate the richness of the groundless state and hang in there.”

I’m groundless and dangling, that’s for sure, and maybe feeling scared and sad and small and lonesome is a stage along the way to enlightenment. Einstein-with-the-fine-mind said this: “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

I do indeed wonder and stand in rapt awe, while my very dull faculties comprehend little. But I recently came upon another quote, from a 12th century poet and monk named Saigyo, that I found reassuring: “A soul that is not confused is not a soul.”  And I suppose that puts me squarely into soul-dom.

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The Return of the Bike Girls

bikegirlsThirty or so years ago, still new to California, I fell in with a group of friends who rode bicycles. They did other things as well, of course, but riding bikes was the theme of our time together. We met regularly to ride in our neighborhood and local hills, and we brought our bikes to other places further away where we camped and explored and rode some more.  Even when some of us had little kids, pedaling was a part of it, often with a child in a trailer attached. Mountain biking in those days was still a sort of secret, and we were strong and exuberant and always game. Dirt roads beckoned and there was an ever-present wildness at the outskirts of things. We had no idea how quickly these years would be over, distilled into memories and kodakchrome slides.

Time indeed sped forward, bringing changes and challenges, and suddenly we were not so ridiculously young, fit, and care-free. Getting together involved distance and complexities, with practicalities to consider and problems to overcome. There were long gaps between contact, and everyone was busy. But we bore witness to some milestone events in one another’s lives along the way, and we helped each other through some hard times, and the bicycle friendships endured.

12813989_10154626711509692_5642023723111814524_nAnd last week, The Bike Girls –Teresa, Donna, and Chris– visited for a reunion. The ranch rolled out its most extravagant springtime garb: blue sky and green grass and glorious bursts of wildflowers. We went for a ride despite rambunctious wind that howled in our ears, pushing against us, shoving us forward, now and then nearly tipping us over.  My friends were frisky, and I knew I was the weak link, but Donna said there are no weak links, and one of the rules was not to say such things.

Yes, there were rules, but the first rule was that there are no rules, so don’t expect this to make any sense. Another rule was that whatever the day brought, we’d deal with it. And the overall feeling was one of celebration and gratitude because here we were, after all, together in this beautiful place.

There was cake involved, of course, and good conversation that usually culminated in laughter, and a champagne toast in the wind. On the last night we had a slide show as a grand finale, and there on the wall were the images of our younger selves and those of dear friends we still care about, and little children who are now all grown up and immersed in lives of their own, and places that are no longer. But it was such a good feeling to be viewing the slides together, our heads brimming with shared history, our hearts filled with love, our trusty bikes outside glinting in the moonlight.

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The Immensity

DSC04888I have often felt there is a lack of ceremony in my life, that rites of passage to mark transitions are missing. Difficult events exert their crushing weight without the emotional release some kind of ritual might have provided, and the procession of years moves forward without pause or punctuation. I was therefore especially intrigued when a friend invited me to go with him for a hike that would mark his symbolic entry into elder-hood. We would be accompanied by three other companions, one of them a wise and gentle Chumash elder who would serve as our guide.  But whether it involved a ceremony or not, an opportunity to walk in the backcountry with people who know where they are going sounded wonderful to me, and yes is what I said.

It was a long drive and we started out early, winding along mountain roads to a campground at the edge of a wilderness area where we met our Chumash guide. We walked along a gently rising trail through oak woodland, stands of pine and fir trees, and fragrant chaparral. Along the way were thickets of vibrant green grass and bursts of colorful wildflowers, and we soon descended into a sandy creek bed, which we followed for some time. The wonders of the wilderness unfolded before us, and every now and then our guide would stop to call our attention to a shift of environment and a different and palpable energy field, instructing us to acknowledge it and to enter with a spirit of attentiveness and gratitude.

DSC04906Occasionally he paused to adjust the leg brace he was wearing to support his dodgy knee, but these too were teachable moments. “Getting older slows us down,” he said, “but when we slow down, we notice things. That’s one of the gifts of being an elder…we are allowed to slow down and notice. And when we notice, we acknowledge the spirits. We say thank you. We approach with the right attitude: humble, appreciative, and mindful.”

He further explained that it is our responsibility as elders to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be. We must be good examples to others, and we must pass along what we have learned. One of the perks, apparently, is that elders have the right to scold. But scolding is not just venting and expressing disapproval; it is a means of correcting and teaching. We should make it count.

