Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sunset on 2008

The year ends with a beautiful conjunction of Venus, the crescent moon, and Jupiter all in a line pointing down into the ocean toward where the sun has set--and then just below and to the left of Jupiter, Mercury as well.

The planets didn't show up in my photograph, so I offer only the beach at sunset.

Mercury in its tiny orbit will soon turn back toward the sun, while Venus still rises toward Aquarius. I am amazed at the width of its orbit and can't even visualize how wide Jupiter swings--it seems stationary just east of Sagitarrius, a marker for the reach of both Mercury and Venus.

I do my first beach jog in four weeks, having let the end of the semester, the Christmas rush, and visiting family members deflect me from exercise. Last week's storm has sculpted the sand, making a two-foot bench where there used to be a smooth slope.

Two days ago I walked with my mother-in-law on the boardwalk, past the various offerings of the sidewalk merchants and past the drumming circle--not a real jog. We saw Venus, Jupiter, Mercury and even the faint line of the beginning crescent moon in its first day past the new moon phase.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Moon with Venus & Jupiter

Fog rolled in again this afternoon, much deeper than yesterday, so walking at the beach while a spectacular show moved invisibly overhead was not an option.
Driving up to the Santa Monica mountains above the Getty, I found what I wanted: clear sky with the crescent moon now above sparkling Venus and smaller Jupiter.
Tomorrow when the moon hopscotches further away from these two, I'll jog on the beach even if a blanket fog covers me.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Holy Night

Fog from the Pacific drifted in about 4 pm, making the splendid conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and the new moon impossible to see.
No point beachwalking in the fog with a spectacle like that taking place just above the mist, so I drove to up to the mountains, just above the Getty Museum.
Clear sky stretched above the soup bowl of clouds--and the crescent moon below brilliant Venus (-4.3) and more distant Jupiter.
I watched until the crescent turned orange and set behind the hills, pulling the planets after it.
The first day of Advent, of the new year in the Christian calendar...
O holy night! If only the beauty of the heavens could create peace on earth.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Smoky Days

Again, not a good day to jog. Even on the beach, the air is hazy with ash and smoke, the scent of fire is strong.

Sunset came just after 4 pm yesterday as the sun turned into a huge red ball and descended into the bank of smoke blown over the ocean from the fires to the east.

Today it rose similarly, an eerie orange glowing from within the tan smoke covering the sky. Like yesterday, the disaster sixty miles away appears both on my television screen and in the air when I walk outside.

Weather reports for today are "smoky and sunny with decreasing winds gusting up to 40 mph."

I'd been planning to visit a church in Santa Clarita today, then decided against it because freeways in that area were closed, but at 7 am today it looked doable, so I went.

Interstate 5 was almost empty, so I flew up it, observing fresh billows of smoke from the northeast near Pacoima Reservoir, below which Sylmar lies. North of Hwy. 118, near the Sesnon fire of a month ago, a ridge of orange flame burned to the left of the freeway.

I turned onto Hwy. 14 and drove past blackened hillsides dotted with white wisps of smoke from various trees and bushes still smoldering. To my right billowed huge clouds of an active fire behind the first ridge.

The service at The Sanctuary, a Foursquare Gospel church, was worth the drive. www.thesanctuarychurch.com Even at the 8 am service over 100 people sang praise songs before two huge screens with words and photos, led by an eight-person band.

The pastor preached on "Crossing the Gay DiVide," urging members to reach out in love to gays and not batter them with the need to change their sexual orientation. He asked for contributions to give $10,000 to the LA Gay & Lesbian Center designated for AIDS/HIV services--to balance the $2500 the church gave to Yes on Prop. 8.

After church there was a strong wind; clouds of smoke just south of Hwy. 114 were reddish brown and billowing more dramatically, but the sky was brilliant blue elsewhere.

As I drove back to Santa Monica, I entered the smoke plume coming from Orange County. The sky turned from blue to yellow-brown.

I thought of my sister and her husband preaching at Presbyterian churches in Orange County today. He is a chaplain to OC firefighters and they expected to be up all night last night.

It will be warm today, but I'm keeping my windows closed in an attempt to keep ash and smoke out of the house; even so, the scent inside is strong.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Walking for NO on Prop 8

I made a new friend today: George Finger from Staten Island, New York, who flew to California a week ago to work for the NO on Prop 8 campaign.

