About Me

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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Memoriam

            Suzee Cameron was my friend long ago and far away, when we were not 60 something old ladies, but topless little girls, three something, sitting spraddled in the hot beach sand at the edge of the Pacific in our underwear, vigorously  stirring sand soup and shaping sand castles and then going to swing on the tall beach swings of the Hermosa Beach Strand, pumping our short legs in earnest effort, higher and higher and higher, then leaning entirely upside down to feel our blonde hair tickle across the sand  as we swung through the arc.  As seven and eight year olds, we explored tide pools together in front of Topanga Canyon, naming the baby octopi we captured, poking sea anemones and screaming as they sucked our fingers in with their retreat. We slept all in a tangle with her sisters in a big bed full of sand and little girls as the hum of adult conversations and laughter by the fire in the main room faded from our consciousness.
            The Camerons and the Hamptons were comrades in adventure in those days, living in shabby beach apartments, or in the Cameron’s case, even camping out on the top of Mt Tamalpais. I remember living richly with few dollars. I remember classical music playing at top volume, raucous volleyball games, exploring in the mountains, and for us children, a world made vivid, magical, smelling of salt and beer and suntan oil.  So very full of possibilities.
            There is a long break in my memory. The Camerons went away, and came back. And then I remember Suzee, briefly, as an awakened butterfly, a tall slender thirteen year old emerging from the dark dreams of encephalitis coma and discovering she had become a truly beautiful young woman.  Dark haired. Laughing with delight at her new self.   We visited. We parted to our now different countries. And for many many years I did not see Suzee again, or very rarely.  
            I caught glimpses of her life sometimes as she passed by where I was living, or I managed a short trip to Canada.  From her middle years, my mind holds images of Suzee as a pregnant traveling hippie, a frantic novice real estate agent, a happy young wife with Peter sitting in a sidewalk café before a jazz concert, a warm-hearted house mother to foreign students, and friend to a circle of women, and finally a powerful career woman, thriving  on coffee and adrenalin and teleconferencing as she organized for the Neil Squire Foundation. But other people know those parts of her life far better than I.
I can’t say we were close friends in those years. Indeed we only barely knew the outlines of each other’s lives. And yet, for two days, since receiving the news of her death, I have had to fight tears all day long, submerged in tsunamis of grief and trying to understand how this astonishing woman with  her tangled wondrous life came to mean so much to me, far more than I understood.  
            I did correspond with her in her forties and see more of her in her late fifties. She wrote from solitary campsites in the Canadian wilderness and visited several times to California, sitting on my porch in her white shorts and lace T, smoking her stogies and looking thoughtfully out to sea. Gradually, staying a few days at a time, she filled in some of the rest of her story.  I wont tell it all again here. But only try to understand what there was in it that made her so extraordinary, and now, so deeply missed.
            Suzee was not always easy. She was strong willed, sure of herself sometimes to a fault, and I often found myself pulling back from her certainties about a spiritual path or an approach to health or finances, too cautious for such exotic experiments. She filled a gallon jug with water on one visit and pronounced it innately pure from the secret ingredient she had added. I was to keep filling new ones from it. She generously urged a low acid diet I was to follow, avocado shakes leading the way. She explained that nearly all that ails a person could be cured with a solution of silver – until I looked up the negative side effects of this on the Internet.  She passionately supported causes that left me skeptical or bewildered.
And yet when she arrived it was very much like the sun coming out.  Suzee had a presence of joy, of boundless generosity that overcame all doubts in her relationships. She did not enter a room, as her mother writes, she exploded into it. She filled it with radiant charisma, and she did this in the face of challenges that would have defeated a lesser person a hundred times over. She suffered terribly the loss of her beloved son, and yet came to my door still smiling, determined to break the hold that alcohol had on her in a retreat in Arizona.  Months later, on her way home, life slammed her down again and she broke her pelvis and much else in an automobile accident on an icy road in the Canadian winter. And yet again she came south with that smile still there. Still wonderful in its power. Her battered body not even limping. I believe Suzee was as courageous in her life as any champion on any battlefield.  Fierce and kind and bold in all she did. Generous to all she met. And she had something else that touched me.  In fact I think that is the quality that has left me with this grief more than any other. Suzee was free. Half her spirit belonged always to the forest and the sea. Half gave itself passionately and generously, and without reserve or caution, to everything and everyone she came to love. She never succumbed somehow to the velvet traps society sets to capture us, to direct our labor to its purposes.  It is determined to name us, define us, number us, bind us with caution and the hope of small salaries doled out each month. Suzee chose a life outside society’s safe walls. In this way she embodied a person part of me yearns still to be. 
Suzee, like her father before her, was a free spirit in the truest sense of the word. When she came to visit, she did not save for months first and set out with an itinerary listing hotel reservations in hand. She just came. Living light. Traveling in a trusty ancient car, sleeping in public campgrounds with the least gear possible. She trusted each new day. When she was broke, she would exchange labor for a living. When she was alone, she opened her heart warmly to each new person she met, and made new friends, loved new lovers, tried new roads. Rich or poor, she had style, and elegance. She was self-educated, a poet and a teacher. She was a spiritual wise woman, and she was an ardent mother.  She never retreated in fear or found a comfortable home in depression, for all that life threw at her. She was just astonishingly vital and bold. Indeed, when the news of her death came, it truly seemed to me as if a law of nature itself had somehow been violated. How could such a dynamic person ever leave us?
And yet she has, and I and all who loved her so deeply must live with that. We hope there is a heaven. She surely earned it. As a Buddhist, I hope she goes on to another life, as radiant as this one, and more at peace. My father’s loss six years ago taught me one sure thing we can hold to. What such a rare human being leaves behind is the changes they have made in the people they loved, the inspiration they gave us, the lessons they taught, the sweet memories we made together. Those are not gone. And holding those gifts close, we go on.
Travel well old friend. You will be remembered long upon this earth.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Twelve Links

