Setting a New Course

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Great Egret - HB 0455_DSC8374

First post of 2016.

I tried for one last week, but all I could do was rant. I will grant you, there is a lot to rant about. But . . .

So then this morning, I drew the Ant card from the Animal Wise Tarot deck. And the Scarlet Macaw. And the Porcupine.

It’s all about balancing work and play and finding the spiritual in the mundane.

Setting the new course.

I emerged from last year. That’s how I can best describe last year’s journey around the sun. A journey from which I had to emerge. Mortality shadowed me. Not mortality as in my death, but in how mortality shapeshifts life.

As I said, I felt like that candle in the wind.

And then the winds stopped as I sailed into the doldrums.

I don’t much like the notion of god as a stern taskmaster, looking down on us, wondering why we can’t be better, forgiving us for not being better. I personally believe that god is in awe of humans. Amazed that we can live and love with mortality perching on our shoulder.

I remember reading that Inuits don’t have a word for art. Their art is functional, tools fashioned for the mundane but imbued with spirit. A recognition that the ordinary tasks required for living a life are part and parcel of an extraordinary creation.

I read this last week in an article by Nancy Langstonian titled “In Oregon, Myth Mixes With Anger” in the New York Times:

Great Egrets Courting - HB 0169_DSC6647“In the first decades of the 20th century, the conservationist William Finley paddled a little boat through the marshes of the basin and came upon a colony of egrets slaughtered by plume hunters, the young left to starve. Out of hundreds of thousands of egrets that had once nested in Malheur Lake, only 121 were left.

My first response was to rant. To scream at the television. To swear on Facebook. To join those who are sending dildos to the people who are occupying the Malheur Refuge Center.

I wanted to do something extraordinary to make it go away. But I wasn’t sure what “it” was that I wanted to go away. Stupidity? Ignorance? Arrogance? But, other than keeping my head from exploding with outrage, I could not see how screaming at the television, swearing on Facebook, or sending dildos to the occupiers made it go away for me.

Side note: just as pure theater, I think sending the “Occupiers” dildos was brilliant and encourage its continuance. Even if it can’t help, it can’t hurt.

That article in the NY Times was just one of the many outrageous pieces of information floating around in the media. And with journalism taking a back seat to corporate media, the information just hangs out there as if all sides are equal. As if anger that we have to share the world with others is equal to anger over lives lost

So, setting this new course, having decided to sail into this new year, is going to be tricky

I’m going to start by saying right out loud (please read this aloud) that claiming god as yours and yours alone is not a spiritual act. That is finding the mundane in the spiritual and calling it religion.

Okay, got that off my chest.

I’ll also say out loud (please read aloud) that “telling it like it is” is not truth telling. It is vomiting out vitriol, which I guess gets it out of one’s system, but exhorting crowds to believe that god supports their prejudices and that they can kill (figurative or literally) anyone who matches their prejudice or gets in the way of their god-given right to have a world that supports that right, is blasphemous. And nasty. And mean. And cruel. And stupid. And cynical. And will lead us into a very dark world.

Snowy Egret Reflection - HB 0133_DSC4460One where only 121 egrets survive.

I often start these posts not really knowing where I will end up. I think I just got what this has to do with setting a new course, finding the spiritual in the mundane, the spirit in the mundane in the coming year.

It’s remembering those slaughtered egrets and giving voice to the ravaged landscape. Wherever that may take me.

In case the copyright doesn’t show, all photos are copyrighted by Sue Padgett, a friend for close to 50 years and photographer extraordinaire.

I Like To Be Liked

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.
From my first blog post in 2015.

death steals everythingIt’s been a momentous year. Some who were with me when I wondered what my trip around the sun in 2015 would bring are no longer here. And then there was Tom’s dance with cancer.

I had an acquaintance tell me recently that she wanted to wait to have lunch with me until I had something cheerful to talk about. Though this year has been filled with loss and lessons in mortality, it never occurred to me that I wasn’t cheerful.

What this trip round the sun brought me was a profound experience of life, up close and personal as it never has before. I am acutely aware that I am a different person today than the one who wrote on the first day of my most recent journey ’round the sun.

Weathered.
Older.
Wiser.
Accepting.
More secure.

It’s that last one, more secure, that I didn’t expect until I wrote it. I’m often surprised to learn that people think of me as self-confident, since I have been filled with insecurity and self-doubt.

