Wish you were here

On my morning walk today, suspended between a storm front over the Sierras and a bank of gray clouds from the Pacific, I marveled at the sky.

I wish you had been here to see the ever-changing landscape of the clouds painted by the wind, the sun slowly seeping over the darkness to the east. Birds sang overhead and the wind rushed and hushed with abandon.

Finally the sun broke like an egg yoke over the horizon, its yellow light bathing everything in sight.

If you had been here with me, we would have turned to one another and you would have seen me smile.

Just like the smile I have now, thinking of you on this walk with me.

A moment in time

While I was walking at lunchtime through the UC Davis arboretum, I caught a glimpse of bright red. As I got closer, I could see tiny red flowers on a leggy bush.

I stopped.

The bush is quince, and its presence in Northern California transported me back a quarter of a century to another place.

One of the gifts of Northern California has given me is a botanical history of my life. The cottonwoods of my childhood grow here, along with maple trees from my Ohio college town, palm trees from my Florida years and the tangerine trees laden with orange fruit that graced my grandmother’s San Diego back yard.

And the quince before me today brought back the memory of my first home in Arkansas. Every January and February, I looked forward to seeing the quince bushes bloom in the yard. The tiny, bright red flowers always emerged at the bleakest time of the year, when all the plants had died back, leaving the yard a murky brown, and the cold winds threatened to bring ice storms, sleet and snow.

The quince’s delicate red petals smiled at me and seemed to whisper in my ear: “Hang on just a little longer. Spring is right around the corner.” Their bright colors never failed to make me smile, even on the darkest day.

Quince bushes need trimming in order to grow, so I would cut the branches during blossom to bring a little bit of spring inside on a cold winter’s day.

I stood looking at the bush a bit longer, lost in nostalgia, then I took my phone out to snap a photo to remember it by. I couldn’t get a good angle to see the blossoms, so I took several. As I was taking them, a young woman with a wheelbarrow walked by me on the trail.

As I started to walk away, she called after me: “Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned around. She was holding clippers, standing by the quince.

“Would you like a cutting? I need to trim it back anyway,” she said.

I felt a catch in my throat and nodded. She clipped off a beautifully twisted branch and handed a small piece of my history back to me. I walked back to my office, my eyes damp with gratitude, and put my cutting in a vase with water.

It was a beautiful, quintessential UC Davis moment.

Book Life

I almost got in trouble for reading too much when I was in nursery school at Washington State University where my parents taught. The school had student teachers whose job it was to observe children’s interactions. After I had been there three weeks, the head of school called my parents. She gravely informed them that the student teacher observing me was upset because I mostly sat in a tiny nook and read books all day instead of interacting with the other children. My parents told her that was fine with them.

I recall very few television stories from my childhood. But I remember many, many books. My parents read to us; all of the Dr. Seuss books, then longer books like Old Yeller. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’ Dell. I read all the Nancy Drew books and Encyclopedia Brown series. I read The Little House on the Prairie Books, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. I read Where the Red Fern Grows and my mom found me one day sitting on the living room floor in a puddle of tears. “My god, what’s the matter?” She cried, and I replied, sobbing, “this, this book!” She nodded in understanding.

Both of my parents were avid readers. My dad read history books mostly. My mom reads a variety of books — novels, short stories, fiction, nonfiction. At one point, they belonged to the Book of the Month club.

I recall trips to the Whitman County Public Library to get books. I loved being part of the summer reading club. Mom would take me downtown to the low-slung building, and we would both leave with a stack of books piled high to our chins. To this day, one of the first things I do when I move to a new town is to get a library card.

As we got older, dad read longer books such as The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring aloud to me and my sister. I loved the books much I read them again myself. I graduated to more adult authors and books — Issac Asimov, Margaret Atwood. I read poets like Sylvia Plath.

I went through reading phases as a teenager. When we lived in England, I read every book that Agatha Christie wrote. I went through a Thomas Hardy phase. There was a Charles Dickens and Theodore Dreiser phase, as well as a dark Russian novelist phase, where I delved into Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Gogol. Lest you think I stuck to the classics, I went through a Barbara Cartland phase — a novelist who wrote Victorian romance novels.

