Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Post-Christmas Musings

This Christmas I found myself thinking about all the ways we celebrate Christmas, and the extraordinary complexity - emotional, familial, logistical, spiritual, financial - of relationship with this holiday (the "holy-daze," says one friend).

Therapists have told me that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is their busiest time of the year: people who have never darkened the doorway of a shrink suddenly find themselves at their wits' end. And yet we're all supposed to be happy, "merry" even, which of course just makes it worse for those poor souls who, for one reason or another, find themselves a few shades short of the requisite emotions. I've observed that even those who profess to thoroughly enjoy Christmas tend to get just a wee bit stressed.

Not to mention the whole confusing issue of gifts: Just for the kids? How about all those coworkers?  Does anyone even want this stuff? Will anyone like my presents? Do I go into debt to match the family's expectations? Who will I offend if I don't give a gift?

And, if you're like me, the political and economic questions start piling up too: How can I justify this consumerism? What about all the people who have nothing? But should I be supporting my local craftspeople and small businesses? What about donations instead?

My father is a sociologist, and one of his more playful sociological studies was an exploration of the ten unwritten "rules" of Christmas gift giving in the Midwestern town of Muncie, Indiana (called "Middletown" in the study). There are Tree Rules and Wrapping Rules, and Who Gives What to Whom Rules, and none of them are written down or even seen as rules. Everyone thinks they're freely choosing what they do at Christmas. Every time I read this study I recognize my own behaviors in it, and am both amused and horrified. Are we really so predictable, so driven by our unspoken cultural habits and pressures?

All that aside, I had a wonderful, albeit highly untraditional Christmas this year. And I heard a lot of stories from others about their Christmas celebrations and conundrums.

I spent my Christmas house-sitting for a friend in Northern California, so that she and her daughter could travel to Florida to be with family. My co-celebrants were a black-and-white miniature Australian shepherd and two black-and-white cats. The dog and the cats, unfortunately, are not on speaking terms, which is perhaps not so different from many family Christmas situations. Nonetheless, I was extraordinarily happy.

On Christmas Eve I drank hot apple cider, had a couple of phone chats with family, admired the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the house, and listened to early music with the dog on my lap, considering how strange and wonderful it was that I was entirely alone and utterly happy, feeling the mystery of the renewal that Christmas signifies.

On Christmas Day I made a colorful organic salad for Christmas dinner for twenty residents of the local homeless shelter, dropped it off, and went for a long sunny romp at the local beach with the dog.

Later I had a phone conversation with an elderly friend who had broken her leg a few weeks ago and found herself spending Christmas in a rehabilitation center. Rather than being full of pity for herself (as I probably would be in her situation) she was overcome with gratitude - for the miracle of being alive, moment by moment, and for the miracle of her body's slow but steady healing. I was moved to tears as I listened to her.

Then I went to another older friend's house and shared a traditional Christmas dinner with her interesting grown family. We stayed up and talked until the wee hours of the morning, ushering in the end of Christmas with our wide-ranging conversation.

So what can I deduce from this about Florence and her perfect Christmas? Well, apparently she needs a healthy dose of solitude and quiet, music, time to feel the sacredness in the moment, a sense of purpose and service, a few warm animals, a little bit of time with beloved people (but not too much), good food, and a teaspoon of the beauty of the natural world.

Then there is my friend D., who was my inspiration this year. She was the one who organized the meal for twenty at the homeless shelter. She traveled to India earlier this fall, and when she came back she was, as she said, completely unable to stomach the idea of doing Christmas as her family had always done it. She said, "The world is changing, and we have to do things in a way that takes care of others."

She convinced her husband and children to try something very different, and astonishingly, they agreed. They bought toys for a local toy drive instead of gifts for each other, raised money for three Vietnamese children who need heart operations, and made Christmas dinner for the shelter, which the whole family delivered. Clearly for her, the perfect Christmas is one that honors her commitment to helping others.

Another friend, T., who is Jewish, buys presents for all the post office workers and takes them to the post office the week before Christmas, just when the stress and grumpiness of the customers is at its height.

I know others who spent Christmas deep in the sweetness of their family, doing nothing much other than being with one another, cooking together, eating together, appreciating each other and what they have as a family.

