Sunday, December 28, 2014

On Newness

At this time, in the darkest days of winter, when the year turns, we think about what to do new, what to do different, in the coming year. I had a conversation with Sudi this past week that bears repeating. Telling me about the film “Boyhood,” he said he thinks I will like it but he thinks it will make me sad. “Why is that?” I asked. “Because it’s about children growing up and leaving home and then they’re gone and the parents are wistful and nostalgic for the days gone.” I replied that I am not sad that my children grew up and left home. I miss them, of course, and I also miss the babies, children, and teenagers they once were. But I love having adult children. They change my life all the time. They introduce me to new things and inspire me to be different, to do things differently. For instance, while Sudi was home, he spent an evening with me and Ron in Ron’s newly created office in the back bedroom listening to vinyl record albums on Ron’s turntable. Sudi took a journey in Ron’s record collection and pulled LPs at random to listen to various tracks that interested him. He and Ron talked music. I listened. I had forgotten how fat and juicy the sound is on an album played on a turntable. How many years has it been since I have spent an entire evening simply listening to albums, without doing anything else at the same time? It took me back to my college days. I even had a cat sitting on me and purring (then snoring).

My adult children introduce me to films, food, wine, information, books, ideas, current events, people, places, and more and more. They stretch my horizons, my thinking, my perceptions. While I’m a creature of habit in significant ways; at the same time I am a bit of a change junkie. I need that mental stimulation. Hence my enrollment in my holistic nutrition program, which I love. One of my inspirations for going back to college at the age of 59 to earn my nutritionist certification is my friend Carey Weng, who enrolled in Harvard Divinity School at the age of 60. (The father of our friend Gayla, Carey passed away in 2010.) I have dreamed of being a nutritionist, and in February I will officially become one. I don’t have to stop being a writer or stop doing the other things I already do, professionally or otherwise. I will just add nutritionist to the mix. I’m “setting out in the evening” with this new direction.

It takes little to shake things up, gain new perspectives, and grow in good ways. For all the years we have lived in our house, I have never quite landed here, never felt at home. But oddly, after moving back in, rearranging the furniture, and repurposing the rooms, I feel more comfortable here. This house feels more like mine. I have made it more my own with some of the smallest new and different things; such as moving all my books into my study and dissolving the library (turned it back into a formal dining room as it was meant to be).

Newness is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be, of course. Although it’s good to keep ourselves thinking, changing, growing; on the other hand, something different is not always a good thing. I have two dear friends who have been widowed this past year. Learning to make a life again without their husbands is not the kind of difference that provides benefit. At the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah), we say to one another, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year, a sweet year,” and we eat honey to invite in the sweetness. We never know from one year to the next who will be with us still, who will be gone, and what changes will transpire. When we put our house on the market last winter, our neighbors across the street were unhappy at the thought of losing us. They have two young boys with whom Ron and I would often converse in the course of our daily doings. But by the time Ron and I took our house off the market and decided to stay, these lovely neighbors had put their house on the market. The husband took a terrific job in another town, a job too good to pass up, and they moved. Now their house is for sale and ours is not.

While many things beyond our control may buffet us this way and that, we choose where these things will take us. We steer in and out and around. We choose to change course. We choose the lessons to take away and the lessons to leave on the table. We choose how to do it different, what new things to embrace, and the ways in which we wish to change ourselves and our lives. We also choose what to keep, what to do in the old way, what not to change at all. Ron sent Christmas cards through the mail the old-fashioned way this year and he still gets a newspaper delivered to our mailbox every morning, while I emailed a holiday letter (as usual) and I read the online news from a variety of media outlets every morning. On the other hand, Ron has a Smartphone that does lots of tricks and I hardly ever use my cell phone, which is an antique flip-phone that lives in my car in the garage. Seriously, the Smithsonian wants my phone when I’m done with it. Some things are worth keeping and some worth changing – it’s all in making the conscious choice rather than being carried in the current without thinking about where we wind up.

Starting new can happen at any time, on any day, in any moment. Starting new does not belong exclusively to New Year’s Eve. Any day we can wake up in the morning and decide that we will change the pattern. While life throws bunches of unexpected events at us, to a great extent we have the ability to create our days, our years, and our lives. So instead of wishing you a happy new year, I think I will wish you a new year. Straight up. Good new.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gifts We Bring to the Feast

I have wasted too much time spinning in frustration that I have not become the famous author I once dreamed I would be, with all my manuscripts published and all those books selling well. I don’t know why I thought I was so special that the hand of providence would touch me with the magic of a far-reaching distinguished literary career. I worked hard for it and I do have some talent. But life rarely turns out to be what we imagined.

