Monterey Herald Column: A Walk About Town: Looking for the Perfect Dress

A Walk About Town:
Sometimes Walking Is the Best Medicine for a Heart in Grief

from The Monterey Herald, August 17,17

(In memory of Jennifer Hinton)

It’s a foggy summer morning, the right weather for sorrow. Though this time of year beyond all others — long days, warmth and the promise of warmth — is meant for happiness, mine has evaporated. Summer is the time of year for anything but death. This year has changed that for the many people who knew and loved Jen Hinton.

Jen was someone people trusted. She was sentry-like, tall and steady. You knew your confidence was rightly placed when you placed it in her. For nearly 25 years, she was the physical education teacher at Robert H. Down Elementary School in Pacific Grove. One of the parents whose children had been her students told me, “Jen was tender with my child who needed tenderness and a strong guide for the child in need of that.”

I’m despairing over Jen’s unexpected recent death, the result of a sudden and massive infection that hit her with the abruptness of a winter freeze, plunging this season into unmitigated grief. A person ought not die at 50. A good person wholly full of life with much more life ahead ought to have the chance to grab those years and live them. So much for “ought.”

When sorrowful, I find the best medicine is to take a walk. By putting one foot in front of the other I begin to grasp how to do that emotionally. The air fills my lungs and with each step the view changes, and that helps. I’m going the short distance from my home in Del Rey Oaks to Jen’s in Seaside.

It’s not that I’m eager for this sadness to lift; it’s that I’m in need of being in the remembered presence of Jen, to walk with her spirit and her abundant generosity, how she freely gave her attention to the needs of the children. I want to think on her depth, curiosity, and kindness. By taking me away from work and daily tasks, walking helps to make that possible.

This walk is being taken mostly on the street because there are few sidewalks, something I particularly love about living here. There is a dusty path and one hill between my home and hers, two stop signs, and quite a few old oak trees and pines. Fog muffles all sound, insulating me from the day.

Like me, Jen had two cats. Our cats and their antics were something we laughed about together. Hers were Siamese brothers, and Jen loved them fiercely. She loved how happy they’d be to see her when she’d return home at the end of a workday, and how silly they were, and even how they might wake her in the middle of the night to play when being awoken was not exactly what she wanted.

In addition to being many things, including a lover of Hawaii and a lover of the buoyancy of being in water, Jen was a writer. Jen had many stories and poems that she had yet to write. That is part of what makes me so sad. Those stories were waiting for her and she was waiting for the day when she had a little more time to tell them. And now that time will not come, and all those stories, how they might explore and reveal, question and answer, will go unwritten.

Writing is how Jen and I knew each other best, though we worked together during the years I taught poetry at her school. We were truest together through the bond that sharing intimate lives through writing brings. She often came to writing workshops I led, and she was part of a writing retreat I lead in New Mexico two years ago.

There is a look people get on their faces when writing — a furrow to the brow of focused concentration combined with a staring off into the space just past the page. That staring off is the writer looking and listening for the next part of her story, the part that’s just beyond view, just beyond hearing, toward the words that are on their way. It’s a look of anticipated and relaxed waiting, almost confident, almost, because you never quite know about a thing like an untold story — will the words come now or later or at all? I can see that look in Jen’s face now. Her blond hair falling forward around her face, her cheeks ruddy, her head cocked slightly to the side.

Sometimes Jen would read what she had written and sometimes, like all my students, she would not, and she was unwavering when she said no, she’d not read tonight. But from the look in her light eyes it was clear when she had written what most needed to be said. The thing is, though not everybody does, Jen had faith that her words, faith that when she had the time and space to do so, the stories would be there for her. What I’m left with now is wondering what happens to the untold story, to Jen’s untold stories, to all of ours?

We often hear that life is fragile, and this loss brings that truth home once again. But life is also sturdy and tenacious — there are all the days that Jen sturdily inhabited before her death. And in those days, she taught, offered guidance, honesty, tenderness, and patience toward those who came before her.

Jen’s death untimely death makes me want to hold dear ones close and squeeze their shoulders, to feel their bodies safe beneath my hands. A prayer by Saint Augustine comes to mind that asks God to “Rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones; soothe your suffering ones … shield your joyous ones. And all for your love’s sake.”

When this walk takes me past Jen’s home I pause to wish her spirit ease, thank her for gracing my life, and I send love to those who knew and loved her. And then I keep walking because my sorrow is too great to turn back. I head west toward the Pacific, the enormous blue expanse that made Jen so happy and gave her hope, “all for your love’s sake.”

