Summer Rain

Shasta daisy start

Shasta daisy start

It started falling last night – rain – more rain – moistening parched places everywhere. It is still coming down, those familiar tings against the roof, the skylight, that have disrupted a few morning plans tied to the sun. The rain is a welcome excuse to read or write or do nothing but listen.

Plans change.

Recently, I was driving up I-5 in Southern California under the usual long-term-drive bubble. Everything was as it should be—a few vehicles in front of me, a few behind. The morning air in the dry and golden valley was promising another sweltering day, though I sat cool and comfortable in my air-conditioned vehicle. Then 70-mph time swung into slow motion surrealism as the semi ahead of me began to derail, snaking into the left lane, ultimately pushing a car off the road while the cars behind it shifted from side to side. I was sure the truck was going to follow along the same trajectory, ending up in the divider zone. The next thing I knew – in slow motion – the long vehicle tipped and landed on its side in the middle of the freeway. I found out later it blocked traffic for over an hour, though I never managed to uncover any mention of injuries or death.

The Buddhist idea that “everything changes except change itself” (also attributed to Heraclitus and John F. Kennedy) has certainly been rebranded to capture the modern imagination. People are constantly coming up with ways to express it in writing these days. And I have sat through a number of earnest conversations that swerved into this sentiment, only to find myself batting about its various nuances.

It feels satisfying to talk about this stuff—in theory. We can all nod along, “Yeah, I know that one.” And we sit there figuring this brilliant conclusion should make life’s surprises just a little bit easier. Yet there still comes a time when we have to ride inside a car that is shifting from side to side, only to wonder if it is going to hit an overturned semi. And no matter what happens, we have to go on from there.

I was lucky. I was able to pull over to the shoulder, hit my flashers, and safely dial 911, even as a line of cars began to file in front of me and around the wreck. Meanwhile, a number of men climbed onto the side of the truck to check on the driver. I told the dispatcher what I had seen, and she eventually released me with an assurance help was on the way. Once I ascertained there was nothing more for me to do, I got into the line of cars crawling along the shoulder and continued traveling.

As I drove, I was surprised to note how calm I felt. A few hours later, though, I experienced a round of nerves that called for a lunch stop. In the end, I was able to make it to my family gathering on time.

The rain is still coming down. It is bringing back my newly planted Shasta daisy. Last week the lone plant endured a two-day drive up highway 101. Before I left, my brother and I took my mother over to the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa, so that she could buy the start. Apparently, Luther Burbank – the world-renowned horticulturist – spent 17 years developing what to his mind was the ideal daisy. This variety “would have very large pure-white flowers, a long blooming period, and do well as both a cut flower and garden plant.”1. He worked with four different daisies before he finally introduced his own beauty in 1901. Burbank named the flower after Mount Shasta.

My mother wanted me to plant my daisy start in Oregon, because she thought it would thrive up here. What she likes about Shasta daisies is the fact that a single daisy can quickly propagate into a whole bucketful in a short amount of time. They don’t need much attention, especially in places where it rains regularly.

When I first arrived, I was afraid I was going to have to dash her hopes for a satisfying daisy herd. The already scraggly plant – sans bloom – quickly and dramatically wilted in the new climate that was shifting between glaring sunshine and cool nights. It looked almost dead. I rushed to baby it, wondering if I should even bother getting to the garden store. I grabbed the watering can and gave it a soak. I took it off the deck and placed it on the lawn, away from anything that reflected light. I was worried the lawnmower guy would drive over it before I could buy a shiny blue pot and a bit of earth.

Now the start is looking perky in the summer rain. A lone bloom appears to be on the way.

  1. Shasta Daisy. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, 2013. Web. 24 Jul. 2014.

Living in Two Places

I once overheard one of my colleagues talking about the pros and cons of working in academia. She pretty much implied that while she knew she would always bring home “the medium bucks,” her teaching job was a deeply satisfying labor of love. Of course, good college positions often come with regular academic breaks—an altogether different sort of compensation.

For me this arrangement has meant living in two places. While I occasionally feel too divided between two lives, I enjoy the sense of renewal that comes from returning to a beloved refuge every six months or so.

