Thursday, October 4, 2012

Black Diamond Mines

Mount Diablo Coal Field Marker

On a hot September day at Black Diamond Mines, a regional park located in California's East Bay, a couple of friends and I walked together up the dusty road to Rose Hill Cemetery, a small, abused plot of land on an eroding hillside and the only remnant of the the mining town that was once settled around it.

Entrance to the Hazel-Atlas Mine

We'd just come from the cool, cathedral like silica mines, and the earth and heat we surfaced to felt unreal in what it was and what was beneath it. Who could ever know such a place existed, tucked into the California landscape: vaulted subterranean rooms held up by massive pillars, down, down, down, seven levels, and beneath, and parallel, even older: coal shafts where children as young as seven donned soft hats, clutched miner's candles and rooted through the earth like grown men?

Graffiti Carved into the Sandstone 

The short film we watched at the Visitor's center, located just inside the entrance to one of the silica mines, made life in the coal boom town of the mid-19th century sound  idyllic. Miners, it said, liked to be beneath the earth. Sometimes they worked seven days a week for months without the sun, living, breathing, eating in darkness, a darkness that fed their families and the ever hungry and growing city of San Francisco across the bay. They had a schoolhouse, a choir, even a baseball club. They were mostly Welsh Protestants, some Catholics. The latter were denied burial in the town cemetery.

A View from Chaperel Trail

When we climbed the rocky trails above the center, the early Autumn sun was burning, the sky clear, the path steep and smooth. At the crest and out in the distance, we could see the city of Antioch, the bay, and a huge energy farm, its propellers spinning hypnotically before us. There was something ineffable about the land, the way the hills rose up like the muscular back of a lion sleeping in the heat, the blue sky pressed against its yellow fur. Lower down, Manzaneta trees grew in dense thickets, their bark alternately smooth and red and rough and gray, was striking up close; far away the colors blended to a heathery purple.

Manzaneta, the park ranger told us at the Visitor's Center is great for poison oak. The berries are tasty. Foxes and other small animals love to eat them.

Manzaneta Tree?

I've been trying lately to learn about the flora, fauna, geology, and geography of the state I've come to make my home. Back in Michigan, I could probably narrate a nature walk from memory. In California, I don't know anything. As we hiked the steep trails of the old coal field, I couldn't identify the Manzaneta's even though they are a common plant, and I'd brought a field guide complete with glossy pictures to help me find my way. Compared to Michigan, everything in California looks like it was culled from the pages of a fairy story. I wonder: did those old-timey miners who lived there far from their native Wales feel as disconnected and dumb as I do sometimes?

After hiking a short loop of trail through the park, my friends and I ate lunch in the shade of some tall pines at a picnic table in view of Rose Hill Cemetery and the golden hills above it. I thought the Italian Cyprus trees, so alien on the land, looked as if they were pointing a pathway to heaven. We learned later, in the mines, that this was the reason they were planted there, so souls could find their way to God.

A Distant View of Rose Hill Cemetery

In the silica mine, we watched a slideshow about the park and the eras that came before it. We donned hard hats and jackets, grabbed flashlights and followed the old tracks of the mining carts down into the earth. The docent told us stories about mining life and technicalities. As we passed through, we learned that the ceiling was the floor of the ancient ocean that California rose out of millions of years ago. Above our heads, prehistoric waves and sea life, time past but present, hung preserved in the sandstone ceiling.

How could such a place not be full of ghosts? When I asked the docent, he said the only known "ghost" was actually a lady who cooked meth in a squatter's trailer on the land in the 1980's. This meant as we walked to the cemetery together, we had nothing spooky to speculate on but the real nature of humanity, of life and of death. I suppose that is spooky enough.

The trail up, a dusty twisting road cut through the yellow hills, did something to quiet us anyway. The wind picked up, and the light at the end of day, when everything feels suspended, began to spread over the hills and valleys.

An Up Close View of Rose Hill Cemetery

Ahead of us, a lone woman walked in Nike running shoes. She wore a t-shirt with the Pittsburgh Pirates logo. She carried a plastic wrapped package of cookies and a dented water bottle. At the top, she sat beneath the swaying peppercorn tree that marked the entrance to the cemetery. She took a few raspy breaths before moving on. It was quite a climb up, and there was something strange and sad about her and in the way her body heaved with exertion. There was something mournful in the way she looked out across the land.

I wondered, for a moment, if she was a ghost -- then, if I was a ghost -- then, if my friends who bowed their heads dutifully to read the information placard at the gate were ghosts. I felt a chill, even in the heat. There was nothing left but the dead. When the coal shafts were exhausted, the miners and their families packed up the town that fed the lonely cemetery. Board-by-board, nail-by-nail, down came the houses, the schools, the church, the saloon. Everything went; nothing remained except remains, and even those had been defiled.

As dusk came on, the wind picked up and with it, the dust around the graves. We wandered through what was left of the headstones in silence. When a gust of wind stole my friend's sunhat, she chased it through the cemetery, and I chased after her, laughing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The HU Sound

Montezuma's Foot Bath

I'm hunkered down with three other writers in a cabin in Camp Verde, AZ, working on the manuscript for the book that the Travels With Jonah Project inspired. I'm even more impressed this year by the talent of my fellow Desert Rats, and I'm feeling pretty humbled, too. That's good.

The story I set out to work on is maybe not the one I had originally planned, and that's okay, because it has to be. I think this one will be better, though it may take longer.

Thank you all for your  support and patience as I work my way through it.

Yesterday, we took a side trip to Montezuma's Well, a site just up the road from our cabin. A round lake formed from an underground water source when the ceiling of limestone cavern above it dissolved. Around its rim, cliff dwellings over 800 years old are carved into the rock.

