It’s early November and Central California is still smoking hot, like an overheated griddle, and drier than an old tortilla chip. Our creek is dry, river is dry, well is drying up—and no rain in the foreseeable future. My own wellspring of creativity, optimism, and trust in human decency is as jaded as the news, as withered as the roadside weeds.
But life is full of surprises-sometimes a day can spin on its heels, leaving in its wake a fresh wind blowing, maybe even scented with rain-- without a drop of rain in sight.
It happened like this: my 85 year old Mom arrived in town last week, full of vim and vigor, eager to do something different than “the same old things” we always do when she comes to town. My duty is to keep Mom safe, happy and entertained while my brother’s on his annual hunting trip. Though she lives alone, and manages well, we try to tag team the safe and happy part.
I carry tea and ginger snaps to her bedroom at dawn, which is our ritual, but she’s already been awake for hours listening to farm reports on the radio, briefed on local events for a hundred mile around.
“There’s a fall harvest festival today in Bradley. Homemade jams and jellies, pumpkin bread, pot-holders, and a grand-prize drawing at two. It’s a beautiful drive through the countryside. I wrote it all down on my napkin.”
This translates to: “this is what we should do today.” I dubiously look up Bradley on line, and find no mention of fall farm festivals. I try to tell her there is no fall festival. This doesn’t daunt her. It’s all written right here on her napkin.
Later that morning, we set out to find the fall festival, even though I only have the vaguest idea where Bradley is.
After a forty minute drive on a barren, lonely road, Mom says, “I sure would hate to break down out here." I say, “We’re not going to break down, Mom.” Sheesh. Why does she say these things?
If you sneezed twice, you’d miss Bradley entirely. On the outer edge of town we pass a wacky heap of rusted cars piled in front of a defunct gas station: Jimmy Raders Hot Rod Social. Also, a post office, a fire station, a school, a boarded-up church and a few chickens running down the street. No store. No pedestrians. No jam or jelly festivals in sight.
Bradley could NOT be a more ghostly ghost town. We scout out the the school yard, where small towns sometimes hold festivals, and we park in the shade of the lone tree to regroup. The lone teacher looked at us with some suspicion, and had heard of no festival. But when I turn the key to head home? Click. My engine is as dead as the ghosts in this town. Here we were, in the middle of god-forsaken-Bradley, stranded. Did I mention it’s really, really HOT? We're a long ways from home, and no help in sight. Mom perks right up. "We're having an adventure!"
Mom holds me by the elbow and we teeter down the sweltering street towards the heap of hotrods, hoping to find a live person for a jump start. An unshaven man, wearing a wooly coat and knit cap is enjoying a cold soda, alone in his hot-rod shop. We "hoo hoo" and walk in, asking for jumper cables.
“No one ever comes here. Come in, come in!”
Inside are 1940’s pin-up girls, photos of movie stars, and a big cooler filled with strawberry sodas.
But the guy, Jimmy Rader, is talking so fast my head spins.
"You gotta see this. Come back into the back room, I have so much to show you.”
Mom follows him nimbly, asking question after question. This is way better than pot- holders and jelly.
I’m quickly feeling like a fly that’s bumbled into a spider web—the trap door kind, that start out wide and quickly become narrow and sticky.
I keep saying we need to go, that we just need some jumper cables, but mom is determined to see the “museum” of old car and motorcycle parts. Deeper into his cavern she flutters.
“We really need to go, “ I say.
“You haven’t seen anything yet. Come back this way. You can spend the night here in my bus. Or in the jail out back. We film horror movies here in Bradley.”
Why does this not surprise me?
I feel like I've entered Hotel California, where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. "
“We have to get back,” I say. “Do you have jumper cables?”
“I’ll drive you back to your car in my 61 Camero” the hot rod man declares. Mom nearly skips to his car.
“No thanks, we’ll walk.”
I imagine us disappearing into the sagebrush in his vintage Camero, a maniacal, fast-talking, gear-head at the wheel--as the movie credits roll.
I grab her hand and pull her through the maze of metal.
So we walk—me leading, Mom tottering, holding my hand, back through the sweltering streets to our car. Mom’s laughing. She thinks its fun. I don’t. I’m clearly not doing my part to keep mom safe-- although she does seem pretty happy.
True to his word, Jimmy Hotrod pulls up alongside us with his jumper cables and purring Camero. Seeing a car in need, he quickly morphs into a brooding mechanic, swiftly diagnosing an alternator problem. Not a quick fix-and it takes four jumps and four stalls just to get us back to his station.
Once there, he hauls our battery out, and plunks in three different batteries-- from multiple discarded cars--none of which work. He misses his lunch. He misses a chat with the CHP who stopped by for his daily chat. He finally finds a battery in his 1941 tractor, “just to get you girls home” (where we will need to replace the alternator) and installs it.
Jimmy Rader wouldn’t take a nickel for his efforts, his battery, his sodas, or his lost time. The scruffy-looking dude I’d pegged as an ax-murderer-- turned out to be the best kind of Good Samaritan ever. He cares for his older, mentally-challenged brother and has for over 40 years. He's married to the same girl he loved in Kindergarten. He never had a mom, she died when he was a baby, but he just likes to do good in the world, and make people happy. He's going to sell his museum pretty soon, and move to Placerville, because his town doesn't wish to have a tourist attraction here. He's sad, but wants his town to be happy. And he wants to follow his dream, of making a Knox Berry Farm-like old car park. Before we drive away, I impulsively hug him. Mom does too. He looks embarrassed but grins. We promise to return the battery the following week.
