Don’t worry, be happy

     A public declaration of change is mighty. Expectations shatter the very ground. Will she fall in love? Will she enter the priesthood? Will she become a public figure representing the plight of American senior citizen women?  Will she return to teaching? Will she become a long-distance swimmer? Will she book a room on a massive cruise ship and travel the world? 

I could. And I might. But I probably won’t. 

I’m putting my dampened index finger up to the wind and paying attention to where the gusts  blow. If I pay attention, if I’m a good listener, I’ll know what to do next. 

That’s where I’m at less than 24 hours after declaring the Great American Shakeout of Regret. I’m in a new state of being and for it to stick I must be mindful of everything I do, be it financial, food, steps that I walk, movies I choose to view, conversations I’m part of or direct. This life and how I choose to live it is up to me, not my circumstances. Now saying this, I know I’m not proclaiming anything new or revolutionary. Like a lot of people, it’s been in my head, not my heart, like wanting to lose weight but not exercising or cutting calories. I’m well-intended, but not particularly action oriented. Not that any of this has been a mystery, trapped in a gold-laden Tibetan cave. Change is free and available to everyone. Yeh, I have tons of excuses; I know each one of them like a cherished family member—no time, it hurts, my habits are my identity, Wah, Wah, that person hurt my feelings, I’m not happy with my job, my partner, no partner—myself. But it’s a story and since we’re the authors, we can change it. 

Which is how I’m starting today, a new day with cauliflower clouds and navy- gray water and a puffy vest chill that percolates my soul. What brave thing will I do with this open canvas?

Be happy. 

All day. 

Don’t worry. Not once the entire day. If it starts to sneak into my brain, I will stretch, move, listen to positive tunes, have a glass of water to cleanse myself of my old ways. This will be today’s challenge. One entire day feeling happy. 

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Diving acrobats of the sea

The sun warms my face and bones. It’s summer, late January. Cloudless. With this exciting cornucopia of impromptu events taking place right outside my balcony. Including the heartbreaking cries of a baby downstairs.

       This has thus far been such a quiet apartment complex, except for the chronic barking seals. Which I love. Which I crave. Along with the bird squawks. And the purring boats and the occasional conversation of the outboard riggers. This has been a place of absolute, restorative peace. But today, as I mentioned, a baby cries, a grandchild no doubt, amidst adult conversations and the occasional barking caged dog. 

       Once in a while, I see a human climbing up or down the stairs in this blemished 1960s dwelling. My eyebrows raise with little kid excitement; I crave greetings, interaction, a wondering conversation about what brought them to this temporary seaside shelter, several of the guests, hooked on the standstill of time, have lived here from years from what I’m told.

       A basking seal reminds me that time is merely a human invention. To the instructive creatures who inhabit our fragile planet, time is irrelevant. What matters to them is the here and now. Resting. Dreaming. Until it’s time to eat or swim or hang out with friends or stay clear of boaters.

My idol is the harbor seal. And the cormorants. And all the flying, diving acrobats of the sea. I want to be them, gliding in the sunset with no notion of tomorrow. 

       I am at peace. 

Even the Facetimes. 

Even the emails and texts. 

Even the yacht-toasting Yugoslavian-boating passerby’s, can’t shatter my thermal coat of gratitude. To be in this place so close to “home”, is like climbing into a warm cabin right before a winter’s frost.

To return, not in triumph, but in humility and thankfulness for the life this place gifted me, for the memories, the challenges, the hope and despair; the friendships and the heartbreak, the beginnings and the end; it all happened here in this home that is no longer my home. A new beginning. A fresh start where I can clear the slate and re-write a brand new history.

       I no longer need to look back. 

       I don’t need to say, “I’m sorry.” 

       “Good morning, how are you?” shall be my new phrase going forward.

  “I’m brilliant,” I will respond in return.

Because that’s how I feel inside. Smiling. Hopeful. Excited about the road ahead. What will I discover? What new things will I learn? Listening to my body. Paying attention to my soul. Peace like not a river, but like the mouth of this marina which I study like a student of impressionistic paintings. I’m a docent, an advocate, an admirer who wishes to climb into the mind of the creator to inquire about process, choice of color, blocking, particular paint strokes and if the end produced expressed what she needed to express, in other words, was she satisfied? 

The day isn’t long enough. I will wake up earlier and stay awake longer. I’m on vacation without an alarm clock.

I don’t want to miss a moment not delighting in Monet with her ears perked up like tents on fire season alert as she eyes the stealth seal gently climb down the scratchy rocks; not the assortment of birds flying South; not the silhouette of fisherman ably rambling across the breakwater, nor the gurgling of the rescue boat idling at sunset or the incoming storm clouds or the fragrant smell of rosemary billowing down the hallway. I don’t want to miss a second more worrying about the baby, who eventually stopped crying, or my grandchildren babies who are all doing just fine, or possible real estate investments, or what new van to buy or not, or my dear ex-husband’s ill health and housing plight, or Ukraine or Trump and Biden’s classified document blunders, or the people who don’t “get” or like me, or the missteps I have made along the way that brought me to this place, this moment of glorious gratitude.

The sun sets, a door closes.

No more regrets. 

I pledge to embrace the ever-present extended hand.

Moving out, it seems, can mean moving on.

What did you do today?

