I Remember

 
 

Now begin with “I remember” for ten minutes and see where it takes you.

 
I remember the dream that awakened me this morning. One of those cold dreams that are anchored to the night with icy chains and images that mourn my losses in life, unwilling to let go of me so I can get on with the day. It was a fantasy in which I was running around the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, a SOMA that had changed from the resilient and credible opening titles of The Streets of San Francisco to the gleaming outlandishness of a Philip K. Dick novel.
 
I remember all the other times I have had that dream of places that I used to haunt in my real life, places that were taken from me, where I was left dangling like a spider that could not find an anchor for the next corner of the web it was weaving. These are dreams of a past that is mingled with fantasia that has no real significance except to remind me that the past is past. It is good to be reminded of that fact. It keeps me from holding onto something I can no longer have, whether it be labor, or love.
 
I remember being a small boy sitting in the alcove before the front door of the church a few doors down from my parents’ house in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania. It’s a Catholic Church now. I can see it on Google Street view. I remember when my brother, Paul, was born in 1957, just ten days before my fourth birthday, July 26. I remember the gas station next door. Today it’s a pizza place. That town is probably all Trump country now, a land of hopes and dreams that have miscarried.
 
I remember a night when my father carried me out to the back yard behind the gas station to observe the Northern Lights, the only time I have ever seen that emerald radiance. It was unusual for the glow to appear that far south. It seems symbolic of something, an event like the dreams that are filled with meaning that I cannot understand. Yet in retrospect it seems a sacred moment. I wrote a poem about it many years ago. I would quote from it, but my copy of it is packed away someplace, just like everything else in my past.
 
I remember the sunrise I saw this morning from the back porch of my home in Oregon. Stunning rose-tinted eastern light. Unlike my dream it seemed filled with consequences that I could understand, even though I cannot explain what they may mean, just as I cannot explain the dream.
 
I remember that yesterday Paul handed me two boxes of archival material: black and white negatives, 8mm and 16mm movie film, all captured by our father. There are recorded events on that film, halted in silver chemistry, that I do not remember now. But the memories are there, and the pregnant objectivity of the captive past comforts me. Unlike my dreams I know there is meaning in those images as well as remembrance. Despite my knowledge and experience of impermanence I still want to excavate significance from my own past, and from the madness that currently engages the world.
 
I remember previous folly: assassinations, war, and riots. 1968. Sleeping in a bed in a new home in California, amid farmer’s fields that are now full of crackerjack houses. The world is always insane. I have just grown used to that reality.
 
Yet I will never dodge the discomfort of those cold dreams. At least not until I have my morning coffee, the elixir that softens reminiscence and transports me to the world with my eyes open, clear, and overflowing with the color of the sunrise in each present moment.
 
 

Soap Slinging

The House at Hunsaker Canyon

“You’re an old soap slinger from way back.” Eileen said that to me many years ago when I was washing dishes at Hunsaker Canyon. It must have been one of those old “before kids” visits, when the four of us would get together for a weekend at their place or ours and we would eat tasty food and drink robust wine. There was no dishwasher in that strange little house perched on top of a hill up a steep dirt driveway. I recall a pile of dishes from one of Candace’s repasts, something complicated and delectable that had resulted in a kitchen full of dishes. I had filled a basin with hot water and added soap from a squeeze bottle with a flourish. That theatrical move triggered Eileen’s statement.
 
And now, decades later, on the rare occasion when I wash dishes manually, I recall that testimonial and the view from the kitchen window through the oak trees that framed the hills that surrounded our little bungalow in the woods. The Way of the West, we called it: living in a home where the only central heating was a woodstove and there were horses in the back yard. It seems like a long-ago classic movie, still in color, still filled with the aroma of the lilacs outside the living room in the spring, the feeding of cats and dogs, and, eventually, children. When the dishes piled up, I would look out of the window and marvel at my personal view of California. It was an idyllic time in retrospect, though the place was cold in the winter and occasionally flooded downstairs in the strong storms that arrived in the January\’s before climate change.
 
Eileen’s husband, Jainen, also washed dishes manually in those days, and up until a couple of years ago he continued that daily chore. Once their kitchen upgrade was finished, years in planning, months in completion, they at last had an automatic dishwasher. But he still takes the same care and detail that he did when he stood in front of the sink each night finishing up the cleanup from whatever delicious concoction Eileen had made. I enjoy watching him work, not out of laziness, but because it reminds me of my own soulful days as a domestic partner.
 
Candace never got to see that contemporary kitchen, unfortunately. It still seems that as the years pass without her I wonder about what she would have thought about the things I see and experience that take place after she died. I suppose that is part of the process of letting go. Though the emotion is not as strong and captivating as it was before, it is still there. Memories always call it up.
 
The unbidden recall of memory is an enigmatic experience. As time passes, the remembrances, rather than fading get more intense, shining like treasure hidden away in a vault for protection and preservation. Simple things, moments of verbal humor, like being tagged with the moniker: “The Soap Slinger.” 
 
Dishes. Cooking, Making the bed. Running a load of laundry. All these minute elements of the domestic life I had with her are in my mental safe deposit box. I must get them all out and share them before I pass away. I cannot contend with the possibility that all those recollections will fade like the twilight at the end of the day. Recording them is just as impermanent as the experience itself, but in doing so there is always the slender possibility that someone, somewhere, will read about them, and smile in recognition of their own experience.
 

Fires in Wine Country

Clover Stornetta Dairy

Yesterday I got out of bed and took Finnegan for a short dog walk before heading to the gym. The air quality is really bad because of all the fires north of here. It was a crisp and cool morning and there was so much smoke in the air that it was easy to feel as if I was walking around a campground, but it didn’t feel like a vacation. It’s pretty serious here right now. The situation up in the Wine Country is dire. There’s no other word for it.

 
I’ve lived in California a long time and I’ve seen a lot of fires torch the hills. There’s been a couple of major fires up on Mount Diablo while I’ve lived in this area over the last 46 years. Back when Candace and I lived out in the country in Lafayette and Moraga we were always aware of the fire danger in summer and fall. But these fires, which are not so far away from here physically (Napa and the rest of the Wine Country is only about 40 miles from here) are very close emotionally. My brothers live up in Santa Rosa, and fortunately they have not been seriously affected as of yet, though they could be at risk if the wind shifts. My friend Larry who is president of two prestigious wineries in the Napa Valley had to evacuate his home (which has survived).
 
Clover Stornetta Dairy
 
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in both Napa and Sonoma counties. While I’ve never  lived there they always feel like home to me. Last Sunday night I was writing in my journal before bedtime and I was suddenly struck with what I can only describe as a sense of doom. I didn’t understand where it was coming from. I turn off all news input a couple of hours before I go to sleep. But I know something was up somewhere. I found out the next morning that my intuition was right and that the feeling appeared just about the time that the fires really got going up in Santa Rosa.
 
