Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Wishing...

     The topic of Christmas Letters has come up several times in conversations recently. It used to be that the practice of sending out a typed letter to friends at the holidays was frowned upon, considered gauche, uncultured, and impersonal. I find it fascinating that during the last couple of decades, the Christmas Letter has become a welcomed tradition. Dozens of colorful letters from a variety of friends and family carry delightful annual stories into my home. I truly look forward to receiving them and enjoy catching up with everyone's adventures, challenges, and accomplishments via their words and photos. 
     I began writing my own holiday missives when we all moved to Northern California twenty-two years ago and left so many dear friends behind. It seemed like the perfect way to carry on relationships that might otherwise have slipped away. Over the years, I've kept a copy of each annual letter, and last year, at Dean's suggestion, I put them all together in a binder. It has become a great conversation starter, two decades in review.
     Following is my 2010 letter... a greeting meant to be part nostalgic reflection and part blessing sent your way...

Dearest Family and Friends,

     As I pulled off the freeway in Grass Valley the other day, I was greeted by a fleeting and beautiful winter weather phenomenon. Behind me, to the south, the sky was crystal clear and blue. The late afternoon sun was low in the sky, casting blinding golden rays into the eyes of the drivers headed that direction. Ahead of me, to the north, the sky was made black by a wall of tall storm clouds sweeping towards the mountains. The sky was cut exactly in two, one half clear blue, the other ominous black. Between me and that black wall swirled a fine golden mist, a silken veil of fog illuminated by slanting sunbeams. The gold fog descended on the roadway and enveloped my car, separating itself into its individual snowflakes, sparkling gold and silver. The first flakes were small and swirling, but soon huge quarter-sized flakes began to float out of the mist and stick on the car and the pavement. Within minutes, the ground was white and the sun was gone. The Magic of the Season is upon us!
     At this point in my holiday letter, I usually lament the speed at which the year has passed. However, this year, I must lament the passing of THREE years! My last letter went out in 2007. I had such good intentions the last two Decembers, but the Fates conspired against me… against us, really. December 2008 saw my dad, Wally, in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. In December 2009, it was my mom Louise’s turn. She spent a couple of months in the hospital fighting off an infection in her heart. “Recovering” and “fighting off” being the operative words in those sentences! They are both still alive and kicking and have promised to let me get my annual letter out this year. Much has happened in three years. Though I promise not to recount it all, there are some highlights to pass on.
     Dean is currently in the third year of a PhD program in the Communications Department at Stanford. He is taking classes, teaching, researching, and generally wallowing in the academic environs he so enjoys. He is also studying in the Statistics Department. For the last several months he has been working in the research lab at Facebook’s Palo Alto campus.
     Dean’s girlfriend, Kat (Katrina), is in law school at UC Hastings in “the city”, while Dean continues to live in Palo Alto. Though she graduated from Placer High, right down the road from here, Kat and Dean didn’t meet until they had both graduated from Stanford, and she answered an ad for a roommate! (Ironic.) Over the summer, they traveled to Spain and Turkey for a couple weeks of sightseeing, relaxation, and lots of pictures. Prior to that, over spring break, Dean traveled with long time friend, Chris, and others to Peru, a trip that included hiking and “luxury camping” in the Andes Mountains and more photography. And somewhere in between, he combined business with pleasure and traveled to Denmark and the Netherlands. Previously, there were multiple trips to Finland for Nokia, his former employer, and fun excursions to Florence, Venice, Paris, and closer to home, Yosemite and Napa.
     Dean enjoys an active lifestyle. He bikes almost everywhere and runs for fun. This year’s huge Sierra snowfall is a skier’s siren call. Oh, to be young and soooooo energetic. He also visits “home” several times each year and is really good about staying in touch with his grandparents. There are plans in the works to do some video interviewing of Grandma and Grandpa. (Check out his blog “Ready to Hand” at if you’re interested in what he’s thinking about and working on.)
     I celebrated the completion of my twentieth year of teaching last year, two decades – unbelievable! I continue to enjoy teaching English Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders in Colfax. Adolescents are fun and enthusiastic beings who keep me laughing and energized. Despite all the negative news you hear about the state of public education, I assure you, teaching and learning are alive and well in our neck of the woods. I have an awesome group of kids this year (as every year), who teach me something new everyday.
     In addition, I am trying something new in education. I am team-teaching a pair of online university courses, guiding students from the birth of their master’s projects in September to the publication and presentation of their final written theses in May. The courses are part of the MA Contemplative Education program that I, myself, completed two summers ago at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. It’s both fun and challenging to be on the other side of the virtual table, participating in threaded conversations about current topics in education and helping others through a life-changing process that I so recently completed myself.
     I have not done the kind of world traveling that Dean has enjoyed, but I have taken shorter trips in recent years: twice to DC and NYC with my students, Boulder and the Colorado Rockies with Naropa friends, retreats to beautiful Point Reyes, and fun in Encinitas. I also traveled to DC to attend the Mind and Life Institute and be inspired by the Dalai Lama, and to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park in Southern California for a lovely retreat. I enjoy tasting the local wines with friends at the sweet little wineries right here in the Sierra Foothills, and try to get out to do some local hiking, too. (Read my blog “It’s Dawning On Me” at to check in on what I’m thinking and doing.)
     My folks, Louise and Wally, are no longer able to participate in the kinds of adventures we used to take, but we get together almost every week. I drive up and we share dinner; sometimes I cook, sometimes we go out. Mom still gets in a few bridge outings a month, but Dad has gotten out of the bridge loop these days. What has been a fun hobby for all of us has been a new interest in genealogy. We have been doing extensive research online, with the help of We have dug out all the old boxes of pictures, letters, and other documents that have been hidden away for a long time. We have traced a dozen family strands back to the 1600s, thanks to those Quaker ancestors who were very good bookkeepers, cataloging everyone’s movements in great detail. But there are several intriguing mysteries yet to be solved, one of which includes a mysterious oil well!

Whew! That was three years in a nutshell!

I am blessed to number you among my beloved family and friends.
Your places in my life are sacred and bring me great happiness.
My inclusion in yours enriches me.
Wishing you all love, life, truth, beauty, abundance, and peace in 2011.

May all beings be free from suffering.
May all beings find love and happiness.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The junk drawer...
     Mine's in the kitchen, and it's the repository for all things miscellaneous, varied, random, homeless. Opening the drawer reveals a motley mosaic of entangled forms. Some inhabitants are obviously useful, functional, the quickly located goal of frequent or regular searches, things one wants to keep ready to hand. Others, equally useful, but rarely needed, end up relegated to the back of the drawer and require a fair amount to rummaging to find their way to the surface. A third group, saved for no apparent practical reason, having but limited purpose, yet it seems a wasteful shame to actually throw them away. They're the kind of thing that sells by the dozen, when you only ever need two or three at a time, and the next time comes again only after several years.

The junk drawer? 
Full of various and sundry things, 
Diverse and heterogeneous, 
An assorted conglomerate,
A haphazard assortment,
Scrambled and mingled, 
Jumbled and unmatched.
A drawer of miscellany.

  • Scissors with yellow handles
  • Blue-handled adjustable pliers
  • Needle-nosed pliers
  • Philips-head screwdriver
  • Slender orange plastic-handled razor cutter, with safety catch
  • Rubber bands: big blue ones, removed from fresh vegetables before cooking (15), small red ones (21), and a HUGE tan one
  • A small tub of Crazy Glue, more than half used
  • Six sheets of red twist ties, still clinging together, unseparated
  • Scotch brand invisible 3/4 inch tape in a dispenser
  • Blue masking tape, 1-1/2 inch wide roll
  • Red electrical tape, 1/2 inch wide roll
  • Master padlock with one key
  • Four random keys, definitely NOT front door or car keys
  • Marks-a-lot brand permanent marker, bold tip, black
  • Five push pins in rainbow colors
  • A dozen nails in a variety of sizes and colors
  • Three long slender bolts, and a score of small bolts and screws
  • Three white drawer pulls, removed from kitchen drawers, replaced over five years ago
  • One walkie-talkie, partner lost years ago
  • Twenty-five foot retractable metal measuring tape
  • Three meter retractable metal measuring tape
  • Two small flashlights, neither working, with dead AA batteries
  • Energizer AA batteries (3), Duracell C batteries (2)
  • Scripto brand butane BBQ lighter, with long wand handle
  • Bic butane lighter
  • S-hooks (3), cup hooks (4), cotter pins with rings (2)
  • One small box wooden strike-anywhere matches, scattered
  • Matchbooks (2)
  • Suction-cup hook (2)
  • Magnets (2)
  • O-ring, small (1), large (1)
  • Shelf brackets, metal (3 in plastic bag), plastic (2)
  • Wall mirror brackets, plastic (3)
  • One tube of lip balm
What's your drawer look like? Where's it located? What treasures does it contain? or hide? Come on, fess up. You have one, too. It keeps the rest of the place clean, if you have a place to shove the miscellany!

