Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Joshua Tree: My love affair with the desert begins.

“I’m not really a “desert” girl,” I’d explain when someone asked why I had never camped out in Joshua Tree National Park.  I grew up in the lush green of Oregon’s rainy Willamette Valley.  The desert just leaves me thirsty.
“I may be a desert girl,” I said to the boyfriend while we sat on the cold wall of the patio of a Joshua Tree house, watching the sun rise over the stark mountain range, the sky slowly turning a baby blue with streaks of golden-tinged pink, quails waking to scuttle across the hard-packed dirt that is spotted with succulents whose beauty is neither flashy nor brilliant, but spare, somehow both delicate and hardy.
And then I entered Joshua Tree National Park, and I GOT IT.  It’s a magical place.
Initially created as an 825,000 acre National Monument in August of 1936, Joshua Tree was designated a National Park on October 31st, 1994 by the Desert Protection Act, adding an additional 234,000 acres to the park. The rock formations look like they must come alive at night, gentle giants that stomp through the park, illuminated by moonlight, campers exhausted from a day of bouldering and hiking too deep in sleep to know. Each rock-monster step shakes the ground, witnessed only by the slow-growing, deeply rooted Joshua trees.

“Yucca brevifolia” the plant species now known to Bono fans and desert-lovers as a Joshua tree was so-nicknamed by a group of Mormons, settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. According to Wikipedia, the tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.
Joshua trees may need more than prayer; the Wiki entry notes that conservationists are concerned that they will be eliminated from the National Park, “with ecological research suggesting a high probability that their populations will be reduced by 90 percent of their current range by the end of the 21st century, thus fundamentally transforming the ecosystem of the park.”
- Read the rest over at The City Farm

(Photo Credit: Rebecca Snavely)

Friday, September 19, 2014

I Know You: Singing Lessons from Mike the Bus Driver

I'd just crowded into my seat, squeezing between my knees the bottle of water giving life to my bunch of sunflowers wrapped in plastic. A man boarded the rapid bus behind me, and I watched as he stepped past his fellow passengers who were huddled in a bunch, tapping passes on the fare reader or ironing dollar bills against their pants before guiding them into the machine.

The man got close to the driver and leaned in, asking if the driver needed to see his card.

"No, it's cool. I know you," the driver replied.

The man's face broke into a toothy, beaming smile. "He knows me!" he announced as he made his way down the bus aisle.

Taking his seat midway through the double carriage, he arranged his bright blue earphones and pushed play on his potable CD player. It wasn't long before the sound of his singing(?) filled the bus.
People looked over their shoulders, trying to identify the source of what could barely be called a song, more an off-key mrowling-howling-growling that hit occasional notes of pain and momentary highlights of someone recovering from a root canal yet attempting to learn to incant a sermon in Hebrew.

But when the crooner's critics noted that he was developmentally disabled, they turned back in their seats, resigned to what is with a grimace of annoyance. Maybe actual aural pain.

"I don't know this tune," my seatmate, a man with wavy Paul McCartney hair and a nervous, sweet smile whispered to me, pained.

"Likely not a top 40 hit," I replied.

A few blocks and bars of UNIMAGINABLY bad music later, McCartney leaned his head toward me again. "Are you tempted to harmonize?"

I laughed, and to illustrate how god-awful my own voice is, told him the story of how my father, a pastor, had a naturally off-key singing voice, but loved to sing to God so much, he just belted it out, without a care. Until the ladies down in the nursery watching the babies, who listened to the Sunday sermon via the mic my dad wore during the service, made a request. "Could you turn off the mic during the singing?' they asked sweetly. "You're making the babies cry." 

My father turned off the mic, took a singing lesson or two, and continues to sing songs of love, in a more tear-free key. And though the idea of harmonizing with this bus-serenader triggered visions of the BEST FLASH MOB EVER in my head, you know, the one where the whole bus joins in and makes sense and real song of this man's guttural whining, bringing tears to the eyes and reminding millions of YouTube viewers how we're all connected in the greater song called life, it didn't happen.

Instead, at the next stop, the driver walked back to the minstrel's seat. Driver Mike, let's call him, smiled, leaned down, and said in a low voice only audible to me and the man, "Hey, man. I know you like to sing. But it's really loud, so I have to ask you to stop."

Immediately flustered, the man started apologizing and growing agitated, but Mike the driver calmed him. He stood up straight, looked him in the eye, and said, "It's all good. You're my friend," before making his way back to the front of the bus.

That's the song Mike and the bus-minstrel left me singing tonight. That it's all good, as long as someone takes the time to look you in the eyes and say, "I know you." 

(And tells you to keep it down, you're making the babies cry.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tales from the L.A. Bus: Tips from a single mom on school, sex, and syphilis.

