Trying Times

After we hiked for several hours in the backcountry, my friend welcomed me into her home for shower (with some poison oak soap) and a nap in her guest room. I didn’t bother to unmake the bed; I just got horizontal right on top of the bed spread with a soft burgundy coverlet over me, stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, and soon drifted into a delicious but disorienting sleep. When I woke up a half hour later, it took me a few moments to remember where I was. The room was so quiet, the light so soft, the furnishings so unfamiliar. I could feel my body unfolding itself, feel its demanding aches grow muffled, and watched my consciousness meander where it would, poking around in the usual places but finally sitting still. It’s nice to have refuge in the house of a friend.

It’s Mother’s Day, almost, which is just another arbitrary greeting card proclamation, but I couldn’t help but remember as I lay in my friend’s bed yesterday that on May 10 twenty-five years ago, when I was a very young mother myself, I received word by phone of my brother Eddie’s death. I can’t even remember who called me. All I know is that I was wearing a rose-pink dress, and my daughter and I were playing with a tiny white kitten that had just come into our lives. My little girl watched me crumble abruptly into sobs, and her presence was a comfort, though I hated to upset her. So my dear brother Eddie was in my head yesterday as I rested in my friend’s quiet room, and I resolved that I would write about him today, but now I find that I cannot. It’s just plain painful.

Speaking of mothers and pain, which I’m afraid I far too often do, I saw an elderly woman in the supermarket the other day who reminded me so very much of my mother. She was white-haired, frail, bewildered and brave, pushing a cart, but mostly using it for balance, leaning against it, standing at the end of a congested aisle and apologizing for being in the way. “You’re doing great,” I said to her, but maybe that seemed condescending. “You’re not in anyone’s way,” I added. What I really wanted to do was hug her, but that might well have just freaked her out or knocked her over. More accurately, what I really wanted was to hug my own mother. I wish I had been a lot more tender and patient with her, more appropriately awed by her courage. If you still have such a person in your life, cherish is the word.

Getting back to yesterday, I had lingered in the valley in order to attend a political action meeting. (We use the word “action” but it often feels like frustration, exasperation, anxiety, outrage, disillusionment, and a lot of other things that aren’t really action.) I decided to stop in town first for an early dinner. On a back street of Solvang, I noticed a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I’d never seen before, charmingly called Hummingbird Restaurant. I can’t explain…it just felt like a scene from a novel and I was meant to walk in. The proprietor, a man named Harold, told me he was from Barbados, and his specialty was Caribbean cuisine. I sat on the patio and he served me a big bowl of gumbo, and I wondered, as I often do, about the utter implausibility of everything.

Fortified, I drove to a nearby horse ranch run by a friend who had offered to host our meeting in her office. It was a scene of rural America in all its bucolic beauty and optimistic endeavor. There were friendly horses and a shiny green tractor, a barn stacked with hay, and a large field of golden grass, newly mown, stretching out toward the mountains in the distance. The air was a sweet fusion of hay and horse and honeysuckle, and I stood outside for a very long time, loathe to go indoors. But we have so much, and there is so much to lose. We have to keep trying.

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Spencer from Sydney

It was 1971, late summer or early fall, and in my memory the day is cast in an amber kind of glow, all warm hues and soft edges. I was twenty years old, a college dropout, still snagged on some rickety splintered bridge between little girl and functional adult. I had recently returned to our family home on Long Island to figure out what to do next; my boyfriend in medical school waited in Chicago, his offer of marriage only vaguely answered. On this particular day I had accompanied my father to Brooklyn, where he had a couple of business appointments. He dropped me off on Flatbush Avenue to wander until he was done.

There was a sign advertising a big sale in the dress department of a bargain basement store and I went in to take a look. The clothes were cheaply made and basic, but I figured I could use a new dress if I decided to go back to Chicago, or even if not, and the seven-dollar price tag was convincing. I chose one in beige, a soft jersey fabric, and very short, which was the style. It seemed easy to wear and versatile, and its neutral generic-ness didn’t hem it in to any particular purpose. I could wear it to work if I got a job, or out on the town if I ever went anyplace, or to a marriage civil ceremony, if things went that way. I counted out the bills and carried it off, a soft heap of fabric in a small paper bag.

