San Clemente is a sleepy little coastal community in Southern California– a surfer’s paradise made (in)famous in 1969 when then-President Richard Nixon purchased an exclusive property on an oceanfront bluff and dubbed it “The Western White House.” It’s a diverse community now, where McMansions stand adjacent to rambling cottages, and straight-laced folks share a peaceful co-existence with their more eccentric neighbors.
The beach alone is a draw for tourists. The quirky little enclaves call my name. That’s why I found myself driving down one of its charming little side streets last weekend, looking for an art exhibit that I’d only just recently heard about on Facebook. And suddenly, there it was: The Squirrel Project of Los Molinos. And hey, would you look at that? It even has its own hashtag!
Meet the Squirrels of Los Molinos Street, perennial guests on the party scene in San Clemente. They’re gathered now for a Halloween mixer, replete with a cadaver on a surgical slab, black crows supervising the grisly operation, and a vexed squirrel who’s decided to take the future into his own hands. Here, a creative hodgepodge–the outpourings of artist Diana Donaldson’s head and heart. But each scene is stitched together with the others, thematically speaking, thanks to the collaborative efforts of her sister. Should it scare us, that these scenes are inspired by her work at a nearby hospital?
Furry rodents-in-residents, running rampant in an art gallery?
A bit odd, you’re probably thinking. But then again, why not?
If you’re a creative sort, you know better than to question your own artistic muses. You know the risks that come of revealing their magic powers to someone else.
And still, I had to ask: “Why squirrels?”
Diana greeted my question with good humor, but she was careful in her answer. She bought her first squirrel mask in Austin, she said, roughly five years ago. It was an impulse buy, art for its own sake, but she’s since purchased several more. They speak to her, amuse her, inspire, and soothe her. As she listens to cable news–at once anguishing and angering, these days–Diana carves another fluffy-tailed rodent out of clay.
See the paint-spattered shirts, that sparkle in her eyes? Diana loves being an artist. She’s also a warm and engaging storyteller who enjoys leisurely conversations with scheduled guests and random passers-by.
In fact, she granted me an all-access, backstage pass to the studio space behind the diorama. Even better, she allowed me to film a quick tour for readers who might not be local.
Note the multimedia collection: a smattering of other artists’ works, intermixed with Diana and James’ creative endeavors. Note, too, the treasure trove of time-worn tools, art supplies and found objects, that fill the table space and more.
And squirrels, lots of squirrels…under foot, on pedestals, in her mind’s eye and under wraps.
“A lot of people don’t notice them when they pass by,” she once said about her beloved squirrels. “The people that do – they’re my tribe. They always get a kick out of it.”
It was Wednesday morning–mid-80s by 10:00 a.m, with searing Santa Ana winds expected in the canyons. No surprise then, our local beach was crowded–a teeming mixture of resort guests and local residents. I clambered over the rocks, snapping photos of the harbor seals and peering into the tide pools. Surfers jogged past me, wetsuits dripping, wholly absorbed by the music blasting through their ear buds.
It was on this very warm day that I caught my first glimpse of the grizzled man who wandered over the sand berms with an overstuffed bundle on his back. He dropped his cargo, carved out a shallow trench with his bare feet, and then unfurled his sleeping bag in the narrow space between the limestone cliffs and the incoming tides. Seagulls stood watch over him while he rested, same as they do with Freckles.
I turned my attention again to the hermit crabs and anemones. Hidden from view: rip currents. Rescue boats hugged the shoreline.
A flock of pigeons swooped in, picked through the man’s belongings and came away hungry. He dozed, snored, and eventually groaned himself into wakefulness. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, saw him struggle to his feet, chest heaving, and gather his belongings. Everyone else went about the business of having fun…or pretended not to notice.
There was something off about his breathing. Labored, loud, ragged wheezing–like an asthma attack, or worse. My intuition kicked in. I decided to follow him up the ramp, to watch over him from a respectful distance. He winced when his skin made contact with hot cement—naked toes that peeked through compression socks, the kind you wear when you’ve just had surgery. His sleeping bag dragged behind him, a rudderless sail. His tote bag pulled on his shoulder, a heavy anchor that slowed his progress even further.
Should I run up beside him, I wondered, maybe offer to carry something? I decided against both, based primarily on some very real concerns about safety–his, as well as mine. He might have a history of being attacked from behind, same as I do. And, well…you just never know.