Much later, back home, Mom and I sit outside on my porch, grilling steaks, sharing a chilled bottle of Sauvinon Blanc. I’m celebrating getting mom home safely—(it took another 3 hours and a tow truck to get us finally here) she’s relishing the adventure. I can’t take credit for keeping mom safe, today, but I think I (accidentally) kept her entertained.
A week later, driving mom back home, we stop to see Jimmy Radar and return his tractor battery. We deliver a box of Sees candy to thank him. My mom reaches for his hand.
“May God be with you,” she says, uncharacteristically.
He holds her hand gently, “And you too,” he replies.
As we drive off, tears run down her face. I don't know what she's thinking. I am thinking--"He never had a mom."
And I've been blessed with my spunky, adventurous mom for 59 years.
Back at home, the news is still the news, fractious, bitter and violent. The weather is still hot and dry. But here’s what I know: Buried under the dust, all over California, there are little frog pellets, just waiting for puddles to plump them up. After the first downpour, thousands of frogs will emerge, croaking and hopping out, from wherever they go during the dry season. Brilliant blades of grass will poke through the dust, in about two minutes flat. Little rivulets will begin to carve patterns in the powdery earth.
And beneath our fear and mistrust, there is just us, in funny costumes, with all kinds of wild ideas, just waiting for puddles of kindness to plump us up, too. To jump start us. The rains eventually come. Mostly, we are hardwired to be kind, to rain down kindness on those in need.
Inside all of us, ideas and projects wait to be plumped up by rivers that flow through our dreams, rivers that will flow once again. Maybe it will rain soon. In the mean time, we put one dusty foot in front of the other. We offer a hand; we accept a hand. We remember the truth, expressed so luminously in Ram Dass words: “At the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home.”
My husband and I corralled our three grown sons for a last hurrah before school and jobs claimed them for the year, and paddled for five days through the forest-lined lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters, between Minnesota and Canada. The fall colors were just beginning to flame, yellow and red torches against the dark green. Every half mile or so, we spotted boundary markers, letting us know where the US territory ended, and Canada began.
Bald eagles, beavers, otters, and loons greeted us each day. Paddling further and further out of cell service had unexpected advantages: in-person conversation became the regular way to communicate once again.
After long days of paddling and setting up camp, Joel, Jon and Luke hauled in stringers of Northern Pike and Walleye for fish-fries. Barry and I read, sketched and collected firewood for the campfire. Quiet days, peaceful nights, cooking together, and sharing long stretches of time in nature—these are my ideas of bliss.
There were bumps and bruises involved, too. I came home with a bruised cheekbone, and banged up knees, from getting out of a tippy canoe on slippery rocks. Joel cracked a few ribs while portaging with a heavy pack and a heavy boat, upending on slick rocks. I capsized one just-packed canoe, and wonder my pride, Luke and Barry another, trying to rescue a camera (to no avail.) We were rookies, but we were learning. All in all, it was an adventure I’ll long remember.
Our last full day out, heading homeward, the wind came up on Horse Lake. We tried to make it to a camp we’d seen earlier, but found it taken. In fact, every camp was taken. Our lack of experience was a hindrance; we needed to get off the lake before we ended up at the bottom of it. We took refuge on a thin ribbon of sand between the choppy waves and dense, Canadian forest.
Tired, hungry, bruised, bug-bitten, and illegally on the Canadian side of the lake, I felt like when the music stops in Musical Chairs and you’re stuck with nowhere to sit. Most canoeists on the lake were making dinner and happily sipping cocktails. We considered trying to cross the lake, hoping for a legal camp site, but didn’t fancy drowning-- so, we just sat.
I could see a boundary marker from a distance. I’d been contemplating the concept of boundaries all week, both geographic and personal. My nearest-and-dearest would happily tell you about my ridiculous optimism when it comes to boundaries. I don’t have much in the way of walls or fences around my personal life. I guess I have hedges. Not even rosehedges, which at least have thorns; mine would look like peonies, or those big fluffy, blue, hydrangeas.
In the musical chairs of life, if I got a seat-- and you didn’t--I’d offer up not only my chair, but also a pot of soup, and my grandma’s heirloom quilts. Which sounds lovely, except, as my beloveds remind me, there are those out there who will trespass, and trample undefended boundaries. I’m lucky, I guess--I’ve met so few of those. But there is one that’s made a mash of my hedges and my good nature. Trampling is generous word. More like stomped through and munched to the ground. I get that this is my problem. The story that I tell myself is, really, just a story. I like to dramatize it, with villains and saints, but it's not that dramatic, and there aren't any villains or saints. There's a whole lot of me not being in another's shoes, I guess. Whatever. In my story, I have hoof-tracks across my forehead deeper than my considerable laugh-lines.
Stranded on the Canadian shore, I contemplate boundaries again, and consider reinforcing mine: What will it take? Growing thorns, stringing up barbed-words, firing shots over the wall? I resolve to let the Boundary Waters teach me a thing or two, even if it makes me depressed.
“You wouldn’t have a sandwich, would you?” a voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Our friends went off to find a camp, and now we’ve lost them.”
Two canoeists sailed in to our strip of sand, looking dog-tired.
“A sandwich!” I thought, incredulously. “How could a sandwich survive all the dunkings and tumbles I’ve had? If I’d had a sandwich, my kids would have polished it off long ago.
“Sorry,” I said. “We have one freeze-dried dinner left. Uncooked."
A second canoe, a search party, paddled in about the same time, reuniting the friends. There was a happy reunion between them, all part of a Minnesota Curling Team, all much better canoeists than our California Rookie Team.
