I find myself stuck in a kind of limbo, and I know I’m not alone. I want to write, to be creative, to offer love and support to others in greater need than myself during these tough times, but it seems there is little I can do to escape the sodden feeling of helplessness, the ‘what’s the use?” worm in my brain, the anxiety of watching my country torn apart, the constant worry for friends and family in danger.
Like a compulsive shopper, I’ve been inundated with deliveries, yet only a few of them were signed for by me. Some of them were dumped on my doorstep as surely as a stained couch on the side of the road, but some of them I must admit I sort of rooted around in a dumpster to find, I didn’t ask for the garbage to be there, but let’s be honest, I’ve pulled some crap out of there that I do not need.
So I see no alternative. I’m returning these items I didn’t order. Check any box you like on ‘reason for return’; delivered to wrong address, doesn’t fit, item not as advertised, quality not as expected, pick any one you like, they all work.
Because while we can’t fix any of these major things on our own, namely-worldwide health problems, or global warming, or a crooked con-man getting elected and abusing our government in a sad quest for power at any human cost, we can work hard to lighten the load a bit for ourselves and others. I didn’t order any of those evil things, and while it can be argued that many people did, I don’t have to keep the negativity they heaped on the rest of us because of their ignorance and fear.
Still, it’s depressing. So I’m sending it back. Call UPS, drop it off at the post office, send those FB idiots on their way, it’s a struggle, no lie, but I’m about at the stage where if I don’t deliberately dig out of this hole of depression and helplessness, I’ll be buried alive.
That’s why I go out and take these silly pictures of myself. Wish I had a whole bunch of models, but I only have me, so I bought a cheap tripod that I can carry around hiking, a remote shutter, and threw some thrift store prom dresses in a back pack and headed out into nature with my cell phone. I have to do something, anything, to keep my spirits up, and if it makes other people happy to see me being ridiculous, (and having fun), that’s just bonus points!!
I’m returning the moping at home days, don’t need ‘em. I’m shelving the excuses for drinking too much every evening and replacing it with finding something positive to focus on. I’m rewrapping the lonely despair in its original packaging and stamping, ‘RETURN TO SENDER’ in big red letters on the outside. I’m sending the laconic lack of writing inspiration on a one way return and demanding the manufacturer replace it with what I ordered, some old-fashioned sit-your-ass-down hard work.
Because of course, except for the uncontrollable, I am the manufacturer. I created all these responses, maybe I didn’t order the cause of them, I didn’t ask to be stuck away from my family and incapable of so much as donating blood to help others, but instead of being frustrated that I can’t do more, I can try harder to do less for as many people as possible. It might be a letter, a silly note of hope and a free book. It might be a phone call to tell a joke in person, or a pie dropped off on a front porch, truth is, I don’t know all the things I can do yet because I haven’t used my brain to work on that. And that’s my fault. I was blessed with energy and some intelligence, and who’s wasting that? Me. I am.
I’ve been waiting, I guess. Now it’s time to wake up and start refusing those daily missives from myself that say, “Mope, hang out, there’s nothing you can do, this is a horrible day, month, year.” I had a stern talk with myself then offered some loving advice. I’m including here so you can use the same pep talk for yourself, and it went something like this: “Buck up shithead!! Get over yourself and be of use to someone else!!”
So I won’t talk about the death and the illness and the hungry and the financially fucked. I will step in and do what I can to make each of those things a little lighter, a little less long, and hopefully a little less scary. I know that I’ve been afraid, I think maybe we all have.
But life, such as it is right now, goes on, and I’ve decided it’s time to get back to it. Not by rushing around spreading germs and anger, but by doing what I can from where I am. And surprisingly, it’s been quite a lot.
And that makes me feel better. It leaves me with a flicker of hope that this shade won’t last forever, that most humans care more than they don’t. That the ones who promote cruelty can be drowned out by those of us raising our voices in song and encouragement, that we, in the amazing words of Amanda Gorman, can be the light.
Cast your own shadow by shining in the darkness. It ain’t easy, but it’s our choice.
Pack up all that misdirected bullshit and send it away.
One thing I do not miss about raising my daughters is the homework. Relearning math in a whole new, convoluted way, dealing with tears and bad internet, early mornings at the Coco’s so they could submit their work, the constant nagging to get it done. Though they have very different learning styles, both of them worked hard, got the job done, and were accepted into the college of their choice.
I still keep a few of their assignments. Because they attended Waldorf schools, there is a myriad of gorgeous art, hand written and illustrated histories of the world or cultures. One day I grabbed for a piece of paper to write a note on, and realized it was my younger daughter’s portrait of her sister for a report on her family. I was horrified that I almost defaced it. So I wrote on a box of cereal instead. Their efforts are precious to me, but they belong to them. It’s their work, their life, their efforts. Sure, I take pride in my girls, but they are both strong individuals, who were allowed to decide who they wanted to become, it wasn’t my job to make them be anything, it was my job to make sure they had a vast array of choices and information.
So I chose schools with diversity, art, and no religious affiliation. When one turned out to favor the rich and famous, (the kids were deciding on friends based on the square footage of their homes) I moved them. Though I’m an atheist, I made sure they had experiences in mosques, churches, nature, and temples, not difficult since both of them had best friends from varied religious backgrounds. They chose nature, enjoyed the Jewish celebrations, were fascinated by mosque, and the only comment they ever made on a christian church was after attending a particularly exteme one with two of their best friend/neighbors. We were driving in the car and I asked them what they thought of it. There was a quiet until the older one said, “Mama, it’s brainwashing!” Frankly, I was impressed she got it in one.
Nothing against honest grace, and I personally know many religious people who have dedicated their lives to helping other, all others, they do not exclude based on differences of race, sexuality, or faith, that is true grace. I salute everyone who lives with love and kindness in their hearts, but I do not believe for one second that attaching oneself exclusively to a particular ‘religion’ makes you one iota more worthy. That speaks to me of exclusivity, separation, presumed superiority. After all, if your belief is the ‘true’ one, then you are calling all other faiths a lie. Not a very nice way to build bridges.
The religion I taught my daughters is kindness and courage. Always err on the side of compassion, stand up against injustice, see through the trimmings and look down at the heart of the message. Do you need a church to participate in charity? No. Do you need a man to tell you what ‘god’ meant? No, that’s absurd. If you try to be patient and helpful, if you don’t tell lies and don’t do what you hate, the world will be an increasingly better place.
It’s brutal not to be with my magnificent daughters for the holidays. We had planned to spend it together in Venice, but that was cancelled, of course. Then we had plans to gather at my bestie’s house in LA, but I cannot be ‘that person’ who thinks this virus won’t happen to them and might hurt others, so hubby and I will spend the season at home with our cats, who are super excited about it I’m sure. So off I went to the post office with packages to try to alleviate my sadness at cancelling our trip to be with them, just to laugh and make cookies and watch the sea hurl itself at the shore with unfaltering persistence and cheer, when I spotted a tall, handsome person standing over some folded sheets of paper on the wet asphalt of the parking space next to the one I was taking. My first thought was wounded animal they might be trying to pick up or help?
But you don’t want to assume or intrude so I merely asked, “What’s the fascination?” as I got out of the car.
After an enigmatic glance at me, their regal, calm face turned its lofty focus back to the papers at their feet, “I’m just burning some racist shit someone put on the bulletin board.”