Montezuma's Well

I think this place is magical. At the risk of sounding like one A-Class hippie, I dreamed about this place a long time ago, so you can imagine how surprised when I first crested the hill that hides this oasis from the high desert. It's like this place is hard wired into my brain.

Oh, yeah, I am an A-Class hippie. Here I am hugging a giant Arizona sycamore tree.

To be honest, I've been feeling a bit down these days, fighting off a depression of the generic but powerful and exhausting existential, "what does it all mean?" variety, peppered with a nice dose of antsiness that makes it hard for me to sit still too long. Maybe this is just called "being a writer." 

Meh. Whatever it is: it is what it is.

So, today, I convinced a couple of my fellow writers to go out to Boynton Canyon in Sedona. I wanted to get a hike in and just zone out and try to think myself into a better mental space. 

But, when we arrived at the trail head, we ran into a slight hitch:

Great. Bears.

This probably would not be a problem, but I just watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man about a month ago, which was followed up by an OCD level marathon viewing session of Animal Planet's Fatal Attraction. I pretty much immediately had bloody visions of Timothy Treadwell flash through my head and tickle my extreme and irrational anxiety gland. I stomped off in the direction of another trail not blocked by bear warnings, while my fellow writing hikers followed after me complaining about my decision to suddenly abandon the Boynton Trail for one called Dead Man's Pass. 

"Fine!" I shouted at them after two-minutes of unbearable whinging. "I'll go down your dumb bear infested trail." I made some further childish protests about no one paying attention to my needs. Then I turned on my heel and passively/aggressively stomped back to the bear trail with visions of park rangers poking at my eviscerated entrails and shaking their heads while mumbling, "Damn hippies," under their breath.

Anyway, at the trail head, we ran into some other hikers, who were actually damn hippies. A sun baked, white haired dude with a small day pack and a fixed beatific grin stopped on the trail as we passed and handed each of us a heart shaped rock, which he told us was a gift from Mother Earth. I asked him if he had seen any bears, and he said they were really far off  in the wilderness and that I should just concentrate on love overcoming hate. He lectured us for a few moments on the power of love before moving on down the trail. 

I was still grumpy, but, I resolved to try despite myself and a few false starts.

Me at the secret entrance to the Secret Mountain. If you look closely, you'll see the outline of the heart stone in my pocket.

We spent the hike literally looking for love. Fellow travelers had hidden the heart shaped rocks the earth produced prolifically amid the branches of the junipers and clefts of cacti along the route. We had great fun pointing out the ones we found, and it was easy, too. There was so much love; it was ubiquitous. I tried to  foster a positive attitude in my mind as we climbed up the red rock face to a scenic outlook.

Boynton Canyon Trails are filled with heart shaped rocks  lovingly placed  in the trees by fellow hikers.

When we  reached the top of the rock, I have to admit, despite our encounter with the spirit man and Mother Earth's love, I was still feeling pretty pissy. One of my companions reminded me that we were at an energy vortex, which was easily identified by the presence of many twistier than average of juniper trunks, rock cairns built by other visitors and some hot lady doing yoga by herself way up on a rock a few hundred yards away.

I sat down with my back against a tree and proceeded to eat some almonds and the apple I brought with me, when I burst into tears. I stared out over the red rocks, and I told my buddy that I figured I'd get it right at some point. We had a really deep conversation, the details of which I will spare you from. I snuggled into the crook of the tree and just zoned out, like I wanted to all along.

A view from up there.

When we decided to come down off the vista, I felt a lot calmer. As we walked down the trail, I heard a buzz, quick and deep, like a hum under my feet. I stopped and asked the people with me if they heard it too. They hadn't. We started walking again, then just as suddenly I heard it again; maybe "felt" is a better word, a low, warm rumbling buzz, for the second time. It was strange and strangely comforting. I don't know what it was, so I've decided to just call it the HU sound, which is both appropriately hippie enough and most probably true.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coming to America

Where I learned all about my Swedish heritage

"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a recent stump speech in Michigan. "They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

While the candidate denied that it was anything more than a nod to his native state, it's hard to ignore that the statement was made in context of a larger, ongoing controversy regarding our democratically elected President's country of birth.

A small but powerful faction of people still seem to believe that President Barack Obama's birthplace is somehow in dispute and that this should somehow discredit his presidency, despite the fact that he was born in the United States and was democratically elected by a majority of registered voters following the rules that our revered founding fathers and whoever else was super important in history laid out like a million years ago. It also seems that even if members of this small and powerful group say that they don't actually believe Obama was born someplace other than the United States, they don't have any qualms about bringing it up over and over again.

"The governor [Romney] has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States," one of his aides said later.

Did I do that? No way! I'm just a regular guy who likes pratfalls and jokes all kinds!

Yup, the sitting President of the United States was born in the United States. I'm not sure why a person would need to make multiple statements on the topic, but I digress. Go back a generation, and Barack Obama's dad was born in Kenya. Mitt Romney's dad was born in Mexico. Go back a few generations, and it turns out a shit ton of most everyone's ancestors were born some place other than the United States.

Our country is an immigrant nation. This isn't something to laugh at or deride. Someone having come from somewhere else is perfectly American. We all got here somehow, and it was not by a spontaneous cosmic happening. Okay, so maybe some people got here by way of star ship, but I'm sure most of those folks descended from the heavens together and woke up primarily in Berkeley, Sedona, and Yellow Springs.

For the rest of us, our progenitors came from somewhere else right here on the planet Earth.

The chariot of travelers without a country or planet of origin.

