Perhaps It’s Time I Started Getting Serious

This lobster hat was borrowed from my husband. If you think I’m silly, you haven’t met him.

Yesterday* was my birthday. The day before that** I turned on the elliptical and programmed it for my workout. Among other intrusive and personal questions*** it asks my age. And I realized, as I pushed the button over and over and over again**** that today was the last time I would enter that particular number. I mean, I could just go on reporting my age as 67–hell, I could have been telling it all along that I was 23–but I think it’s just mean to lie to a robot. They have no sense of humor and cannot defend themselves.

So today***** I am 68. It feels remarkably like 67, or for that matter, like 66. I’m still busy, I’m not as busy as I think I should be, I still like chocolates and baking and the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. I still think Jane Austen is the funniest writer I know. And I’m still wondering when I’m going to grow up.

It seems to me that by and large, people over 21 in my parents’ generation mostly acted their ages******. My parents, who prided themselves on their artistic, slightly off kilter sensibilities, were still grownups. I’m not sure they liked being grownups, but they went ahead and did the grownup thing. My generation may have been the first to celebrate–loudly–its Peter Pan-like disdain for growing up, to the point where it got a little old. But that attitude sticks with me–to quote Mary Martin as Peter Pan, “if growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up.”

What Peter doesn’t mention–or doesn’t know about–is the physical limitations of age that may keep me from climbing that tree (I did not break a bone until I was in my 50s, and I would happily not do that again, ever). I don’t do too much tree climbing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. I probably stand on chairs to get things down from high shelves more than a woman of my age ought to do, and I have a friend who scolds me for lifting and carrying things a woman of my age ought not to lift, but that’s part of who I am. I am she who stands on chairs and carries heavy things.

I am privileged in so many ways. I live in a time and place, with history and family behind me, that permits me to retain a grip on frivolity and un-adultness. I will not starve if I am silly. Survival does not rely on my ability to keep my mouth shut, my head down, and plod away in the hopes of staying alive, which has been the lot of generations before me, and is still the lot of too many people around the world. So, in my mostly silly way, I try to help those people in myriad ways, from donating money to writing letters to just being kind to someone who looks like the world is grinding on them a little too hard.

Kindness… there’s a thing. If you wanted to give me a present for my birthday (I’m not saying you should mind you) it would be that. Be kind to everyone you encounter today. Be kind to the people who are grinding through life because that’s all they can do. Be kind to strangers. Be kind to rude people—at dead-least it confuses them, but it may help them find the kindness in themselves. And please, if you will, be kind to yourself. For me, because yesterday******* was my birthday.

* which, at the time I am writing this, is tomorrow
**which will be two days ago when you read this
***like, my weight and which program I want to run
****it’s not a very smart robot–it assumes 40 is the default age, and you have to add or subtract years one at a time until you reach your age
*****which, as you may remember, is actually two days from when I’m writing this
******although the cocktail-culture of my parents’ generation may have been their way of cutting loose of grownup-hood for an evening or six
******* which is actually tomorrow as I write this

The Bones and Bari

It’s the Feast of St Nicholas today. Most people know him better as Santa Claus.

He was a very early bishop (3rd-4th century CE) and known for giving secret gifts to girls in need of dowries. In some branches of Christianity he is the patron saint of prostitutes, because of the gifts.

Nicholas lived at a critical time in early Christianity, when Christianity linked with the Roman Empire. In his lifetime, he would have seen that change happen and also been a part of it. It’s been a long time since I played in the sandpit of later Roman history. In fact, it was when I was an undergraduate. I’m happy to return to it one day and explore again, if people want me to. Or tell more stories of other peoples’ bones. My form of the macabre is gentle, but it exists.

Today, however, I promised the story of the bones of Nicholas. Other years I will tell the pickled children story, but this year, when I asked, people wanted to hear about the bones.

This is not from his lifetime (obviously) and not even from soon after his death. In fact, I don’t know when it was from. What I know is a purely and utterly fictional rendition of the story, from the Middle Ages. After studying diverse histories as an undergraduate, I became a Medievalist, and so many of my best stories come from the Middle Ages.

This pure and utterly fictional rendition comes from an actual event. Some (I ought to know how many, but I’ve forgotten if I ever even checked that aspect) of Nicholas’ bones were moved from Myra to Bari. They arrived in Bari on 9 May 1087 (according to the website I looked at, but I’ve seen other dates), and this is the day of the official celebration of the translation of the relics. Every year from 7-9 May, Bari celebrates this.

Now for the fun bit. I’ve read two versions of the translation* of the bones.

The first story was from Bari. It praised the sailors who rescued the bones from danger and possible destruction in Myra. In this version, the bones adventured across the water and arrived in Bari and everything was perfect ever after. It’s the dull version and I honestly don’t remember any details.

The other tale is quite different. Sailors stole the bones from their proper burial place (Nicholas did, indeed, die in Myra, and the tomb is still there, to the best of my knowledge) and smuggled them on board a ship. The ship set sail. Nicholas was not happy that his bones (or some of his bones) had been stolen.

He was a saint and his anger was full of power. Thunder roared and lightning struck and waves three times higher than the ship crashed against its side. Nicholas was polite and distant with young women and totally cool with saving pickled children, but he protested the perfidy of the sailors with much vigour. The adventure was neither swift nor safe. It was gloomy and perilous and full of dangers and I would not like to know the dreams of the surviving sailors. Despite Nicholas protesting the voyage with every fibre of his dead bones, the sailors brought them to Bari.

These days there are bones of Nicholas in many places, and, to the best of my knowledge, no angry storms associated. I’d very much like to see the bones assembled, and to know how many of them came from the same man. Some study has been done on them and several of the remaining bones come from a man of the right age and around the right dates. This is a lot better than the situation for many of saints’ relics. At one stage John the Baptist had four heads…


*’translation’ is the correct term here. When an ordinary person does their bones are moved. When a hated person died, their bones may be moved, or burned, or kicked around with despite. When a saints’ bones need moving, they are translated.

What I’ve Learned From Crows

crows Shortly after dawn most mornings, a crow calls loudly, “Caw, caw, caw, caw.” It seems to be speaking to the whole neighborhood of crows, though I’m not sure how large an area this announcement covers. I refer to this as the “Call to Prayer,” because it reminds me of the calls used by mosques, but I don’t know its true purpose.

Shortly after the call, crows come by our window box, collect the cat kibble we put out the night before, and have a drink in the pan we’ve put out for that purpose. The actual time this happens varies depending on what time the sun comes up. It can be a bit later on days when the marine layer is strong, but the crows will be out and about even on overcast days.

Except when they’re sitting on eggs and raising fledglings, the crows don’t sleep in our neighborhood. Every evening, not long before sunset, they start flying to their roost. I am told by others that one big roosting place is along the Berkeley shoreline. I suspect there are a number; there are a lot of crows in the East Bay.

They do build nests in our neighborhood, but we have never been sure exactly where their nests are. They are very good at concealing them in the larger trees somewhere.

Crows are obviously quite social. They hang out in family groups, some of them clearly the young from earlier in the year or a year or two before. However, each small family group has territory within the neighborhood, and they seem to be careful not to invade each other’s areas.

They can tell people apart, which puts them one up on us, because we cannot tell crows apart by appearance. We know one group because of where we see them regularly and because they have almost no fear of us. When we toss kibble for them, they will fly right down. Others, who also live nearby, wait until we’ve moved on to collect the goodies. Continue reading “What I’ve Learned From Crows”

Memoir, Cancer, And Tent Camping: My Friend Connie

 When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, the effects ripple through the community. If we and our friend are relatively young, we may feel shock but also a sense of insulation. We have not yet begun to consider our own mortality, or the likelihood of losing our peers to accident or one disease or another. It hasn’t happened to us yet and the odds are still in our favor, particularly if we don’t smoke or drive drunk, we exercise and eat many leafy green vegetables. As the years and the decades go by, most of us will see an increase in morbidity if not mortality in our friends. They – and we – may develop osteoarthritis or Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, all those common ailments of aging.

Some of us will get Covid-19. Some of us will get cancer.

When my best friend, Bonnie, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was the closest friend I had who had cancer. Since then, other friends have been diagnosed and some have died; Bonnie died in 2013 (peacefully, at home). One of the things Bonnie did way back when was find support groups for women with cancer. Maybe it’s a holdover from the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, but it’s practically a reflex: whatever is going on in your life, you grab a bunch of women to talk it through. Do men do this, too? If so, it’s a secret from me.

It turned out that a cluster of women who were at college with us at the same time and who still lived in the area wandered through these groups at one time or another, or were otherwise associated with this community. Some have also died, some weren’t doing too well the last I heard, and some are thriving. One of those I lost was my friend, Constance Emerson Crooker.

Connie and I weren’t close in college, but it was a small school and everybody pretty much knew one another in passing. She wasn’t an avid folk dancer or a Biology major like me, but she and Bonnie stayed in touch so I’d hear about her from time to time. Connie was one of those who stepped up to the plate in Bonnie’s final weeks, and I was not only grateful for the extra and very competent pair of hands but for the chance to get to know her better.

Connie was a long-term melanoma survivor, a “late-stage cancer patient,” and made no bones about being one of the lucky ones.

One of the things Connie did was to go tent camping across America. Another thing was to write about it and her cancer. I slowly read and savored her memoir, MelanomaMama: On Life, Death, and Tent Camping. Tent camping does not rank high on my list of favorite things to do. I didn’t grow up camping, and I’m poor at it at best. But as I wended my way through her breezy story-telling, I realized it didn’t matter whether it was tent camping or ice skating or tango dancing (which Bonnie did, clear through the week she went on hospice) or anything else that gives us intense joy.

William Blake wrote that if a fool would persist in his folly, he will become wise. I think that if we’re blessed to have enough time and reflection we can move through the shock and terror and sheer awfulness to some other place, one of “sucking the juicy joy out of life.” Which is why Connie’s tent camping spoke to me and I’m grateful she wrote her book.

When something awful happens to us or when we at last glimpse it in the rear-view mirror, many of us want to write about it. If we’re fiction writers, we use our imaginations to spin out stories in our preferred genre. A huge weight, a pressure of all the intense experience, the fear, the relief, the unhealed and oozing wounds, cries out for us to make sense of the whole thing. That’s one of the things that fiction does, and often it does it much better than straight memoir narrative. Fiction requires emotional coherence, at least genre fiction does. I make no promises about literary or experimental stuff. We think, If I could just nail this down in a story, it would make sense. I understand that longing, that temptation, and at the same time, in my own life, I’ve had the good fortune to pay attention to my gut feeling that I wasn’t ready. Maybe I’ll never be ready to “tell my story.”

But Connie was and she did, with wit and the ferocious clear-sightedness of one who knows she has been reprieved and what it has cost her. Some parts are travelog, some parts are survivalog, some are the observations of an intelligent, thoughtful person who has had a long time to decide how she wants to live each day. I couldn’t read very much of it at a time; it was too “chewy,” too emotionally dense. I needed to reflect on what she shared and what it meant in my own life.

In Connie’s writing, I recognized something quite different from the impulse to tell our story to make sense out it. It was the even more powerful need to take what we have suffered and have it make a difference. Have our lives make a difference.

“Hey world,” she seems to be saying, “I was here. Me, the only Connie there is or will ever be.”


“So now, I’m back to scans every three months. Watch and wait. Watch and wait. Wait for the pink and turquoise sneaker to drop. But I keep enjoying my miraculous recovery.

“When I say miraculous, I don’t mean a conventional miracle. … It’s miraculous that a Monarch butterfly can wing its way from Canada to one small patch of breeding ground on a Michoacan hillside. It’s miraculous that a black hole’s sucking gravity can pull everything, including light into is gaping maw. It’s miraculous that there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in our universe…

“And I’m still here, gazing with wonder at it all.”


And sharing that wonder with us. Thanks, Connie, wherever you are tent-camping now.