daily fieldnotes

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In the Streets of Toledo 2

We got back a week ago, late Sunday night. The week quickly flooded us with the everyday of our lives in San Francisco. JJ with his worlds of new technologies, me with university days, dissertation, professors and scheduling meetings. It feels like a dream that we were in Toledo just a little over a week ago.

The power of high speed jet travel still surprises me, how far we can go in just one day. I grew up without traveling, except a few small car trips, mostly through school; I didn’t fly until I was 14. Now international travel is a permanent part of my life. It amazes me that my children will grow up traveling, will have two passports, will never know what it feels like to know nothing beyond 100 miles from their home.

My children. Oh how I wish they’d make their way into my life already!

*This last picture is the Alcazar, formerly a fortress, now housing the county library in one section. At the top of the corner tower there’s a cafe; the sweeping views of Toledo posted below were taken from here.

Past and Present in Toledo 1

Living in old-town Toledo is a little like living in a museum, the skyline, buildings, narrow stone streets marking an everyday connection to the past like the tapestries and tall thrones of a centuries-old royal museum. The main streets of town are dominated by tourist stores, golden souvenirs, handbags stamped with “Toledo” hanging next to fluffy red polka-dot Flamenco dresses. My father-in-law has made his living selling these souvenirs, walking around town visiting the owners of stores filled with glittering gold plates, jewelry, and long, silver swords. All traditional products from these parts, once handmade in small workshops, hammer meeting metal to pound the old damascino designs, now shipped from factories in China, assembled here.

As I drive into town to visit my Spanish Grandma, I look at the city, the Alcazar and Cathedral standing tall against the late afternoon sky. I think about how living in this museum of a town seems to go hand in hand with conservative values and a desire to keep the past alive, keep the uncertainty of present-day change at bay. Isn’t that what growing old is about, after all? They say we all grow more conservative as we grow older, working to protect what we have, pass on what we have learned to the next generation. When there’s money involved, or power, people hold even tighter, guarded and fearful of the impulsiveness of the young.

Having grown up with little connection to the past, not even knowing my grandparents, living far from where my parents were born, I’ve often felt seduced by the curves of history here, Roman bridges still providing a path across the river, castles a roof over peoples’ head. But it’s the stories that sweep me away, capture my imagination, make me wonder what kind of person I’d be if I were born in a place like this. How is it different to become who you are when so many physical reminders of the past surround you each day?

While packing for our trip home tomorrow, I listen to a podcast I’ve discovered called New Letters on the Air, an old episode from last June where Tobias Wolff talks about his book Old School. He says the book is partly about questions of identity, “how do we become the person we’re going to be”. He asks, “What part does imagination play in that?”

Wolff makes me think about the possibilities for creating who we are; he makes me feel like who we are is merely a question of the bounds of our imagination. At the same time, being in Toledo, listening to my Spanish Grandma’s stories, makes me think about how the past draws boundaries around our experience, colors how we see the present. What do you think matters more in defining ourselves, imagination or the past? How do both matter to you?

A Wider Angle 1

A morning at the Alcazar library, high above the old town. Sitting in an alcove facing a window, writing. Sitting in a sunny window drinking cafe con leche, reading. Grateful to be here.

Ripples, Sand, Mist 3

A Sunday walk at the beach. Blue sky, then swooping fog. Sand dollars on sand, white dotting brown. Dogs of all kinds. Walkers in sweatshirts and coats, hoods tucked against the wind. A little girl with a red shirt and long, blond hair, climbing a sandy cliff hand over foot like a monkey. Skateboards seen from below, skidding along a roadblock at the edge of the cliff. Water cold like snow, turning toes red. Sand pipers skittering along the shoreline, feet a blur like hummingbird wings. Deep breaths of salty air. A lone tree, high on the cliff.

Ginkgo and Maple Light 3

It rained hard last night, and this morning the sidewalks and buildings looked scrubbed clean, waiting, like the floors of a restaurant not yet open for the day. Outside our house the rain drove the Ginkgo leaves to the ground, fanning around the tree like a skirt whose elastic has snapped. Fall comes late here, the leaves only beginning to fall with the post-Thanksgiving cold mornings and dark rainstorms, so it’s easy to forget it happens at all when other parts of the country are already talking about snow.

I am writing more, making phone calls, filling out papers, jotting down lists, finding hope in routine and action, inspiration in fiction (I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, which I can’t believe I’d never read given how much I loved The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer). It’s been a dark time, but the yellow wildness of these leaves on smooth city pavement, and satisfaction of moving at last, calms the worries.

As does my wonderful guy, with his humor and warmth and habit of not shaving until he can comb my hair with his chin.

And time with my dear friend, and her smiley little girl, playing in piles of yellow and red maple leaves, keeping the baby from eating (too much) mud, walking and talking about moving and our nomadic lives and how hard graduate school can be.

