A View from Offshore

After some consulting work, Ann and I stayed in Los Angeles for a September weekend to visit daughter Sally, partner Joe, and our two adorable grandchildren, Sasha and Jaden. Hot sun and big city, we revel in the diversity of people, options, and activities going on all around us. And we two island grannies, who live among trees and along beaches, are also a bit overwhelmed by billboards, traffic, street lights, crowds and shopping malls.

That Sunday, it turns out is “National Grandparents Day.” Wikipedia says this is a secular holiday passed into law in the US in 1978. The day is based in honoring the specific life work of several women who made profound, behind the scenes contributions to their communities, to the younger generations around them, and to recognizing the importance of elders in a healthy society. We can align with that.

Sally announces we can do whatever we want—the Getty Museum, Studio Tour, or Whale Watching out of Long Beach. Guess what we chose?

Hot sun, blue sparkling water, cool ocean breeze, and the possibility to see the world’s largest creature, the Blue Whale.

Grandmas on board.

Grandmas on board.

The haze of the mainland fell away. The wind blew. The waves gave us a prolonged roller coaster ride out to deeper waters… and there we met Bottle-nosed dolphins, 6-10 feet (2-4 meters) swimming alongside the catamaran, and not too far away the long plume of Blue Whale breath, and a prolonged roll of spine, spine, spine, as the great creature undulated through the sea.

Stock photo of Blue whale--the waterline view is different than aerial viewing.

Stock photo of Blue whale–the waterline view is different than aerial viewing.

And then—surprise—Humpback whales surround us—two, three, maybe four—hard to count. The captain pulled the engine way back. A Humpback rolled its torso visibly alongside the boat 50 feet away. Even Sasha, not quite four years old, got the scope of the creature and the significance of its swimming near us. Just a bit further out, a breech, a tale slap… the full Humpback show. We were thrilled.

And on the way back, the boat happened upon a school of Pacific white-sided dolphin— hundreds of them, playing in the wake of the boat. We hung over the railing, reveling in their presence, able to hear the high-pitch of their voices over the rumble of the engine and our own squeals of delight.

As Los Angeles came back into view, I sat with the children tucked around me and thought, “I do not want to be the grandmother who presides over the death of oceans; who has to explain to them that everything is dying; who faces their faces—and the faces of their generation with unending dire news.”

In the midst of all humanity’s crises—they were born trusting the hands of love that caught them. I was one pair of those hands and the responsibility I feel is huge.

How to best use my remaining years of eldering, is the question that haunts me day and night. It is the subtext to my daily activities. Meaningful and love-filled as I try to make my days, I feel the crumbling of the larger scale of things all around me. Even a glimpse into the news is overwhelming. And yet I can also find so much good happening—leaps in innovation and creativity, determination, healing, reclaiming. re-empowering ourselves.

I watch the dolphins spinning under our boat as we head back toward shore. Jaden calls out over our own shouts of delight, “Listen, listen, I can hear their voices!” High squeaks and clicks from water to air to ear to heart.

I am.

Whatever answer there is for me I know will come from the art of listening.

A Forest Talking

Forests have a lot to say, if we listen, look, and shift our focus from human concerns to nature concerns.

Recently friends and I were walking a remote trail in the valley of the Hamma Hamma River in the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. Even though it was late August and a sunny 75 degrees F., it was rain forest lush—mosses, ferns, and Devils Club near all the seeps.

walking through Devil's Club

walking through Devil’s Club


The canopy around us was an even-aged stand of Pacific silver fir with scattered stumps of old trees that had been cut here decades ago at the edge of the Skokomish Wilderness area. Some of the old cedar stumps were six feet in diameter. Huge trees once graced this hillside.

old cedar stump

old cedar stump


“How would it have felt to walk into this forest before it was cut?” I wondered to myself.

an even-aged stand of Pacific silver fir

an even-aged stand of Pacific silver fir


Up and up we climbed—through the forest with its almost uniform-sized trees, across an opening caused by a winter avalanche below the imposing scree slope of Mt. Pershing.

avalanche path below Mt. Pershing

avalanche path below Mt. Pershing


Then we entered a forest that had never experienced saw blades. There we found trees hundreds of feet high and bigger around than the four of us could extend our arms. There was very little underbrush—not much light filtered down to the forest floor here. We four walked in awe.

old growth Douglas fir

old growth Douglas fir


We were walking in another world. Two hundred years ago, maybe five hundred years ago, the cathedral Douglas fir trees surrounding us were seedlings seeking light—youth finding their way amongst the elders of those long ago old growth forests. And now here they are—elders in a world of cell phones, airplanes, and automobiles . . . somehow they have survived blizzards and rock falls and still they contribute to the world the gift of oxygen production, slope stability, and wildlife habitat. Their ability to adapt to ever changing environmental conditions is a model for me.

My job at this point in my life is to survive the vagaries of life and remain a contributing member of my family and community so that I can continue to keep growing/keep holding place. Changes are coming that I cannot begin to foresee and my presence will be needed as surely as this forest depends on the presence of its old ones.

Ann in the old growth forest


Gray hair, wrinkles, and name tags

I walked into the country club, at the west suburban edge of Minneapolis, on a muggy August evening. There were kids splashing in the pool, golfers at the bar, a wedding reception in the main lounge, and two rooms at the back hosting “The Wayzata High School Class of 1964, 50th Reunion.” First stop, the name tag table, to pick up a sticky patch that had my name and current location written on it and (most importantly) a scanned replica of a 1964 airbrushed photo that sheened my hair and removed all traces of zits and acne and presented a glamorized portrait of how I showed up at school on an ordinary day.

I looked up into a sea of faces—largely unrecognizable. All of us glancing quickly from aging visage to tag and back—and breaking into huge smiles of welcome… Then, then we recognized each other—our smiles breaking through the years to familiarity and the sudden uprising of memories. Oh, you’re the last boy on the school bus route… my reliable school paper photographer, the girl whose pony tail I twirled as it hung over my desk in 8th grade English, the girl who moved away before senior year, the boy who asked me to a 10th grade dance, the exchange student from Sweden. All of us who were 18 together are now 68 together.

Wayzata was a small school among its peers: we were a class of about 145. Twenty-five of us have already died. The next table beyond the nametags was a memorial collage of young faces: auto accident, Viet Nam, cancer, heart attack, suicide. A candle flickers next to white roses. We didn’t know everyone in our class: but we knew every face.

I had debated and debated about squeezing this into my schedule: but I couldn’t let it go. I flew on “miles” and a bargain rate home. I emailed the girl I had never lost track of, my companion through the insecurity of adolescence and decades of womanhood when we could dip into immediate confidences, no matter how long the gap between talks. “I’m going—I feel some kind of cycle is waiting to be completed. I don’t know what, a sort of ‘soul retrieval’ to get the young girl into the old girl.”

BFFs: Christie & Christina 2014

BFFs: Christie & Christina 2014

She wrote right back, “I’ve been so ambivalent… but if you’ll be there, I’ll be there.” And she included a quote from MFK Fisher that made me cry: “Had we ever been anything but dull with one another? Had we ever, one to the other, put out our spirits’ fingertips and touched the sensitive fronds, the tendrils, the antennae of what each human is condemned to be, a fern, a vine, a slow sea creature?”  (Long Ago in Paris)

And so from east coast and west coast we arrived at the middle. What touched me most was the generosity of spirit with which we all paused and talked to people we had ignored through most of high school— kids who were not in the same clique, not in the same sport, not in the same classes—but now, we “put out our spirits’ fingertips” to one another.

Our comfort with each other, based on our comfort being ourselves, was palpable. We reached for one another, stopped, inquired, were curious, without judgment. Hugs and smiles.

What I received that night and at the picnic the next day, was a sense of having come from somewhere. Whether I “fit” then, or “fit” now didn’t matter: we had lived together through our own coming of age. We were a village cohort, moving around under the eyes of the elders, yet in our own spheres of influence and communication. We spoke honorably of teachers, of history, of remembered relationships, of nearly forgotten connections that sparked to life in one another’s presence.

Honoring the Viet Nam vets

Honoring the Viet Nam vets

Small talk, big talk, the roads taken and not taken. Honoring the vets—because the politics of our generation could no longer divide us. I move on with a greater sense of wholeness, still smiling at our stories. Still moved at how genuinely we were glad to see those still here. We are 68 years old: the first year of the “boomers.” There’s talk of throwing ourselves a 70th birthday party.