This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Because I don’t live under a rock, it was probably inevitable that I’d eventually be exposed to the term “intersectionality.” As I understand it, the term was coined to express some of the complexity of our identities. It was originally proposed in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. Like so many terms that can get polarized, intersectionality has sometimes become a catch phrase, used to stigmatize people rather than to empower them.
Part of me wants to resist being characterized as part of any group—evidence of the individualism, often overdone, that can be both blessing and bane in American society. Because I’m older, I remember that most labels we’ve used on each other and ourselves have changed over time. They can be used for praise or derision, construed differently by different people—European-American, white, honky, cracker, trailer trash; mixed race, African-American, black, colored, Negro, n*****; straight, gay, lesbian, gender-nonconforming, queer, fairy, fag; able-bodied, physically challenged, disabled, blind, deaf, gimpy, crippled; rich, poor, middle-class, economically challenged, worthless, parasitic; young, old, middle-aged, mature, over the hill, elderly, has-been, etc. etc. Especially since September 11, 2001, we’ve too frequently tended to conflate “Moslem” with “terrorist,” and/or to label immigrants as trespassers.
Some of the labels applied to me put me in a “dominant” or advantaged group; others put me at a disadvantage. It can get confusing and irritating at times. It helps if I can recognize myself as a complex, flawed, redeemable human being. I’m better than the worst things I’ve ever done, yet rarely as good as my best self. I’d like to be able to answer to a characterization as an aging seeker capable of occasional flashes of humor and perspective.
Having recently relocated to a new physical environment, I sometimes attempt here to go nameless and label-less. If pressed, I tend to respond with my given name, and then to ask, in what I hope is a neighborly way, “Who are you, and what would you like to be called?”
A welcoming presence in this new locale—
A community garden an easy walk away.
Most mornings, a garden elder greets me,
Shares stories of other gardeners and of
The plants growing under her watchful eye.
Along a trellis just outside the garden
Gate sprawls a droopy set of greenery—
Half cactus, half vine, it shades the
Garden’s tool shed behind it.
“What’s that?” I ask the first time
I see this mystery plant, splaying pale
Cream-colored blossoms along
Its width. “A dragonfruit,”
Explains the elder. “It’s not officially
Part of the garden, but one of
Our gardeners asked to put it there.”
Most of the time, the blossoms are
Already spent by morning. The plant,
I learn online, usually blooms at night.
Bats and nocturnal insects pollinate it.
On subsequent visits, I find that spent
Blooms have fallen off, replaced by growing
Orbs, at first pale green, then pinkish,
Then red. As they get bigger, they
Sprout what look a bit like scales—
Hence the popular name.
My most recent trip reveals a new sign—
“Large fruit, $3; small $1; proceeds to
Help buy supplies for next spring’s planting.”
I remember having eaten some once in a fruit salad:
White inside, with black seeds and a mild flavor.
I think I’ll buy some and try to find creative
Uses for them. If nothing else, they can remind
Me, in this pivotal time, when so many
Preconceptions have been turned
Inside out, to nudge my inner dragons
Away from seedy black and white,
Toward a more scaled and colorful reality.
Now can be a challenging time to be a human. A global pandemic has killed over 4 million of us and infected over 200 million, with no signs yet that the number of cases or deaths is abating. The United States of America has just become the most recent foreign government to exit Afghanistan after a lengthy ground war. Whether that country can meet its many challenges remains to be seen. Within the USA, recent severe weather has caused deaths and destruction in nearly every region, with floods in the South and East and wildfires in the West. There are so far few indication that widespread wars, deaths, or destruction are likely to end any time soon.
Now is the season in the part of the globe where I live when children return to school after a traditional summer break. On a recent weekend, I volunteered with a group of parents and community members to help clean the outdoor spaces at my granddaughter’s elementary school before the start of classes. Time spent at the campus gave me a broader exposure to the school than I’d earlier gotten while picking her up at her classroom. Many classroom doors had inspirational sayings written beneath the teacher’s name. Some were fairly pat, “You’re amazing;” “You’re awesome;” “You can do it;” etc.
