Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta


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.


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:

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.


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

small potatoes

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!

Pioneer Days in Sacramento

When Great Uncle George died, my Great Aunt Eva, a ponderous woman with a sweet, cinnamon roll personality, took the loss like a flying trapeze artist working without a catcher. The thud of her heart hitting the ground could be heard all the way from the ranch in Montana to my grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Something  would have to be done, my grandmother said, explaining that her oldest sister – 25 years older – could not stay on the ranch alone, a three day ride to town. Aunt Eva had no surviving children.

Of course this story is more complicated than the death of an in-law and his bereaved widow needing care. But, in short, Aunt Eva’s household was packed and shipped to a wheat and pear ranch the family arranged for her to buy near Clearlake in California. The ranch adjoined the one owned by her sister Emma and her husband, Art.

Then a wildfire swept across Eva’s new ranch. We lived there at the time, in the 1950s, while my father was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea. With no men to fight the fire, my mother saved the house, but everything else was lost—barns, sheds, fences, water system, some orchards. We survived the fire, my brother Richard and me, by climbing into the cement water cistern with Aunt Eva. Through a crack in the lid, we watched my mother, later joined by local ranchers, beat back the fire advancing through the grasses toward the house with wet pear-packing gunny sacks.


Me and my beloved Great Aunt Eva on the ranch near Clearlake CA.

Aunt Eva sold what was left of the Clearlake Ranch and moved into my grandmother’s house in Noe Valley, every last steamer trunk and hat box went into the back bedroom where she lived as an invalid until she died in the 1960s. Eventually Aunt Eva’s things were handed down to me. She was accomplished at needlecraft, making lace, embroidery and astonishingly beautiful quilts. When Great Uncle George died there were many completed quilt tops awaiting backing.  The quilts were never finished.

I tell you this as a way to say goodbye, my friends, at least for a month or so. You see, I inherited those quilt tops and have been storing them under my bed for more than 40 dusty years. Yesterday my son helped me move the quilt boxes to my garage, where we will be sleeping tonight and for many nights to come.

Years, I’ve been packing and counting the years, across decades and millennia. I have lived in my Sacramento house 17 years. Finally, I have the time and money to tear it apart and paint the whole house – entrance to exit – and get new flooring. Every single thing must be out by the end of today. Yes, I have considered dynamite and matches.


Packing, packing, still more to pack today.

Clearing out means those dusty quilt tops, broken lamps and bed frames, underwear drawers, my adult children’s kindergarten art and the curated collection of their baby teeth, the dusty blue hat with the big bow in the back – price tag still attached (what was I thinking?) – the lapel pin that missed being stowed in my jewelry box, Aunt Eva’s pear coring tool, the suet grinder and food mill for putting up applesauce in the summer kitchen, the photo slides and obsolete diskettes, flimsy particle board book cases, boxes of tear sheets from my days as a journalist, a half-full bottle of blackstrap molasses, stacks of business cards that stretch back to the beginning of my 40-year professional career, the ashes of my former husband, who died seven years ago, his remains still awaiting dignified disposition. The unexpectedly, this ————


Found this photo of me at a costume fitting  in 1970 for my chorus role in Santa Rosa Community Theater’s revival of the musical “Little Mary Sunshine.” I was surprised to find this reminder of the long-forgotten, playful girl I once was.

Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton said “as we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites . . .  We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore.” At the bottom of all reality is deep goodness, Merton said, calling it the “hidden wholeness.”

So, I’m shutting down, going dark for more than a month  – no electronic chit chat, no messaging, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no connection to the outside world. I will be sleeping with the past in a garage colder than a Montana winter and hoping to find a hidden wholeness, a spiritual reintegration, in the hot mess I’ve made out of my garage.

Back inside the house, there will be renovation going on: new paint, flooring, tile, appliances, light fixtures, window coverings, fences. A total upgrade to usher in a new life, a new creativity, a fresh approach to honoring the past and who I am becoming. This work isn’t easy. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I reach the other side. I hope you’ll be there waiting for me.

Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

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Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:


An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

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Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

Merwin and Palms PBS

In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

Merwin Rain in Trees Cover


W.S. Merwin, 1993


On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at

Waltzing With Birdie

Uncle Doug was a bachelor. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses that greatly magnified his watery blue eyes. At 35, he was short, bald and chubby. After World War II was over and his typing stint at Fort Benning, Ga., ended, Uncle Doug came back home to San Francisco. A year later, he and my grandmother used the GI bill to buy a bungalow way up on the hill in Noe Valley. The three-bedroom house, with a tunnel entrance seemed like it was built on stilts, a promontory to the only world I knew – the Mission district down below, the neon Dutch Boy paint sign waving mechanically in the Potrero Districts, and ships, like tiny logs, anchored in the bay beyond.

