Pine Trees for Curtains and a “lion”on the Fridge

The man on the phone was telling me: “A woman living alone in the mountains? I would never rent to you. These mountain people would eat you alive!” My first thought:  Isn’t proving that “you can” when they say “you can’t” a true test of character? I moved to the mountains.

Half an hour East of Redding, California, is the mountain town of Oak Run where my youngest son and I lived for a few years. The population of Oak Run was, for the most part, a mixture of friendly hard-working nature lovers who commuted to work in town each day, and drug pushers with their entourage of seamy friends who lived somewhere “back in the woods.” My wish to move from town to the mountains was two-fold: I hoped to provide my son a healthful home anchor during his increasingly infrequent stays at home, and my long-standing love affair with Nature. No matter that the place I chose had no running water or electricity, and that the warning of one landlord was still ringing in my ears. I found a spacious cabin with a loft, two skylights, and a wood stove for heat, with large windows that looked out at nothing but pine trees, and the nearest neighbors were close enough for lasting friendships to be made, but far enough away to afford us each a private niche of our own. This place was great! The hillside that dug deeply into the valley a few yards behind the house became a favorite place for me, where I would often sit on the moss-covered rocks in the fog and breathe in the lush green solitude, listening to the wind singing through the pines and quietly reaching inward to great places that only nature can reveal in the soul.

The cold winters were kept warm by frequent trips to the wood pile to keep the stove burning. I felt like a child flying his first kite, each time I learned something new, like banking the fire each night so that the quiet embers would come to life again with a breath of air and a morning supply of logs. For water, I had acquired six 5-gallon water jugs and I would pile them in my car and drive down the road to where the locals had strung a hose out from a stream back in the woods. There I would fill my water bottles each week and heft them back into the car, occasionally helped by some unkempt, tough-looking bearded mountain guy, filling his own bottles. This respect often shown to me shed all thought of being “eaten alive” from my mind and reconfirmed my lifelong belief that there is good in everyone. Back home, I would lever the heavy bottles up the steps one by one and roll them across the deck and into the kitchen for my weekly store of water. I purchased my drinking water and used the stream water for cooking, household duties, and bathing. I heated water on the wood stove in large enamel pots, and carried them to the sink to wash dishes, or to the bathtub for my bath each morning. I would mix the boiling hot water with cold water from buckets, and ladle it over me to soap up and rinse, recalling my earlier experience of bucket bathing at the ranch house in Veracruz years before.  Practice makes perfect.

A small propane bottle with a radiating cone at the top would be lit to warm the bathroom while I showered and dressed. As for washing the car, I find it rather ironic that it was by far more doable to man the stream-fed hose down the road each week, than it is to wash my car now in the city, with street parking and no hose permission from my landlord!  That was life in a house with no running water! I did the running. I had the water.

The house had no electricity.  Again drawing on my rustic ranch experience, I hung a series of oil lamps on the walls, and lit them each night to read or work by. I had already learned how to trim the wicks so that the lamps would burn clean and not smell like kerosene. That had been our only lighting on the ranch. The lamps created a welcoming, gentle ambiance as I curled up in front of the wood stove in the evenings to read and listen to the changing moods of weather and local fauna outside. When I moved back to the city with its distracting daily obligations, this precious reading time all but disappeared.

No water, no lights. Those were familiar challenges that were bravely dealt with. What other pioneer skills I would need for this little mountain hideaway would be discovered. No electricity meant no refrigeration. I had propane for the kitchen stove so it was easy to segue to the propane refrigerator once I was introduced to this efficient technological jewel from the turn of the century. A refrigerator that runs on fire?  Unbelievable, I thought. But so it does, through the intriguing process of, not adding cold to the box, but absorbing heat from it, through a chemical process that begins with a flame – hence the propane. Ha! My refrigerator had a pilot light.  I call these “jewels” because they are not only highly efficient, they are extremely economical, and the first ones were built with the clean, sophisticated lines of 30’s style. I found one at a used appliance store and missed not a step in storing and preparing food as I moved in. This was one very “cool” refrigerator! So neat to look at, in fact, that my good friends and neighbors across the way invited me along with family and friends to paint their own gas refrigerator with an underwater theme! Art deco a la eccentric. I accomplished my first (and last) oil painting – a lion fish – on one side. This was a medium I had never used before, so my contribution was mostly one of learning as I slowly brought the fish to life, while the other artists and artist wannabe’s deftly painted orcas, schools of fish, and under-sea critters over the rest of the fridge, but I am pleased to say, my lion fish is still looking good after more than 10 years, as is the friendship of my former neighbors!


