Monthly Archives: November 2023

Quiet in the village

The other day someone told me that they wanted to try to forego complaining for a year as I had pledged to do.  I reminded them that I had reached the end of my tenth year and still had not accomplished my goal.

Maybe a month? she asked.  I replied, Try a day.   If you make it for a day, try another day.

We shared a laugh and then she continued away from the place where our lives had intersected.  I stood at the counter in the artist cooperative which I just founded.  I looked around at the smattering of customers, feeling fatigue grip my soul.  I leaned against the sturdy library tabletop that my friend Michelle used to make our cashier stand.  I let my eyes close for a second, leaning into the pain which daily surges through my legs and the other pain, low in my back, which charts the forward march of my spinal stenosis.

This morning, Michelle texted to ask how I felt.  No bombs falling on my village, I responded.  She agreed that we indeed fare better than those in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, Russia.  We’ve made it past Thanksgiving and Christmas hovers on the horizon.   Whatever the state of our health, all is quiet in the surrounding winter air.   Soon this year will fade into our memories, leaving only the stark lowlights and breathtaking highlights as bewildering evidence of twelve long and often mediocre moon cycles.

As the migrating birds begin to appear in the fields of Andrus Island, I contemplate my journey westward six years ago come December.  If I am the sum of all the pieces and parts of my experiences, my tapestry falls tattered on the bed but still warms my aching bones.  My clumsy weaver’s hands have done their best to fashion an enduring fabric, though the warp and weft be crooked and ragged.

Last night’s the harvest moon wanes as it climbs over the meadow.  I stare at its brightness.   I close my eyes and rock.  I feel my spirit follow the flow of time downriver.  It reaches the Bay and continues westward, to the ocean, to eternity, to the pale light on the rippling water that will rock me to a gentle slumber.

It’s the twenty-seventh day of the one-hundred and nineteenth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Sunset over the Pacific, September 2023.

Thankful for Mrs. Helmuth’s Famous Green Bean Soup

It definitely took a village to raise my son.  One of its most pivotal members was Magda Helmuth, founder of and long-time teacher at Purple Dragon Daycare, the pre-school that my son attended from just under three years of age until he started kindergarten upstairs at PS1 Elementary.  Under Magda’s tutelage and tender touch, Patrick refined his early reading skills, acquired some rigorous math chops, and prepared for his climb to the second floor.

But one of Mrs. Helmuth’s greatest gifts to me and my son was her Famous Green Bean Soup.

I struggled with ill health in those days.  Exhaustion gripped me.  With a full-time law practice and no partner, I barely got chicken nuggets on the table.  Moreover, I had not learned to cook anything after I left home.  To make matters worse, I can’t myself digest meat.  Patrick endured a boring menu of badly composed casseroles and store-bought cookies.  At school, though, he ate whatever Mrs. Helmuth served, which corresponded with the Letter of the Week.  A was not for apple but for artichoke.  B stood for borscht.  C represented carrots.  And so forth, marching through a litany of healthy foods with a strong German bent.  If memory serves, Mrs. Helmuth immigrated during or shortly after World War II.  She taught with a modified version of the Montessori method with which Patrick already had some familiarity from his first two years at another school.

Her methods proved successful.  Our children learned as most kids do not.  I vividly recall standing outside my son’s fifth-grade traditional classroom with another Purple Dragon parent at a parochial school.  She smiled at me and shrugged as we prepared to find out how our bored-to-the-gills sons fared in the crowded class.  Do you think we made a tactical error, she asked.  Sending our sons to the best teacher they’ll ever have before they reached the age of 5?  

Mrs. Helmuth held my hand through a few frightening days.  When I collapsed on the stairs with the first of many shingles episodes, she made sure my son got to someone’s house who could care for him until I got out of the hospital.  She phoned me from the emergency room on his birthday, three stitches testifying to the stray bolt that another parent came to fix after my son’s injury.  She made a similar call when a child pushed him backwards into a marble window sill upstairs during first grade (four stitches) and when he spiked a temperature while I was in a trial.  I got to the school shortly after five o’clock.  She wrapped my sleeping son in a quilt and carried him out to the car.  He never even stirred, she was that gentle.

