Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Town Where I Live

When I left the mountain to head to my brother’s house for a family dinner last Sunday, it had already been raining since Friday. Other than water draining over the highway, road conditions weren’t too bad. There’s a drainage—“the dip”—across the road about a half mile from my cabin, and when I drove through it, my thought was, ‘That’s gonna be deep when I get home.’ Indeed it was.

When I returned at 6:00p.m., there was a bulldozer down in the dip, pushing rocks and debris over the side and into the canyon. Several cars were waiting to cross. I watched a Honda Passport make it across, so I knew the Tacoma would easily. I wasn’t expecting the water to splash all the way up and over the cab. Whoa. Deep. I planned to stay home for a few days, until the rain stopped falling or turned to snow. Good thing.

The next, day, Monday, it continued to rain, and by the end of the day the water flowing near the dip had undermined, then broken, a water main. We were without running water.

By the next morning, the highway just below the cabin was a riverbed. I walked down early in the morning, only to find that the entire road in both directions had become the run-off for the higher elevations, and it wasn’t just water—the pavement was covered over with aggregate, rocks, branches, chunks of trees and a few boulders. The dip had filled with dirt and debris and the water was now diverted in front of it, creating a huge gash in the top of the canyon over which the water was falling.

The residents of Mt Baldy keep in touch via a Google email group entitled Baldy Bear Telegraph. On Tuesday around noon, word came via email that the highway lower down the mountain, north of the village, near Icehouse Canyon, was washed out in one spot. Friends who were below the dip and above Icehouse couldn’t go up or down. Or so I thought.

My phone started ringing Monday night and didn’t stop until the rain did. I averaged one call every 30 minutes during that time—people on the mountain were calling to make sure I had food and water, people down the mountain who couldn’t get home were wondering if I could accomplish one small chore or another, turning off heaters, checking on pets. At one point, I had the keys to three different cabins. No way could I run out of food or water.

In the meantime, stories began to be exchanged. While I was sitting before a roaring fire, catching up on my reading or watching my recorded NCIS marathon, brave Baldyites were out in the pouring rain, cutting dead trees to divert the flow of water back into the streambed, bringing in heavy equipment to start work on the washed out road—and repairing the water system. (By Tuesday afternoon, our water was completely restored. I had expected to be without running water for days. Fourteen hours didn’t seem long at all—but man, was I glad to take a hot bath.) Others did what they could; two of my neighbors are nurses. On Tuesday, as I brought in firewood, they stopped to chat—in the pouring rain. They were soaked to the skin, and had hiked in from their cabin a mile or so away. They were making the rounds of the cabins in my neighborhood, checking to make sure everyone was OK, asking if anyone needed food or water.

When I found out last month that the, er, gentlemen who were going to buy my cabin had changed their minds, someone said they were “sorry” and hoped I wasn’t “too disappointed.” No. Eventually, when the cabin sells for real, I will cry when I leave this community. People wonder why I ‘put up with’ the challenges of living on a mountain. It’s more beautiful here than I can say. Beyond that, I love these people who are willing to experience inconvenience and to sacrifice personal comfort in order to make the lives of those in their community better. In a world that becomes increasingly more selfish with every passing day, I cherish that quality.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Book of Bunk

I know I’m really enjoying a book when I start reading it aloud to my cat. Such was the case with the much anticipated new novel from Glen Hirshberg, The Book of Bunk. Hirshberg is a tremendous story teller—even when the man tells stories during his speaking engagements, the audience hangs on his words—and this book showcases his story-telling prowess in its most favorable light to date.

I don’t usually use my blog to promote the work of others. Heck, I hardly use it to promote my own work, except for a mention now and again. But this book has not been printed by one of The Big Five fancy schmancy publishers. It was done by a small press, and I’m all about small presses and print-on-demand these days. Besides all that, this is a damn fine book. Trust me. I read a lot of books as a Vine Voice reviewer for Amazon. Most of the stuff being offered to readers by The Big Five is not literary—it’s “mar-ket-a-ble”—schmaltzy or gimmicky or depraved, but not well written or well edited. Actually, it’s not edited at all.

The Book of Bunk takes place in the 1930’s (already I love it—my favorite decade) and concerns one Paul Dent, a young man who leaves impoverished Oklahoma during the Depression (the other one) and ends up in Trampleton, North Carolina, working for the government as a writer with the federal writers’ project.

That’s all I’m going to tell you. No really, I can’t give any more away. This book is magical and surreal and very real but fantastical. I think this is why I love Hirshberg’s writing so much. He leads his reader down a path that looks at first as if it winds through a pleasant garden. With a couple of turns, you find yourself in a dense forest, jogging to keep up but slowing down to take in the dark beauty that surrounds you. This is how I felt when I read Hirshberg’s previous novel, The Snowman’s Children, and the experience was renewed in reading The Book of Bunk.

I have placed an Amazon link to Bunk on this page in case you want to give in to that temptation to click on the “Buy it now with one click!” button. For more of me going on and on about Hirshberg’s work, there’s a review posted there as well.  Here's the link to Amazon:
The Book of Bunk: A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers' Project
Or to order from the publisher directly (and get more information about what you're getting):
Earthling Publications

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Old Stuff, Part 3: The Dresser

When they moved from Illinois to California in 1954, the year I was born, my parents could fit very little in the U-Haul trailer they pulled behind their Buick station wagon. One of the few items of furniture they brought with them was an oak dresser. It was a solid piece of furniture with birdseye maple drawers (except for the bottom drawer, which was made of cedar and had a hinged cedar cover).

After my father knew that he was dying, he and Mom embarked upon several home improvement projects. I think that Dad, since he couldn’t work, wanted to feel like he was being productive. Unfortunately, one of their projects was to “refinish” and “antique” the beautiful natural wood of the dresser, which meant painting it a hideous color of green, streaking that with a garish gold color, and then applying a coat of shellac which gave everything a sickly yellowish hue. They also spray painted the brass knobs the color gold you see as trim on merry-go-round horses. Yeah, it was awful. But they put the thing back in my brothers’ bedroom and we mostly just forgot about it.

Dad passed away, the boys grew up and moved out, and the dresser was shifted from one home to another. Finally, when I married in 1972, Mom gave me the dresser but made me promise that I would someday refinish it. I had every intention of doing so, but life happens.  Decades later, the dresser ended up in my two boys’ room—still the same awful color it had been since 1963, but also still functioning as a very solid piece of furniture.

Three years ago, when I moved to Mt. Baldy, we put the dresser in the basement on the day I moved in. Space is limited in the cabin, the master bedroom has a beautiful, rosewood-topped built in dresser (thank you, Richard Stutsman) and frankly I was reluctant to move the old green monstrosity into my beautiful new living space.

A week after I moved in it snowed, and a week after that we had pouring rain for hours on end. It wasn’t until several days later that I went looking for something in the basement and discovered that water had leaked (a repair that was supposed to have been completed during escrow) through the ceiling down there and had been dripping for days—right on top of the old green dresser. The wood on the top was peeling up and the drawers were warped and wouldn’t open properly. I was devastated, angry, disappointed in myself for not taking better care of something that had grown in meaning for me with every year of my life. I moved the dresser away from the leaking spot, covered it up, and tried not to think of it.

Two years went by. Last winter, after I put the cabin on the market, I knew I would have to deal with paring down, getting ready to move. I went down to the basement with the intention of breaking the dresser into pieces and taking it to the dumpster. As I examined it, though, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. The top was ruined, but it was just a thin veneer that could be replaced. The drawers were also finished with veneer and it was that which was warped, not the oak itself. Slowly, painstakingly, I began restoring the dresser, using wood glue to repair in some places, finding wood to cover the top, sanding, painting—and replacing the knobs.

