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Remembering the Haunting Santa Ana Winds

September 19, 2019

The opening pages of Janet Fitch’s “White Oleander” novel has haunted me since the first time I read it, nearly 18 years ago. It’s in these passages that she talks about the foreboding Santa Ana winds.

“The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. … “Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.” She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the desert dryness lick through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas.”

Of courses this is a fictional passage from a novel that foreshadows the mother committing murder in the story. But the idea of the Santa Ana winds as ominous is not hard to imagine, at least not to me.

Growing up in Southern California, I dreaded Santa Ana wind season. The dryness of the winds brought sandpaper skin and lips that soaked up ChapStick by the second. My wavy hair turned stick straight and stood up from static, and my contact lenses felt like they were scratching my eye balls.

When I was young, the Santa Anas typically appeared in early summer. But as the climate changed and I became an adult, the heat shifted to the fall. September through November – the months that should have been full of cool autumnal breezes and sweaters – were marked by days of unending dry heat in homes without air conditioning. And every few years, the glaring sun, high temperatures and gusts of wind would form a perfect storm. Wildfires broke out that made their way down the California inland valleys with a vengeance.

This was the scene in October 2003. I smelled the smoke immediately. Before I was even awake I knew what it was. Fire in the distance and smoke permeated through my nose and the house. It was eight days before Halloween. It was morning, but it was dark; only the haze of the burning sun and tiny smoke dust particles lit the room. Sirens were sounding in the distance. The phone was ringing with calls from concerned friends and family, asking if I was aware my community was on an evacuation order.

I had to get out of the house and escape what could turn into a trap. Minutes felt like seconds as I gathered photographs, scrapbooks and albums, important documents, and other treasured belongings and loaded them into my small Honda Civic. All the while, the only thing I could smell was the fire and smoke and what could become burned up life if the flames had their way.

We spent the next three days with friends in the coastal region; an area untouched by the threat of fire. This was before social media. So for three days, I watched the local news for reports of where the fires were going, which houses they destroyed, and to see if my address was listed on the roster of homes that were damaged. When the evacuation order was lifted, I made my way home to see if my house, which sat on shrub-filled canyon, was still standing. Thankfully, it was. But I knew many people who weren’t so lucky.

The haunting feeling of those October Santa Ana winds and fires never left me. In fact, they made their way back in another October, this one four years later. I was eight months pregnant and living in a different house. But those same winds again broke out with a vengeance and fires swept Southern California.

I knew it was coming. The foreboding weather was not going to rest that October. With only one week left at San Diego State University before I started maternity leave, I went into work that Sunday to finish projects in the quiet of an empty office. I cleaned my desk and checked off tasks. I left campus with an eerie feeling of calm, like I knew I was not coming back any time soon (even though my alarm was already set for morning).

That evening, the winds kicked up and unconstrained fires burned up regions of San Diego. We evacuated the house, just for one night this time. But the air was so polluted with smoke and ash that schools and college campuses were closed the following week for health reasons. And I started my maternity leave one week early.

One May afternoon several years later, the Santa Anas blew so strong that they knocked a beautiful little bird into our sliding glass door. It laid on the ground, looking wounded or dead. Minutes later, the tiny creature was gone. This was the same week our kitten was killed and I considered the fact that this bird was a signal from another dimension. I wondered if perhaps I imagined the entire episode. The inescapable dry heat makes you question reality.

Santa Anas have a mind of their own. Control is lost to Mother Nature. That’s why it’s easy to read a passage like Fitch’s in “White Oleander” and understand that, perhaps it was the dry Southern California winds that made the mother commit murder. Maybe nature’s inexplicable power turned people into another form of themselves.

Living in Indiana, there are no Santa Ana winds. Dry heat is not a reality in this region of the Midwest. I’m okay with this. My parents don’t understand why I’ll gladly take humidity for the desert any day of the week. But I welcome the escape from the ominous Santa Ana winds, and the haunting memories of my past.

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“Charlotte’s Web” and the Power of Words

August 7, 2019

Recently, I found myself thinking about E.B. White’s classic children’s story, “Charlotte’s Web.” I’d venture to guess that most of us have either read the book or seen a movie version. Personally, I’m partial to the 1973 animated version featuring the brilliant music by the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert Sherman, most famous for their Disney music and lyrics from “Mary Poppins” and other classic movies).

There are certain stories and movies that I really cannot watch without breaking down into a pile of tears. “Little Women” is one; “Where the Red Fern Grows is Another.” And “Charlotte’s Web” is definitely at the top of the movie list. I remember first watching the movie in my childhood family room with my mom when I was about 6 or 7-years old. And from that first viewing through all the times I’ve seen it since, I always cry when Charlotte dies and Wilbur weeps for his loss.

