Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nepenthe, Big Sur: Exploring my father's past

This is not my story to tell, and I know I can't give it the full amount of detail and magic it deserves (most importantly the cadence and excitement in my father's voice as he talks about his past), but at least now I feel as though have a piece of it to myself, so tell it I will.

In 1969, when my father was 18 years old, after his first semester at St. John's College in Minnesota, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Berkeley, California for $35 where he wanted to take an art class at the University there. He had not told his family where he was going and part of the reason he left was that he wouldn't cut his long hair like his dad wanted. I have a hard time piecing together the details about the order in which things happened in the next few years of his life. I know he was walking around the city of Berkeley, wondering what he would do now that he had arrived in California, when he hear the distinctive voice of a high school friend who allowed him to stay at his place for a while. He worked in a factory for about 6 months before he got called to the back by the boss for a phone call and answered to find his grandmother saying "You thought you could hide for us forever, didn't you?"

"Of course not, Grandma. I knew you'd find me." he responded.

"Well, we'll buy you a plane ticket home, just sit tight."

"No, I don't want to come home."

And so he kept going and traveling.

He lived on the Olympic Peninsula at some point. He was hitchhiking when a logging truck pulled over and the driver asked where he was from. When my dad told him the manager who had pulled over cocked his head and said "Midwesterners are hard workers. You want a job?" He worked in Estes Park, Colorado for eight months. He hitchhiked across the West several times. I can't be sure where in the story Big Sur comes in, but wherever it belongs, here is my version of the chapter, as I've heard it told to me several times throughout my life:

My dad was hitchhiking the PCH just south of the Bay area. When he reached a restaurant called Nepenthe, he walked up the long and twisty driveway to grab a cup of coffee and read his book. He found an incredible hideaway in the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the ocean from huge decks and floor-to-ceiling windows. I imagine his afternoon to be much sunnier than mine, though I feel like it was the same sort of folks around: not too many, sharing a lot of bottles of wine and cups of soup, maybe around the huge fireplace in the center of the dinning room, or basking in the sunlight outside. After a few hours there, my dad walked up to the bar tentatively and asked the bar tender - for some reason I remember him being British - if there was any way he could get hired there. The bar tender shrugged and said "Well, you'd have to ask the manager."

"Where is he?" My dad, younger at the time than I am now, asked. "Wait," He interrupted "Would I have to cut my hair?"

The bar tender looked my dad up and down, probably with a smirk. "I don't know. You'll just have to ask the manager. He's at the end of the bar." He nodded towards a man hunched over a pile of papers, writing up the schedule. He had a ponytail snaking all the way down his back.

So my dad walked up to him and asked again "There isn't a chance you are hiring right now are you?"
Once again, my dad got the once-over, and the manager thought for a second, then asked "What's your birthday."

"September 4th."

Another beat of thought. "Okay. We need a Virgo in the kitchen. You're hired."

My dad stayed at Nepenthe for several months. This place is a family-run enclave for poets (Beat poets in those days, especially), artists, philosophers and anyone traveling along the PCH. He read the Lord of the Rings for the first time from the back deck, where the employees took their breaks. He explored his own spirituality from those cliffs. There is something magical about this place. I have always understood this from afar, listening in on my father's stories. Not just the amazingness of Big Sur, but this place in particular. My father found himself here, you can tell when he's talking about the place.

So when I decided to go to San Francisco this last weekend, I was cautiously optimistic we'd be able to drive up PCH and stop. After I told the story, Alfred agreed we should make the side-trip (yes - he appears to be a keeper). It was a cold and rainy day along the Pacific, and it was harder to see the cliffs along the road side as I would have liked, but there is also something to be said for snaking in and out of fog along the seashore, not being able to see where water ends and fog begins and suddenly coming across rocks jutting out of the water below, or finding the tops of the cliffs above you. We couldn't stay long. We just got some hot chocolate, tea and a quick meal at 3 in the afternoon. We had a busy day ahead still. We had to stop in Palo Alto at Stanford where Alfred did his undergrad and grad school, and still make it to San Francisco that evening. I did not see the dramatic views from the porch, and wasn't even able to sit outside, but we did get to sit beside the huge opened fire pit.

Sharing in your own family history is a humbling experience - especially when it doesn't disappoint. You are embraced with the awareness of your own life, how it came to be and the ways in which the people who defined you were defined in places you can only imagine. You realize the importance your life choices, how they expand and contract around you, become you as you become them. I didn't have cell phone service there so I couldn't call my Papa at home in northern Minnesota until after we were up the shore, but in some ways that was more important. I was able to simply be there, with my present and his ghost.


