Now some may consider that to be a philosophical statement; and, I guess, like any statement, you can find a way to insert something you already believe to be true into that space and make it fit. For me, that phrase was a throwaway line in the initially obscure, now somewhat cult film “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eigthh Dimension”. It was a flop when released in the 80’s, with a great cast and wild storyline full of what now would be called “geeky” “easter eggs”. I think it was making fun of a lot of cultural sacred cows, but … what do I know?
Still, the phrase comes to mind now that fall is here. When this blog was conceived, it was winter; spring when it burst forth, now two seasons later and six months into a still strange world that I continue to resist embracing as the familiar. My goal when I began was to share elements of my life, and ongoing journey of discovery, in the hopes that it might have meaning for others – certainly more than it would just being kept in my own head. I didn’t have a destination in mind – I just knew I wanted to write about those things that were key to a lot of personal transformation in my life, knowing that process still continues.
But there were goals I set during this period, that I put effort into; some have been achieved, others not. There are those nights I wake up frustrated wondering what I am doing wrong; why I am not seeing more progress on things that I claim are priorities to me, but to which I devote little time, while eagerly chasing some diversion that requires less effort, devotion and discipline. Days go by that seem wasted, and I think … wow, I am now more than halfway to my next birthday. My last birthday was the first weekend of shelter in place; will my next birthday be all that different?
One of the ways I dealt with my frustration at feeling cooped up, trapped, cut off from so much of what I enjoyed in life and buried under a constant avalanche of dire, doom and gloom news – was to exercise. I was fortunate to have some personal fitness equipment. Some of you who have known me wayyyy back when know that I was at one time over 250 pounds, a consequence of seeking comfort from food or other sources that could never provide it, and the mindsets that kept me trapped in self rejection and hatred. Hopefully, some of what I have shared here of my journey away from that point have helped some readers look at their own caves and realize that they need to get out, and there is a way out, but it takes time and effort. Well, I figured I could finally transform my body into the ideal I have held it up against for 45 years, or at least get closer. People were going to gasp in awe and amazement at my transformed magnificence! (well, something like that).
Six months later … I have not been transformed. I spent hours on the back patio, with the bench, clumsily following video guidance, listening to music for that upbeat energy. Recently, our city leaders allowed outdoor training at the gym to return, so I spent a significant chunk of money for me on a training package a little more than a month ago; in the weeks since, the doors opened a little more, first with a tent filled with equipment in the gym parking lot, then with one hour appointment only blocks indoors, masked, with various other restrictions. I will say my trainer knows his stuff – but so do all the well-toned muscular men (and some women!) I see surrounding me with much heavier weights, and, well, all the rest. Are gay men necessarily more obsessed with fitness than others? I cannot say, but there are a lot in this gym who have reaped the rewards of years of devotion. I fight depression when I leave, knowing I might as well be planning a trip to Mars.
Grieving this apparent lack of results and vowing that the next six months will not be a repeat – I began thinking about what I need to make more of a priority in my life, and what I need to drop. Being forced to reflect a little more on what exactly I want to achieve, how to structure my day to be effective, and what else to set aside – I am coming to realize another surprising truth about my inner compass. I seem to be driven by some deeply buried but unachievable desire to accomplish change; to become more like the ideal that has always haunted me, taunted me, whether it was a matter of character, maturity, personal skill or interpersonal success – I never seem to be ok with where I am. I was never “good enough”. After all the work I had done with those who helped me to get somewhat beyond the shame I had embraced over some of the deepest parts of my identity, I still was trying to get to some place that I simply could not reach.
And this song came to mind …
Written as instrumental by Vince Guaraldi as part of an album related to the film “Black Orpheus”, in time lyrics were added and “Cast your fate to the wind” was covered by many artists, as well as convincing the production team behind “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to commission the trio for that soundtrack that forever will remind of us of Charlie, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. But why was this song coming to mind?
I have always longed for a map. Whether in my youth it was the teachings of the church, or the grades on my report card telling me I had gotten it “Right” – I sought absolutes. I remember only half-jokingly telling friends after I came out that I needed to find “The Big Book of Gay” to figure it all out. I never found that book, and although I read many, many others on life, happiness, spiritual principles and personal growth – I remained deeply unsatisfied with myself. It’s not a pleasant place to be – surely you don’t blame me for wanting to get out of it!
But those quests, although worthwhile, did not bring me to the place I sought. Quietly, slowly, my awareness is opening to a new possibility. I am beginning to think that the challenge is not how to become someone I am not – that idealization physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually and intellectually that I hold myself up to. Rather … I need to not necessarily just accept where I am as where I am going to end up – but to, for now, “own” where I am. Who I am, my flaws and my little shiny spots, my cold empty corners and my hallways of the heart filled with light and music – all of them.
Could it be that one cannot leave a place until one has made it their own? I do not recommend casting my fate (or yours) to the wind – but the reality is that much of what comes our way is completely unexpected and out of control, and to pretend we can somehow take the reins and maneuver all those forces to get us to some specific point is in itself a fine madness. When a friend says “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” …. Maybe it’s both? I try every day to do something that when it is over I can say – I reached out. I touched someone else I care about in a way that made a difference to them, however small. To not go to bed without having made that day, somehow, matter.
I am not giving up on my quest; in fact, as I write today, I admit I haven’t really determined what it is I am still questing for. Does your heart long for something more than what you hold today? Can you feel that, or have you tried to quench it – to say, shut up, heart, I don’t want to try anymore – I just need to get by. It’s not for me to say which perspective is healthy, but I guess what I am realizing is that until I make peace with who I am today – my whole person – I will be forever trying to cut off something that I will always be carrying with me, wasting time on trying to be someone who I am not instead of finding ways to let the person I am do what I am able while still here. Wherever I go, they will be coming along – might as well love them!
To live each day as though what we do matters, because it does; to see each person we encounter as a little piece of the wonderous something that brought all this into existence, because they are; and to simply let our hands be open in case a butterfly decides to drop by for a visit, even though they never have. We awaken each morning to a day filled with the unknown, promise, possibilities and dangers – we are here, now. Take a deep breath, enjoy it – and onward, friends.
Thank you, followers – I always love hearing from you (well, almost always!)
Last week I shared about my solo sojourn through the heritage of “Cow Hollow” on what became a record-breaking hot summer Sunday. In my continued resolve to both explore San Francisco’s less familiar corners and to get out into our gradually opening city again, I looked into the recently resumed walking tours offered again by SF city guides. This wonderful program is slowly adding its newly revised offerings – outside only, 8 or less participants, masks and distancing – and I chose to begin with a tour of one of San Francisco’s Crown Jewels as it celebrates 150 years – quite unexpectedly on a day unlike any other within memory.
The “Mid Park Ramble” tour promised a look at hidden gems of Golden Gate park. I had spent many hours and miles running – well, jogging – through the park in early 2018 after my move here, preparing for my first “half marathon” in several years to celebrate my own 60th birthday that spring. But there were points on this tour I had not seen, and so I bought my advance ticket online and looked forward to sharing new vistas with you here. The plans for the sesquicentennial had been announced months before, and like every other expectation for this year, were derailed by the COVID restrictions; portion of the park streets were closed to traffic, but this journey outside scheduled for 10 am began not with the warm sunshine of just a few days prior – but near darkness – almost like a day long eclipse. The cause was a combination of smoke, weather conditions and fog, combining to create a deep orange haze that extended throughout the day. Oddly, the smell of smoke was not as noticeable as it had been a few days prior, with greater heat.
Before I begin reporting about the outing itself, I would like to share with you from a recent guidebook purchase – although it was the purchase that was recent, not the book itself. After all the insights I had gleaned in my prior excursion from the historic hikes book I shared from last week, I was inspired to look for older books that could give me an idea of the San Francisco that once was but is now, if still present, obscured. One of the first to arrive from my online shopping spree was the 1914 “Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco” shown here – featuring a photo of the statue of Junipero Serra that until recently stood in the Park itself. Let me share what this wonderful little book had to say about our exploration location more than 100 years ago –
“Here one sees the healthy life and leisure of the community. San Franciscans use their park. The drives swarm with fine equipages, fast motors, and ruddy-face lovers of good horse-flesh bound for the speedway in wire-wheeled sulkies. Youth rides the bridle paths. Groups of children are rolling and tumbling about the lawns, for there is not a “Keep -off-the Grass” sign in the whole thousand acres”.
The streets we traverse today bear names not known then – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Pelosi. And some of the history and culture then celebrated and welcomed is no longer visible – the Park had been in the news prominently nationally just a few months prior, when a group of people took action to pull down statues and memorials that they found unacceptable based on their own values and similar actions happening around the country. I had watched the video on the news like many of you, seeing sculptures of various historical figures torn down and destroyed, but I admit – I had not paid them much attention on prior visits.
The effect of the smoke and still air, combined with the greenery of the Park, left the skies darker than twilight the evening before. Having arrived early, I took some photos in the open area between the DeYoung Museum and the previously added “Observation wheel” that was to be a hallmark of the year long festivities. A note on my photos, taken with my iPhone – many that were published online which you may have seen did not capture fully the eerie shades in the sky, due to the “auto correct” programming of most devices; those of mine that are “darker” were taken in panoramic mode, which I believe captured the color more fully. In that sense, I guess I got lucky!
No matter where you stand in the Park, there are echoes of history surrounding you. This panoramic shot of the central park area stretches from the observation wheel past the illuminated California Academy of Sciences erected in 2008 to the Music concourse which was added in 1889. As I looked towards the soon to reopen DeYoung Museum facing this area, I saw another statue that had previously escaped my notice – and I promise you, I didn’t even realize it was naked until I saw my photos at home, it was that dark! But I wondered about its origin, seemingly out of place near the modern museum – learning later that it was an 1881 bronze of a roman centurion commemorating the “first shovelful of earth” turned in preparing for the California Midwinter International Exposition here in 1893. The DeYoung itself celebrates 125 years in 2020 – having been established originally from the structure known as the “Memorial Museum” and greatly expanded in the years since.
As noted, some of that history is now absent, possibly forever. The destruction of the statues of Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics form our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, was perhaps more noticeable since his monument still stands, but his figure is gone from its perch across from the DeYoung. Through that now empty space the observation wheel sits motionless, awaiting the “go ahead” like so many other features of our city and nations, and the grounds seemed certainly more silent and deserted as well as more dim than usual during my pre tour stroll.
