January

TreesFall'19Some thoughts on friendship (and growing things).

In San Francisco the seasons melt one into the other without much fanfare. But we do have seasons and today is a true winter day. I’m sitting in our garden, now a lush patch of verdant greens, most of which are called “weeds” but I prefer to call them volunteers – wild onion, oxalis, nasturtium, miners lettuce. I’m not sure where they came from or when, but now all are adamantly part of our backyard landscape. Beneath the oxalis, some of the more purposed greens are starting to appear, the favas, narcissus, helebores, day lilies, dutch iris. Already, the green dotted snow drops are blooming. It’s damp and chilly out here but the sky is bright blue with a light brushing of gauzy white clouds. I’m trimming the rosemary and sage, clipping off dead hydrangea blooms. They’re crisp and brown and some as big as my head.

Sitting down to give my back a rest from the bending I’ve been advised not to do, a modest tiny sparrow flits in and out of the pear tree. Maybe, it’s a junco, very shy, not like the shiny, cawing crows or the scolding, bossy bluejays that come around when it’s warmer. This fall, the leaves of our apple tree turned a bright yellow and clung to the branches far longer than I can recall in the many years I’ve lived here. And the pear tree too kept it leaves, turning gold then a deep, brilliant red. One day, I woke up to see they had all fallen off, suddenly it seemed, not after a dramatic, windy storm, but after a gentle nighttime misting.

Not long ago, a friend of many years who lived just down the street from me had to be put in hospice. Her passing a month later was not unexpected, her lengthy decline had been painful to witness. In my mind, the leaves on the trees out back seemed to fall with her. Sitting in the yard today I thought of her visits to our garden. There were few especially as she became immobile and finally bedridden, but she loved our bit of green in the midst of the city. It reminded us both of our Midwestern roots. Today I think of us sitting out here in this careless backyard in our mismatched garden chairs, one of which she had given me.

Friends, unlike family, are not a guaranteed relationship. Even family members who we don’t like or lose connection with, will always be a part of us if by blood only. But friends – are they like all that green growing in back that I didn’t quite plan on but have found a home in my garden? Those friends that have found a place in my life; whose merits and quirks I may have passed over on first meeting but have learned to appreciate, love and cherish.

With friends, there is a bit more work involved than with family because nothing is automatic. Yet I feel that the important people in my life have come to me – circumstantially.  For that, I thank my good fortune. Despite our many flaws as a species, we humans have the ability and the need to love, nurture and care for other humans. That’s what carries us through the hard times and what cheers me in my darker moods.

Today, in our chilly garden, I thought of a recent visit with my friend. That evening she was in obvious pain and embarrassed because she had called me asking for help. But after we started chatting, it was her wit and her loyalty, her interest in my life that kept me sitting with her long after my help was administered.
I was reminded why our friendship had endured for so many years.

Staring up at the bare, leafless branches today, I felt her loss. I felt the loss of others that have graced my life. Out there with green stuff growing and blooming and dying all around me, I did not feel sad. It is, I know, the natural course of things. But I’m glad that the leaves were so bright and stayed so long before they were gone.

Barbara Wyeth 1/9/2020

Hotel De Lille

When we landed in Paris, my girlfriend and I headed straight for the booth offering hotel information for a mere 5 francs, just over a dollar. We had dutifully marked several choices in our guidebook, Europe on $25 A Day. We found to our surprise and great disappointment that our chosen hotels were booked, not available. The thin lipped, head-phoned young woman at the counter said, Car Show, in a heavy accent. Hadn’t we left the United States and all that crass commercialism behind in search of history and art and culture? She found instead an equally cheap place in the VII arrondissement on the Rue De Lille. We had to go on good faith, too tired to argue and too limited in language skills to even discuss. Our henna-haired agent had already moved on to the next hapless, weary tourist.

It was dark and late when our taxi arrived at 40 Rue de Lille. We were greeted by a middle-aged man with short-cropped white hair wearing a baby blue terry cloth bathrobe that did not look recently laundered. Under his arm, he held a light colored, yapping terrier of indeterminate breed. The terrier did not look recently washed, either.

He waved us in, C’mon. C’mon. I don’t usually open the door this late.

Hooray. He spoke English, with a definite British accent and a tell-tale lisp. An English-speaking queen in the heart of gay Paree. This had to be better than those selected hotels in our guidebooks. We got a short lecture on being in early. He would not open the door after 10:30. Poochie would get upset. It took forever for her to quiet down and he’d be up all night.

Je suis Tony. Now run along upstairs. Micheline has the room ready for you.

A skinny grey-haired woman had appeared suddenly in the tiny lobby. Her hair was cut very short and she had a large, elegant and somewhat ruddy nose. She looked mannish except for her sleepy, shy smile. Micheline grinned proudly at the recognition of her responsibilities, then retreated behind a small door in the front of the lobby.

We climbed up the narrow stairs, lugging our few bags that now seemed way too much to be hauling around like this. The shower was on the 2nd floor, the WC on the 3rd, our floor. We had to schedule our showers so as not to interfere with the other guests. There was a sink in the room and a low, short washbasin that turned out to be ideal for hand-washing panties and bras and anklets. It was a while before I learned its true purpose but it always seemed much handier for personal laundry than for an intimate toilette.

The next morning we joined the rest of the guests for our petit dejuener in Tony’s apartment, a baguette, butter, coffee, some sliced fruit and little packets of processed cheese. The other guests were all men. One of them, cute in that boyish, tight pants, gay-guy way, was Patrick who would later send us on to Henry in London. A hustler, we surmised, but a sweet one. Shalomchai was pretty and slim-hipped, from Thailand, working at the jewelry counter in Bon Marche and studying international business. His actual name was impossibly long and got shortened to Chai. He whispered behind his hand and giggled a lot. Paul was older, traveling with his handsome, tall, and very much younger companion Jeremy. George and Charles were in Paris with the Robert Wilson Troupe performing weird new-music operas and having fun between shows doing street performances. Amazing to us that the Wilson group had recently been in residence at our very own former University of Iowa in the middle of the good ole USA, We found that we had numerous acquaintances in common. We traveled this far, to another continent, another culture, to find our cozy quarters on the Left Bank.

Tony held court in his blue bathrobe, Poochie on his lap, gazing into Patrick’s dark eyes whenever he joined the conversation. Then Tony would start in on when he would be getting some English bacon, apparently the only thing he missed from his native country. Who was thoughtful enough to bring it to him here in Paris? Anyone who supplied this was guaranteed the best accommodations and most generous favors at the Hotel de Lille. Tony’s eyes gleamed and got a far-off look when he expounded the virtues of English bacon. He got the very same look when he talked about Sicilian boys, how divine were their eyes and hair, and their butts on those Vespa scooters they all liked to ride around on….and My Lord, at the beach. It was pure heaven. Normally, chatty, nonchalant Patrick would frown and become silent.

