Monday, October 27, 2014

breaking down change, four: Chaos

Even though I have learned that life is better when focusing on one thing at a time, it is appropriate that now at five o’clock this morning I am writing while watching Game 5 of the World Series. Bumgarner is throwing strikes; I am looking up “channel” in the dictionary. The camera lingers on James Shields—I can’t help but wonder if when he was a baby his mother didn’t pick him up by his ears.

When one moves of course things can be unsettled for a bit.

But chaos is a different matter.


Using the word “chaos” may be a bit of hyperbole, but to say my time so far here in California has been a bit chaotic is not.

All is relative. Trying to break down the change, the differences, the chaos by elements and events was a good idea; then elements and events took over. In their midst it was nearly impossible to see anything clearly. Things just swirled.

This is the first World Series I have watched in a number of years. I watch each game the morning after, skip the commercials and maybe an inning or two here and there. I may be rooting for Kansas City, but I have no allegiance to the team. If KC does not win, San Francisco will, and that will be fine. It is each game that interests me.

Hunter Pence is at bat. He is a bit scary. The bat flies out of his hands, sails across the infield. In an instant it flies, lands, rolls, stops. Pence has struck out. The next batter comes to the plate.

Kansas City came to the Series with a blinding streak of wins. They had what is called momentum.


What I am finding this morning is that I cannot do these two things at once. Cannot do either well. In California there is something that feels near a demand that you pay attention to me, to it, to whatever it is, and respond and respond appropriately now and this minute and there are always a number of these demanding things, these things demanding your attention, your attention all at once, and there are a lot of people talking and, seriously, so little being said. To cut through it all, to pay attention to that which is important, to discern what is important, to focus on that one thing that might most need or benefit from your attention … well, that is the challenge.

It is not like a bat flying through the air and coming to rest peacefully on the infield and the game carrying on without a hitch.

It is more like a wave on the ocean catching you up in it, grabbing you, pulling you under. I started thinking that yesterday morning—or maybe it was Saturday. The thing about the wave. When you are caught by a wave, when you are being tumbled head over heels by tons of crashing water, you don’t fight it. You can’t fight it. But you must get out of it. If you don’t get out of it you drown. You know this, you feel this, and it is damn scary.

A couple of nights ago the ocean’s waves were crashing so loudly I could not sleep. This was the same night I was being pummeled by a wave that had, I guess, finally broken, crashed down on me, was just tossing me about like I was just so much seaweed or, better yet, a limp dead fish. I had been searching for a way clear of this huge wave—it had been building and coming right at me for weeks—but now it was tumbling me about and I was still searching for a way clear and the real ocean was crashing and it was all so loud. So I wrote.
I sit here alone tonight after a long day and think there has to be something, someone, with more meaning. More meaning than the noise of “be happy” and “be joyous.” And I know there is. I know there is. One of the raps against southern California is that the people here are shallow, and the fact is some of the people are. Some of the people are. I have landed in such a noisy place. Such a noisy place. And I am having trouble finding quiet. The only place I might find quiet tonight is right here, in the act of writing. Please, do not mistake what I am doing. This is not “journaling.” “Journaling” is noise. Writing is quiet. But I will write nonsense because I am tired. It feels as tired as I have ever been. My mother might say “This too shall pass” as I said to her one day, a day or two ago, but then she answered with something like “I don’t know … ” What is it about southern California that just makes me want to run screaming … ? Head for the hills. Run quiet. It is the kind of place that makes me think I could live quite happily all alone out there in the woods somewhere … maybe far away somewhere. What I really want to know is: What makes me think I can live here? Because something did make me think I could live here. Now I’m just not so sure. Yes, here I am, but have you ever felt like you were being squeezed out? Drowned out? And all you really want is to be able to hear yourself think without someone telling you to be … Pile on the noise. Just pile on the noise. I can’t discern any meaning.
The next day I gave up.

Late in the afternoon the wind picked up and I realized the noise the night before had been the wind rustling the stiff dry leaves of the palm trees. It is not the soft rustling of autumns past. It is the harsh rustling of palms.

So you stop fighting, you let the wave pass, you come up for air. I liked the analogy.