One door had an inscription that was new to me: “Sometimes You Win; Sometimes You Learn.” A brief internet search showed the slogan as the title of a book written by American motivational speaker, consultant and pastor John C. Maxwell in 2013. I haven’t yet read the book; I was favorably disposed toward it after learning that its foreword was written by former basketball coach John Wooden of UCLA fame.
If there has been one positive aspect to the covid-19 pandemic for me so far, it’s been the motivation to spend an increasing proportion of my waking hours outdoors. Public health officials counsel outdoor activity, especially socially distanced outdoor activity, as one aspect of an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Along with the use of face masks, reduced crowd size at both indoor and outdoor events, contact tracing, and vaccination, the use of the outdoors for as many activities as practical is recommended.
I love to garden. For me, putting seeds in the soil and having plants later appear is little short of miraculous. I also love to participate in group singing. Now that most choirs are virtual, I’ve developed a pandemic ritual of listening to recordings of favorite hymns. A special blessing in this challenging time has been the lyric “Earth Was Given As a Garden.” (You can listen to one version at youtube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84, a recording by the UU Chancel Choir of Oakland, CA.) When I’ve had a discouraging day, the final few lines help renew my hope:
“…bid our waste and warfare cease,
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing,
Teach us how to live in peace.”
Up and out the door as soon
As there is enough light to see.
Not enough light yet to avoid triggering
The motion-sensor backyard spotlight, though.
Quickly I step beyond its glare,
Out onto the sidewalk, headed briskly
I know not where exactly, but
With a vague notion of an hour’s route
For this cool, misty early August ramble.
Since the solstice, day
Lengths have been shortening,
Almost imperceptibly at first,
But now with increasing speed.
Nearby construction equipment sits dormant,
Not yet clanging, rumbling, and belching exhaust.
Car traffic along the street is minimal, too.
The birds have yet to begin
Their morning tune-ups. Dogs and their
Walkers are still mostly abed.
I turn north, trot uphill beside a west-facing ravine.
Intertwined streets then nudge me eastward toward
Distant ridges that mask a rising sun. The marine
Layer is fickle—thickly foggy in some canyons,
Totally absent in others.
I pass lawns too lush for this arid climate.
Precisely timed sprinklers moisten them
For maximum impact, before the sun’s ascent.
Interspersed yards erupt instead in spiny cacti,
Yuccas, succulents, clumps of native grasses.
Eventually I head south homeward, past a covid-adapted
Gym’s outdoor patio, where pre-office exercisers
Begin their morning routines. Trainers bellow,
Crank up energetic music. Next door,
A small flashing neon “OPEN” at the local bake
Shop beckons. I stop to check breakfast options.
The sun by now has crested the Mission Hills,
Casting intermittent shadows on me,
On the exercisers, the trainers, the bake shop.
Small pastry secured in my shoulder sack, I
Pause before trudging the final blocks to
The housing complex that’s my new home.
“When do you open?” I ask, after searching vainly
For a posted schedule. “We come in at six,”
The proprietor tells me. “Early, before the sun.”
Earlier this year, I moved from an area that gets about a meter of rain per year to a locale that rarely gets as much as a quarter of that. Per local weather data, this past year has been drier still, with only about 13 centimeters of rain during the most recent dozen months. Water rationing has not yet been fully imposed, but residents are required by local ordnance to limit any landscape watering to the periods of early morning, late evening, or nighttime. More and more areas that previously tried to be “lawns” have been converted to less water-thirsty designs.
Because of pandemic restrictions, some of the in-person resources that had been available for teaching “water wisdom” have been curtailed. Still, there are online resources, such as https://www.watersmartsd.org/residential/landscape-resources/, and some visiting allowed at an area “water conservation garden (https://thegarden.org).”