Yesterday my friend Michael came up to visit and I enlisted his help. Together, we brought the green dresser out of the basement and into the bedroom where it belongs. It’s beautiful, I’m proud of the work I did on it (sorry it took so long, Mom!), and it will always be with me, truly the possession of a lifetime.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Old stuff, Part II

On Thursday, when I was making Twice Baked Potato Casserole for the Thanksgiving brunch I hosted, I went looking for something to “mash the potatoes a little,” just as the recipe had instructed. At first, I used a big fork, but it wasn’t doing the trick. Then I remembered Mom’s old pastry cutter.

The first time I married—foolishly, in 1972, when I was 17—Mom went through her gadget drawer and pulled out some utensils she thought I might need for my new domestic duties. In the box she handed me was an old steel carrot and potato peeler and the pastry cutter. Picking up the peeler back then immediately brought to mind memories of Grandma coming out on the train from Los Angeles to Lakewood (a 20-minute drive in a car these days), Dad picking her up at the train station, Grandma bringing day-old cinnamon-raisin bread (because her boyfriend worked at a bakery), coloring books and crayons. She was always laughing. (Not so, my mother.) The two would sit in the kitchen for hours, preparing Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, occasionally conscripting me or my sister to peel potatoes (never the boys or my father). I would stand on a kitchen stool over the sink, peeling and listening, trying to understand the conversation of two aging women quietly denigrating men, marriage and menial chores. If only I had understood more….

After I married, I used the potato peeler often, and the pastry cutter as well, baking pies from scratch and other delectable goodies that my husband hardly took time to smell before consuming. I baked my own bread for the twelve years that I was married. After becoming single, I didn’t bake bread for almost two decades. Now I do again.

And I’m cooking again, at least when I have guests over. (Seems to be a lot of trouble to go to just for me, so most days it’s frozen vegetarian dinners for me.) A few years back, when I began to entertain and cook for others, I thought I should replace some of my utensils, get some nice, shiny new stuff in case one of my guests offered to help with the cooking. At Target, I found myself staring at a wall of bright utensils, wondering if, when I bought new ones, I’d be able to toss out those things Mom had given me so many decades ago. When I realized the answer was no, I turned and walked away.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Old stuff, Part I

When my daughter was in junior high, flannel shirts suddenly, for some strange reason, became popular. Shali was stylish and fashionable (unlike her mom), and somehow we ended up buying her a really cool flannel in a sky blue and pale green plaid. The predominant bright blue color brought out the crystal blue in her eyes, and she wore her shirt proudly over various t-shirts. It was such a cool shirt, in fact, that her little brother was known to snag it out of her closet (or off her floor) and sneak it to school in his backpack so he could wear it himself.

Eventually, Shali moved on to other trends in fashion, and the awesome flannel shirt became a cast off. No doubt it would have been donated to Goodwill, but I claimed it. And I wore the heck out of it, throwing it on over t-shirts on cool autumn and spring mornings when I went out to walk the dogs or work in the garden. I loved the soft warmth of it, and wearing it reminded me of an innocent and happy time in my daughter’s life.

She’s 37 now. After I moved to the mountain, the shirt got a lot of wear. But the frequent washings took their toll, and in recent days the fabric has become so worn that the collar has frayed and there is little warmth left in it. I need to discard it. But how can I? With every passing year, it has meant more and more to me, even as its colors have faded, the once plush flannel has become a gossamer version of its once sturdy form.

I feel the same way about a lunchbox the kids gave me many years ago. It was made of a soft, foam-filled vinyl of some kind, and Shali, Ezra, Sam and Jo covered it with their signatures in puff paint to decorate it, then gave it to me when I started teaching. I used and washed the thing so many times that now the vinyl is torn, the foam padding has all but disintegrated. But how can I throw it away? When I mentioned this to my daughter last year, she bought me a new lunchbox—an exact replica of the black metal ‘Thermos’ box my dad used to take with him to work. I love it, and now I use it every day, while the old one sits atop the fridge, collecting dust.

I’m not a hoarder by any means; I’m pretty good about tossing out or donating anything I no longer need or use. But these old things… I have a need for them that transcends utility, and I count them with my most prized treasures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Veteran's Day

I think the happiest days of my mother’s life slipped by while she was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Corp during WWII. I have sat with her in the past and gone through photo after photo taken back then. In every single one, she is smiling like she just won a million bucks. And for all that, she looks like a million bucks, with a stylish hairdo, tasteful cosmetics (including the bright red lipstick of the 1940’s) and a neat, trim uniform. Before she enlisted, she was somewhat transition, drifting around in the Midwest and stopping to work wherever she found a club with a house band that would let her sing along. Once she found her way into military service, she settled down into the routine of daily work—either doing clerical work or servicing military vehicles—and nightly play. In many of the photos from that time, she is sitting with handsome men around tables littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. In my lifetime, I never saw her that happy.
My father’s story was a different one altogether. As a strong believer in patriotism, he felt it was his duty to serve his county. In 1942, he kissed his new bride good-by and told her he’d be home in a year. Then he picked up his army issue duffle and headed overseas. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, his orders changed, and he wasn’t able to return home for five years. By the time he returned, his wife had annulled their union and had married someone else. The child she carried when he left had died before reaching the age of one. My father never got to see his firstborn son.
All soldiers make sacrifices. War is hell and most individuals return to civilian life different, in one respect or another, from the person they were when they became ‘military issue.’ I have old friends who served in Vietnam—both were marines—who have never talked about their experiences to anyone since returning home. Neither man was wounded. Both bear invisible scars.
Occasionally now I have former students who have graduated return to campus to show me their dress uniforms, to announce they’ve made it through boot camp and are shipping out to places we know are dangerous. I see in their eyes the zeal of the uninitiated. Experience will teach them much, I think, and my fervent prayer is that each will return to homeland, family, and friends as a whole person, sans scars of any kind. I know they may be embarking on one of the greatest times of their lives. Or they may be required to make sacrifices they could never have foreseen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Time Change

Give me blizzards and frozen pipes, but not this nothing time.
Not this waiting room of the world.
                ~ Sir Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands”

I walked the loop last Saturday morning at 5:00a.m. It was a great walk. Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Standing on the front porch in the dark, I can smell the rain coming, feel the negative ions in the air, against my skin. I drink them in with my breath, along with the scent of sweet wood smoke. I use the headlamp until I’m down the private road, then switch it off as I reach the highway, content to walk in the dark as long as I can follow the white lines in the road.

The wind thrums in the treetops. And then the sound changes. I hear thousands of tiny crystals falling through the leaves. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never truly remember how it sounds. I don’t feel damp, but I know by this sound that it’s hailing.

As I reach the turn in San Antonio Falls Road, I look down to the valley but see only huge dark clouds lowering over the east ridge. My face is freezing with the onslaught of the tiny ice crystals. My hands ache when I remove my gloves to switch the lamp on, then off, so I can see in certain sections of the road.

On the way back to the cabin, I hurry, almost jogging, as the hail turns to fat drops of rain which soaks through my sweatshirt and jeans. But I stop when I hear rocks falling on the opposite side of the canyon. I know there are Big Horn Sheep there, making their way back up the slope. I stand on the edge of the road, listening. When I realize they are waiting to see if the noise they heard, this intruder in their habitat will move on, I do.

At home, there is much to record as this walk proves to be, like many, a walking meditation.
And this is what I thought about as I walked:
I thought about how hard I work to keep to a regular routine--which holds the sadness at bay. That thought led to this: What am I sad about? And so much emotion rolled in it was like standing on a beach one moment, contemplating the ocean, then being toppled by a knee-buckling wave. I started to cry as I walked, then pushed it all back--with my super-hero powers--and laughed at myself for crying. I lose perspective when I'm sad, forget to smell the scent of the rain in the air, to see the glow of the moon through the clouds, the light from my headlamp refracting off the thousands of tiny ice shards falling around me. I forget that when I get home, I will drink an incredible cup of tea and enjoy the privilege of eating a seemingly inexhaustible supply of food. I forget that I have two strong legs that are carrying me through the forest, eyes that see the beauty, hands that will later skip across a keyboard and maybe, just maybe, compose a paragraph that will touch the heart of someone I've never met.

