Category Archives: experiences

The Whittier Fire slows down

The fire is at 83% containment. We can all breathe more deeply, the sky has returned to blue, and we think with grateful affection of the fire responders of all kinds who stepped up to fight for, and help our communities.

Those of us who recall other fires that seemed almost certainly vanquished still look every day and evening to check that there has been no break-out. But the weather has been reasonably kind, without the sundowners that were to blame on previous such occasions.

 

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The Whittier Fire Grows

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A photo from the street above ours and a map showing the Whittier Fire’s gains due to the sundowners. (Last night’s gains shown in appropriate fire red.)

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Whittier Fire has sent friends with their two dogs and cat, to house with us — great company, but we look at the weather predictions and cannot be happy about the sundowners and the proximity of the western flames to populated areas. We are not immediately affected but even as I type that, I say, how can I make such a statement when we have people taking refuge from the fire under our own roof?

I take note that our guests know their animals, and  put them together in the bathroom with their things. Thus a sense of a small controllable space for the animals with the company of fellows they know, and so they spent the majority of the time. We had prepared an outside run for the dogs, but I could see it was too much, too challenging to have so many changes, and too much strange space, however good our intentions. Happy pets to have people who understand what they really need. I’ll try to remember this if I ever have to evacuate my own pets to some refuge.

We could stand in the roadway last night and see distant flames over a ridge about two thousand feet up and to the West. Deep orange red leaping against the black, with a smudge of warm in the sky overhead. Overnight the fire expanded, fed by the winds, and containment dropped to 35%. Now, on this Saturday, we wait and wonder what the weather will send us next. There’s a suggestion that we will see more sundowner or Santa Ana winds– a bad prospect.

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Post SBWC 2017

2017-06-24 17.24.50

The above photo represents what I came home to, and with, after the writers conference.

After six days of intense interaction, and staying up late after rising early, I’m back at home feeling rather odd. What happens when you put a collection of mainly introverted writers in small rooms and invite them to help each other? Wonders, that’s what.

Yes, I went through strangely lonely and dark periods during the writers conference. I panicked I’d lost my touch, that I couldn’t see well enough to put one word after another in a worthy fashion. I heard marvelous, apparently perfect works by my fellow writers, and I doubted. I felt out of step, not so much with others, although that happened sometimes, but with my self. I was afraid I’d mislaid or damaged my writing voice. I felt like that person at a party who has no one to talk with, standing not quite part of any group, but trying to pretend he is, who keeps a smile on his lips because to do otherwise is to be pitiful, and to fall that low, is too far.

Terrifying the silence when you finish reading and you hear not a single response. You rearrange the sheets of your paper and all you can hear is them sliding on the polished wood of the conference table. Was I clear, did I commit cliches, or is even the action in my short story so obscure that no one dares begin a critique– oh hell, was I even speaking English? It’s two AM and what do I imagine I’m doing here? That man over there is yawning.

It’s terrifying to feel that other creators are trying to be kind–but they see you haven’t kept and nurtured the gift. It’s horrid to feel they lean over and speak the encouraging word because they are reflecting their own hearts, not any quality of yours.

I have been trying to create my whole life. That’s nice; we all know it’s a long apprenticeship. But what some part of my monkey brain forgot was this– a writer’s conference is never about you. Nor your work. It’s about the community of writers. I didn’t go in to win anything– I did at least understand that, long before the conference began,  but I did go in to regain my footing. That was my error– the wrong goal.

The goal? It’s to engage in the purpose of helping everyone regain his or her footing. I rediscovered that at last. By helping others, I began to see my own way. I started then to really hear what was said and made and shared. There is a rhythm to creation and sharing, and since creativity is meant for communication, there is a need to step deep into that shifting tide. No dabbling at the edge in the froth. For writers and artists there is an infinity ahead of making, and what that takes is humility and hard work together. This is not the time for selfish doubts, for in-turning.

Introverts or not, now, we break barriers. We swim, far out of our depth.

I am swamped with sensations of loneliness and encouragement, with a gratitude to all my fellow travelers that thickens my voice, with a sense of loss, because I now sit alone. But that may be the biggest mistake. I don’t sit alone.