While on neighborhood walks, I’ve also been surveying our vicinity for inspiration before making any further changes to our small yard. It’s pretty amazing what can be accomplished using varieties of mulch, stone, and other pavers, sometimes with a dollop of desert plants, sometimes using a broader set of shrubs and grasses. My guess is that “xeriscaping,” also know as “drought-tolerant landscaping” is also more erosion-resistant if and when the rains do come. A time for this newly minted southern Californian to gather more stones together?
Some vaguely remembered mutters.
Then an unaccustomed pattering.
I leave my bed, look out the window
Toward the corner street light,
Then return to drowse
Later, I search the closet
For the packed-away umbrella,
Open the patio door,
Breathe in the smell of freshly
Moistened pavement, venture outside.
Not much is stirring
This early Sunday morning.
A bunny stills as I do,
Then hops off.
I stretch upward to finger a waxy magnolia leaf.
A lingering droplet detaches,
Plops onto my head.
I wonder, have the trees been as parched
As this transplanted Easterner
In sunny summer California?
Back before the pandemic, I was a fairly frequent airline passenger. Before a flight took off, I and the other passengers would be exposed to safety announcements by staff (or, more recently, on video). Toward the end of their presentation, they’d give an explanation of what to do if our cabin became depressurized during high-altitude flight:
“In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from a compartment above your seat. Place your mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally, securing the strap behind your head. (A flight attendant would demonstrate.) If you are traveling with small children or with others needing assistance, please secure your own mask first, then help those around you.”
The pandemic nixed my airline travel for a while, but got me wondering. Were there analogies, albeit imperfect, to the current situation of global health? Of course, any pandemic is much more complex than an airline flight. Few, if any of us, have an adequate picture of its scope or trajectory. Even the best informed get fragmented and incomplete data, filtered through a particular set of biases and assumptions. Still, most public health sources are persuaded that none of us will be safe from the SARS-CoV-2 virus until infection rates are reduced to manageable levels everywhere.
Questions about the pandemic are seemingly never-ending. Can non-pharmaceutical public health measures help tame the pandemic? For example, how effective are travel restrictions, mask use, social distancing? How accurate are reports of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths? How reliable are vaccine clinical trial results? How frequent and how serious are side effects from vaccines? Who gets to decide how to allocate available vaccine doses? What gaps in public health infrastructure are most crucial to the pandemic’s spread? How long-lasting is vaccine-induced immunity? What about virus variants?
Once the pandemic reached the area where I lived, I was at intermediate risk due to my age, over 70. As a retiree who rarely worked outside the home, I was able to reduce my potential exposure to the virus, unlike my health care worker son and daughter-in-law or my warehouse worker nephew. As a further tool to reduce my exposure, I had access to an N-95 mask purchased pre-pandemic for some home improvement projects. By late winter 2021, I had access to a vaccination. After seeing the minimal vaccine side effects for our son and daughter-in-law and noting the increasing case rates near me, I decided to get vaccinated. Two successive doses of a two-dose vaccine did not eliminate my exposure or disease risk, but in my view reduced it substantially. Though I’m not yet ready for extended airline flights, I feel comfortable traveling again, taking suitable precautions as I go. Finally, I can breathe nearly normally!
Now that I’m better protected against the virus, is there anything I can do to assist those around me? Without hard-core proselytizing, I can encourage friends and family to get vaccinated. I can donate time and/or money to efforts to increase vaccination rates globally. I can describe my experiences and my observations of those around me as I’ve traveled by car cross-country. I can listen respectfully to those whose views may be based on different subsets of pandemic information (and/or misinformation), on different life experiences, on different biases.
Historically, past pandemics have eventually played themselves out. Humanity is still learning how to mitigate the impacts of the pathogens among us. May we get this SARS-CoV-2 “flight” to a less damaging conclusion than prior scourges. May we use what we’ve learned to help make future generations safer.
