It’s been a rough year. Impossible to say that without understating. But, as we celebrate Imbolc, I feel like it’s a new morning.
I’m on the pavement thinking about the government. But I hesitate to write about that because it’s been written about so very much. Suffice to say Holly and I are maintaining our sanity here in Santa Rosa. And we ain’t goin’ nowhere. We haven’t been vaccinated partly because of a shortage of vaccine here in Sonoma County. Also because we are in no way essential.
Actually I’m lying not on pavement but on the redwood deck in the backyard after having pulled out as many oxalis as I can from the garden. I’m starting to worry about getting a sunburn when clouds roll in swift from the south. Rain is coming but it won’t be a hard rain. Not today.
This day of sun and weeding and planting and gray clouds has got my mind off wintertime. And I think that’s the whole point of Imbolc, one of my favorite pagan holidays because—spring!
Imbolc falls in the middle between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The old Celtic pre-christian holiday was a day to honor the pagan goddess Brigid, who invoked fertility rites. She also oversaw crafts, poetry and prophecy—the domain of us old folks.
Brigid was a powerful Celtic god and so of course the christians had to turn her into St. Brigid, whose day is still celebrated in Ireland. Here at Hylandia we prefer to celebrate the goddess. I can already feel myself becoming more prophetic. Maybe more poetic and crafty too!
I was laid low by politics this year, and especially the last few months when every day seemed to bring a new and more outrageous disaster. My file full of writing projects got fuller, but I couldn’t make progress on anything. It felt like a state of suspended animation. So I’m happy that other construction worker sisters haven’t let politics stop them from thinking and writing about our shared experience. Kahla Lichti is one, a young Canadian electrician with a blog that I read without fail (The Secret Life of an Electrical Apprentice) and the author of Shop Talk Trade Comics. Kahla got in touch recently to interview me for another online tradeswomen project, Move Over Bob. (Great name!) Here’s the link to her interview with me: https://www.moveoverbob.com/editorials/an-interview-with-molly-martin-lifelong-organizer-for-labour-feminism-and-human-rights?
The I-beam photo is of First Nation Canadian ironworkers. Left to right: Shyanne Smith, Piikani; Jealisa Pelletier, Oji-Cree; Tiffany Alexson, Cree; Jaimee Zoccole, Eagle Lake; Rose Pipestem, Tsuut’ina; Shay Prince Pequis, Cree; Melody Short Saddlelake, Cree; Charlotte Cummer, Metis; Jam Smith Piikani, Blackfoot
Here’s one thing covid has not stolen from us—the night sky. Stars and planets, the moon in all its phases, meteor showers, constellations.
In my last home in San Francisco we had a good view of the southern sky from the deck, high in the air from the fourth story, so we could see the moon and planets rise and set. But a view of the north sky was blocked by the building and Bernal Hill.
Now in Santa Rosa we have a better view of the north sky. In the summer we sat back in outdoor zero gravity chairs to star watch. I relearned the summer constellations—Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), the giant square of Pegasus, the cross of Cygnus. We keep close track of the moon’s progress. We do love moongazing but stargazing is best with a dark cloudless sky.
Waiting for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn we watched nightly as they came closer and closer together. They converged into one giant star for the first time in 800 years, on the solstice, December 21. It was a great way to celebrate the winter solstice but clouds blocked our view on that night.
This winter I’ve discovered a new pastime—hot tub stargazing. From the hot tub we get a window on the north sky. I find Polaris by fixing my gaze on the gas grill, then looking up. The North Star doesn’t change location (even though the gas grill might); all the other stars appear to rotate around it because right now it lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis. But that will change in a cycle that takes 26,000 years! The Big Dipper and W-shaped Cassiopeia travel around the North Star taking up opposite positions in evening and morning.
Winter mornings are a great time to star gaze. It doesn’t start to get light here till after 6:30 at solstice. The sun doesn’t rise till almost 7:30. Of course it’s colder than at night. Often it’s around freezing when I go out at 5:30 or 6 am, but the hot tub, set at 104 degrees, is a perfect antidote.
In the morning even with low clouds or some fog, two bright stars greet me. In the east is Vega. In the west is Capella with the north star, Polaris, in between. Capella, the third brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega, is part of the constellation Auriga, which I just learned about. Its name means little goat in Latin, depicting the goat Amalthea that suckled Zeus in classical mythology. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. You have to look straight up in the summer, and then you can see Vega is one of the stars of the Summer Triangle along with Altair and Deneb. But in winter it twinkles near the northeastern horizon.
There are some impediments to hot tub stargazing: our private moon—the street light just above the roof; glasses that fog up in the tub; city lights, or any lights. I had to turn off our Solstice tree lights before going out to the tub.
