The deep freeze

There are a few things that come to mind when I think of growing up in the Midwest. Cicadas and corn in the summer. Pumpkin patches and apple picking in the fall, half the class being absent on the first day of deer hunting season. Snow drifts and being off school in the winter. The sub-freezing temperatures, the farm kids who wait for the buses being at risk for hypothermia. And in the spring, daffodils and jonquils, Easter pictures underneath the crabapple tree, squeezed together shoulder to shoulder.

I also think about the practicalities of being working class, even though that’s not what we thought of ourselves. Of being rural. Of living with and through 4 seasons. Of the weekly protestant sermons to keep your chin up and push through at all costs. Of making ends meet. Of repurposing because that was the obvious thing to do.

But back to the practicalities.

Say it’s time to upgrade your refrigerator. Maybe it’s Christmas time and a new fridge is a perfect gift for your loved one, or maybe the Sears’ layaway program had a sweet deal. But what do you do with the old fridge? Get rid of it?

No, of course not. Why would you do something like that? It works good enough, just a little more chugging than it had when it first arrived.

Just put it in the basement, cellar or garage. Where it can be an overflow storage. Right next to the deep freeze.

The deep freeze. Forget the sparklers and parades and neatly planted corn that should be knee high by the fourth of July. Forget the country cruises with a natty light in hand, waiting for the cows to cross the road. Forget all the yearning to bust out of there to meet the big bad world on its own terms.

It’s the deep freeze that might be most iconic for me, my childhood, those four seasons, that town with no stoplights.

When we moved into this house on South Van Ness over 10 years ago, my parents were back and forth from the Midwest to San Francisco, helping us get settled. It was at that point that my first breast cancer diagnosis rippled tidal waves through our lives. So, my parents kept coming. And busying themselves with all types of projects – painting pantry shelves, hanging pictures, staining the deck, building a bench, even – all to focus on what’s in front of us, what we can do, what we can do with our hands while so much is out of our hands.

It was one night when some generous friend dropped off an extra lasagna for the freezer that my dad, after watching me rearrange things to try and squish the casserole dish in, declared: “you need a deep freeze.” It was less than one hour later — after dad went to it measuring the width of the cellar door, discussing with my husband Mike how a dolly could get a large appliance down the steep stairs, envisioning how a platform could quickly be fashioned to keep anything off the cement floor — that the Lowes over on Bayshore had a major purchase, to be delivered the next day. My dad was a man of action.

Mike was a little more flummoxed about this whole thing – growing up in a city where big cuts of meat weren’t stored for the future or the bounties of summer fruits tucked away to enjoy in the winter or there weren’t Italians in the midst who made extra food because we were always planning our next meal anyway. He found it perplexing that my family of 5, now dispersed into 4 households, already had 10 refrigerators and deep freezes between us (no, I’m not willing to certify the energy star on each of these). But like many things an in-law does, landing in this foreign and mysterious micro-culture called a family, he largely held his tongue.

Until this night. Some few eye rolls and questions and jokes, a valiant attempt to stop this juggernaut.

But dammit, Reno Calcari could not be stopped. His little girl needed a deep freeze. That would be THE thing to fix this whole mess. That lasagna needed a place to rest.

And rest it did.

The delivery men had some eye rolls too, some huffs and puffs in getting the deep freeze into the narrow and short cellar, being overseen by dad. He was giddy in how this whole plan was coming together.

A decade later, the deep freeze is still going strong. It’s five glorious shelves of storage, plus racks built into the door. It has spring-picked strawberries and pitted cherries, washed and ready. Hand-held apple pies. Smoothies waiting to be unthawed. Soups and stews saved for an easy weeknight meal. A few leftover lamb and pomegranate fatayer from the Arab bakery up on Mission Street. Cubes of pistachio pesto. And blue cornmeal pancakes.

