Part I: Marin County, Winter, the Broken World
My husband’s father lives the town of Tomales, in Marin County, California, near the north end of Tomales Bay. We went there one late December Sunday in 2003 for a family gathering. Escaping again after a couple of hours of small talk, we drove down Highway 1 along the bay, to a place where an un-signposted trailhead beckoned by a turnout. We were a little south of the “town” of Marshall (pop. 50). It was a raw, gray winter day, threatening rain, the kind of day that inevitably reminds me of Northeastern weather, of November days pregnant with snow. Though I’ve been in California now for almost two decades, and haven’t lived in the Northeast since I was a child, the feeling these remembered days brings to me is indescribable, as if I were a forest animal that could smell and taste my home burrow on the rank air, but at the same time knew it was forever unreachable.
Still it was exhilarating to walk through the brush over the spongy brown earth to the dark shore and up to the top of a small bluff. I recalled taking this same stroll some earlier time and looking at a man walking his dog along the shore below us; momentarily it was as if I could see him again, as he had been, head down, a hood shielding his head and face from us, refusing any sort of connection to our presence, like a phantom following the intent and enthusiastic dog. But this time there was no one else there at all; it was much less lonely. The long liquid knife of Tomales Bay was the color of tarnished silver, very still, nothing gleamed, the sky roiled with heavy clouds. The stretch of water we could see contained hundreds of birds. Across the bay, ranks of pines climbed the silent escarpments of Point Reyes. Its name hearkens to the date of its Spanish discovery, one January 6th, Dia de los Tres Reyes, Day of the Three Kings.
My husband sat down on the chilly ground, somewhat in from the edge of the bluff, which was cracking across one jagged point, as if a wedge of earth were preparing to fall away. I stood and looked around me. I was thinking of a radio interview I’d been listening to in the early morning, as I lay in bed with my cup of coffee, unwilling to rise to face the chill, damp apartment and the unpromising day. The guest was Malcolm Margolin, author of The Ohlone Way. He had spoken rapturously and yet with an unsentimental and winning sense of humor about the Ohlones’ oneness with their environment, part of which was this same amazing bird-filled bay. But he spoke of it in its primordial state, as it must have been before the first Spanish galleons began crawling up and down the coast, when winged flocks darkened the skies, and the salmon leapt from the glittering streams.
He spoke of how in this piece of world, at least, the time of the winter solstice really did mean the beginning of rebirth, almost immediately, not just in the avatarish sense of the lengthening days. It was true, I had seen it: on the California coast the December rains always brought bright green grasses springing from the ground, and the first hints of blooming things. (Spring in January was, to a Northeastern girl, a bizarre concept, acceptance of which had required me to further distance myself from my own place of origin.)
And since to the Ohlone the sun was alive, a being, not a dead thing bound by immutable laws, the sun being could always have decided to do it differently had he wished to—and so the Ohlone always had a sense of anticipation as the solstice approached, and of overwhelming gratitude, when the sun once again chose to return, warming the earth and lengthening the days.
When the interviewer asked Margolin why it was that he had become so interested in the world of the Bay Area’s indigenous people, he remarked that it was such a rich, beautiful and endlessly intriguing world, that he rather thought the question should be: “why hasn’t everybody else?” He produced the loveliest metaphor then, perceiving himself spending his life by a shining, bounding river, deep and yet crystal clear, full of life and limitless variety, and occasionally dipping a ladle in to hold the water it contained up to view, and drink.
But as I had walked from the car along the trail to the bluff, I was struck by the sense of knowing absolutely nothing about this landscape. I couldn’t name a single plant, from the grasses to the large, fragrant shrubs, nor did I have any idea of their properties, or how I or any creature might make use of them. I had no need to know these things; my life did not depend on knowing them. But this meant that of the symphonic language playing all the time all around me, I could hear only a few dimly faint notes, with no understanding of the great work of which they were part.
What my life did depend on was hard to say. Being able to operate certain machines, even if I had no idea how they functioned, being able to organize information in such a way that it satisfied the needs of an employer, even if the information I manipulated meant nothing to me, to my understanding of who I was, and having access to units of exchange because of this activity. I smelled the rich air, felt uplifted by the somber loveliness of water, earth and sky on a winter day, but were I never to see this bay again, never to walk on this particular earth, I grimly realized, it would change nothing vital for me. If I lost almost all of nature; if I never smelled turned earth again, or leaf mould, or sage or eucalyptus, or heard a bird sing—the terrifying thing was that I could still survive, even if my life were profoundly impoverished in some unquantifiable way.