My reply leapt out of my mouth so fast I might have come off as overly eager. “Can I help?” I blurted.
They said, “Sure, if you’ve got a lighter.”
I did, so I dug it out of the glove box and the two of us went to work trying to get the moist paper to light. Like all racism and phobias, it smoked and resisted, hunkered down trying to deny change, even the most fundamental kind.
I didn’t try to read what was on it, though I caught a few of the expected words, Trump, conspiracy, (the latter spelled semi-phonetically) what surprised me was not that hatred and fear would rear their ugly heads at my local post office like Medusa at a tent meeting of snake handlers, after all our country has been fed a steady diet of lies delivered with con man, holy roller perfection for the last four years, that I sadly understand. What surprised me was what the note was written on. The ignorance was scrawled–misspelled, the letters retraced over and over again with a blue pen to make them bolder, which somehow only served to drive home the frantic confusion of the author, and make them that much more pathetic–across the back of child’s homework.
A few years ago printing a racist rant on the back of a second grader’s honest school efforts would have been a strange thing for me to reconcile, but it’s become so obvious that a large part of the darkness in which we find ourselves immersed is being systematically brainwashed into a new generation, and I wonder how these new humans will survive it. How do you make a better world when you insist on repeating the same hateful rhetoric? Repeated and retraced like those wobbly letters. But the fact remains that no matter how many times you try to make your words bolder, or your ravings seem reasonable, they are still feeble, misspelled, and written on very shaky ground.
And I wonder about the kid who had to answer to the teacher for not having the assignment. “The dog ate it,” pales as excuses go compared to, “My white daddy felt threatened.” It conjured up an image of a parent using their child’s school play costume to clean a shotgun, or the corn from their cafeteria lunch to make moonshine. “Sorry baby, Daddy’s gotta’ meetin’ tonight, now fetch me them sheets and git me another beer before you leave for kindergarten.”
Perhaps ironically, the homework used as a base for the rantings of a true ‘merican, appeared to be an elementary civics lesson, with questions like, “What makes a civilization?” Civilization is word that instantly conjures images of humans of all races building a better life through cooperation. So maybe it wasn’t ironic. Maybe the whole idea of humans getting along and possessing even vague similarities sent their caveman daddy off the deep end. Maybe it was the answers the child had written in an uneven juvenile hand, only slightly less proficient than the scrawl on the back, an answer like, “When they use cows and stuff.”
No! I imagine him thinking, what makes a civilization is white people, guns, and Jesus! Or that may be giving them too much credit, after all, the idea of civilization is a fairly advanced one, and this person is unlikely to believe that there was any such thing before nice white Europeans got here and wiped out the indigenous peoples. Of course to someone like this, even Europeans are alien. The concept that there were advanced civilizations ten thousand years before anyone even was ‘white’ would explode their tiny heads. And the reality that Jesus was not a white American has never even knocked at the door of their church. Through that door lies a fantasy land in which a blond, green-eyed ‘savior’ is depicted welcoming the tow-headed children, with nary a dark skinned human in sight. Because everyone who listened to the man on the mount would be heartily welcomed today at a South Georgia country club. Yeah. Right. I can just envision it, that khaki and plaid swathed crowd, quietly slurping bloody marys and eying each others’ camels to make sure their neighbor didn’t have the newer model as some guy told them it was easier for that camel to go through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to get into heaven.
I know what I’m talking about because that was my church, that’s the mentality I grew up with in the sixties. Oh sure, in a hail mary act of charity, the church sponsored some boat people, remember them? And every Sunday, there the two Laotian families were at service, giving all the nice white people something to point at and say, “That’s my purse, I gave them that, aren’t we wonderful? Look how magnanimous we are! How generous and kind!” Do you think any member of that congregation ever made friends with those people? Were they invited into their suburban homes? Were playdates scheduled with the children? Fuck no. Charity, for far too many church-goers and community do-gooders, that I’ve come across anyway, is naught but a claim to bragging rights. “We paid for the big house on the hill, four show horses, seven cars and that family of immigrants.”
That self-aggrandizing I’m familiar with. I suppose what still surprises me that people are so eager to display their profound sense of disconnection and stupidity so publicly. Writing a hate and conspiracy-filled rant and actually posting it on a community bulletin board for the world to see, I mean really. It’s like standing on a rooftop, or swinging from the big F on facebook, shouting at the top of your lungs, “I will not evolve!! I love my ignorance and I will clutch it to my chest with my pearls. If you try to make my life better, I will hit you with this stick.” Of course they don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know, if you know what I mean.
Because in this country, teachers and politicians and ‘faith’ leaders have lied and misled based on their own fears or need for control since our inception. I was a grown up before I learned that Africa had the richest kings in history, no one taught me anything about Africa, my teachers knew nothing about it. So when I traveled there I took some trouble to learn some history, and it was thrilling! Like discovering a new world that was right next door all the time. Ditto for the the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and anywhere else that wasn’t Christian and white.
I was that strange child who didn’t believe adults. The veiled racist jokes from even my parents, felt cruel, just…wrong. When, at eight years old, I noticed that all the quarterbacks in my dad’s beloved football games were all white and asked why, I was told it was because, while black athletes were all very well, they just weren’t smart enough to be quarterbacks and coaches.
Wow. Smart, honest children do not believe these lies, they just learn not to trust their parents. If kids simply get a chance to get to know people who look differently from them, there is no other conclusion at which to arrive except that we are all different, all the same, all flawed, fucked up, damaged, capable of different things, talented in different ways, and filled with the propensity to love, hate, hurt and heal.
But some people are freer to do those things than others. Some have to fight for even those simple human rights.
Don’t panic, don’t hate me, I’m not saying that straight white people don’t have to overcome shit, work hard, get up after being knocked down, they do. I’m just pointing out that they don’t have to overcome racism and or homophobia inparticular. They won’t face that obstacle. What’s weird is that they won’t even admit there is an obstacle. They can’t, because they equate it to having their accomplishments, or the lie of their natural superiority, challenged. If you think you are innately worth more, or better than, someone else, being told you had an advantage to get that way will rock your high-walled, well constructed dream world. You will feel, in effect, cancelled, dismissed, your very life and so-called accomplishments will lose value. In other words, it will make you face feeling exactly the way you treat others. Separate, lonely, and discounted. The truth is, you don’t mind dishing it out even unconsciously, but it incenses you to be called on it because it shatters the fiction you created about yourself.
It’s as though life on our planet is a massive music festival, and some people have chosen to stay, not just in one tent, listening to one artist, but in one tiny few square inches and a brief second of time, their feet nailed to the ground, listening to a single note or drum beat over and over and over again. Of course that would drive anyone insane, it’s no wonder really that these people are so pissed off and unstable. What a bland, restrictive life, if you didn’t pretend with all your might that you remain in that single place and narrow thought pattern because it is ‘the right one’ you would have to shout at the top of your lungs just to drown out the screaming in your head. Only to find, when you collapsed, hoarse and exhausted, that the horror was always with you, it was you. In your ravaged state you might notice that the festival is going on without you in the distance. Too far away for you to join in. The music is still playing, people are still dancing, it is only you who are left out. The laughter and happiness of those who embraced change and diversity taunts you where you lie, plotting and seething in the darkness beyond the edge of the light. Probably, you’ll eventually be eaten by racoons.
