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2015I had intended to write and post this on the first day of the new year. The advantage of being your own publisher is that no one yells at you when a deadline slips.

Or, maybe the deadline was arbitrary. Yesterday, I did not know what to say about this upcoming journey ‘round the sun.

This year will be my 66th trip around the sun (I turn 66 in October).

A friend proudly posted on her Facebook page that the quiz she took assured her that her real age was 51. She is my age. My comment was, do you notice how much older younger is?

Thirty-five years ago, I joined the Gray Panthers in San Francisco, an organization started by Maggie Kuhn to fight ageism. Its motto was youth and age in action. I had just completed a life story on my grandmother to honor her 90th birthday. I was about to turn 30—an age that use to be a sign that a woman was getting past her prime. Two years earlier a headline blared that Farrah Fawcett was turning 30 and still looked pretty good, but, oh, my, she was 30.

As I contemplated what it meant to have lived three decades, I realized my grandmother had lived nine, and that there just might be something interesting in recording nine decades of experience.

It was interesting. Among other things, I found out she was surprised when she saw herself in the mirror. She still thought of herself as the 14-year old girl captured by the owner of the photography studio in town.

The people I met in the Gray Panthers had lives that were pretty much the polar opposite of my grandmother’s. A couple of the men had been a part of the Abraham Lincoln brigade. I met Harry Bridges, who helped form the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (for which he was prosecuted by the U.S. Government during the 30s, 40s, and 50s). A woman had been married to one of the Hollywood Ten—ten writers and directors who were blacklisted in Hollywood and sent to prison for publicly denouncing the tactics employed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The women who had taken part in the labor movement noted how sexist it was.

I joined the Board, was elected co-convenor (similar to president of the Board), and learned a treasure trove of skills I didn’t know existed (like how to run a meeting). My life took a new trajectory because of my involvement—these were people who had pretty much spent their lives swimming against the current. It ended up not being a good fit for me because I didn’t see everything in political terms, but they gave me permission to swim against the current.

About the same time, I volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH) as a hospice volunteer. Within six-months SFGH became a ground zero in the AIDS epidemic. I learned another treasure trove of skills by being a hospice volunteer—the most significant was learning to be a witness. That’s what we were taught: our job was to be a witness to death. Not to fix it, make it better, or make it go away. But simply to be a witness.

So, where am I going with all this? I have no idea. I just know that the phrase I woke to yesterday, January 1, 2015, was “Once more around the sun.” There was some kind of clarity to that—clarity that I have no idea what this next trip around the sun will bring.

It seems fresh, however. Perhaps because I have now been in my new environment for once and half more around the sun, I have left behind what seemed familiar to make room for the unfamiliar. To go where I have never been before. To explore the path of a woman growing older.

It seems absurd now that 30 ever seemed like a death knell for a woman. That her best years were behind her. I remember that picture of of Farrah Fawcett at 30, her perfect body clothed in a one-piece swim suit, with her Farrah-Fawcett hair and sparkling smile. She seemed vacuous to me even at the time.

As I did my research for this blog, I came across one of her obituaries, titled “What Farrah Fawcett can teach us about anal cancer.”

She was 62 when she died in 2009. She died young, her body not so perfect anymore. Not because it didn’t look perfect, but because of what had happened to it. She did not have the opportunity to explore the path of a woman growing older. But she certainly took a courageous path by talking openly about a cancer that no one really wants to think about. Not so vacuous after all.

Once more ’round the sun. Who knows what lies ahead? I’m glad I waited until I had something to say before I made a blog post.

A Solstice Greeting

solstice_14_card

My Husband’s Desk

Tom and I are in the last phase of transforming our Happy Valley home into one that is truly ours. We have lived through a cycle of all four seasons here, settling in, groking (if you will) our transplanted lives.

And so we have been unpacking the boxes that have waited patiently for our attention. Most of them were packed in April 2013 as we readied our Livermore home for sale. Most of them contain books that are the residents of our library.

