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- “It always seems impossible until it's done.” ― Nelson Mandela
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If friends invite you for an early morning hike on a historical cattle ranch in the hills along Highway 1, set the clock if you must, and don’t let the chill air daunt you. Wrap a purple scarf around your neck, get going. If farmhouse windows are etched with ice and the dry brown grass is tinged with frost, perceive the wintry beauty in that. Detour to the barn with Katie to bottle feed the orphaned calf, walk briskly up a steep hill to the meadow, remember poems and other times you have been here, and savor this more than adequate now. If Sally comes by with a flatbed truck heaped with hay, stop to chat, wish fervently for rain, know you will return one day to green. Walk through the oak grove, look out onto the hills above San Julian, and descend, laughing and talking and knowing how lucky you are.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I walked to school, a route of about ten blocks. It involved crossing Ocean Parkway, an impressively wide boulevard with a median in between lined with leafy trees and benches. Ocean Parkway was aptly named, since getting from one side to another was a little bit like going across a great sea, but a stalwart crossing guard stood ready to escort us and ensure our safety. Her name was Jeannette, and she had a French accent, and I wish I had been curious enough to ask her about her life, but she had a way of making me think that I was the interesting one. She always asked me about my day, and looked at my work, and seemed pleased and proud when I’d done well. Seeing Jeannette at Ocean Parkway was a highlight of my day.
One afternoon I showed her a drawing I’d done in class, a crayon and pencil rendition of what I’d intended to be a circus fat lady wearing a short red dance skirt. “A fat lady?” said Jeannette. “Zees is no fat lady. Not skinny, no, but she is strong, not fat. Maybe she is the circus tightrope walker lady, eh?”
I was disappointed that my drawing hadn’t conveyed what I’d envisioned, but Jeannette thought it was a very worthy effort. She pointed to the the circus lady’s knees, which I had represented with circular black swirls. “Ah,” she said, “you even gave her knee caps…such a fine detail. It shows you have an eye. You notice things. You are a very smart girl.”
Jeannette stood tall in her wool navy coat and white gloves, a white reflective band across her chest. I admired her, and her opinion mattered…so much so that more than fifty years later, here I am recalling her comments about my pencil rendering of knee caps and what it implied about my talent and intelligence.
I guess it’s because Jeannette did so much more than get me safely across Ocean Parkway. She encouraged me and made me feel valued. She took her job seriously and added a whole new dimension to it. And when she asked me one day what I’d like to be when I grew up, I didn’t hesitate: “A crossing guard.”
“Oh, my goodness, no,” she said, appalled. “You have to dream much, much better than zees.”
In time I understood what she meant.
And I am writing this to honor and thank not just Jeannette but all who bring heart and dignity to what might seem a trivial sort of job, and as a reminder that even small, routine encounters can touch someone deeply, and in a distant time and place they are remembered.
Jeannette gave me a little nudge and a little kindness, that’s all…and helped me across the first of many seas. I eventually learned to dream better.
(Yes, she also signed my sixth grade autograph book….in French.)
This is the moment I took flight, bare feet still on the ground, but for all intents and purposes airborne. I remember it well. I was nearly forty years old and had never before flown a kite, and here was my opportunity. We were in the schoolyard by our house, which at the time was a trailer in a place called El Morro at the north end of Laguna Beach. In the mornings before work, Monte would walk Miranda over to her kindergarten class across that field, often wearing tall rubber boots to protect his good wool trousers from the wet grass, and I would see them holding hands, she sometimes skipping ahead in the kind of merriment that was her general frame of mind then. The trailer park culminated in a bluff above the sea and was skirted by about 2400 acres of southern California wilderness and trails that had recently been declared a state park, and we’d lift our bikes over the fence and ride with friends, christening certain loops and climbs with names that eventually found their way somehow onto official maps and the tongues of strangers.
But although life at lost El Morro is a wonderful topic for digression, it’s a digression nonetheless. Let’s get back to that moment with the kite, when just the right drafts caught hold of the colorful craft to which I was connected by a string, animating it with what seemed its own will, and I fleetingly experienced that feeling of being simultaneously of earth and sky. I wore a pink skirt that day, which billowed in breezes and turned walking into dancing, and I was younger than I’d ever be again. My two favorite people were out there with me, one of them skipping, one of them by chance holding a camera. I was lifted and giddy and this one thing clicked and this one thing for an instant was everything.