In our little room, we relished the discomfort and oldness of everything. The floor was slanted and the windows wouldn’t close all the way but the view outside these windows, the rooftops of Paris, was pure Colette or better yet, Anais Nin. The diesel smell of the buses and the perfume of brewing coffee from the cafes that adorned every corner in our neighborhood, wafted up to us in room 14 at the Hotel de Lille .

During the day, my friend and I walked the streets of Paris and learned how not to order coffee. Don’t sit down and don’t ask for a cappuccino. It’s three times the cost of a café creme ordered while standing at the counter. Our mornings we shared with the cast of the Hotel de Lille, our evenings ended early since we had to be “home” by 10:30.

I was trying to ignore a toothache that had begun before my trip. It was getting more troublesome and more painful every day. Finally, I could no longer avoid dealing with it. Tony set me up with a dentist at the American Hospital in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. He took on another role that I had failed to notice before, that of mother hen to his young guests. The experience was less traumatic than I had imagined and my relief at getting rid of the offending wisdom tooth overcame any anxiety about having to deal with this in a foreign country. If Micheline could have pulled it out with a string tied to the doorknob of our room, I would have let her.

But Micheline seemed pretty busy as it was, not particularly with the housecleaning. Paul, who shared with Jeremy, the top penthouse suite, two rooms and a private bathroom, reported every morning on the disappearance of a bottle of vodka, or scotch or wine. His complexion confirmed what I had guessed but apparently he wasn’t doing much actual drinking in his room. He said he had left change and travelers’ checks, an expensive camera, all in plain view to bait the thief but the only thing that ever went missing from the room was booze. Jeremy added, however, that the room was always left neat and spotless. I could not say that for ours. One morning we happened back to our room after our baguette avec buerre and our café creme (not the croissant and cappuccino of our guide books) and opened the door as Micheline flung our blankets and sheets across the bed, pitching forward and landing face down on the mattress. She stood up, barely, with effort, smiled her sweet smile and staggered out the door. This apparently counted as “making up the room”. By the time she got to the ground floor, she would slowly and carefully walk to the door of her apartment and sleep it off. One night, getting back just barely before the bewitching hour, we saw a huge, young, and very dark-skinned man climbing in Micheline’s window. We knocked on Tony’s door. He answered, clearly annoyed, in his baby-blue robe, Poochie tucked under his arm. It was now past 10:30. Chai, Patrick, and a few other boys glanced up, then returned to a sitcom playing Tony’s small TV. The television sat atop a rickety TV tray that wobbled with the sound track.

Oh that’s just her boyfriend. Now run along. This show is really funny,…about the Mafioso.

The guys went back to their program and we took our chocolates upstairs. I had healed enough to enjoy fine French Chocolates from Galet D’Or, just around the corner on the Rue de Siene. We spent our evening doing hand wash in the bidet and writing in our journals.

My friend and I decided we should stretch a bit, not confine ourselves just to Paris. Patrick gave us the address of his American friend who was living in what he called “not quite a squatter” in London. There were a lot of Irish in the neighborhood so we didn’t have to worrying about bombs. He assured us that we could stay with Henry. Off we went via Amsterdam and arrived in London for the Christmas season. Henry’s room was bitter cold and the three of us slept snuggled up together on a mattress on the floor, in a mostly successful attempt to keep warm. Henry seemed desperate for company, or just plain desperate, so after a stay that proved to be too long, we headed back to Paris again.

We didn’t have any English bacon but Tony gave us a room on the 4th floor. We were moving up. Many of the same guests were there. Patrick had moved on but Paul and Jeremy still had the 5th floor suite. The theatre gang was there and had added a few more to their troupe. Being higher up meant a few more stairs to climb but a slightly cleaner room and more status in Tony’s clique. We still had to be in by 10:30 but one night, be-robed Tony asked if we would like some wine and we were allowed into the inner sanctum with the guys and the TV on the wobbly stand and lots of gossip about male celebrities, who “was” and “who wasn’t”, mostly “who was” or “wasn’t telling”. After a few glasses of wine, Tony would tell us about his plan, a little pensione on the beach, not too far from Palermo. Those lovely Sicilian boys. He’d sigh and gaze heavenward. That was the sign for all of us to leave and we’d head upstairs to more journal writing and travel book reading as we plotted our next move. And the guys headed off to the gay boites of Paris. They had all been granted keys so they could stay out as late as they wished. We hadn’t reached that status yet, just closer to the top floor, that and wine and bad TV with Tony.

We actually did move on, this time across to Germany, down into Italy, to Venice, the Dalmatian Coast, then Istanbul and finally to Greece. Had Tony seen these boys? We sent him postcards of the Charioteer of Delphi and the famous one of the hoofed satyr with the mind-boggling erection, a card that sold all over Greece-the statue regarded as a national monument not unlike the Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty. We stayed in hotels and pensions, all cheap, with varying degrees of amenities, but none seemed quite like home, not like the Hotel de Lille.

We had been traveling for several months before my parents sent me an angry letter, to the American Express office in Athens. It seems they had been receiving angry letters as well, from the university. Instead of using grandmother’s inheritance to pay off student loans, I had taken the money and run. Seemed like a good thing to me but not to my dad. My uptight, no-adventure, stuck-in-the-mud stepmother was especially offended. Her own daughter had stayed home and taken a job with the state whereas I had shown a “complete lack of responsibility”. I should come home immediately and “take care of this!” My money was running low and instead of finding a job and settling in Paris, which had been a sort-of plan, I had traveled and seen so much. I could not feel bad about my choices. Even so, I knew I could not avoid reality forever and so I made plans to go back. My traveling companion had been more resourceful than I and vowed to keep traveling. We went back to Paris to enjoy the amenities of Europe one more time. She would soon be off to Teheran to hook up with another friend who had gotten her a job there teaching English. I would spend a few days on my own in Paris and then fly back to the good ole US of A and start the task of looking for a job and being, god knows, “responsible”.

This time when we arrived at the hotel, Tony was not in his baby-blue bathrobe, but in a jaunty, snug Italian sweater and a pair of khakis, showing a slight paunch, but very little color in his face. Had we ever seen him in daylight?

Here’s a key. You might want to take in some late nights before you go.