“We have a great camp,” the rescue-party said. “We’ll lead you there.”
“We found a camp too,” said the Sandwich guy.
“Ours is better. We’re already cooking dinner. We’ll lead you there.”
“We left our tent across the lake to save the camp. We’ll have to get it. “
The Sandwich man turned to retrieve his tent. The wind was calming a bit, but these guys didn't mind the waves. As happy as we were for the reunited friends, things still looked bleak for us.
Clearly, the Curling Team dudes were vastly better paddlers. Maybe we could follow behind and learn something.
“Hey! Can we follow you?”
“Yah, sure,” the guy called over his shoulder, paddling away. “You can have the camp we reserved. You don’t have a sandwich, do you?”
Didn’t we just go through this? I really wished I had a sandwich for this guy.
“Sorry,” I said, as we paddled to catch up.
The wind calmed down; spirits rose up. We had guides and we had a camp-- all in one paddle stroke. The Sandwich canoeists ducked in and out of bays, seeking the narrowest crossing, canoes pointed into the wind, paddling in synchrony. We watched and learned.
Finally we arrived on the U.S. side at their reserved camp. Their tent had a note dangling from it, reading: “Looking for our friends. If you need a place to camp, you’re welcome to share.”
I was thunderstruck. Share a camp… with strangers? As polite as I think of myself, this would never occur to me. Where were the Boundaries here? This seemed a whole lot higher-level kind of boundary lesson than I expected.
We helped take down their tent, and learned this was probably the last fishing trip the Minnesota Curling Team would share as a complete team. One member just finished his second round of radiation treatment. His wish was one last paddle on the Boundary Waters with his mates. Right, our sandwich dude, the guy who was willing to share his camp with strangers. The boundary buster.
As they paddled away, I felt humbled. I had so much to learn about the graciousness of Midwestern Manners, the nuanced nature of boundaries, of relief and gratitude felt from unearned grace. We were gifted not only a camp, but a tour guide as well. Also, a map, (a metaphorical map, but still) disguised as a note, for the territory ahead, by a man paddling his way out of this world. I’ve never wished more that I had a sandwich to share.
We set up camp, cooked up our Cuban Rice and Beans, and sat by the fire. A fox ran through camp. A crescent moon set in the west My family was warm, fed, and had a safe place to sleep.
I can’t stop thinking about the sandwich man. Is there something here I am meant to learn? All my self-rightous-ness, my indignation about what is fair and not fair, my certainty of the “right” way to behave, and my fury about those who don't play by my rules, came into question.
Whatever boundaries I construct, whatever walls I build, these also wall me IN, and there I will sit, with all those grim, self-righteous traits. Plus, it takes time away from tending my garden. And who knows what wild, beautiful things I may wall out, in the process? I think I'll just muddle along, try to open my heart's rusty door just a bit. I'd like to follow the example of a guy busting boundaries, instead of building them up, paddling his way towards grace.
All this pondering is making me hungry. I think I could use a sandwich, as well.
The first ripe plum on our little plum tree dangled in front of me this morning. The birds hadn’t even a pecked a hole in it, yet. The Santa Rosa plum, one of Luther Burbank’s best inventions, is a pretty, purpley-red color, with a frosted silvery sheen, and sunshine-yellow on the inside. I plucked it off the tree, bit into it, and stopped in my tracks.
That POP, as your teeth snap through taut, purple skin, still cool from the night air, a burst of tart, followed by the gorgeous, juicy sweetness of summer--I had to stand still in awe. It tasted of being a kid, maybe eight years old, when the summer day stretches out forever, and you swiped a plum off the neighbor’s tree as you made your way to the pool, or river, or stream to cool off. For that once instant I was transported. Joy, (or her little sister, Well-Being) washed over me.
Maybe I’m getting jaded, or I’ve been running too fast, but Joy-- that sparkling, champagne-cocktail-feeling-- has eluded me lately. That sense of bliss that slips up on you, unnoticed and unexpected, flooding your senses with sweetness and light. Joy’s a slippery one; you can’t summon her like a dog, with commands, whistles or treats. You can only entice her-- like scattering flower seeds for butterflies.
Joy is hard to define and harder to pin down. The last (and most memorable) time I felt JOY, with capitol letters, was when a cherished family member confided she was pregnant with a much longed for baby. That feeling stayed for months and months, culminating in a safe delivery of a healthy baby. I will always treasure that visit with Joy.
But it’s not usually the big things that get Joy to show up for the party. Not even, ”Yay! My book finally got published!” Publishing a book is awesome. But it’s also a lot liked the day after having your baby: a mixed bag, or diaper-bag, so to speak. When you achieve a longed-for goal, you feel accomplished and amazed—but also overwhelmed.
You think you’ve finished the job—but, NO. This is only the beginning! This is where the compost really hits the fan. Now you must raise up that baby, market that book, peddle that new business, --or whatever. From that moment on, Responsibility and Work climb into the front seat of your jalopy, joined by suitcases of Worry and Doubt in the back seat. Joy may elect to come along for the ride, but-- she’s she’s choosey—showing up for the sunset vistas, or the rainbow after the storm.
Just as you catch a glimpse of Joy in the rear-view mirror, she’s fluttering off-- not one to hang around howling babies, and other cumbersome baggage. Joy slips out of the noisy, crowded, places, preferring to lightly settle, for a moment, on the quieter, sensory experiences.