Heroine Out of the Blue...

Christmas, 1961.
     Santa Claus never wrapped the presents he left at our house. Instead, they were arrayed invitingly on the hearth, those meant for me on one side, my sister's on the other. Christmas '61, I discovered to my delight a beautiful hardbound book, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. The cover was splashed with brushstrokes in shades of blue, suggesting the rising, swirling waters of the Pacific, and the face of a beautiful Indian girl with eyes as deep as the sea. A gold seal announced its celebrity as that year's the Newbery Award Winner.

     I had spend many happy hours at our small town's well-stocked library, reverently touching and holding books, before choosing the weekly allotment. And I had spent even more hours curled up with those treasures in my favorite chair consuming them. Choosing crisp new paperbacks from Scholastic's monthly book orders, an American schoolhouse tradition for decades, was a privilege I delighted in. I had also been the lucky recipient of a sizable hand-me-down collection of Nancy Drew Mysteries, books savored repeatedly.

     But this was different. This was the very, very, very first brand new hardback book that I had ever owned! I picked up Santa's gift and was awed by it. It felt substantial in my hands. Watercolor art adorned the dust jacket that protected the treasure from damage. Taking a deep breath, I reverently opened the cover to read the words on the jacket's flaps, words that proclaimed Island of the Blue Dolphins a masterpiece. As I flipped though the pages, up rose the delightfully sweet new-book aroma unique to hardbounds.
     I do not remember anything else about that Christmas morning, absolutely nothing. I know all the presents under the tree were unwrapped, and I'm sure my mother made coffee and my father whipped up one of his traditional holiday breakfasts, but I can recall none of that. What I do recall is having to wait, and wait, and wait until things had calmed down enough for me to curl up in my favorite chair to begin reading this new story.

     The main character in Island of the Blue Dolphins is Karana, a young Indian girl marooned alone on an island with her little brother, when all the other members of her tribe are moved to a new home. A variety of challenges face the two children as they try to survive on their own. Karana fights off wild animals, learns to hunt and fish for food, builds a shelter and makes clothing, but despite her amazing efforts to protect him, the little boy eventually dies. Karana continues to live and even thrive on the island for a long time by herself, until she is finally rescued. Karana's story of survival and heroism is a true adventure story that took place on San Nicholas Island off the coast of Southern California during the days of the Spanish Missions.
     I LOVED that book. I fell in LOVE Karana. Certainly a classic heroic literary figure, she became my own personal heroine. Filled with love, she risked her life for her brother. She faced perilous challenges with courage and difficult problems with creative optimism. Faced with the loneliness of extreme isolation, she determinedly made a comfortable home for herself. What might have been an island paradise, was at first, a deadly trap. Through her Herculean efforts, she made it into a paradise.
     I wanted to be strong and brave and smart and independent just like Karana. I wondered, if I was faced with those kinds of threatening challenges, would I have her courage and strength?

Summer, 1964
     Television commercials announced the upcoming release of the movie, Island of the Blue Dolphins, with Celia Kaye playing the role of Karana. I am filled with excited anticipation, eager to see my heroine on the giant screen. In my eagerness, I reread the book for the third time, marking in my mind's eye exactly the countenance and mannerisms of each person, especially Karana and her brother. Again, I envisioned the island setting, with its sandy beaches and rocky cliffs, reminding myself of each and every detail of the plot as it unfolded. I wanted to see on the big screen what, until now, I had vividly been able to see only in miniature inside my head.
     Opening weekend found me with my friends in line at the glass ticket window in front of the Center Theater, in San Fernando, well before the movie was to begin. The ticket cost me fifty cents, a snack of popcorn and soda another fifty cents. We found perfect seats, halfway back and dead center, and sank into the red cushions. The popcorn was nearly gone by the time the deep red velvet curtain ascended to expose the giant movie screen. The auditorium full of kids grew silent as the lights dimmed to black and the music began.

     I discovered that day in that theater an important rule: The movie is NEVER as good as the book!

     I was soooooooooo disappointed to discover that the movie on the screen wasn't at all like the movie I had expected to see! The movie's Karana didn't look like MY Karana! The island didn't look like MY island! Did the director and I even read the same book? Huge parts of the story were missing entirely, and others were out of order or totally wrong! They ruined it! Ruined the movie! Innocently, I had believed the images that formed in my mind when I read O'Dell's words, were the same images that appeared in other readers' minds. I had expected those who made the movie to be faithful to the author's words and, therefore, to my imagery. The fact that others perceived "reality" differently than I did came as quite a shock!
     For a long while, even the book was ruined for me. Not for another twenty-five years did I reread what had been my favorite tale. Not until my son Dean was nine and in the fourth grade did I rediscover Island of the Blue Dolphins. We drove south from our home in Northern California, towards Ventura, the town of his birth, to visit friends. Dubbed our "California History Adventure Trip," along the way we visited museums and historical sites, including several California Missions. As I drove, Dean read aloud the story of Karana and the Island of the Blue Dolphins. In my mind's eye flowed, resurrected and untarnished, my original version of the movie, and my heroine, Karana, was reborn.

     While doing a bit of Google/Wikipedia research, to make sure I had all my dates and details correct, I was reminded that the original Karana had lived completely alone on San Nicholas Island, which is the Channel Island farthest from the coast, west of Ventura, for 18 long years. When she was "found" by a sea captain in 1853, she was taken to Santa Barbara and "christened" Juana Maria. The last living member of her tribe, the Nicoleno, she died seven weeks later, unable to survive her exposure to "civilization" the way she had survived, even thrived, for nearly two decades alone on her island home.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where, Oh, Where?

     My writing today is based on the poem "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon, a poem used frequently as a model for teaching poetry with both adults and adolescents. My students' final draft poems are due tomorrow. The parts of them I have seen so far are absolutely phenomenal, so full of personal insight, such a result of real self-reflection and self-knowledge. I thought it only fair that I "turned mine in" too. I think it fits with the essence of this blog.

Where I'm From

I am Joan Margaret Griffin

I am from two queens, one Greek, one English,
And a Hebrew “Gift from God.”
I am from myths: A lion with head and wings of an eagle,
Who collects and guards golden treasure.

I am from England, Wales, and Germany,
From devote Quakers with black hats and white bonnets,
Early colonists who came on small ships.
I am from New England whaling captains, Southern backwoods hillbillies,
And hard-working Midwest farmers.

I am from SoCal, from “The Valley,”
From an “oops!” mistake, and “We choose you!” at LA County adoption.
I am from skates with keys, tree houses, kickball on Newton Street, forts in the vacant lot,
And “Be home before the streetlights come on!”

I am from swimming pools, with black stripes and starting blocks,
And from hair turned green from chlorine.
From jump-rope and jacks, black-and-white TV and Barbie dolls.

I am from homework done at the dining room table, and books consumed under the covers,
From The Beatles and The Monkees, Gilligan’s Island and Leave It To Beaver.
I am from road trips in the station wagon and 8mm family movies.

I am from lasagna made from scratch, and homemade meatloaf with instant mashed potatoes.
From ice cream cakes, Mom’s famous Lemon Snow Pie,
And Dad’s silver-dollar-sized pancakes, only on Sunday mornings.

I am from Spartans and Bruins, and football games at the Rose Bowl,
From sun, sand, and sailboats, wetsuits, and zinc oxide,
Freckles and sunburn that blisters and peels.

On one side, I am from strong silent adventuring men,
On the other, from wild and worrying women.
I am granddaughter, daughter,
I am Joan Margaret Griffin

Monday, August 9, 2010

Spiralling Through Space...

     Smooth, rounded river rocks, ranging in size from golf balls to softballs, are carefully lined up along the ground. The outlines of a large mandala emerge from the golden earth... a walking labyrinth. One enters on the south side and follows the stone-lined path round and round, sometimes back-tracking along an arch, as the path bends back on itself before circling round to the other side.

