California, an Essay (an Assay)

To attempt to capture it. How quickly we arrive, as if we awoke and those golden hills were right there before us. Poached eggs and decaf coffee. A wander through campus where, like at other campuses, I imagine a life I never quite got to live. Graduates students holding coffee mugs stroll in deep conversation. Above Berkeley we walk a fire road that twists higher. Rusty gates and reservoirs and the shimmering moment I realize to sit on a bench with the man I love and stare across an unbroken vista is really all I could ever want.

In Napa, there are chicken wings—Daddy’s recipe—at the picnic table and a white, then a red, then a white to keep us going. So much to talk about. And downtown on a picnic blanket I wonder at a baby named Cecily, at a grandmother with a tattoo on her ankle, at a place just small enough to be able to have enough people to say hello to. And then Carly, so fully herself, we barely recognize her. It’s not just the long braid that is gone.

In California it isn’t just what happens. It’s what we discover we want. To step out of the house and smell grapes in the morning. To climb each day higher and higher until we pause to see the mountains in the distance. To have friends stop by. To sit on a Friday evening while the air cools and talk to family. To walk down for a latte and a glazed donut. Peaches at the farmer’s market that have more flavor than words can say. We only get to live once, and why shouldn’t we live it in a place we find beautiful? And yet don’t we already? What is it about California that makes us forget?

There is a notebook open to a fresh page. A cellphone gathering data over the airwaves. A book picked up from a box in a driveway and started and discarded. There is a fish named for a man I’ve never heard of that sits in a delicate broth I sip with a spoon. There is Ben and Jerry’s passed across the table while we draw cards and laugh. There is another walk up the hillside, another vista. And then a drive through single lane roads while the phone carries its sad stories and I watch the landscape to settle my stomach. Waves crash. Rocks rise from the tide in striking shapes. Children scurry toward the water and back again. The sun pinks my nose.

California and its imagined lives. That we will sit by Tomales Bay sipping white wine and slurping oysters. That we will laugh until we hold our stomachs even more, even more, shake our hands in the air to say, “Stop.” That those neat lines of grape vines will be part of our view. A small house with a yard dotted with plumbago. A Christmas Eve of seven fishes, a summer evening with a sweater on. We plot and scheme, we wait. Then we drive to the airport, ten pounds of artisan beans in our bags, ready to book again for next year, and the next.

September 7, 2015

Advertisements

Getting Pink

081815(Written in writing circle 8/18, spool pulled from a jar on the table.)

It is my grandmother’s thread—wood spooled, pastel colored, beeswaxed, 19¢, fast to boiling, a term I imagine on a standardized test of the past. In my linen closet, on the floor, in a shoebox for shoes I forgot many years ago, a box of thread. Needles in packaging with fonts from the fifties. A pin holder like a bright ripe tomato. It’s still where I reach when a button needs reattaching, a hem tidied. My grandmother’s thread, though she died when I was 10. My grandmother’s ring that I wear next to my own wedding band.

So much on this spool I don’t understand. Belding. Size 50. Mercerized cotton. Driving home the other night, Chris says it must be hard to be young and keep up with all the new terms. We were talking about FOMO, his new discovery that describes so many of his life’s decisions. No, I say, it is hard to be old and keep up with the new terms. It is hard to be modern and keep up with what came before. This thread, bubble gum pink, no baby doll pink, no ballerina pink, this thread cotton candy, sunset, ball gown, the color of the homecoming dress I wore at 17.

There is a kind of capable in it for the woman who knew how to read its codes, who chose it understanding its size and shade and kind of cotton would help her create what she intended to create. She knew what she was doing, the woman who pulled this thread from the many and paid her 19¢ and brought it home. She could have been my grandmother, who disliked her lumbering body but used it to tend the new mothers in the maternity ward and stop at friends’ to check in and bathe her own cranky mother-in-law in tar to tamp down the eczema. My grandmother was capable, was strong, knew what she was doing when she did it.