But something about weathering the storms of this past year has helped me strip away my expectations of myself—that if I didn’t please everyone, if people felt uncomfortable around me, if I scare people, that it was a fault in me.

I wanted everyone to like me.

I think I’ve learned that it’s prudent to be a bit more specific. Like is important to me. As important as love. I like to be liked.

Life, I learned this year, likes me. It throws stuff at me, but it likes me. And I like life—with all its joys and sorrows.

I have no idea what my next journey ’round the sun will bring me, but I’m sure it will be filled with life. I welcome it.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

My Bobbsey Twins Christmas

She Wolf Howling © Linda Ryan

She Wolf Howling © Linda Ryan

I’ve been in the doldrums for most of December. I prefer the nautical term, because it is the metaphor that fits. My journey through this year got stuck at the equator.

It makes sense, my doldrums. This was a year filled with losses that appeared regularly, with little time in between to fully experience them. I tried my best to keep on sailing. But then I sailed right into the doldrums. Or maybe that was where I was supposed to sail into.

It’s not really fair to call this the most wonderful time of the year. Sometimes it is, but it is also the time where absence is a profound presence.

doldrumsI think that is probably what I mean by the doldrums, absence that is a profound presence. The price of loving—feeling the profound presence of one who is absent. And yet, loving is well worth the price.

At times it seemed that my sails had finally filled with wind, only to have them deflate as I stayed in the doldrums.

I decided not to rush it.

And so, here I am on Christmas Eve thinking about the reason for the season, annoyed by the whole it’s-Merry-Christmas-to-hell-with-whatever-it-means-to-you faux Christian victimization. I try to be kind, but when you’re stuck in the doldrums, you tend to lose your sense of civility.

I’ve vowed to think carefully before I rant on Facebook, because when I rant on Facebook , I forget the nuances of it all and become the crazed loner ranting on Facebook at two in the morning.

I’ve been mostly faithful to my vow.

My worst Christmas ever was in 1981, when I was the only one of my siblings at home with my parents. I had been unemployed for much of the previous year and unceremoniously dumped by boyfriends who didn’t want to commit and then married the next woman they got involved with. I had “Loser” stamped on my forehead.

My heart broke for my father, who sat at the rattan bar they had bought in the Phillipines on our journey (by ship!) back from Saudi Arabia, sad and lonely for his family. I wondered what I could do for him when he turned to me and said, “You’re such a pretty girl. I don’t understand why you aren’t married.”

My mother tried her damndest to get between me and his words. But she could not match the speed of sound.

I fled the house and went to the local Lyons where I thought I would find an anonymous place where I could drown my sorrows with a patty melt.

I sat at the counter. The waitress knew everyone’s name but mine. Everyone knew everyone else, but me. The loser sign stamped on my forehead blinked on and off with neon lights.

I vowed I would never again celebrate a holiday unless it truly meant something to me.

That’s when I remembered the Bobbsey Twins Christmas. They woke in the morning, opened their presents, gathered ’round the breakfast table as Papa Bobbsey read the Christmas story from the Bible, then went to play with their new sleds in the landscape that had turned snowy overnight.

It was at that point that I realized that I had never, not even once, experienced a white Christmas. A green one, when we were anchored in an Indonesian bay the year we spent Christmas on the ship that took us from Saudi Arabia to California, but never a white Christmas.

So why, I asked myself, was a white Christmas so important? And why did I care about Christmas?

I realized that though I had been raised Christian, I just did not believe that Jesus had been sent here to die for my sins. I also realized that I tended to be down at this time of year. And something felt natural about that.

That was when I first understood that there was something natural about feeling sad as light’s waning reached its end.

And then light returned.

That’s the reason for the season. Light. Whichever story floats your boat, it’s a story about light.

I love deeply those who are with me and deeply loved those who have died, be they animal or human. Tom’s cancer diagnosis left me feeling like a candle in the wind; the accumulation of losses led me to the doldrums—a place so calm I had no choice but to sit with the losses and be that candle in the wind.

That’s what it is to be human, after all.

What touches me about the Christmas story is the triumph of love and mercy over rules and law. Joseph should have rejected Mary for being pregnant, but instead, in a time of social turmoil, chose to be a mensch—to take care of Mary and the child she bore.

Tom and I have listened to Pentatonix Christmas CDs this past week. We both cry when Little Drummer Boy comes on. Better than anyone I’ve heard sing it, they evoke the emotion of the miracle of recognizing light emerge from the darkness.

