Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hejira


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.


Marmot!





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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole

It's June, the month when light-filled hours flood us with fizzy serene energy, the month that answers the question I ask every May: "How on earth could spring get any more lovely?"

Father's Day was bright and beautiful, love pouring out all around, fun games of bocce and bowling, high white clouds overhead as we left Pinstripes. "Do you like the sky we ordered?" and he did, as well as the customized pair of Converse and the cake with "SuperHero Dad" in red and blue icing. Randy seemed very happy and I was content, because I wanted his special day to be as good as mine was.

On Mother's Day, I had wanted so much and I got it all. A yummy brunch, time with the girls and Randy, time alone to visit the memorial trees planted for my family in LaGrange. In the morning, we took the girls to see the latest Chicago Children's Theater production and their rock 'n roll Alice in Wonderland hit all the right thematic notes for our spring season.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are cerebral books composed by a mathematician, challenging to many kids for whom the puns, wordplay and absurdity fly over their heads. This production chose to find the heart in the source material by interpreting the Jabberwocky as a monster who howls all your self-doubts and fears. "Ugly! Clumsy! Stupid!" screams the monster and its destruction is both as simple a task and as epic a battle as convincing yourself the lies are not real.

Anthony Lane in June The New Yorker writes on a new book about Lewis CarrollConversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.

And Andrew Solomon, in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The University of Michigan's Arnold Sameroff is a developmental psychiatrist who believes everything in the world is a variable in every experiment; all events are over-determined; nothing can be understood except by knowing all of the mysteries of God's creation. Sameroff would suggest that though people have certain complaints in common, they have individual experiences, with individual constellations of complaints and individual networks of causes. "You know, there are these single-gene hypotheses," he says. "Either you have the gene or you don't, and those are very attractive to our quick-fix society. But it's never going to work."

We are down the rabbit hole as of late. Curiouser and curiouser. Logic and proportion have fallen something something. Little girls eat a bit of cake and grow so fast they seem to soar toward the ceiling. I'm actually looking forward to junior high (can you imagine?) as a respite from the challenges of middle school. Skewed sensitivities, hormonic (surely the opposite of harmonic! #dontcallmeshirley #canthelpit #sorrynotsorry) behavior, all facets of the strange way-place that is pre-adolescence.

And I'm off to California tomorrow to see my brother Ron. Traveling without the girls or Randy feels Off, but Necessary. Sometimes my own Jabberwock lurks.

Breathe. Breathe. There is a wise mind within all of us; it knows our capabilities and the truth of the world.

Last night at dinner, we had rode our bikes to Nick's which is one of my very favorite summer family things we do, last night at Nick's Nora said, "I'll miss you! I wish you could come to Fox Lake with us," and I sank a degree before my Alice chimed in, "She's going to see her brother. Daddy will see his sister and Mom will see her brother. It's the right thing to do."

My dear fighter, my Alice lost in the mazes and riddles of her age and her own unique self, my dear dear daughter bringing symmetry, sense and peace to me, gifts I so much want to be able to return again to her. Breathe. Breathe. Let us all breathe.




Monday, May 4, 2015

Spinster by Kate Bolick


The meme of the day is Mad Men's Peggy Olsen, walking down the halls of mega-ad-corp McCain-Erickson, arriving at her new job three days late, probably hungover from the rounds of vermouth the night before, a cigarette tilted on her smiling lip, an erotic antique Japanese print under one arm. A triumphant entrance for this character who over seven seasons has weathered many of the outrageous challenges single working women faced in mid-century New York.

An apt image for our From Left to Write virtual book club day discussing Kate Bolick's celebration of the autonomous life and accomplished women of history who have desired and delighted in their independence, with or without solitude: Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own.

I spent much of my single life alone, but not lonely. At the time, living by myself seemed the most obvious choice, if it seemed like I had any choice at all. When I received the notice from the small mid-western liberal arts college where I was to spend my freshman year that I would be living in a single room, I was content. Even when I saw the pocket size of my bedroom, even when I saw that mine was the only one of its kind in the building because the similarly configured rooms on the other floors had been converted into ironing closets, I did not mind. I liked hiking up to the empty fourth floor attic to find my own private bathroom. I liked the cozy way the head of my bed hit one wall and the foot was tucked against the other.

I spent another year and a half of college in single bedrooms, then rented my own apartment for grad school in Iowa City. I loved that first apartment, the wooden trim, the plaster walls with a picture rail to hang my art posters,  the hardwood floors and big windows facing east, south and west. When I first moved to Chicago at twenty-six, it didn't dawn on me to seek out a roommate until a couple of years later when my cousin found herself in need of a space at the same time I was trying to get out of a bad lease. Sally was the most amiable of roommates and I was sad when she moved to Atlanta with her new beau, whom she would eventually marry.

