Book Mountain

I’m sure it’s OK with you if my eyes are misty. Let me tell you why: For the first time in two years, I walked into a bookstore. Granted, it was a Big Box-type bookstore, still, there were row after row of hard bound and paperback worlds.

With my hoarding of Teacher Appreciation Barnes and Noble gift cards in hand, I strolled up and down the aisles like I was greeting a long-departed best friend. I opened the covers of books I’d only read online reviews about, read the inside cover flaps, the back flap, walked, actually walked, to look up alphabetized books by the same author. I had “Retirement Time” on my side as I wandered up and down the COVID-decluttered aisles, wondering, thinking, grabbing a cafe latte, shelving, unshelving, adding to my list of must-reads, and remembering what it was like to linger with paper.

It was like talking to my high school boyfriend, Tim Myers, and catching up:

How have you been?

What’s it like in heaven?

You know, I always loved you.

I wish I had had a chance to tell you. I was meaning to. You were on my To-Do List.

But Monday, you died.

Bookstores conjure up memories and possibilities. I have missed them. Greatly. I didn’t know the extent of my longing until I opened the door into the dream: everything was familiar. The children’s books are upstairs. The non-fiction is to the right. The bargain books to the left, next to escalator. Yet, things were different, like there weren’t knowledgable book clerk specialists to guide me to new and favorite authors. I unwittingly left my phone in the car and was lost: who could help me? My brain was overwhelmed.

A young couple, I’d say 19 or so, dyed black hair, stripped black socks, piercings in their eyebrows and nose, giggling, looking at Young Readers graphic novels, were chatting about some kind of audition, reading their phones for updates, and I boldly asserted “Could you please look up the author of a book I’m looking for? ‘My Side of the Mountain’ “

Sweetly, they got to it: “George”…they responded…and I remembered, Jean Craighead George. The author who changed my life.

Back in the day, when we went to libraries, not bookstores, at least not my working class family, I read the worn brown and yellow-cover borrowed book over and over again, imagining myself running away, living in Nature, and being with a community—wildlife—that understood me. In fourth grade, I was aware I was a little different, not peculiar, but I was drawn to the odd.

People like Priscilla, who was large and pimply and friendless. I was drawn to her because people didn’t understand her, they rejected her because of her shape, family dynamics, and the home she shared with disabled parents and siblings. She lived in a converted garage, which didn’t matter at all to me. I saw her inner greatness, and she saw mine.

At 10, I still played imagination. But you had to keep that bit of damning info on the downlow. Could ruin a person’s reputation. But I adored my trolls, my TG and Y acquisitions, particularly my pocket-sized dolls that I would sneak into school. Priscilla and I would play with our purple-haired PeeWees. We’d find colorful gum wrappers around the perimeter chain link fence and fold them, zig zag, zig zag, into charming necklaces. Always crafting something out of nothing. We added other odd girls into our tribe, Gaylen, Annie, the kids who weren’t athletic or popular or the smartest students in class. It mattered, I’m not saying it didn’t, that we didn’t fit in with the “beautiful people” like the Kenny Bapty’s/Jeff Vaughan’s/Michelle WhateverHerFrenchSurnameWas of Beryl Heights Elementary School’s social elite, but we were good: We had each other.

And I had my books, that I’d read and re-read, escaping to a place I seemed to fit into.

“I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock tree six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave in the tree that I now call home.”

These are the first golden words from “My Side of the Mountain”, my first favorite book. I will gift George’s story to my remarkable, reluctant reader grandson, Jack, for his 10th birthday. It’s not a $100 Lego kit or a dedicated gaming laptop, but it might help him along his journey. From one generation, to another.

Once upon a time, there was a mountain of books …

Sitting in an alcove of reverence

Dark blue tent. White Eurovan Camper Home. Turquoise folding chair. Watercolor paints. Edna Valley chardonnay. Cornflower-blue sky. 1,000-day Gouda. Mushroom brie. Multi-seeded Norwegian crackers. Handy portable generator powering up my LifeIZGood laptop. Layers of blue. Layers of green. Layers of quiet. Translucent breeze. Crashing waves. Cypress trees. Crunching yellowing maple. Two books read. Two paintings done. The poetry of now, the most perfect afternoon of my entire life. 

Can every day be like this? Please?

Serenity. As wide as my ocean front yard. It’s getting better. Everything. My health. My attitude. My awareness that every single moment is a gift. It’s all going to work out. I need to stop worrying, planning, overthinking. I need to be here, now, at this graffiti-carved picnic table, in the shade, in the sun, in the bliss, knowing that everything I need is right here.

I need very little to be happy. A comfy place to sleep. A nice enough chair. Healthy food. Pleasant temps. Something to write on–a journal, laptop, a napkin, if need be. My art materials. Wine, of course. A reliable vehicle. Quietude. Music. Family and friends. My pups. Nature, my healer. 

I am so profoundly blessed. 

I know that not every day will be like this. But right now, it is, and I’m loving it and I’m grateful to be able to place all those worries in a bucket six feet away from me. 

I don’t understand why, when I was working and raising kids, that I didn’t make more time for this….relaxation. Taking another day to explore, to rest, to read, to write, to think. I was always so obsessed with work, my students, my home, my children, and grandchildren. I didn’t make time to just be

Sitting at this scarred campsite picnic bench, doing nothing more than noticing, is like floating over Highway 1, which I can hear to the West. All the doers. All the goers. And there’s me, hanging out without a plan cluttering my mind beyond the yummy dinner I’m cooking tonight or the sunset wine walk I will enjoy. A day in the sun. In the middle of the workweek. In October. The best-kept secret of retirement. Midweek and the Fall, when everything and nothing is possible. 

I had NO idea retirement was going to be this regenerating. The PTSD of my life was stunning and exhausting and draining, actually bruising. I didn’t get it until I stopped, took a back seat, got in the van and headed north and west and felt scared and worried and finally fell back into the parachute arms of a very patient, very loving God. 

