Passing the stick

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Tunnels Beach, with Mt. Makana in the background. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

For nearly three weeks we have ensconced ourselves on one of our favorite tropical islands (Kauai), which is every bit as lovely as it sounds. I could have, and perhaps should have, written a blog post every day about something amazing, but I chose to use my days toodling around the island with Dick and my late evenings to sit with my laptop and work on a revision of a novel I wrote in pieces a few years ago. It’s been sitting in a first-draft form (resting, I tell people), waiting patiently for me to get back to it.

Now I have gotten back to it, and I’m pleased to say that I feel that it’s a better second draft. It’s at that point where I can have a few trusted folks read it and tell me what they think needs fixing. I have learned over many years that showing a long work to others before you’re ready for the feedback can utterly paralyze you. I have a bunch of talented, kind, thoughtful writer/editor people around me who will also be sure to tell me what they like and what’s working about this novel. And we need to know that, too. Because every creative person I know, including me, gets fixated on the what’s-not-working stuff. We have to be reminded about the stuff that’s actually pretty good.

Technically, I’ve spent more than evening laptop time working on this novel. Mornings and evenings for two weeks on the lovely north shore of Kauai I went for walks on the beach, often alone, on purpose. Feet on warm sand, in warm water, bending frequently to pick up interesting bits of shells and flotsam on the beach (I assembled quite the collection of trash plastic bits)—this allows my mind to wander and the fictional characters who feel like real people to me to show up and interact in my head. Sometimes they talk to me about what needs to be tweaked or added or deleted. (I love it when a character convinces me that I don’t need a bit of dialogue or a whole scene. Characters as editors—brilliant!)

In other words, it all counts as creative time, even when it looks as if you’re wandering absentmindedly on a beach. Which you are. And some of your friends on social media may have gotten a teensy bit irritated by one more picture of your feet in the sand or that same goddamned lovely mountain or sparkling sea. They go about living their everyday lives with their job and kids and daily grind in a colder place, and you faintly realize that they do not need to see your happy place one more time.

(You post a photo of a particularly nasty-looking sky, charcoal rain streaking vertically toward the horizon so they don’t get the idea that every day is perfect in paradise. You remind people that you spent a good 24 hours without power after a horrendous rainstorm closed a bridge and had you trapped in your hideaway. You had plenty of food and a charged-up laptop so you could work, but still…)

But the truth is… it is pretty perfect. Because you have stepped away from your everyday life this whole semester. You have earned the gift of a paid leave of absence, and you are using this time, by God, to Do Stuff You’ve Long Wanted to Do. Sleeping in. Reading a lot. Starting a publishing company with friends and publish an amazing memoir. Spending three weeks traveling (and working on your book) on Vancouver Island. Taking small trips. Forgetting about college students and advising their publications and grading. For six whole months.

It’s pretty darn sweet. And there’s not much of this precious time left. School begins again for you mid-January, and next week, after you return home, you’re gonna have to go back to Your World and start to dig in again. But not without telling a story or two about your travels.

(Enough second person; switching back to first person, something I tell my students not to do in their writing… I am flouting the rules as if I’d never learned ’em. Yeah, baby!)

So as we neared the end of our fortnight on the north shore, one of the things Dick wanted to do was to hike up a bit of the deeply eroded, often slippery, always rocky Kalalau Trail at the end of the road at Ke’e Beach. A quarter mile into the trail is an overlook of Ke’e, which, in the right light, can look postcard fantastic.

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Ke’e Beach from the Kalalau Trail. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I should say here that in his younger life Dick Schmidt was an ace hiker, taking on vigorous, difficult Sierra Club hikes in Hawaii, often carrying a lead-lined camera bag to protect his equipment. He and his late wife, Mary Lou Mangold Schmidt, long ago hiked the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail to a beach with the musical name of Hanakapiai (hah-nah-kah-pee-i), where Dick got some memorable photos of clothing-optional young people emerging from the surf. (But officials quickly tell you that there are no legal nude beaches in Hawaii.) They did not hike the whole 11 miles to the remote Kalalau Valley, which requires permits and at least one overnight. It is a bugger of a trip, not for the faint-hearted or out of shape. Or us.