I have a friend who makes the most extraordinary handmade paper, foldout books, and what she calls “portable altars,” which are foldout collages with spiritual themes or with memorabilia honoring a person who has passed into spirit. I have a friend who makes mosaics of exquisite beauty inset on furniture, in decorative pictures, and as part of everyday objects. I have a friend who plays guitar and sings to knock your socks off. I have a friend who cooks the most delectable dinners. I have friends who paint, garden, quilt, write, dance, photograph, sew, make wine, play soccer, build houses, interpret dreams, grow lemons, and are knowledgeable about so many things. I know people with such talent, who are at the top of their game at an enormous array of amazing and various pursuits, who are super accomplished at something the way I am accomplished at writing. Are any of us famous? A few are, in their field. I am famous within a 20-mile radius of my house. Stay with me as I veer off in an unexpected direction. Trust me. This is related.

There is a 1987 Danish film called Babette’s Feast, based on a story written by Isak Dinesen (AKA Karen Blixen). It was written and directed by Gabriel Axel. Here is the link to a trailer. Let me see if I can summarize the aspect of this film that applies to my line of thought. A French refugee named Babette arrives in a Danish village to work as the housekeeper for two aging spinster sisters. They cannot pay her but she works for room and board. There is an allusion to a mysterious terrible bloody political upheaval in Paris that took the lives of her husband and child. She has a gift for cooking and she uses it to cook delicious restorative food for the aging ill and poor people of the village. She takes soup to the housebound and a hot evening meal to the sick. In this way, over a period of 14 years, she becomes a part of village life in a quiet, devoutly Christian, out-of-the-way place. Then she wins the lottery in France. (An old friend buys her a ticket and gives it to her and it’s the winning one.) So Babette announces that she will cook a super-gourmet French dinner (a feast) for the spinster sisters who took her in when she was destitute, as well as for some of their family and other friends in this little village. She sends to Paris for the exotic ingredients she needs to cook the feast. All those invited to the feast have been kind to Babette. (There is a great deal more to this story.) Babette cooks an extraordinary feast. Afterward, the sisters assume that Babette will return to Paris. But Babette reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Cafe Anglais, the finest restaurant in Paris, and she tells the sisters that dinner for 12 at the Cafe Anglais costs 10,000 francs, precisely what she won in the lottery. One of the sisters says, "Now you will be poor for the rest of your life," to which Babette replies, "An artist is never poor." Ah yes, the wealth of the imagination. 

I tell this story, Dinesen’s story, because I am touched by the concept of using one’s gifts, one’s talents, simply for the delight of those who inhabit one’s corner of the world; just as Babette uses her gift to delight those in her immediate community; not just with her feast, but also (mainly) with the 14 years of cooking for the ill and aged. So it is with me and with most others who are so gifted. We each have our domain in which we are, in fact, extraordinary artists and therefore never poor and therefore fortunate to have something to contribute to the feast. We continue to do what we love, what we know, what we do well, for the benefit of the small circle of people whom we have the pleasure to touch with our lives. We share our gifts for the delight of dear ones, acquaintances, strangers-in-passing, and the many others who cross our paths.

I am not famous. I have not made a big splash. Few people have read my books or my blog; but some of those who have read my words found something meaningful in those words, which I so painstakingly and lovingly crafted. Whom did I craft them for? Honestly, for whomever would read them. I have tried so hard to make my work matter and I have so often felt that it didn’t, it hasn’t. Lately, I feel that all of it has indeed mattered, that it does matter; and I am at peace with where my gift for writing has taken me. I can reconcile the version of the self I have become with the self I wanted to be. I have touched lives. Fewer than I had wished, but enough. So it is with all of us as we use our talents for one another – to delight and comfort, praise and support, communicate with and stimulate to thought, share life and break bread, celebrate and mourn, give a laugh and pass on information, etc. and etc. That in itself is enough purpose to it, enough accomplishment. Such is the nature of the gifts that each of us brings to the feast of life.

Babette prepares food for the feast.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Race, Cops, and the Future

I have a black husband and children (who, although multiculti, would usually be viewed as black by a police officer), and black nieces and nephews, so trust me, I am outraged by and terrified of racial profiling and police brutality. At the same time, I don’t see any justification for demonizing police officers. I am appalled by the divide that has opened between the Black Lives Matter Movement and law enforcement. It has gotten to the point at which a police officer who publicly expresses a need for change is called a traitor by others in law enforcement and where someone like myself who speaks up in defense of police officers is lambasted by lefties (those who did this are not even black, by-the-way).