Yesterday was the first time in many months when the people I saw at a local shopping center were mostly unmasked. Due to widespread vaccinations, many former restrictions had been lifted. Life seemed somewhat more “normal,” yet at the same time somewhat surreal. I thought maybe I’d fallen into a time warp. Who were all these strange people with exposed mouths? It reminded me of the Rip Van Winkle story I’d heard when I was a kid. I looked up a text of this Washington Irving tale from the early 19th century.
The basics: Rip Van Winkle was a middle-aged farmer in a small village in the Hudson River valley during the 1760’s or thereabouts. Though an amiable sort, he never made a go at farming. He spent a good bit of time away from home, a home that contained multiple children and a wife who often chided him about his lapses as a farmer. He sometimes frequented the local tavern, but even more often he took his gun and his dog and went hunting in the surrounding hills.
On one of his woodland rambles, he encountered a strange man who was carrying a heavy keg uphill. Rip helped with the keg and later with its contents, which put him into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he was surprised to find that his beard had grown long and his joints had grown stiff. He was at a loss to figure out why. When he returned to town, some of the buildings had changed and he didn’t at first recognize anybody. He nearly got into trouble by offering his fealty to Good King George. The former colonies were now an independent country, he learned. After being vouched for by another local elder, Rip was given a welcome by his now-grown daughter. Gradually it dawned on him that he’d slept for a whole generation and was now an old widower, his wife having died a few years before. Once he adapted to life in his daughter’s house, he enjoyed an old age with the freedom to indulge his gift for stories and for entertaining the younger generations.
Before the pandemic, I’d considered myself a spry retiree, an active participant in the community where I lived. My husband and I traveled widely, both in the U.S. and overseas. I thought we’d spend at least several more years traveling before we became frail enough to need to move near a grown child for support. Covid-19 changed our trajectory. For over a year, we were virtually housebound. Both over 70 with some underlying health conditions, we learned that according to the best available information, we’d be vulnerable to serious illness or even death should we be exposed to the virus. We coped partly by staying in contact via phone and internet. I sewed lots of decorative cloth face masks for family, friends, and local non-profits. Jim learned to paint river rocks and distributed them outdoors in nearby parks and trails. Early in 2021, we were fortunate to find an available vaccination site.
By the time our immunity was at an acceptable level, our timetable for a move had compressed substantially. We began searching for a new home near one of our grown children. We exchanged coasts, going almost as far as was possible within the contiguous U.S. Our new-to-us community is quite different from where we used to live. I’m learning Spanish. The quality and quantity of Mexican-themed restaurants are amazing. Automotive traffic is awful.
My joints are stiffer than pre-pandemic. My hair is grayer, my middle more expansive. A little like post-nap Rip, I wonder what role I and other vaccinated seniors can play in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead. As a cohort, we are the most thoroughly vaccinated, with over 75% of us over 65 having received a full complement of vaccine.
Like Rip, we may be able to share stories of past adversity and coping skills with the next generations. We will also need to adapt further to climate change (heat waves, droughts, floods, plagues of grasshoppers, wildfires, and so on) and social changes (demographic shifts, electoral reform, police reform, reducing violence, upgrading infrastructure, etc.). We may sometimes be as confused as Rip Van Winkle was when he awakened into the brand-new United States of America.
Last month I moved from central North Carolina to southern California. I was fortunate to be able to move by choice. Still, moving always poses challenges. Now most of my extended family is in a different time zone from me. Connections from my old location have been broken. We don’t have enough chairs. I don’t have automated payment accounts for local utilities. I don’t have a local doctor, dentist, or even a health care plan. I don’t know any of the local bakeries, take-out joints or restaurants. A good bit of the time, I feel lost. One of the most disorienting aspects of my “new life” is being relatively undocumented—no local driver’s license, no local bank, no supermarket chain I recognize, no voter ID, no links to local media channels. My challenges are minor, but I SO want my current uncertainty to end!
