Skin: A Conduit of Memory

My skin is a conduit of memory. One soft touch takes me back to my sweet high school boyfriend, the first male to every caress me; one harsh squeeze reminds me of one of my college boyfriends, the only person who ever physically hurt me; one stroke on my back connects me to my mother and her “You tickle me and then I’ll tickle you” times when I was little; one poke calls to mind my brother George who loved to prod me into wrestling matches before we got too old for that sort of thing.

My skin is a graveyard of past events. My left knee bears the scars of multiple falls, the first as I raced a childhood friend to his house – I on my bike and he on foot – until in his zeal to win that race he grabbed my handlebars and twisted. I went down less than a block from my house, landing on that left knee with full force of skidding motion coupled with the weight of a Western Flyer. Gravel embedded in broken flesh, pink skin, red blood, clear tears as I limped back home to my mother’s arms.

A second fall, less grand in scale and so much more embarrassing. Fast-forward over 40 years and see me walking up the steps to a renovation-in-progress of our Victorian home. Men with tool belts zipping with great ease up and down multiple ladders leaning against the big two-story house. One thin piece of caution tape stretched across the sidewalk to prevent onlookers from getting too close. I, wearing sandals, step over that caution tape barely a foot off the ground and catch my little toe in the tape. Falling down with full force on that same left knee straight on the pavement, ripping the flesh and embedding tiny pieces of dirt and gravel. I jump up and pretend nothing has happened – I need to save face – only to later pick out the debris and wash the wound with hydrogen peroxide while tears stream down my cheeks. Knee aching in the night – for several nights – before the scab slowly forms. Months pass before that knee is fully healed.

My face bears several scars, the most prominent of which comes from a dog bite I received while I was in graduate school. I entered the home of a friend of a friend with 7 other people. I was number 5 in line to “see the new puppies of a Great Dane.” That same dog spied me from across the room – I was nowhere near her puppies – and sailed over a coffee table and straight for my face. Knocking my glasses off (thank God for my glasses) she chomped down with teeth bared and ripped open my bottom lip and the skin right above my right eye. I begin to run through a house I’d never before visited with the dog tight on my heels. I saw an open door, ran in and slammed it shut just as – BAM! – the dog hit the door and was snarling and barking right on the other side.

I ended up in the emergency room with the pet owner begging me not to sue him. (I hadn’t even considered such a thing.) A middle-aged doctor sauntered into the room in his pajamas and robe and sewed me up. As he was leaving, he turned and said, “Not bad for a guy who forgot his glasses.”

Several years later, I saw a college boyfriend who was by then an emergency room physician. He took my face in his hands and examined my scars. “What happened here?” he asked in a tone that suggested that my looks had been permanently flawed from those events.

Another scar came when I was in my kitchen with my daughter Liz and I had just said, “Isn’t it strange how life can change on a dime?” Right at that moment I turned, slipped on water from the dog bowl, lost my balance and hit the edge of a wooden chair first with my nose and then my upper lip, which burst open like a ripe melon. Within two seconds, I had the beginning of a shiner as well as a gaping lip that required five stitches. Ten minutes later, we were in the car and on our way to the Urgent Care center. The young doctor sewed up my lip and left two curling runs of thread. I looked in the mirror as I was leaving and saw that I now bore a strong resemblance to one of the Three Musketeers. I began to laugh, then Liz laughed too, and we dissolved into side-splitting giggles while the waiting room full of people watched. Once home, I trimmed my “mustache.” After all, I had to keep the stitches in for over a week.

My skin reminds me that I am mere flesh that is easily thrown out of balance. My memories are both bitter and sweet, but the sweet ones far outweigh their counterparts. My scars remind me of many long-gone people, places and events and I remember that my life is a work-in-progress. Thank God for those scars. Without them, I might have missed the opportunity to feel the exhilaration and pain of a life lived as best I can so far.

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4th of July Parade in Ojai

Yesterday, Ray and I were up in the town of Ojai (population 8,000) where we have our orange grove. We went up there to join our daughter Liz and her fiancé Ron to attend the 4th of July parade in downtown Ojai. 

Apparently every year many of the residents put their lawn chairs out on the sidewalks of the main street as many as 2 to 3 weeks ahead of the annual 4th of July parade. Clearly, they want a front row seat. We drove through town before the parade and saw lawn chairs of various shapes, colors and sizes neatly lined up facing the street in anticipation of the parade. The chairs’ very presence made us want to come since one must assume this is one hum-dinger of an event if people are taking time out of their busy days to fold up lawn chairs, put them in the trunks of their cars and drive them down to secure that “perfect” spot for parade viewing.  I overheard an older woman who looked like a long-term Ojai resident tell her fellow chair holders, “My chairs have been sitting in this spot for the past 2 1/2 weeks.”