We turned our garage into what we are going to use as our library shortly after we moved in. It was completed in January. Boxes were transferred there from the storage unit. And then they sat waiting patiently for us to unpack them.

We were diverted for a while by our involvement in the local community theater. But we discovered that it was not a hospitable place for us. It was not the community that either of us felt comfortable being part of. So we left.

We grieved that for a week or two. Then we set to work unpacking the life that we brought with us from California.

We were surprised at how much we didn’t need—that’s tricky when you make a big change like that—knowing what you can’t live without. It felt good to prune away dead wood.

And now comes the library. It is really Tom’s room—housing his collection of classical CDs (7,000—that’s not a typo). It will be filled with shelves of books, some that are ours, but most are Tom’s that he has collected since he was a teenager. They are in pristine condition because Tom treasures them so.

It is also where his desk is.

toms deskFor years I tried to convince him to buy a new desk. I don’t know why except I had some misguided notion on my part that he needed a new one—one that would fit the décor better.

He could never find one that fit him as well as the desk that was his. Or maybe it is the desk that is him.

He bought it used for fifty dollars when he moved to Chicago to take his job at Roosevelt University right out of Cornell. It followed him back to California when he became editor of Keyboard magazine. It went into storage at some point after he moved to Southern California where he played keyboard on xx Jerry Goldsmith movie scores and edited a Yamaha users’ group magazine.

His desk’s time in storage coincided with the disintegration of his first marriage.
It followed him back to Northern California where it has been out of storage ever since.

I have seen him sit at it to write morning pages, create what he calls “fair” copies of the music he has composed, and sometimes to just stare out the window, taking in the beauty of the world outside.

He has repaired it where needed. Reinforced it where it was frayed. It has the right number of drawers on either side with a drawer in the middle. It is the right size: five feet wide.

As we sat talking after breakfast last week, he told me the history of his desk. It’s at least 42 years old, but since he bought it used, who knows when it came into the world. It was clear to me that he feels comfortable with his desk and that comfort gives him peace—the peace that is necessary for his mind to explore and create.

I wondered why I ever thought he needed a different desk.

Tom has given me the gift of family. I grew up in a family where my safety was sacrificed in the name of harmony. With Tom, because of Tom, I have learned the safe harbor that family can provide.

I found the perfect gift for Tom several years ago when I found him slippers he didn’t know existed. He slipped into their comfort. And I understood that giving comfort is a wonderful gift.

Thxday 2014Tom’s desk now sits in front of the library window. He looks out on the Olympic range that harbors the valley we live in. It is our present. I heard once that the present is where the past flows into the future. I think one needs comfort for that flow to happen.

I’m giving thanks today to Tom, his three daughters (who are the daughters of my heart), and our grandsons for providing me the safe harbor that family can be. That is my present, the place where the past flows into the future.

earth from the moonA picture of an outhouse was posted on my Facebook this morning with the instruction to “Like” if I knew what it was and had used one. I not only knew what it was, I had used one when I was five when we visited my aunt’s farm in Iowa. The year was 1955. They still did not have indoor plumbing.

My father’s was the last generation where it was not unusual that you were raised on a farm. I suspect I am the last generation to have visited relatives who had no indoor plumbing. They weren’t poor. They were just rural.

I suspect I am the last generation who, as a child when asked “Do you want ice cream?” and responded “What kind?”, heard in return, “What kind? What kind? Why in my day, it was so unusual to have ice cream we never even thought of asking what kind.”

The astonished were my grandmother and my great uncles and aunts. My grandmother had nine siblings—born during a time that spanned the end of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth.

My maternal great grandfather was born two years after the end of the Civil War. He travelled by covered wagon, remembered hiding from Indians, took part in the third Oklahoma Land Run, and chased after the James boys and Cole Younger gang when he was a marshal in the Oklahoma Territory. His earliest memory was jumping between the railroad ties—his legs barely long enough to make the jump. He figured that memory went back to when he was four years old.