She was a a young, lovely African-American woman in her late 20s. She leaned forward to emphasize her points as she sat on that side-facing bench that straddles the middle of the extra-long Rapid-line bus.  Her two-year-old perched next to her, her little legs sticking straight into the aisle, mostly ignoring her mother, who was talking to a couple of older Latina women.

eavesdropped on jumped into the conversation a little late, and missed some salient parts about bed bugs and Ebola, but caught up when the young mother started discussing where she was headed: community college. The older women asked about her daughter traveling with her, and she informed them (and any other interested bus-rider) that the community college provides day care for your kids if they're potty-trained. "So there's no excuse not to go to college," she said. She laid it down, in that way that people do who have made the decision to change their life, and are ready to evangelize to the lazy or mis-informed.  She was making a change in her life.

And she was NOT having any more of what gave her her precious two-year-old. 

"Do you have a boyfriend," the women asked?

"Oh.  Oooohhh." the college-student nodded emphatically.  "I know what sexy is. But." She held on to a long, pregnant pause.  "Syphilis. Syph. AH. LIS. Syphilisssss."

She nodded, apparently having avoided a fate that others she knew had not.  (I mean, what Angeleno has NOT seen the sad bear with the shame of "We're #2!" weighing heavily on its California pride?)

When she was certain that she had convinced the women that she was oh-ver men who did not meet her high standards, she asked how old they were.

"60?!  I cannot WAIT to be 60," she told them.  "I'll have worked my job, raised my little girl, I won't care what the world says.  I'll just be Living. My. Life."

It seemed she was already doing just that.  My hero. 

(Photo Credit: DailyBillboardBlog)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Car-Free Day in L.A.: It Has Been A Beautiful Fight

One day in L.A., and I'm surrounded by life in all its messiness and beauty. In just one day, a walk down steep city stairs that are a respite for the homeless: scattered bottles and trash mix with succulents and pink flowers and palms. 

A delicious latte at Muddy Paw Coffee, where part of their proceeds go to animal rescues, and a chat with the proprietor about the health of organic, whole milk, and his childhood in Vermont.
Catching up on life with an old L.A. friend, and how the city and our relationships in it and to it change as life brings new experiences, a child, a longer-than-I've-ever-been-in-a-relationship, the unknowns of new jobs. 

A bus ride with a lovely driver, friendly and helpful, to downtown L.A., to continue to foster a friendship that was birthed in my junior high years in Tennessee, and get to know her husband. To watch the police respond calmly to a man off his meds, wondering if he'll be sent to jail to get two square meals, and drifting off into other conversations before we can solve the lack of mental health care in our country. 

Walking to the bus stop at 11th and Broadway, stopped by a homeless man asking for a frozen mocha at Starbucks. Buying a banana for a different homeless man, hovered over a city trash can to eat from the food we waste. 

Boarding an empty bus with my choice of a seat, to watch it fill in front of me. A 50-something resting her head on the shoulder of her 70-something mother/friend as the bus drifted down Sunset.

A load of fresh laundry done, folded, and put into drawers. A boyfriend to welcome home later and talk about the day and odd news and conversations about books or where science makes life more fascinating and known-yet-mysterious. 

"IT HAS BEEN A BEAUTIFUL FIGHT" ~ Micheltorena Stairs, Silverlake

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Hollywood Highs & Hell: Finding Beauty and Balance at the Bowl

Standing before my bench seat at the Bowl, a cup of wine in one hand, a fervent patriot a few rows back singing along with the L.A. Phil to the national anthem, I sat down as the sun set, and had one of those moments.  Looking at the curved lines of the bowl, the lights inside growing warmer as the night sky changed from blue to navy, listening to the sounds of the Phil playing, clapping after Joshua Bell made magic come from his violin, sitting in awe as Glenn Close sang "One Look" from the film Sunset Boulevard. Where I realized it felt like I was living in a movie. The first time I saw the Bowl was in Beaches, Bette Midler singing "The Glory of Love." Now the Bowl is a normal part of my summer plans, buying cheap seats for nights of music ranging from the Ray LaMontagne to Dolly Parton.

My movie-like night started as most of my days do, sweating as I walked through the July afternoon to catch the bus down Sunset Blvd.  Smelling odd odors that wafted from my seat-mate's canvas bag. Watching the overweight driver labor out of his seat to help a mother situate her son's wheelchair, spending an extra few minutes listening to the beep beep beep of the automated ramp that allowed him to wheel onto the bus.

