Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pas de deux with swan at lake

When I come to Southern California, where I grew up, I know to bring sunglasses. It’s so sunny I must squint to see. I’m pretty sure there’s such a thing as a squint headache.

There are dark places here, too, in this land of extremes. I go there quickly enough, starting back in early childhood. Like Oz or Hogwarts, Southern California has its curious and dangerous places that call to kids and imprint for life.

In one instance while hunting butterflies in Oak Park, in Santa Barbara, I ducked into a bathroom to pee and a man pushed his way through the door my girlfriend was leaning against. At the sight of him, she fled, screaming. I was stuck.

In those days, the grownups called what he did “exposing himself.” That’s how the police wrote it up though it’s never just that. The nondescript words bleach out the ugliness, scrub away the potential for peril and let the police off the hook. Like the ubiquitous Peeping Toms in our neighborhood, those perverts were tolerated. The man with the zipper problem followed me and showed himself to me for several more years. In 2014 I went back to that bathroom to see what power it still held over me. Wisely, they’ve removed the door that turns a bathroom into a holding cell where anything can happen, undetected.

Oak Park is full of bushes, trees and brush. There are boulder dens and those dank and mildewy public toilets and secret places down in the creek. Men, over time, wore trails not much wider than game trails into the brush. They entered and they emerged. It was not a safe place for solitary young girls. I should have known to stay away but I was enamored of nature, the creek, the butterflies and, later, the tennis courts. I spent scores of day-dreamy hours in Oak Park and some of those hours were interrupted by acts of perversion, and in one instance, violence.

I am still drawn to areas where woods and water converge, even though some of these places will never be safe for me.

On this West Coast trip to visit my sister, I am staying at the Best Western at Sepulveda and Burbank in Sherman Oaks because it is near her house and, also, within walking distance of a sweet nature preserve packed with birds. Every morning I run and my husband walks along the main path that circumvents a marshy lake, but there are lots of spurs jutting off into the underbrush. Just like in Oak Park.

I run around the lake twice each morning and it is glorious. There are so many birds singing that it is downright noisy. At 7 a.m., the brush already simmers under that bright sun and expels a familiar pungency. It feels like Oak Park. And because of this, I can’t relax.

I am still a stalking victim. I say victim because I don’t fight back. This time, it’s cyberstalking and quiet endurance is the only sane tactic. Cyber stalkers have outsized personality disorders and are offended by your silence but they are enraged by the most innocent of utterances. I once (and only once) wrote, “OK,” and a world of vitriol flooded my inbox for days. Cyber-stalkers turn your Twitter account into a porn site. They make up fraudulent Facebook personas and post lies to your community of friends. They robo-call you scores of times a minute, day and night. With every email or phone block comes a counter-punch — a new cell number or FB persona. The laws are just now catching up to them. Cyber-stalkers see every digital move you make.

A personal safety expert recently told me: “You cannot rely on anyone to save you. You are on your own and must save yourself.” This coach, a woman my height — 5’11” — is skilled and experienced. She has been maced more times than she will say. She showed me how to hold mace and a flashlight and car keys all at the same time, and all with weapon potential.

This morning I had the best run yet of the four I’ve done since landing at LAX on Saturday afternoon. On my second day out I found a functioning box cutter in the middle of the trail and I stuck it in my pocket. Instant relief. While running I talked myself through how I would use it. Women, when attacked, are less likely than a man to use a weapon to save themselves. So I made myself promise I would use the box cutter if it ever came to that. You can’t fight to injure; you must vanquish. Eyes. Jugular. Face. Wrists.

I heard her voice: “Save yourself.”

The homeless have encampments here. They use the trail spurs. They emerge and they disappear. Vaporize, like ghosts. Their presence, even if they are hidden, is obvious. They don’t have access to showers or toilets or anything else. People leave them food in takeout containers, complete with utensils and napkins — set up on overturned boxes so the offerings resemble table settings.