Out of the dark
we come circling,
blind and reaching
the monkey mind, waking.
There in the dark, a light,
slick wet
and the potter’s wheel spinning,
black river flowing,  and we reach,
and find we have hands
look, and find we have eyes,
stand within a house with six windows
and see a world out there,
birdsong and zephyr
lovers embracing,
and we cannot stay quiet,
with spring in the air.
We run to meet it.
We hope we love we wrap
ourselves in sunlight and
too late learn shadows
for we are caught now, devoted to tomorrow and tomorrow and…
we can have it, 
so near, just there, beyond, soon,
try again, drink life dry,  hurl the bottle, tear away the fruit,
fight for it!
There is no stopping now.
Now we must come again.
A womb will carry us back
to be born in blood and yearning,
and then we are here,
existence required,
aging with each breath,
death stamped on our passports,
and dread dark at every exit.

**The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and their associated imagery on thangkas depicting the Buddhist Wheel of Life.

1.     Ignorance – a blind person
2.     Volitional formation (impulse  due to past karma) – a potter making pots
3.     Consciousness – monkey leaping
4.     Name and form – body and mind come together in individual existence – people in a boat
5.     Faculties and objects  - the sense organs and their objects – a house with six  windows
6.     Contact – an embracing couple
7.     Sensations, pleasurable and painful leading to desire and aversion – an arrow piercing an eye
8.     Craving or desire – a man drinking beer, surrounded by bottles
9.     Clinging or grasping to self and to pleasures    and to a womb leading to rebirth – monkey or person reaching for a fruit
10. Becoming – forming the next life – a pregnant woman or a couple making love
11. Birth – a woman in childbirth
12. Old age and death  

Dedicated to those who died yesterday in Norway, and all those who now 
live with the pain of it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Remembering David Crockett Stuart

I am getting to that time of life where it feels appropriate to look back – way back – and finally start reading those old family archives my father left behind. And doing so, a little each night, I am truly sorry I did not do so while he was alive. What talks we could have had! But one story at least I will share with you dear readers, for now. You might find it thought-provoking, as I have.

My father had two powerhouse grandfathers, patriarchs who survived long lives deeply entangled with some of the most dramatic historical events of their times. One of them, his mother’s father, was named David Crockett Stuart (holding my father in the photo at left) – himself descended several generations before from a dramatic character we know less about, a Scotch-Irish man who came as a youth to serve in the British army in the Revolutionary War as a drummer boy and decided to stay in America when the defeated troops were being reloaded on transports back to Europe – or so the story goes.

I am a little cautious about those oral stories now. Davy Crockett, for example, I had always heard was a sharpshooter from Alabama for all four years of the Civil War. I was always faintly horrified by this distant man – what would the soul of a man be like after spending four years sneaking up on unsuspecting young men shaving or doing their laundry and shooting them from ambush? Sounded much more like serial murder than noble service. I was also dismayed by the news that his direct commanding officer was Nathan Bedford Forrest, infamous founder of the KKK after the war. Bad enough for my own ancestor to spend years defending states’ right to have slaves. Also, since he enlisted at 18 in the Alabama outback, I assumed he was barely educated.

