Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

On Writing: Please Pass the Small Potatoes

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Sorry, a P.S. about my writing routine. Again, it’s complicated. After leaving my job of 17 years, I left a familiar, productive routine behind. Interestingly, my body fell apart, maladies of all sorts. I’ve been working through the physical issues and trying to find a rhythm that works as I focus on creative writing.

I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to build a new, productive routine. I swear that has been the hardest part of retirement. Having regular deadlines, publishing several times a week is real and gratifying. Typing away on stuff people don’t care about and will probably never see is discouraging. Although, I think I’m getting closer to a “regular” way of working, it’s not yet firmly established and what others might think about the result nags at me.

But it’s getting better– I’m more productive, less inclined to think about what others might think about my work. I’m more willing to sit at the keyboard actually compose, rather that following Internet click bait down ridiculous rabbit holes, wasting time. These days I’m more inclined to do online research that is actually useful to the projects I’m working on. My novel is approaching critical mass, past the halfway mark and chugging toward the first-draft finish line. My poetry collection is awaiting editing, my magazine article is coming together and will be filed next week.

In part, I’m disciplining myself to work. It’s hard at first to stick to a new routine. But, I had a favorite editor years ago who gave me a shove down the road of self-motivation. He admonished me for turning in my freelance newspaper stories late (I had a house full of little kids, fell down the stairs, my husband went on a 3-week drunk, my car got towed and it was a week before Christmas.)

I explained to him there were extenuating circumstances that caused me to miss my deadline. He nodded, said the story was good, asked about photo choices, layout and timing. It was a productive exchange. I thanked him, made it to the newsroom door.

As I put my hand on the door handle and trip the latch, he stood up, shouted at me across the newsroom and shook his finger: “Kate Campbell! You do your work!” Every reporter turned to look at me clutching the door handle, but not clicking the release. Caught in the spotlight, what could I say? Nothing, except . . . . “Got it!”

It’s one of my grown kids’ favorite stories because they also got it, a lesson learned when they were small.

Don’t know where this new writing energy is coming from, but today I’ll take a second helping. Please pass the small potatoes, those tiny triumphs that eventually add up to full meal and real progress!

Wise Up, Skip the Crap

Six months into retirement, contemplating the stretch of 2017 from the fresh vantage point of January – rainy and cold – it looks like carnage, a quiet village overrun by marauders, chairs toppled, sink filled with dirty dishes, windows stripped of coverings, a mound of wet plastic and cardboard in the courtyard, switch plates missing, electric outlets busted. A mess of biblical proportions.

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My post-holiday garage storage space

A friend suggested writing a story about my whole-house update, my remodeling project that has gone on for months, finally overtaking me a few days before Christmas. The idea was to share the before and after images, the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.

On Dec. 20 at 7:38 p.m., I signed off on installation of the new carpeting. At that point I was just the tiniest bit over budget and a mere two weeks behind schedule. But I had managed to make six fruit cakes and buy and wrap Christmas gifts, if only I could find the boxes they were in in the garage. What I’d hoped would be a triumphant transformation has turned into – well, a lot more work.

My son and his wife arrived from Los Angeles on Dec. 23 to spend two weeks in a house freshly painted and carpeted, yes, but totally empty. Everything I still own was packed tightly into the garage. I got rid of about half the crap I’ve been hoarding for years, but even so it was a tight fit. It was then I realized putting my house back together was going to take a lot more time than I’d expected. I’ve spun a thick cocoon and it’s going to take a bit longer to kick my way out.

So I tried playing Grinch, wanting time to think about how I would put my house back together, winced at the sound of Christmas carols, squinted with disapproval at the neighbor’s festive outdoor lights, refused to buy a Christmas tree.

My sons, who are those annoying Whos from down in Whosville, said, “No! Christmas is coming no matter what,” and proceeded to drag tables, chairs and boxes, what is left of my junk, back into the house. They bought a table-top tree with oscillating fiber optic lights. I have never in my life owned a fake Christmas tree. My friends Carol and Tony also arrived with a couple of energetic teenagers to help with the household liberation. And then we built a fire, broke out the champagne and partied—for days.