I run past a bench where I see a small vial of perfume inside a zip-locked baggie and a few discarded tissues. Here’s the story I make up: A romantic liaison occurred on this bench, helped out by a splash or two of scent.

Ahead of me on the trail I see a man wearing a blue hoodie and shorts. He’s walking. He rounds a bend and I lose sight of him. When I round the same bend just seconds later, he is gone — vanished — down one of these spurs. Which one? I look around to see where he might have gone. Nothing. Whoosh. Minding his own business, just like me.

I worry all the same: Will he re-emerge behind me? Where is he?

And so it goes. The head dramas I make room for if I want to have a life. 

I spot a man with a long lens for photographing a hawk he’s been watching for days. A lens that, when it hangs from his side, looks like my childhood stalker’s erection. I run by, initiating a greeting with an upbeat “Good morning!” and he smiles and replies in kind. It feels right to sow smiles as I go.

Ten minutes later, in the dense vegetation where the trail turns, I encounter two men on bicycles. I don’t like them. They are too friendly and want to talk and I accelerate my gate and push my elbows away from my torso like one of those aggressive male swans on the edge of the lake — wings similarly arched away from its body — protecting his mate and his nest. Angrily puffed up, I shout a deep “Hello” that really says, “I want nothing to do with you” and I feel blessed to have my phone in my right hand with the little button on the home screen that says, “emergency.”

I left the box cutter back at the motel so I take a lesson from a swan.                                                     

I catch up with my husband. He has bad knees and I can circle twice to his half-circumambulation.

“Did you see those two guys on bikes?” They had no choice but to ride this way.


Ah. What to make of this? Spurs that even I, the most hyper vigilant of all, didn't notice.

My run is great. Fast and fun over the dirt trails I like best. And Jim is pleased to have made these walks every day, as well, and to have heard and seen so many birds. We are bird deprived this time of year in New England.

We agree. This is the best day yet at the Sepulveda wildlife sanctuary. Together we sit on a bench under the oak trees and watch a snowy egret fish. There are so many gifts. More light than dark today.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Leg room

Proof of leg room

5 a.m. — dazed awake
5:05 a.m. — shower, finish packing, water plants, take out garbage. is that everything?
6:20 a.m. — 24th Street, 20 degrees, breezy. load car. 2 suitcases, 2 briefcases. speed to JFK from Chelsea no problem. find long-term parking lot but no parking. wait while man from Florida figures out how to scrape snow off windshield. should I help, I ask Jim, thinking of “Fargo” and that furious scraping of windshield. Lot — $18/day.
7:45 a.m. — scurry across expansive wind-tunnel lot to tram building. freezing. mishap getting on tram. jim rushes on tram. doors whoosh behind him. closed! Jim wrestles doors open. I get on. man follows. gets on. doors close on another wife. Jim wrestles again, woman gets on, joins horrified husband. “don’t have heart attack, please,” I say, watching Jim’s sweat dry. people in tram car joke with Jim. Jim jokes to saved woman, “you owe me 10 bucks.” she tells Jim which terminal to get off at and says, “$20 please.” lots more laughing. terminal 5, JetBlue (2 round trips with legroom $1500), swift tram trip, no further tram drama.
8 a.m. — auto check luggage doesn’t work, get help. ushered into zip lane for security clearance, shoes stay on feet and no groping. fantasize about sneaking into the “Flight to Cuba” line; eat scrambled eggs; buy colorful pens at Muji. .38 and .25 tips. $39 for breakfast; $22.05 for pens, eyeglass cleaner & plastic pen case.
9 a.m. — buy two sandwiches, 2 bottles of sparkling Smart Water, two cookies from Boar’s Head for the 6-hour plane ride. $22 for sandwiches. Jim pays $13 for rest.
9:20 a.m. — late for priority boarding. line up with everybody. seated in row six, right behind first class where they eat for six hours straight between glasses of wine, hot towels and comfy blankies. 3 dedicated attendants for 10.
10:30 a.m. — lift off. extra leg room for Jim & I @ $50 extra ea. way for ea. of us (6’5”, 5’11”); we cross legs in appreciation. flight attendant to me: “Are you able to open exit door if there’s an emergency?” yes, which could be a lie. it’s not something we practice.
? p.m. — 35k feet, time on pause, suspended-animation zone — TVs don’t work; get free movies. read 50 pages of “Unbanking of America” by Lisa Servon for book review; watch “La La Land” to bone up on contemporary LA. everybody eating free chips. Jim has bloody mary at 11 a.m. to quell flight nerves. no charge.

