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?
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”`
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.
Nature is my healer. I feel such peace, such love and acceptance when I am enveloped by the ever-changing grandeur and gentleness of Nature.
I’m sitting at a picnic table overlooking Encinal Canyon in Malibu. Monet is sleeping, snoring, by my feet. The clouds are grey and blinding white and sweeping and cauliflowery and we are alone. The world is worlding and I am breathing-in the woodpecker, the rustling leaves, and God’s open, loving arms quietude.
Currently, Monet and I are literally camping (tent, air mattress, sleeping bag) in my niece’s back yard in Malibu as she and her husband have graciously allowed us to wait for Luna Bella Blu to be repaired. Unfortunately, on the rainy drive home from Cambria, the van started to malfunction and now my home-on-wheels is likely to cost me a fortune before I can get back on the road. In case you are wondering why I’m tenting it vs. bedding-it, first, the house is pretty full with my sister and cousin staying here temporarily, and also, I just prefer being outside. Yes, I have turned into one of those crazy auntie freaks. I crave the outdoors, air, coolness, the smell of trees, the ocean even the stars which give me a gust of icy crystals as if riding my e-bike down a windy Eastern Sierra path.
I feel full. Maybe it’s the gulp of water—I never drink enough—or this choir of indigenous plants encircling me like a bride. Maybe it’s my Monet who led the charge on our moderate, expansive hike and my sense of kite sailing gratitude to be alive in this blessed moment.
My nephew, Mark M. and I were talking this morning and agreed that devices are killing us, pulling us away from our purpose, our sense of wonder. They are instruments of destruction, driving wedges between people who have no business feuding. Our heads are down, scrolling, perusing, buying, distracting ourselves from our higher selves, and that is to leave the world better than we found it. My mantra, my creed that I espoused for 18 years as an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher, and virtually my entire other life as a journalist, student, and 1960s Flower Child.
What can I do, in this moment, to germinate hope and light, faith and peace?
For one, I’m trying to re-frame my challenges, trying to find the light in the darkness.
Trying to catch the good in the bad.
Trying to stay open, flexible.
Rigidity is a terrible quality. Being stubborn. Thinking you’re right when you very well might be, but so might someone else. Be right, that is. I’m stubborn, but getting less so as the years go by. I know it’s not my best characteristic. It stops me from sampling everything at the buffet table; if I only eat romaine lettuce with ranch dressing, I’m limiting my tastebuds from exploring arugula and bruised kale, for instance ( both of which happen to be my preferred salad greens). When people get older, it seems a good number of us get socially, politically, and mentally arthritic. We turn into cronies, sit on the couch and remote control our lives away. I never want to be like that. I want to stay as open as the vista I’m looking at right now, my chin tilted toward the hazy horizon and my thinning crown veiled by the noon sun.
My life was good before, but I believe it’s about to get better. Undeniably, my heart is heavy with my pup’s ill health and ever-present worry about the money that seems to be sieving out of my savings like granite chunks in a sand toy. But the more I dig, the more I sense there’s some sort of gold I need to mine, something delicious, intriguing, and quenchably satisfying.
I know this longing isn’t about finding a partner. If that happens, that’s great. But I know that this longing is something deeper, something hanging from a charred oak tree or swimming about in a mossy pond. What I need to know, to consume, is right here in Nature. My Monet gets it. The birds and plants get it.
I sense what I desire is connection. Connective tissue. Tangled, knotted roots, overlapping, interwoven, burrowing, flying, relaxing; brief and light feather wisps grazing along the spine, across-the-cheeks reminders that we are not alone. We belong to each other.
I am, at last, an almost-nomad. I have been on the road since August. Not exclusively. I’ve had some much, much-needed layovers here and there; Kauai, Malibu, Rancho Palos Verdes, New York, for example. Not too shabby real estate, I’d say. But I’ve been picking up, moving, exploring, planning the next adventure for more days than I ever done in my entire life.
I am literally living the dream I’ve been dreaming about for the last decade.