In my old location, I’d counted myself a white liberal. I thought I’d worked through issues surrounding whiteness in 21st century America. I’d participated in marches and protests, listened to Rev. William Barber’s impassioned, informative speeches about racial inequities, given money and time to progressive causes. In my new location, many people around me speak other languages instead of or in addition to English. I feel vaguely threatened.
A few days ago, I got a packet of forwarded mail containing monthly magazines with articles examining U.S. historical racism and still unresolved racial and ethnic tensions. One article described the “race card project” started by journalist Michele Norris in 2010. She’d initially asked 200 people to send her their thoughts about race, distilled into just six words (theracecardproject.com). A real challenge for somebody as wordy as I am! What popped into my head was succinct, embarrassing, and accurate: “I thought I owned the place.”
In school in the 1950’s I’d been taught that European settlers had “conquered the wilderness,” “shown pioneer spirit,” “plowed the prairie,” “expanded the frontier,” “defeated the savage Indians,” “fulfilled manifest destiny,” etc., etc. Once I began to read and travel more widely, I learned some limits of this Eurocentric viewpoint.
In my new home, adding to my disorientation is discomfort at having to further relinquish my former historical narrative. The version of U.S. history and growth I still partially carry around inside me has been at best incomplete, at worst, deliberately falsified. For thousands of years before the earliest European explorers came to North America, indigenous people lived in what is now the United States. Much of the hard manual labor to create the agricultural and industrial economies of our country was done either by enslaved Africans or by poorly paid Chinese and other Asians. Currently, much agricultural and caregiving work is done by low-paid latino/latina immigrants. I now live on land stolen from indigenous tribespeople.
Some of my ancestors were slaveholders. Even the majority, those who didn’t directly benefit from slavery or subsequent Jim Crow laws, had access to financial support and government programs that were effectively, if not officially, racially biased. Being “racist” applies not just to members of the KKK or white people who use the “N” word or anyone who makes disparaging remarks about “those people.” A racist can be someone of any background (though in the U.S. usually white) who benefits explicitly or implicitly from a system of arbitrary advantage. That includes me.
The people in line with me at the DMV yesterday came in all shapes, colors, and sizes, spoke with lots of different accents. Many DMV employees could speak two languages or even more. Might I have to own up to my lingering biases, to adapt and participate in a more diverse culture here?
What I’m experiencing mimics some stages of grieving laid out in earlier research on death and dying: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression and 5) acceptance. I seem partly to be cycling through the first four stages of grieving, grieving the death of the myth of white supremacy:
1) Who, me, a racist? 2) How dare you! 3) Look, I can show you my NAACP card. 4) I will never get this right.
Many of my background may be experiencing grief stages as well. If we are ever to coalesce as a fully multi-ethnic society, we’ll have to reject the myth of dominance, white or otherwise. We’ll have to temper our denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. Instead, whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, we’ll need to more fully accept and embrace the humor, resilience, and graciousness that are also part of the human heritage.
The past year or so has been challenging. The covid-19 pandemic ended or upended many lives, causing us to question former habits, try out new ones, ponder whether life could ever return to “normal.” For my husband and me, the pandemic accelerated a move we’d originally planned to undertake several years into the future—from one U.S. coast to the other to be close to a grown son and his family.
It took most of the winter and early spring of 2021 to make the needed arrangements: to find a buyer for our previous house, plus someone to sell us an “age in place” home close to where one of our sons lives in southern California. Then the more physical work began. Giving away, selling, or discarding half a lifetime’s worth of furniture, clothes, and knickknacks that would not fit into our downsized new home. Then packing, packing, and more packing. Renting a mobile storage unit and figuring out how to fit our remaining stuff into it, one piece of furniture or box at a time. Family and neighbors pitched in.
Finally but also too soon, our departure date arrived. Before heading across the country, we made a couple of detours to visit family and friends, some of whom might not be around the next time we had a chance to visit “back east.” Then, from a suburb in central Maryland, westward ho!
