Full to bursting

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In front of me, there are small sea birds with straw-shaped beaks that they jab into the sand, breakfasting along the water’s edge. The patch of tidal sand forms a triangle into the bay and at its point furthest from land is a large rock with a gray lump atop it, a pelican. While I watch, she rises up and stretches her wings, letting the air comb her feathers before curling back up, tucking her wings back into her breast. Her movement sends the small birds atwitter and they flock closer with a burst of vocalizing and sand poking.

A cloud of termites hatches out of the sand behind me ands swirls around me like winged snow, hitting my face and neck. As I sit writing, there are three hatchings, three clouds of termites setting off toward the south. The layers of bird calls are their sound track to new life.

Behind me men with crowbars are deconstructing the roof of a modest beach house to add another story, transforming it into another type of dwelling as they have done to several nearby houses.

Across the water, Bay Farm Island sits with its modern construction mc mansions, over which airplanes from the Oakland airport fly at ascending angles. Further still are Twin Peaks and San Francisco’s downtown in layer upon layer of so much beauty it physically hurts.

I breathe it in and am filled with yearning, to be one with it, expanding to be all of this and nothing, no thing and every thing and at long last enough.

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Afternoon

In the fall, we transition from chasing shadow to chasing sun. At its brightest it is only just enough and cause for celebration. It is scarce and so savored. Sunblock and floppy hats are cast aside and we pretend not to notice the freckles we get in the fall. They can’t hurt us, what could be the harm.

Stretching, the cat extends one paw into the afternoon’s shadow and recoils it immediately, bringing it close to her body as if comforting it after its foray out of the light. The little yard looks dusty and unkept with dry leaves littering the back and the brown grass with clumps of rope weed like an unshaved beard, embarrassing to look at in conversation.

We don’t care. Me with my books and lists and recipes and coffee; Bella and Betty with their scraps of sun and satisfaction. It is all we need, this little open air room of a yard with trees, flowers, birds and a flat place to stretch out. It is our little place, an island in a sea of humanity.

Things you can trust

You can trust a birdbath to be what it says. It cannot fill itself, but it is willing. You can trust it to bring birds. Cat or no cat.

Pink flamingoes in the yard harbor no ill will or secret agenda. They have no pockets in which to hide a knife and they will not sneak up on you unaware.

Provided basic environmental conditions are favorable, an apple tree may be counted upon to grow and to bear fruit.

Regardless of individual qualities, dogs will have dog breath, smell bad when wet and frequently when dry. They will eat unspeakable things, of this we may be certain.

Before recent days, Bay Area dwellers knew that 3 or 4 days of heat would absolutely bring a cooling fog. Laughingly we called it god’s air-conditioning. Has god’s repair person been called?

At our house we know if a high pressure system is coming, because the wind makes our delicate wind chimes clatter and bang. In the heat, a slender breeze sashays through the yard and rings only 1 chime several times, while the others remain silent. I rely upon the purity of its one clear note.

Across the street

When Betty won’t walk, I find myself standing at the end of the driveway (with her as far in the opposite direction as her leash allows) staring across the street. Sometimes I’m begging the gods for mercy or raging silently against my fate that has brought Betty to me, but usually I am looking out at the block around me, checking out the neighborhood. I presume my neighbors are behind their half-closed curtains wondering what the hell I’m doing and what the dog’s problem is. I’d like answers to those questions, too.

Since I’ve been standing there, I’ve realized the house a couple doors down is home to a prostitute (upstairs) and a drug dealer (downstairs). It’s funny I didn’t really notice their activities before Betty, but now they’re hard to miss.

The creepy guy who works at the small hardware store down the street came out of a house next door one day. I pretended not to notice, which was made harder when my husband stage whispered, “Is that the drug dealer?” Umm, no. Wrong house.

We have new neighbors directly across: a husband and wife duo who both work in higher ed, as do we. They have an elderly greyhound, a gazelle next to our boxer. They have made the house bright and homey. It’s hard not to look at it, to peep into their warmly lit curtain-less windows to see them happily reading in their fine leather chairs.

Sometimes if the night is especially dark and quiet, and I am adequately charming, Betty will cross the street and so we are able to look back across at our house with its dark curtains, flickering TV, peeling paint over stucco and the dead laurel bush. The moon rises in the south over our garage, and I contemplate our little life in bas relief.

