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.

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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.

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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.
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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

 

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The BFF

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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

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This year, the seven

Twin trees in fog-Kerik Kouklis

Twin trees in fog—Kerik Kouklis

The first I didn’t even see. I leave food for her several days a week. On the days I don’t, a former student of mine walks across the street from her apartment to the college and dishes out some wet food from a can, replenishes the dry food and refills the water dish under an old temporary building for the feral gray one we call Haroshea. She was born under that building, the place I taught on campus for twenty years. Though my department moved across campus, a custodian and I continued the daily feedings until recently. Now my former student and I share the honor.

The second and third sat on two bus benches down the street from the college. Both men had large plastic bags of what looked like recyclables. When I approached the first man and said, “Merry Christmas,” I noticed raw meat in his open bag. I wondered if it came from the restaurant behind him. When he saw the bill in my hand, he shot me a grin and a “thank you,” and I took a half dozen steps to the next bench. That man’s smile was even broader, and he was ready with a “God bless you.” It has taken me years to remember to say, “And to you, too,” which I did.

The fourth was a woman I saw on my way home, not a mile from my house, pulling a wire grocery cart behind her. I could see a sleeping bag puffing out the quilt-like squares of the cart. She was leaving McDonald’s with a large cup of something hot in her hand. I couldn’t pull over there, so I rounded the block and parked a half a block down from where she seemed to be heading. But she ducked into the sheltered doorway of a closed brick building. I found her there, hunched down, both hands around her cup. After I gave her the bill and wished her a merry Christmas, she struggled to her feet, tears in her eyes. I thought she might hug me, but she extended her hand and gave me her cold fingers. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.” I smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” She was still thanking me as I walked away.

The fifth, sixth and seventh sat a block away on a curb between a gas station and a Mexican fast food joint. Each was bundled up in more than one overcoat against the gray Christmas Eve afternoon. One had two Chihuahuas on leashes. One appeared to have only one tooth in her upper gum. I handed each woman a bill, saying, “Merry Christmas,” as three mouths fell open and a multitude of blessings fell upon me, for which I remembered to thank them.

I have done this Christmas Eve practice for more than three decades, that first year with a small amount of money grudgingly given by the newspaper that was laying me off. Furious, I decided to give it to people who needed it more than I. I cashed the check and asked for the money in ten dollar bills. Ten dollars is enough to buy a hot meal or two, according to Dale Maharidge and Michael Wiiliamson, two journalist friends who had spent a great deal of time with people who find themselves homeless. That Christmas Eve Dale and Michael taught me where to find people living outside in the coldest time of the year.

Today I thought, not for the first time, that these are the angels among us. They are not the least of us, though they may be among the neediest. They are us, as the pastor in a church in my neighborhood reminded us not two hours earlier. And there are so many more of them out there.

At the end of a year filled with so much unkindness, this practice reminds me again that I can do no great things, as Mother Teresa said, just small things with great love. It’s a small thing, and these people, they are the great love returned.

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Holly jolly

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In my family, I like to tell people, my sister and I were singing harmony before we knew what melody was. That wasn’t strictly true, but I do know that having two parents who came from musical people and who sang barbershop harmony meant that my sister and I were assigned tenor and lead parts early on so Mom could practice her baritone and Dad could sit in as bass. We did this with classic barbershop tags, the ends of songs that lead—if you’re doing it right—to a ringing chord at the end. Each singer has to sing his or her own part, which requires serious concentration not to mirror the voice next to you. This led to some memorable tags like:

When it’s sleepy time down south

I have no idea what the rest of that song sounds like, but I can sing both the lead and tenor parts of that tag in my sleep.

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My parents, Roger and Darlene (gussied up in Sweet Adelines fringe) Haag

My mother, who this year celebrated her 53rd year as a Sweet Adeline (the international association of women barbershoppers), has been quietly disappointed that neither my sister nor I followed her into one of the choruses she’s been in. She’s never said so directly, though there was a period when she strongly suggested that my niece Lauren, who was in the high school jazz choir, migrate over to barbershop. Lauren didn’t, and Donna and I have steadfastly remained audience members for Mom’s performances over the years. Since our father died in 2004, we figure it’s our job to applaud for all of us, and besides, we owe her for, among other things, all those elementary and high school band concerts she had to sit through.

