In this here bumper sticker land, this one seems to be the most popular.
This is funny. There I was in San Francisco, readying to head north to Sonoma County, specifically to Petaluma and my friend Mary’s, the next stop on my “itinerary.” But I was stymied. How would I get there? Donna offered her car for part of my time here, but that makes her getting-to-work process lengthy and laborious on top of an already full day. Far be it for me to make anyone’s work day longer. So I told her, “thank you, but no thank you” and then laughed at myself. I found my way all over Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand on rickety tuk-tuks, bumpety trains, whirring, falling apart motorbikes, broken-down carts, jammed-packed buses, occasional taxis, and even huge elephants … and here I was, confounded at how to go 40 miles north of San Francisco?! Suddenly it dawned on me – Golden Gate Transit, silly. Buses, you know the kine – and these are fancy ones – I’ll probably even have my own seat! What a breeze – the website wasn’t so clear about the stop nearby Donna’s house, but a simple, friendly phone call in a common language gave me the schedule and the stop, only one block away. $8.80 for a one-hour ride was exorbitant, I thought; but I also thought better than to discuss that with the nice man on the other end of the phone. I’d just arrived in one of the most expensive places on earth, from some of the least expensive. The adjustment was gonna take some time and doing. But hey, I’m flexible, I’m adaptable. I have no income, but it’s okay, I can do this!
I packed and re-packed, including stuff from a box of clothes I’d sent Donna before I left Hawaii that I thought I’d need here and at Esalen. And then one of the boxes I’d sent from Vietnam serendipitously arrived the same day I did. I had some re-arranging to do. My simple, single backpack was now replaced by a rolling tote brimming with an ensemble of clothes grander than I’d seen in five months, an overflowing daypack and a shoulder bag of souvenirs and my technological world. I set off.
There’s something excitingly archetypal about putting that backpack on and walking down Bay Street toward the GGT bus stop. I felt myself taking on the role of foreigner/traveler/pilgrim and sensed others seeing me that way, too. I liked it. Little did it matter that this was a familiar and known place – I treated it as a foreign one and myself as the guest. Donna and I had spoken about this one day on skype while I was at the beach on Koh Chang. It came up when I asked how life was for her and she said something along the lines of “well, just my normal life, nothing nearly as exotic as your life is.” It struck me in that moment, living as I was in some far off corner of the globe, that while I understood that my life seemed exotic to her, it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt normal. Not in the way that I wasn’t appreciative of it or was taking it for granted. But in the way that after months of moving moment to moment through life, it became comfortable and familiar for me to do so in these unusual-to-me cultures, mores, languages and systems. It wasn’t different anymore, it was my life now. Life ‘back there’ in the Western world was becoming the more unusual and strange. I had stepped out of the comfortable to find it yet again in the unfamiliar.
Now here in San Francisco, we looked up the word and Donna was only too happy to point out that we were able to consult not one, but two dictionaries because, you see, she had two of them on her jammed-packed shelves that were soon to be history in her house. Here’s what we found out:
“… from another part of the world; foreign; having the charm of the unfamiliar; strikingly and intriguingly unusual or different …” from American Heritage Dictionary
“ … foreign, not native; strange or different in a way that is striking or fascinating …” from Webster
Yep, it fit. From where she sat in her familiar apartment in her familiar city, in her familiar workplace, my gallivanting around foreign lands was indeed exotic. And from where I looked, after simultaneously so many and only five months, that lifestyle was strange and strikingly different to me. It really is all about perspective.
