Just keep swimming

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I no longer dive in, preferring to step lightly down the four steps into the pool, and I don’t do kick turns anymore either, just catch myself at the wall with a hand, push off with a foot, but I take to the pool late on the day I turn 59, a day when it’s been over 100 degrees, an afternoon of family celebration for the niece born 30 years ago today on my 29th birthday, and I get back to my beloved’s and put on my suit, pick up my new goggles, and in the sultry dark walk out to the pool—

a smallish pool compared to the one I once swam in, the one where I taught my first Red Cross swimming classes to small people learning to blow bubbles, to float, to do the elementary backstroke, then the crawl, then the breast stroke, back stroke and maybe, just maybe, if they became proficient and took to the swim team, the butterfly, which I could demonstrate but never sustain for any length of time—

because summers I was a synchronized swimmer, not a competitive lap swimming swimmer, never fast off the block, and when I step into chlorinated water now, my first lap is a head-up breast stroke, something we synchro girls did automatically, something we were also taught to do (along with a head-up crawl) in lifesaving class, and then, on my second lap, goggles over my eyes, I do a traditional breast stroke, head bobbing underwater, then up for a quick breath, the bottom of the pool clear as glass, underwater side lights brightening first one side, then the other of me—

and then—then—you are all with me, all you pool friends, who were not the same as school friends, because I went to a different high school without a pool in those days, but pool friends circulated around Roseville High School pool, the mother ship for so many of us, where our swim teams practiced and competed, where we learned lifesaving, where we taught our first lessons to panicky kids, where we took to the lifeguard tower in our red suits and red hats, our zinc oxide’d noses, our mirrored shades, and kept eagle eyes on the 3-meter board where one of the Mulligan brothers would twist himself into impossible pretzel shapes in the air, landing neatly in the turquoise water below—

and, as I turn my head to breathe (in my slow crawl) or lift it for a breath (in breast stroke) or scull face-up (at my sides and then overhead), or windmill my arms backward (in my deliberate back stroke), as a half moon makes its way to the western horizon, you are all there with me—you, my mentors in that chapel of chlorine, Pat Mothorn and Dean and Scott Winter and Bill Kantola, our coaches and cheerleaders who guided me and so many others in how to teach kids to love the water; you, my lifeguarding and/or studly swim team buddies, you Cespedes brothers (Rick and Howard and Tim) and Shawn Hansen and Dean Falltrick; my synchro sisters, Irene Mahan and Dianne Edgar (and Carole and Susie, too) and Brenda Dillon, who introduced us to the sport; and Donna, my actual sister, always with the perfect ballet leg, who bested me easily; and so many others, friends we saw only in swimsuits, almost never in street clothes or wearing shoes, with sunburned noses and shoulders and tops of feet; so many of you whose faces I see as I make my way up and down the smallish pool, seemingly the only one in the water—

and this, more than any other reason, may be why I take to the pool—not so much for the exercise, though my upper arms feel the strokes more than they used to, and I can only eggbeater halfway down the pool before my legs poop out, and not to improve my wind, for I can no longer do whole laps underwater as I could in the synchro days, 40 pounds lighter and 44 years ago—

but because of all of you who swim with me, before me, behind me, my pod of people who have never left me, some of them peers, some of them teachers, some of them students, all of them companion dolphins who bump me to the surface so I can breathe on the bad days, and I give them gentle bumps, too, so that there is no tired, no can’t go on, no I can’t do this; there is only of course, you can, and see? you just did, and there are only blue ribbons and best times and high scores, there is only atta girl and good goin’, guy

and sometimes I can hear the faintest strains of music through underwater speakers, the scratchy sound of the needle set gently on a record that’s been played far too many times, and the first notes of an instrumental that means it’s time for our routine, and my synchro partner and I are in the water, sculling like mad, ballet legs thrusting out of the water, smiles on our faces—

we are on, Irene and Donna and Dianne and all the others—here and gone—for all whose faces I see and laughs I hear—

thank you for still swimming beside me for 59 years now and counting; let my arms and legs and breath hold out for many more—many, many more—amen.

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A ferry kinda day

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Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial as a country this year, and everywhere we’ve been over the past couple of weeks on Vancouver Island, the country’s most western outpost, we see Canada pride writ large. Like the illuminated sign (above) on Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Though like our own country, Canada is far from perfect, we find much about it to admire every time we go—not least how much at home we feel here.

We spent our last full day Sunday on the island in Victoria, where we’ve lingered for nearly a week, soaking up Canadian sunshine that is not nearly as hot as it is in Sacramento… one reason we escape at this time of year. And oh, what a lovely day it was after a couple of mostly overcast days, perfect for a boat ride on the Inner Harbour. It turned out to be a ferry kinda day.

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Harbour ferries beginning their show with the huge Coho ferry in the background.

The Victoria Harbour ferries are everywhere, scootin’ their little boat butts through one of the busiest harbours in the world—seaplanes taking off and landing, the huge Coho ferry that runs from Port Angeles many times a day, smaller passenger ferries from Seattle and Vancouver. On summer weekends five of the ferries do a well-choreographed water ballet to (semi) classical music. We watched the show this morning under clearing skies (above), which we’ve done many times before, always charmed by the cute little ferries. (You can see a bit of it, too, by clicking on the link in light blue above.)

