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Through wind and pain

The wild delta wind buffeted my car as I huddled near the door frame.  I strained against the air and the cold as the sight of a thousand snow geese unfolded in the field below me.  The slough ran north and the trees swayed.  My fingers curled around the body of my little Canon.  

Back in the car my head fell to the steering wheel.  Long nights and the torture of hopelessly pinched nerves have driven me to sleepless hours of agony.  As I rested, the snow geese rose into the wind.  A hoarse whisper escaped me:  So many endure so much worse so many so much worse.  I can endure this new and awful malady.

I switched on the motor and backed out of the little lay-by.  In a few minutes I joined the morning traffic journeying into the small town where I work.  I held the steering wheel as softly as prudence allowed.  At the light, my eyes drift closed as I leaned into a wave of pain.  So many so worse so many so worse.  

A noise brought me around.  I peered through the windshield into the wide expanse of sky rising over the bridge.  The flock had arrived.  In formation they flew, west though they usually head east into the preserves near Lodi.  My foot fell onto the gas.  Together we made our way forward.

It’s the nineteenth day of the eighty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Passing through the Delta on a Saturday Afternoon

Once again I find myself at sixes-and-sevens, nothing to do and no one with whom to do it.  I drive into Isleton, check my postal box, and order a kombucha at Mei Wah’s Beer Room.  I sit in the beer garden casually eavesdropping on the couple at the table behind me.  The owner briefly emerges and checks my status with the universal signal, two thumbs held high, and then saunters back into the building to pour more beer.  People wander outside and chatter rises.

I go across the street and timidly enter a little store where my friends used to have a tattoo and art shop.  I browse the oddments and marvel at the fifty-year old shoes.  I skirt around a knot of women debating whether to buy huckleberry syrup, made in Montana but with the store’s label prominently displayed.  I make a small purchase and retreat, down the street to my car and then along the river road back to the lush green park in which I live.

Along the way, I see a flock of mergansers, three red-tail hawks, a distant field of snow geese, and a lone egret stepping with precision through a flooded field of reeds.  I speak to no one other than the barkeep.  I raise my camera several times, enough to remind myself that I live in a beautiful place and the weather rolls fine and easy on my shoulders ten months of the year.  The other two months provide critical rain for the grapes and the willows and the migrating birds which grub in the soggy earth for their nourishment.

At home I stop as I drive through the kiosk and speak to several of my neighbors, exchanging light, airy platitudes that leave everyone smiling.  Kind and clever, that’s us, and the world shifts, and the sun sets, and the night begins to gather.  In my tiny house, in this infinitesimally minute plot of the wide wide world, I listen to the crickets in my head and wonder about tomorrow.

It’s evening, on the sixteenth day, of the eighty-fifth month, of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

A virtuous discovery

I parked my car outside the Goodwill in Lodi and studied the line.  A sign on the window announced the new normal:  Capacity – 30.  I had come in search of a couple of household items that weeks of reflection had finally convinced me to acquire.  My dedication did not extend to the funds necessary for a new item. Used would suffice, at least until I determined the wisdom or folly of the purchase.  

But did that compel me toward a growing queue?  Should I endure the chilly air, scrolling through social media on my phone?  Would the wool poncho keep me sufficiently warm?  Could the odds of discovery justify the tedious shuffling forward, keeping six feet from the next in line?

I eased myself from the vehicle and closed the door.  When I had steadied the wobble in my legs, I stepped onto the curb and judged the distance between myself and my destination.  A glance through the car window confirmed the availability of a walking stick but I disdained its awkwardness and proceeded forward.  With a few wary glances, the line shifted to allow me safe passage to its end.

It took fifteen minutes and the decampment of the guy in front of me to gain admittance.  With a small cart, I began navigating the home goods aisles.  I found a large plant pot (score!) and headed for the appliance aisle.  No toaster oven.  No small dresser in the meager furniture section.  I skirted the clothing (my no-clothing-buy rule holding fast) and surveyed baskets (adorable but unnecessary) before turning the corner to books.