The Christmas I missed. All the year(s) and (s) and (s) I missed by working and stressing, stressing, and working. The brunch I didn’t savor. The friendships I took for granted. The winter rain I wished was over. The doomed relationship I spent decades trying to save. The diaper years, the cheeky teenage years, the cramming for tests and essay-grading, parent-conferencing, no-sleep slumber partying years, and all the hours and months and decades of wishing for “something” else. In that self-imposed vortex of misguided priorities, I lost sight of how fast the car was driving. The blur. The air. The paint brush loaded with blues and greens, magenta and dark purple.

A lyric-less piano solo ribbons in and out of a sliding glass window, stitching together a tapestry I’m trying to unravel.

“What did you do today?” my roommate amigos ask.

I searched in vain for affordable housing for my weary, ex-husband. Looked up resources to help Monet. Swam. Walked. Read a bit. But mostly I just sat on the balcony and looked and thought and tried to understand the story, my characters—me—in this place I’ve never been to before, never seen from this perspective, my hometown of 66 years.

What brings me back to the place where I started? Are there secrets? Something I missed? A forgotten treasure buried in the backyard or tucked away in the attic? An abandoned kitten I needed to save? A soul I needed to free?

The boats drift past, and the sun-bathing seal sits on the dock where she’s lounged since I opened the blinds this morning, stretched out, next to the cormorants who leave her alone to relax and prepare for the evening moonlight swim with her pals who yip and yawp all night long like it’s Single’s Night on a Carnival Cruise. 

I envy the wild creatures who live with abandon and entitlement. This is their home, not the boaters’ or the balcony stare-ers’. They don’t fear the cold temperatures or rogue waves. They enjoy. As do the flying critters of the sea who claim the surrounding trees as perches, dive into the placid sea when hunger strikes, then groom their salty frocks with the attention of a sculpture or hair-tweezing facialist. 

I will be here for three more weeks (unless my roomies want to extend our stay) to take it all in, to find myself in the mirrored marina waters, to become the skimming pelican and diving egret, to feel the rumble of the crashing waves in my chest, and bathe in the precious space of Now. 

I used to catch my father staring at the garden for what seemed like hours. He did it often, much to the irritation of my task-focused mother who would scold him for wasting time. His response was hearty, consistent, and often expressed in his characteristic full-chested chuckle, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare.” I didn’t know it at the time, but he was quoting the poet William Henry Davies. 

He was always reciting poetry that I thought he made up. 

I can see now that Dad was a poem. Not a poet, but the actual cliffs and rivers and rhymes he memorized and recited with the passion of an opera singer.

Dad figured IT out. What this life is all about: Loving IT. Loving each other. Doing your best. Not striving to be more, spend more, love more than you’re capable of giving. Forgive. Give. And when you think you can’t, DO! Oh, and there’s no such thing as the word, can’t.

Forgive and forget, he always reminded us. Holding grudges, just like worrying, is a waste of time. And he was blessed–despite decades as a carpenter and exposed to a litany of caustic chemicals—to have a lot of time. He lived until he was 92, died on New Year’s Eve more than a decade ago. Yet, sitting here looking at our ocean, the one he moved our family to after The War, the one our immigrant parents reveled in during surfside picnics and afternoon swim sessions, I can feel my parents’ presence. My dad’s childlike spirit was infectious. He never, ever stopped hoping or believing in the possibilities of a day. Kids and animals were drawn to him because he never stopped having fun. He was always up for a good laugh, a spontaneous jig, and a pint of Guinness. He never turned into a grumpy old man

What would he say to me now? 

Don’t miss another Christmas. Your last one will come soon enough. Be glad where you are, wherever you are. Know that I am always with you, loving you, and am so very proud of you.

I don’t hear his voice anymore. It’s long since gone. But I hear the cresting waves and the ripples of the passing boats and am awestruck by the cloud-less, golden sunsets that have greeted us every night since we arrived.  

Here

Is it because He is here? His presence. His love. His mercy. His forgiveness and strength. The peace and understanding that I crave?

To live full-time in a landscape created by The Creator? Saturated in love and beauty. An environment that shatters trepidation and fear, that says, you belong, you’re important to me, to the planet. 

From the second floor, in a temporary, rented dwelling, my feet not rooted to the sandy soil of Cambria, the Islands, the Sierras, the geography my soul adores, I feel particularly close, attached, anchored to an unending, open-chested, breathe deeply, Truth: Love as boldly as the wild creatures, as the sea, as the waxing crescent moon. Love like an adoring parent loves her child. Like the purity and longevity that a sweet pup, my Monet, feels for me. Holy. Unconditional. Forever. Love. 

I don’t need to do or be anything other than be myself. And neither do you. 

As night falls, no one notices me from the balcony. Those who sail past, never look up. But I do. I look at them; I look beyond. I see the jets at LAX take off and land. I study the solo sailors, listen to their songs, and observe the ebb and flow of tides. This ritual, this routine of doing nothing, is everything, allowing me to return to the thing I do, and have done since I was 9 years old, my grandson’s age, when I began to feel different, alone, and yet part of something bigger than I couldn’t understand at the time. Before words like God or grace or religion or going to church become part of my lexicon. 

Then, and now, I am a student of the seal, who even though it’s almost sunset and she’s been hanging out on the dock all day, is fine and dandy being herself, doing what she needs to do to get through the night and the next day. She well may be the best swimmer in the marina or the sexiest catch in King Harbor, but right now she’s taking the time to re-charge before the next storm calls upon her to be brave. 

Thanks, thanks and thanks

An Open Letter to the Folks at the Portofino Hotel and Apartments:

The sliding windows are open and although it’s brisk, it is blue, and blue and cornflower blue and the seagulls are singing and the sailboat ice-skates through the sea reminding me that this isn’t a watercolor painting; it’s real; I’m here and my cousin and sister are here, sort of, (they’re actually at work) while I’m in the apartment writing and painting and breathing and sighing for being so blessed to have a room with a spectacular view. 