Older and wiser and having fallen more than a few times, Dick and I are both extremely careful about tricky footing. It had rained a lot in the two weeks we were on the north shore, which can make the footing on the Kalalau Trail precarious. But we decided to try it, taking along a hiking stick provided by our hosts.

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Jan climbing the Kalalau Trail. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

The trail was reasonably dry, except for a couple of places, and at one point, watching me slowly make my way up the trail between rocks and roots, a kind woman on her way down the trail handed me her walking stick. I used it to steady myself, and before long, we were (puff, puff) at the quarter-mile mark (there’s actually a sign there) with the wowie-zowie view of Ke’e Beach.

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The bamboo stick woman. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

As we stood there photographing and marveling, a young couple carrying hefty backpacks clearly on their way back down the trail joined us. We chatted, and it turned out they’d hiked all 11 difficult miles in to the remote Kalalau Valley and spent three nights camping there (you need permits well in advance to do this). Dick and I were impressed, especially after they told us they’d hiked in as the weather worsened and remained quite stormy for their first night and day.

“People were hiking out in terrible conditions,” the woman told us. “We decided to stay put, and the weather got better.”

So there they were, taking in the same view we were, this hardy couple, the woman with support bandages around both of her knees, her hand firmly clamped around a nice bamboo pole she’d obviously used for support. People often pick up hiking sticks along the trail or pass them to other hikers. Mud streaked her legs and his; they’d earned a good, long soak in a hot tub. I hoped they were on their way to find one.

We exchanged our “aloha”s, and they left, and we made our way down the trail using our poles much more slowly—going down always offers more opportunities to slip and fall, it seems, than going up. And when we got to the bottom of the trail, we felt rather accomplished for a couple of older duffers. I took a photo of Dick under the Kalalau Trail sign, and we felt relieved that we’d gotten up and down this small distance unscathed.

As we turned to walk to the beach, I saw, leaning against a rock, two walking sticks. It was clearly a place where hikers left them behind for others to use. One, to my surprise, was the sturdy bamboo pole I was pretty sure was in the hand of the woman who’d talk to us at the overlook. I already had the stick given to me by another woman who thought I could use it (she was right), and now here was this other stick.

I should say that I love bamboo. We have friends on Maui who live on land surrounded by bamboo and bananas. They share the bananas with us when we visit, and I’ve long wanted to ask them to cut me a bamboo pole of good size, but I never have. There’s something about the feeling of bamboo in the hand that feels smooth and satisfying. Hula dancers sometimes use split bamboo sticks called pu’ili as they dance, hitting them together to make a nice sound.

I knew I needed this stick, the one that had taken this woman to Kalalau Valley and back. I didn’t need it—we were no longer hiking, and I had no idea how to get the bamboo home—but I knew, as soon as its smooth circumference met my palm, that there was something in this stick for me. The Hawaiians often talk about mana—the life energy that flows through everything, a divine power. And I felt it in this piece of bamboo that had traveled, for all I knew, the whole Kalalau Trail with this young woman with the two bandaged knees. Mana also means spiritual power and strength. This woman had mana, and here it was for me in a long bamboo pole.

“You’re taking that one?” Dick said.

“Yes,” I said. “I need this stick.”

It sounded funny, but Dick has known me a long time and has shipped many odd things home from Hawaii for me, the oddest of which was a partial cow skull and jawbone from Maui.

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Dick with the shipping box for the bamboo stick. (Photo by Jan Haag)

We took the stick with us. And, great guy that he is (as well as the founder of Schmidty’s Shitty Shipping Service for close friends and family), Dick crafted a mailing tube out of two triangular post office mailers to send the bamboo home for me.

No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but this piece of Kauaiian bamboo will have a place of honor somewhere in my home and my life. It represents the spirit of this place, of a woman I spoke to briefly in an exchange that, in the moment, seemed like nothing. But it’s never nothing, these “chance” meetings.