He'd never been to California before, so he took a few hours out of his training for election day efforts to drive to Santa Monica and see the beach here.

Proposition 8 is the second attempt in the last ten years to ban gay marriage in California.

George is straight and married, but his Christian convictions and his friendship with a lesbian woman led him to be here this week. That friend Jeanne Sales is also my friend, and she suggested he make a side trip out to see the sights and meet me while he is here.

He works as a chaplain with Education for Ministry, a program of theological education-at-a-distance, http://www.sewanee.edu/, and identifies as both an evangelical and liberal Christian.

We drove out to Point Dume in Malibu, where I take all first-time visitors to the Los Angeles area. A walk on the cliffs above crashing surf, a beautiful sunset, and a Mexican meal back in Santa Monica--who could ask for more?

Tomorrow he will be up at 4 am to be at the polls in Claremont before 7 am, where he will provide information on Prop. 8 to anyone standing in lines 100 feet from the voting booths.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On Jogging

"I'm going to jog on the beach," I announce, leaving the house at 6 pm this Sunday evening.

Actually, I don't give a hoot about jogging.

My real goals are solitude, beauty, and the presence of God.

I'd like to go sit on a mountain top for an hour, but starting from sea level in Santa Monica, I can't do that and be back in time to serve dinner at 8 pm.

I used to go sit on the beach, but I'd feel guilty as the joggers whizzed past, so I've joined them.

I avoid the sidewalk crowded with bikes, runners, and walkers. On the sand, dodging waves, I'm alone except for a few others I pass.

I've had a lot of human interaction today, driving to Claremont with three other women, participating in a women's liturgy, and driving my friends back, then talking to my husband and two daughters at home.

I need some alone time, but to announce that while walking out the door would feel anti-social. Jogging, I say. Everyone approves of exercise.

The beach give me beauty as well as solitude. The sky is luminous, wide and open with a band of pink deepening to red where the sun has set.

It's low tide with a huge area of flat wet sand for running, wider than Wilshire Boulevard.

Sixteen pelicans fly southeast. Venus appears in the darkening sky. Beneath a line scribbled across the low sky to the north, the Santa Monica Mountains are solid blue-gray as if filled in by chalk.

Where there's solitude and beauty, God's presence is usually not hard to feel.

Often I catch hold of some Bible verse and repeat it as I jog. For tonight, Psalm 42 will do:

As the deer longs for the flowing stream, so longs my soul for you, O God.

Then I'm driving home again, taking chicken out of the oven, trying to pry my daughters from television and the computer, John from a playoff game for the World Series, so we can eat together and then retreat to our separate worlds.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fire in the Hills

Not a good day for jogging.

A brown smear across the blue sky erased the Santa Monica Mountains this morning as I began my drive to work.
Usually winds from the ocean blow gas fumes east, but today Santa Ana winds from the Mojave Desert sent soot and smoke directly southwest to my neighborhood.

Taking the 405 north over Sepulveda Pass, I saw a white plume on mountains to the northeast and soon entered the driving smoke storm.

Palm fronds churned and other trees' branches flapped in the wind channel at Nordhoff Blvd., my exit for the CSU Northridge campus.

The campus itself was only occasionally in the direct blast when wind direction shifted but leaves and trash flew through the air.
Don't exercise, don't breathe, the administration advised in an email. I already had something like a smoker's cough just from walking too fast.

With the 210 freeway closed and the 118 just north of campus soon to close, only half the students showed up. It's Columbus Day but not a day off for CSUN.

At 2 pm with the fire about a mile north, my department chair came around to say classes were cancelled. I didn't tell her my husband had called two minutes earlier from the LA Times with that news and a report that two deaths had been caused so far by the fire.

Stopping at a gas station to fill up, I had to shield the tank from drifting flakes of soot.

A year ago yesterday Malibu Presbyterian Church burned to the ground.

It's the old joke, California's four seasons: fire, flood, drought and earthquake.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October Twelfth

October 12 and time grows short in the northern hemisphere, daylight time, that is.

I arrive at the beach at 6:35 pm, but the sun slipped under the ocean horizon at 6:22. The burst of rose gold on every tree and western-facing building has gone, replaced by grey.

A month ago I could arrive at this time and still enjoy the sunset, but now I must arrive at 6, punto, or jog mostly in the dark.

