Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Fifteenth Anniversary

So that we never forget....

That day I altered my routine. Always, always on the way to work, I started the day by listening to the news. In addition to English classes, I taught Journalism, so I felt compelled to always be aware of what was going on in the world. And really, I was a bit of a news junkie anyway.

But that day... A few weeks before, I had agreed to marry the man I'd been dating, but I was having second thoughts, and I needed some time to think things through, so I turned on some music for most of the half hour drive to work. Two miles from Jurupa Valley High School, where I worked at the time, I switched over to KFWB (which was still all news and talk at the time). I could be mistaken, but I believe anchor Jack Popejoy had the grim task of reporting what was going on in New York and Washington that morning.

Like everyone else across the country, from the moment I began to piece together what was going on, I was simply in a state of shock, unable to focus on anything else. I don't remember driving or parking or unlocking my room. I remember the faces of my colleagues... and I remember how quiet it was on campus. Students were shocked, too, but they were also very frightened. Rumors had already begun that Los Angeles would be targeted, or March Air Reserve Base just a few miles away.

Some teachers made the decision to focus away from the attacks, to distract their students with busy work, but in my mind, they deserved to know as much accurate information as could be obtained, so we sat with the radio on in my classes while I tried to reassure my fourteen-year-old freshmen that they were safe. I fielded questions that began, "But what would we do if...?" and I tried to discourage the xenophobia that had already begun to raise its ugly head.

For my Journalism class, I called the office and got permission to take my students into the teachers' lounge because there was a television in that room. I told the kids to be quiet and respectful, but I didn't need to; when they filed into the lounge and saw teachers sitting in front of the TV wiping tears from their faces, they realized the gravity of the situation. We sat for forty-five minutes, just watching. The room was silent except for the news coverage and the sound of weeping. When the bell rang, the kids stood and filed out to go to their next class. No one spoke.

I don't remember driving home. I remember spending hours in front of the TV late into the evening, two of my adult children and two of my grandchildren huddled close by in our family room. One of my most vivid memories was asking my son and daughter to come talk to me after I got in bed. My grief by then was so profound, I didn't think I would ever be able to fall asleep, and I wanted theirs to be the last voices I heard as I drifted off, I suppose to replace the nightmarish sounds I'd been hearing all day.

All of our lives were changed by the events of September 11, 2001. We've had to come to grips with the truth that the unthinkable can happen on a bright, clear beautiful September morning... that thousands of innocent people can be snuffed out in a moment by the machinations of hate. I lament the fact that we have to live every day with that truth. But we do.

As a counterbalance to that truth, however, we also witnessed, on September 11 and in the days after, powerful and miraculous acts of courage, heroism, self-sacrifice and human kindness. When called upon, we can all extend a hand of rescue, strength, grace and goodness. That is the truth I strive to keep in the forefront of my memory.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Cherry Valley Story

In 1983, after struggling for years to fix my broken marriage, I left my husband. Thus began a year of ugly confrontations that were emotionally wounding and psychologically damaging. Depressed and confused, I vented to a friend one evening on the phone about how brutal everything had become.

"You need to come to Cherry Valley," he said. "You need to come walk along the creek with me. I have an extra room. Just leave it all behind and come here."

This man, "G.K.," was a fellow writer and poet. He wasn't asking with romantic intentions. He was offering me sanctuary at a time when I desperately needed it. I took him up on his offer. I lived in Chino at the time, and I had no idea where Cherry Valley was. I thought it would take me half a day to get there. Turns out it was an hour away. Pulling off the freeway onto Cherry Valley Boulevard—as I do now to come home—I was amazed to find an immediate change in landscape. Acres and acres of green rolled out before me, under a cerulean blue sky dotted with white fluff. In the distance, I saw horses, cows, goats and ponies. A gradual increase in elevation brought me to the foot of a mountainous area covered in oak and pine and chaparral.

G.K. lived in a small house behind someone else's house, but that tiny house had a tiny spare room. I was so exhausted when I got there, I laid down on the bed and slept for hours in that sun-filled room. It was early spring. When I woke, the scent of something lovely greeted my senses before I even opened my eyes; G.K. had placed a jar of wild lilacs beside the bed while I slept. Years later, reading Walt Whitman's poem "When Lilacs Last in theDooryard Bloom'd" immediately took me back to those precious hours in Cherry Valley. It is a poem I would not have discovered had it not been for G.K.

