Kokua

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Bust of Father (now Saint) Damien in St. Philomena, the church he built at Kalawao on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

We went to serve, as thousands of people have done, the patients of Kalaupapa. Though there are only ten Hansen’s Disease patients left of the 7,600 banished to this isolated peninsula on the island of Moloka’i, we went as kokua (helpers) to do the most ordinary chores for the National Park Service, which oversees some of the most sacred ground in the United States.

This is a place where, for 103 years, people with what is more commonly known as leprosy, were sent if they were so much as suspected of having the disease. And it is where kokua—family members, priests, nuns, ministers and other religious folks, medical people and others—served the patients, who were segregated from society in great act of social injustice.

A dozen of us flew into Kalaupapa on a rainy morning in May, all of us Sierra Club members from across the country. Dick and I have participated in two other Sierra Club service trips to Kalaupapa—the first in 2002 and in 2012. We probably wouldn’t have done another one (it’s breathtakingly expensive—about $300 a day person for the most modest accommodations you can imagine in Hawaii, but it includes food and air transport in and out of the peninsula), except that Lynne Simpson was leading what was likely to be her last service trip.

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Lynne and Ray Simpson, Kalaupapa, 2002

 Lynne and her late husband Ray Simpson were the ones who in 1970 led a Sierra Club hiking/camping outing to Kauai and Moloka’i that Dick and his late wife Mary Lou went on. They and other participants were among the first groups to be allowed to hike into Kaluapapa from topside Moloka’i, as it’s called. 

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Lynne Simpson and Dick Schmidt at the grave of Richard Marks, who first toured them around Kalaupapa in 1970 and on many visits thereafter.

On that first visit the hikers were toured around the peninsula in a beat-up stretch limo by Richard Marks, former patient and sheriff of Kalaupapa. Dick and Lynne would see Mr. Marks as they came to visit over the decades, and it became clear that he was one of the patients who made it possible for more visitors to come to the peninsula. It was off limits to most people until 1969, when the patients (who’d had their Hansen’s Disease arrested with drugs beginning in the 1950s and were no longer contagious) rose up in their own small civil rights movement. They demanded that they be free to come and go from Kalaupapa like any other American citizens. This was not met happily by the state health department, but the patients eventually prevailed, and they were finally granted their freedom in 1969. There are only 10 of them left now.

The deal was that they could live at Kalaupapa or come and go for the rest of their lives. In 1980 a deal was struck with the National Park Service to put Kalaupapa under the jurisdiction of the NPS to prevent it from being developed. The story goes that the patients couldn’t bear to imagine their beloved and beautiful peninsula developed into condos, and the national parks people would protect it. Besides, the place is still very hard to access. It’s at the base of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, some 1,500 to 3,000 feet tall. You can only get there by hiking down a very steep trail or, if you’re a tourist, you can be part of a mule ride that takes visitors down a few days a week for an afternoon tour. Or you can fly in on a small plane.

But the peninsula is largely inaccessible by boat (the seas are too rough), and a huge barge comes once a summer with items like cars and refrigerators and other large items. It takes away dead versions of those items, too. Food and mail are flown in several times a week, which is how we arrived in Kalaupapa, too.

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Richard, George, Jeff and Dick carting out nonnative plants removed from the cemetery.

It’s been 48 years since Dick and Lynne first hiked into Kalaupapa, and 50 years that Lynne has been leading Sierra Club outings. Dick is 75 this year and Lynne turned 80 a few days before arriving in Kalaupapa. In my humble opinion, neither of them should be doing major physical labor any more. But these people are troopers, and they dove in with great spirit and not a little muscle. I watched them both, wondering if this might be the last time they might go to Kalaupapa to, frankly, schlepp for the park service. That’s still the only way outsiders can stay on the peninsula, by the way—to be invited as the guest of someone who lives or works there or be part of a volunteer group. On our trip a dozen hard-working volunteers had come to do chores—and Dick and I were deeply impressed by the dedication and sweat exerted by these folks, doing, among other things, removal of trash and detritus that floats in to the beaches and lopping and pulling out nonnative plants at the edge of one of the cemeteries.

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Lynne weeding around her favorite gravesite.

I say “one of” because approximately 7,600 people lived and died at Kalaupapa and are buried there in a number of cemeteries, though only about 1,000 of them lie in marked graves. Every inch of that peninsula is sacred ground. So it was with great respect, reverence and appreciation that we returned to Kalaupapa.

This is the place that gave the world two saints—Father Damien, who arrived in 1873 to care for the lepers, and Mother Marianne, who brought six nuns with her in late 1888 to care for the ailing Damien, the only religious kokua (Hawaiian for “helper” or “helping”) who came to the peninsula who contracted the disease and died of it. It turns out that you have to have a genetic predisposition for Hansen’s Disease; only 5% of the population is susceptible to the disease.

But the Hawaiians were highly susceptible, as they were to pretty much every disease brought by white people. They died in droves of things like measles and the flu. Leprosy must have seemed tailor-made to attack their vulnerable immune systems, and people lived in fear of mai pake (the separating sickness) because if they got sick or were even thought to have the disease, it meant lifetime banishment. Most people sent to the peninsula never saw their families or friends again.

But the patients of Kalaupapa became each other’s family and friends. Many of them lived for years; the disease didn’t necessarily kill people quickly. They married each other and had children, though after 1909, the children were taken from the parents to be raised by family members or put in foster care, hoping to prevent them from acquiring leprosy.