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After the show, Dick and I walked to Fisherman’s Wharf for an early lunch of salmon fish and chips (for him) and halibut fish and chips (for me). We dined at a picnic table on the charming wharf and watched the ferries like the one below roll in to pick up and drop off passengers.

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The ferry about to land at Fisherman’s Wharf, Victoria

We hadn’t taken a ferry tour this trip, and with the sky blueing so nicely and the water fairly calm, this seemed like the day to do it. So we bought tickets at the wharf and took a ferry back to the Empress Hotel where we’d do a harbour tour a bit later.

We delayed our trip a bit so we could hear the weekly Sunday concert of Victoria’s lovely carillon played by carillonneur Rosemary Laing. She plays the Netherlands Centennial Carillon, which was a gift from British Columbia’s Dutch community for Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967.

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The Victoria carillon

We went to stand outside the B.C. Museum, near the bottom of the 90-foot tower with the carillon and bells at the top and listen to Rosemary, who has climbed 75 steps of a spiral staircase and then a 10-step ladder to sit at what’s called the clavier. Then she depresses the clavier’s keys and pedals to sound the bells and play songs. It looks as if she’s beating paddles with her hands. (Click on the link in blue to watch Rosemary play Christmas carols on the clavier. She’s quite athletic!)

I love listening to Rosemary play. We never see her—she’s near the top of the tower—but for years we’d see her shoes that she’d leave at the bottom. She plays everything from classical pieces to, today, Canadian and Scottish folk songs, with a little “Stardust” thrown in for good measure. Every hour between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. in the summer, if you’re near the Inner Harbour, you can hear a mini Rosemary concert when the carillon chimes the hour, followed by a brief recorded song of hers.

We had to make our way back to the ferry landing for our tour before Rosemary’s concert ended, but we could still hear bits of it. We boarded the ferry that arrived a bit late (busy day on the Inner Harbour) but more than made up for it with a great tour by Captain Jay, who has been in Canada only 18 months from Australia. He’s married to a Canadian, and he seems to know the history and the lay of the land quite well.

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Captain Jay drives and chats on our Inner Harbour ferry tour.

Great tour on a perfect day. We saw the birdhouses on piers, free housing for the purple martin swallows whose numbers are recovering throughout Canada. We saw the impressive three-story floating homes of Westbay Marine Village and their pair of white swans swanning by. We even were overflown by incoming seaplanes (which we love) and got to watch them land on the runway of the Inner Harbour.

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Harbour Air coming in for a landing on the watery runway of the Inner Harbour.

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Then we returned to the Empress dock, the hub of all Harbour Ferry activity (and a lot of other activities and entertainment, too).

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But later, as the sun was setting about 9 p.m., we walked from our hotel to see the harbour one last time in dusky light, finally quiet, the ferries put away elsewhere for the night, the water calm and reflective.

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We saw the Empress hotel lit up, her newly cleaned exterior ivy-free for the first time in decades (a controversial decision by new owners), shining like a precious gem in the summer dusk.

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The woman who gave her name to this fair city still stands tall.

And as we walked back to our hotel, the lights of the Parliament buildings were on. I like to stand under the statue of the 19th-century queen at the edge of the grounds and look up at her silhouette. I think about all the people who made this place, beginning with the Lekwungen people. They were the traditional occupants of this land and were here for thousands of years before European exploration, kicked off by Captain James Cook (his statue on the Inner Harbour, below, makes a nice landing spot for a young musician.)

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Look at her, playing her heart out with confidence and passion. She’s this 21st century Victoria, too. This is what I’ll take with me—the memory of the great hearts of these people and gratitude for their generosity to visitors like us.

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Trees remind us how busy and unstable we are, and how ridiculous that is.
—Rebecca Solnit

Look at this for a moment and soak up the peace of this place:

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Boardwalk to Schooner Cove, Pacific Rim National Park

Imagine walking that boardwalk through all that green. This is what Dick and I did for five days in Tofino, British Columbia. Greengreengreen—Kermit would love it because this place makes it look as if it really is easy being green. Every shade of verde you can imagine. Which makes sense when you realize that it rains something like 128 inches annually. Compare that to Sacramento, which had the fourth wettest winter on record this past year—a whopping 32.5 inches of rain. Our natural colors run to, well, golden. That’s one of the reasons we drive north to experience a place where colors are so saturated.

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Green is what happens when rain falls pretty much daily. Which was why it was weird that we were in Tofino for six days, and we only saw rain overnight, briefly. Perhaps it was because the entire west coast of our continent has been experiencing a heat wave. But that one night when rain fell, it seemed that… whew!… all was right with the world.

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Nurse log, Schooner Cove boardwalk, Pacific Rim National Park

I am continually lifted by what is evident everywhere in the forest: Life comes from death. The photo above shows a stunning example of a nurse log—a downed tree, which, once horizontal, becomes a platform for new growth, the new tree growing out of it wrapping its roots around its life-giving ancestor. No one has set this up or created the conditions to make this happen; it just does. Chalk that up to nature or god or forest fairies, but I cannot help but marvel over the miracle of regeneration. I experience it myself as my fingernails and toenails and hair grow, as we age and change and, yes, die. But look what comes along afterward—dying plant matter becomes detritus and nourishes the shoots of new ferns and trees and all that green. The forests of this planet do this daily, over and over, which is one reason to protect them. They show us how to live, act as our teachers reminding us to care for one another.

