The neigh-bors

We are so country out here in the wilds of Haena on the north shore of Kauai, where kabillion dollar homes on the beach nestle near more modest local houses, where all manner of wildlife and domesticated animals live on the same acreage.

Across the street from the home of Toni and C.B. Martin (where we are happily staying in their Tiki Hut cottage on a lovely acre that over two decades Toni has coaxed into a full-fledged botanical garden) lies a fenced pasture, always green-grassed and often occupied by four-legged ones munching away.

Each day as we drive or walk by we’ve spotted three pipi (cows), three lio (horses) and a hoki (donkey) outstanding in their field. One late afternoon the horses and donkey grazed in soft light, usually good for photographing, so I borrowed Dick’s snazzy iPhone 11 Pro and went across the road. Immediately, one of the lio came toward me, thinking, I’m sure, This two-legged one likely has a treat for me. She didn’t, unfortunately, and she felt bad about that. But she took their photos anyway.

Lio waiting for a treat.

And the first one’s hoaloha (friends) came to join us at the fence.

Barbed wire makes a good scratching spot.

Though the horses clearly have the upper hand (hoof?) in this pasture, the little donkey was not shy.

In the field of handsome horses also lives this perky donkey.

Each of them came to me to sniff and nuzzle my hand, the large brown and white one ready with teeth. I pulled away and let the back of my hand rest higher on her (?) nose, which she allowed.

These two seemed particularly close.

After a bit she moved closer to the smaller brown horse, possibly younger, and began to nuzzle the brown one’s neck. The brown one stood quietly and closed her (?) eyes. I had a flash of a mother nuzzling a foal, and wondered if this one had been her baby. Or her good friend? “Hoaloha,” I remembered, also means “beloved friend.”

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And that reminded me of the wonderful James Wright poem, “A Blessing”:

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

And I did blossom a bit as I stood outside the fence, admiring them, inhaling their equine essence, talking to them, promising to return with apples—something I’m pretty sure that I did the last time I was here. Because I’ve learned that it never hurts to show up with a sweet treat for a friend or four, especially our four-hooved friends.

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Senior pass

How you know that you’re definitely a “senior”: When they give you a lifetime pass that says so.

My lifetime national parks pass purchased at the Daniel K. Inouye lighthouse in Kilauea, Kauai.

Dick bought me a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Senior Pass (known between us as the Old Farts Park Pass), as I did for him when he turned 62. His pass (more poetically called the Golden Age Passport) cost $10 for life; mine cost $80. They increased the price for the first time in 2017 (after 23 years). Even so, still a bargain to enter all U.S. national parks and rec lands for the rest of my (hopefully long) life.

We got it at the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, home to one of the prettiest views of a lighthouse (built in 1913) you ever did see.

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Kauai.

The lighthouse has been renamed for the late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who was instrumental in raising private and public funds for the restoration of the lighthouse, completed in 2013 for its 100th anniversary. Built in 1913, the lighthouse (with its magnificent glass Fresnel lens) stands 52 feet tall on a rocky peninsula on Kauai, 180 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

But the other reason you go to the lighthouse is to watch seabirds flying like white kites over the impossibly blueblue ocean—the red-footed boobies (yep, their real name with their goofy scarlet footwear); the white- and red-tailed tropicbirds with their streamer-like tails; the wedge-tailed shearwaters tucked into their earthen nests in the hills around the lighthouse, and the ginormous Laysan albatross with “wingspan(s) as wide as Kobe Bryant [was] tall,” according to Hob Osterlund’s fine book, “Holy Moli” (the Hawaiian word for “albatross”).

All this on a glorious, sunny, not-too-hot Hawaiian Saturday afternoon? Perfection.

The Daniel K. Inouye Kīlauea Point Lighthouse (with its magnificent glass Fresnel lens) was built in 1913, stands 52 feet tall on a rocky peninsula on Kauai 180 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
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AED sister

It’s not every day you get to meet an AED sister, but today Dick Schmidt met Briana Martinez in Lihue, Kauai—both of them revived by AEDs after cardiac arrests in 2019.