If you are following what’s happening here from another part of the country it may be hard to grasp the seriousness of what is taking place. It was even hard for me the first day. When you see tragedy on the television its easy to slip into an objective state and not really comprehend the fact that people are suffering. So yesterday after I got back from my workout I grabbed my camera gear and headed up north to witness the events that are transpiring. I had mixed feelings about doing that as I did not want to get in the way of any first responders, so I kept a low profile and didn’t go anywhere that might be problematic.
 
Poster at Oxbow Market
My brother had told me that the Clover Stornetta Dairy had burned down. That’s been a landmark in Sonoma County for decades. It was sobering to see what had happened. I had lunch in Napa near the Oxbow Public Market, which was deserted. That place is usually humming, but most of the vendors were closed up.
 
The air quality in Napa is the worst in the country right now. Huge palls of smoke are hanging over everything, and there are fires on both the east and west side of the Napa Valley. I drove up Highway 29 as far as I could. The only other vehicles on the road were fire trucks, police cars, utility vehicles and people heading south from the evacuation areas. As I got close to Calistoga I heard that there was a mandatory evacuation going on so I turned around. I could not have gone farther as the road was blocked by the CHP.
 
It was another world. I have been up that way countless times and the traffic is always intense. Not yesterday. As I passed familiar landmarks I kept thinking about how at risk they were, and how fragile civilization really is. The next couple of days are critical in regards to the resolution of this catastrophe.
 
Turning around at Calistoga
 
By the time I got back down to Napa the sun had gone down and the wind had shifted. I stood alongside the Napa River on the western side just a little North of the Imola bridge. The hills were burning to the east at the same time as some men were fishing from the shore. There were sirens and sounds of traffic. When I drove through downtown there were people heading out of restaurants and getting on with life.
 
 
As I watched the fire I felt a great sense of loss, a feeling that is becoming familiar to me. So much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment. No one knows quite yet how these fires started. We won’t know the answer to that for a while.
 
I put up a quick gallery of the images I made. You can see them here.
 
Sun and smoke. Bale Road south of Calistoga.

Our Rockets Always Blow Up

The Golden Gate: Rising Up

This is a follow up to my previous post regarding the passing of Sam Shepard. I had mentioned in that post how Shepard’s role as Chuck Yeager in the film The Right Stuff had moved me and how sometimes an actor takes on the role of an historical figure that resonates deeply with the popular consciousness.

A friend of mine read the post and responded in this way in regards to that association:
 
I also think that we miss parts of that era that those real people represented.  People, even over generations, are generally motivated by the same things but that generation, with all its flaws, seemed able to accomplish so much.  The majority of those things were to help build a better country.  Unfortunately, for decades, that has become such a non-priority and people miss that.  They miss it so much that they put someone who isn’t at all qualified to be president but appeals to that part of America that wants that era of greatness.
 
I have often wondered why that film moves me the way it does. On the outside of my life it reminds me of those days when each launch was carried by all the networks and we followed the adventures of exploration that NASA and the astronauts were conducting. In those days you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to NASA and they would return it with postcards and photographs, not just of the astronauts, but of spacecraft and satellites. I taped them all to the wall of my bedroom. I was in second grade when Alan Shepard made his sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961, and while the narrative in The Right Stuff makes dramatic points in regards to previous boosters blowing up on the pad (“our rockets always blow up”)the truth was that we really did not know if it was safe to put man in a can and send him on top of a chemical tower into airless space. That’s why we considered them heroes. And while there was a lot of hype in the media, at heart it truly was a big deal regardless of how the media (which was far less sophisticated and far more trustworthy then) treated it.
 
My head in the stars, as usual

But in the inside of my life the story of the film resonates with something deeper: the sense of wonder that we are alive on a planet in the middle of nowhere and that we may be the only ones in the stellar neighborhood. All my life I have felt the mystique of “out there”. I read the classic masters of science fiction when I was a young man, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Simak, Dick, and Wells. (I was never much of a Heinlein fan). And what compelled me to read that genre was its outward facing expression and the sense that humans, technology and science could do anything and go anywhere.

 
I was sixteen years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon the first time. I am now 64 years old. And this country that I care for deeply is not the same country as it was then. It is difficult to express what I mean about this without avoiding the use of trite platitudes. The Sixties were a time of grand irony. The fact is that the driving factor of all that exploration was the Cold War. We had to beat the Russians to the Moon. There was just no other choice. So we poured billions of dollars into developing the innovations and technologies to get that project completed. At the same time we were pouring even more money into the hell pit of Vietnam. As my friend mentioned we were a flawed generation.
 
We had the highest of hopes and dreams, and yet we were grounded in delusion. Perhaps that’s not much different than today, but the fact is the we are more insular now, and more selfish. There are a lot of reasons for that and I won’t go into them now, but simply put it seems that we are occupied with the worst sort of trivial distractions that take us away from a real national identity and keep us from seeing the greater good.
A Challenge

The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that civilizations are driven by challenges and that those challenges are met and solved by “Creative Minorities” that drive the solutions and then rise to the next challenge. But when that minority fails, then everything falls apart.

Here’s a long quote from the New World Encyclopedia that explains all that:
 
He argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the \”Creative Minority,\” which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a \”Dominant Minority\” (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their \”former self,\” by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.
 
 
It seems to me that’s exactly where we are, and it saddens me. And I don’t think that my disillusion is due to my age, or to the experiences of loss that I have faced these last few years. My difficulties are no different than other people’s problems. Basic stuff really.
 
However, it would be unfair and falsely disheartening to not acknowledge the fact that we have progressed as a global culture. Technical innovations in communication and information flow have had a positive impact on the lives of many people and communities. (And that’s despite the fact that Sam Shepard said: “I don\t have a computer. I don’t have an Internet. I don’t have the e-mail. I don’t have any of that shit.”) And it is also true that in many ways we are a kinder, more compassionate and less violent world than we were a couple of centuries ago. Steven Pinker has been pointing this out, and wrote about it extensively in his lengthy book The Better Angels of Our Nature.   
 
But at this stage of my life I wonder if we will have the courage as a country to cast off the illusions that are holding us back, illusions that are manipulated by the powerful cynics and selfish greedheads that infest government and industry.
 
And I must admit to my own illusions. A couple months back I wrote a piece that I did not post because I thought it too gloomy. But I’ll quote from it here:
 
The Creatives who find the solutions to the challenges that are in some ways initiated by the majority are always a small group. In my own life I have held to the value that there would be more and more of us as time passes, but now I think that this is not to take place in my own lifetime. It is hard for me to admit this. Over the years I have discussed this ideal with people, and while there have been many who agree with me, there have also been those who have cynically called me an “idealist” (as if that was an insult) and have told me that my anticipation of that expansion was a fantasy. While I still think that we will get to that kind of world in the long term, I am not going to see it.
 