Some readers may bristle with me referencing and crediting God. Certainly, you are more than entitled to your opinion and experience. This blog is not intended to convert or preach. We all have our own beliefs and come to certain understandings at our own time and pace. What I have come to realize about myself is that I am my best self when I give myself space. Writing and art help me to feel calm, to focus on what matters, to feel a sense of peace and love, which to me, is God. Unconditional, forever, love. My best buddy who wants the best for me. 

My challenge is to remember this epiphany. Tattoo it across my chest. Document it in a blog. So when those challenges come (tomorrow’s L.A. traffic—dreading it—for example), I can reflect upon this moment of solitude and grandeur, sitting in this alcove of reverence, and know that no matter what comes my way, God is in the center, just waiting to help. 

When nothing is everything

I want for nothing.

Content.

Centered.

At the knees of the sacred Sierra Nevada, humbled by the majesty of Mount Whitney. Drenched in the sun, tumbler of filtered water at my side. Just the clicking of the keyboard to stir the silence of this incredible place, Alabama Hills in Lone Pine. It is lonely. It isn’t that piney. It is boulders and peppered dust and tumble weeds and a slight breeze and wispy clouds predicting Monday’s impending storm. The dogs are napping. My left arm is tanning. My just-washed hair is drying and I have my writing, my art, my music, my vitamins and veggies, my solar panel and mini electronics generator, a book—of course—and silence. 

I want for nothing.

Sometimes the spirit needs nothing but surrender, mixed in with a bit of fear. 

I’m camping on the Moon. The scene of many, many movies from “Gladiator” and westerns to the “Long, Long Trailer”, in fact, I’m looking at the incredibly dangerous road Desi and Lucy drove up toting literally tons of rocks in their Airstream. I was supposed to camp at the Mount Whitney Portal Campground but decided, NOOOOO, having been warned of the steep and dangerous road. Looking at that same road from this vista at the foot of the mountain range, I’m so glad I followed my instinct. Not a tall-heights person. No, not me! This campsite out in No Man’s Land is enough out-of-my-comfort-zone for me. Other than the occasional biker or Jeeper, I’m here alone with my thoughts. Sometimes, that’s all a person needs to feel whole, repaired. Nature. Something to write with. An opportunity to ponder and not talk.

I want for nothing.

This is the same mountain range I have driven past for 35 years, yet I never thought to pull off the road and sit a while. Camp. Feel the heat. Feel the cold. Be musty. Walk around without a shirt on. Squat when it’s time. Be raw. Be natural. 

Honestly, my first instinct is to flee. This place is way too wild for me. I like to see people, talk to them. This place is desolate. No stores. No gas pumps. No other travelers closer than two miles away. The silence: it is a bit unnerving. The view, sharp grey mountains scalloped-pie-crusting a layer of toasty egg custard nutmeg dusted landscape. It is not a place I am naturally drawn to. Out of my element. For sure. But it is exactly what I needed at this point in my life: Different. Even the air feels different, like a sheath of bridal satin tickling my freckled, dry arms. 

Tomorrow I will return to civilization, escaping two days of rain, staying in a predictable, dog-friendly hotel. Wine tasting in my sandy sweats. What I’m used to. The comfort of the Central Coast. Three more days of camping up the road from my beloved Cambria. What I’m used to. What I like. Soon, being here, when nothing meant everything, will be a memory, one I hope never to forget, the time I decided to push the boundaries, take a chance, so that next time I don’t have to be afraid. Maybe a little, just not as much. 

Autumn River

May the peace that transcends all understanding pass through you. 

Words to this effect, or maybe precisely these words, concluded our Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Redondo Beach, a congregation I was “led” to after my mother died of emphysema in 1981. 

As she lay dying in a dark room at Torrance Memorial Hospital, I felt compelled to contact my abandoned childhood church, out of desperation really. My mother was terminally ill and my family, like a lot of families during times of crisis, was frayed with each person’s opinion about what they believed was the best course of treatment given that my mother was suffering and unable to breathe. 

While Mom and I had not been especially close during my teenage and early adult years, fortunately, our relationship became closer toward the end of her life when I grew to truly love and respect her. All those years, I had been a self-centered, selfish, foolish daughter, not appreciating how much she had sacrificed for her family.  As her illness progressed, Mom confided in me—she trusted me—to promise her that I wouldn’t continue to let her suffer and prolong her life. Enough is enough. My dad and brother weren’t ready for her to pass and my sister was incommunicado; Mom’s impending death was too much for her to deal with. Realizing there was a severe “breakdown in communication”, I phoned my old childhood church and spoke with the secretary who explained that while I was a lapsed parishioner, the minister, Father Rob Edwards, would be happy to drop by Mom’s hospital room and chat, say a prayer–if that felt right. 

Unlike the minister at another church, a local feel-good New Age congregation I was attending with my cousin, this minister, Father Rob, actually showed up. He was grounding–centering–and reminded me to think about the gift of the moment. “Your mom is still here,” be present for her, he suggested. He asked permission to say a prayer, which he did, either something he made up on the spot or read from the Book of Common Prayer. I felt better. The hushed room seemed somehow lighter. Mom was at peace and so was I knowing I was her advocate and would make sure no extraordinary measures were taken.

* * *

This memory came to me as I sat along the creek at my Convict Lake campsite wondering what I should do about the gnarly impending weather event forecast. It’s supposed to blizzard snow in a few days and rain like crazy. I have two nights reserved at a sweet little resort in Bridgeport, but I’m not a fan of the freezing cold and putting on chains. Yet, I didn’t want fear to prevent me from continuing my adventure. I was sharing my stress, my worry, with this trip’s travel partner, how the responsibility of preparing foods, making sure he’s OK since he’s been ill, and all that comes with being the “What’s Next?” Captain, when the clouds literally cleared and Father Rob’s words, “May the peace that transcends all understanding pass through you,” came to me. I am not alone. God is with me, always. 

