Plastic Challenge

Would you ever knowingly swallow plastic? Yet the North Pacific Gyre is swirling with plastic from all over the globe, a garbage patch three times the size of France. Fish and birds ingest it, and so, eventually, do we. Off the Carmel coast the sea floor is white, thick with thousands of golf balls.

These plastic pieces were found in the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick on Midway Island. From an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When I was a girl, Aunt Ellen’s blueberry muffins were a special treat. Now blueberries are a year-round staple in my diet, piled on top of yogurt or nibbled mindlessly as a midmorning snack. So healthy, so delicious! But whether organic or conventional, sold in plastic.

My neighbor Dick jokes that if you walk down the street in Santa Cruz, you must be accompanied by a dog on leash, talking on the phone, and/or carrying a cup of coffee; otherwise you risk getting a ticket. Usually the cup in hand is paper with a plastic lid. Of course, you’re probably like me and bring your own cup with you to the coffee shop, but here’s a confession: at work my breakfast is Bob’s Red Mill organic oatmeal in a “convenient on-the-go cup” with plastic film over the top, and lunch is often a prepackaged salad from Trader Joe’s. For years I virtuously recycled those clamshell containers, but a few months ago I learned that, in Santa Cruz anyway, they are not recyclable.

Living in the Netherlands back in the 90s, I got in the habit of taking my own shopping bag to the grocery store, but too often when I order takeout, I forget to say that I don’t need utensils. Serving dinner at the winter homeless shelter last week, we supplemented the VFW’s plates, cups, and forks with paper napkins and plastic knives for forty men. I only volunteered there one night, but it must be the same every night all winter long.

We all know the slogan Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which probably goes back to the beginning of the environmental movement in the 70s. It’s catchy, practical, good for the planet — and for the soul. In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis deplores our throwaway culture, and he has proposed adding care for our common home as an eighth work of mercy to the traditional list of seven.

Last year the Church of England encouraged Christians to reduce their plastic use during Lent. Over the years I’ve given up candy, alcohol, Facebook, even chocolate, but plastic? It seemed way too hard. How could I go forty days without acquiring or discarding plastic?

Ash Wednesday is March 6th. Let’s see.

The Ground Beneath

 

IMG_3813In the centuries before the friars built a mission here, in all those autumns of acorn gathering, how many native feet trod the ground beneath this house? When its foundations were laid seventy years ago, did the builders find potsherds or old Spanish coins? Did they find bones?

In the shadow of the yellow Victorian next door with its turrets and gingerbread trim, what inspired the architect to look further back in time to cloister arches and thick adobe walls?

The answers are lost in lathe and plaster. I like to think that the laughter and music and poems that bubble up in our home mean that it was constructed on happy ground, that in the five thousand years before the missionaries came, children played here. Boys walked up the hill from the river to hunt rabbit and squirrel; girls came to find berries.

Before the road in front of our house was paved, wagon wheels carved ruts in the earth. Now ten thousand cars a day drive by, and only small islands of forest and grassland remain where the city has grown.

Yet, still, acorns fall to the earth every autumn, and sometimes, sometimes a hawk circles overhead.

 

 

(Images of Ohlone village life from murals at the Wash & Dry on the corner of Water St. and Branciforte Ave. in Santa Cruz.)

Garden Swing

Our yet-to-be-born children would rock on this garden swing with their sweethearts one day, my ex-husband and I imagined when we bought it over twenty years ago. The jarrah wood was smooth then, polished a deep and lustrous brown. We bought a can of special oil too on the salesman’s recommendation, fully intending to recoat the swing at least once a year to protect the Australian hardwood, but that oil, like my husband and the dream of children we might have had, is long gone.

Instead the seasons in their turn have done the scouring and burnishing. For the last five years, in the garden I share with a new love, the swing has sheltered under the boughs of a redwood, its base moldering into the rich soil. Needles and cones and industrious spiders have joined the work of sun, wind, and rain to turn the wood rough and gray.

In the spring I brush away the cobwebs and duff and sit down on the old swing. My back nestles against a curve in its back, human spine, muscles, and sinew aligning with wood slats as if we were designed for one another. In the heat of the day the scent of feathery redwood branches mingles with childhood memories of camping in the mountains, and I push my foot against the cushion of forest floor in this little corner of my city garden to set the swing in motion. The rasp of wood in metal rings and bolts echoes the creak of my own joints. Someday I will accept my gray hair and wrinkles as graciously as I do this weather-roughened wood. Someday I will ripen into glory. But for now I glide back and forth with the whispers of those young lovers I dreamed of long ago. For now I am at ease in a moment of sun-softened stillness.