Now to work, while the remembered voices of friends sound in my brain, while their kindness and engagement glow in my mind. Enough light at last, to let me see my way.

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A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

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You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.

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The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley

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The Suitcases

two suitcases

They sent her overseas to save her life. A small-boned young woman just beginning her twenties, hair fashionably short in the American style swinging against her strong jaw, her black eyes proud and watchful, ranging over the seething common crowd of Chinese at the dock. She moved flanked by the black and white of two nuns, her protectors. I imagine her standing on deck while the vessel backed slowly out from the dock, clad in a slim navy wool coat, her gloved hand raised to shield her against the sunlight, controlled in every gesture, contained.

Her blood ran arrogant in her veins, and in the changing China they had none of them invited, my mother’s family feared she would not survive. Some day too soon, she would say a thing that would be unforgivable, in public, with the snap of authority, with the precision she had learned from tutors before she went to the nun’s school, and she would die for it. So they sent her away, with the two leather suitcases her father had owned during his years in the diplomatic service, and in time she came by ship to America. I see her small height strung straight, balanced on her tiny feet by the railing with perfect pride and defiance, her hair neat, her face wisely giving nothing away, her short gloves matching the jacket over her simple dress. She probably didn’t touch those leather suitcase handles until the end of the trip. Some ship crewman would have carried everything for her, carted her trunks packed with silk, cotton and wool, and her beloved books.

Today the two suitcases lie stored in our closet in America. I look at the imprint of her father’s name upon one, and I touch the stamped in letters. He was a modern gentleman who refused staunchly his mother’s pressure to have his daughters’ feet bound. He had them educated, and in the long nights they fell asleep to the sound of their cousins weeping at the pain of broken feet when they thought no one could hear them give way.

There are stories to tell that I will not, now, because I have one particular night upon my mind. All gold lights and black shadows, a blue so deep the sky seemed to fall away between the buildings and the leaning skyscrapers; a New York City night. The night I met my uncle by marriage, Xiao Qian.

My mother left family in China when she clutched those leather suitcases and went away. One of that family staying and studying in Beijing was a younger sister, who had the temper of a dragon, the patience of a tiger, the double cowlick that means these things, and when she fell in love with a writer much her elder in the torn China of those times, the family wrote to my mother and asked her what to do. My mother had by then married a New Hampshire farm boy–scientist and poet, and she said, it does not matter– if Margaret loves him, let her marry. Thus, younger sister Margaret married her beloved mentor, teacher and inspiration, Xiao Qian. He was of peasant origins, but had grown to be a writer of repute, and as the years passed he continued a correspondence of great liveliness with the English writer E. M. Forster.

My husband and I entered the New York hotel room to find several older Chinese gentlemen there to whom we were barely more than children, and my aunt Margaret. We settled to seats once the greetings had passed, and listened as my uncle spoke to his old friends and to us.

“You know it has been fifty years since we last sat together,” Uncle said, his round friendly face making his dark eyes look even larger. The lines of years of smiles marked his face, his alert glance moved from one to another of us. His quiff of silver hair gave him a look of humor, reminded me of a panda. “Fifty years, my friends! These were my students,” he said to us, gesturing at the gentlemen around him, and they murmured a deep note of assent and pride.

When the tide of the Cultural Revolution rose, E. M. Forster arranged a position for Xiao Qian in England, inviting him and his family to come and take up a new life. But Xiao Qian said “No, it is now, more than ever, that my country needs me, and I must stand by her and see her through these hard times.”

“I was such a fool,” Xiao Qian said, looking from one to another of us in the hotel room. “So proud of myself with my noble words.”

“My neighbors came to our house and they destroyed it, broke my daughter’s piano, smashed chairs, tore the books. Pulled us about and beat at us with their familiar hands. Stood us on the table and struck us, villified us. Our friends, the people we knew. That was only a beginning. I cannot tell you it all.

“They beat us into the street and in the days that came and went I fell into such despair. I didn’t remember my hopes for China, I could see only my own sufferings. There came a day when I decided to die rather than bear this, took pills I had hidden and swallowed them and my wife Maggie when she realized, went to beg the doctors for help but they were afraid. In spite of myself, and them, she made me live. Maggie, Maggie. My stubborn fierce Maggie,” he looked at her and she pretended not to be listening; she was like stone and fire, all the pride that she would not share implicit in the quiet lift of her head.