I loved these different views and perspectives. I still do. I love to sit in a quiet space and read. I love to read outside in a shady place on a warm day. I love to read inside with a cosy fire and a cup of tea while it rains outside. I love to read in bed before going to sleep. I love to read on airplanes and in waiting rooms. I love to read companionably with another person nearby doing the same thing.

I come from a long line of readers. Legend has it that my grandfather would come down and find my grandmother and father up, long after bedtime, sitting in chairs reading. He would yell at them — don’t you know what time it is?! Get to bed! And they would look up, dazed from whatever world they had been inhabiting and slowly make their way to bed to find some sleep.

So when my son Emile was born, I immediately began to think of all the things I could read to him. We had Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Just before my dad died, he and I intently debated which Dr. Seuss books to buy him first — Go Dog Go, Fox in Socks and Green Eggs And Ham made that list.

When Emile turned nine, he was the right age for me to start reading the Harry Potter books to him — the first three had been published. I would read him a chapter every evening, and when I was finished with it, he would beg me for another one. I would try to resist — it’s bedtime, I would say — but I would often give in.

I read the first three books to him, and suddenly he was old enough to read the next book himself. We heavily anticipated the arrival of fourth book, and we actually ordered it from a bookstore in Memphis where a close friend was getting married the day after the book came out. During the after-wedding festivities, my son and several other children of the same age found quiet spots to start reading while the adults danced to lively music nearby.

When the last book in the series came out, my son, now between his junior and senior years in high school, was at a summer camp at the University of Arkansas. I promised him that I would get the book at the midnight release and bring it to him the next day. What I did not promise was that I wouldn’t read it first.

It had been many years since I had read a book in one day. Sitting down with that last Harry Potter book for a day was magical. I laughed. I cried. When I finished the book, I felt bereft, leaving a world I had grown to love behind.

My phone rang. It was Emile.

“Do you have it?”

“Yes.”

“Can you bring it over?”

“Yes.”

I drove to the campus dorm where he and others were staying. I pushed open the front door and saw several teens. Their eyes widened when they saw what I was holding, and I gripped the book tighter.

Emile came downstairs, eyes glowing, gave me a hug and scampered off. Later, he told me that a bunch of his friends had watched 300 that night, but that he had elected to stay behind and read.

To this day, I still read voraciously. I kept a book journal this year, and I average about three books a month for a total of 40 books. I like to read a variety of books. I read fiction, nonfiction, history, biography, memoir. I’ve read science fiction, mystery, romance. This year I read Becoming by Michele Obama; Stalin’s Daughter; A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; All the Light we Cannot See; and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, to name but a few.

In 2012, I finished my master’s degree in French literature after taking classes over the course of six years, and during that time I immersed myself in books ranging from the troubadour literature of the Middle Ages to Rabelais to the rationalists Racine and Corneille and the romantics Stendhal and Hugo. I’ve also read books by great francophone writers such as Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Albert Memmi. We read short stories and epistolary novels and I learned so many things about the culture and history of many places that I would never have known about any other way.

I’ve also been part of two beautiful book clubs, one in Arkansas and one in Florida, that opened my eyes to books I might never have read otherwise. For instance, someone suggested that we read a book called Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen, who I had never heard of before. The book was set around the turn of the 20th century and was about the World’s Fair in Chicago. I shrugged my shoulders and prepared to be bored.

Instead, the book fascinated me. Larsen’s writing was riveting. I have since found and read every book he has written, including Dead Wake, a book about the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. Even though you know the ship sinks, it’s one of the most moving books I have ever read.

I still feed my reading habit through the library, but also have the great fortune that my mom and I enjoy many of the same sorts of novels. So my mom sends me boxes of books after she has accumulated a bunch of them. It’s uncanny how, when I get to a point where I think, “I’m just about to run out of books to read,” a brown cardboard box will appear on my doorstep, filled with the next series of bedside reading.

Reading has expanded my horizons and my knowledge of the world far beyond my wildest expectations. I am grateful to my parents for creating an environment where reading was part of the fabric of our lives.

My Nature Manifesto

A colleague at work asked me if I had a manifesto.

I replied “no” and asked why. She told me that a news article about a recent mass shooting California said the shooter did not leave behind a manifesto, as if that was unusual.