When our group gathered outside the Japanese Tea Garden, we began our guided exploration, beginning with a walk along Stow Lake on our way to Strawberry Hill, which like most of the park had been created from the mostly barren sand dunes into lushly forested corners of nature. We learned that the artificially created “Huntington Falls” were funded by a donation from Henry Huntington, the “Big Four” railroad czar whose home and library down in San Marino which I have loved visiting many times. Note, all the “normal lighting” pictures here, gathered from the internet, are intended to give you a view that my own exploration failed to provide.
At the top, the early visitors to the Park could take the carriage route, or the walking path, to what was called the “Observatory” – not in the sense we think today, but just a flat, open space where on a clear night they could view the stars. I found this old postcard illustrating what you might have seen if you made the climb 120 years ago, before that 1906 earthquake destroyed the structure, never rebuilt, with little remaining. Of course, even though it was dark at 1030 am, the smoke prevented any enjoyment of the stars themselves – but the owls hooting at us along the way might well have been confused as to why their normal cycle had been so rudely interrupted. Thankfully, they did not attack in vengeance. But they might have been thinking about it …..
We continued past other notable features of the area, with groups of other hikers and children gradually appearing, but still in near dark skies – eventually arriving at a spot that even my husband who has lived in SF more than 40 years had not known of. Referred to now as the “Prayerbook Cross”, it is nearly 60 feet tall and barely visible until you nearly reach the top of the trail where it stands on one of the highest points in the park itself. A gift from the Church of England in 1894, resembling a traditional Celtic cross, it commemorates the first prayer service in 1579 following the arrival by Sir Francis Drake using the “Book of Common Prayer”. Unlike the damaged or destroyed memorials below in the more well-travelled areas, I observed only a few curse words sprayed on rocks nearby this silent sentinel that looks over our changing city still.
The moments and individuals commemorated in this city oasis cover a centuries long and world wide heritage. Today, our country faces divisions seemingly more deep and broad than those of any known in our lifetimes. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. I do not have the answers or solutions to offer, and I honestly question those who insist that their perspective is the only one worth considering, whatever position they take. I like to think we can build bridges between islands, but the daily turmoil erupting before us everywhere seems unending. I can only say that history has meaning – what meaning perhaps will always vary by the heritage of perspective of those sharing it or hearing it. It is up to us, individually, to work to preserve what we treasure, support the future we want to build for our children, and create traditions that they will cherish and which will give them strength and hope.
In a way I was glad I could experience the unique beauty of this amazing Park on such an unusual day – not to be repeated, hopefully, in our lifetimes. Soon, a limited number of visitors will, bearing masks, move through the galleries of these museums, as more will picnic on the grounds, and hear music in the air – some of the guardians who stood over them are gone, but the life of the Park itself cannot be contained, only evolve. Hopefully we shall, as well – and preserve all that which future generations shall remember, and perhaps treasure if not celebrate, under sunny, smoke free skies, again.
This past week brought my first opportunity in several months to discover new views of my recently adopted home town. The last six months have been crushing everyone in more ways than I can imagine – I am grateful to be with my husband, retired, and healthy. Nevertheless, the confinement has weighed on me, and I am sure on all you who read this, in different ways. In an effort to direct some of my newly limited energy towards a constructive end, and other projects completed, I had recently committed to increasing my cardio activity, for both mental and physical health, by exploring the city. But where to begin? When I awoke in the wee hours last Saturday night, I recalled buying a book on Amazon prior to my move here in 2017, and I dug it out this past Sunday morning.
The book was “Historic Walks in San Francisco – 18 trails through the City’s past” by Rand Richards. Perhaps you have avoided this bad habit, but I have many wonderful books that remain unread for years, and this is one. It inspired me, and I set out to explore an area I was completely whose background was little known to me – the oddly named Cow Hollow. Most of the historic background here, and all but a handful of the destinations, I credit fully to Mr. Richards whose book is unfortunately out of print. However, although his guide is based on geography, I want to share my stroll based on timeline – beginning with the earliest spot on my walk. Come along (masked, please) as we stroll through a kaleidoscope of history and humanity. (As it turned out, our stroll occurs on a day of record breaking heat!)
The Spanish expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Tubac (then Mexico, now Arizona) to the San Francisco Bay of Alta California arrived at the site of the Presidio in June 1776. You can read more about their journey in this excellent website. Soon, they found a water source which fed into the bay, and it became their spot for washing – known in time as “Washerwoman’s lagoon”. By 100 years or so later, it was filled in, and disappeared – now, the intersection of Grenwich and Gough represents what would have been its center. The shoppers and residents here for the most part may not realize their homes were once in the middle of water!
It was not until 1847 that the first home was built in the area; long gone, it was built by Elijah Ward Pell, a member of a Mormon contingent who, according to the guidebook, was excommunicated for “licentious behavior” – shocking! He chose to settle here, far from his former brethren who gravitated towards what was then called Yerba Buena. Today, the intersection of Green and Laguna bears no apparent marker of this first location of residence, but I am guessing he would have appreciated the liquor store’s presence in his time.
The little community grew to support the growing broader population. What we now call Cow Hollow originally took its name from dairies which began in the area in 1853, growing to about 3 dozen of varying sizes until roughly 50 years later when the last closed. This lovely little home on Octavia is regarded as the last remaining “dairy home” in the area – the name remains, but thankfully, not the aroma.
From 1861, the Octagon house at the corner of Gough and Union is one of two remaining in SF, but in its era nearly 700 were built around the country – promoted as energy efficient and healthy due to greater light exposure. But originally, it was on the opposite corner – nearly a century after it was built, PG&E acquired the property and offered it for a mere dollar to whomever would move it. In the 1950’s the National Society of Colonial Dames purchased it and moved it to the current site, where it houses their display of period historical mementos, with a lovely park next door. On the day of my stroll, the park welcomed dog walkers, readers, and other socially distant friends to it’s sanctuary.
When Henry Casebolt built his stately home on Pierce in 1866, a mere 15 years had passed after moving to the city from Virginia with his wife and 11 children!! He was a blacksmith who had started his own carriage making company and developed several mechanical innovations for horse drawn transportation and, in time, cable cars. Imagine how lonely this majestic home looked 150 years ago, before it was surrounded by the residences of today. The guidebook says that 20 years after it was built, Chinese laborers could be seen across the street in their vegetable garden on the still empty street. Now, a posting on the fence describes a public hearing (virtual, of course) to be held regarding the homeowner’s wish to remove the palm trees, and the neighbors desire to retain them – they are incongruous, but San Francisco is not known for moving quickly on homeowners’ wishes for change.
This little alley, hidden behind a shall we say “budget motel” on Lombard, is Blackstone court – gated with a few homes which, like many, were moved here or repositioned over the years, but still date back over a century ago. The gate bears a marker noting its significance going back two centuries along a trail past the lagoon to the military encampment at the Presidio – and, in time, the home of nurseryman Charles Abraham, who reportedly imported the first bougainvillea (native to South America) to California! Everyone loves bougainvillea! Imagine nearly the entire block surrounding this home with greenhouses, a windmill for power, and his own water tower – now, all gone and built over, save his original 1885 home.
There are endless stories of the 1906 earthquake and associated fires to the city as a whole. I do not know if Cow Hollow was one of the most affected areas – but I found this wonderful account of a resident of the area, an “eyewitness to history”.
San Francisco has been a haven and perhaps a magnet welcoming many, shall we say, less mainstream faiths and beliefs, at least in traditional western society of that era. Can you imagine being a Hindu in 1905, and the excitement you would have at the first temple in the Western US, perhaps all the US, opening – a place for you, your family, your friends to gather safely and look for hope and encouragement in a rapidly changing world. Although the district is home to other beautiful churches and houses of faith, the architecture of this residence on Webster and Fillmore remains as both housing and a meeting place for its members. Like many buildings along the walk, it bears signs noting that classes and gatherings have been suspended due to Covid – but the windows above are open, and one day the doors will be as well.
SF is known worldwide for its role in the emergence of the “counterculture” – one might never guess that this little dining spot, for lobster rolls and burritos, once housed “The Six Gallery”, and it was here in 1995 that the “beat movement” was birthed at a public reading of works, including Allen Ginsberg and his draft of “HOWL”. The ideas, the passions and the energy that those minds and hearts generated reached across our continent in time – and the world. Our city still gives haven to thinkers, creators and those whose lives challenge our ideas of traditional.
The six plus decades since the Beat Generation, the 60’s “Summer of love” and events within our own memory brought more changes. Many of those impacted my life directly and continue to change lives worldwide. I walked about 4 miles last weekend on my little time travel; I saw families, couples, a few dogs, some skaters – new life continuing in this memorial to our shared heritage. There are many more beautiful homes along the way, not all necessarily historic or architecturally remarkable, but perfect examples of the varied eras that have come and gone through the nearly 250 years since DeAnza brought the Spanish expedition north to this then very different land. Here I passed a steep street with the carefully maintained homes standing like sentries in time, watching over the lives, the people, the vehicles that change decade by decade, remaining vigilant yet.
As I strolled along Broadway towards Franklin, the view down one of the famous steep avenues of the city towards the bay brings “Dirty Harry” to mind, and so many other films created here over the decades.
Until a few years ago, I knew SF only from movies, and stories, and rare brief visits. As I approach my car, I pass one of those sites that appear in tourist books, knowing that most of the stories I share with you today are less likely to be as well remembered as the fictional works of the silver screen.
As we reflect on our stroll, and I return to shelter in place once more, may I suggest this is not a time for wondering what we can regain from the recent past we have been denied for a brief moment, but rather what kind of future can we envision and work towards together. Today, I gained new appreciation for the ongoing power of this city, and its peoples, to attract an unending variety of dreamers and schemers, hopes and visions, sharing our epiphanies and dejections. That power exists everywhere, waiting to be embraced. Wherever you live, the history of your lives, and those who came before, can open hearts and minds to possibilities – we need them even more today.
Just think about the amazing variety of lives, dreams and cultures who lived within these few blocks over nearly 250 years. Catholics, Latter day Saints, Hindu faiths; radicals, entrepreneurs, immigrants; scoundrels, visionaries and like most of us, people just trying to get through it most days. From the few hundred who came from Mexico, to those who travelled by ship and wagon across oceans and continents for a chance for a better life, the “outsiders” who were viewed with suspicion by the more established cultures, and the emerging visionaries crying for change and meaning – this city, and our country, gave them – and gives us – a chance to grasp our dreams.