Dick Schmidt and Briana Martinez, both cardiac arrest survivors who were resuscitated by AEDs in 2019, met March 22 in Lihue, Kauai. (Photo by Jan Haag)

Briana was a 39-year-old special education teacher on Kauai when, during a meeting at lunch, she froze in her chair, not breathing, not moving. A staff member called 911, a vice principal started chest compressions and a counselor grabbed the AED (automated external defibrillators). Before emergency personnel arrived, Briana was shocked twice and then life-flighted to Oahu where she made a full recovery.

Briana Martinez’s tattoo commemorates the day of her cardiac arrest and her resuscitation by an AED. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

Briana is a mom of three children who is now deeply involved in sharing her story and training others in CPR and the use of AEDs. That’s what she and Jenna Tanigawa (of the AED Institute based in Honolulu) were doing on Kauai today—training members of the mayor’s staff.

Jenna Tanigawa packs up the CPR manikins used to train members of the Kauai mayor’s staff in CPR and the use of AEDs on March 22. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

We were delighted to see Jenna and meet Briana, part of our AED ohana, to hug them and wipe away happy tears. We also invoked the name of Pamela Foster, the president and CEO who created the AED Institute that has placed AEDs in airports all over Hawaii, as well as getting them to schools and in other public places.

Team AED on Kauai: Briana Martinez and Jenna Tanigawa, who trained members of the mayor’s staff in CPR and the use of AEDs March 22. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

We cannot say mahalo nui loa enough to Pam and Jenna for their generous help after Dick’s cardiac arrest at the Daniel K. Inoyue International Airport in Honolulu in January 2019. And, once again, our mahalo to the on-the-scene quick actions of Claudio Alvarado and Salesi Maumau moments after Dick collapsed, and to Chris Ohta of Hawaiian Airlines, who fetched the AED that brought Dick back to life.

Our deepest aloha to you all.

A happy meeting of AED ohana: (from left) me, Dick, Briana Martinez and Jenna Tanigawa. (Photo by Jenna Tanigawa)
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Cancer ate my (best) friend(ship)

Photo / Dave Webb

This is the story I’ve been avoiding writing about my best friend, who died last August after 12 years of coping with metastasized colon cancer. It’s something I’d love to talk to her about—especially today, which would have been her 71st birthday—how our friendship slowly evaporated as the cancer took over every bit of her.

Not only because she moved two states away but also because I stopped bringing her my stories of successes and difficulties. I mean, really, did I want to pour my heart out about some minor slight to a woman who’d had every kind of chemotherapy and radiation possible and spent most of her days in ungodly pain, even with the best drugs?

No, I did not.

And she, in return, didn’t want to keep whining (her term) about that unending pain or all the things she’d rather have been doing than being cared for by her nearest and dearest as she slept sometimes up to 20 hours a day. Georgann had good days, when she’d rise and shower, head for the kitchen to cook for her family, one of her favorite activities. Maybe take her daughter and granddaughters shopping. Talk on the phone and listen to the stories of what her favorite people—especially her out-of-state children and grandchildren—were up to.

We both agreed that that’s what best friends do—listen well—along with having to forgive each other a lot. And we did plenty of that, too, for the unasked-for advice or the thoughtless, off-the-cuff quip that was meant to be funny. And God, was my best friend funny.

About the phrase “best friend”—“best” did not mean “only” to Georgann. I would argue (and I suspect so would she) that Georgann had many best friends. At one point, early in our acquaintance-ship, when she was studying at a university in Wales, she said, “If you write to me, I’ll be your best friend.” I did, and so did she, finishing a degree in politics as a 40-something single mum, communicating across the pond on thin blue aerograms that could be sent cheaply between Britain and the U.S. And through those letters, we did become close friends.