Why on earth would I want to live in a place that required so many difficult, time-consuming back woods skills! Where a place to live is concerned, one thing alone has always drawn me and occupied my mind through the years that I have lived in cities, only rarely realized – a home somewhere out in nature! Who needs walls if you have woods to surround you or windows if you have never-ending vistas of grass or sea to inspire the imagination! Who needs a ceiling if you have the great expanse of sky overhead, with sunlight to read by and a blanket of stars to cover you at night! I was happy in this home. When, in time, friends helped me upgrade to a generator for lights and TV, and my generous neighbors’ strung a hose across the street to pump water from their well for a few hours each week to fill my water tank, already attached to a fully-plumbed house that had never had a well to draw from, life was indeed easier, but it was never again quite as good.

The trade-off of this rustic life was the quiet that only a pine forest can give you, as anyone who has heard the wind singing through pine needles knows; the dark nights closing up the house before bedtime instead of curtains; the feeling of being “alive” that overcoming new challenges gives you; the frequent visit of a big raccoon that would come up to the glass window in the living room and sit and stare at me, the awesome silence after a snowfall when even the proverbial dropped pin can’t be heard; standing outside at midnight under falling snow, catching snowflakes on your tongue as you watch them streak toward you out of nowhere from an indigo sky; and a once in a lifetime memory that I will never forget!

It was at the time when the news was full of the anticipated arrival of the Hale-Bopp Comet over northern California and I was waiting for nightfall to see if I could get a glimpse of it. If it passed by low, I would miss it because I was surrounded by woods. The only open sky was right above the house. I stayed up late, going outside every half hour and scanning the sky to see if I could catch the comet on its path. Sleep finally got the better of me, and disappointed, I climbed the stairs to the loft and went to bed. I normally don’t wake up during the night, so I was surprised to find myself suddenly wide awake a few hours later. I turned over to stretch, opened my eyes, and there, filling the skylight above my bed from edge to edge, was Hale-Bopp in all its glory, big and bold, with its tail stretching out behind it! I laid there staring at it until it travelled out of view, transported by the moment to some magical place beyond the earth where dreams come true! Who, or what, woke me up? My guardian angel? Those elusive wood sprites of legend? I like think it was intuition, that sensitivity to the unseen that has led me well throughout my life. It is never sharper than when it draws on nature.  Difficulties? What difficulties! I never “saw” them in my house in the woods.



Lahti, Finland, has Sibeliustalo, Sibelius Hall, that the Lahti Symphony Orchestra calls home. There each September, a celebration of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, takes place, with a select venue of concerts, followed by the customary visits to his birthplace, home and points of importance in his life by those who make the trip to Lahti. In this commemorative year, Finland, and the world at large, celebrates the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth. Lahti was to see not the usual long weekend of concerts, but an entire week! All of his symphonies would be performed and a large selection of his most significant works, plus daily recitals and chamber works! It was an event that no one devoted to the life and music of Sibelius could miss. But I did! Finland is a long way off for me, so when we got news of a concert commemorating the 150th anniversary year of our beloved composer right here in San Diego, a dear friend and I, fellow devotees of the finer arts where Sibelius holds a particular place of honor, were excited.

les trois apres concert
Russamari Teppo, great great granddaughter of Jean Sibelius, with Erik Homenick and the author.

