Monday, December 28, 2009

From Rough Waters to Smooth

Coming back from vacation is sometimes the opposite of what you would think it should be. Vacation is supposed to be that time when you put your feet up and otherwise do things you want to do instead of what you must do the rest of the year to keep everything going. Sometimes, though, you have to go back to work just to get your rest.

I just returned to work from my Christmas Stay-cation and even though there wasn’t much in the way of travel involved, I would have to characterize my last two weeks as 6 of Swords time. If the 4 of Swords is taking a break, the 5 of Swords is fully engaged in battle, then win or lose, the 6 of Swords is travel, whether in triumph or disgrace, from the field of battle to that opposite shore. In the theory that all the people in the tarot are the sitter, the person being read for, then the 6 of Swords means you take your combative, busy, engaged, tense, passionate little self for a little trip from the crashing waves of your emotions whipped up by winds of year-end efforts and last minute thoughts to the relatively calmer cove of, well, whatever you do after battle. For some people, that’s the party boat, well stocked with sunshine and happy friends. For others, that’s the little family camping trip with nothing more frightening than a squirrel with bad manners. I suppose for some that smooth surface is lethe, the wine of forgetfulness drunk from one of the rivers of Hades. This year, for me, it was at least not going to the office, logging onto work email and systems or answering the work telephone. You know you’ve been on vacation when your passwords expire and when you call to get them reset, you find out it’s only due to inactivity and you do still have a job.

Based on that criteria, I had a great vacation. So why am I exhausted?

Well, for one thing, the 6 of Swords never promised you any sleep. True to form, I often stayed up past midnight questing after some embroidery pattern or watching one more episode of Law & Order SVU or all my True Blood reruns or even Harvey with delightful James Stewart. And, at least since it was stay-cation, I also slept in past 8 am several mornings. For another thing, the 6 of Swords didn’t promise you rest, as opposed to sleep. One week into my 2-week sloth-fest I landed my 4th upper respiratory carnival of surprises in the last 3 months. The people who make Kleenix are probably reaping bonuses this year.

Not that this condition kept me off the occasional party boat with the friends, no, no, not me! A get-together with co-workers from the mid-90’s (that’s the decade, children, not our ages, no matter how tired I look) was a treat and I got to have that super-thin crust pizza at Palomino’s in San Francisco. I was blessed with the opportunity to read cards for someone else’s holiday party and had a great time. I’m sure those nurses are all business when they are at work, really. And no I won’t say where they work. I have the utmost faith in them. After all, I read their cards, so I know now. Not the least of my happy party boat moments was the holiday celebration at the ARC Solano where we bade farewell to longtime pillar and program director Mick Woodson and where my husband received an all-Santana themed gift package for his work as music director for the ARC Solano choir. We all got a chance to see the ARC Solano choir perform Christmas carols that are now broadcast over Vallejo Community Access Television (VCAT). Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum and Three French Hens for everyone! The VCAT holiday party was a great time too with their own Christmas miracle story. A woman whose car had been stolen and stripped a while back had gotten a new car.

Further keeping me out of the office for something completely different was our Christmas itself, spent with friends Frank and Seiko and the boys. I cooked all day Christmas day. We sat down at the table at approximately the time I had determined would be dinner time. And, to my mild surprise, it was delicious! Frank and Seiko contributed an old and rare bottle of Bordeaux that was exquisite to my uncultured palate, complimenting both the roast and the chocolate cake. These staples were of course needed for stamina for Day-After-Christmas Shopping in San Francisco, a quest that is not for the meek. Seiko and I are sworn to secrecy about our purchases so I shall say no more. We reluctantly passed on the Italian leather handbag of timeless beauty and $375 price tag (about 10 times what I pay for my used purses on eBay, such a fashion flop I am) but scored on the Purchase Which Shall Not Be Named. Add iced chai and cappuccino and we were on smooth water for sure. Even the thunder and lightning, so very rare in San Francisco, could not ruin our dinner for 6 at the seafood restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf. Six was a good number!