Back six years ago when my friend Julie’s daughter Danika was born, Julie had a copy of our gate key. A friend also with a double mastectomy and needing to feed her new baby, she was searching for a place to store all the donated breast milk. We could offer her a solution. A needle in the haystack of city apartment freezers.

And for the past year, it’s also held breast milk. Hundreds and hundreds of ounces of breast milk from 23 donors throughout the city. For our daughter. Who never met her grandfather.

He would love it. He would love her.

I always make sure to keep a lasagna in there too. It’s what my dad would have wanted.

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Poutine (not Putin)

Montreal, 2012. Right after we were married. I took a train through the countryside of Ontario after a long work trip to meet Mike in Montreal. It all felt so foreign, so surreal. Just in arms-length of New York City.

Our little Airbnb tucked away on a cobblestone alley, with the veranda overlooking a frontstreet parade route. Where within the first hours, we sat – sipping a bottle of cool Chablis – and wondered what the noise was all about. What the banging of pots and pans and marchers were yelling about all in French. We deciphered that it was student protests, eleve.  

We thought, oh how cute. They protest with kitchenware up here north of the border. The “casserole protests” as they would come to be called. As we dug in more, we learned the protests were in response to rate hikes for post-secondary education, tuition to increase by $325 annually for five years. Where they pay less than $3k a year.

How quaint.

Mike and I wanted to cue the violins.

But everyone is dealing with something, we said. No use comparing one’s pain to the next, as we were riding high together – the in between time of health and sickness.

Eating our way through Montreal – bagels and baguettes, smoked meats and crème fraiche, Quebecoise fromage and poutine, drinking La fin du monde and farmhouse saisons. Sitting around the plazas and water fountains, watching children play in the squares, the public using the public spaces to be together, street musicians and performance art, the timing of the Pride or Fierte week, multiculturalism in the air,  all felt like we were meant to be here. The spring before a long winter.

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The season.

I see the dark silhouette of the tree. The backdrop is the soft pink sky. The tree’s green buds barely visible. This wiry elm didn’t get the news that spring came early this year. Its twists and turns more ominous and pronounced than I recall. Adjacent to the tulip tree in full bloom, a riot of celebration. Like night next to day, the moon hanging nearby the sun.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

The cabbage butterflies, their wings stretching and fluttering intensely as they emerge from the chrysalis. They are testing the air, readying for their first ascent in their week-long life. The two black circles helping thwart predators, making this being appear bigger than it actually is. These are some of the greatest colonizers, coming from Europe hundreds of years ago and now as common as a housefly.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

The ruby red-throated hummingbirds, their verdant green wings outspread as they hover and bounce and chirp loudly above. Finally stopping to perch on the long tendril of the star jasmine, delicate and bunched white petals on the cusp of opening. The hummingbird hatchlings nearby, thin beaks opening and closing, feeling the urgency of the now, survival.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

Asparagus roots can grow 10-15 feet into the ground. I heard that they are growing asparagus in Peru now, in the high arid desert, now plentiful with water as the glaciers melt. They estimate maybe another decade or so before this opportunity will be gone. Geologic time folding in half and half and half until its standing in front of us with a question.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

Solastalgia. That’s what they called it today. The Inuit partners in the North. The last ice area  without ice, the amautik parka no longer key for survival, wind patterns making it hard to read the ripples in the snow, when to move, when is safe. Feeling homesickness even though they are home. The thin white line separating 15,000 years of history to today.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

She loved the stargazer lily, its perfume taking over the kitchen. Even the burnt orange stain on her fingers – after the pollen rubbed off, leaving an indefinite imprint – brought her joy. The sense that this flower can stand for prosperity, abundance, hope. It is also the flower of sadness, gifted in mourning.

All around me, the thrumming vibrating of this season, life begetting life.

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We are all still here.