And, had I wished to, I could not will myself into being a person whose cognitive identity was inextricable from her natural environment; I was not such a person. I felt that what I was, psychically, was a person who had lost her sight, or one of her limbs in childhood—or more accurately, that I came from at least seven generations of ancestors who had been born without eyes or limbs, and had raised each succeeding generation to live without them, till no one could say what it felt like to have had them in the first place. And the world my ancestors lived in and helped to shape was constructed ever more completely now so as to be without the need for eyes or limbs or whatever was missing. Only when you walked out alone into an unconstructed landscape that reminded you of your earliest childhood, did you feel a faint twinge, as if the missing limb were trying to return.
I stood on the bluff at the edge of the land and looked out over the bay. Hundreds of dark-colored birds floated on the calm water, and the flock had clearly definable contours, each bird somehow visibly part of the group, even though the shape of the flock as a whole kept shifting, morphing languidly, but without any individual bird actually appearing to move.
As I watched, marveling, the entire flock imperceptibly moved into the shape of a single, huge bird, wings outstretched, beak turned slightly to the side. I thought to call my husband to come see, but even as I did so, I wasn’t sure it really did look like a bird any more, and in fact as I kept looking, that recognizable form disappeared. I did remark to him that it was interesting how connected the birds seemed to one another; no matter how attenuated the shifting lines of floating birds it was always possible to connect any bird in the flock to every other bird like a succession of dots. They were always a single form of some kind. My husband looked at the drifting flock. “They’re just being pushed around by the tide, you see?” he remarked.
In Stanislaw Lem’s great speculative fiction work, Solaris, earth scientists visit a planet they come to suspect is a single, vast intelligence, and one that, in fact, may be trying to communicate with them. But their inability to determine the nature of this intelligence, what it may be trying to communicate, or if it is really even aware of them at all in any meaningful way, nearly drives them mad. They prepare to leave, feeling nothing but hatred for this place that shows them only their own fallibility, the meager limits of their own understanding. One man alone remains, unable to leave the station, ready to wait all his life for a single sign that he and the planet are in contact.
Did the birds make the shape of a bird? And if so, what does that mean?
A small cohort of gray seals (or were they harbor seals? juvenile sea lions? we had no idea) had bobbed in the shallows as we walked down along the muddy shore over the rubbery stems of ice plants and the hummocks of dead shore grass. Their heads turned comically to follow us as we walked, like spectators at a very slow sporting event. When we were up on the bluff watching the birds, a couple of the sleek heads were still out of the water, turned our way. “Do you think they are looking at us?” I asked my husband. “How far can they see?” “Maybe they just like to look at the shore,” he replied.
It was getting colder as the short day faded; a light rain began to spatter; we had to go back. I was happy to be returning to warmth, food and light. But I felt reluctant to leave the edge of the bay. I had the notion everything was speaking, a kind of long, low singing, that I perceived as inchoate beauty and richness, which was only the shallowest possible understanding of this “language.” At the same time, I felt my congenital handicap would prevent me from ever being able to be a fluent and able participant in this performance of the elements.
But the most severely crippled person can still experience joy, and fulfillment, and feelings of completeness! I protested silently. I am the person I have been made, with limited sight, or a missing limb, if you will, and I can’t change certain things. I can’t live the Ohlone way; I have to live in the broken world my ancestors created trying haplessly and bloodily to free themselves from the land and each other. But I can try to stretch the boundaries of my awareness as far as they will go, without relinquishing the self that was made by their generations.
And what of the benefits? It wasn’t really meaningful to me that I had access to thousands of consumer goods, most of which weren’t remotely necessary to a happy, healthy life. I could imagine a fulfilling life without many of the machines that basically kept me from doing much physical work, from chopping wood or lighting fires or carrying water. But what always stopped me short from a full-on nostalgia for the lost indigenous world was my modern identity as a woman, born near the top of the economic and social food chain. I had the time and freedom to think. I was unapologetically happy having chosen not to bear children, and there was little social stigma attached to that in the cultural shoals that I had made my home. I was not shackled to any human relationship against my will. A dizzying range of social positions was open to me.