My great grandfather, who traveled by covered wagon, lived to see men land on the moon. His daughter (my grandmother) flew across the country in a passenger jet for the first time in 1959. His grandson, my uncle, worked on the Mercury space program.

My great grandfather was 104 the last time I heard his stories. He died in 1973 at the age of 106. My grandmother died in 1988 at the age of 99. My uncle, who was born just a few years after the Wright brothers showed we could fly, died at the age of 100 in 2010. He built and flew his own airplanes over the years.

I have the benefit of having heard personal stories that date back 147 years. That has given me a particular perspective on change, an intimate look into daily lives from an era that no longer exists. I remember the phrase, “I might as well do that as go to the moon.” I don’t hear that one anymore.

I believe that the decisions we make that affect the course of our lives, are largely informed by the size of the world we inhabit. My great grandfather’s and grandmother’s world had clearly drawn boundaries—that was their world. Telegrams brought in the outside world to my great-grandfather; radio and then television brought it into my grandmother’s.

But now, we have the Internet, email, twitter, and other various and assorted methods for bringing the world to our front door. A letter that once took weeks or months to arrive now takes seconds—from across the globe.

I have been thinking about this for the past two days after getting involved in a “discussion” on Facebook. I never seem to learn that one really can’t have a discussion on Facebook, but there you are.

The discussion was about whether or not the Baby Boomers (me, for example), are the scourge of the earth. This was presented as how Millennials see us. I thought this was hype until I got responses from my comment detailing why I didn’t think it was true. According to the responders, Baby Boomers are responsible for the demise of Unions, trickle-down theory, the failure of the economy, the election of Ronald Reagan, and the reason Republicans prevailed in this last election.

We (Boomers) may have done good things in our youth, but we grew up to start the Tea Party. We have left the Millenials with a world in a mess.

First, there is probably some comeuppance in all this. I remember my generation in its youth blaming the “greatest” generation for leaving us a mess. In some ways they did, but we also grew up in an era that supported affordable college, reasonable student loans, the hope for social justice, and belief that the Constitution supported the rights of the individual over states’ rights.

I got a great education in history, civics, science, math, humanities, literature, music, drama, and visual arts.

That kind of education I believe is the key to our future.

I could not convince my Millenial assailants that I believed in that, had fought for it my whole life, and continue to fight for it. They simply cast me as their enemy who had nothing of value to offer the world because of the time in which I was born and came of age.

This scares me. I wonder if they have an ice floe in mind for me. But then, ice floes are becoming fewer and farther between, turning the environment polar bears knew well into dangerous territory for them.

This last election really bothers me. It had the lowest turnout of voters since 1942. Republicans ginned up fear (Ebola! Isis!) to get their base to the polls and suppressed votes that might not be in their favor, while Democrats tucked tail and quivered. It was hardly a referendum. Only a fool could say that America has spoken and they want what we want. Nobody offered anything other than fear and retreat.

I don’t know whether those Millenials who want to send me to an ice floe voted. The generations succeeding mine seemed less and less interest in voting.

So I want to give my perspective on voting. I came of age when people died, in this country, for fighting for their right to vote. Others, who had the right to vote, died fighting for voting as an American right. Those fights expanded over the years so that we have a much more inclusive society now. Though that inclusiveness is tenuous.

There is much about the Millennial generation that I find exciting—they seem to want to forge their own way. But I’m concerned, because we live in a time of such rapid change, that they might not have a broad enough perspective.

We had to throw away an iPod that no longer works. Well, it’s six years old, after all, I told myself, then thought about it. In the movie The Red Violin, the violinmaker selected wood that has been aging for thirty years to make his masterpiece. I remember thinking that not only did he choose the wood that had aged thirty years, but that someone had thought to set it aside for aging, and he knew where it was.

My iPod was six years old and it made sense that it no longer worked or was relevant.

That’s a different perspective of time.

I wrote at one point to my assailants that I used to think things were black and white. And then I realized that not only is there a range of colors and shades of grey, there are also shades of black and white.