When the semester ends, I’m eager to head out of San Diego County and drive to the Oregon Coast so that I can pick up where I left off with my small space and my extended family. I do occasionally wonder about how much more traveling I might have done if I didn’t live in two areas—yet I’ve found it sustaining to invest most of my free time in one vacation location.                                                                                 IMG_1247

I have owned my cabin here longer than any other home—and longer than any other life I’ve lived in any other place. As the seasons have passed, so have the tales. I’ve watched mudslides close roads, serious logs pile up on the beach (only to be carried away again), a lighthouse covered over for repairs, and a family of tenacious eagles dive for fish at the mouth of the river. Yes, regular storms invariably work with nature’s muse to deliver plenty of stories for the telling when there’s nothing better to do. I did happen to be holed up here the weekend the bow of the New Carissa made its visit to Waldport (Seattle was my other home then).

When I do finally roll in, turn on the water and electricity, and open the windows, previous years press through my screens. Some things we still talk about have vanished—homes, stores, and restaurants. People have left. People have died. New people have moved in. We don’t have a gas station this summer (we used to have two). And technology sets down its wires slowly. Some people want it, but not as much as folks in the city—and not as often. There’s enough technology.

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There’s also time to pick a bucket of blueberries at the u-pick place. For the ambitious baker, other berries abound: marionberries and raspberries. There’s time to buy a whole tuna right off the dock. People like to get together and talk. Whales hover near the shore during the summer. Rumor has it this pod never makes it all the way to Alaska. They’re happy to stop right here and feed till it is time to head south. I feel a kinship with this pod.

It can be challenging to maintain a dwelling from a distance, particularly during the winter. Winds once blew one of my trees into a neighbor’s yard, my pipes broke during a deep freeze, someone insisted there was a bear on my property, and another called to fret over my roof repair job, which she felt was in danger of being blown clear off. But then, my neighbors here have gotten to me faster than any of my urban neighbors ever have. I’ve never felt better looked after by my neighbors.

I suppose I’ve been developing two voices in recent years. One is influenced by gales, whales, water, gales, green growing greener, IMG_1232more water, purple foxglove, Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, salal, salmonberries, salmon, and a moon that peeks over the hill to watch the sun sink into the horizon. The other is born of dryness, lizards, whales (the same ones), cactus, ocotillo, yucca, palm trees, snakes, coyotes, and fire. Pasts seated in both Washington and Northern California occasionally surface. I’ve got a whole coastline to ponder (perhaps a few mountain ranges, too), which is more than I really wanted—but life has moved me where it wanted. So this is what I have to write about.

Modern Recipes

American meals have changed. Every once in awhile, someone will invite me over for dinner and proceed to serve a feast my grandmother might have prepared, my mother even. For the record, my mother’s meals have changed, too. But when I was young, her cooking came closer to that of my grandmother.

I’m grateful some of my friends still like to cook in the old style—roasts, meatloaf, stew, turkey or ham on special occasions. They generally include all the trimmings – rolls, potatoes, some kind of vegetable, butter, gravy, cream. While this sort of meal wasn’t always a treat when I was a child, it can come off as pure comfort these days, this food that accompanies a trip down memory lane.

I do watch what I eat. I try to keep it balanced. I’m not a vegetarian, though I don’t eat that much meat. I consume a lot of salads, soups, kefir, yogurt, eggs, grains, vegetables that aren’t overcooked—simple fare. I choose organic when I can. Of course, I have my guilty pleasures—food that is generally eaten out. This cuisine tends to come from different countries, but I will wolf down the occasional burger.

I have noticed how modern hosts tend to roll out low fat – downright nutritious – creations whenever they entertain. I generally don’t find reason to complain. I’m probably healthier than I used to be. I don’t crave as much chocolate and cheese, though I do drink too much coffee.

The challenge of getting older is watching old worlds dissolve—and finding reasons to embrace the new. I like the new cuisines (I like Whole Foods, Sprouts, Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market, and Oceana Natural Foods).

A lot of other things I enjoy have been falling by the wayside. Bookstores, for example. Record stores. I miss the quieter moments on television and film. I miss innovative screenplays that weren’t about loud and flash and crash and cool, but good dialog, off the charts acting, and important issues. I miss the fact that more people used to read the same books at the same time and discuss them at work or at school. I miss handwritten letters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not clinging to the past. I regularly check my smart phone (speaking of which, I miss phone calls, too). I zip around the Internet, share cat videos, post the occasional photo. I try to make myself read longer articles on the web—I try to notice when I’m just skimming. I use my Kindle app, especially when I’m out and about and have not remembered to lug a heavy book along. I know the world will continue moving. I know it won’t cater to my old-fashioned tastes. I plan to continue to riding new waves—if I can.