I'm trying hard--knowing that we are in this time, this waiting room of the world again, when we watch the light wane and the darkness creep in on us--to follow my routine, to eat well but not gluttonously, to give my body all the sleep it needs, to exercise every day, to stop the onslaught of negative energy from the world outside with my super-hero shield (which is energized, by the way, by the love of my friends).

I hate the time change because it signals the coming darkness. I’m counting the days till the Solstice, as I do every year, trying to be centered on what is good and present, not what is absent in my life.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You Heard it Here First

Yesterday morning in the hours before dawn there was a huge storm just off shore, between our south facing beaches and Catalina island. I know because I watched it—from up here on the mountain.

I went out to walk at 5:00a.m. with many, many things on my mind. I was carrying my headlamp, but it wasn’t on. That’s how I saw the flashes. Big flashes of light in the sky behind the cloud cover. Overhead, the night sky was clear, and I could see the stars. But over the valley lay a thick marine layer, and above it hung thick clouds.

I hurried around the loop, up to Falls road, so I could see the entire valley below and farther, out to sea. (On a clear day, one can see the entire island of Catalina from here, though it’s 100 miles away.) From a spot on the road just above my cabin, I could look out in the direction of the island, though it was too dark to see. I only had to wait a moment before the heavens over the ocean lit up as a huge lightning bolt sliced through the dark sky. To call the sight amazing might be an understatement. Once before in my life, while on vacation in Morro Bay in 1989, I witnessed a storm at sea from the window of my hotel (which was located on a bluff overlooking the ocean). I’ve never forgotten it. As I watched yesterday morning, I realized I was privy to something that most folks never see. How blessed I am….

I stood in the dark watching for a quarter of an hour or so, until I heard the baby raccoons cooing in the forest. Three days ago, they showed up without their mother. We’ve had something big in around the neighborhood in recent weeks—could be Bob Kitty all grown up, could be the lion that’s been seen by my neighbors. I don’t want to consider that Little Mama has been taken… but I did feel compelled to go home and check on the babies. By the time I got back to the cabin, they’d gone. But I stood on the front porch in the still dark morning, looking down toward the valley, seeing occasional flashes of light as the storm moved on. As I did I listened… to the sound of the waterfall up the canyon, and the stream running past below, and the owl hooting from the ridge above the campground, and a nighthawk calling from the trees overhead.

As I did I wondered if I will ever live in a place quite as wonderful as this ever again in my life.

It has been a year and a half since I blogged about putting my cabin on the market. As I write this, my real estate agent, Liz Dills, is on her way up the mountain to present an offer. It’s a good one; a really nice man has been in contact with me for months, asking questions, making plans. He will love the life here, too. As much as I have? Who’s to say?

With great sadness and some excitement for the adventures that lie ahead, I am now looking forward to becoming a flatlander again. Doing so will mean more time with my kids and grandkids, which is worth it all. It will also allow me to retire sooner than say, age 65… which will allow me, at long last, to be simply a writer. Full time. (I’ve only been working toward that goal for the past 47 years. But who’s counting?) Needless to say, though, leaving the mountain, and all the gifts it has given me, will be difficult.

So there you have it. Now that I’ve told my readers, I can tell the rest of the world.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Big Pay-off

Last week, three of my students made me cry.
The first was Matthew, one of my freshmen. We do silent reading at the beginning of every class period. Studies show that if a student reads for pleasure, he is far more likely to improve his writing skills; seeing the structure of the language on the page over and over does far more to ingrain grammar than any lesson I could ever come up with. So we read for twelve minutes—a period of sheer bliss for the young bibliophiles. Absolute torture for the non-readers. Matthew was a member of the latter group, so I called his mom for some advice.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ms. Murphy,” she sighed. “Matthew has never liked to read. Teachers have been telling us this for years.” She agreed to take him to a bookstore over the weekend to try to find something he might like.

On Monday he showed up with one of S.E. Hinton’s books, Rumblefish. Hinton began writing as a young girl in high school. She’s the author of The Outsiders. Her novels are short and gritty, starring teen punks who get in trouble but overall have good hearts. Matthew told me he’d started Rumblefish over the weekend and it was “OK.” Whew. At least he’d be reading now instead of fidgeting at his desk for twelve minutes.

A day or so later, the kids were working on a written assignment in class, and I was walking around helping them. I noticed Matthew wasn’t writing. He was reading.

“Matthew, are you finished?” I checked his work. Yep, done, and done well.

“I’m on the last chapter,” he said, barely looking up.

A few minutes later, I gave the stragglers a five-minute warning.

“The bell’s gonna ring in five minutes, guys, let’s get this thing finished.”

“Nooooo!” Matthew cried, looking up at the clock. “Ms. Murphy, can I just stay in your class next period? I want to finish this book!”

If you could have seen the look on his face, if you understand how a book can transport a reader to another place and time, so much so that he becomes unaware of the place he’s in…. Well, you would have gotten teary-eyed, too.

The next day a former student stopped by to visit. I didn’t think I’d ever see Miguel after graduation. He hated my class, hated me for awhile. He was tardy often, truant occasionally, and would never read during the silent reading period. He was tall, surly and absolutely belligerent every time I spoke with him. When I called home, I discovered he was living in foster care… because he’d been abused by his parents. His only reason for showing up to school was to appease his probation officer. I decided at that point that I would simply treat him with kindness every day from that day forward, regardless of how he performed in my class.

Some time later a student finished A Child Called It and told me I could keep it for my classroom library. This book isn’t literary, to say the least; it’s a stark memoir about a boy who was abused as a child. On yet another day when Miguel showed up without a book, I placed it on his desk. He picked it up. I watched him read the front, then the back, then slowly open it. At the end of that school year, he told me he was still reading it. I told him he could have the book. He was incredulous.

“Just have it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I told him. “Enjoy it!” He made a noise and I realized how stupid that sounded. How does one “enjoy” a book about suffering, especially when it hits so close to the bone?
When Miguel showed up this week, I hadn’t seen him in four years, not since that last day of school when he was a sophomore. He walked into my class after school accompanied by a heavily tattooed young woman. Another student was in the room, taking a test. After I greeted him and he uttered some grunting noise, Miguel walked around, looking at the room, commenting sparsely on how it looked the same. Finally, he approached my desk.

“I still have your book,” he said quietly. “I read it.”

I nodded. “And what are you doing these days?”

“I’m working,” he said, smiling.

“Like a grown-up?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, chuckling, “like a grown-up. Anyways, I just wanted to say hello.”

“Stop in any time,” I told him. He and the girl meandered out.

I doubt that I’ll see Miguel again. But I understood his tacit message, and that’s what brought the tears I had to disguise quickly so my test-taking student wouldn’t be alarmed.

And the next day John stopped by. This goofy, tow-headed boy had been a freshman in my class four years before. I’d called his mom repeatedly that year because John just couldn’t keep from getting into mischief. I usually characterize freshmen as puppies—mostly squirmy, exuberant creatures with very short attention spans. John was more of a young raccoon because he had the masked, ninja factor—always sneaking around and up to no good, though not in a malicious way. I loved his Tom Sawyer approach to life, and he had the freckled, honest face to go along with the character. Now he towered over me, a grown man.

“John!” I exclaimed as I hugged him. “What are you up to?!?”

“I just finished boot camp,” he said quietly.

After graduation in June, he’d joined the army. In some months, after completing his training, he’ll be going either to Afghanistan or Korea. We talked for a few minutes about boot camp, how he’d questioned his decision during the first two weeks, then been proud of himself by the end of it all.

“I lost thirty-five pounds,” he said, grinning.

“I’m proud of you, too,” I told him.