We actually were worried that we would have to stand the entire parade, particularly given the number of chairs that were lined up. However, as luck would have it, we found a nice low wall to sit on right behind those chairs just 30 minutes before the parade started. Admittedly, we weren’t as comfortable as the chair occupants and we also didn’t bring ice chests like many of them did, but we were surprisingly happy.

The parade was lots of fun. A marching band, veterans from different wars and branches of the service, vintage cars and tractors, several groups of horseback riders with dancing horses and their own bands, firefighters in their firetrucks, sheriffs on horseback, exercise studios doing routines on the street, floats sponsored by schools and churches and even the Hari Krishnas. There was even a thurifer leading the float for St. Andrew’s Episcopal church!  Lots of waves and smiles exchanged between people in the parade and the parade attendees; lots of little kids dashing out to pick up candies tossed from floats; lots of clapping for horses and dancers and kids from the Tae Kwon Do studio breaking boards with their feet. A wide range of entertainment that lasted a full 1 1l2 hours.

Next year, we will definitely be back and maybe even consider putting our lawn chairs out early. We might even bring a smallish ice chest as well.  After all, it is quite an event and we might as well be comfortable.

Luna and Church

Yesterday, Luna and Nico went to church with us.

When I told Luna at breakfast that we were going, she said, “Aw, Grandma, I don’t like church.”

I shrugged. “When you visit Grandma and Grandpa on a Sunday morning, church is just what we do.”

She went back to eating her oatmeal.

On the way to church, she repeated to Grandpa that she didn’t like going.  Ray said, “I’m surprised to hear you don’t like the music.”

“It’s too loud,” she said. “Sometimes I have to put my hands over my ears.”

“Hmmmm,” Ray said.

“Will Grandma be up front today, wearing one of those funny dresses?”

“No.  Today, she’ll be just one of the regular people, sitting with us.”

Luna glanced at me and nodded.

Once we were settled in the pew and the music began, I noted Luna didn’t put her hands over her ears.  As it turned out, the music was just perfect, not too loud, not too quiet.

After drawing designs for at least 30 minutes on the pledge envelopes supplied in the pews (I figured future pledgers might appreciate a bit of artwork), Luna looked at me and said, “Well, I still don’t like church, but I do enjoy the little snack we get at the end.”

“Oh, the bread and the wine?”

“Just the bread, Grandma. No wine.”

I’d forgotten. The last time Luna went up for communion, she thought she was getting juice. When she tasted the wine, her whole face twisted as if she’d just bitten into a lemon.  Definitely no wine for Luna, at least at age five.

Luna as flower girl and Nico as ringbearer at Nico’s Godmother’s wedding

Luna and Nico at the wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repost: Inspiration from John Steinbeck

This is a repost, but I was reading about John Steinbeck just this morning and for that reason, this seems especially fitting to share tonight.  I appreciate so much Steinbeck’s willingness to share his uncertainty about his writing.  His openness and generosity help me not to feel quite so alone.

I have just begun reading John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a compilation of Steinbeck’s letters to his editor and friend, to whom he addressed a journal entry every day before writing his manuscript pages for his novel.

East of Eden is one of the first books I read years ago that grabbed me and twisted my thinking around. I thought I was reading one story and then halfway through everything shifted and I was reading another much more unexpected one. I will never forget that visceral sensation of being yanked into the world of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. That was the moment I fell in love with literature.

I’ve reread East of Eden in the past years, and now see that it is an imperfect book in some ways, heavy on message and clumsy in some of its pacing. And yet, I still love it because it has so many beautiful parts and also because it was the first book to demand my attention and make me think, “Oh, wow. This is so different (and better) than I initially thought.”

Now that I’ve written a memoir and have turned that memoir into a novel, I have some sense of how very difficult novel-writing is. I am now in the early stages of a second novel and reading Steinbeck’s thoughts as he is working on East of Eden is a gift beyond measure. It is so helpful to read the unguarded words of a writer who is seeking to write the best book of his life.

Two of my favorite quotes so far are:

In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not very much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me. And always I hope that a little trickles through. This urge dies hard.

I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way. I think I mean that. It is the ideal. And I have done just the opposite. I have written each book as an exercise, as practice for the one to come. And this is the one to come. There is nothing beyond this book – nothing follows it.

It must be noted that those “practice books” included Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and The Pearl, to name a few. Also, East of Eden was not Steinbeck’s last book, though he considered it his greatest one.

I will continue to read Journal of a Novel and to “strain and puff” as I work on my writing. I like the idea of approaching this new book as if it were my last. That makes sense to me – no holding back. Now comes the effort and the hope that maybe just a little of what I’m trying to do will “trickle through.”

I best get started.

