Zooming through poetry class online for the 11th week—still not used to students’ faces in little rectangles onscreen, wishing the ones who elect not to show their faces would—
weeks of discussing imagery and metaphor, sonnets and villanelles, syntax and sound, putting them into virtual rooms to write to prompts, praising those who read aloud their brand new drafts,
when, as I’m talking, of course, the big orange cat saunters in my office crying his siren wail, and I can’t turn around and look at him, though the students catch his yowl,
but I sneak a glance over my shoulder anyway and see Diego, head bent reverently over a dark shape whose tail curls into a question mark and, before I can stop myself, an “oh, shit!”
falls out of my mouth, and, because they are muted, I can’t hear my students’ chuckles, but I add, “The cat just walked in and dropped a dead rat on the floor… a big one,”
and someone unmutes and says (though we have not discussed this all evening), “Well, that’s about right for tonight.” And as I turn back to the screen, I see them laughing—with weariness?
With relief? We are all so tired; we have reason to be. And one of the brightest students in class unmutes to observe in a properly academic tone, “Well, that’s a metaphor, isn’t it?”
And we all laugh—the grinning faces of those who allow themselves to be seen in these vulnerable moments— and I look again—yep, it’s dead, it’s not going anywhere, and the big cat meows mightily over his catch,
and I say, “Yes, let’s call that a metaphor; let’s call it hope.”
Few things soothe me when I’m busy or anxious as well as time spent by the ocean. That’s why, mid-semester in this crazy world of Zoom teaching, Dick and I had arranged a different kind of oceanside getaway—one that involved a whole lotta birds.
If you spend time at the California coast, you’re gonna see birds—lots of gulls, some cormorants, maybe in the distance some pelicans—but in October we headed to a place that’s literally Bird Central, staying just down the road from Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve.
As a native Californian, I can’t imagine that I haven’t visited what has been called “the crown jewel of the state park system,” but this visit felt like a kind of discovery for me. Not for Dick—he knows Pt. Lobos well from visits over the decades to Carmel, including one to visit photographer Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia six weeks before Ansel Adams died in 1984.
According to the state park website, Pt. Lobos gets its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland.
A more recent visit brought Dick and his longtime friend Connie Raub to Pt. Lobos in 2014 to quietly scatter some of the cremains of Connie’s late husband Richard. They were tickled to find Gibson Beach (in the photo above) since Connie’s original name was Gibson. They enjoyed their time there, taking in sea lions barking on offshore rocks, otters in Whaler’s Cove and the many pelicans at Bird Rock. But that’s just the beginning: more than 250 types of animals and birds call Pt. Lobos home.
The birds with the gigantic 9-foot wingspan captured our hearts, especially when we walked the Bird Island trail. Scores of pelicans soared overhead, and a brief walk took us to a place on the trail where we could one of the pelican rookeries. There, mamas (we guessed) tended the chicks of various sizes.
Everywhere you look, it’s Pec-i-lan (as Dick likes to say) City, such quiet birds, preening and tidying up next to their brethren. Such a tight group in close quarters and no fussing between them. What surprised me was the elasticity of their heads and necks, how they accordion’d themselves into compact feather bundles and swiveled their heads Exorcist-style backward to lay their long beaks on their backs.
Those beaks, incidentally, are long, scissored things (from 11 to 14 inches long) that made me realize, as we watched them, that Big Bird must be part pelican. And breeding adults have white heads with a golden wash, a pale version of that 8-foot-2-inch famous bird.
And despite the awkward, rocky terrain, some particularly well-balanced pelicans manage to find purchase in places only experienced rock-climbing humans could.
Once hunted for their feathers and devastated by the use of DDT and other pesticides, pelicans made a comeback between 1970 and 2009, though it’s still listed as an endangered species on the California coast. They’re an indicator species, and because of the decline in sardine populations—one of their staple foods—due to overfishing and climate change, their numbers are in decline.
