The floating wreckage of a ship’s cargo, flotsam skims the surface of the sea, readily found and easily rescued. Perhaps jettisoned, with the hope of saving the ship, in time, the flotsam becomes derelict, sinking beneath the waves to the bottom of the sea, with little hope of reclaim.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple preaches his sermon at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford about Jonah and the Whale:
”A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales and jars are clattering overboard…for when Jonah not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts – when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake the great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all is in vain; the indignant gale howls louder…and now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east and the sea is still, as Jonah carries the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind…he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him.”
Delve to the depths of the sea, in the belly of the whale, Jonah does not cry and wail, he keeps his faith, continuing to strive, to stay committed to the path, even when all around seemed dark and in shadows. By his continual striving, he will be reclaimed.
Before leaving town, I drove over to my friend’s house to say goodbye and thank her again for the paddleboard adventure. My memories duly recorded of a beautiful November afternoon, the sun warm on my face as we glided on Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay. The wind picked up in the afternoon, bringing a slight chill. The breeze also brought waves rocking the board, challenging my core. Only my second time out on the board, I was still learning to balance…still learning to trust my ability to dance gracefully on a fluid surface, keeping time with water’s rhythms. Dancing the cha-cha, badly, with the wind and the waves. But when I relaxed, letting my mind and body live in the moment, I walked on the water.
Dogen meditates in his Mountain and Water Sutra “all waters appear at the foot of the eastern mountains. Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.”
My friend was in the garden, cutting a single white flower, a dietes, a wild iris, from her garden, to place among the blue iris, waiting in the vase on her table. It was a beautiful juxtaposition: backlit, the iris emerged from the darkness, well situated on the tablecloth, a spectrum of colors. The image cried out to be painted in oil, but I am a watercolorist. With limited experience in oil paints, I have no trust in my abilities, in my mind and body to work together, no confidence that I could walk on water.
Gary Snyder writes in his essay Blue Mountains Constantly Walking published in The Practice of the Wild “there’s all sorts of walking – from heading out across the desert in a straight line to a sinuous weaving through the undergrowth. Descending rocky ridges and talus slopes is a specialty in itself. It is an irregular dancing – always shifting – step or walk on slabs and scree. The breath and eye are always following this uneven rhythm…the alert eye looking ahead, picking the footholds to come, while never missing the step of the moment. The body-mind is so at one with this rough world that it makes these moves effortlessly once it has had a bit of practice.”
So, I just said, just dive in, walking on water will come…with practice, and really, the journey is all that really matters. Diving into the deep end starts the learning. So, I painted with oil, the iris emerging from the darkness, well situated on the tablecloth, a spectrum of colors. So, I say, trust your mind and body, and never forget, the darker the night, the brighter the stars.
Lying in bed, reading softly aloud from Afloat, one of Gary Snyder’s poems from his epic Mountain’s and Rivers Without End “…like a cricket husk – like an empty spider egg case, like dried kelp fronds, like a dry cast skin of a snake, like froth on the lip of a wave, trembles on the membrane, paddling forward, paddling backward…there is no place we are but maybe here,” the sound of birdsong and the rain scent drifted through the window. Later, we launched the paddleboards and made our way out of the harbor, and through the river’s mouth to drift among the kelp beds on Monterey Bay. So close, so near, a pair of dolphins broke the surface, exhaling through their blowholes, a magical sound. The water was still and the sky a showcase of rainclouds, dark gray sky reflecting in the sea. “Floating on a tiny boat, lightly on the water, rock[ing] with every ripple…where land meets water meets the sky.” The Greek etymological root of metaphor is meta (across) and pherein (to carry). Cautiously, one stroke at a time, I left my troubles on the shore behind, carrying only my hopes and dreams, stormy skies surrounding me, steadily crossing, stroke by stroke, on my path to the other side.
In Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, Rachel Cohen describes how Berenson, revolutionized art history by his beliefs that “one did not need to be steeped in history or iconography in order to respond to paintings…one could be in an active relationship with paintings…one’s own private and profound experiences of them was not just for the rich or gifted but a natural capacity of the human mind and therefore available to everybody.” Paintings, wrote Berenson, “hate people that come to them with anything but perfect abandon.” This month an exhibit of my watercolors hangs at the Sweet Adeline Bakeshop in Berkeley. Watercolors lend themselves well to my life in transit: they are light to carry, rapidly used, and quick to dry. As I walk and bike near home and work, or travel, I discover stories in the landscape. Watercolors and brushes at the ready, I stop to capture the moment with quick sketches. Some of these sketches mature into more detailed works created back in the studio.