So thank you, Mr. Richards, for enlightening me on this delightful stroll – here is a link to a summary of his many books. I hope you will consider further explorations of your own, even if only remotely, through his work. I don’t know when my next “real life” excursion may occur (hopefully soon) – but here is a preview of one that I took just a few days later, by chance on a day unlike any other in recent memory, which will be in my next post. Stay safe, y’all, and keep on dreaming!
Like many of you, lately I have been missing my friends. I always loved the song “You got a friend in me” by Randy Newman, introduced a quarter century ago (!) in Pixar’s “Toy Story”. Even through all its sequels, somehow the spinners of animated tales still manage to imbue those little toys with heart and personality that capture our own feelings so well. Joy, hope, loneliness, uncertainty, change – that band of playthings went through it all, and we grew along with them. Woody and Buzz went through a lot – but not COVID. That was reserved just for us humans.
While we approach the six-month mark here in San Francisco of “shelter in place” – I have been missing so many of my friends. Having moved here in late 2017, most of my longtime friends are now hundreds of miles away. Since arriving, between getting married, work and other adjustments, social life has been squeezed in when possible – until it wasn’t, in March. There are new friendships forming, of course, but being retired and now having no “active” social life – I feel everyone’s ongoing absence more deeply. As much as zoom and Facetime and google meets and, well, even this blog are ways to stay connected – they cannot make up for human touch, for moments of laughter, for a quiet walk or a thousand other ways we find to be truly together.
Friendship is kind of an ethereal, mystical force in some ways, coming and going, unpredictable, always evolving. There are all kinds of friendships, they say – some for a season, a few hopefully for a lifetime. Growing up and for much of my “adult” life, I was never really good at feeling close to others, understandably from my personal history, but I have worked on it and continue to. It was not that I did not care, but that I did not feel I fit in, or could be fully accepted, or truly belonged. Yet, over the years, there have been friends that remained close, even now from afar. Still … as months pass, even pre COVID, those connections are somehow fading … and perhaps that is healthy. I have never moved away before – never left everything, and everyone, behind to make such a significant change in every area of my life.
It’s normal that I don’t want to “let go” – I don’t want those long term relationships to end, whether they originated from shared interests like Disneyland and movies, from work relationships that turned into trust, caring and closeness, from church and other community commitments, or from my more recent coming to terms with parts of myself I had to learn to accept, coming out, and making new friends in that process. Yet – the time comes, we must let go. And then, continue to reach out again, and again. I am learning to reach out here, not just to ask, but to give. I treasure all those friends, old and new, far and close.
There were, over the years, friends that drifted away, or relationships that ended on less than optimal terms. I realize in hindsight that I held an unrealistic expectation of some now lost friends – and vice versa. Sadly, some ended as I grew into being more of me, and less of what I thought I was supposed to be for others – becoming authentic; coming out was a part of that, but not all of that. Some wanted care, support, answers from me that I could not give – and likewise I wanted more than others could offer. A few wanted me to be who I used to be for them; some could not accept my life any longer, I had fallen from grace in their eyes, or lost my way. It wasn’t always direct – but the undercurrent was clear enough. And that’s just part of life – we move on. I hope, for all of them, they are finding their way to happiness still.
Funny, though, how some of the closest and most long enduring relationships come from my professional life – coworkers that in time became more. For many of us, we spend more time with our office team than with our family. We recently re-watched “The Office” finale which perfectly portrayed the awkward balance between tolerating and caring about those people and, then in time, moving from that “home” to a new, beckoning future. There was a song featured towards the end of the finale, actually written by Creed Bratton, actor and musician – called “All the Faces”. Here is a bit of the lyrics, and a link to a fan video with Office moments.
“I saw a friend today, it had been a while. And we forgot each others names.
But it didn’t matter cause deep inside the feeling still remained the same.
We talked of knowing one before you’ve met, and how you feel more than see,
and other worlds that lie in spaces in between, and angels you can see.
And all the faces that I know have that same familiar glow.
I think I must’ve known them somewhere once before
All the faces that I know.
Creed Bratton, “The Office” finale – All the Faces that I know
2020 has been a year of challenge we could never have expected. In the past nearly half year, I have seen friends lose jobs, lose family – yes, even lose their lives, leaving loved ones behind grieving. Sell their homes, move away to new ones, or risk losing all they had to fire. Some started new lives; their children graduate without an audience, their spouses have been hospitalized and hopefully recover; others are thinking about leaving the country of their birth in frustration; one has welcomed a new grandchild to their family. But I see people turning on one another daily – on the news, in my own circle of relationships, and online. Sometimes over politics, or faith, or some position on an issue that they feel strongly about – whatever the reason, some doors are closed, perhaps forever. All this and more happened in the lives of my friends since we entered this strange era. These events would mostly have happened apart from Covid, but somehow, we all seem to be carrying an extra weight, a longer shadow. These are the times they – all of us – need one another more than ever. We must not burrow into our caves, but reach out, even more – it takes work.
True, some friendships endure a lifetime – but most fade. We don’t want to let go, sometimes – we need one another; but it happens. Like the tender strands of a web that stretch in the wind, and in time – are loosed, and eventually unwind except in our memory. That friendship connection is a force of mystery, it’s lifespan unknown, its purpose uncertain – do we nurture it? Do we make it a priority? As we see gaps between ourselves, I can only offer you this suggestion – don’t throw away what you have. Try to build on it; try to keep it alive. Yes, there are times that moving on is best – knowing those moments is kind of hard right now, when no one is really themselves, and everyone is in a personal pressure chamber with the steam building every day. We need each other, friends, now and past, future and yet to be.
Nearly a year ago now, I took a trip to see old friends down south – not knowing of course that it would be the last trip away from my new home for a yet to be determined time. I’m grateful I had the chance. A kind of reunion tour, not being able to see everyone in that short time, but having moments with many, seeing faces light up, remembering what we shared and setting aside what might have been. Here are some moments, and faces, from that trip that I treasure – we may not meet again.
There is a kind of longing, a yearning in my heart and perhaps yours hearts that seems to remain; we may learn in time that others cannot be, never could be, everything we needed or wanted. We start to see not a glass half full, or half empty – instead, seeing no glass at all, just an appreciation for what is there, now, today. Letting go of the longing for “more”, to treasure what is in our lives at this moment – choosing to say “yes – this is enough”. And to work on being a channel to others of what we seek ourselves. We become part of a living network of souls, rising, falling, reaching out and for a moment dancing together, parting and moving on.
Which brings me back to our friends, Woody, Buzz and all those little toys, and most recently Toy Story 4. Spoiler alert, folks! I saw this in the theater last year – in a way, it felt almost like an existentialist reflection on what does it mean to be alive, but maybe that was just me. In any case – at the end of the film, Woody has to make a choice. He chooses a new path, but in that – realizes he also must choose to, for now, say goodbye to those who became his family for so long. In a way, I think COVID, and distance, is forcing that for some friendships. Here is the end of that film, which, if you haven’t seen it – might give you some joy for a couple of hours.
My friends – present, and past – I miss you dearly. You have taught me so much; your gentle kindnesses, small perhaps to you, encouraged me to accept myself the way you did. Your open minds and hearts showed me that people who are different can still truly care for one another without expecting change. Your courage in the face of trials and challenges inspired me to find strength to stand for what I work for. Your openness to different ways of thinking helped me to escape my own narrow vision and tinier world for a greater reality. Perhaps most of all, the fact that you showed me love does not have to be perfect to have worth, helped me to work towards finding my own voice – and now, in the days ahead, to try to share these lessons with others. God knows there are many surrounding each of us that just need a little love.
We are trying our best to stay afloat in the winds of change, and we may not be together again, certainly not in the foreseeable future. So let me say this clearly, from my heart. I hope you are well, and loved, and finding hope. And, I miss all my friendships that, for whatever reason – deliberate, their choice, my choice, or just “happened” – aren’t there anymore. I wish I could say to them, and I say to you who read this – thank you.
Thank you,friends, for being a special part of a chapter in my life, and even though it is closed, you are still there, always in my heart, not forgotten.
This week, in the events happening in Portland Oregon, among others – a man was brutally beaten senseless in the street; his head viciously kicked after he lay helpless, some cheering, followed by others trying to help. A suspect is arrested, blame is being placed – but it won’t be the last. Perhaps we have reached a place where this is not as newsworthy as other stories – certainly, there is a lot of chaos poured into our eyes and ears daily, along with promises and blame and threats. It seems to never end.
That news footage brought to my memory a story, initially from my childhood, and later … much later .. arising from other events in my life. Perhaps you know it, or at least the major elements of it, from Sunday school lessons about “how to be good”. It has more meaning to it than usually is shared, lost simply because the historical context is less familiar to us. It’s always interested me, and so .. let us revisit that possibly familiar tale. You may recognize it, but I suggest there are some aspects that a little more background can add to its meaning.
First, though … a memory from my own past whose connection will become apparent later. In 1984, early in my quest to somehow find freedom from my “personal defects” according to church teachings, I took a trip to Israel – not just a routine trip, but an archeological study tour. Here are two pics from that trip – the first, a very young and thin me at the Sea of Galilee; and, a shot of me with the trip leader, on the “dig” at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv, where I did actually uncover the small jug you see (no, I did not get to keep it, it was centuries old, and intact!) I will admit, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I was praying to uncover that relic, but did not.
It was a wonderful trip – and it included stops at sites associated with all aspects of the region’s history, not just Christian. Among them, what is known as “Jacob’s well” in Samaria, where according to New Testament writings in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well”, promising her that if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for and receive from him “living water”, “welling up to eternal life”. We did not stay long – this was the early 80’s, and there was what was described as “rock attacks” in the area. But we did make another stop, because the children of that area, due to inbreeding, were known for their susceptibility to genetic defects, and the tour organizer would always stop along the way to greet them.
A photo of “Jacob’s Well”G about 100 years ago
The tale that comes to mind originates in this region. As in most faith traditions, there are people who like to point to their own “good housekeeping seal of approval” – they follow the rules, they “do the right thing”, and are generally pretty pleased with themselves. Another common feature in many faith traditions is pointing to compliance with specific rules, policies, traditions and doing one’s utmost to always be strictly obedient. In this story, one described as a “lawyer” – an educated man, familiar with religious laws, intellectual and respected in the community – asked a spiritual teacher what he could do to be guaranteed entry into eternal life. The teacher responded not with an answer, but a question – what does the law say? After the lawyer faithfully quoted scripture – to love God with all your heart, soul and strength – and your neighbor as yourself. The teacher acknowledged that the lawyer was correct – but the lawyer, perhaps not unlike some we know today centuries later, wanted to be sure he knew all the angles. And so, he asked again – who is my neighbor?
