“Evey Freed, how I wish I could have known you!”

Last Saturday I drove a couple of miles up the coast from Pismo Beach to Shell Beach, a lovely quiet enclave where I found parking right on Ocean Boulevard next to the cliffs and the narrow strip of beach below. There were only a couple other cars. From time to time, someone walked or jogged by. Otherwise, I had the place completely to myself.

I parked Roadcinante parallel to the beach, opened both side doors and Velcroed in the screens to let in the delicious chill of salt-tinged air, and cooked a breakfast of veggies and shallots sautéed in olive oil, scrambled with a couple of eggs, and topped with some fresh olive tapenade I picked up at Trader Joe’s (redolent with fresh marjoram = attack of swoon). Then I took my breakfast, along with the dogs, to sit on a bench at the edge of the cliff.

I ate slowly, savoring everything – the crunch of vegetables; the silken eggs; the feel of the wind on my bare skin; the dogs’ soft breath on my feet as they lay next to me, soaking up the abundant California sunshine; the rhythmic rising swell and falling ebb of the ocean.

When I had finished eating, I let the dogs lick my plate, and then I sat for a long time. Absorbing. Appreciating. Giving thanks, if you will. And chatting with Evey.

Yesterday (Monday)  as I was packing up to depart from Pismo Beach, I met a couple of young men who work for Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” initiative, an awesome project where clothing is repaired and recycled rather than tossed into landfills. We talked for a while about all kinds of things, and traded favors – I took a picture of one of the young men by his truck and he took a picture of me holding a Patagonia jacket by Roadcinante, dogs included.

From Pismo Beach I drove on up to San Luis Obispo (SLO) where I dropped off the dogs with a wonderful sitter I found on I parked Roadcinante and was picked up by a brand new friend I’d never met, who swept me away to meet another new friend I’d never met, and an amazing afternoon unfolded from there.

I was treated to a pedicure (oh, these feet after a couple of months in desert locales!), easy-breezy girlfriend-time getting-to-know-you conversation, and a stop by the delightfully kitschy Madonna Inn (a must see), where these new friends treated me again, joining me in a toast to my dear departed father, Walter Cooper Gummere, Jr., whose 100th birthday it was (we drank a complex jammy wine from the Hahn winery, totally reasonable, highy recommended), and then dug into a scandalously large, absurdly sweet, impressively beautiful hunk of the Madonna Inn’s signature Champagne Cake.

Oh. Mah. Gawr.

Later I was gifted with some essentials for the road – a few adorable clothing items, some fancy hangers, a dish towel, and the coolest warm hat ever.

The thing is, lovely sweet people went out of their way to make my day, my journey oh so much better. We are talking about generosity for its own sake. People who give of themselves in order to brighten the world.

Like Evey Freed, whose memorial bench I sat on for quite some time last Saturday in Shell Beach. On the back of her bench there is a metal plate with these words from her grateful family:

“Evey Freed, 1924-2013.

She taught us to love and live

with a big heart and aim for the perfect day.

Sit. Relax. Enjoy.”

So I did sit, relax, and enjoy, thanking Evey all the while for being the kind of person who inspired such a lovely gift.

I guess this is what I strive for. Though I continually fall far short, too often caught up in my own stuff, this is my ideal – to take the time to practice generosity, to multiply opportunities for others to experience joy, to reflect brightness with and for others so that somewhere down the road, when I am no longer around, a person might come along and linger a while, start a conversation with me that might begin with “Hey, thanks.”

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Pismo Beach

Sometime back in January I did something to my left shoulder, methinks either while planking or un-planking. Nothing crunched or popped, there was no lightning jolt of shooting pain. In fact, no pain of any kind. But ten minutes after that oh-so-brief workout, the shoulder began to ache, and then I couldn’t move it in certain essential ways.

Through the Magic of The Interwebs I have come up with a variety of possible diagnoses – Subluxation; Pulled/Torn Bicep; Rotator Cuff Injury/Tear; Tendonitis; or Bursitis. But at this point I am having to settle for “General Shoulder Shitfuckery.” I guess I’ll find out once I am able to get it looked at.

Also, I think I cracked a filling. And chipped an incisor. But otherwise, I’m fine.

Unless you count the wicked knot of flaming arthritis in my right thumb joint.

Also, I might have lost my glasses this morning, as they apparently slipped through a rip in the spacetime continuum.

And Beasley peed on my foot.

On the bright side, the drive up the coast from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach was heart-stoppingly gorgeous. There is something about the Pacific Ocean, how light skims but does not penetrate the surface of the delicious marine hue so unique, Crayola put it in a crayon and named it Pacific Blue.