My goodness, and the top floor too. Jeremy and Paul were back in the US. Paul had stumbled drunk, Tony told us, outside the hotel. Messed up his knee and had to go back for some sort of surgery to repair it. Tony put Poochie on a leash and they stepped out onto the narrow sidewalk for a morning stroll.

My last 2 days in Paris were sad and sweet. My companion was now on her way to the Middle East for more adventure. I made the most of my time and shopped for a few things, a yellow cotton scarf patterned with little palm trees, a vintage scottie dog pin from the 30’s some antique French postcards with glitter, but my money was low. I had budgeted barely enough for cab fare to Orly and then to a girlfriend’s apartment once I finally landed in San Francisco. There was little else to spare. My last night, Tony fixed his “famous” cParisRooftops-'73 dinner for the guys and for me. He did not say that it was especially for me but still I felt honored.

My friend flourished at her teaching job and wrote me faithfully of her adventures in the Shah’s Iran, those last heady years before the revolution. After a few frugal years of being responsible, we planned to rendezvous in Greece. We had not planned to go to Paris but two weeks before I was to leave again for the US, we decided we needed to get a taste of Europe. There was no questions as to where we wanted to stay. Through a travel agency in Athens, we found out that, yes, the Hotel de Lille was still in business but the cost of staying there had gone up considerably. We couldn’t communicate with the Greek travel agent to determine if Tony was still the proprietor, then again, we didn’t know his last name or even if Tony was just a nickname.

After a grueling bus ride, far more adventurous than we had planned, we made it to Paris and into a taxi and to 40 Rue de Lille, sil vous plait. Yes, it looked exactly the same. We rang the buzzer and a tall, older, harried-looking man answered. Oui Oui. The lobby was cleaner but unchanged. The smiling woman was not shy, homely Micheline but a crisp, well-dressed matron. Coming down the stairs a young but very-expensively dressed American couple sailed by without so much of a nod of greeting. My friend and I looked at each other. The phone was ringing, and our hotelier ran off, smiling and bowing into Tony’s old apartment, now an efficient looking office.

We stayed a few days. Our room was cleaner but it was unseasonably cold and snow flakes drifted in as the windows still did not close properly. We still had to arrange for showers and share the WC but no gossip and no cheap red wine or bad French TV. Paris was lovely, more familiar and more comfortable, but we made a point to stay out most of the time. The hotel was now just for sleeping. That morning we were leaving, I was finally able to stop our frantic hotel man long enough to ask about Tony. At first he just looked at me, puzzled or perhaps distracted as he always seemed to be. Maybe it was my English as he seemed to speak mostly French.

Ah, I believe he is in Sicily. He retired you know.

Retired, I wondered, or perhaps he did not fit into the new, slicked-up version of the Hotel de Lille. But not to worry. I pictured Tony quite happy, in his baby-blue terry cloth robe, slight paunch over his Speedo, Poochie under his arm, relaxing at the beach on the Mediterranean, and all those lovely dark-eyed Sicilian boys.

Tony, I knew was in paradise.

Barbara Wyeth

 

Sad

I’ve been thinking a lot about sadness. No, I haven’t been particularly sad but felt myself responding to a comment at a author’s event recently. The interviewer addressed the writer saying that his book was a lot about sadness. What could he say about that? It seemed almost as silly a question as the ones that frequently pop up in the Q and A part of these events. Questions like like, when do you do your best writing and where do you get your ideas?

How could anyone write about life and not write about sadness?

Sadness kicks in pretty early in life, but a toddler not getting her toy is easily distracted. By pre-teen and teenage years, sadness can dangerously become depression. It’s at that age that we really start to see the complexities of life, the convoluted path we are compelled to tread. We’re trying to break out of childhood but it has been ideally, and for most of us, a comfortable cushion protecting us from the difficult stuff of living. In those vulnerable, exploratory years, we feel that our sadness is unique.
We soon learn that it is not.

If we are fortunate, we come to see the beauty in sadness, the function of sadness. We see that it is not at all unique, and that knowledge gives us the all-important virtue of empathy. We are not alone because not one of us is immune to to being sad. It is a part of the human condition. Without sadness, would we know joy?

Back to our author: to write is to be real. Everything I write is real, every single bit of it. It’s all real.

To read something that is sad fortifies us to face our own sadness. Would we regale Tolstoy as one of the world’s greatest writers if Anna Karenina hadn’t tragically thrown herself under the train? What of Gorecki’s achingly beautiful Sorrowful Symphony? Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Die? What are The Blues if not a profession of sadness and heartache that we bob and dance to in solidarity. And the tragic maidens of Folk Music, their sad tales of impossible love, and Prince’s Purple Rain?

Music, books, movies, soap operas are all about love. And anything that is about love, will invariably be about loss. If it isn’t, we call the work superficial, silly, without merit, not “real”. Who hasn’t had to sit in a darkened theatre and pull themselves together after a sad movie?

So we will keep writing sad tales and singing sad songs and playing sad music, and feeling sad about human folly and war and ignorance. But that sadness can be the motivator to finding joy and righting wrongs. Still there is always the overriding sadness because this gift of life that we all share, so wondrous, so fascinating, so curious, is also so short.

Sorrow will always be our great equalizer.

This Life

There are times, wonderful times, blessed times, when I just sit and
let my heart fill up.
Watching my cat, his perfect healthy catness,
Jazzy African music on the radio, a gentle summer night,
A love you text from my beau,
The muffled sounds of the fireworks after a ball game,
The green breeze coming in the window from our haphazard lush garden,
A fig perfectly ripe...
This damn life.

Barbara Wyeth

The Crinoid

A sweet memory from childhood and homage to my older brother.

Crinoid. I’ve always loved that word. It’s been sitting in my mind for years. Maybe it wasn’t even a real word. I never saw it in print, maybe I never would. I didn’t really try too hard, I just thought someday I would come across it.

I know what the crinoid looked like. It was beautiful, a small creamy colored rock. On the rounded side it was rough and graggy like you’d expect a rock to be. The other side was smooth, flat and polished. Embedded in the surface was what looked like a screw that had been pressed into clay, back when the rock wasn’t a rock, back millions of years ago, my older brother said. He was the scientist in the family.

For Christmas, I would get a doll, my little brother Boo would get a kid’s tool belt with miniaturized hammers and such. But Richard would get a chemistry set or kit to display butterflies that he caught or a book to identify rocks. I guess that’s how he knew about crinoids.

He was always experimenting. One day we heard a loud pop coming from his lab in the basement. Maybe more like a bang. He came up the stairs, opened the door to the kitchen, his face and hands, black with soot, his glasses covered too. Mom looked only briefly concerned and then she laughed, a sweet motherly laugh, but she couldn’t help it. She had great sense of humor. I was frightened by his drastically altered looks, but if she laughed. it must not be anything too bad.

