Monthly Archives: December 2012

My Early Retirement Plan

San Francisco has long felt like a missed chapter in my life. In an effort to make it up, we have celebrated Christmas there the past couple of years. And now, all I want for Christmas is San Francisco.

Where else in your own country do you land and find that the billboards speak a language of their own, intelligible only to natives? And where else do cabs come and pick you up without any apparent call, and deliver you without any sign of payment? I know my daughters have something to do with this. They know the workings of this city. They are enmeshed in it, while it baffles me. But then, I am easily baffled by technology and enchanted by magic, so San Francisco is for me too. I don’t know how it works but it does, remarkably so.

Where else would you dine on sushi at a restaurant named Tsunami? And find stocking stuffers in a toy store named Tantrum?

With two daughters living there we have a place to stay. Their flat is in Buena Vista alongside the park. It’s the best of both worlds: a rather posh area on the edge of Haight Ashbury.

In The Haight I meet many Tibetans minding their stores. I delight in their colorful goods, listen to their stories, and purchase a strand of prayer beads to drape around a Santo in my writing room in Seattle. The beads are in honor of a friend I grew up with in Connecticut, only to learn decades later that she has become a Buddhist. Janie, if you are reading this, it is one more example of you “walking the walk” in life, while all I do is write about it. How I love and admire you, Jane.

Contradictions co-exist in all cities, but seem more extreme in San Francisco. The Wall Street of the West, the birthplace of so many start-ups, and surely one of the “establishments” of bohemian lifestyle. Oh, the splendor and the squalor of it all!

And just when you thought that everyone in this fair city is young, up on the 19th floor of The Mark Hopkins Hotel at 1 Nob Hill, an older generation is enjoying cocktails and dancing after dark at The Top of the Mark. Men in jackets and ties, women dressed to the nines. A Tony Bennett kind of place where the male vocalists sound like him, and all the women, like Etta James or Nina Simone.

Honey, if we live in San Francisco oneday, that is where we will go if we grow old and can afford it. They’ll be playing The Beatles songs by then, and our appetite will have finally shrunk, and we could make a dinner of appetizers and just keep dancing….

But how in the world will we ever get up that hill?

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Filed under Christmas, San Francisco

Days That Never Go Away

For days now I have had an unshakeable identity I hadn’t felt for a long time, and that is that I am a Connecticut girl born and bred. However much I ventured off and adopted other regions, it all came back to Connecticut for me this week with the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I think everyone felt this way. We all became Connecticut citizens at that moment.

I thought I could see my old neighborhood in the images. It looked familiar enough, all the parents and children, houses and trees. I saw my bucolic childhood. A time when no one locked doors. When no one other than hunters owned guns, and they took them away to wherever it was they went to hunt. While we were growing up the only guns we saw were in television shows, cop dramas and westerns, Dragnet and 77 Sunset Strip, Rawhide and Bonanza. In other words, when you saw a gun, you knew it was a toy.

And that is where I reached the end of the road in resemblance. No home then would have possessed assault weapons as this one did in Newtown, Connecticut. The Right to Bear Arms has become unbearable. Our children deserve the right to be safe. The British aren’t coming, and hunters can hunt in designated reserves where their arms are checked in, just as we leave our boats in marinas.

Gun control has long been an issue in my house. Twenty years ago when I was despairing over all the guns that were already out there, even if we could stop the sales tomorrow, my seven year old at the time said, “That’s easy, mom. They just have to stop making bullets.”

I knew she was right; if we wrap our heads around it, we can do anything. Now a woman of twenty-seven, nothing has happened in our nation in this regard. Nothing with the exception of more casualties. But just this week in the intro to her blog she wrote, “It seems like there is enough momentum to create some real change in the coming years.”(http://amadcity.com/2012/12/14/hope-take-two/).

Let’s topple the gun lobbyists who have held this country hostage for far too long. Let’s put our technology to the task. And let’s see that our country runs more like a National Park, realizing that we are at once both the caretakers and the precious wildlife.

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Filed under assault weapons, childhood, gun control, gun lobbyists

Post Office Bay

Every year at this time I throw myself into doing Christmas cards with a devotion that astounds even me. The reason why, of course, is that some of us have moved more than we ever would have imagined, or have seen so many others off, that Christmas cards, when it comes down to it, are often the last link. So I hold onto the tradition in an effort not to let people slip through the crack.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the birdhouse-like constructions of Little Free Libraries. (https://alittleelbowroom.com/2012/11/14/shrines-in-the-hood/). Then, in the midst of the Pacific Ocean on Floreana Island in the archipelago of Galapagos, I encountered an old wooden barrel with a door carved into its side and a belly full of mail, serving as a post office. Easily the earliest mailing system in the East Tropical Pacific and possibly the only free one in the world, the post office barrel is remarkably similar to Little Free Libraries in its simplicity, intent, and reliance on the kindness of strangers.

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In the late 1700’s the Galapagos was a frequent stop for whalers. On an island with a landing beach of volcanic origin and sea lions lying in the sun, a British naval captain by the name of James Colvett placed the barrel and declared, “Everyone can drop off his letters, but he must also take the mail having his same destination and deliver it to its addressee.” Thus outbound ships rounding the cape dropped mail off, and returning ships delivered it.

