Monday, April 13, 2015

Mustard Field Memories

Yellow mustard flowers surround me. I am hidden. I am free. My friend Aimee and I have come to our favorite orchard about a half mile from my house in San Jose. We bring cardboard and blankets. We walk into the middle of the blooming mustard fields in April and pick a spot for our house that day. We start laying down the cardboard to push down the mustard plants and keep picking up the cardboard and laying it down again, as we create hallways, and then bedrooms and then a place where we can lay on blankets and have lunch and lay still and disappear from the world. The bright yellow flowered mustard plants, by April were at least four feet tall, so when we crawled around, no one from the nearby busy road could see us. Also, pesky little brothers and sisters could not find us and best of all, parents could not yell at us and make us do household chores. We were hidden and we were free. 
Aimee sometimes brought a transistor radio to our hidden spot and we would listen to the top tunes of the 70’s. “Blinded by the Light” and “Turn to Stone” by ELO were some of our favorites. We would lay on our blankets and stare up at the cloud formations and tell each other what we saw in the clouds.  We would play in the mustard field for hours. Sneaking apricots out of the trees, watching the bug world like traffic controllers, within the green stalks all around. The smell of the flowers was not especially pleasant, like a rose or a plumeria, per se, but it is an aroma that wafted on the warm spring air all over Santa Clara County in the spring. In the 70’s, when fruit orchards were plentiful and the mustard grew from February until the farmers would hack it down in May, April was a time the mustard would be in full bloom and height and we would bask in the sun, hidden in a yellow and green carpet and each other’s friendship, surrounded by the tiny golden flowers.

I was in junior high school, while Aimee was still in the local elementary school when we would have our last spring in the flowers together after five years of creating rooms of flowers and play spaces of grass. I remember one day, when we both were in need of time away from our rather dysfunctional families, before the farmers cut away the plants, that we brought our radio to our space and had a dance party on our knees. We played Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and made up a choregraphed routine to it. This was during the same time I was trying desperately to make the cheerleading squad for the summer before my 8th grade year and was trying to find some grace and style somewhere. 

So, there we were in the mustard singing, “I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun” and we were laughing so hard coming up with the dance moves for “I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will.”

I don’t think we really knew that when we walked out of that mustard field in May of 1978, that we would never build our private spaces there again. They cut down all but a few of the trees and paved over the entire area and put up a Der Weinerschnitzel and a strip mall. I DO remember years later, as we were in high school, we went to another nearby orchard, slated for a new highway, to sit in the mustard and realize that life was changing all around us. For ourselves too, as now I was headed to college in the fall and Aimee would still be in high school for a few more years. We knew our friendship would stay strong, but it would change with the distance, as I was moving into the dorms and also with new friends and experiences in front of me. I would like to think that we stared at the clouds one more time together and came up with funny images that were not really there, but ones that would make us laugh together.

Over the next twenty years I spent in the Bay Area, the orchards and mustard fields disappeared. By the time my daughter Caylin was six, there was only one orchard left in my area that bloomed with mustard each spring and it was really just part of a housing development that kept a few walnut and cherry trees to remember the farming history of the valley. 

I parked out in front of the development one day with Caylin on our way home from her kindergarten and I took her into the mustard and had her squat down and see that we were hidden. She said, “Mom, this is nice, but I am getting my shoes muddy, and its hot and there are bugs everywhere”. I realized how lucky I was to have found my friend Aimee who walked barefoot with me in the moist soil and did not mind the occasional bees and bugs that would tend to their business nearby. Caylin gave it all of five minutes. I took her picture and told her the story of mustard in my childhood, hoping to share my love of nature and finding bliss and entertainment under the shade of a fruit tree in the warm spring sun of Silicon Valley.

I wish I had taken my younger son to explore the field when he was growing up, but by then the “too busy days of parenting” and the dark days of the recession had set in. I lost my memory of the peace that I found there, lying in the sun with the tinny sound of the radio playing and the stalks of flowers above me. I had lost contact with Aimee, too and we were living different lives, mine as a parent and a wife, she with a high tech job and mustard fields seemed very far away. 