But lots of people I know spent Christmas in ways that did not nourish their hearts or align with their true expression. I know someone who is struggling financially (as so many are) who was expected by her children to play "grandma" with all the expected presents for the grandkids, far beyond her means. I know another grandmother who was struggling with a family request to give fewer presents than she wanted to. Others spent Christmas in ways that were conventionally "merry" but left them, mysteriously, empty and sad.

There are tremendous social and familial pressures at this time of year. My friend D. was very lucky that her family agreed with her radical requests. We all have such strong opinions about how Christmas "should" be, and woe to the person who requests or needs to do it differently.

Usually my writing here is not polemical: I'm not trying to convince you of anything, but rather to share my thoughts about something that has caught my heart or my mind. But in this case I want to admit that I have an agenda. I have a big Christmas wish for next year, and this is it: that we each support ourselves and each other to celebrate Christmas in the way that is truest to each one of us, no matter how strange or radical or untraditional it may seem.

Christmas tree at Muir Beach
The world IS changing, as my friend D. said, and it would be a beautiful thing if we could allow those we love to change too, and find ways of celebrating the season with fewer trips to the shrink (and, I might add, the mall!) and greater happiness and meaning. What better gift could we give one another?

If your loved one wants to spend Christmas alone with a dog at the beach, or helping out at the local homeless shelter, let her! If your loved one wants to go far away to a place where no one celebrates Christmas, let him! If someone asks not to give or receive presents, honor that difficult and brave request. If presents are important to you or others, find a way that they really matter, are truly appreciated, and are not merely an obligation, an empty gesture. If a family member is suffering financially, release him or her from the burden of reciprocity. Invite someone who is unwillingly alone to share your Christmas feast. Think of those for whom Christmas is a dark time, and see if you can bring a little light.

Perhaps, somewhere in there, each one of us, regardless of our religion, will rediscover the spirit of Christmas, for ourselves: the spirit of love, of kindness, of generosity, and of renewal. This is my hope.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Shadow of an Anchovy

My mother-in-law's family were poor peasants, and they would tell the story of being so poor that instead of having meats at the center of the round of polenta, they had a single small anchovy hanging over the center, casting its shadow. They said that the shadow of the anchovy was all they had to bring a little richness to the polenta.  
                                                                                                          -  Peggy Haines-Capelli
I was in Italy at the end of October and beginning of November, in the provinces of Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche. I was more than a traveler there: I was named for Florence - Firenze to my mother and those who knew me as a child - and my childhood was woven with the narrow streets and convent cloisters, churches and olive groves of Firenze and Tuscany, as I traveled back and forth with my art-historian single mother between the surreally different worlds of the American Midwest and Italy.

Fields, vineyards and villa, Setignano

From the time I was five until I was fifteen, we lived in Florence for part of every year. I went to kindergarten and fifth grade in Italian schools. I spoke Italian. Some of who I am came from that life, so far-away and mysterious to my American school-mates. I hadn't been back in many years, and this trip was a poignant, sweet chance to be there again with my mother, while it is still possible for both of us.

Although Italy is wealthy now, when I was a child - thirty, forty years ago - Italy was poor, third-world poor, and we were poor too, despite (or maybe because of) our bicontinental life.

The convent on Via Giuseppe Giusti
When I was small, we lived in a convent pensione across the street from the archives where my mother did her research. She couldn't afford child care, so in the early morning, when I was still asleep, she would go out, buy a roll and jam, sneak back in and leave it by the bed for me. When I woke up I would find my roll waiting for me, and for the rest of the morning, until lunchtime, I would lie in bed, get crumbs all over the sheets, and read, endlessly.

If I really needed something, the Italian nuns were down below, cooking in the big dark kitchen, cleaning the already-shining floors in the mostly empty main rooms, or cultivating the garden behind the building. I remember eating zucchini flowers for the first time, deeply comforting pastina in brodo with grated parmigiano on top, hard Tuscan bread. A great treat was a single Baci, the chocolate and hazelnut "kiss" made by Perugino, or an aranciata, an orange soda.

When we lived in Italy for longer times, we rented an apartment from an English doctor who owned a farmhouse in the hills to the west of the city. The contadini, the traditional Italian peasants who worked the land, lived down below us, next to their animals. Every morning I would wake to the sound of the cart and white oxen going by below our windows, slowly, slowly, with much shouting.