So I found my way to the exotic, expensive Golden Gate Transit bus and boarded, headed north. The one similar component was that I was an oddity here, too. While not the lone Westerner, I was definitely the lone traveler. The bus was mostly filled, but I was the only one maneuvering my arrival with a duffle, a tote and a shoulder bag. All the rest of the riders were headed-home commuters with, if anything, only their requisite briefcases and newspapers. It had been a foggy and cold day, but in just the last hour, the fog had lifted, giving way to a canvas of clear blue skies surrounding this enchanting, emerald city. As we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, it was as if I had never seen these sites I had witnessed literally thousands of times before. I was mesmerized, wide-eyed and barely able to contain my excitement as I gawked at the bay, the scintillating skyline and the wide-open ocean vistas. The woman sitting next to me – so deeply ensconced in her book that she’d hardly taken in my arrival – even looked up and took notice. Everyone else was either fast asleep or focused on their reading. I was captivated with the views from the bus windows taking us back to what my fellow riders may think of as their ordinary, nothing exotic-about lives in Sonoma County. For me, though, this was the exotic in the most welcome of ways.
As the bus exited the freeway onto Petaluma Blvd. South and made its first stop, I could swear I saw the ghost of the beige Mazda GLC, parked and awaiting my husband of 15 years ago, who got on and off at this very stop everyday for the almost two decades we lived on nearby Purrington Road. Today I stayed onboard – this had been his stop, after all, not mine; and today too, it wasn’t for me. We made our way to downtown Petaluma as tears filled my eyes and blurred my vision. I gathered my belongings and let the tears streak my face. There’s no other place that holds the depth and breadth of my history, memories and the dear relationships with friends who still live here. Assuming my vagabond lifestyle doesn’t change anytime soon (and I think that’s a fairly good bet); there’s no other place where I’ll likely be able to have the roots that still thrive so deeply in the rich soil of this land. I had come home.
Before long, Mary and I were on the porch with local, luscious chilled Chardonnay. My bags were in ‘my room’ as we rushed and laughed to speedily fill the conversation with all that needed to be said, tickled as we slowed down with the reminder that we could, there would be plenty of time over this next month for all that needed to be said. Mary’s home has become my home in Sonoma County as I return for my annual visits and how fortunate I am that this is so. And what a home it is – a lone, sprawling, spacious, simply and beautifully appointed 100-year old farm house, encircled by trees and greenery – a mix of eucalyptus, oak, redwood, buckeye, and willow – surrounded by a cattle ranch and pastures in rural western Petaluma yet only five minutes from downtown.
Mary has cultivated a love for birds and gardening here, so we watch with delight as the hummingbirds, phoebes, finches, titmice, western blues and others I’m not remembering at the moment eat, bathe, chatter and play nearby. The redwood stands sentinel over the pastureland where bunnies, cows, turkeys and the occasional deer wander by. I’m lulled into comfort and contentment with the sounds of the quiet and the blessings of our friendship.
We’ve forged an unlikely, yet enduring and endearing one over the decades since we were hospice work colleagues. Our connection spans the wide generational and societal differences which were the backdrop of our coming of age times that might otherwise have separated us. Yet somehow those pieces fade into the unimportant as the familiarity of our New York roots, our commitment to examined and enlivened lives, and our common understanding of the fierce importance of social justice, wicked humor and the essential-like-oxygen presence of poetry in our lives all combine to create the foundation of what matters to us and what keeps our friendship alive and thriving. My life is bigger and grander than it could otherwise be because of what I’ve learned from her. She’s taught me about friendship that sustains from the inside out, where sharing our laughter and our tears holds us up and sees us through; having abiding respect for nature and all her creatures, great and small; cultivating the lifelong pursuit of learning, growing and deepening our understanding of our inner lives, recognizing and assuming our roles within the larger human community and even the greater cosmology; balancing the importance of both solitude and companionship; fostering keen awareness of women’s and all disenfranchised people’s issues that keeps us informed and opens us to compassion like nothing else can; to say nothing of how she always brings the inspirational and healing influence of the written word into my life. Whew, that was a whole lot to say and by God, it’s all true! As she’d say, “Give me a break, I’m exhausted with it all!”
And she’s my friend. And for the next month, I get to share the simple day in and day out of life with her. It’s grand and I’m counting my blessings.