Also, “cherished ancestral wounds” do not justify bad behavior. That’s the phrase he used, and I like it, because I think we all have wounds we sort of cherish rather than heal, and we masochistically dwell on them when we should be moving on. Forgiveness is the remedy, including forgiveness of self, although this certainly isn’t easy to implement.

It happened to be Good Friday, which someone mentioned in passing. “It sure is a good Friday,” said our guide. He had some thoughts about the Catholic church, too: “There’s an emphasis on the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ, but not enough on the life of Christ, on really what it means to live a life of genuine kindness, forgiveness, and love.” And here we were, surrounded by beauty in the church of the outdoors, and this was our sermon for the day. Forgiveness again. And love.

“Everyone needs to feel that they have a purpose,” he added. “And everyone does have a purpose, but they don’t always see it. One of the best things we can do for someone is to help them find their purpose.” He told us a story (one of many stories he shared along the way) about how he had helped bring peace of mind to a hardcore criminal regretfully nearing the end of his days by showing the man that his life had not been wasted, that in fact he had provided the crucial service of being a bad example to others.

DSC04917“Everything in the universe has its purpose,” he continued. “Every insect, every pebble, every snowflake…and each is part of the greater whole. All things are connected. We belong t0 this vast and wondrous universe, and it belongs to us.”

“We must recognize the immensity of our being,” he said.  The immensity of it. (It’s a concept I am still pondering.)

He spoke too of his belief that we are at a hopeful moment in time, a hugely transformative moment. Opportunities exist that we could not have imagined. Changes are even now happening, good ones. And why not? I allowed his lofty optimism to displace my usual anxiety for the time being.

We walked further. We stopped at a bush of white sage, touched its leaves, smelled its aroma on our fingertips, said thank you, and continued. Sometimes there were fragments of conversation in the air, sometimes just the sound of our steps on good ground.

I heard a canyon wren. We saw a hummingbird darting about the flowers, a dragonfly hovering near, butterflies and red-tail hawks, the distinctive paw prints of a mountain lion, and bees setting their example of cooperative industry for the common good, just by bee-ing.

At a few special points our guide gathered us together. “This is a portal,” he said. “Can you sense it?” And indeed we did, for the world at these junctures subtly transformed itself, humming and vibrating at a deeper level, shining more brightly, revealing itself in spellbinding clarity and detail.

Eventually we saw a distinctive rock formation looming on the horizon ahead.  “What you are seeing,” said our guide, “is a space ship to another dimension.” Those with the right attitude and perspective are welcome to board, he explained.

We approached.  Our guide cautioned us that the rock has absorbed the sorrow of many ancestors, and sometimes it is painful to touch. He said he had seen a visitor unexpectedly break into sobs.

We each spoke silently to the rock, touched it, and felt its ancient heat. At first I felt sad, which is still my default state, although  I couldn’t tell if the sadness was personally mine or some residue of humanity’s collective heartache. I didn’t know what to say except how deeply sorry I am, and I meant it with all my heart, and how I wished there could be release from the suffering and a beautiful outcome, even if I can’t see it.  I also expressed my thanks, of course, and my hope that I might be worthy and wise in this latter section my life, finding and being light.

But then a kind of giddiness crept in, beginning with an overwhelming sense of gratitude about being there. It felt deliciously implausible, as indeed my whole life is, but all of that delicious implausibility seemed to crystallize in the moment. It was absurd and timeless and wonderful. A good time for not-thinking.

I was content to go no further. I am not one of those agile, sure-footed people who climb rocks and ascend to great heights. I told my friends that I would happily wait below while they went up to the top of the rock formation. There followed a bit of gentle coercion, peer pressure, and physical force, in equal parts.  One companion tied a rope around my waist and another pulled me up the rock’s steep surface.

There was a beautiful pool at the top, and pale grass, and more rock sculpture forming a sort of bowl within which we sat and felt the earth’s embrace. We took off our shoes and socks and stood in the water, and there was talk about what it means to be an elder, and about navigating life, and how good it felt to be right where we were.  Our guide sang a song to us, a kind of chant that reverberated against the rocks.  We ate whatever snacks each of us had carried, took some pictures, felt the wind and the sun.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I never set the rope down and I never entirely forgot that I would have to get back down, and getting down turned out to be even more terrifying than getting up. I wanted to face outward, but I was told to lean in facing the rock. “Be a lizard!” our guide kept saying, which was not really that helpful, and I honestly couldn’t figure out what to grab hold of or where to place my feet, and I froze. I finally saw that I had no choice but to either stay and die there or allow someone to yank me by the rope and catch me. I still don’t quite know how the removal of me was achieved, but oh, the abandon it required! And the trust in someone else’s strength!  I suppose this too was a lesson.