Anytime any of us went down to the basement, we were frequently surprised by bugs that had been collected but somehow came back to life or startled by the corpses of chameleons. They were from the State Fair and rarely lasted longer than the 10 day fair itself. Who knows what experiments they had died for.
As for the crinoid, he found it at the quarry. We all went there, the whole family plus Richard’s friend Milo, a fellow scientist. I have black and white snapshots from that day, Richard and Milo climbing the rocks, with shoulder bags holding their gear, my mom in her wrap-around skirt and sleeveless blouse, plump arms exposed on this hot Midwestern day. My little brother playing, my dad keeping a close eye on him. I wore jeans and a checked shirt, my hair in a pony tail. This is all clear, like that old snapshot with scalloped edges, but I don’t remember exactly how Richard found the crinoid. Was it just laying there with all the other ordinary rocks?

The expedition to the quarry was to find dinosaur prints. We had all read up on dinosaurs in the Book of Knowledge and National Geographic and were convinced we could find a few. We were going to use them for paving stones in the cave we had made under a huge forsythia bush that grew in our yard alongside the alley. We already had one large flat stone with a footprint that we were quite certain was from prehistory. But on that day of roaming around the rocks in the abandoned quarry, flies buzzing around our sweaty faces and sun burning our noses, we found no trace of dinosaurs, but Richard found the crinoid.

He cradled it in his hands, nails dirty from rooting around in the detritus of the dig, quiet and serious. I don’t recall Milo’s reaction. I think we just drove him home. But as soon as we got back to Carpenter Street, Mom made Kool-Aid, Boo and I gulped it down and headed outside. Dad and eldest son sat at the kitchen table with the rock and the encyclopedias, studying Richard’s find.

I don’t know what became of the crinoid. The story, somewhere in our family lore, is that it was donated to the Illinois State Museum. Years later on a visit home from college, I wandered around thinking I would somehow just find it in a glass display case, a little rock, with a donor tag next to it. There it is, that’s the crinoid. But of course this did not happen. Yet the word stayed with me.

Recently I read a novel. One of the characters was a geologist who studied and collected specimens from the prehistoric world. Reading along, I came upon that word, crinoid. So it WAS a real word, a real thing. I had found it, there it was on the page, spelled out. Just seeing it made me very happy. The crinoid may be prehistoric fossil but to me it was a very personal relic from my childhood, my own personal totem, even if I held it not in my hand, but in my heart.

Barbara Wyeth~2019

Saturday Night Out

I wrote this for possible publication in the New Fillmore, but I think it’s a good glimpse of the things we urban dwellers love about where we live…and as an aside, we’re back to grey and rain again but no more drought, for now at least!!

Anyone who has lived in San Francisco for any amount of time at all cannot ignore the enormous changes that have taken place in recent years. Some are exciting; the cultural scene has become more varied and sophisticated but old haunts have disappeared, favorite buildings gone and replaced with boring, utilitarian condos, whole neighborhoods altered. It can be worrisome and disconcerting for many people. I frequently find myself in this league, but a recent Saturday evening on Fillmore Street belied some of those fears. It reminded me of the pleasure of living in a lively, urban community.

We had been having some absolutely gorgeous weather after a well-needed spate of chilly, grey, rainy days. I sometimes say that I love San Francisco in spite of the weather but that’s usually after several straight days of fog. In truth, I love the mild, temperate climate of our town. No matter the time of year, it’s always green here, something is always blooming, yet there are enough subtle changes to acknowledge the seasons. And then there’s always that big, rowdy ocean to check on, way out on the westside to remind us we live on the very edge of our huge glorious continent. So, yes, I do like our weather but that Saturday was especially fine.

Getting off work that afternoon, I stepped out into the extraordinary, low winter light, breathed in some clear air, and met my beau who had driven down from Sacramento for the weekend. We are both fond of movies and especially fond of going to the movies, sitting in the dark with strangers, eating popcorn. and emoting with the story on the screen. In the Fillmore neighborhood, we are lucky to have the intimate but charming Clay Theater. There are so few of these district theaters left here or anywhere it seems, but the Clay remains and was showing a movie we both wanted to see. I’m especially fond of the Clay, I think, because it was one of the first movie theaters I went to way back in the last century when I moved to San Francisco. My date and I back then thought ourselves daring as we doctored our Cokes with rum from a flask he carried.

I still far prefer the cozy, confines of a small theater like the Clay. I don’t need flashing lights, photo booths, video games and cocktails to entertain me. I’m here for the movie – and those huge lounge chairs at the plexes. I feel like I’m in bed and should be in my pajamas.

My beau found a nearby, unmetered parking spot so we were off to a great start to our evening. On that beautiful late afternoon, Fillmore Street was buzzing. Shoppers shopping, carrying bags in both hands, couples of all variations, strolling, with a coffee cup or a phone in hand, moms and dads and kids, lots of kids, older folks filling the restaurants, the omnipresent contingent of mostly men, congregating at Peet’s Coffee. To me, this corner of Sacramento and Clay seems to be a modern equivalent of the courthouse steps where men, mostly men, mostly older, gather to talk politics, and argue about sports, and news.

Next door, people are perusing the book table in front of Browser’s, D&M is doing a brisk business, people stocking up for their weekend parties and dinners, and the ice cream parlor has a long line already, kids and parent it looks like. The cafes and restaurants are filling and every sidewalk table is filled, too. Everyone is wanting to take advantage of the lovely evening.

Beau and I head to the theater to buy our tickets early although getting tickets is rarely a problem if the film you’re wanting to see doesn’t involve car crashes, aliens, blood-letting and numerous explosions – but we are the cautious sort.

Then we walk over to La Mediterranee and are pleased to be seated at our favorite table, that little one squeezed between the door and the front window. My guy loves this table because we were told that Catherine Deneuve had dinner at that very table on a visit to San Francisco. Now it’s his preferred place to sit at his favorite restaurant in the neighborhood.

And how does La Med do it after all their many years here on the street? It continues to charm and serve delicious food. I eat here often after work and tend to get the same few things but my guy is adventurous and encourages me to “expand my horizons.” I do and it’s another satisfying meal topped with an espresso and we still have a bit of time before the movie starts.

Neither of us have the willpower to pass up a bookstore, so we cross over to Browser Books “just to look”. The smell of paper and ink, that familiar bookstore fragrance makes me happy. Walking in, we run into one of my book club members buying our next read, reminding me to order a copy, as well. We chat for a bit and the boyfriend wanders back to the Science Fiction section but comes back waving a biography of a favorite punk musician. He loves biographies, too, declaring “I couldn’t find this in Sacramento”, his usual excuse for breaking the “just looking” vow.