I doubt that my mother—or most people for that matter—knows how much I sing: in the car, in the shower, around the house. I can still do a wicked harmony (a fifth up is my favorite) with a variety of recordings, though, as I get older and my breath is not as steady, I wobble a little more than I used to. (My mother, incidentally, continues to take voice lessons in her 86th year. Go, Ma!) I’m a closeted singer. I generally don’t sing in front of people, though the cats hear me plenty. Sometimes they stick around to listen.

And I do love Christmas carols, though I seem to have adopted the family trait that now makes me cry when I hear them, much less sing them. I can’t get through the first line of “Silent Night” without emotion bubbling up. I hear my father and mother. I remember my late Grandpa Haag crying as my aunt played “Ave Maria” on the organ at family gatherings. We young’uns thought that was sweet, if a little silly, but I can so relate to my grandfather now. I cry at tissue commercials on TV. James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend” does me in. So does “Sunrise, Sunset.” I blame it on menopause.

So when my friend Holly Holt, who is both a yoga teacher and fine writer/writing facilitator, put out the word that her yoga teacher friend Michelle Marlahan was gathering together a group of volunteers to sing at some skilled nursing facilities 11 days before Christmas, I was intrigued. rIMG_7732Holly did gigs as a folk singer for a time and even put out her original songs on a CD, which I sing along with in the car. I do one-on-one yoga with Holly partly because she sings to me in her lovely voice as I lie on my mat at the end of the practice. I call her the Blonde Yoga Goddess with the Voice of an Angel. So yeah, to stand near Holly as she sings carols in something called the Holiday Hope Choir? I’m in, I emailed Michelle.

The problem is that teary thing. But after Michelle sent me a nice note of thanks, I decided to buck up and practice a bit. In the shower, in the car, around the house. If I sing the songs enough times, concentrate on breathing deeply from my diaphragm, think about the lyrics, I can get through them, I told myself. Heck, I sang a solo at my eighth grade graduation wearing a yellow polyester mini dress because my homeroom teacher asked me to. I was in no way a super singer—in fact, I was about to become the only girl drummer in the high school band—but because Mr. Rolicheck requested it, I practiced the snot out of “Bless the Beasts and the Children” and wobbled my way through it in front of a multi-purpose room full of parents and teachers and my peers. It was not my best performance of the song, but Mr. Rolicheck beamed like the headlights on my dad’s Chevy.

“Fine job, Miss Haag,” he said when I was done, and I flew on that praise all summer.

So every day for the past week I’ve taken to the shower (my mother taught me that we all sound better in the bathroom; all that tile makes for a nicely resonating room) and run through the classics: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Holly Jolly Christmas.” I even attempted “O, Holy Night” with its wicked high and low notes. My favorite Christmas songs are stupid hard for me to sing: “The Wexford Carol,” “Some Children See Him,” “Love Came Down at Christmas.” But I do those anyway.

Still, every time I started “Silent Night,” I felt the familiar catch in my throat and the hiccup that would work its way into a sob. I decided to tough it out and sing anyway, even though it sounded, well, awful, even in the tile shower. But I figured if it came up on the list of songs Michelle was going to provide, I could lip-synch or look down at the words so my tears weren’t obvious.

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Even the morning of the carol singing, I gave it another try in the bathroom after warming up on “Joy to the World,” the Three Dog Night version. (It’s so much fun to sing at the top of your lungs, “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/joy to you and me.”) “We Three Kings” got me.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said aloud. “What is this already?”

Well, I know very well what it is. “Stille Nacht” really gets me. It’s hearing my father’s voice, and his father’s and his mother’s voices singing it in German. It’s my mother’s father playing it on his organ in their Santa Monica apartment. It’s standing on the steps of the Methodist church down the street with candles lit and flames wavering in the December cold listening to a small congregation descended from German immigrants sing all three verses in German.

It’s a wish for peace and light in the darkest time of the year. It’s the song sung by its composer who sang it in a church one Christmas, accompanying himself on guitar. It’s combatants who put down their arms on a Christmas Eve of World War I and, for a brief moment in 1914, stopped trying to kill each other. They ventured into no man’s land to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. They played soccer with men they considered their enemies in the days before and the days after.