My mother and father moved the four of us kids into the house’s cavernous basement when my father’s drinking led to the bank’s foreclosure on our tract house in Pacifica. Upstairs, Uncle Doug, Great Aunt Eva and my grandmother slept in the three small bedrooms, huddled together at the end of the long hall. Sunshine flooded in through three big skylights, which eased the despair.

Uncle Doug collected girlie pictures and pasted them into loose-leaf binders like recipes in a homemade cookbook. He kept them on his bureau with all the stats – bust measurements, age, height, weight, other magazines they’d appeared in. Before going to work in the afternoon, Uncle Doug would pace the floor of his bedroom listening to baseball games, calling the plays out loud before they were made. He had a record player and sometimes sang along with Frank Sinatra when the Giants weren’t at bat.

My grandmother said Uncle Doug had “shell shock” from his experience in the war. That was what made him so odd, she said. That was what made him talk to himself and pace like a big cat. My mother rolled her eyes and held her tongue whenever the shell-shock theory was presented. She leaned toward the brain-damaged-at-birth notion.

Sometimes Uncle Doug would go to the basement. There was an old, black upright piano in the back corner, shoved against the cement foundation wall. Our beds were arranged there too. He’d beat the keys, pound out hymns and sing in his thin tenor voice about the love of Christ. My mother would usually take us kids down the street to the park until the music died.

Uncle Doug loved to dance. He went folk dancing on his days off. He’d wear a plaid shirt and tie with a frayed tweed sport jacket. He had high blood pressure and anemia, which he tried to cure by eating raw liver. He picked the ear wax from his ears with a bobby pin and ate it. He smelled like the inside of an old shipping trunk. He never missed a day sorting mail. He turned over his paycheck to my grandmother without discussion.

Everyday payday, my grandmother would add things up and tell him how short we were. She’d go through the bills, figuring how much we could get away with not paying each month. Because we did have a car, we carried paper shopping bags with rags wrapped around the handles when we walked to the grocery store. The rags kept the weight of the food from cutting into our hands when we walked back up the hill. Sometimes Uncle Doug would take my bag and carry it for a while, adding the weight to his own load.

I never heard my uncle complain. He hugged us kids and tickled us, grabbing our legs just under the knee cap and wiggling them back and forth giving us what we called “shinnie, shinnies.” Once he took the four of us children to the Fun House at Playland-at-the-beach. Another time he took us to a roller-skating rink. One time we went with him to watch the Fourth of July fireworks through the fog at Marina Green. He spaded the garden when asked and carried my great aunt to the living room so my grandmother could change her bedding. Then he’d gently carry her back to bed again.

Sometime in 1958, when I was 10, my grandmother began to get phone calls from a bill collector. She’d argue and cry and hang up the phone. She and my mother would go in the kitchen and close the door. We could hear their agitated tones over the sound of the radio. Once I heard my mother say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Is Doug out of his mind?”

Then I overheard my mother talking to a friend. She said Uncle Doug had signed a contract for Arthur Murray dancing lessons. They wanted the $1,500 right away, and Grandma had finally borrowed the money on the house to make the bill collector go away. My mother said they took advantage of Doug, that he wasn’t bright enough to understand what he had done.

Uncle Doug wasn’t home much after that. Once in a while he’d spend an hour with us kids. He showed us how to rumba and cha cha. I tripped over his brown wing tips trying to waltz. He had rubber footsteps he’d lay out for us to follow on the living room floor. He’d play Frank Sinatra records so we could dance. He bought a black tuxedo with a blue cummerbund. He started to smell like Old Spice and White Shoulders.

One day I found his collection of girlie pictures in the garbage can in the basement. Ants were crawling all over the women’s bare breasts. They got on my fingers and marched around my wrists. I shook them off. I closed the lid.

Not long after that Uncle Doug brought Birdie home to meet us. They were ballroom dancing partners, he said. Birdie showed up with false teeth, a lot of rouge and a powder-blue chiffon dress with a fake fur stole. Uncle Doug’s cummerbund matched the blue in her dress exactly. He put his arm around Birdie when they sat on Grandmother’s burgundy chesterfield. My grandmother flinched when Uncle Doug called Birdie “Mama.”