We stopped briefly in central Ohio to meet our other son’s current intentional family. Then we threaded our way across Indiana and Illinois on rain-slick, pot-holed roads to a Mississippi river town in Iowa, one-time home to a set of great-grandparents. The namesake store that Jim’s great-grandpa had founded was no longer doing business, but its building still stood, raised nameplate in place.
Iowa’s interstates provided a near continuous view of wind farms. As we passed, their blades were turning, producing renewable energy. Rest areas where we took pee breaks had shelters surrounding their picnic areas. Once we’d been blown around by the near-constant wind, we understood why. Historical markers at these areas mostly chronicled settlers’ stop-off points and routes westward. Here and there, some mentioned the original inhabitants. Place names memorialized them, too: Iowa, Sioux City, Keokuk, Wichita, Topeka, Pawnee, Kiowa, and many more.
The further west we got, the bigger and emptier the landscape seemed. Irrigation rigs gradually became more plentiful icons in the flat, windy landscape. In western Kansas, we swerved slightly to visit the small town of Greensburg. A while ago, I’d read articles about the resurrection of this town, nearly flattened by an F5 tornado on the night of May 4, 2007. In the wake of recent increases in severe weather events, the saga of Greensburg has again become newsworthy.
When we arrived late afternoon, the Greensburg town museum was open. We took an hour or so to tour exhibits of the town’s origins, near-death, and reconstruction. Founded in 1886 with help from stagecoach entrepreneur D.R. Green, the town’s initial claim to fame was a large, stone-lined hand-dug well completed in 1888. The well descended over 100 feet to reach the Ogallala aquifer to provide the town with water. Though no longer functional, the “big well” is a centerpiece of the reconstructed museum.
Along parts of the museum walls were pictures and videos of the tornado’s destruction. On the morning of May 5, 2007, little remained of the pre-tornado town. Thanks to warnings that were largely heeded, there were only a dozen fatalities, but only three of the town’s buildings remained standing. Everyone was rendered homeless. Government, non-profit disaster relief agencies, and individual volunteers from near and far responded quickly to help the town recover. It took a while for the idea of a “green Greensburg” to take shape. Other exhibits described the planning and reconstruction process, highlighting some of the rebuilt town’s environmental features.
I don’t have the technical expertise to fully appreciate the conservation and renewable energy components of the renovated town, which includes a wind farm, solar panels, and energy-efficient public buildings and private residences. Museum exhibits stressed that rebuilding and economic development efforts have not been without snags. Greensburg’s post-tornado population, growing slowly, is a good bit smaller than before. Also, like many small towns on the Great Plains, Greensburg perennially struggles to provide good jobs and a good quality of life for its residents. Like most places, Greensburg has recently suffered economically and socially from the pandemic. Nevertheless, for me the town had a vibrant feel to it, personified by the 80-something museum docent who sold us our tickets. She explained that she’d spent her whole life in Greensburg. The 2007 tornado was the first and only one in her lifetime to hit this settlement smack dab in the middle of “tornado alley.” She very much expected to finish her life well before the next one hit. In the meantime, she was proud of the efforts the town had made to reinvent itself. For additional information about Greensburg and its rebirth, please search the internet for various Youtube videos and recent news articles.
After Greensburg, we caught bits of the U.S. Southwest—sections of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, New Mexico, Arizona, then southern California. Partly because of the pandemic, partly because we were just strangers traveling through, we had few extended interactions with locals. It seemed to me that masking and social distancing regulations varied a good bit from place to place, as did compliance with any restrictions. Reactions probably had less to do with governments at any level and more to do with peer pressure. People mainly imitated their neighbors. Many seemed to have a fierce independent streak that the prospect of a potentially lethal, readily spread virus did little to abate. Even in small towns, though, customs and ethnic mixes were changing.
By the end of our car pilgrimage, I had a much greater respect for the gritty folks who make their living and maintain their communities in “flyover country.” For me, a car trip rather than a plane ride provided insights I might well have missed in non-covid times.