The best thing about the world we live in today is that within seconds we can see the varying shades of black and white, some we never knew existed.

But we have to rise above fear and facile answers to understand how to respond to the world we live in. It’s a world that is both bigger and smaller than the world inhabited by my great grandfather, grandmother, and uncle. It’s both bigger and smaller than the one I grew up in.

I hope that those who are trying to reinstate the status quo of fifty years ago fail. I hope the Millenials don’t hate me for being born at the end of the first half of the twentieth century.

I hope that I have gained wisdom over my years and that I can have some influence on the future.

I might as well do this as go to the moon. Well, we did. It started with our imagining we could. It’s the shades of black and white that stir our imaginations, that help us leap beyond our expectations.

Every generation leaves a mess as well as gifts. Let’s look back at the pictures of the earth taken from the moon and embrace the shades of black and white so we can clean up the mess while enjoying the gifts.

The geese seem to be in their winter home—wherever that is.

I just noticed earlier this week that they weren’t flying over our home. For a while, flocks of them flew over heading south. Once in a while a flock headed north. For all I know they might have been the same geese. Or maybe they were part of a tribe that came back to help any stragglers. There is, after all, strength in numbers.

GeeseFamilyI wondered what happened to the Goose Family of Third Avenue—the one whose adults acted as crossing guards as the little ones and mothers crossed the road, stopping traffic in both directions. The guards would stretch their necks and, with laser-like focus, aim their eyes at the cars, giving them no option but to stop so that their goslings could safely make it to the other side. Perhaps, they did know there were sentient occupants in the cars and their eyes were seeking ours, trusting that we would see in them what we have in us—a love for our children.

My relationship with the Goose Family of Third Avenue covered a period of weeks, at the most a couple or few months. I can’t say for sure. I watched their children grow from fuzzy little goslings to feathered young geese crossing Third Avenue in Sequim.

At some point, I noticed that I didn’t see them anymore. I suspect the young ones were ready to fly and so didn’t have to waddle across the road. I suspect they were among the flock that flew back and forth over our property on their way south, and perhaps returning north to be part of the gatherers—those who made sure that any stragglers followed them to the home they make when winter sets in here.

I know nothing about the behavior of geese. I’m just guessing. I do know for certain that those adult geese who crossed Third Avenue were protecting their young.

Take a leap with me now.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Seattle, staying with my nine-year old triplet grandsons while their mother was on a business trip. After dropping them off at school the first morning, I stepped into a Starbucks, intending to spend some time writing.

I noticed the accent of the man next to me when he responded to my question about logging on to the café’s Wi-Fi. A few minutes later, overcoming whatever shyness I do have, I asked him about his accent—where is it from?

He was from Palestine it turns out. I have met Palestinians before as I traveled, but none were as gregarious as he. Others had always been friendly, but carried a profound sadness—the sadness that comes from dislocation.

My new friend was loquacious, as well as gregarious. Clearly, a born storyteller. He had attended a Catholic college in Oklahoma. Think about that—a Muslim attending a Catholic college in Oklahoma. Kind of spun my head around.

Many in his family still lived in Palestine, fortunate enough to be on the lower cusp of middle class as opposed to the grinding poverty most Palestinians live in. When he asked what he could send them, the women said flowers. In addition to being an engineer, he was a master gardener.

He sent them bulbs, disguising the contents’ package with lots of chocolate bars. He had to do that to get past Israeli customs, one of the signs that Palestinians are colonial subjects of Israel.

The bulbs he said were lilies.

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
“If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more [will he clothe] you, O ye of little faith?”
Luke 12:27 to 28

That’s what flashed across my mind—the poetry that originated in this land made deadly with sibling rivalry for their God’s love. As if God’s love is finite so he or she has to choose one flock of humans over another.

I could see the women—his relatives—in a field surrounded by lilies, chattering about their daily lives, savoring chocolate bars. Such a different image when I think of the Gaza strip. A rainbow replacing the cloud of destruction I usually see in my mind.

