The mailbox stashed in the century-old red barn with its sharply angled roof catches the light from a tall open door. Next to it sits an anchor-heavy Remington typewriter, its keys long rusted in place, its frame decorated by the fine lace of this season’s spiders.
A burnished red mailbox flag angles frozen over painted white words— P.S. I love you—a perfect postscript for the typed letters that must have been popped into its galvanized steel mouth.
It’s what I tell you, my Cliff, when sometimes I step across the threshold of our house to smell wood shavings, dog,
you, gone these 21 years, son of ranchers in a place called Rescue, whose slender barns stretched long arms around chickens and turkeys raised inside.
Today another Cliff, not much older than you’d be now, works within sight of his barn this blue-sky June afternoon, weeding a row of something getting ready to grow in soil once tilled by his father and grandfather, while hens scratch for worms and a rooster chortles insistently:
It’s been two years since we traveled the couple of hours to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, which seems ridiculous since it’s one of our favorite places on earth—until you realize that we were stopped twice during that time by a pandemic shutdown and a major fire bearing down on the area.
So we finally took advantage this week of a two-year-old reservation at the Cottage Inn just south of Tahoe City as the whole area takes its final, mostly tourist-free breaths and prepares for the onslaught of summer visitors. They’ll flock here in droves over Memorial Day weekend, but in the quiet of the week before, we got to see the lake at its loveliest.
It’s also at one of its lowest points. While winter snows brought the lake level up from its historic lows last fall, it’s still not where it should be in May. This year is California’s driest on record. We could see that as we walked the shoreline at Sugar Pine Point State Park today, literally tracing a path along the rocky shore that’s typically underwater.
A byproduct of this, however, seems to be outstanding water clarity. Never have we seen Tahoe so clear, turquoise waters gleaming 100 yards from shore. You can count every rock on the shallow bottom—part of the result of the lake’s low water level. But with only a slight breeze, Tahoe’s surface was so still, marred only by the occasional passing motorboat, that we could imagine the lake as Samuel Clemens saw it and his alter ego Mark Twain wrote about it:
“As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
We thought so, too, today on the opposite side of the lake from where Clemens first saw it, and we soaked up the peace of the place before the summer season begins.
All that’ll change by this weekend, of course, which is one reason we like to spend time at the lake in May. This is the time to drive into Sugar Pine Point State Park and stroll by the Hellman-Ehrman mansion (aka Pine Lodge, such a modest name for the the 1903 mansion left to Florence Hellman Ehrman).
In the summer of 1980, when I worked for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, I did a story about the Ehrman mansion, which had been sold to the state in 1965. But in 1980 it sat unfurnished and empty, though still glorious in its design by Walter Bliss. Now it’s been furnished as it was in the 1930s, and in the coming summer months the Sierra State Parks Foundation offers excellent tours.
It’s one of our favorite walks along the lakeshore, 2 miles long when the water is at its usual level—longer now. You can walk even farther thanks to the much-widened beach, an odd benefit to the drought. General Creek flows into Lake Tahoe, and because the water is so shallow now, it’s easy to wade across the sandbar and continue walking north.
Before it was Sugar Pine Point State Park, this area was the historic summer home of the Washoe Indians who came to the lake to hunt and fish. Some of their grinding rocks are now visible on the shoreline.
We went to the pier, which extends a good 150 feet from shore, riveted by the clear blue, the rocks placed seemingly by an artist’s hand. It was well known that the lake’s clarity had drastically declined in the 20th century. In 1968, when UC Davis researchers began measuring the lake’s clarity, they could see the circular white Secchi disc resembling a dinner plate submerged to 100 feet. In 1997 the marker could be seen only 67 feet down. Fine sediment and free-floating algae reduce water clarity, and as agencies have worked together to reduce pollutants from water runoff, the lake gets more clear every year.