Was it worth the price? There were high costs: one had constantly to hold terminal alienation and despair at bay, as society consumed itself, wallowed in ignorance, and ravaged the natural world in orgies of greed, bloodthirst and hypocrisy. There were people who every day broke under the weight of the inequities that on my shoulders were, through no grace or skill of my own, so light. But for me personally? I don’t know what kind of woman I would have been in that other culture, but my encounters with living nature-centered societies had left me with the sense that the woman I’d so easily become could not have existed there. So what was I to feel but ambivalent at the idea that breaking open the living world and shattering it into pieces had, to some extent, freed me?
The rain began in earnest as we turned the car around and headed back to the house.
Part II: Children and Houses, an Indian Grandmother, Lotus Eaters
A country house sounds oligarchic to me, like a place where stories published in the New Yorker would be set. The picturesque crossroads village of Tomales, surrounded by the bare, sensuous hills of West Marin County with its large population of cows and sheep, is now mostly made up of second homes, a few full-timers who are National Geographic photographers or commercially successful artists, and possibly even a few of the people who fix the remaining ranchers’ trucks or sell them feed. I have never seen a black, yellow or red person on the streets of Tomales, not “even” any Mexicans.
My husband and I are not poor. We have no property, no savings to speak of, no investments, and no “prospects.” Our combined income is probably best described as modest. But we eat well, we dress respectably, we usually have work of some kind, we carry no debt. Neither one of us has ever been hungry or homeless. We have, in times past, been “helped out” financially by our parents, something that forever separates us from the truly poor. The truly poor do not have middle class parents who can help them out. So we really have little to complain about. It always seems hypocritical to me when people who are not truly poor complain about their lack of money.
Perhaps the only real drawback of our situation is that we find it difficult to participate for any length of time in conversations at family gatherings, because most of the talk is about children or houses, and we have neither, and have no plans to have either. This creates an undercurrent (in the middle class it’s all undercurrents, you know) of discomfort on the part of our mystified hosts, often, as this time, my husband’s father and stepmother, and their guests, who are most often their peers and sometimes my husband’s other relatives. Of course everybody pretends it’s okay, but really it’s not. Our ambitionless and meandering lives are a subtle attack on the standards they have invested their non-refundable lifetimes in trying to uphold, and since they can’t have been wrong to do so, we must be wrong in having failed to follow suit. Of course the terrible dilemma of parents is that if they consider their children complete failures, it inevitably reflects back on them, so in my experience they generally recoil when approaching such extreme levels of judgment, keeping their distress somewhat masked and mitigated by tepid approval. Damned with faint praise never had a truer ring than at any middle class family party.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why we spent only a little time in the living room after coming back from our walk to the bluff by the bay, and soon disappeared on to the back porch where the hot tub bubbled and steamed under the gentle rain. Underwater lights gave the chlorinated water a blue glow. We slipped in, naked, and peace descended. With the jets on, you couldn’t hear the babble of voices in the kitchen or the living room discussing midwives and breathing exercises, or property values and how to deal with contractors.
I understand where the fascination with property comes from. Owning it and managing it are the best ways each man can shape and control his external world. In the modern middle class, the raw struggle for survival has been abstracted to the battle over a floor plan, or a tax abatement. But why do the women talk so obsessively and at such detailed length about how to have a child? Because, perhaps, there are now as many options to what was once a single procedure as there are with what to do with a piece of property. And anxiety, the anxiety that accompanies options, and that accompanies life in a world where care is a commodity and therefore dependent on access to resources, is a constant factor. The ritual review of the details of successful childbirth is an attempt to reassure any expectant mother in the group, to use the magic of words and lived experience to keep anxiety at bay.