He was on campus to pick up his younger sister, and he had to leave. My “Take care of yourself” as he departed seem wholly inadequate. The tears came a few minutes later, as I tried to resume grading papers. He will make us all proud, I know, and I hope and pray that, in a few years, he’ll stop by again to say hello.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Some weeks ago fellow blogger Glenn (“glnroz” at “Differences with the Same Likeness”) suggested to his readers that they see “The Stoning of Soraya M.” The film is adapted from a book by Freidoune Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist. Both are based on Sahebjam’s experience of being made aware, while he was in Iran, of the story of a woman whose husband accused her of adultery so that he could be rid of her to marry another. The shamed wife was stoned to death. If you’re thinking this was something that occurred long ago, you’re mistaken. The stoning took place in recent years. Stoning. As in pelting a woman with stones until she dies of her injuries.

There’s no enjoyable evening of movie watching and popcorn to be had here. Only the naked truth of a culture which continues, in modern times, to brutalize and oppress women.

I knew well what the film was about before I watched it, having heard it reviewed. And yes, I knew it would be difficult to watch. But some things are necessary. I said as much after the release of “Hotel Rwanda,” and I encouraged my friends to see it. Most didn’t, and those who did see it let me know, for the most part, that they didn’t appreciate the experience. Still….

I think at times our own sense of privilege causes us to take for granted the suffering in the rest of the world. It’s difficult to appreciate the fight for freedom and justice if we don’t allow ourselves to become enraged at the injustices practiced daily outside our borders.

For that reason, Dear Reader, I would suggest that you take the hand of someone beloved and try, if you can, to appreciate a form of art that offers not beauty or entertainment, but simply truth.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Stairway to Heaven

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least… sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields….” ~Henry David Thoreau in “Walking”
As I drove up the mountain on Saturday evening, returning from Seattle, I put my arm out the window of the truck to feel the cool, fresh air. It was 88 degrees at the airport in Ontario when we landed. It was about 74 at home. I shut off the truck when I pulled up to the cabin, got out, and listened. Yes. The water was still running in the stream. Here is my reward for all the snow I shoveled and dug out of and drove through this past winter; the stream has not gone underground this summer as it usually does. Water still spills over rocks, and I fall asleep at night directly under an open window, hearing the music it makes as it dances down the canyon.
The morning after my return home, I climbed down into the canyon and hiked up the stream. This is where I find tranquility. Rarely does anyone else hike the stream bed. This summer, because the stream is still running, I simply walk up the rocks—a natural staircase to heaven, if you will—letting the water flow over my feet and legs, stooping to splash water on my arms if the temperature soars too high. You would think the water would be ice cold, but not so. The effect of shallow water running along over hot rocks is sort of the reverse of pouring your tea over ice cubes; the snowmelt loses its biting edge and becomes just cool, like water from the garden hose.

As I walk on this particular morning, I stop to watch a hummingbird feed from wild red columbine. Overheard, a red shafted flicker lets me know he is wary of my presence, though the hummer doesn’t seem to mind. A huge yellow and black butterfly drifts by—papilionidae—the “swallowtail” butterfly that was a magical creature to me in my childhood… and still is. Farther up the stream, I stop for a drink of water, setting the backpack beside the stream, and I nearly tread on an alligator lizard as I step back into the water. He is magnificent as he suns himself, and I watch him until he becomes self-conscious and scuttles under a rock.
Finally, I reach The Flat Rock, a huge boulder that I climb up on to rest and eat lunch. The stream runs over half of it, so I sit on the smooth dry side, the water flowing just inches from me. As I sit, I can look down to the valley. I hear nothing but birdsong over the sound of the stream on this brilliant day. There is nothing jarring or grating or frightening or distracting, nothing to dismay or sadden me. Just the sunshine on my shoulders, the scent of pine and wildflowers, a soft mountain breeze… and my cool, wet feet.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where Eagles Fly

Many of you sent kind thoughts before I left for Seattle, and I want to thank you for your words and your support. My brother Dan passed away last September, and, though we had a memorial service here, he had requested that his ashes be scattered at sea. It took us awhile to coordinate that, but, thanks to his friends in the Seattle area, we were finally able to fulfill his wishes on Friday evening.
Dan’s love-for-a-lifetime Andrea had arranged with two boat captains to pick us up from the dock at her home on Bainbridge Island. My sister, my brother and his wife, myself and a few of Dan’s lifelong friends climbed aboard the boats and headed out onto the water. It was a gorgeous evening with still warm sun and calm waters.
Just as I heard the captains saying they’d found a spot, I saw a bald eagle leave his perch atop a tall pine on the island and fly across the water in front of the boats. We were all stunned. I’ve never seen a bald eagle in the wild before. It was late evening; the bird should have been roosting. But it simply took what seemed to be one more flight for the day, winging its way across the sky, then returning to the same tree.
By then the captains had powered down their boats and tied up together. We drank a toast to Dan—Irish whiskey, of course—then sang a long sad rendition of “Danny Boy.” Very few words were spoken as his ashes were given over to the sea and flowers were cast upon the spot. Quietly we watched them drift atop gentle swells.

The captains powered up the boats, and as we began to move slowly away, the same eagle left his perch one last time, flying across the water once more, this time behind us, as if to bid us farewell.
Rest in peace where you so loved to be, wild boy… beloved brother…. Thanks for reminding us that you have gone where eagles fly.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Eight years ago, toward the end of a horrible year teaching for a horrible principal, I got a call from former colleague Martha Srisamai (now Martha Hall).

"Kay, come to Upland!  You'll love it here!"

Martha had been an Upland High School grad and had gone on to teach mathematics.  When UHS had a place for her, they called, and she left the high school where we taught together.  She'd been there a year when she called to let me know that administrators needed to hire five new English teachers.  I made a few phone calls, and the next thing I knew I was scheduled for an interview.

Principal Guy Roubian interviewed me (along with the teacher I knew would have to eventually become my BFT--Best Friend Teacher--Kelli Hogan-Flowers).  I've never felt so comfortable in an interview, and by the end of it I began to imagine what it would be like to work for someone who was so laid back and seemed to have a sincere love of teenagers.  Fortunately for me, I had the privilege to find out.  The next fall, I became an Upland Highlander.

I'll never forget the first faculty meeting before school started.  It was unlike anything I'd experienced previously.  At some point, Roubian and several other administrators presented themselves before the faculty dressed as pirates.  (The next year, Roubian would don a full body suit to impersonate Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It was hilarious.)  The point was to inspire the spirit of fun and creativity in teachers, to remind them that yes, teaching is serious business, but we need to include the element of fun as much as we can so that students will be engaged and enthusiastic about learning.  As always, Guy Roubian practiced what he preached.

I had previously taught English and Journalism, and when a Journalism class opened up at UHS, Guy remembered that discussion in our interview.  He asked me to take over the school newspaper, and I did so happily.  The issue we looked forward to the most each year was the April Fool's issue, in which we would include both true and contrived stories, often making outrageous claims about Oprah visiting our campus or teachers moonlighting as rock musicians.  In my second year doing the paper, Walter--a great kid--asked if he could write a story for the April 1 issue claiming that Principal Guy Roubian had been a teletubby while working his way through college.  To fully appreciate Walter's vision, you'd have to have seen Roubian; he's a man of short stature.  Walter's plan was to photoshop Guy's face onto a teletubby body.

"Absolutely not," I told him.  "He's your principal and you need to respect him."
"I do respect him," he argued.  "I respect his sense of humor.  That's what makes him so cool."

We argued for twenty minutes.  Finally Walter pleaded, "If I ask him and he gives his permission, can I do it?"  I relented, sure that Guy would tell him no.  Of course he said yes, allowing the article (which was brilliant) and the photo, and providing quotes from his "acting experience."  It was hilarious.  And Walter was right; this is why kids liked him so much.  He was the principal who never hesitated to jump into the trenches along with them and be involved in their learning and their fun.  In the final pep rally of this past school year, Roubian performed a cheer with the cheerleaders, allowing them to lift him up in a 'tower.'

