Girlhood and a Santa Cruz Discovery

IMG_3947Today’s blog post is from the Bookshop Santa Cruz Summer Newsletter. Locals can pick up a copy of their chock-full newsletter at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Step into Nature is available there and anywhere books are sold, but you can’t have the copy my cat Ace is sleeping on!

Girlhood and a Santa Cruz Discovery

If, as a child, one is reluctantly transplanted from a city or, as in my case, from a couple of cities—New York and Chicago—to a sleepy beachside town, which is what Santa Cruz was in 1967, an introduction or a series of introductions to nature may be required in order for a love of the earth to blossom, in order for, many years later, a book celebrating nature and its role in imaginative thinking to be written. Once upon a time, there was a house on the upper west side of Santa Cruz at the corner of Overlook Drive and Crestview Terrace. (It’s no longer there.) When I was 11 my family moved into that small house, which had a large backyard and a grassy front yard that, to the great consternation of the neighbors, my city father refused to care for. Of all things, behind our house, there was a vast cow pasture with actual black and white cows! This was discomfiting; I was used to verticality, a nice rise of brick and cement, plenty of things for a child to do with city activity right outside the front door. The humanmade world was reliable; the natural world was not.

Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, seeing me stuck inside most of the time, my mother began to shoo me outside to play, though repeatedly, I’d rather quickly return to the comforts of the couch, complaining that there was nothing to do out there and worse, “There’s bugs outside!” I wanted to shelter in the living room where I felt safe with my books; I wanted to return to the city, to art museum and ballet culture. If I were going to spend time in a park, let it be Central Park. Knowing we were there to stay, my mother continued urging me out, hoping I’d make friends with the neighborhood children and begin to enjoy the outdoors, praying I’d adjust to our new life. My younger sister, on the other hand, had taken to the great outdoors with ease; she was made for running and climbing and playing hide-and-seek in the bushes.

Luckily for me and for my future, my crafty mother found a way to ease my hesitation. She introduced me to the enormous Monterey pine growing in our side yard. Pretty much the only climbing I’d done before had been up and down the many steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and up and down the many other steps to the New York City Public Library. My nearly 50-year-old mother showed me that a tree has its ladder up; she taught me how to climb, to rely on my arm strength, to swing my body, and she proved to me that while up in a tree’s branches one can arrive at a delicious peace. From high above I had a sweeping view that nicely put our new town in perspective. Perched on the upper limbs, leaning against the sturdy trunk, accompanied by a good book, Ritz crackers and an apple, along with my faithful diary, I began a reluctant adjustment to a new life.

A few years later, when in 7th grade, I met a boy named Patrick Brady. He took my hand and walked me—just the two of us—out of the neighborhoods and into the redwood forest at UCSC before the land was quite so built up. Knowing the redwood trees like personal friends, he wanted me to know them that way too, and placed my hands up against their soft bark, urged me to lean into them and breathe deeply. Rainy days never stopped us, and Patrick and I spent many hours close together beneath those great trees in many kinds of weather.

If your first kisses occur in a redwood forest, your relationship to nature is going to reflect that. It certainly began to alter mine; I started noticing trees, paying attention to them for their wisdom and tall leafiness. Might I too bend easily when confronted with harsh wind? Could I offer shelter to those in need the way trees do?When in high school, my group of hippie friends and I discovered Wilder Ranch long before it was an official park. We’d cut school, pile into a couple of cars and drive up to Empire Grade, park, climb or squeeze through a series of barbed wire fences, walk past the old limestone kilns, carrying drums, flutes, and tambourines, along with assorted mood elevators and lunch, and walk back into the land, free from burdensome adults, to spend long, languorous afternoons together. Much like houses have rooms, there I discovered that so can nature, and that each room may offer a different quality of feeling. A wide, grassy vista has unparalleled beauty; I saw wind playing with grass, hawks swooping down and effortlessly rising up to ride the airstreams.

Santa Cruz’s natural world—or nearly natural world—also inspired my first act of civil disobedience. The same cow pasture that at first had intimidated me had, for years, became a walking shortcut, and my fear of the cows disappeared after many harm-free hours amongst them. And then a developer bought that land and the cows went elsewhere. Once the earthmoving equipment had been moved in, once I was certain the open field would truly be destroyed, anger at that destruction got the best of me. One evening, with a bottle of laundry detergent in hand—Wisk, to be exact (how odd memory is)—I walked out and unscrewed the gas caps of several large machines, poured detergent into the tanks and walked back home, satisfied. Even though it was, of course, of no use, I’d made a personal statement on behalf of a place I’d come to love.

