Monthly Archives: December 2005

Storms A’Plenty

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My, it is tossing and turning out there. Storms have been buffeting the Northern California coast for a few days now, but this one is the best yet. It came in yesterday afternoon, starting pretty mild. Last night before driving home from work I was able to fill up my gas tank and finally get the shoes I need: waterproof sneakers. Montrail has been my brand of choice, but down at REI they had a type of Merrells that were half the price and actually fit my foot, unusual for Merrells. They ride higher than I’m used to, have an ultra padded insole, great arch support, and look nice to boot. I call them little SUVs for my feet.

Thus shod, I drove back into town through the rain this morning very slowly, noting all the places where water was pouring over the road already. To a work meeting, then a session with my wonderful body/soul/worker Terra Mizwa, and then winding through the backroads to avoid some of the wetter spots on the way back out to the coast. As soon as the road rose out of the valley to descend into Freestone and Bodega, the wind started slamming the car and I had to turn my wipers on double time. The wind kept up all the way out, but coming into Bodega Bay the rain tapered off. I came inside, plugged in everything that needed to be charged up in case the power went out later, stuck a lasagne in the oven, and went out in my little SUVs to walk Vince while I could.

By some small act of grace, we were able to take a windy but relatively dry walk. Thanks to a birdwatching lady I met yesterday at the rail ponds, I can now identify the little birds I’ve been seeing everywhere for the past few weeks: the red pharalope. Except they’re not red; their winter plumage is in Arctic colors, not too helpful for camoflage once it comes ashore in California, which fortunately it apparently rarely does. Still, they’re everywhere on our walk, along with egrets enjoying the tasty earthworms that have left the saturated earth, gulls passing the time, and the occasional vulture circling hopefully, albeit in a macabre reminder sort of way.

Not two minutes after we arrived back at the house the clouds let loose and it has been raining full tilt ever since. All in all it has been a thoroughly enjoyable evening: the lasagne was great, the woodstove warm and attractive, the power has stayed on so I can satisfy my internet addiction, I got some work done and had time to watch Orlando Bloom battle the Saracens, something I hadn’t quite gotten around to earlier this fall. If it stays this way for most of tomorrow, I’ll do some ornament packing and de-Yule-ify my living room. Maybe bring in some more firewood and dry it on the hearth. I’ve got movies, I’ve got whiskey, half a lasagne and a king’s ransom in chocolate. It’s going to be a really nice New Year’s Eve.

Time Ripping at the Seams

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I have been able to spend some time this holiday season with my sister Sarah, her husband Jon, and their adorable little dumpling Elena. Elena is 9 months old now, and suffice it to say that she’s about as cute as you can get without a prescription around here. And I don’t think it was just because I got to be there when she was born (on International Women’s Day, I might add). Trust me, I’ve seen my fill of babies, and Elena outweighs most of them both in looks and in stature.

Sarah, at 39, knows it is likely that she won’t be having anymore children, and described to me the heartbreak that comes with every change Elena makes: nursing less, becoming more social. Her ennui essentially boils down to the awareness that some day Elena will be grown, and will no longer need her. I know that feeling, and I know how painful it is to smile at each passing cuteness while inside you’re mourning its passing. Feeling that sense of loss — or trying to avoid it — is why many women keep on having babies well past the time they should stop. Eventually, though, everyone stops having babies, and their babies do grow up, and they do leave home. The heartless (yet truthful) thing to say here is that ultimately we are all alone no matter how we surround ourselves with possessions or people, and we may as well get used to feeling it. That is not the right thing to say to a nursing mother though, so I did not say that to Sarah.

It reminds me of my current favorite New Yorker cartoon, of a TV stage where the host is standing with a contestant in front of Door #1, #2, and #3. The lights are on, the audience is hushed, and the man is about to make his decision. The perspective of the cartoon allows us to see what choices lie behind each door: a New Car, a Maui Vacation, or the Grim Reaper. I can tell this post is now in danger of topping the maudlin-o-meter, but I have to say it: family life is often like experiencing all three of those choices at once.