Patrick loved Mrs. Helmuth.  He would do anything for her, including getting himself out of bed and dragging me to school for the first session of the day when he attained Work Group status.  Through it all, he begged me to make some of the food that she cooked for him, most especially what he called “Mrs. Helmuth’s Green Bean Soup”.  I constantly demurred, while paging through my Joy of Cooking and my mother’s battered copy of Cooking the Austrian Way for something that a four-year-old might consider “green bean soup”.  No luck; and I never had time to ask in the brief moments at the start and finish of each day, with other parents mingling around and coats to gather, backpacks to sort, and mittens to collect.

One day I stopped at the grocery store and came upon Mrs. Helmuth pushing a cart through the produce section.  I greeted her somewhat softly, with an air that I sometimes feel myself adopting when I’m unsure of my standing with someone.  But she beamed, and spoke my name in her lovely accent.  We chatted for a few moments.  Finally, I gathered some courage and asked her about her green bean soup.  Patrick loves it, I admitted.  I’d like to try the recipe.

She looked puzzled.  Then suddenly, a flash of realization flitted across her features.  She laughed, a throaty laugh which made me think of my Austrian nana.  I will show you, she said.  We paraded with our carts down several aisles.  She stopped in front of the frozen vegetables.  Reaching into one section, she lifted out a bag of green beans.  I cook them in water, she explained.  Then serve each child a few beans and some of the liquid.  Your Patrick, he always asks for more.

That night, for supper, I made her recipe.  My son crowed.  He ate three helpings from a little blue Fire King bowl, one of a set that his Syrian-Austrian grandmother had given me a decade before his birth.  After supper, we read books and sang together.  He drifted to sleep with a dreamy smile on his peaceful face, whispering to me, Thank you for making Mrs. Helmuth’s Green Bean Soup, Mommy.

I don’t know if Magda is still alive.  But wherever she is, in this world or the next, I want her to know that I am thankful for everything she gave my son, especially the delight of her famous green bean soup.

It’s the twenty-second day of the one-hundred and nineteenth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Three friends who met at Purple Dragon and stayed friends through high school.



Sunrise, Sunset

I barely saw the eastern glow that wakens our island each morning.  For once, my alarm remained silent.  But I still opened my eyes as the fullest rays broke through the small piece of fabric covering the window in the sleeping loft of my tiny house.  I thought about coffee, and new beginnings, and steps forward.  I sifted through everything that might happen as the day progressed.  Then I contemplated whether I should make a cup of coffee.  Before I quite realized what had happened, I stood in front of the two-burner propane stove top thinking about the grounds to water ratio and whether I could get a load of laundry done.

In just six days, the shop that I’ve dreamed of starting opens.  My to-do list still has about ten items.  Sunday loomed but not large.  Just ten hours from sunrise to sunset and a corresponding ration of energy.  I watched the gauge in the kettle move towards a boil and considered whether I should scramble eggs.

By noon I had done that load of clothes and started another, watered my porch plants, gotten a list of supplies from my cohort, and slung a full bag onto a backseat cluttered with the debris of my busy existence.  It’s true that I have no social life.  But the job, the shop, the market, collecting for charity, and my addiction to reading old police procedurals fills every conscious moment.  As I drove toward Rio Vista, I pulled open the mental browser on which I have saved my task list and reviewed it, praying that the bridge would stay level with the street.  I retain my tourist penchant for photographing big ships from the car window, but I had no spare time this day.

Hours later, the new store all readied for tomorrow’s fire inspection except the battery-operated emergency exit signs, I locked its door and headed for home.  First I connected with my friend Michelle to hand off the custom-mixed paint for the temporary sign.  We stood on sixth street chatting about her sheep, goats, and geese as the sun slowly descended in the west.  I pulled into my lot a few minutes before five o’clock, in time to turn and watch the amber glow spread across the horizon through the trees flanking the levee road.  Then I went inside to find something nourishing to make for dinner, wondering, for the umpteenth time, how my own road ever turned to land me in this place.

