Thankful Thursday: Blueberry Scones and Serendipitous Encounters
Flowers perfumed my neighborhood market, splashes of sunshine on a summer morning.
…but after a long walk on the beach, I had a single purchase in mind.
“One blueberry scone, please,” I said to the woman behind the bakery counter.
She chose the pastry with the plumpest berries, swaddled it with parchment paper before sliding it into a paper bag. Brown eyes twinkling, she presented it to me like a gift.
“Thank you,” I said. Just then, I caught my reflection in the bakery case. My eyes were bright and my cheeks were rosy, but my clothes were rumpled and wet. Hair clung to my scalp in limp curls, tousled by salty breezes and dampened by fog.
“Beach hair,” I said with a shrug.
“Ah, sí!” she said, “I get that, too.”
“Do you go down there on your breaks?”
“No time,” she said, “but my family goes down to Puerto Vallarta in July…”
“Oh! That’s really soon! You must be excited!”
She turned away, wiping invisible crumbs from the counter and blinking hard. “Not this year,” she eventually said. “No money.”
There weren’t any other customers around, and –here’s the real gift–she felt safe in telling me the whole story. Mexico is her birthplace. Her father lives there, still. Her siblings have scattered to the winds, but the family reconvenes in her hometown every year. In beautiful Puerto Vallarta, they shrug off their worries and embrace their cultural traditions. Mañana will take care of itself; for one week every year, they’re able to live together in the moment.
“But not this year,” she said with a sigh. But then she brightened. “We have great memories though! My daughter is really little, but she remembers…”
I wanted to give her daughter the memories of a life time, but that’s not within my power. “Oh hey, I know!” I scrolled quickly through my cell phone, showed her some recent pictures of Freckles.
She admired his tender brown eyes and giggled at his goofy poses. “¿Dónde?” she asked.
“Not more than five minutes from here!” I said. And then I let her in on my secret. I told her a little bit about Freckles, showed her how to coordinate the tide tables with his haul-out times, and pinpointed his lounging spots on a map.
“Oh, my daughter will love him!”
I nodded. “You, too. We all do.”
She eventually rang up my order, and when she counted back my change, we mirrored each other’s smiles. As new friends do.
I slid the scone onto a pretty blue plate–a “happy” for my husband. He smiled, but his forehead was wrinkled with worry. “You’ve got dark smudges under your eyes,” he said. “Go look in the mirror.”
Mascara was sliding down my face, swirled together with saltwater tears. I laughed at my reflection, and I swear, my heart grew three sizes.
Here, another serendipitous encounter–seemingly random, but maybe not. I don’t claim to understand it, but I am grateful for yet another gift from the sea.
The Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach
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.
Coming home to my story
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.
Introducing Gabriela, American Girl’s 2017 “Girl of the Year,” plus a book giveaway contest
Meet Gabriela McBride, the 2017 addition to American Girl’s prestigious “Girl of the Year” lineup. The fourth African-American doll in their increasingly diverse line-up, Gabriela joins Melody Ellison, the black “BeForever” doll from Detroit, in making her debut on this blog.
Born into a family of artists in Philadelphia, Gabriela expresses herself through dance and poetry, both of which help her overcome her problems with stuttering. Like most American Girls, she eventually lifts her voice in support of a cause she believes in. Her active support helps save her beloved Community Arts Center.
Just so you know: Gabriela’s story comes to life in the companion book that bears her name. She has her own activity page, and–exciting news, right up her alley–American Girl is partnering with Scholastic on a special project in April to coincide with (and help celebrate) National Poetry Month! You can preview Gabriela’s first novel here; and if you enter the prize giveaway contest at the end of this blog post, you might find yourself among the five lucky winners who receive a free copy of her book!
What more can I tell you about Gabriela that isn’t immediately obvious? She has warm brown eyes and a sweet face, and oh, those signature curls! But best of all, for active girls like me: Gabriela’s built for adventure. I wanted to show her a special place in my community. Thanks to their gracious hospitality, we enjoyed an all-access tour of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Rescue. Rehabilitation. Release. Research. PMMC does all of this and more, in support of marine animals stranded on beaches along the Orange County, California coast.
Most rescued pinnipeds are severely malnourished and dehydrated. Some have respiratory illnesses and other diseases; still others have injuries caused by fishing lines and hooks, human-inflicted wounds, shark bites, and parasites. This little girl was entangled in a gill net, but is well on her way to recovery.