Fortunately, the number of pelicans at Pt. Lobos makes the species appear to be thriving. In another part of the reserve we walked the Cypress Grove trail through the ubiquitous trees for which this part of the coastline is famous. We rounded a curve in the trail to see this vista before us:
Dozens of pelicans roosting in cypress trees—as birds do, of course—but how funny to see these sizable birds decorating the greenery. Though many of us imagine that they use their voluminous pouches to carry fish, they don’t. They cruise 60 to 70 feet over the ocean, spot schools of fish, then dive-bomb the water, scoop up their fish, and let the water drain out of their porous pouches before they swallow. If they’re caring for young ones, like other birds, after they return from hunting, they regurgitate part of their meal for the babies.
“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best, and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.” —Big Bird
We had good days walking Pt. Lobos and getting closer to pelicans than ever before. So close, in fact, that one bird, well, christened Dick and his Canon. Perhaps it’s like the tradition of tossing one’s lei in the sea in Hawaii: If a pelican, um, gets you, you’re meant to return.
I was out watering the plants in my front yard a couple months ago, trying to give them a good drink before the heat of a Sacramento August day, when Robert Gordon walked by. He was moving at his usual fast pace, paint-spattered shorts to his knees, flip-flops squishing in the water I’d inadvertently added to the sidewalk.
He sang to me by way of greeting: “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”
“Hi, Robert,” I said, meeting his grin.
“I’m gonna leave you a new painting,” he said. “You’re gonna love it.”
Every so often I come home to find a Robert painting on my porch, always on some scrap wood or cardboard. I think of him as the moonstruck artist because there’s clearly something a little different about him. And not least because he likes to paint moons. He veers from topic to topic in conversation, his colors run to the wild, as do his images, some of which look as if they were painted under the influence of hallucinogenics or mental illness—though I prefer to think of it as inspiration.
A couple of years ago my next door neighbor hosted an impromptu art show featuring Robert’s paintings and freeform, found object sculptures. She told me that Robert lived in a halfway house not far from us. I bought a few paintings of his—my favorite a big, beautiful round moon with a smiling face and a clock in the center of it. It had a $15 sticker on it. I gave him $25, and the moon sat in a protected area on my front porch for quite a while.
One day I came home to find that the moon had disappeared. In its place I discovered two pieces—one boxy looking thing, originally cardboard, painted with odd abstract pieces sticking out of it poked onto thin wire. I didn’t love it, but I could guess who’d dropped by. But the moonstruck artist had also left a long, horizontal board with a small moon on it overlooking the Tower Bridge—a Sacramento landmark that made me smile. A new moon, as it were.
When I next saw him walking by, I asked, “Hey, Robert, did you take the moon clock and leave me these pieces?”
He looked momentarily confused, started talking about something rattling around in his brain, then shook his head like a wet dog.
“Oh, yeah. I needed it for a show I’m doing,” and he named a gallery I’d never heard of. “I left you the other pieces—are they all right?”
“Sure,” I said, “but when your show is over, I’d love to have my moon back.”
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “But did you…?” and off he went into another topic as he came up on the porch to look at his art.
“I love the Tower Bridge one,” I began.
“I put a moon in there for you,” he pointed with a paint-spattered index finger.
“I know!” I said. “That’s great.”
“What about…?” he gestured to the boxy thing.
“I’ve gotta say that’s not my favorite piece of yours,” I began.
“No problem,” he said, reaching for it. “I’ll take it back.” He genuinely didn’t seem upset by my appraisal.
“Let me pay you for the bridge painting,” I said.
He looked at me as if he’d never considered such a thing. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I just thought you’d like it.”
“I do,” I said. “Let me give you something for it.”
He thought. “Ten bucks?”
I went inside the house and returned with a twenty and handed it to him. He extended his hand for a shake. In that pre-COVID moment, I shook on the deal.
“Thanks,” he said, already heading for the sidewalk, on his way toward J Street. He turned near the end of the driveway. “I’ll bring more.”
And he has. One day I came home to a painting that just gobsmacked me—a vertical piece of wood curved on top that might have once been a cupboard door. It says WELCOME over a house and a tree and under a sweet-faced crescent moon. It took me a minute to realize that Robert had painted my pink house and my tree (and a sweet crescent moon!) in unusually subtle colors for him. I got a little teary. When I next saw him, I offered to pay him, but he refused.