The resident seals’ chatter and the gentle whip of the American flag on the western side of the Harbor Patrol headquarters is landmark-proof that I’m not dreaming: I’m in Redondo Beach, but not the Redondo of my working days, my child-rearing and growing up in the 1960s-70s days; this is Destination Redondo, Resort Redondo, calm and peaceful Redondo, athletic Redondo, good food Redondo, historic Redondo; this is a corner of the world that was just around the corner from where I lived for 66 years, that I never knew was here, and now that I see the view from a marina view balcony, can’t see myself leaving, but probably will in three weeks.

But I’m not going to think about that now. 

For a short spell, I have a beautiful and safe place to live, square footage where I can unpack my wrinkled clothes, open a book, plug-in a computer, stir-fry a fresh veggie dinner, take a nap, have a glass of wine on the balcony and drink-in the bounty of Nature and the creativity of marine-savvy engineers, working stiffs like my dad, one of the carpenters who built the docks and the very building I’m housed in, and collect myself, my psyche, and my passion for the stillness and open-ended possibilities of just being

Here.

In this moment. 

The calm after the storm. 

After Covid-19.

After selling the house.

After being on the road for six months.

After having my VW camper van break down.

After couch-surfing at generous family member’s homes.

After retirement.

After knowing my dog of 13 years will die soon.

After making decisions that disappointed my family.

After moving on and moving back.

After finally learning to love myself and the world again, which seems to have turned so selfish and nasty and corporate and greedy. Then there is the exception—you—the folks at the Portofino Hotel and apartment manager Cody Dapson, who made an executive decision to make our lives better by upgrading our room when the unit we had been assigned to was deemed not up to their high standards. It needed some upgrades—don’t we all?–so Cody and the team decided that since they’re in the business of hospitality they’d make our lives better by giving us a second floor room with a restorative view.

I’m not sure if this happens often, placing the guest or client’s needs before profit, but this is what Team Portofino did for us: they made a We’re sorry, how can we make this better? move and in doing so made lifetime friends and advocates. This is the business model we should all follow whether we own a business or are in customer relations—or not. Extend grace. Be hospitable.

We’re all weary travelers in one way or another. Having a moment—be it a physical space or interaction with an understanding individual—to restore and feel good about humanity is so important for all of us right now. 

Because here’s what happens when we’re kind:

I’m grinning again. Walking. Swimming. Weight-lifting and getting to that happy embodiment of gratitude that I exuberantly extend to everyone I encounter. Spreading the love. Feeling the mojo.

Paying it forward.

Feeling everything is possible.

I’m back. To my new hatched chick, surprised look, giddy-widdy, joyful self. Spring has sprung in Redondo. The sun is out. The grass is searing green. Go for a bike ride. Enjoy the quietude. Thank your neighbor, your children’s teacher, thank the cook and the maintenance workers, thank everyone who’s trying their best, being accommodating, and adjusting “rules” that only serve to stifle.

And here’s where my blog turns into an advertisement. While it’s off season, while the rates are relatively low (check out available discounts), book a room at the Portofino https://www.hotelportofino.com. If you’re local, make it a Staycation. I promise you, just like me and my amigos, you won’t want to leave. 

Thank you Portofino friends, who really do seem like friends. Here’s to the start of a terrific weekend and the beginning of the best year ever.

Life IZ Good,

Janet

The Silly String Saga

Junky, junky, junky stringy stuff invades my thoughts, my days, like a wild river that steals innocent trees and summer’s lawn chairs.

Minding my own business, doing my thing, wading through a different kind of Christmas, the volatility of a California New Year like no other, when suddenly a ferocious bolt of thunder shatters my clan’s full-length mirror. 

This time it’s not politics or COVID. It’s relationship, the kind that churns and stirs until a final, pivotal, can’t-take-it-back explosion. Wounded bodies from both sides of the firing line lay bloodied in the field. No one wins. No one ever wins when you bring out the machine gun and seek to destroy and conquer. What you’re left with is a royal sense of righteousness. Does it feel good when you pummel someone else? Someone who is clearly, prior to the attack, wounded? Vulnerable. Imperfect. But trying her best to climb over years of disappointment and loss, a life filled with so much stress it seethed behind her beautiful Slavic locks, behind her right ear causing deafness, triggering a brain tumor, which remains a tattoo of a turbulent past, a volcano waiting to erupt.

Step outside yourself, I want to say. See the scene, the circumstances, from above. Next to God. Ask Him, “Do my words, my actions, make you proud?” 

She doesn’t have decades to live, I want to tell her, can’t you see that? Your grief. Your pain. They’re blinding you, separating you from the person you really are; the woman who is kind and loving, fun, and creative. 

You don’t have to be “right”. Someone else doesn’t have to be “wrong”. 

Love her for her clumsy, imperfect self. She’s trying her best, as are you

At the end of the day, at the end of a life, is it worth hanging onto all this anger, all this pain? 

Let. 

It. 

Go.

Focus on health. Mental health. Physical health. Joy. Love. And the hope this New Year promises. Get help, if you need it. Be the person you wish to see in the world. Be an example you can be proud of. Lift up and fly. You are so beautiful, as is she. Shine. Glow. Use your radiance to uplift and illuminate others’.

Life IZ Good, but so often it’s filled with heart-breaking silliness, tempting us to stray from our core values and beliefs. 