This year when the UCD team lowered the Secchi disc into the lake, it was visible 138 feet down, the second deepest measurement since 1968. So it’s not our imagination: Tahoe is still the clearest lake in the United States, though efforts continue to increase its clarity.
As we walked the long shoreline, admiring rocks that are typically underwater, we took in the quiet lapping of tiny waves into the shore, and, of course, stopped to take photos and breathe in the blue.
Twain called Lake Tahoe “a noble sheet of blue water” in 1871:
“As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
So much of my life has come to this: sharing with others the power of writing to help heal the most difficult things thrown at us. Deaths of loved ones. Illness and pain. Loss of every kind. Grief of every kind. I’ve said for years that every writing group turns into a grief and loss session for at least one writer. We have a lot that needs healing. And one of my great joys in life is running writing groups that allow people to write what needs to be written, and, in tiny increments, not only begin to heal what’s troubling them but also to begin to turn it into art.
I recently began offering a monthly writing group in Elk Grove, California, for a nonprofit called Together We Heal, which an amazing woman named Jill Batiansila set up to help people in grief. She considers herself a “professional griever,” having lost her biological father when she was 16 months old. Together We Heal is Jill’s way of “creat[ing] space for people struggling with loss in its many forms and equip them with tools to build a life filled with joy,” as it says on the website.
They offer a grief support group, yoga, a walking wellness class, an art class and my writing group, among others—all for free.
Jill and I were introduced last year through a mutual friend, Margo Fowkes, who runs a website called “Salt Water,” for “those who have lost someone they can’t live without.” Margo, too, is a professional griever, having lost her 21-year-old son Jimmy to brain cancer in 2014. Margo thought that Jill and I needed to know each other, and she was right.
“Let’s host some writing groups,” Jill proposed, and I liked that idea.
Honestly, the writing groups got off to a slow start, not helped by a waning pandemic. But this week seven people showed up at a church in Elk Grove to write with Jill and me, which was glorious. Several of them were new to writing in a group, a little nervous, which is not unusual. My job is to put people at ease so they can write what needs to be written, and, if they’re comfortable, read it. All we tell them is what we like, what stays with us and what is strong about the writing, as prescribed by the AWA method I’ve used for years. Everything is kept confidential, we don’t ask questions, and we treat everything as fiction—even if we hear the first person “I” in someone’s writing.
Though newcomers don’t feel very confident, there’s always some fine lines and phrases that pop out that I’ll ask to be read again, as do other listeners. Almost no one likes what they’ve just written, I tell people. But other people hear our words differently, and they do hear the good stuff that we can’t yet discern. When they tell us what they honestly like and what’s strong, we can decide later what, if anything, we want to do with that writing. So much of what I do stays in my journal or on the laptop where I write. And that’s just fine.
The day after the writing group, Jill hosted the first Honorary Mother’s Day Tea to honor departed mothers, grandmothers and other important women. Jill served tea, her homemade cucumber sandwiches and yummy cake. But she also brought small succulents to be planted in donated teacups. Jill and her stepfather had drilled each teacup with a small drainage hole, and each woman filled at least one cup with dirt (as well as drinking tea from one of Jill’s collection of cups) and succulents that spilled over the edges like lacy green tendrils.
The women—one of whom who had recently lost her husband—seemed happy to chat quietly and plant and drink tea, and I watched no small amount of healing taking place at Stone Lake Farms outside Elk Grove where Jill and a team of volunteers raise flowers to give away to people in grief. They will toil on Wednesdays (and welcome new volunteers, too) through early fall to grow flowers from seeds in three long rows, coming several times a week to tend and harvest what blossoms. The rows are bare now, but it won’t be long before they’ll be overflowing with flowers of all kinds.
If this isn’t important life work, I don’t know what is.
The breeze picked up and turned the afternoon cool. Still, you could see the delight in the women’s faces and feel the lightening of their spirits as they tamped down the soil and decorated the soil in the cups with blue glass pieces. (Thanks to bereavement expert David Howell for reading poems and providing those bits of glass and rocks.) It was such a pleasant place to be, and everyone left with a teacup succulent to share or to keep.
