God Jul and Good Solstice

My Regular Pagan Holiday Letter

Our family never did that thing where white-robed virgins with candle crowns bring breakfast, but we did celebrate Swedish Christmas. Culture was supplied by my grandmother, Gerda, who grew up on a farm near Lake Vänern in central Sweden in an age when you really did hitch the horse up to the sleigh to go anywhere in winter. The farm, Stora Myren, is still there. The nearest village, Lugnås, hasn’t changed much since Grandma emigrated in 1905.

My grandmother Gerda Persson

I hate a lot about Xmas—the whole religious thing, the requisite shopping to keep the economy afloat, the pressure to give the perfect gift, to give gifts at all. Bah humbug. I’m an atheist who joined the Church of Stop Shopping decades ago. https://revbilly.com

But, as my brother and I delve into the Swedish side of our family, we’re rediscovering ways that Swedish culture has influenced our family. One thing we all agree on: Christmas was the most important holiday of the year, when the Swedes pulled out all the stops.

The tradition is long. The winter solstice, representing the return of light and warmth, held great importance for pre-christian peoples. The earth had died and would be resurrected.

Solstice is a Saint Named Lucy

As with most northern European cultures, a christian holiday usurped the pagan solstice celebration. Catholics took over solstice festival and made it into St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day during the Middle Ages. Now, and ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Lutherans rule in Scandinavia, but they continue to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. The holiday is on December 13 because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar before it was changed to the Gregorian. The actual solstice is now a week later, but St. Lucy’s Day retained the old date.

St. Lucy’s Day card

St. Lucia was a fourth century virgin christian martyr in what is now Italy. She invented the head lamp, putting a candle wreath on her head to keep her hands free as she hid christians in the catacombs. Or so it’s said. The name Lucia translates as light.

Candle wreaths have not yet been replaced with head lamps in modern celebrations, but I see it coming. I mean when I see pictures of people walking around with lit candles in their hair, all I can think of is–fire hazard! 

The celebration is, or was, an all-female affair with one young woman playing Lucia and a court of girls and women. There are white robes, candle wreaths, singing and the serving of food. Lately, though, the boys have nudged their way into the celebration with a boy or two being elected to play Lucia. Traditionalists are not amused.

We grandchildren knew nothing of St. Lucy’s Day. It was, apparently, a Swedish tradition left in the Old Country. 

Grandma Remembers

But Grandma did envelop us in Swedish culture at Christmas.She brought with her the tradition of cooking the foods of her childhood when she immigrated to the U.S. In our hometown of Yakima, Washington, she was famous for her cooking, and especially her baking. 

Our mother had the foresight to record Grandma’s childhood memories of Christmas in Sweden. My brother printed up a little chapbook of the stories, titled A 19th Century Swedish Christmas by Gerda Wick. Grandma was in her 92nd year but her memories were still clear.

Here are some excerpts.

“In Sweden we could, of course, always count on a white Christmas—snow that was “deep and crisp and even” and a great abundance of evergreen trees growing all around us. Christmas Eve was the official time for celebration and gift giving; Christmas Day was a religious holiday and holy day.”

“In a day without rural electricity or other conveniences that we now take for granted, our preparations for the annual celebration had to start in the fall with butchering of beef and pork and turning the slabs of dried cod into the famous and favorite holiday dish, lutefisk.

It is hard for me to realize now that all cooking was done on an open fire in the brick fireplace and all baking in a very large brick oven, heated by large logs about the size of railroad ties. In this oven breads of all kinds—flat bread, rye loaves, traditional braided coffee bread and dozens of cookies—were baked for weeks before the big day. Many kinds of sausages and head cheese were prepared and meat readied for another traditional food, Swedish meatballs.

“The food at Christmas Eve was a smörgåsbord of breads, homemade cheeses, pickled herring and korv (homemade sausage), but best of all the lutefisk which had been in preparation for several weeks from a dry slab of cod, by soaking in water and a “lute” of lime and lye. Served with a rich white sauce and white potatoes, it was and still is a favorite native winter dish. This was followed by meatballs made of ground beef and pork, sweet and sour brown beans and a dessert of rice pudding with wild lingonberry or strawberry jam (from berries we children picked in the nearby woods), or fruit soup.”

Loving and Laughing at Lutefisk

Lutefisk jokes elicit laughs in both cultures. Garrison Keillor told a story about people arrested for bringing toxic waste across state lines when they took lutefisk to Minnesota for Christmas dinner. Most actual Scandinavians abhor the fish, but Americans still eat it with gusto and most lutefisk is exported to the U.S. Served with white potatoes and white gravy, it resembles a blob of glue. Still, for my family, lutefisk symbolized Scandinavian culture. 

Don says he has made Swedish meatballs and lutefisk many times since our childhood, but I only tried it once, recreating my family’s holiday meal for my gay San Francisco family. I bought frozen lutefisk from the Scandinavian Deli on Market Street near the Castro. No soaking necessary. I attempted to bake Grandma’s cookie and bread recipes, making krumkake using the pancake maker that you heat over an open flame. It didn’t go so well. No one would even try the lutefisk. I neglected to have a distribution plan for the cookies, which quickly got stale before we could eat them all. But I can say I did it!

