Friday, January 31, 2014

Being Alone

Still at Los Parronales, working at learning the craft of good writing. Our poet/writer/ mentors are fine-tuning our listening, observing and thinking skills, pushing us to go deeper, make connections and discoveries, shine our light on new truths. Poets’ lines shimmer suspended in the air waiting for us to absorb their brilliance and simplicity.
Reading matter is scattered about our large work table. The title of an article on the table calls my attention: Why do we have such a problem with being alone? A photograph shows the author, Sara Maitland, standing alone on a high Scottish moor gazing into the distance. For the past 20 years, she has lived alone in an isolated place. She examines what she calls ‘a serious cultural problem’ – our attitude towards solitude and common assumptions that it is: self-indulgent, escapist, antisocial and evades social responsibility.
I am relieved to discover someone who questions society’s judgments on being alone, particularly that it is antisocial. When I shrink back in my chair and tune out at an especially noisy event, I worry I’m being a lone wolf. That’s what a teacher colleague called me once years ago. It felt like a black mark on my forehead, a label I believed I didn’t deserve. Growing up an only child, I was used to solitude and silences. Sometimes that also meant lonely, but I don´t see ‘alone’ as necessarily equivalent to ‘lonely’. Perhaps I spend more time alone than some, but I also seek out company. I prefer going to a movie or concert accompanied, but I’m not afraid to go alone.
Did my being an only child prepare me for my sons leaving home or for being a writer? I spend many hours alone in my study at the computer though I don’t feel lonely. My husband is at work in his upstairs office; a chat message pops up from my New Yorker son; Cristián, our mailman comes by; I stop for a snack in the kitchen and remember to take a plum out to our tortoise, Speedy.

Here at the workshop I have a room of my own. Sitting at my desk, I hear the footsteps of others and the wind in the eucalyptus and cottonwood trees. Delicious solitude, but I am not alone.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Monday. Los Parronales. Through my window drifts the shhh of wind and a cow mooing. The cow brings to mind cow plops and manure. I write it in italics as a sign of reverence. Yes, reverence.
Out walking along the dirt road edged by fields, I smelled that sweet scent of manure. It’s a pleasant fragrance to me, evoking other rural places I've known. I particularly recall the two interludes I spent as an adolescent at a Girl Scout Camp referred to as primitive. Situated near the town of Sierraville in a high cattle-raising valley of California, it was a place devoid of any constructions, except a storage hut. We slept on the open ground, dug our own latrines and cooked our food over campfires. I remember the walk to the creek that required careful watching to avoid stepping in the cow patties.
Back to the link between manure and reverence. One of the books I brought along here is Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place. I wanted to read Berry after learning he is a poet, writer, farmer and environmentalist. In an essay dedicated to his poet friend, Hayden Carruth, he refers to the poem “Marshall Washer” about a dairy farmer in Vermont. Apparently New England farmers sometimes refer to themselves as “cowshit farmers”.
Carruth wrote:

Notice how many times
I have said “manure”? It is serious business.
It breaks the farmers’ backs. It makes their land.
It is the link eternal, binding man and beast
and earth.

Hayden wants us to know that it is by their returning the manure to the fields that these farmers are involved in the fertility cycle, allowing the fields to be cultivated by which the living world can eat. “Cowshit” then, says Berry, is “the link eternal.”

            This is a big, awesome thought, one to carry with me as I walk the aisles of the supermarket, far from fields and the scent of manure.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Los Parronales. Canadian writer/editor Beth Follett entitled her morning workshop session “Relinquishing Fear”. The talk was of our personal writing practices and the inner fears that get in the way of writing. She read to us from Alice Munro and poets Dionne Brand and Don McKay. We explored the many meanings of wilderness. Such high bars to which to aspire.
Lunch outside with the brown Central Valley hills behind us, and then a lovely complete switch. Beth’s husband poet Stan Dragland played his Washburn Rover guitar and he and Beth sang Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers”. Loved it. This rich environment of words, lyrics, poetry, stories and song fills me. What will I do with it?

I’ve been out to view the owls several times today (as have the others) and now sit in my quiet (except for the country birdsong) bedroom/ my writer’s cell, for now I will read and think and see where all this takes me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tucuquere or Lesser Horned Owl

Four of these delightful critters had us writers entranced Monday late afternoon perched in the eucalyptus tree. No, we were not in tree – the owls were. (Dangling modifiers are kind of fun). I now have a feather memento. Unbelievably soft. I wish I could take credit for this magnificent owl image. I did attempt a photo with my cell phone, but the light was wrong. Maybe in the morning, I’ll try again. They seem totally unperturbed by gawking writers and a bumbling photographer crashing in the underbrush.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Los Parronales Writing Retreat

I suffer the Country mouse –City mouse syndrome, longing for the country but destined to city living. But now I have a break – our annual writers’ retreat/workshop on a farm.
Things that have called my attention this first day:

Sounds: twittering quail, blackbirds chattering, airplanes, tractor tilling the field across the road, the wind swooshing through the eucalyptus trees lining the road, like ocean waves – crash then calm, rising and falling.

What I see above me lying on my back: a true blue sky, a seed fairy, a small yellow butterfly buffeted by the wind, struggling to stay on course, soaring hawks. At eye-level, bees and butterflies sampling pollen.

Sighted in the dimming light of dusk:  a horned owl family perched in the eucalyptus where I’ve spotted them in previous years. The  gaggle of writers come out for a look.

Night time sounds: crickets, distant barking dogs, rowdy lapwings calling the alarm.

Friday, January 17, 2014


Yeah, I know- kind of a weird topic. But, it came to me while reading in bed last night.  My eyes suddenly grew tired, so I closed them. I mean, I closed my eyelids and was struck with the wonder of them. Closing my eyes created such a soothing sensation and immediate relief. I kept them closed for a few minutes, thinking of the benefits of eyelids beyond their obvious protective function. They allow me to block out visual distractions and focus on other sensations: night sounds, the smooth touch of sheets, the comfort my tired body derives from lying in a supine position. Closed eyes enable thinking and imagination. I can transport myself to a remembered lakeside trail or to images from my childhood. The nuances of sound – the rustle of a gentle breeze, the harp notes in an orchestral piece – are enhanced and taken to greater heights of appreciation. And then there are those kaleidoscopic, psychedelic colors and patterns on the insides of eyelids.

I propose some nominations for cool eyelids: Garfield, the cat, camels and their cousins: llamas, alpacas and guanacos – mammals native to Chile. Any other nominations??

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

From my window I watch a bumblebee visiting the flowers in my garden. It samples the tiny white veronica flowers and then moves on to the pale orange and yellow lantana.  Our climbing Solana vine in the backyard is a favorite hangout for the furry black and yellow fellows, where I often hear their buzzing, which prompted this humble poem:

yellow and black-banded thief
robbing perfumed nectar
from my apricot blossoms.
With buzzing industry
you leave none untouched
dislodging velvet petals
to shower downwards,
spring snowflakes
carpeting the grass.

Take what you may from
these ephemeral bursts of glory.
For in summer’s glow
I’ll gather golden apricots,
sweet surrenders of
vanished blossoms.

Mission completed,
winged Robin Hood
of my backyard forest.

 I’m reminded of the music “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” by Rimski-Korsakov and find their flight pattern humorous, as if they were a bit intoxicated by the honey. A Google search informs me that these yellow and black-striped visitors are the non-native Bombus terrestris, imported from Europe. The population of the native orange and black Chilean bumblebees is in decline. Now I know I’ll have my antennae perked, on the lookout for a native, though I’m unlikely to find one here in the city. 