“They do well with a little neglect,” Jill said about the succulents. “They don’t need much water. Just a little now and then and a little sunlight.”
Water and sunlight and the kindness of others—not neglect at all, but a recipe for caring, which Jill and the Together We Heal folks do so very well.
I am no stranger to water. (Thanks, Mom, for those early swimming lessons when I was 3.) It is, in many ways, my preferred element. In water I am graceful, far from the klutzy thing I am on land. As a young person, though I could fall over standing on two feet, in a pool I could scull like mad and thrust one leg into the air to do a lovely ballet leg. I was an OK water skier in a family of proficient water skiers, a synchronized swimmer (later a coach) and a teenaged lifeguard in a red bikini swinging a whistle around my index finger. My first teaching gig was not in a classroom but standing in waist-deep water in a high school pool, coaxing nervous little kids to splash their way off the wall to me.
When Dick first brought me to Hawaii nearly 30 years ago, I was eager to snorkel in warm ocean water. I’d not done that before, but I figured I could learn. And I did. As a Northern Californian who loves the coast, I’ve never set foot in the frigid Pacific waters of the North Coast—though I love to be on the beach and watch the waves. But as soon as I get near the waters surrounding the most isolated island chain in the world, my feet are itching for the beach. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think everyone floats like a cork in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands. I certainly do.
But in recent, pre-pandemic years, I’ve felt my ease with snorkeling dissipate. Maybe I was out of practice. Dick was not as comfortable in the water anymore, so he’d spot me from the beach as I snorkeled, never far offshore, always around others in the water. (Old lifeguards don’t forget their water safety.) But no matter what I tried, my mask would fog up and take on more water than was comfortable. I’d often end up gulping ocean, and I’d have to stop, pull off the mask and sputter.
On this trip I resolved to practice snorkeling every possible day, weather and ocean conditions permitting. I’d look for the calmest spots where tour operators take beginners and kupuna (elders). I would embrace beginner’s mind, since I seem to be there anyway when it comes to snorkeling. Let me start again, I said, looking up lots of snorkeling tips online, many of which I knew. One suggested that part of the problem was a dirty mask, that I should take a gentle toothbrush and toothpaste to the lenses in addition to applying no-fog goop before snorkeling. I did. I looked for shallow, calm water in which to practice, floating inches off the sand, trying to mouth breathe only into the snorkel. I shrugged my shoulders to relax in the water, let my arms float at my sides like limp noodles.
As a longtime meditator, I know well that what I do when I sit is called “practice.” As in “a practice” as well as “practicing.” As in beginner’s mind (shoshin), never assuming proficiency or having a desired outcome. Just to sit and breathe quietly for a bit without expectation that anything in particular should happen.
I remembered Shunyru Suzuki’s book Zen Mind,Beginner’s Mind, in which he advocates an open, unbound, curious mind—that of one who is beginning, open to all possibilities. He famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
So that’s how I decided to approach snorkeling. Not that I was ever as expert, but I once was reasonably skilled. If the mask fogged, so be it. I’d fin on anyway. If it got too bad, I told myself, I’d take it off, rinse it, spit in it and see if that helped. Water in the mask? Float on your back, tilt the mask up and let it drain. Or take it off and start again. Swallow a little sea water? Again, float, clear throat, start again.
It’s what we do every day, every minute, anyway. Why should I assume proficiency at something I do perhaps a dozen times annually? Isn’t the ocean new every day, every minute? Just because the current was pushing me in one direction yesterday doesn’t mean it will do the same today.
It seems like a good time in life to begin again. I retired last year during a pandemic that upended the whole world. Everyone’s starting over. Some are forced to because of famine or flood, threat of harm or war. They have no choice. I, fortunately, do.
