Moment of Grace

IMG_0955I found myself praying in a church yesterday—technically, a synagogue. I haven’t prayed in a religious structure in more than 25 years. Balen and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of his close friends, Dennis. The celebration was folded into a normal Shabbat service, a new experience for both of us. I was raised in the Protestant faith and attended Baptist, Pentecostal, and Wesleyan services, even a few Catholic masses here and there for special occasions with friends. But, I’d never taken Balen to a church.

I had lived a few houses down from Rabbi Greg for many years during my first marriage. His wife gave my daughter, Britt, cello lessons through junior high and high school. Britt’s recitals were held in the synagogue where the bench rows formed a U shape around a raised platform.

Balen chose to sit with friends on the left side—a cluster of boys all around the cusp of 13. A few wore yarmulkes. Curly red hair, black wavy hair, pale blond, dark brown. I could see the row of them from where I sat, all different heights in various stages of man-child transition. It was amazing to see them all sitting in one place (sometimes fidgeting) for more than two hours without their hands wrapped around a cell phone, eyes downcast. Instead, they watched the blessing of their friend as he entered manhood in the Jewish faith, regardless of whether they understood any Hebrew. Part of me ached as I watched Balen. He did not have a strong cultural affiliation to any one belief system to mark this coming of age.

They watched Rabbi Greg wrap a tallit, or prayer shawl, around Dennis’s shoulders and listened as the significance of the knotted fringes were explained. Those who knew the words joined the tallit prayer while the rest of us felt enveloped by the ancient echoes of a language whose words urged us to wrap ourselves in the tallit, to feel ourselves woven together in one fabric.

I had felt wrapped in the comfort of community since reaching the synagogue doors where we were greeted by Annette Fineberg, the woman who saved my life when Balen was six days old. She was the doctor on call when I stopped in the office to have a swollen leg examined 13 years ago after a c-section. She knew it was a warning sign for blood clots and sent me to the ER with firm instructions not to leave until we found some answers. Many procedures and several hours later, I was admitted with multiple blood clots in my lungs that could have silently killed me at home without warning. Over the years, we’ve seen each other in town and chatted about life, our kids. She will always remember my face; I will always remember hers. I found out yesterday morning that she is Dennis’s aunt. Small world!

As Shabbat drew to a close, Rabbi Greg and Annette led us in singing a Blessing for Healing as she strummed the guitar. Keep the names of loved ones that need healing in your heart as we sing, he urged us. Verses of Hebrew echoed in the synagogue like the pitch of singing bowls, the intonation not unlike the Shiva mantra I chant in yoga.

May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us

Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing

And let us say Amen.

Bless those in need of healing with r’fu’a sh’le-i-ma

The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,

And let us say Amen.

After the service, I walked into the sunlight momentarily relieved of a weighted pressure that had been keeping my chest tight and closed for weeks. I breathed deep from my belly, the weight lifted and I bowed my head with a slight namaste to the community of spirits surrounding me in a moment of grace.


Creating your own writer’s retreat

My writing friend Amanda and I were jonesing to get away from the daily routine of work, kids, and family to delve into writing projects—a poetry manuscript for her, a memoir for me. We applied for a joint residency but didn’t get it, so I suggested we create our own retreat. On a budget, that’s not easy to do.

Idyllic little cabins near the coast (or anywhere really!) through Air B&B or VRBO were cost prohibitive. And in a wet January, camping didn’t seem the best option either. But my stepmom owns a little old house five hours north in Grants Pass, Oregon. Who is up for a drive?!

The Rogue River from the backyard.
The Rogue River from the backyard.

With only four days, we would have two solid days of writing, with two days on either end of some writing and lots of driving. Perhaps not ideal, but better than nothing.

We stop for a late lunch in Ashland on the way north where we find a divine mushroom burger with caramelized onions and fontina cheese on a brioche bun toasted with garlic oil. And a Caesar salad with half slice of anchovy on top…and fries! Good thing we shared. Continue reading “Creating your own writer’s retreat”

Adventures Close to Home

canoe rideI confess to the bit of envy I feel when seeing my friends post photos to Facebook from a trip to Morocco, a twinge of wanderlust to be in a new land, sampling exotic spices and hearing the melody of a language that doesn’t roll off my tongue. Those are the times I find it most important to remember that adventure awaits outside the front door, a short walk to the pond or a 20 minute drive to put the canoe in at Solano Lake.