Yesterday I visited my mom in her new room at the place where she has lived in one level of care or another for nearly eight years. She started out quite independently with her own apartment. Now she is, for the time being, in the wing with the most intensive care. She spent most of the week in the hospital, had a rod placed in her hip to hold the broken pieces together, could not move without pain, pain which, when it was at its worst, was so apparent in her face, the way her face crumpled. But yesterday there was no crumpling. There was a smile or too. There was something akin to idle conversation. There was an admonition to get Josie off the bed because maybe we didn’t want to get started on that. And when an aide needed to re-position her and warned there might be pain my mom simply said, “Oh. Well. This too shall pass.” And unlike the hospital, where there was near constant noise and where people seemed to come and go on no apparent schedule and there would be little or no familiarity and sometimes people even came in the room with erroneous information and things got tense … well. Yesterday was different. Yesterday was better. Yesterday was quieter.

Being here on the southern coast of California, I wanted there to be a perfect analogy between getting caught up in chaos and being tumbled about by a wave, and I wanted it to be true this idea that to get out of either one should not fight but go with it, let it pass. So on the way home I stopped at Rincon, a curve of shore and ocean well-known for surfing that is about halfway between where I am living now and where my mom is living now. To get to Rincon you pull off the highway, park, walk down a path of dirt and sand, a long slope that hugs the highway, the ever-present freeway, and then suddenly leaves it behind. You turn and step down and enter this world of what seems like Gidget and Moondoggie but it’s real life and there’s ocean and sun and sky and kids and old folks and families and couples and singles and surfers and surfers and surfers and dogs and music and gulls and pelicans and funky shacks and rocks and sand and water. Sea water and waves. We walk along, Josie and I. Surfers wear wet suits—are clad mostly in what looks like black rubber—and carry big boards. I stop one and ask what it is like to get wiped out by a wave, and then how do you get out of it? I anticipated an answer that would give me exactly what I needed, but what I got was surfer lingo. Say what? We worked on understanding one another. He kept talking about getting to “the channel,” saying that after the wave tumbles you (yeah, you have to go with it) and then something about letting the second wave pass (there is always a second wave), then you have to “get to the channel.” My mind was grasping for what the heck he meant. I thought of the Channel Islands which you can see most days right out there in the ocean and for some reason I can’t fathom I thought of this pier out there in the distance. Neither made sense. Finally, I asked: What do you mean by “channel”? It is the part of the wave, he says, that is not breaking.


And now in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the World Series San Francisco is leading KC 5-0. I have hoped that the Series would go its full seven games. So I would have all these games to watch. No matter what else is happening.

Monday, October 20, 2014

breaking down change, three: My Mom

Lately my mom mostly talks about taking a nap. It is a pleasant thing to do, she says, and she enjoys naps. And lately most often what she is doing is taking a nap. But if you pop in to visit she will wake up, ask how you are, ask what you have been doing. Then she will mention something about taking a little nap.

She naps in a big green chair that goes all the way back and then, with the touch of a button, comes all the way forward—I mean all the way forward—to gently eject her from her seat. Say, for a meal. Though most often when mealtime rolls around she would, she says, rather take a nap.

Shortly before I left Michigan, something changed with my mom. She physically weakened, fell once or twice, maybe more, began having trouble walking even with her walker, which she has been using consistently for a year or more now. Now she has a wheelchair. And even though her memory has been a bit funny for the past two years, she retained the knowledge of past events, recognized people, could recall the grand stuff of where she was born, where she grew up, who we, her family all are, our specific traits, our childhood events, and the fact that my father, her husband of nearly 56 years, was gone, had died a few years back. But shortly before I left Michigan she began talking of my father as if he were still alive. My sisters experienced this, my mother asking about my dad—where is he? Is he lost?—and one night she even called one sister because she was worried that my dad was not yet home. (My mother does not use the phone anymore, reportedly an aide helped her to make this call.)

When I arrived and first saw my mom, she was coming down with a cold, had a cough and congestion. Understandably she was tired, wanted to sleep, wanted to nap. She did not talk about my dad, has not said anything to me about my dad since I have been here. She has not asked about my trip or about Michigan or much of anything—usually she is aware that I have made a trip from my home in Michigan to be here, to see her, and she asks about my life, asks about Michigan, all that. But not now. Now I am just here, no questions asked. I show up to visit once in a while with Josie, whom she likes. She says with those whiskers he looks like an old man.