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All manner of green thrives in Tofino.

This gives me hope for a planet with too many people who seem bent on destroying it through willful overuse or destruction or insistence that we don’t have to be mindful of these natural resources. Here at the tip of this peninsula of Tofino, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations people, whose ancestors have been here for literally thousands of years, manage a great deal of the land and share their great reverence for the earth with everyone. Their philosophy:

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(we are all one)

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And, standing in the middle of such a grand forest, listening to birds and breeze murmuring through trees (susurrus!), I feel it deeply: We are all one.

I stand next to a massive tree that someone later tells us has been estimated to be 2,000 years old. Some of us live long lives; others don’t. Still: We are all one.

I look up, see sky and clouds; I imagine looking down on the tallest residents. Under this great canopy, green flourishes and shelters. It whispers: Yes.

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Shootin’ stars

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Sea stars, Mackenzie Beach, Tofino, B.C.

Not the celestial kind. Not the Hollywood kind. The seashore kind: sea stars, which as a kid I called starfish. They’re not fish at all, these rugged invertebrates that live in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia, where we are now. Dick and I went hunting for these echinoderms (nifty word for “spiny skin,” huh?) one morning here in Tofino, not to harass them but to shoot them, photographically speaking.

We got lucky with super low tides this week when we’ve anchored ourselves like human barnacles to this coastline. Also lucky with weather–cloudy, cool mornings with sunny afternoons in the 70s. We hear it’s 100+ in Sacramento, which is what it was when we decamped a week ago to drive north to Canada. People often ask us why we’re not summering in Hawaii, and the answer is simple: Because it’s humid there now and hot in Sacramento… this is when we head north. We hit Hawaii generally in the winter when our town is freezing—or close to it. We love British Columbia—specifically Vancouver Island—in the summer.

Tofino is the nail on the end of a thumb-shaped piece of land attached to a larger peninsula on this huuuuge island of Vancouver, which makes the big island of Hawaii look small by comparison (though the Big Island gets points for its active volcano—go, Pele!). Tofino is a fishing village, really, where for thousands of years the First Nations people have, yes, fished, and lived in villages scattered among coves and trees and ocean. You get a lot of all three here, which we like, though we are not as brave as many of the visitors who show up to—delightfully nutty people!—surf.

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Surfer shreddin’ it, Wickaninnish Beach, Tofino, B.C. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

Yes, surf. Tofino is the west coast (of Canada) surfing capital, and though we Californians are amused to see black wetsuit-clad people ottering themselves onto boards to take to fairly small waves, we always like to watch surfers. They’re tackling, at best in summer, Waikiki-sized waves (which is to say smallish), but kids and families come to this coastline and hit water we consider freezing for their sport. They’re not exactly shootin’ the curl, as the big wave surfers say (there’s not much curl in these waves to speak of), but they sure look like they’re having fun.

The young man who pumped our gas today exclaimed over the fact that in Hawaii, you can surf without a wetsuit. He’s a local boy, grew up here, fishing and canoeing and surfing, is used to the temperature of this water. He knows well that the current size of the waves is deceiving. In winter, people come from all over to sit on these shores (or in dry hotel rooms or around fireplaces) and watch (through windows) ginormous waves roll in over the Pacific. Tofino is one of those rare places outside of ski resorts that increases its hotel rates in winter, for heaven’s sake, to take advantage of the storm-watchers.

Dick and I, however, love summer’s fair weather and morning low tides here. We take off across the packed sand (easy walking) for the southern end of Mackenzie Beach where the mid-morning tide has receded so we can stride over sand normally underwater between what in Hawaii are called motu (reef islets with vegetation). There, on the undersides of worn black rocks that look to us volcanic in origin, we look for temporarily drydocked sea creatures.

I always go tidepooling while thinking of my girlhood best friend, Sue Lester, who knew from the time I met her when she was going on 9 years old that she wanted to study marine life. Today she’s Dr. Sue Lester, DVM, but before that she earned a master’s degree in marine zoology. She’s the one who should be here, I always think, as Dick and I walk over squishy sand and look carefully through cascades of kelp to peer at sea stars.

They’re gorgeous here, so many fat, specimens like this:

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Gorgeous purple sea star, huge compared to the Canadian quarter! (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

But the whole West Coast has had a massive die-off of sunflower sea stars in recent years, possibly caused by a virus, according to scientists and UC Davis (yay, Davis! Dr. Sue’s alma mater). It could also be that warming seas are helping turn the stars to goo, which is weird for these major ocean predators that typically eat mussels, clams, oysters and urchins.

This is why I wish Sue was here. She could look at the sea stars and tell us how she thinks they’re doing, along with the anenome, which look to me like fat and sassy cats lounging around with their tentacles waving seductively, just waiting for the next fish, worm or zooplankton to come along. When we were kids, I went to the ocean with Sue numerous times, where she showed me that if you tickle anenome tentacles lightly with a finger, they’ll close up. “But that’s teasing them,” Sue said. “They think they’ve got food, and it takes them a while to open up again.”

