Ferns in Santa Barbara

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This maidenhair fern is flourishing in our apartment.  It’s a first for me, having success with a fern.  But all of our houseplants are happy. The light is diffused by the curtains and it shines all day through the glass doors of the dining area.

Whenever I water my plants, I’m reminded of my brief employment as a worker in a commercial greenhouse in Santa Barbara.  It’s amazing that the manager even hired me, because all the other workers there were Latinos.  He assigned me to the Boston ferns.

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The greenhouse itself was huge.  The ferns were propagated on one end.  At the other end were the more delicate tropical plants, like African violets.  Massive fans at either end cooled the building.  Despite the constant wind, the greenhouse was hot and humid.

Only women worked in the ferns.  We moved among long  raised boxes of soil with racks of hanging ferns overhead.  The process, as I remember it, was to remove baby ferns from the mature hanging plants and put them in the beds below.  When the babies grew large enough, we transferred them to small plastic pots.  Eventually, those ferns were ready to be put into a hanging pot.

I liked working with the ferns.  It was often quiet, although Spanish erupted and flew around in bursts.  The women were cheery and kind.  They taught me what to do.  I learned their names, but not much else.  Today, were I in the same job, I would have asked more questions and learned more Spanish.   At that time, I was in my twenties and the boundaries of my world were more self-involved and limited.

After a few weeks, we were joined by another white woman.  She had a couple of kids and was struggling to provide for them.  Cindy had a wry sense of humor.  She kept me entertained.  I enjoyed working with her until she started pushing her religion on me.  Cindy was Christian.  She seemed to feel it was her duty to convert me.  Things weren’t so amusing after that.

One afternoon, an official-looking van parked outside the greenhouse.  Two of the male workers were taken away by the I.N.S.  The women huddled together and whispered. I didn’t know much about illegal immigrants.  The event confused me more than anything else.  Of course, the majority of the greenhouse workers were probably illegal.

A couple of months into the job, the other workers and I began to suffer from sore throats and headaches.  It wasn’t difficult to connect these symptoms to the pesticides being sprayed at the other end of the greenhouse.

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I complained to the manager.  “The chemicals are making us sick.  Can’t you spray after hours?”

“You only smell the additives they put in.  It’s not harmful,” he answered.

But I could see the skull and crossbones and read the instructions on the bottles.  I could see the special masks worn by the men who sprayed the plants.

A couple of days later, I was “let go.”

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Nose Power

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If you’re close to my age, the scent of patchouli oil is likely to evoke memories of dark, stuffy dorm rooms, tie-dyed clothing or marijuana highs. Although I wasn’t deeply into that sixties scene, I do like the fragrance of patchouli. So does my much younger daughter-in-law. My best friend from college years hates it. These days, I prefer to use the oil in my diffuser, along with geranium and sweet orange.

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The nose and the brain work together to detect smells. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is the process of detecting and processing chemicals present in the air. When these chemicals enter the nose, the olfactory system takes over to process them. Sometimes a fragrance may be enjoyable, such as perfume or the smell of cookies baking in the oven. The olfactory system also processes undesirable scents in conjunction with the brain.   The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that delivers immediate responses with instantaneous recognition and response.

                                                                                    —         http://www.fragrancex.com

 

Another scent that I enjoy is chlorine. The only explanation I can find is that it connects with my childhood and the swimming pool we had in Los Angeles. I practically lived in that pool as soon as the weather permitted. My father was in charge of pool maintenance. We had a filter system with three huge tanks that he monitored, regularly releasing the chlorine gas from a valve on the top. So, today I like the smell of bleach.

 

As a kid, I liked the smell of gasoline. That carried over to sniffing the top of my father’s cigarette lighter. These days I find those odors repugnant, as well as the smoke of cigarettes and cigars, even though I grew up smelling all of them.

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The odor of coffee is another favorite of mine, as I imagine it is for many people. I don’t drink coffee, but the smell evokes pleasant childhood memories of early mornings in California, with my mother seated at the dining room table, a steaming cup in front of her.

