Henrietta

I remember very little from the years between 1973 and 1980. There’s a simple reason for this, but one that omits a large part of the story. In the years between my birth and our unintentional immigration to the East Coast, I was busy learning how to eat, how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to dress myself, and how to talk. I was learning about the world that surrounded me, and about my place in it. I was learning what kind of a person I was, and what kind of people had brought me into this world.

In the first decade of the 20th century — a decade variously referred to as the ’00s, the naughts, the oughts, the aughties, and the naughties — the big buzzword in psychological circles was resilience. Resilience was the word used over and over again in the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. It’s a word that contains within it a kind of boundless optimism often lacking in the discussion of trauma, PTSD, and recovery from same.

“Resilience” is a word my own mother pulled out during a rather uncomfortable conversation in the drawing room of my partner’s parents’ house one Christmas Eve. I’d asked my mother to tell the story of the chickens who lived in a pen behind our house in Sunnyvale, California — the non-fictitious town of my birth and early childhood. I was fascinated with these chickens, as I was with all animals. I could pet the rabbits in their hutch on the other side of the back yard, and their fur was the softest thing I’d ever felt. I was sure that the feathers of our bad-tempered chicken Henrietta would also prove soft and pettable, and with the boundless optimism of toddlerhood I was sure I could win her over just as I did all the grown-up humans I’d encountered.

Henrietta had other ideas.

As soon as I opened the door of her pen, she began running after me, making evil chicken noises I’d never heard before, her wings akimbo and her sharp little beak ready to peck at my fat little toddler legs. We began a breathless circuit of the back yard. I screamed as loud as I could for my mom, keeping one or two chicken-steps ahead of Henrietta and her wicked beak.

This is where the actual events of the day have probably become blurred by countless retellings, and also by the dominant narrative of my childhood. As Mom tells the story, she stood at the kitchen window and laughed and laughed at the sight of a three-year-old girl being chased by a chicken. My own memory of the event from this point forward is a blurred mix of terror and bewilderment. Where was my mother? I could hear her laughing, but she wasn’t there to protect me. In the mind of a toddler, being pecked by a chicken looms as large and horrific as being mauled by a grizzly. It is perhaps the first time I felt alone and abandoned in the face of terror.

Four Way of Looking at a Homeland

1.
Embarcadero backwards
lady firefighter in Victorian dress
bronze plaques trailing behind us

At the Ferry Building, I explode in hunger
sad-eyed, you explore on your own

On the terrace,
             a seagull as big as my head
begs, expectant
        then pigeons
                 a corbin I’ve never seen before
     (blue-black, but not a grackle)
puffs his feathers and collapses
making a noise that makes us laugh

2.
Muir Woods. Scottish father
Mother from the deep
In silence we repair, foot-sore,
the light that shines between us

In the mist all things are possible
trees mightier than the sword
walk far enough and you will find silence

3.
Road a sacred spiral
there the stand of eucalyptus
there the hills
there the fog
there the houses
there the ocean

4.
The elk, unexpected, in the hills of St. Helena
regard us without much interest

raptors on the wind above hills
tall as mountains
gentle as hips
wider than a mouth can contain

The Drama of the Disoriented Traveler

M thought we’d postpone the trip until June, but he underestimated the pull of California. I may be Yankee-bred, but I’m California-born, and that handful of years I spent there shifted me in some fundamental way a born-and-bred New Englander can’t comprehend. If I don’t feel the humid air and smell the eucalyptus once a year — preferably before the cherry blossoms burst out on the East Coast — I get very cranky. And nobody likes a cranky Okelle.

So what if we had just expended time and energy taking two households and combining them into one? Since when has an empty bank account — or exhaustion — ever stopped me from hopping on a plane to someplace warm?

When I’m feeling ashamed or embarrassed, M will say, “I love you because you’re a woman of strong passions.” Which calms me down a bit, strips away the old intensity of perfectionism. And allows me to forgive myself for dragging him off to my homeland before either of us was really ready.

On the upside, I’d been saving for the trip in advance and definitely stayed within my budget. On the downside, he bought the rip-off rental car insurance and couldn’t say the same thing. On the upside, we tooled around in a Mustang convertible so new, we had to break open the shrink-wrap on the owner’s manual. And he finally me the rest of my family. And after almost 800 miles negotiating the tiny roads that run from valley to valley, he was ready to admit that maybe California had a certain appeal. The upsides have it.

