“Sit in your cell as in paradise,” St. Romuald tells monks in his brief rule. My desk may be the closest thing I have to a monastic cell.
I loved it from the beginning, the ample size and solid feel of it, the sensuous curved corner that saves it from being stodgy or businesslike. In a concession to technology a discreet hole in the top allows power cords to pass through, but it is otherwise entirely organic. Waves and whorls in the grain of the cherry wood surface hint at a tree’s life story. Water stains tell of use, twenty years of a writer working (and eating and drinking) on this silky surface.
My ex-husband, an amateur woodworker, built it for me when I got tired of writing at the kitchen table. If I couldn’t have a room of my own in the apartment we shared, I wanted at least a desk of my own, and he designed it to my specifications: 66 inches wide and 32 inches deep with two drawers and built-in shelves. Since he was a self-taught furniture maker, he had to think through each step as he went, and the way he figured out to make the desk stand up was to build it into a corner, screwed to the walls to form two of its sides and give it stability.
Not long after the desk was finished, I put away the loosely autobiographical novel I’d written about navigating infertility as an expat in the Netherlands and started an adventure love story that I hoped might actually be publishable. When we divorced, I got to keep the desk and luckily the apartment of which it had become part and parcel. When my new sweetheart and I bought a house together eight years ago, I didn’t see how I could bring the desk with me, but he carefully detached it, marveling at the ingenuity of its construction, and brought it to the corner where I’m writing today at a window looking out on the garden.
In a marriage of the quotidian with the sublime, my laptop and to-do list sit surrounded by candles and icons, feathers and stones, succulents in a handmade ceramic vase. A turkey feather lies atop the letters my grandfather wrote home from World War II, the addresses he scrawled in pencil unfaded after seventy years though the once-white envelopes are ivory now. Behind them are two black-and-white photos of my parents when they were small, and on opposite ends of the desk are photos of me with my sisters and my sweetheart. A painted wooden owl reminds me of my writing teacher and the other beloved women who gathered for a ritual to celebrate my fiftieth birthday.
My desk, I see, has become a sort of altar. Like Joan Didion,”I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means,” and this piece of furniture is a home for that thinking and meaning making. I sit here as in paradise.
What is your favorite spot for thinking? If you’re a writer, where do you like to write? Please reply in the comments!
From trellises and branches the gray-haired woman hangs bells shaped like birds throughout the garden – not because she wanted to cross an item off her to-do list, but because the breeze on this foggy June afternoon called her outdoors, because the boysenberry vine craved an ornament, and the bower flower wanted company.
It took her a long time to learn that you don’t need a spreadsheet of garden chores or a master calendar of when to fertilize and mulch, that it’s better to study leaf color, light, and rain. Yet she has a compassionate fondness for the younger self that planted those roses by the book and nourished that baby bougainvillea after a rough transplanting. Who knew roots could be so delicate, so fragile?
The woman’s hands know the soil in her garden now, the clay where the oxalis thrives and the soft earth under the old bougainvillea fed by its own fuschia-colored bracts fallen year after year. She has dug deep, so she knows the roots and burrows too. She abandoned her spreadsheet long ago, for the calendar is in her head now, in the angle of sunlight and the arrival of shadow.
“America is broken,” a Canadian visitor observed four years ago on a trip to California, and I bristled. Wasn’t that an overreaction? In spite of everything – homelessness, school shootings, racism, and all our other problems – the comment seemed harsh to me. We had come through the great recession, we had a black president, I felt hopeful.
Then 46% of my fellow voting citizens chose a man we all knew to be an egomaniacal, lying, cheating, racist bully to be our president. More homeless people appeared on the streets of my town. A gunman with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and injured 17 more. Botham Jean was shot and killed in his own home by a white police officer, and then Atatiana Jefferson was too. The pandemic hit, and African-American and Latinx citizens are getting sick and dying at rates higher than their proportion of the population. Our national government failed to respond to the coronavirus like leaders of a first-world country with access to science, but even if they had, our brothers and sisters of color would still have been disproportionately affected. The pandemic merely exposed a racial divide that existed long before coronavirus arrived on our shores.