However, this does not make me give up hope. Steven Pinker clearly shows in The Better Angels of Our Nature that humans have inexorably become less violent, and the numbers show it. But that fact does not mean that being less violent is an indicator of a majority of people developing a worldcentric consciousness. And it’s that consciousness that is required if we are to survive as a species on a planet with limited resources and the global challenges of climate change, nuclear confrontation and the unequal distribution of wealth.
Into the Light

I think that we are being tested as a nation, and as a world. There’s nothing new in that. As Toynbee stated, civilization is a response to challenges. But that is also true of our individual lives. We have to rise to our own personal trials, regardless of how much we might want to give up and run away from them.

And that takes faith in the essential goodness of humanity, and of ourselves.
 
I’m not going to stop being certain of that faith, and neither should you. Don’t let the demons drive you to distraction. After the rocket blows up and you’ve augured into the ground you can only fly upwards again, not to a past that was glorious and now gone forever, but to a future that still holds promise.
 
Its hard work. No one can do it for us. Life is not about the quantity of money and material objects, or shiny gadgets or the superficial tweets of the sick mind that occupies the White House. As Bruce Springsteen sings in City of Ruins:
 
Now the sweet bells of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The empty streets
While my brother\’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
My city of ruins
Come on, rise up
 
Antares Rocket Explosion. These things happen.
 

 

Punch a Hole in the Sky

I am very saddened by the passing of Sam Shepard. I admired him as a writer and an actor. His role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff is seared in my consciousness. That final scene when Yeager walks away from the crashed NF-104A with his face scarred and his eyes injured after having gathered up his parachute, walking with determination from the wreckage knowing that he was a better pilot than all those pudknockers who were flying around in cans and who never got a chance to go into orbit and show them who was the best man; my gosh that scene is what life is all about, friends. Sometime you just have to shoot for the stars and if you run out of gas or atmosphere, well, then come back to earth in one piece and do it all over again.
This You Tube clip is an edit of that “pushing the limits” scene. In the original edit the flight is interspersed with a giant party for the Mercury astronauts in Houston, a grand irony in that Yeager is busting his ass while the astronauts are partying with LBJ and watching Sally Rand do a fan dance. (By the way that’s Levon Helm in the beginning of that clip, who also narrates the film, another great American artist who is sorely missed.) In this clip it’s just the flight, and its gut-churning.
It’s noteworthy when an actor takes on a role that defines an entire era, like George C. Scott as Patton. Sam was too smart to be type cast though, and at heart he was a playwright. One of the finest. I saw a performance of Buried Child back in Chicago in 1995 that just captivated me. Actually it destroyed me emotionally through the next full day. A dangerously over the top story that explicates everything nasty about the American Dream, and that seems appropriate for our current experience. Sam won a Pulitzer Prize for that play.
There’s also a little known film from 1980 with Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection in which he has a role as the lover of a woman who has the power to heal after surviving a near death experience. Hard to find it. Saw it once when it was in release. I’d love to see it again.
I have a lot of catching up to do with Sam’s writing. Sometimes the most significant artists make the least amount of noise. Usually they\’re the ones with the most important things to say.
Punch a hole in the sky to where the demon lives! And while you’re doing that, chew a stick of Beeman’s. I think I got me a stick.

 

Mendocino Moment – 3

 

