Let us meet just slightly west and south of a place called despair.
It is a place that does not turn away from difficulty or fierceness. And yet it is also a place of paradoxical gratitude, where images, metaphors, powerful language and practices of grateful living combine to bring about moments of belonging, grace and yes, even joy. —Dale Biron
Human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders. –E.B. White
She raked her fingers along her scalp, stopped abruptly when hair came away in her hands.
We stared at our cell phone screens, eyebrows lifted. Close friends from opposite coasts, facing together a new truth.
“Well, that’s not good,” she said, “I was hoping to keep this hairstyle for at least a couple of weeks.”
I can’t say that I blame her. It’s a super-short, sassy ‘do, well-suited to someone for whom every day’s a physical struggle.
“Must be molting season.” I teased.
I flinched, just a little. Whenever I used that phrase as a child, hellfire rained hard upon my head. Even as an adult, it evokes the faintest hint of sulphur. But my outspoken Irish Catholic friend isn’t one for censoring her thoughts. She exemplifies the lessons I’m (re)learning: that conformity is a destructive influence, and speaking your truth is a healing balm, with mostly positive side effects.
Our video chats are lighthearted. Aside from that sobering moment, this one was no different. We extolled the virtues of salt water taffy, and discussed the “catastrophic molt” that harbor seals undergo every spring. Her favorite pinniped was shedding his winter outerwear, and would soon be sporting a sleek new coat.
“Oh hey, you’re just like Freckles!” I said.
The phone went silent for a moment. She wiped the falling strands from her face, swept the hair tufts from her pillow. “My spirit animal,” she eventually said.
“Yes,” I answered softly. “Your spirit animal.”
She was hooked up to an IV when Hillary Clinton called to wish her well. Imagine, if you will, talking to a presidential candidate while you’re undergoing chemo! But she quickly turned the spotlight back to Hillary. “Let yourself be great!” she said to the former Secretary of State. A simple affirmation, served without any fanfare during a hard-fought campaign. That’s the unique brand of compassion my friend is known for.
Chemo, radiation, chemo, radiation–my friend has battled the ravaging effects of cancer for the better part of a year, now. She’s managed to stave off the inevitable hair loss, but given her increasingly aggressive treatments, it came as no surprise to either of us that molting season had finally arrived–for my friend and her pinniped pal, Freckles.
“No way am I going to wear a wig,” she said.
“Of course not.” She’s a bare-faced beauty, 100% natural. Synthetic hair? Don’t be silly.
“I’ll still be me,” she said. “If someone doesn’t want to see my bald head, not a problem. They don’t have to look at me!”
“Yep,” I said. “But hey! You could decorate your scalp with temporary tattoos…”
Red Sox logos, we agreed, would be just the ticket.
That was the last I heard of her hair loss, until our phone chat on Wednesday morning. She mentioned, with no small measure of pride, that she was able to stomach real food at dinner time—roast beef, potatoes and cooked carrots.
She was dressed, same as always, in what I’d call casual chic: black pants and a turtleneck, and a FDNY hooded sweatshirt that helped protect her from bracing winds and rain. Her hair was bristle-short but tidy. It was her first real outing in over a month, the first meal she’d kept down in weeks.
Comfort food. Fresh air and warm hugs, shared among long-time friends at a neighborhood diner. Everything she needed, to help stave off the worst side effects of chemo. Small but important victories, cut short by losers.
Two delivery men hunched over their plates at the next table, shoveling food into their mouths as if they were afraid someone might steal their food. They wore uniforms that identified them as employees of a home improvement store. They were loud and coarse, with unkempt hair that fell below their shoulders.
One workman caught his partner’s eye, hitched his thumb in the direction of my friend. “What is that?” he asked.
Her cheeks blazed.
His partner shrugged. “Can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman,” he said.
They slapped their thighs with glee.
She met their smugness with a steady gaze, rose slowly from her chair, and sauntered over to their table. With surgical precision–think Edward Scissorhands, shaping a topiary from an unruly hedgerow—she then stripped those bullies of their power.
“Are you really making fun of my hair?” she asked. “Well, let me tell something. It’s short because I have cancer. It’s patchy because of chemo. I’m enjoying my first real meal in a very long time. If that’s not okay with you, I suggest you leave, right now!”
The manager scurried over. She engaged both workers in a stare-down, maintaining her resolute posture as she gave him the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of her story.
Didn’t matter that he was a friend; the facts spoke for themselves. “It’s best that you get out of here.” the manager told them.
They beat a hasty exit.
My intrepid friend? She tucked into her meal again, as if nothing had ever happened.
“I’m so proud of you,” I said, although I wasn’t the least bit surprised. It’s the type of behavior I’ve come to expect from my friend. But I’m still thinking about it today, with no small measure of awe and gratitude. When she rose to her feet, she lifted the rest of us onto her shoulders. When she said her piece, she spoke for everyone who’ve suffered abuse in silence. When she stood her ground, she built a solid footing for the rest of us.
Random recollections, maybe, but they paint a beautiful portrait of my friend. I’m featuring it on this page, where she can’t easily slough it off. She’s a good egg(head), and we’d do well to learn from her example.
Ahoy, me hearties! Gather ‘round, and I’ll tell ye about my jolly adventures at Victoria Beach, and a fantastical place we locals call Pirate Tower…
I traveled on foot with a merry band of tide pool docents, in search of sea stars and other ocean treasures. We met at Goff Island (near the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California) and headed north. Not a strenuous hike, by any means, and what about that view???