Two white oxen in the Tuscan hills

Our back windows looked out over a quintessential, "romantic" Tuscan landscape: hills, olives, dark spires of cipressi (cypresses), stone walls, the old stone village of Pian dei Giulari perched along one side of the valley, just down the road from us. What was concealed was the poverty, the backbreaking work, the deep knowledge that knew how to rebuild the stone walls, how to prune the olives, how to breed the oxen, how to survive. Now most of the contadini, as a culture, are gone, gone to work the well-paying jobs in the cities, and the absentee landlords struggle to keep the vineyards and groves alive without that deep and unacknowledged wisdom.

Sheep and stone trough

I remember, vividly, walking as a child on a country road and looking down into a farmyard where a contadini family was gathered around a round of polenta. Polenta was peasant food - no city restaurant would have dreamed of featuring it on a menu - and it was formed into enormous flat cakes, as wide as a circular table. It was cut with a string into wedges (this fascinated me), and each person at the table would eat their wedge toward the middle. In the middle would be whatever protein the family might have, and whoever could eat their wedge most quickly would get more of what was there.

A meat shop in Norcia - yes, those are boars' heads

While we were in Italy this time, we spent time with Peggy Haines-Capelli, an American art historian whom I knew and loved as a child and who, unlike us, chose Italy as her home and country. She eventually married an Italian journalist, and is now a widow. She told us the story of her husband's family and the anchovy as we sat around her round table, eating food we had brought back from our trip into the mountains of Umbria: famous tiny lentils from the town of Castellucio, pecorino cheese, salame called "mules' balls" from Norcia, with a white center of lard - a feast somewhere between a picnic and a high tea, rich with the stories of our trip to the wild and mysterious Monti Sibillini, the mountains of the sibyls. When I heard Peggy's story, probably in mid-bite of something delicious, it felt like a koan: what is the taste of the anchovy's shadow?

Quinces in farmer's market, Florence
While I was in Italy I was puzzling over the particular flavor of Italian life - the tremendous soul and depth that can be felt in the simplest village piazza or in the most elegant Florentine coffee bar. There is an appreciation of the sensuous things of the world, which, far from seeming superficial and materialistic, actually feels life-affirming, ancient, hugely sane. How do they do it? And how is it, that with all the force of modernism and wealth and speed, it is still alive, a heart at the center of things, something that can be tasted in the olive oil sitting on a trattoria table or in the syrupy intensity of a morning one euro espresso at the train station? And this story, of the anchovies...I think it's a key. I think it's a teaching story, perhaps for all of us.

Chestnuts, hazelnuts, fennel, honey in a farmer's market, Florence

We live like gods, these days. Not necessarily happy gods, but gods nonetheless. Few of us can imagine the poverty that would have a whole family only able to eat what is essentially ground field corn and water. No doubt life was hard, even sometimes hellish, for that family gathered around the polenta and that single, hanging anchovy. It drove the man who would become Peggy's husband to spend his life dedicated to defending the poor and oppressed.

House for a cat, Narni

But there is also something quintessentially elegant and clever in the story of the anchovy's shadow, although I can't quite put my finger on what it is. If there is only one anchovy to bring a little something to your polenta, what do you do? Can you appreciate the shadow of an anchovy, its salty, fishy scent perfuming the air as you eat? Can you raise your empty glass to your neighbor? Can you laugh a little, at yourself and at life, which is only providing this one little fish? Can you take what you have, a little or a lot, and make a feast? That's what it is - it's something about creating a feast out of famine, out of so little, a kind of grace, in both senses of the word.

View from hermitage, San Euitizio in Valle

That's what I feel in Italy, when I'm there: a soulful, embodied willingness to live, whatever comes. Maybe it's my projection on the place and its people, but I don't think so...I feel and see it with the part of me that was formed there. And as the country teeters on the edge of economic collapse, after so few decades of relative wealth, I think, "Well, maybe they'll be fine. Maybe they haven't forgotten how to live, under those designer clothes and behind those smart phones. Maybe they could teach the rest of us a few things about living."

"Life is too short", graffiti on a rural wall

And as I imagine a loaf of Tuscan bread, just water and flour and yeast, that intentionally hard crust to protect the soft interior, no salt because who could afford salt - and then I remember how profoundly GOOD it is, in its simplicity, in its poverty - it gives me courage.