Like most writers, I think I should be journaling.  The idea of owning a plethora of notebooks appeals to me.  I usually get two or three days into each new year before abandoning the effort.  Crises draw me back and inevitably I decide that remarkable trauma or joy justifies the purchase of a fresh book.  But living tiny and wanting to save money  have of late combined to dissuade me from  acquiring any more notebooks.

I found a novel by a favorite author and studied its back cover, straining to recall if I had already enjoyed its passages.  Into the cart it went.  I started forward when suddenly I spied a spiral binding, a sure sign of a journal.  Whether or not it contained someone else’s thoughts remained to be seen.  I carefully slid it from between a Gideon’s Bible and a vegetarian cookbook.

Empty pages!  Its price appealed to me — $1.39.  Small enough for my everyday handbag.  I could carry it with me!  I debated.  You have four or five barely filled notebooks at home!  But none so cute, none so thin, none so small, none so cheap. I leafed through the book to make sure its pages bore no one else’s scribblings.  I stopped. 

On the last page, someone had, indeed, recorded a brief, stunning message, incomplete but somehow self-contained.  I lightly ran my finger over the ballpoint ink.  My breath caught as I noted the homonymous error.  I saw the one-word entry at the bottom of the page.  I read and re-read the line so carefully penned on the last page of a virgin notebook, by an unknown person, who then donated the book to Goodwill or left it on their bedside table for someone else to donate.  For me to find.  For me to take home, on a cold clear Saturday in January, on the first day of the rest of my life.

It’s the sixteenth day of the eighty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

 

The unexpected vagaries of Friday

For most of 2020, I did not have my usual carefree Friday.  Some fell to the stretch of time in the early pandemic when the logistics of a clumsy work-week took part of the day.  Others yielded to the planning of the summer’s Sunday Market.  For two months, I worked Fridays to bank hours for the ultimately failed Thanksgiving trip to Missouri.

Today I found myself with an entire day of unallocated time.  Over coffee, I scrolled through social media, searching for news of my friend whose household succumbed to the coronavirus.  I studied my cup for a few minutes, with its graceful clay contours.  Then I asked myself:  Why don’t you just call?

Katrina’s cheerful voice shimmied through the wire.  She might have been on the other side of my old kitchen table, the twittering of Brookside robins outside the window.  I could nearly see the tip of the Japanese maple peaking over the sill. She told me who had been negative and who had been positive, and the state of symptoms.  We talked of her daughter’s pregnancy, the death of a close friend, and her plan to resume her copious hours of volunteer work as soon as she gets vaccinated.  When the call ended, I could have cried; it felt, for just a few minutes, like going home.

After a few hollow moments, I showered, dressed, and threw myself into a spate of work.  Then I shook my head, barreled out the door, and pulled my car onto the loop.  Around the bend of Brannan Island Road, a heavy freighter made her ponderous way east to Stockton.  I caught her in backlit relief, and then marveled at the sight of her in my side view mirror.  On the way home, I strained my lens toward a distant red-tailed hawk.  It lifted from the fragile winter branch one second before the click of my shutter.

Back at the park, I found the water off.  An hour later, not to be outdone, the power failed.  In my silent, cold house, I’ve read by flashlight, eaten pasta, and wrapped myself in wool.  Eventually, still in silence, I will lay down to rest.

It’s the eighth day of the eighty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Finding Delight in the Heart of the California Delta

I stopped listening to This American Life for a few years.  My then-husband asserted that the host of the radio show cheated on a friend of his.  He expressed outrage that I would patronize such a scoundrel.  He insisted that his Republican family values dictated that cheaters should be disdained.  I clicked off the radio if he entered the room during the broadcast.

In the last five years, I’ve gotten into the program again.  I like Ira Glass.  I enjoy his voice and his insight.  He and his team present intriguing anecdotes of people who could be my next door neighbors.  I feel a sense of commonality with what they experience and how they react.   

The show plays twice each weekend on my local public radio station.  This week’s episode explored delight.  Delight!  How can anyone not enjoy an entire hour in which people describe events during which they have experienced such a delicious emotion? 