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Anenome waiting for prey to come along. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

For years I’d tickle anenome when I found them at low tide, and even when she wasn’t around, I’d hear Sue expressing consternation. I rarely do now, but I think of Sue every time I see these sea critters and am grateful to my childhood BFF who taught me about them, especially not to be squeamish around them. Anenome, with their tiny, poisonous (to fish) harpoons, can digest fish flesh in 15 minutes.

And that’s not all. “You know that a sea star can pry a clam apart and push its stomach out through its mouth and then swallow the clam,” Sue would say, watching me wrinkle my nose. Sea stars and anenome didn’t look like vicious hunters to me, though they are. But Sue knew stuff like that. She was the only kid in my world who, when one of her tropical fish died, might dissect it under her kid-sized microscope before giving it a respectful burial in her mother’s flower garden. Once we were teenagers, she’d borrow her dad’s 35 mm. camera in the spring to take closeup photos of wildflowers. She also played sax in the school band, was a year older and a head taller than me, and, whether she wanted the title or not, became the big sister to my younger sister and me.

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Seas the Day!

She did her graduate work in Bermuda, learning to scuba so she could collect and study tiny worm-like filter feeders called pterobranchs, and after that she became Dr. Sue to hundreds of pets and their people in her work as a veterinarian.

Sue still loves sea life, and she always prompts me (even from far away) to Seas the Day and get out there and look (carefully!) at the critters whose home we’re walking on and around. I step lightly, looking for hidden residents (the anenome don’t always cling to rocks), and look into tidepools where tiny sculpin fish flutter and settle and disappear in sand, chameleon-like. And I take photos of the sea stars, so many of them in this corner of Mackenzie Beach, amused at their funny contortions as they tuck themselves under rock ledges. I marvel at the life here, in the ocean, this place where all life comes from, where we return, like salmon, where we are restored and reborn just by visiting it.

We are the sea, we creatures made of salt and water, and in this place where long strands of kelp lie temporarily arrayed on the sand like someone’s long hair and sea grass flops over like green bangs, I am reminded of the literal ebb and flow of things. Hours from now, this place will be filled with water again. The sea stars and anenome once again in their natural habitat will resume their endless quest for food just as the sculpin will try not to become food for others.

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Mackenzie Beach, Tofino, B.C.

But the ocean welcomes us by parting its watery curtain each day and letting human footprints become part of the landscape. Rachel Carson, author of “The Sea Around Us,” was right: “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.”

And, Carson said, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”

Here’s to that knowing.

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Kindness

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Mackenzie Beach, Tofino, British Columbia

So we’ve been in Canada three days, and not one person here has looked askance at us Americans. As soon as we drove off the ferry in Victoria and waited for a very short time, a smiling Canadian customs agent welcomed us warmly and, when I asked if he’d stamp our passports (they typically don’t), he said, “If you ask nicely, I will,” and before I could say a word, he had his stamp out inking our U.S. documents.

Oh, Canada. You’re looking as good and kind as ever at 150. Happy Sesquicentennial!

I keep expecting people here to raise an eyebrow about That Man In Charge Down Below. I was half hoping someone might offer a bit of sympathy or maybe asylum. I am a big fan of Mr. Trudeau and most things Canadian, but these folks are so polite (it’s only a stereotype because it’s true) that they wouldn’t openly dis That Man. Not that they’re necessarily fans either, but you’re not going to hear disparaging things about him the way you do in the U.S. where 55 percent of us disapprove of his job performance.

I am one of that 55 percent, for the record. I am appalled by most things That Man says and does but perhaps most of all for his attacks on what he calls “fake news.” As a longtime journalist and journalism professor, I’m stunned that a president would call U.S. news media “fake” and more stunned to learn that so many people believe him. He’s entitled to his opinions, of course. I’m the journalism teacher who constantly exhorts students to read and listen to information from a variety of sources—especially ones they disagree with—and then make considered opinions, not to just parrot what they hear others say around them.

American media are not perfect, but in my experience most journalists, regardless of their political views, work hard to be responsible and fair about reporting all sides of issues. To call The New York Times or the Washington Post “the enemy of the American people” is ridiculous. And to have a president repeatedly use, quite frankly, hate speech against pretty much all media with which he disagrees or those who refuse to spin stories to his liking, is damaging and childish. The role of the press—the fourth estate—is to serve as the watchdog of those in power, not to fawn over them like fans at a rock concert. A free press lets the public participate in making decisions based on the free flow of information and ideas. Without it, citizens would be unable to make informed decisions.

And that doesn’t begin to cover the issues of deporting non-citizens (some of whom are my students who have lived most of their lives in California), or building a wall to keep those non-citizens out, or the seeming lack of compassion for the environment, the poor/homeless or anyone who is Not Like You.

But don’t get me started. I can swing into lecture mode in my sleep.

I’m on vacation, trying to step away from the onslaught of political coverage, which has consumed Americans pretty much nonstop since last fall. Canadians, who may be some of the best informed people in the world, are also regularly exposed to all the brouhaha of U.S. politics—they always have been—and know more about us than we do about them. They are not shy about their opinions concerning their provinces or country either. But here on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on a finger of peninsula called Tofino, there is no mention of any of this. Is it possible that we have come to a politics-free zone?

