The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Monday, June 23, 2014

Half Way Mark

This year’s book in the series about the Mikkelsons, Pulled Into Nazareth, was slow getting started. I was doing more research for the book, as some of it is set in places I’ve never been. And also, things just seemed to get in the way of writing. In May I started worrying. The previous year I had been much further ahead. Would I finish half the book by the end of June? I began to put writing first, and yesterday I uploaded chapter 14 to the location where my first readers can find it, reaching the half way mark.

As I walked through San Rafael yesterday I noticed that the majestic old jacaranda which grows in a street park near the reconstructed Mission was blooming. The mysterious, spicey scent of the blue trumpet-flowers opened up in the hot, sunny afternoon, but the thick branches made a heavy shade and under the tree fallen blue flowers carpeted the grass.

I haven’t lived with many jacarandas, so each has been special. The first was in North Oakland, in a residential neighborhood which I passed through each day on my way to work. I struggled with the name jacaranda, which was pronounced with the ‘j’ sounding more like an ‘h.’ Its origins are lost in time, but is believed to be from a Guarani (an indigenous language of South America) word meaning ‘fragrant’. I especially enjoyed the few weeks in early summer when it bloomed.

Toward the end of those years, I talked to the owner of the tree. She threatened to cut it down as its roots were upending the concrete sidewalk. She was older and had no money to pay for insurance claims. So sad, I thought. Then I worked in Los Angeles for a few weeks in spring and found little ornamental forests of jacarandas on the plaza levels above the downtown streets.

Place is so important to all of us. Jacarandas don’t grow everywhere. Here the coastal morning fog cools us each night and clear, bright days are leaving us a very dry summer. But we are listening to the predictions of an El Niño which scientists perceive developing off the Pacific coast and hopeful that winter rains will alleviate our drought. I have long felt much more related to the rim of the Pacific than to Europe. Does this affect my writing, I ask myself.

When a Japanese-born friend tells me she is reading a lot of the Shishōsetsu, or I-novels written in Japanese, I research these and find that they are a particular genre in which writers used the events of their own lives for their subjects. Beginning in the early 20th century, the writers wished to portray a realistic view of the world involving real experiences, often showing the darker side of society. Except for the realism involved, this did not sound like my work.

But then I found that Gish Jen, a contemporary American-born Chinese writer, has written a book entitled Tiger Writing, about the “profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived between East and West.” She believes that the novel is essentially a Western form that values originality, authenticity and the truth of individual experience, while Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.

I’ve had trouble thinking of the stories about the Mikkelson kids as a series of novels, though by some definitions, the novel is such a big envelope it can contain almost any kind of fiction. My work is certainly about “cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.” It’s about family and how our personal and public lives interact, with emphasis on the private aspects. In the end, of course, I am not the one to say what the books become. I must just write them and hope that they eventually find their audience.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Alan Chadwick

Alan Chadwick
The University of California at Santa Cruz opened in 1965. It had a number of experimental ideas, including pass/fail grades, residential colleges, and the innovative cross-disciplinary history of consciousness program. For Paul Lee, however, the university’s first few years, before it hardened into a research institution, were crystallized by the presence of Alan Chadwick and the gardens he made there. Lee taught philosophy and religious studies at Crown College until he was denied tenure. Lee had the idea that a student garden on the beautiful, open campus would be a good addition to interdisciplinary study. Within weeks of a walk Lee organized to look for a possible garden site, Alan Chadwick turned up.

Alan Chadwick had been a British naval officer and a Shakespearean actor but it was as a master gardener for the many gardens he began up and down the coast of California that he made his mark. He used a French intensive biodynamic gardening system which has its roots in Rudolf Steiner and Goethe. When Lee asked whether Chadwick would make a garden for the university, Chadwick went out, bought a spade and started digging without any discussion of contracts, salary or where it should be done!

Chadwick hated industrial farming and gardening, the tractors which had compacted the soil and the profit motive that set them in motion. He preached biological diversity instead of mono-cropping and used companion planting and other techniques to guard against pests. His theme was working with nature, learning its rhythms and mysteries. He was as Paul Lee writes, “the Pied Piper of the reaffirmation of the integrity of organic nature and its carefree abundance, and the lifestyle that went with it.”

