A beauty goes missing.

“It was just here! Where the heck did it go?! Oh, there it is….”

Was I in a Stephen King novel, I wondered?  I was walking by the plants along our backyard fence when a single leaf moved. Only one. Spooky. The day was perfectly still, no wind.

I tiptoed up for a closer look. The moving “leaf” was slightly lighter than the dark green leaves that surrounded it. It was a praying mantis. I was certain, even though I know zip about entomology and I had never seen one. But I recognized the elegant and poignant beauty I’d seen in pictures—the elongated body, the small head (like E.T.’s) on the long skinny neck, the tall antennae, and most of all the spiky, folding forelimbs. It was a 2-inch-long work of art.

The exotic creature was moving very slowly. Eventually I went inside and when I went back a little later I looked everywhere but it was nowhere. Of course it was somewhere, I just couldn’t see it.

It looked so fragile, but the mantis is equipped with ingenious survival skills, mainly the mighty defense of camouflage, and strong front legs lined with spikes for gripping prey. And an inner guidance system for locating nutrients that brought it to our insect-rich yard. My husband grew up in Hawaii, where insects are accepted, and uses pesticides very sparingly. Our yard was no doubt a tasty smorgasbord for our visitor.

I didn’t see it for a few weeks, then one day a small piece of greenery moved on a fern in the shade. If it hadn’t moved I would have never noticed it, it blended in so perfectly. All summer I would see its loveliness now and then, unexpectedly, when a leaf twitched or greenery moved.

A little while after summer ended, so did my glimpses of the mantis. I’ve learned that a year is its average life span.

It was a mystical, magical summer of playing Where’s Waldo? It was always a thrill to see the mantis in the rose bushes, among the ferns, nestled in the geranium leaves.  I miss my strange, beautiful, exotic Waldo.

Layoff with a positive spin

They told me I was a great asset and it was nothing to do with me or my work, and then they laid me off. It was a big blow to my self-esteem. It’s real hard to view something as impersonal when it concerns yourself.  

I was also scared. It was the 1990s and jobs weren’t growing on trees. I was getting older—mid-forties—and I felt undesirable in the workplace compared to younger people. On top of that, writing and graphic design were becoming computerized fast, and I wasn’t. Training to get up to date was expensive, not to mention the cost of a computer.

I had trouble getting up the motivation and gumption to look for work. I hid at home. I was depressed.

So I was drawing unemployment and floundering…and then I casually picked up a brochure one day in the unemployment office about the State of California’s retraining program. I perked up as I read. Miraculously I qualified because I was, as I found out, what they called a displaced worker. I had done writing and graphic design for years but all manually, and I was displaced by growing computer publications technology. It was racing along and leaving me in the dust.

I completed the course at a state-approved school that had great instructors, and leading-edge computers for students to use. I got $5,000 worth of training free. I could go in outside of class hours and use any computer that was free and practice with exercise books I bought.  

After graduating I started over in my career, at the bottom because I was new, not at graphic design but at computer graphic design. Soon I found a better job and then a better one yet. And pretty soon I was doing well, working in biotechnology communications with a good salary, to-die-for benefits, stock options, and great work environment. 

What did I learn? That what seems like an end can be a new beginning.  

High anxiety in the parking lot

Please, tell me where my car is!

Not again. I came out of Target, gazed at the vast, packed parking lot and realized I had no idea where my car was. I always mean to make a note of the parking row, but often forget as soon as I’m out of the car. 

I managed to remember it wasn’t too far from the store, so I went down the first row, clicking my key button and waiting hopefully for the beep. Silence. I turned down the next row, clicking. Silence. Another row, silence….

After the third row I got anxious. Evidently it showed, because suddenly I heard a sweet, angelic young voice. “Ma’am, do you need help?” I turned to see a pretty young woman looking at me from her SUV window, at exactly the same time I clicked my key and heard…my car!

Then the angel asked me again. “Are you lost? Can I help you find your car?”

“Oh, I just found it, finally! But thanks so much. I appreciate it.”

