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.


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.




Wind chimes hang at the corner

of our mustard house and catch

every breeze. Storms create

a symphony.


At sunset the church up the street

plays an hour’s worth of bell tones,

carols at Christmas,

patriotism on the 4th.


The cats and I sit on our

patch of grass, listening for

birdsong between the

chiming bells.

Who’s got my back?

How I rue that fateful day at the end of March when my chronic back pain took a turn for the herniated.


Life changed and it continues on with adjustments to lingering effects from my injury. One of the only positives I could come up with about the situation was that I had a label, a thing I could point to. Instead of being dismissed as a wimpy whiner, I had a condition. See, not making this up, got a trouble, and have photographic evidence to back up the claim.

But then some dear soul, let’s say my beloved husband, got me a book called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection.” I harrumphed, and may have mentioned having pictures of herniated discs. But then he threw down the gauntlet, “What do you have to lose?” So the book sat looking at me for a couple months from on top o’ the book pile.

Then another dear soul, my friend Sonia, mentioned she was reading a book by John Sarno on the mind/body connection related to back pain. I believe I responded to her kindness with a snarky bit about the pictures I had of my vertebrae, a verifiably medical condition. I may contemplated making a small photo album of my MRI images.

But I relented a little. I carried the book around the house every now and then, took it on the bus back and forth to work for a week, perhaps even took it on vacation, but it remained unopened, making its silent demands.

Meanwhile, I’ve continued my efforts to maintain some sort of fitness during this interminable healing period. The efforts were proven woefully inadequate recently when I discovered that my fat pants were becoming snug. Dear God, the horror. I put my foot down and joined the Oakland YMCA.


I must say, this may be one of the nicest gyms. It’s had some updates and has a lot going on, but there’s something more about the place. Maybe they feng shui’ed the heck out of it, because it’s got a positive buzz vibrating through the floors. Somehow this army of sweaty people seems to include my kind of people. I honestly didn’t know there was a gym in the world where I might feel ok. I’m not an athlete, never have been. I work out so I can enjoy eating more than the carrots my metabolism can process without fattening me. I work out so I can stay away from those fat pants…the currently snuggish ones.

First item on the agenda was water aerobics. Despite having to overcome the dread of donning a bathing suit in public, this is a great way for a wounded warrior to get her sword back. Well, maybe her butter knife, but it’s a start. Turns out the older folk flock to water aerobics. Duh! It doesn’t hurt their bones and joints either! I am loving my classes with them–they keep it real, have a good time and have made me feel welcome.

Apparently one of the big selling points at gyms these days is having a person at a desk who helps you identify gym classes and offerings that match your workout needs or goals. At the Y, these cats are called Wellness Counselors, which gets a little of the Y’s philosophy into your subconscious, too, doesn’t it? I signed right up, because I am all about the plan. I need me a plan, a point on the horizon, because otherwise this gimpy back thing is going roll me up like a millipede under a wet leaf.


I show up to my appointment and the young man waiting to greet me with a smile has a list of questions. I don’t know what I expected, maybe less counseling, but remember he is a Wellness Counselor, right? It definitely felt like a counseling session and I responded…somewhat guardedly. What is it about being questioned? I’ve realized lately that it’s not my favorite thing. I like time to reflect, mull things over, chew on it and respond thoughtfully.


But here I am being quizzed by this young man who seems more and more like a combination of Yoda and some sort of mercurial messenger, with bits of his hair sticking up like antennae, receiving and transmitting information. And then it happens. He starts to tell me about the mind body connection and how Tai Chi and restorative yoga could help the healing process with my back.

At that moment I waved the white flag. I relent, Universe! I relent!

The journey has to be about integration. Discs are discs, but the pain leading up to them may have had many causes, among them worry, perfectionism, judgement. Ok. I’ll claim these burdens that developed as coping mechanisms but have lost their necessity. I’ll work this healing crisis through with all my pieces and parts.

So the path forks to the left and a new journey begins. At the crack of dawn on Saturday, I’ll be moving my chi downtown. What do I have to lose…except maybe this monkey on my back.

Location, Location, Location

I love it when I have an evening out with my favorite date and I wake up the next day still loving the night before. Last night we had an Alameda evening par excellence. Although we have been island dwellers for three years now and we lovelovelove living here, I don’t feel very well-connected to the community. For starters, I may be the only 40-something year old married woman living on the island who doesn’t have children. Maybe there are one or two others, but we haven’t met.