Not long ago, I watched the movie with Sophie. While I admit that I often leave the room (or turn the movie off) before the painful ending, this time I chose to sit through the movie and experience the ending as an adult. And just like all the times before, I cried when Wilbur lost his friend.

But this viewing was different. Watching the movie as an adult, the ending and story took on a much deeper meaning to me. Specifically, it was the last two lines of the story that the narrator said (that White penned), which really cut to the core of me:

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Those last two lines are so simple, yet so powerful. It really hit me that “Charlotte’s Web” is not only a story about friendship, but also about words and the difference those words can make in people’s lives.

As a writer and a person, I truly believe that words have power — they are tools to heal, wound, inspire, energize … I believe words can forge connections and save lives.

In Wilbur’s case, it was not just Charlotte’s friendship that meant so much to him. It was the words the spider used to describe him; the words that eventually saved his life. Sure, the story is fiction and not at all plausible. But the idea that words can truly make a difference in a friend’s life is far from a fantasy.

That is why those last two lines are the heart and power of the story. The beauty lies with that little spider who changed (and saved) lives through the power of her writing. It’s an inspirational concept to say the least. I can only hope my words can have an impact the way Charlotte’s did, and White’s continue to do.

A version of this post was published on Leah’s Thoughts in August 2011.

Three Years in Indiana Yielded “A Harvest of Friends”

July 25, 2019

When I was a kid, my favorite television show was “Little House on the Prairie.” And I admit that I still love catching an episode now and then when I find it on cable. Not long ago, I found myself thinking about the second episode of the series, which was called “A Harvest of Friends.”

Without summarizing the entire episode (you can catch it on Amazon Prime if you desire), it ends when the folks of Walnut Grove rally around to help a broken Pa. He watches with tears in his eyes as the people, whom he’d only just met after settling in a new town, selflessly help him when he’s at his bottom.

The episode ends with the following words by Laura Ingalls:

“Pa said he was glad we’d come to live on the Banks of Plum Creek. Because here, he harvested a crop he didn’t know he’d planted; a harvest of friends.”

Not surprising to many who know me, but the end of this episode and those words brings me to tears. I know exactly what Pa is thinking, hunched over on the floor. He’s wondering how in the world he got so lucky. What did he do to deserve the kindness from these people that he’s only known for a short time? Why do they even want to help him? And never have Laura’s words felt so hauntingly familiar to me as they do today.

This week marks three years that I’ve been in Indiana. On July 24, I loaded up my car, along with Sophie, two dogs and a cat, and left San Diego behind me. And on July 27, I arrived in Terre Haute, Indiana — ready to start a new life. I wrote these observations about a month after moving here; and this post last year, reflecting on two years in Indiana.

When I moved to Terre Haute, I didn’t know a soul. And as a self-described introvert and a person who is cautious to trust others and give too much of herself away, I wasn’t sure how or when I’d make friends. I knew I’d likely find one or two people with whom I could connect. But today – three years later – I am so grateful for the people I’ve come to know, those I’m fortunate enough to call friends, and for the deep connections I’ve formed with a handful of kindred souls.

I’ve met a tribe of caring people through writing, social media and cookie exchanges, Sophie’s school activities, art classes, wellness coaching and TRX workouts, community involvement, and most significantly, through running. Running has not only given me the gift of mental and physical health and confidence, it has given me the gift of friendships that are often indescribable to others.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for the friends I made in San Diego. Many of them are still my closest of confidants whom I don’t know what I’d do without.

But there’s something about the tribe you find when you move away from home; when all is unfamiliar. When you have no family or built-in support. When you are, literally, a “stranger in a strange land” and know no one in your new town. Those people you find become something more than friends.

I’m a person who likes to think there are bigger forces at play in the world; that we don’t often know what path we’re destined to take (and who may be on that path). Moving to Indiana — and seeing how my life has unfolded, and the friendships I’ve made along the way — proves this to me on a daily basis.

It has been a hell of a ride these last three years. But the one thing I know without a doubt is that I couldn’t have gotten through some of these times without the support and kindness of these friends and connections. They have made my life better, in so many ways. Like Pa, I’m incredibly grateful for the crop that I unknowingly planted — my harvest of friends.

My Mom, My Musical Foundation

June 20, 2019
tags: ,

Leah listening to music

This photo of me at 22-months old (not even 2 years) shows exactly how far back music has been in my life. According to my mom, I would ride that plastic horse and listen to John Denver records through headphones. (Who knew those large headphones and vinyl would be just as popular today as they were in 1977?!) This photo explains why the lyrics to John Denver songs have been with me for as long as I can remember, and why I’ve always had a song playing in my head. There’s a reason music became a constant companion in my life. And that reason is my mom.