The flyer said “Sibelius Concert Service,” to be held at a local Lutheran Church. Of particular note was that one of the artists to perform was great great granddaughter of Sibelius, Ruusamari Teppo, an accomplished concert pianist. The word “service,” gave me hesitation: was I going to hear a concert or going to a religious service? The latter was not what I wished to attend. I spoke to my friend of my doubts as to what this concert-service involved, but he could not fathom the idea that I would miss the event honoring Sibelius, and particularly the opportunity to meet Mrs. Teppo, the closest to Sibelius “in person” we may ever come! He kept saying: “This will be our very own 150th anniversary celebration. Unthinkable to miss it!” I couldn’t resist the import of the argument or the forlorn look in his eyes as he considered the possibility that I might miss this event celebrating the master composer for whom we shared such a great love. I would go!

As we arrived among the gathering guests in the foyer, we were immediately engulfed in the arms of a Finnish friend who was instrumental in organizing the concert. She broke through the gathering guests, opened her chiffon draped arms like a mother swan gathering in her brood, and swept us both up together in a warm Finnish welcoming hug. I felt as if I had just been transported to Finland and from there on, everything had to go well. And so it did. The next couple of hours were full of music, but we were in church all right  -Sibeliuskirkko!  With the music of Sibelius, it is easy to touch the eternal.

There were a couple of spiritual songs in Finnish, sung by the small, but excellent choir, and one sing-along. The rest of the evening was pure Sibelius. Performing were, Ruusamari Teppo, piano, Jussi Makkonen, cello, Jari Suomalainen, violin, and Irene Marie Patton, vocal. The program was a full evening of delight, one work after another worthy of the Lahti concert venue, and the musicians could not have played more beautifully!

The evening’s program: Kuusi, Impromptu, Souvenir, Trio in A minor for piano, violin and cello, “Havträsk(unpublished, 1886), The Tempest: (Jussi Jalas arrangement, unpublished), Arioso, Masurkka, Valse Triste, and of course ….Finlandia!

Each work was an intimate visit with our beloved Sibelius, but the two that touched me most deeply were Valse Triste, and Finlandia, both played exquisitely by Jussi and Ruusamari. Valse Triste, so often heard before, found me unexpectedly a captive of the deeper thoughts that Sibelius’ life and music have so often inspired in me, and I sat motionless, alone with my thoughts, not wanting the moment to end.

But as the best things in life are often fleeting, as if to confirm their definition of extraordinary, the concert must end. But Sibelius, master of the “final note,” had one last grand statement to make. Finishing the program in the honored tradition of Sibelius concerts with the work so much a part of the Finnish soul, here was the great great granddaughter of Sibelius playing his Finlandia with passion and sensitivity,. This was no less than an historic moment! The acute disappointment that I had been feeling for months at being unable to attend the Lahti Festival, or meeting Jean Sibelius on his home ground, were no longer relevant. Like the good friend that he has always been, here was Sibelius come to us!

The Hidden Years

As I look back at my childhood, I can see now that I was living a life that was in large part passive. Most of my growing up was going on “inside”. I can recall few distinct memories of when I was actually, aggressively pursuing anything other than playing with my neighborhood friends and watching the world go by. Thinking? – yes. Acutely aware of all that was going on around me? – not a doubt. But actively, purposefully controlling my daily activities – no.

Mom loved me a little too much. and as a result, she was overly controlling where I was concerned. This certainly contributed in part to my passive nature then. Can we debate whether one can really “love too much?” Love is expressed in many ways, but some are healthier than others. When love says: “this is mine and I love it to death, that is exactly what happens” – The object of this love dies. Too much water and sun can kill a growing plant. If this plant did not die, it was because a greater power was already at work and had the situation well in hand.  And I think I sensed even then that I was not to lead, but to follow….that Someone Greater would lead my life. And that was good.

