The Gift

He couldn’t stay in his body, the pain was too great. It was Joe’s leaving time, but my mother couldn’t let him go.

I was in Oregon, gathering car keys, handbag and notebook. It was a racing-out-the-door morning, my thoughts intent on teaching and the forty-five minute drive between my house in the Columbia River Gorge and Marylhurst University. Photographs of my New York family were ensconced above the fireplace, mingled with decorative candles and a ticking clock.

Did I have everything? I thought so. Just one more pass through the living room to make sure. Then I saw it, Joe’s photo glowing with light, a sure-fire way for the unseen reality to get my attention. I stopped. Everything coming to an abrupt halt as I picked up his picture, dropped to the sofa and closed my eyes. Acceleration and tension drained from my body. I softened and exhaled. Joe was in the hospital in upstate New York but his spirit was there with me.

“I need you to talk to your mother,” he said, hovering in my vision. “Help her to let me go. I want to die before my birthday, but she has to release me first. I need to hear her say it out loud. I need to know that it’s alright to go. Ask her to tell me, then ask her to open the closet and begin giving away my things.”

My chest filled with the light and energy of his message, his words floating around my cells like weightless sand. Then he was gone.

That memory, nearly twenty years old, drifted through my thoughts as I sat at the dinner table listening to Julio describe a week-end with his family.

“When I speak about my art,” he says, spooning brown rice next to carne asada, “it’s as if they can’t hear me. I show them my paintings in The Art Detour brochure and they say nothing, their expressions are blank. Yet I feel disapproval because I am not working in the way they think I should be.”

Julio comes from a family of laborers and field workers who strive to keep their pockets full, their personal dreams diminished by a harsh reality.

“They have no frame of reference for it,” I tell him. “Art is a foreign world.”

A deep well of sadness lingers in Julio’s eyes, a longing for an acceptance that can not be given, a longing I’m familiar with.

I remembered replacing Joe’s photo on the mantel, wondering how I could bring such news to my mother.

“This is my daughter, Karen,” she’d tell her friends. “She is a free spirit.” And later, behind closed doors: “When are you going to get a real job?”

Intuitive work didn’t show up for my family. When I spoke of visions or predictive dreams, my words were met with confusion, talk of brain tumors and lingering looks of concern. Eventually, I learned to keep my mouth closed and a sensitive nature to myself.

I called that evening, knowing what a difficult time mother was having, though she rarely showed vulnerability. I hedged, not knowing how to bring up the topic but needn’t have. Near the close of conversation, she surprised me:

“Do you get anything for me?”

“What do you mean, get anything?”

“You know, psychically.”

I was silent. Joe had openly ridiculed my gifts and yet come to me for help.

“Yes,” I told her. “I do have things to share.”

She listened respectfully as I closed my eyes,  a vision of Joe’s pain-filled body hovering in my awareness.

“He wants to go before his birthday, but your love is holding him here. He wants you to let him leave.”

“I can do that,” she whispered, her voice private and internal. “I’ll tell him today. And there’s a young man from the firehouse that would fit one of his coats. I know Joe would like him to have it.”

I hung up, aware of the healing that had taken place. A warm sense of gratitude washed over me, like some long awaited rain in the desert.

Joe was born on April 8, 1920, and died on April 3, 1993.

I reached for mother’s hand as we stood in the funeral home reception line, hushed pieces of conversation passing between us.

“What made you ask for my vision during our phone call? You’ve never done that before.

“Just a feeling,” she answered. “It’s not that I don’t respect your work, sweetheart, it’s that I’ve never understood it. How could I? My life has been full of children, bookkeeping, salesmen, running a restaurant and hotel. How could I know anything of what you do?”

Julio looked up from his plate,  bringing me back from my reverie. “I wish I had my family’s support. It would make such a difference.”

“Give them time,” I smiled. “How could they know anything of what you do? How could they conceive of the gift you’ve been given? A talent that takes you to the core of yourself, allowing you to heal and shine in ways they never imagined. And when you succeed, and you will, you’ll be doing it for all of them, for all the men and women in your bloodline who never knew the joys of freedom.”

It will grow


I have no one to blame but myself.

Susan Miller’s Astrology forecast for Sag said: The new eclipse on June 5th will help you see yourself in a completely new light, so much so that you may be moved to change the way you wear your hair, dress or even change your name.

I wish I could point a finger at Astrology or some errant brain wave that zapped my grey matter while I slept, but I can not. Taking responsibility for ones actions is not all its cracked up to be. I miss the less conscious days when I pointed a finger and said, You, You, You!