In her small kitchen in Yakima, Grandma ground the pork and beef with a meat grinder to make Swedish meatballs. My brother Don served as Grandma’s little helper, and so his memories are best, butI do remember helping her make krumkake, Smörbakelser cookies and fancy braided breads. Don has her old Swedish cookbooks whose frayed binding opens to favorite recipes. Recently he challenged the family to remember the secret ingredient in Grandma’s meatballs. He kept us in suspense for a month. WTF Bro! It turns out the secret ingredient is crustless bread torn in pieces and soaked in cream, then wrung out and added to the meat. Never would have guessed that!

Gerda Persson was the second youngest child in a family of 12 kids. Born in 1888, she was 12 when the century turned. Her memories were about more than just food.

Birds and mittens and tree trimming

“My father would put my younger brother and me on a sled and take us with him into the woods to select a tree for our house. He would also cut other trees to place on the outside of the house and at the barn. Not forgotten in our celebration were the birds and our domestic animals. Papa mounted a large sheaf of oats on a pole for the birds and gave the animals an extra share of hay.

“Most of the tree trimmings were hand-made and our favorite was the customary paper-wrapped candies which we children could help make, wrapping hard candy in colored tissue paper. There was a variety of candlesticks for candles of all sizes, many of them hand-wrought of brass and wood. A candle was always displayed in the front window.

“We exchanged gifts, though this was not the ritual it is today. The gifts were mostly handmade and very practical—knitted socks, mittens and caps—all from yarn spun on my mother’s spinning wheel, wooden toys—a doll cradle or sled—and gifts like sewing boxes for the older girls and Mama.

“Christmas morning it was up early to be at church at six o’clock. Our church was the most important building in our village; it had been built in the 12th century and still stands and is in use today. Our family walked to church and those further away came in horse-drawn cutters (sleighs). And what a joy it was in the early morning light to see a lighted candle in the window of each home, reflecting on the deep white snow, and to feel the crisp crunching and squeaking of the hard-packed snow under foot. 

The church at Lugnas

“The two bells in the steeple were rung by hand. My father was an official ringer of the smaller bell, which required skill in alternating its sound with the large bell, and also very strong arms.  The church was lighted with hundreds of candles at the communion table, the large hanging chandeliers and at each row of the pews. It was a thrilling festival of light and sound to a child growing up in a simple farm village in Europe before the age of industrial wonders. Inside the  church Christmas hymns from the time of Luther were played on our ancient organ. This, too, required man power to operate, and my father served often as “pumper.” We children sang in the choir accompanied by the organ. The rest of Christmas day was quiet with a dinner of ham and goodies of the night before.” 

Carry it on

Our family continued the Swedish traditions of trimming the tree with hand-made ornaments and of opening gifts on Christmas eve. My mother filled the house with colorful Swedish decorations like wooden horses and straw reindeer. After the big dinner with cousins at Grandma’s house, one of the men would excuse himself and (we later realized) would go back home to place all the presents under the tree. My father would drive home slowly from Grandma’s looking at all the outdoor decorations. Of course, we kids couldn’t wait to get home to open gifts. 

I was glad Christmas Day wasn’t a religious holiday for us. Watching football, playing with toys and eating took up our day. Mom cooked the traditional ham and Grandma joined us for dinner. Her memories end with another delightful custom—robbing the Christmas tree.

“The neighborhood children took turns having these “untrimming” parties before the Christmas tree was taken out. Each child was blindfolded and allowed to pick a paper-covered candy from the tree until all were gone. There were cookies and cakes and milk for the guests. Since many homes were involved, the shared candies and goodies made a happy ending to the holiday for all the children.”

God Jul 

And Good Yule to all.

Love, Molly (and Holly)

We Thank Mexican Culture for Day of the Dead

My Regular Pagan Holiday Post

Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, has become one of my favorite holidays. Credit should go to the influence of Mexican culture.

I couldn’t remember when I first started celebrating Day of the Dead, at this time of the year when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thins and we celebrate the lives of our ancestors and others who have died. I asked friends and family when we first learned of this holiday. No one could really remember. It just seeped into American culture when we weren’t looking.

Now the holiday is a cross-cultural experience. Though it originated in Mexico, it is commonly celebrated worldwide, especially throughout Latin America. Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration of life and death that originated thousands of years ago among Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people. They believed that death is a cyclical part of life and that when someone died, they would go to the Land of the Dead. This tradition differs vastly from Halloween in its life-affirming tone and its rejection of death as a finality. In a modern culture whose chief way of responding to death is denial, the addition of this celebration to American life seems much needed.

Posada illustration

I was lucky to live in San Francisco where Rene Yanez and Ralph Maradiaga had launched our local version of the celebration in 1972. Day of the Dead evolved into a gigantic procession up 24th Street, the Latinx district, on November 2. The Mission Cultural Center would sponsor events and we gathered to erect altars, or ofrendas. My Old Lesbians group one year made a beautiful altar for our friend Tita Caldwell, who had been active in our Occupy Bernal organization in 2012. San Franciscans gather at Garfield Square Park (perhaps we should rename it Frida Kahlo Park) to walk through the park and view the altars. Rene describes the history here: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Day_of_the_Dead. In the interview Rene refers to Posada (Jose Guadelupe Posada Aguilar), the Mexican artist who created illustrations of la calavera catrina that have become ubiquitous symbols of this holiday.