If we are all (or most of us) going to get poorer in the future, which seems like a distinct possibility, let's do it with class. Let's celebrate the shadow of the anchovy.

This essay is dedicated to Signor Mauro Meniconi, the proprietor of a roadside porchetta van in rural Umbria, and one of the secret saints of the world.

For more photos, go to https://picasaweb.google.com/Firenze33/Italy

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kitten Teachings

A few weeks ago my neighbor here on the shores of Willapa Bay knocked on my front door. She was planning to leave the next day for a week-long trip. When I answered the door, she looked a little wild-eyed. "Florence," she said, "I'm sorry to bother you, but there are two kittens trapped under an abandoned house down the street. What should we do?" We walked down the street together, and soon we could hear desperate, high-pitched, piercing mews emanating from a dilapidated house.

Two impossibly tiny, nearly identical tabby kittens were in the crawl-space beneath the house, clinging to a small screened-in entryway and crying piteously. If kittens can scream, they were screaming. There are sounds that young mammals make in distress that are nearly impossible to ignore: the crying of a baby, the whimpering of a pup, the sound of hungry, frightened kittens. Wherever their feral mother had gone, she had been gone too long for them, or wasn't coming back at all. The sounds were unmistakably the sounds of little animals in extremis. I thought of my priest vows to be of benefit to all beings. It was too late to walk away. We looked at each other. "OK," we said, "let's do something."

We got a cat carrier, then went back to the kittens and tried to figure out how to extricate them from their crawl-space prison. With the help of another neighbor, we pried the screen off the small opening, and he crawled in. The kittens retreated, but were too small to go far. All we could see of the rescuer were his lower legs, but then his arm reached back to us, holding a trembling tiny bit of fur, blue eyes wide, striped legs spread wide. A minute later, another one appeared.

We popped them into the carrier and carried them back to my neighbor's house. They were very young, much younger than we had thought when we first saw them. Their blue eyes didn't focus, their ears were just unfurling and they wobbled more than they walked. We tried giving them milk (not a good idea, we later learned) but it was clear that they were too young to drink. They were trembling violently, clearly chilled, and mewing incessantly. Neither of us had any idea what to do. A call to the local rural animal shelter yielded only a recorded message.

We did what we all do these days, when faced with a dilemma: we went online. We learned that the kittens were perhaps just a bit over three weeks old, were almost certainly not weaned, and would need to be bottle-fed every few hours. They would not be able to maintain their own body temperatures and would need to be kept warm. They didn't even know how to urinate or defecate on their own. They were too young to go to a shelter, and might be euthanized if we tried. We should not have attempted to feed them - a chilled kitten should never be fed, and shouldn't be given cow's milk - our first big mistakes, blessedly irrelevant because they couldn't figure out what to do with the milk anyway.

My neighbor looked at me. We both knew she was leaving early the next morning. I had already promised to take care of her five-month-old Akita puppy while she was gone. "Of course," I said, wondering what my week was going to be like, wondering what I'd just promised to do.

So for the next week, with the help of my neighbor's kids and their father, I became a kitten mom. I coaxed them to eat, first unsuccessfully trying to feed them from a miniature kitten bottle filled with warm formula,  then from a mixture of warm formula and canned kitten food that they waded into and emerged from covered from paws to tail in what they were supposed to be eating. They would come straight to me afterward, to get warm, and then I'd be covered with formula and kitten food too. I washed them, I massaged their bellies to encourage them to defecate, I found them a surrogate mother to cuddle up to at night (a stuffed camel toy, just about the right size), I checked their heating pad every two hours. Mostly, I worried about them.

The first few days were the hardest. Although they'd had enough life force to get themselves into our hands and out from under the crawl space, I wasn't sure their life force would be enough to keep them going, especially in the hands of someone who had no idea what she was doing. The first night they spent at my house in their little cat carrier I barely slept. I kept wondering if I would wake to a dead kitten, or two dead kittens, and the thought seared me into wakefulness over and over again, listening for their small sounds. They were so fragile, so incapable of taking care of themselves. They had moved from the category of "other" and anonymous to the category of "beloved" in just a few hours.