Tears erupted from a cavern of fear. Suddenly, the Autumn River became my past, present and future. The water’s bend toward the west represented yesterday; a reminder of love and pain, yet narrow, just a sliver of the brilliant landscape. The present is wide and gurgling with jumping brown trout and thirsty branches and wheat-colored grass. The future flows to my right in a direction I can’t see, a promise, a hope–a belief–that this small stream will join other waterways also headed down the mountainside. And surrounding this brilliant chapel of metaphors are the orange and yellow Fall arms of God whose stature towers in the silhouette of the snow-covered Eastern Sierra mountains. 

The stress I was burdened with minutes ago, vanished. The sun came out. The sky turned stained glass blue and the bruised clouds broke up into cauliflower puffs.

Amazing.

Grace. 

Pieces of the Puzzle

Chapter One: The Little Girl

My earliest memories: Mom, sitting at the sparkly canary yellow Formica kitchen table, smoking Pall Mall’s with her friend and next-door neighbor, Marian. I was about three. We had a calico cat named Penny, and a toad who lived in a hole outside the back door. Spreckles Lane in Redondo Beach might has well have been Times Square in New York City as far as I was concerned. We could ride our bikes in the often-flooded street, climb magnolia trees, get treats from the Helms Bakery Truck, scale neighbors’ mason brick back yards, and investigate “suspicious” looking criminals. Mr. DeGraf, for instance, worked at a vet’s office on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. He smoked cigars, wore a grey janitor’s coverall, and was known as the man who put animals in the crematorium. His son, Fred, was a lanky suck-up Eddie Haskell-like, Oh. Hi, Mrs. Cleaver. Gee Mrs. Cleaver, your hair looks real pretty today,” fake kiss-up to adults, but turn your back on him and he was smoking in the alley. It was a world of adventure and possibilities, including producing musicals synced to our favorite Disney hits, “I’ve Got No Strings” and the score from “South Pacific”. We made the adults listen to what we thought were truly Broadway-worthy performances.

I set up my Sears bronze and white Silvertone record player and, scratches and all, performed to an enrapped neighborhood audience, “Zippety do dah, zippety ah, my oh my what a wonderful day.”

And it was. And it wasn’t. 

See, Mom, unbeknownst to me, the little three and four-year-old girl, was deeply unhappy. One day when I was out playing with Johnny from across the street, Mom put her head in the gas stove. Her prized white and silver O’Keefe and Merritt stove, the very same oven she made steak and kidney pies and roast beef dinners in. Mom was profoundly unhappy; no one, but her best friend knew how much she didn’t like being a stuck-at-home, kid-draining homemaker. But Mom being Mom, literally sucked up her despair with a nasty cigarette addiction. 

She was skinny and got skinnier as she hunched over the sink, smoking, and coughing those deep smoke-filled coughs that rattled the windows. 

She and Dad got into it. Yelling. Pushing and shoving. I thought it was normal. “Isn’t this how all parents behave?” Bully dads were normal in my suburban neighborhood. Tough guys. I adored my dad and had no idea his Ruler of the House stance wasn’t Kosher. Poor Mom. She was trapped in the Donna Reed 50s; what could she do? No job, no money to call her own. He was the breadwinner. He was the boss. His money. His rules about how she could spend it. 

I thought they loved each other. I know my dad adored her. He would rush to kiss her with his day-long stubble and sawdust grub from working in the Valley as a carpenter. His face and hairy back were blackened from the sun, which made his beaver-broad teeth stand out all the more. When he smiled at me, I felt like I was the most loved human girl on the planet.  But Mom, I saw her struggle; she just wanted to be free. 

I know Mom loved me. In her own way. She made sure we had good food, made our beds, tried to get us to take naps and get to bed when it was still light outside. She wanted us to be healthy and happy, I’m sure. But she rarely communicated her heart with me. I can’t ever remember a time she wanted to “just talk” or check in with me. She did chores, kept the house spic and span, like the cleaner. She looked tidy in her crisp waist-cinched pastel dresses. She rarely wore make up and kept curlers in her hair at night. I never remember her reading, much less to me, or talking about herself and things she was interested in. She was working. Cleaning. Preparing. Watching from a distance. She was my mom and I know she was a good, kind woman. But I don’t remember being hugged or kissed or told anything positive. She was a ghost in the family album. 

Why? 

There’s no one alive I can ask. Who was my mom? What did she want for her life? Why was she ignored, forgotten, put-upon, expected to be the house cleaner and keeper of us all? Why did she keep her hands in Ajax scrubbing and scrubbing her whole life? Why didn’t she have confidence in herself? Why didn’t she pursue some kind of dream beyond wife and mother? Why didn’t she talk to me, my sister or brother about her desires? At what point did she get lost? When her farmer-father suddenly died of stomach cancer and her young mother was forced to pack up and work at the concession shop near Bank Quay station in Warrington, England?

What happened to that little girl?

Finding Peace

Don’t expect great writing. Don’t expect interesting character development and twists and turns. It’s just me. My laptop, my 2001 VW Eurovan Camper, the trees, the Pacific Ocean, the squawking jays, the stained blue sky, the chiffon ribbon breeze, a chilled glass of chardonnay, my turquoise folding chair and Big Sur campsite neighbor, the best man at a forest wedding he’s about to attend and sing at. He was rehearsing, possibly, or soothing himself, singing a song he composed and strummed on his guitar. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. I scooted my chair closer, looked up at the sequoia canopy, thought of my own wedding at this very same state park 45 years ago, and allowed his music to crack open my broken heart.

It was here that 21-year-old, eight months pregnant me married a man who would derail my life, and my two children’s lives. 

Everything inside me told me, “No, don’t do it,” but I went through with my disastrous plan because of my mother’s words when she found out I was pregnant, “Well, you are going to marry him, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I assured her, all the while knowing no such plans existed. 