I didn’t talk much. I listened. For this, I must give thanks to my mother, who talked a lot. She had so much to say and it was so interesting, that I had no reason to say much as a child. People said I was too shy, hinted that I might even be “backward”. They said I shouldn’t hide behind the couch when family and friends gathered to talk in the living room. I wasn’t hiding. I was observing the comedy of life at its richest. I would lay back there on the floor with my pillow, nice and comfy, and listen to every word that was being said, undisturbed, and fascinated! I was enjoying it too much to come out and be a part of what was already becoming apparent to me: It’s wiser to speak little and listen much. That’s where I learned the most. They didn’t understand that this was my strength, not my weakness. The truth is that those were some of my wisest years as a child. I was acutely aware of all that was going on, and learning.

I was not afraid to interact socially. It never occurred to me that it was necessary to make special efforts to that end. My world was complete. This “only girl” in the family received more loving affection from Mom’s large traditional French family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second and third cousins, and all their friends, in the first years of my life than some people receive in a lifetime. Daddy had no family: he had been an orphan, but I was “his little sunflower” and his love alone was a worthy match for my mother’s family’s. That’s a source of security. I heard so many fascinating stories over the dinner table and at family gatherings that my mind was full of things to think about. I watched attentively as those around me went through the usual and the unexpected joys and pitfalls of life, dealing with each one in turn. I didn’t have to make decisions about what to wear, how to comb my hair, what time to get up and go to bed, when to eat. Mom did that. Amazingly, I never perceived my mother’s control as a problem. It only became so when I grew up and Mom’s strong spirit would reach beyond the limits allowed. Never was it a problem for the child. Others did the necessary daily chores of raising me. Where I was able to roam at will was within. That was when I learned that no one can touch you, harm you, control you “inside”. That’s the one place over which we have sole proprietorship. Many will argue this fact, but it’s the truth: the actions of others can only really affect us if we let them

This was a big lesson for a small child to learn. If I appeared all too passive on the outside, an activity of a grander nature was nevertheless continuously going on inside. I quietly observed the active pursuits of everyone else, and learned from their mistakes, from their occasional petty or hurtful words, from the consequences of their unfortunate decisions, from their good actions that ended in happy results. By the time I was nine, I had learned much about what to do and what not to do in order to live life well.

