field notes:


A record, closed for the time being, of my life in Inverness, California. After several attempts to reimagine Field Notes, I feel that it has had a complete life. A few more postings will appear--denouement. And a more complete farewell. But for now, thank you for reading me. I couldn't have done this without you!

posted by Lisa on 6:06 PM link |


To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To
never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of
life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty
to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what
is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To
try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget."

-- Arundhati Roy

posted by Lisa on 11:31 AM link |


Possible Endings

The worry has a form like when
red-winged blackbirds leave stalks
in your field. Those minor flashes of red,
trouble. The mayhem goes east, returns west,

stirred from morning perches by transience,
by some bird-god signal. Below breastbone,
your breath cascades into the magnum of a sigh.
You strain hot tea at the kitchen table,

recap the jam, two pieces of toast buttered
on their darker side. You shake the hall rug,
boil water for the dishpan. Body betrays,
betrays its own purpose, not to restore order,

not to clean out, as you loosen curtain ties
against sunlight. The phone rings and blackbirds
bend south. You open a blue sheet over the bare bed

--AF Thomas
published in the Marlboro Review
via Web del Sol

posted by Lisa on 1:27 PM link |


“Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
--Duke Ellington

Orland Bishop reading Langston Hughes' poem Let America be America Again

"All memory resolves itself in gaze,' poet Richard Hugo wrote once about another town that died. Empathy is what we long for - not sadness for a house we own, or owned once, now swept away. Not even for the felt miracle of two wide-eyed children whirled upward into a helicopter as if into clouds. We want more than that, even at this painful long distance: we want to project our feeling parts straight into the life of a woman standing waist-deep in a glistening toxic current with a whole city's possessions all floating about, her own belongings in a white plastic bag, and who has no particular reason for hope, and so is just staring up. We would all give her hope. Comfort. A part of ourselves. Perform an act of renewal. It's hard to make sense of this, we say. But it makes sense. Making sense just doesn't help. more"
--Richard Ford
--Elegy for My City

"Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy."
--Anne Rice
--Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?

posted by Lisa on 2:55 PM link |


I am haunted by the flood. By the failure of the rescue response, by the lack of planning for such an event, by the left-behind poor and the rounded-up poor and the dead and dying poor of New Orleans.

And I am haunted by my friend Joe Ranft, who died two weeks ago, caught in a car that plunged into the Navarro River. Joe died less than a foot from the surface, unable to navigate those final few inches that separated him from his next breath. I’m thinking about the thousands of people who may have died in similar desperation a few days ago as the waters rose, as they sat in the highest points of their homes with nowhere to go, as they tried to break through their roofs, or dove out windows into the surging waters. I’m thinking about that last panic, the final knowledge of inability.

I’ve been haunted by Joe’s death, by his last moments, by the failure of the one survivor of his disaster to either bring air to Joe or to bring him to air. And now I’m haunted by the thought of that death magnified by thousands. I’m haunted by my own inability to do anything meaningful in the face of so much need.

I’ve read lots of editorials blaming the magnitude of this disaster, and the failure of adequate or timely response, on a lack of leadership, on the president, congress, and FEMA. I’m sure those pols will point fingers in yet other directions as the days wear on and the spin machines kick into place. But I wonder. Who is to blame? Anybody? Or everybody? Shall we invoke nature’s wrath or human nature—our own human creep over land, our need to cultivate and tame and engineer in order to make inhabitable that which isn’t? What about lack of foresight and imagination, shouldn’t they be blamed as well?

But if we look behind the question of who or what to blame, there’s something more fundamental to discover. A veil has been lifted, as we see right into the devastated heart of our country, and it has revealed truths that have been shrouded in illusion, deceit and denial.

The first truth is that we don’t have the kind of control we pretend or hope to have. Trying to hold back the water, to force the land to hold us when it wants to hold a marsh or a wetland, is one of the reasons we have this trouble; we imagine that because we build cities and call them permanent they should endure. It’s a human weakness, but a glaringly American one—a failure of imagination and of memory. We’re shocked to see images like these coming out of our own country. Suddenly placeless people by the thousands herded into coliseums—starving, weak, hungry and living amongst the dead with no sanitation, water or food. Haven’t we seen these kinds of images somewhere before? In the Sudan or Bangladesh? But never here in America—we never thought this could happen to us because we have all the money, the armies, the helicopters, the will. We thought we were in control, but in the face of something this big, in the face of the Gulf reclaiming its own, it’s made clear to us that we’re not.

I don’t suggest we throw up our hands in complete surrender to a natural world we can’t control. But a degree of surrender and awe would be healthy. We could do with some humility, a little respect for forces beyond our own will and understanding. We might find a greater degree of harmony with the vagaries of the world, but we would also have to live with the knowledge that terrible events occur and we must grapple with their effects. And sometimes terrible events occur which we have set into motion with our shortsighted tinkering. We might learn not to place ourselves at the top of the heirarchy in the tender ecology of people, land, water, other species, and even other countries. We might stop trying to bend the world—its resources and people—to our will in order to feed our own out-of-proportion desires. We might worry more about the consequences of our technology: the polluted land, overfished and chemically ravaged waters, the genetically modified experimental crops, the razing of forests and the filling of wetlands. We might find our way back to some kind of balance.

