Thanksgiving at Dawn

For the pace of the sun

and the gentle way

light returns to us each day.

For my eyes that see

shades of white and blue,

notice when specters become

guava tree and bamboo.

 

Now leaves that were black in the night

turn olive, sage, and seaweed green,

and for a moment

light tickles the cloud’s belly pink.

 

For the cup of silence

that holds this witness

to what never fails

but might be missed –

everyday magic.

Remembering the Loma Prieta Earthquake

I was living in southern California in 1989, but many of my loved ones were in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area when the earthquake hit. So was Alice Wentworth, the female protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Schatz. On the 30th anniversary of the earthquake, I’m honored to offer the first chapter for you to read.

Santa Cruz – October 1989

Pin with image of Will Clark that says I've got a giant attitude

Closed for the Battle of the Bay.  Alice capped the black marker and admired the baseball she had sketched on a sheet of paper below the hand-lettered words. She shooed her last customer out of the Daily Grind, then grabbed the sign and the slim paperback under the counter that she had reached for a dozen times this afternoon. Her coffee house was running smoothly enough that she could finally take a few weeks off next summer, and during her lunch break she’d walked over to Bookshop Santa Cruz to buy a guidebook to the John Muir Trail. Although she was itching to pore through it, the one thing that could deter her was about to start: Game 3 of the World Series. The A’s had won the first two in Oakland, but now the San Francisco Giants were coming home to Candlestick. She planned to watch the game tonight with her cousins Will and Liana. and they were all certain the home field advantage would turn the tide. 

Alice taped her sign on the door and stepped out into a golden Indian summer afternoon. She had just enough time to walk over to Zanotto’s to pick up sausages and potato salad and still get home by game time. Liana and Will would meet her there as soon as they could. In her jeans and Giants tee shirt, trail guide tucked in the purse over her shoulder, Alice strode down the block and then slowed when she turned right onto the Pacific Garden Mall. Its flower-filled planter boxes and leafy trees made Pacific Avenue feel more like an oasis than a street, and the warm sunshine made her dreamy. The thought of Will Clark hitting a home run mingled with images of the Sierras, craggy peaks and alpine  —

A heavy truck suddenly rumbled up behind her, and Alice whirled around, but there was nothing there. She could feel the reverberation in her feet, yet all she could see was a car parked in front of Shockley’s Jewelers and a woman jogger also looking around for the noise. Then it magnified. Like tumbling boulders, thunder pounded up from the ground and threw Alice off balance. Earthquake! If she were inside, she would dive under a table or race inside a door jamb, but —

The pavement began to ripple, and panic swept through Alice. The street was actually rising and falling like ocean waves rolling towards her, the monster from the deep that haunted childhood dreams, and there was nowhere to duck and cover, nothing to hang onto. Alice froze in place, hands out to keep her balance. “It’s a big one,” a man near her yelled. Screams rose from all around and more rumbling; people came running out of buildings; the sound of breaking glass filled the air. Something caught the corner of Alice’s eye — the flagpole in front of the post office was whipping back and forth in an arc so wide it nearly touched the ground with each swoop. Was she losing her mind, or was this suddenly elastic pole for real? It almost transfixed her, but then bricks tumbled down from a nearby store. A long creak pierced the sounds of grinding stone, and a few yards away the roots of a tree began to undulate beneath the ground like a living creature. As if in slow motion the tree began to topple, and Alice backed away as it crashed into a car in front of her.

Then the shaking stopped; the ground seemed solid once more. But was it really? Alice’s heart pounded, her whole body trembling. Instinctively, she drew a deep breath, held it for a count of five, then released it, the trick her grandmother had taught her for coping with acrophobia. Maybe it worked for earthquakes too. No, not really. Her heart was still thumping like a drum in her chest. 

Rescue efforts in downtown Santa Cruz after the Loma Prieta earthquake

It seemed like forever since she had been daydreaming about Will Clark. A cloud of gray dust hung over the Pacific Garden Mall, and Alice wasn’t even sure which direction she was facing. Up and down the street littered with bricks and chunks of masonry, people stood looking as dazed as she felt. She thought she heard wind chimes, then realized it was more bricks falling off a building across the street. A man in a business suit came towards her, picking his way through the rubble. 

“Alice, is that you?” 

She peered into the dusty face and recognized Sean, the lawyer who came into the Daily Grind every morning for a depth charge. She nodded as they stepped into each other’s arms.  This morning he’d been a customer she barely knew, and now he felt like family. She hugged him tight and felt her heart rate slow just a little. In this tiny island of comfort, tears sprang to her eyes, they would flood her in a minute. Get a grip, she told herself and  pulled away. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. You?”

Alice glanced down at her shirt and jeans covered in gray dust, amazed to realize that her purse was still slung over her shoulder. Her legs were shaky, but she seemed unhurt. “I’m okay.”

Together, she and Sean took in the uprooted tree in front of them and the crushed car beneath it, the broken windows and crumbled facade of the jewelry store. As far as they could see, the mall looked the same: torn branches, collapsed storefronts, bricks everywhere. She smelled gas.

“Oh no.” Sean pointed, then headed down the street. A block away several people were digging through a pile of debris in front of a building. Alice started after him, scrambling among the bricks and crumbled concrete, then suddenly remembered Will and Liana. 

“Purple Moon!” She tapped Sean’s shoulder. “I have to go!” With a reluctant look at the panicked activity in front of them she turned back and down the first side street she came to, trying to dismiss the image of her cousins and all the children in the daycare center trapped inside a wrecked building. And what about her dad? Her aunt and uncle?