It’s getting close to showtime to we walk up the street, as if following the scent of movie popcorn. Does it ever taste as good as it smells? But we are sated from our dinner and go on in to sit down. The theater is not crowded but the audience chats in eager anticipation. Then the previews start and we’re soon into the story. The movie is sweet, melancholy, and marvelously acted. Unlike the mega-plexes, we can watch while seated upright.

Leaving the theater, there’s that quiet buzz in the lobby as the departing audience discusses what they just watched. It’s a sad movie in some ways, and there are a few sniffles and some discreet nose blowing. And then we walk to that perfect parking spot we were so fortunate to find for our evening out. The street is still lively, the line for ice cream still wrapping around the corner, though the crowd is a little more mature.

Our parking luck continues and we’re home early for our Saturday night but it’s been a long day. We look at each other, smiling, and my beau says, “that was a really nice evening.”
I can only agree.

Barbara Wyeth 1/31/19

The Art Room

Sister Maureen 2The Art Room

Sister Maureen would sit in a old-fashioned wooden office chair in front of her over-sized roll top desk, her feet never touching the ground except to gently propel herself in the direction intended. The desk in itself was a wonder, each of its many compartments stuffed with bits of paper, writing utensils and stamps. Stacked on top in precarious piles were periodicals about stamps, newsletters about stamps and glassine sleeves full of more stamps. The giant piece of furniture dwarfed the slight figure of our teacher, artist, writer and avid stamp collector.

In her collecting, Sister Maureen focused on Vatican Stamps, specifically on Papal Issues. I thought her hobby quaint, but not so curious. She was a nun, after all. And that particular obsession with the pope and the Vatican and those miniature printed squares of almost endless variation and theme seemed the perfect specialty for Sister. I pictured her, long after school hours, perhaps late into the night, at her desk, hunched over her albums, in the big room atop the Victorian mansard roofed building that was our school, a Catholic all girls academy located in the wooded west side of our Midwestern town.

When you grow up in a place, it is the world to you. It seems neither remarkable nor special. It is simply your reality. Once away from my hometown, out of college and on my own, it seemed even more unremarkable. And yet, place is of great importance in our lives. It affects not just where we live, but how we live. It forms our memories, our judgements, our likes and dislikes. No place, especially our home place, can truly be considered unremarkable.

As a child, I lived on a street lined with tall, overarching elms. By the time I was in high school, those stately trees had fallen to Dutch Elm Disease. Our lush high school campus, which took up two square blocks, was like a park. It had numerous varieties of trees, apparently no elms, and many flowering bushes like roses and lilac. In a far corner of the grounds was a grotto with a blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary that was crowned every May Day by, I assumed, the holiest girl in our school.

There were other buildings on campus, their styles reflecting when they had been built over the course of time. There was a modern building for the boarders, a mid-century convent where the nuns lived, a ranch house style rectory for the resident priest, and a modest Victorian white frame house that held the music department until the new hall was built.

And then there was the chapel – ancient, tall, imposing and Gothic. It was on the second floor over the old auditorium that now served as our study hall.  The chapel was straight out of Lives of the Saints. It was deliciously dark inside, smelled of burning bee’s wax candles and lingering incense. The altar was smaller than the one in my parish church but ornate in the old style, festooned with statues of the divine. The stained glass windows let in little light but those beams of color glowed like small jewels. In the center of the chapel were pews for us students. The high walls were lined with kneeling stalls for the nuns, each with a bench that folded down on the rare occasion the sisters got to sit during a high mass or Forty Hours Devotion. We did not have to use those benches or maybe weren’t allowed to since we had not yet entered the convent. I recall being in the Chapel only a few times but it felt truly Medieval and otherworldly to enter that dark and holy place.

The view from the Art Room was not of our campus as it faced North and looked out on the rather ordinary street below. From the tall wavy glass windows we could peer out on a residential neighborhood of modest homes and still healthy trees. To the west was an old, slightly run-down house that I found fascinating and made sketches of for class projects. Farther down the street and just barely in view was the Catholic boys’ school and in the opposite direction was a public elementary school and playground. All this we could see from the tall windows of the Art Room. It felt like we were looking down on the world from an enlightened and impartial viewpoint. There it was for all of us, to see, to experience, to learn from, and someday explore – but not quite yet. We were still within the protective arms of our Catholic girl’s school.

Despite her tiny size, Sister Maureen was dwarfed, actually, by nothing that I am aware of. She held her own as a staunch proponent of the liberal arts, especially history and fine arts. The Art Room was one half of the top third floor. The other half was the Science Room that also served the Home-Economics classroom. We art students distained both science and home-economics, concerned as we were with far loftier matters of art and beauty. The Art Room was high ceilinged, dark and somehow sacrosanct, with an almost similar aura as our ancient chapel. In Sister Maureen’s view, I think, it was a sacred space. One of my classmates was of special favor because Sister Maureen was a close family friend. She had painted a portrait of her mother and aunt when they had been a students a generation before. It hung in a darkened corner over a set of file cabinets that held pictures of “visually interesting things”; prints, art postcards, reproductions, old book pages, magazine clippings to use as reference, though I can’t remember ever using them for that. Just looking at this collection of so many years was a rare enough treat.

Next to those cabinets that lined the wall we shared with the lab next door was a floor to ceiling glass-fronted display case holding samples of former students’ work. Most of it looked ancient to me, like something I would see in the galleries at the Illinois State Museum. I recall some pottery, though we had no wheel or kiln. Perhaps it was a piece of Sister Maureen’s. Also in that cabinet of wonders were small Plaster of Paris figures, a wooden hinged manikin, and some drawings and paintings that all seemed like they hadn’t been moved from those shelves since the beginning of time. Still, I was fascinated by the sort of rarefied world being presented to us by this small, forceful person in a white habit and veil who spoke of art and painting and stamps and very little of God or popular culture.

Small in size, she could be intimidating. Her blue eyes would narrow, her small mouth purse if we failed to reply sensibly to her questions about Art and esthetics. She demanded we think and not just repeat something we heard or thought that she would approve of. I remember struggling over essays about What Is Art? Does anyone really know the answer and certainly I did not as naive Catholic girl. I think our answers mattered less than her wish to get us thinking and learning the value of thinking. As budding artists, she exonerated us to not just look, but to actually see. Seeing is a life long struggle but Sister Maureen introduced the practice as a worthy and necessary endeavor. As an artist/photographer I constantly struggle with seeing, rather than just looking or assuming or guessing. And I know full well when I DO see or, more often, when I miss the mark entirely.