The Gift of the Canyon

Morning sun and shadow in Zion Canyon

The first day in Zion our Road Scholar group walked on the canyon floor along the Virgin River, and I craned my neck to look up at a landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. Eons ago the sand dunes that covered this plateau petrified, and now the red rock walls towering above us offered a sense of the river’s long and languorous lovemaking with Navajo sandstone.

Early the next morning half our group began the hike up to Observation Point, knowing we would climb 2100 feet over the next four miles. The sun had yet to clear the eastern rim, so we walked in shade, bundled in warm clothes, just the twelve of us as opposed to the hundreds we’d encountered the day before. The trail was mostly wide and even as it switch-backed up the canyon wall and offered sweeping views down to Weeping Rock where we’d begun and across the canyon to the western wall. I fell into a slow and steady pace.

Echo Canyon

Perhaps an hour into the hike, the trail turned down a gorge called Echo Canyon into a scene so surprising and lovely that it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of being on the edge of a canyon wall I was suddenly inside, folded into the curves and undulations of stone, which were touched in this moment by the sun’s first tender kisses on red rock and secret pools.

It took nearly three more hours to reach Observation Point. As the group spread out, I often walked alone, up, up, up, taking breaks to peel off layers, drink water, and look at the desert world around me – slickrock paintbrush growing improbably out of a crack in the rock and striations in the curved canyon wall that I paused to study as I would a work of art in a museum. At one point I heard rumbling nearby and with the instincts of a city girl whirled around looking for a truck almost in the same instant that I realized how ridiculous that was. Instead, somewhere close but out of sight, rocks were crashing down the hillside. This is unstable country, I remembered our geologist guide saying. Was I about to be buried in an avalanche? The clatter faded. Or had Tom hiking somewhere ahead of me been hit by falling rock? I pressed on. Eventually the trail leveled off, and I came out to the point, where I found the rest of the group safe and sound. At 6500 feet we snapped photos and enjoyed stunning views down the canyon.

Mary at Observation Point

In the following days, as I hiked in Bryce, the Valley of Fire, and Red Rock Canyon, my thoughts kept returning – not to the height I’d attained at Observation Point, but to the quiet moment when the trail veered into Echo Canyon. What was it about that place? I guessed it was the intimacy of the lusciously curved red rock walls surrounding me. We’re used to being onthe earth, but in that passage of undulating stone I had the sense of being init. Unlike in a tunnel or cave, though, I was immersed instead of enclosed, in the light instead of in darkness. Maybe this glimpse of geologic time, a peek at eternity, hints at what the cave of the heart looks like.

Never Again

On the day of the student walkout to protest gun violence, I was scheduled to staff the reference desk at ten a.m., a responsibility I could not reasonably forego. Early in the morning, I huddled with other staff. What could we do in the library? Lakshmi suggested we use our new intercom system to ask for a moment of silence. This might sound oxymoronic in a library, but at ten in the morning the Foothill College library is bustling with students checking out books, asking questions at the reference desk, and chatting with each other. Nevertheless, we agreed to try it.

And so, as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff streamed out of their classrooms and offices and headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I heard my own trembling voice echo through the library, “In memory of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago, please join the library staff in standing for a moment of silence.” The names of the seventeen victims stood on a list at the reference desk, remembered now by strangers here on the other side of the country from where they fell. I looked around. Some students went on about their business, but many others took a break from their books, devices, friends, and together we all stood without speaking or doing. I let two minutes pass before I switched the intercom on again, thanked everyone, and reminded them of the gathering in the plaza.

Over and done, but outside was a different story. Not two minutes, but seventeen. One minute for each life lost on February 14th. A minute is nothing compared to a life, and yet, it is something. Those holding silence were not monks or hermits, but young people bursting with energy, community college students juggling classes with jobs and families; they were professors accustomed to lecturing, for whom every minute of class time is precious, needed for the knowledge they want to impart and the experiences they want to create for their students. Friends who were there later told me that a sociology professor tolled the minutes with a Tibetan singing bowl, and each minute more people streamed into the plaza. Wind blustered, footsteps fell on pavement, bodies shuffled, but no one spoke as the bell resounded across the crowd.