As I drove home from a grocery run to Lodi, I waited for my second listen to Act II: The Squeals on the Bus with particular eagerness.  A five-year-old’s enthusiasm for his first trip on that iconic yellow vehicle?  Sign me up.  I heard the wonder and excitement in his voice with a little bit of envy though.  What wouldn’t I give to luxuriate in the delirium of such anticipation!

Then I came around the curve of Brannan Island Road in front of the home of my friends Judy and Skip, and beheld one of the visions which make Delta life so fabulous.  I pulled my car as far against the brush as I could safely maneuver.  I glanced in my rear view mirror as I groped for my phone, the only camera at hand.  I snapped, and filmed, and grinned.  In the background, my radio kept playing and little Cole squealed, “Is that my bus?  Is that my bus?” 

I’m with you, kid.  I’m with you.

It’s the third day of the eighty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

 

Be It Resolved

A few weeks ago, I dragged out the holiday decor. I hung my Joy plaque on the wreath which my sister Joyce made 35 years ago from my mother’s grapevine.  Angels hang from every curtain rod and dangle from pins tacked into the stairwell and the loft rails.  Lights twinkle at the windows.  A half-dozen cards from around the country swing from a red ribbon.

Now the New Year hovers a few hours away on the other side of midnight.  My work day came to a quiet close.  I ate a simple meal, exchanged texts with my siblings, and vaguely browsed through the news.  One or two emails demanded modest attention.  Nothing remains but a quiet evening with the latest Kjell Eriksson novel, on loan from the Sacramento County digital library.

I usually make a short list of New Year’s resolutions.  At the end of 2013, I resolved to go an entire year without complaining in honor of my recently passed and beloved mother-in-law.  The first quarter of 2014 brought shattering challenges to my endeavor, so I’ve renewed that pledge on December 31st of each successive year.  

Most of my friends warned me that my quest had no chance of succeeding.   Perhaps they knew my nature better than I did.  Colleagues reminded me that defending our clients required us to voice objection on a regular basis.  My puzzling health issues cry for self-advocacy. 

 But I vowed to keep trying.  I re-read Marshall Rosenberg as often as necessary.  Counting to ten has never sufficed.  I’ve gotten to a hundred sometimes; I’ll drone to a thousand if need be to hold my tongue.  Mantras circle in my head, chief among them one which my son learned in elementary school:  You can’t have “listen” without “silent”.  Indeed.

Each New Year’s Eve, I find myself including mundane pledges intermixed with more glorious ambitions.  Drink more water, cut down spending, smile more, do some secret good turn every day, learn to floss at long last, stop eating chocolate and sneaking fish tacos into my plant-based diet.  Call each of my siblings in turn.  Volunteer.  Clean the curbsides around the park.  Donate serviceable clothing to a shelter.  

The list can be summarized with a single goal:  Put your best foot forward.

Nana, my maternal grandmother, would be proud of me for remembering her instruction.

Tomorrow the Christmas decorations will come down and I’ll move my driftwood wreath to the front door. With Hope becoming paramount, I’ll find another spot for Joy.  I’ll sweep the floors, wipe down the counters, and sort through my little closet.  Cobwebs will fly beneath my duster.  Pillows, sheets, blankets, and shawls will smooth themselves across the bed and unfurl from the coat rack.  

I’ll take a break to walk along the road, waving at neighbors.  A cup of tea will sit beside me on the porch.  If the wind blows, I’ll raise the lights as I wipe the kitchen fixtures and tidy the towels on the shelf above the washer.  The shoes beneath the stairs will practically straighten themselves, eager to please me.  By the end of New Year’s Day, my tiny house will have been made clean and pretty again.

When all is said, and done, and said again, I count myself one of the amazingly lucky ones as 2020 comes to its wretched close.  I did not lose my job.  I have not, as of yet, caught this devastating virus.  Though I’ve lost friends and acquaintances to the illness, no one close and no family.  We have been spared.   Thousands upon thousands have been dragged through misery, while my son, my siblings, and those for whom I care most deeply have largely been spared.  For that, I give humble thanks to whatever divine force favored me and mine.