Now I walked along the street carrying my plain-wrap new dress, feeling inexplicably pleased with myself, and thinking I might stop for a cold soda, or wander over to the park. It was a beautiful day. Sunshine drenched the city, store windows gleamed, sidewalks glittered. People were moving slowly, as though they knew this moment would never come again. There was something dreamlike about it; my worries receded, and it didn’t seem to matter so much what I’d be doing next. I felt I had prospects, even if just by virtue of being young and alive. I felt equipped.

I noticed a young man standing on a corner, reading a map, his knapsack propped against a lamppost. He looked up, said hello, and seemed willing to loiter and chat. Spencer was his name, and he was visiting from Sydney, Australia, a place so remote I could barely imagine it. He was older than me, though not by much, and handsome in a nothing-special way, handsome the way my new dress was wearable, with even features, an easy smile, nothing promised, but nothing excluded. Spencer had no particular agenda, and he wondered what I’d recommend he see while he was here. We walked a bit, with no destination in mind, and we talked about everything, in the way that confidences sometimes spill out with a stranger. We enjoyed each other’s company.

Spencer seemed an emissary from a faraway continent, and I sensed some deeper significance in our unlikely meeting at this odd junction of my life. I found his accent refreshing, and appreciated his nonchalant aura of adventure and travel.  I pictured ferries and railroad tickets, luggage on docks, a well-worn passport in the pocket of faded dungarees. Heck, maybe I’d even visit him in Australia one day. Would I like to see Australia? I had an invitation now. And just because it had never occurred to me, didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. There was a whole world out there, and Spencer radiated with possibilities.

I wish I could say that I ran away with Spencer, or even that we spent the day together. But my father would be back at two to pick me up, and despite the glimmers of defiance in me, my default position was compliance and resignation. And I’d like to tell you that I said no to marrying the boyfriend in Chicago, but it seemed like the line of least resistance at the time, an easy way out, although it wasn’t. In less than a month, I would be wearing my beige mini-dress at the Cook County Courthouse, becoming the wife of the medical student. I would spend that night crying and the next few years leaving, and a decade of confusion would ensue. It was a necessary detour, I suppose.

But for a few minutes on Flatbush Avenue in 1971, music drifted from doorways, traffic thrummed, sunshine washed over me, and I was a golden creature who could have stepped right through the wide open door of the world. I was very young and had not yet ruined anything irrevocably.

Instead I boarded the train of inevitabilities for which I’d been programmed, looking back only once as I left.  Spencer stood there shining like a stack of untold stories.

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The Thing About Life

I was walking with my two tall girlfriends in a sunny seaside town. Roses and bougainvillea spilled over white fences, shops brimmed with odd collectibles, wind chimes sang and sea glass mobiles glinted. We stepped over the chalk outlines of an abandoned sidewalk hopscotch game, inquired about weekly rentals for one of the daughters, and among us bought blueberries, saltwater taffy, and a brightly patterned bedspread.

Suddenly I had that feeling, that infusion of complete alive-ness, that awareness of everything humming and vibrant and heartbreakingly beautiful, even in, and maybe because of, its poignant impermanence. I think it’s the light that triggers it, although the fragrance of orange blossoms is certainly contributory. Everything pauses for a moment at such times, and the day washes over me, and maybe what it is can be called a sense of wonder, but it doesn’t announce itself by name. It’s a little bit like being happy, I guess.

“The thing about life…” I said out loud, right then and there, a lofty way to start a sentence, and I meant to continue, but there was some interruption, and a series of distractions, and so I left it dangling.

“Now, what were you saying?” said nobody, and I was off the hook.

I’d been so depressed the previous day I could barely get out of bed. It was a combination of painful memories, disappointment in myself, and the toxic horror of the political situation. (A hundred days?! It’s only been a hundred days?!) Also, I don’t sleep well, and the wind has been howling relentlessly, and, okay…I’ll admit it…I miss my daughter.

But mostly, it’s the sadness at the core of me. I can never shake the sadness. It comes from experience as well as DNA. I’m hard-wired to be sad.