Though I'm an American, just like Mitt Romney, and I was born in Michigan, just like Mitt Romney, I, the bits and pieces that formed together to make the me of me, came from somewhere that was not here. I'm pretty sure the esteemed GOP candidate did not wake up, bathed in light and fully formed in some hospital in Michigan. If he had, then I would be forced to vote for him out of sheer amazement. His family came here from somewhere that was not here, so that he could be born here. He didn't have any hand in it.

Ellis Island, where a lot of our foreign, immigrant ancestors first entered America.

I understand that who I am is not where my family came from. I'm an American through and through (whatever that means). And, no, you don't need a birth certificate to know this is the place I was born and raised.

I don't imagine I'd have any need to wonder or care about anyone else's birth certificate.

Although if you REALLY need to see it, you can buy this mug.

My family's story is the quintessential American story. It is also the quintessential immigrant story.

On the one side, my family came from Sweden during one of the great immigrant waves of the early 20th century.

My relative, Leif, got here WAY before everyone else.
Feeling smug in his discovery, he went home before the actual party started.
This is totally a family trait.

From what I understand, at the time, life in Sweden was not all free health care, progressive thinking, murder mysteries, punk rock girls with motorcycles and large dragon tattoos, and tasty sandwiches. While I'm not exactly sure why my family decided to leave for America, I'll take a wild guess, and say they were poor. Like so many other typical immigrant families of the period, they looked West hoping for better opportunities. In America, there was land, and I think that was something my people wanted: land to call their own and a land to make their own.

The superior American adaptation of a Swedish novel

Our early family history in Sweden is full of stories of births, deaths, marriages & shack-ups, and surprisingly (or maybe not), arrests. The arrests were the result of crimes of poverty:

"She and her brother Olof were sent to the county prison at Gavle in September 1852 for petty larceny, which was for milking goats in the field in order to survive. These goats belonged to someone else, and she received seven days in prison on bread and water and three days in a special prison for a total of ten days."

My distant cousin Arden Eckstrom wrote in our family history of a great many times removed aunt, Anna Persdotter. "They were very poor," Arden repeats in his text. I imagine jail wasn't so bad compared to the alternative of starvation.

All I know about Swedish cuisine: meatballs, lingonberries, and lutifisk.

My Swedish family were country people. They came from a place named Los. In Los, there is a cemetery in in a church yard, and my ancestors are buried there. Before 1901, they all had surnames that ended in -dotters and -ssons, following the patronymic practice of naming at the time. Reading our early family records, I cannot keep track of all the Anders Mattssons and Matts Anderssons. I wonder, if I ever made it to Los, would I be able to sort them out?

In the latter half of the 19th century the system of naming children after their fathers fell out of favor. It really is confusing. Some families "froze" their patronymic surnames. Nobles kept their noble type surnames, soldiers took soldier type surnames, and people with particular professions often took their surnames from their craft.  

Our family, with its questionable lineage, and being neither noble or professional, took its name from nature: Eckstrom. This  means "oak stream" in English, is lovely, and probably says something about their low status in society.

Sven Leander Eckstrom

The first Eckstrom on record was Sven Leander Eckstrom, my great, great grandfather, born 1868, in Los. He was said to be a tall, robust man, a practical joker who liked his drink. In Sweden, he worked as a forest ranger, a laborer, and a mail carrier. He married my petite great, great grandmother, Evelina Andersdotter in 1899, and together they lived a rustic life in the woods about two miles from Tackasen, Sweden, where they inhabited a small one room cabin with a dirt floor covered with pine branches. Sven built the cabin near a roaring river that "tumbled out of the mountains," and sometimes it was so loud it kept them awake at night. Sven shot wild turkeys to supplement the family's diet, and Evelina washed clothes in a spring that bubbled up out of the ground.

That sounds idyllic to me.

But for my great, great grandparents, and vast numbers of Europeans like them, something was lacking. Sven's brother, Ulrik, and his family had already left for America, and in May 1910, Sven said goodbye to his wife Evelina, and their five children (Ebba Kristina, Emma Davida, Ebbe David, Elsa Margreta, and Ester Maria) and boarded the SS Arabic in Goteborg, Sweden. He traveled first to Liverpool and then on to New York.

Sven had only $6.00 in his pocket and a train ticket to Cayuga, North Dakota.

Though all of this seems amazing, improbable and scary, it was a common experience for new Swedish Americans who emigrated to the United States for the most part between the 1840s and 1910, the year Sven and his family arrived in the country. Swedes set up communities all through the Midwest, the West and the Pacific Northwest. They lived among each other, spoke the language of their homeland, wrote and published in Swedish, worshiped with other Swedes, and conducted primary school in Swedish. They developed their own Svenskamerika community.

Svenskamerika? I don't know, dude. I'm from Michigan.

In essence, they had a thriving and established Swedish community in the United States. Apparently, some parts of this culture is still alive in some places in this country today. Sven knew this community was here, and perhaps it made the critical difference in his decision to come. He had left his homeland, but he wasn't too far from his home culture.

In September 1910, my great, great grandmother, Evelina arrived in New York at Ellis Island with five children in tow, among them, my seven year old great grandmother, Emma.

"Upon exiting the ship, Evelina immediately combed and brushed her children's hair and then inspected their heads for lice, which was common to have received during a trip under those conditions for a long period of time. Evelina had problems because she somehow lost her passport and did not speak any English." 

Anyone who has studied the history of emigration to America or to make it easier, anyone who has seen the popular movie Titanic, knows that the conditions in-between decks on the great steamships of the time were pretty uncomfortable. As often as I think of Sven arriving alone with virtually nothing to his name, I think of Evelina traveling all that distance by herself with five children all under the age of nine. She didn't speak the language of the country, and her passport was missing. Her husband was half a continent away. What did she do? How did she feel?

