Once upon a time … when we were very young ….

It is never too late to add a new chapter to your life story …

Have you been back to the cinema yet?  I sure missed them, especially during the early months of theater closures and uncertainty – but the past few months, we have enjoyed getting out once in a while to enjoy the ones that we considered a “must see” on the big screen.  Sure, sometimes we were nearly alone, and we had to wear masks – but it was still pure magic, for this movie buff.  Nightmare Alley, Dune, West Side Story – heck, I even enjoyed Spiderman and The Batman – and, most recently, Cyrano (which was truly a work of art, and heart).   And now the Oscars are being voted on – the “buzz” isn’t what it used to be, our world is in turmoil and somehow the awards just aren’t really all that important, if they ever were.  Still, I have a favorite (having seen about half the nominees, and the only half I wanted to!) ….. 

When we watched Belfast, filmed primarily in black and white, and set in the 60’s during the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, I was surprised by how much this very specific family story, from a region I have never known, still resonated with me about the passage from childhood into a bigger world.  We identify with the emotions of the young boy caught up in events that shatter his small world, and make him see that his parents, his grandparents and friends and neighbors are not all that he thought.  Sometimes, without even words, the images captured his becoming aware in a way that we all do, eventually, how events that seem routine suddenly change, and that our reliance on reality sometimes hangs by a thread.  It is a gem of a film – and well worth seeing on the big screen, and hopefully to be recognized as such by the ages.

It also reminded me of a similar story – a different era, another continent, and yet – upheaval in small town where a child realizes their world is so much different than the bubble that has protected them, for a time.  It is one of my husband’s favorite films, and a “classic” – so when the opportunity came for us to see it on the “big screen” at the Alamo Mission, we walked through the bustling neighborhood that seemed to be very different from the rest of our city, and entered the darkened room to again be drawn into a black and white vision.   The music, the acting – and of course, the script adaptation by the not as well-known as he should be Horton Foote – somehow made the ugliness of many of the events in the narrative, contrasting with the innocence and hope of the children caught up in them, more dreamlike. 

I speak of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is now in a somewhat reconstructed vision being presented on the Broadway stage.  Scout, the young girl in depression Alabama, probably would empathize with Buddy, the 9-year-old whose family faces danger – and loss – in Belfast. Both learn to deal with death – and wrongdoing, and injustice.  The choices that families must make to balance survival with stability, in the face of circumstances beyond their ability to impact – much as the families of Ukraine are challenged with as I write.  The realization that the stories they were read at night, the songs and games they played, are not enough to answer the questions that growing up will bring. On reflection, one shared observation from both films is how traumatic, and suddenly, childhood can shift from the cocoon of safety to the dawning awareness that life is more complex, and dangerous, than we imagined.  But there is also a kind of resilience even in young children that comes from some inner place to pull us through – although, sadly, not always.  

We never have to give up the ability to dream … and to hope ….

As Atticus, the father in To Kill a Mockingbird, says to his son Jem when confronted with racism and injustice – “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son.  I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you.  That’s never possible.”   When the grandmother in Belfast watches as her son’s family leaving their home forever, while she remains to mourn her husband (sorry, spoiler there!), we know that Buddy is facing truths that he never had imagined just a few months prior.   Innocence can never remain untouched – but wisdom can grow from loss and hope arise from disappointment.  

My kindergarten class photo – goodness how things have changed!!!

Both films brought up memories of childhood moments for me, as well. As I have continued to comb through my stacks of family records and photos, I recently came across my elementary school “class photos” from the 60’s – kindergarten through third grade. In a moment of perhaps inspiration, I turned to Facebook and over the course of a few weeks reconnected for the first time with many of the children in those pictures – some who were in my classes all the way through high school.  I learned of events in their lives – as to be expected, most had married or had children, and grandchildren; some were accepting of what I shared of my life since high school, but some closed me off, and I needed no explanation why.  But as I looked at the faces, remembering some names, and others not recognizing at all, I reflected on how much we had all shared, and even though our paths differed, how alike our lives were in many ways – a group of children in a small town, now scattered elsewhere, some remaining fast friends and others lost to time.  It touched me when one classmate I was able to meet in person with after 45 years shared that, more than once, my name had come up and some had wondered what had become of me – it somehow gave me a little sense that perhaps I had belonged, even then, more than I was able to realize or accept. 

Now, spring emerges in our world, again.  Seasons flowing into one another, a rhythm in the earth itself that echoes deep in our souls.  We perhaps mistakenly see our lives as a linear process – certainly we move through it that way, consciously.  We think of our stories in stages – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood and more.  But a portion of our heart remains forever young, a little piece that still looks out the door on a Saturday morning anxious to jump on a bicycle and explore, meet new friends, embrace joy and spontaneity.  Whether a young girl living in depression era American south, or a boy struggling to understand why his neighbors are turning on one another in 60’s Ireland – or the children of Ukraine today being torn from their homes and families without knowing why – these moments awaken our hearts. Our hearts that somehow exist beyond the reach of time, and even throw off the limitations of age itself.  

A video montage with the musical theme from To Kill a Mockingbird

Listen to that little voice in your being, wanting to be heard, waiting to tell you secrets and hopes that still long to be birthed in your tomorrows. Our growth – maturing, or moving towards it – never really ends, even after a lifetime of missed opportunities – we just need to be open to the possible that our world taught us to question and set aside. That lost inner fountain of joy can still stream freely, the journeys that begin with curiosity and the possibility of new discoveries, and even the strength to deal with the shock of the unexpected with a kind of faith that, beyond the immediate, there is a better day ahead.  The songs and games we played as children are still echoing in our souls, and a smile can break out unexpectedly, if our hearts let us keep a small bit of room for those moments when we need them most. Just as children need parents, our adult consciousness needs to reach out to those little ones inside our hearts to find our way; to join our hands, and together walk toward the future together.  We need one another, now more than ever.  Perhaps, soon, you can invite them to join you, and discover again that which has been awaiting you ever since once upon a time. 