Alas for all of us, that pep rally was the last for Guy Roubian as a Highlander.  For his own personal reasons, he has taken a job as personnel director for a neighboring school district.  Needless to say, faculty members are devastated.  I can't imagine returning to work next month without him there.  Through all the sadness of this past year, losing my brother, losing my mom, I was grateful for Guy's constant support and encouragement.  His new district is fortunate to have him, but oh what a loss to Upland High School.  Yesterday, when news of his move began to spread, Facebook pages were filled with comments on how much he'd meant to individual staff members.

To say he will be missed is an understatement.  We can only hope that he is happy in his new position, that he enjoys his work, and that we remember the lessons he left behind as our best role model.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Swimming in melted snow

After several days in a row of disappointments, rejection slips and discouraging news, I decided it was time for me to go in search of tall trees, rushing streams, and birdsong. It’s true; where I live, I needn’t go farther than my front porch to find those ingredients in the formula for serenity, but I craved a long walk in a deep canyon as well… and a swim in a mountain pool.

So I drove to the Santa Anita canyon hiking area. I was happy to see few cars in the parking lot, and as I headed down the trail, I could see that most of the hikers were following the path which leads to Sturtevant Falls, a beautiful waterfall at the end of a pleasant walk down. I opted for the small single track trail to Hermit Falls, a much smaller waterfall—really, just a section of stream where the water slides over a tall boulder but splashes into a very deep pool before it continues on its way, running down the mountain.

The narrow trail follows a series of switchbacks down, down, down into a very steep canyon where the tree canopy is so lush, you are always walking in shade, no matter what the time of day. Because it is still early summer, I walked past wildflowers of lavender, pink, yellow and pale blue. I moved slowly along the trail, breathing in the scent of wild sage, remembering lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” poem, the treatise he wrote for his sister about the immutability of Nature. Things change. People change. These “rocks and rills” remain the same for countless generations.

When I reached the falls, I was only mildly disappointed to find that a group of young people had arrived before me. I had barely arrived when a young couple approached and asked me to take their picture. I obliged, playing the role of serious photographer for a moment, then moved as far away from their group—and the wafting pot smoke—as I could, nestling down onto a smooth boulder next to the emerald water of the deep pool.

I hadn’t hiked alone in this canyon for many, many years. Usually, I go at least once each summer, always taking a male friend… just in case. But yesterday I was alone… because I needed to be. For a few moments, I sat on the rock, venting my feelings in the words that poured into my journal. The sun was hot as it reflected off the surrounding rocks, and it didn’t take long before the lure of the water drew me in. I stood up, removed my shoes and socks, remembered my truck keys in my pocket and placed them safely in my backpack, then stepped ankle-deep into the water.

The first ten years I hiked to this spot, I never swam in the pool. The water cascades down from the San Gabriel mountaintops, and it is comprised primarily of snowmelt. It’s freezing cold. When I first started hiking in the canyon, I would go in spring or fall, because it can be perilously hot hiking out on scorching summer days. But finally, some years ago, I took a friend along, and he patiently waited with me until I mustered the courage to jump in. (I told him he had to be there in case I had a heart attack—so he could let my kids know I died doing something I loved.)

Yesterday, as I stood on the rock feeling my ankles go numb from the cold, I contemplated not going in. I just didn’t want to feel that first immersion into the aching cold. Yet I knew if I didn’t go, I’d be angry with myself all the way back up the trail. And I would feel defeated. If I needed anything at that moment, it was to feel victorious over something, anything in my life. I crouched over… and slipped in.

The first shock is never pleasant, but the joy of having it over with, of being free to swim in clear water with nothing but a blue sky above, is delicious. I swam several laps of the pool, then floated on my back for a few tranquil moments. Finally I pulled myself out, shorts and tank top dripping. The warmth of the rock spread through my bones as I leaned back comfortably to dry out and eat some lovely cheese and a few crackers. As I finished, another group of young people arrived, challenging each other to jump into the pool from the rocks above, and I knew it was time for me to head back up the trail.

Yes, at times, life sucks. I have no idea what changes will occur in my life in the following year. But one thing remains constant, and that is the beauty of that deep mountain pool. If the forces of the universe are willing, I will return to it again next year and somehow find the courage to dive into the icy waters… to taste that wild freedom once again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The business of writing

The hardest part of my role as writer is marketing my work because doing so involves contacting a complete stranger and somehow convincing her or him, in a few brief sentences, that (1) I am a pretty decent writer and (2) that other folks want to read what I’ve just written. Having to do so is tantamount to torture. I can sit for hours at the keyboard—when I was working on Tainted Legacy, I would sometimes do five-hour stints without food or potty breaks, and I could do that because I loved the work. But composing a query letter that somehow makes me shine above all the other thousands of writers out there trying to get books published? Please… don’t… make… me… do… that….

I can remember being in my early twenties, attending my first writers conferences, watching people get up and prattle on about their books. I knew I could never do that part of it. “Read me! I’m great!” is just far too embarrassing for me.

It’s not that I’m shy; I taught Lamaze classes for years before I began teaching English and Journalism. I love to speak to writers groups. In fact, I’m passionate about doing so. But shameless self-promotion is another beast entirely. At the signing for TL last spring at Border’s, the reason I had so many people approach my table had to do with friend and comic Tim Chizmar standing near the front door shouting, “S Kay Murphy! Right there at that table! Her great grandmother might have been a serial killer!” I sold 24 books that day. (Thanks, Tim.)

My reticence to promote myself has to do, I think, with having a particularly introverted, reserved personality. I simply don’t assert myself. The same was true back in the days when I was singing a lot. It all started because someone at church told someone else they’d heard me sing. Next thing I know, I’m up in front of a couple hundred people at Harvest in Riverside, singing and playing guitar. Then someone asked me to sing in a wedding, then someone else, and the next thing you know, I’m singing the National Anthem a cappella in front of 2,000 baseball fans at our local Quakes stadium.

Wait. Maybe I’ve discovered the key here. Perhaps instead of sending “Read me! I’m great!” letters out to strangers, I should fly to New York, stand on Broadway, and simply read from my next book (which, by the way, is a memoir about the dogs who’ve owned me—Hope you get a chance to Read it! It’s great!). If only….

I’ve gotta get back to work on this query letter, but don’t be surprised if you see me later in downtown Upland, standing in the gazebo, manuscript pages in hand….

[Just for practice at SSP (shameless self-promotion), I've attached an Amazon link to TL.  Forgive me.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

Best Big-Eared Woman I Know

Last week my son drove me in his fancy car to Arizona, where I had the opportunity to talk about Tainted Legacy to a group of writers in Prescott, sell a few books, and, on our second day, visit with my good friend, Willma Gore, in Sedona. Willma (yes, two l’s) has been my mentor in writing for about a decade. She is 89, and still the most prolific writer I know. In fact, she’s just finished writing a memoir (finally) and has already found a publisher, so I suspect the book will be out by her 90th birthday. It was Willma who arranged the gig for me with the Professional Writers of Prescott group. The members were gracious and responsive to my talk—no doubt because Willma had insisted to them that I was a good speaker and they’d darn well better appreciate me. She’s like that, and it always reminds me of my mom. Both were women who did not have the circumstances of life unfurl gracefully before them, but rather had to fight with life in order to wrest some satisfaction from it. I see Willma now, still writing, still publishing, still teaching workshops and doing book tours, and I know that there is hope for a long life of creativity for me as well. While we were in Sedona, Willma told us she had recently met a man who said to her, ‘You have big ears. That means you will live a long time.’ May it be so, my friend, may it be so.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bear as Totem

Hanging from the rearview mirror of my Tacoma is a Zuni fetish necklace that was given to me by a somewhat demented poet nineteen years ago. It is made up of birds and other small animals carved from stone, but the primary fetish, the one that hangs down front and center, is a bear. When G.K. sent me the necklace from Arizona, he told me that its purpose was to keep me safe, and he acknowledged, back then, my connection to the bear as totem. Before the Tacoma, the necklace hung in my Dodge. Before that, the Bronco, and before that, the Bronco II. It has been in every truck I’ve owned and, apart from other drivers tapping me, I’ve not been in an accident.

