Wednesday, November 30, 2011

excerpt for a New Book, Gift-Giving


When it comes to shopping for gifts, I am the worst. I get frustrated, and anxious – and indecisive. Usually, I ask my daughter to shop for me. (Actually, I enjoy giving gifts, but I am compulsive about giving the “right” gift – which always seems unlikely.)
My stories and poems are meant to be gifts, but I must admit that they are not received with the enthusiasm that is my hope. (At age seven, I gave a clutch of dandelions to my teacher. I thought of these little flowers as the perfect gift – bright, soft, symmetrical. My teacher's initial response was encouraging, but when she was presented with a bouquet of roses by another student, she forgot about my little bouquet. I watched the flowers grow limp, bowing their heads over the edge of the book where they were left, a reflection of my disappointment.) Often, when outcome does not match my expectations, I remember fading dandelions and the feeling that my expectations will rarely match outcome - but that has to be all right (since that's the way it is).
I have received gifts that are perfect. I have a leather briefcase that my father gave me when I was a teen. I still use it; it is was what I expected, and I felt his pride in me. Once, I received a tiny African terracotta Jesus from a friend. It has significance. In my shadow box, I have a toy soldier that I found while digging in my garden in Oakland. This WWI soldier is made of lead and belonged to a young man who died at age 19 in WWII. His sisters to whom I presented it, gave it back to me - as a gift. I treasure a baby doll that was given to me at eighth grade graduation by an anonymous donor with a note: Dear Mrs. Hoffmann, This is your promise doll: someday you will be a grandmother! And then there are others: My mother gave me the nine symphonies of Beethoven after my third baby died. My sister, Grace, beaded me a beautiful bracelet, a testimony to her thoughts and blessings, and Stu gave me a hairbrush with a note that read: “The first gift in a lifetime of gifts. I love your hair!” (My hair was very long and wavy then.)
I will never forget the Christmas when my parents were able to gift seven children with several presents each. I do not remember the gifts; I remember a huge pile of packages wrapped in red and green tissue paper, flowing from under the tree into the living room. The real gift was that of abundance.
Recently, I gave a ukelele to my three year old grandson; it was one of the best gifts I ever gave anyone. I was excited to buy it, excited to present it to him. I was joyful as I left the store and walked back to my car. I kept repeating, “I am happy. I am happy right now!” It was the same joy I experienced frequently before Stu passed away - when I climbed mountains, when I was successful.
(I am a teacher, after all.) I show and share what is beautiful in nature, and maybe, just maybe, the gift is received. “No, Grandma, I have decided that it was not a fox that bit that apple, 'puz' of the teeths (ibid teeth marks). It was a raccoon.” For me, words are the most perfect gifts, and the best words have been from the children I have taught as well as from the best friend with “the elegant heart.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

another excerpt for new book


I know someone who can lie down in the middle of a party and sleep. Incredible. I, on the other hand, will wake up completely if I attempt to sleep in the middle of the day. The exceptions are my five minute naps alongside a trail, probably because I prefer open, cool, airy, clean places to sleep – and deep fatigue. I will say that I think naps are one of life's great pleasures, and I have been denied them for the most part, though I have had naps enough to know what I am missing. (I do not count the nap assignments I had as a child which were profoundly boring – unless I actually went to sleep, but then I woke in a wicked mood, feeling horrible.)
I have had a few wonderful naps, and what I appreciated most was being conscious that I was having a nap, that I was completely comfortable. Once, I fell asleep, crouching at the edge of a lake on Taboose Pass while filtering water. This sudden sleep must have lasted seconds, but when I fell back into the silky grass at the water's edge, I reflected on that comfort, that perfect comfort, and that deep, deep blue.
I think that the best nap I ever had was on a trail in Yosemite. Even though I dreamed – in color – I was aware of the fact that I was asleep, and that I was leaning against a tree, by a trail, in Yosemite, and that I was 18, and strong, and smart, and attractive, and happy with myself . . . Ironically, muttering the words, “I am so tired,” woke me.
Occasionally, meditation has served in place of a nap. Not too long ago, that happened . . .
on one late afternoon when I escaped from mosquitos by taking refuge in my tent after a long hike at altitude. At first, I just enjoyed the fact that I had escaped the pesky mosquitos, that I was not being bitten, and then I began to enjoy the scenery that I had missed while defending myself from these voracious insects; the granitic character of domes and spires. Eventually, I just watched my comrades as they moved about the camp doing chores, cooking, and swatting and swatting and swatting with a singular patience that comes with being resigned. It was rather hypnotic. I felt restful and not bothered. I considered doing something: reading, writing, looking at the map, listening to my i-pod. I decided to do nothing for a change, think about nothing in particular except my breathing. As a result, I was carried away (as they say) into a place of conscious rest, a meditative state, best ever.
Sleeping at night has always been easy for me, but I had to learn to rest. I have, and it was Stu who taught me (yet another gift) - when we were on our way for a hike in the region of the Mokolomne River. There was a change of plans; Stu wanted to stop for a little “shut-eye.” We stopped at a picnic area by the river, and found a lounging place on a picnic table. There, we both lay down. Stu slept briefly, and I received on my reclined person, fall leaves that gently landed on and around me. I did not remove them. “What's that about?” Stu asked.
“I am the resting place.”
He said, “Not a bad place to be.”           