Returning to the Earliest Place

First published as the column
A Walk About Town: Returning to the Earliest Place
in the Monterey Herald, 12/5/15

IMG_1582This month’s A Walk About Town isn’t about a walk that took place in Monterey, and though its particular locale matters a very lot to me, that’s not so much the point of the story. The point of this story is the kind of walk it was—the kind of a walk you may have taken or may someday take, unless you are a refugee or for some other reason find yourself unable or un-inclined to go back to your beginning place following the death of a parent.

Last February, at 93, my father died, and this would be my first return to New York City since then, to the city of my father’s birth and of mine. What would it be like to walk in the places he and I had frequented many times together, now that he was absent from the physical world? As I wrote in my new book, Step into Nature, “The mind thinks differently when the feet are in motion.” Might my grief transform step by step?
IMG_1580Though this wasn’t a physically singular walk but one taken over a period of a few days, each time I stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Manhattan apartment where I was staying and into the bustling city, my focus was singular. I was on a personal, spiritual quest of reclamation and renewal.

If my father were to be anywhere in the physical world ten months following his death, it would be there. I went to walk beside him the only way I now could, hoping my sadness might loosen its grip while out on the city streets—where the long avenues stretch out, the yellow-framed traffic lights dangle, the autumn-scented air floats above the East River and the Hudson, and where the art museums always invite me in.

New York—the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan—is the one true place that I ever felt I wholly belonged. Before I ever gave a thought to the idea of belonging, New York was the simply my place. I knew it from the start, akin to how I knew myself as a child, without having to think about it. I was as defined by that place as I was by family and stories. It’s the first city I ever loved, before San Francisco and Paris; maybe it’s the only city I truly love. If asked, my father would have said the same thing, glad as he was, in part, anyway, to have made the cross-country move to California.

New York is where I initially learned the intricacies of geography and art. That’s where I had my first plate of spaghetti—my grandmother’s, my first cannoli, where I learned how to skip, where I first reveled in the joy of laying on the floor in front of a large sheet of paper with a crayon in hand and a whole box of them nearby, where I saw ballet come to life, watched the winter skaters twirl effortlessly on the ice at Rockefeller Center, and where I waited in line on a snowy day with my mother to view the Mona Lisa. Who we are and where we come from are as intertwined as a woman’s long braided hair.

One afternoon on this trip I met cousins in Astoria, Queens, the working-class neighborhood where my father grew up, at La Guli’s, our favorite Italian pastry shop. We sat for hours, drinking espresso, eating pignoli tarts and sfogliatelle, and telling stories of our shared past as we never had before. Everyone in the generation before us is gone; it’s up to us to define who we are as a family.
IMG_1559My father was the only son of an immigrant father and a first generation Italian-American mother. His first language was Italian. His family lived in Brooklyn and then in Queens. But it was in Manhattan where my father forged himself into being.

Sunday morning, I headed toward Central Park. The mild autumn air made it possible to linger on a park bench watching the trees change color, the weekend walkers stroll by. Tears splattered, but with a sensation that had been missing for many months. I texted my husband, “I’m so happy!”
IMG_1592The Metropolitan Museum of Art was my next stop. I wanted to spend time with old friends, those my father had introduced me to when I was little, when he first drew my attention to color, form, and composition, pictures in the 19th and early 20th century section—the work of Van Gogh, Valadon, Bonnard, and Matisse. Then I went to visit my favorite modern paintings. Standing in front of a Picasso, there he was, my father, and I took his hand.

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Two Worlds, the Thinning Veil, and Ways of Knowing

IMG_1284The other day, emptying change from my pocket, one penny remained in my hand; it felt heavy. “This could be an old penny,” I thought, and then weirdly, “It feels like a wheat penny.” How exactly a wheat penny feels, I couldn’t say, exactly, but some part of me knew. I don’t know where those thoughts came from or why I paid any attention to that coin, but when I looked down the back of the penny was facing up and there were the two tassels of wheat. A 1952 penny.

Sometimes I doubt the mysterious. Sometimes I doubt the ways of knowing that aren’t logic based. I hate that! I’d like to trust implicitly that which my intuition and softest ways of knowing tell me. The fall and winter, with their increase of darkness, increase of cold, tunnel us inward, if we’re willing to go, and the dead and the more subtle ways we know what’s true may approach.

IMG_1280My father has now been gone eight months. Over these past few days he’s felt particularly close. He walks with me. Last evening I thought about the time of his dying as compared to that of my mother and how art making came into both those experiences.