What I liked about the Bobbsey Twins Christmas is that they connected it with a story.

In April of 1991, I lost my dog Coyote. Some say he was part wolf. Whatever, he was a magnificent and beautiful spirit. It broke my heart. And so I wrote the story that has become my reason for the season. I share it with you now:

Wolf waited.
He waited as he did every year on this night.
It grew darker and darker and colder and colder.
And still he waited, knowing that she would return.

Darkness reached his deepest pitch.
The birds, the trees, the ocean, and the rocks grew still.
Wolf gazed deeply into the eyes of Darkness as
Wind wove her cold fingers through his rich, thick fur.
He closed his eyes,
Held his breath,
and listened as Wind whispered,
then felt her caress as she flew away.

Wolf knew it was time.
He opened his eyes and saw her
— a glowing luminous ember
emerging from the opening
between the earth and the sky.

She did on this day
What she did on this day every year of Wolf’s life.
Light returned.

On the hill overlooking the ocean,
Wolf circled three times, lay down, and took his rest.
Light wove her warm fingers through his rich, thick fur.

Before he left,
Wolf whispered to me what Wind whispered to him.
He wanted me to share it with you.
Here’s what she told him:
“Expect to be loved.”

Wolf Waited copyright©2000 Karen L. Hogan

You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun

I’m quick on the trigger with targets not much bigger
Than a pin point, I’m number one.
But my score with a feller is lower than a cellar-
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

From Annie Get Your Gun, by Irving Berlin

Annie OakleyI was single and lonely in June 1986 when Newsweek hit the newsstands with the cover story “The Marriage Crunch,” which reported that a college-educated woman over 35 had only a 5% chance of getting married and by the time she reached 40 she was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry.

I mean what does a smart woman do with that information?

I remember thinking during the days after 9/11 that instead of color-coding terrorist warnings, that they should use a system of wedding bells. One or two and we were safe. Three or more, take cover because those over-35-year old college educated women were taking us down with their marital bliss.

I thought of this again in light of the near mass hysteria after the rampage in San Bernardino, which was the third mass shooting since the rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado less than a week before.

I am not making light of the fear engendered by these incidents, I just find it interesting that near-mass hysteria arose out of the tragedy in San Bernardino. Terror is terror. Yet, our collective psyche gives weight to the terror inflicted by crazed, religious zealots we have defined as the ”other,” which has come to mean Muslims.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are descendants of the same father, Abraham, and the God they all look to for meaning. You can find gnarly passage in each traditions’ holy text, so in spite of the likes of Bill Maher, none can claim the high ground when it comes to massacre in the name of that God. It’s sibling rivalry vying for the position of one-who-dad-loves-most.

I think the roots of this can be found in the story of Sarah and Hagar and Abraham. When she could not conceive, Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham to be the surrogate mother. This was apparently fairly common practice back in the day. Hagar bore Ishmael. Years later Sarah bore Isaac. The women became jealous of each other, vying for whose son would be the favored.

Hagar was an Egyptian slave, so was always considered the outsider. The “other” (her name even means Other) always loses. Sarah insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be exiled—sent out into the desert to fare for themselves. They were given a loaf of bread and, as a sign from Abraham that they were under his protection and so should not be killed by the tribe—a small skin of water.

Their exile was pretty much a death sentence in and of itself. The landscape is unforgiving. The water quickly ran out. The story goes that as Hagar watched her son lie dying of thirst, God showed her a miracle, she found water, and they lived.

I try to imagine how a woman could exile another woman and her child to certain death. It was all over whose son would be “king.”

newsweek1Around the time Newsweek was reporting on my fate, I had become friends with an African-American woman (I’ll call her Janet) who had been raised in the south. Her mother was the maid to a Jewish woman. Being Jewish in the south in the Sixties was just slightly safer than being African-American.

In 1965, Janet and the son of her mother’s employer fell in love and she became pregnant. He was killed in a church bombing. She gave birth in the Negro ward. A nurse approached her and asked her to wet nurse a white baby whose mother was having trouble nursing it. I don’t remember the details, but the baby’s life depended on being nursed.

Janet said she had to think about it. I asked her why she had to think about it.

“Because that child could grow up to kill my child,” she said.

“What did you decide?” I asked.

“To nurse him.”

“Why?” I asked.

“My mother told me I had no choice. This was a child.”