Thanks for flying New NormL – until next time, keep on keeping on!!

“The dreams that stuff is made of”

Dreams can be amazingly vivid; more intense, somehow, than real life, at least for a few moments before you become aware of your “true” surroundings, the blankets over you, the slowly brightening sky.  Perhaps in that moment you feel a kind of astonishment – that something so powerful, emotions flowing that arose from points unknown, only to disappear with the realization that it was all a kind of fantasy.  Lately, most of my own dreams seem to be in an alternate reality, where people from different chapters of my life interact, where business meetings are incredibly stressful and the pressure of deadlines seem to portend doom, until I become again aware that, no, I don’t work anymore; those faces and places are only shadows. Shadows that seem so real before awareness banishes them, often entirely, from memory.

Our dreams call us to wander an unknown land with dark, and light, and all that lies in between.

Then, there are the nightmares – elements added to the brew of deep sleep that were never a part of daily life, even bizarre situations that seem to spring from some unrealized desire within me to write a script for a thriller.  Some are recurring, like the one I have every few years about being awakened by groups of strangers walking through the house with a real estate agent, with me protesting that they don’t belong there.  Others verge on the surreal, with elements of time travel; recently, I dreamt that I was in my childhood home – purchased by my parents in the 60s, and sold after my mother’s passing in 2006, it was a place filled with memory and emotion, even now 15 years after I walked out the door.  In the dream, the neighbors on the “bedroom” side had pushed the rickety wooden fence between our side yards further into our backyard, expanding their own footprint; but they were not home when the workers did this, and I could not find anyone to listen to me.  Finally, their real estate agent (seems like I have a phobia there of some kind!) showed up, but refused to stop the fence building, and as she decided to drive away ignoring my pleas for understanding, a vibrator fell out of her car and rolled onto the street behind her fleeing sedan as I called to her in vain to let her know of her loss. What does that all mean?  I have no idea – but it seemed so real, and my emotions, my frustration and sense of being ignored were real even if the scenario was imaginary. 

Now that I think about it, many films and programs of my childhood were tied to the “it was just a dream” motif – “Invaders from Mars”, the only film directed by William Cameron Menzies, which terrified me; “The boy and the pirates”, a very cheap film featuring a no name cast, but with a boy my age, then, in peril;  “The 5000 fingers of Dr. T” which features Hans Conreid as a megalomaniacal piano teacher; and probably countless others (including, eventually, Bobby in the shower on Dallas!).  Where do my own vivid dreams come from? What is their genesis – my overactive imagination, some Freudian dream machine hiding in my unconscious, or hidden meanings trying to get me to pay attention?  

Now, decades later, this film is considered a classic of childhood paranoia and the “Red Scare”

The answer to those questions eludes me, like so many others from my walking, daily life.  The phantasms of my darker hours may, however, soon become less present.  Sleep is important for so many reasons – not just lying down with your eyes closed, but for chemical reactions that occur in our mind and body when the system is in “pause”, so to speak. I have struggled with restlessness for years, now, and the related exhaustion during waking hours. I often find it difficult to return to sleep after awakening in the “wee small hours of the morning” – whether it is music running through my memory, or plans for the next day, or pondering the great mysteries of the universe – my brain doesn’t want to turn off.  Sometimes I picture a bank of dials and levers, not unlike the wall of controls that Dr. Morbius had at his disposal in “Forbidden Planet”, and I try to slowly switch them all off.  It doesn’t work – whatever “Id monster” is wandering through my intellect refuses to be evicted, only to hide for a while. 

In “Forbidden Planet”, the alien technology was based on 50’s industrial design.

Sleep is important for so many reasons – not just lying down with your eyes closed, but for chemical reactions that occur in our mind and body when the system is in “pause”, so to speak. There is some point where our consciousness moves from awareness into that place of magic where dreams arise like mist, and disappear – and when we do not reach that level of rest, it comes at a cost to our overall health and well-being, in ways that science still works to understand.  After my recent annual physical, my dr. surprised me with a suggestion that we do a “sleep study”, for possible issues with apnea; this was not a welcome idea.  More than two decades ago, when I carried much more baggage – physically and mentally – in my body, I weighed about 25% more than I do now, and had ended up with a device attached to my head that made me feel like Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, and look like Steve Martin as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors.  It didn’t help then, and I doubted after my weight loss and efforts to gain and retain fitness that apnea could be a factor in my life – could it? 

Technology has advanced, of course, and the device I wore on my finger one night indicated that I indeed had severe apnea – with my breathing interrupted more than 40 times an hour, something related to my nose and throat structure having nothing to do with weight or fitness. So, shortly thereafter, I find myself using a somewhat sleeker device by my head at night, and a noticeably quieter and less bulky apparatus to adorn my head upon the pillow – and I have to admit – my sleep does seem to be improving. Of course, there are still instances of awakening at 2 am for non-apnea factors, including our cat Chaps demanding my service as a trampoline and punching bag, or my husband’s sometimes lively conversations with someone at a work meeting or party in his own dreamland. But the results are undeniable. The “test” for apnea showed I was having more than 40 instances of breathing interruptions an hour; now, it is regularly less than 5 per my trusty electronic monitor.  

I am hoping my new “little friend” will provide my body, mind, and spirit with the peace it needs – although I don’t expect it will completely quiet those dreams, only muffle if not silence the intensity that awakens me back to the daily reality. I hope to “sleep, perchance to dream”, to paraphrase Hamlet – putting sleep first, hoping that this unwelcome diagnosis – and non-insured medical equipment treatment – will bring a better rest to my life, and better balance and health overall. Still, I do not wish to bid goodbye to dreams, not entirely.  Whether they are nightmares we awaken from gradually, or those hidden dreams we do not remember beyond the moment – there are those who say that dreams are the wishes of an older soul, emerging in our quietest hour, demanding to be heard.  Perhaps they have a point of origin that we sometimes cannot quite place our fingers upon; but the shadows that rise and play out in the space between our closed eyelids and our brain, seeping into the night, carrying our bodies into lands that, if they exist, are not on any map – I think we need those too.  Because, sometimes, dreams last beyond the dawn, in ways we do not realize.  