For the first time, the Sunday afternoon my family departed after our Wild and Zany Thanksgiving Camping Adventure 2022 concluded, I felt profoundly lonely. When Monet and I went for a walk, I had this compelling urge to jump in the van and follow my beloved son and grandsons. I just wanted to wrap myself in their love and goofiness. I wanted to protect them and be there for them with a plate of chewy chocolate cookies and milk. What kind of grandma was I for wanting to “discover my path” on the road?
For the first time, I questioned this overwhelming longing to travel and just wanted to pull the covers over my head, sip a hot toddy, and mentally check out.
Little did I know, the seas were about to get stormy.
Plan B Disappointment: The little Cambria cottage I hoped to rent, envisioned myself nestling in during the dank, grey weather, just wasn’t a good fit. It was less than 400 square feet, and really funky—not in a good way. I told the property manager that I wanted it, took the application, then realized if I stayed there, I might get really depressed. It just wouldn’t replicate the Cambria experience I was hoping to try-out. In fact, I realized, the experience of living in the ultra tiny storage unit, under the dark canopy of trees, would drive me away from my decades-long dream of one day re-locating to the coastal community.
What I know for sure about myself is that I love being a nomad for blocks of time. Not forever. In truth, I am a nester. An empty nester–almost. I have my Monet, my buddy, my love, my last, cherished, responsibility. My little cattle dog Katie found on the internet when our white lab. Bailey, who tragically died at 1.5 years after being poisoned by the ingredients in Gromulch, by Kellogg. Our hearts were broken. A few weeks after Bailey died, Katie and I looked at each other and simultaneously knew, “Our hearts need to love again.” Thus, our darling Monet became a freckled-faced member of the tribe.
So, in truth, I’m not alone. My buddy and I have each other.
The day of Ryan and my grandson’s departure, I allowed myself to “feel the feelings” and explore what the sense of loss really meant. I am not a drifter. I am anchored, solid. A true mother hen wanting to protect her baby chicks. Why, I wondered before drifting off to sleep, did I need to swim solo?
It was a fretful night and I slept a couple of hours, at most. When I woke up the next day, I checked the time, 7 a.m., and read a text from my eldest daughter: “Ryan was in a car accident.”
With no cell reception at the campground, I did my best to calm myself down before bolting out of the van to find a place where I could get phone service. As Monet and I walked closer to the beach, I prayed, “Please Lord, let it not be serious.” All the while, I was imagining the worse. Ryan in the hospital, the grandkids seriously injured. I was about to lose my mind.
Recently, I’ve been having nightmares. I dreamt that Monet died and I wasn’t there for her. I imagined an earthquake destroying everything along the California coast.
“Please God, let everyone be OK.”
Thankfully, my prayers were answered: my grandson had back and neck pain, a whiplash, as did my son. The car was totaled. All the bikes in the back of the car were demolished, but probably saved them. All the camping equipment was crushed or thrown out of the window in the back. The accident on the 405 Freeway was bad, but the Lord definitely had His arms wrapped around them. Not everyone, I told my shaken son, had your outcome. Not everyone made it home.
Thank you, God, thank you God, thank you God.
A chance to re-think, re-commit, start anew with abundant gratitude for simple things, like re-stocking the cooler, tidying-up the camper, getting new windshield wipers and auxiliary battery and renew the UTI medicine for Monet, which I did later that day. With a smile on my face—It must be fate!—the Cambria vet technician said, “You’re in luck! We have one opening this afternoon.” Monet had been peeing a lot, so I grabbed the opening and we went to our beach for a run (Monet) and hike (Me). I figured Monet probably had a UTI infection that antibiotics would clear up in a week.
When we returned for the 3:30 p.m. appointment, Dr. Suzy took Monet inside to examine her, but when she came back to the van, she said, “I have some bad news.” She suspected Monet might have more going-on than a treatable UTI; she suggested taking an X-ray and further blood work. The initial results weren’t good: the vet said it looked like she had three masses, one near her bladder, the other in her tummy, and a small mass in her lungs. She suspected they were cancerous, but needed further lab work to verify.