Why I write the book – My Memoirs

The Circle is Drawn They called me the “Blitz Krieg” baby. At 7:30 in the evening, Mom and Dad were enjoying a night out at the movies, with a week to go before the anticipated blessed event. At 8:00 PM, Mom and Dad were at the hospital, and the “blessing” was about to arrive. I was not officially due yet and no one was ready for me. However incredible it may seem, a nurse was frantically trying to hold me in until the doctor arrived. Hospital rules “did not allow a baby to be born without the doctor present.” The laws of Nature were not considered. Apparently the doctor and I arrived at the same time. I have a picture in my mind of a fast scrub, a quick entrance, and a marvelous catch just as the ball…er, baby, was passed straight into the hands of the star “quarterback”. A touchdown at this point would have been anticlimatic. I’ve never been a fan of football. I wasn’t paying attention. But Dad was. He had refused to leave Mom’s side for the birth, made a scene when they told him he was not allowed in the operating room, and the nurses finally gave up and made him scrub and gown up. I arrived, the doctor exclaimed to all present that “here’s a fine pair of football shoulders”, then quickly corrected himself: “No, these shoulders won’t play football.” My dad let out a whoop, and that’s the last Mom saw of him until the following afternoon. The story goes that my Dad made some kind of marvelous spectacle of himself upon learning that “it was a girl”. I was born into a large extended family of eighteen cousins and two siblings – all boys! Mom had a bit of a rough time – not surprising when you think of the persistent efforts of that nurse to go against long-established norms of nature. It wasn’t until a few days later that Mom and I left together accompanied by one very proud, smiling father. On the way out, as Mom told it later, one nurse after another went up to her, with eyes rolling, and said excitedly: “You should have seen your husband when the baby was born! We’ve never seen anyone do that before!” Mom’s inquiries as to the exact nature of what Daddy did that day went no where. No one would tell her. Shaking their heads and laughing, they just kept repeating: “You should have seen what your husband did!” And so I was born. ~~~ The Old Testament speaks of “types” – occurrences that precede and testify to the important events of the New Testament. You might say that they complete the circle. For those with an insight into life’s mysteries, these types are taken quite seriously and serve as wonderful prophesies of future events, only truly understood once the events have occured. I can’t help thinking that the year of my birth, and the beginning events of my existence, were types of where my life was to lead me and how it may one day end. I was born in 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. The Germans were making rapid, un-anticipated bombing attacks on England at that time that were known as “blitz kriegs”. My insistence upon arriving unexpected and quickly into this world earned me that first title. I have no doubt that there was an agenda in place and it had to be met sooner than later. The type was set. It would be up to me to discover it one day. My first conscious memory is of a warm summer night, dark curtains moving softly in the breeze from the open window over my crib – and the sudden, terrible ululating sound of air-raid sirens. Mom says I couldn’t possibly remember: I was only a few months old! But I do. The memory is so clear to me that I can recall everything about it sixty-seven years later. And what I remember most is my world changing in an instant from a peaceful and secure state, with the sweet cooling breeze lulling me to sleep – to one of absolute, soul-shaking fear! Of course I didn’t know what those wailing noises were or meant, but I knew beyond a shadow of doubt what they represented. I have known such fear only a few times in my life and it was unmistakably the fear of Evil! I believe that when we are born, we are “whole”. The spirit that gives us life is already formed and if the child is limited in his or her abilities to interact with others, the intellect* is nevertheless as habile as it ever will be – perhaps even more so. By the very fact that we are unhindered by the as yet un-learned management of our physical world, we may be even more aware of the spiritual. California was in blackout and sirens were wailing to warn of possible attacks from Japanese war planes, which had already approached our coast. My parents had turned off the lights, pulled dark curtains across the windows and were probably reading stories to my brothers by candlelight to keep some semblance of calm, while fear lurked outside. Mom and Dad were attending to the necessary practical matters warranted by the occasion. My brothers, in the arms of my parents, were perhaps oblivious to danger. I can understand my parents being less concerned about me. Noise was noise, and I had been quite happy up until then to sleep or babble my way happily though all the noises of my surroundings, however loud or unexpected. And besides, what could a baby know about current events. My older brothers, on the other hand, perhaps sensing my parents concern, would need to be reassured. But I was the only one who sensed the nature of what really happening. This was my second “type”. I was, in effect, holding down the fort for my whole family, carrying a spiritual load full of comprehension of things eternal, to which I was still wide open. This tiny baby who had been created “in the spirit” of peace and light, and had known nothing but love from all who had come to welcome me, in one brief moment had perceived the face of Evil. I wonder if anyone can look the devil in the face and not be shaken to the core. We are of course speaking here of what the eyes cannot see. The connection between that event and my present direction in life makes it clear now that the type was set for my place in this world. I have lived more than one lifetime since then and have come nearly full circle to that blessed comprehension of things eternal, shedding, one by one, the material shackles by which I became bound over the years to the world, in the name of “practicality”. I could say here that this is my story. But that’s not entirely true. The story belongs to Another, and I am going to tell it. * To clarify the exact nature of “intellect” – Most of us have come to define it in terms of our “intellectual”, or mental capabilities. In reality, it refers to the highest part of our spiritual nature and is much more difficult to define, as it proceeds from the Creator, whose “reality” is of a higher nature, beyond our limited comprehension.

Say that again?

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France .. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

And why doesn’t “Buick” rhyme with “quick”   

Blogger Note: The English language has enough  pitfalls for anyone learning it, that it is amazing anyone does.  My hat’s off to the immigrants who come to the U.S. knowing no English and in rather short order, become better at it than many of those who are born here.