Of course, what would Santa Cruz’s natural world be without the beach? I’d not known till spending time with friends on local beaches that sunlight could be so expansive and weigh on one so warmly. And doesn’t sunlight dissolve most all hesitation? Before time beside the Pacific I never knew that anything could shout more loudly than my father! Those fearsome cresting waves accepted my anger too, more than once, each time transforming it into something better. There’s another spot adjacent to campus that, perhaps, you’ve wandered to as well, where another first kiss took place; where, I’ll bet, a lot of first kisses have been enjoyed. When I wanted to be sure the man I was dating was as into me as I was into him, we went for a walk to upper Pogonip. I led Michael down a trail to a redwood grove where a cement pool was full to overflowing with icy spring water and where goldfish swam. After surprising him by stripping and plunging in, I invited Michael to join me, which he did. A few years later we were married.

Santa Cruz abounds with natural enclaves where not only can peace and love be found, where not only can one celebrate with friends and delight under the sun, where not only can anger and fear be tamed, and not only can we stretch our legs and free ourselves from the constraints of what may be an otherwise sedentary lives, but where the imagination can find itself renewed and flourish wildly. Time out on the earth’s uncompromised places has proven to me that the imagination is far larger than I’d realized, that it can meander, dive, cross ground as quickly as running water, leap, and take flight.

When I received the contract to write my new book Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, I was given six months to write it. There wasn’t time enough to even consider how difficult it might be to go from proposal to finished draft in that amount of time; I had to simply jump in and write. Luckily for me, the words came with little effort, guided as they were by not only my present time in nature but by those early, Santa Cruz days of trees and sun and waves and rain when this girl’s city ways were expanded and she found new dirt-filled, sky-studded ones!pinecone in hand


Scattered like birdseed throughout the text of Step into Nature is the Cabinet of Curiosities—a compendium of art-making inspirations. Here are a few excepts to lead your into the world of nature, accompanied by your imagination:n Consider the parts and places of nature you feel connected to. Is it the deep darkness of many-roomed caves or the lushness of a rainforest? Perhaps butterflies’ ability to flit resembles your own? You might jot down a list of those aspects of nature that feel like “family.”

What’s blocked your path to imagination and creative expression? How have you responded in the past? What technique might you incorporate from nature for the next blocked moment? n On a blue-sky day, take a short return trip to childhood and lie back on a soft spot of ground. Look up at the clouds. Who’s traveling there? What appears out of the billowing white? n Consider the places nearest you to which you might offer your protection. How does this protection manifest? Why and in what ways is it important to you?

Excerpted from Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination & Spirit in Everyday Life, by Patrice Vecchione, published by Beyond Words/Atria, Simon & Schuster Publishing, 2015.


The Allure of Paper

IMG_3905As part of a project called Future Library, Margaret Atwood wrote a story that won’t be printed for 99 years because the trees growing in Norway to hold her words won’t be ready to harvest for paper till then. Meanwhile, those lungs of the world—as grocery clerk Jamie refers to trees—will grow and grow and become home to birds and other creatures, will make shade for those who need it, will give the wind something to run through. The project’s centered on the idea of whether there will even be humans in 99 years. And faith that there will be.

Composing on paper is entirely different from writing on a screen. Though I primarily wrote Step into Nature, my new book, on my laptop, most of it began on paper while I was out walking in the nearby woods. Each day I’d tuck a hand-embellished notebook into my fanny pack and off I’d go to walk, yes, but also to take dictation from the trees. Once in the forest, words, images, ideas came to me as they come nowhere else, and I’d jot down notes. Upon returning home those notes became sentences, paragraphs, the premise for entire chapters.

IMG_3908Going through my closets and drawers, I’ve gathered up a lot of paper and had my local copy shop repurpose it as spiral bound notebooks, small, pocket-sized ones. They’re lightweight and easy to carry. But before taking them out, before a single word is jotted down, I decorate and personalize them. I’ve found that doing so initiates a relationship with the tool, and thusly I’m more inclined to write freely in them. Sometimes I make a collage on the covers or simply paste a photograph there. I’ll embellish the inside covers with favorite quotes, words to lead me on, add pictures there too. I love the feel of nubby paper against my hand as I write. I like the feeling of the inked words taking hold of the paper and settling down there. The image I’ve made for the cover inspires my content too.

IMG_3906On Monday, June 1 I’ll offer a journal-embellishing and poetry workshop at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 7pm. Come join me if you’re local. No need to enroll in advance. The only cost is $10 for materials.


Spring Bounty

IMG_3856Yesterday morning I arrived at the farmer’s market shortly after the opening bell. The Friday market goers were a bounty of humans buzzing around the flowers, fruit, and vegetables much like bees around a hive.

Despite being adverse to crowds, I was happy to be among them. Bee-like I hovered over the goods at Tom Koch’s stall, bending to the escarole bigger than my face, slipping a handful of mandarins into a bag, his red carrots too.