About 24 hours after we arrived at SFO, after an extra-long day that took us from the Embarcadero to Muir Woods and then to the rest of San Francisco, we met his brother at a Boston bar called, ironically enough, Connecticut Yankee. The aroma of 100 years’ worth of spilled beer greeted us at the door. Since I can no longer drink the tasty, hoppy, liquid bread — and since I’d spent the better part of the day pounding pavement and mud with my jet-lagged legs — I was more than a little cranky by the end of dinner. Cranky enough to make a bratty declaration and go for a walk before the check came.

Here’s what I wrote while standing at a mailbox outside of a boarded-up dot-com startup, taking deep breaths and regarding the San Francisco skyline while hipsters bar-hopped all around me. I won’t apologize for it, but I will say it’s very much worthy of my inner 13-year-old, who was very much running the show at that moment:

stand with legs closed
san francisco’s silhouette in the distance

inhaling, heart pounding
one breath, one moment, one breath

sometimes nothing heals but time
sometimes nothing fills the god-shaped hole

all day walking
through the city
through the redwoods

foreign city, foreign parts
foreign homeland

distress of disconnection
a technology deeper than time
wider than space

one moment, one moment
and then the next

Three San Francisco Haiku: Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin

Three haiku at the Phoenix Hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin

san francisco streets
wrought iron gate, open sky
urban oasis

blue mosaic pool
low chairs arranged artfully
artwork, fountains, fire

outside, the homeless
squeal of buses, 6am
unmerited gifts

This is just to say (or, a spiritual petit four)

Too much to say, not enough to say. This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were — No, that’s what William Carlos Williams said.

A little while ago I started a long and rambling post about my late-February trip to California (already, it’s been four weeks since my departure!). Then, instead of clicking “Save draft,” I clicked “Publish.” And thanks to the power of the Intarwebs 2.0, all y’all got a peek at it. More than a peek, on RSS and via email. Which made me retreat further into myself.

So consider this post a sort of clearing of the throat. A burst of rusty water from the pipe. A blogospheric petit four. Now that I’m blogging into the Great Beyond without even my old Livejournal friends for company, I find myself with a bad case of stage fright. The bright, bright lights; the black, black house.

California filled my mind with images and colors and textures and flavors — experiences of the moment, memories from childhood, epiphanies from both. Returning to Boston filled my sinuses with gunk and my mouth with cotton. In between the two, I’ve just been trying to return to equilibrium. Because of course, when I least expected it, chronic illness raised its ugly head. And while I battled with a cold and the symptoms the cold unleashed–symptoms of a deeper, more persistent disorder — springtime crept on little cat feet all around me. New England springtime, in the form of longer days and brief periods of warmth — just long enough to make you think you didn’t need your long underwear anymore. Then, a one-two punch: frigid air, cloudy skies.

First the crocuses, then the snow. Snow on tulips. That, my friends, is springtime in Boston. But the supermoon came and went on Saturday, and the vernal equinox the next day, and I’ve been clawing and plodding my way back to health. And maybe soon I’ll even be able to tell you properly about my latest pilgrimage back to the place of my birth. And the books I’ve been reading — especially that new one by Andrew Himes.