I‘m a big “saver”, I have a difficult time throwing anything away so I’m surprised that I have none of my artwork form those years under Sister Maureen’s tutelage. I know with certainty that there were no paintings of palm trees in a blazing sunset. Palm trees, I recall, were her pet peeve – well one of many-but we lived in the heart of the Midwest and I doubt if anyone of us, at that point in our lives, had even seen a palm tree.“Paint what you know,” draw what you see” were her mantras yet I can remember little of note that I did during those years, just dance programs, prom decorations, and such. I do remember one pastel drawing of the Virgin Mary so I guess those rules could be stretched a bit when it involved images of sacred beings.

I believe it was our senior year when Sister Maureen took our class on an excursion to the Art Institute in Chicago. It was my first trip on a train, my first trip to a large city, larger than my hometown or Waterloo, Iowa where my favorite aunt lived. It was my first trip to a major museum to see paintings I had seen only in the pages of art history books. The museum felt holy when I walked in, almost like the beautiful somber churches of my childhood. It felt expansive, too, and each gallery opened to more wonders. Sister Maureen was especially enthusiastic about the Impressionists and that period of Art making. Looking at Van Gogh’s Blue Bedroom, I could hardly believe I was looking at the real thing, actually painted by the real artist. I loved this painting that I had looked at so many times with my mother when we leafed through a leather bound book of Great Masterpieces of Art that we had at home. And here it was, with many others I recognized. What a big wondrous world this was! On subsequent visits to the Art Institute, long after that first trip with my art class, I make a point of dropping by to see Blue Bedroom. It’s like visiting an old friend of long acquaintance.

That day, Sister allowed us some free time to wander the museum and the gift shop, then meet up to catch the train back home. A friend and I were certain we were on time but getting to the station, the other girls were already seated and looking out the windows, worried. Sister Maureen glared at us and we could hear that the engines had started. A kind conductor reached down and helped us up on board. We did not miss the train, but Sister Maureen was red faced and frowning for most of the trip home. Only later did I realize how concerned she must have been. My friend and I feared her wrath when we got back. By then her anger seemed to have faded but not without some stern words about being responsible and sticking together and behaving like adults. I remember thinking that the train left early but saw no need to put up any sort of argument against my teacher who was also a nun, an argument that I most surely lose and be branded as disrespectful. I also knew she was right. It wouldn’t have hurt to be early and cautious. These days I’m at an airport at least two hours before any flight any where.

When graduation time approached. I was eager to get on to the next phase in my still-young life. I had loved my school and most of my teachers except for Sister Veronica 2nd year Latin and French who once falsely accused me of cheating and another time called me in front of the class to wrangle around a particularly vexing French word I couldn’t seem to pronounce for the life of me. And Sister Thomas Aquinas, Senior homeroom, who called me to task for questioning Holy Mother Church over the mysterious Index of Forbidden Books.

I was going to go to the local junior college so I knew I would be seeing many of the girls that had become such dear, close friends. I knew I would most certainly miss my taciturn but adored Sister Maureen, but I was ready to get on with things. I remember girls crying openly about leaving the school. For many of them, their lives were about to change dramatically, moving away from home to college, or to marriage and children. I looked out to the world I had viewed from the protective confines of the art room, a hand emerging from Sister Maureen’s snow white habit pointing to all that was out there, waiting for us. And I felt ready for it all.

Within a few years, I would learn the enormity of what I would need to face, more dramatic that I could have possibly imagined. On graduation day I had felt well-armed and confident. Within two years my mother died, and I went off to college and it was the 60s and all hell was breaking loose on college campuses across the country including my university. At the time I never realized how unanchored I was but I bumped along through those years, invigorated, crushed, thrilled and sometimes totally lost.

I visited Sister Maureen only once after graduation and by that time she had retired or, to her mind, “been retired.” She told me about the new art teacher who had replaced her and had students making paper flowers. I felt Sister’s disappointment and anger too. She was prideful enough to feel that her legacy so-to-speak had been erased and that she had been replaced by a craft teacher, not an art teacher. She said the other retired sisters at the convent talked only about former students and their growing families and children. She now had her own small room off the main sitting room where she could work on her Vatican collection, but I sensed her boredom. Had she become bored with the Church as well, with the restrictions placed on her by going into the convent, by the kind of life that was required of her? Teaching kept her mind active and engaged and now she was living with other old women who she had little in common with. I am no doubt projecting here, but that was the feeling I got during our visit. Perhaps it was because I was going through my own serious disenchantment with the Church. Or maybe it was just plain boredom. I became bored with the routine that my “faith” required of me without any real engagement with life, with the world that was opening up to me, a dangerous joyous place I was attempting to navigate. There was a disastrous war going on, blacks and women and gays were all demanding their rights, the earth was being assaulted by man’s neglect, I was learning about sex and art and literature and disent and activism. That world was scary and hurtful at times but definitely not boring.

My father remarried much sooner than I had liked but I recall it was quite a bit later when he and my stepmother invited Sister Maureen to dinner at their home. I had already been on my own, living in San Francisco for some time but I had talked so much of Sister Maureen. They know how fond I was of her and how important she had been to me. They told me that she had seemed forgetful and confused and I was saddened hearing that. She had always been so witty and interesting. Perhaps they had expected a more saintly sister. Perhaps she was indeed fading as we all surely will.

A while back that friend who had been so close to Sister Maureen all her life, actually, sent me copy of two of her etchings, both simple and lovely – and secular in subject. A small print of men playing cards is especially appealing. With her keen eye she had recorded quite simply and quite well what she was seeing – no embellishment, no palm trees. And just recently that friend emailed me. Would like to see a copy to her of a letter from Sister Maureen, mentioning me in her remarks? I know I was not as important to her as she was to me, but I felt so honored, so pleased. Now when I look at her print I can see Sister Maureen, holding court in the Art Room with all of us seated at our long work tables. We are young, we are idealistic, eager for life, eager for art, and we are learning how to see.

Where I Live

I don’t travel much so no exotic tales here, just some musings about the concept of home and how to live a simple life (with a lot of stuff, that is – but it all fits in my small apartment!). I wrote something related a while back about possessions and stuff – here’s some more on the subject.

Where I Live

I’ve often wondered if there is a scientific formula, an equation that specifies exactly how many square feet a person needs, really needs, to live. Myself, I live in two fair size rooms: the kitchen and the living-sleeping-work room, and a bathroom of course. I am fortunate to have some nice closet space, and, oh, a short hallway that I think gives the place some class. My living space is called a studio apartment. I’ve wondered as well why a “studio” is called such. I do in fact work on my photo imagery, draw and write in my big room so I guess it really is my “studio”.