And nothing has changed. But the thing about life is that even while you’re carrying around that unshakeable sadness, a concurrent moment of joy can simultaneously surprise you, and somehow the two coexist. There’s a trick to it. I’m learning.

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Journal Page from Thursday

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.   (William Stafford)

“How you fall is also important,” says my friend Nyuol, who is twenty-six but very wise. “If you fall, fall gracefully. If you stumble, turn it into a dance step. “

We are sitting beneath a trellis in Dorothy’s backyard, lit by stripes of sunlight. An old friend, a new friend, and the stranger that is me. (Stranger and stranger every day.)

Dorothy reads us two of her poems. I linger on these lines: 

Pretty soon you don’t know who you are, think you were–or care.
The lizard’s your sister, the mountain your mother, the sky your mind.
I haven’t minded the sky enough lately. I haven’t mined the sky.  There’s a lot of material I’m missing.

Nearby is a gathering of irises, very purple, past their prime, proud dowagers.

Dorothy reads a poem about wrinkles. (They don’t hurt.) It’s interesting…isn’t it…seeing ourselves age?

But I worry. What will we leave for the young ones? Things are veering out of control. This is a dangerous time.

One danger is to discount the quiet reality of a moment such as this one.

Let us evict from our heads that fraudulent narcissist who is taking up far too much space there. He is not worthy, says Nyuol.

I am only beginning to grasp the monumental patience, restraint, and stamina the struggle will demand of us.

But we are here now, and we  shall honor this reality.

Dorothy weaves in snippets of Mary Oliver, who always seems relevant…starting with wild and precious lives and what we plan to do with the one we have.

Nyuol remembers Dorothy bringing Mary Oliver poems to the English learners when he first came to this country. Wild Geese, in particular:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Dorothy’s husband Tom has joined us. He’s a kind and soft spoken person, and I’m always glad to see him. We are both a little hard of hearing. He pours us wine, a glass of beer for Nyuol.

“Tom and I have acoustic neuromas,” I stupidly announce to Nyuol. “It’s a kind of tumor in the auditory canal.”

To which there is no response.

“Benign,” adds Tom brightly, lest anyone worry.

It’s a breezy day. Everything is, to paraphrase Rilke, recklessly in bloom.

Nyuol is writing a novel and thinks I should too. You can make up anything, he says. Otherwise, it’s just reporting. He chooses to proceed un-tethered to his past, and invent new meaning or no meaning at all.

I’m mostly a reporter.

Earlier in the day, I had ridden my bike past a long hedge of pink roses. I saw whales. And someone pointed out a hawk’s nest by the side of the road.

I went back to the school where I used to teach. My old partner Donna was there. “I keep thinking about what you said after 9/11,” she told me. “Remember what you said? Hope is not optional.”

I probably did say that. It sounds exactly like somebody I used to be when I knew who I was.

Tom and I have segued to a sidebar about music, in an aging Boomer way. He’s a big fan of Neil Young. And by the way, he says, he recently revisited my oral history website and re-read the fabulous interview we did with Jackson Browne.

I turn to Nyuol. “I interviewed Jackson Browne,” I tell him proudly. “You know who Jackson Browne is, right?”

To which there is no response.

Soon we are making our goodbyes and moving towards the car. Dorothy quickly gathers fragrant bundles of rosemary and oregano for us.

The mountains grow hazy in the late golden light.

“How can anyone live here and not be astonished?” asks Nyuol.

I don’t know.

My car still smells of oregano from Dorothy’s garden.

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Day Trip

Our calendar was unexpectedly blank for the day. No one was counting on us, no tasks were urgent, and our irrelevance felt like license for a field trip. We recruited our old friends Kit and Beverly and set out into the misty morning.

It’s a three-hour drive from here to the Carrizo Plain, a trip we traditionally make in winter, lured by the austerity and tranquility of the place. We like to wander in the silvery light and contemplate the sandstone rock formation with its mysterious Native American symbols. But it’s been such an extravagant springtime! Why not glimpse Carrizo in bloom, even as it fades?

