Writing My Way from LA to Portland (8/28 - 9/19/2012)
I have spent over three weeks moving from one absolutely beautiful home to another – none of them mine - but all of them perfect writing settings.
I first pass two weeks in L.A., most of it alone, in the home of my dear friends and writing facilitators Tracy and Lisa. Once they leave for a vacation and I am the sole inhabitant, I feel a bit lost for a day or two. In Boston, I live in two rooms, or rather I sleep in one room and live in the other. The bedroom is for slumber and storing my clothes. My main room serves as office, library, dining room, living room, guest room, and entertainment center with my TV and stereo. My kitchenette is an alcove off this main room. Anything I want or need is literally just a reach away.
Tracy and Lisa’s (pic) home is expansive, with many halls, which adds to the sense of space. This means that I need to get up and hike to whatever I want. Along the way I pass exquisite artwork and uncounted precious Mexican crafts. The colorful house has a very specific and individualized aesthetic of people who really know how to nest. In contrast, my rented walls back home are all white and every corner is crammed with piles of stuff.
Tracy and Lisa’s L.A. home has a swimming pool so private that we skinny dip, which is the only way to swim, really. There is a powerful jet stream to work out against or frolic on as well as a hot tub. Instead of chlorine, the pool water is a saline solution, identical in its pH to tears so that you can comfortably open your eyes in it. It keeps the water hygienic and is, apparently, not an uncommon method in southern California. The pool is surrounded by the most luscious landscaping and bordered by a loggia (pic) (a structure that bridges the inside and outside) – a sensuous leisure room of comfortable seating, a lush lounge. I spend a good deal of my time naked, which sets the tone for my whole vacation: no bras, no make-up, no tight waistbands, and shoes as infrequently as possible.
Anyway, I have three days to hang out with my hosts before they depart. Tracy takes me to the ONE Archives where she is on the Board and to which I am donating my papers. It is the oldest LGBT archive in the country with a fascinating history. I peek at the collection of t-shirts, of buttons, of leaflets, as well as the extensive pulp fiction library. Founded by Jim Kepner, who “began his collection in 1942 with the purchase of Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness,” today ONE holds the archival collections of personal papers of over 600 LGBT individuals and organizations. If you want a place to donate all those old leaflets from ’72 and the hand-written draft of your big lesbian novel, consider ONE.
I attend a special Shabbat service at Rabbi Lisa’s shul, Beth Chayim Chadashim (House of New Life). This was the first gay and lesbian synagogue ever, about which I’ve written a number of times. Finally I get to see the new building (Yay Tracy, one of the fundraiser team!), a conversion of a row of shops into a wired, cutting edge synagogue that is at once modern, artistic and meaningful. There is a commitment to accessibility on many levels. For example, the Torah ark is clear glass – you can see the Torahs all the time.
I am always spooked at BCC because I do not believe in God (I'm an anarchist), I do not pray (I rage), and I never understand how all these smart, kind people appeal to ghosts. But at BCC the sense of community and the vision of the volunteers is remarkable. It is the last Friday of the month, when they have an event named Ruach Chayim (Spirit of Life) which emphasizes singing and psalms, rather than spoken prayers. The young cantor on his guitar is accompanied by an amazing percussionist, a flautist and an occasional pianist as more than 80 congregants – the most diverse crowd in terms of age/race/ability/sexuality that I have been part of for years – sing and clap and laugh and dig each other. And eat, of course. Fabulous evening.
At first, when my friends leave, the L.A. house feels too big on me and I can’t figure out how to live in it – although I have lived in it for past writing visits. I have to adjust to the space, learn its systems, and solve how to write. It doesn't help that I have a not inconsiderable amount of paid work I must do on my time off because other people were tardier than I had planned.
My breakthrough comes when my friend Sarah Forth, the author, takes me to see Shakespeare in the park and the joy and wit and good writing of A Midsummer’s Night Dream kick-starts my flow. (I blogged about it here.) I’m motivated, too, by my chance to read the brilliant draft manuscript of an upcoming novel by one of my favorite writers Richard Schweid. I write.