Several Sundays ago, a yearling bear cub found its way onto my back deck from the forest. This is not the first bear to visit my cabin. Three summers ago, on my birthday, I looked out the French doors at 5:00a.m. to see a huge dark chocolate bear snuffing around on the deck. I watched him for an hour as he licked up some birdseed I’d just scattered for the jays and juncos and woodpeckers. Then he ambled off. That was a hot, dry summer that followed a dry winter; the bears had little to eat, so the big guy (whom I called Roosevelt) and a smaller, cinnamon colored bear cruised by often, usually at breakfast when they smelled toast, though Roosevelt did come by one evening after I’d heated some pasta with pesto sauce. They were good bears, and they would leave when encouraged to do so. We never saw them in broad daylight.

When this little guy showed up, it was 11:00a.m. I had some guests, my neighbor Eric and my friend Liz, over for brunch, and I’d baked a peach cobbler. Apparently this young bear had picked up the scent, and as he trudged up the stone steps and onto the deck, his nostrils were flaring as he sniffed the air. We looked out the window to look for a mama, but there was no sign of any adult. I stepped out onto my back porch step, one hand left casually on the doorknob as an escape plan. The cub shuffled up to me. He was bearskin on bones, sharp hips protruding under his scruffy hide. He nuzzled my hand, then licked it. I spoke to him quietly, all the while searching the forest beyond my deck for a mother bear. He was too skinny, too lethargic. Mama was long gone. Eric and Liz watched from the window. When the little cub began to nibble my finger to taste for food, I tried to withdraw my hand slowly, so as not to spook him, and ended up having the side of my finger pinched between his teeth. The skin cracked, and it bled a bit, so Liz made me come inside. While I doused my finger in peroxide, smeared it with Neosporin and covered it with a small band-aid, the young bear climbed up on the roof and wandered around up top, looking down through the skylights. Finally, he disappeared back into the forest.

That was a magical encounter, something you think of as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like the day the huge buck walked out of the forest and onto my back deck, or the night I walked through the cabin in the dark at bedtime and saw, in the moonlight, a small fox looking in at my French doors. We never expected to see the little bear again, and we wondered if he would survive on his own.

Sadly, we have seen him again—and again and again and again. A day or so after he was here, he discovered the lodge down the road. A young woman there has begun to feed him. The folks in the Forest Service (which, by the way, is an imprecise nomenclature, but don’t get me started) have a saying: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Thus it is only a matter of time for our little friend. He comes by nearly every day. I’ve seen my neighbors throw rocks at him, set their dogs after him, and have overheard plans to shoot him with a paintball gun. Bears that become “trash bears,” dependent on humans to leave out or hand out food, quickly come to expect it, then demand it. On Sunday, I chased the cub out of a neighbor’s car. He was after the pizza left in the front seat. By Wednesday, he had already attempted to break into a car, though the owner insists she’d left no food inside.

In these cases, the Forest Service will wait until the bear becomes a nuisance or has a dangerous encounter with humans, then they’ll shoot it. It’s only a matter of time now. The little bear is seen every day across the highway at the campground. Small and skinny, he makes a great photo op for the campers (whom I’ve heard have been feeding him all manner of things). When he is a couple of hundred pounds heavier and rifling through the food they’ve left out on the picnic table, it will be a different story.

Yesterday the bear showed up on my back deck again. I walked out to gently shoo him away, telling him to go back to the forest. He stood his ground as I walked toward him. I raised my arms gently to shoo him off, and he growled, then snapped his jaws in my direction. He wasn’t being aggressive, it was just a warning, and I understood. He’s had his loss of innocence, and he knows now not to trust Two-Legs. I retreated quietly into the house.

This is what I find difficult, and perhaps ethically irresponsible, about living in the forest (and believe me, I include myself in the accusation). The bears were here first. They’ve lived on this mountain for hundreds of years, and they live here so they can keep their distance from humans. What are they to do when we encroach on their territory? Their patch of forest grows smaller every day. As rugged as this mountain is, there are very few places now untrammeled by hikers and mountaineers. Our arrogance is foolish and na├»ve when we assume the right to go everywhere, explore every place. Again, don’t get me started.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feet of steel, not clay

Somewhere in Ridgecrest, California there is a satyr-like man doing a satyr-like dance around his livingroom, imbued with a sense of revelry because he thinks he was right, profoundly, absolutely right about something.

In 2006, when Floyd Landis won the Tour de France, I was happy for him. Floyd seemed like a nice guy, and he was a good cyclist, having ridden with Lance Armstrong. But immediately following the win came the announcement that Landis had tested positive for extremely high levels of testosterone, meaning he’d supplemented the hormone to enhance his performance. Thus began a flurry of email exchanges between myself and the satyr. On my part, I was defending Landis, just waiting to see what his hearings would bear out. On the satyr’s part, he saw this as concrete evidence of what he’d believed all along—that all professional cyclists dope, including and especially Lance.

Sigh. Of course this is a man who does not follow and has never followed professional cycling. When you talk to someone who remarks, ‘Why is this a big surprise to anyone? All cyclists dope!’ you can be sure they don’t follow cycling. You can be equally sure that they’re entrenched in their opinion—like the satyr, who was convinced that my starry-eyed love of Lance had blinded me. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I didn’t even like Lance before he had cancer. I’d followed his career since he was a teenager, and I didn’t like his attitude. To say he was rough around the edges is an understatement. Most boys who ride bikes competitively come from a background of privilege, which is understandable, given the cost of the sport. Lance was raised by a single mom who, at times, struggled to make ends meet. Lance was strong-willed, and he lived and rode with a huge chip on his shoulder for years. Fighting cancer knocked that chip off, made him human, then made him super-human as he fought valiantly to come back even stronger than he was before. The chemo-therapy changed his body and metabolism permanently, making him a lean, less-mean pedaling machine. People have told me, ‘He almost died. How do you think he came back and won the Tour de France? He had to have taken steroids.’ My response has always been, ‘You don’t know Lance.’ It will continue to be so until there is evidence produced that he has used performance enhancers. Even just once.

Before the recent Amgen Tour of California, Floyd Landis, no longer suspended from cycling, expressed his desire for an invitation to race. As I understand it, he sent out emails months in advance of the tour, vaguely threatening to go public with information about others doping if he didn’t get to race. He didn’t, and suddenly in the midst of the tour, he made an announcement admitting, finally, that he had used performance enhancers. Part of his ‘confession’ included telling tales on nearly every professional cyclist out there, not just Lance, but men like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, cyclists who are known as men of integrity in the sport.

You will draw your own conclusions. The satyr has, I’m sure. Though we no longer correspond, I’m confident in my vision of him doing a victory dance. I would only caution the public, as Emerson did, to form opinions slowly, and be ready to change them if new information arises. Winning in tour competition is not a matter of the strongest, fastest man on a bike. Winning requires experience, skill, strategy, teamwork, quick-thinking, fierce determination and a whole lot of luck. Lance was fortunate to have had all those tools in the years that he dominated the sport. And, post-cancer, he could add one more critical component: The ability to withstand intense pain without giving up.

Has the revelation of Floyd Landis diminished my love of cycling? Not one whit. I look forward with great excitement to next month’s Tour de France, will plan my summer schedule around it as I have for over twenty years, and once again, seeing what these guys endure will inspire me to work hard for what I want to achieve in life… and it will get me back on my bike.

*Note: The photo accompanying today’s blog was taken during a stage of this year’s Tour of California. These riders created a six-man breakaway that led nearly all of a 135-mile stage. In the Stars & Stripes jersey is George Hincapie, my hero and last year’s National Professional Road Champion.