Evelina Andersdotter Eckstrom

Once the passport issues were sorted out, Evelina and her five children traveled by train to North Dakota, where Sven met them with a team of horses and a wagon. They all lived together in a room upstairs in Sven's brother's house, while Sven established himself. First he farmed. Then he shoveled coal for the Great Northern Railroad. "Sven loved hard, physical work and never complained. It was said that he was so strong that when he left for Anaconda, the railroad had to hire five men to replace him," my distant cousin Arden said of my great, great, grandfather.

I often get cranky about my life and how hard I think it is. I don't always want to get up at the same time every day or participate in the hustle and bustle. It's hard. Most days, I ask myself, "Is it too early to go to bed?" And I know I can't because there is always something to be done to further my own existence.

When I'm exhausted from being a 21st Century lady working in an office in Berkeley, living in a beautiful neighborhood in Oakland, eating organic foods from grocery stores and markets where people shop with sustainable hand crafted baskets, I try to remember my ancestors, and everything they went through, so that I could live this exhausting but not-so-bad-at-all existence. I know that I live with a different set of challenges, but it would be difficult to scrape together enough personal experience to add up to an authentic understanding of how hard it must have been for them to come and establish themselves here.

ABBA: the sum total of my knowledge of Swedish music culture

I'm nothing but proud of my immigrant roots, and I'm a fully assimilated American. No one needs to see my birth certificate to know I'm from here. The truth is, I don't know a damn thing about Sweden. Besides my surname, there isn't one vestige of the old home culture left in me, not a concept, or a phrase, or a recipe, or a tradition. Sometimes I feel a sadness about this, and sometimes I don't, because in the end, I figure, this is exactly what my family wanted all those years ago when they came here: to become American.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

~From "The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, 1883

Sunday, August 5, 2012

No One Belongs Here More Than You

I picked this year to roam and ramble because it was an election year, and I thought there was something special about that. I wanted to see America from one coast to the other coast. I wanted to get a feel for our people, my people, this vast country, my country, our collective country. The trip was strange and beautiful and long, as any trip by road should be, and when M and I finally reached Oakland, I was tired.

That was a couple of months ago, but it feels like forever.

I'm still tired.

I must have sat down a million times to sort out my thoughts about everything: the fundraiser, the trip, the book, America, the election, the environment, the economy, war, my car, my family, rent, food prices, my buddies, me, and on and on and on. Maybe that's hyperbole. How about: I sat down to sort out my thoughts, and I went on long walks around this beautiful city and the one just over the bridge. I put my feet down on the ground and I roamed, and I rambled the crap out of this summer, letting my mind wander with possibility, getting all mucked up in possibility.

It's less hyperbole just to say: there are infinite ways to tell a story. There are many stories to tell. But, where do I start with this one? Now that I'm here, where do I go from here?

So many possibilities, but where to start?

I know I want to write about what makes us all American, our traditions, the narratives that keep us together and the ones that pull us apart. That's not so easy to just sit down and do. I often go first for the fracture in writing.

Today was different because______.

It's natural to fill in that blank with what keeps us apart, and in an election year, with the rhetoric heightened, there's a wide chasm, a fracture deeper and more rugged than any old Grand Canyon. It's not exactly inspiring, more like soul squashing. When I look out over it, I think: maybe I'll work on this project after a nap or a movie or, or, or...

Despite positioning myself as somewhat cynical about most things in this world, at base, I'm a very positive person. I have a lot of hope for everything and everyone. I believe people are more good than bad, and the world is more safe than scary, and together we can work to enact positive change in it.

The People = All of Us

I'm a positivist, but I'm also a realist, and I'm not unaffected by what I see and hear around me. When I look at this big rift between us, real or not, I just get so depressed. I don't see the point of anything, especially not this endeavor. Rationally, I understand it isn't useful to linger in that state, but it's darn difficult to climb out. I'm not standing on the edge of the abyss. I've fallen in. Plain and simple.

From way down here, I wonder, does my little, teeny, tiny voice matter at all? I'm not rich or a member of any important political constituency. I'm no mover or shaker or power broker. No one is pandering too hard to win my vote or even going through the motions to pretend it matters all that much. Do I really have anything new or interesting to say about something so big, so vast, so just so? What gives me a right to say anything at all? And, for that matter, even if do, who's listening?

When I sit down to write, and despite all the obviously Pulitzer Prize worthy concepts I have for the essays I'm working on, I keep getting frustrated by that metaphorical chasm, that great, heartbreaking divide, the obvious and usual crippling self-doubt of writerly me, and at a deeper level by this need I feel to establish my own ethos as a genuine, true red, white, and blue American, like I need to show everyone my USA credentials or people won't believe my voice. It's as if being born American isn't enough and knowing I have a stake isn't enough, but that I also have to pass for a real American, whatever that means.

But, I guess "whatever that means" is an integral part of a project so concerned with identity. How can one feel such deep ownership of a place and also feel so marginalized? It's something to explore. If I plan on exploring it, though, I need to let go of all of the above. I need to remember:

We are all in it together. All of us. We all belong here, including me, and all of our voices are valid, including my own.

Look! Old Stars and Stripes in Oakland! Is it possible radical hippies love America, too?

After all this thinking and wandering and thinking and whining and thinking and excuse making, I sit down, and I start right here, with me and my process, and my shortcomings, and my vanities, and my insecurities about who I am and all of my obstacles. It's the innate narcissism of a writer, this writer, I guess, entertaining all sorts of grand beginnings, and then beginning with her own less interesting ones.