I look at the tree in our front yard. Every year it shocks me. As if we’re in a conversation that is seemingly one-sided—mostly me, lamenting the lack of rain and how stressed the trees must be and wondering if the exhaust coughing up off south van ness is exacerbating the problem—the tree, standing tall, stretching towards the southern horizon, day in and out, watching us pass underneath. And then bam, the tree makes a statement. Last year, it was mid-March. This year, it was mid-February. A reminder, a plea, a triumphant proclamation, yelling that it is, in fact, alive. Still here, still working magic beneath the course bark, the fibrous leaves that fall to the ground, sometimes in heaps, under the late autumn waning moon. And now, seemingly overnight, the refined veins of branches bursting forth with hundreds of delicate blossoms, the lightest faintest pink so as to be almost a white shade of burgundy. A gentle breeze, a simple exhale of an outbreath, and the blossoms are all sent swirling down to the ground like confetti. Our front stoop left like a New Year’s Eve party, just after the clock strikes midnight. A reminder of starting over, making something out of nothing, celebrating that we are here, we are still here.

Detail of prunus persica pink flowers blooming in spring
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Braiding, a poem.

The unstoppable, unquenchable chase for it.

The home of a creature, a creature that captured bicarbonate and calcium from the sea around them and used it to grow and grow.

Power over rather than power with.

Smooth, textured, round, sharp, crystalline, rainbow.

When we get power, what do we do with it?

The forms are endless, some even microscopic, microorganisms propelling themselves and their mobile homes through the water column with all manners of locomotion.

Use it to abuse others, to cut them down, to slice up the pie into tinier pieces, to put ourselves first.

Legs, sails, cilia, flagella, wings.

I don’t see the power of holding the mic being shared. I see the mic disappear in a “fool me twice” kind of way.

And the largest shelled creatures, at the other end of the spectrum, the giant clams, growing to the size and weight of two baby elephants.

The forceful kickback of a shotgun, or an AK-47, or a handgun. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Mollusks leading to gastropods, cephalopods, bivalves, chitons and beyond.

Starving out the power grid to bring someone to their knees, cripple their economy, their roads, their schools, their beliefs, their spirit, their hope, even take away the option for the word cripple to be something that could be reclaimed.

All fragile and slippery.

All the tactics and strategy designed to obfuscate what’s underneath, a hurt and hurting human being who was never loved, never educated to see the sameness in the other, never stopping at amassing something that cannot, can never, be quantified.

All safe and sound, everything that they need on their backs, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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She reaches

She reaches for the sight of light at the window
early in the mornings
between us in our bed.
Her eyes wide, fixed, a steadfast gaze in the dusk of dawn.
She’s started reaching this month.
Reaching for the delicate branches above, reaching towards the crow perched on the wire, reaching for the thin silver crescent of a waning moon rising on the horizon, reaching for me.

Something opens I didn’t know was shut.

The deep well of grief, at the bottom the still waters somehow running and running and running, disappearing into purposefully-forgotten and dimmed reservoirs.
It reminds me of the cold mineral mouthful of river water and pulling out into the blue and deep crystalline eddy.
It circling and circling, collecting bits of fallen leaves, bobbing sticks, a stray green feather from a migrating mallard.
Coughing it all up and out.
Watching the river keep going, its urgency and momentum, bumping against the canyon walls, never staying in one place, its survival predicated on moving and never stopping to reflect and remember, hurdling towards a destination, maybe even a final resting place, or perhaps just a direction: east, west, south, north.
These turnouts – the breaks – come after the obstruction.
The river flows past them and its rushing water backfills the space downriver.
Where I sit.
We use these pools for resting, recovering, scouting out danger ahead, celebrating that we lived through whatever treacherous offerings the rapid just gave us.

We lived through a star whose light has ended.

Which is why it gives me pause when she reaches for the sky.