Thou Art That
On my final day in Mendocino in March of 2017 I wanted to investigate yet another memory rooted in a place where I had walked many years before. Just a mile or so north of Mendocino in Russian Gulch State Park there is a trail called Fern Canyon. There are actually a number of trails by that name in a series of California State Parks along the north coast, and the moniker defines the trails precisely. The paths are similar; narrow tracks through tall canyons bordered by a thick forest with a creek running down to the sea. These are California rain forests very much like the ones up in the Olympic Peninsulain Washington state, but smaller and not quite as epical.
The trail runs along the creek and there are, of course, massive ferns in addition to thick green moss hanging from the trunks and branches of redwood trees. And other than the sound of water flowing and the wind rushing through the vegetation there is nothing to hear but the sheer cathedral-like silence of the natural world.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Mendocino in 1980 after our wedding on March 30. It had been a wet winter and California was recovering from another drought which had peaked in 1977. That dry time, while serious, was not as extreme as the one we have just left behind, but California was less prepared in those days. The wine industry had been hit hard. The crop that year was small and the grapes became miniscule raisins before they were even harvested. But by 1980 the weather was back on track, and those few days were typical of the climate along the Mendocino coast. But it was extremely windy every day we were there, so much so that the fishing boats could not head to sea.
The Russian Gulch Bridge
On the day we walked the Fern Canyon trail the wind was at its wildest. The trees alongside the canyon were swaying and creaking, though the sun was out and the sky was very blue, and white clouds were moving about at a breakneck pace. At one point we stopped, sat down on the ground, and smoked a little bit of Thai marijuana (called Thai weed or Thai sticks in those days). As we were just starting to enjoy the buzz there was a loud snapping and cracking sound. At first I thought it was lightning and thunder, but there was no threat of rain and aside from the puffy white clouds the sky was totally clear. We looked ahead and saw a huge tree falling over no more than 75 feet away. It dropped majestically in what seemed like slow motion making even more noise as it collapsed. Then it began to roll forward a bit and we both got up and prepared to run. But the other trees were blocking its path and the motion ceased.
Then there was silence, and then the sound of the running creek reappeared amidst a little bit of final crackling and snapping. We both looked at each other and started laughing. I remember bringing up that old conundrum, “if a tree falls over in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, will it make a sound?”
We were there to hear it. I can confirm that it did indeed make one hell of a racket and would have done so even if we had not been there. There was no potential solipsism in Fern Canyon that day. But I will admit that we felt as if nature was blessing our recent union in its own way, as if Nature said: “Go forth together and make your own racket, just like this.”
We made a hell of a noise for the next thirty five years. But we never went back to Fern Canyon. I’m not sure why. Life gets in the way of itself most of the time, and people become occupied with a multitude of details. We camped all over California both before our kids were born, and afterwards. We explored the Sonoma Coast for years and rented lovely houses for short vacations at Sea Ranch. But except for one brief stop in Mendocino as we were on our way down the coast (I don’t even remember when it was), we never stayed there again.
Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel
In 2016 I spent a few nights in Fort Bragg, which is just a few miles north of Russian Gulch, and I had planned to walk the trail with Finnegan (my greyhound companion) but when we arrived I discovered that dogs were not allowed on that trail. So we hung about the park in other places and I spread some of Candace’s ashes underneath the Highway 1 bridge and moved on to another walk. So on my current excursion I left my four legged buddy behind at the dog sitter’s place because I really wanted to make that walk.
My original plan was to hike on March 15 (The Ides of March) which was the third anniversary of my wife flying away to the next world, but it was rainy and cold and the weather forecast indicated that the 16thwould be a better day. So I did other things instead and when the sun came out on the 16th I hit the trail.
Fern Canyon trail
In short, the hike was a walk through divinity. I’ll let the pictures tell most of the story, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, as I walked “further up and further in” I began to sense a presence that I had not felt in years. It goes by many names: the Great Spirit, the Higher Power, the Will of Heaven, God, Mother Nature and others. It is the immediately recognizable sense of the immanence of the natural world that surrounds us and runs through us and that we are not always aware of because of the multitude of details that I mentioned. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku: forest bathing.
Would you send this kid to Hell for not eating his carrots?
When I was a kid and my brain was being stuffed with the complex and bizarre teachings of the Catholic Catechism, the nuns attempted to teach us about God. But their God never made any sense to me. How can a little kid’s intellect grasp a cosmology of suffering on a cross for the sins of the world when that same little kid doesn’t even understand the concept of sin because there is no evil in his life? Was Jesus suffering because I would not eat my vegetables without putting up a fuss? God was supposed to be up there at the front of the church during Mass while the priest had his back turned to me. None of it seemed reasonable. And yet my parents took it very seriously and they loved me and took care of me so I went along with it. That’s what children do. That’s how they survive the onslaught of consciousness. They have no choice. When you\’re a kid you don’t rock the boat, at least I didn’t.
To be fair, churches can be repositories of sacred space. But when I was six years old I didn’t  know what sacred really meant. When the changes from Vatican II appeared in our local parish and the priest at last turned around and faced us and began murmuring in English instead of Latin, it didn’t seem to change anything, at least for me. It may have been worse because phrases like “Pater Noster qui es in caelis” were mysterious magic at least, and now they were gone. And my father bitched and moaned to our pastor about the loss of the Latin Mass, which I found embarrassing.
I realized when I was much older that the problem was that I wanted to feel in my heart and soul what everyone was telling me was beyond my reach. I had no sense of the Divine Immanence, and frankly the Church didn’t talk about that at all because it bordered on blasphemy.
And a Heaven in a wild flower
It wasn’t until our family headed West and traveled around the country in the summers of 1963 through 1965 that I realized where God was. There was no specific moment where I was struck by that realization, but as I grew older and spent time discovering the natural world present in places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, the message began to seep in. And it wasn’t until I was in college that I developed the vocabulary to understand it all.
And the language is this: whatever you want to call this presence, it is not transcendent. It’s not somewhere else beyond our reach that can only be attained through obeying dogmas and subsisting through rules that were written by men who lived in the ancient world and thought that the Earth was the center of the universe and that animals were simply there to be eaten.
Divinity is immanent. Its right here in us and around us all the time. It’s both the universe “out there” and the universe that exists inside our heads.
The only time we can really begin to sense it is when we are quiet enough to listen. Our culture is very loud. Aldous Huxley called it the Age of Noise. He was talking about the radio decades ago when he said this:
“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio, is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the ear-drums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions – news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ears, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego’s central core of wish and desire.”
Simply substitute “cell phone” or \”Internet\” for “radio” and you’ll be in our current era where the Noise in now fully digital. It’s not just fake news, its fake everything.
This is not fake anything
And because of the changes in my life these last few years I am becoming a much better listener. I still have a long way to go and I’ll always be a beginner, but I’m trying. And on this day it was easy. There was no one else on the trail. It had rained the day before and all the trees and the ground were very wet. There was no wind so all I could hear was the little stream that ran through the moss and trees. When the trail moved away from the flowing water the sound of moisture dripping from the vegetation was palpable.
There were so many things to see, and I looked deeply with both my eyes and my camera. There was a sense of familiarity. I wanted so much to find the spot where we had seen the tree fall all those many years ago. I would turn a corner on the trail and think “this is it” and then I would move on and think that the next spot was the actual place. I began to realize it really did not matter because everything within my vision was the sacred and celebratory place I was looking for. My soul was sustained by my exploration. I was walking both forward and backwards in time across decades simultaneously.
Old and New
I never did find the specific spot. It did not matter. The important thing was to just be there and feel that immanence. A phrase I learned long ago arose in my head: “Thou art that” or in Sanskrit “Tat Tvam Asi.” While I felt intense emotion, my mind was clear.
Shunryu Suzuki taught: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner\’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert\’s mind there are few.” On that walk I took the first steps as a beginner in a new life and I was filled with gratitude.
When I realized that the goal was simply to be there I turned around and walked back to my car. Then I spread some of my wife’s ashes underneath the bridge again and returned to town. I stopped at a market for peanut butter, jelly, bread and milk. Sometimes a guy just needs a good solid PB&J for lunch! Which is what I ate. And after all is said and done, Thou Art That. Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be divine.

 