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Daisies and bug, Vancouver Island, B.C.

I believe we have. Also, it’s 9:45 p.m., and it’s not yet completely dark. The sun will rise by 5:30 a.m. We can see people on the beach from our balcony still in the water. Some of them in wetsuits (it’s not Hawaii ocean, after all). We had dinner tonight in a lightly peopled dining room where we heard our fellow humans speaking Russian, French and English. One server sounded Australian. We are staying at a hotel owned by the local First Nations tribe. In town today I heard a shopkeeper speaking Spanish and a customer trying English, though she said Canadians speak English differently than she hears it in her native Poland.

This is a tiny village seemingly at the end of the earth, and no one is using terms like Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, Believers or Nonbelievers, Christian or Jew or Muslim, Straight or Gay, Citizen or Noncitizen, or any reference to the different colors of humans. They’re all just people of the planet who have come to live or temporarily admire this corner of it, this place where forest meets the sea, and whales and bears and all manner of animal, bird, fish and insect somehow manage to peacefully coexist. It is a place not without conflict, but there is a generous spirit here.

I am trying to absorb a lesson from this, one that I need to learn again and again. I sat on the beach today under a far less intense sun than what my hometown is experiencing this month (trying to send cool breezes your way, Sacramento!) and meditated, listening to gulls and crows yelping and cawing, to kids frolicking, to baby waves turning over gently on the beach. In this lovely place I am trying to readjust my attitudes and opinions, which really (to quote a guy named Rick in a place called Casablanca) don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. No one cares what I think; it doesn’t matter anyway. My goal—I keep reminding myself—is to try to do everything with great love. And with a lot less judgment. Of everyone, including those with whom I disagree or find disagreeable. This is the great challenge.

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Fireweed, Vancouver Island, B.C.

I’m with the Dalai Lama, who said:

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.

I have friends and relatives who believe very differently than I do, some who vote and attend church regularly, and some who do not. Some who consider themselves Conservative, others Liberal, others with no such designation. We don’t talk about these differences; when we’re together, through unspoken agreement, we find common ground and stick to that… with great kindness. I appreciate that. I try to return it.

And here, in this place where the ocean gently covers the sand and then retreats each day, where the trees watch all of us earthly creatures walk and move and fly and slither, I find my love well filling up again. My monkey mind settles down for a nap. Sitting, eyes closed, I do lovingkindness practice, sending peace and joy and compassion out to everyone—first to myself and to those I love, but especially to those with whom I struggle, with those I find difficult. Because, as the Buddhists remind us, everyone wants to be happy, to feel loved, to feel safe.

May you be safe. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find joy. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be happy.

You and you and you and you. Oh, yes, and you, too.

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Looking out at Mackenzie Beach from our balcony in Tofino, B.C.

 

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Americans we

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U.S. Embassy, Guangzhou, China

Last year I spent the fourth of July sleeping most of the day and night. I’m not a fireworks kind of girl—never have been. I’m like one of the dogs who scurries for cover when the loud boom-booms start. Firecrackers make me flinch, and my heart rate increases. They always sound like gunshots to me. So do balloons popping within 10 feet of me.

I’m not sure why. And no matter how much I try to talk myself out of it (c’mon, Janis, you’re gonna be 59 at the end of the month—you’re a grownup and a half, for heaven’s sake), when those sharp sounds erupt around me, my internal sensors still prompt a flinch and a jump.

So I’m fine missing the fireworks—though I do love watching grand showers of fiery cascades overhead… with silicone plugs stuffed in my ears and feeling the great booms in my chest.

Last July 4 I’d just returned from a 16-day trip to southern China by way of Hong Kong, traveling with my friend Nikki as she adopted Annie from an orphanage in Changsha, Hunan province. It was, to put it mildly, challenging on nearly every level, as readers of this blog will note. (If you’d like to read the accounts of that trip, click on “Bringing Annie Home” in the bar across the top. Scroll to the bottom and read up—the entries are in reverse chronological order.)

Annie, who has cerebral palsy, gets around in a wheelchair pushed by (on this trip) mostly Nikki and sometimes me. Annie, who was about 7 last year (precise birthdates of kids in orphanages are rarely known), needs help with everything: feeding, bathing, dressing. Though she can now use a toilet with the proper apparatus to support her, last year found Nikki and me changing the leggy, grinning girl’s diapers many times a day. Feeding her was a full body workout for everyone involved since her palsy (which has since lessened) caused Annie to waggle her head almost constantly, making it hard to get a spoonful of food in her mouth.

And it was hot. “China hot,” as Nikki said, which meant about 90 degrees and 90% humidity. That’s not an exaggeration. Rarely a breeze outside. Air conditioning that varied from so-so to freezing, depending on where we were indoors. We all lost weight, which didn’t help Annie, who was already thin, though Aunt Jan was pleased to come home a bit lighter.

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The Canton TV tower, sports stadium and opera house, Guangzhou, China.