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Memories of a clothing swap, memories of a life

A month into my breast cancer diagnosis, I was sitting with other young women, in all states of undress, all levels of high with medicinal weed, and half glasses of champagne and tea and electrolyte-infused drinks strewn about. The Mission neighborhood was sunny that autumn day, San Francisco’s summer season, music crescendo-ing alongside the laughter in the house. I had joined a support group, the Bay Area Young Survivors, for young women with breast cancer—a niche that seemed to fit a surprising number of women—and one of the members was hosting a clothing swap at her house. I marveled at how all these little subcommunities had to exist in every nook and cranny of the world and what was I missing up until that point. Trading wigs and shirts and skirts and prosthetic-filled bras and lymphedema sleeves and scarves and hats on a Sunday afternoon. Trying to make the most of these new bodies. Looking around at us – sliced, burned, hot flashing, numb, skinnier, rounder, with parts removed and other parts added, bald or with hair.
 
I was quiet in new groups, usually. And this was no different as I steadied myself, back up against a wall, unsure where I fit in here, feeling conscious of how I felt and how I looked, wanting to be open to this newfound identity of cancer patient and where it would take me as I worked to stay alive. My port incision still fresh, a mechanical burn spread across my chest in some sort of cruel reaction to the surgery and first rounds of Taxol, painful acne dotting my face like I was an early teen again, the chemo pushing to squelch my hormones as they fought hard to stay at the peak of their influence, my long auburn hair cut into a practical pixie to make the transition to baldness easier. These women didn’t know me, the “me” before the now. And that didn’t matter, because I was here. I showed up. We had enough in common that all pretenses were cast off and a comfort eased in instead.
 
I recognized one of the women in the middle of the crowd. We had met the week before at a support group meeting. Julie. She was a year or so ahead of me in treatments, already done with chemo and her double mastectomy. After we waved to one another from across the room, she zigzagged her way through the clusters of people to plop down next to me, offering me whatever snacks were on her plate. She was vibrant, big blue eyes and a raspy voice. We started talking about the absurdity of this whole situation in front of us, how bodies are miracles, our shared Midwest roots, how we used to live just a few blocks apart by the Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, loved nature and conservation, were generally angry at the world because of the deep injustices and yet generally in awe that we could still have deep belly laughs.
 
I recall her saying – and it struck me like a bolt of lightning – that her treatment was a distant memory, a speck in her mind’s eye. That life had moved on and filled in the foundational cracks that cancer caused. How she never thought it was unfair, that she struggled with the questions of both why me and why not me. And she just kept on going, buoyed by this community of cancer survivors and the advocacy needed for the world to be better.
 
In the first few months of my life with cancer, the crushing loneliness was a dark passenger by my side as I moved through the world, keeping me up at night, dropping my stomach in the shower and causing me to double over, mouth open and crying with no sound.
 
That Julie indicated that there could be a moment in time where that passenger got off the train, the track splitting and my life now headed to wondrous places on the other side of the stacked mountain ridges…well, that was the first time I could envision it. Because there she was living it.
  
Memory is an unreliable narrator. It can make things even more beautiful than they actually were, even when they were incredibly beautiful, and turn the mundane into the magical. Especially with the passage of time and hard-earned wisdom.
 