What a shock to read his memoir of the war then and discover a wonderful natural narrative writer at work. He wrote detailed accounts of running battles and capture, coming home, enduring innumerable deaths of friends and family members, and going out again to stand with the last embattled few in a lost war. He did indeed enlist at 18 but he came, I discovered, from a mountain family who disdained slave holders as immoral men who were probably bound for hell. And he actually wrote a line or two to put forth his own observation that owning slaves seemed to corrupt otherwise good men. Interesting indeed – and mystifying - for the man actually did spend all four years, from the first week of the war, fighting ferociously to defend their interests. For himself, he offers only an offhanded, and almost tongue in cheek explanation for his enlistment – that a firebrand preacher came to their hamlet a few days after the start and proclaimed in a brimstone speech that if they didn’t all sign up immediately, the Yankees would start arriving almost at once to rape their sisters and mothers. Clearly not something the mature man took seriously. But why then?

I was also fascinated to discover that he had not, after all, been a sharp shooter. He was a rebel cavalryman from start to finish, who loved his horse as a best friend and was overjoyed to meet up with it again near the end of the war after being captured and incarcerated in Chicago. He barely lived through that experience, becoming so emaciated from dysentery that he could no longer walk without aid on the day the opportunity to be exchanged in an amnesty came. So he hoarded the bread he received that week and offered it to a newer, stronger prisoner for the right to hold onto the man’s shoulders to get into the train south, knowing he would die if he did not. (Odd indeed to take in the thought that if he had not been strong enough to hold onto the man’s shoulder’s and walk, I would not be here to write this.)

He did much later name one of his sons Forrest, presumably after his commanding officer, yet his descriptions of Nathan Bedford Forrest depict an officer with an absolutely over the top level of aggressiveness, a powerful leader who charged into every battle, to be sure, but at great cost to his men. He ran his cavalry day after day, month after month, until they staggered with exhaustion. He also left my great grandfather behind to be captured when one of his injudicious decisions left them cut off. He did not finish the war under this commander, nor take any part in his activities after the war, thank God.

Instead he converted – tentatively - to Mormonism and headed northwest to join the wave of settlers populating Idaho after the battles with the plains indians. But that is a story I will expore in another blog.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sea shadows

A moment of grace yesterday. When seagulls came to eat the bread I had thrown on the roof across the way. A large black shadow ricocheted across the kitchen, rippling over the sunny table, flicking stove, sink, floor, like a leaf tumbled in a hurricane, barely seen before it is gone. Another and then another. The kitten, Moon, leaped onto the sill, head outside, transfixed by their proximity, for the birds were swooping on bread only 15 feet from his nose, their bodies larger than his. They came in wary, swift, circling in arcs that covered my whole block, coming close, and feinting away, and rising again, taking in kitten, windows, trees, unknowns everywhere, and the bread, the beckoning bread, again and again. The little bright cat quivered in every muscle, his gold eyes luminous with wonder, and the shadows of sea birds shafted through my kitchen.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Christmas time look back

Bright Christmas and New Years rolling around the year again, and dear friends and family are sending beautiful cards, and fascinating newsletters full of family accomplishments. I realized I should bestir my lazy self and actually come up with something more communicative than a Jacquie Lawson e card or a cyber wave on Facebook. Friendship, I am learning, even familial friendship, needs real news to stay glossy.

So, Cesca’s year. Not quite so entertaining as those of you with large families and/or jet set lifestyles, and not even a kidnapping by good-looking pirates to report, but it was a pivotal year for me nonetheless. Last spring was my last semester of full time teaching. I started off each day, well four days, prying myself out of bed and setting off to a class of charming young to middle age mothers who studied English at Starlight elementary school in a rough but serviceable portable classroom as their children recited their ABC’s nearby. I am not a person who rises early with great enthusiasm, but it was a good way to start each day. We studied grammar and life skills vocabulary, to be sure, but we also shared lives, danced giggling and shrieking each day to 15 minutes of Zumba, watched Supernanny and discussed child raising tips, celebrated baby showers with such intriguing customs as competing to estimate the mother to be’s girth in toilet paper squares and generally became close enough friends that parting in June was truly difficult. My afternoons were a different kind of party in which I pulled out the keys to a different kingdom – I taught computer skills to seniors, and digital photography to those ready to step even further into our brave new cyber world. And wondered that anyone was actually paying me to have so much fun. Evenings, two evenings anyway, I was off to my office at Cabrillo College to prepare for a 3 hour ESL essay writing class. A little more like work, with piles of notebooks to evaluate on the weekends, but also, never dull or hard to do. Teaching has been a good path for me.