Perhaps, one of these days, I will go back and see if there is any open land left in the Silicon Valley and make it point to go in late spring to once again lie in the mustard, under that gorgeous clear blue sky and remember the days of private spaces, Elton John and Aimee. 

(It's Aimee's birthday today, so I am sending this to her through Facebook (our virtual mustard field) to remind her of long ago days and very happy memories.) 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Falling Backwards-Finding Bliss

Dear Mom:
You plunged backwards into Kahaluu Bay and the sound that escaped your lips was a mix of joy, excitement, relief and memory. I was so happy that day you visited us in Kona many years ago. Who knew it would be the last time you would ever experience the joy of getting into the ocean again. You chose to live next to the crashing waves of the Oregon Coast, but you could never enter the water, but here in Hawaii, you had that one chance and you bought a new bathing suit to take it. I remember when I was a child and you would enter our swimming pool the same way. And even then, I never saw you dive down and get your perfect coif wet. I thought for years that older women just did not submerge themselves in bodies of water. Here again, you swam with your head above water and my kids laughed on the sand waiting for you to dive down to see the yellow tang. But, just being in the cool ocean water was enough for you. That day was amazing, as you had a chance to experience the beach I taught my children to learn to snorkel . You stood up after a few minutes and announced you were done. DONE! We were shocked that you had flown 2500 miles to visit us and your one ocean swimming opportunity, you took in 10 minutes and said it was enough.

Years later, as I was swimming under a rock cliff face, sucking up the pure blue joy of being in the ocean, I realized after about ten minutes, I got what I needed. Perhaps, you just needed a few minutes to connect with the energy of the ocean, have your pores filled with sea salt and have those moments of weightlessness the Hawaiian waters provide. I just remember your sheer happiness. That smile.

Mom, as I miss you today, I have that memory and I sometimes enter the ocean backwards and just allow myself to fall in and I think of you. And in that moment, I experience what you did and as the years go by, memories of happy moments at beaches, with palm trees, and beaming children nearby come to me in those moments as I am engulfed in the chill of the water.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

No Apologies-No Ghosts

I will no longer apologize for myself. I just won’t. Apologizing for myself has always been a sick way of saying, “I’m going to knock myself down first so you can’t do it before I do.” A pathetic game of tag to the bottom of my self esteem. I remember when I used to apologize  for myself, by starting off with something like, “I know you are not going to think this -insert noun- is that good, but..” Or, “I tried really hard to get this right, but..”

The pivotal point of leaping off the apology wagon came when I met my editor and writers workshop friend, Beth. I was late coming into my first writers workshop, which would really turn out to be therapy sessions for me over the course of the next year, and all the writers already had their heads bowed and were scribbling furiously in their journals. Beth had given me a few prompts to write off my first journal peice on a phone call I got on the way in. So, I apologized to everyone for being late, which was waved off with a “Yeah..whatever, sit down and write”. I wrote and wrote and finally it was time to read the stories. Everyone had written from a different prompt. I wanted to walk out of there. I was terrified to read my story because it was “wrong”. When my time came, I started with a fast paced, breathless account of how I was late and had gotten the wrong prompt and I was sorry..and then Beth uttered a few life changing words. “Don’t apologize for yourself. Just read.” I shut up and read my story, and it was good and no one beat me with a stick.

After that, Beth told EVERYONE never to apologize for themselves. It made people lose the focus and the expectant energy for the story ahead. Isn’t that alot like life?
Beth’s “Don’t apologize” mentorship came back to play when I was writing my first book, “How to Move to Kona’. A group of local residents had told me not to write the book since they felt we did not need any more people moving onto the island. I told Beth. She said, “Fuck them. It’s your book, write it.” Then I turned in my first manuscript and Beth called me and said, “You have to get rid of Chapter 10. You spend the entire chapter apologizing for writing this book. Do you think if a man wrote this book that he would apologize for writing it? Fuck no. Then don’t do it.” Beth is the strongest woman I know. I was shocked at how easy it was for her to tell it like it is. I was worried, but I loved her moxie of telling me a MAN would never apologize. So, I didn’t and I learned a new personal culture of not apologizing for myself. It made me stand up a little straighter, hold my shoulders back and sit in a place of confidence.

