Free Write Friday: California

The light wanes as we step out of the hotel conference room, eyes blurry from hours of lectures, Powerpoint slides flashing, acronyms swirling, EKGs dancing. The sun has set but the purple light of dusk hovers in the sky. The moon is rising over the palm trees lining the street, thin stems with bushy tops, as if each were adorned with floppy wigs or jester’s caps. The air is cool but not cold in way the sky is shaded but not dark.

We make our way to the cove after dinner, can just discern the rough waves crashing onto the rock face. We want to feel the fine granules of sand between our toes, stow them home in our carry-on bags tucked away in our shoe soles and jean pockets.

We hear the seals before we see them, sharp intonations directed upward, all around. They squeal and shriek their protestation to our presence. We are intruders and suppliers, they must love and hate us. One seal beaches several yards away. We point and exclaim like paparazzi, eager to elevate the novel to a venerated plane.

***

The sand on the soles of my feet, the sudden coolness of the water washing over my toes, the Pacific wild in its winter norm, tame by the time it reaches the California shore.

People-watching is paramount along the walkway that winds parallel to the strip of sand. Surfers haul their boards under their arms as if the equipment is another appendage, wetsuits peeled to their waists, hair dripping to their shoulders. Rented bikes with fat tires and curved handlebars in candy coated colors weave in and out of pedestrian traffic. Tourists unsteady as they cycle, unsure on their winter legs in the foreign sunlight.

Twenty-something revelers pack the margarita bars, sipping slushy neon drinks in oversized goblets. They laugh easily, their cheeks crimson they lean into each other suggestively, throw their heads back into the bright sun. A girl in a green vest pulls a wagon filled with Girl Scout cookies, stacked Samoas and Thin Mints, boxes disappear into eager hands.

Umbrellas and beach towels dot the pale sandscape. Sunday afternoon revelers exult, even here, in a warmer than expected day. I close my eyes and see a glow, rouge-hot, yellow afire.

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Free Write Friday: Dressing

He brings his stack of neatly folded clothes, procured the night before, into the master bathroom. He likes to dress with Mama in the morning, inky sky evolving outside the frosted windows.

He puts his socks on first, insists they match. So I bought him twelve pairs of athletic socks, all white, identical. He can pull them up and over his calves, a satisfiable stretch.

Next is the underwear, logoed with superhero emblems, bright elastic trim. They too come in plastic wrapping, in neat sets of six or eight or ten. I never understood the “days of the week” underwear until I had children: it’s exhausting for them, for me to watch, to choose what to wear each day, even undergarments.

Next is the t-shirt; can’t be too tight on the neck, on the arms, must hang just so. He likes orange, bright colors. Pixelated hamburgers, paper airplanes, whimsical animals dance on the silk screened front. He pulls them overhead, sometimes his mousy head gets stuck, needing a tug from Mom to help his straining face emerge.

Last, the pants. He likes elastic bands: comfortable, practical. He pulls one leg through, then the other. Doesn’t bother to regard himself in the mirror; instead he rushes off to gather other treasures and accessories from his room.

He shuffles back in, rainbow suspenders in hand, clip-on tie already attached to the front of his waffle t-shirt. “Can you help me, Mama?” His legs shuffle back and forth impatiently; he wants his outfit completed. I clip on the suspenders, straighten his orange necktie. He smiles broadly, proud as he sashays into his day.

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Free Write Friday: Couch

He cried when they took the old couch away. It sat on the front lawn unceremoniously as they carried in the new one: grey heathered tweed, low back, firm cushions, stylish, contemporary.

The old couch looked bulky, awkward in comparison. Beige and bought on a whim over a decade before, soon after we were married. We needed a new couch and had money to spare. Two professionals, no children. We stopped at a furniture store on the way to my brother’s house one day and chose it quickly, unresearched. Unusual for a measured, calculated shopper like me. I was anxious to make our new house a home; real furniture seemed imperative and urgent at the time.

But it served us well through two homes, three children. Substantial back cushions held their form all those years. Good building blocks for fashioning forts. The length just right to stretch out for naps, our toes barely brushing the armrest. We’d pull a hand woven blanket over us, cocooning for a winter hibernation or a spring siesta in the waning afternoon sunlight.

I brought my babies home to that couch, Boppy pillow on my lap, tiny infant swaddled in my arms. The cushions held me through the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the stinging pain of an aching postpartum body nursing all hours of the night and day.