When it was my turn, Tom asked, “How are you?” with a twinkle in his blue eyes that belies his age. “Well,” I said. “And happy?” Tom pressed holding my gaze. “Yes,” came my effortless reply. “You?” I asked, “Are you well, too?” “Yes,” he said. Following his line of questioning, I continued, “And happy?” “I’m well,” said Tom. I raised my eyebrows but pressed no further. The line of people behind me let us leave it at that. Tom and I reached toward each other for a kiss. Bounty of joy and a hint of sorrow.

The hardest question I had to answer was, “What else will we eat?” And that’s what made me the happiest, that I get to ask the question. None other needed my momentary attention. Bounty was in the question itself: “What will we eat?” And “What flowers will light our home?”

IMG_3851Adding to the escarole and mandarins I carried home fava beans and radicchio, broccolini and pluots, cherries and calendulas, bachelor buttons and some flowers whose names I don’t know. Peppered bacon. Asparagus too. Bounty.

If you too frequent a farmer’s market, what bounty do you come home with in the form of food, flowers, and friendship?

Lonely As A Cloud

IMG_3811 Much of William Wordsworth’s poetry was inspired by the walks he took—often with his sister Dorothy and later also his wife Mary. His poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” contains inspiration from them both. Dorothy kept journals and wrote about the day when out walking they first came upon a few daffodils and then many more of them. In her Grasmere Journal she wrote, “I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake…”

The lines that Wordsworth considered the poem’s best came from his wife, the second and third lines here from the poem’s final stanza, “In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ which is the bliss of solitude…”

That’s inspiration being described, which is to me bliss of solitude. Ah, to wander like a cloud, alone upon the hills. Just yesterday and the day before that I was out there too.

A Celebration of Color

IMG_3782 For years the color orange made me cringe; I’d have to look the other way. Until one day I saw orange as if it had just been born; apparently, I’d been asleep to it before. Weird orange blinders had covered my eyes from the truth of its beauty for so many years.


That color has a persuasive depth I’d never given it credit for, one that harmonizes. Even in a slip of paper caught in a chain-link fence beside some orange berries.

Though I’d loved marigolds for years, it had been for their smell and shape, but at last I love them also for their uncompromised color. Orange doesn’t apologize; it doesn’t say, “I’ll just fade into the background” like certain shades of blue, green or yellow do, and I like that. Red, too, is an unapologetic color. Is that why I wear it on my lips, so I’m less likely to apologize for what I say? Maybe. IMG_3775

Walking alone in Berkeley the other morning after an event for Step into Nature, after a good night’s sleep, colors sort of jumped at me—in a good way. I was seeing afresh. It’s good for the eyes’ soul to be in the unfamiliar, to get jolted into seeing. And color is what I saw.

Here’s to the range of color in spring. Even after spring’s first flush is over, now that we’re in the middle of May, even in California where some claim we have no seasons (though they’re wrong), damn, the season’s bursting colors are everywhere. Once you see something it’s likely you’ll see something else. That’s what’s happened to me. Here begins an occasional color series.

IMG_3793If you go out for a walk this weekend, notice at the color lifting itself to your eyes. Is there something you want to say back, something in the ordinary, everyday beauty that is this planet that you want to celebrate? Might it be orange?

Not a Pair of Clippers, Nor an Insta-Cold Icepack

A few days ago a soft and pliable package arrived in the mail. Though I could have, I’d not ordered anything from REI.

Toward the beginning of Step into Nature, I consider what to carry when walking in nature and what best left behind—both the actual objects we might carry in our pockets as well as that which gets brought along, knowingly and unknowingly, via heart and mind. “Here’s a list of useful things I’ve never carried along but might: a collapsible ladder to get up close and personal with the otherwise unreachable, a foldaway hammock in case a nap is suddenly needed, clippers for the poison oak when going off-trail, an insta-cold ice pack in case of a fall, a set of colored pencils in every hue and a pad of drawing paper…” Of all those items, can you guess the one I’d most truly like to have? Might it be the one you’d like also?

In his endorsement of my book, author David Rothenberg said, “I shall never head for the woods without a ladder and a hammock again.”

There was no ladder in that package. Ah, but a hammock there was—a gift from Karen, a young woman, who’d sent this gift to me. Karen had been my poetry student when she was a little girl, a student who wrote these words when she was about 8: “Future is inside me, right beyond that storm of hope.” Karen and her mother came to my Seattle event. We’d not seen each other for about 20 years! And then, who appeared as if by more magic at my collage show reception and workshop? Karen’s sister, Julie, who’d also been my student! Not only did she come to the show she purchased a collage called, “Forest Honeymoon.”

The hammock will fit easily in my fanny pack and will serve me well after a long walk when a nap is in order. What unexpected thing might you carry for a walk in the woods or out in the meadow or along a beach-side trail?