     Stopping momentarily at the entrance, I silently thank those who created and continue to maintain this gift to the community. I breathe slowly and deeply, three times, then step onto the path before me. Placing one foot in front of the other, I feel each step as it connects me to the strength and stability of the earth. I consciously follow the sense of solidity and support moving up my leg, from the pad of my foot, through my leg bones and joints to my hips and spine. Then I step again, and again, and again.
     Walking slowly, mindfully, I am greeted by the wide and spacious center in about ten minutes. A pause, in this circle within the circle, to savor the silent energy of the whole space, precedes my return walk. Half of the larger circle is shaded graciously by huge overhanging branches of the surrounding trees. The coolness of the air, a breeze perhaps, moves over my skin. My body whispers its gratitude and my steps slow subtly to savor the cool air I am moving through. The other half of the mandala's path sits under the brilliant summer sun. My skin warms under its influence, and I am grateful to my hat. As I follow the path's turning pattern, I move in and out of the sun, in and out of the shade, passing from one tactile sense of gratitude to another.
     A labyrinth is designed to be a walking prayer, a physical meditation. My steps are accompanied by my personal walking mantra, its eight-step chant perfected on the John Muir Trail a few years ago, "Love, life, truth, beauty, abundance, and peace." I find repeating those words over and over adds an additional calming and inspiring energy to that already provided by the path of the labyrinth. It's like a Maitri or Metta chant, a prayer for all beings to be happy, healthy, and at peace.

     Tucked away in the Sierra foothills, hidden in Alta Sierra, this simple, sweet walking labyrinth is a part of Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens, located just off Highway 49, between Auburn and Grass Valley, on Auburn Street. The lush gardens lie along a small, rushing creek on the west side of the highway. Painstakingly and lovingly created three decades ago, the gardens are on private property and beautifully maintained by the family who live there. If you take the path to the left, after leaving the parking area, it winds along and over the creek, looping back to the starting place. The cool, shady path is lined with statues of figures and signs with verses from the Bible, that many visitors find deeply inspiring.
     If you turn right on the path from the parking area, it takes you away from the creek and delivers you, instead, to the walking labyrinth... my favorite of the Garden's offerings. The labyrinth's design is a very traditional one, based on the medieval labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. It was created here in 1998.
     At the parking area are several shaded picnic tables, a delightful place to enjoy a book and a snack. The Gardens are open most days until dusk or 7pm (which ever is earlier). The family that owns and maintains this hidden little paradise request only three things of visitors: behave with quiet respect, remove any trash, and leave a small donation for upkeep.
     I would encourage you to visit this treasure that sits hidden "in our own backyard." Use the link above to find a map and directions. The photo above is from the Biblical Gardens website. If you don't live "in the neighborhood," you can use this link to locate a labyrinth in your area.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fresh and Mindful...

     Dozens of local (and some not quite as local) growers gather near Old Town Auburn each Saturday morning, their tables piled high with freshly picked fruits and vegetables. The Farmers Market offerings vary with the seasons, each season ushered in with its own unique colors and aromas. Gone now are the mandarins that dominated the Market just a couple months ago, replaced by summer's near-blinding bounty.

     This weekend, there are plums arranged in a palette of seven distinct colors. Did you realize there were seven plum colors? There are a shade of green somewhere between lime and ripe honeydew, two shades of red-violet, deep purple, nearly black, and golden... and a magical hue that I am struggling here to describe... I can see it clearly in my eye's memory... but my eye and my verbal cortex are struggling to communicate... so I/we are going to resort to metaphor, a story, and see if that works...

     There is a plum tree orchard that is home to a pair of very creative and very artistic fairies. It is their job to fly about painting the plums as they ripen, adjusting their palette each day as the plums swell and grow sweeter. There are an odd number of trees in the orchard, so the tree in the center has always been a point of contention for them. Armed with their teeny-tiny paint brushes, the two fairies approach the tree, each hoping to get there first and claim the tree as her own. This year, they arrived at exactly the same moment, so decided to share the task of painting the plums. One used golden yellow, the color of butter; the other, a deep violet with only the barest hint of red. As a result, each and every plum, painted with the finest, most delicate of brush strokes, is a wondrous swirl of gold and purple.

     Of course, the plums are but one of scores of different fruits and vegetables on display at the Farmers Market. Mounds of peaches, plums, melons, strawberries, and blackberries call to passersby with their silent aromas. Nearby, tomatoes of every shape and size, glow brilliantly as though lit from within, deep reds, from fire engine to burgundy, tangerine orange, golden rod, lemon yellow, and others that sport patterns of stripes and spots. Farther down are five kinds of cucumbers, some tiny, some long and slender, others grown into great curls, and of course, adorable lemon cucs. Across the way are summer squash and zuchinni in baby sizes: solid colors, stripes, spots, and half-and-half designs. There are cilantro, basil, parsley, and more herbs I don't know. Oh, and potatoes in three colors and shapes; onions, red, white, and green; and garlic.

   Whenever Saturday finds us both in town, Janiene and I meet for coffee and then head for the Farmers Market together. For a small sum, our cloth bags are filled to the brim. This weekly ritual is a wonderful jaunt, a festive stroll in the morning sun. It's like going to the fair (with out the rollercoaster and the screaming).

     All week, my colorful and flavorful Saturday purchases find their way into my menu and my mouth. A salad made with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and cilantro I bought at the "fair." For lunch, a giant artichoke. Tomorrow, I may steam potatoes with garlic and onions, and enjoy another salad. Almost as fresh as if I had raised them in my own garden, but lots less work and lots more fun!

This food is a gift of the Universe.
The earth, the sky, numerous living beings,
and much hard work contributed to its creation.

May I eat with mindfulness and gratitude,
so as to be worthy to receive it.

May I keep my compassion alive by eating in such a way
as to reduce the suffering of living beings
and preserve our planet. 
                                                (Adapted from Deer Park Monastery "songbook")

     There are Farmers Markets all around, almost everyday finds the traveling farmers in one of the little towns around here. The locations of the Auburn area Markets can be found here. Grass Valley area markets here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ode to Teachers...

     The first day of school is fast approaching (three weeks and counting). As I begin to think about preparing my classroom for the new students who will enter it, I find my mind traveling back to the teachers in my own early life who inspired me and influenced who I would become. There are many teachers and classrooms I remember clearly; three stand out from my days at Christian Day School in San Fernando, way back in the 1960's.

     Mrs. Reid, slender, dark-haired, gentle-voiced, and very strict, taught me to read in first grade, using the famous (or infamous) Reading with Dick and Jane series. I can vividly see and even hear the first pages of those books. I loved Dick, Jane, Sally, and of course, Spot.
Look, look.
Oh, look.
See Spot.
See Spot run.
Run, Spot, run!
I had come to first grade with a powerful desire to learn the mystery of reading, and Mrs. Reid granted that wish. (Don't you just love the irony of her name?) I am forever grateful to her. I can see that wide room, cool and dark, filled with wood-topped desks, rubbed deep-brown and satin-smooth from years of eager use. Mrs. Reid would pass around a bin full of small, square, yellow letter tiles from which we would take great handfuls, then quietly create words on our desktops. I felt a sense of magic in that activity: I had the power to make words that others could read and understand!

     In fourth grade, I basked in the radiance of Mrs. Hart (again, a name so like her being!) She was round and warm and constantly smiling; she oozed love. Her classroom was brightly lit and full of colors. Students' papers smiled proudly from the walls. I know we studied math and science and California history, complete with the standard Mission Model, but my most powerful memory is of the books Mrs. Hart kept on a special shelf at the back of the room. A series of biographies of famous Americans written especially for children, we were allowed to borrow them to read during free time or when we had finished an assignment. A contest developed: who could read the most books from this vast collection before the year was over? I loved those books, especially those about famous female Americans like Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams. Every spare moment I could squeeze out of the day, I spent reading those books. There were about fifty, I think, and I read most, though not all, of them. My interest in strong female characters has stayed with me; I find the life stories of women like Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Eleanor Roosevelt to be powerful influences on my own life and character.