Up & Down

Sitting on the short pier off Jack London Square, the sun is hitting my back and the wind is flying my hair around, which should make me look glamorous but doesn’t. I can hear two girls talking about a third, gulls calling out where the best dinner is to be had, music blasting from across the water, from Alameda where I live. An old man, bent and grizzled, looks like an old sailor as he aches his way off the bench at the end of the pier and climbs onto his mountain bike. He coasts by me, his tires clicking .

The yachts are rocking up and down, yawning and groaning with a deep satisfaction. The ferry’s low horn sounds in the estuary, its rumbling engine churns the water. The office toilers are returning home to bask in what remains of the fog-free afternoon.

My sinuses are swollen shut and I can’t smell the water that surrounds me, nor the food cooking in all the fancy restaurants.

My shadow is cast in front of me and in it I cannot see the frump fest of middle age, my crinkly eyes, the mottling of my Irish/Scottish/English skin. I can see my earrings bob when I shake my head and that I am writing in a shadow book.

The bay doesn’t care about bodies. It is the law of buoyancy that applies, the principal of wetness, the hydrogen oxygen mix of atoms that matter here. The water is no more or less wet on the Queen’s toe across the pond. If only human perception complied with nature’s rules, if discernment were a mathematical formula: knowable, predictable, true.

Old Story New

The township of Alameda was born in the mid-nineteenth century on a peninsula, conjoined to Oakland by tidal wetlands. At the time, Oakland was busy becoming an industrial city, with its natural ports and commitment to railroads. San Franciscans built summer cottages on its oak-covered hills, which they cleared to better view their city across the bay, shrouded in fog. Meanwhile Alameda was building its first school and digging the estuary, not as a means of separating, but of connecting more fluidly with the surrounding communities.

These days the locals call the estuary “the moat,” and as such it serves as a means of limiting ingress to a few access points. Behind billboards and manicured hedges, at the ends of our bridges and the Posey Tube, idling cruisers stand in for noble steeds. The forces, mostly-white knights, are commissioned in the protection of island inhabitants’ riches and safety.

Although barely separated from each other geographically, modern Alameda and Oakland are worlds apart. Alameda has a village-feel, with orderly square yards, neatly filled by Victorian-era single-family homes. Utterly flat, the island barely rises out of the bay, making it an ideal community for the aged and mobility challenged. For hills, one must cast ones gaze to the east, where the hills of Oakland stretch from north to south. The various hills and dales define the neighborhoods of Oakland, with the wealthiest neighborhoods having most elevation. While the flatness of Alameda indicates an ease of living, “the flats” in Oakland are better known for their food deserts, drive by shootings, and street side bonfires, lit to destroy evidence in cars stolen from surrounding communities.

Where Alameda prides itself on pleasant simplicity (although, oddly, not on friendliness) Oakland roils with tumult, each day bringing a new protest or three to the City Center in the Downtown district. From the ashes of occupying camps, a thriving arts and restaurant scene has emerged. While Alameda vigilantly whites out defacing graffiti, Oakland embraces the Oaklandishness of it, embracing and owning its bad ass-ness, ’cause we hella love Oakland, y’all.

Like first cousins, these communities are close-knit, thrown together at holidays and for various comings and goings. They share certain sensibilities and a basic position of inferiority in the shadow of San Francisco, the most popular child in the extended family. It’s easy to love Alameda, with its matching socks and its hair parted straight down the middle. But when Oakland shows up wearing a funky screen-printed tee-shirt and holding a batch of fresh-from-the-oven pot brownies, we know who we want to sit next to when it’s time to carve the bird.

City Birds

There is a swooping cacophony in the trees above the sidewalk.

Who’s to say when the blue jays leave town, but their return cannot be missed. They’ve spent their vacation sipping umbrella drinks, oiling their feathers to a fine sheen. Returning home they find the neighborhood in disarray. They careen from peak of roof to tip of branch scolding and bossing us slackers back into shape. The crows, hardly willing to be outdone, add their outraged caw-caw to the rat-a-tat harangue of the jays.

Below the noisy trees, there’s an early 20th century apartment building that was a handsome hotel in its day. No matter the weather, there are windows left open to release the steam from the rattle and bang radiators. On the ledge of an ever-open window on the second floor, a cage of canaries chirps a fervent melody from behind a camellia. It’s my last sound of nature before the bus tires screech, I step in, and the doors swoosh shut.

I’m transported to the office where, for the rest of the day, I peek around corners to see a bit of sky. Streaming internet birdsong, I contemplate the canaries.