The region is located in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, and it’s vast, about fifty miles long, and fifteen across, the largest remaining swath of native grassland in the state. The Temblor Range borders to the northeast, and the San Andreas Fault cuts through at the foot of the mountains, exposing that most infamous break in California’s topography. The alkaline Soda Lake, a central depression in the midst of the plain, receives all of the area runoff. We accessed the plain via Soda Lake Road and walked up to a viewing point to get oriented. Yellow-orange ribbons of bloom skirted the lake’s milky shores, and a zig-zag of mountains rose in the background.

It was the kind of day that covers your skin with kisses, not the wet, sloppy kind, but light enticing kisses. Pale sun shone through sheets of fog, promising rainbows that never materialized, but we were happy with what was. Kit drove on a narrow dirt road into the hills. It was rutted and bumpy, winding around inconclusively, and we were surprised to come head-to-head with another car, driven by a woman who looked to be our age, traveling solo. Kit has been driving backcountry roads for decades and knows the protocol. He gracefully backed up until there was a little extra space, then pulled over to let the lady pass. She was grateful. “You’ll see up ahead the ditch I almost went into,” she said. “And I still didn’t find where God spilled the paint. Have you seen it?”

We’d seen a lot already: goldfields, desert candles, owl’s clover, blazing stars, tidy tips, poppies, lupines, filaree, fiddlenecks, delphinium, daisies, snake’s head, and so many flowers we didn’t know the names for, bright natives in full glory holding their own against invasives. Yellow prevailed, which we’ve observed at home as well, but as Beverly suggested, we just had to embrace the yellow. It was its own vibrant show, brilliantly nuanced, and quite satisfactory. But we weren’t sure what the lady was referring to. “God-Spilled-the-Paint!” she shouted. “It’s somewhere around here. I’m gonna find it.” And off she went in a little wake of dust. Boomers.

We meandered, deliciously devoid of goals. Beverly demonstrated her roadrunner mating call, a talent I never knew she had. We stopped for lunch at a campground and saw an owl in a tree. The clouds were theatrical, plush and mighty, wielding great shadows that moved by swiftly. We walked up a hill along Quail Springs Road and found thickets of fragrant gray-blue salvia and bush lupine in a washed-out shade of purple, and tiny pale blue flowers, as translucent and delicate as porcelain, and always there were those yellow expanses in the distance, surrounding us like light. A patchwork of the Central Valley was visible to the east below.

There were manmade remnants, too,  all along the way: abandoned old homesteads in the far distance, eroded tanks fallen on their sides, broken fences inexplicably placed, bullet casings on the ground. Mysterious transmission towers stood on the hills like sentries, resembling stars crossed with crosses and set on stilts, almost religious.

Almost religious…as am I…or spiritual anyway, because I believe that all this glory is telling me something, even if it’s just to jolt me awake. And I know this was a pilgrimage of sorts. So much beauty, so much life. With our heartbreak in one hand, and our joy in another, we fall again and again into love.

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Still Going

Yesterday I went for a walk with my friend Cornelia. It required that we climb a few hills, face down a brisk wind, thrash through brush and foxtails, step gingerly along bumpy uneven ground, and even clamber up a creek bank once, holding onto a rope to stay steady. But it was one of those magical walks,  infinitely rewarding. I feel grateful to have the time, geographical proximity, and mobility to be able to hike like this, especially with a good companion. Cornelia and I  have similar styles; we can walk briskly while gabbing, and we don’t wear down too fast. About midway through we found a spot out of the wind, and sat on the warm ground having lunch and tea, aware of the day as a gift to be cherished. We figure we can keep up this sort of thing for maybe ten more years, then we’ll see.

I’m feeling very vulnerable. I talk all the time about the sadness I carry, and I’ve never made a secret of my ongoing struggle to fend off depression, but lately it seems that I’m grappling on a deep level not only with my own personal baggage, but with political and global issues. It seemed to me that our world was turned upside down November 8, and the feeling has not abated.  I realize that in some ways the election shed light on existing problems that needed to be resolved, but God…how could anyone have ever believed that this was a solution? And so we now face corruption, lies, destructiveness, greed, intolerance, cynicism, and unprecedented incompetence every single day. It’s toxic and exhausting, dangerous and disillusioning, and just when you think it can get no worse, it gets worse.