Georgann returned to her hometown of Sacramento (and to me) earlier than she planned because her mother died in a car accident. She often said then how grateful she was for our friendship, that I helped her through that difficult time. She returned the favor years later when my husband died at age 48. Each of us had other friends and family who were of great support, but Georgann was the one I could call at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep, when I couldn’t stand crying alone. She was the first person to call me her BFF, that new, younger, hipper acronym. And I was one who babysat the three kids she adopted (again as a single woman in her 40s) and a few years later stood up for her as her “best woman” after she met Ron Turner, the wonderful man who became her second husband.

Georgann and me on her wedding day, 1996

It’s my favorite photo of the two of us on her wedding day—younger, slender, each of us in casual off-white dresses we bought at our favorite midtown shop, both of us with a wreath of dried flowers in our hair, she wearing her mother’s pearls. We are beaming at the camera. That was a good day.

*

One of the things that has hit me since her death is that I’ve not had many close friends who’ve died. I’ve certainly lost friends and relatives, including a husband, but Georgann was a sister to my heart. The only other death (which, fortunately, hasn’t happened and, please God, won’t in my lifetime) I could imagine being as devastating would be that of Donna, my only sister, or my childhood best friend Sue, who feels like a second sister.

I learned decades ago that there are things that make friends, well, friends, thanks to Oxford psychologists Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson who in 1984 published a paper called “The Rules of Friendship.” The six rules cited as most important were that friends should trust and confide in each other; show emotional support; share news of success; strive to make the friend happy; volunteer help in a time of need, and stand up for each other in his or her absence.

We did all of those for each other and more.

After writer/playwright Nora Ephron died in 2012, her friends were shocked. They had no idea how sick she was because she hadn’t wanted them to know. As Jennifer Senior wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” Ephron’s friends were “mourning all those dinners they never had. It’s the dying that does it, always.”

I completely understand this. I’d pay any amount of money for one more dinner out with Georgann, one more evening cruising the aisles at Borders Books. But Borders died, too.

COVID didn’t help, of course, but I can’t blame our lack of regular contact on a pandemic—even if it did send me home to teach journalism and creative writing via a laptop in those early months with little to no support from my college. I had to depend on (hello!) two local female friends, also professors, with more up-to-the-minute tech skills to bail me out. And they did—again and again. I also have to give a great deal of credit to a young friend—a former student who transferred from my program at the community college to the “big school,” the university in our city. I literally couldn’t have done my job without those women. (Thanks, Timi and Rose and Dani!)

It’s also taken me a bit to realize that these friends—who volunteered in my time of need and showed tremendous emotional support—have become among my closest. Whether our relationships will last for many years has yet to be seen, but perhaps I don’t need to do what Georgann suggested, which is to take applications for a new best friend. It’s not a job one can apply for. It happens or it doesn’t, this best friend thing, with one or more people. And it can end, too, not necessarily because of disagreement or abuse or neglect. It can be no one’s fault.

Long before Georgann died, I realized that in so many ways—because of the effects of her illness and massive amounts of opioids she took to try to keep the pain at bay—she was not the BFF she had been.

She, of course, noticed it first, and would say on our increasingly rare, in-person visits and phone calls, “I’m the worst best friend ever.” I’d respond, “Of course, you’re not.” And she wasn’t. Neither did I automatically pick up the phone to ask about the kids or her (since the answer to, “How are you feeling?” was, inevitably, “crappy”) or enthuse over an accomplishment or send her my latest poem.

But, as always, she had a point. It wasn’t the same relationship we’d had when she’d need to download the latest anecdote about a frustration with one of her kids or a disagreement with her husband. Or when I’d need to mull over something I’d said or done to upset a student, or the time a dear friend dumped me, saying that we could no longer be friends without saying why.

“He’s an idiot,” Georgann reassured me and then proceeded over the coming months—as I obsessively tried to figure out what I’d done to drive this friend away—to list the many traits that made me a superb BFF. One was “best to wander a bookstore with.”

