The first afternoon of my shiny-new Masters in Creative Writing residency in Culver City, a worried-looking man at the bus stop I was walking past stopped me, in halting English, with a question. Based on his appearance, I guessed he had immigrated from central Africa…but when his English failed, he tried a nice, fluent Spanish–and there we found a common place to converse about bus routes (and the fact that I, an out-of-towner, knew less than he did).
“Now that was an LA moment,” I thought. And that’s why I’m here: for the writing instruction, yes–but even more for the moments I cannot experience via Zoom.
Greater Los Angeles is a stunning place, in all the meanings of that word.
Since I’m here in full Writer Mode, I’m noticing every way that I’m being stunned, mostly on my 2-mile, twice-daily walks between the campus of Antioch University Los Angeles and the wonderful friends who are hosting me. Starting with these astounding ficus trees, planted down multiple Culver City streets…
…whose roots are painfully constrained by concrete, and yet–they tower.
Since I’m entirely on foot, thanks be, I only have to deal with traffic when I cross the street. But this vehicle caught my eye as an embodiment of SoCal culture:
Antioch U itself is housed in a stunningly corporate-looking building, one of a cluster offering office space to such stunningly _____ (insert your own adverb here) corporations as Tik-Tok.
I’ve never worked in a building like this, but this scene through a window on the ground floor tells me that at least someone in there has a good sense of humor:
Being, y’know, corporate and all, the building-cluster is thoroughly landscaped…
…and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I found this Pacific Northwestern sister, this madrona tree, literally chained to a concrete block.
I have no critique of Angelenos or anyone else who chooses to live in a megalopolis. There’s just so much here here, it takes my breath away. So I’m finding special comfort in whatever feels familiar–not in that creepy, chained-down-madrona way, but like these adorable turtles…
…in the grotto pool of the Catholic cemetery I cross through on my walks to & from campus.
In the end, everyone wants to feel at home, whatever home means, right? Which is a good thing to be pondering as I launch into a brand-new writing project with some brand-new helpers who come from places so very, very different from my little island. In the end, we all want comfort, whether that means a shiny sports car, an untethered tree…or just a sweet cat to lie on our tummy.
Except for a handful of exotics here and there, we’re about out of fall color here in Washington State.
Great. Just in time for all that extra darkness.
Many folks I know are working hard to adjust their habits or their personal environments, trying to stay one step ahead of seasonal gloom. And even though I’m a very un-SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) person, I find myself doing my own version of this on my walks, snapping photos of whatever brightness I can find during a sunbreak in an otherwise dingy forest.
But what about when there is no sun? We have a LOT of those days here in the Pacific North-wet.
Ugh, why even bother to go out? Just plug in the Christmas lights.
I won’t dignify that question with a response, except to say this: today, on one of the greyest, most monochromatic days of the year, I made a startling discovery about light. Shining light. Turns out, our most emblematic native tree, the madrona, practically glows on days like these.
Now, this particular tree (on my neighbors’ property) is one I’ve loved for two decades; I even adopted its crazy loopy branches as my emblem when I became an author. (That’s another story.)
But my POINT is, despite a close relationship with this tree, I had never really thought about how its bark gleams when wet.
And not just “my” tree–any madrona! Red or green, there’s just something about their surface, more skin than bark, that turns to spotlit satin in the rain.
After rhapsodizing for a while over what’s been under my nose for years upon rainy years, I headed home…and stopped dead at a patch of salal. Guess what?
So. Moral of the story: in this greyest of seasons in this greyest of regions, there’s plenty of light out there. All we have to do is accept the gift of gleam where we find it.
Anyone else have their own version of “the gleam”–maybe in a region much different from mine? Please share a description!
I haven’t blogged about my back surgery in August, and I don’t really intend to blog about it now, even though, OK, I guess I sort of am.
My POINT is: as an athlete trained in the no-pain-no-gain, run-through-it mentality, recovering from something as dicey as being cut open (as opposed to good ol’ shinsplints or a muscle pull) is proving tricky.