That evening as he made us something for dinner, I perused his bookshelf and discovered Loren Eiseley. He couldn't believe I'd never been exposed to this man's love of nature, his unique writer's voice full of wonder. "I've led a very sheltered life," I kept reminding him. "But you're so smart, you'd do so well in college," was his rebuttal every time I said it. This exchange became the initial foundation for a plan I would implement much later.

The next day we both rose early, and after cups of tea and a hearty breakfast, we made our way along a dusty, single-track trail under a canopy of ancient oak trees to a small stream. We walked for hours, talking about humans who are kind and humans who are cruel and what motivates people to choose either response to the world. "You would learn a lot about that if you took psychology classes," he said. "But you would learn the same if you studied literature." That night he read me poems by Whitman and Wordsworth, plus some of his own, at my request.

I slept with the words of giants nestling down into my brain.

When I left Cherry Valley two days later, I was a changed person. Not perceptibly; no one who knew me would have seen any difference. At least, not at first. But by summer I had made a plan. I would go to college and study literature and become a teacher, giving me summers off to be with my kids. It was a life decision of profound magnitude, and it began with a few short hours spent immersed in the beauty of Nature and the wonder of words.

Before I went to college, long before my divorce, I was an author and freelance writer. It would be a long time before I could pursue that life again, what with raising my four kids as a single mom while attending college full time and, eventually, working. But what better place to return to now in my retirement? G.K. left long ago for Arizona. We haven't seen each other in many years, though he has followed the progress of my education and career, and he knows how much his gentle prodding back then has meant to my life. There are other friends here now, other writers. And this place has changed very little in three decades. I can still find the stream, when it is running, and the ancient oaks continue to hold their shady limbs over any weary, despairing pilgrims who happen along. They are there for joyous travelers as well, I have found, those of us whose sojourn has brought them full circle to return, with gratitude.

I love this place. I want to walk for hours under those oaks, and I want to write up a storm, to use all those words that took root in my brain decades ago, and use them well, to inspire and encourage and comfort. This is the place for it, don't you think?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Heart-wrenching truth from a nonagenarian

(My mama... young and beautiful, circa 1938)

Full disclosure: For those of you who are not profound introverts, you may not realize that those of us who are need a minute after we leave a store such as Target or Trader Joe's to sit in the car and take a second for a long sigh of relief. (Yes, we are tense and somewhat anxious the entire time we're shopping—too many people, too much sensory overload. Oh, and don't even try to get me to set foot in a Costco.) So when I left TJ's on Thursday, I got in the truck, took a deep breath, started the engine, poked the button that gives me a local NPR station, put the truck in reverse—but didn't back out of the parking space. I took a moment to look around me, to make sure I wasn't about to mow anyone down in my distracted hurry to return to the safety of my home-sweet-home—and that's when I saw the elderly woman sitting in the passenger seat of the SUV parked next to me.

Her body language reminded me so much of my mother when she was in distress—head bowed over her chest, the fingers of one hand splayed across her forehead, as if the pain were mental as well as physical. It wasn't scorchingly hot on Thursday mid-morning, but temps were well into the 80's and rising quickly. With both windows down in the truck, I felt the heat, and I recalled the scene two years ago as I walked out of a pharmacy to find my truck surrounded by police cars and an ambulance. In the car parked next to mine, a man in his twenties had left his elderly grandmother sitting in the heat while he went off to shop. She'd fainted, and he'd called 9-1-1 when he couldn't rouse her. The gathering crowd was hostile when they realized, as the cops questioned him, what he'd done. And rightly so. This woman in the parking lot of Trader Joe's looked to be in distress. I couldn't leave.

Nor could I get out of the truck right away to check on her. Again, full disclosure: For an introvert, interaction with strangers is tremendously challenging (unless the person is in extreme and immediate danger, so yes, no worries, I would jump in the lake or whatever to rescue your loved one even if we'd never met and I would feel severely awkward for a long time afterward). From what I've observed, extroverts have no trouble whatsoever jumping into a conversation with someone they've never met before and asking direct and personal questions. Introverts not only lack this sort of valor, we generally spend a long time before we initiate conversation rehearsing what we're going to say. ("Excuse me... Are you okay?" Is that direct enough? "Excuse me... I don't mean to bother you. But it's a bit warm to be sitting in the car. Are you alright? Is someone coming back for you soon?" Okay, that's too verbose—she could faint by the time I got to the end of my speech.)

See what I mean?