Now I live in Sonoma County where we have many options for celebrating Day of the Dead. Our Sonoma County Museum and our art district have exhibits. The town of Petaluma sponsors events all month, ending with a candlelight procession at the fairgrounds that has been going for 19 years. This year the town of Windsor is sponsoring its 6th annual event. Every town now has one. These events are led by Mexican and Latinx people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Santa Rosa at around 30 percent of the population. 

October is Latinx Heritage Month. This month we also remember the murder by a deputy sheriff of 13-year-old Andy Lopez October 22, 2013. Andy was walking in his neighborhood when sheriffs spotted him carrying a toy gun. Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots that killed the boy. No charges were filed against the shooter, he returned to work and was later promoted before retiring. A civil suit filed by Andy’s parents resulted in a $3 million settlement. 

Sadly, Andy’s murder has defined the relationship between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and its citizens, especially the Latinx population. In the seven years since the shooting, people have staged multiple protests, organized to build a park at the site of the shooting and pressured the county for more police accountability. This year we met at Andy’s Unity Park in the Latinx neighborhood of Roseland to remember Andy. 

Our fireplace mantel ofrenda

Holly and I celebrate this season by making clay catrina sculptures for our ofrenda on the fireplace mantle and telling stories about our friends and family who have died. I like to walk by our altar and commune with the figure of my mother who is sitting in an armchair reading Esquire (from a 1940s picture). Holly’s dad sits in a recliner nearby and her dog Mattie lies at his feet.

What do I say to Mom? She was a news junkie who kept a close watch on world events. She liked to imagine what the world would be like in 50 years. I tell her if she were alive today she absolutely would not believe it.

Sending big virtual hugs to all.

Lunasa Greetings

Dear Friends,

Lunasa or Lammas is the first of three fall Celtic harvest holidays, celebrated on August 1. It marks the halfway point between summer solstice and fall equinox. Amidst the joys of harvest, this year Lunasa brings with it anxiety. We worry about fire and toxic smoke, about covid, about drought.

As we move into harvest season this year a historic drought confronts us in the West, with Sonoma County at the crux of the crisis. The city is asking citizens to cut back water use 20 percent and we have exceeded that. Lawns are turning brown all over town. Now at the end of July two major water sources, Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, are dangerously low.

Fires burn throughout the state. The smoke hasn’t reached us yet, but East Coast cities are suffering from the smoke of over 50 major fires burning across 10 western states. The smoke caught up with us in Sacramento while visiting Holly’s brother this week. The air had been fine when we woke up, but smoke from the Dixie fire rolled in fast, creating that familiar orange sun and low visibility. We donned our masks and headed for home where the air quality was still good. But there’s no reason to think we will be spared here in Santa Rosa.

They live in the neighborhood

Our Sonoma County harvest festival season will be again impacted by covid. This year the Gravenstein Apple Fair is being reimagined as a benefit concert. We bought tickets with the hope that we’ll feel comfortable wearing masks in a crowd. The Sonoma County fair is happening in reduced form but they cut out our favorite part—the hall of flowers. You can still go on rides at the midway and eat fair food but I think we’ll skip it this year. Maybe we will get to the Sonoma County Harvest Fair scheduled for October

The delta variant is more virulent and more contagious. This virus has affected me more personally than before. The 42-year-old son of a friend is in the hospital on a ventilator dying. We have gotten word that his lungs have been too damaged to survive. He and his wife just adopted a baby. He was not anti-vax, just suspicious enough to put off getting vaccinated. His family and friends are devastated.

Travel plans have again been cancelled. Holly and I had planned a trip around the South but that’s now the last place we want to go—where the fewest have been vaccinated and numbers of covid infections and deaths are rising. Though we have been vaccinated we are learning that we could still be carriers.

In my summer solstice missive I told about newborn fawns and a fire in the neighborhood. Here’s an update on both. About the fire I must issue a correction. I wrote that it was started when someone threw a cigarette onto a yard that had just been landscaped with bark. It turns out that rumor was false. The fire was started when PG&E’s electric lines hit against each other in the wind, causing sparks that ignited the bark. The power company came out and put plastic insulators around the wires, an easy fix.

The fawns have been seen around the neighborhood. They live here in the place they were born. But sadly I’ve just heard of an epidemic among deer that is killing fawns. Someone posted on Nextdoor that three fawns had perished in her yard. The disease is a virus that had a big outbreak in the mid-90s among deer and came back again last year. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed outbreaks of cervid adenovirus 1 —CdAdV-1 — as the cause. Deer fawns are at greatest risk, with high rates of mortality following infection. Yearlings and adult deer are more resistant but deaths do occur in those age groups. The virus is not known to affect people, pets or domestic livestock. Anyone who observes a deer exhibiting symptoms, or encountering a deer that has died from unknown causes, can submit the information to CDFW through the department’s online mortality reporting system.

Despite all this worrying, we are doing well. Our garden, while not as lush as last year, is surviving on less water. Holly has planted dry land natives like Epilobium, yarrow, buckwheat and verbena and they look great right now. 