Mendocino Moment – 2

They are all gone into the world of light, And I alone sit lingering here; – Henry Vaughan
My father\’s grave
After the synchronous phone call from Jeff I continued my drive up to Mendocino and the beautiful coast of California that I love so much. Over the past few weeks my thoughts had turned to my father, who died too young back in the Spring of 1988 just a couple of months short of his 61stbirthday. He had been sick for quite a while, from an illness that no one could figure out. (As usual, that’s another story and I’ll probably get to it someday.) He’s buried in a very old cemetery in Healdsburg called Oak Mound, at the top of a hill, nestled within a few unostentatious sites. His own resting place is marked with a flat headstone issued by the Veterans Administration. When we laid him to rest in that place, his grave was within the shadow of a large tree. The tree has fallen since then. Such is the way of nature. But someone used a saw to carve a crude seat in the trunk of the fallen tree. Such is the way of human beings.
A crude seat, but a nice thought
I had not visited the site in many years. Of all the family members and friends I have lost in the last couple of decades, this is the only one whose remains are stored in the earth. My father was a converted Catholic, and it was my mother’s wish that he be buried in that way. I suppose that desire might have had something to do with all that Last Days of Doom nonsense, though my mom was really not much into the details of her born faith. More than likely it was my father’s wish, not my mother’s. Nonetheless there he is, and I’m glad of it, because when I need to I can travel there and sit in the sun and talk aloud and pretend he is listening to me, something he didn’t always do when he was alive.
I find cemeteries comforting in the same way that reading history consoles me. I really can’t explain why. Everything is impermanent, even cemeteries. The headstones erode and the trees fall. Yet when I am in a place like Oak Mound or Mountain View in Piedmont I feel as if there is a permanent silence that is audible. There is no sense of spiritual haunting or fear.
Chatting with my father
I mention that because most people are anxious about cemeteries. I understand that. Cemeteries remind us of our own mortality. Perhaps that’s the whole point. Human beings have been revering and remembering their dead since before recorded civilization. Archeologists use burial sites as a source of knowledge. But here in America we do everything we can to remain ignorant of not only our own passing, but the passing of others. When my wife died the company I worked for at that time gave me seven days of “bereavement leave”. Compare that with the 90 days that was offered for the birth of a child. There is no greater evidence for our purposeful yet unconscious obliviousness of mortality in a country that celebrates the myth of the self-made man than the disparity between those lengths of time.
So I had a little one sided chat with the Old Man. He’s been on my mind recently because I am about to embark on making a living professionally again, and I’m determined this time to work for myself and be my own boss. I’ve never done that before. And I have never considered myself to be an entrepreneur. As I mentioned in a previous post, my dad was a real “horse trader” for many years, a classic go-getter who always seemed to have the pedal to the metal. So as I make my transition I have been thinking about him a great deal. If the father can do it why not the son? Even a son who has already outlived his father. While sitting in the sunny warmth next to my father’s headstone I thought of that Billy Collins poem, The Dead:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
I wasn’t ready to close my eyes yet so I made my way to the car and continued on my way to Mendocino. I had another appointment with a spirit that had passed to her own transparent tour boat, because the next day, March 15, was the anniversary of my wife’s departure, suddenly and unexpectedly gone without warning three years before.
Candace 1980 – Honeymoon at the Mendocino Hotel
Candace and I spent our honeymoon in Mendocino. It was our first trip to that part of the coast and while we returned to the Sonoma Coast many times during our marriage we never spent any significant length of time back in that town. While we were visiting in 1980 we hiked the Fern Canyon trail in Russian Gulch State Park, which is just a couple of miles north, and my plan was to repeat that walk and make some photos and see how the wet winter had treated that special trail. I wanted to do that on March 15, but after making some dawn pictures that morning, the rains came back and I decided to drive south and visit yet another cemetery. The forecast for the next day looked good for hiking so I delayed my hike and instead got back into my car and pointed my way south down Highway 1 to the Evergreen Cemetery just south of Manchester, located at the intersection of Mountain View Road.
Mendocino Hotel – Balcony – November 2015
One of the most attractive elements of the practice of photography is revisiting and reimaging a location over the years. I’ve lost count of the times I have photographed Evergreen and have done it so often that I feel as if I almost know the pioneers that are buried there. I have watched the stones erode and become more difficult to read since my first visit in 1981 or 1982, I’m no longer sure of the exact date. My friend Georgia’s parents lived in Gualala, which is about 20 miles south of Manchester, and we were occasional guests in those times. That was the period where I really began to fall in love with the Sonoma Coast. All those towns have local cemeteries, and they vary in style and location. The graves in Evergreen go way back to the mid-19th century, though it is still used today by several families that have plots there. Unlike my father’s grave, these are people unknown to me, and yet when I am there I sense their historical presence.
The McMullen stones

Just like the digs and explorations of archeologists we can walk through an old cemetery and get a sense of what times were like 150 years ago in California. The most obvious is the fact of shorter life spans and death in childbirth. The most heartbreaking of these is the McMullen plot where a total of six small gravestones marking the decease of infants form a line next to the larger monument to the parents, Samuel and Jennie. When I first visited Evergreen there were very few trees providing shade, but over the years, particularly at the McMullen site, I have observed small seedlings grow into mature trees year after year. Eventually, long after I am gone and no longer photographing they will tumble, just like the tree that was once over my dad’s grave.

Broken, later repared
And I have watched the headstones erode, break, and fall over. On return visits I have viewed the formerly collapsed stones returned to their upright elevations and the damaged stones repaired and renewed. But no one can keep the wind and rain from wearing away the names and dates of human beings who lived and loved in a very tough world, and who then closed their eyes to spend eternity rowing a glass bottom boat over a planet vibrating with tension and technology. What must they think of our insistence to ignore our own eventual passing as they float above us in the soundless spirit world?
John and Margaret Galloway
I have watched the gravestones of John and Margaret Galloway wear down over time. On this visit John’s headstone had fallen over, and Margaret’s is now very difficult to read. I wonder who they really were and how much they cared for one another. Were they always in love or was it a marriage of convenience? Were they happy? All these are unanswerable questions, and the kind of thing that has been occupying my own mind for three years now. I remember with clarity the 35 years I had with my own soulmate, and yet, just like the headstones, the memories are stretching back with tension and creating a series of longitudinal markings that make up the chapters of my own life. I have no stone to visit for my wife. Her ashes are in an urn at the top of my refrigerator, along with those of her mother and brother. When I have a glass of wine or a martini in the evening, I raise my glass and look up, but I never see the transparent bottom of the boat that they likely travel in together, hopefully with Jim, father and husband, who left many years before they did.
The Doctor\’s Angel
My last stop in Evergreen is always what I call “The Doctor’s Angel.” It’s the most elaborate marker in the site, very much in the style of some of the plots in Mountain View Cemetery. It marks the resting place of William Oliver Davis, M.D. who I assume was the local physician in the later part of the 19th and early years of the 20th century in that area. Born in 1862, died in 1911, he was only fifty when he passed away. I think that he must have been a beloved man to have such a splendid statue keeping watch over his bones. When I stand there I sometimes wonder if he was the attending physician at the births and deaths of all the McMullen children and if so how hard it must have been for him to watch the sequence of small children appear like brief lights before heading directly to the spirit world. What a lifetime that must have been; all these people who likely knew one another now at peace in a little corner of California, blessed by the wind and rain from the ocean in the winter, and the hot dry sun in the summertime.
I returned to my car and took a few deep breaths. It had rained on the way down from Mendocino and during my entire visit in Evergreen the air was sweet and clear. So was my mind. All the colors in the hills and fields were vibrant and saturated even though the dour grey sky was blocking the sun. Despite the fact that I had dawdled in two cemeteries in the space of 24 hours, there was joy in my heart. It feels good to be alive. It’s a gift. And we have to remember that every moment of every day. We have to. Yes, the times we are in now are fraught with strangeness, rage, racism and a millennial sense of doom and gloom. But are our times really that much different from those of the McMullens, Mr. and Mrs. Galloway, and the good Doctor Davis? The Buddha taught that life is filled with suffering, and that our reason for suffering is because we are attached to life in an unhealthy way. The Zen teacher Yuanwu said in a letter:
“In the present time, those who want to draw near to reality must boldly mobilize their energies and transform what is within them. You must not cling to wrong knowledge and wrong views. You must not mix poison into your food. You must be uniformly pure and true and clean and wondrously illuminated to step directly into the scenery of the fundamental ground and reach the peaceful and secure stage of great liberation.” (Translated by Thomas Cleary, from Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume Two, page 181; Shambhala Books)
Perhaps that’s easier to say than to do. But it must be done nonetheless. Otherwise we just waste the small amount of precious time that has been granted to us before we head off to that other world and from our own glass bottom boat observe a realm below us that we might have missed when we actually lived there. Here and now is our fundamental ground, and we make the choice to live it fully, or not live it at all.
Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s