This is what happened. I entered the realm of the hairdresser, which is one of the worst things I can subject myself to.  Every decade or so I tend to forget what is best for me, believing the same experience will yield a different result. This tendency to deny my best interests shows up in other parts of  life as well, like believing I can trust the invitation on the face of the makeup artist in Macy’s and not come away looking like Tammy Faye Bakker on a bad night. Or like listening to my mother who loved convincing me that the miracles of pharmacology could override a lifelong tendency toward seasickness.

“No dear, you will not become deathly ill crossing the English Channel on a cruise ship and spend hours with your head in the toilet praying for a life flight helicopter, while I dance in my prom dress with one of the ship’s escorts. Not this time.”

But I digress. I told myself it was safe to go to the hairdresser because ALL I wanted was for her to show me how to wear long hair. I wanted a few new tricks with barrettes and bobby pins.

You’re completely safe, I told myself. This won’t be like the time you were touring with Tears of Joy Theater and stopped in Montana to get a perm, then had to finish the tour wearing a headscarf.

When that woman asked how tight I wanted the curl, I’d said, “Make it last.”  Wrong answer!  A touch of Henna and I came away looking like a stand in for Ronald McDonald.  No, this appointment will be fine because I’m older, wiser and in control.

I entered the salon with confidence. The hairdresser was young, (okay, almost everybody is younger than I am these days) capable and cute. We talked. I explained. “No, I did not want her to wash and trim my hair, just show me some options like a friend might do.”

That was going fairly well until she began talking about my face as a picture and my hair as the frame.

Apparently, my picture was not looking so great in the frame because she longed to layer, shape and trim.  She wrinkled her nose, holding the length of my hair at a distance, like one might evaluate a trout past its due date at the fish market. That was the moment she hooked me.

Of course, I needed more than styling options. What was I thinking? I needed much much more. I felt suddenly at risk. Yes, I definitely needed a new frame for my picture and the banishing of my seaweed ends. She was here to save me from myself by producing a fully modern, acceptable version of the woman I had been only moments before.

And so I did it.

She shampooed, cut, layered, thinned, blew my hair dry over a circular brush, showed me how to use a curling iron, then straightened and mouseed each lock until I was the spitting image of …………her.  A thirty year old woman with a hairstyle I would never want.

I thought of my sister who’d come home with an awful cut not long ago and the comment her daughter had made. “Mommy, I think the lady who cuts your hair thinks about other things while she’s at work.”

This woman was not thinking about other things, it was I who vacated myself.

So I thanked her, wrote out the check, got on my bike and pedaled home, immediately showering in the hope of finding some semblance of myself below.

Toweling my hair in the mirror, I said what I always say when devastated by a bad hair decision.

It will grow.

Aqua Abstravanganza


It was 8.30 in the morning under a cloudless California sky, when I waded into the shallow end at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club swimming pool, determined to try every exercise class offered, at least once. This one was called Aqua Abstravaganza, which I hoped would supplement lap swimming.

Warm water pooled around my waist as I greeted those who’d already arrived, noticing their hats, eye glasses and tee-shirts worn to ward off the coming of another sultry day. A woman with flowing grey hair smiled in my direction, introducing herself. The others followed, offering kindness and extended hands. Being greeted with such gracious acceptance is part of what I love about coming to this club. It’s an extension of the grace, beauty and specialness that is Ojai. Unfortunately, I forgot their names minutes after being introduced, my aging memory as short as my eyelash.

A young woman from a dark-skinned, dark-haired country told me this was her second class.

“I’ve come back because I love the teacher’s humor,” she confides, her cinnamon eyes catching rays of light from the water. She radiates health and youth, her long hair carefully braided and tucked out of the way. She’s attentive and eager for the class to begin.

The others are older, much older, being called by the grace and support water allows the elderly. The instructor, Debora, appeared in snug black pants and grey top, brown hair cascading around her shoulders. She too extends a hand. “Oh, you’re new. Welcome!”

This group has obviously been together a long time, as a kind of social club.

“Okay class,” Debora begins, “we’re starting today by running in place, so bring those knees up.”

A birdlike woman peering beneath the twilled rim of a khaki hat pays no attention, preferring to visit with her friend instead.

“Did you watch that reality show last night? Well I did and that man never should have won. They count on people not calling in but I’ll tell you what. I did call in because I think the judges are crooked. It’s just not fair. Anyone can see he was not the most talented. It was the singer, she was the best and then the girl with the dancing dog.”

Obviously an urgent conversation, much more important than the matter of moving about in water.

A series of jumping jacks propelled me near another huddled couple.

“So how was your trip to Thailand? We really missed you here. Did you know that Peggy broke her foot? Yes, she did, but is recovering nicely. Said she’d try and make it today. They have her in a walking boot. One just never knows, does one?”

At 9 o’clock, (yes, I was counting the minutes) the instructor suggested we venture into the deep end. Frankly, I was completely surprised anyone noticed the request. But move they did, like a great water-bound pod of visiting couples. At this point the exotic beauty with the braided hair leapt from the pool, grabbed her towel, a splashed copy of the New York Times and darted toward the changing room, clearly late for something.

