Monday, January 25, 2010


This was the scene out my window this morning.  It was the sort of day that conjures up images of soup and tea.  Maybe a fire.

But the girls' nature class meets in any weather.  By the time we pulled out of the driveway it was raining hard.

There were lots of puddles, Clementine told me. There was a live newt and a dead newt.  The dead newt's head was crushed by a car and its brains were spilling out.  The live newt was in a stream by the road.  They put it in a puddle to observe it for a while.  It half swam half walked in the shallow puddle for a while and then they released it into the stream where it swam under a log.

Unlike me, at home, they did have a fire.  A big fire.  The counselors brought some logs.  And Evelyn, who is knife certified and Clementine, who is newly hatchet certified, helped make kindling.  The kids took turns with the hand drill to start the fire.  One started at the top of the stick, running her hands back and forth, moving from top to the bottom.  When she had reached the bottom the next person started at the top of the stick.

Running down a slick muddy hill Evelyn slipped and slid 12 feet along the ground.  She had mud in her hair.  She took off her shoes to climb a tree (it was too slippery to climb with shoes on) and got her feet muddy.  She ended up with more mud on the inside of her socks than on the outside.

I inferred from the fine freckling of mud on Clem's cheeks that someone near her had been stomping in puddles.

They spent six hours outside on a rainy day and came home tired, muddy and happy.

No cabin fever here today.

And how about you? Are you cozying up and watching the rain and snow or venturing out?

Monday, January 18, 2010


Last summer Greta was obsessed with her birthday.  When I posted about it it was June 28th and her birthday was 170 days away.  We made a birthday chain with one link for each day until her birthday.  The idea was to make time more concrete.
It was not an instant success.  Even though the chain, hung, criscrossed the

ceiling and dangled down a wall, five minutes after we put it up Greta ran to

me with a gift bag for her presents.

It did sink in, though, eventually. But before it did, Greta went through many of the stages of a pint-sized grief over it.

Denial: What was that bag for her presents but full blown denial?
Anger: She was resentful of other kids' birthdays.  She wanted to tear the chain down.
Bargaining: "If I tear them all today will it be my birthday?"
Depression:  No depression...whew!... but she did go through a period, after dutifully tearing a loop each day for weeks, of leaving them for several days or a week and then catching up.
Acceptance: She stopped talking about her party and began to look forward to the other dates we marked on her calendar: a wedding, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day.

And then, on Saturday, she was tearing the next to last loop.

And yesterday she welcomed her guests and opened her presents....handmade and lovingly chosen gifts.

Including this flamingo that Evelyn holed up in her room to needle felt.

Greta is five now.  She learned to read two digit numbers from her chain calendar.  And to be a bit more patient and enjoy the here and now.  But I think we might still have to work on acceptance.

As I was tucking her into bed she began to cry.  "I don't want to be five.  I want to be four again.  I want to stay young."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Light

Twelve years ago I was applying to medical school.  I was three months pregnant with Evelyn.  At my interview the Stanford director of admissions said it would take something radical for him to accept me, a 28 year old Russian literature PhD program drop out (he didn't know I was pregnant).

"Some guy would be pumping out blood in the ER and you'd be trying to figure out what happened instead of acting.  You," he said, "are an observer and an analyst.  You're not a doer."

Twelve years later I am still stung by this and pained by the way I handled it.  My brain froze.  I was unable to remember anything I had done.  I became the person he said I was, not the person who jumped out of an An-2 airplane over Leningrad without any training.  Three times.  Hey, I'm a doer.  A stupid doer, maybe.  But a doer.

I tried to reason with the guy, analyze his opinion.   Probably I should have climbed up on his desk, or taken him by the collar and said, "I've worked too hard for this to have some jerk turn me away because I think too much and don't act on impulse enough."

But I didn't.  And I didn't get accepted.  And really, wasn't he pretty much right?  The reason I like and that I like to observe and analyze.

The last few months my posts have gone from every four or five days to every ten.  Too much to do.  And a lack of thoughts.  No desire to observe.  I stopped toting my camera.

The Sunday before we set off for our camping trip I saw the light.  We were at the car grabbing jackets and water for a short hike.  And I saw the light--through the trees.  Perfect light.  The camera was at home.  But wait...there was the little point 'n' shoot water camera.  I grabbed it.

As we came into a clearing deeper in the woods I snapped the photo above.

Clementine turned to me and said, all breathy with excitement, "Look at the light hanging through the seems like you could just part it like a lace curtain."

And isn't it true, don't I have to admit, that one of the reasons I wanted to go to medical school was for material?  To be a doctor turned writer like Bulgakov, like Chekhov, heck, even like Crichton.

We went on another hike this weekend and I took my camera and all my lenses.  There was a lot to observe.  The girls looked under our favorite rocks.

I kept thinking of the book Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists.  It's a nice book if you haven't come across it.

With the macro we observed:
Dozens of mushrooms,

two scorpions,

two slender salamanders,

and a jerusalem cricket.

Turn over a rock in California and you may see these unusual insects or their telltale holes.

While Mike and the girls scrambled among the cave rocks

I switched to a telephoto lens and went after birds.

Don't the bushes look lovely against the sky?  All bare and innocent.  They're poison oak.  Can you believe birds eat poison oak berries?

I switched to the plain ol' lens the camera came with for a landscape.

I have a little bit of sorrow for that life that didn't happen, but among my regrets is not that my life now lacks material.  It's just a question of focus, angle, light.  Everything is material in the right light.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Mussels

The California Coast looked as English as it ever does: green hillsides with purple flowers, that if you squinted, and looked directly into the sunlight and swayed a little, could be mistaken for foxglove...if only you swatted away the clouds of hummingbirds, of which Europe is entirely devoid.

 The conditions were suitably early 19th century.  Smoke curled out of the chimneys, smoke from our wood stoves, the only source of heat in our little cabins.  And light came from our candles and lanterns.  We ran outside to fetch the cooking water.
And were not great 19th century themes evoked when we set out with pocket knives and a Trader Joe's bag to harvest mussels?  There was Dickensian child labor in perilous conditions. 

There was child against nature.

The theme of children's downfall due to bad parenting, prominent in Pride and Prejudice, was conspicuously absent.  Ahem.  Even though there was blood

and sweat and (almost) tears when a wave nearly swept away the harvest in its bag. 
Oh dear, scratch the blood, sweat and tears.  Wrong century.

There was success through hard work and perseverance.  Getting barnacles off mussels is as arduous as running any cotton loom,

but in the California sunshine, less likely to cause rickets.

The pride of the harvesters spurred them on to sample their harvest.

But the prejudice of those who had been too young to participate in the harvest

held sway and they would not partake in the feast.

All in all it was a trip worthy of a novel.

But all it gets is a blog post.