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When Feeling Low…

This morning Ray and I got up at 5:30 and went to cook breakfast for the needy at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, Hollywood. When we arrived at 6, the lights were all off in the parish hall and there were two homeless men waiting outside for our arrival. As we walked up, one said, “I’m here early to help you set up this morning.”  He went in and promptly began setting up tables and chairs in the big hall. The other man helped him.  Ray and I surveyed what food we had, made a breakfast plan and then he headed off to Smart and Final to buy whatever food we didn’t already have.

I started working on a bread pudding, which included big chunks of white cake with vanilla buttercream frosting that had been donated by a local food bank. Shortly after, our sexton Eddie arrived, who went to work on all the final details for getting ready to serve a large breakfast. By 7 am, Bob and Ben (two of our mainstay volunteers) and their two little nephews arrived. Shortly after, Candace – a friend of B & B’s arrived, plus an adorable older couple originally from Lebanon.  We were set. No problems now. We had plenty of people to makes everything for our breakfast, which today included scrambled eggs, corn beef hash, heated mini-hamburgers, pork dumplings, bread pudding, canned peaches and lemonade.  We buzzed around doing our jobs and making sure everything was out on the serving tables by 8 am.

In the meantime, we had fifty or sixty diners arrive for a solid hot meal with coffee.

Let me just say, if you’re feeling the way I’ve been feeling lately – a bit discouraged and upset by the national news – then find a way to help those who are less fortunate than you are.  I had one man come up and say, “Thank you for your beautiful smile,” another express gratitude for the delicious food and a woman grin at me and say, “I’m so happy to see you!”  I had a long discussion with one table of well-informed and concerned diners about our current immigration policy and promised another diner that I would put his gift (a CD) in a safe place for one of our volunteers who couldn’t come today. (That same man gave me my own CD just a few weeks ago: Janice Joplin’s Early Performances since he knows I’m from Texas.) One young man came up at the end of the meal and offered up a blessing for our good works, praying for all the volunteers to have a positive upcoming week.

The woman volunteer from Lebanon told me that she and her husband moved to the US in the 1980s because they are Christians and it was not safe for them to live in Beirut. “I am blessed to be here this morning,” she said, as we filled up to-go containers for those who needed more food for later in the day. I felt my heart lift from all the goodwill around me. “Me too,” I said. “Yes, me too.”

In other words, today I received a good deal more than I gave and I walked out the door feeling a lot better about the generous spirit of human beings.

I believe in the basic goodness of people and our shared concerns regarding the world around us.  I trust these qualities will keep us grounded in our common humanity and help us rise above our divisions. We all want the same things, after all – a warm meal, a safe place to sleep, kindness, a sense of connection and a little hope.

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Two Beacons of Light

I had a lovely visit with Fong Nham and his girlfriend, Kelly Luc, who drove all the way from Rosemead, CA to see me today. I worked with Fong two years ago on his applications to medical school and with Kelly this past year on her application to Physician Assistant school.  They were kind enough to bring gifts from the Asian market where Fong’s dad works: fresh avocados, golden kiwis from New Zealand and yellow Philippine-style noodles.  Fong has just completed his first year at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Miami International University and Kelly will begin her PA training at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, CA in August.  I was very pleased to see both of them.

Fong and Kelly’s parents fled to the United States during the 1990s, seeking political asylum from the brutal Communist regime in Vietnam.  They had little education but came with hopes for a peaceful life in a country where their children could have a real future.  Both sets of parents have worked hard to create a life where their children could feel safe and supported. They have also encouraged them to aim high in their educational goals.

Fong and Kelly represent the true American dream.  They have studied hard, stayed focused and are now eager to give back to the country which has offered them opportunities they could have never had back in Vietnam. They both hope to work with underserved populations and will bring sensitivity and compassion to the patients who are fortunate enough to have them as caregivers.

These two young people, children of immigrants who were fleeing political oppression, represent America at her best.  They demonstrate what can happen when our country operates from the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Congratulations to you, Fong, on the completion of your first year of medical school and to you, Kelly, on your acceptance to PA school.  I know your parents are very proud, as well they should be.  I am proud of you too.  Your successes are beacons of light for us all.

Fong, Kelly and me

When Life Hits Hard

I learned today that a friend of mine has been diagnosed with ALS.  She and her husband are writers and have been chronicling this experience for several months, though today was the day they announced it out in the world.  Their journal entries, which they have shared with friends, are so full of love, pain, and down-to-the-guts honesty that I feel not only privileged to be allowed such access but also awe-struck at their bravery as they face this passage in their lives. I know the whole family and we have all cooked breakfast together for the homeless at our “Breakfast Club” on more than one occasion in years past. They are special people, each of them, and they certainly deserve any kind thought or small prayer you may have to offer up.

At a time like this, my inclination is to turn to Mary Oliver, who sometimes says the words that help express how I feel.

Heavy by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

— “Heavy” by Mary Oliver from Thirst.

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Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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