Halfway up the hill, he stopped abruptly. He bent over double, wheezing and clawing at the collar of his t-shirt. That’s when I first saw the collection of hospital bracelets—red, yellow, white, CAUTION: AT RISK FOR FALLING—around his narrow wrists.
Forgive me, God, for my foolish hesitations.
I ran to his side. “Tell me how to help you.”
“I lost my inhaler,” he gasped. “I’ve gotta get to the hospital.”
My knees were shaking, but I answered in a steady voice that belied my nervousness. Just like new neighbors, I told myself, chatting over the back fence.
“Know how to get there?”
He wiped the sweat from his brow, scratched at the EKG patches that revealed themselves when he lifted his grimy t-shirt. “Yes ma’am,” he eventually said. “Shuttle goes right past it.”
It was then that I spotted the bloody bandage by his clavicle. My heart raced, fueled by a volatile mixture of fear and deep concern. “Stab wound,” he said, with a casual shrug that betrayed his physical condition.
He reached into his tote bag. No bus pass. He emptied his pockets. Nothing there but gum wrappers and lint.
I grabbed a wad of bills from my camera bag, tucked them into his palm and cradled his hand in mine. “Grab a little something on the way,” I said. “You’ll feel better for having eaten.”
At that point, his breathing had settled into a more consistent, if still irregular, pattern. “Thank you,” he said.
Awkwardness gave way to second-guessing. Should I have called an ambulance? Perhaps I should’ve taken a bigger risk, and offered him a ride…
Maybe he sensed my inner turmoil. I have no way of knowing, save for the fact that he flipped his wrist right then, and brushed a finger across the inked calligraphy on his wrist. “WWJD?” he said quietly. “You know what that means, right?”
Of course. It was the shorthand version of the Golden Rule, intertwined with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lessons taught in Sunday School, which I’m still learning every day.
I nodded, just slightly. “What Would Jesus Do?” I said.
He practically jumped for joy when I answered. “Yep!” And then he outlined with his finger a faded red blotch, a punctuation mark at the end of the acronym. “And that’s a heart, can you tell?” He paused for a beat, as if to draw my attention to its deeper significance. “My heart…your heart…you dig?”
“Ha! I sure do.”
I don’t know whose smile was wider in that moment, and I have to say: I’m not honestly sure what Christ Himself would have done in those particular circumstances. But I feel pretty certain that I’d entertained an “angel unawares,” from whom I’d received a gift more valuable than I’d given.
“Take care of yourself,” I said, around the lump in my throat. “Get someone to check that bandage, okay?”
“Thanks, love, I will.”
Before we went our separate ways, I snapped another discrete photo (with his permission), so I could share this beautiful man’s story with you.
I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again, but I’ll always remember that chance encounter—a singular moment, in which two vulnerable people opened their hearts and the light came streaming through.
It’s autumn here, absolutely. But if you’re expecting cool, crisp mornings and chilly nights, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Here in Southern California, autumn is an extension of summer, with longer shadows and shorter days. There are fewer tourists, but it’s still warm enough for picnic lunches by the beach. Here, for example, ants are sipping nectar from a honeysuckle vine, which has twisted itself around the thorny bougainvillea bush that clings to the limestone cliff with an oceanside view.
And this is the bougainvillea around which the honeysuckle wraps its arms.
Our Mediterranean climate is far different from leafy New England, where farm stands are piled high with crunchy apples and colorful foliage forms a thick, kaleidoscope carpet over suburban lawns and forests. It’s warm here, and sunny, but equally beautiful in its own way.
I love our cozy autumn mornings, when the marine layer blankets the hills and the sunrise sets the tile roofs aglow.
The sun slants lower in the afternoon sky, casting a warm glow over the wildflowers and spotlighting the iridescent hummingbirds that flit through our backyard gardens. And just before nightfall, the sun transforms itself into a shimmering ball that scatters diamonds over the ocean. As Victoria Erickson once said, “If a year was tucked inside of a clock, then autumn would be the magic hour.”
At 6:54 p.m. on Saturday, summer officially gave way to autumn. Time for a road trip, I thought. So at sunrise on this first day of the season, I hopped in my car and went looking for signs of Fall.