Other than a delectable lunch in Hollywood with Addison (pic), one of my oldest friends (from high school, no less), a delightful scone with the sweet writer Danny Miller, and an evening spent talking about social media with the L.A. members of my National Writers Union, the only time I leave the house and my keyboard is when I am driven by hunger. And even then I have the use of their cars and quickly re-learn the route to Trader Joe’s.
While here, I polish five of my stories about old people and sex and love, so that I can turn them into a small self-published book as soon as I get a grip on the process. I try to work with the chapters from a book on alternative sexualities among those over 50 that my agent never sold, but I find the material very out-of-date.
I stop for one night with my friend Flo in Portland, but I’ll talk about her house later. I then spend a day and night with Kim Murton (pic), a brilliant artist known both for her pottery (she sells everything she makes) and her Facebook “Worry of the Day” series which everyone begs her to turn into a book. It’s been a quarter of century since last we met in Vermont at The Farm. She and her very cool partner David (artist/retired steelworker) and son share a rambling old home in Vancouver, WA, over the Columbia River from Portland, that is a constant work-in-progress, not the least a set of outbuildings that her partner is expanding by building a sophisticated tree house.
This was a day I took off from writing as Kim drove me around the Columbia River Gorge area, from one State park to another, from waterfall (pic) to volcanic rock. I took a bunch of photos with my new iPhone including of the nude beach sign at Rooster Rock State Park (pic). In fact, a surf boarder who passed as I was focusing my phone said, “You know that you’re not allowed to take that photo unless you’re nude.” Kim and I never stopped talking, right through a delicious Mexican meal at one of her favorite Vancouver spots. I stayed overnight, trying to get through a pile of children’s books by her favorite illustrators which she assembled for me, and I was sad to leave her the next morning.
LINCOLN CITY, OREGON
I drive my shockingly flashy rental car (pic), a Ford Fusion (good little size, but the car’s skeleton obstructs the driver’s view front and back so that one is dependent on their good mirrors) to Salem, Oregon, to the astounding home of Mary Lou and Alan, friends of Kim. They are a couple with amazing vision and skills to match. She is an artist-turned-gallerist and he is a retired school teacher (shop) and they have turned a plain house into a magic fantasy home using reclaimed materials from the most imaginative sources. Mary Lou takes the time to show me the brilliant photo albums she does for her family, not the least of their recent trip to Cuba where, she says, despite the beautiful but peeling buildings and some level of poverty, absolutely no one is homeless, begging, or denied an education or healthcare.
Mary Lou gives me a big basket of sheets and towels and the keys to their vacation home on the central Oregon coast in Lincoln City. I have brought my GPS from home and it guides me dependably through beautiful hay-colored farmland to the coast, with one stop at a café that makes dreamy pies from Oregon’s fabled berries.
The house itself is another creation by this couple with the remarkable touch. The floor in front of the shower stall is a bright mosaic by Mary Lou (pic); the banister is constructed of baseball bats (pic), a witty, unique touch; they’ve added-on a loft-bedroom; the enthralling window shades are made from world maps (pic). The only challenge for me is the pot-bellied stove, for the first two days are too chilly to forgo a fire. I have not made a fire since my Girl Scout days, although I’m certain I never was a Girl Scout. I do succeed more times than not. In any event, the weather warms up the last two days.
The house is situated one door away from the beach: Oregon law protects the public’s free, uninterrupted access to the shore. The first evening I run into a flow of neighbors, many holding glasses of wine, as we go down the path to the sandy beach dotted with giant pieces of driftwood, some of them hunks of huge trees. We watch the sun go down, exchange a word or three of pleasantries, and return to our own abodes.
I write like crazy in the kitchen, but finally force myself to take advantage of what is reputed to be one of the finest coastal areas anywhere. I take off in my fire-engine red car down the coast. While it is a gas to have the use of a new car, I haven’t rented a car for many years – perhaps not since the early 90s in the south of France with Allison. I’m a sucker for the paranoia that the car will get scratched and I’ll be in a spiral of charges. I’m haunted by the given wisdom that rental cars are broken into and the contents stolen more than other cars. (Kim warned me about the “ugly underbelly” – criminals – that accompany tourism.) Or that if I break down I won’t be sure how to go about finding a remedy.