It must have been excruciating for women to give birth and not be allowed to hold their children, much less nurse them, to have them immediately taken away. To this day, children under 16 are not allowed at Kalaupapa since so many patients had theirs taken away.

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End of the day, Kalaupapa, looking toward Paschoal Hall and the pali (cliffs).

One of the many lovely things about Hawaiians is that they have a system called hanai in which relatives or friends raise other people’s kids. This was often done in the old days if people had many children and needed help, or to give people who couldn’t have kids a way to raise some. It wasn’t as if the kids didn’t know who their birth parents were—they generally did. The Hawaiians were and still are great examples of “it takes a village to raise a child.”

And, once people’s kids were over 16, they were allowed to come visit their folks at Kalaupapa, though they still were not allowed anything resembling physical contact. For decades the “healthy” were separated from the “sick” in long buildings with screens across the middle. One of those visitation buildings still exists to show how segregated people were, though the screens have been taken down, along with most of the fences that separated patients and kokua (as signs on one of the public restrooms still read).

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Ryan in the visiting station, which used to have a screen down the center of the long table, explaining how visitors were separated from patients.

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Nurses’ quarters, Kalaupapa

We stayed this time in the only building, the nurses’ quarters, which still has a symbolic picket fence around it. Our room in the single-walled building (i.e., no insulation, including heat or air conditioning) had two twin beds and a small table between them, a tall dresser, a closet with hangars and a shared bathroom. The last time we were there, we stayed in another building without anything like a dresser, hangars or table. Things have improved in the visitors’ quarters!

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Our room in the nurses’ quarters

We arrived at the little airport in a downpour and learned from our host, biologist Paul Hosten, that it had been raining pretty much constantly for a month at Kalaupapa. He had a schedule of things he wanted us to do, all of which were outdoors and not do-able in heavy rain. He put some of us to work the first day sweeping and mopping the social hall where a major meeting was to take place the next day.

The second day, more rain. But the bonus for us on those first two days was that we got to do things not on Paul’s list, such as take an excellent guided tour of the peninsula by Ryan Poland of Damien Tours, founded by Richard Marks and his wife, Gloria. 

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Ryan Poland of Damien Tours at Saint Marianne’s gravesite.

Finally, on the third day, the sun came out, the mist cleared over the pali (cliffs) and we had a unique tour from Valerie Monson of Ka’ Ohana o’ Kalaupapa, an amazing nonprofit organization that helps descendants of patients find their ancestors’ graves. One of our leaders, Gloria Amaral, has an ancestor, John Santos, buried in Papaloa cemetery, which looks out on a glorious stretch of beach. Valerie arrived at Kalaupapa just to show Gloria the site of her ancestor’s grave, and, as a bonus gave our group a wonderful tour of the cemetery and later a great Powerpoint presentation about the work of the Ohana.

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Gloria Amaral at the grave of John Santos, her ancestor buried at Kalaupapa. Behind her are Lynne and Liz Simpson.

After our cemetery tour we went to work (finally!) doing beach clean-up just behind the cemetery, where we got to see three mama monk seals, which are endangered, with their new babies on shore and playing in the shallow waters. Kalaupapa is a prime spot for mothers and new babies—while we were there, three pairs of mothers and babies as well as a lone male monk seal were regularly beaching themselves for snoozes.

After lunch we visited with the two nuns of St. Francis, Sister Barbara Jean and Sister Alicia Damien, who are the spiritual descendants of Mother Marianne and the first nuns who came in 1888 to Kalaupapa to care for the ailing Father Damien and set up a school for girls. They had us for tea and coffee at the Bishop Home, which Mother Marianne and the first sisters set up as a home for girls. We were honored to hear the stories of the former sisters from the current sisters, who volunteer in a variety of capacities at Kalaupapa.

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Sister Alicia Damien (left) and Sister Barbara Jean give us a tour of the Bishop Home at Kalaupapa, founded by Mother Marianne.

We also got a great tour of the museum from curator Julia Aleszczyk where so much history of the settlement is kept. This is Julia with paintings by patients Elaine Remigio (the kitty) and Ed Kato (the Kalawao landscape).

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From old wheelchairs to plaster casts of patients’ crippled feet to tools adapted for use by people who had lost fingers, Julia pulled out drawer after drawer to show us the artifacts of the place. I was tickled to see a couple of Dick’s 1970 photos of Richard Marks hanging in the museum with the original wooden cross used on his grave.

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On the fourth day, the 145th anniversary of Damien’s arrival at Kalaupapa, many of us rose in the dark to go to mass at St. Francis Catholic church with the sisters and one patient who regularly attend. But it turned out that there was a relative crowd that morning at St. Francis Church, and we got to sing a special song about St. Damien. We felt honored to be there on that anniversary day, though we were going to have to leave before the big weekend celebration in Damien’s honor.

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After mass and breakfast, we helped clear an area behind that cemetery of non-native plants for Momi Hooper, who is Hawaiian and a park service employee. Her grandmother oversaw a mausoleum on Oahu where ali’i (royalty) are buried. Fittingly, Momi, among her many duties, also tends the cemeteries and does repair on crumbling headstones at Kalaupapa. Like her grandmother, she is kokua to the ancestors.

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Momi Hooper of the NPS talking story during a break in our work day (with George Zweibel looking on).