It’s my dead loved ones, my companion spirits, reaching out from wherever they are to tug at my heart, to say, “We’re here. We’ve never left. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

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The Holiday Hope choir singing their hearts out.

So I went to two skilled nursing facilities and joined the unrehearsed choir of people like me who like to sing carols. One woman, Tara, brought Louie, her Great Dane, a great schmoozer who stole the show, but we didn’t mind. I stood next to the Blonde Yoga Goddess and listened to her harmonize her way through some Christmas songs before people in wheelchairs. (Our best number: “Jingle Bell Rock.” Note to self: Don’t attempt “Twelve Days of Christmas… too many verses makes for a ragged throat.) Each person in our audience must have his or her own memories, their own catches in their throats remembering past Christmases, their loved ones with whom they sang. And I actually got through “Silent Night” at the first place relatively dry-eyed by concentrating on my breath, supporting it with my diaphragm. I gave myself a mental pat on the back.

But at the second place, a facility where a college friend of mine had lived and recently died, something very sweet happened. We had assembled in a big living room area just off the front lobby. Louie immediately gravitated to one woman sitting on a sofa who reached out for his big, slobbery self.

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Louie and Helene share some love as Louie’s person Tara (in green) looks on.

After our troop of 10 now semi-warmed up singers ran through about eight numbers, someone requested “Silent Night.” I realized that it was the sweet-faced woman on the sofa. A walker sat next to her with a sign that said, “Hi, my name is Helene. What’s your name?” Without prompting, all by herself, Helene began in German, “Stille nacht, helige nacht.”

There I went. But I smiled through my tears as Helene warbled through a song she must have learned as a girl. I don’t know if she was German, Austrian, Swiss—maybe Dutch—where she came from or what memories she has, but her quavery voice carried the song through to its last lines:

Schlafe in himmlischer ruh
Schlafe in himmlischer ruh

Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed, with all our companion spirits there in the room with us, swirling around our heads and hearts. They’re here, with us always, and they make themselves known at sweet times like this when the sounds of an old melody beckon them. No wonder we cry when they make an appearance.

And through my tears, I sang my gratitude: thankyouthankyouthankyou.

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Carolers all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enjoyin’ the ride with Annie and Antsy

7431 annie singsCR

Annie and Miss Robbin sing “Deck the Halls.”

Some days, if you’re lucky, are full of music. And my most recent Saturday sure was. I watched two people I adore sing at two different performances 45 miles apart. One packed an old opera house to the rafters, and the other was the first on a bill of young performers before another full house. Both received a lot of love in the form of applause and adulation, which, if you’re lucky, is what performing’s all about, right?

These two people I love have never met, but the smaller of the two knows the taller one’s music. Antsy McClain’s voice coming out of my iPad cheered 7-year-old Annie in a way-too-hot Chinese train station in the summer of 2016 as I accompanied Annie’s adoptive mama Nikki on the trip of a lifetime. Actually, all three of our lifetimes. That trip made Annie, who was born in China, and Nikki, who had worked there many years, a family, and it changed me, the observer/helper, forever, too.

Antsy, a singer/songwriter from Nashville, has been my friend for some years now. He’s got a lovely voice and writes songs for his band, the Trailer Park Troubadours, that range from very funny to downright sweet in a variety of musical genres.

3032 antsy soloCR

Antsy McClain at the Palms Playhouse (the historic opera house) in Winters, December 2017.

He’s a terrific storyteller and writer, too, who has a number of books of his good essays to his credit. (Bonus: I’m the lucky one who has gotten to edit his latest books, and I smile pretty much the whole time I’m doing so.) I brought some of his music with me to China, and it brightened some challenging days for a little girl… and a big one, too.

On that difficult day in the Changsha train station, as we waited and waited and waited for a delayed train that Nikki feared would never come, Annie got more hot and tired and hungry and, though she couldn’t say so, was just Fed Up with the Whole Damn Thing. And the only way she could express this was to wail. Loudly and for a long time. (For details, you can see my blog post,”Time is a Southbound Train,” under the heading “Bringing Annie Home” about our China trip.) This was unusual because Annie, we had already learned, is, most of the time, one of the most cheerful people you’ll ever meet.