“Is that a thing now? Are shooters supposed to have manifestos? What about the rest of us?” She said.

Our conversation made me wonder aloud about what my own personal manifesto would look like. At first, I said my manifesto would be full of kittens. Which now, of course, is somewhat true, because I just wrote the word “kittens” in my actual manifesto. Twice.

However, kittens aside, my manifesto has to be about nature.

Go outside. Yes, right now. Take your device with you and keep reading. Take a deep breath. Fill your nostrils and your lungs with air. Feel the breeze, or the heat, or the chill or the humidity on your skin. Look up at the sky, at the blue, the gray, the black, the clouds, the sun, the stars, the moon, the birds. Look back down. Do you see grass? Plants? Trees? What is alive in your current surroundings? Be alive with whatever nature is near you, right now.

When I go outside, I like to get away from all the comforts we have constructed to distance ourselves from nature, all the walls and windows and air conditioners and heaters, all the lamps and end tables and televisions. I try to shed the noise from automobiles and airplanes and the smell of motor oil or wet pavement.

I surround myself instead with nature — falling leaves, birds and brooks singing to one another, tree branches bending in the wind to kiss the brambles. Every thing around me is alive, in the same way that we are alive, even the rocks and soil and water. All of it comes from the same source. The molecules that make humans are related to the moss and lichen, the acorn and tree. All of the things we see in nature have their origins more than 3 billion years ago in the primordial soup; we share that connective tissue.

In nature, everything seems in the process of either being born or dying. Small saplings grow next to fallen oaks. Brown, dry leaves shelter growing mushrooms. Insects eat the decomposing body of a dead squirrel. In nature, I’m constantly reminded of the finite nature of my existence, which makes appreciate each moment I have. I’m also reminded that it’s part of the natural process of ALL life, including my own.

Immersed in the cycle, being a part of that cycle, makes all things fall into place. What power does Instagram have over the flow of water that has worn through hard rocks over millions of years to carve its way to the sea? What hold do YouTube videos have when eagles soar on thermals, then plunge into the water to catch their dinner?

We need to nurture this connection with the natural world now more than ever, as our attempts to distance ourselves from nature have damaged the Earth possibly past repair. Any reparation we can achieve will only happen when we understand that we cannot exist without the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that comes from plants grown in fertile soil.

So go outside. Find nature. Make that connection.

That’s it. My Nature Manifesto. I choose life. I choose nature. I invite you to choose it with me, whether it’s visiting your farmer’s market to buy fresh produce, tending a garden, bringing a plant to work, reducing your carbon footprint or hiking for weeks in the wilderness. We all need nature; we will not survive without it.

Autumn leaves

Today as I raked leaves in the front yard, my neighbor and his little girl came out of their house, the girl holding a giant bag nearly as big as she was.

“I want red ones and yellow ones and orange ones…” she said.

I knew exactly what they were doing.

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. I grew up in the middle of rolling wheat fields with very few trees. In town, we had lots of evergreens. One park, called Reaney Park, had a lot of large deciduous trees, and I remember being drawn to that park in autumn to watch the leaves tumble from their branches, breathe in their musty scent and hear the rattle as they chased one another across the dry grass. The sky looked crisp and blue and the air hinted that winter might come, but it stayed hot enough to warm my skin.

My friends and I would pile as many leaves as we could and throw them in the air, or kick our feet through the piles to hear the shush-shush sounds they made. We would collect the ones we thought had the prettiest colors and bring them home to show our parents.

When I left home for college in Ohio, I reveled in the fall colors; yellows, oranges, greens, reds and browns. I looked for any opportunity to kick my feet through piles of leaves. On afternoon rambles, I would look through the piles and select the ones I thought had the most beautiful colors. Sometimes a leaf would keep the green chlorophyll near its veins, while the rest of it turned yellow. Sometimes a leaf would contain yellow, green and orange. Sometimes the green was rimmed with red. And yet other times the pure, bright red of a leaf would strike me, and I would add it to my leaf bouquet.