Ten Moments in Northern California

  1. All alone in San Francisco. In the early morning, the line for the cable cars is much shorter. A family from Ohio sits next to me on the wooden step. I don’t take pictures. I look. At each intersection, the cable car stops for a moment, hovering there on the side of a hill, and you see down a long avenue, past buildings and cars and streets and people. At the end of the street, there’s the bay, and the bridge arcing gracefully between buildings, and little puffy clouds scooting across the sky.
  2. After wandering through Chinatown I return to my hotel room for a nap and wake up at midnight. The cool moist air of the city surrounds me. I roll over and go back to sleep.
  3. In Petaluma we stay at a Sheraton at the edge of a marsh. I walk the path that skirts the dense, low vegetation and the mudflats. Highway 101 roars nearby and the marsh is ringed with litter and office buildings. It’s a long, long walk, and my muscles, complaining after three days of San Francisco hills, soften and then tighten again. At the farthest point, I see three egrets and two herons. This is one of the last wetlands on the California coast.
  4. The Cathedral Grove at Muir Woods has been designated a “quiet zone.” The redwoods stretch up forever, a thousand, two thousand years old. Determined to make it to the grove, I push on ahead of the rest of my family. My six-year-old niece walks with me, and she is so very good about remaining silent in this silent, sacred place. Other tourists blather on, take photos. She shushes them. In spite of the chatter here and there, I can hear and feel the silence, the weight of these old, old beings, here long before the cars and chips and subdivisions.
  5. On the way to Petaluma, we stopped and took in the perfect view of the bay, the city, Oakland, the hills, and the graceful orange curves of the Golden Gate. On the way back, fog envelops the bridge, the thick suspension cables fading into the mist.
  6. The eucalyptus trees, heavy and shaggy and fragrant. Lining the highway, brought here by missionaries one hundred and fifty years ago.
  7. My brother’s house is an Eickler. The facade is a blank wall, softened by native plants artfully placed. Inside, glass walls and the high, sloped ceiling, draw in the greenery of the atrium and the back garden. It’s like being inside a work of art.
  8. At night in Santa Cruz I cross the boardwalk with my family, then leave them behind and greet the ocean. In the dark, seals bark to each other and the sea practices her endless rush. On the boardwalk, roller coasters and ferris wheels sparkle in the darkness, and people scream on the rides. I walk the strand between the two worlds.
  9. The next afternoon I hike from the boardwalk to West Cliff. Signs remind me to keep right. From time to time I stop and listen to the pounding of the surf, a whump I’ve never heard from the Atlantic. Surfers lay atop their boards, and from time to time one pops up and rides the curving white head of a wave to the edge of the rocks.
  10. At the beach below the Surfer’s Museum, I sit on the sand and watch four teenagers talk about their summer jobs. From the cadence of their speech I can tell they are from Northern California. The sun, the blue oceans, the waves, lull me. I roll over on my side. My niece calls to me across the sand. I sit up and she runs to me. I pick her up and swing her around. Her father and my mother trail behind. Her father, my brother, has lived on this coast for 20 years. He’s a different man now than the boy I grew up with on the opposite side of the continent. And still my brother. Still family.

San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates

Arrived after 1:00 am on Friday night (Saturday morning, I suppose) and stayed at the Mosser Hotel in downtown San Francisco. It’s located in SoMa (South of Market), an area where a lot of multimedia companies set up shop during the heady days of the 1990s dot-com boom.

I’ve come to realize something about Northern California. It’s a very unsettled place. It’s like the hills of San Francisco: sudden upturns and downturns. Nothing seems quite solid here. The excesses of the 1848 Gold Rush still echo in this place. Fortunes made and lost overnight, glittering towers built and then ruined when the earth turns over in her sleep.

It is my homeland; at some deep level, I will always be a California girl. Not the easygoing, bubble-headed beach bunny that most people think of when you say “California girl.” But a California girl nevertheless. The dry, brown hills that bloom emerald in the winter, the live oaks that dot the crevices of those hills, the eucalyptus that towers and sheds its minty bark, the fog that rolls in and out. My heart swells to think of these things. It feels right to me.

But I’ve come to realize I cannot live here. The sun is too hot. The asphalt stretches on for miles. All the evils of the big box sprawl seem that much more apparent to me. The pockets of old California, the marshes and the forested hills, they call to me, but in the same way that the Cape calls to me. I love the fantasy of living in these places, but if I moved to either place, I’d probably go mad.

I am an Easterner, a Yankee, with Yankee sensibilities. I love the crisp air of September, the golden light that fades against the tops of trees in October. I love the smell of apples and the calmer waters of the Atlantic. The sea belongs in the east, not the west.

Besides, I wasn’t born in San Francisco. I was born in the South Bay, in a valley ringed by mountains and filled with asphalt. Back when I was 12 years old, I came to stay with my grandparents for a month. And I hated it, the flatness of the land and the one-story houses, the claustrophobic privacy fences that portioned off one tiny yard from another. The miles and miles of streets and cars. The valley is one big suburb that stretches on for miles and miles, a wasteland of cars and strip malls. Not that we don’t have these things in the East, but they’re tucked away among hills and rivers and trees. I long for the wide vistas of California, but once I’m here I tire of them quickly.

This land is lovely but it is not, in the long run, home. It is the homeland. I visit the homeland. And then I return to my home, in the East.