Naturally you’re angry, what did you really expect trying to force the world to your microscopic view? But here’s the deal. It was your choice. The smorgasbord is there for us all, you decided to select your entrée from the cat box.
So this magnificent person and I made a different choice, not just to block out that hateful noise, but to obliterate it. In gesture at least. And gestures can mean so much, but only if they are followed by action.
Today we found a use for that dichotomy of homework assignments, one side written by a child learning and one side written by a mental child refusing to learn. We lit it on fire and warmed our hands.
Then we smeared the ashes into a gray muddy mush, mixing it with the rotting leaves and the elk poop droppings, (Yes, the elk wander through the post office parking lot every month or so, eating the apples off the neighbors trees.) It wasn’t even worthy of sticking to the soles of our shoes, but the rain would wash even the remnants away before we got back to our cars.
I exchanged cards with the noble-faced note-burner, an artist! So excited to find a kindred spirit in this rural but sometimes small-minded beauty, and we said goodbye, got in our cars, and went back to the festivals of our varied and embracing lives. Leaving that missive of lonely hatred irreparably altered behind us.
Since we’ve been in what I like to call, Consideration-for-others-because-I’m-not-an-asshole Lockdown, few of us have bothered much to get out of pajamas, much less dress up. That’s fine by me! I’m a writer so comfy jeans and a sweater are my go-to grabs in the morning. Even when we go out in this casual part of the world, slacks and a little bit nicer sweater are all that’s required. Couture? I might as well dress up and put on a fashion show for the local cows.
It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere like Venice, Italy, where I generally make an effort to dress well out of respect for the locals there who always look fabulous. I also have a horror of being one of those Americans in their Disneyland T-shirts, runners, and yoga pants or shorts that really set off their cellulite. Nothing against having a little mottled fat, we all do, but do we really need to parade that stuff around 16th century palazzos and cathedrals? It’s just a bit…uh…tacky, but mostly it’s disrespectful. If you threw a elegant cocktail party and people showed up in flip-flops and tank tops would you be happy? With any luck, I’ll be back in Italy in December, but luck is wavering like a heat haze in the distance right now and what looks like my jewelled city waiting for me could be a sloppy mud hut of a mirage.
It’s also been a while since I’ve had to dress up all the time, for a living. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to wear makeup or get my hair done again. Honestly. Once you’ve spent two to four hours everyday in a makeup chair listening to not always so benign gossip you get realllllly tired of it. Especially when special effects are involved. I don’t even want to go into spending hours waiting for a plaster mold to dry on your face with straws stuck in your nostrils so you can breathe.
Then there are the clothes. The ones you have to get into every day in your dressing room after hours of fittings. Sometimes, like in “On Deadly Ground” I wore the same suit for at least two months. On the soap it was a constant fashion show. Once they left a price tag on a white turtle neck for me to put on under a sweater, and it was Armani, $900. Then of course, there are appearances, openings, galas, award shows and charity benefits where you cannot wear the same thing twice. I spent so many of those events just wanting to get home, throw on my cozies, and wash my face.
When I moved from my home in LA, I left almost all the glam there. I sold tons of jewelry, most of my designer formal wear went to resale shops, and tons of it went to local thrift stores. I was moving into a simpler life as a writer in rural beauty.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
But then Covid-19 happened and we were stuck at home without the option. I, as well as 83.9 percent of the world, got depressed. I was sad and lacking in energy, which, for someone nicknamed Action, is not acceptable.
I needed to buck up and to make other people smile. The grumpy ol’ man inside my head shook his gnarled fist at me and said, “Get off your ass and quit your damn moping, loser. And keep your bad attitude off my lawn!!”
Long ago my voice coach told me that when you feel lost and defeated you just have to do something, anything, just get started. So I decided to dress up and go take pics doing normal stuff. The photos were silly and fun, and harder than it looked. But it worked. I got a great reaction, and the responses were filled with smiles.So I did it a few more times and I will again.
My coach was right. Every time I get off my butt and do something; hike, cook, write, take pictures of nature, whatever, it revs me up, and I can do more.
So do something creative.
Then share it.
And just maybe,
It’ll get a smile.
Snow falls and swirls in puffs or icy shards, it smooths the surface of the world in a way that would seem to dim shapes and steal color. It makes everything look the same, dull and uniform.
But look again, each flake has the opalescent quality made of icicles, of water, of brilliant reflective facets that catch whatever light it meets. So when the sun, or the moon, or the streetlights strike the surface the glow of innumerable diamonds explodes in tiny bursts that combine and dance together, creating infinite patterns and motion. Blink and you will miss a unique fraction of a second.
That’s why Monet painted so many versions of Haystacks, effect of snow and sun. It’s probably my favorite painting in the Getty’s magnificent collection, and my daughters have always made fun of me for crying when I see it. But for me, it’s not just a haunting painting, it’s a miracle of light that this uniquely talented soul captured.
Ironically my girls get it now. They can spend more time studying art in a museum than I do. That didn’t happen accidentally, appreciation of all of forms of art, of true beauty, isn’t genetic, it doesn’t strike you out of the blue, you have to develop it.
That’s not to say you can tell someone what to love, once they are tuned into looking for what will fill their soul, it’s up to them to discover what that something is.
Joseph and I made it habit to routinely take the girls to visit museums, go to opera, plays, whatever opened them up. Owning and operating a Theatre, they obviously had to sit through a lot of Shakespeare, which they might not have loved as kids, but man did it help when they got to the part where they were studying or performing it at school. Just like taking them to visit Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam made the Holocoust real to them. Experience moves and educates. The more you know about history, the more fascinating it is. The same is true for art.
They always enjoyed a day out at the museum in LA, and LA is blessed with several top notch examples. We did not have so much luck on long trips where we dragged them to church after museum after historic location. One trip we took to Washington DC when they were about 7 and 12 ended with them wrapping their sweatshirts around their eyes and sitting in a corner, refusing to look at one more painting or object.
I didn’t blame them, really. They’d been great sports about the rest of it. Trips to Italy, Holland, France, and other art havens were better received. My older daughter actually carried her little sister on her back around the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to get her to pay attention.
These days either one of them might spend far longer than I do perusing a favorite or a new museum. They found their own loves and interests, but would they if we hadn’t encouraged and supported it so much? Probably not, and the joy they would have missed frightens me.
I was chaperoning my younger daughter’s school trip to the Getty and having a hell of time getting the kids interested in much—and these are art-trained Waldorff kids! Finally I spotted something I thought they would find interesting. When I had been in Venice, I had seen a painting of the lagoon that I knew had been done in segments, as a door decoration I think. I remembered it specifically because of a flower stem that disappeared at the top of the frame. Years later, I saw a flower in the bottom of a frame of a painting of Venice’s lagoon at the Getty. So I asked.
Sure enough, this was the top panel of that same group of paintings, and they had a handout that showed them put together. So I grabbed the loudest boy, (if you can get them interested, you can usually wrangle the rest) and I pointed it out to him. My daughter was instantly able to say excitedly that she had seen the other painting in Venice. Next thing you know, they are calling their friends over and pointing it out. After that, they paid more attention to the little stories I told them about paintings and artists that added to the experience of just looking at pigment on canvas.
The same, I think, is true in life’s behaviors. I have worked with or crossed paths with so many people that changed my life, perhaps not because of anything profound or earth-shattering, but simply because when I knew more about them, they opened my mind to beauty that I would never have seen.