And, because you asked, I like what every red blooded American likes: cats, computers, comics and cuddling.

So, let's begin (again).

The journey here, to this place, to this beginning, to me torturing my eyes and hands writing for me after a long day of writing for someone else, and subjecting my humble but indulgent audience to these familiar, well-tread ramblings, this didn't just happen.

Let's begin, then, next, a century ago, somewhat closer to America's roots and to my own.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Michigan: One

Michigan Map, 1929

Have I mentioned, yet, that I hail from Michigan?

I was born and raised there. With the exception of a few errant years in Ohio as a young girl, I spent the entirety of my early life in the Great Lakes State until, one spring day, I pulled up stakes and moved to California.

I don't think I can write about American identity without writing about my own regional identity and what it means to me.


Michigan. What a beautiful, lyrical word; what a strange and lovely and wicked hardscrabble place with its own long history. Forget the indigenous peoples; in America, history seems to begin with white settlers. In Michigan, the first permanent European settlement was founded by the French in 1668 and thus, its history began. Missionaries and fur trappers and traders made their way through from there.

Actually, there was a large population of indigenous peoples before the French arrived, claiming Sault Ste. Marie and everything in sight for Nouvelle-France: Ojibwa, Menominee, Chippawa, Miami, Ottawa, and Potawatomi lived there and still do. If I was better with history, I'd write all about them and France and the French-Indian war and the British coming through, as they always seem to at some given point in space and time.

In the Michigan of my childhood, everything was French or Indian or the French pronunciation of an Indian word or the hickerbilly pronunciation of a French-Indian word: Mackinaw, Pontiac, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Charlevoix, Marquette. How they sound like music to me. Imagine how lost I was, at first, when I arrived in a state where Spanish ruled. I had no clue how to say the word "Taqueria." Laugh at me. It's okay.

Michigan is a border state, and growing up as I did in a pre-9/11 world, these borders were fluid, completely meaningless. Canada was a bridge or a boat ride away, and one need only state one's nationality to move between, and even then, no one cared, since it seemed some of the Americans were from Canada and some of the Canadians were from America. For me, as a kid, the only difference was currency and salt and vinegar chips--popular on the Canadian side, impossible to find in the U.S. The currency we sometimes shared, spending Canadian pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters interchangeably with U.S. coins, stopping just shy of Loonies, which don't have a popular equivalency here (Sorry, Susan B. Anthony). Even today, when you cross into the State, most coin operated machines warn: No Canadian Quarters. Sometimes clerks will give you a hard time if you try and spend them, exchange rates and all, but no one makes too much a fuss.

Loonie, Obverse (Wikipedia)
Loonie, Reverse (Wikipedia)

You'll hear in my voice, some Canadian lift, the odd "o"s of "out" and "about," the drawn out ones of "boat" and "note." When I'm frustrated or angry or comfortable, they're very pronounced, and sometimes, in the West, I'll hear a strange echo from folks amused enough by my accent to mimic it.

You'll hear, also, the slightly grating "a"s in "bag" and "hat," a distinct nasality, reminiscent of Chicagoans, because I grew up in Southwest Michigan, closer to the Windy City than the Motor City.

Usually, when I tell people I'm originally from Michigan, they start talking about Detroit, this urban frontier with its wasted architecture and near haunted neighborhoods, Eminem, The Tigers, urban farming and cars. I nod politely and concur about how terrible or beautiful they've determined the plight of Detroit to be. I love Detroit, but it's not where I'm from.

Detroit is more complex a topic than any outsider could ever grasp, and there's something deep inside me that doesn't like to talk about it. I get irrationally angry when people, who have no right to, start doing so. I don't know where this impulse comes from. I just have this weird, dumb totally skewed intuition that people feel cool when they think they "get" Detroit.  Listen, if you are not from Michigan, you do not "get" Detroit. Just don't talk about it with me.

Detroit Skyline (Wikimedia)

Any place above Grand Rapids, Michiganders call "Up North." Above "Up North," over the bridge, is the "U.P." Us trolls, from below the bridge, often see da Yoop as a provincial kind of place, somewhere you go to be hard, to be a survivalist or bike/drive on a fall color tour, if you like that kind of thing, if you know what it is. Some days now, when I have a few spare minutes, I look for pictures of Munising and Marquette on the internet.

I think about how I want to go to Isle Royale or even Mackinac Island and just be with trees, without cars, on the water, in nature--in nature, real nature, not the Airstreamy, Target-bought-tent, or sleep in the car camping kind of nature, but real trees, real dirt, real wind and water, real cold in the air nature; the smell of loam and bog, and "look at those deer" kind of nature; fire smoke and hoisting your food up into the trees kind of nature.

Yeah, nature, that's what I'm talkin' about.

Of course, I'm not sure this kind of nature exists anymore or ever did, but in my romantic Michigan outdoors fantasy, the one I go to when I feel baffled and worn down by the urban landscape. The natural Michigan I know and remember is one of liminal spaces, where you can eat breakfast at a greasy spoon then spend your day climbing dunes and surveying the coastline or traipsing through the woods until you're all tuckered out. It's there where I go when I'm skeptically in savasana playing at yogic meditation while cars go by outside or daydreaming my way out of an unpleasant task.

It's true though, life in Michigan is as much a life on water, or one in rural farm fields, and shady backwoods encampments as it is an urban life cluttered by box stores, sprawl, blight, unemployment, methamphetamine, and guns. I can't explain entirely with words what this place and its geography mean to me, but it's very real and near and beautiful and tough.This is true of much of America, but because "I'm from there," it feels more precious, and with an honest heart, I think that feeling is true.

More on Michigan to come...