Did you know shaking a branch into a hail of yellow leaves could make a baby giggle endlessly? You should try it, there’s no feeling sad when your hair is full of leaves and an 8-month old is chuckling with glee in your arms.

Sand, Ocean, Rocks 1

Sand, pushing against my steady gait, filling my shoes, hiding the city behind with tall, grassy dunes.

Ocean, rolling waves toward the shore, carrying surfers and foam and piles of coiled, hairy seaweed.

Rocks, piled with sand dollars, funneling the quicksilver water and turning it to foam.

After years of living in SF, I’ve “discovered” the beach is right over the hill, a mere 15 minute drive. I will be back.

360 Degree View 2

Too many days are dark like this November sky in the last few months, pulling my mind into strips of heavy worry. Dissertation blues, family squabbles, hormonal ups and downs. It’s all rather dreary and hard…

And so I take a walk. I leave the house, walk down a steep hill, the concrete clean from last night’s rain, sidewalks strewn with yellow and green leaves. I walk over Market Street on a bridge, passing a woman talking loudly on her cell phone, her dog giving me a suspicious look as if to say, “are you the one making my owner act like that?”. I climb stairs, wind along a small trail past an elementary school, and along a flat, residential street that hugs the side of the hill. I smell paint, and pass a man spray-painting a lamp gold, brown hands holding the metal against a sheet of plywood in his sunny garage. Finally, I reach the last set of stairs, up the mountain, and I’m there, at the top of one of the peaks (there are actually 4), surrounded by panoramic views of the city, bay, ocean, and a sky full of clouds.

I walk up and down the four peaks, sneakers slipping on old, weather-worn wooden stairs caked with mud. The hills are bare, no trees, just scrappy bushes and bright green fall grass, which always pushes up through the dry summer grass this time of year. No one else braved the possible afternoon rain, so I’m alone. I see scrappy, brown birds with bodies as small as plums, hopping about in the wet grass. I see a fat, mustard-colored banana slug, sliding along the rocks.

At the top of one peak, I stand, braced against the whipping wind, trying to stitch a 360 degree picture on my phone.* Between the cold and wind, it’s hard to hold still, and many pictures have fissures of overlapping color, shape, sky. I play with vertical panoramas, adding layer upon layer of sky to the glowing pre-storm horizon.

Then the rain starts, but I keep turning in circles, trying to take a full 360 degree panorama of the city. My hands are cold, raw. I put on a fleece headband and tighten the strings in my hood. The rain comes from the northwest, hitting my hood with a hard “thwap thwap thwap”.

So I head home. I walk down the last hill, noticing how the view of downtown San Francisco is obstructed by a sheet of rain. I can’t see the downtown towers, only vague outlines, and the gray blur of water falling in the distance. I cut right to follow the path, my shoe slipping a little in the dark mud. When I reach the street, I cross, and rejoin the path down the last hillside to a neighborhood street. I look downtown again, and the rain has passed. Market is clear all the way to the Ferry Building. The skyscrapers of the financial district stand tall once again, and I can even see the East Bay hills beyond.

The rain has stopped up here on the hill too. I walk home, considering how a storm, a mood, can come and go so fast. I can’t stop saying to myself, “see, it can all change in a moment, a storm can blow in, rain pelting down, and if you focus on your path, one foot in front of the other, by the time you have a chance to look up again, the storm has passed”.

*I took the panoramic pictures with a fabulous iphone app called “Pano”.

Swans 2

Remember “The Ugly Duckling” story? Do people still read that story to their children? I loved that book as a kid, the idea that the poor ugly duck who everyone teased would turn out to be a swan, the most beatiful of them all.  It spoke to the ways I felt awkward as a kid, like I didn’t fit in. Watching this swan last weekend, I was remembering the story. Look forward to reading it to my own kids, seeing what it means to me now, 25 years later.

A Different Angle 2

Taking the camera with me a lot lately, finding that looking through the lens, framing light and color, is a break from the ups and downs. (Here, from the back of a convertible on the Bay Bridge–which I’ve crossed innumerable times, and never taken pictures of.) Writing and walking a lot too, finding pause and rest from mood swings in putting words to page, walking up and down hills.

Listening to new music, The Boxer Rebellion, loving how their beats and voice resonate with my moods.

Thinking about a series where I post pieces of writing I’ve been working on here, once a week. I like the free flow of blogging, that captures where we are, today, in photos and words; but I also love reading blogs where people post more crafted writing, less often, and have imagined doing that here. I think of it as a way of developing and sharing something from the pages and pages of writing I do every day and never show anyone.

A Dose of Fall Color 2

Went two states north for fall color this year, a last-minute trip to Seattle to spend time with an old friend. Someday I hope to live where there is more of this; San Francisco definitely leaves something to be desired in the fall color department….