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My Grinchy Christmas Tree

Writer Anne Lamott in a Dec. 30 Facebook essay referred to the yearly resolution to lose weight or make other big life changes and pointed out: “Horribly, but as usual, only kindness and grace–spiritual WD-40–can save us.” Here Lamott is referring to saving us from ourselves. In my case, it’s the quest for perfection, order, absolute control and other delusions I really need to let go of. “Grace” is my word for contemplation in 2017. Grace is the grease I’m looking for.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) comes into play in my makeover project. I’m about 80 percent done with my project and the last 20 percent will be the hardest part. I tried to finish my project before the holidays so I could sit around in my black velvet slacks and an ugly Christmas sweater – everything in place for a graceful and stylish celebration with friends and family—and accept compliments about what I was able to accomplish in the home improvement department. After all, I am on a first-name basis with half the staff at the Truxel Road Home Depot. But no.

img_4133My plan to wow folks with my ability as a general contractor and interior design expert, not to mention my multi-tasking skills, quickly turned to shit. As you can see, my hubris got ahead of me. The result was a letting go of my constipated expectations and instead enjoy two weeks of fun and a heart swollen with love.

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My favorite Christmas gift, a butterfly trinket box made by Fortuna CA artisan Lawrence Harvey. From my beloved sister-in-law Melanie. The silver coffee and tea service added a grace note in an otherwise absurd situation.

So, I offer you a sincere Happy New Year! I take comfort in the words of Thomas Merton from his essay Hagie Sophia (Ramparts magazine, March 1963) “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister. Wisdom.”

In my case and at my age, it’s hard won wisdom. I wish you Grace and Peace in 2017.

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Son Mark and daughter-in-law Janie, who celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Christmas Day.

Good Country Music

Cooler loaded, picnic supplies and scruffy comforter in the back, we lock the front door and check the oil in the Mountaineer—a quart low and too early to do anything about it. The sun has barely roused its sleepy head.

We’re off to Three-Mile Slough in the south delta, fishing poles clickety-clacking all the way from Sacramento, roads mysteriously empty two days before the 4th of July, two days before the sparklers and bottle rockets and Roman candles explode, two days before children break their arms or cut their toes, burn themselves on the barbecue. Two days before life changes fully into summer and the new order of things begins.

Today, one of two free fishing days in California, we cross Three-Mile Bridge to Brannen Island, going after striped bass in the delta’s mixing zone of fresh and saltwater. We go without a license, without a clue, but there’s hope as we settle into canvas camp chairs just after sunrise and study the water. A fish jumps, another and eventually another. We’re in no rush. We have all day, a lifetime to burn daylight.

Wind from the Pacific Ocean pushes through the Golden Gate, flies past Antioch and Oakley, barrels around the tip of Brannen Island where we sit. It rattles tulles, rustles wildflowers, and sends white egrets and blue herons soaring. Ducks paddle through riffles looking for shelter. Stretching away to the west, farmhands tend fields of corn and alfalfa, their tractors’ soft humming carries on the wind.

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A jingle bell fixed near the pole’s tip will signal if a fish comes to nibble at the bait—sardine and anchovy. My son, hurtling toward thirty and rushing to get his line in the water, barely cuts the bait, fixes chunks too large for slough fish on his hook, too big for small stripers, the wrong bait for catfish that suck sustenance from the decaying bottom muck. I hold my tongue, keep faith in my son’s hard-headed ability to keep trying and learning, to keep fishing. The sun turns up its heat and butterflies and dragonflies flit around us.

The island’s named for early California business rascal Samuel Brannen, who bought up land in the delta and throughout the state with funds skimmed from the tithes of his faithful Mormon brethren, eventually losing his empire when he was found out.

Families begin to join us on the island, picking shady sites nearby to picnic. Children, hauling colorful float rings and mats, throw themselves into the warming waters of the slough. My son moves on to deeper water.

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I spread the comforter in thick shade, loll in the relaxed, melodic sounds of Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese as women give directions for preparing lunches, laying nap pads under trees for the little ones, and arranging fishing poles for the hours before sunset when the fierce mixing of air and water comes again and the men go fishing.