Sometimes, even though I know better, I allow The Yuck to suck me in. Maybe you can relate. Foolish me, I think I have the power and influence to be a conduit of reconciliatory peace. Rarely, as in never, has it ever worked. But I keep trying.

Recently, having shifted my travel plans, instead of pausing, contemplating life and all its winter storm wonder, I got wrapped up in The Silly Sting Saga; that, and the rain and the rain and the rain, flooded my soul, stripping me of the giddiness I feel when adventuring. It’s been hard to sleep, hard to read, hard to write; for when people I love are upset, it has an all-consuming effect on me, until, exhausted, I hold out my hand out and shout, “Stop. No more!”

Which I did today thanks to yoga stretches, a drizzly walk around the salty block, Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly”, and a Mary Oliver poem I re-discovered in the anthology “Devotions”. Once again, I am re-aligned, my feet rooted in wisdom beyond myself and current circumstances. I needed this poem, perhaps you do too. It’s called “The World I Live In” by Miss Oliver.

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

           reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

is wider than that. And anyway,

          what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or

twice I have seen. I’ll just

          tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you

         ever possibly, see one. 

I’ll end today’s musings with a quote from Elizabeth Lesser’s “The Seeker’s Guide” which reminded me of The Bigger Picture: “Everything that happens to you also happens for you. So you take the thing that has caused you the most pain and you use it to create your greatest power.” 

Limbo Land

I’d like to credit and thank Royce Morales of Perfect Life Awakening for her recent blog and exactly perfect word that describes how I’m feeling these days. I suspect I’m not alone.

First, the definition of limbo from Webster’s:

1. place or state of restraint or confinement

2. place or state of neglect or oblivion

3. an intermediate or transitional place or state

4. a state of uncertainty

5. a dance or contest that involves bending over backwards and passing under a horizontal pole lowered slightly for each successive pass

6. In the 14th century it meant sense. And in 1948 limbo meant above.

I think it’s fair to say, other than the game which is a happy, distant memory of my spine-flexible past, most of us aren’t cool with uncertainty. Most of us want to know what happens at the end of the story; we want to know NOW, as in, can we order it Next Day Delivery from Amazon? That word—patience—is getting sooooo annoying.

Royce suggests that being in limbo is actually a good thing.

Come again?

It’s a spiritual plateau that prepares you for something significant that’s just around the corner. Being between a rock and a hard place isn’t as bad as you may think. Consider this, she says:

“I have learned that the ‘between-time’ is actually when the most is happening. Things are integrating, pieces are falling into place, others are arriving in our life, and we are being prepped for our next leap,” she writes. https://www.roycemorales.com/post/limbo-time?fbclid=IwAR0AkpONXrsvQekvCG45U25zNNRRDELALZ7oxtZTE__qK8E5nFBbu6KhvQw

Royce, perhaps more than anyone else I know, has learned to embrace the state of limbo. About eight years ago her beloved husband, Michael, had a massive stroke. Their heroic tale is the subject of “Back: Rebirth After Stroke”. She also writes about the couple’s inspiring journey in her blog and a Om Media radio show she hosts and also her YouTube Channel. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-hPbQMn-htEfUwT6yy52Zw

I’m a fan. Royce seems to intuitively know what I’m going through. And has the wisest advice.

Two steps forward, five steps back is how she explains Michael’s recovery. Gains. Losses. Recovery. And through it all, love, laughter and appreciation of new gifts, such as Michael’s awakened talents as a visual artist and his newfound ability to live in the present. Royce, too, has grown, acknowledging that she’s much more patient and trusting today than she was prior to her husband’s stroke.

“Honestly, the longer the limbo, the bigger that leap will be.”

Which is promising, right? But if I’m being honest, Royce’s words also make me scared.

“But I’m tired of jumping across cliffs!” I boo-hoo.

“I’m tired of waiting.”

“Sorry sis,” I answer myself, “comes with the territory called life.”

So let me get it out there, what’s been driving me (no pun intended) crazy for weeks, what’s making me feel like my feet are trapped in cement: My van. I realize if I keep driving her, having my van life adventures, other costly issues are bound to crop up. At 22, she’s a senior citizen in car years. However, if I sell her I’m grounded. I literally have no where else to live. Right now. She’s my cabin-on-wheels. And, I actually love her. When she’s not breaking down. When we’re adventuring. Discovering. Re-organizing. City streets stealth-ing.

True. Makes sense. But until that time comes, what to do, what to do? Continue to travel and risk further problems? Or ground her, me and Monet? Treat her tenderly? Find a place to live. Temporarily. Postpone my travel plans?

A few days ago when I had to take Luna Bella Blu in for yet another repair–this time Cylinder 6 was misfiring—I said to my mechanic Graham that my van and I were getting a divorce. To which he smiled and advised, “Wait until Spring. No one wants a van in the winter.”

Another shift.

Limbo Land.

Or as Webster’s defined it, “a state of confinement”.

Or as Royce calls it, the “in-betweens”.

Or as the 14th Centurians and 1948s referred to it as sense from above.

“It takes courage to admit what no longer works without knowing what will, to not make rash decisions or give up in frustration. Transitions from one way of being to another can’t be rushed; a new life can’t be forced into existence. Labor takes as long as it takes; resistance only makes it harder.”

Dear 2023:

Looks like I still have some work to do besides travel, shed economic stress, learn, grow, finish my novel, get back on the health train and re-align my values to my lifestyle.

Turns out, I need a change of ‘tude, a new plan. I need to fall in love with the Great Om, Mr. Limbo.