That was the most extraordinary thing to me, to watch my own attachment develop so quickly, to care for them as if they had been in my life for years rather than hours. This seems to be one of the most basic of human capacities: the imperative to protect and care - for one another, for children, for wounded strangers, for the vulnerable and frightened. I could no more have chosen not to care for those kittens than I could have chosen not to breathe.

I was also shocked by how much I suffered over them, how completely neurotic I became, overnight. I worried about them nearly all the time. I felt responsible for their lives, moment after moment. A simple mistake on my part, a little carelessness, and they would be dead. I wondered how the parents of a newborn, or the parents of a sick child, stand that suffering. And here I must express my thanks to Cherie Kearney, who connected me to her friend Barb Hoover, a long-time foster kitten mom who gave me much-needed advice over the phone. Otherwise I might have gone right over the edge, not sure whether I was doing anything right at all. It turns out that it's hard to learn to take care of kittens via the internet (I'm sure the same could be said for babies) - I needed an old hand, and thanks to Cherie and Barb, I got one.

Then there were the moments when these tiny scraps of life curled together peacefully on my lap, small enough that I could hold both of them in my cupped hands, or when they clumsily climbed up on to the gigantic mountain of me, or when they looked into my face with their barely focused blue eyes. Then it was worth all the kitten food smeared on my clothing, and all the neurotic agitation. I could almost see the heart-strings that ran from my heart to their small faces.

And the miracles! They didn't know how to purr on Day 1. By Day 2 they were emitting tiny crackling noises. By Day 3 they were purring on my chest. They didn't know how to wash themselves on Day 1. By Day 4 they were swiping themselves with their paws, not very effectively. By the end of the week they'd learned how to wash everywhere but under their chins (that took quite a bit longer - weeks, actually!). I got them a miniature litter box and scratched in it with my fingers. One of them came stumbling over and started scratching too. Within a day they knew what to do in the litter box, and squatted there like real cats, looking a little puzzled but also pleased. I saw them wrestle together the first time, on about Day 3.  Their development was so rapid, it was like stop-motion photography, like a flower blooming, like the sun rising.

What had started out as bewildering and frightening became joyful and astonishing.

They - and I - survived the week. My neighbor came back and took them into her care with her kids' help. It was hard to let them go. They are now about six weeks old, and running around like little hellions. One's eyes are almost green, the other's still blue. We think they are both males, or maybe one is male and the other female (it's surprisingly hard to tell, graphic internet photos notwithstanding). My neighbor is still considering whether it's right to keep them - there are a lot of coyotes and raccoons around here, and kitties tend to be short-lived. If just the right home came along, someone who would take the two together, they might let them go. Otherwise, long-lived or short-lived, they do appear to have wormed themselves quite well into my neighbor's heart.

And I just donated to my local animal rescue group - HAVA - the Harbor Association of Volunteers for Animals- because the plight of kittens and puppies and dogs and cats and all the other creatures we take into our care, neglect, abuse, forget, abandon, has become vivid to me. I don't want kittens, any kittens, to starve under an abandoned house. All animals are these two kittens I cared for, deserving a good life, a chance to grow up and grow old.

I learned a lot from those kittens. I saw my ferocious protectiveness, my fear, my care, my capacity to love. I saw how life - any life - has a way of insisting, against the odds, on staying alive, on growing, on becoming. And beyond any words, our lives touched, intimately.

I will always be part of them, and they of me, however long they pounce and purr and climb in this precarious world.

May their lives be long, and bright, and lovely.

And a postscript, nearly a year later. I drove up to the house today, after being gone for several months, and was greeted by both kittens, now grown up and full of piss and vinegar. Here's a picture of one them.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Running the Edge of the World

Tokeland, Willapa Bay Southern Washington Coast ---

For the last sunny week or so I've been running barefoot on the big beaches to the north of here. Running's new - it's been a long time since I've been well enough to run - and running barefoot along the wet shiny salt-spray-and-wind edge of the continent is wholly new. The sand is packed hard from the breakers, almost as hard as pavement, and the shorebirds dash wildly into and out of the waves, just as I veer inland when a big wave comes in. Otherwise I like to run where the waves spread out into a fine mirror for the sky, my feet splashing in the shallow sheet of water.

Everything is reduced down to just a few "things", almost not things at all - sand    ocean    line of dunes   shorebirds   terns    sun   sky. There's a sense of edge, but not a hard edge - a constantly shifting, literally fluid edge.  Running the edge of the world.