Quickly, I bought white cotton maternity shift at Sears, reserved a Big Sur camp site, hired a mail order New Age minister, made potato salad and assorted picnic foods, deviled eggs, cold cuts, bought a tent, invited my parents, and got married on a sunny June day, just one month before my son was born. I wanted to cry, but I smiled. I wanted my mom to tell me that she loved me and would help in whatever way she could. But no one, NO ONE, told me that the impending marriage was nonsense, that it was wrong. No one said that marrying this unemployed, perpetually-in-college student 12 years older than me would avert my dreams and ruin my life.  

So, I did. And my life, and the life of my children, was pretty screwed up. One bad, fateful decision. 

My heart spoke, and I didn’t listen. 

But now I am. 

I’m 65 and on my first solo camp trip. This is Day 6. I’ve been waiting. For inspiration. For courage. To get to the place, the core, the reason. And campsite neighbor Max–his song–had me weeping buckets as I thought about my journey, why I lacked confidence, courage, to have the right–the audacity–to share my story. What does it matter? Who would care? 

See, the thing is, I’ve always looked to others for acceptance. My confidence eroded by strong and opinionated family members. I was too fat. Too sensitive. Too dumb. Untalented. Too strong. Too weak. Just not as good as them. 

I fought back. And from all outward appearance it looked like I could take the battering. But it takes its toll. The only thing I was genuinely good at was eating Mom’s food. I was her “big eater” and it was the place, I discovered, I could be loved. When my siblings and Dad, complained about the evening meal, I was the first one to finish the plate and to prove how extra lovable I was, eat their leftovers too! Mom’s culinary skills and effort were her way of showing us love—and I was the only one who appreciated it. I got the crown.   

Thus, my 60+ decade battle with food addiction. 

Is this the moment I stand up at an OA meeting and say, “I am an addict”? 

Believe me, I tried it. And while it may be the tonic for others, for me it’s about getting to The Source, the reason, and that song, Big Sur, an impending wedding, my solo adventure, just pushed me to another, raw, vulnerable place. 

Where did it go wrong? And, now decades later, how can I fix it? How can I, at last, find the peace to live the rest of my days in alliance with my spirit, with God, with my present destiny? 

Breathe. Look up. Listen, and have the courage to allow The Truth to be revealed to you. Be naked. Be courageous. And know that melody you just heard drifting through the pines is leading you to the path you were always meant to discover. 

***** If you are interested in exploring some of the great Boisset wines (21 wineries from California’s esteemed coastal and Napa/Sonoma regions and across the Atlantic to Burgundy, France) I share with my wine-tasting friends, visit the Boisset Collection linked below. Our award-winning, biodynamic wines are The Best!

https://my.boissetcollection.com/janet.barker

The Kauai Chronicles

Word Press blog troubles. So I haven’t posted recently. Isn’t it incredibly frustrating to spend hours and hours trying to figure out computer stuff that should be SO EASY, but to you it isn’t? So much time wasted. But alas, I figured it out and thus, I present my longest-to-date blog, The Kauai Chronicles. Pour yourself a mai tai or two and turn on the sound track to George Clooney’s “The Descendants” and reflect upon your own sweet summer travels.

AUGUST 21, 2021

Sitting on the balcony at the Grand Hyatt in Kauai beneath the full moon, listening to revelers who are listening to a local band playing In My Room by Brian Wilson, the gent I interviewed a lifetime ago while I was a reporter. Collision of realities. The tropical breeze is intoxicating. No, the red wine we picked up from Costco on the way here is slightly intoxicating. No, it’s the waves hitting the coral shore. It’s the birds, still chirping at night. It’s, well, everything.

We spent the day in the pool. The entire day. We were going to go back in the pool after dinner, but decided to listen to the local band. And now we are kinda bushed. But I don’t want to sleep. I want to sit out here, I want to sleep out here, I want to write out here on this top floor balcony so far away from home. 

The Island Thang is starting to happen.

AUGUST 22, 2021

Day 2 and I don’t want to leave. I want to be rich and live here half the year and other places the other part of the year. I want to fall in love with an Island guy and we’ll go for walks along the beach and eat healthy foods and take naps in the afternoon and go swimming naked in the ocean whenever we damn feel like it.

No, I don’t want to leave. Ever

We, and I mean my sister, cousin and her daughter, son-in-law and their sweet little boys, are on a family holiday. It’s been peaceful and fun and relaxing and stimulating just like the swells out in the moon-blanketed sea. They have their room, we have ours. We get up and have a fantastically predictable filling breakfast, stuff our faces, go to the pool and swim until we get hungry or thirsty. We nap in our floaties, or in my case, I just consistently float thanks to my always-handy flotation tummy. I get that suspended-in-space flotation feeling that is truly an out-of-body experience. I think this is called relaxation

I have nothing to grade. 

I don’t know what time it is. 

I don’t know the date. 

I don’t know what I’m going to eat for dinner and it is very, very, very OK with me. The stress is shedding. My shoulders are shaking as I listen to the band play Ice, Ice Baby. The girls are asleep, their teeth washed and flossed, Saturday nonsense TV on, and I’m doing what I love, what I NEED—reflecting, taking my pulse, assessing the situation. 

Under Pressure, Bowie’s classic, finishes off the set and the helicopter that was hovering in our direction, changes direction. 

It is possible to change directions, to live life in a different way than you planned, to do the unthinkable, the unexpected. The Shift or the Slide. A place you were always meant to be, but ignored it—for whatever reason. 

My skin is toasty burned in some places. But I feel alive, porous. Transformation is bubbling. For the first time in a long time, I can see the horizon, moon-lit like a polished silver chain. 

AUGUST 23, 2021

Sitting in the dark on the deck at the Grand Hyatt Resort in Kauai listening to the hum of the ocean, feeling the sprinkling of an impending storm, alone with my thoughts on this moonlit morn. It is 5:30 a.m. and I’ve been up for hours. My sister and cousin have horrendous dry coughs that have kept us all awake. They are exhausted. I am alive on this humid, sultry beginning of our third day on the Islands. 