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Nikki tries to cool off Annie in the sweltering Changsha train station, June 2016.

Annie, who has cerebral palsy, cannot walk and at that point had limited speech in Mandarin (which Nikki, thankfully, speaks). She was strapped in her wheelchair, and, because we were new at this, it was a great production to get her into and out of that chair. We wheeled her to the coolest area (which was none too cool) we could find in that un-air conditioned train station where Nikki took Annie out of her chair and laid her on a thin pad on the floor.

Nikki went to search for a cold treat for Annie (thank you, McDonald’s, for the pseudo strawberry-topped “ice cream”), while I saw on the floor with this hollering child. In desperation, I pulled out my iPad, remembering how much Annie had liked listening to some of my music, and I called up an Antsy song. Within 30 seconds, her sobs quieted, and she relaxed on the floor. I sat next to her holding the iPad so, rolled on her side, she could see it, and by the time Nikki returned, Annie was chuckling.

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Antsy sings to Annie, Changsha train station with Auntie Jan, June 2016.

This was perfect, since the song Antsy was singing (“When You’re Laughing,” one of his sweetest compositions) contains the lyrics (click here to see a video of Antsy singing this song):

The world’s a brighter place when you’re laughing
I love to see your face when you smile
A stranger’s just a friend waitin’ to happen
Inside us all there’s a wide-eyed child.

Well, there she was, right there on the floor, that wide-eyed child. And here she was now, a year and a half later, not nearly as skinny, taller, going to school, learning English, rocking a new, snazzy purple wheelchair and very cool pink glasses at her first music recital. Annie was first up on the little stage at the music studio where she goes weekly for music therapy with Miss Robbin at NewSongs Music Factory in Elk Grove. And sitting tall in her chair, the mic positioned in just the right place, Annie joined Miss Robbin in vocalizing “Deck the Halls.” Here’s Annie’s big finish (click here to see the brief video).

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Ms. Annie exiting the stage after her performance (and her mama Nikki at right).

Nikki and her friends Matt and Paul sat in the second row, Annie’s grandparents were in the first row in front of the piano, and the place was packed with kids and family members, as well as the music teachers, for an afternoon of music. We all applauded like mad for each child, as if they were making their debuts at Carnegie Hall. Me, I got teary—not only watching Annie—but at seeing kids picking out simple melodies on the piano or the boy with ear protection playing the drum kit to “Brick House” or the young man who dedicated to his father a Vince Guaraldi medley of tunes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I sat behind a little girl waiting her turn who had her drumsticks in her hands, tips up, ready to go, remembering my own long-ago piano lessons and later percussion lessons that led to happy years in school bands.

But I had to leave before the end of the recital to collect Dick and head to Winters in Yolo County where Antsy and the Troubs had a show that evening at the Opera House. Troubs’ shows are all about, as Antsy sings, the quest in life to enjoy the ride. And he gave us an enjoyable ride with lots of good music and laughs. I got to help (wo)man the merch table before the show and at intermission, which I’ve done many times (I love talking to people about my friend’s music). For the second time that day I got to be part of an audience listening to music that made us all feel a bit lighter—as if we were on a “Field Trip,” perhaps, as Antsy sings. (Click here for a video of Antsy performing this song in Davis in 2015.)

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The Trailer Park Troubadours at the Winters Opera House: (from left) sax player Bruce Wandmayer, Bob Armstrong (sitting in on lap steel and saw), lead singer guy Antsy McClain, drummer Terry Domingue, and bass player Todd McMasters.

One day I hope to introduce Annie and Antsy. Maybe he’ll have his guitar and sit beside her, strum a bit, and start to sing. Then perhaps she’ll grin—as Antsy sings, “sharin’ the same big grin/we’re kinfolk”—and open her mouth and warble her Annie notes.

And I will applaud and cheer for my two musician friends, both of whom played to packed houses on the same day, singing their hearts out.

 

Posted in Bringing Annie Home, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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!)

Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

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.

Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 6 Comments