Theoretically, the seasonal shifts should be obvious. But here in Orange County, California, the changes are more subtle. Daylight hours grow gradually shorter, but the temperatures climb into upper 70s through at least October. Searing Santa Ana winds are far more common than rainfall.
Ice scrapers aren’t necessary in these parts. No umbrellas or woolen socks required. And still, you’ll find tell-tale signs of autumn almost everywhere–providing you know where and how to look. Pumpkin patches crop up everywhere, from abandoned lots to major intersections. Pumpkin spice lattes are a given. Knott’s Berry Farm transforms itself into Knott’s Scary Farm, and Disneyland hosts a frightfully fun Halloween party. But if you’re like me, you’ll probably enjoy the less commercial aspects of the season…
I found this pot of gold in a stand of sycamore trees. Mother Nature might wear a less-expansive color palette than you see elsewhere, but she’s well aware of her environment and knows how to dress for the occasion.
If you’re a reader, you’ll find an ample supply of autumn-themed books from which to choose. Grab your sunglasses, slide into your flip-flops, and carry a handful of favorites to your lounge chair by the pool. (At my elbow right now: Fear, by Bob Woodward, and Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup.)
If you’re an out-of-stater, you might be rolling your eyes about now. Understood. If you’re not used to our mild, Mediterranean climate, you might need to adjust your views about how autumn “should” look and feel. But keep in mind that these images depict a singularly beautiful, blue-sky day in Fall, as viewed through the lens of a native Californian. The Golden State is different, and we own that.
The light slants low through our palm trees, now, casting longer (arguably more interesting) shadows.
Our gardens are vibrant, year-’round. Monarch butterflies, honeybees, and hummingbirds stay local, rather than migrating even further south. Given our temperate climate, who can blame them?
Here as elsewhere, apples are now ripe for the picking. Designer labels or no, these fruits are crisp, sweet and juicy, just like their rural counterparts. And homebaked apple pies…mmmm, always delicious!
Farther afield in my own sojourn, I encountered a fleur de l’agave. Faded by the summer sun, it clung to a rocky cliff above an emptied beach.
We might run the air conditioning until mid-November, but we’re a warm and friendly people. In my sojourns today, for instance, I came across this heart-tugging scene. A candy-corn kitty finally met his match, thanks to a local rescue organization. An auspicious beginning for autumn, don’t you think?
There’s something to be said for leaf peeping, flannel shirts, hot apple cider, and crackling fires, of course. But this…this is my version of paradise.
If all the world’s a stage, this pelican owns the scene at Treasure Island.
I saw her for the first time yesterday, on an early morning walk along the beach. When the marine layer lifted, she came into view–a starlet on an elevated platform.
No dramatic dives. No call-and-response with the cacophonous seagulls who invaded her airspace.
Just a commanding presence against a backdrop of churn, voguing for an audience of one.
A brown pelican isn’t the showiest seabird, let alone the most exotic of her species. But she’s perfect in her own right, and bold enough to take her mark in the spotlight.
Meet my new friend, Chewy–a gorgeous, gregarious Golden Retriever.
I admire his tenacity, holding on to that stick with a singular focus! I’m teaching myself how to photograph animals/birds in motion–not so easy, but he’s a most accommodating subject.
Chewy’s a well-loved, well-trained rescue who carries himself with a confidence that comes of knowing that he’s safe.
But other dogs aren’t as lucky. Sea creatures, either. I re-learned that painful lesson, when I stumbled upon this:
A spiked dog collar at the water’s edge, lodged between wet sand and rock. It had washed out to sea–heavy chain and stabby metal, weaponized further by strong waves and currents. Who knows what damage it could’ve inflicted on our precious marine life and habitats, had the ocean not spit it out again?
The sand is hard-packed, in and around those nasty spikes. With the calm blue ocean as backdrop, maybe it doesn’t look as dangerous as it really is. But take a look at this most recent research, via the Ocean Conservancy. Or scan this partial list:
I simply can’t imagine any circumstances where a dog owner would use a pronged collar, much less be so absent-minded as to leave it behind. Try as I might, there’s no sugar coating something so reckless, so potentially cruel and harmful. And although my friends whispered other, even uglier possibilities, I can’t bear to think about them, much less repeat them here.
It’s hard to confront things like this, but we must. Each one, teaching one, and encouraging others to do the same. For Chewy and his four-legged friends, for marine wildlife and their ocean habitats, and for our own future on this beautiful planet we call home.