We have been working with a 20 year old young man since we moved to Washington. He has come to help Joseph with building work, we pay him well, and feed him mightily. (Joseph and I call him ‘our big boy’ because I have to cook so much food for lunch and I always send him home with dinner.) He is always cheerful, grateful, and eager to learn all that Joseph teaches him. So far, he has developed a number of new skills and been able to get a better job as he’s working toward college.
Let’s get to know him better. He has two younger siblings, he lives in a trailer with no kitchen and two deserted kittens he found. When he was eight years old, his father went to prison. When he was 13 his mother went to prison. This remarkable thirteen year-old boy raised his siblings on his own with help from a few neighbors who would come over with meals when they could. His grandmother was technically their guardian, but she was seldom there.
Yet, this constantly smiling young man did well in school, had coaches in wrestling that got him to state competitions, and now he really wants to go to college and possibly join the reserves. And he still looks after his sibs. He recently thanked us for the days’ work because it would allow him to pick his 17 year old sister up from school and take her to do something for her birthday.
What do you think of him now? The colors are brighter, aren’t they?
Here’s what we think of him. He is deserving, he is cheerful and positive in the face of challenges most of us have never known. We will help him because we can. We are looking into paying for community college for him for a couple of years until he can hopefully transfer to the university he has always wanted to attend. Shhhh, it’s a secret, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know much about blogging, since he doesn’t have a computer.
Snow is heavy, and cold, and wet, and it blankets all the sharp edges beneath, sometimes making them even more dangerous. It hides mud and blood alike, it’s harder to move through and easier to resent.
But look again. Look at the light off that snow when the clouds break and you see it more clearly, even if only for a glimpse. Isn’t it beautiful?
Take a moment and learn something about someone else.
Their story is not yours, so don’t judge it as such.
Happy New Year! So whoo hoo, it’s a click of the clock, a difference of dates on an arbitrary calendar, a ‘new’ beginning. Such anticipation, so much celebration, so many champagne corks popped, advertising sold, intentions stated, and pressure applied to have fun. When? Well, not yet, not yet, okay, go, go, go! Right now! Oh bummer, you fell asleep and missed it!! We work ourselves up into a frothy lather, and deservedly so, after all the most amazing thing is going to happen. That’s right—It was one assigned number and now…wait for it…it’s another! Miracle of miracles! Light the fireworks and wake up with a hangover!
Ah, that one specific switch of digital numbers clicking over is unprecedented, amazing, and miraculous, it’s a unique opportunity to alter everything about ourselves, to plan for the future, to take it all back, to erase our errors or promise perfection, to set ourselves up for spectacular failure, it’s the one time of year, (or the change over between them anyway) that we can truly affect real changes in our lives, make a fresh start, really start living—or, no, uh…wait…
Maybe, just maybe—stay with me now—it’s just another random moment in the unrelenting passage of time in our dimension? Maybe celebrating ‘new year’ is another case of humans buying into a fake concept to amuse themselves, to invent some cause for community, to stick a marker in our chaotic and brief existence?
Not that that’s bad.
I mean, it occurs to me that just because somebody assigned random numbers to define our days and moments, which, fair enough, many of us agreed to, doesn’t make one ‘official time’ any more powerful or transformative than every other second, minute, day, year, decade or millennium. I mean, unless you aren’t Christian-European descended (What? There is more than one calendar in use on the planet? Yes, over forty in fact. Doesn’t that just rock our Christian-centric world!) you’ve collectively agreed to mark the change on a midnight in mid-winter, (ironically a pagan holiday which actually made sense for a celebration of the earth’s position in the solar system) but we could just as easily have chosen a late afternoon in mid-summer, or twilight in early fall, or dawn on any given Tuesday.
And by the way, where and when is the official, actual, really, really, honestly true new year? Shouldn’t we all agree on a single moment? It is the whole world we are talking about. Is the ‘true’ new year in Bangkok, or Paris, or Bimidji, Minnesota? How can there be an actual ‘change over’ when the moment comes at different ‘times’ in different places? We can’t even narrow it down to one in our own country, much less the whole world. Technically, there should be 24 different time zones, and therefore two dozen non-simultaneous new years, but thanks to the International date line, and the fact that some time zones change in 30 or 40 minutes rather than an hour, there are actually 38 time zones. (And that’s for our calendar, there are over forty different calendars worldwide, see above.)
38 time zones. 38 chances to celebrate a completely made up marker.
There is some method to the madness, some reason and explanation, some phenomenon to mark, of course, and that is the earth’s rotation around the sun, the fact that another solar year has been completed, another circumnavigation round the big ol’ ball of fire we call ‘the’ sun on our tiny, insignificant planet.
Insignificant, that is, in the scope of the universe. So if you are looking at the big picture, planet earth in a infinite, ever-changing universe is temporary at best. From down here, seeing how it’s the only planet we’ve got, it’s a pretty big deal—and the reason we measure time. Unfortunately, we stopped acknowledging nature and science as the supreme wonder when all us pesky humans invented religions. Marking mid-winter, an important date to be sure, was hijacked and renamed Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Mawlid, and many others, None-the-less, the world keeps turning, the sun keeps getting lapped, and time goes ever on even as civilizations, continents, religions, humans and yes, even planets, come and go.
Yet it’s a big moment, this passing of another year. A truly remarkable thing. This ‘holiday’ celebrates the almost unfathomably complex journey of a big hunk of rock, (or tiny speck of debris, depending on your perspective, see above) hurling through open space subjected to both centrifugal force (being pulled outward by spin and motion) and gravity (being pulled toward a far more dense mass, the sun) finding a balance on a scale that dwarfs any comparison to like-phenomenon taking place on the planet itself.
Which is pretty awesome.
But you have to admit that you could say that about every single second of every day. I mean, maybe we finished a lap back to this starting point, but what about the one just before, or after, that one? If you lined up 365, okay, 365 and ¼ days, (okay, 365.2422, but who’s counting?) and made any given second in any day a starting point, you would reach every single one of those ‘starting points’ again once a year.
It’s a circle dummies.
So here’s my point, as insignificant and cynical as you may find it. You get to decide when to start over. You say when to celebrate. You can change your life, make a resolution, forgive, love, start over, go back, end it all, or just plain quit worrying about it all any time you choose. In any second, of any day, in any season, you can start a diet, join a gym, raise your fist and swear at the moon, give up alcohol, find joy, thrill at life, drink champagne, kiss a loved one, or go walk about without permission or prompting from anybody.
I hadn’t planned to go to Prescott Arizona, but when one of my husband’s few remaining relatives took a fall and relapsed from her brain surgery, I grabbed a carryon, threw in a few sweaters and headed for the airport.
I didn’t want to go to the deep red state, carpeted with sage brush and gun stores in seemingly equal proportion, where the air is so dry and the people are so conservative it makes my nose bleed, but someone needed me—so I zipped up my suitcase and my mouth and went to help. It’s what you do.
I have lots of family, and sadly, as with every family, I have lost quite a few of my very favorite relatives, I’ve sat bed-side at home hospice through the end, cleaned houses turned to hoarders’ caves by senility, and spent endless hours dealing with lawyers, hospitals, insurance companies, and hysterical loved ones who selfishly tried to make it all about them. I’ve shopped for caskets, planned memorials, and visited gravesides and hospitals enough for a lifetime. I have comforted, fought, stepped up, and wept, I have wept as I thought I would never weep again.