A few days later, her suspicions were confirmed. Treatment options were limited. One medicine, similar to chemo, would make her feel sick and lethargic. And, the vet said, although it is possible the meds might shrink the tumors, it is unlikely.
“How long does she have to live?” I asked, barely able to speak.
“Maybe two months.”
It is hard to believe. Except for needing to urinate frequently, here in Cambria, Monet is her old, prancing, exploring, self. She runs like a pup on the beach, chasing birds, fetching sticks. Her happy place. And mine too.
Even with three tumors inside her, my girl has fun and enjoys the moment with innocence and grace.
It seems to always come down to the same lesson: Don’t project ahead. Be present.
Monet, my teacher, is showing me how to live life. Take the leash off. Chase birds. Jump into the freezing ocean. Pee wherever you damn well like (OK, maybe just dogs). Eat barnacles from the rocks, just because they are tasty. And love. Big. Don’t hold back.
My buddy and I are hitting the road before the rain starts falling again. We’re going to enjoy the journey, sing songs, eat snacks in the van, take a nap, and tonight we’ll cuddle up under the stars and purr words of love.
Soon enough, we’ll both be on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. But not today. God willing, not today.
You know you are a REAL writer when…
You are observing your gifted daughter teaching her Fourth-Grade students a stone’s throw from the Hudson River and the only thing you can think of, besides how so damn proud you are of her and where did this kindness, this brilliance, this clarity, come from? is, “I need to leave, find a quiet place, and chronicle this moment.”
My daughter’s lively students, overjoyed at the opportunity to learn through game-playing, consists of 25 nine and ten-year-olds, among them, quiet Michael (not his real name) who is deaf, and confident with his mathematical tallying skills; Anna, a shiny pink-jacketed, braided girl who goes out of her way to help other students be successful. Then there’s competitive Sam who believes in rules as long as he’s in charge of making, and breaking, them. George, tall and withdrawn, stands on the outside of every group he joins, does his soft-spoken best to get his ideas heard, but is repeatedly snubbed. Nathan, reminds me of one of my grandsons; he’s happy, accommodating to others, and patiently waits his turn.
My daughter’s class is a microcosm of every family, every classroom, in the past, present and future; each person vying to find a safe place where they can grow and learn and be themselves. My daughter, and her talented teaching partner, provide such a wonderous spaceship in the midst of Manhattan, a brisk walk away from the ice-skating rink in Central Park, where I’m sitting right now with a cup of passable coffee, wearing a lightweight puffer jacket, in 41 degree-cold.
It’s windy, burr chilly. Elton John/Brittney Spear’s remix, “Hold Me Closer (Tiny Dancer)”, blasts across the rink speakers, as head-nodding tourists line the rail, snapping iconic NYC photos that never ever look or feel as good as the real deal. Late Fall leaves drift like snowflakes, muffling the clip clop, clip clop of the $140 VIP horse-drawn carriage tour. And here I sit, feeling, seeing, hearing conversations from people from all over the world, one talking to a friend about the place he proposed to a woman who declined his proposal, another British couple, red-faced, as they cozy-up and share funny photos of their preschoolers; “He looks like a Dashound!” the woman laughs. “No, a vampire,” her partner counters, pointing to the screen.
Seated across from me, sits a table of talkative, chain-smoking, buzz cut, conventioners. Next to them, is a wheelchair-bound elderly mother and her daughter, pausing with a hot drink before trekking back to the pathway.
You know you’re a writer when you have so many sights to see, places to absorb in NYC, but the first and foremost thing you need to do is sit at a very cold green metal picnic table, plant yourself amongst regulars and tourists alike, and set aside an hour to understand where you are, this place—you—them—and what it all means and what we can all become if we revert to being students, like the kids in Katie’s class: Writers. Readers. Mathematicians. Scientists. Artists. Musicians. Chefs. Leaders. Caregivers. Inventors. Builders. Farmers. Athletes. Healers. Discovering our passion. Discovering our destiny, the seeds of which were planted, I believe, in the womb.