Just like George Bailey lassoing the moon for Mary … we can bring dreams to reality

Perhaps our wishes are born, seeds floating out from those fields of dreams – and the wishes become goals, and hopes, that we hold deep in our hearts, transporting us almost like one of those “driverless” cars that seem to fill the streets of my home here in San Francisco, taking us to places we did not realize our hearts wanted to reach – by roads we did not know existed, or had to build. I am reminded of the biblical story of Joseph, the interpreter of dreams – so amusingly converted into a lively musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber – a child who did not fit in, was rejected by his family and suffered misery because of his gift of dreaming, and interpreting the dreams of others; eventually raised to powers neither he nor his family could have ever imagined, and then – in time beyond his own – leading his peoples into, and out from, desperation.  His dreams – however much is fact, or fable – changed the world.  I do not flatter myself that my dreams, or any of our dreams, will have that effect – but they can change our little, quiet worlds, and our lives, if we pay heed to their voices. 

When a dream speaks to our hearts, if a wish is born, and grows into a goal – each day holds the promise that a tiny step can take us closer to the dream becoming a reality.  It can be a very long journey. It can be so frustrating to acknowledge that the destination is not for today – just the step ahead, on a path that takes a lifetime to carve. To grasp the promise in just this moment, this “now”, is ultimately a step of faith – the outcome uncertain, but the act of responding to the call, the vision is our choice, alone.  That response needs to be enough, as results may not be seen now, or perhaps ever; we exist in the imperfect now while the hopes of the perfect tomorrow shine like a momentary rainbow, shimmering and then gone only leaving a shadow in our memory.  We must find the beauty, just enough to hold on to in the now – and balance that tenderly against our yearning for the ideal we can only move towards, never holding fully, yet …. The intangible, forming the tangible, until a new dream emerges and the cycle renews.  

And once made real, our dreams can take us on to new adventures ….

Back in 1941, Humphrey Bogart described the Maltese Falcon, the priceless statue that led to multiple murders and greed and loss, as “the stuff that dreams are made of”;  he was paraphrasing, again, Shakespeare in “The Tempest”, when Prospero reflect that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.   Not to dispute William, or Humphrey – but I believe we can use our dreams to create reality, not the reverse.  Perhaps we can say that our lives at this moment are the product of not only our dreams, but those before us; our today is the result of “the dreams that stuff is made of”.   We may not be able to choose our dreams; whatever the source, or the meaning if any – they arise, and speak, and move on. We move from a consciousness based on what we think, feel, see and “know” – into a place of mystery, where a new creation awaits to be birthed, or discovered.  As you next lay down your head, and the day slips into darkness, and your breathing slows – I hope your dreams will lead to hopes and visions that you can bring into being, dreams that will last.   With, or without, a mask and a machine to carry you into that place of unlimited perhaps, and a million maybes.  

Until next time, friends ….. sweet dreams …..

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Finding my fit – part 3 – Working out our invisible muscles

My previous two posts have been about my ongoing, lifelong journey – struggle, battle, triumph? what have you – with “fitness”.   It isn’t over; I haven’t “made it”.  And that’s actually kind of exciting, in a way – the process of learning about our bodies never ends; just as age is inevitable, there is always more we can know, understand and practice.  I also wrote about lessons that I am learning, and relearning, about how my thinking impacts not only my workouts, but my outlook in general – and the principles I can follow to be more effective in this quest.  But there are some insights that take time to root within our understanding, to be revealed in our growth – and to emerge into our awareness, gradually, like a slowly blossoming flower.  So, this last entry about my fitness journey – for now, at least – is about a realization emerging and unfurling its own petals in partnership with my workout regimens.   

For many years, I felt somehow not at home in my own body.  What on earth do I mean by that? It’s hard to explain; I believe I am not the only one who has had that experience, a kind of disassociation, or lack of cohesion.  Certainly, my body was not something I felt proud of, or confident in; like many aspects of my deeper identity, I tried to literally cover it up, instead of accepting it as is. Strangely, during this past year or so at the gym, feeling my muscles move and sensing them more fully, has given me an added awareness of my physical being that I lacked before.  From this, I began to develop an appreciation, and a kind of awe, at the complexity of our individual “selves” – physical, inside, outside, and everything in between.  Somehow, working on my body has evolved into a sort of integration of things that were not fitting together as well before; pieces of a puzzle fitting into place for a larger picture.  I began to feel a glimmer of understanding ….. but I still wasn’t grasping it, but rather – sensing it. 

As I fumbled through my workouts, seeing the calendar models physiques surrounding me whose weight loads are twice mine and more, as well as their biceps and chests – I found myself thinking about whether I was focused on the right muscles, in my workout regimen. Because my visible results weren’t meeting my expectations, I wondered – was I really on the “right” path to develop the important strengths? What was I failing to incorporate? What was I doing wrong? As I began to look beyond what my eyes saw, and what all the fitness and diet apps focused on – the “chest/back/shoulders/legs” type of workout breakdown – to what lay beneath; I realized there was something I was missing, something essential to incorporate alongside all those practices.  I needed to train what I came to consider as my invisible muscles.  