One day I showed up during a tai chai class being held in the living room, the common area. It was sit-down tai chai, and some were following the leader, some were trying to follow the leader, some were not paying any attention. My mom wavered somewhere between the latter two groups. Years ago she suffered a shoulder injury which never fully healed, and I imagine these arm movements, however slow and gentle, were a bit of a trial for her. Anyway, once we arrived, she found Josie much more interesting. I knelt by her wheelchair and tried to participate in the tai chai, rather unsuccessfully. Josie was staring and growling at a man across the room who was staring at and talking to him, wanting to be friends, I think maybe he thought they already were friends. Josie took offense. The tai chai leader was very understanding, made light of this disruption. Eventually the situation resolved. The tai chai session ended. My mom was ready for a nap.

Last night, my mom fell and broke her hip. At the emergency room, after x-rays and such, we settled in a hallway waiting for a room. It took three or four hours. My mom claimed to be comfortable tucked in her bed. Jill, my sister-in-law, brought my sister Jennifer coffee and me tea. Jennifer scrounged up a crossword puzzle. Someone had filled in the word “cow” in answer to 4 Across, “Grazing ground.” Eventually over “cow” I wrote “lea” and when I said the word my mom corrected my pronunciation. A bit later she confirmed that “bedim” is indeed a word. By midnight we had gone about as far as we could with the puzzle, and my mom had a room.

This afternoon I sit with my mom and she says, “Dissipated.”

“What?” I ask.

“Dissipated,” she says.

“What's that?” I ask.

“How I feel,” she says.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

breaking down change, two: Josie & Elliott

In this move west, Josie seems to have fared a bit better than Elliott. But Josie is a dog and Elliott is a cat. And Josie had the advantage of staying with me. As soon as we got to California, I pawned Elliott off on a friend of a sister. Any licks or switches or punches you want to give me, go ahead, for my judgement in this matter was greatly impaired.

Don’t get me wrong—Elliott was in a wonderful home with a marvelous hostess. He had his own little door for going out, coming in. He was well cared for. He was duly admired. And he got into a big predicament and the fire department was called and various reinforcements were brought in and a hole had to be sawed in a cabinet and still, Elliott was welcomed, or at least allowed to stay.


Elliott and Josie in Michigan.

How did this happen?

To get to California with what seemed the least fuss, I accepted a very casual, informal, private, quasi rental-type housing situation that left Elliott homeless. Yes, I know better than this. But yes, this happened. You know those cartoons where there is a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? I don’t have either. Instead, what I got is a dunce and a smart person and they both live inside my head and sometimes I end up listening to the dunce. “Don’t worry!” he says. (Yes, he is male, I don’t know why.) “Don’t pass this up! It’ll work out! It sounds great! Do this! It was meant to be!”

And you know what—you can always find evidence for “this was meant to be.”

So I agreed to this informal arrangement and lo and behold options for Elliott popped up and I believed all was well and would be well. But mostly I avoided thinking about it. Then a week ago Elliott could no longer stay where he was and there was nowhere else for him to go so he came here, where he was not allowed. I did the responsible thing and told my quasi, informal, not-really-a-landlord person that Elliott was now here with me, and I thought maybe there was someplace else Elliott could go in a week or two (remember Cousin Frankie?), and then I realized that the only place for Elliott is with me.

So what happens next? Good question.

Meanwhile, Josie runs alongside the ocean, chasing shore birds, hopping away from waves, occasionally getting doused by seawater and shaking it off. We walk around our neighborhood and he pees on every bush and cornerstone (or so it seems) and gets excited when he sees another dog and growls at most people. He has met a ton of new people and is getting along with that OK—it takes a bit for him to warm up to someone. Josie is, at heart, a big sissy and the safest place, he figures, is next to me, behind me, or, in dire circumstances, in my arms. He is not this way with dogs, and he likes his cousins Pearl and Oola, though sometimes they seem to worry him. I don’t know why.

Pearl and Oola, last year.

For the moment, all is well. The door to the deck stays open so Josie and Elliott can choose to snooze inside or out. Josie likes to catch a spot in the sun once in a while. Elliott likes to hunker down and watch the many birds—the crows, the gulls, the hummingbirds, the doves, the what-have-yous. Strangely enough there is a mallard couple that hangs out just up the road. Elliott does not go up there so does not see them, but Josie and I often see them on our morning walk. He chases them, lunging at the end of his leash, and the ducks waddle away, eventually take flight. Some afternoons, rather than going to the beach, Josie and I walk to the nearby marina to look at the boats coming and going as well as the ones just bobbing in their slips. Gulls are ever-present, and sometimes there are pelicans. There is also a seal in the harbor, and one afternoon we watched him (or her) lazing through the water, surfacing slowly, leading with his big black head then showing off the length of his long black body before slipping back under water.

ventura harbor
Lots of blue at the marina.