“They sent us to the country to tend the pigs. It was a hard life, but the abuse became less over time until it was only a hard life and no longer an impossible one. And the years passed.”

He paused, and I could not take my gaze from his homely face and huge black intense eyes. He made a little nod, a tender broken smile, a gesture of open hands.

“But you must understand this,” he said. “On that first night of our new reality when I looked upon my friends and neighbors, shouting and yelling in the night with their fists raised, with broken brooms and knives, I understood that if there had been any way to change places with them I would have been so glad to do it. I would have acted as they did, maybe shouted and hit harder whoever they gave me to strike. That old saying was true for me no matter how proud I was. How idealistic. There but for the grace of God would I have gone. Yes, there, I too, would have gone. There but for the grace of God. But the choice was never offered, that it was not, was all that kept me from being them.

“Now I am born again into the land of the living, of the remembered.” He gestured with his square old man’s hand and there was such liveliness and self-knowledge in his black eyes. “I am known now for the work I did long years ago, they do not even require that I write more. Here I am a guest in America, and I come with a message to you,” he looked about at his old friends, his former students. “You who are known as the overseas-Chinese…”

I had heard that term in my Chinese language classes.

“You are invited back to our country with honor, with welcome. None of your belongings will be touched or taxed, you will be greeted with joy for the knowledge and skills you have gained in this wide outside world. There, I have said it, and I will testify to the truth of it. Already I know families who have come back, many doubting, but they came home. So I bring you this welcome, I convey it to you all.”

“The letters,” one gentleman spoke into the silence that followed. “Your correspondence with E. M. Forster, what became of it?”

“A few years ago I received a letter from Cambridge,” Xiao Qian said, “enquiring that very thing. When I was first reinstated by the government, this letter came to me. But the letters E. M. had sent me were burned. My wife’s sister panicked when she saw how the neighbors behaved and she took all the letters from their hiding place and burned them.”

The men in the room caught their breaths in shock.

“But think,” Xiao Qian said, “for great though our sufferings were, how much more terrible would they have been if I had in my possession my friendship correspondence with an English intellectual? Treason, no less, all the arrangements he tried to make on our behalf to find us sanctuary in his land.”

“But let us talk of your lives and what has happened in them, and how you have been happy, my friends.”

Voices rose and fell, but I kept replaying his past words, looked over at my new husband and knew he did the same, saw how moved he was, his hand gripping the arm of his chair. Tears in his blue eyes.

“Yes, let us go and eat then,” my uncle agreed, turning to us.

“We will catch our train, we had not meant to stay so long, but this was wonderful. Thank you,” I said, and we nodded. We rose, but Xiao Qian raised his hand and such was his authority that we stopped.

“Share the meal with us,” he said. “This is a special occasion. This is once in a lifetime,” and the crowd murmured agreement. They swept us along, down to where a line of chauffeured cars waited, navy and black and gleaming, crowded on the street. One of these men it seemed, owned a restaurant in Chinatown and he had swept a table for his old teacher and mentor, Xiao Qian. I sat silent in the back of our limo, gripping my husband’s hand as the chauffeur wove us our way through the magic streets, and our throats were filled with tears.

second label

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On to Ramsey Canyon

We drove to Phoenix, about an eight hour journey in our rental, and after a few days there, collected the kid (she’s twenty four so that is a little bad of me, but she is forgiving,) and headed to our Ramsey Canyon weekend, theoretically four hours away. It was an easier trip than expected and we drove in earlier than anticipated.

A rushing stream between high sided rock walls was the first and most important note. We had been too long in drought struck Southern California, and the sight and sound of clear water generously racing along its way was riveting. One had to cross the bridge over the stream to reach our rooms, a main room with a couch bed and kitchen and a bedroom with bath.