I’ll do my best. But be patient. As Shakespeare observed, “Be ye (me) slow of study.”

Affectionately,

Work-In-Progress

Sitting at a bar in Barstow

Family.

Family.

Family.

Mucho complicated. In a not so “It’s a Wonderful Life” way. Though, I wish everyone had a Donna Reed mom and a Jimmy Stewart dad. They knew what to say and when to say it. Those big-hearted Bailey’s could rally the troops and inspire harmony. Encircled by angels, George and Mary’s unbreakable bond protected the clan from sinister forces seeking to destroy.

The 1946 film reminds us what families are supposed to like, providing a safe haven, a place where members can make mistakes, be forgiven, heal and restore.

Instead, what often happens is family members sulk into their own ego-driven separate corners, each thinking he or she right and the other person’s wrong.

No middle ground. 

No attempt to see a situation from the other person’s perspective. 

Like boxers, it’s easier to duke it out, than say “I’m sorry”. And mean it. 

I’ve experienced the sting of being blamed, being wrong, being stupid and misunderstood more times than I can count. At long last, I have a thickish skin. Because when you know what you know whatever someone says or thinks about you is irrelevant. 

Now that I’m on the other side of taking everything personally, it pains me to see loved ones not behaving like loved ones. 

Why do we have to be so darn complicated? 

By nature, I don’t think we’re born complicated. Just look at any child. The junk, the toxicity, doesn’t linger in young kids. Their focus is on the here and now. They throw up and get on with it. 

I wish, I wish, I wish I had the ability to power-up my new iPad (thank you Katie and Jason), program-in a news reel timeline, then fast forward to the last scene. Am I smiling? Frowning? Regretting? Exuding a sense of peace and satisfaction knowing that through all of life’s twists and turns I was able to give and receive love, forgive, forget, and let go. If each of us had the ability to scroll through the footage of our lives slowly, slowly, chapter by chapter, and pause on the highlights and lowlights, what patterns would emerge? How might we have done things differently to improve our life and the life of those around us? 

An autobiographical documentary would surely help us see ourselves from a third-person perspective and prompt us be more objective about our actions and reactions. 

One day, one day, someone will invent such a software. But until then, that’s why I’m writing in beautiful, deserty Barstow, where I’m lodging as I wait for my son and his son to arrive before our second camping trip this year to Calico, my grandson’s favorite Ghost Town destination. He’s not here as scheduled because he’s sick. Another plan averted. Colds, flu, Covid. They hit my family hard this Christmas season and now we’re all braced for the aftershocks. 

Who’s next?

I have only gotten sick once before when I was on the road. I shivered in my van, slept, drank gallons of hot tea, and then recovered. It wasn’t fun. I would rather have been hiking with my family in Yosemite than sweating under blankets, but I got through it and was even more appreciative of my health. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my approach to family scabbles, disappointment and unwanted change of plans. As a longtime planner, my newfound go-with-the-flow lifestyle has taught me to become a better listener, observer and much better at not taking-to-heart all the craziness life presents. As my friend Julie reminds me, “Not my monkeys, not my circus.” That is the beauty of age: you begin to remember–and embrace–your values, the person you were as a child, the person you still are today. 

Little kids play hard, cry hard, invent, imagine, forgive, and move on. Kids get really hurt, physically and emotionally, but they rebound. Quickly. That’s what I’m returning to; My Little Kid Phase.

Which brings me to why I took my son’s suggestion and sat at the Chili’s bar in Barstow, ordered grilled salmon, broccoli, and a sunny margarita. 

In my entire life, I have sat at a bar by myself maybe three times. Sitting there, without the boundaries of a booth, you’re exposed, have no one to talk to. What do you do to distract yourself with? Look at your phone? That’s rude. Write? Read? Or stare at other people, which was what I did to the man to my left, clad in a red flannel shirt, hunched over like an old miner. I looked at his food and asked what he was eating. 

“Fish tacos,” he said, sipping on a giant, salted, limed beverage. 

“Is it good?” I inquired. 

“Yep.”

Clearly, he wanted his own space. So, I looked at the shaved head, tattooed female wrestlers on TV and continued to feel silly being here on a rainy, windy night when what I really wanted to do was order take-out and hang out with Monet in the hotel room.

Still, I’m on an adventure, a giddy kid, so I hung in there until my drink and food arrived. Finally, something to do.

I couldn’t help myself, so in between bites of steamed greens, I asked, “What brings you to Barstow?”

“I just delivered Airstreams to San Francisco,” he said.

Something in common. “I love Airstreams,” I said. “I’m always fantasizing about buying one.”

“They’re expensive,” he said.

“I know.”

We chit-chatted and the more he sipped, the more he opened-up, not just his conversation, but his entire face, his eyes, his body posture. As he talked about his adventures traveling around the world, he seemed to get younger. 

“I’ve been to Europe seven or eight times. Been to Asia twice, South America at least a half dozen times,” he said. I couldn’t help myself and began peppering him with questions about favorite foods, people, and cities. “How did you manage not speaking the language?” I asked. “You’d be surprised; you can almost always find someone who speaks English,” he said.


We chatted for about a half an hour, both of us ordering a second drink, mine To-Go.  

“I hope you don’t think I am being rude when I ask this, but how were you able to do all this travel?” I inquired, thinking it would be hard to afford extensive travel on a truck driver’s salary. 

“Early in my life, I was quite successful. Fortunate, really,” he said, describing a Real Estate firm he owned in the South. “I got screwed. That’s why I’m doing this.” 

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I don’t mind,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “The job keeps me busy.” 