As I work through my P.T. and get back into daily chores, I keep asking my body, When does “hurts so good” slide into “uh-oh”? (The answer, I fear is: About two seconds after you tried something you shouldn’t have tried.)
Case in point: yard work. It’s fall, and a big windstorm had dropped half an alder tree and a bunch of other branches into the woods my Mate is slowly turning into our personal park. This is a very well-cared-for chunk of woods, is what I’m saying. And since I don’t do chain saws, I thought I’d help him out, as in seasons past, by dragging some branches to the burn pile, using a tarp to give ’em a ride.
Understand, I was being cautious. This pile’s about half the size of what I’d usually drag.
But after three drags I decided to leave the rest for my Mate. Branches are heavy!
Hey, know what’s not that heavy? Leaves! Our big Japanese maple had dumped a ton into our yard. I raked up a couple of piles to tarp ’em out to the compost.
But once more, my back skeptical. It didn’t hurt so much as grumble a bit. So after two drags, I did something I HATE HATE HATE to do: left the job to finish tomorrow.
Recently I’ve been thinking a good deal about the term “Comfort Zone.” It’s generally something people try to get themselves out of: ruts of thinking, habit, even literal geographical location. After 20 months of COVID, many of us are having to redefine our social Comfort Zone–and finding it difficult.
So I feel like my back is reminding me: “No pain, no gain” only makes sense in very specific contexts or moments. Discomfort is something to be AWARE of, to LISTEN to, to LEARN from. It isn’t necessarily good, just as it isn’t necessarily bad.
Do I want to quit this exercise because I think it’s doing me harm, or because I just don’t feel like pushing?
Is that person on TV making me uncomfortable because I believe they’re wrong, or because they’re touching something in me I could maybe examine further?
This book I’m finding too painful to read–why is that? Am I satisfied with my own answer?
This friend I’ve dropped contact with: was that for my good, or theirs? Am I satisfied with my decision?
Obviously we shouldn’t overthink everything (hah–tell that to my brain!). I simply offer these examples as exhibits in the long-running show, “When We Say ___, Do We Really Mean It?”
I would love to hear your own exhibits in this show.
RT4 started out in what was becoming a familiar pattern: a beeline south toward our far-and-dear in Oregon, then California. Those dear ones include some very big redwoods.
This year was especially exciting because we got to meet our “placeholder grandchildren,” our wee twin cousins born in the summer of 2013.
Then, to add to our joy, we arranged to meet both our sons for a night of camping in Big Sur. Son Two was about to graduate from college; Son One was a year past graduation.
Both of them, to our (somewhat surprised) delight, still seemed to enjoy hanging out with the old folks.
But my joy in these days was increased many fold by my own unfolding writing project. My first novel, The Flying Burgowski, was edging toward final publication. The story of one Jocelyn Burgowski, a northwestern island girl whose family life has melted down a bit, takes a flying leap into oh-so-possible fantasy when Joss discovers, on the evening of her 14th birthday, that those flying dreams she’s been having are NOT…JUST…DREAMS.
All that remained, after years of writing and revising, was one last round of edits before hitting the magic “publish” button. I well remember paging through the proof copy of The Flying Burgowski in our tent by flashlight.
Saying goodbye to our boys young men, we headed east across the deserts. Lack of photographic evidence from that part of the trip tells me we didn’t linger long. But we were with our friends in Dallas when I finished my editing, started my publishing process—and ordered a few dozen copies to meet me in North Carolina, where I had a date with a bookstore.
We did camp once on our way through Arkansas, but it was a pretty weird experience. We were the ONLY people in the campground.
But remember this blog’s heading–going airborne? Crossing Tennessee in a torrential rainstorm, lil’ Red Rover did NOT do that…but she did, suddenly and terrifyingly, start hydroplaning on an I-40 bridge over a swollen creek.