1147523_10201895782622614_366563213_oReally, it’s just a section of Putah Creek. But it’s full of wildlife–beaver, otter, raccoon, egrets, great blue heron, bullfrogs, osprey, woodpecker, kingfisher, Canada geese, buffleheads, cormorants, turkey vultures, red-shouldered hawks, red-winged blackbirds, three-spined stickleback that my son loves to scoop up in a net while drifting in the canoe. I’m sure this is only scratching the surface of the species out there.

raccoonBut it’s our little slice of heaven that we explore in every season.

blackberry cobblerDeep in the summer months, we stain fingers purple with blackberry juice in our quest to gather enough for a cobbler.

tacosThose are the days we head west toward Winters in late afternoon and stop at the El Verduzco taco truck parked at the Mariani Nut Company. After eating an assortment of carnitas, asada and adobada tacos, we hit the road to drive another few miles along Putah Creek Road till we find the extra wide pullouts  where you can park your car to unload a canoe or kayak.

DSC_3609_LR for blogOnce on the water, you never know what you’ll see! Here are some images from the past couple of trips–enjoy!


Running away from myself…

I’ve gotten really good at running lately. You wouldn’t know it from looking at my thighs, but my monkey mind takes off running like a bear is chasing it every time I have an hour to sit down and write a few pages for my memoir. And I see the most amazing things…like the black mildew in corners of the shower that I didn’t notice yesterday. Just a sec, I gotta go get the bleach spray bottle.

Then I have to go pee and notice the toilet hasn’t been scrubbed since last week when company was coming over. Where did that fine layer of hair and dirt come from on the floor? Ok, the broom will take care of that. Opening the laundry area doors to get the broom reminds me to start a load of wash so I can hang it to dry while the sun is still out. I’m thirsty and go into the kitchen to make a glass of iced tea. A little caffeine will help get me going on this writing project. Damn, I forgot about those dishes from last night. No worries, they can wait while I make a pot of popcorn ‘cause now I’m a little hungry.

I grab the step stool to reach the vegetable oil from the top cabinet shelf and feel nasty grime over the door pull. Grease spatters from the stovetop below are covered with dust up here. It’s really gross. I need to grab the bottle of 409. Wait, is that good for painted surfaces? I should use the other cleaner under the sink in the guest bathroom. The cat comes out of the litter box as I get there and the stink reminds me to clean out his litter box. Ya know, the toilet in here needs scrubbing too. I finish and as I’m washing my hands, I see the soap container is nearly empty. I need to start a grocery list so I won’t forget it next time. What else do we need from the store?

I open the fridge and a funky smell wafts past. Where is that coming from? Veggie drawer is the likely culprit. Sure enough, the kale I should have used in my super green smoothie a few days ago has reached the slime stage. Into the compost bucket…that is now full. I take the compost bucket out back and see I forgot to deep water the tomatoes this morning. It’s been a couple days. And the basil is looking a little peaked too. But oh, there’s a lovely green dragonfly. I run inside to grab my camera. After taking a few shots, I’m getting warm, so I head back inside to get that iced tea and bring it out to the back yard. Think I’ll just put my feet up for a few minutes. I can’t remember what I was going to do anyway.

While I write this to make fun of myself, it’s all too real. There are scenes that I have tried to write lately only to get one sentence down and then I find a wall blocking my way. J says it’s because there’s something deep there I haven’t dealt with yet. Mind you, these are events from more than 20 years ago that I’m trying to write. While some of that time comes out of me in waves, this experience apparently won’t be so easy. 

On the water again…

For many years, tradition had it that our family would load up the canoe on my birthday and head up to Lake Natomas, near Folsom, for a day on the water. We brought plastic buckets and other containers to pick blackberries from branches overhanging the canoe. My dad always joked that for every berry that made it into my bucket, I must be eating two. By the end of the day, I had purple lips and teeth. We’d often make homemade vanilla ice cream out on the back porch after getting home and a blackberry cobbler with luscious crunchy crumbles on top.