The second truth is that yes, we do have distinct classes here in America, and they mean much more than which school district we can afford to live in. Now they mean living or dying. Some have continued to deny that our country doesn’t offer equal opportunity to all citizens. It’s obvious now to anybody who is even casually watching that that is not true. The poor are too vulnerable, too weak, too many, and ill-considered. It is the vast neighborhoods of the undervalued who bear the brunt of this wastage, as it is always the underprivileged who are most at risk from predation in the wild and in the cities. I hope that from their ranks, from the cinders of their loss and anger arise a movement that will bring their needs to the political arena, that they can find some power together before they simply disperse and drift back down into lives too filled with work and lack.

And still I think about my friend Joe. Last week I consoled myself with the stories of friends who have come close to drowning. They tell me that after the struggle has ended and you have accepted the fact that you cannot have another breath, that when you finally surrender, you come to an overwhelming peace. I try now to imagine Joe in that last peaceful phrase, weaving stories and creating new worlds just as he’d always done. I try to imagine the same peaceful farewell for the others. At the same time, I hope that none of the rest of us come to peace with the images we’ve seen. I hope that we are haunted by the poverty and abandonment we’ve witnessed, and that we can’t sleep. And that after the flood, after the waters recede, we remember.

posted by Lisa on 10:47 AM link |


When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once more
To unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken.

-Novalis 1800
translated by Robert Bly

posted by Lisa on 8:54 AM link |


Lake Merritt. The couple approaching on the trail both talk in gentle voices, both talking at once, both talking with no pauses. As they pass I make out her words, “we praise the trees, we praise the grass...” His praise harder to make out. Beaming faces. Where I stand, to the side, while my dog sniffs out feral cats at the end of an improvised leash, their voices are drowned out by the slap of runner’s shoes on the cement path. More runners follow, their subtext unheard cadence. On a grassy slope, men and women, in every color we find humans, move in unperfect coordination in the slow dance of tai-chi.

posted by Lisa on 2:42 PM link |


I’m sitting in a corner cafe near campus. Cars and buses roar by, all around me the bustle of freshly arrived students, a rare family, and the exuberant voices of afternoon. The sun is warm, but there’s a cool breeze. Cell phone conversations baste the soundscape, but the buzz of conversation is too loud to allow one voice to penetrate the buzz. I feel at home. If you’ve known me, you’ve known me to write from the solace of Inverness, writing from within the easy sounds of water lapping, wind blowing through trees, birdsong, or the sizzle of logs in the stove. All are a part of the life I’ve left behind. Now I’ll write of these other things, from this other place.

I live in Oakland, California. I’m in a neighborhood called Bushrod. It borders the Berkeley neighborhoods of Rockridge, Elmwood and Claremont, but it is not them. It is an edge neighborhood. I live with my partner, Ignacio, his daughter and her puppy, Luna, and gratefully still my dear old dog, Dinah.

I wonder if my writing has only come from the place—Inverness & Point Reyes—from the wild. I don’t know if I will be able to write from the city.

On the way to the cafe, I had a moment’s hope that I will. Mussorgsky in Marrakesh played on my radio, for me alone, from KCSM. A street vendor on Telegraph Avenue danced beyond my carscape, as if she as well heard the music. She danced, her braids swinging as she undulated and twirled, loose hip movements, flowing grace, red t-shirted ampleness carving out a place in the street, a tribute to the sidewalk, a sky's drop of human--as clear and unwavering a motion as any hot-blooded animal of the forest. Watching her, a sweet epiphany.

The light turned green. I am here. This is my place now. These my people. My new field. My notes.

posted by Lisa on 5:55 PM link |


You wonder what has happened to me.

It has been a time of transitions.

For one, my life has become something more private. I want to hold more back of myself and my loved one. Writing in such a public way has not been inviting for me. This may change as I redefine the places from which I write.

Also, I spend more time away from Inverness. I live in Berkeley part-time. My relationship with this place has become time-broken and almost nostalgic. I haven’t stopped loving it, but am preparing to leave it. I wanted to write about that tearing away, but haven’t had the heart to do so until now.

What energy I have had for writing I’ve put into fiction. I hope to notify you of release dates of some upcoming publications—anthologies that will include my work.

I’m hoping that today signals a return to field-notes. I miss blogging, this misunderstood exodus of ideas and emotions, the quiet return notes. It’s a way of being known that has profoundly shaped my life for the past three years.

Meanwhile, here’s what I was up to last week:

posted by Lisa on 6:41 AM link |


“Where does Spanish moss get its nutrients”?
“What’s the name of that flower”?
“What do these jellies eat”?
“What will happen when that crab reaches that jellie”?

Just a sampling of the questions asked by my niece two weeks ago on her first visit to Teacher’s Beach and the Bay Area. Humbly I answered, “I don’t know”, or “Let’s look it up” to each one. She has the inquisitive nature of the born-scientist—seeing easily what needs to be known in order to understand the systems she was viewing for the first time.

I saw the same untrained scientific thoughtfulness demonstrated by Mark Bittner in the movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill recently. Open to the art of observation, and truly unencumbered by any formal pre-set ideas about the parrots, about birds in general, or about scientific method, he carried no nativists’ prejudice against the “invasive” species, no scientific mores that would prevent him from caring about the birds, forming relationships with them, or taking them inside when they were ill or needed preening for lack of a mate. Instead, his beautiful spirit came through in every interaction with the birds, and still he continued to make fresh observations.

If you aren’t coming at it with that open spirit, what value is nature to humanity except as pretty views, resources, and alien otherness. Or, as another family member said last night, walking to the beach on my beloved path—a creekbed overlaid with mossy oak branches, banks of ferns and buckeye—“Weird. This is weird”.


posted by Lisa on 6:27 AM link |

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