The teacher responded not with an answer, but with a story. A man, on a specific road that those from the area knew well – a steep, treacherous, winding road in the wilderness, where dangers were known to be common – fell victim to those laying in wait, who robbed, stripped and beat him, and left him for dead. That passage is still in use today – in fact, in his “Mountaintop” speech the day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described travelling down that very road – knowing it’s relevance to church teachings – and seeing how dangerous it was still, centuries later.
It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing….. That’s a dangerous road”.
Martin Luther King Jr.
As the story continues, there is a sign of hope! A priest is coming and surely sees the beaten body by the side of the road – broken – abandoned – helpless. But no … the priest crosses to the other side – seeing, but avoiding, perhaps thinking he is dead but – not getting close enough to see if maybe, he might have survived. Sometime later – another respected, public man of faith, one especially trained in the details of its intricate laws and traditions, so much so that his judgment was sought in matters of “right” and “wrong” – approaches … but he, too, crosses to the other side of the road, moving along his way – the body again, alone. But, a 3rd passerby stops, sees the body, and chooses to help – described only as the Samaritan.
Now you probably recognize this as the story of the “good Samaritan”. The teacher, Jesus, or in the original Hebrew more properly Yeshua or Joshua, was an itinerant preacher whose growing crowds and reputation for miracles was growing, becoming a threat to established practice, and a symbol of resistance to his people, occupied by the invading Roman forces. He (or more properly, Luke) never described the Samaritan as “good”, only by his tribe. Because – the idea of a Samaritan being of good character was completely alien to his audience. You see, Samaritans were viewed as “outsiders” by traditional Jewish culture – a rebellious sect who had abandoned the revered practices of their ancestral faith, who had attacked the symbols and were ridiculed and treated as dirt by the majority population of that region. Samaritans were, for many, the lowest of the low – worthless. Without value.
What the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looks like in this century.
Samaritans, like the “woman at the well”, were descendants of ancient Hebrews who had not been taken into captivity during an earlier occupation, who in time developed different sacred beliefs. There are minimal other references to Samaritans in the Christian New Testament we know; in another Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one came back to give thanks – the Samaritan. With both examples, Jesus – a Jew – was interacting with someone who, according to Jewish traditions, was to be avoided at all costs, unholy, unworthy. He defied expectation.
As Jesus finishes his parable, despite their ancestral traditions of mutual hatred – it was this man, who bandaged his wounds; carried him on his own beast to an inn, and paid for his care, until he returned again to pay the remainder owed. We do not know what the wounded traveler learned of his rescue; or if he ever met his benefactor. In finishing his example, Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – instead, responding only with a question in return.
Who was a neighbor to the man lying on that wilderness road,
left for dead, beaten and alone?
For a Jewish teacher to suggest that a Samaritan – members of two very different yet related tribes and traditions – would respond to the need when the victims more direct brethren ignored it, for reasons unspoken and unknown – was a radical challenge to the questioner for self-examination. Would he have responded to the need of someone who not only had he been taught, all of his life, to hate – and, by all expectations, would have hated him as well? Could he had even known that this man lying in the road was a member of that larger group who treated his people as dirt – was it obvious somehow from his appearance, his dress, his skin, his features? We do not know. It is, after all, a parable – an allegory.
Yet, the seed within the story is one of hope – that individuals can choose to set aside what they have been taught; how they have been treated; to show mercy and love, instead of shutting doors, and leaving those in need, behind. That choice is present for us, today. Perhaps it is needed most for us to offer to the people that we would ordinarily despise, reject, condemn, “cancel” and write out of our lives – for their sakes, and for ours as well.
I have not always been a good neighbor; I don’t have the purest of hearts nor do I do all that I can to help those in need around me. Few of us make the choice to fully commit to a life of service, such as Mother Theresa. I certainly don’t expect anyone to consider me a saint or even a good example of tolerance. But that Samaritan, defying his culture and the expectations of those around him, gives us all a reminder to ask ourselves – how can we, even in just a little way, be part of the answer to the needs of those discard broken, rejected and alone? Are we embracing hate, labeling, casting aside “others” – for whatever reasons we consider perfectly justifiable in our own reasoning – instead of simply, reaching out? Especially in these times – where daily we see chaos, if not in our neighborhood, on our screens – and need, if not in our homes, well within our ability to impact, somehow.
We don’t know, fully, what the attorney who asked how to be guaranteed eternal life interpreted the story. Luke, in his account, merely gives his response to Jesus’ question – who was the neighbor – as “The one who showed him mercy”. Did his life change after that encounter? Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is – does ours need to? Whether you believe in a divine force in whatever form – I think it is worth considering. But, I will leave the final word, to the final words attributed to Jesus in the account.
“Go and do likewise”.
“The Quality of Mercy is not strained” – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
Note -Today, the small Samaritan community still survives and is more open to learning how to use science to reduce the risk of genetic defects in future generations. I found an interesting entry about the genealogical and DNA factors for this small group, here –
On Tv this week, we saw a 60’s engineer use a slide rule, and I wondered how many viewers might not have any idea what it was. I never learned to use one myself – but I sure remember how expensive those Texas instrument calculators were before they became more commonplace in the 70s. So much of life seems to be about measurement – starting with learning our numbers in elementary school, or maybe standing in the hallway or garage to have our growth commemorated and celebrated.
I loved storytelling and the library from my earliest years, and music – and eventually the old musicals on TV, like Danny Kaye in “ Hans Christian Anderson”. The great Frank Loesser wrote several original songs for that picture, all lovely – but today, the one still performed by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Muppets, and John Coltrane. Apparently, unlike “The Ugly Duckling” or “Thumbelina”, “Inchworm” was not derived from one of Hans’ stories, but it resonates for many through the contrast of school children sadly singing “two and two are four, four and four are eight” while Danny Kaye sings his suggestion the inchworm stop measuring the marigolds, and consider instead their beauty.
Of course measuring is very important to life – my career was based on it. I chose accounting as a career path, learning to categorize, measure, trend and forecast – almost like a psychic with a calculator instead of a crystal ball. Two of the greatest 20th century minds of business management both emphasized the critical nature of measurement to success. W. Edwards Deming used statistics to reinvigorate production models- but also acknowledged the limits of measurement.
I had the wonderful opportunity to study under another great mind of management theory – Peter Drucker, famous for declaring “what gets measured gets managed”. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and was known for his ability to accurately read trends and their implications. But I vividly recall his words that his secret was simple – he simply would look out at what was happening in the world around him as it passed by, and consider the implications. His principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business. In fact, at one of his annual Claremont graduate university alumni events, evangelist Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose driven life” paid tribute to Peter as a mentor and friend whose teachings helped him in his own ministry. Drucker’s principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business.
Often we seek to treat everything as reducible to a numeric value – our grades, our weight and blood pressure, our income and budget. But we also measure, compare and in other ways – “measuring up”, “fitting in”, conformity, meeting expectations of our social circles, our parents, and even using our children as somehow indicative of our comparative value. Yet every milestone we have achieved eventually leads not to a place of rest, but a quest for the next goal. It can become a constant cycle of trying to prove our worth – that we “made it”. But what is – “it”?
It’s interesting to me that my writings occasionally lead to comments from friends that there are elements of Buddhist perspective in my writing. I am unfamiliar with Eastern or Buddhist traditions or thinking; my child and early adult religious traditions varied from standard denominational Christianity to evangelical, and beyond. But for me, and many others, unfortunately the emphasis in those lessons and standards was heavily weighted towards measurement, striving, achieving, conforming. I have come to believe and accept that striving to be something we are not yet needs to be balanced with accepting and sharing honestly who we are right now. And, a hand in hand – learning to offer that same acceptance to others.
Our desire to measure ourselves against one another can lead to more than just faulty reporting. This week, in a zoom meeting of a few dozen LGBT individuals trying to work together towards meeting needs in our community, we were abruptly and viciously “bombed” by intruders. Loud music, shouted curses, ugly expletives and hateful labeling made speech for a moment impossible. It was shocking. But what struck most deeply was the power of 3 words – an old and deep lie – God hates faggots. The stain remained after they were disconnected. It remains in their hearts.
I don’t consider God to be a four letter word. But I know and respect that many – including myself – have been scarred, abused and rejected by those who claim to speak in the name of what they consider to be the ultimate authority, by whatever name they think of it. Yet I feel sad for anyone, for all of us, who have put any hope of a loving creative force aside in a box and labeled it as poison, or something destructive to be not embraced but avoided. In our pain, anger, or fear – we limit the ability of a greater spirit to what we have experienced and seen, closing it off from our hearts, or like the voices of hate on that zoom call, using a twisted version of it to tear down those different from ourselves. Their limited vision is not the truth. Simply put – their God is too small. Do we, with our desire to measure, to limit, to contain and define and control – do the same?
Humanity and societies across our globe throughout centuries have looked beyond what we “know” for a framework to understand that which is perhaps unknowable – the truths outside of our intellects, that we sometimes sense in a way words cannot express and numbers cannot define. Might it be true that that which is eternal is beyond measure in the senses which our culture and society have hammered into our ways of thinking? That the forces we cannot see or understand are inherently bigger than any box or structure, paradigms or writings might try to reduce it to? Could it be that someone in BCE 400 might experience that eternal Power in a way different than someone on the other side of the globe in CE 1200, or than you do where you are in 2020, and how I do today? Is it that hard to stop trying to put God in a box where we control Him/Her/Them, and instead – just try to listen? It’s hard to hear much when you’re doing all the talking.
Perhaps what we consider to be irrational is based in a different kind of knowledge – not scientific is the traditional sense, but an understanding that cultures and generations have reached towards without ever truly fully grasping – because it is beyond our ability to encompass with our intellects, beyond being able to capture it in words or images. In my youth choir and years of seeking my own sense of peace for the questions that have both limited and freed me, my traditions have included many of the old hymns that were common more than a century ago. One such hymn was written by a Frederick M. Lehman, who as I discovered as I researched for this article, was surprisingly born in the same small region in Germany where my great great grandfather William Granzow emigrated from in the 19th century – Mecklinburg, Schwerin. That hymn, “The love of God”, is most famous for its final, third stanza. By his own account, more than 100 years ago Lehman heard an evangelist quote those words, as found on the walls of an asylum cell. To me, this simple analogy captures the futility of measuring, and the immense beauty of that unknown infinite –
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.
Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God”
Interestingly, other background articles on this verse show striking similarities to Hebrew sacred texts dating back to the 11thcentury, and also to a passage in the Quran dating to the 7th century. Perhaps beyond the limits of our precepts there are commonalities in the yearnings of our souls.
Whoever wrote these words, and however they knew them, scrawled on the walls of an asylum, found meaning, and hope from them. For all, our quest to make sense of life – in essence, to obtain what may be only an illusion of control through knowledge – we inevitably reach a juncture where answers fail but questions remain. One of my favorite obscure films is “They might be giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward from 1971. Scott is a brilliant judge who has retreated after his wife’s death into seeing himself as Sherlock Holmes; his therapist is, perhaps coincidentally, a Dr. Emily Watson. “They might be giants” of course refers to Don Quixote, fighting his windmills who he sees as threats in a quest to become the hero. Holmes tells Watson that only by looking at the things we think we “know” and considering the possibility that they might be something else, do we find the opportunity for new discoveries, new truths. Watson tries to “cure” him as they seek Moriarty in 70’s NYC, featuring an exquisite score by John Barry.
Do they defeat Moriarty, or does he even exist? The film in some ways asks the same questions we all face – or avoid facing. The final words on the screen always struck me as simple, yet profound-
The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.
“They might be giants” screenwriter William Goldman, who also wrote “The Lion in Winter”, “Robin and Marion” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”
There are elements in all our lives that may defy measurement or understanding, yet have for more significance than all the seemingly pressing demands that scream for our attention. I’ve reached a place where questions without answers are ok. Where measuring still plagues me at times, but is balanced with an awareness that a greater love reaches out to me, and all of us, not limited by the words that demand more from us, but instead offer grace to us. This passing era – when all we have taken for granted seems uncertain, when there are no answers – brings a hidden gift. For a moment – we can choose to pause, cease seeking to know – and to listen. Not perhaps for answers – but for new questions. And like the inchworm, to stop measuring, and see the beauty that shimmers around us, in awe – listening, silently.
Nostalgia, places remembered, and balancing the past, present and future.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”
I admit, with “Shelter in Place” extending now into its 6th month, it’s easy to get lost in reflection. I am a firm believer that learning and preserving our history, examining it, is invaluable to growth – but it must be balanced with making the most of “Now”, and anticipating a hopeful tomorrow. Because one of my home projects is family history, I continue to scan old photos, open old books, and the echoes of days semi forgotten still sounds – some, more clearly than others.
The word “Nostalgia” is credited to the 18th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who used it to describe an ailment he observed in Swiss soldiers longing for home. It is a combination of the suffix “algia”, a medical condition involving pain, and “nost”, generally referring to returning to home. But nostalgia is rarely a completed whole. People don’t usually keep pictures of sad events – most are posed, smiling, happy gatherings – not the fullness of daily life. So there is a risk that looking back becomes a hypnotic way to escape the present – hence, the longing that we often hear referred to in the news to a return to “normalcy”.
But wishing for a return to life as it “was” cannot be the path ahead.
Seeking to escape would be missing the opportunity to build life anew. I suggest we do not need to go back, but neither do we need to destroy or disrespect the past – we cannot fully know it now, we didn’t understand it then, but our feelings remain. We must find what matters in our sense of loss yet seek to move towards a different path of fulfillment as we move forward. The example that I want to share today, a visit along my own memory map, is one that perhaps many of a certain age in Northern California can relate to – but if not, there is a place in your past, almost certainly, that corresponds. Perhaps my look back will bring yours to memory as well.
I have mentioned before that I was born and lived the first few years of my life in Vacaville, west of Sacramento – because my father worked at the nearby Fairfield state prison. Did you know Vacaville literally means Cow Town? But, it is in fact named Vacaville because the land was part of a large parcel purchased from a Manuel Vaca. In fact, it is quite likely that when my great great grandfather, Robert Titus Pence, captained a wagon train to Hangtown – now Placerville – in the Gold Rush, he came along the very trail that led through the small community – established as a township in 1851, and a city in 1892. I doubt my mother knew 60 years ago that her ancestor came to California through that then still little town a century earlier!
In 1855, another pioneer family settled in the community of Vacaville, and a few years later a 12-year-old niece was travelling to join them from Iowa, when she picked up some walnuts in Arizona, planting them in her new home. The tree that grew there became a source of new life in the valley, and shade for travelers heading further west on the trail. The family fruit ranch prospered and on Independence Day weekend 1921, they began a small fruit stand that in 1921 led to a restaurant, and the “Nut Tree” became a stop along the Highway 40, and then Interstate 80.
By the time my family moved in the mid 50’s, there was a toy shop, a railroad, and a small airport for fly in visitors. I have a few childhood photos, but no real memories – we moved before my 4th birthday back to southern California. Yet, my Mom always talked about the Nut Tree, and among her effects I found one of those 60’s embossed Nut Tree credit cards with raised numbers, long before magnetic strips, as well as a “Nut Tree Railroad” spike, attached to a card, as a souvenir – as well as these two postcards from the 60’s.
The cookie counter always featured amazing shapes and colors.
When my career began in the 80’s to take me north on assignments, I visited – and shopped. The restaurant was well known for “California Cuisine”; the toy store was filled with incredible delights, and the little train stopped right outside the door. Over the years, that train carried famous folk like Richard Nixon and Bozo the Clown (presumably, on separate trip)! I took these photos probably in 1982 or so, of the interior area – they still had the wonderful cookies that could be personalized for,a special treat. In the 70’s they had opened a San Francisco location at 655 Beach Street, which I also visited. I think I might still have some cookie cutters from that trip! I also purchased this 1976 set of recipe cards, and many times have served their “Chess Pie” at gatherings (it was easy to make!)
But after several generations of family ownership, thousands of visitors, meals, cookies, train rides and more … business dwindled, and financial issues and other factors led to the closure of the Nut Tree complex in 1996. In 1997 the Vacaville Museum – not far from my childhood home, on Camellia Way – had a special exhibit on the Nut Tree, including this commemorative recipe book filled with photos and memories. (The cookbook, shown below, is still available for purchase at http://www.vacavillemuseum.org).
Really a wonderful book, delicious recipes and a loving collection of memories.
The museum also had a tribute exhibition to the art of Don Birell, who had been the “design director” for the Nut tree for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1953. He was born in 1922 (a year after the Vacaville fruit stand was opened) in Corona, California (where my family moved after leaving Vacaville!) He studied at the prestigious Chouinard Institute – later becoming part of Cal Arts – before becoming director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (WELL worth a visit, friend!) His style can be seen everywhere in Vacaville, to this day. I bought this print of his “Flower Arabesque” and it remains at my desk, the vibrant colors and intricate creatures reminding me that life goes on, and beauty continues – even more than Solomon in all his glory.
My little print of “Flower Arabesque” by Don Birell
The late artist, Don Birell, Art Director for Nut Tree, with a painting of Vacaville
I remember coming through Vacaville for work after college, only to find the fenced off, dilapidated buildings and deserted parking lot. The buildings were demolished in 2003, and two years later, the Coffee Tree, a related restaurant, was torn down as well. But Vacaville grew – from about 3000 in 1950, to 11,000 in 1960, and today – more than 100,000. On the other side of I-80, the outlet center draws visitors – but in 2006, through the magic of redevelopment, Nut Tree Plaza opened and remains today. Last year, for my birthday, we visited Vacaville; the playground area is full of reminders of original atmosphere, including the train with the little whistle which literally brought back memories, and a new “vintage” carousel. The Jelly Belly outlet is nearby – based in Fairfield, where I was born – and a Fenton’s creamery filled with families and overpriced sundaes for all.
But it isn’t the Nut Tree of my memory – and that’s actually a good thing. Next year, 2021, would be the 100th anniversary of the little roadside fruit stand; that first walnut tree, planted in 1860, was removed in 1952, before my family arrived. The business itself lasted less years than the tree it was named for! Because – well, probably many factors, but because people ultimately weren’t looking for what the Nut Tree represented anymore. It was a thing of the past, before it itself passed.
To everything, there is a season. With conflicting calls for some things of history to go, and some to remain – the reality is, everything in time – disappears. I am not an advocate for forced destruction of something that someone finds offensive – but I understand, to some degree hopefully if remotely, the passion that exists on both sides of these reminders of the past. But in reality, at some point – things no longer serve the purpose for which they were created. Do we pine for them to come back, in some kind of fantasy? Is the “new” Nut Tree better than the original, or is it even going to survive all this current uncertainty itself to it’s 15th year, compared to the 50 year plus run of the one of my childhood?
Nostalgia can be a pleasant little vacation from the present, but we risk sinking in the quicksand of memory at the cost of embracing the power of now and the possibilities of tomorrow.Living I the past – only existing in the present – is the road to our own irrelevance in this living, breathing, chaotic reality whose uncertain path refutes all our assumptions about control, for the first time in many of our lives. I am happy to revisit my Nut Tree memories, and Vacaville, but I do not mourn it – just as some day, others will remember Disneyland or the Louvre or cell phones, or the documents, images and histories that have always been our only reality. Given enough time – they too will fade, many forever. Your memories and mine, will be forgotten, if not by us – at some point, by those who remain. Pieces may endure – the same pieces I dig through now, trying to preserve those stories and photos of my parents and ancestors for the next generation – if they will care. But this is not a cause for sadness.
We gain a kind of freedom, and perhaps peace as well, when we accept the transitory, impermanent nature of the issues and concerns that loom so large in our individual lives today – and when we realize our ability to impact larger forces is limited, but our power to love those who enter and exit our life is immeasurable. In that knowledge, we can choose to take the actions that touch lives around us in ways that endure – that will never perhaps be photographed, written down or even remembered, yet like ripples from a pebble building into something larger, change our world.
Thanks, friend – for joining my meandering journey down this little memory lane. I hope it brings to mind some of your own. And for both of us, I hope we can balance our cherished memories, and treasured values, with an eagerness and boldness to make more – not just for ourselves, but those in our hearts today, and yet to join us, on the journey ahead.
It’s never too late to say thank you. Even when it might appear to be well overdue.
There are all kinds of ways to create families, to love others and to have a sense of belonging and connection. From a traditional perspective, I did not really have any kind of relationship with my natural grandparents; my fathers parents passed before I was 10, and although I have some pictures, they did not live nearby and we saw them rarely, especially after my parents separated. Today I know them probably better than anyone else alive – but through their letters, photos and diary, not my memories. My mother’s mother passed before I was born, and my mothers father remarried and live out of state; her economic and physical circumstances and own broken relation with him kept him farther away than the miles themselves.