Just a block from Pacific the streets were clear, and Alice ran as fast as she could, grateful for the sneakers she wore at work. Within a minute she jogged up to the Purple Moon InfoShop. Its sign dangled by one corner, but the building itself looked intact. A scribbled note was taped to the front door: We’re in back. Watch your step. Alice slipped into the entryway and could hardly believe her ears. From a distance, through the open door with the purple sickle moon painted on it, came the chatter and laughter of children. Alice stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Loose ceiling tiles swayed overhead, and the photos of Ghandi and Martin Luther King and the Maurice Sendak prints had flown from the walls, but somewhere down the hall children were playing. Alice followed the improbable sound through the playroom, where crayons and toys were scattered across the floor, and out the back door to the small playground.

Although it was starting to get dark outside, it was still brighter than indoors, and compared to the devastation on the mall, the normalcy of the scene made it look like heaven. Will, Giants cap on backwards, was pushing a toddler in one of the swings, while Liana talked to a mother cradling a child on one hip and holding the hand of another. The rest of the kids clamored around a student intern Alice didn’t recognize who was passing out sandwich quarters dripping with peanut butter and grape jelly. Well, actually it wasn’t normal to hand out snacks at the end of the day, but what could be more comforting than a PB&J? And now that she thought about it, she’d never seen Will on the daycare side of the building. Amidst the prattle of the children Alice made out words like terremoto and aventura. 

“Alice!” Liana had just noticed her and came running to hug her, Will right behind her. Quickly they filled her in: the power was out, their parents were okay, so was their sister Julie and her family, but the phone line went dead before they could reach Alice’s father. 

“I’ll go to his house,” Alice said. Jonathan was either there or at the university, and the house was closer. It made sense to start there first.

“I’ll go with you,” Will said. “Might as well walk. Traffic will be a mess.”

“Grab a flashlight from the playroom,” Liana instructed. “Let’s rendezvous at Mom and Dad’s. I’ll head over as soon as all the kids are picked up.”

Sometimes Liana’s bossy teacher mode drove Alice crazy, but at the moment she couldn’t think about anything except making sure her father was okay, and she was glad to have a plan. She started to go, then stopped, put a hand on Liana’s arm.

“What about Scott?”

“He’s on duty.” Liana’s fiancé was a paramedic. “I don’t expect …” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“He’s a tough nut,” Will said. “Don’t worry.”

Typical male, Alice thought. How could Liana not worry? She hugged Liana. “See you soon.” 

She and Will strode into the playroom and then stopped short in the near darkness. 

“We’ll never find it,” Will muttered as they crunched over legos and game pieces.

A moment later Liana followed them in, walked across the room to where a drawer had spilled its contents, and picked up something from the floor. A circle of light filled the room. “Here you go.” She handed the flashlight to Alice and disappeared back out to the playground.

Alice and Will looked at each other with a grin, and Alice led the way back out to the entrance, trying to avoid the pictures on the floor in their little pools of shattered glass. Will gestured towards the InfoShop as they passed, and Alice pointed the flashlight in that direction. The door to the radical reading room Will managed was closed, but through the windows she could see empty shelves and toppled filing cabinets.

“Every single thing is on the floor,” Will commented.

“It could be worse.” She hadn’t even told him about the mall yet. A siren spiraled through the twilight, but they hurried in the opposite direction, away from downtown and towards her father’s house.

The Tree of Life

Oak tree at New Camaldoli
Oak tree at New Camaldoli two years ago

The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.

When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.

The oak tree at New Camaldoli
This weekend

It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.

The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.

Inside a piece of oak bark
Inside oak bark

When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.

The Drum of a Day

All we have is the heartbeat

played on the drum of this day.

We are the hands on the skin,

and this hollow space

that swells with the rising sun,

pregnant with possibility.

Here resonates the call

to work and play and —

thrumming within each beat —

the sun’s farewell,

the night into which we naked return.

 

(Title from a poem by Antal, an 8th-century poet and the only woman among the Twelve Alvars of  South Indian Vishnu worship)

The Place That Shelters

desk and garden in retreat room at New Camaldoli

A bumblebee buzzes under the eave

as I take a sip from my coffee cup.

Though the sun has yet to peep

over the mountaintop,

light is seeping into the world.

All is still

except for the bee and me.

Jasmine and juniper,

salvia and fig tree,

even chipmunks and quail

wait in silence.

All is still 

but the bee and me

and the rolling restless sea.

Soon, soon

stirrings will burst

into full-throated blessing,

the rest and prayer

of this longed-for retreat day,

but in this moment

we perch on the threshold

and see,

   as guests at the feast would,

   the bee and me seeking and sipping,

   creatures alike in our need,

that this day will be good,

yes, very good indeed.

California coast from New Camaldoli

Solstice Fire

Long days and sultry nights

leach all reason

from my sleep-starved

flesh-enmeshed spirit

drunk on light and heat

then hungover

and with me a whole hemisphere

besotted and whirling.

Here at the edge of the sea 

the fog will float in soon 

and for all of us eventually

the soft quilt of darkness

but today and always

the cave of your heart

is lit with God-fire.

Feel it flow

through your veins.

Burn —

as only you know how.

Inspired by Linda Serrato’s poem “On This Morning” in Sacred Stone,  Sacred Water: Women Writers & Artists Encounter Ireland.