I drive south and stop at every lookout and every State park and photograph the amazing rock formations and cliffs and inlets. I have been gone a couple of hours when I see another little cut-off road, which I assume takes me to one of these lookouts. Within moments I realize that instead of a pull-off, I am on a narrow one-way road going up and up and up. The view below of the powerful waves breaking on the stunning rocks fades as a massive fog descends on me and my red car. There is nothing to be done but to keep going and I climb and climb endlessly.
A thousand possible endings to this adventure pass through my nervous mind and yet I am still negotiating this mountain path in fog that prevents me from seeing how far down I could plunge. As evening approaches – it is 5:30 – I see no other cars, just me winding up and up with no options. Without warning I come into a clearing, dare I say into a parking lot, and there, hanging off the side of the mountain is a tourist shop. And it is open. There is a sign indicating that I’m 500 feet above sea level at Cape Foulweather, I kid you not. It was named by Captain James Cook in 1778. Other people are arriving or have just arrived and are dazed and staggering down the path to the building, as I am. In gratitude at landing somewhere, I buy three postcards, and pee.
I get very explicit directions on how to get out of there from the girl at the cash register who has obviously met many like me. And I head straight by the house, stopping at a restaurant Mary Lou recommended. I sit at the bar, strike up a warm connection with the waitresses who make me a homemade lemonade despite its absence from the menu, and who serve me a delicious mini-hamburger with home-made potato chips that have been sprinkled with truffle oil for a truly special kick. I return the next night and try other things on the bar menu, and enjoy hanging out with these young women.
I have been working on the book of short memoir stories that I was to publish back in 1991with the very superior Sheba Press in London (they published Audre Lorde, Joan Nestle, June Jordan and many other fine writers). I was working with their editor on the final polish when Sheba had to shut down – like so many feminist presses – for economic reasons. Although a few of these stories have been published over the years, I have never touched the book again. I am surprised to discover how much fun it is to work on these stories, like remembering my own history, and I am determined to prepare them for publication. The first story is about how I lost my hetero virginity as a college freshman at 17. Then there are stories about meeting a lover in the dorm bathroom, about the pre-gay-rights bars, and about a very loud lover and more.
The initial impetus for this whole trip west is my reunion (pic) for three nights and four days with Jaya Schuerch the sculptor who lives in Tuscany, and Sandy Oppenheimer the collage portrait painter, formerly of Italy and now of northern California, at the home of Florence Hochman arts maven and long-time activist. Yet again I have the privilege of staying in a spacious home that has been lovingly and tastefully shaped, so that no matter where you look, you find a treasure from Flo’s life – a painting, a sculpture, a soap, a bowl – everything crafted for its beauty and delight. The four of us find a haven together here. It has been five years since our last such reunion (in this same home).
We meet up from our various directions on the eve of Rosh HaShana and after dipping slices of apples in honey to start the New Year off sweetly, we go around the table and each talk at length about how the past year has been and what we want from the coming years. Like best friends everywhere, we are hoping to grow old together, but we’ll be damned if we can figure out where and when as we are different ages in different countries, each with our own other commitments and connections.
As is our tradition we exchange little gifts and Flo out-does herself by presenting me with a can (by Heinz, no less, one of the prime local companies of my hometown) of Spotted Dick (pic). Many photos and dirty jokes later, it is now sitting on my table back in Boston, where I have returned with excessive reluctance to immediate stress, aggro, and hassle. The checkout girl overcharges me and won’t rectify it. The garlic I went to buy is nowhere in my bag when I get home and so I have to go out again. I make a big pot of chicken soup as a prophylactic against the cooties that too often greet people on their return from heaven to daily hell. I have the weekend with my partner and then I return to the life of a writer with eight jobs.
PS: All the photos were taken with my new iPhone by me, except for the synagogue, shakespeare (he wouldn't sit still) and the vintage postcard. This is the first time I've taken my own photos, more or less ever.