But I want to do more than whine, and I know relentless hammering turns people off, (in fact, I’ve probably wearied my readers right here) so I’m trying to rant a little less while staying meaningfully involved, fighting back with donations, calls, and emails, participating in a local organization, and putting forth whatever effort I can, hopefully in ways that are more than symbolic. It is a struggle that demands of us a monumental kind of patience and steadiness, all the while hoping we can turn the nightmare around before irrevocable harm has been inflicted on our nation and the world.

Yes, I realize this is sounding awfully gloomy, but as political writer Sarah Kendzior said via Twitter this week: “You can’t see the approaching mushroom cloud through rose-colored glasses.” We have to look straight at the reality, refuse to normalize or get used to it, and stand up against it. What is happening is not presidential, not patriotic, not sensible, not okay. I don’t think things are going to be “okay” within my lifetime, but I’d like to see us on track, at least.

I ran into a friend at a party recently whom I had last seen right after the election. He was delighted to see me upright and out in public. “You’re doing a whole lot better than you were last time I saw you,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re making peace with it.”

But he was wrong about that. I have not made peace with it. It’s just that I can’t constantly be raging, or weeping all the time; I can’t let it own my whole life. It’s a little like the deal I made with myself after the deaths of people I loved, most recently my mother. I realized at some point that if I am going to live a life, I have to sometimes shove the grief into the background. Grief and I coexist. That’s not the same as peace.

But a walk outdoors with a friend is no small thing, and I came home from yesterday’s feeling renewed. Cornelia and I have known each other for nearly twenty-five years; our daughters were childhood best friends. To the left is my favorite photo of us, taken at my daughter’s wedding. I was trying to gracefully see her off into her new married life, and Monte and I had just given a little speech about it, and although I’m smiling bravely, it was an emotional moment for me. (Not pictured, but nearby, was Vickie, my other tall Bestie.)

I see this picture every day, since it’s affixed to my refrigerator door, the ultimate gallery. And I like it because it reminds me that even when I’m falling apart, there are strong dear friends who will help to hold me up. Like yesterday. The journey we’re on is not as we expected, but here we are, still walking.

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Over the years, I’ve been following the work of an artist friend, James Griffith, who has lately been making extraordinary paintings using the medium of tar–”primordial goo”– from La Brea Tar Pits. James has always demonstrated remarkable skill in creating exquisitely detailed images of flora and fauna, but with these works he lures viewers into a layered and sepia-colored world that reflects a vision of the origins of life and provokes fundamental questions about who we are and where we are going.  There is something both noble and poignant about them, wondrous and haunting. I don’t know that they are intentionally designed to call out to us across millennia and awaken impulses of concern and responsibility, but I certainly felt a renewed awareness as I stared into them of how deeply I cherish our planet, and a profound connection to the epic saga of life, and a hope, in these precarious days, that we are not obliviously veering towards the end of it. It has been said that art is not so much a way to change the world, but to change perceptions of the world. I believe the latter can lead to the first.

We met up with James and his wife Sue at the gallery in Santa Monica where his astonishing tar paintings were recently on view in an exhibit appropriately called Biophilia (love of life).  It was a privilege to walk around with the artist and have him point out elements I might have missed…the significance of a grid or shift in texture and color, a word on technique, perhaps a background anecdote.  And here’s a link to an in-depth article about the paintings, written by art critic Lita Barrie.

If you’re curious about Sue and James (and why I love them), a good place to start is this post from ten years ago about the Folly Bowl, an amphitheater they built in their backyard where friends can gather to hear music and poetry and express themselves in beautiful ways. An amphitheater? Why not? These two specialize in endeavors that are quirky, unlikely, and life-affirming. Sue is an artist too, but she has channeled her creativity, passion, and environmental conscience into a landscaping business that emphasizes native plants, water conservation, and the needs of the birds and the bees…in dazzlingly original designs. She is proud to say that the gardens she has created have enticed many clients to live more of their lives outdoors.

Afterwards, we walked around Santa Monica in the broad flat light at the cusp of dusk. James told me that his father had been a photographer, and one of his gigs was to take pictures of children with Santa Claus at the old Buffums’ department store in Long Beach. James was his assistant, gathering letters addressed to Santa, which he said felt somewhat fraudulent even then.