Last night, the lilting song of a robin called out, over and over, breaking the silence of the woods as I walked the dogs. It brought me straight back to sunny, Sebastopol mornings, during apple blossom season, walking with my Gram. On those spring rambles, before I'd ever even thought of school, it seemed like nothing bad could ever happen-- like every single day would have blue skies, homemade donuts and robins singing. That robin-song feeling was sweet and tart--like a summer plum.
Joy hides out in scents, too. Each person’s joy-perfume is different: maybe fresh-cut grass, lemon peel, lavender soap, or rain hitting hot pavement in the summer. For me, hiking down to our creek is a perfumed-hit of joy. The air gets cooler and sweeter as you descend into the shade. The pungent scent of mint and river-weed underfoot surrounds me, transporting me to my carefree youth, scampering along the banks of the Russian River.
This afternoon, my husband invited me to wander down to the creek with he and the dogs, for our version of a Hillbilly Holiday. This means sitting in a folding chair in the stream, watching crawdads and minnows dart past, while sipping a cold soda or beer. I can’t help but think of friends touring villages in Spain and Italy, or setting up summer residences in Paris; but creek- sitting in Templeton, California, on a hot day is lovely too.
It’s likely that Joy is all around me, always available, if only I’d slow the old jalopy down and pay attention. Maybe if I toss out some excess baggage, move a few responsibilities into the trunk, and actually pay attention to the beauty around me-- Joy may decide to hop aboard and ride shotgun for awhile Maybe she just needs a little more room.
But even if she doesn’t choose to come along—her little sister, the sweet Sense-of-Well-Being, is always available. Maybe Well-Being needs a cuter name, like Willa, or Wilma. I think Wilma is good, after my own treasured Auntie. Well-Being-Wilma is not as celebrated as her champagne and roses sister. She's more like a cold beer and a handful of wildflowers. She doesn’t get her name in songs or poems much as Joy. No, Wilma is practical, cheerful, and generous as summer days are long. I don't have to bribe her to come, I just have to allow her--and there she is, climbing in with a picnic basket overflowing.
Joy, for sure, is sublime, and no life is complete with a taste of joy now and then. Some wise people live in a way that cultivates joy nearly full-time I'm not there yet. I will try to make a little more room for her, though, plant some flowers, in case she's in my neighborhood. But when I think about it-- what I really want on this jalopy ride is what Wilma so freely offers: a sense of well-being: enough freedom to walk by a stream whenever I please, enough peace and prosperity to enjoy the day, some good company, a cold beer on a hot day-- and when I'm extra lucky, the first plums of summer.
Confluence: Old Latin, adapted, from “com” (together) “fluer” (to flow) The point at which two rivers come together.
Hiking with friends recently, the word "confluence" popped up, as we came upon two pretty streams flowing into one another. I should have stopped for a picture, but I didn’t. You can picture them yourself though—swift and clear, lined with willow trees and wildflowers, gravel beds sparkling as sun filtered through the trees. The idea of confluence was tossed about as we continued on our way.
When two streams merge, there’s lots of energy -- but there is something more, something powerful and transformative. Ancient Hindus often built temples at the confluence of rivers and streams, as the sites were considered sacred. The blending of waters is compelling, but this world is filled with confluences of every kind.
Music is a confluence of melody, harmony, rhythm, and words. Connecting with another person is confluence, too. Whether the flowing together results in an idea, a business, a friendship, a romance, or a new life coming into the world-- generations can be affected and transformed by confluence.
A confluence of three events led me to board a plane this week to Mexico: an invitation, a bucket list wish, and an offer I couldn't refuse--a cousin who promised to be our tour guide and interpreter. I've been swept along in the current.
I’ve resisted my mom’s pleadings to escort her to Mexico for years, like a snail resists being sucked out of its shell. My Spanish is terrible. I imagine bumbling into streets teeming with drug lords. I don't like being out of my element. But I know that expands or contracts according to our willingness to take risks. But I do have respect for Bucket List Wishes from my mother. Also, I now have respect for confluence. I’ve being carried away by the current, like it or not.
59 years ago, a family wedding took place in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that my mom was unable to attend as she was pregnant with me. She has let me know many times I could make up for my untimely impending arrival--if I would just take her there, to see her former sister in law and nephew. And so--we navigated planes, trains and Customs pat-downs to arrive in this lovely town of cobblestones, flowers, firecrackers and pop-up weddings and parades.
As the sights, sounds and tastes of Mexico swirled around us, Big Fish Dreams sailed forth into the world from Ely, Minnesota. Books, too, are a confluence of events and people. In this case, a confluence of art, story and people from all over that care about salmon and stream restoration come together. If you are a river lover, and have a kiddo that likes to fish, you can order Big Fish Dreams from Amazon or from www.ravenwords.com, and know you’ll be helping a good cause.
We are safely home now, and Mom had a great time. The Bucket List Wish has been checked, and while it wasn't my wish, I am the richer for this confluence. I actually learned a lot that completely changed my view of my extended family history. I was, in spite of myself, transformed by this confluence of events. I discovered my family is history is far more complex and more tender than I'd imagined. I'm glad I didn't resist the flow.
May your confluences all lead to happy transformations. May you stand in the flow of all good things. And if you get a chance to get to San Miguel de Allende--it's well worth the effort.
Jimmy Buffett - Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes:
My favorite book, as a kid, was about this puppy that always lagged behind the others. The Pokey Little Puppy sniffed about, dug holes and gazed through fence gaps while his mates raced ahead, found all the bones, then raced home for dinner. The bowl was always empty when he finally showed up. I named the stuffed dog I slept with “Pokey.” He still sits in my window seat. Do you see, now, how it happened? Those bare patches? All that pokiness rubbed off on me.