With my paternal grandfather on the beach at their Oceanside home c. 1963
But looking back I can see that our neighbors in many ways filled the gap. Here, I do not share the names off the living, or their pictures – except in the case of myself, and occasionally my husband. In fact, sorting through my family records and the literally hundreds of photos from my parents, their parents and before, is going to be a very long term project. Still, when I ran across a portrait of our next door neighbors from my childhood, I feel that sharing their gifts to me might have meaning for you, distant readers. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to them, today.
We moved to our amazing all electric “Medallion home” in 1962 – there actually was a large gold emblem in the porch – it was one of the last sold. I was four, my brother 7, and my parents marriage would be over not long after. On one side, the Burchetts lived with two daughters, and across the street, the Millers with four children, three older than me – and these were not large homes. But next door, it was just the Milbrats. I had no idea of their age, of course – to me, they were just old. Even as I grew into my college years, I really didn’t know much about them, except that they had grown children – and that they were exceedingly kind. In some ways, they were angels in our lives.
I remember, after my father left and we struggled financially, it was Mr. Milbrat rather than my Dad who taught me how to ride my bicycle, encouraging me. He lent us yard tools so that my older brother and I could try to keep up with all the work – they had a beautiful backyard, and a neatly trimmed lawn out front. But perhaps most importantly, they welcomed us into their home on very special occasions – to watch television. For most of my upbringing, due to broken TV tubes and limited funds, we did not have a functioning TV in our home, which definitely accentuated my sense of differentness from the families around us – no father, no car, no income really and – no TV!!! That was certainly a reason I rode to the library a lot.
This was the era of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, preceded by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with your host, Marlin Perkins. The Milbrats welcomed us in every Sunday night to watch thrilling shows like Zorro and The Horse without a head, that I remember so clearly. And, at Christmas we would watch the specials – I particularly loved “The little drummer boy”, since we sang that song in my elementary district wide choir led by Mr. Farmer – that show, narrated by Greer Garson and animated by the famous Rankin Bass Studios, still moves me to this day. On New Years day, we would head over to watch the Rose Parade; and, historically, it was in front of the Milbrat’s tv that I saw the Apollo moon landing. Oh, but, we also had to endure neighbors gathering to watch slide shows of their travels, and weird documentaries like “If these walls could speak” hosted by Vincent Price, and of course – National Geographic specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, back when there were an astounding 7 channels on TV.
I still love watching this program, and hearing “One Star in the Night”
They were very involved in out local church as well, the Methodist church, where Mrs. Milbrat would donate her knitted goods and baked treats – always delicious! We would see them at the seasonal bazaaars, and annual Christmas nativity programs that we participated in, as well. Mrs. Milbrat was particularly sweet and kind – I remembers being fascinated by her stamp collection (yes, I was truly that nerdy) from I think her mother who had served as a postmistress decades before – I am sure it was quite valuable, even then. I think occasionally they would give us a lift to the doctor, but we mostly relied on taxis, or on my Dad’s weekly stopping by to pick me up to shop at the Alpha Beta not too far away – sending me in to the liquor store next door sometimes to pick up cigarettes or beer, as well.
I think after my father remarried that he and my stepmother, partly motivated to perhaps reduce the amount of time I watched tv at their home after junior high, which they lived nearby, and things like “Seymour presents” on Saturdays, gave me a small black and white portable TV. I would watch in my bedroom for hours, catching up on reruns of Get Smart and beginning my love of old movies – to escape the loneliness of the house, now holding only my mother and I. And I drifted away from youth group and choir at church, starting to attend the more modern “Cross roads” that was large, new, and had guitar music and a popular pastor who appeared with his family on “Family Feud” in my teens. The Milbrats were always there next door – my mother would talk with Mrs. Milbrat, and her other friends from bible study, on the phone for hours. But they slowly became less of a presence in my life.
And then an amazing thing happened, in 1979, the summer after my third year in college – my Mom presented me with my first car. She said she realized my father was never going to help me get behind a wheel – my brother had left to live with them in part so he would be able to drive once he was licensed in high school. Of course, my Mom had not worked in all the years since they first married, and her income was limited to a small alimony and disability payments from the state; but, the Milbrats daughter had decided she was finished with her 1965 Buick Skylark, and I think out of the kindness of their hearts, they sold it to my Mom for a mere $350. It was somewhat beat up, and my father immediately found many things that were wrong with it. But, it ran – and I finally had “wheels”, and no longer needed him to give me a weekly lift from Corona to my Cal Poly campus and dorms. A year later, after graduation, I remember distinctly a co worker at my first job, with a San Bernardino CPA firm, ridiculing it as the “Jupiter Two” from Lost in Space – but it was, nevertheless, a thing of beauty (in function if not form), to me.
There was one other “gift”, in a way, that came from the Milbrats, and remained in our lives, for a while. She made wonderful stuffed toys, dolls, and puppets – and when my younger brother was born in 1971, I bought her handmade “Raggedy Andy” doll as a gift for him. He had it for years, calling it “Baby Andy”. In time, my mother bought two more – one for my older brother and one for me, to give to our children. What happened to my older brother’s Andy is unknown to me – perhaps one of his kids, now grown, has it stored away – but I kept mine in a drawer with my own childhood mementos for many years. Because, of course, I knew – as did my Mom in time – that I would not be having any children to pass it on to. Five years ago, I had the joy of giving it to the daughter of a dear friend who was expecting her own first child, and sharing with them what it meant to me, and knowing it too would finally become a beloved companion. Another enduring gift of love.
Then, in May 1980, shortly before my college graduation, Mom called my dorm room to let me know Mrs. Milbrat had died; and, the family was asking me to be a pallbearer. At this point in my life, I had never even been to a funeral; well, probably to my fathers parents services, but not in my memory. I was shy and reluctant to be around so many strangers, but I remember driving to the chapel in Loma Linda and then to the cemetery, and returning to campus. I know that my presence meant something to Mr. Milbrat, but to the rest I probably seemed like an outsider – and, I guess in many ways, I was. After I began my job in San Bernardino, he moved away, and eventually word reached us a few years later that he had passed.
When I came across their picture in my endless sorting of faded documents and forgotten faces, I reflected on how much the simple kindnesses of these “chance” neighbors had touched my life, in ways that at the time I did not appreciate. Of course, as a child, I always thanked them – especially when they bought one of the many fund raisers I had to tramp through the neighborhood hawking, like seed packets, cans of nuts for cub scouts, or engraved Christmas cards for church youth group. But I was a child, and as I grew, I became too busy to appreciate all their kindnesses, busy with work, career, and trying to make my way through my own life with it’s challenges that I mostly bore alone.
So, this week, I delved into the amazing online resources available through services like Ancestry, Newspapers.com, and other resources that until now I had only explored for my own family of birth – realizing that in many ways, the Milbrats were my grandma and grandpa of the spirit. What I found was a bit surprising. Oscar, born in 1893 in Alabama, had been a grocer in Orange county – and had been married previously, in Yucatan Mexico in 1925. (It really is remarkable the information one can find on these services!) Apparently his first wife had unsuccessfully filed for divorce, according to a short newspaper article in Santa Ana that she had filed a police report for her husband being too noisy in repairing her roof! She passed in 1957, and two years later he married Beatrice – he was 66, she was 51, and the daughter I had thought was theirs, was only his. After he passed in 1985, he was laid to rest back in Orange County, beside his first wife, not Beatrice – and so, childless, she perhaps today is largely forgotten. But, not by me.
There are all kinds of angels in our lives, you know. Not like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, necessarily – not even people whose names we know, perhaps. They may just pass through, but they give us moments of grace, love, encouragement and hope. Even better – we can be those sources for others – it doesn’t really cost us much, if anything, to take a moment to be kind, to listen, to smile. And I think, despite the fact that the tract home neighborhoods of the past don’t exist for us all anymore, we still have neighbors, just in a different way – online, social networks. Our need to connect still drives us deeply within, and there are days when I lie in bed thinking – did I touch someone today? Did I take a moment to show them care, to be as the best neighbor of all, Mr. Rogers, would – just be present with them?
To me, the Milbrats were like Mr. AND Mrs. Rogers, right next door
Is there someone who touched your life like my neighbors? Perhaps someone who in the past, or now, is making a difference in your life that you have never really acknowledged or expressed? Perhaps you’d like to take a moment to reach out and check on them, and say a heartfelt thanks. Or, if like the Milbrats, they have moved on – then the best way to thank and honor them is to share what they gave you, with someone who crosses your path soon. Yes, indeed – what the world needs now is love, sweet love – for and from each of us, especially this very moment.
I thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Milbrat – Oscar and Beatrice – Grandpa and Grandma neighbor – for your love. Your caring, acceptance, and giving spirits. I have to admit – I don’t measure up, by a long shot. But perhaps, sharing their lives with you today, will help us all remember – we have the power to touch lives, moment by moment in small ways – that echo through those lives in ways we will never know. We can reach out and together – rise. Let us do so, today.
Today, July 26 2020, marks a significant anniversary for me, and you’re invited along. Perhaps some readers may recall Billy Pilgrim, from Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; he became “unstuck in time”. Like Billy’s journey, I realize that my sharing of my life here is nonlinear, but I write about what is on my mind, and what I think matters and might have meaning for someone out there today. Although the overriding theme of my blog is “my journey to authenticity”, today, rather than the “New NormL”, I think perhaps what I have to share is a bit of the “True NormL”. But before I go on – friends, this is going to be a long one. I do hope you will agree it’s worth it; this is from my heart, like really everything I post here, but this is the post it has taken me a lifetime to create. I hope it won’t seem that long to read!!!!
I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep”.
Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”
Like many of my generation, church was a foundational factor in my upbringing. In childhood, growing up in circumstances that brought many blessings but also brought me to a place of separation and isolation, I attended Sunday school, like most “good families” of that 60’s era, even though mine was profoundly broken. I imagine today that the trappings of those gatherings are mostly forgotten – little “story boards” with felt figures of Bible folk to illustrate stories, songs we would sing together, craft fairs and choir practice. I was raised Protestant, but in my teens my mother – disabled and facing challenges beyond her means – sought comfort in pursuing the Evangelical movement. She clung to the shouted words of healers and held on for a miracle. I followed, in time – I wanted to belong, and to be accepted. Of course, the big hurdle in my truly feeling loved, accepted, “saved” or whatever other term you might pick was just one little problem – I was attracted to other boys.
