A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

Dawn

The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

Lunar New Year: Hedging One’s Bets

lunar new year

The Lunar New Year, Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram, is at hand. In honor of the occasion my acupuncturist — this traditionalist writer is an absolute convert to acupuncture – offered a special gift, in the form of instructions about how to start the year in the most auspicious way.

A good start is halfway to success, according to an old Chinese proverb quoted atop the instruction sheet.

“Both the timing and direction of your initial exit from wherever you are on February 19th, 2015 are of utmost importance,” reads the instruction sheet. We are admonished to make our initial exit between 5 AM and 7 AM, or between 11 AM and 1 PM. “To welcome good luck, walk in the South West direction. To invite divine help and wealth-spirit, walk in the West direction. Please do not have initial exit facing the South direction…”

Well, here’s the problem. The only exit from the building in which I live faces south. Walking in a southwest, direction, furthermore, will take me straight into the Post Street traffic, not a good way to start any year. I’m unlikely to get moving early enough to be headed out by 7 AM, and if I wait until 11 there will be meetings missed.

None of this is to disrespect the Lunar New Year.

Depending on which part of the Lunar-calendar-observant world you live in, festivals, rites and customs (such as the above) abound. My current favorite, passed along by a State Department friend newly arrived in Hanoi, is this one: “Vietnamese tradition,” she writes, “holds that, a week before the Lunar New Year, each person should release a live carp into the lake. The Kitchen God then rides the carp to Heaven, and reports to the King of Heaven about whether the people in that person’s family have been ‘naughty or nice.’ The King of Heaven either rewards or punishes the family, based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report.” The tradition strikes my diplomat-wife friend as “A little bit eastern, a little bit Christmas-y and a little bit smelly.” But definitely good for anyone fishing for carp – and unworried about pulling in one with a Kitchen God riding on its back.

Like the eastern mysteries of exit times and feng shui, western religions have plenty of their own.

Soon after studying the instructions about starting the Year of the Goat, I went to a Sunday morning Presbyterian church service about the transfiguration of Jesus. (Transfiguration comes right before Lent, if you’re following these lines of thought.) For serious-but-still-questioning Christians such as this writer, the transfiguration ranks right up there with the resurrection and the ascension. Disputed and discussed from every corner of Christendom (certainly including poor, avowedly neutral Wikipedia), these are central to the faith – and you want to believe, because the faith has such good, basic stuff about how to live in the world – but still. Most Christian beliefs require little more than loving justice, mercy and one’s fellow creatures and working to advance them all. But around holidays we do get pretty zany about Santa and the Easter Bunny; so stockings are hung and eggs are hidden — just in case.

Which brings the story back to personal behavior up to and on February 19. This sideline observer will pass on the carp thing, but my New Year’s Day plan is to exit the building sideways, facing west.

 

Your Life In Review

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

The good people of WordPress opened their Year-End Review with those words – below this worldscape with bursting fireworks – and what blogger could resist? They went on to report that my busiest day was February 24, that one of the most-viewed was a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt from 2013 (Mrs. Roosevelt has nothing if not staying power) and most viewers were from the U.S. “with Brazil and Canada not far behind.” Come on, Brazil? The country of my birth comes through.

The cold, hard truth is that there are plenty of blogs that are viewed 5,800 times a day, of course, but you’ve gotta love the subway train analogy.

The sheer amount of data collected on our life’s work, and our lives, can still give one pause. WordPress is entitled. Without the nifty platform, easy-to-use format, multiple tools and automatic archive this writer would be virtually wordless. (Or restricted to Huffington Post, which attracted way more than 5,800 viewers to essentially these same words, but there’s a lot to be said for freedom of the WordPress.)

But what about Facebook’s now ubiquitous Year-In-Review? Who could resist at least scrolling through her life of the past year (and I hereby admit to posting the thing.) What boggled my mind was the uncanny way Facebook picked almost the exact photos I would have chosen. How did they know? Spooky.

Books have been written – and at least one film made – about The Examined Life, although I seriously doubt the Facebook algorithm-coders have read them. It has to do with trying to make sense of things, figuring out what’s important, sorting the good from the bad. Elevating the good from its place within the ordinary. Occasionally – though the idea was always for one to do it oneself – these Year In Review things may help with such a task.

But any way you look at it, our lives are undoubtedly being examined.

Farewell, 2014, and Happy New Year each and every one.

 

Saying Goodbye, and Hello to 2015

sunrise

My friend M has died, just shy of the old year’s end and significantly decreasing the joy of the new. But her dying was full of life lessons about saying goodbye, being grateful and trying to ring in a better planet for the days ahead. And thus she leaves a gracious greeting for 2015.

M was a believer in good causes, and she put her substantial time and energies to work for them all. We became friends over our mutual love of writing but we bonded over our mutual commitment to end-of-life choice. Once you concede that you won’t live forever, a reality most prefer to ignore, it is possible to live both gently and joyfully even in tough times. Both of us spent long years encouraging anyone who would listen to confront mortality, make choices, and make personal decisions known to all. It’s called living fully, even into dying.

So M, after conceding her own days on the planet were dwindling, sat down over a cup of soup I’d brought her not long ago and we went about the business of saying goodbye. I told her why I thought she was such a wonder, and she told me all the things I’d be happy to have said for my own eulogy. OK, we had an extravagant mutual admiration society. But the life lesson is that telling others about their own gifts and good qualities (however hard it might occasionally be to uncover them) is something anyone can do, any time; the planet would be immeasurably better if more of us did it more often.