How have all police officers suddenly become racists? That type of blanket stereotyping is what racism is all about, isn’t it? When we stop seeing people as whole individuals with value and start not really seeing them at all then we have a dangerous “ism” going on. All police officers do not use excess force. Police officers work hard and don’t get paid enough for it, like other ordinary folks. On top of that, police officers regularly risk their lives at their job, which is hard on their families as well as the officers themselves. How is it OK to literally or metaphorically beat up on hardworking public servants? I fear that liberals have a knee-jerk reaction to authority and too easily view law enforcement as an evil machination of the power structure. C’mon people. Some police officers are racist, some are not, like everyone else. Some police officers use undue force, some do not. Many police officers have not received proper training, which can result in tragedy. Some are ignorant. Some are well-trained and sensible. When I was arrested peacefully protesting the manufacture of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Lab in 1983, the arresting officers I encountered were careful, restrained, respectful, and well-trained. I had a brief, deep, genuine conversation with one of them while he was cuffing me and leading me away for transport to jail.

No genuine dialogue can happen in the midst of violence. Violence simply breeds more violence. I am mystified as to how a violent protest will solve the problem of police brutality or racism. How are the violent protests supposed to address the injustice meted out in the courts in Ferguson and NY? How do violent protests inspire change? So people are angry. I get it. They need to grow up and formulate a constructive response. Everyone needs to communicate. Communication is not head-bashing, mace spray, rubber bullets, punching one another, storefront windows being broken, and theft of TVs and sneakers. We need creative solutions and alliance. We need rallies like the one that happened yesterday when the mothers of slain black boys and men spoke out in the Capitol.

Not all protesters are looters. Not all police officers are racists. All of the above have the capacity for transformation through peaceful means. I am heartsick that we, as a nation, seem to have managed to grossly simplify a complex dynamic, deeply rooted in the shameful history of this country spanning centuries. Brown and Garner are the latest in waves and waves of unjust murders going back and back and back. There have been so many, too many to name them all. Too many mothers’ sons. I fear for my own sons. I also have friends and relatives who are fine police officers, who went into law enforcement to preserve the peace and to help people. Seriously, who could possibly believe that people go into law enforcement with the express goal of killing black boys and men? Jon Stewart recently said, “You can truly grieve for every officer who has been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” Thank you. Because I mourn Brown and Garner does not mean I have no regard for the sacrifice and hard work of police officers.

I am hopeful because the discussion of training for police officers is now in the limelight. Officers need better training in how to diffuse a tense situation, how to de-escalate a confrontation, how to make good decisions when lives are on the line. They need training in appropriate response. Also, officers need to be screened better when they apply to become officers. Not everyone is cut out for law enforcement. It takes a special kind of person. Those who have served in combat in the military and who suffer from PTSD are, in my opinion, not an appropriate choice as police officers. A couple of years ago an incident occurred in Sonoma County where an Iraq War combat vet (known to suffer from PTSD) who was a police officer killed a 13-year-old child playing with a toy gun because the officer misinterpreted what he was seeing. I don’t think that someone with PTSD from combat should have been in that situation to begin with.

We are a country at war with itself and the war is between our history and our future, not between blacks + protestors and police. A country built on the violence of genocide, slavery, and racism needs a lot more than better training for police officers to achieve peace, equity, and justice. I am outraged by the deaths of Brown and Garner, and I am outraged by so many other deaths that preceded. Racism is the disease that has caused these murders. Only 12% of the U.S. population is black but 23% of people killed by police officers are black. The numbers tell the truth. There is only one way to successfully fight racism and that is constructive dialogue. People need to tell their stories to one another and they need to listen to each other’s stories and they need to hear. I believe that the power of stories is our only way out of this mess. The racist foundation of this country requires more than education to be replaced with a viable alternative, it requires change of heart. We need to feel each other’s pain on a heart level, not just a head level, and we need transformation to result.

The lives of our children down through the generations depend on this peaceful dialogue. It will not happen while people are hurling bottles and epithets at one another. I am for my black brothers and sisters and I am for hardworking police officers.  These are not mutually exclusive, as Jon Stewart points out. I can support both. Moreover, it’s not about them, them, them. What “they” need to do. What “they” need to change. It’s about us. We must be the change. You and I must change. Let’s start.