Back to the Bay City

When I was 19 years old, my friend Lauren called me one afternoon, giddy about the fact that she had found two very cheap plane tickets from Minneapolis to San Francisco at the beginning of January 2009. Lauren and I had met the summer before in Yellowstone National Park where we were both waitresses in Canyon Lodge. She grew up less than a mile away from my cousins in Stillwater, Minnesota and when we met in Yellowstone, we were together for some of the most formative moments we had that summer. We stayed up late drinking huckleberry mead even when we had to work the next morning, hiked to the top of Mount Washburn one morning at 4AM to watch the sunrise, day dreamed and talked about all the places we would go and people we would meet over coffee in the lounge in Canyon Lodge and on our last night in the park, when our other friends had left for Minnesota, we hiked to the top of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone Canyon and lay down on the rocks. We looked up at the sky and listened to the water and the silence of the canyon and felt the whole world around us: joy and fear and youth and age and everything that had already and was about to happen to us. 

In short, Lauren brings out the best in me. I feel alive when I'm with her. 

(Lower Falls, Yellowstone Canyon)

I remember I was walking on University Avenue on a bridge above (the) 35W - depending on where in the country you are reading this from - when Lauren called me that fall day in 2008. I had just moved to Minneapolis and I was with a boy I had been dating. He was telling me about how he was planning on leaving the country for a few months and I was feeling jealous and restless just as my phone rang. Mostly to impress him with my spontaneity I agreed to go to San Francisco with Lauren that winter. This may have been one of the most defining moments of my life, since even though that fling did not last more than 3ish weeks, going on this trip taught me so much about myself and how well I function during adventure. I also learned that somehow Lauren and I are the prefect traveling companions. Every morning we woke up in the same mood - either full of energy, wanting to run all around the city, or sleepy and lazy and wanting to stop off at a coffee shop to read and take the morning slowly. 

During my first week-long trip to San Francisco, I felt so youthful, free and alive. Lauren and I would talk to anyone who crossed our path, the man who served us so much free tea in Chinatown we were not surprised when he tried asking her out later, the fisherman who wanted to go back to school for horticulture in his 40's, the woman who's home we couchsurfed at for the week and the others who we shared her living room with. We were vagabonds. We slept in the airport one night, a hostel another and we stayed with a woman who generously opened her couches up to us for the rest of the week. We sang folk songs while we biked across the Golden Gate Bridge, read poetry at the City Lights Book Store, sat by the water along the piers and climbed Knob Hill to Grace Cathedral. 

This is the only photograph of both me and Lauren on this trip. We're at Alcatraz on our last day, loving the 70-degree weather in the middle of January. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to go back to San Francisco with some new friends who were going for a long weekend. We drove up through half the state of California, which was something I wanted to do, and along the Pacific Coast Highway, which was absolutely on my bucket list! Took the whole day Friday to get there with the stops we made, but at the end of the day Sunday, after stopping off in San Jose to visit one of my old friends from Two Harbors who is living there, it only took about 5 hours to get back to LA. 

This trip to San Francisco made me feel more like an adult. We stayed in a hotel with views overlooking downtown, went to bars and drank wine and ate out at fancy restaurants several times. We didn't really have plans other than seeing friends of the folks I was with and wandering around the city, which was perfect because San Francisco is a perfect city for that. I had to convince those from LA to walk around with me since that's not exactly what you do in this city, but it was for the best because San Francisco is such a good city for seeing every building and every view and every street corner. It was a beautiful sunny day on Saturday  and I always love being near the water and just getting out of my routine and doing something a little different with friends.

Early morning, Saturday view of downtown from the hotel.

Knob Hill and the most steepest, most twisty street in the city.

The best thing about Ghirardelli is that every time you walk into the shop you get a free square of chocolate. You can also stare at all the melted chocolate being made in the huge machines. 

The joy of chocolate

And then all the pictures of boats and the sea... my favorite part of being in a port city. Makes me think of home in Duluth. Then again, water in general makes me feel like home.

Where the sealions hang out together.

We were walking to Market St the next day to catch the BART over to the East Bay and meet some of Alfred's old friends when we ended up in Chinatown. That evening, the beginning of the celebration of the Chinese New Year was starting and even though it was raining, all the streets were full of people and decorations for the Year of the Dragon so we took a detour through the neighborhood.