It’s the twelfth day of the one-hundred and nineteenth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


The new shop’s name comes from Arabic to honor my Syrian grandfather. 

“Mubdie” means “creative” or “an innovator or inventor”, someone who finds things and makes other things out of them. 

It is a membership-based space for creative persons in the Delta to sell their art.

City / Home

I should have known better than to book a hotel room through Airbnb.  I found it with my GPS guidance, annoying though she can be.  But once parked, I could not enter.  Construction blocked half of the ground floor rooms and the entire entrance.  I would have to scale a rickety, makeshift set of steps and descend to a rubble of concrete.  

Eventually, I got into a room.  Thoughts of a short stroll to a Chinatown restaurant vanished.  The elevator could not open on the street level.  My car had been captured by the valet-only, no in-and-out basement parking lot which had the only  functioning lift to my third-floor room.  I ordered from DoorDash and ate at the simulated oak table.  I tried to be philosophical about the lost romance of the evening I had envisioned.

In the morning, I checked out far earlier than planned just to escape.  I made my way to the neighborhood of my scheduled appointments, trolling for a parking spot decently near any open breakfast venue.  My luck asserted itself and I landed at Jane on Fillmore with a delicious egg-topped avocado toast and a seat next to a pleasant retired attorney who swims every morning in East Bay.  Imagine that; swimming in something that I only spy from an overhead bridge at fifty miles per hour.

After several hours of grueling examinations of my uncooperative eyes, I found a vegetarian restaurant for lunch.  One out of two dishes rose to the lofty menu descriptions.  But I had a view of the Golden Gate bridge, even though they don’t seat parties of one by the window.  I drank hot tea and read a few paragraphs of the next in a well-written series that I recently discovered.  I’m dreading the day I turn the last page of the final book.  The author died in 2009.

I got lost trying to find the entrance to the highway that would take me home.  Eventually, I turned down a street with the same name as the levy road on which I live.  That took me to the proper turn-off and I started east.  A moment occurs in every trip to the coast when I say goodbye to the ocean.  On this trip, I saw a flash of it from the Bay Bridge on my second circuit around the city.  Somehow I got confused, or stuck in the wrong lane.  I went north on the Golden Gate, east on the Richmond, and back west on the Bay before I finally got straightened around.  My advantage lost, I settled into the groove of afternoon traffic, resolved to endure a three-hour drive that would have been ninety minutes had I been paying closer attention.

When I finally dropped my overnight bag on the floor of my tiny house, the sun had set over the Delta.  I had watched it from my sideview mirror as I waited for an accident to clear on Highway 12 a few miles west of town.  I poured a cold glass of water and sank into the easy chair that my friend Tim the pig farmer gave me.  Whenever I go to the city, I spend a lot of time stressing over whether I should spend the money for a hotel or rise hours before dawn to beat the rush hour traffic headed in the same direction.  Then I pressure myself to pack food to save the restaurant expense.  Each encounter with a host who queries if anyone will be joining me causes a moment of panicked realization that I have indeed arrived at late middle-age alone, just as my mother predicted.  All of these things overshadow the pleasure of moments at my beloved Pacific and the thrill of finding a used bookstore just steps from where I have breakfast.  

Back home from my two days in the city, I scrolled through the dozen photos that I snapped from my car window.  I had not taken time to drive to the headlands or northwards to the rugged shoreline at Point Reyes.  But I had seen some sights.  Then I had returned to the countryside, and the simple views of my daily existence.  The shadow of the city lingered, flickering just out of sight.  Night fell.  I stood out on my porch and listened to the eager yip of distant coyotes and the mournful lullaby of a pigeon settling into the branches overhead.  I pulled my shawl close around my shoulders, then went inside to prepare myself for sleep.

It’s the fourth day of the one-hundred and nineteenth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

There are eleven photos in this gallery.  Sometimes the galleries lag; if you click on the frozen photo and then exit out of it, the scrolling should resume.  Please enjoy.