     Mr. Fesler made my sixth grade year amazing, utterly amazing. Tall and slender, dressed in shirt and tie, Mr. Fesler was a commanding figure. He was brilliant; he seemed to know everything about everything. And he was artistic and creative, too. Oh, Mr. Fesler held us up to the highest standards, pushed us academically, then rewarded us with his attention and compliments. I started the year with four lovely spiral notebooks, each a different pastel color. I had never before possessed a spiral notebook; they seemed so adult and I felt so grownup using them. I remember taking notes and drawing careful and detailed illustrations with colored pencils in those books: Ra the Sun God, a map of the Nile, a neuron and a muscle cell, the digestive system. For an art project, I remember using pastel chalks in vibrant colors (again, soooo adult!) to create a beautiful scene of ocean waves and sky on a huge piece of construction paper, pictures which were eventually suspended from the classroom ceiling. We did Algebra, too, that year. (How grownup is that!) I learned about X and Y and equations and fell in love with them all. Math is black and white; answers are right or wrong. And, if they're wrong, you can confidently go back and fix them. Every afternoon that year, I came home from school, and immediately sat down at the dining room table to do my homework, always starting with math. To this day, if you look closely at that table in my parents' dining room, you can clearly see equations impressed deeply into its surface in my handwriting.

     As the first day of school year 2010-2011 approaches, I aspire to share with my eighth graders my love for, and the power of, words and reading. I aspire to create a space and a community so that we can all learn and grow, be inspired, and develop our characters.

(In preparing this blog, I googled Christian Day School in San Fernando, hoping to link to a photo or two, old or new... only to find that it doesn't exist any longer... using google's surface street view on Kewen Street, I can't even find the buildings... and the only school listed in the directory is a Headstart Preschool... so if you have access to photos, let me know, please!)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Regular Spot...

     Don't you just love to walk into a local eating establishment... knowing you'll be recognized and greeted as an old friend... and your favorite food or drink will be ready for you quick as a wink?

     Tucked away in Historic Old Town Auburn, in one of those quaint brick buildings from a bygone era, when sidewalks were boardwalks and fancy facades were all the rage, sits Mary Belle's Restaurant. Between two antique shops, across from the vintage red firehouse, and catty-corner from the post office, with its original filigreed mailboxes, in a building that previously housed, among other concerns, a hardware store, a drug store, and a Chinese restaurant, Mary Belle's is always a-bustle at breakfast-time.
     The narrow streets of Old Town were built for vehicles of that former era, so today's cars squeeze between their curbs. This exercise in navigation is well worth the effort. Recent years have brought a face lift to this small town's beauty, not a plastic "progress at all costs" kind of redo, but a thoughtful restoration project that has succeeded in bringing out her allure.
     The shingle atop the building enthusiastically invites passersby into Mary Belle's. Opening the door and stepping across the threshold transports you sweetly back in time. The Formica counter, with its swivel seats, is right out of the early 1960's. Waitresses call out a welcome, encourage you to take a seat, and quickly fill your mug with coffee. A family-owned business for nearly 50 years, Mary Belle's is the oldest restaurant in Auburn.
     The daily specials, like the regular fare, are all homemade from the freshest ingredients, much of it local produce. My favorites are the blueberry pancakes, made with a gazillion fresh berries, and the vegetarian eggs Benedict, with spinach substituted for the traditional ham and a "to die for" homemade Hollandaise sauce. For lunch, they make the best tuna melt sandwich in the world, bar none.

     The irony is that I only discovered this landmark restaurant in my hometown a few years ago. It wasn't that I had just never gotten around to trying out Mary Belle's menu; it was that I didn't even know it existed! How many times I must have driven or walked right past it, I can't even imagine. But, thankfully, one day not long ago, I did venture in and partake of their delightful fare. Now, it's my regular spot, and I have never, ever been disappointed.

     A couple times a month, of a weekend morning, I arrange to meet either Sandra or Bill, my two breakfast buddies, at Mary Belle's. We always sit at "our" table, though, interestingly enough, that spot differs depending who I'm with! Bill and I always sit in the bay window at a round table, while Sandra and I always choose the square table by the back wall.
     What was that line in the old TV series "Cheers"? ... a place "where everyone knows your name"... I'm not sure the waitresses at Mary Belle's know my name... but they know my face... exactly what I'm going to order... and where I'm going to sit!

     Take my word for it, and stop by the next time you're in town; the restaurant is located at 1590 Lincoln Way in Old Town Auburn. Or don't take my word alone; check out photos and reviews on Yelp.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Surrounded by Fools...

     It was supposed to be three days and two nights of rain, rain, and more rain, but I had not anticipated the magic that April Fool's Day would bring! When reserving the Hummingbird Cottage at Bear Valley Bed and Breakfast, in Olema, near Point Reyes National Seashore, several weeks ago, I had envisioned beautiful spring weather. I imagined walking in the warming sunshine on beaches and through fields of wildflowers while watching birds flit about. However, as Easter week and my personal escape plans drew near, the weather forecast was not cooperating, calling for a week of storm fronts, dark clouds, and nonstop rain. Unabashed, I packed books and my laptop, knowing I would be very satisfied to curl up with a blanket and hot tea, while reading and writing to my heart's content.
     Well, it was not to be! I was awakened on April 1 by sunshine beaming through the cottage's many windows imploring me to get up and get out and go exploring! Quickly, I did just that!
     Happy day! Feeling a bit Alice-in-Wonderland-ish, it seemed everywhere I looked foolish things were going on! Not wanting to be left out of the delightful nonsense, I convinced myself (not a difficult task) to jump right into the tomfoolery...

     Three-hundred-and-eight steps down and three-hundred-and-eight steps back up. Down is a lark; up is an invigorating aerobic challenge. The Point Reyes lighthouse sits near the base of la Punta de los Reyes, the Point of the Kings, a befittingly regal name for this stunning geological formation, which reaches well out into el Oceano Pacifico, the peaceful ocean. The lighthouse is approached from the cliff above by navigating a long, long, long, narrow flight of concrete steps (a bit like descending through Alice's rabbit hole, though the view is significantly more majestic). The wind roars, the waves crash, the white-capped, far-from-peaceful green water is streaked with stripes of foam.

     Pods of California gray whales make their spring migration northward toward their Alaskan feeding grounds. Hugging the coastline, they pass just below the Point Reyes lighthouse, where scores of bundled human observers, hair whipping in the wild wind and armed with binoculars, squint into the sun to spot the whales as they come to the surface to wave hello!

     Three midnight-black ravens play in the brisk, on-shore wind, beside the one-lane road taking me inland. As I stop to watch their aerial gymnastics, they morph into missiles shooting across the sky, wings tucked back, moving with the speed of the wind. Then turning-on-a-dime, in beautiful synchrony, the ravens face into the wind, wings spread and arched like three pairs of spinnaker sails, they surf waves of air that rise and crest above the headlands, hovering, slipping left, sliding right, a trio of black-paper kites without strings.

     Down at the lagoon, hundreds of fat and happy elephant seals, mamas with their babies, lie basking in the sun in the lee of the cliffs, out of the wind's reach. Singing their spring songs, their voices range from bloodhound hunting calls to the hoarse barking of dogs with laryngitis and the high-speed rat-a-tat of woodpeckers hard at work. The nearly inert colony's chorus rises from what appears to be a large collection of weathered driftwood logs thrown up onto the sand.

     Wild irises wiggle and dance along the trail's edge, as the wind whips along the rolling green hills that slide across the headlands. There are many wildflowers that take part in the day's dance, pink, yellow, orange, blue, and white, but it is the deep violet irises, trying vainly to stand tall and proud in the face of this constant breeze, that attract my attention. I attempt, also in vain, to catch an iris portrait, but none of them will stop jitterbugging long enough to pose.

     At precisely 5pm, hundreds of happy California cows, udders filled like giant water balloons, prick up their ears, sniff the air, and turn as one, like a school of ungainly fish, lining up single-file and to parade in their slow lumbering waddle towards some unseen destination. These "happy cows," and many more, make their homes at historic Ranches A through G which sit picturesquely within the park's boundaries doing their dairy business much as it has been done for a century-and-a-half.

     Hawks, kites, and kestrels, sit on fence posts and telephone poles. Normally serious and fierce in appearance as they scan the open green fields for prey, this evening they appear nearly comical. They look frazzled and wind-whipped, their feathers sticking up at odd angles. If only these normally distinguished-looking raptors had fingers and external ears, then they could tuck those wild feathers behind their ears to keep them out of their eyes, or slick them back with maximum-hold hair gel.

     Having had enough of the cold, blustery wind, I park in a small lot facing the lagoon, in the lee of the cliffs. Enjoying the scene, made more tranquil by the warm interior of the car, I am greeted by the parking lot's reigning ruler and self-appointed greeter, a studly seagull who hovers over my windshield, then slowly settles down directly onto the front of my van. By way of "hello," he pecks at my driver's side windshield, throws his head back, and lets out a series of "ack-ack" calls, perhaps taking possession of this new high-ground. We eye one another from just inches away and chat amiably through my open side window.

     Heading back to the sanctuary of the B-and-B, I see far to the west, the low cloud bank, hovering just above the distant horizon, that previews tomorrow's storm. The sun, still an inch or two above sinking into the ocean, is dipping behind the clouds, creating a pre-sunset pseudo-sunset, coloring the western sky pink and lavender, silver and turquoise, while sending golden "god's rays" streaking to earth.

     Waving whales, surfing ravens, singing elephant seals, dancing irises, schooling cows, disheveled raptors, a chatty seagull, and a sunset in broad daylight... followed by a hot cup of tea in the Hummingbird Cottage... The only things missing are a grinning cat and a top hat! There's an April-Fools, Griffin-in-Wonderland-or-Kings'-Point nonsense poem in there somewhere... perhaps if the Mad Hatter were here he could recite it for me!

     Dear Friend Meghan just sent me the following Tarot description of "The Fool." I just had to go back and add it in here as it's quite an inspiring look at the classic character of "The Fool," not so much foolish as creative... like he's a blank canvas together with a palate full of paints! Thank you, Meghan! What a pair of Fools we are!
     Basic Tarot Meaning: At #0, the Fool is the card of infinite possibilities. The bag on the staff indicates that he has all he needs to do or be anything he wants, he has only to stop and unpack. He is on his way to a brand new beginning. But the card carries a little bark of warning as well. Stop daydreaming and fantasizing and watch your step, lest you fall and end up looking the fool.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Buddha Energy...

     I took myself on a delightful little "field trip" the other day to the AS IF Gallery (Artists Studio in the Foothills) in Grass Valley, a place I hate to admit I hadn't even known existed before this. On exhibit is an eclectic collection of works gathered together around a wonderfully creative idea.
     Twenty-one local artists were each given a blank white canvas on which to express their creativity and display their individual artistic style in preparation for the current showing. The unique canvases came in three sizes: quite large (about 4-foot), medium, and rather small (about 18-inches). It was the unique nature of the canvases that attracted my attention and drew me to the gallery. Each canvas is in the shape of a three-dimensional mask, a peacefully meditating Buddha face. The small airy gallery is spiritually transformed by the Twenty-One Buddhas show.

     One golden Buddha looks ancient, like he had been found in a newly discovered archeological dig. Another is painted like a deep-blue midnight sky filled with stars, giving the sense that the Buddha is peacefully dreaming. A garden Buddha is overgrown with masses of bold flowers in full bloom, another wears gleaming golden leaf prints. The branches and roots of a traditional Tree of Life spread across one tranquil face, while another has been transformed into a vibrant African ceremonial mask.
     The colors and textures, the styles and media, used by the individual artists vary widely, creating a myriad of moods. Many are calm and mindful, others wildly awake. Buddhas are painted, collaged, bejeweled, and appliqued. Masks in soft-textured pastel temperas hang in contrast with those made intense with shiny lacquers. All are beautiful and all appear to manifest an authentic human spirit.

     But it was Mosaic Buddha that touched me most deeply. Covered entirely in carefully arranged bits of blue and white tiles and beads and tiny silver mirrors, this face expresses so much depth. Distinct patterns appear to flow and move like water across the serene face, both accentuating the human shape of the face and hiding it. Mirrors reflected my own face back to me thousands of times. As I moved, the light and the pattern moved, too, changing the face of Buddha and bringing him mysteriously alive. His moving spirit directly connected to my own reflected movements.

     Adjoining the inspiring gallery are several artists' studios that display both completed pieces and works in progress. There are even classes available; it's a very "happenin' place!" The photo of the Buddhas above came to me via an email from the gallery's blog, and I share it with you in the hopes that it will fill you with enthusiasm to take yourself on a little field trip!
Om mani padme hum.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wild and Scenic...

     Spring's warmer sunlight and longer days send snowmelt to swell the local Gold Country rivers coursing down their narrow, rocky canyons. Filled with silt that tints its swiftly moving water the color of a chai latte, the South Yuba River winds quickly into and out of view while following its snaking route from high in the Sierra Nevada towards the Valley's flat lands to the west. Later in the summer months, water warm enough to invite swimmers will slip lazily from clear pool to clear pool, skirting boulders strewn along its shallow path. However, now, in the early spring, it tumbles and dances and leaps in a beautiful ballet that belies the powerful force that keeps all prudent humans from entering its sweeping flow. Water cascades in white froth over barely visible boulders and is sucked into secret deep holes. Not even the most experienced white water enthusiasts venture into the frigid unforgiving waters in this season, in this stage of spring flood. Local river lovers admire the South Yuba from a higher perch this time of year.
     Winding along the northern edge of the South Yuba River canyon is a well-marked hiking trail high above the rocky waterline. Sometimes shaded by native trees, other times cutting through grassy spaces on the hillside, the trail provides a panoramic view of the river and its towering canyon walls. Sweltering hot and baked brown, this hike is not an inviting adventure in the summer. But in springtime, the hillsides are newly green and swept by a cool breeze that follows the water, creating an invitation not easily refused. The sky overhead is crystal blue and sports a few fleeting white clouds. Music made by the rushing, bouncing water rises up to fill the air. Birds flit and twitter among tree branches, adding their songs to the mix.
     The trailsides are dotted with an array of wildflowers in combinations that shift and change dramatically from week to week. Early rising docents have kindly labeled the flowers that greet hikers today: red-stemmed filaree, blue dicks, zig-zag larkspur, groundsel, and more. Yarrow and lupine, green and spreading, patiently await their turns to bloom.
     On predominate display, today, is California's own tufted poppy, bright and arrogant in its singular orange fluorescence. In places, the south-facing, green-carpeted hillside that descends precariously from the trail, is populated by colonies of poppies swaying and cavorting in the breeze. The numerous other wildflowers in sweet pinks, whites, and yellows, though quite lovely to wander amongst, simply pale in comparison. When spring's low slung sun sends its rays to backlight the poppies, they become riotous flames. One cannot help but love and admire the audacity of these California flowers that just scream, "Wake up! It's Spring!"

"In spite the durability of rock walled canyons and the surging power of cataracting water, the wild river is a fragile thing -- the most fragile portion of the wilderness country."  -Biologist John Craighead 

     The undammed and free-flowing South Yuba River is a part of "National Wild and Scenic River System," thanks to the heroic preservation efforts of local citizens banded together as SYRCL (South Yuba River Citizens League). The river trail leads east, upriver, from the state park's parking lot to the edge of the park. At the west end of the trail, the South Yuba River passes beneath a unique covered bridge at the aptly named Bridgeport. Once a small thriving community, it is now Bridgeport State Park. The bridge, built in 1862, is a 229-feet long single span covered bridge that is believed to be the longest of its type in existence anywhere. Originally a toll bridge, it served gold miners and settlers alike in California's early days.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lightning at Ten Thousand Feet...