Walking amongst the tourists milling about Hollywood & Highland, their traveler's disorientation palpable as they circled blocks and got swindled into paying for photographs with one of the three Captain Jack Sparrows working the boulevard.  Climbing past them to the Bowl, my friend and I finding a picnic table to share, sitting with cheese and cherries and a bottle of pinot noir to catch up on life. 

A violin will almost always bring me to tears, whether from the horrific sounds of an eight-year-old's first lesson, or the heart-breaking beauty of a virtuoso like Joshua Bell.  When he brought out his friend Frankie Moreno, a pianist and lounge singer from Las Vegas, I was skeptical, until their rendition of one of my favorite Beatles songs wrapped around me.

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

A conversation from earlier that evening about the hell that this world can be came to mind, a story of a girl tortured and killed.  Someone known, not just a news story.  As I sat wrapped in a world of classically trained artists and music and light filling the amphitheater, a police helicopter buzzed overhead, on its way to shine its searchlight into a dark part of the city. A bird flew by the conductor's wand, a large, winged bug landed and breathed its last right on his score, as he shared with a laugh.  And in the midst of all the beauty, I was highly aware of all the lonely people. 

I woke to open Pema Chödrön's quote of the week:

Joining Heaven and Earth

"Recently," she writes, "in a friend’s kitchen I saw on the wall a quotation from one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s talks, which said: 'Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.'

"I was struck by it because when I read it I realized that I myself have some kind of preference for stillness. The notion of holding the sadness and pain of samsara in my heart rang true, but I realized I didn’t do that; at least, I had a definite preference for the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. My reference point was always to be awake and to live fully, to remember the Great Eastern Sun—the quality of being continually awake. But what about holding the sadness and pain of samsara in my heart at the same time?

"The quotation really made an impression on me. It was completely true: if you can live with the sadness of human life (what Rinpoche often called the tender heart or genuine heart of sadness), if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the vision and power of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness, joining heaven and earth, joining vision and practicality."    ~Pema Chödrön

Friday, April 25, 2014

Walking in L.A.: Choir Practice and Sleeping on Sidewalks

If I'd been in a car, I wouldn't have heard the sound of voices.  At first it sounded like a carol, then a choir. From my church'd childhood, I immediately looked for the chapel, the taste of sour coffee and stale cookies filling my mouth. But, on the dark sidewalk, all I saw was a long driveway leading to one of the many, rambling, Craftsman houses that line Silver Lake's streets.

I paused on my walk to downhill to the bar, appreciating the sound of voices harmonizing, and the fact that I was in a tank top in late April after the sun had set, that I was on my way to see a friend and catch up over a glass of great wine.  I tried to capture the sound of song via the video on my phone, but with all the ambient noise of the neighborhood, it's difficult to hear. 

As I continued down the hill, the choir fading, I saw shadows beneath the trees, people sleeping on the dark side of the street, the sound of the traffic on Sunset their choir.  I was reminded of the Anderson Cooper report — of how it costs us less as tax payers to provide homes for the homeless.  And how lucky I am to have a home, a friend to meet.  And how my work is to be aware, present with what is, yet fighting to change systems to create a more connected life.

And my job is to stop to listen to the music around me.  Happily car-free. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda: Underneath, We're All the Same

Roses on mass graves. Skulls encased in glass.  Stories of children brutally murdered. I don’t wonder that I stopped writing about my experience at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda– unable to put into words my experience. The body memory of my panic attack there just resurfaced, as I write – my heart raced and skipped for about 20 seconds. If I’m at a loss, what must it be for the survivors? For Jack, our host and guide for the day, whose life was forever changed by the genocide. When he was only 9, Jack became a father figure to his younger siblings when their parents were killed in their village outside Kigali.

Kigali is a beautiful city today.  After over two weeks in eastern Congo, without running water, paved roads, or the freedom to be out after sunset, my friend Cate and I marveled at walking to restaurants, reveling in street lights and hot, running water.  A cosmopolitan city of ex-pats and ambassadors, we had the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. We dined outdoors at a restaurant where we could purchase beautiful, hand-woven bowls made by women entrepreneurs. We took hot showers.  We heard of how the outlying poverty was masked by the sheen of prosperity in the city center. We visited the villages off the paved paths, delivering groceries to a woman with AIDS, wrapped in a blanket and seated on the couch, unable to move without help. She welcomed us with a warm smile that washed over her wasted body.

Jack was a friend of Gunilla, a Swedish woman we met in Bukavu, who works with victims of trauma in Rwanda and Congo.  Jack had agreed to take us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a center dedicated to the history of Rwanda, the events leading to the 1994 genocide, and the physical evidence of the atrocities. The center and its grounds and gardens stand guard above a burial site with over 250,000 victims of the killings.  Not your typical tourist destination, but in a city was destroyed by savage, brutal, mass killings, where rivers ran thick with bodies and blood, yet now functions with an air of security and progress, it is crucial to remember the decisions, divisions, and power structures put into play that started a system which bred the level of inhuman violence seen here.  To speak the unspeakable, to own responsibility, as world leaders later did, admitting to standing by. Owning it, so it might never happen again.