I put the truck in Park, turned off the engine, and sat for a few minutes, willing someone to emerge from Von's or TJ's or wherever, offer profuse apologies to the woman in the car, then leave. Only then would I be able to get the hell home and on with my life. Because I couldn't leave her there, sitting in the heat. But no such relief occurred. We sat, the woman in her car, who occasionally looked up hopefully at the sound of an approaching shopping cart, only to be disappointed, and me in my truck, conflicted about whether I should intervene and angry at myself for being conflicted.

When I couldn't take it anymore, I opened my door and got out.

"Excuse me... " (I had decided to go with the simplest approach) "are you okay?"

The woman's face, dappled with age spots, opened in an enormous smile. "Oh, I'm fine!" she answered, chuckling, adding as a qualifier, "Well, I'm ninety-six." She paused. "Going on a hundred!" She laughed gleefully. Brown hair framed her face. Her short bangs were carefully curled under. I couldn't help thinking of how fastidious my mother had been about her appearance until the day she died.

"Are you sure it's not too hot in the car?" I bravely and directly asked, proud of myself all over the place for breaching the scary wall to make the inquiry. Now that I saw her smile, she was no longer a stranger.

"Oh, no, I'm fine," she said again. "I have a hurt hand." I saw now that she had her right hand resting on a pillow. "My daughter just took me to the dentist." She made the face a child would make about the same experience. "She just ran in to get some things. She'll be right out. She takes good care of me."

Some positive affirmation escaped my lips here. I don't remember what it was. The woman went on talking. Again, I was reminded of my own mom.

"Don't get old." She laughed again. "You know, when your hands don't work, you can't pull your pants up. You can't fasten your brassiere." She held up swollen, arthritic hands. I started to mumble something regarding how much I worry about my own hands, which have already begun to ache and swell, but she continued.

"Stay young and beautiful."

"Well, you look lovely," I told her, omitting the word "still" that makes me cringe every time a younger person uses it in reference to an older person.

"Oh," she said, "well, I still color my hair!" She laughed and nodded toward my silver threads of wisdom. I laughed too, then, and suggested perhaps I might have better luck finding a man if I started coloring mine again.

We talked like old friends after that, about the early onset of gray hair, about finding a good man. We discovered we both have four children, two boys and two girls. She said that all of her children are "wonderful," and I said the same about mine. Her husband died twelve years ago. "I don't know what I'd do without my children," she sighed. "I don't know what I'd do without mine," I said.

We continued to chat about our kids (a brag fest, for sure), and eventually she looked at me and said again, "Well, stay young and beautiful... if you want to be loved." That is what My Daughter the Poet would call a "gut punch." Whew. It nearly winded me with its truth.

I do want to be loved. And so do you.

But I'm just going to conclude this narrative without further comment on that.

I never asked her name. I should have asked her name. An extrovert—bold and young and beautiful—would have asked her name. I just wanted to make sure she wasn't overheating in the car. But I felt like I made a friend, a very wise and sweet friend.

I wished her well and thanked her (yes, I thanked her) for chatting with me. She waved and smiled as I started the truck. Then she turned her head to look hopefully again for the daughter who still hadn't returned.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Frog and the Buddha Head East

One week ago some people who love me agreed to give up an entire Saturday and work hard all day in sweltering temperatures to move everything in my Ontario house forty miles east to Calimesa. Bless them. Bless them forever. I stayed one more night in the neighborhood of loud parties, gun shots, cherry bombs and burglars, then scooped my cats into carriers, called Sgt. ThomasTibbs into the extra cab of the truck, and off we went to pursue new adventures (with hope and a prayer for peace and quiet).

The first night was bliss. We slept with the window open, a cool breeze wafting in across our faces (well, mine and the cats—Thomas sleeps in his cushy bed on the floor). No booms. No drunken voices shouting. No sirens deep in the night. Just quiet.

I am happy to say the bliss has continued unabated.

Calimesa is a small town of rolling hills just east of Yucaipa (which is just east of Redlands—and there is a Trader Joe's in Redlands, so further bliss). Because this oasis in which I live is on a slight rise, Thomas and I are surrounded by sweeping vistas to the east (sunrise!), north (the mountains!) and west (sunset!) when we walk—and now we are walking in the morning and the evening as well. There is an orchard on the property here, and I have augmented my breakfast cereal with fresh peaches a few times or savored a ripe plum with my lunch. Watching the ducks glide across the lake at dawn is both calming and renewing.