Earlier in the year I had traveled to Peru to attend a gathering of several hundred people interested in restoring our industrialized societies to earth-centered spirituality and practice. There were frequent talks and ceremonies performed by indigenous elders from many parts of the Americas. There was one woman in her 60s from Guadalajara, Mexico called Abuela (Grandmother) Margarita. She was gruff and insistent on the subject of childbearing: a woman was simply throwing her life away if she did not have a child. It was the role that the universe had given her; it was the greatest power in creation, to procreate. There was no better—really no other—way for a woman to bless and sanctify creation than to bear children. I had heard this lecture when I sat in a small group and Abuela taught us how to pray over our menstrual blood. The prayer was a straight-ahead “mother earth send me a man so I can offer you a child” incantation. When I asked if I could change the words because I “had” a man, and had had one for over a decade, but had no children, the lecture began. I was somewhat stunned by the realization that Abuela felt absolutely no interest in my feelings in the matter or my thoughts about it. She was not a spiritual councilor with any of the personal warmth or sympathy I had somehow expected her to emanate as a wise soul. But the truth was she wasn’t there to listen to us inhabitants of the fallen world, she was there to tell us what to do to save the planet. She was representing the conquered people speaking back to their conquerors, and why should she have any obligation to the feelings of these ghost children of soul-destroying Europe?
Well, I am doing my best to disappear and leave no biological trace, because that is what I am given to believe is the best possible cure for the sickness at issue here. But of course, if I had really wanted a child, I would have found a cosmic pretext, something like Abuela’s perhaps, to rationalize that choice as well… anyway, there’s little profit in these speculations. I came away from the gathering in Peru thinking that any set of practices which requires the children of Europe to detest and reject their own identities will never prevail among them, regardless of how necessary the prescribed change may be, or how much horror the history that gave birth to them has generated. But was there some place to stand between the rock of a life whose every action is determined by the natural universe, and the hard place of a soulless culture of individual “freedom” based on man’s domination of a dead planet? Was there some new path entirely that redeemed both indigenous and secular humanist history without requiring us to erase either?
Instead of coming up with an answer, I lolled in the bubbling blue water with my husband, thinking of how the years had passed and how much California seemed in some ways to me like one of the backwaters where Ulysses was deterred on his journey home. The story has had a particular fascination for me since I was a child, because I grew up in Ithaca, New York, and the symbolism seemed apropos. But I was no Penelope. I was a wanderer, not a weaver. So it was always the Odyssey’s hero I identified with, not any of its cast of female characters, who seemed to exist mainly to get in Ulysses’ way with their snares and wiles.
And from the time I slipped into the first hot tub I had ever been in, with the man who is now my husband, at another comfortable and expensive home—in the Carmel highlands, his mother’s, this time—the years had drifted by. What is the point in doing anything? the warm water seemed to whisper. There is comfort here, the climate is mild, the landscape is impossibly beautiful, these things cost you little or nothing (others have paid for them). Striving is pointless. There is nothing to strive for. Just live. California was my land of the Lotus Eaters.
Like Ulysses, I had come there from a war. It was a Central American proxy war, where the poor were the cannon fodder, the “victory,” was unbelievably costly, and the original injustices became lost in the fog of endless violence, like in Ulysses’ time. Plus ça change… Unlike the man of many tropes, I was an ideological foot soldier, not a commander, adviser or figure of any importance. And, in the end, I was not on the winning side. The lure of the lotus was potent because of the exhaustion that years of engagement in a lost cause produces. The bubbling blue water was so seductive. Forget.
And now, as droplets of cold rain fell on my face and hair and woke me, I blinked and shivered and saw that more than ten years had passed since the end of that war. Where was I? On another pretty deck on another gentle California hillside while the world roared on, from war to war, like some lumbering beast trying to catch and conquer its own tail. The rain was coming down quite hard now. Time to go back inside.
Part III: A Storm in Winter
It rained the rest of that night, hard. In ones and twos, all the guests left, including my father-in-law and his wife, who were staying in the city. My husband and I remained at the house with the younger children of his father’s second marriage. None of us felt like driving back in what had become a full-fledged storm. When the parents were gone, all the guardedness and the necessary façade of good behavior came down, the music went up, we passed around a joint and heard stories of the pain and frustration of family life, complaints about how impossible the parents were, the fantasy world they’d created that justified their every emotional selfishness so their children could have no earthly cause to resent anything they did.