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We settled in and took a quick hike up the canyon, which required our passage through the friendly hands and hallway of the Nature Conservancy’s building. The Conservancy monitors  the upper part of the canyon and all visitors must be out by five o’clock to give the true residents, the animals, a break. After our brief walk and a delighted plunder of the Nature Conservancy bookstore, we went back to the Inn and had pie– warm cherry pie, before sitting and reading our books.

b-and-t-on-porch

As dusk fell, Bruce put our chicken sausages on the outside grill already set up for our convenience. While he cooked, I looked up at a movement and squeaked with glee. There walked a hog-nosed skunk across our bridge! I am one of those children who grew up on the little nature guides edited by Herbert Zim and I knew I had seen this creature in the pages of his book on Mammals. A new mammal for my life list. This is not an every day occurrence. My family had to endure many squeaks and chortles of glee from me for the rest of the evening.

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An Extra Note: Compostables and Not

Warning– this is a post that includes cleaning, garbage, purity, diapers and a rant. It’s not about Ramsey Canyon and what we saw… I will get to that after the clean up.

We hosted our Earth Sciences Department party yesterday and about seventy people attended. We prepared and cooked racks of ribs, slabs of salmon, fresh breads and vegetarian beans while our guests provided all kinds of vegetable and salad dishes, plus plenty of drinkables. I baked nine pies– apples from our orchard, grapes from our vines for the grape pies, boysenberries from the neighbor’s baked into a pie, and one huge four layer boysenberry filled cake with a cream cheese frosting. I probably should not tell how many packages of cream cheese I peeled for that job!

On such occasions we try to do our bit for sustainability, with designated bins for recyclables, and bins lined with the right type of compostable bag to take the compostable plates and utensils plus food waste, which we will later deliver to the processing center. A separate batch of bins stand ready for the non-compostables– paper napkins and waxed paper goods or whatever plastics people wrapped their contributions in.

So, this is a group of people who have spent their lives being students. Yet despite clear labeling on these bins, every year, the morning after finds me in my much-reused latex gloves sorting the garbage because somehow people can’t read those labels. But this year brought an even more disturbing variant.

I met single-serving squeezable plastic/foil baby food units. All “pure”, “organic” food in plasticized squeeze containers, one serving each. To be precise, plastic-covered foil pouches none of which is recyclable. The plastic lids are very large, and recyclable. I found two of these with their lids deep in our bin labeled ‘Compostables’. If you detect a hint of offense in my tone, you are so correct. I am worried about the parent who chooses to buy pure organic food for his or her baby in such a package. That you might absentmindedly throw it in exactly the wrong container is one of those things that can easily happen by mistake. But you do not choose single serving disposable aluminum and plastic pouches without shelling out a good bit of cash and having some time to select and think. So you want organic purity for your baby? Great. But what’s the impact of this choice? How could this company not have thought further in producing these expensive and wasteful items? Pure, organic and plastic present me with a serious disconnect.

I went to the website for this product and they claim that their containers have recyclable lids– well that’s just great! Indeed, they made the lids bigger in order to make them recyclable! Next, they say the production of one of their containers has a smaller environmental footprint than that of a glass bottle– but you often have the option to choose multiple serving sized glass bottles, which could change that equation. More, I am not sure if they are saying that only the original processing to produce a glass jar is more costly and if they have calculated the incalculable recycling in the lifetime of the glass jar? Or do they mean that the environmental cost of recycling the glass is greater than the environmental cost of production for each of their one-use pouches? With foil involved? This, I doubt. I also note that a glass bottle is composed of the third most common element on our planet — silica makes up ~15% of Earth. If the glass ends up back in the soil, it changes none of the chemistry of that soil. Plastics are manufactured materials that do not readily decompose, and have consequences in their smaller particulate form after years of disaggregation, for all animals, including us.

Yes, I understand that caring for a baby is a lot of work. I did it too, cloth diapers (and a diaper service as much as possible because at the end of the equation – sterilizing and washing all your own is more costly to the environment than using a diaper service.) I made baby food at home, except for times we travelled and I had to use bottled baby food. But the bottles and lids of what I bought were all recyclable. The glass meant a stable container with no risk of container molecules separating into the food, even acidic food.

I know a majority of my audience here is not having babies right now, but this isn’t just about baby food. It’s about thinking. I think that what I want to ask is that we try not to have that single serving plastic disposable choice be every day’s choice. No one likes a sermon much, especially when it asks for something, so I’ll return to my soggy gloves and my garbage sort.

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