Eventually his father gave James his own camera, and he proceeded to take lots of pictures, then re-wound the film and took lots of pictures over it again. He did this repeatedly.

“I had watched my father deftly winding the film and taking pictures,” he said, “and that was the part that that interested me: not the end result, but the process.”

I thought this was kind of zen-like…noticing without necessarily capturing; intuitively accepting that all is in flux; attention to process more than product.  But I’m glad nonetheless that James eventually learned to stop time with an image.

Later, we had dinner in an unassuming little seafood restaurant with Christmas lights and fishnet decor and photos from the forties, and in the dim forgiving light, everything felt slower and more gentle than it is.

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In Search of Better Thoughts

When I told my friend Dorothy I was trying to overcome my muteness, she wrote to me about white lilacs. In their brief season, she said, they are “white like brides, with less than a month of blooming, not questioning their right to express themselves, to invite visitations.”

But it wasn’t that I was questioning my right to express myself, just doubting that I have anything new to say, and so I’ve fallen silent.  Dorothy imagined the mute ones asking ourselves: “Should I try to say something? Is this the truth? Why bother? Who cares?”

I suppose I should write because I care, and not whether anyone else does. I should write because writing is a railing along a rough and precipitous trail. Writing is exploring, gaining my footing, leaving behind some markers, maybe even a map.

I feel lost. Is writing a way to be found?

This morning I went for a walk at low tide. The beach was scoured, rocky surfaces exposed. Everything looked tired and blank in the glare of the sun. Now I sit at my computer screen and its open page looks blank.

“We stare at the blankness,” Dorothy said, “and listen to some inner dictionary.”

Or listen for it.

“Once planted,” Dorothy mused encouragingly, “if tended, how many stanzas or paragraphs could sing in the air, be entered, and flown to another field, maybe turn into honey, maybe tempt a mute to belt out a tune?”

Mine would be a blues song, or a mournful lament. Who would want to hear it? Sometimes my sorrow is the only thing I feel, even when I know my life is beautiful. My greatest sins are the things I didn’t do, and then it was too late. Can I quell the pain by writing through it? Would someone learn from my confessions? Sometimes for a moment I subtract the me from what I see, finally free of my history, and it seems that I could simply be.

I’m wasting time. My own face is becoming unfamiliar to me, distorted with the jokes age plays upon us all, vulnerable and funny. What will I do with the precious next?

Dorothy recommends that I read a particular essay by Jane Hirshfield in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Hirshfield talks about perceptibility (as opposed to perception, or attentiveness) by which she means the ability to be known, to recognize that what we look at also sees us, and that the way one looks at a thing also determines what one will see. She quotes Ortega y Gassett:

There is a whole portion of reality which is offered to us without our making any special effort beyond opening our eyes and ears, and this we call the world of pure impressions. But there is another world built of structures of impressions, which though hidden, is none the less real. If this other world is to exist for us, we need to open something more than our physical eyes, and to undertake a greater kind of effort.

And here’s Emily Dickinson, who says it more succinctly: “Not Revelation’–‘tis– that waits,/But our unfinished eyes–”

Ah, my unfinished eyes, with their cataract-clouds of confounding connections! I need to find a different way of seeing the world and listening to it. “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves…” as Robinson Jeffers put it. Tall order, but knowing even this much is a start.

“Each poet,” writes Hirshfield, and I suppose she means each writer too, “in his own language, states that the basic matter of poetry comes not from the self, but from the world. From Things, which will speak to us on their own terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”

The hills today are tinged with yellow mustard flowers, and there’s a haze of brush and branch and yes, white lilac, where the grassland shifts to chaparral.  At my elbow a cup of tea grows tepid, and there are tulips in a vase nearby, their red so bright it almost vibrates. Parallelograms of sunlight adorn the faded rug. I can hear a motorized buzz outside as my industrious husband whips weeds on a hillside behind the orchard.

Everything has led me to this moment. What more do I want? Why must I analyze, apologize, and relentlessly strive to reconcile?