While I firmly believe historical context is not required to enjoy art, it does, without a doubt, add to the experience. Depicting wild or urban settings, my paintings draw inspiration from the Hudson River School and Tonalism, groups of artists who expressed their experience of nature in very different terms. Hudson River School painters – including Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt – wrought panoramic vistas celebrating the magnificence of the land in sharply defining light. Emphasizing mood and shadow, the breaking dawn, gray or misty days, or light bleaching out sharp contrasts, Tonalist painters – such as George Inness and James McNeill Whistler – softly rendered landscape forms in their paintings. Published in A Life in Photography, the painter and photographer Edward Steichen wrote “by taking a streetcar out to the end of the line and walking a short distance, I find a few wood lots. These became my stomping grounds, especially during autumn, winter and early spring. They were particularly appealing on gray or misty days, or very late in the afternoon or twilight. Under those conditions the woods had moods and the moods aroused emotional reactions that I tried to render…”For those of you unable to see the exhibit in person, I share the paintings with you now. Bring your perfect abandon and choose your perfect soundtrack to view the pictures at the exhibition. Some may choose Mussorgsky, but for today’s viewing I choose Rufus Wainright‘s Release the Stars.
Who could imagine a university nestled amongst stands of redwood trees and situated upon a hilltop meadow on the edge of the Monterey Bay. In this aspect, and in many other ways, UC Santa Cruz is extraordinary. Every morning I bike up the hill through the meadow to campus, a worthy challenge, and every evening, work complete for this day, I descend the pasturage, enjoying the emerging stars cast against a Technicolor ocean sunset. When I can take a midday break, I walk to the meadow and sketch. There, amazing Coastal Live Oaks, joined by their companion Bay Laurels and Buckeyes, bridge the forest and the meadow. A particularly compelling Quercus Agrifolia has caught my attention; a massive tree that must be at least sixty feet high, and could be over 250 years old. The change it has witnessed. It’s trunk is massive, contorted and gnarled, its branches an intricate web, and its crown rounded and dense. It sits majestically at the crest of the hill, the redwoods, the meadow and the bay as it’s theatrical backdrop. Beauty was the subject of my last blog and my search, blessedly continues.
It is difficult to take a break from the demands of a busy work schedule, but sketching the tree offers food for my imagination, an opportunity to refresh my soul, and ground myself before returning to my responsibilities. Henry David Thoreau danced on the edge of a Buddhist koan, with this 1859 journal entry “I have many affairs to attend to, and feel hurried these days. Great works of art have endless leisure for a background, as the universe has space. Time stands still while they are created. The artist cannot be in a hurry. The earth moves round the sun with inconceivable rapidity, and yet the surface of the lake is not ruffled.” My friend Chip Sullivan, artist and author, states in Drawing the Landscape that we “draw because it is the act of seeing and thinking clearly…it allows a concept to evolve…it resides between freedom and structure…drawing can also be a meditation…Zen art is the expression of the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere to a timeless dimension.
A few months ago, a very dear friend was reading a book about the National Archives historic photograph collection. The page was open to an iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange of hungry people in breadlines in San Francisco during the Great Depression. That single moment, set me on a journey of discovery, a road I still travel – reading about Dorothea and her first husband Maynard Dixon and viewing reproductions of their work in books, films and in museums. In the Fall 2014, PBS American Masters series broadcast the film Grab a Hunk of Lightning portraying the life and work of the masterful artist Dorothea Lange. A section of the film included Lange speaking about the meditative experience of making art:
“When you are working well, it is first of all, a process of getting lost, so that you live for maybe 2 – 3 hours as completely as possible the visual experience…you feel you have lost yourself, your identity, you are only an observer…all your instinctive powers are in operation and you don’t know why you are doing things really. Sometimes you annihilate yourself; that is something one needs to be able to do. There are moments when time stands still. You hope it will wait for you that fraction of a second…beauty appears when one feels deeply. Art is an act of total attention.”
Reached from our hilltop campus by a swift bike descent, UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory rests on the cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Today I cycled part of the Empire Grade and then spun quickly back down to the sea to visit the lab’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center. A research and teaching center, “Long “is renowned for innovative marine mammal research. Walking along the cliffs searching for a spot to paint, I was greeted by the sounds of the ebbing tide and the snowy plovers dancing along the water’s edge. Hard at work in search of nourishment, sea otters and bottlenose dolphins swim in the silver-white waves below me and pelicans glide searching for fish just above the whitecaps. It was late in the afternoon and mostly overcast but from time-to-time the clouds broke and the cerulean blue sky peaked through allowing sunlight to stream from above infusing distant cliff sides with a glow seemingly from within.