Like one glorious morning when she read this passage to me as we shared tea and coffee in the garden, surrounded with the bluest imaginable sky, shaded but warm sun and the assortment of flowers – alyssum, lilies, pansies, agapanthus & so many more in full of color and bloom, carefully, lovingly tended and bursting with the delight of full-on summer:
We have been to July before and we shall come again to other Julys just as rivers run to the sea. The drone of bees and late afternoon thunder conjure up village greens, muffled drums and high piccolo sounds in the treetops as Minutemen gather once again at Concord. After the festivities, summers comes as quietly as a canoe gliding into still water. It offers us great gifts, yet it creates a clash of desires. As Nikos Kazantzakis said, we are centaurs, half animal and half spirit. In summer these aspects collide. Summer is the season of the body, of love, of sensuality, of warmth and of spending and being spent. Summer is an invitation to experience the extremes within, to plunge into nature’s all-out-rout of the senses just as if we were to jump into the cool, waiting waters of a lake. There is little of traditional religion in summer. The Holy is found where it should be, in lived life, not in forever reaching beyond. Some religious calendars call these weeks “ordinary time,” implying, of course, that the common can be uncommonly illuminating. Summertime is “now” time. Spring and winter look ahead, autumn looks back, but summer is most at home in the here and now. It asks us to act now or never. It is nature’s extroverted season, seldom subtle! Air is dense and heavy. Shade becomes a hunger. Fields droop with green, and gardens lean under the weight. Beauty overpowers. Heat oppresses and thunderstorms build like pressure in the body until warm rain washes the hot streets, leaving steam to rise like the memory of a fleeting passion. Pavement warms the body as the night air begins to chill. Nights are soft to the touch and full of murmuring sounds. In summer everything is feelings, and all roads tempts from seashores to mountaintops. It is the time of nature’s benevolent dare: “Go ahead, see how I will care for you!” the God of summer is as Eudora Welty implied, apprehended not by argument or lengthy process, but in a moment – that forever province of childhood.
~from Almanac for the Soul, An Anthology of Hope
by Marv & Nancy Hiles
For a person who loathes routine of most any kind, I’ve watched myself engage in my non-routine routine of returning here. For a few days while Mary was away, I basked in that already longed-for solitude. There I was, moving in the ways and activities that punctuate every return visit here. I call and visit friends. Even as I have learned to live with the least amount of ‘stuff’ imaginable, I can’t resist the local thrift stores and their bargains and clothes at half the price of what I was able to find even in Asia. Sometimes I walk or drive seemingly aimless but not really, as the movie in my mind runs through the main roads and back streets of my memories. I wander through downtown Petaluma and Sebastopol and along the Petaluma River. I notice what’s new and am comforted by what isn’t. I’ve even run into a few people I know, all these many, many years later. I hike the bluff top trails of Bodega Head and the Sonoma coast, Armstrong Redwoods, Helen Putnam Park and River Regional Park; and I am stunned into silence by the beauty and the almost-seeable footprints I’ve left behind in what feels like eons and only moments ago. I shop at TJs for delectable treats and the Grocery Outlet for bargain ones. I’ve avoided Whole Foods so far, afraid of how it might decimate my already overblown budget. I won’t likely be able to resist it much longer.
There’s such a sense of comfort and familiarity here that I don’t feel like I’m just visiting. I really am living here now. I take walks in the same places. I eat at the same restaurants – Dempsey’s & Caffe Giostra & Uruapan & Sugo’s. The other night, I went to a Memoir Writing Workshop at the Sebastopol Art Center, the same place where I used to take my writing classes when I did ‘live’ here. Tomorrow I’ll go into Oakland with Mary to hear a presentation on Spirituality and Cosmology and in a few weeks, I’ll spend a day of retreat at Spirit Rock with Joanna Macy & Jennifer Berezan. This is the Bay Area – these are the kinds of things we do here. So I’m doing them. And I’m loving it. A lot.