It reminds me of a poem by William Stafford, which asks:

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

I have no better thoughts. White lilacs for now will suffice, and the monotone buzz of the weed whacker, and the shifting angles of sunlight that have turned the heart-shaped leaves of the philodendron the most luminous of green.

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This morning, for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about a weird incongruous memory from my childhood, something that happened more than sixty years ago. Isn’t it funny how random images appear in our heads, completely unconnected to the narrative in which we are immersed?  The memory was of a day when I went with my grandfather to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, just the two of us, which happened no more than once or twice in all of time. I was a four-year-old brat, unhappy for all sorts of reasons I would have been too young to articulate, and my grandfather was preoccupied and quiet. Even at that age, I could sense that he was not particularly fond of me, which in retrospect I can understand, but I didn’t know how to win him over.  There was something inaccessible about him, and it would be many years and much too late before I thought about all the questions I wish I had asked him.

I wore a heavy, coarse wool jacket, bomber style, zippered, plaid.  The early spring sun felt warm on my face, and there was bird song, the fragrance of blossoms, a lazy feeling. We had wandered through a greenhouse together, humid and tropical inside, and I would forever after love such places and associate them with my grandfather. But now we had exited the greenhouse and nothing was happening; I was bored and antsy and craving a what-next. My amorphous discontent turned to delight when I noticed a comic book lying on a bench.

It was a Felix-the-Cat comic, a special edition, small and thick, the size of a paperback book. I ran over and picked it up, flipped a few pages, and immediately assumed ownership. It would be fun to carry around and peruse at my leisure, a found treasure that even my older brothers would envy.

A young boy approached the area as we were walking away, and somehow I knew that his mission was to retrieve the comic book. He looked beyond us purposefully, certain that he had left it on the bench, not noticing that it was in my hand. My grandfather whispered to me in his bumpy broken English that the comic book belonged to the boy and I needed to return it.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I was obnoxious and indignant. Finders keepers, that sort of thing. The book had been abandoned and it was meant to be mine. My grandfather looked at me with a kind of weary resignation, his babysitting duties thankfully almost over, and rather than have to deal with my whining, he deftly took the book from my hand and slipped it under my jacket.

Had he learned this trick stealing bread as a boy from some Neapolitan street vendor, lifting sausage from a butcher shop, absconding with fruit from an orchard not his? He had executed the motion with such cool and expertise. Now I felt the book snug against my chest, and I moved stiffly to keep it in place.

The boy looked at me accusingly. I saw him say something to his mother and point at me. But my grandfather’s presence gave me an aura of innocence and respectability I didn’t deserve.  An old man would surely not facilitate a petty theft or condone such dishonest behavior.  Neither the boy nor his mother confronted us. I had made my grandfather an accomplice to my crime, and we had gotten away with it.

In the end, of course, I didn’t enjoy possessing the Felix-the-Cat book, and I couldn’t understand why I had wanted it so much. Even as we walked through the gates of the botanical garden, I had an impulse to let it slip from my jacket and fall to the ground, and I would have gladly left it there to be trampled by feet and rained upon. But on some level I understood that my grandfather had compromised his ethics to appease my want and shut me up, and I didn’t want him to see how little the coveted comic meant to me now. I owned it, and I owned the sordid history of its acquisition, and these were heavy things to carry. My grandfather wasn’t proud of me or himself that day, and somewhere in Brooklyn there was a boy who had seen me for the unscrupulous little crook that I was.

It was a lesson in honesty and integrity taught in reverse. I learned that the value and pleasure in a thing is inextricably linked to how it was obtained. I learned that shame has weight. I learned that the stone facade of my grandfather could be worn down by petulance but this would never yield his love or the secrets of his past.

Posted in Family History, Memoir | 2 Comments

Despite A Pall That’s Fallen On All

The Santa Ynez Valley women hikers ascended Gaviota Peak last week, looked out upon fog as thick and white as a field of snow below, then walked beneath a trestle of blooming ceanothus as we came down Trespass Trail.

There are wildflowers everywhere.

Spring Equinox occurred in the Northern Hemisphere at 3:28 a.m. today, Pacific time.