Photo copyright by Gregory Haynes
As a person, Chadwick was flamboyant and imperious. Students who became his apprentices never forgot him. Beth Benjamin writes: “He had flaming temper tantrums, told tales, gave us dinner parties, fed us with his own bread and ham and cheese, threw dirt clods at us and laughed as he hid behind the compost piles. He taught us the joy of work, the discipline to persevere in order to make a dream come true, even when we were hot and tired, and the deliciousness of resting and drinking tea after such monumental labors.”

The high point of Chadwick’s residence at Santa Cruz was a series of lectures he gave which had the quality of a revivalist meeting. Chadwick called people back to their own nature and the nature around them, which, he pointed out, was under radical attack. But after about five years of working on the gardens, Chadwick was finished at the university. Paul Lee was told by a colleague, “do you know that [Chadwick’s] garden has done more to ruin the cause of science on this campus than anything else?” Chadwick packed his bags and went on to Saratoga and Green Gulch.

This story and much more is told in Paul Lee’s rambling book, There Is a Garden in the Mind. His insistence that the California organic movement began at UC Santa Cruz with Alan Chadwick is further described on his website. Peter Jorris and Greg Haynes have put together a rich website including many video memories of his dynamic personality and teaching at Alan Chadwick also appears in Wendy Johnson’s book Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, in which she describes Chadwick’s contributions to the gardens at Green Gulch Zen Center just north of the Golden Gate. Chadwick died at Green Gulch in 1980.

For the purposes of my current novel, Pulled Into Nazareth, Chadwick impacts Line’s story when she and her husband move to Santa Cruz. Stephen is getting his doctorate in history and Line, though she has a small child in tow, works in the Chadwick garden before Chadwick leaves in 1972. Line is, of course, part of the choir. Alan has no need to preach to her! I first learned about Chadwick from my sister Solveig, a natural gardener who now does her gardening and birding in Yorkshire, England.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Birth Center

My character Line has been interested in the birth process since her earliest days in high school when a friend allows her to be present when his sow farrows. Even then, she is impressed with the transcendent atmosphere in the barn where her friend has spent the night with the newborn pigs and their mother.

Women in the 1970’s were exploring all kinds of ways to take back power they felt they had abdicated. By this time Line has moved to Santa Cruz where her husband is getting a doctorate in history at the University of California. Of course, when she is pregnant, she finds the Santa Cruz Birth Center that Raven Lang and other courageous women began.

Raven Lang's Birth Book, 1972
Raven Lang was unhappy with birth as she experienced it at Stanford Hospital. In Raven’s case, the delivery room was “urgently needed,” so her doctor enlarged the episiotomy he had already done and in his haste cut through her anal sphincter. When she left the hospital she could not straighten up to walk or carry her own baby. She knew something had gone terribly wrong, though no one would tell her what. She questioned all hospital practices related to pregnancy, labor and delivery.

Raven began to provide classes in natural childbirth and attend local home births. Public health nurses pressured Raven to find out whether she was certified to teach as she did. She gathered together other women she knew who were teaching childbirth preparation and attending home births as midwives. They began to meet and share their education and experiences. They started the Birth Center which was entirely supported by the Santa Cruz community. They kept statistics on all of the births they monitored. Eventually they shared medical knowledge with others up and down the coast, becoming a kind of irregular school, and then the California Association of Midwives.

In March, 1974, Linda Bennett and Jeanine Walker were requested to assist in a home birth. They were entrapped by undercover agents (one of them pregnant) who confiscated their kit of birth tools, arrested both women and drove them to jail. At the same time officials from the DA’s office, the sheriff’s office, the state police converged on the Birth Center. Raven and Kate Coleman inside the center alerted radio stations and newspapers. Instead of violating laws about practicing without licenses, the women at the Birth Center believed the real issue was one of human rights.

This story is told in Immaculate Deception, by Suzanne Arms. I got the 1975 version from the library, because I am working with a 1970’s point of view. In this first version of the book, Suzanne, who also had a bad birthing experience in a hospital, does not mince words! “I realized an entire system of medical procedures and interferences had been established to treat normal birth as a risky, dangerous, painful and abnormal process in which pregnant women have no choice other than to submit graciously.”