“Congratulations! It took you long enough!” a friend laughed this week, regarding my upcoming picture book. Hey! Only three and half decades! Right. If I were a dog, I’d be Pokey. If I were a plant, I’d be that century plant that takes a lifetime to bloom.
My whole life, I wanted the same three three things: to be a cowgirl, a writer, and a mom. They seemed like humble enough goals. I set off blithely into adulthood to lasso them.
Sadly, cows don’t actually roam the wide-open plains much anymore, serenaded by vaqueros. Mostly, they’re corralled in big feedlots, and the roaming ones are often herded around by guys on ATVs. I put that dream on hold while I worked out my options.
The dream of writing eluded me too. I failed Journalism due to showing up a day late for the final. You see how it goes. I submitted stories by the dozens to book and magazine publishers. The stories were mostly terrible. The editors were mostly kind. Still, I needed an umbrella to shield me from the rejection slips raining down upon me. My writing career went along about as well as my cowgirl career.
I turned tail and fled to Plan B: becoming a speech therapist, where at least I could get a paycheck. There I could work with kids and words too--while I waited for publishers to pound down my door. I married my high school sweetheart. After his medical training was complete, I announced it was high-time to start a family. I still believed dreams were like peaches--mine for the picking.
But becoming a mom was trickier than I’d guessed, as well. Unlike most people-- who make babies without half trying, I couldn’t get the stork to fly anywhere near our house. After two years of "trying" and failing, I started the long trudge through the land of infertility.
I’ll skip over the misery of this era. If you’ve been there, you know. It’s enough to say that sadness follows infertility patients like a coyote tracking a rabbit. While friends are throwing kid birthday parties and heading off to Disney Land, you're trying to climb out of the hole of another failed cycle, smile through a friend's umpteenth baby shower, and face down another weird, uncomfortable fertility procedure. I was 36 and all my best dreams were dangling way out of reach.
And then, miracle of miracle, just as I was trying to imagine being childless forever, the stork arrived. As infertility stories go, I hit the Baby Jackpot. One year after our first son arrived, two more followed in quick succession. In spite of the overwhelming exhaustion of three babies in three years, I've never taken these blessings for granted. We dove into into family life with gusto, making up for lost time. The mess and mayhem, hilarity and hijinks of raising three boys so close in age are hard to describe. But I don't question my miracles.
Once a month, I took a welcome break and soaked up the exhilarating tonic of a writers' group near me. This bunch of talented, brilliant, passionate and accomplished women who wrote just for kids. They saved my brain from dissolving like a sugar-lump in hot tea. They taught me their craft, critiqued my blunders and inspired me. A member recommended a small publisher for a story I’d written, so I sent it off, with little expectation.
A year later, another miracle arrived. Not a baby (thankfully) but a contract, to publish my story. I was dumbstruck. And euphoric. And confused. Because nothing really happened for a long time. More messy, loud, chaotic years passed, with little contact from the publisher. I began to wonder if I dreamed that contract. More years went by. My boys grew up and went off to college.
In the mean time, the publisher, illustrator, and publicity women, all in Minnesota, were busy making other picture book dreams come true. In due time, they turned their time and talents to my manuscript. Picture books, it turns out, are a time-consuming, collaborative affair. During the years we've been in contact, I've come to know, admire, and treasure this extraordinary, inspired, environmentally-passionate group of book-makers that are Raven Publications.
Big Fish Dreams is based on a true story about a salmon and a family fishing trip. Consie's artwork is glorious. Johanna Dee Hyde, an amazing publisher, editor, fire-fighter and canoeing guide-- taught me so much about watershed and the plight of salmon. It was her vision to help salmon in a more direct way. Part of the proceeds will go to stream and river restoration, so you'll be helping our watersheds if you decide to purchase a copy. Big Fish Dreams is due to be released this May 1st to bookstores and Amazon, but can be preordered from www.ravenwords.com . I hope you'll enjoy it with a kid you love.
Nothing beats a dream coming true, no matter how late it shows up. Perhaps slow-moving dreams just seem slow because we have an arbitrary timeline in mind. Like peaches on the tree, they ripen when they're ready, not one minute sooner. I'm pretty sure that wherever we are, at any given time, is exactly where we're meant to be. It's our job to figure out why.
I may never gallop across the plains herding cattle, wind in my hair. But then again, who knows? They probably have cow-girl camps for dreamers like me. In the meantime, I have two cherished, ancient, backyard horses waiting for me to bring them breakfast.
Some lucky folks are sprinters, knocking accomplishments off their lists with ease. But lots of us are wanderers, poking along, with plenty of detours along the way. Thankfully, sometimes even the pokiest pups find a bone. One way or another, the longed-for baby arrives. The century plant blooms. And sometimes-- the damn book finally gets published. However, if I hope for any more books in this lifetime, I may need to get Pokey an assistant. I'm thinking of a stuffed jackrabbit. Or a road runner. Because, wow. This really did take me long enough.
Feeling moody? Here's a favorite of mine!
Willie Nelson, My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMko5LelBdA
I breezed into my horse stall last evening, swinging a pair of buckets. I was singing, as I recall feeling ok in general--when the tip of my shoe caught under a plank, partially buried in the ground. Most of me flew forward. The foot-part of me stayed put. It's rude, really, how hard the earth is. I slammed face-first into ground. It knocked the wind clean out me, spitting dust and hay. A feeling of outrage, at the pain and at crashing down in such an abrupt fashion. Other than a pair of bloody knees and a pulled muscle or two, no damage done, except to my dignity. Obstacles. Ugh. They catch us off guard. They get in our way. They sure can get our attention.