Before Dick packed up the bamboo stick, I wrote on it in Sharpie:

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The bamboo stick. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

Somehow (I don’t quite know how) this ties in with the creative work I’ve done here on a novel set in Sacramento in the 1950s and 1970s. How this fits together is a mystery, but then, so is pretty much this whole process of life. The world swirls around us, often is too much with us, and we get caught up in events that are not of our making halfway around the world. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be socially conscious people, but worrying and fussing about most things does not help us or the planet. I try to remember this, as it’s been attributed to Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things in the world, only small things with great love.”

A stranger left a piece of bamboo behind on a trail, and I picked it up and felt empowered. Small thing. Great love, indeed.

 

 

 

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Ascended masters in the back yard

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St. Francis

On a hazy October afternoon
that smells faintly of fall and fires
raging less than a hundred miles away
I step into my back yard and take up
my small-bore hose—

because there’s still no rain,
though we’re all praying for it,
because thousands of acres
and hundreds of homes and
as of today 41 people have died
in the partially “contained”
infernos—

because here in the stillness
the last of summer’s growth
and tired blooms flop like
lazy-headed children barely able
to keep their eyes open.

I hold the nozzle gently,
murmur as I water, somewhere
between talking to myself and praying,
and I cannot miss the way the peachy
light caresses the face of Quan Yin
atop her pedestal, how the purple
lantana twines around the Buddha.

Hose trailing, I move to the greenery
by the fence—there’s St. Francis
with his sweet, chipped nose
wreathed in ferns, and on the deck
beneath the begonia’s umbrella
leaf, Mary, her head bowed.

And I am grateful to be surrounded
by such ascended masters, whose
meditations and prayers guide
my own, and above the fine mist,
my lips move and my chest opens
to the suffering, my lungs taking it in
and letting it out,

one heartfelt breath at a time.

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The Buddha

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Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion

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This lovely Mary belonged to Jerri Richards, the late mother of my dear friends Curtis Richards and Judy Chronister, brother and sister. I am honored to be her caretaker.

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With a little help from my friends

This is my friend Lisa Morgan, the cutie in pink.

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Lisa and Jan through the rear window of the 356.

Lisa and I have been buddies since our high school band days. We met as freshmen in the marching band. She was the tiniest flutist; I was the klutzy girl drummer. And by the time we were seniors, she was the editor of the yearbook; I was the editor of the newspaper. To say that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. Here’s the important part: We’re there for each other in that special way that longtime friends are: through sickness and in health, through death and Porsches.

When my husband Cliff died in 2001, it was Lisa who saw the neatly arranged pieces of a classic Porsche engine on the dining room floor and knew what to do with them. She’s been a car girl since birth, thanks to her father’s and brother’s love of cars. Cliff was in the process of slowly restoring a 1958 Porsche 356A, and he was preparing to reassemble the engine when he died.

Honestly, that day, I didn’t know which was worse: a husband who had died in his handmade Stickley reproduction recliner in the living room, or all the engine parts on the dining room floor. I didn’t know what to do with either one. What I learned was that when big crises happen, angels appear—one in the form of a coroner who so very kindly helped with the husband, and the other in the form of my friend Lisa, who not only named most of the engine parts but also knew what to do with them.

“We’ll take them to Stuart,” she said.

Stuart Morgan is Lisa’s brother, three years younger than we are (and a former trumpet player in the band, by the way), who grew up to be a civilian engineer who works for the Navy in San Diego. Stuart has been tearing things apart and putting them back together since boyhood, and Lisa knew that an old Porsche engine (which is not far from a Volkswagen Bug engine of the same era) was right up his alley. This man tackles gigantic challenges about ships and submarines in his day job; working on cars is great fun for him.

A few months after Cliff died, Lisa and I put all the engine parts in the back of Cliff’s red pickup and drove them to San Diego. Poor Stuart had no idea that he was getting into a long-term relationship with this car and me, but because this is the kind of guy he is, and despite his full-time job and other obligations, he had that engine assembled and running on his workbench in less than a year. And that’s where it’s lived all these years (16 and a half, if you’re counting). The body of the Porsche and all its interior parts have lived in my garage all this time.