Until I did.
Luckily, overall my side of the family is a healthy, long-living bunch. My mom is one of seven sisters and I have a large family on my dad’s side too, so there are plenty of aunts, uncles, first, second and third cousins to keep those photo Christmas cards rolling in. I look forward to seeing how everyone has grown, where they’ve gone on vacation or to school, who’s starting college, graduated, gotten married, pregnant, addicted, arrested, the whole sordid, magnificent, ongoing, family saga.
But my husband is an only child with no offspring of his own. He has only one first cousin who also has no children, so his generation is functionally the last. He wanted children of his own very badly, but instead opted to care for my girls and raise them with me. It wasn’t always a job filled with gratitude or promotion, but ultimately they came to love and treasure him because he adores them, takes care of them, always puts them ahead of himself, but mostly because he treats me like a treasure and they like to see me happy.
But it’s not the same, I know it’s not. I know that he gave up the dream of marrying a younger woman than me (I’m four years older than he and didn’t meet him until I was 40) who could give him children and the subsequent family that flows ever outwards in the form of in-laws, grandchildren, future wives’ second families, ad infinitum.
Okay, maybe only one wife, but you get my drift. Some families seem to keep expanding like yeast when you soak it in water, and some families sort of slowly empty like a cookie jar that no one refills. Once, shiny and new, it was stuffed with multiple generations, group gatherings, weddings, and birth announcements, but now it sits, chipped and gathering dust on the countertop, and all that is left inside are the funerals and a fading family album.
But that doesn’t mean the cookies weren’t delicious.
It’s odd to say, but I think being part of a large, extended family is both an advantage and a drawback when it comes to hardships and death. I suppose the fact that I have been through much loss makes me better prepared to handle the tragedies when they come, on the other hand—they come more often.
I’ve learned things. I know who to speak to if you want to get the right care, I know not to harass nurses for doctors’ information, or challenge the insurance company without a lawyer, I know what details should not be allowed to fall through the cracks, I know people will lose it sometimes, that they will laugh inappropriately to keep from going insane, I know how much work it is to clean up after a life and dismantle a home, I know that relatives will fight over things they never cared for in life, I know that this too shall pass, and I understand that I will now have a new indelible date on my calendar—a death date.
Stepping back into caregiver role is familiar for me as it is for many people my age, especially women. It so often falls to us to care for the infirm or hold a hand as a spirit slips quietly over. I know what it is to have someone in room with you one second, and then they just aren’t there anymore. I truly believe that in general women have more strength for suffering of all kinds. Throughout our lives we have dealt with blood and pain on a monthly basis, seemingly irrational emotional upheaval has been a frequent visitor, and cleaning unthinkable messes is all too familiar to us. I don’t mean to discount the strength that men have, it can be profound, but it is seldom sublime.
The times in my life when I have forced myself to function while tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and my voice broke from the strain of debilitating emotion are too many to count. Inevitably when this happens to me whoever I am dealing with, confronting, or comforting, will tell me to calm down or try to sooth me. Mostly because an honest display of feeling makes them uncomfortable. To this I always say, “I am fine. My emotion is not a weakness, it is a strength. I can, and will, go on. I can feel all of this and remain standing”
So when people start to lose it around me, I double up on grit. I get so full of grit I might as well be made of sand, and sand, as we all know, melts into glass. I have never been through the fragility of a severe illness or a death and not come out of it feeling more beautiful and enriched than I was before. The hue of sand may be bland, but after it passes through the fire, it turns into colors that deepen and strike back at the sunlight that strives to pass through them.
But not everyone has that sense of recovery or the experience to know that they will. Some people have bad things happen and say, ‘why me?’ rather than, ‘my turn.’ So when I was talking with my Aunt-in-law, who has no children and made most of her life choices around herself all her life, my perspective was somewhat different than hers.
In the last ten years this aunt has lost her parents, in their eighties, her brother, in his sixties, and her much older husband. This is nature, this is the circle. Family members grow old and they die, and if there are no children, the family line eventually ends. This is a fact, not a punishment. So when she looked at me with tears in her eyes and bleated, “What is happening to this family?” I was able to look back at her with a smile as sure as dawn and say, “Every family goes through these things.” Then I told her that because of my charity I have often dealt with families losing a young child and pointed out the difference between losing a three year old and a husband in his eighties. I know it’s not any easier to lose a husband than a child, but I never met a parent who wouldn’t change places with their child, if only they had been given the choice. I told her that my great-grandmother buried all five of her children before her own death at 104. That shocked her into a different, much needed, perspective.
Then I sat down and took her hand. I told her the Buddhist story of a woman who lost her child and was so distraught that she went to the monk in her village and asked him what to do, she wanted nothing but to die.
He gave her an empty jar and told her, “Take this jar around the countryside, and every time you find someone who has not lost a loved one, ask them to put one pebble in the jar. When the jar is full, return to me and I will tell you what to do.” So the woman took the jar and went from village to village, from house to house, but she never did get even one pebble, for every family had lost someone beloved. What she did find were others who had suffered as she was suffering and and they comforted her, they understood and shared her loss. What she found was that she was not alone, that death and loss were an integral part of being human. At long last, she returned to the monk, gave him the empty jar, and thanked him before going on with her life, always taking time to help others through their losses and their own unique, but familiar, unfathomable pain.
The time came for me to return home for other family responsibilities and my husband stayed on, he’s still with his aunt. At the departure gate, I received a phone call that another family member (mine this time) has just been diagnosed with cancer, and so that journey begins. Already filled with leaden sadness, my trip home was one misadventure after another, nasty airline personnel, bad directions, a bumpy flight through storm clouds, lost parking ticket, and on and on until it cumulated in me leaning against a trash can in front of terminal two at San Jose International and crying from my gut just long enough to bleed that poison out before bucking up and getting on with it. If anyone bothered to notice, they may have thought I was weak or broken, but it was exactly the opposite.
Somebody needs me, and I need to be there.
We all get a turn. We all hold a hand, feel the desperation of not being able to make it better, we all wake up at night and dread the coming dawn, we all think we will not be able to take one more step. But we are not alone. Each of us knows devastation to our souls at some point. Though we may feel that no one suffers as we do, if we search for them, the jar stays empty, at least until we fill it with compassion and memories.
With both girls off to college, my husband and I decided it was time to live a simpler life with less to worry about and take care of. It came to this. We had too much stuff and it was weighing us down, anchoring us to one place and we wanted to lift off, fly, to travel and soar. So we started the process. We sold or gave away everything we thought we could part with, including our home of 14 years. Even with the cleansing, we had quite a bit left, so we piled almost all of that stuff into two storage pods the size of semis, and bought a 38 ft trailer. For the trailer adventure, we took very little stuff, a half-dozen of our favorite small works of art, a handful of rare books, some kitchen basics, a silver champagne bucket and candelabra, (just the bare necessities) a scrabble set, and roughly enough winter clothes to fill a medium-sized suitcase. Then we hooked the camper onto the back of his truck, and headed north. The only thing I was afraid I would really miss living in a camper were our fireplaces, so hubby installed a tiny wood stove.