I often wish for more space, mostly a room where I could do my art work and not have to clean up and put everything away, one I could close off from an ill-behaved and curious cat who has a thing about paper, or more correctly, tearing up paper and chewing on it as it comes out of my printer.

I long for more counter space in the kitchen and better storage too. I have a wall of cabinets and the ceilings are high but I am short so I can only reach the first shelf without getting out the step-stool. The shelves are also shallow so a platter doesn’t really fit, nor do my large vintage Chinese enamel bowls that I battled over in the old Chinatown Woolworth’s and will never part with. So the space beneath those cabinets is largely taken up. There’s also a green painted oar propped upright by the fold-out ironing board, a paper bicycle from Chinatown above the wimdow and my cabinet of curiosities filled with odd-ball street finds.

Food preparation takes place mostly on the side of the sink which, given the settling of the floors in my 1928 building, is at a slant – slight but enough to cause things to drift towards the sink. Many a wine glass has shattered by sliding to its porcelain demise. That tiny bit of work space also has to compete with a rarely used food processor, a much-used coffee grinder, a bottle of water I keep on hand- not sure why – and my dish washing soap and supplies.

The top of the fridge might be a place to store things but there’s a wok which I drag down maybe once a year and a marvelous painted cardboard urn that I bought from a artist 30 years ago. It’s wedged between the top of the refrigerator and the ceiling and then, the cat likes to sit up there and keep a eye on me when I’m in the kitchen.

My table, which I found in the trash area of an apartment just around the corner from where I live now, sits right in front of a big window that looks out on the backyard or as we like to call it, the garden. It’s a big green space that my neighbor and I tend, a lush overgrown luxury in the heart of the city. When you live in hilly San Francisco, everyone asks if you have a view and I do indeed. I look out on a pear tree and an apple tree, on datura and bouganvilla, hydrangea, aganthus, morning glory and all those lovely bossy invasives that thrive out there. We’ve planted and nurtured and cared for this space for years, this view I stare out at from my kitchen, watching birds, and neighbors and workers. That big space is surrounded by windows and staircases of the surrounding buildings and the poles for old wash lines, the kind with the pulleys that you used to see all over the city and rarely do anymore. It’s very urban and Rear Window-ish and I frequently find myself being watched by the guests staying in the rear yard house’s B&B that butts up against our back garden.

I have that same view from the bay windows in the main room but not so much staring out goes on in there. There’s hardly anything in my apartment that I’ve actually purchased, save two red folding chairs from the 20s, I’m told, Mah Jong chairs with little Chinamen painted on them. Politically incorrect to be sure, but I love them and have moved them many times since I bought them from the wife of a dry cleaner, way down at the end of Church Street, a year or so after I had moved to the city.

The bed is futon frame, the mattress given to me nearly new when a neighbor realized it caused more back pain than it relieved. Clunky but serviceable, a couple of old card cases line two of the side walls, one from a stationery shop in Noe Valley that was closing, another from a pharmacy in Old Oakland that was being modernized. They remind me of the card displays from my childhood friend’s drug store, her father’s pharmacy down the street from our house. I loved sorting through the greeting cards with their labels, birthday, anniversary, for mother, for baby, for nephew, for grandchild, for every possible relationship and every possible occasion. Art work, my own and others, is stacked in the card cases. The draws are full of my extensive postcard collection, art show announcements, vintage ephemera, color xerox prints, greeting cards, old photo albums, memorabilia from the art postcard shop and gallery that I owned with a friend many years back, old ads, correspondence and pieces from our mail art shows.

My drawing table serves as a desk and is crowded with my computer and scanner and printer that as to be barricaded to protect it from the cat who seems fascinated by it and frequently sits atop, often hitting the on button, often in the middle of the night.

The lovely little painted red table that sits in front of my bay window was a street find from Pacific Heights – certainly better finds in that part of the city than in mine, where one sees abandoned Ikea shelves and business school textbooks and the like, lots of young transients in this neighborhood, lots of moving around.
An antique book case with glass doors divides my work space from my bed and seating area. Perhaps I should call it my laying-down area since most of my sitting is either here at my desk or at the kitchen table. The bookcase is a handsome piece, old heavy dark wood. It’s from a Pac Heights couple moving from their small apartment to a house with the arrival of their first child. It holds my art and photography books, but has never closed properly so a wicker valise full of old stickers, scraps, various paper serves as a door stop. That and a box of books to be donated to Friends of the Library but keeps getting rifled through to see if I really do want to get rid of that McSweeny’s issue which I still haven’t read.

The table that holds my TV and DVD player is from a food writer who moved to New York and then got all snotty. The drawer holds the missals and rosaries of my mother and all her Iowa relatives, celluloid pins and bracelets bought at flea markets when you could find that sort of thing, and my mother’s costume jewelry. The television perched  on top was found in the building lobby with a FREE IT WORKS note and a remote control. It sits on a vintage wire milk crate that I lugged from Iowa City but fits snuggly right in place.

My desk aka drawing table was payment from an artist friend on a loan to her years back. It continues to serve me well. Next to my work space are floor to ceiling shelves holding supplies, files, folders of my stories, my dad’s memoir which I will get to editing but haven’t yet, ink cartridges, paper stock to print my cards on and more photographs, old, newer, mine others, unknown, my valentine collection, half started projects, ongoing projects, floppy disks with early writing that I keep thinking I will somehow be able to retrieve, hidden gems in them, perhaps – some brilliant turns of phrase I could use. And way up high on top of the shelves are some of my collected bird houses, from towns and woods I’ve visited, mostly from the Midwest.

The hallway has a cheap oriental style runner that I bought on line. It gives the hall that bit of class I was talking about. Also, it’s the only clear space in the apartment to do my back exercises. On the wall, I’ve kept the the bell and what used to be the hook-up for the old intercom, painted it gold and circled in with a small wreath of dried fall leaves that was the crown that all the guests wore at a long ago Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a reminder of good friends, some gone now, moved away or moved on, of sweet times. A primitive painting of an elephant from a dear, late friend’s loft now hangs next to the original niche that held the telephone, I suspect, a nice original feature that shows its age but still looks good. A round-bellied Buddha crawling with cherub faced babies fills the cubby comfortably.