Of course you don’t need a hot tub to stargaze. In San Francisco to watch a winter meteor shower we would dress warmly and lie on a camp mattress on the deck. Maybe not so much fun in a colder winter climate. But you can watch from indoors too.
From the hot tub I watched the Geminid meteor shower at its height in mid-December. Then in the morning back in the house with coffee in hand I set up a stargazing station in the living room looking south through the picture window. One bright star greeted me—Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. I saw a shooting star at 6:30 am just as the sky started to lighten.
Watching for shooting stars is not always calming. During the meteor shower I discovered stargazing anxiety. If you close your eyes for a moment you might miss a shooting star. They are quick and unpredictable! I got a case of FOMO. How many meteors did I miss? Since then I’ve made an effort to more calmly appreciate the capriciousness of the universe.
You can’t look at your phone and stargaze at the same time, though I do use the phone to identify heavenly bodies. A decade ago on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Holly and I made good use of a phone app we’d just discovered called Star Walk. You point your phone in the direction of the star or planet or satellite you want to ID and as you move the phone it shows the whole night sky with the planets’ orbits and all the constellations.
In old age my sleep habits vary. I often wake up wide awake in the middle of the night. One night at 1:30 I could see, even without glasses, one bright star outside my window. So of course I used the Star Walk app and learned it is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
I know we are all happy that the light is returning now since the winter solstice. But I’m just a little sad that there will be less dark sky. I still hope to catch a falling star.
I’m publishing a selection of letters written by my mother, a prolific letter writer who lived in the conservative town of Yakima, Washington all her life. In a 1977 letter she castigates Sen. Henry Jackson and Democrats in Congress for their lack of support for President Carter, and schools them on the history of the Panama Canal.
“Neither you nor the great media with its resources has bothered to challenge the propaganda of Ronald Reagan…”
“We strongly support President Carter in scolding the oil companies; it should have been done long ago.”
Sherman Alexie’s eulogy for his mother reads, “My mother was a dictionary. She was one of the last fluent speakers of our native language.” When she died the words died with her. He has one cassette tape of his mother and grandmother speaking together and singing a song.
My mother was maybe more like an encyclopedia. She collected the stories of old people on cassette tapes and in the 1970s she produced a public TV program on which she interviewed elders who lived in the Yakima Valley. I think some of those programs must be collected in the Yakima Valley Museum, but perhaps not. The words may have died with her.
After my mother died, I asked myself the question so many of us ask. Why didn’t I record her story? She told me stories of her life as we sat at the butcher-block table in our country kitchen drinking tea late at night. I remember the film the Lipton’s left on the white cup, but I remember little of what she told me. Why didn’t I just turn on the tape recorder? Was it because I didn’t want to imagine a world without her in it?
Now I wish I had a recording of my mother talking, saying anything, but although I have looked through my saved cassette recordings, I haven’t found one. She had an unusually low voice, a result of allergies, asthma and post-nasal drip. When she answered the phone, sometimes the caller thought it was a man talking. But she had been a singer in her youth and I imagine her voice as a young person to have been clear and high.
There was one time when I did record my mother’s voice. It was after my boyfriend, Mark, and I had driven across the country and back in 1976. She had lent us her car for the trip, a VW station wagon, which very nearly didn’t make it over the Rockies. It was a big sacrifice on her part, I realize now. The trip took a month. My relationship with Mark didn’t survive the trip, but I think we felt we had to put on a good face for Mom on our return. I recorded her asking questions of Mark about the trip. In the recording, Mark unleashed pent-up anger at her. His condescending answers tagged her as a bourgeois reformist liberal. I thought he was abusive. Later he wrote her an apology and she replied in a thoughtful six-page letter, he told me.
I tried to listen to the tape later and it just made me mad. I have a vague memory of throwing it away, thinking I couldn’t bear to listen again. But my memory is terrible, which gives me hope. Perhaps I only thought I trashed it. It could be saved somewhere in the cases of cassette tapes in the basement. I’m making my way through them and I’ve already listened to many. It takes time. You have to listen till the end, as something important may have been recorded there. I have listened to hours of nothing—musical performances that could have been opera very far away but translated to audience coughing and fidgeting.
Some of the tapes are ones my mother made, labeled in her perfect cursive. She recorded the Camp David Accords, signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. She was sure the treaty, facilitated by President Jimmy Carter, signaled the end of Middle East discord. Sadat and Begin were both awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Three years later Sadat was assassinated. The tapes are imbued with my mother’s optimistic desire for world peace. I’ll probably never listen to them, but I haven’t been able to throw them away.
I have not yet found any tape with my mother’s voice, but there are cassettes I have yet to listen to and I think I remember where I stored them. I still have hope.
Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders.
As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.
Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.
Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.
I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.
I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain.
The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.
One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.
Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.
My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!
After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.
Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.
Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.
“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”
I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).
Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”
Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming.
My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.
“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”
Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.