For instance, this Christmas: Bowen came up from Santa Cruz, Lyra escaped from her busy coffee-making schedule in SF, Jojo was here for the presents, and my nephew Alex whom we rarely get to see came to spend the day too. It was so wonderful to have them all with me, to stuff our faces with food, laugh at each other, and watch movies when we were sick of talking. Yet below the surface, I felt all these subtle shifts taking place. I am adjusting to the fact of having grown children, and they are working hard at being grown. One of us will say something to the other, and I will feel this ripping sensation, as if the very fabric of our relationship is caught by the tip of that scythe and the pattern does not hold. It is hard work, growing up, and painful all the way around.

In fact, if I wanted to scare them I’d say (truthfully) that just being alive is incredibly painful, as much as it is glorious and joyful. But why would I want to scare my kids? They probably already know it anyway, but maybe they thought that it would cease being painful as soon as they figure out who they are and what they want out of life — say, by the time they’re 25 or so.

No, the fabric has been ripped, and who knows what kind of crazy tatters will remain before some sublime adult relationship emerges from all this chaos? To me the hard part is not feeling the tearing of my heart as another child breaks away in another way, it’s trusting that love will remain in the space that has opened up. You have to trust in something that is nothing tangible, that is an absence of habit or pattern. That is really freaky. There are prescriptions for the kind of fear and anxiety brought about by having to trust invisible love.

Visible love is second nature to decent parents: here, I’ll get off of work to take you to your dentist appointment. I’ll give you money to go to the movies with your friends. I’ll cook food you like when you come to visit. Invisible love is trickier: I trust you to be where you say you are going to be. I trust you to stay alive in my absence. I trust you to love me even if I’m not doing things for you.

Eventually, so I hear from friends whose kids are my age, a new pattern emerges from all that trust that is more suited to a relationship of adults. I’m looking forward to the day. Like so many things about this adventure of parenting, I’m not sure I got to that step with my own parents. But parenting has been very good to me. It has allowed me to heal a lot of raw spots left over from my own upbringing, just by being able to do something different with my children. I know Sarah feels that with Elena too. At last, that is something hopeful (and truthful) that I can say to Sarah: the joy that you feel with Elena, and the healing that her presence brings, will not diminish with time but will continue with surprising twists and turns for the rest of your life.

Down to Zero

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A week ago, Jojo was telling me the story of 2 eighth grade girls in her school who had gotten into a fight, according to her over which of two gangs was the best. We talked a little about what kids their age living in Sebastopol might or might not know about gang life, whether gangs were perceived as fashionable just like different brands of jeans. I took the opportunity to tell her a little about Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the co-founder of the Crips gang then awaiting execution on California’s Death Row.

Tookie Williams had been on my mind for a few days, ever since I listened to someone reading his writing over the radio. I knew he had written several books for children, had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for his anti-gang work while in prison. I consider the death penalty worse than medieval: it is one of the great evils that we perpetuate in this state. Yet even if I were for the death penalty, I still would be opposed to it in this case. We need more men like Tookie Williams, articulate, passionate men who have been through the fire and lived to tell the tale, who can help guide young people away from the dangers of the streets. The last thing we need is another reason for poor Black youth to feel that there is no possibility for justice or a good life for them. Killing such an eloquent, reformed spokesman, regardless of the wrongs he had done earlier in life, is driving another nail into the coffin of an entire generation of disenfranchised youth in our cities and prisons.

Monday morning driving Jojo to school, we heard on the news that Schwarzenegger still hadn’t responded to pleas for clemency. Williams was scheduled to be executed at San Quentin that night at midnight, and Jojo and I made tentative plans to drive down after I got off work and join the vigil outside the gates. For a girl who loves horror and suspense movies, who revels in being scared out of her wits, it was gratifying to see her stricken reaction to real-life horror, and the outrage she felt on hearing about this miscarriage of justice.

That day at work, two people came in and in a classic bait-and-switch one of them distracted me out front while the other went into the back room and stole all the credit cards out of my wallet. This was tremendously upsetting to me, even though I had been watching for something like this to happen since they’d walked in. As soon as they left I went right to my purse and discovered the theft, so was able to file a police report and cancel all my cards before they could even charge a tank of gas. But what a time of year to have no credit cards! And I was reminded that if this had been Tookie Williams in his early days that I had met instead of those two desperate bumblers, I would be lucky to be alive right now. People do bad shit to other people for no reason, all the time. I was in despair for the entire human race. My sense of having been violated merged uneasily with a huge feeling of gratitude, though: following a strong intuition that morning, I’d just done all the rest of my holiday shopping before arriving at work, and so could probably live without those cards until they were replaced.