Gunilla asked Jack once more if the visit would be too much, and Jack, easy-going with a ready smile, told us he would step outside if it was.

After a brief stop at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the site of “Hotel Rwanda,” where we watched the wealthy lounge by the beautiful pool, and checked in with our airline at their office attached to the spacious, air-conditioned lobby, we phoned a friend of Jack’s, who operated a taxi, and drove to the Genocide Memorial, perched near the top of the opposite hillside.  We parked next to a large bus, one of the only vehicles in the lot, with a group of Muzungus (white people) sitting beside it, eating a picnic lunch. 

At the entrance to the center, we met a short, slight man, a friend Gunilla had met when she held a Trauma Tapping Therapy (TTT) training at the memorial. He spoke to us in Kinyarwanda, and Jack translated his hopeful report, on how much TTT had helped the people Gunilla had worked with. 

The center is free, though you can pay for an audio guide, but we had Jack, whose guidance was more personal and detailed than anything you could pay for or read. Entering downstairs, the dark stone hall was cool, and lined with back-lit photo exhibits ranging from pre-colonial days to describing the white man’s decision to change what were flexible, socio-economic labels of Hutu and Tutsi into strict ethnic groups, requiring ID cards to be carried at all times.

We watched videos of survivors speaking of their experiences of gacaca tribunes, traditional community trials of restorative justice adjusted to present-day needs to bring local perpetrators to justice.

We read about the use of rape, torture, and the spread of HIV/AIDS to humiliate and eradicate the Tutsis. We saw the commonly used weapons: machetes, clubs, and guns.

We sat silent in a circular room lined with 5x7 photos of loved ones lost. There was a round of beautiful wooden sculptures, soft and supple lines illustrating life before the genocide, leading to shapes depicting death and rape.

The clothes found with victims were hung in cases; a worn, cotton Superman bed-sheet in its familiar blues and red stretched between a torn pair of pants and a shirt.

Walking upstairs, the rooms held a brief pictorial history of other genocides: The German Holocaust to exterminate the Jews, the Cambodian killing fields, the Armenian genocide, photos, videos and facts from Bosnia and Kosovo. 

My heart started racing.  I’d lived in Kosovo twice before, for a couple months at a time. I’d met the people who were still mourning loved ones, never found, never identified. I’d heard stories of how men had terrorized my friends, wearing masks so as not to be identified as the neighbor from across the street.  The photos of refugees streaming from their homes reminded me of a friend who carried a photo with him that he took as he left his village, the homes on fire and smoke rising into the sky. 

It was overwhelming. And it was hot. There was very little air flow, and I stepped into the bathroom to splash water on my face.  There was no running water. We continued to the next room, where poster-sized photos of young children hung above plaques stating their names, ages (4, 7, 10), their favorite foods (cheese, eggs, chocolate), their personality traits (gregarious, shy), and exactly how they were tortured and killed.

It was too much.  I started to cry and excused myself, losing control of my tears, my heart-rate, my breathing. Gunilla followed me, and led me out to a balcony, where we stood for a few minutes, overlooking the grounds in silence, until fat drops of rain started to fall, breaking up the heavy humidity of the day.  Going back inside, Jack led us to another room filled with chairs. I sat looking out a large window with a view of the streets, buildings, and people Kigali, unable to stop sobbing, unable to erase the photos of children who had been brutally slaughtered. 

I want my heart to break over this. My heart should break, to know what is worth standing for, fighting for. But it’s too much. Too much for survivors, traumatized children, living a lifetime with nightmares of memories most of us cannot fathom.

Gunilla held me, lightly massaging my shoulders and neck. Cate squeezed my hand, offering me tissue and her bottle of water. Local women, workers taking their break? visitors to their relative’s grave-site? stared at me.

Leaving, we passed through the lobby, and walked out toward the gardens, overgrown green covering the mass graves. Buying roses, we walked under a long trellis of greens, large cement slabs to our left acting as one continuous tombstone. We laid the roses down, to honor those buried below.  The rain had stopped, and we spoke of birds flying overhead, their long wingspan and beaks uttering a whining cry. 

Inside, there was a room filled with skulls of the victims. It was macabre.  But looking at the collection, the story was clear. You couldn’t tell.  You couldn’t tell if one was a Hutu or Tutsi, Jewish or Christian, Cambodian, Armenian, Serb or Albanian. Underneath, we’re all the same.  

(Photo: The Atlantic)