My mother said Birdie was as Okie as the day was long. Killed her first husband with greasy Southern cooking. My mother said the poor man died of a heart attack while they were in the act. To no one in particular, my mother pointed out that Birdie had six grown kids. My grandmother said Birdie didn’t have the brains God gave a parakeet. Birdie ran a mangle and folded sheets in a commercial laundry. Uncle Doug said he loved her.

They were married at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1960. The reception was held at my grandmother’s house. We served a buffet of boiled ham and potato salad in the dining room. Then they sprinkled cornmeal on the basement floor and we kids sat on the wooden steps and watched as Birdie and Doug waltzed and tangoed on the open space near the washing machine. My mother said the marriage would never last. My grandmother said Birdie was old enough to be his mother, that she’d die first and Doug would come back home.

Uncle Doug and Birdie bought a singlewide house trailer in a park in Santa Rosa. For years Uncle Doug took the Greyhound bus to San Francisco to sort mail at the post office at night. He bought Birdie a new washer and dryer. They made payments on a refrigerator-freezer combination from Montgomery Ward.

A few years ago I drove up to tell him my mother had died. He’s retired now. He has a deep scar on his cheek where they took out a cyst. His magnified eyes are dim and he has dandruff and gout. He asked me if he was mentioned in my mother’s will. I said no. He asked if I wanted to hear some Frank Sinatra. I asked if he and Birdie still danced. He said yes.

First appeared: San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Punch Dec. 11 1994



“Never use so in a sentence. It sounds too girlish.” (college English teacher

going over one of my essays). The Cambridge Dictionary of the English

Language explains so is an intensifier when we mean ‘to such a great extent.’

I’ve never written or said: “to such a great extent,” but hey, these people are so smart, I’m sure they know what they’re talking about. The Cambridge folks say so is a degree adverb that modifies adjectives and other adverbs—providing a splash of intense color, so to speak, a pretty girl wrapping a hot pink scarf around her neck, for example. So becoming.

So, it happened again – twice in the past few days. I already told Facebook friends about the first time—took a quick tea break at work, looked up to see a Swainson’s hawk land on the security light above me. Just now, standing on my patio, a small hawk swooped across my garden, to perch on my navel orange tree. Went to see if it was a Swainson’s hawk, but it flew away before I could be sure.

Hawks are beautiful, vigilant birds, but why now, why twice? Why me? I live in the city, for heaven’s sake. I’ve got way more to think about than the hidden meaning of birds – like washing socks or clearing the rain gutters of all these blasted leaves. Where are my work gloves and the ladder?

So, besides being a visual gift, I still wonder if this unusual and repeated animal presence symbolizes anything? Seeking answers, I consult the modern-day Delphi oracles. I go online. Internet shaman and soothsayers offer this: Hawks are messengers from the spirit world. They call on us to be observant, to look closely at our surroundings. Life is sending signals, things are changing and hawks tell us to pay attention so we can navigate the shifts.

There is no end to online discussion about hawks as omen – from Judaism, Hinduism to Native American lore. Most conclude: “The hawk comes to you indicating that you are now awakening to your soul purpose, your reason for being here. Hawks can teach you how to fly high while keeping you connected to the ground.”

Here’s more to noodle my twisted brain, which only wants to think about chores and what I’ve forgotten: “As you rise to a higher level, your psychic energies are awakening and the hawk can help you to keep those senses in balance. Its message for you is to be open to hope and new ideas, to extend the vision of your life.”

So, sitting in my jammies talking to you after a big holiday, apple pie crumbs on my chest, I wonder about flying, about looking down on the world, seeing everything in exactly the right place – hearts and hands, holidays and hurricanes. Then I remember I’m in California. We don’t have hurricanes. Hell, it hasn’t rained here in nearly three years. Maybe I should clean the garden rain gauge, all this hawk talk could be a sign.

So, the Swainson’s hawk (Buteo Swainsoni) was listed as a threatened species in 1983 by the California Fish and Game Commission. The listing was based on loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state. Either their numbers are increasing now or I’m very lucky to have not only seen one or two in the past few days, but also to have spent a good quarter hour with one — a young, light morph female.

What messages do I need to receive? What has escaped my notice? Why do these sightings repeat?

So, God, I’m waiting, listening with intensified attention.