I started seeing what would happen when women around me would apologize for their work, their kids, their lives. I could almost visibly see the hunched shoulders, the weaker voice, the downcast eyes. I realized I had been doing that for years. My step father would roar from six feet two inches in the air down upon us four foot kids and we would slump our shoulders, cast down our gazes and apologize for whatever he wanted us to apologize for. We apologized for not cleaning the house well enough, eating his junk food out of his special cabinent, not eating our lima beans or enchiladas fast enough. We would apologize for asking for help with homework, and cookies for class bake sales. Hell, I even remember apologizing for getting my finger broken before my parents went out to dinner with friends. We just stopped asking for anything really and we would get out of the house as quickly as possible on weekends and stay out as late as we could so not to be found guilty of something we had to apologize for.

Thanks to Beth and to other mentors in my life, I am giving up the ghost of apologies. The ghost of those dead eyes of us kids knowing there would usually be a belt behind the accusations. No one is going to hit me anymore and dammit, I am not apologizing for me, my choices, my kids or my life. I am free and I am looking life right in the eye, my shoulders set back and my voice on full register. Get out of my way, ghosts.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Voice, the Ravine and the Angel

I can’t see. I can’t see because I am crying too hard and I can’t see the windy mountain road I am speeding on and I can’t see past the pain of my life right now to deal with tomorrow.

What I CAN see is the end. There is a place in the road that does not have a guardrail and I can drive off the road and make it look like an accident. They may not find me right away, but I don't want to think about that.  I am almost there.

Today my friend Jennifer came over to my apartment with canned food from her mother’s pantry for me because I have no money to pay for food for myself. I am too ashamed to ask my parents for help, even though they live only 20 minutes away. They don't know I can’t afford food and soon, I won't be able to afford my rent. It is 1992 and we are in a recession and I feel like I am the only one suffering. I have a college education, I have work experience and I can't find a job. Jennifer came over today because I could not get up to get dressed to go find a temporary job at ManPower. She called to say hi and knew that I needed help. I am sure, beyond the canned soup and vegetables, she offered words of encouragement and hope, but I can not hear those words, I am in a black hole.

Yesterday, my ex-boyfriend, who tortures me by alternatingly acting like he is my best friend, then not calling me for days and then showing up at my apartment drunk to sleep with me at two am, said he wanted to finally call it quits because I had started sounding too needy. Although he was breaking my heart, I knew he loved me, I told myself, he just did not know it. He would realize how much he loved me when I lost a bit more weight, had blonde highlights in my hair and grew four inches. I knew it.

The pain from sobbing since I hung up is too much to bear; I am broken. I am on my knees in despair. I don't seem to have anyone to reach out to for help. I don't want to burden Jennifer, who I feel I am leaning on too hard right now. I am not one to lean anyway. My parents were not leaners, either. I never once heard my parents ask anyone for help. They believed that you soldiered through the hard times and kept your nose down and just kept going. God knows they had had their share of hard times with my step father being shot in the throat in a hold up when I was five, losing their home in Houston when the oil market crashed after my half brother and sister were born within 11 months of one another, and living in a cheap rental near San Francisco where my brothers and sister and I would watch cockroaches run around in the stove clock. My mom was trying to figure out how she was going to cook chicken gizzards again for us while waiting for that glass of Jack with my dad when he got home. Fun times. But no leaning.

My parents had turned it all around and were living in a nice home in San Jose after all the kids had left to go to school or the armed forces. I tried to move back a year ago when the recession first started. I remember watching the Oakland Hills fire burning that fall while sitting in their plush living room. That was when my step-father started to charge me rent which escalated every month by a hundred dollars to make a point that I was not welcome there and that there would be no leaning in his house.

So, there I was, trying to find a job, running out of money to pay for food and rent, living in an affluent city in Silicon Valley where no one could see that I was drowning. The thought to end it occurred the moment when my ex hung up the phone. The lifeline was cut. I was pushed the rest of the way down into that dark tunnel of despair. I was done.