I marveled: these were the pretty ones, the golden California kids, with none of the awkward pallor and social clumsiness of the lost and lonely that I recognized in myself, and in my husband as kindred spirit. He, first child of the early failed marriage, had been emotionally abandoned to his parents’ bohemian drives, to parties and affairs and drink and wild times. When his father remarried, he settled into his role as paterfamilias with seeming ease; all that was over, and the children of the second family—we’d always been given to understand—were the better for it. Yet here they were, handsome young adults, but not golden children. They felt unhappiness and frustration and resentment just as we did. It wasn’t money that they missed, they had had every comfort and none of them was greedy. It was something more profound—perhaps the sense that their parents loved them above all else, more than themselves. Something that epitomizes middle class family life is this amazing realization almost every child has at some point that emotionally it’s every man for himself. Parental betrayal, which is unthinkable in less individualistic cultures, is as routine as boredom. There’s an emptiness that follows you around ever afterwards, that makes irony as central to your view of the world as faith is in those who never need to distrust their parents.
Here I don’t mean the betrayal of physical or verbal abuse; that is still more horrible, the most horrible thing in a world of human failure. And yet it is identifiable, which can give its victim some power over it. But this strange middle class phenomenon is one of absence in presence: a parent who may never raise his or her hand or voice to you, who never walks out of your life and disappears, but simply drops you emotionally at some critical point. It’s nothing you can point to and say: You did that. That’s why irony becomes so central: because you can’t really tell what is true or false in that relationship, or any relationship, once you’ve experienced such a thing. You are in the hall of mirrors.
Having been a child but not a parent, I can only kibbitz about parenting, but it seemed to me bittersweet to have parents, such as my husband’s, who are their own persons. That is, who at the bottom of it are really more interested in their own lives than in yours. There, you see, Abuela, my reasons for abdicating parenthood: I respect it too much. I believe it should be as you say, but I couldn’t measure up to my own standards: I wanted to live my own life, and not turn it over to my child. And yet I feel that every child deserves to have parents who would turn over their lives to her, unstintingly and unquestioningly. No, there isn’t any compromise. There isn’t any middle ground. The indigenous world view gave clear guidance and no room for doubt: we don’t have lives separate from one another, and each has a specific time honored role that cannot be abdicated without breaking the web of the whole, in immediate family as in clan or tribe.
But thanks to history, class, nationality and a score of subtler, incalculable factors, I have been broken free of this cycle of the ages, and cast outside it, and the place I have found my freedom is full of anxiety, doubt and loneliness. The fact that there are therapists and councilors waiting in the wings to try to staunch the psychic bleeding, to help us “cope,” is cold comfort. It is exemplary of our civilization’s progress that we rip up a vast garden and replace it with D.H. Lawrence’s “silk flowers in a vase”—at best! Another generation is born missing limbs, but the loss of parental love cripples us more painfully than the loss of nature—that happened so long ago. This is a pain that hasn’t yet been reduced to a whisper of lost possibility from time to time, but gnaws constantly at our hearts.
How do humans conquer pain? By turning it into a story. Around a fire, with the rain falling outside, in a warm and sheltered place—this is perhaps the best time to tell a story. This was a warm and comfortable house—once it had been a farmhouse, but my husband’s stepmother had overhauled it and designed a lighter, more open interior space, yet one in which the kitchen and the area around the fireplace were still the best places to be. As we lounged in a circle, smoking and talking, I remembered that when she and his father had first bought the house they discouraged the idea of their children coming up; it was to be their private retreat, just for the two of them. They relented, of course, and here—ironically—the children had actually taken it over, and were using it to heal themselves of their rejections, but the incremental damage had been done, one more time.
And from parental betrayal it was an easy step to the betrayal of a nation by its leaders. There is, after all, a continuity there, though our culture has tried, falsely, in the name of its own so-called sophistication, to abstract its political structures from any connection to the other hierarchies in our lives. The lies of a gang of venal men, wielding enormous power, who led the nation to war for conquest and profit—this is abuse, not just absence of love, and yet there are so many of the big family still covering up for them…
We talked about the rumors that were flying around on the internet and the alternative radio stations: there would be another terrorist attack and a coup in the U.S. before the November election, the capture of the Iraqi dictator had been staged—he was really found by the Kurds and traded to U.S. forces for the guarantee of political rights. The mainstream press, meanwhile, completely and thoroughly censored itself—there was too much money at stake to do otherwise. The oldest of my husband’s half sisters, born in an era when many thought progressive change was inevitable because it was merely rational, said, of the unelected President and the fee-for-service Congress and the wholly-owned subsidiary the Supreme Court and TV’s 24/7 circus of consumption and complacency: “It’s all bullshit isn’t it—god, is it possible there’s nothing true in it anywhere?” There was just an edge of longing in her voice. The Emperor has no clothes, but he’s doing all right, thank you very much, they’ve taken that small child who was pointing at him out of the room and hustled him off to juvenile hall, for his own good of course, and that’s how it’ll look on the evening news, followed by Entertainment Tonight.