That afternoon we went out to a more distant beach beyond the airport and the lighthouse with the park’s marine ecologist, Eric Brown, and his intern, Alix, from France, to do more clean up. That beach is far more littered with detritus that washes ashore, and even nine of us working for a couple of hours barely made a dent in the amount of garbage out there, it seemed. Still, we gave it our all. 

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The beach cleanup crew, ecologist Eric Brown, center.

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Alien algae removal

On the fifth day, our last one at Kalaupapa, we again rose in the dark and driven out to a distant tidepool area by dawn to remove “alien algae” with Eric and Alix. (Dick and I went but opted not to go in the slippery pools. We stayed atop the old lava flow, collected trash and took photos of the folks down below.) Some of us were out there longer than planned due to a flat tire on the van that took us out there—more adventure! But Eric saved the day by returning with a pickup truck to retrieve us and returning us to our quarters for a late breakfast (fantastic omelettes by Richard Torrey!) and time to pack and clean up our quarters before we departed.

Once again, the team did a great job—leaders Lynne Simpson, Jan Torrey and Gloria Amaral, along with participants Suzanne Doodan, Christina Fowlks, Roland Fowlks, Jeff Joneson, Liz Simpson, Richard Torrey and George Zweibel. And us, of course.

Late that afternoon, in sunshine, we left Kalaupapa, gazing out the windows of the small plane carrying a bit of the mana, the life energy, of that sacred land.

In our own small way, the dozen of us Sierra Club volunteers performed a bit of kokua at Kalaupapa, and that, more than any kind of vocal appreciation (which we got, too), was our reward.

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Mother Marianne painting at St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa

The thing about Damien and Marianne and all the others who followed them as kokua to patients—whether they were nuns or priests or brothers or pastors or family and friends of the patients—was that they operated from a place, first and foremost, of love and compassion. They couldn’t save these people; they died, eventually, of this disease. But Mother Marianne made lovely dresses for the girls. The children went to school. There was a boys’ band a girls’ choir. They made coffins for them when they died and had meaningful funerals for them.

These kokua loved the patients and encouraged them to love each other for as long as they were on earth. Which, when you think about it, is what we’re all here to do: to live and grow in love.

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The Kalaupapa lighthouse, the tallest in the Pacific

Kalaupapa has been a place of immense suffering and sorrow. But it is also a place of joy and community, and the stories of the people who lived and died there can help the rest of us who walk the path every day between this paradox of life and death. We have to hold the full truth of this reality, but instead of fighting it and staying locked in suffering, we can be willing to look at it differently, to transform the dark side of things. We can’t reconcile this paradox—it’s not solvable. But with patience, humility and forgiveness (especially of ourselves), we can live the two sides of this great mystery. This is grace, which is always available to us, and it (not the suffering) transforms us, often without our knowing it. We look up one day, and we realize we are living this duality more than we are fighting it.

I came away from Kalaupapa reminded that we are here for each other as kokua all the days of our lives. It is one of those small things, as Mother Teresa said, we do with great love, as it has been done in Kalaupapa, a place of great suffering, for more than a century.

This is what we do as humans: We go through the fires of great loss and other suffering. We come out annealed—heated, then cooled, like steel or glass—which softens us and makes us less brittle. We are transformed with grace.

We kokua others as we have been kokua’d.

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Father Damien’s gravesite, Kalawao

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Gradjits

Every year about this time I go to my college’s graduation ceremony—sometimes in cap and gown as a “perfesser,” but more often lately in a maroon Sacramento City College shirt that says “staff” on it. Staff at my college are the folks who keep it all running—in this case, the folks in Admissions and Records who put on commencement ceremonies under the most capable direction of supervisor/guru Kim Goff.

Truth be told, I love getting to be part of the staff more than being a professor in cap and gown because staff folks get to hang out in the gym as the gradjits-to-be file in, looking awkward in their black gowns, clutching their mortarboards like the strange creatures they are (“I have to wear this on my head?!”). We have them sign their name on a long roll of butcher paper that will go in the year’s time capsule. We ask them to sign up to be part of the alumni association (I got this gig this year and loved it) and give them an alumni sticker. (I had to explain to more than a few folks tonight what alumni means… and that it’s Latin for “graduate.” One bright person said, “Shouldn’t it be alumnus, if it’s just me—you know, singular?” I wanted to kiss her and tell her about “alumna” for females but add that “alumnus” works for both genders, too. And then I remembered that the semester’s over; I can stop teaching now.)

One of my favorite parts is looking at the students’ decorated mortarboards. They show up with great things on them:

We have staff who volunteer to help students with those tricky mortarboards:

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And some just tug at an old teacher’s heart:

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And for my nurse friends and family:

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And then there are my own students… who are actually no longer my students. Now they go off to the Big School, as I teasingly call the university, and they fly. They really do. Like this guy, Nick Pecoraro, who has been the Express newspaper’s sports editor this year. He’s a gem, already a pro, heading off to Sac State. He showed up two days ago at our end-of-semester potluck looking like this:

Nick and Lukas

This is Nick with his son Lukas, all of a month old, who joins his mom Becky and sister Olivia (below), as well as his dad in the Pecoraro family. (Are they cute or what?) Because Nick’s a sports guy, I’m used to seeing him in T-shirts and shades and a ubiquitous baseball cap. It’s kinda the uniform.