Sending big virtual hugs to you all.

Love, Molly (and Holly)

The Hilaria: Ostara 2021

Celebrating the Spring Equinox

Looking into ways that humans celebrate the turning of the seasons I discovered the Hilaria (plural of Hilaris). They were spring festivals celebrated by the cult of Cybele, the great mother of the gods, in Asia Minor and Greek and Roman cultures from about the 5th century BCE onward. Cybele’s consort, Attis, was born of her via a virgin birth and resurrected in the spring (sound familiar?). The day of this celebration was the first day after the vernal equinox, or the first day of the year which was longer than the night. I imagine there was a lot of laughing.

I write these pagan holiday letters eight times a year following the pagan wheel of the year, the annual cycle of seasonal festivals observed by modern pagans. Pagans and wiccans have divided the year into eight parts consisting of the chief solar events (solstices and equinoxes) and the midpoints between them, called cross-quarter holidays. Many of these holidays were stolen by the christian religion while colonizing and absorbing pagan customs. Think Christmas and Easter.

Wiccans have named the spring equinox Ostara with a nod to the ancient Tutonic goddess, but of course equinox celebrations have been practiced by humans for millennia. The Anglo-Saxon goddess is Eastre or Eostre.

I can call myself a pagan even though I don’t worship any goddess or god. Pagan is just a pejorative term used by early christians to refer to polytheists, animists or other non-christians. But modern pagans and wiccans have embraced the term and fashioned a religion of sorts. They borrowed the holidays from various pre-christian traditions. This earth-centered practice beats all to hell the christian teaching that humans have dominion over the earth and its animals (interesting that Genesis leaves out the plants). 

I appreciate the wheel of the year because there is no beginning and no end. Life is a cycle. I find this a compelling way to look at and think about the year. The holidays are just far enough apart for my taste. They correspond with the seasons and the movement of nature. The next holiday is only eight weeks away from the current celebration. Now at Ostara I find it easy to think ahead to the next holiday, Beltane on May 1. What flowers will be blooming then? What will I be planting and harvesting from the garden? When will nesting birds be fledging?

One great thing about these holidays is we can make up our own. My version of paganism takes into account the earth and all its beings, not just humans. My version is anti-capitalist and all-inclusive. My personal Hilaria celebration begins on the Ides of March, maybe a bad day for Caesar but an auspicious date in my life. 

One year ago at this time I had spine surgery at Oakland Kaiser, the last of the elective surgeries just as the pandemic was announced. We had our last restaurant meal on Piedmont Avenue and at the time I thought it might be my last out meal for months, maybe years (I was right). A year later, I’ve recovered from surgery and covid restrictions are being lifted. I’ve just had my first shot of Moderna vaccine.

It was on the Ides of March three years ago that Holly and I hired movers and said goodbye to our San Francisco home, Richlandia, moving to our new home in Santa Rosa, Hylandia.

And here is another reason the Ides of March is auspicious. We are selling the last of the property in San Francisco that I bought in 1980 with my then-collective house of lesbians. I lived there for 38 years. That three-unit building has been the center of my life for four decades. I spent nearly a decade (the 2000s) with my partner at the time, Barb, remodeling the units and turning them into condos with the help of tradeswomen friends, especially carpenters Carla Johnson, who died in 2016, https://mollymartin.blog/2016/06/12/losing-carla-jean/ and Pat Cull. See my blog posts about the building: https://mollymartin.blog/2017/09/16/still-standing/

When we bought Hylandia, we sold the condo we lived in and continued to rent the other two units. I was committed to never evicting anyone from their home, but I did want to get out of the absentee landlord business. Then, last month, both the tenants gave notice allowing us to sell the apartments. 

I was so very attached to Richlandia, into which I put so much blood, sweat and tears. But because letting go has spanned years now, I think I’m ready. And the building, given new life by me and my tradeswomen friends, awaits a community of new occupants.

It is a time of new beginnings and as I write this I think What a cliché. Everyone is writing this. Still it seems momentous, life changing. I know that after this year of trump and covid and the fires and fascists assaulting our capital and Black Lives Matter uprisings and the growing throngs of homeless that things can never “go back to normal.” Nor do I wish for that. Life is a circle with no real endings or beginnings. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Imbolc Is Imminent

Feb. 1, 2021

Dear Ones,

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.

My covid walking outfit. Brew is the local gay cafe.

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!

However you celebrate have a happy Imbolc. 

Sending big virtual hugs to you all.

Celebrating Lughnasa in Quarantine

August 1, 2020

The Gaelic festival Lughnasa, midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox, celebrates the first fruits of the harvest season. 

Here in Santa Rosa, at a more southern latitude, we picked our first fruits at the beginning of July—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peaches and plums. The neighbor’s Gravenstein apple tree that hangs over into our yard was ready for harvest around August 1 last year, but this year the apples were a couple of weeks early, maybe because we are in a drought, or maybe it’s just global warming. Everything is early this year.

Apple harvest here is usually celebrated at the ides of August at the Sebastopol Apple Festival, but of course all of our local gatherings have been cancelled for covid.