Here we were in the new millennium, and it looked like nothing so much as the last turn of the century, the age of the Robber Barons, just cranked up to warp speed by new technology.
At last we all went to bed, the rain still falling, the wind howling over the line of hills that sheltered us from the coast, where we could only imagine what the tormented sea must look like. I wondered when that chunk of the cliff over Tomales Bay would fall—what storm would bring it down, this year, next year, ten years on? I didn’t sleep well. The wind got into my dreams.
Sometimes nature speaks loudly enough so that all of us can still hear. In the morning the rain seemed no longer to be falling, but to be streaking horizontally in from the west and south. The black boughs of the apple tree beside the big front windows shivered and creaked; farther up the hill the eucalyptuses were bent double. The radio said the highway was flooded, a section of it closed down near San Rafael. My husband was mildly frustrated; he was ready to be back home, he had work to do. I sympathized, but inside I was gleeful. I love it when nature makes us slow down, or stop altogether. I have ever since the blizzards of my childhood kept us out of school.
When the torrential rains fell in the Central American “winter,” even the war would grind to a halt. In the countryside everyone took shelter where they were. You would huddle inside a palm thatch hut and watch the landscape become transformed before your eyes: paths into streams, roads into rivers. Malcolm Margolin had joked on the radio that he imagined the Ohlones “spending the winter rains lying around under rabbit-skin rugs waiting for someone to invent coffee.”
Who finds this entirely unacceptable? Those for whom the music I could faintly hear on the cliffs over the bay is an irrelevance, and a machine-like sequence of days producing predictable but ever-increasing levels of economic activity is the highest goal. Now, though, there was speculation that the climate was starting to snap its moorings, and the stability these men had exploited for so long was at risk—from their own gargantuan apparatus of production. The age of human miracles had turned into a grim joke, but nature might still have the last laugh. This idea gave each major storm a piquancy for me. Which would be the one where the rain (or the snow, or the wind) didn’t stop?
It did stop, this time, just after midday. Or at least it began to subside. We had stood at the windows gazing at the thrashing trees, breakfasted on leftovers from the party, and now our little community broke up. Come up again, said my husband’s half-brother, who had been living there since his recent divorce. Don’t ask for permission, just come any time, he said, pointedly. My husband’s mind was already far away: he’d been ready to leave since the radio first announced that the highway was open again. He tires of company, of talk more quickly than I do, but basically we share a solitary nature: that’s what makes it work. I was on the farthest edge of this little familial solar system, I knew it wasn’t a place I could really belong. The solidarity we’d found that night was temporary, like the friendships formed by people who shelter under the same ledge in the rain. Still, it was good to have had. We waved as we drove off, but didn’t look back to see if any of the children were watching.
About half way back to San Francisco, another squall hit, the kind of rain that makes you feel as if you’re driving through an automated car wash at 60 miles an hour. We pulled off the highway outside Novato and got coffee. But it was a last gasp, a last fillip upside the head from the dying storm, and our cups weren’t even empty before it cleared to a drizzle. We merged back into the roar of traffic that kept coming on, heedless of whatever it was the fading storm might have been trying to say, and then, shortly, we were home.
 An uncountable number of words have been expended trying to map these middle class emotional undercurrents in fiction, to raise them to the level of art. I think it is a hopeless task, that the masters like John Cheever were the only craftsmen even to approach an aesthetic standard that will bear the test of time, and everybody else ought to just stop trying and find something else to write about, or to seek some other form than fiction. There were resonant moments during our weekend in the country when I imagined that an evocative short story could be woven from the threads of our interactions, an impressionistic masterpiece crafted from the currents flowing under the words. But no! As satirist Fran Leibowitz remarks with such sensitivity: “The story of your life would not make a good novel. So just forget about it.” And really, what is the point of hammering together all that elaborate scenery, constructing that colossal and complicated backdrop just so that you can avoid saying directly what you really want to say, and instead force your thoughts and experiences into the heads of a few stilted puppets with symbolic names?