Tag Archives: Summer Solstice

The Obligatory Grateful Dead Post

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After eight years of blogging I am finally correcting a major oversight. I can’t very well be a late-Boomer Bay Area native and not write at least once about the Grateful Dead; it just isn’t done. So here goes.

The Grateful Dead were once as ubiquitous as tie-dye on Telegraph Ave. They played constantly, both locally and on tour, and their New Years Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium were legendary. As a teenager I was too much of a musical snob to pay them much attention. Their music seemed rambling, disjointed, and not very interesting. But once in college I thought maybe I was missing out on something big—if not musically then at least culturally.

Dropping acid and seeing the Dead is what passed for a rite of passage in some circles. I had lost track of the number of friends who returned wide-eyed from what they termed a transformative experience at a Dead show. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly like the Dead or want to try acid, I figured I should go to a show while I was still young and impressionable enough to “get it.”

The summer I turned 18 provided a fantastic opportunity. I was living in Berkeley, and saw on a telephone pole (a.k.a. the “internet”) a notice for a Green Tortoise bus trip to Alaska. The Tortoise was infamous, a company that converted old buses into funky touring vehicles. Outfitted with two drivers, a few seats in the front and a giant platform bed in the back, the Green Tortoise drove big, wild groups of people up and down the coast, across the country, and on other special trips.

This particular summer of 1980 they’d decided to go to Alaska for one reason only: the Dead were playing Anchorage on the Summer Solstice! How great would it be to drive a random bunch of freaks through Canada and the Yukon and descend on Anchorage for the show, while the sun never sets? Add to that visits to the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the majestic Denali, and it was hardly an adventure I could let pass me by. I spent the rest of my scholarship money on a bus ticket and a backpack, and I was in.

Anne on the Green Tortoise, June 1980I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, but that did not deter me in the least. I have never had a problem striking off on my own into unfamiliar places, making friends along the way. Unfortunately, it proved harder to do on this trip than I had imagined.

Three girls my age from Texas were my first disappointment. They wore makeup every day, didn’t read, and clearly were only interested in male companionship. A 33-year-old French Canadian playboy dealer who listened to Bruce Cockburn hooked up with one of the girls, causing a couple nights of great embarrassment for a grandmother traveling with her cute 9-year-old grandson. There were also a few older single men and women on the bus, an ex-felon or two, and a couple certifiable nuts.

I did make some friends, but there was no real easy bonding on this trip. When a guy wearing a poncho and cowboy hat and nothing else comes to breakfast with his bullwhip and starts yelling at people for no apparent reason, it sets up a tension within the group that is hard to overcome.

We stayed one night near Mt. St. Helens, where every surface in the campground was covered with a layer of ash from its recent eruption. Crossing the border into Canada took a while because of someone’s arrest record. But eventually they let us all through and we were off to the Yukon, where the road was still dirt in some places. I never imagined getting tired of seeing beautiful forests dotted with occasional deep blue lakes, but on this trip I learned that it was possible. The beauty and the distances were astonishing.

When we got to Anchorage, our first order of business was to find tickets to the show. Outside the auditorium was the usual phalanx of Deadheads from all over, sitting in line or playing frisbee on the lawns. As we went into the show our resident dealer doled out the acid, and I was on my way. It was now or never. I would either “get” this band or be doomed to the sidelines forever.

What I remember most about the concert was the bad sound. It was like a high school PA system cranked up past the boiling point. Relax, I told myself, just let the music wash over you. I knew how to do this, it wasn’t like I’d never been to a rock concert before. But the tinny treble, mushy bass and incoherent lyrics just went on and on, and didn’t do the band’s sloppy playing any favors. If there was a transformation going on here, it wasn’t into anything good.

My second strongest memory was the people. Beautiful people my age with wide-open faces who stared at total strangers like me as if we were newly discovered best friends. They danced up to me smiling, then whirled away when I didn’t meet their gaze with the same intensity of surrender. My big revelation that night was that this was not my tribe, though at the time it just felt like sadness and possibly failure.

I kept my revelation to myself and let loneliness wash over me. If I were back home I would have somewhere to go. Here in Anchorage I waited out the rest of the show on the sidelines, and walked back to the bus with the rest of the Tortoise travelers in the night’s continuous dawn.

The trip was life-changing for other reasons. I met a woman who studied herbalism with Rosemary Gladstar in Sebastopol. This was the first time I’d heard about Sebastopol, then a ranching town with a small enclave of hippies and herbalists. Eight years later I told my mother-in-law about the town, and shortly afterward moved there with my young family.

One Tortoise friend I stayed in touch with for a few years was Louie X. Heinrich. We were driving in his car across the Bay Bridge when John Lennon was shot, and shared our grief as his music played on the radio. Louie gave me a place to stay when I left Big Sur and settled in Santa Cruz, and our friendship included a funny ongoing game about being aliens and the general strangeness of humanity.

Louie died way too young, at 39, a fact I just learned while writing this piece. He never quite found his tribe, while I was lucky enough to fall into a great one in Santa Cruz by the time I turned 21.