Una Caida de Mas(iado)

Era un día típico de invierno en Xalapa, un chipi chipi que empapaba hasta los huesos y las calles mojadas, incluso la Calle de Revolución que tomaba yo cada tarde para ir a la Alianza Francesa donde daba yo clases. Yo sabía que el camino iba a ofrecer cierto reto, puesto que las piedras volcánicas de la banqueta estaban resbalosas, y hasta cubiertas de musgo por partes. Pero emprendí mi camino con confianza, no queriendo faltar a mis obligaciones. A decir la verdad, me encantaba mi trabajo. No era cuestión de regresar. Desde luego, en Xalapa todos saben que la lluvia es parte de la vida y a nadie se le ocurriría quedarse en casa un lindo día de chipi chipi.
A penas empecé a bajar la calle, me resbalé y me caí duro. Un joven que andaba detrás de mí, se apresuró para ayudarme. Le di las gracias y seguí mi camino. Di unos pocos pasos más y me caí de nuevo. El mismo joven, que aun andaba atrás de mí, llegó de nuevo a mi ayuda y me levantó. Yo estaba empezando a sentirme incomoda, y un poco avergonzada, pero me aseguró el muchacho que no debía sentir pena, que todos sabíamos lo resbaloso que se ponían las piedras en un día similar. Seguí caminando, con el joven a unos pasos atrás.
Mi falda ya lucía una mancha grande de lodo verdusco, pero yo, con el espíritu de un Don Quijote que no se sabe vencer, iba a llegar a mi clase cueste lo que cueste. Se me estaba haciendo tarde y me apresuré un poco, ahora sosteniéndome con las barras de las ventanas. Ni lo van a creer! Me caí otra vez! Mi joven caballero no tardó en ofrecerme el brazo para levantarme, esta vez sin que nos dirigiéramos una sola palabra. Sin duda los dos nos estábamos preguntando si esa comedia iba a terminar.
Pues yo, con mayor determinación, y con la seguridad de que con tres caídas ya, seguramente había cumplido con mi cuota para el día, me puse a caminar como si nada, recorriendo hasta varios metros sin novedad, siempre aferrada a las barras y pisando con cuidado piedra por piedra. Pero el Tlaloc no me quiso mostrar compasión: Mi pie encontró una piedra “enemiga” ….y me caí por cuarta vez! Con una expresión de incredulidad, mi caballero me pasó sin echarme ni siquiera una mirada, y siguió calle abajo. La cortesía, al parecer, tiene sus límites!
Yo, con la falda llena de lodo, las medias rotas, y una rodilla lastimada, me levanté, di vuelta, y sin pensar más, regresé a casa. La perseverancia tiene sus límites también!

What goes around . . . goes around

That detergent stain on the floor of the Laundromat had been there for 20 years! I know. I used to stare at it between pages of the magazine I was reading, wishing it away, while waiting for my clothes to dry. I came here often when my sons and I first arrived in the U.S. I couldn’t believe that 20 years had gone by, and I was back at the same Laundromat. And I couldn’t believe that stain was still there.

From the day of our arrival, fresh from half a lifetime in Mexico, with nothing but our clothes, some linens, and a few pots and pans to our name, to that moment when I found myself staring again at the sullied carpet, another lifetime had gone by. But as I looked at that stain, I wondered . . .what had really changed?

Back to our first arrival …

We were “home,” but the future was an empty space… and a lot would have to change for us to settle into our new life in the States. After learning to drive, it was time for me to find a place to settle. I was looking for someplace rural, close enough to a small city for short commutes to town or school for my sons –in Northern California! I wanted no part of the great Southern California metropolis. My cousin and I sat down with a map and put circles around all the cities in Northern California and Oregon that fit my criteria, I shined up his little Volkswagen, packed for my trip and, leaving my two sons in the capable hands of my cousin and his wife, I drove off to explore. My first solo trip presented some challenges of which I will speak later, but as for taking to the road, I loved it!