But I have confronted personal reckonings in 2020.  As my third year in California draws to a close, every pretense I had for moving west has been stripped from me.  The medical care which originally drew me to the Bay area proved false.  The nonprofit job for which I yearned did not materialize at a time when I could accept an offer.  When I could, none came.  I’ve had to cobble together a life, just as I did when my marriage failed and my son — quite fittingly — embarked on his own path.  

In some ways, this pandemic has offered me hours in which to reflect.  Endeavors that I had been scheduled to orchestrate got cancelled or scaled to manageable size.  I used the spare time to write and reflect.  I dragged some rigid conceptions to the forefront and challenged their validity.  My rummaging uncloaked anger which then raged in great claps of thunder.  Sorrow swelled until my eyes drowned.  Grief seeped from my heart and engulfed me.

I had let others carry my pain for a long time.  Those brave souls call me sister, cousin, friend.  One calls me “mother”.  They eased a lifetime of burdens that I did not believe myself strong enough to shoulder.  I might have been right; but rather than let these sweet people strain under its weight for another moment, I have decided that sorrow is too great a burden for any of us.  Though the memories of everything and everyone whom I lost will remain, I no longer need the corrupt threads of loss to maintain the fibers of my being.  

Joy will make a better winding cloth — lighter, softer, and cleaner.  I will wrap myself in its splendor.  I will pull its fragrance deep into my soul.  I will let joy soothe me until, at long last, I heal.

Be it resolved.

It’s the thirty-first day of the eighty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

For no particular reason, I’m linking a few of the galleries which I’ve created for this blog over the last year.  The photos will load more slowly than I like, but might bring you a little pleasure if you, like me, enjoy the refreshing splendor of nature however inexpertly captured.

Happy New Year.  May 2021 bring you peace, prosperity, and — yes — joy.

 

 

#DeltaLife, Winter version

The original parking reservation for my tiny house was in an RV park north of San Francisco in the Santa Rosa region.  Sadly, that site burned in the fires of September 2017.  Anxious, worried, expecting my house to be delivered by the first of November, I went in search of an alternate spot.  One contact told me about the place where I eventually landed.  

“It’s in the Delta,” he explained. 

“The Delta?” I asked, clearly confused.  “I thought that was in Mississippi.”  He laughed.

My GPS lady guided me from my hotel on the coast forty miles east and over the Antioch Bridge.  A vast, beautiful scene unfolded.  Born and raised in St. Louis, I raised my son in Kansas City — both river towns.  My heart fluttered as I descended from the long expanse of the bridge into the Delta proper.  The Sacramento stretched inland and eventually, I would learn, met the San Joaquin and the Molekumne.  A vast waterway teeming with life curled around lush lands forming the islands of the California Delta.  I felt as though I had come home to the smell of rich soil and verdant vegetation, with towering willows and endless rows of vines heavy with autumn fruit.

Whether a flock of snow geese in a field of fog on a December morning or red-tailed hawks on a high wire, the birds of the Delta fascinate me.  Please enjoy these humble shots.  Bear in mind that the grey you see is not a broken lens but low-lying mist.  I saw the egrets in a field along HIghway 12.  The sight of these majestic birds unconcerned about the digger just feet from where they gathered astonished me. I sat on the shoulder snapping through my window.  Talk about “reclaiming my time”!

I took these photos on auto with my little basic Canon, en route to work, which is to say, between my home on the Delta Loop and Rio Vista across the river in Solano County.  This Missouri expat cannot get enough of the #deltalife.

It’s the thirtieth day of the eighty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Hover over the individual photos to see my captions.  There are 17 photos in the slideshow.  Enjoy.

Reflected Light

Someone recently asked me why I write.  After a moment of surprise at their curiosity, I replied that I write to live.  I struggle to get words down as quickly as the sentences form.  I bargain with myself:  Do the laundry now, write later.  I don’t  always give my own passages high marks but I don’t seem to control them.  They just flow. Most of the time, I do not edit; I send my words into the atmosphere and turn to the next effort.

