Now we look to the stars—

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
manmade illumination,
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
human moment,

when a glimpse of distant
luminosity sprinting by
feels, somehow, like
a radiant spot of hope.

Comet Neowise over Mt. Jefferson

Comet NEOWISE over Mt. Jefferson, Oregon / photo by Jay Mather

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Seize the moment

Canada geese in Tahoe-5802

Photo / Dick Schmidt

July 1, 2020, west shore, Lake Tahoe  

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,
grins spreading.

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 friend.

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
as hello.

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Purging the subject files

files

For Dani, who makes it easier to sift and sort

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:
no one.

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.

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Love to the swimming body

-5124 jlh ready to lapCR

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.

-5137 jlh between lapsCR

(Photos by Dick Schmidt)

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First haircut after quarantine

(for Susan Stewart)

Feels like the first time, as the old song goes.
Foreigner’s first album dropped in 1977, me
a freshman in college, equal parts curiosity,
intimidation and hormones, hiking the university
to which I commuted daily—my parents entrusting
me with their old Toyota, which I parked
at the far end of campus, absorbing one of my
first important pieces of learning with every step:
A college parking pass does not guarantee
a parking space.

It was the first time in college, freed from
the must-do/can’t-do of high school, ready
to try on my big girl journalistic wings,
at the same time questioning everything
I thought I knew about my chosen major:
What made me think I could do this?

A decade later, returning to teach at that university,
after doing time on a few newspapers but before
a wire service and a magazine claimed me,
the mantra returned:
What made me think I could do this?
As it has every semester, before every plunge
into cold water, the reminder that every
class is a first time for all of us in the room,
to remember beginner’s mind, how good
it is for the soul, if not the nerves, to start over.

And now, sitting in Susan’s chair after four months,
it, too, feels like the first time—both of us masked,
only one other stylist and customer in the place,
sheets of heavy plastic hanging like vertical dropcloths
between chairs. She squirts sanitizer on her hands,
and I follow. She aims the thermometer gun
dead center on my forehead without touching it,
pronounces an acceptable number, leads me
to her chair, one that I and hundreds of others
have occupied for years.

In the four months since I’ve sat here, the world
has shattered. People like Susan with brooms and
dustpans are sweeping up the pieces, creating
barriers no one wanted in the name of safety as
people who have never been safe because of the color
of their skin are showing us there’s no going back,
we must now do the thing we think we cannot do.

Look at your curls, she says taking her usual position
behind me, flipping them up at the back of my head.
I trimmed a bit, I confess, as I imagine many of us
who sit here have, and I know it’s uneven,
needs a good cut, but I rather like it.

In the mirror I see her eyes crinkle above her mask.
Me, too, she says.

We both know I usually have her trim me short
for summer, but for the first time I can remember,
she says, Let’s leave it a little longer.

I hope she sees the smile in my eyes, too.
Let’s, I say.

IMG_7976redo

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Digression: Teaching at home

remote teaching

For my students at Sacramento City College, who survived the spring 2020 semester

Thank God, for the social media post written
by some teacher as despairing as I who said,
It’s not teaching; it’s damage control.
To which I hollered at the screen,
No shit, Sherlock! and which, under other circumstances,
might have helped but now, no soap.
Which is, I realize, a reference to money, not soap.

Though, really—soap? Forget the stores bereft of
hand sanitizer, toilet paper, soup, pasta, meat
and, in the first week of quarantine, all frozen food.
Soap is the answer, they say. Soap is the savior,
liberally applied to hands (don’t forget between
the fingers) under warm water, two minutes
of serious washing… and did we not know how
to properly wash hands before? Did we need
instructional videos?

But I digress.

What I need are students to reappear, those who’ve
vanished into hibernation, which we should all be
emerging from now that it’s trying to be spring.
But from what I read on social media that they’re
terrifiedjoblesspanickedstoppedintheirtrackshopeless.
As they should be. They’ve had their young worlds
upended—as yes, we all have, every bloody bit of humanity
on the planet—but they have no spare tires around
their middles to carry them through crisis. They are
flailing in deep water, using every stroke they know to
stay afloat. (As am I with overwrought metaphors.)

As am I, reaching into the void of cyberspace to
try to find them, engage them, assure them that they’ll
pass, just finish these assignments, I’m not giving new
ones, hang in there, keep going. And occasionally my
radar pings—a response!—to reveal a plaintive
email from a student struggling not with classwork
but a recent breakup on top of an aborted semester
and a worldwide pandemic, asking the unanswerable:

Will everything be OK? How do I go on?

And somewhere, deep in my own despair over
the ending of what I recognize as my insulated
bubble of a world, I reach inside my beating-too-fast
heart and let words spill through my typing fingers:

You’re already OK. You really are.
You’re breathing and walking around.
You’re already strong and successful.
You’ll be even more so with every year.
Love will come again. 

And then—after I send my long-winded response,
along with the video of people in isolation singing
“You’ve Got a Friend”—I worry that it sounds trite,
something a grandma might send in a cheesy
birthday card. But she writes back, says she’s
lifted by it all, and I can breathe again.