My mom is my musical foundation. Unlike my dad who appreciates music, but is not moved by it (although his fondness of Harry Chapin taught me many life lessons), my mom is constantly listening and singing along. She gave me a deep appreciation of songs, and instilled in me from a young age that it’s important to know the names of the oldies and classic songs, as well as the artists who sang them.

Mom used to do a thing. We’d drive in the car and listen to the radio, usually an oldies or “soft rock” station. Mom knew all the oldies and as she’d sing along, she’d tell me the names of the songs and the singers or band. “It’s the Beach Boys,” she said when “Surfin’ USA” came on. Or she’d sing along to “Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue …” and would tell me Buddy Holly is the singer. This is how I learned about music, and began to recognize different singers and paired songs to their voices. Before the days of the Internet, mom was my go-to source for pre-1980s musical knowledge.

So many of the artists I love today are ones my mom introduced me to as a kid: James Taylor, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, Elton John, Carly Simon. All those classic 1970s singer-songwriters, mom loved them and I can’t help but love them too.

When she visited me in Indiana earlier this year, we spent some time listening to records on my turntable. Not surprisingly, the bulk of my record collection is from the 1970s and late 1960s. She was thrilled to see Carole King’s “Tapestry” among my vinyl, as mom had that record when it debuted in 1971. We also listened to Buffalo Springfield, Eric Clapton, John Prine, America and Emmylou Harris. Mom asked how I got so interested in those 1970s records. “From you,” I replied.

Our shared love of music does not stop at oldies and 1970s singer-songwriters. When I started listening to country music in college, she listened along with me and fell in love with Mary Chapin Carpenter with as much fervor as I did. We attended many of Carpenter’s concerts together, all of which hold a special place in my heart.

Relationships with mothers can be a tricky thing (especially for daughters). I think we sometimes neglect that bond because we know, deep down, moms are always there in some way. So as much as my mom’s quirks have caused me to shake my head over the years, I give her credit for helping to build the deep musical foundation of what’s become critical to my life.

Fast forward to today, I find myself with Sophie doing exactly what my mom did with me any time an older song plays. Like a natural instinct, I automatically tell Sophie the song and singer.

“It’s ‘La Bamba’,” I tell Sophie. “Ritchie Valens is the singer. He’s the one who died with the other musicians on the day the music died. The ‘American Pie’ song. You need to know this.”

“Oh,” she replies, sounding bored and acting like she doesn’t care.

Yet the next time Sophie and I are in the car and “American Pie” starts playing, she asked me, “So who else died in that plane crash?”

She remembers. And in a strange way, this makes me proud. I’m not the best person to help Sophie with math homework, but at least I can give her an appreciation of music. Just like my mom did for me.

And in a Moment, a Volume Closes and a New Book Begins

May 30, 2019

Today is a bittersweet day. It’s Sophie’s last day of fifth grade; her last day of elementary school. She’s now officially a sixth grader, bound for middle school in August.

Some days, it feels like just yesterday she started kindergarten. Or her first day of third grade, which was her first at a new school in Terre Haute. And other times, those moments feel like a lifetime ago. I’m not worried about her going to middle school. In fact, I’m excited for her and the opportunities she has in front of her, and I know she’ll be fine in a new school.

I think what gives me pause and some sadness about this milestone is thinking about all the years and time that’s gone by. I wonder constantly if I’ve done right by her in terms of being a good parent. Could I have been more empathetic toward her at times? Did I support her endeavors and give her the right encouragement? What about all the times I freaked out or made snap judgments toward her, and then later regretted my words and actions? Was I in such a hurry to get to tomorrow that I forgot to enjoy all the todays?

I guess, at some point, I just have to accept that I’ve done the very best I can. And hope she takes all the best parts of me and all the time that’s passed, and it helps make her the best possible person going forward.

Much like myself, I’ve seen the most growth and change in Sophie these last three years in Indiana. It’s not easy to leave behind the only life you’ve known for a brand new start, in a new part of the country. But she took that challenge and soared to new heights. Sophie is so much braver than I ever was at her age, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

There are so many days when I wonder how I got the daughter I have. Sophie and I are so opposite, in so many ways. She’s an extrovert; I’m an introvert. I often joke that if I don’t know what piece of clothing to buy her, I should choose the one that I dislike the most. Because that will ultimately be the one she wants. She cares very much what others think of her; I care more about what I think of myself. I process everything internally and am very guarded about revealing too much of myself to others. Sophie is an open book and the definition of external expression. Growing up, I had a lot of fear of the unknown, which kept me from pursuing opportunities. Sophie has courage; and while she won’t go after every opportunity presented to her, she won’t let fear get in her way if it’s something she truly wants.

A friend once told me that, when it comes to parenting, we’re given the child we need. I think there’s something to that statement. Because as much as Sophie can frustrate me at times, I’ve learned so much from her. And I know she’s made me a better parent, and a better person.

“Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game”

— Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”

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