The story of Sarah and Hagar is the story of women who derive their power, their status, from men. It was written long ago, in a landscape that was harsh and unforgiving.

I think it’s time to change that story.

Women need to claim their own power, rather than derive it from another source. We have the power to carry and nourish life, whether it is literally by bearing and nourishing a physical child, or metaphorically by recognizing our bodies know inherently what is required to bear and nourish a child, and make choices accordingly for ourselves, our families, the society we live in, and the global community we inhabit.

In a recent New York Times interview, Tina Fey describes the two characters in her new movie “Sisters” as being in conflict, but not competition.

I think that’s how we change the story. Recognize that conflict is not competition, that conflict feeds collaboration and cooperation.

We need to commit to never again sending a woman and her child into the wilderness because we are afraid them, but rather find a way to make room for both their child and ours. To do what my friend Janet did and nurse the child with the hope that a life sustained by love can be a person who grows up to trust love over hate.

The underlying message of the “The Marriage Crunch” was the one I had been given earlier in life: you cannot be an individual and be in a loving relationship.

Kind of what happened to Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.

If you buy that, perhaps those Newsweek statistics were true.

One might say I beat the odds spelled out in 1986. I got married. But really, I met and fell in love with a man who is not afraid of me.

So what does this have to do with Annie Oakley? Maybe nothing, but it was during that time in 1986 when I was single and lonely that I heard the lyrics to “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” from Annie Get Your Gun, a fictionalized account of Annie Oakley.

I’m going from notes here, but apparently the musical ends with Annie purposely losing a shooting match with the man she loves to soothe his ego (You Can’t Get a Man With A Gun). And so they marry. She got her man.

Not who Annie Oakley was (see above).

It’s true you can’t get a man with a gun. It’s also true that putting weapons in the hands of amateurs does not make us safer from crazed people armed to the teeth with weapons of massive destruction. The professionals proved this in the resolution of the San Bernardino massacre.

That was a non-sequitor, but I couldn’t end this post without saying it.

Crossing Water

IMG_0915

Commons Coffeehouse and Bookstore where we met and learned and drank coffee in Langley, Wa on Whidbey Island.

There’s something about crossing water that makes me feel like I’m going someplace different, a place where something will happen.

That’s what I thought as the ferry left Port Townsend on October 6th for Whidbey Island where I had signed up for an Algonkian Writer Conference. It was, I also noted, what would have been my father’s 99th birthday.

My father is who introduced me to travel by water. When I was eight, we got on the Wonosobo, a Dutch freighter, in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and 75 days later docked in Long Beach, California. The last two weeks, we saw no land as we sailed through typhoons, waves crashing over the top of the ship.

I loved it.

When I was 60, I discovered the letters he had written to my four-year old self when he was alone in Saudi Arabia, yearning for the time we would join him there.

I suspect it is because of my father that I am a writer. As I read his letters, I understood what a good storyteller and writer he was. A man who hadn’t graduated from high school put pen to onion skin paper and described nights in the Empty Quarter shared with desert foxes, kangaroo rats, and men who snatched locust from the air and consumed them with great gusto and trudged to the highest sand dune each sunset where they lay their prayer rugs and bowed and kneeled and bowed and kneeled and touched their heads to the rugs in the presence of Allah.

Perhaps that’s why I thought of him as I rode the ferry to my writers’ conference. A mere 35-minute ride.

This conference was about getting your break-out novel published. I have done little to get published. I have enough rejection letters, emails, and messages posted on my accounts advising me my piece was not accepted to prove I am a writer. What’s a writer without rejection notices?

So what’s a writer who hasn’t been published?

Well, that’s a conundrum for me. I want to be published, to have people read what I have written.

But, I hate the process—think it’s a terrible business model. But it is what it is.

To be perfectly honest, I have resisted that next step in writing—that step where you actually try and get published. I think it is my last self-imposed barrier that keeps me small—keeps me from being seen.

I’m a bit embarrassed about that, but there it is. I’ve said it in public.

I’d like to report that my brilliance was recognized and you can expect that my break out novel is coming to a bookstore near you soon. Oh, right, there aren’t many bookstores. Okay, coming to an online bookstore soon.

But, I cannot report that. I learned what I suspected—getting published is a daunting task. One of the most difficult hurdles is getting past what the conference leader referred to as the “Twenty-two year olds”—the overworked and un- or underpaid interns who are the gatekeepers.