We will miss the Sonoma County fall fairs and expositions. The Heirloom Expo in September is one of our favorites and last year we heard a presentation about native bees by a company based in Woodinville WA that propagates bees and sells them. We bought some—mason bees and leaf cutter bees. They came in the mail with detailed instructions. Native bees don’t live in hives like honey bees. They are solitary and nest in holes, often in undisturbed ground (so don’t dig up your whole garden) and they don’t sting like honey bees.

Introducing the mason bees to our garden went well. They are kept in the refrigerator until you place them in the top drawer of their bee house, mounted on the fence facing east so the morning sun hits it. Mason bees place their eggs in the wooden straws provided and then cement them in with mud to protect them from predators. They emerge with the daffodils in spring. The male bees fly only three weeks and the females seven weeks. We were instructed to leave a patch of wet clay in the garden for their masonry work.

The leaf cutter bees came in June and, before reading directions, we put them in the refrigerator till we could let them out. Only the next day did we read the directions which warned against refrigeration. We killed our bees! But we ran to the refrigerator and dumped them all out on a plate on the deck hoping for revival. Then we watched, transfixed, as they slowly crawled out of their shells, stumbled to the edge of the plate and flew off into the garden. Most of them survived.

For us humans 2020 has been a disastrous year, but for bees in our garden—honey bees as well as native bees—it’s been a great one. 

Sending virtual hugs to all of you as we continue to shelter in place.

Summer solstice 2020

Dear Friends,

We think of you as we sit on our porch sipping aquavit and eating gjetost cheese on rye crisps looking out at the fjord in our cozy cabin for six in the village of Flam, Norway. To our backs are steep forested mountains and waterfalls. To our west is the North Sea.

Just kidding. That’s where we were supposed to be at midsummer with Scandinavian American cousins. We had made all our reservations and even bought plane tickets when the corona virus hit. Still waiting for refunds.

We had planned to visit the ancestral homes of our Scandinavian ancestors. I wanted to be there at midsommer, a celebratory holiday which marks the summer solstice. Instead we sit in our zero gravity chairs in our Santa Rosa backyard watching our flowers and veggies grow. In June I harvested the last of the oranges and then artichokes, the last of them now blooming magnificently. Tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers are just coming on. It’s not so bad. Life has slowed way down (though it was already pretty slow around here.) 

The Norway trip was the idea of my cousin Gail. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington in a lovely house that has been sort of a retreat center for the family for the last several years. We would gather for reunions and also to go through Gail’s extensive family history archives, saved in cardboard boxes in her attic. Lately my brother Don has been researching the Swedish relatives.

We share a Norwegian grandfather and Swedish grandmother who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century and met and married in South Dakota where their relatives had homesteaded. They soon moved further west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, settling in Yakima.

Our grandfather, Bernt, or Ben in American, left Norway in 1898, never to return. He was born in 1878 in Borsa, a fishing village on a fjord not far from the town of Trondheim.

So we may never get to Norway but we have used this opportunity to educate ourselves about Norwegian culture, reading literature and history. My mother Flo and I had already made a pilgrimage to our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors’ homes. Thanks to Flo’s 1979 travel diary, I reconnected with a woman who we met at the Oslo feminist center and who let us stay in her apartment when all the inns were full. In letters, Bente has caught me up on 40 years of her life. She is a lesbian feminist and was part of a back-to-the-land movement in Norway when she returned to her family farm in the north. Now she’s working at a historical museum near Oslo.

We also discovered that our next door neighbors had taken a family trip last year back to his ancestral home in Norway and we had planned to meet up and hear all about their trip when coronavirus hit. Perhaps our neighbors are my cousins too!

Still sheltering in place in NoCal, we shall just have to pretend we are up in the north country. I think I have some aquavit around her somewhere. Skol!

(My Danish friend corrected me. Aquavit is not to be sipped. It is downed, ice cold.)

Celebrating Beltane and May Day

Dear Friends,

Emerging from the chrysalis—a month and a half of  coronavirus lockdown and spine surgery recovery—it feels like a brand new day. In Sonoma County residents are now allowed to walk or bike (but not drive) to a park. Keep your mask on.

IMG_0302
A trailer parked on my block

I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on anything for any length of time. I always knew I had a very short attention span. Holly thinks maybe I have undiagnosed ADHD. Anyway being flat on my back and having to concentrate on recovery from surgery has helped me if not to focus better at least to understand my problem better. I was pretty happy listening to novels especially when I was in the first stage of recovery and could barely get in and out of bed. As I recovered I felt more and more like multitasking, as if I actually could pick up my iPad and read Facebook posts while I’m listening to a book. Not! I can work on a jigsaw puzzle and listen to a book at the same time. Holly says that’s because you’re using different parts of the brain. Don’t try do two tasks that require words at the same time.

So I have been trying to practice doing one thing at a time. Then, reading the Audubon newsletter, I learned about bird sitting. It’s easy. You just sit and listen and watch and use all your senses to experience birds. I expanded this concept to pollinators. Bee sitting.