After the months of stress involved with selling a house, packing up a life, and getting a house, guest house, pool and ten acres perfect for the new owner, on January 8, 2017, we finally pulled away from Angeles National Forest, drove up above Ojai, pulled into our first campsite and hunkered down. I woke up the next morning to the sound of a babbling stream and rain on the roof and knew we had made the right choice. We spent a couple of weeks there then moved on to another stunning location. We let the wind take us and wherever we landed, every night we would make a fire in our tiny wood stove, and listen to the rain or the ocean, or the wind in the trees. Everyday we would explore, delighting in beauty and learning a little more about our new way of life—including the fact that very few RV parks take 38 ft campers. At every campsite the kids would gather around our fluffy dog Thor, and the women would knock tentatively on our door after spotting the smoke rising from the stovepipe chimney, asking if they could see the wood stove, they would exclaim in delight at the one foot-square, glass-fronted stove with it’s tiny blaze, and then return to their own trailers and sulk, glaring at their husbands who hadn’t gotten them a tiny fireplace of their own. So…that was fun.
After a few months, we made it to Santa Cruz, parked under towering redwoods overlooking a river, survived a flood, and started looking for houses. We found one that was listed as a tear down, bought it for an unbelievable low price, (thanks hubby!) and he went to work. In the meantime summer was almost here and campsites get crowded and surprisingly expensive in this gorgeous part of the world, so we rented an apartment on the ocean and even though it was only a small one bedroom I had to buy some furniture basics and expand my wardrobe from four sweaters and jeans to include more seasonally appropriate clothes. We acquired almost all of our new belongings from re-use places or thrift stores. It’s more fun to find treasures, or rentals, as I thought of it, because all of these new things are temporary. Remember now, we have two semi’s packed with our real stuff somewhere in the nether-regions of the greater Los Angeles area. We don’t actually know exactly where of course, but they (the people who cash our monthly checks) assure us that it’s somewhere out there. I have this mental image of a place not unlike the last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Arc” filled with people’s stuff that they will pay more to store than it’s worth by the time they retrieve it.
Then, since she finished college, our daughter and her four roommates moved out of the house they had rented, and since she didn’t have a new place and was traveling for the summer, she needed a place to keep her stuff, which was mostly stuff she had taken from our house. So now we had her stuff, most of which went into the trailer to be stored, which was now in its own storage. (another monthly check, but at least I know where it is.) Joseph is amazingly gifted with both vision and endurance when it comes to building pretty much anything, so within a few months we were able to leave the one bedroom apartment and move into the two bedroom, two bath house on the San Lorenzo river that he had taken from crumbling to dust to jewel box, (thanks honey!) so of course I had to buy more stuff. At first I only gathered what we needed to make ourselves and our girls comfortable, but when we decided to sell some coherent style was required. So my intrepid friend Michelle—she of impeccable taste—showed up to help us ‘stage’ the house.
Boom. Those guys in the cute brown shorts started delivering more stuff. Matching armchairs, rugs, lamps, side-tables, throw pillows, coffee table books, vases, candle holders, dining room table, chairs, all chosen and purchased late at night after a bottle of wine or on furious shopping sprees. Michelle and I whipped through Ross’s, Marshall’s, Home Depot, and every antique shop in Santa Cruz county. In three days, she had that place thrown together and I had a house full of new stuff.
The house sold, we did very well, (thanks honey!) quadrupling our money, (quadruple is a verb, right?)and we decided to rent for a while so as not to be rushed into buying something we didn’t love. I chose a three bedroom home with a huge living area, two fireplaces, two big decks on a creek, and a large yard.
Initially the plan was to have those storage pods we’d left in Los Angeles limbo delivered and unloaded so we could use our old stuff, but very quickly we realized that this leased home didn’t have room for that much stuff on top of the stuff we just bought for the river house, so we’d have to get more stuff to have enough stuff for this house. Trouper that I am, I headed out and bought home more stuff. Now I have a house full of stuff here, and two gigantic storage pods holding another entire house full of stuff, and a trailer in storage stuffed with more stuff.
For someone who was eager to live a much less material life, I sure do have a lot of stuff. Now, I have a year to stay put. I’m so excited to have the time and peace to write again, I hope I remember how. Before that year is up, we’ll be looking for other houses, one to flip over and one to flop into. After having done it four times within a year and a half, I can tell you with great confidence that moving is a crapload of work, especially if you have a lot of stuff.
Which I did.
Then I didn’t.
And now I do.
More than ever.
I’m not sure where we’ll land but I’ll tell you this,
So I’m having a bad day, like you do. It’s not so much that bad things are happening to me as it is that anything that does happen is being processed through my filters as emotional torture. You know the kind of thing, someone is rude at the grocery store and you can’t let it go, someone else has four dogs off the leash on a walk in a state park where it is clearly marked ‘no dogs’ and when you mention this, you get a condescending, “Thank you,” before the bitch returns to her loud cell phone call while her dogs harass the wildlife and poop on the trail and as much as I’d like to I can’t bring myself to drop kick one of the canines into the stream, (the rules don’t apply to them after all) my daughters are criticizing me for ______ (fill in whatever works for you cause I am not alone in this), there’s a dead fawn on the road where everyone speeds like idiots because it’s their god given entitlement to kill everything in their path because they want to go fast. Pretty soon I’m stuck on the ‘people suck’ loop and I’m crying for no apparent reason and contemplating returning to drug addiction or wondering if anyone will notice if I just move to a remote village in the Abruzzi.
But no, people need me here. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. I get overwhelmed by the sheer annoyance of not being able to end it all because eventually someone will need help moving, a recipe, a ride to the hospital, or a babysitter. And I, sigh, will raise my hand and volunteer.
Being needed is a blessing…and a curse. I suppose that’s because the required minimum—making small talk with people who watch reality TV, showing up at family events to be mocked by your siblings, listening to your father make racist jokes that he thinks are funny and innocent without taking his head off, and not letting the general public’s general bad behavior ruin every outing—take so much energy.
Okay, it saps my life strength. Over the years I’ve come to dislike people, not all of them of course, but the more I paid attention and shifted what is important in my life from surface success to actual kindness and decency on every level, the more disappointed I became.
So recently my 82-year old father and his wife were moving out of their home of 30-something years in Atlanta and the entire nasty pack up and move fell onto my only sibling left on the east coast, I decided I’d better go help. My oldest daughter, knowing that if I had to sit a house with Fox news blaring all day without emotional back up I might actually commit patricide, courageously offered to come and help.
Now there’s nobody who collects shit and hangs onto it more efficiently and pointlessly than wealthy white folks. I kid you not there were a dozen full sets of china, countless boxes of unused and unopened stemware, expensive suits and dresses with the tags still on them that were out of style in the late nineties, and three punch bowl sets, one of them with 52 cups. When my step mom said she wanted to keep it, I asked her how often she was going to have a garden party with 52 guests. She shrugged and said, “Who knows?”
I do. I know. Never. I used to entertain like that, but no more. Fact is, it got to the point that I realized I was throwing parties, spending thousands of dollars and weeks of effort, to entertain people who didn’t appreciate it at all. I think I swore it off after the time I used the Limoge china at a garden party only to find two broken plates shoved under chairs the next morning and cigarette butts ground out on my patio. Enough. And after years of taking in every orphan who had no where to go on holidays, including them in my family celebrations, putting them up, buying them gifts, and cooking for twelve, pretty much every one of those people completely blew me off when I divorced the last husband. My response to that when I climbed, still bleeding, out of the back of the closet where I’d been licking my wounds was ultimately, “Good riddance,” but it took a while to heal from that poison arrow puncture.