 

Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s -Candace, David and Georgia
Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s -Candace, David and Georgia

 

Meaningful Coincidences

The Carquinez Strait looking south from Benicia
Ever since I was an undergraduate I have been influenced by Jungian psychology. And of all the concepts that Jung described, the idea of synchronicity has always been the most resonant for me. The term is familiar to most people, most likely because of the hit song by The Police. I’m not sure that the song really has much to do with the concept as defined by Jung, though the lines “many miles away something crawls from the slime / at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake” reverberates in a Shadowy sort of way. We’ve all experienced those moments when multiple spontaneous events transpire that seem significant and yet have no causal connection. Those types of occurrences are filled with meaning, and they surprise us because they appear out of nowhere and rise above the routine affairs that occupy us every day. There’s a tinge of magic and mysticism to them, at least for those of us who are paying attention.
Recently as I have been gathering material for posts in this blog I’ve been digging back into my archives to discover previous writings that trigger memories. That is all part of what I am calling The Tension of Memory. Recently I discovered a piece that I worked on in 1993. It was a spiritual autobiography and an attempt at a memoir. I had forgotten about it. Little nuggets of the past like that are always exciting to find, and this one contained a remembrance of the day I learned Transcendental Meditation. (I have incorporated it into this post). I shared that encounter with my friend Jeff, back in my St. Mary’s College days, in 1974.
Then a week or so later as I was traveling to Mendocino for a three day trip of photography and negative ion experience (more on that at another time), synchronicity suddenly materialized. My friend Jeff has lived his whole life in the amiable town of Benicia. He makes his living as a realtor and has probably been a part of the selling and purchase of most of the homes in his hometown over the years. He’s a lifelong friend, and though we don\’t see one another as often as we should, our relationship is typical of old pals. It’s like reading a familiar book chapter by chapter, separated by reading sessions that might be a year or two apart. I’m lucky to have many friends like that.
Toll Plaza while talking with Jeff
My route took me through Benicia. Interstate 680 crosses over the Carquinez Strait at the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. It’s a quick drive from my place and I always think about Jeff when I drive that road. Geographical elements seem to be a trigger for memories in addition to old pieces of writing. As I was driving to the toll plaza and got my FastTrak unit ready, the phone rang (which I answered hands free, of course). It was the default ring that I use for all incoming calls, the Ennio Morricone theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I was just leaving behind a frustrating and unexpected traffic jam and was looking to get some miles under the tires.
It was Jeff. Calling out of the blue mysterioso spaces of synchronicity. The familiar voice said to me: “You’re on my mind. I thought I’d give you a call.”
“The reason you’re on my mind is because I am just about to drive across the Benicia Bridge.”
“Oh stop it! You’re kidding me. How cool. How cool.”
He went on to tell me that he follows this blog and that he was at some sort of “seminar about vibrations and quantum mechanics in the field so its sounds is if some resonation went across the universe there.” (It didn’t sound like a real estate seminar, and I’ll have to reach out to him to get the details.)
“There are many mysterious things that happen that skepticism has no explanation for,” I said. I suppose I’m a part time skeptic at moments like that. I hope I didn’t sound too pedantic.
We went on to talk about baseball and the San Francisco Giants, as Jeff and his wife had been down in Arizona for Spring Training, and then we wrapped up the call.
Afterwards I laughed for the sheer joy of the spontaneity of this encounter. There I was caught in an unexpected traffic jam that was holding me back from making rapid tracks up to a place that I had been looking forward to visiting for weeks, and just as the road cleared, Jeff called and everything became an enigmatic metaphor.
You cannot explain why synchronicity happens. There’s no answer for it in the scientific view, and it can hardly be described in words that specify the experience. One can only just revel in the marvelous quality of the non-causal connection that seems to have a root that cannot be pinned down. It’s as if poetry arrives unbidden for a few moments, spreads a bunch of magic, and then evaporates, leaving a perfume of familiarity that is based somewhere deep down within the psyche. And that place is not the bottom of a dark Scottish lake. It’s more like an ephemeral glimpse of paradise.
As I traveled up the coast afterwards this experience was on my mind, and memories started to flow like a stream running with cold spring rainwater. I recalled that many years ago Jeff had given me a copy of a book titled The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. I still have that book and pulled it out of my library when I got back from my trip. You can find a PDF copy of the book here. I recommend perusing it. I haven’t read it in many years, but it is in my reading queue once more.
Mendocino Arrival
In Mendocino I was preoccupied with memories as well, not only memories of my wife (I was there to observe the third year anniversary of her sudden passing as well as to make photographs), but memories of times forty years ago when experiments with psychoactive chemistry, meditation and alternative ways of experiencing the universe were at the forefront of cultural experience. I had some meaningful conversations with a friend who lives in that little village about those times and how it seemed that changing the world radically was a distinct possibility. And Transcendental Meditation was part of all that wobbly world of metaphysical miasma.
That was a heady time. (That pun is intended by the way!) There were many alternative spiritual paths available and many of them were strongly present in the public eye. A lot of them were fringy or cultish, but it was a more innocent and less millennial atmosphere than the shallow nineties and the current insanity of America. TM teachers and lecturers were soft spoken and held regular introductory seminars on college campuses. There was no talk of God, divinity or spirituality. The active words were \”stress management\” and \”mental health.\” TM is easy, they emphasized, and will clear away your stress so that you can be happy and productive. The seventies were a less cynical time. These were honest people with a real methods that worked. The less curious type of people laughed at them, or accused them of preying on an unsuspecting public looking for pie in the sky. That’s understandable, but I think that attitude was and is the result of fear of the creature at the bottom of the lake.
Mendocino Morning
I went to my first lecture in late spring of 1974, only to discover that I didn\’t have the $75.00 (an enormous sum of money for me at the time) for the initiation fee. I became very motivated for a summer job that year. (The price for that today is roughly 13 times that amount! Spiritual inflation?)
The only employment I could find that summer was a dismal low-paying, mind-grinding position selling subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times over the phone. I did this for six or eight weeks, earned enough for the fee and some extra money for the school year and quit, to the disgust of my father whose view was that I should spend every waking moment pushing potential subscribers on the phone in order to make as much money as possible. I hated that job! Of course I could not tell him what I was planning to do immediately upon returning to SMC. There was plenty of time for him to be irrational about that later.
Upon my return I discovered that several of my friends had been initiated during the summer and were already meditating. They were all exhilarated and excited about the experience. I reattended the lecture series and discovered that in order to begin the technique I had to give up drugs and alcohol for two weeks before the initiation. Yes, I was a lazy man in those days.
The author in dopier and lazier days
Looking back on it I realize how strong my psychological addiction to cannabis was. I was actually disappointed and unsure of my ability to give it up for a measly 14 days! It was so much a part of my life. It was all around me, each day, consistently. There was always a buddy smoking a joint in his or her room. A half dozen times a day the opportunity would arise: when I did a radio stint at KSMC, or went for a walk or dropped by a friend’s room. It was a persuasive and consistent part of college life in California in the mid-seventies. (It probably still is, but the dope is more powerful.) The absence of alcohol would be no problem. I drank moderately and carefully. Marijuana was another matter. I did what I thought was my best and managed to stay sober for seven to ten days. It was tough to be strong about it, but somehow I managed.
Eventually the Saturday that we had scheduled for initiation rolled around and Jeff and I got ready to go. We were to bring with us a clean handkerchief and a few flowers, which we stole from the flower boxes in front of the dormitory. We stopped to purchase handkerchiefs at a drug store on the drive to the TM Center.
The center was a non-descript house in Walnut Creek close to where I actually live at this time. We were greeted at the door and asked to wait in the living room. I was a little nervous, the same way as when visiting the dentist, but it was balanced by a sense of accomplishment. I was doing this because I wanted to, and had saved up the money myself. Eventually I was guided to a back room that overlooked a colorful garden and met my teacher. I don\’t recall her name, but she was attractive, a white woman with long black hair. She wore western style clothes and was cheerful, but radiated a cautious and serious demeanor. If I had met her in the grocery store I would not have recognized her as a teacher of meditation. She could just as easily been a bank teller.
She explained what we would do. We would first offer the flowers and the clean cloth with a prayer of thanks to Guru Dev, Maharishi\’s teacher, who had recovered this long lost technique of meditation. Then she would give me my mantra and I would meditate by myself for ten minutes. She would then check on me, and then I would meditate for 10 minutes more. Simple and easy.
She took my flowers and handkerchief and placed them on a table in front of a small and simply framed picture of Guru Dev. Then she began to speak in Sanskrit. I was touched by the sudden sacredness and ceremony of this moment. I had no thoughts, no expectations of my experiences to come during meditation. I was exhilarated and happy. Some new world was opening before me, a journey, and yet I was not thinking about it in that way. I just lived the moment.
When I meditated by myself in a small room the effect was immediate and profound. My breathing slowed, my heart rate dropped, my limbs and muscles relaxed like gelatin, and I dropped into my own thoughts like a scuba diver in the ocean for the first time, exhilarated by the freedom of movement in a new environment. I felt as if I was floating on the inside, and dreaming while I was awake. My teacher checked on me. All was well and I continued.
I remember having a big goofy smile on my face at the end of the second ten minutes. I felt like an idiot in front of my attractive teacher, but I supposed she knew that and was used to it. I met Jeff in the living room, he had been initiated concurrently, and we went back to the college where all the other meditators swapped stories with us about their own initiations.
The author as enlightened lazy college student
I had passed through a metaphorical gate. Stepping through it was no different than taking a walk during an autumn afternoon. For the rest of that year, my last at SMC, we would meditate individually in the mornings and meet in groups in the evening. Meditating in a group seemed to enhance the effect. My roommate and I meditated each evening before dinner. It was a comradeship that contained a spiritual link, though we didn\’t think of it in that way. Stress management and relaxation were still they key words. I thought about it in a sacred manner, but did not speak of it, or proselytize, keeping Lao Tzu in mind.
Since then meditation has always been part of my life in one form or another. I no longer practice TM. I fell away from the movement as time passed. The “guru” element was not something with which I was comfortable, and when yogic flying got added to the mix, well, that was just too weird for me. As I mentioned I’m a part time skeptic. (Here are some links to the pro and con on that technique.) I have always been secular in my approach to metaphysics, simply because that seems practical. I suppose that’s why I incorporate so many Jungian concepts into my daily experience of life.
Thus my phone call with Jeff, while suffused with mystery and meaningful coincidence, was simply a phone call. And my trip to Mendocino, which was also a metaphorical passage through a gate, was simply a trip. The big mysteries of life are really not transcendental. They don\’t come from some “other place.” They come from the universe inside us, and are part of us at all times. It’s just that most of the time we are too preoccupied with thoughts and desires to pay any attention to the mystery that is with us at every moment of every day and night. We are all lazy, whether we are looking for Enlightenment or not.
When the voices rise from the bottom of the lake, all we have to do is be grateful and listen to them.
Thanks for the phone call, Jeff. I’ll be in touch soon.
The Glory of Mendocino

