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

Urban Parrots

083015You don’t know where you’ll find the exotic. At the ball fields, empty on an August Sunday morning, a clatter. Look up. On the backstop, where hundreds of fly balls have bounced away toward the field, parrots. We lean against the fence like anxious parents at a game. We watch.

August 30, 2015


082915Of the weekend, we will say nothing, we did nothing. No movies, no dinners with friends. No parties. We didn’t change anything about the house or about ourselves. We went nowhere of note (a coffee house, the library). Time tiptoed along. We walked far in the mornings and witnessed others walking far, or running or paddling or pushing strollers loaded with dozing kids. The heat held off until noon. The house stayed cool. We lay down on Saturday afternoon and woke up three hours later stunned to find ourselves in the same day. We sat at the kitchen table yawning, the room as still as if it were morning again, as quiet.

August 29, 2015

Passing Through

072615We have the imagine the purple martins came this way even before the swath of land housed a Walgreen’s and a Target, even before this spot by the river became home to a towering power plant that chugged along for years and then was taken apart, piece by piece, and hauled away on the backs of trucks.

July 26, 2015

You Could Journey Here Too

0706151Wherever you look, another pathway inviting your feet, another sidewalk, cracked or not, another street to cross after double checking both ways. Three miles one direction, three miles the other. Up the steep hill toward Travis Heights, how the slope slows you, reminds you your legs were once stronger. Pride of Barbados a shock of brightness. On the other side of the street, a girl who once sat for your cat doesn’t notice you. Waiting for the beep. Choosing the shade. A suit of armor painted red in a backyard. A giant wooden chicken by the front door. Shrimp plant. Old marquee. Drifting scent of pizza. The curly-haired cyclist with the basket on her bike passes you both ways. Does she ride this street all day? Let me know.

July 6, 2015

Twilight On the Boardwalk

070515It’s one of the gifts of summer: late strolls after dinner, the air still warm but not seething with heat, the smattering of joggers and unicycle riders and Latino families with children leaning to look for fish in the water. It stays light far past when we expect it to, and downtown looks impressive, shiny and aglow. We live here. So often we complain: the traffic, the prices, the scruffy city we fell in love with transformed into something else. But didn’t we fall for each other when we both lived in tiny apartments and mouthed off about simplicity, paring down, though for a decade we have had 2200 square feet and squabbles over the lawn? We can’t spend forever on the sagging deck of a coffeehouse listening to Guy Forsyth strum his guitar. Sometimes we turn and are struck anew with delight for our midlife selves dressed in the better clothes that midlife allows. And so our city too, offering a different kind of impressive while we saunter along, the day mostly behind us, rail lights illuminating the way toward home.

July 5, 2015

Praise Song: Overheard at the Capital 10K

The women walked in shirts printed with “In Memory of David” on the back. His face, his uniform, in color. All those walkers and runners wove through and continued on. Praise the woman who paused beside them and said, “I am sorry for your loss.” Praise the questions she asked — where was he, was it his first deployment, how long has it been? Tens of thousands of us cruised past that starting line, the gate and Texas flag, in modest clothes and impressive costumes. We noted the fog shrouding the Capitol, the strength of our legs, the hills we never noticed in our cars. We cheered for the high school band playing under Mopac and the singer songwriter on Cesar Chavez. I was so happy I texted Chris to tell him he needed to come next year. It was fun, so fun. But praise those women and the overheard moment. Praise the dignity of pausing to ask. Praise what we carry with us, sometimes on apparent, sometimes not.

April 12, 2015

Praise Song: Walking After Work

040815Praise the long days of April, when I can finish up those final emails, make the drive home, change my clothes, hustle across the traffic of Riverside, and still have enough light for a walk. Praise the boardwalk, which sometimes feels like it was built just for me, me whose six-word memoir might read, Loves to walk beside the water, who carried a Wallace Stevens quote tucked into the front of her journal for a year, Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake. Praise how for these 45 minutes I can leave behind the HVAC installers up in my attic, failing again, and the budgets and questions of program outcomes and who really deserves an A in the class, and just move my sandaled feet forward. Praise Anne Lamott’s long ramble about turning 61, which I read aloud to Chris before bed, in which she reminds us, If you want to have a good life after you have grown a little less young, you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this. Praise how many writers I can carry in my head, their voices coming at me when I least expect it. Praise the health that allows me to be here, the slice of time between things where I can breathe, and all the pauses I make so often for skyscrapers glistening in the distance, for rowers gliding by in sync, for colorful boats awaiting their next paddle.

April 8, 2015

Praise Song: Father Gregory Boyle

040415The first time I listened to him, I was planting tomatoes in the garden. This time I was taking my sore body on a loop around the lake, Saturday morning. Priest, teller, spirit, he reminds me again how deeply I believe in second chances. So praise his stories. Praise his laughter. Praise the tidbit about Diane Keaton being served by a home girl who seemed to know her face, then said, gleeful, “I know — we were locked up together!” Praise his faith in right action, in delight. What are we put here to do? he asks us. Love. Discover awe. See ourselves in kinship. Praise this one man and his voice that walks with me down this worn path: “The day will never come when I am as holy as the people I serve.”

Listen to him here.

April 4, 2015

And Then, After Dark

032715At 3pm, I thought the day would be represented like this: spring, a shock of blue sky, everything budding. I submitted poems, walked, lunched with a friend, sat on a park bench reading books of poetry for a contest I’m helping to judge. Kids ran in the grass. I pulled up my sleeves to get sun on my arms. All this was before Fifi Switchblade. When Chris said burlesque, I had vague ideas about what that meant–feathers, strutting, spectacle. It was not quite the wigs and bondage-y outfits we encountered at the show that night. But I could roll, and the the first performer took the stage, slinking across in her black bustier and arms draped like wings. Across, across, and then right off the edge, dropping to the concrete below. Fifi, on the floor, folks rushing to help her. The show was on hold while we waited for an ambulance. We sang her happy birthday while they lifted her to the stretcher. 0327151And then the show went on, with mermaids on poles and tassel-titted women spinning on hoops. Nine muses danced in red gowns and black bras. After the first intermission, I headed home. Chris and Gary stayed ’til the end. But one day can only contain so much–the clear blue of a new season, the dark night of women falling, and waiting for me the cats, the covers, the crossword I was so close to completing.

March 27, 2015