August 18, 2015

To Be Five in Summer

080915

To get to the pool, race past the boy in the superhero swim trunks. Carry your purse in the crook of your elbow, goggles and nose clip and a whole package of bandaids inside. Look both ways. Watch for reversing cars. The cow with the long eyelashes propped in the yard is so last month, why even mention it? While your mother finds a chair in the shade, sprint to the water. In! In! Until the lifeguard’s whistle means it’s time to get out. In the kiddie pool, the hose is for battles. Crimp and explode until your mother says stop or you’ll have to go home. You are smeared with sunblock and schooled in how to keep water from your goggles. Even the shallow end is still too deep, so daddy stays close.  The diving board was fun until you did a double bounce and then it was terrible. Terrible! You want the orange noodle, not the blue, a squirt of ketchup on your hotdog from your Uncle Rene. But you leave it on the table and leap back into the water. You will swim and swim chasing your cousin Lala who is taller and more thoughtful and all the way from California and who will save you if you go too far. Back home there’s a hula hoop and Incredible Hulk hands and a diary you would write your greatest wishes in if only you knew how to write. Lighter fluid drifts sharply to your nose, Pharrell’s “Happy” to your ears. Someday these Sundays will fade, become one giant day at the pool in which you ran and leapt and splashed and someone’s football sailed over your head and the noodle you wanted was always yours and parents bounced babies and told long stories and the water was only invitation. One more jump before you go. No, wait, just one more. And then you walk home, towel thrown over your shoulders, learning the gifts of the shady side of the street.

August 9, 2015

Things We Should Commemorate On This Day

072715My father, who would have been 77. He would have been 77, but never quite made it all the way to old. Hard to imagine him grayer, balder, thinner, still swimming in the apartment complex pool in the mornings, still bickering with the neighbors. My father, who inched toward happiness and then tumbled backwards again. There were so many ways to understand how he lived those last few years, but perhaps the most real is to say he made me a wreath in a craft class, a tiny gold and burgundy wreath that the ladies helped him with, a small wreath with a big bow at the bottom. My father gave me a wreath, offered it with a shrug layered with pride and for a long time I hung it in front of my house, a little circle on the big brick wall of our fireplace. For his 70th birthday he received his first grandson, Ian, who turns 7 today, another thing we should be commemorating. So for Ian we took this goofy selfie and sent it through the sky to him and received back a photo in which his eyes have their wise gentleness and a smear of chocolate cake darkens his cheek.

July 27, 2015

We Had a Picnic

061315We strung the balloons. We filled the coolers with ice. We laid out plates and forks and weighted the napkins under bottles of ketchup. We cleared enough books from the shelves that nothing is left stacked, and we laid them on end on a table for choosing. We bought hot dogs sealed in plastic and sunscreen and insect repellent. We greeted Michael in his orange hat and watched him pile charcoal in a chimney for the grill. We waited. They came. They came with children and dogs and sisters and cousins. They came with memories and nervousness and for a quick spin or the whole day. They looked for people they knew. They hugged us hello and hugged us goodbye. Their children played in the water and came back slick and cool. The sun climbed high in the sky and the temperatures rose. The park grew busy and full. The hotdogs were eaten, one by one. We packed up. We thanked our volunteers, left behind a few cakes for the group behind us. We retreated to the air conditioning. We counted our numbers. We slept.

June 13, 2015

Poem in the Kitchen Cabinet

060215I taped the poem there so long ago I forget it, though I open that cabinet door daily to grab a plate, a glass, a ramekin. Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things. In this room where so much of life happens, where we land in the morning and in the evening, often in between, where we discuss schedules and finances and the finale of Mad Men. You must see how this could be you, / how he too was someone / who journeyed through the night with plans… I believe in poems in pockets, poems pasted into the covers of daily planners, poems on cards pinned to bulletin boards. I believe in poems wherever we place them, wherever we find them. Feel the future dissolve in an moment / like salt in a weakened broth. I taped this one in the kitchen cabinet because it was the one we needed, would still need, would always need as we went forth as human beings trying to make our way in the world. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore. I taped it there to remind us when we would inevitably forget.

June 2, 2015

Read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” here.

Hat

050415This is my father’s hat. The one he wore to my wedding with his light blue Goodwill suit. The one that hangs on my closet door beside my belts. The one that is my most regular reminder of him. He died four years ago today — a lifetime, a blink of an eye — in a south San Antonio nursing home in the room at the end of a long hallway. His death seemed to set off a series of deaths — his cousin, his sister, Chris’s own father. Loss upon loss. In all my existential ponderings, I have no answers. What it means that my father is gone. How I know him now in ways I didn’t know him then. What remains. But I have his hat, its pale plaid, yellowed brim, and I remember that he wore it well.

May 4, 2015