Now, since it’s Saturday morning and I’m trying to return to this blog with more regularity, and my custom had been to post a poem on Saturdays, here is a kite poem by Leonard Cohen. I first read this poem in a 1968 paperback edition of a book called The Spice Box of Earth that I acquired in the early 1970s, and which I am right now holding like a prayer book in my hand, smelling the dusty decades in pages grown tawny with time, their beautiful whispered words still capable of stirring me. Maybe the book is its own kind of kite.
A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.
A kite is a fish you have already caught
in a pool where no fish come,
so you play him carefully and long,
and hope he won’t give up,
or the wind die down.
A kite is the last poem you’ve written
so you give it to the wind,
but you don’t let it go
until someone finds you
something else to do.
A kite is a contract of glory
that must be made with the sun,
so you make friends with the field
the river and the wind,
then you pray the whole cold night before,
under the travelling cordless moon,
to make you worthy and lyric and pure.
Where I grew up, November was a gray time. Here, it can be anything. This week there were plenty of blue skies and plush white clouds, the distinctive fragrance of macadamia blossoms, butterflies and hummingbirds darting about, buds forming on the branches of my intrepid lilac bush, green-blade leaves of paper whites poking through black soil.
But there were also some days of rain and almost-rain, days in which to hide. On one such day I trudged up to Gaviota Peak with my tall German friend Cornelia. We walked straight through clouds, nothing to see but the sandy road beneath our feet and the brush alongside it. Great waves of sadness have been washing over me without warning lately, and I’ve been filled with a sense of loss and remorse, and it was cathartic to talk about some of this while stomping with a good friend through the mist. We were wet and cold by the time we reached the top, but also giddy and refreshed. Sometimes there is no closure, just resignation, and a self-issued license to go on.
One evening, just before dusk, everything glowed. Even the rooms inside the house were for a moment mauve and rose-lit radiant. The world held its breath in a state of enchantment, and I beheld it all spellbound.
Sometimes there is no closure, just an invitation, and nothing to do but say yes and be there.
It took Andrew Bird to get us out of our cozy house the other night, and I still have his music in my head. His singing voice is melodious and versatile, and his songs, which reflect elements of jazz, folk, and classical music, simply refuse to fit into any particular genre. I don’t even know how to write about his beautifully layered compositions, with their loops of violin, guitar, and glockenspiel, and his own extraordinary whistling. He has been described as a one-man orchestra of the imagination, and that about sums it up.
One highlight of the show (and there were many) was a new song, Pulaski At Night. Pulaski Road is a major north-south thoroughfare in Chicago–and, as Bird noted in his introduction to the song, it’s not really a place you’d particularly want to see at night–but the song is a nostalgic tribute to his hometown, which he refers to not as the Windy City, but a city of light. Then again, maybe the song is a nostalgic tribute to anything lost or left behind, remembered and described but impossible to capture. “I tell you a story,” he sings, “but it loses its thread” and “I paint you a picture but it never looks right…” An arrangement of loops, strums, plucks, and notes frame the lyrics and take us away, back to Chicago, or somewhere else.
I even appreciated the fact that Bird had ridden his bike in Santa Barbara earlier in the day, and that he’d looked toward the ocean and heard its cry.
Here’s a little bio about him on the TED website.
Lately I have been experiencing what my friend Treacy once called “life’s chastening effect”. Nothing specific, just a gradual erosion of spirit and deflation of confidence. I’m still painfully haunted by old ghosts and regrets, tired of going back and forth to Orange County trying to be dutiful, and about to release a book into the world that suddenly just makes me feel vulnerable and silly, which isn’t the sort of thing I should be saying out loud, but I’m nothing if not honest.
When I get this way it’s best if I simply hide. I even had a clash with a girl in a parking lot booth in Santa Barbara the other day because she wouldn’t accept $1.49 for my $1.50 fee. It’s amazing how pettiness can make me petty, and then the pettiness turns to anger, and I can understand how we’ll never have world peace. Fortunately, by the time I got to Goleta I could see this was not an issue upon which I should expend further emotion.
I probably just need a dog.
You know what else is getting me down? This relentless focus on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. It’s depressing and sad to the point of masochism, veering at times to macabre. (Do we really need to look at the bullet holes and bloodied hair?)
Oh, I can relate to commemorative events, the shared sense of shock and loss, the ineffable memories of where and who we were, the way everything suddenly changed. And I understand the impulse to speculate on what might have been.
But you know what I think all this 50th anniversary spectacle is really about? It’s our own sober awareness that fifty years have passed, and now we know what fifty years feels like.
A lifetime, almost.