I still treasure that.

*

I have regrets, too. I apologize to her now—just toss an “I’m sorry” into the air—for the harsh judgments I sometimes felt it necessary to relay to her about situations in her life. I regret not traveling to Washington state more often to see Georgann where she lived the last decade of her life. I did visit her before she died, staying in the little guest house next door to hers in the small bayside town where she and Ron lived. She loved it there, said she’d have to be taken out of that house feet first… and she damn near was, though she ended up dying at a hospice not far away.

Over the week that I was with Georgann, one day I got to take her, via ferry, across the bay to the cancer center for the last time where she had an infusion of fluids. And though she was sleeping more than 20 hours a day at that point, she rallied, lively and chatty on the ferry, hungry (which she typically wasn’t), she told me at the cancer center. I walked to a nearby restaurant and brought back her requested burger as well as an order of fish and chips for me. When I returned with the containers, she wanted the fish and chips. I set them next to her on a small table and watched her devour two big pieces of halibut and a fair number of chips, which she pronounced “perfect.”

“As good as the ones you ate in Wales?” I teased her.

She looked into space for a bit. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But they sure taste good now.”

That was a good day. Before her body shut down completely. Before, seven weeks later, she became my newest companion spirit, as I call the dead loved ones who linger nearby.

“What do you do with friendships that were, and aren’t any longer?” Jennifer Singer asks in her Atlantic piece. She’s talking about friendships that end because of disagreements or simply growing apart. I’m talking about the ones—the most important ones—that end in death. And I’ve come to realize that Georgann, who was not my longest-lasting or oldest best friend, but “best” in every sense, is teaching me in her absence the answer to that question.

What do you do with friendships that were? If you’re lucky, you continue them with your companion spirits, sending words into the ether, talking and writing to them—even if you don’t know the ZIP code of their new location. Because the Beatles had it right: Love is all there is between BFFs, and forever, thank goodness, is a very long time.

The Little Guest House on Oyster Bay / photo by Jan Haag
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End of day

for the people of Ukraine

How often do we forget—
watching the nightly sky show,
clouds purpling, the last of
the day’s energetic yellow
and orange rimming the horizon—
that the sun will return again?

We find ourselves sinking, too,
anticipating the coming dark.
Perhaps the angry evening sky
thunders like artillery overhead,
grays and blacks bumping like
colliding armies, an abrupt shift
from yesterday’s painterly wisps
of white scudding across blue,
an egg yolk horizon brightening
day’s end.

We cannot foretell what each
sunrise will deliver based on
the sky that closed the previous
day. Sometimes we must hunker
down and wait for the all clear.

In those moments, then, we close
our eyes and envision our favorite
sunsets, the ones that warm us,
the sunrises that feed us with
four million tons of light each
second. In every moment, even
the worst ones, we carry solar
radiance inside us—reflected
by unseen ones wishing us well—
as we call on that hope to see us
through.

(Listen to Jan read the poem here: https://anchor.fm/janis-haag/episodes/End-of-day-e1esk7f )

American River sunset, June 2021 / Photo by Joe Chan
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Pink camellia

Four great warriors kept me company on my walk,
all poets—they’d have to be poets, wouldn’t they?—

but they were so quiet I thought, ah… walking
meditation then, which hinted that Thay

must be one of them, he who just finished his
most recent incarnation, 95 years on the planet—

this time, he might’ve said, since Buddhist
monks certainly embrace reincarnation—

and I wondered, who will you be next?
His answer became my next inhalation:

I am the pink camellia you admired ten
steps back. I am the sun on your face this

wintery day. I am in your every breath,
the cloud you’re following with your eyes.

I am a continuation like the rain is
the continuation of the cloud.

And Joy reminded me, To pray
you open your whole self to sky, to earth,

to sun, to moon, to one whole voice that is you
and know there is more.