And then on Memorial Day a white police officer knelt on the neck of a black man named George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. I’m finally ready to concede what I couldn’t four years ago.
America is broken.
This week I turned to poetry, as I often do when I’m trying to counter the specters of panic and despair that lurk at my side since the 2016 election, and I found my way to a poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.” The poem walks a lyrical line between “the dream the dreamers dreamed” and “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” that were a reality in our country in 1935 when it was written and still are, the title itself a retort from the past to “make America great again.” It is a powerful poem, but it is more about economic oppression than racism, and there’s a danger in conflating the two, in not acknowledging the ongoing injustice rooted in our history of slavery, segregation, and oppression of black people. As a privileged white woman I appreciate Hughes’ inclusiveness: “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shores,” he wrote. But the fact is, I am not affected by the misery my Irish ancestors suffered under the English the way that African Americans today are affected by their brutal history in this country. To pretend that the past is over and done with is worse than naïve. It’s dangerous. Ask any black man who goes out of his way to seem non-threatening when he’s among white people.
Langston Hughes reminded me that there are two separate evils to confront: one is the corruption in American government that has dismantled whatever checks we had on capitalism and allowed wealth and power to accumulate in the hands of a few, and the other is racism. To fight the first evil, we must work for campaign finance reform to restore some semblance of representative government. Then we can tackle climate change, equitable opportunities for education, affordable housing, jobs with a living wage and health care for all.
But at the very same time that we’re recovering from a pandemic and trying to save our planet and bring about economic justice, we also have to fight the scourge of racism. Enough is enough. Why did Americans take to the streets this week? One by one we must root out and remove the reasons for their righteous rage. As President Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
So what can I, one white American woman, do right now?
First, I can examine my conscience for my own racism, a legacy of the culture I grew up in. But how do I recognize what is hidden from myself? This work will no doubt take the rest of my life, but to begin I will take a hidden bias test and read How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. (It has to be an ebook, though, if I want to read it now. This title and several others on racism are backordered at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon, thank God.) Second, I will welcome opportunities for conversation about racism wherever I find them. Third, I will donate to Black Lives Matter. Fourth, I will create a guide for students at Foothill College (where I am a librarian) on antiracism and civil disobedience.
This is just a start, and I welcome your suggestions. America didn’t break in 2016. Genocide of the indigenous people and slavery broke it before it even began. What can we do to repair it?
It’s true, the hush that has fallen over the world is wrought of disease and splintered by anguish, but with no competition from cars, the neighborhood birds take extravagant delight in their morning song, and the oxalis says thank you to the sun and late winter rain with a carpet of yellow blossoms.
Already vowed through their roots to this particular plot of earth, the roses and the redwood continue to shelter in place with equanimity, while the squirrels show flagrant disregard for the order of the public health officer, racing along their private highline. Of this I am privileged to know a small segment – the piece that runs along our roof, five feet through the air to the tips of the privet, through its leafy thicket, and onto a limb of the redwood, possibly with a quick game of chase around its trunk, before disappearing into the neighbor’s backyard.
Each day the persimmon tree takes another step in her dance with the seasons. The crone who presided through the winter now wreathes her bare limbs with maiden leaves and drinks her fill of sunlight and the mycorrhizal ambrosia twined round her roots, already dreaming of the bees she will seduce – but not yet of the luscious fruit she will birth. Those golden orbs, a feast for humans, squirrels, and crows, are seasons away in an uncertain future.
In this time of plague we knit our hearts to the sorrow and fear that now unite us, but let us join too with the humble psalm of the oxalis. Thank you for the rain, the sun, this greening. Thank you.
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
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.
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?”
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.