Richmond, CA Police Chief Chris Magnus standing in solidarity with protesters. 
He was reprimanded and criticized for wearing his uniform to do this. I applaud his courage.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Life Happens

It was one of those life happens kinda weeks. Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a remembrance for our friend Scott. We celebrated the extraordinary person he was and the exemplary life he led. Scott was diagnosed with cancer in July and a brief four months later, at the young age of 61, he passed into spirit peacefully in his own home on the land he loved in Mendocino County, my homeland, one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world. Scott was so hale and hearty, lived so cleanly, drinking pure water and breathing clean air, that one would have anticipated that he would live to be a hundred, but one would have been wrong. Life happens in unexpected ways.

Yesterday was also the fourth birthday of my precious goddaughter Stella, a miracle in the form of a brilliant little person if ever there was one. Stella’s mom, Gayla, was nearly 50 years old when Stella was born. Stella is her only child and I never imagined Gayla would choose to embark on motherhood at that age, particularly since her husband is in his 60s and has two grown children. But Gayla is a young 50-something and she and her husband are having a blast raising Stella. Gayla sent me a vid of Stella dancing gaily in her fairy princess costume, singing happily on her birthday. The center of the universe for her well-educated, smart, creative, and adoring older parents, Stella is a remarkable little girl. She almost didn’t come to be, but life happens in astonishing ways.

On Wednesday night this past week, one of the four enormous old oak trees in my half-acre yard fell down. It was a tree that had been suffering from drought for a very long time and had an almost entirely hollow lower trunk. When I looked inside that tree after it fell, I wondered what had been holding it up. The crazy thing about it was that it fell as if placed on the ground gently by a divine hand. It did not fall on my house, my fence, my propane tank, or any of the many fruit trees I have planted in my yard in recent years. It fell carefully between my young almond tree, my young cherry trees, and my most beautiful seasoned dogwood. It fell a few feet short of the fence so that it does not block passage around the yard. It fell so perfectly, so beautifully, that I’m not feeling any urgency to have it cut up. It laid itself down peacefully and died. I will forever connect in my mind the loss of the tree with the loss of Scott. The tree fell exactly one month to the day after Scott passed.

At the event to celebrate Scott, I saw a few mutual friends who attended Akili and Tina’s wedding in September. That was the last time I had seen them, at a joyous and fun life cycle event. My contemporaries, who have gone through thick and thin with me, for better or for worse. Yesterday, I talked to Casey, the niece of Scott’s widow Linda (one of my dearest longtime friends). Casey did a tremendous good deed by coming to the event from Florida with her two-year-old. Oh how Casey’s daughter, that sparkling little sprite, cheered up Linda and us grieving old folks. The last time I saw Casey, she was a little girl herself, playing on the beach in the vast Pacific Northwest with my children on a joint family vacation. Now she is grown, married, and a mom with a child the same age that my Sudi was the last time I saw Casey. Time passes as surely as the ivy climbs the wall.

I have to holler, laugh, howl, cry, and wonder at how life happens. These precious and unique babies born, riding through childhood, dancing in their fairy princess dresses, finding their way in the world, getting married, doing both ordinary and extraordinary things, many of them having babies that they raise to do it all over again. Generation after generation of us, sometimes remembering back and back and back and back to the ancestors, all those who came before; and more often not remembering anything or else remembering so little. Losing so many memories of all those good times had, and also losing memories of hard times better forgotten. All those children born, trees falling, weddings celebrated, dear ones dying always too soon. And it keeps on and on in this way that could be a pattern but could be complete chaos. Who knows? Each time I turn the crystal of life in my hand and look through it I see a different configuration through its many facets.

I can’t keep up. It all goes by too fast. It’s too crazy or difficult or miraculous to grasp. I try, but I spend my whole life trying. There is really no sense to be made from it other than what we fabricate to create meaning, there is only the going through it with sometimes immeasurable delight and sometimes bottomless grief and sometimes of no consequence either way; only the experiencing it. Enjoying the delicious bowl of soup, the transcendent slant of orange golden light at sunset, the embrace, the touch, the fragrance, the laugh, the song, oh just the quiet voice and nothing more even. All of it. So complicated and yet so simple. And here we are. Thrown together. I wake up every morning. A tree is standing and then it’s not. I will take it. I will take it all for as long as it lasts. Life happens. 

I am not a photographer. This is not my tree. It's an image I pulled off the internet 
of a broken oak tree to show how graceful and beautiful a broken oak can be. 
Mine is a beauty too.