Yes, I’m trying to keep up with technology in order to achieve any leftover goals I might have, most of which involve writing. And I must admit the submission process is a lot less time-consuming. I’m not wasting as much paper. I generally hear back from editors and agents faster. Interestingly enough, my blog stats indicate I’ve had people from 41 different countries check out at least one piece I’ve written in the last two years. That’s a reality that was unimaginable when I bought my first copy of Writer’s Market.

Even so, I will probably eventually find a place on the tech timeline—and freeze there for good. I’ll refrain from updating my computer. I won’t sign up for any more “services.” Maybe I’ll even go back to writing by hand and leave a pile cryptic work for people to decipher after I am dead. I’ll calcify into a human cache of sorts—a representation of a scene that no longer exists, even as it suits me just fine.

Stepping Out – A Balance Sheet

Two years ago I celebrated the release of my first book of poetry, Voice Break, on my fiftieth birthday. It was self-published, which made it seem like less of a milestone than landing a book contract—yet it felt like a milestone, nonetheless. I had been opening rejection letters on two novel manuscripts (some with encouraging comments) for close to twenty years. I’d even had an agent for a time.

Like many writers, I’d turned up my nose at self-publishing. The word wannabe can’t help but tag behind. Yet I decided to take this step after one of my advisers in Pacific University’s MFA program read my manuscript. In essence, he told me to come up with a musical cover and publish it. I’m pretty sure he was envisioning a chapbook, but I decided to take advantage of the growing frenzy over CreateSpace to see if I liked the way the process worked. I figured I didn’t have much to lose. The manuscript was quirky, and I sensed it wouldn’t sit well with a traditional publisher. It was probably too short to boot.

In the end, I found the process unexpectedly gratifying. I loved having editorial control! I loved choosing the cover and other design elements. And I loved the absence of deadlines—it wasn’t finished until I thought it was finished.

Once the book was released, I put on my PR hat and managed to capture a little attention in the news. I ended up selling copies to friends and a few generous strangers, but I must admit, my sales never proved to be brisk.

Meanwhile, I began to face a second manuscript, The Ballad of the New Carissa and Other Poems. As there aren’t a lot of ballads being written these days, I figured it would also be hard to place. So I repeated the process with CreateSpace and pretty much ended up with the same results. As an aside, both books were covered by media outlets in Eugene and Newport, Oregon. I was happy with that.

Problem is, poetry doesn’t sell. About the time I was waiting to learn how my own sales would go, I encountered an article in Publishers Weekly, entitled “Measuring the National Book Award Sales Effect”, which focuses on how many additional copies an award winner could expect to unload. I was surprised to learn the winner in the poetry category, David Ferry, had sold roughly 2000 copies of his book Bewilderment. While Ferry’s numbers had actually tripled due to his badge of honor, this number was sobering indeed.

Even so, I don’t regret stepping out. Poets have always found creative ways to make their work available. Or they have enlisted tiny presses to do it for them.

I can recall weeding books during the nineties in the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library, where I worked as a librarian, only to stumble upon an early effort by Sherman Alexie (I can no longer remember which one it was). It caught my eye, because Reservation Blues had just made him a star. I think I stood there imagining his early days as a writer, the loving attention he put into the book I held in my hands—one I probably wouldn’t have noticed if Reservation Blues hadn’t come along.

My two books are now housed in a couple of libraries. And due to print-on-demand technology, they are still available for sale through online vendors, should anyone else ever decide to take an interest in them. To my mind, this benefit of the print-on-demand process is probably the best reason to go the self-publishing route. A book can conceivably take all the time in the world to make its way into the consciousness of readers (instead of being remaindered and forgotten). The downside, of course, is that self-published books tend to be ignored by sponsors of literary contests, not to mention librarians and reviewers. I’m still wondering if anyone ever solved the riddle presented in Voice Break, a riddle that also serves as a turn of sorts. In any event, I’ve gone on to test the traditional route. I’ve already enjoyed some success with placing individual poems in literary journals. Perhaps this will ultimately lead to a third manuscript worthy of a good old-fashioned publisher.

Poetry may not sell, but it certainly isn’t dead. Last week I attended a Meet the Poets gathering in the Mission Hills branch of the San Diego Public Library. I was there to share one of my poems, which had recently been published in The San Diego Poetry Annual. The room was packed. Our moderator, Curran Jeffery, quickly ascertained for the record that most of the people in the audience were not poets or writers, but had attended solely to listen to the twenty or so of us preparing to read.