 

Two smells I don’t like are vanilla and coconut, but only in cosmetics. I love foods with coconut in them, and I enjoy the flavor of vanilla in ice cream and cake. I can detect both odors in lotions and shampoos, and they make me recoil. I have no explanation for that.

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As the brain processes scents, it accesses connections between specific smells and memories. This is why a scent can conjure up a memory of an event, place, time, or person. The limbic system sits in the center of the brain, and it has a direct connection with the central nervous system.

                                                                                                — www.fragrancex.com

 

I have a particularly sensitive sense of smell. Sometimes I find myself in a place where the odor of a person or air freshener or food makes it almost impossible for me to stay put. I can even tell when someone has not showered before dressing in the morning. There’s a certain bed odor that clings to the body.

 

In humans, about 300 active olfactory receptor genes are devoted to detecting thousands of different fragrance molecules through a large family of olfactory receptors of a diverse protein sequence. The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity.

                                                                                                — www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

 

 

What odors do you love? What memories do they evoke?

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Ripples of Magic: Available Now!

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I enjoyed writing this story about the half-selkie girl, Demara, who thinks she’d be happiest living in the sea with her selkie father.  Demara journeys across Karakesh Kingdom, seeking a way to achieve her desire.  As we travel with her, we return to familiar places in Karakesh, like Mahti’s Honey House, whose house is the beehive, and Hawk Hill Manse, near the faerie queen’s abode.  Confronted by hard choices and unexpected developments, Demara must make her own decision: land or sea?

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                                                           Demara with her mother, by K.E.

 

Ripples of Magic, and the three other books in the series, are available on Amazon (www.amazon.com) and also from Handersen Publishing at www.handersenpublishing.com

 

Cleaning Houses

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When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked part-time cleaning houses. I had just gotten my teaching certification, but there were no jobs for teachers in or around Santa Barbara. So in the mornings, I supported myself working as an aide in a fourth grade classroom. In the afternoons, I cleaned houses.

I like cleaning. It’s active and productive. When you’re done, you can see the difference. In those days, I worked fast and often finished early. I was paid under the table, too. All in all, it was satisfactory employment.

My first job was for a thirty-something woman with a couple of kids and a husband. They lived in one of those rambling Spanish style houses above Santa Barbara. Curry—that was her name—stuck around for the first couple of times I cleaned for her, and then she decided I was trustworthy and left me alone. I would put a record on her great stereo system, and blast the music while I cleaned. She had a lousy old vacuum, so I brought my own. I liked working there. It was an interesting house and Curry was a crunchy granola Californian like me.

Another regular job took me into a large house in a new development. It was way up on a bare hillside overlooking the town. My employer was an older WASP woman, maybe in her mid-sixties. She was slim with poofy gray hair, and she dressed in cashmere sweater sets. She had one of those white miniature poodles with eyes that drip dark tracks on its face. I met her husband only once, when he forgot something at home. He appeared to be about ten years younger than she, a tall, paunchy, florid man who barely acknowledged my presence.

One of my tasks was to empty and wipe out the refrigerator. I’d been a vegetarian for a while by then. Some of the food in that fridge was nauseating. I particularly remember a container of some ham aspic that wobbled and looked like vomit in Jello.

Right below the ceiling in the living room was a shelf displaying Louis XIV china figurines. They were each about twelve inches high. Ceramic lace edged their clothing. When Mrs. WASP asked me to dust, I would climb up on a stepladder with the feather duster and flap away at the china figures, and—oops!–occasionally knock off fragments of lace. Oh, well, I figured, the Mrs. will never see those broken bits from below.

Unlike Curry, Mrs. WASP supervised my work. When we changed the sheets in the bedroom, she made sure that I had the top sheet with the right side facing down, so that it folded over right side up. “Who cares?” I scoffed to my best friend.

The job with Mrs. WASP was short–lived. I didn’t like her dog or her refrigerator, and I think she didn’t mind seeing the last of me.

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The teacher I worked for hired me to clean his house. I had plenty of opportunity to observe him in his fourth grade classroom, where he presented himself as a Cool Dude. The tasks he assigned to me were mostly organizational: sorting kids’ work, checking worksheets, and handing out papers. He didn’t share the teaching with me. Mr. Cool was still in his classroom when I cleaned his house in the afternoon.