As my Starbucks’ friend led me further down the path his story took us, I learned that he was on a break from work. He had gone to a meeting where he brought flowers and chocolates to one of the women consultants, and was accused of sexual harassment.

He wasn’t worried, he said, because he knew who he was. He suspected that it wasn’t the woman who complained but rather her boss, who seemed to have a thing for her.

My guess is his suspicions were right. My new friend was cheerfully married with five children. He was a master gardener who knew the mystical allure of chocolate. He was simply introducing the beauty of this moment into a mundane situation. And for reasons that are beyond my comprehension, someone in authority saw fit to turn it into an us-or-them conflict. He saw the look in the eyes of the goose and forged ahead, without regard to the life he might destroy, because the goose family was in his way and he was in a hurry.

And yet, I left Starbucks encouraged, rather than discouraged. I knew that my new friend would be okay regardless of the outcome of his suspension. I knew that he would be okay because, as he said, he knew who he was. And I knew that he would never plow down the Goose Family of Third Street regardless of how much he was in a hurry, for he knew that this moment of beauty could always be found in the mundane.

I call it the grace of everyday living. And that, I believe, is our salvation—taking time to savor the grace of everyday living.

I miss the call of the geese. Other sounds fill the air, but I do miss their call. I wonder when I will hear them again. No doubt it will be a sign that spring is awakening. And maybe there will be a new generation of The Geese of Third Avenue who will stop traffic as they shepherd their flock from one side of the road to the other.

I imagine there are many reasons that the goose crosses the road. One, I am certain, is to remind us to meet its eyes so we can experience the beauty in this mundane moment.

So we can savor the grace of everyday living.

So we can feel loved, knowing there is enough love to go around.

I looked over my new business cards, ordered so I could get them in time for my trip to New York City where I was headed to attend Robert McKee’s Story in Business seminar.

I liked the color. I liked the design. I liked the font. Pretty impressive I thought. And then I noticed my address. I live on Happy Valley Road. Would New York City take anyone who lived on Happy Valley Road seriously?

I had been so looking forward to this trip. I had recently been raked over the coals by a local group who thought my voice sounded too authoritative. Women cringed. Certain men responded with hostility to any sentence that came out of my mouth. If only I could do something about that voice, they said, maybe then they would like me.

New York City seemed like a refuge to me. An authoritative voice was just talking there. It’s how you ordered dinner, hailed a cab, or asked directions.

But then I saw it: Happy Valley Road.

Would an address as optimistic as that make me seem as alien and untrustworthy to urban dwellers as my authoritative voice had to the members of the group in the rural community I now live in?

My first truly rural experience happened shortly after I moved here. A German shepherd started running after my car as I headed down to Happy Valley Road. It was getting close to rush hour and Happy Valley Road, let’s face it, is a more or less thoroughfare. As many as five cars might barrel down the road at rush hour.

I had recently moved from a suburban town so immediately went into protect the dog mode. I stopped the car and started talking to him. Loping up the road came a second dog. He was enormous and it was clear to me that he was a wolf hybrid.

It was a sign, I thought, that I had moved to the right place. I have a wolf tattoo on my right forearm. The wolf hybrid lay down in front of my car. How very trusting. I was moved by his trust of me.

Another car drove by and stopped.

“Do you know who these dogs might belong to?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but they killed one of my chickens this morning. I think that one,” she pointed to the wolf hybrid, “was the instigator. I called animal control but their truck is out of commission. It got hit by a drunk driver last night.”

Wolves get such a bad rap, I thought as she drove off. Remembering that I was in a rural environment, I now worried more that they would get shot than that a car might hit them.

I looked back at my car. I had left the driver’s side door open. The shepherd had climbed in and was sitting in the passenger’s seat, ready for a trip to the drive-in. I walked around the back of the car, opened the door and tried to coax him out.