It’s just a 1957 sales receipt from a bicycle store on Coney Island Avenue, but it told a little story. I remember the shop only vaguely, wheel rims hanging from the wall, a distinctive smell of rubber and bike grease, a laconic old guy named Bill. The amount paid, $15.04, was no small change. I asked my in-house bike expert, Monte, if he could interpret what it had bought.
“Well, 12 inches is the giveaway clue here,” he said. “The right size for a tricycle. Velocipede…looks like your dad bought someone a tricycle.”
Next, applying my own impressive skill at typing words into search boxes, I unearthed a website about popular toys of the 1950s, and discovered this beautiful Deluxe Velocipede, which retailed for about $14.95.
The date on the receipt, July 17th, would have been my sister Marlene’s third birthday. It must have been a happy one for her.
It got me to thinking about bicycle shops, those fixers and purveyors of such important machines. And since Monte worked in a bike shop, Sea Schwinn, for many years, I asked him to tell me a little about its atmosphere and characteristics.
“First of all,” he said, “people come into a bike shop to buy something that they are anticipating with pleasure. There’s something intrinsically wonderful about a bike. It’s not just utilitarian. Also, newness permeates the place, the good smell of new bikes.”
“But another distinctive thing about a bike shop is the clutter,” he added. “Bikes are only elegant when they’re out in the world. When they’re in an enclosed space like that, there’s never enough room. You always feel like you’re going to knock something over.”
Because he met some lifelong friends at Sea Schwinn, I asked him about the social dynamics there. It was one of the busiest bike shops in southern California, and it sounds like everyone worked long hours assembling bikes in record numbers but also joking around, flinging balled up shop rags at each other in sleep-deprived silliness. You might be there in the back trying to get caught up before business hours and customers would rap insistently on the window, no matter how early or how late it was. I gather John Wayne was the most famous customer, but what interests me most are friends of ours who practically grew up in there, and for whom the bike shop is like a school they all attended, and bicycles an enduring bond.
I once stopped by a bike shop in San Francisco where they sold bumper stickers that said, “Rosebud was a bicycle.” My feelings exactly. Anyone who’s seen Citizen Kane knows that if Kane’s childhood sled is the symbol of the security, the hope, the exhilaration of motion, and the innocent pleasures of childhood, it might just as well be a bicycle. Or a 12-inch Velocipede trike.
Mike Hewitt, who was always quietly documenting, took the bike shop photos shown above during his time at Sea Schwinn in the 1970s.
Today I went to visit a lady who is a hundred years old. She asked her caregiver to contact me because she wanted to put some thoughts on paper and she can’t write anymore. I felt honored to have been called for such a service, and I set out in the morning with a notebook and pen and drove to the little house she has lived in for seventy-five years.
She was sitting at the table in front of the window looking out at the oak trees. It turns out that what she wanted to write was a thank you letter to someone who had been kind to her. But what she wanted most was company, a visitor to sit and talk with her for awhile.
She spoke a lot about losses, recent and long ago. She cried a little, and I hugged her. “It’s a wonderful world,” she said, “but I don’t understand it.”
“I don’t think anybody understands it,” I said. I tried to talk about happy things, about being here in this safe, familiar place, about grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and how much she matters.
“Just keep talking,” she said. “I’ll get it eventually.” That’s when I realized her hearing aids were not in her ears and she wasn’t hearing a word I said. With the help of the caregiver we replaced the batteries and put the devices into her ears, and that helped a lot. But still, she was feeling isolated.
“I have a terrible time,” she said. “I don’t belong to the town. I don’t belong to the valley anymore. I don’t even use the telephone.”
Oh, how my heart went out to her!
We sat side by side in front of the window and chatted, and I wrote a few things on paper for her, and she thanked me for having come, and I promised her I would visit her again next week and as often as I can.
“That would be nice,” she said. “And how will we handle payment?”
“Payment?! Oh my goodness, there’s no payment,” I said. “I’m here because I’m your friend, and I care about you, and I’m happy to come.”
Here’s a curious backstory: in recent weeks I have been searching to find a volunteer to be a friendly visitor for my 90-year-old mother who lives in an assisted living facility in Orange County. I try to get down there as often as I can, but it would help so much to have someone local who could commit to even a weekly visit just to cheer her up and be company for awhile. I figured in such a dynamic urban area there must be a volunteer program like that, but so far no one had turned up.
About an hour after my visit with this lovely lady today, a message came in from one of the agencies I had contacted about my mother. It said: We found a volunteer to visit your mother, beginning this week.
I don’t know about you, but I think there’s some kind of karma involved.