IMG_0331
Our pollinator garden

One sunny April day after I was able to walk around and sit outside in a zero gravity chair, I spent an hour or so just watching pollinators. The air was full of flying and floating things. Filaments of spider web, falling blossoms, puffs of seeds and insects moved through the air in the soft breeze. Honeybees populated the orange and the apple tree. The native bees went for the native plants. Bee segregation! Our pollinator garden starts blooming early. The native carpenter bees and bumblebees especially love the red salvia. And there are all these other little pollinators that may or may not be bees, the kind that fly in squares turning quickly at right angles, the tiny gnats that circle endlessly around each other. I was surprised at how many bugs I couldn’t identify.

IMG_0310
First strawberries. Eaten by a wild animal that night.

Two years ago we had a great population of carpenter bees. The females are big and shiny black, the males smaller with a smidge of yellow. A tub full of purple flowers bloomed near where I like to sit on the patio and my purple hair was constantly being dive-bombed by purple-loving bees. Then last year the bee population declined. I saw one maybe two carpenter bees and we began to wonder if they had been living in the old original redwood fence from 1948 that we had replaced the year before. My brother Don told me that when they remodeled their house in Olympia they destroyed the carpenter bees’ home in the exterior trim on their building. That year and some years after their apple orchard did not get pollinated and had no apples. So I’m delighted that the carpenter bees have returned. 

I plan to celebrate Beltane bee sitting. 

Sending virtual hugs to you all. Take care of yourselves.

Surgery Spring part 2

Continuing the story of my spine surgery. This might be TMI for some. For the first chapters, go to my previous post.

I checked into Oakland Kaiser March 12 and was in the hospital two nights. I got good care but hospital personnel seemed like they were trying hard to look calm and relaxed when covid-19 had become the focus. Two covid patients were already there in isolation. Staff were flustered and distracted and their assignments changed continually. Some wore masks, but most did not. Our floor of the hospital was emptying out. I might have been the last elective surgery, just under the wire. We couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The nadir of the whole surgery experience was the hour-long drive back home from Oakland to Santa Rosa. In excruciating pain, I got overly familiar with every damn bump in the highway. What a relief to lie (carefully) down in my own bed!

I Love My Wife

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We finished the puzzle!

Working construction when you come home after work so tired that all you can do is throw some food in your mouth and go to bed, we tradeswomen often wished for wives like our male coworkers had. We all needed a wife. Well I now have a wife and I can tell you that it’s just as great as I imagined, especially when you’re laid up after surgery. My wife Holly was chief nurse, cook and bandage changer while I recovered. When I first got home from the hospital just getting in and out of bed was a painful chore. I needed help to do everything. What would I have done without my wife? I began to think about what people do when they don’t have a partner to care for them in situations like this. If you have money you hire someone. I would’ve had to hire someone to be here 24 hours a day, at least at the beginning. Holly, sleeping in the guest room, woke up in the middle of the night to check on me and give me pain drugs. Or maybe the hospital would have sent me to rehab or to a nursing home. We have a friend who, after she suffered an injury, is now stuck in a nursing home that is locked down. And Holly‘s mom is locked down at her assisted living place in Windsor. No visitors allowed. I feel thankful and lucky.

Did Rush Ever Shit?

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Our Bacchinalian garden goddess

During the time he was addicted to opioids and was caught buying them on the black market, did Rush Limbaugh ever have a shit? Perhaps he was literally full of shit. This is what I couldn’t help thinking as I faced my own opioid crisis. I just don’t understand what people see in these drugs. They didn’t get me high and they totally fuck with my digestive system. I couldn’t wait to get free. In the meantime I resorted to disgusting and painful methods of evacuation which I will not go into. You can imagine.

Recovery has been like baby steps. You mark every significant newly gained ability. I can reach up to put food in the microwave. Yay! I can bow my head to look at the computer screen. Yay! I can carry five pounds. Yay! I walked a half-mile neighborhood loop up and down hills. Yay! Now lately I have been able to do a bit of cooking and Holly’s telling me she appreciated the several weeks when I was not leaving messes in the kitchen. Most recently I tried cooking rice pudding with some 2% milk that had been substituted for half-and-half by our Instacart shopper. I guess some people think there’s no difference? Anyway it turned out fine except, while I was resting, it burned the bottom of two pans. Milk is a binder, once used in paint, and my brother said that in his activist days they used evaporated milk for postering. You can never get it off, he said. Stuck milk sucks! So at least for the time being I’ve ceded most of the cooking back to Holly. 

I Grew!

The first week of April I put my shoes on to go out for a walk, looked down at Holly and said “I feel taller!” Looking up at me she said “You’re right. Alice, what was in that bottle you drank?” 

A month after the surgery Holly drove us back to Kaiser Oakland to get my stitches taken out and to let a physicians assistant, Jose, have a look at the incision on the back of my neck. Protocol had changed since we were there for the surgery and when we tried to walk in the door we were met by a phalanx of workers in protective gear. Holly was told she couldn’t come with me; she waited in the car. I had to get a special pass and then sanitize my hands before they let me in. There had been two coronavirus patients in isolation in the hospital when we were there for the surgery. Now there were 12. 

The receptionist at the spine surgery desk confessed that he was bored. Kaiser was dead. All elective surgeries (the most lucrative procedures for hospitals) had been canceled and he was trying to find ways to look busy.

Jose looked terrible. A loquacious guy who sometimes is a little too cheerful for me, he was very glum. I asked him if something was wrong and he said he just had a death in the family. Oh dear.