A board is small, as obstacles go, and for most people avoidable--but life has so many big ones, ones we can’t avoid. Some so large that they seem insurmountable. Many of us have several at one time. Money issues. Health. Anxiety. Depression. Family problems. Loss. Grief. Loneliness. Fear. Anger. Addictions. Kids, parents, pets that need us, and not enough time, knowledge, resources or skills to address all the holes that need filling. The list is endless. And once one obstacle is conquered, another one pops up, just like those clown punching bags.
Shyness is a stumbling block I've had forever. (As a kid I used to hide in the coat closet when visitors came.) Even today, staring down the barrel at 59 years-- the coziness of being snuggled behind all those winter coats still appeals to me way more than than trying to make small talk at a party. But there’s something in all of us, pushing us to conquer, like flowers pushing through sidewalk cracks, fish beating against a dam, environmentalists hammering away against slow-moving bureaucracy.
Steph Wald is one of the many stream-loving heroes I've met, sporting a ponytail and green waders instead of a cape. As Watershed Projects Manager of Central Coast Salmon Enhancement, Steph's life work is all about removing obstacles for anadromous fish like steelhead and salmon. Ironically, she could probably cast a fly-rod from her office door and snag one of the "ten largest obstacles" in the Arroyo Grande watershed.
Steph sloshes hip-deep through the current, peering into the depths, reading the stream-bottom like a book. “See that change of gravel color? See where the silt is disturbed? Those are signs of fish." I plunge along behind her in borrowed waders, dazzled by the steady stream of science words which I can’t remember. “Water is everything,” Steph says. That much I remember, because she repeats it several times. Our upstream slosh concludes at the big obstacle: (photo above) A concrete weir, no longer critical to the water gauge operation, effectively blocks all young steelhead from from going beyond this point.
Due to a blizzard of rules and regulations, the removal of the obstacle has been in the Arroyo Grande Creek Watershed Plan since 2009. Dozens of bullet-points in the document start with words like "studying, securing, conducting, establishing, providing, assisting, overseeing, scheduling"--including a two year observation and and relocation plan for red-legged frogs! All this--before any "removing" can begin. I don't say this outloud, but honestly, I'm thinking: a few college kids with sledge hammers and some beer could have this down in a weekend. Then the fish and red-legged frogs could all get on with their business!
However--I'm neither a scientist nor a bureaucrat, which is a good thing, because everything would be in chaos, with no accountability or proper measurements of progress. I don't know how things like this work. When I express my dismay over the seeming lack of progress, Steph hauls out a huge binder, The 100 Year Plan for all the problems in this watershed to be solved. ONE HUNDRED YEARS?? I’ll be a fossil by then! "Yes--but it took at least a hundred years to make this mess," Steph reminds me.
I sit down to read, and listen to Steph describe all the projects in the works--and see so many good things happening, in large part due to Steph, her staff, and other like-minded organizations battling environmental, legal and buerocratic obstacles. They educate children with their "Trout in the Classroom" program. They teach about water conservation at the schools with the DROP program. They've just begun a program to protect the famous Pismo Clams. Their staff and volunteers are passionate about the health and vitality of the rivers and streams along the Central California Coast--their feet in waders, their minds on education and eyes on the future.
"The work ahead is not of one lifetime," Steph explains--"but of many lifetimes." Which means she and her colleagues are working for the benefit of people and wildlife not even born yet. And that humility and foresightedness is what makes them all heroes to me. If you want to join their efforts, check out their website at http://www.centralcoastsalmon.com
I don't have any great ideas for obstacle removal -- but I did just read a wonderful book: Mark Epstein, MD, in his recent book, "Advice Not Given" combines decades of Buddhist wisdom with psychiatrist's skill. "What I try to convey to my patients is that they can meet the challenges life throws at them by changing the way they relate to them. The goal is to meet the challenges with equanimity, not to make them go away."
The sub-title of Epstein's book (Advice to Getting Over Yourself) makes me laugh. Ultimately, "ourselves" are probably the biggest obstacles we'll ever have to get over. "Getting over myself" is a work in progress, but a worthy one. It might even lure me out of my shyness closet. As for stumbling over perfectly visible boards in my path--I guess there's a lesson there as well. Each time I inhale this morning, a sharp pain in my rib reminds me: some obstacles can actually be avoided by paying a little attention.
All day a song has been playing in my head. This rendition of Johnny Nash’s song, performed by Jimmy Cliff, is my favorite. Guaranteed to make you feel at least 10% cheerier--maybe even enough to consider tackling an obstacle of your own.
"I Can See Clearly Now" - Johnny Nash
It’s ironic that I’m a terrible at fishing. My dad was an expert fisherman. My husband is an expert fisherman. My sons all fish. My maiden name is even Fisher, for Heaven's Sake! And I wanted to be a fisher-person, if only to please my Pop.
Before I could reach the kitchen counter, my Pop took me fishing with him. He was fishing-obsessed and every family vacation was a fishing trip. I was his Saturday morning fishing buddy at the creek below our house.
Pop and I would get up early. What I remember is that the birds were always singing—because fishing season opens in the spring, and my Pop was always whistling, because we were going fishing.
We’d let my mom and my baby brother sleep in. The two of us would drive to where the creek had the deepest pools, and then wander downstream
Whenever I hooked a fish, I’d yell out, “GOT ONE!” and then Dad would rush over, urging me, “set your hook!” “Keep your tip up.” Usually the fish flipped off before I could land it. I hated that. Even though I felt sorry for the fish, I hated letting my Pop down.