Becky Jean Pecoraro Olivia and Lukas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, tonight, Nick showed up at graduation looking like this:

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Nick Pecoraro, super sports editor, and Dianne Rose, ace sports shooter

When did he become a grownup, that guy in the baseball cap and baggy shorts? Oh, yeah—he was there all along, as all of them are, growing more capable and competent as journalists, reporters, photographers, simply by the doing of it. We offer them a place to practice, and they (to use an overworked sports metaphor) knock it out of the park.

And the next semester we start over again with a new crop of folks, some of them young, some of them older and returning to school, all of them eager and unsure at the same time, all of them who will improve—like the students before them—by the practice and the doing.

It took me years to learn that I actually teach people very little. They teach themselves what they most need to learn. I facilitate and nudge, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I point out technical things and occasionally hear myself holler, “You can’t do that!” when an ethical issue arises. I am an adviser (AP Style spelling). Most of what I do is advise, even in classes where I’m technically a teacher. I always say I can’t teach people to write or do journalism or take photos. I offer advice and guidance and suggestions, which are not always accepted or taken. And that’s OK, too.

I am also a lifelong student myself. Just today I sat at a computer next to our outgoing editor in chief (thanks, Heather) and had her give me a lesson about something I needed to change on this blog. She showed me how to do what I couldn’t figure out how to do and waited patiently as I fixed it.

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So much of what we do in the world stems from having confidence in ourselves, which is certainly supported by our families and friends and teachers, as well as by staff folks like the volunteers at commencement, every one of us thinking and saying things like:

You rock, 2018 gradjits. Go out there and believe in yourselves. Do even more. We’re proud of you!

————–

Update, July 19, 2018:
Nick Pecoraro is now a sports reporter for the Auburn Journal. So proud of you, Nick! Check out his story at: http://www.auburnjournal.com/article/7/19/18/introducing-our-new-sports-reporter#.W1Ez7RTdunA.facebook

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Resumé

Teaching Experience

Sacramento City College
Professor of Journalism and English, Department Chair of Journalism
1993–present

  • Oversee Journalism Department, including students, scheduling and curriculum, as well as teaching 15 units each semester, including advising student newspaper, The Express (www.saccityexpress.com), and Mainline magazine (also can be viewed at www.saccityexpress.com). Teach style/grammar classes for journalism majors, feature writing, news writing, mass media courses.
  • Co-founded college literary journal, Susurrus, in 1994, and advised it for 17 years.
  • Researched and wrote the history of the college, published as a magazine for the 90th anniversary in 2006 and expanded into book form (Sacramento City College: 100 Years) for the 100th anniversary in 2016.
  • Teach composition and creative writing courses as schedule allows, including a class I created in generative writing, “Writing as a Healing Art”.

Sacramento City College
Adjunct Professor of Journalism
1989–1993

  • Taught a variety of courses, including news and feature writing, as well as co-advising the campus newspaper, The Express.

American River College
Temporary Professor of Journalism
1986–1987

  • Filled in as full-time journalism professor/adviser for one year for a colleague on leave, advising the campus newspaper, The Current, and teaching a full load of journalism courses.

California State University, Sacramento
Adjunct Professor of Journalism
1984–1986

• Taught a variety of journalism courses including lower division and upper division          newswriting to magazine writing to co-advising the student newspaper, The Hornet.

Journalism experience

Editor, Sacramento magazine
1989–1992

  • Produced monthly magazine based in the capital city of California, overseeing an editorial staff, including design editor, managing editor and staff writers, after spending a year as associate editor doing both writing and editing. Trained writers, oversaw interns, helped host annual Best of Sacramento party that accompanied a special issue.

 Reporter, United Press International
1986–1988

  • Reported on the state Capitol, first covering the Senate and then the Assembly, as well as daily press conferences, protests and other news and feature stories for an international wire service.

Staff writer/copy editor, The Sacramento Bee
1983–1985

  • Edited copy for the features section (then called Scene), as well as for entertainment and home and garden sections. Also wrote regular feature stories, profiles and travel pieces for those sections.

Education

1992
Master of Arts degrees in Journalism and English, California State University, Sacramento

1982
Bachelor of Arts degrees in Journalism and English, California State University, Sacramento

Other experience

Amherst Writers & Artists
Instructor/trainer, board member
2005–present

  • Train people to lead writing workshops in this encouraging generative writing method created by Pat Schneider of Amherst, Mass., as outlined in her book, Writing Alone and With Others (Oxford University Press). Serve on AWA board and lead weekly workshops using the method in Sacramento, California.

River Rock Books
Co-publisher
2017–present

  • Small press publisher of memoir, poetry and fiction based in Sacramento, California.

Freelance editor
1990–present

  • Edit book projects from nonfiction to fiction to poetry, including a best-selling series of Hawaiian guidebooks for the past twenty years.

Publications

Journalism
Sacramento magazine, The Sacramento Bee, United Press International, The Sacramento News & Review, Motorland and various travel publications, and more.

Creative writing
Tule Review, Birdland Journal, Pure Slush (forthcoming), Her Heart Poetry, Origami Poems Project, The Fourth River, The Poetry Box, Poems & Plays, as well as pieces in the following anthologies:
Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It (Riverhead Books), The Healing Art of Writing (UC Medical Humanities Consortium), I’ve Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers (Pocket Books), To Fathers: What I’ve Never Said (Story Line Press), Blood on the Page, Sacramento Voices, and An Ear to the Ground (Cune Press).

Poetry book
Companion Spirit, Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2013

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Annie’s spring

Annie drives

Annie drives her mama at Funderland in Sacramento.