My visual experience is beautifully expressed by Santa Cruz resident, writer James D. Houston, who wrote Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, a series of essays about place inspired by the California landscape. In an essay titled “The View from Santa Cruz” Houston wrote “in later afternoon the light turns the bay white…the sea, as much as the light, gives this curve of coast its flavor. The light takes its color from the sea, sometimes seems to be emerging from it. And the sea here is ever-present. On clear days it coats the air with a transparent tinge of palest blue that salts and sharpens every detail…the slow process of erosion has left many colored cliffs – yellow, buff, brown and ochre. Each striated layer reveals the pressed sand of beaches eons old. Sometimes in the low sun of an autumn afternoon they turn orange and glow like the horizon itself.” With his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki, Houston co-authored the memoir Farewell to Manzanar. The Japanese Internment Camp Manzanar, located in the Eastern Sierras, resides in the shadow of my majestic friend Mt. Whitney.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is so precious; we must ensure its continued existence through direct stewardship and consciousness raising actions. On Sunday September 21, 2014 citizens from over 150 countries took part in a consciousness raising action for the environment and social justice, participating in a global People’s Climate March. Largely ignored by the mainstream press, Ben Wikler host of MoveOn.org ‘s “The Good Fight” has chronicled the march in his podcast which can be listened to in iTunes or through the web at “inside the ginormous, huge-tastic climate march.”
Wind and wave carved the barrel vault through which the tides pass. Frieze-like, cormorants and pelicans adorn the rock’s surface. Just offshore Santa Cruz, this nature-made arch stands proudly like a monument to stewardship of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. A bridge for centuries, the 1989 earthquake took only seconds to sculpt the arch from a span called Natural Bridges. Out in the bay waters, humpback whales feast on schools of anchovies. Early evening, living on the edge of the Pacific plate, my friend and I paint quickly attempting to capture this fleeting perfection with our brush marks. Thousands of miles away, seismic politics bring violence and death to innocents in Gaza and Ukraine airspace. All is suffering. A few lines from Robert Hass’ poem Bush’s War published in his book Time and Materials capture my sadness at this suffering:
“Someone will always want to mobilize
Death on a massive scale for economic
Domination or revenge…
Why do we do it? Certainly there’s a rage
To injure what’s injured us. Wars
Are always pitched to us that way…
The violence, it’s a taste for power
That amounts to contempt for the body…”
The history of all conflagrations ultimately includes the tallying of the dead, the wounded and the maimed. But they never tally the loss for the living. The black fonts on the white page cleanly mask the suffering. Colm Toibin’s closes The Testament of Mary with a conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a disciple, unidentified but likely John, one of the four evangelists. Mary spoke, her words brimming with her son’s suffering on the cross “I was there, I said. I fled before it was all over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Sometimes we paint to stave off despair. Chiura Obata the great Japanese American painter of Yosemite and the Sierras was interned at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during WWII. Obata painted and wrote about the power of nature to absorb the scars of war. Writing about his series of Hiroshima inspired watercolors, Obata said “there is always harmony in nature, a balance between the dead and the living, between destruction and resurgence.” And so I rechristen Natural Bridges as Natural Arch, a monument to the cycle of life and to harmony, seeking balance between conquest and stewardship.
Tomorrow morning at 6:30AM Day One of our seven day 545 mile journey begins. We cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles and our first stop is Santa Cruz, my special home. Tonight my bags are packed and I am ready. Riding alongside many good friends, I’ve been training very hard this year with many miles in the saddle. It all started for me exactly one year ago when I watched two friends start the ride of their life on the AIDS Life Cycle. I was inspired to go the distance An adventure and a challenge, but it is a real means to help others and be the difference. I will ride tomorrow knowing that my riding supports the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. These organizations confront HIV and AIDS through education, advocacy and free services for prevention and care by helping people locally and giving a voice to all people living with the disease nationwide. But I would not be riding without the generosity and support of my friends and family who have dug into their hearts and opened their wallets to give so kindly, enabling me to ride and for we together to help other people suffering with HIV and AIDS. On Sunday night my bike and I will rest by the waters of Monterey Bay in the knowledge that we’ve started something special.