Our bodies are miraculous creations, wondrously complex, infinitely mysterious, and constantly evolving.  Just as our physical selves depend upon a structure of organs, muscles, and nerves to functions, there are networks supporting other aspects of our awareness and existence. Perhaps these invisible muscles are just as amazing, working in harmony with those we see, but remain hidden to our eyes, immeasurable. But just like our bodies, these muscles really aren’t that much different; they need stretching and challenge to gain strength, and nourishment to grow.  If we tend to one set in our training and neglect the other in our thinking and practice – we will be imbalanced, no matter what our bodies look like to those around us. 

Maybe the concept of a correlating network of invisible muscles sounds ridiculous to you – perhaps it would help of them as not physical, but, spiritual or psychic or whatever word works for you. Don’t get hung up on verbiage – rather, consider this invisible muscle structure as just operating in tandem with those in all the exercise videos. Even though no one at the gym can see these muscles, building them will have a more lasting effect, than I can develop solely by pumping iron and pulling cables.  It doesn’t mean that seeking physical health – strength, fitness, whatever term you prefer – is a waste of time.  In fact, I am coming to understand that the outside reflects (and even depends upon) the discipline of what I am embracing inside – I am building from the inside out, not just the walls of a beautiful edifice, but the “whole” of me  living within that physical structure.  Think of it as inner bodybuilding, the hidden strengths humming along silently underneath the outer facade. 

At the gym, we train our legs to carry us farther and faster; our arms to lift heavier and higher; and our chests to be stronger and broader.  The workout of the inner muscles is focused on different parts of our being; to name a few – compassion; forgiveness; grace; faith; tolerance; choosing joy; opening minds and ultimately loving hearts.  Only with these can we accomplish feats of strength like reaching out to others in need; stepping forward with conviction to stand for what is right; carrying a burden for loved ones and even strangers that has left them broken.  And, for many of us, instead of merely lifting weights, we learn to let them go – inside ourselves – through forgiveness and reconciliation.   The unseen muscles direct the efforts of our bodies to accomplish the vision of our hearts – together.   

Why do we need to exercise these internal muscles? As with the rest of the amazing bodies we are given, if unused, they become less enduring; weaker; atrophied. Yet they are just as fundamental to a whole life, if not more so.  The muscles in the workout videos depend on many hidden inner muscles to be fully realized – discipline; consistency; patience; acceptance; courage; community; hope.  These are critical to power the motivation, and the creation of our intent, to accomplish almost any goal – physical or otherwise.  Working them doesn’t come naturally but requires intent – purpose – commitment. Our inner muscles need reps too!  Qualities of character that take time to build, just like all those physical muscles don’t transform overnight.  But these muscles give us the ability to accomplish feats of strength that don’t call upon our bodies as much as our hearts. This inner “fitness” will help us push beyond obstacles and barriers to new life and joy.

I sense, but I cannot prove, that both the visible and invisible muscles are designed to work together, to be integrated. There are probably philosophies and theories about the nature of identity and “being” that address this better than I can explain. But I think, maybe, building them both involves some of the same key principles that I wrote about in my earlier entry – letting time do its work; accepting ourselves and others “as is”, while still moving towards a better reality; finding joy in where we are, right now.  One thing I am certain of – focusing solely on building the muscles others see – without also doing the “reps” on our inner muscles – would leave only an outer shell lacking the inner strength that is waiting to be birthed in us all. 

I am, ultimately, encouraged as I continue my personal quests – knowing I have not “stood still” and wanting to cheer YOU on as well!  Whatever mountains we face, sometimes seemingly alone – we are sharing common dreams and hopes, and seeking the better lives that our dreams call us towards.  I recently found this wonderful zoom music collaboration created to raise funds for the Actors Fund – featuring amazing jazz musicians on one of my favorite Nat King Cole songs.  It rings true for me – sometimes, when we are down on the ground, we need the strength – the inner AND outer muscles! – to get up, and get going, stumbling maybe, but back on track.  If you look around, you will see me cheering you on – and others – you are not alone.  I hope this brings you a little joy and encouragement, as it did me. 

So, friends, my fitness journey has broadened, and deepened, and continues to be a path of discovery and understanding on many fronts. “Working out” through this pandemic has certainly opened my eyes in unexpected ways.  I started with a dream that I could transform my body – and instead, or alongside, I am transforming my mind and heart. Realizing that I need that inner workout has become more apparent with the consistent practice of an outer workout! Somehow, in trying to recover the strength I lost – as well as gain the kind of acceptance and confidence that I never had to begin with – I am building more than just my body.  I am training and building my whole being – and discovering the wonderful possibilities that still lie ahead.  They are there for us all – waiting – taking work and effort to dig through, but well worth the quest.  Until next time, friends – keep reaching for your dreams. The journey continues, for us all.

My journey literally takes to the air for a flight across our continent. For the next chapter, whenever I can set down whatever captures my imagination, register below for free notifications, and stay safe, friends! See you next time, and thanks for stopping by!

Today’s tales of two cities

“Sheltering in place” …. These words will forever be tied to this moment in time.  Just like “out of an abundance of caution”, and “follow the science” – gentle ways of framing circumstances we would rather avoid, and we wish, somehow, we could erase. Roughly a year after those pandemic clouds gathered fully over San Francisco, skies are beginning, at last, to brighten a little bit here in what poet George Sterling first named the “cool, grey city of love. During this year our lives have been restrained, by choice and by force, to varying degrees – so, when I saw that the good folks at City Guides San Francisco were resuming walking tours through neighborhoods and time, I signed up for a Sunday morning excursion – “The Russian Hill Steps”.  And, yes … there were a LOT of steps, as you will see!

Long before the Gold Rush that transformed our city, well before statehood, Russia was seriously moving to colonize western North America. Nearly 300 years ago Russian Emperor Peter the Great directed an effort to explore the area, rich in promise for the critical fur trade; it was Russian Orthodox missionaries who first worked to evangelize the Alaska Territory.  Russia established Fort Ross was established near Bodega Bay in 1812.   During those years, a cemetery for Russian Sailors was established in the area of this tour, hence the name Russian Hill. But the Spanish military presence in the Presidio and the related mission predated the Russian presence in what was then called Yerba Buena, and well outlasted it. Eventually giving in to political upheaval and other factors, Russia pulled back its hoped-for claims in Northern America; wouldn’t that have been an alternate reality!