But I digress. Which, as another student
who briefly surfaced said, was new to her.
I never knew what digress meant, she wrote.
I just liked the sound of it. You used it in class
and I looked it up and now I know.

So there. Amid my floundering damage control
I taught one person something useful and
helped another find a bit of hope in darkness.
It helps, a little.

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Everything I know about being afraid*

Sara-protest

Demonstrators in downtown Sacramento May 31 protest the death of George Floyd six days earlier. (Photo by Sara Nevis/saccityexpress.com)

For my students of color on the front lines, June 2020

It’s not the fear itself I fear.
I’m afraid that I won’t listen well enough
to hear your hearts, to have patience
as you tell me what is it to be you in this moment,
to hurt and rage in a world that doesn’t see you
for you, doesn’t value you for you
as I hope I do. As I hope you know I do.

I hope I have told you how much the world
needs your voice, your perspective, stories
only you can tell—even when you’re telling
the stories of others. I hope I have told you
I see you, value you, appreciate your goodness,
your compassion, your determination.

You, marching for the first time,
you, carrying a sign with aching arms,
you, hoarsely shouting in cadence with others,
lending your voice, your heart to a cause
many of us hoped would no longer require
your participation. But it does. It calls you
as it has called others for generations.

And your righteous anger is more than
a loud outcry. It is right—right now.
I am not afraid to say that.

But I am afraid for you. I want to put my
old white lady teacher body between you
and anyone, any group of ones, who might hurl
wordsrocksteargasracismmysogonyhate
rubberbulletsflashbangs and any manner
of harm at you.

Because you are the face of what the world
is dying to become—the old order on the way out,
the new one laboring to be born. It is a long,
bloody struggle, 400 years of trying to be embraced
as worthy, as equal, in this experiment of democracy
for some, still not for all.

Fear, that insistent teacher, whispers
that this will never end, though I will,
that you will not see a day when you can
live in the world unafraid.

But, it seems to me, you have taken fear
by the hand, marching daily into the fray
with it tagging along like a reluctant little
sister/brother. You do not cast it aside,
nor do you let it lead.

You give me hope—
you, recording this moment in history,
you, with signs and allies of many colors
on the front lines.

You, the steadfast, the wholehearted,
you, fists raised, voices lifted,
you, the mighty calling for justice,
you, whose strength is going to
—please, God—
transform us all.

*The title comes from a line by poet/essayist Audre Lorde from “A Burst of Light: And Other Essays,” a series of diary entries.

 

 

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Liftoff

Dr Steve Simmons ladder

Steve Simmons in rural Merced, California, checking a nest in 2010

For Dr. Steve Simmons
Sept. 14, 1941–June 1, 2020

2009 2122

Daughter Deanne helps her dad

You have been trying to depart for days,
propped up in a strange bed in the living room
that no longer looks like home, except for
loved ones, both two- and four-footed,
who wander in and out—

as you do, trying to find breath, release,
as images swarm behind your closed eyes
like bees leaving the hive or birds departing
their boxed nests, the ones you tended
for decades, hauling the gangly ladder
through pastures, propping it next to tall poles,
climbing up, peering into your handmade artificial
nests, counting, retrieving, banding young ones,
making notes, moving on to the next.

2008 4214 kestrel fledge

Dr. Steve bands a kestrel fledge, 2008

And now, on final approach to the great liftoff,
you cannot summon the strength to shake out
damp appendages, flap hard and ascend,
though, like the nestlings, you try.
Haven’t you been growing wings all along?
Hasn’t this lifetime with feathered beings
prepared you for flight?

You have no thought when it happens:
In the right moment, your chest bursts open
to a heartbeat of flapping feathers,
a wood duck readying for exodus.
Now all you must do is rise, glide, soar,
wing your way into what comes next,
focusing only on the clear blue of up.

2010 2953 kestrel flies

Releasing a kestrel, 2010 (Photos by Dick Schmidt)

 

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Annie’s 11th birthday

Annie Ariel

Annie and Ariel (Photos by Uncle Dick Schmidt)

Every time I see this kid, she’s taller. All of 4-feet-8, her mother says, as Annie outgrows another wheelchair. On her 11th birthday, Annie is a picture of a healthy, happy kid, with snazzy nails painted in alternating colors of pink and purple because this girl loves pink and having her nails done. Her coal black hair is pulled into a sleek ponytail, which bounces as her mother wheels her over bumps to a lone picnic table at Ancil Hoffman Park for cupcakes and presents.

Uncle Dick and I were two of three grownups and one baby invited to an outdoor celebration at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend to celebrate this child who continues to amaze everyone she meets with her fortitude, bright mind and killer smile.

If you don’t know the story of how Annie and Nikki Cardoza became a two-person family, you can read about that here. Nikki asked me to accompany her to China in June 2016 to bring home a child Nikki had met years earlier when Nikki had volunteered at orphanages in China. She was adopting Annie and needed an extra hand—in every way—with a child who was thought to be 7, though no one had any idea of her actual birthday.