The men were in the deep end doing just as much talking as the women.

“Are you having trouble with this kick, Bob?” The instructor asked. “Bob?

Bob are you with us?”

Bob looked up as if coming out of trance. “What kick?”

Post Cards from Mexico

 Car Rental

We rented a little blue car with too many dents to count, the windshield was cracked and the rear door didn’t open. The gas tank was empty. The woman at Dollar Rental had me draw a line where the gas gauge rested, instructing me to return it the same way. This was their economy car. Tires barely touched down as Kristen drove washboard roads to our lodging at Tree Top Bungalows. The car was parked at the bottom of a steep drive beneath coconut trees.

“If you park there,” Jeffery told me, “coconuts will fall on it.”

Coconuts hung like giant orange basketballs above our heads, so I drove it to the top of the hill, but the emergency break didn’t work so it rolled down again with me chasing after. Jeffery drove it up this time, putting a cement block behind the tire. Jeffery is our host, an expat who left the United States 24 years ago.

“Let’s just say that the United States and I agreed to disagree.”

His smile is broad and his manner easy and gracious. He is the only one on the property that speaks English.


 Our bungalows have roofs thatched from palm branches opening to the outside allowing mosquitoes entrance for evening feed. Netting drapes over a lumpy “matrimonial” bed, beautifully made up and cared for. Think camping in a structure on stilts. My bed is in a loft, at a height I am afraid of. A rope dangles from the ceiling to help me up, but after one night I ask him to bring the bed to ground level.

Isabella and Kristen occupy the large bed because I still have vivid memories of night time kidney punches from Isabella’s young feet and waking thrashed, like I’d crossed the Rocky Mountains in a buckboard.

The sea is at our elbow crashing day and night. “Don’t want to go in there now,” Jeffery tells us. “The squalls are high.”

I imagine galleons from the Spanish Armada firing endless rounds against the British in great blasts of sound, back and forth through a sleepless noisy night. Kristen fears a tsunami. Morning brings relief and a fresh start. Isabella plays with Bago, Whereas and Lady, the resident dogs. They play soccer, share hugs and the hammock.


A stunning Mexican woman named Maggi cooks for us in an outside kitchen near the sea. She prepares fruit plates of mango, banana, pineapple, green grapes, coconut and papaya with a kiss of honey on the top. Later she sautés shrimp with garlic, lemon and pasta, makes pina coladas (no alcohol please) the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted served with homemade chips, then finishes with bursts of ice cream.

We inhale her offerings as Kristen pulls out her language book to make a friend. Her assistant is a woman with eleven children and a husband too ill to work. I slip her assistant fifty bucks.  Kristen promises to mail children’s clothing from the States.


I hand Kristen the car keys because she is bold and unafraid. (I miss that in myself and wonder when it left me.)

I give her the keys and the money and the language and she does well with all of it, launching into vocabulary she has never spoken, determined to be understood and to understand. She smiles, she tries. She extends a warm heart and open hand. Soon we are surrounded with new words and new friends, while I remain a shadow, a witness at the scene. I ask how she does it and she tells me it’s from living in Greece.

“You just have to dive in.”

But the only diving I do is into the swimming pool, because words get stuck in my throat. The Spanish words I do know surface too late from memory, coming out as French or Italian instead of salsa and chips. This inability makes me seem distant and aloof, uninterested and invisible. I am not a social person. Words come from my eyes and my hands but rarely from my mouth.


Colors shout at us from buildings in bold shades of unashamed. Even plants are screaming in notice-me reds as we travel winding roads into Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Troncones and Playa Linda. We pass a mother driving with a new baby in her arms and lots of trucks filled with folks standing in the rear. The simplicity and lack of regulation in Mexico is appealing.

Old women line up to buy produce from the rear of a delivery truck as Kristen maneuvers through cobbled streets as aggressive as the others. She shoulders her camera with an exhibit in mind. Old men smile at her above mountains of dried red chilies and young men ask her name near mounds of freshly picked corn.

We change money, buy hand sewn blouses and gifts for friends, stopping to admire children sleeping in hammocks and eye-bulging Mexican dogs. Isabella has her hair done as we lunch by the sea. It is woven by a mother-son team who fashion long locks into delicate micro braids with colored beads at each end.

Isla Grande

Older dark skinned men with Aztec blood ferry us across rocking waves to Ixtapa Island or Isla Grande, where we do what we’ve come to do, be pampered, play in the sea and make mother, daughter, granddaughter memories.