Every year, every day we have this reminder: the light fades. Darkness grows. Perhaps that's why the earth is tilted, rather than a perfect vertical on the plane of its orbit, so that we will learn to "number our days," as Psalm 90 in The Book of Common Prayer says. If every day were exactly twelve hours of sun and shadow, we might learn to expect sameness, eternal life. Instead our days wax and wane, as our lives do.

Yet we "do not go gentle into that good night." We want the light to continue. Every sunset has sadness as well as glory.

When I texted Marie a few weeks ago, "Today's the fall equinox," she texted back, "Ah :( I don't want there to be less sun."

Last January 10th or so, when the staff of Sunrise Assisted Living finally put away the Christmas tree and decorations, my mother commented, "I don't want Christmas to be over."

I argued with her, "They're just putting the things in boxes--they'll be out again next Christmas."

But she knew there would be no more Christmases for her. The twinkling lights were put away for the last time, and she was sad. Three months later, she died.

I've turned sixty now, and I keenly feel the lesson of the fall months as the daylight hours shrink. Yes, the sun itself will burn out eventually, scientists tell us, but homo sapiens had figured that out thousands of years ago. We had learned to fear that the sun might not come back; we built bonfires to help it return.

As I jog, the full moon stands high in the southeastern sky to my left, and Santa Catalina Island floats purple and serene forty miles across the water directly south. It's a beautiful night.

A pile of fresh flowers catches my attention, lying on the higher sand a few feet from the advancing waves: pink and red roses, orange glads, a touch of yellow too--none with stems, just a mound of blossoms offered to the sea.

The sky swells rose, then crimson, where the sun had been, a parting gift to everyone on the continent's western shore. Darkness spreads from the east.

Near Venice Beach the beat of a drum circle grows louder than the surf as I approach. Someone is swinging blue lights on a six-foot rope, like a juggler.

I pass couples embracing, groups of people sitting on the sand to face the sunset, attentive.

"You go, girl!" a female voice shouts at me, and I smile back, laughing at the implication that I'm a real runner, like my friend Mike Smith who ran the Long Beach Marathon today. Her words remind me that there's a culture here of watching and appreciating jogathons, triathlons, and such events--even my humble efforts, my first jog in two weeks.

At the Venice breakwater, I turn and jog back. It's dark now but there's still a band of red at the horizon. I stumble over an invisible pile of seaweed.

As I pass two dark figures sitting on the sand, the strong sweet scent of marijuana drifts on the air.

I'm still thinking of my mother, who died six months ago, just past the spring equinox, how she wanted to hang on to lights and life.

The lilac bush I planted in Colorado has felt the first soft touch of snow, has shivered under a snowfall of two or three inches by now. Have its leaves dropped off? I wonder.

My mother's ashes lie underneath the lilac, secured by sod, serene. I know she's happy to be there where the wind blows and snow falls, no longer trapped in Sunrise Assisted Living.

And is it light or dark where she is?

The hymn in church today declared,

When we've been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We've no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we've first begun.

She's beyond the waxing and waning of earth time, sun time. Perhaps she is indeed in the presence of great, eternal light.

It's been six months since her death, I say, six circlings of the moon.

But she does not count days and years: if she has consciousness of some sort, she knows only eternity and praise.

I stand gazing at Venus low in the sky, Jupiter, and Saggitarius. Black and grey have replaced the bright sunset; evening chores call me to return to earth time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I wake at 4:15 am, still on Rio time, and try to go back to sleep, finally getting up at 6:30 and driving to the beach.

I deserve an early morning jog because I've just returned from two weeks of travel; I need to reconnect with this bit of earth and sea before returning to the drudgery of normal life.

I expect the Santa Monica beach to look a bit drab after Rio de Janiero, but I'm not prepared for ugly.

Overcast with heavy morning fog, the sky and sea are grey and flat. I can see nothing in either direction--no mountains north or south, no Santa Catalina, just the pier in grey to the north and the line of low buildings stretching south to the Venice breakwater.

It's a very low tide, so at least there's a wide strech of firm, walkable sand turned solid by the repeated wash of small waves. The waning moon must be pulling from the west, moving toward a noontime plunge into the ocean.

The water is dirty brown green, and when each wave finally peters out on the flat expanse, it's pushing yellow froth that remains on the sand after the water recedes. The bubbles collapse and leave a line of yellow circles, an archipelago marking the waves' furthest advance.