He lived in a small cottage in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara’s poorer southern sister. The color scheme inside the cottage was brown and yellow, in abundance. I didn’t discover anything revealing or unsavory about Mr. Cool when I cleaned his house. Somehow, though, I learned that he was dating the mother of one of his students. The boy’s affect in class demonstrated how confused and uncomfortable he felt. He was quiet and withdrawn, almost sullen. I felt badly for him, having his mom’s boyfriend as his teacher.

My favorite employer was a motherly woman whose children were grown and no longer living at home. Mrs. M. and I worked together, organizing her spices and her messy pantry. One day she asked me to clean the grill in the enclosed patio. I went at it with vigor and steel wool, scrubbing that blackened grill clean. When Mrs. M. saw the results, she turned pale. I had taken the Teflon coating right off.

A friend and fellow cleaner passed her job on to me. I never saw the man whose house I cleaned. I’d let myself in—I don’t remember if I had a key or one was hidden—and I’d clean the house, pick up my check and leave. I noticed a lot of sex related items in the bedroom, including a large, schmaltzy reproduction of a semi-nude woman, condoms and lubricants. These made for snickering conversations with my girlfriends.   Beware of what you leave around when the cleaning lady comes!

The cleaning jobs slid away when I found work at the Migrant Children’s Center. Yet my days as a cleaner were instructive. I’m glad I did that work and stood in those shoes.   All these years later, I still prefer cleaning to cooking. The results last longer.

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Fly on the Wall

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What would a fly on our apartment wall make of a day watching my husband and me? How would we—the caregiver and the man with dementia– look to an observer’s eyes?

The moment I awaken and sit up, I hear my husband say, “Good morning, dear.” I mutter “Mornin’” or give a silent wave in return. I don’t transition well from sleep to wakefulness, Fly. I’m not a cheery, chirpy robin, first thing. To me, it feels like my husband needs to know that I know he’s there, from the second I open my eyes.

But how does this look to you, Fly? Do I appear grumpy and unkind?

During the day, there are times I avoid meeting his eyes. I make him disappear by withdrawing my visual attention. My excuse for this behavior is that I crave solitude, so I don’t acknowledge his presence with my eyes. Multiple times a day, though, I do look up and he’s watching me. I have an audience all of my waking hours, Fly. Even when we’re not in the same room, he’s listening. If I drop a book or make a loud noise, he comes trundling up the stairs. “Are you all right? I heard a noise.”

Fly, I know he does it because he’s so anxious. He depends on me for everything. Am I being mean in the way I respond, Fly? It’s just too much sometimes, him clinging and watching. I get impatient, Fly. You’ve heard my tone of voice. I’ve heard it, too, and I feel guilty. But I’m not a saint, Fly.

In my defense, Fly, you do realize that we’ve been shut up in this apartment with only each other for over two months now. Am I making excuses?

He’s an old man, Fly. When we take our daily walk, he shuffles along behind me on his arthritic knees. I do turn back to catch up with him, Fly. And if the tension in my muscles is too much, I jog ahead for a while and then jog back to him.

I’m embarrassed to have you observe our mealtimes, Fly. We both read while we eat. There’s not much talk, because he doesn’t have much to say. He tries, though. Sometimes he’ll read aloud part of an article from The Week magazine. And read it to me again a minute or two later.

Oh, Fly, you’ve heard me tell him, “You already read that.” I know I should nod and smile and listen and offer an appropriate comment. But, Fly, it’s like living with emptiness. And it’s so sad, Fly.

Do you see the sadness of it, sitting there on the wall? Do you hear how he asks me, “Is it okay if I eat this?” “Where does this go?” “Is something cooking?” “What’s on the agenda today?” “Did I eat breakfast already?” His whole life resides in me, Fly. The truth is sometimes I hate it.

I know you’ve seen me weeping, Fly. I admit to wallowing in self-pity. It’s been hard to let the dreams go, Fly. It’s been hard.