Monday, March 29, 2010

In memoriam

I once asked my mom what it was like to have been born in 1918. “Well,” she replied, “I’ve seen a lot of things.” Indeed. From the first airplanes to jets, then spaceships and a man on the moon. From the earliest radios to satellite TV. From silent films to great, sweeping blockbusters. From cash registers to computers. From crank phones to cell phones. From wood burning stoves to microwaves. From hand turned wringer washing machines to just-turn-the-dial-and-pull-the-knob models. From the old Model A which was her first car to the spiffy new Rambler station wagon that carried her and her children across the country and back again in 1963. (Without air conditioning, we kids always like to remember.) From wars with promises of “Never again” to wars which promise to never end. From women nearly always in dresses but occasionally in pants to women nearly always in pants but occasionally in dresses. Through every hair, clothing and cosmetics fashion one can imagine.

In grade school, my mother was taught that correct spelling, neat penmanship and an expansive vocabulary were critical to being successful in the world. In my lifetime, I never knew her to misspell a word, and I could never, ever beat her in Scrabble, even in her 80’s and I with the seeming advantage of a master’s degree in literature, she with the G.E.D. she finally earned some years after dropping out of high school.

Yeah, don’t let the lack of education fool you. Mom was smart, savvy, and pragmatic in her approach to business. She was a disadvantaged widow when my father died, but she worked hard and invested wisely, and by the time she entered retirement she could do so comfortably and could even afford to travel a bit.

There was nothing she liked better than reading.

In recent weeks, when I would call, I would ask, “What are you up to?” and she would respond, “I’m reading a book.” I think she decided months ago, when my brother passed away, that she would simply sit in her recliner and read until she too passed over. Which is basically what she did.

Mom’s life was never easy. But she rose to every challenge with fortitude and determination. She was a feminist before feminists were called such, and she nearly always managed to wrestle life around to agree to her terms. We rarely shared the same point of view, but she provided a model of strength and tenacity that I will always follow.

Mom, I miss you already.

Arta Ernestine “Pat” West
August 7, 1918 – March 24, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

One last walk in snowfall

We had a storm last week on Saturday. In the morning, I made a fire, did some chores, then waited for the snow to come. I wanted to do something I haven’t been able to do all winter—take a walk in the snowfall.

This winter, most of our snow has been at night, or when the snow has fallen during the day, I’ve been at work. Finally, a Saturday storm, and I was ready.

The sky continued to darken throughout the day, and at 2:00 the first fat flakes drifted down. I donned my waterproof pants and jacket, pulled on my snow boots, and went outside. By that time, the snow was falling rapidly, tiny flakes skimming down. (Think of a steady downpour only with ice crystals this size * instead of rain drops.) I walked two cabins up to Rob’s house, then stood on the edge of the canyon. When a storm rolls in, we are usually so enveloped in cloud that visibility is less than fifty feet. But this was the vanguard of the true storm, so I could still see all the way across the canyon. Imagine that little snow crystal—times a million—falling from the sky into the canyon. As I watched, the clouds above parted slightly, and the sun squinted through the gap briefly—just long enough for its light to refract off those millions of tiny crystals, creating a dazzling display so bright my Transitions® couldn’t darken fast enough. Makes one understand the meaning of “awe-struck.”

I continued my walk up the road, around Cabin #43, and up to the waterfall, slipping and sliding my way along on the snow from past storms. I stood for awhile, watching the falls thunder over the side and down through a hole in the accumulated snow at the bottom. Magnificent.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘it’s getting cold. I should probably go back.’ I turned to find that the advancing army of clouds had made its way up the mountain. Behind me on the road, visibility was down to about thirty feet.

No worries. I’ve walked to the falls and back so many times in three years, I could do it in the dark. (And I have, now that I think of it.)

I started back… but was lured off course by a snow covered trail. A fire road leads up to the falls and then makes a hairpin turn, winding up toward the top of the ski lift. In January, snow drifts from the five-day storms had completely covered the road, except for a single-track trail through the snow. I began to walk up it, the snow still falling heavily on the hood of my jacket. It’s easy to see, in these conditions, how people become lost in snowstorms. The ground all around is white. The air is white. The trail becomes obliterated…. I stopped. The clouds shifted, and for a brief moment I could see down to the valley, dark clouds hanging ominously over Upland and beyond. I breathed in the hushed silence—until thunder boomed overhead. Time to go.

The next day, I walked back to the same spot where I’d stood to view the valley, and I took the snapshot that accompanies this post.

I tell myself that when I no longer live here, I will still come up to walk on snowy days. The truth is, my intentions will probably get swallowed up in household chores, writing deadlines, and social obligations. And even if I did make it up the mountain, would the timing ever be the same again? At this point, that walk in the snowfall, the glimpse of millions of falling crystals reflecting the sun’s fire, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The dogs that saved me....

Dear Followers,
I realize it has been two weeks since I’ve posted anything new here. You’ll forgive me, I hope; I’ve been working on a new book, and I’m reaching the stage with it where it becomes all-consuming. I go to sleep thinking of the next passage, wake up trying to remember what I was processing when I fell asleep, and then ruminate on it all day while I’m at work. Slowly, all my other writing work is getting pushed aside.

This book will be a memoir, as Tainted Legacy is, but the focus is a world apart from that one. In my life, some dogs have owned me, heart and soul. I never lived up to their devoted attention, affection and protection, but I tried. Some of them, at times, have saved me….

The book is being written in chronological order, beginning with the family dog we had as a child, then leading into a section on *Rufus, the dog I had as a teenager, who saved me in more ways than one. (This section has required me to write—for the first time in my life—about my wicked step-father. It has been tough going. I write about those experiences in the daylight hours, then at night, have nightmares about what I’ve written. Still, I continue. Some things need to be said.)

Just to give you a small sample of the tone of the book, here are two tiny excerpts. They are taken from the first chapter, and are separated by large amounts of text in between:

Human beings are resilient, and it has been my experience that we can find our way through some very dark times, as long as we have hope that somehow there is light just beyond the shadow of darkness. But the absence of hope will ultimately lead to despair, and from there it is a short journey to the point where we are ready to give up.
I have been to this point several times in my life, but by far the most critical time for me was at the age of fifteen. So much happened in that year that was so crushing to my young spirit, I really don’t know, looking back, how I survived it. Well, but yes, I do; the powers of the universe tossed me a life preserver in the form of a block-headed mongrel dog named Rufus.

* * *

I suppose we had expected something like the Ponderosa. What we found was anything but. Art’s property was squeezed onto a long narrow street of rundown houses—nothing like our small but neat home in Orange County. The house on his property was more empty shell than home. In the yard we saw the tiny metal travel trailer which was Art’s real home.
We were still trying to take it all in as Mom drove through an open chain link gate and up a bumpy gravel driveway. Before we could get out of the car, we were greeted by two dogs. One was a small black and white terrier. The other dog was mostly white with a couple of large brown spots, one across half his face and one on his body. He was larger than the terrier, but he was clearly a puppy, with huge feet he had yet to grow into. He jumped on us with dirty paws, wagging his tail excitedly. Art strolled out to meet us, beer can in hand.
“That’s Five,” he said, pointing to the terrier and belching. “They left her here when they moved out. That’s her pup. I gave all the rest of them away, but that one’s so ugly, no one wants him. I call him Rufus.” He kicked at the dog with his boot to make him get down, then laughed.

*Note: The dog in the photo here is not Rufus. This is Osa, my last best dog.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A moonlit adventure--of possibly dire consequences

I went for a walk this morning. And couldn’t get home. Almost.

It all started with the moonlight. Moon + snow = light at night. Bright, luminescent light. A soft glow that beckons….

So I left the cabin at 4:45a.m. to walk the loop, down to the highway, up around to the falls road, and then home by the back way, skirting behind the cabins that are north of me and emerging on my own road again. I took my headlamp, just in case, but didn’t think I’d need it. Being outside under this kind of moon is like playing outside at night in the summer after the streetlights come on.

When I got to the falls road—walking up the middle of the highway, bathed in the bluish light, no cars coming either way—I realized that someone had plowed it after the big storms of last week, clearing it all the way down to the asphalt. In the day time, an hour or so after the sun rises over the eastern ridge of this canyon, having the snow cleared makes walking easier. When the sun hits them, all those piles of snow begin to melt, and the water trickles downhill all day—until it freezes in the night. This created quite the challenge for me walking up it. Basically, I was walking uphill on black ice.