Bouncing off a guard rail, she ended up facing the oncoming traffic (mostly semi trucks)…but, thanks be to all the gods, upright, and safely on the shoulder. Thanks be also to the fact that none of those semis came sliding into us. After realizing we were still alive and finding that Red Rover still functioned, we turned around and drove, very slowly, with flashers, on three functional and one absolutely shredded tire, the 20 miles to the next town. In Cookville, an extremely nice mechanic took Lil’ Red in even though it was closing time. We bedded down at a motel feeling extremely lucky to be alive.
Not pictured: any of that.
But our accident put us in reach of the winter storm we’d been running ahead of. Next morning Red was fixed up, but the roads were now pure ice and snow. We drove the same speed as post-accident, trying to stay out of another one, and got as far as the NC mountains before calling it a day.
Next day, we attempted a hike on the Appalachian Trail.
We holed up with our friends near Asheville for a couple of days as winter storms continued in waves across the country. My folks in Durham were suffering under a second ice storm, with a third predicted the week of our arrival.
So The Mate and I did something we’d never done in our lives: bought plane tickets to use the very next day. Then we bought the Lonely Planet guide to Puerto Rico, drove to my folks’ house, said hello and see you soon, and left Red Rover parked at RDU as we took to the air.
After three gloriously warm days of plantains, fish, and pork, we flew back to my folks’ place in Durham, NC. There I launched my book at my old favorite bookstore, The Regulator—and launched Jocelyn Burgowski into the sky.
Of course our NC time wasn’t all about my author-self. We spent time with my folks as always…
…and my dad treated me to an insider tour of the Duke Primate Center, which he co-founded.
And then of course there were our beloved Tarheels! Did they win the tournament in 2014? I have no memories of that (though you can bet The Mate does). But who cares, when there’s Allen & Sons BBQ with hushpuppies and fried okra?
Heading back west, we took a more southerly route with few stops. It was a rough winter. When we got to Arizona, though, we cut north into Utah, then Nevada, to explore a new national park: Great Basin.
We then had a date with Adventure Buddies Tom & Kate (remember them?) at Yosemite, but since it was March, of course Tioga Pass was still closed. So we had to go ALL the way south and loop around the bottom of the Sierras in order to drive north again. Still worth it.
And Son Two—having just finished his final quarter at Santa Cruz (graduating early) met us there before wandering off to Central America.
A week later, back home on Lopez Island, The Flying Burgowski launched again–on, or rather from, home turf, with local students participating in a dramatic reading at our community library.
So I’ll let you be the judge: Was RT4 an abandonment of the sacred principles of Road Tripping…or just a sweet, lucky time, and who cares?
(Jocelyn Burgowski & I say, flying doesn’t always make things better–but sometimes, yes, it does.)
The name’s Maya. Got any treats? Oops, I mean…pleased to meetcha. My new human, Gretchen, has been spending way too much time on this tappity-tappity black thing, so I thought I’d take over for a while. My house, my rules.
I just got here, less than a week ago, and I’m satisfied that I am now Queen of the Household. I just need to vent a little about the humans who brought me to my new realm.
They SAY they are dog people. Malamute people, in fact–I’ve heard them bragging to other humans that I am actually their third Malamute. They speak often of a certain “Mickey,” “Molly,” and…whatshername…”Juniper.” Mickey apparently died young, whatever that means. Molly lived as long as she wanted to, apparently a long-ass time.
This “Juni” seems to have acted more like a cat, if you can believe that. Seems she was very, very, VERY fluffy. Didn’t like getting dirty or wet. (Ughh. Can’t believe I’m talking about cats.)
She did like strong wind, they say–probably the only time the air could ever penetrate to her skin!
Anyway, it’s just hard to believe these new humans of mine are so “experienced.” They seem awfully untrained to me.
First of all, they brought me here to my new realm not just in a car, but on a boat.
I was not a fan of this. I drooled a LOT.
Once established in my new dwelling, they keep trying to take me places on a leash. Oh, humans. What’s the good of a leash when there are so many deer and bunnies to chase? I can just smell ’em!
And when we do go places? We WALK. No running! I hear both of my humans bragging about how they used to be “distance runners,” but apparently now they’re too old and washed-up to do more than trot with me. No chase! No catch-me-if-you-can!