Add to that some sweet photos of the great-nieces and nephews with their Christmas fun and little Jacinda’s first birthday. Well, yesterday, by the time we determined we had to drive to Berkeley again to get more poppyseed Noah’s bagels, one last trip from rough waters to smooth, with a little side trip to Ancient Ways thrown in (and no tow-truck this time…yay, Larry!), I have to say,


Happy New Year and best wishes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Old Goat

Just in case you missed it, the sun just moved into Capricorn. I know this at the very least because my husband’s birthday is coming up. He gives everyone fair warning starting in July that there are only six more shopping months until his birthday. Usually those born when the sun is in Capricorn are described as dour, somber, conservative, serious and concerned with material things. Those who know my husband would seldom associate these traits with him. If you stand back and squint, you can squeeze the goatish traits of a heart as big as all outdoors, the ability to eat practically anything, that knees thing he has going on and of course that cute beard. Perhaps I’m not standing back far enough.

When I think of goats, though, I go back to Sanibel Island, Florida. I never saw an actual goat there. While there is abundant wildlife in this bit of paradise, there are, as far as I know, no goats. But there was a fascinating character who was the owner and cook of Jack’s Place called Jack the Old Goat. He had the seafood staples essential to good living for me in the 1960’s, namely fried jumbo shrimp. He also served red snapper, swordfish steak and I think my father even ordered shark once.

Jack was a hunter. My father thought he was a hunter too, although as far as I can tell he was actually someone who purchased hunting equipment including plaid shirts, went out in the woods and had friends who shot and ate things. My father wanted to be one of those people. He thought Jack was the bee’s knees. Jack was the real deal, pith helmet and all.  One slow day at the restaurant, Jack showed us a small collection of things he had shot. One of them was a rattlesnake skin nailed to the inside door of his shed over five feet long. The snake wasn’t from Sanibel because there were no poisonous snakes on the island, so this was a timber rattler from the mainland.

In the 1960’s, Florida was not just a-buzz but veritably screaming with wildlife, including scary critters like snakes, alligators, stingrays, wild boar that would chase your Jeep as fast as it would go across a field and gar, a fresh-water barracuda-like fish that could grow as long as our boat. Watch your toesies. I never wanted to shoot any of those things although I was willing to make an exception for “palmetto bugs,” the cute name Floridians gave to cockroaches half as big as your foot. Well, half as big as my foot. I was little when we lived in Florida. Jack’s monster rattlesnake skin was impressive and was yet another lesson in just how much more like bait I was than like a predator. The snake, now flat and definitely dead, was scary and beautiful at the same time. While I was glad it wasn’t alive, at the same time I was sorry it was dead. It was matter of proximity. And I vowed silently to read Jack’s menu more closely.

Jack also had a great collection of seashells. He had a huge albino King’s Crown and the restaurant’s tables were set up as shadow boxes with angel wings, Florida conchs, lightning whelks, horse conchs, sunrise tellins, apple murexes, pen shells, buttercups, bubble shells, limpets, Scotch bonnets and alphabet cones. Then the shells lay in drifts, feet deep, on the beaches, brought up by hurricanes and lesser storms. The live ones slimed away in the mud flats on the mangrove tree lined bay side of the island. It was a collector’s haven and drew notable scientists like conchologist and malacologist R. Tucker Abbott. My mother, brother and I were fortunate enough to be invited to attend a field trip with Dr. Abbott, not realizing he was **OMG** famous because, well, the letters O, M and G hadn’t actually been brought together yet. And Dr. Abbott was famous if you had oversized seashell books on your coffee table. In the 1960’s, we were ignorant about the effect of collecting live shells. Collecting live shells is illegal now to preserve them from eager shell collectors killing every shell on earth.  So I still have our family’s collection from our several trips to this beautiful place, although now I know enough to feel guilty about having them. I'm a mollusk murderer.  I enjoyed it but I didn't mean it.  Well, you know what I mean.  Obviously, Dr. Abbott wasn’t around all the time, so Jack the Old Goat was our resident authority on island wildlife of all kinds.

Sanibel Island is a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico just next to Florida’s “knees.” It is remarkable for being a rare sandbar barrier island that is perpendicular to the mainland, a product of the Caloosahatchee River flow that mixes Florida’s usually plentiful freshwater with the salty waters of the Gulf in San Carlos Bay. The flow of the river pushed the natural sandbar formation pattern so that Sanibel curls around the bottom of the estuary. This protective arm, plus the shallow depths of the water, warm temperatures and, in the 1960’s, relatively unknown destination made the perfect cradle of primordial ooze for the huge variety of wildlife. Today, the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve holds just a snapshot of what I knew as wild Florida. If you’re a bird-lover, you’ve probably already heard of it. When we were there in the 1960’s, Ding had the land set aside as a preserve, but back then that meant preserved as in people were not allowed on the property.