After visiting several of my “circles on the map,” heading north on I-5 toward Redding, a little more than two hours out of Sacramento on a clear, sunshine-filled day, I had a ‘revelation’. Suddenly on the horizon, there appeared a majestic snow-capped mountain. Alive with reflected sunlight, its lofty cone seemed to reach right up to heaven and everything else “disappeared” before its imposing presence. I swear to this day that the sounds around me disappeared as well, as I traveled the next few miles in awe of this sight. Apparently I was not alone, years later I found this 1874 quote by John Muir: “When I first caught sight of Mount Shasta I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.”

Mt shasta new 3Although my first impression of the natural beauty of the region was instrumental in my decision, something else far more important would become the reason for setting down roots. It concerns the “types” of my life (from the first chapter written, not yet revealed)

We moved to Redding. We were living from month to month on a small government check while I looked for a job with the right hours so that I could be at home for my children when they were not in school. I cried at every delay of our meager lifeline when the basics of life became untenable, stayed home with my kids while other families were spending their summers at the Lake, used every resource available to obtain food or firewood when we ran out. The only treat I could afford was an ice cream a month for each of us when I went grocery shopping with the newly arrived welfare check. The children were so happy at our shared “ice cream social” you would have thought I’d taken them to Disneyland. God bless them!

The hardest moment those first months was when my cousin came to pick up the Volkswagen he had loaned us until we could get a car of our own. That car of our own was nowhere near possible when he drove away with his little VW. We were living in an inexpensive bungalow behind our landlord’s, out in the country, far from the bus lines. Life had already slowed to a crawl. Without a car, it would virtually stop. But I didn’t say anything. I just smiled and waved as my cousin drove away, and prayed a little harder that night.

My first thought when my cousin left was “how are the kids going to get to school?” There is nothing as inspiring as a problem with no apparent solution: you either give up, or you move. I called the school, and the next day, my sons were waiting by the mailbox early in the morning to catch a ride with a friendly neighbor whose children were going to the same school.

Thanksgiving was only two days away. I was putting the final touches to a big pot of chili beans, whose ingredients I had acquired at the community food bank, when I got a call from my kids’ principal. “Would I be kind enough to share the ride with my sons to school the next day? He would see that I got back home.”

With that feeling of foreboding that comes with constantly being on the defensive while struggling with life’s difficulties (were my kids in trouble? Were they being set back a grade because of language problems? . . .), I walked into the principal’s office promptly at 8:00. I walked out again at 8:20, carrying a huge box full of food , complete with a 15 lb turkey and a greeting card that said: “We know you’re having a tough time right now, so here’s a little gift from us to you. We also know that you will repay in kind as the years go by. God bless you. HAPPY THANKSGIVING . The Faculty and Principal of Buckeye School.”

I had never before been the recipient of charity and it was a humbling experience. I surprised myself by not feeling embarrassed. The need was there – and accepting was the only gracious thing to do. With tears in my eyes, I mouthed a “thank you” as I walked out and got into the car waiting to take me home. Thus began our new life in the U.S. … and a reminder of what we have here that few, if any, other countries have – love for a neighbor in need! When disaster or hardships arise, so does everyone else …to get people back on their feet.

It’s amazing how comfortable one can be in a house without furniture – lots of space, open and clean. Our bed was king size: we had the whole floor to sleep on, with blankets spread out for a mattress and a couple on top to keep warm. The two large wooden packing boxes that I had shipped from Mexico with our few belongings made handy all-purpose tables for eating, writing letters or doing homework, and served as storage when I put the bedding away each morning . What else did we need?

Our life was eventually “furnished,” however, by little miracles, one by one. Someone gave our landlords a huge load of two-by-four end pieces of the finest cedar for their wood-stove. They had wood already. We inherited the load for our stove. By the end of winter, we had wood to spare, so I bought nails and a hammer and nailed a row of the short pieces together onto the longer ones, fashioning legs with the mid-sized pieces. We had a kitchen table and two benches!

That summer, our landlords and their two kids invited my sons to go camping with them for a few days. They returned with a large piece of plywood and two nearly new, five-inch thick foam pads that, together, fit the plywood perfectly. “Found these abandoned in the woods”, they said. “Can you use them?”