How could I have not been a writer? Middle child, the one with an imagination, the one misunderstood, the one with compassion for others, the one who dabbled, tried her best, took chances that occasionally worked out, the one who craved acknowledgement, but valued being alone on a freezing afternoon in Central Park so she could figure stuff out.
Did I mention it was cold? That my hands are cracked, almost frost-bitten, but still I sit here with my lukewarm coffee and write?
Then, me thinks: If everyone was a writer, the world would be a better place. We would notice the overwrought mama with two wild toddlers, maybe be less judgmental when they have a tantrum and throw down a cup of hot cocoa. We would observe the couple to my left, grimaced faced, gazing past the Essex House into the impending rain clouds. We would smile at the balding, wheelchaired-grandma, perhaps admiring her strength at being here on this ridiculously cold afternoon.
Yet the street artist sketches and the violinist plays Mozart beneath the bridge and the runners run and the cyclists’ bike and the writer finds a way to get her fingers moving so she can greet the apparently fake Buddhist Monk when he approaches her with a neon green business card that reads, “I’m deaf. Please help.” So, I do, against my daughter’s warnings about handing out money to strangers. Clearly a tourist. Always a sap. Oh, Mom, she would say.
“For things like love and giving?” I would think. But she’s right. She’s almost always right that daughter of mine.
Two more days. Two more days to love up my grandbabies, one of whom is turning a momentous year-old on Sunday, and let my daughter know how proud I am of her, for the kind of mother she is, wife, teacher, and daughter. She’s a New York tough cookie, this daughter of mine. She won’t put up with B.S.
Strong. Wise. Courageous. Supportive. And beautiful. How did I get so lucky to have a daughter like her?
While my fingers are still working, I just want to say how blessed I feel, how grateful I am, to wander alone in NYC, to kinda know where I am, and realize that even if I get lost, I can get found. In the cold. In the heat. In the desert. In the Eastern Sierras. Along the Central Coast and up in Oregon. It’s been a heck of the last six months, from selling my home, being retired from teaching for a year, to traveling, visiting family, and rolling into the holidays with a backpack on my back and my Eurovan loaded with enough hot cocoa to feed my grandsons three times a day for a week, which I will need to do when I return to California, jump in Luna Bella Blu and head to the Central Coast for our annual Thanksgiving Camping Adventure.
Another next. But for now, I’m in the now.
That’s why I write, to freeze into the porous soil these glistening jewels, these first “mama” coos, and Art With Grandma moments that make my life especially sweet and crazy and surely blessed.
New York is hot. Hotter than The Southern California I left two days ago. I’m in short sleeves, a skirt, sitting in the sun on my daughter and son-in-law’s Forest Hills balcony, relishing the 76 temps and bone-warming rays. At this point, I did the reverse packing of what I did last year when I failed to tuck away enough warm clothes; this year, too many jackets and long sleeve shirts. But, as my marathon-finishing daughter reminded me, the weather can change in a New York minute.
I wanted to think about—write about-–inspiration.
“I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.” Florence Nightingale
“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Babe Ruth
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.” Mark Twain
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu
“You can do more than you think you can.” Katie Kwok, before, during and after training, and completing the NYC 26.2 Marathon
Yesterday, my entire being was filled with a helium balloon inflated with love, trepidation, excitement and inspiration as I watched my daughter run the November 6, 2022 Marathon that carved into New York’s Five Boroughs. Katie, who attended last year’s Marathon while nine months pregnant, announced that she would join her husband and run next year.
“Sure, Katie, sure,” I said to myself, hoping, as a protective mother, she’d get that silly idea out of her head. I mean, she needed a year to recuperate from birthing her son, and daughter in Spring 2020, and, since she had to go back to work as a full-time, public school teacher, I figured she wouldn’t have time to train. Not with two kids and a demanding job.
Clearly, I don’t know my youngest daughter very well.
Though she be but little, she is fierce.