Am I really taller? And why am I dizzy?

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My bed of wild miners lettuce

Jose explained that there is a part of my brain that makes and regulates spinal fluid and because my spinal fluid has been so cut off for so long it’s having to readjust. That can make you dizzy and it might be six months before things get back to normal. Also he said your spine is kind of like a spring. I guess they sprung it. He implied that might create more height. Anyhow I am delighted by this side effect. I’ve been losing height as my spine compresses and osteoporosis has its way. I used to be 5‘8“ and the last time I was measured I was only 5 foot 5 1/2 inches. Perhaps I’ve regained a half inch!

In which I Encounter a Wizard at Kaiser Oakland

Before leaving the hospital I was directed to the lab to have blood drawn. The  masked phlebotomist was an older black man with a gray beard and  stylish glasses with filigreed hinges. He settled me in the chair, looked me in the eye and said, “You know a squirrel.” I said, “Why yes I do. There’s a squirrel outside my window that entertains me endlessly. What kind of sixth sense do you have?” He said he didn’t know exactly but that he was particularly prescient with pregnant women. He could tell what the physical traits of their babies would be. He told me about one woman who came back in after the birth and told him that he had correctly identified everything about her baby including that she had eyes of two different colors. 

They tell me it takes six weeks to recover, (but a year for the bones to knit fully) and so I have less than two weeks to go. Then I’ll join the rest of you—bored in lockdown. 

Take care of yourselves.

Surgery Spring

Dear Readers,

My regular pagan holiday post comes in the form of a (late) diary. Here are the first four entries.

March 30, 2020

In what might be seen as supremely good timing, considering the pandemic lockdown, I have spent the spring equinox (March 19) and the advent of this new season recovering from spine surgery. Now at the end of March I’m still mostly lying in bed flat on my back so I am speaking into my phone to tell you the story. I’m thinking installments.

I was scheduled for the surgery on March 12 at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. The surgeon was the same one who worked on me three years ago when I had surgery on my lower spine, Timothy Huang.

Good friends know that I have been complaining about pain in my right arm for years now. According to the actuarial tables I can expect to live to be 82, twelve more years. The prospect of living with worsening pain was depressing and prompted me to seek relief. After years of pain killers (we call ibuprofen vitamin I around our house) I finally got Kaiser to give me an MRI. The expression on the doctor’s face when she saw the picture disturbed me. Even I could see that my spinal cord was being crushed by deteriorating bones in my neck. The doctor said “Don’t fall down. Trauma could result in paralysis.” I began to consider what life might be like as a quadriplegic. 

My cervical spine was a mess. Nerves were being pinched, my spinal cord was permanently damaged, vertebrae four through seven are worn down to the bone. I was told it could only get worse not better. So surgery was a no brainer. Oh I looked forward to it.

Including photos from our backyard garden, my savior during this recovery/pandemic period.

April 2, 2020

It’s April now and I’m feeling better three weeks after my surgery. I’m still spending quite a bit of time lying on my back but I’ve been getting up and around a lot more.

Here’s the next chapter of my surgery story. 

Holly and I went to a pre-op meeting with the surgeon about a week before the scheduled surgery. We drove to Oakland Kaiser looking forward to hearing what they were planning to do to me.

I was tested and found to have a good strength and reflexes. My worst symptom was the pain in my right arm and hand. We looked at the MRI together and the surgeon said “This won’t get better; it will only get worse.” He said it wasn’t the result of a particular injury, just long term wear and tear. I thought of all those hours spent working over my head looking up at light fixtures as an electrician.

Lying in bed I can smell the orange blossoms right outside my window

We learned that spinal cord tissue is less resilient than nerve tissue. The most pressing problem was not the nerve pain in my arm but the compression of my spinal cord, even though that was not as painful. He recommended first tackling the spinal cord compression. To do that they would open the back of my neck, cut the vertebrae, crack them open and screw small plates in. That gives the spinal cord more room. He said this surgery might not feel like a big improvement. It’s more to hold the decline. The basic surgery is called laminoplasty, essentially decompression. 

To repair the nerve damage that creates pain in my arm he said they would have to go in from the front of my neck. Sometimes they do both operations all at once but they would like to do just the back, wait six months and see how much improvement there is before surgery from the front, which is much more risky. 

Why hadn’t I felt more pain in my neck I wondered. The surgeon said that because the deterioration had been gradual over time my body just got used to it. Also we know that I have a high tolerance for pain. I guess this is a good thing.

The surgery was a week away and I was glad that we’d been able to get an appointment so soon. I wanted to get it over with.

Our pandemic crafts table. Holly colors while I work on the puzzle

April 5, 2020

It’s been nearly four weeks since my spine surgery and I’m feeling ever so much better. I still spend many hours lying on my back listening to podcasts and novels on my phone, but I’ve been sitting up more, taking little walks and sitting in the sun in the garden. I’m not ready yet to be a planter. Holly is doing that. But I actually pulled some weeds yesterday. Like three weeds. Still it felt like one small step for woman.

Here’s chapter three of my surgery story.

Our Oakland Adventure. March 11, 2020.