I’ve lived in many different places as an adult. During my six years in Florida, I loved the warmth but missed the autumn leaves. Moving to Northern California has brought them back into my life. I’ve been taking photos of the beautiful colors for weeks. Leaves changing in my back yard, on the trails, on campus. I’m delighted to be back in territory where nature sheds one color to reveal others. It’s a beautiful canvas and reminds me that loss has its own beauty.

After I overheard my neighbors on their leaf-hunting expedition, I began one of my own. I’ll be adding to my bouquet over the next few weeks as our leaves continue to fall.

The nature of things

Words can’t explain it:

Sky, tree, river, valley, mountain.

I pen letters in packages

Of three, four, five, six, seven,

Yet they fail to adequately capture

Wonder

A universe that lies within

Stars, soil, atoms, quarks,

Things yet to be uncovered.

But the insufficiency of language

Will not prevent me

From attempting to express

The beauty and connectedness

In the world.

Coyote

Between dark and light,

As the owl sings its melancholy melody,

You appear.

First formless,

Then my eyes discern your shape,

Gray against gray.

I freeze.

You still.

Our gazes lock.

I wonder at your lush tail, your vulpine visage.

You size me up, ready for a challenge.

Something wild and untamed moves within me.

I resume my path forward.

As I move, you fade into the landscape

And disappear,

Although I continue

To seek you

Long after you are gone.

Borrowing against joy

A few weeks ago I had a mammogram. It was a six-month follow up to a mammogram that found small calcifications in the breast tissue. Nothing to worry about, the radiologist assured me. It’s just a good idea to check it out of an abundance of caution. Standard protocol and all that.

After the test, the technologist led me to a small, square, windowless room with four chairs and a round table. She told me to have a seat, and the doctor would be with me as soon as he was able.

I sat down and opened the nearest magazine. And as I did, I had a bad feeling. It came on suddenly, uninvited and unwanted, but vivid and unrelenting, knocking around in my psyche.

The feeling had a voice, and it whispered: “What if it IS breast cancer?”

Unbidden, I pictured the doctor entering the room in his white coat, taking a deep breath, looking at his hands while telling me the news. In a flash I saw my life change. I could feel my breath catch and my body flinch under the anticipated news.

“Anticipated?” my brain interrogated the voice, gently but firmly. “You have no reason to believe that. And whatever happens, even if it’s the worst case scenario, you will get through it when the time comes.” I took a deep breath and returned to reading.

I would love to say that this was the only time in my life when I have experienced this ambush of fear, this bracing against anticipated anguish, but that would be untrue. For a long time I suppressed such thoughts entirely. I felt ashamed, paranoid, labeled myself a hypochondriac. But that only meant that the thoughts manifested themselves in other ways, in unexplained anxiety or irritation that seemed to make no sense.

In fact, upon reflection, it makes more sense that a person with my history — who nearly died of a catastrophic illness at age 7, who had an emergency appendectomy in Mexico at age 39 and a total hip replacement at 46 — WOULD brace herself for bad news at the doctor’s office. However, I haven’t found that borrowing against joy has made it any easier to deal sorrow when it arrives. I’ve also found, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that I’ve worried about a lot of things that never happened.

Now, instead of letting anxious thoughts overwhelm me, or fighting against them, I try to identify the bad feeling, listen to what it has to say, acknowledge it and then move on. It’s only a thought, after all, fleeting through my head along with the thousands of thoughts I have every day. The trick is to not become attached to the thought as it comes, not to borrow against the joy that is possible if I simply wave at the thought and let it pass through.

So that day in the radiologist’s office, I said goodbye to my worst case scenario and enjoyed a few more pages of the magazine. The doctor came in the room and we talked for a few minutes. The news was fine; everything looked unchanged from the last time. I left the doctor’s office ready to find joy in the rest of my day.

Lessons learned while washing dishes

In the 1980s, while I attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, I worked at the dormitory cafeterias. I held a variety of jobs, from serving students food at lunch to replenishing donuts for brunch to working on the dishwasher line.

On the dishwashing line, my fellow students and I sorted out the plates, bowls, glasses and silverware from trays that glided by on a conveyor belt through a small square hole that connected the kitchen to the cafeteria. Just below the conveyor belt was a small shallow sink that ran its length, complete with flowing water that would whisk away any leftover food from the trays. The four of us students also had a giant garbage can within easy reach.