HBD cupcakeFor on May 22, 2010, a skinny, infant curved in a backward U shape was found under an overpass in Changsha, China. She was taken to Butterfly House, a children’s hospice in the city, where, against all odds of survival, this starving child with cerebral palsy, was nursed and loved back to life. She was given the age of 1, as well as her Chinese name Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon) and her English name, Annie.

On June 20, 2016, Annie became the daughter of my friend, Nicole Cardoza, and their life adventure together began. As they approach their fourth anniversary together, they, too, have been sheltering in place for two months, as Annie attends school and does work online and Nikki, who works for the literacy nonprofit 916 Ink, works from home.

Annie, who cannot sit up by herself, walk, speak or take food by mouth, is a smart girl with amazing expressive capabilities—among them a communication board that looks like an iPad attached to her wheelchair. She looks at and can land on dozens of words and phrases to have the computer say “thank you” or “sleepy” or, yes, “happy birthday.” communications boardShe’d just had speech therapy earlier in the day, and it takes a lot of energy to communicate this way, so we didn’t hear a lot of words in the computer’s girlish voice. But Annie’s grin does a lot of talking because, as the song from the musical bearing her name says, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

And, when Nikki asked Annie whether to have cupcakes or presents first, Annie exhaled her “ha” (“yes!”) to “presents.” Smart girl.

Annie says yes-0687cr

Annie says “yes!” to presents.

Nikki invited Dick and me to the tiny gathering, along with her good friend Mari and her daughter Montserrat. Nikki and Mari met as journalism students at Sac State after Nikki returned from China and finished a bachelor’s degree in government.

Annie Nikki Marie baby

Revealing a new mermaid bathing suit and orange coverup for Annie as friends Mari and Montserrat (on her mom’s shoulders) look on.

And when I posted some photos on Facebook about her birthday, Annie got love and best wishes from around the world. From Anne and John Macpherson, who then lived in Hong Kong (now returned to their native New Zealand) and hosted us in their compact apartment: “Happy Birthday beautiful Annie. You have bought so much happiness and joy and I hope your birthday brings the same to you!”

Annie whale-0721cr

The gift of Bailey—a beluga whale who temporarily loses echolocation due to a concussion in the movie “Finding Dory”—prompted Nikki to say, “It’s all about echoloCATION!”

And from Lyn Gould in England, the R.N. and founder of Butterfly House hospice in Changsha that saved Annie: “Happy birthday dear Annie, so joyful to see you being blessed with family, friends and LOVE. You are such a blessing to so many — you do my heart good XXXX.”

So many people who’ve followed Annie’s story sent best wishes, too, and I’m grateful to all of them. This kid is beloved by those who know her and by so many who don’t, as is her mama, who is the very definition of fortitude and determination. It’s not easy to be a single parent to a kid with disabilities, and Nikki perseveres over tremendous obstacles every day.

Jan Dick Nikki Annie

Uncle Dick, Aunt Jan, Nikki and Annie (photo by Mari)

After presents, we turned to cupcakes. It turned out that no one had to worry about the possibly germy effects of blowing out candles on Nikki’s homemade cupcakes (nicely topped by two single candles that look like 11). It was breezy enough that we had to surround Annie so Nikki could light them, and then, as we finished singing “Happy Birthday,” the wind neatly extinguished the candles.

And though Annie has trouble swallowing and is fed differently, she can mouth some soft things—Popsicles are a favorite. So, it turns out, are cupcakes.

Annie NIkki cupcake-1045cr

It took her a little while (I stood next to her, eating my cupcake and showing her my goopy tongue moving… don’t make the kid laugh while she’s eating, Aunt Jan), but Annie used her tongue to masticate that sweet stuff and swallowed it just fine. Yay!

Annie cupcakes-0998cr

Dick and I are delighted to continue to be a part of Nikki’s and Annie’s extended family. This little spring celebration of the life of one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, who has survived so much and keeps on keepin’ on, left us feeling hopeful even in these most difficult days. Like all of us, Annie misses her friends at school and Nikki misses her work colleagues, but we’re here. We’re persevering, too, and celebrating the little milestones of life, grateful for every one.

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Clifford

eCP-copy studio

This guy would’ve been 68 years old today, and I can’t quite wrap my head around that… nor the fact that he died 19 years ago.

I’m still grateful to you, Clifford Ernest Polland, “my photographer,” for following me around on assignments, for loving me, marrying me, continuing to love me even during the years we lived apart—and remaining, from beginning to end, first and foremost, my friend and now companion spirit.

You often come to me in dreams where I find you knee high in a stream, rod in hand, whipping line and leader overhead in a graceful 10-2 arc, letting the fly land lightly on the water’s surface. And you turn and grin at me, standing on the shore, with a “Heya, Toots.”

And I awaken, knowing we’ve just had a visit, you on your side of the veil, me on mine.

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