While it’s a fact that I could bait a hook, cast, reel, and even conk a fish on the head, (so it wouldn’t suffer long) and could (sort of) help clean and fillet a fish —I never actually liked fishing. I never got good at it, because I never really wished to catch them. I felt sorry for the worm, and sorrier for the fish. Plus I got bored waiting to catch something I didn’t even want. None of that mattered though, because it was splendid to have my Pop all to myself on those Saturday mornings, going fishing'.
Anyway—after an hour or so, we’d have enough “fingerlings," just the right size for frying up with pancakes for breakfast. Pop would pull the willow branch out of the stream where our fish were strung through their gills to stay cool, tuck them in his fern-lined creel, and we’d head home. Mom and Scott would be up, with pancakes ready—and the Springtime Saturday Morning ritual was complete.
That could have gone on forever, as far as I was concerned. Except that I got this baby brother. As he grew bigger, (and probably showed signs of being a more promising fishing partner) I got replaced as the Saturday fishing pal. But the family fishing vacations continued. I started taking along my sketch pad and note book, fishing for stories and things to draw. I sometimes wondered if Pop was disappointed in me, but if he was, he never said so. We shared other things then—like gardening, and horses. And he encouraged my doodling.
Anyway, in his later years, my Pop got involved in a Water and Soil Conservation group. Stream restoration for improving fish habitat was the passion of his later years. He and a group of young biologists and other volunteers planted baby steel head in a stream that hadn’t seen a steelhead run in 50 years, due to commercial logging clogging their spawning beds with silt.
My Pop passed on, to the great fishing river in the sky, four years ago. And while I never made it as a fisherwoman—I have a wish to help pick up where he left off with stream restoration efforts.
This week, I went to visit the stream where we Pop worked, and where we scattered his ashes. There, not a short-cast away, were three steelhead—as long as a mans arm. Swaying and thrashing in the riffle, digging a hole to lay their eggs. I was so excited, I almost fainted dead away. But I got a short clip to share. I wish my Pop could have been there with me. But somehow, I’m positive he was. Thanks for checking in to Streamriffs--and may all your best fishing dreams come true.
The Chaos Theory says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world can lead to a hurricane on the other. It’s a weather theory by an American mathmatition, explaining how a tiny disturbance of air makes a wave, which ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences on distant shores.
(Gus is the disturbance in this creek and in my life as well. I didn’t ask for him, but somehow, a long list of butterfly flaps on someone else’s shore rippled him here to my shore. )
But I’m writing about ripples here, not dogs. I'm not good at math, nor weather, and airwaves are hard to see. But waves in the water are easy to watch. Toss a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples roll to infinity. Every action, word and thought is like a stone in the pond that starts a ripple. Once it starts, you can’t call it back. The trouble is, I’m often sleepwalking through my life, maybe I'm worried or distracted, or just daydreaming, kicking stones into the pond, causing ripples without even noticing. (Each time I write that word, I think of fudge-ripple ice cream, which I would like to have right now, but sadly do not.)
And regrettably, sometimes I actually mean to kick those stones, egged on by the grudges I carry around in my invisible backpack. I rehearse some old story of someone's wrong-doing, embellishing it, even. My grudges love this. They holler for more attention. Mean thoughts go rippling right out into the world. My grudges get fatter and louder. The thing is, this backpack is heavy and the noise is getting to me. Wouldn’t it be great to just drop the whole stinking pack? I imagine that feeling you get-- when you finally get into camp after a long day of hiking and take off your backpack—and feel like you’ll float right into the treetops...
On this darkest month of the year, I’m thinking about how I might experience that lighter-than- air-feeling. Thinking that if even a butterfly flap causes a reaction, positive or negative, maybe I should be more deliberate about my flutters and ripples.
If I’m starting something, just by my thoughts and wing-flapping, I’d like to start something good, like a hurricane of hope, or a tsunami of light and love. A wave of Fudge Ripple ice cream about now would be pretty sweet too.
“The protective walls of a family are not made of stone, but of love.” Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other
Those walls, I think, include the whole human family, the strangers and loved ones who show up to shelter us when we need it most.
We all understand shelters to be temporary, a place to collect body and soul until we can secure better circumstances. The word comes from the Middle English words, “scield” and “truma,” meaning shield and troops. The notion is of a compact group of soldiers holding up interlocking shields encircling the one in danger.
This fall we’ve had our collective share of natural and unnatural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, wildfires. The recent firestorms of Northern California burned close to home. My family’s lives and homes stayed safe, but that wasn’t true for many friends and neighbors. Firemen’s hands were the first line of shelter, banging on door after door in the predawn hours, often pulling dazed, frightened people towards safety through walls of smoke.
Nearly everyone in the fire areas needed shelter or offered shelter. The needing and the offerings are ongoing, for all survivors of fire storms and other calamities-- and will be, for a long time to come.
Large-scale disasters make headlines, but personal traumas require shelter too. When hearts are shattered, we need emotional shelter. During a low point long ago, a friend drove four hours to buy me a pizza and listen to me wail. The pizza is long gone, but the kindness lives on; the smell of pepperoni and extra garlic is still a scent of hope. Emotional shelter can’t fix us; it only attempts to shield us as we struggle to our feet.
During my sons' high school years, they and their friends found their “port in a storm”-- in a fort in the orchard. Through summer mornings, fall afternoons, Christmas-lit nights and spring evenings, they hammered together their idea of shelter, drenched in happiness and sweat.