I drank a half bottle of white wine before I left so it would not hurt so bad; my life and the ending. I slid into my used 1979 brown and gold Corolla, which my father had given to me as a gift to replace paying back child support to my mom. What would he do or think when he found out I had been found dead in a ravine in his ill-fated gift? He had not wanted me to begin with, asking my mother, in a note I found when I was 10, to end her pregnancy with me. But she, although knowing the decision could cost her marriage, was a good Catholic had allowed me to live.

Buzzing, I drove with more determination towards the entrance to the mountain highway than I had displayed in the weeks leading up to this dark depression. My self worth, always shaky to begin with, was falling away in layers as more things kept happening to me. I was alone. Or so I thought.

When the true reality of what I was about to do hit me, the sobbing began. I was sorry already for what I was about to do to my mom. She did not even know what was going on with me. She would wonder why I had not reached out and told her what had happened to get to this point. But she had let my step father harass me and push me out of their house a few months prior to that, so there was no hero to save me there.

How had I gotten to this point? All I really knew was I could not see and that actually was going to make it easier to just turn the wheel hard and let it happen. I anticipated the floating feeling as my car caught air.

I approached the ravine and saw the forest of redwood trees in the distance and the drifting fog. I would miss that view after years of driving up this mountain road in happier days on my way to Santa Cruz. I think it had been raining because it was grey and wet or maybe that was just the mist of the fog obscuring the sun, but I remember seeing a hint of sunlight. I remember that because it was then I heard a voice.

The voice said, “Don’t do this”. Where was THAT coming from? Before I really knew what I was hearing, the voice continued, “If you do this now, you will never know how amazing your life is going to be”. It was like a thunderclap in the car. And I stopped crying. I had about a minute to think about what I would do with this “voice out of nowhere” message and I saw a vision of a husband, and children and happiness. It was like someone waving a hot apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream in front of me and saying, “Try this instead.”

I changed my mind. Not only did I change my mind, I sobered up pretty quick and realized that I had to drive another few miles up the mountain before I could turn around. It would be so ironic that I would try to take my life, decide I wanted to live and then wind up dying in an unintended car crash. Knowing the kind of luck I was having at that point, I would probably end up being a quadriplegic for the rest of my life.

I kept asking myself if I had actually heard that voice in my head or in the car. Many years later, I would have a similar voice talking to me in my car, but that time it was yelling at me as an 18 wheeler was hurdling down a hill with his brakes failing and coming straight for me and my two toddlers in my van at a stop light right after I moved to Kona. That voice yelled twice “Move the car! Move the car NOW!”  I asked the voice quickly, Where should I go?” and it showed me to sidle the van up to the stop light post. We missed being hit by inches. I saw the look of relief in the truck driver’s eyes in my rear view mirror. I then drove to an empty parking lot and cried.

I did not fully realize it then, but I know it in my heart now. I was not alone. I have never been alone. That voice, whom I believe was my guardian angel, was right. My life has turned out to be pretty amazing. I survived that terrible day over 20 years ago, with the knowledge that I had been divinely touched. I think I knew after that experience, I had better get my act together if I was to see this amazing life that I was supposed to have.

 When I got home from my almost fatal mountain drive, I told no one what I had almost done. But I knew I had to do something to change my path.

I ended up asking for help to try to find a job from my friends, whom I was too embarrassed to ask beforehand. Although difficult, it paid off. My friend Sandra got me into a public relations agency she was working at and taught me basic computer skills. Within a few months, I was planning the opening of the brand new San Jose Arena and proudly driving my new Ford Escort to my 10th high school reunion. Funny, my high school was a Catholic high school and I grew up going to church on Sundays, but I have never gotten as close to God or angels as I got that day moments away from a ravine. It would still take me a few years to understand the power of loving myself enough not to let things like men and money pull me down so deep I could not see the light. And it took a few more years after that to begin to believe that there are guardian angels protecting me, and when I don't hear their whispers through intuition, they have to yell sometimes. That is fine by me, because I am here for my husband and two kids because of that voice, and for that I am thankful.