We let the kids jump on it; by the time they came around it was already worn, no need to keep up appearances or needlessly coddle the not fragile.

We’d greet friends, old and new. Birthday gatherings, movie nights, holidays with family, interviews with potential nannies. All of them sat, back upright, feet sturdy on the floor or reclined, elbow cocked back, plate full of potluck fare tidbits in hand.

He cried when they took the old couch away. I felt it too, the tug, the wrenching. So much contained in that substance of wood and fabric.

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Free Write Friday: Ski

She looked up the mountain, the hill she learned on. Remembering the rope tow, gripping tight with mittened hands, chapped cheeks from chill winds. She wore a patterned hat, pulled it down over her ears, lobes pink. Her toes and fingers instantly numb to the freezing temperatures.

***

Her grandfather took her to buy new skis when she was in high school. She had never had new equipment before, always hand-me-downs from older relatives. It felt luxurious, the shiny new blades strapped to matching boots, electric blue with neon yellow accents. She sat compact on a wooden bench in the family owned ski shop, the only acceptable place in the well-to-do suburb to buy skis. The employees fit her feet to the restrictive boots. They felt tight, compressing, oppressive. Everyone assured her the fit was right but her long toes would burn with every run for decades to come.

She never took lessons, only her father giving instruction same as when he taught her to ride a bike or tie her shoes or scramble an egg with rice and just the right amount of soy sauce. He was matter of fact, detachedly patient, waiting for her to overcome her fear. She remembers the swelling of anxiety, looking down the sloping hill, the enormity of getting to the bottom an overwhelming task welling in her chest.

***

The beginner lift slows to a crawl, allowing novices to sit their layered bottoms down onto the cushioned seat, warily grip the arm rest, avoid looking down as they are lifted skyward, skis dangling, boots weighty, gravity pulling like a string taut to the ground.

Looking down, through ski tips, there’s nothing to keep one from slipping: a wayward glove, an aberrant pole, dangling then falling, floating, to the silent impact of snow drifts below. The silence, the stillness of the buffering snow soothes while coasting upward past white coated evergreens, tiny skiers like miniature figurines expertly weaving curves this way and that far below. There’s calm in the severity of the landscape, a numbing peace inherent in the crushing steepness and chill.

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Merry Christmas

Here’s a holiday poem, compiled by author Kwame Alexander, consisting of contributions from NPR listeners. This community poem is made up of lines about what listeners like most about this time of year. However you celebrate, or ache, on this day, may you find light and hope as a new year dawns. Peace and joy to the world.

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A Day

Yesterday was one of those days that derailed quickly. One thing after another, nothing major or too traumatic. Just one mishap exacerbating another making for a terrible horrible no good very bad day. So no free write today. Instead, I attempt to regain some composure, some perspective and wish you a wonderful fabulous all great very good day.

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Free Write Friday: Starbucks

They line up outside the first storefront: the trim an earthier green, the logo more organic, subtly suggestive, less polished. They take selfies and wait patiently to order grande peppermint mochas. I shuffle by them onto the cobblestone street, eager to reach the Chinese bakery to collect barbecue pork filled humbow, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, buttery almond cookies that leave a residual crumble. I admire the fruit stands: large trays of plump grapes, squat persimmon, rainbow carrots gathered with twine. The flowers and the flying fish are, like the coffee shop, iconic, each wrapped in waxy paper, rubber-banded for the journey home.

***

I spot the familiar logo from across the street. Sweat sticking to my back, a rushing wall of air conditioning bowls me over as I step inside the coffee shop. The decor is the same, artwork familiar, stout brown chairs circle round veneer tables. I step back home, into anytown Starbucks despite being thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean on a tiny island of an idyllic archipelago. It’s the brand, what people expect, what they want to see. But I bristle at the cookie-cutter likeness, even as it comforts me. I order an iced latte from the awkward Thai barista, clad in the familiar bright green apron with emblazoned mermaid. I grab my cup with my head slightly down, a kind of apology. But I sip the milky caffeine eagerly, my American thirst quenched.

***

In college I would study at the one on the Ave, in medical school at the one in Madison Park. I’d order my drink and settle down at a table, spread my textbooks and notecards out just so, like surgical instruments lined up for an important procedure. I’d highlight and underline: red, green and blue. Star and paraphrase, chart and summarize. After hours of sitting I’d grow stiff, have to stand to stretch my muscles, hinge my joints. One time my strained neck raised to the hum of whispers: Howard Schultz, the owner of the ubiquitous coffee chain had stopped in for his own caffeinated drink. Someone mumbled that he lived in the neighborhood, came into this particular Starbucks from time to time. Tall, with an open confidence, he didn’t linger. I wondered what his drink of choice would be.