It’s come to the point that I’m in danger of becoming a recluse, which is fine, because my husband is the same way, but eventually and inevitably….somebody is going to need a hand cleaning their apartment so that they get their deposit back and I have all the pine-sol.
So after I get back from doing my good daughter deeds in conservative hell and I’m having this bad day, I’m driving around looking for a place I can pull over and just curl up in the leaf litter alone for a good hour or so of self-pity, otherwise I’ll go swimming with rocks in my pockets, when I get a text from older daughter. ‘Have you talked to my sister? She’s at the clinic at school.’
Time to be mom and shut down all concern for self. I turn the car around and drive to campus, find the clinic, and then find X-ray where she’s having her head examined, literally. Parking is a bit a challenge, but once I work that out I start trying to find a way to get into a building that was clearly designed to confuse and confound the non-student-or-faculty-visitor. Still fragile and feeling like my nerves are stretched thinner than five hundred feet of frayed, tangled dental floss, I see two young women sitting on a bench outside the building. They are hugging, one’s head tight into the other’s shoulder. I do not know if they are friends, lovers, or strangers thrown together in some difficult moment, but it does not matter. What I see is love, compassion, real connection. Tears start streaming down my face and as they both look up at me, I say in a choked voice, “That makes me happy. I’m having a really bad day and that really makes me happy.” I am aware that I look and sound like an emotionally unstable wreck and while I learned long ago that experiencing my emotions honestly is a strength not a weakness and that I cannot control what others think, I am just hoping that I don’t freak them out.
And then the miracle happens. They both make eye contact and smile with authentic warmth, the one with her head down says, “Oh, I’m so glad!” with such enthusiasm that the fog in my head and heart dissipate in an instant, clearing so that the light on the dogwoods around us and the shadows of the ferns on wall shine with fresh beauty. They were just as beautiful a moment before of course but as I said, my filters, like sunglasses smeared with pond scum, would not allow me to experience it.
I continue past them, tears coming harder, but joyous now. Yes, my pain and my fullness are my strength, I know this, and sometimes, just every once in a while, some one else sees that too.
My daughter turned out to have a sinus infection instead of leaking brain fluid, so…that’s good, and most important. But almost equally elating was the look on her face when I came into the exam room. The shy, almost child-like smile that let me know she was glad I could be there even as she told me I didn’t need to come. She doesn’t need me, this one, she was born independent, but she was still glad for my presence.
And that’s why I will continue to volunteer to be dragged over the searing coals of the emotional exposure BBQ. Few people in our lives will appreciate the percentage of effort or the sacrifice of our personal happiness that giving up our own peace of mind just to care—for them and their world—costs us. That’s okay.
I’m glad I went to help my Dad, even if my blood boiled at his willful ignorance and apathy. (We don’t recycle, it’s too much trouble. Global warming is bullshit.) I’m really glad I took a small portion of the responsibility off of my sister, the one of the four of us who always does what’s right. I’m glad I get angry when people treat others or their environment with disdain and arrogance. I will endure the exhaustion that comes from fighting for others who can’t fight for themselves and for a future I will not live to see. I’m glad that I can speak through tears when I needed to stand up to someone for treating me or others badly. So many people see those things as weakness, as unnecessary, as overwrought, or they just plain resent you because caring or calling them out makes them uncomfortable.
My husband and I recently gave ourselves the gift of a few days in Yosemite National Park. There were jaw-dropping vistas, cliffs so dramatic they make you weep, waterfalls that remind you how mortal you are, and rivers and trees that murmur the blessings of Mother Nature to you, welcoming you home. All of it is so special and remarkable that you feel that you are the first, that this is a gift just for you.
The city smut sloughs off of you and you can clearly feel your exhaustion. You hadn’t been aware of how depressed and isolated you had become. The separation from anything real snuck up on you, seeping in insidiously until you had lost hope in this current, science-denying country of ours, and assumed everyone but you saw Mother Nature as a big ol’ whore to be pimped to the highest bidding john.
But you look again, and miracle of miracles, you realize there are others. Many others. “Oh,” you say with tears of surprise and relief in your eyes as you see that someone else cares, “I thought I was the only one left who gave a shit.” There are many who have come to be in this sacred space to remember who they are. People who realize that without wilderness, we can never know ourselves, or our place in the world. Individuals, like yourself, who value the world as it is rather than reducing it with their small-minded greed to a disposable commodity. People who know that we have fucked up—big time—but it’s not yet too late, not quite, and they will not let her die without a fight. These people are the planet’s medics on the battlefield, the last line of defense against the disease of the uncaring ravagers and pillagers. We humans, meant to be the stewards of nature, have instead wounded the world, lost our way, but there is a path that leads back. It’s a sobering thought that the world will not be healed in our lifetimes. Bringing back a healthy environment will take generations.
Which is one reason that, as much as I love my own experiences hiking or exploring or just admiring, I get a real visceral thrill when I see and hear children’s enthusiasm that matches, or even exceeds my own. I love sharing my meager knowledge, or pointing out a deer in the trees, or maybe encouraging them to take off their shoes and feel the cold water and smooth stones of the creek on their feet. If they don’t know it, they can’t love it, and if they don’t love it, they won’t protect it.
When I was a small child, my mother said she had to get a hold of me if we ever went somewhere high with a view because I would race to the edge with my arms flung wide and scream at the top of my lungs. Every daring glimpse of the cosmos was a gift, just for me, and I took it.
My mom called it energy, and it was, but it was something more than just my personal energy, more even than childish unbridled joy. It was a few precious seconds of connection with the swirling, glorious infinity of nature and the universe. I know that feeling, I remember it. I still get it, though people freak a bit if, as an adult, I launch myself to the edge of a precipice and scream. I don’t know why—just one of life’s many mysteries. So I’ve learned to temper my reaction, sadly, but my husband still gets a hold of my belt when we get close to high, open places. He is wary of my impulse to be out in that air, to experience sitting in the twenty story windowsill or on the edge of bridges. Both of which I’ve also been known to do, feet dangling over the width and breadth of San Francisco bay, or the lights of a city night.
In that same spirit I have twirled on rooftops, waltzed on the Eiffel tower, whooped with bliss on the African Savannah, hummed with the crickets in the forest at night, leapt from a rocky cliff into the chill of the magnificent Pacific, and laid down in the rain with my face up to the sky, watching the water fall. Note, it’s important to squint when you do this, it makes it easier to keep your eyes open.
And why? For life, to feel the whorl and tides of unmitigated force and vitality. It’s a precious gift and I damn well am going to open it every chance I get.
Possibly the only thing I enjoy as much as gulping in bliss and nature is watching and hearing kids do it. Their enthusiasm is endless, not unlike my own, and their expressions have not yet been tempered or their unchecked joy corrected, limited, and restrained. Their awe is unbridled and infinite.
Sometimes, probably unfairly, it makes me nuts when people treat an outing to someplace like Yosemite as a photo shoot for their kids. Reining them in from the hugeness of the experience to try to contain it in a few thousand pixels. I get it, we all want to document our experience and to share it, but not at the cost of the kids discovering it while they’re there.
