Tag Archives: Berkeley

In a fearful unity.

Czesław Miłosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. In 1960 he began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, where he lived most of the time until 2000, when he moved back to Krakow; he died in 2004.

There are many reasons why I have recently wanted to read from the writings of Milosz in several genres. After I had already started on A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, which he compiled in his 80’s and which is essentially a gift to modern readers, I discovered that this kind and generous man had been teaching at Berkeley during the years when I was deciding where to go to college. Berkeley was one of my top three choices back then. In the Now, my mind wandered into the land of “What if?” What if I had attended Berkeley and had known Professor Miłosz as a poetry teacher?

Ah, but he didn’t teach poetry. He taught Slavic literature, and many of his colleagues didn’t even know he was a poet, until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. So if I had attended “Cal,” I would probably not have known of his existence until now anyway, and that would have made me a little sad.

As it is, the fact that he lived in the Berkeley hills (where my grandmother spent most of her life) for 40 years, and wrote many poems during that time about his experience in and of California and its landscape, draws me to him powerfully. One more thing that links us: his father and my grandfather were both born in Riga, Latvia, probably about the same time. Here is a poem that builds a bridge in his heart from a church in Berkeley back to his homeland and to his dear mother.


Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom he said: “Talitha, cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

-Czesław Miłosz
Berkeley, 1985

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Berkeley

Bay views and scramblers.

When the fields and playgrounds are swampy from all the rain, what better place to go than up, up to the hills of North Berkeley where all those boulders are so perfectly and naturally arranged for scrambling fun?

Pippin’s family was down for the weekend, partly as a belated birthday getaway for her, an escape from the snow and cold to a slightly warmer part of the state. She suggested going to Indian Rock, which throughout her life she had heard about from me, but never visited.

It was the last day of showers for a while – only a few drops splashed on us midday, and we were able to explore three boulder-strewn parks in a three-block radius. We also looked at the house where the children’s great-great-grandmother had lived, in yesteryear when I used to play on these rocks, and take brisk walks through the neighborhoods with my Grandma. In those days I didn’t appreciate all the flowers and trees so much!

From two of those parks you can look west and see the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at the same time. I’m only showing the Golden Gate in the photo below.

Here’s a map to help you get your bearings; Berkeley is in the “East Bay”:

In Mortar Rock Park we saw the evidence of primitive grinding — probably acorns — that gives it that name, and Ivy found the perfect tree for climbing when she plays her frequent leopard role. Not many other puddles were on the rocks, so we stayed nice and dry.

The family  had traveled most of the previous day just to get to my house, and this day we drove a lot more on our explorations. Near sunset we were passing by the uppermost link of the San Francisco Bay Trail; the Professor encouraged Pippin and me to get out while he waited in the car with the sleeping children. Scout woke up and joined us to walk at the top of San Pablo Bay. Along the bank orange flags marked a forestation project in process. We wondered what they have planted, but didn’t recognize the little seedlings. I held one as still as possible against the wind to take its picture in case I see that plant again.

The wind was fierce, and the waterfowl were mostly bedded down, but we liked getting the wide views, including a moon pretty much full round. We were pushed down the path by the wind at our backs, making it easy to walk almost too far that way. Returning against the current was more bracing, refreshing, exciting even — but invigorating is probably not the right word when you get back to the car as stiff as boards. We warmed up when we got home, and thought every part of the day had contributed to our contentment.

How long will the rocks of Berkeley last?

Berkeley Camellia in October

My sisters came to visit, and for the first time in about 50 years we returned together to places in Berkeley where we used to play. None of us has ever lived there, but as children we visited our maternal grandparents every summer.

Both of our parents had grown up in Berkeley, and last week we walked and drove the mostly hilly streets to find several of the houses in which our grandparents and our father and his sisters had lived. Of course we also stopped and stared at our other grandma’s house, savoring the memories that had been born in us there.

Not far away is Indian Rock Park, of which you can see pictures in my post about the neighborhood where Grandma and Grandpa lived for half a century. Indian Rock is huge — but not as big as we remembered it. And the park includes massive slabs and lava stones directly across the street, which I don’t know if I’ve ever played on. We didn’t go there this time, either, but climbed to the top of Indian Rock itself and sat a while, looking out over the tops of a thousand houses to San Francisco Bay.