Katie found a way to train—after school, before getting home where she gives nothing less than 100% of herself to the kids. Katie was driven, prioritizing her health. It was hard. (Understatement of the year.) The weather was cold and hot and most nights, pitch dark. After a long day teaching fourth-graders, running was the last thing she wanted to do. Netflix, a bag of chips and her cozy couch sounded like a lot more fun. Yet, somehow, I don’t know how, she pushed herself: She did the hard thing even though she didn’t want to.
Day by day, week by week, month by month, until she completed nine races of various lengths and a couple of weeks ago, built herself up to running 20 miles.
“You can do it Mom,” she told me during our weekly phone chat. “It’s all in your head.”
Not so sure my orthopedic doctor would agree.
But seeing her at the Marathon yesterday, cheering for her and all the runners like it was the last 10 seconds before the New Year’s Eve Times Square ball dropped, made me want to find a physical challenge that makes sense to me. Maybe it’s penning-in a 2-mile walk on my calendar three days a week, then upping it gradually. Hiking has been on my To-Do List forever. Always, I have an excuse. Getting off my butt is so, so, so damn contrary to what I’d rather be doing, which is, which is, which is …
No, there are no excuses except excuses.
Today, I walked almost a mile. Tomorrow, I’ll push it to a mile. I’ll take one of the kids to the park, circle around the neighborhood, look around at the Forest Hills neighborhood, feel the sun, listen to the cheers of the soccer kids and their families and try to saturate myself in opportunity.
Come on, Janet, this is crazy. If not now, when?
The stakes are high. I have to start caring for and about myself. I am ridiculously healthy for all the abuse I’ve given my body. I can move my legs, arms, walk, even jog a bit. Whoop! Whoop! Not everyone can. I met an athlete, Jenna, on my last camping trip. She is paralyzed from the waist down. Eight years ago, a driver hit her while she was cycling. But that didn’t stop her. Now she arm-cycles 85 miles a day as she prepares for a European cycling competition.
Arm-cycling is quadruple times harder than traditional pedaling, she said, allowing me to see her rock-hard biceps.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“It’s in my head,” she said, tapping her temple.
“After the accident, you could have given up. What pushed you?” I asked.
“I’ve always been like this. If I got an ‘A’ on an essay at school, I told myself, ‘You can do better,’ and worked harder until I earned an A+.”
By the way, she hates to be called “inspirational”: “I didn’t sign up for that. I’m just doing my thing.”
I get it. It’s hard enough living life to also have the responsibility of being a poster child for positivity.
But I can’t help but wonder, is the drive to excel inherited, part of one’s DNA, or observed and copied?
Do I have, within me, any trace of compulsivity, grit, pure drive?
Yes, in some areas of my life, I do. When it comes to creating, cooking, celebrating. But these traits never extended to my athletic experiences; of course, I know why: I was bruised with some deep-cut comments that wounded my soul. I never felt I could measure up, be as good as so-in-so, so I quit, grew fat and jolly, trying to divert attention from my lack of confidence.
What could have helped, what I craved, was an atta’ girl from a supporter, sort of like the person I tried to be while standing at 96th Street and First, applauding passing marathoners, clapping and shouting, “You can do this!” as I waved my green neon sign, which read, “We are all sooooooo damn proud of you.”
As far as I could tell, there were no fashion models present, no Tic Tock, well-lit, Photoshop posers running 26.2 miles; just sweaty, exhausted, acutely focused men, women and children exuding a palpable grit that could NOT be faked.
My daughter, who ran for six grueling hours, and her peer runners who overcame their own personal challenges before and during the marathon, are a reminder that no matter one’s shape or size, we can get up, move and reset our lives. One step at a time.
This time next year, I intend to shed 25 more pounds (I lost 40 last year). I’m going to get moving every day, walking, stretching, developing a physical Action Plan. Put myself on top of the priority list. My New Year’s Eve Resolution starts today. You heard it first. Hold me to it.
I’d love to hear about your goals, suggestions, and challenges? I’ll be your atta’ girl or guy. Let’s inspire each other!