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Free Write Friday: Trains

We ride the monorail to the city center, food court and live music on stage, families milling around on a holiday weekend, heading to the children’s museum or playground or bringing tourists to the iconic needle in the sky. Their dad is hungry, so he peels off to peruse the menu of greasy gourmet burgers, poutine doused in thick sauce, a grilled cheese dripping in butter for the kids. I veer the little ones to the centerpiece, the electric train. Every winter it’s set up in the center house, a pretend village sprinkled with snow and Christmas cheer. I never noticed the details before. My children now old enough to pause, stand still in wonder long enough for me to explore. Tiny figurines placed carefully, carrying wrapped boxes, firewood, bundled babies in their arms. My four year old’s excitement builds as the train speeds toward his face pressed against the plexiglass. It’s a wistful display of a bygone time but, modern boy though he is, the old fashioned train still holds charm.

***

My older brother had a train table growing up: handmade, wood, painted a mossy green. Tracks laid down across the entire span, chin level to my 8-year-old peering eyes. I remember a tunnel, trains traversing through a plastic snow topped mountain pass. The contraption took up most of his large bedroom, meant to be a downstairs family room or den. There was an opening in the middle. We’d climb under and pop up in the center as if underground moles. He conducted the whole display, detailed greenery sprouting on the landscape. I’d watch in wonder as the trains sped by.

***

My grandfather had a train computer game he liked to play. When we’d visit his tidy rambler in a well-to-do suburb in the early 2000’s we’d sit in his den, this octogenarian navigating down the pixelated tracks on his desktop monitor, clicking keys to make the trains whistle and stop. It wasn’t the most entertaining way to spend our time with this beloved elder of the family, but we indulged him and his enthusiasm for the simple program. He took computer lessons in his last decade of life, he traveled the world, he went sky diving when he turned 80, showing up on my parents’ front porch proudly wearing a t-shirt and holding a VHS tape record of the tandem free fall as proof. He must’ve always loved trains too. I like to picture him as a little boy, nose pressed to the glass at Christmastime, as a teen piecing together the intricate parts of a model train, placing the finished product triumphantly on winding tracks.

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The Pumpkin

I’m enjoying a second Thanksgiving feast with family today so will forego the usual Free Write Friday post. Instead, in honor of the pumpkin pies my three children enthusiastically helped me bake this year, enjoy this poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin.” May you and yours enjoy good food, conversation and connection this holiday weekend.

The Pumpkin

John Greenleaf Whittier1807 – 1892

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun, 
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run, 
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold, 
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold, 
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew, 
While he waited to know that his warning was true, 
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain 
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain. 

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden 
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden; 
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold 
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold; 
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North, 
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth, 
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines, 
And the sun of September melts down on his vines. 

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West, 
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest; 
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board 
The old broken links of affection restored, 
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more, 
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before, 
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye? 
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? 

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling, 
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling! 
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, 
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within! 
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune, 
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon, 
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam 
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team! 

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better 
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter! 
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine, 
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine! 
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express, 
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less, 
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below, 
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow, 
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky 
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!
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Free Write Friday: Beach

She walked down the hill to the beach, bundled in a down coat, fingerless gloves and a white knit hat. Sneakers on pavement gave way to fine sand spilling over her laces as each step took more effort. Closer to the shoreline the sand was more compact, sturdier beneath her. Here she could stroll along the rocky ground, now pounded by the November waves, wind whipping them into a fury.

She imagined a storm, how it would rage in years past, toss fishing boats as they struggled to avoid the lighthouse signaling at the point. She thought of the contrast, just yesterday sun warming her face as she ate lunch, read, wrote on a picnic table perched on the beach, watching couples meander along the shore with their dog. She could linger.

The wind beat fiercely as she climbed a small hill to circle back. But as she found herself among the golden reeds, atop a mound just set back from the rocky beach, she felt suspended, wind pounding from all directions. She paused, the intermission comforting, demanding reverence.

Pressure on all sides, she remained. It was as if liquid, not air, compressed her. As if warmth, an unexpected peace held her in the midst of the chill November day.

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