I had the idea that I’d find someone to unite engine and body and get the Porsche on the road. A friend, Scott Lorenzo, painted the body a lovely inside-of-banana cream for me. Other people gave me advice, but I never pulled a team together. I always thought Stuart should have the whole car—I figured we were co-parents living in different cities. Earlier this year I said to Stuart, “It’s time. Come get it and take it to your place.” The only reason he hadn’t done so sooner was because he didn’t have a place for the car. Stuart rejiggered some of his four-wheeled friends and one airplane, and we set a date for him to take the 356 home.

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Uncovering the 356 in the garage.

Before departure day came, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about all this. I did what I often do: I checked in with Cliff about it. I’ve called him my companion spirit since he died, and he periodically makes appearances—sometimes I smell him when I walk in the house; sometimes I hear him in my head. In the days before Stuart arrived, I was pulling things out of the garage to make room for us to move around, and I said aloud, “This is good, right? It’s time.” And I got nothing. “Clifford?” I tried. Zilch.

I hate when I can’t reach him. I’ve never learned the area code for heaven.

 

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Pushing the old girl onto the driveway. (The car, that is.)

I figured it had to be OK. I was finally ready to let this car go. On the appointed day my partner Dick showed up ready to help and (as he so kindly does) to photograph the operation. Lisa and her partner Mick arrived, and soon after came Stuart driving a massive rental truck and car trailer. He parked it across the street in a kind neighbor’s driveway, and he and I together went to the garage to peel off three layers of car covers and old quilt that had swaddled the 356 for years. Stuart and I walked around the naked body missing its innards and eyes and engine, touching it gently. Then he, Mick and I slooooowly pushed it onto my driveway for the last time.

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A man and his compressor ready for tires.

Stuart put more air in the tires and got out a new winch to coax the old girl onto the trailer.

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Lisa, Mick and I put our backs into it to help a bit, though, truthfully, Stuart was doing all the heavy winching.

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Finally it was on the trailer, and we started loading the truck with innards—seats and windows and carpet and headliner—and outtards—headlights, bumpers and more.

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I thought about how long it had taken us to get to this point, about the fact that we are all 16 and a half years older now than when we started this collaboration. And when I started to silently bemoan that fact, I reminded myself that the man who started this project died when he was 48 years old. We who are left are all older than that now—which means that, yes, we are aging faster than we like—but we got more time on the planet than Cliff, who, I know without a doubt, desperately wanted more. Our job is to be grateful for this time, in this place, together.

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A truck waiting for car parts to fill it. (And the man who filled it.)

Part of me feels as if I failed Cliff (in more ways than I can count), especially where the 356 is concerned. I never did complete this project. But, I told myself, walking back to the garage to get another armload of stuff (and maybe channeling a little Walter Cronkite), that’s the way it is. “I am so sloooooow,” I thought, not for the first time.

And that’s when I heard in my head: “It takes as long as it takes, Toots.”

I know that voice. (It’s not Walter Cronkite.) That voice of the man I married in 1983 comes to me in dreams, and I awaken sometimes knowing that we’ve been together, doing heaven only knows what, and I smile because he’s made an appearance. The companion spirit is alive and well in my life, and he is in death what he was in life—one of my biggest cheerleaders, a nonjudgmental supporter, one of my biggest fans.

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Stuart and me… and Porsche innards.

“I’m letting the car go to Stuart,” I said aloud, standing in the garage, looking at the sign on the back wall that reads, “Reserved for Cliff’s Porsche.” (That’s staying.) I looked at my right ring finger, at the thin band with the word “Clifford” etched into it. “It’s his now.”

And I got a lump in my throat at the same time the word ping-ponged around my head, “Yes.”

I gave Stuart the fat file folder with Porsche stuff we’d collected over the years, and Lisa said, “Keys!” (which I’d forgotten but went to fetch). And when I handed Stuart the little key collection with its masking tape bearing Cliff’s handwriting—”Porsche”—I felt an even bigger “yes,” the kind that comes when letting go to the right person is absolutely the right thing.

It takes as long as it takes sometimes—with a little help from my friends. How lovely is that?

Photos by Dick Schmidt (thanks, Dickie!)

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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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His-shuk-nish-tsa-waak

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.

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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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