They come now single–file, like squaws along a trail, coming from the overnight camps at the park’s south end. In ancient times they’d be gathering tulles for baskets, roots for medicine or acorns for mush, gossiping as they went about their tasks.

But, these country matrons chatter in English, dress in low-cut tank tops and tight shorts, wear sequins on their flip-flops and ball caps.  They sip from tall tumblers and play country songs from a hidden music box. Near my table, the last picnic spot cooks in the sun. They sit at the table for a while in the glare, smooth on suntan lotion, edge closer to my shady site. Stretched out beneath a thick cottonwood tree, I secretly watch them from under the brim of my sunhat.

“He said we had to be outta here by noon, then he got in the boat with his fishing poles,” one woman said. They laugh, all agree they were told the same thing. “We’ll be lucky to be home by midnight.” Then they fall to talking about the advent of their first menstrual cycle, compare how they felt, how prepared they were for the event, the response of straight-laced grandmothers, absent mothers, step-fathers, their own daughters now edging toward the day.

Alan Jackson sings from the music player buried inside the beach bag, resting now on my paper sack filled with cups and plates, a few plastic forks: “It’s alright to be little bitty, a little hometown or a little big old city. Might as well share, might as well smile. Life only goes on for a little bitty while.”

I relax, keep spying on these squatters pushing into my picnic space, blithely nudging aside my bag of pita chips. My son returns to the congress of matrons, glances at me playing possum under the tree. Before they can move, a crowd arrives, perhaps from the parking lot or from some celestial hiding spot, a few are dressed in white choir robes, others in patent leather shoes, sun hats and dress slacks. They skirt my picnic table and make their way down the slope to where the dozens of children play in the water.

The man in a flowing white robe wades into Three Mile Slough as his followers form a tight knot on the shore and to the astonished crowd declares in Spanish a “baptismo.” One after another, three teenagers enter the water and wade to the minister.

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He murmurs to them in Spanish: “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” He calls down Espirito Sancto, tells the drenched teens to continue “glorificando a Deus,” tells them to become “fishers of men.” Then the congregation disappears.

The children return to their water play, the matrons return to lunch preparations and finding their fisherman husbands. My son and I eat salami and cheese sandwiches, chew on brownies, pack the Mountaineer, which is still a quart low. My son did not catch a striped bass, although he said others fishing around him did. But, in the spirit of hope, he says we have enough bait left for tomorrow. I love him too much to remind him free fishing is only for today. We don’t have fishing licenses.

Cover Photo: Three-Mile Bridge by Sacramento photographer Joe Chan. Joe’s images are currently on exhibit and for sale at Locke Food and Wine, the Moon Café and River Road Gallery. Down in Walnut Grove, he is exhibiting at the Seeker and at Husicks Taphouse in Clarksberg. Joe has an online portfolio at: www.flickr.com/photos/joechanphotos

 

The Art of Shaping Nature’s Narrative

The semi cascade bonsai style Han-kengai  mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

My semi-cascade juniper in need of training. The Han-kengai bonsai style mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

Loving bonsai is about loving your great grandchildren—a love that can, if the art is carefully practiced, endure for generations. In part, it’s this idea of a trans-generational love narrative that attracts me to bonsai and sent me on a quest to find a practicing bonsai master in California.

I found many masters. I realized, after settling in with one to learn the basics of this horticultural art form, that part of the art is about understanding and accepting my own aesthetic values. To start out, I would have to listen and think about my bonsai–for a long time.

While the art of bonsai is often associated with Japan, horticultural historians say it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea before reaching Japan. The practice of shaping tiny trees to mimic or stylize nature was spread by Buddhist monks who wanted to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

From ancient paintings and manuscripts, Asia scholars found “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars think bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 to 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C. by Yamaki in 1976.  Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C., by master Masaru Yamaki in 1976.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

Holistic health practitioners say benefits of growing bonsai include:

  • Careful pruning, wiring and shaping helps relieve stress.
  • Constantly caring for a plant can help develop mindfulness.
  • Working with nature, including bonsai trees, creates peaceful feelings.
  • Successfully growing and caring for a bonsai tree can create a sense of accomplishment.