Kristen drinks salt-rimmed margaritas trimmed with bougainvillea and lime as we sit underneath red and white sun umbrellas that dot a bragging blue sky. Kristen reclines in the shade, while Bella and I run into the waves like we were born there, salt water traveling in our ears, our hair and our smiles. We play until we turn the color of the sun and then stay longer, layering sun block over aloe, over vitamin E. There is no coming out. There is no will for it. We order more food, breathe it in and run back to azure waters. Small yellow stripped fish lap at our feet near coral shores.

I snorkel, then get an hour long massage costing only $25. I have two. We go on a banana boat and  Jet Ski. I am healthy and alive here, more 21 than 65.  My medicine is left behind in the drawer and I hope it rots. I am myself in this place. The sun sees the woman in me and invites her out. I feel my body soft and sensual. I am no longer layered or hidden beneath fleece and rain. I can show myself and I like it.

The Combi

The combi is a small pick-up truck with standing room in the center and wooden boards for seats on either side. We decide to take it to a local fishing village. It travels a dirt road sounding the horn. Riders appear from nowhere, surrendering shade as they hop aboard. Getting off involves moving to the front and pounding the roof above the driver’s head to indicate your stop, very simple and direct.

Our cameras are full of alligators, iguana, parrots, lizards, snakes, stingrays, snapping turtles, white birds, dogs, sunsets, sculptures, indigenous people and Isabella, always Isabella.

Hammocks wait near each restaurant table to be enjoyed with chips and cervisia (beer). The simplest order will take an hour to prepare so we might as well doze. Isabella resents our forays into town because it takes her from the water. We are the same that way.

Coming home we board the wrong combi and head to parts unknown. I stand with the wind in my face taking photos as we travel too far on unknown roads. Kristen yells through glass at the driver.

“We are lost,” she says in Spanish.

“Si” the driver yells back.

We finally get off with a woman meeting her boyfriend. The woman invites us into the cool interior of their modern car and tells the boyfriend to take us home. We make it to the dirt road leaving us two miles to walk in midday sun. We walk and sweat, putting one foot in front of the other, being cooked by sweltering heat.

A couple from Montana circle back after passing, pick us up and take us home.  Isabella springs from the car yelling, “I love water. Water is my friend,” as she jumps in the swimming pool with her clothes on. I follow but not in my linen skirt.


We have lived our days outside, unplugged from cell phones and computers, clocks and distractions. It’s been great never knowing what time we fall asleep or what time we get up. Jeffery has taken pity on me and given me a cabana of my own with privacy and my own lumpy matrimonial bed under mosquito netting, a precious and much appreciated gift.

Stars blanket evening sky inviting us to gather, share stories and visit with other guests from hammocks and dining stools as Maggi dishes out more love and nourishment. Isabella has an unending sandbox, a swimming pool, animal friends and the sea to play in. She has homemade ice cream and people who love her at every turn. We make a mountain for the sea to wash away. She is happy and so am I.

A friend of Jeffery’s has met Kristen and fallen hard. He wants to date her and speaks of visiting Oregon.

“Yes,” Kristen jokes, “I attract very young men and the very old.”

Maggi offers his address but I tell her to keep it. The man is my age. I find his attentions disgusting and tell them so. They laugh at me but I’m serious. I want to get a stick and beat his legs as I chase him away.

I want to yell, “Find some other young woman to make your aging spirit feel whole.”


I wait in a busy airport with hot skin, listening to many voices, my sunhat above a white dress, a dusting of sand frosting my toes. We are the embodiment of a stolen summer in the middle of a northern winter. Our plane is an hour late. Kristen pays $5 for a small can of potato chips from the airport because Bella is hungry but I refuse. I can not be robbed in that fashion. I will give $5 to the old woman who waits in the restroom to hand me a towel and beg for change, but not to overpriced airport concessions.

We board. An old Mexican woman in the seat across the aisle begins to fan herself and breathe hard. She is going into heart failure. Stewardesses gather. A nurse is called from the passenger list. We don’t go to Los Angeles as planned but put down in Tucson where we wait for hours as she is tended and eventually taken from the plane. We miss our flight to Portland and regret leaving our cell phones for the first time.

We’re tired and hungry. The folks at customs are unspeakably awful, first a young man and later a woman. Kristen begins to break under pressure; she is ill and hasn’t eaten. I step in to calm the scene. The customs officer is large and black, ready to sit on Kristen’s head.

“You don’t want to be messin’ with a federal officer!”

I have visions of spending the night in jail or a small unventilated room, but we are released to wander the airport in search of vouchers that will allow us to stay in a hotel and board another flight the next morning. The shuttle bus is full of Portland folk arriving from Mexico, humor improves, the people are exhausted but kind.

The hotel has white sheets and a deep bathtub.

“Look mom. The bed goes down when I sit on it,” Isabella says.

We rest, we eat, I soak in the tub and we fly home the next morning to a sky heavy with grey and rain.

I am not glad to be back but I will adjust.