The weather report shows solid rain in the afternoon so I am grateful to be up before dawn to enjoy this exciting day. While I wouldn’t mind a day of balcony reading, we have two little whippersnappers with us who will absolutely go stir crazy if left in a hotel room. Luckily, the beachside resort is massive with endless exploration possibilities. Not to mention that it’s so warm during the rains that it’s a blast to go swimming in a downpour. Also, less potential for sunburns, which I have, despite lathering up a’plenty. 

It is very strange: I am looking toward the ocean facing the south, to what normally, at home, would be my south, is the rising sun silhouetted by clouds suggestive of today’s wet circus. The forecast predicts up to 10 inches of rain in the next 24 hours. Big winds too, maybe 70 mph. It seems the birds are aware because they are belting out a surround sound musical. 

I’m sitting on a wet chair on the veranda, a perspective I’ve been meaning to discover since I arrived here. I’m right at the very edge. The most desirable spot. Normally, I would take a seat in the back and be more subtle. Today, devoid of others, I decided to take the King’s Spot, the best seat in the house. 

It’s getting lighter and more people have crawled into this prized area to similarly wake up to the view. There’s a conference of some sort at the hotel and I eavesdrop about “deals”, “licenses” and “potential market”. None of those words belong here. 

Their voices are formal, loud and city-like, “When we look at the market, we can speculate… .” 

Conventioneers. 

Excuse me while I relocate. 

Awww, much better. I’m at the “Club” waiting for this special area for elite travelers to open so I can grab a cup of coffee and a muffin. 

The roosters are crowing. Amazing. I’m near the ocean and roosters and chickens are all over the place, like the impish squirrels back home. So is the egret that followed my sister around yesterday hoping to nab a lizard or two stirred by her presence. 

Bacon. Aww. I don’t eat it, but damn it smells so good. 

The slate is really clean. What will I do or not do today? Will I go for a stroll to see the sea turtles? Take a nap in the rain? Finish reading a book, the kind I’d never been drawn to before? Compose a song? Have a mai tai before noon? Saturate myself in the quietude, the air floatie luxury of being still, quiet—alone—and bathe in this new unbridled freedom? Speaking to no one. Just listening. Is deafening, like I still have my ear plugs in. And liberating, like swimming in the sun, beneath the palm trees, lathered in sun and the elixir of plumeria and hibiscus blossoms. 

Six days left. I’ve decided not to sleep or wake up. Just float above the sea and roll down the mossy cliffs.

AUGUST 24, 2021

I am the pink and blue tie dye figure in a Paul Gauguin painting. The one luxuriating under a palm tree. The bronzed one, with uncharacteristic white blond hair. Her tummy folds fit in. Her broad face a mirror of stained-glass blues and greens. 

For the last four days I have lived in a resort of buffet breakfasts and three pool choices and tropical drinks—charge it—and days that seem to stretch beyond the ocean view horizon that I’m gazing at in between key strokes and sips of Kona coffee. The swaying palm trees, the chorus of birds, the pacing, hungry Koi fish in the pond below and the sound of the pounding sea. I could weep. I don’t have to be fancy. Although, I could see myself getting used to it. I just need to feel this breeze and wrap myself in Nature every day for the rest of my life.

How is it that I allowed myself to get so far away from myself? 

All the stuff. All the things. All the crunching shelled insects I’ve come to accept as just a part of “life”. 

It’s stormy out this morning. Navy grey. But I’m on the balcony in my pajamas and not a bit cold or fearful of the troubling rains that have been forecast. It will pass, that’s what Kauai has taught me. And when it does, the view will look even more spectacular. 

I am part of the landscape, not an important part, but I’m here, hoping to make the canvas slightly more intriguing. What impact will I make and for how long? Will I leave a memory ghost of love and joy? Will I make this patch of traveling land better or be a bruiser of Mother Earth? Every moment I get to decide. 

Like this one. Take up the smallest amount of space. Carry-on luggage. Recycle. Be less of a consumer. To be seen. To be heard. To Listen. To be better.

This view. In a few hours we will leave this balcony bliss as we travel to a new hotel without a view or the boisterous party of the crashing waves. The Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa is definitely dessert. But if I close my eyes and allow my skin to feel the melting butter sea breeze, every time I close my eyes wherever I am, I can return. Record the panorama. Take it all in. Remember.   

AUGUST 26, 2021

I’m on a lawn chair at 6:30 a.m. while my cousin and sister sleep in the hotel room. I have the ocean in front of me, grass beneath me and the roosters crowing. The birds are singing, the clouds are grey and puffy, the air is equally puffy and confetti-blowing. I am here, by myself in this chorus of silence and peace. 

We are no longer at the Grand Hyatt where we were seriously spoiled every morning with complimentary buffet breakfasts and luscious gardens. We are now at the Sheraton, which is radically different from our first decadent experience. We are at a place we probably would have stayed at when I was growing up. Pretty basic in comparison. Much, much better than a motel, but not as classy as the Hyatt. But we’re all jazzed because we have a beautiful ocean view and a sandy beach and calm bay ocean shore to swim in. 

As I write, couples walk past, arm in arm, snapping photos against the cloudy horizon. A few singles like me glide past in their sandy, crunchy flip flops, silence in their thoughts. 

I can see why people move here. 

It’s the air. It’s the silence. It’s the breeze. It’s the peace. 

Here is a place you can breathe and not worry about politics and day to day troubles. You look at the sea and sea rain curtains and white caps and wisps of blue sky. 

It’s starting to rain and my computer’s not waterproof. I’ll head in for a bit until it blows over. 

AUGUST 27, 2021

I forgot my glasses and my eyes are fuzzy on this cloudy blue morning sitting on the lawn overlooking the pounding shore. Hard to believe but we only have two full days left. Every day we’ve been in the pool and/or the ocean, lazing in the morning and playing in the afternoon through the evening. Our days are full, yet floating and relaxing. 