I married too, at thirty-five, which is seven years older than the national average for women. Yet it did not feel like a delayed decision. Marriage was not on my radar as a young woman; college, grad school and career were my first concerns. No relationship until Randy suited me or had any potential, not that I was even thinking in those terms. Marriage seemed such a throwback, a state unnecessary to the common sense of everyday feminism. My four closest friends were happily childless (and remain so to this day) and busy with fascinating and engrossing work. Who needed Joni Mitchell's "piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true?"

Randy and I lived together happily for seven years and could have continued in that way, but we both wanted children. And although my dear boyfriend offered to give me what I wanted, and although I could not care less about what other people thought, the idea of being an unmarried mother made those imaginary children seem entirely "mine" rather than "ours." So fifteen years ago this July we tied the knot. Two cute little girls arrived soon after.

Does this mean I am not a spinster? Could I still have a spinster's heart within a close and loving family? A heart that is grateful for time to read and write and that adores refreshing solitude, yet also one that courts an emotional self-sufficiency that makes me reluctant to pick up the phone or ask for advice or help. Bolick points out that her spinster life is "teeming with people: family, friends, colleagues." It's a privileged life in many ways, a life of great confidence, one I admire and perhaps envy at times. But there is only one reality, there are no other possible worlds accessible to us except in the imagination, and my full and happy house is my most beloved home.

This post was inspired by Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own. The publisher provided me with a copy at no obligation. You can read more responses to Bolick's book at From Left to Write.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Burma Bridge


The girl sat on a tiny wooden platform thirty feet over our heads, her feet dangling in space, her hands gripping the edge as if she was in mortal peril.

Over the last forty minutes, she had barely moved.

A patient woman camp counselor crouched behind her, encouraging the girl gently. When there was a pause in the cheers and cajoles of the girls below, you could hear a few words of their conversation.

"...feel like I'm being pushed..."

"You're not being pushed. I'm not pushing you. You can do this. Put your hands on the rope and lean forward."

That's all the girl needed to do, move her hands from the sides of the platform, lean over the edge and drop into space. The zipline attached to the harness around her waist and legs would keep her safe as she flew through the morning air. Her entire troop had already done as much, screaming with joy as they swung away from us through a path cut through the forest.

The spring leaves in the trees around us were tiny slips of gold not yet able to cover the hard truth of the bare branches. The spring air was cool and fresh; the sky was clear. I walked on frost on the grass on the way to the fire circle to light our breakfast campfire that morning.

The girl had already braved a shaky ladder, pulled herself onto the "Catwalk," a telephone pole tilted at a forty-five degree angle and shuffled her way up that skinny wooden tightrope with only the help of a taut rope attached to the safety harness around her waist. But once she sat down on that platform, no wider than a coffee table, her mind had taken over her body and her fears had her paralyzed.

"Your challenge, your choice," was the mantra the counselors told us yesterday on the rock climbing tower as the girls strapped on these same safety harnesses and donned their helmets. A reassurance that the girls owned their experience and could elect to do as much or as little as they wanted. A counselor would always be on the end of the rope attached to each girl's harness, pulling them taut, keeping them safe.

But none of the counselors was talking about an escape route today. They were talking about how jumping was like "ripping off a band aid," best if done quick. They were calling out advice about not thinking. About how completely safe the rigging was, about how much fun she would have. They murmured to each other at one point about lunch, but the only edge that brought us closer to was the one of bumming out, so no more about that.

"Ten! Nine! Eight!" yelled the girl's troop from below.

"Girls, girls, that's enough. Let her do her own countdown!"

The sixth graders and junior high girls waiting below, including my own twelve year old and her troop, were patient, surprisingly patient, with this girl who had thrown a wrench in the works of this day, during the last hour before we were to go home after a camp overnight. Most of them had already tried and conquered the "Burma Bridge," a tightrope with waist-high ropes on either side to grip as they inched across. I watched with awe and some horror, whispering to my co-leader, "How is this fun? Nobody crosses bridges like that in Burma for fun!"

"I know!" said Emily. "They cross them so they won't die in the raging waters on their three hour walk to school!"

Now the bridge had been crossed and there was not much to do but wait and listen to the kind bearded counselor call out encouragement from down the path where he waited with his step ladder to take the girls down once they finished their flight.

"You can do it! Just lean forward! It will be so much fun!"

And we clapped and cheered some more.

I hadn't expected the high ropes course to be so emotionally moving. But it was beautiful to see the girls so encouraging and kind to the one trapped by her own fears. And so heart bursting to see my own daughter's face transform from yesterday's miserable and pale-as-a-sheet at the base of the rock climbing tower to a pink-cheeked grin of success after her Burma crossing today. And so awesome to hear that the next day, Monday morning, when the frightened girl who had held up everyone's fun asked Mia in class, "Are you mad at me?" my daughter gave her the only possible and a completely sincere answer, "No, of course not!"