View from an overpass near Best Western.

2:30 p.m. — smooth landing. get luggage, call Uber ($23), check into same Best Western room we had last year, $169/night. free delicious Earl Gray tea. happy people at front desk. parched. get free bottled water.
3 p.m. — sister’s caretaker gives us ride to sister’s house. Sherman Oaks. Nice long visit. Talk about crazy mother, crazy brother, other crazy loved ones all gone now. uncomfortable topics for ailing sister. hospice angels. gratitude. sister's friends implore: hold all those stories till we get there. still don’t tell her about memoir. 
7 p.m. — order takeout. Thai.
8 p.m. — food arrives. 11 p.m. “our time.” gobbling as if just had colonoscopies.
9 p.m. — call Uber. go outside. 84 degrees. full moon. honeysuckle so strong. swoon. to Jim: we grew up with this sensual largess. the best part.
9:10 p.m. — where’s Uber? try again. wait 4 minutes. $6 w/tip.
9:30 p.m. — unpack; have free green tea; plug in multitude of devices for charging. text loved ones. “all ok here.” downplay southern california weather. minus 9 degrees there. 

9:40 p.m. — XpenseTracker total 3-11-17: $2,440 or thereabouts
9:45 p.m. — suddenly sleepy. collapse

Enormous balloon structure at entrance 
to a homeless encampment. 
Southern California always surreal. 
Like growing up in a Stephen King novel.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Oh, the perils we face

Garfield Falls

Trailhead: N45 3.1032  W071 7.8642

In the New Hampshire woods you'll find what you're looking for. I seek high drama, preferably from a distance and especially this time of year. For instance, I like to feel the roar of the falls. That  thunder underfoot reorients the soul nicely. For extra impact, the spongy soil broadcasts the boom of the falls through a network of porous bone. The more grounded you are, in my case that means size 10 boots gripping the soil, the better to receive the full effect. And, yes, massive water still pours off the boulders, mushrooms push through the thin carpet of leaves and well-fed fox trot along, cocky as ever. As for the horny bull moose, they are gearing up....

I am interested in tenacity, which is probably why I see it everywhere. Here is a leaf that has fastened itself in the bough of a fir. Hang in there! Said leaf is unwilling to let go quite yet. Someone else will read this scene quite differently. Perhaps an artist will find that it is reminiscent of a dynamic composition: The leaf provides near garish relief amid so much brown and green.

This tree fungus is opportunistic. It found a weak spot, a canker on a sturdy trunk, and burrowed in. Perhaps the relationship is symbiotic but what I see, and I spot this intrusion from a great distance, is persistence. This little life form has found a place to dig in. Hurrah! In time it may compromise the tree. I wonder, though, how a fungus gets a foothold on a healthy tree? In time this tree will fall and cede its substance back to the soil from whence it came.

Not everything is deadly serious. I encounter frivolity here — stark white fungi sprouting milky frills all over the forest floor. Lighten up, everyone. Lose the drama for a second. Have some lunch!

Life hangs in the balance. There's no other way to interpret this wrenching struggle as the once great tree clings to the bank, tilting ever closer to the east branch of the Diamond River. I'm seeing that tenacity only gets you so far in some dire scenarios. On the other hand, what better way to explain this feat of balance than sheer tenacity?

Buried in a small crevasse, bounded on all sides by rock, a small brown mushroom prospers. Protected from the elements and rodent teeth, this little domed soldier digs in for the duration. 