There’s a long green bench against the wall , underneath my most frequently worn shoes are lined up. The not-so-frequently-worn or forgotten or don’t-know- what-to-do-with shoes are tossed in the closet to the right of the bench. Across from that closet is a big one that I can’t really call a walk-in, maybe an enter-very-carefully closet might be the correct term. The contents are as follows: prints from years of picture taking and making, boxes of negatives, old cameras, two tripods, photo oils, tinting samples from my days of teaching workshops, boxes of slides, digital prints, albums, records, more memorabilia  from the store, maps of places I’ve been and will go, rolled drawing paper, gift paper, posters, mounted color xerox pieces, cut mat board that might come in handy, frames and parts of frames, shipping supplies, a book case with my jewelry lazily strewn on top, a dresser piled high with scarves, gloves and Grandmother’s handkerchief collection, and folded clothes not put away in their proper closet.

My bathroom is another remnant of the original 1920’s design. There is a medicine cabinet and that’s it as far as storage goes. Baskets and hooks and shelves a previous tenant, apparently a tall one, installed help. The fixtures appear to be original, including the decidedly not low-flow commode, the pedestal sink and the giant bathtub. I usually shower but on the rare occasions that I use the tub, I have to arch my toes for fear of slipping under. The tub is big, probably perfect for that tall previous tenant who put in those ridiculously high shelves. The bathroom seems to have morphed into a sort of shrine. I’ve covered the walls with various crucifixes, framed holy cards, milagros from Greece and Mexico, rosaries (not the relative’s – they’re respectfully tucked away in that little desk from the snotty writer).

If you can imagine any surface or open area, picture it filled with piles of books and magazines, then you’ve got it, a picture of where and how I live. It’s a bit crowded but comfortable and everything I own is here, in this space. These things are more than “things” to me. They are evidence of my life, of people I love and have loved, of my work and my interests, of things that keep me curious, of projects awaiting my attention. These familiar things that we see and use everyday become part of our lives. I realize this is not very Zen of me, this attachment. Finding and moving to a bigger place in this town is unthinkable these days with astronomical rents and mine being stabilized by law. That said, I am very fond of this apartment. Our relationship is like that of old friends, annoyances do erupt but it’s comfortable and stable. I do however, allow myself to dream of hiring a personal assistant, archivist, and housecleaner. In the meanwhile, I will relish my home sweet home and think about a more Buddhist approach to life, and maybe even get that renter’s insurance that I keep putting off and that’s been on my to-do list for years.

Barbara Wyeth

The Cruelest Months

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving, 2018

It’s another smoke-choked day in San Francisco. I am not a runner or a tennis player, but I miss being in the outdoors. I miss a walk to Chinatown to shop, to North Beach for a cup of coffee. I miss not getting into the backyard garden to weed and trim or just sit. I miss looking up to a brilliant blue sky between the leaves of our pear tree, leaves showing the slightest hint of fall color, rare in San Francisco. Our autumn is generally green and lush, but the light changes, Ocean Beach is more dramatic and beautiful than ever, sunsets and skies glorious, our street ginkgo trees shed blankets of tiny gold fans onto the sidewalk. I think of Autumn as our best season, before the rains come to start the cycle all over again.

My inconvenience of being stuck inside my small, stuffy apartment today is nothing compared to the enormity of a whole town lost – not just a town, a vast environment, houses, barns, homes, animals, vehicles and human lives. Paradise is community north of San Francisco. It is a place where people could live inexpensively, simply, in a beautiful wooded part of the state. Many were elderly, folks on fixed income, many people who just wanted to avoid the complexities of the modern, tech-obsessed, frantic life of the cities. I’ve never been to Paradise but I’ve been to places like this, places where I might one day seek solace.

Living in the city, surrounded by conveniences but burdened with higher costs, I admit the Paradise lifestyle seems inviting. Yet here I am, in a small place, yes, but surrounded by years of work, by gifts I’ve been given, by the rosaries of every late member of my mother’s family, by my photo books and art books and gardening books, by the art I’ve made and the art I’ve collected, by the dolls that belonged to my childhood best friend and her mother, by all these things that have meaning in my life. I cannot image losing all that and losing it all so violently. I confess to lacking a Zen approach to such loss and admire the strength of those that do.

But in fact, there seems to be some kind of cosmic irony bent on destroying this time of year.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. I remember that day so clearly, when my class at Junior College was interrupted by Sister Jordan, in full Ursuline habit, broke into the classroom announcing the president had been shot. At home my mom and I watched on our small black and white TV, sad and horrified. She said she didn’t know why she hadn’t voted for him. I had been a Kennedy Girl at my all-girls high school and I wondered too, surprised. A year after, my mom, who had been born in November, died in November, of a brain tumor and I went onto University rebellious and floundering.

It was in November 1978 when Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco’s City Hall and only 10 days prior,  in the jungles of South America, demagogue minister Jim Jones convinced over 900 of his disillusioned followers to sacrifice themselves by drinking cyanide laced fruit drink. Five others were killed including a fine congressman from California.

I well remember Thanksgiving in 1978 with dear friends in a lovely flat up on hilly 17th Street in the city. It was pouring rain outside as we ate and drank our fill but the television remained on as we closely monitored the crisis in Iran as Americans had been taken hostage a few weeks before.

The Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco on a still, windless day in October 1989, the Bay Area tuned into the first World Series game of our two baseball teams. We still refer to those warm still days as earthquake weather.

This fall, bombs were sent to opponents of our dubiously elected president by one of his alt-right supporters, followed by more mass shootings that have become part of the American narrative. They seem to take place on a weekly basis, gun ownership being more valued than human life. This fall we have experienced two more heart wrenching ones, college kids at a country music bar and Jews worshiping at their synagogue. Man-made violence, not our angry planet seeking revenge.

Then for us every fall here in California, there’s fire season. I remember in 1991, watching from outside a breakfast joint on Monterey Boulevard as a huge plume of smoke kept growing over the Oakland hills across the Bay. Later that day, pieces of black ash landed on our deck, the burned paint from houses as they dissolved into flame.
I kept thinking, this is not leaves from a compost pile, this is part of someone’s home where their lives happen. This is not just the loss of something material, this is the loss of experiences and memories. It was sad and sobering to think of this as the black ash gathered in my green lush yard.

Last fall, the fire that wiped out Coffey Park in Santa Rosa seemed like it could not be more destructive and devastating but here we are, a town that was Paradise to many, now gone, its citizens routed, their homes and all they own gone, many of those citizens gone too. Each day brings news of more loss and the fire continues to burn.

So perhaps, April is not the cruelest month. More cruel are the heartbreaking months in the most beautiful time of year. And yet, every year near the end of November we continue to gather, to give thanks and to share what we do have. It matters not what grains our forefathers served, if they ate turkey or venison or if we do. What matters is that we take courage, that we celebrate life itself, and are grateful for it.