I see my writing as a reflection of the world around me.   I hope that I do justice to the light source once in a while.  Certainly, I have good role models for that endeavor:  Excellent writers but also phenomenal reflectors, such as the December moon over the California Delta last night.

It’s the thirtieth day of the eighty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

I opened my eyes.
I reached for the phone to check the time.
I saw a text from my son sent at this exact time but in his own zone.
I sent the third draft of my reply.
I hauled my body vertical, pushing aside nagging thoughts of a distant day when I would not be so able.
I crept down the stairs, clutching the rail and my tablet.
I used the restroom, then ran tap water into the coffee kettle.
I stood and watched that pot until it boiled.
I poured too-hot water over fresh coffee grounds.
I closed my eyes and breathed the fragrance of morning.
I whipped two eggs with the egg beater that my sister Joyce and I found at a St. Charles flea market three years ago.
I cut a piece of gluten-free Focaccia which my son had sent for Christmas, spreading butter into its tender crumb.
I melted more butter in a hot pan and poured the gleaming yellow egg mixture into the golden foam.
I opened the digital Times and mourned the world’s condition as the sun lightened the Delta sky.
I pulled soft cotton clothes onto my body and scrunched my unruly hair into a bun under a piece of elastic.
I thought a few minutes before sending a message to a woman whom I babysat many years ago, who had posted something on my Facebook page on Christmas Day.
I talked to her for twenty minutes before my anxiety clutched me and I said goodbye.
I rummaged on the porch until the fresh air had cleared the worry from my bones.
I called my friend Brenda in Kansas City to check on her Covid-19 test and felt a thrill of relief as she spoke.
I drove to the recycle dumpster with a load of torn cardboard boxes which once held gifts from people who love me.
I leaned out of my car window to tell Candice “Happy boxing day” en route to the trash bins; and eased my car the long way ’round afterwards to chat with a woman whom I had not seen for weeks.
I swept the piles of dried oak leaves from my deck to the strip of no-man’s land between my lot and that of my neighbor who does not like me and would surely protest if she saw.
I glanced at another text from my son, an answer, one about which he must have thought just as long as I had before sending my six-a.m. message.
I sent the fourth or fifth version of my next comment, and smiled at his swift one-word reply.
I drove to the park office to check on a package which my son informed me the post office had told him was delivered five days ago.
I sat in my tiny house and eased the tape from the package, shaking my head over the many stickers proclaiming its perishability.
I eased the gluten- and dairy-free lemon bars from the crumpled packing material, grateful for the spate of unusually cold Northern California weather which allowed the delectable pastries to stay fresh in the lamentably cold park office.
I sent a photo of my afternoon treat to my son.
I sent a photo of six plates which I no longer need to a young neighbor whom I thought might find them useful.
I carefully washed those plates in preparation for handing them over to my neighbor.
I made a skillet of fake cheese corn tortilla quesadillas and ate them with rehydrated sundried tomatoes for dinner.
I went outside to take a photo of the solar-powered copper angel which my sister shipped me for Christmas.
I scrolled through social media and forced myself to repress feelings of envy and invited my heart to feel joy for the pleasure which so many others experienced in the company of their families on Christmas Day.
I smiled again at a text from a neighbor describing the pleasure of eating one of the fancy chocolates which I had given her.
I watched a British home improvement show on YouTube while I forced myself to stretch the stubborn spasticity in my legs.
I composed an email to my fancy neurologist which I deleted twice before altogether abandoning.
I turned out the twinkling lights in my window so they would not disturb my neighbor.
I eased myself under the warm covers.
I plugged the phone into its charger on the bedside table.
I closed my eyes.

 

Merry Christmas from Mary Corinne

As I scroll through the photographs from last weekend’s escape to the sea, I think about the people with whom I have never gotten to share my new life.  My mother, my little brother — gone these many years.  But living folks, too:  My sister Joyce, my other siblings, most of my friends from the Midwest.  I walk along the shoreline at Goat Rock State Park and imagine them beside me. 