So it’s nice to find a balance. I was at the base of Yosemite falls and a mom with two boys, very young, maybe 3 and 5, was trying to line them up for a photo, drawing them away from the toddler-mind-blowing reality in front of them. Away from the now for a future reward. The younger boy slumped, hands hanging almost to his knees as he moaned, “Why do we always have to take a picture?” His older brother, no doubt sensing the inevitable and wanting to get it over with, threw an arm over his little brother’s shoulder and drew him close. Turning their backs on the object of delight to pose for mom, he explained, shouting over the roar into his brother’s ear, “Because these are memories.” As he said the word ‘memories,’ he stretched the last syllable, turning the eee sound, into a big smile, which he turned toward the camera. Click, and they were back to the moment where they belonged, exhilarated at the sheer thrill of the explosive power of falling water. They leaned over the stone bridge and screamed into the crash of impact and danced in the magical mist that engulfed them.
And that’s our life, sometimes we take the gift of now, and sometimes we wrap one up for the future into a tiny computer file to look at later and bring the memories and the sensations of something grander than ourselves back to us when we sit at our desks or in the carpool lane. A gift of now for the future, just for you.
I suppose that’s what a great family trip in nature is, a gift for now and for later.
“Please,” I pray to Mother Nature, “please let the children remember. Let them love you so that they find the courage to protect you.”
And she whispers back to me, “It is in their soul now, it always was, but here they have found it again.”
Then, being Mother Nature and a bit unpredictable not to mention snarky, she adds, “And it’s on mom’s cellphone, so…you’re welcome.”
Then she winks and fades away with the most glorious sunset that ever was, to work her magic on the twilight.
For the last couple years, every time I visited a certain area of my daughter’s campus, my car was attacked by a turkey. He was an angry, brave little dude, darting fearlessly into the street and pecking ruthlessly at the tires on a mysterious mission that we may never fully understand.
This local wild turkey had for some reason decided that he had had enough of these fools overwhelming his homeland. The many students hurrying to class or studying on the lawns of the nearby library had grown accustomed to the aggressive fowl, barely taking notice as cars seeking shelter in the nearby parking lot were forced into gridlock when confronted by the university’s very own, and very real, angry bird. He comes out charging, head down, feathers slightly ruffled so that his stunted wings looked more like spoilers on a coupe, as he fearlessly holds his own against two ton hunks of motorized metal. He was almost as persistent as the metered-parking enforcers that lurk amongst the trees wielding citation pads. Almost.
And now, after a good year or two of breeding and gene transference there are no less than eight attack turkeys. General T has taught his family well. An avian army is mustering. One has to wonder what’s in store for these rebels as they continue to reproduce, passing on the DNA of aggression to the next year’s generation. What will it be like over at the Engineering department next year, or even a decade from now? I envision students and faculty in shin guards, riding in armored campus buses, or hurrying fearfully between buildings and lecture halls while turkeys with bandana covered faces chant, “Humans will not replace us!” while brandishing pine cones and twigs in a menacing manner.
Hey, I don’t blame the birds for their random acts of violence. They live all summer, as they have for thousands of years, in this pristine forest filled with redwoods and ferns, and all of a sudden here come seventeen thousand humans in the fall, reeking of tea tree oil shampoo and melon scented deodorant, their limbs are stained with ink pictographs, they carry noise makers and are draped in brightly colored costumes that clash mightily with the environment. Come on, you can almost hear General T saying, get it together dude, unless it’s mating season your plumage is supposed to blend in! Camouflage, hello? Stealth? And what right do they have to bring these nasty, greedy, black-smoke-belching predators right though our ancient breeding ground! They don’t even eat what they kill. Forest Justice for all poultry!
It is, after all, an institute of learning known for activism. Just ask my Republican family, they’ll snort derisively and snidely imply with a condescending tone of voice that it’s a hippy school. Never mind that this University produces more top scientists, biologists, astrophysicists, and business leaders than Harvard, nevermind that it’s an academic education that far exceeds their own, it’s in Northern California, and to my republican siblings and parents that means the dirtiest of dirty words. Liberal. It’s the one word with no S’s that they can still hiss. Three syllables that make their ears bleed, not unlike what they think of my heart. The very idea of learning to evolve as a species seems to scare the hell out of them. So those turkeys would feature in their worst conservative nightmares, no doubt causing them to wake up sweating, trembling and gobbling, “Fowl!” Before they turn on their Tiffany’s bedside light and start muttering, “Why can’t those damn turkeys go to their own segregated college like God intended. Next thing you know, women will be allowed to play professional golf with men! This country is going to hell. God Damn liberalsssssss.”
What would they think of that one damn indigenous bird fighting for his turkey rights? “Who the hell does he think he is objecting to having his world paved over? Damn turkeys should be grateful to be smushed into American pavement! It would be an honor for him to be eviscerated and stuffed full of stale bread in our country!” Friggen’ wild turkeys stealing jobs from our factory farms!”
Okay, my family isn’t quite that bad, but it’s fun to poke back at them when they laugh at me for not believing I’m as entitled as they are, and I can’t really think of a nicer way to put that. I deleted quite a few other versions of that sentence.
When you send your kids to college, you never know what added benefits will come from that higher education. This is one time that trickle down is actually a factor. I consider my new knowledge of Meleagrididae, of the genus Meagridea, (aka common wild turkey) worth the tuition. I was also horrified to discover, while doing research for this very scientific blog, that the third most asked question about this bird is sadly this, “Is the country of Turkey named after the bird?” Yep, higher education is pretty desperately needed right here, right now, in this country. “We’re number one because one is higher than two!” I can just imagine these uneducated citizens chanting. I’m guessing those same people think the Ottoman Empire is the name of a furniture factory. The Ottoman Empire, by the way, is also commonly known as the Turkish Empire and they invaded Europe around 1354. Maybe this current day college turkey has transcontinental empires on his tiny brain too. It would explain the antagonistic tendencies and the increase in his military.
A few other fun facts; Did you know a very young turkey is called a poult? I guess the birds who live on this campus earn their ‘RY’ when they complete their degree, or reach eating age. It’s a title they are granted at commencement. Theresa Poult, RY. Major in delicious with a minor in entomology. Or did you know that turkeys eat small animals? Who knew your holiday bird could be fattened up with slugs and rats? The knowledge you can acquire at a top-rated University for half a million dollars is really pretty amazing.
So moving on; since we have now learned that turkeys will eat meat, do you think those turkeys will attack a vegan on campus as decisively as a meat eater? Do they discriminate? Do they prefer the taste of cannabis-smoked freshmen to beer-poached sophemores? Does wild muscadine grape pair well with organic graduate students?
I’m being silly, I know, but evolution is a funny thing. And there is a strange parallel here. Creatures learn to adapt in order to survive, our kids learn for pretty much the same reason. I wonder if those turkey chicks pulled-all nighters memorizing the strike zone on Volvo tires. I imagine the extra credit question on their finals; “Which area is most likely to puncture through the inner tube? Draw a diagram of the layers of steel belted radials and a short essay explaining the pros and cons of attacking a whitewall.”
That first attack turkey, General T, sent his chicks off to scratch out a living and fight the man in spite of all the scary changes to his world. We send our kids off to college to learn to deal with authority, scary real life, and apparently, uh…turkeys?
You never know what you’ll have to deal with in life, but one thing I think I can promise you is that if you educate yourself about it, you’ll do much better—and be far more entertained—than if you remain ignorant. So let me close with some fun facts to know and share.
The country of Turkey was not named after the bird.
Ottoman is not the name of a low, upholstered stool.