As a result of women questioning the over-technologized procedures of hospital births and obstetricians’ care, birth practices began to change. When my sister gave birth in the mid 1980’s, she chose one of two midwives practicing in San Francisco. They assisted her in the natural process in birthing rooms provided at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Her husband was in attendance and her new baby was not taken away from her.

Birthing is a cultural, as well as a deeply personal event and there is now a wide array of choices. But it does sound as if many women are again trusting birth to technology. In 2011 the national percentage of cesarean sections was 32.8%. Dr. Martin Blaser in Missing Microbes questions whether babies who don’t come down the birth canal are getting the immunities they need. I doubt I need to tell you where my character Line’s proclivities lie.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Scandia Bakery

Vivian and Marian Brown
Looking back at the 1970’s in San Francisco, the Scandia Bakery on Powell Street looms large for me. Crowded with small tables which threw its patrons into amenable groups, it served good coffee and an array of delectable pastries and cakes. Most weeks, if I went down town at all, I stopped in at the Scandia. My sisters and I used it as a meeting place, and on one magic occasion, I arrived to find my mother, who had not been in San Francisco in my memory, calmly sitting at one of the little tables.

A Swedish baker and his family owned the coffee shop. (Try as I might, I cannot find any reference to their name on the web.) While you sat drinking coffee, you might hear the pounding and rolling of dough on the balcony above you and smell the sweet and yeasty smells wafting out of the oven. The baker was grey-haired, older; his wife was behind the counter most of the time. Once I arrived to find their daughter, dark-haired and vivacious, holding court over a circle of admirers who filled up the tables in front. Dark-complected Eastern Europeans, they looked incredibly full of life to me.

I had a hard time choosing between my two favorite pastries, a cherry or a prune Danish, lightly glazed with sugar icing. The dough for Danish is similar to puff paste, rolled, folded and interleaved with butter. Making it is hard, heroic work. I didn’t try to make it myself more than once. I understand it comes from Austria, though it became wildly popular in Scandinavia. Wonderful Princess cakes of vanilla sponge, jam, and cream topped with a pale green marzipan frosting, and other cakes and puffs filled with pastry cream, as well as cookies were also served at Scandia.

The place was always full of exotic people. European tourists found it quickly. I loved listening to the many different languages at every crowded table. But there were also the regulars. I remember a well-dressed older woman, in hat and gloves, who I often saw there, or the concierge of a nearby hotel whom I talked to several times. I often saw Marian and Vivian Brown, the San Francisco twins, dressed to the nines and happily talking to people around them.

Tame as it sounds, I have a lot of wild associations with this bakery, partly because it was on Powell Street. The rows of sycamores at the base of the street cast light and shade on fair and foul alike, making it look like a European avenue. Those of us who lived in the city were not deceived, however! The street was just north of the Tenderloin, where many of the city’s most unfortunate lived. On Powell Street in the 1970’s you might walk past a derelict person lying face down in the street or see a wasted person who no longer cared that their rags barely covered them.

Because it is here that the cable car drivers push the cars onto a turntable, then turn them around and catch the cable under the street north, long lines of tourists waiting to go to Fishermans’ Wharf attract street musicians and entertainers. An indelible image for me was a thin, long-legged girl wearing woodsy material dancing in the center of a ruffian gypsy band. Tall dark men with long unkempt hair, brown faces and sinewy limbs, wearing ragged accretions of leather and cloth surrounded her. Wild, enchanted, gypsy fiddles made the music. The girl whirled as though possessed with a joy unequaled in the civilized city. They looked as though they had wandered out of a fairy tale.

Beside the bakery was a bookstore, a deep room infinitely filled with shelves and tables graced with books and stationery. I spent long hours there, sifting through the art books, hunting down new writers and decrying the fact that my favorites weren’t in print. The city changes constantly, but for my first years there a few blocks surrounding the Scandia Bakery was its cultural center.

Monday, March 31, 2014


We began to use the word “lifestyle” in the early 1970’s mostly as a discussion about choice. I had made a few big choices by then, but was just starting to be able to make money enough for daily choices. What to eat, what to wear, where to live and how to get around. These choices all counted, we thought. In was a matter of citizenship in the world. The civil and political efforts of the past decade had led us to ask ourselves how to vote with our dollars and live responsibly.