Because the girl astonished us all with a sudden swift fall off the platform into the swinging flying exhilaration of the zip line. The line sang as she traveled its length, then bounced back, losing momentum, into a slow triumphant stop and the rescue of bearded guy with his step ladder.

We screamed, we cheered, we jumped up and down. I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it.

Here's to all of you facing fears of your own, and to me doing the same. Good luck with your leap of trust and please wish me the same.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

All The World's A Stage: Eric Larson's Dead Wake


Two hours to curtain, my hair in curlers, still need to glob on my stage makeup and cross off handfuls of other nagging to-do tasks, why on earth am I reading a book about the Lusitania?

You remember, the Liverpool-bound ocean liner full of American passengers whose sinking by a Nazi submarine cast the U.S. into World War I? (All you Downton Abbey fans will remember this tragedy starting all the series' heir-finding plot machinations during the show's premiere.)

Eric Larson, author of Devil in the White City, has penned a new account of the disaster that brings alive the parallel stories of a prowling German U-20 submarine and an English civilian ship laden with families on deck and munitions below.

Why was I adding more tension in my life during the craziest weeks of Variety Show when our cast of dozens had daily practices late into the night and seven performances in six days? I was already nervous, why was I biting my nails over cork-filled life vests and stealthy periscopes?

Because perspective, that's why.

I don't indulge in disaster narratives for the gory titillation, for the schadenfreude, for the visceral horrors or the relief of being at a safe readerly distance. As I read Dead Wake, as I read last month's Left to Write book club choice Trapped Under the Sea, when I read (and reread) Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, it's mostly about the good writing, the art of the storytelling. But what sticks with me is the way these books reveal how thin is the veil between normal everyday life and unexpected death.

No one escapes tragedy, after all. Some disasters are more quiet than others, but none of us is immune.

All the frenzy of preparations for a show with a cast and crew of over one hundred excited amateurs, all the thousands of creative decisions involved, all the nerves, the drumming hearts, the feats of strength to overcome shyness and stage fright, all is a wisp, an echo, a memory already. Such is all theater and such is all of our ephemeral lives.

These bleak truths don't dampen the pleasures of good company and good work. Instead, the fleetness of our time together makes every moment more precious. I have been very lucky. I am very happy.



This post was inspired by Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, a thrilling account of the luxury ocean liner and the U-boat that attacked and sank it one hundred years ago May 7. Join From Left to Write on March 26th as we discuss Dead Wake. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two, Count' Em, Two! Shows!

So excited and grateful for a happy lucky coincy-dinks! I'm in the cast of TWO shows this spring!

Listen to Your Mother

A few weeks back I took some time out from our elementary school Variety Show rehearsals to polish and practice one of my mothering essays and one bright Saturday, shlepped my pages down to Chicago, my girls in tow for good luck, to audition for the 2015 Chicago Listen to Your Mother show.

Trying to ignore the sweat under my arms and the gentle "no thanks" I received two years ago, I took a deep breath and read my story for producers Tracey Becker and Melisa Wells.
  
What's Listen to Your Mother?

"Listen To Your Mother is a reading series that celebrates mothering by giving voice to motherhood in all of its complexity, diversity, and humor. The show expanded to 32 cities in 2014 and raised over $26,000 for local causes, bringing the project total to over 1000 stories shared and $50,000 in charitable giving since its inception." 

I made it! Squee!!  

The Sunday before Mother's Day my castmates and I will be on stage at the gorgeous Athenaeum Theater on Southport in Chicago, reading essays on the theme of motherhood, hopefully making you laugh, remember, reflect, and be inspired.

The show is May 3 at 2:00. Tickets are on sale now at early bird pricing through March 15. Ten percent of the gross ticket proceeds will benefit The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit organization raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. Come see us!

Here's a link to the LTYM Youtube channel where you can see dozens of stories from previous shows.



The McKenzie Variety Show

In the days left before March 10, scores of parents and teacher from McKenzie Elementary will be singing, dancing, skitting and playing our hearts out to bring the 39th Variety Show to the stage. I'm directing two numbers this year, including one song that I wrote, and singing in two more. I'm loving every single moment.

Directing is so fun, especially with a game cast that nods when I tell them about my crazy choreography ideas.

Trust falls? No problem! Throw a big Handi-wipes container back and forth across the stage? Can do! Throw two? You got it!

I love my cast.

The little kids' happy and awed faces are a thrill to behold, but now, during rehearsals is almost a better time. Now, before we've had any audience reaction, now when I'm still imagining a flawless final product, now when I still have delusions of Busby Berkley, now before my imagination knocks up against my own two left feet.