Somehow I was down, and I’ll never do that again, but it was worth it. I will never forget the pleasure and beauty of that place on the rock, and the whole experience, including the challenge of getting up and the terror getting down. Apart from any ceremony, the journey was in its own way transformative. Maybe I am an elder now. Or almost.

Then came the hike back, long stretches of just quietly walking, the light shifting on the mountains, colorful wildflowers and grasses, the fragrance of sage and chaparral, the murmur of the creek in deep places, its water spilling over rocks, glistening in the sunlight.

DSC04884I wonder what I have brought back with me, and what I will give back.  I have been noting my surroundings more carefully and consciously since returning, recognizing changes in environment, acknowledging and thanking unseen forces. And I do like the idea of talking to the ancestors, of including the presence of passed souls in my life in a more positive and participatory way. (When I mentioned this to our guide he said, “Whether you do that or not, they’re there.”)

I also carry the knowledge that I am capable and strong and occasionally brave, not only because I keep trudging along, but because I can trust in the strength of another to help me when I am stuck. And I’m diligently aspiring to fulfill the role of an elder and be a good example. I’ll try to scold selectively and with kindness, and I’ll try to keep learning, because I still feel far from wisdom and peace, if indeed peace is attainable.

But my biggest insight has been a realization of how limited and secular my ways have become, how small my field of vision, how mundane and concrete I tend to be. I have emerged with a greater openness to the spiritual and non-rational aspects of existence. And there is a place in my head that wasn’t there before…that I can return to at will.  Maybe I am beginning to sense what our guide means by the immensity.

Posted in Finding Hope, Memoir, Nature, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

There’s This

DSC_0214_2Above we see Nick (visiting from Wales), Rebecca, and Guy on a morning stroll through a canyon in the Santa Barbara north county backcountry. If a passion can be described as patient and gentle despite its intensity, that’s what these birdwatchers possess. The soundtrack is the crunching of feet on gravel, the song and chatter of birds, and comments such as these, interspersed with quiet wows:

“A falcon. Coming back around….”

“I didn’t see any warm tones at all…”

“I could in the face, and then I just saw the tail…”

“The flight would say kestrel to me…”


It is amazing to me how much these folks observe in such a short distance, how much life and layering they perceive, and how oblivious I am. They stop in their tracks every few steps and marvel at the wonders that abound. “There are all sorts of problems in the world,” muses Guy at one point, “And then…there’s this.”

The list of birds they see becomes a kind of poem: Nuttall’s woodpecker, Western bluebird, California thrasher, dark-eyed junco, purple finch, cedar waxwing, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, Anna’s hummingbird, canyon wren…just to name a few. Pretty soon I have a kink in my neck from staring up into oak and sycamore trees trying to distinguish bird forms and movements by following descriptions of bumps on bark, angles of branches and clusters of leaves, and still, to be honest, I don’t always see:

In addition to visuals, the birders are impressively tuned in to sound. “I think I’m hearing hermit thrush,” Rebecca might say suddenly.

Or, in one rare instance, there is a lovely descent of notes that even I recognized, like this:

And Rebecca and I both respond:

In fact, the auditory aspect of birding is Rebecca’s special strength, and it has opened up a universe for her. “The sound part of it reveals what I know to be there,” she explains.”It layers it for me, and I can perceive so much richness and diversity just by listening.”

She adds, “To be honest, sometimes it’s difficult to be so tuned into sound because I can’t tune it out. It can be very distracting.”

I ask her if the practice of birdwatching has rendered her more observant and patient with humans in her everyday life.

“More than the act of birding,” she replies, “what has caused me to be more focused and patient is working with students. Teaching. Because it’s a really focused practice, describing and re-describing and re-describing things to maybe connect with somebody until they finally get it. And it’s so very satisfying when they do. I get so much out of opening that door for them.”

Rebecca was introduced to birdwatching by Fred Emerson, a respected local expert, but it was Guy, who is with us today, who became her mentor. Even now, the two will often notice a bird in the same moment and say its name together. It’s fun to be out walking with people who are so comfortable with each other, so appreciative of the environment, and so exuberant about their activity.