All in all, even though the experiences were totally different in the city, it was reaffirmed that San Francisco is an incredible city. Maybe its all in my mindset when I've gotten the chance to go there, but its good to know there are exciting, thriving and fun cities near by where I can go for a full weekend and feel alive. Maybe its something about traveling, but the conversations this city has left me refreshed and restored my sense of self. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

So, What's Next?

A post from my EUIP group's blog site. It was my week to write. Thought I'd share here as well.

So we made it into the New Year. In northern Minnesota, sitting around a bonfire with friends and family while it snowed quietly, 2011 passed away around me like a misty breath on a cool night. She drifted away into the sky slowly and suddenly there was room for 2012. Time with the EUI Program is passing quickly for me, and suddenly it’s the time of year to begin to think of what will happen next. I have been working so hard on cultivating and maintaining presence here, in each day, with each client, with each challenge, with each breath in my yoga classes for several months now. Now it’s hard to imagine that I’ll be switching that motion into focusing on the future again. I spent all last spring stressing about finding a job and starting the next phase of my life! It has been so nice to focus on Los Angeles and this journey instead.
But maybe I’m over-thinking this. I think that discovering and exploring our vocation at any point in our lives is about knowing and not knowing all at once. I know who I am and what I love doing and what I think I want to do. I know there are certain things I want to cultivate in my life, some that I want to do in the next few months and years and some I want to do later. Some of these things I am able to create on my own with intention. I can be intentional about getting out of the city and hiking or camping twice a month while I’m still in Los Angeles. I can make sure that I have the discipline to keep working on my book for the next few months. There are other things that I can’t control. I would love to get another job in Los Angeles and stay here. I can’t exactly begin to start looking for jobs today when I’m not available until mid-August. But I feel like I should be trying. I feel like I should be thinking hard about exactly what I want to do and working to make that happen next year, just like I was last spring. It worked out for me really well when I did it that way – I mean, I ended up here, with an amazing job living with three amazing women.
A phrase from my teenage years comes to mind: “Let go and let God” (or who/whatever you believe in.) I think that on the one hand a person like me, who knows what she loves doing and has an idea of how she could continue to do that, needs to put energy and intention into making the life that she wants to live happen around her. Nothing will come forth if you do not put energy into it. As a writer I know a lot about the creative process and have explored mine. Part of being creative is knowing how to utilize your own energy into making things happen for yourself. You need to know how to actually sit down and do the work. But once you sit down and have begun to work, you also have to let go of what you think you want to create and enjoy the process of creation. You need to allow the question at the end to remain unanswered until it organically answers itself. Trust – in yourself, in Divinity, in Jesus, in whatever you choose to trust – and creativity go hand in hand. Prayer or mediation or running or creating art is an important part of letting go in my life right now, in knowing what I love and find joy in and then doing those things so that I can open as many doors as possible, trusting all along that they will lead me to the right place at the end of the summer. In the end, it’s always worked out for me before.
Katy Cashman, Episcopal Urban Intern, 2011-12
Friends in Deed, Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Churches

Read blog entries from my fellow interns at

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sandstone Peak, 1.16.2012

For Martin Luther King Day 2012, while people all across the country choose to participate in a "day of service", those of us who have committed to a "year of service" with the Episcopal Service Corps got the day off. (I'll see if I can put my thoughts together eloquently enough to write about why the wording of "year of service" bothers me so much, though.) Since I've come home from Minnesota to a beautiful blooming Southern California, I've had my eyes on another blog where I've been looking up different hikes to do throughout the LA area. I feel like I've gotten to a point of comfort in Los Angeles (keeping in mind of course that no one ever fully knows or understands the city of LA) where I feel like I've got my way around and started figuring it out here. I have been feeling itchy to get out of the city and see more of the surrounding area. This part of the country is part of what I want to explore, not just the city where I'm living. 

Through Nobody Hikes in LA and some other sources, I came across the Sandstone Peak hike, which was unanimously called "the best hike in LA" everywhere I looked. With a perfectly sized group of other interns, I drove up to Malibu, into the Santa Monica Mountains to climb to the highest peak in the range, where we had 360 degree views of the Santa Monicas, the San Gabriels, the Pacific and the extended suburbs of Los Angeles. What an amazing hike! It was the perfect mix of challenge, leisure, length, diversity in landscape and beauty for a group of hikers with varied skill and physical ability. The weather was perfect, with a lovely breeze blowing off the ocean the whole time, and the sun shinning generously. 

