Tag Archives: southern California

On Being Granted Three Witches…

It’s a little past Hallowe’en. Images of “wicked witches” are fading from our consciousness for another year. Our recent understanding of witches has undergone something of a change, abetted by a modern Wiccan movement. Performances such as “Wicked,” a musical retelling of the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of two witches, have also reminded us of the “good witch.” It’s been my good fortune to have become acquainted with three very good witches, three benign elders, since I moved to southern California in 2021. 

The first good witch I encountered was Anne, a spritely octogenarian with a halo of blue-white curls. When I first met her, Anne was presiding over a large table of other elders at a summer neighborhood gathering of a “village,” a mutual help group for over-50’s who want to continue to live in their own homes for as long as possible, rather than moving to assisted living facilities. Anne was one of the original members of our local group a dozen years ago. Listening to some of Anne’s stories, I learned that she had spent time in China, a favorite travel destination earlier in my own life. I asked if I might meet with her one-on-one to trade stories and to learn more about her China experiences. She graciously acceded. As it turned out, Anne’s China stay had occurred mostly before I was born. She was a school girl in Shanghai and then in Chongqing from 1946 to 1948 while her naval officer father was an advisor to the Chinese military. Anne’s life experiences are quite different from mine—a Navy daughter, then a Navy wife to a commander who served during Vietnam, a conflict I had protested as a young woman. Anne raised a large family while moving from military post to post and adhering to her Roman Catholic faith. My guess is that her opinions on reproductive freedom are different from mine. However, she has never tried to proselytize or to foist her views on me. She has expressed that aspect of her faith mostly through work with charities and social service agencies in support of adoptive parents, support often badly needed.   

My next good witch encounter was with Carolyn. As I oriented myself to our new environment by walking around, I was pleased that our “planned community” of about 700 houses had pleasant walkways and little traffic. A couple of small shopping strips bracketed the complex. A nearby public recreation area had both indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. Near the top of the closest hill was a cluster of churches. One morning as I explored the grounds of the local Lutheran church, I noticed a fenced garden behind the main building, with numbered raised plots and a small sign identifying it as a “nature friendly garden.” No one was around. I opened the garden gate and walked through the area. At one end were a small red shed and a small greenhouse. A couple of wrought iron lawn chairs were pulled up in front of the shed. The place looked well tended. I gradually made it a regular part of my walking routine. Several walks later, I came across Carolyn, who was tending some of the many plots she cares for. She’d opened the padlocked shed and was ferrying garden tools and containers back and forth as needed. She finished what she was doing, then took a break to chat. 

“This garden has been my sanity refuge during covid,” she told me. “Outdoors, so less virus-prone, and still able to provide a service to the community.” She explained that most of “her” beds contained vegetables planted for use at T.A.C.O. (Third Avenue Charitable Organization), a downtown San Diego drop-in center for the area’s homeless and lower income residents. On Thursdays, Carolyn ferried fresh produce from the T.A.C.O. beds to the center to be included in the following day’s lunch. She’d been doing this since well before the pandemic. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those already struggling, she felt it was more needed during covid than ever. 

“It’s amazing what the cooks can do with whatever I bring,” she said. “Sometimes we have mostly zucchini, other times it’s tomatoes, or carrots, or broccoli, or cabbage. Some of the other gardeners contribute their extra veggies as well.” Carolyn isn’t shy about her age—mid-80’s. She complains that she’s slowing down, but she can still heft a flat of squash or spade a garden plot with more energy than most of us, whatever our ages.

Ellen introduced herself to me by phone before I met her in person. She’s the doyenne of volunteers at our local public branch library. One of the restrictions of pandemic lockdowns that hit me hardest was the closure of area libraries. As soon as infection numbers waned enough so that libraries reopened, I visited our nearest branch, checked out as many books as I could carry, made a small donation, and signed up as a “Friend of the Tierrasanta Library.”  Several months later, Ellen phoned to ask if I might be available to help cashier for a two-hour shift at the used book sale she and others arranged in the library’s conference room during the first weekend of every month. 

“Sure,” I said. “Do I need to bring anything?” 

“Just yourself. You’ll be working with an experienced volunteer who can show you what to do.” Ellen, too, complains that she is slowing down. Well into her 80’s, she’s had one hip replaced and is due to get the second one done next year. At the end of a day’s work, she has a noticeable limp. She doesn’t let it deter her much. 

For over thirty years, it turns out, Ellen has been raising money for the library and spreading the love of books throughout the community. Over the years, she has refined a system that supplies extra children’s books at no charge to a nearby military housing complex.

Not long after arriving in California, I passed the midway point between 70 and 80. I’m slowing down a bit. Aging has brought different challenges than earlier life stages. One of the hardest for me is balancing self care with care for the wider community. Initially constrained by covid and by my general lack of knowledge of how this part of the country works, I’ve been inspired by the lives of my three good witches. Anne, Carolyn, and Ellen are not native Californians, either. They’ve all passed the 80 year milestone. Their adaptability and continuing active participation shine forth. Somewhere near here there are adoptive families with better coping skills thanks to Anne; someday a needy person is getting a more nutritious lunch thanks to Carolyn; in some child’s room someone is reading thanks to Ellen. 

My skills are not exactly the same as theirs. Still, I can write about them, mimic them as much as I can, encourage others to follow their examples.

. Who are the good witches in your life?  

Snail Season

Succulent-eating snails

This is the land of sun and surf,
A golden destination for outdoor buffs.
Having by now spent a first cycle of seasons
In southern California, I can attest to
The draw of the beach and the waves,
To the lure of canyons and hillsides.

What I hadn’t expected as much
Was a sort of lull between the cooler
Months and the dry warmth of high summer.
“Gray May and June gloom,” the locals intone.

Some mornings, there is fog, or low cloud.
It can take several hours before the sun peeks through.
Under the overcast, I cast my lot walking along
Nearby pathways and streets.

Across the sidewalks are narrow slicks of
Snail trails, sometimes even the snails themselves.
Gardeners tell me the shelled creatures are pests.
I haven’t noticed them eating my plants, not yet.
Still, their morning presence has become for
Me another marker of southern California life:

Snail season. 

On Being Undocumented, Uncomfortable, and Racist

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.