I told him about some of my recent life changes, being a vagabond, keeping my mind open as to where I might eventually settle.

“That’s good,” he said. “I know some people who pull the covers over their head and never do anything. They aren’t curious.” Like some members of his family who, he said, “got stuck in a rut. They’re trapped. Never want to change.” 

“Do you have any regrets?” I asked, having shared a few of my own. 

“No, not really,” he said. “Every mistake I ever made led me to where I am now. It’s like climbing a mountain. You get up to a plateau and rest, then move up to the next spot until you reach the top. From there, you can look around and say, ‘Everything I did in my life led me here.’ I’m grateful.” 

He said when his wife left him when his youngest son was a baby, “It was a blessing. I doubt they’d be as successful as they are.” One’s a dentist and the other’s a college professor. “The boys always came to work with me when they were young. We still hang out whenever we get a chance.” 

Now of course I don’t know the ins and outs of this stranger’s life, but I have no reason not to believe him when he said that he and his boys, and now their wives, stick together, through thick and thin, whether they agree or disagree, “We’re there to support each another.” 

Which is just what I needed to hear as the new year begins: Hope.

Life is complicated enough to compound it with complicated family dynamics. Everyone blunders, does, or says something dumb, yet God calls us to forgive each other as He has done for us. Whatever may be pulling you down, preventing you from living life to the fullest, I pray that this new year grants you love, grace, and transcendence. As Willa Cather wrote, “Where there is love, there are miracles.”

Room Service

Learning to say yes instead of oh-no

This is my lesson for today as Christmas Day festivities avalanche my plans, causing me and thousands of travelers who’ve had to wait-out the storm to make lemonade out of lemons. 

My beloved van. Fixed. 

Maybe

When I picked her up yesterday after a two-week, new, -all-German-parts transmission makeover, the mechanic warned me not to drive very far away: “It’s possible it needs some adjustments.” 

My eyes turned into those plastic googly eyes you buy at Michaels. 

“Can I drive down to Anza-Borrego or up to the Central Coast?” I asked, excited about my upcoming #VanLife plan to leave the South Bay post-Christmas. 

“Nooo,” he cautioned. “Just drive it around town. Put 500 miles on it and bring it back to the shop.”

Drive it around town? 500 miles touring the South Bay? 

“But you know I sold my home, that my van is my cabin on wheels?” I reminded him. 

“Part of the adventure,” he said, chuckling, one VW Eurovan Camper owner to another. “Expect the unexpected.”

I think it’s time for a divorce, that’s what I think. 

But having invested close to $20,000 this year alone into this wonderful, costly old beast, I want to at least get my money’s worth out of her for a few more months before the divorce is final.

New van conversions are well over $100,000. You see my quandary. 

What to do, what to do?

It was dark when I picked up Luna Bella Blu. I threw everything I’ve been traveling with from the Forester into the van; no organization, no sense of Zen, and I was immediately stressed out. When I turned on the lights, it looked like an 8.1 earthquake hit; pretty much everything in the van toppled over during the tow ride from Malibu to Hermosa. In addition to the bruised chaos, there were gifts to be wrapped, an e-bike stretching across the center, knotted-up clothes, a tent, burly winter sleeping bag, and Monet’s stuff; there was no way I could go to the storage unit and sort things out, besides the facility is way too dark and creepy. Even if I did attempt to organize, where could I overnight camp?  

I started to feel sorry for myself. It’s Christmas. The music. The smiles. The fireplace. The Christmas tree. And here I am, back “home” and there’s no room at the inn, no family who can provide shelter for a couple of nights before Christmas. 

I realize that my problems are nothing compared to real problems, like illness, financial despair, loss, and other actual misfortunes, but that feeling of having nowhere to go in a place you’ve always been, is pretty rotten. 

As I spoke to my cousin and sister about the situation, they were sympathetic but had no solution because they, too, are couch-surfing at a relative’s home as they wait for their house to be remodeled. This, by the way, is the fixer-upper that was supposed to be finished in December, a place The Three Amigos are eventually going to live our Best Life Ever, but for various reasons the project house remains a project. 

So, at 6 p.m. I decided, damn it, life is too short, stop being ridiculous, spend the bloody money and book another two nights at the Portofino Hotel, my new pricey address in the South Bay. The next day and the next, I’ll drive around town, log as many miles on the van as can and have a nice place to sleep. 

Done. Charge it.

To celebrate my new and improved perspective, I decided to do something I have never done in my life: order room service. I got into my cozy PJs, turned on “The Crown”, and Monet and I felt like a couple of princesses. 

When my Marina Margarita and truffle fries arrived, bra-less, pajamaed-me cracked open the door so that Monet wouldn’t dash out, and the server offered to place the tray on a desk in my room. 

“Ms. Barker, do you remember me?” he said, grinning. 

This is my fear. Always. That I see a former student when I’m looking my worst. When I’m buying alcohol. When I’m alone, feeling melancholy.

“Of course, I do,” I said to the tall, pony-tailed barer of tonight’s meal. “How are you?” 

I wanted to hug him, but the germ thing, the no bra thing, the holding the tray thing, prevented me from such a greeting. 

“Oh my gosh,” I said, glancing at the Saran-wrapped margarita, “this is my first time ever ordering room service. And who should deliver it to me—you!”

I was embarrassed by my indulgence and embarrassed at having a former student serve me. It felt like it should be the other way around. 