Down Indian Rock Path

Not for very long, though, because we wanted to skip on down the steps of Indian Rock Path to Solano Avenue shops. Well, maybe not skip. But skipping is probably what we used to do!

Jade plant in bloom on the path

In our memories the excursion to the ice cream parlor took much longer than what we found this time, even though we have passed the age when one can be unconscious of one’s legs and feet whether walking uphill or down. That shop has a new name, but the wares are similar, and you can look at old scoops while you wait.

After lunch, because we wanted to return to the higher neighborhood, it was necessary to hike up, and this time we took the steep route of Marin Avenue. Again my experience seemed altogether different from that of years ago, when most evenings after dinner Grandma, at an age greater than any of us have reached yet, would lead us on brisk neighborhood walks. It was slower than then. And the crucial person was missing.

Marin Avenue is a hike.

Mortar Rock steps

We circled back to Mortar Rock, just around the corner from Indian Rock, and wandered there longer, just as we used to play there longer in our childhoods. More of those stone surfaces are easily climbable, and Grandma always felt better about us going by ourselves, because we didn’t have to cross a busy street to get there.

The houses next to these parks and paths don’t have much privacy. In this picture you can see how close they are, and how there are not fences blocking them from park goers and their glances.

When I first put my feet on the dry paths of Mortar Rock Park, suddenly a familar herby smell registered in my senses, making me look down to see long pointy dead leaves underfoot, just as my mind was linking to “bay tree.” I lifted my head and saw that the dappled shade was cast by at least two tall old California Bay Laurels (along with oaks and buckeye) whose several large trunks were curving high over the rocks.

And yes, there were the grinding mortars in the rock, empty of anything but leaves at this time of year. Do children still pretend to be Indians grinding acorns in them?

One of the houses we were searching for was only a few blocks from here, so we walked up the street, admiring the many flowers still in bloom in this mild climate. Banks of fuchsias always remind us of the long row of them that grew along the brick path in Grandma and Grandpa’s back yard.

More rocks! This house, though modern in design, has a very traditional and unchanging boulder to distinguish its front yard.

This one’s even more of a monolith. Having such a thing in your front yard would certainly lend drama to the landscaping. I wonder if the owners of the house are helped to keep a humble perspective on their lives, with the antiquity of their mineral friend constantly looming. So solid, and not going anywhere.

Lots of giant volcanic rocks dot the neighborhood. I saw these I didn’t remember on Santa Barbara Avenue, taking up a lot or two.

Rocks on Santa Barbara Ave., Berkeley CA

The weather was summery, and we seemed to walk always up, and up. It felt good to stop frequently to snap pictures of fall color or late summer flowers. Eventually we arrived at the first house of our father’s on our list, on Santa Barbara Avenue.

Another childhood home of my father, on Euclid, has had a facelift recently — we compared it with photos from 15 years ago when a patriarchal tree must have blocked the view and the warming sunlight, and the color was white. Paint and trees and even whole houses are easier to change or remove than those giant rocks.

Euclid house

And though it seems ages ago that we walked these streets together, and slept in the Berkeley bedroom wondering at the city lights spread out before us, most of these houses are not more than a hundred years old. Young things, really.

We went back to our car and drove to a few more houses, none so photogenic now. We bought gas at the station where our grandma used to buy hers, and we shopped at the market where she used to shop. We ate dinner at Spenger’s Fish Grotto where we’d eaten many times with our grandparents. And then my dear sisters and I finished our day with shopping at our grandma’s favorite Park & Shop market, now Andronico’s.

But a little earlier in the evening we’d added to our tour a visit to the cemetery where both Grandma and Grandpa are buried. None of us had visited since the last graveside service almost 20 years ago, and it took some exploring to find the marker. I felt closer to Grandma and Grandpa there at their grave than I had on the street in front of their house.