A lot of the residents here (Plantation on the Lake, a 55+ community) drive around the property—to the pool or lake or fitness room or mailboxes—on golf carts. Often a small dog will accompany them, sitting happily on the front bench seat, leaned against the thigh of its person, enjoying the wind blowing across its face, as dogs do. When someone passes us, they wave. Everyone does this. So I've joined in, waving to those I pass as I head out in the truck or ride my bike to pick up my mail. It's a lovely gesture, isn't it? Just the simple acknowledgement of a fellow human. "I see you, and I greet you with kindness."

Several friends have asked why I moved to Calimesa. Oh dear. That story began long ago... in the winter of 1983. It's a story of fate, romance, longing and life change. And it is too long to add on here as a postscript. So it will have to be the subject of next week's post. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Here's a happy ending for ya!

A few months back I was experiencing a moral dilemma, and I posted about it on Facebook, asking folks to chime in with their thoughts. The kids next door, as long as I’ve lived here, have been throwing stuff in my yard—some things got here unintentionally, I know, but others were shot across the fence while I was actually in the yard working in the garden, and there was definitely mischief about. The kids never came over to get their stuff back, so I just started collecting it in the garage—especially after their three-foot-long Styrofoam glider landed in my yard. My dilemma concerned what to do with all that stuff upon my move from the premises. The comments of my friends on Facebook ranged from, ‘Just give them their stuff back; they’re just children!’ to private messages advising me to get Child Protective Services involved as the wild children certainly must have negligent parents, and every nuance of response in between.

My favorite response came from my beloved friend and former student, Josh Reed, who sent me a private message to gently and lovingly suggest that I exchange kindness for malice, returning the kids’ toys just before I left, perhaps with a note asking them to be nice to the new people moving in. It touched my heart so much that I decided that would be my tentative plan of action.

Today is Thursday. I move out on Saturday. This afternoon, I opened the garage, pulled the old lawn mower out and mowed the lawn for the last time (here, anyway). As I was edging with the trimmer, the two little elves from next door approached me. They’ve never spoken to me before. The ten-year-old (hereinafter referred to as Big Boy) let the five-year-old (hereinafter referred to as Little Boy) go first.

“Excuse me,” he said. I put down the trimmer and pulled up the painter’s mask I have to wear while doing yard work. Encouraged, he continued.

“Can we have our plane back? It flew in your yard. It was an accident!” he added quickly. “It went in there a long time ago but, um, we forgot to ask you for it and, um, our mom said we should ask you.” He gestured toward his driveway. Their mother stood there, shielding her eyes, watching out for her boys.

“I have your plane,” I told him. “And I have all the other stuff you’ve thrown in my yard. Little Boy looked hopeful. Big Boy suddenly looked alarmed… and a bit ashamed. “I’ll give it back to you,” I told them, “if you promise you won’t ever throw stuff in my yard or at my dog again.”

Simultaneously Little Boy happily exclaimed “Okay!” and Big Boy looked down at the sidewalk, putting a finger to his lips. Oh, what a tell! When my boys were little, this would be the point at which I would say, “You just told on yourself.”

“I think you know you threw some of those things on purpose.” I waited. Big Boy nodded his head, still staring at the sidewalk. I told them I would be moving on Saturday (they hadn’t known), and I made them promise they would be nice to the new people moving in and never throw things in the yard on purpose. Then together we walked to the garage, and I loaded them up with various balls and darts and toys and the longed-for glider. They could hardly carry it all, and they skipped back down the sidewalk to their own house. As I picked up the trimmer, I heard Little Boy recounting the story to his mom, telling her with great enthusiasm that they had promised they would be nice to the new neighbors and not throw things in their yard. Well, if Mama wasn’t aware of their behavior previously, she is now.

All’s well that ends well, eh? Thank you, Josh.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Big News!

I'm moving. On a Thursday three weeks ago I put an offer on a home in Calimesa and listed my house for sale. The listing went up on the Multiple Listing Service at 1:00p.m. and the first call requesting a showing came in thirty-five minutes later. They wanted to see the house that night. I actually showed it twice that night. And ten times over the weekend. By Monday we had three offers. I chose the first people because, well, they were first. And we bonded over our love of dogs.

And so for the past three weeks I have been immersed in the dark dank catacombs housed beneath the Institution of Real Estate, signing papers, greeting strangers at my door with a forced smile and allowing them to traipse through my home unsupervised as they inspect and appraise (and scare the cats and the dog), and, of course, signing more papers. (Have you ever carefully looked at a "proceeds sheet"? Man, when you sell a home, it's like you're throwing a party for strangers and everyone gets a piece of the cake. I'm handing money over to people whose faces I will never see for services they performed behind closed doors in an escrow office.)