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembrance of Things Past

Crowds at a Cemetery on Decoration Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, which means the "unofficial" start of summer with its fun and fancy free times.

Originally called "Decoration Day," according to my internet sources, the tradition had its birth after the Civil War when nice ladies would go decorate the graves of fallen soldiers (Some say Southern. Some say Northern. The fact is: a lot of people died and needed remembering). The tradition caught on, and on an appointed day, varying sometimes by city, the whole town would meet up at the cemetery. Graves would get decorated, people would have a picnic or a potluck among the headstones, and a nice time was had by all.

Later, the holiday was made official and meant as a remembrance for all those who died at war. And even later, it became a day for remembering the dead in general.

Now, for a lot of people, our American version of Día de los Muertos just means a day off work, and an excuse to drink a little more beer than usual and eat things cooked on a grill while laughing with each other. Most of us have kept the picnic aspect but have done away with the whole depressing memorial thing. Why not? It's nice not having to get all remembery about sad things.

Me, Dad & Brother --1978
My dad loves Memorial Day. He's a Vietnam vet, and every year he goes to Monument Park in the small town that he lives in and watches the parade. Then he calls me up and tells me about it in great detail, and I get it all mixed up with Veteran's Day, which seems to be comprised of the same people just celebrating those who lived through wars instead of dying.

I don't think my dad has missed this parade many times in his life, maybe just when he was in Vietnam walking the thin line between being one who would get a day to be remembered or a day to be celebrated. Before the war, he would have gone out of a sense of patriotism, and after, maybe out of a sense of entitlement, and now, maybe out of obligation.

Or, maybe I'm just reading into it, maybe he just likes to go to parades. I remember going to a succession of patriotic parades when I was a kid, which is why I have trouble keeping them all straight.

Last year, my dad was in a pretty terrible accident. He lived, but he got all busted up, so he doesn't go much of anywhere these days. He mentioned that he might not be able to make it to the parade this year or to the park. I felt bad, but hey, there will be more parades, right? Then he told me that the reason he most likes to go isn't for the parade but because there is a Vietnam War memorial in the park. His buddy's name is on it. This guy died three weeks after being shipped off to war. My dad likes to go make sure his buddy gets remembered.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington D.C., Credit: David Bjorgen
One of my most foundational memories is of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC with my dad. I was eight years old. It was spring, so everything was very green and alive. Then there was this stark wall stretching out for a long, long way, forever to a kid, really. There were just these names, and I knew they were people who died in the war my dad was in.

When we got to the wall, my dad went looking for the names of people he knew from back home or in the army, and he left me staring at this wall by myself. Some places people had put notes or pictures next to the names, and this made these dead people real to me. It was 1985, so the war had ended officially only about a decade before. There was still a lot of remembering to be done and peace to be made. It was a long, stupid and senseless war, and as is common in the course of human history, a lot of people needlessly died.

I don't want to put big, smart, existential concepts on my eight year old self; I wasn't some kid philosopher,  but I think I understood, even at that age, maybe especially at that age, just how messed up war was because I had to live with its reality every day of my life. My dad, who was never that stable to begin with, was mostly deaf from artillery fire, and he suffered from chronic, untreated PTSD, a condition that wasn't acknowledged by the military at that time or by most of the returned vets and their families. I think only now, after Iraq and Afghanistan are people really starting to recognize this as a common experience for men and women who have been to war. I hope, one day, it's also recognized as a condition that doesn't just affect the soldier, but the family and the community. My dad was in the Vietnam War, and I carry that war with me today.

While I was walking along the wall, I ran into these really tough biker looking types standing around and looking up at a name on the wall. One of them had a piece of paper and a pencil, and he asked if I would help him with something. I was kind of overwhelmed, so the normal admonition against strangers didn't mean much to me. I just nodded, and he shoved the paper and pencil in my hand and picked me up. I was suddenly face-to-face with the name they had been looking at.

I don't remember it, only that the man asked me to take an etching, so I set the paper against the wall, I scribbled until a name appeared in graphite. When I was done, the man put me on the ground again and took the etching from me. That was his buddy who died in the war. He and the other tough looking biker types thanked me, and this guy just held this etching in his hands, stared down at the name written there and cried.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wherever You Roam

But sometimes in a grosstel in Barstow, CA, you feel pretty alone.

Halfway between the Grand Canyon and Oakland lies the city of Barstow, California. It's basically a highway oasis of hotels & motels, box stores and fast food restaurants. Our hotel, the cheapest I could find at short notice, sat a few blocks off the highway. Everything in it had a mealy, dusty feeling. Only half the lights worked half the time, and none of the doors were hung right.

Outside of their room, a couple of contractors, waylaid for the evening, had settled down into a couple of plastic lawn chairs to stare out at the desert, smoke cigarettes and drink some cheap beers. The pool was closed by the time we arrived, and M was disappointed. It was the only amenity, really, and after a day of descending down from the heights and into the hot and dusty Mojave, a dip in a hotel pool, even a questionable one, would have been welcome.

I was stuffy from all the changes in elevation, and when I blew my nose, there was blood. I was dry inside and out and covered in a layer of grime. I remembered the first time I'd ever been in the Sonoran desert, how the friend I was with kept reminding me to drink water. I was used to the humidity of Michigan and didn't realize how easily a day in the desert could sap a person of everything. By the time M and I reached Barstow, I was sapped. She mentioned getting food. The thought of getting back in the Jeep or even eating was unappealing. I told her I would just have some of the bread we hunter/gathered at the Grand Canyon quasi-Whole Foods. After a couple of bites, I decided I would just have water.