“You’re such a nice lady,” he said. “I thought I’d do one special for you.”
He stops by from time to time, and, if I’m out in front, we chat. When I ask now and then about my moon clock, he is vague. Once he said someone offered him “a lot of money for it.”
“Robert,” I said, “if you can sell that for a lot of money, do it.”
“I’ll make you another one,” he said, “if I can find a round piece of wood again.”
“Deal,” I said. “I don’t need the clock, actually.”
He nodded, then set off into his day.
As I watered, I thought about my friend Pat Schneider who had recently died after a long decline. She created the writing method I use in my writing groups, and over a period of about eight years I hosted her in Sacramento at least six times that I can recall—maybe more—as she led workshops and did lectures here. We became great friends, and she was a feisty, sometimes cranky mentor. But I adored her and she me. She published a book of my poems, and I proofread the manuscripts of her last two books.
Though I knew she’d been declining in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and that Pat and her husband Peter had moved to assisted living for the better part of a year, and I got word on an email list of “nearest and dearest” (her term) from one of her daughters that she had entered hospice, I found myself enveloped in grief when word came that she had died. As I do with so many people in their final days, I hold them in prayer and meditation, wishing for an easy passage at the same time I didn’t want her to lose her. It’s so human to want them to stay and go at the same time.
That day, seeing Robert, I thought of Pat’s brother Sam, who, like their mother, struggled with mental illness. Sam, whom she described as “a drifter,” often homeless, put in jail here and there. She told the story in her book about writing that Sam was as good a writer as she was, but motorcycle riders from hell, as he once wrote, pursued him. He died young, and she mourned him in her poetry and prose.
I have failed in my life, many times, to appreciate people who are different, especially those who may be challenged by mental illness. I’ve had a lot of students and not a few friends and former friends who fit that description. In recent months I’ve realized that Robert, this uncommon man and congenial artist, has been delivered to me. He is a Sam of sorts but with a safe place to live, a painter who lives to paint, who scrounges materials to make his art, then gives them away with no expectations of money. These are gifts from his heart on found pieces of wood and cardboard.
And Robert can paint anything. Not long ago, as he left after a brief visit, I called to him, “Paint me a typewriter.” He laughed and pointed to an old manual Remington that lives in my front yard. I promptly forgot about my request. But within a week I was coming home to painting after painting of typewriters propped on my porch—a tall vertical one with typewriter and a tall black cat, and another square one that’s inscribed, “Write a book. Get rich.” (That would have made Pat, a well-published but far-from-rich writer, laugh.) At the rate they’re arriving, I may soon have as many paintings of typewriters as I do the actual machines—and that’s a sizable number.
But that day in August, Robert walked by my house and sang to me (“sail on, silver girl, sail on by”) as I was missing a person I loved, one I had never expected to meet, much less turn out to be a woman who loved me ferociously and gave me so much.
After the artist who leaves me treasures continued down the street, I smiled and pointed the hose nozzle up in the air, letting the shower cool me, smiling about the unexpected gifts that arrive in human form—the ones, if we’re lucky, we think to cherish when they’re right in front of us.
Driving west, fleeing the smoky central valley toward the mist that hugs the California coastline, putting miles behind us and dehydrated land long unused to rain—we pray that the brittle grasses die a natural death, rather than the fiery kind consuming acreage by the millions of our once golden state.
We return to the sea seeking solace from the too-muchness of a year already burning before the fires came. We gaze upward through the windshield to watch ash give way to fog muscling its way inland. We smile—fog! Wispy coastal fog! Happy to don jackets when we emerge from the car to the barks of dock-dwelling sea lions, as we go in search of chowder and our own fish.
Every time it’s a homecoming, this return. We claim saltwater as our permanent address from whence we came, imitated by our tears.