Now in his early 30s, strapping and handsome as ever, I fondly remembered DJ as a loving, happy student. Despite challenges at home, he always tried his best, fought hard to learn, and remains was one of the kindest, intuitive students I ever had in 18 years teaching middle school. When I was DJ’s teacher, I was an uncertain, fledgling educator, who made way too many mistakes; but even then, I sensed that DJ had my back as I had his. And now here he was, holding a tray, handing me a bill (oh, silly novice room service me had no idea I had to pay for the service; I thought it would be put on my tab) and smiling in the exact same way he did when he was 13.  

I wondered; how in the world did he recognize me? How did I recognize him? But we do, don’t we? When someone touches our heart, we don’t forget them; we see beyond the wrinkles and window dressings of age and connect to each other’s wounded, hopeful souls.

And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what the season, really every moment throughout the year, is supposed to be about. All the doodads, all the credit card splurges, don’t matter an iota. What counts, what I’m learning to dwell on thanks to the circumstances of my life, are connections that extend beyond a rectangular classroom or an address you’ve had for 30 years or friendships you’ve had for decades even though you haven’t spoken to that person for years or the kindness of a niece who welcomes you and your sick pup to stay with them while your van gets fixed, is love. Love of life, love of the Earth, love for the Almighty and all Her creatures, love for all of who are wounded and lost, abundantly grounded and found. 

In this beautiful hotel, a beautiful two days before Christmas, sans grandchildren, sans all the traditions that once defined my life, I plant myself in a garden of yeses, a place where driving 500 miles in an area I grew up continues to produce a bounty of unexpected encounters and insights. 

Who would ever think? Who could make this up? That at this time last year, I would be here and not there? That I would meet DJ. That he would serve me, would bring me such joy and solemnity.

The twists and turns that happen—to all of us—create opportunity—hope—for a new beginning.. Lewis Carroll, one of my family’s Cheshire neighbors from long ago, said it best: “Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.”  

Cheers to broken vans, broken hearts and broken plans. If it wasn’t for you, I would never have met-up with dear DJ, the father of two, and I bet one of the best dads in the world. Heart of gold, that boy. Paying it forward. Doing his best. Like all of us.

God bless you DJ, and all my former students. Sending love and hope your way.

Not exactly a Disney movie, but close

I’m going to write about something strange and wonderful and inspiring and sad and curious and real. 

First, the setting: I am sitting on a balcony overlooking a parking lot which overlooks the Redondo Beach Port Royal Marina next to the marina where my son lives with his son. He’s not there right now, he’s off working at the aerospace firm he’s worked at for about a decade. Up the street, to the right, is the house I used to live in. The masts and multistoried buildings are blocking my view of my family’s former colonial-style abode, but it’s up there, minus the toppled giant orange-flowering eucalyptus tree that my dad planted which is now shrouded in weeds while the new owners wait for permits so they can tear down our 1960s homestead. 

Walking distance from here, is the school I taught at for 18 years, indeed, an especially happy place this last day before Winter Break. Even here, even a year and a half since I retired, I can sense their Starbucks/Amazon/Target/mugs/homemade cookie and other trinkets-zeal as they wind down the half marathon of the school year. 

Up Beryl Street is the elementary school I attended, as did two of my three adult children; South is the elementary school my youngest daughter, and now grandson, attended. Smack dab in the middle, is the middle school I also went to, and taught at; elbowing Parras Middle School is Redondo Union High School, the alma mater my entire clan graduated from; right around the corner, a quick ten-minute walk from here, is my former 100-year-old home on Garnet Street. 

Right now, everyone is busy, working, driving, shopping, coffee-ing as I sit on this balcony at a posh hotel meant for others, listening to barking sea lions, the hum of racing traffic accelerating along Pacific Coast Highway, thinking, and trying my best to tie together the pieces of this complicated season. 

Whenever I come back to the South Bay I am consumed with a cobweb of emotions. I love it. I still love it, like an old boyfriend you still have a thing for. When I’m here, I only think of the good; how much I loved my home, how much I loved being close to family and friends, how much I loved teaching 13-year-olds, how much I loved my flawed, congested city and the historic home I saved from developers. 

Saving. I always felt like I needed to save people and things. Savior. Whether it was a stray animal, a broken teacup, an ex-husband, a sad grandchild, I don’t know, but for some reason I was born with an empath gene that makes it impossible for me to walk by a needy situation and not feel compelled to do something. My “I can help” inclination is good, but it has gotten me into a heap of trouble over the years, for when I over-focus on others, it distracts attention away from my own brokenness. 

Which brings me to why I am back in a complicated relationship with the South Bay. 

I am here at the lovely Portofino Hotel because my traveling VW Eurovan Camper home-on-wheels is broken. 

I am here listening to Friday morning cawing seagulls because my grandson is turning 9 years old in a few days. 

I am here staying at an upscale inn vs. the generic one in Torrance because I decided that at age 66 I need to take good care of myself. I need to buy good foods, sleep in a good bed, go for a good walk, have a good mixed drink in the fireplace-warmed, chandelier sparkling, giant Christmas Tree-towering hotel living room. This is a place, this is a life, other people experience, not me, has been my modus operandi.

Not this time.

As my sister said last night, “None of us are promised a day..”

I agree, but I struggle to apply this concept to myself. I guess after years of worrying, it’s hard to break the worrying habit. 

Overthinking. My nemesis. It’s such a strange quality that seems to becoming more acute as I age. Checking, double checking. Making sure. Asking questions. Researching. And researching. And researching. God forbid I make a mistake. This is not my natural nature.  Historically, I have prided myself as being a mistake factory. I am an impressionistic painter. I am a cook who deplores recipes. I am whimsical and flawed and bruise easily. 