Why do we pump our sewage out a few hundred yards from shore? I wonder. Isn't this supposed to be a civilized place? Rio has favelas but keeps the water on its beaches clear and clean, except in the inner harbor where ships dock and unload.

At the breakwater, I startle crabs who scramble sideways across the rocks to escape my view.

A woman is dancing ankle deep with the ocean waves as her partner, so I attempt a samba.

There's beauty in every corner of the world, I tell myself, but it's hard to be back in Santa Monica after the stunning morros and beaches of Rio.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Fourth of July

** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** At sunset a huge smoke plume from fires north of here obscures the Santa Monica Mountains: Big Sur and Goleta are still burning, as well as areas in the Sierras and around California.

I also see a black layer of smoke at the foot of the mountains, extending from today's fires in Malibu eastward toward Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.

The air is pungent with fires and firecrackers, cigarettes and marijuana.

Tonight's tide is two feet lower than on July 1, giving me enough room to jog on wet sand, but at 8 pm there are still hundreds of people on the beach. The air is 75 degrees, the water probably close to that, though the sun has set.

I dodge soccer balls and frisbees, sandcastles and excavated pools, families, children, lovers, elderly women walking alone.

I'm wearing a light jacket that has two inner pockets, my cell phone in one and my car keys in the other, but it's too warm so I tie it around my waist, hoping nothing will be bounced out of those pockets.

About a hundred yards down the beach, I realize the phone is missing. Yikes--all my phone numbers, four days before I leave for a big trip. As I turn and start running back, the keys fall out of the other pocket and a big wave erases footprints where I had been walking.

My cell phone, somewhere down the beach, being washed out to sea? Not again--this happened two years ago. How could I be so careless?

Slowing down, I study debris on the beach in the growing darkness: clumps of seaweed, food wrappings, the handle of a broken shovel.

Suddenly I see a young Latino man coming toward me with his hand outstretched, my cell phone lying in it. I must have just jogged past him.

"Oh, thank you so much!" I cry, taking the phone.

He smiles and turns back. I open the phone and yes, it's still working though a little wet and sandy. He must have picked it up quickly, before a wave covered it.

Brimming with relief and gratitude, I start jogging south again, keys in one hand, cell in the other.

The Venice breakwater is fully visible today, though tide's still high and I can't walk out there.

I take a photo of the red and smudgy sky and start jogging back, illegal firecrackers exploding around me on the beach and in the sky. I'm jittery, startled by each one, resolving to jog in the morning on the next Fourth of July.

Dogs, also illegal, and their owners appear on the beach as usual after dark, and the scent of marijuana wafts past me more often.

A thin white sliver of moon appears in the sky, turning orange as it descends into the smoke. Later I check and see, yes, we are two days past the new moon.

I stumble into a hole filled with loose wet sand, probably dug for a child and just now sloshed with sand by the waves.
The sky glows a deeper rose now, and the ferris wheel on the pier in red, white and blue changes from a pinwheel to a rotating Gothic Cross to a rumpled American flag pattern. With blue and red in the sky, white in the crashing waves, I don't need any more spectacle than this.

At home John and I celebrate the Fourth by eating hotdogs grilled outside, and I don't tell him about losing my cell phone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Very Pacific

The bowl is full this evening, spilling onto sand, almost lapping the wooden ramps of lifeguard stations. I've never seen a tide this high.

There's no room for jogging, just a choice between deep dry sand and sloshy ocean transgressing the North American continent.

It's 8 pm as sun sinks behind the Santa Monica Mountains, red sky smudged with grey by fires further north.

How pacific the ocean is at this moment, though still capable of sudden, sly swipes toward my shoes. Dimly after sunset I see two surfers bobbing in small waves not strong enough to ride them to shore. One slosh of salt water forces me to sprint a few yards inland on deeper sand.

The Venice breakwater has become just a broken string of small rocks occasionally disappearing in the waves. Sea stars and anemone stretch, crabs stalk far below water, enjoying the rich diet this tide brings them.

Instead of walking there, peering into crevices and hopping from boulder to boulder, I'm standing forty yards away where shore is tonight, the higher bank of sand now under assault.

Early July sky stays bright long after sunset. At 9 pm Scorpio still is invisible except for the red glow of Antares, and Jupiter is the only planet I can see among the planes taking off from LA International Airport.

A mile north the new ferris wheel changes from turquoise to red to a patriotic blend of color, anticipating the Fourth of July.