Then Emily chimed in softly, about hope being
the thing with feathers, and sure enough,

a bird in a bare sycamore harmonized,
And sings the tune without the words

and never stops at all. And then, the
third voice in the chord, Jane’s, who

reminded me in the gentlest way that
I got out of bed on two strong legs.

It might have been otherwise.
It comes to me that the most

generous thing I can do is to use
these legs and feet, to move kindly

through the world, to walk,
listening, let the sun fill my face,

warm my heart—and breathe,
Thay says, because, after all,

This body is not me;
I am not caught in this body.

I am life without boundaries,
he whispers, I have never been

born and I have never died. So
take my hand and wave goodbye.

Tomorrow we shall meet again or
even before on the myriad paths of life,

We shall know each other, all beings,
all clouds, birds, wind, sun and stone

again and again and again.

In memory of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), Joy Harjo, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon,
warrior poets of the heart. The lines in italics are theirs.

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Candle

That day
you melted,
the collapse
of a self,
your remains
burned down
to a heap
of humanity
on an airport
floor.

Gone.

I witnessed
your death and
transfiguration
at the literal
hands of
strangers
who worked
to pour your
melted self—
one that had
taken flight—
back into
another form.

You arose
that day,
blue eyes
blinking,
ragged and
bloody,
lifted onto
a gurney by
so many sets of
kind hands,
the beginning
of being
made anew,

and we
learned that
resurrection
is not pretty.

But in the act
of revival,
we become
ones who can
bear light,
candles whose
brightness
cannot be
diminished—

reanimated,
re-formed—

our hearts
reshaped
by grace
and everyday,
imperfect
human love
into something
we never
imagined
we might be.

(for Dick, honor of his third rebirth-a-versary, Jan. 15, 2022)

Candle, The Ahwahnee / photo by Dick Schmidt
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Absence

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
—Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Burning the Old Year”

The shouts of the grieving form
a collective wail, a rising lamentation

that stings the eyes, chokes the throat—
the absence of so many loved ones,

locked away for the duration or
buried in haste for fear of the virus.

We miss them, the departed, as we’ve
not missed others; the dissonance

throbs in our chests. Come back!
we plead as we realize there is no

going back. It’s a new world, one
we must remake without them,

one in which we must turn to
each other when we emerge

from isolation, all of us aching,
looking for some place to share

a word, a touch, our love.
Might that be with you?

Putah Creek, UC Davis Arboretum / Photo by Jan Haag
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A doofus kinda love

Diego and Georgann, Dec. 12, 2016, at Jan’s house.

Diego, the big doofus, loves to lie on people, and here he sprawls on my BFF, Georgann (Taylor) Turner, on this day in 2016. I believe this may have been her last trip to Northern California, despite her tremendous pain as she dealt with metastasized colon cancer.

Never one to pass up the opportunity to take advantage of a warm blanket and person, Diego and Georgann rested together for a while that afternoon and evening. She, a kitty person, too, accepted Diego’s love (and enormous purr) as the great compliment it was and is. (And it is great—he’s a whopping 15-pounder of feline.)

Thinking of my BFF who died in August, as I do pretty much daily, grateful that she survived a dozen years with cancer. She wanted as much time on the planet as possible, and she got it at her home in Bremerton, Washington, thanks to the love and care of her family, particularly her husband, Ron Turner.

Thank you, BFF, for all the love… and your parking fairy, who found me a super-close spot today as dear friend Lisa and I went to the theater. We thanked her, as one does the parking fairy, as you taught me. That’s one way I know you’re still around!

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Repose

These days of the falling
I look to the gutters where

gold gathers along with
burnished red going to rust,

delicate saffron fans
having fluttered their last,

garnet maple leaves
the size of my hand

scattered belly up—
not quite dead but dying,

yet I see no gasping
or clinging, no resistance.

There is repose in
the glitter of the fallen,

a kind of peace there
with their brethren,

an acceptance of a
changing season,

an absolution, this
release from obligation.

You are forgiven,
the ginkgos say.

You can let go now.
Rest.

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