It was wonderful to encounter such a helpful, caring young woman in this age of self-centered individualism. Perhaps I reminded her of a beloved grandmother. I’m 71. At the same time it was disheartening to be so distracted I couldn’t remember where my car was and, the worst part, that it SHOWED. My anxiety was probably flashing like a warning light.  

I might find myself again someday wandering up and down parking lot rows, searching among countless nautical-blue Toyota Corollas for “216” at the end of the license plate. But maybe I shouldn’t be so anxious. “He shall direct your paths,” Proverbs 3:6 promises. The young woman was a reminder that God always sends angels. Almost always, anyway. Maybe I should have gotten her phone number.  

Better yet, maybe I should be my own angel and take responsibility for myself and enter the damn parking row in my iPhone notes. It’s time to grow up.  

Grace shows up in clever disguises.

Trees are cherished friends. They shade us, produce oxygen, shelter tender baby birds. Their green beauty relaxes us. Our grapefruit tree went above and beyond to help me. It saved my ear.

I was picking up fallen grapefruit from under our big beautiful tree one morning. When I was done and stood up from my crouching position, my head bumped a branch and I caught my ear on a nasty thorn. There was a lot of blood. I never knew how large a grapefruit tree thorn is until I looked at it after it attacked me. Huge! And nasty.

I washed, disinfected and bandaged the wound. A few days later I removed the bandage and it seemed fine. But over time I noticed little spots of blood on my bath towel after drying myself. Then it started seeping and I went to see my dermatologist. The doctor couldn’t take a biopsy of the sore because it was too contaminated with blood and ooze. (Sorry for the gore.) I was very careful not to wet or touch it for a few days and it dried out.

The doctor then did a biopsy, and it turned out that the source of the blood was a basal cell cancer growing under the skin where the thorn pricked me, tucked into and following the curve of my outside ear rim. It wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye.

Two weeks later a surgeon removed the cancer. He put it in a jar and showed it to me. It was more or less the size and shape of a medium-size garlic clove, although it was longer and more slender which was why it hadn’t been obvious. 

If that thorn hadn’t snagged and wounded my ear, the cancer might have gone undetected until it grew large enough to be noticed. And then I would have been in trouble. A large part of my ear might have had to be removed.

In noble beauty, that tree has graced our backyard for 30 years. It has serenaded us when the wind rustles through its leaves, and yielded the lovely gift of its fruit to us. Now it has saved my ear from being ravaged by cancer.

I am deeply grateful. I thank the tree, I thank the thorn, I thank God, and I wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m outside.  

Believe

One day my minister saw his beloved Maine Coon cat, Marcus, staring out the window intently. Wildlife sometimes wanders close to their apartment building, at the foot of a range of hills.  Marcus was meowing and agitated. Dr. Jay went over to look out the window and saw a feral cat in the process of patiently moving four kittens, one at a time, that were hidden under shrubbery. She returned after moving the second one and then left the yard with the third one in her mouth. She never came back.

Straightaway, Dr. Jay went downstairs to the bushes from his second-story apartment, and carefully picked up the tiny kitten. Mewing, eyes still closed and ears still folded, it fit in the palm of his hand. Holding it gently, he started up the stairs.

He had no idea what he was going to do with it. He had never taken care of a newborn kitten. He mentally took inventory. He had some milk in the apartment, and possibly a dropper around, somewhere, to feed it with. He wondered how he could get the kitten fed often enough. He remembered vaguely, from some conversation somewhere, a schedule of every two hours. It would be a challenge with his busy life. But those were details. He knew he would figure it all out.

Then he saw a young couple who lived a few doors from his apartment coming down the stairs. “What have you got?” the young woman asked. Dr. Jay told her the story and held the kitten up closer to her. 

“Oh,” she exclaimed, delighted. “Can we have it? We know what to do, we’ve taken care of feral kittens for shelters. We have all the supplies.”

“Sure,” Dr. Jay said. They tenderly exchanged the precious cargo and the young couple turned around to go back home and begin caring for their little lump of new life. Dr. Jay returned, alone, to Marcus.