While there weren’t any poisonous snakes on the island, that didn’t mean there wasn’t danger. We stayed out of the water on the lighthouse end of the island where the undertow was swift. One day, walking around that end of the island, I watched my brother throw beached pen shells out into the bay. I noticed something pretty behind him in the sand near his Converse lowtop sneaker and bent low for closer inspection. It was beautiful, pale, nearly white, and long with rust and brown ringed spots down its long back. As I poked my nose closer, my little friend opened its mouth and showed me all its great big long sharp teeth and hissed! I shrieked, my brother broke the most recent sand-speed record and we left “Alien” to inspire science fiction in the future. When we told Jack our story, the Old Goat’s eyes grew large. He said we were lucky we didn’t get any closer, saying we had encountered a leopard eel. Jack said it was one of the few poisonous things at the island. I was and still am unwilling to verify this.

This startling incident is remarkable for its rarity. Usually, we lived by the tides. Low tide, we shelled. High tide, we fished. Low tide, we shelled. High tide, we slept. And somewhere in there, we visited Jack the Old Goat, Bailey’s General Store, Timmy’s Nook and the Captiva Chapel-by-the-Sea. We spent a Christmas there once and helped decorate the motel’s Christmas tree with sand dollars and sea shells.

Sometimes you find a place on this earth that speaks to your soul. Sanibel is that place for me. One morning when I was 7 or so, while my family slept, I left our room at the Reef Motel and walked the sands of the Gulf towards the sunrise. In the colors of my favorite calico scallops and baby horse conchs, the sun rose from across the water and behind Ft. Myers. The warm, shallow waves washed over my bare feet and sloshed on my nightgown as I watched the coquina clams also in their pink, orange, yellow and purple sunrise colors dig eagerly into the newly laid sand. All of a sudden, I had one of my earliest spiritual awakenings. I knew at once I was attuned to the rhythm of the earth and yet profoundly connected to something so much more than sand or water. I was at peace. In my child’s way of thinking, I knew I would be OK. I would always be OK as long as I remembered I was connected to both the earth and spirit. It was one of my first steps in spiritual awakening, something like my own winter solstice.

I returned to the motel, got in trouble with my mother for “running away” and didn’t mind so much. I knew I was going to be OK.

I have returned to Sanibel several times since my family left Florida. The first time, I was afraid. After all, places only stay the same in memory. Blind Pass has filled in, many houses have been built on what was undeveloped land or not even land at all and Jack the Old Goat is gone. Even forays to the historical society have not turned up an “old-timer” who knew Sanibel in the 1960’s like I did. In a way, that’s satisfying. That Sanibel, the sunrise Sanibel, is mine.

To say thank you to the Universe and Jack and Mom and Dad and my brother and the Bailey family and Dr. Abbott and all the people who were kind to answer a little girl’s questions, I purchased a brick which now graces the garden in front of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in the world devoted to seashells. My name is there, along with actor Raymond Burr and the couple hundred or so others who found the energy of the universe and spirit on a sandbar at the bottom of an estuary. Thanks, Old Goat.

If you go to Sanibel Island, please don't collect live shells.  And don't feed the alligators.

Best wishes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Christmas Tree

It had to happen sometime. I was bound to put the Christmas tree up again someday and today was the day. My husband found the artificial tree in the garage and brought it in, full of doubt about the whole project.

Now, remember, I like Christmas. I like the music especially. I'm not much for Grandma getting run over by a reindeer but I enjoy the fun carols, the sacred carols, folk carols, instrumental and vocal. One of my favorites is in Latin, O Magnum Mysterium. I live under the delusion that I'm musical, that it's part of our family. A brother plays guitar and sings, a sister the cello, another sister the oboe, guitar and who knows how many other instruments, and Dad played the oboe. It's a family thing. My sisters and our sister-in-law have actually cut (personally produced) albums of their music which I just love. I sing.  I sing all the time, whether out loud or in my head.  I used to worry about it.  Now I figure it's my own personal elevator music.

I sang in school choir, in church choir and in Sweet Adelines. I was part of a quartet called Jigsaw Jazz (as if we were famous) and sang at a county fair. Little old guys wanted my autograph! That's when I was pretty sure I wasn't cut out to be famous. Still, one of the things I love best about the season is singing the songs. Finally, the soundtrack that is my constant companion in my head is appropriate to sing out loud this time of year and people don't mind so much if you sing along.