 

Mendocino Moment – 1

March 15, 2017 (The Ides of March)
Mendocino at Dawn on the Ides of March 2017
This morning at dawn I watched the sun attempt to cut through the thick overcast of morning clouds over the Mendocino Headlands. The fog was backlit by a pink and rose colored light that changed to a rich yellow and gold. For a little while the gray overcast was like a cold watercolor wash with little eddies of cloud lazily roiling through one another. The ocean was a rippling mirror tainted with moving fluid cracks, unable to create a pure reflection of the sky. It was a stunning sight.
But the sun lost the battle and the clouds won out. At this moment, the ocean is pale and the sky is just a overlay of disinterested dirty white. The landscape is still beautiful, but it teaches us that everything changes and migrates to other moments and that moods and internal states of mind are as malleable as the weather and climate.
Three years ago, about this time of day, my life shattered in an unforeseen and unexpected way. I have spent the last three years gradually putting the pieces back together.
What have I become? A better man? A wiser person? A hero? A fool? An artist? A wanderer in years of pilgrimage like Franz Liszt in Italy?
“All of the above” is the answer to that multiple-choice question.
Experiences that have not yet blossomed seem to be waiting on the horizon. Every one of them is here right now as a possibility. It\’s useless to conjecture about what life would be like today if she had not died. It was what it was, and it is what it is.
Romantic love is a sweet mask that hides our inner turmoil. We love passionately because deep down we feel that love will conquer all things. And it does assuage the little personal events that seem so important to us and that can seem so insurmountable when they appear in our lives. Love can help with those trials. And it\’s pleasant to share life with a partner. There’s no harm in masks, if we remember that there is always something different behind the persona that our partner wears and that we also display to them.
But Love cannot conquer death. Nothing can. Everything is impermanent.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” outlasts us all and counsels us all, for it is the source of all things. But the manifestations of that divine energy are impermanent, constantly changing shape and taking on new forms. When we understand that fact then we are free.
It’s challenging to be liberated from our illusions. And it hurts to acquire freedom. But the air is clear and fresh when we have escaped our expectations and find our experience existing on the other side of suffering. Even if only for a short time.
There’s an old Sicilian proverb that says: “The young are arsonists. The old are firemen.” Life stuff blows up constantly. Being open to wisdom means we can put out the fires when life detonates. And when the smoke clears and the ashes settle we can see the sun rise again the next morning and accept the gift of yet another day. Even if the sun does not burn away the overcast.
Looking south from the Mendocino Headlands while the weather makes up its mind.