This had been happening since seven a.m. when the walkouts started on the east coast, a wave of silence sweeping across the entire country. Honor and protest and hope are the gifts of those seventeen minutes, multiplied ten thousand times. May the silence bear fruit.

Gezouten Boter

cheese market in front of the Gouda City HallThe first cookies I baked when I moved to The Netherlands came out of the oven flat, not just in shape, but in taste. Part of the problem, I discovered, was the flour, which is processed differently than in the States in a way that reduces the amount of gluten, and part of the problem was the butter. At home I took it for granted that our default butter is salted. Back in the eighties and nineties an American baker had to go out of her way to find what we call sweet butter, but in Holland the default butter is unsalted. Dutch salted butterIt took several tries before I realized that all my recipes assumed the dash of salt from the butter in addition to the teaspoon explicitly stirred into the cookie dough, and I learned to seek out gezouten boter in a larger store than the corner grocery. And what about the flour? For special-occasion desserts it was worth driving to The Hague (home of the country’s embassies and hence a city  that caters to foreigners), to the import shop I’d heard about through the American grapevine, where I spent way too many guilders for a pound of Gold Medal flour from home.

Pumpkins and turkeys were also absent from Dutch grocery stores, but Americans abroad are resourceful when it comes to our holidays. Each fall a few members of the American Women’s Club of The Hague drove across the border to a farm  in Belgium that grew pumpkins and returned with a carload to resell as a fundraiser for the club. I often wondered what my neighbors in the little village of Waddinxveen thought about the jack-o-lantern gleaming from my window on October 31st.

Waddinxveen, small as it was, boasted a poultry shop, and my first November there I timidly inquired about procuring a kalkoen. The poulier’s face lit up, and it became clear he’d recognized my American accent. “It’s for your harvest celebration, isn’t it? I’ve heard of this!” He didn’t carry turkeys, but could special order one for me in time for the holiday. As he scribbled my information on an order pad, he asked what I’d be serving with it. “Aardappelen en …” Hmm, my Dutch vocabulary did not yet include words like stuffing and cranberries. Over the next years, he came to recognize me. “Ah, mevrouw Thomas, here for your oogst kalkoen, eh?”

Mary and table set for Thanksgiving dinner

I began my married life in Holland, and those years were my first attempts at cooking a Thanksgiving dinner myself. At first, it was just my husband and me, but each year we found more American friends to celebrate our holiday with in a country where the fourth Thursday in November is an ordinary workday like any other. With our homesickness like salt in the dough, friends became family around a table, a turkey, and blessing: a little island of home in the Dutch sea.

 

 

From the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods

Library House at Wellstone

I’m at a writing retreat, staying in a rustic cabin with no electricity or running water called the Library House. Perched on a deck among oak trees, it felt like home as soon as I walked into its book-lined walls. I set my suitcase down and perused the titles before I unpacked, saw how thoughtfully they had been chosen and approved too of how they had been organized: travel, biography, poetry, entire shelves for favorite authors like Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, and a whole section just for fun. I had arrived for a weeklong writer’s residency, but was tempted to spend the next seven days devouring as much of this eclectic, enticing library as I could.

Instead, I settled at the desk with my laptop and a fat binder containing the rough draft of my novel. When darkness folded my little cabin into the night, I lit candles and at some point, despite my thick wool socks, noticed that my feet on the stone tiles were cold. Out came the sheepskin rug from under the rocking chair to lie under the desk instead. I have learned to move it around to wherever my feet are.

desk in library house at Wellstone

Home is a place you’ve made your own, usually by moving in with all your worldly goods, but sometimes just by rearranging what you find in your temporary abode. I know a monk who has traveled the world and feels at home wherever he lays down his yoga mat. Even a room in a Motel 6 can become a sanctuary.

I came here to write in solitude, away from the delights and distractions of my daily life, and found a tribe of writers with a place for me, a communal life that leads to contemplation and a contemplative life that nourishes community. We all have questions here. What is the very best word to write down next? What will I do when I leave this place? I want an agent or editor to tell me definitively whether I should start my novel at chapter 15 instead of chapter 1, but instead I sink into the ground made fertile by this balance of contemplative and communal. This is my home ground, this is where I can dig deep to find the answer.