Later we walk oceanside to the point where huge, stocky pelicans with thin necks and Big Bird bills preen before compressing themselves like accordions into sleep. Others stand, stretch, their giant wings lifting them, powerful flaps propelling them in the search for food, scooping fish and seawater into their great pouches, water draining through the sieve of ballooned throats. Then they return, bellies full, ready to feed the young, finding welcome each time they land on rocky outcrops.
Others make space for them as we hope ours will for us one day when we touch down, unsteady and unsure, looking for the familiar, comforted by the possibility of kindness.
I am one of millions today… millions of kids and teachers who are starting their school year (and will likely finish it) at home—not to mention their poor parents who’ve been dragged into home schooling like it or not, or their partners and families who have to listen to (some of us) bemoaning a learning curve that, at this point, looks vertical. As in mountain-high, there’s so much to learn.
And if that wasn’t enough, Zoom crashed this morning on two coasts.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pandemic that put us here in the first place. Oh, and fires in California sending smoke as far away as Kansas. Devilish fires that yield a blood orange sun through air so thick the experts are saying that no one should be outside. At all.
And yet I suited up as if I was actually going to drive to Sacramento City College—in a skirt even. As if had to contend with the horrible first-week parking that gets all of us cranky before we ever step into a classroom. I knew where I’d scope out a likely faculty spot, if I went early enough. I’d hike to my classroom and up the stairs to my second-floor office, bidding good morning to those already there, working away. And I’d put down my book bag, haul out my big container of tepid tea (because I drink tea at any temperature) and look at the piles I would’ve already set aside for each class I would head into that day.
I’d print the roll sheets for each class and gather some blank 3×5 cards that I have every student fill out with basic contact information on the first day. I’d put all that into the fresh new file folder I’d made for each course. And a couple of minutes before class started, I’d pull my pile of books and folder into my arms and a ready-to-write purple ballpoint into my hand, and I’d head down the hall to the journalism classroom.
It was only five years ago that journalism and photography moved to the second floor of a new building, and, in the first month, saw the college suffer its first shooting death at the edge of campus. Our journalism students covered that like pros. One of those former students, who has been working in television ever since, also finished his bachelor’s degree and just got a job as news editor at our local NPR station. Another one of those students produces an evening news program at a San Francisco TV station.
Last semester a group of three of our journalism students took on the most ambitious reporting series we’ve seen at our college—documenting in 14 stories, videos and podcasts how social and economic factors derail Sacramento City College students in their quests to complete their educations. And yet so many of them do, slogging through life challenges that most of their professors have never had to endure.
They keep on keepin’ on, and this is what keeps me keepin’ on. They inspire me, the old dog learning new tricks in this all-Zoom age of online teaching. Me, teaching four classes in “real” time, while doing two more remotely. Two classes of students I’ll never see. Not sure how I feel about that since, like most teachers I know, we get jazzed about what we do by seeing the faces of our students light up with comprehension… or puzzle into confusion. We love it when so many of them have questions at once—they’re so eager—or struggle to figure out a concept and then beam relief and walk away with a smidge more confidence in their abilities and smarts. Because they are smart and bright and beautiful. It’s my job to show them that.
Though we came home in March, many of us college teachers simply told our students what they had to do to complete our classes, trying to make things as simple as possible. I was not teaching synchronously online. I did do five writing groups a week, though, between March and the end of August, so I got major Zoom practice. But after more than 30 years of teaching in classrooms, I will now see between 20 and 40 people per class in tiny little rectangles onscreen. And another bunch and another and another.
I hope I can engage them as well remotely as I think I do in the classroom. (One of my good friends who has been coaching many of us in online teaching techniques over the summer pointed out, “What makes you think you were doing such a good job live?” That made us all think.) I hope I do well for them. Because, if all goes according to plan, this will be my last year of full-time college teaching. I hope to retire by next summer.
None of us ever expected to see the end of the world as we knew it, no matter where we find ourselves on the educational spectrum. But I know I will miss their actual faces, students wandering into my office at all hours because that’s how we roll in journalism—if we’re on campus, the door is open. I will miss turning from my computer to see someone with a question, a problem, a joke or just coming to say hi. (I love it when they come to say hi.) But I’ll still get to watch them progress not only in class but become more confident, competent writers and editors, more thoughtful media consumers and, some of them, media professionals.