And then there’s the problem that I write literary fiction or what is referred to as up-market fiction. Hard to market it.

I got a great appreciation for what an agent does, the amount of work they have to invest to get you in the door. All on speculation. It is market driven—neither the publisher nor the agent can take great risks on unknown authors, especially if they write what is hard to market.

Sigh.

But, I also learned how to pitch a novel, and got a good template for planning out a novel—which helps one winnow the pitch down to that famous elevator conversation. Oh, and that my writing and my storytelling are solid.

I believe in what I am writing.

So, I got what I needed. Something happened. I have broken down that last self-imposed barrier. I’m not afraid anymore of being seen nor do I need to keep myself small. I’m willing to do the work to get published.

With a little bit of luck, I won’t be that author that they discover posthumously, but one who gets published in her lifetime.

It’s just a matter of continuing to cross water to get to someplace different where something will happen.

It’s kind of being a grown up.

Sigh.

I should add that I met terrific writers, kind, smart, talented—my tribe—and they all live close by. Worth its weight in gold.

Some Say the World Will End in Fire

Our friend’s world ended in fire over the weekend.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith had been Tom’s friend since high school. He was his music teacher, but more, he was Tom’s music mentor.

Owen taught a rigorous music theory class, which Tom took when he was a sophomore. Music theory in high school is really unusual. For a final spring assignment, Owen asked members of the class to write something. When Tom came back with the beginnings of what he has called “a very bad imitation Mozart string quartet,” Owen said, “Well, this is okay, but I wanted you to write something of your own.”

In response, Tom wrote four Sketches for Woodwind Quartet. A year later, it was played at San Jose State University’s Festival of 20th Century Music, in a concert that also included pieces written by Ernst Toch, John Cage, Anton Webern, and Robert Palmer (who later became one of his teachers at Cornell). Tom was 15 when he wrote the piece, and 16 when it was performed. All because of Owen.

During Tom’s first year of college, a dorm fire took the lives of four students. Psalm 90 was read at their memorial. Tom was so moved by it, he set it to music and dedicated it to Owen and the Livermore High School a cappella choir, which was conducted by Owen. Their 1969 performance of it is flawless. College choirs have hesitated to take it on because it is too complicated.

And their performance is flawless. Listen to it here.

To say that we were blessed with the teachers we had in Livermore during the 60s doesn’t really do it justice. We were more than blessed.

Ed Brush. Art Duey. Claude Cameron. Judy Beery. Jack Beery. Ernie Dust. Roland Carlson. Bert Fraser.

To name just a few.

You know how you don’t teach people what to think, but to think? Well that’s what they did. And more.

There was a synergy to those years. They taught art, music, literature, history, math, and, science as living, breathing beings. I first read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in Bert Fraser’s English Honors class my senior year. I have returned to it often over the years, divining new meaning from it each time I read it.

When a group of us, high school and college students, formed a theater company called Auxiliary Players, they gave us their encouragement, came to the performances, participated in some.

One of our earliest performances included one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter. Three very depressing plays.

As he was walking out of the theater at the end of the performance Tom asked Owen what he thought. “I’m going to go home and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to cheer up,” he replied.

They let us fail. Acknowledged our failures. And we learned from them. Our next performance had much better rounded programming.

Tom and I stayed friends with Owen. He was part of out Thanksgivings, came to our wedding. We visited him in his home in Mountain Ranch where we sat on his deck and drank in the quiet beauty of the Sierra foothills. In his letters to us he wrote of the wildlife that visited his property. We talked to him often and called him every year on his birthday, October 8th.

Our most recent phone call with him was three or four weeks ago. It was clear that Owen was failing. He was having mobility problems. He was depressed, and his depression fogged his mind.

We worried when we heard that the Butte fire was heading his way. His family filed a missing persons report. Then yesterday we learned that his remains were found in the ruins of his home.

Owen would have been 83 this October. A phone call we will miss.

We will probably never know why he didn’t get out—why he didn’t evacuate. I personally think it was a conscious decision on his part not to leave. I don’t think he could have recovered from the devastating loss of his beloved home and the beauty that surrounded it. I suspect he had already died when the fire consumed him.

I have thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” since we started worrying and wondering about Owen. It’s a tribute to my high school teachers that I would turn to poetry and remember a specific poem at such a defining moment. It’s not so much it gives me solace, as it gives me a place to go when life becomes unfathomable.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.