I knew just what to do with them. Next day, I rounded up some more fire wood and nailed legs onto the plywood. I put the foam pads on top and covered them with the linens we had brought with us and a lovely serape from Mexico. We had a bed!

I was talking on the phone one day with a dear friend from Nevada and the subject of cars came up. I had to admit that we didn’t have one. Within a week, she and her husband pulled into our driveway – in separate cars – to honor us with a surprise visit. It was a surprise all right! One of the cars apparently hadn’t been used much and they thought we just might give it a home. The price was right – $500 to be paid whenever or however we could. We had a car!

That first year back in the States we went from a tiny bungalow, no car, and not much more than our clothes and a few household items, to a two-bedroom house, humbly but adequately furnished, our first car, a part-time teaching job for me, and the kids settled in with new schools and friends. We had a life.

My sons grown and on their own, facing each in turn their own challenges, I had moved to a small apartment with no washer/dryer, and found myself back at the same Laundromat. Some things didn’t seem that much different. Uncle Sam was again footing the bills with social security and SSI. It was not enough. But when ends didn’t meet – as they never did – I didn’t cry any more. I had seen the “lilies of the field.”
End of the Line? Not Yet

With two chairs in the living room, one inherited from Mom when she passed away, and that plywood and cedar-leg bed ( now cut down to a single) topped by a foam pad, and those blankets that followed us from Mexico, I moved in to my new apartment. With the family gone, I had trimmed my life down refreshingly to the essentials. But the miracles would continue.

I acquired a sofa from a friend who was re-decorating her home, and a rug and two Tiffany lamps from another dear friend “who had them in storage and wanted me to have them.” There was a large wicker storage basket elegantly gracing my beside – another “gift”, along with the hand-me-down bookshelves that hold my books, T.V., stereo and tapes. I had a new computer, from my computer-savvy son, who had an array of them “coming and going” on his work table to choose from. The two “reject” tables that my youngest brought me from the throw-away bin when he worked for the cabinet makers were perfect for my artwork. The flaws that made them unfit for sale weren’t noticeable – a nice return on that cedar-pieced kitchen table that holds so many memories: he was using it still in his apartment.

The large square basket sitting upside-down by Mom’s big chair came to me from another friend who was moving to a smaller place. It used to hold her firewood. It made a great end-table. I stored things under it as I did with those first packing boxes. A computer table, with place mats neatly stored on the slide-out keyboard shelf, was in the kitchen, graced by two bamboo decorator chairs that my former land-lady was getting rid of. Around these humble furnishings, everything was bright and homey with colorful home-made throw pillows and lots of plants . . . and my walls were covered with original, expensive artwork. I’m the artist, so I could afford them. When friends came to my home, they would tell me that my place looked just like a page from a decorator book. I was amazed. They didn’t seem to see it as a humble array of hand-me-downs. I’m convinced that what they were seeing is the love that brought them all to me.

I never forget the miracles, nor the guardian angels who have appeared in so many forms to bring them to me, for believe as you like, they were there!

My thoughts return to the Laundromat and that detergent stain, but now I was seeing it with new eyes. On the outside, maybe nothing had changed: the money was short and the miracles never seemed to stop. But that stain knows something that puts it all in perspective. It has seen and heard a thousand stories like mine, as single moms with their children, immigrant workers, struggling students, traveling nurses, sundry apartment dwellers, and even a few homeless have shuffled over it from washing machine to dryer, sharing their stories with each other as they passed through. That’s the key phrase: “passing through’.

We are only passing through. The “things” that we use as we go are only as valuable as the spirit within them – the giving heart, the friend in need, the grateful prayers and the helping hand extended in turn. What goes around, must go around in turn. This is what sustains us. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: the stain on the carpet doesn’t matter any more. It’s the stains on our souls that need attention. And I think the miracles and the grateful prayers have already helped wash many away.

And now….. Ten years in San Diego and new adventures to relate. The story isn’t over!