My friends and I think this story is incredible. What an amazing and miraculous coincidence, we all agree. But Dr. Jay doesn’t see anything unusual about it at all. He has the most confident, unshakable faith I’ve ever witnessed.

He simply knows that if you expect good to happen, it will.

Main Coon

My beautiful spirit name

Wachiwi, dancing girl

Many spirit names, especially Native American, are lovely poetic word pictures. Hiawassee means meadow; Suwanee, echo; Hehewuti, warrior mother. My spirit name is Patsy. Go ahead, laugh.

Plain old Patsy was my childhood name, before I grew up and became Pat: professional, successful, competent, yadda yadda. I reclaimed Patsy recently, inspired during a powerful presentation about Native American spirit names at a monthly women’s meeting called Moon Circle, itself a poetic word picture. When I was a child in Silicon Valley—long, long ago when it was still called Santa Clara Valley and covered with orchards and fields of mustard grass and cross-crossed by a tangle of natural creeks—I was Patsy, petite and fair-skinned, with Scandinavian-white hair. I spent my days wandering the valley with my dog Smokie, following creeks, climbing trees, walking atop fences, foot-racing unknown kids who were wandering like me. I ran faster than any boy. When I came upon a playground with a tetherball, I played whoever was there and usually won. If it was empty I played by myself, just to see how fast I could wrap the ball around the pole. I ran up long steep hills, alone except for Smokie, to see how fast and far I could go.

I wandered from glory to glory. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or anything else. I didn’t feel alone because the Valley was always with me.

Over the years my name got whittled down to Pat. At my jobs there were often other Pats and Patsys, and to minimize confusion we would designate who would be called what. I was a pushover and usually agreed to be the Pat. In my thirties, my professional success-focused businesswoman stage, a female colleague told me Patsy was a frivolous name, no one would take me seriously, I would never be a vice president. From then on I always used Pat.

Patsy had disappeared, buried under promotions to management, long hours at work, and endless meetings. (But never vice president.)

Now I’m retired and Patsy’s spirit has reawakened in me, after a long sleep. In my memories and my heart of hearts, I’m still that creek follower, dog lover, tree climber, fence walker, tetherball warrior, swift runner, valley wanderer, playground haunter.  

Patsy is derived from Patricia, which means noble and is rooted in ruling class families of ancient Rome. To me, Patsy is the wild, untamed version of Patricia. Works for me. This time I’m keeping it forever, throughout the eternity of the Great Spirit.

Silicon Valley Girl

I’m a stranger in the Bay Area, though I was born right in the midst of it in Silicon Valley. That was a long time ago. It was Santa Clara Valley back then, and you wouldn’t recognize it. Unleashed dogs romped. Kids played gloriously unorganized softball in vacant lots. Orchards were everywhere. I didn’t know my gentle world was the future birthplace of technology, and that it would be invaded and covered with freeways, malls and business parks. 

You could say I’ve kept up with things. I telecommute, I network, I’m linked-in and hooked-up and hands-free. But I don’t always like it. My life, perhaps like yours, is stressful and upgrade driven.

It seems I’m always upgrading to something—new software, faster internet speed, blue tooth, GPS, Alexa, iPhone 7…. On and on. But there was a time here when things didn’t need upgrading because they were perfect. The lovely orchard next to our high school yielded its gifts when we burst into its stillness after school, needing spending money. I cut cots—that’s apricots—for 50 cents a tray. Now the orchard is a condo complex; our high school, a strip mall. Graceful pepper and oak and fig trees that once grew everywhere, welcoming climbers, are gone, victims of street widening and development. Little running creeks I followed for hours with my dog are concrete flood control channels. And the friendly people who chatted with each other in the grocery store have been replaced with a new breed. Self-absorbed, they wear funny ear gadgets and talk to themselves. 

I’ve learned to accept things as they are. I stay pretty current. But sometimes, in front of my flat screen monitor pushing my mouse, I daydream. I’m cutting sweet ripe cots in the mottled sunlight of the orchard, thinking that when I’m done I’ll go find a softball game somewhere. It’s like going home. 


This commentary originally aired as a KQED Public Radio Perspective.