Improbably, I appeared at the gates of a bonsai nursery in the San Fernando Valley a couple of years ago prepared to listen and learn about bonsai from a master. I was willing to consider accepting a tree into my care. Killing the plant out of ignorance wasn’t part of my plan so I’d given taking on the responsibility some thought.

That day I learned bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity, work together in a design sense. The most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often exquisite antiques. I also learned bonsai is not a house plant. The miniature trees, like their full-grown counterparts in nature, are meant to grow outdoors.

The master said he knew immediately when people brought yellow or graying bonsai into the nursery for his advice on how to improve the plant’s heath that it had been growing indoors. He said bonsai are miniature versions of species that grow naturally in nature and should be treated as such.

I also learned would-be bonsai artists should have more than one tree to work on. The reason for multiple trees, my master told me, is so the artist doesn’t overwork just one tree; multiple trees keep the artist engaged in bonsai and help avoid frustration.

He recommended sitting and contemplating the trees, listening for their stories, before taking action to shape those stories with wire and clippers into the narrative the trees want to tell.

After a long walk in his small nursery where bonsai starter plants are cultivated, the master determined my artistic leaning was toward the “Han Kengai” form an ancient cascade style symbolizing the “overflowing potential for growth.” The style is characterized by trees grown in the way the tree or shrub’s trunk and branches stretch below the pot. The branches flow down and out, attracting the observer’s attention.

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Han-kengai bonsai at the Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland, considered one of the best collections on the West Coast.

I’ve lived with and studied the juniper given to me by the master for more than two years. It put out tiny berries this winter, to my delight. Over time I’ve considered its form and its ability to express my thoughts into the future. I spend a few moments every day contemplating this plant and have decided it’s time to take some creative action.

April 9 to 10, the American Bonsai Association of Sacramento will hold its spring show, which includes demonstrations, classes, exhibits and sales of bonsai supplies. The annual event will take place at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park in Sacramento. I plan to pick up a few more trees and get some supplies.

And I hope to take a workshop from Peter Tea, who has studied with masters Boon Manakitivipart and Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan. Tea is in the process of building his own bonsai nursery and studio in Auburn, CA.

Show hours are Saturday, April 9, 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and Sunday, April 10, 10:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM. Demonstration trees are included in daily raffles. I hope to learn how to better shape my tree’s narrative in the decades to come for those I love.

Here’s a link to my Jan 2014 feature story on the art of bonsai that appeared in California Bountiful magazine http://californiabountiful.com/features/article.aspx?arID=1317

And here’s a link to a story that suggests stressed out high-tech hipsters in San Francisco are turning to bonsai for relaxation: http://www.7×7.com/culture/tiny-trees-deep-roots-history-bonsai-bay-area

 

Laughing Tomatoes

This post was published on the “Word Garden” site in 2011 with the support and permission of Francisco Alarcon. He passed away Jan. 15, 2016, but his generosity and love remain. It’s reposted to honor his spirit and courage.
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I recently bought my grandniece Sofia a copy of Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, by California poet Francisco Alarcon. She loves poetry and playing with words. Francisco’s poems delighted her and she couldn’t wait to share them at school in El Cerrito.

Francisco’s beautiful children’s book is written in English and Spanish and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. (Children’s Book Press, 1997) I heard Francisco read from the collection a few months ago at the Sacramento Poetry Center and was charmed. Sofia’s mother is Mexican-American, and Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably at home. At school it’s English, but with her 4-year-old energy, she giggles and leaps languages and continents with ease. Her joy in language and life is totally international, which brings us to today — International Children’s Day — June 1.

Time to get your silly on! Sofia will, Francisco does. Today’s observance is celebrated throughout the world with speeches on children’s rights and well being, children’s TV programs, parties, various actions involving or dedicated to children, families going out, singing, dancing — doing all the things my Grandniece Sophia loves, including laughing like tomatoes. Here is Francisco’s poem, along with some shots from my friend — Acclaimed Dominican Republic photographer and artist Julian Rodriquez:

Laughing Tomatoes

One year birthday

with flavor

laughing
they change

in our backyard

we plant
tomatoes

the happiest
of all
vegetables

with joy
they grow round

to red

Boy in hat

turning
their wire-framed
bushes

Two kids, New York 1972

into
Christmas trees
in spring

–Francisco Alarcon

What makes International Children’s Day special to me is the hope it spreads for the future of children, the builders of tomorrow, especially those children growing up in the world’s troubled places.