They also complain that I want too much attention. Well, what do they expect? Molly and Juni had each other to play with. I have only…sigh…them.
The house is full of Molly & Juni’s puppy pictures. Well, how nice for them. Nobody wanted me when I was a puppy. That’s why I came to live here…and that’s why I’m for sure Queen of this place!
Never going anywhere again, furever and ever.
Anyhow, just wanted to say, to any of you other Kings and Queens out there: feel free to share your stories about how you whipped your humans into shape! Might be good for a howl.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been phone-banking for the election. And as I’ve mentioned before, I still hate phone-banking just as much as when I started back in June.
But with less than a week till the election, the need to feel like part of the team is stronger than ever, and I don’t have any excuses. I only work part-time. My kids are grown. I’m a people person. And I know that good ol’ poly-sci research shows that Get Out the Vote phonecalls make the most difference right NOW.
Still, I found myself the other day staring longingly out the window as I waited for the “ThruTalk” dialer to connect me with some not-yet-voter in North Carolina. What a beautiful day! What am I doing indoors? And what…what in all the gods’ names is that?
Not pictured: “that.”
The sun was shining through the scruffy fir forest outside our house, and between each tree, strung among the branches like filaments of fire, were strands of…spider silk? Some other magical bug-excretion? The shining lines were all horizontal, as if the trees had decided to briefly represent their invisible communication through the most tender and celestial of metaphors.
I checked my watch: twelve minutes to go on my shift. Maybe eight more calls. Then I’d hurry out there with my camera to capture the magic.
But to my sorrow, when I hurried out thirteen minutes later, the filaments had all disappeared from my sight. Were they still there, dull without sunlight? Were they ever there at all?
Crestfallen, I looked around…and found some cheery wee mushrooms just dying to have their picture taken.
That little episode reminded me of another photo I’d taken a couple of weeks ago, out for a walk between rainstorms. Some kind of tiny, bracketed stems of a bygone flower were making chandeliers among the lichens at my feet.
I’m sure the poet Mary Oliver would make way more of this than I, but how about this for an attempt: those filaments, those mushrooms, those droplets, those maybe-voters in North Carolina–aren’t they all really the same thing?
Full disclosure: this post has nothing pithy nor deep to add to your thoughts today. This is full-on escape. I was able to take last Sunday with my overworked Ironwoman Goddaughter to drive, then hike up to nearly 7,000 feet on the Cascades’ Pacific Crest Trail to breathe some clear air and see some fall color.
May you all be well and find some inspirational beauty where you can. Till next time…
First of all, my northwestern friends–yes, I KNOW “seastars are not fish.” But most folks know that sweet story of the guy saving stranded seastars by tossing them back into the ocean, and in that story they’re “starfish.”
That story’s moral: in the face of huge, inexorable challeng, making tiny, individual change is still worthwhile.
I THINK this is that kind of story. Although for a while there, it felt more like the penultimate chapter of Catch-22. (Spoiler alert: if you’re intending to read Catch-22 and just haven’t gotten around to it yet, you should stop reading my blog right now.)
The whole thing started a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed a large mass of debris floating near the rocky edges of Iceberg Point, part of the San Juan National Monument which I’m grateful to call my big backyard. I contacted our wonderful Monument and BLM people and hoped for the best.
Days passed, and still the debris floated. But you could see it was degrading into bits.
After a week, the large chunks disappeared. “Oh well,” I thought, “they’re someone else’s problem now. But somebody oughta get that small stuff.” Then…”Hey! Great excuse for a paddle excursion!”
I had it all planned: net, garbage bags, wetsuit, gloves, tide chart. Then the smoke from the west coast wildfires sent our air quality numbers up near 200 and our ocean under a thick blanket of scary-looking, cold smog. (Think “The Nothing” from Neverending Story.)
By the time the skies and my calendar cleared, another week had passed. But finally, FINALLY, I was on my way. Oh, that felt good.
Here I come to save the day!