The Tension of Memory: 1

Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge
Thursday morning I arose to a beautiful early Spring day. The first little hint of March warmth had emerged, and there were birds singing and Finn was restless. I took him for a long walk and gave him breakfast and then grabbed my camera bag and left him behind to travel up the flanks of Mount Diablo by myself for the first in three years. I was compelled to have a little picnic at a location that I remembered. A memory had arisen because of that last post I wrote about my father.
Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge

I have lived within sight of the mountain for almost fifty years, ever since I situated myself in Contra Costa County to study for my BA in English at Saint Mary’s College of California. My roots here go very deep now, probably just as deep as the roots of Diablo. You can’t help but see the mountain when you move around this area living your daily life. While it’s not extremely high (3849 ft.) it dominates the horizon simply because the rest of the geography consists mainly  of low rolling hills. And the view from the summit on a clear day is spectacular. And depending upon where you are when you are looking at it, the mountain can seem bigger or smaller, as if it is actually shrinking or growing within your own vision as you move about.

Most of the time I take the mountain for granted—I don’t go up there as often as I used to. I suppose that’s due to the fact that for many years I was busy with my job on the weekdays and my family took up my time during weekends. I used to hike there before the kids were born, and while we would go up there now and then for a picnic, years would pass between excursions. But since my kids grew up and my wife passed away memories come back to me with a sort of tension. They compel me to re-experience the old places that I haunted and to recall the events that transpired as my youth turned to middle age. Now that I have reached my sixties the compulsion to recapture memory has become a daily practice.

I don’t want those memories to evaporate as I grow older. I want to be able to savor them in the way that life should be savored. Because time is always too short. The tension of memory is like an elastic band pulling me back to my past while I remain rooted in the present. That tugging is one of the great pleasures of aging—pleasures that sometimes seem few and far between. Ageing is not for sissies.

Snow on Mount Diablo – 2009

So when I woke up Thursday morning I knew I had to go up the mountain again and I had to go alone this time. Finn was not happy about it, but I needed to do some thinking and make some photographs. And while I love being with my greyhound companion there are times when I need space for myself. I picked up a sandwich for myself at my favorite deli, and within a half hour of driving I went back in time 46 years.

There’s a picnic area just past Rock City that I am fond of. Back in the fall of 1971 just as I was starting my college years at St. Mary’s, my Mom, Dad, brothers and my paternal grandmother and I went up to that spot and had a wonderful lunch. I think it was sometime in October. It may have been the first time I was ever up there. I had just started school and was adjusting to life in the dorms and I remember I was still feeling a little homesick. My father took a picture of us all that day. There’s no date on the print but the brown grass is a giveaway to the fact that it was Fall. I remember being shocked by how hot it was in Contra Costa County in September and how dry the hills were. I had spent the last four years of my life in Oxnard living just a couple of miles from the ocean where the weather was always cool and sometimes foggy.

A picnic spot in 1971

On the far left is my Grandma Mellie, my father’s mom, who had traveled out from Tyrone PA. My mom is in the pink skirt (not the best view, but typical of my father’s humor). That’s Paul in the tree (he was always a tree climber and occasionally fell out of them) and Chris with a movie camera. (I wonder where that film is?) I’m concentrating on eating. Looks like burgers for lunch. We always ate well. Note the ubiquitous coffee pot on the camp stove that was sitting on the BBQ pit made from rocks. Back in those days coffee was a beverage you had with lunch and dinner, not something you only consumed in order to wake up in the morning. The coffee was cheap and came in a can. I hated coffee in those days. It was vile stuff. I’m still amazed that people buy the crap that comes in cans and consider it worth drinking.

A picnic spot in 2017

On Thursday I found the spot again. The oak tree that was right next to the table was very old and quite large as you can see from the photo. The tree is no longer there, but there is a stump, and the same table. I sat and ate my sandwich and it felt splendid to have come full circle. The tension of memory was perfectly balanced; I was in the past and the present at the same moment. We tend to forget the fact that we actually live in one long moment of Now. The Past is in our recollections and the Future is in our expectations while the time clock of our life ticks away the moments.

The experience of being there again felt larger than life, one of those moments when all the pieces fall together in a synchronous way and you just have to laugh at the wonder of it all. 46 years had passed, and so much had happened. For the first time in three years I felt very much at peace with all of it and realized that I was finally starting to live again. I have attached pictures to this post of what that spot looks like as of Thursday, which is now in my memory as the past while I sit here typing this post in the present moment. I remembered the older picture as I ate my lunch so I took a couple of shots from the same angle. It’s the same picnic table and the same BBQ pit, 46 years later. It was a fine old tree. I have no idea what happened to it.  But even specimens of quercus lobata are impermanent, though they can live for hundreds of years.

Looking southwest from the summit road – March 2017

After lunch I drove up to the summit and lo and behold there was snow by the side of the road on the back side of the mountain. Though a snowfall on Mount Diablo now and then is not uncommon, witnessing it is always extraordinary. The road to the summit was closed so I was unable to see the view to the east. Sometimes on a clear day you can see the Sierra from the summit building roof.The view in the other directions from the summit road parking lot was stunning, despite some haze. There is still a lot of moisture evaporating into the atmosphere and the mid-afternoon sun creates a high-contrast light that is challenging for photography.

Quercus lobata – Rocky Point Picnic Area

On the way back down before heading home I made some pictures of some of the other old oaks in another picnic area. As I was shooting I could hear cyclists whizzing down the road and sweeping around the long curves of the highway. I’ll have to go back there at another time of day to capture the good light, but I think that any time of day is a good time to make an image. Photographs are little moments of frozen time. Like memories they depict an experience from the past that still lives in the present. When I photograph I feel as if I am living in a long present moment that stretches in two directions behind me and in front of me. And that same tension that I mentioned earlier lives within the image, taking me back to the time when the experience was recorded and resonating with the memory that lives in my head. I love that tension. It makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.

When I returned home Finn was glad to see me. He always is. Isn’t that the wonderful thing about dogs? They forgive us our transgressions immediately upon our reappearance. The next time I head up the mountain, which will be soon, I’ll have to leave him behind once more, because dogs are not allowed on the trails and I want to revisit some old walking spots that I have not seen in decades. But I know he will forgive me just as the tension of memory absolves me when I return to the places that mean so much to me and that I will continue to describe in words and photographs.

Beware of bikes on blind curves
“You left me alone, but I forgive you.”