Hilary in Wales tells me there are sheep with purple splotches on their backs outside her window, and “lambs with black-button eyes and noses, investigating irrelevant things like the metal of the fence, then skipping up to their mums to suckle.”

Meanwhile, at our place, a shy turtle that appeared after the rain has taken to sitting on a rock by the pond…vanishing with a splash when he senses our nearness.

My little lemon tree is heavy with fruit,  lemons so hefty and  numerous that I’m going to squeeze them and freeze the juice for future use. Maybe I’ll make some granita too, a summer treat for springtime.

Whales are migrating north through the channel in majestic procession, spouting v-shaped plumes of sea spray that are visible from shore.

Monte saw playful dolphins while he was out surfing, so near to him he could almost hear their breath, a mutual and peaceable awareness.

We’re getting things done: both abstract business and concrete tasks. Our paperwork is ready for taxes. My closet has been emptied of extraneous content. Monte installed storage units in the battery room, whacked weeds, and solved problems. I baked bread.

I walked with Cornelia at La Purisima Mission. We sat on sandy ground at the top of a hill overlooking the Lompoc Valley. The sun was warm, the earth hummed with life.

Beverly gave me a wooden nesting box for Western Bluebirds, tiny birds, bright blue and rust. I already have a glass bluebird-of-happiness in the window above the sink, but now I look forward to glimpsing some real ones.

It was a March birthday celebration. Kit put on a rock and roll record.  Bev and I danced in the kitchen, pausing to sip wine, check the fish, and stir the mushroom risotto.

Tomorrow my daughter will be in a room in London, defending her dissertation before a panel of scholars. Whatever the outcome, I’m proud of her.

I received a message this morning from a young man I met when I visited Istanbul. He told me then about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and so we stayed in contact, in a Facebook sort of way. “Poetry is a good reason to be friends,” he wrote today, and I couldn’t agree more. And isn’t it a miracle that we live in a time when a person in Istanbul can transmit an instant thought to some old gal in Gaviota?

Then I read these lines from “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”, one of my favorites among Nazim Hikmet’s poemsI didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty/to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train/watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return.

I fell in love with the world at least three times last week and allowed myself to feel it for long moments without ache of regret or premonition of loss. I guess I had to wait until past sixty. One day I even looked at myself through a gentle lens, forgivable, if not quite forgiven.

I  got an email too from a very kind man who worked at the assisted living facility where my mother used to live. “I prayed for you and your dear mother at Mass on Friday and yesterday,” he wrote. Even my Jewish mother would have recognized the love in this.

Speaking of the old ones, Lisa told me about her beloved godmother, who once went out into the light of a full moon at 2:30 a.m., despite being elderly and frail. Why? To pick figs from the fig tree in the moonlight, that’s all…no further explanation. She lost her footing, fell down, and lay there until she was discovered at dawn. But I don’t think she regretted the expedition. (I am sure I would have loved this lady.)

Nights have gotten noisy in the canyon: frogs are singing, cattle lowing, coyotes yapping. When the windows are open, we can hear the reassuring rumble of a distant train now and then, or a vessel at sea, or the sea itself.

Landis in Hawaii wrote with links to a few disturbing articles but told me to go for a good walk after I read them. Yesterday he sent images from the Stairway to Heaven hike in Oahu, in case I was in need of inspiration. His latest dispatch: “If we despair, we will have given trump yet one more victory.”

The great majority of our nation’s people recognize what is going on. The approval rating for the Parasite-in-Chief has hit a new low. Good people are rallying, meeting in church halls and living rooms, making calls, writing letters, signing petitions, sending donations, summoning up a newfound relentlessness and fighting back, seeing perhaps more clearly than ever what we love and need and refuse to lose to tyranny, incompetence, and greed.

But we are living under a pall; there’s no pretty way to say it. The shock and anger hit us daily, the revulsion, the dismay. It’s a pall, and it’s a poison, and every day brings a new assault to something we hold dear. Let the record show: we stood, we spoke, and we fought back.

Sometimes there was a dance in the kitchen. Sometimes the moon lured us outdoors. The pond turtle quietly returned. This is how it was. We continued.

Posted in Commentary, Memoir, Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment