Thursday, December 31, 2015

Winter Solstice

Four o'clock in the morning, December 22, I woke moments before the alarm. Dressed in the dark, soft-footed past Randy sleeping and past the girls' closed bedroom doors. Drove to Katy's in the dark and told her about my dream: I overslept until eleven, woke to sunshine and complained to Randy, "Why didn't you wake me!"

Cool air, wet streets, fuzzy orange streetlights punched through the slate gray of the morning. Links Hall Constellation faces the viaduct on Western Avenue. I saw a House production of Peter Pan here years ago. We piled our blankets and pillows on the white floor. Virginia joined us; this is her fourteenth or so solstice celebration with Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. Hushed whispers and yawns. White votive candles flickering. Two drum sets, scattered djembe and other hand drums. Hamid and Michael entered, sat before us and at first there was silence. Then, with a flickering of fingers on the taut surface of drum skin, the bath of sound began.

There were jazzy patterns and back and forth playfulness, Hamid and Michael improvising and experimenting with their riffs on the bells and drum sets. It helped to be able to sit crossed leg, yoga style with a strong straight back, or be able to lie down, ears covered, and sink into the muffled waves of sound. The best part was early on, beats on the soft hand drums, a pattern clicked in and the two drummers sustained it, unafraid to repeat and repeat the chanting groove and I swayed and rocked within it, part of the music.

Shimmering cymbals ebbed and flowed from the beats of soft mallets, hand-held by the drummers to vibrate in mid-air, then dampened against their knees. As the last gleam of sound faded away, I opened my eyes to the glow of a gray dawn from the windows behind us.

A burst of diesel exhaust greeted us through the morning air as we left Constellation for hot chocolate and apple handpies from a food truck waiting outside. "That smell reminds me of morning in Europe," said Katie. "Berlin and it's my semester abroad and I'm going to meet friends at a bar. No worries in all the world. I was happy."

I could remember that feeling -- not the one she had in Berlin, but the one she was enjoying now: nostalgia tinged with joy instead of sadness, recognition of a beautiful connection to a beloved memory. I remember, but in this dim season, my emotions are muted.

It's been a challenge, taking on a full time job at the same time that I volunteered to lead both Mia and Nora's scout troops and also manage the leaders of the five towns in our district. You know I love a challenge, though, and I'm constantly lifted knowing the work I do teaching and leading young girls and boys is grounded in good.

I'm patient with myself now because I know this low mood will pass, I know I'll revive in the spring, I know great things are ahead. Even though the news is often atrocious, the Republican mind spins seemingly without logic or compassion and my phone rang with a sad message from my brother the day after Christmas, I know that relief is waiting up ahead.

Here's what Joanna Newsom tells me:  

The moment of your greatest joy sustains: 
not ax nor hammer, 
tumor, tremor, 
can take it away, and it remains. 
It remains.

Nora is practicing this week for a performance of The Little Mermaid; she works on a Jamaican accent for her role as Sebastian the Crab with a voice somewhere between Russia and New Orleans. Mia is preparing for her social dance class with some trepidation lessened by the thrill of new dresses that make her look at herself in the mirror in a new way. I will fly to Philadelphia over my spring break to take care of my beautiful grand-niece. The girls will go with their father to someplace warm on their week that doesn't coincide with mine. I'll miss them but I'm also happy for them and Randy has promised to take them someplace I have already seen. With his kindnesses and my persistent belief in light (it's a kind of faith, isn't it?) and our daughters' constant delightfulness, with the hope of our first woman president (!!) and a restoration of sanity in the national conversation, I move on, wishing you and yours a happy new year.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Divers," from the album of the same name

Words, music, vocals, harp, piano, mellotron, guitaret by Joanna Newsom; video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; artwork by Kim Keever

A diver is my love
(and I am his, if I am not deceived),
who takes one breath above, for every hour below the sea;
who gave to me a jewel
worth twice this woman's life (but would cost her less
than laying at low tide,
to see her true love phosphoresce).

And in an infinite regress:
Tell me, why is the pain of birth
lighter borne than the pain of death?
I ain't saying that I loved you first,
but I loved you best.

I know we must abide
each by the rules that bind us here:
the divers, and the sailors, and the women on the pier.
But how do you choose your form?
How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life?
How do you choose the time you must exhale,
and kick, and rise?

And in an infinite capsize:
Like a bull tearing down the coast,
double hulls bearing double masts—
I don't know if you loved me most, but you loved me last.

Recall the word you gave:
to count your way across the depths of this arid world,
where you would yoke the waves,
and lay a bed of shining pearls!
I dream it every night:
the ringing of the pail,
the motes of sand dislodged,
the shucking, quick and bright;
the twinned and cast-off shells reveal a single heart of white.

And in an infinite backslide:
Ancient border, sink past the West,
like a sword at the bearer's fall.
I can't claim that I knew you best,
but did you know me at all?

A woman is alive!
A woman is alive;
you do not take her for a sign in nacre on a stone,
alone, unfaceted and fine.
And never will I wed.
I'll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,
and ever hold my breath,
till I may be the diver's wife.

See how the infinite divides:
and the divers are not to blame
for the rift, spanning distant shores.
You don't know my name,
but I know yours.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punto Lobos

It's Halloween and it feels like the last day of light and color before November's wind sucks the life out of me and leaves the world black and white. I've been trying to breathe deep of the remaining mild days and save my strength for the hard work ahead. The last two months have been a honeymoon with my new job; the girls have adapted well to Mommy working and the school seems so warm and nurturing to students and new employees alike. Every day I jump out of bed excited and gird my loins for the challenges ahead, donning my good luck charms. A gold necklace from Mia, a gold bracelet from Nora and my wedding ring from Randy. 

There's another ring I put on the opposite hand, a special piece whose silver is wearing away to reveal the copper beneath. It is adorned with a small faceted black stone and I touch and turn it frequently as I work, remembering the day in January that Randy found it on the hill over Punto Lobos. 

We were hiking together, in Mexico, the girls left behind with Aunt Joan for this special 50th birthday weekend trip. High on the cliff over the beach where no one swims outside the town of Todos Santos. A working beach for fisherman who spend the day pulling the day's catch up out of the sea in their small open craft called "pangas," then approach the beach and wait out the killer waves, wait for the safe moment to gun their boats straight up onto the hard pack sand. They clean and cut their fish right there on the beach, next to the boats. No harbor, no piers. The boats are carried in and out of the water by hand. On a good day, a fisherman will profit between $18 and $30 (300 - 500 pesos.)

Now this beach is gone and the fisherman have no place to work. Tres Santos is a mega-development planned for this site and the desert around Todos, with goals to build luxury condos and single family homes, hotels, shopping districts, a farm and more, funded by the Black Creek Capital Group of Denver. The first phase of the project leveled the mangrove that once bound this beach. The result is a barren plateau. Rain drainage from the worksite (that would normally be absorbed by the sponge-like protection of the natural mangrove) flooded the single sand road that gives access to the beach. The company next built a seawall, banned in many seaside communities for their contribution to erosion and sure enough, a late summer storm swept away most of the beach and the waves now strike the wall. Most of the yellow sand in the picture above is gone and the waterline is right up to the dun-colored construction site in the upper right. The fishermen only have a narrow space to launch their boats. In a desperate attempt to stop more erosion, Tres Santos dumped tons of rocks in front of the seawall. The incessant Pacific waves have spread the rocks across what was once a pristine beach. The new rocks are damaging the propellers and engines of the fishermen's boats.

 A new propeller is 18,000 pesos or $1100, a new transmission is 78,000 pesos or $4700. 

Yesterday the fishermen had had enough and began a peaceful protest to block the single road to the beach and get answers from the company that was ruining their livelihood. Tres Santos sent a couple of security guards with no knowledge of Spanish to photograph the men.

What makes the situation even more insane is that Tres Santos is marketing itself as a "green" project in partnership with the village. Here is video from a promotional event in New York in April to gun up investors for the project. Hotelier Chip Conley, head cheerleader of the project, reads an old story of a traditional fisherman urged to give up his traditional ways by a clueless MBA.

The tragic irony and hypocrisy here are staggering. A rich white man with an MBA who cannot see himself as the clueless butt of his own story. Real fishermen with real families are suffering because of the incompetence of Chip Conley and the businessmen of Black Creek and Tres Santos. The "Three Saints" of Tres Santos are greed, exploitation and destruction of the earth.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Favorite Moments of Summer, 2015

1.  Mia at peace, our first morning in Saugatuck. Before breakfast (we would drive through the rain to find gooey rolls from Kismet Bakery and farm stand peaches) we climbed down the sixty-five steep beach stairs to the narrow strip of beach below our rental cottage. The water was cold against our calves, then comfortable, then irresistible. I stripped to my undies, checked the empty beach north and south and threw off the rest. Waded into the welcoming liquid, sank completely under. Mia joined me and we laughed and peed and bobbed. The morning was still and eerie. Thunder boomed like strange unseen artillery from the west without any answering flash of lightning. A light gray bank of storm cloud approached us in a line as straight as geometry though the darker gray morning sky. Mia's head and shoulders rising up out of the gentle swells, her slicked back hair, her dear survivor's face, so more precious, even more precious to me after her hard year, her strong dark eyebrows, her complicated smile with its tiny dash of scar from a second grade gym accident, my dear dear oldest daughter, soon to be thirteen, lit with the strange diffused overcast light and with that oncoming angle of storm behind her, I had to take a picture.

"I wish I had my camera," I told her and instead put my hands together, the thumb of one hand meeting the first finger of the other to frame her in the rectangle I made. Click. To remember our morning forever.

2. Nora in action, again, this time with Randy, poolside, at Fox Lake. We're entertaining friends, I'm floating (again) weightless in the warm water, glorying in the blissful weightlessness, spinning around just because I can when Randy's music mix switches into Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." Nora jumps out of the pool, runs to the side by the speaker and starts to shimmy and shake to the beat. Randy joins her and their duet is funky, fast, funny and fearless. I stared, mesmerized, enchanted, terribly moved.

Nora is still a child for a few more moments, her voice still a piping lilt, her waist still thick and sturdy. Her eyes are still huge in her dear head that is proportionally large for her body. I still need to bow down to bring my face close to hers and that sacred bend to childhood and to this, this happy, sad, delicious, carefree, troubled, rainbow-squid-hat wearing little one is the most holy thing I can do in my life.

3. Back in Saugatuck (it really is My Happy Place, along with Todos Santos, Montana, and the California coast or is it wherever Sally and Erik are that I am so content?) before a hike in the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, I sat on the top step of the aforementioned sixty-five and ate a slice of Erik's homemade bread slathered with Kismet butter and Sally's strawberry preserves. That is all, a perfect moment but my persnickety self insists that I admit the entire truth which is less flattering and a combination of the breakfast bread and the sparky moment an hour or so after as later on that hike a man I had never met, a friend of Sally and Erik's, an editor of a Chicago poetry journal, told me he read We All Fall Down and I flushed with confused pleasure. What? How? Sally? He was very kind and his compliments were a shot in the arm. I send out these dispatches into the ether and it blows me away whenever I hear from strangers, "I read your blog."

With gratitude,

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Job

Here's a story that I performed this week on stage at Second City Sunday Morning Stories. The audience was awesome and gave me a really nice reception although I was a little shook because I couldn't see anyone behind the bright lights. I know that's a typical reaction to being onstage for the first time, but it startled me nonetheless. I have changed the student names, but they really are wonderful to work with, frustrating and funny and silly and unpredictable and I so love working in a school again.

I started a new job this week. I'm a paraprofessional in a local high school Humanities department, a Parapro. I help out in two freshman Reading and English classrooms; I make copies; I take attendance; I tutor; I supervise the study hall. I'm a para. I para-lotta hats.

It's been thirteen years since I've been in front of a classroom. I tell people I'm going back to work, but that feels weird. Because I have been working for the past thirteen years. I've been wiping shit off baby asses and keeping little tiny people alive and fed and clothed and clean and packing about two thousand sack lunches and doing laundry, mountains upon mountain ranges of laundry. And wrangling Brownie troops and volunteering to dress up as the Plastic Bag monster for Earth Day at the elementary school. I put on this jumpsuit with layers and layers of plastic grocery bags attached with safety pins, there was even a cute little plastic bag chapeau and I roared into the cafeteria "I am the Plastic Bag Monster! I live for a million years! Chicago has banned me forever!"

And it was fun, but it was work, too.

But now I'm getting a paycheck and hanging out with a lot more grownups, yay. But today I really want to tell you about the kids. Because you gotta love the kids. If you don't, don't work in a school.

They just crack me up. There's this kid in Study Hall on Tuesday, it's a silent study hall and I turn and catch him like this, waving his arms in the air like he's trying to crack up his friends on the other side of the room. And he freezes with his arms up, I stare at him and he's just stuck there like maybe I won't notice? or he doesn't know what else to do? and he kind of shrugs, like, "Eh, you caught me, what can I do?"

And then there's Dion, in 7th period who's so antsy he can't sit still and he's doesn't so much sit in his chair as inhabit it. He's contorts himself around it, his knee under his hip on the seat of the chair and his other knee's on the ground and two of the legs of the chair are off the ground and he's grabbing onto his desk in front of him for dear life because he'll fall if he doesn’t hang on while we're reading the story in the copy packet. That I copied. I'm a para.

But the story in the copy packet goes on and really, it's this funny story called "Becoming Henry Lee" about a Korean kid who tries to sound more white by watching a VHS copy of Roots and imitating the plantation owners accents, I know, it's ridiculous and funny but my students, these kids, these fourteen year olds whose reading level is three or four and six years behind, they can't read dialect very well and it's going over their head and it's 7th period and they're fading fast so my friend Kerry, who's teaching the class, she says, "Okay, we're all gonna stand up and clap. C'mon, get up." And she starts clapping and I'm "okay" and I start clapping and you know when you're a teacher you know these things can go south really easy.

The kids are staring at you like you're an idiot and you've lost them. And when you've lost them, it doesn't matter what you say, they won't do it, they'll talk over you and walk right out of the room, they'll eat you up, chew you real good and spit you out on the floor. It's really hard to come back from that. But in for a dime, in for a dollar. So here we are, we're two middle-aged white ladies clapping in front of a room of adolescents. And Thank God, Angel stands up, because he's such a sweetheart, he'll do anything the teachers tell him and then Eric stands up, because he's always up for something different and then we start cheering each time another kid stands up and then we start calling the sitters out by name and poor little Mulan who is this shy quiet delicate little thing, I call her name and I say, "You can do it!" and she smiles for like the first time all period and she stands up and they're doing it, even hard case Ralph until only Marika, sleepy defiant apathetic Marika is left and we gather around her chair and chant and clap, "Mar-i-ka! Mar-i-ka!" and she says "no no" and flops her head down. And then she does it. She changes her mind and hauls herself to her feet.

She stands up and we're all standing there, clapping for each other, for no other reason than we're here in school and it's the middle of August and their Chicago friends are still at the pool and reading is really hard for some people but we're doing it together and every kid needs a standing ovation once in a while.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I took my old paperback copy of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard with me to California, my go-to book in times of stress and trouble and yes, joy, too. Its account of mountain trekking, nature observation in the Himalaya of Nepal and the tenets of Zen Buddhism helped me in the aftermath of our friend Jerry Smith's suicide last year and it helped me again on this challenge to go see my dear brother.

First stop, LA. To offset my guilt for this solo trip that mom-guilt colors as an indulgence, I take the $1 bus from LAX to Venice and walk the rest of the way to my hotel. One dollar, people! So what if I need to ask a bunch of people where to catch it and take a shuttle and then stand on the side of the road while the sun is setting and I'm not sure I'm in the right place? The bus cost one dollar!

The next morning on my rented bike from Venice Beach to Will Rogers Beach, the heat rose up in waves over the warm sand but the wind chill off the ocean cooled my skin, a delicious sensation. I could ride all day.

At Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades, I climbed a log across a dry creek, scrambled under low bushes on my hands and knees up a steep hillside, and met people running on the trail that had me huffing and puffing and stopping every few minutes to rest. "Is this a loop?" I asked every walker I met and yes, yes, it was, up to epic views of the city and the coastline, then down, down to a dry waterfall, oaks and butterflies, tiny lizards and sketching art day camp kids.

The ocean was my reward, a soup of seaweed, long brown strands and stringy red puffballs. I laughed with the family next to me in the surf, laughed at the intoxicating sensation of surging cold water on hot skin.
Venice garden along the canal

The bike ride, the canyon hike, a walk along the charming Venice canals and a trip to the Getty were all for me. My second day in LA, I took the bus (did I mention it's only a dollar?) and walked to MPG, a rental car company with an all green fleet and picked up my hybrid Speck for the drive to Bakersfield.

There may have been times I've taken a break from the kids and I'm running out the door and nearly laughing with relief once I'm in car but this time... six days felt long. It was hard but I knew the girls were with their dad and aunt and uncle and cousins and every time I felt out of place I would remember to breathe and think, "This is exactly where I am supposed to be right now." It helped.

Oilfields outside Bakersfield

I met my brother for dinner on Tuesday. I was so happy to see him; he'd just got a haircut and he was all neat in his work clothes. He looked healthy. "This is my brother!" I told the hostess. "We haven't seen each other in a couple of years!" At the Getty I'd found a gift for him, a simple compass on a chain. When I took it out of my bag, he said, "No Cindy, you keep that," and pulled out his phone to show me an app with super precise longitude and latitude and something like the density or chemical makeup of the ground under the California Pizza Kitchen we were sitting in, I'm not sure. We laughed at how cool it was.

He's saving for retirement. I'm proud of him.

I drove the next day to Sequoia National Park and spent the day hiking, navigating hairpin turns at 10 mph, breathing deep the spicy clean air given off by the largest trees on earth, awestruck, moved, grateful, unable to stop grinning.


Those grey gashes in the bottom of the valley are the road


The sun broke out on my way out of the park and down into the Central Valley via 198. Gold sun-baked hillsides above deep green lemon groves.

And then the turn off to go back into the Sierra Nevada to my brother's tiny town:

Another breathtaking drive to Lake Isabella at twilight via 155 through Woody. My brother's house sits on the narrow terrace of a steep hillside. He has cut a row of even stumps to line the dropoff at the edge of the driveway and fashioned a homemade table under the trees. He has two dogs, a black Lab and a German Shepard. They are friendly and gentle omega dogs, refusing to go with me for a walk, standing firm next to my alpha brother no matter how he urges them to follow me. I check in to a tiny and cute motor lodge at the bottom of the hill. The office guy sees I like tea and has his daughter leave me Sleepytime teabags to steep in my room.

The mountains are beautiful up here. John Ford shot scenes for Stagecoach right down the street at Tillie Creek, I am freaked to discover at the tiny historical society in the touristy town of Kernville. I spend the day hiking in the Sequoia National Forest. Another day of wonder. I leave the trail and follow the long lines of fallen trees up a hill: I find a flake of fallen tree bark that could be a flattened infant griffon. Centered between a fallen yet still green-needled fir branch and the same branch now brown and dead is a blue jay feather.

Can you see the griffon's eye, his snout?
I've wondered before, in Montana, how it is that our cruel natural world can transform into the most hospitable of environments, every stone a step for a boot, every fallen log a resting place. I know there is no design, no benefit for anything but ourselves in these woods, but this reforming of the world into a welcoming place happens nevertheless. Thank you, tree; thank you, soft yielding mulch under my feet.

And yet, and yet, as I am wary of the patterns and purposes that religion and my brother find in randomness and coincidences, I know that our minds' work is to create meaning, and nature abhors a vacuum of sense so their organizing efforts is a kind of natural occurrence too.

On the drive back down the twisty Kern River Canyon, I stop to soak my happy toes in fast flowing river water that is both sparkling and brown. This is snowmelt from the unseen Mount Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous U.S., why is it not freezing? It feels so perfect on my hot feet and they are soft after the splashing.

Cairns on Dome Rock
The wind has carved grooves into this dead stump that seems to have grown up out of the granite.

On Saturday, we took a long drive around Lake Isabella. My brother had me pull the car over to show me a strange old stone box half buried in the hillside. The door was long gone but you could see where the hinges had been and there was a little metal shelf inside. A mystery, my brother thought it might have been a storage place for gold from the area mines. He had brought along his pickax and other prospecting tools and hacked out shiny rocks from the glittering veins of mica in the cliffs. The rocks fell away in thin sheets. The shine was beautiful in the bright California mountain sunshine. "I've got the gold rush!" I said and laughed. I did. It really was thrilling.

We had breakfast at the tiny regional airport next to the lake with a campground and little cafe.

"There's one of the type of plane our parents died in," he says as we're crossing the parking lot. It's a small craft, two windows on each side, the back ones hung with a diminutive set of curtains. Hard to believe you could fit four passengers and enough luggage for a week in the Bahamas.

"A Mooney executive. You can recognize it by the distinct tail. It looks like it was put on backwards." And it does. We stare for a moment, clear-eyed, interested. Such is the strange way you have of looking at the world when there's a loss so big in your life that you can't remember a time without the hole in your heart.

The waitress who brings us our oatmeal with blueberries refills coffee for the other tables and answers a squawk from the walkie talkie behind the counter. It's a pilot waiting to take off and she gives the all clear. "I check out the campsites, too," she laughs. "I wear a lot of hats around here."

The Kern River at sunset. Beautiful long sloping saddleback ridge over Kernville at the upper left.
We were both tired and irritated by the afternoon so I took a inner tube ride down some fun and mild rapids on the Kern. Happy Fourth of July parties spray me with water guns but it only feels cool and good. I still have not had enough of this water so on the way back to the motel, I pull off on an unmarked road and bushwack down to the riverside. I've got my new river shoes on and I wade into the cool current.

Matthiessen writes:

The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself; the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no "meaning," they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

On Sunday I hike up the hill to my brother's house. The dogs greet me silently. Ron is sleeping to the sound of a portable fan, but he wakes and we say goodbye with love.