One of the things I’m often asked by people who read my posts is, “How’s Annie?” And the answer is pretty much always, “Her usual happy self.” My friend Nikki traveled to China to adopt Annie two summers ago and bring to her “forever home” in Sacramento.

Annie will be 9 in May, and in April she and her mama got a visit from Nikki’s friend Colleen. They met as volunteers in China, and Colleen Joss, who lives in Ottawa. They’re truly besties, though they don’t get to see each other in person often.

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Nikki and Colleen

But Colleen came to Sacramento for a week, and she and Nikki and Annie did a bunch of fun stuff, which yielded some lovely photos, which Nikki is allowing me to share.

First, let me say that going out for Chinese dumplings with Nikki and Colleen yields a lot of wonderful stories from their days traveling around China as young missionaries. Colleen is now married and calls herself the Grand Diva of All Things Domestic at the House of Joss in Ontario, Canada.

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Ready for dumplings!

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Colleen is also the mother of three children, and though I’ve just met her, I can tell that she’s a lot of fun. Clearly, Annie thinks so, too.

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Auntie Colleen reads to Annie.

Among other things, the girls, along with Nikki’s friend Kelly Cunningham and a couple of others, soaked up a bit of NorCal spring with a walk around Table Mountain near Oroville. They enjoyed the seasonal waterfalls and wildflowers and had a great time.

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Annie relaxes on Table Mountain amid the lupine.

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Kelly Cunningham and her canine companion admire one of the seasonal waterfalls at Table Mountain.

But here’s my favorite picture of two friends I love dearly:

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Annie and Nikki, Table Mountain, April 2018

Are those happy smiles or what? So happy to be a part of their journey!

(Thanks to Nikki and Kelly for their great photos!)

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Mandalas

Laurie's mandalas

Laurie’s mandalas

Sometimes life hands you rocks. Sometimes they’re pretty rocks. Sometimes they’re art pieces made by a kind soul so that their heft in the hand is downright healing.

That’s what Laurie Aboudara-Robertson sent me. She’s the women I met while visiting my friend Ursula at the Yountville Veterans Home in late March. (You can see my post about that here.) Laurie made a series of commemorative mandalas, as she calls them (because, really, they’re no longer mere rocks; they’ve been transformed) to honor the people killed March 9 at the veterans home. And the day I visited Ursula, who is the acting director of the veterans home, Laurie and her friend Harrell came to place the final rock—the littlest one for the baby who died in utereo when her mother was killed.

As soon as Laurie got to talking to us about this mandala project, I knew I wanted to ask her to do some healing stones for me, too. She’d done a series of them to honor those killed in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She sold them and sent the proceeds to the Parkland survivors’ fund. And she felt moved to do a similar tribute closer to her home in Napa.

So after I returned home to Sacramento, I found Laurie on Facebook, and we began a conversation about the mandalas. Could she make some for me, too? I’d be happy to buy them, including one of the Parkland commemoratives. Sure, she said, and set to work.

What I didn’t expect was my reaction when they arrived in the mail, three stones with serious heft and a smaller, oblong-ish one with a painted heart for the Parkland folks. I stood in my dining room and took each stone, one at a time, into my cupped palms, and I breathed deeply, closing my eyes.

To be honest, I’ve had trouble sleeping since the veterans home shootings, since the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. This is nothing compared to what Ursula and her team or Stephon Clark’s loved ones are experiencing, but in a smaller way, horrific images have awakened me in the night, making it hard to find peaceful sleep. Maybe it’s because this random, hideous violence has struck close to my heart, deeply affecting a dear friend. Maybe it’s because I, too, am on the verge of taking up a sign and chanting, “Enough is enough.” No one should walk into schools or offices or back yards and shoot people. Of any age, size or color. Ever.

As my mother used to say to my sister and me when we were kids, “No hitting. Anyone. Ever.” We didn’t always comply then, but as far as I know neither of us has struck anyone since we’ve been grownups. My sister didn’t spank her kids, and neither did I when they were in my care, even though we used to tell them that Aunt Jan had “spanking privileges.” We wouldn’t have dreamed of it.

No hitting. No shooting.

I realize that I’ve swung deeply into the camp of advocating for serious gun control. As in saying to people, “Do you really NEED to own that gun/rifle/assault weapon?” I can’t imagine this country banning all forms of firearms; the gun lobby and the second amendment will see to that. But I—who have long disliked guns of all kinds, who was married to a responsible but enthusiastic gun owner who, at the end of his life, had enough weaponry to take out the small town he lived in, had he wanted to—am done with this. Clearly, I’m not alone.

And yes, I know people, love people, who own weapons and who are perfectly responsible gun owners. Some even have permits to carry concealed weapons. But really, people. Something’s got to change. Could it not start by giving up guns you’re not using, just collecting? Could you not release the most deadly ones into responsible hands that could dispose of them properly? Could this be more than a symbolic act, as in the case of people in Florida and Chicago and Baltimore, who walked into police stations and handed over their weapons?

“I could have sold this rifle, but no person needs this,” said one of them named Ben Dickmann in Broward County, Florida.

“I am member of probably the second-most vilified demographic in the country currently (if you didn’t know, I’m a conservative leaning, gun-owning, middle-aged, financially stable white male),” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Within this demographic I’m probably in the minority, but maybe more like me will stand up, because I’m sorry, until my demographic gets behind this, nothing will change.”