We planned to drive to Oakland the day before my surgery. Holly had reserved a motel room near Kaiser hospital where she could stay while I was recovering. I would be staying in the hospital for at least a couple of nights so Holly would have a place to park and a real bed within walking distance.

We thought we would probably have to be at the hospital at 6 AM. Isn’t that always the way it goes? But we found out the day before that we wouldn’t have to arrive till noon the day of surgery so we would have 24 hours in Oakland California. Just like in one of those travel magazines. In this case we would just experience the half mile around the Kaiser hospital. I resolved to be a tourist. 

By this time the coronavirus was here in the Bay Area and we all knew it but there wasn’t a lockdown yet and, while some people were wearing masks on the street, most of us were not. We were just anxious. I had already been sheltering in place for the past month because I didn’t want to get any virus that would compromise my surgery.

Holly and Linda practicing social distancing in the front yard.

We ate dinner that night at a newish Mexican place just up from Kaiser on Piedmont Avenue, the upscale walking and shopping street. We tried to social distance by sitting in the outdoor patio area. It would be my last meal in a restaurant for weeks, maybe months (maybe years?).

At the corner of Piedmont and MacArthur waiting for the light to change a young Chinese man asked us a question. We didn’t understand and so had him repeat it. 

“Are you lesbians?”

“Yes,” we said, a little surprised at the bold question.

Then he explained by telling a story about his grandmother and something about style or fashion. 

“Is your grandmother a lesbian?”

No that wasn’t it. He smiled politely. We decided his grandmother likes lesbian fashion and style. She must be about our age—old. I imagined she must be in China. He knew English but his accent was so thick we couldn’t understand. We smiled as we parted, amused at our flannel shirt fashion plate status.

Kaiser hospital sits at the confluence of Broadway, MacArthur and Piedmont streets, a dividing line between two very different neighborhoods.

I have spent a lot of time on Piedmont Avenue because I often visit my friend Pat who lives near there. But I have never spent time on the MacArthur side. Our motel on MacArthur was only half a mile west of the hospital but a world apart from Piedmont on the east side with its restaurants, shops, movie theater, and sidewalks packed with pedestrians.

Our hospital hotel

Wide, commercial MacArthur had been known as a haven for hookers, and while we didn’t see a single hooker, we soon realized our hotel had been part of that scene. We could see it had undergone a recent renovation with new paint. But check-in was accomplished through a barred window. 

Our room had a new paint job and the bed was perfectly comfortable. Yet the barred windows didn’t open. And we could see that the door had suffered a break-in. The card lock was secured on the inside with electrical tape. I tried to imagine what had prompted breaking down the door. Had someone died in there?

In the morning there was no coffee in the lobby. No lobby. We hiked the half-mile to the closest coffee shop, a Starbucks in the hospital, where we watched a diverse population of hospital workers come and go, start their shifts. Oakland Kaiser seemed endlessly interesting and we would get to know some of the staff in the coming days.

April 9, 2020

I can’t believe I’m on chapter 4 and I haven’t even gotten to the surgery yet. But this is it!

Many of the nurses at Kaiser were men. And the guy who was my pre-op nurse told me he had worked as an ironworker before studying to be a nurse. He worked in San Francisco, he said, before OSHA made you tie off when you walked on those big I-beams. Yeah, I thought. Working without safety measures. It’s a dick thing. Anyway I got all excited because he was a construction worker brother. I told him I had worked construction and I told him about the new ironworker union‘s pregnancy leave policy which we tradeswomen are all very proud of. That didn’t interest him and he showed his hand when he said, “Women were given all the easy jobs.” I told the story to another construction worker friend of mine, a sprinkler fitter, and she said, “Hell there are no easy jobs in the ironworkers. They’re all hard. That’s one of the hardest trades there is.” She had worked on some construction jobs with our friend Fran Kraus, one of the first women ironworkers. Fran was assigned to place and weld steel stairs, a job that requires smarts and precise planning. Few of the men were capable and that’s why they gave the job to Fran. Maybe they thought it was easy, but it was not. And I thought of a few women ironworkers I know who worked in San Francisco. None of them would’ve wanted easy work. It was bullshit, but I think typical of the prejudicial thinking of our male coworkers. Sigh.

I’d had my hair shaved into a cool newfangled cut right before I went into surgery but it wasn’t short enough. A woman came in to cut the back of my hair even shorter and she did a pretty good job. She shaved it right across the back from ear to ear and so now I have an even cooler haircut. Then I got the blue net over my head.

My radical new haircut

The surgery room was shining bright, full of stainless steel. Five or six gowned workers, including the surgeon Tim Huang, surrounded me with smiling faces. Whenever they come in to give you medication or do anything nurses and doctors always ask you your name and your birthdate. Well I can remember that but when they wheeled me into surgery they asked me my name, my birthdate and what operation I was getting. I was flummoxed. I have not even tried to memorize the medical description of my surgery. I said “neck” and they said that was good enough. And after that I don’t remember anything more.

Here is what the written operative procedures said: Cervical laminoplasty, 3 or more levels; Cervical posterior instrumentation, 2-5 levels; Cervical far lateral discectomy or foraminotomy, 2 levels; Cervical laminectomy for decompression, 2 levels. Now why wasn’t I able to remember that?

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