Adios, little wonderland full of stories. Surely you'll have more after another winter in the North Country.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why we need Natalie Goldberg

"In the past my most reliable elixir 
had been to continue under all circumstances."
                                           — Natalie Goldberg

Writing is work but I’d never suggest it is crushing work the way picking strawberries or replacing a transmission or sanding and repainting a house demands everything you have, often under brutal conditions like summer heat and humidity, an empty stomach or failing knees. Relatively speaking, writing is good work.  

In her new book, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life,” Natalie Goldberg says, “Being a writer is not easy. Layers of skin are yanked off.”

I suppose so, but that kind of discomfort comes easy to me. I hardly need to write to feel like I’m being skinned alive. One reason we hear so much about this profession is because it’s made up of writers. And they can be rather expressive.

The act of writing is the best part of a writing profession. You sit quietly and think. You’re in an orb of possibilities. You’re ripe! Ideas and words stream through, yours for the plucking. Some writers put these words on paper and some use a keyboard. Some dictate, especially when they break something in their hand or arm. Inside a writer’s head (or anyone’s head, to be honest) is a vast fantasyland where anything can happen. You just have to organize these scenarios a bit and then get them onto the page. I find writing to be fun, especially when I disconnect from self-consciousness, expectations, doubt and fear.

But getting to writing can be quite difficult. We all know the house has to be clean, the desk dusted and the interruptions blocked. We can’t write after an argument, after a hard day at work or after sex. We can’t write when our husband is in the hospital or when we’ve got nothing planned for dinner or when we realize we’ve got to get the dishes done before friends come by for cocktails. We can’t write with a headache. We can’t write when we’re sleepy or crabby. We can’t write when the TV’s on. We can’t write through Facebook notifications, text message alerts or ringing phones. We can’t write when we have poison ivy. We can’t write when an ambulance pulls up to the neighbor’s house or when we spill coffee in the keyboard.

Fear not. Goldberg has figured it out for us.

“Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.”

Really, that’s all there is to say. She could have spared herself the work of a whole book since she wrote these two lines on page xiii of her introduction. “Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.” I bought the book because of these two lines. I needed to know I’m not the only one battling circumstances.

Writing gets us all balled up because we know we have to write a lot all the time and we have to write every day if we are ever to perfect our craft or keep the momentum going in our writing projects.

I like Natalie Goldberg’s book. Here’s a link to my review (or go to the end of this post). Maybe she has to dramatize the writing trade a bit because she makes her living, in part, talking about writing as a practice, like she talks about Zen as a practice. Zen is harder than writing. On Zen retreats you eat watery soup sporting the occasional scallion and sit cross-legged, back straight, for hours. You try to solve koans, which make your brain ache and your self-confidence hurt. And Zen masters can be tougher than readers who skewer writers’ work, their pens dripping red ink.

Goldberg’s book is about writing, in passing. It’s really about living among friends while maintaining two demanding disciplines. She’s a strong, adventurous woman. She values friendships. She loves reading and writing. We go on hikes with her as she thinks about Zen and gets perilously lost, we learn about a doctor’s diagnosis she calls “hard,” we travel to various parts of the world with her and we find out, almost in passing, that her mother neglected her. I especially enjoyed reading about Goldberg’s travels in Japan, about her surprising time in a Zen monastery, and about her obsessive reading of “Musashi,” a book about a great Japanese sword fighter. She found the book while in Japan and read it on a train to the exclusion of all else. This travel with Musashi growing in her heart is a very nice piece of writing. Here Goldberg describes the aftermath of Musashi’s victory over his greatest rival and her reaction as she reads:

Musashi walks the ten paces over to the prone body and kneels. No sign of anguish or regret on Ganryu’s face. Only satisfaction at having fought a good fight. This man is the most valiant of all Musashi’s adversaries. Never in his life would he meet another opponent like this. He bows. The battle is over.

I am crying uncontrollably. Nose running, I grope for a tissue I do not have.

But Musashi’s victory proves nothing. More people want to challenge him. His only resolve lies in the depth of his heart. He knows the confused mind is a shadow that people beat their heads against.