Well, they don't mind so much, I found, if they approve of your singing. My husband was blessed with many things, but a singing voice wasn't one of them. People have a hard time believing that, thinking he must be an Irish tenor. After all, he has sparkly blue eyes, and smile as big as County Cork and stories that last forever. How can a guy like that not sing? Well, he does sing. But people ask him to stop. He's so far from perfect pitch that people wish he were just in the ballpark.

My favorite Christmas story of his is sad but true. One midnight mass he enthusiastically joined the congregation in singing Christmas carols. After a couple of looks and suggestions, one brave (or brash) soul asked him to go outside the church if he was going to continue to sing because he was throwing the choir off! Some Christmas spirit!  Bah and humbug.  At least the story gets funnier each time he tells it.

So, without children and and with only a song in our hearts or running through our heads, we usually don't put a tree up. We've done a few tree substitutes. Usually I will hang the Christmas cards we get in a tree shape on the Venetian blinds, easy up, easy down. One year I put presents under the television.  Hey, it has lights.  What do you want?  And generally if we're really in the spirit, we will move a wreath we keep up year 'round from the hutch to an oscillating fan on a tall stand that we've consistently failed to put away after summer is over. After we decorate the Christmas fan, we put the presents under it and wait for the cats to steal all the bows from the presents and hide them under the couch.  You have your traditions, I'm sure.

This year, though, good heavens we will have guests! With children! Frank is from France, his wife Seiko is from Japan and their two sons are definitely from Orange County. The older boy is going to support his parents in their old age with a career in professional tennis. Well, maybe. And the younger one has learned to surf. Very California! Frank's parents are gone and since we don't have children and he doesn't have parents, he's adopted us. He felt it was time the children spent more time with their "grandparents." This is cause for celebration for us, followed quickly by panic. At least, that was my experience. Naturally part of that panic is the, "OMIGOSH we've got to find the Christmas tree!"  I was pretty sure we still had one.  It's not like we've thrown anything else away.

The hubs came through with the tree, pulled from who knows where in the garage, along with two boxes of perfectly hideous Christmas ornaments. Now, I am proud that we are an all-rescue family. The cats love the dog. The dog loves at least one of the cats (the neighborhood inter-species scandal but at least it's just the animal version of courtly love, a lot of singing and poetry and goo-goo eyes between our otherwise ferocious little calico cat and our otherwise mild-mannered cocker spaniel.  Think Jeeves, not Bertie.). But I have to say that rescue Christmas ornaments are pretty pitiful. After we figured out how to put the tree up, a sort of tab A-slot B trial and error effort, we dug out strings of lights. One string is multi-color and steady. The rest are blinky and blue. Some of the ornaments are made out of painted pastry, some out of shredding polyester thread over styrofoam balls, some crocheted and some the usual store-bought glass balls. I remember getting them back in 1988 when I lived alone and was determined to have a Christmas tree, no matter what. Well-meaning friends have gifted me with the occasional spectacular single ornament like Friends Forever 2000 and a few Frog Princes.  This year I got some rather nice seashell ornaments from an exchange package.  Plus, there is a sparkly blue garland and a china angel-doll tree topper with lights that still work after 20 years. Score. Add this hideous jumble to our fake Charlie Brown Christmas tree and it's a rescue Christmas special! But we plugged in the tree lights and turned off the living room lights and, you know what? It's Christmas!

Sometimes the message of love and light goes out and misses the mark. When people are starving or hurt or crazed with grief or anger, singing a jolly carol or repeating a worn phrase can be like an insult. But sometimes, with bits of felt and glue and glitter and paint, with cards and music, with a plastic tree and blinky lights, sometimes the message gets through. It's not whether your tree wins a beauty contest. It's not whether your singing gets you on American Idol. It's not whether the family that comes to you for a holiday of love has DNA, language or sports in common. It's that we can gather around our rescue tree and sing, with all our voices, big and small, flat, sharp or outside the building and transform ourselves and our lives into the spirit of love. Suddenly, that tree is the most beautiful tree in the world. That Christmas carol brings a tear to your eye. And our hearts are full of the wonder of the season.