The fort attracted others as well, young women, drawn like moths to a lantern, tromped through the orchard, bringing art supplies and ideas. I like to think they were seeking more than my construction crew; that they were also drawn to the chance to create and to find shelter from their own storms.
I hope that every single person, who came through these walls felt protected and safe within. They were, I believe, safe-ish, as safe as teens in this world can be, which is to say--not very. Of course I tiptoed down in the dark, more than once; I may as well confess right now. But the rules are different for parents of teens. The fort wasn’t far from home, a literal stones-throw, if you were a budding baseball pitcher, but the orchard canopy made it feel a world away. It wasn’t church camp there--I can attest to that, but somehow this temple of plywood and Christmas lights felt like holy ground.
Each summer the fort evolved as new builders and artists emerged, then disappeared, sailing off to their worlds of college and work. But for one bright era, the fort consumed their free time and imagination. It sheltered them--and they sheltered each other; from loneliness, boredom, stress and the critical, anxious eyes of parents like me.
Wherever we find shelter, however we offer it--a roof to share, a pizza to deliver, a gloved hand reaching through the smoke--I believe there’s a stronger hand beneath our own, helping us hold up the shield. And the old tree fort? This morning, when I peeped inside, I startled two feral kittens sheltered inside, sleeping in a pool of sunlight. Shelter on, human family. And, of course, the song below was playing in my head as I pondered this post all week.
Bob Seger, "Against the Wind": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0Tsnqa8uaQ
Hopeful is my default setting. It’s not a choice, actually, it’s just the way my brain works, even when it’s not in my best interest, even when the star I’m following is more likely the high-beam of an oncoming train. In my last moment I will for sure be scanning the sky for flickers of light, for silver linings and for guiding stars. The thing is, most of the time my faith in happy endings is rewarded with just that--happy endings, often enough, at least, to keep me looking for that star.
Lately though, Hopefulness has taken a beating, right here on my home turf. You see, I live beside a river gasping its last breath. Ironic that a woman obsessed with wild rivers has landed beside a nearly dead one. This is staggering to me. After years of talking to people in charge of water politics, I’ve tasted the sludge of Hopeless, which tastes exactly like it sounds. The Salinas River, with the largest watershed in California, is the most degraded watershed in the state.
It wasn’t always this way. Old-timers tell of gathering at the swimming hole in our town to cool off on summer days. I’ve seen photos of farm-boys with pitchforks, standing beside wheelbarrows piled high with steelhead they gaffed out of the river. For eons before that, Chumash and Salinan tribes lived along the Salinas River Banks. Life along the Salinas River was abundant, until the summer of 1942.
That’s when the Army Corp of Engineers decided to dam the Upper Salinas to quench the thirst of the city San Luis Obispo. So long, Summer Swimming Hole. Huge farms sprang up in the valley, lowering water levels further. So long, fish and beavers. Then vineyards joined the party, turning groundwater into wine. Hello, tourists. So long, every last drop of water. The Salinas River, along my stretch, today, is drier than a cornhusk in the wind.
The upper Salinas River (described by Portola’s crew in 1769 as: “a river watering a luxuriant plain”) is a now a dusty playground for ATV and motor cycle riders, with occasional horses trotting by. Each time I ask how this could happen, I’m met with shrugs. You can’t fight city hall. San Luis Obispo gets our water. It’s a done deal.
But this is actually a story about hope. It starts when I walked into a recent presentation on reviving steelhead in the Salinas River. Hah! Fish with no water? Now that’s something I had to hear. I signed my name as I went in, which registered me for the door prize. (Another Ha! I’ve never won a prize in my life.) I settled down to listen with a cynical heart.
A fish expert named Devin Best, relatively new to the Salinas River Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, began his pitch about bringing steelhead back to the Salinas River. This made me incredulous and a little bit mad. Will they come roaring back on motorcycles? But I listened carefully. In a nutshell, this man with a vision, and with experience up and down the west coast working with rivers and endangered species, told us why there is reason to hope: (I’ve paraphrased here)
Steelhead are remarkably tough. In spite of all that’s been done to eradicate them from the Salinas, the species has persisted in pockets of water.
Dozens of groups along the watershed are coordinating and collaborating their efforts to restore the Salinas.
Growers are hauling out the invasive reed, Arundo, which hijacked much of the watershed. The reeds displace native plants, offer zero nutritional value to wildlife and suck up way more than their share of water.
We just passed the “State Groundwater Management Act” enforcing sustainable aquifers. There will be less water sucked out of the ground, providing more for the river.
The National Marine Fishery Services is working with the Upper Salinas Management group on sustainability plans for steelhead in this region. Mr. Best concluded that he expects to see water and fish in the Upper Salinas River in the future.
The audience filed out. I hung around to ask him some questions. Then it happened. Amazing local artist, Helen Davie, (who had arranged the presentation,) came up to me and said, “Congratulations! You won the Door Prize!” She handed me a beautiful painting of a running river. To be fair, this door prize may have been a little rigged. Everyone except me was already out the door. And also-- she knew me. Still, I was delighted beyond words. Further proof that even blind hopefulness has its rewards.
The painting is a night scene, a river spangled with reflected moon and starlight, titled “Riverbend, Milky Way.” It’s a block print, layered with coat after coat of paint, until it looks like it could flow right out of the frame, right into your home; like you could dip your hands into the cold, starry water and drink it.
And that is my hope. Because one day, before I leave this earth, I hope to see the Upper Salinas River flowing wild and free. I’ll be scanning the sky regularly for guiding stars. In the mean time, this painting hangs above my desk, reminding me that sometimes all we can do is follow the flickers of light leading through the dark, one hopeful step at a time.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.