So I hold these mandalas in my hands now, and I offer what have become daily wishes/prayers/mantras to end this violence revved up by the emergence of so much bigotry and ignorance and hatred, especially in the last couple of years.

“We are better than this,” I tell my students in my Race and Gender in Media class before we pull out our journals to put our outrage on the page. “This should not even be a concern on a college campus, the possibility that we could be shot or killed. I’m deeply disturbed that I cannot protect you. I hate how vulnerable we are, sitting here in class or walking on this beautiful campus or in the park across the street or any place in our city.”

They nodded. Some of them had things to say. We listened. We wrote.

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, I did a PowerPoint presentation about MLK in class and said, “Like so many others, I’m sickened by the knowledge that one of our former students was shot and killed by our city police in his grandmother’s back yard.”

And we got out our journals and wrote about that, too.

Today I’m bringing my mandalas made by Laurie’s loving hands to class. I will pass them around and let each student feel what those stones have to offer. Perhaps the healing that Laurie imbued in them will seep into the hands of my students, who have weathered injustices as people who are Latino or African American, Asian American or Puerto Rican, Korean, Chinese and more. Some are LGBTQ or have disabilities others can’t see. Everyone has faced discrimination or name calling, whether as children or more recently.

But we all agree: This has to stop. We’re starting by being kind to each other. By listening to each other’s stories. By sharing the rocky love of a stranger in the Napa Valley whose mandalas we will hold and appreciate. Then I’m playing this video, which makes me smile and gives me hope:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train

Love Train Paula Abdul Turnaround Arts

Paula Abdul and the Turnaround Arts kids doing “Love Train”

Sing it with us:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Baby tree

Baby gingko 4-5-18

The Monday before Easter,
shrouded by the pain of so many others
who have suffered great loss,
I stand in the front yard as Paul,
an apostle of sorts, arrives for the weekly
blower treatment and lawn trim.

And when he is done beautifying,
he goes to the black plastic pot cradling
a slender stake taller than the living
stick it held up, takes it to the fresh hole
he’s dug in the middle of the front lawn,
and tenderly sets it in place just feet
from its predecessor, a 30-year-old
Modesto ash, planted by one I loved,
that lived and thrived and died,
reduced now to a pitcher’s mound
of shavings.

The waist-high stick in the ground will,
we hope, turn into a grand gingko one day,
with green fans posing as leaves that
chameleon into golden scallops come fall.
For now it has the blessing of Paul’s
good hands and my silent prayers
(along with fresh wood chips at its base)
to guide it skyward.

And ten days later as I step across
soft grass to check on the fledgling,
there, protruding from its stick self,
poke clusters of tiny green leaves,
little fans-to-be, nubbins of fingers
that will wobble and wave in the breeze
each new season for years and years
to come,

amen.

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Stevie

I play you for my college students
whose parents might have boogied to your songs
in their teen years, but these kids,
Stevie, they don’t recognize the funky
sounds of your keyboard, their bodies
don’t automatically start to groove
when they hear the familiar opening riff
on the Clavinet, before you even start to sing.

But after a month with too much rancor
in the world, I decide that we need some
Wonder in our lives, cue up the video in class,
crank the volume and holler, “Everybody up!”
and, looking puzzled, my students stand to take in
the ageless man onstage, his hair in fine cornrows,
keyboard reflecting in his shades.

And when you begin to sing,
Very superstitious—writing’s on the wall,
my feet are already moving—
me, the awkward white girl in eighth grade,
long hair, braces, far from blossoming,
moved to dance in front of others
because of this song, the coolest music
I’ve ever heard.

And now the horns chime in, the chunky sax
and piercing trumpet:
When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer,
and without knowing it,
I have had my first lesson in Buddhism.

And now, as the video plays, I see students’ hips
start to sway, torsos bend and twist, and someone says,
Who’s this guy again? And I shout, Stevie Wonder!
as you sing,
Very superstitious, wash your face and hands
Rid me of the problems, do all that you can…

You are a wonder, Stevie, always have been to me,
not because of your young piano prodigy self,
all of 11 when you were discovered by Motown,
persevering through blindness to become
a legendary singer/songwriter,

but because you got me dancing,
finally learning not to care who saw my clumsy self
moving without inhibitions, that geeky 13-year-old girl,
now an almost 60-year-old college professor grooving
in a classroom on a spring afternoon
with her students, all ages, shapes, sizes and colors,
all of us wearing big smiles,

dancing dancing dancing,
never wanting to stop

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRb_WP5WSQo

stevie_wonder_sesame_street_1973_elvis_bbc_commercial-1-970x544

Stevie and Grover, “Sesame Street,” 1973

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Solvitur Ambulando

e-old oak

Thanks to Margo Fowkes for republishing this post on her terrific site, Salt Water, which is dedicated to publishing work about grief and loss.

I drove to the Napa Valley over spring break to walk with a friend who has, it seems to me, the most difficult job I can imagine. I went for the day, though once there I wanted to sink into the grass and linger longer beneath a majestic quercus lobata, the California white oak, rooted in the soil of the largest veterans’ home in the country. It’s a huge park, this campus overseen by my friend Ursula Stuter, who has been the acting director of this place since last May. She looks out for about 850 veterans plus a roughly equal number of staff on 900 acres with two reservoirs. It has its own post office and baseball field, golf course and swimming pool and medical facility, this small town within the small town of Yountville.