Reading about Barstow I found out that John Steinbeck had spent some time there, and by time, I think just a night, while researching The Grapes of Wrath. When Okies and others from the great Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s made their exodus to California, they often stopped in Barstow according to my cursory Wikipedia research. I tried to imagine what that must have been like for them.

Just sitting in that grubby room with a bed and air conditioning and water and the wonders of the internet shaky as it was, I felt hopeless. What would it have been like to leave behind everything you knew and travel through an ecologically devastated landscape to something completely unknown? I figure, it probably felt something like the apocalypse.

The next day, driving through the Mojave towards the verdant Central Valley and home. I kept thinking about the Dust Bowl. I thought about my reasons for migrating to California. Michigan's economy was wrecked long before the rest of the country and this sense of tenaciousness punctuated by hopelessness seemed to blanket everything like clouds of dust. Michigan is a tough and beautiful place, and it was hard to abandon.

I wonder if it's just a deep, genetic human impulse to "Go West?" In any case, for whatever reason, I'm glad I did. I wish I could provide a bold, beautiful and sweeping description of California, something to recommend it above all else.

The only thing I can think is: California is grand. There's so much hope here. And while I don't mind wandering--in fact, I like it very much-- I sure do like coming home.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ain't it Grand?

Yo Dawg, I heard you like nature and the earth and stuff, so I pimped your earth with a giant canyon, so you could be totally awed when you are looking at nature.

Leaving Tucson is always bittersweet.

In the morning, my friends' seven-year-old daughter woke up very early. She told me her beloved stuffed animal had gotten out of bed during the night, and she couldn't find him anywhere. So she and I searched her room until we found where he was hiding. After, she and I and the beloved stuffed animal sat down at the dining room table and had breakfast together. We talked for a while about school and the other kids who go there and how when she grows up she's going to be a dancing fighter. I think she'll probably be an artist.

At some point, the kid looked at me, and she said: Sarah, you're happy when you're in Tucson. Are you going to move here next time you come to visit?

I am happy in Tucson, but I am also happy in Oakland. Sometimes I wish transporter beams had been invented already, so I could flash from here to there in an instant; I could walk through one front door and back out another, and I wouldn't always feel so torn in space in time.

But transporter beams have not yet been invented, or if they have, they exist only in some secret military base out there in America or maybe at Google Labs, but I digress. M and I arrived by Jeep, and that was how we left, taking the long road North to see one of the wonders of the natural world.

We left the Sonoran desert and traveled North up through Phoenix (snooze) and through the Verde Valley (Yeah!) where I was fortunate enough to stay for a week last summer with my fellow Desert Rat Writers. We drove slightly East of Sedona and Slide Rock, where the white rocks give way to red, and hit Flagstaff. Then up, up, up, up we went maybe to the top of the world, not really, just up high enough, through scraggy, brushy, desolate land, until we reached Grand Canyon National Park.

After days in the car and dirty cities, I was all ready to get up in nature's business and have a cuddle party with it. I was going to smell the rarified air of nature and sleep under its stars to the sounds of crickets and coyotes.

NATURE in its natural state.

Did you know that there is a fancy store right at the edge of the Grand Canyon where you can get all sorts of beers and fine wines and artisan cheeses and health foods? There's a post office, and city folk restaurants and PLENTY OF PARKING! And everyone is happy and clean like they've just come out of central casting from a Farmers Market. Camping at the Grand Canyon was not exactly roughing it, but I did see some deer and a whole lot of very smart, cunning looking ravens. They were plotting something, I'm sure.

After a long day, and a giant gourmet salad consumed by the light of a long burning fire log, I built a nest inside the Jeep and passed out for a few hours, until the sound of sirens from a fire truck or police car or something woke me up. It's cool. It kind of reminded me of home.

M and I ate some artisan bread and fancified peanut butter, took showers and hopped a shuttle bus to the edge of the canyon. By then, I just felt disillusioned with this whole nature business. And then, we saw it. And, you know what? It was pretty damn awesome!

Let's rename this sh*t The F*cking Amazeballs Giant Supergrand USA USA USA  Canyon!

I was impressed!

Everyone around us was impressed. I was so happy with nature at that moment that I offered to do something nice and took a picture of a couple with their baby in a stroller with the canyon as a backdrop. As I looked through the lens of the camera, I realized, their "baby" was actually a dog in a stroller. We all felt shame.

But who cares? I was at the GRAND CANYON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Live, in color, and all yours: A Giant Canyon!
How did the Grand Canyon get here?

Well, it was amazing to hear my fellow Americans speculate (even though there were placards everywhere, a visitor center, brochures, a museum within yards with a 3D IMAX movie that explained everything, and something called the internet). One woman said: Wow, a meteorite created all this! and her husband answered: No, it was the Noah Flood. The flood made this big rift and the only thing left was the ark. 

I'm pretty sure it was nature, dudes: water and wind. That is pretty impressive. Nature, I am all up in your business after this.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Home Away From Home

Finger Rock Trail Head

After TorC, we spent six hours driving to Tucson for a quick visit with a dear friend and fellow writer, Monica Friedman. There's not much between TorC and Tucson, except for some land and some tourist traps, namely "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert," which M was very intent on seeing. Having been a passive victim of the roadside tourist trap more than once on this trip -- this is a girl that can not turn down the Americana spiced delights of every Cherokee Trading Post in the nation -- I would not deny M "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert."

"The Thing? Mystery of the Desert " just to spoil it for you, is the mummy of a "cowboy?" housed in a "museum?" attached to a gas station in Benson, AZ. It exists in the same building as a car that might have belonged to Hitler as well as some torture porn created by artist Ralph Gallagher. It was only $1 to see, and M paid for it. Also, the gas station was full of the requisite tourist swag I just cannot get enough of, so all in all it was a win for everyone.