Waves

In need of an adventure, we went to find the pianos that had been left on the beaches of Hwy 1. The pianos were left as an act of peaceful artistic rebellion, connected to Oakland by the pianos, but disconnected from the violence of recent days. You can listen to the story here: http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2013/07/19/104136/-pianos-beach

Hwy 1 is  close to where we live, but we never go. It’s been so long since I was there that I forgot how it’s always winter. San Francisco fog is a toothless sissy relative to the Hwy 1 & Pacifica fog, laughable in comparison.

We left our sunny, warm little island home, descended into fog to find carload after carload of families shopping in the little towns, eating the local, organically-grown salad greens and artichokes, admiring Californians’ knack for arranging terrariums with air plants sticking out of them and our creative use of succulents .

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Although the radio story made it sound like people were driving along the coast and were like, “hey! Was that a piano on the beach? We better go back and check that out,” we didn’t see any pianos. Heck, one of the beaches mentioned in the story didn’t even have an obvious road near it. Maybe the GPS and the damn Apple maps were to blame. Nonetheless despite the damp cold and gray, the parking lots were full of cars, so we figured we’d just follow a line of traffic. What would sane people be doing on the beach in this weather if not gathering around a piano?

We pulled into a parking lot and found ourselves in the middle of caravan of Indian families. The children were running between the women, who had returned to the cars and were trying to get the sand off themselves and the children, and the men. The men were in a group by the bathrooms, their large bellies pushing open the unbuttoned shirts, their laughter echoing off the concrete building.

We walked to a path in the plant-covered dunes, waiting for an elderly woman with sore feet to be assisted, almost pulled from the path back toward the cars. We walked to the edge of the cliff to look out over the beach, unmarred by pianos. There were several groups of people lining the edge of the water staring out at the ocean.

There was a dead sea lion at the edge of the water, being pushed onto the beach by the tide. A group stood, their backs to us, directly in front of the mass, watching the waves push it to shore and pull it back to the ocean.

 “You know one of my skulls at home is a sea lion skull that came from this shore.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, back when Scott and I were first friends, we were walking on this beach and found the body way up past the water line. About 50 feet later we found the head all picked clean.”

Coincidentally we had mentioned Scott on our drive up to the beach, with Michael wondering if I ever heard from him. A sudden marriage, followed by a house purchase and a baby, and Scott’s life has been transformed. I presume Scott is either immersed in or subsumed by family life; so goes the march of time. I trust all is well, the old ways replaced by the richness of new life. Like a sea lion without its head: there are larger concerns at some point.

From the edge of the cliff, we backtracked to the parking lot and went down the stairs to the beach. At the base of the cliff there were several tents full of families. A tent full of young people swayed and bucked in the intense wind. They huddled inside wrapped in blankets, shrieking with laughter. A couple of little kids scampered around the outside, running back toward the tent’s opening at the sound of merriment.

The group of sea lion watchers had moved down the beach and we took their place, watching the massive tube-shaped creature roll in and roll out. Its skin was blotchy, perhaps covered in barnacles, naturally mottled, or discolored by death.

Slightly south of the rolling body, a bunch of kids ran shrieking into the waves after a soccer ball one of the fathers threw in. It disappeared under the breaking waves, springing to the surface as the wave withdrew, with screaming children in splashing pursuit. In and out the waves crashed, pushing the sea lion ever closer to the children who maintained their position in front of their family, oblivious to the sea lion’s approach.

We were hypnotized for a while by the ocean. What an amazing ecosystem. It is full of sea lion blood and skin and bones and the place where we dive face first into the waves looking for shells and chasing soccer balls. We swim amid the remnants of lives that used to be, in the medium of lives becoming, all co-mingling with every wave.

A Moment at the Beach

Morning

Dodging sprinklers that green grass,

I cross the street, scanning for traffic.

Half a block down, a cat-sized mound

dots the center line. Two crows argue

above in the trees. Cars zip

between me and the mound,

which ruffles black in tires’ breeze–

One car, two pass. Contemplation

from the ground and above.

Not cat nor crow, but a wig

animated in abandon. We nod,

continue with our ways.

 

 

World Abuzz

In the kitchen, I make a grocery list.

Windows flung open,

cats bake in the sun outside.

The air  around me hums.

Cats run in,

bones in my head vibrate

in circles.

A hummingbird is in the house.

Whirring overhead, beak clicking

into glass, whirring, clicking.

Crouching

I crawl to the door, open it

hoping.

Zipping out, it perches atop the maple next door.