It has, for 134 years, been a peaceful retirement community of men and women spending their last years in paradise.

Until less than a month ago when a gunman stormed into a going-away party, took three women hostages and killed them. One of the women was pregnant. Another was Ursula’s good friend who ran the program for veterans with PTSD. The gunman had been kicked out of the program because knives were found in his possession. He returned with a vengeance.

And when it was over, Ursula was one of the first people who had to walk into that abbatoir and deal with the aftermath.

I was going to take a group of writers from Sacramento to write with Ursula the day after the shooting. We’d planned it for months. The day of the shooting I canceled our write. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Ursula. I emailed her; she emailed back. “Do you want to write and read to me?” She did. I listened as she began to unfold the story over the phone.

I knew from the first time she read to me that I wanted to show up in person for her. She liked that idea. So during the week leading to Passover and Easter when we were both off from work, I drove to Yountville. I was pleased to see spring springing—the hills around Vacaville erupting with new grass, bright blue sky punctuated with fluffy clouds, the skeletons of grapevines silently preparing for the bounty to come.

“Bring your walking shoes,” Ursula had texted me, which I did. I found the house on campus she shares with her husband and children—two half-plexes, actually, newly linked with a passage—and was warmly welcomed by their “littles,” the two youngest, Edward and Bridget, as well as by her husband Anton. After Edward gave me the house tour, his mother and I went outside for the campus tour.

e-Veterans Home cemetery entranceWe moved slowly, both of us wearing bodies that do too much sitting at our jobs, climbing uphill to the old cemetery. I could see no evidence of the ferocious fires that climbed to the western hills above the property last fall; nor could I see any blackened earth across the valley where Mount Atlas rises into the sky. Two fires named Atlas and Tubbs sandwiched little Yountville, and California Department of Forestry firefighters came by land and by air to defend the veterans home.

After enduring that nightmare for almost two weeks, Ursula gathered the veterans who had been evacuated back under her wing and set about trying to calm the nerves of everyone on campus… including her own.

e-Veterans Home cemetery2This day, as we walked together, slowly, thoughtfully among those honored dead, what we know and forget became obvious: Life keeps going about living. There’s a Latin phrase about walking, too, I thought, about how it helps. And though I couldn’t summon it at the moment, we continued to walk beyond the symmetry of the cemetery, past row after row of white, rounded headstones, past the thigh-high new grass sprouting on rolling hills, the greenest green under trees beginning to leaf out again. Lupine and poppies, wild radish and mustard bobbed happily in the sun-sweetened breeze. We didn’t need jackets; in fact, we were sweating. We laughed about it: Wasn’t it just days ago we needed to bundle up?

e-poppies1Tragedy seemed far away as Ursula told stories about the founding of the veterans’ home, the wall of framed uniforms from each of the major conflicts in which veterans had served, as she showed me the small reservoir where the firefighting helicopters scooped up water and zoomed off over the hill to deposit it on the flames.

And then, without my knowing how we’d gotten there, we were standing at the back of the building where five people recently died.

e-Pathways memorial1We stopped to take in the floral tributes, including a huge red-flowered heart with a ribbon that said, “Our Jenn,” and I knew that was for Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, the mother-to-be, and that the pink ribbon draping from the center that said, “Cecilia Rose,” must have been her baby.

“They didn’t know the sex of the child until the autopsy,” Ursula said. “That’s when she was named.”

I looked at Ursula, mother of four, who had her first baby in a Russian hospital because she and her Russian husband were living there then. That baby is about to graduate from college and hopes to become a doctor. I’ve known Ursula long enough to remember her pregnant with Edward and Bridget. Those kids in utero came to my writing classes. Now Ursula was calm, dry-eyed, though I knew that had not always been the case in recent days.

As we stood there, a man and woman came up to us and introduced themselves, two local Napa Valley-ites who had come to add to the tributes.

e-memorial rocks1

Laurie, who owns a climbing gym in Napa, had painted small flat rocks into lovely mandalas, one for each of the victims. Ursula and I peered at the rocks on the ground. Sure enough, there was a rock for Christine Loeber, the executive director of the Pathways program who was 48 when she was killed.

Another bore the name of Jen Golick, who was 42, the Pathways clinical director, and a third for Jenn Gonzales Shushereba.

Laurie and her friend Harrell had come this day to leave a fourth, smaller stone. “For the baby,” Laurie explained, as my eyes filled.

There were no tributes among the flowers and signs for Albert Wong, the killer, but I thought of him, too, as I stood there, trying to imagine that troubled, violent man. None of us mentioned him. I’m sure there’s more to his story that few know. There’s so much to other people’s stories we’ll never know.

Ursula and I thanked Laurie and Jim and bid them goodbye. And then we walked on.

e-Jan Ursula shadows

Two friends walking

It came to me then: solvitur ambulando. The Latin phrase, attributed to Diogenes, translates to, “It is solved by walking.”

I had no great things to offer my aching friend, but, as Mother Teresa said, I could do this small thing with great love: walk with her, listen to her talk, buy her a salad in town at the deli, walk back on campus and sit under that lovely quercus lobata to write. We pulled out our notebooks and wrote and wrote because it’s what we do.

e-ursula writes

Ursula

And when we were written out, we read to each other, because this, too, is what we do. In the Amherst Writers & Artists method that I use and teach, we tell each other what we like, what stays with us, what is strong. I gave Ursula what was strong, what would stay with me about her good words, her powerful images.