One day when we were in our second Chinese city, Guangzhou, I took Annie for a walk. Nikki and our translator were hightailing it all over town looking for medication for Annie, some of which had come with Annie, though not enough to get her home. “Why don’t you two go for a walk?” Nikki suggested. Never having been to Guangzhou and not speaking Cantonese, I figured I’d explore the area around our hotel, which was, I was told, close to the U.S. Embassy where Nikki and Annie would make an appearance to do the final paperwork to bring this adopted child to her new country.

Guangzhou is a huge, cosmopolitan city of more than 13 million people, the capital of Guangdong province on the Pearl River about 75 miles north of Hong Kong. That Sunday blazes in my mind—early morning blue sky and fluffy sheep-like clouds looking so pretty despite the breathless heat; walking by the deserted government building where Annie would have her physical the next day; gawking at the oddly shaped opera house I later learned is called the Double Pebble, though I thought it resembled a spaceship; the Canton TV Tower that looks like a giant metal sculpted hourglass. Eye-popping architecture soared into the sky around us.

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The Double Pebble, opera house, Guangzhou, China

And then, continuing our sticky stroll, we walked by the nondescript concrete building behind a tall fence of black slatted steel where in one window someone had pasted a rainbow flag. It was June, Pride month. We walked a bit farther to see the U.S. flag hanging limply on its pole, and I knew this had to be the embassy. And then I saw the words one the side of the building:

Consulate General
United States of America

We had spent almost two weeks at that point in our journey slogging through heat and crowded cities, on trains and in horrendously hot train stations, and Nikki was learning to be a mom to Annie, who was amazingly good-natured about two strange white ladies taking her off to who-only-knew-where. We were exhausted, to say the least, and I touched the tummy pack I wore everywhere with my U.S. passport tucked safely inside, and I stopped for a moment under a tree to look at this bit of home.

I felt an upwelling of emotion, something I am not normally prone to when I see our flag. But this was certainly a fortnight when I was very aware of how far I was from home and how lucky I am to be a rich American compared to so many Chinese… and other Americans, for that matter. We had seen so many people in China living in dire poverty, so many children with disabilities who would never leave the orphanages or welfare centers where they would be housed as long as they lived. Nikki was changing the life of one of those children forever, but there were so many more… thousands more.

US Embassy Guangzhou

Consulate General of the United States of America, Guangzhou, China

I stood there, tears spilling down my cheeks, and thought about how I was raised by people who always took it for granted that I would go to school, including college, pursue a career that made me happy and make my way in the world as an independent, free-thinking woman, no matter whether I decided to marry or have children or not. I thought of all the opportunities and privileges I’ve had (which not everyone gets) as a white, middle class, well-educated American professional woman. Overcome with homesickness and gratitude all at once, I looked down at the little Chinese girl in her wheelchair and said, “That’s the flag of my people, of my country, the United States of America. It will be your new country, too.”

And Annie, who is nothing if not a good listener, may have been perplexed about why Auntie Jan was crying as we looked through the fence at that building that probably didn’t look all that important. But it was to me, and Annie, who had few words, grinned her great grin at me, and I resumed our walk.

We circled back to the Embassy about a half hour later on our way back to our hotel, and that’s when I pulled out my iPhone (made in China; engineered in California) and took the photo that begins this post. The breeze had come up, just a tiny bit, and lifted Old Glory enough so we could see its stars and stripes. That made me tear up and smile again, so I began telling Annie about founding fathers and 1776 and Betsy Ross and 13 colonies and colonial publishers of newspapers (including some women) who risked treason as they advocated independence from England. (I teach mass media history; this stuff is embedded in my cells.)

And when I looked down at this girl in her chair, this is what I saw:

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Pooped out Annie, Guangzhou, June 2016

I grinned then, knowing this would not be the last time she falls asleep while some grownup is nattering on.

I hope Annie will always retain her Chinese roots and learn about the country where she was born, about the amazing culture and civilization she comes from. But I also know that she will grow up as an American, that in her first year in the United States she has already had opportunities and education she could not have had in her homeland.

Six days later Miss Annie took her first airplane ride on a big ol’ jet airliner back to San Francisco, following a similar route (though, of course, they came by boat) that many Chinese from Canton (the city now called Guangzhou) took during the Gold Rush years in California. They, too, immigrated in hopes of a finding a better life and more opportunity for their children. And though they faced incredible discrimination and horrible living conditions, many of those Chinese men built, among other things, a railroad that linked the western U.S. to the east. I learned that many of my Chinese American friends’ ancestors decades earlier came from this same province once known as Canton where they and Annie leaped the last hurdles to come to America.

We arrived in San Francisco last year on July 2, exhausted and happy to be home. I slept for pretty much the next few days, including the fourth. From my bed I could hear the screams of piccolo Petes and pops of firecrackers, the deeper booms of grander fireworks in the distance. I did not flinch, just registered the sounds of my country celebrating its beginnings and felt again deep gratitude for my amazing, beautiful, flawed, mish-mash, unique experiment of a country and its brave people, those born here and those not—all of us Americans we. *

Happy 241st birthday, USA. Thank you for all you’ve given me.