A new study by the United Nations on Violence Against Children is the first comprehensive, global look at all forms of violence against children. The central message of the study is that no violence against children is justifiable. The study reveals that in every region, in stark contradiction to states’ human rights obligations and children’s developmental needs, much violence against children remains legal, state-authorized and socially approved violence continues.

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The Study aims to mark a definitive global turning point: an end to the justification of violence against children, whether accepted as ‘tradition’ or disguised as ‘discipline’. Find the study at http://www.unviolencestudy.org/

2 Julies

Francisco X. Alarcón (born in Los Angeles, in 1954) is the author of eleven volumes of poetry. His most recent book of bilingual poetry for children, Animal Poems of the Iguazú (Children’s Book Press 2008), was selected as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association, and as an Américas Awards Commended Title by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs.

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His previous bilingual book titled Poems to Dream Together (Lee & Low Books 2005) was awarded the 2006 Jane Addams Honor Book Award. He has been awarded the Pura Belpré Honor Award by the American Library Association a number of times. He has been a finalist nominated for Poet Laureate of California on two occasions. He teaches at the University of California, Davis.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Julian Rodriguez moved to New York in 1964 where he studied at Germain School of Photography. He worked for many years as a studio photographer and later did architectural and construction photography. He says his subject preference is people, especially children, because they’re the most spontaneous. After spending most of his life in the USA, Julian returned to his island home a few years ago where he continues his photography, as well as woodworking and painting.

Grace and the People of Walmart

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He wiggles his fingers through the sole of his work shoes and suggests I take him to Walmart. He wants to buy a new pair before he busses the dinner shift at a neighborhood restaurant. Parenting adults is a tricky dance, I always check myself—am I helping or enabling.

I try to remember my dead husband, how he’d say with assurance that poet Kahlil Gibran said parents are the bow, children are the living arrows they send forth, and wonder why this twentysomething kid can’t go buy shoes without my help, why he can’t be a straight arrow.

He knows time is short before his shift starts, that Walmart is a quick drive away, but I’m on to his ploy. I tell him it’s busy on Saturday. I relent, stiffen myself for the people of Walmart, undoubtedly in full bloom on a holiday weekend.

I mentally prepare to run the gauntlet of morbidly obese shoppers blocking aisles with their carts, the disabled banking around corners in motorized chairs while holding Chihuahuas, teens mooning over engagement rings in the center aisle, transvestites with runs in their too-short pantyhose, middle-aged couples buying patio supplies and sex lubricant, children swaying an already broken birthday piñata. I park, my son struts ahead.

This time I don’t care about whether he’s embarrassed to be seen with me. I pick up the pace, find him in the work shoe section, way in the back. He can’t find safe-tred black shoes in his size. I reach up on tippy-toes, hand him down a pair. He tries them on.

I hold myself back from checking the toe room like when he was a child. They’ll do. We go to the check-out line snaking into ladies intimates. A woman with a mounded cart of merchandise signals us to go ahead, says, “If that’s all you’ve got.” My son, ever impish, looks over his shoulder says, “Come on, kids!” They laugh. I’m not amused.

While waiting, he strikes up a conversation with the woman in line ahead of him. He tells her he’s buying work shoes. She tells him her son works at Hot Wings in Chico, that he’s a student there. My son tells her it’s a great school, like he actually knows this.

He explains he’s just a busser, that he’s saving for a car. After the clerk rings up her order, she moves to the carousel of full plastic bags at the end of the counter, begins loading. My son asks the clerk how much for the shoes.

“They’re paid for,” nods toward the woman loading her cart to leave. She scurries away before he can say anything more than “thanks.” He helps me to the front doors because my eyes are blurry, tells me under his breath, “I think I need to go to church.”

I tell him: “You’re already there.”