James Swan, in his record from 1851 of the earliest white settlement of this part of the coast, writes about traveling along this very beach from Grays Harbor to "Shoalwater Bay" (now Willapa Bay). Inland were huge dark cedar and spruce forests, deep bogs, steep hills - but a person could drive a coach and four horses down the hard-packed open sand. Washington beaches are still classified as "public highways" - a legacy of the time, not so long ago, when they were the only way up and down the wet and wild Pacific coast.

I say "this very beach" but the beach I've been running on is called Washaway Beach. It's the fastest eroding shoreline in North America. What is beach now was once land, just a few years ago. Hundreds of feet of coastline a year disappear into the ocean, houses that were once well inland now stand tipped nearly over the edge of the sandy bank, the entire town of North Cove (church, coast guard station, cemetery) occupied a sandy peninsula now entirely underwater, where Pacific waves break at low tide, the graves moved inland, bones and headstones and all. Where I run this year will be ocean next year, the edge moving inexorably inland.

So what beach do I run on? Do I run on James Swan's beach? Where is the edge?

This time of year the shorebirds are just beginning to return from their far northern nesting grounds, some to stay here for the winter, others to go south south south, unimaginably far south. They're tired. Today I saw a whole group resting beside the waves, little white balls of feathers, heads tucked in, a gull presiding over them. I run a long way around the shorebirds. The last thing they need is to have to fly unnecessarily, after what they've been through. I cringe when I see a dog on the beach, joyously chasing them.

Right now it's all semipalmated plovers and sanderlings, the plovers gazing meditatively off into the middle distance, the sandlerings running like wind-up toys back and forth from one good feeding area to another, flying up together like a school of silvery fish flickering in the air. It took me about a half an hour to move slowly slowly up to a group of sanderlings today, to get close enough to see what they were with my small binoculars, but slow enough not to spook them.

This is why I don't want to spook them - the plovers have just arrived from their nesting grounds in the Arctic and subarctic, and they're headed south for the winter. Some of them are headed to....hang on to your hat here....Patagonia. More of the sanderlings stay around for the winter, but they nest even farther north, only in the High Arctic above the Arctic Circle, and some of them migrate 5,000 miles or more to South America. This is serious flying for birds smaller than a robin. I don't even travel that far, wanderer that I am.

So the shorebirds and I share the beach, all of us travelers, here for a little while before we head south, and the beautiful Caspian terns fly overhead staring into the water and croaking "like a crow being strangled" (as a friend of mine described them). When it's windy the dry sand moves in a fine sheet across the hard-packed wet sand, and the effect is mesmerizing, like running in a shallow desert river.

There is a joy that can seize a person in a place like that, running in the wind in all that space and light. I'm not sure where it comes from, or why it arrives. The spirit grows wide, spreading itself out. There's nothing outside that brightness, for a while.



Saturday, March 12, 2011

All At Once

Isn't it strange, the way so many things are happening at the same moment? At this moment,as I write this or you read this, an inconceivable number of events are occurring: someone is experiencing the greatest happiness, another the greatest grief; there is an avalanche cascading down a mountain slope and somewhere else a light rain has begun to fall; a small creature is being born and another creature is dying; a new star is forming, and somewhere another star is winking out, its light and heat fading away into darkness. All at once.

Yesterday and the day before I experienced this mystery with particular vividness. Thursday night I was reading from Wildbranch at a local bookstore with two of the book's contributors. It was a lovely night, and local friends came out to hear us. I shared a story from a reader of the book, who had told me that she had given up reading environmental literature because it was too depressing, but she had realized that Wildbranch was about love, love and intimacy with our world, and love is a more potent force for action than despair. I felt so happy about the book and what it offers, so happy to be sharing it and reading from many contributors.

I came home from the reading to the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which had happened as we read. 

I was up much of the night, knowing that there could be a tsunami on the west coast of North America, and concerned for my little retreat cabin a few feet above high water on the Washington coast, my neighbor and her children, and my sweet friends who were staying in the cabin that night. I knew enough about tsunamis to know that they can cross whole oceans in a matter of hours without much diminution of their force. I knew that the county had called for an evacuation of all houses at sea level, including mine and those of my neighbors.