But I could not accept that in myself; it wasn’t something I could embrace or act upon. By my twenties, entering the professional world after college, my heart was a lonely cave where the air was thick with shame. I attended bible rallies and went forth for prayer for deliverance, for laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. I travelled to the Holy Land and prayed to be changed; I remember asking the leader of the tour, a very knowledgeable, loving and well learned man in many faiths, what I could do to be “fixed”. His reply – “just stop it”. I recall listening to tapes about demons being cast out where the speaker “saw” frog like spirits beings released from those possessed by homosexuality. When I finally moved in the mid 80’s from the isolation of my mother’s home to have a degree of independence, my search for what I thought was love got me into trouble; after being held at gunpoint in my apartment and calling the police to report the attack by someone I had brought into my home, I heard their snickering behind my back, and I shrunk in humiliation. Without a car or wallet, I called my father to please come bring me back to my mother’s home. I told them what had happened, but no one else could know – I remained silent and solitary.
Hallelujah! After the exposure to my family, my secret was “out”, and it seemed that I could finally get help. I began working with a counselor for “reparative therapy”; I dated a girl from church and to this day regret the pain I caused her with a breakup, but realize I did her a favor. I attended “ex gay” programs offered by “Desert Stream” at a church in Pasadena, riding from the “Inland Empire” more than an hour each way with a fellow church member who worked for Campus Crusade. There, I met others, including men who worked for “Focus on the Family”, and a few women – all seeking “deliverance” through Christ. To somehow become – normal? Good enough? Or at least, celibate, and less self-hating. I even visited the “Love in Action” program in San Rafael, which became notorious in later years and eventually moved from California. There are many destructive forces in life, and shame is one of the most insidious, and deeply rooted in our souls. Shame is like climbing into your own coffin and nailing the lid shut from inside. Hiding from the only thing that could really bring healing – light.
The greatest gift you have to offer is the real you – don’t hide it, let it shine!
Thank God (and I do mean that), those programs, books, prayers and meetings – failed. I didn’t realize this was a blessing instead of a disappointment. For years, I fell deeper into my cave; I did not know any other life, and my existence centered around work and escape. But, in time, particularly after the passing of my parents in my late 40’s and the end of the family structure that I depended on to have a sense of purpose, I realized that I needed to find a way to accept myself. That unless I did, the loneliness that engulfed my life would only grow until there was no life left. I found a wonderful counselor; he tried to convince me to accept being gay, but I fought it for a long time. Eventually, the walls that had been built with years of indoctrination crumbled, and I began to see that the love that I sought was already there, it was just up to me to accept it – no one else. In 2010 that I finally found courage, and reached out to the only two gay people I knew, to ask for help.
In my 50’s, I joined the “Men’s coming out support group” at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, driving more than an hour and a half to West Hollywood weekly to share, learn, and listen. I started exploring the admittedly unfamiliar world of bars and more. I made friends, slowly – there wasn’t a lot of gay life in Perris, CA! I would drive nearly an hour to Palm Springs and used to tell people I lived in the Perris without croissants. Many had never heard of it – especially when I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA in 2012 and started “coming out” to friends and family. It was both rewarding – and painful. Because, as I started to be more honest with those around me, along with the new friends I made, and the support I found from old friends and family – I lost dear friends. People who could not see past the same teachings that had kept me bound and alone most of my life. Teachings that in spirit were meant to bring life but had been twisted to crush the hearts of many, leading to families that were broken and lives that ended. Many have been deeply burned by actions done in the name of love, and turned away. I do understand why so many see religion as bringing death rather than life; I am not ashamed to admit that I do not have all the answers, but I still find comfort in reaching for faith, which like me, is evolving.
Gay Men’s Chorus of LA 2014 concert “I Am Harvey Milk”, Walt Disney Concert Hall
Thinking back on it, there were 3 stages to my “new life” – “Ex”; “Ex-Ex”, and eventually, yes, XXX. One of the really surprising things, to those who knew me, was that I bought a motorcycle. Never mind that I didn’t know how to ride – I had seen an Indian Chief parked near my home and I just wanted to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I had always thought that bikers were “hot”. Now, we all have our fantasies, ok? I learned to ride, taking my licensing class in pouring rain just before Thanksgiving, soaked to the bone. I had a deep respect for history and learned that the Satyrs Motorcycle Club of LA – one of the oldest gay organizations in the world – invited all riders to join them on periodic “runs”. In 2012, I rode my 2001 Chief for the first and only time to San Francisco – my first visit there as an “out” gay man – clumsily making my way to the Castro, and the South of Market area, where my Satyr friends had recommended a cheap hotel. I visited some of the bars, feeling completely out of place; and then I rode on to the annual “Badger Flat” gathering the Satyrs held in the Sierra National forest; I was welcomed by all. In July 2015 a friend from the Satyrs run invited me to stay in his San Francisco home while he went to the Sturgis Bike Rally. That visit led to the life changes that today I celebrate.
San Francisco was known for decades as a refuge for countless men and women who were “different” in many ways. In the 80’s, the community began to lose thousands of lives to AIDS. I remember reading about the mysterious diseases emerging in the Advocate, a gay newspaper that my college had in the library, and later in magazines that would give me a (unrealistic) window into the world I wanted to be a part of but was not. In response, the core gay and lesbian communities around the world – New York, LA, SF and more – turned to fundraising events to support the needs of organizations trying to help the infected, and their families. One such gathering was held on a small block in the South of Market area in August 1985 – nearly 35 years ago – called “Up Your Alley” on Ringold alley. It grew – and in 1987, was shifted to nearby Dore Alley, off Folsom.
The Castro was what the world saw, perhaps, as the center of “gay” life – certainly it had the bars, the parties, the music, the lights and political focus. But South of Market – it had its own crowd, flavor, energy – and reputation. John Rechy in 1977 wrote of the LA chapter of this subculture in his book “The Sexual Outlaw” – more people would recognize it from the popularization of the “Leather Man” Glenn Hughes from the Village People. It was this community in South of Market that created, supported, and celebrated their lives in Folsom – at the bars, the clubs, the alleys and more. Over the decades, there were less bars, but the reputation still lingered, held up by a few residents and businesses – part of the kaleidoscope of cultures in what used to be called the “Baghdad by the bay”. And the “Up Your Alley” fair endured, along with the larger “Folsom Fair” held annually – these were the raucous gatherings that evangelicals used to portray the “perversion” that they could use for fund raising and fear mongering, condemnation and shaming those who were different.
A vividly expressive ad for the 2015 Dore Alley Street fair – perhaps unrealistic?
That July 2015, the Dore Alley street fair – “Up Your Alley” or “Folsom’s dirty little brother”, as it was promoted, was literally outside my door. Of course I had heard of these events – I had visited the bars on prior trips to the city, and similar bars and gatherings in LA and the desert. But attending was something like this was a first, for me. The street fair attracted thousands to the small area that bordered on my friend’s home on Folsom. I was, for the most part, alone – I didn’t know that many people in San Francisco, and even though I could pass for a “biker” in terms of my gear – I could “look the part” – I completely felt out of my element. I don’t enjoy loud music, crowds, and am a non-drinker – but this was the SF of my fantasies from decades past, and I was “out”, and I was going to take the leap. As I strolled down Folsom, a young lady asked if she could take my photo – I was flattered and said yes. A few weeks later, a friend in LA said they saw me on the event website – so, here is what I looked like midday on Sunday, July 26, 2015.
About an hour after that photo was taken, I walked into a reception at a local boot store, “Stompers”, where party goers could escape the noise, relax, socialize – as long as they had boots on. Which, of course, I did! It was crowded with men in leather – everything I had imagined about the San Francisco I saw in magazines decades earlier! Suddenly, I saw a stunning man (yes it was a “lightning bolt” moment), one I immediately wanted to meet – just as a friend called and asked if I could join them outside (they did not meet the boot requirement). I reluctantly left, hoping I might return soon. Trying to keep my eyes on the door while we visited, I noticed the object of my attention had walked outside … and when I walked up to say hello – he said words I had not anticipated ….
“Norm … it’s Bob”. In 2013, while on he was in LA on business we had met briefly. I knew at the time he was married and living in San Francisco, and to be honest, I had not recognized him (we won’t go into the circumstances, folks!). Bob’s husband had passed just a few months earlier after a long illness, and visiting friends had coaxed him into joining them at a brunch, and then at the street fair, briefly. He had seen me in Stompers, but lost track of me until, as it happened, there we were at the concession stand. One year later, Dore July 2016; Stompers had closed, Bob and I had been dating long distance, and I joined him and many friends at the annual brunch reception before heading to South of Market, and the crowds. As we strolled through Dore together, eventually we stopped near where, a year before, we had – accidentally? – reconnected at Stompers. It had closed a few months prior, but we paused nearby for a burger, where he had invited friends to quietly gather. Moments later, we were engaged.
It’s a lot easier for me to write a narrative history than to somehow discern what from those experiences I am feeling a need to express. In some ways, like Billy Pilgrim, and perhaps like you or someone you love, my life was largely fragmented into pieces I kept separate, some buried deeply, many that only with time could I learn to accept and even embrace. I am hardly the first human to “come out” late in life, nor fundamentally unique in any other characteristic; but “coming out” applies to all of us, not just GLBTQ individuals who still face unique challenges around our globe. Perhaps my story illustrates how critical it is for ALL of us to reach a place where we accept ourselves perhaps not fully, but enough to say “this is me, I know I am not perfect, I am still working on me but I would like to let you get to know me”. When we hide in the shadows – when we let shame, or fear, bury us and keep us from sharing our hearts with others – everyone loses. Our world loses.
Shame has deep roots, sometimes invisible. It takes more than any single action to be free of that pile; it requires ongoing and severe honesty; the hearts and hands of people who accept us as we share our truths; and, I believe, faith in that which is larger than ourselves, however we may come to see that source of life. 5 years after that “chance” meeting that changed my life, that has become our life – I am still “coming out”. Being open with this post today is another step for me; I share my path with you because it has been a curious merging, a graceful dance between desire that I was taught to suppress and deny – and a sense of the power of faith in a greater source of love, grace, and forgiveness. It took me most of my lifetime to realize that my definition of that power was too small. I had kept it in a box, and tried to fit my life into it, blaming myself that I could not conform. But the truth was bigger than my box; bigger than me. I just had to let my eyes move beyond the borders, and let my heart be open, to move beyond those limits. I had to have faith in what my spirit heard and what called to my heart. Now, I continue to work on integrating those fragments of my heart, spirit, and mind into my own coat of many colors.
Be your own creation – the best of what you are given, and the rest of your dreams.