Yesterday we ventured out at 5ish and went to look at Hanapepe. Unfortunately, everything was closed, but we walked across the swing bridge and window-shopped the art galleries. For dinner we ate tacos at a little stand known for authentic Mexican food. It was a great drive there too! We had a chance to appreciate the lushness of the island. Although I’m happy to stay at the resort because it gives us a chance to swim and relax and have some tropical drinks, it was wonderful to get a sense of this incredible island.

I was here once before on my honeymoon. I remember exploring more then and finding little nooks and crannies. I vaguely remember the hotel as a place with beautiful gardens and a balcony. Of course, that trip was focused on romance rather than tourism, but we did have a chance to swim down a river that flowed into the sea and also hike along the Napali Coast. 

Today we are venturing back to that same river and will paddle board alongside sea turtles, so I’m told. This should be fun, and interesting given how difficult it will be for me to even mount the board given I have zero stomach muscles. I predict lots of spills and laughter.

I’m starting to feel that retirement freedom feeling right now. I can do anything!  I can go anywhere!

Naturally, within budget reason, but this trip has opened my mind and the possibilities of the world. I need to stay healthy and become much more frugal. Every penny I waste is a trip denied. 

As I anticipate the end of our family vacation, I realize that, first, it has to. As Mom used to say, 
“All good things come to an end.” But also, that I am changed. I have a new experience to nourish my spirit and a growing hunger to continue this journey of new.

I wish my buddies, my cousin and sister, could join me. This is my prayer that they can somehow find a way to retire. We have so much yet to discover, the three of us. This should be the beginning of our lives, not the decaying, worrying phase. So I will pray. God IZ Good. We’lll find a way.

In the meantime, I’m here, with them, my niece and her family and we have TWO DAYS in Kauai to make more memories. 

Aloha.

AUGUST 29, 2021

Last morning looking at this beautiful coastline. My other life will return by this evening and all of this will be a mirage. My cousin, sister, niece, her boys and husband swimming in the ocean together, drinking mai tais, feeling the lushness of the tropical air, being refreshed by the afternoon breeze. Just taking in the last moments. The surfers, the pool attendant, the strolling tourists, the lack of sleep as three women share two double beds.

We need to treat ourselves as queens at this point in our lives. We can’t wait for others to recognize our worth. We have to. I have to. 

It’s been 35 years since I was last here. Always waiting. One day I’ll come back. It never happened. It was always an issue of money or not having anyone to go with or a sense of fear about traveling alone. I realize that I can’t wait. If I want to see Paris or go to New Zealand or camp, I have to make it happen. And I need to do these things NOW!

I realize I am going to have to save like a cheapskate. Every penny. I am going to live on kale, rice and tofu. I’m going to go for walks every day, join a gym and get myself fit. No more excuses. This trip has reminded me of adventure and getting out of a rut. I mean, what if I was always on a vacation? Every day an adventure, even at home? 

I think it’s a state of mind, of which I am in charge. To be of good cheer. To see the possible. 

I can see why my friends return to this island every year. There’s a sense of joy and possibility on Kauai. And acceptance. Not in the tourist areas, but in the small coastal communities and the soaring mountains and rainfall-lush canyons. I would love to be as comfortable being here as Julie and Mark, to have my favorite beaches and taco stands, to know how to escape.

It takes practice. And I’m up to it.

I’m feeling pretty sentimental writing this. I don’t want to leave. But then again, I’m ready. 

I am that surfer paddling out to sea, anticipating the next wave; looking back, looking forward, riding the moment, feeling at long last—free. 

***

HOMEBOUND American Airlines Flight 266. 

Just like that and it’s over. A trip we have been looking forward to for months and months. And now we are over the Pacific Ocean headed home. I was telling my sister and cousin it must be what it’s like to feel at the end of one’s life. Just like that, it’s over. Which makes me want to live my remaining days with joy and gusto. Gotta say adios to the nonsense. It is a giant waste of my precious minutes.

Like I wrote earlier, I come home a changed, renewed woman. I feel relaxed, refreshed and hopeful. I know this won’t be my last journey. But I worry it will be a long time before my amigos and I have a chance to be together like this for a long time. We all know how much we cherish being together and having fun.

We just have to make it happen! We can’t keep wishing and hoping. We have to just do it, as the Nike slogan goes. 

I am a most blessed and grateful person. Life really IZ good.

POSTKAUAI

Home. After a beautiful, life-affirming nine days in Kauai. I can’t say I’m not depressed. It’s hard to go from lush green to concrete grey. It’s hard to go from 24/7 warm water swimming to errands and bills and various obligations. From the extraordinary to the ordinary. 

Getting out of the rut helps you realize you are in a rut and it’s not good. Yes, there’s comfort in the predictable, the comfortable, but it stunts growth. It’s good to be a bit scared. 

I am going on my first week-long solo camping trip. As I speak, Luna Bella Blu, my beloved VW Eurovan Camper, is getting primed for my adventure up the coast of California. I know the area, but have yet to make such a trip by myself. I’ll be traveling to my favorite Central California campsite, then venturing up along Highway 1 to Santa Cruz. I have my eBike, my charger for my laptop and other devices, a Berkey water filtration system, and my turquoise camp chair and table. I’ll bring a book, my art materials and I’m all set to have a relaxing, thoughtful and growth-potential week. 

I’m hoping that art journaling will help me sort things out. I really need to sink deep into myself during this chapter of my life. I feel like I NEED to have this wanderlust experience. I have fantasized about going on a solo camp trip when I retire for YEARS! I wanted to go to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, but not in the cards this year. Too many people have the same idea! It is an absolute bear to get camping reservations in California. COVID, the fires, a zillion new RVs on the road. This morning, fretting about one random day I don’t have camping reservations, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. trying desperately to find a spot. NOTHING. And I refuse to spend more than $300 a night for a crappy motel. Even Motel 6 is $220. Ewww

I doubt that I can stealthily sleep in my car. I mean, I might be able to get away with it, but I definitely won’t sleep. Too worried I’ll get the “tap on the door” from the $250-fine authorities or some creep will try to break in. I know it works for others, but not me. I like to know where I’m going. Again, predictability eliminates stress for me. 