Several of us at the reading had arranged to go hiking the next day. The next morning I left for the hike before the time that the first major waves would come ashore. I had reached my friends who were staying at the cabin, and they had left and driven back to their own home, safely above sea level, but I didn't know what would happen to the cabin and the small community around it, all of which sits just a few feet above sea level on a narrow peninsula on Willapa Bay, a stone's throw from the open ocean and the roaring surf. I've always known that it is vulnerable to an event just like this one. Would this be the time?

Then, for the next few hours, I was hiking and looking at spring wildflowers, and I don't know what happened, except that the four of us on the hike fell into a kind of grace, one of those times of magical ease and beauty, unlooked-for, unrepeatable, perfect.

It was a clear, sunny spring day after rain, the air soft and subtly misty, the ground exhaling its moisture. Our trail started high up on Mount Tamalpais, then descended the open west-facing slopes of the mountain, views far out over the ocean, north to Bolinas and south to the very tops of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. The grass - not just the grass, but everything, every tree, shrub, herb and moss - was deeply, brilliantly green, the hallucinatory green of March in the coastal hills. After a while the the trail entered the redwoods and turned upward again, following waterfall after waterfall back up the mountain, up mossy stone stairways.

Some of us in our little group of four knew each other well, over many years; others were just acquaintances. Two Zen practitioners, three writing teachers, one botanist. What we shared was our love of literature and the natural world, and this moment together. We talked and walked and admired flowers and mushrooms and the light through the redwoods. We took photographs and shared gingerbread and homemade coffee cake by the side of the creek. We told stories. We wandered on and off the trail. I left my walking stick by a flower and then it reappeared, leaning against a railing on an entirely different trail. The day unfolded with a kind of ease that only happens now and again, in dreams or, if we're lucky, for a few hours in waking life.

The whole time I didn't know what had become of the only place I can call home, whether the sturdy little white cottage underneath the Sitka spruce was filled with muddy water as I walked the hills, or still sitting quietly in the rain, unharmed and whole. Or what might be happening in Japan or elsewhere all along the edge of the Pacific. There was nothing I could do, but I didn't forget, and it gave a subtly different feeling to the day for me, a kind of strangeness that made the light more brilliant and the grace more poignant.

When I got back to town, many hours later, I heard from my neighbor that everything was fine. She talked about how the day had been for her, also not knowing, waiting, and the gratitude she felt for the simple gift of being fine, of having a house and safe children, of making a pot of soup and starting a fire in the woodstove. How often do any of us remember to be grateful for our lives as they are, in all their ordinary details?

Meanwhile, across the ocean, thousands of people are still missing. Tonight, as I write this, people are huddled in makeshift shelters, mourning their homes, their friends and relatives, their pets, the lives they once had - lives that can be rebuilt but which will never be the same. And I sit here, still bathed in a sense of well-being from my day in the hills, feeling happiness for what was not destroyed in my life. These things exist side by side, utterly connected and yet also independent of one another.

I read tonight that the Dalai Lama has asked people in Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile for more than fifty years, to chant the Heart Sutra 100,000 times for the people of Japan and all who are suffering disaster.

The Heart Sutra says "form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form." Another way of saying it is that I am, at the same time, both an individual with a history and an experience that is uniquely my own, and completely connected. I am affected by an earthquake across an ocean from me, and yet walked the hills as others suffered and died. We breathe air that has been in the lungs of a lion, the stomata of 300-year-old coast live oak, the nose of Buddha, but when we breathe, only we can breathe our breath, this one irreplaceable, unrepeatable breath

And on the day I die, there will almost certainly be someone walking those hills I walked yesterday, bending to look at a wildflower, smiling at a friend, breathing in the clean ocean air. We will share that moment, not knowing each other, linked inextricably.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ode to a Favorite Place

It's been a long time since I've written here: I've been preoccupied with promoting the Wildbranch anthology (several great book readings, in San Francisco and Portland), working on a new book of Buddhist koans and stories about women, and organizing and helping to lead a women't retreat up in Washington. It's been a project-full time!

But today is a fabulously beautiful spring day in Marin County. I walked downtown from my aerie amongst the oaks and the hawks, down through the dark, cool redwoods and the creek in Blithedale Canyon, then into the quiet village of Mill Valley. I saw a friend for green tea and apple pie, then walked back through the canyon and up the hill again. Although it's not yet the end of January, we're having true spring weather. The grassy hills are ludicrously green, daffodils are in bloom, and everywhere the spring annuals are sending up leafy shoots.