My training for the 2014 AIDS Life Cycle continues! It is the end of March, and just last week I achieved this month’s goal to cycle more than ninety miles in one day. It was an amazing day beginning in heavy fog and ending in bright sunshine and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific; a beautiful ride, the kind of ride that clears your head and helps put everything in perspective, well at least for a few moments! My journey took me from Santa Cruz where I cycled past surfers at Pleasure Point, through redwood trees in Aptos, along the nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, and through Fort Ord Dunes State Park and on to fisherman’s wharf at Monterey. My good friend Connie joined me for the Castroville to Monterey loop; it was wonderful to have the company and conversation. After lunch, I got back on my bike and rode the fifty miles home to Santa Cruz. It can be done!
Lately, cycling has taken a prominent place in my life; it obsesses my thoughts and it floats through my dreams. I continually cruise peoples’ bikes comparing brands and components; I obsessively monitor my tire pressure; free moments catch me surfing the internet planning road rides; and sometimes in sleep I am climbing the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees and see myself flying downhill, joyously singing, alive, transcendent. Cycling is my primary transportation to work in Santa Cruz and I love everything about it: my breath hanging in the cold morning air; the golden sunrise dancing on the waves; the smell of sardines in the harbor; the cormorants drying their wings at the mouth of the San Lorenzo; the sight of the Big Dipper at the Boardwalk; the red-shouldered hawk’s cry piercing the still meadow; and the steady rhythm of my heart. I’ve even come to humor the stiffness in my cranky knees. But lately, cycling has also become poignant. Riding has become a ritual of honor, an epic poem of remembrance, my song of mourning.
Every year the AIDS Lifecycle, the 545-mile weeklong bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles begins with a ceremony featuring the poignant entry of the riderless bike. The entourage escorting the bike includes self-identified HIV positive cyclists calling themselves the Positive Peddlers; the ritual honors those who have passed and those who are so ill they cannot ride. In the 1990s, I worked with a wonderful man and archivist named Willie Walker. A nurse on the SF General Hospital AIDS Ward, Walker, when he realized gay history was becoming a victim of the AIDS epidemic, founded the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society of San Francisco, along with Alan Berube, Estelle Freedman, and several others. Walker was also the project archivist for the UC San Francisco (UCSF) Library AIDS History Project. During the 1990s, Walker was my colleague and friend when we collaborated at GLBT and UCSF. In June 2002, I did my first AIDS cycling event, the European AIDS Vaccine ride. This month, I registered to make this epic journey again. In June 2014, I will ride in the AIDS Lifecycle to raise money to help persons living with AIDS and HIV and to honor friends I have lost. We lost the generous, loving, and dedicated Walker several years ago, not to AIDS, but to other natural causes. But on the road to Los Angeles, I will honor and remember Walker and how he fought AIDS by keeping history alive.
A ghost bike is a bicycle painted white, serving as a roadside memorial when a cyclist has been injured or killed by a motorist. It is hoped that the memorial will remind drivers to slow down, share the road, and fully grasp the potential destructive capacity of the vehicles they drive. In early November, we lost Josh Alper while he was cycling north of Santa Cruz on Highway One. Josh was beloved by so many; he brought us music, humor and such sweetness. He was also so earnest about helping students and faculty at the UCSC Library. When shopping for a new bike, I purchased my new wheels at Santa Cruz’s Spokesman on Josh’s recommendation. Josh was a gearhead about bikes and Spokesman is a bike shop with a tip-top crew of gearheads; they, like Josh, know their stuff. From talking to Josh, it was clear he loved riding, building and maintaining his bike. He was also devoted to the history of the sport. Waiting in line for coffee, he often spoke to me about his deep respect for Greg LeMond, three-time winner of the Tour de France and the only American to win this epic contest. He urged me to read Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France; he loaned me his copy so I could understand the now mythologized rivalry between teammates LeMond and Hinault. In honor of Josh, the Spokesman bike crew assembled the ghost bike, one of many memorials to this young man. You are greatly missed Josh, and always will be. In early 2014, I will ride with other cyclists to honor, remember and mourn Josh as we escort his ghost bike to its final resting place.
Homer’s poetic narrative of the Trojan War, The Iliad ensures immortality for Achilles and his fellow warriors. Inscribing their glory in battle, their deeds live on, honored in perpetuity. In Ancient Greece, the recitation of the epic poem was an act of remembrance, honoring the glory of warriors. In 21st century California, with the act of cycling, I will honor, remember, and mourn the glory of lost comrades.