And then there’s the time with friends. Mary and I get to spend time together daily while at the same time find ways to take and give plenty of time and space for ourselves. It flows pretty smoothly, although I’m sensitive, as someone who also lives alone and loves it, of being here too much and too long and trying not to hone in on her space, although she’s assured me it’s all fine. We share meals, hikes, our ideas and feelings, plenty of laughter, poetry, the quiet moments of the early mornings and the times just before sleep. And now, we’re delighting in the recent arrival of her new yellow Lab, Buddy, who I just might be as crazy about as she is. He came this past Saturday from Lab rescue, from a family who couldn’t keep him any longer; and at six years old, he’s a big and beautiful boy, well trained, loves company and already is just the kind of companion Mary was hoping for. Since I arrived, she’s been perusing the rescue emails and websites for a yellow Lab, reading their stories, looking at their photos and trying to decide which one would be her new buddy. He’s it, no doubt about it. Funny, I realized, I’ve been doing just the same thing and for some of the same reasons, but on dating, not dog sites. I remarked on our parallel processes the other day – she looked at me with that wry smile that so easily creeps across her face and said, “Do you think you’d consider a dog?” We giggled. “No,” I said – “too much work” (ha! And a partner?). “How about you, would you consider a man?” That got another big laugh out of both of us. We laugh a lot together. It seems she’s found her companion while I’m still wondering if it will ever be possible for me with the two-legged variety, but I remain ridiculously hopeful and optimistic.
So life here at Mary’s is quiet and sweet and wonderful. It’s certainly one of the best places I’ve gotten to call home in the last six months – beauty, order, space for solitude and connection – yep, I’m sitting pretty in Petaluma!
And then there’s times I see other folks – Flea and Donna and Daron and Judy and Tho and others, reconnecting and finding our ways to keep those connections alive and true. I’ve even reconnected with some family members – my nephew Dom and his girlfriend Cathy, and his mother Jeanne and her sister Valerie, who I’ve known since I was 6 years old. The fact that my sister-in-law is no longer married to my brother (with whom I have no contact or relationship) simply doesn’t matter. We’re family and the connection is by choice, not obligation and important to us both.
And then I get to have my time in the Godyssey, the RV that I own with Flea and Jim. She’s a fine little home on wheels, although she’s getting old like the rest of us. But after my first few days of getting reacquainted, I am enchanted once more and tickled with the time I spend with her. She took Donna and me to Calistoga last week-end and we’ll head to Marin this coming week-end, the Sierras next week and the Redwoods the week after. Yes, this is what I do here – I see friends, I hike and connect with the land that I love, I shop in the thrift stores, I go to workshops and lectures and I cruise in the Godyssey. It’s a really lovely life.
I’ve handily avoided taking care of much business, but I’ve made a few calls and even some appointments. The Godyssey is registered again and my bills are paid. Before too long, I’ll make my way through the rest of the list. But I’m holding it lightly and actually enjoying taking care of these details of life – it’s far from drudgery when I approach with pleasure and trust that it will all get done. Because it always does, you see. I’m aware that for the first time in many, many years, I have no health insurance. While it’s not heavy on my mind, something’s got to be done about it and soon. But not today.
The Esalen Work Scholar waiver form made it in the mail; and I’m aware that my month at Esalen is fast approaching and moving closer to the front burner of my thinking. I really am going to Esalen for a month-long work scholar program in “Sharing Your Life Story.” Unbelievable. A part of me thinks I was brilliant in making such a plan; another part thinks me insane. They’re both true, I’m sure of it.