Living simply was high on the list. We did not want to live in highly ornate, single-function rooms. We were quite mobile and minimalist, happily moving into apartments with a mattress on the floor and a few dishes, but we had definite quality standards. We thought older things had been crafted better than new ones. We loved natural materials, cotton, wool and linen, and avoided cheap polyester fibers. And we loved folk arts, things crafted by people from around the world which flowed into the Bay Area.

There was a strong sense of egalitarian camaraderie about these values in San Francisco. We had little money, but we were never hungry or homeless, as Patti Smith describes in Just Kids, about living in New York at this time. We always had jobs, places to live and money to spend on food. When our friends ran out of food stamps, they came over for dinner! People traded grass for stuff. Some of it wasn’t very important. Easy come, easy go. Experience ruled.

In scavenging bits and pieces, we gave preference to older things and anything made with wood. At the time you could find sturdy wooden boxes on Grant Street in Chinatown in which china had been packed. We brought them home, stained them and used them as shelves. We absolutely had the redwood burl slab which became a table when set on a stump. It was kind of rickety, so it mostly stood in the corner, covered with plants. David acquired a red Navajo rug which we used for everything. I bought a small knotted pile rug from the Caucasus at the flea market that had been used as a camel bag. I still have it.

When I first went to work in San Francisco in 1970, women were not allowed to wear pants of any kind. (That changed within the year!) The dresses we could afford in stores were awful, so we bought good cotton and sewed our own. Peasant dresses, often. We could buy cotton tee-shirts and jeans, and they became even more valuable as they aged and grew ragged. The handmade jean patches I made were loved. We all felt that we could make better things than we could afford. Friends became accomplished weavers, potters and embroiderers.

The wealth of ethnic restaurants in San Francisco enabled us to eat out a little, but we were also experimenting with all the kinds of cooking we had never done at home. Beef stroganoff, quiche lorraine, shepherd’s pie, eggplant parmigiana and salmon casserole were some of our specialties. I remember how delighted I was to buy abalone in the store (!) and learn to cook it. I baked breads until my Sunset bread recipe book fell apart, and all kinds of cookies and pies. When we could get our hands on a car, we went out to the produce markets on Alemany St. Of course we did entirely without table grapes or iceberg lettuce, part of a boycott on behalf of the United Farm Workers.

We did not want to spend time and money commuting. Since we hardly ever had more than one car, we moved into apartments close to my job. When I took a shift at a newspaper from 3 until 11 p.m., we moved to South San Francisco near the paper and I bought a 10-speed bike to get back and forth late at night. When I got a job in a building near Fisherman’s Wharf, we moved to North Beach. I could then walk to work.

And yes, there were drugs and music. Everyone was exploring, testing. Parties were epic, rock concerts pervasive, often free in the park. David was terribly interested in, even a purveyor, of drugs. Acid, cocaine, grass and hash of many different provenances (all of which he knew), even heroin. I did my last heraldic acid trip on the island of Hawaii in 1977. It was great. It was wonderful. It was enough.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Volkswagen Bus

Nothing is more emblematic of the 1970’s than the Volkswagen bus! I know. We had several Volkswagens, including the proverbial bus. At the time, those of us who came to San Francisco from other places were rolling stones. Everyone was searching, on the move to find information no one else had, out of sight music, the wilder side, land you could own, or maybe, friends and community. The Volkswagen bus made a turtle out of you, your house on your back. You could fill it with your stuff, sleep in it, pick up hitchhikers, even tune it yourself. It was the ultimate backpack for a fluid world.

David and I had thick pieces of foam cut to fit the back of the bus, so we could lay out our sleeping bags in it and be at home anywhere. Taking a hibachi to cook on, we drove up and down the California coast on the weekends, thinking ourselves kings of the road.

No Volkswagen was complete without a set of metric tools and a greasy copy of John Muir’s “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” Drawings carefully demonstrated exactly how to tune the Volkswagen and many other tasks. Not being the mechanical type, I never learned much about the engine, but David (having made friends with a great mechanic named Ernie) did learn to tune ours. He would listen to the purring of the motor, sensitive to all its sounds.