For anyone in Southern California, I would absolutley recommend this hike. The sites I explored in preparation warned about challenges and rated it as PG-13. Maybe this is tooting my own horn and I've just done crazy hikes in the past, but I don't feel at all like this hike was very challenging. It scared some of my fellow interns away from joining us, but it was by no means awful. If you don't live in Southern California, I guess you can look through the pictures and be a little envious of the weather (notice the shorts I'm wearing!)

Arriving towards the summit of the mountain. There were a lot of peaks on this low, wide mountain, Sandstone being the highest.

The sun makes it hard to tell, but that is the ocean in the distance of this picture, meeting the sky.

The other direction, where you can see the sprawl of LA. Mostly that's the city of Malibu and Thousand Oaks.

The peak from just a couple hundred feet down.

Doesn't seem so high after living in Boulder and in Canyon Village in Yellowstone.

Jazmine at the summit.

My dear friend Allison and I resting at the top.

The group of us at the top. Casey, Allison, Christy, Jazmine, me and Joey.

The only VERY steep part of the trail.

While hiking we had a lot of conversations about trips we'd love to do in the next few months - a week of backpacking in Yosemite for example, or a day of biking in the San Diego area . It was so refreshing to get out of the car and feel silence around me, and to smell the fresh air and blooming mountain plants. I forget what it's like after being in the city to too long (and I've only been there for about 3 weeks since Minnesota!) It's such a good feeling to have things planned out and to know that I'm around others who care to do the same sorts of activities as I do. Spend Saturday with some other folks who are also invested and interested in camping and it looks like if I play my cards right I can get out of this city once a month this spring and summer.

On a final note: we decided as a group that its a general rule that everyone looks more attractive while hiking. Someone who you may look over in a bar is REALLY good looking while wearing boots and a knapsack. I don't think this is just because there are less people around either. Maybe its a sense of shared interest or experience, or maybe its just the style of clothing you wear while hiking or camping, but it was agreed upon by the group that it tends to drive up someone's attractiveness by several points. All the more reason to spend time in the woods wherever I go!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

New Favorite Artist

I just discovered this artist. One of my best friends (Kristen Strissel) has some of her artwork in her apartment and I've always loved it. Finally learned her name, her craftsmanship (she uses an exacto-knife and makes cut outs) and bought a 2012 calendar of her work. Please look up Nikki McClure and appreciate her work!


We can imagine what our lives will be like, say we know what we want in the future. I had an image in my head of myself as a young woman, sitting in a studio apartment in a big city somewhere, writing, drinking coffee in the mornings, wine in the evening. Traveling the world. Riding airplanes and ordering cocktails during layovers. The thing that I've found about life is that I forget about all these plans and dreams I made while sitting in my cold bedroom in Clover Valley, Minnesota until I was living them out. Somewhere over the Rockies, chasing the sunset west in an airplane, I realized my life today is everything I had wanted to make it, but with so many twists and turns I couldn't have expected along the way - which make it that much more exciting and worth the journey.

I began 2011 with blood singing through my body. Dancing to roving jazz music along the misty mouth of the Mississippi, while the city of New Orleans erupted around me. Trumpets, fireworks, bodies, voices... they exploded, shouted and danced wildly as midnight announced herself among us with flourish.  I held tightly to and kissed a man fully, in that moment so utterly in love with him, myself and the possibilities I saw for my life, there's no point in looking back and wondering if it should or could not have been this way.

What a place to start the new year in - and what a place I have ended up. I did dearly hope by this time last year that I would be in Los Angeles right now, but how it has ended up is so distant from what I had in mind. Yet in the end it is so clear that this is where I am supposed to be right now. Some days I wonder if Aaron's job in my life was to bring me to Los Angeles. To make that an actual possibly in my mind, because as I've told people over and over again, less than two years ago even visiting this city was not on the list of things to do in my life.

In 2011, I traveled through the American South, went to Chicago and stayed in a VERY fancy hotel on Michigan Avenue, lived and struggled in Venezuela, lived in three different apartments, worked three different jobs, graduated from college, moved to Southern California, visited Portland, Oregon for the first time, started going to church again on a weekly basis (I've kind of been forced to do this one), learned to bumble my way through Spanish, started going to yoga classes again, started writing my novel again, had my heart so utterly broken I had a hard time breathing for weeks, healed from this heart break, joined an online dating service, had my first car totaled, biked to work every single day, swam in the largest lake in North America and the largest lake in South America.