My brother Frank would fold his arms across his chest and spare a small smile.  He might recall urging me not to tell him that I planned to live in a damn trailer park.  He would look across the bay towards the sea.  He might laugh, a bit ruefully.  He might admit that living seventy miles inland from such majesty seems worthwhile, especially given the beauty of the California Delta in which my house sits snuggled between the San Joaquin and a lush meadow.  

Joyce’s voice through the phone this morning brings me home.  We open our presents in turns, first she, then I.  She exclaims over the ribbon candy and chocolate-covered cherries reminiscent of our mother’s Christmas table.  I cry when I turn the handle of the little music box and hear the delicate strains of “You Are My Sunshine”.  We laugh over the layers of bubble wrap with which our clumsy fingers fumble, in tandem, with such similarity that the struggle falls way to amusement.  I tell her about the little shop in Pacifica where I found her necklace.  We discuss the shepherd’s hook on which I might hang the angel windchime.  

In the weeks which I spent downsizing before I sold my house in Kansas City, I found a letter that my brother Stephen had written from New Orleans.  To be brutally honest, I could not remember receiving it.  I could not have told you that my little brother had fled his nightmares in St. Louis for the south.  But he clearly had.  

In the letter, he described his feelings about the life he had escaped and the refuge which he longed to find.  I sat in my empty dining room and wept.  Many times since his death in 1997, I have wondered if I could have helped him.  I realize this is survivor’s guilt.  As my brother Frank once said, “Our Dad was an asshole and our little brother killed himself.  Tell me what’s happened in the twenty years since then.”  I know that I have a right to my life, to beauty, to joy, to the splendor of the ocean landscape. 

But I would give damn near anything to have Steve walk beside me on the shores of the Pacific.  

He would be sixty-one today. Perhaps I shed these tears for him, for what he will never know and never experience.  But I think my sorrow flows from something more selfish — the thought that I can never see the rays of the setting sun on his face, and the bitter knowledge that I did not appreciate the experience when I had the chance.

Yet my brother will not be sixty-one today except in my imagination.  I remember Christmas shopping with him in St. Louis forty years ago.  I had come from Kansas City by train with no gifts for anyone, and he took me to a mall to buy whatever I could find at the last minute. 

We had a drink in some open-plan bar gazing out over the shoppers in the atrium below us.  He carried my packages.  He bought himself a fancy pair of socks and some trinket for our mother. We wandered from store to store, talking about the various challenges which I faced in my first year of law school.  He chain-smoked while I kvetched about my work-study job and the lack of convenient parking.  

Finally, over an Irish coffee and a half-eaten sandwich, he studied my face for a long uncomfortable moment.  He looked away for a second, then asked me, in a quiet voice, if I was happy, if I was glad that I’d decided to move and try something radically different.  I knew he wanted a real answer and tried to give him one.  But my heart could not.  I rattled on about the potential of my hopeful new profession, about what job I might get, and where I might decide to live after I graduated.  My voice trailed away.  Into the silence, he nodded.

I had not fooled him.

Last weekend, in the Guerneville Lodge where I stayed for one dreamy night, I sat at a massive live-edge oak table looking out over an expanse of green above the Russian River.  My little brother’s question returned to me.  I considered.  There I was:  Alone; a bit worried about my health; missing my son, my family, and my friends.  But was I happy?  Despite the challenges, the underlying homesickness, and lingering uncertainty about the wisdom of my drastic move, was I, after all, happy?

I could feel the steady gaze of my little brother, your friend and mine, Stevie Pat, waiting for my response.  I held his gaze and promised to give him an answer before Christmas next year.  I intend to keep that promise.

It’s the twenty-fifth day of the eighty-fourth month of My [Endless] Year [Striving to Live] Without Complaining.  Life continues.

 

I believe there are 37 photos in this gallery.  I did not resize them so they might load a bit slowly.  Enjoy.

For the uninitiated, the title of this entry comes from my childhood.  My full given name is “Mary Corinne”, though I have not used the “Mary” since I was 17 except among my siblings.  However, as a child, my family called me “Mary” and every Christmas, my mother labelled my presents, “Merry Christmas to Mary Corinne”.