When I started this blog thing, one of my goals was to connect with other writers. As it is oft said, writing is a solo endeavor and yet I like interacting with people, leaving the house and bumping into familiar faces at the produce stand, being challenged by new ideas while conversing over a watermelon/feta/mint salad. In that sense of writerly friend-seeking I got a little brave; I told one of my favorite bloggers I liked her writing. Gasp! Last night I got to meet her in person. Delightful!

Alice Lewis writes a weekly blog for Alameda Patch. Google her; she comes right up. She’s a lovely story-teller and she’s not afraid to tell the story where she is the comedic main character, to charming effect. She’s a longterm local and connected to local talent by marriage and blood. As a result of one of her recent blogs, we caught a show at the High Street Station last night. Her future son-in-law opened and her nephew-in-law (is that even a thing?), Mike Gibbons played a three-hour set. He should get an artistic endurance award at the very least! The music was so great that three hours passed too quickly and I spent all my money on three CDs and a tee-shirt. Actually I spent some of my date’s money, too. Thanks, babe.

Check this singer out: http://mikegibbons.net/



Listening to Mike’s songs last night, several of them could only have been written by a Californian. They beat with the pulse of this place in an authentic, intrinsic way.  I felt a pang of homesickness for the very place where I was sitting. Beautiful.

I have a deep and abiding love of the west coast, my chosen home. Better yet, I’m not alone here. My brother Chris moved here six months after I did, fresh out of college. He met and married Cedony, a California desert girl who turns out to be one of my favorite people in the world. And then they got busy having sons who are two of the smartest, cutest, most charming and delightful boys on the planet. I say this as a completely neutral, unbiased observer, of course. I met Michael, my favorite husband, in San Francisco, despite his roots in the Chicago-area. Our little two-family cluster in the west pulls together a wide swath of this big country.

But here’s the thing, when you are born in Maine, to parents whose families have lived in Maine for generations, perhaps even preceding the state’s statehood, that is some serious pull.

When I return to Maine, I am home. I can’t and wouldn’t deny that I have lived much of my life elsewhere, but my roots are as deeply wound around the graves of my ancestors buried in Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford and Sangerville as any Maine-born person’s roots could be. But, I am also “from away.” There is palpable tension in being an outsider in this environment, a place where most of my people don’t aspire to leave.

Last summer I visited Maine. I found some long-lost cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, who I am enjoying getting to know. I re-visited the cemetery where Dad is buried for the first time since he died in 1993. I knew that there was a family plot, that he was buried near his parents and at least one of his brothers. What I didn’t know was that his parents’ extended families were also buried there. It was an old country cemetery full of names that I carry in my heart.

Here’s where this post all comes together: one of Mike’s songs nailed an ongoing conundrum of mine. Where will I have these old bones put when my spirit moves on without them? In his song Kilamanjaro, a father’s last request was that his son scatter his ashes from the top of the mountain, insuring that the boy would make the climb.

Two locations and two sets of nephew/nieces….Hmmm. Is it a law that ones ashes have to be deposited in one spot? I think not. Perhaps I could leverage my influence over my youngest nephews and get them to take my ashes to the family cemetery so beautifully located in the woods of Maine. It is possible that I could convince our Illinois nephews and niece to come sprinkle some ashes in a beloved west coast location. In this way, my remains could be where my heart longs to be and maybe the next generation will come to love these places in a special way, too.

I’m not certain how I got here from having had a delightful Alameda evening. Maybe it’s because we’ll have a blue moon in August and it’s causing a special sort of lunacy related to blogging. Let’s go with that.

Salty or Sweet?

Doesn’t it seem like we get asked a lot of This or That questions? For example:  Do you prefer cats or dogs? Are you a spontaneous/right brain person or a logical/left brain person? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Active or passive? San Franciscans: Do you prefer fog or sun?

Dichotomies abound!

This line of questioning is a conundrum for me, because I am rarely This or That. I prefer food that has at least two things going on, like spicy/sweet or bitter/sweet. I’m an extroverted introvert. I’m a doer that thinks, while my husband is a thinker who does.

I experience a similar This/That aversion regarding fields of study. A lifetime lover of the word, particularly the written word, I have pursued studies and positions that involve communications in a variety of formats. But there also lurks in my heart a love of earth science. My recent writing has somewhat unconsciously given both loves a place to bask in the sunlight.