“If you had asked me twenty years ago if this is what I would be doing, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Rebecca tells me, “but I have come to love it. This is my subject. And I’ve found my tribe.”

In a few more paces, something else catches her attention. “Oh my God, how beautiful!”she says, and I don’t even know what it was. Obviously I’m not seeing or hearing with these birders’ degree of nuance, knowledge, and relish, but I am struck anew by the beauty of the canyon and its myriad miracles quietly happening without us.

“Do you realize you’ve been in a place that doesn’t exist?” Rebecca asks Nick as we walk back home. “You’ve landed in something that was.”

Was but still is. Thank God. I feel humble and grateful, as ever.

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The Living Stories Collective

nojoquihouseIt’s time for me to tell you about my other website, an ongoing labor of love created for the gathering and archiving of stories and memories through personal interviews. I hope you will visit and explore it at your leisure. Here is the link: The Living Stories Collective

The intent of the project is to document observations and experiences that might otherwise be forgotten and record the wisdom and lessons life yields. That’s all. I’m not selling or promoting anything, and I pay for the hosting of the website out of my own pocket, but something in my heart tells me that it matters.

A few of the Living Stories interviews are older ones conducted with middle school students during my days as a teacher. Many of these also appear elsewhere on this (Still Amazed) blog, but I am gradually transferring them to the Living Stories website. I recently purchased a little device that enables me to convert audiocassette tapes to digital recordings, so that on the new website even these older interviews are now enhanced with sound clips, and there’s something so special about hearing a person’s voice!

Of the more recent interviews, I conducted most of them myself (with occasional assistance from friends). Our approach is to meet with each interviewee in a setting in which he or she feels comfortable and draw from a basic list of questions that serve as prompts but not a rigid framework. I ask questions, we chat informally, and I listen, recording it all for later transcription. Initially, we tried to limit each session to about thirty minutes, but now I find that an hour or even two is more realistic. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worthwhile, and it offers folks an opportunity to share their memories and add their voices to a living historical record.

talking storiesI believe there’s something sacred about listening, and not enough time is spent in daily life doing it. I genuinely want to know how others navigate their lives and what lessons experience has taught them. And I find it especially delicious to be using modern technology to facilitate something so old-fashioned and fundamental.  I’m disheartened by how often the lowest common denominator is what prevails on the web, and anonymous meanness, shallow look-at-me stuff, and incessant self-promotion. I quite like the idea of using this platform in a way that (to borrow some phrases from Internet thinker, writer, and entrepreneur Seth Grodin) “doesn’t involve yelling at people, networking your way to the top, and spamming people…but instead, involves weaving a story and weaving a tribe and weaving a network that means something.”

Grodin points out that we live in an era where everyone essentially has their own printing press. “So what are you going to put on it?” he asks. “What are you going to put out to the world?” We are all exponentially connected and have unprecedented opportunity to contribute to a vast circle; maybe we can use the opportunity to make something happen that involves real dignity and communication and education and community. In this era of social media and constant noise, I’d like The Living Stories Collective to be an enduring space and a sheltering place where visitors can linger for a while, quietly connect with other souls, then venture out again feeling fortified and less alone.

I know there are other oral history projects similar to this one, and I gratefully acknowledge StoryCorps in particular as a source of inspiration. But every voice is unique, and I hope to give many others a chance to become part of this pool of stories, within my own little rural community of Gaviota and as far beyond as its ripples extend. There’s a decidedly local emphasis at the moment, but I think this will change over time.

Story talkingIn fact, I’m telling readers about it now not only because I’m proud of it and I think you may enjoy perusing it, but also because I welcome your suggestions for new interviewees, or any other thoughts, questions, and input. Maybe you’d like to conduct an interview to add to the archive, or perhaps you’d like advice for starting a project of your own. The Living Stories Collective is a reminder of our shared humanity and a way for us to learn from one another.

So that’s what I’ve been up to…

Posted in Commentary, Finding Hope, Memoir, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


orange treeMy sixty-fifth birthday yesterday surprised me by being wonderful, ranking right up there with my tenth and thirty-fifth as a favorite. I felt loved and indulged, and I gave myself a break from analyzing whether or not I deserved it. I was attentive to the present, and grateful.