I think the best thing I did for myself in 2011 was to watch the life I thought I could count on and which I had so carefully crafted and protected totally disintegrate around me, then rebuild my house by myself for myself. As Miriam Greenspan writes, in order to see what is inside something, sometimes it needs to be broken opened, shattered in fact. I have said this before, but there is something to be said for your worst fears coming true in the worst way imaginable. Looking back on myself throughout the last year and how that one particular relationships affected and changed me, I cannot say I wish it didn't happen. I cannot say I would have come to California in such an appropriate way - with such a positive and engaging program and supportive group around me - without this experience. I wouldn't be in the place I am personally or professionally without it.

Already in 2012 I have a trip to San Francisco planned in a few weeks. We'll drive up through Big Sur. Check check, goal list. I'll go back to San Francisco for the first time since 2009, when I came the California for the first time. I am such a different person now, but still in love with that girl I was then, exploring the city for the first time, so full of love and hope and optimism. I'm planning a camping trip and whale watching excursion in Channel Islands National Park for the next month or so, and other trips across the Southwest. Looking forward to going to Seattle this spring/summer, and developing my plans for going back to Northern Ireland in spring of 2013.

I started 2012 back at home in Clover Valley, near a bonfire, in the forest close to men and women I've known my whole life, grown up with and under. 2011 ended much quieter than it began. 2012 was just a cloud being blown away, letting the moon come forth and reflect off the snow in the yard.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Home for the holidays

Riding my bike to work through the sunny streets of Glendale this morning was a bit of a mind-trip. My body felt like it was just adjusting to the cold winter when suddenly all the trees were green, the sunny air was full of heat and I didn't even need to be wearing the gloves I had on. I realize I'm probably romanticizing winter still, but I probably could have used a little more cold weather. Oh well, I'll get over it. 

For a Minnesota winter though, it has been VERY mild. The first few days I was in town everyone kept commenting on how I must have brought the weather home with me, which I suppose I milked for my Christmas present, since it was all I could really afford anyway. Minneapolis and Rochester had NO snow at all while I was there. My parent's yard usually has feet of snow in it by now. Here's how it looked on the morning of the 1st of 2012, after a few inches of snow fall the night beforehand:

Without my sister and I in the house, Papa's got all the wood chopped already. It did get pretty cold towards the end of my trip. On my last morning, while waiting for the bus at the intersection of Snelling and St Clair for about 30 minutes in sub-zero winds, I felt like I had gotten every bit of Minnesota I had needed out of the trip. I had nearly fallen like a fool with my grip-less California shoes in the ice and snow. I spent a week bouncing between friend's houses across the city, lugging my rolly suitcase from one doorstep to the next.

It was so lovely to arrive without knowing exactly where I would be most of the nights and days and to fill them all in warm friend's apartments with great food, wine and comfortable beds. I don't care that I told the same story over and over again. It was good to reconnect and be with people who just know you. The types that you don't have to explain the anecdotes or what has happened in the last few years that has made me who I am. I saw so many more people whom I didn't expect to see, like my old roommate Nataly and my good friend Emelia's boyfriend and his family.

One of the best nights of my week and a half in Minnesota was spent at the "lit-together": the annual get-together of lit-kids who graduated in 2007 from Perpich. I spent the night at my friend Jessie's, talking and laughing with those wonderful artist writer women. Shannon, our Jr teacher, even showed up, had a drink with us and gave us a writing prompt. Something magical happens when a group of people create art together, and when its the group of us, given all our history and years of practice, it's an exceptional experience. I'm so blessed to still be in touch with this group.

After Christmas with the Cashman family in Rochester and my week with friends in Minneapolis, I went north to my parent's house where we had a more intimate family Christmas and I celebrated New Years with the folks of Clover Valley. This is a tradition I have not been able to share in for the past few years because I've been in cities like New York and New Orleans to ring in the new year lately, but it was perfect to return to these roots this year. Even to be in the frozen forest on the cold evening, sitting by the huge bonfire that Leo makes felt like it put me in the introspective and quiet place that people talk about on New Years Eve. 2012 opened around me delicately, a breath coming out from between parted lips and rising into cold air in a mist. I sat with my arms around my old friend Marta while my dad played Auld Lang Syne on his guitar at midnight and felt so happy to be at home.

My parent's living room, January 1st, after a snowfall outside.

Anna and I, Christmas Eve.

Mama and I, New Years Eve.

Leo's bonfire, dying down to it's ashes.

The New Years Eve party, towards the end of the night while most were outside at the fire.

And at the end of it all, I was so happy to jump on that airplane and go back to my life. Seeing people and relaxing was great, but I love my life here in California, I love the routine of my job, I love my new friends here. And who can complain about being able to ride a bike to work in the sun every morning, when the world smells like spring?