Before submitting my Master’s writing project to the university library, I am looking at it with fresh eyes. I’m thinking about my writing process and noticing where the words shimmer, as opposed to getting the reader from here to there. The poetry comes into my writing when the sanctity of nature is explored.

The Piscataquis River is an important presence that runs through this body of writing. The fictional characters live in communities along the nonfictional river in Maine.

Giving the river presence and voice helps me step into the writing with a spirit of reverence. Immersion into the river-as-character creates a ripple effect that deepens my exploration of the surrounding characters. Humans are complex, human interactions much more so, and doing them justice is hard work.  Honoring the natural world is how I can float into more challenging, deeper writing.

Intersections are rich for this very reason. They are places where what we know gets to interact with something less familiar or comfortable. Where things that were once distinct can co-mingle and evolve.

I was puzzling about dichotomies and intersections of seeming divergent interests, when some illustrative images fell into my lap. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Art & Science, as related to the Midnight Heron, found within twenty feet of each other on a recent walk:

Examples of a science-inspired art can be found on Bernie Peyton’s website. He’s a wildlife biologist who creates amazing paper sculptures inspired by the animals he has studied.

My friend Bob McCauley is a gifted and respected painter who finds inspiration from the natural world. Bob’s work was described by Poet Laureate Billy Collins as “realism that is haunting and full of ambiguity.” Rather than using words, Bob paints thoughtful, beautiful metaphors.
It is a rich intersection.

Oh the Humanity!

Every now and then I feel amazed that I live in a place as populous as the Bay Area. Since moving here from Maine in my twenties, I have often needed to manage feelings of being overwhelmed by the abundance of humanity. Whether hiking deep in the woods, on the beach at a sleepless 5:00 AM, driving a midnight freeway–I don’t think I have ever been alone in my chosen home of California. Sometimes I long for a bit of spatial, psychological, auditory aloneness.

And then there are days like Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I left work and jumped on a BART train that zipped me under the bay and into San Francisco to see my favorite witch doctor. She calls herself a chiropractor, but trust me; she is a healer and a witch doctor of the highest order. But I digress.

Taking BART can be the best of times and the worst of times. Sometimes it just makes you feel like this:

As I stood waiting in line for the train, I heard echoes bouncing off the bare cement walls of someone ranting. Although it seemed like the ranter was speaking English, it was completely indecipherable and, of course, heading in my direction. For once, the train pulled in at exactly the right moment: the ranter, a husky-voiced stout little woman, draped in an Indian sari came into view. She got on the train and sat down next to a young, bright-eyed Millennial. As the train pulled out, the ranter’s eyes bulged and her head craned 90 degrees to look at her seatmate and I heard spooky organ music in minor chords. Bon voyage, happy travelers!

Chuckling to myself, I wandered up 16th Street, destination Castro. I love 16th Street. There are still a few commerce holders-on that have been here since the days of my youth when this was “my” neighborhood, like the Roxy Theater, Pancho Villa Taqueria (burritos bigger than a baby’s head…), and Kilowatt dive bar extraordinaire, but there are always new and interesting places popping up. Eye Candy for the Curious! Or the Candy Store Collective, if you prefer (how the heck do they do that thing with the succulents?):

Anyway, as I was walking to my appointment, soaking up all the Mission I could stand, this wild cacophony came from above and was everywhere at once. In those seconds the brain takes to process stimuli, I was confused and disoriented, but then I remembered: Parrots! I looked up in time to see a small flock fly overhead, squawking for all they were worth. San Francisco is home to several flocks of wild parrots. As crazy as that is, it’s also perfectly San Francisco, unless of course they live in your neighborhood. Those parrots have got to be the noisiest neighbors in The City!

After my visit with Dr. Ferraro, I was famished. I made my way back toward the BART station & stopped for a sausage and beer at Gestalt Haus. As luck would have it, the table beside me was full of 20-somethings having a meeting. My ears perked like antennae while I maintained my disinterested demeanor–it was the Occupy movement of San Francisco plotting their next action.

The location (Barnes & Noble) and the issue (399 remaining tigers–where, what type, I don’t know) had been established. The challenge, as I understood it, was to link these two things and develop catchy phrases and a chant. After a process that was a combination of support and challenge, they seemed to have a loose link between the bookstore and de-forestation (I think) and a phrase, “Barnes and Noble, Be Noble.”

And with that, I pushed my stool away from the bar and headed home sated, satisfied, and content to swim in the human soup.