I am sure there are many more learned minds than my own that can espouse at great lengths the connections between spirituality and sexuality, so I will not even try. But for me, they are kind of like Astaire and Rogers – each beautiful on their own, but together, truly divine – far more than the sum of their parts, and dare I say, incomplete without one another. In my church days, much of which I still treasure and reflect on and am grateful for – we often were taught about the “Holy Spirit”, or in Latin, “Spiritus Sanctus”. It was always mysterious, and kind of pushed away – probably because it could not be explained. I like to think the Spiritus Sanctus just as easily wears a leather jacket and boots as it might for others be in priestly vestments. We find a connection to the Eternal in our own ways, and we need to respect that others do as well – but the common thread is one of our basic humanity, our need for love, acceptance, hope and forgiveness, as we work our way through a very uncertain world. I am more at peace, now, not having an explanation, but accepting that it is no longer needed; just like I cannot explain how all the moving pieces of two separate lives brought us together on a crowded street during a leather “kink” festival. But it did. And I am thankful for it, and grateful for the love that continues to grow as a result.
Words of “The Little Flower” of France, one of the most popular saints of Catholicism.
Since that day, I left Perris behind, put my home on the market, said goodbye to what had really been my entire life there since 1962, and moved, as I put it, not to San Francisco, but to Bob. In August 2018, we were married; our two-year anniversary next month will be a quiet one – no dinner out, no parties. No gathering with friends and loved ones, or at least, only “virtually” this year. For many of us, Dore, Folsom, Pride, and other annual gatherings are sometimes half-jokingly referred to as gay “high holy days”. Like church services, they are gone, for now; there is no Dore “Up Your Alley” gathering in Folsom this year; there will not be thousands of men and women walking in the sunshine, wearing all kinds of clothing (or little to none), buying and selling all kinds of interesting devices, demonstrating skills you don’t learn about in Boy Scouts (or, maybe you do), and raising funds for charity. There won’t be loud music or the “Twister” booth, and all the other activities that get covered in the media – you can see all those images from prior years online. What the pictures cannot fully capture is the energy, acceptance, belonging, joy, and yes, love which brought those thousands of celebrants together, for so many years. I look forward to coming together again, somehow, some day.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Suess – a wisdom that touches all ages.
Dr. Seuss had a gift for sharing truth through simplicity. I never read many of his books, except when waiting in medical offices as a child. But that quote from “Oh the places you’ll go” harmonizes deeply with a realization that continues to grow in my own awareness – that only bY being genuinely ourselves – warts, failures, flaws and all – can we offer authentic love, caring, and acceptance to others. And only in accepting others as they are, can we climb, together. We have to get there from where we are, not by pushing others down to where we think they are supposed to be. Early this morning, July 26 2020, Bob and I briefly strolled down those familiar streets – Folsom, Dore and Ringold. There were no crowds, or booths, and the bars were silent. Others may gather later, not willing to let traditions go – I respect that, truly. We happily returned to our little blue house with two cats, together.
With Bob this morning, at the intersection of Folsom and Dore, remembering.
Bob and I are together because somehow the many intricate moving pieces in our separate lives brought us to the same noisy, crowded street during a gay leather festival. We love each other, imperfectly but truly, and we try to share our love with the others in our lives, when we can. I am grateful to say that I felt the call of the spirit in a leather jacket, and I said YES to that call, and seek it still. I hope that when you sense something calling to your own spirit, in that deep place only you know, you will find the courage and strength and acceptance to say “yes” – leave that safe nest you know only too well, spread your wings, and fly. I’ll look for you out there, soaring through the clouds.
These days, when many of us are spending far more time at home than we might have planned – it’s an opportunity to clean up, sort through and toss out. I can attest that not everyone embraces this vision with vigor, but there is something about digging into old boxes that has always held a sense of adventure and discovery for me. Growing up, my Mom had a bedroom that was basically “off limits” – filled with boxes and old furniture, but more importantly I think for her, filled with memories she did not want to be reminded of, yet could not find a way to let go.
When her lifelong health problems ultimately reached a point where she was unable to care for herself safely, she seemed to be at the end of her days – and I went through a period of desperation to find a housing and care facility. Ultimately, she improved – and I felt the “right thing” to do was to sell my home and return to that childhood tract house, where so many of my formative years and experiences still hung in the air. Being raised by a disabled single parent who had no earnings, no car and little interaction with the outside world had shaped me in many ways, so returning to living alone in a home drenched in memories was not much of a change.
Surprisingly, Mom hung on for eight more years, and during that time, I took on what I came to view as a “redemption” of the house, which had always needed much in the way of repairs and care that was never without our means. I wanted it to be a home that someone would be delighted to call their own, knowing the time would come that she would move into eternity, and others would make the house their own. As I began digging through the closets filled with old clothes and more, I began to uncover something I had not expected – shadows of the past that had not been viewed in decades.
There were photo albums from my parents, grandparents and boxes containing images from unknown ancestors. I unfolded faded letters dating back decades (including my father’s as shared previously), greeting cards, travel brochures and more. Going through them with first my parents, then in time other cousins and family members, opened a window to my heritage but, in time, also to a fuller realization of my own worth, and hope.
But today I am sharing about a member of the family in particular who met me in my infancy and passed not long after – my maternal grandmothers second husband. Grandma Jean had divorced my grandfather Richard before WWII – a pretty uncommon act back then. High school sweethearts in Denver, they’d both lost their mothers as teenagers, and after marrying in Oregon, raised her younger brother and sister and had two children – my uncle, and then my mother. Sadly, Jean passed a year before my birth. My mother had issues with her father until his passing – he lived out of state, and I never knew him either. But Mom loved her mother dearly – in fact I am named for Jean’s younger brother Norman who died during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Mom had told me that at some point grandma Jean had remarried, and they were seemingly quite happy until her own passing in the late 50’s. As with her not so socially acceptable in those days divorce, she again made a choice that in her time was rare – as an Episcopalian, she married a man of the Jewish faith. There were photographs, and even color slides, of their many trips together and with families – including strangers that were apparently his own. Other than a few unfamiliar names mentioned in passing in those old letters – there was only one other fact that many in my extended family recalled quite clearly. And it was not a pretty story.
Grandma passed in spring 1957, and he remarried shortly thereafter. Following my own birth in spring 1958, he had stopped by my parent’s home in Vacaville, near where my father worked at the state prison. Less than six months later, at the mountain cabin where he, my grandmother, mother, cousins and other family members celebrated summer vacations and winter getaways, my mother’s uncle found his body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My mother’s cousin David, still alive today, clearly recalls the incident, but with more expressive verbiage.
It was just one of those family stories, about people I never knew. But I looked through the photos and slides to see strangers faces from 50 years ago or more, and wondered what had happened to them. Now, after retiring, and in this time of isolation where I finally am trying to piece together so many little fragments of my heritage, my family’s journeys, for those who will follow – I came across those color slides with strangers faces and unfamiliar names again. I thought of another cousin who maybe 3-4 years back had gotten a call from descendant of his 3rd wife – they had found some of our grandmother’s items in boxes and wondered if we wanted them. To my ongoing regret, that never led to us reconnecting and recovering those pieces of the past.
With all the amassing records and resources available to us online today, you’ve probably seen programs on PBS or elsewhere about “discovering family”. Well, perhaps at least part selfishly – knowing that it might possibly reconnect me with other records from my grandmother – I decided to see what I could learn about this gentleman and track down someone who might want to preserve these photos of strangers that I had found, who might be their ancestors. At this point, I should explain I am taking care to not mention names, due to privacy – I generally do not share photos of living persons other than myself (with one exception). However, I do feel the photos of those long gone, in many cases of family I knew little or none at all while they lived, bring the stories and discoveries that I share here a little bit more “to life”.
As I scoured Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com and other site, knowing little more than his name and profession, to see if I could find reference to my grandmother’s second husband, some interesting facts appeared about his subsequent marriage and death – social notices, mainly, but then – an obituary. And in time, another article – describing his death, not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but – “an overdose of pills”? I was not surprised that the harsher truth of his passing had been softened, but i was not expecting another revelation. The memorial service article mentioning and naming children from a prior marriage – one that neither my Mom, nor her cousins and family, ever knew of.
Among them, a son – and from the date, and with his name (because, of course, the daughters might have married, and I would not have as great a likelihood of finding their “trail”) – I found a high school yearbook from southern California with his picture. From there – articles about his life, incidentals really – and with a bit more digging, I find several addresses. I realize some percentage, maybe a high percentage, of you might think why I am doing this – reaching out to a stranger who is not a blood relative, may not even know my grandmother married his father, and that I might be opening doors that he or his family prefer to leave shut?
I can’t tell you for sure that I know reaching out is the right choice – but I did. I wrote a letter; I made a call. At this point, there has been no response – possibly by choice, maybe by chance. But I do know that if someone were to reach out to me with an offer of photos of family that I had never seen, and maybe to learn a bit about their lives from someone who knew them – I would jump at the chance. Would I bring up the circumstances of his father’s passing?No, I would not – but if he asked, I would share what I knew.
Because in my life, at least, learning the truth – the facts, the hard history rather than the pretty fairy tales – has given me strength. Courage – to accept myself, and others, imperfect as we are – working on that every day, believe me. Knowing that those who came before experienced not just joy and summer vacations and new cars and baby showers of the photos now faded, but also disappointment, uncertainty, and yes – failure – gives me hope, because I face those, we face those – every day. Especially now.
There is a conflict erupting in our communities, country and world, between so many fragments over so many divides. I understand, in part, the rage of those who see the emblems of a past that brings pain even now and want them to be gone. I can listen to the words, the hearts of others who truly believe that it is better to bury the past. Yes, the dead are gone from us- but while we have their memories, their past remains. We each must decide – for ourselves, and for those who follow, in our family whether of blood or of choice – what memories will we preserve. What steps will we take to pass on those pieces of the past – whether in our garage in a crumpled box, or in a remote corner of our memory? Will we decide to let them go? Or will we choose to let those who follow make that decision for themselves.
I am not ready to throw away these pictures of stranger just yet – but the time will come. It does not cost me to save them still; it is not a burden. But their knowledge will end with me, I am certain. My focus must be on preserving the lives, hopes, dreams and memories of those truly dear to me, for those who like me, one day, will look at them perhaps with a sense of awe, and wonder. Perhaps in time, even the lessons of my life will somehow speak, after I am gone, and as was the gift to me, provide a doorway to a greater faith, a stronger hope, and a deeper love.