     As we topped the granite ridge, to our dismay, the sky ahead was black and boiling with angry clouds. I don’t know what we expected to see, but we had hoped that the storm clouds would not be sitting directly atop the very pass we needed to cross. Not only was our forward motion blocked by this wall of weather, but it was moving so fast and furiously in our direction that we had no time for a retreat to lower, safer ground. Instead, we three had to play out the scene from a clich├ęd disaster movie, and hope that the event didn’t end badly. Later, we would each confess to visualizing the newspaper headlines about the bodies of three hapless hikers being retrieved and then being posthumously embarrassed at finding ourselves in such a ridiculous predicament.
     Scurrying back down the rocky path we had just labored up, we backtracked to a small patch of green a few feet lower than the tippy top of Donahue Pass and began preparing to hunker down to let the storm pass overhead.
     “Okay, girls, what exactly are we going to do here?”
     “I’m sure as hell dumping this pack and anything metal I’m wearing, and then I’m going to that grassy spot to lie down.”
     “It’s not much lower here than it is at the top!”
     Each of us has frantically tossed her new and treasured backpack unceremoniously against a rocky wall and is digging helter-skelter through the pack in search of any and all warm and waterproof clothing, scattering undesired items about on the ground. Donning long underwear, fleece and raingear top and bottom, gloves and hats, while abandoning metal-laced watches and glasses, we hastened to the deepest of the slight dips in the landscape. Positioned between a small snowmelt pond and huge piles of granite boulders, we ran down our lists of sage backcountry do’s and don’t’s.
     “I know we’re not supposed to stand under tall trees.” Not a problem here way above tree line. “But I also think we’re supposed to stay away from water and big rocks! So, should I be closer to the pond or the rocks?”
     “I don’t think it matters anymore; the storm is on top of us! Just get down!”
     Having spread ourselves out, each of us now curled up into the fetal position. Covering our heads, we did the best we could to protect ourselves from the pounding deluge, that thankfully waited until we had wrapped ourselves in our plastic clothes to begin its assault. Around us, engulfing us, the sky was black, turning the early afternoon to a nearly nighttime darkness. Lightning rent the clouds. Some high above us, leaping from cloud to cloud, making intricate webs of light in the darkness. Other, thicker bolts slashed vertically to and from the peaks that surrounded us on all sides. Counting the moments between flash and thunder was impossible, so simultaneous were they. Flash, BOOM! Flash, BOOM!  The light and noise went on and on and on. At the storm’s peak, came the whipping, icy wind, and the rain turned to pelting hail. Even as the clouds around us grew thicker, blinding us, wrapping us in mist and 10,000-foot-high fog, the ground became white with piles of hail.
     I keep my face covered, like I do in scary movies, peaking out between my fingers in momentary bouts of bravery, slamming closed my finger-shutters with each repeated round of Flash, BOOM! I still see plenty, enough to scare me to my core. “What am I doing here?” I think loudly, “What are three smart women doing in this predicament? We know better than this!”
     Prayers, pleas, and promises flow like charged liquid from my mind. I urge them upward and outward, hoping they will penetrate the ion-filled sky and find a sympathetic reception with the powers that be. I visualize a golden igloo of protective light arched over and around us three, as we huddle, vulnerable, on the small patch of green in the sky. Repeating my words like the mantra that never ends, I hold the image steady in my mind’s eye, the wildness of the weather battering the glowing dome protecting us.
     So cold, I am shivering uncontrollably even in my layers of fleece and plastic, and my teeth are chattering. “Has it been an hour? How much longer will I be able to stay here?” I wonder.
     I wiggle and rub my extremities in an attempt to get my body temperature up, but to no avail, the shivering and chattering go on. The weak link is my feet; I am still wearing my Tevas with socks that are sopping wet. I had changed from hiking boots to sandals when we crossed the creek early in the sunny morning. It was the first of several crossings that second day of our long trek, and a rather daunting first crossing, with the water coming up nearly to my hips. Abandoning the boots had felt wonderful at the time, but that decision, and the subsequent one to not take the precious time to change back to boots in face of the on-rushing storm, now proved a problem.
     It suddenly occurred to me that there was the minutest of pauses between the flashes and the BOOMS now. The storm appeared to be moving ever so slowly northward. We were still wrapped in clouds that sat on the rocky pass and cloaked the peaks to the point of invisibility, but the violence and the wildness was moving slowly away.
     At precisely the moment those thoughts filled my cold-slowed brain, a voice rang out, “Let’s go! The storm’s not on top of us anymore! Let’s go!”
     Galvinized, our three bodies leaped up like one, and moved with focused energy to the waiting packs. In mere moments, we had packs on. In the same way that distraught mothers lift cars off the crushed bodies of their children, the very packs that we struggled to hoist and buckle earlier in the day were suddenly light, nearly airborne.
     Faster than we could have imagined possible, we scuttled across the broad granite pass, and began finding our way down the other side. Frozen feet were impossibly sure-footed, rock-hopping downward from one massive boulder to the next. The trail was invisible, no cairns marked the rocks, and vast expanses of the downhill slope were covered with snow. Our feet did not care, they fairly flew, so eager were we to “get down off this damn mountain!”
     Halfway down to the green Alpine meadows below, I had to stop. I could not feel my feet; they had been completely numb for well over an hour. Now that the immediate danger of the lightning and thunder had passed, and my adrenaline surge just about used up, they were beginning to feel like clumsy clubs or stumps, and I was fearful of stumbling in the rock maze we were crossing. While Cappy and I sat on the wet rocks and began the slow process of changing from sandals to boots and dry socks, Jane, who had been wearing her boots all day, scouted around for some suggestion of a trail.
     Within minutes, and well before our bootlaces were tied, she caught sight of a muddy, brown line cutting through the meadow not far below us. Amazingly enough, we were right on track, our basic sense of direction had led us nearly to it. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, we pressed forward, with dry feet, toward the flat green spot still another 1000 feet below us. Despite its considerable distance, being able to clearly see our destination buoyed our spirits.
     John Muir Trail, Day 2, July 20, 2006.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Literary Love Affair...

     “Joan,” my mother says my name.
     “Joan,” she calls a little louder.
     I startle, blink, and locate the source of my name. “Huh?” I reply.
     “I want you go outside for a while. You’ve been shuttered up inside all day. You need to go out and get some sunshine.”
     “In a little while.”
     “That’s what you said an hour ago.”
     “Just let me finish this chapter.”
     “Alright, but I want you to go out and move a little. Your blood is puddling.”
     Five minutes and five pages later, I uncurl myself and stand to stretch before heading outside.

*      *      *

     Hundreds of characters have at one time or another held the lofty, yet short-lived, honor of Joan’s Favorite. From Nancy Drew to Huck Finn, from Anne Frank to Ender, from Frodo to Alice, many have had their 15-minutes in lights. Am I fickle? I don’t fall in and out of love, rather, I have intense crushes on the courageous, adventurous, lovable, and wise inhabitants of the stories I read.
     “This week’s Bookademy Award for Best Female Character in a Dramatic Role goes to… the envelope, please…”
     It’s not that I love too little; it’s that I love too much. After a while, I can’t even remember all their names. In my mind’s eye, I can see their adventures, their trials and their triumphs, their brushes with death and their love affairs as clear as if it were just yesterday when we met. But details like their names escape me.

*      *      *

     I save my deep love for authors. I have had lengthy affairs of the heart with writers, gone on binges with storytellers. Certain authors, I have returned to time after time, never able to satisfy my desire for their bewitching words, their siren voices, always yearning for one more chapter, one more story, one more book.
     Storytelling is a sacred art, a gift from the gods and inspired to great heights by the Muses. Some write well enough, some quite well, but only a rare few angelically. A well-crafted story, though not always pretty, is beautiful. It has the power to transport me to times and places where I have never been and to immerse me into those times and places so powerfully that I know them intimately. I have traveled to distant solar systems, ancient villages, concentration camps, and magical cities. I have dined at banquets in the courts of kings and lay with the bloodied and dying in muddy battlefields. I have hiked through pristine forests of unexplored lands, felt the magic of fairy dust tingling on my skin, and ridden behind smoke-belching locomotives. I’ve been joyful in triumph, mournful of loss, giddy with love, and despairing of all hope.
     Words, eloquent and exact, are the sacred medium of the writer’s craft. I savor the way they flow over my tongue when I read them aloud. When I read them silently to myself, my mind’s ear hears them just as clearly, as they flow over my mind’s silent tongue. Well-chosen words, strung together with great care, create emotions, make connections, unveil brilliant ideas, and dare to change long-held perspectives.

*      *      *

John Steinbeck. Jane Austen. Ernest Hemingway. John Michener.
Ken Follet. Mary Stewart. Leon Uris. Orson Scott Card.
Neal Stephenson.
Barbara Kingsolver.
Pat Conroy.
Demigods all, in Joan’s Wordsmith Hall of Fame.

     Each of them has laid claim to a piece of my heart. Each of them is a teacher, a guru, a mentor, from whom I have learned about the workings of the world and my innermost intimate self. Witnessing, through their words, acts of courage, I have learned to be courageous. From their stories of pain and deprivation, I have learned empathy and compassion. I have been inspired towards creativity while immersed in word pictures of beauty and become galvanized by images of injustice. Between the lines of their stories, I have found truth and the roots of wisdom.
     Good writers compress time and space for us and reduce the “degrees of separation” between ourselves and others. With authors’ able assistance, we expand our minds to wrap them around new perspectives, the traditions of distant cultures, and the lives of people and civilizations long dead. In ways only possible in stories, we get to “know” strangers better than our own neighbors, because we are privy to their secret hearts’ desires and learn what motivates them. The paradox of this simultaneous compression and expansion starts us on the path to changing, first our perspectives, then our world.

*      *      *

     The reading lamp at my side carves a golden cave of light from the darkness. Curled comfortably around a book, I had not noticed the sun set nor the window fade to black. I had not noticed the room go cold, nor did I hear my stomach grumble. Looking up, I am surprised by the time. Knowing I should head to bed, I pull the fuzzy warm throw more tightly around my shoulders and tell myself, “Just one more chapter… Just one more chapter… Just one more chapter.”