When we reached the north end of Victoria Beach, we ventured into a small cove. Sugarloaf Point–magical name, don’t you think?
Like a turret on a storybook castle, a 60-foot-tall concrete structure rises from the rocky shoreline, tilted ever so slightly toward the affluent neighborhood on the bluffs.
Weather-worn roof shingles. Rusted metal grates. Tiny portals and a spiral staircase, battered by sea spray and never-ending tides. There’s an oversized entrance, too—bolted and padlocked, of course. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was inhabited by giants!
At the base of the tower sits a circular concrete pool, large enough for…well, lots of people. Word has it that this unusual swimming pool fills alternately with sand and seawater, depending on the tides.
Fix your sites on the ocean beyond, and you can almost picture a swaggering buccaneer staring back at you.
If you’re not into pirates, maybe this scene brings to mind a favorite fairy tale. If you tilt your head just so, and maybe squint just a little, you might see Rapunzel at at one those rectangular windows, blonde tresses flowing, as her handsome prince clambers over the rocks to rescue her.
Alas, reality is somewhat less romantic. Built in 1926, Le Tour (as it was affectionately called back then) afforded its owners a private access between the beach and their cliff-top residence.
French Provincial Revival. That’s what the textbooks call this architectural style. Enchanting. That’s what I call it. Admire for a minute the gabled roofline, the slate roof and stained glass windows. I think the original owner (Senator William E. Brown) built for himself a gingerbread house!
At some point in the early 1940s, Sen. Brown sold the property to Harold Kendrick. He was, shall we say, a bit of an eccentric. It’s possible the retired naval officer spent too much time at sea, because he fancied himself a modern-day pirate. Dressed as a seafaring plunderer, Howard (aka The Question Man) strolled the boardwalk, distributing nickels and dimes to children who answered correctly his arithmetic, vocabulary, science, geography and history challenges. According to local folklore, he’d also tuck coins into the nooks and crannies of his tower. Neighborhood kids loved to scour the facade for hidden treasures—finders, keepers, as they say!
Time passed. The house and tower changed hands, many times over. One of its most recent owners was Bette Midler, star of the 1988 film Beaches. Some of the most memorable scenes were filmed at one of Crystal Cove State Park’s historic cottages, just a few miles away. The Divine Miss M took it upon herself to return the house to its original glory, but the tower shows its age. Even so, it holds a special place in our hearts–a battered but unbowed sentinel, bearing witness to the past.
But our story doesn’t end there. We came for the tide pools, at the far reaches of the jutting shoreline. But Old Man Winter had eroded the sandy beach, leaving behind a rocky terrain for us to explore. So we did. Then we traversed the algae covered rocks, waded through chest-high sea water, and ventured out to the very end of this island.
At least some of us did. I’m not a strong swimmer, so I hung back and made pictures.
Like miniature treasure chests, the tide pools were filled with wondrous things: sea stars and anemones, mussels and more. My friend Gretchen discovered these sea stars–so lovely of her to share!
And that’s where this adventure ends… this chapter, but not the whole story. I’ll visit again s00n, and who knows? Maybe I’ll have my sea legs by then.
If you plan to visit: The tower’s accessible at low tide only, but that’s okay, because that’s also the best time to explore the tide pools. (Check the NOAA tide tables here, and find directions here.) Please note that this is a Marine Protected Area. Loosely translated, that means you should tread lightly. Enjoy but don’t disturb any creatures you find, and leave everything in its natural habitat. Take home memories, but leave the seashells behind.
One more thing. Okay, maybe two. Hiking shoes will serve you better than flip-flops, especially on those slippery rocks. And watch for wave surges–as per usual, I got soaked when I snapped these pictures.
I came upon this plen aire painting class on my walk yesterday. Beautiful morning; magnificent view.
I watched from a respectful distance, noting with interest that the artists worked systematically, dabbing identical brushes into matching color palettes. When they’d spread the first pigment from corner to corner, they stopped to compare their templated images to the scene beyond their easels.
The instructor was genuine in her praise, and most students seemed to appreciate her occasional redirect. The class objective? To reproduce the painting on the far right, which was itself a reproduction of a rock formation in the cove below.
Truth be told, I started feeling restless. Such an arduous, painstaking task! Like most creative types, I pull from a grab-bag of tried-and-true techniques, easily mastered. I’ve learned that it’s far too easy –and dangerous– to focus our energies on straight-ahead instructions, easily reproduced. I like to experiment, make mistakes, discover.
F-stops, shutter speed, and the Rule of Thirds; strong verbs, sensory images, and character arcs. These are the basic elements of storytelling. I want a working knowledge in my fingertips. But I’d never trade away my wide-eyed sensibilities (my unique perspectives) for that muting thing we writers call “structure.”
For me, creativity comes of exploring a rugged archway–born of earthquakes and raging tides–and chance encounters with tourists who pass through its frame. It’s inspired by pelicans that glide silently through the skies, waves that churn and froth at the shoreline, and salty breezes that tousle my hair.
Writing flows when I break loose from those soul-sucking musts and shoulds, lace up my hiking shoes, and plant both feet in the scene. It’s then, when I finally lose myself in the moment, that I come home to my story.