As I write this in a Mendocino café, “Ship of Fools” just came on the radio. How fitting. The Dead as a phenomenon deeply affected an entire generation. But the shadow of all that openness and saucer-eyed belonging was an alienation and self-destructive urge that caused so many to lose their way.

I did not have the language and discernment at 18 to verbalize what I felt, but at least some innate stubbornness held me back from the lure of that experience. And I discovered Bruce Cockburn at the same time, which overall was a very good outcome. I wish I could say that Louie had the same good outcome, after suffering so much hardship early in life. I don’t know how he died, but wherever he is I’ll bet it’s a much better place.

Louie X Heinrich

Where’s the Sun?

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I live in one of the few places in Sonoma County where there is a shred of freshness in the air today. The wind is blowing fierce, the sky is like a milky soup with streaks of rust from all the fires burning, but at least here the smoke mingles with a layer of fog sitting just off the coast, and it is possible to see small patches of almost-blue in the sky, to the west. They are faint as phantoms, and if you focus hard they disappear, but even the hint of a clear sky helps restore sanity.

A few days ago I joined a California disasters email group, where it is possible to get hourly updates on all fires and other critical conditions in the state as they unfold. The traffic is so heavy on the list that I opted for the digest version; even then I have been getting two or three email digests per day. I scanned the messages once but couldn’t bring myself to read them. I was safe; the fires were striking other places; that was all I really needed to know right then.

I spoke with a good friend in Willits today, who said that the air was so thick with smoke it was impossible to even take a walk without feeling sick. He was in Santa Cruz over the weekend, and standing on a bluff looking south toward Big Sur he could see the enormous black thunderheads come in off the ocean, striking dry lightning across the landscape. And from every lightning strike there soon rose a column of smoke. Literally hundreds of fires were set this way over the weekend, some of which are being left to burn as firefighters concentrate on the most threatening ones first.

I went to Oakland this Saturday, the morning that my father collapsed at the pool and died. As I sat with my sister and my mother, who was still in shock, I noticed the air getting hazier outside. I had to do something, in between calling people, reminding ourselves of other people to call, waiting for the coroner’s report, and answering calls from those who had heard the news.

So I checked my email on his computer, the new one I helped him buy and that he never fully mastered. He was frustrated by the tremor in his hands; no matter how I adjusted the keyboard sensitivity he always ended up pressing the wrong keys and his letters to friends ended up looking like a scrabble game.

I had been planning to spend time with him this coming weekend, maybe all of Monday morning, helping with his latest email woes and teaching him again how to use his scanner. Instead I cleaned up his desktop, deleted all his junk email, and started sending notices to his friends and colleagues. I re-set the keyboard to how I like it, and then, unable to begin writing his obituary, I started reading about all the fires.

My mom and I went outside for a while, I forget why, and the air had gotten palpably thicker. I was on the verge of pointing it out to her, but then thought the better of it. There are some moments of personal crisis which are made transcendent by knowledge of simultaneous collective “disturbances in the Force.” This would not be one of them. For her, at 74 losing her mate of almost 50 years, a reminder that the hills were a blazing inferno would be in no way comforting.

So I kept the news to myself as I read the laundry lists of fires, each identified by acronym, with details of how many acres were affected, what percentage was contained, and which neighborhoods were being evacuated. I wrapped myself in quilts of town names, roads closed, and evacuation centers opened. I tried reading other things, but somehow the short, declarative statements of the fire reports were all I could absorb.

For years I tried to get my father to write about his life, but he always resisted. Maybe I was really talking to myself all those years, because now when I try to remember the stories he told me, I find that I can only think of the ones I wrote down. I wrote about one memorable lunch here, and our most recent lunch here. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw him alive. We spoke on the phone twice after that, but were due for another visit which now will never happen—at least, not on this side of the veil.

There are tragedies, and then there are tragedies. My father died on the Summer Solstice. He was 81 years old, had led a full life, and left swiftly while surrounded by friends, doing what he loved. If there must be a sacrifice at the sun’s zenith, let it be this. I will miss him terribly—I do already—but I can’t begrudge him a quick death before his growing infirmities robbed him of joy.

The sky now at sunset is tinged red all around. There is no escape from the smoke, and the black thunderclouds are riding across the Valley, slowly advancing on the tinder-dry Sierras. We are being hit hard this fire season, even those of us not in the path of the flames. Tomorrow I will view my father’s body. Monday I will speak at his memorial. In between, there are countless tasks and trials. The wind outside is cold and damp, acrid, and stings the eyes. It also carries the faint whisper of freedom.

A Dream Harvest

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A couple years ago, I wrote about how singing and especially songwriting was one of my personal indicator species—those activities which, by their presence in my daily routine, mean that I am functioning at my fullest. By their absence, I can measure the level of stress that I am under. When they return, it is like I have just noticed that the sun is out and am able to take a full, deep breath.