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The Issue of Hair

fullsizeoutput_362Hair has always been an issue for me.  Well, not always.  Until I hit puberty, around twelve years old, my hair was brown and straight and not particularly worthy of attention.  Then along came adolescence.  My hair went wild.  All over.  The hair on my head grew wiry and frizzy.  The hair on my legs gradually became dark and too thick to ignore. To my horror, I grew a faint mustache.

In middle school and high school, I spent hours dealing with my hair.  Twice a week, I tamed the stuff on my head with plastic rollers the size of soup cans. (Remember, this was the 1960s, when long, straight hippie hair was cool.) It took more than an hour under the hair dryer to achieve the final smoothness.  In between washings, I’d clip it around my head at night to stop the frizzy waves.

When I was in ninth grade, all that effort went for naught because I had swimming for  first period P.E.   It was some kind of cruel test for freshmen.  The required bathing caps weren’t much help.  I went through the rest of the day with frizzy hair and smelling like chlorine.

To deal with the mustache, I used a bleaching cream.  And I shaved and shaved my legs.

So much hair.

So much time spent managing it.

Three years ago, in Spain, I had my hair cut really short.  I was 66.  It’s been the best choice regarding hair that I have made in years.  Wash and wear.  No blow-dry, no rollers or ties or scrunchies or clips.  Whew.

 

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That was the good aspect of aging, getting brave and practical about how much of my remaining time I chose to spend fussing with my hair.

But there’s a not-so-good aspect to aging and hair.  The stuff just keeps on sprouting!  In the weirdest places, too.  Now I have to check my nose and my eyebrows and chin for rogue hairs.  Some are white and stand out defiantly.  And I’ve acquired a light layer of blond fuzz all over my cheeks.  It takes diligent daily effort to keep everything mowed and pruned.

God laughs and shakes an admonishing finger.  “One place or another, you’re gonna have hair.”

Art as a Healing Force

 

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When I was eighteen years old, a senior in high school, my mother was dying of cancer. No one said the words out loud, but we all knew.

Of that time, I most remember sitting at my desk and drawing. With a crow quill pen and a bottle of India ink, I used minute lines to create intricate pictures. None of them remain save one, a portrait of my cat asleep on my bed.

I would scratch away with the tiny pen point for hours, until my blood sugar dropped so low that my hand began to shake. In that universe bound by the edge of the paper, I discovered a grim joy. Certainly I found something I could control; control that did not exist anywhere else in my life at home. There was no conscious realization that I was using creativity to defy death, or that those myriad lines of ink were healing me and holding me together like stitches. But that is what happened.

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During that time, I also kept a journal. Later, I referred to my journals as my “garbage cans,” receptacles where I could throw anything. There were no rules for these writings. I wrote whatever inspired me, whenever I felt the need to write. Poems, the beginnings of sappy romances, and a lot of whining filled the pages. Some of those notebooks still exist, stashed in a plastic bin. Fifty years have passed and I am still unwilling to read them.

To this day, I find solace in creating, be it writing, drawing, or sewing. Each of these activities carries its particular medicine. Writing lets me pour pent-up emotions, persistent thoughts, and fantasies, and then it teaches me where I am. Drawing and painting focus me and put me back together. Sewing grounds me as I use my hands to produce something utilitarian and attractive.

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The stories I wrote during my first two years in a writing group helped me exorcise the collected bitterness and sorrow of a failed marriage. When at last I spread those vignettes across the carpet and arranged them in chronological order, I found I had created a novelette. What a satisfying result from so many pages of tearful memory! The best part was that the sadness and anger were no longer sitting like sewage waste in my gut. Like compost, the smelly mess was transformed into something of positive value.

Art is not an elitist activity. As one of my writing mentors, Pat Schneider, states in her Five Essential Affirmations , “A writer is someone who writes.”* Publication is not a requirement to claim that title.  The same can be said of any medium. Pat Schneider also affirms that “Everyone is born with creative genius.” No matter who you are, or what you have been told about yourself, you can pick up a brush or a pen or a needle and thread and access the joy and the healing power of artistic self-expression.

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*Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and With Others. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, 2003.