At first, I was motivated in my packing by two things:

1. I can't wait to move out of this neighborhood and into the new one.
2. The buyers of this house began chanting, "Let's close quick-ly!" on the day I accepted their offer, and their voices have only gotten louder and more urgent as the days have flown by. Plus now I think I hear drumbeats to accompany them.

So where normally at this time of the summer I'd be returning from a relaxing trip to Missouri or driving down to Laguna to walk on the beach of a morning or sitting in a cool movie theater watching Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, I'm packing, cleaning, packing, organizing, packing, donating, packing (and occasionally getting a glimpse of one or two of my children and grandchildren).

This week the stress is starting to take its toll. Let me state the obvious here: It's all fun and games being a single, independent woman in good health with no one to answer to except one sweet dog and a couple of cats, but when you're in a race against time to pack up a three-bedroom home (in addition to fulfilling all those other paper-signing and inspection obligations) and it's hot and you're tired (because you're not sleeping well because somewhere in the neighborhood someone is STILL setting off explosives at night), it sucks to be alone. We were meant to have companionship, to have a shoulder to lean on when we're exhausted, to have a partner in our corner who will say, "Come on, we'll get it done. I'll help you."

I'm trying to think of something flippant to follow that with, like, "In lieu of that, I'm eating more ice-cream" or "At least I only have to pack my own dirty laundry," but the truth is, I'm really struggling here. So I decided to write it out. (Yes, I know, these few moments of venting could have been spent packing. But sometimes you have to cut open a vein and let the toxins run out for awhile. So... mission accomplished.)

Addendum: I had just finished writing this and had gone to the kitchen for some more iced tea when the phone rang. My youngest son was calling from Ohio to tell me he'd taken care of some old debts and raised his credit score by 30 points. (Atta boy!) But we also talked at length about my move, and he reminded me that there will be a great deal of peace and enjoyment on the far side of this journey, so "That must help keep you going somewhat, right?" Right, my son. With that in mind, I'm going to go pack a few more boxes.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Madam President? The Good News and the Bad News

Tonight at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton will take the stage to accept her party’s nomination as their candidate for President of the United States. All around the country, women young and old will cheer—or at least smile—to know that a chick is finally busting into a previously male-dominated arena and kicking some serious ass. Yay. Good on you, Mrs. Clinton, Madam-President-to-be. Personally, I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I voted for him (yes, even as an avowed feminist, I picked the man over the woman) in the California primary, but I’m still happy that a woman has made this advancement on the part of all women who feel they should be able to attain the same goals as do men in this country. By the way, this does not make us special or progressive as a nation. Around the globe currently there are twenty-two women serving as leaders of their countries, most of them elected (a couple of them appointed). Yep, as sophisticated as we believe we are, we are still kind of backwards in some social settings. (Huh. That reminds me of someone else who is running for President.)

So that’s all good news. Yay us! Yay women! Yay USA! I’m a proud patriot, so any time we get something right, I am figuratively yet fervently waving my flag.

But know what puts the damper on my enthusiasm for all this history-in-the-making with Hillary? It’s the fact that she’s about to be attacked and vilified for months. And that won’t stop once she’s in office. I don’t mean the same type of political attacks and posturing that occurs in all election cycles. I mean the ugly, name calling, hate and fear mongering crap that started with the election of The First Black President of the United States. When Barack Obama announced his intention to run for President, I was over-the-moon happy. I had wished it for him four years prior when he gave his amazing address to the Democratic Convention of 2004. But now that he has served two terms, I regret wishing it for him. I think, having been subjected to the absolute worst manifestations of our country’s ugliness, he must be emerging from the office a changed man. I know I would be. If he’s not, he’s a better person than I am, by far. It wasn’t just the constant reminders from Republicans that they absolutely hated him and would never let him come near accomplishing all that he wanted to do (although he did get quite a bit done in spite of them), there were also the constant horrible racist postings about him on social media, to say nothing of the death threats.

Hillary will face this. Just as there were those who believed no Black man should ever be President, there are those who believe no woman should ever be in a position of power and authority. So, just as Barack Obama was throughout his time in office, Hillary Clinton will be threatened and targeted and criticized and maligned. But damn, the lady has some huge… well, she has courage and fortitude. So yay her! And really, all things considered, yay us again! For as much hate and ugliness as we’ve seen in the past few months, there has been a lot of love. And as Hillary Clinton supporters have demonstrated, love trumps hate.