Working hand-in-glove with trained volunteers, PMMC’s staff employ their special brand of magic. Lots of individuals, each contributing his or her unique talents–similar to what Gabriela experienced onstage at her beloved Community Arts Center.
Fun Fact: Dehydrated animals drink “fish milkshakes,” a customized blend of fish, Pedialyte, warm water, vitamins, and medication, fed directly into their’stomachs through flexible tubes. A typical “milkshake” costs anywhere from $4.00 to $5.00, and is oftentimes subsidized by generous donors. Of course, as soon as the animals are hydrated and stable, they are weaned onto whole fish–like the herring beside Gabriela, pictured above.
At PMMC, there’s plenty of space to swim, soak, snooze, and otherwise savor their temporary quarters.
While the average length of stay is three months, treatment plans depend on the nature of of each animal’s illness and injuries.
Direct contact is kept to a minimum, to help keep PMMC’s charges from getting too comfortable in their temporary quarters. Although the workers can get quite attached, their highest priority is the animal’s welfare and eventual release.
After visiting their treatment facility, we wandered through PMMC’s educational exhibits, where we learned more about marine life and the importance of preserving their natural habitats. Because the outdoor pool was occupied, we were able to watch three healthier, longer-term residents play tag and perform impromptu water ballets. (Webcam link, for future reference.)
Here at PMMC, you’ll make lots of new friends–returning locals, and visitors from all over the world! Heather Singer, for instance, who hails from Philadelphia. She came for the sea critters, but couldn’t resist a quick snapshot with Gabriela. Happy smiles, multiplied…
It was a really fun outing, and we plan to visit often. But nothing beat the excitement of watching PMMC’s rehabilitated animals swim out to sea again! Brought by rescuers into the Pacific Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Center in October 2016, two healthy sea lions– “Cave Woman” and “Struggles” –made their way back to the ocean in late January. They stole the show, rushing out of their crates, and when they reached the water’s edge…well, just watch it. Your hearts will grow three sizes, I promise you.
Here’s Gabriela again, saying goodbye and good luck to her new friends.
And now for the book giveaway contest! All you have to do is add a comment to this entry, answering one of two questions:
1) What do you like best about the Gabriela Doll? or
2) What impresses you most about the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach, California?
You have until midnight on Valentine’s Day to enter. Good luck!
My 2017 Word of the Year is RISE
We worked together for several months last year, co-creators of a super-secret project for Hillary Clinton. Two women from opposite sides of the country–upstate New York and Southern California–who shared the same vision and purpose.
Though we’d never met in person, we fell into an easy rhythm. Creativity flowed, as it does when ego’s not an issue. When my new friend fell sick, I filled my planner pages with to-do lists and affirmations, colorful sketches and motivational stickers. She poked fun at those stickers, but it was laughter that helped get us through the more difficult days of her cancer treatments. Oh, and the harbor seals. Hashtag: #StrongerTogether
On Election Day, we finally went public with the news we’d been sitting on, for what seemed like forever:
I could hardly contain my excitement. Pollsters predicted an early, easy victory. But as everyone now knows, Election Night was holding back some surprises of its own.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College twisted the other way. Our hopes and dreams, aspirations and efforts…reduced to ashes, inexplicably and unimaginably so.
We explored Manhattan over the next several days, reveling in our friendship despite the pain, and reaching for the proverbial candle in the dark.
But once I got home, well. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the election results for weeks, much less the video that would never have an audience.
Slowly, eventually…light overcame the dark. Hope stirred; optimism reawakened.
The time eventually came when I could once again look to the future with clear, dry eyes.
The moment came when I decided to take some deep, cleansing breaths. I am an optimist, after all. I’m not immune to injury and sorrow, but I do have an indomitable spirit.
And so it was that, one sunny afternoon in late December, I ventured down to Laguna Beach. Freckles was lounging on the rocks, as usual, smiling that ubiquitous seal-smile of his and waving his flipper. Adorable. Irresistible. Irrepressible.
In that peaceful island cove, I reflected on the pendulum swing between Election Night and the restorative nature of the sea. And I remembered something I’d once read about being simultaneously courageous and vulnerable:
During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena, but there’s nowhere to go back to. What makes this more difficult is that now we have a new level of awareness about what it means to be brave. We can’t fake it anymore. We now know when we’re showing up and when we’re hiding out, when we are living our values and when we are not. Our new awareness can also be invigorating—it can reignite our sense of purpose and remind us of our commitment to wholeheartedness. Straddling the tension that lies between wanting to go back to the moment before we risked and fell and being pulled forward to even greater courage is an inescapable part of rising strong. –Brené Brown
Voilà! Like a pearl, hidden inside a rough shell, I discovered my 2017 Word of the Year:
Isn’t that just perfect? I’m no fortune teller, but I predict I’ll be amazed at the many ways this word will manifest itself this year, in my life and in the world around me.