*      *      *
     After some early crushes, James Michener was my first true literary love. In a youthful and lustful binge, I consumed several of his massive volumes, some of them double volumes, one right after the other. Starting with Hawaii, I savored my way through The Source, Caravans, Chesapeake, Centennial, and The Covenant. I was mesmerized by the way he takes the reader to a specific place, and then recounts the rich and enticing history of that place from nearly the beginning of time to the present. Volcanoes explode and dinosaurs roam in chapter one. Generations, after generations, of fascinating people are born and die, or move in and out of the place. I became a firsthand witness to the multitude of interconnections and layers of causes-and-effects that drive history forward and move people to progress with it, eagerly or reluctantly, peacefully or violently.
     I felt my mind expand to accommodate the vast timeframes Michener compressed between the covers of his books. A dawning awareness of the mysterious threads weaving people and events together over vast numbers of years came to me in epiphany-like moments of realization. For the first time, I knew myself to be a part of the fabric interconnecting us all through time and space. Those transcending moments of clarity in my young life have had, to this day, a lasting impact on my personal life philosophy, as well as, fostering in me a powerful desire to visit distant places to witness firsthand the stories of their peoples.
     In a departure from his usual format, Michener wrote The Drifters about a group of young world-wanderers during the 1960’s. In this tale, instead of limiting place and allowing time to stretch over eons, he limited time to allow space to stretch across the globe. It was with this story Michener made his greatest mark on my heart, feeding the fires of my wanderlust, fueling a yearning to follow in the gypsy footsteps of “the drifters” to become like them, citizens of the world. Practical constraints limit my world-wandering, but within the covers of books, I can travel limitlessly. Both forms of travel minimize the "degrees of separation" between "us" and the different, or distant, "them," broadening my perspective and enhancing my sense of empathy and compassion for all members of the human fabric.

*      *      *

     The Aborigines of Australia believe that, gifted with the power of speech, people are the voices for all Creation, and as such, we have the responsibility to tell stories for all of Earth’s inhabitants and even for Earth herself.
     Writers are my heroes; they go about changing the world one story at a time, one reader at a time. When I grow up, I want to be one, too. I want to be a writer, a storyteller. And I want a Muse of my very own to help me be heroic in my writing, to help me be one of Creation’s clear voices.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Silver in the Sky...

"The aim of life is to live,
and to live means to be aware,
~ Henry Miller

     Lying on my back on a granite slab high in the Sierra, a narrow rocky peninsula reaching into the inky blue waters of Loch Leven, I gaze lazily upward to the clear blue late-August sky, clearing my mind and taking in the glory of the brisk and breezy day. The air is pristine, infused with the crisp scent of pine. Breathing, I feel the clear, cool oxygen molecules enter my lungs, my bronchial tubes, hitch a ride on red blood cells, and deliver a burst of energy to each and every cell in my body, down to the tips of my toes. I am intensely aware... aware of the hard sharpness of the earth beneath me... aware of the vast blue space extending above me... aware of the soft cool breeze sweeping away the warmth of the sun's rays... aware of...
     Suddenly, the sky around the sun is filled with iridescent and sparkling fairy dust -- no, not dust -- floating strands of fine thread. Millions and millions, perhaps billions and billions, of silvery silk strands twinkle in the afternoon sun. I hold my hand aloft, blocking out the blinding light like a palm-shaped eclipse, to better see the morphing, shimmering shapes. An illusion of the eye, I'm sure, they appear to fly only in concentric circles around the sun, creating a huge, shining, spiraling vortex of silky wisps. I am mesmerized by this totally unexpected and miraculous phenomenon.

     Watching the floating vortex dancing weightless above me, images of the planet Pern, from fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey, come to mind. Pern is a distant human-colonized planet that is home to real, live dragons. Every several decades, in a pattern as regular as clockwork, Pern passes near her sister planet, which is populated exclusively by fungi. When the planets pass close to one another, long shimmering strands of fungi spores float and drift across the short distance of space and passively land on Pern's surface. Shifting to aggression, the fungi voraciously devour all they contact. Dragonriders, astride their flying dragon steads, are the planet's only defense. Though her description is eerily similar, certainly, the fantastic phenomenon I am witnessing is not the advance guard of a fungi space invasion of Earth.
     A much more benign image, also from fantasy literature, arises next in my mind. The closing scene in E. B. White's classic story, Charlotte's Web, has Charlotte's progeny taking to the air. Millions of baby spiders, riding on air currents, each with its own delicate spiderweb parachute, are whisked airborne safely to new homes.

     It is much more likely that the singularly mysterious phenomenon I am observing is a mass migration of miniscule spiders on iridescent web filaments, rather than an army of invading fungi space aliens, but in either case, it is magically beautiful. I wonder, were similar real-life observations by storytellers McCaffrey and White the inspiration for their delicious novels? If so, one author described the actual natural process that he witnessed, while the other, like me, chose to remain under the magic spell created by her own sense of wonder.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wishful Thawing...

     The "February Thaw" is to Winter as an "Indian Summer" is to Summer. That is to say, it is a tantalizing reminder of warm weather in the midst of a chilly season. An Indian Summer is that one week of summery weather in the middle of Autumn, the last wisp of short-sleeves-and-flip-flops temperatures before the hard cold months set in. The February Thaw brings a week or two of downright balmy weather right in the midst of Winter.
      From behind gray clouds the sun emerges. Just as the sky brightens, so does my mood. Colors, yesterday muted and shrouded in gray, are now illuminated, seemingly lit from within. Still damp surfaces sparkle, as nature's hues intensify magically, and I reach for my sunglasses. The air warms, mist rises and disappears. Everywhere I look beauty calls out in a silent whisper, pulling my attention first one way then another, "Look at me! Look at me!"
      The first day, I'm always surprised and over-dressed; I end up taking off layers of sweaters and jackets and wishing I hadn't worn boots with thermal socks. The second day finds me wearing bright Spring colors and lightweight fabrics under the heavy coat I still need in the early morning. For three or four or even five glorious days, I find myself taking every opportunity to venture outside to bask in the sun. I close my eyes and savor the feel of warm rays on my skin, letting it soak deep into my deprived soul. And I smile... yes, giddily, I smile and practically worship the sun itself.
     Unfortunately, having whet my appetite for Spring, the February Thaw departs as suddenly as it arrived, like water slipping through my fingers. Suddenly, there's frost on the windshield in the morning again, and the temperature never leaves the 40s. Worst of all, I'm now under-dressed and cold, bitter cold all day long. It's guaranteed, there's always one more big, cold snow storm before Spring really settles in for the duration.

     The February Thaw casts its light and brings my attention to another annual February phenomenon. Moss, green, lush, and awakened from its place in the near-invisible background, seems to be everywhere. It lies dormant during the hot, dry months, I can barely see it and forget to notice it. Cameleon-like, moss blends completely into the background, adopting the drab colors of the surfaces on which it grows. Come the rainy season, it starts to grow and spread, but it isn't until this brief warming trend in February that mosses suddenly seems to jump out at me from all angles.
     Anything immobile turns green with a thick moss blanket. The trunks of stately oak trees wear fuzzy moss sweaters that cover their south sides as well as their north sides, and their broad branches, too. Moss crawls up rock walls and wooden fences and carpets stone and brick walkways. These miniature, furry plants even squeeze themselves between concrete sidewalk slabs. Sentinel boulders standing alone in fields and steep rocky cliffsides along my route to school turn from brown and gray to the vivid emerald green.
     This moss invasion precedes even the arrival of the first red-breasted robin and the emergence of the area's gazillion yellow daffodils, the traditional icons of Spring's arrival. Having grown up in sunny Southern California, with its seasons only vaguely differentiated from one another, I was quite taken aback by the magnitude of the seasonal shifts that occur here in NorCal, when I moved here twenty years ago. The way Winter is soooooo different from Fall and Spring, I noticed right away, of course. But, it took me a number of years to appreciate the more subtle differences between Early Winter, Mid-Winter, and Late Winter, and the little signs that mark the path of the Earth around the Sun.
     The arrival of the Mossy Season that comes on the heels of the February Thaw is one I find most dear. When I stop, not to smell the roses, but to gently run my hands over the feathery texture of a mat of moss clinging stubbornly to the side of a tree or the top of a wall, time seems to slow down. I find both energy and calm in the celebration of that timeless moment.