Follow these footsteps to "The Thing? Mystery of the Desert."

Anyone who knows me also knows that Tucson, AZ feels like my second home. We weren't there even a full day, just long enough to climb briefly up the Finger Rock Trail head, eat some Sonoran food, catch up and visit the mission of San Xavier del Bac.

St. Xavier Mission

I make a pilgrimage here once or twice a year to get all spiritual and stuff. It's one of my favorite places in the world, and if I have any money when I die, I want to leave it to the Mission San Xavier del Bac for restoration and upkeep of the grounds and art.

St. Xavier covered in milagros

After visiting with St. Xavier, M and I bought candles and lit them in a quiet space outside at the back of the Mission. I kept thinking about all of the milagros, photos, hospital wristbands and notes pinned to St. Xavier. All the things I want in life at the moment are pretty selfish, and I'm lucky that the things I want are exactly what they are. For what it's worth, when I lit the candle, I asked whatever exists out there in the cosmos to pay attention and give all those people the miracles they are looking for.

We climbed up to the grotto above the Mission. Looking at all of the milagros and intentions and tokens left behind, I couldn't help but think of the cemetery in New Orleans and all of the requests and tokens left at the grave of Marie Laveau.

I wonder what they asked for?
Wherever you go, people aren't so different after all.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Truth or Consequences

Rabbits, Truth or Consequences, NM


About a decade ago I spent a summer traveling through Europe with a buddy of mine. We didn't have a car,  just public transportation, our feet, and our backpacks. We were broke, but we figured out that once we got across the ocean, we could live on practically nothing, so we made compromises. Most days we splurged on good coffee, then ate some Tesco peanut butter spread over fresh bread. We filled our water bottles from town square fountains, hitched rides to and from the trains and buses with kind strangers, and slept on trains and shared rooms in hostels.

We were out there in the world so long and living so light and tight that it was easy to forget the day and the place. It was easy to forget that I had a life in America at all. I started to feel like we were on the run from something.

Since it’s been years, I can’t remember how long we wandered. I just remember when it hit me, suddenly: I missed home.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Munich after being on a train all night, my buddy and I were waiting to catch a bus to a campground. There were these old drunks hanging out at the stop drinking beers and smoking. They had these ratty, wire haired mutt dogs that kept circling our legs and making us giggle. We played with the dogs for a long time, and the drunks sang to us. At some point, we realized the bus wasn’t coming, so we decided to walk. I was tired, so tired that I didn’t care when we did end up somewhere in a tiny, humid, dirt encrusted popup trailer on the edge of a river in somewhere Germany. It seemed more like a place to cure meats than to rest one’s head, but it didn’t matter. I just crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I wanted to be home. I wanted to be home so bad, it hurt. I looked over at my buddy sleeping on the other side of the trailer, and I said: I feel like I’m running from the Feds. Let’s go home. 

So we did.

Every traveler should be lucky enough to enjoy such art.

I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where this trip has become “going home,” as opposed to being out here in America. Something is off. I’m think this project has taken a turn. I’m not sure where it’s going. I’m not sure, at this point, if I care. I’m sitting in a purple themed room at the Charles Motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Something about this place makes me feel like I’m on the run. Something about this place feels like a truer America than we’ve seen so far. I’m not sure what it is.

Dude, where's my motel?


In the morning, it was raining, just enough to make a pretty, sleepy noise. I walked outside and stared up at the misty mountains rising over up the Dude Motel and the liquor store across the street. I still felt like going home. I also felt like I was there. I still felt like we were on the run, and also that M and I were both very unimportant and who we are or what we did meant nothing at all.

I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be that kind of bath house.

M and I decided to check out the bathhouse attached to the motel. The whole town is built over a hot spring, and you can’t spit without your phlegm landing on one of those places. After receiving instructions from the attendant, I let my tub fill with hot spring water and climbed in. I laid back and floated for a while. I tried to meditate. There was something transcendent there, with the plonk, plonk of rain, and birds singing just outside the window. There was something that felt timeless there, and placeless, too. I could have been anywhere in the world. I let air fill my lungs and my body float up to the surface tipping this way and that.

Man, it was great. Then, I heard some noises drifting in from the adjoining tub room. “Noises,” if you catch my drift, not, scrubbing the tub or derobing or getting settled noises, but you know, sounds of a Sapphic variety. I started to fret: I hope it’s not that kind of bathhouse. Not that I begrudge anyone their personal enjoyment, but I was having a transcendent moment, after all.

The moment had passed and rather than become a reluctant voyeur, I let the tub drain and got out. It was a good thing I did, because a few moments longer, and I probably would have fainted anyway. The heat had turned my bones to jelly, and I went back to our strange room to sleep.

They said it was a safe area, but you can't take Oakland out of the girl.

Later, M and I drove into town, which revealed itself to be a charming queer friendly mix of old timers, new comers, artists, weirdos and regular folk. Of course, I wanted to buy a house there right away, and had already done so in my head before coming back down to earth. I guess it’s easy to forget you have a life somewhere when you are out on a meta-run.

Section Art, Truth or Consequences, NM

We stopped at the post office to take pictures of the art and wandered around downtown for a bit. At the Geronimo Museum and Gift Shop, the clerk, a local, was insistent we sign her guest book, as if we were stamping a passport for her with which she could dream of other places than where she was. I told her I liked the town, and she said it was a "special place," in the way a person might speak about an old person type relative that they aren't particularly fond of. She asked us where we were going. When we told her we were headed for Tucson, she said she wished she could go too, and I think she meant it. Funny, because I wished I could stay in Truth or Consequences for a good long time.