Today I went to my old work place – I didn’t mean to go there, I was just meeting Flea there for Godyssey paperwork. And in the process, I sort of ‘forgot’ that I’d see a whole slew of people that were part of the team I worked with for so many years. I thought they’d all be in a meeting, actually, and I could just slip in and slip out without being seen. That didn’t happen. As I walked up to the building, I was struck with how odd it felt to open the door and walk into a building whose threshold I had stood at hundreds of times; and yet this time, while it was familiar, it was more distant than it had ever been. I was struck with standing in the lobby, taking in the ways the place welcomes and calls people in – it’s unusual – maybe even exotic! I wasn’t prepared to be inundated with hugs and shouts of “ohmigod, it’s you, how are you, how are you?!” I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights – how had I not anticipated this? I couldn’t quite meet their excitement with my own and yet it touched me that they greeted me so. I meandered through the building, and noticed how free I was to do so – no one even seemed to mind that I felt comfortable to cruise around. I walked past my old office, saw a meeting in progress with former co-workers and kept on walking. I noticed the Executive Director’s office, right at the top of the stairs amidst all the staff, with a wall of glass for anyone to see right on in and the door wide open – accessible and available, right in the middle of it all. I was struck with thinking about the last Executive Director with whom I worked, her office sequestered off in a corner, the solid core door more often closed than open and very often locked – the difference struck and startled me. I entered the Reflection Room, a round space for quiet contemplation, meditation, small meetings and a peaceful refuge in the midst of the work days. I was greeted by more former colleagues, all of them hugging me warmly. I knew most all the people I had seen in the building. What was I doing here? It was just too surreal – I laughed as the crazy thought, “was I working today?” even entered my mind. No, I wasn’t. I left after Flea and I finished our short chat and went on with my day. But I carried that morning with me and I realized how seemingly impossible it was to ever leave that workplace which was the supportive and loving I had ever experienced. And I thought, “I could do it again – I could work here again – part time, per diem, I could do it.” I tucked the thought away and carried on.
As is always the case for me in returning to the Bay Area, merging with the pace of life here is one of the greatest challenges. This time is no exception. I’ve lived for the past five months with virtually no structure and little in the way of forward planning. I moved from moment to moment, often surprising myself with where I ended up or when or how I did it. There was no looking at calendars, there was no planning with others or wondering about anything except how I wanted to pass the time in this specific moment. I came to cherish this kind of living – discovering my pace, my interests and desires and moving into the next moment from them. Yes, I was sometimes lonely in the midst of it all and longed to be back here amongst loved ones and familiar territory. But what I learned about leaving routine, timetables, schedules and plans behind and listening instead to an internal kind of knowing and trusting is something I’m determined to hold on to and figure out how to bring it with me no matter where I go. It’s already more complicated here as I learn the two-step – stay true to myself while engaging deeply with others. It’s not a well-honed skill, but I’m resolute in learning to make it one!
Finally, after two weeks, I’ve created a calendar and even moved through the resistance to schedule activities, appointments and commitments. I didn’t want to let go of complete spontaneity, but I also didn’t want to miss out on seeing the people and places that I love. I had to surrender. I realized that that kind of spontaneous life belongs to the solitary one, living only from my own center, my own sense of what matters and what interests me, without having to take anyone or anything else into consideration. It’s the exhilarating freedom that comes from that solitary life that I’ve come to treasure more than I could have ever before known. Ohsure, it’s not without it’s challenges – loneliness being the primary one – and I’m not quick to forget them; but my soul is longing to learn the balance of both connection and solitude. The dance still baffles me, but I’m determined to stay erect, if not wobbly, on the dance floor and keep on practicing. My extroverted, expressive and ebullient self has always been front and center, focused on constant relating, relating, relating. But now that solitude is the well from which I renew and replenish; it’s become my home base, my place of refuge and reflection. The ebullience has got to move on over and make some room, because this reverence for solitude thing is not gonna go away. It’s like living alone and suddenly needing to make room for a new roommate. Except this time the roommate is me!
So I’m learning. I even like my calendar now. There’s plenty of wide open spaces so I don’t feel too constricted; and there’s plenty of dates with people and places I hold so very dear. Yes, indeed, I am getting used to life here in Sonoma County, the Bay Area again and I must say, I am quite enamored with it all.