I can’t share with you what Ursula wrote because we keep that private. But I can tell you that she wrote five short pieces to my one, which is not unusual for her, some of them sweet and funny. We both laughed when I, writing under the oak on a bed of fresh clover, got splatted with bird poop. “We’ll call that a small miracle,” I said, “because how tricky is it for one bird to hit someone sitting 30 feet below? A baptism of spring.”

And so it was—a baptism, this time of resurrection in the Christian tradition, of transfiguration from unexpected, horrific death. It is finally spring. We have weathered storms of fire and rain. We have suffered knowing that so many—some we know, some we don’t—have suffered, have been unfairly targeted, chased, killed. There seems no end to this loss, not to mention the deaths of loved ones through aging and illness. We watch our cities explode with protestors of all ages, shapes, sizes and colors. We raise our voices; we mourn our dead.

We keep walking. We risk hope. We risk love. Somehow we go on.
e-single poppy

When you meet someone deep in grief

Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.

Enter barefoot
this darkened chapel

hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow

its gray stone walls
and floor.

You, congregation
of one,

are here to listen
not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,

let the candles
speak.

—Patricia McKernon Runkle

 

Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The BFF

8928cr-ret RonGeorgann2017

Ron and Georgann Turner at home in Bremerton, WA

I often stop myself when I start to write about my BFF because… it’s complicated. Not our adoration of each other—that’s simple. We have been best friends ever since, way back in the last century (the 1980s!), we met when she was a returning student at Sac State and I was an adjunct professor in journalism. She liked coming to my classes to hear guest speakers, though she never took a class of mine. We got to talking, liked each other, and, when she went off to Wales to finish a bachelor’s degree in her 40s, she said something that I’ve never forgotten:

“If you write to me, I’ll be your best friend.”

I did—on the thinnest blue Aerograms, which were the cheapest way to send international (snail) mail in those days—and she did, and as we learned to decipher each other’s handwriting, we became penpals, writing sisters, close buddies.

I was hesitant at first to call her my “best” friend because, well, I already had one (lookin’ at you, Sue Lester!), the girl who grew up next door to me, whose mom was our Girl Scout leader (thanks, Mrs. Lester!). My sister Donna is clearly the best (never mind that she’s the “only”). And then there was my band buddy, Lisa Morgan, who certainly fell into the superlative category. Not to mention the college buddies: Gina, Curtis, et al. They (and others) are “bests,” too. (This grammar teacher is putting aside the notion that there’s only one who fits the superlative adjective.)

But Georgann (BFF GAT) decided that I was her BFF (JLH) almost as soon as she heard that term years after she moved back to California and remarried a lovely man (hi, Ron!) and adopted three kids in addition to the two she bore, and long before she learned that she had cancer. She had major surgery in 2009 to remove a portion of her intestine in 2009, but some cancer cells have remained in her pancreas.

That’s the complicated part of the story—watching someone you love cope with tremendous pain, who has fewer good days when she’s up and about and active than the days she’s in bed. And I’m only loving her from afar. Ron is her major caretaker at their home in Bremerton, Washington. (Best husband, Ron!)

Recently, a CAT scan revealed a different kind of cancer present in Georgann’s hip.  There is a specific treatment for this type of cancer, a drug called Zometa. However, Zometa has a side effect of weakening the jawbone.  If Georgann has any serious dental problems, like needing to extract a tooth or replace a bridge, there would be a high risk of necrosis in the jawbone, which would be very serious.

So before Georgann can start being treated with Zometa, she needs to get all her dental work done.  The strongly recommended dental procedure in her circumstance is extraction of all teeth and insertion of four implants, around which new permanent dentures would be placed.

The estimated cost of this procedure is $50,000, and her medical insurance will not cover it.  Her dental insurance limit is $1,000.

So I’ve launched a youcaring campaign to help Georgann and Ron begin to raise the funds for her dental work. If you can help with any amount, the Turners and I will be most grateful. They insist that all money raised should be considered loans, and that they will pay the donors back within one year.

Here’s the link, if you’d like to donate:
https://www.youcaring.com/georgannturner-1135159

Thanks, dear friends and loved ones… all of you are best in my heart. My BFF GAT and I send you the biggest hugs for your kindness.

 

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wall/here

april's room REDO

wall/here

was all
you left behind
on one bookshelf—
two tiny
magnetized
words with
no place to
stick

though, really,
there was more:

a handful of stray pills
that got away
and hid under
the bed, under
the rose rug
that belonged
to my grandmother,
and some that
snuck into crevices
between poets
on bookshelves

also
three large paper clips
four large binder clips
a tiny owl earring
with orange eyes
a camera lens cap
the rubber lid to your
traveling coffee mug

three hair bands
three plastic hangers
a pink round ball
of lip gloss
(mostly gone)
a plastic dispenser
of new floss

and 72 cents
in change

In your big blue
Ikea bag
I packed up
most everything
but the change
and the lip gloss
and threw in
my blender,
which I never
use, and two
cups you used
almost daily
for tea

they feel
like yours now

I wish you well
on your new life
as I sweep what
was your room

but I keep
circling back
to the bookshelf
like a fish in a bowl
to ponder
the mystery
of those two
left-behind words,
which, because you,
too, are a poet,
will stay with me:

here
wall

wall
here

you
there

 

for April, who lived at my house for 19 months, before setting out on her independent grownup life as a teacher

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments