Shery Dameron

Lupe

     Her name was Guadalupe, Lupe for short. She was born to an eighteen-year-old migrant farm worker thirty-eight years ago. She was a small fragile baby. The smallest of the six charges in my care at the home for handicapped children where I was working my first job out of high school. The room, which was the only home she ever knew, was large and bright, painted in a light yellow with paintings of nursery rhythm characters on the walls. There were five more cribs just like hers and shelves filled with toys for the other children who shared the room. She was always dressed in a little pink tee-shirt and wrapped in bright floral blankets, but her small body hardly filled the corner of her large chrome crib. I remember her eyes the most. They were a soft, fluid, brown, but not dark or deep, just gentle and doe-like, flecked with small spots of gold that seemed to dance. Maybe I remember her eyes so well because her face ended just below them, leaving them her only truly human feature. Below her eyes, there were two open holes where her nose should have been. I can imagine it would have been a small little button nose if it had formed. And where her sweet plump rosebud lips should have been, was a gaping cavern. Her upper lip was split and exposed soft pink gums. Her lower lip was gone completely. Her jawbone had not formed. Nor had her vertebrae that would have been her neck, forcing all the organs of the throat into her chest cavity, and leaving her mute; unable to even cry out in protest to the pain and suffering that was her short life. The devastation of her body went beyond her face. Her little arms and legs were bent and bowed. The doctors had broken them each in three places and she wore a plaster cast on each in an effort to straighten them. Between each of her long thin fingers was a webbing of skin that made her hands look like flippers.

     Each day while she was forming her mother had worked the fields, back breaking work; I can’t even imagine doing while pregnant. And every day she breathed in the toxic fumes of the pesticides that give us our unblemished fruits and vegetables. These pesticides worked their way to her womb, where they could not tell fetus from fungus, embryo from insect. Her mother didn’t get to hold her after she was born, and only got to see her briefly before she was forced to leave her behind, as she was sent back to Mexico two days after giving birth. What did she think when she saw her baby so malformed? All I know is she called for a priest to give last rites, assuming Lupe would not live. Whether or not he came, I do not know.

     Lupe lived three months. On Cinco De Mayo thirty-eight years ago she died. And thirty-eight years later, her eyes still haunt me. They were just beginning to learn to laugh. Each time someone would show her any kindness, a soft rubbing of her little back, a gentle stroking of her hair, her eyes would light up, even though her mouth was silent. Her mother was allowed to come and see her after she died, and she held her for the first time then. She was not however allowed to take her back home to the churchyard where all of her ancestors lay at rest. Lupe was an American citizen, and so she was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery. There was no service, no graveside mourners, but I mourned her passing. All these years later, every time I pick out the best fruits and vegetables at the market, I think of her, and the many others like her, their bodies bent and broken for our food.

Stephanie Barbé Hammer

Round Table

           We four bought it unfinished.  He – the roommate’s boyfriend – showed us  — her, me and my boyfriend — how to sand it down. And then finish it.  There were 2 kinds of – I want to call them emery boards – but what I mean is sandpaper, I guess. It was hard work but fun work, and we couldn’t screw up too bad because we didn’t have to cut anything or shape anything.  Just wear it down.

           The boyfriend was an annoying person. He belonged to her of the big brain and the even bigger breasts that she always smashed into too small bras.   We other two  — me of the B cup and he of the big but humble mind — came to dislike her as well but that came later.  For now it was all sweetness and light and the joy of sharing an apartment amongst surprising trees in SoCal just off the 60.   That’s how I remember it.

           So let’s not get to the irritation yet, lets stay with the sanding. The surprising pleasure of it. Its complexity: how you have to do the legs and the underbelly of the table – all the secret parts of furniture, even the simplest kind.    And the sound like a cough of the sanded wood:  persistent, dry but healthy.  We worked, and the boyfriend supervised.

           Then the surprise: we were going to put on the stain with the brushes and the tin of clear liquid and he said wait.  Let’s put a backgammon board on it. I didn’t like the idea. I wanted the table plain and smooth like we’d planned it and I wanted the lightwoods; always I have loved the look of that.  But he insisted and he was pushy – ok already he is beginning to get on my nerves I can see that – but she of the tiny bra and big breasts beamed at him, and we – I and he, the other much quieter boyfriend – said ok. The pushy boyfriend began to draw the outline of the board. He used magic marker I think – I can’t remember.  But I can see us filling in the points for the pieces – the long triangles and I found the fun again.  And then the finishing.

           We kept that table a long time. She graduated, and the boyfriend — still a drop out — kept promising to marry her.  I soldiered on in school with the quieter boyfriend, who was silently brilliant, and in the end it was us – the doubtful and the soft ones – who got the table, for the others didn’t want it.

           We two sat at that table in a new apartment near bigger trees filled with herons, and we played the game with pieces and we played the game with bodies.  Holding off on the finish.  Sanding ourselves down.

Yi Shun Lai

Rerun

     They called it “Squaremont,” and they called me a “townie,” but I didn’t know enough to be insulted.

     At college, in a small, eucalyptus-scented, no-man’s-land bordered by a quarry pit and a considerably more venerable institution, I was less than a mile from where I went to high school and about a half-mile from where I went to elementary school.

    At college, they asked questions a local should know, and I answered like a newcomer. I grew up in a deliberate fog of commerce and consumption: Malls and modeling school; Range Rovers and baby Bimmers in the high school parking lot, with my parents’ Merc or Lexus crouched among them.

     My classmates wanted to know where to go mountain biking; where the best hiking trails were; where they could, as minors, buy beer.
I didn’t know.

     One day at track practice, I was bundled into a van and driven up the hill to the local mountain, where I’d only been to ski once over a decade and a half of residence. (Far more mountainous pastures could be found two hours to the east, and an outlet mall was on the way.)

     Practice was hard that day. The constant elevation was grueling. I never knew such a hill could be found there. And yet, I remember it just barely.

    A scant six months later, some college friends and I took to the mountain again, this time for a day-long backpacking trip. I was way out of my element, struggling to look confident in my off-market hiking boots. My trailmates stood loose and strong as they slid down a hillside made entirely of scree, and I fought to control my limbs and my panic.

     That day, too, zipped quickly out of memory.

    But it must have made a difference: Over the ensuing years, I logged countless miles in other states and countries, from Paris to Maine and Taipei, and ran races on the trails of New York City and the streets of Washington, D.C. I rode my bicycle across Montana, and from Boston to New York.

     And then, one day, on a bi-annual visit back to Squaremont from my new home on the east coast, I laced up my tired running shoes and went for a run. On a lark, I followed some buried memory up a long asphalt hill and around a gentle banking right hand turn, and a muscular memory took over.

     My legs turned over and over, and the lactic acid beginning to pool in my calves and quads reminded me I’d been there before. But where? I breathed deeply of eucalyptus and cedar; had to refrain from slowing down to touch the firm paddles of the succulents growing by my feet, although I’d never noticed them before.

     I ran my palm through tall laurel bushes as I passed them, relishing the whip and snap of branches against my skin; ground pink and black peppercorns under my feet and regretted not taking more time to smell them as I left them. Soft, unruly groundcover spilled onto the sidewalk from otherwise well manicured yards, and I remembered the wild strawberries that passed for groundcover in my own childhood backyard and stepped gingerly through it, although I had no real way of knowing if there were strawberries in it or not.

     Just across the street, the black markings of a wildfire added insult to injury—I could smell the burned onion grass and sage, although the thing had happened months before this particular jog.

     I stepped into a deep wide swath of gravel, the chosen material for someone’s new driveway, and my ankles wobbled with the mostly forgotten memory of loose scree in my boots.

     My legs took me to the false top of the hill, and I jogged in place there for a moment. I could choose to continue up the hill, or I could make the right-hand turn, downhill, and make it an easy loop back home.

     Either way, it didn’t matter. It was all new territory.

Ana Maria Spagna

Breathe

    It’s not the inhalation; it’s the exhalation. You can pull oxygen in, but your lungs are already full with the wrong stuff, with all that C02 you haven’t expelled. So you sip air. That’s what the doctors call it, sipping. But that doesn’t come close. Sipping is modest and moderate, shy, wise, sometimes coy, but never desperate. When you can’t breathe, you’re desperate. Coaxing air in through a sick fluttering wheeze and forcing it out in a staccato series of coughs. Then trying again. Not sipping air. Sucking.

    I’d come home from fighting a forest fire coughing hard. Nothing new about that; you always come home from fighting a forest fire coughing, everyone does. Once I fought a fire in November, in sub-freezing temperatures, where crews slept packed wall to wall on the floor of the local National Guard Armory—like displaced disaster victims, like contagious napping pre-schoolers—and came home with an annoying phelgmy cough that lasted until March. The TB fire, we called it, for tuberculosis. For years, whenever we ran into the grunts we met there on the line, we said: Remember the TB fire? And we laughed. Coughing, back then, was a laughing matter. Now I coughed from the core of me, an unworldly croak, like an elk cow in search of her calf, and it wasn’t funny.

    “Go see a doctor,” Laurie, my partner, told me.

    I didn’t answer. I didn’t intend to go. I’d already decided there was little to be done, that I’d make a long expensive trip to the doctor—we lived in a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest and I had lousy health insurance to boot—only to be told to sit tight and wait it out. Take two aspirin. See you in the morning. That’s what I expected. No solution I could imagine seemed workable. No solution seemed worth the cost. Wheezing, at any rate, did not seem the biggest problem the world was facing.

    While I was off fighting that fire, airplanes had careened into buildings 3,000 miles away, and the world shifted like continental plates beneath us. At home, too, the rules seemed to have shifted. This was now more than an annoying cough; my body was not recovering, not kicking back into gear. On the fire line we’d been digging in a frenzy miles from the fire itself, on a dusty dry grass hillside, overturning sod. When I stepped off the line to pee, from twenty feet away, I couldn’t see the rest of the crew, but since it wasn’t smoke but dust that was the problem I didn’t tie my bandanna around my mouth and nose. No one else was doing it. Still, when visibility drops below twenty feet, you ought to take that as a warning. Right then, on the fire line and at home, as in the world, all the important signs were missed. What would come next no one knew.

    The average respiration rate for humans is 44 breaths per minute. Multiply that times 1440 minutes per day, and you get 63,360 breaths per day. Or attempted breaths. From where I sat, that seemed like an awful lot of work, an unfathomable struggle. It was best to stay calm, I knew, to conserve energy, not force your muscles to work and drain the blood of oxygen rich cells and make it worse. Not even your heart. Don’t work your heart, I told myself. But how can you stop that? You can’t. By day, I went to work, hauling my pack and tools up the trails I maintained—firefighting was just a part-time money-making deal for trail workers like me—and stopping too often to catch my breath. By night, I sat pillow-propped in bed staring out at the dark, not sleeping, not reading, not dreaming or philosophizing or even complaining. Just sucking air.

    “You could die,” Laurie cried, exasperated.

    “No one dies of asthma,” I said.

    A week later, a doctor stood before me, hands on his hips:

    “You could’ve died,” he said.

    I looked away.

    “I had a twelve year-old patient die of asthma last week. What the hell were you thinking? Way up there in the boonies? With no medical help? In a heartbeat, you could’ve died.”

    Asthma affects 300 million people world wide. Every day in the U.S. 40,000 people miss work, 5,000 go to the emergency room, 11 people die. Eleven die! Every day! That means that since 9/11 tens of thousands of Americans have died a horrible can’t-breathe death. If we’re going to bother with war, why not war on asthma? It’d be hard, I admit, in that wearyingly familiar way: Who’s the enemy exactly? Where can we point the bombs? Who the fuck is to blame?

    Me, probably. That’s what I thought as I sat in the clinic: this is my fault. Weren’t kids with asthma milky-cheeked and soft palmed? Weren’t they the ones in grade school who had to sit out dodge ball? This I did not want to be. Never show weakness, my trail crew boss always said. By god, I did not intend to. If fire was no good for my lungs—a likely culprit in this whole rotty mess—it wasn’t the only one. From down the hall, I overheard the doctors having fun with my x-rays while I sat half-dressed on the examination table.

    “Ever seen this?”

    I leaned out to peek past the door at a small crowd of white-coated doctors gathered around the light screen in the central area for a little med school quiz.

    “What do you call a lung mass like that?” my doctor asked, tapping the screen.

    The doctors leaned forward and struggled with grade school eagerness: Oh I know that one. I know. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

    I tensed. Cancer? Please Jesus don’t say cancer.

    “Valley fever!”

    The doctor returned to me.

    “Where did you grow up?” he asked.

    In Southern California. In the 1970s. When we were kids, the air quality gauge would drop below unhealthy and we’d get smog days the way Northerners got snow days.

    Smog, then.

    Except that Valley Fever isn’t caused by smog, but by a fungus spore in the earth that, once soil is disturbed, rides the Southwest wind. More prevalent in inland places like Phoenix or Fresno, the spore can make it as far west as Riverside, apparently, but no further. Not Los Angeles. Not even Pasadena. The sea air, the doctor explained, dilutes the dust, disarms it. And it didn’t matter any way. The valley fever damage was done years ago, only the scarring remained, he said. Now the problem was asthma. Plain and simple.

    But what had caused it? Was it dust or smoke or smog? Was it the cigarettes my parents smoked when I was a kid? Or the fires I fought as an adult? Was it our cat, Daisy, who I loved inordinately but to whom I was deathly allergic? Was it congenital weakness or plain dumb luck?

    The doctor shrugged and prescribed inhaled steroids. Two puffs a day: morning and night. Two bucks a day. The wheezing, he said, should subside. The coughing should stop cold.

    I wrote a check and came home, crumbled newspaper in the woodstove, laid in straight split slices of cedar, crisscrossed, and lit the match. The familiar orange glow reflected off the pine floors of my cabin and the pine board ceiling and the log walls, the flame and the tinder ridiculously close as always. I picked up Daisy and held her in my lap. I went back to work on the dusty trails. And despite it all, within a few days, my lungs were clear. I might as well have started smoking cigarettes.

    By the time we’d gone to war with Iraq I’d inhaled steroids every day for two years. So what if it was a habit started with dubious motives, a problem with an uncertain cause, the solution, at least, seemed to be working. That statue of Saddam toppled; my lungs fell into step. I could run even. Run! If it took two dollars a day, that was cheaper than a beer or pot or coffee habit. It was also less than what I personally was paying for the wars in the Middle East.

    So I sucked on my inhaler. My huffer, I called it. I used it morning and night. Sure, I tried quitting a few times, but the sick squeeze in my chest, the watery wheeze, the inevitable croaking cough always sent me scurrying back. I knew I should try acupuncture or yoga. I should quit coffee and sugar and alcohol. Instead, I took a fistful of vitamins and exercised fanatically. I avoided stress, living in a gorgeous woodsy place, free of traffic and crime, with no boss, no children. Such low stress I should’ve just keeled over from boredom. Still, I couldn’t breathe without that huffer. With it, I could go running day after day along the dusty dirt road near our home.

    When I was a teenager I ran cross country. The air hung brown as the sweat ring on a collar, omnipresent, the same dirty brown as the drought-scarred foothills. But they told us: it’s not what you can see but what you can’t see that causes the trouble. Not the particulates, but the gases. Particulates, particulars, it didn’t matter to us a whit. We ran up Mary Street on the sidewalk, under the freeway, into the orange groves, then back, heading downhill toward school, toward snow-dusted Mt. Baldy on the horizon—big beautiful Baldy—omnipresent, too. Even when you couldn’t see it.

    Now there are summer days when you can’t see the high jagged peaks that surround my cabin-home for the smoke. Wildfires burn more often and more acres than ever, and the experts say it’s a good thing they do. From my window, I can see an army of straight-trunked firs. Firs, firs, everywhere—not a single native Ponderosa pine since pines require wildfire to regenerate—grey-trunked firs with dead limbs outstretched inelegantly as if in supplication. Many of them are dying, bug-eaten or disease-infested. Mistletoe hangs in whorls large as haystacks. Witches brooms, they’re called, and even in imagination these would be awfully big witches. The forest is unhealthy. For lack of fire. We suppressed fire for too long, so now we have to let it back in. Fire is good! Fire is good! cry the forest managers. Problem is, for me, for my lungs, fire is bad.

    It’s all or nothing. That’s the hell of it, isn’t it? Win the war or bring the troops home. Put the fire out or let it burn. Use the huffer or wheeze yourself to death. Not because of politics or preference, but because that’s reality. We want to live as we always have. We’ll do our damnedest, yes, to parse the problems and do what’s right. To a point. In the end we just want to breathe.

    Truth is, in high school, I was a lousy runner. I performed more respectably on the swim team. I joined as a ninth grader who had spent hours splashing, diving, flailing, body surfing, even, in the California summers, but who had never actually learned the technique required to swim competitively. The first time I tried to swim fifty yards, I came up panting, gripping the concrete lip of the pool at the YMCA, incredulous. How could people do this? How on earth did they breathe? By pacing themselves, of course, by pulling the air in and holding it for a long steady stroke, two, three, then expelling it slowly underwater before coming up again. The kids who’d been on swim teams their whole lives did this with ease. I was agog. They did not even seem out of breath at the end of 500 yards let alone 50. Not for the first time in my life, I was wowed by what patience and practice, time and training, could engender. I was humbled. After a year on JV, I moved up to varsity, swimming butterfly of all things, a stroke I’d admired since 1972, since watching Mark Spitz rise orca-like from the green chlorine depths on TV, then submerge, undulating. By the end of my sophomore year I could swim 100 yards butterfly. Not only that. I could swim it faster than I could swim 100 yards crawl.

    If you’re patient, you hold your breath and you can survive anything. You can thrive. Maybe it’s not all or nothing. Maybe it’s pacing and practice, trial and error, plenty of error. The air is cleaner now, thirty years later, in Riverside. You can run the wide sidewalk down Mary Street for a mile with a calendar view of Mt. Baldy snow-dusted and brilliant. Even the evil unseen gases, researchers say, have dissipated. They fixed it with laws and science, research and regulation, a shift of behavior. Up here in the woods, there are prescribed fires, set in the shoulder seasons, in spring or fall when the conditions are right, that can mimic the work of wildfires, clearing underbrush, setting pine seeds free, making the forest healthier and less likely to get blackened in a catastrophic burn. In the wider world, there are diplomatic negotiations, tedious and trying, requiring humility and compromise, heartburn and exhaustion on a grand scale, that have brought tenuous peace in Ireland, in the Balkans, maybe someday in the Middle East. I try to be hopeful, I do.

    The label on my steroid prescription warns me that it might cause the following: headaches, dry throat, infection, depression. Some of my friends believe that’s not the worst of it, just the tip of the iceberg, what the drug companies are willing to admit.

    I called a doctor friend to ask outright: “Is the inhaler going to kill me?”

    “Wheezing will kill you faster,” he said.

    Maybe, I think. Maybe not. I have no way to know. I only know that I remember those nights awake sucking air—the terror, the desperation—and those memories haunt me.

    Another memory. I stand waiting for the gun. One hundred yards butterfly. At take your marks, I’ll bend forward and clutch the slanted platform at my feet. At the gunshot, I’ll arch up then dive shallow and surface in motion. But for now, in the interminable seconds atop the starting block, I’m terrified. Nothing short of that. I’m convinced that I won’t make the full one hundred yards. The sheer physical feat seems impossible—implausible!—even though I’ve done it a thousand times, and I’m certain, absolutely sure, that I’ll flail gasping, and have to call for help in shame. I can conjure that whole scene more easily, much more easily, than I can imagine what will really happen, which is this: I’ll dive then take two strokes head down, one head up. The head-up stroke will take more energy, since I’ll have to pull my torso out of the water. For the first fifty yards it’s not hard, not at all, but as the race goes on, and my lungs burn, I’ll try to breathe too soon, jerking my head up a millisecond before my abs have lifted my shoulders, and I’ll take water into my windpipe. I’ll choke. I choke—actually, literally—every single time I race butterfly in high school. And once I begin to choke, I swim much faster. In the end, that’s the only reason I am worth a damn at all on the team: because I am swimming for my life. Swimming freestyle I am trying hard, but I am sated; it’s too easy, nothing at stake but a plastic trophy and my pride. Swimming butterfly I crave air, and I’ll do anything to get it. Turns out, if you want to win races, that’s a good thing.

    Just recently I made some progress. I cut my steroid dose in half. I tried quitting whole hog again with predictably bad results, so I scaled back to mornings only – one buck instead of two – and wheezed some at first, then less over time, until any more there’s only a hint of struggle when I linger too long in bad air: shoveling ashes from the woodstove, say, or jogging behind a school bus on a gravel road or idling in traffic. Laurie is, so far, wary. The doctor advises against it. Me, I want to stick with the experiment not so much because I believe things will get back to how they were—breathing free—but because it feels right. For so long I’ve been trying to tell myself that everything is fine, just fine, that we are, all of us, doing the very best we can, but there is, in me, beneath the salve of the huffer, a hint of uncertainty. There is always, with every inhalation, 63,360 times a day, an edge of panic. I’m thinking that’s a good thing.

Judy Kronenfeld

Blue Bowl of Sky

How we feel about where we are, what our mental image is of the weather and landscape of our days, depends on where we were before, and how we arrived.

I first saw the West of small towns and desert spaces when, very young, and only a few months married, my husband and I drove from the East Coast to start graduate school in Northern California which we approached circuitously, via the Southwest, where he had already been, and where there were ruins he wanted me to see and friends he wanted me to meet. New York City, the densest, most highly urban landscape in the U.S., had been the seemingly infinite center of my childhood and young adult world; when we drove West I left behind my entire family—parents, aunts, uncles and cousins—in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and “the Island.” Though the generation above me were almost all immigrants from Europe, only one of them or their children had been as far as Michigan; most hadn’t been west of Pennsylvania.

My husband and I were in that stage of life when buying Melmac plates in beige and aqua at a drugstore—our first dinner service!—was exciting. An only child, marrying and venturing to the edge of the continent, I was shaking off the yoke and protection of my loving but intensely close mother and father (which I had begun to loosen when I chose to go to college in Massachusetts, though my mother had preferred that I stay in “the city.”) All that first year of graduate school, my dad—in those pre-email, pre-cell phone days, when long distance calls (considered too expensive for everyday talk) meant someone had died—sent tapes for me to play on a cheap tape recorder, lugubrious tapes about how much he and mom missed me, his voice thick with incipient tears.

On that first trip to the far West, it was both strange and exhilarating to see towns whose beginnings and endings were visible—compared to the seeming endlessness of building-crowded New York avenues—towns whose dusty streets dropped off into the desert, vulnerable, unprotected, yet brave towns, rubbing up on vast silences. I first saw forests with solitary, articulate pines in receding rows, no fuzzy, obscuring understory—only pine needles—on the ground between them; I liked that independence and clarity. And most of all in that September, once we’d crossed the Rockies, I saw an unobscured horizon; even the suburban and rural parts of the Northeast were so much less panascopic than Western vistas; I saw sky. This was a sky no longer white, close, and hovering; it was as if a great gauze bandage had been lifted from my sight. This sky was an enormous bowl of blue turned over, drenching us in light, dropping out a bit of horizontal detritus: a town, a gas station on an empty road, a collection of rocks.

Of course there had been days in New York when the ocean breezes cleansed the air and it was brisk and crystalline. And, of course, every kind of New York weather was the weather of my childhood and therefore, in my childhood, weather as weather should be. But the horizon in Manhattan (where I went to high school) is devoured by and textured with buildings; the eye is drawn to detail opening onto more detail: walls of glass reflecting sky and cloud, windows capturing and throwing the discus sun. Even outside Manhattan, in the provincial Bronx where I was raised, apartment houses crowd the sky; the eye alights on their crenellated tops, on the aerials stuck like haphazard pins in the pincushions of their tarry roofs. The buildings hold one in like the walls of slot canyons; vistas plunge down them. The sky may be infinitely melancholy at dusk, but it seems to be made that way by the lights coming on in innumerable apartment windows. It is juxtaposed, always, for me, to the mass and might of human architecture, to the vast collection of human souls buzzing tightly in one place. My young husband and I had driven out under a sky that was boss, or god, under an enormous blue bowl where the wind blows without restriction. And after that first trip across the United States, I lived in a new mental space, a new psychological weather, even though the Northern California town near our University, where we rented an apartment during our first year, looked surprisingly seedy for blue and golden California. That unconfined wind seemed to sweep even the slightly cloying familiarity of my natal family from me. I was new when I stepped off the plane on the next summer visit East, into the white haze of air, air palpable on my shoulders as my mother’s hand—which I would now tolerate—brushing some lint from my jacket that I hadn’t asked to be brushed.

I lived in that space, even if—when my husband got a job in Riverside—I was shocked by the aridity and heat of September in Southern California, the sky- and mountain-obscuring smog, especially because he had given me an idyllic verbal scratch ’n sniff with greenery and orange blossoms after his visit the previous May. And I continued to live in that psychological weather system, a blue-gold near desert sparkle, during all the years I drove weekly on the 215 between Iowa Avenue and Mill Street to do my shopping at Fedco—that nude expanse of dusty freeway blowing with trash, unsoftened by trees or grassy median, and, like many Southern California freeways, much uglier than many Eastern highways.

Now I have lived here for decades; my parents have grown old and died; my children have grown up and flown. And even now, when there are more and wider freeways—certainly no prettier—there are days of sky, perhaps especially in the early spring when it is not yet too hot and orange blossom is in the air (at least on the UCR campus), when my mental weather, that Platonic ideal, is realized in the actual, sublunary world. I feel exalted, unleashed, grateful, lost in that cloudless blue that makes me crane my head back to take it in, as if I could never get tired of it, never want argosies of cumulus, or sky-texturing cirrus. It has depth and no depth at the same time. It is a blue so profound it seems to burn, so pure it seems the archetype of the celestial. My head so far back I am dizzy, I look at and into the sky, feeling unadulterated joy, however briefly feeling free.

Mae Wagner

Call of the Canyon

Early morning sun transforms the telephone wires into golden ribbons looping along the edge of the winding road of San Timoteo Canyon, making each morning’s commute a new present just waiting to be unwrapped.

My daughter tells me she wishes I would find a job in Redlands so I wouldn’t have to drive to Moreno Valley each day. No way. If I were to do so, I would lose two of my most magical times of the day—the drive to work and the drive home.

It’s the canyon, you see. Although I love to drive through both of the canyons linking Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, it is San Timoteo and not Reche Canyon that I travel almost every day.

And the drive does something to me—especially in the morning—something that borders on magical. It gives me a time to sort and collect my thoughts, a time to pull it all together for the day that lies ahead, a time to ponder the beauty around me. Some mornings are glorious sparkling blue sky and puffy cloud mornings and others are misty moisty gray mornings.

If my timing isn’t just right on the road leading out of Redlands, I am on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and must wait for a train to cross. Usually, the trains are very long and very slow—but the wait can be a time of peaceful meditation. As I watch the powerful engines pulling the long line of cars with names like Maersk and Evergreen and Uniglory, I wonder…who is waiting for them? Will they be hitched to a big truck heading for Texas or Arizona or will they sit on a dock somewhere until loaded onto a ship, sailing to some distant shore? I ponder oh so many things as I watch them rumble past, loaded with mystery cargoes and adorned with graffitied messages. Some messages are artistic and some are an assault on the senses—but they, too, give me pause. Where did the messages begin and where will they go? Perhaps the “artist” cannot escape whatever environment puts him near the tracks while only the rolling rails and distant destinies of the train limit his “art”.

Waiting for the train also gives me time to contemplate the orange grove intersected by the railroad crossing. It marks the seasons as they come and go. First comes the season of blooming when the air is filled with the fragrance of orange blossoms. Soon, the blossoms are replaced by little green globes that grow larger and turn orange. At harvest time, ladders bob up and down among the trees and I know that, for each ladder, there is a worker moving it from tree to tree as the oranges are harvested by skilled, work-hardened hands belonging to someone who must follow the crops as surely as the train must follow the tracks. And I wonder, will this harvest end up on a train going to some distant place while the oranges I sometimes buy come from Australia?

I cross the tracks and turn left onto San Timoteo Canyon. I love the drive for giving me a respite from the clutter and clang of urban life. Although I am on the actual Canyon road for only a short time, I know it rolls and dips for miles in front of me and miles behind me. Gigantic steel monsters march across the ridges of hills with their cargo of electricity. Lines of telephone poles, some tall and tilted, some stumpy and askew, lurch along the road like a drunken chain gang. Eucalyptus and pepper trees line the roadside where bright yellow sunflowers undulate and beckon.

When my eyes lift beyond the telephone poles and tumbleweeds, they are treated to incredible panoramas of gentle rolling hills dotted with oaks. In my rearview mirror, I see the mountains, magnificent in the play of sunshine and shadow, shadows that create folds of color—shades of gray and velvet brown, highlighted by hues of purple and violet. Sometimes, in unique California fashion, palm trees are silhouetted against distant snow-covered mountains. Some mornings, clouds hang misty over the land and the ever-changing mountains appear to rise out of them like distant, magical castles and kingdoms.

And, as if he commanded his own kingdom, I once saw a hawk perched on the last crag of hill before I dropped down into civilization as Moreno Valley suddenly sprawled before me. Now, I see these birds of prey less and less.

I am left to not only mourn the disappearing hawks but the changes that are happening in the Canyon. Traffic is heavy. A cross marks the spot where one person’s impatience cost another his life. Lines of commuters just like me snake along at a crawl behind trucks loaded with gravel and lumber as they rumble to construction sites. Development will soon transform it into more clutter and clang. What will future generations do? Where will they find the respite I have found?

In the meantime, life goes on. The daily commute is my own time machine, marking the seasons of the year as surely as they mark the seasons of my life. Large rounded green thistles turn into brown tumbleweeds, loosed from their moorings and transported by the winds. Fields are plowed, planted, come to life, are harvested and plowed again. The smoggy haze of summer lifts from the mountains to reveal another season of dazzling snowy peaks.

And if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I know I have been incarnated from a place of rolling hills where hawks soar and dip above, where streams cut through the land, where orange trees blossom and oaks are framed dark against the morning light.

Today is a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

–originally published in “Slouching Towards Mt. Rubidoux Manor,”, issue #1, 2008.

* * *

Mae Wagner is firmly rooted in the Inland Empire area and sees Inlandia stories everywhere just waiting to be told. She says, “writing has always been a passion, but largely relegated to the back burner while I focused on raising a family, earning a living and going to school.” Over the years, as a longtime Inland Empire resident, she has written for a public relations firm, the Riverside Chamber of Commerce; The Chino Champion newspaper, and had several columns published in the Op-Ed page of the Press-Enterprise when it was locally owned, including a noted investigate journalism series focused on a landmark environmental case involving the Stringfellow acid pits in Glen Avon, just west of Riverside. She currently writes a column for her home town paper in Hettinger, North Dakota and is enjoying being a member of the Riverside Inlandia writers workshop, which she has attended since its opening session in the summer of 2008.

Mae graduated from the old Poly High School in Riverside when it was across the street from Riverside City College and is grateful for the educational opportunities that were available both at RCC and Cal State San Bernardino when she became a re-entry student many years later. Thanks to that education, she became a teacher after the age of 50 at a school for at-risk high school students; this was her niche. Her proudest accomplishment is having raised three good people and now has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. After suffering an identity crisis due to one last name too many, she has returned to her maiden name for all of her writing. She currently lives in Redlands with her husband, Alex, and her dog, Sophie.

Gayle Brandeis

Meditations on Magnolia

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, “Magnolia,” is named for a street in the San Fernando Valley.  His movie follows the lives of a diverse cast of characters who live near this road and find themselves connected in ways they couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

We in Riverside, of course, have our own Magnolia.  It spans the girth of the city like a belt.  Its asphalt passes through, connects, almost every neighborhood on the map–the Wood Streets, Magnolia Center, Casa Blanca, Arlington, La Sierra.  We could easily call Magnolia the Mother Road of Riverside.  Think of everything that flanks it—homes and schools and stores and places of worship–the stuff, the staff, of our everyday life. The avenue skirts grand estates and hardscrabble apartment complexes; it passes hospitals where people begin and end their lives; it carries limousines and bicycles with equal aplomb; it touches upon every hue and facet of our human condition here in the Inland Empire.

I drive down Magnolia almost every day, and I often think about all the stories that live on this street.  We might not have hot shot producers and tv whiz kids here, like the San Fernando street on the silver screen (although–who knows?–maybe we do) but we do have plumbers and professors and artists and fry cooks, all of them with their own full lives, their own rich history and dreams.  On this street right now, someone is painting, someone is going into labor, someone is yelling at a person they love, someone is sweeping the floor, someone is buying bread.   There are thousands of stories on this stretch of road alone.  Our collective stories.

If we were to make our own Riverside “Magnolia,” the street itself would be a character.  It’s a grand thoroughfare.  Even at the end of the 19th century, as Kate Sanborn describes in her 1893 book, A TRUTHFUL WOMAN IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, Magnolia was considered a “celebrated drive.”  Sanborn is taken with the street, but she is not particularly happy with the name, which, she writes, “seems illy chosen, as only a few magnolia trees were originally planted at each corner, and these have mostly died, so that the whole effect is more eucalyptical, palmy, and pepperaneous than it is magnolious.”

While the street may not be fully “magnolious,” it still embodies the paradoxes of its namesake flowering tree—leaves that are both glossy and dark, flowers that are luminous but easily bruised, strange fuzzy pods that seem like something from another planet but are exquisitely of this earth, bright red seeds that look like candy and poison at the same time.  Magnolia—and really, all of Riverside, itself–is big enough to contain these dichotomies, turn these disparate elements into something whole and complicated and beautifully alive.  We all contribute to its integrity, its texture.

In a poignant scene in “Magnolia,” several characters in the film are shown, one by one, singing along to the same song on the radio.  All of them are alone; most of them are deeply lonely.  They don’t realize how many people are sharing the song with them; they don’t realize that what they think is a solo is, in fact, part of a chorus.  It’s the same when we drive down Magnolia.  Sealed off in our separate cars, we often don’t remember that we could very well be singing the same song.  We often forget we are connected in ways we can’t even begin to comprehend.  Together we drive this ribbon of road, each of us a corpuscle in the same great artery, pulsing along to the same beating heart.

 

–Previously appeared, in slightly different form, in The Press-Enterprise in 1999