I realized only a few days after arriving in Petaluma that even with five weeks here, it isn’t enough. I want and need more time (and on a regular basis, I’m sensing) in Sonoma County and that’s all there is to it. I don’t know in this moment what that means necessarily, and I don’t need to. I just know what I feel and I feel deeply connected here in a way that I want to keep on feeling. More, please.
Life in Hawaii feels so very, very far away. I miss my cats – Makana, and Pono who has still not returned, but whom I’m not quite ready to believe is permanently gone. I miss my sweet cabin. And a few friends. And singing. Ohmigod, and the weather, yes, yes, the glorious weather; that is, when it isn’t raining. And of course, the incredible tropical beauty that is Hawaii and the raw and wild place that is Puna. But the truth is, the land there is not calling me back. I’m simply not as connected there as I am here. In the longing and loneliness that surrounded me in the southeast Asian foreign-ness, it was not Hawaii that was comforting me in my imaginings; it was here, in this place called Sonoma County. I still don’t know what that means and I still don’t need to. But I’m noticing it, you can bet I am definitely noticing it.
I’ve been worried about writing. This is the dilemma. It seems I only ever find the time and more importantly, the spaciousness to write when I am totally and completely alone. So I haven’t been writing. And that scares me. Sometimes, like now, when I’ve been away from my regular or daily writing process, I’m sure I’ve forgotten how to do it, how to express myself in a way that moves the reader … well, not only the reader, but me, the writer, too. I worry that I’m just reporting details of blah-blah-blah-ness that are not deep or meaningful or profound or touching or any such thing. Ohmigod, ohmigod, I don’t know how to write anymore. I’ve lost access to the deep truth in me – what’s gonna happen now? And guess what thinking like that does to my writing – yep, it makes it tedious and boring and all the things I don’t want it to be – in the writing of it, let alone the reading. I guess I better just keep on writing and see what happens.
It’s the same old story of balancing contact and separation, writing and engaging – arghhhhh, I don’t know how to live an integrated life, engaging in all the dimensions that are life-giving and fulfilling! I’m desperate to be alone, I’m desperate to be intensely intimate and connected to others. I’m desperate to be alone so that I can have lots of room and space to write and I’m desperate to be in community with people I love. Okay, well maybe desperate is too strong of a word. But something like it, yes, something like it for sure.
Today I went to visit the cemetery where my mother’s body is buried in the earth. While I’m not struggling with my wardrobe here nearly as badly as I was in Asia, the choices are still somewhat limited. I purposely chose one of the few dresses I have with me – and I felt Sara smile – it seemed ‘right’ to be dressed up for our visit. I can’t say I went to where my mother is, though, because that’s not true. Her decomposing body is there, yes, but not her. Still, it felt important to go there. And it was. I recalled back to the day almost two years ago when we buried her there, when her military funeral honored her with taps (played by someone who happened to know her) and when we released the homing doves carrying her spirit to the heavens. I felt like I saw them again today and I was able to take in their flight with more lightness than I could back in August 2009.
I’ve been struggling with a full acceptance of her death even though I walked with her right up until the final moment, the last breath; still the permanence of her being gone has taken a long time to deeply sink into me. More of it happened today. We had a good talk. I heard her laughter and I sensed her soaring spirit far beyond this grave site at the Oakmount Cemetery in Healdsburg. The sadness I felt when I arrived gave way to a close sense of connection with her that told me all was well. Sure, I could miss her and yet still feel her within me and around me. I sat there for a long time, sometimes with tears and sometimes with smiles. I took a long walk around the cemetery and in so doing, my grief lessened, recognizing that it was not ‘my’ grief, it was ‘The’ grief shared by all of us as we live with the loss of those we love. I left behind a rose from Mary’s garden, surrounded her marker with rosemary clippings from Mary’s bush (as Shakespeare said, ‘rosemary is for remembrance’) and encircled her name with sand dollars I had brought back from the beach on Koh Chang. Yes, we had a good visit indeed.
“I’d rather be here now.”