The small, square room was hot and steamy and bathed in bright light. Each student had an assigned task — one would take the glasses, another the plates, a third the bowls and the fourth person would tackle the silverware. We all had to throw any leftover food or liquid into the sink before us and toss any trash into the garbage cans at our sides. As the trays glided by, our job was to snatch our designated item from the trays, empty them of any food or liquids and deposit them into the industrial-sized dishwashing racks. Then our four professional colleagues would lift the giant racks and place them in the maw of the giant automated dishwashing machine. The machine would roar and growl and do its work, and the workers would remove the clean racks from the other side and set them apart for use at dinner.

We wore giant aprons as we performed our tasks. The students learned the rest of the uniform quickly: Don’t wear long sleeves, but wear jeans and close-toed shoes. Don’t wear your best clothes. Expect to get wet and dirty. And be sure to schedule a shower when you are done.

I worked in the busiest cafeteria on campus during the biggest meal of the day – lunch hour. We could see up to 800 trays coming through in two hours on a given day. We would start out our shift with cordial greetings and banter, asking how everyone had been since we were last together. By 11:30, a steady stream of trays would begin coming through the tiny window, and we would continue to joke and talk as we worked. At some point, one of the workers would turn on some music, which often sparked a lively debate about who liked what kind of tunes.

By 12:15, the stream of trays had ballooned to a deluge, and our pace shot into sprint mode, hands flying as we sorted and racked. An occasional glass or plate fell to the ground and brought a round of ribbing from our co-workers, as well as a swift move by one of them to grab a broom and dustpan to clear the sharp objects out of the way. At the conveyor belt, we were rooted in place, arms flying back and forth, music playing in the background, singing to the tunes, handing the full racks to our coworkers and replacing them with empty ones as fast as we could move.

By the time 1:30 rolled around, the deluge had returned to a trickle. We would congratulate each other on finishing another successful shift. I would leave, my muscles tired and aching, smelly and sweaty, my shoes covered in spilled milk and soda, satisfied that I had earned my money that day.

On rare occasions, someone would call in sick. On these days, we would have to improvise and parse out what team members would do, either for sorting or for racking. For instance, we might help out the rackers by bringing our own racks over to the dishwasher, or they might help us out by pitching in to sort dishes for a while.

On one memorable occasion, the building lost power during the peak time at lunch. The conveyor belt halted. The water in the sink stopped. The only light in the room came dimly from high windows. Students continued to bring their trays and push them through the the small opening that led into the cafeteria. We frantically sorted dishes and stacked them in racks, and then the rackers stacked the racks to await the power. Trash began to pile up along with racks of unwashed dishes. The sink began to fill with discarded food and beverages. When the power finally came on after two hours, we cheered and jumped up and down and hugged each other as if we had won a victory. It was a day that showed how essential our work was to everyone who wanted to eat lunch off of clean dishes.

I learned many things in college, and working in food service taught me even more. I discovered that caring, friendly co-workers make work better. I learned that all members of the team matter and that it is important to show up. We celebrated our victories and respected one another. We had each other’s backs.

An perhaps most importantly, I learned that ALL work matters. We performed an essential function for the college, and working with my colleagues in food service gave me an opportunity to know and respect them and their work. Over the years since then, I have observed people treat workers in certain positions as “less” because of what they do. I say, put yourself in the shoes of the workers to honor the work they do and its essential place in the world.

The feather

Dear Bird,

I found your feather today on my walk

Lying against the crisp brown late-summer grass.

I wonder:

Did you pluck it purposefully from your skin,

Because it had lost its usefulness?

Or was it torn from your wing in a dispute

With another raptor?

Did it shake loose in a tussle

With your dinner-time prey?

Or did it simply fall unnoticed from your body

As you soared into the sky,

Leaving this small token to land on the earth,

At my feet?

I wonder:

At the colors and patterns the tiny barbs create,

A small part of the larger creature you have become.

The feather lies between my fingers, insubstantial.

It feels like nothing, yet

Hundreds of these lift your body into the blue day

Thousands of feet above, hundreds of miles away

From me

Here on earth

With your feather.