No matter what you celebrate at this time of year, may your hearts be full of love. May they be decorated with the gifts of the season. May your family, whether they are the family you choose or the family you came with, be a little closer. May your white Christmas not be dandruff. May all your presents fit and flatter you except the pink sweater that your aunt loves and you hate. And, may the cats not discover the joys of tree-tipping until after the guests leave next week. Please.

Best wishes!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Can You Say Happy Holidays?

In addition to my urge to work on projects during this holiday season this is also the time of year I start to notice that not everyone is cheerful at this time of year. I don’t mean those people who have suffered a personal tragedy, whether recently or with this season as its annual reminder. To you, I send my heartfelt glow of love in your time of need.

No, I’m talking about the people who are angry about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Personally, I celebrate Christmas, Christmas eve, Christmas day, “little Christmas” on January 6 and even Christmas holiday events during the whole month of December.

Just today, I volunteered for kitchen duty at a local inter-denominational International Holiday Fair, an annual charity event. There were five of us for our shift and we set it up like zone defense. It tends to work better that way. Otherwise, we’re stomping on each other’s toes and risk up-ending a hot bowl of soup or chili. We had our senior team member at the stove, a lithe junior member at the back of the kitchen with the soft drinks and back up to her friend who was the Mistress of The Chili, the lumpia and banana fritter volunteer and me. I had the veggie lumpia, the coffee, tea and front window coordination. It worked pretty well. No one got trampled. Nothing spilled. We remembered to wear our gloves and practiced good food handling.

One thing I’ve noticed about volunteering for events like this is that people tend to want to be in charge. All of them. This causes confusion, hesitation, sometimes hard feelings and, in the best of times, laughing it off and deference to whatever makes it flow better. Our zone defense system in the meeting hall kitchen plays to this human territorial trait without stomping on toes. We’re each in charge of our little corner of the kitchen so no one gets bent out of shape by someone trying to be in charge of the whole thing. We served a lot of chili dogs, turkey soup and lumpia today. It all looked and smelled delicious.

It’s natural for people to want control, especially of scarce and precious resources. The Four of Pentacles is often portrayed as the miser sitting on and grasping his coins. Meanings traditionally range from the 2-year-old’s cry, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” to merely a prudent use of resources. When I look at the Four of Pentacles, I keep thinking that the miser is going to get an itchy nose any minute now and what will he do if he needs to set one of those coins down to resolve that problem? Will he just sit there and itch? He’s the ultimate, “You can’t take it with you” guy.

Obviously, sometimes it’s right to say, “Mine.” And the prudent use of resources does seem like a good idea. Our world looks so huge to just one person. I flew for a business trip this week and our flight path followed the California San Andreas Fault, that huge rip in the seam of the earth where one tectonic plate is scraping along another causing wrinkles that are mountains and earthquakes that are both feared and taken too lightly. That’s just part of one state and our earth is so enormous. And yet, it is limited in its resources. If we use them poorly, we will hurt ourselves.

Even more fleeting than the riches of the earth is our time. We have these few moments. It seems reasonable to spend them well. And because of that, while I can’t spend too much time on it, I am sad for the people who are cranky when they hear “Happy Holidays.” After all, someone did just wish you well. The words you are searching for are, “Thanks! You too!” But some people are “tired” of saying Happy Holidays and want to say Merry Christmas. To those people, I also say, “Thanks! You too!” The complaint that people are tired of being “pc” means to me they are tired of being kind, considerate and polite. Many places aren’t as diverse in their population as the place where I live. So perhaps people are tired at the thought that they should feel that moment’s hesitation to wonder if saying Merry Christmas is inappropriate to someone who isn’t Christian when the chance of them being anything except a Christian is rare. However, just think about it for minute.  Wouldn’t you feel nice if someone took a moment to care what you thought or how you felt? What a nice holiday gift that would be! For a moment, you were special to someone who took the time to wish you well. That’s holiday spirit.

So to everyone in this holiday season, I wish peace on all the enormous but limited earth and good will to everyone, men, women, children, cats, trees, birds and even chili dogs including the vegan chili and the vegan chili dogs scrupulously kept separate from the non-vegan dishes in respect to those who prefer vegan. I hope you all have a wonderful December, whatever your faith, diet or disposition. If you’re cranky about saying Happy Holidays, please don’t waste your time or mine grousing about it. Just smile, wave and say Merry Christmas. I’ll say, “Thanks! You too!”

Happy Holidays! And that’s something you can take with you.