*Here’s a rousing version of that fine march by Henry Fillmore, written in 1929, and which years ago I played in several different bands. You can also click on the link above:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0TKaqTa6LM

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Annie at her 8th birthday party in May 2017

 

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Happy Annie-versary

These two… what a journey they’ve had in their first year together as mother and daughter. How far they’ve come (literally and metaphorically)! I hardly recognize that skinny little kid with the mohawk anymore…

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It was the journey of three lifetimes (Nikki’s, Annie’s and mine) for all of us, which began with this lovely moment on June 20, 2016, when one person became a mother and another became that one’s daughter in Changsha, Hunan, China.

Annie meets Mama

And we had such an adventure, traveling through China to Hong Kong, where we started and ended our journey, staying with Anne and John MacPherson, who lived in a spiffy high-rise complex with an incredible pool.

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In the last year Annie has grown 5 inches and gained many pounds. Her hair has grown into Real Girl Hair, which is nice for one who so loves pink girlie stuff (check out her super-cool pink goggle glasses). She’s going to school, acing her spelling tests (in English!), doing well with her regular physical and speech therapy, has a new snazzy purple wheelchair… and she bowls! Oh, and she’s 8 now.

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Annie Cardoza and her mommy are my forever heroes. I remain honored that I got to travel to China last year and watch them become a family a year ago today.

Happy Annie-versary, you two. Here’s to many more!

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HBD2U, dear Annie

(From left) Annie and Nikki Cardoza celebrate Annie’s 8th birthday at Country Club Lanes in Sacramento with friends Kristie McCleary and Julia Moore.

Look at you, celebrating your first American birthday, you and a gaggle of friends and relatives at a local bowling alley. (Can it get more American than that?) Because you, just turned 8 years old, have developed a love for bowling, of all things.

You sit up tall in your purple wheelchair behind a tall frame with a bowling ball on it. You push, and varoooom! The ball careens down the sloped frame onto the lane and toward its target—those 10 pins arranged in a neat triangle. Blam! The ball hits, pins fall, you laugh.

Yay, Annie!

After you and your friends are finished knocking down the ten pins, your mama distributes cupcakes (“vanilla or chocolate?” she asks each guest) atop long tables festooned with birthday paper plates and napkins. Everyone sings you a rousing “Happy Birthday.” You know this song; you grin and chuckle as you are serenaded by people who did not know you a year ago. But they are family and friends now; you are beloved in your new land.

I hardly recognize you as the thin little girl with the mohawk named Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon) your mama and I traveled to retrieve last summer in Changsha, Hunan, China. You were so skinny and so hungry, and we could not get enough food in you. That’s changed—you’re filling out nicely (you have actual cheeks and thighs!), and you’ve grown much taller. Your long hair is today caught up in two ponytails, one on each side of your head. You have new pink goggle-style glasses that have brought your new world into focus. Your new ride is a racy purple wheelchair that fits you much better than your old one. You’re in school where you practice standing and speaking. You ace your spelling tests with sight words and image cards—you can identify the spelling of “mountain.” Mountain!

Your sensational smile has not changed—it beams almost constantly. At your mama, your grandma and grandpa, who are at the bowling alley today, at all these people here who wish you well.

Your mama reads you your cards and opens your gifts, holds each one up so you can see it. Your smile grows even bigger and your arms tense with excitement. Birthdays are so much fun!

No one knows exactly when you were born—just that you were found under an overpass on May 22, 2010, in Changsha, and you were estimated to be a year old. So it was that your life began again then, with new people at Butterfly House hospice caring for you, the people who saved your life and with whom you spent three years before moving to an orphanage across the city. That’s where you spent another three years in the care of more good people before your new mama traveled thousands of miles to get you, and another chapter of your miraculous life began in a new country.

People who hear your story are stunned by the determination and fortitude you’ve apparently had from the beginning, the fact that cerebral palsy has not stopped you from becoming a smart girl, wholly engaged with the world. I am honored to be one of your aunties who loves reading and singing to you, thrilled to be close to you and your equally remarkable mama.

We cannot wait to see what other great things you will accomplish in your life, but you, Annie Cardoza, just as you are now, are perfect. Happy birthday to you! And, as we say here (sing it with me), “And many mooooore!”

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Snowmelt

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Merced River, Clifford’s 65th birthday, May 21, 2017

Turgid—that’s the word for it—
white petticoats of froth atop olive drab river
coursing so fast, so hard, it sounds like ocean
turned up full blast, without the ebb and flow.

Here it’s all flow after hundreds of inches of snow
fell and fell and fell higher up, wrapping Sierra granite
in white sheaths, officially the wettest winter on record,
after too many dry ones. All the water on the planet
seems to be rushing by us now—

and by “us,” I mean me on the cusp of completing
another year on the planet, and you, whom I always
feel outdoors, you, ever present in this energetic river,
in the slender pines on the opposite bank
reaching for a darkening sky,

for it is late on the day you would have turned 65,
and I have come to sit hard by this deafening water,
to spend time with you, to imagine what you’d
look like now, to consider what gift I might give you—

and I remember: this water, right here, a river for you,
the fly fisherman. You loved nothing better than
a good river, though, given the swiftness of current,
the fish in this one must be safe from barbs
wound into fake insects, must let go and float,

allow themselves to be carried downstream
or find the rare eddy in which to rest, to linger
like me, singing happy birthday to you
as the swollen river drowns me out, on its liquid path
to places I can’t see.