My own history here is much shorter, of course – a relative newbie, I did not have the opportunity to visit San Francisco until well after my youth, even though I group up in Inland Southern California.  But …. I had seen the world-famous steep curves in another world landmark – the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland!   Back in the 50’s, and then updated as the years passed, Tomorrowland featured “America the Beautiful” in AMAZING “Circle vision” – I remember clearly standing in line for a VERY long time to be crowded into a “standing room only” viewing room with screens surrounding the viewers, shot by multiple cameras, including what was, for that time, a “virtual” drive through the streets of San Francisco, as you can see…..

This is I believe the “Original” version from the 50’s, but just the “main screen” view; the “San Francisco” footage begins at about 13:45.
This is the “In the theater” experience, as I remember it from the 60’s/70’s. Now this is how I first saw “Lombard street”, beginning at about 16:40.

But I would not actually “see” San Francisco until the 80’s, after my college years; my first trip to San Francisco as an adult was … well, truly adult.  And embarrassingly brief.  Yes, tender audience, I was a hick from the sticks in the big city – where “gay” was not an insult, but an invitation – as I drove through for just a few hours after completing college.  It was the early 80’s, before internet, so I only knew of the notorious offerings here through rumors, the “Advocate” at my college library, and a surreptitiously obtained mail-order visitor publication called the “Damron Guide. Suffice it to say that visit was memorable and involved another kind of theater.  But as I have shared previously, my journey to self-acceptance was much longer than a drive up north, I could never have foreseen what time has unfolded in my life.

A panorama shot of the city and bay from our first stop

So the City Guide walking tours are an excellent way to explore all the nooks and crannies of my new home. I bravely set out, masked, that Sunday (the BEST day for free parking in much of the city!) and joined a handful of others on the tour; some residents, some visitors.  In fact, even our tour guide was relatively new to City Guides – he himself had only taken the tour shortly before COVID hit. Nevertheless, he was well versed in the names and dates and stories of the houses we passed, and their residents – the architects, poets, bohemians, the wealthy and the (in their time, at least) scandalous.  They had no idea their personal lives would endure and be shared for years thereafter.  Normally, I would take notes on the buildings and the history – I chose to forego that to take in the sights I share with you today, but you can find all that elsewhere, friends – In fact, here is one example.

In addition to the homes, vistas, and stories, there was one segment of the walk that I was eager to experience. Even though I was not an avid reader, I was well aware of a somewhat controversial in its time PBS program based on a series of books which started as a local newspaper column and become a world phenomenon – “Tales of the City”, by Armistead Maupin.  I actually never watched the program when it aired, but today’s walking tour included a stroll along this neighborhood’s Macondray Lane, which he designated as Barbary Lane in his semi fictional narratives.  Interestingly, several people on the tour had never heard of him, or the show – another piece of evidence that what is at one-point revolutionary in time becomes perhaps if not forgotten, less present in our culture.  

This stroll through Macondray Lane is the “reverse” direction of the one I enjoyed.

If we think of our lives as a stroll through time, there are moments when paths cross that would never be able to guess, or plan – just, enjoy. One Saturday, about a month after our wedding, my new husband and I were planning to drive up north to a special book signing.  That morning, as I left the famous “Daddy’s Barbershop” in the Castro, I spotted a couple walking a dog near my parked car, and I tentatively approached.  The older gentleman smiled as I sheepishly inquired – “By chance, are you the author whose signing I will be driving to this evening?”  And, it was – Mr. Armistead Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner, who lived nearby, and who graciously took this picture with me.  That evening, after a long drive out of town for a signing of his autobiography “Logical Family”,  Bob and I got to take another photo with him; not long after, like others, they moved from San Francisco, this “cool grey city of love”.  But I am reminded of his words –

“The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else”.

Armistead Maupin

I cannot say how many hundred of stairs I walked on this tour; looking at the pictures of my stroll through these winding passages and eras, I began to consider – what do we remember of history? What do we preserve?  Who judges what is worth commemorating – or no longer deserving of respect?  This is in the news nearly every day now – whether it is about adding and removing memorials (by consensus, edict or force), eliminating publications, erasing music from performance – or lifting up heroes that, at one time, were considered far less worthy of recognition in their day.  As they say, history belongs to those who write it.  For me, the letters and diaries of my grandparents, parents and others are the only record that exists of their lives, and I feel a kind of burden to somehow carry their lives on rather than let them fade.  For many of us, photo albums in print form are a thing of the past – and when we are gone, most of our digital images will not be preserved, recognized, or remembered.   

But our history today, however personal, and the lives and history of our family and loved ones, is worth preserving, and sharing. Perhaps it might help to think of it as creating a walking tour through the neighborhood of our lives, reflecting on lessons learned that we can share, love we can treasure, and hope we can gift to others that await us around the next bend. Especially in this very passage of change, we are living our own, unique “tales of the city”.  Wherever your home finds you today, as with San Francisco, it will not be entirely the same after someone decides that the vaccine programs have succeeded, and someone else decides we know longer to hear daily reports on statistics.  There will be the city before – and the city after.  Two cities, in a way – connected forever by this passage we still travel through, hesitatingly, unsure at times which way to take.  Although Dickens was speaking literally in a different sense when he wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859, his words about that moment in time resonate for me now – 

As I write, after my husband, many family and some friends have received one or two shots of the COVID vaccine, mine lies ahead, time to be determined.  We are all in this moment awaiting, with somewhat held breath, for doors to open, friends to embrace, moments to be together after long parting.  Walking through Russian hill, once a cemetery for forgotten names, now steeped in history with more being created, and my own little memories – how remarkable it is to consider the winding road that brought me here, and lies ahead.  The phrases which I used to open this blog will someday be only in history books, but others will take their place; new challenges, new discoveries, new life.  Wherever your path leads you next, carry your dreams with you today, friends, and make the memories, and save them – every day, every moment, counts. I will hopefully see you around the next corner.