I know I’m about to encounter a pivotal juncture. I need the time to look right, left, backwards and ahead and root myself in myself. I have things I need to figure out. I’m not sure, exactly, but I’m trusting the process. 

Exciting. And long overdue.

Grey skies are fine with me

The South Bay’s June gloom has extended into July, which is just fine with me considering everything east of Hawthorne Boulevard is baking. I really prefer chill. Not too much, but short sleeves, cozy socks, red wine vs. white, 72 degree cloudy sky pie, is mighty fine with this Valentine.

I confess: I have a case of rhyme scheme Olympic’s Euphoria Story-a! Downright goofy. Hooky-Pooky hopeful. Silly blubbery me is fixated on table tennis first thing in the morning (in between Teletubbies and Barney). Backstory: I have the Official Early Morning Shift with my delightful 16-month granddaughter, Millie, from the moment she wakes up (5:30 a.m.-ish) until she hears Mommy Wonderwoman’s footsteps descend down the stairs sometime between 8 and 9. By then it feels like I’ve been up for hours, which I have, but significantly less groggy after my second cup of java-wava. Crazy, but it feels like Sunday when it’s Saturday. It’s the gloom, I say, the June gloom in July.

Back to table tennis and the Olympics. So last night during the opening ceremonies (6 on the Barker Scale) I hung in there and watched nearly all of the nations because I wanted to catch a glimpse of a former student who is playing for the Nigerian women’s basketball team. I felt absolutely giddy with hope. Maybe I’ll visit Nauru one day or Napal? Next year, Bolivia or Cambodia? Sure, maybe it was the Moscow Mule talking, but it was genuinely exciting watching the lava flow of young people who BELIEVE they will win. A parade of positivity, excellence and supreme work ethic. Me, sitting on the chair waiting to record the moment Antonye, my former student, walks past the camera and waves, thinking about all of the Olympics I’ve watched over the decades, with my mom, who loved all-things-Olympics and basketball, and now watching the Tokyo 2021 Olympics with my wee granddaughter. I get this overwhelming feeling that I am my mom and wee Millie is me, and I am connected to my adult children and future great grandchildren and my students, and the kids playing soccer up the street at the school I once attended, and taught at and now drive past in my early stages of retirement–the whole shebang, that’s what the Olympics are to me—especially this year. They represent resiliency and grit, which is something, I guess, me and my saggy jowls and pot belly can relate to.

I grew up during the crest of organized–validated–girls/women’s sports. In elementary and middle school, girls like me didn’t have the option to join a team. We could run around the track at school and play dodgeball and the like, but playing a sport outside of school–for fun, for competition–just didn’t happen.Those opportunities were for boys.

In high school, things started to change, thanks to the Girls Athletic Association and in 1972, Title IX. Thanks to the fighters, female athletes finally had a place at the table. We’ve come a long way, baby. Lots of grief, inequities and battles, but now watching women’s sports in the Olympics be celebrated at the same level as male competition is inspiring. And humbling. And lesson-reminding.

It took strength and guts to affect change. It took being stubborn and refusing to give up on what’s right, even though the naysayers were nasty and powerful.

That’s what I see when I watch the Olympics: All the people and the stories of falling down and getting up, of re-inventing, of shifting, of taking responsibility and following that inner calling.

It’s a constant battle, isn’t it? Doing that THING you were put on the planet to do. “Though the voices around you shouted, ‘Mend my life’,” but you figured out how to do the only thing you really could do, save your own life, to paraphrase Mr. Walt Whitman.

I keep trying. In between playing with grandchildren, perpetually cleaning , cooking, throwing a Winnie the Pooh shower for my impending baby grandson, I am also an Olympic dreamer negotiating my own version of rhythmic gymnastics.

Ever notice how the Olympic Rings are primary colors? No pastels. No purples. No grey.

What’s up with that? Not a fan favorite. I get it. In most ways, grey doesn’t suit me, not in clothing or hair color or senior citizen stereotypes. But those grey skies, to me, are a vessel of promise, a pixie dust reminder that eventually, tan-able, novel-reading summer days will return.

Right on cue, just like that, God cracks an egg into the milkshake sky and I can’t help but whisper, “Oh my!” dreaming of “The Places (I’ll) You’ll Go!” and that charming book I read to 18 years of graduating 8th graders, every year but this.

life is like a box of chocolates . . .

Jumble, jumble, jumble. Mumble, mumble, errr, errr…wipe the slate clean…wait, I can’t, not now, stay put, be patient, “You may not realize it now, but the Universe is unfolding as it should,” reads a sign tucked in the lemon tree in northwest corner of my front yard. I believe the statement. I know it is true. But I want to see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Now. Why is this happening? Why did that happen? Will I ever have day-upon-day of retirement bliss? Financial freedom? No responsibilities? Oh, tell me crystal ball, tell me!

Mostly what I want is what I have right now: The SoCal ocean breeze. 72 degree summer temps. The cooing of a mama dove. The gurgling sound of water from my backyard river-pond. A book to read. Art journaling to mess around with. Baby napping. Daughter sun-bathing. Boisset Chardonnay, Rose and French Sparkling wines chilling. Furry white rescue pup warming my calloused bare feet.

Quietude.

Yes, I could–and probably should–be cleaning the house prior to our guests’ arrival for the Baby Gender Reveal Gathering. Yes, I need to determine the Plan B Medicare coverage. I have a couple of bills to pay too. But I really need to sit here not thinking about thinking. No doing. I need to let go of solving other people’s problems and having everyone understand and accept me for who I am. What I really need is a nap. To let go. Float in that cloud of bliss my granddaughter’s in right now. Her body goes limp as I gently place her in the crib. She nuzzles her head on the pink rose sheet and she’s gone. Instantaneously.