PS I created these posters in Canva, using my own pictures. You are welcome to use them, so long as you leave my watermark intact. (Just now learning, so they’re not perfect, but this is how you raise the bar.)
New Year’s Eve with Mary Oliver
This is the night when everyone feels pressured to create for themselves a set of New Year’s Resolutions.
Checklists and ticky-boxes
Every system has its rhyme and reason, but who really thinks this way? No one that I know. Who among us actually crosses the finish line for every pledge and promise? No one–or at least, not me. That’s why I’ve long-since abandoned New Year’s Resolutions altogether, in favor of the increasingly popular Word Of The Year. Hashtag: #OneWord365.
Hey, it works for me! But I have to say, I also like the simple elegance of Mary Oliver’s Instructions for Living a Life.*
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Quick example: I woke up this morning feeling sluggish. Am I the only one who’s feeling the need to untether myself from my laptop, and to shrug off the holiday indulgences? After long stretches of inertia, our bodies crave exercise. And while they’re certainly seductive, tech devices can stifle our creativity. Same goes for daily planners. Truth is, I can’t think of better way to get back to basics (aka reassess our priorities) than to take ourselves on long walks–allowing our thoughts to drift where they will, as we breathe deep the fresh air and stretch our limbs.
And so it was that at daybreak, I tucked a pen and notepad into my pocket, draped my camera around my neck, and headed down to the beach. Faster’n you can say flip-flops, I was feeling more like myself. My heart quickened; tight muscles were loosened. Clarity returned with the incoming tide, and fresh ideas presented themselves like pearls, shimmering in the muted light of early morning. There was an ease to it all, an innate sense that the best things in life come of trusting your instincts. You’ll put your own spin on things, of course, but here’s how Mary Oliver’s Instructions for Living a Life played out for me this morning.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
A caution, if I may: You can’t just go through the motions. No copy-catting, either. Visual metaphors speak to me, but they won’t resonate with everyone. Do you, because that’s what you do best, while following these simple steps.
Step One (Pay attention) invites us to breathe into every moment, and pay attention to every detail. No blurring past the finer points in life; you have to engage all of your senses.
Step Two (Be astonished) is all about recapturing the wide-eyed wonderment of our childhood, wrapping ourselves in awe and letting go of our egos. Here’s our new motto: More wheee than whoa. And voilà, the ahhhhhs and ahas will come our way!
And here’s the big secret (Tell About It): Once we’ve completed Steps One and Two, we get to use our outside voices! More about that next time, when I reveal my Word of the Year for 2017.
*Instructions for Living a Life is excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Sometimes.”
An early Christmas gift
On my way to Goff Island yesterday, I happened upon a family reunion. Tourists, probably, drinking in the winter sunshine after savoring a picnic lunch. The women wore modest clothes and hijabs, and the men wore ankle-length, cotton robes. While the younger children built sand castles, replete with fancy turrets, a teenaged boy –positioned at a distance from his group–dug through the sand, examining and discarding tiny seashell fragments.
I lifted my sunglasses, smiled and waved. They waved back, generous smiles spread across open faces.
I thought I’d read the tide tables right, but Nature keeps her own timetable, doesn’t she? The Island was mostly submerged, so the harbor seals hadn’t yet hauled themselves onto the rocks where they typically congregate.
The ocean heaved and frothed. Seaweed floated in swirling eddies. But while I sensed the seals’ presence, I didn’t see any bobbing heads.
In the sheltered cove, where the turquoise waters deposit their treasures, I found a pearly white seashell–exquisitely shaped, perfectly whole.
I wandered toward the group of children, seashell cradled in my palm; and when I reached the spot where the older boy knelt, I slowly opened my hand.
I saw in his face a kindred soul, someone for whom simple things oftentimes bring about the greatest joy.
I spread my fingers wide, and the seashell spiraled downward. It landed gently in the boy’s lap, as if it were meant to be there, all along.
“Thank you,” he said softly, in beautifully accented English.
You’re so welcome, I thought, but I let my heart do the talking.
It was a quick exchange, no fanfare or fancy wrappings, but it felt to me like a Christmas blessing.