“It is times like these when we face such as enemy as AIDS, we need to draw on some of our past positive philosophies, like it is always darkest before the dawn.  In getting our courage together, we might feel a need to go back, and think of possibly better times.  And sometimes, it makes us wonder ….”  

An art mystery, a heart’s history

Well, friends, it’s our first February of Covid – more than 11 months since our initial shutdown here in San Francisco. Of course, this is the month of Valentine’s candy and cards, so I wanted to share some discoveries about love echoing in faded words and forgotten names. But this is not your Hallmark card valentine – so it will take a while to get to the heart of our tale; over a century, in fact.  In “real time”, not “reading time”!  Come to think of it, it has taken me 20 years to write these words.

Aunt Monie was the crazy relative.  Of course, that’s probably what some of my family say about me – they have a point.  But Aunt Monie – technically my great aunt, being my paternal grandmothers younger sister – she did it with gusto.  The youngest of 3 surviving sisters, born in Nogales, Arizona in 1902, where her father worked with Santa Fe.  Not long after, the Grey family moved to Needles, California and her oldest sister Dora was one of the famous “Harvey Girls” there.   

Crazy Aunt Monie as I remember her, under her portrait

Monie was the only one of the 3 sisters that I have actual memories of – my grandmother Bela, the middle sister, passed when I was quite young, and there are fragments of moments, feelings really, that remain – probably inspired by the handful of photos.  But Monie lived into my young adulthood – showing up occasionally, sometimes without notice, and always full of life.  Perhaps a bit like “Auntie Mame” but only popping into my life every 5 years or so. 

She was a personal care nurse, and a single mother – having married 3 times – and from what everyone says, being very comfortable in intimate relationships (short term and long) well into her 70s.  At one point in her life, she operated a kind of roadhouse/bar in the Fortana/Rialto area of Southern California’s “Inland Empire” with an illegal “one armed bandit” slot machine in the back room.  And yes, she loved to drink! 

Monie and her second husband had a son – Bill – who I saw rarely.  I knew from comments my Dad and stepmother made that he was different- not realizing what that meant, as a teen in the 70’s – Bill was a homosexual (this was before “gay” was in common use, and the other words were far less polite).  I just knew that everything was a little different on those few occasions we visited – and, in time, both Monie and Bill moved to Hawaii, so I didn’t see them for several years. 

Bill Rennie as a child in California

Then, shortly after I graduated college and began my professional career, I was selected for an assignment in Hawaii.  I had actually never flown in a plane until I got out of college.  My assignment was on Maui, so I spent a few days ahead in Oahu – my only visit there, now nearly 40 years ago.  As it turned out, that remains my most vivid memory of our visits before her passing at age 93.  Monie drove me around, meeting a friend who was well known in the indigenous people community and famous for her ukulele singing, but her son Bill was not there – and I was a bit relieved.  By this time I knew he was “gay” – and so was I – but there was nothing I wanted to do with him, or that part of myself. 

Of course, as I have shared in other posts, life had a plan other than the one I sought to cling to – and in the process of exploring my family history, I learned Bill, “Cousin Bill” as my Dad called him, had actually moved to Palm Springs from Hawaii.  Anxious to quiz him about some of the family lore, I convinced my stepmother to drive out to see him – more than 30 years after my last encounter with him as a teen.  Over the 4-5 years since that visit, I learned a lot about him and my family – and in time, I became involved in his care. Sadly, my father, bitter from disappointing memories of encounters with his aunt and cousin over the years, refused my request to bring Bill to visit for Thanksgiving 2005. He pass in October 2006, preceded that year by my mother and stepmother, and followed the following year by my father.  It was a time of loss and learning, slowly, to journey through grief. 

As I dealt with Bill’s estate and personal effects, being greatly helped by his neighbors Jim and Niles who cared so lovingly for his needs in his last years, there were many possessions in his ramshackle mobile home and storage unit.  He had lived a flamboyant life, and was for many years a very sought after hairdresser, in California and Hawaii – even taking care of Betty Ford’s styling when she and the President would visit Honolulu.  One painting he had always told me had been a gift to his mother, Monie – an oil painting, of what he said was the old harbor there before the hotels starting getting tall.  In fact, supposedly this was the very site of the hotel made famous in the TV credits for “Hawaii Five O” where the camera zoomed in on Jack Lord weekly to that famous theme music. 

You can see the hotel, and the yacht club, in this famous TV opening.

Bill, and Monie before him, had a reputation with my Dad and family of … exaggerating, to be polite.  Dad called her Phony Aunt Monie! So it didn’t entirely surprise me when I looked into the history of that hotel – the Illikai – opened in 1964. Back then, it was the first “high rise” hotel in Honolulu –  Which wouldn’t really be relevant, except – he had said this was the boat harbor, before the skyline was altered by construction.  and as near as I can determine this would have been the Ala Wai yacht harbor, also the site of the Waikiki yacht club.  But ….. the mystery arises from inscription on the back of this painting.  

It’s faded, understandably – partly in English, partly in French.  On one side, the words are printed “The Yatch (sp) Club”, Honolulu, September 60 and the artists name – seemingly, Giordani.  The style of signature matches that on the lower left of the oil painting itself, but for years I had been unable to find any reference to an artist by that name.  On the left reverse of the frame, in French – “A ma tres cheri ami Mona, en hommage et sincere amitie j’ai de tout coeur”.   Now my junior high spanish was 50 years ago, but with slight uncertainties about the handwriting, that basically says – To my dear friend Mona, in homage to the singer friendship I carry in my heart”.   Signed, seemingly, as on the front – Giordany? Or … Giordani;  and dated May 19th, 1965, Honolulu Hawaii.   