Up close, I found that the barbage gyre was–of course–styrofoam, and most of it had–of course–already crumbled into those tiny, hellish bits. Actually, MOST of it was probably already in the bellies of marine life testing the flavor of those white things. That thought spurred me through the messy task of circling and scooping the gyre.
After about 25 minutes, I had all I could gather (not to mention fit into the trash bag stuffed between my knees). MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Then I looked toward the shore.
Here’s where Catch-22 came in. See, through 30 chapters, we have Yossarian wrestling with flashbacks, hinting at the scene behind his PTSD. Not till the second-to-last chapter do we see the scene in full: Yossarian in mid-flight, trying to save the life of his bombardier Snowden, binding Snowden’s leg wound and comforting him as he whimpers. Only when Yossarian’s first-aid task is complete does he discover…he’s treating the wrong wound. The real injury, the one that’s killing Snowden, is deep, internal, and entirely beyond Yossarian’s ability to cure.
Those big chunks of marine garbage? They weren’t gone. They were just lodged in a cove, slowly breaking into more and more horrible bits for idiots like me to scoop.
There was nothing I could do in my weenie little boat. To salvage some sense of accomplishment, I balanced one floating chunk on my prow and paddled home, deflated.
You’re not the boss of me, garbage.
But! Let’s get back to the starfishy side of things, shall we? I happen to live on an island whose unofficial motto is, “Come For the Scenery, Stay For the Community.” (OK, that’s my PERSONAL motto; I don’t think anyone else says that. But they could.)
I got back on the email. Two days later, I and my BLM friend had organized a small crew to go after that cove-garbage from the land. Our most intrepid member, Mike, donned a drysuit and went after the junk from the water.
Waiting for Mike to get his drysuit on, and feeling grateful not to be Mike.
Most chunks had to be hauled with ropes. I got the smaller bits, like this sail.
I can’t even tell you how satisfying that work was. Well–maybe I just did.
Hey, anyone missing a large sailboat?
Next day, true autumn weather moved in and the sea turned nasty (but beautiful–like a Nasty Woman). We knew we’d acted just in time to prevent the total disintegration of that garbage pile.
We also knew, in the grand scheme of our poor ocean, what a minescule gesture our work had been. You don’t need me to tell you that either. The wound is deep, internal, and possibly even beyond our ability to cure.
But, like the rescued seastar–our work made a difference to that place. And to us. Nothing like a tiny dose of action, in the face of global pandemic and potlitical instability, to make you breathe a little deeper.
Like probably most people in the world right now, my sense of the calendar has gone all wonky. I’m frequently not sure what month it is, let alone the date. Day of the week? Forget it.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all too well what year it is.
The arrival of fresh cherries and strawberries at a fruit stand took me by surprise. Wait–it’s Solstice already? Since then, I’ve been trying to pay more attention. Salmonberries have helped.
Salmonberries are a huge thing around western Washington. Whether battling them as ferociously scratchy pests around our yards or admiring their bright pink flowers in Spring, we probably spend more time thinking about them than we even realize. And then they make berries!
If looks could taste…
I used to make fun of salmonberries for being so un-delicious: The only reason anyone even thinks about eating you is because blackberries aren’t ripe yet.
But (again, like a lot of folks) I’ve been walking even more than I usually do, and trying to pay even more attention to things besides the global pandemics of COVID and racism. So I’ve been nibbling salmonberries again, as part of my noticing–and guess what? Turns out if you wait to eat them till they’re so ripe they’re juuuuust about to fall off their thorny ol’ bushes, they’re actually pretty tasty.
So what else merits my noticing, and my thanks?
The tide. Twice a day. EVERY day. Talk about essential work!
I know this isn’t exactly a glam shot, Tide–but this is you your work attire.
And some of the humblest of flowers–look at these ones here, engaging in a socially-distanced Easter bouquet!
C’mon, guys, it’s June, not April. Shouldn’t you be decorating for wedding season?
That’s more like it.
What basic, REGULAR things are you feeling grateful for right now? Postal carriers? Baby birds? Marshmallows on display shelves? Let’s celebrate the regular where we can find it!