Saturday, November 12, 2011

for new book: Berries


Firethorn (Pyracantha) grow in my mother's front garden. These very old shrubs bear dense garlands of red berries, cascades of fire orange and red in the winter. It is an event when the Cedar Waxwings: the little birds with cap, black mask, and yellow belly, come in flocks to feed, to literally devour the berries.
In the fall in my woods, there are a few berries: red bunches at the tips of the Honeysuckle vines, some red on the Toyon, and the celebrated berries on the Madrone – each resembling a spherical strawberry, fire-red. The tree I notice is below me so that the crown of the tree is visible. It looks like a huge red and green bouquet. The berries of the manzanita are dry and brown in fall (but they make delicious tea). They are inconspicuous, unlike their spring blossoms that smell like honey.
In summer, we all experience the indomitable blackberry. Delicious as they may be, they are invasive. They were introduced centuries ago, and they have naturalized to the west coast – and beyond. But who is complaining about a plant that provides food and cover for wildlife, and a taste treat that is at once sweet, sour, bitter, and earthy like the plot in which it grows . . . though they are somewhat treacherous to pick, thorned as they are and growing in company with poison oak and stinging nettle.
I have a hate-love affair with blackberries; they attack when I try to control them on my land, and they harbor the berries in thorns - but a just-ripe berry is heaven. Besides that, in summer, they have a scent that makes the air smell wild; it is leafy, woody, sweet – it makes me happy – that scent – because it is the scent of summer, of summer energy.
As an adult, I go berry picking. As a child, I went cherry picking – in an orchard. What a bonanza: all the cherries one could eat while sitting in a tree like a bird with a view of endless cherries in endless trees.
Cherries have always had a special significance for my family. In season, guests in-the-know bring cherries, and they always announce the cherries instead of themselves: “I brought cherries!”
Long ago, and far away, I went blueberry picking in a national forest in the Catskill mountains. We were run off by a wicked guy with a shotgun who insisted that we were picking his berries. In Alaska, I was not game for competing for blueberries with grizzlies.
Strawberries: I grew five rows of them once, but wondered why the ripening ones disappeared. I blamed the disappearance on raccoons until I went out one early morning and discovered my three year old daughter helping herself to strawberries. Picture this: a night gowned, barefooted three year old, an Oakland foggy dawn, boldness, secretiveness, and love of strawberries. I dream of an infinite field of strawberries, rows and rows and rows, vanishing into distant mountains. There are such places.   

Sunday, November 6, 2011

for new book, Rainwalking


Not many people purposely walk in the rain, but there are some – like me. Just like the Eskimos have many words for snow, I have strings of words for rain:
Summer rain, First rain, Windy rain,
in desert rain
I have recently walked in misty rain, ethereal rain, rain drifting through the trees and softening the light. I feel safe then, in contrast to how I feel when I walk through a storm, when the blinding light and crack of thunder make me need to take cover, to be unobtrusive, small, humble – while still being energized, exhilarated, acutely (almost painfully) aware – though I am thinking, how will I dry my sopping shoes?
I raise my face so that I might catch the first sleet-turning-to-snow. The flakes feel warm on my lips. I think that the summer before, I danced in the desert rain ; I streamed water like the granite faces, and I shed drops like the desert pines. I bowed to the white peak, to the place of distant thunder. I danced to the light, was awed by the rainbow, was spellbound by the colors of green: iridescent, dark, quick silver, tender. I breathe green.
I have walked in snow-falling, becoming part of the stillness, part of the cold, part of the hiss and tick of the flakes as they strike the few leaves hanging doggedly to the tender twigs of the previous spring. I have walked in the blue snow, shimmery under a peek-a-boo moon in the clouds, color of daguerreotype.
Then, there is one mountain night when I went out into the bitter cold . . . staying out long enough to see the rising moon create cloud shadows. . . Though my winter clothes feel seer in the cold, I wander farther and farther from the lodging into a moonlit clearing, all cold light. I see an apparition: a skier materializing on the edge of the clearing, coming toward me, double poling, rhythmic and graceful. He belongs here under the moon, I think - as I wish I did, but I am too cold to surrender to moonlight and falling snow.