I just stayed upset all day, and I couldn’t tell how much was from the theft and how much from the atrocity to be committed in my name later that night. I kept checking in to the SF Chronicle’s website for news on the clemency appeal and set up a little shrine to Williams at the front counter, which garnered some lovely comments from customers. Finally word came down that the Governor had denied Williams plea for clemency, and that the execution would go forward as scheduled. My upset turned to nausea, and I gave up trying to make myself feel better for the rest of the day.

By the end of it, I was too exhausted to think about driving to San Rafael, and with no cash and no credit in my wallet it didn’t seem like the smartest thing to do anyway. So Jojo and I lit a candle to Tookie in our house, said prayers for his peaceful passage and for the hope that he will have a better life next time around. In the moment, there didn’t seem like much else to do.

That’s how my week started, and the pace and challenges have not let up for a second. There have been a string of delays at the plant with the Music of Gwydion CD which have frustrated me no end, and mean that no one will get their CDs before Solstice. Everything is taking longer than it should, nothing is easy, and there’s no time to really rest.

I feel stripped down to the bone, in the middle of a marathon with no reserves and no option of quitting. The weather has been cooperating nicely, making me feel like Edmund Hillary everytime I go out to walk Vince bundled up against the howling wind and rain. Tonight I sit here on my bed with my laptop while in the next room Jojo and several of her 7th grade friends are whooping it up on the occasion of her 13th birthday party. Pacing is everything, especially when the timing is immovable. Maybe tomorrow I can sleep in a bit.

Onward Into the Night

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I know this is the season of gathering darkness, I can tell from the fact that the sun sets way before dinnertime and rises just in time for me to walk the dog before work. It is winter here: the new grass is taller than my shoes, the ground is always damp, and the night air burns my nose with its mixture of cold, wet, and woodsmoke.

In my effort to clean up the front yard, I’ve started hauling the chopped ends of 2 x 4s, construction cast-offs that have been lost to the overgrown grasses, into piles and onto the back porch. So far I have barely made a dent in the seemingly endless supply of ready firewood around here. The woodstove has been going every night for the past couple weeks, ever since the unseasonable warm spell around the last full moon passed away. I find myself remembering that Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter where it’s the coldest winter on record for the settlers and they use up all their wood, and by the end they’re spending all day twisting grass together to keep something burning in their stove as they all huddle around it. Melodramatic, I know, but I enjoy being able to tell from the morning clouds what kind of weather is coming in, and how much time I have to bring more wood inside before it starts raining.

I am used to equating winter with a mythic descent into the dark, like Psyche or Kore entering the Underworld. In years past this association has worked for me, but not this year. Maybe it’s because I’m not living around as many trees as I’m used to, and the darkness has fewer places to gather. The hills around here are bare, windswept, and rise in uneven arcs against the sky as though etched with the finest chisel. Trees survive only in the hollows, though there are occasional stands of cypress here in town and on the ranchland surrounding us, planted as windbreaks by an earlier generation of coast dwellers.

Sometimes it is late by the time I get home at night, and I have to walk Vince in the pitch black. I don’t bring a flashlight, and though I have to rely on my feet knowing the trail into the empty circuit of road that is our local dog run, when I get there I can dimly make out the white of the sidewalk against the black asphalt–enough to feel confident as we walk through the silent night. Above me the stars are a glittering majesty, the Milky Way so clear and beautiful it is almost painful to behold. The clouds, if there are any, come in like long wisps of light, or dense and mottled like the shell of a giant tortoise.

There are birds sometimes, the shadow of a barn owl flying low, fast and effortless. Vince’s presence stirs up some red pharalopes sleeping on the road, that cry out and take wing invisibly as we walk. But mostly our only accompaniment is the foghorn and the constant surge of the surf in the distance. This does not feel like a gathering of anything; this is a great emptiness, a night more vast than I have yet experienced. It is an emptiness that does not rule out light, or heat, or happiness, but puts them in their proper context: pinpricks of starlight in its great expanse, made visible to us now through the trick of the seasons.

I am spellbound by the ruthless clarity of this winter, awestruck at the stark beauty all around me, and happy in my warm, brightly lit little corner of the universe while the wheel of the year spins so close outside my windows. There is a peace in the darkness, and a respite which I desperately need. These days, I breathe it in with the cold and wet, and it feels wonderful.