I stepped slowly and carefully, with each step looking for patches of dry pavement. Up around a corner, I was relieved to see that the plowing came to an abrupt halt, although I had to squeeze carefully around my neighbor’s truck; he’d driven as far as he could, then just parked in the middle of the road and walked the rest of the way home.

Now, walking on packed snow, the footprints of hundreds of feet still visible, I could walk at a more normal pace. It was cold—in the 20’s—and I was eager to get home to breakfast.

Far up ahead on the trail I could see lights flashing. Hikers with headlamps were coming down the trail. After a minute or so, they passed me.
“How was your walk?” I asked quietly.
“Great!” they both responded, chuckling.
I am not entirely crazy. Those guys wanted to play under the giant streetlight, too.

My whimsical moment with them passed quickly. By this time, the moon had disappeared behind the western ridge. I reached up and switched my headlamp on. The first thing I saw was a giant snowdrift that had all but obliterated the road ahead, reducing the trail to a narrow single track that proceeded determinedly up and over the drift. I’ve hiked the falls road for several winters now. I’ve never seen it like that.

Up and over I went, continuing on to find several more similar drifts. Finally, I came to the falls. I could hear the water thundering into the stream below as it cascaded down the sheer rock face, though I couldn’t see it in the darkness. I stood for long moments, listening to the quiet of the forest, the water tap dancing over rocks below. This much snow in the winter makes everything on the mountain harder—getting to and from work, bringing wood in, staying warm. No one ever complains. We know that this spring the mountain will be alive with flowers and with seeds and berries for all our furry friends. No bears wandering past the cabins in late summer, I thought, smiling. Then it was time to go.

There are three driveways that bisect the falls road. One belongs to John, my neighbor, whose cabin is closest to the waterfall. I had passed his big dually truck, completely mired in snow now. Below John’s there is another driveway that leads to the cabin of ‘Red Truck Guy.’ I have often waved to him in the early morning as he is heading out to work and I am walking along the road. I don’t know his name. His truck was the one parked where the snowplow had stopped. The third driveway leads to Cabin #54, and it is that driveway that I usually take to cut down behind the cabins to my own road. Not this morning.

When I finally found the place where the driveway should be (because I recognized the huge pine tree that stands next to it), I realized it would be impossible for me to use it; the snow that had drifted over the road had spilled down this driveway as well, creating one long beautifully rounded slope. Had it been daylight, I would have toyed with the idea of simply sliding on my butt all the way down to Cabin 54. I admit, even standing there in the dark, I was cold enough and hungry enough to think about it seriously—for a second or two. At that hour, in that place, if I were to injure myself, no one would find me for a good long time. There was nothing left to do but figure out another way.

Going back down the falls road was an option I could take, but it was the last one I would choose. Walking uphill on black ice is one thing. Walking downhill on it—for a quarter mile or so—was something I just didn’t want to think about. I turned and walked back up the road toward the falls.

I took Red Truck Guy’s driveway. I stepped in his prints carefully, and I tried to be quiet, though the crunch of each step was a resounding abuse to the otherwise quiet. If he woke, he must’ve thought a very large animal was making its way past his cabin.

Finally, I made it to the trail behind his cabin. Whew. Now all I had to do was follow the trail and I would get to my own road soon. I thought.

When I say “trail,” I really mean the area where the trail once was. Before it was covered in four feet of snow. I was now glad for the freezing temperatures of the night before, as I could walk—slowly and gingerly—along the top of the snow, making my way down in the dark with the help of my lamp, looking for landmarks, certain boulders and trees that would help me identify where I was.

Have I mentioned that the name of my road is Canyon Rim Road? It is named thus because the road was built to accommodate the cabins that were built along the rim of the canyon formed by the water streaming from the falls. What might be unclear at this point in the narrative is the fact that, if I start sliding off the (nonexistent) trail, I will no doubt keep going down, picking up speed as I fly, sans toboggan, over the edge and a hundred feet down into the bottom of the canyon. If that were to happen, most likely I would lie there until spring, when some poor hiker might stumble across whatever the coyotes left behind.

Heart pounding, I took careful step after careful step, holding onto low hanging tree branches when I could. Finally, I looked up to see Cabin 54 in the distance. I was going the right way, nearly to the road. In every other winter that I’ve lived and hiked here, someone always heads up to the falls shortly after every storm, breaking the trail, making a path. Though it has been over a week since our five consecutive days of snow, no one has been here; there was simply no place to walk. Perhaps I should say, no one was foolish enough to try….

At the last cabin before the road, a set of steep steps leads down to a driveway and then the road. The steps were buried beneath the snow, so I sat down and slid, no longer in danger of heading out of control and over the side.

Finally, at 6:15, I arrived home. From the warmth and safety of my cabin, I could appreciate the adventure. . . and the snow's promise of a beautiful spring. After all, Tuesday is Groundhog's Day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Wisdom in Snow

In Southern California, where I live, few people are blessed to see snow as it falls, flakes floating down slowly, as I have pictured manna raining down from heaven in Moses’ time. As it accumulates, it is so light and fluffy that snowflakes clinging to a glove can be brushed away like feathers.

I have always liked the analogy that people are like snowflakes—no two alike. I imagine us all, floating down from heaven, soft, pure, as transparent and full of color as diamonds. Innocent, in the beginning. Where and when we fall seems to have a lot to do with how we’ll turn out.

In the chill of darkness, snow will develop a hard crust, with edges as treacherously sharp as glass.

In the heat of the glaring sun, snow crystals can no longer maintain their integrity, and they break apart.

Snow that falls near heavily populated areas will be beaten down underfoot or splashed to the side of the road where it remains in the gutter until it’s gone.

There is a place, though, where I have seen a patch of snow rest in a high green meadow until spring, still looking as soft and malleable as it did the day it fell.

Of course, the life of a snowflake is fleeting. It drifts down from heaven, a tiny glistening gift, like, but unlike, all the others around it. After a brief time, its essence returns again to the earth and sky. If only we had eyes that could appreciate each separate and individual flake, seeing the beauty there, embracing each one for its contribution.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Injustice anywhere....

The little girl and the little boy in the adjacent photo are my daughter and my son.

When I was a young girl growing up in the 1960’s, I was very aware of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on television, on the news, in the papers and magazines of the time, because the late fifties and early sixties marked the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. As a young person, I was astounded by his courage. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand quietly in the street while men with clubs and vicious dogs were attacking those around me. Fear would overtake me, I knew. I would run away. The type of courage he possessed comes from a place deep, deep down in a man’s soul, a place from which a certain light emanates, and a man knows he has seen enough, heard enough, and he is willing to walk through hell in order to change the status quo.

It was not until I was in college, however, that I began to appreciate the eloquence of Dr. King. Most know him as a powerful orator, and he was, but until one has read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one cannot fully grasp the brilliance of this man as an articulate rhetorician. At my first reading, I was so blown away by his ability with language, I read the letter again from a writer’s point of view. It is one of the most concise yet heartfelt documents I’ve ever read.

I try to re-read King’s letter from time to time, especially around the anniversary of his birthday. Each time, I take away something different. This year, I am particularly struck by his plea to the white clergymen who criticized his arrival as a leader in Birmingham, Alabama. They characterized King as an “outside agitator,” telling the press that they would rather see ‘time and negotiation’ bring forth change instead of Blacks marching in the street as a form of nonviolent protest. In his letter, King lovingly attempts to help them see the life he lives, how difficult it is as a parent “when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”

If you think that racial discrimination ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, ask my son to tell you some stories. Oh, I can tell you stories, too. But he was the little boy who stood on a neighbor’s front porch and was told he couldn’t play with the little girl inside because of the color of his skin. He was the little boy who was called “nigger” by grown adults.

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” includes many now famous statements by Dr. King, such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But my favorite remark, the one I memorized long ago, the one posted on my classroom wall, is this one:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Full text of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”