Friday, January 10, 2014


The gardener came Wednesday and in a few hours he had it looking tidier, dead flowers and straggly shoots cut, bushes trimmed, backyard grass mowed. I always gently suggest that he pull a few weeds, but caution is needed because I learned that Chilean gardeners do not consider weeding part of their job. My previous gardener, Nelson, whose quick sense of humor always had me chuckling, resigned saying, “Your garden has too many weeds”.
            This created a dilemma for me since my body no longer takes to the postures required by weeding. I've had to make some concessions in this battle, conceding victory to the determined oxalis that has invaded the lawn in the backyard with its subterranean labyrinth root system. At least, it’s green and bears perky yellow flowers. I stick to the leafier weeds that have shallow, single roots. I have a handy tool for the purpose and, the garden being small, manage to keep weeds from thinking they own this plot of land. I've noticed that they, like garden flowers, don't all appear at once. Some types prefer late spring, others early summer. Just when I think I've uprooted them all, another variety makes its appearance.
Michael Pollan wrote a whole chapter on weeds in his book “Second Nature. I reread his “Weeds are Us” chapter this morning, hoping to stimulate the creative juices, but realized it would be presumptuous of me to think I have anything to add and written in such entertaining prose.
I've been aiming for the look of a wild garden – no manicured looks for me – gradually introducing Chilean native plants alongside a few California natives (do not inquire how they got here). Here is our oasis, for beyond the city limits the landscape has turned brown, arid and dusty. More grass fires have added ash to the mix. The forestry service reports an 800% increase in land burned compared to last year. How fragile is our earth, and we along with it.

I think I’ll go out and pull a few weeds.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Our New Yorker son has returned to those freezing northern climes. His absence fills the house. We've calculated that he should have arrived several hours ago and wait anxiously for news. He was unsure if he’d be able to use his cell phone when he arrived. I picture him in a yellow cab heading to Brooklyn, his boxed bicycle wedged into the cab’s back seat. I know he was anxious to return and get on with his life, though filled with uncertainties. Studies completed, he faces the arduous, slow process of job hunting.

And I face the sad task of taking down the Christmas tree, boxing up decorations and struggling to make room for them in the attic. No one should have to deal with this alone. I could organize a “undecorate our Christmas tree party”, but doubt anyone would even RSVP. I’ll approach this as I do other unpleasant projects and tackle it by stages. It will eventually get done, along with putting away the flatware from yesterday’s lunch and calling a repairman for our 30-year-old leaking refrigerator. Is there any way to apply mindfulness to these tasks?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Two days ago an eerie thick shroud of smoke enveloped the city. The scent of ash blotted out the perfume of the butterfly bush in our garden. We seemed to be in a scene from an apocalypse movie. Even today, the sky is milky white. According to the news, there are 47 sites of forest and grass fires throughout Chile. Vegetation is dry, the earth thirsty after four years of drought.
The news then showed scenes of the storm, dubbed “Hercules”, lashing the northeast of the United States. “The worst storm in 20 years.” We are hearing those words more and more. Are these extremes the new normal? And they laughed at “climate change”.
Santiago has taken on the appearance of a semi-evacuated city, but not due to the smoke. January and February are vacation months here. A mass exodus of vacationers has headed to the coast and cooler points south.
To escape the heat and the smoke, we decided to go to the movies to see the James Gandolfini film “Enough Said”. After a wait in line, the girl behind the glass window informed us that all the copies of the flic had been retained in customs and it wasn’t showing anywhere despite being announced in the newspaper. ?????!!!!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

One of the small delights of a new year is opening my fresh calendar. On the January page is a delicate watercolor entitled “Alders in Winter” by Molly Hashimoto. Below appears a quote from John Muir: Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds or the music of water written in river lines?
            I am partial to calendars. For years I was faithful to Ansel Adams’ photographs until I discovered William Rice’s gentle wood block prints. A few months ago at my local Marin County bookstore I was drawn to the watercolors of forests and green glens, birds and bears in this calendar entitled “Nature’s Peace” with the added bonus of words from John Muir’s writings.

The calendar now hangs on the wall of our breakfast nook, its clean, white squares prompting me to think of the days ahead, days to be lived. The empty squares are a bit intimidating, reminding me of the unknown. But I prefer to think of them as an invitation to live each day fully, paying attention to the moment. I want to let each day’s space remind me of Annie Dillard’s words: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we are doing with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.