On the trip out here, in the motels, Josie and Elliott began playing together. Elliott started it, slowly getting Josie’s attention by hiding just around a corner of a bed and then making a sudden move—maybe a sidle-step-hop switch, a forward dash, or a lunge-retreat—as Josie passed by. Josie would respond with full-alert shock—Oh! Are we playing!?!—and then bounce around on the bed, throw his rump in the air, growl a bit, eventually chase Elliott the length of the room. Now here, back in the fold, Elliott is doing the same, getting Josie’s attention in some off-hand way and starting a ruckus. In the evenings especially there is a bit of running through the house, the heavy patter of a dog chasing a cat, a cat chasing a dog, and I’m pretty sure this is how it is meant to be.

dog tail
Josie and Elliott - The End.
Or is it just the beginning???

Friday, October 17, 2014

breaking down change, one: The Beeswax

What luck the beeswax has not changed. Here in California I make beeswax candles just as I did in Michigan.

I considered leaving the beeswax behind, considered not filling the van with all that gear and wax and traipsing with such a load through the cornfields, over the mountains, across the desert, but now here I am with two big bins of raw Michigan wax out in the driveway (and four smaller bins in a garage somewhere in Las Vegas—thank you, Louis), and so now I still go out and chop up hunks of wax, put the hunks in a pot with some water, put the pot on a burner and turn on the burner and the wax melts and once it is melted I put a cloth over it, dunk the cloth down into the wax in order to ladle out clean wax and then pour the clean wax into a large glass measuring cup, from there pour the wax into molds, molds that are wicked and neatly rubberbanded, ready to go. The wax cools, begins to harden. I do a little trim work. Eventually I pull the candles out of the molds, trim the wicks, put a label on each, wrap them up, send them off.

OK, there is a slight change. In California the wax melts more quickly; I must use a lower setting on the burner. And I have noticed that if the wax gets too hot, as it sometimes does, and you know it does because it begins boiling a bit, or perhaps it is just the water boiling up through the wax, but if it gets too hot one must wait to pour the candles, and here one waits longer. So that is another thing—the wax cools more slowly here. Because, I guess, in general it is warmer. The temperature is incredibly consistent—so far almost always between 55 and 75 degrees, 55 happening very early in the morning and 75 around midday. Of course there is the occasional flare into the 80s or 90s, and perhaps it will get colder at some point, some night, say, down into the 40s, but in general it seems one can depend on a mild, consistent temperature, and the wax reacts to this by setting up with its own incredible consistency, a bit more slowly, and this is good.

And this change: For now, I have a room dedicated to the wax—a true beeswax room. This is good, too. (Though now I want a bigger room.)

Making an open-ended move to southern California from northern Michigan has brought with it quite a bit of change and a good deal of uncertainty. I have been trying to figure out how to think about that change and uncertainty, how to process it, how to, in a way, acknowledge it and debug it all at the same time. I have been here four weeks. So much has pulled my attention away, pulled it this-a-way and that-a-way, and now this week the beeswax brought my attention back. Brought it right back and gave me focus. I set up at the December Store here in Ventura and I received a wholesale order from the Old Town General Store in Lansing. I dug into the wax. I started pouring bears and pine cones and moose and Buddhas and frogs and wolves and the sameness of that felt good.

The funny thing is, this one thing that feels the same is also a thing that is inherently about change—beeswax is all about change. It serves the bee, it serves man, it melts, it hardens, it blooms, it changes color, it can be malleable, it can be brittle. If it’s been made into a candle and somebody lights it it becomes a light, a flame, heat, a scent, a pool of wax, and soon, maybe, even, a headless bear or moose or little owl. The change starts as soon as a honeybee pulls a little flake of it from that gland in her abdomen and starts working it, turning it into whatever she needs it to be. It picks up the essence of flowers and nectar and bees and buds and honey and dirt and all I do is clean it, in that pot with a little water and a cloth and a ladle. Then I form it into whatever I—or you—want. But beeswax is also consistent—it will never rot or mold or crumble or fade away. So I know I cannot truly change it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

fall is in the air / the avocados told me so

Hot, dry, windy. Long, twisted, beige and russet strips of palm tree bark skitter across the road. Brittled fronds follow, looking a bit like rejects from a broom factory. I sit at a stoplight, waiting, watching.