Or is it September 66?  Hard to say, but by then, the artist would have to be painting from memory if in fact this was near the site of that famous Jack Lord hotel shot seen for many years.  The Yacht club still exists – but is not in proximity to the hotel – and so, it would seem, the story about this being the the “site” of that hotel before construction is, like perhaps many of Bill’s stories … exaggerated.  

Still it is, I think, a lovely painting – of a time gone by – and I had always been curious about the identity of the artist.  Not being a student of art personally, I cannot say that it is particularly remarkable, although certainly well beyond anything I could ever produce.  And having seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow where seemingly common items turn out to be worth untold amounts of riches, well, one has dreams.  But I could never be sure of the spelling of the name – not knowing if it was a first, last, or other kind of signature.  My google searches turned up nothing;  when I recently took it to get reframed, as it is, other than photos and letters, the last piece of the legacy of Monie and Bill that I have – I decided to try again to see if, somehow, this work of art was by a well known artist. 

But my initial 2021 web searches did not turn up any results that seemed to match any artist working in Hawaii in that era;  and there were many names with life spans that did not correlate.  That is, until I decided to search images and … eureka.  A photo of a painting by an Aldo Giordani, with the same unmistakeable signature and similar style.  Was he famous? Was I going to be rich?  How to find out more?  I realized my subscription to Newspapers.com might shed some light, having used it to find out some amazing, sometimes shocking, stories about family events – and, indeed, there were some articles that finally gave me some insight into the artist behind the painting. 

Aldo was born in 1914, from a family of generations of artists, including his father, Italo Giordani.  According to one article from the Austin Texas American Statesman in 1974, he studied at the Eclose des Beaux Arts in Paris, working in both oil and sculpture.  He traveled extensively, and according to that same article (pictured – screen shot) he was captured by French forces while serving in the Italian military in Algeria – and served 3 years in prison.  From there, somehow, he made his way to Polynesia; then to Hawaii;  from there, at some point after his dedication to Monie,  to Canada, Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  A 1972 Billings Montana article quotes him as saying, explaining that he never married – “I can’t deny I’m attracted by women.  But I look for something besides the physical, the sex. I look in a woman’s face, her eyes.  That tells much. Women are very emotional”.   Ah, Italians.  Apparently, he also loved to cook, and hosted parties and receptions with international cuisine from his many travels.   But after the several articles from all these locations, Aldo seems to have, like so many, trailed off in time.  I found a reference to him passing in 1980, and another to a lawsuit in Taos for unknown cause, as well as a notice to auction off an unpaid storage unit in Hawaii.  

1972 article about another Giordani artwork – I wonder if it still is on display?

So, like Monie, and to a degree Bill, Aldo was a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a showman, and perhaps a scoundrel – a colorful man with colorful art, who enjoyed life.  What their story was together, is lost.  You may well ask why I would put time into researching something so seemingly obscure and meaningless, but as I have written in the past – there is something about these moments in time, these artifacts of mostly forgotten lives, that speaks to something more timeless.  Love, intimacy, yearning;  hope, inspiration and the quiet corners of our hearts that we sometimes turn off the lights and shut the doors to, forgetting they existed.  Monie touched many lives with her caring for patients, Bill with his lovers, friends, and styling conquests, Aldo and his apparently profuse creations of art, now probably mostly gone.  I cannot hear the ocean when I see this painting, but I remember Monie and Bill, as do my brothers – and probably few, if any, others.  But I feel the colors, of the caked oil strokes, and of their energy, their laughter and their love.  

Bill was always gracious, loving – and mostly, outrageous. He was, himself.

Whether we all pass into something once we leave this earth, the reality is, most of us, our lives and our longings – will fade and be forgotten.  Walk through any old cemetery and reflect on the struggles and triumphs of all those lives, now for the ages, and the immediacy of our seemingly insurmountable crises will possibly feel a little less weighty.  I am glad I have this painting and hope one of my nieces or nephews will one day ask me about it, and when the time comes, hang in in their home.  Like many who will pass without children, I wonder what they will remember of me.  For you, dear readers – if any – think about, in this digital age when so many pictures and films, thoughts and hopes, songs and tears have no long term physical existence – what pieces of your life will survive your time on this earth?  And, answering that question – what can each of us do with the days ahead, whose number is unknown, whose opportunities to feel the sun and the ocean breeze, or the touch of a loved ones hand, will not always be ours to treasure anew, only to remember. 

Mahalo, Aldo Giordani; Aloha, Monie and Bill – until we meet again. I treasure your love, and am reminded the love we receive is mean not to hold within our hearts forever, but to give anew.

Thanks for visiting, friends. You all stay safe, and keep on keeping on.

Root removal and garden renewal

If you were to look at my facebook feed, or visit any of my homes over the years, starting with my childhood in Southern California reaching now to the chillier climes of the San Francisco bay – you would discover that I always worked to transform whatever spot of soil I tended into something a little more green, a bit more colorful. To create a little spot of refuge that would bring joy, peace, and a sense that here, nature is welcome, and appreciated. I find being in a quiet garden a spiritual experience; digging my fingers into the soil, planting something alive and nurturing it hopefully into bloom, giving the birds and bees a place to feel welcome; it gently reminds me I am a part of something larger, and yet I can still accept that, like all things, my creation is only temporary.

In our SF home – where I have lived a little more than 3 years, but my husband has been for more than a quarter century – over the years, occasionally some trees have become too large, and they were removed.  When I first moved here, the small strip of soil immediately adjacent to the front of the house had 4 large olive trees so overgrown I did not even know there was cement under them;  climbing a ladder to try to trim them from reaching to block out the front windows on the main floor was a joint effort.   Eventually, we decided to have them removed – but, as was the practice in earlier such attempts, the gardener engaged simply cut them back, and cut them down to the ground, where the stumps remained.