IMG_3255In 1987 when my mother was in intensive care and after her death I wrote poem after poem. Many of them became part of my first poetry book, Territory of Wind. In February I made art with my father at the very end of his life, a fabric collage, and then I kept making collages, ostensibly because I had a show to prepare for. Emotionally and spiritually both art forms fit the dying parent—my mother introduced me to poetry and my father to the visual arts.

On this early Dia de Los Muertos/All Saints’ Day morning, I wish you faith in your deepest knowing. Nothing less.

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Outside In

The note from my student Alana Ortiz read, “Today worked on a level I didn’t see coming. Thank you for the insight of having some outside time, which somehow led me to some new inside places.”

My OLLI@CSUMB class Write the Morning Away began our last session at Fort Ord Dunes State Park. We gathered at a picnic table on a morning that was vacillating between sun and fog and fog and sun. We could see where we were until we couldn’t.

IMG_0271It’s not so hard to get to the park and it’s not so hard to get to other outdoor spots where nature is abundant and at the helm, but how easy it is not to. We can get kinda stuck inside—inside our homes, offices, cars, our heads, etc so that it may feel as though the world of outdoors is beyond reach and that our lives exist on the inside. It used to be, a very long time ago, that everyone’s life existed mostly outside. That’s partly why I wrote Step into Nature because when I rediscovered the out of doors it greatly changed my life and my imagination.

At the park where we walked last weekend, part of the old Fort Ord, there used to be an officers’ club on the bluffs above the ocean. Alana continued, “I have to tell you, my story went in another direction that I didn’t see coming.” She felt the presence of the “many men who had their last dance at the club there and never returned.” She said, that she could even hear “strains of music from that era. It spooked me a bit.”

IMG_0274When I walk in the open places, free of a predominance of cement and asphalt, free of scales tipped by human commerce, where the wind gets in my ears and ruffles my hair and my feet touch down on dirt, I too become available to other ways of knowing the world and myself. And you, what happens to you and the art you make when you take it all out of doors?

Jackie and Patterns

IMG_0935Jackie and I went for a long walk at Jacks Peak Park the other day. Her big dog Max came too. He was on a leash; we weren’t. Well, not exactly. I felt, as I often do out there, leashed to the land itself and to the trees and the sky, not by the neck, but by that which resides down a bit lower.

Jackie commented on how she notices patterns in nature and pointed out the patterns made by the trees suffering from the drought. “Noticing patterns,” she explained, “can be a way to help people increase their awareness of the natural world.” It can be away to pull people in, for them to become active observers.

IMG_2456She went on to tell me a story about her daughter who she’d talked quite a bit to about the earth and her patterns. Jackie had told daughter that willows grow near water. One day they were driving in Oregon together and her daughter said, “There’s a river over there,” pointing out the car window. Jackie didn’t see any running water, so she asked, “How can you tell?” “Look,” said her daughter, “a bunch of willows are growing there.”

Jackie asked me about loving Jacks Peak Park and about the abundant time I spend there. It’s not often that I notice patterns. I’m usually more caught up in the immediate, what’s right in front of me, the details and the stories I make up about what I’m seeing and walking through. But for the last several months I’ve been noticing one particular pattern—the pattern made by the drought-stressed trees.

Their stress is shown in brown and falling pine needles, more fallen branches and whole trees and by something less easy to describe. The trees appear brittle; their limbs aren’t as stalwart and upward facing; there’s a frailty about them. The changes in the trees have diminished my joy in walking at Jacks Peak.

Jackie Nelson is the Environmental Education Supervisor for Monterey’s Regional Park District. That is only part of the explanation for why she notices stuff I wouldn’t. Mostly, it’s just because of who she is, who she probably always has been. Not only did she notice patterns but she found this tiny fallen bird nest that I brought home.

IMG_1182When I next go to the park I’m going to look for patterns myself and see how that influences both what I see and how I feel.

The Oaks of Ft. Ord

Not my habit to post twice over one weekend but thought you might enjoy this piece from today’s Monterey Herald: http://www.montereyherald.com/environment-and-nature/20151004/patrice-vecchione-a-walk-about-town-exist-freely-in-fort-ord-open-space

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Mafra’s Birds of Prey

Our Portuguese host suggested we go to Mafra, saying, “Fewer people go there.” Before arriving in Portugal Michael and I had made grand plans to travel hither and thither from our quiet Sintra countryside base but quickly found ourselves un-inclined.

MafraThe surrounding natural beauty and ancient wonders—Sintra is a Unesco World Heritage Site—had us enthralled. Our first exploit into Lisbon had too. And then there was my grief that didn’t so much have me enthralled as it had me in its clutches. Seven months after my father’s death and the loss continues to drive deep and hard within me. A simple revelation that came as a surprise is that when someone loved dies you don’t only miss who they were at the time of their death but who they were and who they were to you during all the years you shared. My father and I spoke once or twice every day and saw each other often.