One Christmas we drove the bus down to Baja, hoping for sun and warmth. It was foggy and chill on the Baja beaches, however. And I had to take a plane home to get back to work in time, leaving David to nurse the bus home. The engine on the bus was air-cooled, and a piece of the aluminum foil he had used to try to draw air into the engine got sucked into the pipe. On the way home David drove slowly and stopped often to keep the poor thing from overheating. At least that was the story.

I never had driven much, as I mostly lived in San Francisco and took buses. But when David had a bad car accident and ended up in Crystal Springs Rehabilitation Center in San Mateo, I got my California driver’s license and learned to drive the bus. I liked being up high with not much car in front of you. When David was able, I drove down, picked him up and took him places, reminding him there was life outside.

We had many cars and apartments in the 1970’s. Coming from other parts of the country, we didn’t know how to settle down. There was some philosophy behind our transience, of course. We were trying to see what the basics were, what we did and didn’t need, to live lightly upon the earth. We didn’t collect furniture or anything else. We “borrowed” landscapes and libraries, sat in coffee shops and explored every inch of our city and our world, though we did keep friendships and held down regular jobs. We had acquired the habit of searching and there was always a reason to move.

I didn’t really know I was a rolling stone until I married a native Californian. I’ve now lived in the same place for fifteen years. It puts a different perspective on things to be sure!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pulled into Nazareth

This year I’m working on a book entitled Pulled into Nazareth, from the first line of “The Weight,” a song generally attributed to Robbie Robertson of The Band. It was first recorded in 1968 on the album Music from Big Pink, one of the albums I listened to obsessively. Full of allusion and cryptic references, the enigmatic lyrics leave themselves open to many interpretations. For me, without putting too fine a point on it, they suggest the stumbling process of individuation, which for myself and some of my siblings, took up the years of the 1970’s.

This great version features the Staples Singers. It isn’t really a matter of the lyrics alone. The music is very exciting and the combination of the lyric suggestions and the music’s blues and wailing against the drums adds up to an emotional experience which might mean something to whatever place you currently find yourself. And that, is what the Seventies were about: finding yourself somewhere you didn’t expect but which is surely (is it not?) helping you along your very own path.

Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?’
He just grinned and shook my hand, "no" was all he said.

Nazareth was at least partly the location of a legendary guitar maker in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, but also the home of a wandering carpenter.

Take a load off, Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny
And you put the load right on me.

According to Robbie Robertson: “For me it was a combination of Catholicism and gospel music. The story told in the song is about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what’s being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience. you’re trying to do what’s right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it’s just not possible. In the song, all this is ‘the load.’”

Titles for books are really interesting. I tried other ones, but kept coming back to this. The song is so well known and has been covered by so many people it can’t help but be recognized. In this book, Line, Marty and Paul have all left home. They all stumble, but their experiences take them deeper into the lives they have been given to lead.

Paul goes to Alaska, determined to find himself in a place none of his family has been. Alaska is the North Country and no mistake. So much is happening there in the Seventies. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 is, at the time, “widely described as the most openhanded and enlightened piece of legislation that has ever dealt with aboriginal people” [John McPhee, Coming into the Country, 1977]. An oil boom brings people to work on a pipeline laid from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in the south, a technological feat. And midway in the decade, high schools begin to be built in the villages which had previously sent their high school age kids off to board under difficult conditions.

After a few dicey adventures, Line’s husband attracts her to Santa Cruz, where he is studying for his doctorate and later teaches in the History of Consciousness department at the newly-formed university. During this time, Allan Chadwick introduces French intensive gardening and is called the “Pied Piper” of the organic gardening movement in California. Line spends much time in his garden established at the university. She has more kids of her own and becomes midwife to others.

Marty, doing administrative work in architecture firms, finds herself at the beginning of a tech revolution. She is introduced to databases and word processing and there are rumors that architects will soon begin doing computer-aided drafting. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Erik continues to dabble in drugs on the one hand and architecture on the other. None of this answers the urgent identity questions Marty continues to pursue on her own, but this cannot be helped.

I look forward to the year of research, discovery and writing!