My head jerked up. Where was Michèle?

Michèle, her traveling companion, had already left the train and Goldberg was going to have to backtrack to find her though she couldn’t understand the language or the signage.

I read to the end of “The Great Spring,” wondering where we’d land. “If we can stand still and attentive in our lives and not run away, even right in the middle of the ruins, we will find fertile ground.”

She’s talking about living but she’s also talking about writing.

Hold still. Be quiet. Pay attention. Now, write.

And, all you sensitive writers out there, try to hang on to your skin.

Here’s the book review, which ran in GateHouse Media newspapers and websites.

30-year anniversary of ‘Writing Down the Bones’

The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life
By Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala, Boulder, 2016. 207 pages. $22.95.

Many hold Natalie Goldberg in their hearts as their first, or perhaps most important, writing guru. And many will appreciate her newest book, a circling back to the essentials — writing and practice. Things are more nuanced now, with timely considerations about living and the end of living. In Zen as in life, it’s best not to forget where we’re headed.

Thirty years ago Natalie Goldberg published her first and most widely read book on writing, “Writing Down the Bones.” She’s written many books since, including memoir, books on writing, fiction and poetry. She also made the documentary film, with Mary Feidt, “Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan.” An anniversary edition of “Writing Down the Bones” has just been released along with this new book of essays, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.”

Goldberg, now in her late sixties, maintains two practices, Zen and writing, and she frequently teaches at workshops and retreats in the United States and abroad. Goldberg is a hiker, a good friend, an abstract painter, a knowledgeable reader and a fine essayist. In her short pieces, she comes to readers a robust, adventurous, self-aware and strong woman with clear boundaries. She lets us know she’s also just begun dealing with a serious health issue she declines to name outright. This admission, in the introduction, opens a vulnerability that deepens the scope of her considerations. When she writes, toward the end of the book, that longtime students used to warn newer ones that she is not warm and fuzzy, readers have already figured that out. Her boundaries protect the vulnerable part of her. “… I felt like [my students] would eat me alive.”

There are lots of reasons to read this book. Writers and Buddhists will recognize the struggles of a kindred spirit. Students of the essay will admire each piece’s ambitious range — the “zigzag” — before homing in. Readers, artists and and fans of the arts will like her spirit as she heads right to the source to learn more about someone like Cormac McCarthy or Robert Zimmerman a k a Bob Dylan. Students of human nature will see a strong woman take change and wrestle for an advantage. Maybe you want courage. “Continue under all circumstances,” she says about writing. “No excuses.” Why read further than this, on the third page of the introduction? All of the above.

I suspect Goldberg has found ways to handle second thoughts because she regularly takes courageous stands and remains standing. In “Losing Katherine” she mentions that she wrote a book titled “The Great Failure” about her Zen teacher sleeping with his students. She says that people didn’t want her to write this book and one of her dearest friends, Katherine, became estranged for four years because she didn’t like the book. This essay presents a beautiful portrait of Katherine who dies after a fall. “We are no different from a flower, I think. It gives off its radiance—then dies.” Goldberg then concludes with a haiku she wrote.

“Lost Purse” is fun and shares a couple of good lessons. Goldberg loses her purse during a writing workshop she’s leading one weekend in Lenox, Mass. We are treated to her key message to writers, one she promises them if they find her purse. The essay concludes with a second message, one that requires a sense of humor and a bit more thought.

In “Another New year” we are stopped in our tracks when Goldberg reconsiders her lifelong “elixir,” as she calls it. “In the past my most reliable elixir had been to continue under all circumstances. But now the biting thought: someday no circumstances will exist.”

We all nod yes as she continues, “Daily life is so seductive: we believe if we keep moving we can finally catch up, get our bills paid for all time.”

The three essays I cited come from the back of the book — Losing. There are other sections less concerned with loss and death. They are daily life under the microscope, and they nudge us further on. We are ready for Losing when we get there.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at Read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.