As the months and years added up in our friendship, Julie and I shared in all the wonders of our unfolding lives:  Showing up at Julie’s baby shower in the Presidio Bowling Alley with Jules in a sequin dress, 8 months pregnant with Danika, holding a bowling ball and bowling a strike. Slip-sliding through the mud, mud even stuck in our teeth while we laughed, during a mud run for women with cancer in the old Candlestick stadium. Sharing information and sighs when we both discovered a common genetic mutation. Comparing notes on our tough oncologist and claiming victory when we would get a surprise hug from the doctor. Snuggling Danika in bed – maybe she was 3 or 4 years old – to help her get to sleep one night and making up lyrics to “Hush little baby.” “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird, and if that mockingbird don’t sing, mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring don’t shine, momma’s gonna buy you a piece of twine, and if that piece of twine does fray, momma’s gonna buy you a horse that neighs.” Or something like that. We went on and on, passing Danika’s bedtime, cracking ourselves up at our creativity in the moment to entertain this dear little creature. Dancing in platform heels in the Make-Out room. Driving together to Erin’s memorial and Janet’s yahrzeit. Meeting up for drinks at Le Colonial after Julie’s shift and my day of work just because we could. Opening up from her a gift of chocolate-covered magic mushrooms for my birthday present. Writing postcards to voters, in Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, and her asking me for more addresses to write during the downtime in her infusion chair. The bright blue February day, eating Banh-mi sandwiches on blankets spaced 6 feet apart, near the early-blooming orange poppies in Golden Gate Park. Comforting each other when our dads both died in the same calendar year in the throes of the pandemic. The newborn snuggles that she gave my daughter Celeste, asking me, in jest, “are you ever going to let me hold that perfect baby?!” and Julie’s nurse instincts coming out and showing me a better way to get a burp up and advising me, a new mom, that we didn’t really need to bathe our newborn often if at all (“But just remember to wipe under her neck now and again so that the milk doesn’t curdle in her wrinkles!”). The middle of winter in Cleveland, talking on the phone with Julie while I paced the aisles of a Salvation Army, looking for the best vintage clothes for her nephew, doing her shopping for her as she sat in her parent’s home a few miles away, her liver too swollen for her to comfortably move as she contemplated whether it was time for hospice. Her cheering on my decision to get a tattoo, to rewrite radiation scars. Conveying her wisdom about the first time camping with a baby—“Just do it!” Delighting in the hustle of Breast Cancer Action’s fundraisers and sharing our words through readings from the heart about the past, present, and the unknown future, holding both the anger and the joy, the fear and the wonder.
 
It’s been almost 10 years since that fall day Julie and I shared snacks at the clothing swap. Julie is gone now, living in a way and dying in a way that spited the cancer that returned. She had no expectation that she’d see her daughter’s 3rd birthday, then 4th  birthday, 5th birthday, then 6th birthday. She was never as fragile as she truly was. She had no casual trust that things would work out, that we would make it through, that it would be easy.

The week Julie died, we gathered again. This time fully dressed under the grey November skies, but soaking in that same cocktail of weed, beer, laughter, and tears, catching up on all that had happened, this being the first time most of us had seen one another in person since the pandemic launched. It felt joyful and sad, knowing all the life and death that had transpired in the intervening years. We were kicked out of the first venue because my daughter Celeste—then just over 5 months old—was “underage.” Julie would have been right there in front and incensed with the venue’s manager, and, then, she would have howled laughing at the absurdity of it all like the rest of us, falling into that easy rhythm where just a glance between us is a full and complete chapter book, an understanding, a little burst of love.

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Ok, Dad, you have my attention

I’m not a birder. I don’t have a bird list, traveling to the far reaches of the earth to see this bird or that bird, hear a his and hers call and response, marvel at the plumage and elaborate mating dances and entangling of talons looping down to the earth in a merry-go-round free fall.

But I like birds. Their little fast movements, quirks, personalities, patterns, and chatter like old married couples or Irish twins. Curiosity about how and when they sing and to whom. If they sing to be heard or if they sing when they are sad or if they sing to feel joy. In the western form of biological sciences, we’re taught not to anthropomorphize animals, which is essentially a lousy excuse to have dominion over something, to eat it and plow it and sacrifice it. Because if we thought it was too much like us, that it had feelings and family and better navigation skills, that it could forecast weather in its sleep, it would be hard for us to make progress, whatever progress is to a capitalist and white society.

I think they sing for all the reasons.

I only got my first birdfeeder in the early throes of this pandemic, as a way to nourish the migrators and the residents, diving into research about the yellow and red finches and chickadees and bushtits and what they might want to eat in the spring. As a way to pass the time, when it was that time where time was slow, folding back and forth on itself like where the ocean meets the land, wave after wave, expanding and contracting all at once.