I turned and saw that the wolf hybrid had followed me around the back of the car. There I was right smack in between the German shepherd, who occupied my car, and the ginormous wolf hybrid who stared at me with a look that said, “I hear humans taste like chickens.”

Well this was a conundrum. Was the shepherd my friend, trying to get away from the bad boy chicken-killing instigator, or was this part of the plan? Were the two of them hunting down tasty treats?

And then it occurred to me that rural living also requires street smarts—just a different kind than urban living.

I don’t honestly remember how I got the shepherd out of my car, but he did leave. As I drove off I still wondered, was the shepherd trusting me to get him away from the bad boy instigator or was he part of the plan? I drove past a house that had chickens in the yard and realized it was all out of my hands.

I enjoyed New York. I stayed in a hotel in Times Square with its overload of neon lights and teeming humanity; walked half a block to see Love Letters with Brian Dennehey and Mia Farrow. Made sure I was always aware of my surroundings.

No one seemed threatened by my authoritative voice.

I returned late in the evening to Happy Valley Road and the crisp clear autumn air, the darkness barely pierced by the lights of the farm across the street and the homes sparsely scattered across the valley.

This is where I live, I thought—somewhere between the optimism of a Happy Valley where wolf hybrids stalk chickens and naïve newcomers, and a teeming city where a human hybrid might stalk you.

It makes sense to me that I can live in both places.

As for my voice, well, I’m a writer. It makes me neither predator nor prey. Anyone can have an authoritative voice. You just have to make that choice. Like me, don’t like me, just know that without a voice, I’m not a writer so I’m not giving it up.

I’ve earned it. Get over it.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Mark Vonnegut, from the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect

I think this is going to be about story and story is important to me.

I went to New York City two weeks ago to take a seminar from Robert McKee. I had taken his Story seminar in 2000 and 2003 in San Francisco. I took it twice because the first time I took it (in 2000), I had to stop taking notes and just let the experience of story carry me out to sea, knowing it would bring me back to shore. Or maybe I didn’t know then that it would bring me back to shore.

I just trusted.

I had been through a particularly traumatic experience in which I thought I had lost the family I had worked hard to build. I’m a stepmother. Stepfamilies are precarious. The heart is a resilient muscle. And that’s a good thing. Life tests it.

As I sat through his seminar, I began to see the story of how I discovered the heart’s resilience. A villain is not a villain in the villain’s story. The character is right from the character’s point of view. If you can’t see that, you have a caricature of a human being. You haven’t drilled down to the truth of what it is to be human.

That humanized the trauma for me. It didn’t take it away. Instead it lifted the numbness and allowed me to feel the loss. It also lifted blame.

This latest seminar I attended was called Story in Business. McKee is right about story. It is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to connect with people and move them to action.

Leader as author he says. I agree.

As the day progressed, I found myself once again being swept out to sea. I was nursing a recent disappointment. Not traumatic like what happened in 2000, but nevertheless very disappointing.

Once again, I saw the events and my experience in terms of story. No villains. No heroes, just humans acting in very human ways, driven by fear of change and life passing them by. It’s what we do when change is thrust upon us and our lives are turned upside down. We try to restore our lives to what they were before they were turned upside down, when what we need to do is use our experience to change the story we were living.

For me, it’s allowing myself to be swept out to sea and then use story to make my way back to shore. It’s what I have in place of religion, my way of making sense out of chaos—out of that which I cannot control.

I said this is about story, and I still think it is. Story does not so much give me hope and faith as it shows me that things are much more up for grabs than I thought they were. That’s how Mark Vonnegut puts it in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:

What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.”

The news has been filled with dread the last few weeks. Between ISIS and Ebola, we’re all feeling as vulnerable as a young black male who’s stopped by the police, or a raped woman who wore a short skirt.

We’re all going to die, Lindsay Graham predicts.

Well, that is certainly true. We all are going to die. We have that in common.

But in the meantime, things are much more up for grabs than we thought they were. Story, our stories, can help us discover that. Not a bad thing when dread hovers over us.

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