As I meditate, I’ve been practicing tonglen for the past couple of years, breathing in the sorrows of the world, the hurts of those hurting and breathing out peace and compassion. I’ve also long practiced the lovingkindness meditation (also called metta) in which you find a little spark of compassion deep inside and breathe into it, fanning the flame, then think, breath by breath, “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” Then you think of someone you love and wish them the same. Then (a toughie) you send lovingkindness to one who is difficult, who pushes your buttons, with whom you struggle (someone you know or know of). Then you send metta to all beings everywhere.
May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
So as I’ve snorkeled in calm-ish waters on Kauai’s north shore over the past couple of weeks, I’m doing metta practice, breathing in, breathing out, admiring the fish (may you be well; may you be at peace), the coral, noticing the waves bouncing me a bit. Not struggling against a little mask fog or water around my nose. Rolling over, looking up at endless blue sky, grateful for it all. No expectations.
Today, during my meditation-at-sea practice, I shoved off into the shallows, trying to take slow, deep breaths. I was not even 20 yards from shore, in clear blue water over a sandy bottom when a huge flying saucer appeared beneath me. Very close. I had yet to see a green sea turtle (honu, in Hawaiian) as I snorkeled, though we’d seen a lot of them from our lanai next to Lawai Beach on Kauai’s south shore. They do good imitations of rocks—surfing rocks—as the waves tumble in. And, if you pay attention, their thick heads with their curved beaks rise now and then to grab a breath and head back down to nibble at limu (seaweed or algae).
On the north shore today, this descendant of dinosaurs was nowhere near food and didn’t seem in a hurry at all. You’re supposed to maintain a 10-foot distance, and the big honu looked closer than that. But she (females have short tails, like this one) glided underneath me as I floated and watched—for once ignoring the water in my mask and mouth, watching that majestic being slowly flippering away from me, the definition of peacefulness.
I had to surface, clear my mask, choke a bit. When I put the mask back on and my head down, I couldn’t see the honu, but I headed in her general direction, and there she was. Hawaii’s only indigenous reptile, on earth for more than 110 million years, outliving dinosaurs, right there. An aumakua (ancestral spirit guide), symbol of longevity, endurance and mana (spiritual energy).
They seem to me the most patient of animals, unhurried and unbothered by turbulence or humans, incredible breath-holders thanks to their huge lungs. And when they surface for breath, if we’re lucky, we sometimes get to see their soulful eyes, bask in their calm, appreciate their journey.
May we remember to raise our heads, too, and, even when we’re struggling, breathe lovingkindness into the world, radiate peace. May we always be beginners, ready to start over, eager to try again.
We are so country out here in the wilds of Haena on the north shore of Kauai, where kabillion dollar homes on the beach nestle near more modest local houses, where all manner of wildlife and domesticated animals live on the same acreage.
Across the street from the home of Toni and C.B. Martin (where we are happily staying in their Tiki Hut cottage on a lovely acre that over two decades Toni has coaxed into a full-fledged botanical garden) lies a fenced pasture, always green-grassed and often occupied by four-legged ones munching away.
Each day as we drive or walk by we’ve spotted three pipi (cows), three lio (horses) and a hoki (donkey) outstanding in their field. One late afternoon the horses and donkey grazed in soft light, usually good for photographing, so I borrowed Dick’s snazzy iPhone 11 Pro and went across the road. Immediately, one of the lio came toward me, thinking, I’m sure, This two-legged one likely has a treat for me. She didn’t, unfortunately, and she felt bad about that. But she took their photos anyway.
And the first one’s hoaloha (friends) came to join us at the fence.
Though the horses clearly have the upper hand (hoof?) in this pasture, the little donkey was not shy.
Each of them came to me to sniff and nuzzle my hand, the large brown and white one ready with teeth. I pulled away and let the back of my hand rest higher on her (?) nose, which she allowed.