Nonetheless, I had a secret fantasy blooming inside all semester, as rosy a thought as any secret love affair. Retirement! I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever I tried to imagine it – even while swimming laps in the neighborhood pool. Smiling into the unfocused blue under water, I was adding up monthly income sources, imagining travel and writing and above all FREEDOM from the constant interruption of daily obligations as I stroked my way to the end of another lap.
And so the day came. The last spring grade was filed, the last application form sent away. And the first large retirement check sat fatly in my bank account – well large by my standards. And positively exhilarating to think they planned to keep sending them each month, whether I had worked or not.
And bless them, they have continued, and I affirm to the world that retirement – even semi-retirement – is entirely NOT over-rated. My new life requires only 3 half days of work and features four day weekends and a monthly income that may at last achieve middle class standing –though my class assignments are more tenuous now that I am low woman on the seniority totem pole at both schools. Yet so far so good. And now with Winter holidays here, I sit beaming at the prospect of 5 weeks of uninterrupted writing time.

It very nearly did not come to pass however. This has been a year when the dark angel has come close or even taken many around me – not to mention SO many unfortunates on the nightly news – and even, three times, hesitated at my door as I later learned. In August, I went traveling to see Shakespeare in Ashland with my lifetime friend Kathy and, after the long hours of driving, found myself unusually out of breath. The stairway to the lobby of our antique hotel was steep however, as are many of the hills, so I did not think too much of it. I became alarmed only weeks later, when, going out to pick up my morning paper on my own familiar stairs, I found myself forced to pant for five minutes before I recovered. Reluctantly I went off to check it out and ended the day in the hospital with a diagnosis of triple pulmonary emboli – the diagnosis that took the life of my father’s sister Irene and possibly his sister Bernice – at about my current age. The doctors had found a sizeable clot in my leg – likely a result of the long drive and having had that hip surgery in 2007. It had thrown off three small clots, any one of which could have abruptly ended life as I know it, but did not. They were trapped in my lungs and will dissolve naturally I am told. Indeed it feels like they already have. And I will be taking a blood thinner for at least 6 months to be on the safe side. All my life I have blithely assumed – with my mother’s long lived family and my father’s own successful journey all the way to 88, that I held a free pass deep into old age. I am humbler on that point now. And WAY motivated to find my way back to a healthy weight. But there are no guarantees about lifespan for any of us. How many many people wake up on a fine sunny morning, drink their coffee, start off with to do list in hand and weekend calendar full, and end on that same weekend as ashes in the sea and friends and relatives weeping for their loss? I am trying a little harder to keep that in mind and appreciate the gift of each day now. Though full health and heedless optimism have both returned for the moment.

There were other adventures this year. I had many fine dinners and/or outings with my cousins George and Patricia and local friends Janice and Elaine and Barbara and Mary and movie buddy Linsey. Dear Kathy came to Santa Cruz for a multi-day visit just last week. Jeanne and Janice came to celebrate a second Christmas after a storm delayed our original dinner. I self-published a children’s adventure novel through lulu.com and have started work on a sequel. I’m putting the finishing touches on a book of Buddhist-oriented short stories that I also may end self-publishing. (Just don’t have the patience to send out all those elaborate packets publishers love to reject with such callous abandon -so far - sigh. Don’t imagine I will achieve fame and fortune through writing, but the spirit still moves me, so we will see what happens). Another grand project is to finish digitizing family photos from both sides, and create photo books that everyone can order. Already did one on Hamp, but then discovered a treasure trove of earlier pictures that should be included. (Tobi and Leslie stay tuned!). And have been fascinated to learn more about my Fretheim and Joint family trees courtesy of my cousin David. Found myself on Google Earth standing inside one of those 360 degree bubble pictures looking down from a mile high cliff top into the immense Norweigian fjord some of my 16th century ancestors once sailed out of. So real I could almost feel the cold wind on my face and breathtakingly beautiful. Must go there some day and stand in that place for real.

I have the time at last to return to my Buddhist studies with more attention and have been overjoyed to discover two western teachers of real accomplishment (Tenzin Chokyi and Alan Wallace) who both have long years of study and intense retreats – AND degrees in science from modern universities that enable them to discuss the relationship between scientific perspectives and Buddhist insights and methods with real authority and, hopefully, may help nudge me a LITTLE further along in a good direction before I do actually kick the bucket.

My sweet mother continues to be a major focus in my life, needing a bit more care now than she did, though she is still amazingly self-sufficient and beautiful at the age of 87. Her building is only three blocks from my apartment and has an elevator, and for now serves her needs even better than living with me – though that may come to pass eventually. I have learned to let life unfold in its own patterns – it always surprises me when I most think I know what is coming next.

One cat, Freckles, has left my life (after being hit by a car on Portola) and another, the kitten Moon, has entered it. Pepper the Maine coon, has become a feline mountain but does condescend to play with the kitten, 5 seconds at a time. It is a start. And spring cometh.

I hope you too are well dear reader, and continue to be for a long long time. It is an amazing journey isn’t it?