Post Office Bay works much the same way today. As visitors we are encouraged to leave postcards and take home any that we could deliver. I sat down and read through them all except those in other languages. Over and over, people expressed their astonishment with a place nearly perfect ecologically. Yellow Warblers, Lava Herons, Great Blue Herons, Marine Iguanas, Lava Lizards ran around us while we wrote, and we were as comfortable with them as they were with us. Such was the joy people tried in every way to express in their postcards: “nothing runs away from us here!”

Galapagos illustrates an important lesson, and that is that fear can be unlearned. It was not until 1959 that Ecuador designated 97% of the Galapagos Islands’ land area a National Park. Up until then, in the days of buccaneers, pirates, convicts and colonists, there was all manner of pillage and plunder of wildlife. Now no one treads but eco-touring visitors, walking around the nests and not disturbing anything. I want to read all kinds of hopefulness in this, for wildlife, for humans, for earth.

Something tells me I will never forget, but if the postcard I addressed to myself on Post Office Bay ever shows up, I asked the carrier to “remind me how happy I am here.”

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Filed under christmas cards, eco-touring, Galapagos Sea Lion, Great Blue Heron, Lava Heron, Lava Lizard, Marine Iguana, postal system, Yellow Warbler

Miracles Come Up Where They May

I spent a fair amount of Sundays at church in my life, and one of the things I came away with is a fondness for benedictions. Perhaps in part because the benediction was always at the end of each service, but one particular minister’s parting words, “Now go, and take on the day!” inspire me still. First thing in the morning I summon these words to sit down and write, and today is no exception.

Last week I was hiking with an esteemed naturalist in the Galapagos, crossing over an uninhabited island to a particular beach. I believe we were on Isla Espanola that day. Here’s the problem: my journal got lost somewhere on the long route home to Seattle by way of Quito, Ecuador, Lima, Peru, and Los Angeles, and all the days and islands of Galapagos are running together. I’ve filled out lost & found forms with every airport, every airline, and each day hope to hear from one of them. And yet I know, I should let it go. As Mark Twain put it, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Billy, the naturalist, wanted to show us where an extraordinary number of sea turtles make their nests. When we reached the beach the only imprints were turtle tracks, running perpendicular between the water and the shore. High up on the shore—hours of trekking for a turtle—a honeycomb pattern of multiple nests were dug in the sand between grasses. Once eggs are laid, mother sea turtles crawl out to sea, never to return to the nest. Upon hatching, baby sea turtles make their own trek to the water.

Looking out to sea, we could see numerous sea turtles treading water by the edge. Billy explained that they were awaiting sunset—mind you, we are on the equator here—to start their journey toward the nesting spot. Half a night climbing up onto the beach, and half a night making it back. No predators around, it looked perfect but for one thing: two large sea turtles hadn’t quite made it back to the water. They lay on the beach, their heads buried deep in sand. Heartbreaking.

I questioned whether the three of us could possibly lift each turtle and help it back to sea, but Billy explained that they were dead. Most likely they had started their trek back to sea too close to sunrise, and got caught in the heat of the day. And besides, we are not to interfere with nature in the Galapagos Islands. I knew that, of course, but I had to ask.

At that point the three of us went off and took a little time to ourselves. I sat down on a piece of driftwood facing the two mother sea turtles and sort of praying. I’m not sure what I mean exactly by praying, but all my thoughts went out to those two magnificent turtles whose last act on earth was to lay eggs.

Suddenly–no not suddenly, for nothing is sudden with sea turtles on land–I noticed that one of them had repositioned her body. What had been a parallel position to the water’s edge was now perpendicular, with her tail end toward me. Running down there I could see she was moving.

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“Billy, Billy,” I screamed, then I ran up the beach to get him. Billy ran back with me and the two of us were dancing around and jumping for joy—by now all the sand was marked up with human imprints. We saw the sea turtle reach the waves, and the waves wash over her, and we knew that with each laborious step she was finally cooling off after a long, hot, beached day.

Billy and I then went to inspect the other one. The body unmoved, head still buried in the sand, and once again Billy pronounced her dead. But we stayed with her, and in a sense that is what I think prayer must be: paying total attention. Sitting on the driftwood or standing by their side, I had no other thoughts but for these turtles.

She responded by blowing bubbles. At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing. But her head slowly came up, eyelids lifted, and this one too was alive! Slowly she swung herself around, orienting herself to the water. And we saw her off as well.

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Call me crazy, but I felt we had witnessed two miracles that day. More than witness, I was certain that it was our thoughts, our prayers, and our love that made them rise. And that without our presence, it may not have happened. I still feel that way.

I may have lost my journal on the expedition, but the stories of Galapagos are etched in my heart. A place so perfectly environmentally balanced, it felt wrong to ever leave. And especially wrong to step on exhaust-spewing planes to go home…. except to spread the word.

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Filed under benediction, miracles, sea turtles