M was supportive of my activism for reproductive justice, having done more than a little of that herself in years past, but once she expressed reservations about how much time I was investing in that cause. “It’s time for young people, young women, to take that on,” she said. Well, yes. Another 2015 greeting for that demographic: reproductive rights are disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless more of us of whatever gender or age pitch in, women – particularly women without money or power – will soon be back in the pre-Roe dark ages, with no control over their own bodies. Which could make for a very unhappy new year for uncounted thousands of women.

The daughter of a rabbi, M was aggressively non-religious. We didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, though she applauded the idea of my Presbyterian church working to break cycles of poverty. But once, after some sort of “What Would Jesus Do?”-type remark I made she said, “Oh, you and Anne Lamott.” I am personally fine with being lumped in with my funny, gifted friend Lamott, but this was not meant as a compliment. It did lead to a brief, lively discussion about faith and practice. And wouldn’t 2015 be a happy new year if fewer wars were fought in the name of Allah (or Whomever) and more focus were put on the peace, justice and love for fellow creatures that is the basic message of every religion around.

Rest in peace Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, James Brady, Pete Seeger – and all those other good souls we lost in 2014. Most especially, M.

And Happy New Year to us all.

On being grateful – for rain & waterfronts

bridge in rain

(This essay also appears on Huffington Post)

“It’s not happiness that makes you grateful,” goes one of my favorite recent quotes (thanks, Joann Lee;) “it’s being grateful that makes you happy.”

Here’s to gratitude.

For one thing, it has been raining in San Francisco. That strange wet stuff that falls occasionally from the sky – but we haven’t seen in a very long time. A planned Commonwealth Club Waterfront Walk tour, which I had earlier volunteered to help host, was advertised “Rain or Shine;” and as it happened there was both. The rain dampened all streets but no spirits, and the beauty of the waterfront literally shone.

There is something mystic about a waterfront on a dark day: an ethereal quiet hanging just below the clouds, the call of a gull who could be from another world, the scent of newness.

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The waterfront in sunshine is brilliant and exciting; in rain it invites your imagination – and appreciation.

As with waterfronts everywhere, San Francisco’s is steeped in history: sailors and conquerors, longshoremen and adventurers. There is public art, and private beauty. Waterfront Walk guide extraordinaire Rick Evans covers a remarkable range of them in two hours:

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The rise and – literal – fall of Rincon Hill, once one of San Francisco’s famous seven, which overlooked the Bay until the city unwisely bulldozed a street through it in the 19th century and the sandy hill collapsed upon itself. (Earthquake and fire finished the job.) Today Rincon Hill is rising again, as gleaming steel towers. The buildings that survived earthquake and fire are other centerpieces of the walk, plus the monumental artwork on the waterfront that was a trade-off for Gap tycoon Don Fisher’s corporate headquarters building when it went up – insurance of unobstructed, breathtaking views.

Some of the beauty of many waterfronts, physical and informational, is manmade, as is true of this piece of San Francisco Bay. But every waterfront has its story, and its soul.

Rain or shine. A cause for exquisite gratitude.

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Pushing the Vacation Mode Button

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Ever had a vacation plan come unhinged? You get to the hotel and the reservation was made for last week? The great aunt brings two cousins who don’t get along? Intestinal flu joins the party on the second day?

This writer’s recent vacation, a visit with friends and family in Georgia and North Carolina, was not like that; but it had elements of challenge. Primarily because I am too compulsively news-addicted and task-oriented for a quick transition into vacation mode. Everyone should have a vacation mode button. A switch that goes from On!: World hunger. Gaza v Israel v Syria v Egypt. Reproductive justice. – to – Off!: Vacation.

And right above the vacation-mode button, a plan-and-preparation dial.

For openers, a vacationer arriving on the east coast fresh from parched-dry California can face a tiny injustice: heavy rains, flash flooding and pea-soup fog throughout agonizing hours of driving continuous-corkscrew two-lane mountain roads. And for travel entertainment there is news of the day delivered by high-stress radio commentators with conspiracy theories, and constant replay of Luke Bryan offering this response to pain and loss:

“I’m gonna set right here. On the edge of this pier. Watch the sunset disappear. (Pause.) And drink a beer.” It does not help to learn, on arrival, that every other person on the planet knows Luke and his plaintive song; and perhaps, if one were not driving an unfamiliar rental car on an unfamiliar rain-slicked two-lane mountain road it wouldn’t seem designed to drive one to drink. (Speaking of which, you might enjoy this recent commentary on driving sober.)

The plan-and-preparation dial could avoid this. NPR exists in North Carolina. Weather reports – handy for leading one to pack boots and sweaters rather than white shorts and bathing suits – can also indicate that mountain driving is not advised for the faint hearted. (On mountain roads, turnouts are our friends. Monster trucks driving at high speeds regularly, mysteriously appear just behind the faint hearted driver; a preparation dial would plot the nearest turnout.)

But it is the vacation mode button that’s most urgently needed. Some of us, habitually immersed in jobs, tasks, world news, causes and self-perceived saving of the planet, do not slip easily into vacation mode. How, for example, can you be on a conference call about reproductive justice or cycles of poverty on Tuesday night, and blissfully oblivious to everything but the sand castle you’re building Wednesday morning? People do this all the time, but some of us simply do not get it. Everybody else is fluent in Vacation Speak while our brains are stuck on WordPress.

Ours not to reason why. Maybe it’s not all that super cool to be able to talk roadside antiques and croquet games and beach cabanas in a steady, sophisticated stream, but it seems so to the disoriented new vacationer. Surely – because this is definitely uncool – the new vacationer can shut up about military incursions in the Middle East and think of something appropriate to moonlit seashores. Or at the least, make the transition before it’s time to go back home.

Couldn’t someone invent a little half-moon Vacation Mode icon to tattoo on the forehead?

I’m just askin’.