For this is the new world, baby, and it’s about always being willing to be vulnerable in front of students, knowing that we teachers can’t possibly know everything, of owning this beginner’s mind that puts us back into an I-don’t-know-but-I’ll-find-out place. I look forward to learning new tricks in the online teaching arena. I have no doubt that, as always, my students will teach me as much or more than I do them. Lucky, lucky me.
“I went up to the door, but I turned away.” —Pat Schneider, Aug. 5, 2020 (June 1, 1934–Aug. 10, 2020)
I see you at the door, your hand with its
long tributaries of veins pausing on the knob,
ready to pull it open, step into the hallway— it’s always the same goddamn hallway—
then turn, take a breath, and, when you
are ready, pick up your pen and write.
I’ve heard you give this prompt umpteen times,
imagined I’d have the chance to write
with you once more, even as I knew you
were fading, but word has come
that you’re hovering in the hallway,
poised before this life’s last door.
And, when I close my eyes, put myself
in the hallway, there you are—white-haired
and white-gowned, on your way to ghostly,
or angelic. You turn, smile, radiating
love as you did with every workshop— you can’t blow it if you love them—
and I’m telling you again, forever
and always, as I used to when you
looked to me before you spoke
or taught in my city— you’re wonderful, you’re going to do great things for these writers, they’ll love you, I love you, thankyouthankyouthankyou.
Cobwebs of light shimmer behind you
as you walk through the door, as you
feel the wings you’ve grown, lifting, *
as you become soul, **
as we trust that, somehow,
what stays with us
though the beings rooted
to this blue marble must
have always looked skyward
once darkness pulled its
cobalt curtain over
their portion of planet.
I want to emerge from
isolation, coming out of
hibernation to be with those
who make their way on
breezy summer nights to
elevated places away from
distancing ourselves in dimness,
pointing our chins toward
night diamonds winking,
we imagine, at us,
searching for the sweet
sight of that fuzzy comet,
head down, swinging its
glossy tail of icy starstuff,
racing past us at 40 miles
a second. We try to
visualize its 3-mile girth,
contemplate the 70
million miles between
its brilliance and us.
And when we spot it
galloping below the big bear
in the northern sky, we grin,
gasp, point our visual devices
toward the blazing miracle
delivered in this precarious
when a glimpse of distant
luminosity sprinting by
feels, somehow, like
a radiant spot of hope.
Comet NEOWISE over Mt. Jefferson, Oregon / photo by Jay Mather
This instant as kids scramble
atop a makeshift island floating like
a bright penny on chilly emerald water
that grows warmer every day.
This moment as two teenage
boys dive off the dock where I sit
inhaling the vastness of mountain lake,
their slender forms cutting neatly
between flashing sun stars—
only to emerge heads shining,
Pointed noses of motorboats bob
as so many pleasure craft, decently
distanced, drift around tetherball floats.
A bearded fellow paddles by on his
standing board with an unseen
device broadcasting Pearl Jam, and
I want him to hurry by, take his tunes
elsewhere. A young woman suns
tushie up on the dock, her daily practice
no matter what, I hear her tell
A flock of 14 Canada geese cruises
a watery path parallel to shore,
having no idea that their native land
celebrates its independence today,
three days before ours, those
northern neighbors who, for now,
shun us, a country of plenty roiling
in turmoil, much of it our own making.
We are all of us wildlife in this
precarious time, even here
in this limbo of beauty and illusion,
as I engage in a few days of
magical thinking, trying to leave
behind those struggling for breath,
those howling in protest, those
carrying fears and griefs too numerous
to name. I have temporarily fled
my own isolation to seize these
precious, peaceful moments.
Still, even here, alone on my portion
of dock, I wear my mask, my face
flushed under late afternoon sun.
I watch the kids on the floating raft
laugh and roughhouse in good fun,
splash into rippling water, whoop
as their mouths meet air, clamber
back up among their fellows.