Two errands: Complete the registration for my California Seller’s Permit; go to the nearest post office and buy stamps.

First errand goes well—I find the sprawling, two-story, non-descript office building where the Board of Equalization is and follow a few signs up stairways and down hallways to get to the office. All is well. But then, upon leaving the building, right outside the door, I see two beautiful autumn leaves. I pick them up.

The leaves.

A few days ago my brother-in-law was saying that it felt like autumn, that fall was in the air. I wondered about that—to me it was simply another sunny day in the mid-70s with flowers blooming all around. Where in that was autumn? It was a touch cooler, I was told, subtle, perhaps, but there. Fall. And I felt somewhat wistful, wished I could feel it, too.

Then there was that morning when the cottage was dark and quiet, stuck in a thick fog, and it was cool and damp with moisture on the windowsills. About two hours later, though, when I looked up from my tea and work and had gotten dressed and all that, it was clear and sunny and warm. Josie and I had a delightful walk. But, a couple hours after that, a hot, dry wind was blowing. Ninety-seven degrees and palm bark skittered like sagebrush down the road. In another few hours the wind turned, became a cool, salty breeze. Down at the beach the surf was up and the surfers were out. Gulls and pelicans dove and soared and bobbed on the waves right alongside. Fishing boats headed out into the sparkling water. Who ever said California weather is boring?

So I pick up these two autumn leaves and continue on with my second errand but am slightly distracted by thoughts of autumn and unfortunately right then, when I should have been paying attention to street signs and such, I pass a huge, flat field of pumpkins baking in the sun and I don’t realize that the left turn lane I willingly get into is funneling me onto the freeway. When the realization hits I swear, and swear again.

I do not want to be on the freeway, not to get to this post office and not in general. One must often take the freeway to get to where one is going around here, and often it is the best way to go, but right now my personal quest is to find my way to as many places as possible without using the freeway. I like driving more slowly through fields of pumpkins, strawberries, and avocado trees, down streets that go through business parks, past shopping malls and housing developments, up streets lined with small businesses, passing the occasional school or park. But right now I am on the freeway again, ripped from my autumnal musings and sometimes, of course, a wrong turn is exactly what you need, but other times, like right now, it is just irritating. And on the freeway here it seems not so simple as just getting off at the next exit, turning around, getting back on; these roads are simply not as neatly laid out as elsewhere, like other places I’ve been, like Chicago, or maybe I’m just, like, new here and don’t get it yet, but once when I missed a highway split in Minneapolis I got off at the next exit, had a sense of where to go and got right back on the highway finding my way without consternation. And now that I’m thinking about it, the same kind of thing happened in Duluth, twice. But this ain’t Duluth.

I get off the freeway, drive around a bit, get back on the freeway then off again ... Phew. More big hunks of palm bark skitter across the road.

Back on track but now it’s a little weird. I have lost confidence. Then I catch sight of the post office down an angled street off to the left in an old, narrow strip mall right there between GiGi’s Cocktail Lounge and The Hair & The Hound pet grooming parlor. It’s a nice, small, neighborhood post office with nary a wait, and the clerk is very nice. We agree the Farmers Markets stamps are the best.

The stamps.

I pretty much know my way home, pass by pumpkin fields, run over a few palm fronds, and later on I celebrate avocados, which is very much a fall-type thing to do around here.

The avocados.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

beeswax and ocean air (or: new venue, same bad poetry)

Before I close the window at night
I put my elbows on the sill
and lean out, lean into
the salty air
the ocean breeze
so warm and so cool and comforting
like a massage on the face from God
or The gods
the invisible gods of movement
and trust
and the air is moist and full.

Constant movement always
within and without
and the more still we become
the more we see
the movement
– our part –

Then at last the day comes –
I put the beeswax in the pot
add a little water
turn the heat up and
it slowly melts and
there’s a reminiscence of
wildflowers and
wild orchards of apple and
vistas of forest and river and lake
dark green and grey and now,
I suppose,
dark red and orange
mixing with salt and eucalyptus
crisp blue sky
sand underfoot
and flowers of
every color.

At night I lean into the ocean
and see the stars and
pick one to say
goodnight upon.
Goodnight, my someone. Then,
I close the window
till the day begins.