So, it strikes me as funny that of all the people I’ve loved who are no longer with me, I see them in the birds. My grandma – the day she died one warm October over a decade ago – I was walking around the streets of Carmel alone. Deciding if being so far away from home was the worst decision I was making. And as I rounded a corner, I froze. Up ahead, in the row of rose bushes blooming in all shades of fuchsia, mauve, blush, bubblegum pink, was a bouquet of hummingbirds. A glittering, a hover, a shimmer, a tune, a charm. All the things birders would affectionately call it. All accurate, as I watched them zig and zap and chirp at each other and perch on the delicate rosebush branches, if even for a few second as their hearts would beat on. Ruby-red throated with emerald green wings, like the Wizard of Oz came into full color on a bird. GG, my grandma, died at that moment. She did. I now understand why birds are more akin to angels.

And my dad. He was the true bird lover in the family, his strong hands scooping up a fallen robin’s nest and tucking it back into the crevice of the Bradford pear tree. Pointing out the red-tailed hawks on the country fence posts. Laying out a bushel of black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and cracked corn for the resident Northern redbird cardinals. Commenting on the aggressive blue jays who hustled away the sparrows from the feeders. Or the turkey vultures soaring above a hot summer day on the convective boundary layer, scaling the thermals until they were out of our sight. Taking me to see the overwintering bald eagles in the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois river, just to marvel at their wingspan. Waiting and watching for the red finch pairs to come back every spring and build small homes for their future babies in the hanging ferns.

The hour he died, that bright and green June day, those five red finch baby birds fledged the nest in their first flight. And then later, the blood red northern cardinal sitting on the blacktop of the driveway, hopping towards all of us who lingered outside on the wraparound porch as my dad’s body lay inside, no longer taking air from the room. The cardinal would advance a few hops towards us; as the conversation halted, more hops forward. Of course, we were all looking for a sign, that he was free, he knew he was loved. We took it.

Cardinals stick around southern Illinois year round, that pop of brilliant red and its black masked face a stark awakening in the middle of winter, when the trees are stripped of their leaves, cavities exposed, the ground is either white with snow or brown with a dormant exhale. The red bird with the bright orange beak is there, his mate and her warm reddish crest, tilting their heads to one side and then the next, making eye contact with me through the family room window. My mom and I inside taking turns feeding the fire. A group of cardinals – even the mating pair – are a college, conclave, radiance, even a Vatican. Nearer my god to thee. And when it lingers longer than I think makes sense for any bird to, I say aloud, “Ok, Dad, you have my attention.”

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This is what moonlight feels like

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From coming home to eat

Gary Paul Nabhan’s piece, from Coming Home to Eat

Whenever I have doubts about whether all of this effort has been worth it, I go out into the wilds behind my backyard and taste a fruit or flower freshly plucked from a tree or vine. My mouth, my tongue, and my heart remind me what my mind too often forgets: I love the flavor of where I live, and all the plants and creatures I live with.

They say your senses dull as you age. We are familiar with the gradual loss of sight and hearing, possibly rectified with glasses and avoiding night driving or adding in hearing aids. But the loss of smell, taste, touch….what does that experience feel like? Does it feel like losing a part of yourself? Or does the loss seem so gradual that is it not even discernable, the baseline shifted to the new normal, each and every day?

The memories of a whiff of orange-zested cinnamon buns, the mulled clove wine in the winter. Freshly cut grass and the wet earth awakening in the spring time. The effervescence nose of a class of champagne.

The taste of creamy chived goat cheese on a seeded cracker. The melt in your mouth sugar cookie that was Nadine’s recipe. The tangy twist of a bright Meyer lemon.

And touch…being able to grab a hot plate with ease. The nerves either damaged or aged to the point that they don’t fire as strongly, don’t scream out to be heard. Or the softness of a hand inside your own palm, fingers long-ago calloused and softened through with the thinning of skin and the fading of sensation and the passage of time.

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