But I trust that it knows its way through
this granite channel lined by living things
in infinite shades of green—that it is going exactly
where it needs to go.

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Leaving a bit of Clifford in Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2012. (Photos by Dick Schmidt)

 

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Library card

new library card & books

My new library card (bottom) with my older library card and newly checked-out books.

I remember my first library card in its little slipcover, my name emblazoned on it, typed by a manual typewriter: Janis Linn Haag.

Did Mrs. Nelson, the children’s librarian at the Roseville Public Library, type it? I don’t know; I just know that that little buff-colored card gave me access to the world, long before bigger libraries and long before something called the Internet. And my mother, a voracious reader who inhaled books like oxygen, passed along her reading genes to me. So it was she who took my younger sister and me weekly to the old Carnegie library, traveling the 8ish miles from our house on the edge of Folsom Lake State Park. Once there, we’d head into the library basement, Mrs. Nelson’s lair of wonder — at least to me.

I’m thinking about that library, now the Carnegie Museum (www.rosevillehistorical.org/) of the Roseville Historical Society. In the 1980s the building was supposed to be demolished (you can read the story on the website) and the land turned into a parking lot. But a descendant of the McRae family, who had donated the land with the intention of it always being a home to a library, declared that she would expect that the site be returned to her.

“The original deed was verified and the old building was saved,” the historical society’s website says. “But it needed restoration and a purpose. The good citizens of Roseville banded together and formed ‘The Roseville Historical Society’ with the purpose of preserving and protecting the history of Roseville. Together with the city, funds were raised for restoration and the venerable old building was once again a library but with the new focus of educating people about the history of Roseville. In effect, it became the ‘Carnegie Library Museum.’”

So, as I’m making a list of things I want to do during the rest of 2017 — now that I’m about to start a semester’s leave from teaching — the Carnegie Library Museum in Roseville is now on it. (Mom! Field trip!) Another thing on my list I did today: I picked up my new library card from my local branch of the Sacramento Public Library. And! I checked out my first library books in decades.

I still love books, gulp them like water, really. But as I’ve grown older and had my own money, I buy them. And buy them and buy them, as anyone who has seen my house can tell you. I’m awash in books. I give many away each year, typically to the Sacramento Friends of the Library for book sales. But I’m still up to my armpits in volumes and paper in general in my house. One of the things on the While Jan Isn’t Teaching list is to continue to sort through, donate, throw out unneeded paper and things made of paper.

My friend Christine loooooves the library and regularly orders books she wants online, then picks them up, devours them, and returns them. I decided some time ago that I want to follow her example. So I went online a couple of weeks ago and ordered a new library card since my old one (you can see it in the photo) no longer works. There’s a whole new system, as there should be in these modern times. Library cards are still free, though there’s not a Mrs. Nelson at an upright Royal typing your name on it. My name is nowhere on this new card—there’s just a long number and strip on the back that links to information about me in the computer system. But oh, what you can do with it! So much more than in the old days.

I had a sweet moment this afternoon picking up my card from the Clunie Library in McKinley Park, which is about as close as I’ll get to my old Roseville Library. Both buildings are venerable elders. The Clunie Clubhouse, which contains the library, opened in 1936; the Carnegie library in Roseville was built in 1912. Clunie still has its original walnut paneling and Stickley furnishings. My library houses exhibits, and I’m eager to see them and the building. Both libraries are well cared for and beloved in their communities.

I strolled through the small main reading room at Clunie today, drinking in the books on the shelves, noticing people at computers, a few children in the kids’ section, someone on a chair upstairs in the loft area where rows of books run east/west and the late afternoon light streamed in through a high window. I wasn’t planning to check out books, but light reading beckoned. Carol Burnett’s memoir leapt off a shelf into my hands, as did Carrie Fisher’s. And though I haven’t read any Jan Karon books about Father Kavanagh in Mitford in years, I thought of my late friend, Julie, who loved those books. One found its way onto a growing stack in my arms.

And just like that, I was back in the Roseville Library with my mother, selecting books to borrow, books that had to be read with clean hands and returned in two weeks (now you get to keep them three weeks, and you can renew them online, if no one else wants them!). A nice young man made my new card right there and grinned when I came back to him later with books to check out. He slid my new card through a reader and pointed one of those laser guns at each book’s spine. “Welcome to your library,” he said, making me grin even more as I thanked him.

I walked across McKinley Park to my car, books in arms, smiling, remembering that feeling of “Ooooo! New books!” as if I didn’t order them online or buy them from independent bookstores… both of which I regularly do.

When I was a child, Mrs. Nelson pointed the way to authors she thought I might like, encouraged me to read biographies, even the adult ones upstairs. No one ever restricted my access to books (thank you, grownups!) or questioned what I read. And those grownups fostered a reader who became a writer and a teacher, who still drinks thirstily from the pages of books, who has written a few of her own, who continues to revere books and writers.

And as I slipped my new library card into my wallet, I thought, Let this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the library I have supported with donations of books and money for years. Let this become a well-used card. Let me bring home library books as temporary housemates. Let the stories become longtime friends.

Thank you, Mrs. Nelson and all the librarians and library staff, including the young man today, who have helped me over the years in libraries and archives. Thank you, Mom, for all the trips to the library. I’m baaaaack!

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