Becoming the Sky

Even for those whose roots sink most deeply into the salty, seacoast soil, and whose lives blossom under the heat of a constant, coastal sun, summer brings ambivalence.

Eagerly anticipated through the long night of dormancy, desired for its warmth and coveted for its beauty, the Gulf Coast summer inevitably ends as a season of imprisonment.

With the rising of implacable heat and humidity, the pleasures of earlier, more temperate summer days begin slowly to devolve into a world of languid passivity. While a monotony of cicadas melds with the metallic hum of air conditioners, tendrils of lassitude twist their way into the heart’s smallest crevice, choking off energy and joy.

As the long days pass, windows close. Neighbors disappear. Birds grow silent. The stray, limping dog with the friendly demeanor and a scar encircling his foreleg no longer prowls the fenceline at night; the indolent cats seem not to breathe. Stretched over the stoop, seeking a bit of shade under the car or behind a trash bin, their presence gives pause. “Look at that,”  says the casual observer. “Is that thing alive?”

In the country, beds are pulled onto sleeping porches, or pulled even farther to rest under shadowy, star-stopping oaks.  For the fortunate, there are summer kitchens and expansive galleries where porch-sitters flutter west to east, south to north, seeking the breeze.

For others, there is only the soft susurration of fans, their sound muffled by draperies drawn over draperies, layers of imagined protection against the heat.  As if swathed in burqas, the houses sit, impassive. When sun-wearied inhabitants draw open the draperies, they glimpse a world remarkable only for its brilliant, glinting light and the harsh judgment of summer’s  oppressive truth:  “No. There has been no change. There will be no change. Not now. Not yet.”

In cities and towns, the stolid endurance of country folk is matched by a torpor so complete people wipe sweat from their brows and explain away a suddenly peaceful night by saying, “It’s too hot for crime.”

In that world of concrete and crowded neighborhoods, there is no rising evening breeze, no summer kitchen, no pulsing, star-studded night.  There is only the waiting: waiting for August to be done; waiting for September to end; then waiting again, for the coming of October, with its prairie-fresh wind and brilliant skies.

Should October come and go with no expected rains, no refreshment and no release of heat, the anguished waiting of summer’s prisoners becomes nearly unbearable. Yet, even as they wait, the Aeolian whisper breathes its promise:

There will come a day when the door to autumn will open.
There will come a rush of sudden leaves like the rattling of keys;
footsteps in the corridors of time;
a voice as crisp as wind-seared corn
and fresher than tumbled-up cirrus.

“It will be over,” whispers the wind. “Your time will have been served. The season of your impatience and longing will end.”

When that day comes, it arrives first as a scent: a subtle and barely perceptible drift of air redolent of snow still hidden in clouds, or of wind frothing the open ocean. A scent without a scent, it clears the palate for tasting every coming hint of autumn carried on the wind: faint whiffs of woodsmoke from the north, a bouquet of cane and rice clearing to the east, the acrid aftertaste of burning prairie.

Crossing streets, lounging about on street corners, trudging through parking lots or working in yards, people stop, and look around. Briefly at one with their earliest ancestors, they sniff the air with all the focus and intensity of startled animals, smiling as they sense a lifting of summer’s oppressive weight.

Tentative at first, then emboldened, quickening breezes slide along walls and around crumbling corners, stirring the dusty detritus of summer as they go. Blown free of moisture’s milky veils, the sky reclaims her rightful cerulean and topaz, deepening and darkening as the cirrus stream away, mares’ tails racing on the wind.

While mares’ tails fly, windows fly open.  A complaining squeak of wood here, a rasp and twang of aluminum there, and curtains imitate clouds. Opened windows lead to opening doors. Neighbors emerge, and communities come alive. The quarreling couple, the chattering children, the undisciplined dog, the too-loud drunk, the skateboarding teen — all begin to rediscover one another’s lives through the grace of windows and doors.

Tonight, I sit before my own opened windows, summer slightly eased but not entirely finished, rain and winds from the north bringing a hint of autumn to come. Some favorite summer sounds still linger – the metallic clack of palm leaves, irritated squawks from a heron startled off his perch, the faux-rain rippling of glass minnows — but against the familiar background, the sounds of a new season are resonating.

A few coots have returned, dignified and elegant  in appearance but utterly undignified in actions. Their cacophony of silly calls and riot of mad, splashy paddling as they break free of the water’s grasp is one of the best shows in town.

Three days ago, the first contingent of mallards arrived, exhausted, argumentative, and still a little cranky from their flight. Their insistent quacking continued for hours, until a neighbor with a fondness for open windows and a low tolerance for ducks had enough.“Dammit!” he yelled. “Shut up!

Amused by the exchange and drawn by it to other night-noises, I hear something else. Other windows are being opened, and the soft whirr of air conditioners nearly has ceased. Yet close at hand, its sound partly concealed by the insistent, full-throated ducks, one machine drones on, its low, insistent thrum permeating the night.

It seems astonishing. On this beautiful evening, even as the door to autumn begins to swing open, one person has chosen imprisonment: shuttering windows, closing off the night, ignoring the touch of the breeze, the chatter of creatures and the tender, resonant silence that emanates from the very heart of reality.

As with windows, so with life.  There are times when conditions require a shuttering off from life’s storms, a retreat from extremes of heated anger or cold, emotional distance that leave us anguished or exhausted.  Certainly, there are times to shade our eyes and drape our spirits with layers of protection, until the turning of life’s season brings relief.

But just as we throw open windows to catch the scent and the sounds of a turning season, there is a time to open ourselves to life, and to leave the prisons of our own making. The way of passivity, lassitude and stolid endurance is one way of life, but it is not the only way. As the Persian poet Rumi reminds us:

Your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color
do it now

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Where the Show Still Goes On

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Barnum and Bailey circus rider Josephine DeMott Robinson presided over the naming of the baby giraffe.

Working in tandem with acrobat Zella Florence, Josie already had encouraged an assortment of female animal trainers, wire walkers, hand balancers, dancers, and strong women (including Katie Sandwina, the “female Hercules”) to hold a suffrage rally at Madison Square Garden. Barnum & Bailey’s presentation of an elaborate, Cleopatra-themed show during its 1912 season seemed a perfect opportunity to introduce the world to its first circus suffrage society, not to mention the giraffe, soon to be named “Miss Suffrage.” (more…)

Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.


Imagine a cup
rough-hewn and awkward.
Relic of an age less patterned,
its only gilt is memory,
its glaze a half-formed hope still dripping down the years.
Take the cup
and with your hand turn ’round
the shape of circumstance.
Recall the bitter wash of tides,
the lime-laden dust.
Remark sweet days blown free of darkness,
the wheeling flight of night-watch stars –
a heavens’ course secured by gods
more ancient than desire.
When dawn breaks among the olives,
silvering their still leaves,
and returning spring lies anchored fast
between cyclamen and almond,
whether we are there
or here
mornings once called common will cry for celebration.
Tip the cup!
In time, a timeless gesture
laving away centuries of civilized madness.
Lift your face
to laughter
spilling like sea-water over our limbs;
poured like sunlight into our eyes;
and tears,
the taste of ebbing time upon our lips.
                                                                              ~ Linda Leinen


Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 6:53 am  Comments (84)  
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Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.

Published in: on August 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm  Comments (129)  
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