Cemeteries are where one finds another sort of stone, markers of lives that grew up like grass, and withered and died, most with life spans briefer even than flimsy wooden houses and certainly shorter than those huge stones people built neighborhoods around fairly recently. At the end of time, we read in 2 Peter, “… the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”

Indian Rock and all the granite in the Sierras, though it’s been around longer than we can imagine, will be gone, along with houses and gravestones. Then what is most enduring, the souls into whom God breathed life, will be raised. We are what on this earth is eternal.

Not Lazy Summer Days

To be precise, summer only began yesterday, so I shouldn’t be complaining about the lack of hours sitting on a patio with tea, or in the shade reading a book. I will likely yet have time before we get to the fall equinox for solitary early-morning weeding sessions in the garden while towhees splash in the birdbath nearby. But lately I’ve been doing so many fun and good things, I’ve been getting a bit depleted.

A week ago today, I was baking pies. It was a satisfyingly creative job, even if I did have a huge mess afterward.

Initially I wanted to bake an apple pie for the father of my children, for Father’s Day. And at church the ladies were bringing in pies for the agape meal, also in honor of the day. I made three for that contribution, using up some flaked coconut and other goodies in my pantry.

This one above left was named Million Dollar Pie where I found the recipe online, but as I improved it by cutting the sugar in half, I’ll make that Two Million Dollars. It must have tasted like a candy bar, what with the coconut, chocolate chips and walnuts it featured, but none was left over for me to try.

The recipe I found for Coconut Pineapple Pie made two pies from a 14-oz. bag of flaked coconut and a large can of crushed pineapple, with some eggs and butter, etc. in the mix. I did get a taste of that concoction, and I wonder if it might have had more zing if I’d used a name brand of pineapple. Even with its sugar cut in half it was a little too blandly sweet for me, but people liked it.

My newest favorite kitchen gadget got used that day: silicone pie crust shields. In the past I used aluminum foil to keep my crusts from getting too brown, but foil is not nearly as handy.

The day after Father’s Day grandson “Pat” flew to California all by his lonesome from D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Airport, mostly to spend a while with Pippin’s family, but we grandparents had the happy task of meeting him at the Oakland airport. Oakland is next door to Berkeley, where year by year I as a child visited my own grandparents, so we stopped in that old neighborhood of Indian Rock and Indian Rock Park in the Berkeley Hills.

Indian Rock

My sisters and I used to play here, just down the block from my grandma’s house, and even my father had his picture taken on the Rock when he was a small boy. It’s such a lovely thing that the houses were built all around this cluster of craggy boulders that seem more likely to be found in the Sierra Nevada. Pat climbed “cross country” on them, while we older people used the flights of steps long ago cut in the rock.

My father in 1927

From the top you can see far and wide, both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and at the bottom, where the hill slopes into the town of Albany, it’s possible to walk down to Solano Avenue by way of stairs passing between houses. It takes only a few minutes to go this way, descending to shops and in my grandma’s time, her beauty parlor and the ice cream parlor that she let us visit by ourselves. Those were the days when children were safe.

After a couple of days having Pat all to ourselves, I drove him north to have adventures with the Professor and fun little cousins.; we listened to most of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on the way up, with me interrupting frequently to say, “Would you look at all those sunflowers!” (There were a couple of thousand acres, I think, visible from I-5.) and “Those are tomatoes in that field, and this is alfalfa….” Sadly, we couldn’t get one of those faraway views of Mt. Shasta because of clouds.

I had a few sweet hours with Scout and Ivy before I wore myself out driving back the very next day. I needed to come home and get ready for multiple house guests, and for events such as the much anticipated Feast of Pentecost.

Friday morning when I was back watering the garden I discovered that more of my unusually colored California poppies had bloomed, like this one.

A brief look-around at my flowers didn’t seem to be enough R&R, though, so I asked Mr. Glad to take me to the coast where I could “just sit and stare at the ocean.” He was happy to comply.

The weather wasn’t as summery and calm as the predictors had led us to expect, but the fog hung around only thinly so that we mostly noticed the sunshine. I tied a bandana around my head so that the wind wouldn’t make a total tangle of my hair, and we sat in the lee of a sand dune where I could rake my fingers through the warm sand for an hour.

I don’t know how long I may have to wait to experience even a short string of rejuvenating days, but for now I think my half of a lazy afternoon will do nicely.