All that made Mafra doable; it was only 30 minutes away. There a 17th century Baroque and Italianized neoclassical palace-monastery was built after a longed for child, a daughter, was born to Queen Mary Anne of Austria and King John V. The place, as you can see from the photo, is enormous. The basilica alone has six pipe organs and 92 bells, the library has 40,00 books, and the palace has 1,200 rooms, none of which did we see. We never got past the courtyard.

In a corner of the spacious courtyard was a cordoned-off area within which over a dozen birds of prey sat on individual perches. There I met and got to hold a European Eagle Owl and a Falcon. These birds were all born in captivity and live behind the palace where they do get to fly a little but spend their days on public view.

Owl, MafraFor a few Euros one can hold a bird. These animals have unknowingly dedicated their lives to education. And I felt for them and their shackled lives and yet was grateful (as I never am at a zoo) to be able to look into the eyes of two birds of prey—to touch an owl’s head, to stroke the chest of a falcon.

The experience made my life bigger by moving birds of prey from the abstract into the here-and- now, into the actual. Held on my outstretched arm, the Eagle Owl was so big and not nearly as heavy as I’d expected. The Falcon had a steely aloofness about her I was almost put off by, but in a good way, an authentic one. As I wrote about in Step into Nature, in order to feel inclined to care for the earth and her beings we need to hold the earth up close, in whatever form.

FalconThe organization that runs this educational program is called AmbiFalco. Information about their important work may be found at ambifalco.pt and penas.pt. There are US organizations doing similar necessary work such as Wild Care: wildcarebayarea.org or 415-456-SAVE.

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Writing Like A Chair: José Saramago


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After riding the train from the village where we are staying to Lisbon and after having lunch with three locals who not only welcomed us to their table but later took us to see a church that survived a fire and to drink sweet and potent cherry liquor with them, Michael and I went to the Foundation José Saramago, the museum in tribute to the great writer.

On a wall amidst paragraphs of moving text I found this: “Writing is like building a chair that has to fit, steady on the floor and, if possible, also be beautiful.” So when we write, all four legs of our poem or story need to offer the reader a secure place to land. What I especially love about Saramago’s quote is how utilitarian it makes story, how basic and purposeful.

In his Nobel address, Saramago, demonstrated his point, writing about his beloved grandparents, Josefa and Jerónimo, two illiterate country people who made their lives on the land. In the winter when it was particularly cold they would take the most vulnerable piglets into their own bed. Saramago writes, “Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death. Although the two were kindly people, it was not a compassionate soul that prompted them to act in that way; what concerned them, without sentimentalism or rhetoric, was to protect their daily bread…”

When Saramago’s grandfather, “swineherd and storyteller” was close to death he “said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn’t see them again.”

Having come all the way to Portugal for a “vacation,” I have found myself overcome, nearly undone, over the loss of my father, a man who never hugged a tree but one who knew well the utility of story. No matter where Michael and I go and what we do, my father walks beside me, old, yes, and frail, but full of story.

I live with a maker of chairs. When I teach in our living room, I sit near the fireplace in the Shaker rocking chair Michael made long ago. In a couple of weeks when I sit there again, I will read Saramago to the assembled writers and we will do our best to make not only stories reliable in their sturdiness but places readers may choose because of their flourished backs and worn velvet cushioned seats upon which to pause in the labor of their lives.

 

The Apricot Tree

Apricot treeA few doors down from my house, just around the corner, there’s a small rental house. I don’t know the story of the house except that it’s poorly cared for, nor do I know the story of its owners except it doesn’t appear that they love their house, nor its renters’ stories, except none of them ever never stay long.

But along side the driveway there were once, and not so long ago, three small apricot trees. Each year they produced beautiful looking fruit, the trees were lush with it, fruit that I didn’t allow myself to lean into the leaves or bend to the ground for on my evening neighborhood strolls. The trees were neglected and as with other things not treated well it got to me but I did nothing being a firm believer in private property…

Now there is one apricot tree. Early last month I walked by and saw it had produced a single apricot that hung ripe and heavy. Guilt-free, I plucked it and slipped it into my mouth and enjoyed a delicious mouthful of fruit. There’s a warmth to an apricot no other fruit has and a sweetness that is nearly starchy that I love. Then there’s the color. How often can we taste sunlight? That evening I did.

Later, I pressed its seed into the dirt in my yard. Nothing yet. I’m waiting for spring.