In the same instant eight members
of the flock paddle paddle glide by
this human anchored to the steady dock,
their black webbed feet visible just
beneath the surface of sparkling green.
Beneath my mask I smile at their
nearness. The leader turns his ebony
head, meets my eye, and utters a gentle
honk echoed by his brethren, an
inter-species acknowledgment I hear
They came off garage shelves stiffly
like the old creatures they were, sagging
cardboard file boxes encumbered with
the weight of words on paper, to fwump
onto the old concrete floor, poofing
decades of dust onto my cheeks and nose.
Each bore letters carved in faded Sharpie
on its flank—A–C, C–G, H–M, N–S, T–Z—
their concave backs swaying as I hefted
them one at time outdoors. I swiped a rag
over each before I lugged them indoors
where, I had vowed, I would purge mercilessly.
The boxes with years inscribed on them
had been easier: storage for old bills and
check registers, handwritten lists of monthly
debts paid, odd receipts unworthy
of the year’s tax file. Easy to pick through,
shred, recycle, toss into the blue bin
at the edge of the driveway.
But these five lettered boxes bore most
of what was left of a young journalist’s career—
by no means all—subject files of notes,
photos, stories dear to my heart from
days of serving three newspapers,
a wire service and a magazine.
Opening each box, sighing at the files
standing at attention, I took a deep dive
into the former me, a young woman
I no longer recognized. But with the opening
of each file folder, memories tumbled into
my lap like squirming puppies, eager for
attention: Remember me? Wasn’t that fun? How can you possibly give me away?
But it’s time, I told the puppies. I can’t keep you all anymore. I only have so much space and years left, and you’re important only to me anyway.
Really, for whom do we archive our lives?
For whom have we saved the bride’s thank you
letter after standing up with her and her groom
at their wedding? Who will read handwritten
notes scribbled by a newbie journalist watching
a roundup of wild mustangs in the high desert?
Who will understand the significance
of the creamy ribbon or recognize the name
on yet another business card, much
less on snapshots bereft of identification?
If I am brave, I’ll pronounce the answer:
I do it for me, to stir up the what-has-been
along with the dust, which is where I’m
headed in the end, which reminds me
time’s a’wasting and yes, it’s freeing to
locate and eliminate the no-longer-needed
bits in boxes or drawers or life.
But my heart lifts when I hold a file folder
and its inhabitants rise in me—especially
those long gone—and I read words they
offered the young me, who took them down
and corralled them on fragile pages
where, for just a short time, they lived
and were read by others who lived, too.
Once afloat, pulling the water in familiar strokes,
you will forget about what it took to get here:
the annual oh-my-god-how-round-you’ve-gotten
work of donning the suit, stunned at the cleavage
you would have died for as a flat-chested teen
on the synchronized swimming team, horrified by
wobbles of flesh on upper arms and legs.
Then reminding yourself that’s one reason
you swim at 9 on summer nights—no one else
in or around the pool—and you stop the
useless recriminations. Remind yourself that
this body is, after all, a garage for your soul,
and your job is to love it no matter what, till
death do you part, and to put it in the water,
dammit. You always feel better when you swim.
Because the pool, after being closed for three
months to an unseen virus, is at last open,
and you have learned that you must take
advantage of every opportunity to swim
your 20 laps. Numbers are on the rise.
It could close again. Soon.
Because swimming, for you, is seasonal,
means summer, means four months, if you’re lucky,
in this outdoor pool in your watery routine
of various strokes, sculls and eggbeaters
under a Delta breeze, should it arrive, or on
the sultriest nights when droplets dry
on your face in seconds.
You take the four steps into the water
for the first time in this rollercoaster year,
this upside-down, how-could-this-happen year.
It’s warm, as it should be after the thermometer
hit the century mark today. Yet the water
always looks ice blue in the diffuse light.
You jog in place, acclimating, before you adjust
your goggles, lower your shoulders and
feel yourself lift off, finally weightless,
at home in the old motions, pulling for
the other side.