Not Always


From long before I understood the words’ meaning, when she was angry at me, my mother would say, “I may not always like you, but I will always love you.”

One evening when I was 24 I went to her home for dinner. She was a fabulous cook and had prepared crab crepes for us. Before we sat down I told her that I was in love. “With a woman,” was her quick retort. “Yes,” I said.

With such a sense of coldness and finality, my mother said, “You are not my daughter.” And being so much herself, she went on, “If you’d known how much this would have upset me, you’d have waited till after supper to tell me. Get out.”

My mother was an alcoholic; she had mental instability. She was the hardest worker I’ve ever known, the best storyteller, the most open-minded of mothers. Not so when it came to her firstborn.

That was the last face-to-face conversation I had with her for five years until receiving a call from the hospital that brought me to her bedside. Waking up from a coma, my mother looked at me and softly said, “You haven’t been to supper lately. How come?”

After a deep, pensive breath, I replied, “I promise to come to dinner a lot from now on.”

My mother lived for nine days, was conscious for the first five of them. The many hours I sat with her before she fell into a final coma were spent telling stories and singing together. She never recalled having cast me out, never remembered the mean messages she’d frequently left on my telephone answering machine. My mother had stayed true to her word: “I may not always like you, but I will always love you.” Those are the words I carry with me to this day.

What words of your mother’s do you carry with you?

The Letter Writer

IMG_3673For California Bookstore Day, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Writes invited me to serve as a letter writer. A Bookshop patron sat down before me with his request for a letter. “This is for my mother,” Carlos said, “for Mother’s Day.” When I asked him to describe her he said, “Strong-minded, independent, self-willed.” “Bet I’d like her,” I replied, and asked for an example of her independence.

“She’s just like her mother! When my grandmother was 83 she decided to go dancing, in Mexico City. I told her she was too old to do that but she insisted. So I said I’d take her. ‘No,’ she told me, ‘I’ll take the bus and the metro.’ I warned her against that—it’s too crowded. But she insisted. On her way to the dance the subway was so full that my little grandmother’s rib was broken by the crush of people.

‘Yes, it hurt,’ she told me later, ‘but I went dancing anyway.’ On the way home she slipped and someone stepped on her arm. At the hospital, she told me, ‘Soon as this rib and my arm get better, I’m going back; I had a great time!’ My mother is just like that,” said Carlos.

So I began, “Dear daughter of the woman who dances no matter what…”

There’s a long history of professional letter writers. Carlos told me that in Mexico City it’s still a thriving business. In fact, he hired a letter writer to help him with his graduate school application—he got in!

With only a single day at this post, I found it to be an intimate way to be with strangers. One young woman asked for a letter for her brother who’s having a difficult time. Another asked for a letter to her mother who’s help with wedding planning she’s most grateful for.

Just yesterday, going through my father’s things, I found a cache of letters he wrote. Were they drafts or had they gone unsent? I’ll never know. It’s in our very human nature to extend ourselves to others through the written word. Who’s received a paper letter in a stamped envelope from you lately?

A Visit with Georgia

IMG_3581The writer André Aciman, in his book Alibis, says that when he travels, arriving in a new city or town, he imagines what it would be like to live in that place. Aciman envisions walking the streets as if they were his streets. When I read this, I felt I’d come home, not to a place but to an idea. That’s what I’ve done, most anywhere I arrive, ever since I can remember, even when I was a child. The more I like the place the more I feel myself living there. In my imagination I go through my days—what would it be like to write sitting at that window every morning, looking out at that view? Were I to walk those hills, who would I be? If this were my café, who might walk in and join me for a coffee? Would I dress the same? Think the same? Love the same?

IMG_3575  Last Tuesday morning that’s what happened when along with the writers participating in my writing retreat I toured Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu. It wasn’t only a visit with Georgia but a visit with another me. Here’s the view from O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu house and photos of her home.


O’Keeffe had had her eye on this place for many years before she was able to make it her own. The adobe house was in disrepair and owned by the Catholic Church who didn’t want to sell it. After ten years they relented. It took another three before O’Keeffe could move in. Nowadays the house appears pretty close to how it was when she left—the teas and spices in their kitchen jars are as she left them. Her old Mercedes is still in the garage. But more—the garden is alive with trees, flowers and vegetables. O’Keeffe had wanted to live in Abiquiu because she wanted a garden, to grow her own food, and there wasn’t water enough for one at Ghost Ranch.

Years ago, a writing student of mine went, uninvited, to visit O’Keeffe and was sent away by O’Keeffe’s housekeeper. But before the visitor left she turned back to see the painter lift back a curtain, smile, and wave.

How do you enter a new place? Do you too imagine your life there? Who might you be if your home was faraway and long ago?