In another small spot, immediately by the first few of 30 steps leading from the street to our front porch, a much older stump protrudes from the small rectangle where my efforts to get other plants to prosper have been futile.  In fact, my planting of climbing roses where the olive trees had been failed so miserably I had to remove them, as well – they, of course, left no residue behind.  Soon, I will begin to search for a resource here who will, hopefully at a somewhat reasonable price for this expensive city, come and grind the stumps down, at least far enough to free up some space for new growth. While those roots, lifeless as they may be, remain – new growth will still struggle to make it their own.

I remember as a child of perhaps 6 going with my older brother to the city park in our little town of Corona, California more than 55 years ago, and picking up an acorn from the great oak trees there – I am sure, now, it looks very different but hope some of those trees still stand.  I planted it in our little back yard of that simple 60’s tract home … and it grew, slowly, at first just a little few branches.  I grew, also … into high school, and college, and my first job, moving away. In that 20 years and more, the seedling became a mighty tree, so large it created problems with power lines and neighbors, and had to be removed.  In the years after my mother aged, and became unable to be at home alone, I returned; as she spent her final years in a nursing home, I began the process of renewing  that home, where she, as a disabled parent, raised us with limited income and was unable to keep things in repair.  It gave me a sense of wholeness to create a garden, and to bring new life and comfort to the house itself, so that someone who would follow would be happy to call it their own.

The oak sleeps in the acorn, the bird waits in the egg, and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities … James Allen

Regretfully, roots take a great deal of effort to truly remove – particularly if they are dead, and run deep.  Sometimes, as with our olive trees, shoots emerge from the roots, life struggling to survive, the cells programmed to reproduce and reach for the sun. Cutting off that which was seen resolved the visual issue … but left stumps and roots that I cannot, on my own, remove.   As I have spent time the past few weeks of the new year, trying to use a saw to cut through that deadwood, trying to dig somehow into roots that run at least 15 feet below where the plant emerged from the surface, down below the stone foundation of our home that withstood the 1906 earthquake – I am defeated.  But nothing new can truly thrive there – the opportunity for beauty to bloom anew cannot be fulfilled while those stumps, those roots, dead as they be, take up the limited space that new life needs to come forth.

The same is, of course, true of our hearts.  My heart.  There are still deep roots, as I am reminded constantly by my struggle to channel my emotions positively, to heal the deeper gashes in my soul from the trees that no one can see but which were planted in my spirit from the earliest years of life.   We all have gardens in our hearts; I have always loved the symbolism of “The Secret Garden” children’s story, but also – Oscar Wilde’s “The selfish giant”.  In the first story, a young orphan taken in by a distant relative discovers a walled garden shut off for years, where, by entering and letting in light, love grows within that new family to replace the pain that they had tried to shut out behind locked gates and overgrown shrubs.  In “The selfish giant”,  the title figure returned from visiting his ogre friend to find the local children had been playing in his garden; he angrily shuts it off, walling it away from the.  One day, he finds a young boy visiting there, and his heart begins to open, until … the events of the story are best left for you to discover, it is freely available online.

In my postings of 2020, my first year of writing here, I shared about some of the events of my life, very personal events, writing even of things I had not told to many of my closest friends and family.  I titled the blog “my journey towards authenticity” – because that journey is really only begun.  Discovering who we are – especially when, for whatever reason, we have been somehow denied that opportunity, afraid to accept ourselves, and traded the seeming approval of others for embracing what cries out in our own spirits – it is a process that takes a lifetime, much like a great oak takes decades to grow from that tiny acorn I held in my hand as a child.  My shortcomings and foibles constantly remind me there are roots running deep in me still that I have not yet removed – or time, perhaps, has not yet wrought its power to dissolve sufficiently to erase their presence.  I recognize they may always be with me – but in acknowledging they linger, present but unseen, I can at least embrace honesty.  As Pinocchio repeatedly proved, one cannot become real without honesty.

In the past two weeks, I have been graced with the opportunity to join an online book discussion with strangers.  They are all men;  they are all people who, for whatever reason, learned in the course of their lives that, like me, they were different – they had feelings others did not share, and in many cases that they were taught to deny, or fight, or erase.  And, like me perhaps, some erased their own ability to grow, to become the great trees they were born to be in spirit – denying those around them the shade of their caring in times of heat, or the song of birds nesting in the branches above.

Perhaps, like these roots in our garden I cannot dig out without help, we each need help from others to uncover those deeply buried residues in our hearts – they block the ground of our spirit from new life, and perhaps even sprout up in new ways, refusing to be buried forever.  Today, I shared with the group, as we discussed how the factors in our own, unique histories and lives and backgrounds had common threads, that I was learning – slowly, painfully, and unfortunately often at cost to those in my life who loved me, some now gone – only by coming to continue to grow into accepting myself as I am, like you – flawed, imperfect, selfish at times, discouraged and afraid at others – only by believing that others can in fact love us, as we are NOW, can we begin to be the channel for a greater love through us to those around us.   

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

So, another year has begun, and the first month nearly over – change is happening around us. Soon, here in the northern hemisphere, it will be spring … new life will start to emerge from the seeds. Daily, we plant seeds in our hearts, from what we read, what we hear from others, what we listen for in the quiet of the night when the wind and darkness wakes us and the distractions that keep us occupied during the day are not as present in our consciousness. And daily, over the years, we reap the fruit of what we planted before. I am working on my own root removal, in both my gardens. Whatever season it may be – a time to sow, and a time to reap – we can stroll in the garden of our hearts, ask what we see there, and begin to dig, and plant anew.

Your comments and sharing are welcome … hope to see you again, friend.