Here comes the Sun...
Here comes the Sun...
It's been a long, cold, lonely Winter...
It seems like years since it's been here...
The smiles returning to the faces...
It seems like years since it's been here...
Here comes the Sun...
Here comes the Sun...
~ George Harrison

(Thanks to Chris for pointing me to the official name for this February phenomenon and to Nicky for reminding me of George Harrison's lyrics. Gotta love those connections!)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Books, Beautiful Books...

You may have tangible wealth untold; 
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. 
Richer than I you can never be --
I had a Mother who read to me.
(Strickland Gillilan)

     I had a Grandmother who read to me. I hadn't thought about Grandma Edna for some time, nor of the beautiful books I have inherited from her. It wasn't seeing those books on my bookshelves that reminded me of her just now. Strangely enough, it was the aroma of macaroni-and-cheese that transported me across time and space to my childhood and her company.

     When my parents would go out for the evening, my sister and I would be left in Grandma's care, and since Grandma didn't really cook, that meant a dinner of macaroni-and-cheese and Lawrence Welk or Lassie on the TV. Sometimes Grandma lived with us, in a tiny set of rooms that used to be the "maid's quarters" when the rambling old house was new decades in the past. But much of the time when I was small, she lived in equally tiny rooms on the second floor of the Porter Hotel in downtown San Fernando.
     The aroma of macaroni-and-cheese bubbling in the oven always starts me down a wispy "stream of consciousness" trail in my mind. From mac-n-cheese nights, I'm drawn to the memory of another scent, that of Grandma's sweet talcum powder. In my mind's eye I see the two of us sitting on her bed in that small apartment on the Porter Hotel's second floor. I was little, a preschooler perhaps. We'd push the bolster and pillows up against the wall and sit on the woolen blue-and-white bedcover, whose rough and bumpy texture I can still feel. Leaning back against the pillows and snuggled up together over a book, we were warm and cozy. I loved listening to her read aloud to me, while I looked at the pictures. A gifted storyteller, she magically pulled me into the tales, her voice rising and falling with the rhythm of the plot, bringing the characters alive by giving each of them a unique speaking voice.
     Grandma would read modern stories like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to me, occasionally, if I asked, but both of us really preferred it when she read from an old book filled with fairy tales. Book House For Children volumes, edited by Olive Beaupre Miller and printed in 1925, were filled with stories handed down for generations and from cultures around the world. The tales were accompanied by beautiful multi-colored illustrations in bold hues, their borders and scrolling reminiscent of ancient illuminated manuscripts. Between the covers were familiar fairy tales like "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood," but there were also many lesser known stories as well. My favorites, the ones we read over and over and over, were "Snow White and Rose Red" and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses."
     These same books sit, today, on my own bookshelves, along with others of that same vintage, My Book of History and Tales from... . Originally purchased for my mother, back in the days before the Great Depression reduced my grandmother from prosperity to poverty, they are still in beautiful condition.  The covers are embossed fabric, each printed with a brilliantly colored illustration; the pages are made of thick paper rarely seen in modern books.
     When I was about nine or ten, Grandma Edna came to live with us. Her eyesight, as a result of glaucoma, was nearly gone, so she could no longer read. I would sit in the living room with her and read to her from my favorite Nancy Drew books, beginning with The Mystery of the Old Clock. I'm not sure, in hindsight, how interesting she found those children's mysteries to be, but she sat with me and at least feigned great interest as I read aloud with emphasis, giving each character a different speaking voice, just like she had taught me how to do. Those old Nancy Drew books, the old, dark blue ones with the cloth covers, not the newer yellow and blue ones, sit in the bookcase adjacent to the Book House tomes, each representing a different phase in my young life.

     Decades later, when my son, Dean, was little, I read aloud to him every day. We read newer children's books like Jamberry and Heckety Peg, but it was from the pages of the Book House volumes that we discovered the fairy tales and legends that captivated us both. Dean's favorites were different than mine; he favored hero's adventures rather than princess stories. We'd cuddle up all warm and cozy to pour over a story and its pictures. Like Grandma, I'd read in voices and with great enthusiasm. Dean grew up to be as voracious a reader as I was, and still am.
     When he was about seven, in an effort to make room in his bookcases for newer acquisitions, I began packing up some of the preschool level books, with the intention of donating them to the local library. Dean interrupted my project and asked what I was going to do with the big box of his "baby books." When I explained my plan, tears began to well up in his eyes, and he said with heartfelt passion, "You can't give away my books! My books are my life!"
     Needless to say, I returned the books to their honored places on the shelves and never again even considered giving them away. As a result, both he and I could be considered prime examples of "bookaholics," having homes filled with overflowing bookshelves, towering piles of books, read and unread, on nearly every flat surface, beside the bed, on the coffee table, next to the comfy reading chair.

  1. someone who loves books and reading, 
  2. someone with a vast collection of books,
  3. someone who keeps buying books to add to a stack of unread books
     If I'm going to have a vice, I'm just as glad that this is it. Though expensive and time-consuming, it's rather harmless and a great source of pleasure.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

By Land and By Sea...

     Point Reyes National Seashore, located just north of San Francisco, is a vast collection of coastal environs, broad sandy beaches, high grassy bluffs dotted with dairy farms, steep rocky seacliffs, lagoons, marshes, and small bays ringed with docks of fishing boats. The park is crisscrossed with an array of trails that traipse, meander, and robustly climb through its windswept lands.
     I especially enjoy the hike, really more a stroll, out to Kehoe Beach. The 1.2 mile trail skirts the edge of Kehoe Marsh with views of its many resident or visiting water birds and shore birds. Ducks and mudhens and other swimming and diving fowl float alone and in great groups on the smooth water that sits in a bowl surrounded by rolling grass-green hills. A variety of little flitting birds sit atop and hide amongst the branches of blackberry bushes and other shrubs that line the shore and climb the hillsides. Occasional birds of prey float effortlessly above on the air currents, watching for rodents in the grass.
     At the west end of the fresh water marsh is a small wooden bridge that crosses over the narrow outlet to the sea, allowing one access to the wide white beach in dry shoes. The water is brackish, as it is actually both inlet and outlet, changing directions with the tides. Below the bridge, the water is absolutely invisible, masked by millions of bright green leaves of floating waterplants, like the water itself is green and growing. A slender and elegant great blue heron on the other side of the green water is so immobile as to disappear into the sandy spot where it stands.
     West of the bridge, where the water of the narrow inlet/outlet slips between rolling sand dunes, a colony of seagulls stands inches from the water of the outer salt water lagoon. Every five minutes or so, on some silent communal cue, they take to the air like a school of flying fish, wheeling overhead, calling, before settling again a short distance from where they stood before.
     The trail widens where it emerges from the dunes onto the broad sand beach and becomes a dozen lines of footprints fanning out, all heading towards the sound of crashing waves. Along the trail, I have encountered only half a dozen humans, all moving back towards the parking lot. Arriving at the ocean's edge, I see only one lone speck of a hiker far down the beach.
     As far as I can see to the left, as far as I can see to the right, waves rise, curl, crash, and slide up the smooth sand. There are four, five, even six rows of gray-green waves, lined up, one behind the other, marching toward the land. After leaving foamy remains of themselves on the pale shore, each wave retreats, rejoining the vast ocean. I stand for half-an-hour or more, watching the repeating comings and goings, listening to the loud, crashing, rhythmic breathing of the sea.
     Upon closer inspection, the beach is not made from a fine-grained powdery sand, rather it is vast collection of tiny polished rocks the size of rice and peas. Each shiny rock is different from the rest, and together they are a rainbow of colors, red, green, blue, inky black, crystal white, orange and amber. I find myself on my knees, picking up the prettiest ones, until my hands are filled to overflowing, and I can hold no more. As the sun begins to make its way toward the horizon, I place my miniature rock collection into my pocket and head back to find my car, in a slow-paced race with the approaching dark, and retreat once more to my peaceful little bed-and-breakfast cottage.
     I found there to be an interesting contrast between the marsh, so teeming with wildlife, and the beach, so seemingly devoid of it. The marsh provides a microscope-like, closeup view of the bubbling and oozing life process. The creatures populating the sky, ground, and water of the that habitat produce a feast of sights, sounds, and constant movement. By contrast, the only visible signs of life on the beach are California brown pelicans passing by, cruising in formation over the cresting waves. The shoreline's vast dimensions create a spectacular setting for the eternal battle between land and sea. The marsh is a study in biology, whereas the beach is a geological study, both beautiful and fascinating to observe, but very different.