I'm often astonished that I am able to live here, even if I can only afford to be here for a few months out of every year. The beauty of this area has never grown commonplace to me. Every time I see the Golden Gate Bridge from the hills behind my place, miles away, fog drifting between the towers, I'm amazed all over again. Every time I look out my window to the peak of Mount Tamalpais, or get out of my car in the evening to quiet moonlight, I'm grateful.

And the people! Marin is still a place for eccentrics and artists and meditation junkies, surviving like relic trees amidst the Lexus SUV's, and I seem to have the luck to meet them every time I turn around.

What inspired me to write today is a quote in a book by Gary Thorpe, a sort of neighbor in Marin, fellow Zen practitioner, writer, and naturalist. I don't know Gary, but I feel like I should - we've probably passed each other on the trail and sat in the dark together at Green Gulch, never knowing it. The book is a collection of short essays about Gary's quest to see a mountain lion, Caught in Fading Light. Here's the quote that caught my eye:

"Marin County, where we live, is a wonderful place to look for something. It's a land of wilderness, parks, marine sanctuaries, farmlands, small villages, and manageably sized cities. Here one can find an abundance of wildflowers and mushrooms, along with meditation centers and ethnic restaurants. There are elephant seals, car dealerships, redwood trees, high-tech industries, rare falcons, and imprisoned felons, all sharing one of the loveliest landscapes and coastlines anywhere."

This quote reminded me of another paean to Marin Countyin Alan Watt's delightful autobiography (remember Alan Watts, the first popularizer of Eastern religions?), In My Own Way. Alan spend the last decades of his life in Marin County, some of that time on a houseboat in Sausalito, and here's what he wrote about it in 1972. Now, admittedly, Marin was a little bit wilder then (in every possible way) but I detect the same spirit even now, and many of the people who were here in 1972 are still here, tucked away up the canyons. Some of them are my neighbors!

"Here in San Francisco and Southern Marin we have succeeded, more than anywhere else in the United State, in curbing the White Anglo Saxon Protestant subculture of the nation, though our slight margin of victory requires incessant vigilance...By virtue of its hilly landscape, its redwood forests and eucalyptus groves, its wayward coastline, its liberally bohemianized population, the peninsula of southern Marin has attracted imaginative people from all over the world...it has also become a powerful spiritual center of the nation, as befits the fact that its geographical center is a mountain holy to the Indians...Though not much more than twenty-five hundred feet high, Mount Tamalpais rises almost directly from sea level...Seen in the first light of dawn...the whole mass of hills, valleys, and canyons with their forests. groves, meadows and giant rocks confers an atmosphere of strange benificence.

Extraordinary people live upon it... There are mountain lions, bobcats,and deer galore, and wild goats and eagles and vultures and racoons and rattlesnakes and gophers... All these and many more wizards, yogis, artists, poets, musicians, gardeners and madmen cluster about this mountain."

So there you have it. My friends might wonder why I keep being drawn back to this place, so far from my home ground of the rainy Northwest coast. It's the light of the January sun, my 95-year-old neighbor who traveled the world as an adventuresome entomologist, the joy of walking beneath old coast live oaks draped in lichen, the library beneath the redwoods, the shorebirds by the tens of thousands, the Buddhist meditation groups in every nook and cranny (including my own household!), the beautiful white city shimmering to the south. And I do have a soft spot for mountain lions and vultures and wizards and poets and gardeners and madmen... (might even be more than a little bit one of the latter myself).

I've been thinking about gratitude, and its power to transform our habitually whiney minds into happy minds. Gratitude for place seems like a important kind of gratitude, at least for me. To bow down and kiss the ground, whatever that ground might be - granite or concrete, dirt or sand or duff or garden bed. Beauty everywhere.

And although it's true that I don't exactly live anywhere, I feel grateful for the many beautiful places that are part of my life, from the soft shoals and light of Willapa Bay, to the tawny slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, to the tremendous spaciousness and wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Even my hometown in the Midwest, with its gracious old houses and tropical summer heat, deep green - where in the world is there NOT something to celebrate of the place where you stand?

If you feel like writing a response in the comments, something about the place or places you love, please share.