Now that I have my own place, it is dawning on me that perhaps there are other soul-health indicators that I have been unaware of all this time. I have never had a garden of my own, to design and plant and care for just the way I want. For the past couple years there has been too much going on to do more than punt in the garden here: plant a few things, see if the deer eat them, water them when I remember, and hope they survive.

I made a few good choices: an apple and fig tree which thrive in the coastal climate, a bay tree (laurel nobilis) which gently demarcates the front yard from the side yard and gives me pungent leaves for cooking. Somehow those got watered enough, and with deer netting around them they are growing well into their second year.

Other choices weren’t so wise, and I won’t bother to list them. But this year I was determined to get started on the project I have always wanted to create: an herb garden. Specifically, I wanted to grow the herbs that I use in my work with dreams: mugwort, valerian, skullcap, lavender, hops, verbena, angelica, rose, sage, rosemary, and a few others. I figured if I started small, with one or two plants of each, chances were that I could keep up with maintenance and harvesting, and eventually make dream pillows with homegrown herbs.

It turns out that even starting small is a lot of work! Finding good medicinal herb plants is not easy, for one thing. Then planting them in neglected beds meant that I had to attend to the woody stragglers planted in years previous that were barely hanging on. I kept at it, weeding and sheet mulching and hooking everything up to a drip. In some cases, that meant ripping out and re-creating an entire bed taken over by spearmint, or doing a morning’s excavation of the old drip system, parts of which were blocked and parts which were leaking like a sieve.

By early this month I had everything in the ground and hooked up to the drip. There are still a few mysteries, like what is eating my marigolds (deer and insect resistant!) to the ground, and what that strange color on one of the roses is. But there have also been wonderful finds, like a pitcher sage that survived three years with no care whatsoever, and two types of honeysuckle that hid from the deer and are bouncing right back to grow over a trellis.

In one bed there was a French lavender that I feared the worst for, but pruned back and watered anyway. I checked on it two weeks ago, and it was full and bushy and loaded with stalks of unripened flowers. So over the full moon this week I have been doing my first Summer Solstice harvest of lavender, as well as rosemary. My dining room table is piled high with fragrant herbs soon to be hung upside-down in bunches in my shed, along with a tray of Spanish moss harvested from a cypress tree near the beach.

Being an herbalist has been a lifelong dream of mine, and I had thought it was brought on by all the young adult fiction I read as a girl, where there was a wise old woman living in a cottage somewhere who had healing plants growing all around her. It turns out that it has been part of my nighttime dreaming too, for just as long. Digging in the ground these past few weeks I started remembering many dreams I have had through the years of finding the woman with the herb garden and listening to her stories.

In a sense, this whole full moon has been a waking dream for me, where I rise in the morning and step outside into a long-forgotten dream that is now being tended, and watered, and bearing its first harvest. I pick my herbs and carry them inside, notice what plants are growing well and which need more care, and give them all a drink before the heat of the day.

When I go back inside to sit at my desk, the garden outside keeps growing. I feel buoyed by the life in the ground, the fragrant herbs scenting my fingers and clothes, the color reflected back to me through my windows. It is a good feeling—a great feeling—new, yet vaguely familiar.

I find myself sifting through other people’s dreams now, searching for the dried-up survivors of ancient dreams which keep appearing and refuse to die, calling out for water, waiting to bloom again. The tenacity of the soul, and the speed with which it can recover from years of neglect: these are the gifts of my first dream harvest.

Putting Names to Phases

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Well, all our vigiling worked! The sun is now rising earlier and setting later, with no end in sight until next Summer Solstice. My only regret about life continuing for another year is having to live through the insanity of a national election, not to mention the insanity of more 2012 predictions. Haven’t we had enough of the End of the World by now? I’ve still got pinto beans stockpiled from Y2K! In 2008 I think we should declare a moratorium on all wacky doomsday/super-evolution scenarios, especially those fueled by anything Daniel Pinchbeck says.

Anyway, that is not at all what I wanted to write about tonight. Instead, I would like to highlight a great new blog post by my friend Gus DiZerega. Bravely attending public Solstice rituals so you don’t have to, Gus managed to turn what could have been an occasion for heavy drinking into a really thoughtful essay on Pagan ritual and theology.

At the heart of the article are two issues that I would love to see discussed more broadly at a Remaining salon in the months to come: what is the role (if any) of science in Pagan invocation, liturgy, and meditation; and why exactly do we do ritual? Is it, as Gus says,

to bring a person into greater harmony with the Gods at many levels, to offer honor to them, to encourage their actual presence among us, to seek their teaching, and in some cases to do magickal workings.

Or is it for something else? Some political purpose maybe, or as Barbara Ehrenreich says, to fulfill our need for collective joy? There is a lot here to think about, and I do hope that the new year sees an increase in people thinking and talking about important issues, including these.

Meanwhile, may the dawning of the New Year bring you close to the numinous, and to all your loved ones. Stay warm, travel safely, and give thanks for all that is splendid in this vital, living world.