The first time I visited Santa Barbara was January of 1986. Liam was 6 and Maggie was 2, and that fall I would begin seminary, but I didn’t know that then.

Good friends, who had been neighbors when I lived near The Ohio State University campus in Columbus, had recently relocated there to a sweet haven on one of the city’s many hillsides.

We spent a lot of the week cooking, eating, laughing, drinking Chardonnay, smoking the occasional joint, and sitting naked in their hot tub looking out over the city and on to the Pacific, a thin line of sparkling blue by day, at night dotted with the occasional glitter of boat lights.

This year’s visit at the little “mom-and-pop” RV park was about 180 degrees away from that, and it was still wonderful. The neighborhood is lovely and quiet, even though the 101 runs right by. It’s populated with sweet bungalows and crammed full of flowers, succulents, vining bougainvillea, nasturtiums running riot, and all manner of trees.

The  RV park managers, a cheery bottle blond who would be irritatingly cheerful if she weren’t so doggoned sweet, and her burly husband with his thick Massachusetts accent, guiding inexperienced drivers as they backed in their rented RV’s into the narrow spots, seemed straight out of a 1970’s sitcom – I’d title it California Ar-Vee!

Each week new rascals would get into just a little speck of trouble – like the young man in shorts and sandals the Santa Barbara police had a quiet chat with one evening, inviting him to not use the bathrooms and showers since he was not actually staying here. I heard all this as clearly as if they were all standing right next to Roadcinante, because, well…they were. My proximity to the bathrooms was just a wee bit past “I could hit the toilet from here,” so I heard everyone and everything that went on. (Sidebar: During the previous night there had been a lot of knocking on bathroom doors and stage whispers of, “Let me in!” Same voice, same guy. Total intrigue.)

My first night there I had the delight of connecting with a dear friend from Boone who was visiting her dear friends in Santa Barbara. She treated us to dinner and then we went back to her friends’ house to sit in their back yard by the fire pit while the boys ran around. Her dog sat inside and whined pleadingly. Like Connor, he is a bit territorial with his Momma.

I met a young couple from Germany traveling in a “Jucy,” a Mini-RV featuring a “penthouse” on top (I saw several of these during my week’s stay). The couple had flown into San Francisco, picked up the Jucy, and had been traveling all over the Southwest in it.

Along the way up the coast I stopped at El Capitan State Beach to hang around for a couple of hours. I found a shady spot to park, and since dogs weren’t allowed on the beach, I opened the windows, turned on the ceiling vent fan, and left a bowl of water. Then I made a quick dash down to the rocky beach to check out the tide pools, where I sat for a while, perched on a smooth rock while the Pacific Ocean rocked itself back and forth.

Imagine my surprise when, gazing out at the waves, I spotted a whale surfacing close in, making a lovely spout before it submerged again. I watched for a long time – those lungs are pretty big – and saw it surface twice more. A while later another one came along, again very close in. A small crowd gathered; we stood watching in reverent silence.

Up the beach a ways swimmers splashed and played unaware that right behind them elegant monsters bobbed up, took a gulp of air, and slid beneath the waves again.

I pulled into Pismo Beach late in the afternoon, where I had reservations at a modest hotel up on a bluff, with small rooms, thin walls, poor water pressure, and a fantastic comfy king-sized bed. My window looks out on the parking lot, but if I sit on the small front porch, I can see a generous strip of ocean, the reflected glow from the Oceano Sand Dunes, and the bright sea stack cliffs on down the coast.

I was in Pismo Beach back in 1995. It was a lot smaller then, and a lot cheaper. It is still a lovely place, though. This morning I took a walk downtown with the boys.

Apparently, you can walk around Pismo Beach with a steaming bag of dog crap for more than twenty minutes without finding a trash container. This is mysterious to me for a town that also has “CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG!” signs everywhere.

During my search, I crossed the street at a place where there was no crosswalk, because I thought I had spotted a trash bin. The car coming toward me did not slow down at all, and seemed to speed up a little just to dust my feathers.

I turned and waved my bag of crap at him. For two cents I would have tossed it at his nice clean white car.

“How do you like me now?” I’d shout, then run like hell.

But look at me, behaving and all.

Two minutes later I found a place to dump the dump. Then I went off to find a place for breakfast.

The Shell Café takes dog-friendly to a new dizzying level with its “K-9” menu of “Jambalaya Bowls” for dogs. Have they figured out how to cash in, or what?! Brilliant!

Later, the rip in the spacetime continuum delivered my glasses back to me.

Now, as I look out my hotel window, I see past the parking lot to the hills carpeted with yellow flowers and the cars and trucks speeding by on the 101. Behind me, at the other end of the lot, is the gleaming Pacific, where great whales are following ancient whispers as they make their patient way north toward Alaska.


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Quantum Dog

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” 
~ Will Rogers ~

Since I started this journey, I’ve met so many sincerely delightful people, from coffee shop owners and raw oyster purveyors in northern Florida to quirky fellow RV-ers in Louisiana to a chatty museum docent and an 89 year-old walking through Texas to raise funds for St. Jude’s.

Congenial street musicians and crystal-wearing psychics in Arizona. Other seekers of beauty and light along the superbloom trail in California.

I’ve discovered people want to connect for a variety of reasons – travelers want to hear road stories and hot travel tips; artists want to give and receive encouragement; campfire lovers delight in sharing the quiet of warmly woven companionship; adventurers crave learning about your adventures and recounting theirs; loners, paradoxically, sometimes want to meet other loners.

The main way I’ve met people, though? Connor Bo Bonnor and Beasley Ralph. So many people just love dogs, and it seems an inordinate number of people seem to love mine. Wherever we go, there is a bit of a stir. “Beautiful dogs!” people call out, and smile and wave.

Many of the folks we meet are already boxer lovers, like the woman who chased me down on a street in Sedona so she could pet the boys. Some people confess to needing a “dog fix,” in general, since they have left their babies at home. They tell me stories about their dogs – their habits and quirks and characteristics – so that I feel as if I know them, too.

“My dog loves ice cream!”

“My baby hates thunderstorms.”

“My girl loves to chase sticks.”

Many bury their faces in the boys’ dusty necks and divulge that they’ve recently lost their own beloved pet.

One man at an RV park in New Mexico, dragging himself along on wobbly crutches, approached with agonizing slowness and asked if he could pet my dogs. I said, “Of course,” and got up to make sure the boys wouldn’t knock him over with their enthusiastic greeting. As we talked he told me that just the day before he’d had to have his dog euthanized. He worried he had done the wrong thing, even though she had been very old and very sick.

“The way she looked at me,” he said, his face crumpling a bit,  “I think she was telling me, it’s not time, it’s not time! Get me out of here!”

We talked about how hard the decision is, how we do the best we can out of love. I told him that I knew my dog Emily, suffering from lymphoma with swelling nodes in her neck, was getting steadily worse, but that I kept delaying until one night I thought she might suffocate. I talked about how anxious and exhausted she had seemed, gasping for breath, gaping at me in confusion.

“I would not have been able to live with myself if I’d let that happen,” I told him. “I took her to the vet the next day, but I almost waited too long.”

He nodded. “So maybe I didn’t make a mistake after all,” he said, rubbing the velvety top of Connor’s head.

A woman in Sedona told me about her boxer back home. She had been traveling in Costa Rica and had seen the dog tied up to a post on a short rope, skinny and wild-eyed.

“I just took him,” she said. “There was no way I was going to leave him there,” acknowledging getting him into the U.S. “was no fun.” I marveled at her commitment. I was pretty sure “no fun” was a euphemism for “utter hell.” Still, once she had fixed her love and attention on that dog, there was no turning back.

Over these past months my guys have been stand-ins for so many other dogs, both living and dead. In some mysterious way, an encounter with Connor and Beasley seems to connect people to the wiggly, snorting, full-devotion love of their own pets. Touching my dogs, receiving their freely-given affection, lights up people’s hearts and  memories.

It is as if, for a brief moment, my dogs become their dogs. For a brief moment, it is as if all of dogdom, and the miraculously unconditional love engendered by it, is present.

In Solvang, California, while waiting outside a store for my niece, a tall neatly-dressed man approached me.

“Is it all right to pet your dogs?” he asked, his soft accent rounding the words.

“Sure,” I said, and he sat down, gathering both boys to him.

“Boxers!” he said. “The best!” Then he told me how he had moved from Israel to the U.S. to take a job and had to leave his 3-year-old boxer, placing her with a family, since he did not feel he could bring her along. “Here, she would be alone all day,” he said, “and that would not have been fair to her.”

He lingered for a long while, letting my dogs slobber all over him and cover his nice clean slacks with dog hair, petting the boys in long, slow strokes, and his face shone like the sun and he never stopped smiling the entire time.

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Holy Saturday

Back in March, in La Grange, Texas, on Ash Wednesday, the grit of ashes on my forehead, the yeasty taste of port wine on my tongue, I had decided for the forty days of Lent I would “stop arguing so much – with God, with the Christian faith, with other people’s belief systems, with my own cranky internal systematic theologian. I will just let it all be for now, and see what it feels like to simply receive. I’ll willingly trade logic and reason for mystery and longing.”

How did I do on my Lenten journey?

That is a hard one to answer on this Holy Saturday, a traditional time of waiting and holding vigil, caught between Death and Life – hard this year because sabers are rattling, resurrecting old fears I had as an eight-year-old child, bringing back a stifling memory of climbing down a narrow ladder into a bomb shelter a friend of my father’s had built in case of nuclear war. It was the 1960’s, when schools regularly held civil defense drills and we children folded up under our desks like tiny spiders while the sirens went off, echoes of which I heard in nightmares of the world burning, trees and grass and lakes gone.

Down in that tomblike “shelter,” looking up through the narrow opening to the small patch of sky, I imagined the round door closing on the shattered world above and found I could not breathe.

“I would like to go out now,” I told my father, who was trying to be polite, listening as his friend proudly pointed to shelves laden with canned food, water, to the bunk beds already made up as if prepared for a fun campout.

My father nodded toward me, and I scrambled back up the ladder, grateful for fresh air and sunshine and green grass.

Now, I am wondering, if there is a God, if that God will allow us to careen toward destruction, and am already suspecting the answer is yes, because “the Doctrine of Free Will” and all. (Today that seems like the Worst Plan Ever.)

Sorry to be so morose. According to the Latin origin of that word, it hints at having bad manners. But I am not able to be cheery, even though my laptop calendar keeps reminding me tomorrow is Easter Sunday.

If you have seen a person die, or if you have seen the body of a deceased person, you know – dead is dead is dead. The pallor after the breath leaves, the cooling skin, the complete and utterly final exit of the person you once knew, the irreversible loss.

I know in our American culture we do not regularly speak of these things. Maybe I am being rude. Maybe I am being creepy. Maybe I am trampling where I shouldn’t. But this day in the Christian calendar, the one caught directly between Death and Life, seems to require at least some bad manners of bald truth. Of calling desolation what it is. And to acknowledge the power of ultimate destruction that we humans possess, both on personal and global levels.

It has me sitting, pondering darkly, it truly does. I don’t mind saying, I am sore afraid.

And yet…there is also this, that since Ash Wednesday I have listened to so many people as they spoke of their atheism or their Jehovah’s Witness traditions; of their belief in spirits and angels; of receiving messages and support from other beings from other dimensions; of crystals and soundwaves; of living in the in-between of not-knowing; of their certainty of God in Christ; of their own deep doubts and questions, of their own hopes and dreams. All of it has, in some mysterious way, expanded me.

Since Ash Wednesday, since opening myself to receiving and to new possibilities, there has been so much light. People I don’t know, have never met, likely never will, sending prayers and encouragement out of their own traditions and beliefs. Sharing their stories of loss and gain. Sharing their light. Sharing love. I suspect something in me is being remade by these freely-given gifts. By this grace, the reminder that love might be an ultimate power, too.

It is only today I recall one Easter Sunday morning many years back, very early before dawn, as I was lying in my bed hovering in that dim place between sleep and waking, feeling a profound sense of contentment. All of a sudden I was overcome by the sweet smell of flowers in the dark of the closed and shuttered bedroom, overtaken with surprise by a perfume of something exotic and rare, spicy and pungent, wafting over me, filling every corner of my senses.

I lay very still with my eyes closed, not daring to move, inhaling the scent, taking it into my lungs, unhurried, allowing myself to absorb a sudden and inexplicable joy. After a time, the phenomenon stopped. I opened my eyes and looked around at my ordinary bedroom, morning light beginning to creep in.

How to process these rare unbidden wonders? How to make sense of one’s own holy longing?

I don’t know what tomorrow morning will bring. The perfume of flowers? The stench of war? Both?

Earlier in the week we drove out to Antelope Valley, over remote seldom-traveled roads, until we came to the California Poppy Reserve. In the 1960’s naturalist and artist Jane Pinheiro looked down the proverbial road and imagined a time when over-building might eradicate the natural wonder of the springtime poppy bloom, and worked with her friends in the Lancaster Women’s Club and the state of California to establish the reserve.

It was windy the day we were there, chilly gusts up to 40 m.p.h. All around us bright orange poppies and feathery grasses waved beneath the stiff breezes, making it seem as if we stood in the middle of a vast colorful rolling ocean.

The trails were dotted with people proceeding up the inclines slowly, blown by the harsh winds, but making their way nonetheless, to see the flowers.

Leaning into the hard rising wind, just to see the wonder of the flowers.

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The Hum of the World

On Tuesday I walked into one of Sedona’s many stores advertising aura photographs, psychic readings, and spiritual crystals.

What really drew me in was the sign for singing bowls. Several years ago – probably ten now – a neighbor back home invited me to her little Methodist country church that sat nestled on a mountain hillside. The church windows opened onto a small neatly kept churchyard, and the spring breeze floated around us, while at the front of the room a young man sat with an enormous quartz crystal bowl in front of him, drawing deep vibrations from its well by stroking the bowl’s rim with a suede-covered mallet.

The sound rose up and filled the air, hummed toward me, waved over and through me, disrupting something deep inside, so that I burst into tears and wept through the rest of the hour-long session.

Inside the store in Sedona, a skinny young man with soft brown eyes walked with me to the back of the store and began “playing” the crystal bowl (to give you an idea of size, I could nearly have curled up inside it). The sound rose up, grew louder, deeper, and somewhere inside, in the place of my secret longings and fears, there came an answering vibration.

I stood with my eyes half-closed, feeling my feet on the ground, remembering my connections to the earth, to the beauty of the natural world, to the wonder of all the people around me, known and unknown. I put my hand on my belly.

Root chakra,” the young man said, and across the room a small crystal jumped off its shelf and rolled onto the floor.

My friend and I hiked around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, Cathedral Rock, and on the last day hiked Fay Canyon with the dogs. So. Much. Beauty.

We had read about the vortexes and were told to look for trees with twisted trunks, but really, the astonishing vistas were more than enough to turn me around, again and again.

At Bell Rock we heard music, and looked up to see a man standing on a rock outcropping, singing an operatic aria. The air carried the vibrations from his vocal cords all the way down the rock face, delivering them directly into our ears. The music stayed with me as we hiked along.

Different views of the rock faces produce different perspectives. The light brings out the details of one, masks the features in another. Walk along farther, the rock faces morph and change expression in the interplay of shadow and light.

Always the helicopters hover and circle. Rides are $45. We decided it was fine to stick to the ground.

Because it was spring break, there was a steady string of slow traffic, flowing back and forth on the highways and through the roundabouts in the towns of Oak Creek and Sedona. Back and forth.

Some aboriginal belief systems posit sacred paths, or “songlines” that you can follow, a way of retracing the paths the creators of the world made as they sang the world into being. I know I am migratory in my travels right now, returning to places where I spent time as a child (the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle, for example) as well as making my way to places I have never been but that seem familiar, as if my very blood acknowledges something essential in my being there.

If this is getting too “woo-woo” for you, consider this idea about the mystery of bird migration, still somewhat controversial but growing in acceptance, that some migrating birds have iron-rich clusters in their beaks that may be responding to the earth’s magnetic north pole.

Who knows what we have yet to discover about the ways in which we are in relation to our physical world?

Here in Sedona, there is so much iron, everything is red. Everything seems to glow, including you when you are standing in the middle of it.

One afternoon we stopped at The Chapel of the Holy Cross. Surrounded by high sheltering rocks, the chapel itself is small. We walked up the sloping road and then up the narrow walkway, in a long line with other pilgrims. I mostly had come because my friend wanted to see it. My expectation was to find a touristy place, just another chapel but featuring a spectacular view.

Walking in, an immediate hush settled over us. There were banks of votive candles to our right, and the smell of candle wax and an accompanying wave of warmth. Quiet music came from speakers, voices rising and falling in sacred chants. My breath slowed, my eyes filled.

We found a seat in the middle of the chapel and sat for a while, taking it in. The sense of peace was overwhelming.

Some people knelt and prayed. Some sat quietly, as we did. Some took pictures. Some gazed out through the front window at the view spilling out below.

At the front of the chapel was a metal crucifix sculpture, a broken man on a broken tree. Around the crucifix were more candles and people lighting them, people bearing hopes, worries, concerns. People bearing loved ones.

Flickering candles, flickering hopes.

It was the day after the Syrian poison gas bombing, the day after seeing a series of heartrending photographs. One picture had stayed with me, of a man weeping, cradling his twin toddlers, victims of the attack.

I lit a candle for him, for his lost babies, for all the lost babies and grieving mothers and fathers everywhere. For all broken dreams and for all broken people, all of us finding our way as best we can.

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