This year J made sure we were back on the water for my birthday–a sojourn out to Putah Creek up near the Berryessa hills. Thanks babe!

Roxy’s first canoe trip!

Captain Hamilton

Pelicans on Putah Creek!

Great blue heron and Canada geese

Berry thief!

Flight dreams…

Sometimes we just need to be reminded…

Got an email today from friend and sole sister, Margot, with this photo attached and the subject line “Sometimes we just need to be reminded.” I know she is thinking of her uncle (and my friend) Chuck, who is in the hospital awaiting his bone marrow transplant tomorrow from his brother. We thought he had whipped this lymphoma thing in the ass, but it came back a few months ago. Whenever I think of Chuck’s struggle, I want to kick myself for every moment I spend worrying about the loss of a job. In less than two weeks, I don’t know where I’ll be. The uncertainty gnaws at my self-confidence. I know I won’t be on the street, but where will I land?

But this…this poster…this manifesto for how to approach life—it seems so simple and yet challenging to enact day in and day out. And yet a wonderful reminder. Who knows what tomorrow brings? One of my favorite quotes comes from Thich Nhat Hanh…”The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.” I can’t say I’ve gotten good at this yet, but I will keep trying!

Thanks Margot for the reminder…

Indiana Jones…you got nothin’ on this kid!

“Mom, look, an entire skull!”

You would have thought B had just made the latest dinosaur fossil discovery—right in the middle of the co-op parking lot. He held up a tiny skull, grey fluff still intact in some spots.

“Look—see the brain case?!”

“Um, yeah, can you find ones that are completely dried? I’m not sure what that will smell like in your room if it’s not entirely decomposed—the bugs still have some work to do,” I replied.

“Ok, good idea.” He placed the cranium back among the other bones littered under the large sycamore tree.

A cool breeze ruffled B’s hair as he bent over another owl pellet, pulling it apart with a small twig and separating bits of bone from fur. We were enjoying a rare July day in California’s Central Valley when it wasn’t much above 80 degrees—such a welcome respite from the triple digits two weeks earlier.

I left the house a short time before to run errands, feeling a little impatient that I had so much on my to-do list and a seven year old who kept stopping to investigate life’s minutia. After a few minutes of watching him sift through the dirt, I realized that rushing him into the store and risking a melt-down because I wouldn’t let him look for bones wasn’t worth the trade-off of giving him another five or ten minutes of investigation.

I stood with my purse slung over one shoulder, looking at the people giving him quizzical glances on their way to load groceries into cars and bikes. What was this kid doing crouched in the dirt under a tree on the fringes of the parking lot? A sweet-faced older woman wheeled her cart toward us and stopped.

“What are you looking for there?” she asked B.

“Bones,” he mumbled, a bit embarrassed.

“Show her what you have,” I encouraged him.

He lifted up the clear plastic container that we had gotten for salsa at lunch and hadn’t used. It was nearly full to the brim with femurs half the length of my pinky finger, narrow pelvic bones, jawbones with bits of teeth and vertebra still fused.

“Wow, quite a treasure trove there, I see,” she smiled down at him. “Where did those come from?”

He pointed above his head to the owl box installed in the sycamore’s branches.

She patted me on the arm. “Congratulations, Mom.”

I wasn’t sure what the congratulations were for. Was it that I was showing patience in letting him explore? That I wasn’t freaking out about him touching all the bones and fur (he could wash when he was done)? That I had a curious child enthralled and excited about these rodent bones as if he was on a dino dig in Utah?

I asked if she had children. Yes, two grown now, a son and daughter. And one grandson, but he had autism, she said. She glanced at my son and when she looked back at me, her eyes were shiny with unfallen tears. I could see her unspoken dreams, her disappointment and acceptance. I wanted to offer hope and solace, but what could I do but nod and offer a sad smile?

We wished each other a lovely day and I turned to sit on the concrete edge of the parking lot to marvel over each of B’s new finds and to let the tears come—the tears of gratefulness, of living in a perfect moment, the here and now full of wonder and possibility.