After a bit she moved closer to the smaller brown horse, possibly younger, and began to nuzzle the brown one’s neck. The brown one stood quietly and closed her (?) eyes. I had a flash of a mother nuzzling a foal, and wondered if this one had been her baby. Or her good friend? “Hoaloha,” I remembered, also means “beloved friend.”
And that reminded me of the wonderful James Wright poem, “A Blessing”:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass. And the eyes of those two Indian ponies Darken with kindness. They have come gladly out of the willows To welcome my friend and me. We step over the barbed wire into the pasture Where they have been grazing all day, alone. They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness That we have come. They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. There is no loneliness like theirs. At home once more, They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness. I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, For she has walked over to me And nuzzled my left hand. She is black and white, And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist. Suddenly I realize That if I stepped out of my body I would break Into blossom.
And I did blossom a bit as I stood outside the fence, admiring them, inhaling their equine essence, talking to them, promising to return with apples—something I’m pretty sure that I did the last time I was here. Because I’ve learned that it never hurts to show up with a sweet treat for a friend or four, especially our four-hooved friends.
How you know that you’re definitely a “senior”: When they give you a lifetime pass that says so.
Dick bought me a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Senior Pass (known between us as the Old Farts Park Pass), as I did for him when he turned 62. His pass (more poetically called the Golden Age Passport) cost $10 for life; mine cost $80. They increased the price for the first time in 2017 (after 23 years). Even so, still a bargain to enter all U.S. national parks and rec lands for the rest of my (hopefully long) life.
We got it at the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, home to one of the prettiest views of a lighthouse (built in 1913) you ever did see.
The lighthouse has been renamed for the late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who was instrumental in raising private and public funds for the restoration of the lighthouse, completed in 2013 for its 100th anniversary. Built in 1913, the lighthouse (with its magnificent glass Fresnel lens) stands 52 feet tall on a rocky peninsula on Kauai, 180 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
But the other reason you go to the lighthouse is to watch seabirds flying like white kites over the impossibly blueblue ocean—the red-footed boobies (yep, their real name with their goofy scarlet footwear); the white- and red-tailed tropicbirds with their streamer-like tails; the wedge-tailed shearwaters tucked into their earthen nests in the hills around the lighthouse, and the ginormous Laysan albatross with “wingspan(s) as wide as Kobe Bryant [was] tall,” according to Hob Osterlund’s fine book, “Holy Moli” (the Hawaiian word for “albatross”).
All this on a glorious, sunny, not-too-hot Hawaiian Saturday afternoon? Perfection.
It’s not every day you get to meet an AED sister, but today Dick Schmidt met Briana Martinez in Lihue, Kauai—both of them revived by AEDs after cardiac arrests in 2019.
Briana was a 39-year-old special education teacher on Kauai when, during a meeting at lunch, she froze in her chair, not breathing, not moving. A staff member called 911, a vice principal started chest compressions and a counselor grabbed the AED (automated external defibrillators). Before emergency personnel arrived, Briana was shocked twice and then life-flighted to Oahu where she made a full recovery.
Briana is a mom of three children who is now deeply involved in sharing her story and training others in CPR and the use of AEDs. That’s what she and Jenna Tanigawa (of the AED Institute based in Honolulu) were doing on Kauai today—training members of the mayor’s staff.
We were delighted to see Jenna and meet Briana, part of our AED ohana, to hug them and wipe away happy tears. We also invoked the name of Pamela Foster, the president and CEO who created the AED Institute that has placed AEDs in airports all over Hawaii, as well as getting them to schools and in other public places.
We cannot say mahalo nui loa enough to Pam and Jenna for their generous help after Dick’s cardiac arrest at the Daniel K. Inoyue International Airport in Honolulu in January 2019. And, once again, our mahalo to the on-the-scene quick actions of Claudio Alvarado and Salesi Maumau moments after Dick collapsed, and to Chris Ohta of Hawaiian Airlines, who fetched the AED that brought Dick back to life.