No worries. No tossing and turning fretting. She didn’t do anything “wrong”, like her grandma seems to constantly do. And if she does something like poop in her pants, she’s forgiven, even loved during the de-pooping process. Can you imagine an adult being loved when they crap in their pants? I want to be like Millie. I mean REALLY. I like the rainbow shirts she wears, the butterfly pj’s, the tie-dye Crocs. Her emotions change on a dime (what does that mean anyway?): She can be ninny-ing like a goat to get her way one minute, then blowing kisses of adoration to a stranger the next. She’s such a character, cherished for who she is.

This being loved for just being yourself, flaws-and-all-thing has been a hard concept for me to grasp. I daresay that even as a baby I was the same person I am now—chubby, opinionated, friendly, strong-willed and a creative problem-solver. And yet, my siblings found fault. Perhaps that’s the role of siblings. They pick, pick, pick away at your faults and strengths to divert attention—back to them. Egos, egos, egos. Sibling relationships, that 24/7 reality show guaranteed to toughen you up.

Then there are your grown kids. Here to make you better. Correcting. Suggesting. Here. Not here. You’re the good guy, the bad guy. The bad stuff, according to their therapists, is your fault. On the cross. Crucified for the sins of being your flawed self. We forgive them, put up with them, because we love them, and their children because they are a constant reminder that maybe under the grey hair, pot belly and wrinkles, we aren’t so bad after all.

Today, we’ll find out if a boy or girl will be joining the tribe. While we speculate and consider the pros and cons of gender with a sibling a mere twenty months older, Millie’s brother or sister will make the biggest impact on her. Will they be friends for life? Will they be arch enemies? Will they duke it out in the back seat on the way to soccer? Will they share the same interests, be kind to one another? Will they stay in contact with each other when they have families of their own? Will they forgive, forget and forge productive and purposeful lives?

Like me, will it take them decades and decades to “Let It Go” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0MK7qz13bU(at least half the time)?

Forrest Gump’s mama was right. Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. So you might as well embrace the twists and turns of the entire plot. Eventually, the puzzle pieces will fit together. Until next time…

Postscript: It’s a boy!

Forgiveness, patience and gratitude

Retired. I am. Fini. For now. Work-for-pay, that is. It hasn’t set-in—-yet—-the retirement phase. It’s been crazy, family-busy. But right now I have a precious moment to reflect, take stock, and allow the wave of “This Moment” settle-in like a pair of well-worn slippers.

My brother. The 6′ 2″ guy. Former cop. Former Naval officer. Former apple of my British parents’ eyes. Smart. Possessed abundant possibilities. Moved away. Had a family. Has grandchildren. A beautiful home in Oregon. His wonderful children, all big-hearted and magnificent. His legacy. Our family’s legacy. So much to be proud of.

We just spent five days together with the big, extended family tribe. Dinners around the campfire every night. Bottles of vino. Boisset https://my.boissetcollection.com/janet.barker/products/catalog/sale-1005, of course. Every night a new international cuisine. And now, as of 9 a.m. this morning, he and his wife are gone, traveling along the brutally hot spine of California on his way to his lush green neck of the woods. We haven’t visited for years. Barely speak on the phone. His life. My life. A legacy of distance.

He has always been my big, scary brother, the guy who would tell me what’s right and wrong, aware that no matter the issue—he insists he’s always right. Few conversations. Mostly always one way. Conservative. Me, more liberal. Like our nation. One takes out a knife and cuts it into the heart. The other leaves in tears, emotionally mutilated. He’s in his 70s, I’m in my 60s. Over the years, I suppose, we passively the accepted the discomfort. It was OK not to be close.

But this trip, something changed.

Perhaps we have finally become grown-ups, too tired for discord. Both of us arrived at a place in life where we’ve learned to focus on the honey, not the lemon. Time is precious. No time left to do anything but love, and forgive.

The unfurling caterpillar. That’s us. Once cocooned in our own corners of righteousness, but now in tears–hugging real hugs— and excited about the next time we can see each other.

Maybe all this time he has been my best friend but I was so full of myself and my own pain I failed to see it. It’s funny this thing called life. Out of the blue, while opening up containers of take-out Indian food that you bought instead of your son (the guy who was supposed to pick up the tab), a new door opens that you NEVER expected would open. Voila! A lesson. A new possibility.

Did I say I was excited about retirement, which I guess I have been since June 11, 2021? I haven’t exactly been, at least not in the way I thought I’d feel. I’ve been shutting down my former life as a middle school teacher,. grannying to Baby Millie, busy preparing food, cleaning, and jumbling myself with all the tasks, with all the impossible fixing-others responsibilities, that I failed to notice the Monarchs’ regular appearance in my once-again, weed-filled garden. My floating orange reminder to pay attention to the the most important of all miracles: Sincere, loving and healthy relationships.

Not to go all Mary Poppins here: the pain was/is real. I still have some seriously rotten stuff going on. But I also have a renewed sense of hope, positive possibilities and a second chance.

Gotta promise myself not to miss the moment. Can’t miss the warmth, (and often times annoying) fury pup at-present sitting next to me, or the grandkids’ splayed plastic toys littering the garden, or the baby saliva staining my BeachLife sweatshirt or the dishes in my sink or the weeds in the garden that I’ll get to at some point, and the writing I’m doing: The chronically of the day-to-day as. a reminder that life IZ good, that life is most certainly sweet amidst the drama.

On cue, sirens blare down Pacific Coast Highway as the afternoon breeze rustles the gazebo curtains. Soon it will be too hot to watch movies indoors and we’ll move outside and sit here, close around the fire pit, swapping different versions of this kinda holy moly week of gratitude and forgiveness, the days my brother returned home and no one, not a one of us, brought up politics and past hurts. We all, as Rodney King implored, just got along.