Among other gifts there was the blessing of rain. My two tall friends came to visit, and we went for a short walk up the muddy puddled canyon. Sometimes we were showered upon, and sometimes the sun broke through and the leaves were sparkling like diamonds. It was that kind of day. The air by the orchard was redolent with the heady fragrance of orange blossoms whose fallen white petals had piled up at the base of the tree. I scooped up a couple of handfuls and tossed them like confetti above my head, a little California blizzard, and I felt a sense of gratitude and joy. I live where orange trees grow, and this is a measure of attainment.

I have been thinking a lot about identity lately…who we were, are, and become. I wonder to what extent there is a fundamental continuity and to what extent we become completely different people over time. I’m deeply interested in how life alters us, particularly in the aftermath of my mother’s death and all the old sorrows it reawakened, the depression against which I have been struggling, and the coping mechanisms that have gradually become new patterns and have reshaped me so much that I honestly feel molecularly rearranged. I don’t know who I am anymore. I only know I am different.

It’s funny but I have recently learned that I’m different even in a literal DNA sense: I had an DNA test done and discovered that my genetic components are not quite what I thought they were, and it’s probably silly and symbolic but this too makes me view myself in a different light.

And I am thinking about the constant striving to learn and improve and create, to accept or defy, to figure out how to relate to others and how to be of service, to quell the sorrow and give wonder its due, to discover our infinitesimal place in the universe and be our best within it.

I am pondering all this in terms of my mother as well as myself…the tormented and difficult mother she was in earlier decades versus the brave and endearing creature she became in her final years, and I feel as though perhaps the final version was the most authentic, hard-won essence. I wish I had more conspicuously honored and loved her in that last season. I think life is so difficult, even for those of us with easy lives, and her life certainly was anything but easy. I am humbled by those who face old age with bravery and dignity and try to be affable and make the best of things.

Now I am close enough to the old age side to acknowledge that I’m headed there myself. I’ve done all the Social Security paperwork and gotten pension procedures in place, and my mailbox is littered with big envelopes from AARP and Medicare, and what once seemed remote and abstract is honestly upon me.

On my birthday I pray that all the accumulated and ongoing realizations make me patient and kind, although in some ways they have also rendered me honest and unfiltered, which sometimes seems the opposite of kind. Then again, it’s a relief to acknowledge the absurdity of things, and it’s really kind of funny…and increasingly, I think a sense of humor can be a kind of salvation. It might even be form of courage, and we can all use a shot of that.

But I am a work in progress still.

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DSC_0010That night I saw Jupiter hanging near the full snow moon, both objects bright and clear in the sky, the air summer-warm. In the morning I saw whales spouting, and I rode my bike in the blue-green valley and was fleetingly ten years old again, the way I tend to feel while on two wheels and rolling.

Later I visited my friend Dorothy, who has this lovely wood-carved icon in her house, and we talked about guiding spirits. I felt that this gentle prayerful lady might be mine. She is asking and accepting in equal parts, and equanimity results, a palpable calm.

Until I can be wise and tranquil like my guiding spirit, I am adhering to my four-pronged strategy: 1) Stay busy; 2) Keep moving; 3) Don’t think too much (or at least, be captain of the thoughts), and 4) Say yes, mostly.

By and large, it’s working.

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hdr_00295_0I spent time with a hummingbird this morning, both of us drawn to the orange cape honeysuckle whose trumpet-shaped flowers rise above the wall of the deck at the front of the house. The hummingbird sipped at nectar as I sipped my coffee and then we each went on our way.

It’s unseasonably hot, but it takes nerve to complain when there are low tides, big waves, whales spouting, rosemary in bloom, grassy hills, oranges dropping from the trees, noisy cows with new calves in the canyon. Not like February in any world I ever knew.

I like the cow with the white leggings. I call her Lucy. She reminds me of a lady in a painting by Toulouse Lautrec, her tights and teats for all to see as she wanders through the gaudy green flanked by bovine sisters and a noisy bull.

Our little neighbor Virginia served us perfectly brewed pretend-tea in her penguin pajamas. My friend Cornelia has a blue floor streaked in different tones of aqua and sunlight, and bird of paradise flowers in a pitcher by the window.

I am here and now and in love with life and I’m trying to stay in this mind set. Oh I do remember the people I loved who also loved life and deserved a lot more of it, but I’m here and now and breathing, hanging my feet over the cliff of mortality.

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