The little girl who lived up the street in the house that’s about to be bulldozed, was light, even though she was heavy, she was cute, even though no one told her so, she was athletic, even though she was always the last player chosen for a team, and she was fireworks creative, a quality she knew was her secret weapon. 

Everything that I am, everything that I became, everything I believed about the world and myself happened here, in Redondo Beach, California. That saying, “You can’t go home again,” is weird, because you can, even though you are different, changed. You can see things differently, change your point of view, see things from a balcony instead of a backyard that always needs work, and a charming, but flawed, upstairs bedroom that really needs remodeling if only you had the $100,000. 

My life was/is good, but it was/is flawed, in need of change. When all the jumble of life was happening, the congestion of saving everyone but myself, I knew I needed to pull away, feel the wind and the chill of Winter in a new, creative way. I needed to be lost so I could be found, pull that little girl to the side, give her a hug, and tell her, “Everything’s going to be better than OK.

“One day,” I will whisper, “you’re going to sit on the balcony of that grand hotel in the marina, the place where your carpenter daddy helped build the marina and write the story you have always wanted to write.”

There are no accidents, no mistakes. My job, as science writer Ray Bradbury told me, is to get out of the way and let it happen. 

“Trust me,” I will tell that little girl, “there’s a happy ending.”`

Hiraeth

It’s a Welsh word that means longing or a sense of homesickness. One of my niece’s Malibu neighbors, who is Welsh, nodded his head while we walked and talked one brisk, Starbucks-armed morning. Gazing at the newly greened hillside, he shared, “I’m feeling it too.”

Being in a land that’s not yours. That’s my life these days. Borrowing hair dryers, organic olive oil, water, electricity, the couch—especially at this time of year—has all the makings of a major melancholy breakdown. Christmas music plays 24/7 in the cozy, bleached white beach house. The embroidered Star Wars Christmas stockings are hung by tile-framed chimney with care and the thoughtfully coiffed 10′ Christmas tree has been twinkling for the last two weeks. And here I sit, gratefully, oh so gratefully, in the oversized Papa Bear arm chair, happy to be with family during this very interesting Christmas season.

For 66 Christmas’s, I have been in my or my parents’ home. I’ve baked, I’ve wrapped, I’ve played Twister, drank barrels of egg nog, never imagining that at some point, I wouldn’t be in my own little nest. The worse part of being nest-less during the holidays is not having access to my things like my Mom’s mince meat pie baking pans or my big, cracked beige British mixing bowl. I miss cooking in my own kitchen. I miss The Great British Baking Show marathons.

My new life is interesting, the word I recently replaced the adjective challenging with. Interesting is certainly a more upbeat and vacation-positive word producing raised eyebrows vs. burrowed forehead gutters.

It’s interesting to sleep in a tent in the backyard while it downpours with my pup who lounges on top of me or traps my legs in one place; a much better description than guff-huffing about toss and turn nights or the wet dog sauna I doze off to. The truth is, camping in the backyard in Malibu is WAY more fun than being in a not-so-great noisy campground—here, there’s access to warm showers, warm rooms, a big refrigerator and some pretty sweet little people who seem to love their Auntie Jan Z.

It’s interesting to be in Malibu during the holiday season. Saturday morning, as I waited for my Starbucks order, I heard a distinctive voice: It was Mike, the rough former cop from “Breaking Bad”, chatting with his buddies as Christmas music crooned in the background. Sitting next to me, was an “‘original” Malibu resident, is how she put it, who’s lived here for a half a century. Together, we discussed our DNA inclination toward hair loss.

Nice folk, these Malibutians.

Between rain storms, as Monet and I reindeer-dashed toward one of our favorite destinations, the almost dog-less dog park, it was interesting to meet Brian Gallagher, “The Canine Collaborator”, who lightly held a shaggy, 10-month-old white-haired retriever on a long leash. Monet and I couldn’t help but listen to him chat with his four-legged client, “Thank you,” he gently said, getting the wild-eyed dog’s attention. “Let’s go over here,” he gestured, moving closer to us.

Monet was getting a drink of water when the dog startled her.

Grrr, Monet reacted, flashing her coyote-like teeth.

Brian wasn’t concerned. He said he likes to put dogs in uncomfortable situations so he can teach them how to make good choices. In the case of Monet, the dog’s prior instinct was to lunge and be playfully aggressive, but this day, with Brian’s help, Big Foot walked away, no big deal.

“I don’t need to be his boss,” Brian later explained. No need to get amped up, yell, match the dog’s stress level by exerting control. “I am his teacher.”

Brian, I realized, is a lot like my teacher-daughter, Katie, both of whom share the same philosophy about human and animal interactions. Show vs Tell, is how I used to explain it to my English Language Arts students. In this case, Brian was showing me how to see, hear–absorb–a teachable moment so that I could add it to my repertoire.

I’ve come to realize that there are no accidents, that hiraeth moments such as the ones I write about bring me back to the place I need to be; my heart home. The coral prayer flags I string up wherever I land are a reminder during these interesting days leading up to Christmas, and all the days in between, that the choices and thoughts I conjure are mine; sure, I can dwell on the unwanted and unexpected (the $8,000 new transmission bill, for example), or how for the last week and beyond this homesick, home-less Mrs. Claus has been welcomed into a flour-dusted apron of love.

While my living conditions are nothing like the past and the people who populate my memories are long gone, the hearth of adoration and support I have received, will never be forgotten.

Cheers to all the hael enaids, or generous souls as they say in Wales, for helping folks like me get through a most interesting season.